Archive for May, 2010

A short thought for Memorial Day

May 31, 2010 6 comments

The web is full of Memorial Day remembrances today, but I really don’t know what to say except: let’s go home.  Afghanistan is now our longest war, ever, and we’re not getting anywhere there or in Iraq.  “Victory” is that shimmering mirage on the horizon, but that is where it stays.

Our soldiers deserve better.

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“Obama’s Katrina”?  Sure, in the trivial sense of…

May 30, 2010 8 comments

Is the oil spill “Obama’s Katrina”?  Yes, absolutely; in the utterly trivial sense that it’s a horrible thing that happened while he was president.  But the government had an agency, called FEMA, in place specifically to deal with hurricanes and stocked with people whose expertise was in that field. 

Or at least it did, during the Clinton administration.  George Bush put one of his old college buddies in charge of it, whose only expertise was in managing Arabian horse shows, and otherwise used the agency to dole out plum jobs to supporters.

So when Katrina hit, the government agency tasked with providing relief from natural disasters, tripped over its own shoelaces.

Conservatives, smarting from that criticism have been trying to pin some crisis of incompetence on Obama but for the most part he’s done a very capable job.  He’s even pretty much restored FEMA.  But he has had his hands full trying to get his agenda (the one we elected him on, remember?) moved forward with every Republican and quite a few Blue Dog Democrats throwing banana peels at his feet.

There are some parallels between Katrina and the BP spill. There’s even an incompetent government agency, the MMS, tasked not with responding to a disaster like this, but preventing it.  And they’ve been rubber-stamping drilling applications right and left.  But how did it become incompetent?  Obama’s new director, Elizabeth Birnbaum, wasn’t able to stop the practice and go back and retroactively fix all the old rubber-stamped ones in the scant nine months she was on the job.

Think about what it means to turn an agency around: first you have to get the new director approved.  That hasn’t been easy with the Republicans stonewalling new appointments for reasons that blaze new frontiers of triviality.  Then that person has to review the existing operation, devise new policies, and if necessary hire new people to implement them.  It’s anybody’s guess how cooperative the old-guard staff were with her efforts to do this. 

Enter Charles Krauthammer, Pulitzer prize-winner and smug conservative party liner, who thinks the BP spill is the Republicans’ big chance:

Here’s my question: Why are we drilling in 5,000 feet of water in the first place?

Many reasons, but this one goes unmentioned: Environmental chic has driven us out there. As production from the shallower Gulf of Mexico wells declines, we go deep (1,000 feet and more) and ultra deep (5,000 feet and more), in part because environmentalists have succeeded in rendering the Pacific and nearly all the Atlantic coast off-limits to oil production. (President Obama’s tentative, selective opening of some Atlantic and offshore Alaska sites is now dead.) And of course, in the safest of all places, on land, we’ve had a 30-year ban on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

So we go deep, ultra deep — to such a technological frontier that no precedent exists for the April 20 blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.
Charles Krauthammer: Oil spill could be Obama’s Katrina.

Get that?  The spill is the environmentalists’ fault!  Rush Limbaugh said the same thing so you know this is a talking point making the rounds of the Republican intellectual vaccuusphere. 

Reality check: it isn’t “environmental chic”, it’s both science and economics.  The tiny amount that Arctic Refuge oil would push the “peak” into the future simply wouldn’t be worth the environmental cost.

And environmentalists weren’t in favor of offshore drilling, either.  We’ve been saying the entire carbon energy industry is unsustainable.  But the oil companies have been relentless not only in lobbying for access but also in spreading confusion about the real costs of different kinds of energy.  So when vote-driven politicians (who as a class aren’t particularly literate about environmental issues) make a decision, they take the fewest political risks they can.

We have had at least an entire generation for the transition from carbon energy to renewables.  During that time, little has been done because the public has not understood either the external costs or the global risks.  Well some people are damn well getting the message now.

The carbon energy industry is guilty of a profit-driven crime against humanity.  Not just the Deepwater, but the effects on our climate and on the Ocean pH as well.  It’s time to add it all up and see the real picture.

