Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

One Space Program, Under God, Indivisible ....

Somehow I missed this: President Nixon wanted that plaque on the moon left by Apollo 11 to read as follows:
We came in peace, under God, for all mankind
Well, I'm not sure about the commas. I supplied those. It's a reasonable guess, though. You have to admit, without commas it would have come across as breathless, as if moonsuits only had enough oxygen for Neil to scramble out there, fling a plaque onto the lunar regolith, and crawl back into the LEM to gasp. Likewise, if you attribute the words directly to Nixon, doing without the commas would have lacked gravitas, rather as if he'd said
So whom should we thank for averting this cosmic faux pas? According to Julian Scheer, Assistant Administrator of NASA for Public Affairs from 1962 to 1971, the only reason we didn't get that wording is because of his canny sense of bureaucratic chaos. Here is his 1999 memory of a 1969 exchange with Nixon loyalist Peter Flanigan:
"Dammit, Julian, the President wants that change. The president is big on God."


"Julian, Billy Graham is here nearly every Sunday. The President wants 'God' on the plaque!"

There was nothing left to do but say "yes."

It occurred to me that in the rush of events, no one would remember. That worked out. The plaque that has been resting on the Sea of Tranquility for 30 years is the original, without the benefit of President Nixon's editing.
Flanigan joined Bechtel - which then as now is a GOP-linked petrodollar laundromat - after serving in the Nixon administration. According to an obit from his alma mater, Scheer went into management and communications consulting, then went on to work in corporate public relations for LTV, an aerospace/defense contractor. His role in the Apollow program was clearly the peak of his career:
Apollo astronaut Frank Borman told The Washington Post, “The (space) program was really a battle in the Cold War, and Julian Scheer was one of its generals.”
A general with a brain, apparently. One wonders what Billy Graham had to say about it all.

Monday, August 30, 2004

The Business of Government

Let's run the government more like a business. Yeah. Right. Last time I heard this one, it was from Bill O'Reilly while debating Paul Krugman. It's unforgiveably ad hominem to tar that idea by association with a guy whose debating tactics amount to petulant name-calling and seeing how many times he can interrupt his debating partner even when it's not on his show. Government as business - there are lots of ways in which it makes sense, actually. Just don't listen to Bill O'Reilly when he's spouting off about it.

I heard a lot of this "government as business" rhetoric when I was working for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory back in the early 90s, in their Electronic Commerce/EDI project. They wanted to trailblaze e-commerce in the defense sector. With electronic transactions, specifically. K-Mart does it, they said. General Motors does it. Why can't we? It was tilting at windmills at the time, but seemingly of the most noble sort. "Cut the fat, keep the muscle" was our Fearless Leader's refrain. We were ahead of our time.

One problem with this government-as-business notion is that, tragically often, the conservatives who shout it most often pull back from the brink when they figure out what it means. Robert Cringely penned an excellent column recently, one of his scattered departures from commenting on the IT scene, with Fred Nold's Legacy: Why We Send So Many Americans to Prison and Probably Shouldn't. If the economists he cites are to be believed (or if they even said what he thinks they said - he's talking about a buried paper), prison sentencing as we do it now, with longer terms, is simply uneconomical. It only grows the prison system and makes the social problems that contribute to crime even worse. And this conclusion was reached by some researchers who were looking at sentencing policy from a business point of view.

Here's my other problem with government-as-business: what about the problem of making business more like liberal democracy? Shouldn't that take precedence? Capitalism, from my frog's-eye employee view, hasn't seemed like the triumph of the freest and most competent. It seems more like the survival of the least incompetent socialist dictatorship. Every company I've worked for has fit this mold: is has been organized economically as a command economy, and politically as a top-down bureaucracy. At best. More often it looks like a collection of feuding fiefdoms, utterly lacking any rigorous judiciary.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Warming to Global Warming, or Just More Blazing Straddles?

Hmph, the first half of that headline has already been taken by the New York Times. My quibble is expressed by adding a question mark.

George Bush's energy secretary and science advisor have both signed reports essentially admitting that industrial-society emissions are behind the warming trend in recent decades. But ... Bush himself seemed unaware of this, when asked about it an interview. "Ah, did we? ... I don't think so." (Well, I hope he is at least aware that the invasion of Iraq was undermanned, and the potential for resistance was, um, "misunderestimated," since he said as much recently.)

The USGCRP report describing is pretty unequivocal.
Multiple ensemble simulations of the 20 th century climate have been conducted using climate models that include new and improved estimates of natural and anthropogenic forcing. The simulations show that observed globally averaged surface air temperatures can be replicated only when both anthropogenic forcings, e.g., greenhouse gases, as well as natural forcings such as solar variability and volcanic eruptions are included in the model. These simulations improve on the robustness of earlier work.
Figs 8a and 8b - arctic sea ice shrinking - are compelling. Fig 9 is interesting, too: it illustrates some differences between simulations with and without anthropogenic forcing gases. And that graphic is followed by this:
A recent study shows that the average global results reported above also pertain over the North American region. Several indices of large-scale patterns of surface temperature variation were used to investigate climate change in North America over the 20 th century. The observed variability of these indices was simulated well by several climate models. Comparison of index trends in observations and model simulations shows that North American temperature changes from 1950 to 1999 were unlikely to be due only to natural climate variations. Observed trends over this period are consistent with simulations that include anthropogenic forcing from increasing atmospheric greenhouse gases and sulfate aerosols.
Is it climbdown to admit the obvious? Good question. Dick Cheney has openly softened on gay marriage - as well he might, considering he has a lesbian daughter, and a wife who wrote a novel in which a lesbian relationship was portrayed in non-judgmental terms. Some months back, we even had Colin Powell more or less admitting that the choice of Iraq was partly driven by the need for "stable, democratic nation that will provide oil to the world market," causing scarcely a ripple in the news.

Well, one thing is for sure, it's not a climbdown when you seem not to know that your own administration has started feeling with one foot for a lower rung. Could Bush have been feigning ignorance? Could this be campaign posturing? The current straddle works both ways, after all. Republicans convinced of anthropogenic global warming (what few there may be) can point to Bush cabinet members' positions. And the faithful who think that climate change warning signs are all Chicken Little screeching can point to Bush's apparent obliviousness as a sign that he hasn't endorsed this position. People will remember what they want to remember. What Bush Knew and When He Knew It about global warming could be a forgotten issue in a week's time, especially if some SBVT die-hard shoots (or gets shot by) someone who hates SBVT, in some bar in Wyoming. What people will remember is whatever feels right to them.

We've got wide straddle on the gay marriage thing, too. Those Traditional Values people can point to Bush's continued support for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between a man and a woman, when you point out Cheney's clarified position on this issue. And for all we know, Cheney's admission was the opening note of a Cheney swan song, a clearing of the path to some less disastrous choice of Vice-President in what promises to be a real squeaker of an election.

Are we warming the atmosphere? Did we go into Iraq in part for its oil? Will Dick Cheney support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as sacrosanct union between a woman and something recognizably human? All I know is: straddle rules.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Najaf in the headlines - not

Najaf was not on the front page of today's International Herald Tribune. How can this be? As I write, American forces are still pounding the surrounding areas of the shrine, and Ayatollah Sistani and his entourage crawl under British armed guard through traffic jams on the road from Basra to Najaf, traffic jams he himself created when he called upon followers to descend on the city.

