On the right side of my blog, underneath the Tangled Bank icon, is a sudoku grid (it's faint). Clicking on it will give you the daily puzzle. They are a fun little challenge if you have some spare time.


State of the Union B

Some things to keep in mind after watching the State of the Union. Number 4 especially stands out to me and I think it is completely overlooked by most people. Via Juan Cole:

1. US economic growth during the last quarter was an anemic 1.1%, the worst in 3 years.

2. The US inflation rate has jumped to 3.4 percent, the highest rate in 5 years.

3. The number of daily attacks in Iraq rose from 52 in December, 2004 to 77 in December, 2005.

4. A third of US veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, some 40,000 persons, exhibit at least some signs of mental health disorders. Some 14,000 were treated for drug dependencies, and 11,000 for depression.

5. Increases in American consumer spending come from borrowing.

6. The $320 - $400 bilion deficits run by the Bush administration may push up the cost of mortgages and loans.

7. 58% of Americans think Bush is painting Iraq as rosier than it is. A majority thinks we should never have invaded the country.

8. The US military is at a breaking point.

9. In fact, The US and Iran are tacit allies in Iraq.

10. More money would be needed to finish the US reconstruction projects begun in Iraq.



With the successful return of the StarDust spacecraft, a lot of scientists are gearing up to see what story can be told from the cometary dust that was absorbed in StarDust's aerogel collector. StarDust was initially sent to Houston so that roughly 1.6 million digital images could be taken with a microscope. The field of view for each picture is smaller than a grain of salt! Next, samples are being sent out to 180 scientists worldwide to conduct their own research about our solar systems origins. Some really interesting analysis should come out of this mission.

However, scientists alone cannot get the job done. Due to the enormous number of images to analyze for interstellar dust impacts (see picture), the StarDust team is enlisting the help of volunteers. Similar to SETI@home or other projects found on BOINC (including this one), StarDust@Home will train volunteers to examine these images for impacts. You will have to pass a test based on an online tutorial. Should you make it that far, you will then download a virtual microscope to begin searching.

What's the scientific importance of all of this, you might ask? I'll let the StarDust team explain it in their own words:

The scientific importance of these first solid samples from our Galaxy can't be overstated. Interstellar dust and gas were the building blocks of our solar system, the Earth, and all living things, including people. We are truly made of stardust. But we don't know what the typical interstellar dust grain looks like. Not even one contemporary interstellar dust grain has ever been studied in the laboratory! In January 2006, the Stardust spacecraft will return to Earth, for the first time, a few dozen precious contemporary interstellar dust grains. We are extremely excited about the prospect of directly studying contemporary interstellar dust for the first time.

Volunteers will be recognized for their contribution. This is a great opportunity to be a part of something unique.


Ricky Gervais

If you're looking for something funny to download to your iPod, I recommend giving the Ricky Gervais Show a try. He, and his co-creator of the Office, Steve Merchant, along with their target of ridicule, Karl Pilkington, discuss anything that happens to interest them over the course of 35 minutes or so. Very funny stuff (especially if you're a fan of British humor).

Zoo Diaries

Ever wondered what a day in the life of a zoo gorilla is like? Now you can hear about it from the source; Gongogo the Zoo Gorilla has a story to tell. Click here to read about it.


Administration Errors

This is a lengthy, and excellent, article by Juan Cole regarding the mistakes President Bush and company have made regarding their prosecution of the war on al-Qaeda and Muslim extremists.

Top Ten Mistakes of the Bush Administration in Reacting to Al-Qaeda

Usamah Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri murdered 3,000 Americans, and they both issued tapes in the past week, blustering and threatening us with more of the same. Most of us aren't wild about paying for the Bush administration with our taxes, but one thing we have a right to expect is that our government would protect us from mass murderers and would chase them down and arrest them. It has not done that. When asked why he hasn't caught Bin Laden, Bush replies, "Because he's hidin'." Is Bush laughing at us?

On September 11, 2001, the question was whether we had underestimated al-Qaeda. It appeared to be a Muslim version of the radical seventies groups like the Baader Meinhoff gang or the Japanese Red Army. It was small, only a few hundred really committed members who had sworn fealty to Bin Laden and would actually kill themselves in suicide attacks. There were a few thousand close sympathizers, who had passed through the Afghanistan training camps or otherwise been inducted into the world view. But could a small terrorist group commit mayhem on that scale? Might there be something more to it? Was this the beginning of a new political force in the Middle East that could hope to roll in and take over, the way the Taliban had taken over Afghanistan in the 1990s? People asked such questions.

