30 April 2011

VOYAGER / LOUISIANA PURCHASE















VOYAGER. In the late 1970s, two unmanned scientific probes, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, were launched to explore Jupiter and Saturn. Both spacecraft were so well designed and versatile that their missions were expanded to include all the planets of the outer solar system. Now, 34 years later, NASA has announced that the Voyager probes are about to extend their incredible journeys into interstellar space. Arguably the greatest success story among all projects launched to explore space, manned or unmanned, the Voyager program is the gift that keeps on giving. Click here to view a four minute NASA video on this intrepid pair of explorers, and their approach to a threshold no other craft has ever crossed -- the edge of the heliosphere (see image below) and the great interstellar space beyond. Voyagers, long may you sail !







LOUISIANA PURCHASE. On this date in 1803, the U.S. acquired 828,800 square miles of France's claim to a large portion of the interior of North America. The Louisiana Purchase (see map below, click to enlarge) cost the U.S. a mere $15 million ($219 million in 2010 dollars), and nearly doubled the territorial size of the nation. The boundaries included what eventually became all or part of 14 current U.S. states. The acquisition legitimized U.S. expansion across the continent, in what later came to be known as the doctrine of Manifest Destiny -- a rationalization for U.S. entry into the group of colonialist nations whose theft of land and resources from native inhabitants had proceeded for 300 years, and would proced for another 100 years. According to Wikipedia, "Napolean Bonaparte, upon completion of the agreement, stated 'This acquisition of territory affirms forever the power of the United States, and I have given England a maritime rival who sooner or later will humble her pride.' "

Given our ongoing avarice for land, resources, and power, by purchase or by military conquest, it appears that Napolean was correct. But at what cost to our souls?








29 April 2011

FOR YOUR ENTERTAINMENT









(Each paragraph header is a link, on which the subsequent comments are based.)

TRUMP DOGGED BY RUMORS HIS HAIR IS NOT FROM U.S. -- So-called "balders" movement gathers steam. Does anyone seriously believe that the thing on his head is natural hair? Just looking at it frightens me.


REPUBLICAN CONGRESSMAN SAYS PLANNED PARENTHOOD IS "NEUTERING" MEN. Really? Given that the planet is home to ten times more people than it can support in a sustained fashion, perhaps this would be a good thing. If it were true. Another wondrous parnoid pronouncement from someone who was endorsed by Sarah Palin. Perhaps it's time to consider her endorsements as a sort of reverse litmus test?

"GET HER OUT OF HERE!" A 5 minute video in which Lawrence O'Donnell gives birther Orly Taitz every opportunity to apologize, after President Obama released his full birth certificate to quell the non-issue that he might not be an American citizen. Taitz, who is ironically a native of the Soviet republic of Moldova, stubbornly stonewalls and obfuscates until O'Donnell loses all patience with her mendacity, and boots her from the show. About damn time. NOTE: for a satiric look at the birthers' persistence of myopia, check out a sample of their annotated copy of Obama's birth certificate below (click to enlarge).




















FATBOY SLIM - WEAPON OF CHOICE. Who knew that actor Christopher Walken was an accomplished dancer? I first saw this video about 15 years ago, and it still charms and delights.

YOSUKE GODA. A series of photos (and a time-lapse video) showing the process of turning an entire room into a work of art. One shot appears below. Simply astonishing.
























28 April 2011

WARRIOR GENE / WHOOPIE










WARRIOR GENE. According to a study by geneticist and political scientist (oxymoron?) Rose McDermott, a so-called "warrior gene, which occurs in about 30 percent of the population, makes you more likely to engage in physical aggression." Support for her hypothesis, however, is inconclusive at best. John Horgan writes in Scientific American that there is little evidence for the warrior gene, since the difference between carriers and non-carriers is miniscule. Further, "Obviously, the warrior gene cannot possibly live up to its name. If it did, the whole world .... would be wracked by violence. The warrior gene resembles other pseudo-discoveries to emerge from behavioral genetics, like the gay gene, the God gene, the high-IQ gene, the alcoholism gene, the gambling gene, and the liberal gene.

" .... The abyssmal record of behavioral genetics stems from two factors. First, the quest for correlations between thousands of genes and thousands of traits and disorders is prone to false positives, especially when traits are as squishy as "aggession" or "childhood trauma". Second, the media -- including respected scientific journals like Science and PNAS as well as shows like Dr. Phil -- are prone to hyping "discoveries" that will attract attention."

I introduce this controversy to illustrate one of the most essential core features of good science -- that any theory or hypothesis, however appealing or reasonable, must be falsifiable. That is, one cannot simply make a tautological statement (one whose conclusion restates the founding assumption), and expect the listener to make a leap of faith and accept it. In science, you can prove a statement to be false, but you can never prove a statement to be true. Even the most compelling foundation stones in science must be able to be proven false by further experimentation or reasoning, to qualify as science. This is what separates science from myth or religion. You cannot prove the existence of your god to me, and I cannot disprove it to you. It is a question of belief, not science.

Debates such as the one over the purported warrior gene are a healthy and essential part of scientific discourse. Only by probing, questioning, and repeated testing does a hypothesis eventually gain (conditional) acceptance among the scientific community, becoming a well-grounded theory. The scientific method requires it, and rightfully so.

WHOOPIE. I love this woman. Whoopie Goldberg is an intelligent woman who knows when to exercise caution in a debate, and also when to come right out and tell it like it is. I mentioned in yesterday's post the subtext of racism which underlies so much of the opposition to our nation's first black President -- in this case within the context of the ridiculous suggestion that Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen. On yesterday's episode of The View, Joy Behar and Whoopie Goldberg publicly called a spade a spade, declaring the birthers and their ilk to be motivated by blind, unreasoning racism. Check out the "episode" link above to see the fireworks.

27 April 2011

OBAMA'S BIRTH / HELL















OBAMA'S BIRTH. At 7:24 p.m. on August 4, 1961, Barack Hussein Obama II was born at Kapiolani Maternity and Gynecological Hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii. His mother was white and born in Wichita, Kansas. His father was black and born in Kenya. By virtue of his mother's U.S. citizenship, and by virtue of his being born on U.S. soil, the infant Obama was inherently an American citizen.

Fast forward 45 years. Now-Senator Barack Obama has decided to run for the Presidency of the United States. For much of his campaign for office, and for over two years of his first term in office, reactionary forces within American society relentlessly beat the dead horse of the legitimacy of Obama's citizenship, claiming that there is no proof of his citizenship. The proof of his birth is public record, yet the forces of paranoid denial (now called "birthers") relentlessly insist that no such proof exists. Even the self-serving 2012 presidential hopeful Donald Trump debased himself by getting in on the act.

