31 January 2011


WAG THE DOG. With the arrival of a number of Tea Party members in the U.S. Congress, the Republican party is experiencing increasing chaos. The new, anti-establishment, and largely ungovernable TPers have their own agenda, distinct from the G.O.P., and they are insoucient when it comes to toeing the party line. In his article The Tea Party Wags the Dog, Frank Rich provides the blow-by-blow of recent weeks' events, along with some perspective on whether the party schism might lead to a complete meltdown, not only for the Republican party, but for the Federal government as a whole. In brief, "Like virtually every other week since [the 2010 elections] shellacking, the State of the Union week was another salutory one for Obama. But the state of the union itself could yet be in the hands of radicals whose eagerness to see the president fail is outstripped only by their zeal to make an ideological point, even if it forces American into default." Not a pretty picture.
MULTIVERSE. In dialogue both funny and informative, astrophysicist Brian Green (whose book The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos explains the fundamentals of string theory and parallel universes) explores the fundamental importance of math to humorist and satirist Steven Colbert. The interview is six minutes well spent, for scientist and lay people alike.

PSYCHEDELIA. Just for fun, here are two links so websites which would have made hippies salivate and go "ooooo", "aaaaaahh", if the Internet had existed in the 1960s and 70s. The first link is The Most Psychedelic Images in Science, which includes fractal images, photomicrographs, and computer modeling. Click on the right-pointing arrow at the top of the gallery, to cycle through a dozen fascinating images, and note the explanation beneath each image. Links to further galleries are also included. Below is a model of a sunspot.

The second link is Introducing the Marijuana-Spiked Canna Cola (a product intended for medicinal marijuana users only). Spiked soft drinks now join tinctures, baked goods, and high-potency marijuana buds in the growing inventory at your friendly neighborhood licensed caregiver. Far out.

30 January 2011


DRINK. Talk show host and raconteur Dick Cavett shares his dry wit in The Wrath of Grapes, in which he holds forth on the enjoyments, over-indulgences, and aftereffects of imbibing alcohol. Among my favorite quotes from the article --

"This is one of the disadvantages of wine: it makes a man mistake words for thought." ~~ Samuel Johnson

"We lost our corkscrew and had to live on food and water for several days." ~~ W.C. Fields

"It tastes like I've eaten an assortment of larvae." ~~ Dick Cavett, during a hangover.

BUMPED. Many of us have known the wrenching feeling that comes with discovering that one's flight has been cancelled. Michelle Higgins offers some creative advice for avoiding it happening to you, and for minimizing the trauma if it does, in her How To Fight Back article. As air travel becomes ever more crowded, frustrating and user-unfriendly, this is timely information.

BLOODY SUNDAY. Some horrible events simply must be incised into our individual and collective memories, lest we revert to apathy and allow such evil to happen again. Assassinations, nations invading nations, genocide, and wartime atrocities all are difficult to think about, but it is imperative that we do so.

One example happened on this day in 1972. Quoting from Wikipedia -- "Bloody Sunday was an incident in the Bogside area of Derry, Northern Ireland, in which twenty-six unarmed civil rights protesters and bystanders were shot by members of the British Army .... Thirteen males, seven of whom were teenagers, died immediately or soon after, while the death of another man four and a half months later has been attributed to the injuries he received on that day. Two protesters were injured when they were run down by army vehicles. Five of those wounded were shot in the back .... The Provisional Irish Republican Army's (IRA) campaign against the partitiion of Ireland had begun in the two years prior to Bloody Sunday, but public perceptions of the day boosted the status of, and recruitment into, the organization enormously. Bloody Sunday remains among the most significant events in the Troubles of Northern Ireland, chiefly because it was carried out by the army and not by paramilitaries, and in full view of the public and press."

The history of Ireland is rich with Celtic traditions, and rife with invasions by Vikings, Normans and most recently the British. Details may be found here. Long story short, the 1921 Partition was an attempt by the British government (predominantly Protestant) to recognize the reality that Catholic Ireland was coming into its own as an independent nation -- while retaining the six northernmost of Ireland's twenty-nine counties as a Protestant enclave and British protectorate. The political and religious sundering of the isle of Ireland has been the source of much pain over the years, turning friends and family members against each other needlessly. This writer wishes it were possible to reunite Ireland and Northern Ireland, just as East and West Germany were reunited at the end of the Cold War. Each time one of Ireland's sons or daughters suffers, so do we all.

29 January 2011


WOMEN IN SCIENCE. Andrea Kuszewski, a prolific science blogger and a frequent poster of science links on Facebook, recently shared something priceless -- Celebrating Female Science Bloggers, in which Ed Yong lists 18 of his favorite science bloggers who happen to be women, along with his reasons why, and links to representative writings for each. This list is a gold mine for anyone remotely interested in developments and controversial issues in science (and who could not be?), not to mention being an excellent resource for women science writers who might feel isolated in a field too long dominated by men.

WELFARE FOR THE WEALTHY. And not just any people of wealth, but those in particular who serve as senators and representatives in the U.S. Congress. You see, members of Congress enjoy, among many other benefits, free state of the art health care. Yet many of those same members, especially Republicans, are in the vanguard of a movement to repeal the healthcare reform laws passed in 2010. The breadth and depth of this conservative hypocrisy can hardly be overstated. In fact, several members of Congress are challenging the repeal by demanding that Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) own up to their duplicity by setting an example for other repeal advocates -- if they are going to practice what they preach, all repeal supporters should give up their government-sponsored healthcare. Fat bloody chance.

