30 December 2005

A Trip to Tripoli

When you visit another country, it’s hard to get a feel for what it’s actually like until you leave your hotel room, go for a walk, take a look around, and hang out while soaking it in. Not so in Libya. All you have to do there is show up. It will impose itself on you at once.

Michael Totten, who blogs on things related to (and I believe lives in) the Middle East, visited Libya shortly after the American government removed the ban on travel there for U.S. citizens, and wrote a piece describing his experiences there. It was recently published online, by LA Weekly. The article makes for a very interesting look into a country that, AFAIK, very few people here in the States know much about. (Warning: the article contains occasional profanity, which is censored below ’cause I’m like that.)

At one point, he addresses what would probably be my first reaction if anyone told me they were going to visit Libya:

Almost everybody I know thought I was crazy to travel to Libya. The unspoken fear was that someone might kill me.

Well, no. Nobody killed me. Nobody even looked at me funny. I knew that’s how it would be before I set out. Still, it’s nice to have the old adage “people are people” proven through experience.

Libyans are fed a steady diet of anti-Americanism, but it comes from a man who has kicked them in the stomach and stomped on their face for more than a third of a century. If they bought it, they sure didn’t act like it.

Another section (among others) highlights inevitable problems that I think would tend to arise in the context of any totalitarian government:

Most apartment buildings were more or less equally dreary, but one did stand out. Architecturally it was just another modernist horror. But a 6-by-8-foot portrait of Qaddafi was bolted to the fa├žade three stories up. It partially blocked the view from two of the balconies. The b****** couldn’t even leave people alone when they were home.

The posters weren’t funny anymore. There were too d*** many of them, for one thing. And, besides, Qaddafi is ugly. He may earn a few charisma points for traveling to Brussels and pitching his Bedouin tent on the Parliament lawn, but he’s no Che Guevara in the guapo department.

I felt ashamed that I first found his portraits even slightly amusing. The novelty wore off in less than a day, and he’s been in power longer than I’ve been alive.

He was an abstraction when I first got there. But after walking around his outdoor laboratory and everywhere seeing his beady eyes and that arrogant jut of his mouth, it suddenly hit me. He isn’t merely Libya’s tyrant. He is a man who would be god.

His Mukhabarat, the secret police, are omniscient. His visage is omnipresent. His power is omnipotent.

And he is deranged. He says he’s the sun of Africa. He threatens to ban money and schools. He vanquished beauty and art. He liquidates those who oppose him. He says he can’t help it if the people of Libya love him so much they plaster his portrait up everywhere. F*** him. I wanted to rip his face from the walls.

But what really struck me was this:

I heard footsteps behind me, turned around, and faced two Arab men wearing coats and ties and carrying briefcases. One wore glasses. The other was bald.

“It has been a long time since I heard that accent,” said the man with the glasses.

I smiled. “It’s been a long time since this accent was here,” I said. Until just a few months ago, any American standing on Libyan soil was committing a felony.

“We went to college together,” he said, and jerked his thumb toward his friend. “In Lawrence, Kansas, during the ’70s.”

“Yes,” his friend said as he rubbed the bald spot on his head. The two were all smiles now as they remembered. “We took a long road trip up to Seattle.”

“We stayed there for two weeks!” said the first. He sighed like a man recalling his first long-lost love. I watched both their faces soften as they recalled the memories of their youth and adventures abroad in America.

“What a wonderful time we had there,” said the second.

They invited me out to dinner, but I was getting ready to leave. I didn’t want to say no. They looked like they wanted to hug me.

We shook hands as we departed. And as I stepped into the elevator, the first man put his hand on his heart. “Give two big kisses to Americans when you get home,” he said. “From two people in Libya who miss you so much.”

The piece is on the long side, but is definitely worth the read. Highly recommend.

(H/T: Scott @ Power Line)

17 December 2005

Bush, The NSA, And Phone Taps

If you pay much attention at all to the news, be it TV, newspaper, radio, etc., odds are you'll be hearing a lot about this in the days to come (from NY Times):

WASHINGTON, Dec. 15 - Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials.

Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible "dirty numbers" linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said. The agency, they said, still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communications.

The previously undisclosed decision to permit some eavesdropping inside the country without court approval was a major shift in American intelligence-gathering practices, particularly for the National Security Agency, whose mission is to spy on communications abroad. As a result, some officials familiar with the continuing operation have questioned whether the surveillance has stretched, if not crossed, constitutional limits on legal searches.

"This is really a sea change," said a former senior official who specializes in national security law. "It's almost a mainstay of this country that the N.S.A. only does foreign searches."

Nearly a dozen current and former officials, who were granted anonymity because of the classified nature of the program, discussed it with reporters for The New York Times because of their concerns about the operation's legality and oversight.

Before forming an iron-clad opinion on the matter, please read what Captain Ed and Michelle Malkin have to say on the matter. Essentially, the illegality and radical nature of this surveillance by the NSA and of the presidential order supporting it seems to be rather highly overblown. For those of you, dear (few) readers, who are particularly sensitive to issues of policy impinging on civil liberties, odds are this whole thing will appall you no matter what arguments are presented. For others, please consider carefully the whole situation before leaping to accuse Bush and his administration. Also, please consider that he (Bush) has consulted with both judges and members of Congress—both Republican and Democrat—over the four-year existence of this program. This is not some wild power-grab excursion on Bush's part.

Also, John over at Power Line raises an interesting point—essentially, if the "outing" of (supposedly) undercover agent Valerie Plame was a breach of national security worthy of legal action against the parties responsible, then those members of the intelligence community that leaked information about this surveillance program to the press should be equally deserving of said legal action. Somehow I don't think either the mainstream media or Patrick Fitzgerald will be jumping right onto this idea...

14 December 2005

Lucas: Lucky, or Prescient?


The upper image is, as you probably recognize, the backside of an Imperial Star Destroyer, clearly showing the massive ion engines used for its propulsion1. The bottom image, which is probably less immediately obvious, is a shot of a lab-scale prototype of a double-layer plasma drive, which might potentially be used on spacecraft at some point in the future. Note that, according to Wikipedia, a 'plasma' is simply "an ionized gas"—therefore, this is actually an ion engine. As in, TIE-Fighter-Twin-Ion-Engine ion engine.

Now, after acknowledging the "rad kewlness" of all of this, notice that while the Star Destroyer plasma is a very pretty sky blue, the one in the earthbound engine is a nice shade of lavender. Now, lavender plasmas are very often air plasmas (79% N2, 21% O2), and air is really easy to work with, so the lab plasma is probably an air plasma. However, the blue color of the Star Destroyer engine plasma could be from any number of chemicals, including chlorine and helium. Chlorine plasmas would probably be a poor choice for propulsion, as the energetic chlorine ions would probably rip apart the engine over time. However, helium is a very logical fuel choice, as it's very light on a volumetric basis and, as a noble gas, is quite inert.

So. I ask again: was Lucas lucky, or brilliant? (Please, feel free to comment :-P)

1This image from here.
(H/T: By The Way)

05 December 2005

Points Granted for Ingenuity...

...but this kid still deserves at least some kind of punishment—to convince him never to try anything like it again, if nothing else. What's really mind-boggling to me is that he went back to the same store to try the same trick. No matter how clever you think you are, you are, you have to figure that once you pull something like that once, someone in security will get suspicious.

I guess he just couldn't handle waiting until Christmas...

(Hat tip: Schlock)