Tuesday, December 13, 2005

America's Failing Grades on Infrastructure

The American Society of Civil Engineers, not known for being especially radical in outlook, has released its report card on the condition of America's infrastructure: our roads, bridges, energy grid, schools, etc. The grades are extremely low and falling. If the U.S. infrastructure were a student, the flunk out notice would already have been delivered.


Friday, December 09, 2005

Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless...also very clever

Harold Pinter's lecture, "Art, Truth and Politics," presented by video
link as he received the Nobel Prize for literature, is well worth reading.

Here's an excerpt from the middle section of his talk.

* * * * * * * * * *

"The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right
wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second
World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay,
Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course,
Chile. The horror the United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can
never be purged and can never be forgiven.

Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries.
Did they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US
foreign policy? The answer is yes they did take place and they are
attributable to American foreign policy. But you wouldn't know it.

It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it
wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of
the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless,
but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it
to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power
worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It's a
brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.

I put to you that the United States is without doubt the greatest show
on the road. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be but it
is also very clever. As a salesman it is out on its own and its most
saleable commodity is self love. It's a winner. Listen to all American
presidents on television say the words, 'the American people', as in the
sentence, 'I say to the American people it is time to pray and to defend
the rights of the American people and I ask the American people to trust
their president in the action he is about to take on behalf of the
American people.'

It's a scintillating stratagem. Language is actually employed to keep
thought at bay. The words 'the American people' provide a truly
voluptuous cushion of reassurance. You don't need to think. Just lie
back on the cushion. The cushion may be suffocating your intelligence
and your critical faculties but it's very comfortable. This does not
apply of course to the 40 million people living below the poverty line
and the 2 million men and women imprisoned in the vast gulag of prisons,
which extends across the US."

* * * * * * *
The text and video of the lecture can be found here.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Members of the American public ponder George W. Bush's latest defense of his "policy" on the Iraq war.

Hey, this guy makes Richard Nixon look good, says a New York Times editorial, 12/01/05.


We've seen it before: an embattled president so swathed in his inner circle that he completely loses touch with the public and wanders around among small knots of people who agree with him. There was Lyndon Johnson in the 1960's, Richard Nixon in the 1970's, and George H. W. Bush in the 1990's. Now it's his son's turn.

It has been obvious for months that Americans don't believe the war is going just fine, and they needed to hear that President Bush gets that. They wanted to see that he had learned from his mistakes and adjusted his course, and that he had a measurable and realistic plan for making Iraq safe enough to withdraw United States troops. Americans didn't need to be convinced of Mr. Bush's commitment to his idealized version of the war. They needed to be reassured that he recognized the reality of the war.

Instead, Mr. Bush traveled 32 miles from the White House to the Naval Academy and spoke to yet another of the well-behaved, uniformed audiences that have screened him from the rest of America lately. If you do not happen to be a midshipman, you'd have to have been watching cable news at midmorning on a weekday to catch him.

The address was accompanied by a voluminous handout entitled "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," which the White House grandly calls the newly declassified version of the plan that has been driving the war. If there was something secret about that plan, we can't figure out what it was. The document, and Mr. Bush's speech, were almost entirely a rehash of the same tired argument that everything's going just fine. Mr. Bush also offered the usual false choice between sticking to his policy and beating a hasty and cowardly retreat.

On the critical question of the progress of the Iraqi military, the president was particularly optimistic, and misleading. He said, for instance, that Iraqi security forces control major areas, including the northern and southern provinces and cities like Najaf. That's true if you believe a nation can be built out of a change of clothing: these forces are based on party and sectarian militias that have controlled many of these same areas since the fall of Saddam Hussein but now wear Iraqi Army uniforms. In other regions, the most powerful Iraqi security forces are rogue militias that refuse to disarm and have on occasion turned their guns against American troops, like Moktada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

Mr. Bush's vision of the next big step is equally troubling: training Iraqi forces well enough to free American forces for more of the bloody and ineffective search-and-destroy sweeps that accomplish little beyond alienating the populace.

What Americans wanted to hear was a genuine counterinsurgency plan, perhaps like one proposed by Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., a leading writer on military strategy: find the most secure areas with capable Iraqi forces. Embed American trainers with those forces and make the region safe enough to spend money on reconstruction, thus making friends and draining the insurgency. Then slowly expand those zones and withdraw American forces.

Americans have been clamoring for believable goals in Iraq, but Mr. Bush stuck to his notion of staying until "total victory." His strategy document defines that as an Iraq that "has defeated the terrorists and neutralized the insurgency"; is "peaceful, united, stable, democratic and secure"; and is a partner in the war on terror, an integral part of the international community, and "an engine for regional economic growth and proving the fruits of democratic governance to the region."

That may be the most grandiose set of ambitions for the region since the vision of Nebuchadnezzar's son Belshazzar, who saw the hand writing on the wall. Mr. Bush hates comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq. But after watching the president, we couldn't resist reading Richard Nixon's 1969 Vietnamization speech. Substitute the Iraqi constitutional process for the Paris peace talks, and Mr. Bush's ideas about the Iraqi Army are not much different from Nixon's plans - except Nixon admitted the war was going very badly (which was easier for him to do because he didn't start it), and he was very clear about the risks and huge sacrifices ahead.

A president who seems less in touch with reality than Richard Nixon needs to get out more.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Chemical Spill in Harbin, China -- "bad" facts denied by authorities

An explosion and major chemical spill last week near city of Harbin, China sent one hundred tons of benzene and other toxic chemical into the Songhua River from which Harbin and other towns and cities in the region take their drinking water. For days following the accident, local and national officials denied that anything dangerous had happened. A friend of mine, Prof. D. Wang, teaches philosophy at the Harbin University of Science and Technology and sent the following observations (reprinted with permission).

