Russell's Blog

New. Improved. Stays crunchy in milk.

A Riposte

Posted by Russell on April 30, 2007 at 7:48 a.m.
Oh dear, I seem to have been noticed.

Before I begin my riposte, I need to set something straight. Mr. Dougherty, you have put words in my mouth that I did not and shall not utter. You seem to believe that the conclusions I draw about the wisdom and feasibility of the war in Iraq preclude any appreciation for the oath you, and millions of others, have taken to defend our country. With respect, sir, don't be an ass. It is rhetorically convenient to suppose that those who call you on your errors are incapable of respecting you. I don't mind saying that I respect your commitment to our country. I respect the sacrifices you have have made and risked -- which, since we are having this argument, were thankfully not as terrible as they might have been. I respect the commitment and dedication on your part that must have been required to serve.

But my respect for you, and your brothers and sisters in arms, does not call for genuflection. It does not give you the license to make pronouncements on whether or not I take for granted the rights you swore to protect. I won't belittle the nobility of your service, but I won't tolerate your sanctimonious finger-wagging either.

I called you out as a Republican, not a conservative, because your post is simply package of recycled RNC and Whitehouse talking points:

  • Pessimism about the war hurts the troops
  • Admitting Failure == Surrender
  • Demand an apology for an imaginary insult on behalf of hypothetical people (double points if the uttering of the imaginary insult is required by the target's job description)
  • Pessimism about the war hurts our diplomatic position
  • Opposing The War == Not Supporting The Troops
  • We could still win if only ______ would let us
  • Draw a parallel, any parallel, between the Iraq War and World War II
Listen to any speech by Mr. Bush about the war, and you'll find at least one or two of those. Ditto for practically any stump speech by a Republican candidate in 2004 or 2006. It's all political blather. I'm picking on you because you are clearly smart enough to come up with your own opinions, but instead you are regurgitating the electioneering twaddle of a bunch of political hacks.

Not all politicians are hacks. Even among this disastrous crop Republicans, there are those who have detectable levels of Principle and Decency. You can spot them easily enough; they're the ones who've been slouching around the Capitol looking shamefaced and embarrassed.

But more important to the point at hand, you don't need to be a hack too. You claim to be motivated by conservatism, so perhaps you should meditate on the principles espoused therein. The conservative intellectual framework rests upon the principles of prudence, caution and the admission only of postulates supported by strong empirical evidence. It isn't anything so crude as the "ideology" for which you mistake it. The position you take on the war, and the war itself, is not "conservative" at all. It is either radical or reactionary, depending on how you look at it. The war was not prudent; it was gratuitous. The war was not cautions; it was reckless. The evidence supporting the war was a potpourri of cheap forgeries, bloviation, bureaucratic doublespeak, and wild speculation. As a liberal, I find it bizarre and unsettling to have to extol the virtues of conservationism. I wish the Republican party would send its nutcases home and try to remember some of the wise words of Lincoln, Taft and Eisenhower. Then maybe we could have a debate about ideas instead yelling about who is more patriotic.

Anyway, setting aside your misuse of the word "obsession," I fail to see how your commendably concise definitions of "insurgency" and "counterinsurgency" are somehow different from the phenomena I discussed in my previous post. Except, perhaps, for one minor point: The government of Iraq can hardly be credited for the counterinsurgency operation underway there. It's our people doing the work, taking the risks, and getting killed. The Iraqi government is engaged in counterinsurgency operations in about the same way that Paris Hilton is a plastic surgeon; the operations are carried out on their behalf by someone else who knows what they are doing, and in both cases, the efforts are wasted. Paris Hilton is still ugly, and the Iraqi government is still doomed.

I can only assume that you mention the viciousness and horror of the terrorist actions of the insurgency because you wish to imply that I do not care. Since it offends your sensibilities so, I shall refrain from flexing the more rustic aspects of my vocabulary; they cannot, in any event, capture the profound vulgarity of your suggestion. But as terribly as my heart aches for the lives snuffed out by this ongoing brutality, I know that America's counterinsurgency effort in Iraq is an impossible mission. We cannot stop the bombings, no matter what we might try.

