Friday, May 27, 2005

Addendum to the Quran Discussion

Perhaps I spoke a little in haste. A day later than the BBC, the news about the FBI's report regarding abuse of the Quran has made the front page of Still not a top story, though. And now we do have a specific spokesman on record denying the claim of flushing the Quran. Brig. Gen. Jay Hood said that he has found "no credible evidence" of the flushing. Instead, though, he admits to finding 5 incidents where the Quran had been "mishandled," whatever that means.

Again, though, note the vague admission. Brig. Gen. Hood has provided no definite description of what actually happened. "Mishandled" doesn't sound that bad. But apparently it was bad to have been documented and verified. It seems that a responsible reporter, trying to get to the truth, would have asked what exactly had been done. Instead, the article follows the FUD technique. Admit a little bit, but then steer the discussion away from the actual allegations.

"None of these five incidents was a result of a failure to follow standard operating procedures in place at the time the incident occurred," Hood added.
Investigators also identified 15 separate incidents where detainees themselves mishandled or inappropriately treated the Quran, said Hood, who noted he believes current guidance for the guard force on the island "is adequate."

He said it was important to understand the population held at the detention center on the U.S. naval base.

"This is not a benign group of people," he said.

Notice the pattern in the last 3 paragraphs. By claiming detainees also "mishandled" the Quran (but with no exact explanation of what this means), he's saying that they did it too. But did what? Was their mishandling the same as ours? I don't know and never will. But now comes the kicker. After tossing a little uncertainty into the mix, he goes on to emphasize that these are not good people. So now the discussion has been steered away from the original allegations to the evil character of the detainees.

Let me make something very clear. I am not in any way attempting to defend the character of the detainees and imply that they are all innocent. It may be possible that there are some, but I am certainly not making that as an actual charge. I do not know about the cases of any of the "enemy combatants." Instead, my point is solely about our actions. There is documented evidence of "mishandling" of the Quran. If we want to heal relations and regain the respect of the world, we as a nation need to be more open. Say that X, Y, and Z were the actual events, this is what we have done about these incidents, and this is how we will prevent this from happening again. FUD does not work. It only feeds rumor and innuendo.

If we wish to take the moral high ground, we must do so in our actions. Empty talk about freedom, democracy, and national security accomplish nothing.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Damn Liberal Media Bias

So, I was checking out the BBC News (where you can go for real unbiased news) earlier in today. There, on the front page is the story that declassified FBI documents claim there were reports that U.S. guards in Guantanamo Bay flushed a copy of the Koran down the toilet. What's that you say? You've already heard this story? Well, yes, you did hear this reported by Newsweek. That was before the Bush Administration backlash that led to a hasty apology and retraction by the magazine. From the BBC story:

After interviewing a detainee, an unnamed FBI agent wrote on 1 August 2002: "Personally, he has nothing against the United States. The guards in the detention facility do not treat him well. Their behaviour is bad.

"About five months ago, the guards beat the detainees. They flushed a Koran in the toilet. [emphasis mine]

"The guards dance around when the detainees are trying to pray. The guards still do these things."

But the Pentagon said last week that it had seen no "credible and specific allegations." I would consider this report to be a pretty specific allegation. Now comes the fun part for the Administration. As driftglass put it in a recent post, Deny, deny, deny: "The Pentagon did not immediately comment on the documents, but officials have said recently that various claims made by former detainees have been proved false." Note the added emphasis on "various claims." This is the FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) defense at its finest. By referencing other claims that have been proved false, the Pentagon has cast doubt on this specific allegation without actually denying it. If the claim is later proven true, an outright denial at this time would be evidence of a lie and malicious intent. This vague statement prevents that.

<sarcasm>But, of course, that damn liberal media bias here in the U.S. is responsible for fabricating this report and making a large news item out of it just to embarrass the Bush Administration.</sarcasm> At this time on, a possible return of the Spice Girls is bigger news. That story appears at the top of the home page. The Guantanamo Bay story appears nowhere there. It's near the bottom (under "In Other News") in the politics section.