Today, in order to set the matter to rest and get on with the important issues the nation faces, President Obama released a detailed, certified copy of his Hawaii birth certificate to the public. Administration officials said they released the birth certificate "partially because the issue had moved beyond fringe discussion." They also criticized a media culture which would not let the story go. You can view a copy of the birth certificate below (click to enlarge), or you can view a much larger and more legible version by viewing the news release (which is worth reading in its entirety), and clicking on the prompt labelled "Click here for a close-up look at the birth certificate."






















The entire affair is a sad commentary on the insidious nature of racist bigotry in the United States. Does anyone really imagine that if the child in question had been born in the U.S. to a white American mother and a white father from Europe, there would ever have been any controversy over his/her citizenship? No, there would not. The lynchings of the not-so-distant past have simply taken on a more subtle form -- character assassination. I have only pity for anyone who is terrified of having a qualified black, Asian, Latino, or Native American man or woman in public office. Wake up, people, we live in the 21st century. It's a new world. Whites are already a demographic minority in California, and soon will be in the nation at large. Get over yourselves.

The often-satirical news source The Onion posted a tongue-in-cheek followup story in which birthers have morphed into afterbirthers, "demanding the authentification of Barack Obama's placenta from his time in his mother's womb." This would be merely mildly amusing, if it weren't something to which conservative extremists might actually resort. We live in troubling times, characterized less by decency and dignity, and more by venom and hysteria. Thankfully we have a president who is capable of rising above the cat fighting -- a man with a longer vision for our country, guided by a firm understanding of its founding principles, as well as by his own ethics.

Speaking of venom and hysteria, I came across a refreshing treatise on the concept of hell. I'm decidedly not religious. In fact, I'm inclined to agree with Dustin Hoffman's character in the movie Straw Dogs when, in refuting the proselytizing of a local cleric, observes that more wars, torture, and human misery have been inflicted in the name of religion than any other cause. My own perception is that each of us creates our own version of heaven or hell, right here on Earth, and that if the potential for divinity exists at all, it exists within each of us.

Literal interpreters of various scriptures see things differently. I'm in accord with the writer of the treatise, who says that "This enthusiastic stumping for the reality of Hell betrays not only a shriveled sense of human decency and a repulsive interest in pain inflicted on others, but a deplorable lack of imagination. People have a hard time taking eternity seriously. I don't know of any theological descriptions of Hell that involve some version of parole hearings at regular intervals. The usual assumption is that it is an eternal sentence. For all the pious musings about the centrality of human choice, few of Hell's advocates allow for some version of that choice to persist after death. Seventy years or so on Earth, with unclear instructions and bad advice; infinite years in Hell for making the wrong decisions.

"Hell isn't an essential ingredient in humanity's freedom of agency. It's a horrible invention by despicable people who can't rise above their own petty bloody-mindedness .... I tend to take issue with religion on the grounds that it is factually wrong, not morally reprehensible. But if you want evidence for the latter, here [the concept of Hell] you go."




26 April 2011

GAMING & LEARNING / VACCINATIONS










First, an appreciation for Andrea Kuszewski, who is a behavioral therapist, science writer, artist, and the source of many stimulating ideas and links through our Facebook friendship. Her quick wit and razor-sharp intellect elevate each day. I discovered each of today's links through her sharing and brain-storming. Thanks, Andrea.

GAMING & LEARNING. Judy Willis, M.D., suggests a connection I've long thought viable. In her Edutopia blog, Dr. Willis has posted an entry titled "A Neurologist Makes the Case for the Video Game Model as a Learning Tool". Here's a teaser -- "The popularity of video games is not the enemy of education, but rather a model for best teaching strategies. Games insert players at their achievable challenge level. and reward player effort and practice with acknowledgment of incremental goal progress, not just final product. The fuel for this process is the pleasure experience related to the release of dopamine.

"The human brain, much like that of most mammals, has hardwired physiological responses that have survival value at some point in evolutionary progression. The dopamine-reward system is fueled by the brain's recognition of making a successful prediction, choice, or behavioral response.

" .... The survival benefit of the dopamine-reward system is building skills and adaptive responses. The system is only activated and available to promote. sustain, or repeat some mental or physical effort when the outcome is not assured. If there is no risk, there is no reward. If there is not challenge, .... there is no activation of the dopamine-reward network.

"In humans, the dopamine reward response that promotes pleasure and motivation, also requires that they are aware that they have solved a problem. figured out a puzzle, correctly answered a challenging question, or achieved the sequence of movements needed to play a song on the piano or swing a baseball bat to hit a home run. This is why students need to use what they learn in authentic ways that allow them to recognize their progress as clearly as they see it when playing video games."

Dr. Willis' article is punctuated with subtitles -- "Dopamine Motivation", "No Pain, No Gain", "Awareness of Incremental Goal Progress", "Individualized Achievable Challenge", "Game Entry Point Is a Perfect Fit Through Pre-assessment and Feedback", "Bringing Incremental Progress Recognition to the Classroom -- and Beyond", "Immediate Gratification or Long-Term Goal Pursuit?". It is a provocative set of ideas which resonate strongly in me. When I was a university student in my mid-30s, my classload consisting almost entirely of science and math classes, I periodically sought refuge in the video game arcade on campus. In retrospect it is clear that beyond escapism, gaming was providing me with visible, measureable evidence of my progress in learning, evidence which reinforced the more drawn-out process of classwork. When I later became a teacher, I tried to incorporate gaming into my classes, though not as systematically as I would now. The gaming-learning connection is a vital resource which teachers at all levels have at their disposal -- realizing that not all games are created equal, and that as with all else in life, selectivity is called for.

On the lighter side of evidence, check out Born Digital, a collection of anecdotes about toddlers and young children raised with computers and other digital tools. You'll laugh, and your jaw may also drop with the recognition that each generation's paradigms and assumptions are completely unpredictable. The world of our children may overlap our own world, but the two are far, far from being identical.

VACCINATIONS. Those opposed to receiving vaccinations against disease have always been among us. Lately, perhaps encouraged by the vocal presence of regressive elements like the Tea Party, anti-vaccinationists have become more militant, taking out a billboard in Times Square. Rahul Parikh describes the event in The Ad that Could Fuel a Health Crisis, noting that high-profile defenses of vaccinations from the medical and public health care communities have been muted at best. How twisted is it when a tool which has saved millions of lives, comes under attack and elicits so few defenders? Parikh explores these questions and others with candor and sensitivity.

In a more spirited defense, magicians/entertainers/activists Penn and Teller present a spirited and vivid picture of the consequences of shunning vaccines in this forceful video. It only lasts for a minute and a half, so pay close attention, and enjoy.