"Generally speaking, everything here has not been going too bad these days, thanks to plenty of water mobilized to this city in time. Certainly, a panic spread at the beginning of the accident. All middle and primary schools in the city have been closed until 30th this month, and some people had departed in panic with the rumor of forthcoming earthquake around Harbin. The day before yesterday, the city's water supply system has run again, but it was noticed that the water could not be drunk until the next noticement releases. Now it seems that everything will go as usual from tommorrow.

"The accident has drawn much attention not only of the people in this country but foreign governments and people as well. The case highlights how failures of such a social-technological system could result a public crisis in such a country in which the "bad" facts are often disguised by interested parties. Many comments on the issue in BBS of my university has been given to such topics as inadequate site of the chemical plant, disguise of the disaster information, lack of a reaction mechanism of public crisis, and so on. Knowing the thing could be otherwise if there were robust political arrangements in advance, people are looking forward to substantial improvements resulted from the accident.

"The long range outcomes need to be carefully observed, and the event surely is a good example showing the political aspect of technology and engineering."

* * * * *

[Of course, we have many similar problems in the USA at present -- a government that does not want to pay attention to "bad" facts. The whole situation in Iraq is one example, along with the Bush administration response to Hurricane Katrina. An unfortunate trend in the early 21st century is the attempt to impose political will over recalcitrant facts. - LW]

Here's a later, more hopeful comment from Prof. Wang.

"There is good news to tell you. My city's water system began to run as usual in the morning yesterday (some areas in the day before yesterday), and tap water could be used in safety, namely, up to the national standards of drinking water. In addition, I was told that a new water supplying system would be built up next year, using water in a dam tens miles away from the city rather than polluted water of the Songhua River (e.g., fishes in the river could have rarely been taken as food due to Hg contamination since the early 1980s). In fact, the national drinking water standard of China itself is one of the sources of problems, which issued in 1985, far behind the standards of the States or Europe. It was said that new standards could possibly be issued by the end of this year. I am not sure whether the Harbin Accident may speedup the birth of the new standards or not. But it is certain that the standard itself has to be a social and political product."

Thursday, October 06, 2005

For torture, but against the arts and humanities: an emerging pattern?

In a bold move presumably based upon deeply held principles, nine U.S. senators voted against imposing limits upon ways of interrogating prisoners detained in Iraq and elsewhere. Here's the list of those who gave their hearty support to torture:

Allard (R-CO)
Bond (R-MO)
Coburn (R-OK)
Cochran (R-MS)
Cornyn (R-TX)
Inhofe (R-OK)
Roberts (R-KS)
Sessions (R-AL)
Stevens (R-AK)

In a related move, an advisory panel of 100 Republican members of the House of Representatives called for an end to all funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). The same group, The Republican Study Committee, has also called for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). I could not find the full list of the legislative anti-humanists, but presenting the current proposal were:

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.)
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas)

[Suggested reading for both stories: Eugene Ionesco, The Rhinoceros]

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Intelligent design -- not working well in the U.S.A.?

If the Creator is beneficently leading the world onward and upward to a more "intelligent design," he/she seems to have dropped the ball in the U.S. A study on the prevalence of religious belief in various societies to important measures of well-being in those societies suggests that America is falling behind nations where faith in God is less heavily hyped. The idea that strong relious beliefs are the foundation of a good society seems questionnable, and not just in the headlines about rampant corruption among sanctimonious fundamentalist "Christians" in the Bush administration. Here's the story from The Times Online

* * * * * *
Societies worse off 'when they have God on their side'
By Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent

RELIGIOUS belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to research published today.

According to the study, belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems.

The study counters the view of believers that religion is necessary to provide the moral and ethical foundations of a healthy society.

It compares the social peformance of relatively secular countries, such as Britain, with the US, where the majority believes in a creator rather than the theory of evolution. Many conservative evangelicals in the US consider Darwinism to be a social evil, believing that it inspires atheism and amorality.

Many liberal Christians and believers of other faiths hold that religious belief is socially beneficial, believing that it helps to lower rates of violent crime, murder, suicide, sexual promiscuity and abortion. The benefits of religious belief to a society have been described as its “spiritual capital”. But the study claims that the devotion of many in the US may actually contribute to its ills.

The paper, published in the Journal of Religion and Society, a US academic journal, reports: “Many Americans agree that their churchgoing nation is an exceptional, God-blessed, shining city on the hill that stands as an impressive example for an increasingly sceptical world.

“In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies.

“The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so.”

Gregory Paul, the author of the study and a social scientist, used data from the International Social Survey Programme, Gallup and other research bodies to reach his conclusions.

He compared social indicators such as murder rates, abortion, suicide and teenage pregnancy.

The study concluded that the US was the world’s only prosperous democracy where murder rates were still high, and that the least devout nations were the least dysfunctional. Mr Paul said that rates of gonorrhoea in adolescents in the US were up to 300 times higher than in less devout democratic countries. The US also suffered from “ uniquely high” adolescent and adult syphilis infection rates, and adolescent abortion rates, the study suggested.

Mr Paul said: “The study shows that England, despite the social ills it has, is actually performing a good deal better than the USA in most indicators, even though it is now a much less religious nation than America.”

He said that the disparity was even greater when the US was compared with other countries, including France, Japan and the Scandinavian countries. These nations had been the most successful in reducing murder rates, early mortality, sexually transmitted diseases and abortion, he added.

Mr Paul delayed releasing the study until now because of Hurricane Katrina. He said that the evidence accumulated by a number of different studies suggested that religion might actually contribute to social ills. “I suspect that Europeans are increasingly repelled by the poor societal performance of the Christian states,” he added.

