Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best Movie -- Maybe, Scientifically Realistic -- No Way in Hell

Mark declared Gravity to be 2013's best movie, and I liked it. But I couldn't just let the idea that it was scientifically accurate stand unchallenged. But Gravity is not the only Hollywood movie to fall into that trap.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

While Gravity was visually impressive, it was not scientifically realistic. There are a zillion things wrong with it that others have pointed out (like, why the hell is a medical doctor swapping circuit boards out of a space telescope?), but I'll just mention the ones that struck me.

First, all the shuttles have been decommissioned, which means that the whole movie takes place in an alternate reality. There are no plans for future shuttles and Hubble will deorbit by 2021.

Second, the Hubble Space Telescope, which Bullock and Clooney were working on, is not in the same orbit as the International Space Station. Hubble's orbit is nearly circular at 559 km (inclination 28 degrees), while the ISS's perigee and apogee are 413km x 420km (inclination 51 degrees). (Even in an alternate reality the Hubble and the ISS would be in separate orbits because you don't want them to collide or the ISS to interfere with the Hubble's sight lines.)

That means it would take many hours if not days to travel from Hubble to ISS, even with the space shuttle. It would be impossible for Clooney's backpack to move two people from Hubble's orbit to the ISS's orbit in the time allotted, because the delta-V (change in velocity) required would use far more reaction mass than could be stored in the small backpack (assuming typical gas jets and not some super-powered plasma rocket pack).

Exactly how far apart are we talking about?

The circumference of the Hubble orbit is about 25,000 miles, while the circumference of the ISS's orbit is a few hundred miles less. Hubble and the ISS are basically randomly located along those orbits, as far as 12,000 miles away. They're not orbiting at the same speed (ISS is going about 17,100 mph, while Hubble is going maybe 50 mph slower). Also, they're not orbiting in the same plane: the ISS's orbit takes it as far north as London and almost as far south as Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. The Hubble's orbit takes it as far north as Orlando, Florida, and as far south as Johannesburg, South Africa.

That means Hubble and ISS will almost never be anywhere near each other. On extremely rare occasions they might pass within a few hundred miles, whizzing by at a relative speed of hundreds of miles an hour. But even if Clooney and Bullock lucked out, they still wouldn't have enough fuel to change orbits in time, since they had only minutes of oxygen.

Clooney's jetting from Hubble to the ISS is equivalent to jumping out of an airplane flying from London to Tierra del Fuego and parachuting over to a plane flying from Orlando to Johannesburg. Their paths might intersect, but the odds they'd be anywhere near each other at any random moment is nil.

The same thing is true for a future Chinese space station: it cannot be in the same orbit as the ISS because they would eventually collide. They would be nowhere near each other by design. For all the same reasons of orbital mechanics it's impossible for Bullock to go from the damaged ISS to a Chinese station in the time allotted.

It's reasonable that Bullock would be trained to read Russian and land a Soyuz spacecraft, but she simply wouldn't know enough to deorbit a Chinese lander -- it's a completely different design, and she obviously didn't read Chinese, and you can't just make wild guesses when landing spacecraft.

When Clooney and Bullock get to the ISS she gets hung up in the parachute cords from the Soyuz lander. Clooney is still hanging on to her. At this point Clooney detaches himself to "save" her and sacrifices his own life.

This is the absolutely stupidest thing about this movie. This sacrifice is totally unnecessary. They tried to make it seem that Clooney was somehow weighing Bullock down, and letting go would allow her to get back "up."

But this is space. When the chute cords became taut the two of them would stop. They might even be jerked back towards the station from the elasticity, and they would at least have been able to get themselves back to the station by yanking on the chute cords to get themselves moving back towards the station (they're weightless -- it would take almost no force to get going). Even if they were rotating around the station like a lasso around a cowboy's head (which they weren't -- they were just "dangling" from the station looking down at earth) they'd be able to climb up the cords.

The people who wrote this script either have no understanding of the conditions in space, or they thought they had to dumb reality down for the audience. But there's no reason for this: what matters in the movie are the visuals and the human emotions. All the picky details are irrelevant to the human drama -- you can simply arrange those details to stay true to the realities of space travel, without damaging the story line.

For example: there's no need for Hubble or the shuttle. Clooney and Bullock could be on a spacewalk on the ISS to deploy a medical experiment, like, say, one she developed to help kids who suffer from whatever killed her daughter. While she's wrapping things up, Clooney is farting around with his jet pack. Quoting one of Newton's laws (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction), he shows all the kids on earth how throwing a wrench (on a long tether) propels him in the opposite direction.

Then catastrophe hits: space junk from a blown-up satellite hits the station, it starts rotating like crazy, casting Bullock away. The American Orion spacecraft is clobbered by debris, and the old Russian Soyuz breaks free, spinning away from the station. Debris hits Bullock's O2 tank, leaving her with a small emergency supply of only a few minutes. Clooney goes after her. He catches up to her and slows her down, stopping her nauseating spinning. The rocket pack is exhausted. Now they're just hanging there, a mile away from the dying station, with no way to get back.

They're both dead, right?

But no, Clooney is a brilliant astronaut: for every action there's an equal and opposite reaction, remember? He lines her up perfectly between him and the station, plants his feet squarely on her back and gives her a big kick toward the station -- sending himself out into the void. This is a sacrifice based on a basic principle of physics that everyone has heard of, which he just demonstrated.

Bullock barely makes it back to the station, gets in, sees weightless doodads spinning around, explosions, deadly perils and fancy special effects. She makes it to the Orion and finds out that debris has cracked the window: the lander is no longer airtight, and it can't possibly reenter the earth's atmosphere.

She's dead, right?

But no. Looking out the cracked window she sees a glinting -- the old Russian Soyuz lander is slowly spinning as it gets further and further from the station. Now she's got to figure out how jury-rig the damaged Orion to reach the Soyuz that she desperately hopes is still functional, before the ISS passes through the debris field on the next orbit, less than 60 minutes from now. She can even use the fire extinguisher gimmick to get from the damaged Orion to the (hopefully) undamaged Soyuz because it's too risky to let the two spacecraft get too close to each other. When she finally makes it to the Soyuz she can barely remember enough Russian to let her press the right buttons (does "старт" mean what she thinks it means?).

Pretty much all the same things can happen, credulity need not be strained, characters are developed, and to top it all off it's a cheaper movie to produce because you only have to generate effects for trashing one space station instead of two.

A real space accident happened with Apollo 13, and Hollywood even made a pretty good movie out of it. That movie hewed closely to the facts and didn't lose any emotional punch because of it.

So, why does any of this matter? Fiction is about character. Details matter because pointless sacrifice is simple suicide. It's out of character for a brilliant and tough astronaut like the one Clooney portrays to give his life up for nothing, not the least because after he's dead he can do nothing to protect Bullock: dead heroes help no one.

Hollywood so often falls into the trap of taking a harrowing situation and turning the excitement level up to 11, when 10 will do just fine. There's no need for movies to force-feed us stupid stuff, when the right stuff is just as easy to make.

Best of 2013: Film

The Best Film of 2013 was Gravity. A stunning film on a number of levels but the one that sticks with me is how scientifically real it was. No sound in space so they compensated with music. Bullock was magnificent in what will hopefully be the beginning of more strong roles like this for women.

