Friday, May 30, 2008

Clear Skies in the High Desert...

I was up at 3:30 this morning, and by 4 I was out walking our dogs. There was just a hint of dawn in the northeastern sky, and there was a bright quarter-moon 20° or so up in the eastern sky. As my eyes accommodated to the darkness, the familiar constellations popped out. A little while later, the Milky Way emerged from the darkness, stretching from the northern horizon to straight over head and down to the southern horizon – truly a glorious sight to behold.

The fact that I can see such things, as insignificant as it might sound, is one of my favorite things about living where we do. We're on the western slope of the mountain range that traverses San Diego County from north to south. Our house is on a north-facing slope, at about 2300 feet in altitude. In drought years, as we've experienced now for about eight years, you could call us the high desert, or at least the “near-desert”. But even in normal rainfall years, we have many days each year of extraordinarily low relative humidity – below 10% commonly, and sometimes below 5%. These conditions lead to low amounts of both water droplets and particulates in the atmosphere in our area, and that leads to amazing visibility.

Like seeing a bright moon, a looming dawn, and the Milky Way all at the same time...

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Global Warming?

Global warming (or the allegation of it, at least) has implications for the tourism business. One of those implications is that you can now book passage on a ship that will take you on a trip through the fabled Northwest Passage, north of Canada. The ship is no ordinary ship – it's one of the most powerful ice-breakers on the planet, built in Russia for their northern ports.

So you book your trip, and you're traveling through the Northwest Passage. The ice is gone, thanks to global warming, right? Well...
What irony. I am a passenger on one of the most powerful icebreakers in the world, travelling through the Northwest Passage - which is supposed to become almost ice-free in a time of global warming, the next shipping route across the top of the world - and here we are, stuck in the ice, engines shut down, bridge deserted. Only time and tide can free us.
Maybe not – in this case, one of the world's most powerful icebreaker was held captive for a week. They're lucky it wasn't all winter! In many places in the Arctic this year, the ice cover is more extensive than has ever been recorded. This isn't getting much play in the lamestream media, I suppose because it doesn't fit the global warming storyline very well (it's kinda hard to see how global warming could create more ice.

You can read the whole thing here, and a good blog post about it here...

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Phoenix: The Science Starts...

The Phoenix lander has started doing what it was made to do: investigate the northern plains of Mars. The science team at Tuscon must be jumping for joy...

Yesterday one of the orbiters used its telescopic camera to image Phoenix's landing site. They hit paydirt: not only did they find Phoenix itself, but they imaged the parachute/backshell and the heat shield. To my surprise, the heat shield is a little closer to the lander than the parachute/backshell.

The photo at right shows all these details (click to expand).

Meanwhile, the stereo imager on the lander has begun the job of mapping the area around the lander. The imaging team is assembling a mosaic from hundreds of individual images, each of which captures a tiny piece of the total scene. As the days go by, more and more of this will be filled in, until eventually the entire surrounding scene will have been imaged in full color.

This mapping exercise has direct science benefits itself. It is also a necessary first step to the investigation of the soil and ice – the resulting map will guide the digging arm in its exploits.

Let the science begin!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Some interesting observations about the web sites used by Al Qaeda and their supporters:
Al Qaeda web sites are making a lot of noise about "why we lost in Iraq." Western intelligence agencies are fascinated by the statistics being posted in several of these Arab language sites. Not the kind of stuff you read about in the Western media. According to al Qaeda, their collapse in Iraq was steep and catastrophic. According to their stats, in late 2006, al Qaeda was responsible for 60 percent of the terrorist attacks, and nearly all the ones that involved killing a lot of civilians. The rest of the violence was carried out by Iraqi Sunni Arab groups, who were trying in vain to scare the Americans out of the country.

Today, al Qaeda has been shattered, with most of its leadership and foot soldiers dead, captured or moved from Iraq. As a result, al Qaeda attacks have declined more than 90 percent. Worse, most of their Iraqi Sunni Arab allies have turned on them, or simply quit. This "betrayal" is handled carefully on the terrorist web sites, for it is seen as both shameful, and perhaps recoverable.

This is a good example of the (vastly) more complete information that is available on alternative news sites and blogs. You just don't see this sort of thing reported in the lamestream media. I guess it's just not “sensational” enough to make the cut – though certainly any indication that Al Qaeda is suffering sure sounds pretty sensational to me!

Sue, Sarah, Sue!

That's the title of a New York Post article that starts like this:
The polar bears are doing just fine, thank you very much.

So says Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who announced last week that her state would sue to block Washington from listing the animals as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.

And it's a good thing, too - because the new bear-population protections mask what may be the most serious threat to American economic might in decades.

Yes, polar bears.

The polar bear, you see, marks the first species on the "threatened" list whose supposed predicament is linked directly to global warming.

The current Alaskan polar-bear population may be near an all-time high.

But Interior Department computer models - such as they are - project widespread melting of the polar ice the bears need to hunt.

And that's a big problem, given the near-limitless powers embedded in the Endangered Species Act.

Go read the whole thing to understand how your elected representatives are conspiring to (a) keep your gasoline prices high, and (b) waste more of your tax dollars than you thought possible.

Sarah: You go, girl!

Meanwhile, my thoughts are drifting in this direction (as they so often do):

Representative or Senator.
Some assembly required.

Phoenix Photos...

Here's a fine mosaic put together by the Phoenix team from many individual images. Eventually they'll have the entire site mapped with full-color, stereographic photos. The technology used for surface imagery keeps getting better and better – this mosaic is, for all practical purposes, competely free of seams and other artifacts that usually appear. They've got the techniques and technology pretty much nailed...

This photo shows the scene from one side of the lander all the way to the horizon. Notable things immediately visible include the hummock-and-trough terrain extending right up to the lander (this is good, because the scientists want to dig both in a hummock and in a trough), the low hills on the horizon (very useful for figuring out exactly where the lander is), the wide expanse of similar terrain (good because it tells us that the lander didn't happen to squat on an anomalous piece of Mars), and, just for fun, a white artifact in the upper left corner of the scene.

That artifact appears at right, blown up just as big as I can make it. It's very tempting to conclude that it's something man-made, as it doesn't look like anything else in the surrounds.

There are several candidates for such a man-made object: the “backshell”, the heat shield, and the parachute.

The backshell is the shroud that protected Phoenix as it cruised from Earth to Mars; it is most likely still attached to the parachute. As Phoenix descended through the Martian atmosphere, first it decelerated through atmospheric drag, protected by the heat shield. Once it had slowed down sufficiently, the parachute deployed to slow it still further. While under canopy, the heat shield was discarded. At about 1,000 meters of altitude, the lander separated from the backshell (which was still attached to the canopy), dropping away, then using rocket motors to descend slowly to the surface.

Given this sequence, the heat shield is most likely several kilometers (or more) away from the lander, but the backshell and parachute could be within a few hundred meters – just where this artifact appears to be.

Or it could be a Martian, playing a joke on us by rolling up a nice big snowball.

My bet is on the backshell/parachute...

Monday, May 26, 2008

Caught in the Act...

Of parachuting, that is. This is just amazing:
NASA's Mars Phoenix Lander can be seen parachuting down to Mars, in this image captured by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This is the first time that a spacecraft has imaged the final descent of another spacecraft onto a planetary body.

From a distance of about 760 kilometers (472 miles) above the surface of the Red Planet, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter pointed its HiRISE obliquely toward Phoenix shortly after it opened its parachute while descending through the Martian atmosphere. The image reveals an apparent 10-meter-wide (30-foot-wide) parachute fully inflated. The bright pixels below the parachute show a dangling Phoenix. The image faintly detects the chords attaching the backshell and parachute. The surroundings look dark, but correspond to the fully illuminated Martian surface, which is much darker than the parachute and backshell.

