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Saturday, September 30, 2006 -- 7:36 am

There's been a lot of rhetoric about the Military Commission Act of 2006, HR 6166 and S 3930, which passed on Thursday. Various sources are describing it as "terrifying", "un-American", the onset of the dictatorship, and so forth. This rhetoric actually made it somewhat difficult to be sure that I was reading the correct piece of legislation, because there was nothing listed on the Senate calendar as the "torture/ habeas corpus bill". As I understand it, this legislation was drafted in response to the Supreme Court's decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which I need to re-read. And based on my quick skim of the legislation, I don't understand what basis people have for proclaiming this the signal event in the collapse of the Republic. It isn't a particularly admirable piece of legislation (I haven't had the opportunity to study the issue enough to give it my endorsement, or to say that I oppose specific provisions of it), and provides alien detainees with fewer rights than U.S. citizens are promised by the Constitution. But it does seem to provide certain basic legal safeguards that tend to promote a fair trial, including the right to appellate review. Is it constitutional? I don't know yet. But the text of the statute doesn't seem to bear out the only two specific critiques I've heard so far, which concern the use of torture and the denial of habeas corpus.

On the torture question, it seems worth pointing out that the statute in question actually provides for the prosecution of torture. But the real objection appears to be to section 948r (d). I haven't yet read the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 (I do have other things to do), and but I do notice that this provision refers, mistakenly, to the "Defense Treatment Act of 2005" in various places. Far more frightening than the bill itself is that with all the rhetoric surrounding this provision, including debate and a vote by elected representatives in Washington, no one seems to have read it closely enough to catch such an elementary mistake.

What the bill actually says about torture is that a statement by a defendant which was obtained after the Detainee Treatment Act took effect on December 30, 2005, "in which the degree of coercion is disputed", is only admissible if the military judge finds that the totality of the circumstances render the statement reliable and of sufficient probative value; the interests of justice would best be served by admitting the statement into evidence; and the interrogation methods used to obtain the statement do not amount to cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment as defined by the Detainee Treatement Act. Where the statement was clearly obtained under torture, the statement is not admissible except as evidence of torture.

This will require deeper analysis, but I think a few things are worth pointing out. First, the military judge's evidentiary rulings are conclusions of law which are subject to appellate review by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, and, on writ of certiorari, by the Supreme Court. Second, it seems apparent that the drafters were grappling with the clear problem of how to handle situations where there's a claim of torture, but the facts are disputed (which will be often). In the absence of this balancing test, I can imagine practical difficulties in holding mini-hearings on the question whether torture took place, which would slow the process down dramatically without a clear improvement in the fairness of the proceedings -- especially because the actual underlying events will probably never be known with certainty. This balancing test seems, for better or worse, a practical attempt to streamline the process.

The other issue that people seem to be making a lot of noise about is the deprivation of the writ of habeas corpus to "alien unlawful enemy combatants". I'm no expert on habeas rights, but I'm under the impression that the habeas rights of criminally convicted U.S. citizens have also been curtailed somewhat in recent years. Whether such habeas rights are guaranteed under prevailing national or international norms (or should be so guaranteed) is an interesting question. But these individuals do get a basic right of appeal, which is clearly necessary, and the standard of review by the appellate court appears not to be substantially different from that promised to U.S. citizens.

Again, none of this is to say that I endorse this piece of legislation, or endorse any aspect of the administration agenda. I'll definitely try to give it more thought. But I find it somewhat worrying that people indulging in all manner of shrill pronouncements about it, without looking at the text of the statute itself and doing their best to make sense of it.

Update, October 1, 2006 -- 6:41 pm

Having given more thought to the habeas corpus issue, I do have some concerns about that aspect of this legislation. First of all, the notion of habeas corpus (as I somewhat dimly understand it) is that a person cannot be held incarcerated without a hearing or, after conviction, held in circumstances that deprive them of their constitutional rights (or, in the case of aliens, human rights). These are all things that would ideally be extended to prisoners in any circumstances, and I haven't heard the policy arguments for denying them to terrorism suspects here. More troubling, though, and unmentioned in the media so far as I know, is that there's no provision for a speedy trial. I might be brought around to understand policy reasons for denying criminals in these circumstances post-conviction, post-appeal opportunities to challenge their trial after the fact. But maybe I won't: given the seriousness of the crimes, and of the penalties, and the fact that the government's incentives to protect these prisoners' rights are weaker than its (all too human) incentives to punish suspected wrongdoers, shouldn't suspects be given more protection rather than less? I would certainly want those protections for myself. Also, while I have no particular reason to suspect the administration of staging cynical show trials, or of deliberately interfering with prisoners' basic human rights, habeas petitions would appear to have an additional function: to correct oversights and negligence.

