Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Little Warbot That Could

I wrote last week about Ember, iRobot's prototype for DARPA's LANdroid contract. PopSci has a profile up today, "Meet Ember, the Littlest Warbot". Cutest robot name ever. Someone needs to publish the children's book.

Millenial Resonance

Not since the Navy's "Let the Journey Begin" ad campaign in the 90's made use of Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" has a recruitment campaign had such a powerful soundtrack as "Army Strong".

It's a stirring piece that seems to strike a particular chord with young men of my generation. And out of the blue, I realized why:

Man, those marketing guys are clever.

Solar Windbag

Huh. So solar scientists are having difficulty predicting solar weather (HT Inside the Asylum)
"It turns out that none of our models were totally correct," says Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA's lead representative on the panel. "The sun is behaving in an unexpected and very interesting way."
I mean, that's not really relevant at all, of course, since variability in solar activity has absolutely nothing at all to do with climate change on Earth. Riiiiiggght.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Boolean Logic

I've been seeing a lot of people post their email addresses on their blogs with something like "send me an email at username at domainname dot com", thinking that this will outsmart spambots.

Object lesson: ("email" OR "mail" OR "message") {adjacent 3 strings to} ([Username] AND ("@" OR "at" OR "a") AND [Domain] AND ("." OR "dot" OR "point" OR "period") AND [top-level domain]).

Thing is, spambots are programmed by people. The first spammer who saw the old "at domain dot com" trick wrote up a Boolean string to get past it in about 45 seconds, like I just did. Probably a lot better than mine. Just sayin'. Not saying there's no way to get past spambots, but you've got to be a bit more clever than that.

Friday, May 29, 2009

"At Ease"

A bit late for Memorial Day, but Maira Kalman shares a funny and beautiful tribute, "At Ease". Here's just a taste:

Chevy Volt Test Drive

Popular Mechanics is suitably impressed with the pre-production tester for the Chevy Volt plug-in "hybrid". I'm glad to hear it, because Volt-type "hybrids" (really just an all-electric car, but with an on-board gas generator to extend its range) really do make a lot more sense than true hybrid drivetrains like the Prius. I'm still hoping that Toyota or Honda will suddenly reveal the electric-powertrain hybrid they've developed in secret for half the price of a Volt, because it kinda turns my stomach to think that "Government Motors" will happily take the credit if the Volt is a success.

On Jihad

Fantastic interview from PajamasTV, with Walid Shoebat and Kamal Saleem, a pair of reformed terrorists. Please do watch the whole thing.

My first thought is a caveat: I do think these men overstate the immediate threat of terrorist attack. Recognize that they're coming from a very particular background, and even if they've rejected the ideologies of their upbringing, it's clear their default level of paranoia about the world is still set at "Palestinian". So while you take their predictions with a small grain of salt, their observations are pure gold (and you'll see by the end of my thoughts here why terrorist attack in and of itself isn't even the most serious issue).

The issue is at heart a conflict of culture, which is inextricably bound with the issue of religion. Both men blame the comparative decline of Christian chaplaincy in American prisons for the increasing radicalization of Muslim prison proselytes, such as those recently arrested plotting to attack synagogues in the Bronx. Shoebat is perfectly frank: the cure for terrorism is Christ.
"When I heard that, 'offer yourselves as a living sacrifice'... it is easy to die: you blow yourself up, you think you're going to go to Heaven. Now it's more difficult to live for the truth, and to live is to sacrifice... I spoke at the Air Force Academy, and I said that conversion to Christianity is one of the best methods that I've known to change terrorists, the media just went wild with articles that we're proselytizing at the Air Force Academy. We weren't proselytizing at the Air Force Academy, we were saying we need to proselytize to the Muslims."
That of course is an even more distressing proposition, from the mainstream media perspective.

I'm struck by the force of their argument that the "jihad" is about Jew-hatred above all else. It's just not part of the narrative, even though it's blindingly obvious when you look at it. Why did the "Newburgh Four" want to bomb Bronx synagogues, of all targets? Because of "Zionism"? Even if New York Jews did support "Zionism", why on Earth should that motivate American converts? And we should never forget how the butchers of Mumbai devoted a large part of their efforts to tracking down and torturing to death the sole rabbi in a city of 14 million.

All of this fits into the most important point Saleem and Shoebat make, which is to stress the centrality of the "cultural jihad". As the irreplaceable Oriana Fallaci never tired of pointing out, jihadist preachers boast openly that they will use the West's freedoms to destroy it. By claiming every right, demanding every entitlement, and litigating every grievance, they will make for Islam a preeminent position in the culture. And does anyone doubt that they have? As Shoebat points out, could Christopher Hitchens have published A||@h Is Not Great? The film Kingdom of Heaven portrayed the Church as genocidal and the Knights Templar as rapacious beasts, yet the likes of CAIR still claimed offense that the depiction of Salah al-Din was not quite saintly enough. And who could have ever thought that Britain would be mulling the merits of allowing a parallel legal system based on sharia? People have taken positions pro and contra, yet where's the "are you bloody serious?!?" that they're even having the discussion at all?

