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My New Rule
Easter Sunday, March 31, 2002
I have a new motto now, one which will serve as my guide on matters of foreign policy:I'm With The People Who Vote
Got your garden variety dictatorship going toe-to-toe with a little democracy somewhere? I know who I'm cheering for.
Why? Because democracies are made up of my people, and I'm getting the feeling that it's about goddamn time to take a stand. It matters now.
Thanks to Quintus Slide
Ready To Do My Part
Easter Sunday, March 31, 2002
I've said this more than once, and I still believe it:I have little sympathy for either the Israelis or the Palestinians [...] the people on both sides are fighting a religious war, born of an idiotic insistence that certain piles of dirt have a magical significance worth killing for, an insistence which makes concession impossible.
But I'd like to make one thing unmistakably clear... just because the Palestinian leadership has a legitimate grievance, it doesn't mean they aren't assholes. The birth of another dictatorship, run by religious fanatics with copies of Mien Kampf in their pockets, is not high on my list of Things The World Really Needs Right Now. Besides, the Palestinian militants - who have shown a remarkable level of cruelty even when resolving their own internal disputes - are enthusiastic allies of the very people who have recently forced us into an unwelcome war of our own.
Sorry, kids, but so far as I'm concerned, you're toast now.
Negotiation with Hamas has been refreshingly forthright and brief - they are rather clear on the point that they will work very hard to kill every Israeli they can find, and they have utterly no desire for peace so long as any Jews of any stripe are left alive, anywhere on earth. Arafat has unambiguously demonstrated over the last 20 years or so that he cannot, or will not, control them, so I cannot in good faith recommend further discussion with him... Sharon might as well be negotiating with me to keep Hamas in line. At least I'll be honest about what I can deliver.
But that doesn't mean I've given up. I have a plan:
When Arafat does die, my plan is to videotape myself dancing in the streets waving a big yellow foam finger with "#1" printed on it, chanting "USA! USA!" and firing shots into the air. I'll send them the video with the hopes that Hamas will view it, and take a moment to ask themselves "Why do they hate us? Maybe we ought to re-examine our policies?".
I hear that sort of self-reflection can be very helpful to the process of building a lasting peace.
CBDTPA? Is that how you spell it?
Wednesday, March 27, 2002
As many of you have probably heard, there's a new bill in Congress - the "Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (CBDTPA)" - which would impose draconian restrictions on internet content, and even the contents of your home computer, in the name of copy protection. As described by one writer, it "would prohibit the sale or distribution of nearly any technology -- unless it features copy-protection standards to be set by the federal government."
Another describes it this way: "The bill would make it a crime to sell any digital device -- a computer, PDA, DVD player or recorder, etc., -- unless that device contained government-approved technology to prevent unauthorized copying. It would also make it unlawful to import software [...] without government permission."
Needless to say, the implications of this are enormous. If you care, visit the following links for more information:
Read this one first:
This is a nice background on what "Fair Use" means:
Here's more details:
I Didn't Believe This At First
Wednesday, March 27, 2002
This is the sort of thing I would have dismissed as propaganda a few months ago. The regular media has now picked it up, and I'll believe it until somebody offers a decent reason not to.
The short version? Saddam Hussein is paying $25,000 to the families of every suicide bomber who attacks Israel, in order to encourage more people to volunteer. He's been doing this for at least two years.
The main reason why many people - including myself - now support war with Iraq is our belief that Saddam actively supports terrorist missions against Western targets. I can't imagine that he has any less love for Israel then he does for the United States, especially after the Gulf War. And, yes, he does have chemical and biological weapons, and he has already used them against his own people. You can read all about that right here:
[Warning - pretty gruesome stuff, for the New Yorker Magazine]
Is there anyone who can offer a reason why we shouldn't expect this guy to encourage and assist massive terrorist attacks against our country? Anyone?
As Of Early March
Tuesday, March 26, 2002
Why I Live In Ithaca
Sunday, March 17, 2002
This place is just a couple miles from my house. Even on a Sunday afternoon, me and the dog have it to ourselves.
Why The Yates Jury Made The Right Call
Thursday, March 14, 2002
Look, I'm the first to admit it - from a layperson's perspective, Andrea Yates is full-blown, batshit crazy. Hell, even from a medical perspective, I think you'd have to reach the same conclusion: look in the DSM under Crazy, Batshit (Full-Blown) and you'd probably see a photo of Andrea, smiling back at you.
