Tuesday, April 28, 2009

a chilling argument against torture prosecutions

From Tyler Cohen:
At many blogs (Sullivan, Yglesias, DeLong, among others) you will find ongoing arguments for prosecuting the torturers who ran our government for a while. I am in agreement with the moral stance of these critics but I don't agree with their practical conclusions. I believe that a full investigation would lead the U.S. public to, ultimately, side with torture, side with the torturers, and side against the prosecutors. That's why we can't proceed and Obama probably understands that. If another attack happened this would be all the more true.
I can certainly imagine an American jury refusing to convict a torturer who says he did it to protect their families.

Monday, April 27, 2009


Eggs in the robin's nest on our back porch:

And zinnia seedlings up in the garden:

war crimes prosecutions

Put me on record as supporting the prosecution of former Bush administration officials for torture and other war crimes. Including the former President and Vice-President.

I write this knowing that such prosecutions will be a catastrophe for the country. They will inflame left-right anger to a level we haven't seen since we pulled our troops out of Vietnam. They will derail progress on health care reform, alternative energy promotion, and just about anything else the government might want to do. They may well lead to rioting and violence.

But I think we should do it anyway. I have come to this decision mainly by reading the arguments of people opposed to prosecutions. Those opponents seem to have flat-out forgotten what it means to have laws. Their view is that whether we ought to torture captured terrorists is a political question, to be decided by our politicians. They simply do not recognize that the law has anything to do with how people comport themselves in office.

Here is David Broder, in the Washington Post:
The memos on torture represented a deliberate, and internally well-debated, policy decision, made in the proper places -- the White House, the intelligence agencies and the Justice Department -- by the proper officials.

One administration later, a different group of individuals occupying the same offices has -- thankfully -- made the opposite decision. Do they now go back and investigate or indict their predecessors?

That way, inevitably, lies endless political warfare. It would set the precedent for turning all future policy disagreements into political or criminal vendettas. That way lies untold bitterness -- and injustice.

This argument makes sense only if you believe that laws mean nothing. If the laws mean anything at all, then what Bush and his cohort did was wrong, and they ought to be prosecuted for it. Broder seems to agree with Bush's view of the matter, when he famously remarked that he had had his "accountability moment" in the 2004 election. Having won, he was free, even required, to do whatever he thought was right, the law be damned.

Here is Newsweek editor Jon Meacham:
The answer depends, at least in part, on how we turn back the page. Is a Watergate- or Iran-contra-style congressional probe the way to go? No, for public hearings encourage—demand, really—dramatic plays for attention from lawmakers. Such a stage would lead to the expression of extreme views.

So we do not want that. Nor, I think, do we want to open criminal investigations into those who participated in brutal interrogation methods. And to pursue criminal charges against officials at the highest levels—including the former president and the former vice president—would set a terrible precedent. (The presidential historian Michael Beschloss suggests that the closest parallel to a president authorizing a probe of his predecessor can be found in the 1920s, when Calvin Coolidge appointed special prosecutors to investigate Warren Harding's role in the Teapot Dome scandal.) That is not to say presidents and vice presidents are always above the law; there could be instances in which such a prosecution is appropriate, but based on what we know, this is not such a case.

How nice to hear that the President is not "always" above the law! I wonder if Mr. Meacham could explain to those of us who are not insiders when, exactly, the President is above the law and when he is not? What is so horrible about "extreme views" that we should ignore serious crimes to avoid hearing them aired in public? It seems to me that quite a few were aired during the impeachment of Bill Clinton, and we survived that. And, most importantly why would prosecuting political leaders who broke the law, flouted the constitution and tossed our treaty obligations in the trash set a "bad precedent"?

The attitude that politics is beyond law has gotten so firmly entrenched in Washington that only something drastic can shake our establishment out of its contempt. So, let the trials go forward.

Not that they will. But if they do, they will have my support.

new Franklin letters

It has just been announced that a cache of previously unpublished letters by and to Benjamin Franklin has been discovered in London. It's a reminder that all sorts of things might be lurking out there in archives, filed under some obscure heading -- in this case, "Copies of Letters relating to the March of General Braddock."