I really did inspect the IHT's front page, but ... no Najaf. Even in that under-the-fold capsule summary Update section of the IHT, all they felt like reporting was President Arroyo of the Phillipines pronouncing her government "already in the midst of a fiscal crisis." She said it only sometime this week, not yesterday, and the article cites analysts as saying she was only "stating the obvious." Non-news is news, and Najaf is not?

The Tokyo edition of the IHT contains the Asahi Shinbun, and there is no Najaf on that sub-front page either. The latest Iraq news from that journalistic quarter is about the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) encampment in Iraq and its supposed lack of security. Hot news flash: on August 23nd (three days ago, guys!) "[s]everal explosions [were] heard near the GSDF camp." I guess the Dutch troops protecting the Japanese troops are falling down on the job. And I guess any Iraqi soldier who might shoot at another Iraqi to protect Dutch troops who are protecting Japanese troops is ... blasting away in the vicinity of the Imam Ali shrine.

There is news on Najaf, however. Go to Google News and you'll find it. Google's lead story might be 22 hours old - during which the Allawi government has probably announced twice that rooting Mahdi fighters out of the mosque compound was only "hours away" - but click on that link that says "umpteen thousand related" and you'll get your Najaf news bits hot off the e-presses, sorted latest-first. I've been clicking on that link almost every hour.

And that's how I ran across Georgie Anne Geyer's interesting thinkpiece. Half update, half media analysis, she urges her readers to check inside the paper, if they don't see Najaf on the front page. "It is almost as if no one notices anymore," she sighs, leading off the article. Americans are mainly tuning into the churning wake of campaign spin stirred up by those pesky Swift Boat Veterans, rehashing Vietnam during Iraq's fateful moment.

Geyer may not like my brand of politics, but she outdoes me (somehow) in her (admittedly clever) use of (mostly parenthetical) equivocations.
It seems that about every other hour, the Iraqi government (if it really is one) issues another warning to the Mahdi militias (if they do not really constitute some kind of army) inside the great Imam Ali Mosque to leave the shrine, or else ... We Americans, who are doing most of the fighting around the most holy shrine in Shiite Islam (which has destroyed virtually all of the blocks around it), continue to insist that this battle is under the Iraqi government (if there really is one).
My kinda gal, that Georgie.

She could be right about Kerry vs. Swifties being such a big distraction. Then you had the greywashing of Rummy on Abu Ghraib by a panel headed by James Schlesinger. Big news of a sort, but still just news about old news. Today's not exactly a slow news day. Najaf could be getting lost in the mix. But I have another theory.

Allawi kicked out Al-Jazeera out of Iraq not so long ago, and ordered ALL press out of Najaf. There were even reports of journalists getting shot at by the police in Najaf, though I don't know how whether to credit them. The point is this: reporting news from Najaf became a crime. As I check hourly, I've noticed a funny thing: Reuters and other wire services dribble out only two or three paragraphs on this subject, with only one or two actual new facts to report.

So maybe one of the reasons we're not getting much about Najaf, much less front page stories, is that much that's newsworthy is not getting written down, and what little is getting inked isn't currently getting out. As well, what does get out usually sounds old even if it's new, because the situation has spiraled through several almost-indistinguishable states reported at some remove from actual events.

"Fierce fighting reported."
"Ceasefire being negotiated."
"Agreement almost at hand."
"Negotiations fall through."
"Fierce fighting reported."

Maybe Americans would rather rehash Vietnam right now than check in on a story that sounds like Vietnam. And maybe 40 years from now, we'll be having presidential elections about some issue that's almost indistinguishable. About who took what kind of enemy fire (if any) in support of an Iraqi government (if Iraq really had one). About how deep and serious the wounds were (if they weren't in fact self-inflicted rather than from some Mahdi Army teenager's IED). About what kinds of medals they got for those wounds (and whether they threw those medals away in protest of the Iraq War or not). About why some commanding officers wrote glowing official reports of an American GI in his twenties, fighting in Najaf even as I write this, only to reverse themselves two generations later when that GI is running for president, on the basis of memories that couldn't have become any sharper in the meantime.

If, two generations from now, some such sorry repetition comes to pass, remember: you heard it hear first. Me, I hope I'll be pushing up daisies. Who'd want to live through this again?

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The (Vietnam) War Comes Home - Again?

The Pink Bunny of Battle, in an entry entitled "They Have Sown the Wind; They Shall Reap the Whirlwind", opines that the whole Swift Boat Veterans for Mudslinging issue might come to blows - and even shots. People on both sides of the issue are reacting with "rage". Well, I'm in Tokyo, mostly hanging out with Canadians, so what do I know? Pink Bunny sees it in living color and real time:
As I've tried to talk to people about this in the last few days -- people in my family, colleagues, strangers that I've struck up a conversation with in gas stations -- I hear shouting, threats, denunciations, filthy language that seems out of character, and -- most frightening of all -- a deep, pent-up, insatiable rage (anger isn't strong enough)... and they're Democrats as well as Republicans. Just browse the chat rooms -- left as well as right -- and you'll see what I mean.
Michael Totten shrugs it all off. He was three when the Vietnam war ended. I don't have that advantage - I wasn't quite old enough to be eligible for the draft when the Vietnam War was still raging, but my mother was constantly warning me about my grades in high school, saying if I didn't clean up my act, I might get shipped off to fight the Viet Cong. As well, my hometown of Berkeley periodically erupted in demonstrations - some of them pretty violent - over Vietnam. It left indelible memories.

But when it comes right down to it, I didn't go. And many American men did. It was perhaps only a matter of time before we'd have a presidential election in which the Vietnam generation would face itself.

Clinton gave us sort of a reprieve. McCain bowed out in the 2000 primaries. Bob Kerrey never went the distance in years past.

But John Kerry vs. George W. Bush - that makes it as clear as it's ever likely to be, and in a contest with resonant context: Iraq is not likely to leave the front pages before November. With Najaf burning down like a fuse, Iraqi oil flowing only sporadically, the Abu Ghraib story's branching tentacles reaching ever further up the chain of command, and oil prices fluttering around unprecedented highs on war fears, threatening an oil-shock economy, the stink has become uncontainable. If it all starts to smell like southeast asian jungle rot to some people who would know, it could bring out the worst in veterans on both sides.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Chavez and all that oil (and gas)

A comment here about oil, and Hugo Chavez, but first ....

In the blog comment forums to which I contribute, my expressed opinions (only the tip of undoubtedly calamitous iceberg) are often aligned with those of leftist contributors. I sometimes feel I should do a monthly posting of my real ideological coordinates. Well, here they are.

The fact is, I almost never disagree with Paul Krugman except when I find some equally reputable economist pointing out that he's strayed off the reservation of economic received wisdom (and that's rare enough.) I think I'm as pro-market and pro-private property as it's possible to be, and still have some room for reason and compassion. And I think that if I'm wrong in those areas (I'm always willing to reconsider), I'm only wrong in the good company of some people who are a lot smarter than I am.

With that out of the way: Hugo Chavez is definitely using oil as both carrot (domestically) and stick (in foreign affairs.) Yes, he's effectively buying votes with oil money, and the only questions this behavior poses are whether he's buying them in the right way, for the right purposes. Is he an Allende? A Peron? A Castro in the making? Oh, I'm sure some of you see an embryonic Pol Pot if you squint at him sideways. Well, forget all that: he's a product of circumstances and systems, first and foremost, and oil is a big component of both. A focus on his personality or particulars of rhetoric is really beside the point. If not Chavez, it would probably be someone else not terribly different at this point in Venezuela's development.

