Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Lamont v. The Enabler

Well, I didn't exactly get around to discussing the Connecticut Democratic primary for U.S. Senate "tomorrow" as I promised, but the serendipitous advantage of that I've now seen Ned Lamont's appearance on The Colbert Report (no video up yet as I write this, but My Left Nutmeg has a comments thread here).

Despite lots of talk in the local press (e.g., this) that going on Colbert's show was a risky move, I thought Lamont did very well. As several Left Nutmeggers pointed out, he wasn't terribly funny, but trying to outfunny Colbert is usually a losing strategy anyway, I gather. He was composed and straightforward, and most important to me, he used the word I've been waiting to hear: He said Joe Lieberman enables the president.

Look, at some level I have no business blogging on this. I'm not the world's greatest expert on the campaign... heck, I'm not even my household's greatest expert on it! But I am an expert on why I support Lamont and oppose Lieberman, and I get tired of the way the campaign's being characterized. Even when superficially complimentary to Lamont and critical of Lieberman, many commentaries (e.g., here) persist in characterizing the race as a single-issue contest, or as being all about "netroots" versus old-line pols, or as a struggle between ideology and electability, or (e.g., here) as an "elitist insurgency." Why is it so hard for the punditocracy to believe that, at least for some of us, this is not some "inside baseball" political game, but in fact a simple matter of principle? For me, it's not just about the war, as important an issue as that is. It's not about the 90 percent of the time Lieberman has voted with the Democratic leadership, nor the several very important times he has not: Iraq, Alito cloture, the energy bill, etc. Instead, it's about the tone and tenor of Lieberman's relationship with the Bush administration. It's about saving the republic.

Lieberman brags about having the courage of his convictions, and about his commitment to bipartisanship... and in other times, those might be good things to brag about, indeed. But this is a unique moment in history: For the first time in my lifetime -- a lifetime that spans Watergate and most of the Vietnam War, BTW -- I think we're on not only the wrong track, but so disastrously wrong a track that I fear for the future of our national enterprise. The war, our generally belligerent foreign policy, the economy, the assaults on civil liberties at home and human rights abroad, the contempt for science and learning, the dismantling of the infrastructure of public culture, and the attempts to render these things permanent through the courts and the law.... these tea leaves do not bode well for our children, never mind our grandchildren. When the leadership of the party in power is so dangerously wrong about so many things, "bipartisanship" is nothing to brag about. These are times in which the opposition party has a moral duty to oppose, and that's where Lieberman has failed.

I don't mean we must never agree with them: People of good will can disagree on issues even as important as the war, and "even a blind pig finds a truffle now and then." But it does mean that we must never give aid and comfort to their larger agenda, even when we do agree with them on an individual issue. Lieberman's real problem is not the times he's voted with the administration (regrettable as those votes have been); it's that he's too often done so with an unearned smile and unwarranted kind words... and sometimes sealed with a kiss.

That's why I was so happy tonight to hear Lamont say, in so many words, that the war is just the most visible example of the wrong track we're on, and that the problem with Lieberman is that he "enables the president." Now on 8 August I can vote for Ned Lamont not simply because Joe Lieberman must be replaced, but also with confidence that Ned understands why Joe must go... even while much of the press is missing the point.

Unit of the Day: The emu is not a giant butt-ugly flightless bird native to Australia (well, it's that, too, actually, but...), it's an abbreviation for electromagnetic unit. Not properly a unit in itself, it's a notation that indicates a unit is part of the CGS (as opposed to SI) absolute electromagnetic system. For example, 1 volt emu (CGS) = 10-8 volt (SI).

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

I'm Baaaaack... Again!

Well, it's been almost a month, so I guess I can't get away with claiming I've only just now recovered from my road trip to South Carolina, can I? Amazing how weeks or even months can slip away from you before you even notice (and that effect seems ever more pronounced with each passing year!).

But I'm back now, ready to re(re,re,re)dedicate myself to getting this blog back on something like a regular schedule. I also have another project on which I'm way behind schedule, and I've fallen out of the habit of going to the gym regularly... so my life in general is in need of a dose of structure. Oddly, I think trying to get three (or more) different aspects of my life squared away will be easier than dealing with just one. At any rate, that's what I keep telling myself; we'll see how big a piece of self-deception that turns out to be! ;)

To help keep the blog on schedule, I'm going to try (try!) to train myself to write shorter entries more often. Again, we'll see....

Tonight, I'll just point you at a couple of my poor attempts at iMovie production: this one about the SCIPower06 launch in general and this one documenting my old friend Rocket Rick's flight. (While you're at it, you can browse my online collection of pix and vids of stuff that flies.)

Then, too, you could check out Peter Alway's description of his current road trip, which puts my recent one to shame. Peter is a scale model rocketry wizard and author/publisher who has commented here at the Spleen a couple times (which is a couple more times than most of you).

Finally, this just made me laugh out loud!

Tomorrow, a rant on the Ned Lamont vs. Joe Lieberman primary race...

Unit of the Day: The gutenberg, named after Johannes Gutenberg, is a unit of distance used in typography, equal to 1/7200 in. A gutenberg is thus 0.01 point, roughly (according to Adobe, at least!), leaving open the question of whether anyone in Gutenberg's time (he died in 1468) could cast metal type to anything approaching that tolerance! [Geeky Editor Trivia: The term gutenberg is an example of the general principle that unit names derived from the name of a person is nevertheless lowercased (but unit symbols so derived are uppercased: 100 watts, but 100W).]

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Road Trip

Well, I'll be on the road for the long 4th of July weekend (I'm taking Monday off to make it a 4-day break), heading for South Carolina to reacquaint myself with my once-and-future hobby of sport rocketry, and to visit with my best buddy, who runs a small rocket kit company (Aerospace Speciality Products). We'll be attending SCIPower 2006, a 3-day event combining high-power sport rocketry and experimental rocketry (the distinction is, loosely speaking, whether you buy manufactured rocket motors or make your own). Notwithstanding the date, sport rockets are not fireworks, and this weekend will not be about wild-eyed pyros. Hobby rocketry is a well organized hobby, and launches are conducted under the rules (including strict safety codes) of two national organizations: the Tripoli Rocketry Association (which is sanctioning SCIPower) or the National Association of Rocketry.

In the last couple days, I've been seeing stories about the 50th anniversary of the interstate highways, and about how they've changed the country. Naturally, with my road trip coming up, I've been thinking about highways myself (today, I've been thinking about whether my route, which passes through Pennsylvania, will be open and dry). While all the commentary correctly praises the scope and vision of the interstate highway project, much of it bemoans the sameness of interstates and their disconnectedness from the country the pass through. This notion is not new: In 1983, author William Least Heat-Moon published Blue Highways, a paean to all the homey, intimate roads that were not interstates.

Well, I must raise my voice in dissent: It's certainly true that driving on the interstates is a different experience from poking around the back roads... but it's an experience that has its own rhythm and seductive charms. I've always loved long-distance driving (sometimes I'm surprised I didn't end up a trucker)... traveling huge distances at once, as if striding across the land in ten-league boots, and watching the landscape transmute before my very eyes. I find it exhilarating, enthralling... not at all the sterile, utilitarian pursuit the critics claim.

Then again, there's the fact that the interstate highway project is a great example of how well government can do things, big things, despite the conventional wisdom that government is inherently incompetent and inefficient. I think I have a longer riff on that subject in me, but it'll have to wait: I have a date with the open road in a little more than a day, and I have maps to read and coolers to pack, and "miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep."