Maybe if we had a million troops to send to Iraq, and a time machine to send them to 2003, maybe then we could stop this slaughter of innocents. But not now, not with an army trained for a different mission and equipped barely even for that. Not when the mission depends on stretching the Army, Marines and even the Reserves to the breaking point, and holding them at the breaking point indefinitely. Not with 15 month tours of duty under mind-wrecking conditions. Not when our injured veterans come home to mildewing hospital beds and are left to rummage in the Goodwill bin for a pair of underpants. Not after letting Saddam Hussein be lynched by a mob of Sadrist hooligans after a wartime show trial, when he should have been executed after an internationally recognized tribunal. Not after Abu Garib. Not after sending 700,000 Iraqis to early deaths. Yes, sometimes counterinsurgency operations can work. But not in Iraq in 2007. It has already gone too far.

As for your final note, had you taken your own recent advice and Googled the quote, you would have found that it was very much in context. Taft was a staunch isolationist, and the remarks of his that I quoted relate specifically to the war, not the New Deal. No, when he made those remarks twelve days after Pearl Harbor, not even Taft, the ardent isolationist, could call the war "won" or "lost." But he and his party did indeed blame Roosevelt and Lend Lease for provoking the attack on Pearl Harbor (a conjecture not without some merit). Taft openly attempted to obstruct the drive to mobilize America for the war against the Axis powers -- as was his right and his duty as per his principles and his office.

You can find the episode in any decent history book or biography of the major personalities involved (particularly Roosevelt and Eisenhower). Most recently, it appeared in an article in Salon about Tom Daschle.

As for Veteran's day, regrettably, my gallery of Veteran's Day photographs is offline at the moment. I will remedy this as soon as possible.

Buying the War

Posted by Russell on April 28, 2007 at 8:25 a.m.
I watched Bill Moyers's "Buying the War" a few days ago, and I finally think I have something to say about it. A lot of people will probably be inclined to skip this report rather than face frustration of seeing, one more time, just how badly we screwed up. It is indeed saddening and frustrating to contemplate the sequence of events that led up to the invasion of Iraq.

However, for some reason, I didn't feel that way at all after watching this report. It's odd, in a way. The report is utterly damning -- damning of the media, of the administration, of Congress, and implicitly damning of the public for allowing itself to be bamboozled. Yet, somehow, I came away feeling relieved.

This is the first time I've seen the whole sequence of events, chapter by chapter, explored in specific detail. After something terrible has happened, it is always worthwhile to go back and give it a really hard look. It's not just to learn from the mistakes; it's also to try to draw a line around the episode. This mental encapsulation is an important coping mechanism. It is what keeps the taint of disaster from seeping into everything. It is what allows us to distinguish between the disaster and unimpacted or unrelated events. It places finite bounds on the scope of the disaster, huge though it may be. This is why the 9/11 Commission Report is important.

Most people who would criticize the Administration, Congress or the Media would construct their indictments on the strength of hindsight. They said one thing, one would argue, but we now know that it was wrong. This is the natural way to proceed. If you want to construct a strong argument, it is best to use the strongest evidence. The strongest evidence is always available after the fact. Ergo, an argument from hindsight is usually the strongest.

For example: The President said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. We've now searched every inch of Iraq, and there weren't weapons of mass destruction. Therefor, the President was wrong. Yet the President had seen convincing evidence that there were no weapons of mass destruction when he made those statements. We must thus conclude that the President was either lying or demonstrated extremely poor judgment.

Bill Moyers avoids that line of reasoning completely. Instead, he focuses on the people who got things right without the benefit of hindsight, and builds his incitements on the contrasts between their actions and the actions of those who got it wrong. For example, Walcott, Landay and Strobel from Knight Ridder did just what reporters are supposed to do. They thought the Administration's case was a little fishy. So they investigated, and piece by piece, they found that the Administration's case was total malarkey. They reported the details to the public.

Before the tanks crossed the border, every major point in the Administration's case for the war had been publicly disproved, discredited, or refuted. Yet somehow, the public was not aware. How did that happen? This is the question addressed in "Buying the War."

The prevailing news narrative was that Saddam Hussein was a dangerous, evil man, that he had weapons of mass destruction, and that he wasn't going to back down. The investigations that ultimately discredited the prevailing narrative did not appear all at once, or organized into an easily digested rhetorical package. The media outlets regarded these stories as distracting clutter, and kept them off the front pages.

The formation of a prevailing narrative isn't a unique phenomenon. This is how the media operates. Usually, the prevailing narrative is mostly right. This time, though, it was utterly and spectacularly wrong.