Will the Venezuela oil windfall go away with dropping oil prices, leaving Chavez to hang? Don't bet on it. It's echoing around the business pages these days: we'll probably never see oil below $40/bbl again in our lifetimes. Even experts who feel certain that the recent runup is speculative frenzy are describing relief in terms of a return to around $43/bbl, not $23/bbl (where it was early this year - oh, how long ago that seems.) So Chavez is going to have his carrot-stick for a long time, a tuber-truncheon that any successor will inherit as well.

Oil is politically slippery stuff. It seldom brings out the best in a developing nation, and more often only makes things worse - see Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, and earlier, Indonesia's kleptocratic snakepit of oil corruption, yielding the OPEC's first BANKRUPT national oil industry. If you're Norwegian, of course, not to worry. You were already in mixed-economy democratic welfare-state paradise. North Sea oil just meant you could finance your kid's PhD, not just his M.A. But if you're Chadian, you do worry - Chadians looked around in dismay at their immediate Middle East neighbors, and decided to put their new-found oil earnings into an internationally monitored trust, to be spent on legitimate development priorities. In this, Chad may have only formalized and legitimized a program of social stability and improvement whose more socially-entrepreneurial Arab state precedent was ... well ... you won't like this. Chad was answering the question: "How can we become 1970s Libya without the Qadaffi?"

As well, oil is globally problematic for the environment. Guess which country has the highest CO2 emissions per capita? Yep: Kuwait, which probably has the most oil per capita, and no other source of energy anywhere near as cheap. It's adding up now. If you haven't felt some change in the air in recent years, you must be living in a freezer. It'll only get worse before it gets better, even under a ratified Kyoto Protocol.

Maybe it's time to recognize that humanity's petro windfall is not just everybody's problem, but also everybody's asset. The SF writer Kim Stanley Robinson - a Marxist in his view of capitalism's problems, if not in his mullings over solutions - said in a panel discussion recently that he'd like to see the Antarctica Treaty amended to creep toward us all at the rate of one degree of latitude per year. And it was a good point, because among the many ridiculous global inequities introduced by strictures of citizenship in a complex of nation states, geology has endowed some citizens with an equality much greater than others. Property rights in the sense of demarcations of land area is something I have no issue with. Mineral rights within national boundaries, however, have set global civilization some real issues. It's possible we'll see something like Robinson's scenario no matter what - the next major hydrocarbon fuel source might be ocean hydrates, most of which are outside the 200-mile EEZ areas, in a global commons.

Chavez is smart about this - he realizes that his 'revolution' is oil-financed, that the recent price run-up is just a small market windfall within a much bigger geological one, and so he talks up his South America energy independence plans. He aims to internationalize Venezuela's advantages to some extent, to spread wealth effects, at least through continental pipeline networks. In a United States of South America, with free flow of labor across borders, the oil wealth would in fact flow more freely, benefiting more than just Venezuelans, in the way that an oil strike in Texas or offshore Alaska benefits people in Boston through rippling economic effects. South America isn't there yet, and it may never be, but for all the anti-U.S.-imperialism rhetoric, this program of his sounds as truly Bolivarian as it's practical to be right now.

South America is a huge continent, a whole world unto itself. It could be world with its own energy security, with some degree of common ownership of all natural resources. It could be a world where Venezuela's (and Brazil's) oil and gas belongs to everybody in it, but also a world in which everyone sees that the problems that oil and gas create are equally distributed. Or rather, UNequally distributed: global climate change will, after all, hurt the poor the most, and South America is bursting at the seams with poverty.

Problems are solved with models first. Africa needs a model. Central Asia needs a model. So do the Asia Pacific nations, with their wealth of oil and gas. This is one thing Chavez talks about that I'd like to see succeed. And it's about issues on which I think any fully rational pro-market liberal democrat might ultimately agree with a Marxist. After all, it's not getting any cooler out there.

Monday, August 23, 2004

What About the Hedge Fund Mistress?

Whatever you do today, don't look at

Oh, you peeked, did you? (And if she finally figured out how to take it down, here's Daily Kos on the subject.)

Lee Roystone is the pen name of one Lee Whitnum, who was somehow a Harvard graduate student long ago, despite her evident lack of mastery of punctuation as basic as the question mark. Somehow, she is also a "former computer science teacher," according to The Washington Post's Reliable Source, even though she has trouble with web interfaces designed for 12-and-up. She was John Kerry's girlfriend for a wonderful, whirlwind 20 months of her life, way back when. Until he dumped her for someone with a brain, I guess: Teresa.

Could Whitnum have been what Bush was referring to when he announced his opposition to Ivy League 'legacies'?

Now she's putting out a novel, Hedge Fund Mistress, using her erstwhile romance with Kerry as an initial plot point. What's next? Pork Belly Futures Gigolo? Or maybe she'll get a million dollar advance to write Martha Stewart into a plotline lifted from Chained Heat? Stay tuned for Whitnum's talk show appearances. This could be weirder than anything in this election season so far.

Before embarking on HFM, Lee Whitnum wrote an SF novel called What About the Dead? Well, what about the dead, anyway? Her answer is complex. And lost in space. Somewhere in the inky void between her ears.

Maybe the problem is that she didn't use a Montblanc Limited Edition Franz Kafka fountain pen, which is presumably different from the inscription device used in his short story, In the Penal Colony. I'm sure that, coming from her, the agony would be roughly equivalent, however.

Franz Kafka pens in a Montblanc limited edition. I know you think this is a joke. It isn't. Not to go Dave Barry on you or anything, but I am not making this up. I got it from a press release excerpt at the end of The Reliable Source column cited above.
Headlines have been plagued with celebrity trials this summer -- Michael Jackson, Martha Stewart, Cameron Diaz and Courtney Love, to name just a few. With pleas of 'not guilty' before the courtroom, their appeals are reminiscent of Joseph K. in Franz Kafka's 'The Trial.' Above the law, breaking the law, whatever the law, it's clear that establishing one's innocence is the celebrity trend of the summer. . . . Montblanc's verdict is in: The Limited Edition Franz Kafka fountain pen is the ultimate accessory for summer trials. Dressed in bordeaux transparent resin, The Kafka writing instrument transitions from square to round. Available in fountain pen ($725) and ballpoint pen ($395) at Montblanc boutiques nationwide, including Washington DC Boutique.
Looks like Montblanc has no website - course not, they are Elegant Luddites! The Web is The Competition. Death before dishonor! However, a little googling reveals that the product, at least, is for real. As for the press release, so Onionesque ... well, maybe Lee Whitnum does PR for Montblanc?

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Time to buy alternative energy stocks?

Oil prices are much in the news these days, but one headline struck me as suggesting a real fin de siecle: High crude here to stay. Subtitle: "Experts say oil may never dip below $40."

There is a more-than-faint redolence of bias here, I must admit. The story is from the Calgary Sun, the energy experts cited are local boys, and Canada has recently been ranked as having the world's second largest supplies of oil (knocking the problematic Iraq off that rung) by virtue of its tar sands deposits. These deposits are considered worth exploiting when oil prices exceed $20/bbl, and they are being exploited. A friend of mine here in Japan sometimes goes back to Canada to work crane-operator jobs, and recently spoke of the exhilarating vista of cranes receding as if to the horizon at one tar sands site.

The stuff is right here on the surface - it's just not easily processed after you've scooped it up, and quality varies. Until we go to war with Canada, however, there will be no war premium for oil extracted from Canadian tar sands. Oil prices currently jitter on an hourly basis over abstruse economic questions like:

(2) Will Moqtada al-Sadr will bring the key to Imam Ali Shrine to the supreme Shi'ite clerics?

