Archive:

November 2004, Part 4

Jim Miller on Politics




Pseudo-Random Thoughts



Methane On Mars:  That's what another research team has found, and here's why it matters.
A third team of scientists has now reported a seemingly simple discovery on Mars: its atmosphere contains methane.

But that finding has potentially profound implications, including the possibility of present-day microbes living on Mars.

Speaking this month at the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in Louisville, Ky., Dr. Michael Mumma, a senior scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., reported three years of observations had provided strong evidence for methane.
. . .
Methane, the simplest of hydrocarbon molecules with one carbon and four hydrogen atoms, is fragile in air and easily broken apart when hit by ultraviolet light.  Calculations indicate that any methane in the Martian air must have been put there within the past 300 years.

That then raises the question: What is putting methane into the Martian air?

There seem to be only two plausible explanations.  One is geothermal chemical reactions involving water and heat like those that occur on Earth in the hot springs of Yellowstone or at hydrothermal vents on the bottoms of oceans.
. . .
The other, more intriguing, is life.  On Earth, a class of bacteria known as methanogens breathes out methane as a waste product.  The discovery, if confirmed, suggests that perhaps Martian life arose on a presumably more hospitable Mars billions of years ago and survives to this day underground, beneath the cold, dry landscape.

Dr. Vladimir Krasnopolsky of Catholic University in Washington, the leader of one of the teams, said he believed bacteria to be the "most plausible source."
Martian bacteria would be of enormous scientific importance, and might be of practical importance, too.  Bacteria living in extreme conditions on the earth (extremophiles) have yielded many interesting substances, a few of great commercial importance.  Martian bacteria may have developed some tricks ours have not.

(My apologies for posting this after the free period at the New York Times.)
- 7:38 AM, 30 November 2004   [link]


Count Every Legal Vote:  That's my simple standard for counts and recounts.  It applied to the count for Washington's gubernatorial race and to the recount, and it applies to any future recount.  The standard is easy to say, but difficult to put into practice.  What it means varies with the different voting technologies, and so I will discuss them separately.

Let's start with the two easy technologies, mechanical voting machines and electronic voting machines.  Neither of these allow ambiguous ballots; a voter using one either casts a vote, or does not.  (This does not mean that there are no errors.  I am sure that a few who use both kinds of machines make mistakes when they vote, but there is no record of those mistakes.)   There can still be errors with both kinds of machines; election workers can misread them or can tally the results from separate machines incorrectly.  And, of course, the machines have no way of recognizing who is a legal voter; the election workers must do that.  But, on the whole, mechanical and electronic voting machines have a great advantage in counts and recounts; they do not allow ambiguous votes.  All that really needs to be checked are the readings and the tallies.

(I have mixed feelings about electronic voting machines, for the same reasons that I have mixed feelings about mechanical voting machines.  Neither produces a ballot that can be stored and checked.  Both, in principle, can be rigged by the technologically competent.  And mechanical voting machines have been rigged from time to time.  But it is also true that mechanical voting machines were introduced mainly to reduce vote fraud — and that they succeeded.  I suspect that electronic voting machines have also cut fraud in some areas, though I have not seen any studies on the subject.)

Paper ballots, still used in some Washington counties, have the opposite set of problems.   They are easy to use, and equally easy to misuse, making some votes ambiguous.   Over the years, jurisdictions developed precise guidelines for legal votes to reduce the number of ambiguous votes.  Some, for instance, required voters to make an "X" in the box and would disallow even a check mark.  Even with precise guidelines, there still can be ambiguous paper ballots.  In 1984, there was a nasty fight after a close election in Indiana's 8th House district, between Republican Richard McIntyre and Democrat Frank McCloskey.  The fight came down to, as I recall, a dispute over how to count a few hundred paper ballots.  (The Republican secretary of state in Indiana gave McIntyre the win; the Democratic House of Representatives reversed that, enraging the Republicans.  At the time I was inclined to think that McIntyre deserved the win, but I never saw a full non-partisan account of the dispute.)

There many ways to alter paper ballots.  One old trick is to conceal the stub of a pencil in a vote counter's palm and use it to convert some of the opponent's ballots into overvotes.  It is also easy for counters to use partisan standards on ambiguous ballots, being strict on those for your opponent and lenient on those for your own candidate.  I would expect this to happen even if the vote counters had no conscious intention of doing so.  Because paper ballots are so easy to alter and miscount, they should get the closest scrutiny in any recount.  If this is permitted by law, I would like to see all of them photographed before they are counted, and I would like to see the process recorded.