25 April 2011

DECEPTION = MURDER



















I've written in previous posts about the ulterior motives with which the U.S. has waged every war since World War II. When it comes to interfering with genocide, or encouraging the spread of democracy, or relieving the suffering of oppressed peopes, we have been miserable failures. But those lofty ideals have not been the impetus for our wars. Rather, American military might has been wielded in the pursuit of political power and, more to the point, to secure access to territory and natural resources which do not belong to us.

Case in point -- the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The war in Iraq was never about alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), or Saddam Hussein's imaginary ties to al-Qaeda in the post-9/11 era. The Iraq war was always, always about oil. Period. This was transparently so from the beginning, George Bush's delusional propaganda notwithstanding. The proof is laid out in stark detail in Paul Bignell's essay for Great Britain's The Independent. England's participation in the Iraq war was not merely in support of U.S. plans for regime change in Iraq, but also in support of British oil interests. Bignell's well-documented essay includes damning statements like the following -- the oil giant BP "feared it was being 'locked out' of deals that Washington was quietly striking with U.S., French and Russian governments and their energy firms .... Iraq (was) the big oil prospect. BP (was) desperate to get in there and anxious that political deals should not deny them the opportunity .... Whereas BP was insistent in public that it had 'no strategic interest' in Iraq, in private it told the [British] Foreign Office that Iraq was 'more important than anything we've seen in a long time .... The 20-year contracts signed in the wake of the invasion were the largest in the history of the oil industry. They covered half of Iraq's oil reserves -- 60 billion barrels of oil .... Many opponents of the war suspected that one of Washington's main ambitions in invading Iraq was to secure a cheap and plentiful supply of oil."

So much for the Brits. What about the Americans? Equivalent documentation for the layers of duplicity behind the Bush administration's lies to the American people and to Congress is available through the Freedom of Information Act. But there is a quicker and more graphic demonstration. Check out this 6-minute video which shows President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and others making pious patriotic statements justifying the war, and moments later either contradicting themselves or claiming they'd never made such statements. Every moment is there for you to see, hear, and judge for yourself.

When in doubt, follow the money. It was never about WMDs, terrorism, or any of the other obscenely transparent propaganda. It was always about oil, a war declared and commanded by oil men, on behalf of oil companies, for oil profits. Similarly, in the Afghanistan war, now the longest war in American history (with no end in sight), terrorism and the half-hearted pursuit of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden in the post-9/11 era were a front. That war, tragically waged by conventional forces against a fierce guerrilla opposition (did we learn nothing from Vietnam?), was undertaken in part to sieze control of Afghanistan's lucrative opium poppy fields, and in part to gain control over territory over which oil pipelines from the north might pass to ports on the Arabian Sea. If we were serious about rooting out the Taliban and bin Laden, we would have deployed special forces operatives to organize, arm, and train local militias. This tactic in fact was briefly successful until it was abandoned, as described in Doug Stanton's book Horse Soldiers.

The tragedy in all this? Take your pick. American voters allow themselves to be duped repeatedly by liars and thugs. Wealthy companies make obscene profits from the business of war. The credibility and the reputation of the U.S. are at a low ebb among the nations of the world. Tens of thousands of military men and women have been killed or maimed for life. Hundreds of thousands of residents of invaded countries have been killed, displaced, have lost their homes and livelihoods. War for profit is not war -- it is murder.

A personal note -- I find it disingenuous at best, and an insult to my intelligence, whenever I see the message "Support Our Troops" on a billboard or bumper sticker. Those who display such messages probably congratulate themselves on distinguishing between the war and those fighting it (a distinction painfully missing during the Vietnam War, itself fought over rubber and oil resources). The sentiment is a placebo, nothing more. Troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are as deeply wounded, physically and psychologically, as were troops returning from any other war -- and we are doing nothing to help them beyond shaking their hands and saying "Well done". We should never have entered those wars in the first place. We did so for all the wrong reasons.

24 April 2011

PC vs. MAC / TRUMP / STRING THEORY














PC vs. MAC. Most of us who use computers are aware that they come in two essential flavors. PC stands for personal computer, and refers to "any general use computer whose size, capabilities, and original sales price make it useful for individuals who are the end user, with no intervening computer operator. A personal computer may be a desktop computer, a laptop, a tablet PC, or a handheld PC. Since the 1980s, Microsoft and Intel have dominated much of the personal computer market." In this sense, PC is understood to be synonymous with Microsoft's Windows operating systems.

MAC (short for Macintosh) refers to an alternative operating system found in Apple personal computers. MACs are regarded as being more innovative than PCs in some circles, though the market share for PCs (89.2 %) continues to outpace the market share for MACs (10.8 %).

Allegedly, users of either system tend to self-identify within the criteria of core demographics, personality, taste/esthetics, food and drink, technology, and media. Consider your own personality and values, and then see whether you fit with the comparison chart created by the Hunch website. Personally, I'm a little suspicious of generalities. Perhaps I'm merely an outlier, not fitting conveniently into either pigeonhole. Would that make me a MAC personality who has gone rogue and uses a PC anyway? Only my cats know for sure.

TRUMP. I noted recently the unsettling prospect of mega-billionaire Donald Trump running for the presidency in 2012. Mr. "you're fired!" has been making the rounds of network interview shows, and the view which emerge are frightening. Can you spell "colonialism", or "hegemony", or "egomaniac"? To learn more, check out Dan Balz' column in the Washington Post. Trump combines the worst of conservative jingoism with Tea Party radical ignorance. I suppose one should be grateful for Republican consistency -- Dan Quail, George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and now The Donald. Retards all.

STRING THEORY. Troubled by your poor understanding in the sciences -- particularly in physics, and most particularly in the subatomic obscurities of string theory? Rest your weary mind, Sparky, take a deep relaxing breath, and partake of the PBS NOVA series "The Elegant Universe". In its usual masterful and accessible manner, NOVA lays out the essentials over three one-hour parts. At the link, you can access each part, as well as related NOVA presentations. PBS is the best thing to happen to coherent news analysis, the arts, history, and the popularization of science since .... well, since ever. The organization deserves our generous support, especially during this passage when conservatives at all levels of government are trying to gut funding for the arts, the sciences, education, and the environment. I'm just sayin'.











23 April 2011

GOD'S WIFE

It's Saturday, or it's Spring, or something .... for whatever reason, it's time to de-serious our commentary with a little whimsy, and possibly food for thought. First (see image below, click to enlarge), parents with the love and imagination to convert their son's bedroom with a nautical theme and a pirate-ship loft. I'm completely charmed by this. Avast, mates, prepare to repel parents, uh, I mean boarders ! Thank you, Andrea.

Next, one of those "awww" videos, this one showing a dog and a deer who are the best of friends. I'm a cat person, and I still found it charming. Thank you, Irene.

