Saturday, September 30, 2006

A refreshing clarity

Last week was certainly an ignominious one for the United States's offical image of itself. The decision to grant the excutive basically unlimited rights to hold prisoners without due process or habeus corpus and subject them to "aggressive interrogation" has to be entered on the list of equally shameful offical acts such as the Dred Scot decision, the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Fugitive Slave Acts, and the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. Some say it's the end of the American experiment; certainly it represents a new low in official government policy in the modern era.

But let's not confuse the official statements of government with what it actually does. It's not like human rights abuses up to and including torture are something that was cooked up last week, or even in the last six years. The US intelligence apparatus has been investigating, promoting, and utilizing torture around the world since the end of World War II, usually with disastrous results. We used torture ourselves in Vietnam, and trained torturers who worked in Iran under the Shah, in the Phillipines under Marcos, in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo did not emerge from nowhere; they are directly traceable to a half-century of institutional practices that have usually stayed beneath the surface.

In our urge to excoriate the Republicans who are responsible for the most recent set of travesties, let's stop and give thanks to them for stripping away the rhetoric of human rights talk and exposing our actual practices. What has gone on in the shadows now goes on under color of law and with the blessings of the people's representatives. We are now officially a torture state.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Your tax dollars at work

Today is the anniversary of the Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

And it's the day when the US Congress has decided to pass laws permitting torture of prisoners, in violation of the Geneva Conventions and common decency.

What a travesty.

This country has done many shameful things in its history, but in modern times it usually at least bothers to hide them. I can't recall an occasion in my lifetime where the government has so openly declared itself to be on the side of something so unequivocally wrong. Torture is not new, but doing it under the color of law in a democracy is.

What the hell is happening to this country?

According to Molly Ivins, "the Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition is so in favor of torture he told McCain that the senator either supports the torture bill or he can forget about the evangelical Christian vote." I suppose that torture is a traditional Christian value, they worship an incredibly brutal execution device after all, but I thought their sympathy was supposed to be with the victim, not the torturers.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Duck and cover

The nukes aren't flying yet, but words about them sure are. The venerable Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (clock currently at seven minutes to midnight) discusses the risks of a nuclear strike by terrorists.

In sum, my best judgment is that based on current trends, a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States is more likely than not in the decade ahead. Developments in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea leave Americans more vulnerable to a nuclear 9/11 today than we were five years ago. Former Defense Secretary William Perry has said that he thinks that I underestimate the risk. In the judgment of most people in the national security community.. the risk of a terrorist detonating a nuclear bomb on U.S. soil is higher today than was the risk of nuclear war at the most dangerous moments in the Cold War. Reviewing the evidence, Warren Buffett, the world's most successful investor and a legendary oddsmaker in pricing insurance policies for unlikely but catastrophic events like earthquakes, has concluded: "It's inevitable. I don't see any way that it won't happen."

Meanwhile, there are signs that our increasingly unhinged government is itching to use its own nukes on the recalcitrant Middle East, since they are running out of options for conventional warefare, and there are so many countries there that need to be converted from Good to Evil by the application of force.

Who is more likely to unleash the nuclear option for the first time since WW II? The terrorists holed up in Northern Pakistan, or the terrorists occupying the West Wing? Keep in mind that the Bush administration has a record of always being worse than you expected, whatever you might have expected. The current efforts to get legal cover for torture may be a nadir, but there's no reason they can't sink lower still.

We really, really, really need to elect a Democratic congress. An opposition party may not be able to stop this administration, but at least it can make it clear to the world that we aren't all crazy. That may be the best we can hope for.

As for the threat of terrorist nukes, we could also hope to get an administration that actually takes homeland security seriously, for instance by inspecting cargo containers even if it inconveniences the shipping industry.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

God hates you

Pastor Fred Phelps, the odious twerp who likes to picket at funerals of soldiers and gays, has upgraded his media repertoire from crude flyers to a whole series of suprisngly high-production videos out, including God Hates You. No convoluted theodicy here, bad things happen because everyone deserves it!.

Phelps has just put out a clip attacking Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as "godless sodomites" and "fag-enabling fools". Next Monday's Daily Show should be a hoot.

Prolixity of RDF vs Lisp

I'm messing with OWL/RDF and other semantic web goodness. Here is how you define an enumerated lists of strings (that can be the value of some property:

<owl:oneof parsetype="Resource">
<rdf:rest parsetype="Resource">
<rdf:first datatype="">ACTIVATION</rdf:first>
<rdf:rest parsetype="Resource">
<rdf:first datatype="">INHIBITION-ALLOSTERIC</rdf:first>
<rdf:rest parsetype="Resource">
<rdf:first datatype="">INHIBITION-COMPETITIVE</rdf:first>
<rdf:rest parsetype="Resource">
<rdf:rest parsetype="Resource">
<rdf:first datatype="">INHIBITION-NONCOMPETITIVE</rdf:first>
<rdf:rest parsetype="Resource">
<rdf:rest parsetype="Resource">
<rdf:rest parsetype="Resource">
<rdf:rest parsetype="Resource">
<rdf:rest resource="">
<rdf:first datatype="">ACTIVATION-ALLOSTERIC</rdf:first>
<rdf:first datatype="">ACTIVATION-NONALLOSTERIC</rdf:first>
<rdf:first datatype="">INHIBITION-UNCOMPETITIVE</rdf:first>
<rdf:first datatype="">INHIBITION-OTHER</rdf:first>
<rdf:first datatype="">INHIBITION-IRREVERSIBLE</rdf:first>
<rdf:first datatype="">INHIBITION</rdf:first>

That's 1853 characters, to do something that is obviously derived from Lisp and which in Lispy syntax can be done like this:


Or 244 characters. The OWL format is 7.6 times the size, and this is a relatively simple example.

Of course the RDF format is grossly inefficient in terms of space and bandwidth, but my real problem with it is that it is also vastly inferior in terms of human comprehensibility.

One of Lisp's real strength is in human interface -- its external representations are simple and direct representations of its internal structures. This is what makes hacking Lisp fun, and powerful. As some Lisp guru once said, "you can feel the bits between your toes", but it's not the bits, its the actual conceptual data structures that have an almost tangible existence in a Lispy environment.

Pretty much nothing since Lisp has retained this quality. Modern IDEs do a lot to make code more tangible, but are pretty primitive when it comes to data. And XML/RDF is only barely human-readable, and not at all human-typable at any scale.