Saturday, October 31, 2009

Boeing continues its exodus from Seattle.

Boeing has just made the decision to set up a second 787 production line in South Carolina. Actually, “just” is not an appropriate use of the word here, because many believe that Boeing management made the decision quite some time ago and was just playing the leverage game with SC to get more favorable terms. They played the same game as many owners of professional sports teams do. They set up a conflict between the current home and some other location that is just lusting after whatever it is. The owners then use the conflict to pull a power play and use their toy as a bargaining chip to see who is going to give them the most favorable terms. Sometimes they stay (like the Seattle Seahawks that almost moved to L.A. and the Seattle Mariners that almost moved to Tampa) and sometimes they go (such as the Seattle Supersonics, that did move to Oklahoma City). Who is going to give the rich owners even more goodies?

But, for Boeing, the die was cast long ago; Boeing was going to South Carolina. Boeing management had had its fill of strikes by the Machinists Union. (SPEEA, the engineering union, went on strike over 10 years ago and it had a significant impact, but by making membership in the union mandatory for all engineers, that union has effectively been neutered. It will not strike again.) It didn’t matter if there were valid grievances or not. They didn’t like the strikes. This follows their move of corporate headquarters to Chicago a number of years ago. Boeing is, without any doubt, no longer one of the fixtures of the Pacific Northwest.

I have absolutely no doubt that whenever Boeing decides to build their next airplane, such as a replacement for the long-in-the-tooth 737, it will also go to South Carolina. Boeing can make a ton of money by selling the land that the 737 plant current sits on, and they can go somewhere where the infrastructure will already exist, complete with a non-unionized work force.

I’m not going to try to do an analysis here. It’s just one more example of huge corporations existing for themselves and their shareholders. They do not exist for the benefit of their workers or their communities. Those things are seen, more often than not, as the enemy. I don’t know why this should be. Why are people who buy stocks in a company more important than the people who put a huge chunk of their lives into it? To me, that’s an astounding business model and one large proof that, in today’s America, the almighty dollar is the only thing that matters.

I could write some major paragraphs about the 787 program itself, which has been an unmitigated disaster for Boeing. It is over two years late and the first airplane still has yet to fly. It is not a coincidence that this is the first major airplane program undertaken by the company after its supposed “merger” with McDonnell Douglas, in which McDonnell Douglas essentially bought Boeing with Boeing’s own money, and, with the exception of Alan Mulally, who is now departed and the CEO of Ford, put in ex-McDonnell Douglas people into upper management. The program has been mishandled from the beginning, and it is because of how Boeing is now run. But yet, moving to South Carolina is seen as being “in the best interests of the company.” The workers who will lose their jobs were not the cause of this fiasco, yet they are the ones that will suffer.

Seattle will survive this blow, and the blow that will come in the future when the 737 replacement is also built somewhere else. The Pacific Northwest is a pretty vibrant area in a lot of different ways. We still have Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks and some other high-tech businesses. But continued losses such as Washington Mutual (see my earlier post on that subject), major parts of Boeing and the Seattle Supersonics does feel like we are absorbing some major punches in the gut. We are slowly losing what has earlier defined Seattle. Things come, things go, but the quest for the almighty dollar remains.

(Disclaimer: I worked at Boeing for 19 years, before moving on about 9 years ago. I still work in commercial aerospace. Nothing I have said in this post came from any sort of inside knowledge. Everything is readily available from public sources, such as newspapers and the internet.)

Friday, October 30, 2009

"I never knew there was such a thing as a condom plant!"

Doctor, just what is in those bottles, anyway?

Photo from "The Thing from Another World."

The New Hoover Dam Bypass

Creeping closer inch by inch, 900 feet above the mighty Colorado River, the two side of a
$160 million bridge at the Hoover Dam slowly takes shape.

The bridge will carry a new section of US Route 93 past the bottleneck of the old road which can be twisting and winding around and across the dam itself.

When complete, it will provide a new link between the states of Nevada and Arizona. In an incredible feat of engineering, the road will be supported on the two massive concrete arches which jut out of the rock face.

The arches are made up of 53 individual sections each 24 feet long which have been cast on-site and are being lifted into place using an improvised high-wire crane strung between temporary steel pylons.

The arches will eventually measure more than 1,000 feet across. At the moment, the structure looks like a traditional suspension bridge. But once the arches are complete, the suspending cables on each side will be removed. Extra vertical columns will then be installed on the arches to carry the road.

The bridge has become known as the Hoover Dam bypass, although it is officially called the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, after a former governor of Nevada and an American Football player from Arizona who joined the US Army and was killed in Afghanistan. Work on the bridge started in 2005 and should finish next year. An estimated 17,000 cars and trucks will cross it every day.

The dam was started in 1931 and used enough concrete to build a road from New York to San Francisco. The stretch of water it created, Lake Mead, is 110 miles long and took six years to fill. The original road was opened at the same time as the famous dam in 1936.

An extra note: The top of the white band of rock in Lake Mead is the old waterline prior to the drought and development in the Las Vegas area. It is over 100 feet above the current water level.

(Ed. note: The source of these photos and accompanying text is unknown. I received them in an e-mail, without attribution. If anyone has a correct attribution, I will add it or will remove these photos. They are very high quality and not likely to have come off of someone's Flicker page.)

