Saturday, March 3, 2007

Teacher fired for making students think

A career in scientific research took Fred Hassman from job to job across the United States and made him a comfortable living.

Along the way, he earned two patents, contributed to numerous scholarly journals and built a resume covering six pages.

The University of Arizona graduate worked mostly in the pharmaceutical industry. He met his wife, a biochemist, while both were employed by Merrell Dow Research Institute in Indianapolis.

Hassman later worked for seven years as a scientist with Glaxo in North Carolina's Research Triangle and then worked for several Southern California companies.

But the 46-year-old eventually decided on a new career path.

He uprooted his family from San Diego - a place of impeccable weather and a famous zoo ("We had season passes," he says) but also enormous costs of living - to Warrick County, where his wife had been raised. Hassman said he decided to leave research, take a pay cut and go into teaching because he wanted to make a difference.

He said he tries to bring an innovative approach to the classroom, challenging students to think and to discover.

But only two years into his second career as a full-time chemistry teacher at Bosse High School, Hassman is dusting off his resume yet again.

The action listed on Monday night's School Board agenda said "resignation." Hassman said it was tantamount to a pink slip.

Hassman still is not sure why it happened.

"It doesn't add up," Hassman said Wednesday evening at a Newburgh coffee shop. "I really don't understand it."

School Board members, school corporation administrators and Bosse Principal Bob Adams all have declined to comment on Hassman's situation, noting it is a personnel matter.

Don Travis, president of the Evansville Teachers Association, also declined comment other than to say "contractually and legally the process was followed" in Hassman's resignation.

Bosse students, meanwhile, have been vocal in supporting the chemistry teacher, who will get to finish out the current school year.

Those students are describing Hassman as an outside-the-box thinker who motivates them to learn.

Three students addressed the School Board on Monday night. Others posted comments on the Courier & Press' Web site (

Hassman said he's passionate about science. The son of an Air Force veteran, he grew up in Arizona, Germany and elsewhere curious about the world around him and wanting to know more about how it worked.

He earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry, with a biology minor, from the University of Arizona and stayed for a while as a research assistant before being hired by Merrell Dow.

Hassman has credit toward a master's degree, but he said he's never been able to finish because "every time I got involved in it, I moved again."

From the time he left Tucson, Ariz., in 1985 until be moved to the Evansville area about three years ago, Hassman held both full-time and consulting jobs with nine different research companies in four states.

"One company I worked for got sold four different times," Hassman said. "I had four business cards with the same address. But that's the way it is in the industry."

According to Hassman's resume, his list of research accomplishments include solid phase and solution phase peptide synthesis, improving purification procedures of DNA and RNA and amino acid analysis.

He was motivated to go into teaching, though, because he was increasingly unimpressed by job applicants at companies where he worked.

"The last few years, I've been interviewing people, and I've seen a large decline in the quality of people coming out of our educational system," including Ph.Ds," Hassman said.

Once Hassman, his wife and two sons settled into their Warrick County home, he enrolled in a yearlong University of Southern Indiana program that helps private-industry professionals transition to teaching.

Hassman finished the program, worked briefly as a long-term substitute and student teacher before starting full time at Bosse in August 2005.

"I don't think we're teaching students to think, analyze, solve concepts," Hassman said. "Basically what we do in education is show them how to pass a test and then move on to the next chapter."

He described his style as hands-on, but not to an extreme. He encourages students to "take ownership" of their lab projects. In recent days, Hassman said he's been working with advanced chemistry students on designing a method to dissolve a compound into water.

Hassman said his job evaluation after one year at Bosse was positive, but in recent days, some school administrators had started observing his classes.

He declined to discuss the turn of events that led to his forced resignation, other than to call it "a difference of opinion," although he still isn't sure why some school officials didn't support him.

He did allow that "maybe I came on as too arrogant, wanted to make too many changes," but he stressed that he enjoys teaching at Bosse.

Bye, Bye Computer Mouse

A researcher at Stanford has created an alternative to the mouse that allows a person using a computer to click links, highlight text, and scroll simply by looking at the screen and tapping a key on the keyboard. By using standard eye-tracking hardware--a specialized computer screen with a high-definition camera and infrared lights--Manu Kumar, a doctoral student who works with computer-science professor Terry Winograd, has developed a novel user interface that is easy to operate.

