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Monday, November 29, 2004

I'm appalled by the silliness over profanity in Saving Private Ryan, an excellent movie. Are we really going to return to bowdlerizing quality as was attempted in the thirties? Is context to be completely lost? See Leonard Pitt's articulate column linked here. It's worth reading.

It's also time someone stood up to the great unwashed numbskulls out there and pointed out to them the difference between being offended (self-inflicted) and being harmed (externally-inflicted.)

Sunday, November 28, 2004

In a rather frightening example of how easy it can be to blow up a plane, James Bamford, in Pretext for War describes how, in 1995, a terrorist group in the Philippines blew up part of a 747. They used a digital watch with an alarm, some fine wires, a contact lens solution bottle filled with nitro glycerin soaked in cotton, to create a nasty little bomb that was placed under the seat and then detonated 4 hours later after the terrorist had left the plane at an intermediate stop. Note that none of these items would appear suspicious to airport security or show up on an x-ray.

The bomb detonated as planned, killing a Japanese businessman and disabling the plane, which was able to return to the airport with some difficulty. The terrorists were so pleased with their success that they planned several more such attacks. They were thwarted only when their apartment caught fire and a member of the cell was captured. Following interrogation by the Philippine police, it was learned they had also planed [bad pun] to fly an airplane into the Pentagon in a suicide attack. The terrorists claimed the attacks were in protest of American Israeli policies, particularly the savage attack on a Lebanese town in which numerous women and children were killed.

The Philippine police promptly informed the FBI of what they had learned. This information, a preview of the 2001 attack, was either lost or disregarded in one of the intelligence failures that Bamford delineates in a most interesting book. Available from unabridged.
Artest, Sex and TV

Americans enjoy being outraged. We have such a sanctimonious streak as we seek to prevent others from watching what we often indulge in ourselves. The flap over the Housewives star leaping into the arms of an NFL lineman (I never saw the commercial and don't watch NFL either, but it was impossible to ignore the broohaha) was so silly, yet I suspect the real problem, albeit unarticulated, was that the guy was black. People won't say so, but I bet that's the real underlying concern: a white babe going for a black jock. "In fact, it's a pity that Owens and Sheridan didn't lock lips before the camera cut away. 'Nothing's more fun than making bigots stroke out.' " (Leonard Pitts has a fine column about the incident.)

It's a shame that basketball had to intrude on my consciousness, too, leaping away from the sports pages to the regular news(??) as children masquerading as adults got into a pissing contest in Detroit. What do you expect from a bunch of narcissistic, overpaid, athletes are put into an arena with beer swilling rednecks? It was inevitable. Fighting in sports could all be solved by applying the same laws inside the arenas as outside: you slug someone, charge the mound, whatever, and you go to jail for assault. Simple.

And in more evidence that it is impossible to parody anymore, C-SPAN was caught showing porn movies as they broadcast a hearing where the National Institute on Media and the Family showed an ostensibly bored group of Sebators, including Joe Lieberman, precisely what should not be on television. Now we used to think C-SPAN was safe...... Our thanks to the family oriented NIMF for proving otherwise. For the prurient a link to the entire C-SPAN broadcast can be seen at this C-SPAN link.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Continuing my reading of Wisdom of Crowds, a very insightful book about how we make decisions by James Surowiecki. The author describes the dangers of homogeneity in promoting group think, something we will begin to see more of in the Bush second administration as he builds his Cabinet with "Yes" men and women. Analysis by social scientists shows that decisions made by groups that permit little diversity are often wrong and conformity to adhere to the majority opinion can be very strong. Solomon Asch 's studies on conformity showed that an individual would often agree with the group even if there was overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For example, when presented with a card showing lines of different lengths and asked to pick the shortest one, subjects would almost always pick the one chosen by other members of the group (the experimenter's confederates) even when it was obviously not the shortest.

Much like army ants in a circular mill who die from exhaustion following a lost leader, humans will often indulge in group think and group action even if it is not in their interest to do so. And the more influence we exert on one another the more likely we are to become collectively dummer. A very good argument for encouraging independent thinkers and nay sayers.

