Friday, November 30, 2007

A neat, old, science fiction story, and science fiction in the service of ideology

I was listening to the old science fiction series "X-1" on XM radio last night, when they played an episode from 1956(?) entitled, "The Tunnel Under the World." It's taken from a short story by the (still-living) Frederik Pohl about a man who keeps repeating the same day, June 15th, but with slight variations. I won't spoil the entire plot, in case you get the chance to hear or read it, but you can read a summary of the short story in the first link above, which is only slightly different from the radio version. The story is a fascinating one and creepy when you discover the twists and revelations.

Anyway, I was impressed and looked up Pohl when I got home. It turns out that he was high-school friends with Isaac Asimov and that both were early members of a group of science fiction fans called the Futurians. Checking up on what the Futurians were, I found that they were a splinter group from another New York City sci-fi fan club, and they advocated sci-fi fans to push for ideology. Inevitably, this meant communism:

At the time the Futurians were formed, Donald Wollheim was strongly attracted by communism and believed that followers of science fiction "should actively work for the realization of the scientific world-state as the only genuine justification for their activities and existence".[2] It was to this end that Wollheim formed the Futurians, and many of its members were in some degree interested in the political applications of science fiction.

Yeesh! Nothing like the phrase "scientific world-state" to give you the creeps. Especially in the '30s.

Pohl himself was an outright member of the Communist Party, until he was expelled in '39. It was either because, as some say, the Party thought science fiction was escapist and didn't contribute to the building of the dictatorship of the proletariat or whatever, or, as Pohl says, that he rejected the Party line over the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Either way, he apparently remained a true leftist, and his writings display a satire of capitalism and advertising. Actually, I've got to say that the bit that comes through in "Tunnel" is well done and could have been written by a conservative, as well.

There's a whole weird history to this science fiction fan activity, something that I've never gotten into. I enjoy my sci fi movies, but I've rarely read any such books. Funny for an astrophysicist, right? So outside remarks by friends, I'm unaware of what all has gone on in this world. At one level, it seems so trivial (they're fan groups--not necessarily even writers, though many became such), but these guys clearly saw themselves as doing important work, and the Futurians were even claiming it was all in the service of the future "scientific world-state"!

Well, I'd intended to write more about the connections between "scientific socialism" and science fiction, but I'll just have to save it for later. I ought to close this off with the connections "Tunnel" has with other works: Simulacron-3 (1964; made into the movie "The Thirteenth Floor" in 1999) has a similar premise (I'm guessing the writer was familiar with the earlier work), and it in turn influenced "The Matrix" (1999). Interestingly, Stanislaw Lem wrote a short story in 1960 that dealt with some aspects of the same premise. Lem also wrote Solaris, which was made into the George Clooney movie a little while back. I just read the book, which is thought-provoking.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

More new exoplanets

A nice article in the NYT about the discovery of a fifth planet around the star 55 Cancri (a faint star in the constellation Cancer). This is, I believe, the most extensive solar system yet found, outside of our own. It's exciting to see this many planets around a star, but beyond that, this helps us understand more about planetary system formation.

Until 1994, the only example we had of a planetary system was our own solar system. So when you read in textbooks how planets formed around stars, there was a lot of theory but only a single example. Now, knowing the laws of physics, we weren't just feeling around blindly. But it's always better to have multiple data points to test your predictions.

Now, we've found over 250 extrasolar planets (or "exoplanets"), we have a better idea of how they tend to look. But we still need to find more examples of multiple planets around a single star--a solar system. When we see the range of properties of solar systems, we'll be able to test the theories of planetary formation in greater detail. For instance, the presence of a single massive planet, like Jupiter, can affect or even inhibit the formation of other planets nearby. Witness the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars. Jupiter's tidal forces have prevented a major planet from collapsing from the debris there. In the 55 Cancri system, there's a similar wide gap near its largest planet (at least as far as we can tell today). In how many other systems will the same feature appear?

And there's always the chance that the now-crank Bode's Law has some natural basis. It's a particular power-law distribution of the planets, and while we don't expect that it has any force in and of itself, there are theories that would account for power-law distributions in general (cited at the bottom of that Wikipedia article). The discovery of new solar systems gives us more data to test these theories, too.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The travails of Antioch College

I'd read earlier in the year about Antioch College planning to close. This article says they may remain open a while longer, but things still aren't looking good. I'd never heard of Antioch until I was in college, myself, and Antioch became the subject of ridicule for their sexual harassment policy, which required explicit "verbal consent" at each stage of...let's say, "interaction." ("May I proceed to nibble on your ear, now?")

It wasn't a disapproval of premarital sex, of course. That was all well and good; you just had to stop and do the paperwork (so to speak) at each step along the way. To avoid a rape charge the next day, I reckon.

I've always thought keeping your pants on before you were married was a better solution to the problem, really, but that would be to impose a moral system on the whole enterprise, heaven forbid.

Anyway, though surprising that any college had put such a silly rule in place, it's not surprising it was Antioch that did it. Liberal bastion they:
The alma mater of Coretta Scott King, "Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling and two Nobel Prize winners, Antioch College doesn't grade classes, encourages students to develop their own study plans and combines academic learning with experience through a co-op program in which students leave campus to work in various fields.

The reasons for their current problem confuse me a little. I simply don't expect 150-year-old colleges with their reputation(?) to leak students so badly. But I've read it could be from the administration's losing focus on the college and branching out too far with...well, "branch" campuses and other programs.

Link for Pakistan post

I forgot to link below. Here's the BBC story on Bhutto calling for protests against Musharraf's emergency rule. I reckon the big news is her split from Musharraf, after their earlier negotiations for her return.

The trouble in Pakistan

Grrr. Musharraf is breaking promises again, or it sure seems like it. Is it a coincidence that his declaration of martial law occurs just as Bhutto has returned for a revived political career?

I don't know...maybe it is simply a result of the Islamist attacks recently; it's so hard to tell from the news reporting whether there's been a sharp increase in their number since Bhutto's return or not. Obviously there was the large attack on Bhutto's arrival itself, but I haven't been aware of what else is going on in the country, differently from before.

I would have to think that Musharraf knows his arrangements with Bhutto (to run together, as it seems, for elected office) put him in a very public commitment to going ahead with democracy. Is he really going to turn opinion that strongly against himself for this?

Of course, he'd promised to hold elections a few years ago, too, and look where they are now. I really hope he upholds the deal that Bhutto's return implied. Pakistan's going to need democracy, and it's going to need to marginalize the radical Islamist elements within the society. Maybe the Musharraf/Bhutto arrangement could do that.

Clinton on Clinton

So Hillary's campaign is having to back away from some of Bill's comments on her rivals. Interesting. I remember that Hillary was occasionally an albatross around Bill's neck during his campaigns, and they'd have to hide her for a few months until the election was over. I'm a little surprised that Bill is now the one making comments they've got to repudiate.

Well, maybe that's too strong a word. Folks on the conservative side had wondered how helpful Bill would be to her campaign, but for different reasons. Which would have the stronger effect on people--his charisma and personal popularity, or memories of his behavior and the scandals?

Now Bill's compared Hillary's rivals' criticisms of her "candor" (they noted that she's been contradicting herself, so which of her statements are we to believe?) to the Swift Boat Veterans' ads against John F. Kerry. I'd like to say that that's an outrageous comparison...because it insults the Swift Boat Vets, but really, both were honest criticisms.

The AP article I've linked to (via Drudge) says that the swift boat ads "questioned John Kerry's patriotism," but I don't remember that at all. They certainly reminded people of his wild and apparently baseless accusations of war crimes against his compatriots and of the way in which he puffed up his war record, maybe dishonestly (the ads flat out said much of it was a lie).

Now, that's still a tough criticism, and Hillary's opponents haven't been that hard on her. If her campaign, Bill included, is going to make out that she's beyond any criticism, that criticism is beyond the pale, they're going to have a tough time selling that to the public.

Still, back when she ran for the Senate, she was at her most popular when she played up her victim status, wasn't she?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Lawsuit against Regnery

Hmmm...there's some unhappiness with Regnery Publishing's sales methods. They're accused by some of their authors of steering sales to outlets they're tied in with, thus cutting down on authors' royalties. A few, including Joel Mowbray, Bill Gertz, and Richard Miniter are even filing a lawsuit against the parent company.

Shame to see, regardless of what the truth is. I've got a couple of their books, and I like that they've been willing to publish conservative authors. They've been really helpful to conservative politics, and I'll be happy to see any rift here fixed.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The turnabout on that Armenian genocide resolution

My dad and I have both been asking, "What is the push to do this now?!" I've always accepted (or just assumed) that the massacre of the Armenians was a genocide, but as for the technical meaning of the word, I'm content to leave it to historians. I do not look to my Congress for history lessons. And nearly a century after the Armenians were slaughtered, it is not exactly a profile in courage to stand up against it. It does nothing more than make the Congressmen feel better about themselves and give their Armenian-descended constituents the satisfaction of having somebody poke a finger in the eye of the Turks. I sympathize with the Armenians and don't begrudge them wanting to have somebody do the latter, actually, but it's not the Congress' job to do it.

