Friday, September 17, 2004

At MIT, along the infinite corridor, there used to be an entrance to the Vannevar Bush room. That was recently moved around the corner, into another hallway, and it seems someone felt the lack. For the past couple of days, the nook in the walls where they closed off the old entrance was closed off by a doorway of its own, labeled as the entrance to the Vannevar Shrubbery room. If you opened it (the door was not locked), you found yourself facing a low black table, upon which there was a shrubbery, in front of a portrait of a Knight who says Ni.

It may be gone by the time you read this -- these sorts of unauthorized campus improvements have a fairly short half-life. Which would be a shame, in this case. If you stepped inside and closed the door -- there was just barely room for that -- it made a lovely spot for quiet contemplation. MIT needs all of those it can get.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Riverbend, from Baghdad, on September 11th:

We have 9/11’s on a monthly basis. Each and every Iraqi person who dies with a bullet, a missile, a grenade, under torture, accidentally- they all have families and friends and people who care. The number of Iraqis dead since March 2003 is by now at least eight times the number of people who died in the World Trade Center. They had their last words, and their last thoughts as their worlds came down around them, too. I’ve attended more wakes and funerals this last year, than I’ve attended my whole life. The process of mourning and the hollow words of comfort have become much too familiar and automatic.

September 11… he sat there, reading the paper. As he reached out for the cup in front of him for a sip of tea, he could vaguely hear the sound of an airplane overhead. It was a bright, fresh day and there was much he had to do… but the world suddenly went black- a colossal explosion and then crushed bones under the weight of concrete and iron… screams rose up around him… men, women and children… shards of glass sought out tender, unprotected skin … he thought of his family and tried to rise, but something inside of him was broken… there was a rising heat and the pungent smell of burning flesh mingled sickeningly with the smoke and the dust… and suddenly it was blackness.

9/11/01? New York? World Trade Center?


9/11/04. Falloojeh. An Iraqi home.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Well, to Jewish readers, happy New Year. May it be better than the last...
One of the standard lines in defense of our little Iraq invasion is "well, at least we got rid of Saddam, and that's a good thing." It's starting to become sensible to ask, "a good thing for whom?"

Let's be plain. Under Saddam, the country was ruled by a bloodthirsty tyrant who tortured his opponents, and allowed dozens of his henchmen to rape and murder at will. But there was law and order for everyone else. After the invasion, because we went in without a decent plan for running the country, we wound up torturing people for no better reason than that they were arrested in street sweeps, and the Iraqi people are beset by thousands of thugs who rape and murder at will because there is law and order for nobody. The economy was a shambles under Saddam, but it's worse under us -- in part because of our strange reluctance to put Iraqis to work rebuilding their own country. After Gulf War I, Saddam put down a rebellion (which we had encouraged), rebuilt the infrastructure, and got the lights back on; we haven't been able to do any of that, despite having thrown billions of dollars not so much at the problem as at Halliburton. And Time Magazine says that even our own officers know the upshot:

[Maj. Gen. Peter] Chiarelli last month had hoped to drain recruits from al-Sadr's Mahdi militia by hiring 15,000 Sadr City men to clean the district's filth-filled streets. When a truce between coalition forces and al-Sadr broke down, however, the work project collapsed. The state of the district helps explain, Chiarelli says, why "a guy in Sadr City feels there is no hope." There's sewage in his yard, he gets one hour of electricity out of six, and he has no job. "If someone offers him money to shoot an RPG at Americans," Chiarelli says, "I would imagine it's not a hard choice."

Which brings up the nastiest part of the problem: wherever there are American troops, there are attacks on them. Which means that not only can't we establish law and order -- our failure on that score is beyond plain -- our mere presence keeps anyone else from doing it either. As Time puts it:

U.S. patrols are a magnet for attacks, resulting in higher casualties and sparking the very violence they are trying to suppress.