This was the first trailer I saw. I nearly shat myself...


Best of 2013: Television

The best television series of 2013 was Boardwalk Empire. This show just keeps getting better and better. The writing is fantastic but it's really the cast that sends this show into the stratosphere. Michael Stuhlbarg as Arnold Rothstein is my fave but I like him in everything. Michael Shannon plays the most disturbed character I have ever seen on TV. Michael Kenneth Williams is simply a national treasure. And Buscemi is a master! Every episode is so intense that my palms sweat with each new chapter.

Here is the trailer for the latest season.


Best of 2013: Music

The best album of 2013 belongs to Fremantle, Western Australia’s San Cisco. Much of their music was released late last year but they didn’t secure a record deal here until early this year. I have played this disc so much that it is nearly worn out. My 14 year old daughter loves it and can’t get enough of all the catchy pop hooks and down under bliss. Parts of it remind me of the 80s but yet it still sounds very fresh. I’d urge you to check out all their EPs as they have many tracks not on the album.

 Here is the track that helped them get a US record deal.

Oh, I See

Sarah Palin: MSNBC ‘despicable’

When the Left is outraged about something like Phil Robertson, they are infringing free speech and hampering freedom. But when the Right is outraged about something, well, then it's OK, I guess.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Amazingly, There's a Disease that Bloodletting Cures!

My brother-in-law recently came home for a family gathering and stayed at our house. He was sick as a dog with the flu, and during the gathering he dropped a bombshell: he has hemochromatosis, and urged his brothers and sisters to get tested for it.

Hemochromatosis is a genetic disease, more common in northern Europeans, especially among the Irish, affecting as much as 0.5% of the white population in the United States (with a 1 in 8 or 10 chance for carriers of the genetic mutation). Sometimes called the Irish Disease or the Celtic Curse, hemochromatosis causes iron to concentrate in the joints, liver, endocrine system, heart and pancreas. This can cause arthritis, diabetes, cirrhosis, testicular failure and heart problems.

It affects men more than women, at least until menopause. That means there's actually a good thing about having periods if you have this disease.

Hemochromatosis can also cause your skin to turn a bronze color, which may mean that John Boehner has a medical problem, instead of a fixation on tanning beds.

The interesting thing about the disease is the treatment: bloodletting! Bloodletting is usually scorned as an egregious example of foolish medical treatments: George Washington's doctors killed him by bleeding him of almost a gallon of blood in 10 hours. Of course, he had a throat infection, so his doctors were idiots.

Phlebotomy (as it's now called) is still the best treatment for hemochromatosis. Even better, that blood isn't simply wasted nowadays: it can be donated to others.

Bloodletting might have also had a few other positive effects. It can lower blood pressure by reducing volume, and it can reduce fluid overload in heart failure. For the most part, however, it was no better than a placebo, and probably hurt many more people than it helped, not least of all because of the terrible infections you can get from opening a vein with unsterilized instruments.

The lesson to be learned is that all of us are different: a treatment that works wonders for one person can be deadly for another. That goes for bloodletting, as well as chemotherapy, blood pressure and other medications, as well as diets and even vitamins.

In medicine one size does not fit all.

Is Looking into the Genetic Crystal Ball Worth It?

Last month the FDA ordered 23andMe to stop selling their genetic testing kit, saying that the company had not proved the effectiveness of their tests.

Before that order went into effect, Kara Peikoff, decided to check out how reliable these tests were. She had her DNA tested by three different companies, and reported on the results in The New York Times. It turns out these tests are basically worthless. They provided contradictory results for some diseases they tested for, and textual interpretations of the results differed markedly: one company said her risk for type 2 diabetes was "medium" at 10.3%, while another company company said it was "decreased" at 15.7%.

These tests claim they check for hundreds of diseases, but:
There are only 23 diseases that start in adulthood, can be treated, and for which highly predictive tests exist. All are rare, with hereditary breast cancer the most common. “A small percentage of people who get tested will get useful information,” Dr. Klitzman said. “But for most people, the results are not clinically useful, and they may be misleading or confusing.”
That makes these tests worse than worthless, and actually harmful. Which means they're just ripping their customers off.

What makes more sense, if you're worried about a genetic predisposition to a particular disease that runs in your family, is to get tested for that disease. That's what Angelina Jolie did: she decided to have a preventive mastectomy after genetic testing showed she was likely to develop breast cancer.

And if there's a disease that you may get that has no effective cure or for which there are no preventive measures (such as Parkinson's), you may not wish to be tested at all. It really depends on what kind of personality you have. If you would feel less stressed by knowing what your chances are, even if you knew it was likely, you should consider testing. But if you'd feel that the angel of death was standing over you for the rest of your life, you may well be happier not knowing.

At this point, these tests are woefully inaccurate because they examine only an extremely small number of SNPs (segments of DNA). Until the cost of whole-genome sequencing drops to an affordable level, these tests are a total waste of money.

As one of the doctors for The Times article said:
[The tests] may be interesting as a kind of entertainment, but do not take them seriously yet in driving your health care or your lifestyle. If you want to spend money wisely to protect your health and you have a few hundred dollars, buy a scale, stand on it, and act accordingly.

Make A Man Out of Him-Buy Him A Gun!

The Connecticut state police have released everything they have on the Sandy Hook shooting and it's not just disturbing. It's shovel to the head stunning how many fucking morons there were in his life that they didn't notice he was going to do this. This includes the media who keep wondering what his motive was. How about he was a fucking psycho and his mom was a complete idiot in allowing him access to guns?

Check out some of the information that was released.

In a section of the book labeled "Granny's Clubhouse of Happy Children," typed as dialogue from an imaginary television show, Granny and her son, "Bobolicious," terrorize a group of children. In one episode, Bobolicious tells the children they're going to play a game of "Hide and go die." Granny uses her "rifle cane" to kill people at a bank, hockey game and Marine boot camp. She also goes back in time and murders the four Beatles, according to a police synopsis.

Hey, someone get this kid a gun so he can straighten himself out. He needs to understand that his 2nd amendment right shall not be infringed! Time to make a man out of him!! Better hurry, the gubmint is a comin' to take those guns away...

The book also contains several chapters with the adventures of "Dora the Beserker" and her monkey, "Shoes" — a clear knockoff of the popular children's show "Dora the Explorer." When Granny asks Dora to assassinate a soldier, she replies: "I like hurting people ... Especially children." In the same episode, Dora sends "Swiper the Raccoon" into a day care center to distract the children, then enters and says, "Let's hurt children."

Even after this, his mother thought it would be just fine to get him a gun for Christmas. So, I have to wonder, how many of these morons are helping out the next school shooter? Maybe they'll have to learn their lesson the way Nancy Lanza did.

The fact that we have to put up with these Neanderthals given that it's the 21st century is beyond frustrating. All I can say after reading all of this is they better start praying over their arsenal today that no one I love is hurt because of their fucking cult. Even the slightest whiff of an issue in my circle of life and they will be living in hell for their rest of their floppy titted days.

If they think they have problems now, wait until this thousand ton force of nature takes their fucked up and quite literally death causing ideology and shoves it straight up their paranoid and psychotic fat asses.

Now What?

Issa on defense over Benghazi statements

On Sunday, “Meet the Press” host David Gregory asked Issa to respond to The Times story, which was published online Saturday. The story also said the Benghazi attacks were “fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.”