Congress should have asked themselves, (1) "Is this part of our job?", and (2) "Is this in America's interests?" The answer to both, I think, is "no." Furthermore, will it hurt America's interests? Clearly, it will. Turkey is threatening to invade Iraq. Possibly justifiably, considering the cross-border raids some Kurds have made, but obviously a Turkish invasion would destabilize the safest region of Iraq. And do we trust the Turks to be restrained in shooting Kurds? I'm not so sure.

What about Turkish cooperation with America in the Global War on Terrorism? It's a tentative thing already, but they're a necessary ally, and one of our few near the Middle East. Don't purposely go and tick them off! Not if you don't actually need to.

These meaningless resolutions are pointless and cheap in the best of times, but this one would actually have harmed American interests. I'm glad the Democrats are abandoning it.

And then there's this take.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Martian caves?

On a similar note, there's this discovery of caves on Mars. Or at least deep holes in the ground. They're on a volcano, so they're likely to be lava-related, rather than water-carved. They determined their nature by watching their temperatures, compared with their surroundings. Caves on Earth maintain a nearly-constant air temperature inside, day and night, summer and winter. These aren't perfectly constant, but their temperature swings are only one-third that of their surroundings. So if they're not complete caves, they're at least very deep holes.

Martian geology--no water?

(Via the Boar's Head Tavern) One group is claiming the evidence for water on Mars has evaporated.

OK, bad joke. They're saying that surface features that look like they're water-caused are either from lava flows (big canyons in the flatlands) or landslides (smaller gullies on hillsides).

I've long been hoping we'd find active water sites on Mars, so I'm not an objective reporter on this, but I'm skeptical. The evidence for water (both in the distant past and the immediate present) has been building up steadily for the past decade. Soil chemistry in the plains (I'll need to find a specific reference--going from memory, here) shows evidence of having been in standing water in the past.

And the gullies that open out from cliff faces don't show the scree-slope shapes that you'd expect from landslides--the have carved channels, with meandering. You need a liquid to do that. Rock and sand piles up higher in the middle of the slide and makes a convex feature. Water-carved features are concave, like what we see on Mars. These are the sites we've been seeing before-and-after photos of, demonstrating active geology, probably flash-flooding from water gushing out of the cliff.

The new data might undermine a few specific arguments, but I doubt they're going to sweep away all of the evidence that's been piling up since 1997.

More on Syria's nuclear project

(Via Instapundit) The Israelis have captured North Korean nuclear material in Syria. That, plus the overflights the other week, and some exchange of gunfire (I believe I heard that on the news last night)... Wonder if Dennis Kucinich regrets that enthusiastic trip he made to Syria recently.

Probably not.

But can our politicians please stop treating Syria like some kind of partner-for-peace now?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

More things I didn't want to wake up to:

Syria's working on nukes. And they might be coming in from North Korea. Well, that explains the Israeli overflights the other day.

And then we've got Dennis Kucinich visiting Syria and criticising Bush and Israel there. Yeah, that's the way to go. Buck up the nuclear-researching, terrorist-supporting, Iraq-destabilizing, America-hating dictatorship there. Nice move, Congressman.

Sheesh, if they'd just called it their "cabinet," I wouldn't have panicked!

So I get greeted this morning by the news that Putin has dissolved the "Russian government." Glenn Beck mentions it on the radio; I check Drudge and find a bright red headline saying the same thing. YIKES! That substitutes nicely for coffee in the morning.

Then I read the AP article, which explains this means his administration. Which he's cleaning out in preparation for elections. Not every official, elected or otherwise, in the Russian government.

OK, calming back down. Panic subsiding...

Man, if they'd just refer to the executive branches of parliamentary systems as an "administration" instead of a "government," it'd be a lot less confusing for those of us here in the US, where "government" means the whole shebang. Sheesh; I'd thought Putin just fired the legislature and was ready to rule as an outright dictator.

...still, that AP article does say, "Fradkov [the now-outgoing Prime Minister] said he asked for the dissolution of the government because with elections approaching, Putin needed to have a free hand to make decisions, including those concerning appointments." Huh. Not sure about this...

Monday, September 10, 2007

Aw, geez, Brookhiser.

One more reason I've never been a big fan of Rick Brookhiser: In his Corner post on why Thompson is the weakest of the GOP front runners, he writes,

Fred Thompson came to the offices of National Review some years when he was still in the Senate. I liked him fine. He has done nothing, anywhere, ever. The Hubble Telescope could not find what he has done, because he has not done it.

Yes, he's knowingly exaggerating, but it's not done in a funny way. It's annoyingly earnest, like he's trying too hard to be funny and serious at the same time. And it's a false statement: Thompson's been a very popular sentator for eight years, he's been a lawyer who helped bring down the corrupt Governor of Tennessee (Ray Blanton, 1977-80) for selling pardons, he was GOP counsel on Watergate (he came up with the "What did the President know, and when did he know it?" question for Sen. Baker, and I think he also prompted the question about the Oval Office tapes). Yes, he was an actor when some of these other guys were running businesses or whatnot, but he's got a good background in the law and fighting corruption.

Now, my annoyance is partly because I'm a fan of FDT (Fred Dalton Thompson), of course, but I'm often annoyed at Rick Brookhiser in general. He espouses a city slicker Yankee version of conservatism that I'm uncomfortable with, politically and socially, and he does it with a lot of condescension towards those of us who would otherwise be on his side in politics. Socially, culturally, and so on, I see him sneering at us rural Southerners. I'm probably exaggerating how much, just because I'm sensitive to it, but it's certainly there.

He's a Hamilton & Adams over Jefferson guy. Which is something I thought was unconservative altogether, until I discovered a few others who hold the same views.

Sigh. Well, Rick Brookhiser doesn't run the country, so I can probably rest in peace.

Religious liabilities for Presidential candidates

They're not what I would have figured. For all of those who assume that, say, being Jewish or Catholic would be a big liability in a Presidential candidate, it turns out these are among the smallest religious liabilities in the Pew poll:

[...] more people express reservations about voting for a Mormon (25%) than about supporting a candidate who is an evangelical Christian (16%), a Jew (11%) or a Catholic (7%).

Now, the focus was on Romney and what being Mormon will do for or to his candidacy. But the other three numbers are what struck me. "Evangelical Christian" (by which they probably mean active Protestants...I'm in such a church, but I never heard the term growing up, so I've always been a little confused about its meaning) is a bigger political liability than being Jewish or Catholic. One thing to take from this is: great news for Jews! More mainstream than the biggest religious block in the country. (Wow, actually.) The second is: for some Catholic bloggers (there's one particular one I've got in mind) who like to call anti-Catholicism as the "last acceptable prejudice" (especially in political fights), well, it's apparently not. Boy, the anti's on that one are less than half what they are for evangelicals. Wow, again.

Now, of course, just about everybody's faction likes to call opposition to them "the last acceptable prejudice." I've heard it for conservatives, Protestants, whites, Southerners, right-handers, etc. Just about any group that's not a racial or ethnic minority. (I made up the last one.) Fact is, there are lots of relatively mild and fairly accepted prejudices left in the country. Not to the point of being enshrined in law, of course. So claiming you're a member of the only group people can hate anymore isn't going to be true.

The Clinton Tapes

Have you ever asked yourself, "What's in Bill Clinton's sock drawer"? Well, ask no more.

Bin Laden video: weird freezes

Huh. I would have thought that the fact the new bin Laden video freezes in a couple of places (including every time current events are mentioned, although the audio continues) would get some wider coverage. This liberal site points it out (link from Lileks). Of course, for some of them, a possibly faked (or spliced) video seems to mean Bush faked it. (For this guy, Karl Rove is the culprit, as I figured the other day.) Whereas my thought would be that al Qaeda's crack multimedia engineer did it. I'm glad to see that the website's editor (or whomever posted the video) seems to go in my direction on this.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

There are no "coincidences" with Karl Rove

So, let me get this straight: Karl Rove resigns, and a week or so later, we have a new video from "Osama bin Laden"?! I don't think so! If there's one thing we have learned from our experiences with Mr. Rove, it's that there are no coincidences. There are, instead, grand schemes being played out on the political stage that lesser minds see as unconnected, unrelated.

Notice that Rove didn't get fired or asked to resign. He parted on good terms with Bush. Why is that? It's because he's still working for him! After his evil masterpiece in planting the false Texas Air National Guard memos on Dan Rather and getting Rather to broadcast it, after running it past his fact-checkers and totally ignoring their warnings about them looking fake, Rove is ready for anything. Now he's made a "bin Laden" video in which the guy totally sounds like a mainstream Democrat, just in time for the primary debates. Qui bono? You know who.

Eric, over at Classical Values, sees a political opportunity in all this (for a Noam Chomsky/bin Laden no-tax ticket). I see conspiracy.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

On popes and the supreme court

Since the earliest days of the papacy, popes have exercised power outside of Rome primarily through judicial means. Even though the popes have always claimed legislative and executive power also, the realities of communication in the ancient world normally prevented the exercise of any such power. The popes effectively had power only on those who presented themselves before their courts, usually to appeal a decision made by a synod of bishops or by a patriarch.