Over four years later, there is no doubt. Al-Qaeda is a small terrorist network that has spawned a few copy-cats and wannabes. Its breakthrough was to recruit some high-powered engineers in Hamburg, which it immediately used up. Most al-Qaeda recruits are marginal people, people like Zacarias Moussawi and Richard Reid, who would be mere cranks if they hadn't been manipulated into trying something dangerous. Muhammad al-Amir (a.k.a Atta) and Ziad Jarrah were highly competent scientists, who could figure the kinetic energy of a jet plane loaded with fuel. There don't seem to be significant numbers of such people in the organization. They are left mostly with cranks, petty thieves, drug smugglers, bored bank tellers, shopkeepers, and so forth, persons who could pull off a bombing of trains in Madrid or London, but who could not for the life of them do a really big operation.

The Bush administration and the American Right generally has refused to acknowledge what we now know. Al-Qaeda is dangerous. All small terrorist groups can do damage. But it is not an epochal threat to the United States or its allies of the sort the Soviet Union was (and that threat was consistently exaggerated, as well).

In fact, the United States invaded a major Muslim country, occupied it militarily, tortured its citizens, killed tens of thousands, tinkered with the economy-- did all those things that Muslim nationalists had feared and warned against, and there hasn't even been much of a reaction from the Muslim world. Only a few thousand volunteers went to fight. Most people just seem worried that the US will destabilize their region and leave a lot of trouble behind them. People are used to seeing Great Powers do as they will. A Syrian official before the war told a journalist friend of mine that people in the Middle East had been seeing these sorts of invasions since Napoleon took Egypt in 1798. "Well," he shrugged, "usually they leave behind a few good things when they finally leave."

Because they exaggerate the scale of the conflict, and because they use it cynically, Bush and Cheney have grossly mismanaged the struggle against al-Qaeda and Muslim radicalism after September 11. Here are their chief errors:

1. Bush vastly exaggerates al-Qaeda's size, sweep and importance, while failing to invest in genuine counterterrorist measures such as port security or security for US nuclear plants.

2. Bush could have eradicated the core al-Qaeda group by putting resources into the effort in 2002. He did not, leaving al-Zawahiri and Bin Laden to taunt us, inspire our enemies and organize for years after the Taliban were defeated. It would be as though Truman had allowed Hitler to broadcast calls for terrorism against the US from some hiding place as late as 1949.

3. Bush opened a second front against Iraq before he had put Afghanistan on a sound footing.

4. Bush gutted the US constitution, tossing out the Fourth Amendment, by assiduously spying on Americans without warrants. None of those spying efforts has been shown to have resulted in any security benefits for the United States. Bush says that he wants to watch anyone who calls the phone numbers associated with al-Qaeda. But some of those phone numbers were for food delivery or laundry. We want a judge to sign off on a wire tap so that innocent Americans are not spied on by the government.

5. Bush attempted to associate the threat from al-Qaeda with Iran and Syria. Iran is a fundamentalist Shiite country that hates al-Qaeda. Syria is a secular Arab nationalist country that hates al-Qaeda. Indeed, Syria tortured al-Qaeda operatives for Bush, until Bush decided to get Syria itself. Bush and Cheney have cynically used a national tragedy to further their aggressive policies of Great Power domination.

6. Bush by invading Iraq pushed the Iraqi Sunni Arabs to desert secular Arab nationalism. Four fifths of the Sunni Arab vote in the recent election went to hard line Sunni fundamentalist parties. This development is unprecedented in Iraqi history. Iraqi Sunni Arabs are nationalists, whether secular or religious, and there is no real danger of most of them joining al-Qaeda. But Bush has spread political Islam and has strengthened its influence.

7. Bush diverted at least one trillion dollars in US security spending from the counter-terrorism struggle against al-Qaeda to the Iraq debacle, at the same time that he has run up half a trillion dollar annual deficits, contributing to a spike in inflation, harming the US economy, and making the US less effective in counterterrorism.

8. Counterterrorism requires friendly allies and close cooperation. The Bush administration alienated France, Germany and Spain, along with many Middle Eastern nations that had long waged struggles of their own against terrorist groups. Bush is widely despised and has left America isolated in the world. Virtually all the publics of all major nations hate US policy. One poll showed that in secular Turkey where Muslim extremism is widely reviled and Bin Laden is generally disliked, the public preferred Bin Laden to Bush. Bush is widely seen as more dangerous than al-Qaeda. This image is bad for US counterterrorism efforts.

