Saturday, October 29, 2005

Expectations and Reality

I checked the Huffington Post earlier today after the Scooter Libby indictments were announced. They are ecstatic, convinced that the trial will include a full investigation into the reasons for invading Iraq. They are sure that Bush knew that Iraq had disposed its WMDs and that the entire case was forged.

They base a lot of this on Joseph Wilson. He's the one who started the whole mess when he wrote an op-ed column claiming that the Vice-President's office sent him to Niger to investigate reports of Iraq trying to buy Uranium yellowcake. Wilson said that his report indicated that this never happened. What's more, he knew as soon as he saw the final report that it was wrong.

Robert Novak wrote a column stating that Wilson had not been sent by the Vice-President, he was sent by the CIA at the recommendation of his wife, a CIA employee. Wilson responded by complaining that his wife was a covert operative and that Novak had ruined her career and put her life in danger. He wrote a book on this, claiming that the administration was ruining his wife as a warning to others. The leak investigation came out of these complaints.

The left lapped it up. Wilson became a hero. Kerry signed him up as a foreign affairs advisor and hosted Wilson's web site.

Then reality caught up with Wilson. It seems that he had been less than honest. He was sent by the CIA instead of the Vice-President and his wife had recommended him for the position. His report indicated that Iraq was trying to buy yellowcake and he had never seen the final report since he did not have security clearance for it.

His wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA employee but she was no longer doing covert foreign assignments. Moreover, it is possible that someone who read Novak's column might have looked up his wife's name and blown her cover but it is not that likely. By going public, Wilson made sure that the world knew who his wife was. Then they did a photo spread for Vanity Fair so everyone knew what she looks like (she wore a scarf and sunglasses as a disguise).

The left seems stuck on 2003. They do not admit that Wilson lied about the yellowcake nor do they recognize that Saddam is known to have had WMDs at one point - he even used them. There was no need for Bush to fake evidence.

Similarly, it is very unlikely that a trial of Libby will go beyond the leak investigation.

In many ways the left's reaction to Wilson is the same as to the forged TANG documents last year. In both cases, the evidence was too good to examine closely. The left needed them to be true so they didn't look too carefully. In both cases, even after the proof turned out to be wrong they refuse to admit it.

The guys over at Huffington have pinned their hopes on the wrong person. Wilson is a dead end and nothing involving his can lead to the investigation they want nor would that lead to the results they desire.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Back to the 19th Century

To hear most activists, all we need to do to stop global warming is buy hybrid cars instead of SUVs. Here is a more realistic account of what life will be like by 2020 in England if proposed programs are implemented.
IF you enjoy long hot baths while sipping chilled white wine, you may be in for a disappointment.

[...] Fridge-freezers may be banished and replaced with cold room pantries, and energy consumption could be rationed, as food was in the post-war years.
Innovations such as patio heaters, plasma televisions and electric toothbrushes would become labeled as antisocial in the energy-saving age, as would owning more than one car. According to the forecast, domestic central heating may also have to be heavily regulated
All of this will happen unless Britians immediately cut back energy use 20%.

Keep in mind that the standard of living in England lagged significantly behind the US through much of the 20th century. This article refers to central heating as being post-war but my first house had central heat and it was built in 1910. Neither that house nor my current one (1920) had anything like a "cold room pantry". Going back to room-heaters and cold-rooms would mean a jump of more than a century for most people.

The problem with the debate on global warming is that warming is presented in the most simplistic and alarmist terms (sometimes in cute flash animations). Solutions are presented as either cheap or money-creating. Critics are dismissed as oil company stooges.

The facts are: 1) Moderate warming has been occurring since the mid-19th century. 2) There is a great deal of evidence that the world was in a cold-spell from the 14th through the mid-19th centuries so some warming is expected. 3) Some component of the detected warming may have been human caused but no one has come up with a viable model to distinguish between natural and human-induced warming. 4) Warming will have to increase a great deal before any of the horror stories can happen. 5) There are significant benefits to a warmer world such as a longer growing season. These are never discussed or even acknowledged. 6) The costs of trying to reduce carbon emissions are enormous - far greater than world leaders let on. 7) The Kyoto protocols were never meant to stop global warming, they were only introduced as a first step with the real cuts coming later. Even with its modest cuts, Kyoto has been a colossal failure with most signatories being out of compliance.

