Friday, December 23, 2005

spying on Americans

OK, let's discuss the two many issues here:
  1. The legality/Constitutionality of the Bush NSA surveillance program
  2. The mendacity of the Bush administration's defense
  3. The effectiveness of data mining surveillance
  4. The wisdom of this approach to law enforcement.
The warrantless wiretapping approach is obviously illegal and unconstitutional. What remains in question is how important that is to people. The illegality can be seen simply by referring to President Bush's on speeches on the subject.

The legal defense put forward has been inconsistent and absurd. Others have commented upon this in depth, so I don't feel the need to.

Point 3 is the only thing that the administration has going for it. But here's the problem, and where Point 4 is important: this attitude misreads what the purpose of the police is. The police's purpose in life is not to constantly hold everybody in suspicion. This is why the Constitution protects Americans against "unreasonable search and seizure". If the police were given the power to search private residences at their own whim, there would likely be an increase in the arrest and conviction rate. But what is the cost?

From a statistical standpoint, the phenomenon can be viewed in the prism of false positive and false negative rates. Increasing police powers will (allegedly, at least) reduce the false negative rate; i.e., reduce the crime rate (and/or rate of terrorist attacks). But they also increase the false positive rate.

This is where the debate about torture becomes relevant. Torture has the potential to push the false positive rate up significantly. The problem in this instance is that the police, once they have taken a person's liberty away, have the incentive to maintain that denial of liberty. If it becomes apparent that an innocent person has been seized, or spied upon, the reaction of the police is generally to be insensitive and uncaring about the plight of the person whose rights have been violated.

I can understand that the police want more power, but I tend to think that the police will always want more power. I'm not convinced that giving the police more power is the answer to the problems that society faces.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Weisberg: I'm a dumbass

Oh, I'm sorry, that should read 'I'm a contrarian'.

Weisberg, unbelievably, makes the argument in Slate that there's no big deal with the Plame outing, and that the law is bad, and no malice was intended, and that liberals are foolish to want to see Rove prosecuted.

It's amazing on how many counts he's wrong!

For starters, there's the issue of whether a crime has been committed. Fitzgerald, a career prosecutor who has taken on Al Qaeda, the Gambino family, and the Daley family in his past, may or may not think that a crime has been committed. We don't know yet! But by appearances, this is the case. Weisberg's argument appears to come down to "Jack Shafer says so."
Weisberg bases his argument on a faulty reading of the IIPA, and also of Shafer, who relays the (fairly obvious) possibility that other laws may come into play. Weisberg appears to be passing on RNC talking points here.

Weisberg moves forward straight into the realm of speculation.

"But in the hands of a relentless and ambitious prosecutor like Fitzgerald, the absence of evidence that you've broken a law just becomes an invitation to develop a case based on other possible crimes, especially those committed in the course of defending yourself, like obstruction of justice and making false statements."

Excuse me, but what the f*ck are you talking about? What 'absence of evidence'? At what point, Mr. Weisberg, did you become privy to the grand jury proceedings? How much do you know about Fitzgerald's case? Nothing? That's what I thought. Sit down and shut up.

"Already, Fitzgerald's investigation has proved a disaster for freedom of the press and freedom of information."

At what point does the phrase 'classified information' become relevant, Mr. Weisberg? Either the government should have the power to keep some information or it shouldn't. The general consensus is that there is a need for this kind of secrecy from time to time. Certainly a person working on the proliferation of WMDs would occasionally need this kind of cover. Right?

So, now that we're stipulating that it's reasonable for some people to have non-official covers, let's ask what should happen if somebody breaks that cover. Well, that would appear to be a case where the law has been broken. Right? Certainly the CIA thinks so, or they would not have referred the matter to DoJ.

So, what 'freedom of press' has been broached here? I'm not seeing it. Apparently the freedom to reveal state secrets qualifies?

"Should Fitzgerald win convictions under the espionage law or Section 641, any conversations between officials and journalists touching on classified information could come become prosecutable offenses."