Once again, I find that it's easier to face a problem when I understand some of its details. Even as the Media as an industry was galloping down the wrong trail, there were many reporters doing honest, good work. Before I had heard of Walcott, Landay and Strobel, I assumed that there must have been a few reporters who refused to be railroaded. I found it very comforting to see, in detail, that these reporters were not merely hypothetical. I also found it comforting to see how much of the truth they were able to uncover.

Some people will watch "Buying the War" and walk away with anger and frustration. I walked away with relief. It tells me that the flaws in our national media are bad, but at least they are finitely bad. It tells me that good reporting is possible, even in the worst of political climates. If the prevailing narrative had been more permeable to new information, maybe we wouldn't be in this mess. The problem that crippled America's media industry rests in the boardrooms of a few television networks and newspaper publishers. I find that very comforting. It no longer seems like a vague yet crippling general malaise.

A clear statement of a problem usually points directly to its own solution. People have blamed the crummy reporting leading up to the war on the management of the New York Times, CNN and the broadcast networks. Nothing much has changed as a result. This is because no one has had a clear idea of what to blame them for. The managers could always throw up their hands and say, "What could we do? How could we have known?"

Now we know: Stop trying to package the news as if it had a coherent narrative. This is real life, not the movies.

Watch the show. If you can spare a few dollars, maybe think about contributing to public television.

A basket full of Awesome

Posted by Russell on April 28, 2007 at 6:13 a.m.
Sadly, even as more and more businesses are becoming savvy to the idea that open communication empowers employees more than it distracts them, there are still a lot of employers who just love blocking ports and banning websites. It probably isn't even a management decision. It's just something the IT department does to make their own lives easier.

Not that I don't sympathize. Keeping any significant number of PCs free of malware is difficult enough when your user base can't install software. I just don't think the jack-booted thug approach serves the interests of employees or the company very well.

So, if you are unfortunate enough to live or work someplace that blocks SSH, and/or you cannot install an SSH client, there is a solution. If you have a server somewhere, just install AjaxTerm. Then you can log into a cute little AJAX terminal using an ordinary web browser (don't forget to use SSL). The terminal itself is surprisingly snappy. It is even snappier over SSL. It's not quite as interactive as a local xterm, but it's quite usable. It's a bit like using a 2400 baud modem.

It's dead-simple to install, too.

Purify the Internets!

Posted by Russell on April 23, 2007 at 7:48 p.m.
Hu Jintao wants to cleanse the Internet of objectionable material. Evidently, the Internet is full of foul language, pornography, and worst of all, upsetting politics and strange spiritual stuff. On one hand, I feel a great deal of sympathy for the Chinese people, who will see their hard-earned cash wasted on an initiative that will only serve to brutalize them.

China's Internet policy is already responsible for the political incarceration of large numbers of Chinese citizens, most of whom are probably staunch patriots (perhaps with unpopular opinions, though). Expanding state control over the Internet will only accelerate this. To some extent, human nature is irreducibly subversive. It is a necessary part of healthy human psychology to be somewhat resentful of authority. Resentment of authority is a necessary aspect of self-preservation. Increasing state surveillance will of course turn up more subversive thinking. Perfect surveillance would reveal that all of us are subversives, and the remaining few who are not suffer from serious cognitive disabilities. So, if Hu Jintao wants to lock down the Internet, he's going to have to lock up an awful lot of people.

On the other hand, as a patriot of my own country, Hu Jintao's calls to "purify" the Internet bring a smile to my face. If China is successful in its efforts, which is no certain thing, they will destroy their own patch of the Internet. Sure, they will still have a high-tech national computer network, but it won't be the Internet with a capital "I." It will be something else -- something much, much less valuable. No interesting services will survive on this "purified" Internet. The content will be just as interesting and as valuable as Party-controlled television. Meanwhile, Americans can continue building new and interesting things.

America has ceded its dominance in industry after industry to China. Hu Jintao's "purified" Internet is a guarantee that America will keep its dominance of Internet technologies. Unless, of course, our indigenous Internet purifiers succeed.