Modern communication and society have greatly increased the potential for the executive or legislative authority by the pope, as has been demonstrated by the great John Paul II to the delight of his admirers and the consternation of his critics. But generally the governance of the Roman Catholic Church has been guided by tradition, and tradition definitely favors the judicial model of papal power. The pope reigns primarily by either approving or not approving the findings of his various courts, commissions, congregations, and other dicasteries, known collectively as the Roman Curia. Many of these dicasteries are likewise themselves courts of appeal. When a pope does otherwise, and issues a judgment by his own initiative, the document associated with a papal decree is called a motu proprio, and its issuance is something of a Big Deal.

And so Benedict's issuance of the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum is only the second of his pontificate. This document makes it easier to celebrate the liturgy as published in the 1962 editions of the missal, the breviary, and the ritual. In particular it frees up the celebration of the older form of the mass, which has been blocked in many dioceses because of the hostility of the bishops to the old edition of the Roman rite.

This motu proprio has been rightly criticized as a blow to "collegiality", the notion that the pope rules the Church with the bishops, as opposed to lording over the bishops. So it is interesting to note that this motu proprio, although it is in fact an executive papal decree issued over the objections of the bishops, phrases itself as a judicial document. In particular, it opens by stating that the old edition of the liturgy has never been abrogated, which comes as news to most Catholics. Today, blogs are filled with hostile commentators questioning the theoretical legal basis for such a statement, but such questioning is in fact purely theoretical. Any legal realist has to recognize the fact that the highest court in Catholicism says the old edition was never abrogated, so we all must act as if wasn't. (In fact, the proponents of abrogation are having a hard time pointing to an explicit and unambiguous decree to that effect.) The motu proprio then goes on to place some executive restrictions on the use of the old edition. These restrictions are not nearly tight enough to satisfy Benedict's critics; to them he has effectively de-restricted the old mass and the rest of the old liturgy as well.

So the critics howl about a violation of collegiality, and about how the pope has made a grab at the power of the bishops, and yet this motu proprio will in all likelihood only add to the great popularity and prestige of Benedict, just like his predecessor John Paul gained popularity and respect in part by ignoring the demands of collegiality. It's not hard to understand why; in fact to some degree it is the same reason that the supreme court of the United States gained so much prestige in the sixties when it was grabbing power from the states. The popes, like the sixties supremes, stuck up for the little guys against the establishment.

John Paul stuck up for the guy in the pew when poncy academics wanted to use his church's pulpits to attack his faith; too often bishops and pastors were too weak to stand up to the academics. While Benedict's style is less confrontational than John Paul's was, he now shows that he too has the guts to stand up when persuasion fails.

Fans of the older edition of the liturgy have too often faced condescension, being told that their requests were being honored (if in fact they were) because their brittle old brains were not strong enough to accept or understand the new changes. Never mind that many of these fans were and are quite young. They were told that they were not educated enough to understand the theology of the new mass, never mind that the theology of the new mass is the same as that of the old, as any educated catholic could tell you. They were told that nostalgia had overcome their good sense, never mind that many were born after the new edition of the liturgy was published. They were vilified as sexists and anti-semites, and told that the old edition they wanted was rife with sexism and anti-semitism. Never mind that the fathers of Vatican II would have been surprised to hear these assertions and would have rejected them.

It seems rarely to have occurred to those thwarting the fans of the old edition that they might indeed be mature, intelligent adults who just happen to disagree with the critics of the old edition. That sort of oblivious attitude is common in cliques and in circles with a heavy atmosphere of clubbiness. And clubbiness is nothing more than the dark seamy underbelly of collegiality.

Such collegiality was on display when Bishop Anthony Bosco of the diocese of Greensburg in Pennsylvania was asked years ago, during the previous pontificate, whether he planned to allow the old edition of the missal to be used in his diocese. His response was that because the priests of his diocese were "pleading with" him not to allow the old edition, he would not. Who could blame the bishop for siding with his priests as they closed rank to do battle with their own flocks? But now His Excellency, like a state legislator, has been exempted from the need to take sides. The pope has thankfully taken the matter out of his hands.

The misgovernance of the bishops has done more to enhance the power of the papacy than any "power grabs" by the popes, much as the misgovernance of the states has led to our present imperial judiciary. This was most eloquently pointed out by his eminence Darius cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, who said in an interview, "formally, the mass of St Pius V was never abolished. Surprisingly, those who set themselves up as authentic interpreters of Vatican II gave it an interpretation, in the field of the liturgy, so restrictive and so little respectful of the liberty of the faithful, as to make the Council seem even more coercive than the Council of Trent."

With this motu proprio Benedict has given justice to a despised minority. The fact that he has done so at the expense of some of the bishops' legitimate power will not bother the man in the pew, who doesn't worry much about the privileges or authority of those who condescend to, belittle, and sneer at him. Even the majority of pew sitters who, like me, do not much care which edition is used can recognize the difference between an oppressor and a liberator.

Are we back to the '90s?!

Should I really believe that the Clintons had a henchman break into Kathleen Willey's house to steal her book manuscript about the Clintons? I mean, would they really do something dirty like that?

Well, considering that I've heard similar stories coming from around them for a decade and a half, now, any surprise or resistance I'd naturally have to that kind of theory is pretty much broken down, now. Hmmm...actually, I don't remember if I ever had any resistance to that. But I sure don't now.

I'm trying, though, not to believe any crazy idea that puts the Clintons in a bad light, but to use some critical thinking about them. But this still seems plausible. And considering the threats made against Mrs. Willey back in the 90s, when she was providing testimony unflattering to the Clintons, I'd almost expect something like this.

Let's see if this story gets picked up, or if it's ignored.

Fred Dalton Thompson announces

Thompson announced his candidacy for the Presidency on Leno last night. I was going to say "it's about time," but really, the race has started soooo blamed early this time around that I'm glad he waited. I wish the others would have. I'm going to be sick of the whole thing well before the election.

I agree with Jonah Goldberg that the pundits are wrong when they claim that his delayed entry, or signs of a lack of "fire in the belly" for the race, will hurt him with voters. That's really more of an inside-the-beltway criticism that most of us don't care about.

Russian aircraft probe British airspace

What, are we back to the Cold War?

I just heard on the radio that Russian military aircraft were turned away from British (and Norwegian, I think) airspace in the wee hours of the morning. I remember this happening a few times when I was a kid, over Alaska. Routine enough stuff between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, really, but I was hoping they didn't see themselves in the same antagonistic role anymore.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A common sense layman on global warming

Phillip Winn, over at the Boar's Head Tavern (a great religion discussion site, if you haven't discovered it yet), has posted a common sense layman's reaction to claims of global warming that is pretty close to my opinions.

I've especially wondered (for years--it was the first thought I had about this when they first heard of "global warming") about the placement of the temperature monitoring stations. Are they close to growing population centers? There are heat islands around cities, after all. What are the chances a nice backwoods weather station in 1865 is going to be closer to paved roads and strip malls today? How much does that bias its records?

Winn mentions station placement more generally and links to a blog entry on "how not to measure temperature." Love the photo on the link. What were they thinking?

Back from vacation

Sorry for the long delay, but it was a busy end to the summer. I'm back, now that school's started. Which actually means that I have less free time, but I'll be spending more of it blogging, for some strange reason.

And now...on with our show.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Astronomy and religion intersect.

Well, maybe not in those terms. But there's a nice astronomy/spaceflight comment on a religion blog I've gotten to like a lot, Boars Head Tavern. Joel Hunter likes this kind of stuff, he says, and he's posted a list of what he'd do if he were the NASA administrator.

One of my favorites:

* move mountains and work tirelessly and loudly to expedite the Constellation program–get Orion and the heavy lifter built–human mission to the moon no later than 2015 (c’mon, Kennedy got ‘em to do it in 7 years; we can, too)

Amen, brother! Let's get men back on the moon; it's been too long. I've never understood those astronomers (it's obviously not all of us!) who want to fight turf wars for robotic missions to the complete exclusion of manned space missions.

Friday, July 27, 2007

And now, drunken astronauts...

It just keeps getting better for NASA. While investigating patterns that could identify unstable astronauts like Lisa Nowak (who was planning to murder one of the others), they've found two occasions in which astronauts were flying drunk. And drunk enough to pose a flight safety risk.

Some of the commenters below this story have said, basically, aww, let 'em drink--they're getting sent off on a dangerous launch and they're just along for the ride. Well, no--the commander and pilot do have some interaction they've got to do with the shuttle during launch. And in case of an abort at any stage, they've got to be ready. Furthermore, even the Mission Specialists and Payload Specialists, who could more be said to be along for the ride, would need to be ready to follow emergency procedures if there were an accident.

Should I be disturbed that there appears to be an actual phrase, "bottle to throttle"?

Explosion connected with SpaceShipTwo

There's been a nitrous oxide explosion at one of Burt Rutan's hangars at the Mojave Air and Space Port. Two dead and four injured. This is connected with the work going on to make SpaceShipTwo, Rutan's follow-on to SpaceShipOne, the winner of the X-Prize. There's more at the link.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Last stages on the US Attorneys firings non-scandal

Andy McCarthy has a great comment on the US Attorneys firings over at The Corner. Apparently even some Democrats are starting to realize this is all politics and not the law. I've been frustrated by how this has played out, with so much news coverage of it, when the Congress simply has no authority here. The Executive was entirely within its powers, and Congress couldn't change any of this, anyway, unless they tried a Constitutional amendment.

