Monday, February 27, 2006

I Passed 8th Grade Math

You Passed 8th Grade Math

Congratulations, you got 10/10 correct!

Algebra is the one basic math that everyone should learn and know by heart. Calculus has some applications and I was a fair calc-jockey at one point in my life, but I would be helpless now. I saved my Calculus book, in part because I will be asked to help the kids with it one day and I need to re-learn it with familiar material.

Geometry is, well, dull. Trigonometry is useful but tedious, trig identities are pain defined for a non-rote memorizer like me.

Algebra, though. Algebra is the bomb.

This is worth watching

Inspiring, unexpected video here. Hollywood only wishes it could write stuff like this, but if someone did it would be dismissed as 'too Pollyanna', 'unrealistic', 'a naked play for emotions'.

Thanks to Jason McElwain, cynicism can stay on the bench when they put the autistic kid into the game, at least for today.

Hat tip to Stephanie Grosz.

Edit: Fixed link.

Am I Going To Be Right...Again?!

Thanks to Gateway Pundit for pointing out in this welcome post that there are signs of Iraqis responding to the attack on the Al-Askariya Mosque with unity and not bloodshed.

Don't throw in the towel, folks. If they can get through this the "impeding civil war" will be seen as something that is occurring primarily in the minds of the media. Always good to put a sharp stick in the eye of those folks, not to mention far better for the Iraqis and for our long-term goals for the region. There's little that peeves Al Qaeda more than Sunnis and Shi'ites demonstrating brotherhood in Islam, and whatever frustrates AQ is most likely good for the rest of us.

UT 1, Ricin 0 (like I said)

Me, yesterday afternoon:

"My first thought is that this is not really ricin, and more laboratory testing will show that in the next week."

Nice to see yourself proven correct. Especially when other, more famous bloggers were a little excitable.

At least when it comes to bioterror, you know where to go for the straight info. I've been interested in the nefarious applications of science for a long, long time, I wrote a paper for a HS biology class called "Nerve Gas: Pesticide for People" back in 1985-6 or so. You, too, can acquire knowledge of biological weapons if you want, read the books I have read:

Biohazard by Ken Alibek and Stephen Handelman. Alibek was the director of the USSR's bioweapons program. This book will curl (or straighten, as appropriate) your hair.

The Ultimate Terrorists by Jessica Stern. Don't remember a lot about this one.

Germs by Judith Miller, et al. Before she went to jail and was fired by the NY Times.

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. Great read, a near-miss of an Ebola outbreak in the US. What a difference a couple hundred nucleotides can make.

Rainbow Six by Tom Clancy. That a terrorist would fly a plane into a building on purpose came as no surprise to anyone who reads Tom Clancy books, we knew about it after reading one of the books prior to this one. This one is about biowarfare, and Clancy may get some details wrong here and there but he does pretty well at helping you think about what a bad, bad thing biowarfare would be. The prequel book to this one (in the Jack Ryan series) is Executive Orders, which also deals with bioterror.

Zinsser Microbiology when you just can't sleep at night or have a pesky door to prop open.

And I learned most of what I know about microbiology from Dr. Dan Brannan at Abilene Christian University, one of those great profs that parachutes out of The Real World and lends a spirit of practicality to otherwise dry academic pursuits. Thanks, Dr. Brannan!

Happy, if disturbing, reading.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Ricin (not Rice) vs. UT

I'll admit, this story is creepy.

A sophomore opens a roll of quarters she's had for months, and out comes a crumbly white powder. She's cognizant of this not being a normal thing, calls the authorities and after laboratory assessment, the result is apparently ricin, an exceptionally toxic biological compound.

This is creepy for more than one reason. First, ricin has natural origins in the castor bean, but you can't just go out and buy it -- which is a good thing. Ricin was known to be toxic since the late 1800s and was developed into a weapon by the US during WW II but never used. The most famous person killed by ricin poisoning was Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident killed in London in 1978 by Bulgarian secret police using a 1.5mm platnium pellet injected into his leg with a modified umbrella. The pellet contained an estimated 500 micrograms (half a gram, barely enough to see) of ricin toxin, and killed him within three days of injection. On a dose basis, ricin is roughly 30x more toxic than VX nerve gas, which is one of the things we wish we could un-invent -- and unlike VX and cyanide and many other nasty things, there really isn't a good treatment for ricin. If you get enough of it, you'll die, and there's not much modern medicine can do. It's a cellular poison, it stops protein synthesis and since protein synthesis is pretty much what your cells are about if you stop that the cells die.