Update: Several random thoughts regarding these pictures:

1) That's going to be a hell of a view for someone driving across that when it's completed.

2) For $160 million, that looks incredibly fragile and unstable. It looks, at this distance, to be supported by something akin to really tall cement matchsticks. A good gust of wind seems to have more than an even chance of blowing it over sideways.

3) There's NO way I would ever work on something like that! Total freakout time. I doubt I could even drive across it.

4) How'd those guys get out there, anyway?

5) And where is the cement coming from when they are pouring the new sections?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Joe Lieberman's ego; really large, really ugly, thinks it can fly.

Yaknow, I'm really going to miss Halloween when it's over. I am getting to use all these cool photos that otherwise would make absolutely no sense.

(For those interested, the shots are from The Giant Claw, via the B Movie Graveyard. One of THE worst giant film monsters ever. It makes Godzilla look positively frightening.)

Washington Mutual (WaMu): a prime example of the greed and arrogance of our financial institutions.

Every once in a while, a print newspaper actually does some fine investigative reporting. The Seattle Times is running a series on Washington Mutual, which started out as a local home loan business but eventually become one of the main dominoes that contributed to the economic meltdown of the last two years. It is unfortunate that the investigative reporting here is taking place AFTER all this had gone down. Investigating something that has already happened is much easier than investigating something that is currently going on which could have some significant downsides. However, that said, I would still highly recommend this series. Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.

It’s (unfortunately) a very predictable story. WaMu started out as a small company that had firm principles and treated their customers and employees fairly. However, new management came in, took over, and decided that the only thing that mattered was to grow the company and make huge amounts of money, no matter what.

One very important instrument in how this was accomplished is known as an “option ARM.” Adjustable rate mortgages are iffy enough, if the borrower doesn’t understand what he is getting into. However, these loans came with additional choices. You could pay the entire monthly premium plus the interest, you could pay part of the premium, or you could even pay none of the premium. Heck, you could even pay only a portion of the interest due for that month. The outcome of anyone doing this, of course, is that the amount you owe the financial institution goes up, not down. And when the loan hits a certain benchmark, all options are cancelled and the borrower is stuck with essentially a fixed rate mortgage that has a much larger monthly payment than their original standard fixed rate loan.

All of these nasty little details were hidden in the fine print of the contract, of course. And because the mortgage brokers that WaMu used to sell these loans got very large commissions, they never felt a lot of pressure to tell the potential customer anything that might frighten them off. Rather, these loans were pushed as a great way to save money!

Read this little snippet from one of these stories in the Times:

WaMu did not reward brokers for getting its customers the best deal. Just the opposite. The worse the terms were for borrowers, the more WaMu paid the brokers.

Look at that again. WaMu knowing pushed a business model (through unregulated brokers) to sell their option ARM product to people who they knew could not afford the ultimate outcome. In a number of cases that are documented in these articles, a borrower ended up with a higher monthly payment from the same lending institution than with the original loan! That is unconscionable, in all senses of that word.

However, WaMu didn’t really care. They were making money hand over fist. One big reason they didn’t care is that these loans, which were very aggressively pushed, were also constructed to be sold as part of a package. That’s a very fine business model. They reap huge benefits for risky loans, but because they sell them as “investments”, they take none of the risk for these loans that they knew a large percentage of them would never be paid.

That is the face of today’s financial industry in America. That mindset is all that is necessary to believe that the CEO and upper management are deserving of huge bonuses, when their customers and their own company are going through very tough times. People cannot get out of mortgages they can’t afford. Working families are being evicted from the houses they have lived in for years. What might happen in the future was not a concern to the executives at WaMu, because that was in the future. The only thing that mattered was raking in as much cash as possible in as little time as possible.

Of course, this is the same description that can be applied to any pyramid scheme, where the only thing that matters is to be on top of the pyramid. By the time the entire thing collapses, you have yours and that’s all that matters.

I am always at a loss about how to wrap up a post on something like this. Some pithy insight, some clever reference… But it’s difficult to even contemplate the overwhelming greed and hubris. And, not only that, it's institutionalized greed! It was their business model, just as is the practice of canceling insurance policies of sick people, sometimes VERY sick people, just when they need financial assistance. "Why, that's required if we are to make money. Don't you want us to make money? You must be a socialist...."

This is the one of the faces of the current Republican Party. This is what Republicans stand for, and this is what they are fighting so hard to preserve in their battle against healthcare reform. They are for the top of the pyramid making as much money as they possibly can, by whatever means they can.

Why the other faces of the Republican Party, the fiscal conservatives and the family values Christians, put up with this, I have no idea. The financial institutions in this country are certainly not structured to benefit them.

Oh, yeah. Now I remember. Democrats and liberals are evil, are pro-terrorist and anti-American, and Obama isn’t an old white guy.

Who cares what the Mayans thought, anyway? Aren’t they dead?

Apparently, some Mayan prophecy predicts the world will end in 2012. There’s a major motion picture about it. There are a lot of homebrewed doomsayers around that have adopted this one, based on the number of hits that a Google search on “Mayan prophecy 2012” yields.

