January 2006, Part 1

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

System Problem:  Had a system problem this weekend, which is why you have not seen any new posts.  Instead of fixing it, I decided to install a new version of Linux, as I had been planning to do anyway.  Luckily, I had made a backup just last night, so I don't think I lost any data, including any recent emails.  But if you sent me something urgent and you haven't heard from me by, say, Wednesday, send it again.

(For the curious, I have a problem with X on my Red Hat 9 installation.  For some reason, when X starts, it can not link to the font server and just sits there in an infinite loop.  It may be something simple, such as an initializing file that somehow fails to start the font server.  Or, I may have to re-install Red Hat to solve the problem.

But that will have to wait until I get this new installation — of SuSE 10.0, if you are interested — fully functional.)
- 4:35 PM, 8 January 2006
Problem Solved:  The back up caused the problem.  I have been doing crude back ups, which left behind large temporary files.  The last few months I have been slack about removing those files and so the last back up filled the root partition.  Which meant that X (and probably many other programs) could not run.  For those not familiar with Linux or Unix, I should probably mention that X is short for X Windows, the windowing system that is almost universally used on desk top systems running Linux or Unix.
- 6:33 AM, 9 January 2006   [link]

A Hyperspace Engine?!?  According to this article from the Scotsman, one may be tested soon.
An extraordinary "hyperspace" engine that could make interstellar space travel a reality by flying into other dimensions is being investigated by the United States government.

The hypothetical device, which has been outlined in principle but is based on a controversial theory about the fabric of the universe, could potentially allow a spacecraft to travel to Mars in three hours and journey to a star 11 light years away in just 80 days, according to a report in today's New Scientist magazine.
The New Scientist is more skeptical.
Every year, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics awards prizes for the best papers presented at its annual conference.  Last year's winner in the nuclear and future flight category went to a paper calling for experimental tests of an astonishing new type of engine.   According to the paper, this hyperdrive motor would propel a craft through another dimension at enormous speeds.  It could leave Earth at lunchtime and get to the moon in time for dinner.   There's just one catch: the idea relies on an obscure and largely unrecognised kind of physics.   Can they possibly be serious?

The AIAA is certainly not embarrassed.  What's more, the US military has begun to cast its eyes over the hyperdrive concept, and a space propulsion researcher at the US Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories has said he would be interested in putting the idea to the test.   And despite the bafflement of most physicists at the theory that supposedly underpins it, Pavlos Mikellides, an aerospace engineer at the Arizona State University in Tempe who reviewed the winning paper, stands by the committee's choice.  "Even though such features have been explored before, this particular approach is quite unique," he says.
The theory behind this hyperspace engine was originally developed by a now obscure German physicist, Burkhard Heim, back in the 1950s.   It has since been extended by a Walter Dröscher, a retired Austrian patent officer, and Jochem Häuser, a physicist and professor of computer science.  No one would pay much attention to the Heim theory, if it were not for the fact that it predicts the mass of some (all?) elementary particles more accurately than standard theories.

Heim's theory — as I understand it — unifies gravity and electromagnetism.  In principle, the theory allows magnetism to cancel gravity.  In practice, the theory might be tested with a sufficiently strong magnetic field.
This will require a huge rotating ring placed above a superconducting coil to create an intense magnetic field.  With a large enough current in the coil, and a large enough magnetic field, Dröscher claims the electromagnetic force can reduce the gravitational pull on the ring to the point where it floats free.
But there is no agreement on whether the experiment could be done with existing technology.

Most likely, the hyperspace engine is, as the New Scientist suggests, "fanciful nonsense".  And the fact that the recent work has not been peer reviewed should give us pause.  But it does sound as though the theory deserves more attention, and perhaps a test.  Because the Heim theory just may be, as the New Scientist also says, "a revolution in the making".
- 7:28 AM, 6 January 2006   [link]

The New York Times has suspicions.
Political figures from both parties have long defended and profited from ties to the coal industry.   Whether or not that was a factor in the Sago mine's history, the Bush administration's cramming of important posts in the Department of the Interior with biased operatives from the coal, oil and gas industry is not reassuring about general safety in the mines.  Steven Griles, a mining lobbyist before being appointed deputy secretary of the interior, devoted four years to rolling back mine regulations and then went back to lobbying for the industry.
Tom Blumer of NewsBusters has the numbers.
Contrary to what The Times would have you believe, the trend has been favorable ("reassuring," if you will) for many years, especially the past four, where there has been a near-50% drop in fatalities.  In fact, these results support the contention that staffing Interior with people who actually know their industry has led to greater safety.
And a chart, if you want to see the trend.

