All posts by Rand Simberg

Still Waiting For The Next Attack

Well, here it is, four days past the end of Ramadan, and still no new attack. I thought Jihad Johnnie said there were big plans in the making? Guess the sleepers forgot to set their alarm clock.

Now the question is, is Osama really as incompetent as he seems? Or is he just setting us up, “boy who cried wolf” style, for another sneak attack when we least expect it?

Evidence that Osama is an idiot:

  • He expected George Bush to behave like Bill Clinton
  • He expected the “arab street” to rise up in his support
  • He expected support from non-Arab Muslim nations
  • He expected us to send in ground troops and get sniped at like the Russians
  • He expected the Afghan people, who he has been either helping or actively encouraging the Taliban to oppress, to fight for him
  • He claims that Allah will strike down the Great Satan (us)
  • He hangs out with folks like Mullah (“Cyclops”) Omar, who also appears to have a sub-room-temperature IQ (or at least, he used to until they had their little falling out)
  • etc., and the list goes on…

Evidence that Osama is brilliant:

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Chomsky?

Evidence that he’s moderately competent:

Well, he did manage to get a couple dozen guys to steal airplanes in flight and drive them into buildings. It was a clever idea, but once the light bulb went off over his (or whoever’s) head, it didn’t take a neurosurgeon to pull it off, and he obviously didn’t anticipate the FAA grounding the fleet so quickly, so he blew his total wad on those four planes–he’ll never be able to do it again.

So, the evidence is in. OK, I guess it’s conceivable that he’s just feigning stupidity to put us off guard, but generally, with overwhelming data like this, I have to go with Occam’s Razor. If you hear hoofbeats, you think horses, not zebras, and when someone acts like an idiot, consistently over a period of weeks and months, it’s a safe bet that he’s not the brightest bulb on the string. Not that we shouldn’t continue to round up suspects and close down cells, but I think that talk about sleepers at this point is mostly braggadocio.

Were We Asking For It?

According to this opinion poll of people around the world in The Independent, we were.

It’s kind of a dumb poll if the following question is what was really asked:

In America, only 18 per cent considered that “US policies and actions in the world” were seen as a main cause of the attacks. Elsewhere, that rose to 58 per cent, and to 81 per cent in the Middle East and the area around Afghanistan.

Well, when you put it that way, I actually agree–it was US policies and actions in the world that were the main cause of the attacks. But I suspect that I differ with most of those polled as to just what those flawed “policies and actions” were. My guess is that by “policies and actions,” we’re supposed to assume that means things like support of Israel, having troops in Saudi Arabia, and forcing everyone to eat McDonalds, while wearing their Nikes and watching Britney Spears.

No, the main US policies and actions that led up to September 11 were our coddling of Middle-Eastern dictators in Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the West Bank, et al, and eviscerating our human intelligence capability. We teased the terrorists, and led them on, so they believed that they could actually get away with that kind of crap, because for a long time, they did.

But we’ve fixed those flawed policies, at least for now, as is evidenced by scores of dead Al Qaeda and Taliban thugs, and bare-faced women and kite flyers in Afghanistan…

Keep On Digging, Mr. Sacks

Apparently Glenn Sacks never learned lesson one about getting out of self-dug holes. In his continued defense of the indefensible (Jihad Johnnie and his own brainless support of him), he’s feverishly shoveling his way down to Asia from San Francisco.

Tim Blair thoughtfully tosses a few spadefuls of dirt on top of him.

Still Keeping Dodgy Books

The Guardian, disgustingly, is still trying to equate civilian casualties in Afghanistan with the WTC death toll. And again, they ignore the fact that people were being killed, tortured, raped, and beaten by the Taliban up until the war started, and that this behavior would certainly have continued into the indefinite future had we not deposed them. I’m still waiting for some data on just how bad it was there under their rule, so we can put some figures on the other side of the ledger, but I suspect that the present value of future lives saved and redeemed is very high to the Afghan people, regardless of what the leftists in London think about it.