Unit of the Day: The Walrus and the Carpenter might have made a more scientific estimate of whether seven maids with seven mops could sweep a beach clean if they'd known about the phi unit, a logarithmic unit used to measure grain sizes for sand (and grit and gravel, as well). Starting at 0=1 millimeter grain size, each step on the phi number scale corresponds to a factor of 1/2 in grain size. Thus, 1 phi unit = 0.5 mm; 2 phi units = 0.25 mm; etc. In the opposite direction, -1 phi unit = 2 mm; -2 phi units = 4 mm; etc.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Smoking... The Old Global Warming?

There's a new Surgeon General's report out about the effects of secondhand smoke, and there's -- as is so often the case -- good news and bad news.

The bad news is that the health risks of secondhand smoke are even more profound than previously thought. There is no risk-free level of exposure, and children and people in poor health are especially at risk. Not only that, but 126 million of us are still exposed to secondhand smoke, despite the growing number of states and cities that fairly comprehensively ban smoking in public places and workplaces.

The good news is that there are all those states and localities that have acted to curb exposure, and there is, according to this report, little evidence that sweeping bans in places like Boston and New York have produced the economic damage to the hospitality industry that critics had feared.

But there's more good news, and it's related to another (you should pardon the expression) burning issue of the day: Nobody's trying to quash this report. As Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids puts it, "There is no longer a scientific controversy that secondhand smoke is a killer." Unlike with global warming, the Bush administration is not trying to silence or suppress this science; instead, the Government itself is the author of this report.

Last week my wife and I went to see An Inconvenient Truth, the Al Gore documentary about global warming. It's an important film with a vital message (and it's also very entertaining; Gore's rep as a boring guy is undeserved), essentially a film treatment of Gore's dynamic and shocking climate change "slide show" (actually a very well done, high-tech presentation). Interspersed with the presentation are vignettes of Gore's life, focusing on the events that shaped his awareness of, and passion for, the issue of global climate change. One such event was the death of Gore's sister from lung cancer, after a lifetime of smoking. The Gore family had been tobacco farmers, and this loss opened their eyes; they were out of the tobacco business within a year.

Unfortunately, the tobacco industry at large wasn't quite as ready as the Gores to recognize their own state of denial. In ways eerily similar to the current climate change discussion, tobacco companies denied the clear scientific consensus on the dangers of smoking, and promoted the idea of scientific "controversy" where none actually existed. Sound familiar?

It took the good offices of federally funded researchers and the Surgeon General, along with the muscle of dozens of state attorneys general, to beat back challenges to smoking science; the really bad news is, this time around, with global warming, the Government is fighting against the science, not for it. Just ask James Hansen (or George Deutsch, if you can find him). The even worse news is that once the shackles were off, scientific research into the health effects of smoking (including this new report on secondhand smoke) showed us things were far worse than we had imagined. If the same thing happens when we win the fight (as we must) to free global climate change science, we're sunk.

Or at least, those of us within 20 feet of sea-level are. Think about it. Think hard.

Unit of the Day: The mgon is not a Klingon word; it's used to measure very small angles. The symbol for milligon, 1 mgon = 10-3 gon (gee, that's helpful, right?). The gon is another name for the grad, a measure equal to 0.01 right angle, or 0.9 degrees. Thus, the mgon = 0.0009 degrees, or 3.24 seconds of arc. Surveyors' instruments are often marked in mgons, but you're unlikely to see it on your kid's protractor.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Flotsam and Jetsam

No big theme today, just random thoughts to get me back on the blogging "horse":
  • The Vernon budget referendum failed again Tuesday, and I was sincerely bummed. But yesterday I went a picnic thrown by the Vernon Democratic Town Committee (the website is under construction), and attended by the mayor and several Democrats from the Town Council, and I ended up feeling hopeful. We face frustrating opposition fed by the culture of selfishness the national Republican Party fosters, but it's good to know that some people in town are committed to fighting back. In addition, a representative of Joe Courtney's campaign was there, and he had encouraging information about the fight to replace Republican Rob Simmons in the Congress.
  • The Reminder, a weekly community/shopper newspaper, finally printed its story on the citizens' budget forum, quoting both me and Mara... but the article didn't appear 'til the day of the next referendum vote, so it can't have had much impact on the outcome.
  • Steven Berlin Johnson told us that Everything Bad Is Good For You, but who knew that included porn?
  • This afternoon we learned that Joe Lieberman will be visiting Pratt & Whitney tomorrow, and he's going to be in our area. Sadly, I'm afraid it would be a career-limiting move to wear my Ned Lamont button.
  • Hey, I like hot girls on skates as well as the next guy, but do we really need a resurgence of roller derby?
  • Finally, one of my fondest culinary fantasies was destroyed last week when, while participating in a comments thread on Pharyngula, I learned that giant squid is inedible. I'd been dreaming of fried calamari rings the size of hula hoops!
Unit of the Day: The microflick has nothing to do with how you get a tiny piece of schmutz off your fingers; instead, it's a unit of spectral radiance used in optical and communications engineering. It's equal to 10-6 flick (what else, eh?). Radiance is the power radiated per unit solid angle per unit of emitting surface. To measure radiance's variation with wavelength, spectral radiance is defined as the radiance per unit of wavelength span. In practice, spectral radiance is typically in microflicks, which are mathematically equivalent to 10 milliwatts per steradian per cubic meter. Now try to work that into a conversation!

Saturday, June 10, 2006

We're Famous!

Just a quickie tonight. Thursday night we attended the town budget meeting I mentioned in Wednesday's entry, and we seem to have made the papers. My daughter is quoted in this Hartford Courant article, and my own comments are mentioned toward the end of the article in the other local paper, the Journal Inquirer. A third paper, the weekly community/shopper Reminder, also had a reporter at the meeting, but we haven't seen that story yet. Sadly, none of the reporters seems to have taken pictures of us with our posters!

ATalbot was at the meeting too, fresh from the gubernatorial debate at Rockville High and dressed in full Ned Lamont for U.S. Senate regalia, and he spoke passionately in support of the education budget, which supports his attendance at the Connecticut International Baccalaureate Academy in East Hartford. He and Mara were the only students who spoke, and I was very proud of them both.

No Unit of the Day today; it's late.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

What I Did On My Spring Vacation

Well, I may not have been writing in my own blog much recently, but I have been writing on other folks'... at least in the comments sections:
  • I actually got a "letter" published at MSNBC.com's Altercation blog here (scroll down to Correspondence Corner), in response to this piece by regular Altercation contributor LTC Bob Bateman.
  • I've been contributing to several comments threads at Pharyngula, including this one on whether the 2000 and/or 2004 election was stolen (my first comment here); this one on the disappearing chemistry set (me here); this one on the "Motie" baby born in China (me here); and, most recently, this one on George Will's prudishness about AIDS (me here).
  • I've commented in a couple places (esp. at HobbySpace, here) about X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis winning the Heinlein Prize, and about his evocation of Robert Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon as an influence in his space-related entrepreneurship.
Now that I'm back in business here, of course, I'll try to save some of these pearls of wisdom for y'all... but I encourage you to check out the blogs I link to (more coming soon); they, and their commenting communities, never fail to amuse and enlighten.