How difficult would it have been for the editorial writer to find those same numbers?  If, as I assume, the Times has researchers on the staff, they could have sent an email and gotten back the answer in less than an hour.  The suspicion was, as they say far too often in the news business, too good to check.

(A quick search of my own found that two other news organizations, the Associated Press and the Christian Science Monitor, did get the underlying trend right.)
- 1:55 PM, 5 January 2006   [link]

The Cuban Connection:  It has been known for decades that the Cubans almost certainly were aware that Lee Harvey Oswald planned to assassinate John F. Kennedy.   You can find the evidence for that in, for example, Edward Jay Epstein's biography of Oswald, Legend.   But did the Cubans play an active part?  That's what a German television documentary claims.
The Cuban secret service was behind the assassination of President John F Kennedy, according to evidence presented in a new television documentary.

Rendezvous with Death, to be shown on German television on Friday, offers the most convincing evidence that Fidel Castro's regime was behind the most talked-about murder of the 20th century.
There's nothing implausible about this theory, at least not as far as I know.  The Cuban government had, as we all know, good reasons to kill Kennedy.  And they had contacts with Oswald in Mexico, shortly before the assassination.

(The Kennedy assassination showed, at least to me, that democratic nations should usually stay out of the assassination business, for a very practical reason.  It is, to be blunt, far easier to kill an American president than a Cuban dictator.)
- 1:14 PM, 5 January 2006   [link]

Reading Maureen Dowd is usually a mistake these days, but reading about her can be amusing.

Columnist Joel Stein told a crude and not very funny joke at Dowd's expense several years ago, and has been trying to apologize to her ever since, with no success.  His failures reveal a woman who would rather have a grievance than a friend.

Stein gets a little revenge for her behavior with this ending:
I will not rest until I get Dowd to stop hating me.  Maybe it's male to pursue the one who rejects you, but I think it's just that I don't want to be dismissed by someone I respect.

She may believe, as she says in her book, that men are put off by women in power — that her Pulitzer cost her dates.  But, to me, it just makes her hotter.

I know that's going to cost me another bottle of chardonnay.  But it's worth it.
By the way, Stein's joke, though not great, was about as funny as the average crack in Dowd's columns, and not nearly as nasty as her worst cracks and sneers.
- 12:30 PM, 5 January 2006   [link]

Abscam And Abramoff:  There is no doubt that Jack Abramoff has broken the law.  Yesterday he pled guilty to "fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials".  There is also no doubt that he has some unpleasant friends.

But there is some doubt, at least in my mind, about how big the Abramoff scandal will be and whether it will come even close to matching Abscam*.

So far, only a single official has been named as a target for the investigation, Republican Congressman Robert Ney**, and he claims that he is innocent.  And he may be, from what I have read about the case.  We can be reasonably certain that many of Abramoff's dealings with congressmen were unethical, but until we have solid information, we should not conclude that those dealings were illegal.

(*Need an Abscam review?  Here's a brief summary from Wikipedia.
Abscam (sometimes ABSCAM) was a US political scandal in 1980.  An FBI sting operation led to the arrest of members of Congress for accepting bribes.

The FBI set up "Abdul Enterprises, Ltd." in 1978 and FBI employees posed as Middle Eastern businessmen in videotaped talks with government officials, where they offered money in return for political favors to a non-existent sheik.  Much of the operation was directed by Melvin Weinberg, a convicted con artist who was hired by the FBI for that purpose.  It was the first major operation by the FBI to trap corrupt public officials; up until 1970 only ten members of Congress had ever been convicted of accepting bribes.
One senator, six congressmen, and five other officials, including the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, were caught in the sting.  All but one, as far as I can tell, were Democrats.  (The Republican, Richard Kelly, got his conviction reversed, in a triumph for his attorneys, if not for justice.)

The scandal helped the Republicans take control of the Senate and make big gains in the House in the 1980 election.

There was some criticism of the FBI for creating a crime, as there always is in sting operations.

