31 May 2011


For some time I've been accumulating interesting articles on learning and the human brain. Today seems like a good opportunity to offer a grab bag to readers. Check out the summaries and investigate the links which pique your interest.

The Link Between Creativity and Eccentricity. We all know people who are weird but not necessarily creative. Yet many highly creative people are eccentric. What's the link? "Some of the biological vulnerabilities that predispose individuals to disorders are shared by some highly creative individuals. These individuals are more open -- thanks to latent inhibition, for instance -- to novel, creative ideas than folks whose mental filters do suppress scores of irrelevant information. However, they're protected from psychopathology by traits such as high IQ and increased working memory capacity." See the article for a more thorough explanation.

When should you teach children, and when should you let them explore? The upshot from one experiment -- when adults provide instruction prior to introducing children to a new toy or activity, the children spend less time playing than when they're allowed to discover the toyor activity's potential on their own. This makes intuitive sense to me. When I was very young, I had to invent my own games, and I believe my imagination is richer for the experience.

Which isn't to say that there is no place for adult guidance and inspiration. Witness Children Full of Life a video showing the bond of affection and enthusiasm between grade school students and their former home room teacher in Japan. The express intent of the class was to encourage a life of happiness, and to foster mutual support and affection between the students. A very touching narrative.

How the Internet is Revolutionizing Education shares a number of initiatives which incorporate online learning into traditional education, especially at the college level. Will access to the Internet replace a college degree? Unlikely. But it is becoming an essential tool to add further dimension to higher learning. Some class assignments are performed and submitted exclusively online. Much class content is available free on the Internet, without having to purchase expensive texts. And question-and-answer sessions conducted via Skype or email sidestep the limitations of traditional professors' office hours. None of which replaces the value of face-to-face, realtime interaction between instructors and students. Still, in a very different but still relevant context, Abraham Lincoln said, "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is pile high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion."

On a different note, Creationism in the Classroom: A Tragic State of Affairs describes the most recent skirmish between those who advocate teaching creationism in science classes, and those who advocate teaching only evolution. The article lays out the arguments for each side, with emphasis on why so many people feel threatened by (another way of saying "do not understand") evolution. Bottom line, in this observer's view, creationism is a religious belief, and should be taught in a religious venue. Evolution is a scientific principle, backed by many decades of rigorous research and irrefutable evidence, and should be taught in science classes. Any attempt to mingle the two detracts from both.

Project Implicit is an ongoing psychological study about the unstated assumptions and associations we all carry with us. You can click on the link for a demo, or to participate. Your results may well take you by surprise.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not include a link to TED, an astonishing resource for learners of all ages. As Wikipedia describes, TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) is "a global set of conferences .... formed to disseminate 'ideas worth spreading'. The TED website offers live streaming of addresses on "an increasingly wide range of topics within the research and practice of science and culture." That's a lot of ground, so be careful -- you may become ensnared and spend hours exploring and learning. Here is a link to the TED homepage, and here is a link to a particular presentation on bioluminescence in nature. Have fun !!

30 May 2011


GAMES. In her provocative new book Reality Is Broken, researcher and game designer Jane McGonigal presents a paradigm shift in our assumptions about what is possible in our lives -- at home, at work, in our relationships, shaping a better world. As she asks in the introduction, "Gamers want to know: Where, in the real world, is that gamer sense of being fully alive, focused, and engaged in every moment? Where are the bursts of exhilaration and creative game accomplishment? Where is the heart-expanding thrill of success and team victory? While gamers may experience these pleasures occasionally in their real lives, they experience them almost constantly when they're playing their favorite games.

"The real world just doesn't offer up as easily the carefully designed pleasures, the thrilling challenges, and the powerful social bonding afforded by virtual environments. Reality doesn't motivate us as effectively. Reality isn't engineered to maximize our potential. Reality wasn't designed from the bottom up to make us happy.

"And so, there is a growing perception in the gaming community: Reality, compared to games, is broken."

If you look upon games, especially online games, as mere escapism or a waste of time, think again. As psychologist Sonja Lyubomirksy said in her review of the book, "Reality Is Broken is the most eye-opening book I read this year. With awe-inspiring expertise, clarity of thought, and engrossing writing style, Jane McGonigal cleanly exploded every misconception I've ever had about games and gaming. If you thought that games are for kids, that games are squandered time, or that games are dangerously isolating, addictive, unproductive, and escapist, you are in for a giant surprise!"

McGonigal identifies four defining traits shared by the best games --

~ The goal is the specific outcome that players will work to achieve. It focuses their attention and continually orients ther participation throughout the game. The game provides players with a sense of purpose.

~ The rules place limitations on how players can achieve the goal. By removing or limiting the obvious ways of getting to the goal, the rules push players to explore previously uncharted possibility spaces. They unleash creativity and foster strategic thinking.

~ The feedback system tells players how close they are to achieving the goal. It can take the form of points, levels, a score, or a progress bar. Or, in its most basic form, the feedback system can be as simple as the players' knowledge of an objective outcome: "The games is over when ... " Real-time feedback serves as a promise that the goal is definitely achievable, and it provides motivation to keep on playing.

~ Finally, voluntary participation requires that everyone who is playing the game knowingly and willingly accepts the goals, the rules, and the feedback. Knowingness establishes common ground for multiple people to play together. And the freedom to enter or leave a game at will ensures that intentionally stressful and challenging work is experienced as safe and pleasurable activity.

Sprinkled throughout the book are fourteen Reality Fixes, concepts from gaming which are applicable to real life. For that is the ultimate message of Reality Is Broken -- not that we should seek to escape from the drudgery of work or an unfulfilling personal life, but rather that we can improve our work, enrich our personal lives, and ultimately (in multi-participant mode) we can better the world by applying those qualities which make gaming so successful and appealing. Consider: In the United States alone, there are 183 million active gamers (individuals who play computer or video games an average of thirteen hours a week). Globally, the online gamer community counts more than three times this number, as a conservative estimate. This is a wealth of talent, commitment, and imagination begging to be tapped. A few forward-thinking research, humanitarian, and conservation groups are doing just that, through well-designed massive multiplayer games (MMGs) which serve the needs of humans and nature, as McGonegal documents. When we feel that we have a stake in a work or a community project, when we are engaged by being shown not only our small part but also the larger goal, and when our ideas are sought out for achieving those goals, we become more than cogs in the machine. We design, own, and enjoy our participation in life. What could be finer?

