Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for February 5th, 2008

What is the US military thinking?

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Or is it not thinking?

It’s time for our annual game: How much is really in the U.S. military budget?

As usual, it’s about $200 billion more than most news stories are reporting. For the proposed fiscal year 2009 budget, which President Bush released today, the real size is not, as many news stories have reported, $515.4 billion—itself a staggering sum—but, rather, $713.1 billion.

Before deconstructing this budget, let us consider just how massive it is. Even the smaller figure of $515.4 billion—which does not include money for fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—is roughly equal to the total military budgets of all the rest of the world’s nations combined. It is (adjusting for inflation) larger than any U.S. military budget since World War II.

But this is simply the Pentagon’s share of the military budget (again, that part of it not related to war costs). Since most reporters writing about this are Pentagon reporters, that’s the part of the budget that they consider their turf.

However, the Office of Management and Budget’s documents focus on a broader category called “National Defense,” which also includes $16.1 billion for nuclear warheads and reactors under the Department of Energy’s control and $5.2 billion for “defense-related activities” at other agencies (mainly the FBI). There is also $4.3 billion for mandated programs (most having to do with military retirement and health care for victims of radiation sickness).

So, that brings the total, so far, to $541 billion. (“National Defense,” by the way, does not include programs in the Department of Homeland Security; that’s another story.)

Then there is the $70 billion emergency war supplemental that the Pentagon is requesting for FY 2009. (In one sense, it is strange that they’re requesting this upfront; supplementals are usually submitted in the middle of the year, to cover unanticipated expenses. In another sense, it’s refreshing that Robert Gates’ Pentagon—as opposed to Donald Rumsfeld’s—is making no effort to disguise what will definitely be needed.)

Now we’re up to $611 billion.

Finally, as the Pentagon’s budget documents note up front, in the “Summary Justification,” Congress has yet to approve $102 billion left over from the supplemental for FY 2008. And so—in terms of how much Congress is being asked to authorize this year—that brings us to $713 billion.

But let’s delve into the Pentagon’s base line figure—the $515.4 billion that has nothing directly to do with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What’s in there? Do the U.S. armed forces really need that much for the everyday maintenance of national security?

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Written by LeisureGuy

5 February 2008 at 12:07 pm

The Lives of Others: excellent movie

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The Wife and I watched The Lives of Others the other night, and we both enjoyed it immensely: a very steady movie, somehow, looking closely at human lives. It concerns a Stasi (East German secret police) officer and his career.

And we’re going to get that some system of government surveillance here in the US! You know already about how the telecoms gave (illegally) access to domestic communications to NSA (and are now flooding the Congress with money to buy their immunity from prosecution for their crimes, on the principle that organizations and people with lots of money don’t have to obey the law). But wait! There’s more coming:

The Bush administration wants to place more black boxes on private-sector computer networks. We’ve already learned a lot about the NSA wiretap program and its Narus STA 6400 splitter — that’s the black box that AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein reported the NSA placed at a major node for voice and Internet communications (inside this secret room).

The president’s budget wants to go much further. It moves beyond telcos and allocates $6 billion for a secretive system that is designed to protect government and private computer systems from attack. According to the Wall Street Journal, the White House proposal “would likely require the government to install sensors on private, company networks.”

This proposal repeats the mistakes of the Federal Intrusion Detection Network, which proposed similar monitoring of private computer systems when it was proposed in 1999. That aspect of FIDNet was quickly withdrawn, for at least three good reasons:

1. Private companies are understandably reluctant to permit the government to attach unknown hardware or software to their corporate systems. The risks of security breach and operational problems are too high, especially given the long history of computer security failures by the federal agencies themselves.

2. Direct federal intervention in private computer systems raises innumerable legal and policy issues about privacy, the Fourth Amendment, and the scope of government surveillance.

3. The new proposal ignores the sensible principles for cybersecurity that were adopted in the wake of the FIDNet fiasco and built into the Federal Computer Incident Response Center. Quite simply, the federal government should adopt best security practices that apply to private systems.

Under the better approach, the federal government should adopt state-of-the-art intrusion detection software and other measures for its own systems to combat intrusions into federal systems. The federal government should not, however, try to install its equipment into private systems.

“The federal government should not install its equipment into privates systems”: do you think that this concern will give them a nanosecond’s pause?