He said that most Western nations would become more religious only if the theory of evolution could be overturned and the existence of God scientifically proven. Likewise, the theory of evolution would not enjoy majority support in the US unless there was a marked decline in religious belief, Mr Paul said.

“The non-religious, proevolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator.

“The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted.”

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Virtual War: We get 'em coming and going!

Although declining recruitment figures indicate that the tactic hasn't been working very well recently, the U.S. military has been using an sophisticated first person shooter video game, "America's Army," as a way to attract young men to sign up. Now it comes to light that video games are being used at the other end of the military experience, when soldiers leave the service and have to deal with the horrors of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Here's the story from the increasing non-plused NPR on this new form of therapy. Note the Owellian title of the research firm involved.

"Using components from the popular game Full Spectrum Warrior, psychologist Skip Rizzo and his colleagues have fashioned a "virtual" world that simulates the sources of combat stress.

The project is a joint venture between the Institute for Creative Technologies -- a cutting-edge research lab at the University of Southern California -- and the Office of Naval Research. The object is to help veterans come to terms with what they've experienced in places like Iraq and Afghanistan by immersing vets in the sights and sounds of those theaters of battle.

The soldier being treated wears VR goggles and headphones. Using a tablet-based interface, a therapist can activate or remove the sounds of gunshots or the sight of smoke, depending on a patient's reaction. The idea is to re-introduce the patients to the experiences that triggered the trauma, gradually, until the memory no longer incapacitates them.

Eventually, Rizzo believes the therapy will include other stimuli, such as vibrations to simulate the impact of bombs or rumbling of tanks, and even the smells of war -- the body odor, garbage and spices of urban combat, for example.

Early results from trials suggest virtual reality therapy is uniquely suited to a generation raised on video games. . . . ."

* * * * * * *
[Uniquely suited, indeed. Here's the roadmap: from virtual shooting gallery to real shooting gallery back to the virtual shooting gallery. This is how America prepares its best and brightest for the challenges of contemporary life. - LW]

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Chris Gibson: thinker, raconteur, restless soul, friend to many (1954-2005)

He was the most intense person I've ever known, someone who could talk with you for hours and hours on end about an amazingly wide range of topics -- music, philosophy, religion, politics, you name it. In my home town of San Luis Obispo, California, Chris Gibson became a local character, a friend to many who visited his "office hours" outside the downtown Starbucks, enjoying his insights and incisive wit.

When I met him in the late 1960s Chris was recovering from a serious motor cycle acident. He was fascinated by the equisite clarity of Wittgenstein's philosophy and the pure sound of the classic tracker pipe organs, especially the way Helmut Walcha played J.S. Bach organ concertos. He hoped to travel to Europe to become an organ craftsman, a quest for spritual and practical fulfillment that was, alas, never realized. Instead, Chris worked as a fisherman in Alaska, carpenter in Central California, groundskeeper, and occasional writer of unpublished pieces roughly in the vein of Bukowski, but even more direct and brutally honest. Perhaps he should be remembered as the godfather of nanotechnology, for his Bullshit Detector was sensitive right down to the smallest, sub-molecular particle.

Chris Gibson died in a freak accident in Cayucos on July 26. Jeff McMahon has written a fine tribute to Chris in Contrary Magazine. The same issue contains a piece of Gibson's writing, "The Wages of Insomnia," which he described as follows:

"Remember that I wrote that thing without any sleep and it does have something to say but be forewarned that there is also a strong sense of beating a bush with a stick to prove you can't go around it in there."

(The photo above was taken by Sevastian Roberts a day or so before Chris died.)

Saturday, August 13, 2005

A truly democratic technology in action

Using digital cameras and streaming video on the Internet, one of the participants prepared a portrait of the situation at Camp Casey near Crawford, Texas, where supporters of Cindy Sheehan have gathered. The whole video is about a half hour long.

This sure as hell beats the nattering cynicism of the cable TV coverage and commentary about this event. Are we seeing a contemporary Peace Woodstock of sorts?

Monday, August 08, 2005

Parents speak out on (the latest) war

Cindy Sheehan’s vigil in Crawford, Texas renews questions about why America has gone to war in Iraq. Her son, Casey, 24, was killed in combat in Baghdad in April 2004. Sheehan’s requests for an audience with George W. Bush to discuss the purposes of the American occupation have been rebuffed the President and administration officials.

The story reminds me of an experience from my past. Working as a student intern at the Pentagon during the summer of 1967, I took a lunch break to watch a ceremony presenting a Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously to a Vietnam War soldier who had died heroically in battle. Two military bands played, including one in Revolutionary War costume, and cannons fired several volleys. Civilian and military bigwigs gathered on the steps of the fortress to drone their solemn speeches. The father of the young man received the medal, thanking the government officials for recognizing his son’s valor. Much to their chagrin, however, he added that he was not certain his son had died for a good cause. As I recall, he spoke with Congressmen about his doubts later that afternoon. His comments brought a storm of controversy in the press and on television. The country was just then beginning to wonder whether or not the war and its costs were justified.

Have we reached a similar turning point in public sentiments about Iraq?

Monday, August 01, 2005

Beyond Alan Sokal -- the randomly generated science paper!

In the grand tradition of hoaxes and spoofs, a field of excellence that holds a special place in the heart of this Masked Marauder and Automatic Professor, there has been an interesting breakthrough. Three graduate students at MIT submitted a paper to a computer science conference, one randomly generated by a computer program. Here are excerpts from The Chronicle of Higher Education story by Andrea L. Foster, "Students Whose Phony Paper Brought a Conference Invitation Are Stars of Their Own Video."

