Archive for April, 2007


Poetry archive #7

April 30, 2007

In which I continue to inflict my old poems on my readers.

Sweets and bitters: an Herball
There is no tongue for my heart’s manuscript
Where potent inks have shed their reprimand,
Etching spectral gardens as they dripped,
Whose pages turn themselves. This very hand
In red, and black, and silver, brushed
A lily’s likeness, when this hand was young,
When this hand was all my speech and mime
And a stranger to itself and all
And would gather by night by the ogre wall
Such simples when moon and blood were hushed.

The shapes may be spoken. The rose’s velvet line
Of petals enclosing petals is even trite.
But what images common to our sun
Could summon that certain other light?


John Adams’ body lies a moulderin

April 30, 2007

The founding fathers were great advocates of public libraries. Chris Hayes has a sobering observation on how the Zeitgeist has changed in 230 years. (h/t Henry on Crooked Timber.)


War wasn’t the most important thing, it was the only thing

April 30, 2007

For Bushco, the only option which is always off the table is peace.

(1) George Tenet’s tell-all book is not the first, but the fourth reliable inside source saying that George W. was hell-bent on invading Iraq from the moment he set foot in the Oval Office. Actually, from some while before that. Juan Cole assembled the references for us yesterday. We’ve heard the same from Paul O’Neill, from Michigan journalist Osama Siblani, and from Mickey Herskowitz, Dubya’s original pick to ghostwrite his campaign biography.

Equally telling is the dog that hasn’t barked. There has never been a single circumstantial account from any insider of any discussion that ever took place in the Badministration of alternative ways to deal with Iraq. Which is to say: his endless lies on the question notwithstanding, Bush’s War never had anything to do with 9/11. The “liberal” media may be expected to obscure the fact, but with Tenet’s testimony it has now become a matter of public record.

(2) As we knew from the PNAC (Project for a New American Century) documents, and from the neocon dictum that “Anyone can go to Baghdad, real men go to Tehran,” Syria and Iran were intended to be the immediate follow-on projects to the smashing success of Rumsfeld’s picnic in Mesopotamia. Negotiations, concessions from the mullahs, moderations of the regime – in short, peace in any form – were not to be tolerated. In his NYT column Sunday, Kristoff spelled out the details of the massive Iranian peace initiative in 2003 which was rejected out of hand by warmongers certain that they would be disposing of the Islamic state (and presumably of a few insignificant tens of thousands of its civilians) soon enough.

Encouraged, Iran transmitted its “grand bargain” proposals to the U.S. One version was apparently a paraphrase by the Swiss ambassador in Tehran; that was published this year in The Washington Post. But Iran also sent its own master text of the proposal to the State Department and, through an intermediary, to the White House. I’ve also posted that document, which Iran regards as the definitive one.
In the master document, Iran talks about ensuring “full transparency” and other measures to assure the U.S. that it will not develop nuclear weapons. Iran offers “active Iranian support for Iraqi stabilization.” Iran also contemplates an end to “any material support to Palestinian opposition groups” while pressuring Hamas “to stop violent actions against civilians within” Israel (though not the occupied territories). Iran would support the transition of Hezbollah to be a “mere political organization within Lebanon” and endorse the Saudi initiative calling for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Iran also demanded a lot, including “mutual respect,” abolition of sanctions, access to peaceful nuclear technology and a U.S. statement that Iran did not belong in the “axis of evil.” Many crucial issues, including verification of Iran’s nuclear program, needed to be hammered out. It’s not clear to me that a grand bargain was reachable, but it was definitely worth pursuing — and still is today.

Instead, Bush administration hard-liners aborted the process. Another round of talks had been scheduled for Geneva, and Ambassador Zarif showed up — but not the U.S. side. That undermined Iranian moderates.


The puppy dog theory of terrorism

April 27, 2007

Of all the dumbed-down slogans used to sell the invasion of Iraq, and now to sell Bush’s plan to stall and bleed until it’s some other President’s problem, none is quite so blindingly, obviously moronic as “We’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.”

One thing and one thing only has prevented another major Al Qaeda attack in America: the scale of Usama bin Laden’s success on September 11 took him by surprise. He never dreamed the towers would actually collapse. Now, just blowing up a truck bomb in Boise, or offing a few carsfull of subway commuters with poison gas, would constitute a PR setback for him. It would make his movement look less powerful. He accidentally gave himself a supremely hard act to follow, and has no present means to inflict damage on the same scale. He needs kilodeaths, not the hundred or two he knows how to reliably produce. So – for now – he holds back.

