Sunday, August 28, 2005

A Federal Right to Military Bases?

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Governors and legislators from several U.S. states are vowing to fight proposed Pentagon cutbacks at Air National Guard bases after a military review commission approved stripping aircraft from dozens of units.

In one contentious move, the independent panel reviewing proposed military base cutbacks voted on Friday to close the Willow Grove Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base near Philadelphia. That came despite a federal court ruling barring deactivation of a Guard unit at the base without Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell's consent.

The commission changed wording in its motion to leave the Pennsylvania Air National Guard 111th Fighter Wing intact but ordered it stripped of its A-10 attack jets.

Rendell, who argued the U.S. Constitution grants states the right to maintain militias, reacted with defiance.

"Unless they get the (federal court) decision overturned, no one is going anywhere," the Democratic governor said...

If Pennsylvania thinks its so important to have a militia with A-10 attack jets, why exactly does that mean the federal government has to provide them?

Other states had similar reactions:

In Missouri, Republican Gov. Matt Blunt ordered the state's attorney general to sue the Pentagon and the commission for moving Guard fighters from St. Louis.

Massachusetts Democratic Rep. William Delahunt said if the state exhausted its legal options to save the Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod, he would seek to defeat the base closing recommendations legislatively.

Sue first, deliberate later.
Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich pledged to continue his court fight against the move of F-16 fighters out of Springfield, Illinois, which he said would "impact the safety and security of the entire Midwest."
Yeah, next time the Canadians invade the planes will be... closer to the front.

If states want these planes so bad, why don't they pay for them?

Why Do We Have Air Force Bases?

I've long recognized excessive attention on the local economic effects of military base closures (the now-concluding BRAC Commission). Earlier this spring I received a mass-mailing from Representative Cathy McMorris which included this statement:
"My membership on the Armed Services Readiness sub-committee will enable me to influence military base realignment critical to the future of Fairchild Air Force Base, which is integral to our region's economy."
So I emailed her office with this simple question:
Could you explain to me how Fairchild is integral to our nation's defense? I believe this is the key question as local economic concerns should not trump national defense. However, pro-Fairchild statements are generally too focused on local economics.
After almost a month without an answer, I printed out the email and mailed it to her DC office. Several weeks after that, I got another taxpayer-funded mailing with a postcard asking for feedback on her constituents' most important issues. I sent it back suggesting that her office actually respond to constituent mail and email. On April 14th - seven weeks after the original email - I got this message:

Dear Nick:

Thank you for contacting my office regarding Fairchild Air Force Base and the role it plays in our regions economy. I appreciate hearing your thoughts on this issue.

As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, one of my top priorities is to ensure we keep our nation safe. As you mentioned in your letter, I am currently serving on the Readiness Sub-Committee which has jurisdiction over the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC). Later this year the BRAC will submit to Congress a list of military bases recommended for closing or realignment.

In our District Fairchild plays a critical role in our economic security and our national security. As the only re-fueling tanker base West of the Rockies, Fairchild is playing a significant role in the Global War on Terror by supplying the fuel for our planes and bombers. In addition, Fairchild is home to the Air Force's only survival school and houses a unit of Washington's Air National Guard. Fairchild is also well positioned for the future with 4,300 acres of land that is protected from encroachment and airspace interference.

Fairchild is also important to our economic security. It is the largest employer in Spokane County, responsible for over 5,000 direct jobs and hundreds of indirect jobs. I agree with you that in the BRAC process we need to focus on Fairchild's strategic location and the integral role it is playing in the Global War on Terror. This is my intent and purpose.

Thanks again for writing. Please do not hesitate to contact my office if I can be of further assistance.

Best Wishes,

Cathy McMorris
Member of Congress

Don't skim the message or you might miss the answer. The answer, in the end, was little more than geographic isolation - which seems to be a common attribute among potential base closures. Tankers, schools, and National Guard units can be moved, and we still don't know why re-fueling needs to be centered near Spokane, WA.

Fairchild did survive the BRAC process. Presumably someone was able to answer the question with greater clarity and precision than the district's representative in Congress.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Does Your Thesaurus Offend You Too?

From the AP:
An online thesaurus struck a listing Monday for the word "Arab" after Arab-American groups complained the entry listed derogatory synonyms.

The entry, which appeared on, listed the word as a noun meaning "beggar," and gave 16 pejorative synonyms including "homeless person" and "welfare bum."

The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee contacted the synonym book's online publisher Friday to complain about the entry; the American Arab Forum also criticized the listing on Monday...

Several hours after Roget's Thesaurus was called by The Associated Press, all entries for "Arab" had been pulled from the site.

