21 December 2010

Indomitable Spirit II

This from a guy who has had Parkinson's Disease for 20 years who wants to cycle across South Dakota:



And this from a guy with a progressive life-shortening motor ataxia who plans to ride the RAAM (Race Across America - 3000 miles in a single stage):



FYI, they both ride Catrikes, by Big Cat HPV. Happy Winter Solstice, everyone!

19 December 2010

Indomitable Spirit



For those who have experienced losses that mar their holiday season, may the video clip above remind you that joy can be reborn.

17 December 2010

The Population Bomb is Fizzling Out

In 1968, Paul R. Ehrlich wrote a book called The Population Bomb, in which he predicted an explosive rise in the world's population would outstrip the world's food supply, causing unprecedented famine and conflict over resources. Well, it's 42 years later, and his prediction did not come to pass. Instead, the world's population is beginning to stabilize. Check this video from The Economist:



Dr. Ehrlich made predictions based on extrapolating the statistics of the day, without a deep understanding of the underlying processes behind the statistics. And indeed, some of those underlying processes weren't clear to anyone until a couple of decades later.

If you are wondering why the population is stabilizing, it may be because people realize that they are now living longer and can therefore delay child-bearing: take a look at this data.

Anyway, the global emergency of the 1960's was pollution, the 1970's was population, and now it's climate change. Shall this, too, pass?

06 December 2010

The WCC, the PCUSA and Israel

Well folks, the World Council of Churches and the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) have been creeping into the ugly territory of anti-Semitism. You can read about it here. Even though it's the holiday season, the Blind Chihuahua has cursed them.

05 December 2010

Signs of Progress and Holiday Greetings

For those of you who have ever doubted it, there has been real objective progress in the human condition over most of the world during the last 200 years. Here is the evidence:



So, all the world's countries are healthier (have longer life expectancies) than they did 200 years ago, and nearly all of them are wealthier, too. Thanks to ideas and inventions from Western Civilization. The Civilization that Christianity launched, and even now that the Church has been largely put in its place, maintains. The Civilization in which people can still be moved by surprise events like this one, done in a shopping mall's food court:



And what culture gave rise to Christian West? The people who think like this:



So, to all who are not offended by public displays of Christian and Jewish religiosity: Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas!

To everyone else, Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas, you ingrates!

And to those of you who actually are Christians, it isn't Christmas yet. It's Advent.

29 November 2010

Wikileaks

In case you weren't watching, Wikileaks has obtained and released a large number of secret diplomatic messages from the US. Wikileaks is hosted in Sweden, and run by an Australian. Therefore, US law does not apply directly to them. But it does apply to the source(s) who leaked the documents to Wikileaks.

As a pre-condition for having one's US security clearance activated, one must sign several documents acknowledging one's having read and understood the legal penalties to which one may be subjected if one discloses classified information either (a) accidentally, or (b) knowingly and willingly. These penalties can be severe.

So, to the person(s) who stole the documents, one message. If they catch you and punish you, you can't say you didn't know it was coming.

For the rest of you, another message. It will probably surprise you to know that it is illegal under US law to classify a document without proper authority, as described in written classification guides. In particular, it is illegal to classify a document simply because its disclosure would cause embarrassment. This was enacted to correct abuses of the system of classification in the previous century.

So why does the US mark some information as classified, anyway? Information that is the property of the people is kept from the public domain (classified) in order to protect the people from harm. In other words, if you're an American, you are a co-owner of the US government, and all its information, classified or otherwise. It's just that, for example, you really don't want to know how to operate a nuclear weapon, because even though you would never use such knowledge, someone else, who wants to incinerate your town, just might.

17 November 2010

Small Worlds, Must See!

A friend alerted me to the small wonders of Creation. Have a look at Olympus Bioscapes, an international competition for beautiful images made with microscopes of living creatures.

11 November 2010

Veteran's Day

To all of you who have served, the living, the wounded, and the dead, thank you for your sacrifice on behalf of the rest of us. And to you returnees, welcome home. Peace be unto you.

01 November 2010

Message to Republicans on the Eve of Your So-Called Victory

Tomorrow is election day, and I plan to vote largely Republican. I expect and hope that the Republicans will make some major gains. But I have a message for them.

Don't take whatever victory you get as a mandate. Almost all the independent voters and a good fraction of the registered Republicans hate your party and what is stands for, which is different from what it says it stands for. In fact, they hate you. It's just that the other party has over-reached (just the way you do when you get too much power) and needs to be stopped.

We who hate you are not opposed to health insurance reform. We actually want reform, and have wanted it for nearly two decades. It's just that the health insurance reform proposed by Hillary Clinton and Ira Magaziner needed to be stopped. I know, because I actually read the bill, which was only two-hundred odd pages. I opposed it, because it tried to even the playing field between the rich and the poor by outlawing fee-for-service medicine. That is, if Hillarycare had come to pass, you couldn't opt out of the system by privately paying a physician for services Hillarycare didn't cover. Or for services bought outside the system because the system provided poor services, as when I had to take my mother out of her home state to find a doctor who could diagnose that she had suffered a stroke, give us a prognosis, and recommend a rehabilitation regimen.

This time around, I haven't read the Obamacare bill. This monstrosity is between ten and twenty times longer than Hillarycare. It was written by a horde of unelected technocrats, and read by nobody, not even those who voted for it. It may be well-intended, but anything that long is bound to be full of unintended consequences (and special interest "gimmes"). But more importantly, it is a form of tyranny. Consider that in this Information Age, nearly everyone has access to the bill on the Internet. But making it so long and convoluted has the effect of keeping us out of the game. The door to the legislative chamber may be open, but we are getting impenetrable smoke blown in our faces.

So, Republicans, we who hate you want you to reform health insurance. But if you can't say what you mean in a hundred pages or less, you don't know what you want to say, and you are letting special interests do your writing for you, to the detriment, if not the peril, of us all. Just like your opposition.

And don't think you can get away with playing the Abortion card, any more than your opponents. That's becoming as passe as the Race card. You can wave either one. But we're no longer willing to let you waive on every other issue of our time.

Finally (for now) be clear on this. We want clean air and water, and we want to stop using petroleum for fuel. But we don't want to stop the engines of capitalism to achieve those things. We want smaller, more agile, more efficient, more accountable government. Which means stop the gerrymandering and hand back some power to the states. We want targeted action against Islamofascist terrorists, but not large-scale land maneuver warfare, because it costs too much to sustain. We want a minimal social safety net. It should be enough to keep a person alive, but if a person wants more than that, then he or she should work for it. And we want a country in which hard work and planning pay off.

This last point means you should resist that most tempting of all taxes - inflation. Inflation doesn't just tax income. Inflation taxes wealth. Maybe a person saved so that she can have some say in what her circumstances will be when she is old. If you try to inflate that away, or if you let your opposition do it, the rest of us may show up on your doorstep demanding some of your wealth to make up for what you stole from us.

So, if you Republicans win much tomorrow, don't crow about it. Shut up and get to work. Too many more canned platitudes and scripted talking points without any real change may just get your party split in time for 2012.

Nukes and the Climate

The other day I went to another seminar on Uncertainty Quantification. This time, it was on the "UQ Pipeline," the software suite that runs the multi-physics simulation codes hundreds of times, mapping out the solution space and determining to which input parameters the codes are most sensitive, and how sensitive they are. This information then points the way to research that knocks down the uncertainty in those most sensitive parameters, so we can then have more confidence in the codes' predictions.

Except this time, the topic was not climate modeling. It was nuclear weapons modeling, which is what the UQ methodology was originally designed for. In other words, one of the most important aspects of global climate modeling is a spin-off of the nuclear weapons design program. In fact, the climate modeling program at my lab was itself started as a spin-off from the weapons program, when a number of weapons designers, code physicists and computer scientists left the older program to start up the newer one about 20 years ago.

But climate modeling and nuclear weapons modeling differ in many respects, of which one is crucial to remember: humans have done hundreds of nuclear weapons tests, but we have only one real test of our climate models, and it is still ongoing.

29 October 2010

Y Chromosome Challenged

Note that the unicyclist above is a young male. I figured this might lift your spirits as we slouch toward another election.

19 October 2010

The Real Climate Gate

Today I attended a seminar given by the good folks at PCMDI, the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison. It was about Uncertainty Quantification of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IGPCC) Community Atmospheric Model (CAM).