ORCHESTRAS. In his 2005 book Blink, prolific writer Malcolm Gladwell examines our ability to gauge what is really important from a very narrow period of experience, a process he calls "thin-slicing". Gladwell explores a range of situations in which we make snap judgments, and clarifies the unconscious mental processes at work. In a previous post I made oblique reference to the precepts in Blink in the context of police work. In parting tribute, I'd like to quote another passage, this one set in another realm entirely.

"The world of classical music -- particularly in its European home -- was until very recently the preserve of white men. Women, it was believed, simply could not play like men. They didn't have the strength, the attitude, or the resilience for certain kinds of pieces. Their lips were different. Their lungs were less powerful. Their hands were smaller. That did not seem like a prejudice. It seemed like a fact, because when conductors and music directors and maestros held auditions, the men always seemed to sound better than women. No one paid much attention to how auditions were held, because it was an article of faith that one of the things that made a music expert a music expert was that he could listen to music played under any circumstances and gauge, instantly and objectively, the quality of the performance. Auditions for major orchestras were sometimes held in the conductor's dressing room, or in his hotel room if he was passing through town. Performers played for five minute or two minutes or ten minutes. What did it matter? Music was music. Rainier Kuchl, the concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, once said he could instantly tell the difference with his eyes closed between, say, a male and a female violinist. The trained ear, he believed, could pick up the softness and flexibility of the female style.

"But over the past few decades, the classical music world has undergone a revolution. In the United States, orchestra musicians began to organize themselves politically. They formed a union and fought for proper contracts, health benefits, and protections against arbitrary firing, and along with that came a push for fairness in hiring. Many musicians thought that conductors were abusing their power and playing favorites. They wanted the audition process to be formalized. That meant an official audition committee was established instead of a conductor making the decision all by himself. In some places, rules were put in place forbidding the judges from speaking among themselves during auditions, so that one person's opinion would not cloud the view of another. Musicians were identified not by name but by number. Screens were erected between the committee and the auditioner .... And as these new rules were put in place around the country, an extraordinary thing happened: orchestras began to hire women.

"In the past thirty years, since screens became commonplace, the number of women in the top U.S. orchestras has increased fivefold .... What the classical music world realized was that what they had thought was a pure and powerful first impression -- listening to someone play -- was in fact hopelessly corrupted .... In Washington, DC, the National Symphony Orchestra hired Sylvia Alimena to play the French horn. Would she have been hired before the advent of screens? Of course not. The French horn, like the trombone, is a 'male' instrument. More to the point, Alimena is tiny. She's five feet tall. In truth, that's an irrelevant fact. As another prominent horn player says, 'Sylvia can blow a house down.' But if you were to look at her before you really listened to her, you would not be able to hear that power, because what you saw would so contradict what you heard. There is only one way to make a proper snap judgment of Sylvia Alimena, and that's from behind a screen. (Pictured below is Sarah Willis, who plays French horn with the Berlin Philharmonic.)

"Before the advent of blind auditions, the percentage of women in major symphony orchestras in the United States was less than 5 percent. Today it's closer to 50 percent."

The thrust of Blink is not to suggest that all snap decisions are misleading. Rather, the book explores the processes going on in our brains, as well as our cultural assumptions, to guide us in deciding when "thin slicing" is adaptive, and when it is not. It is an invaluable distinction.

29 May 2011


MEMORIAL DAY. This is one of two days each year (the other being Veterans Day) which finds me reflecting on my time in the military, and on war, and on memories both painful and poignant. Memorial Day has become a time of retail sales, car races, barbeques, and fireworks .... all of which miss the point. The crass commercialization of our holidays leaves me sad. It is a time to honor those of all generations who died in military service to the nation. It is a time to recall that not all casualties are marked by a gravestone. War inflicts a terrible cost in lives lost, innocence lost, sometimes sanity lost. Only those who've been through it understand fully the language of conflict and grief. That does not excuse the rest of us from reaching out to express our gratitude. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times someone has told me "thank you" in the 42 years since I came home from Vietnam .... and still have fingers left over. Most of our society has learned from that particular war, and now honors returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Which does not ease those veterans' burdens entirely, but it's a step in the right direction.

MILITARY WOMEN. Serendipitously, today's Washington Post features an evocative article, Five Myths About Women In Combat. The piece is by Jane Blair, a Marine officer and veteran of the Iraq War. Written with authority and credibility, her views closely parallel my own when it comes to placing gender restrictions on military service. Here are the myths which she addresses --

1. Women are too emotionally fragile for combat.

2. Women are too physically weak for the battlefield.

3. The presence of women causes sexual tension in training and battle.

4. Male troops will become distracted from their missions in order to protect female comrades.

5. Women can't lead men in combat effectively.

Blair does an excellent job of discrediting those myths, and documenting her assertions. Click on the link to learn more.

28 May 2011


NASA. In a surprise announcement, the U.S. space agency NASA revealed that our presence in space won't end with the last space shuttle launch in June. Rather, after decades of treading water in near-Earth orbit, the agency will once again focus on manned exploration of deep space using four-person crews aboard MPCVs (Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicles - click on image to enlarge) on missions lasting up to 21 days. Since it can dock with the International Space Station, it will be capable of multiple missions without having to splash down and re-launch for each mission. The MPCV is a stepping stone toward reclaiming the grand vision first voiced by President John Kennedy in 1961 -- the manned exploration of the moon, the solar system, and hopefully beyond.

It's about time. NASA continues to be woefully underfunded compared to the massive hemorrhaging of federal funds used to support Wall Street, oil wars, and tax breaks for the wealthy in this country. Our priorities require a thorough reorganization, from the ground up.

UNIVERSE MAP. Here's one of those gee-whiz curiosities -- the most complete 3D map of the universe to date. In the 2D version seen below, distance is color-coded, with purple dots indicating nearby galaxies, and red dots indicating more distant galaxies. The text at the link explains how this imagery can be used to better understand the motion of our own Milky Way galaxy (whose presence partially blocks our view of the universe, explaining the apparent dark band across the middle of the image).

WORLD PROGRESS. Finally, check out this link to an impressive computer-generated visualization of how the world's nations have shifted in human lifespan and income during the past 200 years. The narration and graphics are fascinating, and at first blush, one gets the impression that prospects for the human race are pretty good. But the data are over-simplified, and do not take into account the rapidly increasing gap between the wealthy few and the poorer many (whether individuals or nations). Still, it is a fun exercise to watch.

