26 October 2011


Gentle reader ~
My computer's hard drive crashed on October 24. It will be several weeks before repairs are made and the computer returned to me. In the meantime, I'll try to compose posts from the public library's computer, several times a week. Until then, keep checking back, and thank you for your ongoing support.

24 October 2011


Urgent ~ below you will find the complete text of An Open Letter to Climate Change Deniers and Skeptics: The Final (Chocolate) Straw. It appeared earlier this month in Forbes magazine online. As Martin Lawrence said to Will Smith in the movie Bad Boys ~ SJGR.

To the few of you left,

OK, you have fought hard to deny or challenge the realities of climate change, perhaps because you are afraid of the policies that might have to be put in place; or are afraid of the possibilities of increased government intervention; or you don’t think it will be that bad; or you think it will be too expensive to do anything about; or you don’t understand the science; or you don’t trust scientists, including, by the way, every national academy of sciences and every professional scientific organization in the geosciences (see the list attached to this Congressional testimony); or whatever.

You may not think the expected consequences of climate change are bad enough to do anything, despite what researchers have been telling us for years about higher temperatures, worsening frequency and intensity of storms and droughts, rising sea levels, altered water quality and availability, growing health risks from pests and heat, and much more.

Fine. But you are dragging the rest of us, who still believe in science and think that things can and should be done quickly, down into what increasingly seems like a future hell. You need to get on board. Why? Here is the final straw.

It now appears that on top of all of the other potentially catastrophic, costly, damaging, or dangerous impacts of human-caused climate change, there is a very serious risk that it will threaten the production of chocolate.

Yes, chocolate. A new scientific study from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, a research center of the world-renowned Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) has just published a new analysis that says the world will suffer a massive loss of area suitable for growing cocoa as temperatures continue to rise and rainfall patterns shift.

Figure 1, below, shows the drastic potential decrease in the viable chocolate-growing areas of Ghana and the Ivory Coast by 2050 due to climate change. These two countries produce 60 percent of global cocoa, but by 2050 cocoa production by these two leading global producers will be crippled. The authors note that smart farmers will certainly try hard to adapt and modify where and how they grow cocoa and that there may be opportunities to avoid the worst damages if farmers shift to other crops, like cashews.

I’m sorry, but cashews are no substitute for chocolate. It should now be clear, even to the few remaining climate change deniers, that the risks of accelerating climate change are just too high. Our policymakers must act immediately.

All who truly love chocolate.

P.S. To those climate deniers and skeptics who don’t like chocolate and hence don’t care: please stop imposing your distorted sensibilities on the rest of us.

23 October 2011


Anyone who buys the myths that we went to war in Iraq to eradicate Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, or that we went to war in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks, has not done his/her homework. Those formally-stated reasons transparently did not exist. WMDs were never found in Iraq. The Taliban was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks, Al-Qaeda was.

In both conflicts, the driving motive was oil and natural gas. In oil-rich Iraq, the U.S. wanted to replace Hussein with a friendly regime, which would assure the flow of oil to this country. In Afghanistan, the U.S. likewise wanted to establish a friendly regime to supplant the existing chaos of warring tribes, in order to secure the region for the Trans-Afghanistan natural gas pipeline (see map above, click to enlarge). Here is the back-story, as described by McCamy Taylor ~

"American troops will not be back home from Afghanistan until after 2014. That is when the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline is scheduled to be operational.

"In the mid 1990s, Unocol [Union Oil Company of California, which merged with Chevron in 2005] began plans for an oil and a gas pipeline from rich oilfields in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, that would run from the Caspian Sea through Afghanistan and Pakistan and finally to India. A route through Afghanistan is the shortest route to the sea and has relatively favorable terrain for a pipeline.

"The Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline is the reason the Taliban rose to power. Unocol and the CIA helped to put the Taliban in power, thinking that the new regime would permit them to build the pipeline. Once in power, the Taliban failed to keep its part of the bargain.

"[In October 2001, the United States responded to the 9/11 attacks by invading Afghanistan to depose the Taliban.]

"On December 22, 2001 a US-backed interim government headed by Hamid Karzai took office in Kabul, Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai had formerly functioned as a Unocal Corporation consultant.
Almost immediately, talks resumed about the planned Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline. The new deal on the pipeline was signed on 27 December 2002 by the leaders of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"The 1,680 kilometre (1,040 mi) pipeline will run from the Dauletabad gas field to Afghanistan. From there TAPI will be constructed alongside the highway running from Herat to Kandahar, and then via Quetta and Multan in Pakistan. The final destination of the pipeline will be the Indian town of Fazilka, near the border between Pakistan and India.

"The pipeline is expected to be operational by 2014. In order to build that pipeline, the U.S. needs to subdue the Taliban."

So you see, we've been fighting and dying in central Asia not to safeguard freedom, or to spread democracy, or to combat terrorism (our presence has generated many more terrorists than we've killed or subdued), or to build nations. These are all worthy goals, and to some small degree they have been achieved in an ancillary manner. But they were never our true purpose. Rarely do the leaders of any country reveal all the reasons for their actions. This is true regardless of party affiliation or political dogma. If we wish to be informed citizens of the world, it falls upon us to seek out information, judge its validity, and retain or revise our opinions accordingly. The more information sources one has, the better able one is to listen to the words of political leaders and hold them accountable, noticing truth and rejecting half-truths or lies.

So just how important are oil and natural gas to the energy needs of the U.S.? Sheril Kirshenbaum provides the answer in a supply-and-demand graph, seen below. Here too, it is our responsibility to inform ourselves, so that we can alter usage or alter energy sources in order to live a greener life and achieve energy independence.

22 October 2011


I fell in love with this pair of videos featuring Nora the Piano Cat. According to her owner, "this is not a trick that was taught to Nora. She began sitting at the piano at about one-year-old. She's four now. She plays only when the mood strikes her, which is usually several times a day for short periods." Here are Nora practicing and Nora the sequel. I love the expression of curiosity on her face, like "hmm, I wonder what sounds I can make now?"

Cats' eyes, like those of many creatures, have pupils which contract to a vertical slit (or horizontal, in the case of cephalopods). I find the trait fascinating, and earlier today learned the adaptive advantage for such pupils ~ for animals which may be active in dim light or darkness, the design enables them to see sharply focused full-color images. According to the article, in dim light conditions "single-focus lenses such as those in humans suffer from chromatic aberration. This means that different wavelengths [colors] of light are focused at different distances from the lens and, as a result, some colors are blurred.

