Monday, July 31, 2006

Hoping Still

I have been reading Israeli, Lebanese, and other Middle Eastern blogs over the last few weeks with an odd mixture of sadness and curiosity about how people from all sorts of different political, religious and cultural backgrounds view and are affected by the current Israeli-Lebanese-Hezbollah conflict. I had been reading many of these same blogs well before the recent violence began, and was encouraged by the way so many bloggers were reaching beyond the barriers, both actual and perceived, in real efforts to communicate and understand each other's worlds.

It's been so disheartening of late to see people who, before the latest war began, had been working so hard to overcome both their own prejudices toward others and the prejudices of others toward them, but who, with the onrush of emotion, anger, and fear that war inevitably brings, have since lost back much of the ground gained to hatred and hardened hearts. The anger and fear are completely justifiable. Who can look on while their world is destroyed and not cry out in anguish? Yet, I pray for them all that this loss of ground is temporary, and the search for understanding among individuals can continue, no matter what governments do.

I recently read a post by an Israeli blogger who puts words to these same types of thoughts, only from a much more personal perspective, since she is in the thick of things, and much more intimately affected by the war, and the threat to relationships she has worked so hard to nurture in the incubator of the Internet. She includes a link to a Jordanian blogger, which I will also include here. These people are not only on the ground, watching the world turned upside down around them, but can speak about what it was like before the fighting began. Through their blogs, they have shared from their own experience what it is like to try to form bonds which the rules of culture, politics, and even religion declare to be forbidden, or at least in bad taste, and despite the obstacles find bonds with people that manage to get beyond all those things which make that connection seem impossible. Now they are also sharing what happens when the unthinkable descends upon them, and all their effort seems futile and hopeless. What is amazing to me is how some of these cross-cultural bloggers, these everyday folks living their lives as the world spins out of control, even now find the ability to hope for better things, for better understanding, and for the connections they have made, despite boundaries, to survive, despite war. I feel privileged to be able to glimpse inside their realities, and see these people who dared to hope, and to seek "the other" in the first place, dare to continue hoping still. The hope is battered, beyond question, but it is not defeated.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

A Tale Of Two Minds

Michael Totten pointed me to a fascinating post by Lebanon Profile at Lebanese Political Journal. It's a look at the many facets of thought in Lebanese political life--the many facets of thought in individual Lebanese, actually. Michael Totten says that Lebanon has more opinions than people. The conclusion I draw from reading both his writing and Lebanon Profile's is that many Lebanese hold what we would think are extremely conflicting ideas very comfortably in one brain. LP examines how it's possible for someone to genuinely support Hezbollah, and yet not hate Israelis or want to destroy Israel at the same time. He looks at individual Lebanese who have close relationships with Israeli Jews, and yet vote for Hezbollah in elections. Confused? I am still a bit confused myself, even after reading the post. Western thought and Middle Eastern thought simply are not the same animal, but Lebanon Profile does explain it well, and I understand the truly foreign politics of Lebanon a lot better than I did. As the conflict between Israel, Hezbollah and Lebanon continues, it can only help the situation for as many people as possible to gain insight into the thinking of "the other." It may not change conditions on the ground now, but it holds hope for the future, and if ever there was a situation that needed some hope...

Friday, July 28, 2006

Crashing Into The Future

Welcome to the Moon. We hope your stay here is a pleasant one. Allow us to point out a few items of visual interest upon Lunar approach, for your touristing enjoyment. As we enter orbit, and then gradually slow to landing velocity so that we don't cut short your vacation by crashing into the Lunar surface, you may notice a few craters. Okay, you may notice a lot of craters. The reason being that lots of things that have come to land on the Moon have not slowed down upon approach, but have blasted their way into the surface of the Moon, leaving a permanent reminder of their brief but brilliant moment in Lunar history.

Imaginary tour over, back to reality. I saw a video a while back of some piece of flotsam striking the Moon with a rather satisfactory explosion. It was pretty, for a fraction of a second. Lots of comets and asteroids and such, wandering through space, have had an explosive and lasting impact on the Lunar surface. Did you know, however, that some of the things that have crashed into the Moon over the last few decades have been man made--and sent to collide there on purpose? According to NASA, dozens of spaceships have been intentionally crash-landed on the Moon:

NASA's first kamikazes were the Rangers, built and launched in the early 1960s. Five times, these car-sized spaceships plunged into the Moon, cameras clicking all the way down. They captured the first detailed images of lunar craters, then rocks and soil, then oblivion. Data beamed back to Earth about the Moon's surface were crucial to the success of later Apollo missions.

Even after NASA mastered soft landings, however, the crashing continued. In the late 1960s and early 70s, mission controllers routinely guided massive Saturn rocket boosters into the Moon to make the ground shake for Apollo seismometers. Crashing was much easier than orbiting, they discovered. The Moon's uneven gravity field tugs on satellites in strange ways, and without frequent course corrections, orbiters tend to veer into the ground. Thus the Moon became a convenient graveyard for old spaceships: All five of NASA's Lunar Orbiters (1966-1972), four Soviet Luna probes (1959-1965), two Apollo sub-satellites (1970-1971), Japan's Hiten spacecraft (1993) and NASA's Lunar Prospector (1999) ended up in craters of their own making.

This crashing thing has proven very useful, both as a way to ditch old spaceships and as a way to conduct experiments. So with such a time honored method of testing hypotheses at their disposal, the "crash it and see what happens" method, what's next? What do scientists want to try now? There are future trips to the Moon in the works; 2018 looms, when NASA wants to send humans back for another up close and personal look at the ball of green cheese that hangs in the night sky. So naturally, in the meantime, they're planning more of that always enjoyable pass-time, "Crashing for Fun and Profit", this time for the sake of important survival-in-space research. What they want to find out is whether there is water hiding in some of the frozen recesses in "the Moon's permanently-shadowed craters."

Water is pretty crucial to future success in establishing a permanent outpost anywhere in space, the Moon included:
The experiment couldn't be more important. NASA is returning to the Moon, and when explorers get there, they'll need water. Water can be split into hydrogen for rocket fuel and oxygen for breathing. It can be mixed with moondust to make concrete, a building material. Water makes an excellent radiation shield, and when you get thirsty you can drink it. One option is to ship water directly from Earth, but that's expensive. A better idea would be to mine water directly from the lunar soil.
The question is--is there water available to be mined? That's what they're hoping to find out with a project called LCROSS, Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite, scheduled for late 2008. The plan is to take two spacecraft and crash them into the Moon one after the other. The first ship will create an explosion and an accompanying debris cloud, the second will fly through the cloud, testing it for signs of water before it in turn meets its demise--all the while sending data back to Earth. They're even hoping that the debris plume from the double impact will be large enough to see from Earth, allowing observation to continue even after the second ship has fulfilled, and thus ended, its mission.

The task now is to try and pinpoint the best spot to crash and gather the resultant information. Scientists are debating the best possibilities: craters, canyons, lava tubes. They hope to find water deposited long ago by comets, and left frozen on the Moon. Since I'm not a proponent of the old Earth theory, I'm less sanguine about the concept that water will have been left by wandering water-bearers from long ago, but who knows what God has put there for us, knowing we would one day try venturing to the stars? However it got there, if it's there at all, it would be good if we can find it. After all, who wants to pack in water if they can find it locally? Camping 101. Camping on the Moon is going to have enough challenges; a local water source would be awfully helpful. I hope this crash test is a smashing success.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Off We Drive, Into The Wild Blue Yonder

Are you ready to fly the family car, just like the Jetsons? I remember reading about a new flying car that was in the design stage a year or so ago, the brainchild of some MIT students with a vision. At the time, from what I recall, it was a school project, but the grand thinkers involved thought that their baby could actually fly one day, literally. Well, now their idea's taking off it seems, and the result is a start-up company called Terrafugia, which is now taking orders for PAVs (personal air vehicles), to be delivered some time in 2009. The new vehicle is called the Transition, named for the fact it can change from a street-legal car to a two-seater airplane:

... the Transition drives like a car on public roads and can transition into an aircraft at the nearest airport by lowering its 27-foot wings and taking off. As an aircraft it has a top speed of 130mph, a range of 500 miles and can carry a payload of 430 pounds. One stop gives you over a thousand miles of range inside eight hours. Then you land and fold up the wings and you’re back on the road.
It'll cost you about $150k to purchase this new toy, with a 5% down-payment now for the privilege of landing on the waiting list. You'll get a vehicle that gets about 30 mpg by land or air, that can carry two people and their luggage. Follow this link to Gizmag to see what all that dough'll buy you, and be sure to enlarge the pictures. The fold-up wings are pretty interesting, although, judging from the drawings, they're going to cause one heck of a blind spot when the vehicle's in car mode. I wonder if they can make those out of transparent aluminum to enhance the field of vision?

