Tuesday, November 27, 2007

coalition of the wilting

courtesy of thinkprogress.org:

the defeated
countryleaderelectoral fate
albaniaf. nanovoted out, 7/05
australiaj. howardvoted out, 11/07
dom. rep.h. mejia d.voted out, 5/04
hungaryp. medgyessyvoted out, 8/04
italys. berlusconivoted out, 4/06
norwayk.m. bondevikvoted out, 9/05
romaniaa, năstasevoted out, 11/04
spainj.m. aznarvoted out, 3/04

the departed
countryleaderelectoral fate
britaint. blairbowed out, 6/07
el salvadorf.f. pereztimed out, 3/04
japanj. koizumibowed out, 9/06
polanda. kwaśniewskitimed out, 12/05

the dead-enders
denmarka.f. rasmussenheaded out, 2/07
s. korear. moo-hyunchillin' out

if looks could kill

a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, so the saying goes, especially in the hands of headline-hungry popular science writers, who claimed this weekend that we're killing the universe merely by looking at it:

new scientist reports a worrying new variant as the cosmologists claim that astronomers may have provided evidence that the universe may ultimately decay by observing dark energy, a mysterious anti gravity force which is thought to be speeding up the expansion of the cosmos.

the claim was sensational enough to merit an immediate debunking, and a thumping solid enough to force the theory's authors into a hasty retreat. so i needn't go into a rebuttal here.

i just want to address a pet peeve of mine regarding the ongoing abuse of the observer effect, one the most misunderstood concepts of modern science:

in science, the term observer effect refers to changes that the act of observing will make on the phenomenon being observed. for example, for us to "see" an electron, a photon must first interact with it, and this interaction will change the path of that electron. it is also theoretically possible for other, less direct means of measurement to affect the electron; even if the electron is simply put into a position where observing it is possible, without actual observation taking place, it will still (theoretically) alter its position.

(that last bit deserves translation: interaction is not dependent on the observer — or in other words, the universe will go on working without you! doh!)

to illustrate, if the observer himself set the abovementioned photon in motion with the use of say, a flashlight, then we can say the observer effect is indeed at work in this instance. however, if that photon was set in motion by ambient radiation (i.e., from the sun), then there is no observer effect and the observer is merely the fortunate recipent of the largesse of his environs. lastly, that ambient radiation will continue to interact with objects whether or not an observer is present to witness the interaction.

the idea that a person can effect something by merely observing it has been found extremely appealing to folks attracted to new age metaphysics and paranormal phenomenon, such as karma and telekinesis or telepathy. it gives them a high-sounding and sufficiently mystifying scientific principle onto which to hang what is still charitably considered pseudoscience.

this appeal is misplaced because the term "observation" as misused by paranormalists is clearly synonymous with the ordinary use of our eyes, which are not flashlights, but only passive recipients of photons. in science the term "observation" has a clearly more restrictive use (note the quotation marks enclosing the term "see" in the definition above, indicating that we are not talking about ordinary sight).

for example, for us to "see" an electron, a photon must first interact with it ...

because scientists often use the term "observation" synonymously with the term "measurement", paranormalists have been able to cleverly substitute a passive everyday experience for a far more involved, specialized and active process. but the act of "observation", especially in the realm of quantum mechanics, which operates only on the subatomic scale, means anything but a passive occurrence, and involves — like almost every scientific endeavorthe direct manipulation of the objects being measured, using specialized devices like particle accelerators:

... a more mundane observer effect can be the result of instruments that by necessity alter the state of what they measure in some manner. for instance, in electronics, ammeters and voltmeters need to be connected to the circuit, and so by their very presence affect the current or the voltage they are measuring.

so not only does ordinary passive observation by itself not affect that which is observed, any effects that are observed by any means can be traced to strictly physical causes.

so all you swamis can stop looking at me funny now.

it's not working.

Friday, November 23, 2007

a critical mass of cool

what digby said:

kennedy's legacy has been revised more often in the fewest years than probably any president in history. looking back, he falls short in many more ways than we all believed when i was young. he was a cold warrior to the bone and his actions sometimes failed to match his rhetoric. he was in office in very trying times with a very thin mandate.

but after the past few years of crazed chickenhawk neocons lifting his rhetoric of freedom and democracy to promote unprovoked wars of aggression, i came to especially appreciate his cool reaction to his biggest challenge — the cuban missile crisis. imagine if bush had been in office when that happened. well, we don't have to, really. we know what they did after 9/11 and it certainly wasn't this:

to help him decide what to do about the cuban situation, and how much risk to run of a nuclear exchange, kennedy assembled a small group that came to be called the executive committee of the national security council — or excomm for short. early in his presidency, kennedy had had to make a decision about a cia plan to land cuban exiles at the bay of pigs, in cuba, with the hope that these exiles would overthrow cuba's communist government, headed by fidel castro. kennedy had asked for advice about this from only a handful of people — those he knew he was officially obliged to consult. the operation proved to be a fiasco, and afterwards kennedy had resolved in future to consult more widely.