And on top of it, there's the chutzpah factor: these are the guys who defended Clinton when he fired every single one of the Attorneys, including the one investigating his Whitewater scandal. A lot of us suggested that was the real reason behind Clinton's blanket firing order, and it should have gotten more public attention. If Bush were firing someone who was investigating him, there should quite rightly be a public outcry, even if he was within his rights. But that's not the case, here.

McCarthy brings up a very interesting strategy issue here:

Congressional Democrats have tried to investigate it as if it were a crime. They've violated constitutional separation-of-powers principles by issuing subpoenas to some of the president's top aides. The White House wisely declined to comply, and Congress's next step is to try to hold them in contempt of Congress.

Only there's a small problem. The Constitution vests Congress with no authority to prosecute. That is an executive power. Congress can say "prosecute" all it wants. It needs a U.S. attorney to do it. But the U.S. attorneys work for the president. Flexing its constitutional muscles, the executive branch is not going to prosecute any contempt urged by Congress. Checkmate. Like this whole theater from the start, the issuance of subpoenas and the chatter about contempt is political, not legal.

Heh, heh, heh...

Now, I will say that I'm ashamed of the carelessness that Attorney General Gonzales seems to have shown in the firings--an unawareness of the reasons, whatever they were. And he's awful at handling things like this when the other side raises a public stink. His response should have been "Hey, this is lawful and within our power, and you can't say a thing about it, so buzz off" from the beginning. But instead, he acted like a weasel about it and, by extension, made the President out like a weasel. Don't come up with bad excuses, just state your case or tell them off, and leave it at that.

I've never been a big fan of Gonzales in general, because I think his politics are too wishy-washy, but the office of Attorney General should be relatively free of politcs anyway. But his badness at handling these sorts of problems just makes me cringe.

Sigh. We need a Donald Rumsfeld in that office.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Terrorist Logos

An excellent idea: putting together a collection of terrorist logos for easy identification. They're grouped by common symbols for easy reference.

The Sun and Global Warming

Andrew Stuttaford links to this article by an astronomer, about the Royal Society's annoucement regarding the sun's effects on global warming. It seems it's gotten misinterpreted by the press, or at least the BBC.

I might comment more later, but I'll say now that I'd first seen discussion of this in the late '90s, in an Annual Reviews of Astronomy and Astrophysics article about the subject. The graphs of solar output and global temperature were shockingly (to me) close. While it might not be the whole story, it seems to me that to dismiss this without a lot of research is simply bias and unscientific close-mindedness.

(Link via The Corner.)

No Man-Eating Badgers in Basra?

The BBC confronts the British military with a tough accusation: "UK military spokesman Major Mike Shearer said: "We can categorically state that we have not released man-eating badgers into the area." (Via The Corner)

Riiiight! After eight years of Clinton, we in America learned how to parse government denials. So, maybe they *were* badgers, but only mildly ravenous, not completely man-eating. Or maybe they're man-eating wolves, tigers, or rabbits, not badgers. Or (and I think this is most likely) they *have* released man-eating badgers, but into the neighboring ZIP-code, rather than into Basra proper, and who cares if a few sneak into town on weekends?

I wish the British military had instead answered him, "Badgers? Badgers?! We don't need no stinkin' badgers!!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Is the Pope Catholic?

So, like, do I now belong to the "United Methodist Ecclesial Community"?

In all fairness, this isn't terribly new. It mostly restates the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 2000 document, Dominus Iesus (although it seems to clear up some details, and it's more adamant in denying Protestants the honor of being called churches). And that, itself, wasn't terribly new in using this buzzphrase, "ecclesial community," which goes at least as far back as Vatican II's Lumen Gentium (well, there it's "ecclesiastical community"). It doesn't make the document's claims any more correct, from our point of view, but it does go back a ways.

I'm entertained to find that the criticism of this language goes back to the 2000 document. In fact, the "was this really necessary?" response amongst some Catholics goes back to that, too. The American Catholic article I linked to there could have been written yesterday. Interesting. Incidentally, I was hoping to be the first to use the phrase, "United Methodist Ecclesial Community," but it seems Mr. Switzer beat me to it!

So are Catholic priests and officials, in everyday conversation, really going to be saying things like, "the Methodist Ecclesial Community"? Surely not...right?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Ethicist vs. Ethics

Randy Cohen, the New York Times' "The Ethicist," has been caught violating the paper's ethics rules on political donations. Giving money to I'm not surprised at all, and I'd assume plenty more journalists of one kind or another have done the same. But it is a nice little story, The Ethicist violating ethics rules.

Better still is Douglas Kern's funny story about this in National Review Online. Kern correctly points out that these donations rules aren't that wise: they don't prevent bias in their journalists, but only the appearance of bias. I've thought that for a while about a number of similar rules and attitudes in the government. A Supreme Court justice gives a speech that seems too political. Should he be prevented from doing so, to keep him unbiased? Or is the speech a reflection of his existing biases, not the cause of them? Clearly, it's the latter.

And Kern honorably points out the differences between a society worried about ethics and one worried about virtue and morality. In fact, he claims, it is the sign of moral decay if ethics becomes the primary concern, because it is merely a superficial thing and can cover up deep moral problems. A moral people won't have much need for ethical dilemmas.
That's my oversimplification, and I don't think that that is always true, or in all situations.

But I've been skeptical of The Ethicist and his advice for a few years, now. I used to listen to him regularly on NPR's Weekend Edition, and I remember one caller who was on drugs (marijuana) and had some question about his company's no-drugs policy. Cohen told him it was none of the company's business, and he seemed pretty emphatic about that. I've held his opinions at arm's length ever since then, but I'd failed to find much in the way of criticism of him, at least online.

Not a problem, now. And even his Wikipedia entry is pretty much against him. Wikipedia attracts all kinds of opinions to anything remotely controversial (and even some things that shouldn't be), but I was surprised he didn't have a lot of people writing favorable things about him.

[...] Cohen outlines his personal beliefs about ethics as being ultimately dependent on a person's immediate circumstances, while dismissing the notion that personal moral character might influence an individual's ethics.

Yeah...that's not helping my opinion of him. I don't care if he hasn't had "formal training in ethics" or philosophy; plenty of people could give good advice on the matter without formal training (preachers, for instance), and I sometimes worry that philosophy (certain philosophies, at least) tends to encourage people into immoral behavior. But it's what his advice actually is that bothers me.

Well, from the Wikipedia page, I have now found other critical articles on Cohen, like this one from Reason.

Tony Blair's exit

(Former) Prime Minister Tony Blair has resigned, to a standing ovation in the House of Commons, from both parties (Tory leader David Cameron got the opposition to rise, as well). A unique occurrence, from what I heard on the BBC. Blair is/was a "Third Way" politician who tried to transform the Labour party into something more centrist, much like Bill Clinton did in the Democratic Leadership Council here. At the same time, he changed so much of Britain's political character during his premiership, not all of it for the better. Still, we Americans will probably remember him best for his strong backbone on Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite fierce opposition in his own country, indeed in his own party, he agreed that these wars were the right things to do, and he stuck with us, even when Iraq became unpopular.

Archbishop Cranmer, no fan of Blair's in general, has a rather fascinating review of his legacy. Fascinating, because Cranmer criticises him in strong terms, and in the same post, has gentle words of praise and concludes that history will judge him better.

We'll see in a few years. I wish him well.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Hugo Grotius on Christian Tolerance

I'm reading Meletius, or, Letter on the points of agreement between Christians. This is a previously (before ~1988) unpublished work by the great, 17th-century Dutch thinker Hugo Grotius, best known today for formulating international law.

I was surprised to learn that Grotius was not just a jurist, but also a theologian and political philosopher. After the Dutch won their independence from Spain, the Protestants were free to practice their religion, but a new fight broke out between the Calvinist and Arminian schools of theology. The Calvinists had a majority and, in the end, outlawed the Arminian position. Grotius was a young government staffer at the time but already showing his promise, and he wrote a treatise on religious toleration and church-state relations, defending the Arminian "Remonstrants." Another time, he wrote the first major piece of Christian apologetics from a Protestant perspective.

Meletius is a kind of draft of the latter. It's short, about 30 pages, and he felt it was superseded by his later and more complete apologetics book (which is actually written in rhyming verse, in Dutch!). But it's still an interesting work in its own right. It includes some of the arguments on toleration, which are what interest me the most.

Surprisingly, most of Grotius' citations and arguments come from Classical Roman and Greek philosophers, rather than from scripture. Not that he's devoid of the latter (and he argues that philosophy and reason have to answer to revelation, rather than the other way around), but his background as a classicist really shows through. He likes to show how even the pagan philosophers crudely pointed the way to the Jewish and later Christian fullness of truth. This was true for some of the early church fathers, as well.

