Archive for November, 2008

I missed “Buy Nothing Day”

November 29, 2008 4 comments

I completely forgot that 28 November was “Buy Nothing Day”…

Bored silly and wanting to get out of the house, I bought a new taillight bulb for my 20-year-old Honda Civic, and some bananas. 

Here’s a couple more “Buy Nothing Day” videos, juxtaposed in an interesting way.  And I kinda like this one… it’s a perfect ad for absolutely nothing at all.

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Education, research, and economic development: Africa as a lesson for America

November 28, 2008 5 comments

Could Africa ever be rich?  Since the 1960’s, economic development aid has poured into the continent and pretty much vanished. Shiploads of grain, containers full of solar cookers, clothing, medicine, and outright money… and no progress.  By every measure, Africa has remained a crucible of poverty from which human genius has emerged only with the greatest difficulty. 

Enter Neil Turok, the physicist with the Klingon-sounding name.  Born in South Africa, he worked with Stephen Hawking on brane theory.  And he has an idea for transforming the problem: that “Africa should be seen not as a perpetually despondent continent, but as the largest single repository of untapped human potential in the world”.

“Turok challenged the global development status quo by creating the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS). Located in a converted hotel in Cape Town, AIMS recruits students from across Africa for an intensive nine-month mathematics course. Students are taught by top international lecturers, and by the end are qualified for advanced programmes abroad.

At first, Turok says, the project generated widespread scepticism. Critics didn’t think that students would rise above the remedial level. Now the project has been recognised by the African Union, and this year earned Turok a $100,000 TED, at the Technology Entertainment and Design conference.”

New Scientist, 24 November 2008: Will the next Einstein be from Africa?

In Turok’s TED video, he tells a moving story about discovering the hunger for science even among people who struggle for survival.  Bright young kids without shoes, a physicist from Darfur – if nothing else the video should destroy any vestige of racism or sexism left in the viewer.  It should also destroy the idea that economic development is only about manual labor.  Africa is a demonstration economy rich in manual labor, but poor in educational and scientific infrastructure.  We need only look to that continent to know something important about ourselves as well.

There are African lessons for America.  Our own political madness trades in the idea that the noble working man, with dirt under his fingernails, is the strength of America.  It’s perfectly right as far as it goes.  But unsurprisingly there’s a connected truth, which Turok is counting on: that labor is leveraged by education, by science. And as Archimedes said; “Give me a big enough lever, and I can move the world.”

In the days leading up to the election, I received this from my son, Lucas The Mathematician:

Perhaps I’m an elitist, but I just don’t relate to McCain/Palin at all.  On Saturday, I heard Palin talking about how factory workers in some swing state were the real future of America, and its source of strength.  I just don’t buy it.  There’s nothing wrong with working in a factory, sure, but America’s real future and source of strength is in places like Palo Alto, CA and Cambridge, MA; Urbana, IL and Madison, WI.  People like Sankar the mathematician, Philip the physicist, Andrei the microbiologist, and Erin the computer scientist.  Real Americans who are building the future of America one breakthrough at a time.  Whose jobs are threatened by better funding in other countries.  People who sit around the kitchen table wondering about where their next grant is going to come from when the cost of research keeps going up, but the NSF budget keeps going down…

Our president elect was endorsed by 76 Nobel Prize winners in the sciences.  He promises to restore funding to stem-cell research, and to emphasize science in policy decision.  And we need to give him our complete support in that, because it’s the right direction.  But the next president?  Will the winds change, and the next president get worried about stem-cell souls, or have too many contributions from oil companies, or give lip-service to science while cutting NSF funding?  Newt Gingrich once bragged about a ‘permanent conservative majority’; we need to lay the groundwork for a permanent reality-based education infrastructure.  And I think that will only happen if we do a better job of communicating why it matters.

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The auto (company) graveyard

November 28, 2008 4 comments

Peter Klein: “The proposed bailout of GM, Ford, and Chrysler overlooks an important fact. The US has one of the most vibrant, dynamic, and efficient automobile industries in the world. It produces several million cars, trucks, and SUVs per year, employing (in 2006) 402,800 Americans at an average salary of $63,358. That’s vehicle assembly alone; the rest of the supply chain employs even more people and generates more income. It’s an industry to be proud of. Its products are among the best in the world. Their names are Toyota, Honda, Nissan, BMW, Mercedes, Hyundai, Mazda, Mitsubishi, and Subaru…”

The thought of the government rescuing a failed company makes a sound in my head like throwing bolts into spinning gears.  As long as the cars are built here, I don’t give a damn what nameplate is on them.

And yet, thanks to the mismanagement of the so-called ‘fiscal conservatives’ we can’t afford to lose a major domestic company right now, let alone three.  Not for the company’s sake – good riddance – but for that of their workers and suppliers.

I believe firmly that if Jimmy Carter had let Chrysler fail, GM and Ford would be in fine shape today.  They would have seen the reaper and learned to fear it.  But now?  I don’t know what to do.

