Archive for January, 2007


I used to be Cleopatra after all

January 27, 2007

A couple of weeks back, I was walking down the street, basking in the afterglow of a day of celebrations raucous and quiet, attendant on my daughter in law’s baby shower. I kept breaking into retrospective grins over the sheer giggling quantity of infants and toddlers our kids’ friends and relations had brought to weave in amongst the proceedings.

What could be grander than mellowing out into another grandparenting gig? What, except the spectacle of the whole next generation stepping capably and for the most part happily into our old roles, with all that angst and joy and hubbub ahead of them? And I found myself wishing that, once I shuffle off this mortal coil, I could turn around, start right in again, and go through the whole cycle one more time. Not that I have any overwhelming objection to disappearing from the scene, but the game has been such a hoot, why not have another whack at it?

As Pope George Ringo used to say, “When I get to the bottom, I go back to the top of the slide, where I stop and I turn and I go for a ride…”

It was an oddly disinterested, depersonalized sort of wish. I felt no envy toward all these fine young folks who are still near the top of the helter skelter. The feeling was more one of, how delightful it is that this game is going on and is going to go on; and wouldn’t it be a kick if I were to get another turn.

I’ve never seen the payoff in reincarnation. What’s the point of returning, be it as pauper or prince, if the future me has no memory of the present me? But in the peculiar mindset I was in, this burst of detached lust for life, my usual objection lost its force.

And thereupon I realized something odd. If I stop caring about continuity of memory, then something indistinguishable from reincarnation just about certainly takes place. Billions of babies will be born in the few years after the angel of death kicks my bucket of life. Now, consider how very differently I – that is to say, someone with exactly my innate talents and predispositions – could have turned out if I had been born to a different station, a different continent, or a different gender. It is then obvious that thousands of those babies will be at least as much like “me” as I am like many of those alternate possible selves. Any one of them is therefore the moral equivalent of a reincarnation of “me”.

But it goes further. Because there are thousands of other babies with enough innate similarity to any one of those (say that Kabrala Singh who pops into the world the fourth week of 2078), to be the moral equivalent of a reincarnation of Kabrala. And, time being merely so much illusory Maya anyway, there’s nothing except our illogical human love for orderly sequential narrative to prevent any reincarnation from appearing earlier than its “previous” life rather than later.

And so, stone-hopping from one moral equivalent of reincarnation to the next, each in sufficient continuity to hang onto its me-ness, I can pretty well count on reincarnating sooner or later as everyone who ever has lived or will live. Literally? Maybe not. But I can derive all the (admittedly utterly intangible) benefits I would have derived if each reincarnation had been literal. So it comes to the same thing.

I would still prefer to retain the sense of personhood that’s bound up with memory. And even if it weren’t so, as a practicing Christian, I mean to hang on to the hope of resurrection and “saecula saeculorum”. But I can’t say I mind having in my back pocket this small and bemused consolation prize.


Plain talk from the plains

January 25, 2007

Chuck Hagel has been a man on fire for the truth of late. It’s like a light bulb went on. Like the censor every politician, Democrat or Republican, carries around in his head, the one who whispers at every impulse to depart from Cloud Cuckoo Land, “You can’t say that, Michael Moore might approve,” has dropped his blue pencil behind the chaise longue and just can’t find it again.

But in an interview with GQ, he takes a couple giant leaps beyond even his celebrated remarks on the Senate floor.

Leap 1: Chuck confirms what a couple Dems peeped (without media echo) at the time. Bush initially insisted that the AUMF authorize not just war in Iraq, but any military step Dubya chose in “the region”. By implication, he intended to get cover not just for invading Baghdad, but also Damascus and Tehran. And, should they happen to strike oil, Armenia.

Leap 2: Chuck confirms that we were deliberately lied into the war (see p. 3 of the interview):

HAGEL. So the president comes out talking about “weapons of mass destruction” that this “madman dictator” Saddam Hussein has, and “our intelligence shows he’s got it,” and “he’s capable of weaponizing,” and so on.

GQ. And producing a National Intelligence Estimate that turned out to be doctored.
HAGEL. Oh yeah. All this stuff was doctored. Absolutely. But that’s what we were presented with. And I’m not dismissing our responsibility to look into the thing, because there were senators who said, “I don’t believe them.”

