Monday, September 18, 2006

Hot Geeky Chick in Spaaaaaaace!

It’s a great day for space geeks everywhere, as Anousheh Ansari, sponsor of the Ansari X-Prize, telecom entrepreneur and all-around admirable woman, blasts off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to rendezvous with the International Space Station. Yes, she paid $20 million to go as a tourist, but unlike some other potential applicant for the trip – whose closest approach to space was having his poster next to a bunch of glow-in-the-dark stars on many 12-year-old girls’ bedroom ceilings – she’s earned it.

Ms. Ansari will be blogging her 10-day jaunt, assuming she has the time. Aside from participating in some vaguely-described experiments about back pain, she’ll likely be goading the men into arm-wrestling matches, Lysoling the Space-o-Let (I’ll bet it’s disgusting) and studying the effects of weightlessness on potpourri. Seriously though, I wish her and her fellow voyagers, cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and US astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, a safe excursion and many happy returns. Same goes for all those other folks in orbit right now – space is currently more crowded than Whitney Houston’s paraphernalia drawer. So remember folks – use your turn signals and don’t go any faster than 17,000 miles per hour.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Forward to the Past?

So suddenly we’re all familiar with the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologos, thanks to the Pope, who quoted a particularly undiplomatic passage of a recorded dialog between the emperor and a Muslim scholar at the end of the 14th century. Manuel dismisses Islam by telling the scholar, “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Manuel certainly had his reasons for objecting to the violent spread of Islam – notably, his empire was getting the tar whipped out of it by the Ottoman Empire after the failure of the latest crusade to spread Christianity by force.

What’s interesting is that the Pope’s speech doesn’t really have anything to do with jihad and violence so much as it deals with the compatibility of faith and reason. In this sense, it’s very much like a palm reader attacking those charlatans at the Psychic Friends Network for just making stuff up. Benedict wanted to make an abstract point and just chose a quote that he figured wouldn’t bother anybody in the room. Someone should tell him that with the internets (brought to you by reason) nobody’s ever just preaching to the choir anymore.

Granted, Manuel’s quotation is inflammatory, though the outraged reaction of some in Islam is equally ridiculous. Even more ridiculous, though, is the Pope’s central point, which has become lost in the subsequent brouhaha. For the Pope concludes that science is rightly subservient to faith: “Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based.” (emphasis mine). While such a statement might be warmly embraced by the Kansas school board, any scientist can tell you that religious revelations have only hindered the pursuit of empirical knowledge.

Religion deals with humans’ relation to God. Science deals with empirical, testable reality. While 4,000 years of Judeo-Christian inquiry has brought us such wonders as the Kabbalah, snake handling and the strappado, modern religion seems no closer to enlightened understanding than its ancient forbears. Science, however, has in its meager four centuries seen 13.5 billion years into the past, split the atom and fed billions who would otherwise be starving. Of course science doesn’t have all the answers – acting ethically is still a mystery to most humans, for instance (although a rational, non-religious approach to ethics could likely help). But for science to subvert itself to religion, as the Pope insists, is to hitch its wagon to an anvil. Muslims might be outraged by one quotation in Benedict’s speech – but the scientific and rationalist community should be pointing out the idiocy of the whole damn thing.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

For when the giant bugs take over the earth

I just want you to know I like you guys. Really, I swear. And I only call you bugs in the vernacular, knowing that many of you (including Mr. Annual Cicada here) aren't true bugs. So I hope that's not taken the wrong way or anything.

But who am I kidding? You're not going to reason with a class of animals for whom a brain is a few knots of nerve cells -- even if they did come up with a female-dominated socialist society millions of years before our giant craniums envisioned Forbidden Planet.

