Revisionist history

It was inevitable. Agree or not with what our administration does in Iraq, it was a done deal that eventually the fight would be compared to World War II. On a day when the President is speaking to a large veterans’ association, I see in his speech a gross mischaracterization of the horrors of WWII. In fact, the error that caught my ear was ironic, given the consolidation of power into the executive pursued by this administration.

From the speech: “As veterans, you have seen this kind of enemy before. They’re successors to Fascists, to Nazis, to Communists, and other totalitarians of the 20th century. And history shows what the outcome will be: This war will be difficult; this war will be long; and this war will end in the defeat of the terrorists and totalitarians, and a victory for the cause of freedom and liberty” (“http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/08/20060831-1.html”:http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/08/20060831-1.html).
In fact, the leaders of terrorist organizations in current global focus have little to nothing in common with Nazis. Here’s why.

The Nazi’s were a party, organized by a segment of the German populace in response to the crushing economic conditions in post WWI and post Depression Europe. Their fascist ideology appealed to a people suffering from unchecked inflation, a people thirsting to return to their former economic glory. The drawbacks of that philosophy only became apparent as the Nazi horrors, perpetrated straight from the party leadership and down the line, unfolded. But they unfolded after a seminal event in history: the election of the Nazi party into power. German people largely embraced, out of agreement or fear, the blame they placed on others for the systemic failings of the prior German government.

Clearly, a party promising reform, appealing to the people, and being duly elected into power has little to do with almost all violent organizations (with the possible exception of Hamas). The terrorist organizations at the heart of the present conflicts, largely al Quaeda, are not elected, swear allegiance to no nation-state, and usurp the authority of sovereign nations both inside and out of the Middle East. It is by terrorism, by pure force of arms, that these groups rise to power.

What’s the irony? The irony is a President, elected by a slim majority of the nation – a nation hungry for change, for economic reform – an executive slowly consolidating power in a single branch of government, is pointing at terrorist organizations and drawing comparisons to the Nazi party. I am by no means saying that Republicans are Nazis – I am a firm supporter of the principles of States’ rights, economic responsibility, and efficient government (none of which the present administration really seems to embrace). I am also not calling the President a “Hitler”. Those are simplistic interpretations of my position. What I am saying is that a President who has put our nation in a position more like Germany leading up to WWII should be careful as he bandies about analogies between Nazi fascists and Middle Eastern terrorism. One would think that he wasn’t considering his words very carefully.

Fear itself

Language has always fascinated me. It really began when I took Latin in high-school (a love for which was recently rekindled by a “edutainment” program packaged with the KDE desktop manager: KLatin). The way that so much meaning could be hidden in a few words, a few well-chosen endings on a noun-verb pair, made me appreciate the power of language. Recently, my sideline explorations of the theory of evolution have sparked a renewed excitement about language. The evolution of language in humans and other animals is a mysterious, but intriguing example of how life forms develop to form and maintain critical social networks key to survival. When was it that humans first realized that vocalizations could be coherently arranged to convey feelings and concepts? What was that like? Can we learn about that process from observing chimpanzees who have learned sign-language and can express thoughts to humans?

The manipulation and abuse of language also fascinates me. Our continued ability to misuse words, or conduct manipulation through phrasing, amazes me. No better recent example exists than the “war on terror”. Franklin Roosevelt, in his first inaugural speech, is famous for speaking about the Great Depression plaguing American in the following way:

“I AM certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”

http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres49.html

These words have no less resonance in the context of the realization that the United States is as much a target of terrorist ire as was England from the IRA, or Israel from Hamas. It’s not that the world is more dangerous than it was before, say, September 11th. The first attack on the World Trade Center, the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, the attack on the Khobar Towers, were all indicators. They warned us of the gathering threat to America inspired by our interventions of convenience in the Middle East and the lackadaisical engagement of the U.S. in promoting an independent Middle East free from regional in-fighting and the economic interests of the West. It’s only now that people who failed to read the news, watch the TV, listen to the radio, and put the pattern together, woke up to it that pleasant fall morning. Whatever the reason, we’re now stuck with a meaningless phrase describing U.S. responses to terrorist efforts: the “war on terror”.

The name has laughable qualities, most notably the idea that by killing those who would kill us, we would rid ourselves of terror. That somehow, the embodiment of all fear lies in the beating hearts of extremists and that by silencing their hearts, we can silence the nameless, faceless horror. This is naive, of course – to really defuse the situation will require a careful combination of diplomatic, humanitarian, economic, and military options. The current emphasis on saber rattling makes all the other options seem like formalities, a prelude to brutal slaughter. You can’t offer one hand in peace and tense your other hand on the hilt of your weapon, and expect the other party to feel at ease in the negotiation.

