Thursday, July 31, 2008

Congressional subpoenas (subpoenae?)

Bush Aides Can Be Subpoenaed, Court Rules

"That simple yet critical fact bears repeating: the asserted absolute immunity claim here is entirely unsupported by existing case law," Bates wrote.

The ruling will certainly be appealed and nothing will happen before the close of this Administration. Still, nice to see that there's some hope for a return to the rule of law.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hiring at the Justice Department

Justice Official: Hiring Issues 'Serious,' Not Criminal

According to the inspector general's June 24 report, McDonald rejected Rhodes Scholars and top graduates of the best law schools if those people had a whiff of liberalism. If people seemed conservative, McDonald accepted them whether they were qualified or not. Fine said this was "a serious problem that had implications throughout the Department of Justice."

In a word: fundamentalism.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste

Meanwhile, just down the street:

A little Google search turned up dozens of churches using "Dino Detectives" for their Vacation Bible School programs this summer. It's pure, mindless YEC - but mindless in a way that is so empty I can't even begin to get excited about it. Mainly, it seems to just be a hook to persuade enthusiastic VBS teachers to buy a bunch of dinosaur-themed paraphernalia.

What I like best is the plywood dino. It's been known for decades that T-rex didn't stand upright with his tail dragging in the dirt, but those creationists - they just don't keep up with the science.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Supply side fails again

White House Predicts $482 Billion Deficit

Suggesting, once again, that we've been on the left-hand side of the Laffer Curve all along. In fairness, though, the graphic does demonstrate that the projected deficits are record-setting only in absolute dollars, but not as a fraction of total GDP.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Heather calls this "Sea orgy"

How clean does your mind have to be to not realize how people are going to interpret this sign?

From Heather's Picassa photos.

Sylvan Pass to remain open in winter

White House reverses experts on Yellowstone policy

That the White House would spend millions to prop up Cody businessmen is no surprise, especially when you can poke conservationists in the eye with the same stick. Another example of how much mercantilism* remains in our economic system, 232 years after Adam Smith. If the people of Cody can't afford to keep Sylvan Pass open, then it's just not producing a justifiable amount of economic activity.

When I was describing documents in the YNP archives years ago, I came across one letter than actually accused the NPS of bias because they were more willing to keep a road open to West Yellowstone than to Cody. You don't have to be an engineer to feel your jaw drop to the floor at a statement like that.**

Small potatoes in the big scheme of things, but a nice little illustration of how the "free market" really works.

* As an aside, Bloglines's spell checker doesn't recognize "mercantilism." Embarrassing.

**I don't think I have any readers who don't know Yellowstone topography, but if there are - West Yellowstone connects to the park via the Madison River valley, which runs through a wide glacial valley about as steep as Nebraska. Sylvan Pass is some 2/3 of a mile higher than Cody.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Working in Yellowstone

A kid from John Day, Oregon, is working as a wrangler at Roosevelt this year and will be writing weekly articles for the hometown newspaper. I'll have to keep an eye on this.

It took me six summers to see a bear and this kid encounters one his very first day. $^%*^%%##@!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Books - the atomic bombs

It's been sitting on my shelf for years, but I finally read Gar Alperovitz's The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb. I'm regret letting it wait so long, since the book is as close to a definitive word on the subject as we're likely to see unless important new evidence emerges.

Alperovitz produces the documentary evidence to prove that Truman and other US leaders knew that Japan was on the verge of collapse, that the Japanese' worst nightmare was about to come true (Russia was entering the war against them), and that the Japanese were looking for a way to surrender. American military leaders fully believed that Japan had little chance of holding out until an invasion began (still seven months away), let alone resisting long after. Despite this conviction, they used atomic bombs to destroy not one, but two cities, deliberately targeting civilian populations rather than military installations. This much is really not arguable.

They believed that Japanese leaders needed a major shock to convince them to quit, but had expected all along that the Russian attack would do the trick. But here was the dilemma: the Russians could hasten the end of the war, but they also strengthen their position in Asia after the war. Soviet-American rivalry was already in motion. Alperovitz believes that the bombings were meant to make sure the Japanese surrendered ASAP - not just before the Americans had to invade, but before the Russians could have much to do with it. Also, a truly horrific display was expected to impress Stalin tremendously, perhaps making him a little more tractable later on.

