Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Intelligence analysis

Jennifer Sharp posted a link to this WSJ article on her Facebook page, an article which includes this deliciously preposterous map of what the United States will be in just two years:

According to the article, a former KGB analyst is going around predicting that "an economic and moral collapse will trigger a civil war and the eventual breakup of the U.S," as soon as 2010. Now, I estimate a probability of .983754 that this guy is just a huckster who doesn't particularly believe a word he's saying, and anyway, we survived Margaret Sanger and the 19th Amendment, followed by the Great Depression, with no discernible threat to our geographic integrity. But just for fun, let's play along for a minute.

First, it's helpful to remember that intelligence analysts don't necessarily do a great job of predicting the future. If you're almost as old as I am, you might remember that the opening of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later came as a complete surprise
to our intelligence community and our foreign policy leaders. Some of these, like former ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick, had made careers by arguing that nasty totalitarians who would do business with the US were fundamentally different from nasty totalitarians who called themselves "communist" and wouldn't work with us; the latter were said to be uniquely incapable of reform from within. Then came Gorbachev and Lech Walesa and the impossible happened.

Second, our KGB man's target audience is very familiar with large states splintering into many independent states, especially along ethnic lines, but probably not terribly well versed in US demographics. The truth is, our ethnic boundaries just don't conform to any geographic boundaries, not even if the former Mexican territories. We have nothing in our country that is at all comparable to, say, Quebec, let alone Kosovo or South Ossetia.*

Which brings us back to this imaginative map. Who that knows anything about the US could imagine these divisions? South Carolina goes to the European Union, no doubt due to their slavish imitation of everything that Massachusetts does first. Canada takes over Kansas and Missouri? Wouldn't the gun owners of the Upper Peninsula bleed them white before they ever got that far south? The Mexicans get nothing from California or Arizona, but they take Alabama and Mississippi? Poor bastards, but it would make some sort of sense: gathering all the third world countries under one roof.**

Interestingly, California stays in one piece. If anyplace in our country split into two parts, I would expect a break somewhere between Monterey and Santa Barbara. Our KGB guy probably thinks he can lump LA and San Francisco together as just "Californians."

My favorite part:

"It would be reasonable for Russia to lay claim to Alaska; it was part of the Russian Empire for a long time." A framed satellite image of the Bering Strait that separates Alaska from Russia like a thread hangs from his office wall. "It's not there for no reason," he says with a sly grin.
Hey, jackass, we paid fair market value for Alaska back in 1867. You can have the governor at a discount, but the rest of it is going to cost you.

* Although, from what I hear, there have been attempts to persuade all the most fundamentalist Christians to move to a single state (I think Idaho gets mentioned) so that they can take it over and create their own little theocracy. I don't think they've had enough takers, though.

** Although if they gain control of Texas, look for some serious payback.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Dick Cheney is the law!

Cheney claims power to decide his public records

"The vice president alone may determine what constitutes vice presidential records or personal records, how his records will be created, maintained, managed and disposed, and are all actions that are committed to his discretion by law," according to a court filing by Cheney's office with the U.S. District Court on Dec. 8.

I'm supposed to believe that a law enacted after President Nixon's infamous partial-erasing of his secret tapes was purposely written to allow a public official complete control over the disposition of his records? That wouldn't have required a law; that was the status quo ante. Cheney's argument is patently false, but when was that ever counted as a defect in this Administration's legal strategies?


Adendum: Actually, there might be a bit of a case here. Purely "partisan" records are allowed to be exempted and that covers pretty much every act and thought in the White House for the last eight years.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Lincoln Museum stays in Indiana

Indiana retains Lincoln Museum collection

The collection will be split between the Allen County Public Library and the State Museum, with the library in general receiving the collection's books, documents and manuscripts. The state museum will get the three-dimensional artifacts.

The Indiana consortium stressed a need for increased access to the collection. The library's goal is to digitize the document collection and make it available for research.

I'm a bit surprised about all this, since they had to cobble together a consortium on short notice and compete with the Smithsonian and the Lincoln Library at Springfield, IL. I wonder what this all looked like behind the scenes?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The persistance of culture

A reader at Strange Maps comments on this map:

“I looked at this map and thought, hmmm…where have I seen this divide before? Looks very familiar. This isn’t just some urban/rural, professional/worker, white-wine-and-brie/beer-and-sausages thing!”