Unit of the Day: The perch, introduced in the 12th century by the Norman conquerors, is an alternate name for the rod (16.5 feet or 5.0292 meters) of England. Amusingly enough, the same term also denotes both a unit of area (equal to a square perch!) and one of volume (of masonry, a stone wall one perch long by 18 inches high by 12 inches thick). Perch also serves as a traditional unit of distance in Ireland, and (as an alternate spelling of perche) a unit of both distance and area in French North America. Or it might just be a fish President Bush claimed to have caught!

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Self Flagellation

OK, it isn’t only the crazed albino monk from The DaVinci Code who occasionally needs to scourge himself to atone for his sins. I have some sins of my own to address, sins of omission and neglect:

First, this blog. Not that I think my pearls of wisdom represent any particular gift to the world, but opening this spot and inviting you all to read it represents a commitment, and it’s one I’ve failed to honor. If there are still any of you out there, please forgive me. If you’ve just joined (or rejoined) this merry ride, I promise to be more diligent in the future: At least 3 posts per week, without fail. Really. I promise.

But the real sin is something bigger: Yesterday, my town voted down its budget referendum... for the second time, and I helped let it happen through my complacency and inaction!

From the mayor's original budget through this second referendum, over three quarters of a million dollars have already been cut, including over $370,000 from the capital improvements budget and over $330,000 from the education budget. And now, with this second rejection, more cuts will be forthcoming. There's speculation that freshman athletics at Rockville High School will have to go, and an anti-tax group is seriously suggesting that the high school delete AP classes and replace full-time teachers with part-timers.

Based on the press reports, even the Republican town council members seem frustrated with the obstinate electorate, wondering how it will be possible to satisfy anti-tax voters without resorting to even more draconian cuts than the potentially crippling reductions they've already approved... but those Republicans should look in the mirror. Tip O'Neill famously declared that "all politics is local," but sometimes all local politics is national, too: Since the days of Reagan, Republican leaders and their allies in the punditocracy have been preaching the gospel of endless tax cuts and total disrespect for the value of government. Now local Republican officials are reaping what their national leaders have sown: Their constituents will not vote for even the most modest additional taxation, no matter how badly it's needed or how essential the services it would fund.

My personal sin is that I've stood by and watched it happen. When my family moved to Connecticut almost 6 years ago, I was very pleased to note that my new neighbors seemed so much more willing to invest in schools and local services than my former neighbors in Florida had been. Vernon was a great place to live: Affordable home ownership, very good public schools, timely and efficient town services (I didn't know how important snow plowing and leaf removal could be before I moved here!), a great parks and recreation system... basically lots to be proud of. Gradually, though, it started to get harder to pass a budget... not only for Vernon, but for other similar towns in the Hartford area (and probably throughout Connecticut, for all I know). Each year the upcoming budget referendum was greated by a growing crop of anti-budget yard signs, expressing not reasoned criticism of the budget proposal itself, but only an uncritical no-new-taxes message: What's in Your Wallet? Vote No!; Are You Broke? Vote No!; and on and on. Each year I fumed at the reactionary selfishness of this position, at the foolishness of people who refused to see the value we were getting for our money. I fumed... but I did nothing. After each of the last two annual budget fights, I swore to myself that next year I'd get involved... and then each year budget season came before I realized and I ended up just fuming again.

No more! Tomorrow my wife and teenage daughter and I will attend the scheduled meeting to help draft this year's third attempt at a budget. We'll be there with posters and passion, and I, at least, will be there ready to speak out in advocacy for responsible budgets and the value of community. And next year I'll be at the first budget meeting, and I'll put out my own signs and organize my own advocacy group. I might not end up changing much, but I damn sure won't be sitting on the sidelines griping about other people.

It's presumptuous of me to say so, because I've neglected my duties in this area for so long, but I urge all of you to do the same. Let your town council, your school board, your state representatives, your congressmen and senators know that you want good government, that you value the shared community work that functional government represents, and that you're willing to pay your fair share to achieve those goals. And even more important than telling your elected representatives, tell your neighbors. It's not enough, I now realize, just to vote; you must speak out, and influence the voters around you!

Unit of the Day: Geeks among you probably already know that tera- is a metric prefix meaning 1012, or one trillion, as in teraflops (trillion floating point operations per second) or terabytes, but you may not know that it was derived from the Greek word for monster, teras. (Our words terrible and terrific have this same root.) The three prefixes mega-, giga-, and tera- thus mean something like huge, gigantic, and monstrous. (Adapted, as always, from How Many?)

Monday, March 20, 2006

Ancient History... 3 Weeks Ago

OK, I started writing this immediately after the Olympics closing ceremonies, but got Overcome By Events and never finished it. I know it's ridiculously out of date by now, but I can't bear to throw out my golden words , and anyway, I was put right back in the Olympic mood by something I did this weekend. More about that in a minute, but first my dusty old Olympic opinions:

Well, the Torino Winter Olympics have come and gone, and we've heard all the predictable naysaying: Ratings were down, Americans behaved badly, we didn't win enough medals, nobody cares about these so-called sports anyway, blah, blah, blah....

I have a slightly different take on a lot of this. I love the Olympics, and I particularly love the Winter Games, sometimes because of the same things the critics carp about. A few thoughts about the just-completed Torino games, in no particular order:

  • Obscure Sports: OK, admittedly most Americans don't care about most Winter Olympics sports other than hockey, figure skating, maybe alpine skiing, and the new darling, snowboarding. For most of us, these two weeks every four years are not only the only time we see, but the only time we even think about, sports like ski jumping, cross-country skiing, and speedskating... never mind even more obscure sports like short-track speedskating, biathlon, or curling. Do we care that short-track is the national sport of South Korea, or that biathlon is huge in northern Europe, or that curling is more popular than hockey in Canada? We do not, anymore than we care about how much the rest of the world loves soccer.

    But friends, this is a feature, not a bug! If you're any sort of sports fan at all -- or any sort of TV fan -- it should delight you to have spread before you a buffet of something different, in the same way that a literal buffet of new and different foods would. Like exotic foods, some of the Winter Games sports may not be to your taste, and others may be interesting only as an occasional diversion... but their very unusualness is a gift all its own. I probably would never watch most of the Winter Games sports regularly, the way I do baseball or college basketball, but for 2 weeks every 4 years, what's not to love? I'm old enough to remember the early days of ESPN, when it was primarily a sports news network and didn't yet have broadcast rights to many (if any) major sporting events. To fill the time between SportsCenters, they televised a variety of weird and wonderful sports, from hurling and Australian rules football to competitive aerobatics. Even earlier, ABC's Wide World of Sports used to "span the globe" to bring to U.S. TV the "constant variety of sport"... including many of the same "obscure" sports (like skeleton) that now grace the Olympic Winter Games. Sure, it's not steak-and-potatoes sports... but isn't it fun to at least sample some reindeer meat every now and then?
  • Medal Counts: Much was made of the U.S. team's poor medal performance, and to be sure there were many U.S. medal hopefuls who failed to reach their potentials... but the key words here are "hopeful" and "potential." In fact, while the popular press was trumpeting hopes of record medal hauls, the more analytical sports press was more realistic: Historically nations experience a significant drop in medal count (on the order of 40 percent) in the Games immediately after they host an Olympiad, and while many U.S. athletes were capable of threatening for medals, fewer were actually predicted to finish on the podium. Take Bode Miller (please!): All the buzz going into the Games was that he might medal in all 5 alpine skiing events... but Sports Illustrated's pre-Games analysis actually only predicted a medal in one event, the alpine combined. Viewed that way, his undeniable collapse seems somewhat less epic.