A crumbly powder isn't a really effective means of distributing ricin, there is some suggestion that the humidity Austin is famous for worked to this young lady's advantage, because it's even more deadly inhaled than injected or ingested. A dirty little secret that works in favor of those of us in the civilian population when it comes to biological warfare is that it's really hard to make a powder that will float in the air like a mist. When you make particles small enough to be inhaled, they'll typically clump together due to static electricity. Overcoming the static problem is what separates the pros from the wannabes in biological terror, which is one of the reasons the anthrax from 2001 was a real threat and this particular ricin trick is far less of a threat.

Using money to spread a biological agent works better for infectious agents than for toxins. The first mention of this I remember was in Frank Herbert's book The White Plague, a book I do not recommend, Herbert produced one work of unparalleled genius in the form of Dune and promptly jumped the shark. Money is a good means to spread disease, your momma was right when she told you to not put that in your mouth, but even touching contaminated coins and touching your eye is enough to expose you to highly infectious diseases like influenza. In this case, if the powder didn't aerosolize when the roll was opened, you'd have to ingest the powder, and even an Aggie wouldn't eat the white stuff that came out of a roll of quarters. Aggies are too tough to be killed by anything so pedantic as poison, but they wouldn't eat it anyway.

My first thought is that this is not really ricin, and more laboratory testing will show that in the next week. If this is ricin, given what we know it's most likely the product of some loner crank along the lines of the as-yet-unapprehended Tylenol cyanide poisoner from the 1980s. The presence of this compound at a university suggests the typical greasy-grad-student-with-grievance scenario, I imagine the young lady at the center of the investigation will be contact-traced by the FBI back to her first-grade teacher in an effort to find a suspect. The roll of quarters is a unique method of distribution and if inserted at the bank level it would imply a wider conspiracy aimed at random people -- if the UT chick isn't the primary target but a random bystander intended to cover the death of another, a review of other people who died precipitously with fever in the last several months in central Texas would be in order.

The object lesson, at this point, is don't put money in your mouth, especially if it has white powder on it. We will await further developments.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Rebuilding Something Better

I imagine you've heard by now that a cultural/religious atrocity was perpetrated recently in Iraq. The Al-Askariya Mosque, also called the 'Golden Mosque' in Samarra (north of Baghdad) used to look like this:

Following the application of high explosives by persons unknown, it now looks like this:

From what little I know about the history of Islam, this makes cartoons of Mohammed look like, well, cartoons in comparison -- particularly to Shi'ite Muslims. For a relative and probably incomplete comparison of the emotional impact, imagine if persons unknown blew up the Lincoln Memorial, except that Lincoln isn't such a revered part of our national history that we have festivals where we venerate our political leaders by whipping ourselves with barbed wire and chains. This is as close to the religious heart of a Shi'ite as you can get, it's difficult for me to think of anything more insulting except for blowing the mosque in Najaf that also holds great symbolic importance to the Shi'a.

Who did this is the subject of much speculation. 'Who benefits' would be the forensic question. The Iraqi Sunnis are outnumbered 4:1, so provoking a civil war isn't in their interests. The mosque stood in Sunni-controlled territory for a thousand years and all through Saddam's reign, it's unlikely that a local Sunni got a wild hair and decided to redecorate. It's possible a Shi'a group did this as pretext for a civil war, but that's pretty extreme and deep into 9/11 Conspiracy Theory territory. The most likely suspect is an Al-Qaeda affiliated group, for a couple of reasons. First, as extremely fundamentalist Sunnis (Salafists) they have a basic objection to any memorialization of the dead, this is a cartoon of Mohammed to them in terms of representing idolatry and shrines like this are one of the reasons they consider Shi'a infidels and apostates. Second, somebody who knew what they were doing did this, AQ doesn't lack in demolitions knowledge. Third, it lets them poke a stick in the eye of all Shi'a without any civilian casualties and to this point the car bombing hasn't worked -- and had the unintended side effect of embarassing even their putative allies in Iraq. My money is on Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi and Al Qaeda in Iraq as the operators for this job. This wouldn't be the first thing of cultural significance Islamofascists have destroyed, the Buddhas of Bamiyan was one, and not the first religious sites they attacked, they are blamed for the attacks on seven churches in Iraq on January 29, 2006.

Why this happened is pretty clear - the goal is to start a civil war between the Shi'a and Sunni. Shi'a religious festivals have been bombed for years following our invasion, and the Shi'a are taking it on the chin in terms of terrorist attacks. Al Qaeda can't function safely in a democratic environment, their goal is to eliminate governments like Iraq's budding representative one and replace them with a Taliban-like system with Salafists in charge. They benefit short-term from lawlessness and long-term from the protection and assistance of a compatible government -- and the current government of majority Shi'a and Kurds isn't to their liking.