Yeah, so the Mayans were pretty good astronomers. They built some pretty cool stone edifices. I’ve been to Chichen Itza and it is impressive, as ancient ruins go. According to the Mayans own stone carvings, they also had a nasty habit about cutting the beating hearts out of living captives (maybe slaves, maybe vanquished enemies) to offer to their version of the Supreme Being.

I do admit, this whole thing is a windfall at the box office, at least for several weeks, for Columbia Pictures and Centropolis Entertainment. But why, exactly, should we care about what a bloodthirsty, albeit vanished, people thought regarding the end of the world? They couldn’t even see their own imminent demise.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Insane? Or do they just not care?

One definition of insanity that I have always heard, which I believe is attributed to Albert Einstein, is to keep repeating the same action over and over, with the expectation that the results will be different. That certainly applies to conservatives these days. They keep “doubling down” on the strategy that requires them to really appeal to their identifiable base; the angry “tea-baggers” who require Republicans to attack Democrats on every single issue, whether that issue has any substance or not. The percentage of people in this country who identify themselves as Republicans is now down to around 20%, Republicans have lost the last two national elections, poll after poll show that satisfaction with the Republican brand is way down. Yet, the conservative element demand ideological purity, and even someone like Lindsey Graham are labeled as traitors if they vote with the Democrats on anything.

That’s the modern Republican Party.

Another definition of insanity, this one of my own making, goes something like this. Someone keeps going completely ape-shit over every single little thing. Some of the issues might be real issues where there is some room for true disagreement on the issues, some are completely bogus or made up. And some criticisms, which usually elicit the biggest ape-shit reactions, are for things that the Republican Party itself did under the Bush administration or continue to do to this day. Karl Rove is a great practitioner of this particularly tactic.

Yet another definition of insanity might be along the lines of someone who continually criticizes others for not following along with their policies and ways of thinking when a) their party has been booted out of office and they are in the minority, and b) the policies they have been advocating have already been proven to be disastrously wrong. A good example, of course, is Dick Cheney and his attack dog daughter, about Iraq, about Afghanistan, about torture, about Gitmo…

All of these definitions of insanity can currently be applied, in spades, to modern conservatives. Yet, they continue to do all of these things. Why? Do they actually not understand that, eventually, everyone stops listening to Chicken Little, especially when Mr. Little’s motives are obvious? Someone cannot make every new “issue”, real or imagined, into a catastrophe in the making when the next day or week, they forget all about that issue and jump into the NEXT new potential catastrophe. Eventually, even the most fervent believer is going to stop believing. To the rest of us, they seem to resemble the spittle-flecked doomsayers ranting on a street corner about the end of the world in the loudest voice possible using the most dire language they can conjure up. They appear to be nutjobs who, if one pays any attention to them at all, it is to snicker at them or shake your head in wonder.

So, my question is, are the current conservatives insane? Do they really believe what they are doing? Do they believe what they are saying? Or do they just not care? Do they know they are lying through their teeth and don’t even care if most sane people also know it, just as long as they whip up the base by throwing them more blood red meat? What is really going on here?

I actually do not know which choice is scarier. If these people don’t recognize the lies they are spewing and do not recognize the fact that they are, many times, contradicting their stated positions of two years ago or even two months ago just so they can go bonkers about how President Obama is destroying this country, that means that the lunatics are indeed in charge of a major political party. On the other hand, if everyone knows what they are doing and the reasons they are doing it, but don’t even care, that means that one entire political party has lost its ethical and moral compass.

So, which is it, do you think? And do these two choices even require an “either/or” answer? Can both be true at the same time? And is that possibility even worse than just only a single one?

If that “viable third party” is going to show up, I wish it would get on with it. I just do not know how long this country can go on with one of its two main political parties being insane.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Reader submitted pet photos.

I think you need to changes filters on your camera.... And you might want to rethink that gift of the Mad Scientist EZ Gene Splicer kit for your son.

When botox treatments go bad.

Georgia Republicans think that screwing with people’s trust is fine.

From Thinkprogress. Look at this Republican fundraiser mailing. Seems to look… kind of official, doesn’t it? Sort of like….or exactly like something one might get from the Census. And elderly people that trust stuff they get in the mail, like “You may have won a million dollars!”probably take this to be exactly what it looks like it is. So, would there be ANY reason at all for someone not to take this at face value and fill it out? And maybe put in some money when it asks for it?

Well, except for the part about political affiliation, I guess. That part looks a little suspicious. I love the choices.

Are you:
a) A conservative Republican
b) A moderate Republican
c) A liberal Republican
d) Independent voter who leans Republican
e) Other

You know, there seems to be a few choices left out there.

Georgia Republicans. Always trustworthy. Always playing by the rules.

What’s amazing to me is that people who do this do not seem to realize they are just validating all the ill will that non-ultra-conservative, non-insane people feel about the Republican Party these days. We don't have to prove these people are lying assholes who will do anything to win. They are proving that FOR us, without us having to do anything more than document their asshole-ness.

Spitzer discovers largest ring around Saturn

This is from an e-mail I received from an engineering and musician acquaintance. I am not sure of the original source of the material.

