Friday, September 21, 2007


I found out about four heroes yesterday.

Three of them were wounded in Iraq. One was hit by an IED, and lost one leg below the knee. Another was hit by shrapnel, receiving damage to his arm and torso, with one piece penetrating his liver. The third was blown from his position in his HMMWV’s gun turret when a car bomb went off next to it. He flew 50 feet through the air and came down, impaled on a fence post. He was, fortunately, not hit in the ensuing firefight that delayed his treatment.

None of those horrific incidents make them heroes – at least, no more than any other volunteer Soldier who is over there right now, bearing the same risks. They merely had the bad luck to be one of those for whom the risks became reality. No, their heroic acts came later – which is how I met them. All three have declined medical discharge or retirement, and are currently performing duties at a major Army command near Washington D.C. Their willingness to stay in uniform to accomplish necessary duties here frees up three other Soldiers to perform necessary duties elsewhere.

The fourth hero’s acts have little to do with combat. SPC Jeremy Hall is a Soldier. He is also an atheist. While in Iraq last Thanksgiving, he declined to join hands and pray when others around him formed a prayer circle to say grace. Challenged by the ranking NCO, he explained his beliefs, and was ordered to find somewhere else to sit. Bravely, SPC Hall refused the illegal order and stayed put.

Last month, SPC Hall asked for permission from his chaplain to hold a meeting for fellow atheists and other free-thinkers. The chaplain, realizing his duties towards ALL Soldiers, including atheists, granted his request. However, his supervisor, MAJ Paul Welborne, intruded on the meeting, disrupted the discussion, and verbally attacked the attendees. In particular, he threatened SPC Hall with criminal charges and a bar to reenlistment, simply because SPC Hall had organized a meeting that offended the Major’s religious beliefs.

SPC Hall, with the assistance of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, has filed suit against MAJ Welborne, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and the Department of Defense. He isn’t asking for money – instead, he’s only asking for an injunction on those parties to prevent them from interfering with other’s religious beliefs. Or lack thereof.

I don’t know if his suit has any chance of success. I do know that, no matter what the outcome, he is likely to receive retribution in any number of ways, from any number of people. There will be Soldiers angry at him for challenging the military structure, and causing damaging news stories. They will be Soldiers angry at him for challenging their fundamentalist religious beliefs, and their intent to evangelize. There will most certainly be Soldiers angry with him for BOTH reasons, and sooner or later, some of them will be his immediate supervisor, or his first sergeant, or his commander. If he chooses to stay in, he’s likely to have a rough career. If he chooses to get out, any potential civilian employer who Googles his name will find it – and may illegally choose not to hire him for his beliefs. In fact, the threat may be both more severe, and more immediate. In a response to my e-mail of support, SPC Hall told me he has already received threats of violence.

With all these reasons to swallow his anger and his principles, he has instead chosen to stand up for them. In this, he has been true to his oath to protect and defend the Constitution, and amply demonstrated three of the Army Values: Selfless Service, Integrity, and Personal Courage. He won’t get a medal for it…but he’s a hero, nonetheless.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Nutball Bait (Kevin, are you there?)

One of the reasons I've been blogging even less than normal lately is that I've been frequenting someone else's blog, instead. Ed Brayton's Dispatches from the Culture Wars presents five or so entries daily, usually about the conflicts between science and religion, civil rights and religion, civil rights and security measures, and so on. Not only are the posts interesting, but the regular readers and commenters are mostly a remarkably civil and literate bunch. I've been having a fine time adding my own opinions to theirs - and it's a lot more fun to argue with people who argue back.
Mind you, sometimes a less desirable debater comes along. In a recent post, I foolishly offered to provide a spot for a nutball named Kevin to spew his brand of vitriol, and for myself and others to point out his errors, or at least improve his grammar. I did this to keep a long, rambling argument thread out of Ed's blog, since he tries to keep the comment threads at least vaguely related to the entry to which they're linked. That's what this post is for - a starting point for the argument. I don't really expect him to show up, because he got rather soundly trounced on what little content his initial comments contained, and he hasn't been back. But just in case - here it is, Kevin, go nuts. Anyone who shows up here that isn't a Culture Wars regular is encouraged to go back and check out that post - and for that matter, the rest of Ed's blog.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Our Days Are Numbered

There will come a time when every human on Earth is dead.

The only questions are when and how.

Nuclear holocaust. If a global thermonuclear war happens, then the resulting clouds of fallout could kill most of those who lived through the blasts. Anyone who manages to avoid that might starve trying to find uncontaminated food supplies. Even if that problem is solved, they might find themselves with no healthy mate, thus preventing the next generation. And if they pass all those hurdles, then their reproductive organs might be damaged enough to prevent viable offspring.

That could happen tomorrow. On the other hand, it could have happened yesterday, or thirty years ago, and it hasn’t yet. There is at least some hope that it won’t happen at all. In any event, there may yet be time for other options.

Global Warming. A few degrees one way or the other won’t kill off humanity, but there’s no real reason it has to stop there. It is at least vaguely possible that the greenhouse effect could feed on itself and become a runaway. For the end result of that, take a look at Venus – surface temperatures averaging over 860° F. It’s going to be hard for anyone to stay alive in temperatures too hot for baking.

This one isn’t real likely – the theory of global warming is fairly well-established, and there’s not much room in it for a runaway greenhouse effect. On the other hand, theory is not a substitute for testing – and this test could have a very high learning curve.

Ice Age Maximus. Current theories in physics indicate that nuclear fusion produces neutrinos. These faster-than-light particles are hard to spot – they’ve got a 50% chance of getting through a light-year thickness of lead. Nonetheless, there are theoretical means of capturing them, and sites constructed to do just that – capture the neutrino’s produced by the Sun’s fusion. Unfortunately, they haven’t found any. This leads to a few possible conclusions, but one is that the nuclear furnace of our nearest star has gone out.

That would mean that all that light and heat we currently enjoy is just the remnants of earlier fusion percolating up through those thousands of miles of compressed gas – and that at any time now, it could stop. If that happens, it’s gonna get chilly. Not just the ice caps expanding and glaciers forming. Not just the oceans freezing over. I’m talking about the atmosphere freezing out, one gas at a time – a layer of dry ice, buried under a blanket of frozen nitrogen, with drifts of oxygen settling out on top. I’m talking about trying to choose between breathing frozen air or breathing vacuum – not that your choice will make a lot of difference.

This is another one that could happen at any time. But again, it hasn’t happened yet.

Various other methods – a massive comet strike could crack the Earth like a coconut. The Sun’s fusion might restart, igniting a massive solar flare that would blast our atmosphere off the surface, frying half the planet instantly while the other half struggled – briefly – with storms that would make a hurricane look like a summer breeze. A bioweapon gone wrong that wipes out such a high percentage of humanity that the few survivors die of other diseases, infrastructure collapses, or simply can’t find each other to reproduce and keep us going. If nothing else, the Sun will eventually expand to a red giant, turning the Earth to a charred cinder similar to Mercury.

There will come a time when every human on Earth is dead.

It would be nice if my descendents lived somewhere else when that happens.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Hobson's Choice

The recent attacks in Great Britain got me thinking about terrorism, specifically foreign terrorism. Here’s what I’m coming up with – I’d really like someone to point out my errors.

Assumption #1: In our society, constructing an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) with sufficient power to kill or maim large numbers of people is a trivially simple exercise.

Analysis: High-powered explosives are somewhat controlled. However, ammonia-based explosives are simple to make from easily-available materials. Gasoline, propane, and other fuels can also be used to develop explosive devices. Ample material to provide fragmentation effects can be found in any hardware store or junkyard. While mass purchases of some of these materials (e.g. ammonia-based fertilizer) might be controlled, a series of smaller purchases over a longer period of time could provide raw materials for an IED of any desired size.