However, from a legal standpoint - from which words in plain English adopt strange and wondrous new meanings - she's quite sane. And from a legal standpoint, the jury's decision to convict her was both thoughtful and correct.
What's more important, though, is that it was also the right decision. I seem to be the only person I know who really holds this view, but I can make a damn good case for it.
The crime which Yates committed was horrible to the extreme. If she had severed the limbs of her children and nailed them to the rafters of her house it would hardly have made a difference in how we view her, or her actions. But if you have sympathy for Yates, and think she ought to have been treated rather than punished, ask yourself the following questions:
1) What if she had killed somebody else's children?
2) What if she was a guy?
Try this one on for size - a man with serious psychiatric problems kills five neighborhood children, cuts off their limbs and nails them to the rafters of his house. How many of you are going to suggest this guy should get a pass?
For that matter, how about Jeffery Dalhmer, the guy who had sex with all those body parts he kept in his freezer? Anybody want to argue that he wasn't even more crazy than Yates is?
Sure, I know... getting a pass doesn't mean you walk free, it means you spend the rest of your days in a hospital for the criminally insane, just like that kid from the Halloween movie. Right?
Well, probably not. And that's the problem.
I might be wrong about this, but as I understand it, if Yates (or any other killer) escapes conviction on an insanity defense, they might be released at any time. Two years later, if her doctor says she's responding well to her meds and that she's no longer a threat to anybody, she walks; she can buy a house and move in right next door to you.
You can't hold people forever on the assumption that they used to be crazy. Once they don't act crazy anymore, you have to let them go. The only way you can hold them is if you can convict them of a crime.
I watched four news networks discussing the Yates case. Every news anchor expressed surprise that she was convicted, every expert they interviewed expressed his disagreement; not one of them explained what would have happened to her if she had been found Not Guilty.
Well, we had a case like this, several years ago. A serious local nutcase slit herself open with a penknife in order to deliver her own baby via caesarian section. She lived, and was locked away... for about a year, as I recall, before she was let out, to eventually kill a police officer with a kitchen knife. Big fucking mistake, in my book.
People like Yates may deserve our sympathy, but they do not, ever, deserve to get their freedom back. That is why you convict them of crimes, because that is the only way to keep them locked up where they belong.
Yet, many people seem to believe that she's not, you know, really guilty of anything. I think this is why:http://slate.msn.com/?id=2063086
Perhaps murderous mothers are no crazier than fathers. Perhaps murderous fathers are even crazier than mothers. Either way, the failure to view these crimes as morally or legally equivalent reflects a more central legal truth: We still view children as the mother's property. Since destroying one's own property is considered crazy while destroying someone else's property is criminal, women who murder their own children are sent to hospitals, whereas their husbands are criminals, who go to jail or the electric chair.
Why does the legal system treat a mother who kills someone else's child as though she were a sociopathic killer while showing mercy toward a mom who drowns her own? For the same reason the law treats individuals who burn down other people's houses as criminals and institutionalizes those who burn down their own. Men are disproportionately jailed for filicide not because they are more evil than women but because we believe they have harmed a woman's property—as opposed to their own.
For some reason, this just does not present much of a dilemma for me. She killed five kids. Who cares if she's crazy, any more than we should care if Dalhmer was crazy? It just doesn't make any difference.
For crissake, find me a multiple murderer who is sane. Find me the guy who kills children who not a fucking basketcase, or the rapist who is otherwise considered to be quite normal. This is a stupid line of thought to even consider.
The only thing left to decide now is whether she should live or die. If they let her live - as they almost certainly will - they have chosen her a grim fate. She might spend years locked in madness, or, if treated, she'll spend years really understanding what she has done. I think killing her might be a kindness now, I really do.
Six Months After
Wednesday, March 13, 2002
Everything You Wanted To Know About Dirty Nukes
Thursday, March 7, 2002
Back when anthrax was the big news of the day, I took a few hours to surf the web and learn a little about the disease, particularly how it was transmitted and how dangerous it really was. I found this basic summary to be surprisingly helpful when trying to sort out the widely conflicting claims offered by the media as the anthrax story evolved.