Hat tip: Futurismic

Democracies At War

The Sheetrocking progresses, and I occasionally am getting a few minutes break while each piece receives its requisite number of screws. So, what do I do? Silly question for any of you who know me--I get my reading fix, of course. Callimachus has been guest-blogging for Michael Totten while Michael has been globe trotting. He's put out some interesting posts. Here's one about how democracies fare when they're involved in asymmetrical warfare of the kind we're seeing in the Middle East. It examines how public will in democracies affects the way a war is fought, and thus whether it is won. What I found particularly fascinating were the comments at the end of the post, which centered more on Middle East conflicts rather than the broader issue of democracy and asymmetrical warfare. They represent quite a range of opinion--everything from the notion that "it's better to lose than become like the enemy", to "nuke 'em." (I'm not in favor of the nuclear option, but I do wonder at the people who think that if we lose to the people who are trying to establish a global Caliphate we aren't going to become like them. They will insist that we become like them, and further their quest for Islamic domination.) Anyway, the post is an interesting look at the strengths and weaknesses of democracies at war, with plenty of historical examples. Check it out.

World War I

Another interesting commentary on the general conflict in the Middle East--Joseph Farah of World Net Daily says that the battle between radical Islamism and the rest of the world isn't, as some people have called it, World War III, but World War I, making it a very long war indeed.

HT: Pajamas Media

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Truth Will Out

I'm getting in a small reading break while my husband, manning the staple gun, catches up on tacking down the insulation I just put in place all over the garage. I'm trying not to touch anything inside the house, and I covered the chair I'm in with an old towel, to keep from spreading scratchiness all over the place. Hopefully it'll be enough not to make me regret caving to my longing for news and information. The lure of the computer is just too strong. I just can't resist the call of the Internet while I've got a minute or two free, but Ked'll be done soon, and then it's back to work for me. Once he's finished his stapling duties we get to tackle the ceiling together--definitely a two person job. I've already discovered that this batch of insulation is sentient, and has a twisted sense of humor, finding it ever so funny to fall down on my head while I'm trying to place it gently into its new home. Hmph!! You try to be kind, and what does it get you? Itchy eyes, nose, arms, neck....

Anyway, since I don't have lots of time, I went to the human filter of almost everything worth knowing on the Internet. Instapundit sent me to The Washington Times, which has informed me that truth is starting to overcome media indoctrination regarding WMD and Iraq. Jennifer Harper, writing for The Times, reports on the findings of a Harris poll, and says:

Half of Americans now say Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the United States invaded the country in 2003 -- up from 36 percent last year, a Harris poll finds. Pollsters deemed the increase both "substantial" and "surprising" in light of persistent press reports to the contrary in recent years.
Some of the shift in public opinion has come since the press conference in June where Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-NY) announced the discovery of 500 or so Desert Storm era chemical weapons, with mustard or sarin nerve agent, the information coming from newly declassified documents.

There are other indications in the poll that American opinion is not all negative on Iraq as well:

Meanwhile, the Harris poll offered some positive feedback on Iraq. Seventy-two percent of respondents said the Iraqi people are better off now thanunder Saddam Hussein's regime -- a figure similar to that of 2004, when it stood at 76 percent. In addition, 64 percent say Saddam had "strong links" with al Qaeda, up from 62 percent in October 2004. Fifty-five percent said that "history will give the U.S. credit for bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq."

And although the response is tepid, American confidence in the Iraqis has improved: 37 percent said Iraq would succeed in creating a stable democracy, up five points since November.

Americans remain in touch with the realities of Iraq: 61 percent said the conflict has motivated more Islamic terrorists to attack the U.S. -- a number that has remained virtually unchanged since 2004.

I'm not generally too big on polling, especially political polling. The only poll that really counts politically is the one on election day, but Harper's article is interesting nonetheless. I do find it encouraging that information seems to make it to the people these days despite media reporting, or lack thereof. This thing we call the Internet has proven so useful in letting those of us who want more information than we can get from our local fish wrap satisfy our desire. Of course, you have to be careful on the Net, too, there's so much information, a good deal of it wrong, that you have to be sure you can trust your sources there, as well. However, at least online I can read everything from Instapundit to The Washington Times, and am not just stuck with what the local paper and network news anchors send my way. Choice is good.

Speaking of choices, my husband now informs me that I only have one available, and that's the choice to come out and take up my itchy toil once again. So, off I go. Feel free to pity us--unless you'd like to volunteer...? (Just kidding. The job will mercifully be done by the times anyone reads this. Aren't you glad?)

Lake Titan

I'm still not getting much of a chance to blog right now. My husband is taking the week off from his day job so that we can work on getting things put to rights in the construction zone that is our back yard. We didn't get to insulate or Sheetrock the garage/shop yet, because the inspector didn't show up till yesterday, but we've been making progress all the same. We put a retaining wall in all the way to the back of the shop over the weekend, got it back-filled and the path that runs along it constructed yesterday, and are starting the wallboard inside this morning. We, of course, chose a heat wave to push into full manual labor mode, making the whole process a lot stickier, but progress is progress, and we're grateful to be moving ahead. We're especially glad my Darling's back is holding up after his recent infirmity. So far, so good.

I'm not getting much reading in, but I did get a fun little alert from NASA this morning. "The Cassini spacecraft, using its radar system, has discovered very strong evidence for hydrocarbon lakes on Titan [Titan being one of Saturn's moons]. Dark patches, which resemble terrestrial lakes, seem to be sprinkled all over the high latitudes surrounding Titan's north pole. " They're still guessing what these lakes are made of, probably liquid methane or ethane, and they're still not sure that the dark patches are actually liquid lakes, but the evidence is pointing in that direction.

Scientists will continue to observe the areas, looking for evidence like changes in size, or surface roughness stirred by winds, to indicate whether they've guessed correctly. If they're right, Titan is "the only body in the solar system besides Earth known to possess lakes." Not exactly the place you'd want to go for a summer vacation. One usually heads to a lake for fresh air and exercise, but Titan's not really a fresh air environment, is it? All that methane and ethane might make it a little hard to head out for a hike, or row a canoe, wouldn't you say? What a shame; it would be such an adventure to head to a lakeside cabin off-world. Oh well, there's got to be a bright side, right? Hmmm, liquid methane...liquid methane...sounds like a possible built-in fuel depot to me. That's it!! Titan can be the gas station on the way to some other cool vacation spot that we'll discover any day now. It's not quite as fun as finding Shangri-La on some other planet, but it will have to do.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Private Hopes

Have a look at Rand Simberg's latest at TCS Daily, as he examines space travel, both past and future, from the first time man stepped on the Moon, to the colonization of Mars. He talks of the hopes of the past and "...the vision offered to so many of us in the sixties, of a progression of space stations, to lunar bases, to sending humans themselves to the Red Planet, and not just their electromechanical emissaries." He points out the obvious--thus far we have fallen short of that goal, although the goal remains. Simberg also talks of the hopes for the future, and the need for a new approach to our quest for the stars. He fears that NASA is relying too much on old thinking and old technology, and expresses concern that NASA's current aims in space travel will not be served by its return to the massively expensive Apollo approach that was originally abandoned because its costs were too high. He seems more sanguine about the future of privately funded space exploration, such as the recent progress toward a space hotel. Simberg's bio states that he's "a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security," so I suppose he's got a vested interest in private sector space travel. However. I don't get the impression that he's got an anti-government axe to grind, merely that he wants to get out there, and is tired of waiting for Uncle Sam to get his act together. He is hoping that getting more people in on the action will get us all a little closer to "the final frontier."

