Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
--C.S. Lewis--

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Moral Questions

There are vast arrays of moral issues out there to struggle through. Some are easy (the Holocaust, racism), and some are hard (Just War theory, embryonic stem cell research). On most topics, people don't graduate to difficult areas of the subject until they get the easy questions right. Can we all agree that people who cannot say that drugging and raping a 13 year-old should be punished with jail time have failed a pretty basic test of moral common sense and are probably not qualified to opine on tougher issues until they master the basics? Just think of the issue of child-rape as the training wheels of moral dilemmas.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Wow, Umm Seriously?

So Anne Applebaum, usually a fair-to-good columnist has decided that, his mom was killed in the Holocaust, so he's scared of "irrational" punishment is a compelling case as to why child-rapist Roman Polanski should be let off the hook after fleeing the country and spending decades avoiding his jail time. She also points to his advanced age, as if this were a case of justice delayed by the judicial system, rather than by the man's own work at avoiding the law. Worst of all, she wrote this column without seeing any need to notify readers that she has a serious conflict of interests.

Umm...Not Really

I'm sorry that this young girl died, but her friends...and the writer on this story...are not so good with the science. H1N1 is a virus. Viruses can be vaccinated against, but not cured the way bacterial infections can. All we can do is treat symptoms. They are using antiviral drugs with some severe cases, but these have to be given early (Even if she had walked in on her first day of illness, they wouldn't have given them to a healthy 22 year-old. It sounds from the story as if by the time her case became severe, she had already had her symptoms for a while, probably too long for antivirals to work.) and are not a cure. At most, they reduce symptom severity and length. So the ghouls trying to parlay her death into a lesson on healthcare should stop, and take a long look in the mirror.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

An Extra Helping Of Creepy

I know the president can't be blamed for what his fans do, but can those of us who aren't weirdly obsessed with him agree that this is all kinds of inapproriate?

According to the school, this was an officially sanctioned event as part of black history month.

Hat Tip: Booker Rising

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

This Probably Isn't An Original Observation...

...but has anyone else noticed that Michael Moore's new film bashing capitalism requires you to PAY ADMISSION?

Good On Him

I think this was a funny, lighthearted way of making it clear how silly the "opposition to Obama's healthcare plan is due to racism" meme is. He does know how to separate himself from the crazies...unless they happen to pastor his church.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Random Stuff That Pops Into My Head

-Probably the most famous line in the song "Ironic" by Alanis Morissette is, "It's like rain on your wedding day". The word irony describes something that is humorous in a coincidental, and yet unlikely and unexpected way. For example, the biblical story of Haman, who ends by being hung on gallows he erected himself for his enemy Mordecai, is an example of irony. Rain on your wedding day is many things, but it is not ironic. The song itself might be considered ironic though, given the unexpectedly inappropriate nature of its lyrics.
-You know a fight was one-sided when the post-fight dustup between the winner and a prospective future opponent provides more action than the previous 12 rounds.
-The long-awaited commission report on reforming California's tax system is out...and being soundly rejected. How much proof do we need before realizing that an idea's quality is inversely proportional to the likelihood of its implementation?
-When I read stories like this one, I'm not sure what to think. On the one hand, it's nice for these poor people. On the other hand, wouldn't it have been even nicer and you know...actually meaningful, to have done this when: 1. it might have helped them advance their careers (usually the point of attending college), 2. it might have taken some political courage, 3. most of the people involved were still alive? Apologies 60 years after the fact show more concern with our own self-image than they do concern for the folks who were actually wronged.
-Speaking of ironic, how about the lead-in to this story? The author praises the Internet as something the government did well. Actually, the initial development of what we now call the Internet was done by DARPA, which is more private sector than government. Some excerpts from the Wikipedia article describing their unique model.
-"DARPA avoids hierarchy, essentially operating at only two management levels"
-"DARPA has an exemption from Title V civilian personnel specifications, which provides
for a direct hiring authority to hire talent with the expediency not allowed by the standard
civil service process."
-"DARPA neither owns nor operates any laboratories or facilities, and the overwhelming
majority of the research it sponsors is done in industry and universities. Very little of
DARPA’s research is performed at government labs."
-The Universe may be the greatest non violence-related show currently on the air.
-Does it bother anyone else that no sci-fi show dealing with invisibility ever tries to explain how a person can be invisible without going completely blind? No? Ok, never mind.
-English is funny. Take the word overlook. It can either mean, "to look on from a higher position" (which makes something more easily visible), or it can mean "look beyond without seeing", almost the exact opposite of the previous definition.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Hey, Did Anyone Catch That?

