Wednesday, November 29, 2006


What do you think of this? is reporting that, "U.S. District Judge James Robertson said keeping all U.S. currency the same size and texture violates the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in government programs." According to Fox, Robertson has given the Treasury Department "...10 days to start working on new bills that the blind can tell apart." Treasury lawyers argued against the imposition of changes, saying it would "make it harder to prevent counterfeiting." The judge, however, in his ruling, wrote the equivalent of, "Hey, over 180 other countries have different sized bills, so there's no reason we shouldn't be able to do the same."

The ruling is getting mixed reviews from advocacy groups for the blind. Some think it is a step forward in enabling independence for the blind. Others see the issue as a distraction:

But John Paré, director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind, the nation's largest organization representing blind people, said identifying the money is hardly the most difficult obstacle for the blind to overcome.

"The focus for improving the lives of blind Americans needs to be put on earning money not figuring out how to identify money," he said. "Over 70 percent of blind Americans are under-employed or unemployed and this is what needs to be addressed.

"It really is distracting to have this lawsuit," he said, since assistance should concentrate on people "who don't have the money in the first place."

I have a mixed response to this decree, part of me agreeing that it's reasonable to make it easier for the blind to use money without the necessity of relying on possibly unscrupulous strangers, folding different denominations in different ways to differentiate between them, or buying expensive ($300) portable reader machines. Part of me, however, believes that the Treasury department would not resist the changes if there were not, indeed, counterfeiting issues to take into account--although, how size affects counterfeitability, I have no idea. I can understand how texture can impact the recognition of counterfeits, as people who work in banks learn to tell a counterfeit simply by feel.

One question I have in relation to the decree regards cost-effectiveness. The article reports that there are 7 million blind people in the U.S., and I wonder if the more frugal alternative would not simply be for the government to purchase a portable money reader for anyone who needs one, rather than to spend an enormous amount of money to design and print an entirely new money supply. I understand that money wears out and new bills are printed all the time, but entirely new designs, papers, presses, cutting equipment, and differently sized storage and transport equipment are not required with those new printings, and those changes must include an enormous amount of expense. Part of my objection is the immediacy with which the judge's decision demands change. I can see a long-term strategy to implement changes as equipment wears out, or other circumstances warrant changes anyway, but overhauling the whole system "yesterday" seems a bit extreme.

Given all of the more serious things going on in the world today, you may not consider this as worth much attention. Some days I might not either, but it is an example to me of the ways our society has to balance the needs of a small minority of her citizens with the expense and inconvenience to her general population. Will the value to the blind be worth the costs, especially if there are other options (like the reader) available? The government has required itself, and private business for that matter, to accommodate the accessibility needs of the handicapped. Should reworking the monetary system to make it easier for the blind to spend their money be part and parcel with that, or is it, as John Paré says, a distraction from the real issue of handicapped employment? Should the money for transforming our currency rather be spent on making it easier for the blind to hold a job? Should some of the money be spent to provide readers to those who need them? (I'm sure the government could bring the price of those readers down substantially with a bulk purchase.) Should the money be spent at all? Should there be a gradual shift to new currency over a long period of time as equipment wears out, rather than the immediate change the litigants and the judge are requiring? I'm kind of up in the air on this, although I am tilting a bit, and would be interested in anyone else's opinion.

Hat tip: IMAO

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

How To Protect Yourself From Cosmic Rays If You Ever Happen To Make It Into Space

This one is fun. Remember back in September when the poor commander got lost on Mars and couldn't understand Base's instructions? No? Okay, go here first and refresh your memory. I'll wait... Finished? Then we're ready to move on. Since you've now done your homework, you know that the reason the Mars mission was in jeopardy was that the crew's brains were being scrambled by radiation. Radiation is a big problem that scientists are going to have to figure out before humans start heading out past the protection of the Earth's magnetic field, beyond the orbit where the International Space Station flies above the Earth in relative safety. The Moon and Mars, as we all know, are on the short list for mission possibilities, and spending such long periods of time in space could do more than scramble a few brain cells; if current theories are correct, astronauts could be risking premature aging by heading out into the cosmic ray zone. (That last link leads to an interesting article about space radiation, telomeres, Einstein and pills to repair DNA damage--I followed a link from there to one about what the heck telomeres are, and how they affect aging, with possible implications for human life extension. Pretty interesting if you want to follow some rabbit trails.)

All of that aside, however, what I really want to tell you about is the idea some scientists have for blocking all that radiation, so that no astronautical DNA is damaged in the first place. Patrick L. Barry wrote an article for NASA about how they are looking to make space ships out of a revolutionary new material--you're not going to guess this one in a million years. (Well, okay, I wouldn't have guessed it in a million years.) The material? Plastic. Polyethylene, to be precise. This is what they use to make the plastic trash bags of which we all have an abundance under our kitchen sink.

Most household trash bags are made of a polymer called polyethylene. Variants of that molecule turn out to be excellent at shielding the most dangerous forms of space radiation. Scientists have long known this. The trouble has been trying to build a spaceship out of the flimsy stuff.

But now NASA scientists have invented a groundbreaking, polyethylene-based material called RXF1 that's even stronger and lighter than aluminum. "This new material is a first in the sense that it combines superior structural properties with superior shielding properties," says Nasser Barghouty, Project Scientist for NASA's Space Radiation Shielding Project at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

To Mars in a plastic spaceship? As daft as it may sound, it could be the safest way to go.

According to Barry, one of plastic's big selling points is that when radiation smashes into it, it doesn't produce nearly as much "secondary radiation" as materials like aluminum or lead. That secondary radiation can be just as much of a problem for astronauts as the cosmic rays themselves:
The advantage of plastic-like materials is that they produce far less "secondary radiation" than heavier materials like aluminum or lead. Secondary radiation comes from the shielding material itself. When particles of space radiation smash into atoms within the shield, they trigger tiny nuclear reactions. Those reactions produce a shower of nuclear byproducts -- neutrons and other particles -- that enter the spacecraft. It's a bit like trying to protect yourself from a flying bowling ball by erecting a wall of pins. You avoid the ball but get pelted by pins. "Secondaries" can be worse for astronauts' health than the original space radiation!
Barry says the lighter elements of hydrogen and carbon, the building blocks for those plastic bags, won't completely stop the space radiation, but can fragment that radiation so that it is much less harmful. He uses the example of a chain link fence blocking a snowball. Some snow still gets through, but it doesn't hurt as much. This author has a knack for making scientific-speak understandable, doesn't he? I'll let him tell you more:

Despite their shielding power, ordinary trash bags obviously won't do for building a spaceship. So Barghouty and his colleagues have been trying to beef-up polyethylene for aerospace work.

That's how Shielding Project researcher Raj Kaul, working together with Barghouty, came to invent RXF1. RXF1 is remarkably strong and light: it has 3 times the tensile strength of aluminum, yet is 2.6 times lighter -- impressive even by aerospace standards.

"Since it is a ballistic shield, it also deflects micrometeorites," says Kaul, who had previously worked with similar materials in developing helicopter armor. "Since it's a fabric, it can be draped around molds and shaped into specific spacecraft components." And because it's derived from polyethylene, it's an excellent radiation shield as well.

They're working on ways to address some of the drawbacks that come with polyethylene--like the irritating tendency it has to burn and melt and whatnot. Now, this article is over a year old, and my search on the NASA site didn't lead me to any more updated information, so I can't tell you right now how this research is progressing. Back in August of 2005, no one was sure yet whether plastic really could serve as a shield to make space travel safer, but "hypothetically" polyethylene might be "not just for trash bags anymore."

It's so interesting how many useful discoveries for right here on Earth come out of space research. Man may never fly to the Moon in a plastic rocket. We may never see plastic habitats on Mars, but--and this is important--we can be pretty sure that our garbage will never get cancer from radiation!! That's an encouraging breakthrough, right? Even more valuable, now that we've all read the reports from NASA and know how useful plastic bags can be, we can make the important fashion decision about whether we want to wear plastic bags over our clothes when we go outside, to protect ourselves from cosmic rays. Hey, come on, it's not such a bad idea. If enough of us do it, it could even become trendy. Maybe if we get some Hollywood type to do it first we can all pretend it's actually cool. Then we would just look like lemmings, and not freaks. Hmmm. Let me think about this. Somebody sci fi maybe, but with crossover appeal.... I've got it! Will Smith!! Men In Black, I Robot, Independence Day... yeah, he'd do nicely. Somebody out there want to volunteer to suggest it to him?

Note: Yes, I know I'm being goofy today. I can't seem to help myself. I start out with a perfectly reasonable piece about the science of using plastic as a radiation shield and end up looking to make Will Smith the poster boy for the tinfoil hat brigade (plastic bag, tinfoil hat--same difference.) I'll try to control myself now, but I make no promises. I have a very good excuse. The day started out with snow, and that always gets me a little giddy. Wait a minute... Snow comes from the sky. Cosmic rays come from the sky, too. Maybe I'm so goofy because the cosmic rays are making it past the Earth's magnetic field and sneaking down into my neighborhood disguised as snow!!! This could be a real problem. I better go put on some plastic bags just in case.