Assumption #2: Emplacing such an IED is also a trivially simple exercise.

Analysis: So-called “important” targets are increasingly protected. Government buildings, large office buildings, airports, power plants, chemical facilities…the list of protected sites is seemingly endless, but the key word is “seemingly.” Schools, shopping centers, fairgrounds, parade routes, smaller office buildings, restaurants, bars – even just an area on the road that frequently suffers traffic jams – are all possible targets for a terrorist attack. There’s just no way to protect all of them.

Assumption #3: Foreign terrorists bear sufficient enmity against the United States that any form of engagement between our country and theirs is sufficient to encourage terrorist acts against us.

Analysis: This one is purely my opinion – but I think it is nonetheless correct. Our support for Israel, our financial and political involvement with several Middle Eastern countries, and the immense popularity and availability of our entertainment media all provide ample sources of outrage for Islamic fundamentalists. While other sources of foreign terrorism in the U.S. may exist, they are so much rarer that I don’t see a need to analyze the roots of their hatred for us.

Conclusion: Foreign terrorists will continue to attack our nation and our allies as long as any significant contact remains between our culture and theirs. While some attacks may be stopped through luck, good police work, or incompetent terrorists, others will inevitably succeed. This may someday be stopped by the foreign culture adopting more democratic and liberal principles – but that will not be soon, and is unlikely to come from our direct intervention.


1. Status Quo. We can accept some level of innocent casualties as a cost of doing business in the regions from which the terrorists come. While our intelligence and police forces will improve their capabilities, so will the terrorists. As long as our basic political structure is unchanged, our open society is vulnerable to attack. The question becomes – how many dead citizens are a fair price for supporting Israel, exporting TV shows, and importing oil? And how long are we willing to pay that price while we wait for them to turn away from violence?

2. Disengage. That entails cutting down our crude oil usage by about two thirds, to live off our own domestic production – if we continue to import any oil at all, the fungible nature of the product means that some of it will come from the Middle East. It means cutting off Israel from our support – and thus likely leading to the use of one or more nuclear bombs when Israel is forced to defend itself without the threat of allies coming to assist. It means cutting off all immigration, student visas, and even tourist visas from the area, lest some of them become contaminated by our culture and then return to spread that contamination. I suppose we can ask the countries involved to handle censoring TV, books, and movies, and provide our assistance in censoring the Internet. Politically and economically, I think this one is beyond any realistic expectation.

3. Retaliate. Announce to the world that any country or culture that attacks us with acts of terrorism will in turn be attacked. Violently, and without too much regard for the nature of the targets. I’m pretty sure that we could strike fear into the heart of the most rabid terrorist – if a ten to one casualty ratio isn’t enough, how about a hundred to one? Thousand to one? An air raid over Mecca and Medina? We have the physical means to do whatever it takes to get their attention. Only political will and morality prevent it.

Of course, such violence breeds anger and resentment, which breeds more terrorists. That could end up as a genocidal war.

Is there a flaw in my assumptions? My conclusion? A fourth response? I don’t like any of the answers I’ve come up with – I could really use another one. Anyone?

Friday, June 29, 2007

Creating Excuses

I’ve been reading a lot of other blogs and postings lately regarding the theory of evolution vs. creationism/intelligent design. Anyone who’s read my archives knows my feelings on the matter. However, I’ve finally found a way to articulate the difference between the THEORY of evolution, and the NOTION of creationism.

To develop the theory of evolution, scientists looked at the facts available, and tried to imagine an explanation that would cover them.

To develop the notion of intelligent design, theists determined that a Creator was responsible for the world around them, and then identified specific facts and arguments that supported it.

That’s it. And to me, it explains so much. For instance, a lot of the IDer arguments against evolution hinge on holes in the research – gaps in the fossil record, lack of a detailed chain of alterations for a complicated survival mechanism, and so forth. The concept that a hole in the research might later be filled by new research is lost on them – to a creationist, a failure to completely explain every detail is a failure of the theory as a whole. From their viewpoint, and with their base assumptions, this might even be reasonable. After all, their theory DOES explain every detail – God did it. (For IDers, an unnamed Creator did it.)

Of course, that attitude causes the other major disconnect that leads to long useless arguments between the two sides. Creationists can ignore or minimize the importance of any contrary evidence by again turning to God. This leads me to another conclusion:

A valid test of the intellectual honesty of a person or position is to ask what it would take to prove them wrong.

For a scientist, the answer is easy – provide convincing data that contradicts the established theory. Such events have occurred in the past – the terra-centric view of the Solar System gave way to the helio-centric. The theory of a solid Earth was supplanted by plate tectonics. Newtonian physics has been replaced by Einsteinian physics, and further refined by even more esoteric theories. I note that in many cases, individual scientists failed to adapt their beliefs to new theories, but as they retired or died, the newer theories have become generally accepted as experimental or other evidence provided support. This is true of evolution, as well. The basic concepts from Darwin’s The Origin of Species have been refined over time as scientists have gained a better understanding of the mechanics of evolution.

But what would it take to prove a creationist wrong? I have yet to find any evidence, no matter how overwhelming, that can shake the faith of a committed theist. For example, the Creation Museum and its parent organization, Answers in Genesis, make the claim that hundreds of feet of rock in multiple layers were all deposited during the Great Flood. (Examples: chalk cliffs and rock and fossils.) The fact that some of those layers are igneous or metamorphic, surrounded by multiple layers of sedimentary, is conveniently ignored in favor of the idea that it all came about as a result of the Flood.

The evidence of species changing as a result of selection is fairly obvious in domesticated animals – for example, the Chihuahua and the St. Bernard. But, creationists reply, that’s merely MICRO-evolution. They haven’t completely differentiated into new species yet, because they can still interbreed! (Mind you, those puppies are unlikely to be born alive, but mere fertilization qualifies them as the same species.) Of course, the idea that such micro-evolution could eventually lead to actual species differentiation is considered absurd – there is apparently a barrier between species that cannot be broken, no matter how different the breeds become.

Other creationists cry out, “If life can form independently, then why can’t that be replicated in the lab? You can’t take a beaker of chemicals, swirl them around, and have a microbe or a virus appear…so it couldn’t have happened!” In this, they ignore the wonders of small odds vs. large numbers. We’ve been trying such things for a few years – maybe even a few decades – in some small number of labs, in some relatively small number of beakers. The universe provided a large, possibly infinite number of planets, and several billion years for a result to occur – and so far, we only have evidence that it happened once. That’s even worse than lottery odds…and yet, sooner or later, SOMEONE always ends up taking home the jackpot. But let’s take their side for a moment – does that mean that if we do at some point manage to create life in the lab, they’ll shut up?

It turns out that scientists at the University of New York at Stony Brook did just that. In July 2002. That’s five years ago. Any signs of the creationists shutting up? Well, that Creation Museum just opened this year – I’d take that as a “no.”

So…what will it take to get a creationist to admit he’s wrong?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Age of Unreason

Is reason dead? Has critical thinking lost credence in the world today? I fear it may have. It seems that “the public,” that amorphous mass of unwashed, uneducated peons, has lost interest in facts, considering them less important than what sounds good.

I suppose that’s a natural result of depending on television for our news. A successful network can devote only a limited time to news, and that limited time has to include ALL of the current events that the producers deem to be “newsworthy.” Those constraints place fairly harsh limits on the amount of time a news anchor can devote to any one story. That has conditioned us to accept a 10-second “sound bite” as a legitimate and complete statement of position on an issue. Yes, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but in TV news, a video of someone’s face adds little to the message. The message itself is usually short enough that it would be considered a summary paragraph in a newspaper article or formal essay.