And no, I don’t believe a syllable of those jet-riding auto executives’ protests blaming the unions or CAFE or clean-air standards or any of that.  The native instinct of a Japanese car company when faced with a new requirement is to pick up the phone and call their engineers.  American car companies?  They call their lawyers and lobbyists.

  • The desolation of Detroit gives some clue to the human cost of resting on corporate laurels.  No wonder the big three executives need such tight security.

  • And bailing out the big three costs a fraction of bailing out the finance industry, with the same kind of high-riding, smirking executives.
  • (Cartoon segment from old Charles Addams collection.)
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Happy Thanksgiving 2008

November 27, 2008 7 comments

Happy Thanksgiving to you and all your loved ones!  We’re taking it easy here in the Wiman castle – well I’m taking it easy.  MrsDoF is baking Pumpkin dessert squares right now and a turkey later.  Give ‘em all a hug, pet the cat, throw a stick for the dog, forgive offense, and have a great day.

Thanksgiving is a curious holiday.  Leading up is a frenzy of food shopping, and following is a cacophony of commercialism.  Tomorrow all the big-box stores will offer crazy deals on electronicrap of nebulous necessity.  One stalwart soul is already – since yesterday – camping out in front of Best Buy to get a laptop for four hundred bucks or something.  Geez, people, never heard of eBay?  We are staying home on Friday.  Depending on the weather I may go riding my bike North of town. 

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War! On! Christmas!

November 26, 2008 2 comments

HT – Pharyngula

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How To Talk To An Atheist

November 26, 2008 4 comments

One of my favorite bloggers, Dana, is taking part in a self-flagellating blog-thing called NaNoWriMo, in which she will write an entire book during the month of November.  Her entry is called “How To Talk To An Atheist, a guide for the religious”.  Since I am only good for short pieces before my brain says “Sorry, empty!” here’s my take on that subject:

Back in about 1971 we were living in Ellensburg, Washington.  Our minister, Al Sweet (yes, that was his name), told a story about an angry phone call he received at the church.

(Al, if you’re out there somewhere Googling your name and reading this, you rock!  Because you must be, like, really old by now and yet here you are using The Google.  I always knew you were a sharp guy.)

Anyway, he was in the church kitchen making some coffee when the phone rang.  So he picked up.  He listened incredulously as the caller harrangued him about Methodist theology.  “I suppose you Methodists think X! and Y! and Z! and you’re all wrong because of this and that other thing…”

When the caller had cooled down a little bit, he cut in; “Well, I can tell you what I think about those issues, but we’re a pretty unruly bunch.  I’d be happy to get even half that much agreement in the rest of the congregation.”  And they went on to have a lively conversation about angels dancing on heads of pins or whatever it is people talk about, when they talk about theology.

The story must have stuck with me, because here we are In The Future and we’ve got flying cars and dinner-pills and moon colonies and yet I am still repeating it.  But the main point is that groups are seldom all that homogeneous.  And some kinds of groups are more homogeneous than others.  There’s an organizational conformity continuum from students in a Pakistani Madrassa through Sarah Palin’s church, through Catholics and Methodists and Unitarians to… atheists.  You won’t find a more unruly bunch than that last one. 

To some extent, most of us are constrained in our beliefs by scientific reality but to put it mildly, even within that enclosure debate goes on.  There’s no “atheist position” on anything but the existence of God, which is that He/She/It is very unlikely to exist.  Consistency on gun control, taxation, school vouchers, the Detroit bailout?  Forget it. 

So my advice on ‘Talking To An Atheist’ is that all the normal rules of conversation apply: The conversation should flow in two directions. Don’t make stereotypical assumptions. Remember that your impression of any group is often forged by the loudest members of that group, and by that group’s opponents.  Forget what James Dobson or Ray Comfort told you about “atheists” and talk to the individual person. Don’t be a bully or a doormat.  Just engage. 

Dana, of course, is going into a lot more detail.  She’s been posting chapters and yesterday, an appendix on “Life After Faith”.  In a few days, her entire book will be available.  And then she’ll probably sleep for a week or so.

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Combo plate for the week before Thanksgiving

November 23, 2008 5 comments

The ‘Joyous News’ department:

My friend Pete, his wife Melissa and their newly adopted Ethiopian daughter Iona are back on American soil and headed home.  Ask yourself; what would it be like as a rich American in Ethiopia, adopting a child?  The answer is in the stories.

The ‘pertinent questions’ department:

As our economy teeters on the brink, what’s our motivation?  Why do we get up every day and ‘do it again’?  A psychiatrist and a neurologist tackle the question in The Road Less Traveled and Studs Terkel.  Let’s ask: Is affluence an unqualified good?  Or do we, in good times, need to be extra-vigilant against a kind of spiritual blindness?

***Dave proposes: “How about we bail out the Auto Companies—on the condition that everyone who is a prefixed VP (Senior, Group, Executive) or higher is fired with no severance pay?”  A compelling idea, given the Breathtaking Capital Destruction of these mismanaged companies, and the fact that they still do not get it.