included in the excomm were the regular participants in national security council meetings, plus kennedy's brother, the attorney general robert kennedy, and the president's chief speechwriter, the white house counsel theodore sorensen. both of these men could help kennedy to think about the domestic political aspects of the crisis. the president also invited several other key advisors to join the group: c douglas dillon, who had held high posts under eisenhower and who gave kennedy a link to the republican leadership; dean acheson and robert lovett, who had served under president harry truman and could help kennedy see the current crisis in longer historical perspective; and a former ambassador to the soviet union, llewellyn (tommy) thompson, probably the person in the president's circle who was best acquainted with khrushchev.


in the first day's debates, everyone favoured bombing cuba. the only differences concerned the scale of attack. kennedy, bundy, and some others spoke of a 'surgical strike' solely against the missile sites. 'it corresponds to "the punishment fits the crime" in political terms', said bundy. others joined the chiefs of staff in insisting that an attack should also take out air defence sites and bombers, so as to limit losses of us aircraft and prevent an immediate air reprisal against us bases in florida.

by the third day, 18 october, another option had come to the fore. the under secretary of state, george ball, had commented that a us surprise attack on cuba would be '... like pearl harbor. it's the kind of conduct that one might expect of the soviet union. it is not conduct that one expects of the united states.' robert kennedy and secretary of state dean rusk concurred, rusk observing that the decision-makers could carry 'the mark of cain' on their brows for the rest of their lives. to meet this concern and to obtain time for gaining support from other nations, there developed the idea of the president's publicly announcing the presence of soviet missiles in cuba, ordering a blockade to prevent the introduction of further missiles, and demanding that the soviets withdraw the missiles already there. (both for legal reasons and for resonance with franklin roosevelt's 'quarantine address' of 1937, the term 'quarantine' was substituted for 'blockade'.)

to those of kennedy's advisers who still favoured quick use of military force (the 'hawks' in later classification), this quarantine constituted an ultimatum. if khrushchev did not capitulate within a day or two, a us air attack on cuba would follow, followed before long by an invasion. for those in the excomm who would later be classed as 'doves,' the quarantine bought time for possibly developing some diplomatic solution.


on 26-27 october, the crisis came to a head. khrushchev cabled kennedy that he was prepared to remove missiles from cuba in return for a us promise not to invade cuba — a promise that had already been given more than once. but, just as kennedy and his excomm began to discuss a response, khrushchev broadcast from moscow a second message saying the missiles would be removed if, in addition, the united states withdrew nuclear missiles and other 'offensive means' from turkey.

the second khrushchev message provoked furious debate. with ball in the lead, kennedy's advisers said almost unanimously that khrushchev's new condition was unacceptable. america's nato allies would think the united states was sacrificing their security for the sake of its own. kennedy alone seemed unconvinced. when ball said, 'if we talked to the turks ... this would be an extremely unsettling business', kennedy replied with asperity, 'well, this is unsettling now, george, because ... most people would regard this as not an unreasonable proposal ... i think you're going to have it very difficult to explain why we are going to take hostile military action in cuba ... when he's saying, "if you'll get yours out of turkey, we'll get ours out of cuba."'.

'what kennedy wanted was to mollify khrushchev without seeming to make a concession, and above all to avoid any prolonged negotiations.'

in the end, kennedy found a way to finesse the situation. he sent robert kennedy to see the soviet ambassador, anatoly dobrynin, to tell him that the missiles in turkey were obsolete, and that the us planned to pull them out within about six months. all this was true. he said further, however, that, if the soviet union used this knowledge to claim that the us had struck the deal proposed in khrushchev's radio message, kennedy would deny the claim and would not remove the missiles from turkey. what kennedy wanted was to mollify khrushchev without seeming to make a concession, and above all to avoid any prolonged negotiations. he had to insist that soviet missiles come out of cuba unconditionally, or he would compromise the display of firmness that he judged necessary to protect against a berlin crisis.

in fact, the exchange between robert kennedy and dobrynin had no effect. khrushchev had already decided to retreat to a simple request for a no invasion pledge. and the crisis ended on that basis. us reconnaissance aircraft kept watch while the soviets dismantled their missiles and loaded the parts on ships for return to the soviet union.

this threat was far, far greater than the threat of islamic terrorism where their weapon of mass destruction were hijacked airliners and box cutters. we were *this close* to nuclear war. the president himself was in charge and intelligent enough to seek advice from a range of people and analyze the situation with a clear dispassionate eye in the middle of a crisis. as that excerpt from the bbc shows, the initial reaction was to bomb first and ask questions later. it's probably human. but leaders of a great country, with massive military power, have an obligation to look beyond their understandable human reaction. kennedy, cold warrior though he was, had a nimble, creative and serious mind and he was able to see beyond the emotional response to the bigger picture.