The problem is that Green activists seized on warming as being a bad thing and use it to further their agenda. Currently, any time anything happens in the world, it is ascribed to global warming somehow. If we don't cut through all of the hysteria soon we may find ourselves living in conditions our grandparents were glad to leave behind.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Been Left so Long it Looks Like Center to Me

Eric Alterman wrote a couple of columns recently about the polerization of American politics - here and here. What got him started is the book Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy which maintains that Republicans have moved to the fringe right while Democrats are unchanged. This ties in with What's the Matter With What's the Matter With Kansas? which holds that Republicans exploit fringe issues in order to mask the real issues.

Alterman also quotes a poll showing that Americans align with Democrats on all of the important issues.
In a May survey published by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 65 percent of respondents said they favor providing health insurance to all Americans, even if it means raising taxes, and 86 percent said they favor raising the minimum wage. Seventy-seven percent said they believe the country "should do whatever it takes to protect the environment.'' A September Gallup Poll finds that 59 percent consider the Iraq War a mistake and 63 percent agree that US forces should be partially or completely withdrawn.
If this is so, then why do Republicans hold the majority, not only on the federal level, but also in most state and city governments? Obviously, either Republicans are inhumanly good at exploiting fringe issues or there is something wrong with Alterman's arguments.

One problem is that the parties are not defined by a few issues. Few people are single-issue voters. Most people vote for the people they trust, not the people who promise them the most. This is the flaw in What's the Matter With Kansas. It starts with the assumption that Democrats have the average workingman's best interests at heart and Republicans don't. By assuming that a few hot-button issues define the race (mainly universal insurance), the Democrats cannot understand why voters would turn them down.

Another problem is that there are a lot more big issues than the ones Alterman quotes and many of these do draw single-issue voters. Gun control is high on this list and Democrats are on the wrong end of that one. In fact Democrats are so dismissive of this issue that they seldom recognize it.

Then there is the way that the questions are worded. The one-line questions are pretty simplistic. There are trade-offs on all issues. Would 65% of Americans still agree if you asked "would you support universal health insurance even if it meant that your taxes would rise and the quality of your health care would decline?" What about this one, "the country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment even if it means losing your own job or home?" (A lot of people assume "whatever it takes means that other people will pay.)

Then there is what the fringe issues tell us about a candidate. Gay marriage is often given as an example of a fringe issue. It does not affect most Americans and it is used as a wedge issue, but... it also says a lot about how a candidate views his constituency. Traditionally the family is the heart of American life but the family unit has been under assault for decades. To people who believe in the family, gay marriage is yet one more attempt at devaluing the family. Candidates who support gay marriage are advertising that they have a different value set. On top of that, it indicates that the candidate is willing to make society-wide changes on the basis of tiny special-interest groups.

As for polarization, which party has moved? To me, it is the Democrats. Issues that once used to be limited to fringe elements are now mainstream. Members of Congress have asserted that President Bush caused September 11 in order to push his agenda. If an elected Republican had said something like that, he would have been censured by his own party. Al Gore, the 2000 standard bearer, repeatedly compares Bush to Hitler. Weeks after releasing a movie asserting that Afghanistan was only invaded so that an oil pipeline could be built and pronouncing Islamic terrorists to be freedom fighters, Michael Moore was given a place of honor at the Democratic National Convention.

Democrats are increasingly intolerant of average Americans. Instead of upholding Americans' right to worship, the ACLU has been trying to eliminate religion from public space. Howard Dean has announced that his base is the "Merlot Democrats". When your base is wine-drinking elitist you have left the middle.

