Archive for: January, 2007

Quote of the Day - the Inigo Montoya Edition

Jan 18 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Actually, there are two quotes today - one from fiction, and the other from the US Government. The first comes from that all-time classic movie, The Princess Bride:

Vizzini: Inconceivable!

Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means, what you think it means.

The second quote comes from The Hill:

"We are fully committed and it is in our best interest to have a U.S. attorney that is confirmed by the Senate," DoJ spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said. "It is inconceivable for a member of Congress to believe that use of an appointment authority to fill a vacancy is in any way an attempt to circumvent the confirmation process."

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Signing Statements and Political Interference in Science

Jan 17 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

On January 12th, President Bush signed the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006. As he so often does, Bush attached a signing statement to the law, reserving the "right" to ignore certain parts of the law he had just signed. I won't pretend to understand everything in the signing statement, but there is one clause in the statement that makes it clear that the President is reserving the right to appoint political hacks for positions that require some knowledge of science:

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Clean language just doesn't cut it anymore.

Jan 16 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

It is rare that I find myself at a loss for words. Anyone who knows me can tell you that. Right now, though, I'm having a very, very hard time coming up with family-friendly language that covers the way I feel about President Bush right now. Why? Because I just saw that half-witted, sneering little lower primate say this:

MR. LEHRER: Let me ask you a bottom-line question, Mr. President. If it is as important as you've just said - and you've said it many times - as all of this is, particularly the struggle in Iraq, if it's that important to all of us and to the future of our country, if not the world, why have you not, as president of the United States, asked more Americans and more American interests to sacrifice something? The people who are now sacrificing are, you know, the volunteer military - the Army and the U.S. Marines and their families. They're the only people who are actually sacrificing anything at this point.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night. I mean, we've got a fantastic economy here in the United States, but yet, when you think about the psychology of the country, it is somewhat down because of this war.

Yes, they serve too, who watch TV then go get another beer.

To be semi-fair to the twisted little refugee from the shallow end of the gene pool, he did have a reason for comparing the sacrifices of the American Military with the sacrifices of cable subscribers all over the nation: he needed to justify - wait for it - the tax cuts for the rich:

Now, here in Washington when I say, "What do you mean by that?," they say, "Well, why don't you raise their taxes; that'll cause there to be a sacrifice." I strongly oppose that. If that's the kind of sacrifice people are talking about, I'm not for it because raising taxes will hurt this growing economy. And one thing we want during this war on terror is for people to feel like their life's moving on, that they're able to make a living and send their kids to college and put more money on the table. And you know, I am interested and open-minded to the suggestion, but this is going to be -

MR. LEHRER: Well -

PRESIDENT BUSH: -- this is like saying why don't you make sacrifices in the Cold War? I mean, Iraq is only a part of a larger ideological struggle. But it's a totally different kind of war, than ones we're used to.

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12 responses so far

English Words the President Doesn't Understand #3685: Scapegoat

Jan 15 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

In this 60 Minutes interview, President Bush explained why he brought up mistakes that had been made in his recent speech to the nation asking fordecreeing that more troops be sent to Iraq:

PELLEY: You mention mistakes having been made in your speech. What mistakes are you talking about?

BUSH: You know, we've been through this before. Abu Ghraib was a mistake. Using bad language like, you know, "bring them on" was a mistake. I think history is gonna look back and see a lot of ways we could have done things better. No question about it.

OK, let's see what's wrong so far. First of all, Abu Ghraib was not a "mistake." It was a crime. (Actually, it was a whole bundle of crimes rolled up into one very messy scandal, but why be pedantic about it.) Second, the problem with "bring it on," (and you'd think the man could at least quote himself accurately) was not the language, it was the basic idea. When you are commander in chief of the nation's military, you do not, do not, do not invite attacks on the people you command. Ever. A formal written invitation expressing that same concept in flowery Victorian English would be no more acceptable than George "All Hat" Bush's pathetic attempt at channeling John Wayne.

PELLEY: The troop levels . . .

BUSH: Could have been a mistake.

No, George. The troop levels were a mistake. Everyone knows that at this point, so there's really no reason to keep dodging that particular point.

PELLEY: Could have been a mistake?

