Archive for August, 2007

Science Friday post: spiders are your friends

August 31, 2007 2 comments

Imagine a spider web the size of a football field.  Or several, built by millions of spiders in Texas.

“At first, it was so white it looked like fairyland,” said Donna Garde, superintendent at the park that is located about 45 miles east of Dallas. “Now it’s filled with so many mosquitoes that it’s turned a little brown. There are times you can literally hear the screech of millions of mosquitoes caught in those webs.”

Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!!! Millions of mosquitoes dying a horrible death.  I always treat spiders with respect, because I generally prefer the company of the spider to that of whatever it eats.  But damn, that’s a lot of eight-legged freaks…

Friday post: the value of disagreement

August 31, 2007 9 comments

Anyone who’s been blogging longer than a year will tell you the best part of their blog is the comments from readers.  There is a good reason for this – nothing makes for a more interesting post than “a Democrat, a Republican, and a Libertarian walk into a bar…”  There are blogs where almost everyone is in full agreement but it isn’t very much fun – or much of a learning experience – watching them agree with each other and slap each other on the back.

Another reason this is true is that we sometimes get comments from people who are right in the middle of the issue or event.  That turns a news item into a personal story.  If you are surrounded by what’s happening, I really want to know what you think. 

Another thing: The most important reason: for years, I’ve been fascinated by the fact that another person with different life experiences can look at an event or issue and see something completely different from what I see. Their opinion seems so counterintuitive to me, and mine to them.  Who is right?  Is there such a thing as an ideal perspective?

That is the reason why I really appreciate readers who disagree.  It is why I sometimes leave your comments in place for a day or two without responding; other readers can read my post, and the comment, and leave their own comments.  It is the reason I try to keep the name-calling and pigeon-holing to a minimum.  What’s the point of people yelling at each other?  I’d much rather give them space to explain why they think as they do. 

Even if you grant we have each come upon truths we consider important, is there nothing a former-Republican Democrat like me could learn from a Libertarian?  Or a Libertarian from a Green?  Is there no possible benefit in trying to understand – if only for a while – why a Christian or Muslim Fundamentalist feels as he does?

If we just enjoy shouting, fine; there are any number of talk shows for that.  It could be argued (and some do) that the attempt to understand and learn from others leads to paralysis of action.  This may not really be a bad thing, if the action being paralyzed is a harmful one.  And even if action has to go forward, wouldn’t we be better forewarned of pitfalls by insight from people who disagree with us?  Because… there may not be such a thing as an ideal perspective.

I’ve been thinking about Paul’s article, Conscious thought is symbolic; no more, no less.  It’s as good an explanation as any I’ve seen, and will do until a better one comes along.  Here’s a taste:

… Instead of saying that normal, everyday consciousness mirrors reality, it would be far more accurate to say that it maps reality. That is, the relationship of consciousness to reality is basically the same as the relationship of a map to its terrain…

There are different kinds of maps: topographical maps, gravity maps, political maps, geological maps, treasure maps, spectral-reflectivity maps, epidemiological maps, highway maps – and different uses for each one.  All are true in some respect, but none is The Truth. 

And whatever its purpose, a given map has limitations of accuracy.  How much ground does it cover, and at what level of detail?  Are there features the cartographer simply chose to ignore? (Perhaps because they’re secret, or politically inconvenient, or painful to remember, or the information was not available.  Or, for reasons they cannot really explain).

What if we could overlay all the different kinds of maps, one over the other?  Studying them, finding correlations between the different variables being mapped?  Can we do that politically, philosophically, interpersonally?  What could we discover?

Having an open mind should not equal being adrift.  There’s nothing wrong with looking at an idea, considering it, and soundly rejecting it.  I work pretty hard on being “right” – some may call me opinionated – but it should be a work-in-progress. I have changed my mind on some pretty big issues over the years.  In a few cases, it happened because someone I disagree with convinced me by a well-supported argument. Our opinions are a little sign on the map that says “You Are Here” – they shouldn’t be a cage from which we cannot escape.  I would hate to be imprisoned within the opinions I held 30 years ago.  And I hope to live a lot longer.

Categories: Politics

Sagging brains against baggy pants

August 30, 2007 7 comments

OK, I’ll just be honest and say that I think baggy-pants styles look moronic.  But illegal? 

In Delcambre, Louisiana, wearing sagging pants will cost you $500 or maybe even land you in jail.

Who thought up this law?  A Democrat?  A Republican? What was their reasoning?  I want details! 

