Snowglobes prohibited: do you feel safe now?

Posted in Liberty at 12:16 by RjZ

The TSA has added snow globes of any size to its list of items prohibited as airplane carry on. Do you feel safe now? Does it help you to know that the alleged “‘Terror Plot’ foiled on the morning of Wednesday, 10th August 2006″ of jihadists bringing down planes destined for the United States armed with a sports drink, nail polish remover (acetone) and an MP3 player has not amounted to convictions, or even proof of a real plot?

Most of the media has been pretty silent about it, but NBC news did report that a “an attack was not imminent” as had been suggested by police. This commentary discusses various sources and revelations about the likelihood of this latest terrorist attack. It’s very interesting reading, so I won’t repeat it here. Not only was the attack not imminent, it wasn’t plausible. If that doesn’t convince you, here’s another source, (with still more links) that explains that the suggested explosive, TATP, would sooner kill the alleged terrorist than bring down a plane.

So why all this attention on inconveniencing air passengers when the supposed plots aren’t feasible, reasonable, imminent, or even likely? Simple answer: politics. Elected officials have a better chance of winning if they’re doing something that keeps you safe. Even if we don’t agree, well, at least “he’s doing what he can.” It isn’t true only for elected officials and it isn’t true only in the United States. When NY Subway officials said they would perform random searches, travelers did not cry out about the stupidity of it all (they’d catch 1 in 10,000, even there were terrorists boarding the New York subway.) British authorities raised the “threat level” to critical after the alleged plot in August, even though there turned out to be no threat at all, and they didn’t retract their warnings after the investigation proceeded, because, well, it’s safer if people keep vigilant.

Lobbyists chasing after ever growing Homeland Security dollars, aren’t motivated to search out the truth of their claims that Red Bull and nail polish remover are the next major threat–it might endanger something more important than the freedom to travel: their jobs. A system where we reward politicians for the appearance of safety and action in spite of their effectiveness costs us more than inconvenience. It strips us of liberty, privacy and money.

The TSA isn’t cheap. They requested $5 billion alone for aviation risks in 2006. Compare that with $69 billion for the United States mandatory and discretionary budget for education. It seems strange to me that education is only seven times the budget for people who won’t allow us to bring shampoo or snow globes on planes which, of course, does nothing for our safety. But at least we feel safe, don’t we?

So why aren’t we complaining? Because there is a huge disconnect between those demanding our toothpaste and those making the policy. When we’re about to step on a plane we have no choice but to endure the indignity of removing shoes and showing off our “personal lubricants” in “a clear one quart zip-lock bag” we can’t really complain because they have every authority to keep us from flying if we do. Meanwhile, the policy makers are keeping us safe and hording Homeland Security dollars at our request.
Keep this in mind when politicians tell you they want to keep you safe and protect you from terrorists. Ask them not only what they’re going to do, but how they’re going to see if what they’re doing actually works! If your auto mechanic said he was going to change your oil every 50 miles because it’s better for your car, you’d question his motivation. It’s probably not bad for your car to change oil every 50 miles, but it’s not going to make it last any longer either. And it is going to cost you a fortune and loads of inconvenience.

There are hundreds of ways to blow up a plane, and hundreds other terrorists plots that could scare us, but we let our governments do the scaring instead. We really are letting the terrorists win. Keep this in mind while you shuffle through airport security getting your socks dirty. Snow globes are hardly our biggest threat.

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Finally, a plan

Posted in at 13:45 by RjZ

Bush has all but ignored recommendations from the Iraq Study Group, and appears to be preparing a hail Mary pass to save the day in Iraq which is being called a “surge.”

Meanwhile, uncharacteristically, democrats like Joe Biden are finally starting to have a more detailed policy than ‘we don’t like what Bush is doing.’ Biden suggests we pull troops our by end of 2007 and that we leave a federal Iraq with nearly autonomous provinces for the Kurds, Sunis, and Shia. It’s not that much of a plan and it’s not very new (he admits it isn’t new) but unlike just about everyone else who actually holds a political office in the United States, it actually is a plan and for that, Biden ought to be commended.