Monday, May 23, 2005

The Nuclear Option Betrayal

I was reading a post by Bruce Ackerman which stated that the "Nuclear Option" to destroy the filibuster is a betrayal by Dick Cheney to ignore the rules of the Senate. He describes Rule V (point 2), which states, "The rules of the Senate shall continue from one Congress to the next Congress unless they are changed as provided in these rules." [Emphasis mine.] He then goes on to state that this requires 67 votes, but does not provide a reference. My first reaction was that it was wishful thinking from a fellow liberal. Being the studious nerd that I am, I felt it necessary to look this up to see if it is, in fact, the case.

From the Senate's homepage, I eventually found the page for the Rules of the Senate. The relevant rule is Rule XXII, Precedence of Motions. Point 2 begins by stating that 16 Senators must sign a motion to bring to close any debate. It then goes on as follows:

"Is it the sense of the Sentate that the debate shall be brought to a close?" And if that question shall be decided in the affirmative by three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn--except on a measure or motion to amend the Senate rules, in which case the necessary affirmative vote shall be two-thirds of the Senators present and voting--then said measure, motion, or other matter pending before the Senate, or the unfinished business, shall be the unfinished business to the exclusion of all other business until disposed of." [Emphasis mine.]

As President of the Senate, it is the duty of Dick Cheney to enforce these rules. This rule explicitly states that it would take 67 votes to end the discussion to change the Senate rules. I am aghast. Ackerman was exactly correct. Apparently, the Administration believes in a strict, literal interpretation of the laws of the land (e.g., the Constitution), except when they stand to benefit. This really shouldn't surprise me, but it does that they are doing this so openly and brashly.

This is simple proof (for anyone who was still in doubt) that the Republican party (in its current incarnation) cares more for power than for the rule of law.

Update: I should note, of course, that the Rules of the Senate are not legal bindings. It is, of course, the President of the Senate's duty to enforce them. However, if he chooses not to do so, he has not violated any law. That prevents this from being an impeachable offense. Rather, it is just an egregious one.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Because Once Wasn't Enough...

This is a sort of addendum to yesterday's post. Well, it's related because it's also about stem cell research. Both sides of Congress are getting close to passing a new bill that would expand support for stem cell research. So what is our man GWB doing? Threatening the veto.

"I made [it] very clear to the Congress that the use of federal money, taxpayers' money, to promote science which destroys life in order to save life, I'm against that," Bush told reporters. "Therefore if the bill does that, I will veto it."

So, when scientists kill bacteria when researching antibiotics, that should be illegal? Or, to be more specific, it should receive no public funding? I'm being hyperbolic, I know. But what constitutes life? Are stem cells harvested from aborted fetuses alive? Where do you draw the line? And, more importantly, is it the role of a politician to make such scientific decisions?

I just find it disgusting that he may veto this bill, which will continue to prevent U.S. scientists from investigating this promising research. He has not vetoed a single bill in either term of his presidency!

To make it even more absurd, the story ends with a quote claiming that Bush describes himself as a "strong supporter of adult stem cell research."

Does he have any idea what he's talking about?

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Stem Cell Research

As you may have heard, a couple of Korean scientists announced a breakthrough today in stem cell research. Mike the Mad Biologist has a truly eloquent post releasing his anger over this announcement. His anger is due to the fact that a religious minority has prevented this research from occurring in the U.S. When I link to other blogs, I generally try to add some insight of my own, but this is a fantastic post and I don't think there's anything I could improve on it. So just go read the post over there.

These Guys Must Not See a Lot of Movies

So, I just wandered across the site for Patriotic Americans Boycotting Anti-American Hollywood. The most recent target is to boycott Star Wars. The sin is Lucas's apparently anti-American views. Regarding Episode 3, Lucas points out that this movie is about how the Republic becomes the Empire. The framework of the story was conceived in 1971. In Lucas's words: "At the time I did that, it was during the Vietnam War and the Nixon era. The issue was: How does a democracy turn itself over to a dictator? Not how does a dictator take over, but how does a democracy and Senate give it away?"

