Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Is it wrong to call Bush a liar?

In Balkinization Jack Balkin replies to a Nicholas Kristoff op-ed piece in which Kristof warns liberals not to go off the deep end (as the right wing did with Clinton) by stooping to name-calling. Balkin reviews some of Bush's history and then writes, "at some point, the number of false and misleading statements becomes so great that you have to assume that some of them were deliberate. At that point, what word can one use?"

How our government protected us from a Buddhist Terrorist

Were it not for the legal aid society and the FBI agent who originally arrested this Nepalese tourist who unknowingly took a tourist picture of the FBI's New York office building, he might still be in solitary confinement. Here is the full story: The New York Times: In F.B.I., Innocent Detainee Found Unlikely Ally

Are the Browser Wars Back? - How Mozilla's Firefox trumps Internet Explorer

Slate is published by Microsoft, but they don't seem to be too heavy handed in attempting to censor it.

Speed of light may have changed recently!

New Scientist reports that people are now hypothesizing that the speed of light may have changed as recently as 2 billion years ago. Certainly long before I was born, but considering that the age of the universe is postulated to be about 10 - 15 billion years, not that long ago, all things considered.

I am continually reminded that the view of the Universe that science gives us is so much more fantasic and mysterious than anything we can make up with our eyes closed.

The Machiavellian Intelligence hypothesis

The Machiavellian Intelligence hypothesis (see Carl Zimmer's blog) theorizes that monkeys and apes (and to an exaggerated extent, humans) have a higher brain-to-body ratio so that we can deceive each other.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Bush interviewed by a real reporter

Courtesy of Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things.
"The President's handlers foolishly granted a Presidential interview (requires RealPlayer) to a non-White House Press Corps journalist, Carole Coleman, the Washington correspondent for RTE, the Irish public national television network. When she asked him pointed, pertinent questions, he became upset when his stock answers failed to satisfy her. ..."

Bush apparently chose not to attack Zarqawi before the Iraq war in order to have a terrorist target to justify the war

This is an amazing story. Thanks to Jacob T. Levy in The Volokh Conspiracy for keeping it alive.

Avoiding attacking suspected terrorist mastermind
"NBC News has learned that long before the war the Bush administration had several chances to wipe out [Zarqawi's] terrorist operation and perhaps kill Zarqawi himself but never pulled the trigger.

In June 2002, U.S. officials say intelligence had revealed that Zarqawi and members of al-Qaida had set up a weapons lab at Kirma, in northern Iraq, producing deadly ricin and cyanide.

The Pentagon quickly drafted plans to attack the camp with cruise missiles and airstrikes and sent it to the White House, where, according to U.S. government sources, the plan was debated to death in the National Security Council.


Military officials insist their case for attacking Zarqawi’s operation was airtight, but the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam. [Emphasis added]"

Monday, June 28, 2004

What more could we ask for?

Kevin Drum of The Washington Monthly has a nice summary of what the war in Iraq has accomplished.
"Liberals everywhere should hail the handiwork of Bush and the neocons. For a relatively small cost, we've gotten rid of a truly odious fascist dictator and assured that the American public is less inclined than ever toward military adventurism. What more could we ask for?"

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Administration Tries to Rein In Scientists

No need to post opinions when the news is clear enough.

From the LA Times: Administration Tries to Rein In Scientists
"The Bush administration has ordered that government scientists must be approved by a senior political appointee before they can participate in meetings convened by the World Health Organization, the leading international health and science agency."

Friday, June 25, 2004

President Defends the Sanctity of Marriage

In an earlier comment I discussed Bush's reaction to the beheading of Paul Johnson and concluded that Bush doesn't understand what is going on in his own head.

Although this view may, by now, be fairly noncontroversial, he is the President, and it is probably worth the effort to look at what he thinks he is thinking. I'll do that with a series of occasional comments on remarks by the President.

Last November, Mr. Bush said that he plans to "work with congressional leaders and others to do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage."

The question is whether he knows what he is saying.

Merriam-Webster Online defines sanctity as:
  1. holiness of life and character : GODLINESS
  2. the quality or state of being holy or sacred : INVIOLABILITY "
Since the Government of the United States is prohibited by its constitution from establishing a church, it is impossible for the government to take legal action to defend the sanctity of anything. So on its face, the statement is either meaningless or foolish.

Of course one can argue that the President didn't really mean what he said. What he really meant was <you fill in the blank>.