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We’re in the wrong business, Dyson Fan edition

May 29, 2010 7 comments

I’ve seen pictures of those new Dyson “bladeless” fans, which look like a magical ring that moves air, somehow.  You’ve probably seen commercials for them.  They’re, like, three hundred bucks which is a lot for a fan that sits on the table.  I suppose if you were absolutely loaded with dough…

Anyway I had wondered how they work; what moves the air?  Some kind of spooky magnetohydrodynamic effect like the propulsion system in the Russian submarine in Hunt For Red October?  And today I got a close look at one, and the answer is; no, they’re actually pretty conventional.

There’s a regular old fan (probably a squirrel cage type) that sucks air in through the little holes in the round base, pressurizing the magic ring, which is actually a hollow manifold with a circumferential output on its inside surface.  The air comes out in a particular direction and the resulting cone-shaped turbulence is all the same way, so it moves air.  This unscientific cutaway view is how I think it works.

There’s at least a buck’s worth of plastic in the whole thing, molded into various shapes plus an electric motor and some kind of fan (blade or squirrel cage) in the base.  It’s not even particularly quiet; I’ve heard conventional fans that made less noise.  In fact, the hissing noise is what directed my attention to the display in the first place. 

Confidential note to James Dyson: make the holes in the side bigger so it will be quieter (and move more air without clogging), make the base section around the squirrel cage removable so both it and the cage can be cleaned.  And you’ll probably make more money if you drop the price to seventy bucks.  And stop acting like you invented the cure for polio; you make overpriced fans and vacuum cleaners.

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That’s enough Summer, thank you…

May 24, 2010 6 comments

Well I finished another in a series of “paint application and mosquito-feeding” sessions just as the Illinois prairie daylight set down for the evening.  Lacking the stamina to paint the entire house in a long weekend (plus the siding is quite weathered so there’s a lot of scraping and sanding), I’m doing it in two- or three-hour chunks.

I’m reasonably certain that mosquitoes are able to home in on that spot just between your shoulder blades where you cannot reach to scratch.

I turned on the air conditioning today and have already had all of Summer that I want out of this year.  Just enough to get a taste of it; thank you, that’s fine, you may go now.  Although I did notice that my hip didn’t bother me at all today.  Nope, hot weather is still not worth it.

Our boy-cat Oscar assisted in the only a cat ordinarily assists humans in their mysterious activities; he watched, when he could keep his eyes open.  From time to time, he’d haul his furry self up and amble to a better vantage point, to sway and fall comically to the warm concrete and then, in a minute or two, resume his nap.

Diane returned today from a trip to Ohio, during which I took over the twice-daily task of injecting our girl cat Mahalia with insulin and encouraging her to eat enough cat food to sustain her frail, overactive metabolism – which we then keep in check with thyroid hormone.  But Diane has a much better handle on that rhythm, along with other intangibles of cat entertainment, which for Mahalia include acting as crochet and Jeopardy companion.  Although I am very fond of the kitty, I have no mastery of either of those pastimes.

Paint application is another pastime in which I am unskilled, and some fine day I will have the siding ripped off this house and some kind of soulless vinyl or aluminum or whatnot applied in its place.  Eighteen years ago I had the windows replaced with double-pane vinyl framed doodads and have been completely satisfied with them.  Today they still work to perfection and do an excellent job of keeping the weather where it belongs.

Then there’s the roof, the furnace, the water heater, the bathtub drain, the basement wall, all in need of attention.

The day at work was marked by three humidity-related service calls, causing paper jams, a jammed cabinet door, and a leaky A/C duct about which I could do little more than sympathize.  Fortunately the A/C works much better in my house than it does in my office.  So how was your day?  Had enough Summer yet?

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May 23, 2010 3 comments

We enjoy violence as dramatic fiction, but we reassure ourselves with the thought that in real life violence is something we’ll resort to only when everything else has failed.

When we glorify real-life violence, we’ve failed to consider the tragedy.  Which is that there are only two possibilities left: that everything else has failed, or that we’ve failed to try everything else.  Neither possibility leaves much room for celebration.