Maybe I'm just slow, and this was noticed at the time. It's not all that vital, but I do find it funny nonetheless. I was reading this article over at the New Atlantis, and the following sentence jumped out at me. "Their efforts worked, and candidate Obama, especially on his Florida trips, took to speaking favorably about space and describing his memories of Apollo from his childhood in Hawaii, where the astronauts returning from space first came after they were plucked from the Pacific." I checked, and he really did say that. Anyone notice the problem? The Apollo program started with a series of unmanned test flights. The first manned flight was Apollo 7. (The earlier flights tested the various modules of the rocket) Apollo 7 occurred in 1968, the year following the president's move to Indonesia. As far as I know, we didn't splash any astronauts down off the coast of Indonesia. Fibbing about witnessing the Apollo landings just seems a little bit silly, doesn't it?

Here's Something You Don't See Every Day

Rasmussen (a poll that traditionally slightly overestimates Republican strength) has Bob McDonnell's lead over Creigh Deeds almost disappearing, while the Daily Kos' poll has McDonnell ahead by seven. Either Rasmussen had a screwy day, or Deeds needs to send the Washington Post a really nice fruit basket.

This Is Reprehensible

Nancy Pelosi might want to consider the part she has played in the coarsening of public discourse before getting quite so worked up over others. She also might want to...you know...stick to the truth. In a recent interview, she said, "I have concerns about some of the language that is being used, because I saw this myself in the late '70s in San Francisco. This kind of rhetoric was very frightening, and it created a climate in which violence took place."

This is despicable on two counts. First, it likens the vocal disagreement of people like Joe Wilson and the Tea Party protesters (and for the record I'm not 100% sold on either) to bigotry and willingness to commit violence. But secondly, and far more important, she's lying about the murder of Harvey Milk. His murder had nothing to do with his sexual orientation, or his politics. He and the mayor were murdered by a disgruntled ex-councilman, because he had vacated his seat and then changed his mind. When he tried to get his seat back, they wouldn't allow him to do so, and he killed them for it. In fact, one of the main reasons he was so angry at Milk is because the two of them had been friends prior to his resignation. But Nancy Pelosi would never let the truth stand in the way of a good blood libel.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Harvard's IATs

Interesting tests. Does anyone know much about the principles behind them? I took the test on race, and it asked me to group pictures/words as quickly as possible. Pictures of faces had to be classified as African-American or European-American, while words had to be either good or bad. At times you had to group pictures and words simultaneously. (For example, in one round, good and European-American are represented by the same button, while in the next round it might be good and African-American.)

I assume that they are looking for some sort of hesitance, since the test instructs you to react as quickly as possible. For the record, I apparently have no racial preferences. But couldn't this just as easily be an indicator of my ability to sort rapidly and accurately? As a control of sorts, I took the test on religious preference. Unsurprisingly, Christianity was the religion I viewed most positively, followed by Judaism. However, Islam scored higher than Hinduism. Any conscious preferences I have between the two faiths definitely fall out in favor of Hinduism. This leads me to another thought. Perhaps our brains are quicker at sorting the familiar than the unfamiliar? While I may prefer Hinduism, I have far less experience with it, and am far less likely to be using Hindu terms in daily conversation. If my suspicion is correct, it seems like it might have a material impact on how we assess the results of the racial test as well. Thoughts?

For some discussion of these tests, look here and here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The First Rule Of Fighting Taylor Swift

is, you DO NOT fight with Taylor Swift. The second rule of fighting Taylor Swift is that you DO NOT fight with Taylor Swift.

