Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Word from the Hood


OK, I know that’s a misleading title, but I hope it got your attention anyway.

The hood I’m referring to is black, was made of cloth, and spent a couple of hours covering my head earlier today. As fashion statements go, it was the dot over the otherwise pumpkin-colored “i” that I resembled in my prisoner’s jumpsuit with the word “DETAINEE” prominently displayed across the back. No such outfit is complete without accessories in coordinated accent colors, so I had a bright yellow nylon rope tied around my waist, with the long ends in front tied around my wrists so I couldn’t move my hands more than about 25 centimetres away from my navel.

I was acting the part of a prisoner in one of several camps being run by our beloved country under the direction of Dear Leader. There were 5 of us “detainees”. Natalie Morrison, the organizer of this bit of street theater, was clad in fatigues and acted as one of our guards, who kept reminding us (and everyone else within earshot) that she was “just following orders”.

We formed up outside Memorial Union on the UW campus around 11 AM and did a 2-hour tour of lower State Street, shuffling slowly much of the time and periodically stopping in a few places where we were “forced” to kneel and bow our heads upon pain of pain.

Since we were just actors, doing this voluntarily, we had many advantages that the actual prisoners whom we were portraying could only dream about. For example, my hood wasn’t completely opaque. It had a panel in front that was black gauze, so I could see (dimly) out of it, much the way I would out of a chador or burka. Real prisoners, of course, are completely blinded by their hoods, which adds to the disorientation that already results from sleep deprivation. (I tried to simulate this effect on several occasions by walking into trees or lampposts, to the guffaws of the “guards”.) Lemme tell ya, it was only in the mid-80s in Madison today, and that gauze allowed a certain amount of airflow, and I was only under the hood for a couple of hours, but it got damn hot in there.

We also got to talk whenever we wanted to (tho the guards kept ordering us to silence or they’d bring back the dogs), and we were exposed to ordinary citizens (unlike the folx at Gitmo, who never see anybody but military personnel). We kept pleading for help, saying that we hadn’t done anything, asking to see a lawyer, begging people to let our families know where we were. I affected an accent and spoke broken English (“please give to drink”), and eventually (to see if having a name to go with my blank face would help) adopted the nom de guerre of Azim al-Hakim. “Please tell my family. They do not know what happened to me. Azim al-Hakim. I was taken in 2004. Please tell my wife. Azim al-Hakim. I have done nothing.”

The guards, meanwhile, kept reminding us that we weren’t prisoners, we were enemy combatants, that we had no rights to lawyers, that the president didn’t need any evidence, that trials would be pointless because they already knew we were guilty, and so on.

Another advantage available to us was water. We had some with us and could actually stop and sneak a drink any time we wanted to. I thot it was out of character to actually carry the water bottle, since one of my lines was “Water, please. So thirsty. No drink water since yesterday. Water, please.”. I tuned this one up particularly as we passed sidewalk restaurants where people were relaxing with cool drinks. When we were approached by people with kids, I’d haul out the “I have not seen my children in 4 years.” line, and I used “Please. I am old man. I cannot hurt anybody.” on senior citizens. First rule of communication: Know your audience!

And now we get to one of the interesting parts of the day. After we’d been kneeling for about 15 minutes on some of those chocolate-rice-krispie terrazo circles that the Madison sidewalk builders are so fond of, we were ordered to stand up so we could move on. And I couldn’t do it. My knees (somewhat arthritic to begin with) had locked up and refused to cooperate. This was all the more interesting given that my hamstrings were also giving out and starting to spasm. I don’t normally spend any time at all kneeling, and my body just wasn’t used to it. (I suppose that’s why Dear Leader and his consigliere euphemistically refer to this sort of thing as “stress positions”.)

Fortunately, my thespian warders were actually compassionate people and helped me to my feet (while simultaneously promising me another visit from the dogs for lack of cooperation), and I was off again. At our next stop, I lasted for about 5 minutes in a kneeling position. After that, I contented myself with shuffling aimlessly about, running into things.