" .... many animals solve this problem by using multifocal lenses. These are composed of different refractive zones in concentric rings, with each zone tuned to a different wavelength. Almost all animals with multifocal lenses have slit pupils, which help them to make the most of their unique lenses. This is because, even when contracted, a slit pupil lets an animal use the full diameter of the lens, spanning all the concentric refractive zones, allowing for all colors to be sharply focused. When round pupils, such as those in humans, constrict, they cover the outer concentric rings of the lens, preventing the focusing of certain colors."

Ya gotta love science.

Finally, check out this slide show of images showing a young mountain lion on a patio deck in Boulder, CO, sharing a mutual fascination with the household cat inside ~ separated only by a sliding glass door. Yikes. As one person commented in the space below the photos, "This is a reminder why cats should be kept inside. This kitty is alive because he has a responsible owner." My thought exactly. Not to mention all the birds, small mammals and lizards which outdoor pet cats kill when allowed to roam outside. Not to mention all the vermin and infections and injuries from fights which a pet avoids be remaining indoors. I love the romantic idea of letting my cats run free outside ~ but I also know they will live a longer, healthier life indoors. It's a tradeoff, no matter which choice an owner makes. Except in mountain lion or other predator country. Then the choice should be fairly clear.

21 October 2011


It is not news that the U.S. is falling behind other developed, and even some developing, countries in the understanding displayed by both adults and students in math and science. As a result, the U.S. is also falling behind in research and development of new technologies. We are on the fast track to becoming just another ho-hum nation which follows, rather than leads ~ a nation which makes decisions reactively rather than proactively.

Paul Rosenberg lays the responsibility for this decline squarely on the shoulders of America's Growing Anti-Inellectualism. In an analysis spanning the history of the nation, he writes that "America has always had a critical thinking deficit, in that it has a long tradition of anti-intellectualism. This is particularly perverse, maddening and contradictory, since America's Founders were the most intellectual group that ever founded any nation we know of, and the desire to foster free and critical thinking, both in government and in the society at large, was one of their notable goals, as a direct consequence of the Enlightenment heritage on which America's Founders depended.

"This philosophy prized individual critical inquiry, as well as institutions ~ formal and informal ~ which enabled individual efforts to be joined together into a far more powerful whole. This outlook was crucially important to the creation of a new nation on a new hemisphere, confident enough to establish itself on a new political foundation with some ancient roots, but fashioned with its own original design. Mere imitation of the past was rejected as a guiding principal. So, too, was blind reliance on the fantasy of individual political genius. Instead, the spirit and process of critical inquiry was crucial to how the new nation was conceived.

"The basic architecture of 'separation of powers', for example, was intended to prevent the accumulation of all power into the hands of any unaccountable group or faction - and thus to put a premium on the process of advancing ideas that could pass the muster of critical examination by the widest possible range of parties involved. Similarly, steps were taken to insulating of government from dogmatic religious influence. Religious tests for public office were banned in the Constitution itself, and separation of church and state was formalized in the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom, which similarly guaranteed freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press - all intimately connected to the individual and collective exercise of critical reason.

"And yet, despite all this, there was always an anti-Enlightenment, anti-intellectual side of America as well. And that side has always created needless deficits in critical thinking, hampering America's ability to fully realize its promise."

The influence of intellectual decay has been most strongly felt whenever Republicans have been in control of the White House or of Congress. Rosenberg cites the 1995 elimination of the Office of Technology Assessment (which provided Congress with "objective and authoritative analysis of the complex scientific and technical isues of the late 20th century"), the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act (which prevented commercial banks from involvement in risky speculation), the failure to prevent the 9/11 terrorist attacks despite substantial forewarning, the subsequent war against people not responsible for the attacks, the passage of the Bush tax cuts, the failure to prevent the housing bubble and collapse, and prolonged inaction to the threat of global warming as examples of the uninformed, irresponsible behavior which accompanies a deficit in critical thinking.

His essay links our intellectual deficit to an imagination deficit, and ultimately to a democracy deficit .... "Eventually, even the special interests will be destroyed by their own short-sighted folly. The Occupy Wall Street movement stands in stark contrast to all that, in at least two fundamental ways. First, one of their primary themes is 'We are the 99 percent' ~ the vast majority whose welfare is systematically ignored. Second, their method of organizing is radically democratic, based on a model of participatory democracy that goes all the way back to ancient Greece .... If America is ever to find its way again, its people cannot rely on simply relegating this task to others ~ to think, to dream, to act on their behalf. 'Occupy Wall Street' or be occupied by it. That is the simple choice we face .... which is why addressing our democracy deficit is at the center-point of dealing with all the rest of our deficits as well."

Regarding the assertion that Republican influence is anti-intellectual, and specifically anti-science, Jonathan D. Moreno offers an impassioned defense of scientific study in an interview online. At one point he notes that "science, understood as rational argument and demonstration, was also part of the constellation of ideas that gave the United States special promise; it is not too much to say that America is the only country founded by a group of scientists.” Yet some of the people who want to be president — people who claim to revere the Founding Fathers — are openly hostile to science." Check out the interview to learn to whom he is refering, and why.

I mentioned both adults and students. A recent study that followed several thousand undergraduates through four years of college found that "large numbers didn't learn the critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication skills that are widely assumed to be at the core of a college education. Many of the students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument, or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event.

"Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called "higher order" thinking skills.
Combining the hours spent studying and in class, students devoted less than a fifth of their time each week to academic pursuits. By contrast, students spent 51 percent of their time — or 85 hours a week — socializing or in extracurricular activities.

"Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.

"Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning. However, the authors note that their findings don't preclude the possibility that such students 'are developing subject-specific or occupationally relevant skills.'

"Greater gains in liberal arts subjects are at least partly the result of faculty requiring higher levels of reading and writing, as well as students spending more time studying, the study's authors found. Students who took courses heavy on both reading (more than 40 pages a week) and writing (more than 20 pages in a semester) showed higher rates of learning. That's welcome news to liberal arts advocates."

So what do you think? When is the last time you read an article from a science journal, or solved a moderately complex math problem, or engaged in a critical analysis of a problem involving diverse and seemingly contradictory information? Do you (or someone you know) harbor a bias for or against intellectuals? Is the question important?

20 October 2011


So how many things can you count wrong with this picture? An Ohio man receives a felony conviction for possession of illegal firearms, and serves a year in the state penitentiary. Upon his release a few weeks ago, he returns to his estranged wife and their 73-acre private game reserve, where 56 exotic animals (mostly large predators) are kept in cages. On Tuesday, the man, Terry Thompson, was apparently bitten on the head by one of his captive animals, a Bengal tiger. A short time later, he systematically opened all the animals' cages and the gate to the preserve, then committed suicide by shooting himself.