"Eye-tracking technology was developed for disabled users," Kumar explains, "but the work that we're doing here is trying to get it to a point where it becomes more useful for able-bodied users." He says that nondisabled users tend to have a higher standard for easy-to-use interfaces, and previously, eye-tracking technology that disabled people use hasn't appealed to them.

At the heart of Kumar's technology is software called EyePoint that works with standard eye-tracking hardware. The software uses an approach that requires that a person look at a Web link, for instance, and hold a "hot key" on the keyboard (usually found on the number pad on the right) as she is looking. The area of the screen that's being looked at becomes magnified. Then, the person pinpoints her focus within the magnified region and releases the hot key, effectively clicking through to the link.

Kumar's approach could take eye-tracking user interfaces in the right direction. Instead of designing a common type of gaze-based interface that is controlled completely by the eyes--for instance, a system in which a user gazes at a given link, then blinks in order to click through--he has involved the hand, which makes the interaction more natural. "He's got the right idea to let the eye augment the hand," says Robert Jacob, professor of computer science at Tufts University, in Medford, MA.

Rudimentary eye-tracking technology dates back to the early 1900s. Using photographic film, researchers captured reflected light from subjects' eyes and used the information to study how people read and look at pictures. But today's technology involves a high-resolution camera and a series of infrared light-emitting diodes. This hardware is embedded into the bezel of expensive monitors; the one Kumar uses cost $25,000. The camera picks up the movement of the pupil and the reflection of the infrared light off the cornea, which is used as a reference point because it doesn't move.

Even the best eye tracker isn't perfect, however. "The eye is not really very stable," says Kumar. Even when a person is fixated on a point, the pupil jitters. So he wrote an algorithm that allows the computer to smooth out the eye jitters in real time. The rest of the research, says Kumar, involves studying how people look at a screen and figuring out a way to build an interface that "does not overload the visual channel." In other words, he wanted to make its use feel natural to the user.

One of the important features of the interface, says Kumar, is that it works without a person needing to control a cursor. Unlike the mouse-based system in ubiquitous use today, EyePoint provides no feedback on where a person is looking. Previous studies have shown that it is distracting to a person when she is aware of her gaze because she consciously tries to control its location. In the usability studies that Kumar conducted, he found that people's performance dropped when he implemented a blue dot that followed their eyes.

In his studies of 20 people, he found that participants that needed to type and point could point faster using the gaze-based appraoch than using a mouse, although the error rate--20 percent--was fairly high. But overall, about 90 percent of participants reported that they preferred using EyePoint to the mouse.

It's the 20 percent error rate that could cause some problems, says Ted Selker, professor at the MIT Media and Arts Technology Laboratory. "[It's] a huge amount," he says, "because a person can notice a significant decline in accuracy at just 5 percent." Selker adds that the low accuracy could make text editing a challenge.

Kumar concedes that the system isn't perfect, but he contends that many of the errors came from people, who due to lack of practice, clicked links that they thought they had looked at but were only in their peripheral vision. Indeed, he says, trackpads, trackpoints, trackballs do not perform as well as a mouse either but are still viable input devices. Kumar says he's been working on algorithms that show promise for making EyePoint more accurate by accounting for peripheral vision related errors. Still, he allows that EyePoint might work poorly for certain people, such as those with thick glasses, special contact lenses, or lazy eyes.

Even so, Kumar is confident in the technology and its development as a tool for the general population. To that end, he has tested a number of different interface schemes, all under a project called Gaze-enhanced User Interface Design (GUIDe). Another application, called EyeExposé, is made for Apple's OS X feature called Exposé, in which a person can hit the F11 key to miniaturize all open windows, then drag the mouse cursor to the window she wants to bring forward. With EyeExposé, the user can hit the F11 key, then bring forward a window of interest by tapping a keyboard key. Also, Kumar has modified the "scroll lock" key on a keyboard in an application called EyeScroll: as a person reads, the screen slowly reveals more text. In addition, Kumar is testing a modified version of the "page up" and "page down" keys. When a person reads to the bottom of a page, the software automatically scrolls down one page; in order to help a reader keep her place, the most recently looked at part of the screen is highlighted.

