Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Torture Matrix

It might be for the best to read my "Inconceivable!" post from the relatively recent past before reading the rest of this post.

Again, I was randomly thinking of sci-fi stuff, and The Matrix somehow crossed my mind. (I'm not a big fan, especially given its massive reality holes, but it's got a few points.) I got to thinking of the scene from the first movie (I try not to remember that there were others after that) where Agent Smith is trying to find out from Morpheus the passwords for or location of Zion, or something like that. And I started thinking, if these Agents et al. are totally in control of the Matrix in this hypothetical world, why does it seem that they're giving Morpheus some kind of truth serum, when they're in total control of his world? I mean, compared to what they should be capable of imposing on him, the Bush regime's waterboarding & wiring up etc. would be pretty tame.

And then, something popped into my head in connection with this, which I've sort of known for a while now, but which hadn't made quite such an immediate connection as of yet: I've expected for a short while now, that fairly soon, we'll be technically capable of tapping in to the neural inputs of the brain, to some degree. And I would think that one of the very simplest things to do, along these lines, would be the simulation of pure, raw pain. (If I had to guess, given the current state of the art (i.e., monkeys being able to control arms and such), I'd expect this in between five and twenty years, a rather broad span.)

And this lead, inevitably, to the thought: If we did gain the technical capability to simulate such complete and thorough pain, where would that leave our current policies on torture? I divvied it up into a few different possibilities: Does "organ failure" mean a level of pain similar to organ failure, or the actual threat of organ failure? If the former, then pain stimulation can totally bypass any such rule. Similar questions surround the matter of whether "cruel and unusual punishment" describes any hypothetical torture technique that might cause incredible psychic damage, but leave no physical scars at all. (In case it isn't obvious, I think it would be "cruel and unusual", but I can see where other might argue otherwise once it were possible.) And for further specifics, is risk of death a significant factor in torture? If one can somehow simulate, e.g., waterboarding to one's heart's content, day in and day out, without risk of actually causing death at all, does that make it all peachy kean, and hunky dory? What about the chances of actual physical damage to get the answers one wants (regardless of the matter of whether the answers the torturer wants are actually informative)? Again, if you can simulate any level of pain desired (on the part of the torturer), what's the point of that jibber-jabber about "major organ damage"?

Now yes, you can say that, for the moment, this is all sci-fi kind of consideration, and nothing about which to get your panties in a bunch. But, much like my fears of airplanes used as weapons, it could easily become reality rather too soon. And I can't help thinking about how the recent discussions comparing levels of torture to "major organ damage" could too easily facilitate the kind of torture that could leave permanent psychic damage, even leave one psychologically completely crippled for the rest of one's life, as long as it didn't actually cause any physical damage to biological organs, per se.

And if that door were opened, I fear for us all, because the Eighth Amendment could be interpreted to be practically meaningless, as far as the "cruelty" part is concerned. After a Supreme Court ruling that might approve of such methods in extreme circumstances, the "cruelty" clause of the 8th would become virtually meaningless, given any kind of capacity for neural simulation of pain (probably one of the very simplest methods of neural stimulation). After that, torture techniques could pretty much completely ignore all the damage done to the psyche of the subject, and any rehabilitation or therapy they might require to return them to society (granted, assuming they were a member of society in the first place, but a big part of the context of the Constitution & Bill of Rights is that we can't trust government entirely to judge such things right off the bat) would just be so much water under the bridge; not the government's responsibility at all, and so what if they might be incapable of relating to other humans thereafter, or even have been turned from a well-balanced, peaceful person into a sociopath by the pain to which they've been subjected.

While this all probably seems pretty out-there at the current time (even to myself), it's almost inevitable that, sooner or later (maybe even later than the twenty years I mention as a likely max), it will come to pass. And when that time comes, we will either find ourselves having to figure out the morality of such techniques from scratch, or we will have the precedent already laid out for us, in precedents that were adjudicated in cases having nothing to do with such possibilities. And if those judgments rely on such simplistic definitions as "major organ damage," we could be in for a world of hurt. So to speak.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Blog Against Racism Day

While I'm not exactly a terribly frequent or regular blogger yet, I thought I'd just drop a little heads-up that I will be posting for Blog Against Racism Day, December 1st, and would suggest that any other bloggers out there might do the same that day.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Sweet Irony

About 3/4 of the way down in this CNN interview transcript:

RUMSFELD: Indeed. But it doesn't take a genius to go kill people.