Update: I don't have quite the same reservations as Simberg about NASA's approach to future ventures past Earth's orbit, despite the obvious shortcomings of the last few decades, but then I also don't have his knowledge. So, read his piece for yourself and let me know whether you think he's on the money.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Prison Blues

I don't have much time to blog right now. We're hoping to get the insulation in, and the ceiling up, in our new power tool recreation area today. (You know, the garage.) So, what I'll do for you is send you to a Weekly Standard article I read last week about a court ruling "expelling a faith-based program from an Iowa prison"--giving Prison Fellowship the boot. It's an interesting read, including the history of penitentiaries in America. (I'll give you a hint. What's the root of the word penitentiary?)

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Savior Imam

Omar, at Iraq the Model, is pointing to greater religious trouble brewing in the Middle East. Excerpt:

A few days ago we mentioned that we tend to believe that this ongoing war in-geographically-Lebanon is not only about Hizbollah and Israel; that it is probably the first stage of a wider regional conflict that is going to extend far beyond the borders of Lebanon and Israel. What I want to add today is that it is not wise to try to deal with it in the same way previous conflicts were dealt with, why?Because this conflict is not like any of the previous ones.

What we must realize here is the involvement of the theological (mythological) element in this particular conflict which is also the reason why this conflict has the potential to expand into full-scale regional war.

It is true that religion had always been playing a central role in the numerous chapters of the conflict between the Muslims and the West but this time there's a totally different theological belief that is being used by Iran to provoke and direct this war; I think the best way to say it is that we are about to see Iran launch the mullahs' version of an 'Armageddon'.

I know this may sound absurd and maybe some of you are thinking no one could possibly be thinking that way but remember, I am telling you what extremist theocrats seem to be planning for and logic has very little space in the mullahs' way of thinking.

Omar says the mullahs are looking to pave the way for the rise of the "Imam Mehdi", the prophesied savior of Islam, foretold to be the 12th grandson of the prophet Mohammed (although I'm not sure how the math works on that.) He says this goes beyond pan-nationalist conflict between Israel and Arab nations. (Iran is Persian, not Arab):
All previous wars between Israel and Arabs were of a pan-nationalist nature and used feelings of Arabism to push the people to war. Of course religion had a role too but now religion is going to push Arabism aside and be the dominant element in Iran's planned war because of the failure of pan-nationalism to retain its influence in the region after a long history of failures.Iran's dreams in exporting the Islamic revolution were stopped by the once strong pan-nationalism in last quarter of the 20th century but today we're facing a renewed project of exporting the Islamic revolution in an attempt to fill-and taking advantage of-the vacuum left by the fading pan Arab nationalism…And with liberalism still not strong enough to face such a challenge, I think the future of the region is in big danger.
Read the whole thing. Hat tip: Pajamas Media

Lunar Musings

Here are some Lunar questions for you. Have you ever thought about the fact that, with no atmosphere to refract light, shadows on the Moon are completely black? Like, you can't see your feet for your own shadow black? Me neither. (I'm not talking to you really brainiac geek types who have analysed all things and have calculated how light would act, or what things would weigh, on every known planet in the solar system. You need to go read someplace where the writer can keep up with you. Send me an email if they say anything in dabble-speak and maybe I'll read the Cliffs notes.) So, how about skiing in moondust--did that thought ever cross your mind? Me neither. (I'm also not talking to those of you who are so ski-centric that chewing gum makes you think of the slopes. OF COURSE you've thought of skiing in moondust. You've thought of skiing in quicksand. Next question.) Have you ever wondered what moondust smells like? Me neither. (I gotta tell you--I'm seriously sensitive to smells--lots of allergies, and I never even considered that moondust had a smell. Maybe I just figured I'd never make it to the Moon and didn't want to trouble my pretty little head with frivolous speculation. I'll give myself a pass.) Last question--purely speculative--could you sleep in a brightly lit, really cramped lunar module, just hours before heading back out into space after a successful Moon landing? Me neither. Neither could Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren, even on the Sea of Tranquility. (For those of you who could, because you can fall asleep at will, I have only two words. I'm jealous.)

All of these questions relate to a series of NASA articles I just read about various Apollo trips to the Moon. As NASA is preparing to head back to our favorite satellite (around 2018) it's digging out a few memories from the archives that they say even NASA old-timers have for the most part let slip away. It's a fun trip down memory lane, even if they're not your memories. So far there are four installments, and I'll send you to them one by one. Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 are all worth a gander, and maybe even a goose. Enjoy.

Funny thing. Moondust apparently smells like burnt gunpowder on the Moon (verified by astronauts safely tucked inside their lunar modules), but has no smell here on Earth. Freaky, huh?

The Plot Sickens

Looks like Syria is suplementing Hezbollah's supply of missiles. It's not like this is surprising, but it is "provoking", to say the least. (via Pajamas Media)

Update: Here's more on Iran's and Syria's involvement.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Falling Off The Wagon, Republican Style

Douglas Kern, at TCS Daily takes a swipe at Republican inconsistency and (I'm calling a spade a spade) hypocrisy. Most of us know there's a battle raging in the GOP between the philosophy of small government, with real power in the hands of the states, and big government spendthrift bureaucracy, which was ugly and wrong when Democrats ran things, but is looking prettier now that the Republicans have the keys to the kingdom. You see, many Republican politicians seem to think they have to spend just a little more money, and bloat just a little more bureaucracy to keep getting elected, so that they can right wrongs caused by the profligacy of previous Democratic control; Kern calls it "the political equivalent of drinking yourself back sober." He analyses the current Republican conundrum:

The modern Republican lives in a Washington he hates -- it's too rich, too powerful, too centralized, too self-important. And yet the modern Republican wields all the power at the command of this bloated monstrosity. He sees the nail of big government, and he wants to hit it with the nearest available hammer -- more big government. I'll just cut off the head of one more Hydra, he thinks, and this time it won't sprout two more heads, because I have a clever plan. The modern Republican is Gandalf, having won the primary against Frodo, and fidgeting with the Ring of Power in his palm. So much good I could do, so many people I could help, if I only slipped it on, and besides, you just know that Saruman would wear the Ring if his party took Congress...
Kern doesn't let anyone off the hook in this one, even himself. In a mock-penitent confession of how he has succumbed to "the Three Deadly Republican Spending Rationalizations" he spells out how the Grand Old Party has strayed far from the basic tenets found in "the Republican catechism":
I can't claim ignorance, Father. In Republican school I mastered all the basic Republican commandments: Thou Shalt Not Criticize a Fellow Republican in Public. Thou Shalt Not Be Soft on Crime. Honor Thy Elders by Waiting For Thy Turn Before Running for Major Office. I confess that I have been complicit in the violation of the most ancient Republican commandment: Thou Shalt Spend as Little Taxpayers' Money as Possible, and Thou Shalt Cut Needless Spending Always and Everywhere. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
Kern elaborates on where the party has fallen, and how he himself has succumbed to the temptation to rationalize straying from the pure and ancient form of Republicanism. He exposes the party in all its guilt. He doesn't really solve the problem, although it's not for lack of solutions. It's more from lack of politicians willing to put principle over power. He does offer some of the answers to life, the universe and everything, but are more than a handful of office holders in Washington even interested in the questions? I'm not holding my breath.