So the issue is whether the President understood and meant what he thought he was saying, or whether he was choosing deliberately to confuse his listeners about two of our most fundamental institutions, separation of church and state and marriage, for pure political gain.

In this case, my guess is that not only does Mr. Bush value the political advantage he thinks this statement gains for him, he is too unintelligent to recognize the harm it is doing to his reputation and to the political fabric of the country.

If he truly understood how foolish he appears in making this statement, then no matter what he believes about marriage, he wouldn't go about expressing his views this way. So in this case, I come out on the side of stupidity rather than calculation.

UPDATE: I looked up misunderestimate, one of Bush's most often quoted apparent mental failures and found The Misunderestimated Man - How Bush chose stupidity. By Jacob Weisberg. Weisberg writes the Bushisms column for Slate. Weisberg concludes that Bush "was not born stupid. He chose stupidity. Bush may look like a well-meaning dolt. On consideration, he's something far more dangerous: a dedicated fool."

I do not plan to comment on Bush's off-the-cuff failures. I'll limit my remarks to those apparently made after due deliberation and that seem to reflect his actual intent.

Dithering as Others Die

Nick Kristof continues his series on Sudan.

Why doesn't Nader name Kerry's electors as his own?

Bruce Ackerman of the Yale Law School wrote an op-ed piece in the May 5, 2004 New York Times suggesting as much. It's a gread idea. I don't understand why it hasn't received more attention. Here is a reprint.

A great segment from the Jon Stewart show

Watch this segment from Jon Stewart's the Daily Show in which Cheney and Bush take on the truth as they know it.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Your papers please

On Monday, by a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court decided that the police were entitled to demand that you identify yourself. The case was that of Larry Hiible of Nevada. A summary is available here.

Hiibel, who says that he has only gone through eighth grade, explains his position as follows.
"I don't believe that the authorities in the United States of America are supposed to walk up to you and ask for your papers. I thought that wasn't lawful. Apparently I was wrong, but I thought that that was part of what we were guaranteed under the Constitution. We're supposed to be free men, able to walk freely in our own country — not hampered, not stopped at checkpoints. That's part of what makes this country different from other places. That's what I was taught.

And it's not just because it's in the Constitution. It's something that you just kind of know. It's kind of obvious. If you haven't committed a crime, you shouldn't be harassed by the police. ...

It seems to me that the whole idea of 'your-papers-please' goes completely against the grain of the American people."
The complete text of his statement is available here., a web site supporting Hiibel's position, has a video of the arrest and other information.

The usual suspects were on the usual sides. In favor: Kennedy, O'Connor, Renquist, Scalia, and Thomas. Opposed: Breyer, Ginsburg, Souter, and Stevens.

The Nevada public defender office, which represented Hiibel, issued the following statment, "A Nevada cowboy courageously fought for his right to be let alone but lost."


Brad DeLong quotes the following from Clinton's new book.
"In later years I was often asked what great new idea my economic team and I brought to economic policy making.... I always gave a one-word answer: 'arithmetic'. The American people had been told for more than a decade that their government was a gluttonous leviathan swallowing their hard-earned dollars to no good end. Then the same politicians who told them that, and served up tax cuts to starve the evil beast, would turn right around and spend themselves to reelection, leaving the false impression that the voters could have programs they didn't pay for... that the only reason we had big deficits was wasteful spending on foreign aid, welfare, and other programs for poor people.... We had brought arithmetic back to the budget, and broken America of a bad habit... "
Bush is so dishonest. Clinton left us with a massive surplus. We were set to eliminate not just the yearly deficit but the entire accumulated national debt in a decade or less. Now we are worse off than ever, and Bush takes absolutely no responsibility for any of it. And this from a politician and party that calls itself conservative. It's so frustrating -- and so dishonest.

I don't disagree that Bush is plain-spoken: he tells plain-spoken lies. The terrible thing is that half the country is still letting him get away with it. What I don't understand is why so many people continue to support him. Perhaps it's just that I'm out of touch. I don't get it at all.

Just say no to god

Although Annalee Newitz's article is not quite right on technical legal grounds, I'm fundamentally sympathetic to her position on the Pledge of Allegiance. Here is a snippet.

"Francis Bellamy, a socialist and magazine editor, wrote the pledge in 1892 as part of a nationwide, school celebration of Columbus Day. His original pledge - which made no mention of God - included the phrase 'one nation, indivisible, with equality, liberty, and justice for all.' But several state school superintendents objected to the word 'equality' because they were against equality for women and blacks. Bellamy was forced to take it out.