Phoenix released its parachute at an altitude of about 12.6 kilometers (7.8 miles) and a velocity of 1.7 times the speed of sound.

The HiRISE acquired this image on May 25, 2008, at 4:36 p.m. Pacific Time (7:36 p.m. Eastern Time). It is a highly oblique view of the Martian surface, 26 degrees above the horizon, or 64 degrees from the normal straight-down imaging of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The image has a scale of 0.76 meters per pixel.
One satellite, whizzing by in it's orbit, takes a photo of the lander on its way down to the surface and itself moving very quickly. All done with the nearest human being several hundred million miles away. The capabilities of these robotic explorers staggers even a reasonably well-informed geek like me!

I never saw any announcement that they were attempting such a feat. That probably means it was a real longshot, and they didn't want to get expectations up...

Wow. Just wow!

Memorial Day Song...

Something to get you in the pondering frame of mind, on this Memorial Day:

The lyrics:

If you’re readin’ this
My momma’s sittin’ there
Looks like I only got a one way ticket over here.
I sure wish I could give you one more kiss
War was just a game we played when we were kids
Well I’m layin’ down my gun
I’m hanging up my boots
I’m up here with God and we’re both watchin’ over you

So lay me down
In that open field out on the edge of town
And know my soul
Is where my momma always prayed that it would go.
If you’re readin’ this I’m already home.

If you’re readin’ this
Half way around the world
I won’t be there to see the birth of our little girl
I hope she looks like you
I hope she fights like me
And stands up for the innocent and the weak
I’m layin’ down my gun,
I’m hanging up my boots
Tell dad I don’t regret that I followed in his shoes

So lay me down
In that open field out on the edge of town
And know my soul
is where my momma always prayed that it would go
If you’re readin’ this, I’m already hoooommmmmeeee

If you’re readin’ this,
There’s gonna come a day
You move on and find someone else and that’s okay
Just remember this
I’m in a better place
Soldiers live in peace and angels sing amazing grace

So lay me down
In that open field out on the edge of town
And know my soul is where my momma always prayed that it would go
If you’re readin’ this
If you’re readin’ this
I’m already home

Remember our fallen heroes – and their families – today...

Full Color, Full Resolution...

Here's the first of what will be many to follow – a spectacular mosaic of color images taken at various elevations along a single azimuth.

This particular image is monocular, taken from just one of the pair of cameras on the mast. Soon we'll see similar examples in pairs, one from each camera, giving us stereo views just like our own eyes give us. Then we'll see the same scene with the added dimension of depth.

Those polygonal hummocks really jump out at me. I've very similar terrain in parts of Alaska and northern Finland. While driving through Finland I stopped to get out and look at this odd landscape, for at the time I had no idea what caused it. Just scraping with my foot a couple of inches deep got me into soil mixed with small chunks of ice (this was in April, almost at the northern border of Finland). Another inch or two down, and I ran into solid ice with embedded soil particles. Seeing this terrain provoked me into reading up on it, and from that reading I discovered that these polygons are the natural result of millenia of freezing and thawing cycles. When the liquid water freezes, it expands and moves the soil particles about – and eventually, through a complicated but predictable process, these polygonal hummocks form. I think the chances of them finding water ice just under this soil are very good, just based on my own observations in Finland...


Today we celebrate Memorial Day, a day set aside to remember the soldiers, sailors, and others of the United States who gave their lives defending our freedom. Originally this holiday (established after the Civil War) was each May 30th, but some years ago Congress, in a fit of pandering to the electorate, moved Memorial Day and several other holidays to be “floating” holidays – moved to the nearest Friday or Monday so as to create a worker-pleasing three day weekend. In the process, of course, they further eroded the symbolism of the day and helped turn it into a generic extra day off from work.

Our flag is flying today, on this wet Memorial Day. My habit is to just sit for a while and reflect on the sacrifice so many have made. Today I got to thinking about the statistics of war casualties – the way that the raw numbers have changed so much, even within my own lifetime. For starters, consider the numbers of American war dead for each major conflict we've been in:

Since the Vietnam war, in ten conflicts, we have suffered less than 5,000 casualties – nearly all of which are in Iraq. In just the preceding portion of the 20th century, we suffered over 600,000 war casualties – 120 times as many. But actually the impact on those earlier generations was even greater, as the U.S. population grew from 76 million to 281 million in that same period. I just ran the numbers, and it works out to roughly 1 American in 150 died in war in the first half of the 20th century, whereas today it is roughly 1 in 56,000. The generations that included my parents and my grandparents suffered casualties in war at a rate that is roughly 400 times what we're suffering today.

You'd never, ever figure that out from the news...

The casualty rate from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars works out to about 1,000 per year over the course of the war (though the rates are much lower than that today). Just for comparison purposes, the U.S. has between 35,000 and 40,000 traffic fatalities each year. And here's a much more politically-incorrect comparison: each year, something like 1.5 million American women kill their babies (exercising their “choice”).

Pondering all that, I can't help but observe that the vast majority of the men and women I'm remembering today were born before I was. They fought in wars that were much riskier for Americans – wars fought with weapons that look primitive compared to what our soldiers today have, wars fought against enemies with comparable (or even superior) military capabilities, and often wars that were much more clearly existential in nature.

None of these facts detracts from the courage and sacrifice of today's soldiers – this American couldn't be prouder of the superb troops we're fielding today, along with their incredibly superior weapons systems and the world's best military leadership. But it is surely something to reflect upon, as we listen to those so inclined talking endlessly about the terrible price we're paying in Iraq. Earlier wars exacted a vastly heavier toll in American blood, something that seems to have been generally lost from the American consciousness.

Too many Americans have forgotten the enormous sacrifice of earlier generations; I have witnessed this myself in many conversations, mainly with younger Americans, who have badly distorted views of our past. For instance, I recall a conversation a couple of years ago with a co-worker, a man about 30 years old. He was very angry about the Iraq war, and made a comment in my hearing to the effect that Bush was killing more Americans than any President before him.

I asked him if he really meant what he was implying, that more soldiers were dying in Iraq than had died in any previous war. He replied, with some heat, that of course that's what he meant. Further conversation revealed that he really did believe that we suffered more casualties in Iraq than we did in Vietnam, or World War II, or even than the Civil War. Such profound ignorance of history does more than dishonor the soldiers of yesterday – it's dangerous, as these ignorant people (Obama appears to be an example of this) are going to be our political leadership soon.

Now there's a scary thought on this Memorial Day!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

First Phoenix Images...

Feet on another world – the Phoenix lander's three padded feet are solidly in place on the hard ground the northern reaches of Mars. The image at right (which you can expand by clicking on it, as with all the images in this post) shows one of those pads, not noticably indented into the Martian surface. This is one of a series of images that the Phoenix lander took in the first hour after landing, while out of communication with the earth. It flawlessly executed its “surface initiation sequence” autonomously (by itself, without human control), deploying several systems and instruments. Then it stored the resulting information and images until the next satellite passed overhead and it could relay all these data to Earth. Phoenix can't communicate to Earth directly; instead, it depends on the services of two satellites already orbiting Mars (Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Observer) as relay agents.

One of the critical events that occurred in that initial hour was the unfurling of Phoenix's two solar cell arrays. Without the power supplied by these arrays, Phoenix would quickly drain its small batteries, and would die an ignomious death on the northern plains of Mars. Electronics on the lander detected that the batteries were charging, and a series of photos verified the good news: the arrays deployed without incident. This was the pattern for every element of the surface initiation sequence – everything operated perfectly.

On NASA TV, one could hear some of the project team members discussing the landing events. It was obvious that they were marveling at how smoothly everything had gone. Several of them commented that the actual landing was so much better than their endless simulated landings that it almost didn't seem real...

Here are the first quick photos (and mosaics) of the surrounding terrain. These initial photos are in black-and-white, but later photos will be taken through multiple color filters for many reasons, including to produce true-color photos.