The cultural jihad is a totally different beast than counterterrorism. Successful terrorist attacks are a mixed blessing in the grand scheme of the jihad, after all, as they risk waking the infidels up to the threat. Many jihadist preachers have earned the coveted label "moderate" by renouncing terrorism not as a great evil, but as counterproductive to the cause. Preaching the cultural jihad, after all, breaks no laws, and if Islamists can breed, bribe, and bully their way to cultural dominance, what need is there for terror? And after sharia is enacted through the success of the cultural jihad, beheading nonbelievers will not be an act of jihad. It will simply be proper rule of law.

In this, as in so many metrics of the decline of the West, the United States is perhaps a generation behind Europe. Perhaps the declaration of the Salafi Emirate of the Netherlands or the Mamlakat al-Wahhabiyyah al-Britaniyyah will wake up the rest of those countries that still stand for Western civilization, but I'm not confident. Terrorism will never be an existential threat to the West. The worst imaginable terrorist scenario -- a mushroom cloud over Manhattan or London or Paris -- would do nothing but strengthen our resolve if we still had any. The success or failure of the cultural jihad will determine the future of the West, and if the jihad wins, we will have only ourselves to blame.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

I Want One: Fluorescent Monkey Edition

Well, if fluorescent cats and dogs aren't your fancy, now you can get a glowing green monkey! A marmoset, to be specific.

This is all in the interests of serious medical research, of course.

UPDATE: Bonus: its creepy glowing monkey hands will haunt your nightmares?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Lifting Copy

Did they stop teaching attribution in journalism schools? First, the New York Times's Maureen Dowd goes and lifts pieces from a lefty blog called (heh) Talking Points, and now Newsweek's respected (nobody ever says by whom) Fareed Zakaria is lifting quotes from the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg. And these people continue to blame their industry's collapse on everyone but themselves.

Festival Tour

I daydream a lot about lazily traveling 'round the world (again). In one particular version of my daydream, I wander from country to country on the schedule of bizarre local festivals. Whenever I am ready to move on, I'll just see which nearby country is chasing wheels of cheese down hills,

breaking out into a city-wide tomato fight (but only after a ham has been retrieved from atop a greased flagpole),

dousing one another in bright pigments,

or parading toddlers affixed on top of 12-foot bamboo poles in front of multi-story towers covered in steamed buns.

Humanity is a fascinating thing.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Robot In My Pocket

Along with the Department of Defense's mad scientist division at DARPA, our nation's military contractors also do their part to ensure that our future is filled with unimaginable terror. Household robot maker and military contractor iRobot makes robots that variously vacuum your rugs, clean out your gutters, disarm your IEDs, and invade your enemies' homes to riddle them with bullets. For now these functions are carried out by four specialized robots, but I'm sure they're working on the convergence piece.

They're also working on a cheap networked minibot named Ember to meet DARPA's LANdroid specs, seeking to create fleet of robots to disperse itself through a neighborhood, setting up a wireless network to transmit the information collected by whatever suite of sensors the user might choose to have installed. Ember is small and light, and iRobot hopes to make them robust enough to be hurled into action and cheap enough to be treated as disposable. As if I didn't have enough stuff to carry around in my cargo pockets.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Euromerica? Not So Much

A lot of the conservative opposition to President Obama, such as it is, likes to paint him as someone who wants to push the US to be more like Canada or Europe. If only.

A Great American Story

David Tran is the man behind my favorite stand-by hot sauce, Sriracha, and his creation is profiled in the NYT Dining section.
"I wanted something that I could sell to more than just the Vietnamese. After I came to America, after I came to Los Angeles, I remember seeing Heinz 57 ketchup and thinking: ‘The 1984 Olympics are coming. How about I come up with a Tran 84, something I can sell to everyone?’"
Success is sweet. Or spicy, as the case may be.

Undermining the Narrative : St Francis of Assisi

Do penance, performing worthy fruits of penance, because we shall soon die … Blessed are those who die in penance for they shall be in the kingdom of heaven. Woe to those who do not die in penance, for they shall be children of the devil whose works they do and they shall go into everlasting fire.

--St Francis of Assisi
Oh, and that whole "preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words" line that makes such a great bumper sticker? Guess he didn't actually say that one.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Study In Comparisons

Last week in Jordan, speaking to the World Economic Forum on the Middle East, Senator John Kerry portentously heralded the new "absence of arrogance" in American foreign policy.

Today in Belgrade, Vice President Joe Biden:
"The only real future is to join Europe. Right now you are off that path ... You can follow this path to Europe or you can take an alternative path. You have done it before," Biden said, referring to the 1992-95 war. "Failure to do so will ensure you remain among the poorest countries in Europe. At worst, you'll descend into ethnic chaos that defined your country for the better part of a decade."
As Foreign Policy puts it: "Biden essentially telling Bosnia to follow his recommendations or continue to be known as a violent, poverty-stricken hellhole is American arrogance of near-Rumsfeldian levels".

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

India's Election Results

Anyone who has a conversation with me about travels will quickly come to know that I'm a huge fan of India, personally and politically. So I find little to disagree with in Michael Barone's column on the significance of India's election result:
The election held over four weeks in April and May has produced a result very much to our advantage. The Congress party has been returned to power with a larger share of the vote than indicated by pre-election and exit polls, and will no longer need Communists and left-wingers for majorities in the Lok Sabha. The [Hindu nationalist opposition] BJP attacked Congress for being too close to the United States; voters evidently decided that this was not a minus but a plus.

