Sunday, August 22, 2010


"Mission Accomplished" - ?

My Libertarian friend R and I have a running argument or difference of opinion as to President Bush's state of mind when he stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln with that sign as a background. I believe that Mr. Bush had been persuaded by Mr. Rumsfeld and others that the war in Iraq would be short and sweet, much like the war his father had waged more than a decade earlier. The Iraqi army had been defeated, Baghdad was occupied by American troops, Saddam Hussein was on the run, and it did appear that the war was about over.

My friend R believes that "mission accomplished" meant no more than that a mission in the war had been accomplished. Baghdad had been captured and occupied. Now on for other missions. R goes on to state that the notion that Bush believed the war was over is a vicious fabrication of the left-wing pundits and media.

There is no way that either of us can prove what we believe. I don't know of anyone besides Bush himself or his wife Laura who knows what he believed at that moment. In spite of R having given me numerous citations and web links about "mission accomplished" I still believe that Mr. Bush did actually believe that the war was about over and all that remained was to clean up pockets of resistance and put in place a "democratic" government to replace that of Saddam Hussein. I believe that Mr. Bush relied heavily on the advice of Donald Rumsfeld, his Secretary of Defense.

Mr. Rumsfeld had earlier overruled the advice of General Shinseki who asserted that an army of at least 500,000 would be needed to conquer and control Iraq. Rumsfeld insisted on a much smaller mobile force of about 150,000. Rumsfeld was right about the size of army needed to defeat the Iraqi army. He overlooked the likelihood that all the operations of government, including policing, would collapse when Saddam was removed from power. After we Americans were through rejoicing about "mission accomplished," we were treated to the news that the Baghdad Museum had been looted and many precious ancient artifacts had been stolen. We also heard the news that the Americans had not bothered to establish any protection against looting at any institution of the Iraq government except the Oil Ministry. We then learned that Saddam Hussein had disappeared and that the Americans were looking for him. Clearly we were not going to be able to leave Iraq nearly as soon as Mr. Rumsfeld had expected.

I don't understand the fierceness of R's defense of Bush. To me, there is no discredit that he may have been misinformed or mistaken. As a cranky old liberal I would have criticized him for starting the war in the first place, but if things had worked out as I believe he expected I would be a rather lonely crank. As it is, I have many who agree with me that the war was a mistake. There are two possibilities:
  1. Bush and Rumsfeld were sure the war would be of short duration, similar to the Gulf War of a decade earlier. Any deception used to justify the war would be forgotten in the aftermath. Besides, there was general belief that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that he was prepared to use on his enemies, both foreign and domestic.
  2. Bush and Rumsfeld knew that the war would last some time. Bush put on the show of "mission accomplished," to mislead the public for a time. More misinformation would be distributed later, as needed to calm the anger of the public.

If (1) is the case, we can not accuse Mr. Bush of deliberately deceiving the public. If (2) is the case, he did deliberately mislead the American people and deserves all the calumny he is getting from us left-wing cranks. I want to give George Bush the benefit of doubt. Therefore, I believe in case (1) and that he really did think the war was substantially over when he appeared with the sign "Mission Accomplished."

Saturday, August 21, 2010


What is Science?

The other day I listened as the speaker at the breakfast meeting of the service organization I belong to delivered a rather long speech about "science." He spoke about astronomy, about Darwin's theory of evolution, and other things. I couldn't tell for sure whether he was for or against "science." I'll assume for the present that he was for it. At any rate his speech prompted me to think about what I would say about science. I was, after all, a scientist with a Ph.D. degree in physics from a good university.

Since I'm rather long-winded myself, I would start with the history of human attempts to understand and predict certain events that occur with some regularity. A good example is the attempt to predict eclipses of the sun and the moon. Thousands of years ago humans built simple observatories to enable them to observe the exact locations of sunrise and moonrise. One of these observatories exists at Stonehenge in England. By observing and recording (or memorizing) the dates and positions of the sun and moon when they rose and then correlating this information with eclipses of the moon and the sun eventually the observers (we might call them early astronomers) discovered a pattern that enabled them to predict dates on which such eclipses were likely to occur.

For a long time scientific inquiry consisted of observing and recording and collecting data. Mathematics was not highly developed in those days. Explanations of the "cause" of the observations were stories that we today dismiss as quaint fairy tales or superstitions. For example, the Greeks believed that the sun rose every morning because the god Apollo hitlched his horses to his chariot and drove it along an invisible highway in the sky. The god and the chariot were very bright, so bright that they formed the sun. They were so bright that the horses became invisible. Other cultures had other explanations.

Finally, a clever technician invented the telescope and the microscope. Now it was possible to study the stars in the sky in much more detail. It was also possible to observe and study various microbes. New observations were made and recorded. The moving stars or planets could be observed as orbs of finite size rather than points of light.