The freed animals quickly scattered, and law enforcement agencies issued alerts for people to remain in their homes, and alerted passing motorists to remain in their vehicles. Law enforcement then began to hunt down and kill as many of the escaped predators as they could. By last night, only a single monkey was unaccounted for. Among the dead ~

~ 1 baboon

The situation was tailor-made for slaughter, and law enforcement cannot be faulted for their actions. If it had been only one or a few predators on the loose, then tracking, tranquilizing and capture might have been possible. But with so many large predators suddenly freed at once, the threat to humans, lifestock and pets was just too daunting. Draconian measures were unleashed. Now that the killing is over (see image above, a dead African lion, and image below, taken prior to mass burial), it falls upon us to ask the hard questions.

Millie Kerr writes ~ "How did a sole individual, a convicted felon no less, earn the right to possess dangerous exotic animals? You may be surprised to learn that only 21 of the United States fully ban the private ownership of big cats .... One doesn't have to think creatively to imagine the risks inherent in exotic animal ownership. Risks that affect the owner, his community, and each of his animals.

"Owning a tiger, or 18 in Thompson's case, requires access to vast resources. An average Bengal tiger can weigh upwards of 500 pounds. They are able to eat as much as 60 pounds in one sitting, and neither of these facts addresses the tiger's behavior, which is surely inhibited in the sort of makeshift zoo created by someone like Thompson .... Tellingly, only ten percent of the facilities licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums."

The Human Society of the United States criticized Gov. John Kasich for allowing a statewide ban on the buying and selling of exotic pets to expire in April. Barry Long, an expert at the World Wildlife Fund, noted that tigers in general are endangered. He said there appear to be fewer of them living in the wild than there are in captivity in the U.S. alone. Over the last century, the worldwide population has plunged from about 100,000 in the wild to as few as 3200 .... More than half are Bengal tigers, which live in isolated pockets in Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, India and Bangladesh. "The tragic shooting of 18 tigers in Ohio really highlights what is happening on a daily basis to tigers in the wild throughout Asia," Long added in an email. "Their numbers are being decimated by poaching and habitat loss, and that is the real travesty here."

This terrible event features layers of tragedy. For decades we've seen private ownership of exotic animals end in harmful consequences. For example, people in the South, especially in Florida, buy immature pythons for the thrill of it, but when the snakes grow too large, they are abandoned in the wild ~ so many in fact that the Everglades are experiencing a population explosion of pythons, which drive out native predators and pose a threat to humans traversing the area.

It doesn't matter whether the creature is a mammal, a reptile, or a bird ~ if it isn't native to the region, private possession should be outlawed. Harrison Ford makes this point with regard not only to the animals themselves, but also to exotic animal products, in the powerful PSA Don't Buy It. Buying ivory products in the U.S. only encourages the slaughter of elephants in Africa. Buying exotic birds like macaws only endangers wild populations. Every such act has far-reaching, usually bloody consequences.

So the federal government and every state government are culpable when an event like the slaughter in Ohio unfolds. Culpable too are all individuals who engage in the trade or ownership of exotic species. A legitimate case can be made for licensed and accredited zoos and aquariums which serve as a genetic pool for species which are disappearing in the wild. For a time, the California condor disappeared from the wild entirely, surviving only in zoos. But the condor's numbers rallied to the point where small numbers have been successfully reintroduced to the wild.

This is human stewardship at its best ~ trained, responsible, caring, protective. The plants and animals of this Earth do not exist merely to feed or entertain us. They have a right to life, and a right to sufficient undisturbed habitat. As our numbers grow (see this countdown clock for real-time population figures ~ the world population should surpass 7 billion before the end of this month), so do our demands for land and resources. Wilderness and wildlife inevitably come out on the losing end, unless we (a) find acceptable ways of limiting human population, and (b) become proactive in preventing the abuse and destruction of those wild creatures still alive. Lions and tigers and bears ~ and wolves and sharks and butterflies ~ and falcons and cheetahs and owls ~ and ultimately ourselves.

19 October 2011


Huge thanks to Sheril Kirshenbaum for introducing me to one of the most original TED talks I've encountered ~ Can We Commit Our Bodies To a Cleaner, Greener Earth, Even After Death? The reply is a resounding yes, we can. First, a little background.

I've long thought that the funeral industry of the past century is a disgraceful scam. Berieved relatives and loved ones shell out a small fortune so that someone who has recently died will be interred in a sealed metal coffin, with accompanying, non-essential services like viewing rooms, hearse processions, flowers, etc. Or, more recently, those same relatives and loved ones can pay a marginally smaller sum to have the body cremated, and the ashes placed in a memorial metal jar.

Financial predation aside, there are two problems. First, if a preserved body is buried in a sealed metal coffin, there is no way for decaying component elements to rejoin the cycle of life. Inside the artificial crypt, what should be the natural decomposition and feeding of microorganisms and other members of the food web, becomes a grotesque process of putrifaction completely removed from natural recycling. Second, if a body is cremated, it contributes particulate and heat pollution to the environment.

For many years, I've known that when I die, I want my body to be buried in a plain pine box or in cloth winding sheets, with no formaldahide or other preservatives allowed. I WANT to rejoin the earth from which I was born, and to give back as many nutrients as I can. Health laws in many cities don't allow for such a natural approach, leaving me with the option of following the lead of Edward Abbey ~ having trusted friends bury me as soon as possible after death, without embalming and in disregard of state health laws, at an undisclosed location, preferably accompanied by a celebration of my life. Failing that, when my time comes I could simply disappear into the wilderness, and spend my last conscious hours drinking in nature's beauty.

Now a new idea is afoot. Jae Rhim Lee recounts in her TED talk how even with a natural burial, toxins in our bodies are released into the environment. But rather than seal off those toxins, she proposes being buried in a special burial suit seeded with pollutions-gobbling mushrooms. Voila, the best of both worlds. Yes, I know it sounds a bit out there at first, but see if you can listen to her presentation with an open mind ~ I think you'll find that she makes eminent sense. For further information on decompiculture and alternative burial, visit The Infinity Burial Project website. I guarantee it will give you food for thought, and perhaps even a new plan for your own after-death experience.