Here is the full story from the New York Times. I wonder if there will be any retractions and mea culpas from the right wing blogsphere (I'm waiting, Kevin). After all, their investigative abilities and infrastructure is ever bit as extensive as the Times, right? Once again, never buy into right wing hysteria and witch hunts. Invariably, they are just fucking wrong.

And the bubble continues to contract..


I love how every photo of the president these days is some variation of this one.

Liberal media my ass!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Quite Popular

Pope Francis is quite popular, as in, sky high approval ratings. A whopping 88 percent of American Catholics highly approve of Pope Francis. Among the American people as a whole, his approval rating stands at an incredible 75 percent.

So even though conservatives have made the pontiff the newest target of their hatred, Americans overwhelmingly side with him. This suggests that even many conservatives love the Pope despite what right-wing leaders think. After all, it’s unlikely that these numbers are composed only of those who lean liberal.

Man, that's a whole lot of "fake" Christians!

Simple Math

Check out this piece on how Utah is set to end homelessness. The answer?

Government spending.

Utah has reduced its rate of chronic homelessness by 78 percent over the past eight years, moving 2000 people off the street and putting the state on track to eradicate homelessness altogether by 2015. How’d they do it? The state is giving away apartments, no strings attached. In 2005, Utah calculated the annual cost of E.R. visits and jail stays for an average homeless person was $16,670, while the cost of providing an apartment and social worker would be $11,000. Each participant works with a caseworker to become self-sufficient, but if they fail, they still get to keep their apartment.

Huh. Whouda thunk it? Simple math...

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Uh Oh

Tom Steyer may be liberals' answer to the Koch brothers

For years, liberals have fretted about the power of ultrawealthy people determined to use their billions to advance their political views. Charles and David Koch, in particular, have ranked high in the demonology of the American left. But in Steyer, liberals have a billionaire on their side. Like the Kochs, he is building a vast political network and seizing opportunities provided by loose campaign finance rules to insert himself into elections nationwide. In direct contrast to them, he has made opposition to fossil fuels and the campaign against global warming the center of his activism.

And he's much younger than the Kochs, now in their 80s.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Can't Private Industry Get Anything Right?

A couple of weeks ago Target's point of sale terminals were attacked by hackers, who stole the credit card and PIN numbers of as many as 40 million customers. Target isn't the only company to have this problem; earlier this month JPMorgan Chase admitted half a million card users' data were stolen. That was more than two months after they found out, and that was two months after it happened. The same thing happened to Sony in 2011.

People who ordered gifts weeks before Christmas were disappointed when both UPS and FedEx failed to deliver on the promised dates:
Mr. Yslas said that he ordered the gift from Chef Uniforms early in the month, and that it was shipped on Dec. 14, with an estimated delivery of Dec. 19. But on Dec. 19, U.P.S. changed the estimated delivery date to Dec. 23. The package arrived in Fort Worth on Dec. 22, and U.P.S. changed the estimated arrival to Dec. 24. On Dec. 23, U.P.S. pushed that to Dec. 26. Mr. Yslas said he had complained to U.P.S.
(Meanwhile, the US Post Office began making Sunday deliveries for

Yesterday Delta Airlines' website was so screwed up that thousands of people were getting round-trip tickets to Hawaii for eighty-six bucks.

Curiously, the folks who have been complaining about how the website problems prove that government can't get anything right are silent about these private industry screwups.

They also forget that a private company, CGI group of Montreal, is behind the website. The company's mistakes have not been limited to the federal website; they also did the work on the Massachusetts and Vermont health care websites. Those states are withholding payment from CGI Group because of numerous problems.

There's nothing intrinsically different between government and corporate bureaucracies. They're all run by human beings who make the same kinds of mistakes for the same reasons. The main difference is that we control government through the power of the ballot, while private industry can keep their dirty little secrets behind closed doors as long as they can buy off or threaten people into silence with lawsuits. So while it may seem government is less competent than private industry, the fact is that private industry is simply better at keeping secrets: just ask the NSA.

Some people seem to think that the healthcare foul-up is due to rank government incompetence, while data breaches are concentrated attacks committed by brilliant hackers. Target isn't saying how that credit card data was stolen, but most data breaches are due to rank incompetence: someone puts an unencrypted file on a web server and forgets it there, or loses a laptop with thousands of medical records, or doesn't upgrade to the latest version of the operating system, or visits a porn site and gets infected with malware that steals their password, and so on.

Ultimately, the health care website is just a front-end that allows consumers to make apples-to-apples comparisons between equivalent health insurance plans offered by private industry. That's all it is.

To sell it the president just needs to (using a word that's so popular with Republicans these days) "rebrand" it with buzzwords conservatives like: the new health care system is a public-private partnership that sets up a marketplace where standards-based insurance plans engage in healthy competition, allowing consumer choice. As with charter schools, some consumers get vouchers to help pay for private industry health plans. The system encourages personal responsibility and prevents freeloaders and takers from dragging the whole system down.

Oh, and if he cussed out some teachers, called a few women sluts, slammed the work ethic of blacks, and insulted the intelligence of Latinos that would seal the deal.

The Good Guy With A Gun Lie

Great piece in last Sunday's Times on mental health and guns. It sadly shows how the system we currently have is failing.

The police seized the firearms, as well as seven high-capacity magazines, but Mr. Russo, 55, was eventually allowed to return to the trailer in Middletown where he lives alone. In an interview there recently, he denied that he had schizophrenia but said he was taking his medication now — though only “the smallest dose,” because he is forced to. His hospitalization, he explained, stemmed from a misunderstanding: Seeking a message from God on whether to dissociate himself from his family, he had stabbed a basketball and waited for it to reinflate itself. When it did, he told relatives they would not be seeing him again, prompting them to call the police. 

As for his guns, Mr. Russo is scheduled to get them back in the spring, as mandated by Connecticut law.

If our current laws worked, Mr. Russo should never be allowed to possess a gun again.

The other takeaway from this piece is this...

It was the shock of a potentially avoidable tragedy that pushed Indiana lawmakers to act. Reports of gunfire brought Officer Timothy Laird to Indianapolis’s south side one night in August 2004. Kenneth C. Anderson, a schizophrenic man who the police later learned had just killed his mother in her home, was stalking the block with an SKS assault rifle and two handguns. As Officer Laird stepped from his patrol car, he was fatally shot. Four other officers were wounded before one of them shot and killed Mr. Anderson.

Good guys with guns get shot ever year. Criminals are not deterred by them. Here are the latest statistics. That's 31 deaths last year. Recall these gun myths as well which include the statistics like this one.

Chances that a shooting at an ER involves guns taken from guards: 1 in 5

So, the notion that there are Jack Bauers and John McLanes in waiting out there to save the day is the product of the Gun Cult's hubris filled video game like fantasy. We don't need bloviating assholes in our schools with firearms. Considering they are belligerent adolescents who likely spend too much time playing their X Boxes and Play Stations, it makes perfect sense that they think we live in a fictional reality.

As Adam Lanza showed us, that's a pretty dangerous thing to believe.


Sarah Palin: I didn’t read ‘Duck Dynasty’ interview

So, all the bitching and she didn't even read it? Still the ignorant and belligerent adolescent, I guess. Here is the full interview with Phil Robertson from GQ for those of you who read.