Uh, duh. That's why it's called classified information, moron! Jesus Christ, this is a stupid argument. Are people inherently so stupid when their own profession is brought into line?

"Why did the Times make this mistake, especially after criticizing the out-of-control independent counsels who went after Henry Cisneros, Bruce Babbitt, and Bill Clinton?"

Is Mr. Weisberg advancing the argument that prosecutors are no longer needed? That, because of the abuses of a number of prosecutors, no crimes should ever be investigated?

"In that context, Libby's comments don't look anything like retaliation against Joe Wilson—especially now that we know that Libby first mentioned Wilson and his wife to Judith Miller three weeks before Wilson went public with his op-ed piece. As for Rove, so far as we know, he spoke to only a single journalist—Matthew Cooper of Time. According to Cooper, Rove didn't even know Plame's name. If that's a White House smear campaign, Rove's skills are getting pretty rusty."

Weisberg is making the classic fallacicious mistake of equation "what we know" with "what is". We "know" somebody was talking to a lot of members of the press. We have been told that more than one person talked to Novak. Do we know who those people are? Curiously, no. We know that Rove talked to Matt Cooper on the very same topic. The argument 'Rove didn't even know Plame's name' seems be be the usual canard of finding some escape from guilt by saying 'Wilson's wife' is somehow a less guilt-worthy phrase than 'Valerie Plame'.

Whether the revelation of the name was a smear calculated to destroy Plame's career really isn't the issue. I've always thought it was mentioned more to discredit Wilson than anything else. In the macho world of Bush, Cheney and co., relying on a wife for a favor is very emasculating. The fact remains that these people broke the law. For that, they should face the wrath of the prosecutor, no?

What is the #1 threat to American security? Here's a hint: it's not a oil-rich gulf state in the Middle East. Another hint: think 9/11. Right, you've got it. Nuclear terrorism. WMD proliferation is the single most important thing that our intelligence services need to work on. So, what does the Bush administration do? They compromise the secrecy of an agent for political purposes. So let's talk about chilling effects for a second here.

There's one chilling effect in the press, when classified sources dry up. There's an opposite chilling effect when classified sources start getting identified in the mainstream press. Namely, potential sources become less likely to talk to American operatives.

Why on Earth doesn't Weisberg understand this?? Blowing Plame's cover not only exposes any people she's had dealings with, but it also makes it that much harder for the US to find new sources in this vital field.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

the Chronicles of Narnia

A brief review of the series, which I read this summer. The books are of varying quality, and though they are beloved, and particularly good as children's books, ultimately I don't think they achieve the quality level of The Lord of the Rings. Book by book, in order of date of publication.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: If you are going to only read one book from the series, this is the one to read. It combines clever escapism, moralism, and hardly-subtle-at-all Christ imagery involving Aslan. To think: when I first read this as a child, the connection between Aslan and Jesus completely escaped me! Amazing! The good aspects of the book: Lucy the curious girl, Edmund the selfish boy, the Witch, and Aslan. The older children are undeveloped in comparison, and the creatures of Narnia are pretty uniform. For me, the aspect of the book I dislike the most is how these four children are suddenly the kings and queens of Narnia. And we thought 'a moistened bink lobbing a scimitar' was a poor way to decide upon supreme executive power! If you are intent on reading the stories in chronological order, the prequel should be read first. But I recommend reading this book first.