The Spitzer Space Telescope has discovered an enormous ring around Saturn -- by far the largest of the giant planet's many rings. The Ball Aerospace-built Multiband Imagaing Photometer captured the infrared image that led to the discovery.

The new belt lies at the far reaches of the Saturnian system, with an orbit tilted 27 degrees from the main ring plane. The bulk of its material starts about six million kilometers (3.7 million miles) away from the planet and extends outward roughly another 12 million kilometers (7.4 million miles). One of Saturn's farthest moons, Phoebe, circles within the newfound ring, and is likely the source of its material.

Saturn's newest halo is thick, too -- its vertical height is about 20 times the diameter of the planet. It would take about one billion Earths stacked together to fill the ring.

"This is one supersized ring," said Anne Verbiscer, an astronomer at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. "If you could see the ring, it would span the width of two full moons' worth of sky, one on either side of Saturn." Verbiscer; Douglas Hamilton of the University of Maryland, College Park; and Michael Skrutskie, of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, are authors of a paper about the discovery to be published online tomorrow by the journal Nature.

That is a huge ring of material. The fact that it is not in the equatorial plane of Saturn makes it very unusual, but also makes the source of the material very easy to deduce.

Update: I wanted to make sure about this before I posted it. Saturn's moon Phoebe is very unusual. It has a highly elliptical orbit, which indicates it may be a captured object and did not condense from the disk of planetary accretion material from which Saturn eventually coalesced. It also has a very unusual makeup. From wiki:

However, images from the Cassini-Huygens space probe indicate that Phoebe's craters show a considerable variation in brightness, which indicate the presence of large quantities of ice below a relatively thin blanket of dark surface deposits some 300 to 500 metres (980 to 1,600 ft) thick. In addition, quantities of carbon dioxide have been detected on the surface, a finding which has never been replicated on an asteroid. It is estimated that Phoebe is about 50% rock, as opposed to the 35% or so that typifies Saturn's inner moons. For these reasons, scientists are coming to believe that Phoebe is in fact a captured Centaur, one of a number of icy planetoids from the Kuiper belt that orbit the Sun between Jupiter and Neptune[13][14]. Phoebe is the first such object to be imaged as anything other than a dot.

Heeeyyyyy, Abbott!!!

Is that a statue of Anubis in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

I’m at a loss as to what to write about, so I'll trot out a zombie analogy.

There’s almost no point in making snide comments about the insanity that makes up a great portion of this country. The insane part refuse to admit they are insane, the media refuses to point out that they are insane, the non-insane part keeps trying to negotiate “in good faith” with the insane part, with very predictable results. The insane keep trying to one up themselves, seeing who can be more insane than the last insane person.

If, somehow, the insane people in this country were replaced by zombies overnight, this whole scenario wouldn’t seem much weirder than it does now. Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever considered the possibility of some of the things we are currently seeing. Illogic, hatred and fear rule the day, and all the non-zombies seem powerless to do anything about it.

I imagine that this is not going to end well.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Shih-Tzu blogging: Nina gets a new doo.

This is the "blow dry" stage, which she isn't overly enthralled with. This has the makings of a great Halloween costume with her as a porcupine.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Tea Bag Protesters now targeting Republicans they don't like.

From Americablog:

The 75-minute forum filled several sections of Furman University's Timmons Arena and attracted demonstrators, critics with handheld cameras, shouts of "traitor" and "Sotomayor" - and a smattering of supporters.

Graham repeatedly told those who shouted to "chill out," and addressed most of the hot-button issues that have rankled some in the state's conservative epicenter, including an op-ed column he co-authored this week with Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, which called for climate change legislation.

One man told Graham he had "betrayed" conservatism and made a "pact with the devil" by working with Democrats, and asked when Graham would switch parties.

Yes, well, I would surmise that the Beast that is the anger, racism and insanity that the Republican Party has used to their advantage over the last few years has been released and is now turning on its erstwhile master. It's angry and wants everyone to know it. It refuses to be placated by vague promises of future action. It wants its insanity RIGHT NOW, and refuses to take anything less. I hear that a lot of wingers are not very happy with Olympia Snowe for voting with the Democrats on a very watered down health care reform bill. I actually kind of feel sorry for her. I certainly don't agree with a lot of her positions on issues, but I do think she is a non-insane Republican who is actually trying to do the right thing. However, the Beast does not allow for disobedience to the cause. The Beast gets very unhappy with those who don't follow orders.

I hope the Republican party enjoys the next couple of years.

Photo from here.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Movie Review: John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness

John Carpenter has directed and produced some very noteworthy horror films. His films The Thing, The Fog, Halloween and Escape from NewYork are minor classics of the genre.

I have some mixed feelings about Carpenter’s films. Some of the storyline’s are really kind of suspect, shall we say. The theme and the incidental music throughout, on the other hand, are usually first rate. This film, Prince of Darkness, is no exception. It has some very good points (at least as far as horror films go) and some very medicore points. Prince of Darkness has a great introduction and buildup, but unfortunately, the ending doesn’t really hold up its end of the bargain. Truth be told, it's a little bit on the silly side. However, I am not certain how Carpenter could have really "closed the deal" to make a truly great ending and not overreach.

