29 June 2006

Oh say can you see....

We're once more at that time of year when the Republicon party stops the conveyer belt transferring boxes of dollars to big business and special interest groups and turns its attention to winning over the Joe 5-pack crowd with Constitution amendments to ensure that all Americans love their moms, are rabidly patriotic, and don't scratch their balls while singing the anthem. Nothing could be more ridiculous. Or so you'd think. Except for perhaps Hillary Clinton voicing her support for this nonsense, demonstrating that she can be just as opportunistic and cynical as her Republicon mates.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh. Laws ensuring patriotic fervor haven't been entirely unsuccessful abroad. We have the example of North Korea, where people get arrested and tortured for ripping up a news article with a picture of the Great Leader (he, who like the suns, sheds light on the people and makes the plants and children to grow). Perhaps we can make a deal with the North--go ahead and test your latest missile. In return, send a team of legal experts to help us with drafting and implementing (yes, implementation is the fun part) of our own "patriotic" laws.

28 June 2006

Constitutional Rights

In comment 2 to my previous post, I received the following little flame:

Anonymous said...
Wow, are you really this ignorant? First of all, how does a program monitor overseas transactions equate to spying on"innocent civilians"? What is circumventing the Constitution, here? Seriously, you haven't the first clue what you are talking about.

I deeply apologize for not spelling this out for my cluefull and erudite co-citizens such as Mr. Anonymous. Let's begin with the Constitution. In the 4th amendment, we find the following:

Amendment IV
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Mr. Anonymous evidently feels that the framers, having mentioned "papers", would object to this covering anything that was printed on some material that didn't originate in a tree. I assume that our friend, being the cluefull and discerning fellow that he is, would also conclude that the right to bear arms refers exclusively to flintlocks or whatever archaic arms existed at the time of the signing and that protection of property would be limited to farmland and livestock. There are a few of us, however, who consider "papers" to refer to personal documents and records. Exactly the sort of thing that the CIA was looking at without a warrant.

As for the second point, that the "overseas financial records" are somehow not related to Americans, the point is completely ridiculous. These records are records of U.S. based financial transactions by people in the U.S. And yes, these records were obtained by "spying" (that is what the U.S. CIA does, after all).

I find it extremely frustrating that the my-country-right-or-wrong crowd have completely lost the ability to question their own government. The Padilla case and so much else the U.S. Shrub misadministration has done is such an obvious violation of basic rights that there's little more that can be argued. I would recommend that Mr. Anonymous go back to listening to Fox and Limbaugh before he get overly upset by uncomfortable facts.

27 June 2006

Big Brother; Big Nuisance

The recent leaks that the US government continues to spy on innocent citizens, in this case, by tracking their financial records, is revealing. For one thing, it shows how the government goes through foreign companies to circumvent U.S. Constitutional protections. The only solution is to sack the current government as quickly as possible. At the same time, we need to do something about the 4th branch of government, the CIA.

21 June 2006

Blowing in the Wind

We need to enroll some of our beltway politicos in a course titled something like Writing and Law: Successfully Deceiving the Dimwitted Electorate. Idiots like Senator John Warner have the deceptive intent down, but would any of the American sheeple fall for this? (Pleeeze say no!) It would appear that Senator John Warner (chair of Armed Services) has put this wordy one-liner in Section 358 (Title III, Subtitle F) of PL 109-163 (FY06 supplemental Defense approps):

Not later than 120 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Defense shall submit to the Committee on Armed Services of the Senate and the Committee on Armed Services of the House of Representatives a report on the effects of windmill farms on military readiness, including an assessment of the effects on the operations of military radar installations of the proximity of windmill farms to such installations and of technologies that could mitigate any adverse effects on military operations identified.

Wind power being held up all over the U.S. because it interferes with military radar? The next thing you know, they'll be outlawing tornadoes in Kansas. And then there's this line from the (original, non-supplemental) FY06 Defense Appropriations Act (HR 2863 / PL 109-148):

That of the funds made available under this heading, $4,250,000 is available for contractor support to coordinate a wind test demonstration project on an Air Force installation using wind turbines manufactured in the United States that are....