27 May 2011


At about 9 A.M. on May 5, 2011, a Pima County (AZ) Regional SWAT team approached the Tucson home of Jose Guerina, 26, a Marine veteran who had served two tours in Iraq. Guerina and two other men were allegedly suspects in a drug investigation. The original news report revealed conflicting perceptions of what transpired next. Guerina's wife said that there were no sirens or "police" callouts, and that they feared a home invasion was about to happen. Guerina told his wife and son to hide in a closet, and picked up an AR-15 to defend his home. The officers burst open the door, then fired 71 shots in seven seconds, fatally wounding Guerina. His wife pleaded with officers to call for medical assistance, but by the time paramedics were allowed by officers to approach Guerina 45 minutes later, he had died of his wounds. The wife said there were no drugs in the house, and subsequent examination of Guerina's weapon revealed that he had not fired a single shot.

SWAT officers, on the other hand, insisted that they sounded their siren upon approach, and called out "police" in both English and Spanish repeatedly. One officer said he heard Guerina say "I've got something for you," and saw Guerina crouched down pointing a weapon at them. The officers in the doorway (none entered the house until after the shooting) opened fire.

A more recent news report fills in a few blanks, but raised more questions about law enforcement conduct that day. The Pima County Sheriff's Office released over 500 pages of officers' statements, evidence lists, and witness interviews, as well as audio tapes and a short video tape of the event. The video shows the SWAT vehicle approach to the house, and a brief siren blast and unintelligible voices are heard. The team of officers appears to gather uncertainly at the front door, not unlike teenage boys at a school dance. After a few seconds the door is forcibly opened, then after a short pause the officer unleash a barrage of gunfire into the home.

According to the attorney for the five officers who did the shooting, "all those officers were separated immediately after the shooting so they could be interviewed and provide objective statements of what happened." Yet the audio tapes reveal that the SWAT officers were still together 45 minutes after the shooting, discussing what had happened. Several officers said they never heard Guerina say anything, but the lead officer insisted he'd heard "I got something for you, or something."

Other taped comments which raise red flags include "I just started boom, boom, boom", and "Yeah, we were all out of ammo when we got back."

In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell draws on psychology and behavioral research to describe mental processes which work rapidly and automatically from relatively little information. In one section of the book he talks at length about police training, and about events in which police officers have shown both appropriate and out-of-control responses. "In interviews with police officers who have been involved with shootings, these same details appear again and again -- extreme visual clarity, tunnel vision, diminished sound, and the sense that time is slowing down. This is how the human body reacts to extreme stress, and it makes sense. Our mind, faced, with a life-threatening situation, drastically limits the range and amount of information that we have to deal with.

" .... the optimal range of 'arousal' -- the range in which stress improves performance -- is when our heart rate is between 115 and 145 beats per minute .... very few people perform in that optimum range. Most of us, under pressure, get too aroused, and past a certain point, our bodies begin shutting down so many sources of information that we start to become useless. After 145, bad things begin to happen. Complex motor skills start to break down. Doing something with one hand and not the other becomes very difficult .... At 175, we begin to see an absolute breakdown of cognitive processing .... The forebrain shuts down, and the mid-brain -- the part of your brain that is the same as your dog's -- reaches up and hijacks the forebrain .... Vision becomes even more restricted. Behavior becomes inappropriately aggressive .... Arousal leaves us mind-blind.

"When we make a split-second decision, we are really vulnerable to being guided by our stereotypes and prejudices, even ones we may not necessarily endorse or believe .... For this very reason, many police departments have moved, in recent years, toward one-officer squad cars instead of two-. That may sound like a bad idea, because surely having two officers work together makes more sense. Can't they provide backup for each other? Can't they more easily deal with problematic situations? The answer in both cases is no. An officer with a partner is no safer than an officer on his own. Just as important, two-officer teams are more likely to have complaints filed against them. With two officers, encounters with citizens are far more likely to end in an arrest or a charge of assaulting a police officer. Why? Because when police officers are by themselves, they slow things down, and when they are with someone else, they speed things up. All cops want two-man cars. You have a buddy, someone to talk to. But one-man cars get into less trouble because you reduce bravado. A cop by himself makes an approach that is entirely different. He is not as prone to ambush. He doesn't charge in. He says, 'I'm going to wait for the other cops to arrive.' He acts more kindly. He allows more time."

Does Gladwell's analysis mean that SWAT teams should be abolished? No. There are situations in which a SWAT presence is legitimate. But it does suggest that in the SWAT environment, heightened adrenaline flow combined with the presence of half a dozen or more fellow officers in the same elevated state increases the risk of acting irrationally, aggressively, and often fatally. Repeated training lessens, but does not eliminate, this risk. In Tucson, I submit, events spun out of control. Five officers fired 71 shots in seven seconds, killing a man who appears to have been simply defending his home and family. The subsequent conflicting accounts of what happened reinforce this view, and may even point to a police coverup to avoid culpability.

I do not fault individual officers -- theirs is an inherently dangerous and often thankless task. But I do fault the system in which they operate, a system which maximizes the chance that police officers will fall into a precipitous war mentality, when other, less violent means might still get the job done.

26 May 2011


MLADIC ARRESTED. Former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, who is charged with "orchestrating the largest mass killings of civilians in Europe since World War II'', has been detained by the Serbian Security Intelligence Agency. Mladic was first indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal in 1995, and will be extradited to the UN War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. He has been a fugitive in the intervening years, hidden by Serb militant supporters. A Washington Post article describes the arrest.

Mladic was one of a triumvirate of Serb leaders who ordered or participated in genocide, and the last to be apprehended by authorities. He is pictured above, at right, beside former Serb politician Radovan Karadzic, who remains in custody. The third war criminal, former Serb President Slobadan Milosevic, died in his cell in 2006 before his trial could be completed. All three men were Serb leaders during the bloody and vicious Bosnian Civil War which raged between 1992 and 1995, after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. The multiethnic region was inhabited chiefly by Muslims, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats. It was during this conflict that the term "ethnic cleansing" first entered public awareness, as a polite euphemism for genocide.

According the the Washington Post, the arrest of Mladic has been hailed by "Western governments and human rights activists as a landmark in international justice. They said it would send an unmistakeable message to other leaders -- including Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and Libya's Moammar Ghaddafi, two leaders charged with mass atrocities by the International Criminal Court -- that they will ultimately be held accountable." Time will tell. Too many national and revolutionary leaders have literally gotten away with murder over the years, by virtue of their international political alliances or the natural resources they control.

SUICIDE KITS. A NYTimes article describes a rekindled "debate over the ethical and legal implications of what it means to assist a suicide." The context is the online purchase of helium hood kits (see image below) by those who feel that their lives are too painful or troubled to want to continue living. Assisted suicide is legal in the states of Oregon, Montana, and Washington, so long as the patient requesting it is of sound mind, and suffers from a terminal illness.