The Republicans are having real problems right now. Katrina was a public relations disaster. Bush has a rebellion on his hands over the Supreme Court and spending. The Top Republican Congressional leaders have been implicated in criminal activity (although it is likely that both will be found innocent). The Plame leak investigation continues.

The problem for the Democrats is that public relations are not acting like a teeter-totter. Public perception of the Democrats has not gone up as the Republicans have gone down. Some of this is because people like Alterman keep telling the Democrats that their problems are not internal, they are just the victim of Karl Rove's dirty campaigning. For all their problems, the Republicans are still more in touch with the majority of Americans.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Telling Comment

Eric Alterman was reviewing the DVD collection of the 1950s Superman series. He led with this:
Those were the days, huh, when the “American way” was synonymous with “truth and justice.” Well of course, it never was. But it was a whole hellova lot more credible than under Messrs. Bush and Cheney.
He can't pass up an opertunity to denigrate Bush or America. The "Well of course, it never was." part is a nice summary of what he thinks of America, past and present. I would like to know if any country ever lived up to his high expectations (and why he hasn't moved there).

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

What's wrong with Walmart?

Last week Leno showed the premiere of a new animation by JibJab. They made some amazingly even-handed animations during last year's election. There was nothing even-handed about this. It was an attack on Walmart (under the name of "Big Boxmart".

It opens in a sweatshop in China making products ("crap") for Walmart. It then jumps to an American with a beer-belly going shopping, maxing out his credit cards on crap (they used that word a lot) that he didn't need. The next day his job was moved to China and he was stuck working at Walmart until death. Apparently it would have been ok for him to buy crap if it had been American made crap.

JibJab may have been a light-hearted cheap-shot but PBS's Frontline looked at the issue in detail (it was actually a repeat episode). After showing talking heads arguing facts over off-shoring, they closed with a segment on RCA, the last American TV manufacturer. The head of RCA said that he could compete with anyone on an even basis but Chinese TVs were being dumped in the US market and (horrors!) Walmart sided against him.

Lots of things were not said in this segment. The issue of dumping was passed over pretty quickly. Were TVs being dumped? Was there proof? How big an effect did this have on the market? These questions were not answered.

Something else that was unadressed is the whole question of why we were down to one US TV manufacturer? This takes a long view. When I first started paying attention to TV prices (around 1970) you could get a 13" black and white TV for around $100. A similar TV now costs $30. $100 will get you a 19" color TV (at Walmart). For $120, you can get a 13" TV with a built-in DVD player.

Figure in 35 years of inflation and today's TVs cost less than the profit margin on a 1970s TV. No one cares about who made the TV. You know it will work and have a good picture so buyers look for the most features in their price-range. TVs have become commodities.

For as long as I can remember, American manufacturers have had problems competing in commodities. Profits are razor thin and things like fluctuations in exchange rates can make all the difference.

That's why Americans don't make TVs any longer and why Walmart is full of Chinese goods. We go to Walmart for commodities. Frontline should have asked why Chinese companies can sell to Walmart cheaper than American companies.

But Walmart is not unique in this. I don't think that any of their competitors are any different, so why the fuss.

The Chinese angle is a recent twist to the anti-Walmart campaign. Other complaints are that their pay is too low and that they drive mom-and-pop businesses out of business.

I am always confused about these complaints. The mom-and-pop hardware store largely vanished decades ago, driven out by K-Mart, Sear Hardware, and other Walmart competitors. What's more, mom and pop may make a decent living from their hardware store but they usually pay minimum to their few employees. Walmart's average is nearly $10/hour plus benefits.

Why didn't anyone protest K-Mart back when they were the #1 retailer?

Granted Walmart is bigger and better than any of their competition. They are big enough to make unreasonable demands on suppliers and they are one of the top retailers of groceries, DVDs, music, magazines, and toys. To many on the left, big business is always bad. Big business equals big oppressors.

Again, that doesn't explain the lack of an anti-K-Mart or anti-Target campaign. So what is it?

I'm guessing that it is religion. The Walton family wears their religion on their sleeves. They refuse to carry soft-core skin magazines such as Maxim and they have forced alternate, cleaned-up versions of some CDs.