18 October 2011


Argentine tango is to partner dance what a trip down the Grand Canyon is to whitewater kayakers ~ the ultimate challenge, a blend of training, skill, intuition, sensuality, and surrender of self ~ nirvana. In The Tango, the Quark, and the Allegory of Love, Eden Gallanter helps us to understand why this is. Gallanter is "a painter and writer. She also works on sustainable urban planning and restoration ecology in landscape architecture. In addition to these talents, Eden is an accomplished tango dancer." In her words ~

"Tango isn't hard because of all the moves you must learn, it is hard because it relies on the partner connection more than any other dance .... without a physical understanding of the position and direction of your partner, there is no dance. In Tango's closed position, the two of you are leaned against one another, the centers of your chests aligned. You are sharing a single gravitational axis, and, for better or worse, you move as one. This is precisely what makes the dance both terrifyingly difficult and, at the same time, perilously, wonderfully, heart-stoppingly intimate.

" .... The partner connection isn't the only relationship that matters on the dance floor, though it is of the most vital importance. The best instructors in Buenos Aires teach that there are in fact no fewer than five 'partners' in a single dance ~ the partner, the floor, the other couples, the music, and yourself. Tango dancers (called tangueros) must constantly pay attention to all of these .... If tangueros look overly serious when dancing, it is only because their attention is engaged fully in the demands of the dance.

" .... At a certain point [after months or years of training], the subconscious takes over, learned behaviors go on autopilot, and muscle memory fills in the details. Experienced Tango dancers say that the best dances happen with a bare minimum of thought. The less they think, the less the leaders plan what move they're going to do next, the less the followers try to react in the right way, and the better the dance goes. Those watching a Milonga in progress curiously observe followers dancing with closed eyes and leaders gliding across the floor with their eyelids at half-mast, deep in the embrace of their partners. This lack of conscious attention in Tango dancers can be described as a leap of faith. The dancers don't expect anything. Instead, they trust in their training, their experience, and their intuition. The leap of faith is made blind. Tangueros must improvise everything, and trust without any grounds at all that their partner can read their minds through the most delicate and subtle movements. They are aglow with an unconquerable belief in themselves and in their partners to move together across the floor, along with the beat and the harmony of the music.

"Tango demands courage, and it demands imagination, and in sacrificing our expectations, we find an invulnerable faith in ourselves, waiting for us at the end of desire."

17 October 2011


Imagine a high-rise apartment complex or office building which integrates so much plant life into the exterior design that it becomes, in effect, a vertical forest. That is the premise behind the Bosco Verticale, under construction in Milan, Italy (see image above, click to enlarge). According to the architect, "The Bosco Verticale is a system that optimizes, recuperates, and produces energy .... The diversity of plants and their characteristics produce humidity, absorb CO2 and dust particles, produce oxygen, and protect the building from radiation and acoustic pollution .... Plant irrigation will be supported through the filtering and reuse of the graywater produced by the building. Additionally, Aeolian and photovoltaic energy systems will further promote the tower's self-sufficiency."

Green designs like this delight me ~ I'm only astonished that they do not appear everywhere. Certainly the component ideas have been around for decades. Be sure to click here for a slide show which includes photos and architectural designs. Think about it ~ if green architecture were the norm in every city, urban environments would be less sterile, more verdant, and more life-sustaining.

Now for a display that blew my mind. Here is a link to a color chart (shown below, click to enlarge) which depicts the number and variety of events which occur on the Internet every 60 seconds. The sheer scale of human energy and activity is monumental. For instance, when I complete this blog post and click on "publish", mine will be only one of 1500 blog posts launched into the ether during those 60 seconds. This does not even take into account the more than 60 new blogs created during that same time. Multiply times 60 minutes per hour, and again times 24 hours per day, and you have over 2 million blog posts per day ~ and that is only one of twenty classes of events portrayed on the chart. A-freakin'-mazing.

16 October 2011


I have a small herd of link icons on my desktop related to the Occupy Wall Street movement, so today seems ripe for playing catch-up. Doubtless you are aware that what started as a thousand demonstrators protesting corporate influence on government in New York City, has spread to include millions of demonstrators cities and towns across the U.S. and around the world ~ as evidenced by this map and list of demonstrations planned for this weekend alone. This is the most impressive display of activism since the anti-Vietnam War movement 40 years ago.

Here is a video of Keith Olbermann reading the OWS declaration of intent ~ a link to the written declaration was previously posted here on October 10. And here is Mike Treder's summary of that document, and the implications for our current economic system. The protests echo one researcher's findings on the growing income gap between the wealthiest 1 percent (or less, depending on whom you talk to) and the rest of the population.

His findings are seconded by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, whose essay Panic of the Plutocrats draws attention to the fact that "the protests have already elicited a remarkably hysterical reaction from Wall Street, the super-rich in general, and politicians and pundits who reliably serve the interests of the wealthiest hundredth of a percent .... the way to understand all of this is to realize that it's part of a broader syndrome, in which wealthy Americans who benefit hugely from a system rigged in their favor react with hysteria to anyone who points out just how rigged the system is .... Wall Street's Masters of the Universe realize, deep down, how morally indefensible their position is. They're not John Galt ~ they're not even Steve Jobs. They're people who got rich by peddling complex financial schemes that, far from delivering clear benefits to the American people, helped push us into a crisis whose aftereffects continue to blight the lives of tens of millions of their fellow citizens.

"Yet they have paid no price. Their institutions were bailed out by taxpayers, with few strings attached. They continue to benefit from explicit and implicit federal guarantees .... So who's really being un-American here? Not the protesters, who are simply trying to get their voices heard. No, the real extremists here are America's oligarchs, who want to suppress any criticism of the sources of their wealth." (see image above, click to enlarge)

These are exciting times ~ "exciting" taking on different meanings for the demonstrators, for the bankers and corporate CEOs, and for the politicians who defend the status quo and who smear anyone who dares disagree. It was all entirely predictable. In fact, check out this interview conducted nearly two years ago with Elizabeth Warren, on the critical need to reform Wall Street by imposing regulations designed to limit the effects of greed among the powerful and wealthy. This isn't rocket surgery, folks. It's common sense, guided by the wisdom of those who founded our nation. Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were among our early leaders who warned explicitly against allowing the banking industry to accrue too much influence, echoed years later by Dwight Eisenhower's famous warning against the military-industrial complex. Elizabeth Warren is now running for the U.S. Senate, and I sincerely hope she wins. We need more voices of reason and advocacy for ALL the people, and fewer voices of duplicity and advocacy for the richest 1 percent.

The last word today goes to two Marine veterans who joined the OWS demonstrators. Their simple and explicit reply to neocon Sean Hannity's bizarre accusation that the OWS protesters are un-American and "hate liberty", speaks eloquently for the other 99 percent.

15 October 2011


Well, sometimes. Some of the best times, in fact. More specifically, please take time to view and listen to this 15 minute TED presentation by Nicole Daedone, who is "a sought-after speaker, author, and educator focusing on the intersection between orgasm, intimacy, and life. The practice at the heart of her work is called OM or Orgasmic Meditation." With that teaser, here is her provocative and lively presentation.