9. Bush transported detainees to torture sites in Eastern Europe. Under European Union laws, both torture and involvement in torture are illegal,and European officials can be tried for these crimes. HOw many European counterterrorism officials will want to work closely with the Americans if, for all they know, this association could end in jail time? Indeed, in Washington it is said that a lot of our best CIA officers are leaving, afraid that they are being ordered to do things that are illegal, and for which they could be tried once another administration comes to power in Washington.

10. Bush's failure to capture Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri allows them to continue to grandstand, to continue to frighten the public, to continue to affect financial markets, and to continue to plot. Al-Zawahiri almost certainly plotted the 7/7 London subway bombings himself, and gloated about it when he issued Muhammad Siddique Khan's suicide statement. Misplaced Bush priorities are getting our allies hit. The CIA is reduced to firing predators at villages because our counterterrorism efforts have been starved for funds by the Iraq quagmire. If al-Qaeda does pull off another American operation, it may well give Bush and Cheney an opportunity to destroy the US constitution altogether, finally giving Bin Laden his long-sought revenge on Americans for the way he believes they have forced Palestinians and other Muslims to live under lawless foreign domination or local tyranny.


From Bob Geiger. This is why we need more unscripted town hall meetings. Politicians can't just make stuff up (although Bush is trying hard here).

Boy, is somebody on the White House advance team in trouble today…

President Bush was at Kansas State University yesterday to give a speech and, in the question-answer period, a K-State sophomore somehow slipped through the careful filters typically used to select questions from Bush’s live, “spontaneous” audiences.

Here’s student Tiffany Cooper playing “Stump the President.”

Q: Hi, I just want to get your comments about education. Recently, $12.7 billion was cut from education, and I was just wondering how that's supposed to help our futures? (Applause.)

Bush: Education budget was cut -- say it again. What was cut?

Q: Twelve point seven billion dollars was cut from education, and I was just wondering how is that supposed to help our --

Bush: At the federal level?

Q: Yes.

Bush: I don't think that -- I don't think we've actually -- for higher education? Student loans?

Q: Yes, student loans.

Bush: Actually, I think what we did was reform the student loan program. We're not cutting money out of it. In other words, people aren't going to be cut off the program. We're just making sure it works better. Part of the reconciliation package, I think she's talking about. Yes, it's a reform of the program to make sure it functions better. It is -- in other words, we're not taking people off student loans, we're saving money in the student loan program because it's inefficient. And so I think the thing to look at is whether or not there will be fewer people getting student loans. I don't think so. And, secondly, on Pell grants, we're actually expanding the number of Pell grants through our budget.

But, great question. I think that the key on education is to make sure that we stay focused on how do we stay competitive into the 21st century. And I plan on doing some talking about math and science and engineering programs, so that people who graduate out of college will have the skills necessary to compete in this competitive world.

But I'm -- I think I'm right on this. I'll check when I get back to Washington. But thank you for your question. (Applause.)
I’m sure those “reforms” will be a big comfort to the non-rich rabble who used to attend Kansas State, as they wait their tables and flip burgers in the coming years.

For the record, the president's budget reconciliation at the end of 2005, did indeed cut $12.7 billion from education programs and also fixed the interest rate on student loans at 6.8 percent, whether or not the prevailing market rates go lower.

In addition, Senate Republicans in October killed a measure by Ted Kennedy (D-MA) -- S.AMDT.2213 -- that would have raised Pell grants by a measly $200.

And all the presidential stuttering and stammering in the world won’t change that.


Some More to Chew On

Via Daily Kos:

Am I the only one blowing a gasket here?

From AP today:

SAN FRANCISCO, California (AP) -- President Bush told abortion opponents Monday that they are pursuing "a noble cause" and making a real difference in the campaign to recruit more Americans to stand on their side.
"This is a cause that appeals to the conscience of our citizens and is rooted in America's deepest principle," the president said. "And history tells us that with such a cause we will prevail."
"You believe, as I do, that every human life has value, that the strong have a duty to protect the weak, and that the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence apply to everyone, not just to those considered healthy or wanted or convenient," Bush told the abortion foes.

"These principles call us to defend the sick and the dying, persons with disabilities and birth defects, all who are weak and vulnerable, especially unborn children," the president said.

