Saturday, July 31, 2004

Adding to my Blogroll

My friend Andrew Gray points out that the title of What's the Matter with Kansas (which I reviewed here)has been changed for the benefit of foreigners who've never heard of Kansas. Same text. No additional explanatory forward.

Look, if I'm explaining "Chicago has two baseball teams," the least they can do is label Kansas on a US map.

(Andrew also points out that tonight is a "blue moon". So go do something you don't normally do.)

And my friend Santi has a blog, in which he invites us to "Scat to the Pensees"

Both of them are on the blogroll now. Also, did you notice that Blogspot is now promoting infrared sensors and photodiodes on the banner above? I think I'm sort of proud. (I do realize there are other services that don't have ads, of course, but I trust the ones that do to stay in business longer...)

I've become an Illinois Politics Blog

Readers from other parts of the world may not know that from 1955-1976, Richard J. Daley was Mayor of Chicago, and that since 1999, his son, Richard M. Daley, has filled that office. The name "Daley" is all over the city, on almost every public building. This dynasty is part of what makes Chicago politics so interesting to me (along with the famous "machine" and the rumors of mob ties and the rivalries between different neighborhoods.) These readers also might not know that Chicago has two baseball teams, the Cubs and the White Sox. Cubs are North Side, Sox are South Side. They don't compete directly, as they belong to different leagues, but nevertheless Sox fans will say their favorite team is "The Sox and whoever's beating the Cubs" and Cubs fans will wear "Sox suck" shirts.

Mayor Daley is a Sox fan. In Chicago, this means a lot more than the fact that he's a Democrat. (Everyone's a Democrat!) So with that context, you can appreciate the humor of this item from last year, via Andy:

In an effort to get a leg up on his four opponents in the hotly contested race for 44th Ward, attorney Dean Maragos is distributing 15,000 refrigerator magnets with the Cubs' 2003 schedule. The magnets bear the Daley and Maragos campaign logos, with the slogan, "The Best Team for the 44th Ward."

The giveaway implies two things that are not true because Daley is a die-hard Sox fan who wouldn't be caught dead at Wrigley Field, and he is not endorsing Maragos. He's supporting Tom Tunney, whom he recently appointed ward alderman.

... "We view the use of the mayor's logo as an endorsement," said Daley's deputy campaign manager Julian Green.

...He added, "No one should be worried about the mayor's allegiance. Clearly, the mayor is a Sox fan."

Incidentally, Tunney won.

I also think it's funny that according to my friend Tomasz, who went to the Cubs game yesterday (Cubs 10 Phillies 7, hooray!) there were lots of people wearing hard hats. Just as Andy suggested. (That links to a Sun Times article because the Chicago Tribune owns the Cubs...) No women wearing beards, though, they only do that when Matt Clement pitches -- as he did today.

And finally, I should update you all: Jack Ryan finally dropped out of the race on Thursday. I realized I never mentioned one of the more surreal aspects of the case, which non-Chicago readers may not have known: the woman he divorced was Jeri Ryan, who played Seven-of-Nine on Star Trek, Voyager.

Thursday, July 29, 2004


So, now we're sending laser light into my little rubidium vapor cell, which looks like an empty glass tube. Doing this makes the rubidium gas glow brightly -- in the infrared range, so it still looks like an empty glass tube.

Today was about trying to focus a laser on the center of the cell, and then trying to focus the invisible glow on my little APD ("Avalanche Photo-Diode"), a light-detector which is connected to an amplifier, which is connected to an oscilloscope. If we set the laser to scan through a range of frequencies, the glow blinks on and off, as the laser hits the "resonant" frequency and then scans past it. On the 'scope, the little dancing dot draws two nice big peaks when the glow is "brightest" (but still invisible), and smaller peaks for less intense spectral lines. It's still a kick for me to see any theory actually work, especially in an aparatus that I built. Part of me never really believed in quantum mechanics, and spectral lines, even after seeing them in undergraduate labs. Subconsciously I must have assumed there was some trick to it. But this, I set up -- I know for a fact that it's not a special effect.

But I must admit it's not really the oscilloscope view which I find most convincing, even though it produces these text-book peaks. It's watching the cell wink which actually excites me. I say that this glow is infrared, invisible... But we have an infrared viewer. And if you look through it, there it is! A bright line of glowing gas, inside my empty cell. I can see the beam narrow when I put in a lens to focus the laser. I can see it flash as the laser scans frequencies. I can see it reflect off the post that's holding another lens, and I can see it cast shadows that aren't there in the room light. It's beautiful and uncanny. Of course I'm willing to believe in quantum mechanics after seeing something like that... Flickering "spectral" lines that can be seen as a green glow only if one looks through this special crystal viewing device... I'm half willing to believe in ghosts!

But even so I can't believe that anything I've built actually works.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Why I like Barack Obama

(NB -- I've added a bit to the bottom of this one.)

(Update -- I'm just going to keep tweaking this post when I think of something else to say... I've added some links this time.)

I just posted an abbreviated version of this in the comments at Byzantium's Shores and decided it ought to be a whole post. In spite of what I just said about not posting so frequently.

Obama's Convention Keynote Adress solidified my support. Here's why:

My favorite thing about him is that he doesn't pander. I have yet to hear him make any impossible promises, which habit has been a problem for several of the other convention speakers. Health care is a hard problem, and even if you could get enough Republican support to actually pass any of these universal insurance plans, it would take years to actually get it working as well as the Canadian or UK systems, about which Canadian and British people complain constantly (though they prefer their own to the US system.) Job creation isn't that easy, and cloned-embryo stem cells, moral issues aside, won't provide the miracle cure that Ron Reagan described.

As far as I can tell, Obama doesn't make claims like that. Nor do his speeches consist of restatements of the party line on the high profile issues. At the debate I saw, when the others piled on an abortion question to make it clear that they had absolutely no doubts on the subject, he saved his time to talk about death penalty reform, which he was involved in, in the Illinois Senate. You may remember that Illinois placed a moratorium on the death penalty pending investigation. As a civil rights lawyer, Obama was well-suited to participate in that process. He is not categorically anti-death-penalty, and I am, but I respect that he didn't pander to me either. Similarly, though he has consistently opposed going into Iraq, he repeatedly tells pacificist Democrats that he sometimes supports wars. I'm surprised this sort of thing hasn't cost him more votes. But apparently it wins them -- after all, it worked on me.

My second favorite thing about him is that he doesn't demonize his opponents. This is my main problem with Howard Dean. He thinks Republicans are brain-eating aliens. Whereas Obama says:

We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

Now that's what I call a uniter, not a divider. Mentioning "worship" is another example of not pandering to your base, by the way. His references to religion put off one strongly left-wing friend of mine before the primaries. He seems much more sincere about it than most Democrats. (I really wish atheistic politicians were allowed to simply call themselves atheists. Its Obama's honesty that I like, not his actual beliefs. But atheists aren't allowed to be honest -- because other people like the beliefs.)

My third favorite thing about him is that he talks about moral duties when other Democrats only talk about rights. This is sort of the same thing as not pandering, in the sense that people want to hear about rights rather than duties, most of the time.

When he said "Alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga. A belief that we’re all connected as one people. If there is a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child." I really expected him to start quoting John Donne. "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind."

