Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Shuttle to repair Hubble Space Telescope

This past January, at the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society in D.C., I attended the big address by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. He told us that if the then-upcoming shuttle flights showed that they could fly safely, then the shuttle would go and repair the Hubble Space Telescope. I'd been watching this year's flights closely, and all of the reports seemed to be good enough.

So, true to his word, Griffin has announced that the next Hubble repair mission will fly in May, 2008, probably using the Discovery. The crew has been announced. It includes John Grunsfeld, whom I've met a few times, and Scott Altman, whom I've met once. Plus a bunch of other guys I don't know...

This will come as a great relief to some friends of mine, one of whom's (yikes--is that really correct grammar?!) job depends on the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph getting installed on the Hubble. Looks like that's a "go," now.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Debate over the Moslem "nikab"

National Review Online has a symposium up on an Islamic women's headcovering called the "nikab," which exposes only a slit for her eyes. The question of the day there is, "should it be banned?"

My own views accord most closely with those of Bill Bennett and, to a lesser extent, with Andrew McCarthy. To be honest, I'm shocked at many of the other opinions expressed in the symposium, at a conservative magazine. I'll say right off that I think there are specific situations in which a nikab might fairly be required to be removed--taking or checking a photo I.D., especially, because one has to be identified by the face. And a private group or institution is free to make its own restrictions within its property--I'm only discussing government action, here. But aside from those specific situations, the idea that any government--state, local, or federal--should involve itself in banning an expression of religion in clothing is horrible. The reasons given in support are not only unconvincing to me; they often strike at the heart of conservative and American ideals.

Some of the writers argue that the veil is not required by the Koran, and therefore it's not an element of religion and cannot be protected by the First Amendment. But that means the government gets into the job of interpreting someone's religion for her. No longer would her religion be a matter of private conscience; the government would tell her what she was to believe about it. Can the veil ever be "freely" worn, or is it always and inherently coerced by the Islamic patriarchy? Some of the writers say or imply the latter. Good grief! For all of my criticisms of Islam, I can't believe that all Moslem women live in persistent fear of their men and only go along with this because they're afraid of getting a beating. Do the writers really think they know the minds of all of the women who wear this clothing? Too much generalization, without much knowledge. And at least one post sounds like the kind of far-left feminism that claims women in our own society can't freely make a choice to, say stay home and rear children--they only do so if they're forced to or brainwashed by the Patriarchy.

One links the nikab to implicit support for terrorists. Maybe in some, but do you really think all wearers have this in mind? Who told you this? Or is it simply a wild guess made without evidence? Useless generalizations, again.

Some others seem to want to ban it (do they really mean by law?!) as a preemptive move to assimilate and make the culture more harmonious. I agree that it does create a separation from the rest of society, but that wouldn't make an argument for passing laws on it. "...one cannot have face-less persons walking the streets, driving cars, or otherwise entering public spaces." Actually, yes, we can. Not that I like them doing so, but we certainly can. As for discouraging separation, let's not let this talk get too far. After all, the Amish, for instance, separate themselves from the larger society, and by doing so, they keep themselves much more godly than the rest of society. I would not push them to remove that separation. Now, there's a clear difference between the pacifist, mind-their-own-business Amish, and some of the strains of Islam making the headlines these days. What I mean is not to push aside "separation" for its own sake.

Lastly, I'd like to ask the advocates of a "ban" if they really mean it in law. The federal government is Constitutionally prohibited from making such a blanket ban. Forget the First Amendment; Article I, Sec. 8 and the Tenth simply don't extend this power to Congress in the first place. What about the States? I'm suspicious about the incorporation doctrine, but although the States are not, unlike the federal government, of inherently limited powers, they all have explicit protection of religion. And as I wrote above, the government should not (can not?) be in the business of interpreting a man's religious beliefs for him.

Calling for an English Constitutional Convention

Meanwhile, over in England,Iain Dale is calling for a Constitutional Convention, and he's not alone. The list of signatories includes some lords and members of Parliament, as well as journalists. I recognize Roger Scruton's name on there.

I suspect this idea goes hand-in-hand with Dale's criticisms of the "reform" of the House of Lords a few years back (1997, was it?) from a mostly-hereditary, impotent body, into an impotent body appointed by the majority party. Dale has argued recently that they ought to make it more like the American Senate, which is actually elected.

