Saturday, May 2, 2009

Caturday: I'm Comfortable

As I've mentioned before, Ozma was a feral cat before she decided to move in with me a bit over a year ago. She has reluctantly tolerated me picking her up and moving her, but up until a couple of weeks ago she would not tolerate being held. If I insisted on holding her, she was very convincing in her arguments that it was a very bad idea. I'll save the story about how she overcame this reluctance for another time, but over the last couple of weeks, she has decided that my lap is the most comfortable place there is. This can interfere with my computer games. She is particularly fascinated with space battles, and their flying, 'splodey little lights, though in the last few days, I think she has come to understand that they are not moths or other aerial edibles. She doesn't monitor the monitor the way she did at the beginning of the week. She is still learning the nuances of lap occupancy, and has a tendancy to slide into positions that are simply untenable. I have little scabs all over my thighs and arms from her catching herself. For a while I would try to move her back to more sensible positions, but I figure she has to learn sometime. I'm willing to tolerate a few scabs to further her education. This is by far her favorite spot, cradled in my left arm, wedging herself deeper. Below, she has repositioned herself to be on my arm rather than sliding through. Within a few minutes, though, she'll be sliding again. We both has a happy over this recent development.

And to answer Dean's question, Ozma was the Princess of Oz- loving and gentle, wise and tolerant, but not one to cross. Look at that last picture, and tell me that's not an appropriate name.

Soylent Blonde at MPS

A couple of weeks ago, Mock, Paper, Scissors, one of my favorite political satire sites, announced a contest to rename Meghan McCain. A common response to the young McCain is that she appears to be sane, and appears to be willing to speak her mind. For liberals, that is noteworthy and worthy of respect; those characteristics are vanishingly rare amongst today's Republicans.

Her previous nickname had been "Butterball," which carried connotations of affection for Tengrain, but to many readers implied a anti-fat bias. Now I'll leave aside the discussion of whether she looks "fat" or "refreshingly healthy," except to say I come down firmly on the latter side. The fact is, Tengrain wanted to point to her as a Republican worthy of respect, rather than the standard-issue, worthy only of derision. Thus a community brainstorm to come up with a name that didn't hint at pre-judgement. Take a look at the call for ideas- there are some really good ones in the comments.

A couple days later, I was tickled silly to see that my suggestion had made it into the final three! And then last Sunday, Wowee Zowie! I won! And yesterday, my prize arrived:Thass right, dawgs, eat your heart out! I have a one-of-a-kind, autographed by the Master himself, New Math Equation Poster! Tengrain's explanation of this formula bears repeating verbatim:

"Grandpa Walnuts plus a lot of money (C-Word?), squared) minus (the bobble-headed and hate-filled twig figures of the GOP as exemplified by Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham) divided by the mysterious no one-knows-what-it-really-is Soylent Green equals our favorite GOP spokesmodel, the very curvey and pretty heiress and free-thinking Meghan McCain, AKA Soylent Blonde."

The poster is at a bit of an angle to minimize glare from the flash, but you can see a clearer image here.

These Eyes

Darius Whiteplume tagged me a few days back with Splotchy's "Eye meme," wherein one is supposed to post a picture of one's eyes. Here you go:Yes, if you hadn't gathered from my protrait on the side of this blog, I am one of those vanishing creatures, a four-eyes. I've had glasses since fourth grade, and at this point, being conscious without them feels extremely awkward. As I've moved through my forties though, I find myself performing the following move more and more often when I'm trying to read. I think it's unfair that society has decided that this is the time to shrink the font size of everything that has text.

I'm not tagging anyone, but if this sort of thing amuses you, I invite you to play. I bet my pupils are more uneven than yours.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Torture? No. Except...

The second exception to the no-torture rule is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives. This case lacks the black-and-white clarity of the ticking time bomb scenario. We know less about the length of the fuse or the nature of the next attack. But we do know the danger is great. We know we must act but have no idea where or how -- and we can't know that until we have information. Catch-22.
This is one of the more asinine pieces of conservative "thought" it has ever been my privilege to read. The first exception, of course, is that tired old ticking time bomb chestnut. "Now suppose we were holding a terrorist that we knew had information that would allow us to find and disarm a bomb..." Now suppose I get to make up any far-fetched scenario I want to justify coming to any old conclusion that I have already reached. Has such a ticking time bomb case ever happened? Is it likely to? Would torture be likely to extract the intelligence we need (certainly not from Krauthammer)? Or would we most likely get 24 hours worth of misleading "leads," and devote time and manpower to fishing for red herrings?

