A Most Unfortunate Name

September 18, 2008

How would you like to go through life with this handle?

Would you want the name of this dealership on the back of your car?

NEW YORK (JTA) — Sarah Palin and other elected officials have been disinvited from the Jewish-sponsored Iran rally.

The move follows two days of controversy for organizers of next Monday’s rally to protest Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the United Nations.

The controversy erupted after JTA reported that Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, had accepted an invitation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to speak at the event. The news of Palin’s participation prompted Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), who had pledged several weeks earlier to speak at the rally, to announce she was withdrawing from the event.

On Thursday, the Conference of Presidents held a conference call for organizers of the rally at which the decision was made to limit participation in the rally to unelected officials, participants on the call said.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the conference, told JTA that “the decision was not to have any elected officials.”

“The message of this rally, to oppose Ahmadinejad, that message was being obfuscated and it was a decision of the organizers that there would be no political personality invited,” Hoenlein said.

Earlier in the week, spokespeople for both Palin and Clinton traded barbs and accusations over who was responsible for politicizing the event.

A Clinton spokesperson said the senator withdrew because the rally had become “a partisan political event.”

Palin spokeswoman Tracy Schmitt took a shot at Clinton, saying the Republican nominee “believes that the danger of a nuclear Iran is greater than party or politics.”

The National Jewish Democratic Council defended Clinton’s decision not to attend and called for Palin to be disinvited so as to preserve the nonpartisan nature of the effort to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The controversy has sparked concern that the rally has been politicized, undermining efforts to cast opposition to Ahmadinejad’s belligerence and nuclear ambitions as a broad bipartisan issue in the United States. Jewish organizers have labored to present the Iranian regime as a threat not only to Israel but to the United States and the world.

In an effort to avoid the taint of imbalance and partisanship, the Presidents Conference issued a late invitation to the Obama campaign Wednesday morning. But reportedly irked by what it viewed as the conference’s slight, the Obama camp did not commit to sending a representative.

Hoenlein told JTA earlier this week that the invitation to speak at the rally was extended to Clinton several weeks ago. He also told The New York Jewish Week that once Clinton accepted, organizers did not want to supersede her by bringing in someone from the Obama campaign.

Fred Zeidman, a leading Jewish backer of Republican presidential nominee John McCain, told JTA he was approached about helping secure a speaker around the time of the Republican National Convention at the beginning of September in Minnesota. Zeidman said he forwarded the request to the campaign last week with a recommendation that it cooperate.

“I remember saying to our guys, Hillary Clinton is representing the other side,” Zeidman said. “We’ve got to really take this seriously.”

In a statement this week, the McCain campaign noted its own participation in the rally and derided Obama’s stated willingness to negotiate with the man being protested.

“Instead of pressuring Senator Clinton to withdraw and pressuring the event’s organizers to disinvite Governor Palin, we hope Senator Obama will consider lending his own voice to this cause,” McCain-Palin spokesman Michael Goldfarb said in a statement published on the Washington Post’s campaign blog, The Trail. “And if [the] Senator subsequently wishes to clarify any remarks that might be misconstrued, he will have the opportunity to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions after he speaks at the U.N. the following day.”

Clinton advisers said the senator dropped out of her own accord, not due to any pressure from the Obama campaign, according to the Washington Post.

The rally “is not and will not be a partisan event,” Hoenlein told The Jewish Week before his group decided to cancel the invitation to Palin. “The organizers reached out to a wide spectrum of people. Hillary accepted early in August. We also asked numerous Republicans. Some we approached couldn’t make it, and since Governor Palin was coming to the United Nations to meet world leaders, her staff agreed to have her speak.”

Ira Forman, the National Jewish Democratic Council’s executive director, said it is the McCain campaign that was guilty of politicizing the rally with its partisan statements.

Along with other Jews involved in organizing the event, Forman also laid blame with the Presidents Conference, saying it bungled matters either by inviting Palin at all or by failing to notify the Clinton camp promptly that it had secured Palin’s participation. Forman praised the decision Thursday to cancel Palin’s appearance.

“It was a wise decision to make,” he said. “It depoliticizes an event that fundamentally needs support from everybody and shouldn’t be part of the political circus this year.”

Jewish Republicans agreed that the organizers blundered — but said the mistake was withdrawing the invitation to Palin.