It is also a reminder of how greatly historians depend on the self-promotional efforts of those they study. These letters survive because Franklin carried copies of them with him to London to impress people he might meet with his importance: "see, I corresponded with the commander of British forces in North America!" Sometimes it is those who work hardest to leave a historical legacy who end up the most famous.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

summer, in April

We had a little frost Wednesday morning, and it was 87 degrees today. The forecast is for nothing but sunshine and heat for the next five days. I kept Mediterranean hours, working in the morning and the evening with an afternoon siesta. This morning I bought four flats of impatiens and planted them in the front bed, and finished pruning my roses. In the afternoon I put deer nets over the impatiens, because my deer love them, and as the deep footprints in the soft soil of my annual bed show, they are here, and did some weeding. It was a quiet, restful day.

torture and the reality principle

The most famous line to emerge from the Bush administration is likely to be this statement made by an administration official (probably Karl Rove) to Ron Suskind:
The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'
This comes to mind because, as McClatchy reports, one of the main things that we tried to torture out of al Qaeda captives was evidence that they were working closely with Saddam Hussein:
The Bush administration applied relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's regime, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist....

A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration.
Why did we torture? To find what wasn't there. None of our captives had information on upcoming terrorist attacks, if al Qaida had gotten around to planning any. And none of them had information on close links between al Qaida and Saddam's Iraq because there were no such links. Evidence of such links was necessary for the imperial vision that Cheney, Rumsfeld and company were trying to create, so torture was applied to obtain it.

Here is the real danger of torture, the real danger posed by our acquiescence in the Bush administration's unchecked executive power. Everyone who has thought seriously about what totalitarianism means -- and what, by contrast, is minimally necessary for democracy -- has come back to the realtionship of government to the truth. In a totalitarian state, the government defines what is true. As Orwell put it, totalitarianism "demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth." Totalitarian states love torture because through torture they can force people to submit to their own version of reality and say the things that they want to be said.

Because the importance of the "reality principle" is not immediately obvious to anyone who has not lived under a totalitarian regime, Americans have not taken Bush's assault on the truth seriously enough. After all, all politicians engage in word games with the truth. Lawyers quibble about the meaning of the law. Prisoners get roughed up in every penal system, especially those who have committed famously heinous crimes. Most of us, though, accept that there are limits. We can argue about the boundary between murder and manslaughter, but we accept that murder is a real crime. Because this seems so obvious to us, we tend to think that anyone who disputes whether a murder has been committed must have some genuine reason for doing so. But Bush and his cronies feel so such obligation to reality. They will argue anything if they think it serves their purposes. Waterboarding is torture, defined as such by dozens of court rulings in the US and elsewhere. We have executed Japanese interrogators as war criminals for this exact offense. But Bush's people didn't want it to be torture, so they have claimed it isn't.

It matters very much that we insist that they are wrong. Once we let the government change the meanings of words in whatever way suits their purposes, we have lost our freedom. If they can say that waterboarding is not torture, they can say that free speech doesn't include the right to criticize them, that their suspicions are "just cause" for imprisoning you, that you are a "clear danger to others" and so need to be committed to an asylum. All of our laws and rights are just words, and if they mean nothing, we are not free.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Arrowhead and baby snapping turtle in a field along the Potomac River.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

nature at home in Maryland

While savagery rages on the Patagonian coast, it was an unsettled spring day in Maryland, with alternating sun and rain, some big dark clouds, and a bit of a chill. Spring goes on for animals like these geese, which I startled off their nest by the C&O Canal:

and for plants like these bluebells, growing in a flood chute of the Potomac:

orcas and sea lion pups

I was just trying to unwind in my utterly boring motel room, flipping channels, when I stumbled across an Animal Planet show about the coast of Patagonia. This features, first, elephant seal bulls fighting over a harem until the water runs red, and then the winner kills the loser's pups by sitting on them until they suffocate.