I know that devout Muslims get a lot of practice kneeling and whanging their foreheads on the ground in front of them, so maybe it’s not such a big deal for them, but, man, I couldn’t handle a trivial quarter of an hour. I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like “assuming the position” for hours at a time, day after day, for years.

One of our party, dressed in civvies, was handing out fliers explaining what we were up to. Most of the passersby were willing to take our literature. But they didn’t spend any time looking at us. Part of that was probably because it’s hard to make eye contact with someone whose eyes you can’t see, but I’m sure a good deal of it was just “Oh, Jesus, another cause that somebody wants me to get involved in!”.

There were a couple of exceptions to this general “walk on by” attitude. One was the guy who offered to help cut off our heads. (We said we’d get back to him.) The other was a middle-aged woman who looked startled when I pleaded with her for water and went up to our guard to make sure that we weren’t REALLY being mistreated. Assured that it was all an act, she expressed her sympathy and moved on. (I know -- anyone who’s ever been on stage simply LIVES for moments like that, right?)

Each of us “prisoners” was free to come up with our own bits of dialog. Buzz Davis does a great heart-attack imitation. Dennis Coyier came up with the line “They’re doing this to us in YOUR name.”. One of the women prisoners (whose name I didn’t get) kept saying “I think you broke my arm. Can I please see a doctor?”.

The guards had some snappy comebacks. When we begged for water, they’d pull out a bottle, take a swig, then splash some of the rest on the ground and laff. On another occasion, Natalie said “Water? You want water? Wait till we get back to camp. We’ll put you back on the board and give you all the water you want.”

So, perverse as it may seem, we had kind of a good time doing this as an act. Still, there’s no way in hell I’d ever want to endure that kind of treatment for real. I’d crumple in no time flat if faced with serious sleep deprivation or sunburn.

But it wouldn’t really matter at all if I crumpled, would it? Suppose I really were in a prison camp and on the very first day offered to totally spill my guts. But I don’t know anything. I never did anything. I don’t know anyone else who did anything, or planned to, or even talked about it. What could I say? If I started making things up, I’d eventually get trapped in the web of my own lies. And the more I lied, the more they’d think I knew.

People who are in that very situation are being held captive by our nation right now. There is no evidence against them other than somebody’s say-so or suspicion. Maybe they were denounced by a spiteful nabor or a business rival. Maybe they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe they looked like somebody else. Maybe they really are bad guys. Who knows? How can we tell? There’s no judicial procedure involved. Nobody’s hauling in any evidence. None of the detainees can bring in witnesses in their own defense -- which is actually nicely symmetric with the fact that the equally non-existent prosecution isn’t bringing in any witnesses, either.

And, since Dear Leader has ruled that habeas corpus doesn’t apply, they can’t challenge the fact that they’re being held without charge, indefinitely. Perhaps until the War on Terror is over.

One of the lines I kept using, hoping somewhat optimistically that it might actually be true, was “America is good country. Americans are good people. They would not let you treat me this way if they knew it was happening.”.

Would we?

Tomorrow: Capitol Square.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Theory of Immaculate Precision

I got the following question on a listserv I participate in and took a shot at the answer. I figured it might be worth distributing to a wider audience.

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I would appreciate the advice of anyone with a knowledge of physics.

For some years I've been tantalized by the idea that everything is precise and therefore predictable. Like, from the moment of the Big Bang (or whatever) accurate instruments could have predicted everything from that point on. The instruments could have predicted the rise of Judaism, christianity, all wars, all inventions, all catastrophes, Hiroshima, 9/11, and the exact moment when the first hydrogen bomb busts over the first city. The instruments could have predicted cloud formations a billion years hence and the moment of your and/or my conception, birth and death.

The fact that such an measuring device didn't exist, doesn't exist, and may never exist doesn't alter the hypothesis.

