29 February 2012


That was a running gag on The Arsenio Hall Show. back in the day.  It referred to something which made you stop and think ~ either a new idea, or more likely an incongruity that pointed out our capacity for self-delusion.  I'm about to introduce links to both varieties.

Optical Illusion - Reverse Mindwarp is a one-minute video which features the gradual addition of tiny white squares to the corners of large dark squares in a checkerboard pattern.  Before your eyes, straight lines seem to bend and spiral as our brains sub-consciously connect the dots ~ even though you can take a straight edge and prove to yourself that the lines remain straight.  Not unlike what happens to our brains when we fall in love?  Hmmm.

Upper Class People More Likely To Cheat ~ seven studies contrast the behavior of the wealthy and privileged to those us who are less so.  From paying taxes to behavior in traffic, from cheating at games to stealing and accepting bribes, the results reveal the shadowy ethics of the upper class in a time of rising economic tension.  Hmmm.

Why Are We So Afraid of Creativity? ~ psychologist Maria Konnikova explores our unconscious bias against novelty.  "Imagination is all about new possibilities, eventualities that don't exist, counterfactuals, a recombination of elements in new ways.  In other words, it is about the untested.  And the untested is uncertain.  It is frightening ~ even if we aren't aware of just how much it frightens us personally.  It is also potentially embarrassing (after all, there's never a guarantee of success).

"Consider a common paradox ~ organizations, institutions, and individual decision makers often reject creative ideas even as they state openly that creativity is, to them, an important and sometimes even central goal.  Or another one ~ teachers have repeatedly been found to dislike students who show curiosity and creative thought, even though creativity is held as an important goal of education."  Be sure to check out the entire article.  Hmmm.

Forget Generation Y.  18-to-34-Year-Olds Are now 'Generation C' ~ the 'C' standing for 'connected' in Zoe Fox's analysis of the digitally linked age cohort (see image above, click to enlarge).  She touches upon the implications for marketing, but does not address the larger question which occurs to me, i.e., the implications for face to face, personal connections.  Talking on cell phones or texting while driving, while walking, while conversing with live people in the same room?  Hmmm.

Margaret Cho Rightfully Loses Her S*** ~ in which the outspoken Korean-American actor and comedian defends her use of profanity as a way of asserting her integrity, in a life in which she has been "shamed and violated and abused" since childhood.  Her essay is a much-needed window into the experiences of those we too-easily categorize or overlook.  Hmmm.

Desperate Race To Save Horse Stuck Up To Neck In Mud ~ the problem?  It is at ocean's edge, and the tide is coming in.  The narration is gripping, and the photos are either gripping or tragic, depending on whether the horse is successfully freed.  Hmmm.

The Website That Triumphs Over the Internet and Time Itself is the florid description of a delightful discovery called Procatinator, "an online collection of 80 videos of cats that have been synced perfectly to popular music."  Could this be charming, or debasingly cute?  Hmmm.

28 February 2012


During my youth in post-WWII America, particularly on the rural northern prairie, I had little awareness of the devastating horrors of the Holocaust.  It's not clear whether the adults around me themselves were poorly informed, or whether they may have been trying to shield me from the savagery of which humans are capable.  It troubles me, because there was certainly no effort to hide the military violence of the war ~ my parents' generation fought overseas and suffered at home.  The events in Europe and in the Pacific were glorified in films, remembrances, even in comic books.  How was it possible not to talk about the Nazi-sponsored genocide of 6 million Jews, along with millions of others not deemed fit to live in the world of Hitler's master race?  If WWII was the defining event of the 20th century (and it was), then the Holocaust was the defining event of WWII.  Of all the Jews who lived in Europe before the war broke out, only one third survived.  No Jewish life was untouched.  

Ironically, it was while I was a participant in my own generation's war ~ Vietnam ~ that I began to learn more deeply about that dreadful era.  Two books in particular were the door through which my self-education began ~ Mila 18 by Leon Uris, and The Wall by John Hersey.  Both novels were set in the Warsaw Ghetto, following the German invasion of Poland.  My eyes began to open to the human capacity for atrocity, even as I took part in a conflict laden with its own atrocities, deceptions, and terror.

Many books have since been written about the Holocaust, and many movies made ~ The Diary of Anne Frank, Exodus, Judgment At Nuremburg, The Pawnbroker, Sophie's Choice, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Schindler's List, Everything Is Illuminated, Defiance, The Reader to name a very few.  Several TV miniseries also portrayed that dark time ~ Holocaust, War and Remembrance, Band of Brothers.  Each film is unique in its portrayal of people and events, and the degree to which it graphically depicts the unutterable misery of the ghettos and concentration camps.  And each should be required viewing for students around the world, to try to prevent such evil from recurring.

Two days ago I watched Sarah's Key, an adaptation of Tatiana de Rosnay's novel Elle s'appelait Sarah.  It is a French film, and a fine one.  One of the long-ignored aspects of any military invasion and occupation of one nation by another is that among the oppressed population, some will organize armed resistance, some will just try to survive, and some will actively collaborate with the invaders.  France was no exception.  Sarah's Key shifts back and forth in time, as a modern journalist investigates the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup of Parisian Jews in July 1942.  Her investigation focuses on one family ~ a mother, father, sister and brother ~ in whose lives chaos and grief strike without warning.  I won't tell you more about the plot, in hopes that you will rent the movie (available through Netflix).  The film's pacing is exquisite ~ the grim past is relieved just in time by the safer present, so that we may absorb what we've seen without being shattered by it.  Yet the present isn't entirely safe, either.  Twists of fate link the journalist to her long-ago subjects.  The film is intelligent, adult, sensitively-drawn, and at times very hard to watch ~ but all the more important to watch for that reason.  This was real.  

Sarah's Key is made luminous by two performances ~ Kristin Scott Thomas (image above) as the modern journalist, and Melusine Mayance as the young Sarah.  The story is partly a fascinating piece of detective work, partly a nuanced portrayal of a loving family torn asunder, and entirely a fine piece of movie-making, regardless of the topic.  You can find a complete plot description here, or read a brief synopsis and view a trailer here.  Far better to see the movie first, to form your own impressions.  Highest recommendation.