Barbara Ann Kipfer, editor of the third edition of Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus, said the entry had likely been on the site for years, but never made it into printed versions of the thesaurus.

"We're simply going to take it out," she said on Monday. "The last thing you want with a thesaurus is to offend anyone."
No Barbara, the last thing you want in a Thesaurus is to be wrong.
Kipfer said an 18th-century term "street arab" had appeared in other thesauruses, referring to a homeless child who has been abandoned and roams through the streets.

What is actually going on here is a fairly comprehensive cross-referencing of the English language. The site probably looked something like this one (adapted from Roget's) which links "Arab" to its meaning as "traveler" and then provides synonyms:

Synonyms within Context

Traveler - Tourist, excursionist, explorer, adventurer, mountaineer, hiker, backpacker, Alpine Club; peregrinator, wanderer, rover, straggler, rambler; bird of passage; gadabout, gadling; vagrant, scatterling, landloper, waifs and estrays, wastrel, foundling; loafer; tramp, tramper; vagabond, nomad, Bohemian, gypsy, Arab, Wandering Jew, Hadji, pilgrim, palmer; peripatetic; somnambulist, emigrant, fugitive, refugee; beach comber, booly; globegirdler, globetrotter; vagrant, hobo, night walker, sleep walker; noctambulist, runabout, straphanger, swagman, swagsman; trecker, trekker, zingano, zingaro.

These words aren't linked to "Arab" - they're linked to "traveler." Or perhaps tourists should be offended at being linked to those pesky noctambulists. Ramblers should be offended at being linked to those dedicated Hadjis. Beach combers should be offended at being linked to those thin-air-breathing mountaineers.
[Aref Assaf, president of the American Arab Forum,] said he was satisfied that the listing had been removed.

"We look forward to working with them, should they need a proper definition of the word. The easier definition is 'anyone who is Arabic,' which would have been more than sufficient," he said.
Could someone please teach Assaf the difference between a thesaurus and a dictionary?

Appropriate synonyms could include "Bedouin", "Arabian", "Saracen", and a variety of archaic terms. Instead, this knee-jerk attack on the thesaurus destroys knowledge - both of history and the English language.

On Roget's site, by the way, horrifying links remain:
  • "negro" remains linked to "brunette" (via "dark")
  • "white" remains linked to "ball and chain" (via "white elephant") and "bathtub gin" (via "white lightening")
  • "Indian" remains linked to "obliterate" (via "revoke" via "Indian give")
The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee - Destroying Knowledge and Literacy, One Entry at a Time!

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Does Your Cat Have a Cell Phone Yet?

In the May/June 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs ("Down to the Wire," p. 111), Thomas Bleha complained that the U.S. is falling behind in broadband and cell phone services:

In 2001, Japan was well behind the United States in the broadband race... By May 2003, a higher percentage of homes in Japan than in the United States had broadband.... Today, nearly all Japanese have access to "high-speed" broadband, with an average connection speed 16 times faster than in the United States--for only about $22 a month. Even faster "ultra-high-speed" broadband, which runs through fiber-optic cable, is scheduled to be available throughout the country for $30 to $40 a month by the end of 2005...

The government used tax breaks, debt guarantees, and partial subsidies. It allowed companies willing to lay fiber to depreciate about one-third of the cost on first-year taxes, and it guaranteed their debt liabilities. These measures were sufficient to ensure that new fiber was laid in cities and large towns, but in rural areas, municipal subsidies were also needed... covering approximately one-third of their costs...

That's nice, they have faster internet and paid for it. But why should we do the same thing?

The demand for more speed will never end as long as people are taught to be addicted to their computers and websites are continually bloated with unnecessary bells and whistles. I recently got an email from my mother asking me where her local Boy Scout office was because her internet searches kept coming up with irrelevant results. I found the answer myself online, but politely suggested that she might try the actual phone book next time.

The question is how much speed an access is actually needed? Bleha cites telecommuting and teleconferencing as benefits of increased broadband, but what's the problem now? It takes 3 seconds to email a file instead of 1? The only problem I ever had with my (less speedy than cable) DSL service was when I tried to watch C-SPAN on my computer - until I realized that the problem was actually with Windows Media Player and RealPlayer worked just fine.
The United States is even further behind Japan in wireless, mobile-phone-based Internet access... the cellular infrastructure is so spotty that even in large cities calls from an ordinary wireless phone may not go through. Sadly, U.S. mobile-phone competition is still based on price and the extent of a company's coverage rather than the kind of advanced data services available in Japan and elsewhere.
Sadly? How necessary are these data services? My phone does all kinds of things that I never use because they are simply unnecessary. Besides, using all of these applications on tiny phone screens may do little more than promise a world of more car accidents, eye strain, and no chance for relaxation.