[Update 8:25PM PST]

Reader Robert Martin points out that just to the left of the story is a link to a completely different take by Polly Toynbee.

As he asks, “Were they looking at the same war?”

I think that they live in alternate universes.

Take My Hard Drive, Please

You’ve heard of CGI. Now we have CGH–Computer-Generated Humor. In their quest for the world’s funniest joke, the New Scientist reports that jokes created by computers can be quite funny (and not just the unintentional ones from Microsoft, either).

Somehow, this reminds me of the old Monty Python routine (from the movie “And Now For Something Completely Different”) about the world’s deadliest joke; everyone who heard it died laughing. Maybe once they find the funniest one (the current leader is not exactly a knee slapper to me), they can translate it into Arabic for use in the war.

Another Space Station Casualty

In light of the current more mundane concerns of Islamofascism, asteroids seem like a frivolity, but the fact remains that they are continually bombarding the planet, and occasionally, we are hit by ones big enough to matter. The Tonguska event of 1910, had it hit a major city, rather than a remote Siberian forest, would have killed thousands, and almost certainly been the greatest natural disaster of the twentieth century. Thus, just as we should be continuing to look into missile defense (even though our enemy didn’t happen to use missiles this time), we should also remain concerned about planetary defense.

Which is why it’s disturbing that NASA is cutting off funds for the sky survey that was being performed at Arecibo, in order to find money to cover the ISS overrun. NASA has a mandated goal of doing an inventory of all Near Earth Objects (NEO) greater than a mile in diameter, and this will prevent them from meeting it. In addition to telling us if there are any bodies out there with our number on them, it would also provide useful information for future resource utilization, should we ever decide we want to become a serious space-faring nation.

This is just one more reason for O’Keefe to clean up the Augean stables that is NASA. I hope that there’s a river big enough to divert…

Is There A Constitutional Lawyer In The House?

Listening to NPR this morning (I know, I know…), they had a story on the “economic stimulus package” and why it was probably not going to pass, and the only issue now was who would take the blame. I listened to Senator Daschle sadly (and smarmily, with crocodile tears) explain that it just didn’t have the sixty votes it needed in the Senate. And then the NPR reporter dutifully repeated that it didn’t have the “sixty votes needed” to pass the Senate in the story wrap up. Anyone listening to the story, who knew no better, would have (mistakenly) concluded that bills cannot pass the Senate without sixty votes.

When I last took a class in government (admittedly many years ago), I was taught that bills passed either house with a majority–not a supermajority. Now I understand that the Senate has established rules of debate that require three fifths to close the debate, and that if even a single Senator wants to continue debate, that the bill will not go to a full vote without the three-fifths cloture vote. But that’s just a Senate rule–it’s certainly not Constitutionally mandated. And in fact, I think that if someone really wants to filibuster a bill, they should actually have to maintain the debate–threatening to do so should not be sufficient, and allowing people to make such threats without requiring them to actually carry it out does mean that effectively a supermajority is required to pass a bill in the Senate.

(Not that I think this a bad thing, mind you–as a minimum-government type, I actually like the idea that it’s hard to pass legislation, but given that legislation is required to undo much of the damage of the past two-plus centuries, it would be nice to be able to fast-track that process…)

So I was curious as to whether this was really something that the founders had intended. I dutifully went back and read Article I, and lo, I couldn’t find any reference to the requirement for bill passage–the Constitution seems to be silent on it. It does stipulate that two thirds is required to overcome a presidential veto, but nothing explicit about what constitutes a bill “passing a house.” I had always thought that simple majority was mandated, but I can’t see it anywhere. Can someone enlighten me?