It is a vexing issue on many levels. How do you tell the loving relatives of someone who has been in a coma for years, with no prognosis for recovery, not to pull the plug and end the emotional and financial misery? For those with severe Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, terminal cancer, AIDS, and other debilitating conditions, death would be a release from suffering. Yet our society has strict laws and stricter ethical standards when it comes to ending the life of another, for whatever reason. Most of us internalize those standards, and so face a wrenching dilemma when a loved one is living in misery, with no end in sight.

There are no easy, one-size-fits-all answers. We each must come to our own resolution. Yet there ought to be a national standard for assisted suicide, so that individual states (and individual families) do not bear the brunt of the decision. The laws in Oregon, Montana, and Washington strike me as a humane, balanced approach. Each of us is entitled to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Should we not also be entitled to decide when to end our lives, humanely and free of pain?

25 May 2011


A news report surfaced over the weekend which is profoundly disburbing -- so disturbing that it merits an extended quote here.

"Amy Myers is a pretty, 16-year-old Cherry Hill High School East sophomore and an aspiring veterinarian. She is a critic of Minnesota Congresswoman [and 2012 presidential hopeful, image above] Michele Bachmann. Amy is also concerned for her personal safety.

"She wrote a letter to Bachmann dated April 29. Together with her father, she posted it to CNN's iReport on May 6. It didn't take long for news outlets to pick up the story. In it, she criticized the Tea Party caucus leader. She challenged Bachmann to a constitutional debate, [stating] 'I have found quite a few of your statements regarding the Constitution of the United States, the quality of public school education and general U.S. civics matters to be factually incorrect, inaccurately applied, or grossly distorted.'

"In fact, many liberals and progressives have questioned the educational background of women like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. How do you get through high school not knowing the things that they don't know? Where do the weird and bizarre notions they hold originate? Perhaps it is not so much our educational system as some people (Palin, Bachmann, O'Donnell, Angle, et al) not paying attention in class.

"Myers also addressed Bachmann's obligations and responsibilities as a woman -- 'As one of a handful of women in Congress, you hold a distinct privilege and responsibility to better represent your gender nationally. The statements you make help to serve an injustice to not only the position of Congresswoman, but women everywhere.'

"The reaction to Myers' letter has been nothing short of terrifying. 'A lot of them are calling me a whore' .... Amy and her father said the comments from conservative websites alarmed them most. Some commenters threatened to publish her home address. Others threatened violence. Some threatened rape .... because she challenged the Tea Party goddess

" .... The Tea Party has made much of 'strong' women like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. The narrative is that any opposition to the gross factual distortions and dishonesty of these women is founded on jealousy or misogyny or that those critics are threatened by strong women .... But the anti-American Tea Party is also anti-woman, and they don't want any women, including feisty 16-year-olds, to bust the formulaic requirements of ideology over fact, ignorance over education, and dishonesty over honesty. The Tea Party message is clear: there is no future for women who do not agree to sell their soul.

" .... [Criticism of elected officials] is not a crime. Violence and rape are. Ignorance of the U.S. Constitution by elected officials ought to be."

I recall on May 4, 1970, when I first heard the news of the murder of Kent State students by the Ohio National Guard, thinking, "My god, we're killing our children." Malicious conservative brutality is still with us, when a young girl is threatened with violence and rape for exercising her right to free speech. What are they so desperately afraid of?

And how do they get away with such blatant hypocrisy, on so many levels? Witness another news report which points out one of many instances of legislative extortion on Capitol Hill -- "After pushing the government to the brink of shutdown, Republican Congressional leaders are now preparing to push America to the edge of default by refusing to increase the nation's debt limit without first getting Democrats to concede to large spending cuts. But while the four Republicans in Congressional leadership positions are attempting to hold the increase hostage now, they combined to vote for a debt increase 19 times during the presidency of George W. Bush. In doing so, they increased the debt limit by nearly $4 trillion."

The party of alleged fiscal conservatism actually is the party of gross fiscal mismanagement. Democratic President Bill Clinton left office with the nation enjoying a budget surplus. Republican George W. Bush quickly turned that into a monumental debt, mostly through tax breaks for the wealthy and through shady dealings with Wall Street bankers, big oil, and through war-mongering.

Let's examine the contrast between the two parties through a different lens. Here is a table showing the gross U.S. debt since World War II, broken down by the president in office. Notice in particular column 1 (the president), column 2 (party affiliation), and column 7 (the increase or decrease in our national debt as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP). Consistently, during Democratic administrations, our national debt leveled off or decreased. During Republican administrations, our national debt increased. (See chart below -- the pink portions of the timeline depict Republican presidencies, the blue portions Democrats.)

There is a simple reason -- government exists to serve the people, through social services, infrastructure, consumer protection, environmental protection, and national defense. These services cost money, which we pay for in taxes. Republicans seek to reduce spending which benefits the people, while allowing the wealthy to escape their fair tax contribution toward supporting the government. So who shoulders the financial burden, while receiving fewer services? The 95% of us who are not wealthy. But since the non-wealthy cannot afford as large a contribution, the national debt increases.

Democrats, on the other hand, seek to hold the wealthy accountable, while providing the non-wealthy with the services to which they are entitled. The national debt decreases.

It appears that Tea Party members aren't the only ones who slept through government and civics classes.

24 May 2011


O'BAMA'S IRISH ROOTS. I've kidded around about the similar sound between our president's surname and a typical Irish name, but it turns out that Barack Obama does indeed have ancestral ties in Ireland. It's true that the president's surname comes from his Kenyan father, and that when spoken aloud, it sounds like a typically Irish name. But it's also true, as reported by Reuters, that Barack Obama can trace part of his ancestry to the tiny Irish village of Moneygall, which lies in both County Offaly and County Tipperary, south west of Dublin. As part of his tour of Europe, Obama visited Ireland, where he was grandly treated like a long-lost son. Not since John F. Kennedy has an American president been so welcomed in Ireland, whose current economic struggles Obama addressed directly. He even offered the signature phrase from his 2008 presidential campaign, translated to Gaelic -- "This little country that inspires the biggest things -- your best days are still ahead. And Ireland, if anyone ever says otherwise, remember that whatever hardships winter may bring, springtime is always just around the corner. And if they keep on arguing with you, just respond with a simple creed, 'Is feider linn' (Yes we can)."

The president is a popular figure in Ireland, and rightfully so.