BUSH: Yeah. [General] John Abizaid, one of the planners, said in front of Congress, you know, he thought we might have needed more troops. My focus is on how to succeed. And the reason I brought up the mistakes is, one, that's the job of the commander-in-chief, and, two, I don't want people blaming our military. We got a bunch of good military people out there doing what we've asked them to do. And the temptation is gonna find scapegoats. Well, if the people want a scapegoat, they got one right here in me 'cause it's my decisions.

No, no, no, no, no. A scapegoat is, at least in those parts of the world that are connected to reality, the term used for someone who is blamed in an effort to distract attention from the real source of the problems. By that definition, it is impossible for George W. Bush to be a scapegoat because he is, by his own admission ("it's my decisions") the real source of the problems. If you want to see a scapegoat, a look at the history of the Abu Ghraib mess is probably a really good place to start.

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Drosophila in the field 1

Jan 12 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

When people hear the word Drosophila, the image that pops most readily to mind (for those who know what Drosophila are) almost certainly involves scientists working in the lab. There's good reason for that, of course. Lots of Drosophila are used in the lab. Go to any university in the world that has a research program in the life sciences, and you will probably find at least one lab that works with these cute little dipterans. In the last year alone, xx papers have been indexed in PubMed with the word Drosophila in the title.

Given that, it can be easy to forget that Drosophila might have an existence outside the lab, and harder still to recognize that there might actually be something worth studying out in the field. After all, what could there possibly be out in the muddy, dirty field that doesn't show up in the nice, clean, dry lab?

Quite a bit, actually - at least for some Drosophila. The thing is, you see, not all Drosophila are the same. It turns out that if you look closely, there are thousands of different species of the little buggers, and these species are very diverse in how they look (morphology), how they act (behavior or ethology), and in how they make a living (ecology). You can get a handle on the morphological differences in the lab, but to really understand the behavioral and ecological differences, you have to go and study them where they live. Which is why, in the picture just below the fold, I'm standing in a forest on a grey and rainy day, smearing fermenting bananas on a bit of sponge tacked to a tree.

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Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Jan 10 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Over the last few years, I've become an increasingly more reluctant supporter of this war. Initially, I am ashamed to admit, I really didn't think that the administration would use classified information to lie to the American public, and I really did believe their claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I listened carefully to Colin Powell's UN speech, and I believed him. Based on that, although I did not think that Hussain would give his weapons to terrorists, I did think that he was too unpredictable and dangerous to be allowed to continue to have those weapons. Obviously, I was a gullible fool, and totally wrong.
Since then, I've continued to support the continued presence of troops in Iraq. I recognized relatively early that every damn one of the justifications used to get us into the mess, but I did not think (and do not) that packing up and walking away would be an ethical thing to do. Colin Powell lost most of his credibility with me after the gaping factual problems with his UN policy became clear (and most of the rest when he stayed on until the 2004 election), but I do think he got it right with the "Pottery Barn" rule of warfare - you break it, you bought it. We broke the country (it was cracked to begin with, of course, but we shattered the thing), and with that we bought responsibility for fixing it. I don't think about my position every single day, but every time I do I find it harder and harder to support.
That's because, I think, the "pottery barn" rule of international affairs is being overcome by the "Humpty-Dumpty Affair" reality on the ground. Iraq is broken but good, and it looks less and less likely that it's repairable. Bush talks about our strategy being "victory," but it's clear that he has no idea of how to "win," or even what "winning" would look like. When the "decider" is so clearly clueless, it becomes harder and harder to muster the will needed to continue to support the situation.
Despite that, I did. I continued to support the occupation because I could see no morally acceptable alternative to staying. Unfortunately, I failed to consider something else - the morality of staying. I was so locked into the idea that we had to stay until we had fixed what we had broken that I did not stop to think about the effects that our continued presence was having.
At the moment, I no longer know where I stand. I think that our continuted presence in Iraq is bad for us, and I think it is bad for Iraq. I just don't know whether it's worse for Iraq than pulling out would be. A strong argument can be made that it is, but I think that a strong argument can also be made that pulling out would be worse for Iraq. (Because we broke their country, I think that the harm that our presence in Iraq does to us shouldn't be our main concern when figuring out what to do.)
I don't know what the right thing to do is, but I'm pretty sure that the president is shortly going to announce that we will be doing the wrong thing. 21,500 more troops are off to Iraq, and I don't know if anyone has any idea of what they are going to be doing there. This increase in forces goes against the advice of damn near everyone in the universe at this point. It's unclear as to what he thinks he's going to accomplish there, but one thing, at least, is clear. He's going to get a hell of a lot more people killed. Unless he has some super-special, super-secret plan up his sleeve - and, boy, would that be a first - the Democrats should do whatever they can to block the increase. They probably will not succeed, but they should at least try.

