Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Red Alert -- Flying Stingrays!

It came out of the sky, landed just a little shy of Moline.
Now we're just plain doomed. Stingrays can fly.

Okay, I sort of knew this before, mostly because a woman was killed by a flying spotted eagle ray about a year ago. But hearing about it is one thing -- actually seeing a stingray flapping for its life is entirely another. This one, apparently, was being chased by a pod of orcas.

This flying stingray was trying to avoid the attentions of the aptly-named killer whale, which was ready to take a bite out of the fish when the stingray made its leap for safety.

This all happened in Auckland, New Zealand, and to the delight -- and I'm sure a bit of horror at seeing animals eat each other -- of a school full of children, who rushed out of class to watch.

Surprisingly, nobody seems too concerned about the potential rain of terrorist poison darts from the sky. If only we fools had listened to Dick Cheney.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Location of St. Paul's Grave Less Certain than Evolution

Now shut up and eat Jesus.
Some bone fragments inside the purported tomb of St. Paul (aka Saul of Tarsus) have been carbon dated to the general time period of his death. This, according to Pope Benedict XVI,

“…seems to confirm the unanimous and undisputed tradition that these are the mortal remains of the Apostle St. Paul.”

Well, no – they don’t confirm anything. Rather, they’re consistent with the assumption that the remains are those of Saul of Tarsus. They could also be the remains of his neighbor, his papyrus deliveryman or some farmer who happened to die around the same time. It rules out that these were the bones of William Shakespeare, Helen of Troy or any of the billions of people born in the last few hundred years. Of course, since the sarcophagus stands in the Basilica of St. Paul, originally built by Emperor Constantine over the saint's purported grave some 250 years after Paul’s execution, this doesn’t really tell us anything more than we already knew. And the pope would know that if he knew how science worked.

Unfortunately, the head of one of the world’s largest denominations thinks that science should be secondary to faith. Not that this is surprising – it’s the error committed by most faith-based thought, from religions to political philosophies to fads like The Secret and numerology. But science starts with facts and only declares an overarching concept valid if the facts are preponderantly in its favor, and only then on a probationary basis pending any contradictory evidence. Religion and other forms of sloppy thinking start with the overarching concepts, then pick and choose the facts they want to support their idea. One of these ways of thinking has found out more in the last 400 years than the other has done in the last 10,000 – you decide which should trump the other.

So if the pope wants to learn something about religion, he should start by trying to understand science. And if that leads him to understand how religion can be so consistently wrong about so many things for such a long time, then so much the better.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Unattended Conference a Huge Success

How long can you tread water?
Climate change activists must be thrilled to finally be getting their point across. The House of Representatives just narrowly passed an emissions cap-and-trade bill; automakers finally seem to be taking hybrid cars seriously; and climate scientists have stopped flying to climate-change conferences.

The BBC is reporting that Dr. Larch Maxey of the University of Swansea, Wales, has turned down an invitation to fly to Washington DC for an international conference, citing the carbon cost:

He said the plane journey across the Atlantic would use several years' worth of his carbon share and now others invited to attend have followed suit.
Instead they taking part in the event via video link.

It's wonderful that Dr. Maxey is actually living by his principles. And while it's unfortunate that he's showing up everybody who would love to attend the next such global-warming blowout in Aruba or Pango Pango or Goa, it does tend to lend credibility to your concern if you opt for the video link over the free trip.

So cheers, in this month of scandals, to someone who isn't a hypocrite. Now here's a real moral dilemma: would it be worth the carbon costs to have him fly over here to teach that ability to Mark Sanford and John Ensign?

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Triumph of Everyday Communication

The Italian embassy is now taking wounded.
As the Iranian government has rushed to close off avenues of communication to the outside world, internet-savvy Iranians have countered the isolation by appropriating channels used for the most mundane information. Twitter, so often a font of regret to politicians too willing to share their every thought, has come into its own as a way of telling the world about the atrocities the Iranian government is perpetrating up its citizens.

So much so that Noam Cohen wrote yesterday in praise of the usefulness of Twitter and Blogger and other such online tools -- not because they are specialized, but because they are general. When the election in Kenya in 2007 resulted in riots and death, the Kenyan blogging community got the news out to the world.

It turned out, he said, that “Kenya has the second-most bloggers in Africa and that mostly they are not writing about politics; many are writing about rugby.” There was, he said, “a fascinating latent capacity — people who knew how to use the tools, knew how to write well, to tell a story with words and pictures.”