In such a limited format, there’s no time to present details and supporting facts. In addition, the journalists love to report controversy, which means that instead of reporting facts on which to base our decisions, they report the sound bites and bullet statements from “both” sides – even if there are more than two points of view to be found. And to increase the friction, they often show the most extreme supporters on each side, guaranteeing maximum vitriol and malice in their claims of the evils of their opponents.

And THAT’S where the problems get even worse. The issue and the proponents become completely polarized. The spokespeople, trying to sway the maximum number of people in their limited time in the spotlight, turn their sound bites away from statements of fact toward emotional pleas, misleading claims, and personal attacks on the opposition.

Over the next several days, I’m going to take a look at one such issue – illegal immigration. I had originally intended to cover several of the more obvious simplified arguments within this single entry…but I discovered I had too much to say on them. Rather than simplify and shorten my own arguments, I’m asking you, my loyal readers (both of you) to follow with me over the next week or so.

Edit, 28JUN2007 - I lost interest in the examples. Sorry. If you really want them, let me know. Moving on now.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Indianapolis 415

It was an ugly, ugly race.

I knew Indy had made some rules changes. For starters, the IRL is now running on 100% ethanol. They changed the fuel tank sizes, and eliminated the “dial-a-mixture” option that let a driver trade speed for fuel mileage when the situation called for it. But there must’ve been some other changes, because this was a totally different race than what I’ve seen in the last several years. Impressions:

  • Rain, rain, go away. Bad enough that we had to sit through a three-hour rain delay at lap 113, unsure if they’d get the track dry in time to restart. Worse, they only managed another 53 laps before the rain came back and ended the race for good. Poor Tony Kanaan, who led the pack into the delay, must be truly annoyed that they took away his victory when it was obvious to everyone that they still wouldn’t be able to make the full 500 miles before the rain returned.
  • Clean track, messy race. Speaking of rain, apparently, it had been raining on the track all day Saturday, too. That cleaned off all of the rubber that a full month of practice and qualifications had deposited, leaving the track clean, pristine…and very, very slick. There were seven separate one-car crashes that appeared to be at least partly caused by a car straying off the groove. Granted, they were also partly caused by less-experienced drivers coming up too fast on competitors, and having to dodge or slow down too fast – but that sort of thing doesn’t usually lead to this many cars hitting the wall
  • Nobody ever pulled away from the pack. Usually, there will be a “lead pack” of three or four cars, then another small group of cars that stay on the lead lap without ever really being competitive, then a whole bunch of cars that gradually slip farther and farther off the lead. I’m accustomed to seeing a few cars five or more laps behind by the halfway point, and as many as ten or fifteen laps down by the end, with several cars scattered out with lesser deficits. Not this time. Little Al did fall five laps back by the end, but the next-slowest driver still running was only three laps back, and there were 13 cars still on the lead lap. There would have been 17 if not for a major accident right before the rain. The huge number of cautions probably had something to do with that – 10 separate yellows for 55 laps, about 1/3 of the race. But mostly I think that no one had the speed to really pull away…almost like the cars had governors installed to restrict everyone to the same maximum speed. I’m sure that isn’t literally true, but I suspect the rules changes may have had much the same effect.
  • Cascading lead changes. There were nine different race leaders, and they swapped out positions 24 separate times – and that doesn’t count the times when someone would take the lead in the first turn, and then lose it again before they crossed the Yard of Bricks. Nobody had enough speed to hold on to the lead…they couldn’t overcome the speed advantage of the car drafting behind them. Besides, the pit stops got skewed during the various cautions, so every time the leader came in for a refuel, someone else could stay out and take over. It made for exciting racing, I suppose, but it also made things very hard to follow. There was just no way to tell who was doing well and who merely held the lead because the real leaders were making up ground from their last pit stop. Dario never really seemed to be challenging for the lead…but when the checkered flag came out, there he was in front.
  • Safety first. As if the seven single-car incidents weren’t enough, Marco Andretti made an ill-considered pass right at the end, and took out himself and three other cars. His car flipped, and it looked like he ran about a hundred yards with his helmet touching the track. Despite all that, there were apparently no serious injuries…Marco even gave an interview outside the clinic shortly after the race. I’m not sure that I like ALL the rules that control the cars’ setups…but you can’t fault the safety devices.

I still enjoyed the race, of course. The imminent rain added a sense of urgency to every lap, and every lead change. Seeing Marco and Danica in second and third when the first rain delay hit was very exciting – though disappointing when they finished 24th and 8th, respectively. And I sort of like Dario, so I’m pleased to see him win. All the same, I hope they tweak the rules a bit next year to give the mechanics a little more freedom to stand out…and I REALLY hope it stays dry next Memorial Day Weekend!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Get the Facts!

I read a story by reporter Kim Barker in the Chicago Tribune yesterday. It started with an anecdote about a deployed Soldier going through a divorce during the four-month extension on his original one-year deployment. The implication, of course, is that the extension CAUSED the divorce, but that is not specifically stated. The article continues by mentioning three other pending divorces and various other “family” problems the Soldiers in his unit are experiencing.

The article goes on to discuss the reason for longer deployments, and asserts that these extensions will hurt Army retention and recruitment, possibly even leaving the all-volunteer Army “permanently damaged.” As evidence, it includes a mention of a Pentagon survey of over 1700 Soldiers and Marines: “A survey…said longer combat deployments could hurt troops' morale and mental health.”

That may all be true. Extended deployments may be causing broken families, reduced retention, problems in recruiting, lower morale, reduced Army effectiveness, and maybe even loss of hair and poor taste in neckties. I AM sure, however, that this so-called “news story” doesn’t provide any useful information to back up the hints, assertions, and innuendo.

For starters, a survey of troops is capturing their opinion on the subject. Unless the respondents were all military psychologists, psychiatrists, and chaplains, then their untrained, uninformed opinions are pretty much meaningless. I haven’t seen the wording of the actual questions the troops answered…but from the brief mention, it sounds much like asking 1700 United Auto Workers “Would increasing the work day to nine hours with no extra pay damage morale in your workplace?” Why don’t we have the numbers on USEFUL questions?

  • What is the divorce rate within the Army and Marine Corps now, as compared to seven years ago?
  • What is the military divorce rate as compared to the nation as a whole, both now and pre-9/11?
  • What is the military divorce rate compared to the divorce rate of other high-stress jobs, like air-traffic controller or police officer? Or compared to other jobs that involve family separation, like traveling salesman or long-haul truck driver? Again, both now and seven years ago?
  • What is the military divorce rate within six months before and after a deployment, as compared to within six months of a one-year unaccompanied assignment to Korea?
  • What is the Army-wide retention rate, then and now? How many troops are choosing to stay in? How many are reenlisting within a year or two after getting out?

Those would all be useful statistics in determining the damage that long deployments are doing to the force, and I suspect that all of them are available to a hard-working and moderately intelligent news reporter. They might even support the tone and implications of this editorial-masked-as-journalism – though my recollection of statistics in other reports doesn’t quite match up with that. But with no truly useful information, this story is a waste of newsprint or electrons.

I brought up this issue not to criticize Ms. Barker. Her news story seems to me to be fairly typical of journalism today – a heavy emphasis on anecdotes and emotional appeals, while minimalizing hard facts. Fortunately, I’ve found several resources that encourage critical thinking.

