Monday, February 26, 2007

Apocalypse Now.

Many bloggers have posts up today about the Oscars held last night (Feb. 25). I will freely admit, I didn’t watch them. I haven’t seen any of the films up for an award. (Due to the current sibling situation, I am now relegated to seeing only movies that involve articulate raccoons and dancing penguins.) Plus, I get a wee bit tired of watching the acceptance speeches for wardrobe, or editing, or whatever. Yes, those aspects of filmmaking are important. I am just not interested in hearing them thank their co-workers. So, to celebrate my non-viewing of the Academy Awards, I pulled out “Apocalypse Now”.

That still remains a very disturbing film to me. It is more than just “a film”. I can’t even really describe what I feel when I watch that. I can say that it contains more memorable and shocking visual images than any film I have ever seen. The entire beginning sequence with Martin Sheen having what appears to be a psychotic break, punching the mirror and then contemplating his bloody hand sets the entire mood of the film. Marlon Brando hiding at the edge of the shadow and then leaning forward to have only his face exposed is rather shocking in its simplicity. The ceremonial but very real slaughtering of a live bull that appears to have been drugged interspersed with the killing of Kurtz at the end of the film is brutal and a slap in the face of the viewer.

This film, better than any I have ever seen, captures the human descent into madness, both on an individual basis as well as the collective “civilized” society.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Fiddling While Rome Burns.

I have written previously regarding my belief that our current civilization is heading for a pretty catastrophic collapse. I may not really have stated it in those terms, but that is what I thinking is coming. The twin causes: global climatic change which will disrupt water supplies, the ability to produce food, and severely change the livable ecosystems on the globe, and the slow but every increasing scarceness of cheap energy, which will disrupt pretty much everything upon which our interconnected infrastructure depends.

Our current civilization is built upon technology and the ability to control our local environment. I don’t think the average person realizes how much everything depends on everything else. I look at it at a gigantic, interconnect pyramid; each layer is successively more technological than the lower one which supports it. At the very bottom of this pyramid are basic blocks like the ability to feed and house (at least a large percentage of) our population, and have the cheap, plentiful energy to distribute food and water and to house our population. This enables everyone to work on things other than trying to stay alive, such as building airplanes, making movies, designing computers, selling groceries, being doctors, lawyers, musicians, engineers, policemen, history teacher, artist, glass blower, brewer of beer, etc. Each one of these occupations fits somewhere in one of the layers of the pyramid. Some occupations are more necessary to the overall population than others. But all are dependent for their existence on people in the lower layers doing the jobs that they themselves don’t do.

I think these twin slow moving catastrophes I mentioned earlier are going to have devastating effects on the low levels of our societal pyramid. Things may not fall apart completely, but there are going to be some severe disruptions, such that our normal fabric of society that we become so accustomed to in the last 100 years may suffer some severe dislocations. I think that much of our knowledge and technology may ease the transition back into a more rural based agrarian society in many areas of the world. However, I just cannot see what might bind cities and suburbs with enough force to keep them from falling apart. If all the life-sustaining infrastructure is removed, it is my opinion that life in large cities and the surrounding suburbs is going to be untenable at best.

There have been many civilizations over the millennia that have collapsed. Great ruins in Greece, Egypt, Rome, Central American, South America, Northern Africa, Indonesia, China, and the South Pacific attest to the fact that no society, great or small, is impervious to collapse. Why we think our current civilization is immune to a collapse is beyond me. We have been getting warning signs as long I can remember. And yet, we collectively pretend that it isn’t going to happen to us. We seem to believe that we are somehow “special”. I will admit that our society is special in its size and complexity than anything the ancient world achieved. However, that does not mean these ancient civilizations were without knowledge, advanced reasoning, and technology. It is just that our current hubris and conceit that blinds us, such that we are unable to learn from the harsh lessons learned by our predecessors.

We need a massive effort on a global scale to find a way to ease the way into the coming dramatic changes our society is going to experience. But we are too busy bickering with and killing each other, too busy with the “bread and circuses” spoon-fed to us by our governments to keep us entertained and docile, too busy amassing large amounts of money and power solely for the sake of amassing money and power, to actually consider we may be current living out the last couple of generations before a massive revision in how the human population of this planet exists.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Life mimics art, otherwise known as Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Xander: No, it's just... this Malcolm guy? What's his deal? I mean, tell me you're not slightly wigged.
Buffy: Okay, slightly. I mean, just not knowing what he's really like.
Xander: Or who he really is. I mean, sure he says he's a high school student, but I can say I'm a high school student.
Buffy: You are.
Xander: Okay, but I can also say that I'm an elderly Dutch woman. Get me? I mean, who's to say I'm not if I'm in the elderly Dutch chat room?
Buffy: I get your point!
[gets his point]
Buffy: I get your point. Oh, this guy could be anybody. He could be weird, or crazy, or old, or... He could be a circus freak.
Buffy: He's probably a circus freak!
Xander: Yeah. I mean, we read about it all the time. Y'know, people meet on the 'Net, they talk, they get together, have dinner, a show, horrible ax murder.
Buffy: Willow ax murdered by a circus freak... Okay, okay, what do we do?
[realizes her paranoia]
Buffy: What are we doing? Xander, you get me started! We are totally overreacting!
Xander: But it's fun, isn't it?

Here’s the “mimicking life” bit. Can’t you just imagine George Bush having this kind of conversation with Dick Cheney before invading Iraq?