If you would like to send a message, here is a link to a petition calling upon McConnell, Boehner and other Republicans to walk the walk, if they're going to talk the talk.

28 January 2011


As noted in a recent article entitled For Reasons of Their Own, it is remarkable (and a counter-intuitive sign of the times) that the Tucson gunman who killed 6 people and wounded 14 others is being painted by the media as mentally disturbed .... with no mention of his act being that of a terrorist. Like Timothy McVeigh, who was immediately labeled as a terrorist after his participation in the Oklahoma City bombing, Jared Loughner "targeted a symbol of government power [Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords], and hurt innocent people. Like McVeigh, Loughner had a complicated relationship with the military and, like McVeigh, he apparently had a deep mistrust of the American government .... But we call McVeigh a terrorist. Why isn't Loughner a terrorist? Has American redefined its criteria for who can be one?

" .... 'two common elements are usually found in contemporary definitions: (1) that terrorism involves aggression against non-combatants and (2) that the terrorist action itself is not expected by its perpetrator to accomplish a political goal but instead to influence a target audience and change that audience's behavior in a way that will serve the interests of the terrorist'.

" .... Are the insane unable to plan? Do only terrorists plan? Is he a terrorist, or is he mad? The word terrorist remains unspoken. Apparently it could never apply here, not now. The media's concern with sanity or insanity, and its quickness to find for the latter, indicates a reluctance to view terrorism as psychological, and to flip things around, a reluctance to view a troubled white American with no religious ties as a terrorist. In 1995, this was not a distinction we made so easily."

It is a fascinating and disturbing distinction, and subject to relativism. From the point of view of Muslim fundamentalists, Americans are terrorists and infidels. Similarly, from the point of view of American civilians, many Muslim extremists are terrorists -- but then, so are many Americans. Consider the Ku Klux Klan, or covert actions by the CIA, or the abundance of radical survivalist groups in our country.

Terrorism is more common than we imagine. Loughner was clearly motivated in part by his exposure to right wing Tea Party propaganda, which he mimicked online. He was also clearly capable of carrying out a systematic plan to stalk his intended target over a period of months, and to secure the weaponry and ammunition needed to try to assassinate her and everyone around her, at a particular time and place.

In my opinion, the terms terrorist and sociopath are not mutually exclusive. There are degrees of insanity, but not many gradations of terrorism. Committing a terrorist act makes you a terrorist, whether you are superficially rational or barking mad.

27 January 2011


ANIMATED MUSIC. The website Animusic is a revelation. Their video sequences combine animation, music, and imagination in ways that normally occur only in dreams -- or on LSD trips. No apparent human intervention is portrayed -- just spontaneous percussive and tonal effects performed by ingenious and intricate devices. I invite you to sample two Animusic creations, Pipe Dreams and Resonant Chamber. The audio and video quality are, of course, much sharper on the DVDs which the website sells. You can find additional examples here.

RUBE GOLDBERG. In a similar vein, a Rube Goldberg device is "a deliberately over-engineered machine that performs a very simple task in a very complex fashion, usually including a chain reaction." Such devices have delighted and awed audiences for years. Here is one that is particularly well-designed and executed, taken from an advertisement by Honda -- The Cog.

26 January 2011


S.O.T.U. Last night President Obama delivered his second State of the Union address. In it, according to a NYTimes editorial, he set national goals for investments in clean energy, high-speed rail, science and education. The president also proposed eliminating taxpayer subsidies for oil companies, ending the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy when they expire in two years, and simplifying both personal and corporate income taxes, among other economic policy changes. The Times writer was pleased with what was presented.

Another writer took issue, however, with the absence of any discussion on climate change. Perhaps the president deliberately limited the number of topics in order to encourage focus on what is most urgent in the minds of the voting public. Still, it remains problematic to this observer that so little time and effort are devoted to climate, by nearly all public figures. But then, we've always been a species that tends to be reactive (responding to crisis) rather than proactive (planning ahead). I see glimmers of thinking forward in Obama's words. It remains to be seen whether he can muster support from a recalcitrant Congress to put that thinking into action.

Here is the C-SPAN video of the entire Presidential address.

LEARNING WHILE DOODLING. In a previous post I noted the benefits of handwriting over the spoken or typed word -- enhanced learning skills, idea composition and expression, and fine motor-skill development. In the article To Learn Best, Write an Essay, Brandon Keim takes that thought one step further by recounting the results of a study in which it was found that writing an essay on material just learned (a.k.a. "retrieval practice") enhances retention of the material more than either of two other study aids. And in Doodling Helps You Pay Attention, Kelly Redinger describes in detail a study which concludes that when faced with boring material or a boring speaker, doodling and fidgeting actually engage the brain just sufficiently to prevent a side trip into daydreaming, while still allowing you to pay attention.

I'm not certain yet about the doodling study, but the study on essays resonates strongly in my own experience, both as a student and as a teacher.

25 January 2011


COMPETITION. In sports, in business, in military preparedness, even in the search for a mate, staying competitive is accepted as an essential premise. Here are two very different takes on that assumption, set within the world of economics and trade. Each has its merits.