And I liked "The people I meet — in small towns and big cities, in diners and office parks — they don’t expect government to solve all their problems. They know they have to work hard to get ahead — and they want to." for the same reason.

My fourth favorite thing about him is that he knows and cares about the rest of the world, outside of the US. His father is from Kenya. He spent part of his childhood in Indonesia (and more of it in Hawaii.) He's got perspective. I trust him to care about people who live in other countries, and people who are new to this country.

My fifth favorite thing about him is that lives in Illinois, and his mom's from Kansas, and I believe he knows the sort of people that I know. It's not so much that I like midwesterners, as that I don't want people who don't like midwesterners representing me.

My sixth favorite thing about him is his charisma. Although I feel guilty, liking him for such a shallow reason.

My seventh favorite thing is that he speaks clear, correct, articulate English, without sounding pretentious.

My eighth favorite thing about him is his résumé. Editor of the Harvard Law review, civil rights lawyer in Chicago, and a solid state senate record.

I also like that he'll add some desperately needed racial diversity to the Senate, but I think it's unfair that he's going to be expected to represent an entire race, as well as my state. It's unfair to him in the same way this is unfair.


After watching Edwards' speech last night, which struck me as empty all limp generalities and rhetorical tricks, I had a good-humored argument today over whether Obama's was any better. After all, he didn't exactly lay out an agenda either, except in the same general "poverty bad; veterans good" sense. I asked myself what it is, exactly, that I want from these speeches. After all, they can't really wonk out on national television. Anyone who wants to read a budget proposal can probably find that material themselves. So what do I expect them to do on television? What did Obama do that Edwards didn't?

I've decided what I want is for politicians to get up there and explain to the people why they can't have everything they want. I'd like them to explain the political realities to people who live in insular communities, and don't understand what their tax breaks/public works project/social services would mean in terms of sacrifices that other communities would have to make. Some civics lessons, a tutorial on deficit spending, and sincere efforts to make competing interests understand one another's points of view. I want my politicians to get up in front of everyone and say, "It's more complicated than you think!"

This comes back to "don't pander." Edwards just told people what they wanted to hear. Obama generally doesn't. As I said, I think his emphasis on responsibility in the DNC speech is a part of what made it so good.

But there are better examples. For instance, he got in a little trouble the other day for acknowledging that there's not much difference between John Kerry and George Bush on Iraq, for instance -- that's true. There's not much choice now but to appeal for help and keep trying to rebuild. There's presumably a large difference between what Kerry would have done in March of 2003 and what Bush did, but we can't undo it now. It's true, but none of the other Democrats will say it.

Some more quotes I like:
On foreign policy:
"To begin with, we must confront the immediate challenge involved in returning sovereignty to the Iraqi people. Although I loudly and vigorously opposed the war in Iraq, I understand that it was an American commitment, not a Republican one. --- Closer to home, the United States has a powerful interest in sustaining democratic reforms in Latin America. We must restore the United States’ reputation as a defender of democracy in this region. [Who talks about this?] --- And, in every region, we must remember that our armed forces cannot impose democracies." And this whole speech. "I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars."

On crime: "In America, we teach that when a criminal has done their time– they’re free to return to society. But that is not the reality. Ex-offenders are subject to any number of hurdles, particularly with respect to employment and housing. Though some of these provisions are offered as protection from violent criminals, they too often restrict non-violent ex-offenders as well." [on the passage of a crime package he sponsored, which also mandated videotaped interrogations and record keeping for the purpose of detecting racial profiling.]

On the economy (soundclip): "All of us at some level believe in free trade. --- But what we do expect that our government is going to make sure that people are at the forefront of this government's thinking when it comes to world trade." [proposing replace tax advantages for moving jobs with tax cuts for those who keep them in the US -- "You don't have to be protectionist to say that that's got to change."]

On politics:"A century and a half ago, two Senate candidates from Illinois set an admirable standard for campaigning with a series of debates that captivated the attention of the entire nation. --- To do these issues justice, we owe the people of Illinois more than glib TV ads and rehearsed sound-bites. " [proposing Lincoln-Douglas style debates with Jack Ryan]

Obama is outrageously popular, all of the sudden, so maybe nuance will catch on.

Generalism: Science and the Humanities

(NB I have re-written the later part of this entry)

I oughtn't update so often -- I don't want to set up unrealistic expectations. I don't think I can keep up an every day or every other day pace forever.

Nevertheless, I want to comment on this:

Tim Burke on "The Limits to Generalism"

...and Burke's blog doesn't allow comments. Also I want to draw other people's attention to the piece.

Burke is a historian who seems to be interested in a lot of the things which interest me. Plus he writes well, and I mostly agree with his conclusions.

He went to a conference on autonomous software agents, hoping to learn something about simulating societies, and got lost in the computer jargon. Since he generally believes our elaborate system of academic specialization is unnecessary, this was a discouraging experience. He says "I repeatedly extoll the virtues of generalism, but it cannot do everything. The sinking feeling I repeatedly had during the conference was knowing that to even get to the point where I grasped the substantive difference between different algorithms or formalisms proposed by many of the researchers at this conference, where I could meaningfully evaluate which were innovative and important, and which were less attractive, would take me years of basic study[...]" I read this wondering how hard it would be for me to understand (I've had a couple of classes in this stuff, as electives) and thought again that it was just as well I'd studied the sciences, because it seems much easier for a scientist to be to understand the humanities than vice versa. I like the idea of generalism too.

But then Burke acknowledges that asymmetry (natural because the whole purpose of the humanities is to generate "broadly comprehensible and communicative insights rather than highly technical ones.") and adds an important caveat: scientists who actually try to publish in the humanities often read selectively and shallowly, "cherry-picking material from anthropological scholarship they like and ignoring contradictory work."

He specifically accuses Jared Diamond of this (although without vitriol) and points out that computer scientists did something similar in the early days of AI enthusiasm: "Some scientists tend to forget that on a series of crucial issues, skeptics in the humanities were closer to the truth for decades than scientists, most notably in the early debate between philosophers of mind, neuroscientists and computer scientists working on artificial intelligence about how easy it would be to create AI."

I read this part as a sort of (unwitting) response to this paper I wrote, in which I was rather hard on the modern humanities:

"However, one can never do an experiment to discover whether a book is good. In history, one can always hope to turn up evidence for or against a theory by more closely examining primary sources, but this doesn’t help when all of the sources are well known, and one must decide among different interpretations. [...] The modern scholars do not attempt to weed out the best and worst ideas from among this huge crop as their forbearers did among the smaller number of ideas within their culture. They do not go through this exacting process of examination and judgement. How can they? What standards would the modern scholars use? There are no objective grounds on which one can declare Nietzche wrong and Monique Wittig right, and no consensus, anymore, on subjective grounds."

I went around while I was writing this, trying to provoke all of my humanities friends into argument. I wanted them to defend their disciplines. I was very annoying about it.

Tim Burke here gives me exactly what I was looking for -- a very good defense. Tackling philsosophical and historical questions with the scientific method is one thing; trying to apply the scientific method to fields where you can't hope for repeatable experiments (or masssive amounts of statiscally representative observational data, uninfluenced by the process of observation, as in astronomy) is simply sloppy thinking.