Prince Caspian: This is one of the weaker books. It reads like a sequel, with not a heck of a lot of thought given to developing the world more. It's a few years later in England, but centuries later in Narnia, and the kids are needed to put things right, including putting in Prince Caspian on the throne. Lucy is again the beloved child, and Susan is starting to become less reliable (a plot development that seems to be completely unnecessary). The ending is an exercise in deus ex machina, but without the religious lessons of the first book.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: possibly the best of the books, certainly the best of the four featuring the English kids. (I'm not counting The Last Battle.) This books decides that Peter and Susan are too boring to bring back, so they are replaced with Eustace Scrubb, who appears to be a child of freethinkers or modernists or something, in any case the kind of person who earns C.S. Lewis's scorn. :) The general story line is that Lucy, Edmund, and Lucy are on the Dawn Treader with Caspian and Reepicheep, and they have adventures sailing to the edge of the world. There are a number of different stops along the way, and they provide for interesting separate episodes. Lucy has her final interesting adventure in this book, and the evolution of Eustace is pretty good. All in all, I'd say Eustace is the series' most interesting character. The end of the story introduces the edge of the world and Aslan's country, which will become more important in later books as Lewis fleshes out his ideas of Narnia's structure. But the better parts of the book are simply the adventures.

The Silver Chair: No more Lucy and Edmund, but we still have Eustace and a girl who goes to the same school, Jill Pole. Jill really never gets developed well, either in this book or in The Last Battle. The two kids are set on a quest by Aslan to find the Prince and heir to Caspian's throne. Aslan spells out exactly what they should do, but they still manage to mess up his instructions. They go North with the 'Marshwiggle' Puddleglum, have adventures with giants and eventually find the prince underground in a cave network run by a witch who is suspiciously like the White Witch of LWW. The adventures are decent, but then the book gets into examining dilemmas of considering belief and reality. It doesn't do well with them. It reads like a diatribe against atheism, which would be one thing, but it goes to the extreme of saying 'well, we don't care if our beliefs are true or not - since they make us happy we'll stick with them'. This little bit nearly ruins the whole book.

The Horse and His Boy:
Instead of recycling yet another story about English children in Narnia, like the first four books, this one concerns a boy and a horse native to Narnia. (This raises the side question: why are there no humans in Narnia at the beginning of the series, but starting with the third they start being quite common and, by the last three books, they are all over the place?) The story is pretty good, and works well as a standalone book, even though Edmund and Susan make an appearance to tie the book into Narnia. Still, the series is starting to get a bit creaky.

The Magician's Nephew:
Apparently C.S. Lewis was getting tired of Narnia so he decided to wrap of the series with a creation myth and an end-of-the-world story. The creation myth is this book, and it's far better than The Last Battle. As with most of the books, the story follows the path of children, in this case a boy and a girl named Digory and Polly. Digory's uncle has made magic rings that allow one to travel between worlds, and this leads to the discovery of a number of different worlds, and eventually the discovery of Narnia as it was being created by Aslan. The manner of inter-world travel was quite clever, and the introduction of the woman who was to become the White Witch is pretty well done. On the whole, one of my favorites of the series.

The Last Battle:
I'm trying to decide why I dislike this book so much. First off, there are two parts of the story: a conflict involving an ape and a donkey undermining faith in Aslan, that ends up leading to the invasion of Narnia by foreign forces. But then the story takes a turn into a world destruction myth that appears suddenly and without much need or sense of being there. What's the moral to be learned? Hard to tell. As a story, the first half is tolerably good. It's a reasonable investigation of what happens when people use religion to bamboozle. The ending is just uninteresting. It seems to be an explication of Lewis's theology of Shadowlands. The world we inhabit is merely a shadow of true reality, and after we leave this one, if we have the spiritual fortitude to hold onto our faith, we start climbing into greater and greater realms of reality. So the last fifty pages or so consist of Lewis waving a wand and creating his own heaven. 'Everything is increasingly wonderful' - it is a simple theme and not of Lewis's better ones.

In summary, I would put MN and VDT at the top, with HB and LWW, followed by SC and PC, with LB the least interesting or compelling.

Friday, October 07, 2005

It's October!

and I'm not poor anymore! Huzzah!

BTW, Howl's Moving Castle was excellent. Perhaps not as great as Spirited Away, but nevertheless a great movie. What next?