"The presidential election showed that the Christian church is failing as a teacher of the gospel. Until Election Day we could blame George W. Bush for the atrocities in Iraq. But now we, the people of the world's supposed leader in democracy and freedom, have guilt on our hands for ratifying the least moral president we have had in years. The church's failure is shown by the fact that so many supporters of Bush cite moral values as their reason for electing him. What God do these people worship? Do they think a country stained with the blood of 100,000 dead is a moral improvement over one stained blue dress? That sort of thinking must break God's heart."
The Most Reverend Mark Shirilau, Archbishop and Primate, Communion of Ecumenical Churches. Newsweek, November 29, 2004.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

In 1869 John Wesley Powell decided to set off down the Green River and follow it to the Colorado and then down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon. All of this was territory that had been unexplored by Europeans. Edward Dolnick recounts the passage in Down the Great Unknown. It's a fascinating story told masterfully of a courageous -- or foolish -- adventure.

His companions had no experience running rapids and their equipment was sturdy but not designed for shooting rapids. Fortunately, by starting high on the Green, they were able to learn some of the basics without killing themselves. Water, because it cannot be compressed and is fluid, does some strange things when running through narrow canyons and over rocks. Speed is not the greatest hazard: "Waves ricochet off rocks and cliffs and collide with one another; water rushes over rocks and dives down into holes and moves upstream to fill in 'empty' spaces behind obstacles." Water is moving in so many directions at once and at so many different speeds that obstacles such as rocks, dangerous in and of themselves, become even more hazardous.

Many of the canyons were very deep making portages around bad rapids impossible. Their first hint of difficulty came after Brown's Park, a lush hidden valley favored by cattle rustlers, called Lodore Canyon. The entrance was described as a "dark portal to a region of gloom." The walls of the canyon extended upwards some 2,000 feet. "The Gates of Lodore hinge inward, cruelly joined, hard rock, ominous, and when the mists skulk low between the cliffs, they become an engraving by Gustave Dore for one of Dante's lower levels of hell." This a description by a modern writer who extols the river.

And this was before they got to the tough parts.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Bumpersticker: "Who would Jesus bomb?" Good question.

"Allow a President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so, whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such a purpose-and you allow him to make war at pleasure. If, today, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him." (Abraham Lincoln in a letter to W. H. Herndon, Feb. 15, 1848)
Patrick Buchanan got it right in Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency. He writes that Bush's posture after 9/11 is unconstitutional and harmful to the U.S. Nowhere in the Constitution is the president afforded the power of making preemptive war, yet his approach was to declare a virtual battle against evil, rather than going after the perpetrator of the act itself. Ignoring precedent and reality (numerous countries have developed chemical and nuclear capacities in the twentieth century despite U.S. policy to prevent such a spread even among our friends with no retribution,) Bush put several countries on notice they would be liable for regime change if they tried to enter that circle of countries.

"To attain Churchillian heights, Bush's speechwriters had taken him over the top." They defined four elements in his speech:

1. The war on terror is a war between good and evil and will not end until all elements of evil are eradicated;
2. Every nation must decide if it is with us or against us, if not with us they are with the terrorists;
3. Any nation that funds or assists any group we decide is a terrorist will be considered a terrorist state subject to attack;
4. Iran, Iraq, and Korea will not be permitted weapons of mass destruction and we would engage in preemptive strikes and wars to prevent their acquisition by those countries.

These elements caused the coalitions that had been created after 9/11 to "crumble." He went further in a speech to West Point graduates in 2002. The thrust of the speech was that the United States would never permit any country in the world to threaten its hegemony and would use its military to prevent any country from becoming greater than we are.

"Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators can deliver those weapons on missiles.... If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long." Ignoring history (containment worked with such lunatics as Mao and Stalin) Bush is making a case for perpetual war.

How did this happen? Buchanan argues that Bush's inexperience and ignorance of foreign policy permitted the neoconservatives to hijack his foreign policy Buchana goes on with a more traditional (for him) jeremiad against free trade that he (and Ralph Nader - now there's a ticket) will lead to a us become a non-industrial low-paying service center economy unable to compete.

While I have rarely been in agreement with Buchanan, this time he got it right.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Can someone please explain to me why the Big Ten has eleven members?

