December 15, 2003

Ground Zero Memorial

In a recent essay, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd attacked the eight finalist designs for a Ground Zero memorial. The pretty designs, she suggested, fail to capture the horror of the event they mean to memorialize. “The designs,” she said, “are more concerned with the play of light on water than the play of darkness on life.” If a memorial is to capture our outrage over the 9/11 attacks and not merely our sadness over our loss, Dowd’s point cannot be dismissed.

Dowd’s column set me thinking about my own experience of September 11, 2001, and my sense of having witnessed acts of pure evil. The image seared into my mind that day was of the burning towers, particularly of the second airliner crashing into the South Tower. I imagined a memorial of an airplane crashing into a burning building, with another burning building next to it, a kind of perpetual flame with attitude. As a public memorial, this idea seemed a bit too literal, and one that would fail to comment or provide insight into the event. It would nonetheless communicate the horror and revulsion felt by Americans that day and would overcome Dowd’s objection to the sterility, if not the banality, of the designs currently being considered.

Realism is out of favor in public art, of course, and one has to admit that the world has seen too many bronze warriors on horseback. Who can be unmoved by a work such as the Iwo Jima Memorial, however? True, this statue is modeled directly on the photographic record, but the event itself was so suffused with broader significance that the sculpture is immediately recognized as signifying more than simply the raising of a flag. Perhaps a slight change in point-of-view could yield an equally powerful public statement at the World Trade Center site.

Thinking about the problem, I was reminded of the poem I wrote about the atrocity, “Falling from the Sky.” An image in the poem suggested another approach:

The second plane penetrated the wall like a heavy object dropped onto a cake.

Was anyone staring out the window as it became larger and larger?

Could he see into the cockpit?

Was the pilot smiling?

Was he serene?

Imagine the following scene in life-size bronze. In the foreground is an office with desks and other office furniture. Workers are at their desks, standing, and looking out the windows in panic. Others face the viewer, seemingly carrying on their normal office duties. Beyond the windows is an airliner, positioned as it was an instant before impact. In the cockpit are three Arabs—a pilot looking serene, a co-pilot smiling, and a standing figure in back cheering on his colleagues. That would capture our sadness about the event, as well as our revulsion and anger. Add a reflecting pool or pillars of light or whatever abstractions are demanded by architectural sensibilities, and you have an effective Ground Zero memorial for the ages.

December 13, 2003

Back Again

I knew that I hadn’t written anything here in a long time, but I hadn’t realized that it had been four months! Actually, I had begun writing a number of essays during the period, but I never finished any of them.

I do have an excuse for neglecting my Web log (and many other things in my life). In early August, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention confirmed the election of the church’s first openly gay bishop, The Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson. Needless to say, this was a controversal move. In fact, I had been tracking the comments of bishops about the election on Lionel Deimel’s Farrago, and it had become increasingly obvious that my own bishop, Robert W. Duncan, was the most vocal bishop opposing the election. This came as no surprise, though I was taken aback by the intensity of Bishop Duncan’s frequent pronouncements.

I was already an active member of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh (PEP) when Canon Robinson’s New Hampshire election was ratified by General Convention. PEP soon found itself leading an effort to resist Bishop Duncan’s attempt to break with the Episcopal Church, and I became one of the leaders of this effort. A petition, two diocesan conventions, many press interviews, and a host of other activities later, I now find myself the first president of PEP. Alas, the fight for a diverse, welcoming Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Pittsburgh (and, in fact, in the nation generally) goes on.

There is quite a story I could tell of PEP’s campaign against the ultraconservatives in the diocese and the Episcopal Church. Were I a compulsive blogger, I would have been telling this story as it happened. This would probably have required my completely giving up both sleeping and trying to make a living, so I will be only so appologetic for my lack of diligence. I suspect that I will eventually get around to telling the story.

Having explained why I haven’t written anything lately, I will promise to try to be more prolific in the days to come. It is, however, getting very near to Christmas.

July 31, 2003

Church and State in the Bush Administration

In a rare news conference yesterday, President Bush declared his opposition to the notion of gay marriage. He explained that his administration is looking into how gay marriage can be outlawed more effectively. The New York Times suggests that this may mean that, in spite of the existence of the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, the Bush administration might sponsor a constitutional amendment to probibit legalization of gay unions. (See “Where Are the Politicians?”)

The President offered no explanation for his position, which is, no doubt self-evidently proper to many Americans. Moreover, he managed to mollify and offend gays in the same breath by expressing a need to “respect each individual” while explaining that “we are all sinners, and I caution those who may try to take the speck out of their neighbor’s eye when they [sic] got a log in their own.”

Mr. Bush’s biblical rhetoric, invoking the decidedly non-secular concept of sin, exposes his opinion for what it is—not a reasoned, public policy position, but an unexamined article of religious faith. Ironically, stories about the news conference are juxtaposed this morning with stories of the Vatican’s latest campaign against gay marriage. Once again, President Bush has wandered drunkenly over the line between church and state, oblivious that his strong religious convictions are not a legitimate rationale for legislative action.