Finally, here's the first stereoscopic pair from the mission. If your screen is wide enough, they will show up side by side. Then if you can cross your eyes to fuse the two images into one, you'll see a beautiul 3-D view of the Martian landscape. The pattern of gentle bumps, in polygon shape, is strongly reminiscent of certain arctic territories here on Earth. Here such shapes are caused by repeated thawing and freezing of wet soil – naturally it's very tempting to immediately conclude that's the situation on Mars. Certainly that's the suspicion, because that suspicion is why NASA chose this site for Phoenix.

Update 9:10PM:

The first post-landing news conference is underway. No surprises yet. It's fun to see this very happy team sharing their enthusiasm and joy...

Woo Hoo!

Phoenix has landed! The lander is safe, all systems are functioning nominally, and it is tilted only by about 0.25°. From indications so far, it could hardly have gone any better.

Next milestone: solar array deployment and first photos, at about 6:30PM Pacific.

Update, 7:15PM Pacific:

The critical post-landing and deployment downlink (through the Odessy satellite orbiting Mars) confirms deployment of all major systems, and returned a batch of photos showing patches of the surrounding terrain. This looks like a stunning success for NASA, JPL, Lockheed-Martin, and the University of Arizona – absolutely everything looks “nominal” (NASA-speak for “exactly as expected”). I watched the photos almost in real time on NASA TV; they haven't yet hit the image gallery on the Phoenix site.


Phoenix Not on TV - But IS On the Web...

To my surprise, the NASA TV channel carried by DISH is apparently not going to cover the Phoenix landing. Strange. But, NASA TV on the web is going to cover it, and you can watch it here starting at 3PM Pacific (6PM Eastern).

According to the DISH guide, at the time Phoenix is landing, the NASA TV channel will be broadcasting an ISS update. Sigh...

Update at 3:30PM Pacific:

Looks like the DISH guide was wrong – I'm watching the Phoenix landing on NASA TV, where commentators are talking over the raw comm feed that's on the web. Both are potentially interesting, and it looks like both are going to show the first pictures coming back (with the TV being much higher quality).
Here's the opening of an open letter from two Iranian-Americans (mother and daughter) to Barack Obama:

May 24, 2008

Dear Senator Barack Obama:

After the recent days of highly charged commentary about “appeasement,” we thought that as Iranian-Americans, we would convey to you the feelings of most people in Iran and the Iranian diaspora at large. It is important that a decision to dialogue with the Islamic Republic of Iran not be made in haste, for the purpose of winning the election. Instead, you now have a unique opportunity to make good on your message of change.

On September 24, 2004, while a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate from Illinois, you suggested that “surgical missile strikes” on Iran may become necessary. “Launching some missile strikes into Iran is not the optimal position for us to be in” given the ongoing war in Iraq, you told the Chicago Tribune. You continued: “On the other hand, having a radical Muslim theocracy in possession of nuclear weapons is worse”.

Your change in approach is now stunning for many Iranians. It is not that we want our country to be bombed, but the point is, why did you so suddenly and without explanation go from that extreme to the extreme of “unconditional dialogue”?

Senator, since 1979 the Mullahs of Iran have killed upwards of one million Iranians, not to mention the nearly one million sacrificed to the 8-year-long Iran/Iraq war. And what the Iranian people have withstood in terms of outrageous human rights violations is shocking; public hangings, stoning, flogging, cutting off limbs, tongues and plucking out eyeballs are an everyday occurrence across Iran. All are meant to strike fear of the ruling Mullahs into people’s hearts.

Since you began talking about unconditionally dialoguing with the Islamic regime of Iran, you too have struck absolute fear in the hearts of the Iranian people, both inside and outside Iran. The few Iranian-Americans who support you are well-intentioned individuals who have been swept up in the excitement and fervor of your campaign. But we can wholeheartedly assure you that your comments have landslide opposition within the much greater Iranian heart both inside and outside Iran.

And here's the conclusion:

In closing, Senator, even if you manage to dialogue with the ruling clergy in Iran, they will never keep their word. They are masters of deception, manipulation, rhetoric and spin. They are incapable of even honoring their own signatures, and refuse to abide by the terms and conditions of treaties that they themselves have agreed upon time and time again, as we have witnessed in their reactions to U.N. resolutions.

We were born and raised in Iran, and we do know Iran’s Mullahs.


Manda Zand-Ervin & Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi

Go read the whole thing. It's an interesting take on the notion “dialog without preconditions” propounded by Obama.

Me, everytime I read that phrase (“dialog without preconditions”) I'm strongly reminded of the rhetoric of Neville Chamberlain and his many supporters in the run-up to World War II. Their willingness to engage with Hitler did legitimize him, and was seen by him as weakness on the part of his enemies – weakness that begged to be exploited. In other words, it did exactly what these Iranian-Americans are saying similar rhetoric and and engagement would do for the mad mullahs of Iran...

Does Allah Have It In For Them?

From Ron Liddle's latest column, a couple of selected passages:

You would think that by now Allah’s message might be getting through. Time after time Muslim fanatics attempt to wreak devastation in Britain – and succeed only in blowing themselves up, or setting themselves on fire, or their explosives refuse to do the decent thing and explode – while we infidel cockroaches look on in bemusement, quite unharmed.

If you were a devout believer, you might put two and two together and begin to suspect that Allah doesn’t entirely approve of blowing British people to bits. He would much rather his jihadis stayed at home and watched the Eurovision Song Contest, or did a spot of gardening, or took the dog for a walk.


I suppose that many years hence the terrible destruction of the twin towers will still be lodged in our minds, the image of the buildings crumpling, the video of Osama Bin Laden sniggering in his cave. But a similarly iconic image would be of the moron Richard Reid trying desperately to set his training shoe on fire on a plane, having forgotten to bring a lighter. They are either extraordinarily useless or Allah has got it in for them.

Go read the whole thing.

Phoenix Landing on Mars...

The Phoenix Mars Lander is on the final leg of its long journey to Mars, and if all goes well it will land this afternoon at just before 5 PM Pacific time. The mission's primary objectives are to understand the history of water at the landing site, and to investigate other indicators of the conditions required to support life. A major theme in these investigations is to unambiguously detect the water ice that scientists believe lies just below the surface soils.

The mission got the moniker “Phoenix” because it was hobbled together on a limited budget, largely using parts from two previous missions abandoned because of budget constraints (more on that later). Compared to the two Mars Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) currently still operating on the red planet, Phoenix is very conventional: it will use an ablative heat shield for its initial braking as it enters the Martian atmosphere, then a parachute to slow it further until it gets near the surface, then rockets to place it (hopefully) gently on the ground. Then it will just sit tight for about an hour (to let the dust raised by the landing rockets settle), after which it will unfurl it's solar arrays and start deploying its instruments – including a stereo camera which will survey the landscape from atop a mast. The first photos should come back about an hour after the landing.

Once it is fully deployed and checked out (assuming, of course, that the landing goes well), then the impressive array of instruments on board will go right to work. Many of the instruments need soil samples to do their job; these will be obtained by the robotic arm and scoop visible in the painting at right.

Longtime readers know that I am a big supporter of these robotic missions, and an opponent of the current manned space missions. The Phoenix mission is a perfect illustration of why I hold these positions: this mission costs less than a single resupply flight to the International Space Station (and a miniscule fraction of the cost of the ISS itself), but it will deliver real science results that far exceed anything we've gotten (or will get) from the ISS. The science data we've obtained in just the past decade through robotic missions like Cassini-Huygens, the Mars Rovers, Messenger, Galileo, and so many more simply dwarfs the trickle of useful data and experience we've gotten through the ISS. And yet, the budget for ISS dwarfs that of the robotic space program, and worse, takes priority. The reason the two missions from which Phoenix got its components were abandoned is because the ISS took budget priority.