Finally, from writer "porygon 2" at the blog The Angry Black Woman, notice that we have clear textual and archaeological evidence that within Christian/Muslim/Jewish dogma, God had a wife. Back in the day when believers called their deity Yahweh, they also called his significant other Asherah. I recently watched a PBS NOVA episode titled "The Bible's Buried Secrets" which echoes this assertion. Whether or not you are a deist, the concept is intriguing.

22 April 2011

DONALD & SARAH / VIDEOS









DONALD & SARAH. Here's a prospect guaranteed to (a) chill the heart of anyone who takes the polticial process seriously, or (b) cause liberals and late night comedians to rub their hands together in anticipatory glee .... depending on your disposition. Lately we've been hearing rumblings (not unlike GI distress) of Donald Trump contemplating running for president. Among his musings have been the worn-out and thoroughly debunked aspersions on Barack Obama's birth credentials and citizenship (the so-called "birther" issue). And who should emerge from the woodwork like a cockroach drawn to offal, in support of The Donald? Everyone's favorite village nitwit, Sarah Palin. Can you imagine a Trump/Palin ticket in 2012? ABC News apparently can. Check out the news segment, and ask yourself -- could we possibly make even bigger fools of ourselves in the world's eyes (and place the U.S. even more on a retrograde path into the Dark Ages) than we already did when the Tea Party derailed the Republican Party? Lewis Carroll would have been proud.

VIDEOS. Here are two very dramatic, very different visual events. The first is called Police Brutality - Handled the Way It Should Be -- with thanks to Facebook friend Clarity. The second shows a speed solo attempt on the Eiger in the Swiss Alps -- with thanks to Facebook friend Andrea. The camera work is stunning.

Oh yes -- happy Earth Day !!

21 April 2011

EXTINCTIONS / SURVEILLANCE / SKYNET










EXTINCTIONS. The NYTimes reports that "The federal Fish and Wildlife Service is in emergency triage mode as it struggles with an avalanche of petitions and lawsuits over the endangered species list, the chief tool for protecting plants and animals facing extinction in the United States. Over the past four years, a few environmental groups have requested that more than 1,230 species be listed, compared with the previous 12 years in which annual requests averaged only 20 species.

"Some environmental groups argue that vastly expanded listings are needed as evidence mounts that the world is entering an era of mass extinctions related to destruction of habitat, climate, and other changes. Such threats require a focus on entire ecosystems, they say, rather than on individual species .... Since Congress passed the Endangered Species Act 37 years ago, some 1,370 species have been listed. Last month the agency [FWS] asked Congress to impose a cap on the amount of money the agency can spend on processing listing applications, both to control its workload and as a protection against lawsuits."

Let's think about this. Over the past 37 years (not to mention the centuries of human presence in North America), species have been pushed to extinction at an accelerated rate, and entire ecosystems have disappeared. (NOTE: the graph above depicts extinctions of animals only, not plants or microbes. It only covers extinctions through the year 2000.) If mass extinctions are being caused by humans, it is incumbant upon us as stewards of the planet to remedy the situation. The fate of the human species is inextricably bound with the fate of all other species on our interdependent planet. As they go, so shall we.

That reasoning is shared by the two environmental groups responsible for 90 percent of the listings petitions since 2007, the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians, both highly respected organization. They want to "compel the Fish and Wildlife Service to look at the full extent of the extinction crisis in the United States .... to force the service to be more assertive in its wildlife protection mission."

The FWS, for its part, appears to want to sweep it all under the rug. Like any regulatory agency, I'm certain that the FWS comes under intense pressure from an array of business interests and their political hacks, whose aim in this case is to further exploit and ravage our natural resources until they no longer exist. It is a sad day for humanity and for the planet. John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson must be rolling over in their graves.

SURVEILLANCE. Thanks to my Chicago friend Bill for this link to the Surveillance Self-Defense Project, whose purpose is to "educate the American public about the law and technology of government surveillance in the United States, providing the information and tools necessary to evaluate the threat of surveillance and take appropriate steps to prevent it. Surveillance Self-Defense (SSD) exists to answer two main questions: What can the government legally do to spy on your computer data and communications? And what can you legally do to protect yourself against such spying?"

The website offers information on risk management, data stored on your computer, data on the wire, information stored by third parties, foreign intelligence and terrorism investigations, and defensive technology. It is a timely and informative array of resources, in an era when the deep pockets of corporations and government provide access to tools and software about which most of us can only dream. Data mining, identity theft, and malicious programs like viruses, worms, and spyware have become not the exception, but the rule. It pays to inform oneself.

SKYNET. In the mythos of the Terminator movie series, there came a time when Skynet, a defense computer system with links to homicidal cyborg assassins, becomes self-aware. A tongue-in-cheek analysis by Angela Watercutter indicates according to the Terminator clock, that moment of self-awareness came two days ago, at 8:11 p.m.

Welcome to Armageddon. To prepare for total domination by our new artificially intelligent masters, the human race can choose from the following --

~ attempt to celebrate doom through Facebook.
~ don't panic.
~ terminate yourself.
~ buy a bunker.


20 April 2011

DEEPWATER OIL DRILLING


















Irony runs deep on this, the first anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico -- proudly brought to you by BP, TransOcean, and Halliburton, and enabled by the U.S. Minerals Management Service -- the irony being that in two days we celebrate Earth Day, which started in 1970. Doesn't seem like we've come very far, does it?

Environmental groups are not letting the day pass without comment. Greenpeace notes that the BP drilling rig explosion "cost eleven people their lives and eventually released nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the marine ecosystem. The accident was a horrible example of the risks that oil companies like BP are willing to take with our national treasures just to make a profit, and they do it with the backing of our government .... Our lack of a comprehensive national ocean policy failed us a year ago. That can change. Right now the Obama administration is in the process of developing a new National Ocean Policy. They're testing the waters to see how engaged the voting public is on this issue by allowing for public comments up until April 27." You can join Greenpeace in calling for an end to all new drilling and the establishment of marine reserves, by going to the website and clicking on the "take action" tab to sign the petition.

Similarly, CREDO Action announces that "Today, economic and enviromental devastation remain. Thousands of Gulf Coast residents cope with massive health problems from oil and toxic dispersants. BP, on the other hand, just scored a nearly $10 billion tax credit, by writing off its "losses" incurred from the tragedy. $10 billion is the entire annual budget of the EPA, whose funding was just slashed .... Americans shouldn't have to endure massive budget cuts because BP took a $10 billion tax deduction for destroying our gulf." Here too, you can sign a protest petition to BP by going to the CREDO website.

Further, The Nature Conservancy has established a Gulf Coast Restoration Fund, to which you can donate here.

It is certainly not news that companies with deep pockets get away with murder, at the expense of people and the environment worldwide. It is also not news that the governmental watchdog agencies assigned to oversee safety and environmental standards, are too often in bed with the very companies they are supposed to regulate. Political rhetoric is cheap. Only massive protests, boycotts, and direct action will convince those in power to amend their ways (and then only with the greatest reluctance and as much delay as they muster). People's lives are at stake. The once-garden planet which we will leave to are grandchildren is at stake. What will you do?