The wonderful spinners at PABAAH turn this into Lucas saying he wrote the framework in 1971, "when reacting to then-U.S. president Richard Nixon and the events of the Vietnam War." First, notice that Lucas says "during" the Nixon era, but PABAAH twists it to "reacting to" Nixon. The choice of words is interesting. Lucas's quote implies that, yes, there may have been some alarming things going on, but he is not making an absolute parallel. PABAAH makes it sound like Emperor Palpatine is a characterization of Nixon. And since Lucas goes on to say that Iraq and Vietnam are becoming very similar, Palpatine is now the representation of GWB. And, of course, if you disagree with GWB, then you're anti-American. Umm...I guess. Yeah, because I always say, "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of George W. Bush." Yeah...

Seriously, though, the problem is that PABAAH is confusing inspiration with allegory. You can find certain things about society or politics to be both intriguing and disturbing. Thinking about that can lead you to think of the possibilities. But notice the key word here is "think." In creating a fictional universe, even if it is inspired by real events or people, you are adding new thoughts and elements not present in those real circumstances. For instance, I don't see GWB getting a senator to raise a motion granting him emergency powers that extend his term beyond 8 years. Yes, those "emergency powers" sound strikingly similar to the PATRIOT Act, but come on. Lucas is telling a story. A fiction story. A story that has been conceived and evolving in his mind for 30+ years. Not everything is political, damnit.

It's also interesting reading through their full boycott list. But I have a question. If people critical of GWB are on there, what about actors who were in satires of the Clinton presidency? I mean, the "Patriots" of today speak as if criticism of the president is anti-American and treason, but they had no problem with Clinton bashing. So here are some more names for your list PABAAH: John Travolta, Billy Bob Thorton, Kathy Bates, Maura Tierney, Geraldo Rivera, James Earl Jones, and Allison Janney for Primary Colors. And William H. Macy, Robert De Niro, Dennis Leary, and Willie Nelson for Wag the Dog. And I'm pretty sure Dennis Miller (you know, that new Bush Right-wing nut) did plenty of satirical commentary during his stand-up routines or on SNL. Of course, we all know the answer to this. "Anti-American Hollywood" only means those who are critical of Republicans. If a Dem gets into the White House in '08, I guarantee you that you will not hear from the PABAAH for at least 4 years.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Sneaky Pro-Life Bumper Sticker

I saw a bumper sticker in the parking lot on my way in to the office today. I think it subtly says something about the Pro-Life movement. The sticker said, "Thank God Your Mom Was Pro-Life."

My first reaction was that this shows the false belief of the Religious Right that Pro-Choice = Pro-Abortion-In-All-Cases. So it seems that the solution would be to explain that Pro-Choice means exactly what it says. There is a choice that rests upon the mother as to whether or not to have an abortion. For some women and cases, they choose to abort. In others, they don't. So it's simply a misunderstanding that needs clarification.

As I thought more about this, it became clear to me that there is something hidden going on with the bumper sticker, specifically with the language used. It's hidden because every word is capitalized (as is typical of bumper stickers). Using proper capitalization, this sentence can be written in two ways:

Thank God your mom was pro-life.
Thank God your mom was Pro-Life.

The difference is whether your mother was pro-life, implying the literal meaning that she chose to give birth to you, and whether she was Pro-Life, meaning she belonged to the political movement that emphasizes the immorality of abortion and tried to end the legality of it. For the sentence to be true, the first case must apply. There is absolutely no truth to the implication that a Pro-Choice woman could not be a mother. I know plenty of such Pro-Choice mothers. However, it is reasonable to assume that, if your mother gave birth to you, then she chose to do so.

This is when it struck me that the intent of the bumper sticker is political slight of hand. The Pro-Life movement is relying on the truth of the sentence using pro-life to boost their numbers by implying that she was Pro-Life. Thus, most people are Pro-Life and you should be, too.

This is not to say that the intent is purely insidious politics. But rather, I think it's that the Pro-Life movement truly believes that when a woman chooses to be a mother, it is because of the work that they are doing and that the woman ceases to be Pro-Choice at that point. Thus, they have a sincere belief in the truth of the second capitalization of the sentence. So it's also partially an esteem thing. It makes them think that every parent believes the way they do, which would make them in the vast majority of adults.