Kern's piece is amusing, and I agree with a lot of it, but I have to make it clear that there are some exceptions. All waste, redundancies and systems made obsolete by technological advancement need to be cleaned up. I read a piece recently about how one state finally realised that the only reason they had drivers licenses renewed every two years was because the old licenses used to be paper and wore out. That is no longer applicable, as currently licenses are made of sterner stuff. They have since changed the system so that people only need to renew every ten years. Money saved, drivers and DMV employees both made happy. And a good time was had by all. I'm sure this kind of thing could be repeated on the Federal level ad nauseum. Much has been made of late of earmarks that can't be traced to their source. (Earmarks being little spending additions tacked on to bills that have nothing to do with the spending in question, usually anonymously.) They have proven a great lure to Reps and Dems alike, both anxious to garner (buy) votes via their largess (or should I say your largess, since the taxpayer is really footing the bill?) Other flaws and problems exist as well. Many programs currently falling under the government's umbrella could really be done more efficiently and effectively by the private sector. If it's a need, usually the private sector will step up with the way (or many ways) to fill it.
At the same time, I can't jump on the "all government spending is evil" bandwagon. There are ways that government can achieve economies of scale, even if none spring to mind right now, and some programs that we find wasteful now, because our society has moved beyond the need of them to some degree, were nevertheless useful in their time. Many conservatives believe now that federal government has no business being involved in education in any way, and I admit some sympathy to that position. However, I'm not sure I would have felt the same at other points in our history when there was such great disparity between the educational haves and have-nots, varying from state to state, as well as community to community. Having a universal standard for schools to live up to is not a bad thing, and I think the current conservative objection is less the government standard, and more the failure to live up to it--combined with the over-reaching of some of the educational system to include areas of teaching that some parents find immoral or irrelevant.

All of this can be argued, of course, but all I'm really saying is that all of us have some areas where we're more inclined to accept government spending than others, even Republicans, and that's not always hypocritical. There needs to be consensus on priorities. What's hypocritical is saying that only my priorities are good, and all else is objectionable. What's stupid is politicians (or anyone) acting like there don't have to be limits, and accountability--caring more about currying favor in their home district in order to get re-elected than about running the government wisely. Kern's piece is really an amusing way to point the finger at politician's lack of principle, and has a lot of valid things to say. Read it and decide for yourself how far you're willing to take it.

Fake, But Fake

I can't summarize this. I couldn't do it justice. You just have to read it to believe it (or not believe it--you'll see what I mean. It could be fake. Everything else apparently is.)

HT: Futurismic

Saving The Planet, One Island At A Time

Here's some more of that human ingenuity stuff. Way cool. According to an Associated Press story at, by Mike Stark, a farmer in Montana named Bruce Kania has come up with an innovative method to remove excess fertilizers and other pollutants out of waterways. He's created artificial floating islands, with abundant plant-life suspended so their roots can reach the water:

The islands, acting as a sort of floating filter, are designed to improve water quality with plants that suck up excess nutrients. They also create wildlife habitat, function as small-scale wetlands and add a little visual spice to waterways.

Kania doesn't lack ambition when it comes to the islands. He believes they could sop up pollution and toxic spills, produce more land for farming or wildlife, and even hold onto some of the industrial gases that are warming the Earth.

Kania's company is coming up with new ideas for his invention all the time, and the ideas are getting bigger. The article goes on to describe how the floating island option could be an affordable solution to performing such varied tasks as treating the overabundance of waste at stockyards, buffering hurricane battered coastlines, and even sequestering some of the carbon dioxide that's feared to cause global warming. No, I'd say we're not talking about a lack of ambition here.

Kania has some interesting examples of the islands' versatility on his own property:

The largest _ more of a floating pier, because it connects with the shore _ stretches nearly across the pond. Down the middle is a black, cobblestone-like walkway that's made of recycled pop bottles. On either side, he's planted tomatoes, brussels sprouts and other vegetables.

Other islands are growing robust patches of reeds, grasses, sedges and flowers.

The islands, once deployed, are designed to be maintenance-free. They can be anchored or a series can be strung together to create an archipelago. Not long ago, 22 people crammed on to a 250-square-foot island and stayed afloat.

Wouldn't it be fun to have a picnic at some lovely lake spot, only instead of picnicking by the lake, you're picnicking on the lake, floating around on a charming patch of garden, complete with its own strawberry beds? The saving the environment stuff is important, but really, the picnicking potential is the best part, don't you think?

Hat tip: Futurismic

Monday, July 17, 2006


The Mudville Gazette is pointing out something that I confess really took me by surprise. We're all so used to the Hollywood and music industry types criticising the war in Iraq, and marching in protests, that we barely even notice them. The anti-Iraq-war attitude seems to be a part of the celebrity condition--so much so that the few who support the war effort stick out like sore thumbs. Bruce Willis comes to mind. He's been impressive with his active involvement with our troops. I can think of a couple more stars who've made the A-list for me by their active concern for those affected by the war, both soldiers and civilians; Denzel Washington has been known to give time and money to help recovering soldiers (although I don't know where he stands on the war itself), and Gary Sinise has made amazing efforts, both for soldiers and Iraqi children. I'm sure there are more stand-up celebrities, but I'm not a country music fan, so most of them have escaped my notice. What about celebrities who are verbal about not supporting the war, but still actively support the troops--have you heard much of this type of thing? I sure haven't. Anyway, this one surprised me. Stars and Stripes put out an interview by Steve Mraz, with, of all people, Cher. I know she's had lots of cosmetic surgeries and all, but if you ask me, this is the best she's looked in years.

HT: Instapundit

Sunday, July 16, 2006

A "Back To Reality" Update

After posting yesterday about possible good that could come out of the Lebanese/Israeli conflict, in the form of the legitimate Lebanese government finally looking to gain control of the southern region of the country and taking it out of the hands of the Hezbollah militia that has controlled it for the last decade or so, this report from the Associated Press (at ABC News International) is a grim reminder of why this part of the world has seen constant turmoil for so very long. Lebanon herself is so divided between opposing factions that the government is paralysed; standing up to Hezbollah could plunge the nation into another civil war. Since the country had finally been starting to recover from the last civil war, which consumed more than a decade's worth of her blood and treasure, it's easy to understand that no one in Lebanon wants to start that miserable cycle up again. The irony is that this is such a fearsome prospect that the government would rather take a horrible pounding from Israel than face down its own militia, in effect trusting Israel to do less damage than Hezbollah.

Update to the update: Meryl Yourish has a war news roundup with this interesting element (apologies for the colorful, if descriptive, language):

This one’s big: The U.S. will not try to negotiate a cease-fire, according to Condi Rice. Translation: This time, Israel gets to kick the bad guys’ asses. There’s also a note about selling Israel jet fuel in the article, another crucial piece of information. President Bush has obviously instructed his people to block all attempts to stop Israel, as is usually done, before the situation can be fully resolved. Think about how different the world would be if the UN had not stopped Israel on the road to Damascus in 1967.
It's clear Yourish's sympathies are entirely with Israel here. I agree that Israel has every right, in fact obligation, to defend her people. I really hope that Israel hits Hezbollah unmercifully, and the terrorist militia is rendered permanently irrelevant by her actions (as unlikely as that sounds given Hezbollah's Iranian and Syrian backing), but I also hope that those Lebanese who have been opposed to Hezbollah's insanity throughout all this don't pay the highest price for their government's weakness. The more precisely Israel targets Hezbollah, the better.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Miracles Happen

Egyptian blogger Big Pharaoh sees pigs flying at the conference of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo. Arab governments are actually criticizing Hezbollah for the attack on Israel from Lebanon and the abduction of Israeli soldiers that has set off the current round of bombings out of Israel.

Update: He also has some advice for Israel concerning Lebanon. Excerpt:

Let us look at what happened so far. Almost all Arab countries are criticizing Hizbollah and blaming it for instigating this crisis. The Lebanese prime minister asked for help in deploying the country's army in the south. He couldn't have uttered these words a few days ago. Things are changing. I believe Israel should halt its operations and allow all parties involved, the Lebanese and the Arab countries, to ponder about what just happened and come up with a way forward.
I tend to agree with him. (I'm not married to my opinions here, but this is how it's striking me after what has transpired to date.) Israel has made a pretty strong point, and (as the original Big Pharaoh link in this post will tell you) thus far even Arab countries are acknowledging Hezbollah's provocation warranted Israel's response. That's flat out miraculous. Keeping some moral high ground here would be in Israel's best interest, especially after the Lebanese Prime Minister's plea. I've read lots of Lebanese and Israeli blogs and news stories today, and by all accounts the Prime Minister's speech was a moving call for peace between Israel and Lebanon, including a call for aid from the international community to help the Lebanese government to gain control over the southern regions of the country--the region controlled by Hezbollah for years as a separate country within a country.