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Time God Appeared on "You Bet Your Life"

(The following is a transcript of "You Bet Your Life" as it was originally telecast on May 6, 1954 at 8PM, by the National Broadcasting Company.)
GEORGE FENNEMAN: Here he is, the one, the only...
AUDIENCE: Groucho!
(Theme music.)
GROUCHO MARX: Thank you, thank you, and welcome to "You Bet Your Life." Say the secret word and a duck will come down and give you fifty dollars.
(The duck appears.)
FENNEMAN: And the secret word tonight is: clock.
GROUCHO: Okay, duck, scram. Fenneman, earn your salary and bring out the first contestants.
FENNEMAN: Groucho, please greet a Sioux City housewife, Mary McCracken, and her partner, God.
GROUCHO: Welcome to "You Bet Your Life," say the secret word and the duck will come down and give you each fifty dollars. It's something you see every day... Now, you are... Mary McCracken... any relation to Jimmy Crack Corn?
MARY: No, Groucho.
GROUCHO: Have you ever heard of "Jimmy Crack Corn and I Don't Care?"
MARY: Yes.
GROUCHO: Well, I don't care either... It says here you're from Detroit, Iowa. I always thought Detroit was in Michigan.
MARY: I was born in Detroit, Groucho, and I live in Iowa.
GROUCHO: I owe a few bucks to my brother Chico. So, what do you do in Iowa, Mary, besides shuck corn?
MARY: I'm a housewife.
GROUCHO: A housewife. So you're home a lot?
MARY: I have to be.
GROUCHO: Why? Are you under house arrest?
MARY: I have thirteen children.
GROUCHO: Oh, well...
(Extended applause.)
GROUCHO: Thirteen, eh? So it really is unlucky. And where's your husband now? Hiding, I presume.
MARY: He's in the audience -- with the kids.
GROUCHO: Stand up, kids. And you too, Dad, if you can. Do you know all their names, Mary? I'll understand if you don't. I have trouble remembering Gummo.
MARY: John, Joseph, James, Jerome, Jack, Jared, Marie, Melissa...
GROUCHO: Stop -- that's my daughter.
MARY: Myrna, Marjorie, Minnie...
GROUCHO: Wait -- that's my mother.
MARY: Myra, and Monica.
GROUCHO: What's your husband's name, Mary? It doesn't start with a J does it?
MARY: It's Joe.
GROUCHO: Well, Joe, you've certainly dug a nice hole for yourself... What kind of food do you serve this horde, Mary? It looks like a meat and potatoes crowd.
MARY: We eat a lot of hamburgers.
GROUCHO: Hamburgers? Are there any cows left in Iowa? What about hot dogs?
MARY: Oh, those too. And chicken.
GROUCHO: You eat a lot of chicken?
MARY: About fifty pounds a week.
GROUCHO: That's a lot of chicken. What about eggs?
MARY: Oh, I'd say about ten dozen eggs a week.
GROUCHO: So, Mary, tell me, which came first -- the chicken or the egg?
MARY: If I knew that, I'd be rich.
GROUCHO: That's correct. Fenneman, tell her how much she's won.
FENNEMAN: Uh, Groucho, we haven't started the game yet.
GROUCHO: Oh, my mistake. Well, Mary, with all these kids you must have quite a time getting them off to school every morning.
MARY: Actually, Groucho, we're educating our children ourselves, at home.
GROUCHO: Really? And what does that mean? You teach them how to do the dishes and wash the floors and cook dinner?
MARY: Well, that too, but all the regular subjects, like the three R's.
GROUCHO: The three R's? I remember them from vaudeville. They were awful.
MARY: No, I meant reading and writing and arithmetic -- math.
GROUCHO: Well, now, only one of those begins with the letter R, Mary. Do you have an explanation for that? Otherwise I don't think we can give you a passing grade in spelling.
FENNEMAN: Groucho, besides being the proud mother of thirteen, Mary has something else that distinguishes her.
GROUCHO: Is that so?
MARY: Well, Groucho, I met you many years ago on the set of one of your movies -- "A Day at the Circus."
GROUCHO: Uh-oh. Of course, now I remember you -- you were the lion tamer.
MARY: I was just three years old.
GROUCHO: You were? You have a good memory. I can't even remember what I had for lunch -- or who paid. Or what her name was. Well, why were you there, Mary? Were you under contract to MGM?
MARY: No. My dad was on the crew.
GROUCHO: He wasn't related to me, was he?
MARY: No, he was one of the people who built the sets.
GROUCHO: Really? Well, what do you know? You don't happen to remember what we talked about, do you?
MARY: Gee, I don't remember much of anything.
GROUCHO: Not a very memorable experience, was it? Anyway, you're a delightful young lady, Mary, and I'll get back to you in a moment, but first, let's meet your partner here... is it... God? God what?
GOD: It's just God.
GROUCHO: What kind of a name is that?
GOD: It is a man-made name.
GROUCHO: Because my name is really Julius, but no one calls me that. I don't want to tell you what they do call me, but they certainly don't call me Julius.
GOD: I go by many names.
GROUCHO: Is that so? Well, when you get your water bill, whose name is on it?
GOD: Some call me Jehovah, some call me Jesus, some call me Mohammed, some call me Krishna, some call me Vishnu, some call me-
GROUCHO: And I vish you'd stop. Now, tell me God, what do you do for a living? Do you have an occupation -- besides having enough names to start your own law firm?
GOD: I am the supreme being, the lord of the universe, the creator of everything that exists -- life, the earth -- everything.
GROUCHO: That's very interesting -- do you have any hobbies? Like playing polo, or beating rugs?
GOD: I am everything and I am everywhere. I know everything, and I see everything.
GROUCHO: Really? Have you seen the latest Lana Turner picture?
GOD: I see everything. I hear everything.
GROUCHO: Did you hear the one about the magician?
GOD: With his other suit still at the tailor?
GROUCHO: I guess you've heard that one.
GOD: I've heard everything. I know everything. I am the source of everything.
GROUCHO: Well, I'm very impressed, God, you've obviously done quite well for yourself, but tell me -- since you're so smart -- which came first, the bacon or the egg?
GOD: I --
GROUCHO: Or did you order the soup?
GOD: I don't know what you mean.
GROUCHO: Anyway, God, have you met George Fenneman?
GOD: Yes.
GROUCHO: Don't bother, Fenneman. He can't help you. Tell me, God, since you created everything, why couldn't you make women better drivers?
GOD: Obviously you're kidding.
GROUCHO: Obvious to you, maybe, but not to this audience. Mary, you've got thirteen kids, what advice can you give God here about running the universe?