Their argument in this letter, though, focusses on the devolution of government to Wales and Scotland in recent years, which has left England out of the picture. As I understand it (and I haven't been paying careful attention), Scotland and Wales get their own national parliaments, as well as representation within the overall parliament of Great Britain. So the English don't get quite as much self-sovereignty.

Now, as a proud descendant of Scotland, and as a Southerner who likes popular sovereignty and weak central governments, I'm happy to see Scotland get its parliament back, and I hope it'll lead to independence some day. But I agree that England ought to have more self-sovereignty, too--it seems only fair. England's current situation seems like having New York's state legislature getting a say in the Tennessee General Assembly. Hmmm...that's not a really accurate comparison, because England had historically been the nation ruling over Scotland and Wales (is that still true?), while Tennessee and New York must Constitutionally be treated equally.

But whatever the comparisons to be made, this proposal sounds like a good move. I'm impressed, too, at the seriousness of it:

"At a meeting in the House of Commons today, the English Constitutional Convention will be formally established..."

Wow--they're actually organized!

European misperceptions of America

Over at Asymmetrical Information, "Jane Galt" goes to England and notes some British misperceptions of America. This unleashes a hilarious rain of anecdotes from the commenters. Her readers strike me as an impressively polite and well-spoken (written?) lot, especially when you think of the kinds of "flame wars" that erupt on some blogs. After reading a lot of these personal stories, this one, from "Mark in Texas," got me laughing hard:

I have usually found that Europeans have a very accurate picture of life in the United States that they have gotten from TV and movies. We are all very attractive young people with lots of money from our jobs as lawyers, cops, movie stars and computer geniuses. We all drive expensive cars very fast and frequently get into gun fights, sometimes with ninja assassins. [...]

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The BBC Strikes Back

Well, after that illuminating record of the BBC's impartiality summit made it out last week, the BBC's editors are fighting back. Helen Boaden writes a defense of the BBC that doesn't really refute the allegations leveled at it (one specific refutation, but her other example misses the point, I believe), nor, for that matter, does it even stand against the fact that these were admissions by high-level BBC people themselves.

Not a convincing defense, all in all.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

More on the BBC

That previous post on the BBC's self-admitted anti-American bias puts this in a new light, now:

The Fox presenter, John Gibson, said in a segment entitled My Word that the BBC had "a frothing-at-the-mouth anti-Americanism that was obsessive, irrational and dishonest"

That's from 2004, when the Britain ruled against Fox News Channel for John Gibson's criticisms of the BBC in an on-air opinion piece.

Fox News, the US news network owned by Rupert Murdoch, has been found in breach of British broadcasting rules for an on-air tirade that accused the BBC of "frothing-at-the-mouth anti-Americanism".

Given that the BBC has now admitted its anti-Americanism (though I haven't seen where they've characterized themselves as rabid), I wonder if they'll also admit to letting lies get onto the air (another part of Gibson's criticism, and which the British court claimed wasn't factual). After all, the blog Biased BBC has got some little items showing where the BBC has lied about what their stories said and then gone back later and changed the wording of the stories without changing the date stamp. Interesting.

I still like their science coverage.

While we're on England...

Here's something that will probably just anger you, even though it doesn't affect any of us back here in the States. A man in England has now got a criminal record because he once put his recycling bags out on the curb one day early (he was headed off on vacation the next day and wouldn't be there on the proper collection day) and then sometime later allowed a single piece of junk mail to slip into the bag intended for bottles and cans (he disputes the later--says he wasn't the one who put it in there). One of those was enough to get him a legal warning. The second time, they gave him a criminal record. If it sounds like one of those minor criminal records that you wouldn't mind one way or the other, he notes that if he ever visits America, he'd even have to apply for a special entry visa.

%*(! bureaucrats.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

BBC admits bias? *There's* our October surprise!

The (UK) Daily Mail has a "leaked" (ooh, don't you love leaks?) description of an "impartiality summit" the BBC chairman organized. (Link via Instapundit.)

I know it will shock and awe you all, but the BBC has found...(drumroll, please)...that the BBC is biased! (cue rimshot) (sound of crickets chirping) What? Nobody?

OK, so we might have seen that one coming, but the details are still interesting, mostly because they come from the BBC itself. The Daily Mail says that

BBC executives admitted the corporation is dominated by homosexuals and people from ethnic minorities, deliberately promotes multiculturalism, is anti-American, anti-countryside and more sensitive to the feelings of Muslims than Christians.