I wrote my essay right after reading a book called "The New Humanists" to which Jared Diamond contributed, along with a lot of those AI optimistic computer scientists Burke mentions. I said these were scientists who "poached subject matter from the humanities". I also said, "Famously, physicist Alan Sokal was driven by this impatience to hoax the academic journal 'Social Text' by submitting a paper about socially constructed science, which he designed to be flattering to biases of the academics (who claim to be unbiased) and deliberately filled with factual errors and intentional nonsense. It was accepted, published, and praised. This story seems to me to show that other scientists have the same problem with the modern humanities that I do, and that it is a real problem, not just a grudge. Unfortunately, there is no obvious solution to the lack of standards, since few would really wish to go back to the sometimes bigotted criteria we discarded."

Burke "replies": "Alan Sokal’s hoax hit a real target, but if you want to think and write about problems like the nature of existence and knowledge, or about why and what a cultural work means to its audiences, sometimes you really are going to have to go into deep waters that require a complex conceptual framework."

This point is well-taken, and my description of humanities scholarship as a lot of differing opinions with no way of deciding between them, doesn't take into account the value of "semantics arguments" which do have productive results -- clear ways of thinking and speaking about a topic, without which there really is no hope of consensus or a conclusion.

There's another good point, in answer to my essay, that Burke didn't raise, but which has been impressed upon me by a couple of history-of-science seminars, a conversation with a librarian friend, and the experience helping to edit a paper outside of my field... I say, "In history, one can always hope to turn up evidence for or against a theory by more closely examining primary sources, but this doesn’t help when all of the sources are well known, and one must decide among different interpretations," but fail to acknowledge the amount of work that "closely examining primary sources" actually invovles, or the real importance of it. It's so easy for us to forget, to re-write the past, because the truth is buried in a mountain of trivia. Mining this mountain for real information is back-breaking labor, in a figurative sense, but the truth is more valuable than gold. Without that kind of excavation, people can be made to believe anything. It's "1984" and history has always been what the people in power say it is...

I think I'll have to re-write that part of the essay. My original point was that it used to be objective science versus subjective humanities, but now the humanities are neither. It seems frustrating to me that they don't come to objective or subjective conclusions. But perhaps the point isn't to come to conclusions. Perhaps "descriptive" is more important than "deductive" in this context. I think I have been insufficiently appreciative of the value of simply looking at the world and describing it. In one sense, that's a trivial task, just stating the obvious. But just because something might be obvious if you looked, doesn't mean there's no value in recording it -- you won't ever look at most of these documents, these time periods, these cultures. You can't. I'm tempted now to think of humanities scholars as latter-day Lewises and Clarks. They'll explore metaphorical continents for me and report back, because I haven't got enough lifetimes to explore for myself. And if they come back telling different stories, well, that's what always happens when you send multiple parties of explorers. One may find mountains full of monsters and the other peaceful jungle people. The continents are big, and even if they weren't, eyewitnesses rarely agree. That doesn't mean their testimony isn't important.

Oh, and one more thing--

Burke says, "Theoretical physics would be far enough away in every respect that I might not ever reasonably expect to understand it, let alone do it, given that much of it cannot even be translated from its mathematical conception into broadly communicative prose. At that point, you have to have enough faith in the entire system of knowledge production to just say, “I trust you to do what you do, and to do it how you do it”"

I don't think theoretical physics should be that way. I'm sure Tim Burke could understand it, at least as well as I do, if the physicists would only learn to write...

Sunday, July 25, 2004

It Was As If an Occult Hand Had...

An irresistable article in the Chicago Tribune today:


Selected excerpts:

"It's as if an occult hand had reached into newspaper offices across the country and assembled a whole menagerie . . . "

--Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Sept. 28, 1994

This is a story about the vast media conspiracy that paranoid people always feared.

For more than two generations in newsrooms around the world, a meaningless, funny and telltale turn of phrase has spread like a cough in a classroom.

It is as intangible as smoke. It involves eight words that defy definition--"It was as if an occult hand had . . . "

Although they sound like they might mean something, they don't. The phrase has been slyly and widely put to use for most of the past 40 years, intentionally, all over the world.


"It's a phrase that has that sense of journalese about it, sort of a campy phrase," said the unashamed Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a Pulitzer winner and at least a six-time "occult hand" user.

A Tribune pursuit has traced the phrase to at least 1965, an era in American journalism when getting a story right and first were only two-thirds of an equation that also included getting it with style--or at least with wit.

Sneaking the "occult hand" into a story not only identified a writer as stylish but also served as admission into its emerging secret association, the Order of the Occult Hand.


According to Rex Bowman, who put it in a political story at The Washington Times and who now works for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, it spread like this in the beginning: "It was a bunch of reporters who got drunk and vowed to get something past their copy editors."

After that, he said, "it just spread by word of mouth," including at his newspaper.


Other Times reporters used the phrase again and again. Weeks after Caulfield used it once in 1985, Sharbutt put it in a story on dropping viewership for the Oscars: " . . . one might say it was as if an occult hand had hurled a raspberry at Hollywood."

Other Los Angeles reporters used the phrase in 1985, 1989, 1994 and 1998.

The next year, a group of L.A. Times reporters put it in a story about the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

An e-mail from the Tribune seeking information about the Order went out to all six L.A. Times reporters on the impeachment story. One, Stephen Braun, e-mailed a hasty and unelaborated response:

"Sshhhhh ...."


The Order hit its low point in the fall of 2000. In the hands of an anonymous author at The (Syracuse) Post-Standard, an ongoing saga about a group of emus released in upstate New York was updated.

"As if moved by an occult hand, phantom emus keep popping up in Oswego County," the story began. "Another was spotted about 10 a.m. Wednesday, along Route 28 . . . "

"It's a lesson in the decline and fall of practically everything," Montgomery said with a sigh.


In the fall of 1965, several Charlotte News reporters had been drinking and marveling at a story written by Flanders, Smith wrote in his letter.

Written on stationery from the North Carolina Manpower Development Corp. and dated January 1976, Smith's letter alleges that he was in the room as the "occult hand" was born in a story Flanders had written.

"Those present read with rising wonderment this sentence, tucked away in a complicated story of evil-doing:

"`It was as if an occult hand had reached down from above and moved the players like pawns upon some giant chessboard.'

"`Now that,' said one of the imbibers, `is what I call prose.'

"The others nodded in silent, awed agreement."


Story here but you have to register.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

We Should Read More Poetry

I know, I'm a physicist (or a wannbe), and physicists with blogs are supposed to do the popular science thing. Probably I will. I sieze on the least excuse to explain at innocent victims, almost every day. I still have hopes of writing popularizations for print, and maybe better textbooks than the ones I've used.

But before I was a physicist, I was an open-mic-night, high school literary magazine, poetry geek.

I'm not particularly good at writing it, though there are a couple attempts I'm not ashamed of. And I think there's a lot to be said for mediocre poetry, actually. You can't really go wrong, trying to make your language more beautiful, your metaphors more powerful. Any attempt at poetry is better than no attempt.

But it's even more important to read it. I still worry that I'll grow out of reading poetry someday, and then I won't be myself at all anymore. I've made great efforts to change my identity, to become an adult, but I don't want to betray the child that I was. I still want to someone I would've identified with, admired, when I was ten years old. It's important that I still take pleasure in words.

