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In case you haven't heard, I'm planning a trip to Europe next year to walk the Camino de Santiago.  I will be walking 1,000 miles on foot over 2 1/2 months.  I want to streamline my gadgetry for the trip, but I don't want to do without.  Part of my goal is the document the journey electronically, and I want to do it without weighing myself down.  I figure I can organize my gadgets here.

First, I want to bring my iPhone.  As it happens, my contract with AT&T runs out in April, a month before I leave.  Here is my first big choice.  Do I renew my contract, thus nabbing a new phone with a better camera and twice the memory, or do I let the contract lapse and jailbreak the phone for European use?  The former strategy will allow me to automatically take and send photos and videos to my blog without having to break out the fancy big camera (yes, there will be a fancy big camera -- more on that later).  The latter strategy, however, seems more enticing.  An out-of-contract phone can be jailbroken without any real consequences (who cares if a I brick it), and a jailbroken phone could prove useful when I need to text or call a fellow pilgrim to meet up somewhere.  Also, I'd save money on cell phone fees.  Finally, by the time I get back, the next gen iPhone will come out (that usually happens in June).  

Since I will be so dependent on an iPhone for phone calls, emails, blogging, photography, etc, I want to make sure that survives the trip.  With that in mind, I'll be heading to REI for this little gem:


It's the Otterbox Defender.  It does all the regular things a super-armored case is supposed to do, but also adds water-resistence to the mix by putting a thin clear plastic sheet between me and the phone.  It isn't designed to take a dunk in the water, but it should be fine in a rainstorm. 

The second consideration is a camera.  Yes, I know it makes sense to just use my iPhone camera.  At least, it would make sense if I got the new iPhone, because it is an acceptable camera (the one I have is crappy).  Even with a new iPhone, though, the resolution and zoom would simply not be good enough for some of the images I want to take.   Also, I plan on bringing a Gigapan robotic housing unit that converts good cameras into massively high resolution panoramic cameras.  So you can see what I mean, here is a pic of a Gigapan with a camera mounted in it:

You can see my problem right away, now.  The robot is bulky.  The camera is bulky.  Both must attach to a tripod which must be equally bulky.  Rechargeable batteries (and possibly a solar unit) would also make this setup bulkier.  There's no way I can take a laptop, now.  Perhaps a netbook isn't out of the question, but I still wouldn't want to tax an itty bitty netbook with my massive gigapixel images.  I'm not even sure a netbook could handle such things.  

That is where Eye-Fi comes in.  A wireless wifi transmitter built into an SD chip:

With this baby, I can take as many photos as I want (within the 2G limit, of course) and whenever I walk through a wifi hotspot, it just automagically uploads all the photos to my Flickr account, obviating one of the reasons I would need a laptop in the first place.

Obviously this means I need a camera that is:

1. SDHC compatible, and
2. Gigapan compatible.  Also, I would prefer to have
3. as large an optical zoom capacity as possible, and
4. video capabilities.

Any recommandations?

More on my gadget condsiderations later.


Abortion and choice

This is a rather lengthy post that is a result of a discourse I had with my good friend, Sean Lewis, who currently teaches at Catholic University.  We have, over the years, gotten into various discussions about the topic of abortion.  On this, our umpteenth such occasion, Sean asked me to articulate one particular position in writing so that he could post it on his online and let a few of his colleagues pick out the inconsistencies.  I figured I'd also post it here for future reference, in case I need it again.

Normally, I would tailor this position to the biases of my audience, but this being the interweb and and all, I am going to assume my audience includes a variety of opinions, and so will argue at least a few points that you, the reader, are already likely to agree with.  Bear with me on that.


The first problem in any abortion-related debate is terminology.  The pro-life/pro-choice pair of pigeonholes is both a false dichotomy (you can be both) and far too narrow (there are more than two possible opinions).  For clarity's sake, I will outline the range of opinions that I perceive to exist in our current political climate.  First, I must define pro-life and pro-choice as meaning precisely what the words indicate.  In my view, there is a division between moral belief and political action.  For each division, there are a range of positions that I will also divide into two.

First, we have the moral positions

  1. The pro-life position as simply a moral opposition to the practice of abortion, independent from political action.

  2. The pro-abortion position sees abortion as a moral good.

Then there are the mechanical positions

  1. The pro-choice position gives the decision of whether to abort to the mother.

  2. The anti-choice position gives the decision to the state.

The range of positions on the abortion question, then, can really be divided into four quadrants:
Pro-life and anti-choice

This is, of course, the classical conservative position, which maintains that abortion is a moral evil and results in the death of a person.  The choice of whether to abort belongs to the state.