    As it happened, the U.S. finished second in overall medals (with 25, 1 behind Germany's total) and tied for second in gold medals (with 9). It was our second-best performance ever, behind only the home-field Salt Lake City games, and actually better than most countries do right after hosting their own games. The public's perception of a disastrous performance by the U.S. team has much more to do with pre-Games expectations -- which the U.S. Olympic Committee has admitted it mismanaged -- than with objective reality.
  • "Ugly American" Athletes: OK, so Bode Miller partied, Lindsay Jacobellis showboated, and Chad Hedrick and Shani Davis spent the whole fortnight glaring at each other. Get over it: Part of the package with world-class athletes is a certain degree of arrogance and self-focus... it's an inherent ingredient of what drives them to be the best. It's extraodinarily rare to find the fierce competitiveness of a world-class champion living side-by-side with selfless altruism in the same human body.

    Rare, but not unheard of: For every story like the ones mentioned above, there's a Joey Cheek, who turned over his medal bonuses to charity without even thinking twice... or an Apolo Anton Ohno, who, after seeming somewhat selfish himself in Salt Lake City, apeared to have an almost spiritual appreciation of pure sport this time 'round... or a Lindsay Kildow, who grittily continued to compete despite injuries that made it impossible for her to win... or an Evan Lysacek, who shook off the disappointment of a disastrous short program in men's figure skating to give the performance of his life in the long program and nearly claim a medal... or a Shaun White, whose sheer boyish charm and joy in what he does must have won over even the most curmudgeonly despiser of snowboarding.

    In short, I think we Americans have far more to be proud of than to apologize for.
OK, that was my post-Olympic take. Now as to why I was feeling Olympic again this weekend... I attended an open house at the Norfolk Curling Club this weekend. When I first saw it during the Salt Lake City games, I thought curling was the coolest imaginable sport, not least because it seemed like middle-age fat guys like me could actually make the Olympics in this game. Well, this time 'round the guys all seemed disappointingly young and buff, but the game was every bit as fascinating as I remembered it. I'm hooked.

Apparently I'm not alone: The open house drew somewhere between 150 and 200 people, vastly more than the 20 to 40 they expected. The club is planning a 4-session workshop for new curlers, and I can't wait. In the meantime, here I am doing the newbie drills:

Unit of the Day: The mease (scroll down after clicking) is a unit of quantity formerly used by fishermen, equal to the number of herring in a basket (roughly 620). Try working that into a conversation!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

News from Other Blogs

First, a quick assist to ATalbot, friend of the Spleen and proprietor of the Bye Bye Rob blog. Blogger's comment feature wouldn't let him post the following flyer for this weekend's anti-war rally in Hartford, but I can post in a main entry, so here it is:

ATalbot (I have to ask him if he minds whether I use his real name) also attended Ned Lamont's announcement that he will challenge Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate from Connecticut (maybe he'll give us a report in a comment to this post). He is one of a group of teens -- friends of my daughter's -- who continue to give me hope for the future, because they are so much more involved in serious thought about real issues (politics, the arts, etc.) than I remember being at that age.

Next, I found myself compelled yesterday to comment in a thread at the blog of Steven Berlin Johnson, the author of Everything Bad Is Good for You. Taking off on the recent reports about Barry Bonds' alleged steroid use, Johnson ponders whether "performance enhancing" substances are really all that different from other performance enhancements, such as laser eye surgery that enhances already good vision. After I added my comment, it dawned on me that I shouldn't have wasted my perfectly good words (OK, that's a matter of opinion, admittedly) on somebody else's blog... so I'm shamelessly plagiarizing myself by repeating my comments here:

The conversation about "performance enhancing" substances/practices reminds me strangely of the controversy over genetically modified animals/crops: They're both based on the same false dichotomy between "artificial" and "natural."

Just as all domesticated plants and animals are really genetically modified, whether through the slow and tedious "natural" methods of selective breeding and culling or the "artificial" methods of the laboratory, so too are all elite athletes "performance enhanced" compared to non-athletes. At first glance, it might seem easy to differentiate between "natural" performance-enhancing measure (i.e., special diets, exercise regimes, training, physical therapy, sports psychology) and "artificial" ones such as drugs and surgical body modification... but on closer inspection, such distinctions can seem pretty arbitrary. During the recent Winter Olympics, several cross-country skiers were temporarily suspended because of elevated hemoglobin levels. My understanding is that these levels might result from illegal doping... but they might also result from "natural" causes, including high-altitude training.

Because the raison d'etre of sports is competition, and some basic standard of fairness is essential to competitive integrity, I think there is a basis for discriminating between performance enhancing measures... but based on equal access, rather than on the imagined moral superiority of "natural" methods: An athlete shouldn't feel compelled to become a criminal in order to have a fair chance of winning, so it's reasonable to ban illegal drugs; an athlete shouldn't feel compelled to risk his/her life for sport, so it's reasonable to ban life-threatening practices. (Note that the latter does not imply that merely unhealthy practices should be banned: By the standards of "normal life," much of what elite athletes do with regard to training and diet could be called unhealthy.)

Under my model, illegal steroids should be banned, NOT because they're "performance enhancing," but because allowing their use would put athletes unwilling to engage in criminal behavior at an unfair disadvantage, and thereby damage the basic competitive equity of the sport. Substances that are legal (e.g., anything you can buy at a GNC store) should NOT be banned, regardless of their "performance enhancing" characteristics, and substances that are illegal but not performance enhancing should not be specifically banned by sporting organizations. (That is, Ricky Williams' fondness for the ganja is between him and the cops, but to my mind no business of the NFL's, unless you can convince me that smoking dope makes him a better football player.)

As for eye surgery and other "artificial" enhancements, I say as long as they're freely available to all and don't present any extreme risks, there's no reason to restrict them.

Of course, I'm the commissioner of exactly nothing! ;^)

If you're interested in the original thread this appeared in, it's here.

Unit of the Day: The newton (yes, named after that Newton) is the metric (SI) unit of force, equal to the force required to accelerate one kilogram at one meter per second per second. This one is familiar to space cadets, because rocket engine thrust is given in multiples of newtons (everywhere but the U.S., where we still use pounds).

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A Manor of Thy Friend's or of Thine Own

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Not merely the source for well known titles of war movies and novels, this excerpt from John Donne's Meditation XVII is a penetrating insight into the human condition.

That is, it's a penetrating insight into how some of us view the human condition. In ruminating on my noontime political chautauquas with my CCLB and my Fellow Liberal Lunch Buddy (FLLB) [they know who they are, and they'll likely be recurring characters here at the Spleen], I've been trying sort something out: How is it that decent, well-meaning people with similar backgrounds, education, and current lifestyles can hold such diametrically opposed opinions. I like to think I'm a rational person, but I don't flatter myself that I'm noticeably smarter than my CCLB (for instance), so how does his exercise of reason lead him to conclusions that seem so unreasonable to me?

I've decided that the only explanation is that he and I -- and conservatives and liberals generally -- start reasoning from fundamentally different beginning assumptions. Before you say "Duh! That's pretty obvious!", bear with me: I don't think it really is all that obvious to most people, and I think much of the acrimony in our current political discourse springs from the failure to understand this basic principle.