[I]t would not hurt to show some solicitude for our friends in India, with whom we share strategic interests and moral principles. The 700 million voters of India have chosen to be our ally. We should take them up on it.
As I heard expressed in many different ways in India, the world's biggest democracy and her oldest democracy are natural partners.

The Panic That Wasn't

Jesse Walker writes in Reason Magazine about the media panic over the "panic":
The Time story offers thin gruel. It tells us that many Mexicans donned facemasks, as recommended by their government; that stores quickly sold out of masks and vitamin supplements; that schools in Mexico City shut down; that some people left the city and others stayed put. In other words, it tells us that ordinary Mexicans were taking ordinary precautions. The Bild report merely informs us that a few schools in New York had closed and that many children displaying flu-like symptoms were sent home. The Guardian timeline includes a series of links to Mexican photographs that allegedly "capture the sense of panic everywhere." Click through, and you'll see pictures of people calmly going about their business while wearing masks.
He quotes a "disaster researcher" who hints at the causes of the panic about panic, noting the perception driven by popular books and movies that any given group under stress is in grave danger of succumbing to blind panic. It's just not true, though. The sight of a planeload of travelers calmly filing out onto the wings of a jet slowly sinking into the Hudson a few months ago was a good reminder of how false that perception is.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Advice for Youth in These Times

As summarized by a biographer of the obscure early-20th century ideologue Albert Jay Nock:
Ransack the past for your values, establish a coherent worldview, depend neither on society nor on government insofar as circumstances permit, keep your tastes simple and inexpensive, and do what you have to do to remain true to yourself.
Sounds good to me.

Well, There's One Way to Look at Things

On the bright side, the end of civilization should be good for the Republicans.
So what do I propose for a Republican Party that will be relevant in the future? I’m thinking we need to work towards becoming a loose confederation of warlords. In the post-apocalyptic wasteland, resources will be scarce and the strong will crush the weak — and frankly, those are conditions in which Republicans should thrive. The Republican Party will need to cement its rule through force, destroy the weak, and take their resources. Back to basics for the party, really.

Monday, May 18, 2009

On Interchanges

Fascinating "Field Guide to Highway Interchanges" (and part II) from the Infrastructurist. Some pretty cool examples of the genre, though none quite as fun as Randall Monroe's imagination:

Huzzah For Bizarre Alliances

MAKE, CRAFT, and Etsy crowd, meet the libertarians. These days, you're going to want to be in touch.

Takeaway lesson? Big business loves regulation at least as much as big government does. Big business already has a legal department to jump through regulatory hoops, and inspection and compliance costs per facility or per product hit the smallest producers hardest. Bottom line, no CEO of a regulated industry ever missed his tee-time because some upstart competitor introduced a game-changing product.

It's Over, Maybe

The LTTE -- better known as the "Tamil Tigers" -- have admitted defeat. Only time will tell if this is truly the end of the conflict. If it is, it will stand both as proof that even a popular, well-funded insurgency can indeed be crushed with conventional brute force, and as a lesson in the human cost of such a victory.

UPDATE: The Christian Science Monitor is reporting that the LTTE leader Prabhakaran is dead. Having no leaders, in addition to holding no territory, reduces the chances that the LTTE will fight on, God willing.

Nordlinger in Jordan

Jay Nordlinger's posting his Impromptus from Jordan this week, sharing his comments from the World Economic Forum on the Middle East. There'll be a new column every day this week, so it's really as good a time as any to subscribe to Impromptus.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Notre Dame Speech

What was our President's goal at Notre Dame? Certainly not merely to give an inspiring graduation speech, which he could have given at any of the nation's many prestigious non-Catholic universities. I'm quite sure they're not the only ones who've invited him, after all, though they are likely the only ones who did so in flagrant violation of their parent organization's policies. It's clear he's picking a fight with social conservatives, but why like this? Paul Mirengoff's got an explanation that I'm having trouble finding any cracks in:
Obama hopes to drive a wedge between the leaders of the Catholic Church and rank-and-file Catholics in order to substantially reduce Church leaders and their teachings as a moral force in the United States. Such a reduction, in turn, will remove a barrier to Obama's left-wing agenda, especially his left-wing social agenda, just as the steep decline in the authority of Catholic Church paved the way the leftist agenda in certain European countries.

Under these circumstances, it's difficult to blame Obama much for injecting himself into Notre Dame's graduation ceremony. It is entirely reasonable and proper for him to seek to undermine Catholic authority, in furtherance of his interests, through lawful activitiy such as giving a speech and accepting a degree. Nearly all of the blame surely lies with Notre Dame for partnering with Obama in his mission, and thereby violating the command of the U.S. Catholic Bishops not to honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.


Don't Let Congress Hijack Healthcare

Cheryl at A Round Unvarnish'd Tale has shared an important proposal from The American Thinker on preventing the hijacking of American health care. Americans of all stripes need to tell Congress that health care reform is far too important to push through with majoritarian procedural tactics. If the Democratic Congress believes it has a plan worth implementing, they should have the confidence to to present it to the American people and subject it to the legislative process. There's no good argument for pushing through massive changes to 17% of the economy without public debate, so just bringing the issue into the light before it happens should be enough to force Congress to debate health care openly.