A New Feature

I thought I'd give you all an extra added bonus just for stopping by the Meow. The sidebar will now feature automatically updated local weather conditions. Everyone cares about the weather in Portland, right? Actually, even though what shows up on the blog is specific to my home town, posting it here really is about you, too, because if you click on the link, you'll be taken to Weather Underground, where you can plug in a zip code for the complete weather update and forecast for your location of choice. Cool, huh? It has links to satellite images, maps and ski conditions (very important here in Meowville), and a trip planner, where you plug in some dates and up pop predictions based on local averages for that time-frame. One neat little feature is the link to "Personal Weather Stations," where you can find frequently updated info from various locations all over your region, for a more precise view of the weather in your area. For example, I just discovered that, as of 3 minutes and 59 seconds ago, it was 35.5 degrees, with a NW wind of 2.0mph, at 135th and Division. I have no real use for this information, but who cares? I have it at my fingertips, and that's all that really matters.

Right now outside my window, beautiful snow is falling lightly to the ground. It's not much, and it's not going to stick around, but just to watch it fall is a treat. I can't remember the last time we got snow in November. Heck, I can barely remember the last time we got snow at all. Weather Underground says we can look forward to ice pellets on Thursday. That's not quite as fun, is it Precious? Oh well, for now it's snowing, and that makes the world a little more magical. Happy Kat.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Just For Fun

I hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving weekend. Ked and I went to the farm where he grew up, to spend the day with his family--parents, grandparents, siblings and their offspring--which is much like stepping into a painting by Norman Rockwell. Seriously, I never knew there were families in the world that truly got along and had completely non-contentious and cheerful holidays until I married my husband. That single act introduced me into a whole new world, where one does not spend two days cooking a feast of ham glazed in Madeira sauce, with brandied fruit baked on top, and gratin potatoes with Gruyere cheese, and homemade cheesecake, only to be told that it's traditional to serve turkey at Christmas, and asked, "Where's the pumpkin pie?" Being part of Ked's family is like stepping into an alternate reality. Everyone falls over themselves complimenting every dish, and oozing out the door at the end of the night takes at least an hour, because everyone is so reluctant to say goodbye.

Gift giving is also a strange and wonderful experience in the alternate universe that is my husband's family, one that has not gotten old in the twenty years that I have been privileged to call his family mine. There are never complaints about color, size, or style, no comments about how another brand is better, or that the one purchased last year is still in the box. This is not meant to insult my own family, whom I love dearly, but things are just done in a completely different way in the Norman Rockwell painting. The painting is a whole new level of family togetherness. For years I have sat in awe as relatives read aloud the poetry they have written to each other for Christmas gifts. I've watched Ked's mom tear up as his brother's wife shared how grateful she was to her husband's parents for raising the man she loves. I've admired the beautifully worked handmade quilts, the squares lovingly painted with the hand-prints of each family member, the whole combining to tell the life tale of the grandparents who received it. I've seen the delight on the faces of siblings receiving sweet words about the value of family, all surrounded with a picture frame printed with treasured photographic memories from their childhood. These people have the whole "spirit of giving thing" down pat. It's not about the things for them. It's about the love they have for each other. It's amazing.

Okay, where to go from all this mushy stuff? I'm already paying the orchestra overtime, so we'd probably better move on to more down-to-earth, everyday reality, and let the violins have a break for now. I don't want to shift gears too suddenly, though, so let's stick with the topic of gift-giving. It is the holiday shopping season, and whether you live in a Norman Rockwell painting, or with normal people, most of us are spending a fair amount of time and money right now so that we have gifts to give the people we love this Christmas. (I could be politically correct here and list the alternative winter holidays that various people employ as gift-giving opportunities, to keep kids whose families don't celebrate Christmas from feeling left out during the holidays, but you already know what they are.) To aid you in choosing the perfect gift this Christmas, I'm going to send you to that pillar of American culture--Dave Barry. (Requires registration, but it's free.) He will be of absolutely no use in helping you select something nice or useful for the folks on your list, however, he will make your shopping easier, by eliminating some losers.

He has a whole selection of inappropriate possibilities that, while not giving you any assistance locating the right present for your aunt Marge, might give you a chuckle, and the realisation that no matter what you do eventually buy, it won't be as bad as it could be. Since this is Dave Barry we are talking about, be forewarned that some of his suggestions are juvenile and crude, but all of them are indeed real, purchasable products, such as the Marie Antoinette action figure, complete with removable head, the motorized ice cream cone (for when you just can't manage to turn the cone manually), and the Cruzin Cooler, which is something like a Moped with a cooler for a seat. (I predict this one could be a hit with kids who want to sell ice cream sandwiches in their neighborhood, but are too young to drive.) These truly awful gifts should make you feel better about even your worst gift choices, and indeed, about any of the attic-fillers you yourself receive this Christmas. Remember, of course, it's the thought that counts, and by not buying these turkeys you will have gone a long way toward proving that you put some real thought into your gift-giving. Have fun.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

My prayer for you is that you spend the day with people you love, and that together you can be grateful for the blessings in your lives. If you will be spending the day with family, and you are looking forward to the day with some trepidation, I also pray for you that whoever is usually responsible for bringing the hot steaming plate of family conflict will show up empty-handed this year. May there be peace around your table today.

Here are some of the things for which Ked and I are grateful:

  • That God isn't finished with us yet. He's still molding our characters, and hasn't given up in despair. We're grateful for His forgiveness.
  • That we have each other.
  • That we can share our lives with friends and family.
  • That we live in such a free country, at liberty to believe and say what we choose. This is such a blessing, one that so often many of us take for granted.
  • That we have our daily bread, and today that we get turkey!! (and not tofurkey)
If you are so blessed as to spend the day with family or friends today, people who love you, take a few moments between bites and football games to think about (and pray about if you are so inclined) those people who will be spending this day oppressed by forces in this world who do not believe that all men are created equal, who deny God's blessings to their fellow men. So many people do not share our liberties. Let's be thankful for the gifts we have been given.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Iraq News

There's a very interesting, really long, and rather encouraging update of the situation in Ramadi, by Michael Fumento, at The Weekly Standard. Fumento reports from his embed with the 1st Brigade Combat Team in Ramadi, where he arrived in October, returning to the region after half a year away. He had previously visited both Ramadi and Fallujah--this is his third embed in the Anbar Province--and wanted to see what changes had occurred since he last saw the city of 400,000. Ramadi has been an enemy stronghold in Iraq for a long time, more so since the insurgents lost nearby Fallujah. It's a highly contentious and dangerous part of Iraq. However, Fumento outlines the real progress that is being made to root out terrorists and insurgents as both the Iraqi security forces and the Coalition are receiving ever increasing cooperation from the local Sunni tribes. The Weekly Standard article will take some time to read, but in keeping with this week's theme of Thanksgiving, I offer it to you as something for which to be thankful. Excerpt:

...Ramadi is both a litmus test for the counterinsurgency effort in Iraq and a laboratory. If we can defeat the insurgent and terrorist forces here, there is no place we cannot defeat them. And from what I found, we are defeating them. It's painfully slow, and our men there are still dying in inordinate numbers from a broad variety of attacks. But a multitude of factors, including tribal cooperation, the continual introduction of more Iraqi army and police, the beginning of public works projects, the building of more Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), the installation of more small operational posts (OPs), and plunking down company-sized Combat Operation Posts (COPs) smack in the middle of hostile territory are destroying both the size and the mobility of the enemy. This time the rats are dying in place.
It's clear from reading Fumento's piece that he is putting himself in substantial danger to bring us this report. What he's writing is not coming out of the relative safety of the green zone in Baghdad. It's eyewitness news, news that says we are winning in Ramadi. Read it if you have the time.

Update: (via Instapundit) More on progress in Ramadi, from Bill Roggio, who examines the growing support among the tribal leaders of Anbar for Iraqi and U.S. efforts to oust the terrorists:
The turning of the Sunni tribes is directly related to al-Qaeda in Iraq's attempts to install a Taliban like rule in the region. Al-Qaeda looks upon the tribal system with open contempt, and has killed, intimidated and humiliated tribal leaders during the past three years under the leadership of the slain Zarqawi.
This coincides with what Fumento wrote for The Weekly Standard. The Roggio post's not so long, but fills out Fumento's story a bit more. Worth a read.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Going Up

Here's a bit of tongue-in-cheek fluff at Colony Worlds for Space Elevator fans--a list of reasons not to build one. I couldn't resist leaving a comment on this post. Darnell Clayton, the blogger-in-charge, asked for additional excuses for not constructing the elevator, so I came up with one. Mine's the second comment. That made the total two, so I'm sure Mr. Clayton would appreciate your suggestions as well. Let me know if you come up a good one!!

