Saturday, January 24, 2015

The budget-busting Bay Bridge eastern span

If the San Francisco Chronicle published more pieces like Jason Van Derbeken's story of how the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge came to be, I'd seriously consider a subscription.

Van Derbeken paints the decision-making process as being driven by starry-eyed fantasists who didn't understand the challenges they were inviting by adopting an experimental design. The design's defenders, meanwhile, blame Caltrans for mismanaging the construction. Whatever the truth, the cost exploded from the original estimate of $780 million to $6.416 billion (the current estimate per a Caltrans FAQ dated 2014).

Maybe a hundred years from now, people will love the eastern span as much as they love the Golden Gate Bridge, and will marvel at our foresight in deciding to go big and bold. Maybe. At the moment, though, it feels like we paid too much for aesthetics. The new span is less dreary than the old one, but the new tower doesn't inspire awe like the suspension towers on either the western span or the Golden Gate. And then there are the flaws we keep finding: brittle bolts, rust, leaks (undoubtedly contributing to the rust), and on and on. Although construction is complete, we still don't know the final cost because we keep having to evaluate new problems.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The anti-abortion mindset

Anti-abortion advocates can be singularly clue-impaired.

Consider this story from a piece about the unexpected trouble within Republican ranks during consideration of a recent anti-abortion bill.

Representative Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader, recalled on Thursday when she was new to Congress and opposed a bill restricting abortion.

“One of the Republican members got up and said, ‘Nancy Pelosi thinks she knows more about having babies than the pope,’ ” Ms. Pelosi, who has five children, said, adding, “Yeah. Yeah. That would be true.”

Huckabee the faithless

No, former Arkansas governor and perennial Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee isn't faithless in the sense of not being religious: quite the contrary, in fact, as he never tires of telling us. Rather, he's faithless inasmuch as he cannot be trusted to follow the law if it doesn't accord with his strict evangelical Christianity.

He said as much — again — on a talk radio show recently.

"One thing I am angry about though ... is this notion of judicial supremacy, where if the court makes a decision, I hear governors and even some aspirants to the presidency say, 'Well that's settled, it's the law of the land.' No, it's not the law of the land."

"Constitutionally, the courts cannot make a law, they can interpret one and then the legislature has to create enabling legislation and the executive has to sign it and has to enforce it," Huckabee added.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Epically wrong. Wrong on so many levels, it's kind of breathtaking.

When the Supreme Court issues a decision, that decision is the law of the land. Get hauled before any lower court in the country for defying the Court's decision, and see how that lower court rules. Congress and the White House can overrule the decision via new legislation, but until they do, the Court's opinion is the final word.

The courts don't need to "make law" to decide what the law is. Resolving an ambiguity in a law establishes "the law of the land". So does declaring a law unconstitutional. Ditto resolving contradictory holdings among federal appeals courts.

Huckabee's fat-headed blithering about "making law" doesn't even rise to the level of sophistry: it's childish literal-mindedness. We wouldn't accept such "reasoning" from an artificial intelligence. We certainly shouldn't accept it from a supposedly adult human.

But we can assume he knows how laws get made. His superficially confused remarks are really dog whistles to his supporters meant to show that he'll go to any length to act in accordance with his faith, even if it means defying the law of the land. He would not, in other words, faithfully uphold the Constitution if he became President.

A lot of highly devout people wring their hands over atheism and secularism, decrying the country's loss of faith. Give me a break. It's faithlessness to the rule of law, like Huckabee's, that is the real threat to this country's future.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Fundamentalism and honesty

ABC News has the AP article by Ian Deitch that tells this story impartially, but I think the headline of the Volokh Conspiracy (Washington Post) opinion piece by Eugene Volokh says it all: "Orthodox Israeli newspaper edits Angela Merkel out of photo of the Paris march". The reason? "Within the insular ultra-Orthodox community, pictures of women are rarely shown in newspapers and magazines due to modesty concerns."

As Volokh observes:

When worry about modesty and unduly inflaming the passions of men makes it impossible for you to honestly display a historic political event, that seems to me a sign that those worries occupy far too central a place in your mind.
Even Orthodox Jews are embarrassed. From the AP piece:
Shmuel Pappenhym, an ultra-Orthodox commentator and educator, said that while the community must preserve its values, the newspaper had gone too far.

"''The Hamevaser [sic] newspaper does a thing like this, tomorrow it appears in Germany, it appears all over Europe, the rest of the world. It mocks the Jewish Orthodox community. It makes us look narrow minded. It makes us look obtuse," he said.

This incident also raises the question: did the accompanying HaMevasar (as the New York Times spells the newspaper's name) article mention Merkel or any of the other female politicians and leaders at the rally? If it didn't, that would be much, much worse. Since the photo cropping has been widely mocked in the Israeli press, I assume a similar dishonesty in the article would have been noticed by now, though, so at least readers weren't totally bamboozled.

I would ask the editors: why bother running the photo in the first place if you object to the reality it depicts?