And the phrase "we need to save the planet" seems the height of arrogance and hubris. As if nature needed saving by a bunch of recent little pipsqueaks to the planet who can't manage to save themselves. The earth has been around for billions of years; humans, in our present form for barely 100,000, and industrialized for no more than 200 years. If we blew ourselves up tomorrow, nature/the planet would barely notice. Those who use that phrase simply want to have a new environment to drive around in their Volvos.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

It's time to bring evidence-based drug testing back.

The New York Times Book Review (November 14, 2004) reviews two books that savage the current process used to bring drugs to market: The Truth about the Drug Companies by Marcis Angell, and Powerful Medicines by Jerry Avorn. We've all sat in the doctor's office, waiting while expertly coiffed drug salespersons deliver their free drug samples and sales pitch to our physicians. Unfortunately the information and samples they provide are most likely not the result of adequate testing. We're beginning to see the results as drugs are being pulled off the market for unrecognized harmful side-effects and several lawsuits have been settled or are pending against pharmaceutical companies for fraud, price gouging, or withholding information about deleterious drug effects.

Industry expenses for marketing have been estimated at about $54 billion, just about twice what they spend on research and development. It's unfortunate that much of it goes to getting a penis to stand up rather than better flu vaccine, but perhaps that reveals our own priorities.

Only 133 of the 415 new drugs approved by the F.D.A from 1998 to 2002 were actually "new molecular entities" and of those only 14 percent were considered by the agency to be "a significant improvement" over existing drugs. The other problem lies in the way drugs are tested. Ideally, evidence-based medicine would use randomized clinical trials to determine which drugs are safe and effective. Instead the marketplace has been used to judge the value of pharmaceuticals. One recommendation has been to create an independent national institute to test drugs and judge their worth. Given the drug companies' power, I suspect Hell would freeze over first.

The future of democracy in the Middle East lies with religious Muslims. That's the premise of What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building by Noah Feldman

Feldman was sent by the Bush administration in 2003 to help the Iraqis create a constitution. Uniquely qualified, despite his liberal Democrat background, he could speak and write Arabic fluently. He also had an abiding belief in the inherent compatibility of Islam and democracy. In an earlier book, After Jihad, he had made the case that Muslims desire democracy and they should therfore be giving the chance to govern themselves. He also believes the United States and Europe have been mistaken in supporting authoritarian governments. Let's not forget the CIA was involved in the overthrow of a nascent democracy in Iran in 1953 that resulted in the Shah coming to power, ultimately resulting in the hostage crisis under Jimmy Carter. Islamic terrorists have "long been motivated by their grievances against the authoritarian states in which they live." We in the West have always sacrificed our ostensible values for short-term allies.

The basic first step of any occupying power is to provide security and in that the U.S. has failed rather miserably. Not having enough troops on the ground to prevent looting following the invasion, the U.S., Feldman suggests, showed that they were not in charge. The result has been anarchy. Feldman remains optimistic. I, less so. Unfortunately, we have broken the pot; now we have to pay for it.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

I love John McPhee's writings (currently reading Founding Fish) so I was very pleased to see a new article in the November 15, 2004 New Yorker.

The Illinois River is third in freight carried, following the Mississippi and the Ohio. It's a relatively straight river except for some "corkscrew" bends near Pekin. The barges that navigate the Illinois can be huge. The Billy Joe Boling that McPhee is riding (some people get all the fun) is pushing a toe longer than the new Queen Mary 2 , the longest ocean liner ever built. Maneuvering such a "vessel" takes skill and sang-froid. At its widest point, this collection of barges and towboat is four times longer than the river's 300 foot width. The Illinois is an autocthonous river (a word I learned from Founding Fish but will probably forget) beginning not far from Chicago.

This particular barge string has fifteen barges wired together carrying pig iron, steel and fertilizer. The ones with pig iron appear empty, but the iron is so heavy and the river channel only nine feet deep at its minimum, that the barges can only be loaded to about 10 per cent of capacity. The steel cable holding the barges together is about an inch thick and the deck hands need to constantly monitor the tension of the wire.. The barges and tug at the stern become almost a rigid unit. The pilot has to steer this mass carefully between railroad bridge pilings and other obstructions. The pilot "is steering the Queen Mary up an undersized river and he is luxuriating in six feet of clearnace." Meanwhile at the stern, behind the stern rail of the towboat, only ten feet away, is the riverbank. This assumes no unusual current changes.

