Thursday, December 30, 2004


Truth and the New Year

The best part of the scientific endeavor is that we get to spend our time trying to understand the world as it is, not as we want it to be or hope that it is. The most useful tool in pursuing this understanding is hypothesis-driven experimentation: make a guess about the way the world is, design an experiment to test the guess, and see what it tells you. The results of the experiment credit or discredit your guess, so you refine your hypothesis and design further experiments to expand your understanding and help you build a model you can use to gain insight into some feature of the natural world. If that feature is truly interesting, the model will always be under development and will never be complete.

I write this is not to fetishize experimentation, or to validate all forms of it, but as a realization of the limits of experimentation, which implies that true understanding is hard to come by in most endeavors. This applies to biological phenomenae, like evolution or animal behavior, where experimentation is difficult if not impossible and guesswork often prevails over true understanding. It also applies to social phenomenae like politics, economics, and human relations, where experimentation can unduly influence the phenomenon under study, or is ethically suspect.

From time to time, circumstances provide us with naturally controlled experiments that help us examine complex phenomenae, like identical twins separated at birth, speciation on remote islands or US foreign policy toward the Kurds in Turkey (a NATO ally) and Iraq (an official enemy) during the 1990s.

But enough of that. If I bite the dust in the coming year, someone please read this and put the following on my tombstone:

I loved the world, so I tried to understand it.


Exit Strategy

It will be interesting to see what happens on February 1, the day after the Iraqi elections, if the victorious Shiites turn around and tell the occupying US forces to leave the country. Until now, Shiite leaders appear to have been happy to let the US military do their dirty work for them in suppressing the well-armed Sunni minority, who (perhaps justifiably) fear what will (perhaps justifiably) happen to them in a Shiite-dominated country. What's unclear is if Sistani will want to keep the US around a little longer to help finish the job. If not, it could get interesting.

Break out the popcorn.

Thursday, December 23, 2004


Extreme Meme Alert

Apparently someone at the Pentagon or in the Bush administration has been very busy this holiday season. They seem to have grown tired of using the words "war on terror" so they assigned someone to come up with a new moniker: it's now referred to as the "war against extremism". In the simply named Defense Department Operational Update Briefing given by Secy. Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs Chair Richard Myers yesterday, they referred to the "extremists", "extremism", the "war on/against extremism" and my personal favorite, the "global struggle against extremism" a total of eleven times, while poor old "terror" scored a measly five. Both men seem to have adopted the term, so I'll keep an eye on other adminstration officials to try and track the spread of this meme. Could be fun!

Monday, December 20, 2004


The Memory Hole

Another classic column today from William Safire. Allow me to summarize: Forget about how we actually justified the war; look what a wonderful, hypothetical, retrospective [and profoundly contrary to the remaining shards of international law] justification we can give for the invasion!

When is the Times going to put this guy out to pasture?

Friday, December 17, 2004


Those Poor Judeo-Christians

Check out this almost unimagineable interchange between two right-wing talk show hosts from Florida and the U.S. Secretary of Defense!
Q: [Inaudible] car bombs. One other thing and that’s about conducting a war where there’s a clash of cultures as there is in the Middle East between the Muslims and mostly Judeo-Christian group that’s representing us. It’s got to be awfully difficult to fight this war with one armed tied by political correctness.

SEC. RUMSFELD: Well, it is. First of all, it’s tough to fight any war, but when you’re in a part of the world that walks (sic) at life so differently than we do, it is difficult. On the other hand, Afghanistan’s a Muslim country and the success there is just an amazing accomplishment. So it’s possible to do that.

Q: Yeah. We weren’t talking about the PC forces abroad. We were talking about the PC forces behind our own lines [Inaudible].

SEC. RUMSFELD: [Laughter]
I'm speechless.

Thursday, December 16, 2004


The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

I came across this DOD press release and it contains a surprising reference to the formation of a "stable and democratic Islamic republic" in Afghanistan. Is Afghanistan an Islamic republic? Is the US now in the business of building Islamic republics? Weird.

Friday, December 10, 2004


Rufus and Jeff

One of the saddest events in the music world in the last ten years was the tragic drowning of Jeff Buckley in May, 1997. He was only 30, and he was in the process of recording the follow-up to his only full-length studio record, Grace, one of the most compelling, beautiful, durable records of the 1990s.

So the other day I was listening for the first time to the new release from Rufus Wainwright, Want Two, and the song "Memphis Skyline" came on. It's Rufus's tribute to Jeff Buckley, and it's achingly beautiful and sad and moving:
Never thought of Hades
Under the Mississippi
But still I've come for to sing for him
So southern furies, prepare to walk
For my harp I have strung,
And I will leave with him
Relax the cogs of rhyme
Over the Memphis sky
Turn back the wheels of time
Under the Memphis skyline
Always hated him for the way he looked
In the gaslight of the morning
Then came "Hallelujah" sounding like mad Ophelia
For me in my room living
So kiss me, my darling stay with me till morning
Turn back and you will stay
Under the Memphis Skyline
As the lyrics played themselves out, I had to turn the song off to maintain my composure. I can't think of anything better than one artist whose work you admire paying such a magnificent tribute to another artist you also love. Thanks, Rufus.

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