Hat tip: Futurismic

Thanks For The Road

This holiday week, a lot of American writers are sharing the things which make them thankful, finding blessings both obvious and obscure that enhance life and warrant a little extra grateful recognition during this national celebration of Thanksgiving. I find it a pleasant respite after the requisite grumbling and complaining that accompanied the recent political season and its aftermath. I say, yes, let's count our blessings: great, small and frequently ignored. I'm going to be keeping my eye out for articles to pass along to you that follow the advice in Philippians 4:8: "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."

How about we start with something so mundane that we Americans generally take it for granted, complain about the condition it's in, and resent what it costs to maintain--something that has only been around for fifty years, but we now use constantly, and would be much worse off if it didn't exist? This seems a great place to reverse the negative pattern and think about what's excellent and praiseworthy. So what is this often under-appreciated necessity of modern life? Ralph Kinney Bennett, at TCS Daily, brings us a fresh and grateful look at the Interstate highway system.

Thanks For The View

Flying somewhere this Thanksgiving? It's a good time for a little sky-watching.

Monday, November 20, 2006

A Geek By Any Other Name...

Geek, nerd, dweeb, dork, loser--When I was in school, all these words were synonyms for the kid nobody wanted to be. Probably anyone who ever went to an American school in the second half of the twentieth century knows what social disapproval fell on the heads of those poor unfortunate souls who, for various reasons, bore the shameful burden of these unflattering appellations. Uncool kids were nerds. Unpopular kids were losers. In school you either used these names to taunt others, or you were yourself the object of such taunting, or both. The two positions were not mutually exclusive. I knew many a dork in my day who was perfectly happy to make himself feel better about his less-than-stellar place in the cruel and competitive world of the public school pecking order by pointing out that a fellow dweeb's position was worse.

There were a lot of things that could garner you the uncoveted title of geek. Being too smart was, of course, one of the clearest warning signs of potential geekdom. It was the rare kid who had looks and social grace in sufficient quantities to overcome the serious social obstacle of conspicuous intelligence. General unattractiveness, social awkwardness, unfashionable clothing, glasses, poverty, reading on the bus (especially science fiction and history), technical know-how--these could all provide the social kiss of death. Who among us does not remember the kid in the plaid high-water pants who was always pushing up his too big hand-me-down glasses, while heading off to the AV room to fetch the film-strip projector because the teacher knew he could be trusted to bring it back promptly, and get it working on arrival?

Perhaps you were one of those kids. I know I was. I was unattractive, socially inept, unfashionably dressed (the grade school years), had a bad haircut (this pretty much lasted throughout childhood), got really good grades, got put in "smart" classes, loved to read (odd things like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I discovered when I was twelve and read till it fell apart), and had a penchant for correcting people. In what's probably the worst of all possible childhood offenses, I was also perennially an object of the approval of teachers. I was the kid they let out of class early to be cross-walk monitor. I was the kid who got to skip the test because the teacher told the class I was the only one who passed the last one. I was the kid who delivered notes to the principal, and never got sent there for any other reason. Oh the tragedy of it all. I cannot stress enough what a social handicap it is to have teachers like you in your formative years. I was also always getting teased for using big words--words I never knew were big or out of the ordinary. Everyone used them at home, and their meaning suited the occasion, so I used them without thinking. Social suicide.

Geek wasn't a big word, but it was a bad word. That was thirty years ago, however. What about now? Well, dweeb, dork, and loser (or their functional equivalents) are probably still a handicap for the underage set, but geek has taken on some new nuances of meaning over the years. (Words do change their meaning over time. How many of us toss around the word "gay" to say that we're carefree these days?) Now geek has morphed to include the synonym "techie," which didn't do much for the reputation of a kid when techie meant that you ran the projector, but is revolutionized when you throw it into today's high-tech context. Science Fiction isn't so fictional anymore, and the people who saw it coming, or better yet, are making it happen, have a new and important place in the world. "Geek" has come to earn a measure of respect as computers have become central to our daily lives. The unpopular AV kid who knew things about computers back when no one owned one, and no one needed technical support, has now become a valuable commodity. Geeks know how to beat computer games. They can reformat your hard drive. They can help you with your taxes, and make excellent Trivial Pursuit teammates. Geeks know things. Everyone needs them for one thing or another. That makes people like them--by necessity.

So, what about all those geeks who sat with me at the uncool table, and tried to pretend we didn't wish we could be friends with the popular kids? Where are they now? Rejoicing in their geekdom, of course!! What was once a mark of shame has become a badge of honor, at least if my friends are any indication (they're not the same ones from school, but they might as well be), only now, some of those very same qualities which made us untouchables in the past are the things that make us interesting adults today. All that reading pays off in the end, and the uncool kids usually have to develop other positive traits to make up for the lack of obvious social graces. Things like conversational ability, interesting personality, humor and kindness are often the result of years of geeky adolescence. Some of us have discovered that it's really fun to be a geek, and embraced the title with fondness, even ambition.

Ambition? Yes, just that. Let me explain. Sometime last week, a friend sent a "geek test", a lengthy exam to determine one's geek quotient. Ked and I both took the test, and, to neither of our surprise, we are both officially geeks. We had so much fun with the test that we passed it around to some of our friends. We all had a two day email conversation, reporting our scores and begging for bonus points because we had some other geek-factor of note, which the test failed to acknowledge. It was fine geek fun. As it turns out, almost all of my friends who took the test are, in fact, geeks, which I'm sure plays a large role in why we like them. Birds of a feather and all that. The thing I found particularly amusing was that the people who didn't qualify for geek status were embarrassed by it , or at least disappointed. If only we had all known as children that someday other people would be "geek wannabes," it could have made the awkward years much more bearable. It's become cool, in the parallel reality of adulthood, to be the best geek you can be.

Are you a geek? Are you uncertain, and want to find out for sure? Take the test. I scored 25.5%, which, according to the scale provided, makes me a total geek, but a couple of my friends outdid my score by a considerable margin. One of our friends had his brother take the test, and the guy scored a whopping 43.19527%. The really amazing thing about that one is that he didn't score that high by excelling in any of the expected geek categories. He wasn't dumped at a dance, and doesn't own the expanded editions of all the predictable sci fi movies. He's done things like design and build nuclear reactors, and studies fractal towers for fun. I'm not sure that in my mind he really qualifies as a geek, since I would categorize him as more of an "exceptionally smart person", so I won't hold him up as a target goal for you, but can you out-geek me? It shouldn't be too hard. I'm a total geek, but there were several categories that left my level of geekosity in the dust. Go ahead, join in the Geek-off. You know you want to be a geek. It's cool to be a geek.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Good Neighbors

Michael Totten pointed me to this new group blog that only started a week or so ago. The thing that makes it really interesting is the group involved:

Drima –Sudanese
Ramzi — Palestinian
Tif — Israeli
Big Pharaoh –Egyptian
Free Cedar –Lebanese
Yaser –Syrian
Shifaa –Jordanian
Yaeli –Israeli

Quite a combo, wouldn't you agree? The site is called Good Neighbors, and its purpose is to promote dialogue between people in the Middle East, but here, I'll let them describe their goal:
Welcome to Good Neighbors! Here you will find a communal effort designed to increase dialogue and understanding between all of the neighboring countries in the Middle East including Jordanians, Lebanese, Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, Saudis, Iranians, and Syrians on a cross-country level, as well as to increase understanding, respect and dialogue among the various strata of society within our countries. This is a first of its kind region-building initiative and we invite you to pull up a chair and help make it a success!
I'm so heartened to see Israeli, Palestinian and Lebanese bloggers joining together, along with so many others. After the events of the summer, with so much military interaction, it's encouraging to see interaction of a more positive nature. It's a decided act of faith in the future, and the power of communication to overcome mutual ignorance, fear and enmity. In reading the posts from the past week at this fledgling enterprise, and the comments they've generated, I'm struck by how eager they all seem to understand one another and not let traditional animosities prevent progress toward peace in the troubled region where they all make their homes. Obviously, they would be positive about the prospects, or they wouldn't be joining together in this way, but hopefully they represent a much larger number of heretofore silent people who will read, comment and spread the word that there is a haven online for Middle Eastern people who seek common ground.

It'll be interesting to see where this thing goes. I suspect I won't agree with a fair portion of the opinions I see published there. What I've read there so far is rather socialist for my own political bent, and I could use a few less negative assumptions about President Bush and those who agree with his policies, but I'm willing to let that slide and observe this experiment in cross-cultural communication, because I very much admire its intent. (I'm glad to see Big Pharaoh as part of this group. His blog has been a favorite of mine for a while now.) Anyway, thought I'd let you all know that there are some friendly kids who just set up house down the street, and they're hoping to be Good Neighbors.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Smart People Predict The Future

In keeping with the theme of the past few posts, here's another Smart People link. This time I'm sending you to, for a set of forecasts, from "70 of the world's most brilliant scientists," about what revolutionary changes and advances in understanding we'll be seeing in the wonderful world of science over the next fifty years. Each of the 70 gives a taste of what the future may hold, or what they hope it holds, in their field of expertise. Understanding the origins of the universe is a common preoccupation among the smart set. The question of whether we are alone or coexisting with aliens, even hosting creatures from other planets right here on Earth, is another popular area of speculation, and parallel universes can't stay off the radar either. Medical breakthroughs are a hot topic--conquering illness and aging gets its share of anticipatory attention. Even the mystery of prime numbers gets a mention--solving it that is. (For those of you who didn't know there was a mystery to prime numbers, read the blurb by Marcus du Sautoy.) Cognitive neuroscience is also a very fashionable item of interest among these Smart People prognosticators. Energy, aliens, space travel, drug-implanted false memories, artificial intelligence--this is a geek smorgasbord, but don't worry; the articles are all very short and non-detailed, so it's more of a low-calorie smorgasbord, and there won't be a test. Yum.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

More Ideas From Smart People!!