So I'm going to steal an idea from Jaquandor and post a poem, for the good of all our souls, when I think I need an entry. And maybe I'll have something to say about it, or maybe I'll just let it speak for itself. You'll probably be able to figure out my taste in verse from the selections themselves.

So here's the first...

A Portrait

Old: yet unchanged -- still pottering in his thoughts;
Still eagerly enslaved by books and print;
Less plagued, perhaps, by rigid musts and oughts,
But no less frantic in vain argument;

Still happy as a child, with its small toys,
Over his inkpot and his bits and pieces--
Life's arduous, fragile, and ingenuous joys,
Whose charm failed never -- nay it even increases!

Ev'n happier in watch of bird or flower,
Rainbow in heaven, or bud on thorny spray,
A star-strewn nightfall, and that heart-break hour
Of sleep-drowsed senses between dawn and day;

Loving the light-laved eyes in those wild hues!
And dryad twilight, and the thronging dark;
A Crusoe ravished by mere solitude--
And silence -- edged with music's faintest Hark!

And any chance-seen face whose loveliness
Hovers, a mystery, between dream and real;
Things usual yet miraculous that bless
And overwell a heart that still can feel;

Haunted by questions no man answered yet;
Pining to leap from A clean to Z;
Absorbed by problems which the wise forget;
Avid for fantasy -- yet how staid a head!

Senses at daggers with his intellect;
Quick, stupid; vain, retiring; ardent, cold;
Faithful and fickle; rash and circumspect;
And never yet at rest in any fold;

Punctual at meals; a spendthrift, close as Scot;
Rebellious, tractable, childish -- long gone grey!
Impatient, volatile, tongue wearying not --
Loose, too; which yet, thank heaven, was taught to pray;

'Childish' indeed! a waif on shingle shelf
Fronting the rippled sands, the sun, the sea;
And nought but his marooned precarious self
For questing consciousness and will-to-be;

A feeble venturer -- in a world so wide!
So rich in action, daring, cunning, strife!
You'd think, poor soul, he had taken Sloth for bride,
Unless the imagined is the breath of life;

Unless to speculate bring virgin gold,
And Let's-pretend can range the seven seas,
And dreams are not mere tales by idiots told,
And tongueless truth may hide in fantasies;

Unless the alone may their own company find,
And churchyards harbour phantoms 'mid their bones,
And even a daisy may suffice a mind
Whose bindweed can redeem a heap of stones;

Too frail a basket for so many eggs--
Loose-woven: Gosling? cygnet? Laugh or weep?
Or is the cup at richest in its dregs?
The actual realest on the verge of sleep?

One yet how often the prey of doubt and fear,
Of bleak despondence, stark anxiety;
Ardent for what is neither now nor here,
An Orpheus fainting for Eurydice;

Not yet inert, but with a tortured breast
At hint of that bleak gulf -- his last farewell
Pining for peace, assurance, pause, and rest,
Yet slave to what he loves past words to tell;

A foolish, fond old man, his bed-time nigh,
Who still at western window stays to win
A transient respite from the latening sky,
And scarce can bear it when the Sun goes in.

-Walter de la Mare

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

More Chicago Blogging

A couple of pictures...

From the Hancock building...

and from the El.

I took a lot more, but I mostly took them on film. I want a record that will last at least a generation or so, something I could show my kids, someday. I superstitiously believe film photos are more real, more solid. I even took some of it on that black-and-white film that you develop with color chemicals -- so probably they won't last longer than ordinary color prints, but they look like heirlooms already.

I got other pictures from the top of the John Hancock building, third-tallest in Chicago and 16th-tallest in the world, with the city and the lake and the world at its feet. Pictures of the gleaming, science-fictional Millennium Park, where we watched puppet shows and gospel choirs and Wait Wait, joining half of Chicago in celebrating the big opening day. Pictures from the top of the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier, an homage to Ferris's original Chicago Wheel, designed for the 1893 World's Fair. I can imagine that opening day as well.

Pictures of Wrigleyville just prior to a Cubs game, like a Cubby-blue Mardi Gras. Pictures of the river, and the rails, and architectural follies from the 19th century and the 21st, pressed buttress-to-balcony. All the aging futurism, the naked steel and grimy brick and rickety wooden infrastructure that are Chicago's form and function. Pictures of the South Side, as seen from the El, kids playing ball in empty lots, and old men grumbling and smoking on porches.

Pictures of the Museum of Science and Industry, with its Apollo 8 capsule and "fairy castle" consisting of a silent-film actress's collection of doll-house sized ancient artifacts, and its model train set versions of Chicago and Seattle, and its expensive genetics and VR exhibits and Navy flight simulators, and the corroded hands-on chemistry demonstrations that stopped working long ago.

And pictures of Fermilab, a piece of praire with orange and blue warehouses, with 50s prefab houses painted bright colors and mashed together to make offices, next to the relocated farmhouses from all over the site. The whole thing is found-object art and sculptural concrete buildings, scattered incongruously across a piece of grassland where buffalo still graze. And in the tunnels underneath the giant round ridges, brightly painted housings for superconducting magnets, fed by Flash-Gordon machines and controlled from a room walled with computer monitors in yellow frames, displaying oscilloscope traces and rows of numbers. My favorite part was the 12 foot diameter bubble chamber which had recently been retired and dug out of its hole, to serve as a lawn ornament. A giant steel sphere with mysterious instruments bolted to it here and there, and catwalks on top. No doubt the neighbors will think it's a UFO.

What a weekend I've had. But I can't possibly put up all of the pictures, and even if I could, they wouldn't do Chicago justice. She's even more beautiful in person.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

What's the Matter with Illinois?

This is meant to be my light, funny entry, to follow the serious one. It's also about politics, though. Sometimes politics is hilarious.

It looks like Da Coach isn't going to run for Da Senate after all.

For those of you who haven't been following the Illinois senatorial race:

Jack Ryan made his wife cry. When he ran for senate, people asked, "How come it's a secret what you and your wife fought about? Will people get mad again if they find out?" And Jack said, "No, no. It's about my son." But it wasn't about his son, and when people found out they were mad, especially the ones who had given him money. So he said he would not run for senator after all. Then the people who gave him the money tried to find someone else who could run against the handsome Barack Obama instead. Jim Oberweis, whose name is on milk bottles here because he owns a major dairy, really wants the job, but his campaign consists of railing against illegal aliens so the men with the money said, "Anyone else? Anyone?" Oberweis said, "Me! Me" but the money-men ignored him. And then one of them said, "Hey, everybody loves good ol'Mike. I bet people would vote for him 'cause he's a football star!" But now he's not running after all.

So it looks like Barack would have no one to compete against. But Jack has still not quit the race, even though he said he would...

It doesn't really matter, because Obama's going to win it in a walk-away. I saw him in a debate (in this building, just upstairs from my office) and he's great. Having never heard of any of the five candidates there that day, and with my "Goodness, he's charismatic" prejudice balanced by prejudices I had toward the others (two were female, one was a nurse. One was Latino, which seemed like a good thing because there aren't any in the Senate right now. [I wasn't sure what race Obama was, at the time] etc) I was pretty much sold. Jack Ryan made him even more a hero to the people by sending a stalker with a video camera to follow him, earlier in the race. Backfired bigtime.