MARY: Well, gee, he seems to be doing a pretty good job of it.
GROUCHO: Except for the women drivers. You know, you look a lot like my brother Harpo. I bet you get that all the time.
GOD: Yes, I do.
GROUCHO: You don't have to answer this, God, but about how old would you say you are?
GOD: I'm seventeen billion years old, Groucho.
(There is extended applause.)
GROUCHO: Well, you certainly don't look it. Anyway, you're a delightful couple and I'd love to go on talking to both of you, but it's time to play the game. Fenneman? Explain the rules.
FENNEMAN: The object is to answer four questions in a row correctly. Two incorrect answers in a row and you're out. Answer four in a row correctly and you get to come back and try for five or ten thousand dollars. The categories are "Geography," "Art and Artists," "Movies and Movie Stars," "War and Warriors," and "General Information."
GROUCHO: Pick a category and select an envelope from that category. Go ahead, Mary.
FENNEMAN: She picks "Geography."
GROUCHO: Okay, now I just want one answer between the two of you, talk it over if necessary, and here's the question: "It was once known as Constantinople, but today it goes by a different-"
GOD: Istanbul.
GROUCHO: Istanbul is correct.
FENNEMAN: That's one right, three more in a row and you get a shot at the big prize.
GROUCHO: That's very good, God, but you might want to talk it over with your partner next time. All right, Mary, pick another one.
MARY: I'll go with "Geography" again.
FENNEMAN: She picks "Geography."
GROUCHO: All right, here it is: "Pike's Peak is a mountain located near what major Rocky Mountain metro-"
GOD: Denver, Colorado.
GROUCHO: Denver, Colorado is correct.
FENNEMAN: That's two in a row. Two more and you'll be eligible to spin for five or ten thousand dollars.
GROUCHO: This God's a smart cookie, isn't he, Mary?
MARY: Yes he is.
GROUCHO: Well, pick another one.
MARY: Let's try... "General Information."
GROUCHO: Okay. "The word 'conductor' has several meanings, one of which is the conductor on a train. Can you give me two other meanings for the word 'conductor.'"
GOD: Conductor of an orchestra...
GROUCHO: Correct.
GOD: ... and a substance or medium that conducts heat, light, sound, or electric charge.
GROUCHO: That's absolutely correct.
FENNEMAN: That's three in a row, one more correct answer and you'll get the chance to go for the ten thousand dollars.
GROUCHO: That would buy a lot of eggs, wouldn't it, Mary?
MARY: It sure would.
GROUCHO: Okay, kids, pick another one.
MARY: I'll stick with "General Information."
GROUCHO: Stick with a winner. And don't forget, God, you can talk it over with your partner before you answer. Here's the question: "Is it possible to be in two places at once?"
GOD: No.
GROUCHO: I'm sorry, that's incorrect. "You can be in two places at once, if you straddle the border of two states, for example." You should have talked it over.
FENNEMAN: That's one wrong, another incorrect answer and you'll be eliminated.
GROUCHO: Pick another category.
MARY: Okay, let's try... "Art and Artists."
GROUCHO: "He liked to paint ceilings, particularly a very famous one in-"
GOD: Michelangelo.
GROUCHO: Michelangelo is correct.
FENNEMAN: That's one right -- three more and you'll get to come back.
GROUCHO: What'll it be?
MARY: "Art and Artists."
GROUCHO: "Art and Artists" again. "You often see his work on a well-known cigar box. What is this Dutch master's name?" This one's easy for me.
GOD: Rembrandt.
GROUCHO: Correct.
FENNEMAN: You now have two in a row. Two more and you go to the jackpot round.
GROUCHO: How about it, Mary? "Art and Artists" again?
MARY: Let's try "War and Warriors."
GROUCHO: "War and Warriors" it is. Listen carefully, kids. "He said, 'I shall return,' and he did. What famous General am I referring to?"
GOD: MacArthur.
GROUCHO: Charles -- I mean Douglas -- MacArthur is correct. You know, there was a brilliant writer by the name of Charles MacArthur.
GOD: Of course.
GROUCHO: He wrote "The Front Page" with another great writer, Ben Hecht. Bet you knew that too, right?
GOD: Yes, of course.
FENNEMAN: Groucho, Mary and God now have three correct answers in a row. One more and they qualify to spin the big prize wheel.
GROUCHO: Okay, kids, you heard the man. Pick a category.
MARY: Let's try... "Movies and Movie Stars."
GROUCHO: "Movies and Movie Stars." Remember, get this right and you'll come back and have a chance at the big money. Here it is: "In the 1947 fantasy 'Miracle on 34th Street,' Edmund Gwenn plays a character-"
GOD: Santa Claus.
GROUCHO: Well, it was another name...
GOD: Kris Kringle.
GROUCHO: That's the answer I was looking for.
FENNEMAN: That's four in a row. You've now earned the right to come back and win up to ten thousand dollars.
GROUCHO: Congratulations, kids, and I'll see you both later.
(Commercial for DeSoto-Plymouth dealers.)
FENNEMAN: Groucho, because of the length of the first segment, our only contestants eligible for the final round are Mary McCracken, and her partner, God. Folks, why don't you come back out here.
GROUCHO: Welcome back, welcome back... you both know the rules. Spin the wheel, and play for either five or ten thousand dollars. Who's gonna spin? Mary? God?
GOD: Okay.
GROUCHO: Give it a whirl, God... say, you don't know your own strength, do you? When the wheel stops spinning, and it may never stop... ah, there it goes.
FENNEMAN: And they'll be playing for the big prize, ten thousand dollars.
GROUCHO: Okay, now listen carefully and just one answer between you. For ten thousand dollars, here's the question: "What is time?" You've got thirty seconds to think it over...
(Theme music.)
GROUCHO: Okay, what's your answer?
MARY: You go ahead.
GOD: Time is that which is measured by a clock.
(The duck appears.)
GROUCHO: Clock is the secret word -- here's fifty dollars for each of you. Congratulations. All right, duck, beat it. Unfortunately, your answer to the question was incorrect. I'll read it to you: "Like space, time is infinite, and therefore cannot be measured, or defined." Well, you didn't win the big money -- what did they wind up with, Fenneman?
FENNEMAN: They won two hundred dollars in the quiz, and another fifty each for saying the secret word, so they wound up with, let's see, that's one hundred and fifty dollars each.
GROUCHO: Not bad for a night's work, kids. Thanks for being on You Bet Your Life, and remember: Tell 'em Groucho sent you.
(Theme music.)

