Friday, April 23, 2004


When I attended the 9/11 conspiracy seminar there were a couple of people there who made a moderately persuasive case that the buildings in 9/11 were demolished by explosives. Here are the highlights as I recall them:
The buildings fell at about the same speed as a piece of rock falls in the atmosphere. You would expect at least the upper levels to have a bit of resistance from the rest of the building.

No other major steel structure had ever collapsed that way in a fire before 9/11, yet on that day three of them did and one of those was not hit by an airplane. There have been major fires in other skyscrapers and the internal structures of those buildings was often not even damaged.

In slow-motion, you can see that one tower starts to tilt slightly to one side, then just seems to start exploding from top to bottom, beginning well above where the plane hit. It looks exactly like films of demolitions I've seen.

Such an enormous and deadly event (like an airplane accident) should have been the subject of a huge investigation. The area should have been cordoned off for months for searching and sampling. Dozens, if not hundreds, of fire detectives, civil engineers, demolitions experts, and other investigators should have been sifting the wreckage for clues to how such a deadly tragedy could have happened.

Instead, the wreckage was cleaned out in record time, the small volunteer investigative committee was given one guided tour of the grounds and took no samples.

Some victims families actively lobbied for a more thorough investigation but they were ignored.

The conspiracy theorists tend to jump immediately to the conclusion that there was no terrorist hijacking, that there was an enormous conspiracy of hundreds of federal and city officials, law enforcement officers, firemen, airline officials, and reporters, all with the goal of ... well, the goal tends to shift, but the overall point is there are lots of really evil people keeping a really big secret. Anyone who has tried to pass around a birthday card for signing in the office without letting the person with the birthday know about it is going to have to doubt this idea. People really aren't good at keeping secrets. Even in the most brutal dictatorships with the harshest penalties for talking, information often leaks out. You certainly aren't going to keep a secret of this magnitude, even if by some miracle you managed to find exactly the right mix of evil minions to carry it out without tipping off non-minions. The whole idea is preposterous.

But... Like I said, there are some serious questions about the way the building came down and the city's behavior afterward. If we discard all theories involving hundreds of evil conspirators, what else is there? How about this: After the first WTC bombing, city officials became worried about a second attempt. They noticed that if someone actually knocked the building over, lots of people and property outside the building would be destroyed. The solution? Pre-wire the building with explosives designed to bring the building straight down. Then, if there is a terrorist incident and the building looks about ready to topple, you just flip a switch and the building comes straight down into it's footprint.

This is a perfectly logical --if somewhat callous-- plan. Everyone in the building is going to die if it falls over, so you aren't really killing them, all you are doing is saving the lives of other people near by. This conspiracy theory doesn't require hundreds of conspirators, only a few dozen. And they don't have to be evil since the underlying motive is a good one. The conspirators have a strong motive to keep the secret: shame. For some of them, their political careers are another motive, but for the fireman who probably pulled the plug, it's just deep shame at condemning thousands of people to death when it may have still been possible to save them.

There could also be another motive for keeping the secret. In this extended theory, the twin towers were brought down because they represented an immediate danger to the surrounding areas, but building seven was brought down to cover up the conspiracy. When they realized the fire in building 7 could not be put out quickly, they were afraid to go in because they knew there were explosives inside. Or maybe they were worried about the cleanup after the fire was put out --someone might discover the explosives-- or they would have to enforce special safety rules that would give away the presence of explosives. Either way, they were safer bring down building 7. That means that they destroyed a multi-million-dollar building as part of a cover up. That has to be a felony, even if destroying the towers was not.

This was kind of fun. Maybe next I'll post my conspiracy theory about Iraq.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004


Zantar has been harassing me to write up the next issue of his and Rolf's memoirs. I think maybe I'll get to that now since I've decided to avoid politics for a while. The working title is "A meating of the mines" and it describes an incident in which the diminutive duo engaged in some disreputable but sadly typical commerce in a dwarven food staple. On the other hand, I've also promised a 9/11 conspiracy theory and an explanation of why time travel is incoherent and I'd like to get those done. I'd also like to write more about the theory of meaning and the nature of mind. I wonder if I could get my boss to fund some of this during work hours...

