Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Looting Of History

Remember all the indignation during the course of major fighting in the Iraq war, when the battle for Baghdad had been underway for a few days and we were told that all of the artifacts in the Iraq National Museum had been looted? Remember the reports that were broadcast and published for weeks, that all 170,000 artifacts the museum possessed, almost the entire history of the cradle of civilization, were hauled away or destroyed by wild mobs? Remember how the U.S. military was blamed for the incredible loss to human history, because supposedly soldiers stood by and let it happen? Well, I stumbled upon something today that puts the lie to those very public and prolonged accusations.

It's an old post, from July of 2005, by Frank Warner, who gives a very complete history, revealing that most of what was taken from the museum was in an inside job, not the result of militarily-tolerated looting, and could have fit into a single large backpack!! Many of the fifteen thousand items taken were beads, amulets, and the like. Warner writes that a huge percentage of the museum's artifacts remained undisturbed. "Ninety-seven percent of the museum’s items – 485,500 pieces – were preserved, 95 percent undamaged. " Yet U.S. soldiers are still blamed for the ruination of history.

Have you ever seen reports correcting the record? Have you ever heard the American military exonerated by the media, or archaeologists? (One archaeologist Warner quotes, Donny George, director of the Iraq National Museum, as good as admits his intention to milk the U.S. for money because of the terrible "loss." He's definitely not going to admit that the loss wasn't nearly as terrible as first proclaimed.) Apparently, some media sources have admitted their errors, but in the hushed and shy tones the media are wont to use when revealing their own fallibility. I certainly never heard any of the corrections. I'd be interested to know if any of you have. I'm betting the ranks of those who have are pretty thin. History was looted all right, just not the history we thought.

A Rescue And A Contest

Hey, astronomy buffs!! (I know there must be one, or even two, of you out there.) I've got a couple of space-related items for you this morning. Both involve taking pictures of space, but with very different equipment. The first item will comfort the hearts of everybody who has been staying awake nights worried that the Hubble telescope is on its last legs, and NASA has been undecided about its fate, debating the feasibility of getting a shuttle crew out to make repairs. You can sleep well tonight, though, because a shuttle flight to Hubble has been added to the list of things NASA plans to do before the shuttles themselves are retired in 2010. Kelly Young, of NewScientistSpace, writes that the mission could occur as early as 2008.

One of the concerns that has delayed plans to send the crew to one of the most valuable sources of data that NASA has ever had is the unique danger of the journey. Young says, "If anything went wrong at or on the way to Hubble, the astronauts could not take refuge aboard the International Space Station." Obviously, this would make rescue both more difficult, and more urgent, since the supplies available on board the shuttle wouldn't last nearly as long as those on the space station, where an expanded crew would have provisions enough to last 70 or 80 days, compared to about 25 on shuttle resources alone. Nevertheless, the decision has been made, and Hubble will get an upgrade, enabling it to keep sending fantastic images to Earth for years longer:

The servicing mission, if successful, could keep Hubble operational until at least 2013. Without a shuttle flight, Hubble's instruments would have eventually started to shut down. The gyroscopes that point Hubble and keep it steady could last until 2008 and the batteries until 2010.

The servicing mission will add six new batteries, six gyroscopes, a flight guidance sensor, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and the Wide Field Camera 3. They will be by far the best instruments ever sent to Hubble.

Astronauts might also try to fix the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph by replacing an electronics board. Astronauts will attach handles on the back end of Hubble to make it easier to grab later, in preparation for its de-orbit, probably after 2020.

Now that we're all breathing easier about our beloved telescope in the great beyond, let's talk about something closer to home, shall we? If you've got a telescope of your own and an H-alpha filter, you've got the chance to view Mercury as it crosses the face of the Sun on November 8th. All you have to do is fly to Brazil, stay up until 2:37 a.m., align your telescope perfectly to the nanometer, and you'll have the chance to get a really good ten-second view. Get ready!! Don't blink, or you'll miss it!! Actually, that was a bare-faced lie, as I'm sure you could tell by my telling you to point your telescopes at the Sun at 2:37 a.m. Mercury's transit will take about five hours, and, according to Spaceweather.com, will be clearly visible from "the Americas, Hawaii and around the Pacific Rim."

The folks at Spaceweather are so excited about it they're having a Transit of Mercury Art and Photo Contest. All you need is the aforementioned telescope and filter, as well as a digital camera. Alternatively, you can draw it, sketch it, paint it--whatever suits your fancy. There are prizes and everything. Even if you aren't interested in entering the contest, head over and have a look at the winners from three years ago--the last time Mercury did the Sun dance. They're pretty darn cool.

Well, that about wraps up our space report for now. Very soon I'll have new space photos for you, though, so we have that to look forward to with eager anticipation. Hey, if any of you enter that photo and art contest, let us know, okay?

Monday, October 30, 2006

Wave Power

Frequently, as I surf the web, I am caught up in a wave of excitement when I land on swell advances in the ocean of ideas for alternative power. Here's a current notion, that may hold water, if you can fathom the concept of electricity coming from the deep blue sea. Engineers are making headway on designs that harness the power of waves. Are you thinking of wind-turbines under water, matey? Well, that's not quite the heading they're taking. With scientists at a company called BioPower Systems at the helm, the company is going full steam ahead, with plans to have a pilot program in place by 2008, and commercial units available by 2009, but rather than underwater windmills, the new generators to which they are anchoring their future mimic more seaworthy designs, such as kelp fronds and shark tails. These forward-thinking plans work with the currents in a way that is safe for ocean life. Is your imagination adrift? Here's the link to help you batten down the mental hatches. This should buoy your hopes that the possibilities for alternative energy aren't going to capsize.

If I went overboard with the nautical terms, I hope you'll give me some leeway. I must have temporarily lost my rudder. Please stem the tide of malice, and I'll stow the rest of of the "dinghy" talk , lest I be cast off and keel-hauled.

Hat tip: Futurismic (Aye-- that's Futurismic)

(Bonus points for anyone who catches all the intentional terms. Double bonus points for catching ones I didn't intend. My count is 32, but does not include terms like kelp fronds and shark tails, nor the second use of the word "current," since it was used in context.)

The Basics--And Beyond

What are the things you can't live without? There are a lot of things we think we can't live without--love, productive employment, a place to live, purpose and health, among others--until we find ourselves lacking any of the above and discover that we can, indeed, survive for quite a while, notwithstanding the fact we may not enjoy it very much. Long term, we do need food and shelter, but under most conditions we can get by without them for considerably longer than most of us would ever imagine. Short term, though, what are the things that are absolutely imperative for a human to survive? Assuming the ambient temperature is within acceptable parameters, if short term is described in terms of minutes, you've got one possible answer--oxygen. If you extend short term to a few days, you can add water to the brief "absolute imperatives" list.

When you come right down to it, there's very little that's more valuable to human beings than clean, potable water, and clean, breathable air. I'm speaking in physical terms here; spiritual needs are just as real, in my opinion, and in the long run even more important, but that's not where I'm headed with this post, so for now, I'll stick to the tangible basics--water and oxygen. Let's start with oxygen. Here on Earth, we are part of a built-in exchange system--oxygen for carbon dioxide, carbon dioxide for oxygen. The animal kingdom breathes, and the plant kingdom breathes, in a mutually beneficial exchange, and the whole cycle goes on in perpetuity. It may be contaminated in places, but air is essentially ubiquitous. To a lesser extent, so is water. Water is very scarce in some regions, and too dirty to drink in others, but with two thirds of the planet covered in ocean, and a natural water distribution system in place, which we affectionately call weather, for most people there's enough water to meet their needs. (Sometimes too much.)

Not so in space, of course. Residents of the International Space Station must rely on the generosity of the home world to provide the breathable stuff, and the thirst quenchers. They're shipped up to the ISS in shuttles and rockets, and the water, especially, takes up a lot of precious cargo room in the process. They've been able to get away with this inefficient system for so long because, relatively speaking, the ISS is just a hop off the planet, close enough to make shipping these essentials doable, if not convenient. Any sci fi fan worth their salt, however, knows that if mankind is to reach more distant goals, like the Moon, Mars, or even beyond, there's going to have to be a radical transformation in the way air and water are provided to the space-faring adventurer.

Trudy Bell, writing an article for Science@NASA, tells of a new system so to be installed in the ISS, called Environmental Control and Life Support Systems, or ECLSS ( think eclair, only ecliss), that in many ways will resemble the water reclamation processes described in the Frank Herbert novel Dune. Herbert's book is set on the desert planet Arakkis, where water is so scarce that every possible molecule of it must be captured and recycled. Desert dwellers wear suits specially equipped to catch even the moisture of transpiration and perspiration, so that nothing H2O-related will escape collection and reprocessing. Sounds a bit icky, but that's basically what goes on here on Earth, just on a much larger scale, and you know what they say about desperate times. Anyway, Bell writes that the new system going in on the space station will grab all of the water out of the air, filter in and send it back for reuse. Same goes for the astronaut's urine, except, since the urine has a lot more contaminants, the reclamation rate will be about eighty-five percent, and they will have to jump through some interesting hoops to get the equipment to work.