Here's what I think I now understand: Conservatives are fundamentally anti-social. Now wait... I don't mean that word in its typical pejorative sense; rather, I mean that at some level they don't believe in society, at least not in the same way liberals do. An old antagonist of mine on a space bulletin board used to argue whenever I would use the word "we" in talking about the space program (e.g., "we went to the Moon"; "we've sent spacecraft to every planet but Pluto"; etc.), on the grounds that I hadn't personally participated in those activities. For a long time, I thought he was being deliberately obtuse, for no other reason than to pick fights. Actually, I still think he was doing that, but I eventually figured out there was more to it: I was saying "we" meaning humankind, or in some cases the United States, with the understanding that as a human and an American, I did participate in those activities. He was having none of it: To him, there was no such thing as society, and if you hadn't done something in your own person, you hadn't done it at all. He did not believe that "every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main," and he certainly didn't believe that "any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind."

To him... and I suspect to conservatives in general... society, as an integrated whole, does not exist, and what goes under that name is really just a collection of individuals, each ultimately responsible to (and for) him/herself alone. This is, I've come to believe, at the root of many political arguments about such issues as tax policy, public education, and government programs in general. It also may explain why conservatives consider socialism such a dirty word!

With this philosophical chasm in mind, it's easier to understand why the health care/health insurance issue has been so intractable in U.S. politics. To understand why it's so important, and get a good (if somewhat disheartening) overview of what we should -- but probably can't -- do about it, check out this article from the New York Review of Books (thanks to the Altercation blog for highlighting this). It's a long read, but well worth it if you're at all interested in public health care policy.

Unit of the Day: The sabin has nothing to do with the discoverer of the oral polio vaccine; it's a measure of sound absorption used by acoustical engineers, equal to the absorption of one square foot of a perfectly absorbing surface. Now a perfectly sound-absorbing surface sounds like a pretty useful thing, doesn't it?

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

A Peppering of Birdshot

Once again I've let too much time go by between posts, what with one thing and another. I've got a few longer posts in the works, but in the meantime here's a 28-gauge blast of random thoughts:

Sweet Home, South Dakota... As a follow-up to my thoughts on South Dakota's abortion ban, which Governor Mike Rounds has now signed into law (to less than rave reviews at home and abroad), I note the following from a CBS News web report: "Lawmakers said an anonymous donor has pledged $1 million to defend the ban, and the Legislature set up a special account to accept donations for legal fees." I suppose I just never thought about it, but I didn't realize states could accept private donations to defend laws against legal challenges. Now that I have thought about it, I think it's a bad idea: I can't come up with a legal theory for banning the process, but in principle I'm concerned that it has the effect of isolating legislators from responsibility for the laws they pass. If the state's taxpayers were footing the bill for all those millions of dollars in legal costs, their representatives might think twice before passing a patently unconstitutional law whose real purpose is to advance a national political agenda. As it is, the South Dakota legislature is now a regiment of mercenaries, fighting someone else's battle in the pay of outside money. If it were my state's legislature, I'd be pissed... regardless of how I felt about the issue at hand.

Blogstyles of the New and Clueless... I finally got caught up reading my daughter's blog (with her permission; I'm not snooping), and I see she initially took offense at my previous comments about high-schoolers' blogs. She quickly figured out I didn't mean to insult her and her friends -- she's a very smart kid -- but I wanted to say publicly that my comment about kids being interested in the minutiae of each other's lives was in no way intended as a putdown. It's one of the special magics of that age that your life should be so intimately connected with those of your friends; revel in it while you can. In any case, I'm new (and clueless!) at this whole deal, while she has just celebrated the second anniversary of her blog. If there were any conflict between our blogging styles, you'd have to give her way precedence!

These Dadgum Newfangled Computers... Along the same lines, at work today my Cranky Conservative Lunch Buddy (CCLB) was holding forth about how modern communication technologies like voicemail and e-mail have caused people to stop talking to one another. Me, I don't buy it. No doubt new technologies can present challenges to social behavior, but since we're stuck with them it's useless to wring our hands about how awful they are. In any case, I think computer-based communication enhances rather than degrades sociability. My CCLB was talking about how careful he and his wife are to police their kids' computer usage, so they will go out and play with other kids face-to-face instead. My perception, though, is that my daughter and her friends use blogging, e-mail, IM, and the web to add to, not replace, their face-to-face interaction. They spend plenty of time together in "meat-space"; the computer just helps them arrange it. And IM makes for great virtual study groups, too. I say bring on the pixels!

Do (Hungry) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?... If they make a sequel to Splash, do you suppose Daryl Hannah will play this part?

Unit of the Day: The mickey, used by computer programmers, is the length of the smallest detectable movement of a computer mouse (mouse... mickey... get it?) or similar input device. Its absolute size depends on the specific equipment, but roughly 0.1 millimeter would be a typical value.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

An Abortion of a Law

The last thing I want is for this blog to become another battlefield in the abortion wars. While I recognize the critical importance of the issue to many on both sides of the debate, the issue itself doesn't resonate deeply with this particular middle-aged male. I don't intend to even declare my position here. Some folks who know me may think they have reasons to guess one way; others may guess the other way; I ain't saying either way. I find that the mere mention of the issue tends to banish clear thinking from the conversation.

And that's exactly why even though I don't want to talk about abortion, I do want to talk about South Dakota's new abortion law, which passed the state's senate last Wednesday and appears on its way to full passage and signature.

The emotion that surrounds abortion has long distorted politics and governance in this country in ways that extend far beyond the boundaries of this one issue. It polarizes the both the electorate and our leaders (and office-seekers), leading to votes and appointments and decisions that are driven by the abortion issue but whose impact is much broader. For instance, how many religious folk who fundamentally agree with Democrats on issues of social justice nevertheless feel morally compelled to vote against the pro-choice party? And given the closeness of the last two presidential elections, how difficult is it to imagine that people voting against their own broader principles because of this one issue swayed the outcome? How many times has the selection of judges and high-level officials been colored by the abortion "litmus test"? (I believe that metaphor is now mandated by federal law.) How often has our national debate about important public policy issues such as medical research, health care, education, public hygiene, etc., been hijacked by abortion concerns, often things that are trivial and peripheral to the real issue.

This is not just a rant about the current Republican administration, either: For the more than 3 decades since Roe v Wade (and no doubt for years before that), abortion has provided the axis around which American politics has rotated... too often, to the detriment of the other legitimate business of the people.

The thing is, the most committed people on both sides might think it's right and just that this issue dominates our politics, because fundamental principles involved are so important. But this new law, and the arguments around it, hint that neither side is truly committed to their ostensible principles. Here's what I mean:

The principle on which the anti-abortion position stands is the assertion that a fetus is a human person, and that each abortion is a homicide, and that a public policy of legal abortion constitutes a horrifying holocaust. OK, let's follow that logic.

South Dakota law defines first-degree murder -- a Class A felony -- in part this way: "Homicide is murder in the first degree when perpetrated without authority of law and with a premeditated design to effect the death of the person killed or of any other human being...."

...and an abortion is clearly a "premeditated design" to terminate the life of a fetus. If we stipulate that a fetus is in fact a person, and remove from abortion the "authority of law," it follows as night follows day that an abortion is an instance of first-degree murder as defined by South Dakota's existing law. Further, in South Dakota a Class A felony is punishable by death, if certain aggravating circumstances obtain:

"Pursuant to §§ 23A-27A-2 to 23A-27A-6, inclusive, in all cases for which the death penalty may be authorized, the judge shall consider, or shall include in instructions to the jury for it to consider, any mitigating circumstances and any of the following aggravating circumstances which may be supported by the evidence:
. . . .