Alperovitz believes the last factor - scaring the Russians - was a huge factor, because it's otherwise hard to explain why the Americans deliberately made it harder for the Japanese to surrender earlier. While Japan would have liked to hold onto any part of their mainland conquests, if possible, they were ready to give up all but one thing - they would not let the Americans depose Hirohito, especially when they could see what was about to happen to defeated German leaders at Nuremberg. All of the well-known talk of Japanese fighting to the last man was predicated on this belief that they would be fighting to protect their emperor. On the other hand, the one authority who could compel Japanese soldiers to lay down arms was, of course, the emperor.

Thus, it seems perverse that the Potsdam Declaration demanded "unconditional surrender" with no guarantee for the emperor. Nor was it an oversight: the language of such a guarantee was removed from the final draft of the Declaration. The Japanese asked for clarifications, but didn't receive any and didn't believe they could consider surrender under those circumstances. Eventually, of course, the emperor was retained, he did order his people to surrender, and they did. Considering that Hirohito had already initiated peace feelers through the USSR (before the Russians declared war themselves), and that the Americans knew all about it, Alperovitz provocatively suggests that the decision to use the bombs might have actually prolonged the war by a few weeks.

After the bombings, in response to a fairly small number of critical voices, Alperovitz argues that a myth of military necessity was consciously constructed to protect the American reputation (sound familiar? retain the moral high ground by controlling the story, not by restraining your actions). The famous figure of 1,000,000 lives saved by the bombings come from these actions - there is no documentary support for such an analysis anywhere and actual contemporary documents argue explicitly against the likelihood of so many casualties. Several of the top brass were quite straightforward (although not especially loud) in stating that the bombs made little or no contribution to the end of the war. But after Secretary of War Henry Stimson was convinced to put his name to a 1947 article inHarper's arguing otherwise, then the matter was settled for most Americans. Alperovitz devotes almost half of his 800-page book to this Myth-making effort.

As a PS, finishing the book provoked me to watch "Tora! Tora! Tora!" again last night and it's still an excellent work. A joint US-Japanese effort that doesn't seem to grind many axes, it rises above some rather pedestrian acting and tells an extremely compelling story. All without a dramatic musical score, too.

UM Press caves to criticism

U-M shelves connection to publisher

When the controversy flared last summer, the executive board of the U-M Press defended its relationship with Pluto, saying reservations about the content of a single book shouldn't interfere with an existing business relationship, and that stopping the book's distribution would be a blow to academic freedom and free speech.
Peggy McCracken, an associate dean at Michigan who is chair of the executive board of the press, said that politics wasn’t the issue. She said that because Pluto doesn’t have peer review on the Michigan model, it would be inappropriate to keep the ties. “The issue is review procedures,” she said.
... yeah.

More at Michigan Severs Ties to Controversial Publisher

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Understanding Nature

Is a massive flood in Ann Arbor's future?

Trains were flooded with so much water that they were lifted off the tracks. People traveled down Huron Street by canoe. One area dam was washed out.

Those stories from the flood of 1968 in Ann Arbor still resonate with longtime residents. Still, the flood wasn't of the historic proportions that recently washed out areas of Iowa, Illinois and Missouri.

Could rains bring a flood of those proportions to Ann Arbor?

"This is sort of like, 'Will I win the lottery?'" said Washtenaw County Drain Commissioner Janis Bobrin. "I have no idea. I bet they thought they wouldn't see it in Iowa."

Matt Naud, the city of Ann Arbor's environmental coordinator, said it's just a matter of time.

"There is no doubt it will happen," Naud said. "The only question is, 'When?'"

Ms. Bobrin has the wrong game in mind. Floods are random like poker hands, not like lotteries. When the planners talk about 10-year floods, 100-year floods, or 500-year floods, they're speaking exactly the same language as the people who teach the odds on poker hands. The only question is how often will it happen?


If I ever own a tobacco shop, I'm going to call it "Bad Breath and Beyond."

Friday, July 11, 2008


This is just obnoxious. Of course, I had to pass it along.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Geysers need water, too

Yellowstone Geysers May Stop Erupting, Study Suggests

A long-term study of Yellowstone National Park's iconic geysers suggests that dry spells caused by climate change are slowing—and may even stop—the geysers' clockwork-regular eruptions.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Beware the fine print

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


More evidence that this country desperately needs a program of debushification and isn't going to get it:

Woman Arrested at McCain Event for "McCain=Bush" Sign

I have to object a little, however, to the assumption that a 61-year-old librarian is the acme of harmlessness. The Party knows better.

[via Library Juice]

Monday, July 7, 2008

Archaeology in Paris

Via Global Museum, I learn that Paris is 3000 years older than previously believed. I'm annoyed that I didn't hear this until just now.