Written by LeisureGuy

5 February 2008 at 11:58 am

Follow the money

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Who supports our troops—in the eyes of the troops? Follow the money:

Conservatives opposed to redeployment in Iraq have consistently claimed that U.S. troops are on their side:

President Bush: The [military] families gathered here understand that our troops want to finish the job. [Link]

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ): I want to — and I want to tell you something, sir. I just finished having Thanksgiving with the troops, and their message to you is — the message of these brave men and women who are serving over there is: Let us win. Let us win. [Link]

Yet U.S. troops disagree. Yesterday, the Center for Responsive Politics reported that members of the military donated the most not to McCain, but to two anti-war candidates:

Individuals in the Army, Navy and Air Force made those branches of the armed services among the top contributors in the 4th Quarter, ranking No. 13, No. 18 and No. 21, respectively. In 2007, Republican Ron Paul, who opposes U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, was the top recipient of money from donors in the military, collecting at least $212,000 from them. Barack Obama, another war opponent, was second with about $94,000.

These donations reflect the military’s disapproval with the Iraq war and President Bush’s handling of it. A recent Military Times poll found that just 46 percent of U.S. troops now believe that the country should have invaded Iraq, and only 40 percent approve of Bush’s handling of the war.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 February 2008 at 11:52 am

Posted in Election, Military

The skils of presenting failure

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Failure happens more often than success, despite what you may believe from watching movies, and learning from failure is easier than learning from success. (The lesson many seem to learn from their success is briefly summarized as “Man! I’m good!”) Even more important is knowing how to present failure—not just in science fairs, but to your boss, your interviewers, and others.

Here’s a good summary, building on the questions you must be ready to answer:

  1. What went wrong?
  2. What could I have done, in hindsight, to prevent the problem?
  3. What parts of this project is salvageable?
  4. Can I still meet the goals of this project? How?
  5. What is the future of this project?

Worth reading—and a good journal exercise, should you ever experience a failure.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 February 2008 at 11:22 am

Posted in Daily life

Great movie: Groundhog Day

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Groundhog Day is a comedy of surprising depth. It has long been a touchstone of mine, and my appreciation of it grew from a conversation with a friend who really disliked it. In fact, he disliked it so much that he figured something must be going on. The more he reflected on the movie — and the more we talked about it — the more he realized that his own life was stuck in a rut and that for him to escape it, he was going to have to change. It’s a movie well worth re-watching, and now there’s a book on personal transformation that draws its lessons from the movie.

Another comedy that repays thought and discussion is Broadway Danny Rose, one of my favorites.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 February 2008 at 11:18 am

Posted in Daily life, Movies & TV

The US Justice system slow to adapt

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What I believe we want is a Justice system—from policing to prosecution to courts to rehabilitation or prisons—that works: that is fair, effective, respectful of human rights and citizens’ rights under the US Constitution, and closely monitored and measured. We don’t have that.  Look here at what Aziz Huq writes:

Six years after 9/11, the jury is still out on whether the American justice system is up to the challenge of dealing with terrorism.

The persistent debate about water-boarding—which Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey’s Senate testimony on Wednesday leaves no clearer—and the continual problem that is Guantánamo both require far deeper examination. But even the modest examples of success claimed by both the civil-libertarian left and the security-first right reveal the fragility of the U.S. system.

One story both sides now cite as a success is the case of former enemy-combatant Jose Padilla, sentenced last week by a federal judge in Miami to 17 years on terrorism-related conspiracy charges. His conviction draws (almost) to a close a saga that began May 2002, when Padilla was seized at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. One month later, he was designated an “enemy combatant,” subject to indefinite detention without trial.

While government lawyers laud his conviction as the successful punishment of a terrorist; civil libertarians herald it as proof that the criminal justice system works to bring terrorists to justice. Neither side, however, should be popping champagne corks yet. Padilla’s is a journey that casts a worrying light on a justice system that works poorly to protect civil liberties and also fails to further anti-terrorist goals. It should be cold comfort to both sides.

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Written by LeisureGuy

5 February 2008 at 11:13 am

Healthcare reform: where it’s going

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Jonathan Cohn, who has written books about healthcare, has some encouraging words:

We’re going to take a moment from the debate about individual mandates in health care reform — a topic to which I shall return soon enough — to bring you some unambiguously good news.  If, that is, you think universal health care is a good idea.

Today the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) announced it would be launching a $75 million election-year campaign on behalf of universal coverage. According to the union’s press release, which doesn’t seem to be available online, the effort will feature paid advertising to “draw sharp distinctions between the Republican and Democratic presidential nominess’ approach to health care, and what those differences will mean to working families.” But it’s not just a bunch of television and magazine spots the union has in mind. They’re also planning to finance what sounds like a pretty substantial ground effort, including a rolling publicity tour to stage events across the country and an outreach effort designed to collect stories of hardship — which, surely, will help spread the word about reforms, as well.