Where’s Country Joe and the Fish when you really need ‘em?

And it’s one, two, three, what’re we fightin’ for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn.
Next stop, it’s Vietnam.
And it’s five, six, seven, open up the Pearly Gates.
There ain’t no time to wonder why.
Whoopie, we’re all goin’ die!**

**Refrain from “I feel like I’m fixin’ to die rag”, in case you don’t remember Woodstock.

Ah, the classics….. “Give me an ‘F’! Give me a ‘U’!.....” Of course, this particular one is as relevant today as it was back in the 60’s. It’s just that “Iraq” doesn’t really rhyme with much, does it?

In some ways, Vietnam, as horribly confusing and terrible as it was, was much more straightforward than what the U.S. finds itself embroiled in today in Iraq. At least back then, we kind of knew who the enemy was. Oh, we couldn’t tell by looking at them, as they didn’t wear nice red coats and stand in straight lines while shooting at our troops, and they had the unfortunate tendency to go hide in jungles after an attack. However, that seems like a cakewalk compared to what is going on in Iraq today.

We don’t even know what our mission is. It seems to have changed about four times since the beginning. First, we absolutely had to go in and take out Saddam because he was ready to drop A-bombs and tons of anthrax on the U.S. within the next few months if we didn’t act right away. Next, when the WMD claims didn’t really pan out, it became the stated mission that we had to “rescue the Iraqi people from a murderous tyrant”. No arguing the “murderous tyrant” part, but when has that been the role of the U.S., to rescue nations from their government by military force? Then, it was to install a “democratic government” that was friendly to the U.S. Then, the mission became to rid the country of terrorists, or else they would follow our troops back to this country. Now, I have no idea what we are doing, and I am not alone. Are we there to police a civil war between the Sunni and Shia populations so they don’t slaughter each other? We don’t seem to be doing a great job of that, given that hundreds of Iraqi citizens are being killed each and every week. Terrorists? Can we even tell who they are or what they are trying to accomplish? Because, to me, it looks like the only reason the “terrorists” are there is to take potshots at the U.S. military. Insurgents? Is that the same thing as a “terrorist”, or something different? Are those the people who would just like us to leave their country, as they see the U.S. as an occupying power? Or, as George Bush himself alluded to several weeks ago, is it to secure the oil supply, because who knows what might happen if the terrorists might happen to conspire to drive oil prices up to several hundred dollars a barrel?

Quite a conundrum. What the hell are we doing there? What is our “mission” that Bush and Cheney keep harping on? How will we ever know if we accomplish that mission? If it is just a matter of making everyone stop shooting and blowing up our troops and helicopters with troops in them, then we could just leave. Then they would stop shooting at us. It seems like almost everyone has given up on the fantasy of installing an friendly, democratic government. Is that our “mission”? It certainly wasn’t when we went in. In fact, Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld were so dismissive of “nation building”, they did everything they could to NOT secure any part of the country after we destroyed all working governmental agencies. And we see how well that particular strategy worked out, haven’t we? The regular Iraqi people would certainly say that their lives aren’t better now than compared to then. Millions displaced from their homes, neighbors going around murdering neighbors, checkpoints on roadways designed to find Sunnis or Shias, so they can be dragged out of their cars and shot. Dog heads grafted onto the bodies of little girls…. We can’t even give them electricity for more than about 4 or 5 hours a day.

I think the Democrats have a good idea in trying to go back in and amend the original Congressional authorization to go to war. No one could ever claim, even Republicans, that they ever granted authority to the President to use the Army and Marines in the way they are being used now.

This is insanity in so many ways, I can’t even begin to summarize them. However, I am particularly incensed by how “Support Our Troops!” is still, to this day, being used to bash anyone criticizing Bush’s handling of the war, while troops are being sent into Iraq without proper rest, training, and equipment. And, when they are wounded, they come back to home to be subjected to horrendous conditions at Walter Reed hospital and other such facilities, if they get any medical and psychological assistance at all.

“Support our troops”, indeed.

Give me an ‘F’! Give me a ‘U’!......

Monday, February 19, 2007

Remember that really bad Kevin Costner film, “Waterworld”?

It seems our near future (i.e., 100 to 200 years) might include some of the basis for that film, hopefully without the bad acting. This from the Guardian, via HuffingtonPost:

New studies of Greenland and Antarctica have forced a UN expert panel to conclude there is a 50% chance that widespread ice sheet loss "may no longer be avoided" because of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Such melting would raise sea levels by four to six metres, the scientists say. It would cause "major changes in coastline and inundation of low-lying areas" and require "costly and challenging" efforts to move millions of people and infrastructure from vulnerable areas. The previous official line, issued in 2001, was that the chance of such an event was "not well known, but probably very low".
The melting process could take centuries, but increased warming caused by a failure to cut emissions would accelerate the ice sheets' demise, and give nations less time to adapt to the consequences. Areas such as the Maldives would be swamped and low-lying countries such as the Netherlands and Bangladesh, as well as coastal cities including London, New York and Tokyo, would face critical flooding.

The warning appears in a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which assesses the likely impacts of global warming and will be published in April. A final draft of the report's summary-for-policymakers chapter, obtained by the Guardian, says: "Very large sea level rises that would result from widespread deglaciation of Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets imply major changes in coastlines and inundation of low-lying areas, with greatest effects in river deltas.

"Relocating populations, economic activity and infrastructure would be costly and challenging. There is medium confidence that both ice sheets would be committed to partial deglaciation for a global average temperature increase greater than 1-2C, causing sea level rise of 4-6m over centuries to millennia." Medium confidence means about a five in 10 chance.