But what I don't understand, and which I find quite troubling on reflection, is that there's nothing that says that any of these suspects will see the inside of a tribunal any time soon. I see no way to question the timetable for their prosecution, and therefore no reason to believe that these suspects won't simply languish indefinitely, with this Military Commission Act having no application.

Clearly, I'll have to look into these questions further.

Thursday, September 28, 2006 -- 10:14 pm

The Military Commissions Act of 2006, HR 6166 and S 3930, passed today. I've heard some shrill proclamations on the web, but haven't yet had occasion to review the statute.

Thursday, September 28, 2006 -- 9:54 pm

Reason and Politics.

Nietzsche has an interesting passage, I believe in the Gay Science, about the tendency of some scientists to place their theories on the same pedestal from which religion has been deposed. I imagine that what he means by this is that scientists become as devout and dogmatic as any other worshippers. The further implication is that by doing so, they have actually closed their minds to the possibility of unexpected truths and, in fact, have abandoned the very Method they extoll.

I don't mean to level any such charge of hypocrisy against any of the scientists whom I read regularly -- to the contrary, I respect a lot of what they have to say. But I do note that in some of the scientific community there's very much a siege mentality, and such a polarization and politicization of the playing field that there are unabashed references to taking sides in the "culture wars".

Some of these same writers would, no doubt, vent scathing criticism for what I'm about to say about magic and the supernatural. But my comments are intended as part of a logical inquiry, not a declaration of political allegiance.


I always find it startling when I'm looking for ancient texts online and stumble across commentary by the neo-pagan crowd. Reviews on Amazon.com frequently question whether a book on Ancient Egyptian spells contains working spells of a particular type; or complain when they don't work; or criticize such complaints by questioning their execution (e.g., everyone knows that it's the sound of the words that's important; of course the spell won't work if it's uttered in translation).

Now, I lie at neither extreme of the spectrum; while reluctant to embrace any blind dogma (my leap of faith would span a wide chasm indeed), and a bit suspicious of magic generally, it also seems a bit foolish to reject such beliefs, not on the basis of thoughtful analysis and empirical evidence, but because they're inconsistent with whatever the prevailing scientific beliefs are these days. The world is a complex and subtle place, and I find it doubtful that these spells were simply made up by Ancient Egyptians on the spot -- in which case they amount to no more than shallow wishful thinking -- or that they persisted for hundreds of years, despite any supporting evidence, without there being something more to the story. I'm reminded of the Guyana natives whose shaman begin their careers working for the good of the tribe, but who, as they age and their success rate gradually declines, are perceived by their society as becoming more aligned with the blood-sucking macaw-spirits with whom they contend on humanity's behalf. It isn't necessarily the rationale we would pick, but it is a sensible one.

And I'm not, in general, unsympathetic to the notion that there may be mechanisms and causal relationships at work in the universe that we wouldn't anticipate in ordinary experience. Science has been telling us this a long time. But I have my doubts about magic. Perhaps it's a reflection of the bias in my training that I find my reasons for doubt preferable to reliance on scientific dogma. But one of the essential features of magic is that it's a method or mechanism, supposedly, by which human beings can manipulate the world in extraordinary ways, and shape it according to their intentions. But what is the supposed correlation between human words (or thoughts!), which are notoriously vague, ambiguous, elliptical, and symbolic, and the ensuing act? How do we define our will with enough precision to impose it on the unthinking universe, which lacks even the interpretative infrastructure of your standard microprocessor? I doubt any of us are capable of really thinking that way. The existence of magic would therefore appear to presuppose, either a conscious (and educated!) universe, or a language of superhuman precision and complexity. I found both of these alternatives somewhat doubtful, for reasons I'll doubtless explore over time.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006 -- 7:05 pm

For no particular reason I've been thinking a lot about an article I read in the NY Times back on June 6, about a band of scientists who hurried down to Panama to rescue 40 frogs of as many species as possible from certain extinction in the face of a creeping fungal epidemic. I suppose we saw this coming, especially in light of the January 12 article in Nature predicting mass amphibian extinctions as a result of -- you guessed it -- rampant fungal efloresecence stemming from climate change. The fate of these frogs is pretty sad, and I hope that they all flourish at their new home in the Atlanta Zoo. I'm actually pretty impressed that they managed to leap all the bureaucratic hurdles in the way -- Panamian bureaucracy, airline bureaucracy, and US government regulations, among other headaches, but I suppose that from the standpoint of preserving species diversity, there was little to lose in trying. Fortunately, as well, it sounds like they have some of the brightests minds in herpetology working on the problem.