I said months ago that if our mere presence is doing harm, and we weren't obviously doing any good to compensate, we ought to leave. Our presence is plainly doing harm, and as to the good we're doing, Time's reporter Chris Allbritton, in a post on his own blog, after cataloging the problems -- no-show ministers in the transition government, no-go zones covering much of the country, professionals of all sorts desperate to leave, says

In the context of all this, reporting on a half-assed refurbished school or two seems a bit childish and naive, the equivalent of telling a happy story to comfort a scared child. Anyone who asks me to tell the “real” story of Iraq — implying all the bad things are just media hype — should refer to this post. I just told you the real story: What was once a hell wrought by Saddam is now one of America’s making.

Having made this mess, we ought to clean it up if we can. But it's certain that George Bush can't. If no one else has a better idea, then we ought to get out.

More: Juan Cole relays a Turkish newspaper report of a situation where the U.S. installed a Kurdish security officer over a city of Turkmen, who then proceeded to beat up on the Kurds. The Turkish government is furious.

Another argument for staying in Iraq as that at least so long as we stay, there can't be a civil war. But the more stories like this we see, the more it looks like the civil war is already on, and we're just one of the sides.

Not only that, but the sides we're choosing, and the actions we take, are causing us trouble with other Muslim states. We are not without natural allies in that part of the world. The current king of Jordan, for instance, thinks well enough of Western modernity that while still a prince, he arranged to have a cameo on Star Trek. But if the face we show these people is the Abu Ghraib abuse photos, or an Apache helicopter gunning down children and a reporter who is live on the air, we will lose them. All.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

One little nuclear bomb can just ruin your whole day. That was a really big deal to Dubya when he was trying to tell the country that Iraq had nukes. It apparently isn't such a big deal now when the only nukes in a Muslim state are in the hands of our good friends in Pakistan. Matthew Yglesias reminds us just how friendly they've been -- when they got caught selling nuclear technology, the one guy they said was responsible (only him, really and truly!) was briefly placed under house arrest!

Of course, if you happen to enjoy contemplating the various ways in which genocide against Muslims might be a good idea, you might want to keep those Pakistani nukes in mind. In any such campaign, they'd almost certainly wind up being used against us...

[This entry somehow got replaced with a duplicate of the one above. Ouch.]
Some of you may not have noticed, but there's been a bit of a controversy lately over certain letters, originally reported on by CBS, which say that a certain Lieut. George W. Bush of the Texas Air National Guard was taken off flight status for not taking a required physical, and defied orders to do so. So far, my favorite skeptical analysis is this one which gleefully goes on for paragraphs about how the silly forger referred to a nonexistant Air Force Manual, only to concede in an "update" that it did exist after all. For a real good time, observe that some of the "fundamental style and format errors" he complains of, in the typing of ranks and so forth, also appear in the order grounding 1st Lt. Bush, released by the White House months ago, whose authenticity is beyond any reasonable question.

The point of this, of course, is that if the documents are fake, then Dubya's supporters don't have to deal with their contents, which are damning. But most of what's in them is on the public record, which is damning anyway. There is absolutely no controversy that he missed a flight physical. The order grounding him says so in plain English, and he hasn't denied it. Instead, his spokesman says:

the bottom line is President Bush did not take that physical.... And the reason why is as I stated, that it was clear, as it says in your own documents, that President Bush talked to the commanders about the fact that he'd be transferring to a unit that no longer, or did not fly the plane that he was trained -- he was trained and a fighter pilot on F-102, which he flew for four years. And in this case, he was going to a unit in Alabama that didn't fly that plane.

So, after the Air Force spent hundreds of thousands of 1972 dollars training Dubya to be a fighter pilot -- a billet for which there were many, many applicants more qualified than Bush, who would have been thrilled to serve the whole term -- he just chose to stop flying, move to Alabama, and drop all the associated obligations. The National Guard may at the time have been a softer branch of the service than, say, the Marines -- but puh-leeze.

Oh, by the way, the only formal transfer request Dubya had made at the time he missed the physical, to of all things an Alabama postal unit, had been flatly denied. And then there's the matter of his drill attendance record, even after he was mysteriously allowed to let his flight status lapse, which was poor enough that by any applicable standard, he should have been drummed out of the Guard and drafted; this U.S. News report is as good a summary of that matter as any.

For more on Dubya's attitude toward his service commitments, here's the man himself:

I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment. Nor was I willing to go to Canada. So I chose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanes.

He's talking here about ways (including self-mutilation!) to avoid combat in a war which he openly advocated at the time.