The important thing about the Stanford research, says Shumin Zhai, researcher at IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, CA and pioneer in the eye-tracking field, is that Kumar "has been working on making eye tracking practical for everyday tasks." However, Zhai says that there may still be a barrier for the average person because she needs to go through a calibration process in which the software measures how quickly her eyes move.

There are some signs that eye-tracking technology could find its way to the consumer market soon. Apple's desktops and laptops are now equipped with a built-in camera for videoconferencing. If a higher-resolution camera, infrared LEDs, and software were added, Apple's machines would be able to support applications from the GUIDe project, says Kumar. If eye tracking proves appealing to the consumer, and the hardware costs drop to a reasonable range, eye-tracking interfaces could provide an alluring and entertaining alternative to the mouse or laptop track pad. "It's almost like magic when it's working," says Tufts's Jacob. "The sensation you get is that the computer's reading your mind, and that's really very powerful."

Seven Steps to Hell

The August 3, 1995 edition of the Wall Street Journal carried an interview with former North Vietnamese Colonel Bui Tin, a member of the North Vietnamese general staff and the man who received the surrender of South Vietnam’s President Duong Van Minh on April 30, 1975. The interview was conducted by Stephen Young, a Minnesota human rights activist.

Colonel Tin described the military and political events of the war from his vantage point in Hanoi. What he described was the step-by-step defeat of US forces, not on the battlefield, but in the White House, in the Halls of Congress, in the streets of America, and on our college and university campuses. Sound familiar?

As I read Col Tin’s recitation of how events played out in Vietnam – step-by-step-by-step – I couldn’t help but think of the motto embroidered across the shoulder patch that I wore during the last eighteen months of my military service. The shoulder patch was the insignia of the US 7th Army and the motto embroidered across the bottom read, “Seven Steps To Hell.”

Col. Tin was asked, “How did Hanoi intend to defeat the Americans?” He responded, “By fighting a long war which would break their will…Ho Chi Minh said, ‘We don’t need to win military victories, we only need to hit them until they give up and get out.’ ”

Liberals, cut-and-run Democrats and the anti-war left now signal to al Qaeda and Islamic Jihad that we’re preparing to do the same in Iraq.

Step One.

Col Tin was asked, “Was the American anti-war movement important to Hanoi’s victory?” He responded, “It was essential to our strategy…Every day our leadership would listen to world news over the radio at 9:00 AM to follow the growth of the American anti-war movement. Visits to Hanoi by people like Jane Fonda and former Attorney General Ramsey Clark...gave us confidence that we should hold on in the face of battlefield reverses.”

Jane Fonda and Ramsey Clark are back, and they’ve been joined by Cindy Sheehan, a host of anti-war leftists, and nearly the entire Democrat Party…all bashing the Commander in Chief and clamoring for an early surrender in Iraq.

Step Two.

Col. Tin was asked, “How could the Americans have won the war?” He responded, “Cut the Ho Chi Minh trail inside Laos. If Johnson had granted (General) Westmoreland’s requests to enter Laos and block the Ho Chi Minh trail, Hanoi could not have won the war.”

While George W. Bush has given battlefield commanders all of the troops and equipment they’ve requested, Democrats complain that it’s either too little or too much.

Step Three.

Col. Tin was asked, “What of American bombing of North Vietnam?” He responded, “If all the bombing had been concentrated at one time, it would have hurt our efforts. But the bombing was expanded in slow stages under Johnson and it didn’t worry us.”

In the Iraq War, Rules of Engagement are written by lawyers in the Pentagon.

Step Four.

Col. Tin was asked, “What about Westmoreland’s strategy and tactics caused you concern?” He responded, “Our senior commander in the South, Gen. Nguyen Chi Thanh, knew that we were losing base areas, control of the rural population, and that his main forces were being pushed out to the borders of South Vietnam…Johnson had rejected Westmoreland’s request for 200,000 more troops (and) we realized that America had made its maximum military commitment to the war… ”

Democrats and anti-war radicals maintain constant pressure to turn public opinion against the administrations new “troop surge” strategy, even threatening to cut off funding for our troops.