Think: the Vatican.
Pro-abortion and anti-choice

These guys believe that abortion choice belongs to the state, and that abortion is a positive moral good (perhaps to keep the population down, or possibly to assist in ethnic cleansing).

Think: China.

Pro-life and pro-choice

These are the types that believe in the moral evil of abortion, and may even grant full rights and protection to the foetus, yet still leave the decision of whether to abort to the mother.

Think...well, me (and swing voters).

Pro-abortion and pro-choice

This is the classical liberal position, which maintains that the choice belongs to the woman and that abortion in some (or many) cases should be encouraged and is or can be a moral good.

Think: NARAL or Planned Parenthood.

I have used similar quadrant distinctions in other contexts (such as the "atheist/theist -- gnostic/agnostic" delineators) in the past, and I think it helps me point out the full range of positions that are present in any given debate.  Let me also point out, at this stage, that there are more than just four positions.  Think of the above illustration not as a true quadrant that has four plot points (four squares), but as a stage upon which to draw closer and further away from the four corners.   For the purposes of this discussion, though, these four summarized quadrants will do.

Of the four listed positions, the commonly cited ones are the top left and bottom right quadrants.  When one identifies as pro-life, one also assumes that person is anti-choice.  This assumption is not, in my view, a logical one, but it is a political reality that pro-life and anti-choice are often assumed to be the same position.  When one identifies as pro-choice, the political assumption is that you see abortion as at least morally neutral and possibly good.  Of the remaining two quadrants, only one is common in the West.  The pro-abortion/anti-choice position, then, is one that we can discount for this conversation.  Leaving only the other three quadrants, you have a sliding scale of positions that looks something like this:

pro-life/anti-choice   ==>   pro-choice/pro-life    ==>   pro-choice/pro-abortion

Foetal Status

Now that we have settled on a basic scale for identifying positions, let me go through some of the basic definitional problems surrounding the debates on abortion.  Typically, at the start of an abortion debate, the status of the foetus comes into dispute.  There are four questions that typically come up.  The first two are as follows.

  1. Is the foetus alive? (we often hear this phrased as "when does life begin")

  2. If it is alive, is it a human life?

I won't waste much time discussing these first two, as they really shouldn't be controversial at all.  Of course the foetus is alive.  It has cell division, it replicates, it eats...it has all the properties of a living being.  It is equally obvious that the foetus is human.  It is, after all not anything else.  It has human DNA.  It certainly isn't a pig or a goat.  It is uncontroversially, a human foetus.  The next two questions, however, are legitimately in dispute:

  1. Is the foetus a person?

  2. Is that person a citizen with full rights and protections under the constitution?

On the question of personhood, there are many and myriad criteria for determining this.  Some say personhood is an essentially social status, and so must begin at birth (because there is not social interaction until then).  Others say personhood requires thought, and so must certainly occur after brainwaves appear.  There a zillion such criteria, and, for the purposes of this position paper, let me just say that I sort of sidestep this whole analysis by saying I don't know when personhood begins.  In this case, I choose to err on the side of caution, and assume that the foetus is a person at an extremely early stage.

On the larger question of rights, I give a more qualified benefit of the doubt.  The fourteenth amendment states that "all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof shall be citizens of the United States and of the State in which they reside."  Because a foetus is neither born nor naturalized, it cannot qualify for constitutional protections.  However, the right to life is, in my view, inalienable for all persons, citizen or not.

So, for the purposes of this white paper, I am granting all four points.  I hold it as obvious that a foetus is a living human, and I assume that it is a person with the right to live.  Round one goes to the little guy.

By the way, as an added bonus: I am Catholic, and I believe I am in full accord with Humanae Vitae as regards the abortion issue.  I view it as the killing of a person, as a mortal sin, and would always advise anyone with child to take the child to term unless the prudential exceptions (life of the mother) applied.  Oh, yes, I can't defeat this pro-choice argument.  Here is why:

Bodily Integrity

The foetus is not alone.  In fact, the foetus is incapable of surviving beyond the womb, and some cases, the mother is unwilling.  We now have a conflict.  The first amendment guarantees life *and* liberty.  Here, then we must choose between the life of the child and liberty of the mother.  More properly speaking, however, the kind of liberty the mother is claiming (or should claim, at any rate) is the ownership of her body.

This is a sticky wicket.  The foetus needs to stay in the womb to survive, but the mother hasn't given permission.  We are faced with a terrible choice.  We must either:

  1. allow the woman to abort (i.e. evict the child from the womb), or

  2. force the woman to term against her will

Let us consider option #2 for a while.  It is a point that many anti-choice advocates skip over.  We aren't talking about simply allowing a child to live, we are also taking away the mother's control of her own body.  It is the moral equivalent of locking her up in a room somewhere until she comes to term.  In point of fact, if we, as a society, have decided that life trumps body-property rights, then we would be justified in doing just that.