I honestly don’t knokw whether $75 million counts as a lot of money for this sort of thing.  But, according to this old 60 Minutes story, the entire drug industry spent about $100 million on campaign contributions and lobbying during the fight over the Medicare drug benefit a few years ago.  So $75 million certainly sounds like a lot.

What’s more important than the dollar amount, though, is the show of commitment — and, in particular, the timing of it.  As veterans of the 1993-94 Clinton health care fight know, that effort failed was the fact that the political pressure came overwhemlingly from one side.  When the drugmakers, small insurers, and others opposed to the Clinton bill started running their advertisements — which, yes, look suspiciously like an advertisement Barack Obama has been using lately — the administration was largely left to fight back on their own. Expected support from unions and other sympathetic groups didn’t materialize until it was too late.

The administration had itself partly to blame for this; a big reason unions didn’t fight early was that they had spent most of 1993 fighting with the Clinton administration over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  The resources — not to mention the desire — to support the administration immediately afterwards just wasn’t there. (For more on this story, see Ezra Klein‘s article here.)

This time, fortunately, it looks like the interest groups in favor of reform are getting an early start.  Probably no single organization has invested in the cause of health care refrom as much as SEIU.  And few, if any, have the combination of money and grassroots strength to have a serious political impact.  At a time when all of the fighting over universal coverage has many people (myself included) worried that its prospects are suddenly diminishing, this is a reminder the political pressure for it is only going to get stronger in the coming months.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 February 2008 at 10:46 am

Food and evolution

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Interesting, and it does make one wonder about the effects (genetically) of our consumption of pesticides, chemicals leached from containers, chemicals consumed by being inhaled, and so on.

What role does the dietary differences between men and other apes have on our evolution? Researchers found that even in a very short time our diets can have physiological and genetic consequences.

Humans consume a distinct diet compared to other apes. Not only do we consume much more meat and fat, but we also cook our food. It has been hypothesized that adopting these dietary patterns played a key role during human evolution. However, to date, the influence of diet on the physiological and genetic differences between humans and other apes has not been widely examined.

By feeding laboratory mice different human and chimp diets over a mere two week period, researchers at the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, were able to reconstruct some of the physiological and genetic differences observed between humans and chimpanzees.

The researchers fed laboratory mice one of three diets: a raw fruit and vegetable diet fed to chimpanzees in zoos, a human diet consisting of food served at the Institute cafeteria or a pure fast food menu from the local McDonald’s (the latter caused the mice to significantly gain weight). The chimpanzee diet was clearly distinct from the two human diets in its effect on the liver – thousands of differences were observed in the levels at which genes were expressed in the mouse livers. No such differences were observed in the mouse brains. A significant fraction of the genes that changed in the mouse livers, had previously been observed as different between humans and chimpanzees. This indicates that the differences observed in these particular genes might be caused by the difference in human and chimpanzee diets.

Furthermore, the diet-related genes also appear to have evolved faster than other genes – protein and promoter sequences of these genes changed faster than expected, possibly because of adaptation to new diets.

Citation: Somel M, Creely H, Franz H, Mueller U, Lachmann M, et al (2008) Human and Chimpanzee Gene Expression Differences Replicated in Mice Fed Different Diets. PLoS One 3(1): e1504. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001504 http://www.plosone.org/doi/pone.0001504

Written by LeisureGuy

5 February 2008 at 10:44 am

Posted in Daily life, Food, Science

The Great British Diagram

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This is handy knowledge:

UK

The Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom are the only two sovereign states in this image. They are shown in red. Ireland and Great Britain are both islands and are shown in green. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are constituent countries of the United Kingdom and are shown in orange.

You have the basic idea. There are many other islands in the British Isles which are not shown here. Most of these are politically part of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland, with the exceptions of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, which are British crown dependencies and not part of the UK (or ROI) at all.

Complications
The UK’s full name is “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. Citizens of the UK are called “British”. One British person is called a Briton.

The ROI’s full name is “The Republic of Ireland” (if you are speaking English) or “Éire” (if you are speaking Irish). Citizens of the ROI are called “Irish”.

Irish citizens are not British citizens. British citizens are not Irish citizens. God help you if you forget this when you encounter an Irishman.

Ethnically:

  • People from England are called English.
  • People from Scotland are called Scottish.
  • People from Wales are called Welsh.
  • People from Northern Ireland are called Northern Irish.
  • People from Ireland are called Irish.

There is no such thing as English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish citizenship. The majority of English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people hold British citizenships, but anybody, of any ethnicity, living anywhere in the British Isles, can hold any citizenship, or even dual citizenship.

Many people living in Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) are Irish citizens. Some British citizens living in Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) classify themselves as Irish-ethnic. Some people living in Northern Ireland would even like Northern Ireland itself classified as Irish i.e. made part of the ROI instead of the UK. This last group can be troublesome.