Mr Hecht did some overlay work, and came up with this remarkable fit: “The divide between the (more free-market) PO and the (more populist) PiS almost exactly follows the old border between Imperial Germany and Imperial Russia, as it ran through Poland! How about that for a long-lasting cultural heritage?!?”

I expect those more familiar with Polish history would not find this surprising, in the same way that I don't find this map surprising at all:

I believe it was William Faulkner who said, "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."

You got served ... on Facebook

Australia OKs Facebook for serving lien notice

A court in Australia has approved the use of Facebook, a popular social networking Web site, to notify a couple that they lost their home after defaulting on a loan.

* snip *
The documents were sent last Friday after weeks of failed attempts to contact borrowers Gordon Poyser and Carmel Corbo at their Canberra home and by e-mail.

Interestingly, Facebook is highly pleased with the turn of events:
In a statement, Facebook praised the ruling. "We're pleased to see the Australian court validate Facebook as a reliable, secure and private medium for communication. The ruling is also an interesting indication of the increasing role that Facebook is playing in people's lives," it said.
I might have thought they'd be concerned that they could lose customers who would now have reason to be even more concerned about their ability to remain private. Guess that doesn't apply to Facebook people. The company seems ecstatic at how mainstream they're becoming.

Self-censorship after criticism

While doing some research into open access journals, I found this one at Public Library of Science:

The Chilling Effect: How Do Researchers React to Controversy?

The authors conducted interviews and surveys with researchers whose work had been exposed to controversy, mainly by accusations of wasted money. The findings:

The NIH defended each grant and no funding was rescinded. Nevertheless, this study finds that many of the scientists whose grants were criticized now engage in self-censorship. About half of the sample said that they now remove potentially controversial words from their grant and a quarter reported eliminating entire topics from their research agendas. Four researchers reportedly chose to move into more secure positions entirely, either outside academia or in jobs that guaranteed salaries. About 10% of the group reported that this controversy strengthened their commitment to complete their research and disseminate it widely.

As some others* have noted, all of the examples of "wasteful earmarks" that John McCain and Sarah Palin trotted out during the election campaign were appropriations for basic science or science education. It's bad enough that this encourages voters and lawmakers to think of these fields as wasteful; add to that the possibility that the researchers themselves will begin to shy away from their work and you get a double hit on science.

* At Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Panda's Thumb, or Pharyngula, can't really recall where just now. Doesn't matter - you should be reading them all, anyway.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sharkey leaves the Shire, still not done

The Bush Administration's Parting Shot for Yellowstone

A last-minute regulation published today by the Bush Administration opens Yellowstone National Park, the country's most famous sanctuary for wildlife and natural quiet, to significantly more harm from snowmobiles than a federal court rejected in September as unlawful. The regulation authorizes double the level of snowmobile use recommended just last month by scientists and park managers in the National Park Service.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Don't go messin' with no librarians

Ann Arbor library director shows thief she's no pushover

On Sunday, Parker pursued a thief after he grabbed a collection box of money donated for a local charity called the Family Book Club. In the process, she broke her leg and the thief got away - but not with any money.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Sharkey leaves the Shire, continued

Years ago, just out of high school, an industrious friend of mine had a job closing houses that had been foreclosed upon. He would go in, clean up the place, and board up the windows so that the abandoned house didn't become any more of an eyesore than necessary. And one day, he invited me along for a particularly big job.

It will come as no surprise that people who lose a house feel no particular obligation to its maintenance. Only the most conscientious would do more than the most cursory cleaning. But these folks ... oh my. I've seen garbage dumps that were neater than this house. Trash everywhere, overflowing garbage all over the house. Used diapers strewn about the yard (which had to be fetched out of knee-deep grass before mowing the lawn). And the crowning touch: the toilet had been left unflushed when the occupants finally departed.

I don't like dealing with that kind of mess. My friend had to find other help after that day.

But that house keeps popping into my mind every time I read about the latest step George Bush has taken to mark his passage. This time it's the national parks beneath his lifted leg:

New rule lifts ban on firearms in national parks

Fortunately, it's not a blanket license for guns. You have to have a concealed-carry permit, and it has to be from the state in which the national park is situated. In Yellowstone, that will mean some small number of the spring and fall visitors (who tend to be local), but almost none of those who visit during the height of summer (half of them from outside the US, the remainder mostly from out of state). And if anyone else does draw a gun, they'd better have an awfully convincing reason for it, 'cause the rangers are federal employees who don't much care about the local culture of firearms and don't much care for anyone who denies that they're in charge.