The second "exception" quoted at top, can essentially be simplified to "If we think we need more and better information to save people's lives, torture is justifiable." Uh huh. That's right. All the distraction of high-value this and high-value that does not have any meaningful legal definition. It's a judgement call. So if I decide- or believe I have reliable intelligence- that Krauthammer, Limbaugh and Beck are "high-value enemies" with "high-value information" regarding the progress of swine flu going into next fall, I (or more to the point, the POTUS) would, under Krauthammer's logic, not only be permitted to waterboard those three, but morally obligated to do so.

The other particulary obnoxious aspect of this essay is the author's reliance on testimonials of those involved with torture to explain how terribly important, useful and effective it is. Jeffrey Dahmer explains how serial murder and cannibalism can stretch those tight grocery dollars! Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold: senseless massacre leads to world-wide fame! Former Bush officials assure uncertain world, "Torture is effective. Trust us. Really. We've saved, oh, literally zillions of lives. And besides, it's not torture if we don't call it that."

Yeah, let's just call waterboarding something like "Supervised Oxygen Alleviation and Questioning (SOAQ)." Because, really, if you're completely ignorant, and you suspect someone may know something, giving them a good SOAQing might make you feel more intelligent.

Skulls on Mars! OMG!

OK, I've wasted too much time on this post, so I'll try to make it short and sweet... with photos. This story has come across my radar too many times for me to ignore it:
I guess that rock is thought to look like a skull. I was thinking coconut or turd. Which is my point. We are hard wired to recognize patterns, even when they're not there. I see a coconut, someone else sees a skull. In fact, it's a rock. Weathering (particularly in arid and salty environments) can create some very strange forms.
Is this an octopus with it's arms cut off? Or an upside-down mushroom? (hint: it's a rock. pdf alert)
Is this a dragon? or a fossilized pterodactyl? (hint: it's a rock)
Is this a dinosaur skeleton? or a giant sponge? (hint: it's a rock)
Is this a giant worm? or a close up of renaissance neckwear? (hint: it's a rock)

The point is not that these particular rocks are dull and uninteresting. Quite the contrary. First, I don't think there is such a thing as a dull and uninteresting rock if you look closely enough (though repetition can get tedious), and these are particularly interesting in their forms. The point is that we sometimes perceive things that we're not actually seeing: perception requires interpretation. We are not always the best interpreters.

Pictures like the "skull" above have been around since the rovers landed. For a while I participated in an online discussion group, and finally had to quit because it had been entirely taken over by cranks who were literally finding several "skulls" and dozens of "fossils"every day, and the moderator couldn't understand that those of us who wanted to discuss "Serious Science" were offended by the fact that these cranks completely clogged any science discussions with their rants about NASA coverups, Martian Dinosaurs and Birds, and the implications of these "discoveries" for further discoveries of extraterrestrial life.

The most common line of self defense was that "You scientists have been so narrowly trained that you've lost all your imagination and curiosity. You just think you know it all." This from people who want to claim great insight into planetary geology but have never heard of, let alone seen, shatter cones. Now whatever faults and failings I may have, narrowness of training and background knowledge, and a conviction that I know it all, are not among them.

Since I'm tired of being polite, I'll simply respond pre-emptively: if you think a complete lack of knowledge and training in any subject gives you particular insight and credibility in that subject, you are a complete idiot, and should consider quitting your career to become a talk show host.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Wednesday Words

100 Days

in an alternate universe...

Day 1: Having spent the nearly three months between election day and inauguration day being brought up to speed by Dick Cheney on effective concealment strategies for the Bush administration's plethoric dirty secrets and giving Vice President Sarah Palin a crash-course in introduction to government, President McCain does not hit the ground running. He is stunned to find out that the September suspension of his campaign did not magically solve the financial crisis and that the fundamentals of the economy are not strong.

Day 2: President McCain nominates the only Republican willing to accept the position as secretary of the Treasury, whose appointment is fast-tracked through Congress in light of the growing economic crisis.

Day 3: Treasury secretary Ron Paul promptly disbands the department of the Treasury.

Days 4-18: The stock markets crash, precipitating a run on the banks, which in turn hastens the financial collapse. Mass chaos erupts across the country. Vice President Palin blames the economic catastrophe on University of Illinois professor William Ayers and calls for his execution. Texas announces its secession from the union. Chuck Norris is elected president of Texistan.

Day 19: President McCain tries to restore order by giving a televised speech which will later become known as the "My Friends, We're Fucked" debacle.

Day 20: Dick Cheney shoots President McCain in the face.

-Read the rest at The Guardian.

I haven't read any of the articles on Obama's first 100 days. I suppose if you haven't been paying attention for the last 3+ months, now might be a good time to catch up. More or less, I feel like the whole "100 days" meme we feel compelled to play during each new administration is basically an excuse for the media to pat itself on the back and say, "See? We're not completely inummerate."