Let’s hope that there will be more plans and that the debate can finally proceed passed the ‘you’re idea isn’t working’ comments.

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Even democrats don’t like unions

Posted in at 14:09 by RjZ

Denver Post reports today that choosing Denver as the site for the 2008 Democratic National Convention is being held up by concessions from the stagehands union to forgo its right to strike during the convention. If they won’t pledge not to strike during the convention, then democrats won’t come.

Aren’t the democrats the party of the unions? Don’t they support unions right to strike? I guess that support only goes so far as big business and that protecting the individual is secondary to the success of the media events that are the national party conventions.

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Libertarian GOP Defection?

Posted in at 17:51 by RjZ

RealClearPolitics has one man’s opinion on the course of libertarians over the last forty years. I thought it was interesting to cite the connections between liberals and libertarians, especially if you read the comments on Matt Stone’s quote below.

Personally I’ve always been more fond of the connection of libertarian to liberal than the, as described here, rather recent, connection of libertarian to republican so this article adds a nice perspective. It’s especially important when we notice that even fiscally conservative and socially conservative republicans ought to be questioning the Bush administrations don’t-tax-(the rich), spend-anyway policy.

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Boulder liberals can be scary

Posted in , Liberty at 16:51 by RjZ

During a recent interview, the creators of South Park had this response to Reason Magazine:

Reason: When you say libertarian, what do you mean?

Stone: I had Birkenstocks in high school. I was that guy. And I was sure that those people on the other side of the political spectrum were trying to control my life. And then I went to Boulder [Colorado] and got rid of my Birkenstocks immediately, because everyone else had them and I realized that these people over here want to control my life too. I guess that defines my political philosophy. If anybody’s telling me what I should do, then you’ve got to really convince me that it’s worth doing.

I think they may have a point.

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Not everyone knows what you know

Posted in Reviews at 17:45 by RjZ

“Five pieces of coal, a carrot and a scarf are lying on the lawn. Nobody put them on the lawn but there is a perfectly logical reason for them being there. What is it?”

That’s a rather easy one. You can probably guess without even asking any questions. Sometimes these “Lateral Thinking Puzzles” can be quite a bit more difficult. The quizmaster will answer your questions only with “yes”, “no”, or “irrelevant” and somehow you slowly piece together the story behind this odd situation.

“One night during the Second World War, an allied bomber was on a mission over Germany. The plane was in perfect condition and everything on it worked properly. When it had reached the target, the pilot ordered the bomb doors open. They opened. He then ordered the bombs released. They were released. But the bombs did not fall from the plane. Why should this be so?”

They really were released and neither was the crew surprised by this nor did anything malfunction, but still the bombs remained in the plane. Had they been on the ground back in England when they tried this, the bombs would have fallen from the plane. Got it yet?

These puzzles are truly logical and involve little or no word play. But they require “lateral thinking” which is a phrase coined to describe the non-linear problem solving you’ll need to put everything together. There’s a logical explanation of course, but it’s not the kind of answer that follows 1-2-3 from the question.

I first learned about these puzzles from my new boss, while I was living in Holland. He was an American and he loved these puzzles and knew many of them by heart. I liked them too, but when I tried them with friends and colleagues I noticed a problem in many of them. It turns out that many of them have a cultural bias. You have to know something about an custom or activity that clues you into what’s really going on in the story but that activity might not be practiced everywhere.

Without spoiling the questions above, the first one might be tougher if you live in, say, India, or Thailand. The second one is pretty reasonable, but it helps the process if you can at least picture a WWII airplane.

Still trying some these out and having them fall so flat with my intended audience was a great lesson in assumptions. It’s certainly easy to assume that someone ought to know something but that doesn’t make it so. But imagining what is not obvious to someone else requires you to really step out of your own skin and into someone else’s. Turns out that’s a handy skill to have.

For more of these puzzles, pick up the book Lateral Thinking Puzzlers by Paul Sloane. If you didn’t already figure out the examples above, feel free to ask yes-or-no questions in the comments and we’ll solve them right here.