Have you ever wished that you could charge all your chargeables with the same device, instead of having ten different cords plugged into ten different outlets? Wouldn't it be especially nifty if that universal charger were wireless and automatic? No more being tied to the wall. No more having all the videos from Christmas taken from the same awkward angle because you didn't remember to charge the camcorder and the only accessible plug-in is behind the tree. No more losing important documents because you forgot to hit "save" and your laptop battery unexpectedly bit the dust. No more sitting in that really hot sunny spot by the dining room window because your cell phone started to die during an important call and that's as far as the power cord you frantically hunted down and plugged into the nearest outlet would reach. Ahhh. Electronic freedom--the stuff dreams are made of.

Needless to say, the reason I'm bringing this up is because there are Smart People working on it. Celeste Biever, at, writes that Marin Soljacic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (have I mentioned before how much I love cut and paste?) is working on a method called "evanescent coupling" to liberate chargeable electronic devices from their base stations and allow them to start refilling their energy coffers as soon as you walk in your door. What is evanescent coupling you ask? Something magical and useful all at the same time, and complicated, using magnetic fields and resonant frequencies and other things like capacitors. I'm going to cheat and tell you to go read Biever's explanation for the detailed parts, but basically it involves sending a weak electromagnetic field out from the wireless charger, which resonates with a compatible device, allowing it to induce an electric current on the receiving end of the combination. That's probably enough for most of us "Not As Smart People" to believe that such a thing as wireless chargers could be possible, and to be grateful that we aren't the ones who have to figure out how to make it all work. For the rest of you, you probably already know how to make it work, and are wasting your time with this post, so go read the article at New Scientist.

I started thinking about all the gizmos that we use that need to be charged; drills, razors, dust-busters, toothbrushes, you name it, and imagined how very cool it would be to have them all released from cord bondage. If they were always charging, just by being in the house, they would never go dead. Cordless drills might actually be worth having, and the dust-buster might come back out of the dustbin. Then my imagination really got going, and I started to wonder whether this technology, once they actually get it beyond the theory stage, might deliver us from cords altogether. Could everything in the house someday have the proper resonance receptor? I don't see why not, and some Smart People should get right on that notion. The one other thing that occurred to me was to wonder what my Naturopath/Acupuncturist would think of having all those electromagnetic fields flying all over the house all the time. I better not tell him I'm sitting here with my laptop actually in my lap. Gasp!! Oh well, let's assign some really Smart People to figure out how to make personal electronic shields. Whaddya think?

Hat tip: Futurismic

A Giant Sunbrella

Do you ever stop and ask yourself, "What if all the climate prophets-of-doom are right?" What if all the worst fears about global warming come to pass and the world is threatened with killer temperatures, droughts, floods, and all the other scenarios that would make this time of partisan politics and the global War on Terror look like the good old days? One possibility, of course, is that a whole lot of humans would die off, and if people and their greenhouse gas-producing ways really are the root cause, then the Earth would balance itself out again with less pesky humans to mess things up. It could be, though, that humans aren't the culprits. It entirely possible that cosmic rays affect our climate, and phytoplankton could play their role, as well. Theories, theories, everywhere. Whether humans are the cause, or natural phenomenon over which we have no control, if the climate does warm up significantly (and I do believe that the words if and significantly are pretty important here), we might want to come up with some options to keep ourselves from becoming barbecue.

This is where the "smart people" enter the picture. NASA's Earth Observatory reports that University of Arizona astronomer Roger Angel has come up with a plan, a sort of emergency cooling system for the planet, which won him and his colleagues a NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts grant. The grant will be used to further study the possibility of sending trillions of small spacecraft up into orbit, to form a giant cloud that would act as a sunshade, diverting a portion of the Sun's rays away from the Earth:

The spacecraft would form a long, cylindrical cloud with a diameter about half that of Earth, and about 10 times longer. About 10 percent of the sunlight passing through the 60,000-mile length of the cloud, pointing lengthwise between the Earth and the sun, would be diverted away from our planet. The effect would be to uniformly reduce sunlight by about 2 percent over the entire planet, enough to balance the heating of a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere.
One cannot fault the scientific community for lacking ambition, wouldn't you agree? Angel has the specs all worked out for composition, steering and delivery, and if the plan flies "as is," with all the current concepts intact, it will only cost about $100 billion a year to turn on the global air conditioning, "about two-tenths of one percent of the global domestic product." It sounds as if, were the Earth in such dire straits that implementation of emergency plans became necessary, the world's economy could afford to pony up that much, especially if the alternative was going to be factor 2,000 sunscreen, and/or a return to a pre-Industrial Revolution way of life.

In "science time" it wouldn't even take too long to pull the shades, once we were sufficiently motivated. According to NASA, it would only take about ten years to deploy all the flyers necessary for the job, if they can get the twenty electromagnetic launchers up and running that they would need to send the little life-savers into position. Twenty-five years could see the whole project developed and installed, and with a useful life of approximately fifty years, we'd only have to replace it once or twice a century for the duration of the heat wave. How's that for value, huh? Your average patio umbrella certainly doesn't last that long. Of course, your average patio umbrella doesn't cost $100 billion a year, either.

It's kinda comforting to know that whether or not all our technology is the cause of the potential climate crisis that's got the world in a dither, all our technology may also be the thing that saves the day. Wouldn't it be amazingly sci fi if we did end up with the equivalent of a giant parasol keeping the Earth's head cool? Mind you, since the global warming and cooling fears trade off every few decades, in a few years time we're going to be hearing about scientists who are figuring out ways to catch a few extra rays from the Sun, amplify them, and turn on the equivalent of a global heat lamp. Either way, it will be scientists who come up with the schemes to save mankind. Smart people are so useful.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

That's Insulting!!

It seems that someone is always insulting Islam, doesn't it? Even when they're not. At least that's the view of Kemal Silay, an Ottoman and Modern Turkish Studies Professor at Indiana University, writing for TCS Daily. Silay, himself a Muslim, looks at a trumped up charge levelled against the Fifth Avenue Apple Store by an Islamist website, and says "the Islamist thought police" are "foolishly and maliciously" interpreting the architectural design of the store as "blatant insult to Islam." The store, you see, is in the shape of a cube, and thus too closely resembles the building in Mecca towards which Muslims pray. Even worse, customers sometimes refer to it as the "Apple Mecca." Could an insult to a religion get any more blatant? After all, the building couldn't possibly be designed to pay homage to the cube shaped computer that Apple put out in the nineties, and calling it the "Apple Mecca" couldn't refer to the fact it's the place to which Apple customers are drawn because of all it offers. Nope, it must be an insult to Islam. (Of course, as a Christian, I often get offended this way myself. I frequently find telephone poles an insult to Christianity, and have considered throwing a riot or two in protest.)

Silay is not happy with the Islamist ability to see insult where none is intended, and even where it is intended, makes it clear that he would rather his fellow Muslims spent their time more productively:

While Western civilization is inventing scientific and artistic marvels, the other wings of Islamism are preoccupied with inventing provocations in the hope of mobilizing otherwise ordinary Muslims. We have seen this before: the Muhammad cartoon controversy exhibited the same faulty reasoning but unfortunately it succeeded in turning thousands of Muslims to violent protests. This latest incident is one more in a growing list of examples of Muslims over-reacting, over- and mis-interpreting, jumping to conclusions and causing controversy over something innocent or innocuous.
Silay sees Islamism as the threat to Islam, rather than the Apple Store and other Western objects Islamists try to co-opt as tools in the propaganda wars. He rightly calls Islamism "the most dangerous global phenomenon of our time." Have a look at the rest of the article, if only to support the efforts of moderate Islam. I often want to pass on things like this when I find them, because I am always encouraged to see reasonable Muslim voices speaking out to counter the Islamist agenda. We need more of them, and we need to encourage their participation in the public forum. I know I'm risking "insult to Islam" by doing so, but since by some standards I insult Islam on a daily basis anyway by being a Christian, it's a risk I can live with.