Here are my first two questions: Does every atom have a precise weight and a precise temperature at any given trillionth of a second? Does every nucleus have a precise chemical formation and a precise density? And does every electron move at a precise speed in a precise direction at any given trillionth of a moment?

Two more questions for now: Is this an old theory that I've regurgitated? Am I talking abject nonsense?

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Richard replies:

The so-called "clockwork universe" which you find so intuitively appealing had its greatest vogue following the astronomical discoveries of Brahe, Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. The models they constructed looked for all the world like very big, very predictable mechanisms. The idea that there were precise rules that governed the movement of everything and led to absolute determinism of all future events was extremely appealing to both a certain school of philosophers and some extremely brilliant scientists.

Most notable among the latter was Albert Einstein -- a guy who made quite a rep by showing that Newton's laws needed a bit of tweaking when you're dealing with things that are either very speedy (special relativity) or gigantic (general relativity). But he didn't OVERTHROW Newton's laws, he REFINED them. They were still laws, only now they took more factors into account. Einstein's success at discovering the regularities of the Universe led him to believe that there would ALWAYS be underlying regularities in all physical phenomena, thus his famous phrase "God does not play dice with the Universe." (which some religionists have seized on as a statement about God using gambling as a metaphor, when really it was a statement about predictability using God as a metaphor). Einstein spent the last half of his life looking for those underlying regularities in an effort to come up with a Grand Unified Theory that would explain everything his Theory of Relativity did and more besides.

On the opposite side of the fence from Einstein in this latter endeavor stood the quantum guys, starting with Max Planck and furthered by Paul Dirac but most notably including Neils Bohr. They are the modern-day heirs of Democritus, the Greek philosopher who speculated (in the complete absence of any instrumentation that would let him conduct a serious inquiry) that there was bound to be a smallest unit of any substance (say, copper) that still QUALIFIED as that substance. He reasoned that you could start with a wire and cut it in half. Then you could cut one of the halves in half, and so on. Could you do that indefinitely? He speculated that the answer was no, that eventually you come across the smallest possible unit of copper (or whatever the wire was made of), and that, if you try to cut IT in half, you either cannot do it or you end up with something else. This smallest unit he called an atom. And so do we.

Planck went much further. He speculated that you cannot cut up the very fabric of space and time into infinitesimally smaller and smaller pieces. Sooner or later you come across the smallest unit of space and the smallest unit of time possible, beyond which it is meaningless to speak of further subdivision. These smallest units are named in his honor the Planck length (10^-35 m) and the Planck time (10^-43 s). They are interrelated by the value c, which Einstein would recognize from his famous equation E = mc^2 as the speed of light. It takes light the Planck time to traverse a distance equal to the Planck length.

Just to give you an idea how fantastically small these things are, you spoke of "a trillionth of a second". That would be 10^-12 seconds (a picosecond or 0.1% of a nanosecond) -- a quantity that would include 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Planck time units. At the picosecond level, yes, everything is still pretty much describable in terms of the classical clockwork Universe that we up here in Middle World find so familiar.

Things get progressively stranger as you get smaller and smaller. For example, Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle says that there's always some error involved in every measurement (invariably, and as a matter of principle, not simply because our tools aren't good enuf or we aren't using them properly) that becomes more and more significant as the things we're trying to measure get smaller and smaller. Finally, down at the quantum level, the amount of error is AT LEAST as large as the things we're measuring. If, for example, you try to measure momentum (the product of mass and velocity, where velocity is a vectored or directional form of speed), you discover that you can either know where a subatomic particle IS but not where or how fast it's going, or you can know its PATH (velocity) without having any idea where it's located on that path. We know that electrons hang out somewhere in the vicinity of atomic nuclei, but we're not exactly sure just WHERE. (Incidentally, you asked "Does every nucleus have a precise chemical formation ...?", and the technical answer to that is no, because nuclei don't experience chemistry per se. Chemistry occurs when the electron cloud around a given nucleus interacts with the electron clouds of naboring atoms. The nuclei play no role in this process.)

