Monday, October 30, 2006

The Sandbox

My dad recently pointed out The Sandbox, a blog wherein military personnel stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan write about their experiences. It appears to be new (archives include solely October 2006), but already has some good posts:

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Political links of the week take 29

[You can skip to the end of this post, if you want. See also: political news of the week takes 28, 27, 26, 25, 24, 23, 22, 21, 20, 19, 18. 17, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9b, 9a, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

Into the abyss of Baghdad:
I covered Iraq for two years, beginning a few months after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion. For the last year, I have been gone. I wondered how the country had changed.

I found that this ancient byway of Islamic learning and foreign invaders has gone over to the dark side. A year ago, car bombs, ambushes, daily gun battles and chronic lack of electricity and gasoline were sapping the city. But not this: the wanton execution of individuals because of sect — a phenomenon so commonplace it has earned a military shorthand: EJK, for extrajudicial killing.

Every day the corpses pile up in the capital like discarded furniture — at curbside, in lots, in waterways and sewer lines; every day the executioners return. A city in which it was long taboo to ask, "Are you Sunni or Shiite?" has abruptly become defined by these very characteristics.

Once-harmonious neighborhoods with mixed populations have become communal killing grounds. Residents of one sect or the other must clear out or face the whim of fanatics with power drills.

Gunmen showed up one day on an avenue where fishmongers have long hawked barbecued fillets. They mowed the vendors down. Maybe it was because of the merchants' beliefs — the fish salesmen were Shiites in a mostly Sunni district, Dawoodi. Maybe it was revenge. No one knows with certainty. No one asks. All that remains are the remnants of charcoal fires.

"It's like a ghost city," laments Fatima Omar, a resident of the Amariya district, which once abounded with street life. She is 22, a recent graduate of Baghdad University, an English major — and, like many of her generation, unsure of what future she can expect. "So many of our men are either dead or have gone away," she says. "We may be doomed to spinsterhood."

People are here one day, gone the next. Those who do go out often venture no farther than familiar streets. In the sinister evenings, when death squads roam, people block off their lanes with barbed wire, logs, bricks to ward off the killers.

Many residents remain in their homes — paralyzed, going slowly crazy.

"My children are imprisoned at home," says a cook, Daniel, a Christian whom I knew from better times, now planning to join the exodus from Iraq. "They are nervous and sad all the time. Baghdad is a big prison, and their home is a small one. I forced my son to leave school. It's more important that he be alive than educated."

But homes offer only an illusion of safety. Recently, insurgents rented apartments in mostly Shiite east Baghdad, filled the flats with explosives and blew them up after Friday prayers. Dozens perished.

U.S. Is Said to Fail in Tracking Arms for Iraqis:
The American military has not properly tracked hundreds of thousands of weapons intended for Iraqi security forces and has failed to provide spare parts, maintenance personnel or even repair manuals for most of the weapons given to the Iraqis, a federal report released Sunday has concluded.

The report was undertaken at the request of Senator John W. Warner, the Virginia Republican who is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and who recently expressed an assessment far darker than the Bush administration’s on the situation in Iraq.

Mr. Warner sent his request in May to a federal oversight agency, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. He also asked the inspector general to examine whether Iraqi security forces were developing a logistics operation capable of sustaining the hundreds of thousands of troops and police officers the American military says it has trained.

The answers came Sunday from the inspector general’s office, which found major discrepancies in American military records on where thousands of 9-millimeter pistols and hundreds of assault rifles and other weapons have ended up. The American military did not even take the elementary step of recording the serial numbers of nearly half a million weapons provided to Iraqis, the inspector general found, making it impossible to track or identify any that might be in the wrong hands.


Another report unrelated to Mr. Warner’s request was also released by the inspector general on Sunday, on the so-called provincial reconstruction teams that the United States is creating for the next phase of rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure.

While some of the teams, intended to be scattered in each of Iraq’s 18 provinces, are functioning, security problems have severely hampered work in others, the report says. As a result, the inspector general recommended, the United States should consider reassigning its personnel in six provinces — including Basra in the south and Anbar in the west — to other places where effective work can be done.

The western province of Anbar is a central focus of the Sunni insurgency, and power struggles between Shiite militias have made Basra increasingly violent. The other four provinces that the inspector general recommends essentially abandoning are also in the Shiite south.

Idle Contractors Add Millions to Iraq Rebuilding:
Overhead costs have consumed more than half the budget of some reconstruction projects in Iraq, according to a government estimate released yesterday, leaving far less money than expected to provide the oil, water and electricity needed to improve the lives of Iraqis.

The report provided the first official estimate that, in some cases, more money was being spent on housing and feeding employees, completing paperwork and providing security than on actual construction.

Those overhead costs have ranged from under 20 percent to as much as 55 percent of the budgets, according to the report, by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. On similar projects in the United States, those costs generally run to a few percent.

The highest proportion of overhead was incurred in oil-facility contracts won by KBR Inc., the Halliburton subsidiary formerly known as Kellogg Brown & Root, which has frequently been challenged by critics in Congress and elsewhere.

The actual costs for many projects could be even higher than the estimates, the report said, because the United States has not properly tracked how much such expenses have taken from the $18.4 billion of taxpayer-financed reconstruction approved by Congress two years ago.

The report said the prime reason was not the need to provide security, though those costs have clearly risen in the perilous environment, and are a burden that both contractors and American officials routinely blame for such increases.

Instead, the inspector general pointed to a simple bureaucratic flaw: the United States ordered the contractors and their equipment to Iraq and then let them sit idle for months at a time.

The delay between “mobilization,” or assembling the teams in Iraq, and the start of actual construction was as long as nine months.

“The government blew the whistle for these guys to go to Iraq and the meter ran,” said Jim Mitchell, a spokesman for the inspector general’s office. “The government was billed for sometimes nine months before work began.”

The findings are similar to those of a growing list of inspections, audits and investigations that have concluded that the program to rebuild Iraq has often fallen short for the most mundane of reasons: poorly written contracts, ineffective or nonexistent oversight, needless project delays and egregiously poor construction practices.

Airport screeners fail to see most test bombs (October 28, 2006):
Screeners at Newark Liberty International Airport, one of the starting points for the Sept. 11 hijackers, failed 20 of 22 security tests conducted by undercover U.S. agents last week, missing concealed bombs and guns at checkpoints throughout the major air hub's three terminals, according to federal security officials.

The tests, conducted Oct. 19 by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents, also revealed failures by screeners to follow standard operating procedures while checking passengers and their baggage for prohibited items, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.


The official said screeners also failed to use handheld metal-detector wands when required, missed an explosive device during a pat-down and failed to properly hand-check suspicious carry-on bags. Supervisors also were cited for failing to properly monitor checkpoint screeners, the official said. "We just totally missed everything," the official said.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Practical methods for preventing cheating on exams


I recently gave a talk to some of our new faculty about how to become successful teachers, and during the talk I highlighted the importance of searching for academic dishonesty. Here's why:
  • 70% of college students have done something that qualifies as academic dishonesty (Whitley 1998, the average of 20 different studies' estimates)
  • 47% of college students have plagiarized papers (Whitley 1998, the average of 10 different studies' estimates).
  • 43% of college students have cheated on exams (Whitley 1998, the average of 37 different studies' estimates).
In other words, if you're a college instructor who gives exams, it's highly likely that someone cheated on an exam in your class last semester, and if you assign papers, it's highly likely that one of your students plagiarized a paper last semester. Did you catch them?

I've caught a student plagiarizing or cheating on an exam almost every semester I've taught. Most of the cases of academic dishonesty I catch are plagiarizers (as I've written about many times), but I've also caught my fair share of exam cheaters.

Preventing and detecting cheating on exams is challenging, primarily because there are thousands of potential techniques students can use. Conveniently, however, most of those cheating techniques can be broken down into four basic categories:
  1. Bringing in unauthorized information and using it during the exam
  2. Colluding with others during the exam
  3. Obtaining test material before the exam
  4. Changing answers or grades after the exam takes place
Thus, to prevent cheating one must devise procedures that reduce the likelihood that students can carry out tasks that fall into those four categories.

As a brief side note, I know some instructors who claim that they devise exams that are impossible to cheat on (e.g., essay exams, in-class demonstrations of procedures, oral exams). In my opinion, there is no such thing as a cheating-proof exam; even the most robust testing environments are prone to creative cheating techniques, and even exams that are ostensibly difficult to cheat on can be easily cheated on if protective measures are not taken. For instance, in-class demonstrations of techniques can be prone to collusion during the exam (a peer guides the examinee through the procedure, unseen by the instructor) and cheat sheets (the procedure may be written on the student's arm or hat brim). Oral exams can be prone to well-placed cheat sheets, collusion (e.g., cellphone with an ear-piece), or obtaining exam material before the exam (e.g., if the oral examiner follows a script, students can prepare by talking to prior examinees). Thus, while devising exams that are difficult to cheat upon is not a bad idea, it doesn't mean you should forgo all other preventive measures.

Techniques to prevent cheating

The list below consists of the primary anti-cheating techniques I use on exams I administer, listed by the category of cheating they apply to. These techniques are generally geared to either prevent cheating and/or to detect it when it occurs. The role of detection should not be overlooked; it's pointless to try to prevent something and then not attempt to detect it when it occurs. Also, note that I do not focus excessively on preventing cheating by the latest high-tech gadgets; an old-fashioned cheat sheet or carefully placed pencils can work just as well as the latest electronic gizmo.

1. Bringing in unauthorized information and using it during the exam

This category consists of everything from bringing in a hand-written cheat sheet (how old-school) to pre-recording notes on an iPod and listening to them during the test.
  • I require the students to leave all their personal belongings at the front or side of the room, allowing them to bring only a pencil or pen to their desk. This removes many potential hiding places for cheat sheets.
  • I ban the use of all electronic devices during the exam, no matter what the complexity (OK, I allow watches to be worn and looked at). Simply using an electronic device multiple times during an exam is grounds for a 0 in my classroom. If electronic devices are required to complete the exam, provide them for the students if possible.
  • If the students will require any material other than a writing implement on the exam, I provide it for the students at the start of the exam. If that is not possible due to budgetary concerns, I ask the students to provide blank items (e.g., blank scantrons or blue books) a few days before the exam, and then distribute the items randomly during the exam.
  • If students require dictionaries on the exam (e.g., ESL students), I ask that they provide the dictionary in advance (or I bring my own).
  • Take a quick look around the room to check for pre-placed material ("Did that poster always have that much writing on it?"). If a student is constantly looking in a particular direction, take a look there yourself.
  • I examine (visually, as I patrol the room) the clothing and accessories of each student. Hat brims, water bottle labels, bracelets, rubber bands, food wrappers, long sleeves, watches, and a myriad of other items can all be used to hold or hide information. Focus on items that are being used (or handled) by the student more than normal exam use would otherwise suggest. When in doubt, ask to see the item in question (the easiest time for this may be when the student turns in their exam).
    • Gender-related issues can sometimes become a problem here; check with your campus to see what their policy is (i.e., can you detain the student until another, gender-appropriate, person arrives? Who should you call in such a situation?)
  • I try to practice constant vigilance. I patrol the room regularly and make it clear that I'm watching the students (it's convenient that looking for questions from students and hunting for cheaters are both achievable with the same behavior). Here are a few specific things I do during the exam to help me watch for students bringing in outside material:
    • As I walk the aisles I make a point of focusing on a different area of each student's seating environment on successive passes (e.g., shoes/floor on one pass, legs/chair on the second pass). This is a good way to look for prohibited items.
    • I'll often spend a few minutes in the back of the room, and observe who tries to see where I am. Students may be trying to see where you are to determine if they can access a cheating implement.
    • While at the front of the room, I look around the room and determine what each student is actually doing at that moment. If they're doing something odd, I watch them with greater frequency.

2. Colluding with others during the exam

Talking to, interacting with, or text messaging other students all fall into this category; this type of cheating is feasible on just about every exam ever administered in a typical classroom.
  • I separate the students spatially as much as possible during the exam; ideally, I have empty seats between each student.
  • I randomly assign students to specific seats on the day of the exam, and change this seating arrangement for every exam. This makes it highly unlikely that students will be sitting next to someone they have pre-arranged collusion with; it also makes it unlikely that students could have planted a cheat sheet in the room before the exam. If you don't normally have a seating chart, you can write each student's name on a 3x5 card and randomly distribute those onto the desks. If your exam involves students moving between different areas of the room in a pre-determined sequence (e.g., a lab practical exam), you can randomly assign each student to a different start location (circling question numbers on the exam answer sheets and then handing them out at the start of the exam is an easy way to accomplish this).
    • This is a situation where true randomness is not necessarily desired; if you know that two students are good friends and thus are likely to help each other, ensure that they do not sit near each other.
    • If possible, I record where everyone was sitting during the exam, as this can facilitate collusion detection during grading.
  • I create multiple forms of the exam; if students are sitting close to each other, I use more than two forms.
    • If the exam involves short-answer calculation-based problems, I change the questions' numerical data on the different forms. This allows me to definitively determine if a student has colluded with (or copied from) a student who has a different form.
  • I use hidden exam forms (i.e., I do not let students know what form of the exam they have). To do this, I design the front page of the exam so that (from the students' perspective) all the exams appear identical, and I only sort the exams into their different forms after the students have left. I have the exams pre-sorted when I come to the classroom, and pass them out individually to the students.
    • Many instructors copy the alternate forms of their exam onto different colors of paper. While this makes the exams easy to distribute (every other student should have a different color of exam) and sort for grading, it immediately tells students who they should copy from or collude with.
  • If students are in a lab environment and can move from station to station, I make it difficult to write answers at each station. To do this, I lay down white paper to cover the tables and require that all students use pen (so that any writing at a station will be permanent, and thus easily detectable).
  • To prevent the extreme case of this type of cheating (i.e., a student having another person take the exam for them), require your students to show ID when they turn in their exam if you don't know them all by name. If this feels awkward, pass it off as a campus/department policy: "Sorry, but I have to do this ..."
  • I try not to grade papers or do anything that would distract my attention during an exam, as being distracted allows students to collude.
    • I regularly scan the room, trying to make eye contact with every student in the classroom; I've found that this is a great way to focus myself on finding eye-glancing collusion. Keep in mind, however, that students will be nervous during the exam and thus will be looking almost everywhere. A mere glance is not enough to warrant disciplinary action (but is enough to warrant further attention during the exam).
    • If possible, have multiple people in the room to help watch for collusion. Colluding students will likely wait to collude until you're occupied answering a question.
    • Do not be afraid to move students during the exam if you are concerned that they are colluding.
  • Students will typically collude when they think the instructor is distracted; I use this to my advantage. If I strongly suspect students are colluding, but need evidence of this for a formal charge of academic dishonesty, I'll often feign distraction while actually watching the students attentively. In lab this is easy (I can pretend I'm focusing on a model or other piece of equipment, when in reality I'm looking beside it to watch the students), but it's also do-able in lecture (lecterns and computers can sometimes require inordinate amounts of attention).

3. Obtaining test material before the exam

This may seem like one of the hardest ways to cheat, but it's actually surprisingly easy in some situations. For example, if there are multiple sections of a course taking the same exam on different days (or even at different times on the same day), students will quickly figure this out and talk to each other.
  • I change my exam questions from semester to semester. As I don't change all my questions every semester, I never allow my students to take their exams home.
  • If I am teaching multiple sections of the same course, I write a different test (or at least make a different version that has many different questions) for each section.
  • I don't let students take tests early; if I must allow this, I ensure that the student is given a different exam from what the rest of the class will see that semester. Ditto for students taking tests late.
  • I do not trust campus copy centers with my tests; I copy them myself. If you have TAs or other assistants, be cautious about giving them the exam ahead of time. If you must give your exam to other people before your students see it, give them the exam as late as possible to reduce the amount of time for information stealing or sharing.
  • If you post test questions (or keys) electronically after an exam, assume that those questions are compromised forever.
  • I write (or only finish writing) the exam as close to the exam date as is practical (to reduce the likelihood of theft or information sharing). (Yes, in fact, I do love justifying procrastination.)
  • Secure your electronic and paper copies of exams at all times. Note that the top of your office desk is not secure.

4. Cheating after the exam

This category can, in certain cases, begin to approach clearly criminal behavior (e.g., breaking into an instructor's office or hacking into an instructor's computer), and thus is often less of a concern. However, there are still some easy techniques students can use (e.g., changing answers on exams after they've been graded and returned) that fall into this category, and thus taking some basic preventive measures is prudent.
  • If possible, I make a copy of each student's graded paper before I return it to the student (many high-end copiers can now create PDFs and e-mail them to you instead of making paper copies; see if your campus has one of these). If a student finds lots of mistakes in my grading and requests a higher grade, I refer to my original copy to see if anything has been changed. I've caught multiple cheaters using this technique; it's extremely valuable, and takes relatively little time. I don't typically do this with multi-page written exams, but do it for all scantrons and single-page exams I offer.
  • If you use scantrons, investigate exam-scoring software that can print a summary of each student's responses, and return only this summary (and not the original scantron) to the student.
  • I take attendance during the exam; this makes it harder for students to (intentionally) not attend the exam and then claim I lost their exam ("So, can I take a makeup?").
  • I try to keep student exams secured at all times; it's not beyond belief to imagine a student attempting to access a stack of exams and either change their own answers or remove another student's exam.
  • Keep all official grade records (both paper and electronic) secure. Make sure your office computer requires a login to access, ensure your computer is kept up to date on security patches, backup your computer's records to non-networked media regularly, and keep official grade records locked in a filing cabinet.
I'll admit that I don't follow all of these pieces of advice all the time. However, even following a few of these will drastically reduce the likelihood that students will be able to cheat on your exams.

What to do if you catch a student cheating

Confronting cheating students is emotionally draining and takes a lot of guts (and filling out academic dishonesty reports is a tiresome, dreary task), but it's essential that you confront academically dishonest students and punish them appropriately1. If you don't, they'll just do it again, and others will see them successfully cheating without serious punishment, and thus follow their lead.

Of all the steps you take with a cheating student, reporting them to the appropriate campus authority (e.g., the Dean of Students office) is probably the most important; I do it for every student I catch. The Dean of Students office (or whatever office deals with academic dishonesty on your campus) is likely the only office on campus that can determine if a student has cheated in another class before yours, or cheats in a class after your class. Thus, reporting cheating to the appropriate authority will ensure that if your cheater has done this before, or does this again, they'll receive the appropriate punishment. Reporting the student to a higher authority also has the side benefit of being an exceptionally good punishment in its own right; I often find students are so terrified of being reported to the dean that they will offer to take a 0 on the exam and stop complaining if I just don't send them to the dean. It takes staying power to hold to a policy such as this (I've had students yell, cry, beg, plead, and accuse me of all sorts of things, though usually not all at once), but doing so is well worth it in the long run.

1 And no, public humiliation in front of a classroom does not count as a good punishment; in fact, I'd argue that public humiliation is ethically and legally questionable, as it reveals information from a student's educational record to the public in a personally identifiable manner.

Whitley, BE. 1998. Factors Associated with Cheating Among College Students: A Review. Research in Higher Education 39:3 235-274. Abstract.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The consequences of scientific fraud

The New York Times magazine has an extensive article on Eric Poehlman, a medical researcher from the University of Vermont who pled guilty to forging years worth of research data (which he published in multiple papers). The article skillfully tells the tale of how a technician in his lab detected the years of deception, the investigation that followed, and the result of his crimes (lying on a grant application is a federal crime).

Essentially, Poehlman forged data for nearly a decade in longitudinal studies of metabolic changes in women going through menopause. In general, it seems as though he made his "data" support the hypotheses most scientists already believed were correct, and thus gained prominence and funding. Of course, as an NIH researcher pointed out, forging data was hardly necessary for him to get grants:
Had Poehlman done the hard work in the menopause study, had he followed through on the unexpected data on lipids, he might have eventually achieved the same status. That is the tragic twist. "Much is revealed when studies don't go the way you expect them to," says Sally Jean Rockey of the N.I.H. "Because Poehlman was working in critical areas for lots of people, what he learned would have been important either way."
That's one of the key points that I wish my students would understand. Almost everyone who walks into my lab at the beginning of the semester believes that if the data they collect don't support their initial hypotheses, then the data must be wrong1. Instead, that's when things get interesting.

1 I have a strong suspicion that chemistry instructors are largely responsible for this belief, though I have no evidence for that.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Political news of the week take 28

[You can skip to the end of this post, if you want. See also: political news of the week takes 27, 26, 25, 24, 23, 22, 21, 20, 19, 18. 17, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9b, 9a, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

Security Operation Yields No Reduction in Baghdad Violence:
The top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq acknowledged Thursday that a much-touted security crackdown by American and Iraqi forces had failed to reduce violence in the Iraqi capital and called the results "disheartening."

With attacks in Baghdad having increased by 22 percent during the past three weeks, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV said military planners might have to go back to the drawing board.

"We're obviously very concerned about what we're seeing in the city," Caldwell said. "We're taking a lot of time to go back and look at the whole Baghdad security plan. We're asking ourselves if the conditions under which it was first devised and planned still exist today, or have the conditions changed and therefore a modification to that plan needs to be made."