Step Five.

Col. Tin continued, “Tet was designed to influence American public opinion. We would attack poorly defended parts of South Vietnam cities during a holiday…when few South Vietnamese troops would be on duty…Our losses were staggering…(General) Giap later told me that Tet had been a military defeat, though we had gained the planned political advantages when Johnson agreed to negotiate and did not run for reelection.”

In America, in 2006, Democrats and anti-war radicals hounded a highly competent Defense Secretary out of office and used bloated anti-war rhetoric to gain victories in the mid-term elections.

Step Six.

Col. Tin was asked, “What of Nixon?” He responded, “Well, when Nixon stepped down because of Watergate we knew we would win. (Prime Minister) Pham Van Dong said of Gerald Ford…‘He’s the weakest president in US history; the people didn’t elect him. Even if you gave him candy he doesn’t dare intervene in Vietnam again.’ ”

So who will Islamic Jihad see across the battle lines in the next administration…Hillary Clinton? Barack Hussein Obama? A trial lawyer from North Carolina?

Step Seven.

“Seven Steps To Hell”…and one day Democrats will be called to answer for each and every one of them.

The senior judge who faces trial for flashing on a train

A senior judge has been charged with twice exposing himself to a woman on a train.

Lord Justice Richards, who sits in the Court of Appeal, was held by detectives in January after the shocked passenger made a complaint about a male commuter

On the advice of the Crown Prosecution Service, the married father of three was yesterday charged with two counts of exposure after answering police bail.

In a further humiliation, at the time of his arrest he was forced to pose for a police mugshot.

He has also been fingerprinted and asked to provide a DNA sample.

The maximum sentence for a first offence of indecent exposure is six months in jail. Should he be convicted, the judge will almost certainly be sacked.

A British Transport Police spokesman said the allegations relate to two separate incidents on trains in South-West London last year.

The Right Honourable Sir Stephen Richards, 56, who lives in Wimbledon, was originally arrested by BTP following an undercover operation.

The judge was detained on his way to work after the alleged victim picked him out on a train from Wimbledon to Central London.

Accompanied by an undercover detective, the woman identified Sir Stephen as the man who allegedly exposed himself to her last October.

Detectives had no idea that the suspect was a leading judge until they arrested him.

After the arrest in January Sir Stephen insisted he was innocent. He said: "I spoke to police and gave them my full co-operation about an incident last October which I deny. I have not been charged and have been bailed in the usual manner."

Despite the fact that he has now been charged, the £184,000-a-year judge has not been suspended. However, he will not sit in court pending the outcome of the case.

He continues to deny the allegation and has been released on police bail.

The judge has overseen a number of high-profile hearings, and in January ruled in a High Court case brought by the family of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian shot dead by police who mistook him for a suicide bomber.

Sitting with Mr Justice Roberts, he said the Crown Prosecution Service's decision not to charge individual officersin connection with his death in July 2005 could be referred to the House of Lords.

The judge married in 1976, and he and his wife Lucy have two sons and a daughter.

Educated at King's College School, Wimbledon, and St John's College, Oxford, Sir Stephen was called to the bar in 1975 and became a High Court judge in 1997 before becoming a Lord Justice of Appeal in 2005.

He has also served as deputy chairman of the Boundary Commission for Wales. He lists his recreations as walking and relaxing in the Welsh hills.

A spokesman for the Judicial Communications Office said: "He is not suspended so remains on full pay.

"The Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice have been made aware of the charges. The Judge will not be sitting, pending the outcome of the proceedings. The Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice do not comment on individual cases."

Sir Stephen, who answered bail at Ebury Bridge police station in Central London, was bailed to appear at City of Westminster Magistrates' Court on March 8.

Germany joins the space race in a giant leap of confidence

Germany is planning to land an unmanned craft on the Moon in an ambitious revival of a dream that has haunted the nation since the 1930s.

“Why shouldn’t we do it alone?” asks Walter Doellinger, director of the German Air and Space Centre. “We have the technology, we have the know-how and we have the experience with robots.”

There have been clear signals from the German Government, led by the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who is a physicist, that it is willing to put up €300 million (£202 million) over five years for the initial funding of the Lunar Exploration Orbiter.