July 16, 2003


It becomes increasingly clear that the Republican Party has a philosophy that is accepted by its acolytes, unencumbered, as Tom and Ray Magliozzi are fond of saying, by the thought process. This morning, for example, I heard an amazing sound byte on the radio from the House Budget Committee Chairman, Jim Nussle (R, Iowa). In all seriousness, he said, “Taxes that are left in the pockets of people who earned the money in the first place is [sic] not borrowed from the federal government. It’s left in the pockets of the people in the first place. Tax relief cannot cause deficits.” Of course, this is true in the same sense that a wing’s falling off an airplane does not cause the plane to crash, though that event, along with gravity, will usually do the trick. By Mr. Nussle’s logic, we could eliminate taxes completely without causing deficits. It is not, I suppose, his responsibility that the government necessarily spends money, and, lacking revenue, will run what most economists would call a deficit.

Congress (and the President, for that matter) needs to rely less on articles of faith, as does Mr. Nussle, and more on conventional logic.

June 20, 2003

More Ambiguity

I recently wrote an essay on ambiguity introduced into sentences because of the absence of commas (see “Commas”). I think this has made me more sensitive to liguinstic ambiguity generally. The latest instance I’ve noticed was in a television commercial for La Quinta Inns. I thought I had heard something like “stay three nights and get one night free,” though the company’s Web site says: “Stay 3 times. Get a night free!” Consider this latter offer. It suggests that you must register at a La Quinta Inn on three different occasions, but do you get a free night during your third stay, or does your free night come on the fourth or subsequent stay? One cannot tell from the slogan. In such cases, the ambiguity usually favors the vendor, rather than the customer. That is indeed the case here. After three stays, one earns a “free night certificate,” and the fine print explains that you cannot speed up your certificate earning by checking out and checking back in on the same day.

June 12, 2003


I often see people write “can not” where they actually mean “cannot.” I have tended to dismiss this as a spelling error, but a sentence I encountered today made me look a little deeper into the matter. Here, I simplify that sentence: “We should do everything we can not to raise taxes.” In this sentence, we cannot substitute “cannot” for “can not”—the unrelated words “can” and “not” are juxtaposed rather by accident.

In fact, “cannot” is the negative form of “can,” and the only thing that can be substituted for it directly is the contraction “can’t.” Consider this sentence: “We cannot raise taxes.” This sentence has the meaning either that we should not raise taxes or that we are incapable of raising taxes. But what happens if we substitute “can not” for “cannot”? We get this sentence: “We can not raise taxes.” This sentence might have slightly different connotations depending upon the context, but the basic meaning is nearly the opposite of one of the meanings of the corresponding sentence containing “cannot”—it means that not raising taxes is an option, but the implication is that raising taxes is an option, perhaps the most obvious or likely one.

Think carefully when next you are tempted to write “can not.”

June 5, 2003


Seldom is conversation in real life as witty as it is in art. Occasionally, however, exchanges do occur naturally that deserve to be savored. Here are two examples.

I was staying at a motel outside Columbus, Ohio, recently and had gone to a nearby McDonald’s to gather some breakfast. Returning to the motel, I parked near the door and got out of my car holding a drink carrier, drinks, a bag of food, napkins, and straws. Two maids were entering the building just ahead of me. One, helpfully, held open the door. Intent upon providing further assistance and apparently thinking that I was cleaning out the car, asked as I approached, “Is that trash?”

“Yes,” I replied, “but I’m going to eat it anyway.”

I was not the party of wit in a conversation a few days ago. My heating and air conditioning company called to schedule a pre-season air conditioning inspection. The phone rang just after I had stepped out of the shower. I ran into the bedroom and answered the telephone. After introducing himself, my caller explained, “We’d like to come over to inspect your air conditioning.”

“When?” I asked.

“This morning, sometime in the next hour and a half.”

I knew I would need to move some things away from the basement air handler, and I had other plans for the morning, so I wanted to delay a visit. “Well,” I said, “I just got out of the shower, and I’m sitting on the bed without any clothes on,” perhaps disclosing more than was absolutely necessary.

“Are you planning to do that all day?” was the immediate reply.

We quickly agreed to an afternoon appointment.

May 23, 2003

Thought Experiment Redux

An answer has now been provided to the question I raised in “Thought Experiment” of February 24, 2003. NASA officials had insisted that the question of whether Columbia was fatally damaged was moot, as no rescue was possible. Associated Press reported today, however, that the board investigating the shuttle accident put my question to NASA, namely: had it been known that the shuttle was fatally damaged, could a rescue mission have been mounted? According to AP, “NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said he would have strongly considered sending Atlantis to the astronauts’ rescue, even if it meant losing another shuttle and crew.”

May 22, 2003

Random Thoughts on Iraq

The U.N. Security Council is about to vote on removing sanctions on Iraq. The resolution on the table has been revised to make it more acceptable to Russia, France, and others. It is to be hoped that this resolution moves forward the process of making Iraq whole. A big job is before us. Here are some random thoughts about it.

