Black Shards Press – Electronic Gumbo is Our Specialty

A Small Example of What Science is For

29.05.2008 (6:33 am) – Filed under: Science,Technology ::

Following on to Claudia’s piece about the importance of scientific R&D, this article, while admittedly monkey business, illustrates the point:

Two monkeys with tiny sensors in their brains have learned to control a mechanical arm with just their thoughts, using it to reach for and grab food and even to adjust for the size and stickiness of morsels when necessary

From a technical perspective, we’re getting fairly close to being able to do something similar in humans.

Scientists expect that technology will eventually allow people with spinal cord injuries and other paralyzing conditions to gain more control over their lives.

There’s still debate over how practical this technology is and we don’t know how well humans would adapt to such implants, among other unknowns.  But it’s pretty darn cool and if you’re a person who’d be aided by such a device, potentially very helpful.

This experiment is one step farther along than previous ones, one more incremental improvement in a long series of them that may ultimately lead to insanely useful interfaces between man and machine.  These sorts of discoveries don’t come quickly or cheaply in most cases.  Many of the components of this latest device were undoubtedly intended for completely different purposes than monkey-brain-robotics, yet here we are.  Necessity may be the mother of invention, but without the fruits of R&D work to act as catalysts, need would remain barren.

Why go to the moon, Mars, or the asteroid belt?  What’s the point?  To me that’s the wrong question.  The right question is:  "Why not?"  That’s always the question, to which there are some valid negative answers.  But fundamentally science is about discovering the truth and for that reason alone should be pursued to the limits of ethics and possibility.

Knowing how things work leads to bigger and bigger discoveries and technologies, often in ways that can’t be predicted in advance.  That’s why the question "What’s it for?", while necessary to ask, shouldn’t serve as a governor on scientific inquiry. 

What’s a monkey-controlled robot-arm for?  In itself, nothing.  10 years from now, who knows?

Unpleasant Energy Truths

28.05.2008 (2:32 pm) – Filed under: Energy ::

Tom Friedman has something to say about energy, hard truths that most people don’t want to hear.  As he notes, these are the things that our presidential candidates ought to be telling us but have not.  Will anyone step forward?

The price of gasoline is never going back down. Therefore, if you buy a big gas guzzler today, you are locking yourself into perpetually high gasoline bills. You are buying a pig that will eat you out of house and home.

More:

…there is no short-term fix for gasoline prices. Prices are what they are as a result of rising global oil demand from India, China and a rapidly growing Middle East on top of our own increasing consumption, a shortage of “sweet” crude that is used for the diesel fuel that Europe is highly dependent upon and our own neglect of effective energy policy for 30 years.

Every decade we look back and say: “If only we had done the right thing then, we would be in a different position today.”

We didn’t do what was right, needless to say.

Friedman’s solution is, I think, one that we shouldn’t have to implement – putting an artificial floor under gasoline prices to mandate a price-point that causes energy conservation to take place.  We ought to be able to do that ourselves. 

In the unlikely event that oil prices ever do go back down to pre-Iraq war prices, consumer demand would very likely increase in proportion.  A price floor would be one way to combat the problem of short-term consumer memory, albeit another government regulation that, like so many others, is an artificial construct implemented in place of individual responsibility.

But as regulations go it might not be a bad one.  At least it would discourage the outflow of American dollars into the pockets of apathetic or hostile Islamic states and encourage the development domestic energy sources such as liquid coal, natural gas, and hydrogen power, all of which I’ve written about before.

The Female Face of Jihad

28.05.2008 (11:39 am) – Filed under: Islam,National Security,Terrorism ::

The NY Times has a fascinating – and frightening – story up about one Malika El Aroud, a 48-year-old Moroccan now living in Belgium where she spending her time authoring incendiary pro-jihad writings on the Internet.  Seems there’s a place for women in Islam after all.  Read it all and be afraid.

Writing in French under the name “Oum Obeyda,” she has transformed herself into one of the most prominent Internet jihadists in Europe.

She calls herself a female holy warrior for Al Qaeda. She insists that she does not disseminate instructions on bomb-making and has no intention of taking up arms herself. Rather, she bullies Muslim men to go and fight and rallies women to join the cause.