10 responses so far

Not the third chimp.

Jan 10 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

In Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, the universe runs on narrativium - the element that ensures that things follow the demands of the story. It's narrativium that mandates that the little old lady in the woods is a witch, narrativium that demands that a third son, attempting a task that killed two older brothers, succeed, and narrativium that ensures that the million-to-one chance succeeds 99% of the time. In The Science of Discworld 2, Pratchett and co-authors Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen point out that storytelling is a key characteristic of humans, and that it has been essential to our evolution. Instead of Homo sapiens, the Wise Man, they claim, we should be Pan narrans - the storytelling ape. With that statement, the three find themselves falling victim to a story that we've been telling ourselves a fair bit over the past few centuries - the "nothing special here, just another ape" story. It's a compelling story, but one that is what Pratchet, Stewart, and Cohen called (in an earlier book) a "lie-to-children."

The suggestion that we are the third species of chimp is one that is made mostly for political or philosophical reasons. It is made to reinforce the story that science has been telling us, and that we have been telling each other, since the start of the scientific revolution - humans are nothing special. We are not at the center of the solar system, the solar system is not at the center of the galaxy, there are lots of galaxies in the universe. Time did not begin when we did, and there was life before us. We are not separate from the rest of creation. We are related to everything else that is alive on this planet, and if you go back up the family tree for long enough you will almost certainly find that at least one of your ancestors was a monkey's uncle.

Narrativium, it would seem, demands that we be the Third Chimpanzee. But even if the chimps would take us back, we don't get to take the easy way out.

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11 responses so far

A strange moment

Jan 09 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Earlier today, I visited Westminister Abbey for the first time. It's an interesting place, and despite the fairly steep (10 pound) admissions charge, well worth the visit. It takes a while just to walk through, and on the way you go past some truly remarkable bits of history. Right near the end of my visit, I found myself standing in front of a very plain, white marble tombstone. Unlike many of the stones there, this one was very simple. Just a name - Charles Robert Darwin - a date of birth, and a date of death. Nothing more - no record of the accomplishments that gained him the honor of a burial in Westminister, no glowing list of tributes, nothing. That's fine, though. Somehow I doubt that there are too many people who really need to be told who he was, and the simple tribute seems quite fitting.
Standing there, thinking about the man and his accomplishments, I was suddenly struck by a strange thought. What, standing in a church at the grave of someone you respected a great deal, is an agnostic to do?

8 responses so far

We really do need more troops.

Jan 08 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Mike the Mad Biologist has some thoughts about some things that Nancy Pelosi said on Face the Nation over the weekend. In particular, Mike is concerned about Pelosi's declaration that the Democrats support increasing the size of the military:

Do we really need to expand the military? If we weren't bogged down in Operation Iraqi Clusterf**k, we wouldn't need 30,000 additional troops.

[Emphasis in original; minor edit for family-friendliness mine]

Actually, we'd need the troops even if we weren't involved in Iraq. Following the end of the cold war, we massively decreased the size of the military. This was a good idea at the time, and it was, for the most part, well-executed. Unfortunately, in the case of the army the drawdown went just a bit too far - mostly because nobody planned for the possibility that we might need to get involved in long-term peacekeeping operations.

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Out of the office

Jan 08 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Just in case either or my readers was wondering, the lack of posts recently has been due to travel - I'm writing this in the lounge in a hotel near Paddington Station, and won't be back to my usual haunts for another week or so. I'm taking copious notes about this trip, and I've been doing a fair bit of reading, so volume should go up again after I get back to Honolulu. I'm going to try to schedule a few posts tonight so that there are things going up over while I'm gone.

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