Yet I can't help but hope that one day we'll realize we have more similarities than differences. That we'll look beyond your freakish exoskeletons, six legs and compound eyes to accept a higher truth -- that we're all just bouncing around inside a giant lampshade somewhere, flailing helplessly as we struggle with the evolutionary hurdle created by the 60 watt light bulb. Some days I think we're going to make it -- you, us, the bryophytes, the ring-tailed lemurs, and maybe even certain Texans. At least until the Ambien wears off, and I find myself standing on the edge of someone's swimming pool, looking down at my car shimmering in the deep end and wondering why I'm holding a set of soaking wet bagpipes. Then it seems more of a crap shoot.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Those Magic (Everything) Changes

Once again we commemorate September 11, 2001 – a day imbued in our collective memory with grief, confusion and inchoate rage – and strangely enough called Patriot Day. I have no idea how the name Patriot Day came about unless it just bubbled to the surface of a conversation at a DAR potluck one Wednesday night and caught on through phone trees and work email until it had become a fait accompli. Our gang wrote over the “Terror Day” tag of the gang down the street and now we get to celebrate Patriot Day with solemn readings and brass bands and F-15 overflights and the latest American Idol winner singing such a jazzed-up version of “America the Beautiful” that the melody reminds you of a greased pig at the state fair.

I don’t know where the name Patriot Day came from, but most holidays are polite enough to be named something that sorta reflects the nature of the holiday. Halloween and Independence Day and St. Patrick’s Day are all pretty clear, and will be a hundred years from now. But what would an alien or a person from the distant future make of Patriot Day? A sharp mind might deduce a corellation with flag decals, and that would be about it. But nowhere in that name is the idea that we couldn’t bring ourselves to call it what it was: 3,000 People Killed at the Office Day.

And that’s why I doubt another one of the grandiose ideas about that day – that somehow Everything Changed. If we don’t have the intestinal fortitude to understand what happened to us (we could call it Terrorist Attack day, too, if the first suggestion was too pitiless – although it makes a point) then maybe everything didn’t change enough. Maybe there are some more things that need to change before Everything Is Quite Done Changing. Maybe the time for easy clich├ęs and cheap platitudes is over – and what we really need to do is pull our socks up, reach deep within ourselves, and take it to the next level. And here are a few suggestions how.

The Civil Liberties Pass
Air travel used to be so easy – you checked your pistols and detonators through at the counter and a bored clerk in a polyester jacket watched the x-ray picture of your pocketknife, your mace and your bag of weed zip through in your carry-on luggage. But now it’s all so complicated – take off your shoes, ditch your hair gel and your mango tango bubble bath and be prepared for the third degree if they notice your copy of The Management Secrets of Suleiman the Magnificent. Shouldn’t there be an easier way to get from Pittsburgh to San Diego? Now there is with the Civil Liberties Pass – a simple microprocessor embedded in your skull transmits a constant stream of sensory input to the Transportation Safety Administration. Just have your chip scanned at the express gate, and an ultra-fast computer connection verifies that you haven’t been near any dangerous substances, harbored any evil thoughts or filled in an absentee ballot and you’re whisked past security like a VIP – that’s a Virtually Inspected Pre-terrorist.

The God Bless America Tax Cut
Isn’t it time we stopped sticking it to the rich – who, after all, are responsible for creating jobs, keeping Hollywood cops fully employed, and exploring the vast uncharted territories of Caribbean tax shelters? In an age when the poor and middle class are paying less than their fair share in taxes, why are the rich left to find as many deductions as they can using only an army of accountants and a few shadow corporations? The rich deserve a reward for their ingenuity – and under this new program any graft is tax deductible as long as it’s over a million dollars per fiscal year. We could lower the limit, but deductions for cheaters who can’t think big would just be the soft bigotry of low expectations.

The Cusp of Victory Voluntary Draft
The all-volunteer army has been one of the must successful innovations in the free world – at last we have a military comprised entirely of willing recruits who are skilled, motivated, and who came to serve out of an abiding love for the ideals that made America great. And that was cool and everything, but this touchy-feely nonsense needs to stop. Effective immediately, all patriotic Americans will throw their names into a hat, and anyone who can’t afford a lawyer or a ticket to Canada will volunteer for two years of service or until we decide you can come home. All unpatriotic Americans must report to California, where they will be detailed to jump up and down on the San Andreas fault.