"Rama Burshtein, an ultra-Orthodox filmmaker", had this to say about the photo:

“It’s very, very, very, very, very hard for a nonreligious person to understand the purity of eyes,” Ms. Burshtein said. “By us, men don’t look at women’s photos, period. As long as you don’t know that, then it sounds ridiculous, or changing history or events. But we’re not here to get the events the way they are. We are here to keep the eyes.”
"We're not here to get the events the way they are." Does that send a chill down anyone else's spine?

You cannot call what you publish a newspaper if you cannot publish something as basic as an unedited picture of men and women engaged in a solemn, peaceful march against murderous fanaticism. What you are creating instead is a manufactured reality which diverges from the real world in ways whose consequences you cannot foresee.

That's the trouble with any fundamentalism: it denies the world as it is. I understand the impulse: much of the world is ugly and the ugliness drives people to be (more) ugly. The fundamentalist seeks either to change the world by whatever means necessary (e.g., the Charlie Hebdo murderers) or to cut himself off from the ugliness (the Amish, the ultra-Orthodox Jews). If, however, you cut yourself off, you run a serious risk that when it comes time to engage with the world, you will not understand it as it is. And your interactions with the outside world will be fraught with peril because, say, you've never seen a woman as head of state and can't conceive of it.

There is something unhealthy about your religion if a photograph of a woman in modest street clothing — a respected world leader, for heaven's sake! — is considered provocative. Your religion is turning something that should be (and, for the rest of us, is) quite ordinary into something titillating. That is what turns young men into ticking bombs of frustration.

There are many things to forbid in this world, but a picture of a soberly-dressed middle-aged woman participating in a march against fanaticism isn't one of them. Forbidding that picture is simply dishonest.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The unseen fallout from WWII

I'm one of the people (please don't call us old fogies: I haven't cracked fifty yet) who didn't mind the History Channel's old nickname of "the Hitler Channel". I admit to an interest in — I'm not sure it warrants being called a "fascination with" — World War II. It began with my awe of big naval vessels, especially battleships, but over the years has come to encompass both the large-scale (the amazing logistical feat that was the Normandy landings) and the small (the fascinating story of how Emperor Hirohito's decision to surrender was almost subverted by fanatical junior military officers in the hours before his official announcement to the Japanese people).

World War II shaped the world in ways that reverberated long after the guns went silent. One of the least understood aspects of the postwar world is how and where former Nazi officers and officials who escaped prosecution by the Allies spent their time. The image of former Nazis taking refuge in South America is by now almost a cliché, but I didn't know that a number of ex-Nazis also settled in the Middle East. Nicholas Kulish wrote an absorbing account for the New York Times' Sunday Review that hints at just how much influence former Nazis might have had in the region. Arab hatred toward the new Jewish state of Israel likely resonated among some of the German expatriates.

Kulish's account obviously just scratches the surface of what looks to be a strange and little-known chapter of the postwar story, a chapter that I suspect needs to be better understood if we're to understand the world as it exists today.

(It wouldn't hurt if more Americans knew the prominent role a few ex-Nazis played in the United States' evolution into a world power after 1945, either. Werner von Braun, the best-known of the former Nazis who helped the U.S. after the war, merely made the least-embarrassing contribution to his adopted country: his rocketry research could be excused as having led to the Apollo missions. The contributions of far more infamous convicted criminals like Klaus Barbie remained shrouded in secrecy for decades, and became known in spite, not because, of the U.S. government. Barbie helped the nascent CIA infiltrate the Soviets, the Nazis having a lot more experience at anti-Communist intelligence-gathering than the Americans. After his work with the U.S. was exposed, the U.S. helped him flee Europe and disappear for nearly thirty years. No one knows how many more Klaus Barbies were on the U.S. payroll.)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The leap second

Every so often I regret not being a real scientist or engineer because I would love to be in the thick of an absorbingly geeky argument like whether humanity should continue to use leap seconds.

Leap seconds are the kind of endearingly random adjustment to a technical system (in this case, Coordinated Universal Time) that can't be automated. The possibility of error in propagating the adjustments is high enough that a number of officials tasked with timekeeping have been arguing for eliminating the adjustment.

I love seemingly arcane technical matters that have serious consequences if they're handled incorrectly. I always marvel that tiny changes can have so great an effect.

George Zimmerman again

Trayvon Martin's killer, George Zimmerman, "allegedly threw a wine bottle at a girlfriend", according to his lawyer. He faces charges of aggravated assault and domestic violence.

The story is a little murky: the police only found out about the incident days after it occurred (again, according to the lawyer) and the arrest was further delayed because the arresting officer went off-duty but didn't notify anyone else to handle the case. Sounds like nobody took it too seriously, for whatever reason. If Zimmerman slides on this charge, as he has slid on seemingly every charge since killing Martin, it won't surprise me.

Those other charges, incidentally, include another domestic-abuse charge that the alleged victim declined to pursue.

