Archive for September, 2010

Super Harvest Moon

September 22, 2010

Not the game, the real thing. Full moon at Autumnal Equinox. Here is a writeup. It’s tonight, Wednesday, so get out there and look. Note that we are only a couple nights past the closest approach of Jupiter to Earth in about 40 years, so that bright star next to the moon is pretty much as big as it gets.

In the modern recreation of our supposed Celtic past (and who doesn’t yearn to be Irish?) this is the festival called Mabon, and for the Japanese, it is しゅうぶんのひ. In the Anglo-Saxon lunar calendar, this full moon would probably signal the boundary between Wéodmónaþ (weed month) and Háligmónaþ (holy month)*.

We haven’t had a hummer at the feeder for a full week now, so I guess it’s time to bring them in.

*This is a correction, I was at the wrong month boundary.

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So, tell me again who won the war?

September 18, 2010

More indications that our ill-conceived adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan is doing us no good at all. Our friends, the Kurds, in northern Iraq, are now getting a significant proportion of their Internet connectivity supplied by Iran. Our clients, the Afghans, have also started using Iranian links. Just one more indication of how Iran is taking advantage of the economic and power vacuum we’ve created in the area.

IceCream@Home

September 17, 2010

In celebration of my 100th post, herewith is the saga of my search for makerless ice cream.

I know we are past summer, and so past ice cream season. I only bring this up now because it’s taken me this long to finish the experiments (burp). Last July, the blog Serious Eats had an entry on making ice cream without an ice cream maker. Basically, the idea behind making creamy ice cream is to freeze the cream quickly enough that the ice crystals are exceedingly small. There are a number of ways to go about this. One way is to use liquid nitrogen. Reportedly, this produces almost perfectly creamy ice cream, and is a great idea, except for the equipment costs, and the safety aspect, including the possibility of freezing your salient features off. Another approach (more…)

Patriot Day

September 11, 2010

From Wiktionary:

Patriot. A person who loves and zealously supports and defends his or her country.

From Wikipedia:

In the United States, Patriot Day occurs on September 11 of each year, designated in memory of the 2,993 killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks…. Initially, the day was called the Prayer and Remembrance for the Victims of the Terrorist Attacks on September 11, 2001….On September 4, 2002, President Bush used his authority created by the resolution and proclaimed September 11, 2002 as Patriot Day.

The thing that occurs to me when I think about Patriot Day, is, there weren’t any. Patriots, I mean. There were thousands of ordinary citizens, who had the bad luck to be where they were, when they were. There was a handfull of brave fire and policemen, who had the bad luck to be assigned an impossible civic safety task, of fighting a fire in an ultra-high-rise. Many of these might have been called patriots in a different context — after all, there were many dedicated military and civilian personnel killed in the Pentagon, my old home. But, there was no-one who was called to “zealously support and defend his or her country” on that day. Not even on the other side. They were mostly Egyptians, supporting a Saudi-based extremist religious view, and in fact were conducting an attack considered illegal by the Koran. So, why Patriot Day?

Two things happened on the way to the current name. First, the original name was too long and too detailed. It smacks of those throw-away declarations so beloved of Congress, declaring that this date is Jamestown Elemenary School Day, or that one is National Fight Iritis Day. It just didn’t have the ring of something like Pearl Harbor Day. They’d have been better off with World Trade Center Day.

Second, the day got hijacked by the Bush regime. A Day of Rememberance is quiet and solemn, where one sits at home and actually thinks about what happened and why. A Patriot day is full of inspired speeches designed to call upon citizens to zealously support and defend the country, and not think too deeply about what they are being asked to do. If more people had thought more deeply about what went wrong, and what the best path for our country was, the country we support and defend, perhaps more pointed questions would have been asked. Perhaps politicians wouldn’t have been so ready to be stampeded into thoughtless action.

In the months and years afterwards, the patriot dynamic called forth thousands to support and defend, not (as they thought) their country, but instead in defense of the flawed international fantasies of a group of morally bankrupt politicians, not fit to sit on a local school board.

For me, Patriot Day isn’t about the 3,000 people who died in 2001, it’s about the 4,000 and more Americans who died, essentially in vain, in the years since.

Wednesday Wii – Bad Timing

September 8, 2010

The times the Wii credits you with are more notional than accurate. My 21-exercise morning workout routine officially gets credit for 38 minutes of exercise. Actually, from the time that spandex-girl says “Good Morning” to the time that she says “lower your arms and return…” is just over 37min on my stopwatch. That includes all of the “follow my movements” and “take the Wii remote in your right hand” patter. The first three exercises (simple yoga requiring no warnings) take 5min5sec, and give credit for six minutes. My estimate is that you get roughly an extra 20sec per exercise, so that 38 minutes includes 7 minutes of unearned time. If you were doing exercises with a real coach, he’d have a stopwatch to make sure your ten minutes of jumping jacks included a full 600sec of leaping about.

Systems and Afghanistan

September 6, 2010

Michael Yon links to an interesting article by Rice and Filippelli on using technology to fight corruption in Afghanistan (I am using his version because it’s easier to read). As usual, I have grave doubts about the likely success of any technological solution to a complex societal problem. I have written about the Multiple Perspectives issue before, and I think it applies here.

In a nutshell, systems scientist Hal Linstone posits three Perspectives on any organizational problem — Technical factors (how the associated technology works), Organizational factors (how the rules of the organization are structured) and Personal factors (how key individuals see the problem and the issues surrounding it). In the computer field, most IT people think in terms of technical solutions to problems. Most of the time their solutions don’t work the way they think they should, because of the other two. To pull an example off the top of my head, what is the use of an ultra-secure voting machine in promoting democracy, if the law limits voting to males, and the president of the country thinks it ought to be males with property?