At this point, over three months later, I wonder how those frogs are doing. I have little to no formal scientific training, but I know that exotic plant species can be hard to sustain in temperate latitudes. Are frogs more resilient? Perhaps not these, if their only habitat was a crater in Panama.

And the plight of these frogs, however they're doing now, raises for me several interesting but difficult questions. First, how feasible is it to build sustainable, artificial ecosystems to preserve vanishing species? Is this desirable? How, in fact, would it be accomplished? Who would pay for it? And what would be our purpose in preserving vanishing species in the first place?

Second, how do we address problems of climate change more broadly? Many of the world's governments appear to be in abject denial about climate change and the risks posed to the world's remaining species. It very well may be that global climate change is the most challenging political problem of our time, and of history. How do we persuade six billion people to voluntarily adopt policies and practices, not only foreign to their current habits, but contrary to their immediate economic self-interest?

Third, assuming that politics fails, and species preservation is left in the hands of motivated activists and vigilantes, to what extent is our legal system equipped to respond to such activism appropriately?

And then there are even broader questions. Archaeologists and scientists have written about the impact of climate change on various civilizations, from Easter Island to the Anasazi to the Viking settlements in Greenland and elsewhere. It seems that few of these civilizations have left much record of the political situation leading up to their demise, but is this what it's like?

And another question, which evolutionary biologists and extinction specialists are better equipped to an answer. Species go extinct all the time, and the planet has seen at least five or six mass extinctions so far where the future of life as we know it was seriously called into question. Most of these extinctions occur, of course, because the dying species are not equipped to survive in their new environment. Some form of life persists-- and even eukaryotic life, and things start again. But aside from the aesthetic benefits of preserving as many of nature's creations as possible (which may be a good enough reason for me), what is the true benefit of preserving species that cannot survive outside of captivity?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006 -- 10:32 pm

Are intellectuals really such a threat to society? They seem to be purged in every revolution, and American society itself is taking no chances: it has stigmatized them into embarrassed silence. Why are intellectuals purged, really? Is it because of what they know? Is it because intelligent and well-organized people are threatening? Is it because they'll ask embarrassing questions? Or is it because intellectuals are just perceived as fundamentally alien creatures, a convenient scapegoat for society's ills, obvious aristocratic targets for the demagogue's (or bigot's) ire?

Not that intellectuals always do as much to benefit society as they could. Although there are some who strive mightily to guide and cure and enlighten their neighbors, there are also plenty who wash their hands of society and lead very insular lives, talking only to one another. There can be benefits to that, as long as the fruits of their solitary labors and recreations leak out into the greater world -- but what I'm talking about here isn't the merits of intellectualism per se (my bias on that question should be clear), but its political consequences. What we seem to have here is a case of entrenched and perhaps mutual snobbery. Nietzsche commented somewhere (perhaps in Beyond Good and Evil) that what truly separated people from each other was their standards of cleanliness, but I suspect that this doesn't so much explain the phenomenon as suggest an entirely different grain along which society is inclined to splinter.

Archimedes and Leonardo are probably the best examples of intellects who were engaged with their world, but they did make war machines in defense of their cities. Despite Thales' famous comment that a philosopher, if only he wished it, could rule the world, not all intellectual endeavors are well-suited to practical implementation. The research of physicists and physicians probably has immediate application and so is more impressive to the general public. The labors of philosophers, historians, and literary critics may be more difficult to justify. But that doesn't mean their work is indefensible, only that it may be more laborious to cajole the people into appreciating it. Perhaps intellectuals need to look for ways to explain their ideas without cheapening them. I'm in no position to recommend the active life over the contemplative life, nor to admit that the dichotomy is as stark as the ancients presented it. But I suspect that the public is more likely to find thinking respectable if they get more exposure to it than a series of caricatures by those who don't do it very well.

Is this a roundabout way of saying that American society needs more intellectual role models?