I'm still wondering how "immunity from dumb ass shit I say filled with hate, anger and bigotry" got translated into a first amendment issue. I'm also wondering why the outrage at outrage doesn't work both ways. Where's the outrage about the fictional War on Christmas?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Hitting Close To Home

I found this review of Chris Faraone’s latest book, I Killed Breitbart, to really hit home on the familiarity level. Internet comments sections are certainly full of "weirdos, hucksters, and rubes who comprise some of the loudest corners of our national conversation." The "barbaric buffoonery of online discourse" does indeed color far too many comments sections filled with people who think they are actually making a difference. Ah well...

No Need To Confess

Paul Ellis has a great essay on why there is no need to confess your sins in order to be saved. He lists 12 main reasons and each one is well sourced with Biblical verse. Make sure you read the sub links to each one as well.

Nikto had a comment recently that I wanted to bring out front in its entirety as it relates to this post. He was replying to a comment that Not My Name made regarding a verse from the Bible.

Your description of that passage is exactly why it makes little sense to dwell on every little nuance in the bible. It doesn't appear to have been written down until centuries after the events occurred. There were numerous copies that disagree with each other. Councils like that in Nicaea picked and chose which books to include in or exclude from the bible, which passages in those books to include or exclude. They made those decisions for political and social reasons as much as theological ones. 

In this day and age most every passage is interpreted differently by one Christian sect or the other, again to suit their particular political or social agenda. The end result is that there is no way for any human alive today to claim to have any knowledge whatsoever what the true word of the lord can possibly be. 

That means that the hundreds of Christian sects claiming to be the sole purveyors of the word of god are misled at best or lying at worst. All of them are guilty of the greatest hubris, thinking that they alone can possibly speak for god. If one sect happens to get everything right, how can we meager humans possibly decide which one that is? 

If it's impossible for us to pick the one true sect of Christianity, what does that say about a god who condemns us to eternal damnation for failing to adhere to a set of rules that he has completely failed to lay out clearly and concisely? The federal government manages to publish a new set of tax forms every year; why can't the creator of the universe be bothered to send down a new set of stone tablets every century or so? 

Any rational person must therefore come to one of two conclusions: either all religion is hogwash, or the exact details and rules are irrelevant. In either case, the only thing we can do is make a good-faith effort to be moral and ethical, and exercise humility. 

Condemning others for failing to abide by your particular set of religious dictates is the height of arrogance. You can pick the bible apart all you want to justify your dogmas, but you have no authority to impose your beliefs on others. If someone tries to do that -- be they Osama bin Laden, Ayatollah Khamenei, Patriarch Kirill 1, David Koresh, Joe Smith, Pat Robertson, or Charles Taze Russell -- you know they're either trying to steal your money or gain political power. 

Interestingly, Pope Francis has in recent days spoken with much less hubris than previous popes. Whether that will result in major changes in the Catholic Church remains to be seen, but it is a hopeful sign.


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Companies that Don't Clean Up After Themselves

Remember the market, that perfectly efficient generator of wealth and goodness that can do no wrong? Well, it ain't working very well for natural gas. So many goombahs have jumped into the fracking boom that the price of gas has collapsed. Many drillers have gone bust, leaving private property owners, states and the Bureau of Land Management to clean up their messes.

Case in point: Wyoming. According to a story in The New York Times:
Hundreds of abandoned drilling wells dot eastern Wyoming like sagebrush, vestiges of a natural gas boom that has been drying up in recent years as prices have plummeted.

The companies that once operated the wells have all but vanished into the prairie, many seeking bankruptcy protection and unable to pay the cost of reclaiming the land they leased. Recent estimates have put the number of abandoned drilling operations in Wyoming at more than 1,200, and state officials said several thousand more might soon be orphaned by their operators [2,300 are idle but have not been abandoned].
Wyoming officials are now trying to address the problem amid concerns from landowners that the wells could contaminate groundwater and are a blight on the land.
When these companies declare bankruptcy the weasels who promised to clean up after themselves disappear into the wind, leaving the local people to live with toxic waste and water that burns when it comes out of their wells. In Wyoming drillers pay a paltry fixed amount to cover cleanup costs, regardless of how many wells they drill: it's nowhere near the amount needed to pay for all the wells the drillers have abandoned.

Wyoming is now on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs. In a few years states like North Dakota that are raking in cash now will be digging themselves out of another toxic mess. But there's another similar threat appearing in Minnesota, one that should be nipped in the bud before it festers.

PolyMet Mining is a newly formed Swiss-backed Canadian company set up to exploit copper and nickel deposits in northern Minnesota, near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). The metals are bound into sulfide rocks in very low concentrations: less than half a percent. The metals are mined by grinding up the rock in huge open pits and processing it to extract the metals, freeing sulfides in the process. Each ton of rock will produce only a few pounds of copper or nickel.

PolyMet is promising that they'll provide a couple of hundred local jobs for 20 years. However, the tailings from these mines will leach toxins like sulfuric acid and arsenic for the next 500 years. If these wastes run off into the lakes, streams and rivers in the area, it would decimate wildlife in the area, making the BWCA unusable. If the runoff reaches Lake Superior, it will kill fish and wildlife there as well.

PolyMet has promised to provide ongoing mitigation for the next five centuries. But as we've seen, companies simply cannot be trusted to make those kinds of promises, for even five, 10 or 20 years. Anyone promising to clean up the site for 500 years is simply lying. The foreign owners of the company don't give a damn about what happens to the land or the people after they've extracted the precious metals; the subsidiary of the international monolith that owns PolyMet will simply declare bankruptcy when the metals are all gone and walk away leaving a horrible, expensive mess.

Northern Minnesota already has already gone through this before: in 1960s and '70s Reserve Mining Company dumped tons of taconite tailings from their iron mining operations into Lake Superior every minute, polluting the lake with carcinogenic asbestos fibers. Lake Superior provides drinking water for cities on the lake. Miners also got mesothelioma from the asbestos. Reserve Mining was sued multiple times and declared bankruptcy in 1986.

The underlying problem with resources like natural gas, crude oil, iron, copper and nickel is that the price doesn't depend on how much it costs to clean up the mess that extracting them produces: it depends on much customers are willing to pay. The cost of extraction, cleanup and pollution mitigation varies wildly depending on the local geology and climate. A copper mine in a Utah desert isn't going to have the same pollution mitigation costs as a copper mine in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. But now that is that we've exhausted all the deposits where mining and mitigation are cheap we're looking to places where it's more expensive and more dangerous.

Just as not every high-school football player can expect to play in the NFL, not every copper and nickel deposit can be mined at an acceptable economical and ecological cost. Reflexively "Saying "Not in My Backyard" is just as bad as plunging ahead with every hare-brained scheme a foreign bamboozler comes up with.

Northern Minnesota is just too wet to safely exploit low-concentration metal deposits with current technology. The BWCA provides thousands of permanent jobs in tourism and recreation: it makes no sense to risk the loss of those jobs when -- not if -- PolyMet fails to live up to its word to keep the lakes and steams clean.

Anyway, why do we need so much copper and nickel in the first place? Electronics: everyone is buying a new smartphone and a new tablet every year. This suggests a more reasonable alternative: instead of trashing pristine places like the BWCA, why aren't we building these devices so that their component metals can be efficiently recycled, rather than just dumped in landfills?