You don't have to get all the way down to the Planck scale for quantum effects to kick in. The very computer on which you are reading these words is made possible by quantum tunneling of electrons passing thru (or not, as the case may be) the SEMIconductor materials in your CPU. Not only do quantum effects exist at the scale of subatomic particles, we have learned how to harness them to get work done.

But, as Heisenberg pointed out, there's a limit to how much of this we can get away with, because fundamentally the Universe is chock full of random events. The only reason it SEEMS orderly to us up here in Middle World is because there are a fantastically large number of these teeny-tiny random events occurring all the time, and all the fluctuations average out in a stochastic manner that lets us predict MASS behavior pretty reliably -- SO reliably, in fact, that we use the word "laws" to describe such behavior.

It is this statistical regularity which seduced Einstein -- and many another brilliant person -- into thinking that "It's turtles all the way down.", that is, that the Universe was regular and predictable and followed immutable, built-in laws at every scale we could possible detect, including the very large and the very small. They were wrong.

Quantum Theory is the best-tested theory in physics. It produces results of such fantastic precision that, if you could somehow use quantum principles to measure the distance from New York to LA, you would be off by less than the width of a human hair. And, at bottom, it says that the Universe is fundamentally unmeasurable, because its very most basic phenomena happen randomly and spontaneously.

But don't feel unduly intimidated by all of this. The brilliant physicist Richard Feynman said it best:

= = = = = =

I think it is safe to say that no one understands quantum mechanics. Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, "But how can it be like that?" because you will go "down the drain" into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.
-- Richard Feynman (1918-1988) American physicist

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

This Day in History


1969 July 20, Tranquility Base


1969 July 21, Madison WI

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We choose to go to the Moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard.
  -- John F. Kennedy, Rice University, 1961

Sunday, July 15, 2007

I've Had It with AT&T

Recently AT&T used an astroturf (fake grass-roots) advocacy group plus lots of big bux plus outright deceit to try to buy enuf influence with the Wisconsin Legislature to ram thru a bill that would effectively give them a statewide monopoly over hitherto local cable-TV franchises. Among other things, this would threaten public-, educational-, and governmental-acccess channels. They tried to claim, of course, that it would enhance competition and thereby drive down cable rates. Experience in other states where they've succeeded with the same tactic says otherwise.

This was the final straw for me. I've remained an AT&T long-distance customer out of a sense of family loyalty, because they used to employ my sister, but this finally did it.

I've just finished switching my long-distance service over to Working Assets, which uses a small percentage of my long-distance charges as a contribution to various socially responsible causes, such as the ACLU.

I encourage other AT&T customers who are pissed off at their heavy-handed monopolistic tactics to do likewise.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix


Monday, July 09, 2007

Apple Store Grand Opening

The new Apple Store in West Towne Mall isn't as big as the one at Mayfair Mall in Wauwatosa, but it's LOTS closer and considerably more sparkly, having opened only on July 7.

The grand opening was set for 10 AM, and I arrived shortly before that and found the end of the long, snaking line that wound PAST the Food Court before doubling back on itself. As I stood there in my Mac OS X (aqua) T-shirt, chatting with the folx around me, a little kid came by, enthusiastically counting off people. I was #381. I'm sure the kid was worried he wouldn't be getting a T-shirt. Turned out not to be a problem, as they were giving them out to the 1st 1000 customers. Black beauties, they were, with discreet white type featuring the Apple logo and the words "West Towne".

All of the T-shirts, incidentally, were size XL. As I learned when working for the Wisconsin Alumni Association, people who need an XXL will settle for XXXL, but the reverse is not true. I suspect that a lot of those XLs were gonna be too small for Macaholics like me, who grew up savoring Wisconsin dairy products and needed all the insulation we could pack on to make it thru Wisconsin winters.