In counterpoint, check out Six Myths About Sex And Gender, Busted. Each myth is stated, and then refuted with backup research. Here are the deconstructed myths ~

~ Girls want status, guys want boobs.

~ Men want to sleep with more people than women do.

~ Men think about sex constantly, while ladies think about sewing.

~ Women have fewer orgasms than men do.

~ Guys just want casual sex, but ladies just want looooove.

~ Women are 'picky', but men will fuck anyone.

Did you buy into any of those perceptions until this moment? If so, you might want to see why they have little validity ~ with the caveat that yes, a given generalization may be true for certain individual men or women, but not for the genders as a whole. So there. Thanks to Jennifer Ouellette for the myths link.

14 October 2011


.... a cloud of dust, and a hearty "Hi-yo, Silver!" Science Friday rides again!

Do you recall the announcement several weeks ago from CERN scientists that "they recorded particles traveling faster than the speed of light ~ a finding that could overturn Einstein's fundamental laws of the universe"? I've been mulling over that statement, in addition to monitoring news and analysis since, and a few things deserve mention.

Point one. "Overturn" may be a too-dramatic choice of words. "Alter" or "refine", certainly. All good science is subject to revision as new data and new insights emerge. Think about Charles Darwin ~ his genius gave us the concept of evolution by natural selection, but he did not have access to the mechanism through which natural selection works, because the study of that mechanism (genetics) had not yet matured. It wasn't until Gregor Mendel published his findings on plant genetics that evolutionary biologists were able to piece it all together. So was Darwin wrong? He was not. What's remarkable is that he was able to look at seemingly disparate phenomena from around the world, begin to see patterns, and allow the data to coalesce into a brilliant scientific theory which has stood the test of time, with only minor adjustments.

Just so with Einstein. As with physicists who went before him, Einstein's understanding of physics, however profound, was limited by the information of the day. Scientific understanding constantly evolves as new insights emerge. A brief essay titled Was Einstein Wrong? That's the Wrong Question makes precisely this point. "Einstein was wrong about many things, and right about others, for a certain value of 'right'. Over a period of centuries, we're all going to turn out to be wrong about most of what we think. Newton was wrong in many ways .... yet much of Newtonian physics is valuable, and essential for handling everyday problems.

"The right question is whether the OPERA results are consistent with what our theories predict, and if not, why not. Relativity has held up under every test so far, so any exception we find is going to be on the hairy edge of what we can do experimentally. It's not an all-or-nothing proposition .... Whatever the ultimate outcome of the OPERA neutrino experiment turns out to be, it's a good illustration of how science actually works ~ scientists eliminating options, testing propositions, and coming out with a clearer picture of our wonderful universe."

Point two. The concept of falsifiability is one of the fundamental differences between science and religion. Both mindsets use the slippery term "belief", so sometimes the waters become muddied by ambiguity. What's the difference between saying "I believe in God" and "I believe that the results of my experiment are valid?" The difference is this ~ the former statement is not falsifiable. It rests on a leap of faith, not on evidence. One can neither prove nor disprove the existence of a deity.

The latter statement, by contrast, is falsifiable. It rests on evidence, not on a leap of faith. Anyone who later comes along and provides more persuasive evidence that the experiment is flawed, advances our understanding by a step. It is the accumulation of these steps, some confirming a hypothesis and some discrediting it, which makes up our ever-growing body of knowledge about the world and ourselves.

Another brief essay, this one written by a science teacher, makes the point. Faster Than Light Story Highlights the Difference Between Science and Religion reminds us that "science, unlike religion, is not dogmatic. It does not say 'this is the way things are, and it can be no other way.' Instead it says something like 'based on the evidence we have so far, this is how things probably are. If clear and solid evidence is discovered that this is not how things are, then we will need to change our minds.'

"Science can seem rather weak in comparison to the certainties religion offers. But it is this very 'weakness', this refusal to issue statements of absolute truth, that allows science to progress, and to come up with increasingly better ways of explaining the world. This is why, even though their existence might mean that 'the foundations of science might crumble', science will not shy away from considering the possibility that faster-than-light neutrinos are real. The issue will not be settled by consulting some supposedly infallible text, but rather by close scrutiny of the controversial data and further experimentation if necessary.

"And anyone who is capable of doing that work is entitled to put forward their conclusions. There are no heirarchies that absolutely must be respected, there is no single person who will have the final say. If, after scientists have done their work, we find that faster-than-light neutrinos do indeed exist, science may go through some kind of crisis, but it will emerge stronger, with even better ideas about the true nature of the universe."

And that, gentle reader, is how the scientific method works.

Point three. The manner in which science news is conveyed to both other scientists and to the lay public is shifting, according to the article Skeptical of Science. "The contemporary science journalist is now working at the confluence of three cultural trends. First, their traditional historical role as the privileged disseminators of science information has been undercut by the emergence of a new science media ecosystem in which science journals, institutions and individuals are producing original science content directly to non-science audiences .... Second, the traditional 'scoop' culture of journalism is being supplanted by other forms of journalistic authority [in which] science journalists need to provide expert interpretations of scientific knowledge, operating similarly to art critics as they evaluate ~ rather than just describe ~ scientific findings. And thirdly, the economic changes in the news industry have meant that science journalists are increasingly working as freelancers, the working life of many split between a portfolio of journalism, teaching, convening science-related events, and writing books .... The dominant way of thinking about the role of science journalists historically was to view them as translators, or transmitters, of information. Now, however, a powerful metaphor for understanding their work as science critics is to see them as cartographers and guides, mapping scientific knowledge for readers, showing them paths through vast amounts of information, evaluating and pointing out the most important stops along the way."

All of which dovetails nicely with my own experience in recent years, particularly with the spread of Internet access. These days my go-to references are not limited to published academics (though they have an important place), but rather are science writers who write blogs, maintain a presence on social media like Facebook and Google+, in addition to pursuing their own research. Science critics as "cartographers and guides." I like that.

13 October 2011


In yesterday's post I made reference to the essay Why Crazy People Make Better Bloggers ~ "crazy" in the sense of non-ordinary perception and thought enabling the writer to describe a situation in fresh and useful terms. Looking a bit further along the mental health continuum, one comes across research summaries like Creative Thinking and Schizophrenia. From Vincent Van Gogh to John Nash, many of our most original thinkers in the arts and sciences happen to operate within varying degrees of psychosis. Does psychosis predispose one to creativity, or does creativity drive one mad? Or are they both simply parallel symptoms of a third condition, like an unusual biochemical balance in the brain?