The bit on toleration is what interests me at the moment. He argues that Christians of different denominations agree most easily on questions of moral behavior, and they disagree mostly on doctrinal points. His position (if I've gotten this right) is that the dogmatic points can be taken down to a small number that we all need to agree on, and the rest laid to conscience. While it is the issues of moral behavior that we can be united in.

Hmm... Well, I don't think I've written that last part very clearly. It's probably basically true, as written, but Grotius' points are more detailed. OK, I'll post more on this later. I'm especially eager to read his treatise on church/state relations, and I'll blog about that, too.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Thompson's Foreign Policy Team

Fred Thompson is assembling a top-notch team of foreign policy advisors, according to the Weekly Standard. Mark Esper was Bill Frist's national security advisor. Joel Shin was on the Bush campaign's foreign policy staff for the 2000 race and is now with the Scowcroft Group. And there's Elizabeth Cheney, "principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs and coordinator for Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiatives." What a title! She's been working on "market-based reforms" for those areas. All three are hawkish, which is good in my book.

Thompson has pulled ahead of McCain and even with Giuliani in the polls this week...and he's still not yet announced he's running! Stephen Hayes says he'll be on the Tonight Show tonight, so let's see if he makes an announcement then...

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A thought on Intelligent Design

I posted a version of this in the comments over on Mark Shea's blog, and I think it's of general interest enough to repost it here:

I have a sympathy for Intelligent Design, but as a physicist, I think that the experimental evidence for this design can only come from looking at the fundamentals—the ultimate origins in cosmology and the nature of physical laws themselves.

This is only a suspicion of mine; I believe that, given the complexity of the interactions between the individual particles of matter, God can work directly in our world without our ever observing a violation of the natural laws. And with God knowing the future, He could arrange the intereactions needed for His purposes far in advance, so small changes have time to produce large effects.

So I doubt that we're going to look and find supernaturally-explained glitches in evolution.

On the other hand, the big-picture questions of "Why is the universe here at all?" and issues of "fine-tuning" for its habitability go back to the beginning of time and the moment of Creation itself. Science, physics in this case, necessarily works within the physical laws of nature. But the laws of nature are properties of the universe itself. So we are unable, even in principle, to use those laws to extrapolate backwards, past the moment the universe came into existence. Physics cannot answer the question, "What was there before the Universe?," unless it is to talk about our universe bubbling up out of another, pre-existing universe. But that only pushes the question back to the origin of that other universe.

What ultimately got the whole ball rolling, existence-wise? Physics will never be able to answer, because of the nature of science itself.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

TV in a flexible sheet

Here's the video. Looks impressive! I'm still waiting for a notebook computer that has pages like an actual notebook, and where the "pages" are each a flexible screen. TV on one page, computer output on another, use a third for writing with a stylus, like a tablet computer...

The Monster Boar of Alabama

Oh. My. Goodness.

An 11-year-old boy killed this boar with nine shots from a .50-cal pistol. It weighs 1,060 lbs., and it measures 9' 4" long! For goodness' sake, look at the photo--the thing is bigger than any bear I've seen in the smokies! In fact, I think the largest bear killed in the Smokies was something over 400 lbs., so in sheer mass, this boar is over twice its size. The polar bears I saw at the zoo recently will grow to 1,500 lbs., half again as large as this. So this thing is the size of a juvenile polar bear, and they're the biggest land carnivores, period.

I'm trying to imagine this creature roaming through the forests. Alabama has some pretty dense undergrowth, and surely this hog didn't find many clear paths it could fit through. On the other hand, at that size, it just trampled anything in its way!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Letters of Marque and Reprisal against al-Qaeda? Plus: the Ron Paul Experiment

Interesting little test by Extreme Mortman. But the thing that really caught my eye was the comment made by "richarda" at 2:27 PM, May 25: Ron Paul proposed issuing letters of marque against al-Qaeda? You know...that's a pretty good idea!

Letters of Marque were issued against enemy merchant shipping, which al-Qaeda doesn't do much of, but the concept of private action against an enemy state could be useful. In principle, though, haven't we actually approved that by issuing a large reward for bin Laden's capture?

Science and Religion

I just found the Veritas Forum, which has (among plenty of other things) two interesting-sounding articles on religion and science. The first is "The Theological Roots of Modern Science," by Fritz Schaefer, and the second is "Is it God's Universe," by Owen Gingerich.

I'm not familiar with Schaefer, but it says that he's a scientist. Gingerich is a pretty famous astronomer, and he's written popular books on cosmology, most recently, The Book Nobody Read, which is about the Copernican revolution.

These are audio or video files; I don't see that there is a transcript. But maybe these could be downloaded onto an iPod.

The Veritas Forum, where these are posted, is an organization of campus discussions and debates on religion and its application. I'll be checking back often. Schaefer himself has about a dozen talks posted there on Big Bang Cosmology and religion.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Weekly Standard on Limbo

Jonathan Last has a nice summary of the limbo activity (the theological concept, not the dance) coming out of the Catholic church. He points out a lot of the misinterpretations in the press, and he summarizes the history of the concept.

His closing remarks are something I especially appreciate:

In essence, the biggest problem with the whole theory of limbo was that it suggested that the sacraments God established created limits to His own power--which would mean that God is not, in fact, omnipotent. If one believes that all things are possible to God, then limbo is a problem.
What did the magisterium do that is so heartening? It admitted that it doesn't, and we can't, know everything. It acknowledged that this situation has no theological signposts to guide an approach to it.
In a way, it was a model, from on high, of a type of intellectual humility, a constant awareness that we are trying to talk about things we can't really talk about.

Yes, yes, YES! One of my biggest frustrations in theology, especially mediaeval theology, is the temptation to run on into wild speculations, extrapolating far beyond the data of the Bible. Do that often enough, and you wind up with all kinds of crazy doctrines there's little or no evidence for.

Now, limbo was never an official Catholic doctrine, but it's still good that in this document, they have countered the kind of speculation that led to its proposal in the first place.

My second agreement is on the tendency of theologians and churchmen to force God's actions into a concrete formula, from which He can never depart. They figure that we know completely how God acts in certain situations, and they treat Him as some kind of mindless automaton whose behavior in other situations is simple to predict, given the handful of rules He obeys. That is another wrongheaded attitude that is countered by this document.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Reflexive Anti-Americanism of the British Press

Yikes. Carol Gould, a British journalist herself, takes her fellows to task in their reporting of events in Iraq and friendly-fire incidents. I listen to the BBC, so I know British news is often biased, but the depth to which these stories sink is still astounding.

But the National Union of Journalists thinks its primary job is to pass condemnations of America and Israel...

On a more cheerful note, Gould herself has a more pro-American feeling blog, Current Viewpoint.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Supposed "Mercury 13" Women Astronauts

James Oberg has a good article in The Space Review debunking a growing myth about a supposed secret NASA program to put women in space in 1961. Which was cancelled by evil, sexist, chauvinist pig-men at NASA or the U.S. government.

I've seen a book on this subject, recently. From the jacket summary, it seemed a shockingly blatant account of pure sexual discrimination by NASA, and yanking the rug out from underneath a bunch of highly-trained women astronauts-to-be.

Well, Oberg has set me straight. It turns out there was never a NASA project for women astronauts to begin with. It was a private program, run by a doctor, Lovelace, who had supervised(?) NASA's medical tests on the actual Mercury astronaut candidates. Apparently, he'd decided to try this out with women, too, and he put several of them through the physiological tests to winnow out those who couldn't take the physical stresses of spaceflight.

And that was it. No spaceflight training. Their piloting skills were not as high as the mens', who were all military pilots and test pilots. And the program didn't end because those mean ol' men at NASA changed their minds and stabbed the women in the back. It ended because Lovelace didn't have the funding to go farther with his idea. NASA wasn't funding him at all, and Lovelace had to pay the Navy for the tests he wanted done.

I'd have to look up more, but I suspect from this that trying to apply "Project Mercury" or "the Mercury 13" to these women isn't justified in any way. But because it has a nice ring to it, since we're used to saying the "Mercury 7," those who perpetuate this myth are going to play it up. And reporters will repeat it.

Big guy smackdown!

It's Michael Moore versus Fred Dalton Thompson, Cuban style! (via Drudge)

I know who my money's on. Maybe I should be impressed with Moore, though--he says he's "forewarning" Thompson that he was "the winner of the 1971-72 Detroit Free Press Debate Award for the state of Michigan." Oooohh! That's some intimidation factor!

I think that around that time, say about '73 or '74, Thompson was coming up with his own debating questions, such as, "What did the President know, and when did he know it?" Thompson's work has gotten remembered nationwide, even thirty years later. And it wasn't in a high school debating club, but in his work for the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Howard Baker (R, Tenn.) during the Watergate hearings.

Still, Moore's got a nice trophy from the Detroit Free Press, I'm sure.

P.S: My first experience with! Breitbart used to be Drudge's assistant or cowriter for the Drudge Report, who has gone off to his own ventures, including this one. Take a look around; he's even planning to present original programming.