On a global scale, Norm Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, issues a warning -- Danger: America Is Losing Its Competitive Edge In Innovation. His central premise is that "the path to success is paved with science and engineering. In fact, scientists and engineers are celebrities in most countries. They're not seen as geeks or misfits, as they too often are in the U.S., but rather as society's leaders and innovators. In China, eight of the top nine political posts are held by engineers. In the U.S., almost no scientists or engineers are engaged in high-level politics, and there is a virtual absence of engineers in our public policy debates .... Part of the problem is the lack of priority U.S. parents place on core education. But there are also problems inherent in our public education system. We simply don't have enough qualified math and science teachers .... Here we are in a flattening world, where innovation is the key to success, and we are failing to give our young people the tools they need to compete. Many countries are doing a much better job .... The World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. #48 in quality of science and math education .... Global leadership is not a birthright. Despite what many Americans believe, our nation does not possess an innate knack for greatness. Greatness must be worked for and won by each new generation. Right now that is not happening."

On a national scale, economist Paul Krugman in The Competition Myth maintains that "talking about 'competitiveness' as a goal is fundamentally misleading. At best, it's a misdiagnosis of our problems. At worst, it could lead to policies based on the false idea that what's good for corporations is good for America .... Consider: A corporate leader who increases profits by slashing his work force is thought to be successful. Well, that's more or less what has happened in America recently -- employment is way down, but profits are hitting new records. Who, exactly, considers this economic success?"

I'm inclined to agree with both writers. A comprehensive liberal education, with training in the sciences, math, the arts, literature and language, is a fundamental necessity for all the world's children -- not merely to help them to become more competitive (or to help them make their respective nations more competitive), but more importantly to help them to become informed and intelligent world citizens. And a realignment of our priorities toward a more just and equitable distribution of wealth is critical. When 1 percent of a nation's population controls 95 percent of its wealth and resources, the situation is ripe for revolution.

VISUALS. Again, two contributions. First is a stunning video showing highlights from photographer Bruce Dale's 35 year career with National Geographic (the creme de la creme of all professional photography assignments). The video is narrated by Dale.

Second is a jaw-dropping video from a Russian motorcycle rider's viewpoint, as he navigates morning rush hour traffic on a high-performance bike. He seems to reach speeds of near-escape velocity as he whitelines his way between lanes of traffic, squeezing through spaces the viewer would swear were too tiny. The rider is either barking mad, or has been playing too many video games in which crashes result in no pain or death. I do not endorse his mania, but I have to admit his skill as he threads through one impossible needle eye after another. See what you think. (Lane splitting is much more common in Europe than it is in the U.S.)

24 January 2011


BIRD LOSSES. Few reputable climate scientists now deny the reality of global warming, and fewer still deny that, even given Earth's normal heating and cooling cycles spanning tens of thousands of years, the speed and magnitude of warming we are currently witnessing are a direct result of human activity -- most especially, the production of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide) from the burning of fossil fuels and from deforestation.

Elizabeth Rosenthal continues the narrative -- "Over the next 100 years, many scientists predict, 20 percent to 30 percent of species could be lost if the temperature rises 3.6 to 5.4 degrees Farenheit. If the most extreme warming predictions are realized, the loss could be over 50 percent, according to the United Nations climate change panel.

"Polar bears have become the icons of this climate threat. But scientists say that tens of thousands of smaller species that live in the tropics or on or near mountain tops are equally, if not more, vulnerable. These species, in habitats from the high plateaus of Africa to the jungles of Australia to the Sierra Nevada in the United States, are already experiencing climate pressure, and will be the bulk of the animals that disappear.

"In response to warming, animals classically move to cooler ground, relocating either higher up in altitude or farther toward the poles. But in the tropics, animals have to move hundreds of miles north or south to find a different niche. Mountain species face even starker limitations. As they climb upward, they find themselves competing for less and less space on the conical peaks, where they run into uninhabitable rock or a lack of their usual foods -- or have nowhere farther to go."

Whether or not one agrees that runaway global warming is anthropogenic (caused by humans), the cold fact is that temperatures around the world are rising faster and farther than ever before. If you are in a burning house, you don't stand around and ask whether the fire was started by a broken gas line or a cigarette. You put out the damned fire. All nations must unite in addressing this, the most urgent long-term issue of our time (alongside human overpopulation), for we all have a stake in the outcome. The stakes -- loss of species, rises in sea level, more numerous and powerful hurricanes, shifts in climate zones, loss of crop lands, famine, war -- are too dire to ignore.

NEW RECORDS. I'm pleased to report that readership of this forum has reached record levels. Yesterday for the first time, my sitemeter recorded over 200 visitors in one day. In addition, this month has already seen over 3000 visitors, and January isn't even finished. Whether measured over the past week, the past month, or the past year (see graphs below, recorded at 11:30 p.m. on 24 January -- click on any image to enlarge), the number of readers is increasing remarkably.

I'm most grateful to all who spend a few minutes here. I invite you to share your thoughts by clicking on "Comments" at the bottom of any given post. I also invite you to sign on as a Follower (see right-side column). Each new post will be delivered to your email inbox automatically. Thank you all.

23 January 2011


USS PUEBLO. On this day in 1968, eight days before the Tet Offensive began and six weeks before my arrival in Vietnam, the U.S. naval intelligence-gathering ship Pueblo was seized and her crew captured by North Korean warships. The crew and their commander, Lloyd M. Bucher, were held in POW camps where they were interrogated and tortured for eleven months, until the time of their release. The ship still remains in North Korean hands.

The incident was widely publicized -- I recall reading about the crew's treatment in Stars and Stripes. Notably, photos of allegedly cooperative crew members were disseminated to the world press by North Korea as evidence of U.S. spying. What the North Koreans did not realize was that those same crew members were risking their lives by displaying their middle fingers extended, as a message to the world that the set-up was phony. Check out The Digit Affair for one crewman's first-hand account of the successful sabotage of North Korean propaganda. A sample image appears below -- click to enlarge.