The history of the pledge is one of creeping conservatism. The first edit to it preserved racism and sexism, while the second major edit in 1954 abolished the distinction between church and state."

Torture in Iraq - Let's Put an Ad on Arab Television

Although I don't think of the word faithful as one that I would apply to myself, there is a nice multi-faith ad here sponsored by an organization called that expresses dismay at recent abuses of prisoner. You can sign up as an endorser if you like. The plan is to run this ad on Arab TV.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Bush Acrobatics

Mark Kleiman has a brilliant summary of Bush's various "plain talk" positions on a patient's bill of rights.

No Skeeters, No Problem?

Here's a neat article that asks and explores answers to the questions, "What good are mosquitoes?" and "If we could should we make them go extinct?"

A New Frontier for Humanity?

Here's my comment (posted on Dan Gillmor's blog) on the private space launch.

I heard a discussion of the flight on NPR last night by someone introduced as a NASA historian. He claimed that like the first human powered flight 30 eyars ago, it is not likely to make much difference.

The pilot on the flight predicted that perhaps within 20 years the same experience will be available to anyone for a mere $10,000. If that's all we get after 20 years, why is this event so important?

Monday, June 21, 2004

Senior Homeland Security official Faisal Gill failed to disclose that he worked for an American Muslim leader now in jail on terrorism charges has an article that begins as follows.

"The policy director for the Department of Homeland Security's intelligence division [Faisal Gill] was briefly removed from his job in March when the Federal Bureau of Investigation discovered he had failed to disclose his association with Abdurahman Alamoudi, a jailed American Muslim leader. ... A White House political appointee with close ties to Republican power broker Grover Norquist and no apparent background in intelligence, Gill has access to top-secret information on the vulnerability of America's seaports, aviation facilities and nuclear power plants to terrorist attacks."

Starting Over, 24 Years After a Wrongful Conviction

What is it like to be locked up for 24 years for a crime that you didn't commit? This man knows.


In two of my recent posts (Enemies in the Heat of Battle, Friends for 60 Years and Bush's reaction to the Johnson beheading), I contrasted Bush's outrage regarding the Johnson beheading with his apparent lack of outrage regarding our abuse of prisoners.

This morning I heard the first installment of Scott Carrier's report on Juarez: A City on the Edge, a border city in which gruesome murders seem to have become part of the culture.

This reminded me of Nick Kristof's series of reports on genocide in Sudan (Dare We Call It Genocide? and Sudan's Final Solution) with more to come, see Nicholas D. Kristof.

There are so many things in the world about which one might feel outrage that it's hard to pay attention.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Enemies in the Heat of Battle, Friends for 60 Years

Sunday's NY Times includes an article
Enemies in the Heat of Battle, Friends for 60 Years describing how an American marine treated a Japanese prisoner of war as a human being, starting a friendship that has lasted 60 years.

That could not have happened had the marine seen the Japanese soldier the way President Bush sees terrorists, as evil and barbaric. See my recent comments on this subject.

In the second world war, we fought against a country that launched a surprise attack against us. Yet this marine managed to avoid seeing all enemy soldiers as embodying evil.

Contrast this with President Bush, who apparently spoke his mind when, shortly after 9/11, he said, "this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take awhile." (See, for example,
Europe cringes at Bush 'crusade' against terrorists |

Bush has stopped using the word crusade, but apparently he hasn't stopped thinking in those terms.

Cory Doctorow's Digital Rights Management (DRM) talk at MSFT

Joi Ito points out that "Cory [Doctorow]'s excellent drm rant which he presented at Microsoft Research has now been wikified to allow people to comment and add to it. Excellent."

It's a great talk. Read it in either form.

Shai Coggins, GMail, and Blogging


Shai Coggins (cute picture!) has a blog about blogs at

Recently she offered invitations to GMail accounts to some of her readers. I think it's an interesting way for Google to spread these accounts. Originally, they invited certain users to try the service. Now they seem to be expanding the user community by letting their current users invite new users. I'd love to try it, so I wrote the following.

If you still have any GMail invitations I'd love to have one. This seems like an interesting way for Google to get new users--by allowing current users to invite new people.

I just recently started a blog. It seems like the blog phenomena is about to explode. Do you have any theories about why? Blogs themselves have been around for a long time. So have bulletin boards and forums. What is different about blogs now?

I guess that for one thing, RSS syndication makes it a lot more convenient to follow blogs without clogging up your email inbox. Blogs are now a separate information stream, which makes them a lot easier to follow. That also gives them a distinct identity, i.e., they are not just more email messages.