His words, not mine!

Update: Bonus irony!

"Some of the most irresponsible comments have come from politicians who actually voted in favor of authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein," Mr. Cheney said.


Sunday, November 06, 2005

Operation WHAT?!?

Dozens of insurgents were killed Saturday on the first day of Operation Steel Curtain, a U.S.-Iraqi military offensive near the Syrian border, military officials said.

Fer crissakes, how badly do these fools want to emulate their Soviet idols? Steel Curtain???

Update: Newer story URL

Friday, October 28, 2005

Traitorgate trivia question

Something I've been pondering over the past week or so, as we were getting a somewhat clearer picture of what went on around the Plame/Wilson leak: of course, it's verboten to reveal classified information that you know to be classified to someone not cleared for it. But is there a law that would cover the specific situation of someone who shares classified information with someone who is cleared for it, but doesn't tell them that it's classified, or at what level it's classified?

I'd think that may possibly be a very relevant matter in the (still!-)current investigation.

Things to Come

I'm half-expecting that, with the Miers nomination withdrawn, the conservative Christians are going to want to deny the use of any "litmus tests" on the next nominee, despite the one they applied to Miers (and she apparently eventually failed). So, I'm waiting to hear some right-winger say of the Miers process, "oh, that wasn't a litmus test, that was just a test of qualifications using binary logic"* any day now.

* "litmus test" is a layman metaphor for what might be properly called "a test of qualification(s) using binary logic".

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Traitorgate trivia

If you've been following Traitorgate (Plamegate, whatever you will) affairs somewhat closely, you might have noticed the name "Ghorbanifar" crop up a couple of times, in regards to the Italian meetings that may or may not have resulted in the Niger uranium forgeries. I decided to take a peek at my usual source, Wikipedia, to find out more, and between him and Michael Ledeen, it's quite an interesting story. Apparently, they've got history of doing unpleasant things "for" the U.S. together going back to the Iran-Contra affair.

Manucher Ghorbanifar
Michael Ledeen

Slashdot goodness (?) for the day

Two interesting items from Slashdot today:

Your Rights Online: Significant FBI Abuses of the Patriot Act

from the who-watches-the-watchers dept.

Noksagt writes "The Washington Post is reporting that recently discovered documents indicate serious intelligence violations by the FBI. This comes just months after the U.S. House voted to extend the Patriot Act, EPIC (the Electronic Privacy Information Center) has obtained documents through the Freedom of Information Act of thirteen cases of possible misconduct in intelligence investigations. The case numbering suggests that there were at least 153 investigations of misconduct at the FBI in 2003 alone."

Students Banned from Blogging

from the it's-for-your-own-protection dept.
wayward writes "Students at Pope John XIII, a Catholic high school, were told to take down their blogs from sites like Xanga and MySpace or face suspension. Rev. Kieran McHugh, the school's principal, said that he was trying to protect students from online predators. Not too surprisingly, free speech advocates got more than a little concerned.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Confusing reality, again & still

"It's a hypothetical," the [Bush] adviser said of the possibility that [Rove's departure] could happen. "Unfortunately it's a very real hypothetical."

No wonder these people have such difficulties with reality. That's not a "very real hypothetical"; that's a "very possible hypothetical". A "real hypothetical", while not quite truly a contradiction in terms, is certainly a completely useless phrase, semantically null. But hey, who needs that pesky reality stuff when you're working for the administration?

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

A minor quibble

We were given an idea as to what topics he may discuss with us, but it's the President of the United States; He (sic) will choose which way his conversation with us may go.

I'd just like to point out: he capitalized the "he" there when it wasn't starting a new sentence. You know for whom that sort of usage is usually reserved, right?

He's here to chew bubblegum...