My intention this morning was to offer the same sort of unvarnished, fact-filled look at dirty nukes (also called radiologic bombs and RDDs) which are simple devices designed to throw radioactive waste around. Unfortunately, this seems to be a much more complex subject, and the information I'm seeing is quite contradictory. I'm going to have to rely on my judgement here, so what I am offering is significantly filtered by my own opinions and impressions.
The good news, as usual, is that the public perception of these weapons is probably inaccurate; they are probably not as fearsome, or as easy to deliver, as you might believe. The bad news is that once you are done debunking them, you are still left with the realization that these things are very formidable weapons which are almost certainly available to our enemies.
Part of the problem I've faced in researching this is that the people who are informed on this topic have two very different points of view - they are either environmental scientists, or weapons makers. As a result, the meanings of words like "lethality" and "dangerous" might vary a hundredfold, depending upon who's doing the talking.
For example, suppose I were to report on a truckload of radioactive waste which had contaminated the drinking water in a suburban neighborhood. Suppose further that this contamination would be expected to sicken one person in a hundred, and kill one person in a thousand, who drank typical amounts of this water. As an environmental scientist, I would certainly consider this a dangerous level of contamination, and as a resident of this neighborhood, I would expect that my property values would drop to zero if this contamination couldn't be fully cleaned up. In fact, the EPA would probably require that the houses be abandoned, and no sensible person would want to raise their children there anyway.
However, if I was a weaponsmaker, and I was asked to evaluate the performance of an area weapon that sickened and killed people at that low a rate, I'd describe the dangers as 'virtually nil', and suggests that the weapon was so impotent that it could be safely ignored.
How should we evaluate such risks for ourselves? I believe that the best way to get a clear answer is to be careful to look at specific hazards, and evaluate them in terms of our specific situation.
First, a quick introduction. Fortunately, I think there is general agreement on most of the basics:
The effects of an RDD depends upon the bioactivity, the dispersal, and the persistence of the payload.
The bioactivity - what might be casually called toxicity - depends upon the amount of the radioactive substance used, how well the substance is absorbed by the body and by what routes, how radioactive it is, what type of radiation it's emitting, and what sort of chemical compounds it is likely to change into. This is very complex stuff.
Persistence and dispersal depend upon things like particle size and weight, prevailing wind, ionization, target environment, how large and what type of explosive is use to disperse it, the other substances the radioactive material is mixed with, the half-life of the substance, and so on. (Note that dispersal might be accomplish by non-explosive means, including aerosolization of a liquid, dust dispersal via pressurized air, or even open burning).
The bottom line here is that you really can't estimate the risks posed by a weapon like this without at least knowing the type and amount of the substance in question. The worst case is a large weapon used to disperse a finely powdered, bioactive, ionized substance into an urban area on a dry windy day.
Nonetheless, the end result - which, frankly, surprised me - is that you would expect few deaths due to radioactive contamination, unless the very worst types of material were used. It is quite difficult, and probably beyond the reach of a terrorist organization, to build a device so powerful as to cause mass radiation casualties. The primary hazards we face are economic and political, and are caused by our response to the radioactive contamination of the target area.
Ask someone to make a list of the most valuable real estate in the US, and places like Manhattan, Washington DC, Boston, and San Francisco come immediately to mind. Suppose a few dozen city blocks in one of these locations were to be contaminated with some sort of nasty radioactive powder. Would you willingly live or work there if small traces of the powder remained, even after the cleanup? Would you allow your children to play there? As an employer, would you even ask your employees to show up?
Even if the actual numbers of subsequent deaths would be slight - so slight, perhaps, as to even be offset by recent drops in violent crime - I'd expect that these places would be abandoned, at least until they could be torn down and rebuilt. There is no way to really know what would happen, but I personally would expect that such a device could cause the destruction of many city blocks. The economic impact of such a loss would be measured in tens of billions, and would persist for many years.
The Hart Senate Office building, recently contaminated with anthrax, is a rare modern example. Recent testimony in the Senate suggests that if the powder which remained after cleanup could not have been neutralized in place with chlorine gas, the building probably would have been demolished.
My call? Despite the surprising lack of lethality, RDDs remain formidable and dangerous terrorist weapons.