27 February 2012


It is a day for clearing out accumulated desktop links of interest.  Here goes ~

Voicemail Accident ~ an employee stuck in traffic is voicemailing his boss when he witnesses a minor accident.  The man who caused it tries to bully the four older women in the other vehicle.  Hilarity ensues.

Is Seeing Believing? ~ the McGurk effect shows how we integrate visual cues into what we 'hear', leading to the possibility of misinterpretation.

Do We All See The Same Colors? ~ I recall wondering this as a small child.  The physics of color is easy ~ light at a particular wavelength.  But do our individual brains all see the same hue, or is my green really your blue? 

Critical Thinking Explained In Six Kid-Friendly Animations ~ in college when I took an advanced philosophy course in logic, I discovered a world of thought that was both challenging and highly useful.  These videos cover some basics in rational thought and discourse.

Carl Sagan's Last Interview With Charlie Rose (1996) ~ the gentle, articulate, and beloved astrophysicist and cosmologist shares his views on pseudo-science, religion, unfounded claims, his personal love affair with science, and his struggle with myelodysplasia.

The Risk Inside Your Credit Card ~ or your debit card, or even your passport.  Newer versions may be embedded with a tiny computer chip to enable RFID, or Radio Frequency Identification.  The problem?  Anyone can buy a $100 scanner online, and casually pass it past your wallet or purse to extract the ID number and expiration date on your cards, then use the information to make bogus purchases.  The video reveals simple steps you can take to protect yourself from piracy.  Forewarned is forearmed.

Objection (Tango) ~ how better to spice up our last entry than with sexy singer-songwriter Shakira and her equally sexy partner heating up that most sensuous of dances?  Enjoy.

26 February 2012


In June of 2006, two benign and nourishing spirits entered my life.  In previous weeks I'd made several visits to the very animal-friendly facility at the Missoula Humane Society, with the intent of adopting a cat or two.  During the course of my life, I've had one horse, three parakeets, seven dogs and nine cats.  Only cats have been my companions since 1982.  They are personable, intelligent, clean, and wonderful company.  In my adult life, I've nearly always adopted from a pet shelter, in addition to a few strays.  Knowing that so many unwanted or abandoned animals are eventually euthanised makes this an easy choice.

So there I was, slowly browsing the glassed-in rooms full of cats looking for a home.  Walking down a hall, something caught my eye ~ a calico kitten sitting in proud profile, brilliantly backlit by the sun.  I was instantly charmed.  The room contained two calico females and two white males with black markings, all siblings, all part Siamese.  I fell in love with all of them, but knew that my small apartment would only accommodate two.  Did I want two calicoes, two whites, or one of each?  I came back the next day to discover my choice had been made for me.  Someone had adopted one brother and one sister.  The remaining sister was the one who'd first riveted my attention with her color blend of black, white, smoke, cinnamon and caramel ~ and the remaining brother had a striking black stripe tapering up from his eye to the top of his head, like Indian war paint, and a black tail like the white cat in the Korean film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring.  I felt the time was right, and signed the adoption papers on the spot.

Finding the right name for each cat was important.  I've always waited to get to know a pet before naming it, so that the name fits its personality or a physical trait.  For the white and black male I chose Chiaro (see image above, click to enlarge), short for chiaroscuro, the term used in art to describe the interplay of light and shadow.  The calico female became Mao (see image below), the Chinese word for cat.  (Former Chinese leader Mao Zedong's name translates literally as "cat bear", but I did not have him in mind when I named Mao.)

Life at home changed irrevocably.  I now had two curious, playful, energetic roommates who were into everything.  As they grew, they learned to accept (mostly) my ground rules ~ no cats on kitchen counters or cabinets where food might be prepared or served, no cats atop the flat screen TV (although once in their carousing they inadvertently knocked it to the floor, destroying the screen utterly ~ the replacement TV is firmly anchored to its shelf), and no cats on my very nice oval wood coffee table.  Other than that, all surfaces were theirs to traverse or lounge upon.  

Oddly, when I first brought them home, they were the same size.  But Chiaro went through a growth spurt, and now outweighs his sister by two lb. (12 lb. and 10 lb. respectively).  Watching them wrestle is fun.  Neither pays much attention to their size difference.  Chiaro has greater reach and strength, but rarely gets carried away.  And Mao is utterly fearless ~ she'll lurk and then launch herself at him.  The defensive shifts back and forth.  Having never been separated since birth, they dote on each other.  I'm certain if one were to vanish, the other would be devastated.

Partly for that reason, and partly to avoid the perils of traffic, predators, vermin, or simply becoming lost, my cats are strictly indoor cats.  I wish I lived in a much larger space, preferably a house with an upstairs and/or a basement, so they could really stretch out and race around.  I've had outdoor cats in the past, and loved that they could explore their surroundings as cats should.  But safety trumps instinct in a human environment.  

We've developed our own shared language over time.  They understand twenty or thirty words with specific meanings ("get down", "no", "come here", "good boy/girl", etc.), and I've long understood the vocal inflections and body language of their tribe.  We get along splendidly.  They sleep atop the bed covers at night, often curled against my legs, or on them.  In winter, big brave Chiaro often slides artfully beneath the covers to stretch out alongside me, sharing body warmth.  Mao has tried, but appears to feel claustrophobic, so she returns to fresh air.

An important part of our day is grooming.  Each morning after I shower and before I shave, the cats take turns jumping up onto the bathroom sink counter.  There I methodically brush each one, following a routine from head to chest-and-front-legs, back and sides, tail and back legs, and finally tummy.  They love both the tactile and emotional affection, as do I.  Whenever we visit someone (they travel with me if I'm to be gone overnight), people comment on how shiny and clean their coats are.  As in human relationships, daily attention to detail counts.

So why am I rattling on about my lovely and beloved cats like an insufferable parent, or someone with senile dementia?  Because today is their 6th birthday!  Chiaro and Mao came into this world on February 26, 2006.  We haven't quite decided how to celebrate, but I have a feeling I'll be sharing my bison burger with them later in the day.  Right now, they are curled up together in typical yin-yang position (see image below), napping.  And all's right with the world.