Just think what we could accomplish if we (a) completely cut out the manned space program, and (b) applied just half the savings to robotic missions. That would be roughly a 20x increase in funding for those missions!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A Package From Kazakhstan...

Yesterday I picked up a small package from an eBay seller located in Kazakhstan. I purchased an interesting Soviet-era slide rule from this seller, a modern (1978) model made in Kiev, Ukraine. But the package itself was actually more interesting than the slide rule!

The first thing I noted about the package was that it was made up in a way that seems quaint and old-fashioned to us: it was wrapped with heavy kraft paper, and very neatly tied with twine. Looking closely at the twine, I could see that it was quite primitive by modern standards – bits of seeds and unintended organic matter were embedded throughout it. Then when I turned the package over, I spotted something totally unexpected: sealing wax, complete with a stamp! I can't read the Cyrillic characters on the stamp, but it doesn't look like a personal stamp, but rather some sort of official stamp – customs, perhaps?

I disassembled the package carefully, as I was curious now about how the rest of it was constructed. The kraft paper was glued with the rubbery cement we used to call “mucilage”. Inside the kraft paper was a flat candy box, with a formed plastic holder for 20 pieces of (delicious looking!) chocolates. This piece of plastic made a very nice crush-resistant cushion for the slide rule itself, which was under it. A very thin plastic bag (of a type I've seen often used as a shopping bag in Eastern Europe) wrapped the slide rule.

My seller went to a lot of trouble to make this package, certainly more trouble than most Americans would. I can say this with some authority, as I buy slide rules from all over the world, and I can definitely see patterns in the packaging. Apparently packaging style is culturally determined!

Americans are by far the worst, on the whole. I have purchased expensive slide rules (say, $50 or $100) from American sellers who simply threw the slide rule in a much larger Priority Mail box and sent it. German sellers, on average, are not much better than the Americans. The British sellers, on the other hand, tend to be very conscientious packers – at least half the packages I receive from Great Britain would survive being run over on the freeway. But the best of all, so far, are the Israelis. There are three Israeli sellers whom I've purchased multiple slide rules from, and all three of them are exceptionally careful in their packing. One of them, a fellow named Yoram, sends me packages that are themselves marvels of mechanical engineering, with carefully carved and fitted pieces of foam to protect the slide rule I purchased from him.

Of course there are exceptions to the above observations. There are some American sellers who package things extremely carefully, and likewise some of the German sellers. One of these careful German sellers (Franz, who has become a good friend through our shared interests) sends me boxes of slide rules that are all individually wrapped in newspapers, a method that was common (and effective) when I was a kid growing up in New Jersey.

My package from Kazakhstan provoked some interest at our Jamul Post Office. As I walked out, someone who had overheard me exclaiming about the package wanted to see the package – and within a minute or two, we had a knot of people all looking at this quaint package that had traveled so far. Then, of course, I had to explain to several of the younger folks just what a slide rule was – as always, that led to some funny looks from people who were clearly wondering what sort of lunatic I was. Who would want to collect sticks that let you (sort of) multiply and divide ?

Lovely Weather...

Just two days ago the weather forecast called for “chance of patchy drizzle”, which generally means (for us) slightly denser than normal fog. We often get such weather this time of year; it's a welcome respite from the heat, but usually little precipitation accumulates. Yesterday afternoon I had to drive from Solana Beach to National City, and there was intermittent heavy rainfall along that entire path. As I drove home that evening, I was hopeful that we had gotten (or would get) some of that rain.

So I was delighted to see, as I drove down the length of Lawson Valley Road, that there was running water along the side of the road and everything looked thoroughly wet. When I drove alongside the creek, I could see water accumulating in it, so I knew we'd had some amount of rain. Finally, when I got home there was heavy drizzle (which turned into rain later), and my rain gauge showed 0.56 inches. This morning it's reading 0.64 inches, and there's more rain in the forecast for today and tomorrow...

Even more surprising is the temperature – right now it is just 41°F outside. With 100% relative humidity and light winds, it's actually uncomfortably cold – just a bit different than the 100°F, 7% relative humidity we had last weekend!

More of this, please...

Friday, May 23, 2008

Why The Left Scares Me...

One of our Democratic Senators who is always amongst the leaders for the coveted title of “Intellectual Midget of the Senate” has weighed in on the war on terrorism. Senator Joe Biden has an opinion piece in today's Wall Street Journal. The central theses:

At the heart of this failure is an obsession with the "war on terrorism" that ignores larger forces shaping the world: the emergence of China, India, Russia and Europe; the spread of lethal weapons and dangerous diseases; uncertain supplies of energy, food and water; the persistence of poverty; ethnic animosities and state failures; a rapidly warming planet; the challenge to nation states from above and below.

Instead, Mr. Bush has turned a small number of radical groups that hate America into a 10-foot tall existential monster that dictates every move we make.

The intersection of al Qaeda with the world's most lethal weapons is a deadly serious problem. Al Qaeda must be destroyed. But to compare terrorism with an all-encompassing ideology like communism and fascism is evidence of profound confusion.

Terrorism is a means, not an end, and very different groups and countries are using it toward very different goals. Messrs. Bush and McCain lump together, as a single threat, extremist groups and states more at odds with each other than with us: Sunnis and Shiites, Persians and Arabs, Iraq and Iran, al Qaeda and Shiite militias. If they can't identify the enemy or describe the war we're fighting, it's difficult to see how we will win.

The results speak for themselves.

On George Bush's watch, Iran, not freedom, has been on the march: Iran is much closer to the bomb; its influence in Iraq is expanding; its terrorist proxy Hezbollah is ascendant in Lebanon and that country is on the brink of civil war.

Beyond Iran, al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan – the people who actually attacked us on 9/11 – are stronger now than at any time since 9/11. Radical recruitment is on the rise. Hamas controls Gaza and launches rockets at Israel every day. Some 140,000 American troops remain stuck in Iraq with no end in sight.

Because of the policies Mr. Bush has pursued and Mr. McCain would continue, the entire Middle East is more dangerous. The United States and our allies, including Israel, are less secure.

This is the standard world-view of the American Left, and no matter how many times I hear it or read it, it still staggers me. It boils down to two articles of faith:
  1. The terrorists attacking our nation are not a serious, much less existential, threat; they are most appropriately dealt with by police forces, not the military.

  2. The world is more dangerous today than it was eight years ago, because of our aggressive war on terror.
It's very difficult for me to believe that any informed person would believe the first article – there is simply too much hard, verified evidence to the contrary. I'm reminded of the many stories about the Jews who refused to leave Hitler's Germany, simply not believing that the Nazi's intended them great harm. But at least those Jews had the excuse that solid information was hard to come by. This is not the case today...

The left's second article of faith could simply be shameless electoral pandering, but based on a number of conversations I've had with true believers, I think that many of them actually believe this. They seem to think that because they're saying over and over again that the world is now a more dangerous place, that it really is more dangerous now. Never mind those huge arrays of pesky facts to the contrary (especially the one that's most important to me: we have not had any successful terrorist attacks on U.S. territory since 9/11). That's all ignorable in the face of their relentless repetition of what they apparently want to believe: that fighting back against the evil of terrorism makes the world worse.

It's depressing to read things like Biden's bilious bullshit, and realize that something like half of my fellow countrymen would agree with it...

G4B Bug...

It seems a number of gas station pumps have the “Gas at 4 Bucks” (G4B) bug:

Mom-and-pop service stations are running into a problem as gasoline marches toward $4 a gallon: Thousands of old-fashioned pumps can't register more than $3.99 on their spinning mechanical dials.

The pumps, throwbacks to a bygone era on the American road, are difficult and expensive to upgrade, and replacing them is often out of the question for station owners who are still just scraping by.