The way they process the urine is to boil it, turn it into steam, then combined it with the water recovered from the air, and filter it all some more to make it pure enough to drink. According to Bell, using this method, they can produce a half a gallon of water an hour, which more than meets the needs of the three people currently living on the ISS. Sounds simple, right? However, there's a catch. Since there's no gravity in space to make the steam rise, in order to get the steam to separate from the impurities, or "brine," they have to spin the whole kit and caboodle to create artificial gravity. Wild, huh? Something as basic here on Earth as "heat (steam) rises" doesn't apply in space, so they have to go to extraordinary lengths to make it happen. Of course, here on Earth, gravity also comes from spinning, but that's a system God put in place and manages. We really don't have to come up with high tech ways to make it happen.

There are a couple of extra-cool things about this system, "above and beyond" (the pun is lame, I know) just providing drinking water. ECLSS is also designed to provide that oxygen we were talking about earlier:

In addition to providing drinking water for the crew, the water recovery system will supply water to the other half of ECLSS: the oxygen generation system (OGS). The OGS operates by electrolysis. It splits water molecules into oxygen for breathing and hydrogen, which is vented outside the spacecraft.
Nifty, don't you think? Take water, apply electric current, and voila, you get oxygen. That's how they've been doing it on Russian Soyuz rockets, and the (former) Mir space station for years. It's a tried and true method.

One other really cool thing I read about concerns the people who developed the ECLSS system. The are using their expertise to help meet humanitarian needs here on Earth. I followed a related link from NASA, which led me to another NASA article, this one by Katherine Trinidad and Steve Roy, about a project whereby NASA technology is being used to provide clean drinking water for an impoverished Iraqi village, with a broken well pump, and no access to other sources of water. Robyn Carrasquillo, engineering manager of the ECLSS project, and "engineers at the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., helped install and test a water purification system in the northern village of Kendala." They've used their own time for the project, which is allowing the few villagers who managed to remain in their small community after the water supply was lost to stay in their homes. NASA-designed equipment is pumping out four gallons a minute for the desperate village!! It must be awfully satisfying to not just further mankind's aims in space, but to also help their fellow men (and women too, of course) here on the "blue marble."

Seems to me that by collaborating to provide this system for the village of Kendala, these NASA engineers are meeting some of the needs on the larger list I made earlier. For the villagers--a place to live, and health. For the engineers--productive employment and purpose. For both of them--the love of their fellow men. Science meets humanity. The best of both worlds. It may not be something we can't live without, but it's certainly something we can all live with.

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Race Card

Will the real racists please stand up? Or at least shut up. Mary Katharine Ham on racism in the South and politics.

For The Record

Strategy Page has an interesting piece about efforts by the U.S. Department of Defense to counter misleading information coming out of the media. I say, "It's about time!!" I suspect a lot of us would agree that this is necessary, and have, in fact, been quite frustrated at the drumbeat of "failure, inadequacy, and stubborn refusal to face the truth" that has been the consistent slant of much of the media for the last five years. Some of us, myself definitely included, have also been frustrated at the lack of response and countermeasures from both the DOD and the Bush administration, especially because many of us (those of us who have been paying closer attention than just reading the headlines of The New York Times) have known all along that there were plenty of potential responses available to counter some of the unjust accusations constantly being hurled at the war effort. Turning the other cheek is truly a good thing in personal matters. Not taking offense when personally attacked can often diffuse a difficult situation, but it is inappropriate to amplify that maxim to apply to this war. We are not going to mollify the enemy because we don't correct our critics. This is a war in which accurate information is crucial to fighting a very media savvy enemy; we can't afford to let misinformation slide when it concerns the prosecution of the war.

So, the Department of Defense is finally getting more aggressive about joining the information fray. The DOD now has a website just for the purpose of correcting media errors regarding military matters, responding to slanted and inaccurate editorials (such as recent New York Times opinion pieces with which the DOD takes issue), and publishing letters to the editor, which various media outlets refuse to publish, responding to those editorials and content inaccuracies. The site is called For The Record, and it takes on a whole host of issues, with sections such as Iraq Security Update, Nature of the Enemy, Correcting the Record, Heroes, Pentagon Weekly Wrap-up, and Special Reports. Each of these pages is pretty much what it sounds like. For example, the "Heroes" page is a look at some of the people who have been fighting the War on Terrorism, and what they've accomplished (something sadly lacking in general media coverage.) "Correcting the Record" responds to specific media and editorial accusations--quite thoroughly, I might add. There are also stories on the website's front page, dealing with developing media issues.

One interesting thing I noted while perusing the DOD's site is the number of times the Department has tried (to no avail) to correct the record through regular media channels, letters to the editor and offers to provide further information. For some reason, the media outlets in question have been reluctant to publish these letters, and been unreceptive to offers of what some might see as the inside scoop. Since such letters have gone unpublished, and such offers have been refused, For the Record is an opportunity for the Pentagon to get its side of the story out to those people who, unlike much of the media, might be interested in hearing the other side.

There's a lot there to read. I'm probably going to be checking For The Record fairly regularly, just to hear the other side of the story. I'm not saying that the DOD won't have its own slant and perspective. Of course it will try to paint its performance in the best light it can. What I am saying is the Pentagon is finally dealing with misleading statements like the one in a September 7th New York Times editorial saying, “President Bush finally has some real terrorists in Guantánamo Bay.” Right, like all the other detainees there have just been picked up for being ugly, or something. So much of the time remarks like this one have been allowed to slip with impunity into the American psyche, seemingly going unchallenged and unanswered. That is finally changing.

Update: I don't mean to imply that the Defense Department's site is brand new. As far as I can tell it's been up for at least a year, but this is the first I've heard of it. Since I tend to be slightly more Internet-engaged than most of the people I know, I'm guessing a few of you haven't heard of it either. Maybe the DOD is getting the word out a little more about its resources. If that's the case, again I say, "It's about time!!"

Hat tip: Instapundit

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Speaking Up

Here's a brief diversion for you, that I find fascinating in a "human interest story" kind of way. Scott Adams, the man who brings the Dilbert comic strip into the cubicles of office workers everywhere, lost his voice for 18 months--sort of--and then got it back--mostly. His doctor told him no one ever recovers from his condition (something called Spasmodic Dysphonia), a discouraging statement at best, but Adams applied some creative reasoning and innovation to the problem to bring about his own recovery. (I find that kind of story very encouraging, like watching the movie Lorenzo's Oil.) It's a strange tale. Adams has got a blog, and tells all about it, in all its weirdness. Weirdness example: he couldn't have a conversation with a person right by him, but could still speak to an audience. Wondering how that works? Read it for yourself.

Update: A later post says the fix is holding, and he's talking at about 95%. Neato.

Hat tip: IMAO

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Somehow unnoticed by astronomers and other scientists, recently the spinning of the Earth on its axis slammed into reverse. I didn't feel it, although it's true that my head is spinning a bit. You probably didn't feel it either. No special scientific equipment spat out anomalous readings to confirm the event, and even the stars give no telltale clue that the way the world interacts with the universe has undergone a radical shift. However, it must have happened. It must have. Otherwise there is no way to explain the reversal recently made by the ombudsman of the New York Times-- a reversal actually admitting that The Times was wrong and the Bush administration was right about whether it was right for The Times to reveal tactics being used by the U.S. government to track terrorist banking transactions. Think about it. Times wrong. Bush administration right. It is almost beyond reckoning. Such an occurrence can only be the result of a massive realignment in the heavens, or something equally dramatic.

Jules Crittenden, the Boston Herald city editor, examines this turn of events, and what might have brought about Byron Calame's change in direction:

Calame, in the throes of some inexplicable crisis of conscience, has admitted his newspaper was wrong to reveal a secret U.S. government program to monitor bank transactions of terrorists, and that he was not only wrong but hypocritical to defend it. He did not mention hopelessly lacking in perspective, but I’ll get to that.

Calame has acknowledged that the United States government’s Swift program to monitor overseas banking transactions in order to zero in on suspected terrorists was legal, under appropriate oversight, and posed no threat to law-abiding Americans. He acknowledged that, but for his prejudices, he could have arrived at this conclusion upon reading the original article. He acknowledged that it was a bad idea for the New York Times to reveal this program to our enemies, over the objections of our government, four months ago.