(5) The defendant caused or directed another to commit murder or committed murder as an agent or employee of another person;"

That is, as either the instigator or the so-called triggerman in a murder for hire... which, if you stipulate that the fetus is a person, means both the mother and the doctor in an abortion scenario, not to mention possibly any third party who knowingly paid for the abortion. Another aggravating circumstance is if...

"(6) The offense was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman in that it involved torture, depravity of mind, or an aggravated battery to the victim. Any murder is wantonly vile, horrible, and inhuman if the victim is less than thirteen years of age;" [emphasis added]

...and a fetus is certainly less than 13 years old. Once you declare, as a matter of law, that a fetus is a person, it's logically impossible to view in abortion as anything other than a murder-for-hire conspiracy... a serious crime punishable by serious sanctions, up to and including death, against all members of the conspiracy. So what does the proposed South Dakota law provide? Well, it provides for a maximum sentence of 5 years in prison for the doctor... and no punishment at all for the mother.

Excuse me? 5 years max for a hit man?!? Hired to kill a baby?!? And the person who hired him walks?!? The anti-abortion movement wants us to believe that a baby has the same fundamental rights 5 months before it's born as it does 5 months after, but the sponsors of this law clearly don't believe that: Try to imagine the outcry if anyone suggested a mother could hire a hit man to kill her 5-month-old infant and get off scott free. And that even the hit man could get no more than 5 years in prison. No, this law fundamentally fails to do justice to the very principle that is its ostensible justification... and in so doing, it casts doubt on whether its supporters actually believe what they claim to believe. Are anti-abortion activists, their opponents might wonder, really all that concerned about defending life, or is it all just a hook on which they hang their attempts to enforce a conservative public policy regarding sexuality?

But before the abortion-rights folks start feeling smug, let me note that there's plenty of sauce for both the goose and the gander here. Consider that the arguments against the South Dakota law began with complaints that the law lacked exceptions for rape or incest, and that it lacked a sufficiently broad exception to protect the mother's health. I confess I've never understood the rape-or-incest issue: If the fetus is not a person, all talk of exceptions is moot, but if it is a person, well... at what point did we decide it was alright to kill a child as long as you can show that the child's father is a rapist? The very idea that the sins of the father should be visited on the child even unto death seems positively medieval. Yet abortion rights activists often base their attack against proposed restrictions on the technical question of exceptions, and in the process risk implicitly conceding the underlying proposition. In effect, they're arguing for a law that defines abortion as killing but includes sufficient loopholes that anyone who wants to can get away with murder.

I'm sorry, but on the question of exceptions, the South Dakota law has it right, at least in terms of internal logic: Once you stipulate that the fetus is legally equivalent to a born child, you logically can't allow any exceptions other than to save the life of the mother. As a society, we recognize individuals' right to kill to save their own lives, but not to save themselves from embarrassment or inconvenience or even non-life-threatening illness. Can you imagine anyone saying it was OK for a mother to kill her 5-month-old sick infant to avoid catching the flu? Or to avoid the psychological pain of being constantly reminded of the man who raped her? Surely not... yet these are precisely the sort of mother's health exceptions that invariably come up in these debates.

Look, I understand that politics is the art of the possible, and at some level these are positions of political pragmatism. Abortion foes know people won't stand for a law that treats friendly small-town OB/Gyns like mob hitters and sweet college girls-next-door like stone killers. Abortion rights activists similarly realize that large segments of the country can't reconcile themselves to a totally permissive legal regime. So both sides make compromises, working for the future, and for a law that embodies as much of what they believe in as they can get.

The problem is that when your position is grounded in absolute principle, any compromise at all invalidates your whole argument. At the core of this debate, a fetus either is or is not a person. To say, on the one hand, that it is a person but you're willing to negotiate away a big chunk of its personal value to get your way or, on the other hand, that it's not a person but you're willing to pretend it's sort of one to mollify your opponents... well, either way, it's as ridiculous and unjustified as counting slaves as 3/5 person was. (Note that I do think it's logically and morally possible to assert that we can't know for sure whether/when a fetus is a person, and then argue about what sort of notice, if any, the law should take of that uncertainty. But in my experience, neither side ever takes this tack.) For some issues -- and this is one of them, I think -- the politics of "whatever works" just doesn't work.

Aside from the failure of either the law or its opponents to honor their ostensible underlying principles, there's another thing about this story that should concern even people who aren't deeply concerned about abortion: It's happening in South Dakota, and it's happening now.

The abortion ban law passed the South Dakota senate with just 23 "ayes." Earlier, there were 47 yes votes for the house version. Presuming the bill makes it through conference and the governor signs it, that'll be a total of 71 people -- just 71 citizens of a sparsely populated state (ranked 46th in population, with only one city of more than 100,000 people) -- who will have put their names to a measure that might well change the lives of nearly 300 million Americans. Why South Dakota? I can't prove it, but it's not hard to imagine that an out-of-the-way (and not incidentally, out-of-the-media-glare) state with a small, accessible legislature makes a perfect launching point for a stealth-bomber mission against "settled law."

I'm no constitutional lawyer, but even a layman can see that the South Dakota law, as written, is unconstitutional under Roe and a raft of supporting decisions, including some recent ones. So why bother? And why now? Did South Dakotans experience a wave of fervor around the issue? Maybe so, but it's equally probable that somebody noticed the membership of the U.S. Supreme has changed just a skosh recently. Most of the press accounts about this legislation frankly admit that its purpose is to provoke a showdown over Roe.

Now, there's an honorable tradition of creating test laws or test cases to effect change in the legal landscape... but in this case, we're talking about a tiny number of legislators representing a (relatively) tiny number of voters tipping over the first domino, and all the other dominos will fall within the courts, out of reach of voters in the rest of the country. I'm not sure there's fundamentally anything wrong with that, but it makes me distinctly uneasy. I would think other concerned non-South Dakotans -- on both sides of the issue -- would feel similarly queasy.

I guess we'll learn earlier rather than later what to expect from our remade Supreme Court. That's one thing....

Unit of the Day: galileo, the CGS unit of acceleration, is used primarily by geologists to measure tiny local variations in surface gravity due to geologic formations. Abbreviated Gal, the galileo (yes, it's named after that Galileo) is equal to an acceleration of 1 centimeter per second per second. As small a quantity as that is (approximately 0.0010197 g), it's still large compared to the variations geologists are trying to measure; they typically work in milliGals.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Almost a Custom

I had so much fun last night posting about How Many? A Dictionary of Units of Measurement that I've decided to institute a recurring feature here at the Spleen: the Unit of the Day. Each time I post (not necessarily every day, as you've guessed by now), I'll pick out a unit of measure that strikes me as interestingly obscure or otherwise amusing and post it, along with its definition and whatever pithy comment I might have to add. Unless I say otherwise, all the Units of the Day will be based on information from How Many? (and be linked to it, though in some cases you may need to scroll to find the unit).

To get things started...