For both optical ballots and punch cards, the best way to count them is with a combination of machine counts and hand counts.  That isn't a new position for me; that's what I said after the 2000 Florida fight.
Theoretically, the best method is a combination, counting as many ballots as possible with machines and then doing the rest manually.  The machines don't belong to any political party, but they can miss some clearly legal votes.  Some of the smaller counties in Florida used this method, but larger counties tend to avoid it because of the cost.

The difficulty with manual counts, even partial ones, is that they provide opportunity for what James Baker called "mischief", that is, manipulation of the ballots, and different standards for the two parties.  A manual count requires clear standards and honorable counters.
(I should add that all, or nearly all, of the Florida counties that were not counting every vote were controlled by Democrats.  I was genuinely surprised to learn that some counties in Florida were not even trying to count the votes that could not be read by machines, unless the election was very close.)

As I understand it, this combination of machine and manual counts was the method used by the counties in Washington state that vote on optical and punch card ballots.  A completely manual account would produce a result that would be less accurate, most experts think, than the counts we just did.

If, as I expect, Christine Gregoire asks for a completely manual recount for part of Washington state, the Republicans should do everything they can to record the recount, as well as checking it as it goes on.  Unfortunately, no matter how that recount goes, one party will think it has been cheated.  Given the lower accuracy of complete hand counts, the Republicans will have the better case, should Gregoire coume out ahead.

(What kind of voting technology do I favor?  I don't like any of the current ones, particularly.  I have been thinking that the best method might be a hybrid system.   Voters would use a touch screen to produce a paper ballot that would be read optically.   I would also like to see standards established so that those optical ballots could be read by different brands of scanners.  But I will need to do much more research before I am certain that would be the best method.

As I have mentioned many times before, the first thing we should do to reduce fraud is to cut back the use of absentee ballots as far as possible.)
- 7:01 AM, 30 November 2004   [link]


Is Bill Clinton A Mild Manic-Depressive?  Or is he just exuberant?   Psychiatry professor Kay Redfield Jamison thinks he's exuberant.
You just have to see President Clinton walk into the room.  He's mesmerising.  His energy is infectious, his love of the country is especially infectious and so is his capacity to put up with abuse and persecution day in day out.  It was remarkable and it remains so after just coming off his surgical bed.  He can still move a crowd in a way that few people can.  He also has a constant curiosity that drives people mad.  It's 3 am and he's likely to call and be all buzzed up about some idea and want to know the answer to some question.  But it is a delightful characteristic.
But Jamison (who herself suffered from manic-depression for decades) admits that it is hard to tell exuberance from the manic phase of manic-depression.
Where do you draw the line between exuberance and mania? It's a puzzle.  To me it is the most interesting thing about moods and disorders and always has been.  The lines are not clear at all, they are often arbitrary.  If it was absolutely clear-cut when the mood was pathological, then it would be interesting, but not nearly as interesting.

But there must be some way to tell them apart.

Well, a significant percentage of people who have manic depressive illness also have an underlying exuberant temperament.
This is a question I have wondered about for years, especially after learning about his affair (if that's the right word) with Monica Lewinsky.  At that time, I looked up some of the symptoms of the mania phase of the disorder (now more often called bipolar disease, at least in the United States).
Mania:  Abnormally and persistently elevated (high) mood and/or irritability accompanied by at least three of the following symptoms (four if the mood is merely irritable): overly-inflated self-esteem; decreased need for sleep; increased talkativeness; racing thoughts; distractibility; increased goal-directed activity such as shopping; physical agitation; hypersexuality; excessive involvement in risky behaviors or activities.
Overly-inflated self-esteem, decreased need for sleep, increased talkativeness, hypersexuality, excessive involvement in risky behaviors or activities.  That's five by my count, and some of the others may describe Clinton, too.  But maybe it is just "exuberance".  Unlike Jamison, I am not a professor of psychiatry.
- 5:34 PM, 29 November 2004   [link]