What’s really scary about this prediction is that the influx of so much freshwater would likely interrupt the oceans currents. Fresh water and salt water do not readily mix, and therefore the fresh water would set up a boundary between the two. The normal circular current rotations where the warmer salt water rises, moves around, cools and then sinks would not work anymore. If this were to happen, we could be seeing much larger climatic changes than just rising sea levels and inundated coastal cities. (Which, incidently, was the subject of another forgettable Hollywood film, "The Day After Tomorrow". Those whacky, reactionary Hollywood types, always making goofy movies out of probable events.)

Personally, I had been hoping that the human race would run out of cheap energy before we inflicted huge damage on our home planet of Earth. However, that seems to be no longer the case. It appears as if these two things are going to occur simultaneously. I predict it will not be pretty. Our food production and distribution system will likely fall apart right at the time that massive population relocation is going to have to occur. Very selfishly, I guess I am glad that I will not likely be around to see the worst of it. Our children’s children may have a very hard time of it, though. I certainly hope I am wrong, but I cannot see another conclusion that is more logical.

What the world needs right now is for a “Manhattan-type project” on a global scale to find ways of immediately reducing our greenhouse gas output, finding new energy sources that will replace all petroleum and coal based sources, and figure out a way to cope with the likely changes that will result in the next 100 years. However, I have absolutely no hope that this will ever happen. Our society is pretty good at coping, but only AFTER a disaster has happened. We do not seem to be able to deal with things proactively, even when our very existence, as we now know it, may be at stake.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

As Will Rogers once said, “Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.”

These last few years seem to have provided, and are still in the process of providing, pretty massive and dramatic weather patterns. We’ve just experienced deadly tornadoes in February in Louisiana and Florida, and huge snowstorms in the Midwest and East Coast after record warm temperatures. After the vicious year of a record number of Category 3, 4 and 5 hurricanes two summers ago, we then had hardly any the next year, with none of them making landfall in the United States. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we just experienced a very dramatic end of autumn/beginning of winter, with record warm temperatures, followed by torrential rain which spawned localized but sever flooding, followed by gale-to-hurricane strength windstorms which ripped down trees and power lines, followed by multiple snow events. Just in my short history here, I can see that this was a very unusual period of weather for us, which is normally just sort of gray, damp and dark.

Scientists cannot agree on a scientific basis by which these dramatic weather events could be directly contributed to global warming. However, there does seem to be a consensus that, whatever is going on, short term or long term, human activity seems to be making things worse. On a global scale, things usually change so slowly that humans are not even aware they are occurring. However, when something DOES happen which we can see, like an increase in the temperature of the oceans or the loss of massive ice shelves in Canada and Greenland, we can definitely say something is going on at a rather rapid pace (geologically speaking).

It seems to me that we should all get used to the unusual, when it comes to the weather. The Earth has been experiencing what scientists are saying is a rather prolonged period of very stable climate. We may be entering into a new period where “unsettled and dramatic” is the new norm. What this may mean for the next several hundred years is still being determined. However, in the short term, I would suggest that people have their insurance paid up, including flood insurance, cut down all the very large trees within reach of your house if they topple over and keep a snow shovel handy. It could be a very bumpy ride.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Why Fundamentalist Christians Hate Science. (Or, “Oh, dearie me. Whatever shall we do about all these pesky dinosaurs?”)

Not that this question is much of a mystery. The problem with science, and all logical thought processes for that matter, for Fundamentalist Christians is that the conclusions reached undercut some of the basic tenets upon which Christian dogma depends. This has been true for thousands of years, and will continue to be true. The problem, for Christians, is this. In their view of the universe, everything related to their faith is the Absolute Truth. The Absolute Truth can never change. It can never be wrong. It is inviolable. For them, if anything within their belief system is shown to be incorrect, then that, apparently, calls into question their entire belief system!

If the Absolute Truth happens to be written down, say, in a book called The Bible, then it becomes especially difficult to reconcile when facts start intruding upon The Truth. Written words are not as easily discounted and forgotten as verbal mythology. Therefore, in order for Fundamentalist Christians to avoid complete anarchy in their belief system, every single word in the Bible must be defended to the death, even when it means trying to explain away some very inconvenient and uncomfortable facts.

I find that kind of thinking incomprehensible. But yet, this kind of thinking leads people to declare such absurdities like the following:

- Dinosaurs lived at the same time as man, and were carried by Noah on the Ark.
- Dinosaurs are probably alive today, we just don’t know where to look for them. (Yes, I agree, they are. Look in your backyard. They’re called “birds”.)
- Carnivorous dinosaurs had long, sharp, curved teeth to strip bark off of trees, because all animals, including carnivorous dinosaurs, were vegetarians prior to Adam and Eve being tossed out of the Garden of Eden.

I do not understand the Fundamentalist Christians’ obsession of late with dinosaurs. I suppose they finally came to the realization that they could not ignore the overwhelming evidence that dinosaurs once lived but are not around now. They just can’t explain away all those huge skeletons in museums around the world, so they just did their best in incorporating the past existence of dinosaurs into the belief system, intact, such that they didn’t have any pesky contradictions or loose ends regarding dinosaurs lying around.

One big problem with this approach, however, is that there are now a lot more scientific facts that would cause any rational person to doubt these assertions. For one thing, all of the geologic evidence and the fossil record show that these assertions to be complete nonsense. However, given the huge investment the Fundamentalist Christians have in defending their belief system from any and all inconvenient facts, they do what they do best; attack the messengers and say that all facts which don’t coincide with their world view are incorrect.

What the Fundamentalist Christians are doing here is just as blatant as if they were refuting the existence of dinosaur fossils. The only difference is that a big honking T. Rex skeleton staring down at you is pretty hard to ignore. The geological record is easier to ignore than the T. Rex. It involves actually understanding the subject, doing research, and coming to logical conclusions based on empirical evidence. So, rather than try to incorporate the contradictory evidence presented by the geological record into the belief system, the Fundamentalist Christians just say that scientists are wrong. Their proof? Their initial, totally unsupported postulation that, because the Bible contains only the Absolute Truth, anything that contradicts it must be incorrect. Therefore, if their initial argument is already accepted as the Absolute Truth, then the geological record must be wrong. Pretty neat trick, eh? The flip side of this approach is, anything that you say in support of the Absolute Truth automatically becomes part of the Absolute Truth.

