Archive for May, 2008

Because Nature isn’t waiting for us to wise up

May 30, 2008 12 comments

The myth of the common man has a range of presentation from its high point in Aaron Copeland’s triumphant 1948 Fanfare to Sam Cooke’s 1958 Wonderful World, which celebrates ignorance of history, mathematics, geography, biology, and the French language in favor of unexamined emotionalism.  I don’t know why, but for some reason that song reminds me of this prophetic quote:

“Someday the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
— H.L. Mencken

Anti-elitism is, briefly, the preference for a simple ideological answer to complex real problems.  It is the ignorantocracy of politicians pandering to the lowest common denominator.  It is corporations strip-mining our culture and our economy for short-term gain.  It is the war on abstractions. It is the education system producing the next generation of prison inmates. It is what we have.

In the years since Cooke, politicians and their strategists have re-discovered anti-elitism as a potent manipulative weapon.  If you can call the other fellow “elitist”,  It is no longer necessary to win an argument with facts and reason.  Like every other cultural meme, and with apologies to Sam Cooke, there is a history.  It goes back a long ways but let’s just turn the pages from my lifetime…

Around the time I was born something happened that scared the living bejeezus out of our country; the Soviets lofted a beeping ball into orbit over our heads.  When that object rose above the horizon, with it dawned the realization that technological power is not an exclusively American franchise.

It should have been obvious earlier; we had to race the Germans and the Japanese for the creation of an atom bomb, but that contest took place largely in secret.  The story (that we alone possessed supreme destructive power) as it was delivered to the American people was much simpler than the reality behind it.  A little more history in music:

First we got the bomb, and that was good,
‘Cause we love peace and motherhood.
Then Russia got the bomb, but that’s okay,
‘Cause the balance of power’s maintained that way.
Who’s next?

France got the bomb, but don’t you grieve,
‘Cause they’re on our side (I believe).
China got the bomb, but have no fears,
They can’t wipe us out for at least five years.
Who’s next?…

(Tom Lehrer, Who’s Next?

Anyone with the price of a newspaper could figure out that a bomb could be mounted on top of a rocket.  That meant we had to stay ahead of the Soviets.  For a brief while, scientists and engineers became celebrities.  Schools beefed up their science and math programs.  Supremacy in education became a matter of national defense.  Don’t let Communism win!  We did a pretty good job, and not coincidentally, America’s economy surged.

Of course ideology was the back-seat driver, but lately ideology has jumped into the driver’s seat and kicked science out the door. We’re not just resting on our laurels; we’re driving them into the ground. The problem seems to be that people who understand science, culture, and history are difficult to manipulate. Today anytime science conflicts with official policy, some political appointee gets out his little marker and starts redacting.  And what’s the problem with that?

Since (irrevocably, and for better or worse) our civilization depends on technology and on making correct technological choices, you can substitute “civilization” in the following quote:

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
—Richard P. Feynman

For a successful civilization… and yet our leaders are behaving as if nature could be fooled, as if facts didn’t matter, and as if (as Karl Rove famously said), we could make our own reality.  As if real consequences would hold off forever as long as we closed our eyes and keep repeating the lie.  And if any pesky scientists or intellectuals say differently, all you have to do is call them elitist and poof!  You win.  It doesn’t even matter who the real “elitist” is; it’s just one of those all-purpose insults.  Until:

“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology.  We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology.  This is a prescription for disaster.  We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces…”

- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

Expertise has fallen on hard times; ideology is in ascendancy.  In fact, somehow patriotism itself has fallen into a crab bucket from which no higher culture can emerge.  Anything above the lowest common denominator in art, music, sports, or even science is suspect.  National politicians can openly deride the value of a college education, and seek political endorsements from preachers who wouldn’t know a phenotype from an archetype.  Arguments can now be won by labeling the other side as “French”.  Biology education fights a constant battle against encroachment from bronze-age mythology. Schools cut art and music in favor of standardized test instruction.  Here’s Sagan again:

“I worry that… pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive.  Where have we heard it before?  Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us—then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.

The candle flame gutters.  Its little pool of light trembles.  Darkness gathers.  The demons begin to stir.