Illinois politics may be more mainstream than Kansas politics, but it is nonetheless much funnier.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

What's the Matter With Kansas?

Some of you may already know, or have guessed, that I am registered Democrat with strong sympathies for social conservatives. I think there are psychological reasons for this which have to do with my habit of defending whichever position seems harder to defend (why yes, I am quite contrary) but probably even more to do with the fact that my family is from Kansas (and Texas and Oklahoma and Colorado, but mostly Kansas). My mom grew up on a farm, and though my dad didn't, he worked summers bringing in wheat all across the plains states. I, on the other hand, am the product of wealthy suburbs and Catholic schools. However my extended family still lives the kind of lifestyle my parents grew up with, so I've spent my fair share of summers on the farm myself. This kind of mixed background, combined with a childhood spent reading Brit Lit and science fiction, was bound to result in political confusion, don't you think?

Basically I grew up thinking all liberals were stupid and evil, and went through what seems to be a required Ayn Rand phase (mortifying in memory) and then a period of bitterness and backlash in which I thought all religious conservatives were stupid and evil, and now I have zero patience for either of those views.

All of which explains why I was so interested in the idea of this book which has been getting some media attention lately: Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?. It hits close to home. The political figures he talks about, Jack Cashill and Phil Kline and the rest, are my mother's friends, and I've met some of them. And I've been arguing various sides of the abortion and evolution and gay marriage debates with classmates and family since at least sixth grade. What's more, the places Frank describes are places I know intimately, which are never normally mentioned in print at all. How closely does this book connect to my life? My friend and fellow Kansan Andy is in the acknowledgments. He helped do the research.

So here's my perspective: Tom Frank's exactly right in his descriptions of what is happening to our state, but that he doesn't take seriously enough the question of why it is happening.

His idea is that Kansans are natural class warriors, but somehow they've stopped defining "ordinary guys" and "elites" in terms of money, and are defining it in terms of culture instead, "latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading" Hollywood liberals vs decent, normal, churchgoing folk. The big cultural issues (abortion, gay marriage, pornography, school prayer, etc) have been taken off the table by the courts, so this wellspring of outrage never dries up. In the meantime, the Republicans who campaign on culture, concentrate on an economic agenda once they're in office. This economic agenda is terribly damaging to Kansas, but come the next elections, Kansans will vote for them again eagerly, rather risk being at the mercy of those those evil, latte-drinking liberals.

Frank points out that moderate suburban Republicans are just as likely to drink lattes as urban democrats, and even more likely to have nannies and expensive foreign cars. The cultural divide which is supposed to exist between red and blue states exists within Kansas -- and both sides of it voted for Bush. This is true. The socially conservative wing of the party refers to the Wall Street Journal readers as "Country Club Republicans" and there is not a lot of love lost. And it is a class divide. The social conseravties are generally much poorer. But the people the social conservatives put in power, end up serving the interests of the Country Club Republicans.

So all of that he gets right. And he doesn't demonize the social conservatives, either, which is a relief. But he does dismiss their issues.

He says economics apparently don't matter in Kansas, that people are passionate only about social issues. But he seems to think that those issues are inherently some kind of distraction, not really important. He has no real explanation for why all of these people would be voting against their own economic interests (though he sees a sort of noble if deranged self-sacrifice in it) on the basis of such trivial issues as gay marriage and abortion. He implies it's a deliberate Republican red herring, to distract poor voters from the real -- ie economic -- issues. This is fairly condescending, since it implies that all of these people are pretty gullible.

And he's right to note that the country-club Republicans really belong on the "blue state" side of that much-talked-about cultural divide along with all of the inner city union workers, but I think he's wrong to conclude that this makes the divide meaningless. I think the cultural division is at least as real as the economic one.

I think there really is a stronger streak of individualism in the midwest, and that's enough to explain the popularity of laissez-faire capitalism among poor people here, without assuming that everyone's been duped. Yes, I know that once the Populist movement began here -- but as Frank himself points out, they ultimately failed, butting against a Republican tradition in Kansas that goes back to Lincoln and William Allen White. Heinlein was from Kansas City, you know, albeit the Missouri side (fun fact: his cousin fixed my mom's sewing machine.) Survivalism, "There Ain't No Such Thing As Free Lunch," "An Armed Society is a Polite Society," "nobody should be allowed to vote unless they've served in the military"... Those aren't some fraud the Republicans put over on the good people of this region. They're a native part of this culture.

And so is religion. Karen Armstrong sees a link between fundamentalist Muslims, Hindus, and Christians in the Midwest. She thinks they're all reactions to a world which is undermining the social order that holds their communities together. I think that's real. I think the conservatives have a lot to fear -- their world really is ending. Marriage is dissolving, families are separated, churches are emptying out. It's not an exaggeration to say that the traditional structure of society is falling apart. In the city, new structures have already evolved to replace it, new values, new social roles. But these people are not of that civilization.

What's more, there are real moral stakes here, particularly in that most divisive of wedge issues, abortion. Frank seems to recognize what a lot of Democrats don't: that abortion by itself has driven a huge part of the surge in Republican power, is the main reason they won Congress in 1994 and all three branches in 2000. But again, he thinks people feel so strongly about it because they've been tricked. He doesn't pause to wonder what it would mean it they were right, doesn't seem to see that you have an unavoidable moral duty, if you accept their axioms, doesn't credit them with the ability to come to their own conclusions.

He seems to think that the trick works through a class-based appeal -- a distrust of doctors leads to a dislike of abortion, somehow, and the Republicans play up this this animus. Thus the correlation between class and social conservatism. But I don't recognize the kind of resentment he describes at all. It seems to me that the real correlation is between poverty and religion, and that the reasons for this are more subtle than "opium of the masses" or "wealth corrupts."

He also has an interesting argument to make about the way the entertainment industry tries to exploit the "counter-culture equals cool" equation, making money off of shocking middle-class sensibilities. The middle classes are duly shocked, and try to elect politicians to change the culture, but since the motive for Hollywood sex and violence is profits, not politics, this has almost no effect. In fact, since Republicans tend to be in favor of profits, it's likely to make things worse. Which, in turn, leads to the election of even more Republicans. This theory is more interesting, and almost certainly contains a grain of truth, but it's not sufficient explanation. Republicans, for all their free-market principles, do regularly try to muzzle Hollywood. And people don't devote their lives and fortunes to a cause because they're merely offended.

It's unfortunate that he misses the real motivations, the convictions, because I really think if Democrats understood them, they could steal the Republicans' base out from under them and move the political center far to the left. Let the Democrats support one high-profile pro-life candidate as enthusiastically as the Republicans supported pro-choice Arnold Schwartzenegger, and these people will start to jump ship. Let them serve their consciences and their economic interests at the same time, and they will bid good-bye to the country-clubbers. Be a little more patient with the pace of social change, a little more open to local control, and learn the difference between condescending lip service and real respect. Make these people feel welcome in your party, Democrats, and you could absolutely demolish the Republican base. You could start in Kansas.