"Three Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate students attracted a flurry of media attention in April after a questionable academic conference accepted their randomly-generated, nonsensical paper. Now the students are stars of a lighthearted video they made when they went to the conference even though their invitations had been withdrawn.

"The three -- Jeremy A. Stribling, Maxwell Krohn, and Daniel Aguayo -- are computer-science students studying parallel and distributed operating systems. The organizer of the conference, called the Ninth World Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics, and Informatics, had initially invited them to attend after accepting their phony paper, which was titled "Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy."

".... During their technical session, the students filmed themselves presenting three meaningless, jargon-laden papers written by the computer program they had created. For additional verisimilitude, the students assumed fake names and donned wigs and mustaches while each presenting one of the three papers. The papers were "Harnessing Byzantine Fault Tolerance Using Classical Theory," "Synthesizing Checksums and Lambda Calculus Using Jog," and "On the Study of the Ethernet.""

* * * *
Here's a site where you can download the video of the session, complete with a lachrymose musical soundtrack. The quality is right up there with the Yes Men satires. Alas, the link to the story is short term because the Chronicle requires subcriptions.

Friday, July 22, 2005

"That's not an alien tripod! It's the the Lafarge cement plant burning TIRES!"

Much of the fire and smoke shown in Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" happens in the lovely town of Athens, New York on the Hudson River. It's the place where the ferry boat is attacked by alien tripods. While all that smoke vanishes at the film's conclusion, some much more noxious fumes are being planned for an old, decrepit cement plant in nearby Revena. The Larfarge company proposes to kock a hole in the smokestack and burn about 5 million tires a year. Since I live downwind from the stack, I'm concerned, as are many of my neighbors in Columbia, Greene and Rensselaer Counties. Smelled any burning tires recently? (There's no end to the ambitious, money-making ideas for destroying the region and our lungs.)

Here's the story on Lafarge from the Albany Times Union, 7/22/05.

Cement plant pares plans to burn tires
Public comment sought as state reviews Lafarge's application

By Patrick Cain
Special to the Times Union

ALBANY--After two years of reviews and revisions Lafarge North America has
filed a new application with the state Department of Environmental
Conservation to burn 4.8 million tires annually at its Ravena cement plant.

The next step is to collect public sentiment as part of the approval
process. The proposal is open to public review until Sept. 2.

The application for a permit is available in the Albany office of DEC, and
in the libraries of Ravena and Castleton, which is downwind of the plant. A
public information session on the application is scheduled at 7pm, Aug. 4,
at the A.W. Becker Elementary School, 1146 Route 9W, Selkirk.

"People need to let us know what they think of the application," said
William J. Clarke, Department of Environmental Conservation region-4 permit

Comments can be submitted to Clarke, NYSDEC Region 4 Headquarters, 1150 N.
Westcott Road, Schenectady, NY 12306 or emailed to r4dep@gw.dec.state.ny.us.

Earlier this year the company filed an application to burn 6 million tires
but has since lowered its request. If passed, the 4.8 million tires would
reduce the amount of coal and coke burned by 35,000 tons and serve as 20
percent of the energy used at the plant.

Friends of Hudson, the 4,000-member group that mobilized against St.
Lawrence Cement plant's proposal in Columbia County, are taking aim against
Lafarge because of environmental concerns.

Global warming? What me worry?

Scientist says humans cause global warming

Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, testified to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this week, arguing that global warming is real and a consequence of human activity.

"Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now at its highest level in 400,000 years and it continues to rise," said Cicerone, an atmospheric scientist who left as chancellor of University of California-Irvine to become academy president this month. "Nearly all climate scientists today believe that much of Earth's current warming has been caused by increases in the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, mostly from the burning of fuels."

* * * * * * * *
[Who do these scientists think they are anyway, using systematic observation, scientific theory and critical thought to question the cherished beliefs of George W. Bush? And what is this "National Academy," some kind of liberal advocacy outfit? Perhaps some Rove style intimidation (cut their research funding?) will bring these guys back to the yellow cake truth as revealed to our great leader. - LW]

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Ethanol: A good liquid fuel alternative?

A new study by ecologist David Pimintel at Cornell (shown above) and engineering prof. Tad Patzek of U.C. Berkeley indicates that "There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel....These strategies are not sustainable." Their method involves calculating the energy inputs used in producing fuels from corn, switch grass and other kinds of biomass. On that basis, more energy is expended than produced.

It's been more than more than thirty years since the "energy crisis" of the 1970s and we still have not achieved much clarity about how to evaluate proposals for alternative energy.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Terrorism and engineering education

A peculiar wrinkle from investigations on the London bombings is speculation that terrorists have been recruiting young technical professionals in the UK. If nothing else, this reinforces the need to teach engineers and IT students skills of open-minded, critical thinking along with the powerful technical disciplines they learn. If, in fact, members of al-Quaeda has spotted this Achilles heel within modern higher education, they are even more clever than we’d suspected.

From “Leaked No 10 dossier reveals Al-Qaeda’s British recruits,” by Robert Winnett and David Leppard in the Times OnLine:

AL-QAEDA is secretly recruiting affluent, middle-class Muslims in British universities and colleges to carry out terrorist attacks in this country, leaked Whitehall documents reveal.

A network of “extremist recruiters” is circulating on campuses targeting people with “technical and professional qualifications”, particularly engineering and IT degrees.

Yesterday it emerged that last week’s London bombings were a sophisticated attack with all the devices detonating on the Underground within 50 seconds of each other. The police believe those behind the outrage may be home-grown British terrorists with no criminal backgrounds and possessing technical expertise.

A joint Home Office and Foreign Office dossier — Young Muslims and Extremism — prepared for the prime minister last year, said Britain might now be harbouring thousands of Al-Qaeda sympathisers. . . . .