That would make the phones cost more. But shouldn't the gluttonous people who cause a problem pay for its solution, rather than dumping all the environmental cleanup costs on the people who happen to live near the mines?

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Meaning of the Bible

A reader sent me this link to use as "ammunition" against my regular commenters. I also found this page within the site that illustrates many of the contradictions, by category, contained in the Bible.  My own research has already led me to address many of these concerns for my own journey of faith so there isn't much new here but I wanted to have a thread up on the importance of looking at everything written in the Bible and not just one or two passages.

I'm sure I'll disappoint the reader who sent me this link because I think he was under the impression that I would reject the Bible as a result of all these contradictions. Not gonna happen. But what this site does show is that it's impossible to believe and live by every single word in the Bible without being in dichotomy. It was written by men who were not as advanced as we are on a number of different cultural levels.

So, a thinking person has to recognize what was right for their times and what is right for today...what has been lost in translation from Aramaic to Greek to English and what has not...what was metaphor and hyperbole what is fundamental and basic. Coming to grips with these contradictions is very hard for some Christians. In the final analysis, though, it doesn't matter if you accept Jesus as your savior and do your best to live by His teachings. That's how I can cast many of these contradictions aside. Once you figure out what is backwards thinking and what is forward thinking, it's quite easy to accomplish.

Celebrating his birth tomorrow means being filled with the light of love, peace, and hope and rejecting anger, hate, fear, and guilt.

Rewriting the Bible

Christmas always brings out the worst in conservatives and this story really drives that home (as well as explaining recent religious discussions in comments).

Don’t know Aramaic, Hebrew or ancient Greek? Not a problem. What they are looking for is not exactly egghead scholarship, but a knack for using words they've read in the Wall Street Journal. They have a list of promising candidates on their website— words like capitalism, work ethic, death penalty, anticompetitive, elitism, productivity, privatize, pro-life—all of which are conspicuously missing from those socialist-inspired Bibles we’ve been reading lately. 

In the several years since their translation project was inaugurated, all of the New Testament and several books of the Old have been thoroughly revised. But lots still remains to be done. If you've got a soft spot for Leviticus, the Book of Amos, Lamentations or Numbers, they are all still available for rewrite, so get cracking!

I wonder if our resident biblical scholar is helping them out. Sounds like this is right up his ally.

Take that story where the mob surrounds a woman accused of adultery and gets ready to stone her, but Jesus intervenes and says, “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone" (John 7:53-8:11). It might have been a later addition that wasn’t in the original Gospels, according to some right-thinking, or rather right-leaning scholars. So the editors have excised this bleeding-heart favorite from the Good Book, and they've also removed Jesus’ words on the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." “The simple fact is that some of the persecutors of Jesus did know what they were doing,” Schlafly points out, proving that, “Jesus might never had said it at all.”

Yep. Sounds just like him.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas Memories

These photos are absolutely hilarious. This one is my favorite.

I get the dog but why the black baby doll?


Did You Know That the Amazing Paul Rudd Has Quietly Been Pulling Off One of the Longest Running Jokes in Late-Night History?

Sunday, December 22, 2013


Good Words

People are so obsessed with guns today and they associate any legislation with the government taking their rights away. The NRA is such a strong lobby they are like the mafia and have these politicians kissing their rings or their ass because they donate money to their campaigns. After the Sandy Hook shooting there were more people ranting about losing their guns than those who were mortified at what happened. How selfish and inconsiderate. That said a lot about today's society right there. (from a recent FB Post)


End Fucking Yesterday

Clair Davis has died.

Shot at point blank range by 18-year-old Karl Halvorsen Pierson at Arapahoe High School on December 13, Davis is another in a series of nauseating gun violence statistics. A friend of mine put it most sadly and eloquently on Facebook this morning.

Clair Davis died. She died because ANOTHER underachieving boy (and they are all BOYS) understood masculinity and power in terms of violence. The gun is being used as a pathetic shortcut to manhood.

Indeed. They are all boys and that's where the focus should be on preventing this sort of thing from happening again. Recall this post (ban hammered on HuffPo) from Peter Brown Hoffmeister.

Have you ever heard of a school shooter who’s hobbies are kayaking, rock climbing, and fly-fishing? If that seems absurd – and it does seem absurd to me – we might be onto something. I don’t think that those hobbies can create a school shooter. There’s just something abut the natural world that defuses anger. I know this because the outdoors helped saved my life. An outdoor diversion program for troubled teens started the process when I was sixteen. Camping and hiking and climbing helped me mature further as a nineteen and twenty year old. And now, as the director of a high school outdoor program, one of my student leaders said recently that “the outdoor program saves lives.” That’s not me. That’s nature. Kids need the outdoors. Help the young people. Get them outside.

More than this, parents need to engage their young sons and get them involved in the community. If they are mentally ill, they should not be allowed access to guns. If they are old enough to buy their own guns and are exhibiting warning signs of wanting to commit violence (or if they have already committed violence), call the police.

The other key thing that has to happen is we need to take school shootings out of the zeitgest. I contend that beyond the issue of mental health, guns and young men is the fact that these shootings keep happening because they are part of our "monkey see, monkey do" culture. Somehow, they have become "normal."

And that shit needs to end fucking yesterday.


A Sunday Reflection

Dear Conservative Christian,

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from you, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind him that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate.

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how to best follow them.

 a) When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord (Lev 1:9). The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

 b) I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

 c) I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev 15:19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

 d) Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?

 e) I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

 f) A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an Abomination (Lev 11:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?

 g) Lev 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

 h) Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev 19:27. How should they die?

 i) I know from Lev 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

 j) My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? (Lev 24:10-16) Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14) I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help.

Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging. Your devoted disciple and adoring fan.


Saturday, December 21, 2013


So, now we like Politifact, do we? I guess when it says things we like, we likey. When it doesn't, we don't likey, are shouty about it being liberally biased, and are all angwee and stuff. Hmm...there's a word for that and it rhymes with Schmadolessent.

For the record, I think Politifact's Lie of the Year was a fine choice. They do a great job of calling people on their bullshit regardless of what side of the aisle they are on.

Way Past Due

President Obama has given the military one year to crack down on military assaults or face stricter rules than the ones currently being proposed by Congress. I'm wondering why this didn't happen the first day he took office in 2009. His handling of this issue has been beyond poor. In my view, this is the biggest mistake of his presidency especially considering he is viewed as a champion of women's rights.

The number of assaults have gone up 30 percent on his watch and now stand at 26,000 per year. I get that he didn't want to make waves in the military community but that community ends with him at the top. He's the commander in chief so he should have been cracking skulls and firing people from day fucking one. I'm sorry, but even with this deadline, he still has completely failed on this issue.

Alternate Universe

I'm looking for Spock with a goatee this morning. Why?

In Utah, judge's ruling ignites same-sex marriage frenzy

Gay marriage is legal now in Utah? UTAH?!!! The most conservative state in the country? Man, the good news just keeps rolling in...

Friday, December 20, 2013

Sully Weighs In

Andrew Sullivan has weighed in on the Phil Robertson flap with his usual fantastic insight. This is a fascinating glimpse into the fundamentalist mind.