Talking back to the talking points

Posted by Russell on April 21, 2007 at 6:53 a.m.
I normally avoid reading Republican blogs. This isn't an ideological choice -- there are a few conservative bloggers who I find quite informative. Somehow, thought, this caught my eye:
Republicans blast back in response to comments made by the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid about the war in Iraq. OK, I get it, Senator Reid doesn't like the war and probably does not like President Bush. But will someone please tell me the benefit of spouting off in public to the news media that the war in Iraq is lost.
Yes, I can tell you exactly what the benefit is. If we have lost the war, and by all objective measures we have indeed lost the war, then it is absolutely imperative to "spout off in public" about this fact. That is the only way anything can be done about it. Harry Reid is one of the leaders of our country, and so it is his responsibility to lead, both on the day-to-day business of running the government and also by shaping the national dialog. It is his solemn, sworn duty as a servant of the public to spout off about it.

I'll set aside the author's conceit that one can really know the mind of Harry Reid, or anyone else, well enough to guess their likes and dislikes. It has nothing to do with whether or not he "likes" the war or "likes" the president. A man in Harry Reid's position has very little time to entertain his own likes and dislikes. When the stakes are that high, personal likes and dislikes are irrelevant. There is only room for cold analytical judgment. People have different priorities and different theories, and so judgment varies. Harry Reid judges the war lost, due in large part to the president's incompetence. Most Americans came to the same conclusion more than a year ago.

You may of course disagree with Mr. Reid. Maybe you think the war is going great. We are each entitled to draw our own conclusions. But what sort of thinking would lead you to question the soundness of Mr. Reid's decision to publicly state his conclusion?

If I was a soldier on the ground in Iraq, I'd be questioning the next time I’m out on patrol just what the ... am I doing out here?
So, basically, you argue that Mr. Reid's remarks might cause our soldiers to question their mission, and so he should apologize. Utter nonsense. If they can handle being shot at, then they're tough enough not to be vexed by a argument a dozen steps up the chain of command. A responsible commander doesn't make strategic decisions based solely on the supposed anxieties of the rank and file.

In any event, from what I am given to understand, our solders have been wondering what the fuck they are doing in Iraq since they got there. I include the word "fuck," rather than an coy little ellipsis meant to stand it its place, because that is exactly how a soldier on the ground in Iraq right now would phrase it.

People around the world (especially in Iraq) who don't completely understand how our government functions could view Reid's remarks as speaking for the U.S. Government and hurt our ability to garner support from the citizens of Iraq. In addition, his comments show me that he has very little understanding of the ability and determination of our men and women serving our country in the Armed Forces.
Rubbish. We have already lost all ability to garner support in Iraq. We lost that about two months into the operation. We lost our ability to garner support everywhere else before we even invaded. The Iraqis want us to leave immediately, and the rest of the world never wanted us to go there in the first place. If anything, Mr. Reid's remarks have boosted our support in Iraq and around the world simply because they are evidence that America is capable of seeing the obvious truth.

Determination and ability have nothing to do with it. A popular insurgency cannot be defeated. France discovered this in Algeria, the Soviet Union discovered this in Afghanistan, and we discovered this in Vietnam. America was born in a popular insurgency against what was then the most powerful military and economic force in the world. We, of all nations, should understand the power of an insurgency.

History has shown that the only effective strategy to defeat a popular insurgency is genocide. This is how successful wars of conquest have worked for all of recorded history. Insurgencies tend to run out of steam once a third of the population has been exterminated. If we want "victory" in Iraq, then that's what we'd have to do. So far, our intervention in Iraq has killed about 700,000 people (about one in ten from direct violence). That's about 3% of the population. We can expect the insurgency to fall apart when we've killed ten times as many people. What Harry Reid means by "lost" is that the only path to victory available to us is too horrible to contemplate.

So what does Mr. Dougherty suggest we do?

A realistic goal, especially if we allow the finest military in the world to take their gloves off and conduct a tactical war that would bring the enemy in Iraq to their knees. Unfortunately, innocent people may get hurt in the process, but we'd complete our mission with honor and avoid many of the ghosts that haunt us now from the Vietnam era..you know...the ones politicians frequently remind us about daily with the media's help.

That's right. He wants America to literally get medieval on the insurgency. So that we can "avoid the ghosts" of Vietnam. So that we can avoid the embarrassment of admitting that we stuck our national dick into a meatgrinder. Maybe he hasn't studied enough history to realize how many people would have to die. Or maybe he has, and doesn't care.

George Bush sent our troops on an impossible mission. As usual, they have served with exemplary professionalism, but that doesn't change the fact that it's an impossible mission. He could have ordered them to invade Atlantis, or build a perpetual motion machine, or exactly express Pi as a ratio of two integers, and it would be no less impossible. Harry Reid is saying that it's time to admit that the situation is fucked, it's time to repudiate the men who caused the mess, and it's time we brought our kids home.