It is a sign of the new self-confidence of Germany, and one that will attract controversy: it was under the Nazis that German scientists made the decisive breakthrough towards space travel in October 1942 by launching an A4 rocket 100km into space.

The rocket design, renamed the V2, was later used to bombard the South East of England and Antwerp in Belgium, killing thousands. The German scientist Wernher von Braun later helped America in the space race.

Germany’s partners have viewed with suspicion any attempt to develop a space programme outside established institutions such as the European Space Agency (ESA). Germany, of course, does not have a sinister military intent. As outlined to scientists at a meeting this week, it intends to send a satellite with a high-resolution camera to orbit the Moon for four years to prepare the first detailed lunar map. When this is completed, a rocket will land a robot soil-sampler.

German scientists lead the field in outer space measurement, photographic and radar technology, including the high-resolution cameras on board the European Space Agency craft Mars Express.

The German orbiter will be launched by 2013. The soil sampler should be on the Moon before 2020. The US manned space programme may also benefit from the Moon atlas if Nasa goes ahead with its plans to set up a lunar base.

Other European countries, including Britain and Italy, have been considering independent projects in space. “Every one of our members is permitted to start its own venture,” a spokeswoman for the ESA said.China is emerging as a space superpower, with two successful manned missions and ambitious plans to build space station. India also has an active programme. It plans to launch an unmanned lunar mission by early next year, plus manned space flights and an unmanned mission to Mars in 2012.

Germany’s space ambitions began peacefully enough in the 1920s. It was the Germans who first conceived of a prelaunch countdown — featured in the 1929 Utopian film Woman in the Moon by Fritz Lang.

First in space

— General Walter Dornberger said, on the launch of the A4 in 1942: “We have invaded space with a rocket and used space as a bridge between two points on the Earth”

— Within months the design, renamed the V2, above, was being mass-produced by slave labour for use as a weapon

— The key scientist involved in the A2 project was Wernher von Braun. After the war, he helped the US to build missiles capable of hitting the Soviet Union

— Moscow also seized German rocket scientists and set them to work on nuclear weapon delivery and space exploratio

Pope is warned of a green Antichrist

An arch-conservative cardinal chosen by the Pope to deliver this year’s Lenten meditations to the Vatican hierarchy has caused consternation by giving warning of an Antichrist who is “a pacifist, ecologist and ecumenist”.

Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, 78, who retired as Archbishop of Bologna three years ago, quoted Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900), the Russian philosopher and mystic, as predicting that the Antichrist “will convoke an ecumenical council and seek the consensus of all the Christian confessions”.

The “masses” would follow the Antichrist, “with the exception of small groups of Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants” who would fight to prevent the watering down and ultimate destruction of the faith, he said.

The Pope traditionally withdraws from public view during the first week of Lent, conducting “spiritual exercises” in retreat with close advisers.

The choice of Cardinal Biffi raised eyebrows in the Vatican, given his sometimes eccentric views. The cardinal gave a warning of the coming of the Antichrist during his two decades as the Archbishop of Bologna, and said that an “invasion” of Muslim immigrants was undermining Europe’s Christian values.

Cardinal Biffi said that the Antichrist was not necessarily a person but “the reduction of Christianity to an ideology . . . The teaching that the great Russian philosopher left us is that Christianity cannot be reduced to a set of values. At the heart of being a Christian is the personal encounter with Jesus Christ.” But he quoted with approval from Solovyov’s Three Dialogues on War, Progress and the End of History, which suggests that the Antichrist is a real figure.

Cardinal Biffi said that Christianity stood for “absolute values, such as goodness, truth, beauty”. If “relative values” such as “solidarity, love of peace and respect for nature” became absolute, they would encourage “idolatry” and “put obstacles in the way of salvation”.

When he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict sternly defended core Roman Catholic doctrines and opposed calls for an ecumenical Third Vatican Council advanced by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the liberal former Archbishop of Milan.

The choice of Lenten speaker has in the past given a clue to Vatican policy, although one source said that Cardinal Biffi had perhaps been chosen because his “verbal fireworks” would keep listeners awake.