This could be the opportunity for the heretofore weak (albeit new) Lebanese government to assert some authority over its own territory, reclaiming it from being a terrorist stronghold to being a peaceful neighbor to Israel. Israel would be wise to foster this outcome, strengthening the legitimate government of Lebanon by cooperation. The non-Hezbollah Lebanese certainly don't want war with Israel, if bloggers are any indication. I understand Israel's desire to eradicate Hezbollah once and for all, but having taken out Lebanon's bridges and blocked the ports, along with bombing the airport, they've already cut off Hezbollah's escape (and aid from the real string pullers--Iran and Syria.) Taking a break from the bombing campaign to allow the Lebanese government the chance to garner help and establish control would not lose Israel the opportunity to wipe out Hezbollah, but it might gain them an ally in the process. They have already made clear that they expect their captured soldiers (the trigger to this whole explosion) to be returned, and obviously, they can start the bombing again at will. Arab governments are actually seeing their side in this thing; even if they can't actually declare Israel to be in the right, at least they're pointing fingers at Hezbollah for a change. Miracles happen. Israel needs to take note of these miracles, take advantage of them as opportunities, and take the high moral ground, while it's available. Israel and Lebanon could both benefit.

Update II: J. Peter Pham & Michael I. Krauss at TCS Daily have a different take, and some good points. Could international affairs get more complicated?

Friday, July 14, 2006

War, continued...

Michael Totten blogs about Lebanon and Israel.

Are The Crusades To Blame?

Throughout the current struggle between the West and its terrorist opponents, there have been continual references to the roots of the conflict, hearkening back to the Crusades. There is a recurrent "well Christians started it" attitude, as if anything done a thousand years ago somehow justifies atrocities done today, and makes Christian believers of the present (or anyone descended from the believers of old) responsible to atone for the misdeeds of previous generations. Islamists today frequently cite the grievances of a millenia past as the source of their discontent, and the West, so willing to believe the worst about itself, takes on the mantle of responsibility. Americans, especially, buy into the concept of inherited guilt. We feel responsible, on an emotional level, for wrongs done to Native American peoples (native in the sense that they reached this land before our ancestors did), and wrongs done to the people brought here against their will as slaves. It is right that we acknowledge the wrong of these actions, but it is not right that we lay claim to their guilt. I am not responsible for the slave trade. I did not participate in it. Neither did you. Likewise I did not wage war in the Middle East a thousand years ago in order to capture its wealth and subjugate its people. Ironically, if some historians are to be believed, neither did the Crusaders.

In a piece from 2002 titled "The Real History of the Crusades", Thomas F. Madden, associate professor and chair of the Department of History at Saint Louis University, takes close look at the centuries of religious conflict, their origin and progression of battles, victories and losses for both Christians and Muslims. There are surprises for those of us raised to believe that the Crusades were a systematic Christian aggression. According to Madden, a historian specializing in the Crusades, this is far from the case. Rather, he says they were a response to ongoing violent Muslim aggression, taking lands that were once overwhelmingly Christian and converting them by the sword.

Madden discusses how the computer-aided compilation of information, occurring over the past few decades, has led to a clearer picture of how the Crusades came to be. He examines how they progressed as a desperate attempt to stave off Islamic conquest, how they really had their roots in faith, and the defense of brethren under siege, and how, sadly, they led to the schism in Christianity, between the Catholic church of the West and the Orthodox church of the East. Madden says, "It is a terrible irony that the Crusades, which were a direct result of the Catholic desire to rescue the Orthodox people, drove the two further—and perhaps irrevocably—apart." As the highest irony, though blamed for the state of poverty and decay in which much of the Islamic world (the part without oil revenues) exists today, the Crusades were ultimately a victory for Muslims. The Christians, over the long stretch of the centuries, continued to lose ground to Islamic invaders. It was the Renaissance which turned the tables, and halted Islam's march, not by arms, but by economic superiority which eclipsed the previous domination rising from the East. There's so much more to the tale, and Madden synopsises the story in clear, comprehensible prose. It's a fascinating study, loooooong, but full of rich historical meat. Hungry for history? Prepare to dine.

HT: The Pink Flamingo Bar & Grill

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Nano Alert

Here's some really good news on the medical diagnoses and nanotech front--if you can get past all the high-faluting, scientific mumbo-jumbo speak. It lost me when it got to "Godel's incompleteness theorem", but up till then it was really fascinating.

Update: One thing of note in this piece is that the author talks about the way medicine will change in the near future, not just in improved diagnosis, but improved treatment. With the new technology he describes, he says doctors will actually be able to cure many of the diseases the nanotech advances help diagnose, something he says is rare at this point. He points to a day of truly individualized medicine, where doctors have real answers for each patient, and not just educated guesses drawn from general observation. Sounds good to me.


Israel is entering into a new conflict with Hezbollah, trying to recover two Israeli soldiers captured in an attack by the terrorist organization operating out of southern Lebanon. According to CNSNEWS.COM, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared that the abduction was an act of war, rather than a terrorist attack. Wednesday, Hezbollah fired "dozens of rockets and mortar shells at Israeli communities along the border", when they captured the two soldiers, and injured 11 others, and Israel then responded with "heavy artillery fire and aerial attacks on at least two bridges to prevent Hizballah from escaping with the soldiers." This is now the second front in a growing conflict:

The attack on northern Israel effectively opened up a two-front war for Israel, which also expanded its two-week old military operation in the Gaza Strip early Wednesday morning. Israel went into Gaza, hoping to force the release of another captured soldier and to stop the continual firing of Kassam rockets into Israel.
Pajamas Media is reporting on the situation and also quoting the story from CNSNEWS, making it clear that Israel means business, warning Lebanese civilians to get out of the way:

"Israeli Air Force combat aircraft drop leaflets on the Lebanese civilian population (a paraphrase): seek cover if you aren’t Hezbollah…stay away from Hezbollah offices and buildings.

The leaflets said the army operations would last as long as necessary to determine the whereabouts of Corporal Gilad Shalit, abducted two weeks ago.

"People who try to disrupt the [Israeli army's] activities, which are meant to ensure the safe return of our soldier, are doing so at their own risk," the leaflet said.

One of the things Hezbollah is demanding in return for the soldiers they are holding hostage is a prisoner exchange. One of the men they want released from Israeli prison is really a monster, as you can tell from this post at Shrink Wrapped. If you want some insight into the psychology of terrorists, this is a really good link to follow. The blogger is a psychoanalyst, and puts to rest the whole "blowing themselves up in desperation" concept that is the popular way to blame victims for the attacks that terrorists perpetrate on them. Read it if you can; it's heartbreaking, but oh so relevant.

Update: The Jerusalem Post says that Hezbollah is trying to transfer the captured soldiers to Iran. That's a rather interesting development, if true. HT: Atlas Shrugs

Update II: Pajamas Media is reporting that eight Israeli soldiers were killed in the Wednesday Hezbollah attack in which the two other soldiers were taken hostage. The report looks at current conditions in Lebanon, including further attacks by both the Israelis and Hezbollah. Lebanon has apparently been cut off from the rest of the world, with both ports and airport shut down. The situation continues to develop. Pajamas Media is a good source of information, and Instapundit has ongoing links to the latest.

Flying High

More missile defense system success to report, care of Captain's Quarters, via Instapundit.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Here Comes The Sun

Okay, earlier today I blogged about some disappointing news on the alternative energy front, the environmental downside to ethanol. To balance out the news of the day, the Meow now brings you a happier chapter in "the ongoing quest for alternative power sources" story, care of Eureka Alert:

Every day, the sun bathes the planet in energy--free of charge--yet few systems can take advantage of that source for both heating and cooling. Now, researchers are making progress on a thin-film technology that adheres both solar cells and heat pumps onto surfaces, ultimately turning walls, windows, and maybe even soda bottles into climate control systems.
Wow, self-cooling soda bottles. Would you ever imagine that you could cool a bottle of pop by leaving it out in the sun? According to the report at Eureka Alert, this technology might one day replace conventional heating and cooling equipment, has no moving parts (less breaking down?), and is completely silent. Buildings, cars, spacecraft, all of these are candidates for heating and cooling from the new technology. The thin film can adhere "solar panels, solid-state, thermoelectric heat pumps and a storage device to provide energy on rainy days (literally)", to various surfaces, such as spacecraft and automobile sun roofs. Maybe someday this method could be used to power the whole car, and not just the air conditioning. It's a lot to ask, I know, but I am an optimist and can't help getting my hopes up.

