Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Two interesting NPR stories on Iran and its President this week. In one, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was heard commenting about the Holocaust, dismissing the fact that Jews were placed in crematoria as a reason for a Jewish state. I've often heard references to people being "put in ovens" during the Holocaust (for instance, from Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan), and I'm mystified. I don't think anyone has ever claimed that the Nazis used ovens for mass killings (though I'm sure that, as in the movie "The Grey Zone", a certain number of apparently dead gas chamber victims may have been burned alive.) But it was the gas chamber that was the main instrument of mass murder at concentration camps such as Auschwitz (that and disease.) Referring to the "ovens" just confuses the matter; they were just for disposing of the bodies. It's gruesome, but it's not the main crime. It's true that in both Jewish and Islamic law, cremation is taboo, a dishonor to the dead, but I don't think that's what the Iranian President was referring to.

Another story discussed the Shiite Muslim belief in the sort-of Messianic "12th [or 'hidden'] Imam", who will return to establish a worldwide Muslim kingdom of justice and piety. The question is whether Iranian leaders, including the President, believe this will happen soon, and if this belief guides their policies. This would bring them close in thinking to some of the fundamentalist Christians who influence President Bush (and probably Bush himself) who believe we are living in the "End Times", with Jesus due to return soon and end the world as we know it. Great - so both sides in the nuclear standoff are psyched for the world to end!

Follow-up on the FBI search of a Congressional office: seeing how little in the way of results came from another FBI search, of a farm in Michigan, yet how much time and money they were able to get away with spending on it, maybe the Bureau should claim that it searched Rep. Jefferson's office to find the body of Jimmy Hoffa!

I'm always amused when I hear of the publication of "graphic images of violence", say, from Abu Ghraib prison, using "graphic" in the sense of "detailed, realistic, unsparing". Aren't all images graphic? The speakers are taking an expression, "graphic description" (i.e., a verbal description so realistic, detailed, and unsparing, that it's like looking at a picture) and analogizing it to images. But such analogizing is not always appropriate. You can't forget the original meaning of the word....

OK, here's something that doesn't make sense to me. Scientists, especially evolutionary biologists, who assert that evolution and religion are not incompatible, claiming they believe in God themselves. But if God just set evolution in motion and then butted out, at what point did early humans acquire souls? Did Neanderthals have them? Australopithecines? Or did God stick them into homo sapiens once the species was capable of appreciating God?

Saturday, May 27, 2006

And of course, when I heard that someone thought he had heard shots fired at the Capitol, all I could think was, "Uh oh, Cynthia McKinney's at it again!"

Actually, when I first heard about the events at the Rayburn Building, I was at the gym. It happened that as the news flashed on the TV tuned to CNN, I was listening to R.E.M.'s "Ignoreland": "They marched into the Capitol..." OK, that's obscure, even weak, but then, truth is triangular: any statement of relationship (x is like y, for instance), really means, from the observer's point of view, x and y seem to line up, the way stars that are really very distant from each other seem, to an observer on Earth, to be in the same constellation.

OK, a foray into politics: the scandal involving a Louisiana Congressman and the investigations of him. Whenever I hear "accusations against William Jefferson", I expect it to be followed by "Clinton". I wonder if the FBI investigators are similarly confused, or motivated: they automatically go after anyone with that name, thinking they're still doing Ken Starr's work. Guilty as Jefferson seems (or am I just a mainstream media victim?) I wonder if someone high up and politically motivated suggested going after a Democrat to take the heat off the Republicans for their ethics problems, to provide "balance". Meanwhile, yesterday's search and evacuation of the Rayburn building - yes, the same building where Jefferson has his office -- would seem to be a great opportunity to rifle through more offices.

When I let my thoughts wander, I imagine the executive branch, scared that the Democrats might actually take over Congress this fall, are practicing to see if they can use the FBI to increase its leverage over the legislature. Isn't that how dictatorships always develop?

