Monday, January 25, 2010

Bombs in Baghdad

Does it seem to you that the Iraqi government isn't doing a very good job catching suicide bombers these days??  Does to me.  But it didn't make much sense until yesterday; now, it makes all too much sense.

Yesterday, James Randi (The Amazing Randi, a lifelong opponent of pseudoscience, snake oil sales, and general fakery) posted a link to this article on CrunchGear:

Magic wand bomb detector deemed fraudulent, inventor imprisoned

You can and should go read this yourself, but to summarize for the impatient:  the Iraqi government has spent $85 million (which we probably gave them) on so-called "bomb detectors" which are essentially - dowsing rods.  That's right.  You wave them at a car and they sense bombs.  Not.  The British government has just jailed the inventor on fraud charges (currently out on bail) and banned the export of this device.  The Iraqi government claims the jailing was because the inventor has refused to reveal to the U.S. and U.K. governments how the device works.  Unfortunately, the actual reason is because these governments understand exactly how the device does NOT work.  Sandia National Labs and the FBI flagged this device as a fraud in 1995.

Do the bombs in Baghdad make more sense now?

You can find more comments and links on the subject at the James Randi Educational Foundation.  Keep in mind that the JREF has a standing offer of $1 million to anyone who can prove that a device like this works in a controlled test.  No one has ever won it, certainly no one associated with this device.

Phil Plait from the Bad Astronomy blog posted another article on the subject at JREF in which he quotes an Iraqi general as saying he likes the devices because they're fast:  "Checking cars with dogs, however, is a slow process, whereas the wands take only a few seconds per vehicle."  But if they used dogs, they might actually find some bombs.

Why is the U.S. government giving Iraq all the money we're giving them if they're going to spend it on dowsing rods??

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sold Down the River

The team that brought you the 2000 presidential election has just presented the American people with another juicy gift.  The U.S. Supreme Court, moved substantially to the right by George W. Bush's appointment of John Roberts and Samuel Alito, has just declared unconstitional almost every campaign finance law that restricts corporate contributions to elections.  Oh, and union contributions.  They still can't donate directly to candidates; but there are now no limits on the amount of money they can pour into advertising during an election.  Your state has local restrictions on corporate contributions?  Also unconstitutional.  The McCain-Feingold Act?  History.

Kiss American democracy goodbye, folks.  This is the end of government of the people, by the people, and for the people.  It has just been replaced by the Golden Rule - the guys who have the gold, make the rules.  Ordinary citizens can't possibly match the financial clout of corporations and corporate unions.

Do I seem just a little cynical about the good wishes of corporations and unions?  Well, I can't speak for unions, but I spent 38 years working for corporate America, and I never saw a single public-spirited action that the companies didn't think would contribute directly to their bottom line.  Corporate contributions to elections will focus on improving corporate profits, the public be damned.  A classic example:  the banking industry thought that the Glass-Steagall Act, which prevented banks from trading securities, was keeping them from making all the money they could possibly make.  They poured money into the Congressional campaigns of people who agreed with them.  Ten years ago, Glass-Steagall was repealed, and banks could own brokerages and trade securities.  I don't need to remind you what came out of that.

Do the citizens have any recourse here?  We can't afford to buy our own Congressman; the corporations have already bid the price up way too high.  Our only option is information.  Fortunately the laws that require disclosure of campaign contributions still stand.  As long as they do, we must ensure that we know where the corporate money goes.  If somebody's campaign was specifically supported by campaign ads from Glutco, Inc., we must make sure that candidate is identified as "the candidate from Glutco."  Knowledge is power; it seems to be the only power we have left.

In 1787, as he left the Constitutional Convention, somebody is said to have asked Benjamin Franklin, "What have we got, a Republic or a Monarchy?"  Franklin reputedly replied, "A Republic - if you can keep it."  Can we keep it?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Harry Reid's Comments

Just now there's a lot of flack flying about some remarks of Harry Reid's, quoted in a book called Game Change.  Mr. Reid opined that Barack Obama had a good chance to become President because he was "light-skinned" and "did not speak with a Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one."