So there's no need to so hysterical as, say, this guy. Still ... there's not one good thing to say about this change. Even in the demented US, you have to be clinically paranoid if you're afraid to go to a national park without a gun in your pocket.* I lived in one for years - never saw a need. I even worked with a murderer-on-the-lam a few summers ago in Yellowstone, but no need for a gun ever arose. Wild animals? Puleeze. Pretty much everyone I knew at Yellowstone had no particular fear of camping in bear and wolf country, so I'm going to laugh - with the greatest derision - at anyone who tries to claim they need to protect themselves from animals.

Politically, though, it's a clever move. It will be hard to undo, because the gun nuts can bring more hysteria to "Thur tekkin' 'r gnnnzzzz!" than the rest of the public can possibly match. Unless a massacre actually occurs - and I don't really expect it - there'll never be enough political will to revoke this rule. It gives the Right a potential rally point, with little risk of a sizable backlash. Kudos.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Islands of the orcs

Strange Maps has a good one here: the Atlas of True Names, where now-ancient placenames are rendered with their modern translations. So the Orkney Islands, for example, can once again be known as the Isles of the Sea Monsters. Which is still not as good as Eyebrow Head, but it's always hard to compete with the Irish.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

More Nixon tapes

The Washington Post emphasizes: Nixon Tapes Reveal Vietnam Strategy, while the LA Times focuses on Nixon archives shed light on his campaign to investigate enemies.

The new tapes contain conversations on the Christmas bombings of North Vietnam in 1972, while some of the memos touch on Nixon's campaign against anyone he saw as an enemy (which, famously, was just about anyone and everyone).

"The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy," Nixon told Kissinger in a recorded Oval Office conversation on Dec. 14, 1972.

One document in particular may reveal the beginnings of Nixon's so-called "enemies list." In a handwritten note on June 23, 1971, Nixon's top aide, H.R. Haldeman, documents Nixon's order to pressure former Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford using the IRS. Clifford was a vocal critic of Nixon's Vietnam policy.

Haldeman also references action to be taken against another Nixon enemy, "TK," whom many believe to be Senator Ted Kennedy.

"Get him -- compromising situation . . . Get evidence -- use another Dem as front," Haldeman writes of "TK."

... and ...

In a memo to Nixon on Jan. 16, 1970, presidential staffer Alexander Butterfield reported on the progress of Nixon's order to remove all pictures of past presidents from White House walls. Butterfield noted that of 35 offices occupied by White House support staff, six had displayed one or more former presidents.

Nixon, the memo reveals, had expressed special concern about an office in which he saw two pictures of John F. Kennedy. Butterfield discovered the office belonged to Edna Rosenberg, a low-level civil servant who had been on the White House staff for 41 years, longer than any other staffer. Butterfield said he "checked her file very carefully" and found the CIA, FBI and Secret Service all considered her a loyal American.

One of the Kennedy portraits, it turned out, bore a personal inscription. Still, she was made to take it down.

Embarrassing stuff, which makes it no wonder that some people have decided it's best to leave no paper trail at all.* There's the dilemma for historians and archivists: politicians were more comfortable keeping diaries and saving notes when they thought they would be able to write their history themselves, or control who had access to their files. But if you're never going to have the chance to edit your own records, it's very tempting to leave as impoverished a record as possible, just as a matter of self-preservation. For the sake of reliable history (eventually), it's a good idea to allow some things to remain sealed until the contemporary generation has left the stage.

* We could also say, If you don't want to be embarrassed, stop doing things you don't want people to know about. But let's be real.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Saving lives by visiting the archives

From the Archives listserv:

The Wall street Journal reports:
Looking for Bombs Buried in Germany? Start Your Search in Alabama

Expert Finds World War II U.S. Ordnance Using Air Force Photos

The trick is to read the shape of the crater. A big one that looks like a doughnut means the bomb detonated as planned. But a pinpoint blemish on a 65-year-old photo taken from thousands of feet in the air may well mark the spot where hundreds of pounds of TNT hit with a thud and became buried in the earth.