I guess just labeling enemies as "unpatriotic" or "America-hating" wasn't working well enough; they have to actually threaten prosecution. In another move towards dictatorship, Attorney General Gonzales is already talking about going after the press for unauthorized publication, even possession, of secret information. Though I'm not totally sure I believe in journalistic privilege, and that journalists should be protected by "shield laws". First of all, there is the question of who is a journalist - am I one, now? (Gee, my dad, a longtime writer for Time magazine, would be so proud.) But more important, what's the point of classifying information, if people are going to publish it with impunity? We can argue that the documents should not be secret in the first place, should not be withheld from the public. But then, are journalists really more qualified to make that judgment than government officials? Sure, officials may have something to hide, a power motive, but journalists have papers to sell, a profit motive. Maybe if journalists really feel strongly that they have a duty to the public to bring information to light, they should be ready to sacrifice for it, to go to jail. That I would really respect. It's like the way the non-violent resisters of the 50's and 60's were ready to go to jail for breaking the law, unjust as they believed it to be, even sustain physical harm. (Today, it seems as if demonstrators feel they have a right to disrupt for what they see as the right cause, and are suprised when they are treated as lawbreakers. How do they expect their cause to be taken seriously if they won't sacrifice for it? I have to try to find this great quote from a student arrested during the takeover of a building at UC Berkeley a few years ago, that really encapsulated this sense of "we're right, so how can they arrest us?")

One last, related point: I have often questioned the logical base of the exclusionary rule, by which evidence gained by a search or interrogation not performed in accordance with Constitutional rules, cannot be used in court (or juries are told to disregard it, which seems even more illogical. How can you make yourself forget something?) After all, if it's true information, it's true; the fact that it was seized illegally does not mean it was fabricated. No, we don't want the police searching whomever they want, but telling them that the evidence they have acquired cannot be used might make them frustrated, but doesn't seem like much of a punishment. Which is why I think that the evidence should be used (or at least, judged on its merits), but there should be strong penalties for police who conduct illegal searches. That would deter cops from shaking down whomever they want, but allow them, if they really felt they needed to take someone down, to sacrifice themselves for it. If the evidence did lead to a significant conviction of a dangerous person, the judge might go easier on the officer; if the case against the accused turned out to be meritless, and the officer just harassing an innocent person, he would get the book thrown at him. I just think that if something is true, it should be recognized as true; punishing abusive ways of finding it out is a separate issue.

So the fact remains that William Jefferson is probably pretty corrupt and maybe should go to jail, but Attorney General Gonzales should probably go with him....

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Here's an expression that really bothers me: "focus like a laser". (By the way, I know there is continuing controversy over whether to put a period, or other punctuation, inside or outside quotes. In my copy-editing class in 2000, we learned that the American habit it to put it inside, while the British tend to put it outside. My rule is: if the thing in quotes is just an object, a thing I am talking about, such as a word or phrase whose meaning I'm overanalyzing, the period goes outside. If the phrase actually forms part of the sentence grammatically, as in: Ross Perot said that when it came to the economy, he would "focus like a laser.") So yes, I first heard the expression from Perot in 1992. I suppose I could use Lexis-Nexis to find an earlier cite. I'll start doing things like that eventually; right now, I'm just writing from my head. Anyway, now everyone seems to say it. There's just one problem: lasers don't really focus. People seem to think the reason that lasers can burn holes in steel is that they are highly focused. But they are getting confused with using light to, say, set paper on fire, using a magnifying glass or Piggy's glasses in "Lord of the Flies". When light is focused, it is bent by a (convex) lens, so that the rays travel at an angle to converge at a certain point. If you put something at that point, the energy of the rays will be concentrated on it. But lasers basically travel in straight lines. They concentrate lots of energy on one point because the light is coherent, meaning the waveforms are all in step, and because a lot of energy is being pumped into the laser. I mean, yes, you can send a laser through a lens, but lasers by themselves aren't focused. So, let's focus like rays through a magnifying glass on getting this right.

So, there's this guy I keep hearing interviewed as an expert on China, named "Bates Gill". Really. I wonder if he's ever met Bill Gates. Remember a few weeks ago, when the President of China was visiting the U.S., and the Microsoft founder held a dinner in his honor? Maybe he invited Gill!

And I wonder if there was a "Gil Bates" there too...