Despite the joint operation, launched in June, sectarian violence between Sunni Arabs and Shiites continues unabated, Caldwell said, and insurgents are targeting American troops.

Caldwell said at least 73 U.S. troops have been killed so far this month, putting October on track to be the bloodiest month for American forces since the battle of Fallujah in 2004.


While Baghdad is the center of violence, rebels continue to attack across the nation.

In Mosul on Thursday, six car bombers blew themselves up near U.S. convoys and Iraqi police stations in a barrage of coordinated attacks that killed at least 10 Iraqis and wounded 20 others, officials said. In response to the flare-up of violence, local authorities closed all entrances to the city and imposed a curfew.

In the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, a suicide car bomber detonated a load of explosives outside a bank, killing 10 people and wounding 60 others, according to local authorities. Another bomb exploded close to a convoy carrying a local police commander, who survived the attack. A third bomb in the city hit a police patrol, injuring three officers, authorities said.

Three people were killed in various assassinations in Basra, and rockets were fired at British bases in the southern city as well as its airport, according to police. Black-clad Shiite militiamen swarmed the oil-rich city of Amara, all but taking over the town amid clashes spurred by the killing of the provincial head of intelligence a day earlier and the retaliatory kidnapping of a militia's leader's brother.

Many Iraqis Look to Gunmen as Protectors:
Behind the maze of men with guns in Iraq is a very simple truth: their barrels offer protection, something Iraqis say the government has never given them.

On Friday, the web wound tightly around the southern city of Amara, where the two largest and best-armed militias, both made up of religious Shiites, were fighting for control of the city.

But when the prime minister speaks of disarming militias — those mushrooming armies of men with guns that carry out most of the killing here — Iraqi brows begin to furrow.

“He’s just talking,” snapped Fadhil Sabri, a 37-year-old generator repairman in a grease-stained shop in Sadr City, a Baghdad stronghold of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia.

“Not now. Not even in 10 years. You need arms to defend yourself,” he said.

Iraq is awash in killings, and many are blamed on the Mahdi Army, the militia commanded by a glowering Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr. An indignant Mr. Sadr called his men to fight against the American military twice in 2004. It was bloodied, but survived. Since then the Mahdi Army, and a growing criminal breakaway element, have grown into one of the government’s biggest problems and are a major obstacle to the success of the American enterprise here.

Despite its new rogue fringe, Iraqi Shiites see the Mahdi militia as their most effective protector against the hostile Sunni groups that have slaughtered Shiites and driven them from their homes. Shiites say that as long as the government cannot keep them safe, they cannot support the disarming of militias.

That paradox confronts the American military as it presses the Iraqi government to contain militias like Mr. Sadr’s: how is it possible to control a militia when trust among Iraqis has vanished and the government is incapable of containing the spiraling violence?

Court Told It Lacks Power in Detainee Cases:
Moving quickly to implement the bill signed by President Bush this week that authorizes military trials of enemy combatants, the administration has formally notified the U.S. District Court here that it no longer has jurisdiction to consider hundreds of habeas corpus petitions filed by inmates at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.

In a notice dated Wednesday, the Justice Department listed 196 pending habeas cases, some of which cover groups of detainees. The new Military Commissions Act (MCA), it said, provides that "no court, justice, or judge" can consider those petitions or other actions related to treatment or imprisonment filed by anyone designated as an enemy combatant, now or in the future.

Beyond those already imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay or elsewhere, the law applies to all non-U.S. citizens, including permanent U.S. residents.

The new law already has been challenged as unconstitutional by lawyers representing the petitioners. The issue of detainee rights is likely to reach the Supreme Court for a third time.

Habeas corpus, a Latin term meaning "you have the body," is one of the oldest principles of English and American law. It requires the government to show a legal basis for holding a prisoner. A series of unresolved federal court cases brought against the administration over the last several years by lawyers representing the detainees had left the question in limbo.

Two years ago, in Rasul v. Bush, which gave Guantanamo detainees the right to challenge their detention before a U.S. court, and in this year's Hamdan v. Rumsfeld , the Supreme Court appeared to settle the issue in favor of the detainees. But the new legislation approved by Congress last month, which gives Bush the authority to try detainees before military commissions, included a provision removing judicial review for all habeas claims.

In the Land of the Taliban - excellent reporting from the New York Times about life in Afghanistan. A long report, but worth reading.
I went to Afghanistan and Pakistan this summer to understand how and why the Taliban were making a comeback five years after American and Afghan forces drove them from power. What kind of experience would lead Afghans to reject what seemed to be an emerging democratic government? Had we missed something that made Taliban rule appealing? Were they the only opposition the aggrieved could turn to? Or, as many Afghans were saying, was this Pakistan up to its old tricks — cooperating with the Americans and Karzai while conspiring to bring back the Taliban, who had been valued “assets” before 9/11?

And why has the Bush administration’s message remained that Afghanistan is a success, Iraq a challenge? “In Afghanistan, the trajectory is a hopeful and promising one,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wrote on the op-ed page of The Washington Post earlier this month. Afghanistan’s rise from the ashes of the anti-Taliban war would mean that the Bush administration was prevailing in replacing terror with democracy and human rights.

Meanwhile, a counternarrative was emerging, and it belonged to the Taliban, or the A.C.M., as NATO officers call them — the Anti-Coalition Militia. In Kabul, Kandahar and Pakistan, I found their video discs and tapes in the markets. They invoke a nostalgia for the jihad against the Russians and inspire their viewers to rise up again. One begins with clattering Chinooks disgorging American soldiers into the desert. Then we see the new Afghan government onstage, focusing in on the Northern Alliance warlords — Abdul Rashid Dostum, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Karim Khalili, Muhammad Fahim, Ismail Khan, Abdul Sayyaf. It cuts to American soldiers doing push-ups and pinpointing targets on maps; next it shows bombs the size of bathtubs dropping from planes and missiles emblazoned with “Royal Navy” rocketing through the sky; then it moves to hospital beds and wounded children. Message: America and Britain brought back the warlords and bombed your children. In the next clip, there are metal cages under floodlights and men in orange jumpsuits, bowed and crouching. It cuts back to the wild eyes of John Walker Lindh and shows trucks hauling containers crammed with young Afghan and Pakistani prisoners — Taliban, hundreds of whom would suffocate to death in those containers, supposedly at the command of the warlord and current army chief of staff, General Dostum. Then back to American guards wheeling hunger-striking Guantánamo prisoners on gurneys. Interspliced are older images, a bit fuzzy, of young Afghan men, hands tied behind their backs, heads bowed, hauled off by Communist guards. The message: Foreigners have invaded our lands again; Americans, Russians — no difference.

Gotta get my ears checked ...

Think Progress has a video clip of Bush claiming that "we’ve never been 'stay the course,'" in Iraq.

Really? Guess I must have been mis-hearing all these years now.

Good thing our chocolate rations were raised this week.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Dean Dad explains all

I always knew that a subset of people with a certain personality type were responsible for the majority of my unpleasant experiences as a faculty member. Now, thanks to Dean Dad, I have a term for that personality type: victim bully. Go read his excellent description; I'm sure you know a few. And, as one of the commenters points out, victim bullies are found not only among faculty, but also among students. How I dread them.

Remember that online course proposal I submitted?

Probably not.