Just recently I listened to one of those audio books titled the Memoirs of Major Dick Winters, you probably remember his story from the mini-series titled Band of Brothers which aired on HBO. When I think back now about the campaigns he and Easy Company fought in during World War II within the European Theater, I shudder to think how they would have responded to such negative comments from a member of the House or Senate (especially the Senate Majority Leader) announcing publicly that we're going to lose the war in Europe. Back then responsible politicians didn’t do things like that...we're Americans for crying out loud! We're supposed to be on the same team aren’t we? Politicians...NUTS!
Shudder away. Starting only days after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Republican minority vocally opposed Roosevelt, the war and the continuation of the New Deal. They were told not to question the president in a time of war. They were sternly admonished for undermining the moral of our troops and giving comfort to the enemy. Robert Taft, the minority leader, had this to say:
As a matter of general principle, I believe there can be no doubt that criticism in time of war is essential to the maintenance of any kind of democratic government ... too many people desire to suppress criticism simply because they think that it will give some comfort to the enemy to know that there is such criticism. If that comfort makes the enemy feel better for a few moments, they are welcome to it as far as I am concerned, because the maintenance of the right of criticism in the long run will do the country maintaining it a great deal more good than it will do the enemy, and will prevent mistakes which might otherwise occur.
This brings us full circle. Joe wanted to know what the possible benefit of publicly opposing the war could be. There you have it, Joe, from the mouth of the Republican minority leader, defending his opposition to the war you glorify.

Using Ekiga with an Apple iSight

Posted by Russell on April 21, 2007 at 3:14 a.m.
Now that Apple is integrating little video cameras into most of its products, the venerable Apple iSight has been discontinued. This is very good news if you happen to know a Mac user who likes to buy new things. Chances are pretty good that they have an iSight that they no longer need. Despite being discontinued, the iSight still seems to command its former full retail price on eBay for reasons I do not understand. However you get your hands on one, the iSight can be made to work on a Linux machine without too much difficulty.

The iSight isn't a particularly wonderful video camera, but it is pretty ideal for videoconferencing. So, here is how to get the iSight to work with Gnome's videoconferencing software, Ekiga. I will assume that you know how to find and install software on your computer.

You will need an ieee1394 port, and you will need to load the following kernel modules :
  • ieee1394
  • video1394
  • ohci1394
  • videodev
You will also need to make sure video4linux (V4L2) and the V4L1 compatibility modules is either loaded as a module of compiled into your kernel. The easiest way to get the device working is with the vloopback kernel module, which you will probably have to download and build yourself (I found the Subversion repository to be easiest to use -- the 1.1-rc1 tarball complained of a missing config.h file).

Once you've got the vloopback module loaded, you should be able to get the camera working using Coriander. When you launch Coriander, it will either work, or it will tell you which kernel modules you are missing. If it works, you should see "Apple Computer, Inc." under the "Camera Select" dropdown menu. The Coriander interface is somewhat counterintuitive and a bit heavy on options, but it is very useful. Go to "Services" and select "VIDEO1394" from the "Method" dropdown menu. Then clicking the "Receive" and "Display" buttons (which are actually toggles, despite appearances) should pop open a video preview.

Chances are, the permissions on the necessary devices in /dev will be wrong, so you may have to run Coriander as root. You should make sure the devices are readable and writable by the "video" group (or whatever you or your distribution deems appropriate for the group name), and then add yourself to that group. You will need to the following devices :

crw-rw---- 1 root video 81, 0 Apr 20 21:57 /dev/video0
crw-rw---- 1 root video 81, 1 Apr 20 21:57 /dev/video1
...
crw-rw-r-- 1 root video 171, 16 Apr 20 21:57 /dev/video1394/0
crw-rw-r-- 1 root video 171, 17 Apr 20 21:57 /dev/video1394/1
...
crw-rw---- 1 root video 171, 0 Apr 19 21:38 /dev/raw1394

Evidently, you don't need these:

crw------- 1 root video 10, 204 Apr 20 21:57 /dev/video/em8300
crw------- 1 root video 10, 206 Apr 20 21:57 /dev/video/em8300_ma
crw------- 1 root video 10, 205 Apr 20 21:57 /dev/video/em8300_mv
crw------- 1 root video 10, 207 Apr 20 21:57 /dev/video/em8300_sp