19 April 2011

WARSAW GHETTO UPRISING

















WARSAW GHETTO UPRISING. Background, courtesy of Wikipedia -- "In 1940, the German Nazis began to concentrate Poland's population of over three million Jews into a number of extremely crowded ghettos located in large Polish cities. The largest of these, the Warsaw Ghetto, concentrated approximately 300,000-400,000 people into a densely packed central area of Warsaw. Thousands of Jews died from rampant disease and starvation even before the mass deportations from the Ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp began.

" .... When the deportations first began, members of the Jewish resistance movement met and decided not to fight the SS directives, believing that Jews were being sent to labor camps and not to their deaths. By the end of 1942, however, it became known to Ghetto inhabitants that the deportations were part of an extermination process. Many of the remaining Jews decided to revolt.

"The Ghetto fighters (numbering some 400 to 1000 by April 19) were armed primarily with pistols and revolvers. Just a few rifles and automatic firearms smuggled into the Ghetto were available. The insurgents had little ammunition, and relied heavily on improvised explosive devices and incendiary bottles [Molotov cocktails]. More weapons were supplied throughout the uprising or were captured from the Germans .... Support from outside the Ghetto was limited, but Polish Resistance units attacked German units near the Ghetto walls and attempted to smuggle weapons, ammunition, supplies and instructions into the Ghetto.

" .... The most significant portion of the rebellion took place from April 19 until May 16, 1943, and ended when the poorly armed and supplied resistance was crushed by German troops. It was the largest single revolt by the Jews during the Holocaust .... 13,000 Jews were killed in the Ghetto during the uprising (some 6000 of them were burned alive or died of smoke inhalation). Of the remaining 50,000 residents, most were captured and shipped to concentration and extermination camps, in particular to Treblinka."

My parents were among the World War II generation, and I grew up steeped in the lore and events of those times. Ironically, it wasn't until I reached age 21 and was a part of my own generation's war (Vietnam) that I learned in depth of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. When I first arrived in country and was sent to my unit's base camp at Phu Loi, I was assigned to the bunk of someone who had just returned to the States, leaving behind a treasure trove of books. Among those books were two which forever altered my understanding of the Holocaust. One was Leon Uris' Mila 18, a novel based on the real events of the Uprising, told from the point of view of a journalist in the Ghetto. The other book was John Hersey's The Wall, told from the point of view of a historian. In both books, the protagonists become part of the Ghetto uprising, and both survive to tell the harrowing story of all those who didn't. Both are highly recommended reading. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was one of the most tragic, and most ennobling, events in human history. We are only 70 years removed from the extremes of barbarism expressed in the Nazi movement and the Holocaust. Lest we forget, lest we delude ourselves into thinking that we have ascended past all that, it is useful to look around and notice that at any given moment, a score of wars are being waged on the planet, with genocide an integral part of human conflict. It is incumbent upon all people of conscience to speak out, and when necessary, to resist crimes against humanity. By any means necessary.

18 April 2011

HUMANITARIAN FRAUD? / TAX FRAUD














HUMANITARIAN FRAUD? I include a question mark because the accusation is not yet conclusive. However, Steve Kroft on the CBS investigative reporting program 60 Minutes has presented preliminary evidence indicating that philanthropist Greg Mortenson may have gone over to the dark side. Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, is co-founder of the Central Asia Institute, a non-profit organization "whose mission is to promote and provide community-based education and literacy programs, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan." Mortenson's books and lecture tours have inspired millions of people with his message of hope.

But, according to 60 Minutes, "last fall we began investigating complaints from former donors, board members, staffers, and charity watchdogs about Mortenson and the way he is running his non-profit organization. And we found there are serious questions about how millions of dollars are spent, whether Mortenson is personally benefitting, and whether some of the most dramatic and inspiring stories in his books are even true."

Mortenson and the CAI are based in Bozeman, Montana. Among the allegations against him are that he lied about his adventures in central Asia, that he lied about the number of schools which he claims to have founded, and that much more CAI funding is being spent on promoting Mortenson's book tours than is spent on actually building and maintaining schools. The CAI does not receive any profits from the sale of Mortenson's books. Only he does.

Perhaps the most disturbing and potentially damning aspect of the investigation is that Mortenson is stonewalling. He refuses to be interviewed, refuses to allow independent audits of his or the CAI's finances, and behaves in an antagonistic manner to legitimate questions about his finances and the Institute's operation. Mortenson is perhaps the most effective proponent for humanitarian aid of our generation. He has performed immense good among the poorer peoples of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Yet he appears to have fallen victim to his own charismatic image, as well as to the lure of a life of ease and riches.

Here is a link to both the transcript from the 60 Minutes segment, including the video of the segment. I truly do not want to believe the allegations against Mortenson, but the preliminary evidence is compelling, and he refuses to come clean. Check out the program and see what you think.

TAX FRAUD. Senator Bernie Sanders is emerging as a forcefully vocal advocate of social justice. In the realm of taxes and fiscal responsibility, he has assembled a list of the ten most egregious corporate freeloaders -- giant companies which pay few or no taxes, and which receive subsidies, refunds, and bailouts from American taxpayers. We're talking billions and billions of dollars, here. In an era when Republican wingnuts are seeking to punish those who aren't wealthy by cutting social services, and reward those who are wealthy by excusing them from pulling their fair share of the financial burden of running a nation. this imbalance is nothing short of hideous. The ten corporations listed are --

~ Exxon Mobil

~ Bank of America

~ General Electric

~ Chevron ~ Boeing

~ Valero Energy

~ Goldman Sachs

~ Citigroup

~ Conoco Phillips

~ Carnival Cruise Lines

Speaking of the current hysteria among deficit hawks over cutting funding to social programs, it is useful to place things in perspective -- the U.S. ranks dead last in overall social spending among the 34 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Dead last. Currently "the U.S. spends only 7.2 % of our gross domestic product on programs that make up our social contract with the American people. Compare that to 21 % for Germany, 21.3 % for Greece, and 26 % for Canada. Especially instructive is this chart which compares the U.S. and Germany in criteria such as child poverty, infant mortality, homicide rate, life expectancy, unemployment, exports, and industrial growth.

So what is to be done? Clearly a massive overhaul of the U.S. tax system, including elimination of exemptions and loopholes for the wealthy and for corporations, is only the first step. Annie Lowrey at Slate has a somewhat radical solution -- radical in that it is so simple, no one else had thought of it. Her suggestion? Do nothing. Drawing upon projections from the Congressional Budget Office, and setting aside the polarized budget debate, she proposes that the national budget deficit has been wildly overstated, according to the CBO's own figures.