Satire is Obsolete: Swine Flu Edition

I really should have started the Satire is Obsolete thread with this story when it came out last week:

Afghanistan's only pig

quarantined in flu fear

Rambling About Trains

I love trains. Most people do, it seems. There's a sense of adventure and nostalgia to a journey by train, not to mention a degree of comfort unthinkable on a flight or road trip. It's not surprising then that high-speed passenger rail travel has attracted political attention in the Stimulus era, filling politicians' dreams with ribbon-cutting opportunities galore. But what precisely are we looking to achieve by boosting passenger rail, and will any of the current proposals get us there?

Let's pull off on a siding here for a minute before we get ahead of schedule: the politicians are talking about three significantly different systems when they say "high speed rail", and even full-time rail boosters (I'm looking at you, Infrastructurist) play fast-and-loose with the very real differences between them. Genuine high-speed rail, like Japan's Shinkansen, France's TGV, or Spain's AVE, operate at speeds upwards of 180mph but require extremely robust purpose-built track on broad rights-of-way with widely banked curves and very low grades, requiring lots of tunnels and trestles if they're to cross any kind of varied terrain. They are sources of national pride in every country that has them, but they are fiendishly expensive per mile of track laid.

A step down is service in the 110-150mph range on separated, dedicated rights-of-way over traditional rails, such as Amtrak's popular and profitable Acela Express along the Northeast Corridor. Due to frequent stops and right-of-way conflicts, however, actual speeds on the Acela Express average only 86mph. The lowest tier of proposed "high-speed" rail won't achieve the same degree of right-of-way separation that the Acela has gained (mostly through political pressure), making even that train's modest achievement unlikely to be widely matched.

As a result, when the politicians and rail boosters talk about "high-speed rail" links, disingenuously painting visions of bullet trains zooming at 200mph across the prairies, with few exceptions what they're really talking about is, at very best, 90-110mph service with more-or-less traditional rolling stock on slightly upgraded rights-of-way. In other words, they're talking about expanding an improved Amtrak, but for obvious reasons they can't let anyone to realize that.

Most of the talk of "high-speed rail" is really just trying to resurrect the express passenger service that was commonplace in the early 20th century. There's a great piece in Slate by Tom Vanderbilt on the miserable state of rail service today as compared to the golden age of rail in the 1920s. Of course, the relative decline of rail since that time has some pretty obvious causes, namely, the rise of air travel and the automobile. Vanderbilt's unspoken implication is that, forgetting dreams of bullet-train high-speed rail, if passenger rail even provided the service it did 90 years ago it might be competitive with other modes of transit.

I do suspect he's right: despite the miserable service, even Amtrak manages to turn a profit on the Acela. But in the course of making his point he mentions one cause of the decline without recognizing how much of a stumbling block it is to a rail renaissance: we now have less than half the rail miles we had on the eve of WWI. Half the rail is carrying more traffic than ever, at lower speeds. Modern signaling equipment allows any given right-of-way to carry a volume of traffic that would have been inconceivable to Dagny Taggart, but it's not very fast. There's also no wiggle room in the system to let faster trains through, even if the rail could handle the speed, and much of it can't without upgrades. Re-jiggering schedules to clear the right-of-way for a single passenger train at 90mph would cause massive delays for every slower train on the line.

The lower-order goal of expanding 90mph rail service on existing track is achievable, then, but at what cost? Environmental concerns are a major driver of rail boosterism (trains being a shockingly fuel-efficient way to move stuff around), but our network has a finite capacity that is currently dominated by freight carriers in tight competition with long-haul trucking. Expanding passenger rail on existing track would push a significant chunk of rail freight onto our interstates, burning a lot more fuel, greatly increasing highway maintainence costs, and making driving an automobile that much more unpleasant. In any rail policy, we need to ensure that freight continues to have priority. If we succeed merely in pushing people onto trains and freight onto our roads, we'll have taken several big steps backward in efficiency, environmental sensitivity, and convenience.

The answer to all this, of course, is that if we want convenient passenger rail service and efficient freight service, we ust need to start laying new rail. However, even restoring the WWI-era rail network will be far more expensive than boosters suggest. As we've pulled up half our rail, we've tripled our population, so purchasing new rights-of-way (or seizing them through eminent domain) will be exceedingly costly. Even of those defunct rights-of-way that weren't sold off privately, many have been turned into bike trails and such. I can only imagine the New Urbanist civil war that will break out the first time someone proposes laying high-speed rail over a bike trail.

I'd love to see ground broken on genuine high-speed in America, and there are a handful of routes that might be able to achieve it cost-effectively. Hint: they're not on this map:

The "Texas T-Bone" corridor connecting Dallas/Ft Worth to San Antonio and Killeen/Ft Hood to Houston is one of the more logistically viable proposals I've seen, taking into account the flatness and wide-openness of central Texas. The Gulf Coast Corridor is plausible for the same reasons, although I'm dubious how much demand exists for it. Conversely, despite the potentially huge market for it, a true high-speed corridor connecting Los Angeles to San Fransisco would face such massive engineering hurdles and endless environmental litigation obstacles as to be completely laughable. Ditto for the Cascades Corridor in the Pacific Northwest.

