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 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."

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!"


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.


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.

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.