Blown Gasket Point #1: "We" (the royal "we," I have to assume, or the "we" encompassed by the 36 percent of Americans who currently choose Bush over reality) defend the sick and dying, the weak and vulnerable? Arrrrrgggghhhhh! By cutting heating subsidies, screwing up Medicare so that the retired don't get their meds, de-funding Pell grants and other student aid to the poor, kicking wounded veterans to the curb, slashing Head Start and executing the mentally disabled and/or mentally ill? That's how we defend the weak and vulnerable? Words ... fail ... me.

Blown Gasket Point #2: History tells us that with such a cause (rolling back abortion rights), we will prevail.. Really? It does? Too bad I don't have a Yale history degree like the little emperor, because my education pretty much taught me that since the beginning of the republic, rights have been expanding and not contracting. What started out with a franchise and rights for a limited few - property owners of the right color of skin and of the right gender - have fairly consistently been extended to property-less everymen and everywomen. Prohibition and the 18th amendment was the one major exception of taking away existing rights. How'd that work out, little emperor? (Hint: May require reading current Bill of Rights. Proceed with caution. Lots of scary stuff in there.)

Blown Gasket Point #3:...especially unborn children. Really? Especially? Why?

I'm just trying to tune in to the logic here of this fetishization of the fetus, this cult of the blastula. As far as I can tell, the "reasoning" must go something like this: Embryos are innocent and sinless, unlike the rest of humankind, therefore God commands that they are somehow deserving of treatment as a special class (although it's hard to justify the God-induced early miscarriage rate under this argument ... but never mind). But watch out, kiddo. Once you draw that first lungful of breath, sin must get sucked into your lungs like a couple gallons of evil in sick building syndrome, because ... Baby, you are on your own. Yeah, you and your mama too, if she's not of the right economic class. No child care, crappy and undersubsidized health care, no Head Start, no school lunches, no student aid to dig your sorry ass out of the mess you were born into, no federal job training if the conservatives continue their slash and burn budget cuts (but you can join the military, babe). Once you draw that first fateful breath, you're just as worthless as the rest of us ... and part of the growing legion of the discarded, shamed, blamed and forgotten, tossed into the dark corners of our "free" society. Crawl your own way out of the ditch the compassionate conservatives dug for you. Little infants who respirate, be on notice: You are the embarrassing debris left over from the American dream. Get used to it.

After all, we only have so much of an attention span, and there are many, many other embryos out there clamoring for God-blissed attention - and a hell of a lot more than we've become accustomed to if Roe is overturned.


The Judge Alito Confirmation

Not being a legal expert, it is sometimes difficult to make an informed opinion on things like the Samuel Alito confirmation. I've read a variety of opinions concerning him, from a number of sources, both liberal and conservative. Being on the more moderate liberal side, there are many things I do not agree with him in terms of world view. It is safe to say he is qualified and intelligent, but I've always had a company-man impression from him (the company in this case being the Bush administration). Chief Justice Roberts, though a conservative, also seemed independent. This is not the feeling I get with Judge Alito.

Geoffrey Stone, a the UC Law Blog, makes a simple and straightforward case as to why Judge Alito should not be confirmed, and it is based on one set of criteria. Whether you agree with him or not, it will make you think, and that is never a bad thing.


Real Climate

Over at Daily Kos is an interview with three of the climate scientists who run RealClimate.org. It's an excellent interview with some interesting and relevant info regarding climate change. Click here to head over.


Scott McClellan Spin Zone

Scotty's been watching Bill O'Reilly. Unfortunately, the press is paying attention. Via Daily Kos:

Associated Press:

McClellan said the Clinton-Gore administration had engaged in warrantless physical searches, and he cited an FBI search of the home of CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames without permission from a judge. He said Clinton's deputy attorney general, Jamie Gorelick, had testified before Congress that the president had the inherent authority to engage in physical searches without warrants.

"I think his hypocrisy knows no bounds," McClellan said of Gore.

But at the time of the Ames search in 1993 and when Gorelick testified a year later, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act required warrants for electronic surveillance for intelligence purposes, but did not cover physical searches. The law was changed to cover physical searches in 1995 under legislation that Clinton supported and signed.

Bush's attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, made the same arguments as McClellan during interviews Monday on CNN's "Larry King Live" and Fox News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes."

Hydrothermal Podcasts

If you're interested in hydrothermal vents, Deep Sea News has links to a couple of podcasts by Dr. Cindy Lee van Dover. She is a professor at the College of William and Mary, and an expert on hydrothermal vents. Just click the link above.