Monday, September 25, 2006 -- 8:11 pm

They say that the first time a patient/client sits down in their psychiatrist/ physician/ lawyer's office, it's a confused and cathartic occasion where they spill everything on their mind, wheat and chaff in no particular order, as if to let the professional do the sorting for them. I've certainly been on the receiving end of this, even with relatively sophisticated individuals. Is it the same thing with blogging? Without indulging in too much navel-gazing (and eschewing the inevitable coinage of "meta-blogging" for fatuous pontification on the act of self-expression), I expect so. But on to my point.

Hopi and Nahuatl are both, I believe, classified as members of the Uto-Aztecan language family. But on what basis? I must say that, although I'm still a novice in both languages, there's precious little that these two remarkable languages have in common. Nahuatl is one of the most highly inflected languages I know of, competing only with the likes of Yup'ik and Inuktitut (though I would tend to disagree with Andrews's claim that Nahuatl lacks "words" in a conventional, Western sense). Hopi has very little inflection at all, and seems to rely a great deal on interesting juxtapositions of particles to convey certain grammatical notions. In fact, although I've been led to believe that one of the most straightforward ways of demonstrating language kinship is through cognates (a bit like morphological comparisons between species), I'm only aware of two: nose (Nahuatl: yacatl; Hopi: yaqa) and eagle (Nahuatl: quauhtli; Hopi: kawayo). I'm happy to revisit my skepticism in light of further research on the matter, but at the moment, I'm not convinced.

At some later point, I should explore the basis for the myth that the Hopi language contains no concepts for time. This research is hampered to some extent by the fact that I'm not a native speaker, I don't know any, and I own the only detailed introduction to the Hopi language I'm aware of, and find it somewhat cursory. But based on what I've learned so far, this is folklore about as ill-informed as the Eskimo snow hoax, which people recite with such conviction. Another time.

Monday, September 25, 2006 -- 7:35 pm

Back in high school, I was taught to try to look at current events with some historical perspective, modeled on Plutarch's comparison of great figures of Greek and Roman history. (I remember Montaigne writing that he considered his essays to be plagiarism of Plutarch. There are certainly worse models.) Those lessons in historical thinking were necessarily cursory: picture 9th graders imbibing titrated sips from original sources.

So now I'm reading about Hannibal's campaign in Italy in 217-216 BC. Carthage, as I understand it, was a sort of oligarchic republic (details, please), and Hannibal was answerable to his city's Senate for the success or failure of his campaign. I'm not sure exactly what he hoped to accomplish by his march on Rome, except perhaps vaguely to return the spheres of influence in the Mediterranean to the status quo before Rome had gone on its binge of aggression and treaty violations. But it would appear, from his conduct, that he was hoping for at least two things: (1) regime change in Rome; and (2) Rome's Italian allies to abandon Rome and welcome the invading conqueror with open arms. I'll have a lot more to say about this at a later point, and I specifically disavow any direct parallels between current and past public figures. But does this sound familiar to anyone?

Sunday, September 24, 2006 -- 9:21 pm

Welcome, finally, to Limits of Knowledge.com. Things have gotten off to a slower start than I would have hoped. The site will be under construction for a while, because I've decided that my prior plan was just too ambitious given my other time commitments. Yes, I intend to follow through on my larger projects, including comparative grammar, some legal commentary, and other projects (will I ever understand quantum computation?); but anyone holding their breath waiting for my encyclopedic predilections to show themselves will just have to wait a little longer. Hopefully, too, the quality of the site will gradually improve as I hone my coding skills.

This weekend I had occasion to reread Plato's Apology and Xenophon's parallel writing on trial of Socrates for a professional project. I should probably make a habit of rereading classic works every 15-20 years or so, considering that they're so often wasted on the young. (I had a similar experience rereading Middlemarch recently.) It seems that, well after the fall of the Athenian democracy and its replacement by the 30 Oligarchs, Socrates' habit of asking embarrassing questions of people's vanities caught up with him. Some of the young noblemen who followed Socrates around took up his practice of cross-examining people about their assumptions, this hit a little close to home, and Socrates was accused of practicing a religion other than that of the state and of corrupting the youth -- presumably by making them disrespect their elders. Xenophon, of course, is quick to point out that one of these young men, the son of Socrates' chief accuser, in fact did come to a bad end. And Socrates casts himself in both (sympathetic) accounts of his defense as an educator. So I find myself asking the following questions: