Saturday, March 31, 2012

Webs Of Trust

Chris Hayes cements his reputation with me as one of the smartest folks in television news these days with this discussion on the way we try to discern what is true or not in areas outside our own expertise:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

[As always with such clips, I've left their link titles untouched. They do not represent any endorsement by me. MSNBC is a commercial entity, and they must make a profit to continue.]

The panelists include Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and Oxford emeritus professor, Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology and cognition at Harvard, Susan Jacoby, a journalist who often discusses anti-intellectualism in America, radio host Jamila Bey, and journalist Robert Wright, who writes about both politics and science for The Atlantic.

What I found interesting was the problem Hayes put to the panel, which is what do you do when you work all day, and then come home to a discussion on climate change, evolution, or any other topic about which there is both a great deal of information and a seemingly equal pile of misinformation? How do you, as someone who is not an expert in the field nor even terribly familiar with it, determine what is true and what isn't?

It's a question I've thought about rather often, especially when even highly educated friends try to convince me of complete nonsense. One can't know everything, and it's probably not even possible to know things to a sufficient degree to be convinced of one's decisions on such subjects.

Anyway, it's worth a look if for no other reason than that here is a rare spectacle of people having an intelligent discussion that lasts more than three minutes on a television news show.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Another Sign Of The Fall: American Spectator Edition

The American Spectator is a rag that is mostly devoted to supporting the Republican Party, if the "news" items it keeps e-mailing to me are any indication, at least. Still, every once in a while, someone writes something there that actually makes sense. This morning's flash by William Tucker is an example:
Personally, I can't wait until Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum get offstage so we can start running a Presidential campaign that isn't based on trying to alienate the vast majority of Americans over irrelevant issues.

I'm referring of course to the Trayvon Martin case, where Newt and several other conservative loudmouths have managed to take a case that had absolutely nothing at all to do with Republicans and turn it into another brouhaha where the GOP are the bad guys.

Count Me Out On Trayvon Martin
He goes on to note that if Gingrich in particular hadn't decided to put his foot in his mouth on the issue, it would probably have remained another tragic example of what happens when the system fails to protect someone. Instead, it's something that just about everyone is paying attention to, despite the uncertainties that aren't likely to be addressed until at least the grand jury inquest that will start in a couple of weeks.

Plus, of course, this has been yet another example of how, even though the Democrats seem to be determined to hand the White House and Congress back to the GOP, the latter just can't help but embarrass themselves. For those of us who don't particularly care which group of authority-worshiping morons and pants-pissing accessories happen to install their corporate whore in the White House, it's another troubling sign that we really have no leadership worthy of the name in our political parties. It would be one thing of Gingrich, Romney, and Santorum were eccentrics no one paid any attention to, but that's not the case. Gingrich was the Speaker of the House at one time, a position of considerable power for those who choose to exercise it. Yet he seems unable to restrain himself from saying the stupidest things imaginable, even to his fellow conservatives. Romney's a two-faced corporate whore, the pale mirror image of the current President, and he's their front runner. The less said about Mr. Unfortunate Google Result the better.

Progressives have only themselves to blame for the lack of appealing choices, as far as I'm concerned. They've demonstrated over and over that they will vote Democratic, no matter how bad that choice might be. As long as they do, we aren't going to like the offerings of the two parties any better than we do this time.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Quote Of The Day

Not because he has the politics even close to right, but Robert Reich made sense yesterday when he wrote:
Republicans have mastered the art of political jujitsu. Their strategy has been to demonize government and seek to privatize everything that might otherwise be a public program financed by tax dollars (see Paul Ryan’s plan for turning Medicare into vouchers). Then they go to court and argue that any mandatory purchase is unconstitutional because it exceeds the government’s authority.

Obama and the Democrats should do the reverse. If the Supreme Court strikes down the individual mandate in the new health law, private insurers will swarm Capitol Hill demanding that the law be amended to remove the requirement that they cover people with pre-existing conditions.

When this happens, Obama and the Democrats should say they’re willing to remove that requirement – but only if Medicare is available to all, financed by payroll taxes.

If they did this the public will be behind them — as will the Supreme Court.