25 February 2012


During February in the U.S. and Canada, we celebrate Black History Month ~ a "remembrance of important people and events in the history of the African diaspora".  Interestingly, each year the debate is renewed between (a) the continuing usefulness of black history being relegated to only a single month (and the shortest month, at that), and (b) whether it might not be more useful to view black history as part of American history.  It isn't only whites who take this view.  Black individuals from Morgan Freeman to Gwen Ifill have pointed out that black history is American history.  

I can see both viewpoints.  On the one hand, for most of our nation's existence, the importance and accomplishments of minorities in science, in politics, in music and the arts, in literature, in sports, in civil rights, simply did not appear in school history books.  Overwhelmingly, white males were portrayed as the visionaries, the pioneers, the movers and shakers of our society.  [If you've never read Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen's seminal critique of American history as we learned it, please do so.  Dark corners of your understanding will be illuminated for the first time.]  

I think that during this transition in our collective awareness, it is a good and necessary thing to deliberately set aside a month to come to an understanding of the experience of African Americans in our society ~ just as it is good and necessary to set aside the month of March as Women's History Month.  If anything, we are overlooking other minorities ~ Native Americans, Irish, Poles, Latinos, Asians, et al.  That is not surprising ~ each new wave of immigrants to this country has had to be persistent and sometimes militant in overcoming the rejection, stereotyping, and relegation to second-class citizen status by the previous immigrants who'd managed to become "natives".

On the other hand, perhaps someday the teaching of American history will naturally include both genders, all races and all nationalities, just as a good recipe includes all ingredients.  What a wonder that will be ~ American history will be rife with the rich tapestries of scores of cultural traditions.  I don't know if that day will happen in my lifetime ~ witness the xenophobia aimed at Latinos in certain parts of the country, or the ongoing struggle to achieve real equality by blacks, women, or anyone who looks or sounds "different" from the plain vanilla national norm, white males.  

We are assuredly making progress.  Ever so slowly, there is truer representation of minorities in college enrollment, in the halls of Congress and public life, in corporate boardrooms.  Much depends on where you live.  Larger cities are more likely to be heterogenous than small towns or rural areas.  This is where the influence of media becomes important.  As an example, my home state of Montana is overwhelmingly white.  The most noticeable (or overlooked) minorities are Native Americans and Hutterites.  When I was growing up, I wasn't exposed to other races and traditions until I left first for college, and later for the military.  I didn't return to Montana to live for 40 years.  Anyone who remained, had only news coverage or TV shows like The Cosby Show as windows into other realities.  To a large extent life is still that way here.

So true, universal progress is slow.  And that is why, ultimately, I think that Black History Month, Women's History Month, and any others we may devise, are a vital bridge in learning to understand and accept our American diversity.  Here's one small example ~ one of my life's passions is aviation.  Most of us can reel off the names of male aviators ~ Charles Lindbergh, Wiley Post, the Wright Brothers, Chuck Yeager, Sully Sullenberger.  Some of us might even know of heroic black aviators like the legendary Tuskegee Airmen of WWII.  But how many of us can name a single woman pilot?  Perhaps a few recall the WASPs of WWII.  American aviation is loaded with women who must face apparent invisibility on a daily basis ~ though here too, progress is slowly being made.  Even in the military, women are now flying combat missions, something unheard of a generation ago.

Now imagine being an aviation pioneer who is both black and female.  I introduce you to Bessie Coleman, who learned to fly in the early 1920s, and became a skilled barnstormer.  She is an inspiration to young women of any race today.  Her photo appears in the top right corner of the collage above ~ click to enlarge.

24 February 2012


Hooray, it's Science Friday ~ here is a tiny sampling of the riches we're exploring.

Has All of Humanity Actually Forgotten the Right Way to Sleep? presents research which demonstrates that not only is it not uncommon for us to awaken halfway through the night, but doing so was accepted as normal until around 200 years ago.  Rather than strain for that elusive (and perhaps fictitious) eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, people would use the wakening time to read, write, go for a walk, chat with neighbors, or enjoy sex with their partners.  To paraphrase Andrea Kuszewski, from whom I obtained this link, "Sleep a while, make love, sleep a while, make love.  Sounds heavenly."

Astronomer's Paradise is an awesome time-lapse video of the night sky, taken through some of the clearest air on Earth ~ at the European Southern Observatory in Chile's high Atacama Desert.  Be certain to watch this in full-screen, with no distractions.

A Trip Around Our Solar System is a collection of 38 high-definition, animated and still images taken by various robotic space probes operated by NASA and the European Space Agency.  Each includes a caption explaining what you're seeing.  Simply stunning.

Could long-term global warming result in smaller body size among living organisms?  That's one possible conclusion of Research Reveals Evolution of Earliest Horses Was Driven by Climate Change ~ Global Warming Affected Body Size.  56 million years ago, during a 175,000-year interval of climate warming (average temperature increased by 10 dF), the ancestral horse Sifrhippus shrank in body size by 30 percent to the size of a small house cat ~ about 8.5 lb.  Sifrhippus later rebounded in size to about 15 lb.  This is not a new understanding among ecologists.  Bergmann's Rule states that "within a broadly distributed genus, species of larger size are found in colder environments, and species of smaller size are found in warmer regions.  Although originally formulated in terms of species within a genus, it has often been recast in terms of populations within a species."

Finally, check out The Math of Rock Climbing ~ an entertaining five minute video posted by university mathematician (and free climber - see image above) Skip Garibaldi, who was struck by the implications of the question, "Wow.  Shouldn't I be done falling already?"  When you fall 40 feet down a sheer cliff face, while dangling from a rope hundreds of feet from the ground, the most instinctive thoughts can lead to inquiry and insight.  Fun video.

23 February 2012


I came across the following list on my Facebook news feed.  I see signs of a few items coming true, and dispute others.  I do not know the identity of the author, but will gladly add the citation when I find out.  (The Note that follows each item is my own commentary.)

Nine Things That May Disappear In Our Lifetime.
Whether these changes are good or bad depends in part on how we adapt to them.  But, ready or not, here they come.