"It's clear he hasn't been very lucky with the ladies the last few months," [Zimmerman's attorney Don] West said of his client.
Mr. West is a master of understatement.

West also seems to be angling for people's sympathy.

West said that his client -- who posted $5,000 bail later Saturday -- doesn't have a full-time job, implying he's had his struggles since the Martin acquittal.
Such struggles are about what I hoped for after he was acquitted in the Trayvon Martin killing. And while I don't normally indulge in schadenfreude, in this case I'll make an exception. Zimmerman seems to be a man with self-control and anger issues, ones that I suspect predate his fatal encounter with Martin. If he had shown the slightest remorse for the killing, the rest of us might be willing to cut him a break. As things stand, though, I think what we're seeing is the modern version of shunning, and he has no one but himself to blame.

[UPDATE: Zimmerman has been busier than I remembered. Talking Points Memo is keeping a running tally of his escapades, near-criminal and otherwise.]

Friday, January 9, 2015

Thoughts on the Charlie Hebdo murders

You don't have to love what the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists said in their drawings to defend their right to say it. That's a principle that both the French and Americans will passionately defend — at least as passionately as the alleged Muslims who feel called upon to kill those who "insult" their religion defend their murderous ways.

It's not just the French and Americans, either. It's everybody who appreciates the Enlightenment.

That's a lot of people. A lot more than believe in fundamentalist Islam, no matter what al-Qaeda or ISIS or far-right Western fearmongers say. And our ranks keep growing because our message is a hell of a lot more appealing than the unforgiving, intolerant credo of the fundamentalists.

That's what makes the fundamentalists lash out. They know they're on the losing side of the argument, so they have to write their message in blood for anyone to take it seriously.

There's a certain amount of self-examination going on in the wake of the murders. People are wondering whether some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons about Muslims and Islam were satire, or just bigotry. That's as it should be: a healthy society questions itself if things seem to be getting out of whack. Some will conclude that the cartoons crossed a line. Others won't. Eventually we'll return to a stasis, and the individual decisions of millions of people will govern whether we see a lot more such expression, about the same, or much less.

The point is, we will make that decision, not some thug with an automatic rifle and a warped "understanding" of religion.

The attackers and their ilk simply don't understand that this assault will trigger not less, but more of what they hate: more speech, much of it satirical, that questions who they are and what they believe. A lot of it won't be terribly effective in changing hearts and minds — but some of it will be.

More effective messaging that further diminishes the power of your ideas — that's not what you wanted, guys. But that's what you're going to get.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

U.S. consular staff assaulted in West Bank

Jewish settlers threw stones at U.S. consular officials visiting the West Bank, according to Israeli police. The officials were apparently security personnel conducting a preliminary investigation of alleged vandalism of olive tree orchards planted by Palestinians.

What the fuck?

If Jewish settlers in the West Bank — who I have the impression are fundamentalist and deeply right-wing — are looking to kill support for Israel in the United States, they're going about it rather well.

The settlers are a fanatical bunch who claim Jews have a historical right to the land, conveniently ignoring the centuries during which others established their own deep roots. The settlers' argument requires that you buy into their religious beliefs, which means that from the settlers' point of view there is no counterargument, while for the rest of us the settlers' argument is bald assertion without actual merit or substance. In short, neither side much cares what the other is saying.

Obviously I feel that what is needed is a lot less religious zeal and a lot more acceptance of the intervening centuries. However, Israel has shown little official appetite for curbing the wild-eyed expansionism of its most irresponsible citizens.

I've already made clear that I have absolutely no patience with Jewish fundamentalism — with fundamentalism of any kind, in fact. If you act like yours is the only belief system that matters, and your belief system excuses any abuse of non-believers, you've effectively declared yourself opposed to civilization. It's as simple and as stark as that.

Israelis, you face a difficult choice: are you going to curb your most fanatical citizens, or not? If not, you run the risk that Israel will devolve from a democracy to a theocracy. In that event, you'd better have figured out a survival strategy that doesn't include the U.S.: I and a lot of others will demand the cessation of all foreign aid to a theocratic Israel. We're already deeply unhappy with the West Bank settlements (which are illegal as well as immoral): it won't take much more prodding to push us into outright hostility.

If you're Israeli you might be wondering: so what? Maybe it's time Israel shrugged off its "big brother". Israel has built up a pretty strong economy and military, and the U.S. isn't the only game in town anyway.

But I think that losing the "special relationship" with the U.S. would signify something else. It would be the clearest outward sign that Israel was no longer an oasis of pluralism in an otherwise religiously partitioned region. (Lebanon is the only other pluralistic state in the area that comes to mind.) And while the end of pluralism might be a short-term boon for Judaism, it would be a loss for the Israeli soul. What, after all, is a greater sign of strength than permitting nonbelievers to share your living space?

I can't help feeling that in letting the settlers run amok as they did, Israel is compromising the principle of justice that informed its founding as a state.

Look in the mirror, Israelis. Who are you? Who will you be?