Healthcare Jujitsu
All of which, I think, is true. Certainly, the Supreme Court should not object to a payroll tax for an expanded Medicare program that includes everyone, though this one might. Certainly, the public would be behind such a program, because by and large, we like Medicare.

Unfortunately, this is never going to happen. I doubt that the President would even try to use it as a campaign issue this year, though I'm usually only wrong when I underestimate the Obama Administration's cynicism. It's not going to happen, because in contrast to what Reich seems to think went on during the health care "reform" effort, what actually happened was that the Obama Administration made a deal with the various lobbies involved, then pushed that deal through Congress. Anyone who recalls Obama's choice of advisors on health care ought to realize that nothing else was going to happen but what did.

So, yes, it would be wonderful if somehow our President woke up one day ready to be the progressive folks like Robert Reich seem to have always dreamed he'd be. That's not going to happen, though. He is what he is, and he is a conservative, maybe as conservative as the last President. He's certainly as effective at advancing a conservative agenda as the last President was.

Dream all you want, that's not going to change. The only thing that will change Democratic Party politics is if they finally have reason to believe they will not again have access to power unless they change. This will not happen until progressives change.

Cartoon Of The Day

This, and a whole lot of other apt observations on what we see versus what politicians see at Pleated Jeans:

Image credit: Cartoon by Pleated Jeans

Given what I've been reading about New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's reaction to the resurgence of Occupy Wall Street, I thought it was especially topical at the moment.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sunday Photo

This one isn't one of mine, but I couldn't resist:
It's from NASA's Astronomy Picture Of The Day site. Here's the caption that appears there, minus the expository links:
Big, beautiful, barred spiral galaxy NGC 1300 lies some 70 million light-years away on the banks of the constellation Eridanus. This Hubble Space Telescope composite view of the gorgeous island universe is one of the largest Hubble images ever made of a complete galaxy. NGC 1300 spans over 100,000 light-years and the Hubble image reveals striking details of the galaxy's dominant central bar and majestic spiral arms. In fact, on close inspection the nucleus of this classic barred spiral itself shows a remarkable region of spiral structure about 3,000 light-years across. Unlike other spiral galaxies, including our own Milky Way, NGC 1300 is not presently known to have a massive central black hole.
Image credit: Hubble Heritage Team, ESA, NASA/APOD, reduced by Cujo359

Click on the picture here for a somewhat larger version. For the full size version, which is huge, go to the image credit link, and then click on the picture there.

Have a good Sunday.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Saturday Entertainment: Les Chats Ninja Sur La SnS

Watch it. It's funny.

Thank goodness we have computers, eh? Otherwise, we'd be dependent on the TV seeing fit to show us some of this in between commercials for exercise machines...

Newt Gingrich And The Fallacy Of Inversion

Caption: No, the word "if" is not misspelled. Click on the image credit link and then hover your mouse cursor over the cartoon to see the clever hidden message.

Image credit: xkcd

It's not every day that a prominent American politician gives us an unambiguous example of logical fallacy. No, that's actually not true. It's a rare day when an American politician doesn't provide an example. What's unusual is that xkcd provides a good illustration on the same day.

Yesterday, President Obama had this to say about the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, a young African American who was killed by an armed "neighborhood watch" participant in Florida:
"When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids," Obama said in the Rose Garden. "I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this. And that everybody pull together."
"My main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," Obama said. "All of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves."

Obama: 'If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon'
Which was to say that he saw a resemblance to his own children, and so the thought of the young man being killed for no good reason hit him especially hard. I'll simplify this thought to an easily parsed sentence for reasons that will become clear a bit later:

This boy resembles my own children, so I feel sympathy for him and his family.

This seems to have offended Newt Gingrich. He had this to say, according to Politico:
“It’s not a question of who that young man looked like. Any young American of any ethnic background should be safe, period. We should all be horrified no matter what the ethnic background," Gingrich said. "Is the President suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot that would be ok because it didn’t look like him?"

Newt calls Obama's Trayvon Martin comments 'disgraceful'
Anyone who hadn't slept through his introductory philosophy course would have been able to answer Gingrich with something like this:

No, that's the fallacy of inversion.