1.  The Post Office
Get ready to imagine a world without the post office.  They are so deeply in financial trouble tht there is probably no way to sustain it long term.  Email, Fed Ex, and UPS have just about wiped out the minimum revenue needed to keep the post office alive.  Most of your mail every day is junk mail and bills.
[Note ~ preliminary evidence may be found in a Washington Post article entitled Post Office Closing May Affect Rural Isolation, Economic Disparity.  These closings are already in the pipeline.]

2.  The Cheque
Britain is already laying the groundwork to do away with cheques in 2018.  It costs the financial system billions of dollars a year to process cheques.  Plastic cards and online transactions will lead to the eventual demise of the cheque.  This plays right into the death of the post office.  If you never paid your bills by mail and never received them by mail, the post office would absolutely be out of business.
[Note ~ This may be the case, but I will resist it.  Online payments are convenient, but there's nothing like a cancelled check as evidence in a billing dispute ~ and nothing like the pleasure of receiving a greeting card or personal letter in the mail.]

3.  The Newspaper
The younger generation simply doesn't read the newspaper.  They certainly don't subscribe to a daily delivered print edition.  That may go the way of the milk man and the laundry man.  As for reading the paper online, get ready to pay for it.  The rise in mobile Internet devices and e-readers has caused all the newspaper and magazine publishers to form an alliance.  They have met with Apple, Amazon, and the major cell phone companies to develop a model for paid subscription services.
[Note ~ Am I the only one who sees an antitrust issue here?]

4.  The book
You say you will never give up the physical book that you hold in your hand and turn the literal pages.  I said the same thing about downloading music from iTunes.  I wanted my hard copy CD.  But I quickly changed my mind when I discovered that I could get albums for half the price without ever leaving home to get the latest music.  The same thing will happen with books.  You can browse a bookstore online and read a preview chapter before you buy.  And the price is less than half that of a real book.  And think of the convenience.  Once you start flicking your fingers on the screen instead of the book, you find that you are lost in the story, can't wait to see what happens next, and you forget that you're holding a gadget instead of a book.
[Note ~ I do not agree with this prediction.  E-readers have a weakness that books do not ~ power failure.  Besides, there is nothing like the texture, the smell, the heft of a good book, IMO.] 

Unless you have a large family and make a lot of local calls, you don't need it anymore.  Most people keep it simply because they've always had it.  But you are paying double charges for that extra service.  All the cell phone companies will let you call customers using the same cell provider for no charge against your minutes.  
[Note:  Again I disagree.  Cell phones are limited by reception coverage ~ there are dead zones the size of entire counties, or as small as a building.  Landlines have no such problem.  Their strength is in reliability, cell phones in portability.  I use both.]

6.  Music
This is one of the saddest parts of the change story.  The music industry is dying a slow death.  Not just because of illegal downloading.  It's the lack of innovative new music being given a chance to get to the people who would like to hear it.  Greed and corruption are the problem.  The record labels and the radio conglomerates are simply self-destructing.  Over 40% of the music purchased today is "catalogue items", meaning traditional music that the public is familiar with.  Older, established artists.  This is also true on the live concert circuit.  To explore this fascinating and disturbing topic further, check out the book "Appetite for Self-Destruction" by Steve Knopper, and the video documentary "Before the Music Dies".  
[Note ~ I do see evidence of this trend.  Stores devoted entirely to recorded music (LPs, audio tapes, CDs) no longer exist.  And the diminishing number of stores which sell music as part of their inventory, are cutting back the size of that part.  My own musical passion, classical music, is nearly impossible to find in a retail outlet.]

Revenues to the networks are down dramatically, not just because of the economy.  People are watching TV and movies streamed from their computers.  And they're playing games and doing lots of other things that take up the time that used to be spent watching TV.  Prime time shows have degenerated down to lower than the lowest common denominator.  Cable rates are skyrocketing and commercials run about every 4 minutes and 30 seconds.  I say good riddance to most of it.  It's time for the cable companies to be put out of their misery.  Let the people choose what they want to watch online and through Netflix.  
[Note ~ I do see signs of this media evolution.  I don't see TV disappearing anytime soon, but I do recognize the diversification of uses (streaming movies, online apps) possibly phasing out broadcast television.  My own hunch is that someday our computers, TVs, DVD players, and many of the smart functions in our cell phones will merge into one universal, multifunction device.]

Many of the very possessions that we used to own are still in our lives, but we may not actually own them in the future.  They may simply reside in "the cloud".  Today your computer has a hard drive and you store your pictures, music, movies and documents there.  Your software is on a CD or DVD, and you can always re-install it if need be.  But all of that is changing.  Apple, Microsoft. and Google are all finishing up their latest "cloud services".  That means that when you turn on a computer, the Internet will be built into the operating system.  So Windows, Google, and the Mac OS will be tied straight to the Internet.  If you click an icon, it will open something in the Internet cloud.  If you save something, it will be saved to the cloud.  And you may pay a monthly subscription fee to the cloud provider.  In this virtual world, you can access your music, or your books, or your whatever from any laptop or handheld device.  That's the good news.  But will you actually own any of this "stuff" or will it all be able to disappear at any moment in a big poof?  Will most of the things in our lives be disposable and whimsical?  It makes you want to run to the closet and pull out that photo album, grab a book from the shelf, or open up a CD case and pull out the insert.
[Note ~ Yes, the cloud concept is like a scenic country lane salted with land mines.  Just in terms of legal ownership, if one stores the developing manuscript for a novel in the cloud, my instincts tell me that one does not surrender proprietary rights to that manuscript or the ideas it contains.  Technology is leaps and bounds ahead of contract law, copyright law, patent law, and criminal law.  Stay tuned.]

9.  Privacy
If there was a concept we can look back on nostalgically, it would be privacy.  That's gone.  It's been gone for a long time anyway. There are cameras on the street, in most [public] buildings, and even built into your computer and cell phone.  But you can be sure that 24/7, "They" know who you are and where you are, right down to the GPS coordinate, and the Google street view.  if you buy something, your habit is to put into a zillion profiles, and your ads will change to reflect these habits.  "They" will try to get to you buy something else.  Again and again.
[Note ~ Yes and no.  Yes, in public you have little or no privacy.  At home, different story.  The Orwellian assumption is that your entire household is wired into the system.  But who says it has to be?  Build your own computer with its own memory, and do not network it or connect to the Internet.  Instant privacy.  As law enforcement and criminals know, for every measure there is a countermeasure.  Generally, though, I do agree that privacy is on the wane.]