What that really means is that the CAM has lots of sub-models inside it - for things like cloud formation, for example. Now cloud formation is a physical process, but the CAM can't afford to model the physics of each and every individual cloud on earth. In order to run in a reasonable time (say 7 hours on a thousand-processor supercomputer) CAM has to use an approximate model that says what density of cloudiness will occur in every 2-degree by 2-degree square patch of atmosphere based on the relative humidity of that patch at each of 26 levels of altitude. The cloudiness will determine how much sunlight gets to the ground and how much is reflected back to space, which helps determine the temperature of the earth under that patch for that day.

But there is an adjustable parameter in the cloudiness model that determines whether water vapor will be deemed to have condensed into cloud at what percentage of relative humidity. And that's just one adjustable parameter. It turns out that the CAM has hundreds of such parameters, as indeed it should. The point of Uncertainty Quantification is to determine how sensitive the CAM is to these parameter settings.

So, the PCMDI folks ran CAM about a thousand times, keeping the same input data (sea surface temperatures) for each run, and varying only the parameters in the sub-models. They used the latest statistical sampling techniques, including Morris One-At-a-Time (MOAT) and others to construct response hyper-surfaces for the most important parameters - the ones that cause the greatest variation in predicted global temperatures 12 years into the future in this case.

Near the beginning of this, however, they noticed a flaw. They ran the code twice with exactly the same model parameters and didn't get the same answer. After a lot of digging they found a subtle round-off error in one of the processors. When it was taken out of service, the flaw disappeared. To give you some idea of how sensitive CAM can be, that one processor's round-off error gave a 3-degree variation in some regional surface temperatures. That's about the same size of the regional variation caused by changing the level of humidity at which clouds form by 10%.

Now that's one of the results of running CAM with sea surface temperatures as a fixed input. Next year they want to run CAM with a "slab-ocean" model, in which the ocean can exchange heat and water vapor with the atmosphere, but can't circulate. Then, the year after next, they want to investigate model sensitivity when CAM is coupled to an Ocean General Circulation Model.

If you haven't seen it coming by now, then here it is: We are only just beginning to understand which are the most sensitive parameters in our Climate Models, and to plan research efforts to minimize the uncertainties to which those most sensitive parameters are known. In other words, our Climate Models are still being tuned.

While prudence would indicate that we should reduce anthropogenic carbon emissions, and geopolitics would indicate that we should reduce fossil fuel consumption, it just doesn't make sense to institute draconian measures based on work at its current level of maturity.

Nevertheless, observational data indicate that the earth is getting warmer, and part of the change is due to anthropogenic emissions, but we don't know how much change to expect and what part of it will have been caused by humans. Anthropogenic Global Warming may be "settled science." But the phrase, "settled science," is political, not scientific jargon.

18 October 2010

For us old timers

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before graphical user interfaces (GUIs) were available, computer users had to make do with command-line interfaces (CLIs). One of the first "role playing" games was called Adventure, in which the user found him/herself in a forest, and could type one or two-word commands to navigate the game space (no pictures, just text descriptions) and collect treasure. Now Iowahawk has posted a parody called Beltway Adventure that mocks the Obama Administration. I doubt you will agree with all of it, but it is clever.

The other thing us old timers remember is the era of nuclear explosives testing. At least we think we do. But GeekOSystem has posted a video showing every human-initiated nuclear explosion except for the most recent ones by North Korea. The way we humans were popping those things off might make you think that there was at least as much politics as science motivating that show. Except of course for explosions number two and three, over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, which ended WWII without a much more devastating invasion of Japan. Those were motivated by war, which is one of the things that happens when politics fails.

23 September 2010

Will the Real Islam Please Stand Up

In a previous post (What is Moderate Islam?) I claimed that Islamofascism will eventually be overcome by real Islam. This raises the question of just what is real Islam?

The easy answer, attempted by the Salafists, is  that real Islam was what the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his Companions (the Salafs, may God be pleased with them) practiced. But even those Salafists who live on the Arabian peninsula are separated from the Salafs by 1400 years of time. Even though there are records from that time (the Qur'an and the Sunnah - deeds - and Hadith - sayings of the Prophet) and a continuous living practice of Islam, not everything from that time can be recorded, and traditions change subtly or not so subtly over time. If they did not, the Salafists would not be calling for a return the Islam of the past.

The Salafists consider the past 1400 years of change to be contrary to the Will of God. But God created Time, and God ordained that the Prophet and his Companions should die after living ordinary lifespans. It is apparently God's Will that these people should be no longer with us, and that traditions should evolve.

Given that, the accident of geography seems insignificant. After 1400 years, why should Arabian Islam be considered superior to the Islam of Malaysia, or Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion? Indeed, the saddling of religion with the baggage of culture has always been an impediment to the adoption of religion. Christianity did not become widespread in China, India, or Japan because Christian missionaries for the most part insisted that converts to Christianity practice European Christianity, with European cultural values. Had they been flexible enough to let Christianity take on the cultural accoutrements of Asia, world history might have been different.

Islam on the other hand, has taken on the styles and interpretations of the cultures in which it has become widespread. There are many Islams, and all of them are authentic, including American Islam.

As Paul Johnson notes in his History of Christianity, American religions may differ on matters of faith, but all agree to minimum standards of public moral behavior. This consensus has become strained as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered lifestyles are accepted into the mainstream, and as premarital sex and abortion have become common. But there is still wide consensus that there should be a consensus. American Muslims participate in and help shape this consensus along side American Christians, Jews, atheists, and all other Americans.

In other words, the battle lines are drawn up around a minimal rule set (an idea taken over by Thomas P. M. Barnett in The Pentagon's New Map). Matters of religion itself are not part of the fight - they are in the realm of persuasion, or dawa, as Muslims call it. Living under the more numerous and stricter rules of a particular religion (e.g., Sharia for Muslims, Halacha for Jews) is voluntary for the members of that religion, and simply does not apply to members of other religions.

It is the willingness to coexist, neither dominating other religions nor being dominated by them, that American Muslims can take to the world. This, it seems to me, is what Imam Faisal Rauf is trying to promulgate, despite his unfortunate choice of location for the finger he wishes to stick in the eye of the Islamofascists.

There is a great deal of talk about peace in Islam. Muslims greet one another with "Peace be with you." American Muslims have an idea of how to make that peace a reality.

21 September 2010

Revive the Pillory

Pillory, courtesy of Florida Center
for Instructional Technology
I'm disgusted with the meaningless squabbling between Democrats and Republicans. Perhaps I should be more tolerant, given that this is an election year. But election years only turn up the volume without adding any depth to the content.

Both parties believe that multi-thousand page laws aren't a kind of tyranny as long as they're written by unelected technocrats, and that throwing away money won't bankrupt the country as long as the amounts are in the billions.

Both parties believe that whatever the issue, they must somehow differentiate themselves from (in other words fight against) each other. The Republicans position themselves as the Party of Law, and the Democrats position themselves as the Party of License. Neither is the Party of Liberty.

Liberty demands a strong society, with a strong economy, made up of people who can understand the laws by which they consent to be governed. "It's too complicated for the public," is an idea that the would-be ruling classes use to bamboozle the ruled into abdicating their citizenship in favor of technology-enhanced serfdom.

I think Henry Kissenger's remark about the Iran-Iraq war applies to the Republicans and the Democrats. He said, "It's a pity that both sides can't lose."

I would like to see a successful third party. But the Tea Party is so far pushing the Republicans rightward with unelectable candidates. The New Whigs don't know what they stand for. The Greens are really the Watermelons (green on the outside, red, i.e., Communist on the inside), and the Libertarians take libertarianism too far toward an ideal that could only have been realized before the Industrial Revolution. How about a New Federalist Party that simply wants to delegate more money, power, authority, and autonomy from the Federal Government back to the States? I don't want the old-fashioned "States' Rights that gave us the Civil War, and subsequent segregation. I just want a sharing of responsibility so that the system can function without thousand-page laws.

I'd also like to get rid of gerrymandering and the term limits that gerrymandering has made necessary.

But none of these reforms has a chance without willing legislatures, both state and federal. Maybe we should gin up a ten-million citizen march, yank our so-called legislators out of their seats, and put them in pillories. Then tell them, "Y'all are going to learn to get along, and make the system work better. Get on your cell-phones and talk to each other nicely. We'll wait."