“This is one of the biggest black marks on our community that I can remember in more than 20 years of working in the Jewish community,” Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, told JTA. “I think it is absolutely outrageous that we allow people with a partisan political agenda to hijack an event that is designed to send a message to Iran and the rest of the world of the U.S.’s commitment to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons. The fact that we can’t put partisan differences aside to come together on something like this — it’s sad and it’s disappointing.”

As the campaigns sparred over who was guilty of placing partisanship above principle, some Jewish leaders worried that an event intended to display unity in the face of the Iranian threat was crumbling.

“I do think that’s unfortunate,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “The point here obviously is to show broad bipartisan support for the need to stop a nuclear Iran. We don’t want the message to be diverted by internal political considerations.”

“It doesn’t make sense to me as an American Jewish policy matter, and as an American matter, to let one party or the other off the hook over what is going to be, objectively in our view, the most serious foreign policy issue of the next administration,” said David Twersky, a senior advisor on policy, international affairs and communications at the American Jewish Congress. “It’s not a good policy for the Jews.”

Metro:

A Ugandan government minister has said miniskirts should be banned because women wearing them distract drivers.

Nsaba Buturo siad wearing miniskirts was equivalent to being naked.

“What’s wrong with a miniskirt? You can cause an accident because some of our people are weak mentally,” the BBC reported him saying.

“If you find a naked person you begin to concentrate on the make-up of that person and yet you are driving,” he said.

“These days you hardly know who is a mother from a daughter, they are all naked.”

It’s a bad time to be naked. Farmer’s Almanac says we have 20 years of global cooling to look forward to:

The world is set for a “big chill,” possibly a mini-ice age, according to the venerable and whimsical Old Farmer’s Almanac, first published in 1792 and the United States’ oldest continuously published periodical.

The 2009 edition, published earlier this month, predicts that the earth already has entered a sustained period of global cooling.

True to form, the almanac also includes tips on gardening and how to stay warm all winter with just one log.

“The next 20 years, it’s going to be colder,” said Sarah Perreault, assistant editor of the Old Farmer’s Almanac. “We do recognize that (global cooling) could be offset by greenhouse gasses and other human effects on the earth, but we’re trending toward the cool period now.”

The almanac is predicting a period of global cooling partly due to the lack of sunspots, a situation which some scientists believe causes cooling on the sun and, subsequently, the earth…

Still, the almanac has an 80 percent success rate for its weather predictions…

Read it all:

Admitting to paying your way isn’t always a good idea:

A Spanish politician’s public description of how he lost his virginity in a brothel has angered his female counterparts, who accused him of encouraging prostitution.

Miguel Angel Revilla, head of the government of the northern region of Cantabria, told a television interviewer earlier this week that he had paid the first time he had sex at the age of 18.

Female members of the regional parliament from the opposition conservative Popular Party were outraged. “As the head of the regional government, he should be an example for the young people of Cantabria,” they said in a communique.

“Instead he encourages them to pay for their first sexual experience.”

Thursday, Revilla, a member of a regional party, accused his critics of hypocrisy and said they were unable to find matters of substance on which to attack him.

“There are major problems which need to be addressed now, not what a poor 18-year-old did,” said Revilla, who is now 65, adding: ” Ninety-nine percent of Spanish men did it back then.”

Der Spiegel:

A number of Islamic associations have put a quick end to their collaboration with a professor — and trainer of people who are supposed to teach Islam in German high schools — who has expressed his doubt that Muhammad ever lived. Islam scholar Michael Marx spoke with SPIEGEL ONLINE about what lies behind the debate and the historical person of the Prophet.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Marx, someone studying Islam learns that the Prophet Muhammad was born on the Arabian Peninsula in A.D. 570 and died in Medina in A.D. 632. Is there any reason for doubting that this is true?

Michael Marx: Those are provisional dates that we should hold on to until there are better figures. The Islamic sources are rich with material about the person of the Prophet and his life story. Some of it is has elements that are somewhat mystical. But we can generally rely on the solid core of Islamic tradition.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: There is a group of prominent German Islamic scholars, who are becoming increasingly aggressive about questioning whether the existence of the Prophet is even historically accurate. The theory got its most recent backing from the University of Münster’s Professor Muhammad Sven Kalisch, who is in charge of training teachers for Islamic education at the secondary-school level. The Ministry of Education of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia is now planning to calm the waters by appointing an additional professor of Islamic pedagogy. Are we witnessing a split into two camps?