- Carl Sagan, IBID

It’s time to go on the offensive against anti-intellectualism, anti-science, and anti-elitism, and start calling stupidity by its right name.  As a culture we need to stop thinking in slogans and start celebrating complexity, depth, and study, and if the answer to a problem is complicated, then it’s complicated and that’s fine.  It’s time to stop pretending that the laws of nature don’t apply to us.  And here’s why: because when we stop tolerating ideological nonsense, we can carve out space to give reality precedence over public relations.  So we can have a successful civilization.

Adlai Stevenson said; “Eggheads Unite!  All you have to lose is your yolks!”  In his day the main threat was only nuclear holocaust.  Today we have that, and lots more.  Because nature isn’t waiting for us to wise up.


Categories: Uncategorized

A Linux example

May 29, 2008 2 comments

Thinking about Linux?  Here’s a real-world example.  Keep in mind I am NOT an expert with Linux, I’m a Windows guy.

I just installed Xubuntu 8.04 on my Thinkpad X40 laptop.  This is a high-durability, small-format laptop with P4 Centrino processor and 512 Ram, so from a system perspective it’s nothing special.  It has no CD-rom drive (too tiny), so I hooked up an external.

The configuration had been dual-boot Ubuntu/WindowsXP, and since Xubuntu is a bit leaner (faster) I wanted to change it.  I have three Linux partitions; /, /home, and /swap, plus one NTFS partition for Windows.  I plugged in a network cable for installation, though the laptop us generally used wireless afterward.

Rather than install over the top of Ubuntu (I wanted fresh pastry, not day-old) I replaced the existing / partition and ran the install using defaults.  In 15 minutes it was asking me a startling question that I have never seen before during a Linux install: would I like to import Windows accounts? 

It had looked in the NTFS partition and correctly identified all the Win accounts there, and offered to import them so the files and settings would be available in Linux.  Astounding.  No more “never the twain shall meet.”  I declined Windows file imports because, well, I fear change; but it’s a neat feature that I will try out on a test machine.

Xubuntu correctly identified all the hardware and set up the wireless, detecting my home network.  I used Update Manager to get all new security updates, which installed in 15 minutes with no attention from me.

Then I needed to pack in my favorite apps. Using the Synaptic package manager I marked Open Office (a full office suite comparable to Microsoft office), Open Office Draw (similar to Microsoft Publisher), Quanta Plus (an HTML editor), Flash Plugin, and XMMS player for installation.  Clicked “Apply” and went back to doing other stuff on my desktop computer for another 15 minutes until a little window popped up saying “Changes applied.” 

There. Now it’s ready to use again. Total investment of my attention, about a half-hour.  Total installation time, about an hour.

It takes about four hours to reinstall Windows on this same laptop, because all the drivers have to be set up manually, and the applications require swapping CD’s or installation from network drives. You have to watch for “stopper’ dialog boxes so you can’t really do other stuff during installs.  So I don’t reinstall Windows on a whim. 

Other than speed (considerably faster in Xubuntu than in Windows XP) both operating systems do pretty much the same things and work in similar ways.  Not identical. 

Categories: Geeky, Software


May 27, 2008 3 comments

I don’t have a category for “gratuitous cuteness” but if I did, this would be in it.  Imagine you own a railway in Japan, and you aren’t packing in enough people to quite turn a profit.  Things are looking grim, until a cute little lost kitty comes to stay and saves the day

Categories: Advertising, business

More on Linux HTML editors

May 27, 2008 5 comments

I’ve been playing with Bluefish for a while, just long enough to be irritated by a couple of its shortcomings.  It persists in using deprecated tags like i and b instead of em and strong.  It’s a bit difficult to customize, and the manual is HTML only.  If the program is going to be non-intuitive, I want a manual I can print and study.

Today I started playing with Quanta Plus.  Right off the bat it’s easier to customize and the workflow is a bit smoother.  It uses WW3C standard tags.  Very promising.  Except Bluefish had a friendlier icon to click on; it reminded me of one of the characters in Finding Nemo.  Otherwise, so far I like Q+ better.

Categories: Geeky, Software

Memorial Day 2008

May 26, 2008 2 comments

Most of the Memorial Day posts I’ve been reading today go something like this: “Remember the great sacrifice these brave men and women made defending our country”.  And a few have tacked on; “And the Democrats are big cowards and ninnies so remember to vote for McCain.”

Well first of all it is important to remember and honor the sacrifice of our soldiers.  That’s the whole point of the day.  But the question is how?  You can go put flowers on graves, you can write blog posts remembering some specific brave veteran, or you could attend any of a number of services marking this day.  All good.

