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Archive for July, 2007

Bigger than Kyoto

July 24, 2007 1 comment

Sometimes you see a problem; the solution appears painfully obvious, and you look at it wondering, “Why don’t they just fix it?” 

Here’s one of those problems: oil-field flares.  We’re talkin’ lots of of gas burnin’ – on the order of 24 billion cubic meters a year from the Niger delta fields alone.

Gas flares emit about 390 million tons of carbon dioxide every year, and experts say eliminating global flaring alone would curb more CO2 emissions than all the projects currently registered under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism.

Then you wonder, just what are the political, economic and technical barriers to fixing this problem?  Here’s one project I found, (.pdf) and the technical solution is obviously not all that simple.

It’s not just the CO2 – lots of other environmental and even social problems drift downwind from the oil-field flares.  The solution to the political component might be getting the right person to care.  That’s often a lot harder than the technological part

Very much doubt we’ll see those MPG’s

July 24, 2007 3 comments

Engineers are working on efficient, spark-free engines that could boost our cars a few more MPG’s.  By clever management of the fuel and unrestricted air, and switching between spark-operated and sparkless mode, they solve a timing problem that has troubled sparkless engines.

It’s good news, but I doubt we’ll see the extra fuel economy.  Since I started driving, engine power has just about doubled while gas mileage has stayed the same.  So we know how improvements in engine design end up being used. 

Dead last, again

July 24, 2007 2 comments

Alex Palazzo at The Daily Transcript has an NYT graph showing the electoral prospects of various groups like “Muslim”, “military service”, “smoker”, “gay” and “atheist”.

I’ll give you three guesses where that last one falls…

…and I do believe I know what the problem is.  Despite evidence to the contrary, the lie that one can only be moral through belief in God and fear of Hell has pervaded our society to the level of unexamined truth. 

When someone tells me they just don’t see what keeps unbelievers from ‘raping and pillaging’ I take great care not to undermine their faith. I don’t want to find out what they’d do if it went away.

Categories: Religion

Intelligent Design, my ass…

July 23, 2007 7 comments

Guys will understand this on a more instinctive level than the ladies, but suppose you’re working on something out in the backyard, and (hypothetically due to a prostate that isn’t what it once was) you suddenly have to go pee really badly.  So you go inside to the bathroom.

Thing is, your hands are covered in grease.  It’s real tough grease, too; serious long-chain hydrocarbons with lots of additives that experience tells you is a significant skin irritant.  The skin on your hands is pretty much immune to it, but your nether regions are a different story.  So you need to wash your hands first.  Remember, you gotta pee really bad.

You grab the Lava soap and turn on the faucet, and the sound of the running water turns up the “gotta pee” meter to emergency!  Whose great design idea was that?

It seems to take a long time to wash that grease off your hands, but actually it’s only about a minute or two.  It seems longer because of the Theory Of Relativity.  As in: “Time is relative.  It depends which side of the bathroom door you’re on.”

Categories: Humor, observations

Ten lessons from Iraq

July 22, 2007 3 comments

Obsidian Wings has a list of lessons to be learned from Iraq.  Here’s a sample:

(1) It seems to me that our country went slightly crazy after 9/11, and one of the manifestations of that craziness was a tendency to say, about anyone who suggested stopping to think about much of anything, that that person just hadn’t absorbed the lessons of 9/11, hadn’t been there, hadn’t fully grasped how horrific it was. Anyone who has even the slightest iota of this tendency should, I think, engrave on his or her forehead: When something truly awful happens, and you find yourself in the presence of real danger, it is more important than ever to stop and think clearly about what you are about to do. The temptations to do something stupid are much greater than usual, and the risks are much higher. Going with the flow and doing what comes naturally might be winning strategies at a party; they are profoundly dangerous when considering going to war. Since the people who do stop and think are likely to be rarer than usual, in moments of national crisis they should be cherished, not abused or slandered.

… and there are nine more of them

Categories: defense, Politics

Swimming underground in Darfur

July 22, 2007 1 comment

Three science-related links:

  • Lots of pesticides are neurotoxins.  Lots of schools use them prophylactically.  Could small doses be contributing to children’s ADHD?  (For that matter, I wonder if it has something to do with autism.  This is one example of neurotoxins in our environment other than the thimerosol in vaccines, more commonly blamed.)