Crittenden goes on from here to describe the U.S. media's general role in demoralizing the American people regarding the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism, and in the common, though not ubiquitous belief that the President lied to take us into Iraq for his own selfish ends. He's pretty blunt about the media's method, and its effect:
Our media has repeatedly propagated falsehoods about what the administration and the president have said, about what was known and about what in some cases has been borne out about the threats we have faced from al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein and others. This has been done to such an extent that reasonable people cannot be blamed for believing their president lied to them before committing troops to battle. To the extent that some seemingly responsible people now question whether we face any threat at all. The history leading up to the conflicts and crises we face has been repeatedly misrepresented, in a manner that undercuts the authority of a wartime president and threatens the credibility of our nation in the world -- the single most important nation in maintaining stability in the world.
Crittenden further examines what the ultimate end to this constant media assault on the veracity of the President, and the necessity for our engagement in the war, could be if their current behavior goes unchecked, and people, especially those in power, continue to believe the line they have spun. It's a decidedly negative result, abandoning the Iraqi people to their fate, and us to our shame in that abandonment. At the same time, he holds out some hope that Byron Calame's one-eighty might be a sign of "an awakening." After all, this is The New York Times, or at least a representative of it, exercising a little confession and repentance--admitting something so momentous as the Bush administration being right, and the Grey Lady being wrong--and even more, acknowledging that it was his own prejudices that made him take the wrong side in the debate in the first place. Someday, maybe science will explain how the Earth reversed her course, and why no one noticed it occurring, but for now, it's enough to know such a thing can happen. Someday, this dizzy feeling might pass as well, but for now, I'm kind of enjoying it.

Hat tip: Instapundit

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

So Cool

NASA images (provided by your tax dollars) are free to the public, and sometimes so cool you just can't believe they're brought to you by the government!! Here's a link to an amazing image of "The Blue Marble" that is our lovely home planet. Be sure to click on one of the links to a bigger image (to the right of the smaller picture), and also read the description of how they got the picture pulled together over a period of months. I may have to make this shot the wallpaper on my laptop for a while. Right now it's another galaxy, which is also cool, but the blue marble picture is just so pretty, I'm not sure I can resist.

Update: I didn't even try to resist--"The Blue Marble" is now what will greet me when I turn on my computer. I'm not sure how long it will last, but it's awfully beautiful, so it'll take something really spectacular to knock it out of its new place.

Truth Through The Fire

I've been doing a bit of this and that today, including a fair amount of reading (although not much writing.) A comment here at the Meow led me to a new blog that I'd like to bring to your attention, called Truth Through The Fire. The author is articulate and rational, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading what he had to say. This post, in particular, caught my eye, about World War II and the current struggle we are in. Head on over, and tell 'im Kat sent you!!

The Vote

This pretty much sums up why I'll be voting Republican in the November election, despite my myriad frustrations with the current majority party. Not that my vote will really matter--as a conservatarian living in Portland, I can usually be fairly certain my candidates won't win, and my ballot measures won't pass (or, even more likely, measures I don't want to pass will easily sail through to become law, creating ever deeper levels of Alliance-type bureaucracy.) However, I refuse to be one of those people who doesn't bother to vote because they're not likely to be on the winning side. In some things it really is the principle that matters. I wish the Republicans in Congress would remember that.

Hat tip: Instapundit

Monday, October 23, 2006

The X Prize

NASA didn't hand out any of the $2 million it was offering for winners in the Wirefly X Prize Cup over the weekend in New Mexico, but that didn't stop a lot of contestants and spectators from enjoying the games. The games are designed to motivate innovation in the private sector for space-related engineering, and are doing a bang-up job if the competition that just transpired is any indication. Yes, bang-up is a deliberate word choice. Some of the challengers soared, and some crashed and burned, but it's clear from what the teams accomplished that the prizes are meeting their aim of sparking advances in privately developed space-tech. No one managed to fully meet the engineering challenges, in any of the three categories, but according to Megan Miller, writing for Popsci.com, the games didn't lack promising moments. The Lunar Lander and Space Elevator competitions proved dramatic at times, and one elevator team came within two seconds of nabbing the $150,000 prize. Miller says that it's looking good for next year:

On the bright side, the weekend’s competitions proved that advances in aerospace engineering are bringing us closer and closer to the lunar-lander and space-elevator goals. A clear winner is expected to emerge in each category next year, and the prize money that went unclaimed this weekend will be added to the pot. That none of the teams came out victorious is a testament to how difficult to achieve these engineering feats really are. It is rocket science, after all.
It's pretty cool that this year's unclaimed prize money goes into next year's pot. That ought to add a little incentive for all the teams that didn't make the grade this year to keep trying. Not that they aren't already motivated, but sweetening the pot can't hurt.

Dr. Bradley Edwards, a space elevator expert, who I've linked to before (here's a must-read for elevator enthusiasts), says that things are coming along nicely, and the science and engineering are progressing apace, with the incentive NASA's prize offers to innovate spurring some of those advances. Edwards writes at spaceelevator.com that last weekend's event was evidence of that progress:
The challenges and events are doing what they were intended – pushing the engineering and available materials for the space elevator needs. The challenges have not achieved their goals yet, however, if this event is any indication during the next three to five years I have little doubt these events will produce a very high caliber climber and extreme strength materials.
Sounds to me like they're reaching new heights (sorry, I know that pun was too obvious), and this competition is one to watch in the future. I think it would have been a total kick to be there for the whole weekend, what with lunar landers flying overhead (yes, one of them did fly; it just crashed on the second attempt), robots climbing fifty meter ribbons, self-powered (solar, microwave, you name it), and the tether competition that you can read about in Dr. Edwards' post. Just the chance to talk to some of the engineers and ask them questions would have been a hoot, as Edwards says that crowds of children did throughout the games. I'm not a kid, but that doesn't mean I don't have questions. I have lots of questions. Most of them probably aren't up to the technical standards of the average ten-year-old, but why should I be penalized just because I was raised on Star Trek, and not the new Battlestar Galactica? Middle aged people need answers too!! Maybe it's worth a trip down to New Mexico next year to join in the fun.

Hat tip: Futurismic--for the spaceelevator.com link.

Common Sense

The Supreme Court decided on October 20th that it was too close to the upcoming November elections to suspend a new Arizona law, requiring voters show ID in order to cast their ballots. Amanda Crawford, at The Arizona Republic, explains the situation:

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Friday that Arizona can go ahead with requiring voters to present a photo ID, starting with next month's general election, as part of the Proposition 200 that voters passed in 2004. The ruling overturns an Oct. 5 decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which put the voter ID rules on hold this election cycle.
The Supremes didn't decide on the constitutionality of the Arizona law, as that decision is still pending from a lower court, but did make the determination that the 9th Circuit made a "procedural error" in issuing an injunction delaying implementation of the Arizona rules, because the 9th didn't wait for an explanation from the lower court that had previously refused to grant the same injunction. Wow, all this wrangling over procedure, and none of it's even about whether it was okay for Arizona voters to make ID mandatory, but rather just about whether the appeals court should have overturned a lower court without listening first. And we wonder why things take so long to move through the courts. Did you notice that the Arizona proposition was passed in 2004?

Whatever the basis for the decision, the results are the same; if you want to cast a ballot in Arizona, you will have to provide ID this time around, regardless of whether the law will hold up to future constitutional scrutiny. Of course, it takes lawyers to figure out the legality of such things, but what blows me away is that there is any debate, among lower forms of men (i.e. non-lawyers), about the general common sense and decency of such a rule. I find it amazing that there is even a question about whether requiring identification is acceptable. Why wouldn't it be? Crawford sheds a little light on the issue, but the argument against ID seems pathetically weak on its face:
The new voter ID rules were passed, in part, to keep illegal immigrants and other non-citizens from voting. Opponents have argued that legal voters, especially the poor and the elderly, might also be disenfranchised because of the rules.
This argument seems to imply that the elderly and poor somehow manage not to need ID for any other aspect of their lives. I'm sorry, but that just doesn't hold water. The implication that the voting booth is the first place old people or poor people will ever need to prove they are who they say they are, or that they live where they say they do, is patently ridiculous. It would take far more effort and trouble to find a way to get by in the modern world without identification, than it would just to get the darned ID in the first place--unless, of course, these people never need to pay a bill, cash a paycheck (or welfare check/social security check), or even receive mail. All that's being required here is a photo ID, showing a current address, or two other forms of ID with the voter's name and current address, such as bills. What is unfair about that? Anybody living anywhere with an address has such kinds of proof by default.

Maybe some think that it's unfair to require an address at all, let alone proof. That's as silly as the concept that old people have managed to live a long life in America without the need for identification. Voters have to have an address just to register. Arizona has the right to keep voters from Massachusetts from voting in Phoenix, or transients-for-hire from bouncing wherever the highest bidder wants to take them to fill out weak party numbers. You can't tell me it's unfair to require an address--otherwise, what's to stop political parties from shipping in as many people as are needed to win an election in any given place, ferrying around warm bodies to reach the victory threshold? Good grief, by that standard, it's unreasonable for the citizens of Arizona even to expect its voters be American citizens!! Heck, ship 'em in from Mexico, if that will win the election for you!!