Inter-state transportation infrastructure is a proper project for the federal government, and if they were going to do it right, I'd happily starve the ravenous beasts of federal education and health care spending for the sake of shiny, speedy trains. But as long as politicians continue to push rails at the expense of roads while grossly understating their costs and tradeoffs, high-speed rail remains an expensive boondoggle.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Things Could Be Worse

When things seem a little overwhelming, just think, there was a time people had to deal with all the trials and tribulations of life, and they didn't have YouTube.

And so I present: a baby porcupine with hiccups eating a banana. Best YouTube video ever? Probably not (it's no dramatic chipmunk), but it's in the top tier.

Satire Is Obsolete: Forty-Three Tasered at Prisons' Take Your Kids to Work Day

Okay, I've been seeing too many of these headlines not to be sharing them. The real world is rapidly making satire obsolete. Today's example, in which life imitates Arrested Development, centers around an ill-conceived "Take Your Child to Work Day" event at three Florida prisons:
A total of 43 children were directly and indirectly shocked by electric stun guns during simultaneous ''Take Your Sons and Daughters to Work Day'' events gone wrong at three state prisons, according to new information provided Friday by the Florida Department of Corrections.

Also, a group of kids was exposed to tear gas during a demonstration at another lockup... So far this year, none of the devices have been used on the 100,000 prison inmates -- only the children of DOC workers.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Hooray for Nukes!

About time someone's gone out and said it. Thomas Barnett lays out the "Seven Reasons Why Obama's Nuke-Free Utopia Won't Work" in Esquire, and offers a defense of nuclear arsenals that goes far beyond "mutually assured destruction". A few thoughts:

Bartlett, like pretty much every serious proliferation scholar I've read recently, seems to think a nuclear Iran is inevitable at this point. I have to agree, and I even agree that a nuclear Iran in and of itself would be no less manageable than other nuclear enemies have historically been. It's very difficult to be certain of course, but I've become convinced that much of Ahmadinejad's "Crazy Tom" act is precisely that, a ruse to keep us worried and his people appeased. Bizarre heterodox Shia eschatologies aside, Khomeinist Iran hasn't actually done anything to live up to the impression of being dangerously unhinged that they find useful to present to the world. Consider the Iran-Iraq war, in which the radical theocracy's tactics were far more rational than those of the classical secular strongman Saddam Hussein.

But here's my main quibble: my concern in the region is not so much a nuclear Iran as the nuclear Bahrain, UAE, Saudia Arabia, and possibly Egypt that a nuclear Iran implies. Bartlett is right that nuclear powers have no interest in handing their safety umbrellas over to terrorists, but I think he's unduly influenced by the happy fact that nuclear weapons have historically been developed by stable and well-ordered nations. And that's not even so true these days, as there are legitimate concerns that Pakistan could collapse and her arsenal fall into the hands of the Taliban. For that matter, the legal legitimacy of Pakistan's nuclear program didn't keep AQ Khan from selling nuclear secrets far and wide. Where will we stand when half the Middle East has nukes? Offering to extend America's nuclear umbrella as far as the Gulf might possibly convince these states to forgoe nukes, but I wouldn't count on it.

I agree with Bartlett 100% that an American policy of eventual disarmament makes us less safe. I'm far less sanguine, however, that a continuation of current US nuclear hegemony won't still entail significant nuclear concerns.

Are Ya Serious: Minnesota Huh?

I'm fascinated by the text of a Facebook group calling on Minnesotans to lobby their governor against his proposed spending cuts. The text of the group's Facebook page:
A $6.4 billion deficit. The longest and deepest economic recession since WWII. A quarter of a million Minnesotans out of work. 1,000 more losing their jobs every week.

Governor Pawlenty's solution:

* Eliminate health care for 113,000 working Minnesotans, including 20,000 kids
* Cut $764 million from local hospitals, forcing many in Greater Minnesota to close
* Lay off 12,000 Minnesota teachers
* Put 16,000 health care professionals out of work
* Close nursing homes around the state
* Saddle the sick and disabled with higher fees and fewer services
* Fire police officers, fire fighters, and paramedics with deep cuts to Local Government Aid and County Program Aid
* Put the state $1.8 billion in debt for the next 20 years

Call Governor Pawlenty. Tell him he can't cut his way out of this recession. Fair and reasonable revenue is necessary to keep our state whole through this crisis.
I really sympathize with the staffers at the Governor's office who will be fielding the phone calls called for here. I'm having trouble parsing exactly what this group is saying and I'm looking right at it. They clearly understand that a massive budget deficit and projected long-term debt are bad things. Cutting back on government spending, however, is apparently also unacceptable. Clearly they would prefer he just wave his magic wand and fix the problem without having to make any difficult choices. And what on Earth do they mean by "fair and reasonable revenue"? Newsflash: revenue's going to drop in a downturn, and there's not much the governor can due about that. Unless is this cryptoprogressive code for "raise taxes", you know, because raising taxes in a downturn has always worked in the past. Sigh.

Also, what exactly are they getting at with that "Greater Minnesota" business? I may have studied in Minnesota, but I've got 'Sconnie in my blood, and if those lutefisk-eaters come lookin' for lebensraum in these parts they'll find me digging my foxhole on the St. Croix bluffs!

