a good time (not)

[Note: Jeff responded in the comments and I retract some of what I wrote here in my response.]

Here is Rush Limbaugh’s take on the Abu Ghraib photos and response:

This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we’re going to ruin people’s lives over it and we’re going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day. I’m talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You heard of [the] need to blow some steam off?

When I read this I just started screaming incomprehensibly in my kitchen. I’m not sure how to argue with this point, or how to argue with Jeff’s apologia:

I think these prison guards slipped down a slope from frustration to anger and at some point took out that anger in an incomprehensible way. Read the description in that Times article of the inane stuff they made these Iraqis do and you begin to wonder what brought these people this far. If I was thrown in the same position would I have done any better? I don’t know.

This is a convenient theory that is very dramatic. I’m sure there are many plays that have been written in which a tense prison situation finally snaps and the guards enact a terrible scene of retribution and abuse, misdirected at a prisoner. I am not imputing Limbaugh’s view to Jeff, but they do share one idea: they see the torture of these prisoners as point events that are explicable given the circumstances.

Part of the point of military training as I understand it is to allow soldiers to make level-headed decisions in stressful situations. I have no idea how stressful it is out in the field where you are getting shot at, or in a prison where insurgents are trying to arrange prison breaks every night. Seymour Hersh cites the Taguba report:

There was a special women’s section. There were young boys in there. There were things done to young boys that were videotaped.

Abuses like that take premeditation. It is not a couple of people blowing off steam, nor is it slipping down the slope into a single incomprehensible act of violence. It shares the casual nature of the former and the degenerative aspect of the latter, but these acts were a way of life in this prison.

There is a separation that needs to be made between novelty and revulsion, and I think Jeff almost makes it. I was not surprised that abuses were happening in the prisons — after all, this is war, and war is not pretty and people do terrible things. I am nevertheless horrified at the casual nature of the violence, that this treatment of the prisoners had become so everyday. I am horrified that there have been three investigations and nothing has been done. I am horrified that this violence was sanctioned by higher authorities and that nobody is taking responsibility.

Things are better now than they were before. Perhaps prisons are better in Iraq than they are in the rest of the Middle East. But other Middle Eastern regimes do not pretend to be free societies that afford their citizens the rights that the US upholds. We are supposed to be building a model for a society, and we are tripping dangerously close to “come meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

arithmetic progressions of primes

ScienceNow has an article about a new result in number theory on the distribution of arithmetic progressions of primes, that is, sequences of primes who differ by a constant number from step to step. The reason I post it here is they used ergodic theory to prove the result, although the peer review jury is still out on its correctness. That’s the problem with mathematics sometimes — you get stuck in your own esoteric corner and it’s hard to validate results.


Back when I took Sanskrit, our professor mentioned other related languages in the Indo-European language family, and my interest was piqued. I picked up a copy of Baldi’s book on IE languages, and one of the ones that came up that I had never heard of was Tocharian, a language with some documentary evidence in Central Asia. A guy from my class actually ended up taking Tocharian, masochist that he is. I always wanted to learn more, but was too lazy to do the painful linguistics paper reading until this essay came to my attention. It’s worth a skim, just to learn something about ancient Central Asia, a subject which is rarely dealt with in general history courses.

where there’s a will

George Will, alumnus of my high school, Pulitzer prize-winner, and conservative jerk, is undoubtedly a good writer. Consider this piece from the Post:

Being steadfast in defense of carefully considered convictions is a virtue. Being blankly incapable of distinguishing cherished hopes from disappointing facts, or of reassessing comforting doctrines in face of contrary evidence, is a crippling political vice.

It has the comforting cadence of a proverb, is wittiy, and cuts deep. The whole essay is worth reading — he takes Bush to task for his “us-white-people” comment.

Nineteen sixty-two

Made it from 1953-1962 in my journal abstract marathon. It’s interesting to see how many ideas that come up nowadays were vaguely formulated so far back in the past. It’s also interesting to see how lon it took for terminology to become finalized. Common concepts in my field such as mutual information were not pinned down for a while, and there are editorials calling for this or that to be well defined and for definitions to be fixed. There’s a hilarious editorial by Doob, who criticizes the way in which results start out as intuitive and appealing but incorrect, and in the bloody iterative process of making them mathematically rigorous they lose their applicability, a criticism which is still valid.

The most depressing thing for me is that very simple results that we do for homework in classes now were once considered worthy enough for publication in a journal. That’s progress, and it is good. But it’s getting harder and harder to tell an interesting story I think.

neue projekt

I have a new plan to read or skim the abstracts of every paper published in the IEEE Transactions on Information Theory. And then form a list of ones that I think are worth taking another look at. A sort of exhaustive literature search, if you will. I’ll post an update in a month after I get past the first decade.