Note: Sorry about the sarcasm on this one--although not sorry enough to rewrite this post. I'm apparently just in one of those moods. I'll try to tone it down now, though. Maybe.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Iraqi Ideas

Instapundit pointed me to this post at National Review Online's The Corner. On Sunday, Mario Loyola linked to a couple of interviews with Iraqi bigwigs, and he commented on some points that Prime Minister Maliki made to John Simpson of the BBC:

The encouraging thing here is how convincingly Maliki talks about imposing "the authority of the state," and he shows a pretty nuanced view of the danger the militias pose outside state control, and the role they can play if properly regulated. He also makes a point I had never thought of, which is that the United States and the Coalition have an obligation under Security Council resolutions to maintain security in Iraq until Iraqi security forces can take over. And by the way, he has every intention of seeing Saddam hang before the end of the year.
Like Loyola, I had never thought about the fact that UN Security Council resolutions obligate the Coalition to stay in Iraq until Iraqis are ready to manage their own security. That is really quite encouraging, since my biggest concern with the results of the election last Tuesday has been that we not abandon Iraqis and their new government to the tender mercies of the terrorists, the militias, or the Iranians. The Iraqi government is clearly interested in its own stability, and would not express the need for a continued Coalition presence if the removal of foreign troops would aid in their struggle to unite the rival elements of Iraqi society. In other words, considering how much Iraqi citizens really don't like the occupation, the government wouldn't ask for help if they didn't need it. If it becomes clear to Democrats, leadership and average Joe alike, that we are staying because the Iraqi government really does want us there, there may be less of a conflict here at home--less impetus to set a withdrawal date. Despite what some Democratic lawmakers are saying now that they will control Congress in the new year, I really am not so despairing of reasonableness in the Democratic leadership that I think that direct appeals from the Iraqi government for us to stay will fall on unyieldingly deaf ears. Too much of an optimist to buy the "all is lost" line.

Also via Instapundit, Josh Manchester, at TCS Daily, has a solid suggestion for how the White House can encourage a serious approach on the part of the new Congressional leadership toward national security:

A charm offensive is not quite what is necessary. Instead, perhaps a combination of sobering events that will impress upon Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid the gravity of our current situation would do the trick. Why not invite both Pelosi and Reid to the White House every morning until the new Congress is sworn in - and ask them to listen with the President to his Presidential Daily Brief, describing what Al Qaeda has cooked up of late? Or, why not invite them along with the President to one of his private sessions with the families of those who have paid the ultimate price overseas? Speaking of those overseas whose lives hang upon American policy, Pelosi and Reid could be participants in the next conference call that Bush has with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki.

The point of all of this would be to create a true bipartisan consensus on Iraq that does not leave the Iraqis and US credibility to disaster.

Interesting, and worthwhile recommendation, eh? One of the reason the President has been so focused on the prosecution of the WoT is, no doubt, these daily reminders of the dangers our country faces. Perhaps if Pelosi and Reid can get some of the non-stop exposure to reality that the President experiences, they will find their way nearer to establishing that "true bipartisan consensus on Iraq" that Manchester advocates. Glenn Reynolds, Instapundit himself, writes of Manchester's ideas, "He also offers some excellent advice for President Bush. I hope that someone in the White House reads it." For what it's worth, I concur.

Update: Let me clarify that I know that there are people expressing concerns that the Iraqi government is "too dependant" and will never take over their own security until we make them--by leaving. I find this argument unconvincing. Considering that the Coalition occupation of Iraq is hardly popular among Iraqis, I don't think we need to fear that the Iraqi government wants to keep us around indefinitely, because it somehow makes things easy for them. The notion that the the Iraqi leadership is just shirking responsibility, and won't take it on till they're forced to, like some irresponsible teenager, when they have come so far in establishing themselves as a legitimate government, and have put enormous effort into trying to work out the differences between ethnic and religious factions, is a a very big stretch to credibility. They're facing huge obstacles, and the help they need to maintain security and train a reliable and professional security force of their own is entirely reasonable. To pull out because we want to force the Iraqis to grow faster than they are able is foolhardy, and an invitation for disaster.

Sunday, November 12, 2006


Poppies. The wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz used them to put Dorothy and her companions to sleep, and it took the intervention of someone much more powerful than the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, or the Cowardly Lion to overcome their dangerous and deadly effects. The good witch Glynda had to step in and prevent the poppies from keeping their powerful hold over the poor lost souls. Judging from the piece I read today by Michael Yon, that same kind of intervention is necessary in Afghanistan. He's written an interesting and sobering article on opium poppy farming in Afghanistan, and what it will take to eradicate the lucrative poppy business, which is funding the resurgence of the Taliban. According to Yon, that resurgence is putting the military and political gains from previous victories in Afghanistan very much in peril.

Poppies, as it turns out, are extremely easy to grow in the conditions Afghanistan's terrain and climate provide--so easy, in fact, that unskilled and illiterate farmers find the income poppy production offers almost irresistible, given their limited resources. Yon believes that, considering all the money the West is continuing to spend to fight the ongoing battle against Taliban control of Afghanistan, we need to commit the money and personnel required also to eradicate the poppy fields, and, what is equally important, to provide farmers with the resources to profitably grow alternative crops. This means equipment and education, not just seeds. Yon's belief is that the military has not sufficiently addressed the problem of poppies and the benefit they are to the Taliban, and that this is one of the main reasons that Afghanistan is still very much in danger of being lost despite all the early successes in overturning the oppressive regime and establishing a democratic government.

The dispatch is not entirely negative. Yon does show how other options are being made somewhat available to Afghan farmers, but he believes those efforts have been very inadequate to date, and that they must be dramatically improved if the situation is to change for the better there in the future. He also makes it clear that he, among others, believes that Iraq became a distraction from finishing the job in Afghanistan. I don't know that he's saying Iraq should never have happened, so much as that Afghanistan has suffered from the divided attention and resources. It is clear, however, that he sees both Iraq and Afghanistan as going badly at this point, and that the cause in Afghanistan is a lack of adequate resources and the Western will to destroy the poppy crops before they can supply the Taliban. He believes that destruction is imperative, and that it needs to be convincingly conveyed to farmers that poppy crops will not be tolerated. He makes it clear that along with that zero-poppy tolerance must come the provision of those alternatives that will still enable the farmers to take care of their families without the valuable opium crop:

The alternative crops approach can work, and there are other ideas for alternative economies not mentioned here. People are thinking about it. But we are not moving fast enough on long overdue and badly mismanaged reconstruction efforts. We are not taking the opium threat seriously, and so we literally are subsidizing a deadly enemy with poisoned blood and dirty money. Western money will flow into Afghanistan whether we invest it wisely or not. We’ve seen what happens when we ignore the place.

It's revealing that the Taliban, which used to destroy poppy fields when they were in control of Afghanistan, now is supporting poppy farmers and protecting the crops. They are playing the wicked witch's role to the hilt, abandoning their former "moral" stand against opium production, because now it is in their financial interests and gives them what they truly want--power. We're being called on to be Glynda, here. In this particular story of Oz, it falls at least partly to the allied forces of the U.S. and Europe to break the financial hold that poppies have over Afghanistan's poor lost souls. Yon believes we need to focus on that goal, or the money from poppies will continue to strengthen the Taliban, and the Taliban will eventually regain the ground the initial war took from them. It's quite a dark prediction. It's like saying the wicked witch of the Taliban will get the ruby slippers in the end and the evil flying monkeys will be free to wreak whatever havoc their vengeful hearts devise. Yon believes there are changes that can prevent this, but they had better happen now.

Note: Yon's piece is the third in a series. The first part is here and the second here.

Update: I wanted to note that I don't agree that Iraq has taken away from our ability to properly take care of our responsibilities in Afghanistan, unless Yon means politically. Our military is perfectly capable of prosecuting both campaigns at once. The challenge, though, does increase with the constant nay-saying at home and the impulse to placate political adversaries who were demanding that the exact path out of both countries be spelled out before we ever went in. I appeal to the history of WWII and the nation building the U.S. did afterwards in Germany and Japan. Those were both long and extremely messy recoveries, with protracted military involvement, but the results were so beneficial to the world that I doubt there are any mentally stable people who would denounce those efforts, or their cost. It is wise, however, to heed the warnings of people like Yon, on the ground in Afghanistan, and encourage the government to invest as much as is necessary to eradicate the poppy crops. Terrorist thugs still have a hold in that country, and their grip has been gaining in strength. Yon is not the only person with first hand knowledge to say so, not by a long shot. It's still a front in the ongoing War on Terrorism, and those of us at home need to be vocal in our support for the war effort.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Stretching The Imagination

"The king is dead. Long live the king." Doesn't that time-honored phrase seem a bit oxymoronic? At least it did to me as a child when I would see old movies about the turbulent times surrounding monarchical transitions of power (even before I knew what the words oxymoronic and monarchical meant.) In those films, the assemblage of nobles crowded into the royal bedchamber to watch the royal demise would all speak the solemn words in unison. The loyal and stunningly lovely ward of the king would weep beautifully, while the evil viceroy would pledge false allegiance to the dashing but conflicted Prince. It took me a while to grasp that the mourning subjects in those period dramas were wishing long life to the new king, however perfidiously, not suggesting the old king could make a comeback. (There's only one King I know who died and yet is still living--and no, I don't mean Elvis.) As I learned from those movies, even the most beloved monarch must pass into history, and there must always be a backup ruler waiting in the wings to assume the position of power. Order must be kept. The nation must survive intact. Sometimes, of course, the conflict in those movies rested in the fact there were a few too many backup monarchs waiting to don the royal robes.