A wind farm out in the middle of the bay might block radar but one in the middle of an Air Force installation is worth taxpayer support to the tune of $4.25M? It's definitely time for Mr. Warner to enroll in a course or two on deceptive writing . . . and a course on logic as well.

20 June 2006

Esperanto Music: Jxomart kaj Natasxa

These days, I've been listening a lot to Esperanto music. Esperanto is an artificial language created at the end of the nineteenth century, designed as a universal second language. The language boasts numerous books, magazines, a few movies (notably Incubus, starring William Shatner), and some excellent music. My favorite group by far is Jxomart kaj Natasxa (Jx = the "s" in pleasure, j =y, sx =sh).

Both members of the duo have beautiful voices that are accompanied by acoustic guitar. The songs all have memorable, catchy melodies. And if you take the time to learn enough Esperanto to understand the lyrics, you'll appreciate the wide range of topics that the couple sing about, ranging from interesting love ballads (which tend to be positive and life-affirming) to Filineto (Daughter), a song about their filineto with the baby's voice in the background.

Full versions of many of the duo's songs can be downloaded in MP3 format from their site. Everything they sing is consistently good, but I'd recommend listening to Stulta Am' (Stupid Love), Fervojbileton Mi Acxetos (I'll be a train ticket), and Jen Estas 30 (You're 30 now.) I personally like Amu Min (Love Me)--largely because of the excellent lyrics.

Other links: website, discography.

19 June 2006

To boldly go...

As an avid Star Trek fan, I never understood how the series died from lack of interest. For those who haven't seen them, I think the final series (available via Netflix, etc.) is excellent. That being said, there doesn't seem to be any enthusiasm in Hollywood for resurrecting the official series. I therefore read the following article with great interest: it seems that fans are now creating their own episodes on digital video and offering these on the web.

MASON NECK STATE PARK, Va. — Paul Sieber was wearing a "Star Trek" uniform in the deep Virginia woods when he found himself surrounded by a leathery-looking gang. Fortunately, the ruffians were dressed up as Klingons, and Mr. Sieber, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, was preparing to film them with a $6,000 digital video camera. At times like this, Mr. Sieber, the writer and director of "Starship Farragut," must come to grips with the obvious — not all Klingons are trained actors — and bellow, "Quiet on the set!" From these Virginia woods to the Scottish Highlands, "Star Trek" fans are filling the void left by a galaxy that has lost "Star Trek." For the first time in nearly two decades, television spinoffs from the original 1960's "Star Trek" series have ended, so fans are banding together to make their own episodes.
Fan films have been around for years, particularly those related to the "Star Wars" movies. But now they can be downloaded from the Web, and modern computer graphics technology has lent them surprising special effects. And as long as no one is profiting from the work, Paramount, which owns the rights to "Star Trek," has been tolerant. (Its executives declined to comment.)

Up to two dozen of these fan-made "Star Trek" projects are in various stages of completion, depending what you count as a full-fledged production. Dutch and Belgian fans are filming an episode; there is a Scottish production in the works at www.ussintrepid.org.uk. There is a group in Los Angeles that has filmed more than 40 episodes, according to its Web site, www.hiddenfrontier.com, and has explored gay themes that the original series never imagined. Episodes by a group in Austin, Tex., at www.starshipexeter.com, feature a ship whose crew had the misfortune of being turned into salt in an episode of the original "Star Trek," but has now been repopulated by Texans.

"I think the networks — Paramount, CBS — I don't think they're giving the fans the 'Trek' they're looking for," said Mr. Sieber, a 40-year-old engineer for a government contractor who likens his "Star Trek" project, at www.starshipfarragut.com, to "online community theater."
"The fans are saying, look, if we can't get what we want on television, the technology is out there for us to do it ourselves," he added. And viewers are responding. One series, at
www.newvoyages.com, and based in Ticonderoga, N.Y., boasts of 30 million downloads. It has become so popular that Walter Koenig, the actor who played Chekov in the original "Star Trek," is guest starring in an episode, and George Takei, who played Sulu, is slated to shoot another one later this year. D. C. Fontana, a writer from the original "Star Trek" series, has written a script.