At this point I shall back up to an explanation of the motion of the planets by a Greek savant named Ptolomey. Ptolomey knew that the earth was round because he had measured its circumference. Hence, the sun, the stars, and the planets appeared to rotate around the earth. He looked for a mechanical explanation for their motions (rather than the fairy tale about Apollo's chariot) and devised a scheme of cycles and epicycles. Cycles were circular paths around the earth. Epicycles were circular paths around imaginary points on the radii of the cycles. And so on. It was an explanation but not a theory. We'll see why it wasn't a theory in a moment. It wasn't a satisfactory explanation either because no one could explain why the planets had to behave as though they were at the ends of imaginary rods rotating around the ends of other rods, etc.

A very smart Pole named Nicholas Copernicus (educated people wrote in latin and latinized their names) figured out that he could do away with all the cycles and epicycles if he assumed that the earth and all the planets rotated around the sun in circular orbits. He was also smart enough not to publish his explanation during his lifetime, to avoid getting in trouble with the Catholic Church. Circular orbits provided a simpler explanation than the epicycles of Ptolomey. They provided a fairly simple way of predicting the motions of new planets that were being discovered by astronomers using the newly invented telescope. However, a Danish astronomer, Tyge Brahe, found that circular orbits could not explain exactly the orbits of some of the planets. One of his students, a German named Johannes Kepler, discovered that if one assumed elliptical orbits instead of circular ones, Tyge Brahe's observations could be exactly confirmed by calculation. Kepler had no explanation as to why the orbits should be elliptical rather than circular.

That explanation was left to Isaac Newton. Newton used some new developments in mathematics, specifically the discovery of calculus, and an idea called gravity to explain and calculate the orbits of planets. His theory of universal gravitation also explained why apples fall from trees and why we humans are so strongly attracted to the earth that we never fall off or fly into space. His theory satisfied two philosophical requirements of any scientific theory: (1) it involved the fewest assumptions; (2) it was constructed in a way that it could be tested and disproved if wrong.

Let's think about Darwin for a bit. It is customary to say that Darwin proposed the "theory of evolution." I think that's a poor name for his theory. Evolution is an observed fact. Millions of years ago there were species of animals and plants who left fossilized remains but who no longer exist. At the same time, may species that exist today didn't exist millions of years ago. New species come into being and old ones die out. Darwin proposed a mechanism that involved the least number of assumptions. Characteristics of living things change because of random mutations. Some of these mutations allow species to inhabit new conditions of environment or to survive better in a changed environment. Hence, the new species thrives and prospers. Darwin had to assume that (1) environments change with time and (2) mutations occur randomly. From the fossil record we know that environments have changed. There have been several ice ages in the past million years. Darwin didn't know the mechanism by which mutations occur. Today we know that in reproduction, the DNA molecule is never replicated exactly. Some of the changes have no effect. Some of them produce mutations in the form of the organism. This is the scientific theory of why evolution occurs.

So, what is science? Science is a process of studying and trying to understand the nature of the universe. The process involves observation, recording the results of observation, and constructing theories to explain or predict the results. The theories must satisfy the two philosopohical requirements of simplicity and verifiability.

What is the value of science? Science allows us to see the world as it is, not as we believe it to be. It is a human tendency to acquire certain beliefs about the world from our parents, then to cling to these beliefs even though observation tends to contradict them. I've told this story about myself before, but it is a good example. As a child I learned that the "southern" dialect in the United States came about because the white children of southern planters were cared for by negro nannies. The negro nannies had peculiar tongues. They were thick and prevented the nannies from pronouncing some words correctly. It was this strange way of speaking English that the children learned from their nannies and carried into adulthood. In college I met and talked and argued with a black student from Haiti. He didn't speak with a southern accent; his accent was French. I argued with him that as a negro, he had a thick tongue and couldn't pronounce English words correctly. This in spite of the fact that he had a French, not a Southern accent. He must have thought I was the dumbest bigot he'd ever met. Later I learned that there is nothing wrong with the negro tongue and that the Southern accent in the United States originated in England. If I had seriously practiced being a scientist I would not have made such a fool of myself in front of my Haitian friend, Berthony Vieux.


Monday, August 16, 2010


The Mosque

I refer, of course, to the proposal to build an Islamic center building in New York, two blocks north of the World Trade Center. The proposal has supporters and opponents. My opinion? An Islamic center near the World Trade Center doesn't bother me in the least. I have little patience with the opponents.

The controversy has caused me to think of many things. I think of the individuals who carried out the destruction of the WTC towers by committing suicide while they murdered more than 2000 innocent people of all faiths, including Islam. These suicide murderers were themselves Muslims, mostly from Saudi Arabia. Importantly they were not from Iraq or Iran or Afghanistan. They were Muslim extremists.

We have some Christian extremists. I think of the people who murdered the doctor in Kansas who performed therapeutic abortions in safe hygienic surroundings. I think of a doctor in New York several years ago who was murdered by other abortion opponents. These murderers are Christian extremists. They believe they are doing the will of God. Are all Christians responsible for the acts of these extremists who murder abortion providers? Of course not. Are all Muslims responsible for the extremists who destroyed the WTC? Of course not. Should Muslims be prohibited from having a place of worship near the site of the WTC? I don't think so.

