Friday, December 01, 2006

Nekkid at the Airport

If you liked the idea of X-ray glasses when you were a kid then you'll love this! X-ray backscatter machines can see right through clothes, as the image above rather graphically illustrates. And they're coming soon to an airport near you!

The lovely model in the picture above is Susan Hallowell, the director of the Transportation Security Administration's security laboratory. I guess she figured that showing us how she looks without her clothes would make everyone else feel better about getting the same treatment when they fly. Not sure it's working...

X-ray backscatter can detect objects that would otherwise be missed in a regular security check using a metal detector. For example, there are ceramic knives that are better than the best steel knives, and it's certainly possible to make a gun using ceramics that wouldn't contain any metal. Most explosives are also nonmetallic.

Of course the big problem with all this, in addition to the privacy issues, is that we're still fighting the last war. No terrorist worth his salt would now try to hijack a plane with a knife or even a gun. If they did they'd be quite literally torn to pieces by the other passengers. You stand a much better chance of surviving a knife wound, or even a gunshot, than you do of hitting a building at 500 miles an hour. And it's still far easier to put a bomb in your luggage than to carry it on. Until that loophole is fixed, better X-ray machines for passengers are a questionable use of resources.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

GM To Introduce Plug-In Hybrid SUV!

OK, so this doesn't have much to do with politics, but it fits with my interests in technology and environmental issues:

Next year General Motors will introduce plug-in hybrid version of the Saturn Vue sport-utility vehicle. A plug-in hybrid lets you charge its batteries by plugging it into a regular electrical outlet overnight. For short trips, like city commuting, a plug-in hybrid uses little or no gas. It gives you all the environmental and cost advantages of a true electric car for shorter trips, while still having a gas engine for longer trips.

Most American made hybrids are crap, and I don't know if the Saturn Vue will be any better. The Japanese have nearly a decade's head start on the technology, so the real importance of GM's move is that it puts pressure on Toyota and Honda to make plug-in versions of their own hybrids. Both manufacturers have been resisting calls to do so, claiming there's no market for plug-in hybrids.

Toyota could produce plug-in hybrids quickly and with minimal R&D and production costs if it wanted to. The design of current Toyota hybrids lends itself to this because most of the necessary pieces are already there. You can actually covert a Toyota Prius into a plug-in hybrid yourself, but it's technically demanding. There are also after-market conversion kits and services, but they're not cheap.

Unfortunately the technology Honda uses it its hybrids can't be easily modified to work as a plug-in, so it'll take Honda a lot longer to get into this market.

We're starting to think about replacing our trusty old Honda Civic, but we're going to wait until we can get a good plug-in hybrid. I suggest you do the same when it comes time to get a new car.

The best place to learn more about plug-in hybrids is CalCars, which is "a group of entrepreneurs, environmentalists, engineers and other citizens working to spur adoption of efficient, non-polluting automotive technologies." It's a good organization doing important work.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Eight Rules for Progressive Realpolitik

These eight rules (and my title) are from a post by Chris Bowers at They're very similar to some ideas I've been working on, so I thought I'd throw them out for discussion. There's a lot of wisdom here. My own political and philosophical journey parallels Chris', and we've reached many of the same conclusions:
1. The Democratic Party is the primary vessel of the progressive coalition. It is impossible to enact real change without an electoral apparatus within your movement. In a two-party system, it is thus necessary to adopt one of the two parties as the electoral vessel of your coalition.

2. Within the coalition, intra-party democracy must always be adhered to. All party nominees must be determined by an elective primary open to all registered members of the party in the relevant district. The winner of the primary must always be supported by all members of the party apparatus, and all rank and file members should vote for the nominee (especially those who voted in the primary).

3. Party elections should be fair and open to all members of the party, and no one should ever be forced or muscled off of a ballot for a party office or nomination for public office.

4. There are no litmus tests to join the coalition. No one has to read or sign off on any document stating support for a particular policy. If someone wants to join, registering as a Democrat should be the only requirement.

5. Under no circumstances should any member of the party apparatus support any member of any opposing coalition, (in other words, any other political party).

6. Outside of issues relating to corruption, Democrats must never criticize each other in the same manner that Republicans criticize Democrats.

7. No Democrat should ever publicly call any Democrat unelectable, or publicly rank candidates based on perceived electability.

8. Don't expect the party to change on it's own. Be prepared and willing to change it yourself.

I fully agree with number one. From a historical and practical standpoint third parties are not a viable route to political power. They serve an important and necessary role in our democracy, but they can't succeed electorally except in very limited circumstances. If you want to make a real difference in politics you need to be involved in a major party.

Party elections and primaries should be open, as per rules two and three, but I have some real reservations about the idea that all party members must support the party's nominee under all circumstances, as stated in rule five. You don't give up your brain or your morals when you join a political party.

Political or philosophical litmus tests are usually used simply to preserve the power of the establishment, and can strangle a party, so I like rule four.

Rules six and seven forbid criticism of your own candidates, and although that may make sense from a strictly pragmatic standpoint, I think Chris draws this a bit too broadly in a couple of ways. First, he needs to distinguish criticism intended to be kept within the party from that intended for public consumption. For example, in 2004 I severely criticized John Kerry to other Democrats, but I also put on my smiley face and did hundreds of doors for him. My reservations about Kerry were far less important than my desire to get rid of Bush.

There are also instances where a party's candidate may damage the party's other candidates or even the party itself. I'm not going to keep my mouth shut in cases like that.

Rule number eight. If you know me, you know that this is one I preach all the time. It bugs the hell out of me when people sit around and complain that the Democratic Party is evil or useless, yet refuse to get involved and work to change it. But these same people claim to believe in democracy and the power of the people to change the world.

The Democratic Party (at least in Wisconsin) is a pure democracy with a ten dollar admission fee. Anybody can become a member, and every member gets to vote and can run for party office. I'm the poster child for this; an outside reformer/agitator who ran against an establishment candidate to be a vice chair in my county party ... and won convincingly. It can be done. All it takes are good people willing to do it.

So, what do you think?

When Are Tax Cuts Not Really Tax Cuts?

Republicans love to talk about Bush's tax cuts, and how they've jump started the economy. Besides the obvious point that the economy is only really improving for those at the top, they overlook one very critical fact. Bush's tax cuts aren't really tax cuts at all, because Republicans have borrowed all the money to pay for them. At best they can be described as tax deferments, and actually they're deferred tax increases because all that borrowed money will have to be paid back with interest.

Classical Republican economics.

(Based on an idea from this post at Lawyers, Guns and Money)