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

free speech for me but not for thee

I was going to fisk this unbelievably stupid and bigoted leftist screed, but I'm getting too depressed to bother. Read it for yourself. What can I say to make him look worse than he already does? Or don't. Reading modern leftwing blogs is like reading Civil War pro-slavery literature or Nazi propaganda or Communist propaganda. It leaves you feeling depressed, empty, a bit contaminated. You end up not knowing whether to feel sorry for these poor deluded morons or be angry at them for their hatred and bitterness and their lies aimed at destroying freedom and condemning all of us to slavery. Yes, slavery, I mean that literally. Read the article carefully and you will see that he is saying that some of us, most of us actually, just can't be trusted to hold our own opinions. Anyway, I'm through with political rants for a while.

The twentieth century was characterized by a titanic struggle between freedom and slavery. The peoples of Russia and Eastern Europe were slaves for much of that period, held against their will and forced to work for those who controlled the army. The left was actively and enthusiastically on the side of the slavers throughout that period. Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot; the American and European left embraced each of these genocidal maniacs as great leaders and saviors of mankind. They gave similar treatment to a dozen other communist and socialist thugs.

They would have us believe that they care about civil rights and freedom, but look at the rights and freedoms they defend and those they don't think are worth defending. Freedom of speech? Only if you don't say anything critical of any left-leaning voting or funding block. The right to work where and how you choose? Only if you follow a thousand regulations and there are no people from more preferred classes who want the job and you don't under-bid any union workers (or minimum-wage workers) and you give a big chunk of your money to those who chose not to work. The freedom to live where you want? Only if you don't disturb any owls or out-bid the renters who already lived there or build cheap housing in a place with lots of rich Democrats. The right to practice your religion? If your religion treats women as second-class citizens and murders them for the offense of having been raped, if it burns homosexuals, if it teaches eternal war against people of all other religions, that's OK. You get the "religion of peace" medal. You get to have your religion discussed approvingly in schools. If your religion was the single greatest force in modern equality for women but it doesn't think women should be elders, if you believe in loving all people --even sinners-- and that homosexual sodomy is a sin, and if you believe it is your responsibility to explain your beliefs to others and allow them to freely choose whether or not to believe, then that's barbaric. You get the "woman-hating, homophobic bastards trying to force your religion down everyone's throat" award. You need to have all evidence of your religion scrubbed from public life and it certainly has no place even being mentioned in a public school.

Oh, but they defend all kinds of freedoms, right? The freedom to engage in homosexual sodomy is their biggest. How could a civil society exist without three percent of the men buggering each other? The freedom of women to murder their unborn children. That's one people have fought and died for, all right. The freedom of under-age girls to murder their unborn children without even talking to the baby's grandparents about it. It's not like anyone could expect a young girl's parents to really care about her life after all and the girl's potential embarrassment is so much more important than having loving advice over the most important decision of her young life. The freedom to view pornography. That's what make life worth living. The freedom to practice homeopathic medicine (also known as witchcraft) in a hospital to help persuade gullible people that you are legitimate. Who needs all that judgmental scientific method?

OK, now I'm through with political rants for a while.

Monday, April 19, 2004

one-time pads

Donald Sensing has an interesting discussion of encryption over at One Hand Clapping. He explains one-time pads which are a perfect encryption technique in the sense that they are impossible to break unless you have the key. I thought I'd add some interesting details for computerized one-time pads.

A one-time pad is a very large random number (possibly with thousands of digits). There is an operation called exclusive-or (xor) that you can use to take a piece of text and a number to produce another large number. If you do the operation again with the same number, it gives you back the original text. For example suppose the one-time pad is 1193046 and the text is the word "cat". Then "cat" xor 1193046 = 1127746, so your encrypted message is 1127746. When someone receives the message they xor it with the pad: 1127746 xor 1193046 = "cat".

If the number you use for the pad is random, then the result of the xor operation will be effectively random also and there is no way to figure out the text without knowing the pad. In fact, you could give someone a fake pad to make the message come out to be anything you want. In the previous example, suppose someone intercepted your encrypted message and you wanted them to think they have deciphered it. You could let slip that the pad is 1391173 and they would decrypt: 1127746 xor 1391173 = "dog". Clearly, since the encrypted message can be decrypted to any message at all (within the length restrictions) given the right pad, you have no way to know which one is the actual message.

The problem with one-time pads is that the pad contains as much information as the message and it requires a fully secure channel because if anyone can intercept the pad, he can easily decrypt the message. If you have a fully secure channel with enough bandwidth for the pad, why not use it to send the message? One-time pads are really only useful when you have two channels, one secure and one insecure, and you don't always have the secure channel available. Usually the non-secure channel is a wide-area network and the secure channel is some guy on a plane carrying a CD. In these cases, you can use the secure channel to send the pads whenever you can and you use the non-secure but faster, more reliable, or more widely available channel to send the messages.