McCain’s badly stained Plain Talk jersey has just passed to a new player. And unless they’re willing to pass it on to Jim Webb on the other team, I’m betting it retires with him.


Time to take away their keys

January 25, 2007

…which they have made very easy to do.

Yep, Diebold has thoughtfully provided every basement and kitchen hacker in the country with his or her own set of keys with which to open any Diebold touch screen voting machine, so as to install the virus of his or her choice.

As Bradblog reported yesterday morning, a public web page for Diebold’s company store carries a photo of the keys in question. [Hastily taken down, once copies had spread throughout the Internets.] Since all their touch screen units open with the same key; and since the key is built on a blank available at any hardware store; all you have to do is look at the photo, file innies and outies that approximate what you see, and – voila! – you too can elect the dogcatcher, city councilman, or congressional rep of your choice.

The fellow who discovered the photo mailed his 3 homegrown keys to Princeton, which has a Diebold machine on hand for such tests. And two out of three opened it on the first try.

May I submit that there is no high-level conspiracy between Diebold and the GOP’s top miscreants to use these machines to steal votes? Because such a conspiracy would require, first, that Diebold management and said miscreants have, between them, at least three neurons to rub together. Obviously, they do not.

However, the slight lift that knowledge has given to my day is offset by the revelation that Wayne and Garth now have the power to install the lead guitarist from Rush into the Oval Office in 2008.


Congress unbound?

January 23, 2007

Many of those who have seen through this war from the beginning have been expressing frustration with the Congress for diddling around with non-binding “sense of the chamber” resolutions against Bush’s surge. MEC over at
Mercury Rising posts a cogent defense of the strategy from Senator Levin on Fox:

So the power of this resolution is a first step to urge the president not to deepen our military involvement, not to escalate this matter. That is a first step. If the president does not take heed to that step, at that point, you then consider another step.But the worst thing we can do is to vote on something which is critical of the current policy and lose it, because if we lose that vote, the president will use the defeat of a resolution as support for his policy.

The public doesn’t support his policy. A majority of the Congress doesn’t support his policy. And we’ve got to keep a majority of the Congress — or put a majority of the Congress in a position where they can vote against the president’s policy, because that is the way in which we will begin to turn the ship around that is leading us in the wrong direction in Iraq.

MEC goes on to point out that the message to be sent is not being sent to Bush, who will never listen anyway. Rather, by echoing the electorate’s disapproval, it is setting up the real message, the one Bush will send to the electorate when he ignores the sense of the chamber resolutions, “Who cares what you think?”

The electorate’s disgust with that message from Bush is what will empower Congress to take the more substantive following steps. MEC’s brilliant observation is that the purpose of these initial resolutions is, in Downing Street parlance, to “wrongfoot” the President.

It’s ironic. This is exactly how Bush justified the invasion of Iraq: set Saddam Hussein up to defy a United Nations resolution, then use that defiance to justify moving against him.

The “surge” was initially supposed to be a two to four month affair. Tonight on ABC, General Keane was explaining that it will take 18 to 24 months to work. That is, for the duration of the Bush administration, the “surge” will be indistinguishable in any respect from an escalation. And that, undoubtedly, by design.

Had the surge duration been as initially advertised, Congress would have had to move precipitously to block it. But Chancellor Bush intends a longer game; and Congress may therefore do well to take a little time to set up its shot.

[Image by dogwelder]


Some grand tours

January 19, 2007

As this Flash shows, Eric Idle’s song and NASA’s visual dance are a marriage made in the heavens.

And for those of you with high bandwidth, who are already weary of mere HDTV and bluetooth, here’s a page devoted to gigapixel photography. And here’s another.


It’s a sweet job, but somebody’s gotta do it

January 19, 2007

In the annals of Too Much Time On Their Hands, only a few pages count as truly epic.

Behold: a scale model of the battle of Helm’s Deep, rendered entirely in candy.


A shift in the Central Front

January 19, 2007

Up until a few months ago, Chancellor Bush regarded Iraq as “the central front in the War on Terror.” With the arrival of the Splurge, the Augmentation, the New Fork Wayward, or whatever they’re calling it this news cycle, it became clear that he understands the Front has shifted.