Beastly beliefs

-The doctrine of the Antichrist appears in the New Testament, and could denote someone setting himself up as a Christlike saviour. The Book of Revelation refers to the “Number of the Beast”, 666

-Martin Luther and other reformers saw the Pope as the Antichrist

-In 1888 the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche denounced Christianity in The Antichrist

-When the Pope addressed the European Parliament in 1988 the Rev Ian Paisley interrupted him, shouting, “I renounce you as the Antichrist!”

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Study: Sex Makes People Feel Sexier

Sexual activity for men and women, straight or gay, raises testosterone levels, which, at least in women, fuels the desire for intercourse, increases the likelihood of experiencing an orgasm and heightens the individual’s belief in her own sexiness, recent studies have found.

The findings are among the first to suggest that men and women can alter their own hormone levels based on how often they cuddle or copulate, both of which can lead to testosterone rises.

Sexual activity for men and women, straight or gay, raises testosterone levels, which, at least in women, fuels the desire for intercourse, increases the likelihood of experiencing an orgasm and heightens the individual’s belief in her own sexiness, recent studies have found.

The findings are among the first to suggest that men and women can alter their own hormone levels based on how often they cuddle or copulate, both of which can lead to testosterone rises.

The researchers determined partnered men and women had the lowest overall testosterone levels, while polyamorous men and women both had higher amounts of testosterone than single or monogamously partnered individuals.

The team of scientists theorizes the hormone may be involved in "bond maintenance" and in preparing the individual for competition.

9 Year Old Girl Gives Birth To Baby

A nine-year-old Singaporean student, who did not realise she was pregnant, gave birth to a boy after it became too late for her to abort the baby.

Her horrified mother found out that her daughter was six-month pregnant when she took her to a doctor for what she thought was a urine infection.

By that time, it was too late for the girl to go for abortion.

The shocking case was made public at a seminar on youth relationships organised by Tamil cultural group Narpani Peravi and Republic Polytechnic last Saturday and was reported in Tamil Murasu on Sunday.

The primary three student, who comes from a well-to-do family and lives in a private landed property, was made pregnant by her boyfriend from the same school back in 2004. She gave her baby boy up for adoption soon after giving birth. The child would be about three years old now.

The girl was sent by her parents to a school in a nearby country, where she is currently in Primary Six. The boy was sent to a Reformative Training Centre soon after.

According to The New Paper, the girl met her boyfriend in school and they had sex frequently in her home. All these time, her parents never suspected anything as they were out and working most of the time.

And when she started gaining weight and had morning sickness, she didn't suspect that she was pregnant. Neither did her teachers and friends, as the girl always tucked blouse out so no one in school could tell if she was pregnant..

An early developer, she was about 1.3 metres tall and quite big-size for a girl her age. She reached puberty early and started menstruating when she was eight.

A gynaecologist and an urologist told The New Paper that it is very unusual for a nine-year-old to give birth.

Gynaecologist Ann Tan, who has 15 years experience, said she has never heard or seen any girl below 14 getting pregnant.

"This is very frightening," said Dr Tan, when told of the case.

She said that girls reach puberty around 11 on average.

Consultant urologist Damian Png, who has more than 10 years of experience, said boys usually reach puberty between 11 and 13.

Once a boy reaches puberty, he will be able to produce sperm, and in so doing will be capable of impregnating a girl. He, however, notes that the average age of puberty has gone down.

The youngest mother ever on record is Lina Medina from Peru. She was only five when she gave birth to a boy in May 1939. It was reported that she had her first period when she was only eight months old.

Her son, named Gerardo, died from a bone marrow disease when he was 40 in 1979.

Why do pilots say "roger" on the radio?

Pilots and other military types say “roger” to acknowledge receipt of a message or instructions. “Roger” at one time was the phonetic designation for the letter R, which in turn stood for “received.” Why not just say "received"? From a safety perspective, it makes sense to use standardized language, particularly when dealing with international operations. An American pilot may not understand German, but they both understand aviation terminology. The International Civil Aviation Organization oversees this standardization and disseminates it accordingly.