Another important thing about RSS blog feeds is that they don't get spammed! You get only the feeds to which you subscribe.

Blogs also differ from bulletin boards, forums, news groups, mailings lists, etc. in that they generally reflect a single voice. I think that makes a difference.

In any event, I am convinced they are about to explode. Currently, very few people in the general public--even those who are internet savvy--have heard of blogs. Within a year that will be completely different; almost everyone will know about blogging.

I am interested in any thoughts anyone has about why blogs have reached the tipping point now.

Against Happiness

There is a new science of happiness. An article Against Happiness in the current NY Times Magazine by Jim Holt reports on experiments that show that happy people tend to be more judgmental, i.e., more like angry people, than like sad people, who tend to be nicer.

One of the leaders in this field is Daniel Kahneman, who recently gave the Marschak Memorial Lecture at UCLA.

Here is a transcript of a radio interview he gave in August 2003. All In The Mind - 17/08/2003: Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman: Toward a Science of Wellbeing. It's worth reading.

Michael Froomkin: The Marines Knew How to Do It Right

Michael Froomkin writes (The Marines Knew How to Do It Right) about how we treated our enemies differently during WWII. The problem he identifies is exactly what my post on Bush's use of the term evil when referring to the killers of Paul Johnson was all about. It is not just "background music," as some would say.

Science and Consciousness

An article in the current issue of Turning Wheel, published by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, argued against the possibility (liklihood?) that science, and in particular artificial intelligence, would ever explain consciousness. (I regret that the article itself is not available online so that it can speak for itself.)

Here is my reply.

I enjoyed the "Hungry Ghosts of the West" article in the Summer 2004 issue of Turning Wheel, and I agree that consciousness is one of the last remaining mysteries. I suspect, however, that the author would resist my referring to it that way--as if consciousness too may sooner or later be resolved and no longer remain a mystery.

The same issue of Turning Wheel repeats a quote from the Dalai Lama to the effect that if science should disprove any aspect of Buddhist cosmology, Buddhism must change.

I don't expect science to "disprove" consciousness. There is nothing to disprove. But I do expect science to be able to say more about how it works. When that happens, I don't want to see Buddhists disappointed because they were hoping that science will fail. That would put us on the wrong side of awareness.

Science has seen many revolutions, most of which have corrected our sense of ourselves as being the center of the universe. Understanding consciousness will simply be another step in that realization.

Whether or not we understand how sentience works, we will remain sentient beings. As the Buddha said, it's all in our heads, and knowing how our heads work won't make it less so. It will simply make it less grandiose, which will be good for us.

-- Russ Abbott

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Bush's reaction to the Johnson beheading

I will attempt to clarify for myself what seems so wrong with Bush's response to the beheading of Paul Johnson. Here is what he is quoted as saying.

"The murder of Paul shows the evil nature of the enemy we face. These are barbaric people. There's no justification whatsoever for his murder. And yet they killed him in cold blood."

I guess there are a number of problems.

  1. One has to do with Bush's framing of the issue in terms of evil. In Bush's eyes , the beheading was not just an immoral act; it was an evil act, committed by evil people--people who are not only evil (and barbaric as well), but our enemy to boot.

    There is a major difference between condemning an act as immoral and condemning the people who did it as evil.

    The terms evil, evil nature, enemy, and barbaric clearly demonize the killers. It's the same sort of thing as using the terms axis of evil and evil empire. It establishes an absolutistic good-vs-evil view of the world, with no possibility of mutual understanding or accommodation. We are human; they are not.

    I suppose it's unreasonable to expect Bush to ask himself such a question, but why, I wonder, does Bush suppose Johnson's killers did what they did. Does he think they were simply carrying out their destiny as evil beings? Does he think they were psychopaths or sociopaths? What did he think was going on in their heads (and even in their hearts) when they did the deed? Is he even willing to consider the possibility that they have hearts?

    This is not to say that whatever was going on in their heads and hearts is justification for what they did. But it is to say that they are not simply non-human devils. Something was driving them, and it is important for us not to forget that.

    Bush claims to be a Christian. As I understand it, it is fundamental to most Christian sects that anyone can be saved. Does Bush agree? Can people with an evil nature be saved? How would one approach doing that? I doubt that the best first step is to pin a label of evil on the person you are trying to save.

  2. Then there is the line about justification. It suggests that the same act would have been ok in Bush's mind had there been justification. At least he is consistent. Since Bush is a believer in capital punishment, he can't honestly be critical simply of killing in cold blood. After all, that's what capital punishment is: killing someone in cold blood.