That scenario is mostly from the past, though. What about the future? As it turns out, this kind of passing of the torch ritual could, by some people's reckoning, be needed on a much grander scale in years to come. Would it surprise you to know that there are a whole host of people preparing for the eventual demise of Earth, with backup home-worlds-in-waiting and lots of planning into what other celestial bodies might serve as a lifeboat in the event of a planet-destroying asteroid, a nuclear holocaust, or even nanoweapons? (Stargate SG-1 fans will be interested to know there are actually people planning for the day Replicators start eating everything in sight, and designing nanoshields to fend them off. The above link has an abundance of information.) Order must be kept. The human race must survive intact. The Lifeboat Foundation is hard at work envisioning both future problems and their solutions, so that humanity can live outside of the shadow of impending disaster. Here's their mission statement:

The Lifeboat Foundation is a nonprofit nongovernmental organization dedicated to helping humanity survive existential risks and possible misuse of increasingly powerful technologies, including genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics/AI, as we move towards a technological singularity.

Lifeboat Foundation is pursuing a variety of options, including helping to accelerate the development of technologies to defend humanity, including new methods to combat viruses (such as RNA interference and new vaccine methods), effective nanotechnological defensive strategies, and even self-sustaining space colonies in case the other defensive strategies fail.

We believe that, in some situations, it might be feasible to relinquish technological capacity in the public interest (for example, we are against the U.S. government posting the recipe for the 1918 flu virus on the internet). We have some of the best minds on the planet working on programs to enable our survival.

Wild, huh? Clearly the Lifeboat Foundation is looking for technological solutions right here on Earth and isn't solely focused on the idea of having an alternative planet to serve as a fallback position, but having an off-world escape hatch is a major part of many futurists' and scientists' plans for the survival of humanity. The Moon's close proximity makes it the lifeboat of choice for William E. Burrows, author of "The Survival Imperative: Using Space to Protect Earth," and he's not alone in his thinking. Amara D. Angelica has a look at the idea of "The Moon as backup drive for civilization" for She examines some of the ideas for how to use the Moon, including colonization, and some of these concepts get really "out there," as is this one from Dr. Martine Rothblatt:

The moon as digital archive could also play an important future role in the CyBeRev program being developed by satellite communications pioneer Dr. Martine Rothblatt. She visualizes storing one's life history—"digital reflections of their mannerisms, personality, recollections, feelings, beliefs, attitudes and values—with as great a fidelity as is possible."

Future developments in mind-uploading technology and regenerative medicine would then "enable the recovered cyberconscious CyBeRev person to transfer their mind into a synthetic body (including brain), such as one made out of nanotechnological materials."

Eventually these would be instantiated into "a flesh body (including brain) grown from totipotent stem cells in which genetic engineering techniques have suppressed the development of a separate mind."

Wow, if this flies there won't ever be a need for one of those standing-around-the-bed-of-the-dying-king moments again. They can just download his identity and grow him a new body. You know, I am constantly amazed at the way science fiction becomes science fact these days, but this is straining even my willing suspension of disbelief. I can grasp the notion of how colonies in space could help humanity survive, at least temporarily, in case of some planet-wide calamity. I can get my head around the notion that we are creating some of the risks from which we must plan to defend ourselves, but using the Moon as a library for people—"digital reflections of their mannerisms, personality, recollections, feelings, beliefs, attitudes and values" for later transfer to lab grown bodies? Tilt. Try again. It's fun for a mental diversion on some sci fi show, or in the pages of Asimov or Heinlein, but the notion that scientists are actually spending their time trying to make it happen is beyond my ability to comprehend. Maybe it's because I believe in that King that died and yet is alive, and thus have my own Lifeboat (which also is beyond belief for some people), but I can't imagine going to such lengths trying to tie oneself to this existence, devoting one's life to trying to escape physical death.

Anyway, there's an awful lot of reading here, if you choose to follow through with any of it. Every once in a while I feel the need to check in and see what the really imaginative people of the world are coming up with. It seems right now a group of them are coming up with doomsday scenarios and solutions. I suspect many of these schemes won't be remotely useful. I also suspect a few of the technologies developed from them will be fantastically useful. Any of us reading this stuff now probably won't live to see the day when a fraction of these visions come to pass, and many of us definitely don't want to see that day. I, for one, hope the Moon never becomes necessary as a lifeboat (although I would love to vacation there), and am pretty certain it won't become an "identity library," but it is an interesting foray into the realms of imagination to envision the day when humanity may say, "The Earth is dead. Long live the Earth."

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Reality Calls

Interesting. President Bush is wasting no time in accepting the realities of life with a Democratic House. I've been watching cable news this morning, and the first thing that jumped out at me was the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense, and Bush's acceptance of that resignation. President Bush has already announced the man he wants to replace Rumsfeld, former CIA Director Robert Gates. An interesting choice, since it could put an emphasis upon the intelligence end of the prosecution of the war. Gates has also been serving on the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, a group Democrats have said they wanted to influence the direction the country takes in Iraq in future decision making. That makes it less likely they will object to Gates' confirmation.

With Rumsfeld's exit, the President has now given the Democratic leadership the primary thing they said they wanted regarding Iraq upon coming into power. It's an interesting decision. Bush has almost preemptively taken away the first excuse the Democrats would have used for failing to make progress on Iraq, and might, by this move, have almost forced them to engage in bi-partisan efforts to win the war, rather than cut and run. On some levels, it's a shame. Rumsfeld has served well, and been unfairly condemned by a slanted media and a politically motivated Democratic minority. However, in the interest of reaching out to the people with whom he now has to work, it is an astute move by the President if he wants to continue to move in the direction of staying till the job is done in Iraq.

Democrats might be more likely to be constructive on the war front now that they have a much larger measure of power. Most of them, at least the ones I've heard this morning, including Speaker Presumptive Nancy Pelosi, are aware that they will now be held accountable for their actions over the next two years; they can't just criticize anymore. They wanted power and now they've got it. People will be watching what they do with it. I've also heard Democrats saying this morning that they know that the American people don't just want to abandon Iraq, and that it would be a mistake on many levels for us to just walk away, rather than fix what's wrong. Good. Maybe if they have to be the ones coming up with solutions, instead of complaining from the sidelines, the more reasonable among them might proffer some actual positive approaches.

One other thing that comes to mind is that this war might become easier to prosecute with the Dems more engaged, simply because the media will not be as inclined to reflexively focus on the negative. The New York Times might actually find incidents of progress to report if Democrats have something to do with that progress. I truly believe that many of the problems we have had as the war has progressed have sprung from the media undermining the war effort, which has played a major part in the lack of public support for the war. I am firmly convinced that, if the terrorist and insurgent elements in Iraq and throughout the Middle East, as well as everyday Iraqi citizens, believed without a doubt that America was solidly united in common purpose, despite political differences, we would be seeing much more progress and cooperation from people in the ME--many of whom are now afraid to throw their lot in with democracy, for fear democracy will fail, the U.S. will leave, and they will be abandoned to face Islamist wrath. Perhaps (and I acknowledge it is a "perhaps" of limited promise), if the Democrats in Congress can find it in themselves to work toward complete victory in Iraq, the media can find it in themselves to acknowledge that victory, and not sabotage it from the outset.

I say, give the Dems all the credit they want, let them bask in the glow of their own virtue, merit and superior answers, just let Iraq be a free and peaceful nation at the end of the day. President Bush, by this change in his Cabinet, is doing what he can to make that possible. Reality is calling. I hope the Democrats respond in kind.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Civility Is Losing The Battle

I don't plan on writing much about the outcome of the election. Far more astute and learned people than I will write volumes on the subject, and those blessed with political knowledge and the gift of gab will be chewing on this night for a very long time to come. At this point, though, it's not entirely clear what the final result will be. As I write this, no one knows yet who will control the Senate, although the Democrats have won the House. I'm not happy, but I am an optimist, and I'm willing to hope that the Democrats in control of the House will not be as reckless on Iraq as some of them sounded in order to get elected. I admit I have no hope as far as taxes, limiting government, and the more conservative social issues go, but there is another election in two years, and I can pray that the damage will be minimal until we get another crack at this whole "will of the people" thing.

The one thing I do want to write at this point is an anecdotal recap of a few moments from two speeches I heard tonight, one conceding defeat, and another claiming victory, and an observation about the state of civility in the current political atmosphere. I'm going to come across pretty partisan here, but I saw what I saw, and think it's worth relating. Once the polls closed here in Oregon, and the local results had a chance to start filtering in, I turned my TV over to the Northwest cable news station. I'm used to being in the political minority here, so when it became clear to me that my state, once again, voted contrary to my positions on many of the candidates and ballot measures, I took it in stride. I certainly expected nothing different. (I was very disappointed that the voters in Oregon decided once again to deny parents the right to know when their underage daughters are undergoing a major medical procedure, but not surprised. A few of the ballot measures actually did go the way I hoped, just none of the ones involving moral issues or money.)