Assault on the First Amendment, Part II

I heard Rush Limbaugh on the radio yesterday talking about this article. The Washington Prowler in the American Spectator reports that the Democrats want to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. Well, that much we already knew. What's shocking about this is the quotations he's gotten from Democratic staffers:

The decision to press for re-establishment of the Fairness Doctrine now seems to have developed for two reasons. "First, [Democrats] failed on the radio airwaves with Air America, no one wanted to listen," says a senior adviser to Pelosi. "Conservative radio is a huge threat and political advantage for Republicans and we have had to find a way to limit it. Second, it looks like the Republicans are going to have someone in the presidential race who has access to media in ways our folks don't want, so we want to make sure the GOP has no advantages going into 2008."

That last comment appeared to be a veiled reference to former Sen. Fred Thompson, who appears to be gearing up for a presidential run.

Oh, yes. Political idealism at its finest! The other guys' speech is hurting us politically, and we aren't as successful at it, so we're going to regulate their speech away. And this is from a senior advisor to the Speaker of the House! That makes this a real threat in a way that Kucinich's fringe blustering wasn't.

"They are identifying senior employees, their political activities and their political giving," says a Government Reform committee staffer. "Salem is a big target, but the big one is going to be Limbaugh. We know we can't shut him up, but we want to make life a bit more difficult for him."

My goodness, the blantant abuse of power this guy admits to! Salem is Salem Radio Network, which syndicates some conservative talk shows. But read how this is all intended: to make life difficult for conservative political commentary. They can't get people to listen to Air America and other liberal talk radio, so they decide the next best thing is to regulate the conservatives' speech away.

Absolutely outrageous.

Assault on the First Amendment, Part I

Retiring Rep. Marty Meehan (D, Mass.) is trying to push through an amedment to a lobbying bill to regulate groups that encourage the public to contact Congress on issues. Seeing as how petitioning the government for a redress of grievances is explicitly protected by the First Amendment, he and his supporters are going about this in a sly way, "regulating" these groups as "lobbyists." Disclosure forms, quarterly reports, tell us who donated your money, etc.

It's harder to stir up a fight against this kind of restriction, when it is a creeping regulation, rather than a clear, outright ban on the activity. You'll get some otherwise sensible people who think, "Sure, we ought to regulate lobbying groups...," without reflecting on the protected right that's being regulated.

Well, John Fund's article ought to be a good step in exposing this.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Yeltsin Derangement Syndrome

...a close cousin of Bush Derangement Syndrome. There's an eye-opening review of the Yeltsin years here. (Via Instapundit) I'd been a fan of Yeltsin, but I'd still forgotten some of the facts, and I'd fallen for the press' biased history, in some points. This article is an excellent corrective.

Oldest star yet found

This is interesting. Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) have dated a star in the Milky Way as 13.2 billion years old. The current best estimates of the universe's age range from 13.2-13.7 billion years, if I remember right. (They quote only the 13.7 estimate in this article.)

The astronomers used the Very Large Telescope (VLT) (we're not always the most creative when we come up with telescope names, are we?) for this, as they needed a large collecting area to get accurate measurements of the star's thorium and uranium content, which is how they dated it.

Incidentally, it was only a decade ago that we had the famous age problem of the universe. Kinematic measurements of globular clusters implied they had ages of 15 billion years, while cosmology derived an age of only 13 billion years for the universe itself. This was a neat little problem, but it was finally solved with better measurements (on the cosmological side, this also meant better equipment, especially the work of the WMAP probe).

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Does Britain need a written constitution?

Fascinating. On the BBC World Service right now, two Englishmen are debating whether Britain needs a written constitution or not. The man arguing the pro side, from a think tank, I believe, is pointing to the fixedness of a written constitution as an advantage. There was something about the EU he brought in, but I didn't catch that. He says that a bill of rights (like in America) is needed, but that itself would be part of a written constitution, and to codify one part of a written one without writing the rest doesn't make sense. (Have they passed a written bill of rights?) Furthermore, the creation of the Welsh and Scottish parliaments (which he agrees with) have put some more aspects of the British constitution in writing.

The man arguing the con side argued for the flexibility of an unwritten constitution as an advantage. He said that, for instance, women didn't get the vote in (Switzerland?) until the 1970s (I think this was true in Italy, but I missed some of what he said), and in America, civil rights for blacks were denied in practice for a century after they were supposedly codified in the Constitution. Furthermore! Those crazy Americans are stuck with (cursed with, really) gun rights, a right that was only meant "for the pioneer days," so you could "shoot a bear" or something. And now this anachronistic "right" is causing all kinds of problems.

Yikes. The man arguing the con side is a "Conservative" MP.

The fundamental misunderstanding of our Second Amendment is disappointing, especially coming from someone I'd expect to have been more favorable to the right it protects. And he's blind to the reality of violent crime in America and Britain—we have lower violent crime rates here, with a right to keep and bear arms, than they do in Britain, where there is an almost total gun ban.

Furthermore, though I don't need to waste too many pixels explaining it to this crowd, the right was never about shooting bears. It was and is, first and foremost, about defense against domestic tyrrany.

Well, I'm intrigued to follow how this debate goes. I believe in written constitutions, because fixedness of government form is something I desire. It better constrains the powers of government. But if the British can get along without it, and maintain a free country, more power to them.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Investigation of Michael Moore's trip to Cuba

Michael Moore's filming a movie about medical care, and he went to Cuba as part of this. But the U. S. government is checking up on him, saying that he didn't have permission to violate the embargo. He brought along some rescue workers from the New York 9/11 attacks who'd gotten sick from the job.

Because, you know, there are no doctors in America. Or these guys couldn't get insurance approval, I'm guessing. And there are no free clinics or charities in America. And flying to Cuba, in violation of the embargo, to go to one of their mediocre hospitals (from what I've read, they are not the top-notch institutions Fearless Leader claims) is the only solution.

Interestingly, Fred Thompson makes an appearance in this article. They mention his National Review article criticizing Moore. Writing these articles has been a great decision; it's laid the groundwork for support among conservatives.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Sex Quotas on Academic Panels

(Via Instapundit) The American Historical Association has a sex quota for its panels at annual meetings, and it was about to reject this proposed program because all of the panel were men. Happily, one lady professor stepped up to help them out and offered herself as the token woman. It did the trick.

I'm not aware of any such rule at the American Astronomical Society, to which I belong, but there are a few activists within the organization who have gotten something along these lines (I think) instituted at, say, the Space Telescope Science Institute (which runs the Hubble).

One friend of mine is pushing these, and I enjoyed hearing her ask a lady astronomer about sex discrimination at her grad school (I mean, the school where she had been a grad student). When the young lady answered that she hadn't experienced any, my friend was actually taken aback!

Well, if it goes too far, there's always the suggestion in the article above: Have all of the men appear in drag!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Big Foot as "endangered species"?

That's what a Canadian Member of Parliament wants his country to declare. According to the petition he circulated (and got 500 constituents' signatures),

"The debate over their (Bigfoot's) existence is moot in the circumstance of their tenuous hold on merely existing. Therefore, the petitioners request the House of Commons to establish immediate, comprehensive legislation to affect immediate protection of Bigfoot."

Well, that does have a certain logic to it...if he goes extinct, it won't matter if he existed to begin with... Ummm...

Never say the Canadian Parliament doesn't provide entertainment for us.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

There are still geocentrists out there?!?!

Yikes! Here is an honest-to-goodness geocentrist's blog. In this post, he's recounting an internet exchange between another geocentrist (Robert Sungenis) and physicist Stephen Barr. Good grief!

I came across this while looking up material for my scientific reasoning class. They'll present a debate over geocentrism in class, set as the trial of Galileo. Since Galileo's actual (second) trial wasn't specifically about geocentrism per se, I'll have them refocus it so that it is. And I'll let the prosecution team know that until Galileo's telescopic observations, the geocentrists probably had the preponderance of evidence on their side. They ought to make a halfway decent case, although the defense should be able to answer their objections with telescopic observations. was 400 years ago! Science has moved on, people!

Iowahawk on the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Lileks

For those who aren't following these things, the Star-Tribune has cancelled James Lileks' daily "Quirk" column and reassigned him as a beat reporter covering local news with, I think, internet angles. Local news is important, but this is a guy whose self-published internet column, "The Bleat," is read across the country, and, I suspect, across the world. It doesn't seem like the smartest move. By the way, I linked to his "Bleat", rather than the "Quirk."

Anyway, in sarcastic tribute to the Star-Tribune, Iowahawk has an absolutely hilarious history of the newspaper business, told through fifty years' worth of subscription letters. It doesn't directly refer to Lileks, and you can enjoy this without needing any context. Pay particular attention to the names used in the pitches. They pop up repeatedly.

Queen Elizabeth visits Goddard Space Flight Center

The Queen of England visited NASA today, at my old workplace, Goddard Space Flight Center. Curious if any of my friends & colleagues saw her or not. She went to a video conference with the space station astronauts, accompanied by the British-born American astronaut Michael Foale. I've met him, actually. When he came by Space Telescope with the other astronauts from the...third (?) Hubble servicing mission to brief us. I think he set an American space endurance record on the Mir.

This WTOP article says something I hadn't known: that "the flight center is home to the largest organization of scientists and engineers in the United States..." Huh! I knew it was big, but I didn't know just how it compared with other research centers.