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Rethugs Face Specter of Death

I am apparently not the only one shocked by Arlen Specter's abandonment of the Republican party. Obviously, the first important consequence of this is that, with Al Franken's (basically inevitable) seating sometime in the next month or two, the dems will have a fillibuster-proof majority- though Specter has already made it clear that on some issues he will not vote the party line. More power to him.

The issue that is of greater interest to me, though, is what this says about the viability of the Republican party. I have occasionally commented that I felt the best possible outcome would be for "Republicans" to split into two parties: I refer to these as the Conservative party, those who adhere to the principles of conservatism as practiced by Eisenhower and Nixon (though without Nixon's psychopathologies), and espoused by Goldwater. The important feature with this party is that they would be willing to think and compromise, to make judgement calls based on the costs and payoffs to all constituents and their needs and wants. The other splinter of Republicanism I have referred to as the Rapture party. This party would base all decisions on delivered wisdom and faith. Black and white, with us or against us, there is no compromise and we take no prisoners. Clearly, based on this characterization, Bush II was our first- and hopefully last- Rapturist president.

I have more or less come to accept that there is a sizable fraction of the American public, maybe 15-20 percent, or 30-40 percent of the Republican party, who so reject rationality and careful thought and decision-making, that they simply cannot come to terms with the fact that many of us (most of us, thankfully) believe that the heart of being human consists of careful thought and the intrinsic uncertainty that goes with it. It is careful thought, judicious risk-taking, and sober analyses of and reaction to the consequences of decisions that have created the civilization and culture in which we now live.

The Rapture party does not and cannot accept this. As such, though they have been uncomfortably in bed with conservatives since the post-Carter era, they have never been a good fit with that party, and are now beyond reconciliation. Thus I have asserted that the best outcome I could envision was for the two groups to split.

Specter's renunciation of Republican political games does not imply a renunciation of conservative principles. His change of party does more to drive dems to the right, and Republicans away from the center, further to the right. In my amateur analysis (and considering Olympia Snowe's comments in the above article), this move suggests that Conservatives no longer see Republicans as a viable party, and are abandoning it to the Rapturists.

I think over the short term, this will allow Democrats to achieve some important, cheering and refreshing legislative goals- and I don't want to downplay the benefits, both human and economic, of instituting (for example) universal health care. Over the mid to long term though, I am concerned over several things: first, the concentration of power in a moderate "Democratic" party will come at the loss of strong liberal principles, ideas and agenda. Second, without a rational conservative core to the Republican party, and that party's defacto co-option by defacto theocrats, we can expect the persecution/martyrdom/martial jihadi noise machine of Beck/O'Reilly/Limbaugh/Coulter/etc. to ramp up even further than it already has. Expect new madmen to emerge, and because mainstream journalism is as lost as modern politics, garner a disporportionate and largely unquestioned amount of coverage and credibility. Finally, this makes me fear that instead of three parties, liberal, conservative and crazy, we could end up with only two: middle of the road and crazy.

And I don't think that's a good option.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Terrorist Chickenhawks

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I haven't said too much about the whole torture issue yet. I tend not to say much if things I read say it better than I think I could. But for the record:

1) Waterboarding someone six times a day for a month is torture, not "enhanced interrogation."

2) If it takes that kind of frequency, and you can't trust the information you get, it's not effective.

3) Frankly, I don't care if it might be effective. It's illegal. It's illegal because it's wrong. One of the best comments I've seen on this (sorry, don't remember the source) said that torture is like the One Ring in Tolkien's work: however tempting it might look, however convinced one might be that it can be used for positive ends, whatever the extreme circumstances, it corrupts. It destroys the ability to make ethical judgements. It fosters a sense of power and invulnerabilty that lead the user to misuse it ever more and more.

4) The publicized instances in and of themselves look like crimes against humanity to me. And I'm afraid we have still seen little of the evidence; I fully expect there will be more revelations.

5) It's time for a full investigation by a body that has power to issue subpoenas and, potentially, criminal indictments. We do not dismiss those suspected of murder or drunk driving in an effort to "look forward" rather than back.

6) It's is difficult for me to find sympathy for Kalid Sheikh Mohammed or Abu Zubaydah. My reading convinces me that these are two pretty nasty individuals. However. If we have a vicious dog, we put it down. If we have a suspected criminal, we put him on trial. We don't torture them, whether out of perverted glee that we can, or out of the misguided belief that we can get get valid evidence. The first case is monsterous, the second monsterously incorrect. I cannot confidently say, given what I've read in the last week, that monsterous acts didn't occur... six times a day!? For a month!!!?

7) The terrorist chickenhawks have smeared this country's reputation in ways that I will never be able to forgive or comprehend, whatever happens from here.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

gently 'cross the pool.
Fetch the ball and bring it back,
This doggie is no fool:

Hat Tip to Swans on Tea