In the Rice and Filippelli article they point out how using cellphones for salary payments to police and soldiers cut out the middle-men, who were all corrupt, and actually sent all the money to bank accounts belonging to actual people — no skimming and no payroll padding. The police and soldiers involved thought they’d gotten a substantial pay raise, when all they got was their true salary.

So, say R&F, why not move more of the payment system onto cellphones? Well, this is why not — the Kabul Bank is in danger of collapsing due to corruption and fraud. A cellphone based economy is subject to the same kinds of problems a paper economy is, just in a different form. If you have a corrupt banking Organization, and Afghanistan’s appears to be very corrupt, the kleptocracy will find ways to steal the peoples money from the bank. And, if the top People involved, like the president and his relatives, view the country as their own personal ATM, there will ultimately be little done to correct it. After all, from the view of the people on top, it is working.

I think that R&F’s point is a useful one, and I’m not saying don’t do it. I am saying that the Technical solution is not a panacea, and that we have to attack the problem on a wide range of fronts. Of course, that assumes that we have the power to do so. In this case, the Organizational kicker is that Afghanistan is a sovereign country that doesn’t need to do what we say.

UPDATE: Here is another example of how making an improvement in technology doesn’t always improve things.

A Friend is Gone…somewhere

September 4, 2010

In this age of global communication, we are not as firmly connected as we like to think. I have a friend, John, that I met over forty years ago, in England. He was a HM Customs and Excise inspector at RAF Mildenhall, and we lived in the BOQ together. He was a Geordy, from Newcastle, and about five years older than me. In the normal course of things, he was reassigned to some port somewhere, and I came back to the US, and we lost track.

About five years ago, he sent me an email. He’d been playing the old Google game of “I wonder what happened to…” and my college website popped up. We reconnected, and have emailed back and forth every couple of months since then. He was retired and, as one is able to do when living Over There, was spending his time taking trips to different countries — a week on the beach in Spain, a couple weeks in a pension in France, a quick out-and-back on the hovercraft to the winter fair in Hamburg. I’ll be able to do the same thing when I retire — a week in Port Angeles, a day trip to Missoula (if the passes are open).

I last heard from him in July, when he was getting ready to move to a new, smaller house. Since then, nothing.

Today, I sent him an email, and it bounced back, saying the account had been disabled. Wurra, wurra. Does he have a different ISP? Not likely, since it’s a dialup and he hasn’t moved that far. Has he died? He has had some medical issues, and one topic of our discussions has been how much better the UK NHS is than the US system. Since he’s moved, his home address has changed, so snail mail might not get through.

This isn’t a cry to help me find a lost friend. It’s a comment on how fragile our supposed links are with each other. I could do the seven-degrees-of-separation thing, but right now, I think I’ll just try a letter.

UPDATE: He’s fine, he’s just transferred ISP’s, and in doing so ran into the horrific UK telecommunications system (deets when I get them). How did I find him? He’s on Skype. I just plugged in the old email and up popped his name. We’ve been S-chatting a couple of times now. See, we are better connected.

The End in Iraq

September 1, 2010

And so it ends. We are formally out of Iraq — well, except for 50,000 combat troops, rebranded as support and training — and we await the unfolding of the legacy of our actions there.

Sic Semper Tyrannis has an essay by an Army War College advisor and Iraq veteran, Adam Silverman, on what we achieved. To summarize: nothing positive. No end to internal conflict. No stable government, recognized by all. Not even enough electric power to run the pumps and air conditioners in this hot, arid country. That’s seven years after the war. We did manage to get 4,000 Americans killed, more than were killed in 9/11. We also got over 100 thousand Iraqis killed (some would say many times that).

Compare that to the status of Germany and Japan in 1952, seven years after WWII. They had been pounded flat (unlike Iraq, where we deliberately avoided destroying infrastructure). Germany had been invaded and fought over, and Japan had been fire-bombed and atom-bombed. We occupied those countries, rebuilt their economies and governments, and by 1952 they were both sovereign powers, with effective governments and stable economies. Germany was strong enough to help us stand up to the Soviet Union in Europe. Japan provided support for operations in Korea. Does anyone expect anything similar here? People might claim that Japan and Germany were special cases, with literate populaces driven by The…er…Shinto…Ethic. They might claim that the citizens of Iraq — despite having run their own country quite well from before the time that North Europeans were still painting their bodies blue — don’t have the democratic tradition, are not ready for democracy, and that we shouldn’t expect too much of them. If that’s so, then why did we claim that our goal was democracy, once we knew the WMD excuse was a lie?

As far as national goals are concerned, the big winner in Iraq appears to be Iran. Imagine what history would have been like if West Germany had joined the Warsaw Pact, if Japan had allied with the PRC. Unlike Japan and Germany, our legacy won’t be peace, and friendly, reliable, allies. Our legacy in the Middle East and SW Asia will be hatred and distrust from most of the people living there, extension of Iranian power, destabilization of Afghanistan and Pakistan through willful neglect, followed by inept re-intervention, and encouragement of anti-US terrorist groups. No-one is safer as a result of our actions. Except the dead.

So yes, this war — begun with a lie, concluded with incompetence, resulting in nothing but loss for us, and trouble for our grandchildren — is officially over, a failure from end to end. The carnage will continue, but we can now smugly claim that it’s the Iraqis fault.