Of course, the analogy between the murderers of abortion doctors and the destroyers of the WTC rests on rather shaky logic. The abortion doctor murderers are intent on "saving the lives of innocent fetuses (feti?)" while the WRC destroyers are said to have been trying to punish the United States for some of its policies in the Arab world. The notion that the destroyers were engaged in a battle to save Islam from the Christians is one that our leaders made up and fed us. One explanation was that the person who proposed and organized the assault on the United States was angry at the American policy of favoring Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. That explanation was published once and then dropped. It hasn't been heard of since.

Speaking of an American bias in favor of Israel, and thinking about it, I just made a brief review of American policy toward Jewish attempts to come to the United States just before our entry into World War 2. It seems that the State Department was staffed with people who didn't want great hordes of refugees from central and eastern Europe to swarm to the United States. Therefore, they sent instructions to various American Consuls to delay as much as possible the process of obtaining entry visas. Ships of refugees from various ports in Germany were refused permission to land at any American port. Mostly these ships had to return to Germany.

One country stands out for its policy of providing a home for refugee Jews from Hitler's "final solution." Francisco Franco, the dictator of Spain, sent his diplomats throughout Europe with instructions to grant visas to any Jews who could make a reasonable claims to being descended from Jews who were expelled from Spain after the final victory over the Moors in 1492. Some 80,000 Jews were rescued in this way. In Spain there are synagogues that were unused for 500 years and are now again active.

After the war, the American public learned about the terrible policies of the German government toward the Jews. A national feeling of guilt came over us. In 1948 President Truman led the effort in having the United Nations establish the nation of Israel. About the same time, the Supreme Court declared that restrictive covenants that prevented Jews from buying homes in choice areas of Connecticut and other places were unconstitutional. We tried to atone for our part in the extermination of six million Jews. I don't mean that we aided or abetted the Nazis in their horrible acts but by refusing temporary asylum we added to the total number of victims.


Friday, August 13, 2010


Changing the Constitution

There's always been an irrational element in the make-up of the American public regarding politics and public policy. I want to call the members of this bloc the Yahoos, but that may be an unfair and unkind term. I will limit myself to saying that I consider them to be mistaken and wrong-headed.

These mistaken ones today are angry at immigrants who are in the country without papers -- people who sneaked across the border and crossed the desert to get to Tucson, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and other large cities near the boundary with Mexico. They include in their anger persons who came here lagally many years ago with valid visas but who have chosen to stay after their visas have expired. Many of these "illegals" have applications on file with the Immigration and Naturalization Service for permanent residence status. The INS is notoriously slow to deal with these applications.

I have some personal experience to relate. I married an alien who was in the country with a student visa. When we got our degrees and left the University, her student visa was ended. Because she was my wife, she wasn't in any danger of being rounded up and expelled from the country. However, her application for permanent residence status languished in the files of the New York office of the INS. Eventually a friend told me what I should do. I went one evening to a meeting of the local Congressman with his constituents. I waited in line to speak to the man. When my turn came I started to tell him that I needed help to get my wife permission to stay in the country legally. Before I had finished he turned me over to one of his assistants. I told this person my story. He typed a nice letter to the head man at the New York INS office, forged the Congressman's signature, and gave it to me with instructions to deliver it in person to the secretary of the INS Chief.

The next day I boarded the elevated in the Bronx and rode to central Manhattan, where I walked to the INS offices. I went to the ninth floor and presented the letter to the secretary. She read it and spoke to me about as follows: "We have been very slow in dealing with your wife's case. However, now that Congressman Buckley has taken a personal interest in the matter, we will handle it with dispatch." Not long afterward my wife traveled to Montreal, Canada, and obtained a permanent residenct visa from the American Consul there. She became a citizen several years later while we were living in Los Angeles.

Both of my children were born while my wife was living here without proper papers.

Some of the mistaken want to change the constitution to remove language in the 14th Amendment that guarantees American Citizenship to any child born in the United States and require that the parent(s) of that child not be in the country illegally when the child is born. Theoretically that change could take away the citizenship of my two children and, consequently, of my grandchildren, and so on. If I have a chance, I will vote against it.

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My Interview with Dick Morris

The other day I received a phone call from a young man who wanted to thank me for my support in the past and also wanted to play for me a short talk by Dick Morris. I agreed. The recorded message from Dick Morris lasted about two minutes or so. In the message Mr. Morris expressed his regrets that President Obama is taking the country in the wrong direction, introducing socialism, etc. (It seems to me that Dick Morris was once one of Bill Clinton's political advisors.)

Then another voice came on the phone. This time it was a woman who wanted to get my opinions on various subjects for a poll. Her first question was, did I hear and understand all of Mr. Morris's recorded talk? I answered YES.

Her second question was, did I think that all the wasteful spending on stimulating the economy would help the United States? I answered again, YES.

That was the end of the opinion survey. She said "good bye" and hung up.

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