(2) Or they will come to him for the key?

(3) Or, hey, maybe al-Sadr will just leave the key under the Imam Ali Shrine doormat after locking up on his last night in Najaf?

Compare Canada. The most you have to worry about is our president shaking hands with their ex-prime minister in a photo-op, only to stir a fuss in crossing back over the border when the DEA's canines snarl at the Commander in Chief for the faint cannabinoid traces smeared onto his hands by the handshake, the trace THC molecules having originally been transferred from the Canadian's nightly hash-pipe. That sort of incident might take a little smoothing over, but it's mothing like finding out that a kidnapped Halliburton truck-driver is being held in Basra by Iranians who were trained in camps run rather openly in Pakistan, our "ally."

I'd write more, but I have to go check the price of oil again.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Ubiquitous Qubits, Virtual Economics

I can't get over quantum cryptography. It's now been demonstrated across the Vienna sewer system of all places. The systems at the endpoints are still heavy - they don't fit into 19" racks. But they might shrink, since almost everything involving electronics and lasers seems to get miniaturized eventually, if my Sony Discman is any indication. The distances are still limited, though they've grown from centrimeters to over a kilometer. The data rates for key transfer started slow, but are expected to become respectable soon enough. And the impetus may be real: quantum supercomputing could eventually render standard public-key cryptosystems obsolete. That would mean all current e-commerce gone in a puff.

Quantum cryptosystems are being targeted for large electronic funds transfers right now, where it makes the most economic sense. Military apps are being considered, even key exchange for satellite communication - though how they'd get the optical fiber up to a satellite escapes me.

Move over Namibia: virtual world economies have just surpassed your GDP, according to Edward Castronova. Invisible market hands and increasingly visible court-tested virtual-world property rights are now moving virtual world economies toward the next hurdle: overtaking the GDP of Haiti. Well, you gotta start somewhere. Virtual world labor productivity ranks up there with Bulgaria. Bulgaria! It boggles the minds of even the experts in this area.

"When you realise the immense cultural impact that a place like Jamaica has had," Castronova says, "you also realize the potential impact that virtual worlds might have." I think he's talking about reggae music here. Pass me that e-spliff, mon. Ja love.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Googe's Initial Public Ogling

Despite a Bloomberg report a few days ago about Google futures, suggesting that the stock price would tend to increase - maybe settling more in the neighborhood of $115 - Google has sold about 20 million shares at around $85, way toward the low end of projections. But still much higher than my estimate of Google's eventual price: $7-$9 per share.

My friend John Levine points out that imaginary numbers in stock prices might be useful for valuing acquisitions, which are so often justified in terms of "synergies" that seldom pan out. Multiply an imaginary stock price by another imaginary stock price, and you get a real number - a real negative number. Google will probably make quite a few acquisitions, even if its winnings in this IPO turn out very modest compared to hyped expectations. So here's my investment advice: listen for the S-word in Google acquisition PR, and take up short positions when you're sure the buyout will go through on stock-swap terms. You might start a Google News Alert for yourself, with "Google", "synergy", "acquisition" and "stock-swap" as the search terms. You can't lose with this one. Really. Remember, you heard it hear first.

My friend Michael Harris mentions something I didn't know: Physics Today runs full-page ads by Google, listing obscure math problems and asking people to e-mail their solutions if they want a job at Google. Weird. Interesting. What are they up to, anyway?

Well, I think I've got a clue. I've read that Google aims not just to be able to search the Web more comprehensively and efficiently, but to actually automate understanding of what's out there on the Web. (Good luck with my blog entries, Google!)

Now, think about this for a minute. Understanding the Web that its reading will put Google's supercomputer complexes in a position to take over the world. Taking over the world: what a brilliant business strategy, eh? (Or maybe not - I wonder how much aliens would pay for Earth right now if you put it on the transgalactic market? Maybe we're just a penny stock.)

In any case, Google's plan for global domination is going to require some very smart people indeed, and the world is awash in underemployed physicists. So this Google Physics Today ad campaign sounds pretty smart to me. Then again ... what do I know? Only what Google tells me, these days.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Google's IPO: $e billion vs. pi in the sky

I haven't closely followed the Google IPO news, and much of my neglect owes to simple aversion. My dread is only increased when I dip into the tech biz news feeds, only to discover Google founders overestimating their site-hits by three orders of magnitude, and this in a Playboy interview, during an SEC-mandated quiet period. I guess that hasn't been the only slip in this comedy of errors. The SEC's solution? To mandate the inclusion of a Playboy story for the first time ever in a stock prospectus. Oh goody, does it come with a fold-out?

OK, here's a really weird one: Google's plan isn't for a $3 billion dollar offering, but for a $2,718,281,828 offering. That absurdly precise figure is 1 billion times the mathematical constant 'e', minus the trailing sub-dollar digits, which would otherwise go on forever. You might write it as "e billion dollars". If you want to check that value, just type
into the Google search box and hit enter. You'll get the value of e (and a link to 'More about calculator', a Google feature I didn't know about until just now), and maybe 23 million links after that.

OK, but why 'e'? Here I speculate. FIrst, e is irrational, and that makes sense in the case of Google's IPO, especially for its estimated stock price. However, pi is also irrational, and it's closer to the value 3. If the founders of Google are hoping to inspire some irrational exuberance, any of several irrational number constants would do. So perhaps 'e' was chosen for its association with exponentiation, with "e to the power of x" (written "exp") being supplied as a function in many, if not most, programming languages. Maybe Google's founders hope to reignite exponentially irrational exuberance, of the kind we saw up until early 2000. As well, 'e' is a universal prefix that got attached to almost every new idea during the Bubble. So I must admit: e has got some real resonance value over other constants. ("Theta"? Sounds like Scientology going public. "Gamma"? I don't know if investors would be interested in such a "hot" stock.)

Me, I would considered including i. i, you might remember from high school algebra, is the square root of -1, the problem being that there is no ordinary number yielding -1 when you multiply it by itself. Still, this didn't stop mathematicians, who grudgingly accepted 'imaginary numbers' when it turned out they could do some pretty useful interesting math with them. Just as they grudgingly accepted 'irrational numbers' well before that.

As long as we're being hermetically geeky with our IPOS, let's recall a famous equation in mathematics, "e to the power of i times pi equals -1", beloved of math geeks for so mystically and pithily combining so many interesting and weird constants. I think Google's formula might be leaving something out, and this equation inspires the erstwhile math geek in me.

My choice of a number for a Google IPO offering would be $1 billion times i times pi, where i is the imaginary value of free information. Or shall we say "pi billion i-dollars"? As a figure, its magnitude is pretty close to 'e billion dollars', but it fits in two terms of the Geek Equation and it expresses something else about the value of Google that an ordinary number - even an ordinary
irrational number - does not.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Mahdi Mines

You have to wonder about the strength of a government that apparently has no control over 2 million residents of its own capital city. A Newsweek story offers some details of urban insurgency defense tactics, including how gunmen in Sadr City lay mines in a street without hardly trying:
Traps had been laid. A NEWSWEEK correspondent watched as other fighters brazenly planted more than a dozen hidden bombs, or improvised explosive devices (IEDs). First they set fires inside tires lying in the street, which melted the macadam underneath. Then they sank the IEDs into the molten asphalt and let them cool. Within hours, there was no sign of the devices, which could be detonated with the remote control of a car alarm whenever Coalition vehicles passed by.
It probably helps that the asphalt starts out pretty gooey in the first place, under direct sunlight and 125 degree F heat.