  • An enormous underground lake – the size of lake Erie – has been discovered in Darfur.  That’ll solve all the problems in that region, right?  Or does genocide have as much to do with human nature as with climate change?  Will ignorance and prejudice win out over a cool, clear, refreshing opportunity?  Stay tuned.
  • Women are underrepresented in math and the sciences, I’m guessing for reasons of culture rather than aptitude.  The Girl Scouts are trying to do something about it.  They even have a parent’s guide, which is pretty decent.

Question: how long will it take for us to stop socializing girls to avoid science and math?  Or for that matter, to a lesser extent, boys?

Categories: Science & Technology

It’s tough for a (Baptist) pimp out there…

July 22, 2007 1 comment

And my question: shouldn’t we stop trying to stuff the wide range of human sexuality into a narrow religious bottle, and instead try to find healthy ways to live with ourselves as we are?  The twisted, unhealthy outcome seems to derive as much from trying to be what we’re not, from hiding and denying and punishing, from applying shame to perfectly normal feelings and desires, as from anything about sexuality itself. 

Let me suggest a much narrower starting point for sexual morality: meaningful consent.  Then broaden it somewhat: consent of everyone involved (that is, no deceptions).  Two more things: recognition that individuals vary widely, and of autonomy (those not involved don’t get to decide).  What else?

Update:

Categories: observations

The Lunatic Fringe

July 20, 2007 5 comments

I want to talk about this topic later, but here’s a really rich discussion of popular credulity from one of my favorite authors.  Following are excerpts from the chapter of that name in 1965 Arthur C. Clarke essay collection, Voices From The Sky.  The section that follows is quite long, but guaranteed to reward your investment of time reading it:

The lunatic fringe has always been with us.  In every age, there have been people who were willing to believe anything so long as it was sufficiently improbable.  Religion, economics, science, politics have all had – and still have – their fanatical minorities who devote their fortunes, their energies, and often their lives to the cause they have made their own.

Often the cause is a sensible one but its advocates are not; they show that humorless monomania, that inability to see any other point of view, that distinguishes the crank from the enthusiast.  One does not have to look very far for examples…

(Describes US phenomena of John Birch Society and of the Black Muslims, and their respective fears of Communists and the Ku Klux Klan)

The driving force behind all such extremist groups and crackpot organizations is a mixture of fear and ignorance….

(Review of several popular hoaxes, including the Bridey Murphy case, Dianetics (which Clarke optimistically referred to in the past tense), UFO’s…)

Another revelation must be imminent, now that the Beats are buried and the zest for Zen is flagging.  I have no idea what it will be, and am in no great hurry to find out.

You may feel that this is making too much of something that affects only a small part (one hopes) of the total population.  it is true that in the past crankiness and eccentricity did little harm, and even added a certain spice to society.  A generation ago, flat-Earthers, end-of-the-World cultists, and disciples of weird religion caused no embarrassment outside their immediate circle.  But we are moving now into a complex and perilous age, where credulity and superstition are luxuries that can no longer be afforded.  For consider this example:

In 1843, fifty thousand followers of the prophet William Miller gathered on New England hilltops to await the expected hour of judgment.  The advent of a great comet, its tail streaming like a fiery banner across the sky, seemed to them a sign that the end of the world was at hand.

Men are still watching the sky for signs of doom; but now they look into radar screens.  And here is the important difference; the beliefs of fifty thousands Millerites could have no influence, one way or the other, upon the end of the world, but today, when we can carry the power of Vesuvius in a single warhead, the fears or delusions of only fifty men could bring it about.

This is an extreme case; but all forms of irrationality are dangerous, because in the right circumstances they can spread like a plague, infecting not only a community but an entire nation.  Those concerned may be very ashamed of themselves afterwards, but by then the damage may be done.

You cannot build an informed democracy out of people who’ll believe in little green men from Venus.  Credulity – willingness to accept unsupported statements without demanding proof – is the greatest ally of the dictator and the demagogue.  It is not so very long ago that there were voices crying; “The Jews are plotting against the Reich!” and “I have here in my hand a list of 205 Communists in the State Department.”  These voices are silent now, but there will be others.