For many Trekkies, contemporary science fiction on television — like "Battlestar Galactica" and the more recent Star Trek spinoffs — are too dark. "Modern science fiction takes itself too seriously," said Jimm Johnson, 37, who presides over Starship Exeter. John Broughton Jr., who founded the Farragut project, agreed. "One thing about the classic 'Star Trek' is at the end of the episode, it was pretty much a happy ending," he said. "It was sort of like 'The Brady Bunch.' It was all tidied up."

Mr. Broughton, a wiry Navy veteran with spiky hair, is a serious collector of all things "Star Trek." His avocado tunic, he said, is made from bolts of the nylon used for the original "Star Trek," purchased at $100 a yard. His boots are made by the son of the man who made the boots used in "Star Trek," he said. His megaphone, bought for $325 on eBay, was the one used by William Shatner when he directed "Star Trek V." In the woods with the Klingons, Brad Graper, 52, finished detailing a pair of Nerf guns painted gray, with sections of chrome tailpipe added to them as gun barrels. Mr. Graper sat at a cluster of picnic tables in this lush 1,814-acre park. Klingon re-enactors from Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania played extras.
"I'm General DuraD," Mr. Graper said. "The D and the D are capitalized."

Around him, Klingons applied swarthy face paint and black hair dye, adjusted silvery sashes, and tottered in platform boots. They usually portray the more heavily costumed Klingons from "Star Trek: The Next Generation," the series spinoff that started in 1987. Those Klingons had big ridges on their heads requiring elaborate prosthetics. "This is the first time I've ever done an original Klingon," said Sally Arkulari, 46, who works on a large farm in Lancaster, Pa. "It's a lot less work." Ms. Arkulari is a tall woman, in a shimmering green dress, heavy eyeliner and orange hair extensions. What's her view on the Klingon woman? "Love 'em because they're so tough," she said. "Part of that is not my personality. I need to be more aggressive as a person, and I'm not, so I like that."

The couple of dozen people on the set are either related, are friends or met at a Star Trek convention. David Sepan, 31, who plays a security officer, is a spacecraft analyst at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and monitors a space probe heading to Mercury. Mr. Sieber is a family friend. Mr. Sepan's sister Amy, 29, is Farragut's makeup artist and costume designer. "I'm also Dr. Christina Hawley," she said, and then performed a line from her script: "Captain — he's dead!" Holly Bednar, 42, who plays an engineer, is the executive director of a theater in southern Maryland and one of the few participants here with theater experience. Her husband, Mike Bednar, 45, is the prop man, cameraman, science officer and a friend of Mr. Broughton's. The Bednars were childhood sweethearts who lost touch for 23 years and then reconnected and got married in 2004. Ms. Bednar came late to "Star Trek" and considers herself in the married-to-Trekkie category. "It was kind of a nice thing for Mike and I to work on together," she said. "For Mike, it's the 'Star Trek' stuff. For me, it's the acting."

At 11 a.m., Mr. Sieber rounded up the Klingons and explained plot points. "You guys are generating a cloaking field from the planet around the orbiting weapon," he explained. Heads nodded. "They heard a rumor from some Orion spies that you guys might be trying to do something on this planet, not knowing that there's this many of you here, and that's why they end up getting ambushed." Fair enough. The group packed into a caravan of cars and headed into the woods at the park south of Washington. They had the camera, a boom mike, even a Hollywood scene marker. Mr. Sieber yelled "Action!" A trio of Klingons charged a gully, crouched into firing positions and tumbled as they pretended to be shot. Later, they filmed 12 takes of a scene in which Mr. Broughton, as the captain of the Starship Farragut, and the Bednars walk through the gully, talking. There are sound problems, battery problems, glare problems.

Next scene: the three jump behind a fallen tree. They pretend to be pinned down by Klingons.
"Reinforcements! Crossfire!" In a quiet moment, Mike Bednar reflected on what brings a man into the woods, wearing a form-fitting blue tunic, jet-black pants and shiny ebony boots, and carrying a camera. He recalled meeting Mr. Broughton years ago, when his friend was ending his stint in the Navy. "I used to joke with him, 'You'd never get me in a "Star Trek" uniform, even on Halloween, it's not going to happen,' " he said. "Next thing I know, I'm wearing a uniform."

17 June 2006

Hoorah for us! ???

