I'm very sorry, but

So the Congress has stepped up to its Constitutional duty to intervene in the Terry Schiavo case. About time. How long were they going to allow it to go on obstructing interstate commerce?

Ethnic compliment

The current legal scandal around here is the sworn statement made by a retired local prosecutor. He says that he conspired with a judge to keep Jews and Black women off juries in capital cases, because they'd never vote to send someone to the gas chamber.

Congratulations to Jews and Black women everywhere. Such a nice compliment, if hardly an unexpected one.

Note added later: The judge in the case that brought all this on has ruled that the ex-prosecutor's claim is BS.

Maybe there is a God

Among the various keep-healthy newsletters and ads for newsletters that land in the mailbox is one called Bottom Line Health. I'm almost ready to subscribe, given the news they announce today. It seems there is yet another risk factor for heart attacks, according to several studies, including one at Duke University, so it must be true:

People who interrupt conversations are seven (7) times more likely to develop heart disease.

Walking robots. Home-grown gamma bursts.

I like these video clips, but mainly for the back story, which you can't get unless you're a member, which is far from cheap unless you're associated with some fine institution of higher learning. Or you could hie yourself down the nearest good library and look in the 18 February 2005 issue of Science(vol. 307, pp. 1082-1085).

What's going on here: Naturally, people want to build bipedal robots that look and walk like robots. The best so far is Honda's ASIMO robot, which can kick a ball and climb stairs. The trouble with that whole line of robot development, though, is that it takes large amounts of computing power, very accurate and fast sensors to monitor things like the angles of all joints, and effectors that are fast and precise and strong. The quality of components you could get in a carbon-based system just wouldn't do it. They also use a great deal of energy. So how do we do it?

These robots attack the problem from the other end. ("It is better to begin at the wrong end than never to begin at all"—C. S. Lewis) They are descended from purely mechanical devices with clever arrangements of springs and weights, which could walk down a ramp under gravity power. It was not clear that such machines could be adapted to walk under their own power on level ground; the videos show that it can be done. By the way, if the MIT machine reminds you of a biped that's not human, know that its ramp-walking ancestor wore a penguin suit.

These three critters have a very limited number of sensors and effectors (such as a pneumatic device that extends the ankle joint at the right time). The MIT machine actually learns to walk by varying its operation with each step and looking at the feedback. All of them walk with about the same energy efficiency as a human being, which is about ten times better than a robot such as ASIMO.

It's reaonable to suppose, as the authors do, that these machines cast light on the mechanisms of human walking. I especially like their point that "simulations used in the development of the Delft robot showed that the swift swing-leg motion not only increased fore-aft stability but also increased lateral stability. Indeed, the physical robot was not able to balance laterally without sufficient fore-aft swing-leg action." Aha! Neither can I. Pipe in mouth—hat on head—umbrella tucked under arm—lean forward sharply—WALK! That's how Monsieur Hulot did it; that's how I do it (less the pipe); I'm looking forward the next robot, The Ambulator Très Ingénieux.

By the way, you can now get a pair of DVDs with "Monsieur Hulot's Holiday" and "Mon Oncle" and a weird early short about a proto-Hulot rural postman. Highest recommendation.

I see in one footnote that the ASIMO robot weighs 510 Newtons and can walk about 1.6 kilometer per hour. Now I know that a scientific journal can't use a phrase like "1 mile an hour"; but Newtons? Well, you see, a mass of one kilogram exerts a force of 9.8 Newtons on the surface of the earth. So we scientists express weight, which is a force, in Newtons rather than kilograms. We all know about a billionth of a goat, a trillionth of a boo, and a trillion bulls (nanogoat; picoboo; terabull), but this gives a new meaning to fig newton.

Meanwhile, distant supergiant black holes keep giving out hiccoughs that produce gamma-ray bursts of quite ludicrous amounts of energy, like billlions of Suns, to be picked up by the appropriate instruments on satellites. And now the satellites are picking a new style of burst, as reported in the same issue.
(Science vol. 307, pp. 1085-1088 with summary article, both online articles by subscription only)

These new bursts are shorter (1 millisecond) and have higher average photon energy (a few MeV) than any previously known. Satellite instruments have detected them coming, not from black holes, but from the most mysterious object in the solar system, Earth. Of course, the total energy of one of these is a good deal smaller than the light of even a million Suns.