Forgeries at the Brooklyn Museum of Art

Revealed: one third of Brooklyn Museum’s Coptic collection is fake

Unlike most of the other articles I found on this topic, this piece from The Art Newspaper discusses what makes the fakes recognizable as such ... which is, of course, a more interesting story than the mere fact that forgeries have found their way into a museum.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Lawsuit in YNP

Here's a lawsuit that's going nowhere: In 2005,an employee at Roosevelt Lodge drove away from a party late at night, drove into the Yellowstone River, and drowned. Her parents are now suing Xanterra for not adequately controlling their employees. They claim they were promised that underage employees would never be housed with 21-year-olds (as if that could possibly make a difference when all you have to do is walk next door to the partying cabin) and that a security guard knew there was underage drinking going on (no doubt true, but I question whether that makes Xanterra responsible for this woman jumping into a car when she was already at "home").

In loco parentis was an obsolete philosophy long before the parents hit college age. Sounds like some people are getting some very bad legal advice.

As a purely practical matter, there is also no way Xanterra could retain staff if they exercised such "adequate" (read: "draconian") supervision over college-aged kids who mostly want to experience a bit of freedom.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Books - Nim Chimpsky

I just finished reading Elizabeth Hess's Nim Chimpsky: The Ape Who Would Be Human, the story of one of the earliest attempts to teach chimpanzees to use human language. Nim earned a bit of fame by being raised among humans, as a human baby, and learning to use a small American Sign Language vocabulary to express his needs and desires.

Actually, it would be better to describe the book as the story of the subject of that research; the title does not mislead. Nim was caught in an impossible situation: raised by people who had no experience with apes and the limitations of nurture, in the middle of an under-planned and poorly administered study with unclear goals and virtually no budget. As he grew larger, stronger, and more self-willed, Nim became dangerously impossible for amateurs to handle (he sent many to the hospital, at least once with permanent injuries). Nor did it help that some of the key participants seemed to engage in as much infighting as they did research - Nim had a way of provoking strong feelings, while careers and professional status were on the line for most of the people as well. Few of the human actors come out entirely clean, at least if anyone else in the story has anything to say about them.

As he became older and more difficult to handle (perfectly normal for a male chimpanzee, but intolerable for humans who like to keep their flesh and furniture intact), Nim was transferred back to his birthplace at the Institute for Primate Studies at the University of Oklahoma. The language education continued - under different researchers with different ideas of how it should be done - until the IPS shut down in 1981 amid poor funding and poor conditions. A public outcry, led by animal advocate Cleveland Amory, narrowly saved Nim from a medical research facility (most of the other IPS chimps were not so lucky) and he spent his last years at Amory's Black Beauty Ranch in Texas. Those years were tragically short, as Nim succumbed to a sudden heart attack in 2000, barely middle-aged at only 26 years old.

The language studies themselves were inconclusive, which may have been the inevitable results for the first efforts. In the 1970s, the field was dominated by Skinnerian behavioralism on the one hand, and Chomsky's position that syntax and grammar are the essence of language and only humans can have it. Certainly Nim learned to use signs in a purposeful way, but most of the data was not rigorous enough to stand up to hostile scientific scrutiny; videos of his performance left open the possibility that he was employing the "Clever Hans" effect as his handlers praised his successes.

Much of the discussion, though, has always struck me as misguided. The insistence on grammar and syntax as the litmus test of "language" seems a distraction at worst, although not without offering some insight of its own. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, who performed ground-breaking work of her own with the bonobo Kanzi, complained bitterly about grammar as a red herring. For her, the key factor was that Kanzi had grasped the concept of symbolic representation - this symbol stands for that real-world thing. If the version of the water-pump story we've all learned is accurate, this was the essence of Helen Keller's breakthrough, too. Once she understood what a symbol was good for, she rapidly learned to communicate. Neither Skinner nor Chomsky seem to have considered language from this perspective, but it's a vital insight nonetheless.

As far as I know, there isn't a lot of language study going on these days, but no one doubts the essential personhood of apes any more. One of the tragic consequences of Nim's human environment was that he was always caught between people who saw him as a little boy and those who saw him as a research animal. Nim himself couldn't please either group entirely; he was too wild to be fully socialized into human society, but bonded with his handlers at a level that didn't allow them to seem him treated as a lab rat. Nim moved from houses to cages, saw people enter his life and leave suddenly, and surely never understood any of it.

Moving the 45th parallel

"Yellowstone moves sign marking 45th Parallel"

Just another example of how the gu'mint lies to us ....