What I really do like about Carpenter’s films, including this one, is the overall atmosphere and the sense of foreboding that permeates the entire story, from beginning to end. This film has some truly creepy cimeatography going for it. The church in which most of the action takes place is a perfect setting for what is to occur. It’s rundown and neglected. The focus of the camera on such things as a dead bird, swarming ants and cluster of worms and other unknown things on the window help build the suspense. The homeless people just standing around and staring at the church is pretty unsettling. Something is going to happen, you just are not sure what. In that regard, the beginning of this film is actually somewhat similar to some of Hitchcock’s films. The first time you see the film, you are not quite sure what’s going to turn out to be important and what’s not. However, the entire thing blends together to make for a suspensful and atmostpheric buildup. The film is actually enhanced by the fact that the cast, with the exceptions of Donald Pleasance and Victor Wong (veterans of other Carpenter films) and a fanstastic cameo appearance by Alice Cooper, consists of non-stars. It’s difficult to tell who might end up surviving the coming ordeal and who might be “offed” in the first half hour of the film.

This film has been panned by a good number of film critics. As with any movie, what you feel about the film depends greatly about what you expect out of it. If you are looking for a classic, you should stick to something like The Third Man, with Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton. This isn’t going to be it. But if you are looking for nothing more than a creepy little film that entertains for a little under two hours, one that has some genuinely startling moments and isn’t so ridiculous that it ellicits guffaws and knee slaps, then I would recommend finding this one on DVD or putting it on your list at Netflix.

I've done a little redecorating in preparation for Halloween!

Notice the orange title of the blog? Very inspiring, I thought. Ah, this season is something special indeed. There is a crisp feeling to the air. The leaves are turning colors and falling off the trees to gather in sodden little heaps in the streets that end up clogging all the storm drains. Children are full of anticipation and excitement, waiting for that special day when they get to dress up in cheap plastic costumes from Target and Wal-Mart so they can go out and harass their neighbors into giving them enough sweets to rot the teeth of anyone who even opens the bag full of goodies. Older adults use the holiday as yet another excuse for a "let's get drunk and act just like idiots!" party. Retail stores ring up sale after sale of bags of mini-Snickers and Skittles. Ah, just a joyous feeling!

For me, I like the season because of all the monster and sci-fi flicks that show up on the television. Of course, it isn't as good as back when AMC was actually a good channel that showed classic movies without commercials. TCM is a great channel, but they don't seem to hold monster flicks in very high regard. I will admit to being a fan of the classic horror and sci-fi films. I think I got this from my mother, who was exactly the same way. She would not only let me stay up late to watch King Kong, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet, she would pretty much insist that I did. My current video collection currently runs over 2100 titles (yes, I freely admit I have no life), many of which are the aforementioned monster, horror and sci-fi. I have your classics, I have your also-rans and I have your so terrible that it peels the paint off the ceiling. My plan for a change of pace, since I am in a huge rut lately, is to write some reviews of some of these films. That takes a special disregard for convention, I think, to write a review about a movie that is 50 to 60 years old that hardly anyone even remembers anymore.

Great Pumpkin from here.

Friday, October 09, 2009

President Obama wins the Nobel Peace Prize.

Wow. As many people are saying this morning (even the White House, apparently), "My, that was unexpected." I tend to agree. I am not sure that an award of this stature should be given just for a general sense of changing the direction of the country and its standing in the world. It seems like it should be given for some breakthrough moment, such as signing an Israeli/Palestinian peace accord, or something along those lines. So, in that context, I think some criticism of this award may have some merits.

On the other hand, it's certainly going to be fun to watch wingnut heads explode, like some mass viewing of Scanners or something, for the next few days. Oh, the outrage! After all, it's rather difficult to give a Nobel Peace Prize to someone who is JUST LIKE HITLER!

UPDATE: I saw where some commenter at DailyKos said "It sounds like the, 'Boy, is the world relieved you guys didn't choose McCain' award."

UPDATE II: From Steve Benen at Washington Monthly:

For all the recognition of George W. Bush's unpopularity, it's easy to overlook the ways in which the international community was truly mortified by the U.S. leadership during the Bush era. The irreplaceable leading nation could no longer be trusted to do the right thing -- on use of force, torture, rule of law, international cooperation, democratic norms, even climate change. We'd reached a point at which much of the world was poised to simply give up on America's role as a global leader.

And, love him or hate him, President Obama changed this. I doubt anyone on the Nobel committee would admit it, but the Peace Prize is, to a certain extent, an implicit "thank you" to the United States for reclaiming its rightful place on the global stage.

It's indicative of a degree of relief. Much of the world has wanted America to take the lead again, and they're rightly encouraged to see the U.S. president stepping up in the ways they hoped he would. It's hard to overstate the significance, for example, of seeing a U.S. president chair a meeting of the United Nations Security Council and making strides on a nuclear deal.

This is not to say Obama was honored simply because he's not Bush. The president really has committed himself to promoting counter-proliferation, reversing policies on torture, embracing a new approach to international engagement, and recommitting the U.S. to the Middle East peace process. But charting a new course for American leadership, breaking with the recent past, no doubt played a role.

UPDATE III: So, when President Obama fails to convince the International Olympic Committee that the Olympic Games should be held in Chicago, that is a reason for celebration, but the President of the United States winning the Nobel Peace Prize is a reason to go trashing both the giver and the recipient? Uhhh..... Excuse me for being cynical, but what does this look like to you?