Either way, the solution is to confront such Pro-Lifers when you get the chance. And let them know that, while you value life, you are Pro-Choice because the choice should be your own. Not someone else's.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Only Post For The Week

As I have a massive deadline looming over my head on Wednesday, after which I will be leaving for the rest of the week, this will be my only post until next week. But, [insert gleeful giggling here] it sure is a good one. It seems that Hilary Rosen, former chair of the RIAA, has a rant about the "monopolistic practices" of the iPod. Her complaint is that iPod owners can only get their music from the iTunes Music Store or by ripping them from CDs that you already own. In other words, you can't go to every online music store to purchase MP3s for your iPod without having to strip it of the DRM technology (which degrades sound quality).

The whole thing is a catch-22. The RIAA was the driving force behind things like the DMCA. We geeks have long ranted against this piece of legislation, saying that it stifles innovation and restricts consumer fair use. We've complained that the DMCA has made cool technological gadgets like DVD jukeboxes (which let you copy movies from DVDs onto a hard-drive, but never let you distribute the movie after that) illegal. We've complained that the heavy-handed enforcement of the DMCA that the RIAA and MPAA have pushed for will lead to legitimate vendors (such as Apple) to implement proprietary DRM encodings that would prevent consumers from being able to transfer music, movies, etc., from one device to another. If they didn't, there was the very real possibility that that company would be opening itself up to lawsuits under this misguided legislation. We have complained about all of this because WE KNEW THIS WOULD HAPPEN. We have seen it before.

Remember the .gif image format? Most companies now do not use that. The reason is that CompuServe illegally implemented a proprietary version of the Lempel-Ziv compression algorithm. Implementing tools to bypass another company's DRM encoding is illegal under the DMCA, unless you jump through all the legal hoops (which is time-consuming and expensive). That's the legislation that your organization wanted, Hilary.

And now, you, Hilary Rosen, have the fucking audacity to criticize Apple?!?

You did this.

You pushed for this legislation.

You are the guilty party.

Reap what you have sewn and call up those legislators you and your organization pressured before. Tell them that you were wrong and the DMCA needs to be repealled.

With that rant, I'm out for the week...

Friday, May 06, 2005


As usual, Driftglass has a wonderful rant about the pervasive intolerance among Republican leaders. I highly recommend his blog, if you're looking for more to add to your roll.

Clarence Darrow Lives

Or, rather, his spirit does. I was reading some more on the Kansas evolution "hearings". Pedro Irigonegaray is my hero for his wonderful counters. From the article: "When a later witness, Jonathan Wells, said he enjoyed being in the minority on such a controversial topic, Mr. Irigonegaray retorted, 'More than being right?'"

As for the validity of evolution, I point you to this article from the Washington Post. The Discovery Institute, one of the loudest ID proponents, was proud to present the names of 356 scientists who questioned evolution. In response, the National Center for Science Education found 543 scientists named "Steve" (though it also included a few Stephanies) who declare the evidence overwhelmingly in favor of evolution. I think it's safe to say we have a consensus...

I'm so glad I don't live in Kansas.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Bigotry At Its Best

So, I just read this article on about new FDA rules banning men who have had gay sex in the past five years from being sperm donors. It's interesting that the rules are based more on orientation than behavior. A gay man who has been in a non-celibate, monogamous relationship for the past 10 years is banned from being a donor under this rule. However, a straight man who had unprotected anal sex (with a woman, obviously) during a one night stand a year ago is not.

The following quote is rather interesting:
"With an anonymous sperm donor, you can't be too careful," said a[n American Society for Reproductive Medicine] spokeswoman, Eleanor Nicoll. "Our concern is for the health of the recipient, not to let more and more people be sperm donors."

If the concern is truly for the health of the recipient at all costs, the 5 year celibacy rule should apply to all men, not just gay men. Why should the gender of the partner you had sex with matter? Shouldn't the emphasis be on behavior and actions, not orientation? I really just don't see the logic here.

What a F***ing Idiot

This by way of driftglass: Pat Robertson believes liberal federal judges are the biggest threat the U.S. has ever seen. Worse than Al Qaeda. Worse than Nazi Germany. Worse than imperial Japan. Yeah, because gays getting married will do more harm than the 5 million Americans that died during the Civil War.