(Possibly unintentionally) funny quote of the article: "The video link at the Goddard Space Flight Center was one-way, so the crew members could not see the queen standing by silently wearing a large yellow hat."

One more thing: although I disagree with the whole idea of monarchy, I am still impressed by the actions of a good king or queen. And I hadn't known this before:

The queen, a teenage princess during World War II, won permission in 1945 from her father, King George VI, to join the war effort as a driver in the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women's branch of the British Army. She became known as No. 230873 Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor.

Incan Suspension Bridges

An interesting story on Incan rope suspension bridges. (From the NY Times, so free registration might be required.) It says that these jumped canyons up to 150' wide, which was wider than masonry bridges could leap with a single arch at the time.

King Herod's tomb found

They've probably discovered the tomb of King Herod, near Jerusalem. This was the Herod (there were lots of them...) who reigned from about 37 to 4 BC and who was king when Jesus was born.

They found it on the artificial hill built for his palace, Herodium (say, that name sounds familiar...), which was long suspected to be its site. But previous searches hadn't turned up the tomb itself. The tomb was desecrated, probably not long after Herod died, maybe during one of the anti-Roman revolts, when the palace was occupied by the rebels.

The site has a long history after Herod. It was occupied twice during the various revolts, and it was used in the early Middle Ages, from the 5th century to the 7th century. First as a monastery, then as a leper colony.

Really interesting!

New type of Supernova Discovered?

I'm hearing a lot about this possibly new type of supernova discovered, but I haven't yet read an article aimed at astronomers, and these stories are using rather vague terminology. This is the NY Times story, so registration might be required, but I'll post on this again once I hear something more specific from any friends who work on these.

As far as I can gather now, this supernova is the most luminous one ever discovered, and it might be a newly-discovered type, the explosion of a primordial star.

Now, "most luminous" doesn't mean the brightest one ever seen, from here on Earth. It means its total light output is the highest, but because it's so far from our own galaxy, you still need a telescope to see it.

It is possibly the explosion of a star from the first generation of stars that ever existed--the long-sought-for "Population III" stars. These stars would have no heavy elements, or "metals" (we've got a specific astronomical usage of the term) in them, because the heavier elements are produced in the cores of stars by nuclear fusion. When the universe came into existence, it started off in a hot, dense ball--the Big Bang. And that allowed nuclear fusion throughout the universe, creating helium, deuterium, and lithium out of the vast amounts of hydrogen that we started off with. But this period lasted for only a short time, because as the universe expanded, it cooled, and the time for fusion ended quickly. So now, we mostly have H and some He, plus small amounts of D and Li. (And maybe trace amounts of the next one or two down on the periodic table--I don't know exactly where the cutoff is.)

All of the rest of the elements came about through fusion inside stars, and when these stars exploded or shed their outer layers at the end of their lives, they scattered the materials out into space. The next generation of stars formed out of this material, so they started off with some metals, in addition to the H and He that makes up the bulk of their matter. The father on you go in time, the more the metal content of the stars.

OK, I'll post more on this once I know more...

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Quote of the day:

"They replaced the Communist with a Canadian which, even I had to concede, was a very poor substitute for a Communist."
--Jonah Goldberg, National Review Online

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Russia sees NASA conspiracy in Moon base plans

Wow. This would be really cool if it were true, but I've just got my doubts...

Russia is wanting to join the US plan to go back to the Moon and establish a lunar base (by 2024, but you know how NASA timelines get stretched), but claims it has been "rebuffed," despite American courting of the European Space Agency.

The Russians think this is all a plan to sieze the rich helium-3 fields in the lunar soil, cornering the burgeoning nuclear fusion market in a world hungry for non-carbon energy sources. So they're pushing for their own lunar base, to be established by 2015.

Well, except the He-3 isotope is still just a dream, as far as an actual energy source, and we've never gotten nuclear fusion to work in a practical way for civil energy production. So I really don't see the US as trying to shut the Russkies out of the lunar mission in order to hoard He-3 for ourselves.

If it's true the Russians have been "rebuffed" (love that word; you don't hear it often enough), I'd suspect it was a matter of their reliability and ability to deliver on time.

Anyway, if this were real, it would be really cool!

Venezuela's next step towards Communism

Hugo Chavez has seized "operational control" of the Orinoco Belt crude oil operations from foreign oil companies. Well, it's "May Day," the big communist holiday, and Reuters notes that on May Day last year, Bolivia's Evo Morales actually sent troops in to seize natural gas fields.

So they're both going for the political symbolism in their timing.

No surprise; I mean, Chavez isn't hiding anything. The "workers" "celebrated" the takeover by painting a wall with Chavez's slogan, "Homeland, Socialism or Death." least he's giving people the option...

Bill Frist exonerated on stock sale

(Via Instapundit) Tigerhawk is reporting that former Senate Majority Leader (now regular ol' Senator from Tennessee) Dr. Bill Frist has been exonerated from accusations of insider trading. He'd been accused of this from a sale of stock in his family's medical company, before the company had a worse-than-expected quarterly profits report.

The accusation was spread all across the press, of course. Now we find out from the e-mails he turned over that it wasn't true. The SEC and the US Attorney in New York have announced they're closing the investigations and would take no action against him.

Great! I assumed this was the case from the beginning, because of the timing I'd read of (he started action for the sale long before the quarterly report). OK. Now, let's see the New York Times and the rest plaster his exoneration across the front page...




Al Qaeda leader in Iraq may be dead

Breaking news--some reports that Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the head of al Qaeda in Iraq, was killed in a battle between al Qaeda and some insurgents today. No confirmation yet from US forces, but I bet we'll be scrambling to find out for sure.

It's especially nice to hear that the fighting was between our two enemy groups. The more they hate each other, the better for the Iraqis and the Americans.

Let's see how this goes...

Mark Shea's descent

Some time back, I posted a link to Mark Shea's blog, where he had a post about the reasons for the traditional date of Christmas (i.e., why pick December 25th, if we don't know exactly when Christ was born?). Since then, I'd checked it out regularly and found nice articles there on religion and some other things.

But I've finally seen how he has descended into crankery on some political issues, especially on the Iraq War. Not content to disagree respectfully with people who are otherwise on his side, he indulges in sarcasm, snideness, name-calling, insults, and throws around words like "sin" and "evil" and "stupidity" in a discussion of politics. Plus his apparent view of President Bush as being bent on establishing a totalitarian dictatorship or a cult. Or both, maybe. A number of his regular commenters seem to share my objection, so it's not just me. This is, however, the internet, so I shouldn't be surprised to find somebody losing a grip on polite disagreement.

I bring this up because I could agree with Mark on other issues in politics or morality, and for some reason I still check his blog regularly. But now, I think I do it just to find things to get mad about, whether it's on politics or religion. It's a shame, really...

Back to blogging...

Wow--a whole month without blogging! What relaxation, though I've missed using this outlet for my opinions. Well, assuming we have any readers left who'll regularly check in...

Monday, March 26, 2007

A Fred Thompson Movie Exegesis

What kind of President would Fred Thompson be? Victor Matus at the Weekly Standard looks for clues from his movie and TV roles. After all, there's only so much you can get out of a man from his speeches or his legislative record. What about his choice of movie roles?

Matus gets one thing wrong, though—Thompson's been acting, not since 1987, but since 1985 (Marie), when he played...himself.

I've never seen Marie, although I know about the Tennessee corruption case he took up as a lawyer (the movie's based on the actual case). But I expect Matus could cull a number of very insightful quotations from Thompson about how he'd handle a corruption case like the one...he handled. What would he do if his governor was selling pardons? Well, we can watch and find out!

Matus has a funny and enjoyable article, and it's well worth a read.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Death of FORTRAN creator

John Derbyshire reports the death of John Backus, who came up with FORTRAN, the first computer language. I'm linking to his Corner post, rather than to the original obituary directly (he links to it), just so you can read his comments, too.

For myself, I like FORTRAN. I've also programmed in C, but most of my C and FORTRAN work was in particle physics simulations, for which I used straightforward mathematical equations. FORTRAN had most of them already built in, whereas in C, I'd have to go and define them, which was a pain. Plus, for FORTRAN, we could directly integrate the CERNLIB particle physics subroutines from CERN. Handy.

And I'm glad to see that FORTRAN still has an active life among the supercomputer guys, like my wife, who's using parallel FORTRAN every day.

British troops captured by Iran

Uh-oh! I haven't read the details, but Drudge's links are saying the Brits were in Iraqi waters, in inflatable boats. This has got to be taken seriously by the allies.

The Attorney General's job description?

Good grief, Alberto Gonzales makes it hard for a conservative to defend him! Not that I've actually tried, but man!
"I'm not going to resign. I'm going to stay focused on protecting our kids."

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Fred Dalton Thompson and the Presidential Race

I haven't remarked on Fred Dalton Thompson yet (yeah, I'm still calling him by his full name, as we all did a decade ago, at least in Tennessee), but I'm hoping he'll run for President. The current front runners aren't that conservative, and the conservatives aren't that distinguished. Some of the conseratives in the back of the pack could be good, but I'm simply not that familiar with them.