Ever since I heard this, I've been wondering what all the hoo-ha was about.  Harry Reid is an extremely skilled practical politician and I thought his assessment of Barack Obama's potential was spot on; he was even proven right when Obama ran and won.  What's going on, of course, is another round of our, um, conflicted attitude toward race.  I've been considering a post on the issue, until I read my San Francisco Chronicle this morning and discovered that Jon Carroll, as he often does, had just written it for me.  I refer you, therefore, to Mr. Carroll's latest column, "The badly expressed wisdom of Harry Reid," identified on the web site as "Find the racist."  It's well worth reading.  (If you follow this link in a day or two and can't see it, it's the January 14 column.)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

For Shame, Mr. Robertson

Pat Robertson has a history of blaming the victims; as I recall, he said that the 9/11 attacks were caused by "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians" - not to mention the ACLU and People for the American Way. Funny, I thought it was because Osama bin Laden was pissed about American troops in Saudi Arabia.

Today, though, he chooses to blame the recent disastrous earthquake in Haiti on a "pact with the devil" that the Haitians made two hundred years ago, to get out from under "the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever." This, he says, is why Haiti has always been poor, and why it has just been devastated by a 7.0 earthquake. The Devil did it.

As a historian and a scientist (amateur but quite serious in both), I hardly know where to start. Let's start with the history. Robertson has the wrong damn Napoleon; he has no idea what the history even is. Napoleon III ascended the throne of France in December 1852, 49 years after Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared Haiti a free republic (Jan. 1, 1804). The "Napoleon" in charge at the time of Haitian independence was Napoleon III's uncle, the original and only "Napoleon."

Now the science. Haiti is located at the junction of two tectonic plates, the North American plate and the Caribbean plate. There isn't as much action there as there is along the West Coast, because the Caribbean plate is relatively small compared to the North American plate; but it's a strike-slip fault, just like the San Andreas Fault. It hadn't had any serious movement since the 18th century, but we understand why this happened, and the Devil had nothing to do with it. Haiti was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But Pat Robertson chooses to inform the world, during a broadcast asking for disaster relief, that the Haitians sold their souls to the devil in exchange for freedom from the French. They need to have "a great turning to God," he says. Somewhere in the afterlife, if there is an afterlife, I hope he meets the spirits of the men who bought Haitian independence with their blood. I'd like to hear what Toussaint L'Ouverture has to say to this.

In the meantime, I guess we have to put up with him; he owns his own television network, so we can't shut him up. But I want everyone who calls himself a Christian to look at Haiti, listen to Pat Robertson on the subject, and ask seriously: is this the man I want speaking for me? And if it isn't, why haven't we heard from you, reproaching him?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Best Job In The World

Being governor of South Carolina must be the best job in the world. 

I thought I'd ranted about this last summer, and I even looked through my back posts for the last year or so, but I can't find it.  So if I'm repeating myself, I apologize; but I can't let this one pass without comment.

The South Carolina legislature in its infinite wisdom has just decided that Gov. Mark Sanford's actions last summer don't constitute an "impeachable offense."  

Let's just recap what the governor did:  he left the state for 5 days, not telling anyone (including his lieutenant governor and his security detail) where he was going, and flew to Argentina to be with his popsie.  When he came back and state officials said, where the hell were you, he said he was "hiking the Appalachian trail," a euphemism that makes actual Appalachian (and other) hikers wince.  Only later did he admit, with many crocodile tears, what he was actually up to.  His wife is now suing for divorce.  He went AWOL from his post as governor of the state and left no one in charge.  But he's "not impeachable."

I know of no other situation in which you could abandon your job for 5 days - not show up, not call in, nobody knows where your are or when you're coming back - and then step back into place without any penalty.  In most corporations, not showing up for a week with no explanation is a firing offense.  But this is government, so it's OK.  

It's the government of South Carolina, too, which means that it's heavily tilted toward men.  I got curious and wondered how many of the legislators who voted on this issue were women.  I found one, Joan Brady, who was in office as of June 2009.  I found an online editorial in the Anderson IndependentMail from 2008 which suggested that South Carolina might actually end up with no women in the legislature; Ms. Brady's presence suggests that didn't happen, but apparently it was close.

You think the vote on the governor's impeachment might have been different if the percentage of women in the legislature had matched the percentage of women in the population?  Just asking.

Friday, January 01, 2010

More Decade Retrospective

This was the decade where we learned that what you expect often doesn't happen, and (I'm sorry to say) that you can't necessarily trust the things you thought you could trust.

It started with the Y2K mess.  The world was going to end on Jan. 1, 2000, remember, as all the computers crashed?  All you people who think the world will end in 2012 when the Mayan calendar runs out, keep that in mind.  You can't ignore your problems because the world will end in 2012, because it won't.