The special counsel in the C.I.A. leak case has told associates he has no plans to issue a final report about the results of the investigation, heightening the expectation that he intends to bring indictments, lawyers in the case and law enforcement officials said yesterday....
By signaling that he had no plans to issue the grand jury's findings in such detail, Mr. Fitzgerald appeared to narrow his options either to indictments or closing his investigation with no public disclosure of his findings, a choice that would set off a political firestorm.

I believe the phrase the Times is looking for is "and I'm all out of bubblegum."

Friday, October 14, 2005

Those hotel churches

The Rude Pundit was reminded of this story from the distant past when he learned that the "church" that Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers attends is a hotel-based breakaway group from a larger Dallas church, and they gave her a standing ovation when she walked in late to their worship this past Sunday. This crazed Christ worship mixed with the piquant aroma of chlorine from the hotel pool is what Karl Rove touted to James Dobson in his "confidential" phone call, and it's what the President said is "part of Harriet Miers' life."

Suddenly, I'm very much reminded of a recent local big news story here. The Living Church of God is a hotel-based breakaway group from the Worldwide Church of God. They also happen to be the one where one of the members opened fire during services, killed seven others and wounded four, before shooting himself.

Gotta love those hotel-based breakaways. The main body of the church just wasn't quite wacky enough for them.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Word for the day

nade (nād), vt.
In politics, to split the votes of potential supporters who would otherwise vote as a bloc, such that neither of their preferred candidates wins

Not exactly terribly clever; the only original thing about it is making it a verb, such that Nader is "one who nades." But it'll do.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

On a Wing and a Prayer

OK, just one more thing I've been meaining to get off my chest, yet again:

For a fairly long while now, I've mostly lived in close proximity to a hospital with a helipad for the local Flight For Life emergency helicopters. And, since I've long been fairly fascinated with aviation of all kinds, when one of those helicopters flies over, I tend to notice and look, wondering whether it's a news helicopter, or a Flight For Life, or something else. When I do look up, if I find that it seems to be a Flight For Life, I usually indulge in yet another habit that goes back even farther, to hearing conventional ambulances zooming past, and I sort of wish the passenger/patient well. It's the kind of thing that, if I were the religious sort, I'd be silently offering up a prayer on their behalf, but I'm not, so a wish or hope or whatever-you-will is all they get.

But of late, I've been finding myself wishing them well as they fly past, and then suddenly wincing, as I start to contemplate how different it must be for people in certain other parts of the world, and I imagine how, when they hear a helicopter approaching, their first thought certainly isn't of praying for a patient (although they're mostly the type much more inclined to pray than I am), but might rather be something along the lines of a prayer that the helicopter isn't coming to blow up their own home more-or-less at random. It really puts a damper on my wishing for any hypothetical patients when I think about how differently the whup-whup-whup noise must be taken elsewhere.

Of late, to make matters even worse, I read about rescues of victims of Hurricane Katrina, and I'll probably be reading more about Hurricane Rita soon enough. And I have much the same thoughts about those folks. Here in the U.S., that sound connotes hope, rescue, safety, and so forth. Yet elsewhere, that same noise likely strikes fear into one's heart, and the only hope it brings is the hope that it isn't coming for you.

It's just one of those things that brings up the bitterness for me, and the cynicism, and the lack of hope for the entire world, and the human race that currently dominates it.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

President Remarks on Hurricane Recovery Efforts

President Remarks on Hurricane Recovery Efforts:
"Here's what I believe. I believe that the great city of New Orleans will rise again and be a greater city of New Orleans. (Applause.) I believe the town where I used to come from, Houston, Texas, to enjoy myself -- occasionally too much -- (laughter) -- will be that very same town, that it will be a better place to come to. That's what I believe. I believe the great state of Louisiana will get its feet back and become a vital contributor to the country."

OK, I was originally looking for this quote just to read for myself just what he'd so-wittily said about his visits to New Orleans in the past, but now I'm trying to figure out what the rest of that is supposed to mean. Houston will be that very same town (which very same town?), but a better place to come to? And why (given that this was before Rita started threatening the Lone Star State) should it reassure the residents of Louisiana that Houston was going to be the same?