Why didn’t we immediately declare martial law in Iraq? There was surely no doubt that we would win the war because we couldn’t afford to lose it. (Had it been necessary to destroy the country in order to save it, we would have done that.) We therefore knew that we would have to maintain order, lest Iraq descend into anarchy. Unfortunately, we seem to have decided to cross that bridge when we came to it, and we assumed that rebuilding the government wouldn’t have to be done from scratch. We are now dealing with such foreseeable questions as the degree to which we will allow Baath Party members to be part of any future government. While we are figuring out what to do next, the country has been busily tearing itself apart and organizing religious parties that seek to create a new Iran (or Afghanistan). People should have been kept in their houses and, for the moment, prevented from demonstrating (and perhaps even from meeting). Arguably, we didn’t have enough troops to enforce martial law, and certainly didn’t have enough MPs. Why not? We are now sending troops home! The President seems eager to put a government in place in Iraq and to seem to be doing something about the deteriorating U.S. economy, so he can be re-elected in 2004. Will we install a government and leave, only to see it become an Islamic theocracy after a “decent interval”? Surely, we don’t want to see a Vietnam-like withdrawal from a war that we actually won!

What about OPEC? We have at least four reasons to ignore OPEC and its quotas. The first reason, of course, is that the OPEC cartel restrains free trade. (Could the WTO move against OPEC? I don’t know.) Second, we need all the funds we can get to rebuild Iraq, and maximizing oil revenue seems to be the way to get them. Third, selling more oil at lower prices will lower the cost of gasoline in the U.S. This is good for Americans and would seem to be a great boon to Mr. Bush’s election prospects (well, that isn’t a good thing). Finally, if the Iraqi deals with Russia are honored—they should be, as should all Iraqi foreign debt—telling OPEC to go to hell will result in more revenue for the Russians. They need the money, and this will buy the U.S. some goodwill. Spurning OPEC will confirm the suspicions of everyone who thought this war was all about oil, but even those people will reap benefits. Of course, the President may not want to offend OPEC because doing so will be unpopular in Arab countries and because Big Oil probably secretly likes OPEC (doesn’t mind it anyway), which keeps prices relatively stable.

The administration has a genuine problem of deciding how much authority it can allow the U.N. to have in Iraqi affairs. The need to improve our reputation among the world’s nations argues for giving the U.N. a significant role in rebuilding Iraq, yet American wariness is not simply paranoia. In fact, the Oil for Food program was run badly, resulting in illicit gains for Saddam Hussein and for unscrupulous foreign “merchants.” We will be tempted to take responsibility for the “important” tasks ourselves (installing a government) and to leave the less glamorous tasks to the U.N. (food relief). We justifiably will be chastised for this. Perhaps a more ideal division of labor would be for us to manage everything, farming out some work to others, and to have the U.N. monitor everything. Responsibility for some tasks would be assigned to the U.N. As manager, we would oversee this work, but some other country should assume the external monitor role. The smart money is not on my plan.

In the short run, no truly democratic process in Iraq is going to produce the outcome we would prefer, namely a western-style liberal democracy. Our government is not acting as if it believes this, however, which is worrisome. For appearances’ sake, we are eager to get an indigenous government (or a quasi-indigenous one, if exiles are to be involved) up and running, so we can extract ourselves sooner, rather than later (by September 2004, say). This approach is not promising. Imposing a constitution, as MacArthur did on Japan (see “The Next Battle for Iraq”) might work, though Iraq is not the homogeneous nation that Japan was after World War II, and the lawgiver’s task is arguably more difficult. I recommend instead temporary military rule and a lot of education. For now, no program of education is in sight.

May 15, 2003

Constituent Services

Three weeks ago, I sent e-mail messages to my congressman, to my own senators, and to Republican Senators Snowe and Voinovich, who were objecting to the size of President Bush's tax cut proposal. To each, I expressed the view that, as far as tax cuts are concerned, less is more, and my preference would actually be to rescind the massive cuts enacted at the beginning of Mr. Bush’s term. Today, I received my first letter in response to these messages. It was from Republican Senator Rick Santorum.

As most people know, Mr. Santorum is one of the most partisan, right wing ideologues in Congress. I did not expect him to be much affected by my message, but I wanted him to know that this constituent, anyway, did not agree with him. From experience, I know that Senator Santorum answers his mail. In fact, I received a 2-1/2 page letter. I expected that this would be something of a standard letter—no senator has time to compose 2-1/2 pages of personal response to every letter received. Nonetheless, I was unprepared for the senator’s response. The letter began:

Thank you for contacting me regarding congressional and presidential efforts to strengthen American’s economy. I appreciate hearing from you and having the benefit of your views.
This is a fair opening. The senator then provided 11 paragraphs of explanation of how he and President Bush are working to bring the benefits of the President’s tax cut proposal to the people. The letter concluded with:

I appreciate hearing your specific comments on the current condition of the economy, and as the 108th Congress continues I will be sure to keep your views in mind. If I can be of further assistance to you on this or any other matter, please do not hesitate to call on me again.
Nowhere does the senator acknowledge that I expressed a view diametrically opposed to his own. A reader of his reply might reasonably conclude that I had written a letter in praise of his enlightened leadership and wise policy positions. Obviously, Senator Santorum does not give a damn about what any constituent thinks. Did anyone in his office even bother to tabulate my note as a dissenting one?