The next step in evaluating a hazard is to have a look at the likelihood of the hazard occurring, and our ability to prevent or to detect the hazard. This is where I run out of good news, I'm afraid.
I could point out how widespread suitable nuclear materials have become, especially in the developing world; I could point out the Cesium-137 found in abandoned medical radiotherapy machines, like the one that caused the worst nuclear accident in the Western hemisphere, killing a handful of people in South America. I could mention the spent fuel rods from the ruined nuke plant in Africa, or the thousands of cobalt-60 rods used in food sterilization centers worldwide, or the hundreds of tons - yes, hundreds of tons - of poorly guarded weapons-grade materials stockpiled in the former Soviet Union, alongside of god-knows how many tons of ordinary nuclear waste and discarded medical equipment and power sources. But I'll just save us some time and point out that our enemies have already built and deployed one of these weapons.
In November 1995, Chechen rebels - the Al-Queda supported Islamic militants who we are fighting, right now, in Afghanistan - placed bomb containing 30 pounds of radioactive cesium in a Moscow park. (I have yet to find any definitive details, but for some reason this weapon was not detonated). Other reports, which I consider credible but which I cannot confirm, indicate that a second weapon was intercepted at the Israeli boarder.
How hard is it to build? If you have the components on hand, it's no harder to build then the truck bombs used by Al Queda to attack our embassies in Africa, the Khobar towers in Saudi Arabia, the World Trade Center in '92, and the boat bomb used against the USS Cole in Yemen. They seem to be pretty good at it.
A cobalt bomb is no fucking joke, either, assuming you could stay alive long enough to build it. Have a look at what you can do with a single bar:
Dr. Kelly offered a case study of what might happen if a dirty bomb containing a cobalt food irradiation bar exploded at the southern tip of Manhattan on a day with a light wind blowing toward the northeast. He calculated that Manhattan as far north as Central Park would be contaminated at levels similar to those in the permanently closed zone around the Chernobyl power plant. Manhattan would have to be abandoned for decades, Dr. Kelly said.
"An individual physically handling an unshielded single source rod would receive a lethal (death within weeks) dose in about a minute, and an incapacitating dose (immediately deadly) in about 20 minutes," said an e-mail statement from Neil A. Sheehan, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which licenses businesses using the materials.
Large bombs are big problem, but they require real effort to build and deploy. Small bombs are incredibly easy to use, and far more dangerous.
Imagine if you were a bad guy, issued a few sticks of dynamite and a half-pound of something that won't kill you right away, maybe even something quite mild like depleted uranium. Your task is to contaminate a major airport, or a hospital, or a subway station so that it can't be used for months. How hard would it be? You probably won't kill anyone (or even yourself) but you can disable the building for months with something so small you can carry it in by hand.
Half a dozen guys could shut down the entire airline system by taking out the hubs, or displace thousands of critically-ill patients, or shut off the power to millions of people. If you think this unlikely, remember that 20 guys did something far more difficult on September eleventh. I find this sort of attack so likely, so easy and so productive that I'm shocked that we haven't seen it yet. I'd bet money that we will.
Prevention and detection? Don't count on it.
Highly radioactive substances are easy to spot, if you are looking for them, and I'd be happy to agree that nobody is going to slip a cesium bar past a customs agent. However, we have thousands of miles of unguarded coastline, and thousand of marinas and docks from which any pleasure craft can venture out to sea and return after a brief visit with another vessel. Load your material into a truck and drive. Maybe you might pass one of our new radiation detectors, and maybe a cop will show up a half-hour later and have a look around. If anyone tells you that we have any chance of actually stopping such a shipment in-transit, they are lying to you.
We might be able to stop a large bomb at the bridges leading into New York or Washington, but we certainly are not going to stop it in Detroit, Chicago, or Los Angeles, or at a dock in San Francisco or Boston. The small bombs I described can be used almost anywhere, and most places have no detectors at all.
The only reason we haven't seen it yet, is that they haven't tried it yet. We know they have the materials, and we know they can construct the devices, and we I think it's reasonable to assume that they are capable of deploying these weapons where they want them.
For further information, here's the best link I've found so far: http://research.maxwell.af.mil/papers/student/ay1999/acsc/99-145.pdf