Friday, September 29, 2006

Dystopic Nation

Just as spineless as their House brethren, the Senate has now passed the bill that exonerates Bush for his war crimes, past, present and future; eliminates the right to habeas corpus (‘what’s that?’ most Americans ask…well just wait; you’ll learn soon enough); and gives Bush the choice of which torture techniques to apply to the imprisoned. Whether he uses all of these options or not, he has just been handed the country on a silver platter, to do with as he wishes.

One can only imagine the wailing outrage if the tables were turned and a Democrat occupied the Executive office. But make no mistake: the intent is to never again let a Democrat, nor any candidate unvetted by the neocon clowns, anywhere near that office ever again.

The roll call of shame includes these Democratic senators: Carper (DE), Johnson (SD), Landrieu (LA), Lautenberg (NJ), Lieberman (CT), Menendez (NJ), Nelson (FL), Nelson (NE), Pryor (AR), Rockefeller (WV), Salazar (CO), Stabenow (MI). None should be reelected as Democrats, ever again. They, like their House counterparts, have demonstrated with this vote that our Constitution is but an empty hull to be disavowed and disrespected at will. They, like the Republicans, are traitors. Welcome to hell.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Demented and degenerate

From “House Approves Bill on Terror Detainees” (AP, Sept. 27, 2006):
“The House approved [HR 6166 today] giving the Bush administration authority to interrogate and prosecute terrorism detainees...”
This is utterly disingenuous. Of course the Bush administration already has the power to “interrogate and prosecute” — the problem is that without the new legislation, the suspected terrorists would be afforded some basic legal protections, such as being apprised of the evidence against them, rather a necessity in enabling one to mount an effective defense.
“While the bill would grant defendants more legal rights than they had under the administration’s old system, it nevertheless would eliminate rights usually granted in civilian and military courts.”
What exactly is “the administration’s old system”? In fact, it is NO system at all, but merely a declaration on the part of the Bush administration that they can do whatever they want to “suspected terrorists,” whenever and wherever they please, and for however long a time. That’s no “system,” but an abdication of our promise to abide by international agreements, in particular, the Geneva conventions.

And what a breezy dismissal of “rights usually granted in civilian and military courts” — any idea why those rights exist in those other courts? By eliminating them for a given class of suspects, we have turned our back on legal precedents dating back before the Magna Carta, and it won’t be long before the non-protected class grows to include others, say “dissidents” and war protesters… Because once we declare that these rights are not due to one group of innocent-until-proven-guilty suspects, it’s a very short leap to enlarge that group to include others. Those “rights usually granted” have until now been held in this country to be of great value in protecting us against governmental tyranny, but if we have forgotten that value, why would we defend it in other circumstances?
“ Bush broad authority to decide which other techniques U.S. interrogators can legally use.”
Why should Bush have this authority? Is it his job to interpret our laws and the contracts we have signed? I was taught that such authority rests with the Supreme Court, not Executive branch. Is Bush trained in military interrogation, or ethics, or law, or medicine, or psychiatry, or anything at all that would provide him with the background for making such judgments? NO! In short, he has absolutely no training for this task, but only the desire for extraordinary powers not granted by the Constitution, and we have a spineless Congress that for whatever reason, continues to give him everything he asks for.
“...provisions are intended to protect CIA interrogators from being prosecuted for war crimes.”
Here again, the writer of this “news release” is being breathtakingly disingenuous, and is ignoring the primary objective of the legislation, which is to protect Bush and others within his administration from being vulnerable to prosecution for war crimes already committed. That it will also protect CIA interrogators is considered a side benefit, but clearly it’s the retroactive protection of the Bush regime that is at issue here.
“House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said Democrats feared the House-passed measure could endanger U.S. soldiers by encouraging other countries to limit the rights of captured American troops.”
Well, DUH! This legislation will inevitably make the lives of all overseas military (and even the lives of overseas American tourists) far more dangerous. We have abandoned the moral high ground that we long maintained, and what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

Even the CIA* in J. Edgar Hoover’s time understood that the “interrogation techniques” we have been using since 2001 (and Bush wants to continue using) meet the definition of outright TORTURE. Not “interrogation techniques,” not “alternative” methods of obtaining information, but TORTURE. [Thanks to ePluribus Media for document.] Why is this obvious fact so hard for us to understand today? We sure understood it when the Communists were the ones doing the dirty work, some 40-plus years ago. We also understood then that torture was ineffective at providing actionable intelligence, but quite honestly, such intelligence seems to be of secondary importance in the motivation behind Bush’s seeking of Congressional approval to practice these abominations upon human beings. It's all about the unfettered exercise of power.