Hat tip: Futurismic

On Holiday

Here's some more space-related coolness to get you thinking about getting off this rock. (Not that it's not a fine rock. It's lovely, in fact, but I do long to see it from "out there" one day, don't you?) Armchair Anarchist at Futurismic is one of my favorite sources for science and tech news, and this time I'll let him tell you the latest:

Space tourism is one of the growing new industries at the moment, what with there being plenty of room for new product ideas and innovatory techniques. It looks like it won't be all that long before people can pay for a trip into orbit, but then what? If heading straight back to Earth to clean the vomit off your flight-suit doesn't appeal, maybe you can stay for a few days in an inflatable space-hotel, developed from the prototype being launched from Siberia this week.
A hotel in space sounds fun for a holiday--and exorbitantly expensive. Maybe they'll add a few frills to up the cost/benefit ratio. I wonder if it'll have a pool?

First Things First

Another TCS Daily article to point you towards. This one looks at how labor unions are affecting companies and employees in the developing world. It's not a very positive review. Now, I'm not anti-union, although I admit that I think union membership should be strictly voluntary and not a coerced part of any particular field of employment. They've served an important role in our history and culture. My dad was a Teamster, and we benefited from his membership, but I do remember that he would speak about how the union would sometimes demand unreasonable things, and how that would hurt the workers in the long run. That is pretty much the thrust of this TCS piece by Iain Murray. It seems that the union activity in poorer countries, countries that benefit greatly from Western investment, is mainly targeted at Western companies, despite the fact that conditions and wages at their factories far outclass those offered by local competitors. The local employers, whose employees labor in truly "sweatshop" conditions, for appalling wages, are given a pass, while foreign investors, who provide benefits that go beyond just higher wages, are being hounded into potentially leaving the countries altogether, to the detriment of all concerned, since foreign investment is improving the lot of so many in these developing nations:

Across the world, countries freeing up their markets to foreign countries are benefiting the most. In China, for example, the standard of living has increased so much over the past 20 years that the average Chinese person today is six times richer in real terms than before the reforms began. And large companies investing in the developing world bring other benefits, though. In addition to paying higher wages, their facilities are generally safer and healthier for their employees than those of local competitors. Their processes are also generally cleaner, so contributing to environmental improvement.
An example of a company that is being targeted for union bombardment is a company operating is Turkey, called Paxar, which is a "...U.S.-based textile company, owns a facility in Saray where it pays some of the highest wages to textile employees in the country -- in the top 2 percent -- employs over 500 people, and offers excellent health and safety conditions." Rather than being lauded for the improvements it brings to the local economy and working conditions, this company is being condemned for not being a union shop, despite the fact the employees themselves are not supporting the union bid:
The Clean Clothes Campaign, for example, has provided a facility on its web site to allow outraged members of the public to bombard Paxar's clients with letters expressing disgust at the company's failure to accede to the union's demands. The Campaign is known for greatly expanding the definition of a "sweatshop" from a facility offering inadequate local wages and dangerous conditions to include those otherwise safe and generous, but which prohibit union activity.
In my opinion, this is simply not logical. In this case, the only party actually benefiting from the change would be the union itself, union dues being the apparent primary goal. The union is demanding a 38% increase in employee wages. They can't possibly believe that by demanding such an increase they are doing the employees any favors. These employees already earn more than their peers. Forcing a wage increase of this magnitude would probably mean layoffs, as Murray says, "The Turkish textile industry is highly vulnerable to foreign competition; it lost 200,000 jobs last year." Worse still, the union could drive Paxar out of Turkey altogether, leaving nothing but the companies that the union isn't targeting--the ones whose working conditions currently make Paxar look like heaven on Earth. This isn't a good bargain for the workers.

This isn't to say that conditions shouldn't continue to improve in the third world, or that those companies seeking less expensive labor in foreign countries have "arrived" and should not continue to upgrade as local conditions are elevated. However, to target the companies doing it best, because they are not doing it better, while leaving the worst to carry on unmolested, simply doesn't compute. First things first. Focusing on the worst, to bring them up to the standard set by the best, and then gradually seeking to improve conditions as a whole seems a much more reasonable and reasoned approach. Like my dad said, unreasonable demands hurt the workers in the long run, not help them. That's supposedly what the unions care about, isn't it, helping workers?

The Downside Of The Clean Air Alternative

There's a rather depressing piece at TCS Daily today, by Tim Carney, all about the environmental cost of ethanol, the "clean air" alternative/additive to gasoline. It seems that while ethanol does reduce carbon monoxide emissions, there are a myriad of other environmental costs to factor into the equation. Figures, doesn't it? Why does there always have to be a trade-off? On the bright side, there are still plenty of other energy options in the works that we can pin our hopes on. (Getting power off the blacktop is looking quite appealing at the moment.) Even with the added environmental complications of ethanol, it's doubtless something we want to keep in our bag of tricks--it's probably still a better alternative than relying exclusively on gasoline, which pollutes and puts money in the pockets of despotic regimes. Wouldn't it be nice if some perfect energy solution just marched off the drawing board somewhere and rewrote the menu of energy choices completely, making the right decisions obvious and easy, with no dish of guilt on the side? I know, I know--wishful thinking, but a girl can dream, can't she? Until that unlikely event occurs, we'll just have to do the best we can to choose well. It's hard being grownups and having to decide what's best. So many moral conundrums, so little wisdom...

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Stepping Back To Get A Clearer Picture

Sometimes things just aren't how you think they are, and it takes extraordinary measures to find out what's what. Sometimes getting the whole picture can take seeing things from a distance, and in the case of the enormous Amazon rain forest, this can even necessitate getting off the planet. Satellite images are providing surprising new information as scientists try to understand the climate's effect on the rain forest, and the forest's effect on the climate. In a lengthy, but interesting, article from NASA's Earth Observatory, Rebecca Lindsey examines surprises that have been forthcoming from the study of images of Amazonia, taken over the last two decades, in the process of mapping Earth's vegetation patterns. The article focuses on University of Arizona remote-sensing ecologist Alfredo Huete, the data processing and mapping techniques he and his team developed for NASA, and the unexpected turn their view of the rain forest took after data began to be accumulated and analysed.

Lindsey spends a good deal of time looking at how Huete developed his techniques for mapping vegetation, and the hoops he jumped through to ensure the model's accuracy at capturing changes in the Earth's vegetation throughout the year. As testing went along "...the maps matched real-world seasonal changes in vegetation in different ecosystems, from African savannas to eastern North American forests." As the program developed, Huete became more and more confident of his methods, but there was one consistent problem; the Amazon didn't seem to be behaving properly. Images seemed to indicate that the rain forest actually gets greener during the dry season, which, as anyone who has spent time watering their lawn in the summer can tell you, makes no sense. Huete did a great deal of tweaking to try and locate the source of the problem, but kept coming back to the same result, and observations on the ground confirmed the conclusion. The Amazon does indeed experience its growing season when the rains stop falling. The bad season in the Amazon is the time of year when the rest of the Earth's fields and forests come to life, when life-giving water penetrates the soil and reaches thirsty roots.