Could we get a little common sense here? I'm glad the Supreme Court decided the way it did in this case, and that, at least for now, Arizona can go ahead with such a reasonable voting standard, but it's appalling that such a decision was even required in the first place. I'm pretty disgusted that there are people who would tie up the courts trying to stop a rule that seems so basic and fair that you'd think this was one thing on which everyone could actually agree. I have to question the motives of the people who would buck this. I tend to give most people the benefit of the doubt--my husband says I'm far too naive--but the only real reason I can think of for trying to prevent the voter ID requirement is that the people who object want to cheat to system, and the new rule will make that harder. Call me skeptical, but the "disenfranchisement" argument is so weak that it must be a front for less honorable motives. That's just common sense.


For those of you who are remotely interested in the Big Dig and have been following its progress (not the horrendously expensive, obstacle ridden, near fiasco of a tunnel construction project in Boston, that became most expensive highway project in American history to date, but the less expensive, though no less budget crippling, obstacle ridden, infuriatingly complex garage/shop building project that has consumed Ked's and my money, time and limited patience for approximately the last five months), I have momentous news to report--THE GIANT DIRT PILE IS OFFICIALLY GONE!! Yes, our mountain of earth and rocks, produced by the excavation of the shop foundation, finally bit the dust, as it were, and none too soon, for, this being Oregon, if we hadn't disposed of it in time it was going to have to bite the mud. This is a big relief. There are now only about six more relatively major projects we have to do before the garage site can be inspected again by the erosion control inspector, and then by the building inspector for final approval. I wish I was exaggerating about what's left to do, but I'm not. We do, after all, live in the heart of The Alliance.

Now that you have the project update, perhaps we should move on to more interesting topics. I, for one, am ready for a break from even the thought of digging, and am instead spending my morning digging through various websites for information and punditry. I've read a couple things of note that I want to send your way. Although they are quite dissimilar in topic, I thought I'd toss them to you in one shot. I haven't taken the time to do any analysis of them myself, or to fully develop my own thoughts on what they have to say. I just thought they both were worthy of a recommendation for you to give them a look.

The first is a piece at Real Clear Politics, by Michael Barone, (via Instapundit) on the mental state of the American electorate with the November elections looming, why people are leaning the way they seem to be, and whether that's a good thing. The other is an article in The Weekly Standard, by Michael Yon, about journalists embedding with the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, why doing so has gotten harder in the last year, and why that needs to change. Neither of these pieces are fluff, or even particularly cheerful, and the one by Yon is quite long, but I really respect both these guys' opinions and think reading the articles was time well spent. I'd also be interested in any reactions you might have, especially to the Yon piece, so come back and share your thoughts if you feel like it.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Nobel Peace Prize

Here's an excellent piece, by Alvaro Vargas Llosa at TCS Daily, on successful entrepreneurship in impoverished countries, and people getting out of poverty, and the Nobel Peace Prize actually going somewhere that doesn't reward duplicity, or incompetence. Cool.

Update: I just read the article to my husband, and he agrees with me that it's well worth your time. Really, go read this one. It's a wonderful look at how successfully the poor can help themselves if they are offered the opportunity of a modest investment, without undue hindrances to enterprise. This year's Nobel winner is, if you can believe it, a bank in Bangladesh, which is a strictly for-profit venture, and yet is transforming the lives of the poor. Llosa explains how Grameen bank contributes so much to the well-being of the community:

The bank lends tiny amounts of money to village-dwellers so they can start small businesses. The scale can be so modest as to involve the purchase of a cow in order to sell milk. Since no collateral or credit history is required, the system works on the basis of trust and peer pressure: Lenders are placed in groups of five, with part of the group guaranteeing the loans of the rest. If a loan is not repaid, the community shuns the borrower.
He goes on to explain how, after half a century of continually increasing foreign aid--rich country to poor country charity--the poor are actually worse off in the nations that have received the bulk of the money. Surprised? He also looks at the effects of entrepreneurial opportunity in poor communities, and concludes that this opportunity, not handouts which create dependency, is the key to improving conditions for the poor:
What the poor really want is an environment in which undertaking a profitable venture is not a nightmarish bureaucratic and legal process. The world is full of examples of poor and uneducated communities that have been able to create wealth thanks to entrepreneurship, rather than governmental assistance. I have been looking at cases of entrepreneurial success around the world for the past year and the conclusion is overwhelming: The best way to fight poverty is to eliminate barriers that currently hold back private enterprise among the poor.
Have a look. You might be encouraged, or surprised, or both.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Are We Supposed To Be The World Police, Or Not?

Victor Davis Hanson has a good explanation of why the U.S. will probably stay away from helping the victims of genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, as tragic as that situation is. I'm sure most of us know what's happening there. The Arab Muslims are killing the black Muslims and non-Muslims, and Hanson says that, given the U.N.'s inaction to stop the slaughter, humanitarians are calling for the U.S. to interject itself where the U.N. is so impotent to act. He also says these humanitarians will likely not get the action they want from the U.S., partly because of their own inconsistency.

Okay, here's a situation where the world's watchdogs want us to make the other kids play nice. Apparently, sometimes unilateral action in the face of U.N. ineffectiveness is good. Noted. (It's interesting to note also that along with Sudan, North Korea and Iran are both situations that we're supposed to negotiate--read "deal with"--unilaterally, despite the fact that we're supposed to get the world's approval for everything else.) In any case, Hanson makes the argument that the very people who are calling for our intervention in Darfur are the same ones saying we should not have intervened in Iraq. (Warning: sarcasm to follow.) Apparently we had something to gain from Iraq, which is a no-no. You know, the whole "oil for blood" thing that has us awash in all that petroleum we scored out of the deal. (Sarcastic moment over.) Since we could have nothing to gain from getting involved in Sudan, some are calling for us to go be world police again.

Hanson, though, also goes on to say that if President Bush did make the decision to commit troops, or bombs, the same people now criticising him for inaction would turn on him as soon as boots were on the ground and the inevitable happened. What's the inevitable? I'll paraphrase. 1) Terrorists would flock to the region to fight the Great Satan, just as they have done in Iraq. We are, as we all know, the genesis for all terrorist activity. Therefore, terrorism in the region would become "our fault." 2) American soldiers would die. This is not inevitable, but it is highly likely, and once that happens the results would again fall on the administration's head for sending our troops into harm's way. 3) Innocent civilians would die, either because they are in the wrong place when a bomb goes where it's supposed to, or because a bomb goes where it's not supposes to, or because they are mistaken for bad guys, or any number of other realistic scenarios. As Hanson put it:

Again, far more importantly, we all suspect of the Sudan that should Americans get ambushed, should a plane go down and its pilot be beheaded on Sudanese television, should a bomb go wide and kill some civilians on CNN, both the world at large, and the American Left in particular, would be the first to turn on the United States for not being perfect when we were still doing a great deal of good.
The long and short of it is that we are damned if we do and damned if we don't, and, as Hanson makes clear, we have an awful lot of other pressing issues on our plates at the moment with Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Hanson goes on:

We are developing in America a new reactionary aversion to force, that may soon surprise the UN, the Europeans, and our own left anti-war crowd that clamors for humanism in our foreign policy, even to the point of using arms to stop evil. But given the invective against our efforts first in Afghanistan, and then—and especially—in Iraq, such critics have almost destroyed entirely neo-conservative muscular support for democratic reformers.
Personally, I'd just as soon see the U.S. do something anyway. As Hanson says, "...a single aircraft carrier could enforce a no-fly zone over the country, while a brigade of American troops could shatter the poorly-led and poorly-trained bullies who are killing the innocent. " We all know the U.N. is useless, and it's not like world opinion isn't already set, regarding the Bush administration. Truth is, we'd be protecting Muslims, too, which actually could garner some support from the parts of the Muslim world that aren't Arab. Oh wait, we would also be protecting them against Muslims, so I suppose the two would cancel each other out. In any case, my point is that, since the people who hate us are going to hate us anyway, it would be better to intervene. Somebody needs to, and no one else is stepping up to the plate. Hanson's point, though, is that, given how vociferous the same people who are now calling for that intervention have been about condemning the administration for other interventions, the chances that the U.S. will get involved are slim. That just adds one more layer of tragedy to an already tragic situation.

Hat tip: Instapundit

Engage The Cloaking Device, Sir? No, Please Don't!