Now the same thing is happening in Iran. And the people covering it are the Iranian bloggers and twitterers who had to find their own ways of getting in touch with the world. And the ones who shared recipes and LOLcats and stories of someone almost getting abducted at the nearby mall, who were cutting their teeth on the mundane, were suddenly prepared for the extraordinary.

Does this mean that The Last Starfighter is in some way prophetic? No, that's too awful to think about. Let's just take pride in the human spirit, urge our fellow beings on, and not worry about bad science fiction. Tomorrow we can go back to making fun of Pete Hoekstra's abominable twitters -- today we celebrate the desire of everyone to be free.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Free Energy Too Expensive

One tokamak over the line?
For decades every geek has dreamed of a world powered by fusion – the conjoining of atoms under intense heat and pressure that, due to the relationship between energy and mass, produces a huge amount of power – the nuclear physics equivalent of a marriage between Donald Trump and Richard Simmons. A constant supply of energy would be available practically for free for the benefit of everyone: since there would be no emissions, there would be no greenhouse gases; since it fed on cheap hydrogen in a self-sustaining way, it would pay for itself; and since it took energy out of the global power equation, it would reduce intenational tensions.

Now, though, after almost 80 years of research, that impression might be trapped in a blind alley. Expenses and technical hurdles threaten to hold up progress on workable fusion reactors, if they don’t send them the way of the flying car, the self-regulating finance market or the cheap, light suspension bridge. A meeting of the governing council of Iter, the world’s largest fusion reactor, could scale back the planned machine. In the face of a combination of cost overruns and huge technical challenges, fusion itself might suddenly be decades further from realization.

While the money – $16 billion – isn’t peanuts, it shouldn’t be impossible to find. Fusion could make its inventors filthy rich and save governments many times their initial investment. That it’s a huge source of clean energy means it would pay for itself in lack of environmental degradation alone.

Technical problems, though, might stymie the project forever. As a research director opposed to Iter’s direction summarizes:

"The most difficult problem is the problem of materials. Some time ago I declared that fusion is like trying to put the Sun in a box - but we don't know how to make the box.

"The walls of the box, which need to be leak tight, are bombarded by these neutrons which can make stainless steel boil. Some people say it is just a question of inventing a stainless steel which is porous to let these particles through; personally I would have started by inventing this material."
Of course if scientists and engineers insisted on solving the most difficult problems before tackling the easier ones, we’d still be poking twigs into anthills to get our dinner. Progress in science is a steady expansion, not a series of giant technological leaps – the physicists who’ve been working on fusion for decades can tell you that.

If it’s funding they need, then $16 billion can be scrounged from somewhere. Hell, that only comes to five years of Merrill-Lynch bonuses. And if the engineering problems prove insurmountable, then fine – but at least we should prove they’re insurmountable before we give up.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Democracy Still Worth Fighting For

Garibaldi never said this was going to be easy.
As someone who watched with a sick dread the 2000 election results and the sorry spectacles of the states-rights, anti-litigious Republican party taking a lawsuit from state court to the Supreme Court to stop the Florida recount, I feel a real admiration for – and am definitely shamed by – the protesters after the very likely stolen election in Iran. A sufficient number of protesters in the streets of Tallahassee demanding the full recount take place might not have tipped the balance in 2000 at any point. But I feel bad for not at least trying. And I’ve since tried to make up for it, so there’s that.

But here are people with a legitimate grievance. Their government has defrauded them, stolen power and made up a story about it, and is physically cracking down on anyone who says so. And yet the Iranian citizens, openly flouting all restrictions on freedom of expression, fill the streets to demand justice. They endure horrible beatings and some may be dead – yet the demand for justice, equal representation and the rule of law still impel people forward regardless of the risk.

Or maybe in response to it. It’s often when freedom of expression is threatened by force that freedom of expression shouts the loudest. One of the greatest advances of Humanism – the idea that all humans are inherently equal and start with the same basic rights – is the idea that revolution by persuasion can be at least as effective as revolution by violence. Peaceful revolution is inherently humanist because it seeks change without violating its own principles. It has won revolutions in the Soviet Union and almost all of its client states and former members, India and South Africa – which is an especially clear example because it wasn’t the ANC’s violent tactics but rather the organized peaceful protests that so captured the world’s imagination. Violent acts are easily condemnable and rob any group of its legitimate focus in its grievances. ETA, the Basque resistance group that operates around the French-Spanish coastal border, increasingly loses support for its legitimate claims about guarding the autonomy of one of Europe’s most unique cultures by its acts of violence. When the government oppressing you has the choice of calling you a freedom fighter or a criminal, which do you think it’s going to choose? So why give it the opportunity to justify such a claim?