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Measles?  Seriously?

May 23, 2010 2 comments

Methodological naturalists, or scientists if you prefer, are often accused of being smug and condescending and superior.  Sure, OK… tell that to the children who will die this year because they didn’t receive their measles vaccines.

No, seriously, if that statement grates a little, too bad.  For a mix of religious and political reasons, a lot of children in Africa are not getting vaccinated, so that there were 64,000 cases last year resulting in 1,100 deaths.  Imagine your child gets sick with a one-in-fifty-eight chance of death from a preventable disease.  The WHO is actually concerned that all the progress made since the introduction of the vaccine could be lost.

But it isn’t just Africa: in Nebraska and Iowa, there are measles cases where there should be none.  Vaccinations are down because people think the MMR vaccine jab causes autism (it doesn’t, or at least after exhaustive study there’s not even a correlation let alone a known causal link.)

And how, you may ask, in the hell are kids in Nebraska and Iowa getting measles?  Because their parents aren’t vaccinating them.  And this traces back to one Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who published a rickety study in The Lancet (since retracted by the journal itself) that was based on a dozen kids. 

It turns out that Wakefield was doing “research” for a lawyer who wanted to get rich off a class-action lawsuit, and that he had a measles vaccine of his own that he couldn’t move unless he could undermine public confidence in MMR.  His work has been picked up by celebrity spokes like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, and turned into a movement. “The Joker” couldn’t have written a more destructive punch line.

The result is that the CDC must take these “isolated” cases very, very seriously because there are now thousands of kids in the US who didn’t receive their measles vaccines. So the reasons aren’t religious (mostly) or political so much as about the economics of a small group of people who play on parents’ fears for economic gain.

Measles is only one example in the dichotomy between methodological naturalism and religion/politics/greed.  But it comes to mind as cases of a disease that should only be a distant memory begin to make headlines again.  Once you start noticing, there are many, many more examples, and it does get frustrating. And it has a starting point in the erosion of critical thinking in schools that need to extrude kids through testing filters while not offending conservatives and religious nuts.  We’re prepping kids to grow up into citizens who have no defenses against dangerous malarkey.


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How to be a bad person in two easy steps

May 22, 2010 1 comment
  1. Befriend an intelligent, friendly, gregarious pack animal as a pet, and

  2. Keep said animal penned up and lonely all day in your yard on the side of the street with no sidewalk, so that she pathetically pleads for attention from every passer-by..
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Don’t Be A Sucker

May 22, 2010 1 comment

This 1947 movie made by the War Department starts out with a couple examples of people getting suckered, then segues into… well seemingly into a Tea Party rally, except they’re talking about Negroes and Catholics and Freemasons instead of gays and Latinos and atheists…

“Hey, what’s wrong with the Masons? I’m a Mason!” says the young man who’s been agreeing with racist harangue up til that moment.  The Hungarian immigrant next to him replies; “And that makes it different, doesn’t it?”

“Prejudices are made for us by someone who wants something.  Somebody’s going to get something out of it… and it isn’t going to be you.”

You can get the embed code for the video here.  Hat tip to Coturnix

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May 21, 2010 1 comment

My boss moved a trash can yesterday and this little centipede was underneath it.  For being only an inch long, he could really move…

From biosphere

Of course, if I ever see one of its larger cousins from Thailand,, I won’t kneel down and take a picture; I’ll scream like a little girl and run away.

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In order to find something…

May 21, 2010 1 comment

One of the items I carry all the time – part of my “kit” -  is a folding pocket magnifier, which I keep in my watch-pocket. They’re very well-made, and last about five years of daily use, and when they fall apart I buy a new one.  Unfortunately the one I’ve been using for two years disappeared last week.  I’ve reached for it half a dozen times. Doh!

So I went on eBay and ordered two of them, same manufacturer and model.  NOT going without one again, again, see? 

Of course it turned up twenty minutes after I ordered the replacements.  Oh well, at least I’m all set for pocket magnifiers until about 2023…

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