So, how to explain the anomaly? You have to get pretty far into Lindsey's article to get to the reasons why it does, in fact, make sense for the Amazon to follow a separate growing pattern than the rest of the world. Fortunately, if you are time-challenged, I have done the necessary reading for you. There are three factors that affect plant growth: precipitation, sunlight and temperature. The key to Amazon vegetation growth is the sunlight factor. During the rainy season, there is increased cloud-cover, limiting light, and thus growth. The dry months provide the added light that the forest needs, and the growing commences. In fact, the longer the dry season, the more the rain forest greens up. Odd, huh? The secret lies in the giant Amazon trees. According to Lindsey, they have root systems that go down up to sixty feet into the soil, so they retain access to the rainy season's water during the dry season's burst of sunlight. Thus they have the perfect combination to help them stretch a little farther up into the heavens. This holds true for the undisturbed forest lands, but for the harvested lands it's not the same story:

...the dry-season green-up only happens in undisturbed forests, stresses Huete. At locations where the forest has been converted to pasture or farmland, the dry season has the more intuitive effect: the vegetation “browns down” in response to decreased soil moisture. Once the deep roots of the mature trees are lost, the access to the water stored deep in the soil is lost as well.
So different rules apply to the undisturbed rain forest than apply to any other area of land. It is unique in how it functions in the world.

This changes the way scientists must look at the rain forest and climate change. The Amazon is so huge, it can't help but affect the balance of carbon dioxide in the air. Most models that don't take the reversed seasonal shift of forest growth into account see ecosystem collapse in the future if global warming, affected by airborne carbon, causes the region to dry, and predict that eventually the area could become a savanna. The new model, however, where the forest thrives during the dry season, calls those conclusions into question, not refuting them, but clearing indicating the need for further study before proclaiming the forest's imminent demise. Ecologist Scott Saleska was a part of a research group which designed and operated instruments "... as part of NASA’s contribution to a Brazilian-led international research project called “LBA,” short for the “Large-Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia.” His research helped Huete draw his conclusions. Saleksa says the new information means they have to reexamine the old models:
“But if these models are getting the seasonality wrong, then the impacts [of climate change] may not be what we expect,” he continues. Predictions of ecosystem collapse are based on the idea that the dry season is a time of stress and declining greenness. If that isn’t true, then perhaps the Amazon will be more resilient than the models predict. On the other hand, a typical dry season isn’t the same as a lengthy El Niño-induced drought. Previous studies, including a drought-simulation experiment conducted during LBA, indicate that the more severe, extended declines in rainfall that can happen during strong El Niño events do produce stress in the forest, especially fragmented or damaged areas. With forest disturbance on the rise and predictions by some climate models that El Niño events may increase as climate warms, the fate of the Amazon is unclear.
So, the forest may be more resilient than previously feared. That's good. It's hopeful, anyway, and I always like hopeful. Of course, as Saleska indicates, the jury's still out about how climate change will affect the Amazon rain forest, and how with its treasure trove of carbon, the forest will affect the climate. Long-term drought may still cause as much damage as it's been feared it would. Further study is needed. Fortunately, further study is planned. Saleska and Huete will soon be collaborating to analyse the data gathered thus far, and "...come up with a basin-wide estimate for the flux of carbon in the Amazon." Hopefully this will provide a reliable gauge for comparing future ecosystem changes. So now we need a good long dry spell to test some theories:
In the meantime, says Saleska, everyone is keeping their eyes out for the next strong El Nino because observations collected during the event could provide the next key piece of the puzzle of how the Amazon responds to large-scale climate variation and change. Knowing the Amazon’s baseline seasonal response should help scientists judge when and how future climate events may disturb the balance of such an important and sensitive ecosystem.
It'll be interesting to see whether this information is picked up by any of those who are especially worried about climate change. I'm not hopeful on that front. The data gathered by Huete and Saleska doesn't necessarily contradict their point of view, but it doesn't support it either, so chances are it will go unnoticed. You never know, though, people can sometimes surprise you. Of course, global warming advocates (I mean advocates for the position, not the event. I'm pretty sure the latter don't exist) may see reasons why this information makes things appear much worse rather than better. I don't know. I just know I'll keep watching the process as the experts collect and sort the data. I'm glad we have the ability to see thing from a distance, to step out into space, so that we can get information that was unavailable to us just a few short decades ago. Now we just have to figure out what it all means.

"Sparkling Teeth" Gets A New Meaning

Here's a report on one of those nifty little scientific/medical innovations that I love so much. Not only does this one involve medical breakthroughs, but it has fireworks as well, another of my very favorite things. Well, okay, not exactly fireworks, more like sparklers, tiny ones at that, but let's not be picky. Zeeya Merali, at New Scientist, brings us up to date on a new miniature plasma torch, called a plasma needle, that could be of significant use for both dentistry and cancer treatment. Odd combo, you say? So do I, but, there it is. It seems that this plasma needle could one day replace the dentists drill, and also enable doctors to kill cancer cells and cauterize around a tumor, without damaging the surrounding tissue. The kicker is that the needle is said to be painless, and cold to the touch, despite the flaming plasma.

Physicist Eva Stoffels-Adamowicz, .."who is based at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands," is the needle's inventor:

Stoffels-Adamowicz came up with the idea for the needle while working with low-pressure plasmas, which are created in a vacuum. In order for the plasma to be used on people, she and her colleagues developed a plasma needle that works in air. The needle is a 50-millimetre-long tungsten wire housed in a quartz tube filled with gas. Driving a voltage through the needle generates a small plasma spark at its tip "like a children's sparkler", explains Stoffels-Adamowicz.
The scientists have found a way to generate a nitric oxide plasma using the needle, which, according to Merali, is something the body naturally uses to fight infection and inflammation and, "...when the nitric oxide plasma is produced using small amounts of energy and applied in short bursts, it can kill bacteria while leaving other living cells unharmed." It gets even spiffier, though, because the nitric oxide can also tell cancer cells to shut down:
Nitric oxide is also involved in cell messaging, so it can be used to trigger programmed cell death. Using higher-energy doses of plasma, in longer bursts, the team was able to target certain living cells and cauterise the tissue while leaving surrounding cells undamaged. "The plasma needle could be used to excise tumours or skin cancers," says Stoffels-Adamowicz. "It's surgery without cutting."
How neat is that? They're working on other ways to use the plasma as well, such as clearing blocked arteries, although for now it looks like the dentists will be getting first crack at it as a drill replacement. I posted last Thursday on some new tech advances that might lead to dentistry that actually helps people regrow damaged teeth; between that and the painless replacement to drilling, dentists may be getting a lot more popular in the near future. They might at least be losing the dread factor (something that could also be accomplished if patients were simply more diligent about flossing, but that's another subject altogether.)

Hat tip: Futurismic

Speed Up, Death Down

Here's a cheery bit of news from the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page. Seems fears of skyrocketing death tolls due to the repeal of the national 55 mph speed limit were unfounded:

In 2005, according to new data from the National Highway Safety Administration, the rate of injuries per mile traveled was lower than at any time since the Interstate Highway System was built 50 years ago. The fatality rate was the second lowest ever, just a tick higher than in 2004.
Apparently, according to the WSJ, only 5% of the population was following the national limit anyway, so maybe the deaths from higher speeds were already factored in to the statistics, or maybe cars have just gotten safer over the years. However, it seems at least possible to me that raising the limits allowed the law-abiding to catch up with the impatient, thus facilitating a more consistent flow of traffic, and reducing one potential source of accidents. Whatever the reason, fatalities have gone down instead of up since the speed limits started rising:
Of the 31 states that have raised their speed limits to more than 70 mph, 29 saw a decline in the death and injury rate and only two--the Dakotas--have seen fatalities increase.
I'd be interested in knowing what's going on in the Dakotas. Maybe they repealed the DUI laws at the same time, huh?

Hat tip: Instapundit

Monday, July 10, 2006

Moderation In All Things

"Islamist moderate" sounds to most westerners like an oxymoron--for good reason. Not that Islam can't be compatible with secular government, but the idea of Islamists running the government conjures up images of authoritarian regimes bent on forcing the entire world to conform to a very narrow view of Shari'a law. Iran springs to mind. Michael Totten's (you know Michael Totten--one of my favorite bloggers/independent journalists) quest for moderate Islamists seemed to be in vain, until he discovered The Kurdistan Islamic Union, and interviewed some people who claim to be Islamists, but don't want to kill you if you don't convert to Islam, or make women wear a burkha, hiding in the house while men run the world; they don't want to force you to give up wine with dinner, or material possesions, or any of the other standard "life would be better if we all revert to the seventh century" talking points. Isn't that refreshing? I hope the moderate Islamist bug is catching. Totten, who at first doubted these people could really be Islamists, came around to believing that they are the real deal:

If all the world’s Islamists were like these mellow Kurdish Islamists there would be no Terror War and there would be no talk of any clash of civilizations. It’s no accident, nor is it merely a convenience, that the Kurds of Iraq are American allies.