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Before the Iraq Study Group

Posted in Society at 9:57 by RjZ

The Iraq Study Group will release its 142 page findings today on what to do in Iraq. I thought I’d get a few words out before that was published.

I’ve written little about the war in Iraq because I have little original to contribute to this ongoing debate. As a result, it is not obvious from this blog that I have been opposed to United States intervention since before we chose to commit troops, ostensibly to find and remove weapons of mass destruction and because of alleged ties to Osama bin Laden’s attack on the World Trade Center. We know, now, that this was concocted rubbish and misleading by a war hungry administration.

In spite of how much our previous actions, bad planning and resulting chaos pains me, our decisions and actions going forward must be just that: forward. We must consider the situation today, and decide what is best for United States’ interests from here on, even if we are the impetus behind the quagmire that exists there.

Today, Iraq is a country with a fledgling democratic government that is ineffective at basic needs, such as security for its people, and it is considered an illegitimate puppet by a significant minority of the country. Three cultural factions vie for power, or perhaps simply independence in the region—Suni, Shia, and Kurds. Unfortunately the surrounding nations of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Iran all side with one of those factions.

The presence of the United States military clearly contributes to violence. It is difficult for the Iraqis not to feel occupied after four years of occupation. It is difficult for them not to wonder about their own government’s legitimacy when it demands that the occupiers remain. It is difficult for them not to be angry at the U.S. military, in spite of all the good that they do, when there are still examples of deplorable behavior such as prison tortures and rape-murders of Iraqis (we won’t even discuss that these crimes go almost unpunished.)

Iraq is no longer just a civil war. True, Suni and Shia no longer live next to each other, instead retreating to separate parts of the cities and now shelling each other with shoulder launched missiles. Alas, it’s worse than just a civil war. It is a proxy war between the Suni-led (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait) and Shia-led (Iran) powers in the region. Each side is sending in troops, weapons and money to its factions and the Iraqis fight alongside the foreign insurgents. Without U.S. presence, the region would be far more destabilized then when we got there and this would result in more deaths and more economic disruption for the entire world. Good job, Mr. Bush…glad you thought this one through.

What can we do going forward? Our presence contributes to the problem but pulling out could cause the whole place to fall apart. First, we must acknowledge that U.S. politics will not settle the problem that Bush caused. He screwed up and everyone who sided with him, republican, democrat or otherwise, ought to be voted out. Fortunately, U.S. Americans made plenty of headway here during our last elections. But now that that’s progressing, there is no need to be simply against Bush. We must have a plan going forward that is comprised of more than “well we don’t want to do what he’s done.”

Furthermore, unless we are comfortable with the economic disruption and innocent death that would ensue from a broad war in the middle east, we must admit that troops in the region, while contributing to the problem, also keep it from spreading. Any proposed plan must accept these painful realities.

Iraqis and others in the region believe that the Iraqi government is a puppet of the United States and that the U.S. intends to be a permanent occupier. In spite of what the Bush administration tells us: that setting a timetable would give the insurgents a wait and attack strategy; it is exactly our continued presence that strengthens them. We must provide a timetable for withdrawal, except it should not be based on time, but rather action. When the Iraqi government achieves a goal, we will no longer engage in specific kinds of conflict. When they complete another one we will withdraw our troops from certain regions. When Iraq has achieved a specified level of security, then we will remove a set percentage of our troops from Iraqi soil and so forth. For each milestone, the U.S. will pull further out, until Iraq has earned the freedom that Iraqis will have fought hard for.
This would give the Iraqi government negotiating power with both sides. Their pitch becomes: if you want to be a free nation; free of United States influence, then this is what we must do, together, in order to kick them out. Insurgents could no longer just wait until the deadline, because the deadline includes them not behaving as insurgents. Iraqis, proud of their nation, would have ownership in eliminating insurgents, regardless of which sect the belong to.

Can we be sure that this will solve the problem. Of course not. But as long as we continue to have a political battle that offers only two choices: cut and run or stay the course, we make no progress at all.