22 February 2012


Time Lapse ~ Epic Skies is a video which photographer Tony Rowell made of the American Southwest.  Do NOT miss the sublime lenticular cloud pulsing and undulating like a sea creature at the very beginning.  The image above (click to enlarge) of a meteor over Mount Whitney was also created by Rowell.  

Know Your Rights, co-sponsored by the ACLU, asserts that taking photographs or videos in public is not a crime, in particular if you are shooting a controversial event like a political demonstration, and the response of opponents or law enforcement to that demonstration.  Photography is not a crime.

Evolution in 120 Seconds handily addresses an ambiguity I've commented on in prior posts ~ the misuse of the word "theory", as in "it's only a theory".  Check it out.

What a Scientist Looks Like is a wonderful project aimed at putting a human face to the stereotypes which most people carry around.  You simply can't generalize, cubbyhole, or otherwise dismiss the diversity, range and depth within the scientific community.

An In-Depth Look at the U.S. Prison Industry offers a series of graphics and captions which explain the significance of what you're seeing.  They include ~

  • U.S. prison system ~ largest in the world.
  • State by state.
  • Prison population by race.
  • Growth of U.S. prisons.
  • The privatization of prisons in the U.S.
  • Inmate mortality rates on the decline
  • Recidivism
  • Crime on the decline
  • Norway ~ a contrasting approach.
A sampling from the graphics ~ "With over 2.3 million people behind bars, U.S. prisoners represent almost 25% of the world's prison population (the U.S. is 5% of the population of the world) .... 5% of black males who live in the United States are in prison or jail, 2% of Hispanic males, and less than 1% of white males .... Norway has one of the lowest incarceration rates in Europe (66 of 100,000), compared to the U.S. (738 of 100,000) and boasts incredibly low crime rates and recidivism rates."  Our prison system is broken, due in large part to the doomed "war on drugs" and to mandatory sentencing.  Those who view prisons as tantamount to country clubs where inmates are pampered, are seriously misled.  For a clearer picture of prison conditions, please see my previous post.  

21 February 2012


Following are exerpts from a superb article by Jeff Strabone, entitled Tax Justice: The Next Great American Movement ~ see the full article for a more thorough analysis.

"Brown v. Board of Education.  The Voting Rights Act.  Miranda v. Arizona.  Roe v. Wade.  Texas v. Johnson.  The Americans with Disabilities Act.  Same-sex marriage.  Looked at one way, the past several decades in the United States have been an almost uninterrupted series of victories for the American left and its activist model of advancing civil rights and civil liberties through litigation and legislation.

"Looked at another way ~ in terms of tax justice, financial regulation, and income disparity ~ the economic right wing has dominated American politics for the past thirty-plus years.  In the face of little popular resistance and with assistance from both major political parties, the richest Americans and the most powerful corporations have had a free hand to rewrite the tax code and the banking laws to enrich themselves, endanger the world economy, and deprive government of the revenues it would need to, as the Constitution puts it, 'promote the general welfare'.  As income equality in the United States approaches banana-republic levels [see chart above, click to enlarge], Americans are finally having a long-overdue national conversation about taxes, banking laws, and economic justice.

" .... The reason that twenty-first century tax rates constitute a political failure is that for most of the twentieth century tax rates were not what they are now ~ the rich were taxed more, much more, and the United States managed, despite high taxes on the rich, to become a world economic power.  Those tax rates changed because one side, the rich, wanted them lowered and the other side, the rest, did not put up a commensurate fight.

"Tables comparing the year-by year highest tax brackets, like this one from the National Taxpayers Union, have been making the rounds on the Internet lately.  Here are some highlights:

  • From 1954 through 1963, income above $400,000 was taxed at 91%.
  • from 1965 through 1978, income above $200,000 was taxed at rates that varied from 70 to 77%.
  • From 1982 through 1986, the income bracket varied a bit from $106,000 to $171,580, but the top marginal rate plummeted to 50%.
  • When Reagan left office in 1989, the highest marginal tax rate was only 28% and it applied to everyone who made more than $30,000 a year.  In essence, progressive taxation vanished.
  • George H.W. Bush raised the top marginal rate to 31%.
  • Bill Clinton raised it to 39.6% on incomes over $250,000.
  • Finally, George W. Bush lowered it again to 35%, where it remains under President Barack Obama.
" .... Were Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon communists for presiding over tax rates of 91% and 70% respectively?  Hardly.  The 1950s and 60s were decades of prosperity for American businesses and working people alike.  Then Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, and the tax rates for the rich began their dramatic decline.

"What happens when governments cannot collect enough revenue because they have lowered taxes too far?  Services break down, public investment comes to a halt, and civil society declines .... Class time in public school [is] cut and the school year shortened due to budget constraints .... domestic violence laws [are] repealed in order to save the money it would cost to enforce them .... state judges are reported to have quit after years without a pay raise .... the total balance for all outstanding student loans is $845 billion.  Tuition is lower in every other country in the world ~ all the comparable industrialized countries subsidize tuition more substantially from tax revenues than the U.S. does.

"Some say it can't be done, that the economic right wing has unmatched amounts of money and power to spend on promoting its agenda.  Let's turn again to the example of civil rights, where we have seen, over and over, the powerless and the outcast rise to victory.  In our own times, in just one generation and against unlikely odds, opinion has swung in favor of same-sex marriage .... This rapid turnabout in national opinion is the result of three things ~ organizing, organizing, organizing.

"Surely, we could mount a comparable effort on behalf of taxing the rich like we did in the 1970s so that good schools could be built.  The fact that tax rates were much higher in living memory should make this not a hard case to sell.  Public schools open five days a week versus more tax breaks for billionaires?  I think we can find at least 53% of Americans to choose schools.