Lab Work

I keep meaning to take pictures of the vacuum chamber while it's wrapped in tinfoil... Right now it's "baking." The idea is to evaporate any crud which may have condensed on the walls, and then pump it out, so that you get a better vacuum when you turn the heat down again. The tinfoil is wrapped around a layer of "heat tape" which just consists of wires that get hot when you run a current through them, inside a layer of fiberglass. The foil does the same thing it would do on your baked potato -- keeps the heat inside. Apparently it works better than whatever expensive material they were specially purchasing before. But it looks like a giant ball of foil. Like something you'd expect to see at a third-grade science fair, or in an extremely low-budget movie, or like a joke...

In the meantime, we also had a leaky pipe in the ceiling (fixed rapidly) and a melted power-strip thing -- in the event of a power loss, it prevents stuff from turning back on when the power comes back, because really that's not something you want happening when you're not there to make adjustments. No one seems to know exactly what melted it. But you know, my dad's office in Kansas City had a whole room of uninterruptable power supplies, and I think two back-up generators, and when for some reason the supply of "clean" (ie, filtered, no spikes, no outages, no variations) power was temporarily cut off, there were dire warnings about the dangers of plugging your computer into an ordinary outlet... I guess that's the difference between the corporate world and academia, eh?

We are also facing a shortage of capacitors, which is bad because I have just discovered, to my delight, that I am making a radio. I mentioned the solenoid, right? Well, we're going to put an oscillating current through it, which means we'll produce an oscillating magnetic field at the center. I want to detect the strength of that field. To do that, I have to use another loop of wire as a sort of antenna. But there's a catch -- if the antenna has a different resonant frequency than the field is oscillating at, it will only pick up a fraction of the field. So I have to tune it to the right channel. On your radio, you do this with a knob that changes the capacitance of a variable capacitor by sliding plates back and forth so that the area of their overlap changes (at least, I think this is how it works in principle.) I only want my loop to pick up one channel, so I don't need a variable capacitor -- but I do need a different capacitor than any of the ones we've got.

The experiment actually has nothing to do with transmitting a signal. This is just an intermediate step, to figure out our field strength. But if I hooked up a microphone to my solenoid and a speaker to my loop, I could actually use them for a (pathetic) little transmitter and reciever set. How cool is that?

Now I'm gonna go re-read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and imagine myself introducing radio to the dark ages.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Nick Berg

I'm just going to tack this on...

Other people have been beheaded since, and so mostly people have stopped talking about Nick Berg (even the ones who used to bring him up every time someone else brought up Abu Ghraib). But there were all kinds of strange features to his story, which I saw mentioned separately, never all in one article. So, just for the record, without any theory of my own, I would like to collect these facts into a single post:

1. Berg was arrested by Iraqi police and detained by US forces before he fell into the hands of terrorists -- his parents were suing.

2. He had been investigated by the FBI earlier because suspected terrorists (including Zacarias Moussaoui) were using his e-mail account. The FBI were apparently satisified that he had no way to know the man to whom he gave the password might be a terrorist.

3. It is possible that they killed him before beheading him and the video was edited to make it look as though he died more brutally than he did. I have no idea what purpose this would serve, especially in light of later victims, but then, I don't understand much about what was going on here.

4. His father passionately opposes the Iraq war and has lent his support to peace groups.

5. He was interviewed by Michael Moore for Fahrenheit 9/11 months
before his death. The footage was not used in the final cut, and Moore has no comment about the story.

So who was this man? Not a lot older than myself. He wasn't assigned to Iraq by the government, the military, or Halliburton. He was there alone, on the chance that he could find work building radio towers. Why did he go? Why were so many people so interested in him before his death made him famous? Possibly, probably even, there really is no connection between these stories. The fact that he was in Iraq for personal reasons might explain Michael Moore interviewing him, and him getting picked up by the military, and a conversation with an Arab man on the bus which led to the use of his computer, and eventually his e-mail address. But still... It feels like there is a mystery here.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

War Stories

UPDATE: EuroSavant has a summary of European media coverage of "Fahrenheit 9/11", including a point-by-point evaluation of the more outrageous claims. This is a more detailed analysis than I've attempted to do, from diverse perspectives. Worth reading.

EDIT: I've realized I was confused about who made "Control Room."

All right, I finally saw Fahrenheit 9/11. Now I want to talk about how people talk about the war.

First, Michael Moore. He really made three movies here. At first glance, you think he's covering the 2000 presidential elections, the September 11 attacks, and the Iraq War. The only element which really unites these stories is their anti-hero, Bush. But for the main character, Bush doesn't actually get many lines. Nor do we get to see him do anything, in particular, not even anything embarrassing (and there is no shortage of footage of Bush embarrassing himself. Moore gets some credit for resisting the temptation to run a blooper reel.)

As it turns out, the "election" portion isn't about the election, but about Bush's money. There isn't any mention of recounts or Supreme Court testimony or analysis of margins of error or mention of the statewide races that were also, almost, too close to call. Instead we get a bunch of stuff about the oil companies Bush has been involved with, the friends he has in high places (including the Florida election officials and the wealthy Bin Laden family) and the vacations he took, and his military duty-dodging.

In the same way, "Iraq war" section isn't about the Iraq war so much as it's about class and the military. It's about Flint, Michigan (I bet the Michigan tourism board would like to have Moore shot) and this woman there who loses her son, and about how rich guys like those in Congress don't have kids in the service. The "September 11th" part is really about the whole fear-of-terror (I personally have a terror of fear) phenomenon: orange alerts and the patriot act and the FBI spying on peace groups.

Now all of these subjects, class in the military and the culture of fear, are worth exploring, as is the Bush family's wealth, to a lesser extent, but all of this has been around for a long time. They have, really, nothing to do with the death of 3000 civilians in the World Trade Center, or 900 soldiers and ten thousand innocent Iraqis in the middle east. Both of these sections use just enough footage of people dying in Iraq and New York to break your heart. But the movie isn't about the people who died.

And that's the main problem I have with it. It seems kind of exploitive to use these incredibly emotional images, which can't fail to make conservatives and democrats alike feel sick and helpless, in the service of a political agenda. On the other hand, as evocations of the real costs of these events, which had become only symbols, these scenes are incredibly valuable. I'm glad he put them in a movie. I just wish he'd put them at the center.

The other thing I don't like are the "Gotchas" which seem to be standard operating procedure for Moore. Although there weren't that many, this time. Some scenes of Bush people being primped for the cameras. Reading the Patriot Act over an ice-cream truck megaphone. Button-holing Congressmen (man, I hate people who do that to me) and asking them to somehow force their kids into the military without acknowledging that many of these guys served in the military themselves. Showing Bush reading to the elementary school class. These are cheap shots because you can make anyone, of any ideology, look bad this way. These people react just the way you or I would. I class his heavy-handed implication that the Florida elections were rigged and that the Bushes are more loyal to Saudi Arabia than to America as cheap shots too. These charges are much too serious to be made so off-handedly, and seem to attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by human nature.

Ashcroft singing, however, is fair game.

Finally, a criticism that one of my companions made: for all his pious sentiments, Moore actually focusses most of his attention on white Americans, in the end. There aren't any interviews with Iraqis, for instance. This is something that drives me nuts about American video-journalism, in general. You never see any Iraqis in the reports from Iraq. Just the American reporter, giving you second-hand insights, with the city as a set. On the BBC, they interview people who live there. Michael Moore is just as bad as Geraldo Rivera, in this respect.

Just to make it clear, though, I agree with Michael Moore that the war was wrong, that the politics of "terror" is underhanded, and that Bush is incompetent.