Until then, here's my slogan: "Revive the Pillory!"

11 September 2010

What is moderate Islam?

THe Wall Street Journal ran a "symposium" on this question last week. Several writers contributed, but the closest thing to a sensible answer came from Ed Husain, who had once been seduced by Islamofacism, but has since reconverted to Islam. There is no such thing as "moderate" Islam. There is just Islam. So-called "radical Islam," or "political Islam" are misnomers for the ideology believed by Osama Bin Laden and his followers, wannabes, and hangers-on. The most accurately descriptive name I have heard for it is Francis Fukuyama's term: Islamofascism.

Islamofascism denotes an unholy union between one strand of Islamic Salafist thought and Western European Fascist thought. Ed Husain describes this in some detail in his memoir, The Islamist, which I have reviewed here.

Now, if you're wondering what will eventually defeat Islamofascism, the answer is Islam. Or if you must have an adjective, authentic Islam.

The use of the words "moderate" and "radical" connote that Islamofascism is simply a more intensely believed version of Islam. Nothing could be further from the truth.

10 September 2010

Exploding Marriages

Along our short street, one marriage is ended, three are in crisis, and one house has an intact marriage because its previous owners sold it during their divorce. Statistically, that's about average for the country. Which means that a lot of drama and pain are part of life for an awful lot of people. Some psychologists think that divorce is as traumatic as a death in the family. But, in the game of life, you don't receive a "Get out of death free" card if the next roll of the dice lands you on the "divorce" square.

For those of you who might benefit from it, one neighbor recommends this site: Runaway Husbands.

There is also: Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, by John Gottman, PhD.

07 September 2010

Quick Bites

As we slouch toward this fall's elections, I urge you to vote for individuals rather than parties. Here is why: America's Ruling Class.

As for Imam Faisal Rauf, who wants to build a super-mosque two blocks away from the 9/11 "Ground Zero" site in New York City, and the Reverend Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville FL, who wants to hold a public Qur'an burning on September 11: You both have a perfect right to do what you are doing, and the Constitution of the United States was adopted to protect your right. But what you are doing is in bad taste, and in most of corporate America, would get you assigned to sensitivity or diversity training classes.

And finally, for Harry Reid, senator from Nevada who claimed he had not read the health care bill he helped push through the US Senate, because he left the drafting of the bill up to "experts": Your experts are not empowered by the Constitution to draft legislation. You are. Your dereliction of duty in advocating and voting for a bill you had not read and did not understand, is tantamount to treason in that it undermines our process of representative democracy. You shouldn't be re-elected. You should be on trial.

13 August 2010

Mother Russia

My Aunt had a little book entitled Russia Dies Laughing, which contained a joke that attempted to recapitulate Soviet history. It went something like this:

Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev were riding on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Suddenly, the train broke down and came to a stop.

"Fix the train," ordered Stalin. For a long time, nothing happened. "Shoot the engineers!" yelled Stalin. The engineers were shot, but still nothing happened. Stalin screamed useless orders until he got apoplexy and died.

Khrushchev got up, heaved Stalin's body out the window, and ordered, "Rehabilitate the engineers!" The engineers were rehabilitated. "Fix the train!" yelled Khrushchev. Still nothing happened. Khrushchev yelled orders until Brezhnev got up and heaved him, still yelling and flailing his arms and legs, out the window.

"Close the windows and close the window shades!" demanded Brezhnev. "Now, everyone pretend the train is moving." Everyone pretended for a long time, until Brezhnev died. Gorbachev got up, dragged Brezhnev's body to the window, opened the shade and the window, and heaved him out.

Then Gorbachev stuck his head through the open window, and looked all around, right, left, and up and down. He pulled his head back inside, stood up and declared, "Ladies and Gentlemen, there appears to be nothing holding up this train." And the whole thing collapsed in a big mess.

Now, in that spirit, comes this YouTube video, "Complete History of the Soviet Union Arranged to the melody of Tetris" (which was invented by Russians):



Hmmm. Have you ever noticed how much Vladimir Putin looks like Dobby, the house-elf, of the Harry Potter series?

Anyway, the Soviet Union is no more. But at least for a while everyone, nominally, had "free" health care. Such as it was.

21 July 2010

Ideological Intelligence

I caught a bit of Michael Krasny's program Forum on NPR as I was driving to work this morning and was appalled by the segment, The State of National Intelligence:



He interviewed two guests: John Arquilla, director of the Information Operations Center at the Naval Postgraduate School, and Ray McGovern, veteran intelligence analyst and co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, an alumni unit of intelligence officers seeking integrity in the profession. Together they gave the impression that a significant fraction of the Intelligence Community is like the majority of other folks who live in and around the Washington, D.C. Beltway. They're hard-over liberals.

Now it's great to be politically engaged. But there is a form of engagement on the part of both conservatives and liberals that I think is pathological enough to put in next issue of the psychologists' Diagnostic and Statistical Manual: Political Attachment Disorder (PAD). These guys appear to have it.

They both agreed that the root cause of "Islamist" terrorism is American foreign policy, specifically, the use of Predator drones to kill terrorist leaders, and US support for Israel. The only other hypothesis they entertained was a straw man they constructed to represent all viewpoints other than their own: the idea that "drinking the water in Pakistan" turns one into a terrorist. Further, killing terrorist leaders was a "self-licking ice-cream cone," because it just made more people mad, which made them turn terrorist, which meant we could pay contractors to kill them with Predator strikes.

To me, this is a hallmark of PAD-L (Political Attachment Disorder - Liberal). The idea that the root causes of terrorism are much more complex, that these roots go back well over a hundred years, and that the terrorists have an agenda of their own independent of American foreign policy which includes annihilation of the American way of life - is an idea that cannot be discussed. It must be denied, papered over with, "It's not the water."

Now it is perhaps reassuring that we can contain and control Islamofacist terrorism merely by standing down our side of the conflict and throwing Israel under the bus. But it is a false idea. Giving the Islamofacists such a big and easy victory will only encourage them to continue and will actually help their recruiting efforts. It is also racist. It is as if they are saying, "Don't worry. The little brown people don't have their own plans. They are just reacting in an understandable way (however unkind and unthinking) to what we do."

Quite frankly, I respect the Islamofacists too much for that. They may delude themselves into idolatry and blasphemy against Allah, but they are not puppets of our policy. Rather they seek to control our policy and ultimately to destroy us.

A more detailed look into who the Islamofacists are, what they think, and why they think it is here.

But more important than the biases of two ex-members of the US Intelligence Community are the effects of the ideological and methodological divides in that community. The ideological divide is alluded to above. When part of the Intelligence Community is liberal and part conservative, and they are so hard over on their positions that they cannot understand or trust one another, they impair the functioning of the community as a whole. In many cases, the political divide may make it impossible to get an unbiased intelligence estimate, let alone a consensus intelligence estimate that says very much.

The methodological divide is almost as bad. Consider that the Civilian side produces intelligence estimates that are hoped to withstand the scrutiny of history. They are therefore meticulously researched, closely held for long periods of time and carefully hedged (which can sometimes make such estimates non-actionable). Military Intelligence, on the other hand is all about action. The battle is going to take place tomorrow, and we are going to use your estimate, or do without it. Therefore, the quality of your intelligence work is inversely proportional to its lateness. Do the best you can with the time and resources you have, but do it now. After tomorrow your work might be discarded or even declassified, because it no longer has value.

This creates a cultural divide in which the Military and Civilian Intelligence communities don't trust each other and are reluctant to share information. In particular, the Civilian side seems to act as if it views the Military Intelligence agencies as careless in their analyses and lax in their security. This in turn, frustrates the Military side of the house. Now, given that different, but complementary sources and methods may be used by the two sides of the house, any division of the house against itself may undermine its effectiveness.

This is where the Director of National Intelligence comes in. The DNI's job is (or should be) to enforce the "need to share" principle that enables information to be used, and to balance that principle against the "need to know" principle that enables information to be protected. It is not (or should not be) just another layer of bureaucracy.

I could be wrong. I'm not a member of the Intelligence Community. But I've been around.