UPDATE: Donald's masterful and detailed account of quantum cryptography demonstrates once again why he's the only blogger to turn to for postings on quantum computation-related subjects. Well, that, and there's no other bloggers who actually blog about that stuff. But his posting is highly technical, so I thought I'd break it down into a less technical level, like I did the information on one-time pads. OK here goes:

There's these little fairies that you can send running down an optical fiber to carry messages. If someone catches one of the fairies half-way and forces them to talk, then lets them go again, they will (with some probability) report that they were captured so you can know that someone is eavesdropping. This means that you can use a semi-secure channel to transmit a one-time pad because if someone intercepts the information you will know about it and you can just throw away that pad. As soon as you get a pad through without it being intercepted, you can send your message by any channel and use the pad to encrypt it.

Un-freaking believable

George Bush allegedly makes a deal with the Saudis to increase production in order to lower oil prices in the US. Bob Woodward reveals the deal and spins it as a political ploy to help get Bush re-elected. Now someone on Daily Kos says that this spin will force the Saudis to renege on the deal because they can't be seen helping Bush, and who does he blame it on? The guy who spun it that way? No, on Bush of course. It's Bush's fault because, well I guess Bush is just bad through and through. Never mind that there never would have been a deal in the first place without Bush, never mind that if it is cancelled over this, it will be cancelled against Bush's wishes, never mind that it's the Democrats who are talking down the economy as hard as they can. It's Bush's fault. Evil, evil Bush.

relentless hypocrisy

I could write two or three posts a day, just pointing out hypocritical postings on Eschaton. In this one Atrios is outraged that Bush would use the word "crusade" to refer to the war on terror. Atrios believes that this will outrage Muslims and lead to more deaths of soldiers:
But, sadly they're not morons. They just care more about exciting their direct mail base by casting this as a religious war than they do about minimizing terrorist acts at home or abroad or insurgent attacks against our soldiers. They're quite happy to put their name on an anti-American recruitment letter just to increase the re-election chances of George W. Bush. A few more dead soldiers is a small price to pay for a few more bucks in the Bush election fund.
It's not at all clear to me that this is endangering American soldiers, and I doubt the writers of the letter thought it would do so. But it's clear that Atrios does. So what does he do? He does everything he can to make sure the Muslims hear about it. It's a simple argument: Atrios believes if Muslims hear this statement it will lead to the deaths of American soldiers, Atrios is taking actions that will make it more likely that Muslims will hear this statement, therefore Atrios is taking actions that he believes will lead to the deaths of American soldiers.

That's not hypocrisy, though, that's just homicidally callous political gamesmanship. What makes it hypocrisy is that he is piously accusing the writer of that letter of such homicidal callousness while at the same time engaging in it himself. He engages in this particular hypocrisy frequently, railing about how some Republican or administration official or military man did something that is going to outrage Muslims, meanwhile not only publicizing the event as much as possible, also making sure to tell the Muslims that they ought to be outraged. Atrios clearly wants the Muslims to be outraged, and just as clearly wants lots of Americans killed.

Of course I don't doubt his sincerity. Atrios really believes the Republicans are that callous about the lives of Americans in Iraq. He knows that he himself is callous enough to endanger them just to increase the re-election chances of his candidate, so he assumes the Republicans are just like him.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Biker terrorist!

OK, maybe I should have said "bicycler terrorist" to avoid a potential misunderstanding. Or perhaps even "bicycler vandal" to be really precise but it's politically motivated bicycler vandalism, dammit. Those power-mad pedaling pinheads have been no end of trouble to us responsible muscle-car drivers.

When I lived in Tucson, many miles of perfectly good 4-lane road was converted to 2-lane road to accommodate bike paths in one of the worst road decisions I've ever seen. They nearly doubled the commute time for thousands of people in order to make life more convenient for a couple of dozen people (if that many -- I seldom saw two bicyclers in a day). To do it, they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of money, mostly paid by the people who were hurt by the change rather than by the people who benefited. That's democracy in action in a leftist city.