HANDWRITING. Gwendolyn Bounds reports in How Handwriting Trains the Brain that "researchers are finding that writing by hand is more than just a way to communicate. The practice helps with learning letters and shapes, can improve idea composition and expression, and may aid fine motor-skill development. It's not just children who benefit. Adults studying new symbols, such as Chinese characters, might enhance recognition by writing the characters by hand. Some physicians say handwriting could be a good cognitive exercise for baby boomers working to keep their minds sharp as they age."

As I've grown older and my handwriting has become somewhat shaky, I've turned to the computer keyboard for typing my emails and letters, in order to retain legibility. Perhaps I should rethink this. It remains true that a handwritten note or letter from a friend or loved one has a more personal feel than something typed. If keeping my mind sharp is a perk, so much the better, eh?

FRIENDS. I have mixed feelings about the Scientific American article Why You're Probably Less Popular Than Your Friends. On the one hand, the message isn't exactly an ego booster. However, the elegant simplicity of the math used to support the claim is appealing, and has application across a wide range of topics involving numbers. See what you think.  (Note:  the copyrighted image below courtesy of Melissa McCarthy)

22 January 2011


"A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring; ~~ Alexander Pope

I am now 86 pages into a remarkable book, Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry, by Kenneth Koch. Although my own writing sometimes approaches the nuance of poetic prose, I make no pretense of being a poet, nor of knowing much about poetry. So Koch's book has been a revelation. He conducts the reader on a tour of the foundations of poetry, breaking it down into its component parts, with plenty of examples along the way. Here is one of the most lucid descriptions of poetry I've ever encountered --

"If we take the idea of a poetic language seriously, it can be defined first as a language in which the sound of the words is raised to an importance equal to that of their meaning, and also equal to the importance of grammar and syntax. In ordinary language, the sound of a word is useful almost exclusively in order to identify it and to distinguish it from other words. In poetry its importance is much greater. Poets think of how they want something to sound as much as they think of what they want to say, and in fact it's often impossible to distinguish one from the other."

When Leonard Bernstein delivered his 1973 series of six Norton lectures at Harvard, titled The Unanswered Question (still available on DVD), he brilliantly illuminated the structure and function of music by noting the parallels between music and language, borrowing from the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky. In Making Your Own Days, Koch similarly illuminates poetry by noting the structural and functional parallels (and differences) between poetry and music, as well as poetry and prose. The degree of overlap is astonishing, yet it makes perfect sense. There is subconscious music in poetry, and subconscious poetry in music. Scan the Wikipedia article on linguistics and you'll see what I mean. It is a particular delight when the understanding of one field of study lends dimension and texture and color to another field.

Speaking of music, NYTimes columnist Anthony Tommasini has presented his choices for the ten greatest classical music composers in history. Any such list is subjective, but Tommasini does a good job of explaining his choices (see image below, click to enlarge). They are, in descending order, as follows --

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828)

Claude Achille Debussy (1862-1918)

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Giuseppi Verdi (1813-1901)

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Bela Bartok (1881-1945)

As explored in yesterday's post, our preoccupation with round numbers in general, and the number ten in particular, makes for some unfortunate omissions. When I view the list above, I have a few quibbles with the order (Mozart should be at #2, for instance), but I also cry out, "What about Rachmaninoff? Where is Haydn? Vivaldi? Mendelssohn? Chopin?" Surely the list of preeminent classical composers should be expanded to 20! Ah well, food for thought, grist for one's mill, choose your metaphor and fire when ready.

Another musical curiosity -- in Pearls Before Breakfast, Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten describes a wonderful experiment, one into which you, gentle reader, might insert yourself to see what your response would be. Here is the setup --

"He emerged from the Metro at the L'Enfant Plaza station and positioned himself against a wall next to a trash basket. By most measures he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved t-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

"It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1097 people passed by .... Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape. Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What are the moral mathematics of the moment?"

"On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by the Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities -- as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste. In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?"

You'll have to check out Pearls Before Breakfast to learn more. If you are surprised by what you read, you'll not be alone. Be sure to view the embedded video in the article, and wonder to yourself -- would I have stopped?

21 January 2011


ROUND NUMBERS. In math and in the popular imagination, a round number is considered to be "an integer that typically ends with one or more zeroes (0)." Christopher Intagliata reports that a study in the journal Psychological Science found that "round numbers are intrinsically motivating to us, even if there's no obvious reward for reaching them." Examples -- remaining on a treadmill or elliptical trainer to reach a round number of miles (3.0), rather than stopping earlier when fatigue first set in (2.7). Or retaking an SAT test to score above 1300, even if the initial score of 1290 was satisfactory to most college administrators. Or squeezing a few last gasps of fuel into one's vehicle to reach 10.0 gallons, after the filler nozzle safety device clicked off the flow at 9.7 gallons.

The study, "Round Numbers as Goals," does not offer a psychological explanation for this quirk of ours. My conjecture (with no evidence to substantiate it) is that subconsciously we are reverting to the source of our use of a numeral system with 10 as its base -- we first learned to count using our fingers and thumbs, of which we have ten. Holding up seven or nine fingers may feel incomplete, unsatisfying. Holding up all ten? Aaah, resolution! (Imagine if we, like cartoon characters, had only eight manual digits, and used a base-8 numeral system.)