Many of the same pumps can count only up to $99.99 for the total sale, preventing owners of some SUVs, vans, trucks and tractor-trailers from filling their tanks all the way.

As many as 8,500 of the nation's 170,000 service stations have old-style meters that need to be fixed — about 17,000 individual pumps, said Bob Renkes, executive vice president of the Petroleum Equipment Institute of Tulsa, Okla.

I haven't seen this myself, but I have seen another phenomenon: gas pumps that limit the total purchase to $75. At $4+ a gallon (that's what we're paying in San Diego right now), that means I can't fill my gas tank at a single stop. I'm fairly certain this is an arbitrary limit configured into the pumps, but I've run into it at a surprisingly broad range of gas stations...

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Orlosky Case Progresses...

Bob Orlosky was acquitted of murder charges, and the jury deadlocked on manslaughter charges, after Orlosky was tried for fatally shooting Charles Crow, 23, and wounded Hector Monget, 28, on Dec. 1, 2006. A retrial on the manslaughter charges is scheduled for October. Meanwhile, prosecutors added a new charge (personally using a firearm causing great bodily injury or death), and Orlosky's attorney fought to have it removed.

Today, Orlosky won that fight:

The judge said that based on state Supreme Court rulings in similar cases, “there was no justification” for prosecutors to add an allegation after the trial that would have substantially increased Orlosky's possible prison sentence at a new trial. He said there was no evidence that prosecutors were out to get Orlosky or Pfingst because of the earlier acquittal, but that filing the allegation fit the legal definition of vindictive prosecution.

Agreeing with Pfingst's argument, Hanoian (the judge) said that under Supreme Court rulings, a new or stiffer charge cannot be added after a trial unless it's based on new evidence or information that wasn't available to prosecutors at the time of the initial trial.

A good day for Bob Orlosky, but this is just a skirmish – the main battle still lies in the future...

Bear vs. Bird Feeders...

My sister (Holly) wrote to say that her bird feeders had been demolished by a bear. More photos of the ursine destruction here. She and her husband live in an uncivilized and wild part of Virginia, where apparently bears (and who knows what other beasts) rampage with impunity.

I think this is more evidence (as if we needed any more!) of the vast squirrel wing conspiracy. It's obvious that the corrupt bears are controlled by their squirrel puppet-masters, destroying the “squirrel-proof” feeders so as to expose all those delicious seeds to the greedy squirrels. Kind of like the drug cartels in Mexico corrupting the Mexican “police”...

Women vs. Guns...

Via Jim Mundy:
Top 10 reasons a gun is favored over a woman....

#10. You can trade an old 44 for a new 22.

# 9. You can keep one gun at home and have another for when you're on the road.

# 8. If you admire a friend's gun and tell him so, he will probably let you try it out a few times.

# 7. Your primary gun doesn't mind if you keep another gun for a backup.

# 6. Your gun will stay with you even if you run out of ammo.

# 5. A gun doesn't take up a lot of closet space.

# 4. Guns function normally every day of the month.

# 3. A gun doesn't ask 'Do these new grips make me look fat?'

# 2. A gun doesn't mind if you go to sleep after you use it.

And the number one reason a gun is favored over a woman...

Debbie didn't think this was as funny as I did ...

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Via Guidespot. Their comment for this mug shot:
This guy rules. I don’t care what he did.
Visit the link to see the 20 runners-up...

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ted Kennedy's Brain Tumor...

Presumably you've heard the news that Senator Ted Kennedy has a malignent brain tumor. The press is full of speculation about his prognosis, but all they really seem to know is that the overall prognosis for such a tumor is bad; few people survive five years. On the other hand, Kennedy is 76, so even without the tumor his life expectancy isn't all that high.

Ordinarily my first reaction would be one of sympathy, both for the victim of the cancer and for his family. But for the vile Ted Kennedy – the man who was so willing to let a young woman die while he saved himself, the vile politician so full of bombast and lies that it's impossible to believe he's sincere – it is somehow much more difficult to raise a full portion of sympathy...

Updated: here's someone having much more trouble than I raising some sympathy for Kennedy...

Eminent Domain Reform...

The 2005 Supreme Court decision in the case of Kelo v. City of New London was shocking to many people, but most especially to conservatives and libertarians. For the first time in American history, local governments now have the right to take property from its owner and resell it to someone else, for whatever reason they deem appropriate. In the years since Kelo, hundreds of local governments have done exactly that, taking homes, apartments, and businesses and reselling them to developers to make shopping malls, more upscale dwellings, hotels, etc.

In a backlash against Kelo, many states have already passed laws to restrict legislatively the new-found eminent domain rights that the Supreme Court “discovered” hidden in the Constitution. These laws vary widely in their form and substance, ranging from restoring the situation to pre-Kelo conditions to very small changes. In this election cycle, California has two propositions designed to limit Kelo takings. Before I discuss my take on them, a little background is in order.

Eminent domain is one form of a government “taking”, where that term has a special meaning in this context. To wit, a government taking is any situation where the government takes something of value from a citizen (whether individual or corporate) without that citizen's agreement. In cases of eminent domain, the government takes a citizen's real property (generally paying market value for it). Traditionally (i.e., before Kelo) eminent domain was used only for cases of development for the public good: highways, rail lines, utility lines, etc. Without eminent domain, such projects would be almost impossible in a city; the patchwork of small property owners essentially guarantees that there will be some who would not voluntarily sell at any reasonable price.

There are many other forms of government takings as well. In California, there are two other commonly used forms: rent control and land use restrictions. Over 100 California cities have rent control laws, artificially (and often arbitrarily) restricting the rent a landlord can charge. This is an uncompensated taking – the government simply removes the ability of the owner to earn money, and doesn't pay a penny for the losses thereby incurred by the owner. The third common form of a government taking is land use restrictions, most commonly from environmental concerns. For example, if a protected bird were to build a nest on the grounds of (say) a hotel, the government can condemn the hotel and prevent its use. Likewise, homeowners can be forced from their homes. In California last year there were over 250 such actions, all of them completely uncompensated.

Proposition 98 is supported primarily by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (of Proposition 13 fame). It is a broad proposition, aimed at severely curtailing government takings of two types: eminent domain and rent control. In the case of eminent domain, it would restore the use of such takings to the pre-Kelo conditions. In the case of rent control, it would ease the impact of rent control on owners by allowing them to reset rents when a new tenant occupies any given unit. It does not, unfortunately, completely eliminate rent control. It does not address land use restrictions at all. I support Proposition 98 – it's not perfect, and it's not enough, but it's a step in the right direction.

Propostion 99 appears to have been motivated primarily by the fear (of city governments and developers) that Proposition 98 would pass. The giveaway is that it contains language that would negate Proposition 98's provisions in the case that both Propositions passed. Also telling is that nearly all the funding for Proposition 99 comes from developers. Proposition 99 is very simple by comparison to Proposition 98 – it contains a single provision that would restrict the use of eminent domain in the case where the government wants to take an owner-occupied dwelling. Legal analysis of it (including the analysis of the state government in their ballot information!) is that Proposition 99 is legally flawed, and would have essentially no effect on local governments ability to use eminent domain. Proposition 99 does not address either rent control or land use restrictions. In my opinion, Proposition 99 is a sham, carefully crafted to trick uninformed voters into voting for it (and thereby killing Proposition 98). The incredibly misleading advertising I've heard for Proposition 99 reinforces this opinion.

You can read more here and here.


This speech sounds to me like an enemy of the United States describing how to dismantle my country.

Obama scares the crap out of me.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Sharp Shadows...

This time of year, when the sun is high in the sky, is a good time to observe an interesting phenomenon: unusually sharp shadows on a wall. Normally the sun's breadth causes a “fuzziness” around the edges of a shadow. However, sometimes you'll see shadows whose sharpness really stands out. My favorite examples of these are shadows of plants (especially grass seed heads), where you can see very fine details in the shadows.