So, we already know that Dubya blew off a required flight physical. We already knew that his attitude toward the obligations of the service was... well, casual at best. And we already knew that he sought to avoid the sacrifices of a war which he was happy to urge on the rest of the country. So, ummm... what was it that this memo was supposedly forged to prove again?

What really matters here is whether Dubya did his best to fulfil his duty as a member of the service, or whether he tried to blow it off -- and the public record already speaks well enough on that point that this purportedly forged document adds little or nothing. Unfortunately, the guides of our national discourse in the responsible press don't seem to want to talk about what really matters here. It's more fun to talk about typewriters. So we get stories like this, from Kit Seelye and Jim Rutenberg, which breathlessly report every rumor and bit of noise that the reporters can get, like so:

Farrell C. Shiver, a forensic document examiner based in Georgia who said he was a Republican, said the superscript "th's" throughout the memos were "something you would expect to find being done with a computer" and were "not consistent with something that you would expect to find from someone typing a document; they used typewriters in that particular time." ...

CBS News executives also produced a document released earlier by the White House about Mr. Bush's service that was clearly from a typewriter and had a superscript "th" in it.

At which point, the only possible response is, "Say what?" The released documents establish beyond any doubt that typewriters of the time could do a superscript "th", and the soi-disant expert "forensic document examiner" who claims otherwise doesn't know what he's talking about. So why the frink is he being quoted as an expert in the New York Times?

In fact, the whole purported flood of forgery evidence boils down to political partisans blowing smoke. [Not anymore: the typography complaints are still nonsense, but someone in Dallas finally did some decent reporting, and at least raised legitimate doubts about the style of the memos -- though not about the contents. See update below.] Shoveling through the whole sordid mess is a crap job which I don't have to do, because the crowd at the Daily Kos has already done it. But here are the two things you need to know. [Well, about the typography, at any rate.] IBM had at least three different models (Executive C, Executive D, Selectric Composer) which could duplicate all the typographic features of these memos. Also the letters in the memos are on an uneven baseline -- different 'e's on the same line are at slightly different vertical positions, which is normal in typewritten documents, but very hard to duplicate in, say, Microsoft Word. (And as to the apparently credentialed commenters who are quibbling over precise letterforms -- ummm, these are sixth-generation photocopies, folks. Those details are smudged).

Unfortunately, the smoke gets in peoples' eyes. A few days ago, Josh Marshall posted that:

Over the last twenty-four hours I've received literally hundreds of emails that point out that each specific criticism, on its own terms, doesn't quite hold up. Thus, for instance, there definitely were proportional type machines widely available at the time. There were ones that did superscripts. There were ones with Times Roman font, or something very near to it.

My reaction would be that that argues in favor of the documents -- there were at least dozens, if not hundreds, of right-wing bloggers scouring the documents for typographical anachronisms; if there were any, you'd think they'd have found one. And apparently, I'm not the only person who thinks like that. But Josh Marshall -- investigative reporter, and professionally trained historian -- doesn't: "taken all together, the criticisms raise big doubts in my mind about [the memos'] authenticity." So, a lot of nonsense is more persuausive than a little. Again, say what?

More: Matthew Yglesias links to a new Washington Post article and says, "now it looks like they're forgeries". But looking at the article itself, I see mostly stylistic nitpicking even sillier than Seelye and Rutenberg, particularly in light of the failed "stylistic analysis" I quoted up top, which would have flunked a clearly genuine memo as well. The Post does raise two supposed factual issues. One of the memos uses a home address for Bush which would have been out of date at the time -- surely a sign of sloppy record-keeping, but as likely in 1972 as at any other time. Another supposed problem is a reference to political pressure from someone named Staudt who was retired from the Guard at the time. I'll buy that when someone shows me the Air Force procedures manual for favoritism and graft in corrupt guard units which dictates that political pressure may only be applied by superior officers in the formally constituted chain of command. Once again, where there's smoke, there's right-wing shills blowing smoke.