After all, I decided to start writing the proposal to teach my majors' biology course online way back in April. A few days after I decided to write the proposal I asked a quick question about its design here on the blog1, and then submitted the finished proposal to our curriculum committee in early May.

The committee finally approved the course this week. It only took five months and three additional revisions of the outline, but it's done.

Let me back up a second to help those who are not enmeshed in academia. Courses taught at community colleges must be approved by some sort of oversight body; at the campus level this is usually a curriculum committee, but there are often many layers of bureaucracy above that committee (e.g., in California the chancellor's office has final say over most courses, though thankfully they don't get involved too often). These curriculum committees approve official course outlines; these are not the course syllabi handed out at the beginning of the semester, but instead are a general summary of the content covered in a course, the way that content will be taught, the objectives of the course, and other things (e.g., the campus facilities required to teach the course). These official outlines are critically important at community colleges, as they're the documents that are sent to four-year universities to determine whether our courses will transfer to their esteemed institutions.

Teaching a course online at my campus requires adding a special online supplement to that course's official outline. Thus, since I wanted to teach my biology course's lecture online, I had to modify the course outline and get it approved by the committee. Filling out all the required paperwork and hunting down people to get signatures was time-consuming. Being asked to do three revisions of the course outline was frustrating. But even more frustrating was that none of the requested revisions had anything to do with the online component of the course I was proposing (which was the only major change to the outline). Instead, our campus has recently decided that all courses must have Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs2, which are somehow different from objectives in a way nobody has yet concisely explained), and thus the committee kept bouncing my outline back because my SLOs weren't good enough (they didn't use the proper verbs, even though the SLOs I originally used were written by a state-wide body of biology faculty).

In any case, I will now have the option to teach my primary course's lecture online starting in fall 2007. Now all I have to do is figure out how I'll do it.

1 Many thanks to everyone who responded to this post and helped me design the online course!
2 This has to be one of the best acronyms ever.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Saving the disappearing web with wget

Anyone who has browsed the web for a while knows the frustration of finding an extremely cool site, only to return to it later and find that it's been taken down. The Internet Archive can often help find the lost information, but it's far from perfect.

Thus, it's with great joy that I've discovered wget, a small Linux application that automates the downloading and archiving of websites. Wget runs from the command line and is very flexible; it can do everything from save a single file ("wget http://mydomain/myfile") to saving lists of files or entire sites.

If you know all the URLs that you want to save, you can simple put them in a file (each URL on a separate line) and then tell wget to download all the URLs in that file ("wget -i file_with_urls.txt"). This can be handy if you have a lot of files with similar names that you want to download (e.g., a bunch of videos titled "" "" etc.).

The program can also recursively travel through a website's files and download all the content from the site; this is what I've started doing on a few of the sites that have information I'd like to keep for the long term. The command line flag to do this is -r (e.g., "wget -r http://mydomain"), but there are a few options that you might want to consider using along with the -r flag:
  • -l X - limits the depth of the recursion to the number specified (X) after the flag.
  • -k - converts the links in the saved files so that they refer to the files downloaded onto your computer, unless the files they refer to weren't downloaded (e.g., they exceeded the depth you specified), in which case the links are re-coded to refer to the original site.
  • -p - downloads everything required to view the page properly (e.g., CSS sheets or files that would otherwise have been rejected)
  • -w X - specifies the number of seconds (X) that wget should wait between each download.
  • --random-wait - randomly varies the number of seconds specified by -w between each file download; this apparently helps prevent sites from detecting automated downloads and blocking them
  • -H - spans the domains referred to by the pages when recursing (use with care)
  • -D X - spans the domains contained in the comma-separated list (X) when recursing
  • -0 X - sends all output to a file (X) instead of the terminal
  • -b - starts wget in the background
The -k option is insanely useful, as it rewrites the pages to make them browsable offline; without that option, any links that were hard-coded to refer to the original site would direct you back to the site, even if you were browsing from the copy you had saved.

So, for instance, to download a backup copy of my blog that's browsable offline and contains all the pictures and other content I host on external sites, I use the command:
wget -rkpl 3 -w 5 --random-wait -bo rhosgobel_bkup_log.txt -HD ",,,"
To watch the progress all I have to do is "tail -f rhosgobel_bkup_log.txt". The only two problems with this scheme is that (where I posted some pictures in 2004) has a robots.txt file that stops wget from downloading files from it, and I also end up getting more than just my own pictures on Flickr (but by limiting wget to 3 iterations I don't get too many extra pictures).

I can change the options to suit my needs: if I want to create a backup with the original links intact (i.e., not re-written to be browsable offline) I just remove the "k" option; if I want just the text of my posts without pictures or content I've posted on other sites I remove the -HD "..." option. So, as another example, here's the command I use to download a backup copy of my blog (without images) that leaves all links intact (i.e., it's suitable for re-uploading if my blog ever got deleted / erased):
wget -rp -w 5 --random-wait -bo rhosgobel_bkup_log.txt -HD ","
Wget (of course) has an insane number of options that I haven't listed; to see them all refer to its man page.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Pretty pictures!

A few weeks ago NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (wikipedia) returned high-resolution pictures of Victoria Crater, the location where one of the Mars rovers is currently operating. The high-resolution image (linked to from this page) is just amazing - once you zoom in, you can see the little rover sitting on the edge of this giant crater (see the annotated image to know where to look). It's gorgeous.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Political links of the week take 27

[You can skip to the end of this post, if you want. See also: political news of the week takes 26, 25, 24, 23, 22, 21, 20, 19, 18. 17, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9b, 9a, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

Study: War blamed for 655,000 Iraqi deaths:
War has wiped out about 655,000 Iraqis or more than 500 people a day since the U.S.-led invasion, a new study reports.

Violence including gunfire and bombs caused the majority of deaths but thousands of people died from worsening health and environmental conditions directly related to the conflict that began in 2003, U.S. and Iraqi public health researchers said.

"Since March 2003, an additional 2.5 percent of Iraq's population have died above what would have occurred without conflict," according to the survey of Iraqi households, titled "The Human Cost of the War in Iraq." (Watch as the study's startling results are revealed -- 1:55 Video)

The survey, being published online by British medical journal The Lancet, gives a far higher number of deaths in Iraq than other organizations. (Read the full report -- pdf)

President Bush slammed the report Wednesday during a news conference in the White House Rose Garden. "I don't consider it a credible report. Neither does Gen. (George) Casey," he said, referring to the top ranking U.S. military official in Iraq, "and neither do Iraqi officials."

"The methodology is pretty well discredited," he added.

Ali Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman, said in a statement that the report "gives exaggerated figures that contradict the simplest rules of accuracy and investigation."

Last December, Bush said that he estimated about 30,000 people had died since the war began.

When pressed whether he stood by that figure Wednesday, he said, "I stand by the figure a lot of innocent people have lost their life. Six hundred thousand -- whatever they guessed at -- is just not credible."

Researchers randomly selected 1,849 households across Iraq and asked questions about births and deaths and migration for the study led by Gilbert Burnham of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland.

They extrapolated the figures to reflect the national picture, saying Iraq's death rate had more than doubled since the invasion.