I was at a grocery store this afternoon and a lady's cell phone rang. She answered it and kept yelling into it that she couldn't hear because there was almost no signal. She repeated this several times and before the conversation presumably ended. Then the phone rang again, she answered again, and went through the same performance again. I stood there mumbling to myself "well then why did you answer it again?" I've seen people blocking the aisles at Costco reading their email. The DC Metro put up signs asking people to keep their phone conversations to themselves, but with little effect. The only source of peace is that many cell phones don't work in the subway tunnels. This is so great for "quality of life" that it should be federally subsidized too?

In advocating significantly increased federal involvement in broadband and wireless networks, he says:
To reach everyone, the effort would require developing a combination of technologies: wireline, wireless, and satellite. The United States' vastness no doubt complicates the task, but it is no excuse for not undertaking the job. (Canada, the world's second-largest state, also ranks second in global broadband connectivity.)
Citing Canada as a large state is extraordinarily deceptive. While Canada is geographically the world's second-largest state, it has a population of a mere 32 million, 90% of whom live in the tiny corridor within 100 miles of the U.S. border:

Most of those 90% live adjacent to the Northeast. Japan, on the other hand, is ten times as densely populated as the U.S. I also wouldn't be surprised if the development in Canada has been driven by the burdens of international trade.

Bleha also repeatedly asserts that this technology is necessary for an "improved quality of life," but doesn't give a real basis for this. Yet he demands that the Bush administration do the marketing for him. He's quite concerned about losing the broadband "race" - but where is the destination and what does the winner get? Those are questions that should be answered with specificity, not vague assertions about the "quality of life." I have had a cell phone for a year now, and I haven't needed any feature that wasn't available on cell phones a decade ago. I (sadly, according to Bleha) really only care about price and coverage (especially free nationwide roaming.)

Some broadband is necessary for multitasking and cell phones are convenient for their mobility, but where's the crisis?

Update, Oct. 5: Canada Lags U.S. in Wireless:

Here's another kick in the national pride for anyone under the illusion Canada is the world leader in telecommunications it likes to think it is...

Statistics Canada reported Tuesday that at the end of March there were 47 wireless subscribers for every 100 people in this country, a level reached in the United States in mid-2002. In fact, the most recent U.S. figure available indicates that at the end of last year, there were 61.7 wireless subscribers for every 100 people...

...Canada ranks just 27th in wireless penetration among the top 30 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development...

The study found that the average wireless customer in Canada pays a startling 60 per cent more than they would under a U.S. plan, and a 19-per-cent premium over customers of European carriers.

There are several reasons for the difference between U.S. and Canadian wireless prices... there are six or seven national players in the U.S. market so competition is fiercer than in Canada, which has only three. And U.S. competition has intensified in recent years with the spread of number portability...

Bleha didn't like U.S. services being driven by price, but it turns out that high prices caused by a lack of competition are exactly what's holding back Canada.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Scrap the Space Station

The Heritage Foundation asks an important question, Is the Space Station Necessary?

No, answers the New York Times in a well-argued editorial that ran this past weekend. Abandoning it and the costly, dangerous shuttle could save taxpayers $40 billion over the next decade without impairing NASA's long-term vision one bit.

The space shuttle may be one of the government's biggest, longest-running boondoggles, as Maciej Ceglowski explains in the recent "The Rocket to Nowhere." And believe it or not, things didn't look any more promising--in terms of safety, scientific merit, or expense--back in 1980, before the first shuttle even launched, as Gregg Easterbrook reported at the time in the landmark Washington Monthly piece "Beam Me Out of This Death Trap, Scotty."

According to seven members of NASA's Return To Flight task group, even $1.5 billion and a 2-year delay hasn't made the shuttle much safer. As the Times concludes in its editorial, "spending billions more on a white elephant would be throwing good money after bad."

I support space exploration, especially manned missions to the Moon and Mars - but the space shuttle and the International Space Station seem to be impeding these goals. The space shuttle is a far too fragile vessel designed for far too many tasks. "A Rocket to Nowhere," mentioned above, provides a detailed account of how the shuttle was designed, noting that:

The final Shuttle design, incorporating all of the budgetary and Air Force design constraints, was impressive but not particularly useful. Very soon after the start of the program, it became clear that Shuttle launches would not be routine events, that it would cost a great deal of money to repair each orbiter after its trip to space, and that estimates of launch cost and frequency had been wildly optimistic...