You’ll notice that, for the fundamentalist, all sin – when it comes down to it - starts with sex. This sexual obsession, as the Pope has rightly diagnosed it, is a mark of neurotic fundamentalism in Islam and Judaism as well as Christianity. And if all sin is rooted in sex, then the homosexual becomes the most depraved and evil individual in the cosmos. So you get this classic statement about sin: “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there.”

The reason for this has to do with their own hangups about sex. They are actually the ones obsessed with it, not the ones with which they act as God's personal judges. It makes sense when you think about it because without the threat of hellfire they would lose control of themselves and do God knows what.

This emphasis is absolutely not orthodox Christianity. There is nothing primary about sexual sin as such in Christian doctrine. It sure can be powerfully sinful – but it’s not where sin starts. And to posit gay people as the true source of all moral corruption is to use eliminationist rhetoric and demonizing logic to soften up a small minority of people for exclusion, marginalization and, at some point, violence. 

Indeed. To gauge whether or not this is a valid point, simply read the Bible. Compare what sort of emphasis is given to sex as opposed to helping out your fellow man or loving one another despite human failings. 

He simply assumes that all men must be heterosexual, and that making themselves have sex with another man must be so horrifying it mystifies him. It isn’t logical if it were a choice for a straight guy. But it isn’t. All we’re seeing here is the effect of cultural isolation. The only thing I find objectionable about it – and it is objectionable – is the reduction of gay people and our relationships to sex acts. Mr Robertson would not be happy – indeed, rightly be extremely offended – if I reduced his entire family life and marriage to sex with a vagina.

For the fundamentalist, being gay is all about the sex because that's what they are obsessed with...likely because they themselves desire it so much in some way or another. I wonder how many of them have ever thought about the gay people who live and love together in many other ways besides sex. They probably aren't friends with any gay people so, as is usually the case, they are simply ignorant.

The GOP Conundrum

This recent exchange illustrates the conundrum the GOP faces next year in the elections.

Albright doesn’t want the Affordable Care Act repealed, which Stutzman and the Republican-controlled House have voted to do numerous times. Albright told his congressman that his monthly payment for family health coverage will drop from $3,800 to $1,700 by enrolling in a plan offered through the much-maligned law. 

Albright said most of his dozen employees also are enrolling in Affordable Care Act plans and will have coverage for the first time. “If the Republican Party thinks they’re going to kill Obamacare, you guys need to realize that those nine people that I add on, are they going to vote Republican ever again if you take their health care from them?” 

Stutzman responded: “No, probably not.”

If I were in charge of strategy for the GOP in the 2014 elections, I would find out how many voters in those key swing districts and states are signing up for health care for the first time and compare that number to how many voters are being "screwed over by Obamacare." 


US Economy Expands at 4.1 Percent Rate

So much for the apocalypse. How much longer will the bubble hold?

Josh and Jake: The Gun Kids

I had two students walk up to me towards the end of class the other day and ask me a question.

"How do you think we should solve the problem of gun violence in this country?"

As I always do with questions like this I asked them what they would do, politely informing them that my opinion doesn't really matter. They are the ones who will be leading on the issues of the day anyway, right?

The first student, Josh, said that he would ban all guns. The second student, Jake, took issue with this and explained that his family were avid hunters and gun collectors. He spent the next few minutes convincing Josh that all guns should not be banned. I pointed Josh to Scalia's opinion in Heller and noted that banning guns in common use violates the 2nd Amendment.

Then Josh asked Jake a question.

"Shouldn't there be restrictions on who owns a gun, though?"

Jake responded in the affirmative and then went on to describe how he and his family favor universal background checks. He also demonstrated some very deep knowledge of how irresponsible people can be with guns, backing up his assertions with statistics. I was honestly quite astounded because he seemed to know more about accidental gun deaths than I did. When I noted this, he explained that his dad was an avid gun enthusiast and was pretty frustrated with how people like him were portrayed in the media. He also told me that he and his dad have had extensive discussions about why it's always young men that engage in these shooting sprees, citing a need to improve mental health in this country. Jake's dad, like any good parent, worries that his son will be alright.

So, perhaps I have been wrong in thinking that the gun community is made up of people who think like my regular commenters. In fact, it's become obvious to me, after extensive research over the last year and my own personal experiences, that the gun blogger mentality is aging and actually very far in the minority. Honestly, I don't know what I was worried about. I watched as these two young men continued their conversation in front of me and as they left when the bell rang, realizing that the assertions of gun bloggers don't really matter that much in the grand scheme of things and it won't be long now before this younger generation of more sensible people takes over. It might not even take an incident at a gun show for things to change because in 20 years or so, many of the gun bloggers will be gone and we won't have to hear anymore fantasy land nonsense about good guys with guns saving the day.

The youth of today know that John McLane and Jack Bauer aren't real.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

How Did We Miss This Part?

More on the Phil Robertson flap...

In addition to his comments about homosexuality, Robertson also spoke about race and growing up in Louisiana before the civil rights era. "I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once," he told GQ. "Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I'm with the blacks, because we're white trash. We're going across the field. ... They're singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, 'I tell you what: These doggone white people' -- not a word! "Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues," GQ quoted Robertson as saying.

Ah, antebellum myths..

The Death Knell for Electronic Voting Machines?

Though it's been more than a month since the 2103 election, the attorney general race in Virginia has only now been decided. The Republican, Mark Obenshain, has conceded to the Democrat, Mark Herring, after a recount that gave Herring a 907 vote margin.

The reason? Democratic areas use paper ballots, which provide a paper trail. Herring received more than 600 additional votes during the recount, mostly due to undervotes that the scanners did not detect originally. These undervotes usually occur when the voter doesn't fill in the oval properly, often by using an X or check mark instead of filling in the oval, circling the candidate's name, or when the ballot is wrinkled, dirty or smudged. Voter intent in these cases is easily discerned by a human reader when the machine isn't programmed to recognize non-standard marks.

Republican areas in Virginia tend to use electronic voting machines, which provide no paper trail at all. That means that there's nothing to recount, and Obenshain got almost no additional votes during the recount. Electronic ballots simply cannot be verified.

Electronic voting was heavily pushed by Republicans in the early 2000s, frequently at the behest of companies that sell electronic voting machines. It is entirely possible that George Bush won the 2004 election due to irregularities in the electronic voting machines in Ohio.

As a programmer I've always been opposed to electronic voting: it's impossible to verify a voter's intent after the ballot has been cast. User interfaces can be confusing, especially for elderly and low-vision voters. Users frequently claim that the wrong candidate was selected (still happening in 2008 and even in Virginia in 2013). Whether this is user or system error doesn't really matter. Sometimes users are unable to change their vote.

It's impossible to detect fraud with proprietary electronic systems since there is no physical paper trail. Some systems provide a "feel good" paper record to the voter: this has nothing to do with what actually gets counted. Finally, just because a user makes a selection on a screen or gets a printed slip of paper doesn't mean that selection was recorded in the computer's memory: the user cannot verify their selection was registered properly.

Paper ballots have their problems, but voters can just look at their ballot and see that their vote was registered as intended. Ultimately, humans will be able to perform a manual recount, even if the optical scanners are buggy or intentionally producing fraudulent totals.