On Wednesday Richard Clarke nailed the silliiness of that slogan with the derisive rephrasing it deserves (and the fact that his op-ed was granted space in the New York Daily News, of all places, shows how weak a half a leg the war’s popularity now wobbles on):

Does the President think terrorists are puppy dogs? He keeps saying that terrorists will “follow us home” like lost dogs. This will only happen, however, he says, if we “lose” in Iraq.

The puppy dog theory is the corollary to earlier sloganeering that proved the President had never studied logic: “We are fighting terrorists in Iraq so that we will not have to face them and fight them in the streets of our own cities.”

Remarkably, in his attempt to embrace the failed Iraqi adventure even more than the President, Sen. John McCain is now parroting the line. “We lose this war and come home, they’ll follow us home,” he says.

How is this odd terrorist puppy dog behavior supposed to work? The President must believe that terrorists are playing by some odd rules of chivalry. Would this be the “only one slaughter ground at a time” rule of terrorism?

Whoever contemplates 9/11 for three seconds will recall what it took in resources: half a million dollars altogether (one day’s poppy crop in Afghanistan more than covers it), 19 volunteers, and 19 boxcutters. Bush’s war has, by the military’s own estimates, created at least 10,000 active recruits for the jihadist cause. Chancellor Bush asks you to believe that, so long as our soldiers keep dying, so long as fresh unavenged Iraqi deaths keep creating thousands of new Islamicist recruits, UBL will never be able to find 19 extra pairs of hands to spare. Has there ever been a balder-faced line of hooey than that?

It is the American Gulliver who is tied down unable to budge from Iraq, not bin Laden’s swelling Lilliputian horde. It’s long past time to put the puppy dog theory of terrorism to sleep.


Three for the show

April 27, 2007
My Peculiar Aristocratic Title is:
His Most Noble Lord Nicteis the Mad of Goosnargh on the Carpet
Get your Peculiar Aristocratic Title

Three links of interest (with thanks to OBC’s indispensable recaps on Salon Tabletalk):

Do birds fart? The sagacious Laura Erickson again resolves one of the burning questions of the cosmos.

Learn your Peculiar Aristocratic Title. (Mine resides in splendor at the head of this post, along with the link.)

And Chatham, England has decided to pack in the tourists with a Dickens theme park. Having read nearly all of Boz at least once, I’m ready to consume a bit of underdone potato, and have the Spirit of Englands Past waft me across the pond to sample this marvel when the clock strikes one.


Gonzales downfall predicted in the Bible

April 25, 2007

Unspared Rod
The blogosphere in its terseness has taken lately to referring to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as AGAG. It had been tickling something in the back of my brain, something which finally surfaced this afternoon.

No doubt the reason it took so long is the exceeding cuddliness of the man. Yes, he stood at Dubya’s side, ruthlessly railroading God knows how many Texas innocents into the death chamber; yes, he strove manfully to help maximize the number of shattered souls driven to madness in Cheney’s secret oubliettes around the world; and yes, he has dedicated himself more single-mindedly than any AG in history to replacing the rule of law throughout the precincts of Justice with the rule of lackies. But, hey. Not for nothing has he been the runner-up for three years straight in the national Pillsbury Doughboy Lookalike Contest.

But his doom has been prefigured in holy writ. There, in I Samuel 15, we learn of another government official (a king of the Amalekites, in this instance) whose merciless and lawless ways deeply offended God. And his name was AGAG. The chief executive of the country (King Saul) wanted to shield this AGAG because of his royal blood – basically on grounds of executive privilege. Saul’s instinct cut no ice with God, who directed His prophet to deal with the matter:

I Samuel 15:32 Then said Samuel, bring ye hither to me Agag the king of the Amalekites. And Agag came unto him delicately. And Agag said, Surely the bitterness of death is past.
15:33 And Samuel said, As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord.

Last week Gonzales came delicately (both mincingly and carefully) unto the Judiciary Committee. And God had no need to raise a prophet, because Alberto proceeded to hew himself to pieces before the committee more effectively than anyone else could have.