It was a headline from MSNBC that got me thinking about all of this: “Many Americans fear another terror attack” [MSNBCFear]. Of course they do – they have only fear itself to fear, so naturally they have issues with an attack of terror. This misuse of “terror” to mean “terrorist” is a sad commentary on the lack of imagination in our nation today. The 9/11 commission had it right when they warned that it was only a lack of imagination that led to Sept. 11, and the recent excitement that people could mix liquids on a plane is another instance of that failed imagination. Nobody should be surprised that this was being planned, since it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Hollywood probably predicted it long ago, and it wouldn’t surprise me if terrorists have watched “In the Line of Fire”and got some neat ideas about composite materials.

The only thing we really have to fear is a lack of innovation. I just hope that from bottom to top, we can reinvigorate the imagination of the country before too much longer.


.. [MSNBCFear] “http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/14598506/”:http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/14598506/

Back at SLAC (for a short while)

Well, I am back in California. After a very pleasant two week trek through the upper Midwest (driving a total of 2300 miles from Minneapolis, to Soudan, to Park Falls, Oshkosh, Milwaukee, Madison, Fermilab, Milwaukee, Park Falls, and then Minneapolis), I am picking up my life here at SLAC. But, the complete collection of my photos from Wisconsin are here:

“steve.cooleysekula.net/photos/Wisconsin-Aug-2006/”:/photos/Wisconsin-Aug-2006/

The presentation at Fermilab went phenomenally well. I also had a ton of fun there, catching up with colleagues on their lives and their science. I also had a one-of-a-kind speaker experience. Instead of the typical speaker dinner, I was an actor in a ruse for one of the physicist’s surprise birthday party. Jim Simone, a lattice QCD expert, was the recipient of this surprise. I certainly had a lot of fun meeting many of the QCD experts at FNAL, enjoying the wonderful food prepared by Jim’s wife, and having a chance to decompress after several weeks of preparing for this seminar.

We then headed back to Milwaukee for my mother-in-law’s birthday party. This was a chance for all my wife’s siblings and their loved ones to get together, barbecue, and have a few drinks. I also had the added plus of playing captain computer maintenance. My in-laws brought the linux PC down from Park Falls, since it had apparently experienced a file system error which I suspected was a dead drive. I also had to figure out why my sister-in-law’s Windows PC was slow as hell.

The computer experiences were interesting for two reasons. The first was AG computers. This is a used computer and parts store on 76th Ave. in Milwaukee, run by (I believe) two brothers. The day we stepped in their shop, looking for obscure parts for an AT motherboard, their mother was manning the floor. She introduced us to the store, was a great help, and in the end we picked up two hard drives (8 Gig and 1.7 Gig) and an AT keyboard for about $12. I haven’t paid cash for computer parts in half a decade. I was then quickly able to install the drives, install Fedora Core 5, and declare the machine a victory. I pulled their home directories off the old drives, and the whole thing was essentially the same setup as before with better hardward and a more recent Fedora release.

As for the Windows PC, this was a sad case. The machine had grown slower and slower over time. My brother-in-law-in-law was so pissed at it – and rightly so – he blamed the computer for the problem and was ready to toss it and blow cash on a new one. The problem, in the end, was a combination of Windows XP’s promiscuity and the malicious behavior of people on the internet. Windows had, over a long period of time, admitted a series of spyware programs into its startup folder. A recent Sony Camera purchase had also led to the installation of its “always on” daemon in the startup tray. The combination of malware and bad Sony Windows software meant that there was a ton of disk access. Thanks to AVG anti-virus software (free.grisoft.com), spybot and AdAware, and CCleaner (“Crap Cleaner”), I was able to remove the malicious programs from startup. The PC then ran as designed – smoothly! Again, if Windows wasn’t so goddamn promiscuous, this wouldn’t have been a problem in the first place.

So the end of my vacation was . . . well . . . less than a vacation. Home again here in California, I am taking a little vacation from my vacation (and some work done, too).

Getting my weather wish

Earlier in this vacation, I said that I was excited about getting rain, thunderstorms, and maybe even a tornado. I argued as follows: I didn’t travel 2000 miles for weather I can get for free in California. Last night, I got my wish.

Jodi fell asleep around 10, and I was wrapping up to go to sleep when there was a weather alert that broke into the TV. I flipped to the recommended channel, only to find out that we were not only under a severe thunderstorm warning (golf-ball-sized hail!), but a tornado had been spotted on doppler radar northwest of Madison. The image above is the doppler radar image from nbc15.com, indicating on the left side the region of tornadic activity. It was never clear whether a tornado had touched down, but the cloud rotation apparently indicated such activity. I guess you have to be a *little* careful about what you wish for!