When this happened is also important, because Iraq is currently in the process of trying to put together a national unity government comprised of Kurds, Shi'a and Sunnis, the big three demographic blocks that make up Iraq. This makes it really hard for the Shi'a political umbrella organization, the UIA, to sit at the same table with the Sunnis, and if you want a civil war (and to keep the Sunni politician from accepting the minority role that their population gives them in a democratic system) this is a pretty good way to start it. Begin a cycle of atrocity and reprisal, then back out of the way and let several hundred years of sectarian tension play out. It didn't help that the first thing the UIA did was to condemn this as a Sunni attack, now the Sunnis are angry and are waiting for an apology before going back to talks about forming the government. The voting is done, the questions revolve around who gets to head what Ministries, in particular the Interior, Defense and Oil Ministries.

The remaining question is How Iraq is going to respond to this challenge. The easy and pat answer is that a civil war will occur, the DailyKos addendum to that is "because the US intervened." Almost beyond my personal expectations and strangely in fullfillment of my hopes, this doesn't seem to be occurring. On the day of the attack there were random attacks on Sunni mosques, resulting in the deaths of at least 3 Sunni imams, but so far as I can tell, there have been no Sunni reprisals despite a reported 130 people killed in random and not-so-random violence. Sunni mosques in Baghdad were reported to be broadcasting Shi'a prayers of mourning from their speakers. There is anger, for sure, but there are encouraging signs that rather than forcing the Iraqis apart on sectarian lines, this attack is bringing them together in outrage at the people who perpetrated the attack, not each other.

The largely unsung hero in our interactions with Iraq is Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the religious leader of the Shi'a who, unlike his religious bretheren in Iran, is not seeking personal political power. His first move was to call for seven days of mourning -- and peace. He's an old, not particularly well man, and Iraq had better get a couple of power transitions under its belt before he dies or the Shi'a could be a real problem. He seems to be opposed to the Islamic Republic model that is Shi'a practice in Iran, and quite frankly one Islamic Republic on the model of Iran is plenty. The one good thing about being Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the President of Iran, is that you don't have to think too much about who to blame for any tragedy, the stock answer is "Zionists and occupiers". Good to know he's got the school solution down on that one.

I remain hopeful and prayerful that this attack will demonstrate the futility and waste that will accompany a civil war. This will be only the first mosque blown to bits if there is a civil war, I would hope everyone there would take a minute to consider that, and who their enemy really is. More 'Iraqis' and fewer hyphenated variants would do everybody some good.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Ports Thing

This whole Dubai Ports World issue is ticking me off, if for no other reason than the level of poor knowledge being displayed. I can't decide which is worse, the willful ignorance of the folks spinning this for political gain, or the genuine honest ignorance that is going to play as anti-Arab hatred when Al Jazeera and friends get their hooks into the story.

It goes like this: a British company, Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation (P&O for short) owns the concessions to operate six ports in the US. P&O is selling out to Dubai Ports World, a company owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates, which means Dubai Ports World (hereafter, DPW) will be running the commercial operations at six US ports, in addition to all the ports worldwide where the commercial concession is owned by P&O. This includes ports in the UK, Canada, Europe, Asia, South America and elsewhere.

This is not selling our ports to 'The Arabs.' The ports are owned by the states and localities that built them, just as they were when P&O operated them.

This is not outsourcing security of our ports. The exact same security will be in place for all of the ports. That security is a function of the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security. All the port operator does is handle manifests and load/unload along with scheduling of ship arrivals and departures.

This is not giving US jobs to a foreign company. US unionized longshoremen will still be loading and unloading the ships, just as they were when P&O did the scheduling and maintenence and collected docking fees, etc.

This does not change any current contracts that the local entities that own the ports have with P&O. If they want to cancel the contracts they're free to do so under the terms of their existing contracts for port operations.

There is no American company in the bidding for P&O. The other bidder at one point was a company in Singapore, it would have been taken over by another foreign company in any event. There is one US port operation company: Halliburton.

Most importantly, the risk for shipping is not what we load to go elsewhere, it's what's loaded elsewhere to come here. Shipping a rogue nuclear device OUT of the United States is not as big of a security risk as loading one into a ship in a foreign country that detonates at the docks at Long Beach or Newark. From this standpoint, DPW has been involved in shipping security for years as it has been operating multiple Asian ports including at least seven ports in China. Thousands of containers a day leave DPW-operated ports for our shores, and have done so for years. DPW has cooperated with our shipping security requirements post-9/11 since we put them in place, they're a known quantity to our government because of years of experience in dealing with them.

I understand the concern of people who aren't being given the whole story. The White House needs to do a much better job at laying out what the situation actually is, that DPW has been cooperative with our security efforts and that no local control is being ceded over the ports. I understand why people would be upset with the belief that "We're sellin' our ports to the Arabs!", but that's just not the case here. What bothers me is that there are people who either should know better or can ask a staffer and be informed of the truth of the situation, but who prefer to grandstand. They may be working for short-term political gain leading up to the 2006 elections, but they're overlooking a larger long-term point.

