The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Catch the Ball, but Don’t Watch It!

When my sons were very small, I worked to teach them how to catch and hit a baseball.

“Watch the ball,” I’d say as the little guys would close their eyes and swing the bat wildly or clasp at the air instead of catching the ball.

“Why do you always say that, Dad?” they’d ask. At the age of the 3 or 4, the common sense answer wasn’t at all obvious to them.

“’Cause if you don’t watch it, you’ll never be able to catch it,” I’d respond.

It appears that the same common sense answer is eluding those on both the Left and the Right who are outraged by revelations that (1) the NSA is intercepting international email and phone calls from those who have known or suspected connections to terrorist organizations, and (2) the FBI is conducting passive radiation checks on buildings frequented by Islamic organizations. In essence, they expect the intelligence and law enforcement community to catch terrorists, but to watch them only after undergoing a (sometimes ponderous) judicial review.

It’s sort of like knowing that the pitch has been thrown and having the bat poised to swing. But instead of watching the ball and hitting it out of the park, the batter must first get explicit clearance from the manager, who is in the dugout. By the time the manager says ‘do it,’ the ball is in the catcher’s mitt. Strike one!

Now, I know that those of you who are constitutional purists will object to this metaphor. The constitution requires judicial review for criminal searches and seizures, you’ll argue. All we need to do is get the appropriate permissions, then we can watch the terrorists. As an abstraction, no one can argue with this.

But in the real world of the early 21st century, we encounter a few common sense problems. First, the threat we face is NOT criminal in the classic sense. The people who threaten us could kill orders of magnitude more people than the worst serial killer or psychotic gang member. Hence protections that were designed for criminal behavior are tenuous at best. Second, time is of the essence --there is no guarantee that once a potential threat is discovered we’ll have the time to obtain proper judicial review. Third, by revealing methods and techniques (via media leaks or open congressional hearings) we reinforce our enemy's understanding of our approach and help them to become even more illusive, thereby reducing the time we’ll have to act, thereby making a requirement for judicial review all the more dangerous.

I guess it all boils down to which you believe is the greater threat – government surveillance of those suspected of ties with terrorist organizations or the death of hundreds, thousands, or even more due to an action that might have been discovered and prevented if surveillance were unfettered. The ball is in the air. It’s your call.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The War on Irrationality – Part III

A small battle in the War on Irrationality was won this morning, when a US federal Judge ruled that Pennsylvania's Dover Area School District had violated the constitutional ban on teaching religion in public schools and cannot teach “intelligent design” (ID) as part of its science curriculum.

There is little question that the fight in favor of ID is an effort by the Religious Right to introduce religious teachings as part of public school science curricula. By substituting the word “intelligence” for “God,” the Religious Right advocates the biblical story of creation as science fact.

But a broader issue is at work here. Stated simply, the effort to introduce ID is an attack on science, an attempt to misinterpret a lack of perfect knowledge as a weakness in proven science.

Evolution is a factually-based scientific theory supported by thousands of detailed scientific studies. Yet, some inconsistencies and knowledge gaps continue to exist. That’s true of virtually all science, but it doesn’t mean that because we lack perfect knowledge, we substitute a “theory” that has no basis in science, no factual foundation, and is supported only by “belief.” If we were to travel that road, we’d transform science from a rational investigation of our world into an irrational morass.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Liberty and the Flavors of Freedom

Yesterday, most Senate democrats and a few libertarian Republicans refused to block a filibuster of a vote on the continuation of the Patriot Act. Those writing and speaking against the Patriot act often reference Benjamin Franklin's famous statement, "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty or safety."

Ben Franklin was known as a man with uncommon common sense. If nothing else, his view of the world and those of us who inhabit it was pragmatic … almost to a fault. I suspect that were he alive today, he would clearly understand the threat we face and have deep insight into the motivations and mindset of Islamists. I further submit that he would favor any reasonable measure that would protect his beloved country from those who want to destroy it. He would not view avoidance of a nuclear blast in a major city as “a little temporary safety.” He would not suggest that those who work to crush sleeper cells within the USA are in some way undeserving of “liberty or safety.”

He would recognize that to have “liberty” we also need freedom, and that freedom comes in two flavors that are often in conflict. The first is ‘freedom to’ live our lives without oppressive government intervention. The second is ‘freedom from’ danger and external attack. Both are critically important.