On the Mississippi, a tow can consists of as many as forty-nine barges and be two hundred and fifty feet wide. When they arrive at the Illinois, the consist needs to be broken up into smaller groups. Just by way of comparison, a fifteen barge tow can carry as much as 870 eighteen wheelers on the highway.

All captains have to start as deckhands, and it's not unstressful. One physician who had been asked to study how pilots and captains handled stress, had to leave the boat because he couldn't handle the stress. The river is rarely empty and you can count on being approached by another thousand-foot tow coming at you down the river. Downstream tows always have the right of way. Hold spots, where a tow can be headed into the bank to wait for a downstream tow to pass, are plotted ahead of time and serve like railroad sidings. There is no dispatcher and the captains call traffic themselves announcing their location.

A large tow will burn about one gallon each two hundred feet or twenty-four hundred gallons of diesel fuel per day. Measured by fuel consumed per ton-mile, barges are "two and a half times more efficient than a freight train, nearly nine times more efficient than a truck."

There aren't too many locks on the Illinois as the river drops only about ninety feet, but watching a tow go through one can provide hours of entertainment. I remember sitting at the lock across from Starved Rock State Park as a long tow broke into two sections to get through the lock.

Unfortunately, pleasure boat operators being "ignorant, ignorant, ignorant," accidents happen. Much like train engineers, towboat captains fear boaters who won't get out of the way. It's impossible to steer around a small boat and the prop wash and propeller suction can be lethal to the unwary.

A fascinating article.
"Le Monde" is not, by the anxious standards of American journalism, exhaustively reported; French journalists tend to think that there are more interesting things to do in life than to pester some politician or official that has never said anything interesting in the first place for one more quote." Here, here!
New Yorker, November 15, 2004

Saturday, November 13, 2004

A couple of articles in German newspapers reflect caustically on the recent American election. Both link Bush's success to American biblical fervor. In most of the country, reports Der Spiegel, it's impossible to turn the radio dial (always better to listen to a good audio book) "without stumbling across a 24-hour prayer station." The Suddeutsche Zeitung argues Americans are simply reverting to their Puritanical roots, "they value linearity and firmness," eschewing nuance and balance. "Difficult problems must be solved simply. " Ideology has little to do with, it's just that the subleties of liberalism and the complexities of the real world are incomprehensible to most Americans.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Richard Nixon said during the Kennedy Nixon campaign that "America cannot stand pat," apparently forgetting that was his wife's name. (New Yorker, November 8, 2004)

In the same issue of the New Yorker there is an interesting article that uses The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson and In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien to discuss how our attitudes have changed toward trauma and the ability of people to adjust to it. The author argues that we are much more resilient than current conventional wisdom proclaims. "Most people just plain cope well. The vast majority of people get over traumatic events, and get over them remarkably well. Only a small subset -- five to fifteen per cent -- struggle in a way that says they need help."
For an excellent review of the health care problems we face in this country see Critical Condition: How Health Care Became Big Business--and Bad Medicine by Donald Bartlett and James Steele. Those who blindly speak of what a wonderful system we have should wonder why the life expectancy in this country is going down and is lower than in many other countries where they have some kind of single payer plan like Canada, Japan, Greece, France, Germany, etc.

The authors suggest the problems lie in changes that were made in the 80's under Reagan when an attempt was made to bring costs under control by applying market principles. The problem with that is health care is different than buying and selling widgets. In most businesses you achieve profitability by selling more stuff; a good medical system should not rely on selling more treatments, rather preventing their necessity. Just-in-time inventory principles that work well with car parts are not good at keeping essential surgical supplies on hand when one does not know when they will be needed. When they are it is essential they be in the inventory.