Thus "doing nothing allows all kinds of fiscal changes that politicians generally abhor to take effect automatically. First, doing nothing means that the Bush tax cuts would expire, as scheduled, at the end of next year. That would cause a moderately progressive tax hike, and one that hits most families, including the middle class. The top marginal rate would rise from 35 to 39.6 percent, and some tax benefits from investment income would disappear. Additionally, a patch to keep the alternative minimum income tax from hitting 20 million or so American families would end. Second, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Obama's health care law, would proceed without getting repealed or defunded. The CBO believes that the plan would bend health care's cost downward, wrestling the rate of health care inflation back toward the general rate of inflation. Third, doing nothing would mean that Medicare starts paying doctors low, low rates. Congress would not pass any more of the regular "doc fixes" that keep reimbursements high. Nothing else happens. Almost magically, everything evens out.

" .... by and large, the hard work of fixing the fat part of the budget has already happened, through health care reform. The Social Security crisis you sometimes hear about is essentially a myth .... The big wheels of deficit reduction are already turning, and it might be better for Congress to step back, stick to pay-as-you-go, and let them turn."

You'll want to click on the "radical solution" link above for more details on the proposal. On many levels, it makes sense. The problem lies in shaking up the status quo, gutting the system in which politician's pockets are lined with large donations from vested interests, and requiring our representatives to do what they were elected to do .... represent us.




17 April 2011

1947 / GLOBAL CAMPUS










1947. The year of my birth, like every year, was marked by events great and small. Among the great ones of 1947, two stand out significantly for me. The first was the Kon-Tiki expedition. Thor Heyerdahl and a crew of five constructed a balsa log raft in Peru, named it after the Inca sun god, and set sail westward across the Pacific Ocean in an effort to demonstrate that Polynesia could have been settled in pre-Columbian times. Archaeological evidence accrued since the expedition tends to refute his hypothesis, but that does not detract from the sheer drama and adventure of the Kon-Tiki voyage.

The trip began on April 28, and culminated 101 days and 4300 miles later, when the raft struck a reef at Raroia in the Tuamotu Islands on August 7. Along the way, Heyerdahl and crew subsisted partially on supplies they'd brought, but mostly on fish caught in transit. The Kon-Tiki was propelled partly by a crude, square wind-driven sail, and partially by the prevailing westerly currents of the South Pacific Gyre (see map below, click to enlarge).

I first read Heyerdahl's book in a high school English class, and its imprint has never left me. To boldly set out into the unknown with only a map, an idea, and a small crew of fellow adventurers was immensely appealing to me, and remains so. If you find a copy of Kon-Tike: Across the Pacific in a Raft, in a library or bookstore, snatch it up. You won't regret it.






















The second 1947 event which has stirred my imagination over the intervening years was this -- On April 15, Jackie Robinson made his major league baseball debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbetts Field, the first black athlete to play on any major team in any sport in the U.S. Breaking the color barrier was not easy. Robinson endured endless verbal abuse, even threats on the lives of him and his family -- from fans and from fellow players. Yet he understood the stakes for himself and for other black athletes, and he prevailed, with the encouragement of fans and of team manager Branch Rickey. Robinson was a stellar athlete, and over time gained the admiration of nearly everyone who had initially derided him. He led the Dodgers to the World Series championship in 1955. Number 42 remains on the short list of my personal heroes.























GLOBAL CAMPUS. I've long thought of the Internet as the world's library. Here is a link to several NYTimes articles on studying abroad, whether through virtual attendance or by living in another country to study there. I highly recommend the latter approach, since immersion learning is the most effective way to absorb knowledge. Either way, travel and study in other countries can only broaden our horizons, increase our understanding and appreciation for other cultures, and ultimately cultivate a true world community -- diverse and respectful, and perhaps one day devoid of war. Barcelona, anyone? Paris? Dublin? Prague? Tel Aviv? Beijing?












16 April 2011

OBAMA REVEALED / 10 WRITING RULES











OBAMA REVEALED. The blogger Liberal Gal recently posted 5 Truths Disillusioned Liberals Should Know About Obama. Her observations remind progressives like myself not only of the hard political realities which lie behind the appearance of Mr. Obama's caving in to Republicans, but also of his list of victories in the face of conservative stonewalling. It was a refreshing reality check, and worth reading for liberals and conservatives alike.

In a related video posted on the CBS News website, the president is shown at a closed-door fundraiser in Chicago (but with an open microphone), chastising the GOP's thugs in Congress for their behavior during the recent budget debate. Obama to GOP: Do You Think We're Stupid? I would like to see and hear more such frank responses sprinkled in among Obama's normal cool, composed public statements. I don't possess a fraction of his self-restraint. It would take a superhuman effort to refrain from bitch-slapping these Tea Party morons into next week.

10 WRITING RULES. Both common sense and tongue in cheek, the UK's Guardian posted In Your Own Write: The Ten Rules for Excellent Writing. They are elegant in their simplicity, and applicable to writing fiction, journalism, blogs, children's stories, or science. The last four rules made me laugh out loud. Enjoy.




15 April 2011

WILD = HAPPY ? / CANNABIS

















WILD = HAPPY ? I'm one of those humans who is predisposed to believe that wild animals in their natural state, undisturbed by humans, are inherently more fulfilled, freer in spirit, and in some vague sense happier than their domesticated cousins. I have no scientific evidence to support my conviction, other than a long-standing identification with the natural world. When I regard a lowing, apparently witless cow grazing in a pasture, sublimely ignorant of her state of slavery, and compare that vision to an elk or a gazelle in the wild, sometimes in danger and always with senses heightened, I cannot help but admire the wild creature's fuller, more engaged existence. A free-ranging tiger simply radiates life, especially when compared with a caged lion in a zoo. I realize that I'm anthorpomorphizing like crazy, but for me any wild animal lives in a nobler state than its subjugated cousin.

Christie Wilcox in a guest blog at Scientific American addresses this very question in her essay Bambi or Bessie: Are Wild Animals Happier? She carefully examines our assumptions about animals that are wild, feral or domestic, as well as our assumptions about what constitutes happiness. A few exerpts --

"First and foremost, it's important to realize that not all animals are the same. Domesticated animals are fundamentally different from their wild counterparts. They are not just wild animals that have been raised in captivity; they have undergone evolutionary changes through artificial selection that have altered their bodies, brains, and behaviors. We have no evidence whatsoever that wild animals are, in any way, happier than domesticated ones which are treated well. One of the consequences of domestication is a decrease in stress across the board. Studies have shown that domesticated animals are less stressed to begin with, and freak out less in response to stressful things like unfamiliar habitats or predators [known in science as perturbations in their environment] .... When we domesticated animals, we forever altered how they respond to their environment. We reduced their sensitivity to things that are otherwise very upsetting to their wild relatives -- like interacting with us.