Douglas Eby's summary suggests that "As tormenting and devastating as it is, schizophrenia may also include qualities of thinking that enhance creativity ~ qualities we may all experience, even if we aren't psychotic .... schizotypy, a milder version of schizophrenia, 'consists of a constellation of personality traits that are evident to some degree in everyone. Research confirms a link between schizotype and creative achievement. In particular, 'positive' schizotypal traits such as unusual perceptual experiences and magical beliefs tend to be elevated in artists, and 'negative' schizotypal traits such as physical and social anhedonia and introversion tend to be associated with mathematical and scientific creativity .... looseness and the ability to cross mental boundaries are aspects of both schizophrenic thinking and creative thinking .... certain psychological traits such as the ability to make unusual or bizarre associations are also shared by schizophrenics and healthy, highly creative people."

The subject is fascinating. There's long been an awareness of a commonality between creative genius and diagnosable mental illness. Which is not to say that all creative people are crazy, or that all crazy people are creative. But where overlap occurs, the results can be breathtaking. Here's a thought ~ what about those people who exhibit both the 'positive' and 'negative' schizotypal traits describes above? Would such people be predisposed to creative thought in both the arts and the sciences? I have to wonder, because I have experienced both sets of traits at different times in my life ~ in the schizotypical range, but not (so far as I am aware) verging into schizophrenia. Perhaps I should start referring to myself as "we"? Just kidding.

12 October 2011


In her Forbes blog Pink Slipped, Susannah Breslin recently posted an entry which resonated with me ~ Why Crazy People Make Better Bloggers. In this context, "crazy" need not mean psychotic. Rather, as described in the Steve Jobs quote which heads her entry, "Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the trouble makers, the round pegs in the square holes .... the ones who see things differently .... "

It seems I've always seen things differently, and I've certainly found myself in hot water for my views often enough that hot water feels like my natural habitat. It's not that I see any particular virtue in stirring things up for the sake of turmoil. Rather, there is just so very much that is screwed up in our world, and too many people are unwilling or unable to see it. So it becomes the responsibility of those of us with a different perspective born of lateral thinking, or born of the informed dissent upon which our democratic republic was founded, to speak out.

Breslin holds that there are at least three reasons why crazy people make better bloggers than non-crazy people ~

1. We'll say what you won't.

2. We speak the truth.

3. We're more entertaining.

To see what she means by these statements, click on the link to her blog post. Crazy? You bet, but in a very cool way.

In passing, I want to give a shout-out to a new book recommended by Sheril Kirshenbaum, one of my favorite science writers. The title is Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America. Sheril's review includes a quote from the book ~ "'Whenever the people are well informed,' Thomas Jefferson wrote, 'they can be trusted with their own government.' But what happens in a world dominated by complex science? Are the people still well-enough informed to be trusted with their own government? And with less than 2 percent of Congress with any professional background in science, how can our government be trusted to lead us in the right direction?"

The thought of so few leaders, so few citizens, and even fewer schoolchildren understanding mathematics and the sciences (particularly when compared to other nations) makes me shudder. It was not always so. In high school, I took every science and math class offered, as did my friends. In college, I attended both undergrad and graduate-level science classes while in pursuit of my bachelor's degree. Hmm. Perhaps I should run for Congress? No, I doubt that I'd win any election ~ too crazy (but in a very cool way).

11 October 2011


In most discussions of minorities and oppressed groups in the U.S., there is one which doesn't even occur to most people ~ Native Americans. Indians are the great invisible presence in our collective social conscience. We may pay token attention by naming athletic teams after them, but few non-Indians have any understanding of how wretched life can be on the reservations (a.k.a. ghettos) on which we forced the tribes to live ~ at least, those tribes which surived our attempts at genocide. Typically existence on the rez features the nation's highest rates of unemployment, depression, alcoholism, poor health, and suicide. The neglect and corruption with which the reservation system is administered result in living conditions which are indefensible in an enlightened society.

It is ironic, then, that the very peoples European Americans have subjugated are themselves descendants of cultures which were (and remain) highly enlightened in their understanding of their relationship with the earth and its creatures. While Native Americans are no longer required by law to remain on reservations, that is where most grew up, and that is where their roots lie. A sad thing, when you consider that indigenous peoples once inhabited and called home the entire continent and its adjacent islands.

That is, until the discovery of the New World on October 12, 1492, by Christopher Columbus, an Italian explorer and colonizer in the employ of the Spanish monarchy. Although he had been searching for a western route to Asia, Columbus was quick to understand the opportunites ripe for the picking in the Americas ~ a wealth of natural resources, precious metals, and native peoples who could be forced into slavery, or slaughtered. Columbus siezed the moment, and the rape of North and South America by European powers began.

How odd, then, that in 1937 the U.S. designated October 12 as a national holiday, Columbus Day. Not odd to the Eurocentric portion of our population, but surely odd and offensive to those peoples who lost their lands, their languages, their cultures, and their freedoms to the invasion of white settlers from across the Atlantic. I'm not Native American, but I know that if I were, Columbus Day and Thanksgiving would leave a bitter taste in my mouth.

Apparently, I'm not the only non-Indian who feels that way. An awareness is dawning in the population at large that (as is usually the case ~ and as is documented in an excellent U.S. history book called Lies My Teacher Told Me) Columbus was not the visionary hero we learned about in grade school. He was as prone to avarice as any Wall Street banker today, and as murderously racist as any Ku Klux Klansman. Through Columbus entire families, villages, and tribes were captured and placed into slavery ~ or died resisting.

There is a movement afoot to redress the injustice, however symbolically. California began celebrating American Indian Day in 1998, each September. Tennessee followed suit. South Dakota replaced Columbus Day with Native American Day in 1990. Numerous local observances of Native Americans' Days and Indigenous People's Days have taken place in the years since, mostly in the Dakotas and California. It would please me greatly if Columbus Day were entirely supplanted by Native Americans Day (or First Peoples, as they are known in Canada) as a national holiday.

It is remarkable and inspiring to me that so many Native Americans have not only preserved much of their ancestral cultures, but have also been successful in both the Indian and white worlds. For instance, my list of favorite writers includes Native American voices like Sherman Alexie, Russell Means, Dennis Banks, James Welch, Vine Deloria, Jr., Louise Erdrich, William Least-Heat Moon, N. Scott Momaday, and Woody Kipp. Many more wait to be discovered.