The interesting thing about this is that Mark Obenshain knew electronic voting machines were a problem, as stated on his website:
In 2000, a member of my own party, President George W. Bush was elected by a razor-thin margin in Florida, an election ultimately confirmed by multiple recounts but certified by the Supreme Court amidst significant controversy. Subsequent elections have been similarly contentious, with partisans on both sides expressing concern about the integrity of our election process, raising concerns about registration fraud, voter fraud, and reliance on electronic voting machines that lack a voter-verified paper trail [emphasis added].
Here in Virginia, we’ve taken voter confidence seriously. We’re phasing out electronic balloting in favor of voting methods that include a paper trail, we’ve worked to create greater uniformity in election deadlines and to streamline overseas absentee balloting, and now we’re addressing legitimate concerns about the lack of safeguards at the polls themselves.
Since the early 2000s Republicans have been making it more difficult for minority, student and elderly citizens to register to vote through onerous ID requirements, all in the name of reducing "fraud." At the same time, they've been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on overpriced electronic voting systems that were technologically obsolete even before they were installed. Worse, these proprietary systems make it possible to commit completely undetectable fraud on a massive scale.

Maybe now that these electronic chickens are coming home to roost they'll see the error of their ways.

Once Again, The Adolescents

Dean Obeidallah put up a great piece after I had put up my take on the Phil Robertson flap. Much better points than I made...

Attention conservatives: you have the right to hate any group you want. Blacks, gays, Muslims, Jews, other sects of Christians, whoever you like. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has noted numerous times that the First Amendment guarantees “freedom of thought” in addition to freedoms such as religion and expression. Consequently, you can think as many hateful thoughts as you choose. 

But here’s the thing: if you voice those hateful views publicly, you will be held accountable. That’s called personal responsibility. You would think people on the right would be familiar with that concept since they idolize Ronald Reagan, who famously said, “It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.”

And words as well. But adolescents don't get this reality.

More good things...

The First Amendment does not provide you immunity. It simply means that the government can’t prevent you from expressing yourself. But once you say something, you will be called to answer for it. This is the same reason Alec Baldwin was fired last month from his MSNBC show for making gay slurs. (Despite claims from the right, Alec Baldwin was indeed criticized publicly by GLADD for his comments.) And it’s the same reason Martin Bashir was pushed out at MSNBC for his horrible comments about Sarah Palin.

Interesting to read of Palin's reaction...

Never one to miss a chance for publicity, Sarah Palin posted on Facebook: “Free speech is an endangered species. Those ‘intolerants’ hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.” (Only Palin could claim that a person who has just voiced intolerant comments like Robertson is being attacked by “intolerants.”) Of course, when Martin Bashir made despicable comments about Palin, she didn’t defend him by saying, “Free speech is an endangered species.” Nope, instead she slammed Bashir’s comments as being “vile” and “evil.” And officials at Palin’s political action committee demanded that MSNBC punish Bashir.

Again, adolescent...will they ever grow up?

I would like an answer to Obeidallah's question about the Right and their obsession with other people's anuses. Anyone?

Sowell A Go Go

If you are having a discussion with a conservative these days (at least the ones that think they are intelligent), it won't be too long before the name of Thomas Sowell comes up. I've never done a post about Sowell so this is way past due. He certainly has the credentials of a brilliant man and is highly regarded in the community of higher education but there are key problems with his core philosophy which I will illustrate below.

Dr. Sowell is an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher and author. Currently he is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution out at Stanford University. His book, A Conflict of Visions, is the work most frequently noted by conservatives as to why there is so much conflict between liberals and conservatives. To hear them proselytize about it, one would think it has as much regard as The Bible or Atlas Shrugged. Sowell's text defines two competing visions of political thought. They are summed up nicely in this table. 

There is also this excellent summation.

The Unconstrained Vision 

Sowell argues that the unconstrained vision relies heavily on the belief that human nature is essentially good. Those with an unconstrained vision distrust decentralized processes and are impatient with large institutions and systemic processes that constrain human action. They believe there is an ideal solution to every problem, and that compromise is never acceptable. Collateral damage is merely the price of moving forward on the road to perfection. Sowell often refers to them as "the self anointed." Ultimately they believe that man is morally perfectible. Because of this, they believe that there exist some people who are further along the path of moral development, have overcome self-interest and are immune to the influence of power and therefore can act as surrogate decision-makers for the rest of society. 

The Constrained Vision 

Sowell argues that the constrained vision relies heavily on belief that human nature is essentially unchanging and that man is naturally inherently self-interested, regardless of the best intentions. Those with a constrained vision prefer the systematic processes of the rule of law and experience of tradition. Compromise is essential because there are no ideal solutions, only trade-offs. Those with a constrained vision favor solid empirical evidence and time-tested structures and processes over intervention and personal experience. Ultimately, the constrained vision demands checks and balances and refuses to accept that all people could put aside their innate self-interest.

Conservatives continually assert that they are in the constrained vision column whereas liberals are in the unconstrained vision camp. Sowell himself has always been quick to point out that labels should not be applied or equated to his vision. Yet, I have to wonder...why would he set up such a dichotomy in the first place if that was not his intent? Couldn't he have saved a lot of time by simple saying "Liberals are stupidly naive and conservatives are intelligently grounded in reality?"

Our nation unfortunately has to live with Sowell's sort of hubris and bloviation every day (at least for the next seven years or so:)). Being the author of this preposterous ideology, Sowell is, of course, the most responsible. I say preposterous because, as a black man in the United States, it was the unconstrained vision that allowed him to become who he is today. Someone with Sowell's constrained vision would have ignored the injustices of civil rights and likely even slavery, dismissing them as the flawed nature of man and, oh well, there's nothing to be done about it. The constrained vision sees itself as grounded in reality yet how can equality be achieved without freedom of choice?

The biggest flaw, however, in Sowell's philosophy is that he rejects John Locke (in so many ways the original father of our country) stating that humans are naturally prone to error, are selfish and will never change. Locke believed (as do I), that people are born with the inherent right of freedom, liberty and property. From that point, the tabla rasa is filled in with an individual's unique nature and the environment in which they are socialized (both nature and nurture). Not every person is exactly the same, as Sowell posits.

The correlary between conservatives and the constrained vision is really a giant pile of crap. Their vision is so ridiculously unconstrained it's laughable. They have a utopian fantasy of the free market that solves all problems and in which people magically behave themselves without regulation. Further, they don't rely on empirical evidence on the major issues of the day. If they did, they would not have built The Church of the Climate Skeptic or be ass hats about gun violence. They are extremely loathe to compromise as is evidenced by the latest budget negotiations. Ironically and in many ways, they are the ones who are naive about human nature, thinking that the less laws there are, the better!

In contrast, I look at the unconstrained vision and don't really see much of myself at all and, again, see conservatives. Human nature is certainly malleable (we are in a constant state of evolution, after all) but not perfectible. And who gets to define who is the "strongest" and "most capable?" And what is the metric for this? One look at our leaders in Washington will illustrate that many are not the strongest or most capable. That could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you want to look at it. There is plenty of human action that is motivated by selflessness and sincerity. I am assured by many of my conservative colleagues that this is at the core of their ideology. This is especially true of Christians, right?