Worse, this plan will likely be painfully long for the United States. It will continue to cost money and lives. We must remember George Bush Jr. as the man who put us in this intractable situation and we should never allow this to happen again, because it already has been and will continue to be extremely costly to our country and the world. Unfortunately, as politically advantageous as it might be in the short term, pulling out our troops, saving that money, and leaving the middle east to fall apart, a situation we will have contributed greatly to, will only cost more money and more lives.

This time, we really must choose between the lesser of two evils. Our goal must be to mitigate the damage from our choice. Let’s see what Iraq Study Group Report author, Mr. Baker, has to say about it.

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But did it eat you?

Posted in Travel at 18:27 by RjZ

Sometimes a story is so much better in person than in the retelling. Like the story where you once saw a bear and your friend asks “did it eat you?” No one seems as impressed as your racing heart insisted they ought to be when you describe the white knuckle details. So don’t get too excited, because this is one of those stories.

Like many tourists, I was surprised and excited to see a rhino just doing his thing, so close to us in the middle of this village. I immediately trained my video camera on him and with my eye pressed against the viewfinder I could see all the other tourists slowly approaching him, cameras outstretched, all with the same idea. I was a little more timid, content to let the 10X optical zoom do the job, when I noticed that some people were moving the other way. I lowered the camera and with both eyes now, I could see all the locals running the other way. They were running up trees and climbing onto some of the elephants standing around waiting to haul tourists here and there. I quickly realized I needed to join them, and it was suddenly hilarious to watch all those other stupid tourists, peering through their cameras, moving towards the rhino. Ha ha! Stupid tourists!

Rhinoceroses have a simple survival strategy. They mind their own business and ask that every other creature do the same thing. To illustrate this desire to live and let others live, so long as it’s not too close, rhinos will charge anything (except maybe an elephant) that gets within about 15 meters of them. If Anything in question is too stupid to run away, professor Rhino will trample it to make sure the lesson is clear. The locals explained this to me while I was panting on top of an elephant and wondering which European tourist was going to get a nature lesson beaten into him.

The next morning at dawn we took a canoe ferry from the village across the river to the Royal Chitwan National Park side of the river for our walking safari. The Chitwan park in Nepal is home to monkeys, bears, tigers, and rhinos and is separated from the village by a wide, shallow, slow moving river, that a hiker, or rhino, could easily wade across. The river represents the park border, for villagers, but the rhinos didn’t get the memo. Or maybe they trampled the messenger.

We met our two guides there and discovered it would just be us two and the two guides walking around for hours in the jungle. “This isn’t a zoo,” they warned us; “there is no guarantee we’ll see any animals at all.” That’s a good thing, I thought, because all they had with them to protect us was a long straight cane. “It scares the monkeys…” our lead guide informed us. I just hoped it would do the same if we encountered another rhino or a tiger. I mentioned that a large rifle would scare the monkeys, too. We’d probably be spared becoming tiger lunch though because they hunt at dusk. That was enough to get us going in a hurry. No one wanted to be late.

The two previous days we’d been on an elephant safari and a jeep safari through this region. The elephants are very safe as everything in the jungle leaves them alone and as long as you’re on top of this bouncy, four-legged flat-bed you’re as safe as can be. Just hold on for the slow, bumpy ride.

The jeeps are almost as safe, so long as the ignition works reliably. Two days before we had stopped to observe another rhino in the road about 20 meters up ahead of us in our Russian surplus jeep. The rhino mostly ignored us, after all, we were out of his range, and he wandered up the hill a few paces. One of our German passengers with a long zoom on his camera asked if we could “move ah little clohsa.” I glared at him like he was nuts; this rhino had to be about as long, and certainly as heavy, as the jeep we were in. What had he bought that zoom lens for anyway? The rhino looked up, his ears wiggling and started raising his nose to sniff the air for nature students. The driver was familiar with this signal and started getting the jeep started again. (Or maybe he was trying to grant the German’s request.) But the rhino started pawing the ground and began to accelerate his giant mass in our direction. The driver was now frantically trying to get the old jeep started and the German and I were finally in complete agreement that we needn’t get any closer now. The jeep sputtered, and the wheels skidded in the dirt, as the driver pushed the accelerator down as if all of our lives depended on it. At this point the rhino’s charged petered out, having achieved its desired effect. That’ll teach them, he surely thought smugly.