20 July 2010

Why you are not a Jew

Some Haredi rabbis are grabbing for power in Israel. They are trying to expand the power they have to determine who is and who is not Jewish. This gives them control over who can get Jewish marriages, for example. See

The Diaspora Need Not Apply

Non-Jewish Until Proven Otherwise

and

You're Jewish - Prove It

I have news for the rabbis behind these naked, self-righteous, self-congratulatory, and bigoted power grabs, and their collaborators in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) and the Israeli Rabbinical Courts. You have all been cursed by the Blind Chihuahua.

Now these political moves (which may alienate Israel from the Diaspora, which itself is a monumentally bad idea) resemble the kind of power grabs in Christianity that were done at various times by the Papacy, the Inquisition, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Except that nobody is getting burned at the stake. Also the power struggle between the Sunnis and the Shi'ites, except that nobody is getting ambushed and killed. So, we applaud the perpetrators of this abuse in Israel for keeping their violence restricted to the moral/psychological/spiritual domain, even while we disapprove of their ideas.

And what standing do I have to disapprove? None whatsoever in their eyes. I'm an American Jewish Christian. The kind of person regarded as a Jew by Jew-haters, but a non-Jew by Israeli Law.

10 July 2010

Space, the Final Frontier

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has stated that his "foremost" mission is to achieve better relations with the Muslim world. Gosh, I thought it was space exploration. Silly me.

30 June 2010

Robert C. Byrd, RIP

Robert C. Byrd, senior senator from West Virginia, departed the observable universe on June 28, 2010, aged 92 years and change. I'm surprised. I thought he was too ornery to die before the age of 125.

The Wikipedia article on Byrd mentions his having steered federal money to West Virginia, and makes a polite allusion to "pork-barrel" politics. That might refer to certain federal office buildings that you would expect to find in Washington, DC, but had somehow been built in Morgantown, WV. Or maybe the monorail in Morgantown that goes from the WVU campus to the downtown area. Or my favorite, the road that goes from Beckley to Sophia, WV. When Byrd first had it built, it was called "the four-lane," because it was the only four-lane road in the area. It was even wider than the nearby West Virginia Turnpike, then listed as "a modern two and three lane highway." It was a remarkable piece of engineering that went from pretty much nowhere to nowhere else. But Beckley had an airport, and Sophia was Byrd's hometown. About 20 years ago, it was re-named Robert C. Byrd Drive.

The Beckley city fathers even floated the idea of raising a statue to Byrd somewhere along his namesake road. I would love to see it. I recommend that it be patterned after a statue called "the Bacchino," which adorns a fountain in the Boboli Gardens built by Cosimo de' Medici in the 1500s behind the Pitti Palace in Florence, Italy. It looks like this:

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
I'd make a few changes, of course. I would have him ride a hog instead of a turtle. I would place a bag of coins and cash in his right hand, a skillet of sausage links in his left, to commemorate the money he raised for the state he loved, and his having risen from working in a butcher shop in Sophia (so the local legend says). And I would put a crown on his head. He was the king of pork politics, if ever anyone was.

And I suppose he could spare two fingers to hold his fiddle and bow. He was a multi-talented man, and my shallow lampoon of one aspect of him captures only a fraction of what he was about.
But, as far as that fraction was concerned, nobody did it better.

26 June 2010

The Second Amendment

We are about to be treated to the Senate hearings to evaluate Elena Kagan for the position of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. No doubt she will be grilled regarding her thoughts on the Second Amendment. If only it would start with a little honesty. Like this:


Senator: Ms. Kagan, what are your thoughts on gun control laws and the Second Amendment?

Kagan: You mean, what do I plan to do to protect the people of the United States from your dereliction of duty? How will I make up for you and your colleagues abundance of cowardice and paucity of wisdom in regard to proposing an updated version of the Second Amendment to be ratified by the States?


The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution reads

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

When it was adopted in 1789 its meaning was clear. The Americans had no standing army, no Department of Defense, no Military-Industrial Complex. In order to raise an army, the federal government relied on the states, which in turn relied on their citizens to gather at their call, and to bring their own weapons with them. These weapons were state-of-the-art military-grade muskets and rifles, and most male citizens were expected to have them. Indeed it would have left the country defenseless if they did not.

But the framers of the Constitution (as amended) were mindful of another potential source of tyranny - the federal government that they themselves were working to establish. The states could use their militias to defend their rights against the federal government if the need arose. The abuse of this idea to defend the indefensible system of slavery (human beings were enslaved by human-Neanderthal hybrids) led to the Civil War of 1861-65.

Nevertheless, we can still derive a useful concept from the idea of raising militias. We, the People of the United States, in order to enjoy a greater degree of domestic tranquillity, voluntarily give our governments (local, state, and federal) a monopoly on the use of legitimate violence. This monopoly is ours to bestow, and ours to rescind, by inalienable right given to us by our Creator.

Indeed, losing the monopoly on socially legitimate violence is what makes a "failed state." It is therefore our government's responsibility to conduct itself in such a way that we continue to be willing to give it the monopoly on legitimate violence. If it loses our confidence, the founders expected that we would have both the armament and the courage to take back that monopoly, using whatever force was necessary.

Now taking back the government's monopoly would be something to give us pause even if it could be done without violence of our own. It's really nice to live in a society where the government enjoys a monopoly on legitimate violence. You can walk out of your house without having to be prepared to fight to the death every day. If you don't carry a gun, sword, or dagger, it is because you don't need to. Almost nobody else does, either. If you get into an argument, it is very unlikely that either you or the person you argue with will do or even threaten to do physical harm to the other.

In many other times and places, such a thing would be an unheard of luxury. In order to survive, you must be armed. And even then, it's not enough. On your own, you still can't defend yourself or your family. You need a larger unit, whether its the males of your extended family, your tribe, or your gang. The extended family, tribe, or gang has always been the natural unit of human organization, not the nuclear family. It results in a relatively constant, but sustainable level of violence. Think of the Hatfields and McCoys, or if you want a more literary example, the Montagues and the Capulets of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Or think of Afghanistan or the tribal areas of Pakistan. Or even Mexican drug cartels fighting each other. (It takes a lot of dedicated socialization and values training of our young to keep societies from reverting to this kind of organization in one or two generations.)

So, it was the Founder's intent that we keep and bear military-grade weapons. In their day, that meant muskets and Kentucky rifles. The equivalent in our day is the AK-47. It's a great weapon, powerful, reasonably accurate, delivering a high rate of fire. And it's relatively low-tech, cheap and easy to make in large quantities. It's not finicky, it works in almost all conditions. But a guy going berserk in a crowd with a musket might get off only one or two shots before the crowd overcomes him. The same nut with an AK-47 might mow down everybody in sight. Unless, of course, the crowd was full of well-meaning citizens carrying AK-47s. But we don't want to live like that. That's how they live in Afghanistan.

So we ignore and otherwise subvert the Constitution of the United States, thereby undermining the Rule of Law, because we don't let the supreme Law of the Land mean what it says. We do this by passing gun control laws willy-nilly without benefit of amending the Constitution to reflect the technology of our time and our relationship to it.

What we need is an amendment that is intended to reduce the level of violence by our society and our government by providing a balanced incentive for both parties to calm down. Something like

We the People of the United States, in order to increase our domestic tranquillity do voluntarily limit our right to keep and bear arms such that no citizen, resident, or visitor in the United States shall keep and bear arms exceeding the military capability of the arms kept, borne and used by local police walking their beats.

This by construction excludes SWAT teams. Now without SWAT-style weapons it will be impossible to sustain an insurrection or insurgency against the government. But insurrections and insurgencies are always by definition illegal. It is absurd to expect legal protection for an illegal act. If you want to rebel against the government, please have the decency to obtain your illegal weapons by illegal means. I hear there are some good AK-47 factories in Colombia.

This can't be good enough to be the final form, but you get the idea. Incentivize both the police and the crooks to carry less firepower. And let the rest of us have whatever they have. Make it a societal disarmament race. If the government wants a less armed citizenry, the let the government limit the armament is uses to control the citizenry. Fair enough?

Here is our previous attempt to update the Second Amendment.

