Strange Loops Journal Archive: March 2003

Blog || Politics || Philosophy || Science || Fiction || Quotes

March 24, 2003 top

I added a new page to the writing section called Decaying Freedom. There, I will try to trace the many recent attacks on freedom and civil liberty in America (especially those following the events of September 11, 2001) and present a picture of the growing concerns I have about our government's lack of concern about protecting our Constitutionally guaranteed rights. I will attempt to be concise, and present only the bare essentials, leaving more in-depth discussion to the sources I post and the links in the "further information" sections. My aim is to remain objective and present only reliable sources, so in that regard, I strongly welcome any comments, criticisms and fact checking by email, as well as any ideas on additional topics that warrant research. So far, I have only gathering information on the USA-PATRIOT Act and it's proposed sequel legislation, but I will continue to update regularly with more issues (and most won't be as long as the USAPA entries).

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March 23, 2003 top
Well, I don't know what to say. The US (with Britain and Australia in tow) has invaded Iraq, with the aim of deposing its leader(s) and installing a new government. I've been trying to figure out what to post on the topic for a few days, but I can't think of much that hasn't already been said all over the net. I won't bother going into in-depth discussion here, but I do want to register my opposition to the attack and give some basic reasons why. It obviously won't be a complete, balanced look at the situation, since I'm just trying to give a basic overview of my feelings.

Was Saddam a threat to the world? Perhaps, eventually. But there are many threats just as bad or worse (of which America is one), and to try to attack them all would lead to complete international chaos. Was Saddam such an undeniably immediate and powerful danger as would be required to make "pre-emptive" attacking conscionable? Not at all, in my opinion. Nuclear weapons are really the only "weapons of mass destruction" dangerous to the world and the US - and Saddam both has not been shown to have them, nor to have his finger on the red button if he did (which might constitute reason to attack if we had proof he was going to use it for sure). Chemical weapons are inefficient compared to traditional weapons (especially in battle, where winds can shift, but also for terrorists, who can only affect relatively small numbers). Biological agents are barely more dangerous - we've been living with anthrax, smallpox, plague and such for thousands of years, and these things can be treated today. Whether in battle or terrorist attack, biological and chemical agents aren't a huge danger; and Saddam certainly wasn't using the nuclear weapons he didn't have. So I simply don't think he was enough of a threat to warrant the attack on the grounds of world threat.

However, I will admit Saddam is a brutal bastard who runs a horrible regime. Unfortunately, there are countless more dictators around the world just as bad or worse. The question of international intervention is a very tricky one, as one has to balance respect for the sovereignty of other nations and their ability to govern themselves with the desire to stop the worse human rights violations. Unfortunately, even if there were an easy answer on when it is conscionable to intervene, there will always be flaws in the system that make things even more complex. For one, it may simply not be possible to intervene in every case, in which case the choice of when to intervene may end up boiling down to rather troublesome reasons (i.e. the "liberators" choosing places that would help secure their power or boost their economy, etc.). The potential for corruption is huge. The United Nations, one would hope, helps to limit this by seeking a larger body of nations for deciding when intervention is warranted. Unfortunately, (1) the US (and other countries) are willing to ignore the UN and act on their own, and (2) the UN has just as much potential of abuse as singular countries. Any governmental body (of which the UN is one) is established on the basis of the use of force, and it is all too easy for governments to become corrupt (even when many of those participating in them, directly or indirectly, come to support their actions).

Either way, there is also the fact that intervention may make things worse. For one thing, civilian casualties from the intervention may be just as horrible as the atrocities committed by the dictator to be ousted or censured. Also, actions like the US is taking in Iraq may really destabilize the global political scene and lead to even worse problems. For that matter, a worse regime may end up in charge (one need only look back as far as the Afghanistan attacks to see that regional warlords have taken over in many places now and often made things worse over there) - whether by a local power filling in the vacuum or by a corrupt puppet regime being installed (or at least, a regime "friendly" to the interests of the attackers). In addition, the acts are seen (perhaps not wrongly) as acts of imperialism or naked aggression against a certain group, and could easily lead to more, not less, terrorists. When families are torn apart by the death that comes from intervention, those who are left behind have a lot of motivation to get some sort of revenge, and few ties to their old life (dead families and destroyed homes) holding them back from taking action (similar to the proliferation of suicide bombers in Palestine as the massive Isreali government tightens its grip on the region and abuses the native population). So things could end up a lot worse through even the most well-intentioned intervention, and intervention is obviously not always completely well-intentioned.