Today, though, we wouldn’t be in a jeep or on an elephant. We’d be walking around with these two Nepalese guides and a cane. I asked our guide if they paid him well because maybe hazard pay was in order. It didn’t take long before the cane came in handy either! Just as promised a group of monkeys decided to check out if we had food. The were very bold and only lots of cane swinging scared them off. Later he poked a small mugger crocodile with the tip of the cane to show us it was sleeping and not dead. He wasn’t dead. Now, he was awake and grouchy!

We saw another rhino. We were walking single file through pretty dense forest so at first we didn’t notice it. What we noticed was our cane toting guide running towards us, pushing on all three of us and telling us to turn around and run! I kept imagining that this was just an act to excite the tourists, but I can’t figure out how they got the rhinos to play along. We looked back and saw, now at a safe distance, an older pimply butt rhino munching on grass. Our guide said he’d seen that one a few times before and he’s grouchy in his old age. I proposed we walk back the other way.

Late in the day, after we had sat on the side of the road eating our lunch and talking, our guide suddenly silenced us by raising his hands and placing one before his mouth. He gestured to the tall grass about four meters away. We just looked at him puzzled while he stared intently at the grass and we waited. The he pointed and mouthed the word “Tiger” to us. With that, our eyes widened as we too, stared at the tall grass and I tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to the path behind us, indicated that this seemed like a good time to get going.

We waited and stared for a good long time, when finally, he spoke up “I was sure I saw a tiger in there…” and as soon as he spoke, a huge noise erupted from the grass we’d been looking at so intently. Something, I’ll never know what, bolted at the sound of his voice (who even needs the cane!) That something had been watching us for minutes and never moved a muscle or made a sound and we never caught so much as a glimpse of it. After plenty of startled “what-was-THATs!” and “let’s-get-out-of-here’s” we backed quickly out of there and staggered home, our knees weak from the adrenaline.

I can’t be sure whether it really was a tiger or just an entrepreneurial guide who knows how to get good tips, but I can assure you it was an exciting safari–even if nothing really did happen and I didn’t get eaten. Or even mauled.
Check out some more pictures from this trip.

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A vote for socialism?

Posted in at 12:44 by RjZ

Hugo Chavez was elected for the third time to a six-year term as president of Venezuela in what NPR and others are calling a “victory for socialism.” I suspect this wasn’t so much an affirmation of socialism as a vote for independence. Chavez may irritate liberals and conservatives alike when he waves Chomsky’s book on the hegemony of the United States around from the U.N. podium, but his fiery speeches resonate with a majority in a region often dominated by United State’s influence.

Historically, the United States invested significant resources in money to prop up dictators it liked or in spies to put down those it didn’t, to keep Latin America free from ‘Leftist’ influences, but fear of George Bush’s war-mongering has contributed to Chavez’s power. Publicly, Chavez compares George Bush with the devil, but privately, he ought to send him a thank-you card. Opposition leaders in Venezuela say that Chavez spends millions of public dollars cultivating a cult of popularity, but the foundation for this cult remains a patriotic independence from U.S. hegemony which only Venezuelan oil money can buy and George Bush has fueled.

All that work to spread democracy at the barrel of a gun is coming back to bite us.

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Abortion pill holds hope for breast cancer sufferers

Posted in at 10:56 by RjZ

According to the the Daily Mail the RU-486 “abortion pill” is offering women at risk of developing breast cancer hope. The Times has more on the subject but fails to mention how republican leaders have tried to ban the drug on multiple occasions.

Bertrand Russel once noted that even though Catholics believe that Protestants are damned to eternal hellfire, their political influence causes both Protestants and Catholics alike to conceive more children, essentially increasing the number of damned souls. That doesn’t seem very nice of them.

We’ll see how republicans respond to the news that the so-called “abortion pill” might actually save lives.

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