(As an aside, I would really like a Fundamentalist Christian to try to explain Neanderthals. There is overwhelming evidence that cannot be refuted that they existed in Europe and the Middle East for thousands of years. Another fact that cannot be refuted is that Neanderthals were not humans. They were certainly related to us, but the bone structure makes it obvious that they were not us. However, it is easier for Fundamentalist Christians to ignore their existence, and instead focus on hoaxes such as the Piltdown Man, so they can say what idiots all scientists are. And who proved the Piltdown Man was a hoax? Scientists. I’m just saying.)

This entire discussion reminds me so much of how the Church reacted to Galileo’s theory that the sun did not revolve around the Earth, and therefore, the Earth was not (as the Fundamentalist Christians’ view back in the 1600’s maintained) at the center of the Universe. This was heresy in the eyes of the Church. In the eyes of the powerful Church elders, if this were true, then everything else they believed in also comes into question.

It’s funny how a few hundred years change people’s perceptions and beliefs. Back then, what Galileo was proposing threatened to undermine the entire basis of Fundamentalist Christian teachings. Now, due to the overwhelming evidence supporting Galileo’s proposal, everyone accepts the fact that the Earth indeed revolves around the sun and is, in actuality, a very small speck in the fabric of the universe. Has this new adjustment in thinking changed how the Fundamentalist Christians view the Absolute Truth? No, it has not. It has been incorporated into their paradigm. If anyone happens to dwell too deeply on why God might be so fixated on goings-on that occur on the Earth in the vastness of the cosmos, they are quickly hushed. But the entire concept now presents no insurmountable obstacles that stand in the way of the literal interpretation of the Bible.

The most ironic thing I find about the logical contortions that the Fundamentalist Christians go through is that they feel, somehow, that scientists are trying to disprove the existence of God. I have seen this in print several times. In my mind, nothing can be further from the truth. The basic reason that scientists probe the unknown is to try to figure out how the universe, and everything that it contains, works. It has nothing at all to do with the existence or non-existence of God. Why galaxies exist, what is the nature of sub-atomics particles, what killed off the dinosaurs, is there a way to predict earthquakes, all are questions being probed by science in one way or another. If a belief system desires to postulate that a Supreme Being is responsible for the existence of the universe and that all events within the universe are predetermined, the very nature of that postulation cannot be shown to be true or false by scientific evidence. It is a purely a matter of belief and is therefore not subject to scientific scrutiny.

What is open to scrutiny is when religion makes assertions about the physical nature of the universe. Science can, and does, make inquiries into the validity of these assertions. In many cases, religious assertions about the nature of the universe to not stand up to the bright light of inspection. But here is where I disagree with the Fundamentalist Christians’ conclusions. By disproving certain religious assertions about the nature of the universe, science isnot attempting to disprove the spiritual assertions of a religion. That is not the point. I would disagree with any scientist who is asserting that is what he or she is trying to do. Spiritual matters are not the purview of science. No matter my particular feeling toward organized, strictly interpreted religions in general, I will state that is should not be the business of science to try to prove something which cannot be observed or measured directly, and therefore, is outside the normal bounds of scientific inquiry.

However, Fundamentalist Christians have arrived at the opposite conclusion. In their minds, any inquiry into the nature of things that might possibly arrive at a different conclusion than what their personal belief system subscribes to is automatically taken as an attack against that religious belief system. Therefore, they must attack back, because scientists are “attacking them first”. This is, to put it politely, an immense load of cow flop. Yet, it seems to be the one and only thing that is holding the Fundamentalist Christian thought processes together. Circle the wagons, fight back, and never ask any introspective questions or entertain a moment of self-doubt during a time when your survival is under attack from a group of outsiders.

I cannot fathom this kind of thinking that actively tries to subvert, invalidate or ignore scientific inquiry. That is one thing, among many, that makes us humans. We constantly question what is the nature of the universe and how, as human beings, do we relate to that universe. I, for one, am proud to live in a time where we understand the basic structure of the universe. We have sent a space probe through the rings of Saturn and dropped probes on Titan and multiple rovers on Mars. We have concrete evidence that water, lots of water, once flowed freely on Mars. Within the next few years, we should have pictures of Pluto and its’ moon/twin planetoid Charon. We are probing the nature of matter down to the subatomic level. The universe is a wild, wonderful, amazing place that constantly surprises us. New, amazing discoveries are being made in all branches of science every day. Why should anyone consciously decide to close their eyes and ears to this, just because they feel the need to adhere to an unquestioning belief in a very old and oft-edited book whose origins are, at best, unclear?

I just do not understand willful ignorance.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

“It Can’t Happen Here”

That’s the title of a book I am currently reading. I have had it in my library for a while, but haven’t gotten around to reading it. It was written in 1935 by Sinclair Lewis, author of “Arrowsmith” and “Elmer Gantry”. I am about a third of the way through it. It is about, to put it bluntly, the takeover of the American government by ideologues and the installation of a fascist government, from the point of view of a small town newspaper editor, his daughter, and several friends who have not been swept up in the frenzy.

I am rather vague about American history in 1936. American was still in the Great Depression. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the incumbent president and was reelected. This book is similar to several other “alterative history” works of fiction I have read, where history diverges from a known starting point and proceeds down a new path. In this book, a new politician with the unlikely name of Berzelius Windrip springs from nowhere to capture America’s imagination, mostly by promising anything and everything to everybody, including $5000 (which was a substantial sum in 1936) to every working family. Given the sometimes dark and disturbing history of this nation, and the fact that it takes place in the Depression when hope and money was in short supply, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how this person could be elected instead of Roosevelt.

The underlying message of this work is, and is reflected in the title, that ordinary people can be swept up by the passion of a person or group with an agenda that gets enough momentum going, and everyone else might be concerned but not terribly worried, because things like that just “can’t happen here”.