Marx: I don’t see it that way. But we should note that what we have from Kalisch at the moment are only the things he has allegedly said. From them, it sounds like he has decided to back the thesis of Professor Karl-Heinz Ohlig, which Ohlig publicized three years ago in his book “Dark Beginnings” (“Die dunklen Anfänge”). There, Ohlig posits that the Koran is a Christian text and that Muhammad probably never lived. But this group, which also includes the numismatist Volker Popp and some others, is very small. I’d say that their position isn’t really within the realm of accepted scholarship.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why?

Marx: There are far too many pieces of evidence that make Ohlig’s thesis that the Prophet never lived untenable. In the 14 centuries of polemics between Christians and Muslims, this issue has never made an appearance. Even in Syrian-Aramaic sources, however, there is some documentation about the prophet from an earlier time.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your scholarship focuses on the early period of Islam and the Koran. What is the evidentiary situation? How could we prove that the Prophet lived?

Marx: You have to be a bit delicate about it. In general, when it comes to history, you can’t point to any scientific proof. How would we, for example, prove the existence of Charlemagne? We can’t conduct any experiments; we have to work with evidence. And, for this issue, the evidentiary thread is the Koran. In this case, the evidentiary situation is better than it is for any other religion. We know of manuscripts of the Koran and Islamic inscriptions already 40-50 years after the Prophet died. It would be hard to explain the Koran, if you took the prophet out of the equation. Ohlig claims that Islam was actually a Christian sect up until the Umayyad Caliphate, that is, the eighth century. In this case, I run into this massive issue: It doesn’t match up with the text of the Koran. Why isn’t Christ a more central figure in the Koran, then? You hear about Abraham, Moses and Noah much more frequently.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And what about with the format of the Koran?

Marx: That’s the second evidentiary thread. As can be shown in even linguistic terms, the Koran is a kind of speech. It isn’t a narration like the New Testament, a piece of correspondence like the epistles of Paul, an account of the Apocalypse or a Psalm. The genre only makes sense when I have a person that I can attach it to — a charismatic orator, a prophet. Why would a community that doesn’t have a prophet invent one after the fact and make up a text, which is then also Christian, as Ohlig sees it? Ohlig’s thesis is uneconomical; it raises more issues than it solves.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In other words, if the Prophet did not live, in order to explain the literature, there must have been an enormous conspiracy.

Marx: Precisely. And that — from Morocco to India — not a single trace of this conspiracy remained. And who would have implemented the conspiracy? Already after the middle of the eighth century, we no longer have any central Islamic political authority that could have implemented the fabrication of the Prophet in Asia and Africa.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you saying that Ohlig and his fellow combatants are either demagogues or pseudo-scholars?

Marx: It’s not for me to make that type of judgment. But that’s what it seems like to me. Of course, it’s perfectly legitimate to discuss issues. And the Koran definitely contains a number of open questions. We at the Corpus Coranicum project (see author box) are first trying to conduct basic research before deriving overarching theories.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Muhammad Sven Kalisch operates in a sort of border region, that is, between science and theology. And, then, he’s supposed to be training religion teachers, too. The Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany (KRM) isn’t going to support him anymore because they believe that Kalisch is questioning fundamental elements of the Islamic faith. Is it conceivable that a person can be a Muslim and at the same time say that the Prophet might not have even ever lived?

Marx: That’s hard to imagine.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Kalischi is a Zaidi Shiite, not a Sunni. Does affiliation with this branch of Islam allow for another image of Muhammad, which could explain these pronouncements?

Marx: At least not that I know of.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: By taking this position, Mr. Kalisch has once again ignited the debate in Germany — and that’s something that won’t escape the notice of the Arab world. For example, a historian at the Free University of Berlin’s Institute of Islamic Studies, Gudrun Krämer,has said in an interview that Kalisch’s isn’t an isolated viewpoint.

Marx: Ms. Krämer has been wrongly — that is, incompletely — quoted. For example, she has said very clearly that the majority of Islam scholars adhere to the details that have been handed down, and she in no way numbers among those who challenge the existence of the Prophet. But, unfortunately, the imprecise quotes have been published in a number of Arabic newspapers.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does this have any consequences for someone like you, who also cooperates with Muslim researchers from abroad?