I hung around the local channel long enough to watch moments from the two speeches I mentioned earlier. The first I'll tell you about was from a Washington Republican. (I think he was running for the Senate, but I'm not sure--I don't even know his name.) At one point during his concession, he took a few moments to congratulate his opponent, and praise her campaign effort. He said something to the effect that we have a great system (or something like it) and talked about us all working together. Then, he called on his supporters to give the victor a round of applause. They did it. I didn't hear any booing, or jeers, just spontaneous applause and cheering. These were the people who lost the election.

Within a few minutes of that, I heard the victory speech of Ted Kulongoski, the Democrat who will be our Governor for another four years here in Oregon. He too had a moment when he spoke of his opponent, Ron Saxton. He was gracious, talked about the civil tradition of the concession phone call, and started, I think, to ask his own supporters for the same kind of appreciative moment for the opposition the Republican from Washington had sought, and gained, for the victor in that race. I don't know what the Governor was going to say, however, because as soon as Ron Saxton's name came out of his mouth, several people in the room started to jeer and boo, rather than applaud. To his credit, the Governor stopped the crowd from continuing, but it was what he said when he did it that really struck me. He made it clear the jeering should stop, but added, as he pointed his finger in the air, "We're better than them." Catch that? We're better than them. Not we're better than that, but better than them. Freudian slip, perhaps, but telling all the same.

What is happening in politics that some people can't even be gracious in victory? What would have been these people's attitude had they lost? I realise that there is a lot of pent up frustration on the part of some Democrats because national politics had not favored them in a long time before this election. I have felt the same frustration myself, many times, by virtue of leaning conservative in a very liberal state, but I hope that I, or any of the people I know to share my political views, would never be so lacking in civility and basic manners as to boo a defeated political rival. It takes politics out of the realm of ideas and makes it a personal attack--rather than disliking a person's ideas, disliking them. After seeing those two speeches, and the two sets of people supporting these candidates, I can't help but challenge the Governor's statement that, "we're better than them." The Democrats may have been the victors in Oregon this evening, but it's not the Republicans who behaved like losers.

Green Leafy Vegetables And Other Dangerous Foods

It looks like November is food safety month here at the Meow. Last week, after regaling you with tales of the family poultry farm where my husband learned the fine art of chicken catching as a boy (I didn't tell you that he knows how to hypnotize chickens--honestly, he does), I sent you to an article about the Kentucky Colonel's favorite bird and the diseases that roost in poultry, slipping past government inspectors on the way to your kitchen. Disease, you see, cannot always be detected via visual inspection, and many of the birds that grace your dinner table could make you sick if you don't make sure they are thoroughly cooked. You just can't tell by looking at a chicken what microorganisms have found a home there. One of the ways the article's author, John Stossel, proposed we address the problem of poultry contamination is irradiation, designed to kill even the bacteria that escapes detection, before the bird gets packed off to the supermarket. Stossel explains that for a variety of reasons, irradiation isn't common. Important safety changes are slow in coming to this industry, so chicken really needs to be cooked to death, after it has been butchered, for safety's sake. Let's put chicken on the scary but tasty list for now.

Joining chicken these days in warranting "Caution: Severe Potential Body Damage" warnings is spinach. We're just starting to be able to find Popeye's secret weapon in the stores again after an E. coli outbreak, which started a couple of months ago, was traced to fresh bagged spinach, which infected about two hundred people, causing three deaths. Revealing my own ignorance here, I've always thought of E. coli as a meat-borne illness, undercooked burgers and all that. I really didn't know you could get it from the plant kingdom, but I sure do now. Spinach salad is a staple in Meowville, and we've been particularly aware of the unavailability of this extremely important member of the food chain. Until this week, our green leafy vegetable of choice was nowhere to be found. That made us sit up and take notice.

We are glad to have our favorite back, but I'm not ready to just return to my pre-spinach-drought state of ignorance. I have wanted to know how the infection got to the plants in the first place, how it spread, and why all the washing, that is the primary reason for buying bagged spinach, didn't do its job and cleanse away the germs. Some answers are coming out now; it's starting to look like the infection invaded spinach crops in California because wild hogs found their way onto farms in Salinas Valley. Okay, that answers how the plants got "defiled." (It's the best word I can think of to describe the ruination of perfectly good spinach.) So, how did the E. coli make it past the packaging plant?

Dr. Henry I. Miller, of TCS Daily, says that washing sometimes simply can't do the job of ridding produce of disease, because the germs aren't on the surface of the produce, they're inside it. Miller says, "Exposure to E. coli or other microorganisms at key stages of the growing process may allow them to be taken into the plant and actually incorporated into cells." Even the irradiation, which Stossel recommends for meat, and Miller agrees is an important tool, can't deal with all the complications from infection, because some bacteria secrete toxins which remain even after irradiation has eliminated the germs themselves. These toxins can make you sick no matter how dead their germy progenitors are. What's Miller's solution? Biotechnology.

I've often discussed Miller's TCS articles here, and frequently the focus of his writing has been the ever-expanding and much-debated field of biotechnology, or gene-splicing, as it is more descriptively labelled. Repeatedly he has come down on the side of the safety and efficacy of gene-splicing to introduce desirable traits into plants. He's explored the concept of biopharming, altering plants so that you can, in effect, grow drugs to meet pharmaceutical needs. It's basically programming plants. (If you want to find more post and links to Dr. Miller and biopharming, just do a search at the top of this page. Blogger will list for you the four or five other posts I've done on Dr. Miller's articles.) Miller describes the benefit to be found in addressing the problem of infected food with biotech, but, as usual, also acknowledges the objections that inevitably go hand in hand with such an approach:

There is technology available today that can inhibit microorganisms' ability to grow within plant cells and block the synthesis of the bacterial toxins. This same technology can be employed to produce antibodies that can be administered to infected patients to neutralize the toxins, and can even be used to produce therapeutic proteins that are safe and effective treatments for diarrhea, the primary symptom of food poisoning.

But don't expect your favorite organic producer to embrace this triple-threat technology, even if it would keep his customers from getting sick. Why? The technology in question is biotechnology, or gene-splicing -- an advance the organic lobby has vilified and rejected at every turn.

Read Dr. Miller's article for more about this current spinach situation and its implications, and more of the posts here if you want to follow up further on what he has to say about gene-splicing. He comes down very firmly on the side of pro-biotech, but does address in some detail the issues and problems that others raise with ongoing development in this burgeoning industry. He's gradually been winning me over to the idea that manipulating genes to introduce desirable outcomes can be safe and effective, if proper care is given to how the technology is used, and a firm set of precautions is in place. I wasn't always this sanguine about it, thinking, basically, that God knew what He was doing when He made things, and who are we to mess with them, but I've really come, over time, to see these genes they are manipulating as God-made building blocks, that get shifted around all the time in nature. Shifting them is not inherently dangerous or wrong, but it does require a great deal of wisdom to know what's appropriate and what's not. It's interesting to me watching where the science is heading. I still say they need to keep their hands off people, but making spinach safer so I don't ever have to face another spinach fast? I think there I'm cautiously in favor of ongoing research.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Obsession: Radical Islam

There is an outstanding 8-part documentary (a little less than an hour and a half), available on YouTube, called Obsession: Radical Islam. If you have a hard time believing that there really is a threat to the West from radical elements of Islam, or a culture of jihad spreading throughout the world, you need to watch this video. If you think that the number if Islamists who hate the West is small and insignificant, watch the video. If you doubt that there is any connection between Radical Islam and Nazi Germany, or any lessons learned from WWII that must be applied to the War on Terrorism, you really need to watch this documentary. If you don't believe that many Muslim children are being abused--indoctrinated with lies and hate from the earliest ages, you need to watch this video. If you don't believe that it is the radical elements of Islam that truly harbor aspirations of global domination, despite all their accusations of U.S. imperialism, please, watch this video. I read a comment on someone else's blog earlier today saying that it is totally inaccurate to link Islamofascism and Hitler's Naziism, and that what we learned in WWII has no application to current events . I challenge anyone (sane) to draw that conclusion after watching Obsession.

Please know, I truly believe there are many Muslims around the world--most in fact--who really do love peace, and will stand with civilization when given the chance. However, if we do not see the danger for what it is of the 10% of Muslims (over 100,000,000 people) who ascribe to Islamist extremism, if we allow ourselves to hide from the truth, and hide from the need to confront the threat, they will never have that chance. Many of them cannot stand up from within Islamic countries, like Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, etc., until they are sure that we will not abandon them to reap the whirlwind for speaking against the radical Islamic ideology. We absolutely cannot abandon Iraq to her fate, nor cede ground on any other front. Watch the documentary. This is not going away.