The use of “roger” isn't all that old. In the military's phonetic alphabet, "roger" didn't become the designation for R until 1927. (Previously the designation had been "rush.") The first citation given by the Oxford English Dictionary for “roger” in the sense of "received" dates from 1941, coinciding with U.S. entry into WWII. The term made the big time in 1943, when the Army Signal Corps incorporated it into one of its procedural manuals.

In 1957 "roger" was replaced by "romeo," the current designation, but by then "roger" = "received" was so entrenched that the brass knew better than to try and change it.

As for the use of “roger, roger” in Phantom Menace, the consensus seems to be that it's a sly (OK, not that sly) reference to Airplane (1980). The co-pilot in the latter movie, played by Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was named Roger Murdock. This was the pretext for such lines as:

Captain Oveur (Peter Graves): Roger, Roger. What's our vector, Victor?

Variations on this theme include Oveur/over and clearance/Clarence. Trust me, it's pretty funny in the movie.

As for Roger’s last name, “wilco” dates from the same time, and is simply an abbreviation of “will comply.” So the pilot who invokes our friend Roger Wilco is saying “I understand you, and will follow your instructions,” only cooler and shorter.


Department of the Navy, “Phonetic Alphabet and Signal Flags” (2001), accessed from on November 7, 2006

Oxford English Dictionary, “Roger” (1989), accessed from on November 7, 2006

US commanders admit: we face a Vietnam-style collapse

An elite team of officers advising the US commander, General David Petraeus, in Baghdad has concluded that they have six months to win the war in Iraq - or face a Vietnam-style collapse in political and public support that could force the military into a hasty retreat.

The officers - combat veterans who are experts in counter-insurgency - are charged with implementing the "new way forward" strategy announced by George Bush on January 10. The plan includes a controversial "surge" of 21,500 additional American troops to establish security in the Iraqi capital and Anbar province.

But the team, known as the "Baghdad brains trust" and ensconced in the heavily fortified Green Zone, is struggling to overcome a range of entrenched problems in what has become a race against time, according to a former senior administration official familiar with their deliberations.

"They know they are operating under a clock. They know they are going to hear a lot more talk in Washington about 'Plan B' by the autumn - meaning withdrawal. They know the next six-month period is their opportunity. And they say it's getting harder every day," he said.

By improving security, the plan's short-term aim is to create time and space for the Iraqi government to bring rival Shia, Sunni and Kurd factions together in a process of national reconciliation, American officials say. If that works within the stipulated timeframe, longer term schemes for rebuilding Iraq under the so-called "go long" strategy will be set in motion.

But the next six months are make-or-break for the US military and the Iraqi government. The main obstacles confronting Gen Petraeus's team are:

· Insufficient troops on the ground

· A "disintegrating" international coalition

· An anticipated increase in violence in the south as the British leave

· Morale problems as casualties rise

· A failure of political will in Washington and/or Baghdad.

"The scene is very tense," the former official said. "They are working round the clock. Endless cups of tea with the Iraqis. But they're still trying to figure out what's the plan. The president is expecting progress. But they're thinking, what does he mean? The plan is changing every minute, as all plans do."

The team is an unusual mix of combat experience and academic achievement. It includes Colonel Peter Mansoor, a former armoured division commander with a PhD in the history of infantry; Colonel HR McMaster, author of a well-known critique of Vietnam and a seasoned counter-insurgency operations chief; Lt-Col David Kilcullen, a seconded Australian officer and expert on Islamism; and Colonel Michael Meese, son of the former US attorney-general Edwin Meese, who was a member of the ill-fated Iraq Study Group.

Their biggest headache was insufficient troops on the ground despite the increase ordered by President Bush, the former official said. "We don't have the numbers for the counter-insurgency job even with the surge. The word 'surge' is a misnomer. Strategically, tactically, it's not a surge," an American officer said.

According to the US military's revised counter-insurgency field manual, FM 3-24, written by Gen Petraeus, the optimum "troop-to-task" ratio for Baghdad requires 120,000 US and allied troops in the city alone. Current totals, even including often unreliable Iraqi units, fall short and the deficit is even greater in conflict areas outside Baghdad.