Marx: By all means, something like this has the consequence of bringing discredit to Western scholars of Islam. Rumors and reports like this spread very quickly in the Internet age. We at the Corpus Coranicum don’t want to be associated with it. We have Muslims and non-Muslims working side by side, and we have very trusting collaborative relationships with institutions in the Arab and Islamic world.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why is research on Muhammad such a sensitive topic at all? After all, according to Muslim dogma — differently than Jesus in Christianity — the Prophet was just an exemplary person whom God selected to convey a message but did not endow with divine attributes. We already witnessed indications of this sensitivity in the controversy over the Muhammad caricatures in Denmark.

Marx: The best way to explain these fierce reactions is to say that many Muslims feel that it is tantamount to continuing to fight the battle between the West and the Islamic world — which they still see as being waged — but on another level. That is often interpreted as being an attack on their identity, as psychological warfare.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Could we ever see the thesis — that the Prophet Muhammad might not have ever lived — brought up as a matter of discussion in an Islamic university?

Marx: I wouldn’t know where.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: As a researcher, how do you steer clear of this tense issue? You use what is a completely critical-historical approach. As long as your findings don’t contradict mainstream Muslim theology, it’s no problem. But what happens when it does?

Marx: Well, then it would probably be a problem. But we’re still a good way off from that situation. Don’t forget that what we’re doing here is basic research. The Koran deserves to be studied in a serious, scientific manner. I think it’s essential that we take these steps with Muslims. We’re doing that with our (Corpus Coranicum) project here at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences. What the Muslim community takes out of it in terms of inspiration and whether it uses it as a foundation for a process of some type of reform — that’s its own issue. Pragmatic coexistence probably continues to be much more powerful than the force of philology, which we have a tendency to overestimate.

Daily Wealth:

Over the summer, Iran bought more than 1 million tons of wheat from the U.S.
That’s something we’ve not seen in 27 summers. In Iran’s case, a tough drought cut the wheat harvest by a third, forcing the country to look abroad. But still, the fact that Iran had to come to the U.S. is telling. It’s like Lee asking Grant for rations in the summer of 1863. As one analyst put it: “Do you think Iran would come to the U.S. if they had any place else they could buy it?… They’re searching the world for wheat. They’re buying the U.S. because it’s the only thing they can buy.”

Markets, like great unscripted dramas, develop their own plotlines as time rolls on. Now unfolding is a new plotline in the agriculture boom. It begins with the fact that there are fewer and fewer options these days for importers looking for large quantities of high-quality grains. But it speaks more to a deeper issue: an emerging shortage in fertile soil. Yes, we’re running out of good dirt. (And that insight leads to some compelling investment ideas, as you’ll see below.)

Fertile soil – good dirt – may become more important to land values than oil or minerals in the ground. Some say it is already a strategic asset on par with oil. As Lennart Bage, president of a U.N. fund for ag development says, “Now fertile land with access to water has become a strategic asset.”

Doubtful? Consider rising export restrictions around the globe, which act as a sort of fence keeping the goods within borders. India curbs exports on rice. The Ukraine halts wheat shipments altogether. The number of grain-exporting regions has dwindled, like the vanishing buffalo herds. Before World War II, only Europe imported grain. South America, as recently as the 1930s, produced twice as much grain as North America. The old Soviet Union, for all its faults, exported grain. Africa was self-sufficient. Today, only three major grain exporters remain: North America, Australia, and New Zealand.

No surprise, then, to find faith in the global food supply at generational lows. So begins the scramble to secure farmland. Saudi Arabia, for example, is particularly at the mercy of the winds of global agriculture. It has little ability to produce its own food. The kingdom, reports the Financial Times, “is scouring the globe for fertile lands in a search that has taken Saudi officials to Sudan, Ukraine, Pakistan and Thailand.” Saudi Arabia’s quest is not one it pursues alone. There are many hunters.

The UAE has also been looking to lock down acreage in Sudan and Kazakhstan. Libya is looking to lease farms in the Ukraine. South Korea has been poking around in Mongolia. Even China is exploring investing in farmland in Southeast Asia. While China has plenty of cultivable land, it does not have a lot of water.

“This is a new trend within the global food crisis,” says Joachim von Braun, the director of the International Food Policy Research Institute. “The dominant force today is security of food supplies.” Food prices reflect this crimp in supply.