Pardon me now while my head explodes. And watch out for that penguin on the telly, too.

How poor is poor?

Jonah Goldberg, as quoted on numerous blogs (I'm not sure I'm strong enough to go reading Town Hall myself just yet):

Indeed, the underlying assumption of the War on Poverty (and the New Deal) that government should make sure no one is poor is now widely accepted on both the left and the right.

While I can't speak for all Democrats or liberals, just this one, my own feeling is that he's missing a few words there: government should make sure no one is so poor that they can't escape poverty, with or without "bootstraps". And it seems to me there's still a long ways to go before that can be reasonably claimed to be the case.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


Copied from my comment at Brad DeLong's blog (and damn, I guess that blows my anonymity here all to hell):

Pacific Views: Who could have predicted 9/11?: From Condoleezza Rice on May 16, 2002: "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon; that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile."

OK, I've always kind of wanted to get this off my chest, so I'm going to spell out just how I was capable of imagining such a thing not too long before 9/11/2001 (not that I suppose many here would call it "inconceivable!", but...):

I was pondering weapons possibilities for the purpose of possibly writing some SF material, which led me to contemplate the question of what, in the broadest sense, makes something a weapon? After some thought, my conclusion was that for the most part, aside from biologicals & chemical weapons, it was the application of energy (always kinetic energy in the old days, in more recent times it could be kinetic or potential) to an area of the target, a small area for maximum penetration, a large area for most widespread damage. Swords, arrows, spears, polearms, maces, warhammers, bullets, cannon, bombs - they all involve application of energy to a relatively small area.
Now, as we all remember from our high school physics classes -right?- kinetic energy is E=mv^2/2 (often expressed as 1/2*mv^2, for reasons unclear to me; mv^2/2 is more direct & mathematically elegant), implying that you have more energy in something twice as fast rather than twice as massive (twice as much energy, in fact), plus a less massive object is likely to have a smaller cross-section, i.e. hit on a smaller area.
So, I pondered (after considering the sci-fi possibilities), what have we got in the modern world that would present a tidy sum of kinetic energy in a readily available package? Preferably going at a pretty good clip, and with a sizeable mass to boot.... One answer was pretty obvious: the airliners.
Then I pondered how one might get one to a target, and it seemed there were two distinct possibilities (not that other means are out of the question): either own & completely control an airline, so thoroughly that you can order your pilots to take up suicide missions (I was ignoring the possibilities of rogue pilots committing solo acts, like in Clancy's aforementioned (in the DeLong comments) Debt of Honor, since that's not exactly a commandable weapon; also note the resemblance of this scenario to the beginning of Red Dawn, of all things, as I dimly remember it), or you can get yourself some willing hijackers and slip them on board, perhaps behaving as though it's just a "routine" hijacking of the "take this plane to Cuba!" variety, and guide it to the target instead.
Now, I didn't go as far with this as to contemplate what a good target would be (after all, I was contemplating in the abstract, and so didn't even bother to figure out who might use this against whom), and I probably misunderestimated the significance of the chemical potential energy in the leftover fuel (basically equivalent to a low-intensity, long-duration warhead, e.g. napalm, in effect). But I like to think that if it were MY job to protect the country, rather than having been contemplating SF story scenarios, I'd have given that some rather full consideration.
And I think it certainly shows that certain administration officials "keep using that word (if not verbatim). I do not think it means what they think it means."

It's always bugged me that that claim was made, when an easily reproducible chain of thought can naturally lead one to just such a conclusion. I just want to make sure it's quite thoroughly refuted. (Not that Clancy alone shouldn't be enough for that.)

Monday, August 01, 2005

Not that I know sleep or anything

I can't help noticing among the left side of the commentary, the popularity of phrases like "stealth candidate" or "stealth nominee" when speaking of Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts. But I really think the term "sleeper" suits him much more perfectly. And maybe even has nastier connotations, to boot.