BRAIN MYTHS. Thanks to Andea Kuszewski for posting this link from Smithsonian.com, Top Ten Myths About The Brain. I'll provide a few teaser statements, and you can click on the article to read more about those that pique your interest.

1. We use only 10 percent of our brains.

2. "Flashbulb memories" are precise, detailed, and persistent.

3. It's all downhill after 40 (or 50, or 60, or 70).

4. We have five senses.

5. Brains are like computers.

6. The brain is hard-wired.

7. A conk on the head can cause amnesia.

8. We know what will make us happy.

9. We see the world as it is.

10. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus.

BONUS FEATURE. I came across a wonderful video posted in Roger Ebert's Journal at the Chicago Sun-Times. In it, a young black woman delivers an impassioned and contentious response to pop singer Beyonce's song "Girls Who Run The World". As Ebert notes, this young woman has clarity and conviction .... and as I note, we need many more like her.

23 May 2011


CHOMSKY ON BIN LADEN. Noam Chomsky, longtime linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, and social activist, recently published a commentary on the U.S. military's assassination of Osama bin Laden. Readers will recall that in a previous post I wondered why we did not capture bin Laden, and bring him to trial for crimes against humanity at the International Court of Justice in the Hague. Chomsky raised similar concerns, and in a followup commentary titled When Did America Completely Abandon the Rule of Law?, he elaborates on the issues at stake. International response to the raid from both developed and developing nations has been overwhelmingly critical, calling our actions a violation of international law. The decision to kill rather than capture runs counter to not only our own founding principles, but also to common sense. We are waging a war in Afghanistan that was never declared by Congress (a violation of our own Constitution), ostensibly a war against terrorism but also clearly a contest for favorable public opinion prior to next year's presidential election in the U.S. Doing so has cost us much credibilty among our allies, and has provoked even more anger and resentment in the Muslim world. Can we really afford such draconian measures, when a little restraint would have demonstrated our determination to remain on the moral high ground? Just asking.

SNOW AND FLOODING. From a NYTimes article written in Colorado -- "For all the attention on epic flooding in the Mississippi Valley, a quiet threat has been growing here in the West where winter snows have piled up on mountain ranges throughout the region. Thanks to a blizzard-filled winter and an unusually cold and wet spring, more than 90 measuring sites from Montana to New Mexico to California to Colorado have record snowpack totals on the ground for late May (see photo below of snowpack in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, click to enlarge) .... Those giant and spectacularly beautiful snowpacks will now melt under the hotter, sunnier skies of June -- mildly if weather conditions are just right, wildly and perhaps catastrophically if they are not. Fear of a sudden thaw, releasing millions of gallons of water through river channels and narrow canyons, has disaster experts on edge."

With good reason. For several weeks, print and broadcast media have been warning residents on both sides of the Rocky Mountains of the possibity of record flooding. The danger has escalated as more and more people move to the region. Here is an example of a warning posted this morning for Missoula, by the National Weather Service -- "Forecast: river levels will rise above flood stage sometime between late Monday night and Tuesday morning. River levels are forecast to rise between 10.0 feet and 12.0 feet throughout the week."

I'm reminded of a similar situation in the spring of 1964. Record winter snowfall, a cool spring, then sudden warming combined with rainfall, all led to precipitous snowmelt. So much snow melted so quickly that reservoirs contained by mountain dams overflowed. Three dams on the east face of the Rockies burst, releasing untold millions of gallons of water to flood the downstream watershed for many miles. The vegetation in mile-wide valleys was flattened, downstream farms and families were wiped out. The surging floodwaters carried trees, dead horses and cattle, and displaced beavers and other wildlife for days.

In a broader timeline, far-reaching questions are raised. For instance, might dams be part of the problem? My friend Lou in Tucson sent a link to an article documenting what ecologists have known for decades -- that impoundment dams may do more harm than good. The intended reasons for building dams -- flood control, generation of hydroelectricity, human recreation -- are overshadowed by the flooding of habitat upstream, and by the changes to habitat and native species downstream. Case in point: the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. Historically, spring floods scoured out the river bed and side canyons, creating a unique habitat for reptiles, fish, and mammals found nowhere else on earth. But as "development" of the West accelerated during the 20th century, more people demanded regulation of the flood cycle using dams, which provided the added benefit of generating electricity for power-hungry cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. Among the dams build was Glen Canyon Dam, completed in 1966.

Prior to the dam's construction, the Colorado River's waters through the Grand Canyon had been relatively warm. But after those waters were dammed, downstream flow was regulated (allowing sandbars to accumulate which historically would have been scoured by seasonal flooding). That flow now originates from the much colder waters at the bottom of Lake Powell, the 300-kilometer long reservoir behind Glen Canyon Dam. These changes altered living conditions for native plants, reptiles, birds and mammals downstream, making survival impossible for some, opening the way for invasive species. And upstream, human communities, archeological sites, and even massive sandstone arches like Rainbow Bridge have been threatened or buried beneath the reservoir.

Threats from human population growth and climate change require a wider assessment of the nation's river systems. On one hand are those who, like the Army Corps of Engineers, would restrict and govern and channel everything. On the other hand are those who, like environmentalist groups ranging from the National Parks Conservation Association to Earth First!, favor the complete removal or some or all dams which constrict the natural flow of water. By interfering with the cleansing effects of flooding, we wreak havoc with the replenishment of the Mississippi Delta, interfere with the spawning migrations of salmon on the west coast, destroy native habitats, and still do little more than postpone (and magnify) the inevitable. The planet managed to get along just fine without human interference in its cycles. Perhaps it's time we learned to live as part of nature, rather than trying to control nature. If you're foolish enough to build in a known floodplain, too bad. If you choose to live in the southeast, guess what -- you can expect a hurricane every now and then. I'm just sayin'.

22 May 2011


For those of you who missed it, Rapture 2011 was postponed because of rain .... or a shortage of the requisite number of earthquakes .... or a yawning lack of interest. But not since GWBush has a person or event provided so much material for late night (and early morning) humor. Witness The Rapture: Funniest Tweets and Photos. Facebook has been simmering with links to other spoofs -- as in Evolution to Occur Thursday (first published in 1996 -- talk about scooping the competition). One can only shake one's head in wonder at the retarded evolution of some of our co-humans. Did that sound harsh? Aw, so sorry. Well, not really.

Since it seems to be a day for whimsy, I would be remiss to omit this story -- Man Admits to Having Sex with 1000 Cars. What a romantic, though the ensuing paternity suits are cause to shudder.