The logical inverse of my characterization of the President's statement is this:

If someone doesn't look like me or my kids, then I won't feel sympathy for him or his family.

This is an elementary fallacy of logic, as this website explains:
The fallacy of the inverse states that if a first even[t] implies a second event, then the opposite of the first even[t] occurring will cause the opposite of the second even[t] occurring. You must be careful of this flawed thinking and actively train your mind to oppose it.

Ultimately, the fallacy of the inverse is our minds confusing the notion of cause and effect.

The Fallacy Of The Inverse
Which is something politicians get away with doing pretty often. Wikipedia describes the fallacy this way:
Denying the antecedent, sometimes also called inverse error, is a formal fallacy, committed by reasoning in the form:
If P, then Q.
Not P.
Therefore, not Q.
Arguments of this form are invalid. Informally, this means that arguments of this form do not give good reason to establish their conclusions, even if their premises are true.

Wikipedia: Denying The Antecedent
Both articles provide good examples of why this is true. I think to really understand why Gingrich is wrong, though, all you have to do is be a human being. People who resemble people we love will tend to evoke more compassion in us than those who don't. Most of us understand that, when it's not convenient for us not to, at least.

The case of Trayvon Martin's death has been another one of those events that spawn far too much of what I call Molestus hoc, ergo propter hoc reasoning, meaning "this annoys me, therefore it's the cause". Whether it's racism, or kids wearing those hoodies, everyone seems to have an opinion about this. Newt Gingrich sees persecuted white people. What I see is another person who should not have had access to a firearm in that circumstance foolishly causing the death of an innocent person. The difference between me and these other people is that I know it's possible that I'm wrong, despite the reasonable-sounding nature of my hypothesis.

I'm not going to rush to judgment on this matter, as I think no one should. We all have our opinions, and just because something looks like something we're familiar with doesn't mean that it's caused by the same thing. Nor should we, as Newt Gingrich has done, forget the basic rules of logic we should all have learned in high school.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

That Which Survives

Over at his blog, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Oscar, James Ala wrote this in response to a comment I'd left at his site:
it really begs the question "why bother contesting for a leadership position if you are not going to lead?" From Poppy Bush onwards we have been inflicted with empty suits that captured the Executive as resume padding. It has been all about blind ambition linked to ego gratification; with no real desire to do the heavy lifting the job required. You can see the downward spiral from Pappy Bush, to Bill Clinton, to Shrub and, finally, to Obama.

Each iteration, each candidate, was ever more solipsistic, ever more nihilist, ever more ego driven, ever more the unprincipled political hack. Each was ever more the dog chasing the bus; totally lost when said bus ended up in the dog's possession.

I wish I was a systems engineer, or someone who could discern how systems work. I do not have the mental discipline or the framework to achieve that kind of analysis. I just know that our system of government, especially it's political process is fundamentally flawed. I keep looking at the results of the the process and keep being amazed on how badly it fails at delivering a more perfect union.

Going Along To Get Along
Since I am, or at least was, an engineer, let me explain the political system to you.

It's not a system.

At least, it's not in any sense that means anything. A system is designed to accomplish something, whether it's a documentation system, a refining system, or a computer system. Whether that something is making a project's design understandable, processing ore, or delivering porn and kittehs to your screen, the goals are clear enough that the people designing them can figure out how to accomplish them. What is the goal of our political "system"? Beyond electing candidates, I don't see any. We as individual voters set those goals, and as any thorough survey of the blogosphere will demonstrate, there is no universal agreement on what those goals are, nor even what categories of goals there might be.

I do, however, see an evolutionary process. Evolution isn't a system. It doesn't have any goals beyond surviving long enough to reproduce. As long as a type of organism can do that, it continues. There is no ultimate goal to achieve. There is no perfect ocelot or flawless poppy. There are only ocelots and poppies that survive long enough to spread their DNA around, and those that don't. That's how politics works, pretty much everywhere. Only the details, the environment if you will, are different.