* * * * * *
[While we're at it, why not throw in a class or two on basic ethics, perhaps discussing upon the moral depravity of killing innocent civilians. Of course, this question would be equally relevant for those now in charge at the Pentagon and White House. - LW]

Monday, July 04, 2005

Strangling the "American Dream" -- important unreported news

Here via Xymphora are complementary stories about the death of the American Dream of education, jobs and prosperity and the rise of that dream elsewhere.

"Going numb as American dream fades away"

"Toyota to build 100,000 vehicles per year in Woodstock, Ont., starting 2008"

Stories of this sort used to be a major focus in the press and among progressive policians, but they are seldom mentioned these days (hey, let's talk about abortion, gay marriage, Michael Jackson, the latest abduction, etc.) The idea that they key to economic strength is tax breaks for the wealthy rather than strong social support for working people is a myth that, along with fantasies of empire, is rapidly erroding the economic, political and cultural fabric of the U.S.A.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

The Live 8 agenda questioned

The millions of people who enjoyed the Live 8 concerts in person and on television yesterday were repeatedly urged to visit the organization's website and sign the ONE Declaration calling for action "to help the poorest people of the world overcome AIDS and extreme poverty." Although certainly informed by noble intentions, the policy approach outlined by Bob Geldol, Bono and their colleagues needs a close second look.

As George Mobiot points out in a recent essay, the exact terms for the debt relief proposed for African nations often comes with conditions that involve privatization and other neo-liberal "reforms" that could create more trouble than the debt itself. The spectacle of rock stars and movie idols making nice with the likes of Tony Blair and Georeg W. Bush, should give us pause. It may be that the world's poor are being sold down the river yet again, as the music plays on and we all cheer wildly.

Mobiot writes of the "two bards," Bono and Geldof:
"I understand the game they're playing. They believe that praising the world's most powerful men is more persuasive than criticising them. The problem is that in doing so they turn the political campaign developed by the global justice movement into a philanthropic one. They urge the G8 leaders to do more to help the poor. But they say nothing about ceasing to do harm....

"Listen to these men - Bush, Blair and their two bards - and you could forget that the rich nations had played any role in Africa's accumulation of debt, or accumulation of weapons, or loss of resources, or collapse in public services, or concentration of wealth and power by unaccountable leaders. Listen to them and you would imagine that the G8 was conceived as a project to help the world's poor.

"I have yet to read a statement by either rock star that suggests a critique of power. They appear to believe that a consensus can be achieved between the powerful and the powerless, that they can assemble a great global chorus of rich and poor to sing from the same sheet. They do not seem to understand that, while the G8 maintains its grip on the instruments of global governance, a shared anthem of peace and love is about as meaningful as the old Coca-Cola ad."

* * * * * * * *
[Of course, this is not the first time that rock and roll has been enlisted for grand ideals as critical thought was suspended. -- LW]

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Rocket science -- the new arms race in Iraq

Although the Bush administration tells us that the insurgency is dwindling and in its "last thoes," it turns out that its "thoes" include some new, more lethal bomb making techniques. From the New York Times:

June 22, 2005
Iraqi Rebels Refine Bomb Skills, Pushing Toll of G.I.'s Higher

WASHINGTON, June 21 - American casualties from bomb attacks in Iraq have reached new heights in the last two months as insurgents have begun to deploy devices that leave armored vehicles increasingly vulnerable, according to military records.

Last month there were about 700 attacks against American forces using so-called improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.'s, the highest number since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, according to the American military command in Iraq and a senior Pentagon military official. Attacks on Iraqis also reached unprecedented levels, Lt. Gen. John Vines, a senior American ground commander in Iraq, told reporters on Tuesday.

The surge in attacks, the officials say, has coincided with the appearance of significant advancements in bomb design, including the use of "shaped" charges that concentrate the blast and give it a better chance of penetrating armored vehicles, causing higher casualties.

Another change, a senior military officer said, has been the detonation of explosives by infrared lasers, an innovation aimed at bypassing electronic jammers used to block radio-wave detonators.

I.E.D.'s of all types caused 33 American deaths in May, and there have been at least 35 fatalities so far in June, the highest toll over a two-month period, according to statistics assembled by Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a Web site that tracks official figures. . . . .

The shaped charge explosion fires a projectile "at a very rapid rate, sufficient to penetrate certain levels of armor," General Conway said, adding that weapons employing shaped charges had caused American casualties in the last two months. He did not give details.

A Pentagon official involved in combating the devices said shaped charges seen so far appeared crude but required considerable expertise, suggesting insurgents were able to draw on well-trained bomb-makers, possibly even rocket scientists from the former government. Shaped charges and rocket engines are similar, the official said.

* * * * * * * * * * * *
[LW: At last, the light at the end of the tunnel -- a bomb blast!]

Friday, June 17, 2005

Botero paints scenes of Abu Ghraib

Columbian painter Fernando Botero has long painted the violence and suffering of political struggles in his home country. This week an exhibtion of his paintings opened in Rome, including an number of recent works that depict scenes of torture at Abu Ghraib. This link shows some of the paintings along with an interview with the artist in Spanish. Not for children or the faint of heart.

Here's a news story in English about the exhibit.

- Langdon

Software design for totalitarian regimes

A story in the L.A. Times notes the helpful role that a Microsoft program plays for the Chinese government. The Bill Gates people have agree to flag certain forbidden terms, discouraging Chinese people from using them. I suppose this qualifies as the next "moster app" (or is that "monstosity app"?).

* * * * *

As China Censors the Internet, Money Talks
By Mark Magnier and Joseph Menn, Times Staff Writers

BEIJING — Chinese bloggers using a new Microsoft service to post messages titled "democracy," "capitalism," "liberty" or "human rights" are greeted with a bright yellow warning.