On a more serious (giggle) note, check out Sex, Sleep, and the Law: When Nocturnal Genitals Pose a Problem. This is a legit article in Scientific American, but I have to wonder how it is humanly possible for a straight man to sleep through being raped by a bisexual man. Those zany Frenchmen.

Finally, with thanks to my friend Bill in Chicago, here is a link to Boston Logan Airport As Seen in Time Lapse Video, one hour and ten minutes of airliner takeoffs and landings condensed into just under 3 minutes. Turn your sound up just a little. Even reminding myself that the actual activity happens more slowly, I'm amazed at the speed and precision of this aeronautical choreography .... and truly in awe of the skills and talent among the air traffic controllers who make it all happen. (Boston's Logan ATC tower is shown below)

21 May 2011


THE RAPTURE. The End of Days is upon us. Well, sort of. Well, not really. In all three of the world's Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), the end of the world is prophesized. Within fundamentalist Christianity, it takes the form of The Rapture, when select believers will allegedly be gathered into the air to meet Jesus. For the rest of us, the news is not so good.

Predictions of the timing of The Rapture occur with some regularity. For instance, Rapture warnings were issued in 1844, 1914, 1918, 1925, 1942, 1981, 1988, 1989, 1992, 1993, 1994, and now 2011. Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping (whose previous predictions failed) has been telling the world that on May 21, 2011, God's elect people will be taken up into heaven. In addition, Camping predicted that --

~ Earthquakes will happen across the world, all at 6 p.m. local time.

~ Approximately 3 % of the world's population will be called to heaven. (That works out to roughly 180 million souls.) Does anyone beside me see the elitist illogic of these numbers?

~ The end of the world will take place six months later, on October 21, 2011.

Well, the time has come and gone, and no signs of Rapture, or even mild ecstasy. Religious fruitcakes have been with us since, well, since the start of religion. Their ravings would be amusing if they weren't so downright pathetic. They only serve to embarrass and discredit religion in general, a fading belief system which contradicts and discredits itself just fine on its own. One could have made a small fortune by approaching everyone with a Rapture sign and asking, "Would you like to put a little money on that?"

KAMIKAZE CYCLISTS. The U.S. is, unfortunately, a country whose highways and city streets were mostly designed with the automobile in mind -- partly a calculated connivance between auto makers, the oil and steel industries, and government planners; and partly a result of the unavoidable fact that America covers such a large area. In Japan and in Europe, mass transit and high-speed rail are modern, safe, fast, and inexpensive to use. Trains and buses serve nearly any destination you need to reach. But then, those places are geographically small compared to the vast distances in the U.S. Hence (in part) the appeal of individual, gas-consuming cars and trucks.

But increasingly, sheer economic pressure is forcing us to look at other ways of getting around. As some of us make the transition from gasoline-consuming internal combustion engines to alternative forms of transportation, many choose to travel by public transportation (trains, buses), by hybrid cars or motorcycles, by bicycle, even by foot. It is a laudible effort, but not without its risks.

Consider the bicycle -- once restricted to a few fitness freaks and green enthusiasts, bikes have become much more mainstream. Their growing numbers have brought increasing conflict with motorized traffic, even in those enlightened cities with dedicated bike lanes. And "conflict" between a 2000 lb.-to-24,000 lb. object and a 25 lb. object, generally results in injury or death whoever is guiding the smaller vehicle. In heavy traffic, it's easy to understand why -- bikes are small and often hard to see. Some cyclists are careful, but many other cyclists simply assume the right of way and make quick, unpredictable, and dangerous maneuvers in traffic. And make no mistake, bicycles are part of traffic, and subject to the same laws as cars.

I've been a professional driver for years, and have seen just about every bizarre, self-destructive behavior imaginable on the part of both car drivers and bike riders. In the case of bikers, who are utterly vulnerable, how much sense does it make to assume that you have the right of way, that everyone else will see you and yield to you? How much less sense does it make to ride at a high rate of speed (for a bike) in the traffic lane (even when there is a bike lane next to you); or to switch traffic lanes without either signalling your intent or checking for oncoming traffic; or to ride inches from the sides of parked cars, any one of which may suddenly open a driver's door into your path; or to ride at speed on pedestrian sidewalks, dodging and weaving and missing those on foot by inches or less? This segment of the biking population feels a clear sense of entitlement -- they are small and quick, they do not pollute, and the world should see and recognize their virtue and always yield to them, no matter how assinine their riding.

Recently NPR aired a segment on the causes of bike/car collisions, trying to parse out whether drivers or riders are more at fault. The results were mixed and inconclusive. The segment did feature a very useful graphic showing how to avoid the 5 most common bike/car collisions. And here is another terrific resource, a layered slide show demonstrating the integrated skill layers of competent bikers. Bottom line, I can tell you as one who has ridden bicycles and motorcycles, as well as one who has driven cars, trucks, and buses, that while the larger vehicle should always watch out for the smaller one, the smaller one has an equal responsibility not to create dangerous situations in which the rider will always be the loser. Cyclists -- ride responsibly, wear colorful, highly visible clothing and safety gear, obey all traffic laws as though you were a vehicle (because you are), and make conservative choices. You will be adding to the public image of bikers, and you will be protecting yourself from needless injury or death.

20 May 2011


FALLING MORALE. Pauline Jelinek in the Huffington Post reports that "As fighting and casualties in Afghanistan's war reached an all-time high, U.S. soldiers and Marines there reported plunging morale and the highest rate of mental health problems in five years .... Some 70 to 80 percent of troops surveyed for the report said they had seen a buddy killed, roughly half of soldiers and 56 percent of Marines said they'd killed an enemy fighter, and about two-thirds of troops said that a roadside bomb -- the number one weapon of insurgents -- had gone off within 55 yards of them .... 'There are few stresses on the human psyche as extreme as the exposure to combat and seeing what war can do,' the Army Surgeon General said at a Pentagon news conference."

A spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars said that "War affects everyone .... and most are able to deal with their experiences and move on to stable, productive lives. Key to coping with those experiences is available care, access to care, and knowing that you are not alone."

And that is the looming question. During the Vietnam War, psychological care was all but non-existent. One day you were in a jungle war, and 24 hours later you were released onto the streets of San Francisco .... no decompression, no counseling, no time to talk with your peers. Small wonder that my generation experienced the highest incidence of PTSD in our history, to that point. But we did have one advantage -- once we did return to The World (the U.S.), we were home to stay. Military units serving in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars can be called back for another year-long tour, again and again. The limbo of never knowing must be excruciating.