The left is secular and tends to be scared of anyone with a hint of Christianity.

I could be wrong about this. I've never seen anyone admit it in public, but I don't think so. As I have pointed out, no one ever complains about Walmart's competitors.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Trashing Condi

Moreen Dowd recently wrote a sneering column about Bush promoting unqualified women. One of her examples was Condoleeza Rice. Why was she incompetent? Because she didn't stop 9/11.

This has become a reflexive reaction among the left to Condi. She should have stopped the plot. After all, she was the security advisor. If she had just paid attention to the August memo "Bin Laden determined to strike inside the US" she would have deduced everything else.

Ok, at some level the person on top does take responsibility for what happens on her watch, but is this critisism justified?

Let's look at Richard Clark. He was the person in charge of monitoring Al Qaida during both the Clinton and early Bush administrations. While it was Rice's job to evaluate all threats to the US, it was his job to watch Bin Laden. If Rice didn't know about 9/11, it is because Clark didn't know about it to tell her.

Clark has an excuse. He blames everything on Bush. He claimed that Bush didn't shake the trees. Clinton was supposed to have asked all of his cabinet members constantly what they had done to stop terrorism. They in turn, asked the people below them. Eventually it got down to the guards at the Canadian boarder who recognized the millennium Bomber and arrested him. If Bush had just done as Clinton had done, 9/11 would not have happened.

Clark's account does not match what really happened. The boarder guard in question was never given any instructions about terrorists. He was looking for drug smugglers. When he saw someone who was visibly nervous he searched the man's car and found a bomb instead of drugs.

So Bush is off the hook. Shaking the trees didn't stop bombers, tight boarder control did. That puts Clark back on the hook.

So who cares? Clark left government service years ago while Rice is Secretary of State.

Except, Clark was also an advisor to John Kerry. Had Kerry won the election, Clark would certainly have gotten the job of National Security Advisor. This was a campaign point for Kerry. Everyone knew that the man who missed 9/11 would be given a high post on the Kerry administration.

So why no outrage? Why didn't any of Condi's many critics say anything? Because they don't really believe what they are saying. It's just an excuse.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Rethinking Colin Powell

In a recent column, Thomas Friedman once again attacked President Bush for attacking Iraq with too few troops. You would think that a smart man like Friedman would know why Bush didn't use more troops - he doesn't have them. An article last year in Slate did the math. Once you subtract the Navy and Air Force and allow for troop rotation and personnel needed to keep bases open, you only have around 80,000 troops left to constitute an occupation force. In order to boost the numbers to the 100,000-150,000 that we have had, Bush had to call up the reserves and short other areas.

Of course, Bush cannot stand up and tell the world that we don't have enough troops to occupy a 2nd rate, broken-down country like Iraq. Our reputation as a super power would be gone forever if he did. But we aren't really a super power any longer, at least not in terms of available troops.

We used to have a lot more troops. Under Reagan we had enough troops to fight two wars at once with enough left over to slow a Soviet invasion of Germany until more troops could be brought in.

After the end of the Cold War, Bush I cut the army back to enough troops to fight a single war. This was cut further under Clinton who assured that we only needed enough troops to fight one war at a time.

It would be easy to blame Bush I and Clinton for leaving the military cupboard bare but I blame Colin Powell and the infamous Powell Doctrine. While this is not how he phrased it, the Powell Doctrine boils down to the maxim that we should not get into a war with anyone unless we can crush them quickly then leave. He held that the American people are not able to sustain support for a war that lasts longer than a few weeks and that we should not stick around to put things back together. Further, we would rely on high-tech, low-risk attacks so that American troops were at lower risk than in training. Prior to 9/11, we bombed countries into submission then turned them over to the UN or NATO. With Iraq, we bombed them, ran over them with tanks, then established UN sanctions.

After the Gulf War, everyone was sold on the Powell Doctrine. That was how all future wars would be fought. We did not need a big occupying force because we would never occupy anyone. Bush I and Clinton bought it. It meant that they could cut the military and balance the budget.