Half an hour later, as the line slowly worked its way forward, I spied Dave Weston (late of Mac Medics, now of The Mac Shop) emerging from the Apple Store looking like a kid at Xmas. HE'D shown up at 3:30 in the morning (despite the fact that the mall as a whole didn't open until 7) and was still only #4 in line. I expressed my hopes that the new Apple Store wouldn't cut into The Mac Shop's business very much, but Dave didn't seem concerned. I think he's expecting that Apple will sell a lot of computers, but that people will take them to The Mac Shop whenever they need upgrades, repairs, accessories, etc. so if anything it should be GOOD for business.

I finally made it past the gatekeepers shortly after 11 AM. The store itself was bright and very well organized. Apple-brand products were, of course, the most prominently featured items. Clear acrylic stands held product information and price options for each item. It was almost impossible to work thru the crush of people at the iPhone table, each wanting a chance to play with the latest whizzy tech toy. But there was a plethora of 3rd-party stuff as well, certainly including the software selection.

Apple Store staff people were everywhere, uniformly young, smiley, and enthusiastic, and all clad in black T-shirts with different labels (like "Genius" or "Software Guru") to indicate their specialty. (A couple of them oohed and aahed at my anachronistic hexachrome Apple cap, so they obviously had a feel for Mac culture.) In the 20-25 minutes I spent in the store, I got asked half a dozen times if I needed help.

My favorite part of the store was the last table before getting to the Genius Bar at the back wall. This table was only 2 feet tall, and instead of chairs it had big black spheres — looking for all the world like hydrogen-atom escapees from a large molecular model — that were occupied by little kids (and I mean LITTLE kids, about 4-5 years old) playing with very definitely NON-sissy, powerful, big-screen iMacs. If Apple ever needed visual evidence for its hallmark ease-of-use claim to fame, this was it in spades!

I actually needed to buy something -- a new Bluetooth mouse -- and it was readily available for a reasonable price. While I was scoping out the accessory rack, some LCD screen cleaner also caught my eye, so I got that too.

You do your checkout at the Genius Bar, where I was apparently one of the first people to actually buy something, because my genius had to get a little on-the-job training from a supervisor about how to process the transaction. You have the option of getting a printed receipt or having one e-mailed to you. I chose the latter option, which meant, of course, that they needed (and got) my eddress. Not so dumb from their standpoint!

The goodies were placed in an Apple-logoed white plastic bag that has more drawstrings than a parachute and could probably substitute for one in a pinch.

I strolled out of the store around 11:30, and there were still people waiting in line. I did a little more shopping, and by 12:30 the line apparatus had been disassembled. The store was still full.

All in all, a nice kick-off for Madison's very own Apple Store.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Impeachment's Hidden Virtue

2007 July 7

Voice of the People
The Capital Times
PO Box 8060
Madison WI 53708-8060

The Democrats who control Congress have expressed reluctance to impeach George “If I Only Had a Brain” Bush and Dick “If I Only Had a Heart” Cheney on the grounds that somebody needs to be the adult. The Dems want to focus on the positive, to tend to the nation’s real business: health care, education, the environment, decent wages, tainted food, occupational safety, and all the other things that affect real people’s lives every day. They don’t want to be distracted by impeachment proceedings.

The unspoken assumption is that they can’t do both. That’s wrong. There are 435 members of Congress, more than enuf to keep the wheels turning while a small number of them hone in like pit bulls on impeachment.

On the other hand, the White House is vastly outnumbered. Infamously the most secretive administration in history, the Bushies are a closed (one might even say “closeted”), top-down bunch. There’s probably no more than half a dozen people in the inner circle.

And we can keep them — yes, all of them — tied up with subpoenas, testimony, discovery motions, depositions, lawyer consultations, hearings, press conferences, and arguments until January 2009. I want to consume their every waking moment and most of their sleeping ones. I want them thinking about and dealing with nothing but impeachment for the next 18 months. I want them to look at their scrambled eggs and think “impeachment”.