I really wish I wasn't adamantly opposed to censorship. Because I would love to get this guy to shut the f*** up.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Dearth of Good Science Reporting

I sometimes find it curious that mainstream news in the U.S. is seriously lacking when it comes to in-depth science and tech reporting. I think part of this is because reporters are just that: reporters. They majored in journalism, not science. I know that is only a generality and not entirely true. However, I get angry and concerned when I read articles like this one on about the new evolution trial/hearings/debate in Kansas. Toward the end of the article, there is this series of points:

Some evolution detractors say that the belief that humans, animals and organisms evolved over long spans of time is inconsistent with Biblical teachings that life was created by God. The Bible's Old Testament says that God created life on Earth including the first humans, Adam and Eve, in six days.

Detractors also argue that evolution is invalid science because it cannot be tested or verified and say it is inappropriately being indoctrinated into education and discouraging consideration of alternatives.

But defenders say that evolution is not totally inconsistent with Biblical beliefs, and it provides a foundational concept for understanding many areas of science, including genetics and molecular biology.

In short, there are 3 possible points: 1) Evolution conflicts with the Bible (which is Truth) and evolution is wrong. 2) Evolution cannot be demonstrated or verified, so it must be wrong. 3) Evolution is not inconsistent with the Bible if you don't interpret the book literally. There is also a subpoint to 3 (3a, let's call it) that evolution has value only because it helps with other concepts.

This sort of sloppy reporting gives more credence to the ID camp than the scientific evolution camp. Points 1 and 3 balance each other. Evolution either contradicts the Bible or it doesn't, and that depends on your perspective. However, the article offers no counter to 2. Therefore, this is seen as a point in favor of the ID view.

As an introductory note, it should be noted that I am not a biologist and my explanations below may be woefully inadequate. I majored in Mathematics and Computer Science and have only a rudimentary understanding of evolution, but I will try my best.

It is important to note that evolution is a scientific theory, not a "theory" in the common "hunch" meaning of the word. That means that it is an explanation that is based on observation and analysis. Hence, the misguided phrase, "Evolution is just a theory." In science, a theory is extremely well documented and validated. So, "Evolution is just a theory" is pretty close to saying "Evolution is a fact." Mike the Mad Biologist has a good post about evolution demonstrated in antibiotic resistance. He also has some wonderfully argued defenses of evolution in his archives that you can look through. The development of antibiotic resistance in microorganisms provide an example of the body of literature upon which the theory of evolution is based. I.e., observation (after genetic transfer, S. aureus is exhibiting a trait that was not found in S. sciuri) leads to analysis (resistance to triclosan and methicillin developed from mutation and change, not a pre-existing trait of the genes involved in the transfer). In other words, there are facts that led to the development of the theory of evolution.

The sticky point is that evolution cannot be easily reconstructed and demonstrated. With gravity, you can time various objects falling and demonstrate that acceleration due to gravity is 9.8 m/s^2. You can't make such an simple measurement regarding evolution because it is must more subtle and complicated. This is what the Creationists and IDers seize upon. Of course, they ignore the fact that 99.9% of the population cannot demonstrate that the symbol "2" when added to itself gives you the different symbol "4". Sure, you can show that if you have 2 crayons and put 2 more beside it, that gives you 4 crayons. But that is an example, not a proof. It also implies an understanding of the meanings of "2" "+" "=" and "4" [commas omitted so they are not interpreted as part of the symbols]. What do these symbols mean? I can show you that sometimes, 2 + 2 = 1 (in the field Z mod 3).

The point of all this is that the Creationism/ID side tries to capitalize on the abstract and complex nature of evolution as a means to disprove it in the eyes of the public. Since, by and large, the non-scientific community doesn't understand such abstraction (or many other scientific terms), it makes it harder for scientists to prove their point. And the mainstream press implicitly helps the IDers because the reporters cannot adequately rebuff such points. If the reporter did try to include a 4th point stating that the theory is based on sound analysis of observed facts, he/she would be facing a very large inbox of emails in order to respond. Most of them would probably be accusing him/her of liberal bias. Such is the woeful state of scientific reporting for mainstream media.