You may want to use your iSight for something other than uploading images to an FTP site (which Coriander will do wonderfully). If you try to use your iSight with Ekiga, you may notice that even with all the right kernel modules loaded, it's still impossible to configure the iSight via the Ekiga configuration druid. If this is the case, you need to install some packages :

  • libpt-1.10.0 - Portable Windows Library
  • libpt-plugins-alsa - Portable Windows Library Audio Plugin for the ALSA Interface
  • libpt-plugins-avc - PWLib Video Plugin for IEEE1394 (FireWire) AVC devices
  • libpt-plugins-dc - PWLib Video Plugin for IEEE1394 (Firewire) DC Devices
  • libpt-plugins-oss - Portable Windows Library Audio Plugins for the OSS Interface
  • libpt-plugins-v4l - Portable Windows Library Video Plugin for Video4Linux
  • libpt-plugins-v4l2 - Portable Windows Library Video Plugin for Video4Linux v2
Quit Ekiga and try the druid again. You should be able to select "1394DC" for the Video plugin, and "/dev/video1394/0" for the Input device. Clicking the little video icon should start the video preview.

Note: If you close the little shutter on the iSight while Ekiga is running, it will crash. Evidently the shutter actually turns off the device.

Copyright Pirates

Posted by Russell on April 17, 2007 at 3:31 a.m.
So, the Copyright Royalty Board ruled in favor of the recording industry's extortion of internet radio. As an big fan of KCRW, this makes me especially angry. This ruling will pretty much put KCRW out of business; most of their listeners are online.

Naturally, they are scrambling to get more people to subscribe to support the service. If the Court of Appeals doesn't overturn the ruling, I will not subscribe. Nor will I listen. I would rather see KCRW disappear than see my contribution to public radio pissed away on SoundExchange royalty extortion.

Intellectual property law in the United States keeps drifting farther afield from its basis in constitutional law. All intellectual property law in the United States is predicated on this special power of Congress:

The Congress shall have power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

...

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

This decision accomplishes exactly the opposite of "Progress of Science and the useful Arts." Radio broadcasters are not required to pay these extra fees, and internet broadcasting is the logical technological advancement over radio. But then again, a great deal of America's intellectual property law already does more to stifle Science and the useful Arts than encourage it. This is just the latest example.

KCRW and other internet broadcasters can take another direction, though. They could put a blackout on artists represented by SoundExchange. If they do this, I will gladly support KCRW.

Go sign the petition.

Vort.org... now with more math!

Posted by Russell on April 13, 2007 at 5:03 a.m.
Back when Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau brought forth the World Wide Web, the idea was to create an easier way for researchers to discuss and share their work. For reasons I've never really understood, through many revisions, the specification for web layout has never included a good way of writing mathematics. Now there is this MathML thing that we are supposed to use. It is only now starting to seep into the default configurations of most browsers. Sadly, it ignores the fact that there is already a perfectly wonderful and truly elegant markup language for typesetting mathematics.

So, until MathML takes over the world, or is replaced by something that people might actually want to use, there is a fantastic little program called mimeTeX. Once it is happily nestled in your cgi-bin directory (remember CGI?), mimeTeX will burble forth all the equations you could ever want. You just pass it a string of LaTeX math mode in as a query, and out pops beautiful equations:

It's not the solution that would make the most sense -- a LaTeX engine on the client-side -- but it's the next best thing. So go ahead and blog about math, and stop writing stupid things like f(x-a)/sigma_thingy.

Oh, and if you are too lazy to install it yourself, I warn you now not to use mine. I will use url_rewrite to introduce embarrassing mistakes into your posts.

The Debauchees

Posted by Russell on April 10, 2007 at 2:53 p.m.
I was recently reminded of a customer satisfaction survey I wrote about a year ago. I post it here for the general amusement of all.
Why do you think Radisson Hotel Cambridge should be assigned a lower star rating? (Check all that apply)
  • [ ] Supplier Brand - Hotel Brand doesn't fit customer expectations
  • [ ] Condition of Rooms - Room condition was below standards for that star rating.
  • [ ] Condition of Property - Excluding rooms, the lobby, pool and/or public was below standards for that star rating.
  • [ ] Amenity Issues - Amenity offering was lacking / missing from promised.
  • [ ] Service Quality - Staff service levels were below expectations
  • [*] Other - My reason doesn't fit any of these descriptions

Required: Please tell us more about this issue.