  • is the best resource I know to combat “I’ve heard…,” “They say…,” and “Everybody knows…” Mr. and Mrs. Mikkelson research rumors on nearly any subject, especially those that deluge your e-mail inbox. They depend on and link you to multiple and reliable sources to confirm or deny the truth behind the rumors – and when they can do neither, they tell you their best opinion, clearly identifying it as such.
  • Mythbusters is an extraordinarily entertaining TV show. Adam and Jamie are remarkably good at portraying themselves as overgrown kids with truly wonderful toys, up to and including a cement mixer full of explosives. But behind the explosions and laughs, they clearly demonstrate the key steps of the scientific method – propose a hypothesis, develop an experiment to test it, and keep an open mind about the results. They have debunked a lot of what “everyone knows,” and surprised themselves with things they were certain would never work. And besides, they usually manage to destroy something in a spectacular manner by the end of the show.
  • The Skeptics Society has a variety of publications – the two I’m most familiar with are the Skepticality podcast and the Skeptic e-newsletter. I’m a little behind on the podcast…I started with their archived episodes, and have only gotten as far as August 2005. At any rate, both of them include interviews, news items, book reviews, and other tidbits, with people such as Adam Savage (Mythbusters), James Randi (The Amazing Randi, debunker of psychics), and Michael Shermer (author of Why People Believe Weird Things and The Science of Good and Evil). They tend to focus on atheism/agnosticism vs. religion and spirituality, especially in areas like the Intelligent Design/Evolution debate, and “psychic phenomena.” So far, their underlying attitude is a bit too self-righteous and self-congratulatory for my taste, but the information and arguments they provide more than makes up for it.
  • NPR provides another useful podcast – Science Friday. These are recordings of the weekly radio show, presenting science news and headlines. The host, Ira Flatow, frequently brings in guests with differing viewpoints, providing a genteel debate that often serves to bring out more truth than a newsreader could manage alone. He also takes calls from surprisingly intellectual and well-informed listeners with often insightful questions – I assume the callers are well-screened, but the screening process does not appear to filter out reasoned disagreement.
  • Scott Adams writes The Dilbert Blog. It may not truly belong on this list, as I find some of his writings to have more certainty than the evidence supports. But he frequently comes up with brilliantly bizarre looks at current events that can make you think about them much harder than you normally might. He often proposes solutions to “unsolvable” problems (like the Middle East) that initially draw a dismissive laugh…but then cause you to struggle to find the flaw that makes them unworkable. Reading the “comments” sections will also show you dozens of examples of fuzzy thinking. Plus, of course, he’s frequently funny.
  • – This site, more than any other, inspired this blog entry. Affiliated with George Mason University, the Statistical Assessment Service analyzes news stories to identify bad science, misleading statistics, poor research, and deliberate misinformation. Reading the articles on the site has made me much more suspicious about the articles I read elsewhere…and that suspicion and skepticism enables me to more easily spot the missing facts. That, in my opinion, is a key skill for any would-be informed citizen.

As Robert Heinlein said in “Time Enough For Love” - “What are the facts? Again and again and again--what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what "the stars foretell," avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable "verdict of history"--what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!"

Even if the journalists won’t give them to you.

Monday, May 14, 2007

A Losing Game

My wife was placed on her first diet in second grade. When I met her, thirteen years later, she weighed about 250 pounds. Over the next 20 years, she see-sawed between 250 and 350…losing a little on this diet, a lot on that diet, as much as 100 pounds over a year and a half on one…but eventually those losses would slip away, usually leaving her heavier than when she started.

I say this not as a criticism, but to point out that she is completely familiar with the curse of obesity. She knows more about dieting than some nutritionists. She knows what it feels like to weigh two or three times her “ideal weight.” She knows what it feels like to lose a significant amount through months of hard work and deprivation. She’s read up on genetic causes of obesity, and has intimate knowledge of food addiction, stress-related overeating, financial penalty of a healthy diet, dieting as a family, dieting with a partner, dieting with a support group, and dieting alone. No matter what aspect of obesity or weight loss you want to bring up, she’s been there and done that. Despite a lack of formal training on the subject, she has a level of expertise that no 120-pound aerobics instructor, patronizing doctor, or egotistic talk-show hostess with a private chef and a personal trainer can possibly match.

Her obesity has caused her many problems over the years. She has been denied jobs due to her weight – in one case, she was refused an unpaid volunteer position at a library because of her size. She has suffered from health problems due to her weight. Some of those were directly caused by the excess weight – a problem with weak ankles has been repeatedly exacerbated by the extra force her body put on them. Other problems were caused by the reaction of her doctors – no matter what health issue she brought to them, they blamed it on her size. Sometimes they claimed it was the cause of the problem, sometimes they claimed it would interfere with the treatment, and sometimes they simply felt the need to lecture her – as in the doctor who delayed treating a painful case of swimmers’ ear so she could lecture Rita (in her good ear) about dieting. Perhaps she thought that fat earlobes trapped excess water in the ear canal? The fact that she was generally quite healthy, despite her size, was lost on them – for instance, her comfortably low blood pressure and normal blood sugar levels were a constant surprise to them, though that seldom prevented them from warning her about hypertension, diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes. Unsurprisingly, she developed a hatred of doctors’ visits – a problem would have to get very serious before I could convince her to see one, and even then she wanted me to come along to protect her from unwarranted attacks by these so-called professionals.

Even walking in public was a trial for her. People would turn and stare, pass by her with whispers and giggles, make rude comments pitched for her to overhear or even make them directly to her. I felt she was overly sensitive to such things, seeing insults where none were actually given…but I saw enough of them confirmed to make me unable to reassure her when she saw something I didn’t.

About two years ago, she underwent that most extreme of weight-loss surgeries, a gastric bypass. Prior to the surgery she spent a few weeks enjoying eating whatever she wanted, knowing what she’d be giving up – then we had to move before the paperwork was finished, forcing a year-long delay while she started the process from scratch with her new doctor. That “last chance” mindset, the interminable delays, and a crippling broken ankle just two months before the surgery pushed her well over 400 pounds for the first time in her life, and finally broke her normal healthy constitution into “incipient diabetes.”

In those two years, she has dropped over 270 pounds. She reached her goal weight of 165 a few months ago, and has successfully maintained her weight within five pounds of that goal since then. She dropped from a dress size of 5X down to a size 10. She no longer attracts attention on the street. Her weight loss turned around the diabetes. She watches her nutrients carefully, and has had no complications at all. By almost any possible measure, the surgery has been an outstanding success.

These days, anyone who has noticed her weight loss or otherwise finds out she has had the surgery asks the inevitable question – “Are you happy about it?” The question is universally accompanied by a pleased smile, inviting Rita to gush about how much better she feels, how much happier she is, how much her life has improved. Sometimes they even make it a statement – “I bet you are so much happier now!”

They lose. She isn’t.