"Stress is important for surviving in the wild. Stress tells you when you're in danger, and provides your body with the boost in performance needed to get out of the situation. The attenuated stress response exhibited by domesticated species doesn't just make them easier to keep happy in captivity. It makes them less fit to survive outside of it. The vast majority of domesticated animals wouldn't survive in the wild, period.

" .... evidence suggests that wild animals can be as happy in captivity as they are in nature, assuming they are treated well. Confinement alone doesn't mean an animal is automatically worse off. If we give an animal all the good things they would have in the wild (food and water, fellow members of their species, a certain amount of space) and take away anything that stresses or hurts them (predators, parasites, extreme weather), then it can live just as happily in an enclosure. Zoo animals with proper care and enrichment, for example, have similar hormone profiles, live longer, eat better, and are healthier than their wild counterparts. Why? Because life in the wild is hard. In captivity, it's easy."

So far, so good. Where I respectfully disagree with Wilcox's analysis is our hubris in imagining that we understand the full range of a given creature's living requirements. In the wild, for instance, individual top predators like wolves, mountain lions or grizzley bears have ranges of hundreds of square miles. So do their wild prey -- elk, wildebeasts, bison. What zoo has the resources to provide such an enclosure? I'm persuaded that it is precisely the stress of survival under sometimes adverse conditions which, over time, has produced the magnificently adapted and highly adaptable wildlife which has survived human intervention (or human predation).

Further, our stewardship of nature and wildlife is riddled with gross mistakes which have resulted in the loss of entire ecosystems, and the extinction of countless species of flora and fauna. We understand so little about ourselves, yet we imagine that we grasp the myriad needs of even one species, much less millions of species.

We have benefitted undeniably from encouraging our symbiotic relationships with domestic plants, with lifestock, with dogs and cats. In some measure, they have benefitted too. But at what cost? A nature writer (whose name escapes me) once recalled seeing a bighorn sheep lounging on a ledge overlooking a sweeping view of the Rocky Mountains, motionless and content from having just fed. The writer, attuned to the bighorn's mood, had the distinct impression that the bighorn, in addition to checking out its environment for predators, competition or other bighorns, was doing something more sublime which we normally ascribe only to humans -- enjoying the view, the beauty of the surrounding landscape. Anthropomorphizing? Possibly. But who's to say? Wild creatures which use their wits for survival may indeed think in ways at which we can only guess.

CANNABIS. Here is a link to a recent, very informative PBS special, Clearing the Smoke: The Science of Cannabis. In the atmosphere of conservative hysteria which pervades political issues, it is refreshing to see and hear both empirical evidence, and a reasoned debate over that evidence, with regard to medical marijuana. Given that all sides are represented, I invite you to view the entire hour-long special, and see if perhaps you don't discover viewpoints which may broaden your own horizons a wee bit. I surely did.





14 April 2011

OOPS

To all my regular, casual, or random visitors -- my home laptop is in the ER, having been invaded by a supervirus. The best estimate for being back in circulation is tomorrow (Friday). In the meantime, please stay tuned. Thank you !!

13 April 2011

TSA EXCESSES / FLYING NEWS













TSA EXCESSES. Let's be clear from the start -- I am not a fan of the Transportation Security Administration, which was created in response to the 9/11 attacks to enhance security on commercial flights. In the ten years since its inception, TSA employees have exhibited behavior ranging from the insensitive to the bizarre. These include --

~ mistreating and sexually harrassing passengers.

~ using invasive screening procedures.

~ stealing from passengers.

~ using racial slurs.

Further, agency policies have verged from the protective to the surreal. We've seen people forced to remove shoes, clothing, prosthetic devices, and leg braces. We've been subjected to ridiculous limitations on toiletry and cosmetic items we can travel with. TSA itself is subject to covert tests of its own security -- tests which it is secretly notified of in advance. TSA's own website is notoriously insecure.

The list goes on and on. Please click on the TSA link above, for further lurid details. And note that no one is immune from harrassment. Here are links to two videos -- in one a 6 year old girl is given an extended and invasive patdown. In the other, a child is subjected to a public strip search.

The irony is that air travel has not become demonstrably safer due to TSA's existence. TSA tends to impose search criteria in reaction to events, rather than in any systematic, proactive fashion. In short, TSA is security theater, a placebo to placate the public while providing no clear improvement in safety or protection from terrorists. TSA is a failure, and a royal pain in the ass.

FLYING NEWS. It seems to be a day for video links. This from NBC News -- At New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, "An Air France-operated A380 superjumbo jet -- the biggest commercial airliner in the world -- clipped a Bombadier CRJ-700 regional jet, spinning the smaller plane nearly 90 degrees. No one was injured." The monumental size of larger jets, combined with increasing congestion at hub airports, poses serious risks for more frequent accidents, both on the ground and in nearby airspace. Here is the video of the collision.

Finally, yesterday (the 30th anniversary of the space shuttle program) NASA revealed the disposition of the retiring space shuttle fleet. The shuttle Endeavor will go to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. The shuttle Atlantis will remain in Florida at the Kennedy Space Center. The shuttle Discovery will be on display at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington, DC. And the prototype test orbiter Enterprise will reside at a pier in New York City.

Although the space shuttle program was an uninspired halfway measure, after the rousing successes of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo manned space missions, it nevertheless represents the only U.S. manned presence in space. Shuttle missions included launching satellites, servicing the Hubble Space Telescope, supplying the International Space Station, and hosting innumerable scientific experiments in zero gravity. With the retirement of the fleet and budget cuts for NASA, the U.S. appears by default to be ceding manned exploration to other nations. A sad thought.






12 April 2011

WOLF HUNT / MISSING PRESIDENT

















WOLF HUNT. From the Washington Post: "U.S. District Judge Donald Malloy in Missoula .... has denied a proposed settlement agreement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and 10 conservation groups that would have lifted endangered species protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho .... [an] agreement that could have led to public hunting of some 1300 wolves in the two states. In the 24-page decision, Molloy cited the court's lack of authority to put part of an endangered species population under state management and expose that population to hunting, noting 'Congress has clearly determined that animals on the ESA must be protected' .... He also said he couldn't approve the settlement proposed in March because not all the parties involved with the case agreed with it. Part of the argument for the settlement was that it would end litigation, but Molloy noted that was unlikely given the opposition by some to the proposed settlement."

This is a thorny issue with no easy solutions. As I described in a previous post, fragile but workable coalitions of ranchers, conservationists and wildlife management agencies have, in isolated instances, found common ground for compromise, with all parties subscribing to a limited wolf management plan which safeguards ranchers' interests without unduly impacting wolf populations. These coalitions do not exist everywhere, however. On a regional basis, there remains much distrust, even animosity, among the various players. Hence the need for a consistent federal policy. That is what Judge Molloy defended in his decision.