Now, getting back to the Iraq situation specifically, I would say that there wasn't enough evidence for me to support the attack on the basis of Saddam's treatment of the local people (including the Kurds). Yes, he used chemical weapons, but as I pointed out above, I don't understand the huge deal of that. Chemical weapons weren't avoided in World War II out of humanitarian concerns, but because World War I had shown that they are ineffective compared to conventional weapons (which are just as good at killing non-combatants). As for whether his actions warrant intervention anyway, I just haven't been convinced that it would be worth ignoring the above mentioned problems. Why attack Iraq, and why now? One could argue all sorts of interesting angles (including the push of the PNAC, founded by a plethora of Bush administration high ups; or the speculation that Bush wants personal revenge for the assassination attempt on his father), but the fact is it doesn't matter, because none of them seem to be good enough reasons to do what we are doing. It's one thing to defend one's self or one's allies from aggressive attacks, but another thing to commit those aggressive acts one's self. It's one thing to try to save an innocent people from certain genocide, but another thing to risk just as many innocent lives under the veil of "saving them" in a situation that is at least far from "certain genocide" and definitely not the worst human rights violations to be found. This just isn't an attack I could imagine supporting. Certainly, there is more to say on the issue, and I would like to examine the legitimacy of the UN itself, but I'll leave that for another day. For now, I just want to make my opinion clear. I do not support the attack on Iraq. I do not support our troops in their actions, though I do hope they come home with minimal casualties and minimal kills on their consciences.

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March 17, 2003 top
In the paper yesterday was a story about an 'anti-terrorism' bill (one can only guess what civil liberties will be stricken along with the condemnation of already-illegal terrorism) going through here in Washington state. Among other things, the bill establishes six new terrorism-related crimes, including making possession of a weapon of mass destruction a class A felony. How does the bill define a weapon of mass destruction? As a "device, object or substance that a person intends to use to cause multiple human deaths." That's right, ladies and gentlemen, the guy down the street who gets angry and tries to kill his annoying neighbors with a frying pan has just turned his frying pan into a weapon of mass destruction.

And if a police officer pulls his gun and fires on a couple of armed bank robbers who started the shootout? Well, that makes the officer a terrorist in possession of a weapon of mass destruction, so I guess it's time to arrest him and deport him to a country where he can be properly tortured (that is, until we've gotten around to making torture legal here in the US). Of course, some day soon torture may be defined as "the act of making another living creature uncomfortable", and I might end up in jail for torturing my parents when I accidentally start singing in the shower.

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March 16, 2003 top
I just finished a book by Richard P. Feynman called "What Do You Care What Other People Think?". The first half is sort of like an autobiography, in that it contains a lot of stories from his life and career as a Nobel Prize winning physicist, but it isn't really autobiographical in that it is neither chronological nor complete. Instead, he presents some really interesting stories that help you get into the mind and experiences of a brilliant scientist, one who met kings and presidents and helped design the nuclear bomb. The second half of the book details his involvement in the committee to investigate the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. It's an excellent look at scientific investigation in action, though all presented for the lay reader (very little technical information is presented).

Yet what is most interesting in that part of the book is Feynman's experience in trying to act as an actual scientist in a 'scientific investigation' that was only interested in collecting stories from management, rather than talking to the actual on-the-job engineers involved in things. Again and again, the author relates his experience of finding huge and often intentional gaps in communication between engineers and management, to the point that management basically fabricated reliability estimates by using bad logic and bad science to twist the information the engineers presented, so that they could go ahead with their projects and meet their deadlines.

Both parts of the book were worth reading, but the part about the shuttle investigation was by far the most enlightening. For one thing, I now have a new perspective on the recent flurry of reporting regarding the more recent shuttle explosion. Feynman gives a new look, from the inside out, of the process of such an investigation, and you begin to see how the news might feed (or be fed) the wrong information. Feynman put his own effort into doing some real legwork and running around to interview all sorts of lower level engineers, and he came up with some important results that couldn't have been discovered by merely questioning the management. His work demonstrates how colossus organizations like NASA, with their many layers of management to keep it all functioning, can easily go off track and lose communication between the levels. Unfortunately, his results were largely ignored or edited away by the committee leaders. At one point, Feynman almost withdrew his name from the report because they wouldn't include his own findings even in an appendix to be published long after the more news-worthy main report. His appendix ended up being published, but it is amazing how hard it was for him to present his results. I'm sure things are similar in many other areas involving huge organizations (e.g. politics and the military), where those on the lower level can't communicate with those on the higher level, and all that ever goes through the media and is disseminated to the public is the management version of things, the fabricated and twisted numbers that please the leaders/public while ignoring what the lower-level people actually know.

Anyway, the book is a quick read with some neat tidbits, and the epilogue ("The Value of Science") alone is worth the price of the book. In that last part, he talks about the value of doubt, error and questioning in science and life, and how science today represents a victory over the establishment of the past which sought to produce absolutes - be they absolute monarchies or absolute truths - instead of guarded theories that can be rewritten if testing warrants it. I think what he says is spot on, and the skeptical comments apply not just to science but to all life today.