They seem to be produced by sprites or something similar. (Sprites? Puck wielding gamma rays? Is Oberon working on WMDs to unseat Jove?) Above big thunderstorms there are sometimes red flashes extending as high as 90 km, known as sprites. They may involve bursts of high-energy electrons, which could generate gamma radiation. The gamma bursts are definitely correlated with thunderstorms, anyway. Ex Gaia semper aliquid novi, no?

The Blessing of the Taxes

We ask God's blessing on our taxes due this April 15. We thank God for the ways that our taxes invest our money for the common good. And we pray for the strength as citizens to press our state and federal governments to spend our taxes in ways that promote justice and peace.
—Reverend Jim Burklow, Sausalito Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Mr. Burklow will conduct an interfaith Blessing of the Taxes service on April 12 at Fairfax Community Church. (The aforenamed places are in Marin County, California. When on 101 I ride, my bosom swells with pride.)


In response to the frenzied popular demand, I've put up an RSS feed. I think. If someone reports on whether it works, I'll be able to take this posting down. Thank you.

Are royalty human?

Now it's clear that the United Kingdom is well on its way to being the United Republic.

For those who don't avidly follow the Royal Family Channel: the Marriage Act of 1836 forbids the Prince to be married in a civil ceremony. Don't ask me why; something to do with the Church of England, I suppose. Anyway, that would make the marriage to Camilla Parker-Bowles illegal, and it's not clear whether the Marriage Act of 1949 overrides that provision.

But now the Lord Chancellor, who is known to embody the law, says that the Human Rights Act of 1998 overrules everything.

Not everyone agrees, though. "The Human Rights Act 1998 does help but it is an unsatisfactory state of affairs when the legality of the marriage of the Prince of Wales has to depend on that" says Sir Nicholas Lyell QC. I'm not sure why that is; could it be that the learned gentleman is not happy about anything depending on such a dangerous bit of foreign ideology as the Human Rights Act? (Necessitated by the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Britain must adhere in order to be in the European Union.) Or would he be content with a formal Parliamentary decision on whether the Prince is or is not human?

The funny thing is that the Prince didn't like the said Act at all. The Diana-heads, who are up in arms about letting him make an honest woman of Ms. Parker-Bowles (What? Are they against Family Values?) ought to be gloating madly over his discomfiture here, but they don't seem to have figured it out. No sense of humor, I guess. Surprise.

It's none of my business out here in the colonies, but maybe it's good to see Sir Nicholas standing up for principle. After all, the Japanese gave up on the principle that the Emperor was a divine being 60 years ago, but that was under duress. No reason for the British Lion to roll over and play dead.

Note 1: If it were any of my business, I'd doubtless be a royalist, of a rather half-hearted sort. I can imagine worse Heads of State than the Queen or even the Prince. And no one can argue that Royalty are irrelevant: not if one reads the paper and has the republican notion that the ideas of The People are relevant to government. And if it's a waste of money, who will say that Britain is too poor to afford this extravagance? (Shall I compare thee to an Iraqi War?)

Note 2: The European Convention is the offspring of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Which is, to a great extent, the work of Eleanor Roosevelt. Who, with her husband, entertained the Prince's grandfather in 1936 or so at the family's estate. Though the First Lady did not entirely approve of serving hot dogs to the King of England, it is reported that a good time was had by all. And after all, if Roosevelt had not shared the Anglophilia of the American aristocracy (not vitiated by his lack of enthusiasm for defending the Empire), things would have been the worse for a whole lot of people, including the readers of this blog, if any.

Note 3: I've worked the Lord Chancellor and the Mikado into this. But I never never put a completely gratuitous Gilbert (and/or Sullivan) reference into my writing.

Just say no to torture


What part of No exceptional circumstances whatsoever don't you understand?

(The main title, by the way, is credited to Semi-Anonymous Blogger.)