Report: British Army chief calls for Iraq pullout (original article in the London Daily Mail):
The chief of the British Army has called for a pullout of British troops from Iraq "sometime soon" and said that post-invasion planning for that war was "poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning."

Gen. Richard Dannatt told London's Daily Mail newspaper that he had "more optimism" that "we can get it right in Afghanistan."

Dannatt said that Britain's continued presence in Iraq had made the country less secure.

Britain should "get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates security problems," he told the newspaper in an interview published Thursday.

"I don't say that the difficulties we are experiencing round the world are caused by our presence in Iraq, but undoubtedly our presence in Iraq exacerbates them."

Dannatt, who took over as the Army's chief of general staff in August, said that the U.S.-led coalition's plan to establish a democracy in Iraq that would be "exemplar for the region" was unlikely to happen.

"That was the hope, whether that was a sensible or naive hope, history will judge," he said. "I don't think we are going to do that. I think we should aim for a lower ambition."

Dannatt's views directly contradicts the position of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is a staunch supporter of the war and U.S. President George W. Bush's closest ally in the fight.

Blair and Bush both insist that troops must stay in Iraq until Iraqi security forces are able to stand up on their own.

But with the country edging nearer to civil war -- if not already immersed in it -- Dannatt said that the strategy for implementing an Iraqi democracy was ill-prepared.

""I think history will show that the planning for what happened after the initial, successful war-fighting phase was poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning," he said.

Dannatt said that Britain had essentially overstayed its welcome in Iraq.

"The military campaign we fought in 2003 effectively kicked the door in," he said, noting that was a far cry from being invited into the country.

"Whatever consent we may have had in the first place may have turned to tolerance and has largely turned to intolerance."

At Least 75 Bodies Found in Baghdad Since Monday (written on Tuesday 10/10/06):
At least 75 corpses have been found in the Baghdad area since Monday morning, authorities said today, most of them bound, riddled with bullets, and showing signs of torture.

The grim discoveries reflected a familiar pattern of death-squad killings and sectarian violence in the Iraqi capital.

A Ministry of Interior spokesman said today that 60 of the bodies were found in Baghdad in the 24-hour period ending this morning, while 15 more were discovered during the day today.

In addition, at least five bombs exploded in the capital area, killing at least 14 civilians and 6 policemen, and injuring 23 people, the ministry and the police sources said.

The discovery of the bodies recalled a day just over a week ago when as many as 60 corpses were found in the capital, many of them apparently shot in the head at close range after being tortured. Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, a United States military spokesman, said at the time that such killings and other murders continued to claim more people in Baghdad than suicide bombings did.

Sectarian Killings in Iraq Leave 83 Dead in 2 Days (written on Sunday 10/15/06):
At least 83 people were killed during a two-day spree of sectarian revenge killings, as Iraq's government said Sunday it was indefinitely postponing a much-anticipated national reconciliation conference.

Separately, the U.S. military reported the deaths of a Marine and four soldiers.

A brief statement from the Ministry of State for National Dialogue said only that the Iraqi political powers conference planned for Saturday had been put off because of unspecified ''emergency reasons out of the control of the ministry.''

The failure to bring Iraq's divided politicians together appeared likely to hurt Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's attempts to strengthen political consensus, underscoring the effect worsening violence is having on efforts to stabilize the U.S.-backed government and curb the bloodshed.

An Iraqi militant group that includes al-Qaida in Iraq announced Sunday in a video that it has established an Islamic Iraqi state, comprising six provinces -- including Baghdad -- that are largely Sunni and parts of two central provinces that are predominiately Shiite.

That statement came from the Mujahedeen Shura Council -- an umbrella organization of insurgent groups in Iraq that have be trying to drive out U.S. forces and topple Iraq's fragile government.

''We bring you good news of the founding and the formation of the Islamic Iraqi State ... to protect our people,'' said a man identified in the video as the group's spokesman.

Biologist Bushwhacks His Way to Court:
He has spent decades working to protect Los Angeles' endangered Ballona Wetlands.

But did environmentalist Roy van de Hoek go too far when he took his pruning shears to a nonnative tree and plants in the Westside nature preserve?

Los Angeles prosecutors say yes. They have filed six vandalism counts against Van de Hoek, alleging that he entered the wetlands without permission and destroyed city parks property when he cut down the invasive plants. If convicted, he could face six years in prison and fines of up to $15,000.

Conservationists who support the veteran ecologist disagree. They assert that the prosecution is simply payback from those who for years have felt the sting of Van de Hoek's activism. The case, they suggest, is designed to scare away others from actively harvesting invasive plants from local nature preserves.

Van de Hoek has not denied cutting the plants. Characterizing the eradication work as a continuation of his years of plant removal in the wetlands, he said he intends to plead not guilty to the charges Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court. But for now, he has been banned from leading tours and doing rehabilitation work at the wetlands, where Ballona Creek meets the ocean south of Marina del Rey.

"My entire life has been dedicated to conservation, preservation and restoration of endangered species and wild lands," said Van de Hoek, 50, of Playa del Rey.

Friday, October 13, 2006

This is what you can look forward to when you're tenured

My SO and I both got home after 8pm tonight (after days that included at least two sequential meetings), and after having some quick snacks we will shortly collapse into bed. Other people go out and do interesting things on Friday nights; we go to bed early. We lead such exciting lives.

Besides the near-imminent shutdown of our field program (and the morass of politics surrounding that whole issue1, which will stay frustratingly undecided for at least two more months), there's nothing unusually stressful going on at work (heck, I'm under-load this semester). Work just keeps piling up on my desk, and I keep coming home exhausted.

So much for the relaxing, obligation-free lifestyle of the young and tenured that I'd heard so much about.

1 I will admit that this has been eating away at me for the past month, and is partially to blame for the slow blogging. It's hard to get excited about blogging when all one wants to do is write about the glorious possibilities that were and the frustration of fighting a huge bureaucracy wherein everyone asks "how can I help?" yet nobody can actually do any helping.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Nice fungi!

UBC Botany Photo of the Day recently linked to a mosaic of 36 different pictures of fungi. Go and wonder at the diversity of kingdom Fungi (even though the pictures focus primarily on members of a single fungal phylum, but we'll ignore that).

Why I shouldn't try to grade at home

This morning I decided to stay home and try to get some grading done. So far, in the 30 minutes that I've tried to work on grading I've had two door-to-door salesman stop by. Here are the conversations, word-for-word1.

First to drop by was a Jehovah's Witness:

Me: "You don't look like you're with UPS, FedEx, or USPS."
JW: "I'm sharing information about this book ..."
Me: "Please go away."
JW: "But I'm an important representative of God."
Me: "Not interested."
JW: "Eternal soul? God?"
Me: "Go away."
JW: "Okay."

Then, only a few minutes later, a traveling salesman rang the doorbell.