You don't say. The summit itself seems to have generated more examples of some of these biases: "...criticism was raised at the summit of TV newsreader Fiona Bruce, who recently wore on air a necklace with a cross." Now, while the third paragraph says that "the BBC's 'diversity tsar', wants Muslim women newsreaders to be allowed to wear veils when on air," I'd like to point out the context, in her defense. Later, it says, "And the BBC's 'diversity tsar', Mary Fitzpatrick, said women newsreaders should be able to wear whatever they wanted while on TV, including veils. Ms Fitzpatrick spoke out after criticism was raised at the summit of TV newsreader Fiona Bruce, who recently wore on air a necklace with a cross."

Well, it sounds like the veiled comments (bad joke, I know) are going too far the other way (newsreaders on TV without their faces visible?), she at least was standing up in some vague way for a Christian's right to wear the cross. A far sight better than British Airways, if you asked me.

Here's another bit that caught my eye:

Washington correspondent Justin Webb said that the BBC is so biased against America that deputy director general Mark Byford had secretly agreed to help him to 'correct', it in his reports. Webb added that the BBC treated America with scorn and derision and gave it 'no moral weight'.

Now, I listen to the BBC World Service on a daily basis and get a lot out of it. Like NPR often is, they're in-depth and thorough, and they generally seem to take the news seriously, without too much celebrity gossip. But, like NPR, they can also be outrageously liberal and anti-American. The other day, I was listening to...it might have been "Outlook," but I've forgotten which show. The host was interviewing a lady who had been doing humanitarian work in Fallujah, Iraq, with ambulances. She was going on in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, and she related the dangers she'd encountered in places like the street they called "sniper alley," because the Americans had gained control of it. And how the American soldiers made it a practice to shoot at ambulances in Fallujah, so she was really in a risky job. Luckily, she had some good people there amongst the terrorists, kidnappers, and insurgents to take care of her and help protect her from the Americans. Amongst the nice people she met were some guys who took her and her team hostage for a short while, until they found out she did humanitarian work, and then they made sure everybody was all right, made the ladies tea, and giggled amongst themselves about how they were there in balaclavas and with their guns, making tea for a bunch of women. Oh, those fun-loving terrorists!

The host took all of these comments, insinuating the American army had a practice of shooting occupied ambulances and medical workers, without asking for any clarification or expressing any disbelief. Sure. The evil Americans can be counted on to do such things, after all. Nazis probably did the same; why wouldn't the Americans? And the hostage-takers are good-hearted people, all at the same time.

Beyond specific examples like this, there's a pervasiveness to the anti-Americanism on the BBC that is best detected by taking in a whole day's news updates and seeing if you're left with the general impression the Americans consistently do everything wrong. Any time, any where. It's like the feeling I get in about five minutes listening to NPR in the mornings, about what conservatives or (especially) Republicans do. I can get into such a sour mood waking up to that, giving up hope that our side will ever do anything right...until I get up and read some other news sources (and not just conservative ones, either) and find out that it's not really true.

And while I've defended Mary Fitzpatrick, their "diversity tsar" above, I then find this: "...Ms Fitzpatrick, who has said that the BBC should not use white reporters in non-white countries..." Sigh.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Sorry? SORRY??!!

What?! Kim Jong Il says, "sorry?" I don't trust anything that comes out of a Communist government, and Il is less trustworthy than even those others. Wasn't he promising just yesterday to test two more nuclear bombs? And is said to be working on a hydrogen bomb?

So the Chinese are at least publicly pressuring him, but given the nature of both governments, I just don't trust this.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

EU threatens to regulate all internet video

This is a worrisome idea, but it looks like the Brits are on the case. The EU wants to regulate all internet video, even including cell-phone camera footage, as it does broadcast TV. It's "for the children," naturally, among other excuses. The British are opposing the measure, but are coming back with an idea to regulate actual TV broadcasts that are on the web. [Grumble.]

I've got to remind myself that this isn't America, and they don't have the freedom of the press that we do here. While I do believe that the FCC is, in principle, unconstitutional, on the basis of the First Amendment, we give the government a little slack on the issue because of the limited range of broadcast frequencies available. So we let the Federal Government regulate the press on the air in a way that we'd never permit it to do in the traditional print media. Yes, we have laws against certain kinds of indecency, even in print, but there isn't any blanket authority to regulate press content if it's not broadcast over the radio spectrum (and TV uses radio waves). For instance, the government can't tell a newspaper how much advertizing space it's allowed. Political content is beyond its scope, as well, although with McCain-Feingold, I'm starting to wonder.