September 11 changed our world view-point. We could no longer avoid fights just because they would get messy.

So here we are. We can vaporize anyone in the world. We can probably overthrow anyone short of China or Russia. But we cannot occupy them.

neither can anyone else. The few countries with larger militaries than we have (China, for example) do not have the supply lines needed to invade a distant enemy to say nothing about occupying them.

Ever since the USSR exploded their first atomic bomb, it was obvious that all-out wars between super powers were a thing of the past. Smaller regional conflicts are still possible and, as the world's remaining super power, we keep getting called in to stop the conflicts but, thanks to the Powell Doctrine, we are very limited on what we can actually accomplish.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Pointed Prizes

The Nobel Peace Prize for 2005 went to Mohamed ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency. I'm underwhelmed.

Maybe I'm not as innocent as I used to be but it seems like the Peace Prize has gotten so political as to render it meaningless. In 1992 the committee wanted to send a message about how evil Christopher Columbus and the Europeans were so they made a point of giving awards to Native Americans. They gave one to Jimmy (malaise) Carter as a pointed comment to George Bush of how they think an American president should ask. Now, with Iran and Korea pushing ahead with their nuclear programs, they give the award to the person who is supposed to stop this from happening. And they say that Bush rewards failure.

At least they didn't give it to the victims of nuclear weapons.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Singularity is Coming, or Is It?

There has been a lot of buzz about a new book by Ray Kurzweil predicting "The Singularity". Here is one example. Here is another. This one goes into detail.

Basically, when the Singularity comes, humanity will merge with self-aware computers to become god-like. Normal humans will find themselves obsolete.

I'm not worried for a couple of reasons.

First, Kurzweil is predicting based on current trends. One of these is Moore's Law which says that the complexity of computer chips doubles every 18 months. Kurzweil uses this to predict how complex computers will be in 40 years.

The thing is, Moore's Law is actually Moore's Observation. Moore, a top engineer at HP at the time, observed in the 1970s how fast compuer complexity increased. This became self-fulfilling when the marketing people at Intel got ahold of it. Currenty Intel executives are convinced that their stock will drop precipitously if they fall behind Moore's Law so they throw enourmous resources at maintaining this rate. This means that rather than being a hard and fast law, it is a marketing concept.

Eventually Moore's Law will run into physics. To see what I mean, look at flight.

The Wright Brothers first flew in 1903. Their flight was nothing more than an extended hop. They realized this and kept it secret for nearly two years. By 1905 they had an airplane that could stay in the air for a half hour (until it ran out of fuel) and was fully controlable. It could fly at speeds of nearly 40 miles an hour.

Fifteen years later planes could fly reach speeds of over 100 miles per hour. By WWII jets were invented and the speed of sound was broken in 1947. The SR71 Blackhawk first flew in 1964. It could fly at mach 3.3 (three times the speed of sound).

So we went from 40 mph to 2,175 mph in sixty years. If we extropolate from there then we should have planes that can fly 10,000 mph or faster but the SR71 continues to be the fastest plane built. Flight ran into the laws of physics. Friction is a real problem at these speeds, both as drag and as heat.

This is happening with computers. Computer complexity is increased by making finer etching in silicon but we are approaching the limits. You cannot etch smaller than an atom.

Speed is another issue. Clock speeds keep increasing but there are limits here, also. We already hit the limits of memory. While engineers put more memory on a chip they have not made it ru any faster in some time. There are tricks for getting around thisbut they are tricks and they have their own limits.

So the idea of Moore's Law continuing for the next 40 years is unlikely.

The next problem with Kurzweil's predictions is self-aware computers. He assues that once computers are powerful enough they will be self-aware.There is no reason to think this. We think in ways that are very different from the way computers work. While scientists are researching exactly how we think, we do not know when this will be solved or how computers will need to be changed to simulate thought.

Kurzweil makes a lot of other predeictions dealing with genetics ond other sciences but I doubt that he is any closer with them.