Do GM workers really get seventy bucks an hour?  Um, NO, they don’t.  Jim Henley at Unqualified Offerings, who runs a car company himself, explains why, and wonders aloud why people are throwing that figure around. 

Cindik at Pam’s House Blend turns anti-gay logic around and asks “Why do we allow heterosexuals to marry?”.  And remember Newt Gingrich’s recent tirade about “gay fascism”?  His gay sister Candice has a few things to say to him about that.  Things could be a little tense around the family table on Thursday this week.

The ‘Interesting Stuff’ department:

I didn’t know there is a museum in the old Book Depository building in Dealey Plaza in Dallas.  It’s a place for historical reflection.

John Wilkins admits he can’t handle the Truth.  If you always suspected science isn’t really about Truth, here’s your chance, but don’t get too comfortable.

The Greeks figured out the distance to the sun, just by looking at stuff.  Here’s how they did it.

You may have heard that today’s marijuana is far more potent than that of my generation.  Drug Monkey examines what high-potency weed really means in terms of policy. Curiously, it could mean that today’s toke is actually less damaging.

The ‘Useful tips’ department:

“Yang Yang was so cute I just wanted to cuddle him,” said Liu, the 20-year-old Chinese man who climbed into the panda cage for some affection.  He is expected to recover from his injuries.  Here’s a hint, Liu, panda bears are still bears.  Buy a plush one in the zoo gift shop and cuddle up with it instead.

Julie Deardorff at Chicago Tribune has some good tips about winter cycling in Get Winter Tough.  Most of what she said agrees with what I wrote about winter biking strategies 10 months ago, but she has a few improvements.  Chicago bikers, as you might imagine, deal with a LOT of wind and slush.

Y’know, maybe it’s just me, but if you don’t want nude photos of yourself or your spouse on the Internet, maybe your cell phone isn’t the best place to keep them.

Columnist growing up department:

And finally, Kathleen Parker is finding herself out in the cold after she calls the Christian Right what it really is: the “oogedy-boogedy” wing of the Republican party.  This is an exactly correct description of people who think we humans are riding an insulated raft down the rapids of history driven by a bronze-age god, and need not concern ourselves with planetary health or social justice. After years of characterizing liberals as flaky ‘60’s radicals, maybe Parker herself is finally ready to move out of the ‘60’s. Heaven knows liberals did a long time ago. Come on in and have some cocoa, Kathleen.  You want marshmallows?

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Why don’t those judges carry out the will of the people?

November 22, 2008 3 comments

Judge Jones, talking about the nature of the judiciary:

Your congressman represents you, or at least the public majority.  Or at least, his wealthy donors. Higher court judges represent the Constitution, a document that exists to protect you, sometimes from your congressman, that majority, and/or the wealthy donors.

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More than one way to deliver a nuke

November 21, 2008 4 comments

BBC has a wonderful animated graphic explaining how the US missile defense system is supposed to work.  It is an inspiring exercise in optimism.

First the missile (which is assumed to be ballistic) is nailed on radar the moment it clears the cloud cover.  This tracking is aided by space-based radar, ‘early-warning’ radar, and x-band radar, plus infrared signatures of launch.  The type, speed, and size of the missile is known before it finishes clearing the cloud cover.

Radars send their information to the battle command center, which calculates the best point of interception based on trajectory, range, and speed of both missile and interceptor. The system intelligently ignores decoys launched by the missile.

“Flight path is plotted and information is sent to the ground-based interceptor” which are readied for launch.  Multiple interceptors may be needed if the first ones miss. The ‘kill vehicle’ is steered into collision with the missile. Iconic orbital explosion graphics ensue and the day is saved.  But questions remain:

  • Is the missile even visible to radar?

  • Does it fly in a predictably ballistic path, or does it steer somewhat randomly, perhaps using flight algorithms from starlings or other small birds?
  • How many missiles does the enemy have?
  • What if those decoys were not decoys, but in fact MIRVs?
  • What if it’s a stealth cruise missile launched from a ship and moving fifty feet above the water?
  • Will these interceptors work better than their prototypes? 
  • Will the weapon be delivered by ballistic missile, or by Federal Express marked “Diesel parts”?

That last part is important.  We have all kinds of nifty new technologies to x-ray shipping containers.  This happens after it is already in-harbor. How difficult would it be to set up the nuke to simply go off when it is hit with x-rays?  Or when the crate is opened for inspection.

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Every (Monty Python video) Is Sacred…

November 19, 2008 4 comments

Starting with the nuclear-survivable Arpanet, the innovations of Tim Berners-Lee, and countless inventors, programmers, and entrepreneurs, the Internet has become a World Wide Wnecessity in just the last couple decades, revolutionizing how information and commerce move in world culture.  And while Amazon, eBay, and countless porn and gambling channels are certainly important, at long last the real reason for it all becomes clear:

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