Can they keep this up? Sure they can. First of all, consider expertise - at you will learn that Iraq is one of the most heavily mined nations in the world. There are plenty of Iraqis who know their way around explosives.

How about materials? Car alarm electronics won't be hard to find in a country with a high rate of car ownership and (recently) a very high crime rate. And it doesn't stop with car alarms. As points out:
Some of the IEDs have been remotely detonated using relatively simple, readily available low-technology devices, such as garage door openers, car alarms, key fobs, door bells, toy car remotes, FRS and GMRS two-way radios, cellular telephones and pagers – which enable radio frequency command detonation. Therefore, this implies that observation of the target area probably requires line-of-sight observation points in many cases. However, the adaptation of using radios, cell phones and other remote control devices has given the enemy the standoff ability to watch forces from a distance and not be compromised.
How about timing? Triggering of IEDs pretty much has to be done manually, by someone in the line of sight of the target. However, in the close quarters of a slum district like Sadr City, having "standoff ability" might amount to peering out a window a few floors up, peering around a corner a half a block away, or crouching in weeds in a vacant lot. says that 40-60% of attacks in Iraq start with IED detonations (and increasingly constitute the entire attack). It's "the poor man's mortar fire," in tactical terms.

Burying mines invisibly in street asphalt hardly exhausts the range of mine-siting possibilities.
Many IEDs have been placed in these median strips, some placed under girders. Meals, ready-to-eat (MRE) boxes, soda cans, manholes, tunnels burrowed under roads, cement-encased bomb projectiles, and even dead animal carcasses have been used by the insurgents to conceal IEDs.
A pile of rocks or garbage will do, and a war-torn slum will offer plenty of such camouflage. It's probably only a matter of time before the insurgents can collect (or fake) enough U.S./Iraqi GI combat apparel to clothe dummies to be dragged over IED emplacements in the heat of battle - assuming they haven't put together such collections already.

Beyond a certain level of popular support for an insurgency that has urban warfare tactics like this at its disposal - a level which may have already been reached in certain places in Iraq - there is only one way to uproot it without massive casualties. You prepare a very large refugee camp, and then you start leveling the area with bombs, block by block, herding people out of the city and into that camp. Pentagon war planners know this. The militias they are trying to defeat also know this. Military victory is always near at hand if you have planes and bombs. It can be grasped. Easily, in fact. But it is grasping the nettle of political defeat. War is the continuation of politics by violent means, after all.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

The Way of the Gun

I love reading Michael Totten. What a model of rationality. What a vice-grip he has on the facts. And what a great batting average with his predictions. He never gives up, never surrenders! The most recent bee in his bonnet? "Kill Moqtada al-Sadr!"

Thrilling, eh? How quick, how satisfying, how perfect. Why, that would solve this whole Najaf crisis in one clean stroke, would it not?

Now try this one on for size, Mr. Totten:

"Martyr Moqtada al-Sadr!"


A conservative Sunni clerics group in Iraq has weighed in on the Najaf issue: the assault on Najaf should end. Uh-oh. When did we last see something like Iraqi muslim unity? During the battle of Fallujah, wasn't it?

In the last 24 hours, there has been a large march on the erstwhile Occupation headquarters, with Sadrist militia members at bottlenecks of the parade routes, reportedly making sure that none of the demonstrators were armed. Not enough fun for ya? Try this on for size: some police joined the demonstrations. I seem to vaguely remember reports like this filtering in around the time of the Iranian revolution.

But what is Michael Totten's strategic imperative at this point? The same one used to lose Iran to the Mullahs. Kill, kill, kill. Kill, kill, kill. And to provide proof positive of popular support in Iraq for this strategic line, he uses that highly rigorous Iraqi polling methodology called "Ask Omar!"

How silly can you get.

There is no evidence that al Sadr is cowering, licking his wounds, preparing for unconditional surrender. With six cities in Iraq responding to the assault on Najaf by ratcheting up the level of armed confrontation with occupation forces, the evidence points in quite the opposite direction. No, in Najaf, it really looks like we're back to the same stalemate Fallujah presented earlier this year: military victory for the Occupation within easy reach, but no way to win militarily without losing politically.

Al Sadr wouldn't have gone to visit battlegrounds where he had every reason to worry about getting wounded without facing the fact that he also had every reason to worry about getting killed in those exact same places. Why would he drop in on his troops like that, risking his own skin? Because he believes that getting killed can only work for his movement at this point. And he's probably right. So to advocate taking out Moqtada al Sadr is practically to be on his side at this point.

To advocate "taking the gun out of Iraqi politics", as Michael Totten does, is to ignore the fact that there was one gun per household in Saddam's time. That ratio is probably only higher now, with ordinary peaceful Iraqis further arming themselves just to feel safer from criminals, who got a new lease on life with the Occupation and its crummy public security.

With that kind of armed force distributed in the civilian population, a unified Iraq people could have thrown out the U.S. occupation in any two-week period in the last year. They didn't. A unified Iraqi people could also have thrown out Saddam during any such period. They didn't. The residents of Najaf could have thrown out Sadrist militias during any such period. They haven't.

The gun is irrevocably a part of Iraqi politics. At any given time, 99% of Iraqi guns are voting - with their silence - for whoever happens to be providing the maximum of street security. In Iraq, that used to be Saddam. Now it's whoever happens to have the right combination of men under arms and devotion to that job in any particular region. No doubt that graft, extortion, and all manner of intimidation cement such social controls. But the gun has spoken, and will continue to speak, in a country where it's the quiet guns that speak volumes.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Moq Baby's Bigger Britches

Iraq's government and U.S. forces (sorry to assert such an obviously blurry distinction) are reportedly now in negotiations with Moqtada al Sadr in Najaf. And they are probably negotiating for the same reason there was a stalemate in Fallujah: while it may take only a handful of U.S. casualties to bring Iraq back into the headlines, pursuing significant hostilities in urban areas with U.S. force-protection still the number one priority is likely to result in a lot of Iraqi noncombatant deaths, and massacres always have headline potential unless it's in some blasted backwater where the U.S. is only tangentially involved.

Can Moq Baby squeak through? It's time to do the math again.

In general, uprooting any insurgency takes about 10 times as many troops as the insurgency has. (I've heard that an urban insurgency shifts that weighting against the insurgents, but I've also heard it argued the other way when you consider the political costs of inflicting noncombatant massacres.)

Shi'ites are about 60% of Iraq's 25 million population. Call it 14 million.

For Anglo-American forces plus some hangers-on, you've got a headcount of maybe 150,000. Let's be optimistic and say that Iraqi troop numbers are EFFECTIVELY up to the same level, giving you a nice round 300,000.

So how many armed insurgents does Moqtada need counterbalance that number? About 30,000, or about one Shi'ite Iraqi out of 500.

Is there a natural recruiting base?

In recent polls, only about 2-3% of Shi'ites said that Moq Baby would make a fine leader for Iraq, at least compared to what's currently on offer. 2-3% sounds small, but it's still a recruiting base with at least 250,000 Iraqi Shi'ites for President Moq Baby, among whom there must be at least 50,000-70,000 men of fighting age. And among those men you'll have some seasoned veterans of the Iran-Iraq war and Gulf War I.