In the thirty years since the last Moon flight, we have succeeded in creating a perfectly self-contained manned space program, in which the Shuttle goes up to save the Space Station (undermanned, incomplete, breaking down, filled with garbage, and dropping at a hundred meters per day), and the Space Station offers the Shuttle a mission and a destination. The Columbia accident has added a beautiful finishing symmetry - the Shuttle is now required to fly to the ISS, which will serve as an inspection station for the fragile thermal tiles, and a lifeboat in case something goes seriously wrong.

A comparison to the age of exploration proves insightful:

[NASA likens] critics of manned space flight to those Europeans in the 1500's who would have cancelled the great voyages of discovery rather than face the loss of one more ship.

Of course, the great explorers of the 1500's did not sail endlessly back and forth a hundred miles off the coast of Portugal, nor did they construct a massive artificial island they could repair to if their boat sprang a leak.

Over the past three years, while the manned program has been firing styrofoam out of cannons on the ground, unmanned NASA and ESA programs have been putting landers on Titan, shooting chunks of metal into an inbound comet, driving rovers around Mars and continuing to gather a variety of priceless observations from the many active unmanned orbital telescopes and space probes sprinkled through the Solar System. At the same time, the skeleton crew on the ISS has been fixing toilets, debugging laptops, changing batteries, and speaking to the occasional elementary school over ham radio.

The New York Times points out, the station's remaining scientific value is limited:

NASA now plans to shrink the station's research and focus it on studies to examine the long-term effects of space travel on human biology. But the station will have limited value for that purpose. It is shielded by the Earth's magnetic field from the fierce cosmic radiation thought to pose the greatest danger in interplanetary travel, so it will tell us little about how to cope with that problem.

Even the presumed trump card for the station - the opportunity to study the effects of prolonged weightlessness on the health of crew members - has been greatly exaggerated. In low Earth orbit the astronauts are subjected to zero gravity, whereas on the Moon they would face one-sixth Earth's gravity, and on Mars one-third. The important question is how those low levels of gravity will affect their health. Incredibly, the one scientific instrument that could shed light on the issue - a centrifuge that would subject test animals to a range of different gravities - seems likely to be eliminated from the station. Zero gravity would be relevant on a trip to Mars, but that journey can be made in less time than astronauts have already spent in weightless environments in orbit...

The better, but more drastic option would be to retire the shuttles immediately and back out of the station. That would save some $40 billion over a decade or so, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The money could be used to accelerate a landing on the Moon by four years or bolster research programs that would otherwise be cut.

Let's spend that money on something more inspiring and put NASA engineers to work finding ways to get new places, not how to defend the shuttle from disobedient foam.

Update, Oct. 3: NASA administrator says space shuttle was a mistake:

The space shuttle and International Space Station — nearly the whole of the U.S. manned space program for the past three decades — were mistakes, NASA chief Michael Griffin said Tuesday.

In a meeting with USA TODAY's editorial board, Griffin said NASA lost its way in the 1970s, when the agency ended the Apollo moon missions in favor of developing the shuttle and space station, which can only orbit Earth...

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The 2006 Election - Meaningless Projections

Mort Kondracke, Executive Editor of Roll Call, is repeating the kind of misused statistics that caused some to predict the 2000 presidential election based entirely on the vote in Delaware:

Since World War II, the party out of power has picked up an average of 34 House and five Senate seats in a president’s sixth year in office...

Democrats should be able to make gains in 2006 based simply on history. But for now, significant gains seem out of reach because they’re trying to fight something with nothing.

The problem here is the "historical" premise - the actual numbers don't support using an average. Not only did the 2002 and 2004 elections thwart the expectations of "history," but the "sixth year" average is heavily skewed by elections more than three decades ago.

Since the end of World War II, there have only been 3 sixth year elections - 1958, 1986, and 1998. (The other three possibilities don't fit - 1950 was Truman's fifth year and his party's eighteenth, 1966 was LBJ's third year and his party's sixth, and Nixon resigned before the 1974 election . Kondracke, oddly enough, seems to be using all of these except 1986.)

Here's the data:

The current party split is 55-44-1 in the Senate and 231-202-1 in the House.

Losses for the Party in Power:


Real Sixth Year Losses

Considering only the likely comparable elections, we're down to a uselessly small sample size of three and 1958 sticks out like a sore thumb. Even considering the other potential "sixth year" elections, there have not been results like this in over thirty years and the two most recent sixth year elections suggest a much smaller change.