In the case of the Patriot Act, these freedoms come into conflict with one another. Although Ben Franklin has been dead for centuries, he would have clearly understood the dangers on both sides of the issue and, in my view, decided that ‘freedom from’ trumps ‘freedom to’ every time. Not because he feared the risks that we want to avoid with ‘freedom from,’ but because he would understand that should those risks become real (e.g., a tactical nuclear weapon destroying a large part of a US city), many of our ‘freedoms to’ would disappear as the government reacted with truly draconian measures to hunt down and destroy every terrorist cell. He would also understand that should a WMD attack succeed here, it would open the door to a response by this country that would kill millions in other countries, many of them, innocent.

If those who oppose the Patriot Act think it's bad law, I truly hope they don’t have to experience what will happen if a deadly WMD attack occurs because they’ve prevented its continuation.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The War on Irrationality – Part II

Irrationality watch: Following in a long line of irrational Islamofascist leaders, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared today that the Holocaust is a myth. According to Reuters, he stated, “"They have fabricated a legend under the name 'Massacre of the Jews', and they hold it higher than God himself, religion itself and the prophets themselves." He addressed a cheering crowd in the southeastern city of Zahedan.

As is the case with all irrational thinking, Ahmadinejad exhibits a complete disregard for the facts and is blinded by a (religiously inspired) hatred that warps his thinking. He is also political leader of a government that is trying very hard to develop nuclear weapons.

In an earlier post I noted that irrationality is the square root of all evil. With this most recent statement by its leader, Iran takes another step in its journey into full membership among nations who represent a clear and present danger to the civilized world.

What to do? There are no easy answers here.

Half-hearted condemnation by the UN and the European community does nothing to change the rhetoric or the facts on the ground -- in fact, it could be argued that like a spoiled child, Ahmadinejah revels in the attention his idiocy generates. Somehow, in his delusional mind, he views this attention as a sign that Iran is now a “playa” in the international scene.

Negotiation does little to help. The EU has been trying to dissuade Iran from the nuclear path for more than two years. They are being played by people who place no value in commitments and less value in the truth.

Force? It’s certainly worthy of consideration, but not yet. The problems we’ve experienced in Iraq make pre-emptive intervention politically impossible. Also, “analysts” stress that the majority of Iranians do not agree with their Islamofascist leaders. An attack might cause moderate Iranians to back people they now despise.

So we wait as the square root gets larger and the evil that it will precipitate hides in the shadows.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A Princely Gift

Today’s New York Times noted that Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Alsaud gave gifts of $20 million to both Harvard and Georgetown universities to create a “university wide program on Islamic studies” at Harvard and to “expand [the] Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding” at Georgetown.

It fascinating that these bastions of liberal education -- schools that would go to great lengths to protect the rights of women and gay people; academic institutions that would condemn any entity that excluded people on the basis of religious affiliation; great urban universities that would condemn dictatorial rule and the oppression of any minority – accepted the gifts ravenously.

I suppose Harvard and Georgetown chose to ignore the fact that the Prince, a close associate of the rulers of Saudi Arabia, represents a country that systematically violates the rights of woman, condemns gay people to death for being gay, bans any religious teaching that is not Islamic, bans Christians and Jews from Mecca (hell, it won’t let Jews in the country).

It’s fascinating that Harvard has, in the past, chosen to ban US military recruiters from campus because of the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy toward gays, yet remains silent in the face of a Saudi policy of “if you get caught, we’ll kill you.”

Oh well, money talks.

I’m sure that academics will voice all of the politically correct blather about the need for inter-faith understanding, multiculturalism, and the like. All of those goals are worthy, but funding the goals from a source that is antagonistic toward them seems a bit hypocritical to me. It's sort of like accepting money from the late Pablo Escobar to fund a center for the study of the 'war on drugs'.

By the way, the Prince? He’s the same guy who gratuitously offered NY City $10 million dollars immediately after 9/11, but proceeded to imply that the terrorists who killed thousands at the WTC were equivalent to the Israelis. NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani returned the Prince’s check. Harvard and Georgetown should have done the same.

Saturday, December 10, 2005


A few days ago, I received an unexpected shipment from my publisher, McGraw-Hill. The box contained five copies of a new translation of Software Engineering: A Practitioner’s Approach (SEPA) – a Polish language edition. I was unaware that this translation was in the works, and besides, SEPA is available in nine languages, so another translation, even an unexpected one in Polish, should have been no big deal. But this one was.