Update: Well, there's now (much to my surprise) a complaint that stands up to scrutiny. The Dallas Morning News found and interviewed the secretary of the purported author of the memos, who is absolutely not a right-wing shill; she tells the paper that Bush is "unfit for office". She also says that the memos are not her typing, nor her typewriter, which I certainly believe, but it's not inconceivable that her boss might have had someone else type up a memo or two. More seriously, though, she has stylistic quibbles which (unlike the nitpicks in the Post) actually make a little sense -- the use of Army terminology such as "billet", for example. However, she goes on to say that the memos are similar enough to documents that did exist that the conclusions that CBS drew are entirely justified, regardless.

As long as I'm on the subject, there's yet another document of mysterious provenance surfacing, in which he promises to keep flying for five years after his training. If that holds up, well then, the idea that he might have simply chosen to go off flight status looks bad. But hey, it looks bad regardless.

Monday, September 13, 2004

I'm a bit rushed today, so here are a few links to interesting writing by others that may have escaped your attention. Here are a few that are variations on a theme:
  • The Slacktivist writes, anent a Texas utility plan to surcharge customers with weak credit scores:

    I'm not sure whether this is more evil or stupid, but it's a whole lot of both.

    Your "credit score" can be lowered for many reasons -- some legitimate, some arbitrary, many which you are helpless to change regardless of how responsible you may be. One variable which inevitably results in a lower credit score is a lower income.

    That's hardship enough for lower-income families when a credit score is only being used for its intended purpose -- deciding whether or not to extend credit. But as credit scores begin to be used for purposes like this it is simple cruelty. This is simply a way to take advantage of the poor and powerless because they are poor and powerless and you can take from them whatever you like.

    Credit scores are already being used now to deny people health and auto insurance, or to charge them a higher rate. They are being used by employers, to make sure they don't hire anybody who's unemployed. And now the poor will face regressive pay scales even for their heat and electricity.

    And what happens when this portion of these low-income families' monthly budget increases? That's right -- their credit scores will go down. This is obscene. A clumsy measure of wealth is being used as though it were a precise measure of virtue and responsibility.

  • U.Penn professor Anne Norton, in an aside in her new book on Straussians:

    When I began to teach we had many middle-class students. Most of my students now are wealthy. They went to private schools and took special classes for the SATs. They can afford to take unpaid internships in the summer. Often they have family friends in the House or the Senate or at the World Bank who can find a place for them. They have nearly always been to Europe. There are still a few students whose families are poor: sent to school on full scholarship. Those I see have gone to private schools on scholarship. They have lived for a long time in a world divided between privilege and deprivation. If the students are middle class -- I see fewer and fewer of them -- they and their parents are burdened by debt. More often, they have gone elsewhere. The wealthy -- those who went to private schools, who can afford to take unpaid internships, who vacation in Europe -- often think of themselves as middle class. Their easy assumption that any middle-class person can afford what they can afford makes life hard for those who have to work to pay for college, who have to ask how much the books cost for each course they take, who have to wonder how they will repay their loans.

  • Max Sawicky channels an argument from Doug Henwood:

    [T]he persistence of poverty over the past three decades, notwithstanding the increase in real GDP, is a remarkable commentary on U.S. capitalism. The poverty standard is a real absolute one, so if the rising tide of GDP growth lifted all or most boats, we would see a secular decline in poverty rates. It didn't happen.
And a few that aren't:
  • With bioterrorism in the news, we have a need for experts who understand the danger and deal with it responsibly. Which is why, when one such person noted a procedural slipup in his own lab, and properly reported it, he wound up in prison.
  • If you didn't already know about Rumsfeld repeatedly confusing Saddam Hussein (largely secular, dictator, captured) and Osama bin Laden (religious fanatic, no political post, still at large), well, now you know.
  • Atrios has some interesting posts on who decided what about the attack in Fallujah this spring, based on an interview with the commanding officer on the scene. A few of you may recall that I was awfully confused about what we thought we were doing there; I still am, but so far, it still looks awful.
  • And one last one -- a New York Times article that I never found something clever to say about, so I'll just describe it briefly: a judge in Connecticut has ruled that according to rules that protect the privacy of falsely convicted people, the records of one such case can't be released to anybody -- including the man himself.

At times, I find myself thinking it might be nice to live on a more sensible planet. Regrettably, that wouldn't necessarily make it any more pleasant...