Recently George Friedman published a thoughtful essay on what a proper national policy on the use of torture ought to be in the real world, which appeared on various op-ed pages. He began with the famous old example: What if you had caught the guy who knew where the bomb was set to go off tomorrow? What would you do to save the city? We sophomores had a good time hashing that out around the dining table in 1961; apparently he liked it too, devoting half the column to ringing the changes on it. He ends by pleading for a nuanced view, no simplistic arguments; the matter is so difficult that he wouldn't like to have to write a memo on the use of torture.

I agree that I wouldn't like him to write one. His approach is to push us down the slippery slope by snowing everyone with fake complexities. If you doubt it, consider this: in a whole newspaper column on how it might be necessary to torture people, he did not once in any way use or allude to the phrase "clear and present danger". (For non-US readers: It's the criterion for suppressing rights such as free speech, formulated by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.) By all means, let's think about hypothetical extreme cases so that we won't have time to think about obvious limits to human knowledge and action, even under principles that have been US law for a century.

Actually, though, writing the policy is not that hard. We omitted something from our discussion in 1961, something remarkably simple; and so did Friedman.

Here, then is a document so secret that no living human being has ever seen it: the preliminary draft of next week's presidential policy on the use of torture.

[First, though, a note on terminology. Break: to cashier [an officer]; to deprive of commission; to degrade from rank. Oxford English Dictionary, sense 35.]
We in the United States do not do torture, and we mean it.

The United States of America has lent its full force and dignity to international treaties against torture. Under the Constitution that all military and civilian officers of the United States have sworn to uphold, these are our policy and our law. Our nation was created with "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind": a respect that does not allow for quibbling or evasion, or for constant testing of the limits, like an unruly and impertinent child.

It is sometimes said that in some extraordinary cases only extreme measures (torture) could obtain the information to stop an imminent and monstrous act of terror. Under the relevant treaty, which is the law of the United States, the special circumstances that would allow torture are as follows: No exceptional circumstances whatsoever.

The United States does not engage in torture, or tolerate those who do. Any officer of the United States who does, whether to address some imagined future problem or just to gain favor by gathering more information than others can by legal means, will be broken, and further punished according to the specific offense.

If it happens on your watch, you will be broken, and further punished according to the specific offense. An officer has reponsibility for what happens in his or her command, and has the authority to maintain discipline.

It is with great regret that I announce today the resignation of one of the finest public servants it has been my privilege to know, Donald Rumsfeld. The abuses at Abu Ghraib and other places were not ordered by Mr Rumsfeld; nor were actions taken that could have prevented those abuses or limited their extent. Mr Rumsfeld recognizes that military principles of responsibility must apply to the civilian command and to other high civilian officials.
You see, we sophomores left out one thing that a highly intellectual discussion of torture really ought to mention, at least: it's simply, flatly illegal in the United States, as in every country that has a claim to a civilized government. We had an excuse for the omission, considering that the treaty didn't exist yet. What's Friedman's excuse?

There's no way of equivocating around this or fudging it, any more than there is for sending people somewhere else where they'll be tortured, or pretending that torture isn't really torture if it doesn't come too close to killing somebody. All this is covered on the first page of that long-winded treaty.

According to the same source that revealed the memo, there is a policy initiative to consult with the other civilized nations of the world on a revision to the No Exceptional Circumstances Whatsoever clause. In the meantime, of course, the Chief Executive and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces is holding himself and everyone else to the law of the land. To do otherwise would be an impeachable offense.

Unfortunately, this imaginary memo was written in Microsoft Word, and therefore contains some deleted text that no one was supposed to see. Hacking reveals, for instance, that the "impertinent child" was much debated, but impertinent eventually prevailed on grounds of dignity over smart-ass.

Further hacking revealed this text at the end:
Consistent application of these principles would call for my own resignation as well, but fer Christsake do you know who'd be President then?
And further,
But as to that shmuck Gonzales who rationalized us into this abomination—Gonzales who? The vacancy in the office of Attorney General will be filled with all deliberate speed.

What is this blog?

A more convenient form of vanity press than one's website, and therefore more conducive to getting ideas posted before they flit away. Also, with more convenient ways of carrying on dialogue, of course.

That is, just like any blog. Oh, except the seriously focused ones. This one will have the usual dose of politics, and considerably more of science than most.

As to the name—it honors Sherlock Holmes, Buster Keaton, and my father.