  • The post-surgery care was a travesty. Poor pain management, contradictory instructions from the doctor’s brief visits and the nurses’ written orders, and no physical therapy whatsoever. The hospital’s lack of a comprehensive post-op plan set her recovery back by weeks, and forced her to manage her own recovery by trial and painful error.
  • She has to record every bite she eats. On a normal diet, you mostly count calories, or food exchanges, or points…in any event, a fairly straightforward process. Post-surgery, however, she has to cram maximum nutrition into a sharply limited amount of food. She tracks calories, protein, iron, calcium, and potassium, and has to tailor her diet to accommodate all of those factors…within the restriction of three cups of food a day.
  • She cannot eat processed sugar. At all. Even a couple bites of anything sweetened, iced, or frosted causes her extreme nausea in a matter of minutes or even seconds. In many cases, she can use sugar-free substitutes, but not always – sugar-free candy, for instance, almost universally includes Maltitol, which affects her just the same as sugar. Alcohol also has the same effect – a couple sips of a margarita or long island iced tea will send her running for the restroom.
  • She is always cold. Last week, temperatures hit 80 in this area, and the building in which she works has not yet turned on their air conditioning. She stood at her cash register not merely fully dressed, with her “uniform” jacket on top of that, but with an extra layer of thermal underwear hidden beneath her dresses – and still noticed a chill from a fan running nearby. When we go biking together, she wears her long johns and a jacket, and sometimes gloves, on nights when I am comfortable in a t-shirt and shorts.
  • Her flesh literally hangs from her bones. Skin has a limited ability to shrink back down after being stretched, and her weight loss has far exceeded that limit. While her shoulders and back show her bones, she has inches of loose skin hanging from her arms and sagging around her middle. This excess flesh bunches up under her clothing, sometimes even developing open sores. All that extra skin is why she has stopped at 165, when the “ideal weight” for her height is probably 30 pounds less – you can’t diet away skin, and if she tried, she could well suffer the health problems related to anorexia while still being counted as “overweight” on the BMI Index. We still both hope that her skin will slowly “tone up” over time – but what we’ve read on the subject doesn’t do much to confirm that hope.
  • She lives with the constant fear of relapse. She’s looked at the limited statistics publicly available – they show that the majority of bariatric surgery patients are successful. But that depends on a weak definition of “success.” Apparently as long as the patient keeps off HALF of their excess weight, then the surgery is successful…and the time period they consider is not “forever,” but merely “long-term,” a measure of time so far undefined in her searches. From what she’s read, she could regain 130 pounds over the next few years and still be considered successful…and could regain the rest eventually, while still suffering all of the permanent side effects and risks. As near as we can tell, if she gets back up to 400 pounds by age 55 and then dies of a weight-related heart attack, she’d still count as a “success” on their statistics – which means she has no prospects of ever being able to relax her rigid control of her eating.
  • She feels cheated. All her life people have told her how much better her life would be if she “only” lost the weight. “You’ll be healthier,” “You’ll be so much prettier,” “People will like you better,” “You’ll be so much happier.” That turns out not to be the case. Except for those last few months, she was always healthy, despite the extra weight – she has to be more careful of herself now than ever before. She can’t look in the mirror at her hanging flesh and tremendous scar and tell herself she’s prettier – and my opinion has never convinced her, then or now. Most people liked her no matter what she weighed, as she’s always been a friendly and likable person – but now, she hesitates to trust new people, wondering if they would have liked her when she was heavy, or if their friendship is too shallow to go beyond obesity. She even worries that some of her old friends and family with their own weight problems will turn away, jealous of her “success.” Is it any wonder that she isn’t any happier…or that she feels the world broke a promise?

Imagine spending two months in constant intense pain, prescribed only enough medication for someone half your size. Imagine spending at least an hour a day calculating the food value of everything you put in your mouth - forever. Imagine never, ever eating a candy bar or drinking a glass of wine again. Imagine needing long johns as beach wear. Imagine doing all that, with no assurance that it would do any good at all, “long-term.”

Now imagine dozens of people, even total strangers, coming up to congratulate you on your accomplishment, expecting to share in your excitement and joy. Imagine feeling that most of them would have ignored you or turned away in disgust rather than talked to you a mere two years ago. Imagine trying to blandly agree with them, confirming their evident belief that fat people can’t be happy, and that you must be skinny to be worthwhile. Or imagine trying to answer them honestly, hint at the prices you’ve paid – only to have them show confusion, disbelief, or even anger when you betray their moral certitude. Imagine even your doctor, when confronted with an honest answer, hemming and hawing, finally dismissing your honest uncertainty, confusion, and anger with a facile “You were too young to have really suffered much from your weight – if you hadn’t had the surgery, you’d have had a lot of problems when you reached 60.”

THAT is a successful gastric bypass.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Making Claims

Last Friday, as you may know, my wife was involved in a minor accident. As required, we reported it to our own insurance company, but since the accident was clearly the fault of the other driver, we filed the claim with his – Progressive Insurance.

I expected them to require an inspection by their own claims adjustor, then for me to provide three estimates, then for me to pony up the funds to pay for the repair prior to them reimbursing me…along with possible delays in that reimbursement. That’s not exactly what I got.

As they instructed me, I drove my van in to their office on Monday morning. I showed up about 10 minutes early for my appointment, and they didn’t have all their staff on hand yet, but the one clerk present directed me to the available coffee/tea/cocoa table and told me someone would be with me shortly. The wait was indeed short – once another clerk arrived, she took my information and key, had me sign the rental car contract, and walked out with me to look at the damage. I pointed out the impact area, noted a few older dents that were unrelated (gaining her thanks for my honesty), and turned my van over to her. She pointed out my rental vehicle – since I was bringing them a van, they provided me a van to replace it. I’d actually rather they’d asked about that, since I didn’t expect to need the extra room this week and would rather drive a small sedan, but I still have to count it as a thoughtful and considerate gesture. I made a quick inspection circuit to confirm that the rental was in good shape, got in, familiarized myself with the controls, adjusted the mirrors, and got on the road. Glancing down at the clock, I saw I’d been there a mere 20 minutes – INCLUDING the time I had to wait due to showing up early.

Before the end of the day, their inspector had taken off the bumper and determined what needed replaced, checked with their contracted repair folks, made sure parts were available, and called me to let me know the details, including an estimate that I could get my van back on Wednesday.

An e-mail on Tuesday confirmed that they were still on schedule, and a phone call today let me know for certain that I could pick it up tonight. That process was just as simple, and took me about five minutes. While I was trading keys, the clerk reminded me that the repairs had a lifetime warranty, then he handed me the paperwork and I was on my way.

I don’t file insurance claims very often – maybe all companies handle them this way now. And though I think I need to ask my own company about their claims process, I’m not certain I want to switch over. I am certain, however, that if my car gets hit again, I want the OTHER driver to have Progressive!

Monday, May 7, 2007

...But The Radio Rolled Me

How often do you listen to the radio?

If you’re a frequent listener, you’ve probably noticed a lack of variety on your favorite station. Top 40 stations, of course, are expected to play the same songs over and over, but it seems to me that nearly EVERY music station now has a fairly short playlist. My own preferred station used to be an oldies format – “the best of the 60’s and 70’s.” You’d think that with two decades of hits to choose from, they could avoid playing the same song twice for long periods of time, but that turned out not to be the case. Instead, they made a big deal out of providing a “no-repeat workday” – they managed to avoid repeating a song for a mere eight hours, and thought that worthy of mention in their advertising!

Just to make things worse, the oldies format apparently no longer fits their preferred demographic, so they’ve switched over to a “classic rock” format. Still some good music, but it has an even smaller selection from a longer time period. I don’t track their playlist, of course, but one Saturday while I was running errands, I managed to catch the same song THREE times in the course of the day. I might not have noticed, but it was a song I hate – “Radar Love.” (I can name that tune AND change the station in six notes, Jim!) Even songs I love, like “American Pie,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “Black Water” begin to pall the third or fourth time I hear them in a week.

Wil Wheaton offers an explanation of the problem in his Geek in Review column. (Not Safe For Work – you may prefer to read this blog entry on the subject.) In short, he suggests that the recording industry profits depend on selling a lot of records by a few artists, instead of a smaller number of records by a larger number of artists. That reasoning makes more sense for “new music” stations than for oldies or classic rock, but it isn’t completely unbelievable for any station format – especially with more than half of broadcast radio stations now owned by a single company.

Of course, thanks to the Internet, we have an option – Internet radio stations. They’re really not practical for the car, yet, but Launchcast, Last.FM, NPR, and other smaller stations provide a huge variety of options for a listener with broadband Internet access. The choices include the same formats you can find on the FM dial, like Top 40, R&B, Oldies, or Classic Rock. Or you can look for niche formats, all the way down to a specific artist. Or try out a specific DJ who listens to his own eclectic selections from a variety of genres, and is eager to share them with you.