10 October 2011


Approximately thirty years ago, Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist Jack Anderson, one of the founders of modern investigative journalism, made a radical proposal ~ to replace the cumbersome, loophole-ridden system of taxation with a simple, universal formula. He suggested that a 10 percent income tax be imposed on individuals and corporations. There would be no exemptions, no deductions, and every individual or corporation would be taxed, regardless of income or expenses. At the time his idea held intuitive appeal, because it appeared to require the wealthy to bear their fair share of the burden of financing government. Granted, if you're making $6 billion annually, a $600 million tax would still leave you with billions ~ not nearly as severe a hit as someone making $20,000 annually and being taxed $2000. Further, Anderson's proposal only addressed income, not overall wealth. Assets can take many forms (real estate, offshore accounts, tax-deferred annuities, stock portolios, trust funds, et al.). Still, it seemed like a reasonable starting point for discussion of tax reform.

Such was the imbalance between rich and poor in the 1980s that even President Reagan made a token effort at joining the reform movement, calling for no tax loopholes for millionaires. Even coming from the godfather of modern conservatism, those words would be roundly booed today by the radical right, which has hijacked Reagan's Republican Party.

Clearly the system has only become more lopsided in favor of wealthy individuals and corporations, many of whom pay little or no tax at all. One of their own, Warren Buffet, has followed Reagan's lead and is calling for an end to Bush-era tax breaks for the rich. Professors of law Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott take it a step further in Why (and how) to tax the super-rich. They place the situation in the context of the tax structures of other nations, and point out that "There comes a point at which extreme wealth concentration threatens the very existence of democracy, and we are reaching that point. This is one of the tragic lessons of Latin American history, where democracy has repeatedly bumped up against tight economic oligarchies that feel threatened by majority rule."

Ackerman and Alstott propose a separate and distinct annual wealth tax imposed on households owning more than $7.2 million in net assets. They argue that the top 1 % of Americans own at least 35 % of the nation's wealth as of 2007 [likely a much higher percentage today]. "We should be taxing that wealth directly, not merely focusing on million-dollar incomes .... Wealth taxation is no novelty. In 2008, France, Norway, Switzerland, and five other members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development imposed the tax, and Italy is considering following suit. Spain, which dropped such a tax five years ago, now plans to reinstate it as part of a deficit-reduction plan."

Something has to give. A recent PBS Newshour analysis reported that "Median executive compensation has more than quadrupled over the last four decades, even through the financial crisis, while non-supervisory workers have seen a ten percent decline." CEO benefits include obscene retirement packages ("golden parachutes"), payable regardless of the CEO's performance. In one recent case, "the fired CEO of HP, Leo Apotheker, walked away with more than $13 million in severance while the company struggles."

Small wonder, then, that many of "the rest of us", those who are barely staying afloat and those who suffer unemployment, are taking to the streets. The Occupy Wall Street movement is spreading not only to other U.S. cities, but also to cities around the world. The demonstrations protest against social and economic inequality, corporate greed, and the influence of corporate money and lobbyists on government. Recently a remarkable document was released to the media and to the NYC general assembly ~ a Declaration of the Occupation of New York City. The declaration puts to rest any dismissive notions that the demonstrations have no focus or credibility. It succinctly lists 23 examples of corporate acts which "place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality," placing corporations in a position to wrest control of government from the electorate. It is worded with the weight and force of the Declaration of Independence, and should be posted at the entrance to every city hall, every state legislature, and the House and Senate in Washington, DC.

Small wonder, too, that the power brokers and oligarchs on Wall Street are taking these demonstrations seriously, as a direct threat to their power and their wealth. During the weeks of demonstrations, the NYPD has repeatedly assaulted the demonstrators and violated their civil rights, standing firm to protect the powers that be. Here's one example ~ a video showing police officers on motor bikes attacking demonstrators in the streets. No mercy, no shame.

09 October 2011


It was forty years (forty years) ago this month that the first email was sent. The text read something like ~ "Greetings! I am an investment banker in Nigeria, and your name was suggested to me as someone with vision who might be interested in helping to finance the Trans-Saharan Olive Oil Pipeline." Well, not really. According to Martin Bryant's article, "In the late 1960s, MIT graduate Ray Tomlinson was working at research and development firm Bolt, Beranek and Newman. His work included contributing to technologies related to the ARPANET, the military communications network that was the earliest form of the Internet. This included a file transfer program for mainframe computers.

"Within this file transfer experience, Tomlinson was assigned to modify a program .... to allow messages to be sent between two different computers, and in October 1971 he cracked it. Tomlinson doesn't remember what that first email message actually said .... but whatever it was, it traveled a distance of one meter between two separate computers. One small step for a message, one giant leap for mankind."

Bryan's article takes us through the history of email ~ its birth, growth, limiting problems, and the technologies which may replace email entirely. Just my luck. I didn't become active online until the 1990s, so email feels more natural to me than does texting or instant messaging. Adapt or perish, it seems.

For those of you who spend much time online and sometimes encounter a slow or stalled website or application, here is a resource which may allow you to test whether the problem is with your computer or the other end. Coincidentally, the testing website is called Down For Everyone Or Just For Me? I have insufficient experience with its use to give it thumbs up or thumbs down, so please report your own results at the "comments" prompt at the bottom of this post. Thanks.

08 October 2011


Yesterday it was announced that the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to "three women from Africa and the Arab world in acknowledgment of their nonviolent role in promoting peace, democracy and gender equality. The winners were President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia (the first woman to be elected president in modern Africa, shown above center), her compatriot, the peace activist Leymah Gbowee (shown above left), and Tawakkel Karman of Yemen (shown above right), a pro-democracy campaigner .... Most of the recipients in the award's 110-year history have been men, and Friday's decision seemed designed to give impetus to the fight for women's rights around the world." You can learn more about the remarkable achievements of these three women, who live in cultures even more male-dominated than in the U.S., in this NYTimes article. Heartfelt congratulations to all three. The world is a better place for the courage and dedication of women and men like these.

Now, a series of visual entertainments. The first, courtesy of friend Bill in Chicago, is a website called I Love Charts. And I do, actually, right up there with maps. These charts offer social, political, and economic eye-popping visuals, often humorous, without editorial comment. The facts speak for themselves.

The second is an NPR video called Flu Attack! How a Virus Invades Your Body. It is visually arresting and has its facts in order. My only reservation is that the narration dumbs down scientific terminology, which is unfortunately condescending toward the viewer. "Those little noodley things"? Where are we, 3rd grade? Nevertheless, the 3+ minute video is entertaining and informative.

Third ~ Blackboards in Porn ~ "Celebrating pornographers who go the extra mile when set-dressing classroom porn and actually write something on the blackboard. What do they write, and is it correct? (Humor site ~ safe for work.)" No fears, the images are suggestive but not explicit (alas), and each image is accompanied by commentary on what's on the blackboard. Heh.