But how about the rest of the time?  The other 364 days? There are a lot of people out there who seem to feel that we can best acknowledge the sacrifice to honor and country, by never questioning either.  By following our leaders blindly into every conflict that they point to (almost always from the safety of a news conference in Washington) and yell “Charge!”

I understand being so invested in a course of action that you can’t bear to question it, but we have a responsibility to question it, no matter how painful that might be.  We’ve invaded and intervened in so many countries over the years that it’s easy to forget other countries don’t always see us as a benign force in the world.  They can make a good case for ‘America as aggressor’ and it’s dangerous to dismiss that point of view on the basis that it isn’t how we see ourselves.

This in no way denigrates the honor of the men and women who served in our military; quite the contrary. None of them made the decision to bomb or invade or intervene in another country.  They put on the uniform and put their lives on the line, trusting that our country was right.  To betray that trust by failing to consider if the action truly is right does indeed dishonor our troops.

The other countries are not apt to overlook the 100-to-1 kill ratio of our armed forces.  In itself that is just effective soldiering but to them it looks like slaughter.  And if you unleash slaughter, you’d better be right.  There is a saying that when you fire a gun, you are responsible for everything the bullet does until it comes to a full and complete stop. 

The same is true of military actions, whatever you call them.  When you pull that trigger, you (meaning we) are responsible for everything that war does until it comes to a full and complete stop.  And wars sometimes go on for decades, up in the hills, long after we’ve left. 

We have an entire news network devoted to rationalizing our wars.  We have emotional appeals and videos on YouTube connecting 9/11 to any damn place we might want to invade whether they had anything to do with it or not.  We have a president who paints the world with “You’re either with us or against us”.  We have “freedom fries”.

What we don’t have, apparently, is the self-confidence to examine our own motives.  It’s as if we’re afraid of what we might find.  And while our soldiers face death in the streets of some scorching hellhole, we could at least muster up the courage to look in the mirror.  Because we’re not saints, and our motives are not always pure.  We let ourselves be deceived at every turn.  It’s a long-standing pattern for us.  We’re all about “Full steam ahead” and damn the consequences.

If somebody had been watching out for icebergs the Titanic would have had a much longer run as a cruise ship.  It would be very pro-Titanic to say “iceberg ahead!  Change course!”  And likewise we can honor our troops and their sacrifice by recognizing that it is pro-American to watch where the hell we are going. 

Categories: Uncategorized

Phoenix has landed

May 25, 2008 Comments off

BBC reports that they pulled it off!!!  W00T!!! Phoenix Mars probe touches down  Yee-Haw!!! 

New Scientist details the landing, which is about as complicated and risky as I can possibly imagine.  The craft separates from an orbital platform and enters the atmosphere (which even on the Mars surface is thinner than our atmosphere at the top of Everest) and burn off speed with its heat shield until it slows down to just supersonic speed.  Then it flips, pops its parachute (imagine deploying a 12-metre chute at supersonic speed) and slows down to a couple hundred KPH at 1 Km altitude.  The last Km to the surface it handles on thrusters – imagine doing that by automation! for a ‘smooth’ level touchdown.  At this writing it still needs to deploy its solar panels.

Phoenix cost around $530m all-told, and is a stationary chemistry and weather platform that will accomplish actual science on Martian conditions.  Just for comparison it costs about 1.3bn just to launch the Space shuttle up to ISS so they can blow bubbles and throw boomerangs.  Not that I’m making any sort of judgment on the science-worthiness of the ISS; I would never stoop that low…


Categories: Science & Technology

What time is it?  Oh, who cares…

May 25, 2008 9 comments

I appreciate punctuality as much as the next guy, but apparently not as much as the next Swiss guy.  BBC News posts a very amusing article on Swiss punctuality:

…despite the national enthusiasm for punctuality, Swiss companies are now trying to formalise the timekeeping of their employees and there is currently a boom in time management software…

Yeah, that’s what the Swiss need – better time management.  It’s a very funny – or possibly very sad – article.  If the writer is even partially correct, the Swiss are an entire nation on the verge of culturally-induced mental illness. The writer wonders how the Swiss are going to react to the different time-habits of thousands of Euro2008 “football” fans.  Hope he writes a follow-up article.