In a market based system doctors are rewarded for the number of procedure's they do, not for keeping patients from needing those procedures or how healthy someone stays. Specialists are rewarded more generously and the family practitioner is becoming a rarity who doesn't make much money in any case. Should it be necessary for parents and friends to have bake sales and fund raisers to finance care for a very sick child. We, as a society, are going to have to decide whether medicine should be a profit center or a Samaritan effort.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

As a huge fan of the Hardy Boys series in my youth, I was dismayed to learn in later years that the series was not the work of an individual but of a minor industry. A recent article in The New Yorker (November 8, 2004) provides even more information. Apparently, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, and many other series were the brainchild of Edward Stratemeyer (see also). Typically, librarians were appalled by the concept and they rarely appeared in libraries, considering them tawdry (!) and sensationalist (heavens!), robbing the children of the opportunity to read books of moral value. Some educators argued years later that the books became "stepping-stones" to more sophisticated literature (certainly true on my case.) Some librarians of my acquaintance still have trouble buying books that might actually be entertaining. I loved Tom Swift and the Hardy brothers.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Does it frighten you that a recent report of the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security that 161 of 504 approved air marshal applicants had problems in their background that should have eliminated them from consideration? Between February 2002 and October 2003 there were 753 incidents of misconduct by air marshals including having some who's weapon was lost or stolen. Makes me feel a lot safer. (Atlantic, December 2004)

Monday, November 08, 2004

Now that we have attacked Fallujah, I'd like to ask the newly re-elected president just how many US casualties Iraq is worth, 1,500, 5,000, 10,000? Vietnam required 56,000 dead Americans before we realized the futility of it all. It's nice to know that we can always win over the hearts and minds of Iraqis by flattening their homes. If I were an insurgent -- nice euphemism -- I'd melt into another town and come back later. Why they can't see that just demonstrates the administration's myopia.
An article by James Fallows in the October, 2004 Atlantic about admissions policies at elite universities evoked a fascinating letter from a "$300,000-plus-tuition-paying mom." She argues that 1.) colleges need to come in different flavors and their marketing seems always to advocate great student-teacher ratios, etc., That her children have usually only one professor per year they enjoy and that we need teachers who can inspire and engage students; 2.) colleges need to be less like country clubs, "telling them they can study while others pick up their garbage is something I'd never do at home;" 3.) use personality tests rather than SATs, as students need to be pointed in realistic directions; 4.) advisors are too much like chaperones, they need to "earn their keep," who need to be more aware of options in the real world; 5.) create more real-world contact such as internships, community outreach and neighborhood partnerships. My criticism of the article would be that Fallows -- whom I always enjoy -- has difficulty seeing beyond the Ivy League.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Given the vitriol of the 2004 debacle, otherwise called an election, it is useful to remind ourselves that little is new. I read America Afire by Bernard Weisberg a couple of years ago, and most recently Adams v Jefferson by John Ferling. Both document the campaign of 1800 that resulted in the election being thrown into the House of Representatives. The campaign was ugly. War service of the candidates was an issue then as now, with opponents reminding the electorate (white property owners only then) that Thomas Jefferson had sat out the revolution at home in Monticello. Thomas Jefferson had hired James Callender, a British immigrant to write anti-Adams essays. "Calumny dripped from Callender's pen." Jefferson bankrolled many anti-Adams journalists. He unsparingly "flayed Washington," who, he claimed, had wanted to be a dictator, called Hamilton the "Judas Iscariot of our country," and called Adams a war mongerer and "poor old man who is in his dotage." The Federalists under Adams were no better. Callender was arrested and charged under the Alien and Sedition Acts -- and we thought the USA Patriot Act was bad -- passed during the Adams' administration. Callender later turned on Jefferson when he was not awarded a plum political post in addition ot his monetary rewards. He then went on the dig up the story of Jefferson's affair with Sally Hemmings, a charge that seems now not to have been true, the DNA evidence being somewhat inconclusive given the number of other Jefferson males in the area although I suppose the jury is still out in some minds. (see a summary here.) But I digress, the only point being that campaigns in the early 18th century were often more bitter than those today.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

What's the difference between Iraq and Vietnam? Bush had a plan to get out of Vietnam.

Colin Powell, when asked how he knew for sure there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, replied, "I know because we still have the receipts."

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Christopher Dickey is the Middle East correspondant for Newsweek. His columns are insightful and always interesting. Links to them can be found at his website:

Some new quotes:

"'Sixty Minutes' is a soap opera about people pretending to be reporters."
Barry Lando

"I read the Book of Job last night -- I don't think God comes well out of it."
Virginia Woolf

"The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."
John Adams, 1797.