What causes these extra-sharp shadows?

There are many mechanisms, but all of them boil down to one thing: something has caused the sun's light to become (or approximate) a “point source”. This term from the optical sciences just means that a source of light emanates from a single point (rather than from a broad disk, like the sun's light normally does).

One way to get a point source is from a small hole in an opaque barrier. I've seen good examples of sharp shadows that resulted from the inadvertent folds of a drape, making a pinhole that the sun shines through. But the very best point sources come from reflection off a convex (bending outwards) surface – and these are something very commonly found almost everywhere: car windshields. Even better are the little “wide angle” mirrors that people stick to their rear-view mirrors – these have a very strongly curved surface and thus are closer to a point source.

My favorite examples of sharp shadows have come from car mirrors or windshields reflecting lights through plants, and then through the window of a room that is darkened because there's no direct sunlight coming into it. The office building where I work has just such a room (an office on the south side of the building that is protected from the sunlight by an overhang). My home's north-facing windows can provide the same effect, if I've parked my truck in just the right spot.

Have you ever seen these extra-sharp shadows? If so, did you figure out what caused them?

31,072 AGW Skeptics...

From PR Newswire:

Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (OISM)

Who: Dr. Arthur Robinson of the OISM

What: release of names in OISM "Petition Project"

When: 10 AM, Monday May 19

Where: Holeman Lounge at the National Press Club, 529 14th St., NW, Washington, DC

Why: the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (OISM) will announce that more than 31,000 scientists have signed a petition rejecting claims of human-caused global warming. The purpose of OISM's Petition Project is to demonstrate that the claim of "settled science" and an overwhelming "consensus" in favor of the hypothesis of human-caused global warming and consequent climate damage is wrong. No such consensus or settled science exists. As indicated by the petition text and signatory list, a very large number of American scientists reject this hypothesis.

It is evident that 31,072 Americans with university degrees in science - including 9,021 PhDs, are not "a few." Moreover, from the clear and strong petition statement that they have signed, it is evident that these 31,072 American scientists are not "skeptics."

CONTACT: Audrey Mullen, +1-703-548-1160, for the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine

Well how about that – it's not just us amateurs who are skeptical about anthropomorphic global warming...

Sunday, May 18, 2008


If you can identify the device at right, you're (a) at least as old as I am, and (b) probably a geek.

It's a “tube tester” – a device used in prehistoric times to test vacuum tubes. Don't know what vacuum tubes are? Back in ancient times, before transistors were invented, vacuum tubes (“valves” in the U.K.) were the active devices in electronic equipment. There were audio amplifiers, radios, televisions, and even computers that depended on vacuum tubes to function.

Unlike transistors, vacuum tubes were not very reliable. They'd break (usually because the “heater” – an electric heating element – would fail). They'd also change their characteristics for various reasons, causing the equipment they were in to malfunction. Because of this propensity to fail, vacuum tubes were nearly always mounted in sockets; the glass bulb of the vacuum tube had pins sticking out that would plug into these sockets.

But how would you know if you had a bad tube? If the heater was broken, you'd think it would be easy: the tube wouldn't get hot. Unfortunately, manufacturers often used a trick (to save money) that made this not work: all the tubes in a device would have their heaters wired in series, so if one of them broke, all the tubes would go cold (much like some Christmas light sets, where if one light goes out, they all go out). If something else was wrong with the tube, though, there wasn't any possibility of an easy diagnosis. The only thing you could do in such a situation was to pull all the tubes out of your radio or TV, and traipse down to the nearest store that had a vacuum tube tester.

In my early days as an electronics hobbyist (in the '60s), I used to collect broken TVs from the TV repair shops. Those shops were common – TVs broke a lot, and they were expensive; repairing them actually made economic sense. But frequently one of the older TVs would be beyond repair, and the repair shops would give them to me for free. They were a gold mine of valuable parts for me – I'd carefully tear them apart, removing all the individual components, straightening our their leads, and testing them. Except for the vacuum tubes, as I couldn't afford a vacuum tube tester. So every few weeks I'd head down to a local electronics shop that had a vacuum tube tester, with a bushel basket full of vacuum tubes I'd pulled out of dead TVs. I'd stand in front of the tester for a few hours, trying one tube after another, sorting them into “good” and
“bad” piles. I got very familiar with these beasts!

Later, in the U.S. Navy, I worked on several older pieces of equipment that had lots and lots of vacuum tubes – and of course they had a vacuum tube tester on board the ship. Most of my fellow technicians had never even seen one of these things, so my expertise came in handy.

The vacuum tube testers were marvels of ingenuity, able to set up the proper heater voltages, bias voltages, and signal voltages for thousands of different types of tubes – all with switches and individual components. The designers of these machines had to be puzzle solvers of the first order to figure out how to do all this with so few components to work with (they were constrained both by the space required and the cost)...

You're So Vain...

One of my favorite bloggers (neo-neocon) has written a new set of lyrics for the Carly Simon hit You're So Vain. They were so short – and so great – I'm reposting the whole thing (neo, please forgive me):

You walked into the Party like you were walking onto a yacht
Your voice strategically sounds like Camelot
Your flag pin had gone to pot
You had one eye on the mirror as you watched yourself, you were hot;
And all the girls dreamed that they’d be your partner
They’d be your partner and…

You’re so vain, you probably think this speech is about you
You’re so vain, I’ll bet you think this speech is about you
Don’t you? Don’t you?

You won states several months ago when we were still quite naive
When you said that you’d bring us all change and love
And that we should just believe
But with Wright and Ayers and Ahmadinejad, you think we must be naive
And all those dreams are just clouds in your coffee
Clouds in your coffee, and…

You’re so vain, you probably think this speech is about you
You’re so vain, I’ll bet you think this speech is about you
Don’t you? Don’t you?

Well I hear you went down to Carolina and you just naturally won
Then you flew your Lear Jet from West Virginia
To flee the total eclipse of your run
Well you’re where you should be all the time
And when you’re not you’re with
Some journalist pal who is now your real close friend
Now your real close friend, and…

You’re so vain, you probably think this speech is about you
You’re so vain, I’ll bet you think this speech is about you
Don’t you? Don’t you?

Consider this: if you're not reading neo-neocon every day, then you're missing great commentary, and great humor (e.g., the “jello series”). Go pay her a visit!

Don Tarbell...

The very first programming I ever did for money was done for a guy named Don Tarbell. If you're old enough to remember the early, heady days of microcomputers, you'll know that name – he manufactured an S-100 board that became the gold standard of cassette tape data storage. He also made one of the first affordable floppy disk interface boards, also for the S-100 bus.

He's got a special place in my memory for a different reason, though: way back in 1976 or 1977, he published an RFQ (request for quote) for someone to write a Basic interpreter. He wanted something with better features than could be found on the then-standard Microsoft Basic, and he wanted to sell it at a low price. I answered that RFQ with an absurdly low bid (and and even more absurdly fast delivery) and absolutely nothing else to recommend me. At the time, I was still in the U.S. Navy (I didn't know it, but it was against regulations for me to engage in a contract!). I had never written any software for money before. I had no education in software engineering. I had no references. I had no samples of my work. And I had never even seen a Basic program before. Don talked with me on the phone, and ended up giving me a contract.

Later he told me that all the other quotes he'd received were 25 or more times the price I had quoted, and all the delivery times were 4 or more times what I quoted. So he figured he didn't really have much to lose by trying me out; if I failed (something he thought was a high probability), he could still go with another contractor. Well, I didn't fail – I delivered it on time, collected my hard-earned payment, and then went on to have a very good relationship with Don, delivering many enhancements over the next couple of years. That contract was the start of my career in software engineering.