Humanism – including treating people fairly and all that sissy-ass hippie soft-on-terrorism, soft-on-crime, assuring-people’s-basic-rights stuff that Dick Cheney so insists is making us less safe – happens to be the basis for our Constitution. And although the Constitution as originally written was based on the social contract – that government should serve the governed – it took enough states insisting on a Bill of Rights that carved the government’s limits in stone to get it ratified. All those hippie ideas like search warrants and freedom of the press that led to the abominations of Miranda rights and FOIA began with the impetus of the next tier down from the ruling class protecting its own interests. That they become universal rights is the logical culmination of humanism: the glaring contradictions become increasingly evident in a society that espouses equality but doesn’t practice it or even fully comprehend why it should.

Which is why President Obama’s election is such a triumph for humanism and equal treatment. With his emphasis on ending the extrajudicial treatment of the Guantanamo and black site inmates, on government transparency, opposition to Bush-era secret treaties, civil unions, a better-regulated economy and other issues, his general direction is towards a government for the benefit of the governed and an economy for the benefit of the consumer. That conservatives tend to call this class warfare neglects to mention that the war is being conducted by people who have been robbed of something that was theirs: the faith that a well-regulated economy was not in fact dominated by cheats, number-shufflers and MBAs who favored getting around the law over operating within it.

Additionally the overt clumsiness of the Iranian government’s reaction testifies to its unpreparedness for this vast electoral uprising – not to mention its intellectual laziness and consequent need to be given the heave-ho. The majority of the people have clearly understood that the moral authority that Ayatollah Khomeini carried into the Iranian revolution in 1979 never went so far as to authorize Sharia to be extended as far as it did. Iranian history since then has been a tug-of-war between religious fundamentalist potentates and a populace that still remembers any sliver of liberal freedom it read about or even personally enjoyed.

And now it has come to this: An Iranian populace that would rather shout from the rooftops than quietly admit it has been robbed. The greatness of the liberal humanist idea of government for the governed planted this seed. Last week President Obama reached out to the Muslim nations in a speech from Cairo. He gave Iranian voters a Great Satan with a smile on his face and an extended hand – and removed the saber-rattling, us-or-them exceptionalist adversarialist brinkmanship that has bullied the world into a passive-aggressive resistance.

This removed a major tool of the Ahmadenijad electoral impetus – that the United States was threatening war and needed to be stood up to by a unanimous opposition. Sound familiar? Yeah it’s amazing how much an imminent threat – either real or manufactured – can motivate a populace into thinking out of fear and not reason. Especially if they’re not taught reason in the first place, but let’s not worry about that for now.

President Obama’s speech in Cairo made two innate promises to the Iranian people: that we would engage honestly with the Iranian people and that we would try to advance equality and the rule of law everywhere. Given that, the Obama government should press for complete transparency in Iran’s election process. Iran does not currently allow independent election monitors, which is evident of a systematic mistrust of the electorate. President Obama, as a Constitutional scholar, should know that it’s never in the people’s best interest to blindly trust their government. The people are better off the more the government’s actions are available to public examination.
This has been the main course of the Obama candidacy and the Obama presidency – that America succeeds best when it represents its own values. It should always be reminded of – and never dissuaded from – doing this. As such, we as a nation should demand from Iran the openness and accountability that its civilians are being prevented from demanding of their civil service. We should push for it to acknowledge the legitimate results of the contest even its oppressive election councils approved of. Ayatollah Khatamei should concede that he left the door open to reform and should now admit it needs to take place. And if we’re going to negotiate with a government it might as well be the honestly elected one.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

POTUS Is Just Another Four-Letter Word

I'm up on the presidential podium my mama loves me...
Just cold chillin' with your homies, a sixpack of Sierra Nevada and the solution to the Palestinian problem sketched out on the back of a napkin? That's the time to choose 1600 -- a complicated and nuanced fragrance by Obama.

You may think that a personal fragrance is the sum total of its creator's experience. You may be right, you may be wrong. All we know is that we have made mistakes. And we've learned from them. And the subtleties of the resultant fragrance are demanding yet fair, complex yet understandable. This isn't an apology -- this is a fragrance that is determined to restart the conversation.


Monday, June 08, 2009

Another Failed Bismarck with Delusions of Wisdom

You probably think this song is about you
Henry Kissinger has, in The Washington Post, a classic case of neoconservative amnesia: he imagines, incomprehensibly, that there is a demand for his advice, while stealthily dropping hints that the Obama administration wants to let North Korea keep its nuclear weapons. Best of all though, Kissinger hews to a few clangy old ideas that happen to be drug out by every neocon as foreign policy panaceas: increase missile defense and fight terror.