And that's the little bit of understanding I can offer. Politics is an evolutionary process, and survival is getting and staying in office. Understand the environment, and the reasons politicians are the way they are will be more clear. From what I've noted, the politicians who are most successful are those who somehow manage to convince voters that they're all about whatever the voters are about, which usually entails not actually being about anything in particular. That's certainly Barack Obama's modus operandi, and it appears to be Mitt Romney's, as well.

As any decent introductory biology test would tell you, biological evolution has two basic drivers - variation and natural selection. "Variation" is the ability of organisms to be somehow different from their parents. Mutation and sexual reproduction both create variation. "Natural selection" is the environment's job. The conditions that exist in an organism's environment determine whether it will survive long enough to reproduce. If the organism is able to produce offspring, its DNA is passed on.

In the area of politics, we the voters are the environment. The money, the news, the personalities, and all the other stuff that goes into shaping what the candidates offered do and believe, is the variation. Our choices as voters determine what politicians succeed and which ones don't. In the end, if voters choose their leaders for fatuous, self-centered reasons, then what we will end up with is fatuous, self-centered candidates.

This is why there's a series here called "The Price of Freedom". It's about why it's important to understand the issues, to understand who the candidates are and what they really believe, and to not leave your thinking to the cool people on television or radio who, often as not, are also in the business of telling you what you want to hear.

In the end, whatever we as voters choose is what we will end up with. If you choose evil, you end up with evil. There are plenty of other choices available. If the ones the main parties offer aren't good enough, I'd suggest choosing the one who best represents what you want. If enough of us do that, the variation will change. The Tea Party proved that.

In this environment, if you select what you want, you might get it. If you don't, then you certainly will not.

Afterword: I think it should go without saying that the picture of Dr. Evil, a character in the Austin Powers movies, is just a reference to something that's become a cultural icon. It does not represent an endorsement of this article by the producers, cast, or production staff of this movie.

The title of this article is, of course, the title of a bad Star Trek episode. Still, like the Enterprise crew members trying to survive on the same planet with Lee Meriwether's homicidal avatar, we seem to be stuck with a problem we can barely understand, let alone deal with intelligently. Needless to say, the creators of Star Trek aren't in any way responsible for the contents herein.

It's humor. Get over it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Quote Of The Day

From a comment on Dusty's blog Left Wing Nut Job:
Yeah, [Republican Presidential candidate Rick] Santorum isn’t so much pro-God as he is anti-human.

The Religious hypocrisy of Rick Santorum: comment by Big Bad Bald Bastard
I continue to be impressed by the mediocrity of this year's presidential candidates. It's almost as though we deliberately filter out anyone who has either a working mind or a conscience before we get to the late primaries.

On an unrelated note, Dusty and her husband are having a really bad time. If you haven't heard, but "know" either of them as Internet personalities, I'd recommend reading this update and doing or saying what you can.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Quote Of The Day

Robert Reich, regarding former Goldman Sachs manager Greg Smith's open letter of resignation that he published in the New York Times last week:
In the Great Crash of 1929, Goldman’s investors lost their shirts but Goldman kept its hefty fees.

If Mr. Smith believes such disregard of investors is unique to Goldman, he doesn’t know the rest of Wall Street. In the late 1920s, National City Bank, which eventually would become Citigroup, repackaged bad Latin American debt as new securities which it then sold to investors no less gullible than Goldman Sachs’s. After the Great Crash of 1929, National City’s top executives helped themselves to the bank’s remaining assets as interest-free loans while their investors and depositors were left with pieces of paper worth a tiny fraction of what they paid for them.

The problem isn’t excessive greed. If you took the greed out of Wall Street all you’d have left is pavement. The problem is endemic abuse of power and trust. When bubbles are forming, all but the most sophisticated investors can be easily duped into thinking they’ll get rich by putting their money into the hands of brand-named investment bankers.

If You Took the Greed Out of Wall Street, All You’d Have Left Is Pavement: Why Greg Smith’s Critique is Way Too Narrow
I think that anyone who reads John Kenneth Galbraith's book on the Great Depression would recognize this quote as being true. In the years before that crash, so much demand for investments existed that the financial industry of the time just made things up, as Reich notes National City Bank did. Investors, in essence, invested in other peoples' investments. It all came crashing down in 1929, just as it did in 2008.