Fourth is Pendulum Waves ~ "Fifteen uncoupled simple pendulums of monotonically increasing lengths dance together to produce visual traveling waves, standing waves, beating, and (seemingly) random motion." Physics and math in visual form.

Finally, another translation of the physics of pendulums into art ~ Sand Pendulum. Spirograph meets Japanese garden sand raking. Enjoy your day.

07 October 2011

STEVE JOBS 1955~2011

Two days ago, a titan passed from our midst. Computer pioneer and tech innovator Steve Jobs was the source of a flood of products ~ the first commercially successful personal computers by Macintosh, followed by digitally-animated movies at Pixar, then (back at Apple Inc.) the iPod portable music player, the iPhone smart phone, and the iPad tablet computer. He modeled and encouraged visionary thinking, as expressed in this exerpt from his commencement address at Stanford University in 2005 ~

"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma ~ which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your own heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. The rest is secondary."

Jobs once remarked that each day after his cancer diagnosis, when he woke up and looked in the mirror, he asked himself if what he was about to do was how he wanted to spend his last day on earth. His passing is mourned around the globe.

06 October 2011


I've been an on-again, off-again reader of science fiction for half a century. Over time, I came to realize that the SF which most engaged me didn't necessarily feature unlikely technology or unrecognizable aliens 3000 years in the future. Rather, I am drawn to the power of the story, which revolves around complex, flawed characters I can care about, living lives and facing crises in settings where credible science (physics, evolution, psychology, cosmology) plays a central role in the movement of the narrative. "Credible science" is not limited to today's knowledge. It might feature elements which we don't grasp now, but to which we can see a reasonable bridge from today's tech. Near-light-speed travel in space, or time travel, or beings who've evolved through genetic mutation or genetic drift, for example. It's rather like someone from the 16th century writing a novel about today. All the details don't have to be perfectly foretold. But the changes must be understandable within the laws of physics, evolution, psychology, cosmology, etc.

With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that my favorite SF writers are themselves scientists (Gregory Benford, David Brin), or are intimately familiar with one or more fields in science (Arthur C. Clarke, Greg Bear). If you know the material, you have the tools with which to weave a decent story, provided you're also a decent storyteller, with an unfettered imagination and a gift for lateral thinking, sculpted and channeled by the writer's discipline into a tale with a message. Please note that many tools and technologies which were first envisioned by SF writers, have since become part of our daily lives.

"Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out story of an alternative reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Examples include Isaac Asimov's robots, Robert Heinlein's rocket ships, and William Gibson's cyberspace." That quote comes from a review of an essay by SF writer Neil Stephenson, who urges fiction writers to start collaborating with scientists in order to "move away from the idea that SF simply inspires new gadgets, and start thinking of SF as a narrative where science comes to have a larger meaning ~ a collective, human meaning beyond the lab."

You can read Stephenson's complete essay here. He propounds two theories for the relevance and utility of SF, and touches upon themes of "spanning the ages", "spaceborne civilizations", and "executing the big stuff". It's fun reading.

On a more visual note, the Triviagasm feature at the website io9 just ran a column which caught my eye ~ Greatest Random Out-of-Nowhere Deaths in Science Fiction and Fantasy, complete with an embedded film clip showing each one. I was particularly glad to see the surprise demise of Carolyn Fry in Pitch Black, and Wash in Serenity, make the list. Each was an intense story, and there was a genuine "Oh no, this can't be happening" when those characters bit the big one. The Warrior Woman in Road Warrior and Tasha Yar in Star Trek: The Next Generation were also "didn't see that coming" losses of sympathetic characters. Sigh.

05 October 2011


The misconception ~ You do nice things for the people you like and bad things to the people you hate.

The truth ~ You grow to like people for whom you do nice things and hate people you harm.

This is the premise of The Benjamin Franklin Effect by David McRaney. His discussion draws upon research in psychology, with plenty of examples to keep things clear. At its core, this interpretation of social behavior runs like this ~ "For many things, your attitudes came from actions which led to observations which led to explanations which led to beliefs. It is well known in psychology [that] the cart of behavior often gets before the horse of attitude. Your actions tend to chisel away at the raw marble of your persona, carving into being the self you experience day-to-day. It doesn't feel that way, though. To conscious experience, it feels like you are the one holding the chisel, motivated by existing thoughts and beliefs. It feels as though the person wearing your pants is performing actions consistent with your established character, yet there is plenty of research to suggest otherwise. The things you do often create the things you believe."

Puzzled? Intrigued? Check out the article, and see how your self-perception may have shifted by the time you've finished. My thanks to Jennifer Ouellette for the link.

Coming at human behavior from another direction, fifty years ago novelist John Howard Griffin (a white man) "devised a daring experiment. To comprehend the lives of black people, he darkened his skin to become black. As the civil rights movement tested various forms of civil disobedience, Griffin began a human odyssey through the South, from New Orleans to Atlanta."

The book he wrote about that experience, Black Like Me, was based on the 188-page journal he kept during his six weeks of traveling by bus, or sometimes hitchhiking, through the racially segregated states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, passing as a black man. His goal was to feel and describe the difficulties experienced by blacks in a racist society. He succeeded beyond all expectations ~ according to Bruce Watson in a Smithsonian Magazine retrospective, Griffin's narrative remains invaluable for several reasons ~ "It's a useful historical document about the segregated era, which is still shocking to young readers. It's also a truthful journal in which Griffin admits to his own racism, with which white readers can identify and perhaps begin to face their own denial of prejudice. Finally, it's a well-written literary text that predates the 'nonfiction novel' of Mailer, Capote, Tom Wolfe, and some others."

The book was published in 1961, but I was not exposed to it until a decade later. Attention in the nation had shifted from the civil rights movement to the feminist and antiwar movements, yet I was riveted by the originality and daring of Griffin's experiment, and by the hard truths he revealed about bigotry and oppression, and how they can leach human lives without anyone even being aware ~ until someone like Griffin comes along, grabs us by our lapels and shakes us and says "See? This is what we've allowed to happen. This is who we are." Half a century later, the South has come a long way. But the South, and the nation, still have a long, long way to go.

04 October 2011


I came across this story in the Missoula newspaper ~ it has been making the rounds in the inland Northwest. How many people do you know who would place themselves in the path of a charging grizzley bear in order to save the life of an 8-year-old child? 25-year-old professional wrangler Erin Bolster did just that a few months ago, while guiding a small group of riders on a forested mountain trail near Glacier National Park. Her mount was a burly white part-Percheron named Tonk (see photo below, click to enlarge). And this is their jaw-dropping story.