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Pride and Prejudice

When I was a wee lad in Boston, WGBH (Channel 2), the local PBS affiliate, ran Pride and Prejudice as a miniseries on Masterpiece Theater. I remember being intrigued by the costume drama, by the insufferable Mr. Darcy, and the strange twists that bring him together with Elizabeth Bennet. In the mid-90s, the BBC did another version, a 4-hour movie broadcast in two 2-hour parts, starring Colin Firth as Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth.

Now there's a major motion picture with Keira Knightley (Bend it Like Beckham, Pirates of the Caribbean) starring as Elizabeth. She has quite a task ahead of her, considering how widely loved the BBC version is.

Does she pull it off?

I just saw the film. I enjoyed it a lot, but felt that, in compressing the story into a 2 1/2 hour film, everything felt a bit rushed. Overall, I prefer the pacing of the BBC version.

The cast was very good, but again, they had a high standard to meet, if they didn't want the film to be viewed as a waste of time. Knightley seems much more like a teenaged girl than Ehle did, who seems more like a young woman. Also, one is more impressed with Ehle's ability to speak Jane Austen dialogue, esp. dialogue that is intended to express the great intelligence of the speaker. I say this not to disparage Miss Knightley, but I still will view Ehle as the definitive performance. Her Elizabeth seems more secure, in spite of the lower station, and less hurt by Darcy's initial disapproval. Indeed, she manages to express middle class anti-rich snobbery, which is a fairly common phenomenon, but is dismissed out of hand in the 2005 version. Finally, Ehle has smiling eyes that convey a depth of meaning that is stunning.

I went into the film expecting Knightley, the headliner, to be hard-pressed to make a good comparison with Ehle. She did a respectable job, but I was ultimately not surprised.

What did surprise me was Matthew MacFayden, who gives a terrific performance as Darcy. This is a daunting task, given how widely loved Colin Firth's Darcy was in the BBC production. (Indeed, his Darcy in that production led to him being chosen as Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones' Diary.) Firth expressed a pained discomfort in his dealings with people that was palatable. His interactions with Elizabeth start with his attempt to dismiss her, as he naturally dismisses most people, and then go from there. MacFayden starts off slowly. In the early part of the film, he doesn't express discomfort so much as disinterest. But it does pick up from there. By the middle of the film he has found a new Darcy - strong and resolute, though pained. It is an appealing metamorphisis. Does it compare favorably with Firth? Well, I still would prefer Firth's portrayal, but at least MacFayden has taken the character in a new and interesting direction.

I saw two major differences between the film and the BBC production. First, the film did not glorify the period living, the way that the BBC production did, and indeed most costume dramas do. Instead of a manor house that was in order, the Bennet residence was a working farm, with geese and pigs moving about. The contrast with the Binghley estate, and especially with Lady Catherine de Burgh's estate, was marked. This distinction was appreciated.

The second major difference was the time compression. Jane Austen novels are notable for her ability to develop a large number of characters. Sadly, a number of the minor characters get short shrift in the film. The villain Wickham is hardly developed at all - his interest in Elizabeth was totally short-circuited to move him quickly along to his seduction of Lydia. Lydia herself was a delight in the BBC production - again, her role was diminished in the film, as were all the sisters. Worse, the characters of Jane Bennett and Mr. Bingley are nearly rendered completely trivial in the film. They were far more interesting in the BBC version, and integral to the plot! The film does a disservice to Jane by completely ignoring her when she goes to London. And Bingley, who is charming if not terribly deep in the BBC version, is reduced to a silly man in the film.

Having said that, I'd say the biggest drop off was the in the portrayal of Mr. Collins, the preacher cousin who decides to propose to Elizabeth, is rebuffed, and then marries her friend who doesn't love him. Tom Hollander does a good job with the role - it is simply that David Bamber was magnificent in the BBC production. (Indeed, Bamber is listed third in the credits after Firth and Ehle - Hollander is buried in comparison.) Judi Dench is, however, and this comes as no surprise, terrific as Lady Catherine de Bourg. I'd say her performance was the only one clearly superior in the film as opposed to the BBC version (with all due respect to Catherine Leigh-Hunt).