But not for much longer, perhaps. Mr. Wheaton’s theory is well-confirmed, in my opinion, by the RIAA’s heavy influence on the recent decision by the Copyright Royalty Board to change the performance royalty rates for digital broadcasts – specifically, for Internet radio stations. The CRB, a government entity empowered under the Library of Congress, changed the calculation from a percentage of the station’s revenue to a per-song, per-listener rate. Most sources I’ve seen indicate that this will raise the total royalties by 300-1200% - that’s three to twelve times the current fees. It is very hard to see such a huge increase as anything but an attempt to kill or cripple the entire concept of Internet radio. For the smaller independent stations, the fees will exceed any amount they could dream of receiving through advertising – even Yahoo! Music’s Launchcast service has stated they will be losing money on every listener under the new rates. For that matter, even NPR is concerned about the massive increase in fees, despite a “non-profit organization” exemption that partially frees them from royalties up to a certain number of listeners.

Congress is looking into changing the CRB’s decision through new legislation. If passed, Internet radio will, initially, pay the same rate as Satellite radio, 7.5% of revenue. That’s still considerably more that broadcast stations pay. While standard radio stations do pay composition royalties identical to digital stations, the broadcasters do not pay performance royalties at all – and those are the rates that have been raised by the CRB.

If the RIAA and ClearChannel succeed in their attempt to kill Internet radio, then your listening options will be sharply curtailed. Naturally, you can make your opinion known in a number of ways. Write a letter to the editor. Post on your own blog. Write your Congressman. But there’s an even simpler way to really make the point to those who want to control your music.

Stop listening.

Yes, that’s right: boycott. Turn off your radio. This is not like that stupid “don’t buy gas for one day” boycott e-mail that you’ve probably seen – I’m actually asking for a sacrifice. Turn off your radio. If everyone in the country did that for one day a week, even on different days, that would be about a 14% decrease in listeners for broadcast radio. That’s enough to make a significant difference to their advertisers, their profits, and their lobbying budget. If you can manage it for two or three days, or better yet, all week, the effect is even better. It won’t be immediate, of course…but if even a minority of radio listeners make a significant change in their listening habits, it can have an effect.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to stop listening to music – you have other options. If you’re at home, tune into an Internet station – not the live stream from a broadcast station, but an Internet-only music source – that is, for as long as they’re still around. For the car, it depends on what technology you have available. Worst-case, you can make your own mix tapes or burn CDs for your car. If your stereo will play MP3 CDs, you can put 8-10 hours of songs on a single CD. Even better, buy a cheap MP3 player. You don’t need an iPod – a no-name 1 GByte player is now in the $20-$30 range, and should hold almost as much as a CD, even if (like mine) it requires a space-wasting format to work with the copyright protection software the RIAA has forced on the manufacturers. There are several name-brand players in the 2 to 4 GB range for less than $100. Better, you can swap the songs on that player whenever they get old, or use it to play podcasts that are new every week or so. You’ll also need a personal FM transmitter to get the songs from your player to your car speakers, but those are around $20-$30, too. My 2GB player held nearly enough music to cover a 20-hour round trip to visit my mom…without a single repeated song, nor any trouble with losing stations as I drove out of range. It is more than enough to handle a week of city driving, including my 40-minute or more one-way commute.

Make the commitment. Pick one day a week, and boycott your favorite radio stations. You may find you like your other options better, anyway, and that you’d rather listen to them all the time…and that could send a message that even the RIAA can’t ignore.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Beautiful Words

Most people agree, the three most beautiful words in the English language are “I love you.” I’ve found, though, that in some situations, other words are even more welcome.

When my wife was pregnant the first time, we were a little nervous. Her mother died in childbirth, so we knew there could be problems. The problems surfaced when she was placed on bed rest halfway through the eighth month. Two weeks later they started trying to gently induce labor, and spent three weeks on that. When that, too, failed, they used the more forceful method of Pitocin for two days, before finally giving up and resorting to a C-section. Under those circumstances, “It’s a boy!” was a very welcome phrase…second only to “Mother and child are doing fine.”

Our second child didn’t make us nervous for quite as long – we only went to the hospital so the doctor could check on his condition. Under those conditions, the phrases “the baby is under stress” and “emergency C-section” were unexpected and unpleasant. But a few hours later, as I held a healthy baby in my arms, I heard the nurse say “Your wife is waking up.” Surely I only imagined the angelic choir in the background.

A couple years later, I went away to war, leaving my two babies and their mother behind. During that seven month separation, my wife not only struggled along as a single parent while also dealing with the stress of a husband at war, she worked hard to make sure that my boys did not forget me. The memory of both of them reaching out to hug me while Michael called me “Daddy,” can still bring tears to my eyes.

Today Rita was rear-ended in her van. When she called to tell me about the minor accident, hearing her say “I’m not hurt,” immediately elevated that phrase near the top of the list of beautiful words.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Ghoulish Principles

It is truly sad how nearly every tragedy in modern society is immediately twisted to serve the purposes of ideologues.

The horrible shootings at Virginia Tech are a perfect example. Within hours of the story hitting the news, I saw arguments on both sides.

On one side, unsurprisingly, there are calls for additional gun control. If it had not been so easy for the killer to acquire guns, the activists say, then this terrible tragedy never would have happened. I suppose that might even be true, since it turns out that he did indeed purchase his weapons legally. But considering the amount of planning that he apparently put into this, and the ease of buying guns ILlegally, I really doubt that an extra law would have stopped him. Most of the laws I’ve seen proposed would CERTAINLY not have stopped him. Let’s assume that he stayed within the law. A ban on semi-automatic handguns would have forced him to use a revolver. A restriction on magazine sizes would have forced him to reload more often. Even a complete ban on handguns would merely have forced him to bring in a rifle or sawed-off shotgun…which could have been easily carried and concealed disassembled in a large book bag - then reassembled after he chained the doors shut. Would any of those changes have actually saved anyone?

On the other side, activists are calling for increased gun ownership and more freedom to carry them concealed. They point out that one sane person in the building carrying his own pistol could have taken the gunman down before he killed so many innocent people. Maybe it would have worked out that way. Or maybe it wouldn’t – I’ve seen multiple sources that claim that 50-75% of soldiers in a battle do not fire their weapons. Those numbers are for World War II and earlier – the military has since then added desensitization and conditioning to their training methods, and by the end of Vietnam got up to 90% of their forces firing when needed. That means that even in trained soldiers under direct fire, 10% of them are too frightened to pull the trigger. Maybe that one person with a pistol would have shot the murderer and saved lives…or maybe he would have missed and got shot himself…or maybe he would’ve missed and killed another bystander…or maybe he would have hidden somewhere and hoped he wasn’t found.

Or maybe there would have been several people in the building with guns. That increases the odds that some of them would have taken action…which leaves several people roaming the building with handguns out, looking for a shooter. What happens when two of these good citizens come around a corner and spot each other?

And in the meantime, if the pro-gun activists have their way, we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of college students running around armed. It’s been awhile, maybe college has changed since I went – but I remember seeing numerous relationship breakups, the stress of Finals Week, depression and homesickness, and lots of drinking. How many additional murders and successful suicides would result from adding handguns to that volatile mix?

Obviously, there are good arguments on either side of the issue. But is this really the right time to argue it and the right example to use for support? Good public policy comes from a careful and rational examination of the issues and consequences. The immediate emotional reaction to single event is hardly the right mental state in which to design that policy – and the activists’ ghoulish attempts to use this tragedy to further their own causes makes me want to reject them all.

Edit - From what I've seen in the news, the Virginia Tech gunman was clearly an attention-seeker. I've seen two separate sources suggest that publicizing his name only encourages such behavior. That makes sense to me - accordingly, I have removed his name in favor of anonymous terms - "gunman," "killer," and "murderer."