Since I despise Kanye West, know little to nothing about rap, and think MTV is largely a thing of the devil, I'll keep the commentary to a minimum. Suffice it to say that it was funny and mildly enjoyable watching Kanye West discover that picking on wildly popular 19 year-old girls receiving their first MTV award will NOT go well for you. Especially if they are able to remain kind and classy in the aftermath, while you turn your "apology" into a whine-fest devoted to the problems of being Kanye West.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Elephant In The Room

From First Read: "At what point do what a bunch of folks in D.C. believe privately become more public -- that there is a dramatic divide between how people in the South view Obama versus the rest of the country? Sure, the South has always been more conservative and has been increasingly more Republican, so it shouldn't be a surprise this region is less open to a Democratic president's ideas; it's no different than folks in New York City and San Francisco not being open to a Republican president's proposals. But is it really the “D” next to Obama’s name that has folks upset in the South? Yes, there was a "coastal" divide when it came to George W. Bush, and the election results of 2004, 2006, and 2008 proved that. But is it ALL just ideological? It's truly subjective... As defiant as some on the right are about the fact that this has nothing to do with race, there’s an equal group of folks who believe it's ONLY grounded in race. Bottom line: Whether it's fair or not, there is a perception growing that race is driving some elements of the opposition to Obama. It probably means this tumult will only grow for the time being."
Get it? If only those racist southerners could get over their thinly-veiled bigotry and get on board with Obama.
Here's the 2000 election map. No southern states voted Democrat, even though they ran a white guy from Tennessee.
Here's the 2004 election map. No southern states voted Democrat, even though they ran a white guy from North Carolina.
Here's the 2008 election map. This time, the black guy from Illinois wins three southern states. Curse those bigots!

This Is Kind Of Funny

Apparently technology can still lose the occasional battle with nature.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough...Well, You Know The Rest

I don't think Harvey is entirely fair about Al Franken's comedy career, though I do agree the rest of his existence seems largely to have been a waste of much-needed oxygen. However, we should all be able to agree that this may be the coolest thing Franken has ever done. And frankly, knowing where all 50 states go on a map probably puts him light-years ahead of about half his Senate colleagues.

It has been brought to my attention that the above post included some unnecessary hyperbole in describing Al Franken. I'd like to correct that. The amount of oxygen consumed by Al Franken during the course of his lifetime is infinitesimal relative to total atmospheric oxygen and cannot therefore be described as "much-needed". I regret the overstatement.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Maybe Reporters Should Take Economics Classes

Can anyone tell me what is wrong with this story? Here's a hint. Compensation is a package. If you still don't understand, let me explain.

When an employer chooses to hire someone at a salary of $45,000 per year, they don't just treat it as an additional $45,000 to payroll. They look at the total cost of the hire, and subtract costs until they arrive at a salary. $3442.50 will need to be allocated for paying Social Security. Let's say there is a 401k matching program that could require the company to pay another $5,000 a year if fully utilized, and that there is also $10,000 a year allocated to medical and dental costs. So, what happens in reality is that the company decides they can pay an employee $63,442.50 per year, subtracts all of the other costs and arrives at a salary. If they increase what they'll pay towards health care, the salary is adjusted downward accordingly. Therefore, employers are not actually shifting additional health care costs to workers. Instead, they are deciding to allocate less of the total pot of compensation to health care and more to salaries. But no reporter would ever actually report a story that way.

Pro-Life Activist Shot

Police suggest he may have been targeted due to his protest. Obviously, no one should jump to any conclusions. Perhaps his murder is completely unrelated to his political activities. But, if it turns out that this was the reason for his murder, I'm sure we'll hear all of the same hand-wringing from the pundit class about the hatred inculcated by pro-choicers that we heard about pro-lifers after the Tiller murder...right?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Praying The Rosary For World Peace?

I saw a car on the road this morning with a bumper sticker that went something like this: "Pray the rosary for world peace". Obviously, the driver was Catholic. Assuming that they are a real Catholic, and not just one of those nominal types who likes the pretty candles, but ignores all of the icky stuff about sin and sacrifice, their Catholicism says certain things about their worldview. Specifically, it means they believe in original sin, the idea that humankind is in a fallen and rebellious state and is irredeemable without Christ. They also, one would assume, believe that wars, genocides, etc. are a result of this sinful state. Lastly, while this one is a little more complicated than it sounds when simply stating it, Catholics believe in free will.

So, if one believes in a world where fallen and sinful men are free to exercise their will, isn't praying for world peace a little like praying for a winning lottery ticket when you don't ever play the lottery? It's a beautiful idea, but one that seems unlikely to occur anytime soon. With God all things are possible, but might not a better use of our finite prayer time be intercession on behalf of more likely causes? Should we pray for things that seem to go against God's permissive will? Is it enough to pray for a beautiful idea simply because it is a beautiful idea?