**Congressman Ney has a surprising background.  He's a teacher with considerable experience of the Middle East, having taught in both Iran and Saudi Arabia.  (He speaks fluent Farsi.)   He's been independent on some issues, and has not hesitated to tweak the White House.  When they limited him to a single guest at a 2002 Christmas dinner, he took forty parking spaces away from the Cabinet.  And I have to like the fact that he refused Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee's request to give Michael Jackson special treatment when the singer visited the Capitol.)
- 4:16 PM, 4 January 2006   [link]

The Rioter's Veto:  By way of Tim Blair, I found this example of a rioter's veto, which is somewhere between the heckler's veto and the assassin's veto.
Plans to fly the Australian flags over the famous Bondi Beach pavilion were vetoed because of fears the symbols could incite more racial violence on Sydney's beaches.

In a decision met with outrage from locals, returned servicemen and ethnic groups, Waverley Council voted 6-5 against the proposal, declaring the popular beach should remain clear of flags to "remove provocation".

Mayor Mora Main and fellow Green George Copeland led a block of Labor councillors including deputy mayor George Newhouse, Peter Moscatt and Ingrid Strewe in rejecting the proposal by Liberal councillor Joy Clayton on December 13.
(Americans who don't follow Australian news may need to know that the pavilion was the site of attacks by Muslims, and riots by white Australians.  And their Liberal party is roughly equivalent to our Republican party.)

Apparently, the Waverly Council is not willing to defend Australia or freedom of speech from Muslim attackers.  Why not?  A mix of cowardice and political correctness, I would guess.
- 8:34 AM, 4 January 2006
Correction:  An Australian correspondent tells me that the pavilion is near the site of the riots, not at the site.  I have corrected the text above.
- 7:42 AM, 6 January 2006   [link]

Want Higher Unemployment?  Then raise the minimum wage.   That's what most economic texts say will happen, and that's what Steve Antler's graphs show has happened in Oregon, a state with a higher minimum wage (and a higher unemployment rate) than the nation.
- 7:05 AM, 4 January 2006   [link]

Houses Are More Affordable Than They Were A Generation Ago:   Relatively.  That's the main conclusion of an article in the New York Times
Despite a widespread sense that real estate has never been more expensive, families in the vast majority of the country can still buy a house for a smaller share of their income than they could have a generation ago.

A sharp fall in mortgage rates since the early 1980's, a decline in mortgage fees and a rise in incomes have more than made up for rising house prices in almost every place outside of New York, Washington, Miami and along the coast in California.
And, though the article does not mention it, the home they buy is, on the average, bigger and better than it was a generation ago.

Houses are not more affordable everywhere in the United States:
In high-profile places like New York and Los Angeles, home to many of the people who study and write about real estate, families buying their first home often must spend more than half of their income on mortgage payments, far more than they once did.  But the places that have become less affordable over the last generation account for only a quarter of the country's population.

Elsewhere, families tend to spend far less on housing.  In Dallas, the share of income needed to buy a typical house has fallen to 13 percent this year, from 14 percent in 1995 and 31 percent in 1980.  In Tampa, it has dropped to 21 percent, from 26 percent in 1980.
What those examples and the map of changes in house prices that accompanies the article ("A More Affordable Market") suggest to me is that houses became more affordable — unless the area was controlled by a growth management plan.  Houses became more expensive in Washington, Oregon, and California, all states that have had growth management plans for some time.   Houses became much less expensive in Texas, which has resisted controls on housing.

That state policies explain the different trends jumps out at you if you look at that map for even a few seconds.  The map shows the changes by county, and the changes often follow state lines.  For example, every county in Idaho has more affordable housing; nearly every county in Idaho's western neighbors, Washington and Oregon, has less affordable housing.  That isn't because Idaho's population is shrinking; in fact, the state's population has grown much faster since 1990 than the populations of the other two Northwest states.

I suspect that the main cause for those different trends is growth management acts.  Whatever the cause (or causes) for the trends, it is certain that politicians in some states and cities have made houses in those places far more expensive than they should be.  That can be fine for those who already own houses, but it is hard on young families that have children or want children.  And I can't help noting that many of the politicians who vote for growth management plans do own their own homes when they put those plans into effect.   (I believe our state's junior senator, Maria Cantwell, falls into that category.  She is quite pleased at having helped pass growth management as a state legislator — and she is probably wealthier because of it.)