Me: "Oh boy, another one! How much of a heretic can I appear to be this time?"
TS: "Hi, I'm here selling what appears to be cheap new insulation, since it's 50% off and will reduce summertime temperatures by 15 degrees2, but I'm really selling overpriced crappy insulation you can by at Home Depot for 1/4 what we'll charge you."
Me: "Um, thank you."
TS: "Small pleasantries to get you to chat."
Me: "Smaller pleasantries to respond."
TS: "So, what's your wife's name."
Me: "Why?"
TS: "Oh, so we can make sure she's home when our sleazy salesman does his pitch so he can get a commitment on the spot and sell you something you don't want. It's a key sales tactic, you know."
Me: "Ah."
TS: "So, wife's name?"
Me: "Just give me the flier so I can politely appear to be interested in your product without ever actually planning to contact you or your kin again."
TS: "But we'll be around this Thursday night selling people things they need and really should buy, but at prices so high you can't believe the profit we'll be making. This Thursday! Your neighbors have already signed up! When will you and your wife be around?"
Me: "The residents of this house work odd hours."
TS: "But you'll be around sometime, right?"
Me: "No."3
TS: "Oh."
Me: "Give me your flier. I'll recycle it and never call your sleazy company, but you can tell your boss that you gave me the flier and I told you I'll call them. Then you can leave right after you give it to me."

TS: "Okay"

Well, back to grading.

1 Conversations slightly altered for comedic effect.
2 Who knew attic insulation could fix global warming? They should really advertise this more!
3 Note to self: be sure to be around on Thursday night.


The 10-minute version of The Count of Monte Cristo

I just finished reading The Count of Monte Cristo last week, and as a result my SO and I have been pondering what must have been cut out of the original to create a two hour action/adventure movie suitable for children.

In fact, we've been having so much fun that we ended up writing our own horribly mangled version. What follows is our 10-minute movie adaptation of the book (caution: a few spoilers follow, but not many).
Our hero, Edmond Dantes, walks off a ship and into his waiting lover's embrace. Three characters in dark cloaks sit in a nearby restaurant and watch. "I don't like him," says one. "Nor do I," says the other. "Let's unjustly send him to jail," says the third. All three laugh maniacally.

Cut to Dantes being surrounded by police and led to jail. Cut to Dantes in jail. Dantes meets another prisoner who says there's treasure hidden on some island. Cut to Dantes being thrown off a cliff and out of jail. Cut to Dantes on deserted island throwing jewels and gold coins over his head and laughing gleefully.

Cut to Dantes in a Paris restaurant. As he eats a fine meal, he sees the three conspirators walk past, still wearing dark cloaks. Cut to Dantes leaving the restaurant and entering his coach. Dantes takes the reins of the coach from its driver, and in a stunningly-filmed 3-minute long chase scene follows the three conspirators as they flee through Paris, ending with him running them over and killing them. Cut to Dantes tossing a few coins to some street urchins as he leaves the gates of Paris and rides off into the sunset.
Yep, it's got it all. Loss. Revenge. Action. Redemption. Paris in the 1800s.

Anyone want to buy the rights?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Chai - Indian spiced tea

My SO and I are both tea drinkers, but never drank a lot of chai until my parents bought us a chai mix for Christmas last year. We enjoyed the mix, but now that we're almost out of it we wanted to learn how to make chai from scratch. Sahni (1980) came to the rescue, and since we always have leaf tea and Indian spices on hand (thank you Upton Tea Imports and Penzeys), it was relatively easy to make. As we just made a batch this morning, this recipe is this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

6 cups water
1 cup milk
12 whole black peppercorns
6 whole green cardamom pods (or 4 whole green and 1 black cardamom pod)
6 whole cloves
1 3-inch stick cinnamon
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons Assam leaf tea

0a. Measure out the peppercorns, cardamom pods, cloves, cinnamon, and sugar and have them ready to add.
0b. Prepare a container that can hold 2 quarts of boiling liquid, and get a strainer ready (see notes).
1. Bring the water and milk to a boil in a pot over high heat; watch the pot carefully as it nears a boil, as it may foam up and boil over.
2. As soon as the milk and water boil, add the peppercorns, cardamom pods, cloves, cinnamon, and sugar, stir to mix, and remove from the heat.
3. Let sit, covered, for 10 minutes.
4. Return the contents of the pot to a boil, add the tea, lower the heat, and stir.
5. Simmer, covered, for 5 minutes. Keep a close eye on the pot, as the contents may try to boil over (especially if you have a slow electric stove, as we do); if you're worried about the contents boiling over, partially cover the pot for the first minute or two.
6. Immediately strain the tea into a container capable of holding 2 quarts of boiling liquid; if the tea leaves are left in (i.e., if you don't strain it), the tea will become overly strong and bitter.
7. Serve with additional milk or sugar, if desired.


Leftovers store well in the fridge, and are easily reheated in the microwave or on the stove.

To strain the chai we use a wire mesh strainer; cheesecloth over a colander should work just as well. We'd recommend against putting the tea in one of those small metal tea balls, as they don't have enough volume to allow the tea to steep properly; it's better to let the tea leaves drift in the pot and then filter them out at the end of the brewing period.

We like our chai relatively sweet, and thus we've increased the amount of sugar in the recipe from what Sahni specifies; if you don't normally put sugar in your tea, you might want to cut the amount of sugar added by half. We typically add a little splash of milk to our cups when we serve the chai, which conveniently helps cool it.

For those more knowledgeable about tea than us, we're currently using Upton Tea's Hajua Estate CTC BPS Assam tea; we haven't tried this recipe with other varieties of tea. Sahni reports that you can use 9 orange pekoe tea bags instead of loose leaf tea, but we strongly encourage the use of loose leaf teas for all your tea making endeavors. The tea in tea bags is typically composed of tiny fragments of tea leaves (tea dust, essentially) that often aren't as fresh or flavorful as loose leaf teas.

Sahni, Julie. 1980. Classic Indian Cooking. William Morrow & Co, NY. pp. 486-487.

Political news of the week take 26

[You can skip to the end of this post, if you want. See also: political news of the week takes 25, 24, 23, 22, 21, 20, 19, 18. 17, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9b, 9a, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

Corpsman Admits to Conspiracy in Iraqi's Death:
A Navy corpsman pleaded guilty today to conspiracy and kidnapping in connection with the April death of an Iraqi man in which seven Marines are charged with murder.

In a barely audible voice, Petty Officer 3rd Class Melson Bacos admitted he conspired to take 52-year-old Hashim Ibrahim Awad from his home in Hamandiya, west of Baghdad, plant evidence near his body and lie to his superiors about the shooting incident.

As Exemptions Grow, Religion Outweighs Regulation (see also this post from PZ Myers):
At any moment, state inspectors can step uninvited into one of the three child care centers that Ethel White runs in Auburn, Ala., to make sure they meet state requirements intended to ensure that the children are safe. There must be continuing training for the staff. Her nurseries must have two sinks, one exclusively for food preparation. All cabinets must have safety locks. Medications for the children must be kept under lock and key, and refrigerated.

The Rev. Ray Fuson of the Harvest Temple Church of God in Montgomery, Ala., does not have to worry about unannounced state inspections at the day care center his church runs. Alabama exempts church day care programs from state licensing requirements, which were tightened after almost a dozen children died in licensed and unlicensed day care centers in the state in two years.


An analysis by The New York Times of laws passed since 1989 shows that more than 200 special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents were tucked into Congressional legislation, covering topics ranging from pensions to immigration to land use. New breaks have also been provided by a host of pivotal court decisions at the state and federal level, and by numerous rule changes in almost every department and agency of the executive branch.