Bad Bad Bad: Nigeria's Ever-Worsening Oil War

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has threatened "all-out war" against Nigerian government forces in response to naval operations in their area. They've made these threats before, and nobody even really knows how much support they have, but they can still make things difficult for the already-shaky government of a very shaky country.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Curiouser and Curiouser

When the Obama White House terrified thousands of New Yorkers for a photo op, I figured it was just the sort of mistake that can happen in any new team: everyone figured someone else had thought it through. Then when they said they weren't going to release the photos, I was a bit confused, thinking it was silly to hold them back after the damage had already been done. When people demanded that the flight not be a complete waste, a photo was released, yet another Obot was thrown under the bus, and I didn't think any more about it. Until Ann Althouse encouraged me to look a little more closely at the picture:

I'm surprised more people haven't come to the same conclusion: the "photo op" story was pure hooey, just damage control. This supposed "publicity photo" is a poorly composed image of the jet against the majestic Jersey shore (when the Manhattan skyline is right on the other side), taken with a point-and-shoot camera from the cockpit of the escort fighter. Not even the White House is foolish enough to spend $328,835 on such a crappy photo. Now I understand why they initially weren't going to release the photos: there weren't any. Let's hope the fighter pilot got an attaboy for handing over his souvenier shot to save their butts.

I don't want to get all "show us the birth certificate" on you, but it really does make me wonder: who was on that plane?

It's possible of course that the real publicity shots, taken by a real camera mounted on the fighters wing, will emerge, which would totally rebut our entertaining little conspiracy theory. I won't hold my breath.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Creeping Totalitarianism Isn't Funny

There was a time not long ago when it was utterly beyond the pale in American politics to suggest, for example, that one's habitual claims of being one election away from emigration might not be the strongest evidence of a citizen's patriotism. Dissent is patriotic, we were incessantly lectured, even the sort of patriotism that only considers your country worth living in when your team is in charge. Well, that's all out the window now, as Wanda Sykes, in a "comedy" routine at the White House Press Correspondents' dinner, (in which the comedians traditionally roast the sitting president), blusters that Rush Limbaugh is a treasonous terrorist who ought to be tortured. Oh, and she wishes he would die. Painfully. All this because he has stated that he hopes Obama fails. I genuinely can't understand why the Obots have such a hard time understanding this: did these people spend eight years dutifully wishing success upon the policies of George W. Bush? Did any of us expect them to? Good grief! Sykes:
Rush Limbaugh said he hopes this administration fails. So you're saying, 'I hope America fails', you're, like, 'I don't care about people losing their homes, their jobs, our soldiers in Iraq'. He just wants the country to fail.
Leftists blithely equate one politician's ambitions with the entirety of the American enterprise, yet seem completely baffled when people suggest there's something creepily totalitarian about this. This is the definition of totalitarianism, after all, the idea that the entire nation is represented in this one man. I fear for the future.

Star Trek 2.0

The new Star Trek was far better than I expected. Far better than it had any right to be, really. I don't think the experience would be improved by reading reviews beforehand, but if you must, Peter Suderman's got a solid review over at Reason, and Jonah Goldberg's got a positive but somewhat curmudgeonly opinion at National Review (with spoilers!). Jonah's a stickler for internal consistency, and I'm not, so most of his negative comments didn't really bother me. One thing that does stay consistent throughout the Star Trek canon is the bizarro rank structure of Federation Starfleet, in which the top handful of ship's officers are regularly required to undertake away missions requiring hand-to-hand combat. Jonah comments:
I always wanted to write an SNL skit called “What if Gene Roddenberry Wrote World War II.” The whole war would involve Churchill and FDR karate chopping or neck-pinching their way across Europe, all the way to Hitler’s bunker, where FDR and Hitler would find it necessary to fight in a gladiatorial pit with long spears.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Best Thing Ever (Yet): Baby Sumo!

Baby Sumo!

John Stossel

Does America have a more entertaining libertarian iconoclast than John Stossel? I doubt it. He's been preaching common sense and personal responsibility to America's loneliest timeslot for 18 years. Check out last night's Stossel special "You Can't Even Talk About It", where he argues that anti-discrimination laws support discrimination, we should irradiate more of our food, emergency services should bill people for preventable rescues, we should eat more endangered animals, steroids should be permitted in sports, and we do too much for the elderly. He makes each of these arguments very convincingly and in classic Stossel style, the strongest points for his position generally come straight from the interviewees representing the opposing view. I'd elaborate on the arguments, but you'd be better off watching them yourselves. I'd particularly recommend the "Rescuing Risk-Takers" and "Elderly Rob the Younger Generation" segments. The unthinking sense of entitlement on display in both segments is illuminating.

On Digital Nomads

Mike Elgan is a digital nomad, aka an "extreme telecommuter", a person who has used the tools of the digital era to break the geographical constraints on his business and social lives. To his friends and colleagues, it's mostly irrelevant whether he's in California or Kathmandu. He's probably not the most extreme of them out there (he and his wife still maintain a studio apartment), but unlike others, he extends the invitation to join the nomads and regularly shares helpful tips. His advice on digitizing everything strikes me as a good idea for everyone from digital nomads to decidedly analog homesteaders. Most of these tools and tips are designed for the person who works at a one or a handful of places, but travels around a lot doing it, but they are equally powerful in enabling a person who lives wherever they prefer (say, on a homestead in the middle of nowhere), to work wherever they're needed.