Now that it’s clear the war is lost, the Central Front has become the battle to assign the blame for the loss to someone, anyone, but Bush. Ideally, to assemble a Dolchstoss narrative: The dang war was all but won until the wimpy Democrats and liberals stabbed America in the back.

The original Dolchstoss, of course, was Hitler’s explanation for why Germany lost WW I. It worked for him like a charm. The Republicans copied the strategy after Vietnam; and it worked like a charm for them, too. At least a third of the country still believes that narrative.

In order for the Dolchstoss narrative to take hold, though, two things are essential. Not too many Republicans can call for the war to end – a difficult line to hold when most of them understand how harshly the electorate will make them pay if we’re still massively bogged down in November ’08. And the war must be dragged out until the end of Bush’s term. That’s the real purpose of the Splurge: to stall a few months until the next bit of life support for the comatose war can be concocted.

While all these silly and deadly games are played out, though, two of the most prominent liberal hawks have finally begun to state out loud the long unspoken truth. Namely, the Central Front in the War on Terror is now, and always has been, Afghanistan. Ghastly as the consequences of the Iraq loss will be (and make no mistake, they will be vicious both for Iraq and America), they pale in significance next to the consequences of a loss in Afghanistan.

And Afghanistan is not at all a lost cause. Yet. We remain relatively popular with the general populace, which despises the Taliban and hopes for our protection from them. But the situation is deteriorating, even in the winter, a period when Mullah Omar’s legions have usually hibernated. Schoolteachers are regularly assassinated. And after a few months without major reinforcements, our failure to protect ordinary Afghanis could become so marked that the country tips.

Should Afghanistan fall to the Taliban, Pakistan is the next domino. The Islamist regime that would replace Musharraf would be infinitely more dangerous than the clerics in Iran. Unlike Iran,

  • It would have no interest in cooperating with the U.S. in the struggle against terrorism. (The ayatollahs in Tehran were swift to denounce the 9/11 attack, gave us a lot of good intelligence in the ensuing months, until the “axis of evil” speech chilled relations.)
  • It would already have nuclear weapons – quit a few of them, along with working missiles.
  • It would be Sunni, in fact Wahabbist, a natural ally rather than a sworn enemy of Al Qaeda’s brand of Islamism.

Iran has been pragmatic and conservative in its dealings with other nations. It has initiated no wars, and vividly remembers the horrors of the war Saddam forced it to fight. It would be jealous of any nuclear weapons it eventually obtained, careful not to let them slip out of its control into jihadist hands, and is stable enough to enforce such a policy. A Talibanized Pakistan would labor under none of those constraints, and could easily pass suitcase bombs along to Al Qaeda.

Yet Bush is pulling troops out of Afghanistan to bolster his attempt to throw a string of sevens in an already lost Baghdad crap game. He is happy to lose the more important of the two wars, simply to avoid blame for the less important one he has already lost.

Earlier this week, Senator Clinton and Evan Bayh returned from their fact finding tour of the Middle East. The letter they wrote to Defense Secretary Gates afterward didn’t even mention Iraq. Instead, it baldly stated the crucial need for more troops in Afghanistan.

This is not only the desperately needed right approach for the sake of protecting the U.S. from real peril; it is also the Democrats’ ticket to seizing the mantle of the party which is strong on security. Rather than highlighting withdrawal from a lost battle, it highlights advance in a battle that is very winnable. It underscores, in terms that should be clear even to the bloodthirsty right, why the Splurge is folly.

And yesterday on Hardball, Senator Biden (of whom I am not usually a great fan) struck the same note with great clarity:

MATTHEWS: One of your potential rivals for the Democratic nomination for the president is Hillary Rodham Clinton. Senator Clinton has said we need more troops to go to Afghanistan, although she agrees with you on the need to cap the troop number in Iraq. Do you agree we need more troops in Afghanistan?

BIDEN: Yes. When the president announced his surge, I made the case that he should be surging in Afghanistan, not in Iraq. Chris, I know you know a lot about this. Imagine if we fail in Afghanistan.

What that will mean is Musharraf will cut even a closer deal with al Qaeda and with the Taliban, and if he doesn‘t, he puts himself in the position of being overthrown more than he is now. That is a radicalized country. It has nuclear weapons and it will be a disaster.