The senator is in good company among Republicans, of course. Like President Bush, Senator Santorum knows what he knows and has no need to measure his views against reality. Also, like President Bush, he could learn a thing or two about respecting—or evening pretending to respect—the views of others.

[Senator Rick Santorum figures in another of my essays. Read Rick’s Fix in Commentary.

May 13, 2003

Chicken or Egg?

I find myself constantly asking what has happened to the Democrats. Where is the Loyal Opposition? Is everyone in the party brain dead? Do Democrats no longer have any ideas of their own? Why don’t they just come out and say that George W. Bush is a reckless cowboy who stole the Presidency, conducts foreign policy with the subtlety of Attila the Hun, who is running the country for the benefit of his rich cronies, and who doesn’t give a damn about the average American or about civil liberties? Isn’t this obvious to anyone who isn’t in a coma?

Joe Klein, in his latest report in Time, “How to Build a Better Democrat,” has some good suggestions to help Democratic candidates get noticed (recapture the flag, lose the frown, kill the consultants). He neglected to point out the Catch-22 that seems to restrain the Democrats, however. They are reluctant to criticize President Bush because he is so popular. But Mr. Bush’s popularity is enhanced by the fact that there are so few credible, national voices opposing him. When the opposition party does not take on the President, people conclude that our leader must be doing things right and deserves our support. The result is that his popularity increases, and the Democrats become ever more timid. By the time George W. Bush ruins the country, there may not even be a Democratic Party to pick up the pieces!

The Democrats should immediately begin a program of truth telling. When the President does or says something of which they approve, they should say so. In this case, some measure of the President’s popularity may actually rub off on them. When the President does something damnable, however, his policies should be attacked unmercifully. Democrats will take some abuse for this from the Republican right, from the columnists, and from the radio talk show hosts. Eventually, however, people will begin listening to that wee small voice in their heads that has been telling them all along that something is seriously wrong in the land, that perhaps the nakedness of the Emperor is really an indication that he has no clothes on. Especially should the Democrats not let President Bush get away with claiming the moral high ground when he is being most partisan, while accusing the Democrats of partisanship whenever they express even the mildest disapproval.

What comes first, decreased presidential popularity or an atmosphere in which it is easy to criticize the President? The answer is the former. Unless the Democrats are willing to attack a popular President, however, that President will remain popular, and neither expressing dissent nor winning elections will become any easier.

May 12, 2003

Bucking the Odds

President George W. Bush’s dramatic tail-hook landing on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln for a “victory” speech has been much criticized as an expensive political stunt. Surprisingly, the President has avoided the abuse heaped upon presidential candidate Michael Dukakis some years ago after that candidate donned military uniform and helmet to pilot a tank. The consensus then was that Mr. Dukakis merely looked silly. Mr. Bush, on the other hand, has been accused of looking too military in a country where civilians are supposed to be in change, but he otherwise played his Karl-Rove–scripted part quite well.

Allow me to offer another objection. I believe that the President of the United States needlessly (and recklessly) endangered his health and safety by landing as he did on the Abraham Lincoln (and perhaps by training for the landing as well). Mr. Bush apparently felt that the risk was acceptable, given the potential political gain. Citizens, however, can reasonably have a different view. The trauma associated with presidential injury or death is simply too great to justify taking unnecessary chances with a President’s life.

George W. Bush has led a charmed life. His family name has given him opportunities that ordinary people seldom get, even if, unlike Mr. Bush, they work hard for them. His father’s friends have always been there to bail out Mr. Bush from his business failures. And his stubborn political determination has won him victory after victory—including the capture of the Office of the President itself—when any rational evaluation of the odds would have indicated caution.

On the deck of the Abraham Lincoln, George W. Bush dodged yet another bullet. Some day, however, his luck will run out. When that happens, I pray that it is Mr. Bush, his family, and the Republican Party, not the citizens of the United States or the inhabitants of the planet, who will pay for his exalted sense of invincibility. In the end, probability cannot be denied. If the President continues to bet the farm at every turn, his eventual downfall is assured.

May 7, 2003

All New

Have you noticed that television networks have taken to describing upcoming episodes of their shows as “all new”? (For example, “an all new ER.”) What does that mean? Have we unknowingly been watching programs containing stock footage and scenes aired previously, that is, shows only partly new? Perhaps “all new” is supposed to mean “new to everyone,” a distinction necessitated by NBC’s introduction of the slogan “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you” of a few years back.

Actually, “all” is probably just a meaningless intensifier dreamed up by some PR type trying to be original. That “all new” episode of ER no doubt uses the same actors playing the same characters on the same sets as earlier ones and is produced by the same people and filmed by the same crew. All new? Hardly!

