Sunday, May 22, 2011

Looking at the Rapture thing from a different angle

You know, we've all had a lot of fun laughing at Harold Camping and his obviously crackpot ideas about the Rapture and the upcoming End of the World. He has gone incommunicado today, and for good reason: he is a laughingstock.

But Mr. Camping doesn't deserve all that ridicule. He went through the Bible looking for clues, thought he'd found them all (though he missed the most important one), and came up with a reasonable (to him) date for the Rapture and the EOW. He spent months spreading his message to the world, not with a "nyah nyah, you're all gonna burn" attitude, but with a "repent so you don't burn, pleeeaaase" attitude.

This episode reminds me of another Biblical story, the story of Noah. Noah spent forty years building his ark and warning the people about the impending flood. They mocked him and laughed at him and had a lot of fun at his expense - right up until the moment that the rain started falling.

Noah never faltered or turned aside from his message, even though he knew people were laughing at him and nobody believed him. Mr. Camping pursued his mission with the same faith and vigor as Noah.

I'm not saying Mr. Camping was a prophet, or even that we should have believed him. I have also participated in the mockery, and I firmly believe he was wrong. But he acted on the strength of his convictions, and he acted with integrity. Very few people act that way in today's world, and the world is poorer as a result. I honor Harold Camping for his convictions and his integrity.

Maybe I should buy him a T-shirt.

What's to like about Internet Explorer 9? Here's one thing!

I have written before about how Microsoft is a huge company, so huge and diversified that it's possible to praise and admire one part of the company or product line while badmouthing and hating another. Well, I have some words of praise for one part.

One of the things that has always bothered me about Microsoft's flagship products - their Office suite, their email offerings, and their Web access tools - is that their incessant advertisement of themselves and Microsoft gets in the way of using the software.

I mean, in every version of MS Word, I always felt like MS was pounding on my head saying "You're using MICROSOFT Word, a MICROSOFT product" with every keystroke. And Internet Explorer always screamed "M1CROS0FT 4 EVRRRRR!!!1!!".

Not anymore. Okay, MS Word is still full of itself - and so are all of its competitors. But Internet Explorer 9? Wow. MS took a cue from Google Chrome and made a singularly unobtrusive interface. Nowhere in the default window does it say "Microsoft," not in upper case or lower case. The only clue that you're using a Microsoft product is the default IE icon that shows up in a browser tab if the web page you're accessing doesn't have its own fav icon.

IE9 is also faster and more intuitive than its predecessors. It looks like the software gang might have done something right this time.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

On Mathematical Models of Things

This month's Stanford magazine quotes origami expert Robert Lang on the relationship between mathematics and origami - well, between mathematics and everything in the world.

"One of the things you learn in a technical education - physics or engineering - is that, you enter a field, you try to build a mathematical model of the phenomena in that field. And once you've got a mathematical model you can use the tools of math to exercise that model and sort of learn stuff for free."

He related this to origami:

"Origami felt the same. it was clear there were underlying natural laws that limit what you can and can't do. And if I could identify what these laws were explicitly, then I could use mathematical tools to make the things I really wanted to make."

But it also applies to music, gardening, and so many other right-brain activities that we don't normally think of as mathematical in nature.

Friday, May 20, 2011

I really hope the Rapture does happen tomorrow

... because then all of these obnoxious people will go away permanently and leave the rest of us in peace.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Bin Laden is Dead: Some Thoughts and Some Praise

The thoughts first:

Osama bin Laden is dead. He was killed by a bullet through the left eye, a bullet fired by an American warrior. The deed was done in the middle of a moonless night, on the top floor of his impregnable fortress, by American warriors who dared to violate the airspace of a sovereign nation, at tremendous personal risk, to hunt down and eliminate the enemy of the United States and of the entire free world.

It was a simple and swift end to the life of the first monster of the twenty-first century. It is altogether fitting to compare bin Laden to Adolf Hitler, the worst monster of the twentieth century. Because of his monstrous deeds, Hitler is famous, but not revered or glorified (except by kooks and hatemongers). The civilized world has put safeguards in place to ensure that nobody like Hitler will ever rise again. Likewise, not too many years from now, the civilized world will adopt measures to protect itself from any future Osama bin Ladens.