I got an email from New Scientist this morning, announcing that a "working invisibility cloak" had been "created at last." "At last?" I thought to myself. "What, like we've all been sitting around wondering what's taking so long?" Never mind that this is one of those science fiction type of concepts that most of us think must be heavy on the fiction, despite all the technological breakthroughs of recent years. I just don't really think I'm comfortable with the idea of invisibility being an option. I have not been pining for the day when enemy planes can fly over New York undetected. I also am not anxious for terrorist bombers to be able to walk with impunity through a crowded mall, looking for a properly substantial number of people to target. I have not even been impatiently checking the latest scientific journals for signs of progress in the fine art of "cloaking," frustrated that I can't yet slip into a room and hear what's being said about me when no one thinks I'm around. I don't want to know. Some genies are better left in the bottle.

Fortunately, upon reading the fine print in the article Justin Mullins wrote for New Scientist, I discovered that the technology is not quite as far along as the headline made it sound. Air Force commanders will not be telling their helmsmen to "raise shields and engage the cloaking device" anytime soon. (Although the shields are coming along, from what I've read, and are a much better idea than the cloak, if you ask me.) The progress that has been made, at Duke University, is in the "microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum," which means that scientists can now bend light around an object at a very specific frequency, and make it "disappear"--albeit a frequency which people can't see, and only in two dimensions.

It's still a remarkable scientific breakthrough, and the first step in what David Smith, a member of the Duke team, said he hopes will lead to "a 3D structure that could hide an object completely from view." When he says "structure," he means it. The success they've had to this point rests in a set of rings that encircle an object completely--the object in question for the tests at Duke being a copper ring, that mostly disappeared. There was still some distortion to indicate the ring was there, but mostly invisible is still mostly invisible. I'm betting if you didn't know to look for it, you probably would miss it, if you could see it in the first place, that is, which since we're talking microwaves, you can't, but...(moving on.)

Multiple steps led up to this amazing, if somewhat undesirable, accomplishment. The set-up involved creating new materials:

In recent years, materials scientists have made rapid progress in making so-called "metamaterials", which can have exotic electromagnetic properties unseen in nature. These are made up of repeating structures of simple electronic components such as capacitors and inductors.

In 2001, Smith built a metamaterial with a negative refractive index, which bends microwaves in a way impossible for ordinary lenses. Now he has gone one step further.

The one step further is the aforementioned rings, which "distort an electromagnetic field as it passes through." According to Smith, they "steer microwaves around the central region of the device," the region where they stashed the copper ring. Needless to say, the way they can tell it worked must involve fancy machines that can detect electromagnetic waves in this range, since we're not talking about something that's visible to the human eye. Making these materials in such a way that the results could be seen (or not seen, as it happens), creates some challenges. Mullins clarifies, "The problem with visible light is that it has a much smaller wavelength, meaning an optical metamaterial would have to be built on the nanoscale, which is beyond the limits of current nanotechnology." (Probably not for long. We know how nanotech is advancing by leaps and bounds.) There also would still be limitations as to frequency--Smith says even nanomaterials would still only work on one frequency. They'll have to work on that if they want to make Federation vessels disappear, or make spies' jobs really, really easy.

I have no doubt the problems can be overcome, maybe not in the immediate future, but probably sooner than I will be ready for such technology to make its way into ubiquity. Am I the only one who finds such an "advance" to have dubious merit? Maybe I'm just in a tech funk. Saturday I wrote with disapproval about the latest form of scientifically invented self-flagellation. (Some of you will remember the post about the mirror/camera combo. It's a different kind of "guilt mirror.") I don't think that's it, though. I really just think it's that some things bring up that old truism that just because we can build something doesn't mean we should. All of the applications I can think of for this new scientific direction are either nefarious, or pointless. Can anybody help me out here? Anyone else have an idea of how to use this in a good and fruitful way, especially one that can't be abused by the bad guys?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Hood River Trek Pictorial

Well, yesterday I told you all a bit about our day trip to Hood River, and I thought maybe you'd like to see some of the photos from our adventure. I know this isn't current events, or science, or politics, or any of the things I usually bring you. It's a bit of self-indulgence, really. I enjoyed the day, and like the pics, and am looking to drag you all into the memory--but who couldn't use a little colorful diversion in a sometimes dreary world? So here we go.

Draper Orchard, where we go every year to stock up on our winter supply of pears and apples, is just all kinds of charming. There are beautiful views in every direction, and little groupings of pumpkins and sheaves of wheat, and other decorative touches make the family farm a lovely escape for us city folk.

My husband and I are are stocking up on fruit here, while our more artistic friend looks through the decorative gourds and pumpkins for just the right centerpiece.

We speculated that some of these more interesting-looking offerings of nature were actually alien pods, and that if we took any home, we could look forward to an alien infestation when they hatched.

This ram got our attention by virtue of his four horns. The poor thing must feel like he's lived his life behind a hockey mask.

What country scene is complete without a red barn?

There were also three little pigs!! The two shown in the photo were less afraid of the big, bad wolf.

My friend, husband and sister make a charming group there amongst the pumpkins and marigolds, don't you think?

My sister certainly dressed for the occasion!!

We all decided that the word bucolic, which is an adjective used to describe an idealized country life, was certainly fitting the environment, but it is not one of those words that sounds like what it means. It's really quite an ugly word used to describe such a pretty scene. The horse was very benevolent on the occasion, and graciously allowed us to pet it and feed it some of the grass from the other side of the fence. It was a very smart horse, because, of course, the grass was clearly greener on the other side.

I have discovered that my blog program doesn't want to let me post more than ten pictures at a time, so I'll put these out for you now, and work on a second post to give you the rest, and put it below. Hope you liked 'em.

Update: Oops!! I forgot to tell you that some of these were taken by me, but many of them are my sister's handiwork. I don't want to take credit away from her artistic eye, even if it is my blog and I could probably get away with it!!

Pics Two

Here we go again. I'll just treat this post as a continuation of the one above, okay?

Charm, charm, charm. Here's another of our favorite autumn trek haunts. Rasmussen Farms is the home of "Pumpkin Funland," where pumpkins become characters in a set of comic tableaux, and Pumpkin Farmers take their crops to town. I'm not sure what it says about them that their crop is a load of pumpkins. Looking at it from a human perspective, it could be inferred that they're hauling a whole pile of heads off to market, a sort of "Pumpkin-man meets cannibal head-shrinker" scenario. That's a little too Halloween for my taste, though, and really, would cannibals have artistic enough souls to decorate their horse with flowers? I think not.

Does this picture bring the Green Acres theme song into anybody else's head? Bah dum, bah dum bum, Bum Bum...

Do you suppose that old tractor had anything to do with growing these pretties?

Inside "Pumpkin Funland" every year, they chose a theme and run with it. This year's theme? Then and Now. We only got a few photos, but the scenes were a progressive look at the way of things in bygone eras, contrasted to how things are done now--from dating, to sports, to travel, to math, they had an scene for everything--the funland concept of how complex calculations were performed in days of old? Gourdhenge, of course!!

Who doesn't remember Grandpa Pumpkin's tales of childhood tribulation?

I think Ked and I are looking pretty sharp here, don't you? Maybe a bit two dimensional.

Every year we "ooh" and "aah" as we drive by this place. It looks like one of those perfect replicas they do at Disneyland. Doesn't this look like the perfect place to retire, or maybe open a bed and breakfast? Of course, we're a long way from retirement, but it never hurts to plan ahead.

We thought the day ended on a rather pleasant note. We drove through a wonderful downpour, promptly followed by this lovely rainbow over the hills of Washington. All in all, the day turned out to be just about perfect. I can't wait till next year.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Federalist Iraq

Neo-neocon has an interesting post on federalism and the future of Iraq. She says, "The Iraqi Parliament has passed a law allowing for the establishment of federal regions in Iraq." This could enable Iraq to head toward a form of government resembling the early days of U.S. self-rule, with a relatively weak central gov., and strong states, in a sort of loose cooperative. The question is whether that country could prosper under a system which allows more autonomy to the three main regions of the country--Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia, or whether that would lead to the ultimate breakup of the country, or domination by outside forces like Iran. She makes a case for there being some plausible mutual benefits to cooperation for the various regions and factions involved. Have a look.


Everyone needs a day off now and then. Everyone needs a break from their routine, and a chance to regroup. Ked and I have very few traditions, but one of them is our annual autumn day in the country. It is a refreshing pilgrimage, a sip from the cup of God's creation, a respite from the demands of daily life. Even when daily life isn't demanding much, our attitude can occasionally benefit from a step back to gain some fresh perspective, and in busy years like this one, where stress has been a frequent companion, that stepping back and taking a day to seek a little extra peace in the rush of life is all the more necessary. Leaving the city behind for a little while, we breathe in God's grace, full of gratitude that He has allowed us to live in a place so full of beauty that merely driving out into that world can rejuvenate our souls. We taste His favor.