April 26, 2003


While writing an essay on Senator Rick Santorum’s recent comments on the legal status of homosexuality and other sexual practices (see “Rick’s Fix”), I became aware of the fact that there is no specific name for one who engages in incest. One who engages in bigamy is a bigamist; one guilty of adultery is an adulterer; etc. But what is one who engages in incest? The lack of such a word is a sure sign that such people are devoid of political clout, of course. Perhaps such a person could be called an “incester” or “incestor,” though one might argue that these words sound too much like “ancestor.” Perhaps “incestuist,” derived from “incestuous,” would be a better choice. Feel free to help me popularize one of these neologisms, but don’t expect it to catch on any time soon.

April 15, 2003

The Next Battle for Iraq

The first of many promised meetings to discuss the future polity of Iraq was held today in Ur. The U.S. government has not yet released a list of Iraqi participants, though we know that it was represented by Zalmay Khalilzad, Ryan Crocker, and Jay Garner. Surprisingly, Iraqi National Congress head Ahmed Chalabi only sent a representative.

One hopes, of course, that this meeting is part of a process that leads to a stable and, ultimately, democratic government for Iraq, but the odds favor a less happy outcome. The people of the region have virtually no experience with the mechanics of democracy. (Granted, the Kurds of northern Iraq have shown some ability to put aside narrow group interests for the greater good, and this may be cause for some slight optimism.) Shiite Muslims, the oppressed majority under Saddam Hussein, are already expressing concern that their interests will be slighted. There is every reason to expect that we are watching the beginning of a political battle among interest groups, with no one representing the interests of Iraq as a whole, which is, after all, an artificial state assembled nearly a century ago by the British. (Iraq’s raison d’être is more geopolitical than it is national.)

It is not often that successful governments are created from scratch. Of those that have been, most seem to have been the product of one man. (The governments of Sparta, Athens—perhaps—and, in modern times, the postwar Japanese constitution imposed by MacArthur come to mind.) Of the governments formed through any sort of group process, our own federal government is the most notable exemplar; perhaps the revolutionaries of France achieved the most glorious failure. Development of the U.S. Constitution was, despite the representation of very diverse interests, a remarkably philosophical exercise. Although it was not a work of scholars, the Founding Fathers knew political theory. How many political scientists and philosophers—American neoconservatives, however intellectual, do not count—do we expect will take part in the discussion in Iraq? Although I hope I am wrong, I expect the result in Iraq will be a product of political hardball, raw numbers, and who can mount the most intimidating demonstrations. It will take a good deal imagination on our part to achieve any other result. World opinion is unlikely to be favorably disposed to any constitution the U.S. would impose, however enlightened, though I do wonder whether we don’t need a General MacArthur just now.

April 14, 2003


In light of the administration’s stated intention to use the infrastructure of the former government of Iraq as a basis for an interim government, the military’s apparent indifference to looting in Baghdad and elsewhere is perplexing. There may indeed be some wisdom in letting oppressed Iraqis blow off steam; destroying Saddam Hussein statues is preferable to attacking American tanks. Looting is hardly a civic virtue to be encouraged, however, even if limited to buildings of the fallen regime. Those buildings will be needed for whatever government is established in the future, and that government will need desks, computers, and filing cabinets. Every looted piece of office equipment is potentially an item that will need to be replaced by American taxpayers. Some of the looted goods, of course, may be irreplaceable—government documents that could help us document atrocities and weapons violations by the former regime. Why would we entrust these to Iraqi looters?

What is taking place is senseless, recreational looting. People are taking property for which they clearly have no use. Alas, much of the damage has already been done. The worst of it—because the looted objects are irreplaceable and more important than mere government paperwork—has been the theft and destruction of antiquities from the national museum, documentation of the world’s oldest civilizations. This is a substantially worse crime against our shared cultural heritage than the destruction of monumental Buddhas by the Taliban. (This experience suggests the wisdom of distributing ancient artifacts to museums around the world, rather than concentrating them in the region of their origin. That’s an argument for another day, however.)

The military is not fond of taking on police duties. The need to bring civil order to Iraq is acute, however, and no other institutions are available. The U.S. must end the chaos in the streets immediately. Anarchy is seldom the mother of democracy.

April 9, 2003


While watching the NCAA women’s basketball final last night. I was surprised to hear a female announcer on ESPN describe the Tennessee women as using a “man-to-man” defense. Is this politically correct? Can you really say that on the air?

Of course, I thought the description perfectly reasonable, but it does seem to be going against the tide. In the future, will feminists insist on use of the term “woman-to-woman”? If they do, will the team be back into a zone defense before the sportscaster can get “woman-to-woman” out of her mouth?

March 20, 2003

No Protest Today

Anti-war demonstrations are planned today for a number of U.S. cities, Pittsburgh among them. With war in Iraq having started last night, I am forced to make a decision whether to attend. In fact, I plan to stay home. At the risk of feeling like part of the faceless majority that rallies reflexively to the nation’s support in response to any military action, I cannot hope for anything but a quick and decisive American victory in Iraq. I am not happy about how we got here, driven by President Bush’s disingenuous arguments and inept diplomacy, but Saddam Hussein is indeed a danger to his people, his neighbors, and—although this is a bit of a stretch—to us.