25 June 2010

Points of Rebellion

I appropriate the title of Justice William O. Douglas' book (worth a read, by the way) because I am outraged by the following bit of bureaucratic skullduggery:



Joseph Diliberti, a Vietnam combat veteran, is about to have his home confiscated by San Diego County because he can't pay a $60,000 bill for weed abatement that he did not need, want, or consent to. I wouldn't be surprised if somebody was scheming to get him off his land, and the public good of weed abatement seemed like the way to do it. The original bill was for $25,000, but late fees and fines have inflated it (Mob-style) to $60,000. Diliberti can't pay, because he doesn't have much income. He lives in a kiln-fired clay house he built himself on 30 acres of semi-desert. He needs more than a lawyer. He needs a criminal investigator working to see who and what is behind this illegal taking.

See the Chapparal Institute article on this case.

This is the kind of government abuse that undermines the legitimacy of government itself. Surely some of our politicians will intervene on this man's behalf. Or will they? Here is the kind of ad you will be seeing this fall:

16 June 2010

Who says bicycling isn't a blood sport?



Ouch. That was Mark Cavendish, going down after touching wheels with a fellow sprinter. Note how his front wheel breaks and pancakes after the touch, triggering the chain-reaction pile-up.

I have long maintained that people who ride bicycles on the road, whether for transportation, recreation, or racing, just don't have an intuitive grasp of statistics. On a per trip basis, the odds of being killed or injured while bicycling are greater than rock climbing or sky diving, but a little bit less than cave diving. Or as Lance Armstrong says, "There are two kinds of cyclists: those who have crashed, and those who are going to."

And of course, we have our helmet laws backwards. Kids can recover from traumatic brain injury much more easily and completely than can adolescents and adults. If we were really interested in protecting people, we should require the adults to wear the helmets, and leave the kids to their parents' best judgement. Besides, helmets cut down on the number of potential organ donors.

Not that I have anything against cyclists, mind you. In fact, here is my ride, tricked out with light weight components, so I can chase my buddies up the local hills:


It's a Lightning.

13 June 2010

Whites are Mixed Race

A recent article in Science News discusses evidence provided by genome sequencing that modern humans and Neanderthals interbred. Apparently people of European and Asian origin have about 4% of their DNA from Homo Neanderthalensis, Neanderthal Man, aka the Cave Man. People from Africa do not. African people are pure Homo Sapiens, Intelligent Man, i.e., modern human.

To be more clear about it, there were several waves of human migration from our common origin in Africa. Neanderthals migrated into Europe some tens of thousand years before anatomically modern humans. When modern humans moved into Europe and Asia, Neanderthals disappeared as an anatomically distinct group. Now we know that they were not entirely wiped out. The interbred with some of our ancestors.

This means that, contrary to racial doctrines that enjoyed some popularity among white people in the previous century, white people are the product of Africans mating with Neanderthals. White people are not only of mixed race, they are of mixed species. If, that is, Neanderthals continue to be regarded as a distinct human species, which they probably will not.

Anyway, all you white supremacists out there, if you want to know what a 100% pure human being looks like, he or she is black.

11 June 2010

Probing the Fence Line

If you want to attack a facility that is protected by a fence festooned with intrusion sensors, the first thing you want to do is to nullify the sensors. You could try to disable them, but that would only give the guards inside warning of your attack. The best thing is to train the guards to ignore the intrusion sensors, at least for long enough to give you time to establish a position of tactical advantage. So, you cut loose some of the tumbleweeds around the fence. You might entice some of the local animals to interact with the fence. Anything to generate a random sequence of false alarms until the guards get tired of checking out each one. Then you can risk a little jiggling as you get inside.

That lesson from a retired U.S. Navy Seal is what I thought of when I learned of the Israeli encounter with the "Freedom Flotilla" sent by Hamas sympathizers to challenge Israel's blockade of Gaza. Send a ship full of food and aid, no contraband, and a few rowdies ready to make trouble. When the Israelis board the ship to inspect it, mob them, beat them with clubs and sticks (some say metal rods). Now clubs, sticks, and rods are not "deadly weapons" in the same way guns are, but you can kill a man by beating him with clubs, rods, and sticks. You can kill a man by beating him with your fists, if he doesn't fight back. Given that they were being beaten by a crowd that vastly outnumbered them, it isn't surprising that the Israeli commandos started shooting their guns. It was that or be killed. One might fault the Israelis for letting themselves get into a situation where they would have to use such deadly force, but it would have taken a lot more ships and commandos to control the situation without such intensity of force.

In any case, the result was a made for television and blogosphere media event. Mean powerful Israelis bullying innocent people trying to help starving Palestinians in Gaza. And a successful probing attack, to be followed by many others, to break Israel's will to continue the blockade. This will then be followed by another season of rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza, once the Palestinians get rockets shipped from (indirectly or otherwise) Iran. Then another round of Israeli soldiers on the ground in the Gaza strip, followed by another blockade.

It would be nice if the cycle could be broken. Heck, it might even help if Israel could hire a Public Relations firm as good as those working for the Palestinians. There is plenty of material for them. To start, note that the term Palestina was coined by the Roman Empire so that it could make a better case for removing the Judeans (Jews) from their land, which previously had been called Judea.

Here is a video telling the other side of the story:

Maritime Martyrs from CJHS on Vimeo.


And there has also been violence on the border between the US and Mexico. A boy threw rocks at a US Border Patrol Agent, who then shot the boy. There is some discussion that the boy might have been acting as a decoy for smugglers, but who knows? In effect it was another successful probing attack on the fence line. But there is also talk on the right in America about making the border with Mexico harder and shallower - by putting up a guarded wall.

I would prefer making the border softer and deeper - by creating a joint US-Mexican governmental authority to manage the transient population of Mexicans who want to enter the US to do temporary or seasonal work. To make sure they are well treated and reasonably paid. And to vet them so as to keep the criminals out.

We may also have to legalize marijuana just to knock the profit out of the business. We will then get a taste of what China went through when Western interests forced it to legalize the opium trade. But it would be a setback for Mexican drug cartels. And both the Mexican and US governments need them to be set back.

30 May 2010

Working Girl

Here is Ruby (foreground) with her mother and father, at her breeder's house. Mom (aka "Milk Bar") is nursing Ruby's nine new brothers and sisters, while Ruby and Dad have been hitting the dog show circuit. In the past three weekends, Ruby has taken one third place, two second places, and two firsts. She's back home tonight, resting from her labors. Actually, dogs seem to do a lot of resting, no matter what.

Today is Memorial Day, on which we remember those patriots who have refreshed the well-spring of liberty with their blood. Let us also remember those survivors who left pieces of themselves (physical, emotional, or both) on the battlefield. You don't have to go it alone. To all of you who have returned, thank you for serving, and welcome back.

We now have pictures of both our fathers in WWII Army uniforms. My father was on the American side, my wife's on the German. Let the old wounds heal. The rest of what I have to say is in VCBC's Military Chapel.

11 May 2010

Top Ten Anti-Israel Lies

The Simon Wiesenthal Center is hosting these here. They're pretty good, so I thought I'd pass them along.

As Josh Billings used to say, "It ain't ignorance that hurts folks. It's all the things they know that ain't so."

08 May 2010

What a Little Bird Told me about SETI

Dr. Paul Foldes, of blessed memory, once told me this joke:

A small bird was starving one winter. It was so cold, he couldn't fly any more, and he fell to the road. Just then a horse-cart passed over him, and the horse dropped a huge load of dung on him. The dung warmed the bird, and the seeds in it fed him. Soon he was feeling so cheerful he started to hop around and sing. The commotion attracted the attention of a passing wolf, who pulled the bird out of the dung and ate him.

This story has three lessons. First, the one who puts you in deep doo-doo is not necessarily your enemy. Second, the one who pulls you out of deep doo-doo is not necessarily your friend. And third, if you're full of doo-doo, don't draw attention to yourself.

I keep the last lesson in mind when thinking about SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence in the Universe. SETI proceeds by combing the universe for radio signals that meet certain statistical criteria for being non-random and non-repetitive - in other words, not of natural origin. But suppose that some ET were out there looking for us. For a long time, say 5 billion years, there would be nothing. Then a faint glimmer of radio signals starting around a century ago. Then analog television shows from about 60 years ago. But this year, television has gone digital - which looks more like random noise to those statistical algorithms. We are going quiet, going out of radio frequency existence after only a century or so. Odds are very slim that any ET would be looking our way during that brief period of time. Which means that odds are we won't be found.