(An aside on how the success of modern science has ironically led many to think that anything is possible, without critical boundaries) 

(Examples of Brits in WW I who fancied that Russian soldiers were arriving in large numbers to help, because they saw soldiers with snow on their boots.  And, a Russian craze that Venusians were coming to Russia to buy sweets.)

No one should derive much satisfaction from this proof that nuttiness is also rampant on the other side of the Iron Curtain.  unreason is always a menace, wherever it occurs; it may be even more of a danger in the Soviet Union than in a country with democratic safeguards.  (Look what Hitler’s intuitions did to the world.)  And there is, unfortunately, no reliable cure for it; you cannot buy sanity at the drugstore, or inject common sense into the community by mass inoculation. 

The only answer lies in education, and even that is merely a palliative, not a panacea, for a college degree is no guarantee of wisdom, as anyone who has ever been near a campus will testify.  There are many people in the world who are educated beyond their intelligence, but there are far, far more who have not been educated to within hailing distance of it.  They are the ones who provide fodder for the demagogues and cranks, who listen to false prophets and sponsor absurd or evil causes.  They cannot always be blamed, for society has robbed them of what should be every man’s right – an education to the limit of his ability, whatever his financial status, creed, or color.  No wonder that, dimly realizing their deprivation, they seek any substitute that they can find.

Very often that substitute takes the form of anti-intellectualism – a pretense that knowledge, education, and culture are worthless or even dangerous.  This is, of course, a typical sour-grapes reaction; not long ago one could identify those suffering from it by their fondness for the word “egghead.”  That engaging term is now a little out of fashion, because the events of the last few years have made it obvious to everyone that society that despises brains is on the one-way road to oblivion. 

Human nature being what it is, the lunatic fringe can never be abolished – and most of us, if the truth be told, would hate to see it vanish altogether.  But education cna minimize its influence, can convert it from a potential danger to a source of mild amusement.  A century ago, Matthew Arnold compared this world to a “darkling plain… where ignorant armies clash by night.”  The metaphor is still valid. Perhaps the greatest single task that now faces every nation is the dispelling of that ignorance, lest the armies clash again – for the last time.
- Arthur C. Clarke, 1965

I am reading another book that develops a similar theme, in far more detail and with more specific relevance to current events.  But I was cleaning up the basement and found this old book by Clarke, and this section seemed too good not to share. 

Categories: Politics

An increasingly conservative Supreme

July 18, 2007 35 comments

I’ve heard many of my liberal friends less than happy about the number of Supreme Court spots our president will have filled when his term rolls to its ignominious end.  And while it does bother me, I’m not upset by it because I think we’ve relied too heavily on the courts.  The editorial “Supreme success” in the 7 July Economist says it pretty well:

There is no doubt that the new court will annoy liberal America.  It will punch holes in the wall between church and state.  It will uphold some restrictions on abortion.  But the frustrations will not prove as painful as they might seem.  By confirming the federal ban on partial-birth abortion, for example, the court has brought abortion practice more closely into line with popular opinion and internattional practice.  The court could even force liberals to rediscover the lost art of popular persuasion.  And it will force them to be more imaginative in advancing their core ideas.  Its prejudice against race-based affirmative action will force the left to think of better ways of dealing with poverty.  Liberals might experiment with income-based affirmative action, for example, or with vouchers that give more money to the poor.  All of which might do liberalism more good than harm. (emphasis mine)

Mind you, I don’t put much stock in complaints about “activist judges” (which is really any judge who does something you don’t like).  But we liberals are, in our own way, as addicted to force as the faux-conservatives currently running the show.  Conservatives got into power by a long process of persuasion – dishonest persuasion, to be sure, but they got people to vote for them by framing the issues in a way that resonated with voters.  Only the costly and abject failure of “conservative” policies finally tossed the ball over the liberal side of the net, and liberals are busy fumbling it.  We’ve never been good at reaching public opinion, and it’s high time we started studyin’ up on it. 

Categories: Law, Politics

Preferring poetry to pugnacity

July 16, 2007 2 comments

I was going to complain about this shameful outrage in the US Senate, but instead decided to share…

one of my favorite poems, written by the greatest literary genius of the 20th century.

I don’t know why;  it just seemed to fit my mood better.

And what the heck, here’s another.

Ed has a couple more articles on the Christian activists trying to shout down a Hindu prayer in the Senate:

Categories: Stupidity