Here in Portland, we are surrounded on all sides by some of the most glorious scenic wonders you can imagine. Rivers and mountains, hills and valleys, and rich, fertile farmland. If you head west for an hour and a half or so, you'll pass through the forested coastal mountain range, on your way to find long sweeping sandy beaches and rugged rocky shores. If you choose southeast for your direction, you will once again find your passage through dense forested foothills, which swell to become the majesty that is Mount Hood. Continuing on this path, past the beckoning ski slopes, will take you on to the open high desert, so different from the lush Willamette Valley, but equally beautiful in a stark and deceptively barren sort of way, with ever more volcanic mountains thrusting high above the desert plain to remind you that God's methods of creation are often turbulent.

This Sunday after church the road called us to once again experience some of the joy that is an autumn day in Oregon. Our journey was east into the Columbia Gorge, where just the view on the drive alone is worth the effort and time. The powerful Columbia River surged with the fresh fall rains, pushing stout white arms against the resisting wind. The towering Oregon cliffs, heavy with timber, danced their mountain dance, kissing their cloud companions with passionate abandon. The hills of Washington swelling from the opposite shore, peering out from the thickening mist, prepared to weather the gathering storm. All the red-gold colors of fall bravely shouted their defiance to the greyness of the rain, as if to say their splendor could be dimmed, but not extinguished, for their brief annual reign of glory. My soul takes refuge in such scenes as these. I need them. As much as I need food, air, or love, I need this kind of beauty, that man cannot create; he can only enjoy and try to emulate.

So, each year we go seeking this moment. Once every autumn we take the drive through the Gorge to Hood River, sometimes alone, usually with a very good friend. This year my sister joined us as well, for a day that has taken, over the years, a familiar and comfortable pattern. Hood River is a picturesque and charming village, with shops and restaurants suiting such a setting. Once there, we eat at a local bistro, and then we drive past the town itself to wander among the orchards, stop to pet the horses, and snap photographs that attempt to capture the artistic beauty of the multi-colored autumnal hills. We buy boxes of pears and apples at our favorite local fruit stands, and always look for a cheerful diversion in "Pumpkin Funland." We immerse ourselves in seasonal colors and smells and flavors. This is a day we spoil ourselves and waste time, and buy homemade caramels and eat them all before we get home. We savor their sweetness as we once again pass through God's natural art, on our soul-satisfied way back to Portland, tired from a long day, but content with our tradition.

This day is made more wonderful because it's only once a year, but also because it's every year. We will travel the same road again through different seasons. We will come this way in the winter to ski. We will come this way in the spring and summer to hike. We will pass through again at various times for work or play, but this one day each year is special. It is our pilgrimage and respite. It is our time to breathe. It is tradition.

Monday, October 16, 2006

A Soldier Remembered

Here's a very moving story of an American hero. Sometimes we toss that word around too easily. Sometimes, it's earned. Angelo J. Vaccaro earned it.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Reality Check

If you ask me, mirrors are a curse. People worry far too much about how they look to other people, and mirrors only exacerbate the problem. People generally are way easier on us than our mirror is, but the mirror never tells us that. Mirrors don't tell us how we look to other people--they tell us how we look to ourselves. A self-critical person looking in a mirror will always focus in on whatever flaws they perceive and magnify them to fit their insecurity level of the moment. Mirrors often give us confirmation of our worst fears, regardless of what they actually reflect. No matter how clear the image, our minds can find ways to distort it. Women, especially, are prone to twisted thinking about how we look, where every extra pound becomes ten, and every fine line becomes a Grand Canyon of wrinkles. We might as well be standing in front of a fun-house mirror most of the time. Women are experts at making the most out of our flaws.

So how about a mirror that does the same thing for you, only better? Would you like a mirror where you don't even have to apply any imagination to see yourself at your worst, one that magnifies your flaws for you? Well, there's apparently one coming--a mirror that aims to be completely honest with you about what you'll look like if you keep eating a pint of Haagen Dazs every night, or smoking three packs a day, or laying around watching reruns of Gilligan's Island. You see, this mirror is linked to cameras all over your house, that watch everything you're doing, and report back to the mirror, which extrapolates that info about your lifestyle choices to create images of the new and not-so-improved you.

Doesn't that sound fun? Photoshop finally has a real purpose--making you feel worse about yourself!! Supermarket magazine stands and television aren't enough. You need more reinforcement of your physical inadequacy. Now, to be fair, maybe your mirror friend will go the other route. Maybe it will see you trying and cut you some slack because its network of camera spies sees you hitting the treadmill a couple times a week. Maybe it will show you images that make you look toned and fit and absolutely fabulous, but I ask you, WHAT'S THE POINT!!? It isn't real!! Mirrors can't predict the future, no matter how many cameras there are inside your refrigerator. This "motivational tool" looks like it can only beat you up emotionally, or make promises you might not keep. Keep it far, far away from me, please. I usually love techno-gadgets, but this one definitely goes on my "not in a million years" list.

Hat tip: Futurismic

Strong Statement

Great video at Blackfive. The Army's new recruiting slogan--Army Strong.

HT: Michelle Malkin

Friday, October 13, 2006

Dissent In Politics

We're heading into the home stretch for the mid-term elections--heavy duty political season. It seems like everyone has opinions, and candidates, and parties they support, or despise, or see as the lesser of two evils, or want hung from the nearest gallows. Individual politician's crimes and offenses are made out to be giant party trends (sometimes accurately), and having the upper hand and jockeying for moral victory get oh so much more important as we approach election day--at least jockeying for the appearance of moral victory. For many candidates, it's all about landing blows on the opponent, and not about saying, "Here's why my ideas are better than the other guy's." Improving poll numbers are the political holy grail, and contribute to the momentum that will carry the party on to victory. Or not.

I wonder how much of that momentum is based on all the hype and accusations that come out just before the votes are cast. Are Americans really so fickle that the latest sex scandal, or shady land deal, will push the electorate over into one camp or another? Do most of us care enough to get educated about the issues and vote responsibly? Do we care enough when not inundated with the high drama of the peak of the election cycle to pay attention to what politicians really do--how they vote after all the promises that get them elected? When we discuss politics amongst ourselves, is it with an eye to finding the best solution, no matter who comes up with it, or are we so entrenched in our beliefs about other people's motivations that we won't even listen to their explanations and ideas if they happen to be of the wrong political persuasion?

I'm not sure about the answers to all these questions. I'd like to believe that the average American is better than the politicians think them, and not as vulnerable to the "October surprise" as all the final posturing in the last days of campaign season would indicate. Most of the people I know are pretty reasonable (most, not all), but why would the politicians and their minions bother with the last minute "gotcha" games if they weren't at least a little effective? Also, why does it seem that so many people aren't interested in even hearing the opposing point of view? Do they not think any good can come from getting another perspective? I don't know. I do know there's an awful lot of shouting each other down, and this year, as is common in recent years, there doesn't seem to be nearly as much discussion about ideas as there are proclamations about how horrible the other side is--and then offense when the other side takes the same approach and declares them horrible in return. I have a friend with political leaning bosses who think it's perfectly fine to let their employees know where they stand, but it's strictly verboten for anyone else to share an alternate perspective. How is that right? These days, the common interpretation of free speech so often seems to be, "feel free to agree with my speech." It's frustrating.

Peggy Noonan has a look at this squelching of dissent in a Wall Street Journal editorial. She is writing from a conservative perspective, and so her examples are all from the left. I think she has good reason for her perspective, but I do think she could have listed some examples from the right as well. I don't think this is an partisan issue. It's an issue of civil discourse. It's not about Democrat or Republican. It's about being civilized people. Have we entirely forgotten how to have a reasonable political discussion? I see a lot of evidence that the art is fading fast, but I hope that those of us who aren't so married to our ideas that all thought of disagreement makes us livid can still move to change that pattern.

Feel free to tell me your opinion on this one. Am I just getting a skewed image of this? Is there more civilised discussion out there than I'm seeing? (Outside of the blogosphere, that is. I see lots of good discussion happening here.)

Hat tip: Instapundit

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Force Is Strong, And It's Messing Up Our Calculations

Some people are way too smart. It's almost scary the things that these especially astute people can think through with their mighty Super Brains. How many of us really understand what Einstein's Theory of Relativity is, and why we should even care, let alone grasp the math required to prove it? Up front I'll say I certainly don't, and if you do, you had probably better go read somewhere else, because this post is waaaaay beneath your abilities. I like to skim the surface of science for fun. I am enough of a geek to get a kick out of scientific theory and technological development, and I even did the extra credit geometry problems for fun in school. (My teacher didn't give the extra credit, so I guess that tilts me a little farther into the geek category.) However, I went on to be a Lit major, not a Smart Person, so I just get floored with the things that some people are able to figure out.