So while child pornography laws can be applied online, a general regulation of the press can't be. Advertizing content, "hate speech," appropriateness for children, etc. All of these things would be dictated by Brussels. If they protected the freedom of the press, this wouldn't go anywhere.

One thing more that I'm curious about: the "licensing fee" the British pay to support the BBC applies to all televisions and devices capable of receiving TV signals, including TV tuners that fit into computers. ABC and, I believe, NBC have started putting some of their most popular shows online, where you can watch them with a regular computer and no TV tuner. And Britain's new political "channel", 18 Doughty Street, is only available online. College kids especially are going to be able to do a lot of their TV watching without an actual TV. Will the BBC soon see a drop in revenues from college students? Will they propose taxing computers to make up for it?

Hillary comes clean...on her name

Well, this has been a long time coming! Hillary Clinton is finally admiting she's not named for Sir Edmund Hillary, the man who first scaled Mount Everest. I remember her saying this back during the 1990s (the article says 1995). We conservatives immediately laughed, because Limbaugh pointed out that Sir Edmund Hillary didn't climb Everest until 1953, and Mrs. Clinton was born in 1947. And yet, she apparently let that claim stay out there until now.

Funny that the New York Times doesn't mention that this had been dismissed by conservatives over a decade ago. And if Mrs. Clinton wasn't actually lying about it but really had been told this by her mother...wouldn't she have come across the "1953" date at some point in her life? Maybe reading about her famous, supposed namesake? Then she would have known long ago this wasn't true, and yet she repeated it.

I think this was the first direct evidence that many of us had that Hillary, no less than Bill, was willing to make a bald-faced lie about a minor detail, in order to please an audience.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Nobel Prize: Friction Between the Recipients?

In Googling Smoot & Mather, I came across this Amazon link to Mather's book on the COBE project. Two professional reviews note that Mather criticizes Smoot for supposedly taking too much personal credit for the team's work, in Smoot's own book in 1993.

The talk amongst my astronomy friends now is on the friction said to be between these two.

Nobel Prize in Physics

...goes to John Mather and George Smoot for their work on cosmology with the COsmic Background Explorer (COBE). Ahh, more astrophysicists taking the physics prize. It is as it should be. :)

Mather (NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center--my previous post) was the project scientist for the COBE mission, and Smoot (UC Berkeley) was the principal investigator (PI) for the Differential Microwave Radiometer (DMR). There were PIs for other instruments on board, of course, but the DMR is what gave us the spectacular results on the anisotropy in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). This is what Stephen Hawking called, "the most important discovery of the century, if not of all time."

OK, I think that's a little exaggerated, but it is an important result, because these variations in temperature from one place to another led to the structure we see in the universe today. The universe isn't a smooth, bland cloud of gas these days. It has broken up into voids and galaxies, nebulae, and stars. The anisotropies in the CMB are the forerunners of the structure we see around us today.

Mather got the Gruber prize in cosmology two months ago (at the infamous IAU meeting where the whole Pluto fiasco was perpetrated) for the same work. (OK, I'm a little opinionated about the Pluto thing...) I'm curious whether or not he had heard any rumors of Nobel recognition then.

Reading this article about the Gruber award, I've discovered that I actually know a couple of the other men on the COBE team: Eli Dwek at Goddard, and Michael Hauser at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). I'd known that Hauser had done a lot of work on the infrared background radiation, as there was a big result on that while I was a grad student at STScI, but I didn't know that Dwek was involved in this project, too.

Hmmm...this makes at least the second time that a Nobel has gone to someone working on background radiation. Another recent Nobel prize in physics went to Riccardo Giacconi for his work on the x-ray background.

Well, my congratulations to both of these guys, and it's exiciting to have worked at the same place as a Nobel laureate.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Happy St. Gemini Day!

Yes, yes, the day is here. There's nothing quite like the rush of trying to get an astronomy observing proposal in by deadline, when your collaborators are in and out of the office, you still have questions for them, you've got an out-of-state trip coming up this evening, and you're still grousing over the comments in the rejection letter from the last time you all proposed this.

Still, it's a really cool idea you're proposing, and it'll feel a lot more relaxing once you hit the "submit" button and are done with it for another six months, until the next time comes around.