The ROI is not British. However, the “British Isles” include both the UK and ROI. Irish citizens and Irish-ethnic people hate this, but there is no consensus on what to call it instead. (May I humbly suggest “The British and Irish Isles”?)

England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland frequently field separate teams in such sports as rugby, football (i.e. the World Cup), cricket and so on. Meanwhile, the Irish international rugby team is comprised of players chosen from both the ROI and Northern Ireland. This is largely because our various nations have been playing rugby, football and cricket for centuries, whereas the current political arrangement of the British Isles was only established in 1920.

Lastly, to be pedantic, this is actually an Euler diagram, not a Venn diagram.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 February 2008 at 10:40 am

Posted in Daily life, Government

American justice

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What we have become. Some are given immunity for torture and homicide, others are imprisoned for life for nothing.

Abdul Razzaq Hekmati was regarded here as a war hero, famous for his resistance to the Russian occupation in the 1980s and later for a daring prison break he organized for three opponents of the Taliban government in 1999.

But in 2003, Mr. Hekmati was arrested by American forces in southern Afghanistan when, senior Afghan officials here contend, he was falsely accused by his enemies of being a Taliban commander himself. For the next five years he was held at the American military base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where he died of cancer on Dec. 30.

The fate of Mr. Hekmati, the first detainee to die of natural causes at Guantánamo, who fruitlessly recounted his story several times to American officials, demonstrates the enduring problems of the tribunals at Guantánamo, say Afghan officials and others who knew him.

Afghan officials, and some Americans, complain that detainees are effectively thwarted from calling witnesses in their defense, and that the Afghan government is never consulted on the detention cases, even when it may be able to help. Mr. Hekmati’s case, officials who knew him said, shows that sometimes the Americans do not seem to know whom they are holding. Meanwhile, detainees wait for years with no resolution to their cases.

In response to queries, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon, Cynthia O. Smith, said the military tribunals at Guantánamo contained “significant process and protections,” including the right to call witnesses.

While Ms. Smith would not discuss specifics, she said that there was nothing to indicate that Mr. Hekmati’s case was handled improperly, and that detainees at Guantánamo were given a range of protections, including “the opportunity for a detainee to be heard in person, call witnesses and present additional information that might benefit him.”

Whether those protections are sufficient has been widely debated and is now being considered by the United States Supreme Court. In the tribunals, which consider only whether detainees have been properly classified as enemy combatants, detainees are not allowed to have lawyers or see the evidence against them. The Supreme Court case will decide whether they have the right to broadly appeal their detentions in federal court.

Of the 275 detainees at Guantánamo, at least 180 have sought to challenge their detentions.

Several high-ranking officials in President Hamid Karzai’s government say Mr. Hekmati’s detention at Guantánamo was a gross mistake. They were mentioned by Mr. Hekmati in his hearings and could have vouched for him. Records from the hearings show that only a cursory effort was made to reach them.

Two of those officials were men Mr. Hekmati had helped escape from the Taliban’s top security prison in Kandahar in 1999: Ismail Khan, now the minister of energy; and Hajji Zaher, a general in the Border Guards. Both men said they appealed to American officials about Mr. Hekmati’s case, but to no effect.

“What he did was very important for all Afghan people who were against the Taliban,” Hajji Zaher said of Mr. Hekmati’s role in organizing his prison break. “He was not a man to take to Guantánamo.”

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Written by LeisureGuy

5 February 2008 at 10:22 am

Chicken feet for great stock

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Simply Recipes has a step-by-step illustrated procedure for making a great stock from chicken feet. My menudo recipe calls for a cow foot, but just try getting one. Still, it would make really wonderful stock—but nowadays just not available.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 February 2008 at 10:12 am

Posted in Daily life, Food, Recipes

Avocado delight

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I have always liked Taylor of Old Bond Street Avocado shaving cream—it’s really one of the best shaving creams for the novice, IMHO. And today, with Avocado oil for the Oil Pass, it was a natural choice.

The Rooney Style 1 Size 1 Super did its usual superb job, and the Polsilver Stainless blade in the Gillette New did a wonderfully smooth and easy shave—the second on this blade.

A few drops of the Avocado oil in the left palm, rubbed across my wet and barely perceptible beard (after 3 passes, not much left), and then the polishing pass—though, truth to tell, there was not much to polish. The shaving cream and blade had done a fine job.

Still, I got that little bit extra smoothness. Rinse, dry and rub off excess oil, and then splash on Booster’s Oriental Spice: wonderful!

Written by LeisureGuy

5 February 2008 at 10:00 am

Posted in Shaving

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