Do Europeans Do It Better?  Travel guide Rick Steves posed that question to the readers of the Seattle PI.
Can we learn from Europe?  Does Europe cheapen sexual intimacy or do Americans make it dirty?
The PI published two sets of answers, printed and on-line.   I may be wrong, but the answers seem to show a certain lack of intellectual diversity in the Seattle area.
I think Europe has a more grownup, healthy and less dreary attitude by far.
. . .
Europe has the right take on sex.
. . .
Europe, of course.
. . .
Without question the Europeans have it all over the United States as far as attitudes toward sex.
. . .
I am no fan of Europe or the Europeans (sorry, Rick), but they deal with nudity and sexuality more sensibly than we do.
. . .
In response to Horsey's Burning Question, Europeans have it right!
. . .
Being a new American and a former European, I have to agree with everything that has been said about the hang up many Americans have about sex, sexuality and nudity, resulting in the wave toward conservative moral values before, during and after the recent elections.
. . .
I think the Europeans are healthier about sex.
. . .
Yes, we could learn from Europe.
. . .
I am appalled and frustrated with the United States' Puritan attitude toward sexuality in the media and in society in general.
. . .
The Europeans have the health attitude, not the Americans.
. . .
When it comes to sex, sexuality, and nudity, the adults live in Europe.

Americans are frighteningly uptight.
. . .
I agree that the puritanical attitude in this country contributes to the problems with sexuality in all its perversions, and that Europeans have a much saner attitude toward sex and the human body than one finds in this country.
. . .
Europe seems in a better position than we are.
There was one response that showed a sense of humor (and another that I think was a joke, but I can't be sure).
To Americans, sex is dirty, and that makes it oh so exciting.
It's an old quip, but still funny.

What I wonder is how all these people know that Europeans are better at sex.  None cite personal experience, and it is hard to see how any one person could have enough experience to form an accurate opinion.  Everything they mention about Europe can be found in the United States, from nude beaches to child pornography.  (Europe does seem ahead of us in the second category.)  The only surveys I have seen on the subject suggests that people in Europe and in the United States are rather similar in their sexual behavior.

Similar, with one fundamental exception:  Americans are having enough children to keep our society going (a little more than 2 children per woman), and Europeans are having so few children that some nations may die out within a century, and many will be in serious trouble within the next few decades.  Somehow I don't think extra nude beaches makes up for that, but perhaps I am missing something.

(One writer repeats that urban legend about John Ashcroft covering up a statue in the Justice Department.  What actually happened is that a background was brought in for the television cameras.  Ashcroft had nothing to do with it.

Rick Steves (whom I like as a travel writer) has other entertaining ideas about current political questions.  He is simultaneously worried about global warming — and trying hard to promote tourism, which must contribute to global warming, unless the tourists make their trips by sailing ship or something similar.  (As always, I remind you to read my disclaimer on global warming, if you have not seen it.)   I don't suppose that it has occurred to him that there is a contradiction between the two.   If he really fears global warming, he should close down his travel firm.)
- 4:45 PM, 29 November 2004   [link]


Some Democrats, disappointed at George Bush's re-election, are considering moving to Canada.  Naturally, Canada is more likely to accept them if they have the desired skills.  One group now in demand in Canada is exotic dancers.
Immigration Minister Judy Sgro is "pimping for the sex trade" by refusing to stop the importation of nude dancers, opposition MPs said yesterday.

NDP leader Jack Layton called on her to immediately cancel the nude-dancer visa program, saying it exploits women from poor countries by pulling them into prostitution and abuse.

"The Liberals are essentially pimping for the sex trade.  It's really quite shocking," Mr. Layton said yesterday after Ms. Sgro faced another barrage of questions in the Commons over her decision to fast-track an immigration permit for Alina Balaican, a Romanian stripper and election campaign volunteer.
Balaican worked for Ms. Gro's election campaign, if you are wondering.  And, no, the article does not explain what kind of work she did for the campaign.

So there you are.  If you are a Democrat with the right qualifications, you may find it easy to get a Canadian visa.  Since I have never known anyone in this profession, I will not even speculate on whether it attracts Democrats more than Republicans.

The article does not say whether male exotic dancers are also in demand up north, nor does it explain why Canada does not produce enough exotic dancers.  This may be too simple, but perhaps the colder weather in our neighbor to the north discourages clothes removal.
- 7:07 AM, 29 November 2004   [link]


Like Stefan Sharkansky, I am suffering from severe backblog, though I have less excuse than he does.
backblog - Overflow of incidents you intend to write about on your weblog.
Hope to catch up at least with the email by this Wednesday.