If Moq Baby can sign up as many as half that number to actually fight (small-arms supply being no real problem in a country with one gun per household on average), and if he encounters relatively little resistance to his militias from the population centers they control, he's got both the Occupation troops and Iraq's army at a virtual standstill. Will he encounter much domestic resistance? Quite a few Iraqi Shi'ites profess sympathy with his goals, even if they don't see him as a presidential material. They may make that time-honored Old-Boss-New-Boss decision, even if they don't like him much.

At which point I - and everyone else - will not be able to call him Moq Baby anymore.

I haven't check my math carefully, but I think I've mostly made some conservative estimates. Bonus point exercise for the alert reader: on the Sunni resistance side, figure out how many years the resistance can run if it pays 10,000 fighters twice the current average Iraqi man's income from a treasury starting with only 1% of Saddam's former personal wealth, assuming no other sources of income (not even hostage ransom.)

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Earth off the radar

The ever-reliable Reg. ET won't find us because we're increasingly invisible, according to a Reg story, Earth to disappear from alien radar. Remember that scene in Contact where they finally decode part of the alien signal, and it's an image of a Nazi swastika? "Oh, great," moans one despairing Federal meddler, wearily. Talk about putting your best foot forward. Well, that foot is getting retracted.
According to New Scientist our transition from radio tranmissions to cable TV could mean that our window of detectability is no more than 100 years.
Maybe that's good - there's some real room for doubt about the existence of terrestrial intelligence in what's coming out on cable these days. The Drake Equation may have to be revised to include the length of time that a civilization maintains a minimum level of intelligence.

The New Scientist article is pretty interesting
Chances of aliens finding Earth disappearing

15:59 09 August 04 news service

A pioneer of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has warned that for any intelligent aliens trying to search for us, "the Earth is going to disappear" very soon.
What?! No more Star Trek reruns? OK, they've got those archived several times over already, but what about upcoming seasons of CSI?
Frank Drake's point, made at a SETI workshop at Harvard University on Friday, is that television services are increasingly being delivered by technologies that do not leak radio frequencies into space.

But he added that in some ways the observation is good news for SETI, as it means that the failure of Earth-based observers to detect aliens so far may be less worrisome than it would otherwise seem.
Somehow I don't think the Cold Silence from Space really gnaws at most people's sense of self-worth.
Most SETI efforts have focused on detecting radio signals that might be emitted by intelligent beings on planets around nearby stars. For humans, such signals "are the strongest signs of our existence", Drake said, thanks to television.

Traditional television broadcast antennas put out one megawatt each, and this radio-wave bubble now extends about 50 light years out from the solar system.
And the worst part of that is: there's no calling those photons back. ET will curse us forever for those horrible Neil Diamond songs that stick in your head in freeway traffic. And think of all those movies that Cuba Gooding Jr. has been in - worse, starred in - since Jerry MacGuire. They won't be used only to break ex-Taliban at Guantanamo. They can become part of the torture arsenal of any alien civilization.But don't worry - a paradigm shift is coming
Laser beacon

Drake's insight has important implications for search strategies. It means that eavesdropping on unintended alien transmissions is unlikely to succeed and "argues for an emphasis on detecting beacons", i.e. signals intentionally sent our way.
That's probably a good emphasis anyway - who wants to develop massive instruments for picking up every alien civilization's oversweetened breakfast cereal radio jingles, or the ET equivalent of Howard Stern? And we might decode these transgalactic cultural treasures only shortly before the originating civilizations snuff themselves out in their own global nuclear holocausts. It could give you some serious teen angst. Too much of it and we could turn into Planet of the SETI Goths.
Some SETI strategies have already begun shifting toward that approach, including efforts to find optical beacons based on high-powered lasers deliberately aimed at nearby stars.
Now this is actually pretty interesting stuff - try a Google on 'OSETI'. I was following this for a while, because of a slight interest in robotically-positionable amateur astronomer telescopes.
While optical communications across interstellar distances was initially thought impractical, military research has led to lasers sufficiently powerful to make such signalling much more efficient than any radio beacon.
And that kind of encouraging too, isn't it? Imagine approaching some general about using his Spy Satellite Killer Ray Gun to beam episodes of Mister Ed to a nearby star. They might make an exception for I Dream of Jeanie, but it's sort of a built-in crap filter to have the signal controlled by people with a reputation to uphold.
Nuclear-powered lasers on the drawing boards could produce pulses that would outshine the sun by a factor of 10,000, said Harvard University physicist Paul Horowitz, who has already been searching for such pulses. He has designed a new telescope that will soon be dedicated full-time to that search.

And other innovative ideas keep coming along. Planet hunter Geoffrey Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley, said someday we may learn to use the sun itself as a gravitational-lens telescope, with a detector parked at its focal length of 500 astronomical units.
Now that's truly visionary, you must admit. Of course, 500 AU is over 10 times the distance between here and Pluto's apogee, raising some questions about how you'd power any such unit to relay the signals from its orbit back down to Earth. Also, unless it had some maneuverability, it would be scanning the sky very slowly indeed. You'd need to launch a lot of these, I think.

But having done that, how likely is it that anybody out there would ever have to listen to - much less try to figure out - Rush Limbaugh?

IT in the horse latitudes

The Reg reports: Silicon Valley staff 'gloomiest' in US. Some 27% report fearing for their jobs, compared to a mere (?) 18% in the U.S. as a whole. A major reason: offshoring, underscored by a Google ad floating enticingly in the sidebar to the right of the article text, offering Romanian programmers for $8 per hour. What do you get? "Under nice looking interfaces you will find quick applications designed to meat all your requirements." Ooh, meat my requirements!

Well, requirements are important. In the early 90s, I read an article about the abysmally low success rates of projects, with an excellent analysis of the critical factors. This article identified two major factors: vendor failure to gain and maintain upper management support, and a failure to acquire and maintain accurate end user requirements. Technology, programming skill, methodology, choice of programming language - all these were second-order effect. Nothing mattered nearly as much as figuring out how to keep the idea sold to bosses, and how to get their underlings to use the damned thing.

Another Reg article, When the customer is always wrong attributes the ongoing failure rate of software projects - still around 75-80% - to failure on the part of the client to invest in managing the relationships with vendors. Well, that's your basic failure to acquire and maintain upper management support, and it certainly lends itself to more screwups in acquiring and maintaining end user requirements.

I got out of software in part because of the frenetic runarounds and the high failure rate despite all the energy expenditure. It looks like nothing much has changed, despite a huge workforce restructuring. One problem might be that the money saved in offshoring tends to drag down budget estimates for project management on the client side as well. This is bad thinking, if so. If anything, the money saved by hiring cheaper offshore programmers should be put toward staffing the client side of project management more heavily. But that's not how things work in the real world much of the time - if something is cheaper to acquire, management feels that the transaction costs should be cheaper as well. Ah, but there's no free lunch.

IT will be nettlesome in any case - upper management support and accurate end-user requirements are often in collision. "I automate people's jobs - it's what I do," I used to tell my own clients in despair. If upper management wants to cut costs by automating jobs, and their employees know it, then your best source of accurate end-user requirements - the client's workforce - is pitted in an adversary relationship against the people paying for the project - their bosses. You can lead horses to water, but you can't make them drink. Small wonder that software projects seldom end well.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Eric Hoffer and the Roots of Terror

A pro-war blogger recommended by the indefatigably error-prone Michael Totten wrote: "I am quite surprised at how quickly many people seem to have forgotten the 9/11-atrocities, the bombs in Istanbul and the Madrid bombs."

You forgot Bali, dude.