Friday, May 8, 2009

On Wildfires

California's burning down. Again. Yawn. My apologies to Californians, but the rest of the country's got to be agreeing with me on this: shouldn't wildfires be part of the weather segment rather than a headline story? Don't peg me as a Midwestern chauvinist here, though. I get equally bored by "Flooding in Midwestern Floodplains!" headlines.

FuturePundit does share some interesting thoughts on the wildfires, and throws out some random thoughts on things we could be doing to stop them:
Last night a couple of guys were telling me exactly what I was thinking already: Extremely fast methods of spotting fires in early stages along with very fast reaction times for helicopter tankers could nip somem fires in the bud. Time is of the essence. Could cameras trained on hillsides with image processing software spot fires 10 minutes earlier on average? Then there is the effect of absolutely massive efforts. If 40 or 50 old jumbo jets were converted into water carriers could a fire get put out even after it has reached a couple of hundred acres?
Decline and fall quote of the day:
The America of the 1950s, given such tech, would have tried. The America of today - not so much.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

On "Boycotts", Fascism, and the Israel Obsession

If liberal fascism is fascism with a smiley face, this is what liberal Kristallnacht looks like (via PowerLine):

French activists "boycott" Israeli products by clearing a supermarket's shelves of everything labeled "made in Israel". The French have redefined sabotage as a "workers' strike", and now they're redefining destruction of property as a "boycott".

I've got to admit, I don't really get the Israel obsession. Anti-Israel activists assiduously insist that it's the policies of the state of Israel they oppose, and their rage has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. But that argument is increasingly difficult to swallow. If it's the state they oppose, why do "pro-Palestinian" activists always seem to protest outside synagogues and Jewish cultural centers rather than Israeli embassies or consulates? Besides, even if we grant (and I don't!) every argument against the Jewish state, there are unconscionably oppressive regimes and persecuted stateless peoples all over the world. Pro-Tibet rallies aren't anywhere nearly as anti-Chinese as pro-Palestinian demonstrations are anti-Jewish (zombie has an interesting comparison here).

Most neglected of all, of course, are the world's unluckiest: those anonymous multitudes who have the misfortune of being oppressed by "leaders" from among their own number. I speak primarily of Africa, where colonialism never really ended, but was handed from reasonably competent foreign colonialists to incompetent local colonialists. It's crimespeak to say it of course, but even in the darkest days of Apartheid, black South Africans were better off than their northerly neighbors now are under Mugabe. World opinion rightly condemned the Apartheid regime; why are we so much more comfortable when the oppressors look like the oppressed?

Grumpy Old Brits on the Nanny State

The BBC's "Grumpy Old Men" share their dretful scorn regarding the British Nanny State (via Professor Bainbridge). Welcome to the future (PG-13 for language) :

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

On Failed States, Counterinsurgency, and Nation-building

Here's an interesting piece arguing that failed states are not the existential threat to global order that many leading counterinsurgency theorists assume they are. It's a good point. It's become a truism that failed-state problems will eventually spill outside their borders to threaten US interests, but that claim is supported more by anecdote than by analysis.

Sure, Afghanistan sheltered the 9/11 terrorists, Colombia exported huge quantities of cocaine, and the collapse of tiny Rwanda led to a continental war. So how have we solved these issues? We unseated the Taliban from Afghanistan, so they've moved their terrorist hospitality suites to Pakistan and now Afghanistan exports huge quantities of heroin. Colombia could hardly be considered a failed state these days thanks to Uribe's heroism and smart US support, but still exports only slightly less huge quantities of cocaine. And while we continue to ignore festering conflicts in central Africa, nobody really seems to have an plan for what we should be doing instead.

Conversely, while the overriding perceived threat from failed states is that they might produce international terrorists, the 9/11 plot was financed by supporters in Europe and the Gulf petrocracies, and the terrorists themselves were educated in Europe and got their critical flight instruction in the US. Yes, the Taliban sheltered al-Qaeda during this period, and we quite rightly curb-stomped them for it, but that doesn't prove al-Qaeda couldn't have succesfully attacked us without their safe haven. The terrorists who have attacked Britain have had no need for safe havens in failed states.

None of this is to say that we should abandon the struggling parts of the world to their fate and pull back into isolationism. But the still-infant success of counterinsurgency theory in one part of the world shouldn't delude us into thinking "boots on the ground" will solve all the world's problems, or for that matter that conventional strategic power is obsolete. Development also matters, and freeing trade is the single most important thing the government can do on this front. Military partnerships to strengthen legitimate governments of chronically weak states will pay dividends in the unstable and unpredictable future. And there will always be parts of the world that beg for the old superpower bootprint.

The Pot Calls Kettles Black In National Press Conference

Treasury Secretary Geithner's been talking about closing loopholes and tax havens to prevent tax evasion. We really should pay attention, I suppose, since he is the subject-matter expert.

Kenyans Emulate the Athenians

No, not those Athenians, for once. These Athenians. Kenyan women, including the wife of the Prime Minister, have declared a sex boycott until that country's political impasse is resolved. Hey, it worked for Lysistrata.