Maybe they just need to relax and listen to some Chicago

Categories: Humor, observations

A couple shots of Tequila

May 24, 2008 2 comments

First is Dana’s co-blogger, 18-year-old and damned smart Kaden, who is writing about the NCLB which has suffused the last eight years of his educational life. School systems often forget to poll their customers.  After all, what could an 18-year-old have to say about the exalted wisdom of our programs?  Well this, for example:

“In school, homework is pretty typical in most science, literature, or social studies classes. You are given some sort of comprehension assignment, usually reading, and are given a worksheet, which is usually just fill-in-the-blanks copies of said assignment. It’s a basic process of taking in the information, storing it long enough to fill in on the dotted line, and forget it. While obviously certain aspects of class are slightly more useful or engaging, this works not only for the microscope assignments but the macro-scope goal of education: score well.”

Kaden: Candidates and classrooms, an educational viewpoint

Tests attempt to measure the outcome of education.  Standardized tests are to educational outcomes what en vitro tests are to new drugs; suggestive but not definitive by a long shot.  We could start by actually sitting down and listening to students.  And here’s an opportunity to do that, because Kaden is planning a whole series of these posts, which I will try to keep track of in a list below the fold.

Then Dana got wrapped up in a thread at Pharyngula where a Christian stopped by and had her ass handed to her by other commenters, and then quite by accident some actual communication took place.  Well not exactly by accident because Dana stepped in and offered an olive branch along with some kindly advice, and then the flaying-fest morphed into an actual discussion and we were all better people.  Well done!  Then she went back to her own blog, poured a shot, and pounded out Talking Past Each Other: A Few Simple Rules For Christians Among Atheists.  Which I recommend to any Christian planning to visit an atheist blog.

I’m thoroughly enjoying a day of solitude, just drinking coffee and dinking around on the Interwebs.  Now I’m gonna eat some lunch and take my bike to the shop, and invite them to convince me that I could ever trust those hydraulic brakes again.


  • I did wind up forgiving the hydraulic brakes.  At the bike shop, the owner, owner’s wife, and the mechanic were both horrified that a small manufacturing plug had popped out of the handle.  I noticed that they all had hydraulic brakes on their bikes and reckoned that in all likelihood it meant they were telling the truth this was the only time they’d seen this type of failure.  So despite their offer to replace the entire brake system with cable-operated disc, I said OK, just replace the faulty handle.  But I did mark the faulty handle with my knife – to the discomfort of the mechanic.  “You don’t trust us?” he asked?  I answered that it might be easy to mix up two identical handles – one defective and one a warranty replacement.  But also psychologically I just need to know that the handle had in fact been truly changed.

  • Kaden has another education piece up, entitled Academic Showdown, AP vs IB.  And since I’ll be tracking his articles on this list, I’m changing the category of this post from ‘Blogging’ to ‘Education’.
  • And here’s Grade Inflation
Categories: Education

A Macintosh keyboard for my PC

May 23, 2008 4 comments

No secret my hands have been giving me trouble.  I needed a keyboard with a lighter touch and a lower profile and thought I’d try this one from Apple.

It was fifty bucks but I like it a lot. It plugs into the USb port, has an aluminum frame with large flat plastic keys, has a super-light touch, and the top surface of the ‘G’ key is only about 7mm above the table.  That’s really flat.  The Apple ‘Command’ key automatically becomes a ‘Window’ key when connected to a PC.  Seems to work OK in Linux also.  Have not tried customizing any of its functions though.

But it has a phantom NumLock key!  No big deal but did take me a few minutes to figure out.

Update:  I’ve been typing on it a couple days and although it has a light touch, my fingers are still bothering me.  Trouble is my hands are super-sensitive but I can’t seem to stop typing the way I learned back in high school.  On a huge Smith-Corona manual typewriter with 15mm key travel that you had to strike pretty hard if you wanted an impression on the paper.  Next step (and I have been trying to do this for a while) is to somehow re-train my typing to take advantage of the lighter touch.  Gotta stop pounding the keyboard, but how?

Categories: Geeky, hardware

It’s all in your head

May 23, 2008 2 comments

Neurophilosophy delivers a number of x-rays of penetrating brain injury, including one chap who over a period of weeks drove 11 nails into his own head. Another whose cranium was penetrated by a large chunk of asbestos.  And another who wound up with a paintbrush inside his his head.  And more.  Analysis of treatment and outcome is included.

It’s always nice to learn something new from a post and here’s something I did not realize: intentional self-inflicted nail gun injuries are actually quite common.