“It’s not my role to set off bombs — that’s ridiculous,” she said in a rare interview. “I have a weapon. It’s to write. It’s to speak out. That’s my jihad. You can do many things with words. Writing is also a bomb.”

It certainly is.  In a way it’s surprising that politically correct European society would tolerate a voice filled with disdain and hate for the society that gives its owner succor.  But it’s important to realize that the official policy of many (most?) European nations toward Islamic radicals within their borders is placation, at the least.  Need I use the "A" word?  Even unstated, that is the way it is.

“Vietnam is nothing compared to what awaits you on our lands,” she wrote to a supposed Western audience in March about wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Ask your mothers, your wives to order your coffins.”

One of the great ironies of El Aroud’s life in Belgium is that she’s actively seeking to destroy western society while on the dole, collecting over $1100 per month in unemployment money from the state she agitates against.

After training with the Taliban in pre-invasion Afghanistan, El Aroud’s husband carried out the homicide bomb murder of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the prominent anti-Taliban leader in that country.  She was tried for the crime in Belgium but acquitted for lack of evidence. 

After marrying again, to another terrorism suspect authorities regard as highly dangerous, El Aroud was convicted in Switzerland for inciting violence and supporting organized crime and is suspected of continuing her work to free convicted terrorists from prison.

Malika El Aroud represents everything that is wrong with Muslims living in the west, from her love of militant Islamic terrorism to the manner in which the nations she seeks to destroy persist in accommodating her hateful acts.  But what can Belgium do?  El Aroud, like many of the new breed of Muslim terrorists, understands how to leverage western society’s legal system against itself.

“I write in a legal way,” she said. “I know what I’m doing. I’m Belgian. I know the system.”

Jerry Brown Never had a Chance

28.05.2008 (6:43 am) – Filed under: Politics ::

Former President Clinton recently said that he’s never seen anything like the Obama/DNC full-court press to get Democratic super delegates to commit to Mr. Obama.  But The Jed Report has a interesting post about the 1992 Bill Clinton vs. Jerry Brown Democratic primary race that belies that assertion.  To an extent, the same thing was going on during Bill’s breakaway win over Brown.

But Jed’s quotes don’t foster the same impressions of urgent, powerful pressure that’s being placed on delegates and voters alike to stop the debate and hand the nomination to Barack Obama.

"It’s time to close ranks. We cannot wait until July when we already know who has earned the right to be our nominee and who will be our nominee."
— West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller (NYT, 4/11/92)

"Indeed, reports circulating on Capitol Hill said the Clinton campaign was mounting a strong campaign to swing uncommitted senators behind the Arkansas Governor, and that Ronald H. Brown, the party chairman, was taking part in them."
— NYT, 4/29/92

I had the chance to hear Jerry Brown speak in Portland Oregon in 1992 and I can say with absolute certainty that he was not in Hillary Clinton’s league in terms of speaking ability, inspirational ability, or leadership potential.

Afterward Mr. Brown walked past me and our eyes met for a brief moment, but only that.  He was plainly ill at ease, even in a solidly liberal city in the state adjacent to his, and his eyes never stopped on anyone long enough to create a connection.  Jerry Brown never had a chance in 1992 and he knew it.

That’s the essential difference between Brown and Hillary Clinton.

Americans Driving Less

28.05.2008 (6:40 am) – Filed under: Energy,Technology ::

CNN says that with gas prices inching perilously close to $4 per gallon, Americans are driving less.

Compared with March a year earlier, Americans drove an estimated 4.3 percent less — that’s 11 billion fewer miles, the DOT’s Federal Highway Administration said Monday, calling it "the sharpest yearly drop for any month in FHWA history."

The Energy Information Administration says gas consumption for the first three months of 2008 is estimated to be down about 0.6 percent from the same time period in 2007.

Interesting numbers.  We’re driving 4.3% fewer miles but only reducing gas consumption by 0.6%??? 

Either there’s something screwy with these stats or we’re driving even less fuel efficient vehicles than last year.  I’m betting on the former as both news reports and anecdotal evidence suggest a definitive shift towards smaller cars is taking place.  Again.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see another drop of this size next year.  It seems likely that gas prices will continue to rise and discretionary travel will continue to be forgone if they do.  However, the vast majority of miles Americans drive are mandatory, meaning there’s a limit to how much less driving we can do in the absence of much-improved mass transit and technological options like telecommuting.