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Same Old, Same Old

I recently saw a quote from Bill Maher:
“I feel like the troops have this dysfunctional, abusive relationship with George Bush. The more he mistreats them, the more they seem to like him…why do they still like George Bush?”

Well, first off, not all of us do. The military is not some monolithic structure in which every member thinks alike – many of us disagree with current policies, and many of us voted against President Bush in one or both of his elections. But let’s set that aside for the moment. The real point is that this “dysfunctional, abusive relationship” is nothing new to us…and certainly didn’t start when Bush was elected. Where the public sees mistreatment of the military, we see nothing but status quo.

The newspapers report that Walter Reed is a disaster area, in desperate need of repair. We see our barracks rooms, with “work order submitted” tags on faucets and light fixtures, missing window screens and barely-functional air conditioning. We make copies of the weekly maintenance log for our trucks, so we don’t have to write “parts on order” over and over again. We see the worn carpet in our offices, the patches on our tents, the empty supply cabinets. Building 18 was a horribly extreme example, and the Commander and First Sergeant were quite properly relieved of duty – but it was a matter of degree, not something new.

We see that the outpatient clinics and the VA are mishandling paperwork, denying valid claims, and causing huge delays in processing. We remember that VA hospitals have ALWAYS been overfilled, underfinanced, and overloaded with administrators – look at any TV show that portrayed a VA hospital, anytime since 1970. We remember all of the paperwork our unit clerks have lost, the underpayments that took months to resolve, the overpayments that came out of our paychecks with no notice. We remember our spouses dialing over and over starting at 7:25 to try to get through when the same-day appointment line opened at 7:30…and giving up at 8:00 after 30 minutes of busy signals, because they knew the appointments would all be full.

We feel the shame of Abu Ghraib, cheer when the guards are brought to justice…and feel rage when we see their senior leaders escape unscathed. But we remember a Private in 1990 who left a round in his weapon, was caught when he cleared his rifle into a safety pit designed for that purpose, and it went off, and he lost a rank…and a Captain in the same unit who fired his pistol through the floor of a bus, and finished his deployment with a Silver Star. We remember junior Soldiers drummed out of the service for a DUI…and more senior Soldiers who were promoted within six months after getting one. We remember the shame of My Lai…and the further shame of the cover-ups…and the rage that the senior officers who set the command climate, and orchestrated the cover-ups were left out of the courts-martial.

We hear people screaming that we don’t have sufficient body armor, vehicle armor, mine-clearing equipment. We agree…but we know that despite the deficiencies, we are the best-equipped military in the world, better equipped than even U.S. forces in any previous war. And we mutter to ourselves, “The mission comes first,” and we go out to accomplish it.

We groan at the thought of extended deployments, keeping us away from family for an extra three months. But we remember our assignments and training from before the war, when a typical career could easily include three one-year tours in Korea, 18 months away from home in leadership or MOS training, half a dozen or more training exercises every year. Even without deployments, a 20-year career might require a cumulative seven years or more away from home. An extra three months is just more of the same.

I suspect, though, that the main “mistreatment” Bill Maher would bring up is sending us out to fight an unjust war. But war is our business. It isn’t our job to decide if the evidence of WMDs is sufficient to justify an invasion. It isn’t our job to decide if we have enough troops to do the job, or if our battle-focused training will still be effective when the mission changes to police work. We know better than to say “We’re just following orders,” but when our civilian leadership decides war is necessary, well, that’s a lawful order. We salute and move out.

We don’t see sending us to war as disrespect, either. If anything, President Bush and his advisors may have had too MUCH respect for us, overestimating what we could do, even when GEN Shinseki and others advised them of the facts. And while we realize that any politician is capable of lying, we see sincerity in President Bush’s statements of support. Anecdotes of his visits to deployed or wounded troops make the rounds, and his off-camera attitude seems to reflect his on-camera speeches. Anecdotes of other politicians make the rounds, too, and give the lie to their speeches of support.

Yes, we’re tired of deployments. We’re tired of poor support and mediocre medical care. We’re tired of getting shot at. We’re particularly tired of attending the funerals of friends. But none of this is really new to us, and none of it is only six years old. Don’t expect us to blame the current incumbent for problems that we’ve suffered for decades, through Presidents and Congresses of both parties. It isn’t our fault that none of you noticed until now.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Czar of Blame

I read today that President Bush is considering appointing a new “Assistant to the President” to oversee our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. As is the current fashion, the press is calling the position “War Czar” – as good a term as any, I suppose.

At first I was confused by the idea. Don’t we already have somebody in charge? That’s the whole point of the military chain of command – SOMEBODY is in charge of everything we do. For the two wars, that would be the CENTCOM commander, ADM Fallon, though he’s certainly receiving guidance, advice, and direction from the Joint Chiefs, the SECDEF, and the President.

On further reading, though, I discovered that the problem is higher up. Yes, the military has somebody in charge, but the military isn’t running everything. The State Department has a big piece of it, and various other administrative agencies have their own fingers in the pie. As it stands now, the overall effort has suffered from infighting, as the separate agencies pull in different directions. Playing referee in the turf battles is apparently taking up too much of the President’s time, so he wants to put somebody in overall charge of the efforts, with power to issue taskings to these Cabinet-level agencies.

I see problems with that. First of all, it merely adds another layer to the potential for infighting – the War Czar will have the authority to issue orders to the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense, but only for issues regarding the wars. That leaves the agencies the “wiggle room” to refuse because obeying would “impact on other priorities,” or whatever. Instead of eliminating the petty arguments, it would simply add another voice to them. In addition, it gives the appearance of creating a “Super-Cabinet,” an additional layer between the President and his Constitutionally-mandated advisors.

Even worse, it attempts to solve the wrong problem. If these most senior advisors to the President, his own hand-picked Cabinet members, can’t work out issues through discussion and compromise in a spirit of cooperation, then why are they there? There shouldn’t be a need for someone to oversee those efforts and settle the fights, because we already have Secretary Gates and Secretary Rice to oversee the efforts – and they shouldn’t be wasting the time of their respective agencies in fighting each other. Bluntly, if they can’t settle things without a referee, then pick one of them and give her overall responsibility and authority. (I say “her,” because State is the senior Cabinet position – making Secretary Rice the easiest choice. But of course, the President could choose otherwise.) Or pick someone else already on the Cabinet to handle it – the position of Vice-President could certainly be given such authority without adding a new layer to the hierarchy. Or fire them both and get somebody in who CAN work and play well with others.

Of course, a cynic might see another motive to the whole exercise. By bringing in another person to take responsibility for the job, the President is adding another target for critics, redirecting the heat away from his Cabinet secretaries, his Vice-President, and himself. The position itself, much less the poor sucker…um, individual chosen to fill it, would be “expendable,” allowing the President to fire him for failing to properly implement Administration policy if (or when) it falls apart.

I note that at least three retired generals have turned down the job. All three were (obviously) long-term officers, successful leaders who retired after decades of honorable service in a field where “Duty to Country” and obedience to the Commander-in-Chief are nearly as ingrained as our habit of breathing. And yet all three said “no” when their President attempted to call them back to the service of their country – in fact, Gen. Sheehan’s comments sound more like “not just no, HELL, no!” I suspect that I’m not the only person to see that cynical side to the issue.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Foiled, Curses Again

I was reading Wil Wheaton's blog this weekend, and was briefly confused by one line – “…I swear to the FSM: why is it so _ing hard for these idiots to get the _ing story right?” After a moment of thought, I finally realized, to my amusement, that he was referring to the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

That reminded me of something that has bothered me for years – how should an Atheist curse? Obviously, we have full access to profanity and scatology…but is it really proper for us to blaspheme? And if we do, does it really express the same depth of feeling as it would for a believer for whom it is a sin?

