March 2006

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Tired of all the tedium of going through airport security? Then set your laptop up so that when they ask you to open it, it shows this.

(Created by Michael Solomon, referred by Philipp Lenssen.)

P.S. For God’s sake, don’t really do this. You will be charged with a crime.

The story of Julia Diaco is bouncing around the legal blogosphere. She’s an attractive young white college girl who was caught dealing drugs on the NYU campus. She could have been sentenced to as much as 25 years, but instead received a slap-on-the-wrist sentence of 5-years probation.

A New York Post story, “Pot Hottie Breathes Freedom” (really), contrasts that sentence with another case:

News of the deal frustrated Anthony Papa, 51, who, like Diaco, was once a first-time, non-violent offender. Instead of probation, he was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for delivering four ounces of cocaine for a police informant to an undercover cop for a $500 fee.

The owner of a struggling auto repair business in The Bronx, Papa was desperate for cash and couldn’t afford a pricey lawyer.

“I get angry with a case like this because the laws are not applied equally. Because she had money and the right lawyers, she didn’t go to jail. Others should have that same opportunity,” he said. “All people should be treated like this woman – with compassion.”

Virginia prosecutor Tom McKenna responds in his blog:

[Anthony] Papa, however, draws the exactly 180-degree wrong conclusion…How ’bout instead we treat like cases alike and put the drug-dealing pretty rich girl in jail for 15 years?

Well, I think it’s Tom that’s drawing the wrong conclusion. The War On Drugs is a pointless communist-empire-sized waste of resources that has eroded our civil liberties far more than the PATRIOT act ever has, all in the name of stopping a victimless crime. As far as I’m concerned, Julia Diaco got justice (or pretty close to it). The injustice here is not the light sentence given to a rich white babe, but the crushing sentences routinely handed out to everyone else.

Tom’s response is chilling. A 15-year prison sentence is life-shattering. It would destroy all her hopes and plans. Her friends would leave her and move away. Family members would grow sick and die. Everything she did, all the plans she made, all the dreams she had…it would all be wiped out, made meaningless by the passage of a decade and a half. When she got out, she’d have to start her life over from scratch.

Some criminals, of course, deserve that. But Julia Diaco is a college student who sold a little drugs to other college students. A slap on the wrist sounds about right.

Lenny Kravitz’s album 5 has been out for a few years now. I remember especially enjoying its hit single “Fly Away” which had an energetic video to go with it. You can hear “Fly Away” on Lenny Kravitz’s MySpace page (you’ll have to click the song yourself, I can’t figure out how to link to it).

Meanwhile, however, I’d like to discuss these lyrics:

Oh I want to get away.
I want to fly away.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Let’s go and see the stars,
The milky way, or even Mars.
Where it could just be ours.

Is anybody else bothered by the cosmology implied by those lyrics?

For one thing, the Sun is a star. It’s just really, really close. The next nearest star is called Alpha Centauri, and it’s about 265,000 times further away. That isn’t what bothers me about the song, though. After all, Lenny obviously means he wants to go and see the other stars. Let’s talk about those.

All the stars we can see in the sky, including Alpha Centauri, are part of a large group of about 100 billion stars that are organized into a thin disk called a galaxy. It’s a big disk: From one edge to the other is about 24 thousand times greater than the distance between the Earth and Alpha Centauri, or 6.3 billion times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. Our Sun, and therefore our planet, is also in this disk, somewhere around half way between the center and the rim.

If you go out at night someplace far enough from a big city so that the sky is truly black, you can see this disk. You’ll have to wait for your eyes to adapt. We’re embedded in the disk, so we see it edge-on. It appears as a faint uneven band of light stretching across the night sky.

If you travel the earth following that band, you’d see that it stretches around the entire sky of our planet. We’re in the middle of a glowing ring of light. The ring is patchy and uneven, and appears to wander around between the stars. Our ancestors staring up at the sky during the late hours gave it a descriptive name: The Milky Way.