On our last night, the room adjoining ours was occupied by a woman and two men who spent the evening copulating with what I can only describe as "extreme vigor."

Neither I nor my traveling companion harbor prudish views regarding this sort of activity. Indeed, we regarded it with no small amount of amusement. I would have been in favor of increasing the rating for this hotel had it not been for the profoundly disappointing post-coital conversation of Radisson's nocturnal debauchees.

I shall never fathom how their conversation ranged to the relative performance of fantasy football leagues with not more than ten minutes elapsed since a wall-slapping climax. We were appalled that a tryst so enterprising and lively would be concluded in so banal a conversation. Their grand overture of delightful wickedness was cut short by the pathetic, noisome honk and hucksterism of sports entertainment.

The experience shook our faith in humanity's capacity for truly reckless transports of lust. Can three strangers not join together for the gorging of their carnal desires without the intrusion of base commercialism into their merriment? The world seems a duller, shabbier place.

Pelosi in Damascus

Posted by Russell on April 06, 2007 at 3:26 p.m.
Like most people who don't like totalitarianism, I'm not a big fan of the Syrian government. From what I understand, they are not nice people. However, their supposed odiousness is not a good reason to refuse to talk to them. On the contrary. Otto von Bismark described politics as "the art of the possible." Diplomacy is just politics across borders. To refuse to engage in diplomacy is to curtail what is possible. The administration's policy of minimal contact with "bad" governments is guaranteed to accomplish minimal results.

On an emotional level, I can sympathize with Bush's policy toward Syria. I'd like to personally avoid talking to the Syrian government, if at all possible. But someone has to talk to them. The Syrians may have important influence in a situation in which America is deeply involved. I, and 300 million other Americans, pay Mr. Bush to talk to Syria so we don't have to.

So, if Speaker Pelosi wants to roll up her sleeves and do some of the necessary diplomatic work the administration refuses to do, I'm perfectly happy to let her. Of course, as a member of Congress, she can't hold binding negotiations with the Syrians, but she can have a dialog. That's better than nothing.

Naturally, the administration is positively wigging out. The most serious accusation is that Pelosi is "undermining" the administration's foreign policy. In a general political sense, I suppose that might be bad. It would certainly strengthen the administration's foreign policy position if the Speaker of the House supported it. If the policy were any good, support from Congress would make it better. But in this case, the administration's foreign policy has been an unmitigated failure. I hope, for the sake of the nation and the world, that Pelosi is undermining it.

In any event, there is nothing that compels a citizen, or a member of Congress, to uphold a particular foreign policy. That's the difference between policy and law. George Bush cannot order me to help him with his foreign policy, nor can he so order Speaker Pelosi. Since neither I nor Speaker Pelosi are part of the executive chain of command, we can act within the limits of the law to support or undermine executive policy as it pleases us. Period.

However, I don't think Pelosi's talks with the Syrians have done anything to undermine Bush's foreign policy. Unless, of course, George Bush's foreign policy is simply to aggrandize himself. If that is the policy, then maybe Pelosi has undermined it a bit.

SCOTUS hearts Earth

Posted by Russell on April 02, 2007 at 3:04 p.m.
In a 5-to-4 decision, the Supreme Court has found that the EPA can (and possibly must) regulate the emissions of greenhouse gases. The case was brought by Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, Baltimore, the District of Columbia, New York City, and a cadre of environmental groups.

This will pave the way for a whole host of innovative policy options. For example, scaling vehicle registration fees with fuel efficiency, mandatory fuel economy standards, various kinds of carbon taxes (and credits), and all sorts of good stuff. The decision removes one of the biggest obstacles to policy implementation.

The media is probably going to focus on the potential nation-wide impacts, but I don't think Congress or the White House will come up with anything interesting. Even if 2008 is a banner year for Democrats, the federal government probably isn't going to enact any interesting or effective environmental policy. Realistically, a positive role in in environmental policy for the federal government will be in funding capital projects and research, and as an experienced manager of data.

The states are a different story. The decision will (I think) allow state-EPAs to move forward with regional policies. For example, California can finally enact the fuel economy standards for which it has fought for so long, or Massachusetts can get more aggressive about wind power. Some of the states will do nothing, and some will try things that turn out to be dumb. However, some of them will have the will and the know-how to come enact policy with real promise. The ideas that work will be copied, eventually percolating upward to federal policy after a generation or so.

Hooray for Federalism!