I have been at the European Space Agency website this morning, and not only do these people understand Einstein's theory, they are heading out into space to test it and "lay the foundation" for further developing its concepts, also potentially enlarging their knowledge of gravitation and navigation in the process. By navigation I am, of course, referring to space navigation. I don't think the European Space Agency is worried about directing ocean liners and weather balloons. They're interested in directing space ships, and calculating the huge distances between heavenly bodies, and figuring out how much gravitational pull those planets, and stars, and black holes, etc., are going to have that could pull probes and ships off their intended course. The weather balloons will have to fend for themselves.

Since we're talking space and astronomical bodies, there is a basic question about how you account for the movement of these bodies when calculating distances and locations--of anything. If two items are both moving, there has to be a way to measure that motion. Apparently, this involves bringing another object into the mix:

A cornerstone of relativity is the concept of a frame of reference. This is a set of bodies relative to which any motion can be measured. Without a reference frame, no motion through space can be detected. Scientists call a frame of reference 'inertial' if unperturbed objects appear in that frame, either at rest or moving at a constant velocity. For a reference frame to be perfectly inertial, the bodies that are used to mark it must be completely free of any force.
If I'm reading this right, scientists can measure things accurately in space only if they have objects to which they can compare other item's motion--objects that are either completely still, or are moving at a completely constant rate, but without being affected by the pull or push of anything else. They then can measure the motion and distance of other bodies relative to these celestial touchstones. The problem the ESA is facing is that gravity from all those big celestial bodies out in the great beyond is always mucking up the works, and its very difficult for any frame of reference to be "free from any force," so the measurements get all out of whack.

So, what is the ESA doing to overcome these difficulties? They are working to create their own frames of reference, and compensate mathematically for the "warping" of the measurements of distance that happens when gravity is not properly taken into account:

To make this measurement, LISA Pathfinder uses two 'proof-masses'. Each is a small cube of a gold and platinum alloy, whose relative motion is measured by a laser beam. Once in space, the proof-masses will float freely within the spacecraft. When subtle forces act on the proof-masses, the laser beam will detect the way they change position to within a few thousandths of a billionth of a meter, and will be able to detect forces as small as the weight of a typical bacterium.
In layman's terms, or as close as I can come even to that low standard, they made these gold and platinum alloy cubes (only 5 centimeters wide) because they are as close to being impervious to magnetic fields as they could possibly get them, since that is another force which can act on objects out in space. They have made them this way so that the only force they will respond to is gravity, and they hope to send them out into space, free-floating in this vessel called LISA Pathfinder. Then the fancy extra-accurate laser measuring gismo will track their every motion. In this way, they hope to detect and calculate the gravitational forces that throw off the accuracy of space measurements, and then they'll do lots and lots of complicated math to work out how much distance is really between all those celestial bodies that are currently way beyond our reach, but we might get to once the Smart People figure out warp drives.

The date they're shooting for to send LISA Pathfinder into space is sometime in 2009. This mission is the forerunner to LISA, which is a bit more large-scale, in which, "three spacecraft...will work together to detect Einstein's predicted ripples, known as gravitational waves, in the fabric of spacetime." Okay, I'm barely getting my head around the concept that these people can do the math involved in compensating for gravity when calculating distances in space, now they want to start looking for ripples in the fabric of spacetime. I think I'll ignore this part. I can only handle one over-my-head topic at a time, thank you very much. All the same, the Super Brains are really amazing, don't you think? I wonder what they'll work on once they have all this space measuring and navigation stuff figured out? Probably those warp drives we're going to need once they have the navigation part down. Whatever it is, I'm sure most of us won't understand it. I think I'll go read some literature now.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Sure It's The Economy, But Which One?

I don't have lots of time to write today. Maybe I'll get the chance in the evening, but in the meantime, I thought I'd toss this Wall Street Journal piece, by Edmund S. Phelps, your way. It explains the difference between the North American and European economic models--capitalism versus a "social market economy." It's a very interesting read, if you're into learning about economics. I clearly am, or I wouldn't be passing it on to you. Anybody else economically minded?

Hat tip: Instapundit

Update: I just read in the comments on the article at the WSJ site that Professor Phelps just won the Nobel Prize for economics on Monday. No wonder the piece is so good!!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Please Let This Be Wrong

Syria prepping for war? Looks that way. Nobody's surprised that Israel is on the alert, right?

Hat tip: IMAO

Battlestar Galactica

Not sure how many Meow readers are Battlestar Galactica fans, but there's got to be one or two, so I'm going to feel free to write about it-- not the dated but nostalgic version of the seventies, but the new edgy, pushing-the-envelope version that the Sci Fi channel has been bringing us for the last couple years. Ked and I are always willing to give anything sci fi a try, so we have watched Galactica since its pilot episode, and have been very impressed with the quality of the writing, acting, production, you name it. "Sci Fi Friday" has kept us watching thus far, although, we have been a bit shocked at times, I confess. We don't watch R rated movies, and are rather un-desensitized to the sex, violence, and language that Battlestar's writers seem to think necessary. (They've come up with new swear words, but, please, who can't figure out what "frak" is supposed to mean?) We've let some of the things we don't like slide, because Battlestar crew have created such a believable and interesting world, and the quality has been so high. It's always been on the outer boundaries of our limits, though, and we are aware that, if it keeps pushing, the show may soon get to the point where we are no longer able to overlook our discomfort as it seeks to walk the bleeding edge.

The season premiere was last weekend, and we wondered again whether we will be able to watch the show much longer. The season opener was intense and very graphic, but more than that, it seemed far too interested in addressing things which are going on here on Earth, instead of in space, by the approach they are taking to the current plot line. Most of you will remember that the earlier series was all about these humans fleeing the Cylons (robotic machines), and searching for Earth. Well the new one is a similar premise, except the Cylons now look human, and during the course of the last season, the human refugees found an inhabitable planet and many of them settled on it. This is where they get a little too close to current events.

The Cylons, of course, discovered the human colony, and now the settlers are carrying on a resistance war against a Cylon occupation. The Cylons claim to be benevolent, but are oppressive, with human collaborators arresting people in the middle of the night, torture chambers, suicide bombers forming the resistance, and a puppet government. Remind you of anybody's view of Iraq? It wasn't all black and white, however. The good and bad characters were pretty well mixed amongst human and Cylon alike, and true to previous Battlestar form to date, it stayed away from pat answers and platitudes. I'm willing to give the producers the benefit of the doubt that they're not trying to shove a particular view of Iraq down anyone's throat, but it does make me wary.

I don't mind politics to some degree, but I do hope the show doesn't get too agenda driven. I can't continue to watch a series that continues to push my "I can't watch that" buttons, in terms of sex and violence, and then also pushes an agenda that I can't agree with. I sometimes can ignore one or the other, within limits, but not both, and not for any length of time. So, we've been in debate. We have one friend who has told us she will no longer be watching the series. Ked and I have been willing to give it another episode or two. When the series began it starting out at level of "I can't watch that" that backed off after the initial bid to snag viewers. We are hoping it will do so again. If the whole suicide bomber theme continues, and "Cylon" become a code word for "the Bush Administration and its evil military hordes," however, it will lose us altogether. To quote a line from As Good As It Gets, some things are just a little too much reality for a Friday night-- somebody's version of reality, anyway. Not mine.

I read a piece at National Review Online that gave me a little hope, though, that the series may not go down a path we're not willing to follow. Jonah Goldberg discusses the season opener, and the next few episodes coming down the pipe, and it looks like the show isn't going to follow the Iraq parallel as it progresses. Good. There are a lot of loyal sci fi fans out there who are also loyal Americans, and don't see our role in Iraq as a Cylon occupation. Now if we can see them back off the graphic visuals, we can salvage our ability to watch one of our favorite shows. Intelligent science fiction is a balm to some of us who can't stand sitcoms, night-time soap operas and propaganda dramas, overblown documentaries about the "real Jesus", and all the other common fare that television has to offer. They've already taken away Firefly. I hope we don't have to abandon ship on Galactica.

Hat tip: IMAO

Monday, October 09, 2006

Climate Science--Emphasis On Science

A friend asked me to keep an eye out for articles about climate science (emphasis on the science, and not the hype.) I'm happy to oblige. It's a topic I keep an eye on anyway. Beside the fact I have a genuine interest in the state of our planet, both the alarmists and the total naysayers have their entertainment value, after all. However, I frequently can give little credence to what I read, because so little of it is based on experimentation, and so much of it on anecdotal evidence and politics.

At first much of the debate rested in whether the Earth is warming at all. Then it shifted to the cause, as weather records over the last few decades do show a decided warming trend. Some people are still heavily engaged in the "why" debate, but many have moved on to what, if anything, we should/can do about it. Much of the world has simply accepted--It's Our Fault. Eliminate humans and you eliminate the problem. (Making the assumption, of course, that it is a problem.) Since ridding the world of humanity is hardly practical, the next best solution offered by some is to make people stop living the modern life, something very few of the uncooperative scourges of the Earth are willing to do (except the ones who want to take us back to the seventh century, but that's a different topic altogether.) So we spend a lot of time blaming and very little time checking our facts.