I can not recall hearing of an official in New York or California say that they ought to learn from Texas, or an official in Washington or Oregon say that they ought to learn from Idaho.   But they should.
- 4:22 PM, 3 January 2006   [link]

Now We Know what not to do.
Saddam Hussein has told his lawyers that he wants to be shot by firing squad, not hanged, if sentenced to death during his murder trial, which resumes later this month in Baghdad.
(Although, to be serious, I think the new Iraqi government should pick the method for dispatching Saddam to a warmer place.)
- 11:10 AM, 3 January 2006   [link]

The Assassin's Veto:  For years, our colleges and universities have been plagued by what is usually called the "heckler's veto".  Speeches would be stopped, or even cancelled, by disruptions or the threats of disruptions.  The heckler's veto has often prevented ideas unpopular with the left from even being heard on campuses.

(The name is not quite strong enough, because what it refers to is shutting down a speech or performance, not just interupting it, as a single heckler might do.  On campuses, the hecklers nearly always are leftists, trying to shut down views they disagree with, though there are exceptions, such as the one mentioned here.   College and university administrations have often cooperated with the hecklers and yielded to the heckler's veto in advance, by banning speeches they fear will be disrupted.  That happened, for instance, several times to former UN ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick in the 1980s, and has happened to many other speakers before and since.

Recently, Washington State University was caught going even further; an administrator there supplied tickets to students so that they could disrupt a controversial play.  You can find the whole story here and here.)

And now we in the West are faced with a far more dangerous threat to free speech from radical Islamists, the assassin's veto.  Those who criticize Islam in Europe (and occasionally in the United States) are threatened with violence and even death.  Diana West describes the threats to a journalist in Afghanistan (which are no surprise), and then goes on to mention one of the many similar threats in Europe (which deserve far more attention than they have received).
The last time we checked in with "Jyllands-Posten," the Danish newspaper that ran 12 rather tame cartoons of Muhammad to prove that an Islamic religious injunction against depicting the Islamic prophet didn't apply in a sovereign Western nation, it was bearing up under Islamic street protests and bomb threats, diplomatic attack, and a likely U.N. human rights commission investigation.   And so was Denmark.
And was the European Union defending Denmark and free speech?  No, they were attacking the cartoons.

These threats to Denmark and the Jyllands-Posten must be taken seriously.  The Dutch filmmaker, Theo van Gogh, was murdered because he criticized Muslims.  Or to be exact, he criticized the way many Muslim men in Europe abuse Muslim women.  Neither filmmakers nor feminists have had much to say about his death, either here or in Europe.  And I suspect that fear may be one of the reasons we have heard so little from these groups.

And there have been similar threats in the United States.  After former CNN reporter Steven Emerson did a special for PBS, Jihad in America, describing the threat of extremist Islamists in the United States, he received dozens of death threats.  One day, taking a taxi back from the Reagan National Airport in Washington, D. C., he saw an Arabic language newspaper on the front seat with his picture — and a bullseye superimposed on the picture.  (You can find that story and much more in his book, American Jihad.)   Neither journalists nor authors have had much to say about these threats to Emerson.  Again, I suspect fear may be one of the reasons.

Freedom of speech is worth defending, even if filmmakers, feminists, journalists, and authors do not think so.  We should not accept the heckler's veto, and, for even stronger reasons, we should not accept the assassin's veto.  And I say that knowing full well that defending free speech will require some of us to, as Voltaire said, defend it to the death.
- 10:36 AM, 3 January 2006   [link]

Expect To Hear More  about PTSD.  
Post-traumatic stress disorder has been gaining momentum in the media lately.  Doonesbury has been highlighting it for some time in the cartoon character of B.D., who lost his job and a leg in Iraq.  And the December issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry is largely devoted to the issue.
The Medpundit explains why: PTSD is another weapon to use in the political war against Bush and the war in Iraq.   You'll want to read the whole post, especially the part where she warns that politicization of the issue is bad for those with the syndrome.  They are more likely to recover if they are not treated as helpless victims.
- 7:46 AM, 3 January 2006   [link]

Happy New Year!

- 5:48 AM, 1 January 2006   [link]