Governments have been as generous with tax breaks as with regulatory exemptions. Congress has imposed limits on the I.R.S.’s ability to audit churches, synagogues and other religious congregations. And beyond the federal income tax exemption they share with all nonprofit groups, houses of worship have long been granted an exemption from local property taxes in every state.

As religious activities expand far beyond weekly worship, that venerable tax break is expanding, too. In recent years, a church-run fitness center with a tanning bed and video arcade in Minnesota, a biblical theme park in Florida, a ministry’s 1,800-acre training retreat and conference center in Michigan, religious broadcasters’ transmission towers in Washington State, and housing for teachers at church-run schools in Alaska have all been granted tax breaks by local officials — or, when they balked, by the courts or state legislators.

These organizations and their leaders still rely on public services — police and fire protection, street lights and storm drains, highway and bridge maintenance, food and drug inspections, national defense. But their tax exemptions shift the cost of providing those benefits onto other citizens. The total cost nationwide is not known, because no one keeps track.

Early Warning on Foley Cited by Former Aide:
A former Congressional aide said Wednesday that Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s office knew about reports of “inappropriate behavior” by Representative Mark Foley far earlier than Mr. Hastert’s office has acknowledged.

Mr. Hastert’s chief of staff, Scott Palmer, denied the account of the former aide, Kirk Fordham, who said in an interview that he had informed Mr. Palmer of the concerns about Mr. Foley before 2004. Mr. Hastert’s office had previously said it first learned of concerns about Mr. Foley in the fall of 2005.

Mr. Fordham worked in Mr. Foley’s office until January 2004, and on Wednesday, he resigned as chief of staff to Representative Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, chairman of the House Republican campaign committee. Mr. Fordham said he had become a political liability in Mr. Reynolds’s re-election campaign.

Mr. Fordham’s assertion about early reports raised more questions about whether Mr. Hastert and his staff had failed to respond quickly and forcefully enough to multiple warnings about the conduct of Mr. Foley, the Florida Republican who resigned from the House on Friday after being confronted with sexually explicit messages he had sent to teenage pages.

The statement further clouded Mr. Hastert’s prospects of retaining his position as speaker as his party reached for a strategy to deal with a controversy that seems to have undermined its chances of keeping control of Congress on Election Day.

“I had more than one conversation with senior staff at the highest levels of the House of Representatives, asking them to intervene when I was informed of Mr. Foley’s inappropriate behavior,” Mr. Fordham said after resigning from Mr. Reynolds’s staff. “I have no congressman and no office to protect.”

Mr. Fordham said he had informed Mr. Palmer of the concerns while working for Mr. Foley, after the House clerk, Jeff Trandahl, approached him. Mr. Trandahl told him, Mr. Fordham said, that pages had come forward with accounts about Mr. Foley’s behavior. Mr. Trandahl, who resigned his position last year, did not return calls on Wednesday.

The accounts did not include accusations of overtly sexual advances and did not involve e-mail or instant messages of the sort that surfaced last week, Mr. Fordham said. Instead, they encompassed reports that Mr. Foley had been “way too friendly” toward the pages, he said.

Mr. Fordham said that he could not recall the specific date of his meeting with Mr. Palmer, but that it was between 2001 and the end of 2003.

A spokesman for Mr. Hastert, Ron Bonjean, issued a statement in Mr. Palmer’s name saying, “What Kirk Fordham said did not happen.”

Bush Balks at Criteria for FEMA Director:
President Bush reserved the right to ignore key changes in Congress's overhaul of the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- including a requirement to appoint someone with experience handling disasters as the agency's head -- in setting aside dozens of provisions contained in a major homeland security spending bill this week.

Besides objecting to Congress's list of qualifications for FEMA's director, the White House also claimed the right to edit or withhold reports to Congress by a watchdog agency within the Department of Homeland Security that is responsible for protecting Americans' personal privacy

The standards for the FEMA director were inspired by criticism of former FEMA chief Michael D. Brown's performance after Hurricane Katrina last year. Brown, a lawyer and judge of Arabian horses, had no experience in disaster response before joining FEMA.

Bush's moves came in a controversial assertion of executive authority known as a "signing statement," which the White House issued late Wednesday, the same day the president signed the $34.8 billion measure. Congress has assailed the unprecedented extent of Bush's use of signing statements to reinterpret or repudiate measures approved by lawmakers instead of exercising a formal veto.


Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Senate's Katrina investigation, said its findings showed that the president needs a principal adviser for emergency management, as he has on military matters in the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Congress sets job requirements for officials from the U.S. solicitor general to the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she said. They are comparable to the five years of management experience and demonstrated emergency-management skills it mandated for the head of FEMA, she said. The director also should be allowed to make recommendations directly to Congress, she said, authority that the White House rejected.

"Congress needs a forthright assessment of the state of the nation's preparedness from the FEMA director," Collins said.

Rumsfeld Shift Lets Army Seek Larger Budget:
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is allowing the Army to approach White House budget officials by itself to argue for substantial increases in resources, a significant divergence from initial plans by Mr. Rumsfeld and his inner circle to cut the Army to pay for new technology and a new way of war.

With its troops and equipment worn down by years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army appears likely to receive a significant spike in its share of the Pentagon’s budget request when it goes to Congress early next year. Significantly, increases to the size of the Army made by Congress since 2001, amounting to 30,000 troops, have become a permanent fixture of the force, military and Congressional officials say.

Beyond that, the Army is discussing internally whether it should expand by tens of thousands more, as some in Congress have long advocated. This time, Mr. Rumsfeld is not standing in the way. His original vision for a transformed military called for leaner, more agile forces capitalizing on the latest technological innovations.

U.S. Rules Allow the Sale of Products Others Ban:
Destined for American kitchens, planks of birch and poplar plywood are stacked to the ceiling of a cavernous port warehouse. The wood, which arrived in California via a cargo ship, carries two labels: One proclaims "Made in China," while the other warns that it contains formaldehyde, a cancer-causing chemical.

Because formaldehyde wafts off the glues in this plywood, it is illegal to sell in many countries — even the one where it originated, China. But in the United States this wood is legal, and it is routinely crafted into cabinets and furniture.

As the European Union and other nations have tightened their environmental standards, mostly in the last two years, manufacturers — here and around the world — are selling goods to American consumers that fail to meet other nations' stringent laws for toxic chemicals.


Last year alone, China exported to the United States more than half a billion dollars' worth of hardwood plywood — enough to build cabinets for 2 million kitchens, a sixfold increase since 2002. Though China sends low-formaldehyde timber to Japan and Europe, Americans are getting wood that emits substantially higher levels of the chemical.

One birch plank from China, bought at a Home Depot store in Portland, gave off 100 times more formaldehyde than legal in Japan and 30 times more than allowed in Europe and China, according to July tests conducted by a lab hired by an Oregon-based wood products manufacturer. Formaldehyde exposure has been shown in human studies to cause nose and throat cancer and possibly leukemia, as well as allergic reactions, asthma attacks, headaches and sore throats.


In the wood industry, even though low-cost, chemical-free substitutes are available, much of the plywood, fiberboard and particleboard sold in the United States is manufactured with adhesives, or glues, that contain formaldehyde, said Michael Wolfe, a wood products consultant in Emeryville, Calif.