I was never unconditionally opposed to attacking Iraq, but I did believe that it would have been better for our relations with other nations and for our treasury to do so with broad international support. I still cannot understand the President’s impatience. Whether or not inspections would ever have succeed in totally disarming Iraq—and it is still unclear how much disarmament is necessary—inspections were clearly inhibiting Iraq’s weapon-building ability and decreasing its weapon inventory, presumably degrading its ability to wage war in the process. Continued inspections seemed to have the potential to make any eventual war easier for us and our allies, while providing more opportunities to rally international support. The administration may have been discouraged, however, by the fact that its diplomatic efforts seemed to create less world support, rather than more.

For now, we must hope for the best: (1) a quick victory that removes Saddam Hussein and avoids large losses of life or assets, American or Iraqi; (2) a brief American occupation, followed quickly by the establishment of a process to create a replacement government, carried out under U.N. supervision; (3) ongoing technical and financial support to Iraq, supplied both by the U.S. and by the international community, delivered in a way that does not threaten Iraq’s neighbors; and (4) establishment of an international understanding that there is no blanket right of nations to attack other nations on the mere threat of a threat. We can hardly hope for more. I’d rather not think about the worst that could happen.

March 18, 2003

Thanks, But No Thanks

Not surprisingly, Iraq seems to have rejected out of hand our demand that it give us its country. Praying for peace seems about the only alternative left to anyone who would like us to avoid war.

In his prime-time speech last night, President Bush’s justification for military action in Iraq was, as usual, a little garbled. Most straightforward and compelling was the argument that Iraq, having lost the Gulf War, agreed to co-operate in its disarmament. It is still true, however, that its lack of co-operation in this enterprise is more evident than its lack of substantive disarmament. Other allegations, while true, are not conventional casus belli, that Iraq has mistreated its people, for example. More worrisome, though still a novel justification for war, is the suggestion that Iraq might, for whatever reasons, supply weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. The President has clearly failed to sell this rationale to the world, in part, I think, because the case is less compelling with respect to Iraq than it is with regard to North Korea.

Although the President tried to explain why we are about to attack a country that has not, by conventional reckoning, attacked or provoked us, he did not address the more interesting question of why we stand nearly alone in this enterprise, in stark contrast to our situation before the Gulf War, in which we had broad international support. True, we were thwarted by a self-absorbed and self-important French government, but the French, who have been a diplomatic thorn in our side for many years, were responding to perceived American weakness and ineptitude. The administration, although it was dragged kicking and screaming into engaging in a diplomatic initiative to convince the Security Council to sanction the use of force against Iraq, acted as though its heart was not really in the effort. High-ranking officials were not flying around the world making its case. Whatever arm-twisting there may have been was, at best, ineffectual. Even President Bush’s touted rapport with President Vicente Fox of Mexico was insufficient to rally Mexico to our side in the Security Council.

The administration’s diplomatic skills aside, why should we have expected the outcome to be otherwise? President Bush made it quite clear to the world that a Security Council vote would have no effect on our decision to attack Iraq—we were going to do what we were going to do, whatever the U.N. thought about it. Why should Security Counil members put themselves on the hook for supporting what they considered a bad idea. And, even if they supported U.S. action, what incentive was there for broad military and financial support, given that the U.S. was willing to do the job for the world for free? We only weakly hinted that a failure of the U.N. to back its own demands would be damaging to the diplomatic mechanisms constructed since World War II. One suspects, of course, that the administration has no fondness for the U.N. anyway, and may be just as happy to have an excuse to exercise our military power without international constraints. Is there any doubt why the nations of the world told us thanks, but no thanks?

February 24, 2003

Thought Experiment

NASA has continued to dismiss warnings from engineers concerning possible tile damage that may have occurred on liftoff. Even if fatal damage had occurred, NASA asserts, there was nothing that could have been done about it. Whether such damage actually occurred is therefore moot.

It is surely true that Space Shuttle Columbia was not equipped for making tile repairs or even for retreating to the International Space Station. Nonetheless, one can at least imagine possible rescue scenarios. I propose a thought experiment. Supposed that, while Columbia was in orbit, NASA concluded that the shuttle’s tiles were fatally damaged, and the shuttle could not return successfully to earth. Do you think that Mission Control would have sent the shuttle into its re-entry on schedule anyway?


If you haven’t done so, you may want to read my poem on the Columbia disaster, “Columbia Homecoming.”

January 27, 2003

Travel Tip

I gave some late Christmas presents this year—packets of small, colored cable ties for use on luggage, in lieu of padlocks.

The Transportation Security Administration, it seems, is now advising airline passengers to leave their checked bags unlocked, so that locks will not have to be broken if TSA personnel decide to inspect them. The TSA assumes no liability for bags damaged in the process of breaking locks and apparently will assume no liability for the locks themselves or for any belongings that go missing, either. It does promise to seal inspected bags and notify the passenger. Clearly, however, this procedure subjects checked bags to unconstrained pilferage, if not by the TSA, then by airline employees. (No one in government seems to have thought this through, and I suspect we are expected to be grateful for the new rules.)