On the whole, the film is definitely worth seeing. Keira Knightley had to stretch to play Elizabeth Bennet - she is doing a good job with the role considering her age. Let's keep in mind the career arcs of leading ladies such as Nicole Kidman, who was doing junk at a similar age but has evolved into a terrific actress. Knightley doesn't quite dominate the movie as, say, Helena Bonham Carter dominated her breakout film, A Room with a View. But there's definitely enough talent here to keep track of.

Monday, August 22, 2005

London sights

Just keeping track of things here. Saw Hampstead Heath last weekend. Seems like a nice place - I'll surely go back, esp. now that I've realized there's a direct bus from Maida Vale.

Noticed (sadly) that the Mummy exhibit at the British Museum is over. Had wanted to see it!
So I'm going to start keeping better notes about what I intend to see in London (outside London is separate posting).

  1. British Museum (sans mummy)
  2. Victoria && Albert (programmer joke there - not really funny)
  3. Greenwich - visited 9/24, want to go back
  4. Madame Tussaud (?) - maybe this should wait for a visitor
  5. Science museum (?? - should get review)
  6. War museum?
  7. St. Paul's (!)
  8. Another run through Buckingham Palace/Westminister Abbey
  9. National Gallery
  10. Tate (?)
  11. Globe theatre
  12. which reminds me - I need to check that I've got Stratford-upon-Avon on other list
  13. Sherlock Holmes stuff
This is all just starter stuff.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

August doldrums

Just checking in...

trying to think of fun, exciting things to do in the coming weeks.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Touring England

Just thought I'd jot down some of my ideas of what to see in England, in no particular order.

1. Cambridge (have seen Oxford)
2. York
3. Bath
4. Brighton
5. Beaches
6. Windsor castle
7. St. Paul's (done - 12/31/2005)
8. Greenwich (done - fall 2005)
9. Stonehenge
10. Cornwall

and beyond England...

11. Wales
12. back to Edinburgh
13. more Ireland, esp. Dublin
14. Germany (as always)
15. Greece (next summer?)
16. Portugal
17. Hungary


Monday, August 08, 2005

ID coverage in national news

A particularly noxious article by Alan Elsner.

Let's go through this, point by point.

First sentence:

" the latest shot in a long-standing war between religion and secularism in the United States in which religion now seems to be making broad advances."

First off, there is no such animal as "secularism". This is a debate between doctrinaire religion and people who understand science. Perhaps it would be better to frame the argument that way.

Paragraph 3 is classic he said-she said stuff.

"Intelligent design holds that life on earth is too complex to have developed through evolution and therefore an unseen power must have had a hand. Opponents say that conjecture is a matter of faith and has no scientific basis."

Compare this with

"Terrocentrists hold that the Earth is fixed in the universe and the sun revolves around this fixed body. Opponents say that there is no scientific basis for this claim, and that the Earth moves around the sun."

This is content-free reporting!

"This is just the latest clash between Christian fundamentalists, whose political power has grown exponentially in the past 20 years, and secular opponents. Other battle fronts include school prayer, stem-cell research, display of the Ten Commandments in public places, assisted suicide and end-of-life issues and above all, the question of abortion."

Really, when discussing scientific topics, one should avoid a phrase like "has grown exponentially". Exponential growth has a set, technical meaning in science. Mr. Elsner uses this phrase simply as a replacement for "has grown very rapidly". It's important to distinguish be exponential growth and rapid growth. A population could be growing exponentially with an absurdly long doubling time. Another population coudl be growing quadratically with a much larger rate of growth for any forseeable future.

Also, Mr. Elsner tosses a bunch of different issues together as if they were equivalent. It is important to differentiate between the fronts fundamentalists have opened against the First Amendment (insisting on publicly funded support of their religion, intrusion of religion into classrooms); public, moral issues that may or may not be influenced by religion (abortion, stem-cell research); and a simple question of what is science and what isn't.