Nothing now remains to be done except to gather up the hacked limbs and give them a decent burial. As fine as they’ve been diced up, though, collecting and identifying them all will probably require some months of intensive labor.


Your garden is full of quantum computers

April 24, 2007

It hasn’t made a big splash in the media, but the revelation about photosynthesis in Nature two weeks ago might be the sleeper science story of the year. (You’ll need a subscription or an academic account to follow the link.)

Photosynthesis has always posed a conundrum. It’s unreasonably efficient. While materials scientists struggle to get solar cells up to 30% efficiency, green plants everywhere chug happily along, converting photons to bound chemical energy with effiiciencies topping 95%.

How on earth do they manage it? That solar cell just converts a photon’s energy to charge, in a single step, and then drains off the charge. But in the light-eating organism, the photon excites an electron in one atom, and the excitation goes through a long cascade of other atoms in a complex molecule like chlorophyll, presumably losing energy all the way, until it finally creates a high-energy bond in a carbohydrate at the other end.

In a world run according to classical physics, not much energy could trickle through that whole process. But direct measurements have now indicated that what passes through the photosynthesizing molecule isn’t a series of distinct particles. It appears to be a single quantum wave, which doesn’t lose its coherence.

Let me unpack that just a bit more. In the two-slit experiment, the textbook example of a quantum process, an electron passes through a shield with two openings to land on a target plane. And what we learned in the ’20s and ’30s is that the electron will act like a wave which passes through both slits at once. The peaks and troughs of the wave passing through one slit will intefere with those of the wave passing through the other slit. At some points on the target plane the two parts of the wave will reinforce each other – the electron will be more likely to show up at those places – and at some they’ll cancel each other out, so the electron can’t show up there at all. Until the rest of the world interacts somehow with the electron, forcing the wave to collapse into a particle, it will retain this wavy character. The wtave state is said to be “coherent”, until such time as a collapse makes it decohere.

What Nature tells us is, that the excited electron at one end of the photosynthetic complex remains coherent, taking all possible paths through the molecule to the other end. And it appears that the complex is so cunningly arranged, that the inefficient, energy-losing paths cancel each other out, while the efficient paths enhance one another. As a result, hardly any energy is lost. It’s a process analogous to the “try all possible answers” method by which quantum computers are expected to filter out all but the right answer to a difficult factorization problem.

Such sustained coherence isn’t supposed to be possible very far from absolute zero. Thermal disturbances ordinarily force decoherence. But it seems that evolution, that clever artificer, has found some way to fend it off.

What does all this signify?

Weird as it is, quantum mechanics really does undergird the seemingly solid physical world. Over the years, we’ve grown used to quantum effects, whether we know it or not, since transistors – and with them our whole panorama of blinking, beeping, mousing, clicking, vlogging consumer electronics world – would be so much dead silicon in a classical Newtonian world.

Every so often some maverick will come along (Roger Penrose being the most credentialed) to suggest that something about our mental lives, from free will to consciousness itself, rests in some vaguely defined fashion on quantum strangeness. And those mavericks are generally laughed out of court, with very little hearing. Brains, neurons, proteins, are so big, and quanta are so small!

Now, the likes of Frank Capra may not deserve much hearing. But the bald assertion that quantum effects can’t figure in to the workings of the brain, because neurons, and even neural synapses, are several orders of magnitude larger than elementary particles, never really made sense. Geiger counters are several orders of magnitude larger still, but their macroscopic behavior will differ, depending on how the Schroedinger wave cookie crumbles.

Thanks to this article, the notions that free will, or consciousness itself, might be quantum-generated effects within the brain, have instantly become orders of magnitude more respectable.

In amore practical terms, the new result raises the faint possibility that plants and microbes may eventually teach us how to triple the efficiency of our solar systems. Why faint? Precise calculation of the quantum states of something as simple as a lithium atom push the limits of today’s supercomputers. To model the green sulphur bacterium’s “Fenna-Matthews-Olsen antenna complex” , its chlorophyll cradled by the attendant chromophores that maintain its subtle balances, would push the limits of Douglas Adams’ Deep Thought.

Some enterprising bioengineer may find an ingenious workaround to avoid brute force calculation. But unless she does, chlorophyll will keep most of its quantum secrets until long after we humans have either solved our CO2 problems by other means, or brought our own quantum computer technology into its full maturity , or descended into barbarism.