Sometimes, however, we get a look at actual verifiable science on the topic. It's very refreshing. Here's an example. SpaceDaily has a look at experiments performed in Denmark that conclusively link cosmic rays to cloud formation, and thus Earth's temperature:

It is already well-established that when cosmic rays, which are high-speed atomic particles originating in exploded stars far away in the Milky Way, penetrate Earth's atmosphere they produce substantial amounts of ions and release free electrons.

Now, results from the Danish experiment show that the released electrons significantly promote the formation of building blocks for cloud condensation nuclei on which water vapour condenses to make clouds.

Hence, a causal mechanism by which cosmic rays can facilitate the production of clouds in Earth's atmosphere has been experimentally identified for the first time.

Here's the lowdown. Scientists filled a large reaction chamber with the appropriate gases to approximate the chemistry of the lower atmosphere. They used ultraviolet lamps to perform the function of the Sun's rays in the equation, and as the "penetrating cosmic rays" did their thing, the scientists monitored the chemical reactions in the chamber with instruments that only "really smart people with degrees and stuff" know how to use. The experiment proved that cosmic rays help facilitate the development of the "stable, ultra-small clusters of sulphuric acid and water molecules which are building blocks for the cloud condensation nuclei. A vast numbers of such microscopic droplets appeared, floating in the air in the reaction chamber." Turns out the rays are very effective at producing these building blocks, and there is now empirical evidence that cosmic rays can have an effect on Earth's climate because of the clouds they help form.

It's interesting how that works. The more rays that get through to Earth's atmosphere, the more low-altitude cloud cover we get. Less rays equal less clouds. Those low altitude clouds drop the temperature here on Terra Firma. Here's the really intriguing bit:

Interestingly, during the 20th Century, the Sun's magnetic field which shields Earth from cosmic rays more than doubled, thereby reducing the average influx of cosmic rays.

The resulting reduction in cloudiness, especially of low-altitude clouds, may be a significant factor in the global warming Earth has undergone during the last century. However, until now, there has been no experimental evidence of how the causal mechanism linking cosmic rays and cloud formation may work.

Did you catch that? When the Sun's magnetic field is strong, we get less cosmic rays. Therefore, one can conclude that when the Sun's magnetic field is strong we get fewer clouds, and the Earth warms. That would link global warming to the cycles of the Sun, wouldn't it? I have read the theory before, and seen data that clearly showed that over the last four hundred years, as the Sun has cycled, so has Earth's temperature, and this experiment is some solid support for that theory. Unfortunately, I can't remember where I read the theory in the first place, but hopefully the SpaceDaily article will give you a good start on the subject.

I still think, of course, that we need to follow all the scientific leads, and find out for sure whether humans really are effecting the climate, or whether natural cycles such as the flux in the Sun's magnetic field are the reason for the temperature shifts we experience over the years. I don't think, however, that we ought to be making rash decisions that shut down the economies of the world because of fears that are as yet unproven. If global warming is a temporary and natural phase of the planet, caused by forces as far away as the Sun, no amount of turning off the air conditioning, riding the bus to work, or staying off of airplanes is going to change that natural rhythm. Of course, theories come and go. I remember being warned as a child that we were going to enter another ice age soon. We see how accurate that prediction turned out to be. I'm all for scientific investigation of the facts, but histrionics are pointless. I read recently that Al Gore told a group at the U.N. that cigarette smoking is a significant contributor to global warming. You tell me which of these two theories--cigarettes, or cosmic rays as realistic causes--has the most likelihood of veracity? Until I see solid scientific proof that smoking is the cause, I'm sticking with cosmic rays.

Hat tip: The Anchoress

Wow Again

But for a completely different reason.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Trust? No--Verify

I'm awfully fond of TCS Daily, as some of you know, and find a good deal of intellectual fodder amongst the many and varied perspectives on technology, commerce and society which fill its electronic pages. Much of it is rather libertarian, with the occasional conservative twist, which suits me fine, and the authors are as diverse as the topics. I head there frequently. One of my favorite TCS authors is Dr. Henry I. Miller, and I have posted on his articles more than once. He writes about things that interest me; medical research, medical trends, biopharming, bioengineering and the like. Frequently, not surprising in a publication with a libertarian bent, I've seen him criticize government over-regulation in scientific matters. From the development of new drugs and treatments to gene-splicing, he usually comes down in favor of letting science come up with the best options possible, and scientists and scientific testing, rather than bureaucrats, judge their efficacy. From what I've read, I've gathered that he believes that over-regulation slows needed medical progress. I fully agree. (Note: I said over-regulation, not all regulation.) So, when I started reading an article in which Miller started calling for more regulations, I took note.

The problem he's addressing in an article titled "Are Bad Drugs Coming to a Pharmacy Near You?" is the growing number of counterfeit pharmaceuticals making their way into the medicine chests of the unsuspecting. According to Miller, it's a problem worldwide, and consumers in the U.S. are by no means exempt:

Although quantitative estimates are difficult, it appears that something on the order of ten percent of the world's drug supply is counterfeit, encompassing not only products that are completely fake, but also those that have been tampered with, contaminated, diluted, repackaged or mislabeled in a way that misrepresents the contents, dosage, origin or expiration date. The World Health Organization estimated in 2003 that as much as five to seven percent of all drugs sold in the United States may be fraudulent in some way.
Mafia and terrorist groups, drug cartels and other such nefarious do-badders make a huge profit producing knock-offs and slipping them through the vast and confusing pipelines that eventually bring them to that pharmacy near you. Actually, though, what's more likely, says Miller, is that they are coming to a pharmacy not near you, but that the chances you're going to get less than you "bargained" for go up when you try to save money by buying medicines from outside the country, especially online:
How do fraudulent medicines enter the drug supply? Primarily by counterfeiters taking advantage of an alternative to the mainstream pathway of pharmaceutical manufacturing and distribution through which drugs normally move linearly from manufacturer to distributor to pharmacy to patient.
He adds:
Increasingly, consumers are making the counterfeiters' job easier by buying drugs abroad. In a 2003 operation, spot-checks by the FDA and U.S. Customs Service found that 88 percent of drugs imported into the country by mail or courier violated federal safety standards in some way.
The risks here are obvious. Diluted, out of date, or outright fake medicines aren't going to perform as required. I'm sure you will agree that this could be a slight to serious problem. The slight problem may be self-correcting. For example, I have a medicine I take daily for chronic pain. If my pills weren't doing their job, I'd probably figure it out soon enough and see my doctor for an alternative. This could cause me discomfort, and inconvenience, but is unlikely to cause me any real harm. My mom, on the other hand, has a heart condition, and medication that she must take daily, without fail. What if the drug she takes was replaced with a replica, indistinguishable, but ineffective? She might not have any warning symptoms that the pill she was faithful to take wasn't doing its job until her heart wasn't doing its job either.

So, by Miller's account, what is the solution to this dilemma? I think it's worth quoting him directly again:

First, Congress must increase the penalties for drug counterfeiting, and the FDA must more aggressively enforce regulations that require documentation of the "pedigree," or history, of a drug as it moves through distribution channels.

Second, we need to apply new track-and-trace technologies to uniquely identify and track the distribution of drugs. (And similar to our confrontations with dealers of illicit drugs, in order to keep ahead of the bad guys we will have to innovate constantly.)

Third, new authentication technologies, such as holograms and ultra-violet and forensic tags, must be developed to make it more difficult for counterfeiters to imitate legitimate drugs. A promising new technology would attach mixtures of pH-sensitive fluorescent dyes to drug molecules and measure changes in fluorescence in the presence of solutions of different compositions.

Fourth, when making Internet purchases, consumers should patronize only pharmacies on the National Board of Pharmacy's recommended list ( www.nabp.net/vipps/consumer/listall.asp).

Finally, consumers should be vigilant for anything amiss in any prescription drug obtained anywhere - unusual color, texture, markings or packaging and, when feasible, for any differences in effectiveness or side effects.

I'm surprised to find an area in life which I actually agree could need more regulation. That's not an easy sell with me, but Miller makes the case quite successfully that this is a matter of public safety. It's important that we know what we're getting, and that we can trust the source. In order to trust it, we need to know what that source is. Fortunately, as Miller explains, there are improving technologies which can help in the quest for reliable tracking and content verification methods. These, no doubt will add to the cost of popping prescription pills. So be it. I'm not a spendthrift kind of gal, and I do part with my money reluctantly, but this revelation that some of our pharmaceuticals may come from "mystery manufacturers" and be "fake pharma" has certainly made me more inclined to value safety over price.

The Times They Are A-Changin'

But is that a good thing? Here's a bit of perspective and history on women wearing the hijab in Muslim countries, from Big Pharaoh.