Which means that on the war, at least, I disagree with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. But I like Friedman much better. Friedman made a documentary of his own, called "Searching for the Roots of 9/11" which I saw on the Discovery Channel. It's been a while since I saw it, so I have less to say about it than about Michael Moore's movie, but I can tell you it did not focus on Americans. Friedman listened to the (painfully earnest) responses he got to his questions, most of which were along the lines of "Why do people hate us?" He listed in Iraq, in Indonesia (largest Muslim population in the world) and in the studios of Al Jazeera. He argued in defence of America and Israel (as Jew, he naturally has a somewhat different perspective) but argued in a different way than Moore does. He adapts his positions to provoke better arguments from his interview subjects, so they can help him see the world from their point of view. This seems much more useful than playing Gotcha.

Everyone is incredibly polite to Friedman. In contrast, all Jehane Noujaim gets in her movie "Control Room" from literally some of the same people, is sarcasm and black humor and helpless confusion and frustration and an edge of despair. The purpose of that movie is to show Americans, with whom Noujaim seems to sympathize, what the war looks like when you get up closer to it -- but still far enough away to get see the whole thing. With her, ordinary Arabs are honest instead of merely earnest. (The Americans mostly stonewall.)

Friedman was trying to see the world from this point of view -- Jehane Noujaim draws us all a picture. This is the most sincere of the three films. There is no attempt to make anyone look particularly good or particularly bad, just a lot of people who remind you of people you know, only they work at Al Jazeera, instead of your office.

They have an interesting dilemma -- they want to be an open, investigative news organization, like we have in the US or the UK. But how can they imitate US and UK news organizations, without presenting the news from a US/UK slant? It's tricky territory, and no wonder they have trouble with issues like how much blood to show, and how to alot time to people with strong or even violent opinions.

But you can't really fault Thomas Friedman and Michael Moore for not making a movie like "Control Room". They're just middle-aged white guys. Ultimately, they don't know a lot more than the rest of us about what's going on over there.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Vanity Cards

Here's a link which is via no-one -- I discovered it my own self. Chuck Lorre's Vanity Cards

Chuck Lorre was the producer on Dharma and Greg, the re-runs of which I watched regularly all last year. I maintain that it was a clever show, with likable title characters and more creativity than most sitcoms, even if they did sometimes rely too heavily on the stereotyped parents for some cheap laughs. Anyway, at some point I noticed a full screen of text that disappeared after about two seconds, which was just enough time for me to figure out that it was different every time, not enough for me to read it. So I sought it out on the internet, and found they said stuff like...

'Thank you for videotaping "Dharma & Greg" and freeze-framing on my vanity card. I'd like to take this opportunity to share with you some of my personal beliefs. I believe that everyone thinks they can write. This is not true. It is true, however, that everyone can direct. I believe that the Laws of Karma do not apply to show business, where good things happen to bad people on a fairly regular basis. I believe that what doesn't kill us makes us bitter. I believe that the obsessive worship of movie, TV and sports figures is less likely to produce spiritual gain than praying to Thor. I believe that Larry was a vastly underrated Stooge, without whom Moe and Curly could not conform to the comedy law of three (thanks, Lee). I believe my kids are secretly proud of me. I believe that if you can't find anything nice to say about people whom you've helped to make wildly successful and then they stabbed you in the back, then don't say anything at all. I believe I have a great dog, maybe the greatest dog in the whole wide world, yes, he is! I believe that beer is a gateway drug that leads, inevitably, to vodka and somebody oughta do something about it. I believe that when ABC reads this, I'm gonna be in biiiig trouble. I believe that Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High", is the greatest rock song ever recorded. Once again, thanks for watching "Dharma & Greg". Please be sure to tune in again to this vanity card for more of my personal beliefs.'

The next day he says he "I erroneously believed that beer was a gateway drug that led to vodka. After intensive consultation with ABC executives, I now believe I was very, very wrong. Beer is good. Especially beer brewed by major manufacturers, and enjoyed in a responsible fashion" On the site he notes, "This was my retraction which, amazingly enough, the ABC censor was happy with."

There's a lot more. Stuff about Buddhism. A couple of depressing short stories, because he was apparently going through some kind of nervous breakdown. A thank-you note to the King of Jordan, who apparently watches the show. More tweaking of the censors (there used to be a whole section of the site that lists stuff that got censored out. Now I can't find it... Mostly Abby being earthy.) Lots of sarcasm. Just browse though, jump around a little. You'll like this guy. You'll love that he got away with broadcasting this stuff on national television, even for two seconds per screenful.

How open-minded is too open-minded?

Again, I shamelessly plagiarize myself. This is a slightly adapted Usenet post. I promise to follow it with something light and uncontroversial.

But I'm going to go ahead and put a toe into into deep, unquiet waters with this post. I'm going to try to answer the question, "Which is more scientific, to be open minded about ghosts and ESP etc, or to dismiss the possibility?" How about if you replace 'ghosts and ESP' with 'God'? Is it consistent to give a different answer?

Assume for the sake of argument that we're not going to get any repeatable experiments demonstrating the existence of any of these. (If we ever do, science will demand that we take them seriously.)

But if we don't... Well, the whole point about the "supernatural" is that it's not limited by nature's laws. If you believe in the supernatural, it probably shouldn't bother you that it's not repeatable, and is inconsistent with the results of experiments we already have. The supernatural wouldn't operate on demand, presumably. But believers should acknowledge that they're never going to have any kind of scientific evidence for their claims, so they should never try to use scientific evidence as a tool of persuasion. And they should acknowledge that if they're right, it would mean that the universe does not in fact consistently obey the laws that scientists have uncovered -- in that sense we would have to throw those laws out. So long as they acknowledge that, there is nothing inconsistent about their position.

Is it possible to hold this position, to believe that the laws of nature are not without exception, and still do science?

I think history shows the answer is 'yes' -- but only to a certain extent.

In particular, some brilliant scientists are theists. Belief in God allows one to assume that the exceptions to (God's) laws are few and fit some still-larger pattern. The belief in any wider variety of supernatural powers and entities, however, seems to suggest that natural laws are of much more limited use, and thus makes science into pretty pointless pursuit. So I think one is much less likely to find a good scientist who believes in telekinesis and clairvoyance (both of which violate some principles that have been experimentally tested) than one who believes in a divine plan.

It's a question of what sort of rationality you expect from the universe. If you expect nothing more than consistency from the physical world, that the same conditions will produce the same results every time, then by definition you can't believe in miracles, or any other supernatural intervention. If, on the other hand, you expect events to serve some purpose, to be rational in the sense that they are a part of some larger plan, then you have no problem with miracles, since you believe that natural laws themselves are divine decrees, and can of course be suspended by divine will. You look for consistency at a higher level than the actual behavior of the universe, in the purpose that it serves. There is nothing irrational about this position (although it leaves theological problems to be solved -- why do bad things happen to good people, and so on.)

On the other hand, if the universe is neither purely mechanical nor operated in accordance with a single divine plan, then one can hope for very little consistency in the universe at all. Sometimes "laws" will work and sometimes they won't. A universe with ghosts and seers but no God is an irrational universe. Anything can happen. Now actually there is nothing self-contradictory about this position either. It could be that the universe is irrational. However, this is a universe in which many people would be deeply uncomfortable, which explains the hostility toward occultists and paranormalists from both scientists and religious believers.