"The left has powerful, expert voices arguing for tax justice ~ Paul Krugman, the Center for American Progress, and on and on .... The teams of anti-tax, anti-regulation experts at ATR and elsewhere need to be met pound for pound with comparable levels of expertise, rhetoric, and advocacy in the opposite direction.  A movement for greater tax justice would need tax lawyers, former Congressional staffers, professors and others united for the difficult, technical work of writing new tax laws and regulations.  What is surprising is the absence of a strong movement for greater tax justice, one that will take its place alongside the great civil rights movements and restore the opportunities that make it possible to enjoy one's rights in a sane, healthy society that believes in itself.  The time for such a movement is now.  May the next several decades of American history be the story of sanity and justice restored to our tax code."

20 February 2012


Based on principles developed by neuroscientist Andrea Kuszewski, I was pleased to run across 5 Ways to Maximize Your Language Learning Potential.  I wish I'd had this information during my two years of Latin in high school, or my one year each of Spanish and French in college.  The principles are applicable to almost any learning situation, but since new languages have always been difficult for me to internalize, this has special relevance.  The link is to a website which promotes learning Irish (that would be fun!), but I'd also like to go live in Mexico, Central America, or Spain for a year or two, for total immersion learning.   I wouldn't turn down France, either.  Check out the article ~ here is a summary of the guidelines ~

  1. Seek novelty
  2. Challenge yourself
  3. Think creatively
  4. Do things the hard way
  5. Network
Sound advice, whether you're learning Swahili, car repair, or beekeeping.

Courtesy of science writer Jennifer Ouellette ~ while we're thinking about learning and knowledge, Could You Have Passed Thomas Edison's Job Interview Test?  Here was a man after my own heart ~ conversant in many fields, and with high expectations for those who worked for him.  "Disappointed by the lack of knowledge among his prospective employees, Edison would hand job-seekers a 150-question exam before he would consider them for employment .... He considered 90% a passing score, and only 35 of the 500 applicants who took the test ever passed."  Click on the link for a brief sampling of the questions Edison posed.

Lastly, out of sheer perversity, here is How To Win a Fight Against Twenty Children.  You are likely to find it either wildly funny, grossly offensive, or just plain silly.  But I can tell you, as one who formerly practiced karate, the premise isn't as ridiculous as it may sound.  Twenty diminutive opponents might prove formidable.  I think one would have to use psychology as much as physical prowess ~ and being a certified psychopath might also contribute.

19 February 2012


In the Boston Review, Natasha Bahrami and Trita Parsi present a persuasive hypothesis titled Blunt Instrument:  Sanctions Don't Promote Democratic Change.  The target de jour is Iran, whose nuclear enrichment program presents the world with legitimate concern over the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons in a volatile region.  It is a quandary which surfaces in cycles ~ how do nations which possess nuclear armaments persuade non-nuclear nations that it's a bad idea ~ "do as we say, not as we do"?   We encounter the same risk of hypocrisy when we try to dissuade developing nations from building industries or technologies which threaten the environment, when we ourselves have yet to sign the Kyoto Protocol, or in other ways join the world in addressing the very real threats of air pollution and global warming.  Our reticence speaks volumes for the degree to which corporate interests exert more control over our government than does the will of the people.

Setting aside environmental issues for the moment, world efforts to halt the development and reverse the spread of nuclear weapons are an utter necessity.  An EU embargo on Iranian oil, and U.S. sanctions against Iranian banks, are ostensibly steps in that direction.  But according to the authors, underlying the official objective of halting proliferation is another, more political purpose ~ "Unofficially, there are hints that the sanctions are aimed at collapsing the Iranian regime and bringing about democratic change.  Supporters of the policy assume that there is a positive relationship between broad economic sanctions and democratization.  The policymakers responsible for these measures either are ignorant of or are simply ignoring the empirical evidence:  broad sanctions ~ total financial and trade embargoes ~ do not have a good track record of changing target countries' policies or of pushing them toward democracy.

" .... of 116 cases of sanction since 1914, only 34 percent have been successful.  Scrutiny of those cases suggests an even lower rate.  [One scholar asserts that] economic sanctions 'are often a prelude to using force, not an alternative to using force.'  Indeed, other studies have shown that broad economic sanctions actually increase the likelihood of military conflict.

"While broad economic sanctions rarely achieve their goals, especially with respect to regime change, the question remains whether they aid in democratization.  Unquestionably, they aren't necessary.  Of 35 authoritarian states that successfully transitioned to democracy since 1955, only one ~ South Africa ~ did so under broad economic sanctions.  Even in the South African case, it is not clear whether sanctions helped the transition to democracy or if they actually prolonged apartheid.

"While there is little evidence to suggest that broad sanctions support democratic transition, we know that they often obstruct human rights efforts and can strengthen a repressive regime.  A range of sanctions scholarship focuses on ways in which authoritarian states use external sanctions to cement their hold on power, regardless of how severe the overall economic costs are .... A strong coercive strategy against resistant regimes should precisely target the regime's core to prevent the redistribution of suffering to the population.  'Smart sanctions' ~ an increasingly popular form of limited sanctions intended to focus hardship on the regime ~ could change the way states sanction each other.  But there are limited avenues for directly punishing officials while avoiding the general population."

I'm struck by the parallels between broad vs. surgical sanctions against unstable regimes, and broad vs. surgical military strikes against terrorists based in other countries.  Certainly the use of small teams of Special Forces, Delta operatives, and Navy SEALs has been far more effective in the battles against al-Qaeda and against the Taliban, than has the presence of many tens of thousands of conventional troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  

So what's the answer for the Iran problem?  How do we prevent a nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel, one which could rapidly spread to engulf the Middle East, drawing in respective allies from around the globe?  I have a strong feeling that both Israel and the Arab League are working behind the scenes to pressure Iranian President Rafsanjani to severely limit or denounce his nuclear ambitions (just as the Arab League is pressuring Syrian President al-Assad to cease the violence against his own people, or face being deposed).  The trick will be to find a solution which allows every leader to save face, both before the world community and before his own people.  

And that may be the key ~ for the U.S. and other developed nations to reassess their roles in the world, recognizing that just because a country does not have a seat in the UN Security Council does not mean we shouldn't respect its right to self-determination, informed by that country's willingness to cooperate with other nations and to refrain from unacceptable behaviors like genocide, political repression, and .... developing nuclear weapons.