The mainstream press focuses on issues such as population, dietary shifts, and the impact of biofuels. One thing that doesn’t get talked about much may be the most important thing of all: a growing shortage of quality topsoil. Call it the topsoil crisis…

Quality soil is loose, clumpy, filled with air pockets, and teeming with life. It’s a complex microecosystem all its own. On average, the planet has little more than three feet of topsoil spread over its surface. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer calls it “the shallow skin of nutrient-rich matter that sustains most of our food.”

From the Left leaning New Statesman- scrambling to define the how and why a McCain-Palin ticket has knocked the Democrats off their feet.

The New Statesman:

The Democrats have finally chosen their woman. The stand-in for Sarah Palin who will tussle with Joe Biden in closed-door rehearsals for the vice-presidential debate on 2 October will be 49-year-old Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan – a brilliant Democrat who would undoubtedly be a presidential contender herself, had she not been born in Canada and thus constitutionally ineligible to occupy the White House. She will undoubtedly give Biden a hard time, but will Palin?

Three weeks ago, just the thought of this year’s vice-presidential debate would have made most Americans yawn. But the sudden emergence of Governor Palin on the world stage on 29 August has electrified this election and turned just about every previous assumption upside down. Biden’s little finger, for example, probably knows more about foreign policy than Palin. However, I can easily visualise him patronising or bullying her – which would be catastrophic. Palin, just as easily, could reveal her ignorance or extremism in some equally disastrous way.

The very fact that it is the vice-presidential debate that is suddenly the hottest ticket in America – far more so than any of the three presidential confrontations between Barack Obama and John McCain – is indicative of the disaster that Palin has been for the Democrats so far.

The polls, which now show McCain and Palin ahead, tell their own story. The celebritydom market that Obama had cornered for himself was suddenly hijacked by a brand new political celebrity, spawning more media coverage, gossip and excitement than either Obama or McCain. Picking Palin to be his running mate was a high-risk gamble for McCain, but there are now only six weeks left in which she must maintain rigid discipline and avoid gaffes.

If she and McCain can pull that off, I suspect they will win on 4 November. It is certainly a very big if. But, precisely because it was so very unexpected, even by those close to McCain, Palin’s emergence flummoxed and panicked Obama. Faced with a competing political celeb rity suddenly hurling invective and jokes at his expense to vast rallies of people roaring with laughter – an experience to which he had never been subjected – Obama visibly wilted and made the error of responding to her attacks rather than concentrating his fire steadily on McCain, a much more vulnerable and important target.

Michael Dukakis, the former governor of Massachusetts, made the same mistake in 1988 by campaigning against poor Dan Quayle, George H W Bush’s running mate, rather than Bush himself. The result was that Bush and the blatantly inadequate Quayle won by a 40-state landslide. Adlai Stevenson had done exactly the same in 1952, handing two presidential terms to the Republicans.

So, if Obama does not speedily change course, and McCain-Palin do not present him with any gifts, he could well be heading for the same fate. His “change” theme was snatched from him in a single strike by the Republicans – but, at least so far, Obama has failed to adapt to the drastically changed political landscape. He seems unable to confront the inconvenient reality that rather than being the small-town mayor she once was, Palin is now the highly popular governor of a state with 29,000 full- and part-time employees and an annual budget of $12bn, and thus has more executive experience than Obama himself, McCain and Hillary Clinton put together.

The Sarah Palin/Alaska phenomenon is one, I suspect, that will never be properly understood in Britain. It is because she is a mum who shops at Wal-Mart, runs marathons and disembowels moose that so many Americans, ever suspicious of intellectuals or elitism, have granted her instant celebrity status. Alaska, a state I know well, still has more than a whiff of the frontier mentality. “We don’t give a damn how they do it Outside” is an ever-popular bumper sticker, “Outside” being the rest of mainland America.

That kind of defiance, personified by Palin, is widely admired by Americans. The Democrats underestimate her at their peril. I would guess that Granholm, Palin’s fellow governor from Michigan, is politically astute enough to know that the Democrats must now reserve most of their fire for McCain, and that when they attack Palin the target should be her extreme right-wing views rather than her celebrityhood.

Yet she also knows that the Democrats have selected a previously little-known male celeb rity to be their presidential candidate, who in turn chose a 65-year-old man to be his running mate, rather than the woman who finished in a virtual dead heat with him in the Democratic primaries.