And that is a very comforting thought. Consider the energy it takes for interstellar travel. Let's say that an alien civilization had a spaceship weighing 10 metric tonnes, that it could accelerate to 99% the speed of light. If such a thing experienced brake failure (accidentally or otherwise) it would hit whatever was in its path with an energy of 5x1020 Joules, or 100,000 megatons TNT equivalent. That's more than enough to smash a planet. And we wouldn't even see it coming, because the light from it would be moving barely ahead of it. By the time we detected it, it would be too late think much about it, much less to to do anything about it.

Maybe that's why SETI hasn't found anything. Maybe all those ETs out there have done the same simple calculation that I've just done, and have decided not to draw attention to themselves. Our digital revolution is making us appear to go radio quiet. Let us continue, for in the grand scheme of interstellar society, we may be the little bird.

07 May 2010

Conspiracies and Wars

Normally, I'm not one for conspiracy theories, but yesterday's stock market gyration is just too tempting. Consider how much money could be made by executing a few thousand buy orders at the bottom of such a rapid plunge and rebound. Could yesterday's 999 point drop in the Dow be the work of a few rogue traders? A self-funded "probing" cyber attack by a government preparing to paralyze the West should the need arise to do so?

It also looks like the recent attempt to car-bomb Times Square is the result of a long-time association between the family of the alleged bomber, Faisal Shahzad, and militant leaders of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. He had become a naturalized US citizen, making him a very desirable target for recruitment by such groups.

On the other hand, back in the 1960's there was a conspiracy by the US government to cover-up certain embarrassing details of the Vietnam War then in progress by abusing the system of classifying information (in ways that are now illegal). Daniel Ellsberg blew the cover by leaking thousands of pages of classified documents (now known as the Pentagon Papers) to the press. Ellsberg was saved from prison by the Nixon Administration's botching of the case against him, while committing crimes of its own ( the Watergate break-in). Still, I was offended by the way Ellsberg described his crimes and his pot-smoking so proudly during a City Arts and Lectures interview on NPR. Civil disobedience is a serious thing. Maybe Ellsberg would be more serious about it if he had served even a tenth of the 115 year sentence for which he was eligible. I suppose I should thank him, because efforts by him and people like him ended the draft just before I would have been forced to decide between going to Vietnam as a soldier or to prison as a draft resister. I never considered Canada. As I said, civil disobedience is a serious thing. Doing it for the right reasons and taking the consequences is patriotic. Evading the consequences is not. Ellsberg talks as if he's forgotten that.

Today I have friends and colleagues whose careers include one or more tours of duty in Vietnam. I now realize that in a way, we won. The time our war effort bought the Pacific Rim economies to develop, and the pain it caused the North Vietnamese, made it impossible for one Asian government after another to fall like dominoes to Communism. So, for those who did what they saw as their duty, thank you for serving and welcome home.

I remember especially one paratrooper who had become a reservist after his tour in Vietnam. He was the only one on campus. I met him while he was in uniform, folding his parachute before his weekend training exercise. He had a lot of guts to try to make it at such a left-leaning school. We all should have been more welcoming to him. After all, he did what he did for us.

21 April 2010

My Brother's Keeper

A cornerstone of Obamacare is the sharing of risk, which means sharing the cost of covering that risk. In order to insure the uninsured and the otherwise uninsurable, we must compel young, healthy people to buy health insurance. So far, so good - as long as you don't think the Federal government's compelling people to buy something infringes on their liberty.

But then, young healthy people can jeopardize their life and health by engaging in risk-taking behavior, which could turn them from being a source of funds into being a very expensive sink. So, if your risky behavior puts my financial well-being in jeopardy, I might want to compel you to wear a helmet whenever you bicycle. I might want to make it illegal for you to smoke - anything. Maybe I want to monitor your drug and alcohol intake. Maybe I need to compel you to take all your medications, exactly as your doctor prescribed. Perhaps I should consider making you take anger management classes to keep you from hurting yourself or other people whose health care I may be required to subsidize. If I am my brother's keeper, I want some say over how well my brother takes care of himself.

You get the idea. There is an unavoidable trade-off between taking care of each other -  sharing risk - and curtailing individual freedom of action. At one extreme we have Libertarianism - which maximizes liberty by letting everyone go to hell in their own handbasket if they can get one, and at the other we have Woody Allen's dictator from Bananas proclaiming that everyone must wear underwear, and "Underwear will be worn on the outside, so we can check."

So, maybe you don't object to my keeping you from smoking, drinking too much alcohol, or abusing drugs. But maybe I need to prevent you from engaging in promiscuous sexual activity, because that puts the whole society at risk for Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs). Nah. That would never happen. I mean, if Social Conservatives ever come to power again, they would just dismantle Obamacare. They wouldn't just change it to suit their agenda, would they?

But then, the whole idea behind Obamacare is that the changes it makes should be very hard to reverse. This is supposed to be a permanent change to do permanent good. Right?

26 March 2010

Everyday Treasures

Every time I shave, I remember the uncle who taught me how. As I let the water get hot, I remember how Mother would wipe our faces with a cold washcloth before she sent us off to school. When I put on socks, standing, balancing on one foot at a time, I remember my mother remarking that my father did it the same way. When I shine my shoes, I remember Dad teaching me the way to do it. I even use his wooden shoeshine box and the brushes he used to apply and buff the polish.

These old memories associated with ordinary things are my everyday treasures. We are indeed such stuff as dreams are made on. We are also the stuff of memory.

Perhaps my favorite memento is a faded and bedraggled toy Bunny Rabbit. Over half a century ago when I was almost four, our family dog chewed his nose, and ate his torso entirely, including most of his stuffing. I was distraught. BR was my constant companion, my Imaginary Friend. Fortunately, my father's mother was visiting us. Grandma took needle and thread from Mother's sewing basket, and a Banlon sock from Dad, and after hours of surgery assisted by my older sister, she restored to me a functional, if diminished Bunny Rabbit.

Not long after that, Bunny Rabbit disappeared. He was lost, I was told. In reality, my parents couldn't stand the idea of sending their son off to Kindergarten carrying the shabby thing everywhere, like Linus carrying his blanket in the comic strip Peanuts.

Though it was my first loss, I got over it soon enough. But years later, when I was visiting from another state after landing my first real job, Mom showed me where she had been keeping him in a trunk in the basement. I took him with me. I don't handle him or even look at him much. He lies in a glass-fronted bookcase, slouching companionably against a favorite childhood toy of my wife. My dad's old bamboo and ivory slide rule lies at his feet. There he is, partly an old toy, and partly my mother's thread, my father's sock, my grandmother's handiwork, and my first dog's spit. He's a treasure like no other. Maybe I'll leave him to my last dog to finish the job my first one started.

01 March 2010

Answering the Hierophant

Ever since 1997, Patrick Mooney has posted The Hierophant's Proselytizer Questionnaire as a challenge to any Christian who tries to proselytize him. The deal is that the proselytizer must answer the Hierophant's 150-odd questions first. If Patrick likes the answers, he may get in touch.

A year ago, I decided to work through the questionnaire, even though I don't feel called to proselytize, so much as to apologize - as in apologetics, explaining Christianity to those interested. I wanted to use it to work through my own beliefs. My own health issues, my mother's death, and my grieving process all acted to delay my completing the project, but now, for any willing reader's comments, here it is.

23 February 2010

A Marginal Jew, continued

Well, I did it. I finished Volume Four: Law and Love of the massive A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, by John P. Meier. My updated review of all four volumes is here.

21 February 2010

Doggie PMS

Since every male dog for miles around knows it, you may as well know it, too. Ruby is in season for her first time. Mostly, she is mellow and cuddly. But every now and then, she grabs her latest chew-toy and rips the stuffing out of it. Here she is amid the extracted fluff and squeakers of a now flaccid pink dachshund doll. To her left lie shards of a plastic water jug.

Other than that, she believes that she wears a perfectly tailored and tres chic fur coat. It simply won't do to cover it with a diaper. The little spots on the floor and on her bedding - well - clean them up, that's what humans are for.

Her biggest hardship is doing without those daily off-lead romps with other dogs in the local parks. Maybe some playtime in a fenced yard with our neighbors' bitch will help relieve the tension.

Now for some lunch. She's back on her chow again, and weighed in this week at a svelte 87 pounds.