In fact, I don't know a single person who has forgotten about any of these incidents - though some may take some reminding about Istanbul.

A great last-resort sneer: paint your opponents as suffering from amnesia.

This blogger invokes Paul Berman's "cult of death" thinking, but I have always felt that Berman assigns far too much weight to supposed free-standing attractions of an ideology and not nearly enough weight to the conditions in which such ideologies naturally fester. These conditions remain very much as Eric Hoffer described in his classics like The True Believer, as he sought to understand the sources of mass movements that led to far greater global cataclysms than our War on Terror.

A careful reading of Hoffer leaves little room for surprise that 15 of the 9/11 hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia, a country that enjoyed a generations-long taste of oil-driven affluence but which now declines precipitously in GDP per capita. As well, the lack of diversification of the Saudi economy has meant that a young individual in that society, facing the prospect of less unearned affluence than their parents enjoyed, can easily fall prey to syndromes Hoffer described so well.

Hoffer: "Our frustration is greater when we have much and want more than when we have nothing and want some. We are less dissatisfied when we lack many things than when we seem to lack but one thing."

I.e., it is not absolute poverty driving islamofascist terrorism. Look at Afghanistan under the Taliban. Near the bottom of the list in literacy, income and infant survival rates. More ridiculously fundamentalist than Al Qaeda, if anything. It may have exported heroin but it didn't export terror until a rich Saudi scion took up residence. Even then, Afghans looked down upon these Arab interlocutors as spoiled, weak, and arrogant.

Hoffer: "Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden. Of what avail is freedom to choose if the self be ineffectual?"

Saudi Arabia exports huge quantites of oil, but how many brilliant petroleum engineers has it produced? No, the Saudi royal family finances a welfare state financed by paying foreigners to turn the cranks; talent earns far less than good family connections.

Hoffer: "The ideal potential convert is the individual who stands alone, who has no collective body he can blend with and lose himself in and so mask the pettiness, meaninglessness, and shabbiness of his individual existence."

Gosh, doesn't that sound a lot like many of Al Qaeda recruits who have since been scooped up? Saudi Arabia - which imports increasing technological expertise to produce decreasing amounts of oil for decreasing financial returns - will tend to produce more and more of this type over the long run. The non-oil Arab states have already produced plenty of such jihadist cannon fodder.

Hoffer: "The discontent generated by backward countries by their contact with Western civilization is not primarily resentment against exploitation by domineering foreigners. It is rather the result of a crumbling or unmaking of tribal solidarity and communal life."

Yes, as we learned with Iran in 1979. That Hatred of the Infidel requires manufacture. The Saudi state has helped in this, but increasingly, Saudi subjects have seen through this manipulation, and seek to own that cultivated hatred on their own terms - or on the terms of energetic religious leaders if they can provide a source of community.

Hoffer: "A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence. It cures the poignantly frustrated not by conferring on them an absolute truth or by remedying the difficulties and abuses which made their lives miserable, but by freeing them from their ineffectual selves - and it does this by enfolding them and absorbing them into a closely knit and exultant corporate whole."

And that 'corporate whole' can be a islamofascist terror group.

Hoffer: "When people revolt in a totalitarian society, they rise not against the wickedness of the regime but it weakness."

The Saudi royal family is having increasing trouble buying acquiescence to its totalitarian state in recent years, with the fall-off in oil earnings.

Hoffer: "The differentiated individual is free of boredom only when he is engaged either in creative work or some absorbing occupation or when he is wholly engrossed in the struggle for existence."

Saudi rulers have created a more 'differentiated individual' subject. By not differentiating their economy, however, they have passed up the chance to provide creative work and absorbing occupations - in fact, they will soon be unable to even subsidize such activities. These 'prematurely-differentiated individuals' will look to collective struggles - experiences that provide something like a 'struggle for existence' even though existence still isn't that hard. To be a terrorist is exciting, it is to put one's life on precarious terms indeed - for the bored, the talentless, the frustrated, the alienated, the envious, and the lonely, engaging in Jihad (described by some terrorists as being like an addiction) may feel more like joining a life-cult, not a death-cult.

Hoffer: "When we ascribe the success of a movement to its faith, doctrine, propaganda, leadership, ruthlessness and so on, we are but referring to instruments of unification and to means used to incalculate a readiness of self-sacrifice."

I.e., these instruments cannot work without raw material. Only social conditions can supply that raw material. If it were otherwise, one would only need to enter any society with some version of a previously-successful mass-movement ideology, and turn that society upside down. This just doesn't happen in most places and at most times in history.

In places like Saudi Arabia, however, the social conditions have been created. These social conditions have been created by western civilization's deal with the devil: buying non-renewable natural resources from nations with value systems and governments that are incompatible with the values of western civilization, while doing little or nothing to change those systems.

I'm all in favor of open, free, democratic systems. I'd just prefer to live in a system that didn't feed the opposite sort of system just be a little richer as well.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Two Stories, Both Too Good to be True

Everybody likes a good story. Here are two juicy lines of speculation, ripped and embellished from today's headlines. Which story line you favor will probably depend on how you fall on one side or another of the current partisan divide.

1) William C. Berry, MD, is violently abusive to his family, which should come as no surprise given that he's a bioterrorist. With his patent filed on Sep 28, 2001 for a technique to assess anthrax threat potentials, he is also a would-be profiteer in the war on terror. He is also guilty of forging another doctor's signature on that doctor's will - though he somehow got the charges reduced to "disorderly conduct" so he could keep his doctor's license. The rich can always buy better legal defense. Too bad we don't really have the goods on him except for his beating up of his teenage stepdaughter, probably a pattern of violence for which he was finally caught red-handed. He's the lowest form of life even if only some of the above is true. His case and his activities merit renewed scrutiny late in this election year - after all, even some Bush opponents agree it's a political window of opportunity for terrorists. You can't be too careful.

2) William C. Berry, MD, is a stressed-out emergency room physician. He is a prescient, pioneering entrepreneur in counter-bioterror technology whose business prospects were unfairly dimmed when he came under irrational suspicion for anthrax attacks. He is also a step-father to two teenagers - not exactly a picnic if you've ever been through it yourself. He is currently a convenient target in a program of politically motivated 'counterterror' activity by the incumbent administration. It's all just a charade to rekindle old fears while at the same time reassure the public that homeland protection responses are vigorous and vigilant. Berry and his family were forced to stay at a motel while his parent's home - used for vacations - and his regular family home are being searched for no good reason. In an elevator at that motel, Berry got into a tussle with one of his stepdaughters, who selfishly wanted to maintain her disrupted social life using his cellphone at a time when he needed it most - for his practice, for his business and for contact with authorities. He pushed her out of the elevator, and in the ensuing fracas (during which his wife and other stepdaughter suffered some collateral damage) he hit his stepdaughter - an act he may regret more than any other in his life, for all we know.

There is a problem with both stories, and it's this: they are stories. I've made up details to fill in gaps in the news reports - gaps that may never be filled in.

The problem is that there are several issues that need to be decoupled here. One is family violence. Another is physician ethics and what constitutes minimum criteria for suspending a physician's license to practice. Another is what constitutes war profiteering. Yet another is the question of Berry's complicity in the anthrax attacks several years ago. And finally, there are the questions of how much political motivation there is behind the recent surge in high-profile counterterror activity, and how much the recent surge, where it is not politically motivated, is nevertheless excessive or poorly prioritized.