Have the Republicans outwitted the Democrats again, this time by finding a little-known female celebrity as a supposed riposte to sexist hubris? Time, I fear, will tell.

Time:

Soldiers barking orders at each other is so 20th Century. That’s why the U.S. Army has just awarded a $4 million contract to begin developing “thought helmets” that would harness silent brain waves for secure communication among troops. Ultimately, the Army hopes the project will “lead to direct mental control of military systems by thought alone.”

If this sounds insane, it would have been as recently as a few years ago. But improvements in computing power and a better understanding of how the brain works have scientists busy hunting for the distinctive neural fingerprints that flash through a brain when a person is talking to himself. The Army’s initial goal is to capture those brain waves with incredibly sophisticated software that then translates the waves into audible radio messages for other troops in the field. “It’d be radio without a microphone, ” says Dr. Elmar Schmeisser, the Army neuroscientist overseeing the program. “Because soldiers are already trained to talk in clean, clear and formulaic ways, it would be a very small step to have them think that way.”

B-movie buffs may recall that Clint Eastwood used similar “brain-computer interface” technology in 1982′s Firefox, named for the Soviet fighter plane whose weapons were controlled by the pilot’s thoughts. (Clint was sent to steal the plane, natch.) Yet it’s not as far-fetched as you might think: video gamers are eagerly awaiting a crude commercial version of brain wave technology — a $299 headset from San Francisco-based Emotiv Systems — in summer 2009.

The Army doesn’t move quite as fast as gamers though. The military’s vastly more sophisticated system may be a decade or two away from reality, let alone implementation. The five-year contract it awarded last month to a coalition of scientists from the University of California at Irvine, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Maryland, seeks to “decode the activity in brain networks” so that a soldier could radio commands to one or many comrades by thinking of the message he wanted to relay and who should get it. Initially, the recipients would most likely hear transmissions rendered by a robotic voice via earphones. But scientists eventually hope to deliver a version in which commands are rendered in the speaker’s voice and indicate the speaker’s distance and direction from the listener.

“Having a soldier gain the ability to communicate without any overt movement would be invaluable both in the battlefield as well as in combat casualty care,” the Army said in last year’s contract solicitation. “It would provide a revolutionary technology for silent communication and orientation that is inherently immune to external environmental sound and light.”

The key challenge will be to develop software able to pinpoint the speech-related brain waves picked up by the 128-sensor array that ultimately will be buried inside a helmet. Those sensors detect the minute electrical charges generated by nerve pathways in the brain when thinking occurs. The sensors will generate an electroencephalogram — a confusing pile of squiggles on a computer screen — that scientists will study to find those vital to communicating. “We think we can train a computer to understand those squiggles to the point that they can read off the commands that your brain is issuing to your mouth and lips,” Schmeisser says. Unfortunately, it’s not a matter of finding the single right squiggle. “There’s no golden neuron that’s talking,” he says.

Dr. Mike D’Zmura of UC-Irvine, the lead scientist on the project, says his task is akin to finding the right strands on a plate full of pasta. “You need to pick out the relevant pieces of spaghetti,” he says, “and sometimes they have to be torn apart and re-attached to others.” But with ever-increasing computing power the task can be done in real time, he says. Users also will have to be trained to think loudly. “How do we get a person to think something to themselves in a way that leaves a very strong signal in EEGs that we can read off against the background noise?” D’Zmura asks. Finally, because every person’s EEG is different, persons using “thought helmets” will have to be trained so that computers intercepting their unspoken commands recognize each user’s unique mental pattern.

Both scientists pre-emptively deny expected charges that they’re literally messing with soldiers’ minds. “A lot of people interpret wires coming out of the head as some sort of mind reading,” D’Zmura sighs. “But there’s no way you can get there from here,” Schmeisser insists. “Not only do you have to be willing, but since your brain is unique, you have to train the system to read your mind — so it’s impossible to do it against someone’s will and without their active and sustained cooperation.”

And don’t overlook potential civilian benefits. “How often have you been annoyed by people screaming into their cell phones?” Schmeisser asks. “What if instead of their Bluetooth earpiece it was a Bluetooth headpiece and their mouth is shut and there’s blessed silence all around you?” Sounds like one of those rare slices of the U.S. military budget even pacifists might support.

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