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Whenever I call my bank, or my credit card company, or my health insurer, or any other company that has privacy protections on my account, they ask me to "verify" my birthdate, or my Social Security number, or other personal information, so that they know it is really I. (That sounds awkward, but it's correct.) In response, I say, "OK", then wait. After a moment, the operator usually repeats him- or herself, and then I say, "Sure, go ahead. Tell me what you have on file for me and I'll 'verify' it." Then, the operator starts explaining, and I say, "Oh, you want me to tell you my birthdate. See, that's not what 'verify' means. 'Verify' means to check information you've been given. You can 'verify' what I tell you, but I can't 'verify' until you've told me something. So I will tell you my birthdate, and you can 'verify' it against your records." See why I'm so popular with operators. Hey, they make me wait long enough, and go through enough "for x, press y" menus just to talk to them. Wait 'til you hear how I treat telemarketers!

[Remember how Ronald Reagan used to quote what he claimed was a Russian proverb, "doveryai, no proveryai": "trust, but verify"? In other words, give the Soviets the benefit of the doubt when they say they are eliminating a whole category of nuclear-armed missiles, but check with inspections and spy satellites. Remember when Gorbachev reponded to one repetition of the quote, "V kazhdom vstreche, vy boltaietye eto": "At every meeting, you blather that"? Man, Gorbachev rocked.]

Sort of along the same lines: it used to be that you would "check" your bag or coat at restaurants, clubs, even stores. Now, the loss-prevention people at the entrance to the record store say, "Can I check your bag?" That, to me, means "Can I look inside to make sure you aren't stealing?" which should be asked on the way out, as it was by a Dickensian drudge on a stool at the exit to my college library. On the way in, they should ask, "Would you check your bag, please?" But then, lots of verbs have switched agents. If you are "interviewing" for a job, are you the prospective employee, or the prospective employer?

Monday, May 22, 2006

I just heard an announcer on the BBC (carried on my local public radio station, KQED) using the word "refute" to mean "argue against". This seems wrong to me; I always used it to mean "argue against successfully; prove wrong". I checked my old American Heritage Dictionary, and my wife Beth's Webster's Encyclopedic, and they both support my position. (Meaning, neither refutes me.) Or is this a British thing? Yes, maybe: my Chambers Dictionary, published by Chambers Harrap in London (though my edition, which, like many of my possessions, I found on the street, was published by license in India) gives the meaning as "to deny", though a "refutation" is "that which disproves." Hmmm. Any input from my readers, on either side of the Atlantic?

I keep hearing on the news that the U.S. border with Mexico is a certain length, say, 3000 miles. This makes no sense, since part of that border is formed by the Rio Grande, a natural feature. You can't measure the length of a river's banks. The same with the coastline of a country. Think about it: at what level are you measuring? A river can have basically an infinite number of twists and turns. Depending on how close you look, you'll see twists and turns of different sizez. In other words, from space, or on a map with a scale of an inch is a hundred miles, you'll only see the turns that measure several miles or more. Flying over in a helicopter, you might see the ones that measure a few meters. Kneeling on the shore, you'll see those that measure a few inches. Depending on what size indentation you measure, you'll get a different measurement. The smaller features you measure, the longer the river will be. It's like a drunk guy staggering down the street: the more he lurches from one side to another, the farther he travels. Are you starting to get it?

Or call it by its real name: fractal geometry, which models the way natural features, such as clouds, are formed. As Benoit Mandelbrot, one of the founders of the field, put it in his 1977 book "The Fractal Geometry of Nature": "Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles..." Natural features basically look the same no matter what the scale is; you can't tell from a picture of a mountain whether it's a hundred feet high or ten thousand. (They call it "self-similarity".) The best example - or at least the first - of fractal geometry is the Koch snowflake. You can't say how long its perimeter is, though you can say what its area is.

I have no idea how they come up with the measurements given for the length of rivers. Maybe there is some international standard of measurement - "use a map scale of x", or "don't measure anything smaller than y".

Then, too, rivers are constantly changing their courses, overflowing their banks, changing their lengths in another way.

Of course, large parts of the U.S. - Mexican border are straight lines, which can be measured. You can say how long California's border with Mexico is, or Montana's with Canada along the 49th parallel. So I hope the media will stick with what can actually be accurately described, and stop feeding us numbers that don't make any sense....

Was that too mean for my first post?

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?