[Update at 5PM PST]

I finally got an answer to my question from reader John W. Lanius Jr.:

I’m not a constitutional lawyer, just a lawyer who had to take Con-Law in Law School and who has read the document several times. Starting with the text itself, under Article I, Section 5, Clause [2], “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings…”

Seems pretty clear to me. The only real question is whether the cloture rule has to do with the “Proceedings” of the Senate. I think it does, and has the added benefit of being just the type of rule the framers would have loved: i.e., an obstacle to too much governance.

I guess so. That was my interpretation, too, based on my reading this morning, but I thought it was strange. I was aware that they could make up their rules, but I didn’t know that the size of majority required was part of that. I had always thought that the Constitution explicitly stipulated a simple majority for bill passage. Learn something new every day…

Now I wonder if this implies that, if they so chose, they could decide to pass things only by unanimous vote?

Design Lessons For The Future

New Zealand reader Del Robinson points out this interesting article from USA Today, which analyzes who lived and who died in the World Trade Center, and why.

The interactive sequence is particularly well done. It almost seems (if we believe the article) that for the majority of the workers (not the rescuers mind) their fate was sealed as soon as the planes hit, and whether or not the towers fell would not have made much difference.

A couple of what ifs jumped out:

1. Some people found their way down stairway A in the South Tower. If they had been able to ring cell phones or emergency phones in stairwell to tell others that it was ok, then others might have attempted to go down that stairwell too. As it was only four did.

2. They suggest quite a few people were stuck in elevators and there was too much confusion to rescue them. Is there anything the average person can do to get themselves “unstuck” from inside elevators (and if not why not) I understand that you don’t generally want people getting out of elevators because they will probably Darwin themselves, but it harks back to the “protect people from themselves / professional rescue only” which is all very well, but unhelpful when the professionals don’t appear 🙁

Yes, that’s the general problem we have with the nanny-government approach–when it fails, it often fails spectacularly (as in the hijacked aircraft).

I guess there is obviously a big if about how long the emergency services should have stayed in the buildings, but I don’t know enough to comment, and its very tragic whatever the answer. (i.e., tragic if no one realised and they were sent into a dangerous situation beyond their control, or tragic if they realised it was a possibility and did it anyway)

Well, as in the case of the hijacked aircraft (and as is the case with most problems in general) the key is information and communication. Even if nothing changes in future building design, the experience will hopefully guide our actions in any similar future occurrences. As digital wireless becomes more ubiquitous, the communications problem will become more tractable in the future. Consider: what happened on September 11 could have been done any time since the advent of jet airliners (over forty years ago), but what happened on Flight 93 would not have been possible twenty years ago–it required the advent of cell phones that could be used in the air (though the passengers violated the rules by doing so…)

Which is another interesting question that I haven’t seen discussed. I’ve always been suspicious that the no-cell-phones rule was less about avionics interference than it was about maintaining revenue for the airlines from the Skyphones. While it’s theoretically possible that cell-phone emissions could cause problems, I’m not aware of any actual studies to indicate that it’s the case. I suspect that it’s simply a “better safe than sorry” rule that just happens to financially benefit the airlines. It might be time to take a look at that situation (i.e., actually do some research to determine whether or not it is a real problem), because, as we saw on Flight 93, communications can be vital in staving off a (bigger) disaster.

[8:15 AM Update]

As usual, my readers are smarter (or at least better informed) than me. I guess I could have done a search myself, but an anonymous reader points out that there is some data to indicate that EMI from cell phones (and game boys) can be a problem in aircraft, according to Boeing, and that he or she has personally experienced disruptions to automobile electronics from a two-way radio.

So apparently it is a real issue. However, I suspect that it’s not an insurmountable one–neither the aircraft or the devices were designed to interact with each other–it probably wasn’t part of the spec for either. Of course, even if we did have FCC specs allowing safe usage, it would still be hard to guarantee that everyone’s device would meet them. The effort should probably go toward better EMI shielding on the aircraft avionics side (particularly in the next generation of aircraft), because it’s much easier to control, and the problem’s just going to get worse with wireless internet devices (like Bluetooth).