Monday, May 4, 2009

On Proselytizing

Al-Jazeera English reports (via Jawa Report*) that a video has surfaced showing U.S. soldiers at Bagram in Afghanistan in possession of Bibles in Dari and Pashtu, and discussing how to be a "witness". A few thoughts:

General Order No. 1 forbids active duty deployed military personnel from "proselytizing". On the other hand, I'm not sure what most Christians -- particularly military Christians -- understand by "witness" necessarily qualifies. I've had a good amount of experience with the Army chaplaincy, and heard a lot about witness from them, but the focus has always been on witnessing to our fellow soldiers. Simply due to the nature of military life, the constant admonition of the chaplaincy is that a loving heart and clean living are a powerful witness in and of themselves, and honestly, the politics of the chaplaincy prevents them from encouraging any more active evangelism. Though the Al-Jazeera story would love to insinuate otherwise, nothing quoted of the chaplain strikes me as encouraging anything beyond this.

...Except for the Bibles. While I don't agree, I suspect the Department of Defense would consider handing someone a Bible, though no other action be taken, to be an act of proselytizing. If these soldiers at Bagram really were handing out Dari and Pashtu Bibles, they would be in violation of the regulations governing deployed military personnel. Of course, it's an open question how many of the soldiers in attendance would ever get outside the wire. My guess? Few, if any.

I'm particularly interested, of course, in the circumstances of this being made into a story. Al-Jazeera English, which is in fact far closer to the caricature of anti-Western terrorist apologists than the Arabic-language operation, got a hold of the video from a documentarian, Brian Hughes, who had this to say:
The only reason they would have these documents there was to distribute them to the Afghan people. And I knew it was wrong, and I knew that filming it … documenting it would be important.
Why, exactly, would that be important? To reveal the dastardly deeds of U.S. servicemembers who dare to undermine an Afghan censorship regime that considers the very existence of Dari and Pashtu Bibles a threat? Because you, a former U.S. servicemember yourself feel the need to play handmaiden to those who would execute people for the unpardonable crime of converting religions? Even assuming the "worst" of these Christian soldiers, that they were actively and quite foolishly proselytizing Afghans, who precisely is served by releasing this video to feed the Crusader-victim narrative that is already so popular in this part of the world?

Jawa sums it all up pretty nicely:
If Muslims demand that U.S. soldiers be subjected to sharia injunctions while in their countries ostensibly trying to help liberate them then at some point we are going to have to ask ourselves just what the point of that liberation was?

No, we didn't really go into Afghanistan to make it the Switzerland of Central Asia. But is, say, Mexico too much to ask for?

*Jawa is a hotbed for the freelance online anti-jihad. Fair warning, it can get pretty rough.

UPDATE: The offending Bibles have been confiscated. Hooray for not making waves.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? : Giant Cyborg Beetles

Ohh, DARPA. You gotta hand it to the Department of Defense. Rather than going the traditional and tiresome route of defeating mad scientists one by one with expensive and unpredictable secret agents, they just created an agency and started hiring them. If you fund it, they will come.

And what has our national evil genius corps come up with lately?* Giant cyborg beetles. You think I'm joking. Apparently giant beetle nervous systems are comparatively simple to hack into with a wireless reciever implant, allowing the bug to be controlled remotely. The implant just delivers a little nudge, and the beetle's own nervous system takes care of the complicated business of doing the actual flying, making the resulting abomination considerably more stable than any miniature flying robot.

Here's my two cents: I've also heard tell that they're pursuing similar cyborg technology with rats, ostensibly (again!) for search-and-rescue operations. Good cover, DARPA. But if you can control a beetle, you can control a bear. Just sayin'

*That they'll tell us about, of course. If this is what they release to the media, Hephaistos only knows what they're working on in secret.

If the Italian Postal Service Built a Car

Chrysler has been "rescued" by Fiat and the U.S. government. The synergy of Italian administration and Beltway engineering will no doubt take the automotive world by storm.

For a preview of government-built cars from decades past, Top Gear drives the automotive masterpieces of the Eastern Bloc:

Come what may, I will never drive a government-built car.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Tricycle Infantry

Sometimes it's hard to express what my daily life in the Army feels like. I can share anecdotes and examples, but it's still hard to convey the Army experience. This strip from the new-to-me comic PartiallyClips does a pretty good job, though (click to embiggen).

Smart Spam

One of the things I love about Gmail is the quality of their spam filters. True spam almost never makes it to my inbox, and I think I've had to rescue a real email from the spam folder maybe twice in the several years I've been using it.

Still, I usually give my spam a glance-over before deletion, just to be sure, and I'm amazed at how well-targeted the subject lines have gotten:

Journalist provokes massacre
Iraq: US citizens arrested
Pentagon spy caught

Some spambot has calculated my interests. My question is, how? They could be reading my blog, but Blogger shouldn't have leaked my email address anywhere. Same with my Facebook, since I don't allow apps. Google analyzes my mail for targeted ads, which I'm used to, but that shouldn't be getting out to spammers. A motivated individual could probably put all the pieces together to trace my blog back to my email address, but I wouldn't have thought a spambot would pull that off. I guess the likeliest culprit is a worm that's reporting my web browsing habits back to the spammers, although I like to think I do a pretty good job with security. Weird. Eerie.