And then we had orcas hunting sea lion pups. These particular orcas know exactly when the sea lion pups are learning to swim, and they show up at the nursery beach at that time every year. They come right up on the beach to catch the pups, and the sight of the huge dark mass of the whale looming up within a wave is one of the creepiest things I have ever seen. There is some video here, although it isn't as creepy as what I just watched. Once they catch a pup, they don't kill it right away, but carry it out into deep water and play with it for half an hour or so. They toss it back and forth using their mouths, and use their tails to hurl it 30 feet into the air. Eventually they get bored and eat it.

Nature. Shudder.

Monday, April 20, 2009

183 times

The newly released torture memos reveal that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, one of the planners of the 9-11 attacks, was waterboarded 183 times in one month. Waterboarding, despite what some wags on Fox News like to say, is a terrible torture, much harder to endure than beatings or electric shocks.

This raises some questions for me. First, how can anyone now think that torture of any sort would be useful in a "ticking time bomb" scenario? The CIA went at their "high value subjects" for months with everything they could devise. Second, does torture really work at all with tough, highly motivated people? What we are hearing now is that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah, our two most famous al Qaeda prisoners, never revealed anything under torture that they hadn't already said under questioning. If they held back any secrets, truly horrific levels of suffering could not pry them out. There are references in our published documents to a secret CIA assessment of "harsh questioning" that seems to say that it may not work at all on religious fanatics. Since that category includes most of our most dangerous enemies, what's the point?

Third, what kind of person can inflict such suffering, day in and day out? What kind of doctor can monitor such acts and still sleep at night, knowing he once swore an oath to do no harm? And what kind of country can allow such acts to be done in its name?

strange maps

I just discovered this wonderful blog, devoted to unusual maps.

inexplicable things

At New Scientist, an updated list of Thirteen Things that Don't Make Sense.

There is a rather large class of odd experimental results floating around out there. Most scientists assume that most of them are flukes of one sort or another, i.e., some kind of problem with the equipment or some sort of unusual situation in the lab. But some of them could really point toward new phenomena.

One of the thirteen items in the list is Cold Fusion. Hundreds of scientists have tried to duplicate the original experiment, and enough of them have obtained energy outputs of one level or another than the Department of Energy has recently said it would start accepting proposals for Cold Fusion experiments within its usual physics of energy programs.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

the nest

It's seed planting weekend at my house. I already planted two of the smaller beds, but the main annual bed is still pretty wet and I will probably wait until tomorrow for that one. I love planting seeds, and I am still amazed every year when plants come up and flowers bloom.

Meanwhile, a pair of confused robins have decided to build their nest on my ladder. I can do without the ladder for a few months, but I still don't think my back porch is a great place to raise nestlings.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A forest that is one tree

The ready availability of genetic testing has allowed biologists to find out how big single organisms can get. We have already learned about giant fungi that stretch across acres of forest and weight upwards of 500 tons. And now comes word of something even bigger:
The largest organism on Earth, and probably the oldest multicellular organism, is named Pando. Kind of a cutesy name for such an impressive specimen, don’t you think?

If you were to meet Pando — which you could easily do, if you paid a visit to Fishlake National Forest in Utah — it would look like a forest of Quaking Aspen trees. But if you happened to be equipped to do DNA testing on plant specimens, you would realize that all of the trees were genetically identical. That’s because they’re all part of the same tree, sharing a common root system. One tree springs from a seed, long ago, and spreads out roots; but then more trees erupt from those roots, and the process simply continues. Individual “trees” might die, but that’s like you or me losing a toenail; Pando lives on. It weighs in at over six million kilograms, and is likely more than 80,000 years old (although it might be much older).
Pando was discovered and named in the 1970s, but until recently the genetic identity of the whole organism or colony or whatever you want to call it was only a hypothesis. According to wikipedia, it has about 47,000 trunks. Since the organism as a whole can easily survive the death of one trunk or a thousand, and since it seems already to have survived severe fires that destroyed everything above ground, it could live pretty much forever.