Thursday, October 08, 2009

“Good science” vs. “Bad science.”

I have written before about the scientific method, but I’ll give a quick little summary here, for all you humanities majors out there.

You start with a set of what should be undisputable facts or observations. “See, that big barn over there on my neighbor’s property? It’s red. Right?” It’s something that everyone can, or should be able to, readily agree to. Then you start asking, “Well, how did it come to be red?” You might start making a hypothesis that explains your questions about whatever it is that you have observed. “See that guy over there? He’s my neighbor. It’s his barn. He probably just got finished painting it that color.” Of course, you don’t know for certain that your neighbor just painted the barn. However, there are all sorts of clues that your supposition might be a true one. That’s your theory. You just have to go about figuring out if your theory is valid or not, such that other people armed with the same starting point and facts as you will come up with the same conclusion. You are out to give validity to your theory.

The reason I said “give validity to” instead of “proving” is that the term “proof” implies absolute certainty in something. Many times in science, there will never be 100% certainty of something. However, if you can get your theory in good enough shape that your peers agree with your conclusion and no one can really come up with either 1) major points your theory doesn’t address or ) a better alternative, then people start using the word “proof.”

Anyway, to get back to my red barn analogy… There may be a number of ways you might go about trying to figure out if your neighbor painted his barn red. For instance, you could ask him. If he says “Yes, I did. Do you have a problem with that?”, then your work is pretty much at an end. Unless, of course, someone calls your neighbor a liar or, even better, comes up and declares, “No, I painted the barn! Don’t listen to that man!” Then you are kind of stuck. You now have two competing conclusions that cannot simultaneously both be true. You now need some additional input about why your original theory might be the correct one.

Say you observe that your neighbor is holding an open can of red paint. Additionally, he is also holding a paint brush full of wet red paint, his pants and shirt are all covered in very wet paint, and there are red footprints leading from the barn directly to where he is standing. This is getting very close to becoming your “proof.” You have convinced yourself, your wife and anyone else who will listen. However, those people may not actually know anything about painting. Or barns. Or perhaps they just don’t really care one way or the other.

Therefore, the next thing you need to do is get your peers (those who DO care about painting, barns and painting barns red) to agree with your conclusions about why that barn is red. You may go speak at a conference specializing in barn construction and circulate a paper you wrote on the subject of your neighbor and his barn. You might write an article for “Barns Monthly” magazine and “The Journal of National Association of Animal Husbandry Buildings”. Those, of course, are the most widely read publications for those who care about such things. Your peers read your article and most come to an agreement that, yes, you are correct in your starting point (it is indeed a barn and it is red) and how it got that way. Yes! You have triumphed! You are the King of the World! Fame and a lucrative speaking career beckon.

However, the next month, you might receive a letter from one of your rivals. He puts forward an alternative hypothesis. “No, the barn is red because the local lumber company, five miles down the road from your neighbor’s barn, is selling barn siding that is already painted red. Your neighbor bought his lumber there. I have a copy of his receipt.”

Your first reaction is, of course, “Oh, crap!” Your finely crafted case about how your neighbor’s barn came to be red is about to come crashing down around your ears. Utter humiliation awaits. Your wife isn’t speaking to you and your dog bit your hand when you tried to pet him. You must do something to rectify this terrible situation. Immediately, if not sooner.

So, it appears obvious that your theory needs to evolve to take these new facts, which are not really open to dispute (sale on red lumber, copy of the sales receipt) into account. Aha! You have it! Yes, your neighbor bought lumber already painted red, but he didn’t use it to build his barn! He used it to build a garage instead! Your original hypothesis is still sound! How else do you explain the wet, red paintbrush, the open can of paint and the footprints?

And so it goes. The reason I went on at such length about such a seemingly trivial and/or stupid scenario is that I wanted to put what really happens during the scientific method into a concept that non-scientists could easily understand. Even with its dramatic oversimplifications and stupid analogies, the scenario above gives an approximation about how the scientific method actually works. To repeat, this is how my “good science” of my title works. It doesn’t matter what kind of answer you get. It’s the process that matters! Start with facts. Make a hypothesis that fits the facts and answers all open questions. Peer reviews. Continually adjust your hypothesis whenever new facts come to light or when someone points out where your logic is not sound.

Here are the points I want to highlight. There are rarely absolute proofs to anything. You might have a model of understanding that comes very, very close to answering all the open questions about some phenomena. Maybe not all questions, but your theory works very well. Or maybe, your theory does indeed answer all open questions, until the day that someone either asks a new question that no one has ever thought of before, or perhaps some new facts or observations are uncovered that now cast some doubt on your hypothesis.

A very good and very understandable example of this is of Newtonian physics. You remember Sir Isaac Newton, don’t you? The chap who got bonked on the head with the apple? Described his theory of universal gravitation? One of the most influential scientists and mathematicians to have ever lived? Yeah, him. His theories worked incredibly well to describe how gravity affects our world. You could use it to set the elevation of your cannon so that your cannonball hits the enemy over across the valley. Terribly useful stuff. Newtonian physics ruled the day.