Thought you could trust a corporation's accounting to tell you what shape the company was in, and could trust the auditors to find and expose any problems?  Enron took care of that, and Arthur Andersen.  I used to work for an accounting firm, and even us low-level non-partner-track types were aware of the tremendous pressure on the partners to keep the really big accounts happy. 

Thought that you had to be an intelligent, experienced, thoughtful and talented person to be elected President of the United States?  Look at the 2000 election.  If you can stand to.  I never did understand why everybody thought it was great that Bush went through Yale with a "gentleman's C."  And I don't even want to consider Sarah Palin.

Thought that the U.S. would never again be attacked on its home soil?  'Nuff said.  If somebody wants to kill you badly enough that he's willing to die to do it, it's very hard to stop him.

Thought that the U.S. government wouldn't take the country to war on a faked-up lie?  That's how we got into Iraq.  What bothered me about Iraq was not just the one lie - it was a whole series of lies, each more implausible than all the rest, trotted out to justify the situation as each previous lie was exposed.

Thought that "the government" would step in and help people when a natural disaster hit?  Ask the people who lived in New Orleans.  We're on our own, folks, especially if we are poor and not white.

Thought that housing prices would rise forever?  Not when the market decides they're overpriced.  Who is "the market?"  Nobody knows, but it sure changed its mind last year.

Finally, thought that bankers were staid, conservative types who made money lending on a 2 point spread to people who didn't really need it?  The last year and a half blew that idea away; these guys were gambling at the high-roller table, and with borrowed money, too.  The people in casinos putting their whole wad on number 17 were actually taking lower risks.

It's a strange new world, folks, and the best you can do is stay informed, stay alert, and question your assumptions.  The thing you take for granted is the thing that'll turn around and bite you.

Happy New Year

Somebody on Facebook posted a "what were things like10 years ago" questionnaire, and it made me think.  What were things like 10 years ago?  Specifically, what was true 10 years ago that is no longer true?  Well, ten years ago today:

I still had functional knees, or thought I did.  In fact, they were fated to blow out over Memorial Day weekend, but in January I thought they were fine.  (I have perfectly functional knees now, but not the ones that came with the set.)

My mother, Mary Jean Henderson Ivy, was still alive.  This was another situation about to change; she went into the hospital on her 88th birthday (Jan. 12) and died before the month was out.

I was still working for a paycheck.  This continued for another 7 years; but on Jan. 1, 2000 I was still working as a technician, I hadn't become an "architect/system designer."  In fact, I spent New Year's Eve 1999 on an intercontinental conference call, as Bank of America technicians all over the world watched their systems roll successfully past the date change in real time, just as they had in all the endless time-machine tests we'd done over the previous year.  Our department boss had promised to sing Auld Lang Syne on the phone call but he got cold feet, so I sang it.

My mother-in-law, Florence Ringland, was still alive.  She died in 2003.

I'd never been to Wales, or New Zealand, or Banff.  I'd never gone on vacation in a remote resort and had a forest fire start the day I arrived.  (Yes, now I have, and someday I may even get the photos posted.)

I hadn't exercised regularly in 15 years.  Boy, has that changed, and for the better.

I'd neved had private singing lessons.  I took a few weeks of private singing instruction last summer and enjoyed it thoroughly.

My husband drank only socially.  Now he doesn't drink at all, which is a vast improvement over the period where he was drinking unsocially.

So where am I now?  

I'm retired, which means I don't get a paycheck; but I don't have to get up at oh-dark-hundred every day, either.

By most measures, I'm now definitely a "senior citizen," although I still don't qualify for either Medicare or full Social Security.

I'm managing 4 non-profit web sites, on 2 boards of directors, and volunteering at the Food Bank.  I'm the techie-in-residence for LifeRing Secular Recovery, managing things like the office network.

I exercise regularly and walk enough that I've bought a pedometer. 

I could stand a more human contact.  Most of the communicating I do is either through email or on FaceBook, and while I love my FaceBook friends, reading a post on a computer screen isn't really a substitute for a chat over a cup of coffee.  (Tea for me.)   I may need to do something about that this year. 

I may sign up for more singing lessons, too.  I'm beginning to get that old urge to stand by the piano and sing 20th century standards (Kern, Gershwin, Porter, Berlin), if only in retirement homes.  If I can find a pianist who'll work for free.

I'm not sorry to see 2009 go.  Let's all work to make 2010 better than the last year; come on, that's a very low standard to exceed!