The difference lies in the manner of obtaining troops. During Vietnam all men over the age of 18 were subject to the military draft. Unless you had a disqualifying medical condition, or a deferment as a student or worker in a trade essential to national defense, you were grist for the mill. The modern, all-volunteer military has erased many of the inequities of the draft, but suffers from failures of its own. If insufficient numbers of qualified citizens choose to volunteer, the military is forced to recycle existing units back into the war zone repeatedly. So each era has its own set of stressors -- some held in common (the wrenching experience of war), and some unique to each era (the theater of operations, available equipment, recidivism).

Allegedly, psychological counseling is more readily available to troops, both in the war zone and at home. But when 50 percent of soldiers believe that getting professional help for their problems makes them appear weak, then the instilling of a warrior mentality which takes place in military basic training is self-defeating. It is no accident that the military prefers recruits who are young and impressionable. Youth, physical vigor, and wanting to feel part of something larger and grander than oneself, all play into the setup. The inevitable reality check comes when you must kill another human being, or see innocent people killed, or watch your buddy die, or endure day after day of extreme violence with little respite, in a harsh and unforgiving environment. The miracle is that troop morale hasn't reached the point of mutiny, especially in Afghanistan, where we've been fighting for ten years with no discernible positive effect.

RISING INTELLIGENCE. One of my favorite science writers, Andrea Kuszewski, has written a compelling and encouraging essay -- You Can Increase Your Intelligence: 5 Ways to Maximize Your Cognitive Potential. Her treatise distinguishes between crystallized intelligence (the volume of facts you've already accumulated) and fluid intelligence (your capacity to learn, retain, and use new information, then use that knowledge as a foundation for solving the next new problem or learn the next new skill). She explains the difference between working memory and intelligence, describes the characteristics of fluid intelligence, and offers five practical elements for increasing fluid intelligence. In summary, they are --

1. Seek Novelty.

2. Challenge Yourself.

3. Think Creatively.

4. Do Things the Hard Way.

5. Network.

I highly recommend the full article for a richer understanding of Kuszewski's premises. She includes lucid explanations of all terms and concepts, in matter-of-fact language that is more easily accessible than most academic papers. Then, see whether her recommendations have application in your own life. Have fun !

19 May 2011


VIE PRIVEE. Which is French for "private life," the preservation of which occupies a much different space in France than in the U.S. For instance, when prominent French individuals (notably men) engage in numerous extramarital affairs, it is not a liability, but rather an impulse to be expected, and perhaps even admired as evidence of virility. In the more puritanical (and hypocritical?) U.S., when word of an affair leaks, the adulterer becomes the object of revulsion and ridicule.

Hence the divide between the responses of the French and of Americans to the news earlier this week that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had been arrested for sexual assault and the attempted rape of a hotel chambermaid in New York City. When TV images showing Strauss-Kahn appearing for his court arraignment unshaven, with no tie, and handcuffed, the French were shocked, then furious. No one in a French court would have been treated in this fashion. Initially, French public opinion was sympathetic to the alleged assailant. It was only with the passage of days, and with more information revealed about the victim, a widowed woman from Guinea who is raising a teenage daughter, that the French began to reconsider, and to shift their support toward her.

The PBS Newshour aired an informative segment on this phenomenon last night. You will find the video, and a printed transcript, here.

ORPHAN PLANETS. NASA has announced the discovery of "a new class of Jupiter-size planets floating alone in the dark of space, away from the light [and gravitational influence] of a star. These lone worlds are probably outcasts from developing planetary systems, and they could be twice as numerous as the stars themselves .... these worlds are thought to be at least as common as planets that orbit stars. This adds up to hundreds of billions of lone planets in our Milky Way galaxy alone .... The survey is not sensitive to planets smaller than Jupiter and Saturn, but theories suggest lower-mass planets like Earth should be ejected from their stars more often. As a result, they are thought to be more common than free-floating Jupiters."

This is why I love science. Just when we think we understand what the cosmos is made up of, and how it works, along comes a new discovery which alters the map entirely. Space -- a cold, boundless vaccuum populated by galaxies, nebulae, solar systems of stars and planets, comets, asteroids, black holes, dark matter, and now orphan planets which outnumber the stars themselves. I can't wait to see what we discover next. You can read the NASA report which explains how planets become disassociated from their parent stars here.

18 May 2011


SECRETARIAT. Yesterday I watched the film "Secretariat", a biographical movie about the legendary American thoroughbred and his rise to fame. In 1973 Secretariat "became the first U.S. Triple Crown champion in 25 years, setting new race records in two of the three events in the series (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes) -- records which still stand today.

The Kentucky Derby is one and a quarter miles in length, the Preakness is one and three/sixteenths miles in length, and the Belmont is one and a half miles in length. In the first two races, Secretariat started last in the field, and surged to take the win. In the Belmont, he took the lead early and never stopped accelerating. By the first turn, Secretariat was running faster than most thoroughbreds are capable of running. At each succeeding quarter of the distance, his speed actually increased, stunning spectators as he flew past the finish line, a full 31 lengths ahead of his nearest competitor.

Secretariat died at age 19, after a successful racing and breeding career. It was learned at his death that his heart was nearly twice the size of a normal horse, accounting for his superb athleticism. Those who know horses agree that he was virtually a perfect physical specimen by any measure -- musculature, conformation, temperament, and size.

The movie was somewhat formulaic in structure, and to the extent that we already know Secretariat's history, it was predictable. But I was moved to tears every time the camera settled on the horse -- whether in training, at play, or racing. The cinematography was superb during those passages. Grace and power and poetry in motion, with the heart of a champion.

SLAVERY. On this day in 1652, Rhode Island passed the first law in North America making slavery illegal. Thus America's smallest state by area (1045 square miles) made a large impression on the ideals of the nascent nation, even though it took another two hundred years for the U.S. to pass a similar law, during the American Civil War. The cruel and sordid practice of slavery is an abomination on the history of this and any other nation which tolerated it -- a form of inhumanity which, like genocide, we must always remind ourselves to guard against, lest it take fresh root in subtle or overt fashion. How fitting that the state flag features the word "Hope".

17 May 2011


SEX. Arnold Schwarzenegger made news when it was revealed that ten years ago, before he became governor of California, he fathered a child with a female staff member, and has been financially supporting the child ever since. It wasn't until a week ago that the governator came clean with his wife of 25 years, Maria Shriver (see image above). She told him to move out. He refused. So she did, taking up residence in a hotel, tactfully characterizing the split as "little more than a couple coming apart after many years." According to sources, Arnold was able to keep things secret for so long because "They always had separate bank accounts. They did not co-mingle their money, and the reason for this was that Maria felt strongly that if she had her own money, she could always walk out the door if something happened. But when you have separate bank accounts it's very easy to keep secrets from each other."