Something like 15 years ago, when trying to reconnect with Don, I heard that he had committed suicide. This was shocking to me, as the Don I knew was full of life and enthusiasm, and I had trouble even imagining him being depressed enough to take his own life. After that, of course, I stopped looking for him.

Today, purely by accident I stumbled on this forum entry at the Classic Computers site:
My name is Paula Rouse. I worked for the "Famous" Don Tarbell at Tarbell Electronics in Carson, CA from 1976 to 1983. I was his first employee when he began selling cassette interface kits and assembled units. He was a terrific boss and his wife Brenda and I have been best friends for all these years. She called me this evening to say that Don passed away this morning, May 19th, 1998, after a long bout with cancer. I was on the internet tonight, looking for information on old friends who used to come into the shop, hoping to contact them to let them know of his passing. When I typed Don's name into Yahoo's search engine, your page came up. It is not dated, so I do not know when you tried to contact him by e-mail, but Brenda said that he had not been checking his e-mail but once every two or three weeks since he had been so sick. That may be the reason for your not receiving a reply. He was a great guy and he will be sorely missed. It was so much fun being a part of the early years of computing. He was instrumental in shaping my career and there are many good memories of the times spent together.
It's still sad to know that Don has passed away, but somehow I feel ever so much better that it was cancer that took him, and not suicide.

An Estonian Observes Us...

Found in an article bemoaning the erosion of our freedoms by political correctness: leads to Anna from Estonia making it a point to show visiting friends a sight they could never see in the old country. They laugh, they point, they whip out cameras and take pictures. Of the Everglades? No. Of Mount Rushmore or Lady Liberty? No.

Anna said they take pictures of the idiot signs. These she said, crack her friends up. "Caution: Coffee is hot." Apparently, elsewhere in the world, you don't need a sign to know this.

I agree with the notion that political correctness (and it's bastard son, zero tolerance) are threats to our freedom. But the example I excerpted is really something else altogether: it's the notion that we have some kind of “right” to a riskless existence, and the consequent explosion of litigation that as recently as 50 years ago would have seemed just plain silly. Can you imagine an adult in, say, the 1950s even considering the idea of suing a restaurant because they were served coffee that was too hot? I can't...

Of course I was amused to see that it was an Estonian who was doing the observation. For my readers who don't already know this, I have visited Estonia many times, and I know it quite well.

The Estonia that Anna remembers, however, is fast disappearing: ever since they became a member of the European Union, a stifling blanket of political correctness has descended upon them – one can think of it as the price paid for enormous amounts of foreign aid and investment pouring in, and for the removal of a great many trade barriers. Estonia today is far more prosperous than it was before its EU membership, but it is also in many ways a much less attractive place.

My last visit there was several years ago, but even then the character of Estonia was changing – becoming less the unique and quaint place that it was, and more just another location in an almost-homogenous EU. Tourists have poured in, and foriegners have purchased large chunks of the available real estate (especially Finns along the north coast and the western islands, and Scotch farmers in the south central farmlands). My friends there tell me that since my last visit this trend is even more pronounced.

I loved the Estonia I watched emerge from the wreckage of the Soviet Union and morph into an innovative and vibrant democracy. I like the present Estonia less. I'm not entirely sure I want to visit memories may well be more pleasant than current reality...

Arab Culture

Anyone familiar with the history of the Middle East can't help but make this politically-incorrect observation: any Arab military engagement with a non-Arab military is nearly certain to result in the Arabs losing. The Israeli-Arab conflicts are legendary and consistent with this observation, but they are certainly not the only such conflicts. Most recently, of course, Western coalitions have twice demolished the Iraqi military; in both cases the Arab Iraqi military suffered defeats that would have been unthinkable (and unforgivable) in any other military.

What's behind this pattern?

StrategyPage (which is full of all sorts of interesting articles) recently posted a column on exactly this issue. Here's a sample:

At lot has been written about why Arab armies so consistently lose wars with non-Arabs. These reasons also explain why Arab nations, and many other Third World nations as well, also have trouble establishing democratic governments or prosperous economies. A lot of it has to do with culture, especially culture influenced by Islam. Some of the reasons for these failures are:

Most Arab countries are a patchwork of different tribes and groups, and Arab leaders survive by playing one group off against another. Loyalty is to one's group, not the nation. Most countries are dominated by a single group that is usually a minority (Bedouins in Jordan, Alawites in Syria, Sunnis in Iraq, Nejdis in Saudi Arabia). All of which means that officers are assigned not by merit but by loyalty and tribal affiliation.

Islamic schools favor rote memorization, especially of scripture. Most Islamic scholars are hostile to the concept of interpreting the Koran (considered the word of God as given to His prophet Mohammed). This has resulted in looking down on Western troops that will look something up that they don't know. Arabs prefer to fake it, and pretend it's all in their head. Improvisation and innovation is generally discouraged. Arab armies go by the book, Western armies rewrite the book and thus usually win.

There's much more food for thought in this interesting article. While it's not mentioned directly in the article, it's easy to extrapolate from its points that the al Qaeda organization seems almost designed to take advantage of those same Arab traits that make their conventional military forces so ineffective...

Not mentioned in this column, though widely documented elsewhere, is the pervasive corruption in every Arab culture. Commanding bribes and handing out favors are typically considered by Arabs to be natural (and rightful) perquisites of any office. The traits outlined in this post, plus the universal corruption, make enormous challenges for establishing a democracy.

I've noticed that Arabs who have close contact with the West (and most especially those who travel or live in the West) have no trouble understanding Western ideals. Some see the Western ideals as opportunity to be exploited; others (and more than a few) see them as something their cultures would benefit from. The latter viewpoint is loudly expressed on some of the most popular English-language Arab blogs, which gives me much hope for their future. I've read in many places (most especially Michael Yon and Michael Totten) how the Iraqis are watching and learning from Americans – they are most impressed by how much the Americans have been able to accomplish in such a short time, and also by the opportunities that ordinary Americans have. They'd like all that for themselves, of course.

The Iraqi experiment with democracy is (for me, at least) the single most hopeful development in the Middle East ever – and the only one with any hope whatsoever for lasting peace in the region. Some of my readers, I know, won't understand what I'm talking about there – what on earth does Iraq have to do with Israel? It's a big-picture thought, but here's a simplified version: if there is even a single successful, flourishing Arab democracy, there will enormous pressure on the tyrannical regimes (that would be all the other ones) to similarly reform – the example of a successful Iraq will be very difficult to ignore. And Iraq should be able to succeed – it has far more natural resources than Israel, it has a well-educated populace. The only significant obstacles are terrorism and culture, and terrorism is relatively low right now and declining rapidly. I believe the cultural issues are about to become the single major obstacle to the success of Iraqi democracy.

I'd sure like to see this democratic experiment continue. Obama's rhetoric (assuming he actually means what he's saying, which is by no means certain in an election campaign) makes it clear that he'd yank virtually all significant support from the Iraqis – and that would make it virtually certain that it would descend back into tyranny. What form that would take, I don't know; my intuition says we'd get an autonomous Kurdish region up north, and a terrible war between the Shiites and the Sunni, quite possibly involving Iran (on the side of the Shiites) and Saudi Arabia (on the side of the Sunnis). The only certainty is that it would be awful...

Saturday, May 17, 2008

What We're Up Against...

Muqtada al Sadr – the firebrand Shiite imam – has been waging a steady guerilla war against the legitimate elected government headed by Maliki, and the U.S.–led coalition aiding the Iraqi government. al Sadr is supported (with money, logistics, weapons, and ammunition) and controlled by Iranian intelligence.