There are, of course, even more implications than just kidnapping pregnant women and forcing them to term.  If we, as a society, decided that the right to property is secondary to life, many other scenarios become equally justifiable.  Here is an example:

Sean and Bill are both involved in an auto accident that turns out to be Bill's fault.  As a result, Sean is dying of liver failure, and only a slice of Bill's liver could save him (as he needs the transplant right away).  Livers grow back, and the doctors assure Bill that, were he to donate, his own liver would grow back to normal size in, say, 9 months.    Now, imagine that Bill doesn't want to give half his liver to Sean, despite being responsible (both legally and morally) for Sean's condition.  What recourse does Sean have?  Should Bill have the right to deny Sean his kidney, even though it means Sean's death?  Which is more important, 9 months of relative discomfort to Bill, or Sean's life?

In this case, Western jurisprudence is clear.  Bill's right to bodily integrity trumps Sean's right to live.  That is to say, Bill cannot be forced to use his body to keep another person alive, no matter how innocent and worthy Sean may be.

This leads adherents of this position to conclude that in a great many cases, property rights (including but not limited to bodily property rights) trump the right to live.  Just as Bill cannot be compelled to donate his organ to save Sean, a mother cannot be compelled to donate hers to save her child.

I have been unable to defeat this position 8 years.  I invite you to do what I could not.


The surge, two years later

I looked and looked for a good chart showing the latest casualty rates in Iraq, and found either current numbers, but no visuals; or nice charts that were outdated by at least half a year.  I'm sure there must be some graphically oriented data out there, but I couldn't find it.

Eventually, I just decided to plug the latest numbers (from iCasualties.org)  into OpenOffice (Look here for info on this excellent and free package -- it is ready for prime time), and smoothed out the numbers by averaging each month with the prior and subsequent two months.  I came up with the following, rather dramatic and undeniable result:

(For full size click on the image, and then click on the next image. )

The faded yellow line represents the official casualty estimates, and the purple line represents the averaged trend.  That massive dip in fatalities begins right around the time of the new troop deployments.  One might argue that it was a coincidence and that other factors on the ground contributed to the massive improvement, but there is no denying that this has become a different war since the beginning of the surge.

Of course, none of this justifies the ill-conceived rationale for the original invasion.  The apparent success of the surge also highlights, in my mind, how unnecessary the prior 4 years of bloodshed really was.  These numbers may be a vindication of Powell and the "McCain doctrine", but they are just as certainly a condemnation of Rumsfeld and the early rationale that led many to believe this war would be easily won.


Losing Specter is worse than it looks

On it's face, losing Arlen Specter to the dems looks really bad.  With the likely victory of Al Franken, it brings the democrats from 59 votes in the senate to 60, making them filibuster-proof.  Today, however, we learn that supreme court Justice Souter is stepping down.  He is only the first of three justices expected to retire in Obama's first term, the other two being John Paul Stevens (89) and Ruth Bader Ginsberg (recently treated for pancreatic cancer).

Yes, that's right.  There will be a minimum of 3 supreme court appointees this term, and it looks like they will all replace justices from the liberal wing of the court.  With the threat of a filibuster, Obama (ever the pragmatist) could have been counted on to appoint moderates to those seats.  With 60 dems in the senate, however, he just may find it too difficult to resist the mounting pressure from MoveOn.org, and decide to please them with far more radical legal minds.

Moderates like Specter are good for whatever party they are in, because they balance out the more extreme voices and brings undecided voters into the tent.  To that extent, Specter's presence will be as good for the democratic party as it was for republicans.  When it comes to supreme court nominations, however, Specter will be more inclined to approve (or at least not filibuster) a liberal nominee than he was as a republican. 

Have no illusions on this.  Mr. Specter will be the one deciding whether these nominees are filibustered.

Ultracons seem thrilled to be purging the party of these moderates.  Be careful what you wish for.

We don't torture


Sullivan found this little gem:


I've been dying to see the new JJ Abrams reboot of Star Trek. Yeah, yeah...I'm not just a nerd, but an old school nerd. It'll be great to see the old crew back with new faces...and all sexed up, apparently. More importantly, every review I've seen has been over-the-top with delight. Today, Paramount released this introduction of the new McCoy. He's even surlier than I remember.

BTW, Abrams has come up with a unique way to reboot this universe while still respecting everything that has come before. All discrepancies should be explained for us old schoolers. The rest of you may not even notice.

Some love from Andrew

I made Andrew Sullivan's email of the day.  Now if I can just get tickets to The Daily Show, my life will be complete.