Monday, September 04, 2006


The worst possible news for the proponents of the Iraq war has now come to pass – for the next two weeks President Bush, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld will be criscrossing the nation, explaining why we’re there. This is a bad idea because they can never keep their explanations straight. Sure, it wasn’t about the first few reasons, they’ll admit – awfully smug of you to bring it up, by the way – but really, is the reason important? The real reason is that we’re there to honor our war dead. No wait – the real reason is that we’re there to transform the Middle East. But the best reason so far is that Iraq is part of the decisive struggle of the 21st century.

You get the idea. And you’ll notice that as the explanations grow increasingly desperate they become increasingly abstract. The facts, having become impediments to the general progress, are tossed aside, much the way a lost navigator might hurl his sextant into the ocean and start cutting up bird entrails. It might not help any, but you’ll have certainly shut up those traitors who said you didn’t know how to use the damn thing.

And also – you might not be the best person to explain something if you resent the idea that you’ve been asked to explain it in the first place. It looks a little testy when the first argument for the war out of your mouth is that anyone who demands an argument is a traitor or an appeaser. Maybe this sort of strategem worked for the tobacco lobby, or maybe it’s something you learn in CEO school – when you’ve got nothing, accuse your accusers. By the time the ink clears, you and your tentacles have squirted under the nearest rock.

But now we’re coming into the home stretch and the old BS just isn’t working anymore. I’m not sure our leaders have faced that, though. When the Middle East stubbornly refused to magically transform into DemocroExxonDisneyland, Rummy, Bush and Cheney insisted that magical, sudden transformations take time. And warrantless wiretapping. Now even after all that, the traitors are still coming out of the woodwork – the Pentagon, of all people, recently released an assessment of Iraq that says the country is sliding into civil war. If the military brass doesn’t have the will to ignore reality, then what hope is there for the rest of us?

But don’t be afraid, voters. It’s natural for the reasons we’re in the Middle East to be a little confusing sometimes. Hell, even the people who make this stuff up can’t keep it all straight. Right now, in fact, the big reason – the overarching theme – the leitmotif – as it were – is the battle against Islamofascism. Islamofascism is one of those axis-of-evil kinda terms that means the most when you define it the least. Like pornography and weapons of mass destruction, we won’t wait till we see it, but we’ll know what it is anyway.

It’s only too bad that Iraq – a Stalinist state, if the giant bronze artwork is any indication – had nothing to do with Islamofascism before it suddenly became a seething hotbed of the stuff. It’s not like we used that as an excuse to go in before, and even when we did, it was wrong (damn that faulty intelligence). But now the real reason has suddenly become clear, and while Iraq is the definitive battlefield, its neighbor is the center of the evil. So does this mean we’re in the wrong country? Oh, shut up.

See – if you take all the explanations as though they were supposed to fit together into a coherent whole, it makes no sense whatsoever. That’s how clever our enemy is. The trick is to take a particular idea that you like and repeat it over and over again. And when that fails, pick another one, and so on as needed. This is called “staying the course.”

And if the people don’t understand that, be patient with them. They just need one more whirlwind speaking tour to convince them that their only options are following the president into a world of moral clarity and factual pandemonium, or joining the silent majority of vicious traitors and misguided cowards.

But the person who put the choice in its starkest terms this past week was President Bush, who said, “If we give up the fight in the streets of Baghdad, we will face the terrorists in the streets of our own cities.” See – our borders are so porous that 20 million armed Iraqis trying to sneak into the country wouldn’t raise an alarm at all. So if that doesn’t prove we got into that country just in time, nothing will. Just imagine what could’ve hapened if all those people had the bomb.