What has made my backblog worse in the last week is my search for a new digital camera.  A year and a half ago, I bought a small Nikon 2000 to get a sense of of what digital cameras could do, so I could figure out what I really want.  The camera has been better than I expected, but I am starting to run up against its limits.

Eventually, I will probably get a digital SLR (and a pocketable weather resistant camera for every day and wet outdoors pictures), but they cost more currently than I want to spend.  And I am not sure that the designs have settled yet.  I am fascinated by the variety, but suspect that shows us that the designers haven't gotten it right yet.  For an example of the problems, see the Olympus 8080, a powerful "prosumer" camera with buttons all over it, so many that I am sure that I would often hit some of them accidentally.  The Canon S60, a middle range camera, shows another kind of design error.  It has a wide angle lens, which I like, but it also has a smooth case shaped exactly like an elongated bar of soap — and just as hard for me to hold when my hands are sweaty, I suspect.  (Those less clumsy than I may want to look at it, or its S70 sibling, though.)

Since the digital SLRs don't meet my specifications yet, I have decided to buy an interim camera and am looking for a camera with more power and lots of manual controls to play with.  Since it will be interim camera — probably — I don't want to spend a lot on it.  Right now I am looking at two similar Olympus models, the C-740 and the C-765.   They have the same excellent 10X zoom lens.  (I would rather have one that started with a true wide angle, equivalent to the 28 mm lenses on 35 mm SLRs, but there aren't any in my price range, as far as I can tell.)  The 765 has an extra meg of memory, a better LCD, a better electronic viewfinder, and sound for its movies.  The middle two are significant advantages for me.

If any of you have experience with these cameras, or similar ones in the Olympus lines, I'd be interested in hearing about it.  And if you have suggestions for other cameras that I might look at, let me know.  I would like to spend no more than 350 dollars, for the whole package, which would include a spare battery and a larger memory card.   I plan to wait until after Christmas, naturally, but not much beyond March.

(I have been happy enough with my little Nikon that I would not hesitate to recommend it, or rather its successor, the Nikon 2200, to anyone who wants a simple and inexpensive digital camera.  Those who want a little more might want to look at a Canon 75, or something similar.  Those who want a camera that is very easy to use should probably look at the Kodak line.

Consumer Reports has a special digital issue out that provides some guidance, although on reflection, I think their simple megapixel categories are a mistake, since they mix quite different kinds of cameras.  Two sites that I have found helpful for those who want reviews of specific cameras are Digital Camera Resource and Steve's Digicams.  Both have holiday picks for different categories of users.  By the way, both sites also have forums where you can ask for, or give help, to other users.)
- 9:07 AM, 28 November 2004   [link]


Dan Rather Quit The Wrong Job:  He will be leaving his anchor position, but kept his job at "60 Minutes".  As an anchor, or news reader as the British more accurately call them, Rather didn't do much damage.  He looks clean, reads articulately, and has what I consider a pleasant voice.  He does fine when he is presenting the content.  (Whether he is good enough in comparison to the other news readers is something I will leave to the management and shareholders of CBS.)

It is only when Rather helps create the content — and I use "create" quite intentionally — that he fails, as he has many times.  It is odd that a man who has spent so much time in the news business should be such a terrible reporter and editor, but there is no escaping his incompetence at his chosen profession.  Journalists are supposed to be skeptical; Rather is credulous, at least about stories that fit his simplistic world view.  (So, apparently, is his producer, Mary Mapes.)  To swallow whole the bogus Guard documents, you have to be more than a bit of a sucker.  To refuse to correct the error for days, after it had been exposed, shows that he is an almost incorrigible sucker for the right kind of story.

If CBS were managed by people who cared about the accuracy of their news operation, Rather might be allowed to continue reading stories, but he would never be allowed to report or to write them again.   Instead, he will be allowed to continue to create content, but not read it in prime time.

(Some think of Rather as a standard Peter Jennings style leftist.  I see him more as one of the last representatives of a once common type in newsrooms.  He is, I think, a populist who really does love this country and wants the best for its citizens, especially the ordinary citizens.   He thinks, as many populists did, that the powerful, especially businessmen, keep the poor folks down.  These attitudes, and they are more attitudes than an ideology, may seem strange in a millionaire employee of an enormous media company, but no one has ever suggested Rather is good at seeing himself in a mirror.)
- 7:36 AM, 28 November 2004   [link]


Seattle Celebrates Christmas In Its Own Way:  Especially in Fremont.
In downtown Seattle, they light a big Christmas tree for the holidays.