Fred Dalton Thompson is different—I am familiar with him, since he was my senator. The only thing I can remember disagreeing with him on was a tort reform bill he voted against, and even there, I don't remember the details.

I've heard from some bloggers that he's not 100% pure conservative, but he's almost always been on the same side of the issues as I have, which means he's got to be pretty high up on that scale.

His Washington experience isn't limited to his 1 1/2 terms as a senator, as he was on Sen. Howard Baker's staff during the Watergate affair and is credited with coming up with the question, "What did the President know, and when did he know it?" He's a lawyer with experience outside of politics, and he's shown himself willing to stand up against corruption. He made a real name for himself when he took up a case against corruption in (Tennessee) Gov. Ray Blanton's administration, and he played himself in the movie Marie, which is based on that.

That was his start in acting, and I've enjoyed him in The Hunt for Red October, In the Line of Fire, and Law & Order.

My dad went to a talk he gave at home, when he was running for the Senate, and says he wasn't a good public speaker, suprisingly. But that was his first campaign, and he's had a lot more practice since then.

I'm also impressed with the articles he's been writing regularly for National Review Online. I've linked to the search results here—look for his name as author in this list.

Let's see how this goes...

Cathy Seipp has passed away

NRO has a memorial symposium up here.

She was an interesting writer and gave a conservative's view from inside Hollywood, or at least Los Angeles. She died of cancer.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Ghost Story

Here's a pretty frightening ghost story from the Northwest Arkansas Morning News. (via Mark Shea) The first half of the story is the ghost story, related by the man who lived in the house. The second half of the article is an interview with some people who do ghost tours and exorcisms, and that part is filled with New Agey-sounding language I could do without. But if the father, Mr. LaChance, is honest, he went through an absolutely terrifying haunting. And a nearly deadly one, too, as you'll find out.

My family has enough of our own (far less terrifying) ghost stories that I've never doubted their existence, although I don't put stock in every ol' story I hear. But I don't doubt that this sort of thing can happen.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The White House comes out swinging!

Well, I'll be! Bush finally stood up to Congress over the US Attorneys' firings! Good for him.

He said that he's already made documentation available, and he'll only let his people go to talk to Congress if it's not under oath or on the record. This is actually the perfect approach. Congress can't say "boo" about him firing the guys, which is perfectly within his authority. Now that they've got an idea to go investigate the matter, the only trouble would come from somebody getting mixed up when he talks to Congress under oath and get prosecuted for lying to Congress. So don't put them in the situation where that could happen! Avoid another situation where there's no underlying problem, but an aide gets himself in trouble during the investigation.

Congress is, of course, steaming mad and wants these guys under oath. But Bush doesn't have to bow to them, since he's the head of a separate and equal branch. Amen for the Constitution!

Veto threat over a D.C. Congressional vote

A group of Congressmen has come up with a plan to let D.C. vote in Congress without a Constitutional amendment. They'll just try to pass a simple law to that effect. The deal would include an extra Congressman for Utah (a small Republican state to balance out D.C. as a small Democratic district), but it would be an "at-large" seat.

I don't like it, either way. For the city of Washington to vote in Congress, it should either be made a state (I disagree with that) or revert to Maryland's territory (better). And we shouldn't be creating "at-large" Congressmen. We've got a system of regional representation, which is very important to our republican system. I think it's wrong to have a statewide vote for a Congressman unless there's only one in the state.

Bush should veto this, as he's planning to. But it shouldn't get that far.
Hmmm... I'd never heard of NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) before, despite having worked at NASA. Word at Wired is that they're planning to cut the program. NASA Watch has a little more, but not much.

According to the Wired post, here are some of the advanced concepts this institute is tinkering with: "shape-shifting space suits, antimatter-powered probes, weather control, and elevators into orbit..." OK, not like all of this is going to pan out, but apparently their purpose is creative thinking. I'd be curious to know why this is being shut down.

SpaceX will launch again

SpaceX, a commercial space launch company will be trying another launch from Kwajalein Island today. Their first attempt some months ago failed, so I wish them luck.

The properties of Moon dust

This is interesting. The University of Tennessee and NASA are looking into the properties of Moon dust. The respiratory problems are one thing. Apollo 17's Jack Schmitt reported hay-fever-like symptoms when he breathed some in after changing out of his space suit. You've got very fine dust, and I'd bet a lot of the problem is the lack of weather on the Moon. There's a lot of glassy material in it, and you get sharp edges that aren't getting weathered down the way sand does here. Furthermore, as the article shows, Moon dust has a Swiss-cheese appearance, and these vesicles increase its surface area. Inhaling this kind of dust can be dangerous because the lungs will form scar tissue to cover the particle, and this scar tissue blocks the oxygen exchange. The more surface area it has, the more of the lung tissue it's in contact with. Bigger problem.

Now, what really got my attention was the physical properties of the dust itself. There's an iron content to it, so it's magnetic. On the health side, this could be used to create a magnetic filter.

But there's a more impressive property!

"I discovered that if you put lunar soil in your microwave oven, next to your tea, it will melt at 1,200C before your tea boils - which is a magical thing," he said.

This property is almost entirely due to a coupling effect between the microwaves and the nano-phase iron in the dust.

Now, that's interesting! This doesn't mean, by the way, that your microwave oven would get water up to 1,200 C—it would boil at 100 C. It means that there's a special property of the dust that will absorb the energy in microwaves very readily, so it raises its temperature more quickly than water will.

In practice, this could mean using microwaves to make glass pavement out of the dust. In principle, it's an easy task. Fire microwaves at the surface, and you'd get a glassy layer. The engineering would probably require more work—you'd want to level off the surface and make layers that would hold up the weight you need to support. But it's doable.

I'm happy to see the University of Tennessee working on this. They've got their Space Science Institute around Tullahoma, but I think this work is going on in Knoxville, the main campus.

Playing catch-up

I've been kind of spotty in posting, lately. I think a well-run blog should be regular or fairly predictable in posting, which makes it easier on the readers. Well, today's catch-up day for this week.

Friday, March 16, 2007

New Horizons reaches Jupiter

The New Horizons space probe, on its way to the planet Pluto, has recently swung past Jupiter. It returned some wonderful B/W photos of Jupiter and its moons. Here's a link to an impressive one of Io, with a volcanic eruption going on. Io is the most geologically active body in the solar system, with a lot of erupting sulphur volcanos. Their plumes reach well out above the moon's low gravity, making an umbrella shape as they fall gently back to the surface. You can clearly make out one in this photo.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Hillary's back onto the VRWC; Bush fires eight US Attorneys

Hillary Clinton has trotted out her dead horse, the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. This one is a little different from the old one. This was a case of Republican party employees in New Hampshire trying to mess up the Democrats' get-out-the-vote calls at the last election. They got convicted, thankfully. This sort of thing can't be tolerated from either side.

But perhaps we ought to think about Mrs. Clinton's previous conspiracy theory. She's pulling at straws to make any connection here with Republican opposition to Whitewater and her associated scandals—it was just a rhetorical trick when she used the VRWC term. But her cohorts, like the state Democratic Party Chairman, Kathy Sullivan, seem to be trying to make a real connection:

"People think we're paranoid when we talk about the vast, right-wing conspiracy, but there is a real connection of these groups - the same names keep popping up," Sullivan said.

Really? Was Richard Mellon Scaife funding these two guys? Did Ken Starr poke his head up? Yes, I do think you're paranoid, if you believe that Mrs. Clinton's original claim of a VRWC has anything to do with this.

But she probably doesn't. It's just a way of rousing up the Left.

But let's do make a connection with the events of this week. As you may know, President Bush fired eight U.S. Attorneys, which is his prerogative. Their performance was cited. Now, the Democrats have shouted, "Politics!" and launched a Congressional investigation of some kind. The eight who were fired were Democrats or appointed by Clinton. The performance issues apparently relate to their failure to investigate election fraud cases from the 2006 elections. There were a number of local cases of stolen ballots, voting by the dead and departed, improper voter registration practices, and so on. Some of these were in close elections, and yet these eight did little or nothing to follow up on such illegal acts allegedly done by their fellow Democrats.

Yes, there's apparently politics involved—these U.S. Attorneys appear to have been letting their political allegiances get in the way of their duties. Bush has every right to fire them, and while a President can abuse powers he legally has, this isn't a case of it.

Now, how does this connect to Mrs. Clinton? Do you remember the scandal that broke out around the U.S. Attorneys at the beginning of Mr. Clinton's first term? He fired them all. All 93! While he can do that, it was certainly unprecedented, and it left a number of active cases hanging. Shouldn't the damage to Justice have bothered Mr. Clinton? Well, there's one case in particular that Mr. Clinton was only too happy to see disrupted: Whitewater.

The U.S. Attorney looking into the Clintons' Whitewater scandal (I think it was W. Hickman Ewing, Jr., but I haven't been able to look this up) was fired with the rest, of course. It is widely thought by those of us on the Right that the blanket firing was a cover for getting rid of him and disrupting or stopping the investigation.

Now that was cause for scandal. But firing eight who weren't zealous in the pursuit of their duties? Come on.