However, when one gets looking closer, it appears that Newtonian physics doesn’t exactly predict the motion really big things, like planets, when you start examining it in detail. Surprise! It turned out that Newtonian physics was only an approximation. It didn’t predict everything that it should. And the closer that people starting examining the facts and data, the more it appeared that there were some major shortcomings into his theories. Enter Einstein and the theory of relativity, and the floodgates were opened.

I don’t want to get into a history lesson about classical vs. modern physics. That would be pretty tedious. My point is that Newtonian physics was never The One True Answer. Oh, you got very good predictions about how everyday objects react. But it was never more than an approximation. At the scale we cared about, those approximations did not matter. You never saw the errors because they were so small. Now, mathematicians, astronomers, physicists and cosmologists are getting into some very, very strange and disturbing theories about the universe. They are nowhere near the classical Newtonian physics. However, Newtonian physics still predicts some things, like that apple or that cannon shot, extremely well. So, was Newton’s theory wrong? Or right?

I apologize about how long it has taken me to reach this point, but I am now getting to what I really wanted to discuss. This is what really upsets me when I hear religious fundamentalists or ideologue conservatives talk about something like evolution or global warming in absolute terms. They obviously do not understand the scientific method. They just do not. There are very, very few absolutes. Black/white answers are sometimes only aren’t possible; they are also a pipe dream. And something you may be absolutely certain about one day can crumble right before your eyes with the introduction of a new set of data. That does not mean you were totally incorrect! That just means you need to go back to the drawing board. Your theory may need just a tweak, or it may need to be totally scrapped. You don’t know until you start digging into it, armed with your newly acquired facts and data.

The one “criticism” that I hear about the theory of evolution is “It’s only a theory!” Of course it’s only a theory! Jeez. That’s a really, really dumb thing to say. So is the theory of gravity. Do you disagree that gravity exists? Of course not. But the explanation we currently have as to why gravity exists is incomplete. Those scientists and mathematicians who work out on the esoteric edges of their fields may feel they are getting close to having an answer (hint: it’s called M Theory and involves a universe made up of eleven dimensions), but they are not there yet. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a lot of the answers already worked out. “It’s only a theory!” is not a valid criticism! That’s how the process works! Anthropologists, geneticists and researchers in many other fields agree that evolution is a fact. They just cannot explain every aspect. There are still many unanswered questions. So what? That does not mean that the entire concept is wrong! It just means it is still a work in progress.

Another problem that seems to occur in today’s society is that we demand everything be “dumbed down” to the point that every single person feels that they must be able to understand something before they will admit it to be true. If they can’t understand it, then, by definition, it isn’t true. What hogwash. Experts in a field are experts for a reason; they know more than you do about something! That’s what makes them an expert! There is a reason it takes eight years plus to get through college and earn a Ph.D. in something. It’s complex! It’s difficult! Their conclusions do have more validity than yours do! You probably don’t know jack about the subject, if you really want to get to the heart of the matter.

Yet another problem is that many people seem to feel that they are free to disagree with a scientific conclusion if it doesn’t support their already set-in-concrete opinions. If science doesn’t come to the conclusion that they wanted it to, then it becomes “bad science.” The Earth’s climate is actually getting warmer, and the activities of mankind are a major contributing factor. The Earth is much, much older than 6000 years. Evolution in living things does indeed occur. Earth is not at the center of the universe, nor does the sun revolve around the Earth. On and on… Many people throughout history have taken a very dim view of scientific conclusions that are at odds with a position in which they have a vested interest (e.g., the Church, Galileo, and is the Earth at the center of the universe or not?). The scientific method does not care if you have just had the rug jerked out from beneath your feet. That's too bad, but that is your problem, not science's. Deal with it.

It does not matter to the scientific method what the answer turns out to be. You cannot dictate your preferred answers to the scientific method. That’s dishonest and manipulative. You must start with the question, make a hypothesis and then end up with a convincing answer! You cannot start with the answer first! Nor can you object to the facts and observations that the scientific method started from. The barn really is red. It is not green. To say otherwise is false and it makes the holder of such views look like an idiot. That is what bad science is; it is not science that doesn’t give you the answer you wanted.

In the last 25 years--but it has really picked up speed in the last 10 years--our society has devalued science and the answers it can provide. Sometimes we may not like the answer. That doesn’t mean science is somehow wrong or bad. It just means that we should probably either adjust our way of thinking or possibly do something to change the outcome that the scientific method is predicting. That might be anything from cutting the emissions of greenhouse gasses significantly to perhaps realizing that evolution is not necessarily in conflict with the existence of God.

What we have now is a society that values opinions more than answers reached by the scientific method. And, the current thinking goes, the more fervently you believe in something, the better chance it has of being true. This is not a good thing, to put it mildly. That is the way that civilizations collapse. They cannot cope with the reality that will ultimately come crashing down on their/our collective heads.

Photo from here.

Monday, October 05, 2009


I have long maintained that religious extremism in America is every bit as dangerous as terrorism, and that it is, in fact a form of terrorism. The following analysis should make your hair stand on end:

Over the last 30 years Evangelical fundamentalists have managed to do what Chairman Mao failed to do with his Red Guards: indoctrinate a whole generation of evangelical people to see their own society as the enemy and act like subversives from within the culture. These people are as anti-American as Al-Qaeda. The "Christian Reconstruction" movement is working for theocracy. Reconstructionism (of which Gary North is one leader) says that the law given for the political and legal ordering of ancient Israel is intended for all people at all times.