In the meantime, here is a video of what she really lives for:

14 February 2010

MTS

MTS stands for Member of Technical Staff. I first heard it at the old Bell Labs, where I was an MTS and an MTS-Supervisor. Since then, the label has propagated to tens of companies where scientists and engineers (aka S&Es) develop hardware and software for new products and services. It is now industrial "best practice," to call industrial scientists and engineers MTSs instead of by their actual specialties, such as plasma physicist, solid state physicist, electrical engineer, nuclear engineer, inorganic chemist, mathematician, spectroscopist, etc. The bland designation "MTS" gives the illusion that it is easy to compare the contributions of these uniquely trained and experienced individuals across disciplines. That way one can have a uniform compensation policy across disciplines, which simplifies salary administration and avoids litigation.

The risk of such an industry best practice is that management can actually come to believe that it represents some kind of ground truth. At the old Bell Labs, my management actually told me that any MTS should be able to do any other MTS's job. As a corollary, they also told me that a good manager ought to be able to manage anything, no matter what it is.

It should be obvious that neither of these statements are true. And if they weren't true at the old Bell Labs (which is now defunct) it is even less true at the US National Laboratories, particularly those involved in maintaining the US Nuclear Weapons Stockpile. And yet, the US National Labs are adopting the MTS designation, and abandoning job classification by discipline. Why? Because the Labs have been privatized. They are no longer run by the University of California as a service to the nation and under contract to the US Department of Energy. They are run by Limited Liability Corporations, of which the University of California and Bechtel Corporation are senior partners.

You can't blame the Obama Administration for this. The delusion that everything will run better if it's run like a business is a Republican delusion, and this one was foisted on the National Labs under the Bush Administration. The first problem with this is that nobody, especially nobody in Congress, thought through the implications of privatizing the National Labs. As a result, the Labs lost many millions of dollars in federal, state, and local tax exemptions, and incurred millions of dollars in additional management fees - all of which resulted in thousands of layoffs, because the Lab's budgets were held flat. The second, longer term problem is that Research and Development (R&D) is not a business. It is a cost of doing business, and most businesses minimize that cost by not doing R&D. Or at least by doing only D (development) and not R (Research). This is because the only one thing in the Universe more inefficient than Research is ignorance.

Now the bean-counters, the efficiency experts, are forcing the National Labs to conform to industry best practices by adopting the MTS designation for all members of its scientific and engineering workforce. At first, this will be harmless. But, by making the members of the National Lab workforce look superficially like everybody else's workforce, it may enable the delusion that they can be managed by "more professional" executives from outside corporations who don't really understand what all those MTSs do. Who believe they don't have to understand, because "a good manager can manage anything." And then, with that lack of understanding, they may begin to mixmaster the workforce whenever they need to move people around to save jobs, because "any MTS should be able to do any MTS's job." It took about 20 years for that mentality to destroy Bell Labs. The risk is that the same mentality may be allowed to creep into the National Labs, which are part of what maintains our National Security in terms of both defense and energy.

Now the National Labs may fare better than Bell Labs, because Bell Labs was funded by a competitive business (once the old AT&T was broken up in order to settle a lawsuit by MCI). And as I said, industry survives competition by doing as little research as possible. The National Labs are funded by the US taxpayers, as represented by their President and their Congress. That should give us all confidence, right?

Oh, well. I might as well close with some levity. Imagine these words sung to the tune of the "M.T.A Song," (better known as "Charlie on the MTA," written in 1948 by Jaqueline Steiner and Bess Hawes, and made famous by the Kingston Trio's recording of it in 1959:

The MTS Song

Let me tell you the story
Of a man named Charlie

Who was put to a fateful test.

He used to be a chemist,
A very good chemist
'Till they made him an MTS.

Charlie lost his uniqueness

When bean-counters from Bechtel
Forced him to make a change

When he balked his boss told him,

"They need you in Lasers.

Your transfer has been arranged."

Chorus:
Did he ever return,
No he never returned
And his fate is still unlearn'd
He may lurk forever
'neath the beams of Lasers
He's the man who never returned.

Now all day long

Charlie sits in his office

Crying, "What will become of me?

I wanna be a chemist
But now they tell me

To do Plasma Spectroscopy!"

Chorus

Charlie's colleagues go down

To the diagnostics station

Every day at quarter past two
And in between shots
They hand Charlie a sandwich

As the data come pourin' through.

Chorus

Now employees of LLNS,

Don't you think it's a scandal

That our titles are meaningless

Get our uniqueness back!
Go talk to George Miller!

Charlie's a chemist, not an MTS.

Chorus:
Or else he'll never return,

No he'll never return
And his fate will be unlearned

He may lurk forever 
'neath the beams of Lasers.

He's the man who never returned.

He's the man who never returned.

He's the man who never returned.


See also: Leviathan, Inc.

08 February 2010

Conservative Falsehoods

After trashing the liberals, it's only fair to bash the conservatives. And it's so easy. Conservatives come in several flavors:

  1. Religious/Social: The ones we hear from most, because they're the loudest. They harp on abortion and homosexuality. They want to ban the practice of the former, and the expression of the latter. Contrary to liberal prejudice, they have something to contribute on these questions.

    Not long after permitting abortions, we began engaging in human embryonic cell research. This opened a hole in our law by creating a class of human beings who are pre-personal, i.e., not yet persons, endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights, such as the right to life. But they are not just clumps of cells. They are not just things. Since treating them as if they are mere things de-humanizes humanity, we had best decide what rights they do have, and protect them, in order to protect ourselves from ourselves.

    With the partial liberation of homosexuals to just be themselves, we have seen some raunchy/transgressive behavior, and a muddying of the concept of marriage. Listen, friends, if it's rude for Britney Spears to show hers, it's rude for you to show yours, whether or not you self-identify as straight. As for marriage, I propose the following compromise. A binary union between two unrelated consenting adults that is performed by a civil authority is a civil union. The same union performed as a religious ceremony by a recognized religious authority is a marriage. Civil unions and marriages should have all the same rights and privileges before the law. It's just that marriage is a sacrament and civil union is not. That leaves the question of gay marriage with the religious institutions, and gets the government out of it.

  2. Fiscal: They think the government spends too much. If they would shut up and deliver on fiscal restraint in government, I'd agree with them. As things now stand, however, I'd like to choke a few fiscal conservatives on wads of cash.

  3. Small government/Libertarian: They think the that whatever powers are not explicitly granted by the Constitution to the federal government are reserved for the States of the People. In this, they are absolutely right, and the current drift toward a freer interpretation of the Constitution is nothing less than the drift toward a soft totalitarianism that De Tocqueville warned us about. Ultimately our government is founded on a system of rules that limit its behavior. If we don't like the rules, we should go through a disciplined process to change them (the Constitutional Amendment process). Our current practice of behaving as if (or judicially declaring that) the rules don't mean what they say puts us all in peril.

    Small Government Libertarians seem to have no influence whatever over the Republican Party.

  4. National Security: They think that keeping Americans safe and secure from foreign attack and or domination is the primary mission of our government. While it is true that until peace breaks out on the entire earth you must either get comfortable with your own military or get comfortable with someone else's, it is only the fourth of six co-equal missions of the federal government:
    ...to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.
    Nevertheless, the idea that National Security is a conservative issue indicates a failure of liberals, not a success of conservatives. In point of fact, defense research usually fares better under Democratic administrations than under Republican administrations.

  5. Pro-human rights and American Exceptionalism: These folks think America's unique mission in the world is to further liberty (aka human rights) at home and abroad. They want to engage China on its human rights violations of Tibet, stop the persecution of Christians in the horn of Africa, stop female genital mutilation in countries that practice it, and on and on and on. So do many liberals. In truth, this has no business being an orientation that distinguishes conservatives from liberals.

The upshot of this is that the Republicans are not really a single party. They are a bag of cats, whom their leadership has slapped. The fallout of that cat fight is the tea party movement.

Henry Kissinger once said of the Iran-Iraq war that it was a pity that both sides couldn't lose. That's how I feel about liberals vs conservatives, Republicans vs Democrats.