Categories: Law, Politics

Fastest bicycle, craziest rider

August 29, 2007 5 comments

A human being working at maximum output generates just about a kilowatt, or a scoche more than one horsepower.  It’s interesting to see how much you can do with only a little power:

Science Daily — This October, Jerrod Bouchard will attempt to become the fastest college student to be propelled by his or her own power.

Jerrod Bouchard (left) is determined to break the collegiate human land speed record this fall.  The senior in mechanical engineering at the University of Missouri-Rolla, will try to break the collegiate human-powered land speed record of 61.5 mph Oct 1-6 in Battle Mountain, Nev.
- Student Hopes To Break Human Land Speed Record Using Bullet Shaped Bicycle

I can appreciate that.  Once I hit 26 mph on a straight-level riding my bike, but I about croaked from the effort.  The fastest I ever went on a bike was 55 mph, but that was headed down highway 12 on the East side of White Pass in Washington State, in about 1972.  A friend and I were bike-packing from Vancouver, BC to Ellensburg and we’d camped near the top.  On the way down, we got into the exhilaration of speed and pedaled like mad, tucked into the smallest cross-section we could muster.  (It’s also possible we had wind behind us – conditions were prit’ near ideal)  A Ford LTD pulled alongside us and the passenger grinned at us and flashed his hand 5-fingers-twice.  After a bit, we ran out of breath and coasted for miles, heading down into the Yakima valley.

Of course, we were idiots.  The sew-up tires on our bikes were not made for that kind of speed.  Nor was the road really smooth enough.  Sometimes you just look back at dumb things you did and wonder how the hell you survived…

Today instead of an Italian touring bike, I ride a Chinese mountain bike.  I probably never get over 20 mph anymore.  Pathetic.

Hope the guy breaks the speed record!  If he survives, it’ll probably help him get a job at some company that makes electric cars or something.

Human nature briefly explained

August 28, 2007 1 comment

FRAZZ is about a school janitor who is dating a teacher:

I love that last line – in a single aphorism it describes the lower side of human nature.  The once-great Republican party has drifted rudderless in this direction and it’s practically Libertarianism in a nutshell.  Of course it is not confined to those parties.

As the impact of humanity increases, we’re going to have to get beyond that mindset.  How?  Aye, there’s the rub.


Categories: Humor, observations

Movie Review: The 5,000 Fingers Of Doctor T

August 26, 2007 3 comments

I love Theodore Geisel (Doctor Seuss) and recently learned that he did a live-action movie in 1959.  Entitled The 5,000 Fingers Of Doctor T, it told the story of Bart Collins, a young boy tormented by a cultured but evil piano teacher named Robert Terwilliker.

(Waaaait a minute… there’s something awfully familiar about that.  Could there be an inspirational relationship to young Bart Simpson, and his cultured but evil nemesis, (Sideshow) Bob Terwilliger?  Hmmm…)

Bart apparently has some sleep disorder; he falls asleep at inopportune times, dreaming that his piano instructor Doctor T is after him.  In the dream that encompasses most of the movie, his instructor founds the “Terwilliker Institute” to enslave 500 young boys to play the world’s largest piano (and not incidentally run a gigantic and very profitable racket).

Producer Stanley Kramer pulled out all the stops to translate the surreal world of Doctor Suess to 3-dimensional reality.  I imagine that stratospheric costs prevented another live-action Suess flick from being made until special effects could be produced digitally. 

The sets, lighting, choreography, and musical numbers are simply astounding.  The orchestral number (performed in a dungeon with fanciful instruments that only Doctor Suess could possibly invent) is wonderful but impossible to describe.  The movie does run a bit slow for my Die Hard conditioned movie sensibilities but heck, it was made in 1959.

This movie was a lot of fun.  I’m going to have to watch it a couple more times to catch everything.  You can get your own copy on Amazon.

SPOILER ALERT below the fold

It would be difficult to get this story made into a children’s movie today.  Terwilliker offers cigars and tequila as a successful bribe to the other hero, a plumber named Zabladowski.  The one African-American operates the elevator down to a torture chamber.  Bart climbs into lots of dangerous places including the world’s most vertiginous ladder.  Young Bart rebels against authorities and actually uses an atomic weapon against his foe.  And if the movie were being made today, there would be a boring sub-plot about Bart’s sleeping disorder, and he would learn to love the piano instead of running off to play.

Categories: Movies, Reviews

Think about the future

August 26, 2007 5 comments

License plates are not usually installed by mechanics.  Normally this chore is done by someone who does not make a living navigating the world of fasteners and corrosion.  So here is a little Public Service Announcement.