This brings us to the cable ties. The TSA actually recommends using these nylon devices to secure your luggage because doing so deters pilferage and yet allows easy access by inspectors as necessary. (Cables ties are difficult to break and cannot be reused, but they can be cut.) Luggage locks never really detered a determined thief, anyway. The problem with most cable ties, unfortunately, is that they are either white (most commonly) or black. What is to stop an airline employee (or bellhop, etc.) from buying a couple of packs of cable ties, cutting off passengers’ ties, stealing from the bags, and replacing the ties with identical ones? Colored ties are harder to find and are less likely to be messed with, at least for now. Neither my local hardware store nor electrical supply house had colored ties, but I found packages of assorted colors at Home Depot.

By the way, I think that opening people’s luggage while they are not present is a terrible idea. But so are most idea of this administration.

January 23, 2003

On Reaching Consensus

One of Terry Gross’s guests on Fresh Air today was antiwar demonstration organizer Mara Verheyden-Hilliard. The interview was tedious, with Gross suggesting that the coalition led by her guest, International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism), included what most Americans would consider the lunatic fringe, and Verheyden-Hilliard reacting indignantly (and at length) to the implication. I was not paying careful attention as she droned on, but, near the end of the interview, I turned suddenly toward my radio after Verheyden-Hilliard explained, “That’s what we have consensed on.”

I assume that what was meant was something like “That’s the consensus we reached,” or “That’s what we agreed to,” or simply “That was our consensus.” This last locution seems not to have a different meaning, and it has the advantages of being brief and of not turning heads in disbelief. One might argue, I suppose, that it emphasizes that which was agreed upon, rather than the agreement process, which was stressed in the original statement. Nonetheless, the need for Verheyden-Hilliard’s back-formation from “consensus” does not seem acute. Besides, “consensed” sounds too much like “condensed” or, perhaps, “incensed.”

January 9, 2003

A FrontPage Story

As you may have noticed from the home page of Lionel Deimel’s Farrago, I maintain the site with Microsoft’s FrontPage 2000. FrontPage is a Web design and authoring tool with many virtues, though it seems to have a mind of its own that makes certain sophisticated tasks harder than you think they should be, rather than easier. Nonetheless, FrontPage is a great tool for developing sites to be maintained by others who have limited Web-development skills or for developing sites that don’t have to live on the bleeding edge of Web technology.

FrontPage accomplishes some of its fancier tricks—generating tables of contents automatically, for example—by means of special software installed on the Web server, known as FrontPage server extensions. FrontPage server extensions are widely, though not universally, available on Web servers on a variety of platforms. The latest version of FrontPage is FrontPage 2002, and there are server extensions that correspond to this product, just as there were server extensions for previous one, FrontPage 2000. The 2002 server extensions also support FrontPage 2000.

I especially appreciate a program like FrontPage for the automatic changes it makes for the author, such as adding links to new pages on the site map page. Another nifty feature I have made use of on many sites is the ability to display the date a page was last edited without having to change the date manually. This feature was very nicely implemented. Frequently, one wants to put a standard footer on some or all of a site’s pages, and this is an attractive place also to display the last-edited date. In FrontPage, one can place independently defined borders on any edge of the page and have it appear, say, on all pages. If I want to change this border, I do so in one place, and that edit will be reflected on all the pages seen by the Web visitor. Moreover, if I put a date in a border—the bottom border, say—even though the “same” border is used on every page, the date shown can be made to display the date the page itself was last edited. I used this feature to show the edit date of most of the pages on my Web site.

Unfortunately, a few months ago, the feature stopped working properly. When I updated a page, the date in the bottom border did not change. It only changed if I changed the border itself, in which case, all the pages with the border would show the same updated timestamp. Actually, it took some time to realize what was happening, or, more properly, not happening. What seemed especially curious was the fact that the edit dates of my pages were being displayed properly on my site map page—FrontPage indeed knew when the pages had been changed.

I first noticed the problem in late September or early October. I was busy with a number of projects, however, and did not get around to serious troubleshooting for a while. By early December, however, I had tried everything I could think of to diagnose and fix the problem, so I called technical support at SBC, which hosts my site. The ever-helpful SBC people had a number of suggestions, but no one seemed to have seen this problem before and, after a number of conversations, it was not clear whether we were closing in on a solution, or even a diagnosis, for that matter. In parallel, I had opened up a dialog with Microsoft support on the Web. Much of this dialog was carried on in written form, but, over a period of about a month—I took some troubleshooting time off for Christmas—I also had several telephone conversations with the Microsoft person working on my case. I also searched elsewhere—though not everywhere—for insight into the problem. I looked at on-line help, books on FrontPage, and the Microsoft Knowledge Base. What I discovered was that the feature I was using was not well documented, and failures of it seemed not to be documented at all.

By mid-December, all the technical support people were telling me that there seemed to be nothing wrong with my Web site or the FrontPage extensions on its Web server, and everything seemed to work fine for them. (I have reason to doubt this last assertion.) In fact, when I loaded my site onto the Web server on my computer, it worked fine. Evidence that perhaps I wasn’t crazy then came in the form of an e-mail message from a client experiencing the same problem with another site hosted by SBC. I called him immediately to tell him that he wasn’t crazy either and that I was working on the problem. Interestingly, the client had noticed the problem about the same time I did.

When I got back to work after Christmas, I started asking the SBC people what had changed on my server. I eventually learned that the FrontPage 2002 server extensions had replaced the 2000 server extensions sometime in August. This was suspicious. Microsoft suggested I sign up for a free Web site that supported FrontPage and put up a few pages to demonstrate that the date functionality was or was not correct. I did so, and I encountered the same problem I was having on the SBC server. At this point, SBC was suggesting that I should perhaps be on a Windows 2000, rather than a Unix server, and that perhaps FrontPage 2002 would fix the problem. My Microsoft contact, meanwhile, gave up and handed off the problem to the next higher level of technical support.

I ordered a trial copy of FrontPage 2002 and began looking into how much more expensive it would be to host my site on a Windows 2000 server. A couple of days later, I got a call from another Microsoft technician. We had a long and interesting conversation, but what he called to tell me was short and sweet—that the feature I was trying to make work had been quietly eliminated in the FrontPage 2002 extensions. The “date this page was last edited” option of the time and date component apparently used a lot of CPU time on Web servers when pages were uploaded, and Microsoft was urged by Web hosters to eliminate it. Microsoft complied and apparently hasn’t heard much about it from FrontPage users. I wasn’t happy to hear this, but I was happy to know that I had no more need to beat my head against the wall. I know when I’m beat. I have modified my site and will send a request to Microsoft to restore the deleted feature. I will not hold my breath.

Although I thought the feature I had lost was quite useful, it was obvious that it was poorly understood and little-used; Microsoft could certainly justify their eliminating it. On the other hand, the feature might have been more popular had it been better documented. I do miss the days when software was documented in reference manuals that told everything anyone could possibly want to know about a program, including its behavior in every conceivable circumstance. Alas, software now seems to change faster than it can be tested or documented. Instead of reading reference manuals, we read about bug fixes and workarounds.

January 6, 2003

Where Do They Come From?

I stopped at my local Wild Birds Unlimited store a few weeks ago and bought a thistle feeder to go with my wooden “house” feeder. This tube feeder is mainly intended for goldfinches, who love the small seeds. Curiously, goldfinches like to eat upside down, so many feeders made for them have perches above the seed holes, rather than below. I chose a wire mesh tube feeder, which supposedly accommodates both goldfinches and birds that feed in a more conventional posture.

When I got home, I installed the feeder and filled it with seed. I waited for weeks to see my first customer. Finally, in mid-December, I saw my first goldfinch, then another, and another. I still have not seen any birds other than goldfinches using the feeder, but I have seen as many as six of them at once jockeying for their share of birdseed. Where have these birds been? I had never knowingly seen a goldfinch before installing my new feeder. In an earlier, pre-scientific age, I might have concluded that thistle feeders create goldfinches through some process of spontaneous generation.

(Click here to see a picture of the new feeder.)

January 5, 2003

Where Did the Other Calorie Go?

I heard an ad promoting sugar the other day, presumably the work of some sugar trade group, possibly The Sugar Association, Inc. (see below). In this spot, sugar was described as having only 15 calories per teaspoon. I found this very interesting because sugar used to be described as having 16 calories per teaspoon. (I knew I couldn’t be wrong about this because, during summer vacations in college, I worked for American Sugar Company and developed a stronger than average interest in facts about sugar.) I wonder what happened to the other calorie? Has sugar changed? Has the teaspoon gotten smaller?

A search of the Web was helpful, even though it didn’t really answer my question. The Sugar Association, Inc., Web site prominently displays a banner with the 15 calories per teaspoon claim, but most sources (e.g., Lawrence Hall of Science at U.C., Berkeley) give 16 as the proper number. Curiously, one source, Detroit Medical Center of Wayne State University, cites a calorie count of 35 calories per teaspoon!

Given The Sugar Association’s vested interest in making sugar into a health food, I suspect that 16 calories per teaspoon is the proper figure. I do wonder what the rationale is for 15 (or 35, for that matter). I’ll try to crack this mystery when I get the chance.

Far Apart

This morning, and not for the first time, I heard an NPR reporter say of a negotiation something like “both sides are still far apart.” Such a statement invites the question whether this situation is more dire than one in which only one of the two parties is far apart. Generally, “distance,” whether physical or metaphorical, is a property of two points; if a is far from b, then b is far from a. It is difficult to see how it could be otherwise. For example, if one were to suggest a violation of symmetry in the relation because one party is willing to compromise more than the other, then this “violation” is really illusory—the two measurements are not really taken the same way, and, in reality, the parties are closer together and equally close together.

In a certain logical sense “both sides are still far apart” could be considered correct, since, as I said, a far from b implies b far from a. It is wrong, however, in the sense that “both” at least suggests that the relation could be asymmetric. The reporter should merely have said that “the sides are still far apart.”