Intagliata concludes by noting that these seemingly arbitrary goals "illustrate internal motivation that could confound some ideas in economics." I've long thought that the manner in which items are assigned a price is transparently manipulative, and downright goofy. Why place a $15.99 price tag on something, and not a much simpler $16.00? The answer is (in my opinion) that consumers truly are gullible or mentally lazy, and pay attention to the numbers to the left of the decimal point ($15.), thinking "Oh gee, it's only $15." They fail to note that the numbers to the right of the decimal point (.99) elevate the real price to just shy of $16. The ploy works. How gruesomely predictable is it that items offered in TV ads are often $19.99, or as variants $19.98 or $19.97? It is a slap in the face of consumer intelligence. I would love to see a store or restaurant where everything was priced in whole numbers. Just once.

So why, in consumer pricing, do we subconsciously round down, rather than rounding up that extra penny to a truer cost? Perhaps because we want to believe that we are saving money. It's all pretty silly. (Thanks to psychologist and prolific writer Andrea Kuszewski for turning me on to the original rounding article, as well as the article cited below.)

BANNED WORDS. We have heard (unfortunately) of banned books. Carl Zimmer has banned the use of certain words from his science writing classes. His motivation does not derive from prudery or political correctness. Rather, he explains, "anyone who wants to learn how to write about science -- and to be read by people who aren't being paid to read -- should work hard to learn how to explain science in plain but elegant English -- not by relying on scientific jargon, code-words, deadening euphemisms, or meaningless cliches."

Bravo. You will find Zimmer's Index of Banned Words here, and his explanation about why words (along with sentences, paragraphs, etc.) matter here. "Death to Obfuscation!", indeed. Prepare to be entertained.

20 January 2011


UNSTUCK IN TIME. The veterans of each of our country's wars have widely differing experiences upon returning from combat. In part this can be chalked up to shifting military policy. In WWII, for instance, soldiers trained together as a unit, shipped overseas as a unit, and after hostilities ceased, returned home as a unit. Usually the return was by boat, allowing two weeks of decompression and sharing feelings with those who understood them best -- fellow soldiers. Once home, vets were treated as heroes, and enjoyed the generous benefits of the G.I. Bill. As a result, WWII vets were better prepared for re-entry into civilian life.

During the Vietnam War, policy changed. Soldiers trained as individuals, and were sent into the war zone as individuals, often arriving to find themselves regarded with suspicion or condescension as the FNG. Friendships developed tentatively, and always the personnel in a given unit were being cycled in and out as individuals. When I returned from Vietnam in March of 1968, I was transported on a civilian jetliner along with a bunch of strangers, fellow veterans I did not know. Within 24 hours of leaving the war zone, I was set loose on the streets of San Francisco -- no decompression, no counseling, no time for adjustment. The culture shock was tectonic. Vets were treated with derision and hostility, and quickly learned to hide their history and stuff their feelings. During a time of protests and riots, Vietnam vets fell through the cracks.

Now a new generation of veterans is multiplying in our midst. Men and women returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan undergo an odd mix of the re-entry experience of vets from previous wars -- they may return home with their units or individually, with little time in transit, yet there are many more counseling and assistance programs available than was true during Vietnam. Further, many books and movies are being produced about the war experience, allowing us to understand at least a little of what our youngest veterans went through.

In his NYTimes article Pilgrim's Progress, Matt Gallagher describes his post-war life succinctly. "I've walked by manholes in New York City and smelled the sludge river I walked along in North Baghdad in 2008. I've stopped dead in my tracks to watch a street hawker in Manhattan, a large black man with a rolling laugh and a British accent, who looked just like my old scout platoon's interpreter. And I've had every single slamming dumpster lid -- every single damn one -- rip off my fatalistic cloak and reveal me to be, still, a panicked young man desperate not to die because of an unseen I.E.D.

".... Like the veterans who came before and the ones who will come after, I walk the streets of New York City forever the soldier I no longer am .... I still scan crowds for suicide vests, seek out corner vantage points like a bloodhound and value competency in a human being above all else. Jumping back into civilian life headlong, like I originally attempted, proved both disastrous and shortsighted. And coming to terms with this permanent state of combat readiness has made me realize just how much I miss war (or parts of it), and how lucky -- and twisted -- I am to be able to even write those words. I miss the camaraderie. I miss the raw excitement. I miss the Iraqi locals, from the kids who walked our daytime patrols with us to the frightened mothers who just wanted us to go away. I miss the soldiers, the NCOs, and even some of the officers. I miss that daily sense of purpose, survive or die, that simply can't be replicated in everyday existence. I miss standing for something more than myself, even if I never figured out just what the hell that something was supposed to be.

"I don't miss it all, of course. I got out of the Army for some very good reasons. Love. Sanity. Bureaucracy. A Holy Trinity for our time. But there is a messy ambiguity at the core of this that must be conveyed, if not necessarily understood."

In World War I they called it shell shock. In World War II it became known as combat fatigue. In Vietnam and during the time since, it has become a psychological diagnosis, PTSD. Along with the risk of death or disfigurement, it is the price paid by those who endure war in service to their country -- a service that is often insulted by our nation's reasons for instigating war in the first place.

Note: During active duty, Matt Gallagher wrote a popular blog called Kaboom: A Soldier's War Journal. In 2010 his book Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War was published to wide critical acclaim.

JFK. Fifty years ago today, President-elect John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural address to an enthralled nation. It is arguably one of the most important and riveting speeches in American history, proclaiming a sea change in leadership, in engagement with the world community, and in his passionate call to public service -- "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." You can see and hear Kennedy's entire address here, and read a transcript of his speech here.