The nation is bleeding. Before we can begin to stanch the wounds, we first have to stop the maniacs with the knives.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Celebrating Independence Day with Democracy

You may have heard it said that there’s no significant difference between the 2 big national political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. And, while it’s certainly true that many elected officials of both parties are in thrall to their biggest campaign contributors (including the corporations), the same cannot be said of the folx down at the grass roots.

As a member of the Democratic Party of Dane County, I authored and introduced the 3 resolutions reproduced below. They were adopted at the county level and made the cut of the top 10 to be forwarded to the convention of the 2nd Congressional District. There they were ratified and made the cut of the top 10 to be forwarded to the state party convention, held in Milwaukee last weekend. I am pleased to report that they were adopted there as well.

The resolution about Iraq was amended before its adoption. One of the other delegates (Gordon Parks) pointed out that the Iraq Invasion may have lasted longer than American involvement in WW2, but not longer than the war itself (which had already been going on for over 2 years, starting with Hitler’s attack on Poland on 1939 September 1, when Pearl Harbor was bombed on 1941 December 7). He made the point that we shouldn’t be arrogant Americans and define the world only in terms of us. I heartily agreed with him, and so did everyone else. We eliminated that clause, then adopted the resultant resolution unanimously.

These resolutions — and about 60 others adopted by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin — will now be used by the state Platform and Resolutions Committee to craft the official DPW platform, which will then be provided to all Democratic elected officials and candidates for office in Wisconsin.

That’s the way democracy works at the grass-roots level. That’s the way it should work thruout all of government.

Paper Ballots Are Best

WHEREAS, fair voting is fundamental to democracy;

WHEREAS, the sole value of electronic voting machines (EVMs) is speed of reporting, not accuracy; and

WHEREAS, EVMs can be hacked; therefore

RESOLVED by the DPW that state law should mandate that every vote in Wisconsin be cast on a voter-marked paper ballot, regardless of how they are counted; and, after each election, paper ballots in a randomly selected 10% of the wards be manually canvassed.

Fighting for Fair Voting

WHEREAS, the Bush Administration has a sordid history of entitling its legislative initiatives — No Child Left Behind, Clear Skies Act, Healthy Forests Initiative — opposite to what the legislation does;

WHEREAS, the major problem with elections in America is people not being allowed to vote, or their votes not being counted; and

WHEREAS, despite its lying title, the Help America Vote Act makes it harder for people to vote; therefore

RESOLVED, the DPW supports voting laws which make it as easy as possible for citizens to register and vote and should fight contrary federal legislation with lawsuits if necessary.

Out of Iraq Now

WHEREAS, the Bush Administration lied us into war in Iraq;

WHEREAS, that war has now lasted longer than World War 2; and

WHEREAS, that war is needlessly killing and maiming Americans, Iraqis, and others; destroying families and communities; bankrupting our nation; shredding our civil liberties; and costing us many friends we had in the world; therefore

RESOLVED, the DPW demands the United States get the hell out of Iraq NOW! Now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now!

Monday, July 02, 2007

Medical Advice

I am about to practice medicine without a license.

This is the prescription:

Go see Michael Moore’s new movie Sicko.

This is the diagnosis:

If, by the end of it, you are not as royally pissed off as you have ever been, you are dead.

La Original

2007 July 2

Letters to the Editor

Your review of the program offerings of The Mic 92.1 skipped with unwarranted haste over the Friday- and Saturday-night Mexican-music program La Original. My own Spanish is limited to Basic Gringo Tourist (por favór, gracias, sí, no, uno, dos, etc.), so I treat the talking part of the show like a game, to see how much I can translate, while tuning my ear to the cadences of native speakers. But you don’t have to understand a word of Spanish to appreciate the most joyful music and exuberant hosts to be found anywhere on the airwaves. I defy anyone to listen to La Original for 5 minutes without feeling happier.