Hume on God

An interesting essay by Simon Blackburn in the London Times about David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, written in the 1750s but not published until after Hume's death in 1776. In the dialogues, Philo, a skeptic, discusses two trendy eighteenth-century views of god with Cleanthes, whose god is the divine watchmaker and who favors the argument from design, and Demea, who believes in the philosophers' perfect, immutable, transcendent, unknowable god:
So is Hume himself an atheist? The word does not fit, and he never described himself as such. He is much too subtle. Philo the sceptic says that we cannot understand or know anything about a transcendent reality that explains or sustains the ongoing order of nature, while theists such as Demea say that we cannot understand or know anything about the transcendent reality, which is God, that explains or sustains the ongoing order of nature. Since the inserted clause does not help us in the least, the difference between them is merely verbal. And this is Hume's conclusion.
I like this very much. I cannot see how the word "god" adds anything to a discussion of the nature of the universe, especially not in a spiritual sense. Unless you really believe in a stern old man frowning down from heaven (or Zeus frolicking among the nymphs), which I don't, the word is nothing but an impediment to understanding.

And I liked Blackburn's summation of religion's dark side:
Bad things happen when people decorate their bare, inchoate, unstable and inconsistent imaginings with the baser trappings of their culture. They come out of the fog bearing ludicrous beliefs about cosmology or biology, or carrying their envies and fears, their embarrassments about sex in general or certain varieties in particular, their desire to steal some land or make war on their neighbours. Deities then become dangerous, megaphones through which emotions are whipped up and particular moral demands are given a spurious authority. People need prophets and priests to carry the megaphones, and they are often supposed to signal their rapport with the deity by making remarkable things happen.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Apocalypse, Anyone?

More evidence of humankind's fascination with apocalyptic change, on display at my local Barnes & Noble. I have trouble understanding this particular obsession. Is ordinary life so grim for many people that they can only get through it by imaging that the universe will soon be destroyed?

I suppose this is only one facet of the desire for "Change" that I wrote about in the context of the signs people waved at Obama's campaign rallies. At a lower level it sustains the vacation and fasion industries. When carried to extremes, it means Revolution, or the Son of Man coming on clouds of glory.

Me, I kind of like life the way it is, and I am more interesting in tinkering than overturning.

Moche Tomb

Wonderful photographs of a spectacular Moche tomb in Peru, at National Geographic.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter Egg Hunt

We keep a traditional Easter in our house, that is, we treat it as the pagan fertility rite it was for millennia before Jesus of Nazareth was born. We don't sacrifice a lamb, but we do have lots of eggs and (fake) baby bunnies and the like.

All of our children love egg hunting. This year my two eldest didn't really participate. Mary watched and grabbed a couple of ignored eggs, and Robert led his cousin Augie around. This left the field open for Thomas, who probably found about half the eggs. But Ben and Clara found plenty, too.

Thomas and Mary reach at the same time for an egg sitting on the top of the sliding tube:

And Thomas celebrates finding the big egg that was hidden in the top of the fort:

Later on we'll have a treasure hunt, and some relatives are coming for dinner. It's a lovely day, too, and the garden looks great.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

the pope misses the point

I see the pope is calling for an end to poverty. Gee, wouldn't that be nice?
At a time of world food shortage, of financial turmoil, of old and new forms of poverty, of disturbing climate change, of violence and deprivation which force many to leave their homelands in search of a less precarious form of existence, of the ever present threat of terrorism, of growing fears over the future, it is urgent to rediscover grounds for hope.
I wonder if the pope has ever given any thought to why people are poor in the first place? And to what would actually have to happen for people to become richer?

Because it isn't a secret. The basic equation was figured out 200 years ago by Thomas Malthus: for people to become richer, economic growth has to be faster than population growth. Without some kind of limit on population growth, the geometric increase in population will always overwhelm any conceivable increase in the total wealth of the society. This is what has happened in the parts of the world that are still desperately poor. Africa received a huge economic boost in the 1960s and 1970s in the form of new agricultural techniques and foreign investment in mines and oil wells, and the total economic output of the continent doubled. But so did the population, and so most Africans are just as poor now as they were in 1950. In the rich parts of the world, population growth has been kept low, certainly much lower than we could theoretically sustain. So we keep getting richer.