One thing’s for certain: Kissinger deserves credit for sticking his horrible wares out there in the free market. Somewhere in Egypt there’s a guy trying to sell sketchy-looking pigs who realizes his might not be the toughest sales job in the world. But to insist, after a thorough repudiation of neoconservative brinksmanship, that “the issue for diplomacy has become whether the goal should be to manage North Korea's nuclear arsenal or to eliminate it” and then make sly innuendos that President Obama will adopt “acquiescence” to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions – when that country tested its first nuclear bomb in 2006 – seems like a huge display of historical revisionism if not simply mad cow disease.

In spite of the facts, Kissinger frets. “The negotiating process is on the verge of legitimizing North Korea's nuclear program by enabling Pyongyang to establish a fait accompli while diplomacy runs its stately course,” worries the great statesman. He seems unaware that North Korean nuclearization has been a fait accompli for about three years now. But he has suddenly discovered that the status quo is unsustainable:

Furthermore, some public statements imply the United States will try to deal with specific North Korean threats rather than eliminate the capability to carry them out. They leave open with what determination Washington will pursue the elimination of the existing stockpile of North Korean nuclear weapons and fissionable materials. It is not possible to undertake both courses simultaneously.

So the United States must pursue either an elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons or – um – deal with its various actions after they’ve happened? The neocons have finally discovered the ominous mushroom cloud of their speeches and dreams – in the rogue nation their sabre-rattling has long nurtured.

And how would our master diplomat, advisor to Dubya about Iraq, architect of the lasting peace in Vietnam and offerer of unsolicited advice handle such a threat? With missile defense and – um – a global response to terrorism:

The enhanced role of non-state actors with respect to terrorism would have to be addressed. The concepts of deterrence against state actors are familiar, though not in a world of multiple nuclear powers. They have little or no relevance to non-state actors operating by stealth.
So our reaction to North Korea must somehow involve an emphasis on non-state terrorism? It sounds curiously disconnected from reality that the most isolated regime in the world might somehow develop ties with fanatical Muslims in southwest Asia. But stranger things have happened. In an odd bit of symmetry, eight years ago the previous administration was focused on North Korea and missile defense at the exact same moment that it should have been focused on terrorism.

Maybe Mr. Kissinger is just trying to rectify that past miscalculation. Or maybe he’s continuing Dick Cheney’s legacy of advocating extralegal wars fought in the shadows. Either way, it’s a good reminder when the man most associated with the secret bombing of Cambodia so much as suggests sinister clandestine operations why we are overwhelmingly mistrustful of unchecked government authority. And in that sense it’s fitting, really, that Henry Kissinger will always stand as a powerful argument against his own advice.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Dick Cheney and the Christmas Pony

We know that Saddam Hussein was teaching al-Qaida members interior decorating.
Dick Cheney made a slight bit of news yesterday, and not by delivering his campfire-horror-story-style defense of his sanguinary, fact-free and failure-ridden approach to national security. No, it’s because he delivered a tepid endorsement of gay marriage while managing to frame it in terms of finding it utterly horrible. Said the master of tact:

“I think that freedom means freedom for everyone,” Cheney replied. “As many of you know, one of my daughters is gay, and it is something we have lived with for a long time in our family.”
It’s sweet that he manages to talk about Mary Cheney’s sexual orientation as though it’s leprosy and has afflicted the whole family with its terrible shadow. The Vice President is nothing if not resilient, though, and has borne up well under the strain. If a man can survive five draft deferments, he can survive the shame and humiliation of his daughter choosing an un-American lifestyle. Fortunately he has another daughter who is active in the fields of opposite marriage and ensuring that her daddy stays out of any war crimes trials.

It might be nice if Cheney’s strengths – his sullen and ruthless infighting, his ability to justify anything as long as it meant personal gain to himself or a loved one, and his tyrannical micromanaging of any task until it’s seen through to completion – would benefit humanity, if only for once. Besides, it would be ickily ironic if most states legalized gay marriage not for the right reason – that everybody deserves the same rights – but for the wrong reason – that children of privilege nagged their daddies until they got what they wanted.

Not that he seems inclined to apply such energy. Cheney shows all the enthusiasm of a hippie whose daughter wants a gun for Christmas – if he plays along for a while, she’ll probably forget the whole thing. So put whatever you want in that letter to Santa, Mary Cheney. Daddy’ll get around to it when the Lord stops afflicting him with your homosexuality.