The United Arab Emirates are one of the few Arab countries that look favorably on the United States. Yes, two of the 9/11 hijackers were from the UAE, and some of the money for the 9/11 operation went through their banks. Well, all of the 7/7 suicide bombers were British, so wouldn't that suggest that P&O is a security risk? The money for 9/11 operations also came through US banks, including banks in Florida, should we drop all government ties to companies that use the same banks in Florida? The terrorism threat from the UAE is a canard, and further proof of the weakness of the terrorism argument is that no other country with a P&O-operated port is objecting to the deal, including France and the UK.

The big long-term issue is that it is as important to be friendly to our friends as it is to be implacable foes to our enemies if we're going to change perception of the United States in the Arab world. Chuckleheads like Al Gore mount podiums in Saudi Arabia and expound about how persecuted a minority Muslims are in the United States, which I personally thought was bald-faced lying -- but then who backs him up but Governor John Corzine of New Jersey, Senator Hillary Clinton and worst of all a fair number of Republicans. Now we do look as if we're rejecting an Arab company out of hand when we didn't have a problem with a British one. In comparison to our media and our politicians I don't think Al Jazeera will get the facts wrong about what DPW actually does in ports, because the facts of what DPW actually does make the US out to look far more racist than any story they can cook up. How completely demoralizing would a rejection like this be to moderate Muslims who have to stare down Islamofascists daily and tell them that the US regards Muslims as friends and equals, followed by the soft thud of a US knife in their back?

When there's a company that happens to be owned by Muslims, a company that participates in our security initiatives and is from a country that is willing to be our friend when that friendship puts them in the crosshairs of Al Qaeda, we need to not stand in the way of that deal. Economic ties are a great way to align the interests of moderates in the Middle East with those of the United States, primarily because people don't get shot in the deal.

'Trust and Verify' said Ronald Reagan. It's time we started doing that.

EDIT: Thanks to Jim Geraghty at TKS on National Review for his kind mention. :)

Thursday, February 16, 2006

New Word Of The Day

I note that the Oxford English Dictionary 'adds' words to the English language that achieve common usage or cultural significance and rise above simple slang. 'Blog' was added a year or so ago IIRC, and 'truthiness', which is the act of discussing something one wishes were true or as if it was true, as opposed the simple 'truth'.

Well, here is my entry for the Zeitgeist Sweepstakes of 2006:

Beheadering (v): 1. The shutting down of a website by hackers motivated by their dedication to the Muslim faith, e.g., "That Danish website where we got those cool wooden toys was beheadered yesterday. We couldn't check our order status all day."

Michelle Malkin has a big writeup on all the DDoS and defacement attacks that have hit or tried to hit multiple sites since the Cartoon War began. Of course, she doesn't have my word to describe the act, so she's forced to use long, cumbersome workarounds like 'Islamist War On The Internet' and 'Virtual Jihad'. 'Beheadering' works better, IMO.

And BTW, what about this silly Cartoon thing anyway? This is such an AstroTurf (as opposed to grassroots) protest, one of the leaders of the MMA, and Islamist political group in Pakistan was on BBC (heard it on XM) and said that in principle they are against violence, but since the Danish cartoonists aren't in Pakistan (presumably to be torn apart by the mob), they have to lash out at anything Western they can find, so they burn down the KFC and attack a South Korean-owned bus terminal.


I'm sure that if I were Muslim I would find it offensive to have someone depict something my hard-core fundamentalist Imam tells me should never be depicted. But it seems idiotic on the face of it to decry a picture of Muhammaed with a bomb in his turban as convicting all Muslims as being violent extremists, and then go be a violent extremist to demonstrate how angry being falsely accused of being a violent extremist makes you. Does this make sense to anyone else? Logically, a peaceful demonstration would seem to be a better choice, but I guess the effigy vendors in Pakistan would suffer if there weren't protests in which to burn things, so it's good for some businesses, in a way. I saw that they burned the Danish PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen in effigy...seeing as most people don't know what the Danish PM looks like I find that to be quite silly. I mean, other than a T-shirt that says 'Anders Fogh Rasmussen' there would be no way to know which light-haired white person was being burned in effigy. Makes me wonder if they just put some steel-rim glasses on an old Carter effigy and burned that, I dunno. The logistics of acting like fools in a group for TV cameras is just nothing I had considered before today.

So remember, pass along the term 'Beheadering' whenever your favorite website gets crashed by Muslim extremists, and remember that you heard it here first.

And do buy Danish if you get the chance. Havarti is probably the best cheese in the world, you can have a smooth creamy cheese experience and support the right to free expression in the same bite.