Since the question at hand is whether intelligent design is a scientific theory, deserving of co-equal status with evolution, this would appear to be the most important question. But Mr. Elsner is not up to the task.

The next paragraph includes a powder puff quote about religion, and then the author goes straight into historical revisionism. Actually, that's not a fair criticism, as it maligns the field of historical revisionism by equating it with simply fictionalizing the past, and presenting the fiction as truth.

"The United States has always been a religious nation. For several decades in the middle of the last century, however, Christian conservatives took little organized part in politics, with churches preferring to look inward and focus on the congregants' spiritual well-being."

Actually, the first sentence is false. The United States was created as a secular nation. This fact is well documented in many places, see for example the Americans United website. The second sentence is baffling in its historical pigheadedness. The 1950s saw the peak of religious interference in the Republic, with the change of the Pledge of Allegiance to include the phrase "in God we trust". From the mainstream press description offered by Mr. Elsner, one would think that the nation had always been religious, but fell asleep at the switch in the 1950s, allowing ideas like evolution to get a foothold and distract the US from its destiny as a Christian nation. But the Christians in the US were never so timid as that. From CNN, we see that President Eisenhower said, when signing this change into law, "From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our Nation and our people to the Almighty."

Does this qualify as "preferring to look inward"? Passing a national law to make the inclusion of the phrase "under God" pervasive through "every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse"?

There are two more paragraphs in the first part of the article, also making evangelicals the focus.

The second half of the article continues its focus on evangelicals: a shorter version.
P1: Evangelicals became angry when the Supreme Court overturned laws requiring school prayer, and banning abortion.
P2: Alleges evangelical groups are growing, without really supporting the argument.
P3: Praises evangelicals for being well-oragnized, quoting a flak from a right-wing think tank.
P4: Discusses "religious awakenings", implying that one is currently going on.
P5: more of the same
P6-7: a welcome comment from Charles Krauthammer, warning evangelicals not to try to take on science.
P8: Evangelicals will not heed warning.

What is missing from this article? Any discussion of science. Since it was triggered by Bush's comment, one would think that the author would want to at least maintain the fiction of "presenting both sides equally". But the scientific side is not presented.


Monday, July 25, 2005

Chilling in DC

Went to a wedding on Saturday between a pair of friends from my NCBI days, who both currently work for the Tigger, and may be moving to NYC. Good for them!

In DC for the wedding and the world championships of my fav geeky boardgame, Diplomacy. Should be fun.

The John Roberts nomination would have me concerned if I hadn't already given up to the notion that the USA has lost much of what made it a good place to live back in the 70s. Divisiveness is the keyword today. Fuck the poor! Long live self-interest! The sad thing is how much of this movement hides behind the skirts of self-proclaimed morality. The people running this nonsense are all scoundrels. Until that fact is faced, the US will head further down the crapper.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Living in London

So, I move to London in early June, partly to get out of the hideous American political state, partly for other reasons. (Side note: I use the word state here in the sense a physicist would: to describe the condition with respect to all observed variables.)

And then people start bombing the tube. It would be false to say I'm terrorized or scared or anything like that. Having a sniper in suburban Maryland was scary, esp. considering the leading clue about the guy(s) was that they were driving a white van or panel truck. (Try going down a street in the DC area for 1/4 mile without seeing two dozen white vans. It cannot be done! But I digress.)

What I'm aiming at here, is that I'm pissed off.

About the bombings, and about a lot of things.

'Nuff for now.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Blogs and logs

I have kept an occasional log for many years, that I mostly only make entries into when I'm depressed. *smirk* Well, I've been in an employment funk and haven't quite decided how I feel about this new position I've been offered in London. Let's think hierarchically here:

what do I seek in life? Influence, power, knowledge, purpose, love, Does that cover it all? What I hate more than anything is the feeling of irrelevance. And that's easy to feel these days here in the US in a job with little influence and little money. Would the position in London be better? I don't know - my fear is that it would be the same as NIH.

Other things that I need to do...little time for this right now.