Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Good News From Afghanistan

An article in the U.K. Telegraph tells of heartening developments in Afghanistan:

One of the Taliban's most senior and charismatic commanders has become a key negotiator as more and more members of the Islamic militia in Afghanistan give up the fight against the Americans. The commander, Abdul Salam, earned the nickname Mullah Rockety because he was so accurate with rocket propelled grenades against Russian troops.

He later joined the Taliban as a corps commander in Jalalabad before being captured by the Americans after September 11. Now he is a supporter of President Hamid Karzai and is tempting diehard Taliban fighters to accept an amnesty offer and reconcile themselves to Afghanistan's first directly elected leader.

"The Taliban has lost its morale," he said, speaking by satellite phone from the heartlands of Zabul province, a Taliban redoubt. "But you have to go and find the Taliban and call to them and ask them directly. If they believe they will be secure and safe they will come down from the mountains."

After the Taliban's three-year struggle against a superior US force, there is growing optimism among the Americans and Afghan government that the end is close. More than 1,000 people have died in violence in the past 18 months, but attacks have tailed off since the guerrillas failed to make good their vow to disrupt the presidential election in October, which saw a huge turnout and was won by Mr Karzai.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Afghanistan, said yesterday that a group of Taliban militia including senior officials will soon join the Afghan government's peace initiative. "They are in Kabul seeking peace and to boost the reconciliation process," he said, adding that he was hopeful that the Taliban surrender would take place before the parliamentary elections, expected in the summer.

Afghan officials claimed in recent days that four unnamed senior figures from the former Taliban government have accepted the US-backed offer of amnesty extended to them by Mr Karzai's government and will form a new party for the elections. "This step is a great encouragement to other Taliban to end their struggle," said Mullah Rockety. "I have said to the Taliban that now is the time for unity, the time for Afghan brother to stop killing Afghan brother."

He claimed that negotiations are close to success with Mullah Mohammed Ghaus, the former Taliban foreign affairs minister. The amnesty offer is expected to be available to all but Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, and a list of about 150 named Taliban suspected of war crimes and links to al-Qa'eda.

Mullah Khaksar Akhund, once the Taliban deputy interior minister, said: "This [reconciliation] is a very good step for the people of Afghanistan. It is very good that the Karzai government has chosen to negotiate with the Taliban. "The government should not consist of one party, everybody has the right to a part of the government."

The Taliban are giving up in Afghanistan and the Baathists appear to be looking for a way to give up in Iraq. One doesn't wish to get one's hopes too high, but surely this is cause for optimism. We can only wonder why the American MSM haven't seized upon this story. Well, maybe we don't have to wonder.

Thanks for the tip to Captain's Quarters

It's Just as Well

The French are opposed to having their military train Iraqi security forces. No doubt this is just as well. We probably don't want the Iraqis to be trained to fight like the French anyway. Come to think of it, maybe we could persuade the French to train the insurgents.

Making Your Opponent's Case

A recent issue of Discover magazine carried an article by science writer Carl Zimmer on the work of a research team at the University of Michigan which is doing computer simulations of evolution with a program called Avida. Zimmer was rather excited about the implications of the Avida team's work, suggesting that they were on the verge of proving Darwinian evolution. A careful reading of the article, however, fails to give much support to this hope.

Jonathon Wells of the Discovery Institute has written something of a parodic review of the original Zimmer piece titled Darwinists Prove That Computers Work:

For centuries breeders have been modifying existing species by selecting desirable variations, yet this procedure has never produced a new species. Still less has it produced new organs or body plans. In 1859, however, Charles Darwin wrote that variation and selection explain the origin of species and all of life's diversity, and his faithful followers are still looking for evidence that he was right. Frustrated by the obstinate refusal of real organisms to obey Darwin's dictates, researchers at Michigan State University have turned to computers. Using a software program called Avida, they have now succeeded in proving that if a computer is instructed to generate a program capable of doing basic arithmetic it can eventually ... do basic arithmetic!

Naive amateurs might think that Darwin's theory is supposed to be about the evolution of living things, and that neither computers nor computer programs are alive. But Darwin's followers have cleverly overcome this naive objection by re-defining "life" to mean "that which evolves by mutation and selection." Reporting on the Michigan State research in Discover magazine, science writer Carl Zimmer writes: "After more than a decade of development, Avida's digital organisms are now getting close to fulfilling the definition of biological life."

Zimmer backs this up by quoting several of the Michigan State researchers. One of them is philosophy professor Robert Pennock, who said: "More and more of the features that biologists have said were necessary for life we can check off." Apparently mistaking a paper checklist for life itself -- as philosophers sometimes do -- Pennock concluded: "Avida is not a simulation of evolution; it is an instance of it."

Another Michigan State researcher is microbiologist Richard Lenski, who has spent decades trying to produce new species of bacteria through artificial selection. Having failed at that, Lenski is now tempted to get rid of his smelly and uncooperative cultures and turn to Avida: "In an hour I can gather more information than we had been able to gather in years of working on bacteria."