"This message includes forbidden language," it scolds. "Please delete the prohibited expression."

The restrictions were agreed upon by Microsoft and its Chinese partner, the government-linked Shanghai Alliance Investment. The limits have sparked a debate here and in the online world about how free speech could be threatened when the world's most powerful software company forges an alliance with the largest Communist country.

Multinational companies from cigarette makers to baby formula companies routinely change their advertising and other corporate behavior to adapt to local laws. Experts say that Internet companies such as Microsoft are often the focus of controversy because their products are linked to free speech issues, and many rules governing blogs — or Web logs — and other electronic speech are evolving.

"There's a spectrum here," said Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and an author of a recent study on internet censorship in China. "It's one thing to provide a regime with steel, another to provide bullets, and another to serve as the executioner."

Executives with the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant argue that they are only following local laws and any disadvantage is outweighed by benefits users get from the company's services.

* * * * * * *

[LW: Of course, the same might have been said about the use of IBM equipment by the Nazi regime to facilitate the holocaust -- "any disadvantage is outweighed by benefits users get from the company's services."]

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Downing Street memo and other evidence that the Iraq War was based on bogus intelligence and political deceit

While the US Congress, the media and the general public remain oblivious, the British press and bloggers have done fine job shining a light on documentary evidence of what amounts to the greatest political fraud in American history. The best complilation can be found at Think Progress.

How much longer will people simply nod, smile, wave the flag, and look the other way? (The evidence mounts that the 9/11 attack left America without a central nervous system.)
Profiles in cowardice: Senators who did not co-sponsor the resolution apologizing for not passing anti-lynching laws

Lamar Alexander (R-TN)
Robert Bennett (R-UT)
Thad Cochran (R-MS)
John Cornyn (R-TX)
Michael Crapo (R-ID)
Michael Enzi (R-WY)
Chuck Grassley (R-IA)
Judd Gregg (R-NH)
Orrin Hatch (R-UT)
Kay Hutchison (R-TX)
Jon Kyl (R-AZ)
Trent Lott (R-MS)
Richard Shelby (R-AL)
John Sununu (R-NH)
Craig Thomas (R-WY)

Evidently, majority leader Bill Frist was the one who bravely refused to hold a roll call vote on the resolution, shielding the above group from having to vote publicly by name. The resolution was adopted by "unanimous consent."

What a group.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Dinosaurs on Noah's Ark?

To keep America safe from the theory of evolution and yet explain the embarrassing presence of ancient fossils, including dinosaur fossils, the creationists have arrived at an amusing re-telling of the story of Noah's ark.

"Why Do We Find Dinosaur Fossils?

In Genesis 6, we read that all flesh (man and animals) had 'corrupted his way upon the Earth' (Genesis 6:12). Perhaps people and animals were killing each other; maybe dinosaurs had started killing other animals and humans. In any case, the Bible describes the world as 'wicked.'

Because of this wickedness, God warned a godly man named Noah that He was going to destroy the world with a Flood (Genesis 6:13). God therefore commanded him to build a great ship (the Ark) so that all the kinds of land animals (which must have included dinosaurs) and Noah's family could survive on board while the Flood destroyed the entire Earth (Genesis 6:14-20). . . . .

God sent two of every (seven of some) land animal into the Ark (Genesis 7:2-3; 7:8-9)—there were no exceptions. Therefore, dinosaurs must have been on the Ark. Even though there was ample room in the huge ship for large animals, perhaps God sent young adults into the Ark that still had plenty of room for them to grow."

* * * * * *

It is too bad that since Yahoo has become the name for a web site, no one remembers Jonathan Swift's original designation for "Yahoo" in Gulliver's Travels. Evidently a lot of these creatures survived the flood as well.
When foxes run the hen house (greenhouse): a familiar Bush Administration tale

A NYT story, "Bush Aide Softened Greenhouse Gas Links to Global Warming," gives yet more evidence of the what passes for "science" policy advice in the puritan plutocracy of George W. Bush.

A White House official who once led the oil industry's fight against limits on greenhouse gases has repeatedly edited government climate reports in ways that play down links between such emissions and global warming, according to internal documents.

In handwritten notes on drafts of several reports issued in 2002 and 2003, the official, Philip A. Cooney, removed or adjusted descriptions of climate research that government scientists and their supervisors, including some senior Bush administration officials, had already approved. In many cases, the changes appeared in the final reports.

The dozens of changes, while sometimes as subtle as the insertion of the phrase "significant and fundamental" before the word "uncertainties," tend to produce an air of doubt about findings that most climate experts say are robust.

Mr. Cooney is chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the office that helps devise and promote administration policies on environmental issues. . . . .

* * * * * * * * * *

A good sign of a failing city or failing society: when people take out more than they put in. That seems consistently characteristic of the Bushies approach. - LW
"Grocery Store Wars" -- 0rganic food video satire

The Organic Trade Association has released an amusing satire, "Grocery Store Wars," that pits a cast of virtuous, organic vegetable characters against chemicalized figures from the "dark side of the farm."

An earlier video by the same animators, "The Meatrix," is also a hoot.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

No clear purpose for the "war on terror" -- Army War College states the obvious

An interesting report by Stephen D. Biddle of the Army War College points to the quagmire in Iraq and the total lack of purpose exhibited in U.S. policy making about the "war on terror."