What I want is a smaller federal government that is more competently run, that minds its business instead of ours, and is less cavalier with our money, our liberty, and our lives. Beyond that, I want it to adapt to change (societal and environmental) prudently. And most of all, I want it to represent us. The current practice of legislation being written by 24,000 naive Congressional staffers poorly supervised by Congress-persons from gerrymandered districts, and not read or understood by anyone is not representative government. To me, our Congress is hemorrhaging legitimacy.

07 February 2010

Liberal Prejudice

Gerard Alexander, an associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia has an opinion piece in today's New York Post entitled, "Why are liberals so condescending?" In it he describes four basic attitudes liberals have toward conservatives. Conservatives must be

  1. Stupid. They just don't know how to think critically and reasonably.
  2. Liars. They know their ideas are wrong, but they crassly manipulate large fractions of the voting public out of nothing more than a lust for power. When they succeed it is by "vast right-wing conspiracy techniques of media manipulation.
  3. Racists. They seek to maintain white privilege in an increasingly diverse society.
  4. Cowards. They fear change and therefore seek to stop progress.

Prof. Alexander goes on to explore and debunk all of these misconceptions in the light of the last forty years of American history. He laments that these attitudes on the part of those now called liberals or progressives prevents genuine dialog with conservatives.

But he doesn't call these attitudes by their correct name. Prejudice. Overwhelmingly, liberals whom I know are prejudiced. That's why I parted company with them. Or should I say, they parted company with me.

Entertaining doubt of one's opinions is good for both science and religion. If we are going to have meaningful bipartisanship, then we're going to have to try it in politics.

04 February 2010

Change You Can Believe In

Michael Barone has published this article claiming that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been putting out junk science. Well, it has. It has also published real science, some of which has been based on careful work done by people I know. He also states that Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) has become a religion, complete with Original Sin (carbon emissions) and the sale of Indulgences (Carbon Credits). That is also true, and that part of the reason why the junk science was allowed in.

Now, I'm not a climate scientist, but I am a physicist, and a former theoretical type who has become sort of Swiss Army Knife kind of generalist. I'm also religious, specifically Christian. With these two attributes in my background, I have these observations to make.

First of all, the climate is changing. It has always changed, and it always will will. See The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization, by Brian Fagan. Briefly, the world has been getting warmer ever since the last Ice Age ended some 12,000 years ago. This warming has been punctuated by some impressive cold (and dry) snaps, one of which turned the former Fertile Crescent into a desert. But the long-term trend has been ever upward. The short name for this is "good weather," as it has contributed to the development of agriculture and with it the origin and growth of complex civilization.

Second, atmospheric carbon dioxide has been a lagging indicator in all the previous upticks in global warming. As the world warms, CO2 is outgassed from the oceans and the tundra, possibly forming a positive feedback loop which strengthens the warming trend. If the current increase in CO2 is a leading indicator, it will be the first time. On the other hand, this could indeed be the case, because a significant fraction of the CO2 has been injected into the atmosphere by humans burning fossilized carbon. We know this, because we can do carbon-14 radioisotopic dating of the carbon in atmospheric CO2.

Third, we now have coupled Ocean-Atmosphere General Circulation Models (OAGCMs) that, together with their component models for clouds, dust, natural biological effects, etc., mimic the long term historical climate pattern pretty well, and produce predictions that are more-or-less consistent with one another, and look like Earth, not Mars or Venus. That is to say, modern climate predictions are no longer based on how quickly or slowly the climate models diverge from what looks like Earth. The predictions are reasonable, but noisy.

Fourth, the noise. One major source of noise is the ENSO, or El Niño Southern Oscillation in the Pacific Ocean, which is dumping so much rain on the US right now. The uptick, El Niño, actually temporarily warms the entire globe a bit. Conversely, the downtick, La Niña, cools it a bit. So, you have to look for trends in noisy data, and match them to trends in noisy predictions. It's a little tricky, especially if you don't have a deep understanding of the statistical techniques available. And even for decent scientists, it's easy to make a mistake and draw a wrong conclusion. This is what some of the critics of the IGPP have done. As they say, "Mistakes were made," on both sides of the climate debate.

Fifth, the ersatz religion. As G. K. Chesterton said,

When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything.

Here I think Barone is on point. AGW has become a matter of perverted faith for some people, and therefore, they become disinclined to scrutinize anything that supports their agenda. They are willing to pass on whatever sounds like it agrees with them, in order to stir the people to repentance and reform before Nature visits catastrophe upon them. But stating something as fact without checking it out is what Harry Frankfurt calls bullshit. And it does real damage to the study of climate change, its causes, its effects, and what we can do about it, because it obscures the real science that has been and is being done.

Sixth, what to do about it. The AGW religionists want to put clamps on the global capitalism by Cap and Trade policies that would create markets in carbon emissions offsets. There are precedents for this other than the sale of Indulgences by the pre-Reformation Church. All governments sell or lease the Radio-Frequency RF Spectrum to broadcasters and telecom companies, for example. But the goal of Cap and Trade is to force (not foster) innovation to generate energy in other ways than burning fossil fuels.

We could skip the whip of Cap and Trade, and jump to its goal: innovation. We could try to figure out how to foster innovation to develop and investment to implement alternative energy technologies. Under Cap and Trade, we will have to do that anyway, but why not cut to the chase, and skip the bad economic consequences? After all, we have another incentive to stop burning fossil fuel: most of the world's known remaining petroleum reserves are under control of petro-dictatorships that are ultimately hostile to the peace of the whole world, not just that of the United States. Given that there are real and credible indications that anthropogenic carbon emissions may be accelerating global warming faster than humans can accomodate without an increase in warfare (and we don't need that, do we?) developing alternatives (including nuclear energy) to carbon burning energy is the prudent thing to do.

Finally, there is real religion, and its temptations. In order to guard against idolatrous faith, one must embrace doubt of one's own opinions no matter how cherished. That is why I'm reading the latest volume of Fr. John P. Meier's A Marginal Jew: Re-thinking the Historical Jesus. Look for me to expand my review of the first three volumes when I'm done.

Note Added: See climatologist John R. Cristy's view of the climategate scandal at the University of East Anglia.

02 February 2010

About the US Military

When I was doing Stephen Ministry some years ago, I met a man I'll call Russ.

This is his story.

01 February 2010

Obama Gets It

This past Friday, January 29, the Wall Street Journal carried an opinion piece by Vice President Joe Biden entitled, "The President's Nuclear Vision." Mr. Biden states,

We will spend what is necessary to maintain the safety, security, and effectiveness of our [nuclear] weapons.

He goes on to propose increasing the budget for the US nuclear weapons program to enable a credible and rigorous effort to maintain the safety, security, and reliability of our nuclear arsenal, and acknowledges that as the number of nuclear weapons decreases, their reliability becomes more important, not less.

Wow. President Obama gets it. And he is a big enough man to make an issue his own, that his opposition considers theirs. Now that's bipartisanship.

31 January 2010

Are UFOs for Real?

We meet the most interesting people while out walking the dog. An internationally known concert pianist. A marriage and family therapist. A lifestyle and weight management consultant. And today, a cabinet maker who put me onto this video of Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper recounting his UFO sightings, while in the air, on the ground, and in space (the voiceover narrator is Jonathan Frakes):



Gordo is no spring chicken. Are we seeing the effect of a few TIAs (transient ischemic attacks, aka mini-strokes) which may have altered his memories, or did he decide to embellish his experiences a bit for what seems to be a paid interview, or is he for real?

First of all, the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton studied UFO experiencers, and found them to be psychologically normal, and truthful. They are not nuts, and they are not lying. But just because you are sane and telling what you believe to be the truth doesn't mean you can't be mistaken. Second, there are people who have made reasonable arguments that even if Extra-terrestrial Intelligent beings exist, they would probably have so little in common with us that neither we nor they would notice each other, and even if we did, we would have nothing in common we could talk about. As in this article, for example.

But if UFOs really do exist, and if they actually buzz us from time to time, how in the Universe did they find us, and why would they bother? Then again, we have explored every place on earth we could get to, just because we could. And some of us now go to the ends of the earth as tourists just to see the wildlife.

All that, however, leaves the question of why so much secrecy? How could all the governments of the earth manage to collude successfully to keep official records of such encounters from the global public? And why would they continue to bother? The most parsimonious explanation is that there is nothing to hide.

Still, I wonder. If I look up at the sky and smile, will I wind up on Google Earth, or some more distant image archive?