19 January 2011


In the movie The Right Stuff, one of the Apollo astronauts remarks to another, in their capsule just before liftoff, words to the effect that "Here we are, sitting on top of a multi-story rocket filled with highly explosive fuel, all of it manufactured and assembled by the lowest bidders."

That is precisely the situation revealed in a PBS Frontline segment titled Flying Cheaper (click on "Play the entire program"), with regard to the heavy maintenance performed on the fleets of the major U.S. airlines. Ten years ago, such maintenance was typically done by licensed mechanics and engineers employed directly by each airline. Now, the majority of the work is outsourced to non-specialist companies, many of them not located in this country. Many issues are raised, among them disparate management practices, quality control, inter-language misunderstandings, security, and the training and qualifications of maintenance providers. Complicating the situation is the pressure placed upon maintenance workers to complete the work in the shortest possible time, even if it means cutting corners, falsifying records or ignoring required repairs altogether.

Sloppy work, or work not performed, results in unsafe aircraft. Poorly trained, unlicensed, non-English-speaking mechanics are used, with the full knowledge of the FAA. Agency oversight and enforcement are minimal. FAA field inspectors are frustrated with the poor training of maintenance personnel, by unmarked or illegal aircraft parts, and by maintenance facilities being given weeks of advanced notice of an impending inspection, allowing them to sidestep the law.

As with so much else in life, it comes down to money. At every level, company policies borrow from safety margins in order to maximize profit. And the losers? -- those air travelers who risk their lives by innocently boarding a flight, expecting proficient pilots, safe maintenance, and a flight conducted with comfort and efficiency. Increasingly, those expectations are being sacrificed, resulting not only in passengers being treated like packed sardines, but now being treated like packed disposable sardines. Spectacular airline crashes, which were once the exception, will predictably become more common unless Congress and the President pass laws to reform the system. But when so many politicians are in the pocket of wealthy companies and lobbies, how likely is that? Air travel once was an adventure. Now it is a misery.

All of which makes me more determined than ever to get my private pilot's license, and bypass commercial air travel altogether.

18 January 2011


It is a truism familiar to all students and enthusiasts of astronomy and cosmology -- our universe is numbingly vast. The distances between stars and galaxies are so immense that light itself, traveling at just over 186,000 miles per second, takes a long time to span the gulf of space. Nothing can travel faster than light. Here are a few facts to put speed and distance into perspective:

  • If a photon of light were able to bend its course into a curve, it would circle the Earth at the equator 7.75 times in one second.

  • That same light takes 8.3 minutes to travel the 93 million miles between the Sun to the Earth. This means that each time we look at the sun, we aren't seeing it as it appears now. We're seeing it as it appeared 8.3 minutes ago. We are seeing the past. We are witnessing history.

  • The more distant the object, the longer it takes light to travel the distance from that object to our eye, hence the further back in history we see. The nearest star to our sun, Alpha Centauri, is situated 4.37 light years away. A light year is a measure of distance (how far light travels in a year's time), not a measure of time. So when we look at the nearest star, we are seeing it as it appeared 4.37 years ago, not as it appears now. Even older history, but nothing like the history we observe when we view the most distant objects in the universe, whose light takes billions of years to reach us. Wrapping one's imagination around such distances could fry one's brain.

With this as background, I refer you to a NYTimes article titled Darkness on the Edge of the Universe. The article provides a clear explanation of the history of our understanding of not merely the size of the universe, but its evolution. For our universe is expanding, as discovered by Edwin Hubble in 1929. His finding upset Einstein's vision of a static universe, and in the decades since physicists have struggled to understand the balance between the force which holds the matter in the universe together, gravity, and the antigravity force which drives the matter in the universe apart, dark energy.

In recent years, two teams of astronomers have independently arrived at the same conclusion -- that the rate of expansion of the universe, far from slowing down, is actually accelerating. Standing beside the vital questions raised is "an unassailable conclusion, one that's particularly unnerving. If the dark energy doesn't degrade over time, then the accelerated expansion of space will continue unabated, dragging away distant galaxies ever farther and ever faster. A hundred billion years from now, any galaxy that's not resident in our neighborhood will have been swept away by swelling space for so long that it will be racing from us at faster than the speed of light. (Although nothing can move through space faster than the speed of light, there's no limit to how fast space itself can expand.)

Light from such galaxies will therefore fight a losing battle to traverse the rapidly widening gulf which separates us. The light will never reach Earth and so the galaxies will slip permanently beyond our capacity to see, regardless of how powerful our telescopes may become.

Because of this, when future astronomers look to the sky, they will no longer witness the past. The past will have drifted beyond the cliffs of space. Observations will reveal nothing but an endless stretch of inky black stillness. (Click on any image to enlarge.)

17 January 2011


CONSPIRACIES DON'T KILL BIRDS. PEOPLE, HOWEVER, DO. There are roughly 10 billion breeding birds in the U.S., plus an additional 10 billion during seasonal migrations. Of these, 5 billion birds die every year.

Natural causes may include failure to thrive and death from natural predation.

Many more birds, however, die as a result of human activity, including (but not limited to) hunting, predation by domestic or feral cats, pesticides, collision with buildings, towers and power lines, automobile strikes, and loss of habitat to the cancer of human "development". Of the 836 bird species listed under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, fully a quarter are in serious population decline in the U.S.