Even more stunning than all of this idiocy is the fact that 34 Democrats voted for this legislation. I pretty much assume the Republicans are a lost cause, but 34 Democrats? Have they really considered what they are voting FOR, or the principles of their constituents? Who are they? Andrews, Barrow, Bean, Bishop (GA), Boren, Boswell, Boyd, Brown (OH), Chandler, Cramer, Cuellar, Davis (AL), Davis (TN), Edwards, Etheridge, Ford, Gordon, Herseth, Higgins, Holden, Marshall, Matheson, McIntyre, Melancon, Michaud, Moore (KS), Peterson (MN), Pomeroy, Ross, Salazar, Scott (GA), Spratt, Tanner, Taylor (MS) — and I hope that if any of them belong to you, you’ll comprehend that they are Democrats in name only. They do not share the principles of the Democrats, and they should be reminded of this in their next primaries.
“ ‘Until Congress passes this legislation, terrorists … cannot be tried for war crimes in the United States and the United States risks fighting a blind war without adequate intelligence,’ said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.”
This is an out and out lie. Of course “terrorists can be tried for war crimes” without this legislation — Frist’s claim to the contrary is ludicrous. The problem is that if they’re tried under existing law, they will have the opportunity to discuss the torture they experienced (making the Bush administration liable for its war crimes), and defendants will have access to the evidence against them such that they can mount a defense. No, what Frist is really saying is that until this legislation is passed, we can’t try these suspected/alleged terrorists in the kangaroo-style courts that Frist and company would like. But it is most telling that he refers to them as “terrorists,” without the faintest nod to the fact that their guilt has not yet been determined. Perhaps that is because it actually has, in our new mode of guilty-until-you-prove-your-innocence.

This is a country I no longer recognize. The readiness with which the citizenry will disavow our principles and dedication to due process is nothing short of breathtaking. The terrorists have already won, if in our cowardice we are willing to give up everything we believed in, merely to feel (not be, but feel) a little safer. I thought we were better than that, braver than that, but apparently we are not.

Bring on the bread and circuses.

UPDATE (Oct. 5, 2006):

The link to the CIA (* above) “Brain Washing” memo has been scrubbed. The money quotes from the document:
Excerpted from “Brain Washing,” Case Number F-1982-00423, 4/25/1960, prepared by Central Intelligence Agency for J. Edgar Hoover, Director, FBI, previously but no longer available at:…0423©right=0&release_dec=RIFPUB&classification

“The effects of isolation, anxiety, fatigue, lack of sleep, uncomfortable temperature, and chronic hunger produce disturbances of mood, attitudes, and behavior in nearly all prisoners. The living organism cannot entirely withstand such assaults. The Communists do not look upon these assaults as “torture” […] But these methods do constitute torture and physical coercion and should never be considered otherwise.” (page 25)

“[Requiring] the prisoner to stand throughout the interrogation session or to maintain some other physical position … becomes painful. This … is a form of physical torture … Any fixed position which is maintained over a long period of time ultimately produces excruciating pain. Certain positions, of which the standing position is one, also produce impairment of the circulation … eventually renal shutdown occurs [… and ultimately] they usually develop a delirious state.” (pages 35-36)
(Images of the original document are available upon request in the "Comments" field.)

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Missing the point

Much has been made in recent days about the high prevalence of cheating amongst graduate students in business schools:
“56 percent of graduate business students — most of whom are pursuing M.B.A.’s — had cheated [during the preceding academic year], compared with 47 percent of graduate students in nonbusiness programs.”

(“Survey Finds Widespread Cheating in M.B.A. Programs,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept. 19, 2006.)
Everywhere this is being reported as a harbinger of doom, and an easy explanation of why there is so much unethical behavior seen in the business world. And yet, can anyone really express honest surprise at this rate of cheating in the business schools?

It seems to me that the more pertinent message from this survey is that at least 47 percent of ALL graduate students admit to having cheated at least once in the past academic year, a truly appalling figure.

Perhaps it is just my cynicism showing, but I expect business students to cheat, because of what has motivated them to enter business school in the first place. I do not condone it, but I have so little faith in such students that I am hardly surprised when they behave as I expected in the first place.

But these others, these 47 percent of nonbusiness graduate students: what business do they even have attending graduate school? Are these our future biologists and engineers and psychologists and lawyers and nurses and teachers? They have gotten so far along in their “educations” but still have the ethics of a common thief? What can they possibly say to defend themselves? How do they sleep at night? What possible satisfaction can they derive from an accomplishment that they stole?

What do people think school is for, anyway? Is it just “make-work” as some claim? Is it just some perverse price of admission to “the good life”? Is it all just a game? Society invests a ton of money to run these schools but maybe it’s time to throw in the towel. When cheating has become the accepted practice in school, isn’t this some indication that a society’s moral foundations have crumbled and that success in life depends upon just how unethical and money-grubbing and thieving a person can be?