Some Democratic Backbone

Some words from Al Gore via Daily Kos:

Fear drives out reason. Fear suppresses the politics of discourse and opens the door to the politics of destruction. Justice Brandeis once wrote: "Men feared witches and burnt women."

The founders of our country faced dire threats. If they failed in their endeavors, they would have been hung as traitors. The very existence of our country was at risk.

Yet, in the teeth of those dangers, they insisted on establishing the Bill of Rights.

Is our Congress today in more danger than were their predecessors when the British army was marching on the Capitol? Is the world more dangerous than when we faced an ideological enemy with tens of thousands of missiles poised to be launched against us and annihilate our country at a moment's notice? Is America in more danger now than when we faced worldwide fascism on the march-when our fathers fought and won two World Wars?

It is simply an insult to those who came before us and sacrificed so much on our behalf to imply that we have more to be fearful of than they. Yet they faithfully protected our freedoms and now it is up to us to do the same.


New Horizons

On Tuesday NASA will launch its Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission. After a successful return of the StarDust spacecraft, I'm sure morale is very high for this launch. Pluto has never received its own space probe and there remains a considerable aura of mystique around the planet (or Kuiper-object, if you prefer). The trip will take nine years (Pluto is 4.4-7.3 billion km away, depending on its orbit). In February 2007 it will get a gravity assist from Jupiter and then cruise straight on towards Pluto and Pluto's moon Charon. Why visit Pluto, you might ask? Our Solar System has three zones: the inner rocky planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars); the middle gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune); and then some icy rocks in the farthest reaches before you get to the Kuiper Belt. Not much is known about these "Icy dwarfs"; New Horizon's will help scientists figure out where Pluto, Charon and other Kuiper objects fit in with the rest of our solar system. In particular, the scientific objectives are:

  • Map surface composition of Pluto and Charon
  • Characterize geology and morphology ("the look") of Pluto and Charon
  • Characterize the neutral atmosphere of Pluto and its escape rate
  • Search for an atmosphere around Charon
  • Map surface temperatures on Pluto and Charon
  • Search for rings and additional satellites around Pluto
  • PLUS... conduct similar investigations of one or more Kuiper Belt Object
Once New Horizon's is finished with Pluto and Charon, it will venture further out into the Kuiper Belt to examine some of the larger objects out there. This will give us an unprecidented look into the workings or our solar system, and its development.



We're on day 26 of rain here in the Puget Sound area. I'm finally seeing the rain I was told about before we moved here. It really is pretty amazing, although I can understand why it depresses some people. If you absolutely have to have sunshine all of the time, this isn't the place for you! My students are desperately hoping that we break the current Washington state record of 33 straight days of rain.


Religious Stampede

Approximately 345 people were killed today during the yearly Hajj in Mecca. Does anyone else find it absolutely absurd that every single year people are killed during this part of their ritual? Why exactly doesn't the Saudi Arabian government enact measures to prevent this from happening? Why don't the pilgrims who are there demonstrate some common sense when they know what has occured in the past? I just can't fathom this type of behavior.


Not surprisingly, the pilgrims and Saudi government blame each other. Police officials say that many pilgrims ignored the warnings and notices posted all over the area, as well as advice to visit the sacred sites throughout the day, rather than all at once after the noon service. Pilgrims say that while there was plenty of security, they were poorly organized and seemed to ignore many of the problems as they were occuring.

While there must be some logistical strategies that the government could employ to help prevent this (although I'm sure it woudn't please the pilgrims), its clear that the biggest problem is trying to squeeze 2 million pilgrims into a space where each of them is only concerned with fulfilling their part of tradition. Fanaticism is trumping common sense. As one official said, it only takes two people to start one of these stampedes. So, although I think the government isn't doing enough (and this is coming from someone thousands of miles away, so my view probably isn't worth much), I'm not sure how you convince a mob of people to start thinking of others a little more. Let's hope next year's Hajj isn't as deadly.


Radio Travesty

My favorite radio station in Seattle, 107.7 The End, apparently dropped the best program they had going, The Morning Alternative. In its place they've gone with Adam Corolla. So, they replaced two locals who actually talk about things that those of us in the area can appreciate, plus, they no longer play music in the morning. It's a joke. If you live in or around Seattle and would like to complain, click here.


Cat Evolution

If you're a cat lover, head over to the Loom for a nice piece on cat evolution by Carl Zimmer. Find out where your favorite tabby came from.