On an unrelated note, hot off the wires, Saudi Arabia's King Fahd passed away today. With Prince Abdullah having already been running the show for a while, I'm hardly expecting riots in the streets or anything like that, but it could get interesting, if radicals might decide it's a good time to start acting radically. I don't think they would, but I can't rule out the possibility.

An afterthought: I wonder if the King's deteriorating condition (if he'd been going downhill for a little while) might have had some bearing on the recent recall of Prince Bandar "Bush" as Ambassador to the U.S.? I'll have to look into this.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Later this week, at the White House Press Briefing...

Have I been replaced with an automaton? That's just totally ridiculous. Reply hazy, try again.

Monday, July 18, 2005

FBI says it has files on advocacy groups

I don't have time to edit this for the highlights right now, it's too late already. But this is just outrageous. But what else is new?

I'll try to trim it down to size later today.

The FBI has thousands of pages of records in its files relating to the monitoring of civil rights, environmental and similar advocacy groups, the Justice Department has acknowledged.

The organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Greenpeace, are suing for the release of the documents. The organizations contend that the material will show that they have been subjected to scrutiny by FBI task forces set up to combat terrorism.

The FBI has identified 1,173 pages related to the ACLU and 2,383 pages about Greenpeace, but it needs at least until February to process the ACLU files and until June to review the Greenpeace documents, the government said in a filing in U.S. District Court in Washington.

The FBI has not said specifically what those pages contain. The ACLU's executive director, Anthony Romero, said the disclosure indicates that the FBI is monitoring organizations that are engaging in lawful conduct.

'I know for an absolute fact that we have not been involved in anything related to promoting terrorism, and yet the government has collected almost 1,200 pages on our activities,' Romero said. 'Why is the ACLU now the subject of scrutiny from the FBI?'

John Passacantando, Greenpeace's U.S. executive director, said his group is a forceful, but peaceful, critic of the Bush administration's war and environmental policies.

'This administration has a history of using its powers against its peaceful critics. If, in fact, the FBI has been deployed to help in that effort, that would be quite shocking,' Passacantando said.

Justice Department and FBI spokesmen declined to comment, citing the ongoing case. The FBI has denied singling out individuals or groups for surveillance or investigation based solely on activities protected by the Constitution's guarantees of free speech.

Officials have said agents adhere strictly to Justice Department guidelines requiring evidence of criminal activity or indications that a person may know something about a crime.

The ACLU has sought FBI files on a range of individuals and groups interviewed, investigated or subjected to searches by the task forces. The requests also are for information on how the task forces are funded to determine if they are rewarded with government money by labeling high numbers of cases as related to terrorism.

The government did release one document it gathered on United for Peace and Justice that Romero said reinforces his concerns. The organization describes itself as a coalition of more than 1,300 anti-war groups.

A memo from September 4, 2003, about Internet sites that were promoting protests at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York was addressed to counterterrorism units in Boston, Los Angeles and New York.

"Why is this being labeled as counterterrorism when it's nothing more protests at a political convention, a lawful First Amendment activity?" Romero asked.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Slashdot: Politics: Does Voting Technology Affect Election Outcomes?

"Two economists have just posted a paper online, showing a small correlation between counties' use of paperless electronic voting systems and voting results in the recent presidential election (after controlling for other factors). They found no evidence for systematic fraud by testing several potential indicators. Rather, the voting method seems to affect the relative turnout of different voter demographies. Thanks to Election Law Blog for the pointer.'"

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Amazing New Hyperbolic Chamber Greatest Invention In The History Of Mankind Ever

The Onion endorses Liberal Hyperbole!

Added 2007/01/31: Update links as The Onion changes their archives. Old link here, for future reference.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Ah, sweet irony!

CNN.com - Ashcroft: Nuclear terror greatest threat - Jan 28, 2005: "'If you were to have nuclear proliferation find its way into the hands of terrorists, the entire world might be very seriously disrupted by a few individuals who sought to impose their will, their arcane philosophy, on the rest of mankind,' [Ashcroft] said."

OK, aside from the grammatical badness which is the idea of "nuclear proliferation" per se finding its way anywhere, might he be able to think of any other such few examples? Or is he truly that nearsighted?