A quirky question -- are Republicans still trying to one-up Democrats? We had the spectacle of Bill Clinton spanking the monkey with Monica Lewinsky in the White House. Did Arnold feel that he had to father a child to go Bill one better? Just a thought.

SEX. In Brazil, a judge has ruled that a 36-year old female accountant can legally masturbate at work and watch porn on her work computer. The woman "suffers from a chemical imbalance that triggers severe anxiety and hypersexuality .... Her work situation began to suffer because the only way she can relieve her anxiety is by masturbating frequently, up to 47 times a day .... Her doctor has also given her a medical cocktail of tranquilizers that has reduced her need to masturbate to about 18 times a day."

An accountant. Who knew they endure so much stress? Click on the link for the full story, including a video discussion of whether or not masturbation carries negative side effects. I'm heroically resisting the tsunami of puns and wisecracks possible here.

AND SEX. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, an influential economist and possible candidate for the presidency of France has been arrested in New York City and charged with "sexual assault, forcible confinement, and attempted rape of a maid who was cleaning his hotel room." The gentleman nearly made his escape -- he was on board a jetliner ready to depart for an economic summit in Europe, when police boarded the plane and took him into custody (see image below).

As Jon Steward wryly observed (click on the link to see the video), "You know you're in bad shape when your sex scandal comes out the same weekend as Osama bin Laden's, and you're the one that looks like the real a**hole." I mean, rank has its privileges, but come on, D.

16 May 2011


WEALTH & HAPPINESS. Does having enough money really buy happiness? There are proponents and opponents to the supposition, but not much scientific research. Until now. If you are a child growing up in poverty, the stakes are dire. Studies reveal a "link between lower socioeconomic status and lower hippocampal gray matter density [the hippocampus is that part of the human brain which is crucial to memory]." The graph below (click to enlarge) reveals the correlation between the percentage of children with serious mental or behavioral difficulties, and poverty level, broken down by age groups. Within each age group the trend is clear -- the more impoverished you are as a child, the more you struggle with cognitive and social performance. This is, of course, not the child's fault, nor in most cases the fault of the parents. We as a society are responsible for the health, education, and well-being of ALL our members. To the extent that poverty exists and hinders our children, to that extent is our society a failure.

As adults, the connection between wealth and happiness is less clear. Yes, having money makes life undeniably easier. But it also can substitute one set of worries for another. Daniel Kahneman suggests that just as education is only one component in achieving higher income, so higher income is only one component in people's satisfaction in their lives. He refers to our preoccupation with money as a "focusing delusion" -- "Nothing is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it." Thus it is that middle income and even poor people, while they undeniably contend with life struggles the wealthy don't face, can achieve a state of contentment simply by focusing on what is good in their lives, and appreciating the love and personal achievements already present. As with so much else in our lives, happiness is largely a result of what we choose to notice and to value.
LASER. On this day in 1960, American physicist Theodore Maiman operated the first working laser at the Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California. The word "laser" is an acronym for "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation". The emitted laser light possesses high spatial and temporal coherence -- that is, it exhibits very little diffusion or scatter over distance and time. Imagine a flashlight beam -- the light spreads very quickly in a conical shape, becoming weaker and illuminating less with distance. Now imagine a laser beam -- the light maintains its pencil-thin diameter over great distances -- so great that lasers are used to measure the distance from the earth to the moon, with accuracy measured in millimeters.
In the half century since the first lasers, they have become as ubiquitous as Velcro. Their uses include (but are not limited to) bloodless surgery and eye treatement in medicine, cutting and welding in industry, marking targets and acting as heat/light weapons in the military, latent fingerprint detection in law enforcement, spectroscopy and interferometry in scientific research, printing and optical disks (CDs and DVDs) in consumer goods, light displays, and cosmetic skin treatment. A more precise and versatile tool is hard to imagine. Check out the Wikipedia article for a comprehensive description of the history, design, modes of operation, and types of lasers in use today.

BONUS. Two of my favorite creatures are black cats and barn owls. Imagine my delight when I discovered this video showing a barn owl and a black cat who are best friends. I'd wager that both were very young when they first discovered each other, and perhaps were even raised together. How else to account for the apparent short-circuiting of each predator's hunting instincts in favor of play? Whatever the explanation, I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did.

15 May 2011


RON PAUL'S RACISM. One of the declared contenders for the Republican nomination for President in 2012, Texas Representative Ron Paul, has put his foot in his mouth again. During an interview on MSNBC, Paul frankly stated that he is against provisions in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed major forms of discrimination against blacks and women, including racial segregation. Paul said he would "vote against the law because it imposed unfair rules on what private business owners can and can't do on their own property. Essentially, they should be free to discriminate if they wish, however distasteful that may be."

By the same line of reasoning, business owners should be free to commit theft, rape, assault or murder on their property, because refraining from doing so would impose "unfair rules". Paul's position favoring business over individual civil rights is typical of conservative ethics (or ethical bankruptcy). His laissez-faire stance is at odds with every freedom guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, documents which Republicans conveniently ignore when it suits their selfish interests. How sad, and how repulsive, that 47 years after the law was passed, women and racial minorities are still struggling to achieve parity with white males. The good ol' boy mentality is alive and well among us, and needs to be bitch-slapped into oblivion.

MUSLIM PORN. It is not news that when you prohibit hedonistic activities like the consumption of alcohol or marijuana, people will find ways to achieve their pleasures anyway, even if it means breaking unrealistic laws. Just so with sexual activities, including pornography. Far better to legalize and regulate such pasttimes, than to try to stop an unstoppable force.

In her article Osama's Dirty Mind, Asra Q. Omani reveals that "the smut in bin Laden's compound reveals the Muslim world's dirty secret: porn is rife, everyone looks at it -- and the U.S. finds it in militants' hideouts all the time .... Called fuhsha in Arabic, pornography is considered haram, or illegal, according to most interpretations of Islam, because it publicly exposes a person's awrah, the Arabic word for the zones forbidden from public eye. The debate over pornography, masturbation, and the line between the erotic and the pornographic is a serious one in the Muslim community. Muslims today are negotiating these issues much like the West started doing decades ago .... [the presence of pornography] speaks to the contradictions that permeate Muslim society."

Or for that matter, the contradictions that permeate any repressive society. While Islam, with its archaic laws and subjegation of women, makes an easy target for ridicule, most nations and cultures don't have to look much further than the mirror to find equally egregious ideas. I wonder when we, as a species, will ever grow up?