Friday, September 4, 2009

New White Supremacist Party In California

Normally, I'd ignore a story like this, but I found one line by a professor unintentionally hilarious. Speaking of the party's "chairman", who has a criminal record, the article says, "Stephen J. Stambough, a professor of political science at Cal State Fullerton, said Cole's criminal record could make it difficult to establish a mainstream party." Yeah, THAT'S the big hangup. I've often heard that white supremacists are known for their scrupulously law-and-order mentality. If it weren't for that, I'm sure they'd just be registering up a storm of new voters.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

I Must Be Missing Something

This experiment amounts to a way to measure gravity much more precisely than ever before. This article on the experiment claims that it is a step towards unifying quantum theory and Einstein's descriptions of gravity in his relativity theory. How? I guess in the very general sense, more precise data will always be helpful, but what specifically does it do to aid unification?

For those who don't know, I'll give my history major's thumbnail sketch of gravity. Einstein's theory said that gravity was not some mysterious force that acted within the framework of space. Rather, gravity is a RESULT of the framework of space. Space itself is curved by large objects like stars or planets (and by smaller objects too, but we don't notice them) and what we see as gravity is actually this curved geometry of space sliding objects around. A good way to picture it is to imagine your mattress as space. When you place a "star" (heavy object) on the mattress, its mass causes the mattress to sink underneath it, creating "gravity" (a depression). Any small object placed nearby will roll towards the heavy object because of this depression. Now, add an extra dimension and a bunch of fancy math and you have Einstein's theory.

This worked beautifully until quantum physics came along and insisted that the big deal at the bottom of everything cool were particles. Photons, muons, bozons, electrons, etc. The cool kids were all particles, and gravity wanted to fit in. So, the competing quantum theory is that massless particles called "gravitons" are the ones doing all of the work of Einstein's depressed mattress. Both theories mostly work mathematically (gravitons don't in some cases), and seem to have equal explanatory force. I personally like Einstein's theory better, but that's because I'm completely unqualified to make any judgements about quantum gravitational theory, while the handy mattress analogy makes me an expert on Einstein.

So, to reiterate, I don't quite see how we come any closer to squaring the "invisible mattress versus tiny particles" argument by simply doing more precise measurements. If anyone has any thoughts that are expressible in terms that won't shatter my tiny, math-averse brain, feel free to pass them along.

There And Back Again

There's an interesting op-ed in the New York Times suggesting that the Mars mission should be a one-way trip in order to cut costs. The author rightly points out that this solution is infinitely more cost-effective than trying to return the astronauts home. Radiation shielding, fuel consumption, and other related factors mean that getting people there and back raises the difficulty exponentially. I think he's also correct in pointing out that the difficulties in implementing such a plan would primarily be political and social, rather than logistical.

I think the piece misfires in a couple of places, though. He draws an analogy between such a Mars mission and early explorers of the American continent. The fact that this is probably the most often-used comparison in conversations about the space program doesn't make it any less tenuous. The early colonists may not all have intended to get home someday (many did, assuming they would return in triumph after getting rich), but those that didn't intended to build a new home and a new civilization. No one believes any such possibility exists with Mars in the near-term.

More importantly, his semi-dismissal of the public opinion difficulties with such a plan misses a key point. NOTHING about manned space exploration is practical. There is virtually no scientific task that cannot be performed better and more cheaply by robotic surrogates than by humans. For evidence of this, look no further than Mars. We currently have two brave explorers already doing some incredible science on the red planet. Their names are Spirit and Opportunity. How many manned programs has NASA put together over the years that have exceeded expectations like these little guys? To dismiss the issue of the return trip as a mere public opinion challenge is to ignore the fact that public opinion is really the main point of manned space flight, and will remain so until it becomes cheaper and more practical (i.e. probably never).

The bottom line is that while a mission to, and return from, Mars would be a public triumph, a one-way trip would be a public embarrassment. Sending scientists to do work that could have been done by unmanned devices while tacitly acknowledging that we lack either the will or resources to bring them home safely again would not be a new Apollo program. It would be a stain on an agency struggling to find meaning.

It's Only Because They Don't Understand The Lyrics

Apparently it's Metallica that soothes the savage beast. No word yet on their reaction to Yanni.