To learn more, check out Leslie Kaufman's article here. Then try to imagine a world without birdsong.

16 January 2011


Years ago, a psychologist (whose name escapes me) remarked, "Be careful whom you choose as your heroes. You will have diminished yourself in some way." I puzzled over this seeming paradox, before realizing that one way of interpreting it is this -- by choosing only one or a small number of heroes, we are refusing to recognize the values and insights offered by others who may have fallen beneath our radar.

Besides, hero-worship is fraught with self-deception. To idealize someone to hero status is to ignore their very human frailties or shortcomings. This is why I walked out on the movie Gandhi. The film lionized its subject so thoroughly that the resulting portrait was little more than a cardboard cutout, missing the complexities of doubt, ambiguity and self-growth which mark the human experience.

Still, there is something to be said for noticing a heroic act. It reminds us of the better, more selfless side of our nature -- our potential for goodness. In the week following the tragic shootings in Tucson, and President Obama's transcendent memorial address, many have paused to reconsider their own words, deeds, and assumptions. In the spirit of reflection, here are a few examples from my own select list of people whose lives offer hope for the human race. Each is a human being complete with faults and goodness, and each rose to nobility by facing extraordinary, often lethal opposition.

From the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the quintessential voice of conscience and inspiration whose birthday has become a national holiday, celebrated this weekend. For years, he offered his vision of peace and brotherhood, usually placing his own life in jeopardy by doing so. Ultimately he was assassinated, but his memory is revered by all who heard his words. One of my ambitions in life is to make a pilgrimage to Atlanta, GA, to visit the Civil Rights Memorial honoring those slain during those tumultuous times.

From the world of politics, Daniel Ellsberg, who experience the Vietnam War firsthand, and later as a political advisor to President Nixon, witnessed the history of lies and deceipt practiced at the highest levels of government to perpetuate that war. In an act of supreme conscience, Ellsberg risked his career and imprisonment by making available to the American People the Pentagon Papers, published in the NYTimes. His riveting story is told in the documentary The Most Dangerous Man In America.

From the military, Hugh Thompson, Jr., a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. When he overflew the My Lai Massacre in progress, he and his two-man crew landed and stopped American soldiers from murdering innocent Vietnamese civilians, saving many lives at the risk of their own. The subsequent press coverage of the massacre, as well as Thompson's testimony before a Pentagon investigation, helped turn the tide of public opinion against that unjust war.

From the arts, Joan Baez, who for half a century has spoken and sung about social and political issues, often taking unpopular stands in order to be true to her own ideals of pacifism, human rights, and environmental causes. She has been a consistent voice for moderation, tolerance and human understanding, even when faced with slander and the threat of imprisonment.

From the sciences, Charles Darwin, author of the theory of evolution through natural selection. Darwin researched, studied and thought for several decades before publishing his seminal work, and afterward faced a groundswell of ridicule and vilification, both from his scientific peers and from the general public. Yet he persisted, and today our understanding of life is richer for the risks he took.

There are, of course, many others who belong on this list -- Nelson Mandela, Gloria Steinem, Margaret Sanger, and yes, Mohandas Gandhi -- people who lived their lives, and often risked their lives, consistently with ideals which elevate us all.

15 January 2011


(Click on any image to enlarge.) In the sciences, Earth's anatomy and physiology (i.e., its physical components, and how those components function and interact) is generally divided into four broad areas of study called spheres:
  • the hydrosphere, which describes the combined mass and behavior of water found on, under and over the surface of the planet;

  • the atmosphere, the layer of gases surrounding the planet and retained by Earth's gravity;

  • the lithosphere, the rigid outer shell of our rocky planet, which includes the crust (the outermost shell) and the mantle (the predominantly solid but more viscous layer lying between the crust and the planet's molten outer core);

  • the biosphere, the global sum of all ecosystems -- the zone of life on Earth.
Earth's spheres include half a dozen other subsystems, perhaps the most fascinating of which is the anthroposphere, "that part of the environment which is made or modified by humans, for use in human activities and human habitats." Given a moment's reflection, one quickly realizes that the anthroposphere now includes nearly every molecule of matter and life accessible to the surface of the planet -- and much that lies beneath the surface. This is a heady prospect, but it also is freighted with a high cost. With power comes responsibility. Our responsibility to ourselves, to all other life forms on the planet, and to future generations of living organsisms, can be summed up in one word -- stewardship. It is incumbant upon us as powerful, sentient and self-aware beings to assume the mantle of caring for all things less powerful, less sentient, or less self-aware.

In thinking about our relationship to the planet, I find it useful to think in terms of animism, "the set of philosophical, religious, and/or spiritual beliefs that souls or spirits exist not only in humans, but also in all other animals, plants, rocks, natural phenomena such as thunder, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment." While I am not a religious person, nor a New Age freak, as a scientist I do not discount the possibility that natural forces or influences we do not yet understand may operate in the world.

Writer and scientist Arthur C. Clarke famously said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Similarly, any natural process which we have not yet come to perceive or understand, may be dismissed as nonexistent. We humans tend to let our own preconceptions get in the way of wrapping our imaginations around the clues before us. Animism is for me a form of lateral thinking, a thought experiment which allows me to perceive the world in a new light. Whether souls or spirits actually exist, I do not know. I prefer to focus on phenomena for which there is credible evidence, but we all know that over human history, evidence often takes time to accumulate.