A little history. My mother, who is now in her mid-80s, was a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto. For those readers who are unaware of the history of the late 1930s and 1940s, the Warsaw ghetto was one of many dark episodes in the reign of the Nazis.

The Germans, with the complicity of many Poles, brutally herded Polish Jews into a ghetto in Warsaw, Poland, systematically starving and murdering them before shipping those who remained to the gas chambers.

My mother, a teenager at the time, escaped and returned to the ghetto each night, making her journey through sewers to find food for her mother and sisters. One night after she left the ghetto, the Nazis bricked off her escape route and she was blocked from returning. She never saw her mother and sisters again – they died in the concentration camps.

There’s a certain ironic symmetry to all of this. Had the Nazis (with the help of some Poles) killed my mother (and in subsequent years they never stopped trying – but that’s another story), I wouldn’t be here. SEPA never would have been written. And today, the book wouldn’t be available in Polish for college students and IT professionals throughout Poland.

The Polish readers of SEPA won’t know the back story. If they did, I hope they’d pause for just a moment to ponder how many other contributions never made it into the world because the men and woman who would have made those contributions were never born. A fascist regime, fueled by hatred, snuffed the lives of millions of their would-be parents.

Makes you think a bit about the fascist regimes and groups who are, at this very moment, working hard to recreate the hatred that led to the “dark episodes” the world experienced in the middle of the last century. They must not be allowed to succeed.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The War on Irrationality -- Part I

I ran across an unattributed quote on the Internet recently, “As the Euclideans would have it, irrationality is the square root of all evil.”

For those who are mathematically impaired, this clever saying implies that before true evil can arise, irrationality must be present. When irrationality grows, it becomes a catalyst for a geometric growth in evil.

This got me to thinking about our war against terrorism. Since 9/11, we have focused our efforts on eradicating terrorism. A reasonable, albeit difficult, goal. But at a much deeper and more frightening level, our real foe is the irrational mindset of some individuals, many groups, and a few nations through the Moslem world. Our real challenge is to battle irrationality, but winning the fight against it will make the war against terrorism look easy.

For many years we’ve watched hatred of the Western World and the United States fester in the Middle East. We’ve heard talking heads on virtually every television network and columnists in every newspaper and magazine explain the reasons: the disgrace of Arab nations that is attributed to our geopolitical actions; our indirect economic and cultural imperialism ; the rampant growth of radical Islam; our support of Israel; our modern culture, our secularism … the list is almost endless. I submit that all of these may be excuses for the hatred, but at its core, the real reason is irrationality.

In the United States, politically correct thought (itself, a benign form of irrationality) forces us to examine and reexamine the excuses for hatred and the evil it spawns, but gently guides us away from confronting the cause. Stated bluntly, it appears that a small, but ever-growing percentage of the population in countries throughout North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Europe and Asia have embraced irrational thought. As a result, their perception of the internal problems they face along with their view of the outside world have become dangerously warped. The reasons for this are not difficult to isolate.
  1. Irrationality is spawned by the growth of fundamentalist religion and its allure to those that are looking for simple answers to exceedingly complex questions.
  2. Irrationality is encouraged by national leaders (both religious and secular), who use it to deflect internal criticism and popular self-examination.
  3. Irrationality is cultivated by state-controlled media that feed a continuous stream of outright canards that warp the truth beyond recognition.
  4. Irrationality accelerates when fundamentalist religion and state-sponsored misinformation enter the classroom, resulting in a brain-washed younger generation that is only too anxious to believe and far too reticent to question.
Those of us who rely on facts and logical thinking have trouble understanding all of this. How can “they” buy into this nonsense, we all ask ourselves. In an article in The Atlantic Online, Wendy Kaminer considers this issue when she states: “What makes fantastic declarations believable is, in part, the vehemence with which they're proffered … intensity of personal belief is evidence of truth.”

What we face is an “intensity of personal belief” that leads to dangerously irrational thinking. Once it has taken root, it is the most difficult of all foes to defeat. Truth won’t work, because irrational people hear what they want to hear and see what they want to see. Force won’t work, because irrational people have no fear of consequences. Reason won’t work because it is the anathema of irrationality. Scary, isn’t it?

I wish I was wise enough to offer a strategy that will defeat irrationality—the real cause of the hatred we face. I’m not. But I am absolutely certain of one thing: until we recognize that irrationality is the problem, the threat will not diminish. It will grow geometrically. And as a new-born student of Euclid, you now know what that means.