I’ve seen various treatments of the problem in Science Fiction – more as a way around censorship by the publisher than as a real prediction of future speech patterns. However, a good SF author puts a little thought even into those minor details. Larry Niven handled it at least three different ways in various books and stories. For instance, in his Known Space stories, people on Earth had converted the euphemisms we currently use to hide profanity into curse words themselves – “Censor that, what the bleep do you think you’re doing?” The residents of the Asteroid Belt, however, had a different environment to cope with. When living in space, anything that CAN go wrong, WILL…kill you. In such hostile conditions, the Belters made a joke-religion of Finagle and Murphy, so that every curse became a reminder to minimize the chance for disaster – “Finagle curse you, get that airlock closed!” Most interestingly to me was the choice he and his co-authors made in the Dream Park trilogy. In a near future where most of California has dropped into the Pacific, “Drown you!” becomes the vilest of curses. I can imagine Katrina survivors picking this one up in real life…

None of this really answers the question, though. I’ve heard of Atheists cursing to “replacement gods,” like Ghu, or Roscoe, or now, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Other fictional worlds create their own, like “By Grapthar’s Hammer” from Galaxy Quest or Thundarr’s “Lords of Light!” I’ve considered adopting “smeg” from Red Dwarf, or “shazbot” from Mork and Mindy – I’d look to Star Trek, but where they use it at all, they mostly use standard 20th Century words. Of course, the problem is that none of those alternatives leap to mind at the right time – when you hit your thumb with the hammer, what pops out of your mouth is what your parents said in similar circumstances when you were a baby…regardless of your conscious beliefs or intentions.

Just out of curiosity – does anyone out there know from personal experience how believers in other religions curse? Islam, Buddhism, Paganism, Communism? If you were brought up in one of those traditions, or have hung around with someone who was, add a remark.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Up Close and Personal

I’ve gone back to listening to podcasts lately during my commute. One of the several with which I am experimenting is Evil Genius Chronicles by Dave Slusher, which so far seems to frequently feature the music of Michelle Mallone. (In fact, I think the term “raving fanboy” is not out of place here…) Edit - I'm listening to old archives of the podcast and slowly catching up. The Michelle Malone focus was a short-term feature in Fall 2006...but I stand by the term "raving fanboy." I’m not particularly recommending either the podcast or the music (though her tunes are not bad) – but in an interview with Ms. Mallone, Mr. Slusher commented that his anniversary is coming up, and he’s considering paying her for a “house concert” for the occasion. This intrigued me.

A brief mention by the comedy music duo Paul and Storm on The Bob and Tom Show provided a description of such a thing – contact your favorite “indie” band directly, and have them perform in your living room. (Or garage, or backyard, or wherever.) With no cost for renting the space, minimal equipment requirements, and no promoter taking a middleman cut, the performers get to keep 100% of the money, which means they can afford to ask for less. Meanwhile, the host gets an intimate and personal show, shared only with his friends. The price per person will certainly be more than the cost of a ticket to a regular show by that same band, maybe even much more – but it may well be LESS than a ticket to a major band.

In this digital age, where independent bands are better able to publicize themselves without the aid of major record companies, this may become a very common thing. Tickets for Jimmy Buffett or Paula Cole () may cost me as much as $200 just to take my family of four to a huge auditorium – but if I can get a couple dozen friends together, we might all be able to enjoy the Minstrels of Mayhem (ahem!) or the O’Danny Girls in person…and sit close enough to see their faces without binoculars.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Is Anyone Surprised?

It appears my guess that the British sailors were abused and coerced into giving false confessions has been confirmed. I am gratified to see that the Royal Navy does not cave in to captors as easily as the Iranians claimed. However, the 15 sailors and marines – and their families – have my most profound sympathies for the experiences they endured. It is most unfortunate that the Iranian people will only hear the lies of their government, and not the truth now revealed.

I also feel sure that someone will soon compare the treatment of the British sailors to the treatment of U.S. prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. They will further compare the falsehoods the Iranians publicized to the errors (or possibly even lies) about weapons of mass destruction that led to our invasion of Iraq. Let me point out a few differences. Any mistreatment of our own prisoners has been used to acquire real intelligence, not as a publicity stunt, in an effort to defend our country. Those prisoners have not been exposed to publicity, nor required to betray their countries or beliefs in front of their own people and the world. And most important of all, the errors and evils of our government are regularly revealed to our citizens through a free press, providing the opportunity for our citizens to change our government in response.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Survival of the Nicest

I read an Atlas Society interview with Michael Shermer, the author of The Science of Good and Evil. Dr. Shermer made some comments that really clarified for me my own beliefs in rational ethics. I believe that ethics and morality can be explained through the basic mechanics of evolution.

For example, let’s postulate a lone hunter-gatherer – a caveman. (Creationists, you can play along, too – I don’t see a lot of difference between the lifestyle of my lone caveman and that of Adam’s son Abel. Or assume a less-famous person from 100 years after Abel’s death, if you prefer.) This one person is solely responsible for feeding himself. He has no one else to take care of, and is free to consider anyone else he meets as a victim to be robbed, or even as prey to kill. Survival of the fittest, right?

Wrong. Let’s further assume that his two nearest neighbors have banded together. If they’re hunting, they can watch one another’s back, or one can flush game while the other lies in wait. They can guard each other while sleeping. Most especially, they can come at our lone hunter from two directions if combat becomes necessary. A pair of partners is “more fit” for that environment, and is more likely to survive.

The same logic applies to larger groups – a small band can hunt larger animals, more easily defend against other individuals or groups, and may even be able to produce enough excess food to support a non-productive person. That person may be the old chief, too old to hunt, but still able to pass on his years of experience. Or a dreamer – who, in his spare time, comes up with fire, or the wheel, or the bow. The band can even continue to support the children of a hunter who dies…which means that his DNA lives on. Again, this more cooperative hunter is more fit to survive and reproduce.

And so on up to villages, cities, nations. A person who can function in and provide benefit to a society is more fit to survive and to pass his genes on to the next generation. Functioning within a society requires the ability to get along with people, and to obey the laws of that society – and in general, those laws are rooted in ethical and moral behavior.

This sort of reasoning applies to more than just grouping people, of course. A society that is rooted in ethical behavior provides more benefits to itself and to the individuals within it – making it superior in any competition between societies. A slave society cannot compete with a free society, because slaves are not as productive as freemen – and yet they still have to be fed and cared for. Admittedly, the slaves don’t cost as much to feed or maintain as their masters, but the extra cost of guarding them, chasing down or killing runaways or rebellious slaves, and so on, eats up extra resources – enough extra to make a free society more productive on a per capita basis. In other words, behavior that benefits a subgroup, but hurts the society as a whole, is NOT as competitive.

Communism would seem to be the endpoint of such societal evolution – after all, “to each according to need, from each according to ability” would be the ultimate in cooperative society. However, unlike the other advances I mentioned, Communism provides benefits to the society ONLY – it does not directly provide benefits to the individuals that comprise it. That “need and ability” equation means the individual gets the same reward for working hard or slacking off, for inventiveness and creativity or for mindless drudgery – and of course, working hard or creatively is tougher. To generalize again, behavior that benefits society, but hurts the individual, is also not as competitive. This is why the Soviet Union fell apart, and why China is still second in the world for Gross Domestic Product, despite having four and a half times the population of the U.S.

So once again, ethics and morality in general make just as much sense to a rational atheist as they do to a theist – albeit with some disagreement on what issues should be included. It isn’t much…but for the good of our society and ourselves, maybe that could provide some common ground.