Any of these three positions -- strict naturalism, "all-poweful" theism, or the belief that the universe is simply weird beyond comprehension -- is internally consistent, but they are not consistent with each other. Only if you're a strict naturalist, can you really hope to discover immutable natural laws through the scientific method. Monothesists have a different goal; discovering God's plan. (I don't know about polytheism. I suppose it would depend on the details.) Atheist mystics should not really expect much of the scientific method, or particularly trust in its results, since it relies on the assumption that the universe can be relied upon to behave in the same way everywhere and all the time.

I won't argue with people taking any of these positions, unless they try to take all of them at the same time. I'll also note that I haven't stated my own position -- it takes some maneuvering to force me to do that.

Ray Bradbury Day

Hannah Shapero has a much nicer 4th of July post than I do. Evocative. Go read this and then re-read your copy of The Illustrated Man.

Technically it's not the Fourth of July anymore, as I write this. I stayed up late playing Mau (a card game which involves changing the rules as you go along. Today, we ended up singing only on cards divisible by three, and saying "Hail Holy Queen of Hearts." Our games never stop for a point of order...)

Before that, we sang "This Land is Your Land" and tried to remember the communist verses, and watched fireworks, of which pictures above. And before that, we watched the Cubs beat the White Sox to sweep the series (hooray!). And before that, we watched "They Might be Giants" play Taste of Chicago. They ceded sovereignty of the band to the crowd...

Anyway, I had a happy Fourth, and I hope all of you did as well, including those of you who live in countries where, for some reason, they don't celebrate it.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Jed Bartlet supports the War in Iraq

Incidentally, when do we get a new name for the War in Iraq? Or is that going to be it? Has we settled on that now? How long did it take before the Gulf War was the Gulf War? I don't remember, although I do remember calling that "The War in Iraq" in 1991, along with "Desert Storm" and possibly a half a dozen other names. I think in ten years, people are going to have to call this "The Second Iraq War" because it won't be obvious any more whether they're talking about 2003 or 1991, which means the Gulf War might be retroactively re-named "The First Iraq War."

Anyway, you don't believe me that Jed Bartlet supports sending troops? Check out this quote:

"We're for freedom of speech everywhere. We're for freedom to worship everywhere. We're for freedom to learn... for everybody. And because, in our time, you can build a bomb in your country and bring it to my country, what goes on in you country is very much my business. And so we are for freedom from tyranny everywhere, whether in the guise of political oppresion, Toby, or economic slavery, Josh, or religious fanaticism, C.J. That most fundamental idea cannot be met with merely our support. It has to be met with our strength. Diplomatically, economically, materially. And if pharoah still don't free the slaves, then he gets the plagues, or my cavalry, whichever gets there first. The USTR will go crazy and say that we're not considering global trade. Committee members will go crazy and say I haven't consulted enough. And the Arab world will just go indescriminately crazy. No country has ever had a doctrine of intervention when only humanitarian interests were at stake. That streak's going to end Sunday at noon."

He's actually talking about invading a fictional country, for humanitarian reasons. You can check out the context here.

But it sounds just like a Bush speech, doesn't it? I mean, if any of Bush's speech writers could write half as well as Aaron Sorkin. It sounds even more like a Tom Friedman column. Friedman consistently made the humanitarian argument, unlike the Bush team which tried to use WMD and terrorism first. Friedman is also a better writer than anyone on Bush's staff.

Well, these episodes bothered me when they first aired -- which seems to have been February 2003, just a few days before the big Feb. 15th protests, and a few weeks before the beginning of the Second Iraq War -- and they bother me now for the same reason. I saw a re-run of the episode before this last night, and my feelings aren't any less mixed after a year of real-life war than they were before it began. The moral question isn't any less hard, and I'm still not comfortable with Bartlet's answer. (Though of course presidents don't have the luxury of remaining ambivalent forever, and I would have been dissatisfied with either answer...)

I had a long argument with my housemate Jenna, after we watched that episode. I can't even remember now whether I defended the interventionist case or tried to argue that we didn't have the right -- as usual, I just took whichever position she didn't take, so I could see how the arguments go... Having given in that much thought, I was provoked again by an article in Salon a month or so later, which was captioned "Even those opposed to the war should celebrate a shining moment in the history of freedom -- the fall of Saddam Hussein." I wrote them a letter, which they published here but to spare you having to watch the ad to read it, I'll paste it in below. It was slightly longer, when I sent it to them, but I can no longer remember what they edited out. I didn't really settle on an answer, and I still haven't really got one now. Even though at least one of my key assumptions turned out to be false. The war's lasted a lot longer than I thought it would.

I can say honestly that I think this war was wrong, because I don't think it was ever really humanitarian (otherwise we would already be in Sudan) and because even if it had been, I don't think we can achieve those aims this way (as I've said before) and because I think, "When in doubt, avoid going to war" is a good general principle.

But I don't know how I feel about the Jed Bartlet's fictional war, or how I would feel if this war really were what Tom Friedman says it is...

* * *

Gary Kamiya has perfectly summarized the internal conflict this conflict entails. Reason is against the war; compassion is for it. The whole thing's backward.

It comes from the paradox built into the very idea of a war that takes only weeks and costs few lives. I have heard it said that the death rate among American soldiers was lower than the average for the same age group among males in civilian life, though I haven't seen that confirmed. And while Iraqis have deeply suffered, much more than American media have been willing to show, can we say that this suffering is worse than what they would have continued to endure under Saddam Hussein?

The existence of a force as overwhelming as the American military changes the whole moral calculus. If the military cure were much worse than the political disease, if the war lasted for years and could be won only through incremental and costly advances as wars have traditionally been fought, then it would be easy to condemn -- win or lose.

But if you can make people do what you want almost with the wave of the hand, do you have a duty to force others to do what you think is best for them? Or is it an enormous arrogance to assume that you know what is best?

Do good intentions justify any act? Or, more confusingly, does a happy outcome justify any intentions, including those rooted in ignorance or self-interest?

Perhaps the best analogy is this: If you see someone with his leg caught in a trap, maybe unconscious and unable to speak for himself, what is your right or the duty to cut off that leg in order to free him? If someone else amputates the limb, and you suspect it may have been done as much from a desire to maim him as to free him, how do you celebrate that freedom?

What we do next will matter most. That will be the proof of our real intentions, and it remains to be seen.

-- Mary Messall

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I also remember making an analogy, in my argument with Jenna, to the American Revolution. What if other nations had decided this "civil war" was killing too many people on this backward continent, and had stepped in to stop it, for our own good?

It's a strange line of thought, this fourth of July...

Friday, July 02, 2004

Philosophy Games

So, the Iraq essay is on hold until next week. I find I don't have anything substantial to say, and yet one can't just let a blog be...

So you get some pictures of the lab where I work courtesy of Ken. (We're going to try to take some more when the laser's going, so you can see stuff glow.)

And you get philosophy games which I again discovered via a.f.p. long ago. The science card game is maddening. "Battleground God" will just make you angry... "Taboo" is interesting, but its moral dilemmas aren't nearly as meaty as they might be. Anyway, something here is bound to provoke thought, and just possibly rage, in everyone...