"Additional troops are essential if we are to win," said Lt-Col John Nagel, co-author of the manual, in an address at the US Naval Institute in San Diego last month. One soldier for every 50 civilians in the most intense conflict areas was key to successful counter-insurgency work.Compounding the manpower problems is an apparently insurmountable shortage of civilian volunteers from the Pentagon, state department and treasury. They are needed to staff the additional provincial reconstruction teams and other aid projects promised by Mr Bush.

The cut in British troops in southern Iraq, coupled with the actual or anticipated departure of other allies, has heightened the Petraeus team's worries that the international coalition is "disintegrating" even as the US strives to regain the initiative in Iraq, the former official said.

Increased violence in the south is expected, caused in part by the "displacement" of Shia militias forced out of Baghdad by the US crackdown. American and Iraq forces entered the militant Shia stronghold of Sadr City on Tuesday for the first time since the surge began. No other major operation has yet been attempted there but "we or the Iraqis are going to have to fight them", one US officer said.

According to a British source, plans are in hand for the possible southwards deployment of 6,000 US troops to compensate for Britain's phased withdrawal and any upsurge in unrest.

Morale is another concern in the Green Zone headquarters: American forces are preparing for a rise in casualties as the crackdown gathers pace. In a message to the troops after he assumed overall command last month, Gen Petraeus praised their sacrifices while warning of more "difficult times" to come.

"We serve in Iraq at a critical time ... A decisive moment approaches. Shoulder to shoulder with our Iraqi comrades we will conduct a pivotal campaign to improve security for the Iraqi people. The stakes could not be higher," Gen Petraeus said.

"It's amazing how well morale has held up so far," the former official said. "But the guys know what's being said back home. There is no question morale is gradually being sapped by political debates."

The advisers are also said to be struggling to prevent the "politicisation" of the surge by the Shia-dominated government. The fear is that any security advances may be exploited to further weaken the position of Baghdad's Sunni minority.

Despite progress this week on a new law sharing Iraq's oil wealth, the Petraeus team believes the government is failing to work hard enough to meet other national reconciliation "benchmarks" set by Mr Bush.Yet it is accepted that the US is asking the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to do what most politicians in normal circumstances would refuse to contemplate. "What we're doing is asking Maliki to confront his own powerbase," one officer said.

Possibly the biggest longer term concern of Gen Petraeus's team is that political will in Washington may collapse just as the military is on the point of making a counter-insurgency breakthrough. According to a senior administration official, speaking this week, this is precisely what happened in the final year of the Vietnam war. Steven Simon, the national security council's senior director for transnational threats during the Clinton administration, said a final meltdown in political and public backing was likely if the new strategy was not seen to be working quickly.

"The implosion of domestic support for the war will compel the disengagement of US forces. It is now just a matter of time," Mr Simon said in a paper written for the Council on Foreign Relations. "Better to withdraw as a coherent and at least somewhat volitional act than withdraw later in hectic response to public opposition... or to a series of unexpectedly sharp reverses on the ground," he said.

"If it gets really tough in the next few months, it will throw fuel on the fire in Washington," the former official said. "Congress will be emboldened in direct proportion to the trouble in Iraq." If the policy was not judged to be working by Labor Day (the first Monday in September which marks the start of the new political year), Mr Bush could lose control of the policy to Congress and be forced to begin a phased pull-out, he suggested.

A senior Pentagon official said this week that it was too early to gauge the strategy's chances of success - but preliminary reports were encouraging. "There are some promising signs. There is a new overall Iraqi commander in Baghdad. A number of joint operations have just begun. The number of political murders has fallen. Iraqi forces are showing up as promised, admittedly a little bit under strength, and are taking up some of the responsibilities that Maliki said he would,"he said. "We have to be realistic. We're not going to stop the suicide bombers and the roadside explosive devices for some time. And the military alone are certainly not going to solve the problem. Maliki has to meet the benchmarks. A civilian surge is needed, too. The Iraqis have to do it themselves."

US officials say they also have rising hopes of a breakthrough in Sunni-dominated Anbar province where tribal chiefs are increasingly hostile to al-Qaida and foreign fighters - and are looking to build bridges with moderate Shias.

But this week's US decision to join talks on Iraq with Iran and Syria, after previously refusing to do so, is nevertheless seen as an indication of the administration's growing alarm at the possibility of a historic strategic failure.