When you install license plates, remember that they will be subjected to years of exposure to salt water and extremes of weather.  And further remember that unless you intend to keep your car until it suddenly dissolves in a pile of entropy, some poor schmuck will have to change the license plates someday: Put a little grease on the threads!  Better yet, spend two bucks and get theft-resistant stainless steel fasteners and still put a little grease on the threads. Ask the guy or gal at the auto-parts store which fasteners to get for your car. 

That is all.

Thank you, and we now return to your regular programming.

(More about my new 1988 Honda Civic later.)

MrsDoF and D.A.R.E.

August 23, 2007 7 comments

Get a cop into the classroom, push the teacher and any parents out, and start telling grade school kids stuff about drugs.  Presto!  A drug-free youth culture.

Well, it probably made sense to somebody, sometime.  Not necessarily to MrsDoF, who was recently asked for a donation to keep the D.A.R.E. program going in our schools.  It seems that the program is running out of money, and her response was Farewell and good riddance.

Categories: Uncategorized

Mary Mallon: being evil vs. being an evil

August 21, 2007 26 comments

NOVA featured The most dangerous woman in America, this evening, about Mary Mallon, the Irish immigrant otherwise known as “Typhoid Mary”. 

When she was finally quarantined in 1909, germ theory was not widely accepted by the public.  Certainly she never accepted, on the basis of scientific evidence about invisible germs, that she was a threat to anyone.  She fought a legal battle, and won public support for her plight as an innocent woman imprisoned against her will.  Finally, under court order, the New York Public Health department released her.  But they kept track of her to make sure she didn’t work again as a cook.

Until they lost track of her, that is.  When epidemiologist George Soper caught up with her again (alerted by a new outbreak), he found her working as a cook again, in a maternity hospital.  Public sympathy for her evaporated, and this time she was quarantined for good. 

The episode, strong on historical fact, left the viewer to weigh the merits of punitive measures against infectious people.  But the fact is, a balance does have to be struck. By draconian measures, we could confine one bad example, while ensuring that hundreds of people at risk fake their samples to avoid detection.  It’s a balancing act.

But there is another lesson, untouched by the NOVA episode, and it is that science and math education matter.  Students need to look through microscopes, through telescopes, use laboratory scales and measures.  They need to take measurements in the real world and do statistical analysis on the data they collect.  This need not be magnetic resonance chemistry; it can be counting birds in a field or recording how many people pull when the sign says “push”.  Because you never know when, or what, the student might need to understand someday. 

Today, school children calmly accept revolutionary ideas that once confounded experts and the public.  Science education begins this process; for the general public, science journalism picks it up and illuminates the cutting edge of the scientists’ tools.  Science is the reach that exceeds the grasp of our senses, past the intuitive limitations of our spectral sensitivity, our temporal, spatial, and quantitative frames.  Where religion once flailed at explanation, science digs patiently, methodically. 

Was Mary Mallon evil?  It isn’t that she wanted to hurt anyone; she really didn’t believe she was hurting anyone.  But moral judgments about her intentions aside, even if she wasn’t evil, she was an evil to the people she needlessly infected with a catastrophic disease. 

Getting hot in more ways than one

August 21, 2007 5 comments

A comment from Ed on the previous post prompted me to look for news reports on the heat wave.  Apparently US weather is getting global attention: China View reports Heat wave kills 49 in Southeast, Midwest, U.S..

  BEIJING, Aug. 20 (Xinhuanet)—Two more persons in Memphis, Tennessee, were killed by the two-week heat wave, bringing the number of heat wave victims in Southeast and Midwest of the United Sates to at least 49, according to media reports Monday.

  In Memphis, Tennessee, the heat-related death toll in nine days has reached to 12. Most victims were elderly and living in homes without air-conditioning…

I would love to think this is an isolated weather event and not a climate trend – because honestly the latter thought frightens me.  But there’s this report from Phoenix:

Average number of 110+ degree days at Phoenix Sky Harbor per year by decade:
1950s: 6.7
1960s: 10.3
1970s: 17.0
1980s: 19.0
1990s: 13.6
2000s: 21.6

If this trend continues – and it sure ain’t slowing down – it’s going to do us a lot more damage than any terrorist organization ever could.  It’s past time for half-hearted measures; we need change NOW and it’s got to come from individuals, from governments, and from corporations. 

I don’t know if it’s a hopeful sign, or a warning, that even conservatives are finally catching on. Maybe I’ll believe it when I see people moving closer to work, driving less hoggy cars, bicycling, recycling aluminum (which saves a butt-load of energy), etc.  And – oh yeah – voting for candidates who take the environment seriously.