In the meantime, the evidence is overwhelming that our activities in the anthroposphere are destructive to other life forms, and ultimately to our own survival. Too few of us have donned the mantle of stewardship. Even if all of the nearly seven billion people on Earth did so, the question remains, is it too late? Over a thousand species go extinct every year. How soon before that list includes homo sapiens?

14 January 2011


A few years ago, New York City began a project to replace all the city's 13,000 taxis with new models which would be "safe, fuel-efficient, accessible, durable, and comfortable." Toward that end the city sent out a competitive request for proposals to automotive manufacturers and designers. The winner stands to gain a $1 billion dollar deal, supplying the city's taxies for the next decade.

None of the three design finalists appears to meet all the stated goals, and all three are pretty ugly. Only one is wheelchair-accessible. Artist and inventor Steven Johnson has offered a dozen of his own ideas, some whimsicle, some actually workable. I kinda dig the Smart Car option (see image below), though Johnson's drawing shows people to be much smaller than they really are, relative to the diminutive vehicle.

If you have an idea for a safe, environmentally-friendly design, it may not be too late to submit it. Mayor Bloomberg has said that if none of the current finalists pan out, they'll start the search all over again. Just keep in mind that your entry will probably appear in Chiquita yellow.

13 January 2011


Last night President Barack Obama spoke at a memorial gathering in Tucson, AZ, honoring the victims of the mass shooting there last Saturday which left 6 dead and 14 wounded, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. In responding to a natural disaster or a horrific act, a president's role is to console and to uplift. Not all presidents have risen to the occasion. Obama not only rose, he transcended the moment in a passionate address which will stand as a defining moment in his presidency.

His speech noted the need for better gun safety laws and improved mental health outreach, as well as the need for more restraint and respect when we debate our differences. But above all the President honored the fallen, the survivors, their families, the first responders, and the medical teams who are tending the survivors. He paid individual attention to each of the slain, and reflected on how their lives have so much in common with our own. He called for remembrance, respect, and responsibility. He called above all for a return to the vision of a nation of which our children can be proud. He said in part --

"Let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together. After all, that's what most of us do when we lose someone in our family -- especially if the loss is unexpected. We're shaken from our routines, and forced to look inward. We reflect on the past .... But sudden loss also forces us to look forward, to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us. We may ask ourselves whether we've shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives. Perhaps we question whether we are doing right by our children, or our community, or whether our priorities are in order. We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or money, or fame -- but rather, how much we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others .... The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors, better co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let's remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us to face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud .... All of us -- we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations."

Response to the president's thoughts has been overwhelmingly welcoming. Whether in editorial print or in a PBS discussion among presidential historians, commentors have noted with approval Obama's dignified and inspiring success in rising above political partisanship, and in celebrating those qualities which we as a nation share.

Here is a link to the video of the entire Presidential address -- a speech which will, I predict, take its place among the most honored in our nation's history. And here is a link to the transcript of the speech, to scan at your leisure. Each is worth saving.

Above, Obama shares a moment of consolation with Mark E. Kelly, the husband of Representative Giffords.

12 January 2011


From today's NYTimes -- "Sarah Palin, who has been silent for days, issued a forceful denunciation of her critics on Wednesday in a video statement that accused pundits and journalists of 'blood libel' in what she called their rush to blame heated political rhetoric for the shootings in Arizona.

"'Acts of monstrosity stand on their own,' Ms. Palin said in a seven-and-a-half minute video posted on her Facebook page. 'Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.'

".... Ms. Palin sought to cast that criticism in a broader indictment of the basic rights of free speech exercised by people of all political persuasions. She said that acts like the shootings in Arizona 'begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state.'

"The term blood libel is generally used to mean the false accusation that Jews murder Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals, in particular the baking of matzos for Passover. That false claim was circulated for centuries to incite anti-Semitism and justify violent pogroms against Jews. Ms. Palin's use of the phrase in her video, which helped make it rapidly go viral, is itself attracting criticism, not least because Ms. Giffords, who remains in critical condition in a Tucson hospital, is Jewish."

So here we have a woman who aspires to the Presidency, not only refusing to tone down offensive rhetoric, but actually escalating it. She cannot seem to control herself -- she is so steeped in the language of violence and blood that she cannot even defend her own bigotry without using that language. It is unclear whether, in using the phrase "blood libel," Palin may have been trying to identify herself with the victim (a long stretch indeed), or whether she is simply, woefully ignorant of the pain which that phrase evokes in Jewish history. In effect, she is calling anyone who disagrees with her a Nazi. In psychology, there is a word for the act of denying one's own attributes, thoughts, and emotions, while ascribing those same traits to others. It is projection. (For an interview with Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik on the relevance of right-wing anti-government rants to the shootings in Tucson, click here.)

Ultimately, Palin's logic is faulty. Of course we as a society share concern for criminal acts perpetrated against us. We also share responsibility for mitigating or preventing those acts, by identifying and assisting the mentally ill, by erasing conditions like poverty or easy access to firearms, and by practicing adult restraint in our discourse, setting a good example for our children. Claiming that a criminal act begins and ends with the criminal is disingenuous at best, and only serves to perpetuate the cycle of violence. Either way, Palin's inflammatory language continues to demonstrate her dazzling lack of fitness for high office. Personally, I would not trust her with the care of my cats, much less the care of my country.

On a lighter and more elevating note, NASA has announced that the Fermi Gamma-Ray Telescope has "detected beams of antimatter produced above thunderstorms on Earth, a phenomenon never seen before." This is the stuff of science fiction made real. Be sure to play the brief videos embedded in the NASA link above.