The latter is a promising alternative for many workers; however, many employers are reluctant to loosen the supervisory reins, even for trusted, capable workers whose efficiency wouldn’t be impeded – and might be helped – by working at home.

Perhaps this is an area in which a savvy Congress could help by creating tax incentives for employers who allow workers to telecommute. What are the odds?

Immigration Raids

28.05.2008 (6:38 am) – Filed under: Immigration,Politics ::

Geraldo Rivera, he of the Al Capone vault television mega-flop, has an over-the-top article up at the Huffington Post in which he condemns the recent raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that resulted in the arrests of hundreds of illegal immigrants.  The Wall Street Journal called the raids "immigration theater" and I’m inclined to agree with Rivera to an extent. 

And why the heavy hand? These are non-violent people. Their crime is almost invariably that they are here, their presence, not that they did anything wrong while they were here. Even minimal physical resistance to authority is rare. The federal government could have as easily sent in a couple of civilian garbed immigration officials and handed out summonses to report to a certain gathering spot to await detention and deportation following a hearing. The vast majority of those honest workers would have shown up without the pathetic show and without the terror gratuitously inflicted on these poor working families.

I’m sure this is mostly true.  However, it’s incumbent on me to point out that Houston Police Officer Rodney Johnson was murdered by an illegal alien he’d arrested last year.  This is just one of many crimes committed by illegal aliens in the U.S.  Characterizing all illegals as peaceful is wrong, just as demonizing them because of the actions of a few is inaccurate.

It’s great that ICE is finally rousing itself from its gentle slumber and taking an interest in its responsibilities – don’t get me wrong on that point.  To the extent that such raids discourage illegal immigrants from crossing the border they are a good thing.  But it’s a long way from comprehensive immigration reform.

Rivera says that without illegal workers our farming industries will suffer and the food supply might fail.  But will that really happen?  Doubtful.  As the NY Times reported, illegal workers often work well excess of a regular work day at low rates of pay.  No surprise there.  Replacing workers who are willing to work for sub-market rates will cause the prices of the product they produce to rise accordingly.  But it can be done and will be done if the pool of illegal labor dries up.  There’s no such thing as a job an American won’t do; it’s simply question of the price point.

Still, Rivera is correct in saying there would be economic consequences if too many illegal workers are sent home.  How much and for how long is a big unknown.  To me that’s not an issue because it’s not going to happen.  ICE’s daring raid aside, there are too many illegals with too big of a stake in this country to think that they’re going to leave it empty-handed. We can’t make them, so why pretend?

That’s why it’s so important to implement real, enforceable immigration reform that secures our borders, provides a quantifiable, verifiable path to citizenship for those illegals already here, and creates a flexible system to support the management of a legal immigrant labor pool.

John Hawkins says that he won’t support John McCain because the latter favors just such a plan for dealing with the illegal immigration mess.  That’s an admirable bit of ideological consistency from a good conservative writer but it’s also rather silly and short-sighted.

News flash:  The immigration hard-liners all lost in the Republican primaries and the fantasy of forcing 10-15 million immigrants to leave the U.S. and re-apply for admission died with their defeat.  Fact is, decades of governmental incompetence created the current situation and there’s no easy fix for it.  Conservatives who hold out for unrealistic and draconian measures simply make the problem worse by prolonging the status quo.

Relative Safety

27.05.2008 (6:50 am) – Filed under: National Security,Terrorism ::

At Power Line, John Hinderaker says that, contrary to Barack Obama’s repeated statements that the free world is less safe because of the Bush administration’s national security policies, the evidence indicates otherwise.  Likewise, Fareed Zakaria writes at Newsweek that terrorist attacks are down by nearly two-thirds in the last 4 years.  Are we in fact safer than Mr. Obama would have us believe?

the U.S.-based IntelCenter published a study in mid-2007 that examined "significant" attacks launched by Al Qaeda over the past 10 years. It came to the conclusion that the number of Islamist attacks had declined 65 percent from a high point in 2004, and fatalities from such attacks had declined by 90 percent.