18 February 2012


Reading overload.  I thought I was being sly by placing a number of books on hold at the public library, reasoning that they would only become available in ones and twos.  So naturally they all became available within a few days of each other.  The library allows the user one week to pick up a book on hold, and then four weeks to return it (or ten days if it is a newly-published book).  So I'm busy as a beaver (and happy as a clam) with the following titles ~

  • Raylan by Elmore Leonard, 263 pages.  Just finished.
  • Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, 569 pages.  Halfway through.
  • South of Broad by Pat Conroy, 512 pages.
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John LeCarre, 355 pages.
  • With Child by Laurie R. King, 275 pages.
Conroy has long been one of my favorite writers.  This is the first Stegner book I've read, and it won't be the last.  Small wonder that Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972.  While I don't slavishly agree with all prize selections, Stegner deserved this one.  

I'm no stranger to marathon reading.  As an undergrad at the University of Arizona, for a time I majored in Womens Studies.  My "Women In Literature" course (women as both writers and characters) required students to read well over 6,000 pages of fiction in one semester ~ somewhere between 15 and 20 books ~ and to produce a ten page paper on each reading.  I still marvel at receiving an A for the course.

In any event, the substance of today's post isn't reading, but viewing.  I've accumulated a number of video links, some funny, some impressive in other ways.  Here they are ~
  • Happy 49th Birthday, Michael Jordan!  Michael's birthday was yesterday.  This clip includes highlights from the career of one who was arguably the greatest athlete of the 20th century.
  • Wolfman:  Howling in Harmony is a brief segment from a National Geographic program about an ex-Marine who studies wolf language, and uses taped howling to assist people in discouraging wolves from their property.  A win-win for wolves and humans.
  • Dating Service Commercial ~ at first it looks legit, then it looks like a more painful reality, then satire, and finally the ulterior message comes across.  Well done.
  • Disappearing Car Door is not a magic act.  The innovative design has car doors retracting into the floor, challenging the century-old assumption of car doors with hinges and a latch.  As I watch the video, I keep coming up with possible complications (weather, power loss), but it remains intriguing.  Retract into the roof instead?  See what you think.
  • Girl Falls in Mall Fountain While Texting.  Um, self-explanatory.  Some airheads should not be allowed out in public without a leash, it seems.  You can bet she does this while driving a car, too.
Lastly, not a video but an interactive website.  NPR's Robert Krulwich describes an online device called NUKEMAP, where one can choose a city, choose a nuclear device, and hit "detonate".   "The explosion creates a series of concentric circles, color-coded to show the zone where everything is incinerated, the space where most things get emulsified or crushed, the space where radiation is lethal, the space where people are poisoned by radiation, the space where they are badly burned ~  concentric circles of destruction.  The effects are chilling and fascinating.  When I tried out some of the more powerful bombs, I was stunned by their destructive power.  I had no idea."

Nuking My House Online ~ You Can, Too is eerily evocative of the Cold War, under whose nuclear umbrella my generation grew up.  The article is brief, includes a link to NUKEMAP, and is very relevant to today.  "Since NUKEMAP came online in early February, thousands of people have blown stuff up.  So far there have been more than 20,000 'detonations' .... but at the height of the Cold War, 20,000 bombs equaled roughly a third of the world's total nuclear arsenal.  Since 1966, the peak, the pile has gotten much smaller.  There were roughly 8,000 active nuclear warheads in the world in 2010, and maybe another 22,000 in storage.

"And that's not counting whatever is going on in Iran."

17 February 2012


I came across the results of a survey in Scientific American online ~ the study sampled 274 couples who'd been married ten years or more, on the state of their love life.  When the couples were asked "How in love are you with your partner?" (on a scale of 1 being not at all in love, to 7 being very intensely in love), 46% of women and 49% of men answered "Very intensely in love."  The researchers were surprised at the large number who remain passionately in love, and wanted to understand what qualities in a relationship might contribute to long term devotion.  Please click on the link above for a more thorough description ~ here is a brief summary of those qualities.

  • Physical affection.  Hugging, kissing, and making love elevate the levels of the hormone oxytocin, enhancing long-term bonding.  Less physical affection correlated with less emotional attachment.
  • Thinking positively about one's partner.  It is easy to take a loved one for granted over the course of time.  "By focusing on what we appreciate and admire in our partner and being grateful for the value and gifts our partner brings into our lives, we cannot but think positively and may feel more intense love as a consequence."
  • Shared experiences.  "Some of the greatest moments of intimacy in a relationship come from the simple joys of cooking or exercising together, exchanging intellectual ideas over common readings, learning a new and challenging skill .... and going on travel adventures", creating a shared thread of live experience and memories.
  • Taking care of your own happiness.  We are all individuals, with singular needs and interests.  The more fulfilled we feel, the more capacity and caring we bring to our partner.
It all makes perfect sense, in my experience.  In some situations, the second factor can be difficult to maintain ~ or the third, or the fourth.  But the difficulty is a clear signal that something important needs to be thought about, talked about, and if need be counseled about.  It is a mistake to do one's thinking in isolation, and to make unilateral decisions which may hinder or even terminate the relationship.  True love (both loving one's partner and loving oneself) requires open and easy communication, and mutual understanding.

Complete non sequitur ~ have you ever seen a cloud tsunami?  Not likely, unless you live on a semi-tropical beach like coastal Florida.  The phrase is colloquial only, and is not used by meteorologists.  The photo above (click to enlarge) shows what happens when cool air offshore absorbs all the water vapor it can hold ~ its saturation point.  Adding more moisture yields a cloud, which we call fog if it lies on the surface.  Daytime heating of land draws the fog to shore, and if the airflow is strong enough and encounters a tall obstacle like a high-rise building, the illusion of a tsunami is created.  You can see more photos here.

16 February 2012


It's not my fault, really.  I'm an atheist, I find it exciting to satisfying my lover (not to mention flood her with a desire for more), and like anyone with half an imagination, I'm getting better with age.  So please, my readers with religious convictions, don't take it out on me if you happen to see the California billboard (image above, click to enlarge), and take umbrage.  Here's how the reasoning goes, according to Hugh Kramer's interpretation ~ "Atheists make better lovers because they have less guilt about sex, while people believing in religious superstitions attach a negative aspect to sex.  We do not think a supernatural deity is watching us ~ neither in life nor in bed .... many Americans have a great deal of distrust with atheists even though many friends, fellow workers and family members are atheists.  It's common knowledge among atheists that they are just as moral, and often more moral than religious believers because they follow their own world values vs. ones that are espoused by ancient religious texts.