Take the time to read the article. It's fascinating, and encouraging--the best of both worlds.

Politics And Racism--Perception vs. Truth

Okay, I generally want to steer clear of partisanship in the political arena. At their best, Democrats and Republicans are both well-intentioned, with different approaches to solving some of the same problems, but both equally seeing the need for societal problems to be addressed. At the same time, I think both Democratic and Republican politicians tend to have some serious shortcomings and inconsistencies in the area of translating belief systems into policy decisions. At this point in history, neither of the major players are looking too shiny. In the interest of full disclosure, I personally lean "Conservatarian", believing intensely in individual freedom, but also drawing the line where that freedom interferes with the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of others--including those individuals who are waiting to be born. Because of this, I frequently end up voting Republican. However, I am not married to the party, nor do I mentally gloss over its shortcomings in order to preserve a vague and comfortable feeling that I'm on the "right" side. I see no point in denying what is true simply to win elections; no one is served by the illusion, and the truth has a pretty strong determination to work its way out of hiding eventually. Besides, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8: 31,32) Truth and freedom are a good combination.

All that being said, I have often noted that people will believe what they want to believe, despite evidence to the contrary, and it is a routine thing for human beings to attribute motives and meanings to other people that they cannot possibly confirm without crawling inside someone else's head for a while. Since nanobots have not yet been created which make telepathy possible, we often make judgements based on assumption, judgements that more information would prove inaccurate, but that frequently go unchallenged because they are "common knowledge", and even when challenged are difficult to root out of the "everybody knows this" category of public thought. One such commonly accepted misconception, or at least what I believe to be a misconception, relates to racism and politics in America. I frequently hear the notion from liberal friends that Republicans are more likely to be racially prejudiced than Democrats. Experientially, this simply isn't true from my perspective. I know an awful lot of conservatives, and can't name even a handful of my acquaintance that harbor racist views. Actually, again from my experience, the liberals I know are more likely to cling to racist notions. I'm not saying this is universally true, simply that that's how it has played out thus far as the world has passed by on my own personal view-screen.

Given all this, I read with interest an article at Human Events Online by John Hawkins, indicating that my observations about racism and politics are born out by a reasonable amount of history and statistics. I'm not going to summarize the article, since I think it's worth reading in its entirety, but I will say that there is some pretty good evidence that there are racists in both parties, and the GOP is far more colorblind than it is frequently attributed to be. I'll warn you up front, the article does have a partisan bent, but give it a look anyhow. If you are determined to believe conservatives are racist, or if you have had different life experiences than mine, which have led you to draw that conclusion, Hawkin's arguments may not sway you, but they might at least open your mind to the notion that there is more than one opinion as to which political party has the best claim to racial impartiality. If you are looking for the truth to set you free, then it's a bit more information than you might have had before. It isn't really the truth Jesus was referring to in the book of John, but it's a start, anyway.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Startling News From The FDA

I put out a brief post a couple of weeks ago about the fat police and their push to punish companies for selling us "unhealthy" foods, via that ubiquitous and time-honored coercive tool--the lawsuit. Not to be outdone in the "telling us what's good for us" department, the government is getting in the act. John Luik at TCS Daily reports on a new study from the Food and Drug Administration, which let's us know that (now prepare yourself) meals bought in restaurants contain calories, and might lead to weight gain. Luik makes a pretty good case that Americans already are very aware of their weight and how their food intake affects it. However, let us all thank the FDA for its wise use of public resources in seeking out this elusive information, since without this valuable research, we might all be left to chose for ourselves what foods we want to ingest (and possibly even whether to care about carrying around a few extra pounds if our food of choice is cheesecake.)

Now, thanks to the government's fine efforts, we can access such important gems of knowledge as, "'Away-from-home foods' are foods that are prepared and purchased away from home." I am not kidding; that's the opening line from this groundbreaking FDA report. It goes on to describe all the ways in which the government should make restaurants responsible for consumer behavior. Some of its suggestions include inducing restaurants to promote "low-calorie-dense dietary patterns, instead of more calorie intense options" (because we all know that advertising salad will make burgers repugnant to the average diner), promote "the wider inclusion in foodservice of less-calorie-dense menu items and calorie-sparing cooking techniques" (nothing like telling a free market enterprise what they are allowed to sell), and--my personal favorite--promote "portion-size, plate composition, and menu-pairing options that help consumers in their efforts to manage their energy intake." I love the notion that by telling restaurants to make portions smaller they can somehow keep American waistlines smaller--like it's never going to occur to people that they can order two of something if they want more. Although who knows, maybe the FDA has a more aggressive plan further down the road--a one per customer order, designed to protect us from ourselves. I can just imagine a lucrative black market springing up to sell illicit hamburgers to a desperately addicted populace.

Sorry if this strikes you as being a trifle too strident; it's just so ludicrous for the government to think it is any of its business to tell us what it's okay to eat, or to think that it has the influence to affect people's choices . People are going to eat what they want to eat, as long as they can afford it. Unless the FDA wants to somehow force restaurants to price their menu items beyond the reach of the average pocketbook, they are not going to change America's eating habits, and they should stop wasting money on putting out reports of such dubious merit. As Luik points out in his TCS article, the fact that food contains calories is not going to revolutionize anyone's world. We're already very well aware of that fact.

Afghan Update

Michael Yon has another update on Afghanistan. It's long, as usual, but that just means it's loaded with valuable information, ranging from the conditions on the ground to the state of press coverage in some of the various coalition countries, especially the British press. There are some interesting comparisons between Afghanistan and Iraq that might surprise you, given the way the two countries are covered by our own media. Have a look.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Smile, It'll Grow Back

Hockey players, take heart. The day may be coming when the next tooth you break in the heat of battle won't be a permanent loss. According to New Scientist, engineers have created a small brace-like device that fits in the mouth and uses ultrasound to induce regrowth of damaged teeth.

Jie Chen and Ying Tsui, engineers at the University of Alberta in Canada, developed the miniature device after ultrasound stimulation encouraged damaged teeth and jawbone tissue to regrow in animals.

Tarek El-Bialy, who works in Alberta's medical faculty, was able to regrow teeth in rabbits with a larger device, but only when some tooth root remained in place.

Since the method works to regrow teeth when some root remains, I wonder if eventually this could become the standard treatment for tooth decay as well. That would be cool. Imagine, no more fillings that announce to the world just how lazy you were about oral hygiene as a child, and also wear out over time, requiring another round of Novocaine and drilling. Of course, someone is bound to discover that the low-power ultrasound pulses the device sends at the damaged tooth cause some other form of harm to some other part of the body, but that's a trivial matter that I'm sure another brilliant mind will find a way to overcome. In the meantime, hockey players (and maybe even children with a sweet tooth) can rest easy, knowing that their dental woes are only temporary. That's something to smile about.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Bombs Bursting In Air, Or Not

It appears that while Americans were eating barbecue and lighting bottle rockets in celebration of our nation's independence, North Korea was setting off some fireworks of its own. CNN reports that the communist nation launched seven missiles, of various ranges, all of which landed in the Sea of Japan. According to the report, U.S. officials believe the longer range Taepodong-2 missile, which some analysts claim can hit the western U.S., failed after approximately forty seconds, thus resulting in the watery splashdown. There's been a string of protests to the missile tests, which are considered strongly provocative, and the U.N. Security council meets today to discuss the situation. While the tests are provocative, the failure of the longest range missile is an indication that North Korea is not yet as big a threat to the world at large as the nation apparently aspires to be. Scrappleface has an amusing take on the situation.