    Of course, Bush is not known for his intellectual honesty and consistency. But like most of us, he probably does want to avoid cognitive dissonance. So for his own peace of mind, he has to distinguish between acceptable cold-blooded killings and unacceptable cold-blooded killings.

    But in acknowledging that he does believe that some cold-blooded killings are acceptable, the issue shifts from evil to justification. (Clearly Bush is not aware of having made this shift, though.)

    Did Johnson's killers have justification? They thought so. Johnson worked on Apache helicopters. The killers issued the following statement.

    "Let him taste something of what Muslims have long tasted from Apache helicopter fire and missiles."

    Again, this does not justify the killing--at least as far as I am concerned. But it does show that the killers knew what they were doing and had thought about it. They believed they were justified in their acts.

  3. The line about the killing having been done in cold blood raises additional questions. Where was Bush's outrage at the way we treated some of our prisoners? Those acts were also done in cold blood. I'm not saying that the two are comparable. Murder is the not the same as abuse. But the cold-bloodedness aspect is the same. Bush has not talked about the perpetrators of the abuse as evil. Some prisoners have apparently been killed. How does Bush distinguish one cold-blooded murder from another?

The point of all this is simply that by expressing such a warped view of the world, Bush is making it much more difficult for the American people to understand what is going on. That may be his intent. Or more likely, he himself doesn't have a clue about what is going on in his own mind.

Friday, June 18, 2004

Lovers and isolation

An advice columns in yesterday's paper contained a letter from a woman who had been happily married for 50 years. She said she recently found out that her husband (who confirmed this) had once (apparently quite a while ago but while they were married) had a one-night-stand that resulted in a child. In her letter, the woman said that this has disturbed her so much that she doesn't know if she can ever trust him again.

It seems to me that we hope to find ourselves in our lovers—to merge with each other. In Existential Psychotherapy, Irvin Yalom makes the point that we have four great fears in life: death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness.

This is a good illustration of isolation. No matter how close we are to someone else, we are each separate beings. We never know each other completely.

Got an email message from Karen at responding to my comments in an earlier entry.

Thanks for noticing.

As I said in reply, the biggest complaint I have with Pluck is its intrusiveness. It takes over too many functions and gives itself too much control. I hope they create a version with the volume turned down a bit.

The "BlogThis" button

I've been using the Google BlogThis button to post entries to this blog. It is very convenient. It is useful whether or not one wants to refer to a web page. Click the BlogThis button and a window pops up for the entry. When done, click on Publish, and the entry is sent to your blog in Blogger.

It is even easier to use than sending an email message to, which is another way of posting a blog entry.

Of course this give a significant advantage to other blogger sites. But it shouldn't be hard for other sites to implement a similar capability.

Anthony Casalena and Squarespace

I found a new web/blogger design/hosting/maintenance service created by Anthony Casalena called SquareSpace. I'm very impressed. It differs from other blogger sites in that it support entire web sites, not just blogs. It includes an impressive list of features, while at the same time claims to be easy to use. The sample sites suggest that its claims are true. It also is quite tasteful with an excellent sense of low-key web style.

Good work!

Thursday, June 17, 2004

A few bad apples?

Given Michael Froomkin's recent Please, No US Gulag post, "a few" now seems like a bit of an underestimate, but I still believe that the bad apples currently running our government don't represent the real America.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004


I'm really not sure how I want to use this blog. The other day, I started investigating blogs and was surprised to find how sophisticated they were. So I thought I'd try it.

So far, I have signed up for two aggregators: Bloglines and Pluck.

I like Pluck's Outlook-like setup and the fact that the post content is displayed directly. I don't like Pluck's way of taking over and its over-zealous advertising. I also wish one could delete a post after reading it without having to click on delete-all-read-posts. One should be able to delete posts one at a time directly. I also don't like all the default subscriptions Pluck sets up. It makes it more of a full-time job keeping up with them all. I know one can delete them, but they probably shouldn't be there in the first place. Also, the Pluck default is to have multiple folders. In general, that's probably a good idea, but I don't want to spend so much time following that many blogs that I need to organize them into folders. Right now, I have 17 subscriptions. That's a lot more than I expected, but I still don't want them organized into folders.

I like Blogline's simplicity. In it's case also, it would be nice to be able to mark posts as read. If one moves from one subscribed service to another, all the unread posts in the first service are considered read. That isn't good.