Monstrous, simply monstrous

“Naturally, the common people don’t want war… [But] it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along…

“[The] people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
- Hermann Goering
Apparently, the same can be said for torture, only more so.

Regardless of whether Armitage threatened to bomb Pakistan back into the Stone Age, it is clear that the Bush administration intends to regress American morality just about that far into the distant and uncivilized past.

For what have we become, if we direct the infliction of torture of anyone, guilty of crimes or not? What has become of our aversion to “cruel and unusual punishment” and how is it that we can tolerate the water-boarding, beatings, induced hypothermia, and sleep deprivation being done in our name, by our sons and daughters, husbands and wives?

The only word to describe it is monstrous: We have become the monsters we claim to be defending ourselves against.

Because there is no moral defense for the torture of others. None. Ever. Torture is a demonstration to all that its practitioners have no ethics and no morality and no comprehension of injustice, but that they have instead embraced evil as their way of life.

Those who claim that we need to torture, in order to prevent acts of terror are fooling themselves. Because every study ever done has shown that torture is abysmally ineffective at obtaining accurate and actionable intelligence: the claim of torture’s necessity is groundless, and merely an example of cognitive dissonance at work, seeking to justify retribution against perceived enemies. Torture is anger run amok, hatred allowed to rule, vengeance without mercy, the most vicious sort of evil that humans can perpetrate on this earth. It is godless, it is indefensible under any circumstance, and it is pure evil personified. It is absolutely the worst attribute of (so-called) human behavior.

It truly is a Dark Age in America, when so many come forth with their support of such dastardly acts, when torture is seriously discussed as an option in the United States Senate, when the President reserves to himself the right to torture anyone at will. This is a cataclysmic rupture of our (presumed) moral high ground, a rupture of immense proportions, and in these actions, we have frittered away every iota of international good will we once enjoyed. From the beginning I understood that the Bush regime would not be good for America, but I never imagined that it would bring about our utter ruination. Clearly, this was a profound failing of my powers of imagination.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Natural wisdom

Every so often, I come across something stated so perfectly well that nothing I could say would add anything to it. Here, a letter to The Scientist (Sept 2006, with paywall), with some emphasis added:
“[Reverence] for nature [...] isn’t necessarily related to a view that mother nature is ‘benevolent,’ ‘kind,’ or ‘caring.’ An ecosystem can be both ‘in harmony’ and still be deadly to individuals (even humans) and species.

“Many of us are very nervous about genetic engineering and other issues within bioethics because we humans just aren’t smart enough to take those functions away from natural processes. Do we really want to reengineer our species’ genome so that we can have less malaria or so we can expect to live 150 years? It seems obvious and inevitable that the Law of Unintended Consequences will be much nastier than Mother Nature. Natural selection is not evil or good; it is simply the way ecosystems work. Some, myself included, see it as a type of ‘natural wisdom.’

These views are not anti-science; they are expressions of humility learned from science. If those views are anti-anything, they’re against reengineering our own and other species to suit human desires.”

- Chris Richard, University of California, Los Angeles, in reference to:
R. Gallagher, “Zealots for science,” The Scientist, 20(7):13, July 2006; and, I.M. Silver, “A nasty mother,” The Scientist, 20(7):49-53, July 2006.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Leave flying behind

I have never liked flying, and every year my 800 mile (each way) trip just gets worse. Denying me water on airplanes that are already deficient in decent air and food and restroom facilities (3 for 175 passengers + crew!) was the final straw. That leaves bus, train, and automobile as my remaining choices.

Buses share much of what I dislike about planes: cramped, surrounded by strangers, poor restroom facilities, and general prolonged discomfort.

Automobile is a reasonable option, with my fuel-efficient, reliable and comfortable car. But that’s a lot of driving, with a one-night motel stay each direction, providing poor sleep and costing more money.

The train will take about 1 day (and night) of travel each way, while any plane trip has always taken up the better part of a day, once you factor in security and baggage and check-in issues. The car mode takes two days of travel. But on the train, travel time can be spent sleeping, eating decent food, breathing plentiful air, staring out the window, watching movies on the laptop, writing, talking on the phone, taking pictures, reading, walking, having random conversations, and always having the option of solitude in your little room, or even, of brushing your teeth and drinking some water.

Cost considerations:

The bus is by far the cheapest (with good reason): [$142 (with early booking) + ($50 for shuttles)] = $192

The train (coach seating) is competitive with the bus, at [$212 (+$50 for shuttles)] = $262

Flying is the next cheapest (with early booking) at [$292 (+ $50 for shuttles)] = $342

Driving has the up-front costs of [(46 gallons x $3.10 = $142.60) + ($90 lodging x 2 = $180) + ($100 for 10 meals)] = $423, but that doesn’t account for wear and tear or any potential break-downs.