The Sadr militia, like any armed force, has challenges with retention and recruiting. One of their most effective tools is an extremely successful series of pop songs. These were recently outlawed by Maliki, but are still easily available. Here's the lyrics for one of these songs, translated into English:

I am the IED

If an armored vehicle passes, I will blow it up

If I get thirsty, I will drink blood from a Hummer

If an armored vehicle passes, it is suicidal

I will become a volcano if a soldier passes

And if a Hummer passes, I will erase it

If the IED will be added to the [rocket-propelled grenade] launcher, the battle day will be stormy

The IED rises with the ground and the Sadr love goes in my pulse

I will plant my eyes for the country

I will tighten my belt in the difficult days

The Hummer starts crying blood

Nobody can dry the Hummer blood

If the Hummer steps on me, we will reach the stars

To American ears, these lyrics are so ridiculous that one's first reaction is that it's a put-on, a joke that someone is playing. But it is not – and if you read the words carefully, putting yourself in the context of a Sadr militia member who finds these lyrics inspiring, then you'll find them very chilling indeed. You can read more of these lyrics, and even view some music videos.

The first thing I thought of, when reading these lyrics, was some of the poems I've read that the Japanese Kamakazi pilots carried in World War II. They smack of the same sort of fanaticism, the (to Americans) alien notion that suicidal attacks in a war were not only acceptable, but desirable, honorable, and attractive.

Then I reflected, for the upteenth time, on the existential nature of the war on terror. Our enemy wants to kill us. They're not interested in negotiation, compromise, treaties, etc. They just want us dead.

But all too many Americans don't seem to understand that...

Irena Sendler...

A heroine of mine died a few days ago: Irena Sendler of Warsaw, Poland. I never met her (though I certainly would like to have); I only know her through reading on the web. I first learned of her existence when she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. Here's a short version of her story:

Before World War II, Irena was a social worker in Warsaw. During the Nazi occupation of Warsaw (1939 - 1943), she (a Christian) helped over 2,500 otherwise doomed Jewish children escape from the Warsaw ghetto. The Nazis punished such good deeds by death; her activities carried enormous personal risk. She kept the children's names and locations on lists in jars, hoping that after the war she could reunite them with their parents. Very few of the Jewish parents survived the war; most died at concentration camps like Treblinka. In 1943 Irena was arrested by the Gestapo, tortured (suffering awful injuries), and sentenced to be executed. The underground organization she belonged to bribed her guards and she escaped – and went right back to work rescuing more Jewish children. The photo above was taken just after that escape.

A few years ago, a group of American students discovered Irena's story (previously unknown in America) and were inspired to create a play. This play turned into a bigger project to take care of rescuers like Irena, and goes on yet today. I just discovered that they have a DVD out, which I have ordered.

In a 2005 interview, Irena had this to say about her heroism:
We who were rescuing children are not some kind of heroes. That term irritates me greatly. The opposite is true – I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little. I could have done more. This regret will follow me to my death.
Such humility is entirely characteristic of almost everyone I know in her generation. I doubt the children she rescued – most of whom are still alive – have any such regrets.

The world could use more like you, Irena. Rest in peace...

Irena didn't win the Nobel Peace Price – the committee decided that Al Gore was a more worthy (if less humble) recipient. That tells you all you need to know about the objectivity, political motivation, and political bias of that body of “worthies”. My contempt for them knows no bounds; this is just one of their many such idiotic selections.

That Evil Bush!

On Thursday, President Bush spoke before the Knesset (Israel's major legislative body). His speech covered the history of Israel, and included this bit:
Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: 'Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.' We have an obligation to call this what it is – the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.
Almost immediately the Obama campaign denounced the speech, in bitter and emotional tones, as a below-the-belt attack on Obama. This denunciation was the first I heard about the speech, and (naturally) I was immediately intrigued – it seemed so un-Bush-like for him to personally attack Obama, especially on such a substantive point. A point, by the way, that I completely agree with – Obama does look, feel, and smell like an appeaser.

So with some eagerness I went online, found transcripts of Bush's speech, and read them. It's a good speech. I liked it. But it doesn't contain any personal attacks on Obama (to my disappointment).

Mark Steyn, in his usual pithy manner, takes Obama to task:

"That's enough. That – that's a show of disrespect to me."

That was Barack Obama, a couple of weeks back, explaining why he was casting the Rev. Jeremiah Wright into outer darkness. It's one thing to wallow in "adolescent grandiosity" (as Scott Johnson of the Powerline Web site called it) when it's a family dispute between you and your pastor of 20 years. It's quite another to do so when it's the 60th anniversary celebrations of one of America's closest allies.

President Bush was in Israel the other day and gave a speech to the Knesset. Its perspective was summed up by his closing anecdote – a departing British officer in May 1948 handing the iron bar to the Zion Gate to a trembling rabbi and telling him it was the first time in 18 centuries that a key to the gates of the Jerusalem was in the hands of a Jew. In other words, it was a big-picture speech, referencing the Holocaust, the pogroms, Masada – and the challenges that lie ahead. Sen. Obama was not mentioned in the text. No Democrat was mentioned, save for President Truman, in the context of his recognition of the new state of Israel when it was a mere 11 minutes old.

Nonetheless, Barack Obama decided that the president's speech was really about him, and he didn't care for it. He didn't put it quite as bluntly as he did with the Rev. Wright, but the message was the same: "That's enough. That's a show of disrespect to me." And, taking their cue from the soon-to-be nominee's weirdly petty narcissism, Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, Joe Biden and Co. piled on to deplore Bush's outrageous, unacceptable, unpresidential, outrageously unacceptable and unacceptably unpresidential behavior.

Honestly. What a bunch of self-absorbed ninnies. Here's what the president said:

[same clip of Bush's speech as above]

It says something for Democrat touchiness that the minute a guy makes a generalized observation about folks who appease terrorists and dictators the Dems assume: Hey, they're talking about me. Actually, he wasn't – or, to be more precise, he wasn't talking only about you.

Thursday and Friday, the media was full of stories about various Democrats and their red-faced anger about Bush's awful personal attacks. It's easy to see why Democratic political operatives, devoid of any semblance of honesty and shame, would run with this “story” for as long as they could (and Republican political operatives are just as likely to do this). And this is, of course, the sort of thing that our left-leaning media would joyously hype. But what do actual Americans think about such things?

Yesterday I had a chance to talk with several friends and co-workers about this incident, without having to interrogate them on the subject. Mostly I was just curious how they reacted. The five people I spoke with who were aware of the kerfuffle were nearly uniform in their reaction: all five believed Bush had made an indecent personal attack, all five were offended by it, all five thought Obama had every right to be angry about it, all five had not read or heard Bush's speech, and only one voiced any skepticism about the factual underpinning of the story (and even that was only about the tone of Bush's attack).

So, on the basis of my unscientifically small sample, it looks to me like the Democrats have succeeded spectacularly well in manufacturing a piece of anti-Republican propoganda. Their story has, for most Americans, become reality – like a well-executed deception operation in warfare.

Americans who are paying attention to the political discourse have no problem getting information about this issue – the political blogs and web sites are full of outrage about the Democrats deception. Unfortunately, this is a very small percentage of Americans – 5% of eligible-to-vote adults at best, and probably much less. One easily identifiable culprit is our media – a more balanced (politically) media would have had at least half of them all over this story, condemning the Democrats for their fabrication. If we had such a balanced media, those Americans listening to the news would have heard both sides of it. Yet another culprit is the appalling immorality of our political operatives – but I don't think there's much new under the sun on that score, nor does it seem likely we can do much about it. Finally, there's the big culprit: the masses of apathetic, ignorant Americans – the ones who have no idea what's happening in the real world (as opposed to the Britney Spears world), or who listen to the breathless news stories and just assume those stories are accurate and complete.

What scares me is the thought that the voters who will elect our next Congress and President (not to mention all the state and local contests) will be mostly of the ilk of those five people I spoke with. They are the “likely voters” the pollsters and political analysts love to talk about. Their picture of the world is spotty, and comprised mainly of what they've seen or heard from our left-leaning media.

I sure hope I'm wrong...