Not every bad thing has an explanation (poverty, war, crime) and sometimes it is best to simply try and manage the complexities. Of course, this doesn't mean that all bad things are a giant question mark (again...why have laws?...conservatives seems to always ask these days). I don't see market economies catering to a particular interest and don't think that most of them should be tailored to serve the public interest. Some of them, like health care for example, need to have more government regulation due to the inefficiencies that arise based on fundamental economics. The free market does work out in markets where there is more elasticity and many buyers and sellers.

In looking at these competing visions, one has to wonder if Sowell really thinks these things or if he is simply trying to make money in the willfully ignorant market of true believers. I think conservatives like to use him to make themselves seem smarter than they actually are. Perhaps they should take an honest look at the competing visions and reflect a little while on where they truly fall in terms of the characteristics. Then we can leave Thomas Sowell behind and engage instead in less restrictive thinking.

Grounded Duck

I knew it wouldn't be long before one of the stars of A&E's Duck Dynasty spouted off some redneck bullshit about the gays. One of the show's stars, Phil Robertson, apparently didn't get the memo that we live in a tolerant society now and recognize that the Bible is wrong about some things, including homosexuality.

In an interview with GQ, Robertson said. "It seems like, to me, a vagina - as a man - would be more desirable than a man's anus. That's just me. I'm just thinking: There's more there! She's got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I'm saying? But hey, sin: It's not logical, my man. It's just not logical." Asked what, in his mind, is sinful, Robertson replied: "Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men."

Right, because having sex with an animal is the same as two consenting adults...sheesh. A&E has suspended Robertson indefinitely as a result of these comments.

As expected, the right wing media industrial complex has rushed to his defense, citing "freedom of speech." The conundrum for them, however, is that corporations (see: Worship Immediately, no assembly required) are private entities and are free to hire and fire people based on their views. Now, if they suspended Robertson because he was white or heterosexual, then they might have cause for complaint. Or if they refused to provide him with service because he was a man, then we'd definitely have a civil rights violation on our hands. As it stands now, thought, the cries of freedom being taken away are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

I wonder if Robertson believes that women should be subservient to men as this directive is mentioned far more often than homsexuality...

What Do Women Want?

According to this book, it's SEX. And they are very hungry for it!! In what would make a great stocking stuffer this year, author Daniel Bergner writes about how our view of women is all backwards.

Bergner, and the leading sex researchers he interviews, argue that women’s sexuality is not the rational, civilized and balancing force it’s so often made out to be — that it is base, animalistic and ravenous, everything we’ve told ourselves about male sexuality. As one researcher tells Bergner of all the restrictions put on female sexuality: “Those barriers are a testament to the power of the drive itself. It’s a pretty incredible testament. Because the drive must be so strong to override all of that.”

“Women’s desire — its inherent range and innate power — is an underestimated and constrained force, even in our times, when all can seem so sexually inundated, so far beyond restriction,” he writes. “Despite the notions our culture continues to imbue, this force is not, for the most part, sparked or sustained by emotional intimacy and safety.” In fact, he argues, “one of our most comforting assumptions, soothing perhaps above all to men but clung to by both sexes, that female eros is much better made for monogamy than the male libido, is scarcely more than a fairy tale.”

I agree and my first hand experience tells me that this is certainly the case. Our society needs to throw our preconceived and male centered views of sexuality out the window. 2000+ years is more than enough, thank you very much!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What? You mean there isn't a War on Christmas?!!?


Russia Applying the Lessons of Capitalism

A couple of weeks ago my wife noticed that a grocery store that sells organic food was selling orange juice for $5.99, while Cub (a store that usually has lower prices) was selling exactly the same thing for $7.99. I wondered if the dreaded orange juice price increase that has been predicted for the last year or so had kicked in.

But the other night she went to Cub and found that same orange juice "on sale" for $5.99, $2.00 off the "regular" price. So the price increase was only made so that they could have a sale. This is now standard practice for all retailers, especially around the holidays, when bargain-hungry shoppers snap up anything that promises big savings, even if those savings are total lies.

It has been more than 20 years since communism collapsed in the Soviet Union, and the unbreakable union -- союз нерушимый are literally the first two words of the Soviet-era anthem -- splintered into 15 different countries. The Russians have adopted capitalism with total abandon, and they've been spending billions of dollars on foreign real estate, primarily to convert their ill-gotten gains into tangible assets that the notoriously fickle Russian government can't touch. This has annoyed to no end people in places like New York, London and Paris, who hate how Russian billionaires have jacked up real estate prices while paying nothing in taxes.

Now there's some other real estate that the Russians want: Ukraine.

Ukraine has been undergoing massive protests while the country has been debating whether to join the European Union or side with Russia. The EU has made Ukrainian membership contingent on cleaning up their act: no more political prisoners. In particular, the EU demanded the release of Yulia Timoshenko, the former prime minister who was jailed on trumped-up charges of embezzlement in a natural gas deal made with Russian company Gazprom.

Russia has been jerking Ukraine around over natural gas prices for years, cutting them off completely in the middle of winter in 2006. But now Vladimir Putin, the former communist KGB official, has totally embraced the capitalist spirit: like American retailers on Black Friday, Putin is offering Ukraine a Christmas sale on natural gas, plus $15 billion worth of holiday cheer. All for the low, low price of renouncing their freedom and submitting to the Russian yoke once more.

Why does Russia want Ukraine? The country has some natural resources. Ukraine was called the "bread basket" of the Soviet Union. Some of it is pride: Russia has lost its empire, and the influence and economic power that goes with empires, and they want it back. They're setting up their own customs union, and they don't want to lose Ukraine to the EU.

Some of it is history: Kiev was the original capital of Kievan Rus', the original Slavic state founded by the Viking Rurik. Some of it is family: there are many ethnic Russians still living in Ukraine. About a sixth of Ukrainians are Russia, and another sixth are Ukrainians who speak Russian. This Washington Post article describes the ethnic split.

After independence, ethnic Russians lost their lock on political control of  Ukraine. Power has been shifting back and forth between ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians. That split between ethnic Ukrainians who wish to remain independent of Russian hegemony and ethnic or cultural Russians who want the security of big brother standing behind them is the basic source of the current fight.

Viktor Yushchenko: before and after poisoning
And ethnic Ukrainians have good reason to fear Russia: the Kremlin doesn't mind getting its hand dirty. Viktor Yushchenko, the leader of the Orange Revolution, was the victim of an apparent assassination attempt during an election in 2004. He was poisoned by dioxin that left him disfigured but alive. He managed to beat his Kremlin-backed opponent.

Ethnic Russian Ukrainians are making a deal with the devil: instead of opting for a free and fair country run by the rule of law, with equal protections for all, they're opting for an oligarchy backed by naked Russian power. Some day the Russians will be busy with their own problems, and ethnic Russian Ukrainians will find themselves outnumbered two-to-one by angry ethnic Ukrainians unfettered by the niceties of EU human rights policies.

I suppose Putin using capitalist tricks to ensnare Ukraine is better than a tank invasion or assassination. But I'm guessing this is just posturing during the delicate time before the Winter Olympics in Sochi. I'm afraid the former KGB man will revert to form once the Olympic torch has gone out.

Too Cool

I'm a big fan of old history, if you will. So, when I saw the interior of this house for sale I was completely blown away. Talk about a time capsule!

I've always romanticized the 1940s all out of proportion but this is just too fucking cool...

How Does A Flipped Classroom Work?

Many teachers already do something quite similar to this in one way or another. I do it all the time and it works quite well.