Unit of the Day: snit, a U.S. unit of volume equal to 2 jiggers (3 U.S. fluid ounces) of liquor. Of course, it might also signify what you'd be in if a bartender refused to serve you 2 jiggers of liquor!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Big Unit(s)

I was looking something up today at work, and it occurred to me to share with y'all one of my favorite online resources: How Many? A Dictionary of Units of Measurement. Now, for some of you, this might seem like a pretty geeky site to list among my favorites... but if you are (as I am) one of those people who can look up a word in a common dictionary and get sucked into browsing for hours, you'll find this site every bit as dangerously compelling as your Funk and Wagnalls. It's full not only of ordinary, everyday units of measure like inches and amperes and footcandles, but also of the arcane and obscure: units from ancient times (ever wonder what a cubit really is?) or foreign lands (bet you didn't know that in Central America a manzana is unit of land equal in area to a square 100 varas on a side), and units for things you never knew anyone bothered to measure (lunar eclipse brightness? the hardness of tablets [i.e., pills]? the darkness of beer or honey?)

As a technical writer, I often use this site to confirm the proper usage, abbreviation, symbol, etc., of units that appear in the documents I edit... but sometimes the information is of more, umm, topical use. If, for instance, you're thinking of going hunting with Dick Cheney, you might be interested in how they measure birdshot pellet sizes or shotgun gauges, and your next of kin might want to bone up on the Glasgow Coma Scale. And if you've been following the Winter Olympics in Italy, you might be interested to learn that the Torino Impact Hazard Scale measures not the force with which an ice dancer's hip hits the rink, but rather the risk of devastating impact posed by a near-Earth asteroid or comet.

Fascinating, eh? This is all the brainchild of one Russ Rowlett, director of the University of North Carolina's Center for Mathematics and Science Education. Check it out... but when you find you've wasted way too many hours learning (for instance) that a butt is generally defined as two hogsheads, don't blame me; blame Dr. Rowlett.


Friday, February 17, 2006

Space Sports Follow-Up

Hey, I got an e-mail from Rocky Persaud, president of IPX Entertainment, about my earlier posting on their space sports proposals. He tells me they're now casting for a space-sports reality show related to their zero-gee game. I had actually already seen the press release, and planned to post the news here, but it was fascinating to hear from him. When I told him I'd try out myself if I weren't a middle-aged fat guy, he replied that they have other contests in development that would be open to regular, non-athlete type folks like myself. Cool, eh?

It's also cool that somebody outside my small circle of acquaintances has stumbled across this blog. If there's anyone else out there listening, besides atalbot and Mara, I'd love to hear from you.

Update (21 February 2006): Here's an interview with Rocky Persaud about Space Champions and the future plans of IPX Entertainment.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Science Fiction Double Feature

First a correction: In my earlier post on the State of the Union human-animal hybrid issue, I made a reference to "...as if anyone outside a Jules Verne novel were even contemplating the creation of human-animal hybrids!" Well, on further review, I believe I was actually thinking of The Island of Dr. Moreau, which is not by Verne but by the other giant of pre-20th century science fiction, H.G. Wells. Either I was remembering the French name in the title of Wells' work and therefore incorrectly attributing it to Verne... or more likely, I was confusing Moreau with Verne's The Mysterious Island, which actually continues the story of Captain Nemo and has (as far as I know) nothing to do with bizarre man-beasts. Oh, well... c'est la guerre, eh?

While on the subject of science fiction, though, I'm fascinated -- and more than moderately delighted -- to note that my daughter's high-school book club is soon to read Robert Heinlein's seminal 1961 novel A Stranger in a Strange Land. Why delighted? Well, aside from the fact that I've been a rabid Heinlein fan since discovering Red Planet in junior high shool, and the fact that the Heinlein Forum was my earliest online "home," I guess I'm pleased with the selection because the book's just so dangerous!

Stranger, which famously added the word "grok" to the language (and inspired an actual neopagan church that still exists), is sometimes credited as the original prototype for communal, free-love ideals of 1960s hippies. I think that's a bit of a stretch, but there's no denying that the novel (which I've just finished rereading) presents... shall we say challenging?... ideas about some cherished social values, especially including sexuality and religion. Through the story of a human raised from infancy by Martians and then returned to Earth as a young adult, Heinlein offers a unique perspective on human social, sexual, and religious practices, mercilessly testing our underlying assumptions about sexual morality and the nature of God. Though some of it seems slightly dated now, as a whole, it's just as threatening to today's orthodoxy as it was to 1961's... perhaps more so. In short, it's just the sort of book that parents and pastors and "family values" advocates agitate to have removed from public schools.

And that's exactly why I'm delighted that my daughter's school is encouraging her to read it (admittedly in an extracurricular club rather than a class, but still...). In an era that is, for my tastes, all too prudish, prissy, and protective about the ideas we're willing for our children (or ourselves, for that matter) to be exposed to, such a fearless choice pleases me immensely. And it's not just this book: the RHS Book Club regularly draws its material not from the "safe ground" of the Young Adult section of the library, but from the best contemporary literary fiction, even when that means confronting adult themes. That the Book Club's faculty sponsors take this approach, that they (apparently) meet little opposition from the community, and -- it must be said -- that there's a ready audience of teenagers mature and thoughtful and inquisitive enough for these works... these facts help give me hope that our society is not quite so close to a new Dark Ages as I sometimes fear.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Good God, Y'all! What Is it Good For?

War, that is.

One more bit about the SotU; I promise my next post won't be political (or at least not obviously so; I'm beginning to believe that, at some level, everything is politics).

All the commentary I listened to and read after the SotU reminded me of something that's been bugging me since... oh, maybe about September 25, 2001. You see, I keep hearing folks who oppose the Bush administration's Iraq policy falling all over themselves to say that of course we have to win the "War on Terror"; we just disagree on strategy... and tactics... and how much of our civil liberty we're willing to give up for the cause, and.... Well, here's the thing (my favorite Bill Bryson line): There is no "War on Terror"!

Mind you, I understand that as a matter of political reality, Democrats and liberals who hold or seek elective office have to protect themselves against the charge that they're weak on national defense; too soft to perform the cardinal function of government. And I don't mean to minimize the gravity of the struggle against terrorism, nor the evil of the terrorists. But "war" as a specific term has significant and unavoidable implications, and it's extraordinarily dangerous to use the word carelessly.

Cynical people will say this administration does everything carelessly; really cynical people may suspect there's more care -- of a Machiavellian sort -- than we might like in the administration's use of the word "war." You see, we historically have been willing to surrender rights and make other sacrifices in time of war, for the sake of ensuring the survival of the nation. We're willing to tolerate these temporary sacrifices in large part because they are presumed to be temporary. Notwithstanding the existence in world history of a Thirty Years' War and a Hundred Years' War, wars are always understood to be finite: Each side expects to win, lose, or reach a negotiated peace. In the World Wars of the 20th Century, folks happily accepted rationing, censorship of the mail, blackouts, air-raid drills, and a variety of other sacrifices "for the duration," and expression that survives in common usage to this day. That very phrase implies the expectation of an END.

We (justifiably) fought a war in Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks; we (unjustifiably, it seems to me) fought a war in Iraq. Both either are over, or will be over at some point in the foreseeable future (depending on how you view the ongoing operations in both places). We have defeated the Taliban and Iraqi armies and overturned the governments that fielded them. But however successful we are in thwarting terrorist plots and capturing or killing individual terrorists, we can, almost by definition, never win a broader "War on Terror."