If the House Republicons have nothing better than to sit around passing "patriotic" non-binding resolutions, why don't they get off their fat arses and come mow my lawn. Or cut the hedge. I can put them to work here. They need to do something to justify their salaries, something beyond cheerleading and election ploys meant to appeal to the Joe 5-pack club.

16 June 2006

Hawkings, 2

Creek Running North has said everything I wanted to say about the Hawking statement--and has said it much better. One excerpt:

Hawking’s future of humanity resembles nothing so much as those aliens from Independence Day, the ones that travel from planet to planet laying waste the resources and moving on, pausing only to strangle Brent Spiner. OK, so every disaster has an upside. My point is that our planet deserves better than to be a mere discarded larval skin for a species that goes on to eat the galaxy, implacable and soulless and vulnerable to computer viruses written in haste by a drunkard, on a Macintosh.

Though I agree with the sentiment, I actually think Chris is being a teensy bit harsh here. Hawkings wasn't asking us to neglect the Earth. Even so, I do find the idea that it would be easier for us to travel to another star, find a habitable world, and make it habitable for humans, than it would simply to develop a sustainable pattern of life right here a bit farfetched. When we consider the time and investment involved, a sustainable future on Earth is probably the necessary basis for such a journey.

15 June 2006

Hawkings Statement

In a prophetic statement, Hawkings says we probably need to make it off our current chunk of rock into permanently self-sustaining settlements within the next century if mankind's going to survive. Personally, I find it very disturbing that we can't keep earth itself self-sustaining.

World-renowned scientist Stephen Hawking said the survival of the human race depends on its ability to find new homes elsewhere in the universe. The British astrophysicist said in a press conference in Hong Kong that humans could have a permanent base on the Moon in 20 years and a colony on Mars in the next 40 years, adding "We won't find anywhere as nice as Earth unless we go to another solar system." "It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species," Hawking emphasized and added "Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war or a genetically engineered virus." Hawking, who is wheelchair-bound, can use only one hand and communicates with the help of a computer because he suffers from an incurable neurological disorder called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He concluded by saying if humans can avoid killing themselves in the next 100 years, they should establish space settlements that can continue without support from Earth.

12 June 2006

Cool Visual Illusions: Depth Inversion

I came across the following fascinating illusion at the Mixing Memory blog. I've quoted the post in full:

As you all know, I love visual illusions, and this may be one of my favorites. This picture is pretty small (go here for a bigger version), but you should be able to figure out what's going on by watching it for a moment.

Notice that as the face flips over, you briefly see the concave surface of the back or inside of the mask, but it quickly switches back to a convex, upside-down mask. That's not because the image changes, though. Instead, your brain decides that faces can't be hollow, so it changes it for you. This is called depth inversion, or the "hollow face illusion." Interestingly, depth inversion doesn't seem to occur for most objects (e.g., a "hollow potato")1. Thus it is often taken as evidence for the existence of a special system for processing faces.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the illusion is how resistant it is to ordinary depth cues. As Richard Gregory wrote2:

This bias of seeing faces as convex is so strong it counters competing monocular depth cues, such as shading and shadows, and also very considerable unambiguous information from the two eyes signalling stereoscopically that the object is hollow... The effect is weaker when the mask is placed upside down, strongest for a typical face. If the mask is rotated [as in the above image -- Chris], or the observer moves, it appears to rotate in the opposite to normal direction, at twice the speed; because distances are reversed motion parallax becomes effectively reversed. (p. 1122)The overriding of normal depth cues indicates that the effect is the result of top-down influences. In other words, our knowledge of faces is influencing our visual perception of them.

It's also interesting to note that that the illusion is reduced in schizophrenics3, when you're really really drunk (or when alcoholics are going through withdrawal)4, or when you're high on marijuana5. Apparently each of these states involves a disconnect between knowledge and sensory systems. Some researchers have argued that this disconnect may explain visual hallucinations in schizophrenia or during marijuana highs6.