If the pope is serious about ending poverty, he should be out promoting birth control, because in the long run only a society with a modest rate of population growth can lift its people out of poverty. By opposing birth control, the Catholic church has made itself the most important force in the world working to keep poor people poor.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Graveyard Book

I note with pleasure that Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book has won the 2009 Newberry Medal. It is a delightful and fascinating story, and I recommend it for all children ten and up, including grown children like me.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

How strong are we?

There has always been anecdotal evidence that under certain circumstances humans can perform fantastic feats of strength. I have long wondered whether this was true and, if so, how we might better tap into that strength. It was in that light that I read this news item, about scientists who think chimps are stronger than humans because our muscles are under tighter cerebral control:
February's brutal chimpanzee attack, during which a pet chimp inflicted devastating injuries on a Connecticut woman, was a stark reminder that chimps are much stronger than humans—as much as four-times stronger, some researchers believe. But what is it that makes our closest primate cousins so much stronger than we are? One possible explanation is that great apes simply have more powerful muscles.

Indeed, biologists have uncovered differences in muscle architecture between chimpanzees and humans. But evolutionary biologist Alan Walker, a professor at Penn State University, thinks muscles may only be part of the story.

In an article published in the April issue of Current Anthropology, Walker argues that humans may lack the strength of chimps because our nervous systems exert more control over our muscles. Our fine motor control prevents great feats of strength, but allows us to perform delicate and uniquely human tasks. . . .

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Medieval Dog Sacrifice

Archaeological evidence from Hungary that dog sacrifice, a common part of Hungarian paganism, continued into Christian times:
Roughly 1,300 bones from about 25 dogs were recently discovered in the 10th- to 13th-century town of Kana, which had been accidentally unearthed in 2003 during the construction of residential buildings on the outskirts of Budapest.
Researchers found ten dogs buried in pits and four puppy skeletons in pots buried upside down.

These sacrifices probably served much like amulets to ward against evil—for instance, to protect against witchcraft or the evil eye, said study leader Márta Daróczi-Szabó, an archaeozoologist at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest.

About a dozen other canines were found buried under house foundations. These animals likely served as "construction sacrifices," Daróczi-Szabó said.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Daffodil season

Too bad I didn't take a picture of the grape hyacinths yesterday, because the herd of deer that wandered through the yard this morning ate them all.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Birthday Invitation, AD 100

From the British Museum Images website, which is amazing, this remarkable find. This scrap of papyrus was found in a privy at Vindolanda, a Roman fort in north Britain that became part of the support system for Hadrian's Wall. It was an invitation to a birthday party held around AD 100:

Front: 'Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present (?). Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him (?) their greetings. (2nd hand) I shall expect you sister. Farewell, sister my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.
Back: (1st hand) 'To Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Cerialis, from Severa'.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Rebellion of the Ant slaves

From Not Exactly Rocket Science, a summary of an amazing article just published in Evolution:
Humans aren't the only species that have had to deal with the issue of slavery. Some species of ants also abduct the young of others, forcing them into labouring for their new masters. These slave-making ants, like Protomagnathus americanus conduct violent raids on the nests of other species, killing all the adults and larva-napping the brood.

When these youngsters mature, they take on the odour of their abductors and become the servants of the enslaving queen. They take over the jobs of maintaining the colony and caring for its larvae even though they are from another species; they even take part in raids themselves. But like all slave-traders, P.americanus faces rebellions.

Some of its victims (ants from the genus Temnothorax) strike back with murderous larvae. Alexandra Achenbach and Susanne Foitzik from Ludwig Maximillians Universty in Munich found that some of the kidnapped workers don't bow to the whims of their new queen. Once they have matured, they start killing the pupae of their captors, destroying as many as two-thirds of the colony's brood. . . .