Friends, the good news is that we as a nation are vastly, literally incredibly, blessed... blessed with material, spiritual, intellectual, and cultural riches most of the people of the world can only dream about. In addition, we are hugely powerful, able to act on the global stage essentially unchallenged. The bad news is that as long as we are this rich, this enviable, there will be people who envy us... and some of them will seek to channel their envy into unspeakably evil acts. And as long as we're powerful, there will be people who fear and mistrust our power... and some of them, too, will manifest their fear as violence.

This is NOT an apology for terrorism: In most cases, the terrorists' envy and fear and hatred are misplaced, and even when our opponents have arguably valid reasons for opposing us, no grievance can ever justify indiscriminate violence against innocent noncombatants. Murder is murder, no matter how good a reason the murderer thinks he has for being angry. There's no doubt that terrorists are our enemies... the enemies of decent people everywhere. We must struggle against them, diligently, earnestly, aggressively, bravely... but they are not nations, with armies and territory and governments that we can defeat or with which we can negotiate peace. Even terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda have no standing to surrender on behalf of global terrorism as a whole, nor will defeating them militarily end all terrorism.

No, terrorists are our foreign enemies more in the sense that criminals are our domestic enemies, and we have about as much chance of ever really "defeating" terrorism as we do of defeating crime. Until there's no more wealth, people will try to steal; until there's no more personal conflict, people will try to maim and kill. Similarly, until we are no longer enviable or powerful (an outcome you could hardly think of as "victory"), people in the world will try to steal our freedom, kill our peace.

We must, of course, keep up the struggle... but we can't fool ourselves into thinking there's an end to it. If we must, we can call the struggle against global terrorism the "moral equivalent of war," as Jimmy Carter called the energy crisis of the late 1970s, but if we actually call it "war" -- if we in the opposition acquiesce to the administration calling it "war" -- well, a permanent state of war leads to permanent war powers. (Can you say "Patriot Act"? I knew you could.) And permanent war powers have long been a stepping stone to totalitarianism, in history and in cautionary fiction.

Just ask George Orwell.

Say it again!

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The State of the Union is... Wicked!

OK, I swear this won't always be a political blog, but on SoU night, it's hard to resist.

A while back, I posted an entry about Wicked, the musical. Since then, I've been reading the novel that inspired the show, and I'll no doubt have something about that when I'm done... but tonight, after listening to the president's State of the Union Address, the word "strawman" means something to me other than a denizen of Oz.

Throughout the first, foreign "policy" related, section of the speech, the president consistently contrasted his administration's policies to "isolationism," as if his political critics were isolationists. (I was hoping to quote directly from the speech, but the text is apparently not online yet. It's "coming soon" here.) Really? The opposition that urged him to pay more heed to the United Nations is isolationist? The folks who begged him to give Hans Blix, Mohammad al-Barradei, et al., more time (and credence) are isolationists? Those of us who were ridiculed by our own leaders because we refused to expunge from our junk food's names those "cheese-eating surrender monkeys," the French... we're isolationists? It is to laugh!

This is a classic strawman argument. The president wants us to understand that his policies are infinitely superior to isolationism... never mind that none of us is actually advocating isolationism. Among those of us who oppose Mr. Bush's adventure into Iraq, there's a wide range of diverse opinions about what we should do instead... but even those pushing for immediate withdrawal of our troops there are not, as the president would have it, advocating "retreat to within our borders." The president's liberal and Democratic opponents are generally more internationalist than the president has ever even dreamed of being (not for nothing does the classic bumpersticker begin "Think Globally..."). We want to engage the global community; we just would prefer to engage it in a somewhat less brutal and useless way than we currently are in Iraq. I think we can all agree to oppose "isolationism"; I just wish we could get the president to agree that the opposite of isolationism needn't necessarily be imperialism.

Later in the speech, the president invoked the examples of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and (IIRC) FDR, praising them for persevering... for not giving up. Well and good, as far as that goes, but these icons' greatness lay not merely in their perseverance, but in the nobility of the causes in which they persevered. For not giving up to be a virtue, it is a necessary precondition that what you are not giving up not be evil. A lesson, sadly, our leaders don't seem to have learned.

PS: On the subject of strawman arguments, at one point the president called for strong legal prohibitions against the horrors of human cloning and its related technologies, including "the creation of human-animal hybrids." As if anyone outside a Jules Verne novel were even contemplating the creation of human-animal hybrids! Those of you brewing up centaurs and mermaids in your basements... well you just go straight to bed without your supper! Shame on you! ;^)

Belated "Hello" and Housekeeping

Well, the holidays have come and gone (long gone, actually... I started this entry in early January, but got sidetracked by the predictable post-holiday cold), and it's about time I got back to this. I realize I sort of backed into this blogging business, so I suppose I should take a moment to introduce myself, and define (to the extent I can) just what in the heck this is going to be.

My name is Bill Dauphin; I'm 45 years old; I live in Vernon, Connecticut (in the Hartford area, more or less); and I work as a technical writer (proposals and reports, not manuals) for a major aerospace company. My wife teaches English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) at the University of Connecticut American English Language Institute.

The son of a NASA engineer, I was born in Florida and raised in the Houston, Texas, area. I graduated from Friendswood High School, received a BA in English from University of Houston in 1981, completed an MA in English/Creative Writing from Binghamton University in 1984 (we called it "SUNY-Binghamton" in those days), and finally, just for the fun of it (really!), picked up an MS in Space Studies from University of North Dakota's Space Studies Distance Learning program in 2003.

So why blog? Well, at first, it was because my 15 year-old daughter was blogging, and I figured I'd better get with the program. Then too, a favorite online haunt of mine, the Space Arena BBS, stopped taking new postings (you can still read the archives, if you're brave ), and I ended up reading some of the regulars' individual blogs to try to keep up. One day I wanted to post a comment at Jon Goff's Selenian Boondocks blog, and somehow managed to convince myself I had to have a Blogger account to do so. I was wrong, of course, but by the time I figured that out, I had the account, and it just seemed natural to use it.

When I told Andy, my best buddy and model rocketry teammate, that I'd started a blog, his response was succinct: "I detest blogs!" If y'all buy some rocket kits from him, he'll probably forgive me, but the comment did start me thinking about what the devil I'm up to here. This is not any sort of attempt at "citizen journalism" like the pro bloggers (my current favorite of whom is Eric Alterman at MSNBC.com): I don't have the facts, skill, or authority to do that well, and I'd really hate to do it badly. It's also not intended to be a public diary like my daughter and her LiveJournal friends have: High-school students really do care about the minutiae of each other's days, but can't imagine anyone cares about mine. And I'm certainly not interested in the kind of bottom-feeding stuff that must have prompted this cartoon.

So why waste the electrons, eh? Well, it turns out -- and this'll hardly be any surprise to folks who know me -- that I do have an opinion or two. I don't pretend that they're necessarily any better than anyone else's, but they're there, rattling around inside my head. I find that putting my thoughts into words helps me understand more clearly what I actually think... and this is a way to wring out those words without inflicting them (or at least, not all of them) on my poor family. Call it letters to the editor, without the pesky editor. Better yet, call it a cheap alternative to therapy.

If you stop by here and find me yelling, be of good cheer: I'm not yelling at you (well, probably not... depends on whether your name is Bush or Cheney or Rumsfeld... but I digress ). And if perchance some bits of my self-therapy happen to enlighten or entertain (or just bemuse) you, great!