I am not convinced that turning wolf management wholesale over to state agencies is appropriate. The governments of Idaho and Montana are notoriously pro-rancher and anti-wolf. To authorize the slaughter of 1300 wolves by avid sport hunters who have no knowledge of which specific animals may be preying on cattle or sheep, is asking for disaster. Why? Because under such a wholesale assault, the surviving wolves will pass on their genetic code to future generations, including coding which predisposes them to prey opportunistically on livestock. We've already seen this unintended result with coyotes, which have actually increased in numbers and range in spite of the best efforts of humans to eradicate them through poison, aerial hunting, and trapping.

A targeted, surgical hunt would avoid this, when coupled with ranchers taking easy and effective measures to discourage wolf predation. Those few successful coalitions adopt this very approach. In the interim, Judge Molloy's conservative approach is correct. Better to continue to protect these magnificent, and still endangered, predators, than to risk a second eradication from the landscape of the West. Wolves were an integral part of the food web long before European settlers claimed the land. Their hunting of older, crippled, or diseased animals from ungulate herds has the effect of keeping prey populations healthier over the long term.

A sidenote: yes, of course prey populations of elk and deer and bison have declined since the wolf reintroduction. This is because during the decades-long absence of wolves, those same populations had blossomed beyond the ability of the environment to sustain them. Their numbers needed to be thinned. Top predators are a necessary culling agent in any healthy ecosystem.

MISSING PRESIDENT. Economist Paul Krugman (see image below), with some justification, takes President Obama to task for essentially becoming a doormat to Republican interests in the debates over the federal budget. Mr. Obama is legitimately perceived as a conciliator -- it is one of his most valuable skills. Yet making preemptive concessions to conservative interests before they are even asked for, is verging into weakness.

As Krugman observes, "Despite the ferocious opposition he has faced since the day he took office, Mr. Obama is clearly still clinging to his vision of himself as a figure who can transcend America's partisan differences. And his political strategists seem to believe that he can win re-election by positioning himself as being conciliatory and reasonable, by always being willing to compromise. But if you ask me, I'd say that the nation wants -- and more important, what the nation needs -- a president who believes in something, and is willing to take a stand. And that's not what we're seeing."

It is a thankless task being president, and doubly so being the nation's first black president. Act too aggressively, and you're seen as militant and threatening. Act too meekly, and the opposition will walk all over you. I speak as one of his supporters when I say that finding the effective middle ground is, at least in the context of budget negotiations, something which Mr. Obama has yet to achieve. On balance, whether our leader is black or white, male or female, liberal or conservative, I'd prefer someone who takes a clear stand first, then negotiates from there.







11 April 2011

DISORDER & DISCRIMINATION / SCIENCE MUSEUMS

















DISORDER & DISCRIMINATION. A fascinating set of studies has revealed that chaotic environments (whether dirty, cluttered, or fraught with uncertainty) provoke stereotypes and discriminatory behavior, far more so than clean, ordered environments. The setting might be a railway station, a neighborhood, an office space with bookshelves, an experiment with flashcards, or the arrangement of shapes on a page -- the results are consistent. The working hypothesis for these studies is that "stereotypes, being a set of simplified categories and judgments, can help people to cope with chaos. They are a 'mental cleaning device in the face of disorder'. When our surroundings are full of chaos -- be it dirt or uncertainty -- we react by seeking order, structure, and predictability. Stereotypes, for all their problems, satisfy that need."

Thus might Muslims become unfairly stereotyped as being violent, Poles as less intelligent, blacks as aggressive, Jews as avaricious, women as passive, ad nauseam. Understanding the roots of stereotypes does not justify indulging in them, of course. They remain simplistic thinking which misleads us, forming a world view which does not accurately reflect complex reality, and leading to xenophobic and discriminatory behavior which the recipient does not deserve. As the report concludes -- "The message for policy makers is clear: One way to fight unwanted stereotyping and discrimination is to diagnose enviromental disorder early and to intervene immediately by cleaning up and creating physical order. Signs of disorder such as broken windows, graffiti, and scattered litter will not only increase antisocial behavior, they will also automatically lead to stereotyping and discrimination. Investing in repair and renovation, and preventing neighborhoods [and public facilities] from falling into disarray, may be relatively inexpensive and effective ways to reduce stereotyping and discrimination."

Footnote -- It is also useful to recognize that the higher one's tolerance for ambiguity and diversity, the more adaptable one becomes in varying, diverse settings. Just a thought.

SCIENCE MUSEUMS. I was pleased beyond words to come across the article Surveys Confirm Enormous Value of Science Museums, "Free Choice" Learning. It is an unfortunate myth that schools and formal education form the best, or even the only, source of information for inquisitive minds of any age, particularly when the subject is science. Classrooms have their place, but direct experience in laboratories, on field trips, and in interdisciplinary teaching provide the most vivid and memorable learning tools.

The study focused on the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Extensive surveys of thousands of visitors over a ten-year period revealed that --

~ More than half the residents of Los Angeles County, over one million a year, have visited the Science Center since it opened in 1998, and say it strongly improved their understanding of science issues.

~ Residents who visited the Science Center were among the most knowledgeable Los Angeles residents about science and technology, and their visit significantly contributed to this.

~ the makeup of visitors was broadly representative of the general population, including all races, ethnicities, ages, education and income levels.

~ More than a quarter of visitors were Hispanic, and some of the strongest beliefs about positive impact were expressed by minority and low-income individuals.

~ While other leisure activities were decreasing in the past decade, adult use of the Internet, watching educational programs on television, and listening to educational programs in other formats increased.

~ Nearly all adults who said their children had visited the Science Center reported an increase in their children's knowledge of science and technology, and large majorities said the visit increased their long-term interest levels.

~ The attraction of the museum was amazingly broad -- no one zip code accounted for more than 2 percent of the visitation.

These results dovetail nicely with both my experiences growing up, and with my experiences as a teacher. The most vivid memories are imprinted in non-ordinary settings -- on vacation, on a field trip, during a visit to a richly varied and artfully presented environment like a science museum. Even if one does not exist where you live, a special trip to the nearest science museum will repay you many times over, in new knowledge and in a revitalized sense of awe and wonder at all that we know (and are still learning) about the world around us. Hands-on exhibits, along with both static and animated displays, in fields ranging from physics, biology and chemistry to time, space and the cosmos will keep you happily engaged for hours on end.

Toward that end, here is a list of major science museums in the U.S. I particularly recommend those (like the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia) which incorporate or are close to an IMAX theater. The signature seven-story tall, wrap-around screen and state of the art sound system are guaranteed to take your breath away. Here is a list of IMAX venues, located around the world. Enjoy.