The Simon Fraser study notes that the decline in terrorism appears to be caused by many factors, among them successful counterterrorism operations in dozens of countries and infighting among terror groups. But the most significant, in the study’s view, is the "extraordinary drop in support for Islamist terror organizations in the Muslim world over the past five years." These are largely self-inflicted wounds. The more people are exposed to the jihadists’ tactics and world view, the less they support them.

This last instinctively makes sense to me.  If a bunch of Christian fascist killers from the church up the road from me started cutting the heads off of people I know, I’d take a dim view of them and their fallacious interpretation of Christianity.  So it must inevitably be with Muslim terrorists, though I would submit that the threshold of rejection is significantly higher in Islamic societies than in free ones.

One problem I have with the data Zakaria uses as the basis for his article is, to him, the very point:  "Including Iraq massively skews the analysis. In the NCTC and MIPT data, Iraq accounts for 80 percent of all deaths counted."  Excluding it hides the fact that Islamic terrorism is killing significant numbers of Iraqis.  Yet his point is valid.  Outside of known war zones, we have been safer than just a few years ago.

Of course that may simply be an illusion.  Terrorist leaders, for all of their mental shortcomings, are not stupid.  Heightened alertness on our part will necessarily lead to fewer attacks while they bide their time, waiting for the inevitable decline in readiness.  So is that readiness truly necessary?

Hinderaker speaks more directly to this point:

It should also be noted that the decline in attacks on the U.S. was not the result of jihadists abandoning the field. Our government stopped a number of incipient attacks and broke up several terrorist cells, while Islamic terrorists continued to carry out successful attacks around the world, in England, Spain, Russia, Pakistan, Israel, Indonesia and elsewhere.

There are a number of possible reasons why our government’s actions after September 11 may have made us safer. Overthrowing the Taliban and depriving al Qaeda of its training grounds in Afghanistan certainly impaired the effectiveness of that organization. Waterboarding three top al Qaeda leaders for a minute or so apiece may have given us the vital information we needed to head off plots in progress and to kill or apprehend three-quarters of al Qaeda’s leadership. The National Security Agency’s eavesdropping on international terrorist communications may have allowed us to identify and penetrate cells here in the U.S., as well as to identify and kill terrorists overseas. We may have penetrated al Qaeda’s communications network, perhaps through the mysterious Naeem Noor Khan, whose laptop may have been the 21st century equivalent of the Enigma machine. Al Qaeda’s announcement that Iraq is the central front in its war against the West, and its call for jihadis to find their way to Iraq to fight American troops, may have distracted the terrorists from attacks on the United States. The fact that al Qaeda loyalists gathered in Iraq, where they have been decimated by American and Iraqi troops, may have crippled their ability to launch attacks elsewhere. The conduct of al Qaeda in Iraq, which revealed that it is an organization of sociopaths, not freedom fighters, may have destroyed its credibility in the Islamic world.

But based on the clear historical record, it is obvious that the Bush administration has done something since 2001 that has dramatically improved our security against such attacks. To fail to recognize this, and to rail against the Bush administration’s security policies as failures or worse, is to sow the seeds of greatly increased susceptibility to terrorist attack in the next administration.

The real question is whether we’d be safer with Barack Obama as president than we are with George W. Bush.  Despite the fact that Americans dislike many of the administration’s policies and the Iraq war is almost universally accepted as a major blunder, the answer is still a clear and resounding "No!"

Bill Clinton’s Conspiracy

26.05.2008 (3:23 pm) – Filed under: Politics ::

Bill Clinton says that there’s a conspiracy against his wife Hillary’s attempt to secure the Democratic party’s nomination.  Strange as it may seem, he”s right about that.

President Clinton:

"I can’t believe it. It is just frantic the way they are trying to push and pressure and bully all these superdelegates to come out," Clinton said at a South Dakota campaign stop Sunday, in remarks first reported by "ABC News."

Clinton also suggested some were trying to "cover up" Sen. Clinton‘s chances of winning in key states that Democrats will have to win in the general election.

" ‘Oh, this is so terrible: The people they want her. Oh, this is so terrible: She is winning the general election, and he is not. Oh my goodness, we have to cover this up.’ "

Mr. Clinton didn’t name names, but I will.