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March 13, 2003 top
Duke News reports that research gathered from a number of international primate specialists points to cultural transmission of behavior among orangutans. Among the behaviors observed to be transmitted culturally:

*Using leaves as protective gloves or napkins
*Using sticks to poke into tree holes to obtain insects, to extract seeds from fruit or to scratch body parts
*Using leafy branches to swat insects or gather water
*"Snag-riding," the orangutan equivalent of a sport in which the animals ride falling dead trees, grabbing vegetation before the tree hits the ground
*Emitting sounds such as "raspberries," or "kiss-squeaks," in which leaves or hands are used to amplify the sound
*Building sun covers for nests or, during rain, bunk nests above the nests used for resting.

Granted, our ape cousins may not have produced a Gutenberg yet, but it's interesting to note that some of their behaviors are transmitted in the same sort of way that ours are. Culture, like tool use, emotions and linguistic capacity, appears to be yet another trait we humans can no longer claim as solely our own.

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March 12, 2003 top
Art Spiegelman's powerful graphic novel Maus is wonderful. It tells the tale - as recounted by the protagonist to his son, who wasn't around at the time - of a Jewish man's struggle in Poland during Hitler's reign. It follows him from his small home town to a stint in the Polish army, into a prisoner of war camp, and even to Auschwitz itself. It tells the tale in a very real, honest way, on a personal level rather than by sweeping, general descriptions of the terrors of the time. Reading it, one begins to grasp what living in such a time and place - and there are similar places on Earth today - would do to a person psychologically. How it would break down ties of honesty and loyalty to society, friends and even family, as the situation grows more and more desperate. When you lose not just your home but all of your freedoms, existence and survival become entirely different than before.

And one wonders why Palestinian refugees - who are placed under extreme curfews, who incur all sorts of military raids and home destruction/displacement, who are sometimes even forbidden to leave their homes for many days - often turn, in desperation, to violence against the occupying Israeli army.

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March 09, 2003 top
Slow blog week because I've been picking up extra shifts at work, but I did add an article to the science section entitled Modern Eugenics: Designer Children. Also, now that February's over, I'm going to stop including a Bierce-ism with each entry (lest I go through the entire book and get sued for copyright, hehe).

I read some interesting books this week. First was Siddhartha, a short novel by German author Hermann Hesse. It follows a Hindu fellow through his life, from a young Brahman priest-in-training to an old man, during the period the historical Buddha (also named Siddhartha) was active. The title character finds himself dissatisfied with his priestly training and sets out to find his own wisdom and enlightenment, rejecting all doctrine and dogma. On his journey, he becomes an ascetic monk, a hedonist, a merchant and other things, variously trying them on and finding himself unhappy with their life-style. He even encounters the historical Buddha, and despite sensing that that one has found enlightenment, Siddhartha rejects even the Buddha's doctrine, aiming to find or forge his own path, if there is one out there. Anyway, it's a wonderful book, told with a simple style that is very effective. It's one of those things that really struck me deeply, that reawakened me to life, and I hope I remember to re-read it every couple years to keep the message fresh in my mind.

I also read Daniel Clowe's graphic novel Ghost World this week. I'd seen the movie previously, which may have tainted my judgement a bit, but after reading this book and then re-watching the movie, I can't help but find the book somewhat disappointing. It's a quick read, and has a lot of great cynical humor coming from a pair of disillusioned teen protagonists. Nonetheless, it isn't developed nearly as well as it could have been - each chapter introduces new characters who get nary a mention before they disappear, never to be seen again. Granted, that sort of fits with the overall theme of the book, but it makes for an unfulfilling read. By contrast, the well-acted, well-casted movie (Steve Buscemi has the perfect role in it) is a delight to watch. It changes a number of details from the book, and it turns out that it's for the better. The characters are more fully explored, the whole thing feels more complete and less rushed, and the message is still there. This is one of those rare occasions where I'd recommend a movie version over a book.

Finally, I've been plowing through all the Sherlock Holmes material I can get my hands on, and I just finished a couple Dover Thrift short-story collections which had ten Holmes stories. They are always fun stories to read, even if some are less intricately designed than others. A few actually leave the clues in the hands of the reader, allowing one a chance to puzzle out the mystery before Holmes reveals his own methods; but the majority hinge on some hidden knowledge that the protagonist has but which the author Doyle deigns not to reveal to the reader. Nonetheless, Holmes makes for a superb character - from his intelligent (though sometimes stretched) deductions to his quirky mannerisms to his spy-like investigative work - and the stories always entertain. Next up: Doyle's full-length SH story The Hound of the Baskervilles.

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