American Grand Strategy After 9/11: An Assessment


In the three years since 9-11, the Administration has yet to arrive at a clear definition of the enemy or the aim in the War on Terrorism; to date, American policy has combined ambitious public statements with ambiguity on critical particulars. Heretofore, the costs of pursuing such ambitious but ill-defined goals have been high but tolerable. The ongoing insurgency in Iraq, however, is increasing the costs of grand strategic ambiguity to the point where fundamental choices can no longer be deferred. There are two broad alternatives for resolving these ambiguities and creating a coherent and logically sufficient grand strategy: rollback and containment. Rollback would retain the ambitious goals implicit in today’s declaratory policy and accept the cost and near-term risk inherent in pursuing them. Containment would settle for more modest goals in exchange for lower costs and lower near-term risks. Neither alternative dominates the other on analytical grounds – both involve serious costs as well as benefits. Most important, the choice between them turns on a series of basic value judgments on the acceptability of risk, the relationship between near-term and long-term risk, and the ultimate degree of security the Nation should seek.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Dancing in the streets of Hudson: a victory for democracy, community and environment in the Hudson Valley:
the stunning defeat of Saint Lawrence Cement’s Greenport Project

During the past six years I have joined thousands of friends and neighbors in Columbia County and the surrounding region in a tooth and nail fight against a proposal by Saint Lawrence Cement and its Swiss owned holding company, Holcim, to build a huge, $350 million coal fired cement plant near the city of Hudson in New York. Recently the state of New York weighed in, denying permits required for the building of this monstrosity. Now the company itself has pulled the plug, deciding not to appeal the decision.

When the plant was first announced in 1998 many people bought the company’s line that it was “a done deal” and “inevitable.” Fortunately, a small number of people, then a middle sized number and eventually many thousands replied: “Done deal? Who the hell says?” They gathered their forces, formed a strategy, raised money, attended hearings, held fund raisers, put up yard signs, talked to anyone who would listen, and, in general, did everything necessary to build a broad base of support and to put forth a reasonable message: the economy and environment of this region are already moving in a strong, prosperous “green” direction and would be seriously harmed by the building of the outsized, heavily polluting factory.

Soon I’ll write my thoughts here about this wonderful development and how it came to be. Basically, this has been the best conceived, best spirited and most effective social movement I’ve known. For now, I’ll simply post excerpts from two key stories – St. Lawrence Cement's press release on it’s decision to quit and last week’s decision by New York Secretary of State Randy Daniels, denying the company permits needed to for the project. The NYS decision is well worth reading, a strongly argued position that essentially endorses what Friends of Hudson and other groups have been saying all along.

Join the celebration!!!!

* * * * * * *

[Press release, today]

St. Lawrence Cement Withdraws from Permitting Process in Greenport, New York

Hudson, NY, April 24, 2005 - In 1998, St. Lawrence Cement embarked on the permitting process to build a two-million tonne cement plant in Greenport, New York. The US$353 million plant aimed at replacing its cement plant presently in operation in nearby Catskill and securing the additional capacity to replace offshore imports.

Altogether, 17 federal, state and local permits and approvals were needed before construction could begin. Among the required permits, the New York State Department of State (DOS) certification was key to qualify for other approvals. On April 19, 2005, St. Lawrence Cement received a negative determination from the DOS, which ruled that the proposed plant was inconsistent with the state’s Coastal Zone Policies. The project’s configuration, size and location, as proposed, would affect the state’s coastal areas in a manner which is inconsistent with the state’s coastal policies.

Following careful review of the impacts of the DOS decision, the Board of Directors of St. Lawrence Cement has decided not to appeal the DOS decision and to withdraw the proposed replacement cement plant in Greenport, New York, from the permitting process.

‘’I wish to sincerely thank our supporters for their continuous encouragement in this undertaking and our employees who dedicated their efforts to move this project forward,’’ said Philippe Arto, President and CEO of St. Lawrence Cement.

* * * * * * *

Albany Times Union

State rejects $350M cement plant, port
St. Lawrence proposal called detrimental to Hudson, Athens

By BRUCE A. SCRUTON, Staff writer
First published: Wednesday, April 20, 2005
ALBANY -- The state secretary of state has sunk plans for a multimillion-dollar cement plant and shipping port on the shores of the Hudson River, saying the project would ruin the economic rebound of Hudson and Athens.

The decision was released to St. Lawrence Cement Co., and some interested parties, after the close of business Tuesday. A copy of the 20-page decision was provided to the Times Union by Friends of Hudson, which opposed the project.

Daniel Odescalchi, a spokesman for St. Lawrence, said, "We're obviously disappointed" with the decision but noted "we do need to review this decision in detail" before deciding what to do next.

The Canadian-based company's options appear to be: drop the project, in which they have already invested about five years and $56 million; appeal the decision to the federal Department of Commerce; or address the concerns by submitting a retooled proposal.

But the language in the decision from Secretary of State Randy A. Daniels makes it clear there is little hope of getting a Hudson waterfront project approved.

"Rather than revitalize the waterfront, at its proposed scale, this shipping complex will dominate this and surrounding waterfront areas for the 50-60 year useful life of the industrial complex," Daniels wrote.

Because the Hudson River, up to Albany, is affected by tides, it is considered coastal and falls under federal regulations. The Department of Commerce has given states with coastlines the power to set management policies and have approval over projects on those shores.

Daniels said the project violates eight of the state's management policies, which cover areas such as visual impact, economic impact, noise levels and quality of life.

. . . .

Monday, April 04, 2005

Are things getting better? -- the idea of progress reconsidered

Which criteria would one use to decide? Which kinds of evidence? Which arguments could be offered to make a persuasive case?

The BBC takes note of a survey of scientists that finds future prospects rather dim.

"The most comprehensive survey ever into the state of the planet concludes that human activities threaten the Earth's ability to sustain future generations.

The report says the way society obtains its resources has caused irreversible changes that are degrading the natural processes that support life on Earth.