" .... A 2010 article by Kanazawa mentions that atheists are more likely to be sexually exclusive (more loyal) and have higher IQs.  A study by Lefkowitz says religious people have less efficacy with condom use and strange thoughts about HIV risk.  Other studies have repeatedly found that religious people are less educated about sex, have higher teen pregnancy rates, and have higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases."

So I guess the take-home lesson is that singles in search of a mate should specify that they are looking for an atheist partner, if they're serious about finding someone who is intelligent, devoted, and creative in bed.  For the record, while it is an ego boost to learn that atheists tend to have higher IQs and better sex lives, I do not entirely suggest a cause-and-effect relationship ~ becoming an atheist will not immediately make you smarter or better in bed.  The "becoming" is a journey toward understanding, and during that journey one becomes more intimate and comfortable with oneself.  It follows that one also may also learn to become more intimate and comfortable with one's partner.  It is an act of will, imagination, and creativity.  But hey, it's worth it if you get your own billboard.

Speaking of sexual controversy, check out Avi Steinberg's article in the Paris Review ~ it recounts the intimate history between pornography and librarians (as characters in porn stories).  Steinberg's account of the research alone is pretty hilarious.  Did you know that librarians have been prominent characters in porn for at least five hundred years, and across global cultures.  I wonder if part of the allure might not be the forbidden nature of doing the nasty in among the stacks, trying to be quiet (ssh!) while getting away with something wonderful.  The stories have evolved in tone over the years, reflecting what is going on socially at the time.  It's an interesting and very different treatise on literature, no?

Finally, here is one of George Denis Patrick Carlin's last monologue performances.  The edgy, highly intelligent comic (I wonder if he was an atheist?) never hesitated to shine a light on hypocrisy, and never feared taking on those in power.  He does so brilliantly in the piece "It's a big club and you ain't in it."  Guess we'll have to start our own club.  Maybe call it The 99%.

15 February 2012


My attention was immediately captured the other day by an announcement by the Planetary Society that amid cuts in NASA's 2013 budget, "the planetary science program has been cut disproportionately .... With this budget, there will be no more flagship missions, no more fantastic voyages of discovery in deep space."  I am a child of the space age.  I was 10 years old when Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite, was launched into orbit, setting off the space race between the US and the USSR.  I was 12 when President John F. Kennedy delivered the thrilling speech in which he boldly declared that we would have a man on the moon before the end of the decade (1960s).  I was 14 when Alan Shepard became the first American in space, and  15 when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, both as part of Project Mercury.  My youth, and the world I grew into, was shaped by the exploration of space.

Through the triumphs and tragedies of the Gemini and Apollo programs, the Space Shuttle program, and all the legendary unmanned space missions which explore individual planets of our solar system, and on into deep space (think Pioneer and Voyager), not to mention the stunning achievements of our space telescopes .... through them all, we have kept alive the human spirit of exploration and discovery.  And now all that is to be put on indefinite pause by a few bean counters in Washington?  This is tragic.  

As the US relinquishes its ascendant role in space, other entities step into the void ~ the European Space Agency, China, and individual/corporate programs.  It seems a shame that the national dream embodied in NASA is being allowed to drift away, to be replaced by the warped priorities of the wealthy reactionary few who now control our government.  Instead of visionary goals, we now have outsourcing and corporate welfare.  Bill Moyers addressed this very theme in his most recent Moyers and Company commentary.  

So what is the solution to derailed values and a gridlocked government?  Substantive election reform for starters ~ corruption becomes self-perpetuating when only the wealthy can afford to run for public office.  Further, I suggest that we revise our assumptions about the kind of experience required to govern.  Nearly all those elected to office are lawyers or businessmen.  John Allen Paulos writes in the NYTimes that the United States could learn from the example of other developed and developing nations, which "benefit from the participation and example of more scientists in government."  Think about it.  Those whose training and temperament is most inclined to critical thought and a dispassionate weighing of new ideas, those whose understanding of the scientific method guides their decisions, are in an excellent position to transcend petty politics and demagoguery.  

Paulos notes that "Among the 435 members of the House, for example, there are one physicist, one chemist, one microbiologist, six engineers, and nearly two dozen representatives with medical training.  The case of doctors and the body politic is telling.  Everyone knows roughly what doctors do, and so those with medical backgrounds escape the anti-intellectual charge of irrelevance often thrown at those in the hard sciences .... For complex historical reasons, Americans have long privately dismissed scientists and mathematicians as impractical and elitist, even when publicly paying lip service to them.

"One reason is that an abstract, scientific approach to problems and issues often leads to conclusions that are at odds with religious and cultural beliefs, and scientists are sometimes tone-deaf to the social environment in which they state their conclusions.  A more politically sensitive approach to problems and issues, on the other hand, often leads to positions that simply don't jibe with the facts, no matter how delicately phrased.

"Politicians, whose job is in many ways more difficult than that of scientists, naturally try to sway their disparate constituencies, but the prevailing celebrity-infatuated, money-driven culture and their personal ambitions often lead them to employ rhetorical tricks rather than logical arguments.

"Skepticism enjoins scientists ~ in fact all of us ~ to suspend belief until strong evidence is forthcoming, but this tentativeness is no match for the certainties of ideologues, and seems to suggest to many the absurd idea that all opinions are equally valid." 

To clarify ~ everyone has a right to his/her opinion.  But many opinions are founded in myth and rumor, with no sound evidence to back them.  Therefor not all opinions are equally valid.  And who better than a trained scientist (or someone equally devoted to critical thinking) to sort out evidence from smoke-and-mirrors?  With more scientists and fewer lawyers and lobbyists in Washington, we would be more likely to engage in civil discourse, factual inquiry, and the pursuit of knowledge to further social programs which benefit the people .... and more likely to discover a resistance to the vagaries of ideology and ignorance.

So says this child of space exploration.