this stuff matters. it matters a great deal. in fact, as we look to choose our next president we may want to inform ourselves as to whether the candidates have those kennedyesque qualities at least with the same degree of interest we take in whether they wear earth tones or cackle when they laugh.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

that's insultainment

in•sul•tain•ment [in'sәl-tãn'mәnt]


print, broadcast or online content, especially when distributed by a commercial entity, that is so stultifyingly stupid and/or devoid of actual news or information that it can only be considered an insult to the intelligence of (and may — or should — even induce fits of rage in) the viewer.

origin: november 10, 2007 (you heard it here first, folks!): blend of insult and entertainment: my doctor tells me i need to start watching something other than the o'reilly factor. he says all that insultainment's no good for my blood pressure!

see also: infotainment.

stacy and laci peterson: the eerie similarities
(cbs) it's like deja vu all over again.

this missing woman might not be pregnant, but the similiarities in the stacey peterson and laci peterson cases are eerie at best.... and not just because of their names.

laci peterson

what the husband said: scott said laci took the dog for a walk.

murder in the first: police have been investigating whether a college student, kristin smart, who went to cal poly at the same time of scott peterson might have been murdered by him.

a watery grave: police found the remains of laci after they washed up in the san francsico bay. the remains of the couple's unborn son, connor, washed up days before.

in the family way: laci rocha peterson was eight months pregnant when she was killed on december 24, 2002.

i'm not guilty: scott peterson is on death row in san quentin for the murder of laci and their unborn child. he maintains his innocence.

ironically: laci's best friend, since third grade, was a woman named stacey (boyers.)

stacy peterson
what the husband said: drew said stacy left voluntarily.

murder in the first: police now think drew peterson might have had something to do with his third wife's (kathleen salvio) mysterious bathtub drowning.

a watery grave: search crews are still looking for stacy. they recently dredged a nearby lake but found nothing.

in the family way: stacy peterson had two children with her husband drew when she was reported missing.

i'm not guilty: while he was officially called a "suspect" on november 9th for the october 28th dissapearance of his wife, drew maintains his innocence.

ironically: stacy peterson has a daughter named lacey.

i see that whoever at cbs news filed this brain-free fluff had just enough sense of professional self-preservation not to sign it.

nonetheless they should be dragged out into the sunlight and roundly flogged for the crime alone of contributing to the further corruption of the much-abused term "ironically".

Saturday, November 03, 2007

save our diplomats!

... from dubya! please!

oaths, the constitution, and the u.s. embassy in iraq

the bush administration is taking a hard line on dragooning civilian foreign service officers into serving in the war zone of iraq. the article contains a quote by ambassador ryan crocker which says that the fso's swear an oath to serve anywhere in the world. this is not true. they swear an oath to uphold the constitution. they sign a contract that allows them to be posted anywhere. there is a difference, and the two documents may actually be in contradiction. for instance, what if the government did something unconstitutional and wanted to send you to support that action ... ?

another retired u.s. diplomat sent me this:

i am also a retired foreign service officer, and strongly second the view of the anonymous fso (retired) whom you cited in your column today. the issue really is not the commitment to world-wide service undertaken by fsos. the decision by the bush administration to not only keep an embassy open in a war zone, but increase its size to make it one of the largest in the world, is simply testimony to the madness of the entire iraq "adventure," and the fraudulent nature of the expressed rationale for our being there. most of the staff in this "embassy" do not speak the language and cannot act effectively as diplomats, even if that were the purpose in sending them there. but that is not the purpose. ...

the willingness of secretary rice, or dr. ferragamo as she is known on one satirical website, to continue supporting this war of occupation through this "embassy" and more broadly through her declaration of a new order known as "transformational diplomacy" simply confirms that she is not a "moderate" voice for diplomacy against the likes of dick cheney. diplomats do not "transform" other countries. they represent the interests of the u.s. to the governments and citizens of other, independent, countries.

again, please write your congressional representatives and senators, and contact your local democratic and republican party organizations, and urge them in the strongest terms to close down the us embassy in iraq. it has no business being there. it is under constant mortar and rocket attack, cannot actually conduct diplomacy, and is a thinly veiled viceregal palace intended to perpetuate bush's neo-colonialism.

to end the war, begin with what is possible. close the embassy. save our diplomats.

by the way, [this] is the sort of news still coming out of iraq every day, with 3 more us troops killed. that's a "lull"? and, see phillip carter on the dark side of the 'good news' about iraq. the fact is that it is still one of the most violent places on earth and the decline in fighting comes in part in baghdad because the city has gone from being 50/50 sunni and shiite to being 75% shiite, with much of this change having come in 2007 under the nose of the surge troops from the us.

diplomacy with iraq's neighbors can be done outside iraq better. diplomacy with iraqi politicians can still be pursued (most of them live outside the country anyway).

save the diplomats. save the world.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

turnips in the morning

it's what's for breakfast every day in iraq: today so far, six bodies turned up in baghdad, eight turned up in mosul, one turned up in kirkuk ...

(photo courtesy of InvisibleParadigm)