It's important to bear in mind even if Berry was complicit in anthrax attacks (a very remote possibility, I think), no jury of peers has been convinced of that beyond reasonable doubt. As far as I know, Berry was never even indicted. If the recent search warrants against him have no particular new foundation in evidence beyond what was established the last time Berry was under such scrutiny, they are in injustice - a form of double-jeopardy, in effect. These searches would be a breach of the principle of equality under the law. William Berry would be no longer a first-class American citizen, since he is now considered "a person of concern". "Person of concern" is a term probably minted not long after "rogue nations" was recast as "states of concern" - so his citizenship status, translated back out of the euphemism - would seem to be "rogue."

It's also important to bear in mind that Berry's violence may have absolutely nothing to do with his involvement with anthrax, whether terror or counterterror.

It's also important to bear in mind that Berry was put under arrest by an off-duty police officer who only witnessed what happened outside the elevator, from which the scuffle boiled. We really don't know who provoked whom and why.

It's also important to bear in mind that Berry could be absolutely innocent of all -other crimes, and still be a chronic abuser. Or that he could be guilty of all other crimes, but in the case of this outbreak violence, have mainly been defending himself against physical attacks from one grown woman (his wife), and two almost-grown step-daughters, themselves very stressed out because of being evicted by federal against from their home. Does that seem very unlikely? It does to me, but it's also seems very unlikely to me that he's a bioterrorist, and I haven't ruled that out either.

Everybody wants a good story. A story that hangs together. A story that confirms our biases. A story with a good plot. A story that makes us feel better about ourselves. A story that makes us feel superior - at least morally - to people who are richer or more able than we are. All this parsing, all this careful, objective issue separation, just gets in the way of feeling better. Worse, it makes some people's brains hurt.

President Eisenhower once expressed shock upong hearing that half of Americans were below average in intelligence. (Let's not get into the issue of whether that should be "below the median" - let's just say that "average" is close enough for government work, OK?) I think your average political consultant - considerably above average in intelligence - never forgets this statistical verity for a minute. They sift through possible stories, and figure out who to sell them to. People have to stop buying.

Saddamist vigilantes bask in U.S. accolades

Pro-war bloggers are crowing over a piece of news from Fallujah, that hotbed of Iraqi Sunni resistance, as if it were necessarily good: a tribal chief led a "raid" to free some Jordanian kidnap victims. A rather breathless Ravi Nessman, writing for AP:
In an extraordinary assault, gunmen in Fallujah stormed a kidnappers' lair and forced the overmatched militants inside to flee, freeing four Jordanian truck drivers held captive, local officials said Wednesday.
The pro-war blogosphere has of course taken this event up as proof of some kind of victory over terrorism. To me it smelled a little like the Legend of Jessica Lynch in Arab Male Drag. Another malodorous out-of-control meme, replete with fabricated quotes. And my nose hasn't failed me much. What was really going on here? I started to dig.

"Extraordinary assault." More soberly described as a "raid" in other stories. Well, "raid" is how the local tribal chief enabler is said to have described it. However, yet other stories speak only of "mediation." One wonders if tea wasn't served at some point during this raid.

One Mohammed abu Jaafar was mum on details (beyond "mediation") for any story about his brother's release. According to a story by another AP reporter, Shafika Mattar, who was perhaps slightly less heat-crazed than Ravi Nessman as deadlines drew near:
Mohammed, speaking from his home in Jordan, said his brother Ahmad told him they were freed about midnight Tuesday on the mediation of Jassam. He did not describe the details of the release.
In a cooler moment, with a little more detail in hand, Pamela Constable of the WaPo writes:
Late Tuesday, Sheik Ibrahim Mohammed Jassam, a tribal elder in Fallujah who led negotiations for the truckers' release, told news agencies that a squad of "resistance fighters" had been sent to the captors' house to free the hostages. But the raid was conducted without a shot being fired, and the kidnappers were not arrested.
Ah, somehow it escapes Jassam's new-found fans as they cheer him on in leading his brave posse: he's probably a Saddam loyalist, if anything. His beef may not be so much with kidnapping, but with people on his turf working as freelance kidnappers, a game he'd prefer to have a little more leverage over. Why didn't he work with the government, turn the matter over to the police? Well, probably because the U.S. puppet governmnet cuts no ice in Fallujah (or what little ice there is to be found in a region with only intermittent electricity and 125-degree heat.)

But it's not all bad news. Even an Iraqi-American can see a silver lining in this kidnapping cloud. As a Straits Times story quotes one Eric Nigh, vice-president of the Iraqi American Chamber of Commerce,
The plans of foreign transporters to withdraw from Iraq appear negative on the surface .... But I think it is positive as a lot of Iraqi transport companies can replace these foreigners and do business with the multinational forces.
In an Iraq with 30-50% unemployment, I suppose it's a sort of blessing. Unless you're Sheikh Hisham al-Dulaimi, AKA (according to yet another AP report) "the negotiator no one trusts". He may find the competition from Ibrahim Mohammed Jassam unwelcome.
Because of his suspected proximity to militants, some US military officials privately say they distrust al-Dulaimi's overtures when he visits to seek funds for reconstruction projects in the city. Officially, the military won't comment.

He strongly denies being in league with the militants. "Like everyone else, I'm against kidnapping," he said. "I consider this an act of terrorism."
An act that no doubt leaves him shocked. Just shocked.

Friday, August 06, 2004

"It's difficult to be a perfect parasite"

Yes, it is. In fact, you'd have to be cuckoo to try. Just read The Scientist's Parasites benefit by sharing.

I love science journalism for all its dry quotes you can rip from context for their unintentional humor value. Hah! What a parasite I am! Rather than come up with my own laugh-lines, I just defocus my brain slightly while reading about science. Beats working.

Still, at least I share, like any good parasite who values his skin. And ya gotta love juicy grubworms like this one:
"Our results contribute to a growing literature which suggests that individuals can enjoy personal benefits from living in groups, even if they are unrelated to the other group members."
Think of that next time you check out a noise in the kitchen late a night, and catch your housemate chugging OJ directly from that pitcher on which you clearly wrote your initials in huge letters.

And have you ever noticed how you've never run into a flock of spiritual vampires? Do parasites avoid hanging around with other parasites? But of course.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Remember to Forget

Memory reconsolidation - the idea that memories can be altered when retrieved, and are stored with the alterations - is turning into a big issue, with implications for brain chemistry, cognitive modeling, and perhaps for treatment of PTSD. The Scientist has an interesting article on the debate and the current state of research, "When Remembering Might Mean Forgetting". This bit at the end intrigued me:


People with posttraumatic stress disorder persistently reexperience a trauma, avoid stimuli associated with it, and feel numb. As PTSD caseloads have risen because of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, researchers have grappled with how best to treat the disorder.
Michael Davis, a psychiatry professor at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, sounds a cautionary note, however. In experimental situations, he asserts, propranolol generally blocks hippocampus-based memories but not fear memories that reside in the amygdala. So Davis offers a hypothetical scenario of what might happen to raped women treated with [propanolol]. "When they see a man, they actually may be very fearful, but they don't know why because they can't remember they were raped," he says. "And clinically that would be very bad, because it would make that memory inaccessible for psychotherapy."

I find this troubling from the point of view of psychological/chemical warfare. It might be possible to subdue a population traumatically, then dose them to make them forget why they are afraid of you, making it difficult for them to organize resistance. Of course, you'd have to have a lot of control over information, since people might be able to organize and act based on events they don't remember, but do believe actually happened if they saw convincing enough evidence. Knowledge of being deprived of the memory of the stressful event might even make them even more offended.