The official word is that bin Laden's body was buried at sea, partly because no country would accept it for burial within the prescribed 24 hours, and partly to keep anybody from turning his burial place into a shrine. We have no reason to doubt this story. Personally, I was hoping that they would capture him alive, and that he would accidentally fall out of the back of a C-130 flying a few thousand feet over the Indian Ocean, halfway to Diego Garcia. However it happened, normally a burial at sea is accompanied by a bugle tattoo or a ship's whistle, and salutes from the assembled crew, the last honors to a fallen warrior. Let us hope that the last command given, as the board tilted and the body slid down, was not "Present arms" but "About face".

Now, for the praise:

First, to President Obama, for managing and executing this operation in the right way. One MSNBC article outlined Obama's agendas on the five days he met secretly with the NSC to discuss the operation. You gotta give the guy credit for playing a fantastic game of poker. Even going golfing on Sunday, the day the operation was carried out, was a great ruse -- other presidents would have spent the day holed up in the Situation Room. You also have to give him credit for knowing enough not to meddle in the details. He let the warriors run the war.

Obama did not wring his hands or agonize over the moral or political implications of what he was doing. His objective was clear: to kill bin Laden, not to capture him. His tactics were clear: don't tell anybody about it until it's done. We do this on our own. Get in, do it, and get out, and woe to anybody who gets in the way.

Second, to Leon Panetta, director of the CIA. I blasted Panetta's nomination in an earlier blog entry, lamenting the fact that he had no experience that qualified him to run the CIA. Panetta had oversight over the whole operation, from the day in August 2010 when they got a lead on bin Laden's confidential courier, to the final wrap-up of the operation on Sunday night. This included daily meetings on it for a couple of months, weighing all the options and guiding a herd of analysts, agents, experts, politicians, and military assets -- and talking Congress into giving him the money needed to make it all happen, without letting the secret out. Panetta did all right.

This was also Panetta's final act as DCI. He's now slated to replace Robert M. Gates, who is retiring as Secretary of Defense, while General David Petraeus has been nominated to take Panetta's CIA seat. I look forward to be proven wrong about Panetta a second time.

Third, to President George W. Bush. Let's give credit where it's due. Bush guided the nation through a difficult time, a crisis which may well define the entire century, and laid down the challenge to the world which culminated in bin Laden's demise. He said: "We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail." Obama was successful because of the foundation Bush built.

I commented in an earlier blog about President-elect Obama's graciousness extended to Bush. In a twist on protocol, the newly inaugurated President (and Mrs.) Obama had escorted the outgoing President (and Mrs.) Bush from the dais where the inauguration had taken place, through the Capitol Building and down the front steps, where a Marine helicopter, one of the presidential fleet, was waiting to take the Bushes on one last trip to Andrews AFB, thence to take one last flight home on Air Force One. I think that was a presidential first.

Obama showed that same gracious character this time. After the operation wrapped up but before he told anyone else about it, including the nation, the president phoned Mr. Bush and told him about the operation in great detail. They had a deep and substantial conversation. After Obama's press conference, Bush issued his own congratulatory statement to the press.

Fourth, to the small group who planned the whole thing, headed (or at least organized) by Vice Admiral William McRaven. Once again, he kept the whole thing secret but, like Panetta and Obama, made it his top priority for months. He chose a good team and gave them everything they needed to be successful.

Fifth, the brave warriors that comprised the assault force. Most of this is Navy SEAL Team Six, also known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or "DEVGRU". They didn't do it for praise or glory. They are motivated by, um, shall we say, nobler ambitions. Only a true warrior can understand that. Even I don't, although I've been honored to get glimpses into it.

These warriors put their lives on the line in a big way to make this happen. They didn't hide behind women, using them as shields, as bin Laden and his cohorts did.

SEALs aren't brainless, testosterone-fueled, killing machines. They are highly intelligent, educated, trained, motivated, moral, passionate, humble, confident, and a bunch of other adjectives that never made it into the Boy Scout Law. If all men had the heart of a Navy SEAL, ... well, the world would be a much better place.

And finally, there's everybody behind the scenes:
The analysts who sifted through mountains of data, put it all together into a coherent story, and kept everybody informed and updated.
The field agents and other covert personnel, on the ground in Pakistan.
The elected members of Congress, who supported the operation and kept the secret.
The staffers and bureaucrats in the White House and in the military, who did all the grunt work or enabled others to do the grunt work, and kept the secret.
The military and CIA personnel who stood in support teams in Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Indian Ocean, Germany and all the other critical locations, whose quiet contributions enabled the SEALs to get from Point A to Point B and back again.