11 June 2006

YearlyKos Conference

The L.A. Times (perhaps my favorite major news rag) had a good article on the YearlyKos conference put together by Gina Cooper and other Daily Kos readers. The convention was attended by some top Democrats, including Boxer and Dean. Visiting the Daily Kos website, I came across this humorous example of Orwellian language:

Only in the twisted, illogical hell of Gitmo can suicides in prison cells be deemed acts of warfare:

(CNN) -- Three prisoners at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have hanged themselves in what the U.S. military is calling an act of "asymmetric warfare." [...]
"This was clearly a planned event, not a spontaneous event," said Rear Adm. Harry Harris, commander of Joint Task Force-Guantanamo.

He described the men, whose names were not released, as committed jihadists captured on the battlefield. "I believe this was not an act of desperation, rather an act of asymmetric warfare waged against us," Harris said.

I hope such tactics don't spread. The enemies of the U.S. Empire might start all killing themselves leaving the current mis-administration without enough bogeymen to demonize.

6 June 2006

June, the cruelest month

These have been sad days in the blogosphere. Mick Arran seems to have disappeared from our alternative reality, as has my old nemesis Glen Dean. Katharine at Cut to the Chase is sadly cutting back on her posts due to internet access problems. Michael, at At Ease, didn't even make it into 2006. Even DC Media Girl's gone inexplicably quiet.

As we wait for these people to figure out that the real world isn't really where it's at and return to us in cyberspace, there's still much of value to check out. On P!, there's a thoughtful series on The Real War and the Great Diversion. Diana at Democracy for California has her blogging mojo back. After drinking a couple of cups of strong coffee, Jodi at I Cite is always a good read. In Search of Utopia sets us straight on a number of sundry issues. And then there's Cul, over at Ratboy's Anvil, who always seems to find the best stories--aliens raining down in India! Where does he find this stuff?

Freedom’s just another name...

...for nothing left to lose:

New policies on prisoners being drawn up by the Pentagon will reportedly omit a key tenet of the Geneva Convention that explicitly bans "humiliating and degrading treatment."
Citing unidentified but knowledgeable military officials, the Los Angeles Times said the step would mark a further, potentially permanent, shift by the US government away from strict adherence to international human rights standards.

Rights? Rights are for wimps. Real men don't give people rights!

The decision could end a lengthy debate within the Defense Department but will not become final until the Pentagon makes the new guidelines public, the report said. The State Department fiercely opposes the military's decision to exclude Geneva Convention protections and has been pushing for the Pentagon and White House to reconsider, the paper pointed out. The Pentagon has been redrawing its policies on detainees for more than a year. It intends to issue a new Army Field Manual on interrogation which, along with accompanying directives, represents core instructions to US troops around the world, The Times said. The directive on interrogation, a senior defense official said, is being rewritten to create safeguards so that all detainees are treated humanely but can still be questioned effectively, according to the report.

"Effectively." As in, we'll do whatever the hell we want if we think it makes the war machine "more effective". The assumption is that with enough viciousness and technical gizmos, the righteous armies of the U.S. can conquer any foe. This Mission Impossible version of warfare makes for great Hollywood fare. In the real world, support of populations in crucial. Being more "effective" is a problem for fascist governments, not for democracies.

Critics and supporters of President George W. Bush have debated whether it is possible to prove a direct link between administration declarations that it will not be bound by the Geneva Convention, and events such as the abuses at Abu Ghraib or the killings of Iraqi civilians last year in Haditha, The Times said. Omitting the Geneva provisions may make it harder for the administration to portray such incidents as aberrations, the paper noted, saying it would also undercut contentions that US forces follow the strictest, most broadly accepted standards when fighting wars.

Well, of course there's a link. And all of the tough talk and wartime rhetoric in the world won't compensate for this president's total lack of leadership ability.

5 June 2006

Christians to the Lions

I guess modern Christians throw themselves to the lions:

KIEV (Reuters) - A man shouting that God would keep him safe was mauled to death by a lioness in Kiev zoo after he crept into the animal's enclosure, a zoo official said on Monday. "The man shouted 'God will save me, if he exists', lowered himself by a rope into the enclosure, took his shoes off and went up to the lions," the official said.

"A lioness went straight for him, knocked him down and severed his carotid artery."
The incident, Sunday evening when the zoo was packed with visitors, was the first of its kind at the attraction. Lions and tigers are kept in an "animal island" protected by thick concrete blocks.

So there you have it--the non-existence of God has finally been empirically proven.