This will compromise efforts to address hunger, poverty and improve healthcare.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) was drawn up by 1,300 researchers from 95 nations over four years."

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Scientific American yields to Creationist/Intelligent Design pressures?

A tongue-in-cheek editorial in the current Scientific American delivers a smashing critique of the blather about “balance” that is now the battering ram of the anti-science, creationist, fundamentalist forces now pressuring schools, textbook publishers, and anyone else gullible enough to take this propaganda campaign seriously.

Here’s a section from the magazine’s web page:

Okay, we give up
April 2005, by Staff Editor

There's no easy way to admit this. For years, helpful letter writers told us to stick to science. They pointed out that science and politics don't mix. They said we should be more balanced in our presentation of such issues as creationism, missile defense and global warming. We resisted their advice and pretended not to be stung by the accusations that the magazine should be renamed Unscientific American, or Scientific Unamerican, or even Unscientific Unamerican. But spring is in the air, and all of nature is turning over a new leaf, so there's no better time to say: you were right, and we were wrong.

In retrospect, this magazine's coverage of so-called evolution has been hideously one-sided. For decades, we published articles in every issue that endorsed the ideas of Charles Darwin and his cronies. True, the theory of common descent through natural selection has been called the unifying concept for all of biology and one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time, but that was no excuse to be fanatics about it. Where were the answering articles presenting the powerful case for scientific creationism? Why were we so unwilling to suggest that dinosaurs lived 6,000 years ago or that a cataclysmic flood carved the Grand Canyon? Blame the scientists. They dazzled us with their fancy fossils, their radiocarbon dating and their tens of thousands of peer-reviewed journal articles. As editors, we had no business being persuaded by mountains of evidence.

. . . . This magazine will be dedicated purely to science, fair and balanced science, and not just the science that scientists say is science. And it will start on April Fools' Day.

* * * * * *

The whole editorial can be found (purchased) at the Scientific American web site. It’s also on the web here and there.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Godel’s lost proof – authoritarian government in America?

A wonderful essay, “Time Bandits” by Jim Holt in a recent New Yorker, describes the friendship of Albert Einstein and Kurt Godel. Both men had fled Nazi Germany and in the 1940s had taken positions in Princeton University’s Center for Advanced Study. Godel was a logician and mathematician famous for his “incompleteness theorem.” His mind was especially good at ferreting out the deeper structural implications of abstract symbol systems. An amusing use of of this talent came when he decided to become an American citizen and turned his logical gaze to the U.S. Constitution. As Holt tells the story....

"So naïve and otherworldly was the great logician that Einstein felt obliged to help look after the practical aspects of his life. One much retailed story concerns Gödel’s decision after the war to become an American citizen. The character witnesses at his hearing were to be Einstein and Oskar Morgenstern, one of the founders of game theory. Gödel took the matter of citizenship with great solemnity, preparing for the exam by making a close study of the United States Constitution. On the eve of the hearing, he called Morgenstern in an agitated state, saying he had found an “inconsistency” in the Constitution, one that could allow a dictatorship to arise. Morgenstern was amused, but he realized that Gödel was serious and urged him not to mention it to the judge, fearing that it would jeopardize Gödel’s citizenship bid. On the short drive to Trenton the next day, with Morgenstern serving as chauffeur, Einstein tried to distract Gödel with jokes. When they arrived at the courthouse, the judge was impressed by Gödel’s eminent witnesses, and he invited the trio into his chambers. After some small talk, he said to Gödel, “Up to now you have held German citizenship.”

No, Gödel corrected, Austrian.

“In any case, it was under an evil dictatorship,” the judge continued. “Fortunately that’s not possible in America.”

“On the contrary, I can prove it is possible!” Gödel exclaimed, and he began describing the constitutional loophole he had descried. But the judge told the examinee that “he needn’t go into that,” and Einstein and Morgenstern succeeded in quieting him down. A few months later, Gödel took his oath of citizenship."

* * * * * * * * * * *

What was the "loophole" that Godel detected? I do not know and Holt's article does not say. One can surmise that Godel noticed what we are now living through, the consequences that befall the republic when all three branches of government are controlled by one political party. If Godel expected that this flaw in the Constitution might foster an authoritarian government with features similar to those of Nazi Germany, his insight was prophetic.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Ostrich replaces eagle as national bird

Around the globe the U.S.A. is fast becoming known as the nation
that habitually avoids confronting important social and environmental
problems. In both domestic policy and international negotiations,
George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisors simply bury their
heads in the sand, bringing along any politicians, journalists and (when
possible) scientists willing to be steamrolled. The same belief
that ideologically based positive thinking and evangelical cant will
overcome all problems – e.g. global warming, justifications for the war
in Iraq, abstinence propaganda in the schools – is now evident in
the government’s position on mercury pollution. An editorial in the L.A.
Times, “What Mercury Problem?” shows how thoroughly out of touch
the administration has become on this crucial problem. Evidently, it is
better to boost business profits than to protect the health of the
nation’s and world’s populace.

“In advance of a United Nations meeting on mercury pollution in Nairobi
that opens Feb. 21, the European Union is vowing to close its one
mercury mine, in Almaden, Spain, by far the biggest in the world, and
store existing mercury rather than sell it on the global market. The EU
also is open to a global treaty.

Documents submitted by the U.S. government, meanwhile, present no
specific goals or steps, reject the idea of a treaty, call vaguely for
voluntary partnerships, and offer to teach others about "best practices."
That's a curious phrase coming from the nation just criticized by its own
Environmental Protection Agency inspector general for violating
scientific procedures in order to come up with an industry-friendly
regulation of coal plants, probably the biggest source of mercury
emissions in this country.”

(Let the ostrich soar!)