See, it’s this little thing we call the democratic process that’s conspiring against Hillary Clinton.  The people of America are using it to deny her the victory she deserves.  The horror!  Well, that and the things coming out of Mrs. Clinton’s own mouth at unguarded moments.

Violence Down in Iraq, Again

26.05.2008 (2:22 pm) – Filed under: Iraq,Terrorism ::

The LA Times says that violence is down to a 4-year low in Iraq, which is obviously good news.  Nevertheless, approximately 300 violent incidents were recorded last week.  Obviously there’s still more work to be done there, which is why it’s important that the people who can make sure it happens – American troops – be allowed to stay there.  Not a happy thing to write on Memorial Day, I realize.

The announcement appeared aimed at allaying fears that an uprising by militiamen loyal to radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr could unravel security gains since 28,500 additional American troops were deployed in Iraq in a buildup that reached its height in June.

U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker was quoted in wire service reports as saying Saturday that Al Qaeda in Iraq, a mostly homegrown militant group that American officials say is foreign-led, has "never been closer to defeat than they are now."

Driscoll agreed at a news conference that "they certainly are off-balance and on the run." But he cautioned that the group remained a "very lethal threat."

In fact, an unidentified group of "insurgents" broken up by military operations was found to have been training teenagers in Mosul to carry out suicide attacks.

The insurgents had threatened to kill the boys or their families if they refused to obey, Kamal said, adding that the group included the son of a female physician, the son of a college professor and four who belonged to families of poor vendors.

"They were trained how to carry out suicide attacks with explosive belts and a date was fixed for each one of them," he said.

Are we really supposed to leave Iraq to the likes of these killers? 

The End of Hate in Our Time

25.05.2008 (8:18 pm) – Filed under: Free Speech,Law,Political Correctness ::

In the words of Canada’s Human Rights Commission’s senior counsel Ian Fine, the commission is necessary because "there can’t be enough laws against hate."  This during a panel on human right’s commissions in which Fine was caught twice in lies – or glaring ignorance – about the commission’s activities.  Actually, a single law against hate is too many.  But what can Canadians expect from a government agency that believes that "Freedom of speech is an American concept" and has no value as a principle in Canada?  Read it all.

Ezra Levant, writing about Fine’s statements:

… one of his most execrable arguments was that "the world" had limits on free speech, and the United Nations had limits on free speech, and that Canada should be in synch with the world — and not the anomaly of the United States.

At another point in the debate, I tried to show the absurdity of banning any hateful words through a law that doesn’t permit legal defences like truth, fair comment or even common sense. I pointed out that Fine himself had given an interview with the National Post in which he read out a bigoted remark, namely: "a n*gger will try to kill you just for a slice of pizza or a piece of chicken … By Aryan standards, negroes are dangerous animals".

Fine read that to show the kind of hate the CHRC wants to fight. But that explanation, which is reasonable, is not a legal defence. I jokingly said to Fine that, since he uttered a comment that is "likely" to expose someone to "hatred or contempt", I should file a section 13 complaint against him. I said it unseriously — I was pointing out the ridiculously arbitrary and overreaching nature of the law. But — and I’ll want to check this again on CPAC — he actually looked ashen when I said it, as if he agreed with me that he had broken the law, and was ashamed of it.

I think in that moment, I glimpsed what made Ian Fine tick: he has drunk the anti-hate industry’s Kool Aid without a drop of skepticism. I think he genuinely thought, just for a moment, that I was serious when I said he was a bad man for having said the word n*gger, even in the context of anti-racism. I think he’s been immersed in a groupthink environment, with zealots, where diversity of opinion, let alone criticism, is non-existent. I think he genuinely believes that his little anti-hate squad is saving Canada from turning into an Arctic version of Rwanda.

I think that’s why he froze up when I pressed him on Richard Warman’s online bigotry — it just didn’t compute for him; it doesn’t make sense in his unified theory of the world.

The CHRC thought police and hate-crime advocates fail to observe the most basic of facts, namely that hate is an emotion, an ephemeral thought or mind set that is contained within an individual’s brain and has no impact whatever on the physical world.

Actions, to the contrary, are taken by people upon the world and are rightfully regulated by the law.  Thoughts are not so regulated, should not be, and must not be, whatever Mr. Fine and the commission believe.