This leads Zimmer to conclude that "the Avida team is putting Darwin to the test in a way that was previously unimaginable." Having moved beyond the old-fashioned prejudice that evolution is about living organisms that are actually alive, the team is now "beginning to shed light on some of the biggest questions of evolution." Those questions include:

(1) How did eyes evolve? According to Zimmer, creationists irrationally claim that eyes show "signs of intelligent design." Avida has "hit a nerve in the antievolution movement" by proving that this is false. All we need is "a patch of photosensitive cells" that has "evolved into a pit." By simply plugging the parameters of this pre-existing eye into a carefully designed computer program, we can prove that eyes originated without the need for design.

(2) Why many species instead of one? If one plant in the forest does a better job of capturing sunlight than all the other species, Darwin's theory might predict that it would eliminate all of its competitors; yet this doesn't happen. Avida solves this problem by proving that a computer programmed to find more than one way to do simple arithmetic can (are you ready?) find more than one way to do simple arithmetic.

(3) Why be nice? The existence of altruism has always been a problem for Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest, because an organism can't enhance its own survival by sacrificing itself for another. According to Zimmer, Charles Ofria (director of the Digital Evolution Laboratory)thinks that it may someday be possible to program digital "organisms" to work together if we can "get them to communicate." The result could be an "altruistic" computer code that can solve "real-world computer problems." Who needs Mother Teresa?

(4) Why sex? Sexual reproduction has also been a big problem for Darwinian evolution, because an organism that can reproduce by simply splitting in two seems more fit than an organism that cannot reproduce without the help of another. The standard explanation is that sex increases fitness by mixing genes that enable organisms to deal with different environments. To test this, Michigan State biologist Dusan Misevic has spent the past few years programming Avida's digital "organisms" to "have sex" by exchanging chunks of computer code. Unfortunately, his efforts have met with such limited success that Misevic concludes: "We must look to other explanations to help explain sex in general." Thank goodness.

(5) Is there life on other planets? Cal Tech digital-evolution researcher Evan Dorn has found a pattern common to life on Earth and "life" in Avida that he thinks may help us to recognize extraterrestrial life. According to Zimmer: "If Dorn is right, discovery of non-DNA life would become a little less spectacular because it would mean that we have already stumbled across it here on Earth -- in East Lansing, Michigan." UFO buffs, however, may want to hold out for something more substantial.

(6) What will life on Earth look like in the future? Zimmer writes that project director Ofria "acknowledges that harmful computer viruses may eventually evolve like his caged digital organisms." Ofria himself said: "Some day it's going to happen, and it's going to be scary. Better to study them now so we know how to deal with them." Like, by writing anti-virus programs?

So the Michigan State researchers have proved that a computer can simulate undesigned eye evolution as long as it starts with a functioning eye and a suitably designed program; that a computer instructed to solve a simple problem can sometimes solve it in more than one way; that computer codes programmed to communicate with each other might someday be able to solve real-world computer problems; that computers don't understand sex; that a computer in East Lansing, Michigan, may become the next Area 51; and that our future may be plagued by scary computer viruses.

These Earth-shaking results, according to Zimmer, "prove evolution works."

It is rumored that the Michigan State team tried to sell its stuff to a video game company but was told that its simulations wouldn't fool an eight-year-old. Not to worry, though: Given the publicly funded group's inestimable contributions to science and human welfare, American taxpayers will probably continue to support this important work.

Discover magazine seems to have over-hyped the results of the Avida research. Even so, attempts to show Darwinian evolution by using intelligently designed computers and software programs always struck us as something of an exercise in self-refutation, anyway. How, after all, does one prove that intelligence wasn't necessary for the development of biological diversity by showing that an intelligently designed software program can provide the instructions for the development of living things ?

Post-Modern Congressman

Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs has the transcript of yet another Democratic lemming plunging over the cliff of sanity. This time the poor deranged soul is a New York congressman named Maurice Hinchey who is as certain as he can be that Karl Rove somehow tricked Dan Rather and CBS into running the phony National Guard document story that has so discredited the liberal media.

When the congressman was asked if he had any evidence for his allegation he replied that he did not. Shouldn't that prevent him from making libelous charges and defaming a man's reputation, he was asked. No, it should not and would not, was the congressman's bold reply.

In other words, evidence doesn't matter. This man feels it in his gut that Rove planted the fraudulent documents, and that's all the evidence he needs to believe it and to level the accusation publicly. Fine folks, these Democrats:

Audience Member: So you have evidence that the papers came from the Bush administration?

Congressman Hinchey: No. I - that's my belief....And I said that. In the very beginning. I said, 'It's my belief that those papers, and that setup, originated with Karl Rove and the White House.'

Audience Member: Don't you think it's irresponsible to make charges like that?

Congressman Hinchey: No I don't. I think it's very important to make charges like that. I think it's very important to combat this kind of activity in every way that you can. And I'm willing - and most people are not - to step forward in situations like this and take risks.

Audience: [Clapping and cheering.]

Congressman Hinchey: I consider that to be part of my job, and I'm gonna continue to do it.

The congressman sees it as his job to spread unsubstantiated allegations accusing people of fraud? We pay congressmen to be malicious gossips? It's depressing to realize that an elected representative of the people could be this obtuse and be cheered for it, no less.