Oh, and while I'm on stupid traffic decisions: when you make a wrong turn and want to make a U-turn to correct it, why is there always, I mean always a no-U-turn sign at the first (and often the second) intersection? It's uncanny. Or deliberate. Yesterday I made a wrong turn. I went to the first intersection and got in a line of four cars in the left-turn lane. There was a no U-turn sign as I had expected so I had to make a left and dodge through a parking lot to get back going the other way. Of the four cars in the left-turn lane, three of us were doing exactly that. If the sample is representative, 75% of the people who use the left-turn lane at that light want to make a U-turn and they can't do it because some of some evil, sadistic city employee. I'm telling you, whoever puts up road signs looks for place where people are likely to make wrong turns and they put up no-U-turn signs to make the error as painful as possible. Bastards.

UPDATE: forgot to credit shot by both sides for the link.

justice, legalism, and reductionism

David Bernstein says that Rantisi (the leader of Hamas assassinated by Israel last week) has been brought to justice. Mark Kleiman disagrees. He says
The point seems to me an elementary one. Since "To bring X to justice" means "To arrest and try X according to law," using the phrase "X was brought to justice" to describe a situation in which X was, in fact, shot down like a dog must be an error. It may be warfare, but it isn't justice.
What is going on here is that Bernstein is taking a realist approach to justice whereas Kleiman is taking a reductionist approach. To Bernstein, justice is a thing that exists as a real thing. To Kleiman, justice is a social construct, a convenient fiction, an illusion. Kleiman reduces justice to something else, formal legality.

If we allow the reductionists to get away with this, then we can't say that Castro commits an injustice when he sentences people to prison for disagreeing with him and we can't say that justice failed when a murderer is set free or an innocent man is convicted. As long as everything was legal and proper --according to Kleiman's view-- justice was done. Of course he is wrong. The purpose of legal systems is to bring about justice, not to define justice. A legal system can be objectively judged on how well it meets its goal of providing justice. Since a legal system can fail to be just, and a specific case in a just legal system can fail to produce justice, justice must exist as a separate thing from the legal system.

Reductionism vs. realism is a type of conflict that pops up all over science and philosophy. Because reduction is almost always motivated by aesthetic intuitions rather than genuine analysis it is almost always wrong. Reduction is attractive, but it doesn't stand up to examination.

One of the more famous examples of reductionism is the attempt in the early twentieth century (I almost wrote "early in this century") to reduce meaning to syntax. Syntax is the form of a sentence. For example in the sentence, "The dog barked" you have two syntactic elements, the subject, "the dog" and the predicate "barked". The subject has two parts, the article "the" and the noun "dog". You can parse a sentence (analyze its syntax) without knowing much about meaning. For example, "The nurg wrachited" has the same syntactic structure: the noun is "nurg" and the predicate is "wrachited". You don't have to know what a nurg is or how to wrachit in order to parse the sentence.

Some philosophers said that meaning doesn't really exist; there is only syntax. They argued that we are used to hearing the word "dog" when there is a dog involved, so we associated the word with the animal, but that there isn't any actual meaning for the word. A big problem with this account is explaining things like translation. If you translate "the dog barked" into Spanish you will get an entirely different sentence. What do these sentences have in common? If you want to only talk about syntax, you have to give a very complex relation between sentences in English and sentences in Spanish detailing what English sentences translate to what Spanish sentences. How do you come up with this relation and how do you know if it is right? Well, the relationship is right if it only translates English sentences into Spanish sentences that mean the same thing. In fact, you can't get rid of meaning, all you can do is try to find a very complex way to talk about it.

Most attempts at reductionism fail on similar grounds. Under examination, you find that the reduction contains some arbitrary element that can only be explained or justified by appealing to the original concept -- the concept that supposedly isn't real.
Mr. Kleiman says in the comments that he was merely making a statement about language usage and not about justice. There is some credibility to the claim that in common usage the phrase "bring to justice" refers to legal proceedings rather than to justice. There are many cases of this sort of usage in language. But there are two problems with his attempt to backpedal in this way. The first problem is caused by the last sentence in the paragraph I quoted above. The phrase "it isn't justice" clearly refers to justice, not to legal proceedings. The second problem with this response is that it leaves Mr. Kleiman the additional problem of explaining why he is making such a big deal over Mr. Bernstein's usage. If it's really only a matter of definition, why poke at it?

Benji, also in the comments, disputes my view that realism and reductionism are incompatible. Of course I just stated that in the post rather than arguing for it and I don't have time to argue it now but I stand by it. Maybe I can get to it in a future post.