The stars are part of the Milky Way, and so are we. So Welcome to the Milky Way, Lenny. Make sure you try some of the food here, it’s really good.

Actually, that’s not what really bothers me either. I’m bothered by the reference to Mars, specifically to the implication that Mars is something special. It’s not.

With apologies to all those who study Mars, it’s a cold, nearly-airless jerkwater little planet that’s practically right next door. Many nearby stars will have planets just like it, or far more interesting.

So when Lenny Kravitz sings

Let’s go and see the stars,
The milky way, or even Mars.

it’s a lot like someone earthbound in Chicago singing

Let’s go and see Paris,
The World, or even Joliet.

Addendum: Actually, if you do the math, if the nearest star is as far as Paris, then Mars is the corner bar. On the other hand, if the Milky Way is the size of the Earth, then Mars is like a speck of dust on your skin.

I know, I know, some of you are thinking George Bush. But I think it’s Captain David Alexander of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. He’s having his officers arrest people for getting drunk in bars. He justifies it this way:

“Going to a bar is not an opportunity to go get drunk,” TABC Capt. David Alexander said. “It’s to have a good time but not to get drunk.”

I don’t think Captain Alexander understands why we have bars.

This is not the first we’ve heard of this sort of thing.

This is not quite what I was hoping for in Afghanistan:

Abdul Rahman, 41, has been charged with rejecting Islam, a crime under this country’s Islamic laws. His trial started last week and he confessed to becoming a Christian 16 years ago. If convicted, he could be executed.

I have nothing against Islam, but what I’ve seen of Islamic law seems intolerant and dangerous.

Back in January, Osama bin Laden offered the United States a truce. Well, not just a truce, but also a threat:

The voice in the tape said heightened security measures in the United States are not the reason there have been no attacks there since the Sept. 11, 2001 suicide hijackings. Instead, the reason is “because there are operations that need preparations, and you will see them,” he said.

That sounded like total BS to me, until I ran across someone’s comment (lost the link) pointing out that if bin Laden threatened us and then nothing happened, he’d lose face among his supporters. That does suggest he really is planning another attack in the United States.

I didn’t give the matter much more thought until about March 10, when some Islamic websites were carrying warnings from Rakan Ben Williams about upcoming attacks by al-Qaida. They’re supposed to be very big.

“there will be no one to analyze and investigate, because the mind and the heart will be unable to comprehend it… This will not be a single operation, but two; one bigger than the other, but we will begin with the big one and postpone the bigger one, in order to see [how] diligent the American people is [in preserving] its life. If it chooses life, [it must] carry out the demands of the Muslims, and if it chooses death, then we are its best perpetrators.”

That sounds big and bad, doesn’t it? It gets worse:

“Let me now inform you why we opted to inform you about the two operations and your inability to stop them before they are carried out. The reason is simple: You cannot uncover or stop them except by letting them be carried out. Furthermore, the best you could do would be to accelerate the day of carrying out the operations. In other words, if we schedule the operation to take place tomorrow, the best you could do is to make it happen today.”

That part really scares me. In order for the operation to be unstoppable, it has to be something like a really big bomb that is already in place and is guarded by al-Qaida members who are ready to set it off at the first sign that our counter-terror forces have found them.

Even that problem is surmountable, however, by surreptitiously evacuating the surrounding area. In order to be really unstoppable, the bomb would have to be so large that an effective evacuation would be hard to organize. It would have to be a nuclear bomb.

Ben Williams goes on:

“O you helpless Americans, especially those living in States far away from Washington, D.C.!” he says. “Your country is comprised of many states that should not have anything to do with Muslims. Take the state of Arizona for example; what does this state have to do with killing Muslims in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq? What interest is it of theirs serving, helping, and siding with the Jews and Israel? If some members of your Congress and Senate are being used as Jewish tools manipulated by Israel, why do you bear the consequences? Why do you bring death and destruction to your homes and lives in an apparent sacrifice for a handful of dishonest men and women?”

More bad news, those of us in flyover country are not necessarily safe. This dovetails with the nuclear bomb theory quite nicely: It might be hard to get a nuclear bomb into a major target city like Washington D.C. because of all the security. The police there have been pulling over radioactive cancer patients for months now. But not every city is as well-secured as Washington.

“The operations are ready to go, we are just waiting for orders from the commander in chief, Osama bin Laden (may Allah preserve him),” it says. “He will decide whether to strike or to hold. We swear by Allah that there are so many tricks and tactical maneuvers that will make your heads spin, by the grace of Allah. You will be brought to your knees, but not until you lose more loved ones and experience significant destruction.”

Now that sounds a little off-key to me. I’m starting not to believe this guy. I’m not talking about the use of idioms like “make your heads spin.” Ben Williams was born in England and converted to Islam later. He might well talk like that.

No, the odd part is that the plan is in place and they’re waiting to see if Osama wants to execute it. That doesn’t sound right. People who’ve looked into the timing of terror campaigns have found that terrorists don’t usually wait for just the right moment to launch their operations. They strike as soon as they can.

This almost sounds like someone laying the groundwork for a retreat.

It continues: “Now is the time to wake up and dust off this state of complacency and ineffectiveness to save yourselves and your loved ones from catastrophes sure to come your way. Remove war mongers from positions of power and throw them in prisons, where they belong. Rid yourselves of ‘the Jewish pests’ that brought nothing to you but adversity and loss of lives and wealth. They have deceived you for many years, it is time now you turn the table on them and make an example out of them. Rid yourselves of media crafters who deliberately kept you in the dark for so long and made a mockery of you before the rest of the world.”

The statement calls for a boycott of NBC and CBS because of their Jewish owners. It calls on Americans to watch al-Jazeera and to visit Islamic websites “to get educated.”

“Visit Mujahideen web sites to get to know who they are,” it suggests. “You will see for yourselves that they are not what your media outlets made you believe they are. If you cannot do that, the least you could do is to watch Al-Jazeera Channel; there you might get 20 percent or less of the truth about the war zones. Resent the corrupted politicians in Washington, D.C. and demand justice, if they do not give in to your demands, you must declare autonomy so you may live in peace and security.”

Okay, now this is just sounding goofy. Boycott Jewish-owned television stations? Watch al-Jazeera and visit Islamic websites? This is what we’re supposed to do to avoid devastation? There’s something strange going on here.

Maybe this is some kind of bluff from someone who has nothing to do with al-Qaida. That would explain the big-attack-then-bigger-attack nature of the operation: Someday, perhaps, al-Qaida will attack in the U.S. again. If and when that happens, Rakan ben Williams can post another message saying “See, there’s our big attack, now here’s what you have to do to avoid the even bigger attack…”

Actually, now that I think about it, the whole thing was a little less scary than I first thought. People who are planning an actual attack don’t usually threaten the victims ahead of time. They just attack. The people who make threats usually do so because they are unable to conduct actual attacks.

That’s enough to calm me down.

Until…

The level of “chatter” by al Qaeda operatives is currently as high or higher than in the months prior to 9-11, and the question in many parts of the U.S. and European intelligence communities is not if al Qaeda will strike again, but when. Much of the thinking centers on the near-term. This is also reflected in current corporate security alerts being circulated among elite business establishments.

There are several factors that point to al Qaeda at least having a plan for an imminent attack. The first is the January appearance of Osama bin Laden himself after months of silence. The second is the repeated warnings and boasts from bin Laden, Zawahiri and on al Qaeda web sites of impending action.

Several analysts I have spoken with believe the leadership of the historic al Qaeda would not raise expectations of an attack, especially at a time of intense competition with Zarqawi’s operation for the mantle of carrying out international jihad, without something important afoot. The risk of losing credibility is too high….

One corporate risk analysis group reported something else of interest: A March 10 posting on al-Hesbah website, known for posting al Qaeda messages, carried a message from the Global Islamic Media Front. The message gives a final warning to the United States before carrying out what it said would be two devastating attacks. The second attack would not be launched until after Washington had time to respond to the first one, the message said.

While this is clearly propaganda, it is within the Islamic jihad tradition to give an enemy a chance to repent and convert before carrying out an attack, as the Prophet Mohammed did. Bin Laden did this before 9-11 as well, when few were paying attention.

Crap. Not good. Not good.

But then there’s this:

It is a scenario reminiscent of the Trojan Horse. Iraq’s Interior Minister Bayan Jabr revealed that Iraqi internal security had broken up a plot to place 421 al Qaeda fighters as guards controlling access to Baghdad’s International or “Green” Zone. Once in position, the terrorists planned to storm the U.S. and British embassies, take hostages, and wreak havoc.

The Viet Cong used the same idea in Vietnam when they launched the Tet Offensive. The American military cleaned them out pretty quickly, but not before a lot of people were killed, and the American people and politicians lost some of their stomach for continuing the war. Maybe al-Qaida was hoping the same thing would happen again.

If they had pulled it off, that would have been really bad. Maybe that’s what all the chatter and threats were about.

I’m beginning to understand why the Chinese thought that living in interesting times was a curse.

Or President.

Singer-actress Jessica Simpson, the star of “Dukes of Hazzard,” spurned an offer to attend the National Republican Congressional Committee gala fund-raiser tonight because she didn’t want to politicize her favorite charity.

According to Reuters, those close to Simpson said she declined a request to appear that same evening at the fund-raiser for the NRCC — even after she was offered a face-to-face, private meeting with Bush.

Nice try, George.

I guess now it’s plan B:

Mary Carey, the buxom, XXX movie star who caused an uproar last year for dining with President Bush and her pornographer, apparently still has a hunger for the nation’s capital, and will have dinner with the president once again this week.

The former candidate for California governor is to attend the United to Victory dinner with Bush on Thursday, and have lunch at a related event Wednesday where Bush adviser Karl Rove is the guest speaker. She says she’s taking part at the invitation of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is organizing the events.

First all the big spending, now this. The Republicans are looking more like the Democrats every day.

Radley Balko has found a really cool book by artist Dave DeVries called The Monster Engine. He takes kids’ pencil and crayon drawings of monsters, and he repaints them with a more realistic look, adding 3D shadows, colors, etc.

Click on the child’s image below to see what he did with it:

kimberly-thumb.jpg

You can see more pictures like this at the companion web site.

My wife’s boss’s son, Matthew, has a school assignment to write letters to his Congressional representative and to one of the Senators from Illinois. He’s trying to think of questions to ask them. I thought I could make a few suggestions:

  1. There’s a piece of the World Trade Center in the Drug Enforcement Agency’s exhibit on the link between terrorism and drug trafficking, even though the DEA admits there’s no link between 9/11 and drug trafficking. Are the DEA administrators stupid? Or are they trying to exploit the victims of 9/11?
  2. The United States imprisons a larger portion of its population than any other country. Is that because the people of the United States are a pack of criminals? Or is that because the government of the United States is a cruel tyranny?
  3. In July of 2002, less than a year into the War on Terror, the top federal prosecutor for South Carolina, Strom Thurmond Jr., took the time to prosecuted a 21-year old college woman for selling her used panties through the mail. The crime carries a maximum sentence of five years. Was this a stupid prosecution? Or was this the stupidest prosecution?
  4. Our current system of military draft registration was created in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Now that we’ve helped kick the Soviets out, and the Soviet Union has crumbled and fallen, and our own invasion of Afghanistan is complete, can we stop making high school kids sign up for this?
  5. There’s a federal law that limits all toilets to a maximum of 1.6 gallons per flush. That’s a great rule for people in, say, Los Angeles, because they decided to build the United States’ second most populous city on the edge of a desert. Those of us living in Chicago, however, have wisely chosen to live next to one of the largest bodies of fresh water on the planet. Why does the law treat all of us the same when there are such obvious differences between regions? In fact, since water purification and sewage treatment are both local activities, why is this a federal matter?
  6. The new cockpit security systems now installed on all commercial flights have rendered them hijack-proof. All the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) needs to watch out for are explosives, firearms, and other weapons that could bring down a plane. Why hasn’t the TSA streamlined its security checkpoints? Why aren’t all those resources being redirected to secure other targets that remain vulnerable? Does the government have some ulterior motive for continuing to subject Americans to pointless warrantless searches by petty bureaucrats?

Any additional suggestions from you folks out there?

I was installing new hardware in a friend’s computer today, and I discovered I needed an internal power supply cable. This is a four-wire cable with white nylon connectors at each end. I figured I could just run out to good old Radio Shack to get one.

When I got there, however, the sales clerk didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. I looked around a bit, but they didn’t even carry parts like that.

The PC industry has been using these for at least 20 years now. Here’s a picture of one at MicroCenter. Radio Shack is a shadow of it’s former self.

In Sunday night’s Oscar show, George Clooney used his speech to congratulate Hollywood for taking on controversial progressive issues. He also mentioned with pride that the Academy gave an award to a black woman, Hattie McDaniel, in 1939.

That’s admirable, and the Academy deserves credit for its colorblind recognition of outstanding acting.

However, before Clooney wears out his arm patting people on the back, let me point out that not a single black person won an Oscar in any category for the next 24 years until Sidney Poitier earned his Best Actor award for Lillies of the Field in 1963.

After that, it was another 19 years until the next acting award went to Louis Gossett Jr. for his supporting role in An Officer and A Gentleman.

To be fair, James Baskett received an honorary award in 1948 for his work in Song of the South, and various black musicians won Best Music awards throughout the 70s and 80s.

Lately, black actors and actresses have started picking up awards every few years, which sounds about right to me, given the demographics of the United States and the frequency of significant black roles in movies.

(Source: The Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University.)

this happens:

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that military recruiters must have the same kind of access as other employers coming onto campus to give out information and conduct job interviews, if the campus receives federal money. Most campuses rely on some share of the $35 billion the government channels each year to higher education.

The law that blocks this funding is known as the Solomon Amendment, and it has become a point of contention for many law schools. Here’s a brief history of the Solomon Amendment that I found at a protest site:

In 1995, Congress passed the first Solomon Amendment, denying schools that barred military recruiters from campus any funds from the Department of Defense. The next year, Congress extended the law’s reach to include funds from the Departments of Education, Labor, and Health & Human Services. In 1999, legislation shepherded by Rep. Barney Frank removed financial aid funds from the federal monies potentially affected by the Solomon Amendment. Defense Department regulations proposed in 2000 and formally adopted in 2002 exponentially toughened the law by interpreting it to require revocation of federal grants to an entire university if only one of the university’s subdivisions (its law school, for example) runs afoul of the law. In 2005, Congress amended the law to explicitly state that military recruiters must be given equal access to that provided other recruiters.

In a sane world, this would be a stupid law. Presumably, these schools are receiving federal money for a reason. Either they are providing services to the government, such as research or program management, or the money is being given to them to serve a public purpose such as educating the people of this country. The point is, the schools are receiving money because the government needs something that they can provide.

The government’s need for the school’s services doesn’t go away just because the school stops allowing military recruiters on campus, so it doesn’t make sense to stop buying that service. If the government still needs whatever it’s paying the school to do, then it should keep paying the school, otherwise it should stop. Recruiting has nothing to do with it.

That would be in a sane world. In our world, a lot of schools receive money as a blatant handout by politicians trying to gain support re-election. The schools ought to expect to find a few strings attached.