Hat tip: Sioux Lady

Dining With A Democrat

Since tomorrow is election day, there are an awful lot of of really astute political opinions being served up around the Net, and anyone who's hungry for them can find a smorgasbord. I'm not going to add too much more to the conversation by restating the fact that I think national security is still the dominant issue facing our country. (Although, you'll note I just did it anyway. I just couldn't help myself.) However unnecessary I find the addition of my own opinion into the soup, though, I still think it's worth feeding you all some meat. So, I'm sending you to eat at the table of a very wise Democrat (Orson Scott Card.) Seriously, it's a hearty meal, nutritious and filling, but be prepared, it's going to take you a while to digest it. (It's quite long.) Bon appetit.

Hat tip: IMAO

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Laughter And WMD

I haven't read much over the last couple of days. Occasionally, I get hijacked by life, and simply don't have the time. This weekend, it's been partly that, and partly that I just haven't taken the time. Yesterday was one of those wonderful, rare days, where it's raining, but quite warm outside, so after attending the first Christmas choir practice of the season, my husband and I went for a lovely, long walk in a bath-water downpour. Well, okay, since Ked is sure to object to the bath-water description (he thinks it's cold at about fifteen degrees higher than I do), let's just say it was warm enough for us to stay cheerful while tramping about in a very blustery and wet storm. By the time we got home, we were completely drenched, and we loved every minute of it.

Believe it or not, we are corny enough that we actually spent a good deal of the splashy adventure holding hands and singing that old Neil Sedaka tune, "Laughter in the Rain." Remember that one? Here's a bit of the lyrics, so you'll know how appropriate it was:

Strolling along country roads with my baby
It starts to rain, it begins to pour
Without an umbrella we're soaked to the skin
I feel a shiver run up my spine
I feel the warmth of her hand in mine
Oo, I hear laughter in the rain
Walking hand in hand with the one I love
Oo, how I love the rainy days
And the happy way I feel inside
Okay, there were two minor things wrong with the song. 1) We were not in the country, although we did walk around a very pretty golf course. 2) My hands are almost never warm. Other than that, it's spot on. My husband sings great tenor harmony, so we didn't even frighten the squirrels. I've now revealed to you all how very sappy I can be, but it was a joint effort, so I'm not even going to feel sheepish about it. Sappy can be awfully nice, don't you think?

Moving on, it's now time for something completely different. I'm getting a little chance to blog because Kedley is at the store picking up a birthday card for his Mom. (Happy Birthday Mom!!) I'm not going to take a lot more time about this, I'm just going to send you to some interesting information about WMD in Iraq and the New York Times essentially admitting that Saddam really was as close as a year away from having a nuclear bomb, and potentially passing the plans off to Al Qaeda. Not what you expected just a few days before the election? Well, you won't be surprised to know that the Times wasn't trying to do Republicans or the Bush administration a favor. Their "gotcha" was just a little more revealing than they intended.

Hmm. I don't think I've ever covered quite this much territory in a single blog post: from "Laughter in the Rain" to Saddam and his nuclear program. Not great continuity--hope I didn't throw you too big a curve. I don't usually delve very far into my own personal life in the Meow. Next time I'll probably just stick to the nukes. The walk was lovely, though.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

I Hope He's Right

Dean Barnett is predicting that the polls-takers aren't taking some of the realities of poll-taking into account when they're taking their polls about how things are going to go at the polls on Tuesday. (Wow, I managed to work variations of "taking" and "polls" into that sentence four times each. Repetition and redundancy points for me!!) Barnett's flying in the face of conventional wisdom, and saying that the Republicans will to do much better than predicted on Tuesday. He's going out on a limb, but he says that he's comfortable on that limb. For the sake of national security, both ours and Iraq's, among many other things, I hope he's right. I may not be entirely happy with the Reps right now, but I can't think of many things more disheartening than Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House.

Hat tip: Instapundit

Friday, November 03, 2006


A One Look dictionary search comes up with the following definition for payola:

"noun: a bribe given to a disc jockey to induce him to promote a particular record"
It's interesting to me that a word would exist specifically regarding record companies bribing disc jockeys for airtime--a term exclusively applying to radio, and not bribery in general. I wasn't aware, until reading an article by Martin Fridson, at TCS Daily, that back in 1960 Congress passed a law against the practice of record producers buying airtime. I'm a little too young to have been aware (or even alive) when the Congress held hearings to debate the scandalous issue of payola. (Wow, it feels nice to still be able to say I'm too young for something.) Anyway, Fridson's article looks at how that whole not-paying-for-airtime thing has worked out over the last several decades--not too well, by his account, and he debates the merit of government intervention in market-related concerns. The question arises as to exactly why such a practice should be illegal? As Fridson points out, the equivalent of payola in other industries is legal and considered perfectly acceptable:
Nowadays, shelf space in supermarkets is routinely and openly purchased by food manufacturers. Bookstores charge for window displays without fear that prosecutors will show up on their doorstep. These mechanisms for achieving consumer awareness represent valuable resources. It furthers economic efficiency for firms to work out appropriate prices for such resources. Why, then, did Congress single out radio airtime as an awareness-building mechanism for which no market may lawfully exist?
Fridson gives some history that indicates with a fair amount of authority that those who promoted the notion of payola as a crime (established record companies whose profits were being threatened by upstarts) did so with their own financial gain very firmly in mind. (Unfortunately, donation-seeking politicians often do the same thing.) Apparently, established companies, who themselves used the system of buying airtime, did not immediately respond to the shift in record purchasers' preferences toward rock and roll by producing rock and roll. Rather, they tried to hinder the companies who were producing it, companies which lacked an established base, and thus relied heavily on buying airtime to get their music to the public. In doing so, by Fridson's account, six large companies pretty much locked up American record sales. Fridson indicates that the real purpose behind the payola law (eliminating competition) has clearly been fulfilled, but also spends some considerable time looking at the ways clever companies circumvent the rules--commit payola-by-any-other-name--and the economic realities of free market enterprise.

I don't really have much to say about the topic. I just found the piece interesting and thought I'd pass it on to you, in case it's the kind of thing that strikes a chord with you. I will say this, though--the market can handle such situations very well, if it's allowed to do so. If a disc jockey is getting paid off by a record company to play music the public doesn't like, the public won't buy it, the radio station will lose listeners and thus advertisers, and the disc jockey and record company will both suffer in the future for putting their resources into that product--the disc jockey by losing his employment, and the record company by leaner bank accounts. Fair competition says make the same options open to everyone, and let them allocate their own resources. All in all, I'm more in favor of letting the market (buyers and sellers working in tandem) regulate itself than letting Congress get too involved in it. Both of them act in in self-interest, but the market is more honest about it.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Mirror, Mirror, On The Wall

Here's a tidbit for you. Turns out, according to New Scientist, that elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror, something that's very rare in the animal kingdom. (Dolphins and apes make up the whole short list.) I won't dwell on the specifics, since I want you to go watch the video linked by the article. It's pretty cool. I have a question for you to ponder, too: If elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror, when the mirror is taken away does the elephant ever forgets what he looks like? Do you suppose if he sees his reflection on the elephant equivalent of a bad hair day, say, a bad trunk day, and then never again, he'll be traumatized for life--his very long life?

More Pics In Space

If you have ever read this blog before, you probably know there are a few things I just can't resist--cool scientific advances, anything related to nanotech, and pictures of, or from, space are a few key items in my personal catalogue of "things that get me twitterpated." I actually get just a little more happy when I realise it's time for another month's worth of space photos to appear care of the thoughtful folks at MSNBC. This month's Space Slide Show may very well be the best one I've seen yet.

Seriously, there were some pictures in this batch that took my breath away, not the least impressive of which were snaps of places right here on Earth. One of the prettiest was a satellite image of an atoll in the South Pacific that looks as if it must be a painting--everything is so bright and vivid, and there's so much depth in the color of the water, that my first impression was that Van Gogh had time-warped just so he could stow away on the satellite and put the image on canvas. Another satellite image of Earth shows the complex patterning of waterways in a mangrove forest shared by Bangladesh and India, looking like dozens of fingers of lightning all striking at once. There are pictures from the X Prize Cup which I wrote about a couple weeks ago. You'll get to see one of the lunar lander entries in flight. All in all, Earth didn't do too badly for herself in this month's slide show.

Heading further afield, though, also held its wonders. There are galaxies and brilliant, blazing stars (in infrared.) There are several pictures of Martian land features that set the imagination going, and also, as someone commented from an earlier slide show, conjure up some gratitude for the hospitable nature of our own beautiful home world. Richard Payne gets credit for taking a lovely image of the Witch Head Nebula--much prettier than its name implies--and all the more impressive because it didn't come from Hubble, or some other NASA-funded gadget. Finally, one of my very favorite photos this time is a gift from the Cassini spacecraft. It's the most amazing picture of Saturn, back-lit by the Sun, with all her rings glowing. Head on over, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. As usual, if you have a particular favorite, come on back and share. I like to keep this glow going for as long as possible.