The reason I decided to read this was, of course, the parallels to our current situation. I have been concerned for some time that we seemed to be recklessly heading down a path to a fascist theocratic state, and not very many people seemed to be aware of the danger of this country becoming something totally different than what it has been in the past. George Bush, along with his brains, Karl Rove, succeeded in putting together a political machine that essentially hijacked another, more established and much larger, political machine in the Republican party. There can be much debate as to how far the Republicans had gone down this road already before Bush showed up. He may have just been the tipping point: the right person at the right time. However we got here, the Republican Party is no longer the party of smaller, less intrusive government and fiscal restraint and responsibility. It is a party devoted to the ideals of overarching government, unrestrained power of the Executive branch, stacking the Judiciary with true believers, redistribution of wealth toward the top end of the pyramid, graft, corruption, lying to the people whenever it forwards their agenda, and a very powerful military that is capable of never ending war.

The plot, at times, is somewhat “heavy handed” and there are differences when comparing it to today. One big one is that Windrip gets the nomination for President from the Democratic Party, knocking out Roosevelt at the convention. Windrip speaks to the “forgotten men”, the workers, the miners, the unemployed, and the disaffected. That is certainly not how our current situation developed. However, it is quite apparent that Windrip never intended to follow through on any of his promises, including the $5000 per family that was the basis of his campaign. Once elected, there was no more need to pretend. He instantly installed a fascist type government, complete with his own private army of “blue shirts” that quashed any sort of protest immediately and without mercy.

However, these difference aside, it is eerie how “spot on” this book is regarding our current situation. Lewis is as prescient in the political realm as Jules Verne or H.G. Wells was in the realm of science. There was a “man behind the man” in the form of an advisor, who really ran things and even went so far as to author a book that was published under the name of his boss. The physical attributes of the two men are very different, but it is impossible to not recognize the character of Karl Rove. Windrip was elected with the help of the fundamentalist Christians, when a newly conceived “radio evangelist” threw his endorsement behind Windrip. The evangelistic character was subsequently arrested immediately after the inauguration, which could be considered to be how disdainful Bush and his minions are of the fundamentalists once they get their votes. One of the main planks in Windrip’s platform is to alter the Constitution such that Congress can only act in an advisory capacity. It can offer no real restraint to the power of the Presidency. The Judiciary is emasculated, such that it cannot issue any judgments on the edicts of the President. And, of course, there is the capacity to wage war. War is seen as something that will stimulate the economy. It will put “backbone” back into the country, which has become weak and effeminate.

There are many other similarities that have jolted me while reading “It Can’t Happen Here”. I am anxious to get to the place where the country really becomes a fascist state, just to see how bad Lewis’s predictions are. His basic message is, of course, you are absolutely fooling yourself if you don’t think it could happen here. Here is one, somewhat plausible, scenario that could have occurred in 1936. We have just been witness to another, plausible because it was happening in front of our very eyes, scenario that could (and still might) lead this country into morphing into a very ugly specter of what it once was. We need to be on our guard at all times, as our democratic system can be hijacked my merciless people with an agenda who will do or say anything to get elected and, once elected, will do anything to stay in power.

I am only hoping that the country is finally waking up to what has truly been transpiring behind the curtains over the last six years. I recommend that everyone in the country should get a refresher course in history and, if they can turn off the television when “American Idol” is on, read this fictional account of what can happen when emotions overcome logic and rational thinking.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Modern society vs. scientific thinking

I started this blog because I was very upset with how the Bush, along with his willing partners, the GOP controlled Congress and the lapdog media, were driving this country into the ground. I was, and remain, very annoyed with our society, the elevation of the trivial into something that captivates the national consciousness while really important items are ignored or marginalized. From five steps back, our society is bordering on being psychotic.

My problem with trying to write about all of this is the fact that I am not, and have never been, truly involved in politics. I did not major in human psychology or sociology. I do not have the time to devote to these subjects to become truly insightful. I just stand back and make observations that any reasonably intelligent and half awake person might make. And most of them do it much better than I. Check out the links over at the right hand column.

I think those are the primary reasons why my enthusiasm for writing a daily blog has waned since the elections.

However, there are some things I do know about. I have degrees in engineering and physics. I have been trained as a scientist and engineer, both of which demand a certain amount of discipline in how a person observes problems and formulates conclusions. Therefore, I thought I might try some posts involving some scientific angle. That is an area that I think I can talk with some amount of certitude.

Getting back to an actual subject.... Opinions are NOT the same thing as facts, and turning up the volume, sarcasm, or rancor is going to turn opinion into facts. This is perhaps the biggest thing that has upset me about the road our society is going down. Everyone is doing it. Religious fundamentalists, politicians, television and newspaper opinionators, citizens with an agenda, all have fallen prey to this. And because it has become so prevalent, hardly anyone even notices it happening anymore. No one (that anyone pays attention to, anyway) ever calls “Bullshit!” when this happens. This is how we got stampeded into a totally unnecessary war by a bunch of sour old white guys with an agenda. This is why we are facing, in the next 100 years, a very catastrophic period of climate change and very unforgiving weather patterns that will not be very kind to the survival of the human race. And most people would either like to just pretend either one of two things; it isn’t going to happen or it is some sort of liberal plot. Just what kind of plot and what the plotters might like to accomplish is yet to be explained.

My perception is that non-scientific people have always looked at scientists and engineers with a mixed sense of bemusement, irritation, and suspicion. Quite often, laypeople have a difficult time in figuring out what some of the more esoteric branches of science are actually on about. Discussions of bosons, quarks, and mu-mesons can cause anyone’s eyes to glaze over very quickly. People wonder why our tax dollars are being spent in pursuit of arcane knowledge that does not seem as it will be useful to anyone. Massively expensive projects such as the Hubble space telescope or the various planetary explorers are only tolerated because they produce such beautiful and tangible results that cannot be ignored. However, to the general public, superconducting particle accelerators are about as useful and relevant as Stonehenge.

Because some aspects of science are not readily understandable or even logical, people feel quite comfortable in labeling ALL science and scientists as irrelevant at best, crackpots at worst. When scientific results conflict with a basic political or theological “notion”, then it becomes time to declare war on the messengers. Luckily, there are ready and willing public media outlets who are quit willing to do the character assassination, if the politicians in charge don’t beat them to the punch.