But in Fremont, they're going to light up -- what else? -- the big statue of Vladimir Lenin.

Lenin will be lighted at 5 p.m. Dec. 3 at the corner of Fremont Place North and North 36th Street.   (It's the intersection with the big statue of Lenin.) The monument will be bedecked with garland and lights -- and probably not just red ones.
Does Corky Merwin, who, along with others, proposed the lighting, know that Lenin banned Christmas?
Historically, though, New Year's has not always been so simple — or so pleasant.  The tradition dates back to the 1917 communist ban on religion.  The prohibition was an effort by the Soviet government to root out religious belief and practice, which it considered "the opiate of the masses." The secular Soviet holiday of New Year's replaced both Christmas and Hanukkah.
It's not clear from the article:
What do you think of Lenin?

I studied him in college and so my feelings are mixed . . .
Mixed because Lenin and his successors killed too many people (roughly 100 million by some counts), or because they killed too few?  If Kerry Murakami learned the answer to that in a follow up question, he does not tell us.

(For years, I have wanted to hang a sign saying "mass murderer" on the Lenin statue.  Maybe I will add that to my New Year's resolutions.  And if you have a suggestion for an appropriate date to make that protest, let me know.)
- 8:18 AM, 26 November 2004
Correction:  An alert emailer spotted two mistakes, one embarrassing and one that may be understandable.  The reporter is "Kery", not "Kerry", Murakami, and is a he, not a she.  I've corrected the text above.
- 6:59 PM, 28 November 2004   [link]


American Heroes:  Three Stryker soldiers were honored last Monday in a Fort Lewis welcome home ceremony.  Rebecca Finnick was awarded a Bronze Star.
The 30-year-old Finnick was cited for unleashing an initial volley of fire that helped protect the convoy from direct hits by rocket-propelled grenades.  She then rescued a wounded gunner from a Humvee's turret.  After giving her first aid, Finnick took to the turret to provide security while injured soldiers were evacuated to the hospital.
So was Charles Quintanilla.
Sgt. Charles Quintanilla received the Bronze Star for decisive and aggressive actions to fend off 25 insurgents armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.
And Joshua Miller (who is, I am pretty sure, no relation) was awarded a Silver Star.
Spc. Joshua Miller received the Silver Star for voluntarily placing himself in peril to save the life of a fellow soldier when his foot-patrol squad was ambushed by insurgents.  Miller single-handedly fended off a 20-man assault on his squad's position.  Then, under heavy fire, he managed to rescue his vehicle commander, who was trapped in debris.
I'd love to read more about these actions, but that was all I could find in a quick search.   I did find this picture of Joshua Miller in an article on the difficulties soldiers have adjusting to being home.

We can all be thankful that we have men and women like Finnick, Quintanilla, and Miller protecting us.
- 10:05 AM, 25 November 2004
More:  Max Boot tells us more about our remarkable volunteer military, and suggests a way we civilians can show our thanks.
It is all too easy to take the all-volunteer armed forces for granted.  They've been around now for 31 years, ever since the draft was abolished in 1973.  We have become used to having a high-quality military filled by dedicated young women and men willing to put their lives on the line for less money than Donald Trump hands out in tips every week.

It is worth remembering how extraordinary and unusual our service members really are — and how much we owe them this Thanksgiving.
. . .
There is no way that we civilian turkey-eaters can properly show our gratitude for those whose Thanksgiving meal comes in a chow hall thousands of miles from home.  But for a start we can at least contribute to a number of charities that provide important aid to service members and their families.  For a list, go to http://www.defendamerica.mil and click on "Support Our Troops."
- 10:40 AM, 26 November 2004   [link]


If You Need Something To Be Thankful About, Reverend Sensing has a photo essay with some reminders.
- 9:28 AM, 25 November 2004   [link]


Happy Thanksgiving!  Here's Audubon's turkey, recycled from last year.



They are much smarter than the domestic birds, as I learned from a member of the Audubon society.  I had seen three of the wild birds while driving through rural Pennsylvania and mentioned it to him.  He looked annoyed and proceeded to tell me about his many unsuccessful efforts to spot one in the wild.  By the time he was done, I felt, irrationally, as if I should apologize for my good fortune at seeing these impressive birds in the wild.

Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday, and one that I would like to see other nations share, with or without a turkey.
- 9:10 AM, 25 November 2004   [link]