Reconstructionist leader David Barton gives a definition:
"The Christian goal for the world is the universal development of Biblical theocratic republics, in which every area of life is redeemed and placed under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the rule of God's law."
Frank Schaeffer also warns:
Those who say that the Religious Right and the far right have lost their power are looking through the lens of rule-obeying democratic liberalism. They don't understand that their opponents will always carry the proverbial lead pipe in his or her back pocket. To the progressives who think that the Religious Right and the right wing has lost its power I say this: You're correct when it comes to political facts (for the moment) of the last election, but you're dead wrong when it comes to the way revolutions work.

Who are Glenn Beck's foot soldiers? In effect what we have is a group of indoctrinated people who have never actually lived in America because they were brought up deliberately cloistered from it by their parents and churches. Because they are legally "Americans" they can move freely around our democracy trying to destroy it working within the United States. Today they are acting like a fifth column, no, they are a fifth column. Some of them have not just seceded metaphorically, there is even a growing movement for states to secede literally.

Today the right wing America haters actually are doing to America what no "illegal" immigrants ever do: work to overthrow our democracy and replace it with a theocracy. The home-schooled, privately educated brainwashed horde are an antidemocratic, fundamentally anti-American political movement. For a start they do not accept the results of the last election.
Read the full story....

Cross posted at MadMikesAmerica and The Wulfshead

Sunday, October 04, 2009

You know, this is all Ted Turner's fault.

He created the 24 hour a day news channel, CNN. Many people laughed at the concept when it was first introduced. I remember being skeptical. But look what has happened since then. At least, what, five all news channels (CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, CNBC, Bloomberg), plus their spin-off such as Headline News and Fox Business Channel. Each is on a 24/7 news cycle, and the Beast must be fed. You must have content to fill up something like that, and they all must turn a profit. That's where you start playing to an audience to get the viewers, which brings in the $$$. News programs are now not really there to inform; they are there to entertain, to put notches in the belt of viewer demographic numbers, to be a steady income stream to their home corporations. This gives us Glenn Beck, Shaun Hannity, Lou Dobbs, Keith Olbermann, etc. etc. (I refuse to lump Rachel Maddow in there, because I think her program, although really slanted in the liberal direction, is there to inform and not just to inflame passions.) This process has turned our political process into one big carnival, including clowns and sideshow barkers. Informing the electorate of important issues is really not even on the radar screen anymore.

Thanks a whole goddam lot, Ted Turner. You should have stopped at colorizing movies.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Chicago does not get 2016 Olympics. Incredibly petty, small-minded, mean-spirited people are delirious.

There aren’t too many links I have seen today about the ridiculousness the some conservatives let loose when they discovered that “Obama lost the Olympics.” Here’s one from Balloon Juice, where the offices of the Weekly Standard “erupted in cheering” when the news was announced. Rachel Maddow put together a video segment of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh crowed that it “the worst day in Obama’s presidency!” Beck was just positively giddy. Here’s a You Tube Link put up by The Young Turks of the same thing. If you want to see it, prepare to be nauseated.

These people are so lame. They hate President Obama so much they will cheer any setback, even if it means a rather large setback for the country as a whole as well. One can legitimately argue the merits of hosting an Olympic Games. There are some very valid concerns, such as cost overruns, recouping your investment, dealing with huge construction projects and traffic nightmares, security, and on and on. But one cannot argue that hosting an Olympics would have created lots of jobs in the Chicago area, and very quickly. It would have brought prestige to the city and the country. Yet, these nutjobs think this is the most wonderful thing that has happened in recent years.

I cannot begin to describe how incredibly stupid and mean-spirited these people look. They resemble nothing more than a bunch of junior high schoolers taking great joy in seeing a better looking, more popular rival fail. "Juvenile" is a word that comes to mind.

However, what these people seem to miss is the fact that President Obama isn’t somehow shamed. This is not a cause for embarrassment. Rio made a great proposal, and they won. South America hasn’t ever hosted an Olympics, and it is probably high time they did. The United States has hosted several in the last 30 years. And there’s this. Madrid didn’t get the Olympics either. Yet, the King of Spain made the trip on behalf of his country. Is he now somehow embarrassed, such that the King should slink away and go hide in a hole? No. The same reasoning applies to Spain and it does to the U.S.

I do think that many conservatives realize how stupid they look, and are maybe trying to dial back some. David Brooks had an interesting column in the NYT the other day. Lindsey Graham came out and said that Beck and Limbaugh are not good for the Republican Party, which I wholeheartedly agree with. But for now, we have this… spectacle of lunatics with national platforms going apeshit because they feel that President Obama has been embarrassed. They truly are scraping at the bottom of the barrel if they get that much unbridled joy out of this. I got rather sick to my stomach watching these cretins. How do they live with themselves?

We do know one thing about Glenn Back now that we didn't before. The next time we see him crying over something that has "upset" him, you know that Vicks Vap-O-Rub is involved.