One big problem is, of course, that most people want to be able to dismiss uncomfortable conclusions that the many branches of science provide. People, for the most part, do not want to be challenged or to be made to rethink some preciously held beliefs. Religious fundamentalists want to believe that the Earth is 6000 years old and dinosaurs and man lived together at the same time. Political conservatives want to believe that global warming and the looming climate change is a myth. This is very unsettling to me, that people can just dismiss facts, documented research, hard evidence and logical conclusions so easily. As Mr. Spock was so fond of saying, “That is not logical.”

That is not the part of the problem that I am going to discuss here. I might take that one on later, but here is what I want to talk about now. Most people in today’s society are totally ignorant about science and the scientific method. Keep in mind that the word “ignorant” is not the same as “stupid”. There are many, many very intelligent people out there who, for one reason or another, have decided that facts and opinion are pretty much the same thing. The correct word is “ignorant”, whose base word is, of course, “ignore”. Either through no fault of their own, or through willingness, they are devoid of any knowledge about a certain subject. This has helped the vast majority of the population of the United States relegate science and the scientific method to total irrelevance. The following is my little effort in trying to reverse this trend in society, even though it seems like trying to hold back a tsunami with a parasol.

The scientific method is the bedrock that the worldwide scientific community uses for their investigations and results. One big “criticism” that laymen with an agenda have for science is that they get to say “Oh, it’s only a theory.” What they fail to realize when they say that is EVERYTHING is “only a theory”. The theory of evolution is just as much a theory as is Einstein’s theory of relativity. The big questions about any theory are, how many of the outstanding questions about any particular subject does that theory answer and how many peers agree with theory? Peer review of any scientific investigation and subsequent conclusion(s) are vital. Scientists make mistakes. Scientists have vested interests in “proving” that their theory is the correct one. Scientists also, unfortunately, sometimes have agendas. It’s up to their peers to discover the validity of their work.

Everything in the process starts with facts that everyone can easily agree to. These can be easily observable phenomena or objects, or scientific conclusions that have become generally accepted as valid. (Please note that I did not say “the truth”. Truth is very subjective in science.) Using these facts as a jumping off point, the scientist or researcher uses logic backed up, when necessary, by other facts to come to some sort of conclusion. Results are usually published or presented in front of a conference, where peers get to review the entire process and make their input. Usually, if some flaw in the chain has occurred, such as a breakdown of the logical building blocks on which the conclusion is based or even a disagreement upon the fundamental “facts”, a peer review will uncover it very quickly.

One easily remembered example of this is the “discovery” of cold-fusion. Two scientists say that they had achieved cold-fusion (the combining of matter at an atomic level) without massive amounts of heat. “Fusion in a drinking cup”, in other words. There was great excitement in the press when this was first announced in the late 1980’s, and lots of immediate skepticism by other scientists. Very quickly, the whole notion was dismissed, as the scientists experimental method and conclusions were shown to be flawed.

That is the entire process. You start with known facts and, using logic, math, and other additional facts, you arrive at a conclusion to explain these facts. By an iterative process, these conclusions become more and more refined and, as a result, answer more and more of the unknown questions that people want answers to. As these results “solidify”, then more and more people start accepting the theorized result as a “fact”.

The most important aspect of this process it is never static. At any time, when new facts become available, older, accepted facts can become subject to a renewed investigation and a new theory may be substituted for the old. The classic example is how Newtonian physics was the accepted model for hundreds of years of how the universe operates. However, when Einstein and other physicists really got examining planetary motions, it became obvious that Newton’s model, although adequate to explain much of what can be observed, totally breaks down when you take a closer look. Hence, Einstein’s model became the new, accepted “theory”, until other scientists and mathematicians such as Stephen Hawking showed that there were holes in Einstein’s theory as well.

The process never stops. Theories are constantly being updated, refined, and sometimes, shown to be totally incorrect. When this occurs, the process starts over again. That is why this all works.

Many times, the entire process is not as ‘cut and dried’ as people would like. Results are vague or ambiguous. Initial “facts” can be interpreted differently by different people, such that when the scientific process is followed, different results occur. Disagreements, sometimes very emotional and personal, can break out between scientists or scientific communities, over these differences. However, even though there are these disagreements (e.g, was the Tyrannosaurus Rex a predator or a scavenger?) will always be part of the scientific debate, there is no disagreement about the goal of the process. That is, what theory can we put forward that best addresses the unknown questions that is based on solid observable or analytical facts and a logical argument that can be accepted and replicated by the scientific community?

This is where, I believe, that the layperson gets lost with science. Not only are some of the conclusions reached very difficult to grasp and downright illogical at times, but most people do not seem to feel very comfortable with the concept that ‘the truth’ is not some sacrosanct, inviolable thing that can never be questioned. They do not like that ‘the truth’ can change overnight. When one firmly believes in something, like the literal interpretation of the Bible where every single word in that book comes from God and is therefore ‘the truth and the only truth’, it is very disturbing to discover that scientists routinely go back and challenge generally accepted notions. If someone can do that, then it wasn’t ‘the truth’ to begin with. It is ‘only a theory’, which therefore, cannot be ‘the truth’. And if that is true, then my opinion is quite as good or even better than your ‘facts’, since your facts can change but my opinion never will!

In many ways, our society hasn’t advanced greatly since Medieval times. Oh, we have much better tools and we hardly have to lift a finger to have quite a comfortable lifestyle. Ruefully, we have much better weapons these days. But the great majority of us would just as soon choose to live our lives in willful ignorance and never challenge ourselves. We want the universe to be knowable, understandable, and most importantly, conform to and confirm our dearly held opinions.

That, to me, is a sure way for our society to slide backwards into ignorance. The Chinese and other societies who are not so afraid of the unknown will pass us by in very short order. The only thing that is saving us right now is the incredible inertia our society has built up. However, even the mighty civilizations of Rome, Greece, and Egypt slowly decayed and become irrelevant. That is where I think our country is heading.