My choice? The train, with sleeper compartment: $662 + ($50 for shuttles) = $712, but this choice also includes 5 meals, free bottled water, wine and cheese, a private compartment, and a bed for two nights. (Cost-per-passenger would go down if two shared the compartment.)

The car would be (by far) the most dangerous mode, and although there have been too many train wrecks recently, one’s odds of surviving a train wreck are far greater than surviving a plane wreck.

What about the environmental factors? This is where the train really excels. According to the US Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the “energy intensity” of these varied modes of transportation (measured in Btu per passenger mile) are (1998 figures):

Air (domestic): 4123 Btu
(This probably assumes that the plane is nearly filled with passengers, so if this is not the case, consumption would go up accordingly.)

Car: 3672 Btu
(However, this is for “average occupancy,” probably about 2 people/car, and a single person per car would increase energy consumption per mile by factor of 2.)

Bus: 3729 Btu

Train (Amtrak): 2138 Btu
(However, this is probably a fleet-wide calculation, and those occupying compartments would account for more energy consumption per mile, while those in Coach would account for less.)

Regardless of other pollution, Btu’s consumed are directly correlated with the emissions of CO2 (since carbon out must equal carbon in), so trains clearly have less impact than planes on global warming.

There are a lot of good reasons for choosing the train, with travel time being the only count against it, but if you want to see the country you’re traveling through, nothing compares in terms of safety and comfort. I know that I’ll be remembering last year’s airport and flying nightmare while I am enjoying my “land cruise,” sipping water with my feet up, settling in for a nap, wandering down to the dining car, or partaking of the wine and cheese offering.

Life is about journeys, not destinations.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

The “golden era”—but not for labor

More than 45 percent of the nation’s workers, whatever their skills, earned less than $13.25 an hour in 2004, or $27,600 a year for a full-time worker.” (The New York Times, March 26, 2006)
Those who earn wages have done quite poorly when compared to CEOs, corporations, and stock earnings:

(From: “Executive Excess 2005” by Sarah Anderson and John Cavanagh, Institute for Policy Studies, and Scott Klinger and Liz Stanton, United for a Fair Economy.)
Many highly trained wage-earners are faring no better than the average worker. The Federal Aviation Administration is imposing new work rules that will cut the number of Air Traffic Controllers by half at major (“Level 12”) towers, and on Labor Day will impose “compressed work schedules” that result in controllers having to begin a second shift just 8 hours after their previous shift ended, and those controllers will see their base pay cut to $31,000 per year. (Source: The Ed Schultz Show)
“One veteran United Airlines captain, who laments that when he retires in a few years his pension will be about one-fourth what he expected, said he had to shut it out of his mind to prevent the distraction from affecting his work.” (The New York Times, March 10, 2006)
But some are doing very well in this “golden era” of wage depression:
[Wages] and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation’s gross domestic product since the government began recording the data in 1947, while corporate profits have climbed to their highest share since the 1960’s. UBS, the investment bank, recently described the current period as ‘the golden era of profitability.’ [...] In another recent report on the boom in profits, economists at Goldman Sachs wrote, ‘The most important contributor to higher profit margins over the past five years has been a decline in labor’s share of national income.’ ” (The New York Times, August 28, 2006)

The only group to see any gains are those making the highest 20 percent of income; the largest losses were seen by the 40 percent making the least amount of money:

Adapted from: “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage: 2004,” by U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. Census Bureau (August 2005)
But the CEOs can still pull in record earnings for themselves, presumably their reward for squeezing wages and gutting pensions...

Total executive compensation: Business Week annual compensation survey, various issues, 1991-2005. Includes: salary, bonus, restricted stock, payouts on other long-term incentives, and the value of options exercised. Note: 2004 total compensation figure calculated by the authors based on data in Business Week survey. Average worker pay: BLS, Employment, Hours, and Earnings from the Current Employment Statistics Survey, Table B-2.
(Data and legend from: Figure 3 of “Executive Excess 2005” by Sarah Anderson and John Cavanagh, Institute for Policy Studies, and Scott Klinger and Liz Stanton, United for a Fair Economy.)
In France, younger workers recently took to the streets to protest employers being given the new legal right to dismiss them at will: “Students and labor unions say the labor law will erode France's cherished workplace protections. Set to take effect [April 2006], it would let companies fire employees under 26 without reason in the first two years on the job.”

Meanwhile, the vast majority of American workers already live under those conditions for their entire working lives. But, employers have no compunction about demanding that employees give them the loyalty that’s in such short supply from the other direction:

If present trends continue in the cost of labor and the cost of energy, it won’t be long before we bring back the one machine that will make economic sense, at least to some:

Credit: Fernand Braudel’s The Structures of Everyday Life: Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century Volume 1 (1982)
Happy Labor Day! Happy, happy, happy!!!