A mathematical projection based on these three elections shows Republicans gaining seven seats in the Senate and seven in the House. A gain of seven Senate seats is directly in line with the fact that 62 Senators come from states that voted for President Bush in 2004. President Bush also carried 255 congressional districts in 2004, including 41 represented by Democrats (versus 18 Kerry-GOP districts, a net GOP lead of 23).

Larry Sabato puts it well:
Never in modern times has a president been able to add Senate seats in the dreaded sixth-year election. Of course, look at George W. Bush's remarkable electoral record so far. Sooner or later, there's always a first time for every mark in the record book.
There's much more to an election than a batch of shoddy number-crunching. A filibuster-proof Republican majority remains entirely possible.

Friday, August 05, 2005

A New Word for "Spin"

Some Democrats have complained in the past few years (and probably long before that) that they are losing elections because Republicans "frame" issues better. Matt Bai's giant article, The Framing Wars, from the New York Times seems to do a pretty fair assessment of the debate. There's a lot of discussion of linguistics and interviews with both liberals and conservatives on the "issue." The basic point is that some Democrats blame losses on not using the right words. This really is nothing new, it's age-old political spin. It's not a new problem in politics, it is politics.

Personally, I think Democrats lack a solid set of beliefs and are less tolerant than Republicans of even the smallest disagreements. Mr. Bai notes that many Democrats just want "magic words" instead of considering that their policy positions might be part of the problem. There's a good example of this at the end of the article:

Rather than continue merely to deflect Clinton's agenda, Republicans came up with their own, the Contract With America, which promised 10 major legislative acts that were, at the time, quite provocative. They included reforming welfare, slashing budget deficits, imposing harsher criminal penalties and cutting taxes on small businesses...

By contrast, consider the declaration that House Democrats produced after their session with John Cullinane, the branding expert, last fall. The pamphlet is titled "The House Democrats' New Partnership for America's Future: Six Core Values for a Strong and Secure Middle Class." Under each of the six values -- "prosperity, national security, fairness, opportunity, community and accountability" -- is a wish list of vague notions and familiar policy ideas. ("Make health care affordable for every American," "Invest in a fully funded education system that gives every child the skills to succeed" and so on.) ...if you had to pick an unconscious metaphor to attach to it, it would probably be a cotton ball.

Consider, too, George Lakoff's own answer to the Republican mantra. He sums up the Republican message as "strong defense, free markets, lower taxes, smaller government and family values," and in "Don't Think of an Elephant!" he proposes some Democratic alternatives: "Stronger America, broad prosperity, better future, effective government and mutual responsibility." Look at the differences between the two. The Republican version is an argument, a series of philosophical assertions that require voters to make concrete choices about the direction of the country. Should we spend more or less on the military? Should government regulate industry or leave it unfettered? Lakoff's formulation, on the other hand, amounts to a vague collection of the least objectionable ideas in American life...

What all these middling generalities suggest, perhaps, is that Democrats are still unwilling to put their more concrete convictions about the country into words, either because they don't know what those convictions are or because they lack confidence in the notion that voters can be persuaded to embrace them. Either way, this is where the power of language meets its outer limit. The right words can frame an argument, but they will never stand in its place.

It's really a question of marketing. A good pitch can help, but you won't be able to sell something that the people don't want ("New Coke," anyone?).

Monday, August 01, 2005

Privacy Rights in Smuggle-Tunnels?

The Seattle Times reports that the Patriot Act was used to help catch Canadian drug thugs:

As drug smugglers carried hundreds of pounds of marijuana through a tunnel from Canada to the U.S. last month, federal officials heard every word and watched nearly every movement with state-of-the-art surveillance.

Investigators were able to surreptitiously install video and audio bugging devices in the tunnel after receiving a judge's approval to search the passage under a controversial provision of the USA Patriot Act.

By obtaining a so-called "sneak-and-peek" warrant, law-enforcement officials were able to enter the tunnel, and bug it, without immediately telling the suspects a warrant had been issued. Regular search warrants require that the subject of a search be notified immediately after it has been conducted...

Under a sneak-and-peek warrant, also known as a delayed-notice search warrant, a judge authorizes police to search a suspect's property without leaving any trace they were there. [Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Whalley] said investigators arrange the timeline of the delay with a judge and most often notify suspects within 30 days...

When authorities announced the discovery of the tunnel in mid-July, federal officials said their concern was not only drug smuggling but the possibility it could be used to transport terrorists or smuggle weapons.

Of course nobody bothers to ask why smugglers should have any expectation of privacy in an illegal cross-border smuggle-tunnel.

The Fourth Amendment, which governs government searches, seizures, and warrants begins:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated...
Can anyone find "illegal cross-border smuggle-tunnel" in there?

Observant Ovation to Orbusmax.