The only difference I can see between those times and now is that in the 1930s there were leaders who wanted to see real reforms happen. Herbert Hoover, the much-maligned President at the time of the crash, tried to institute such controls. By the end of Franklin Roosevelt's term in office, most of the rules that kept the economy on a more even keel until the Reagan conservatives undid them were implemented.

This time, nothing of consequence happened, and the pirates profited at our expense. Thanks to the negligence of the Obama Administration and its predecessors, they have more power than ever.

So, while I'd say that greed is a problem, Reich is correct that there is a lot more wrong in America these days. We need to recognize that greed is a problem, and return it to manageable proportions.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sunday Photo

Apparently, it's another thing that's going on on one of those sites I never visit - some Facebook grouping or another is having a scarlett A contest. For those who don't know what that is, it's a symbol used by atheists to identify themselves. I don't use one here, because it's just not that big a part of my identity. Still, I'm an atheist, and I've been playing around with graphics software far more than is probably wise, so here's my version of Dana Hunter's A. Using GIMP's overlay mode and 40 percent opacity gives us a subtle, not too offensive tone:

Image credit: All photos taken and processed by Cujo359

Of course, with a little more opacity (80 percent) comes more stridency:

Profiles In Fierce Advocacy: Wait For The Friday News Dump

As I wrote at the time, President Obama's decision to require insurance companies to provide coverage for contraception was something that confounded me at the time:
President Obama has ducked abortion votes from the time he started his political career. In contrast to his obvious prejudices on economic policy, I don't know enough about his advisors on this subject to know what his own views might be. What's clear, though, is that the right to an abortion has never been something he's been willing to go out on a political limb for, even when that limb is as strong as support within his own constituency for that right.

If past is prologue, then he won't be fighting for it this time, either. I'd love to be proved wrong on this, but I think we can expect some sort of peace offering from the White House to the religious fanatics in the next few days.

Progressive Idiocy: Chickens Coming Home To Roost
I was actually starting to believe I was wrong about this. Because I'm never wrong when I'm being a pessimist about the Obama Administration.

So, I was mystified. Somehow, I figured, there has to be a way he'll get out of having to confront the churches about providing their employees with birth control. Sure enough, that shoe dropped with the Friday news dump:
Taking a conciliatory tone and asking for a wide range of public comment, the Obama administration announced this afternoon new accommodations on a controversial mandate requiring contraceptive coverage in health care plans.

Coming after a month of continued opposition from the U.S. bishops to the mandate, which was first revised in early February to exempt certain religious organizations, today’s announced changes from the Department of Health and Human Services make a number of concessions, including allowing religious organizations that self-insure to be made exempt.

Obama Administration Issues New Contraception Mandate Rules
That's better, I'm right when I think things are about to get worse, and Barack Obama is once again acting like the two-faced bastard he always was. Two things that are as universal as Planck's constant.

God's in his heaven again.

I can't wait to find out how he'll renege on requiring all other insurance to cover contraception. It's coming, I'm sure of it.

Maybe not until 2013, though.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Quote Of The Day

Image credit: OWS Posters

Expounding on an earlier statement about how the Occupy movements took months to change national discourse in a way that the Democratic Party hadn't done in years, Lambert Strether notes:
[I]t's not really fair to say that Occupy changed the discourse in months, since Occupy is part of a worldwide movement that took years of patient work to gain critical mass, was fueled by some who gave their lives, and built on successes in Morocco, Egypt, Spain, and the capitol occupations in WI and elsewhere. But dear lord, the D[emocrat]s and their enablers had nothing to do with it, and in fact fought it every step of the way. If the Ds had a single smidge of willingness to do the right thing anywhere in the bloated bodies and corroded souls they drag over the unprotesting earth there wouldn't need to be an Occupy in the first place.

MoveOn weasel and Obama lifer Ilya Sheyman tries to hijack Occupy brand in Illinois Tenth District House run
It's certainly true that some Democratic candidates, Ilya Sheyman being one of them, are trying to capitalize on the Occupy movements. I think it also goes without saying that Lambert's right, and the irony is nearly unbearable. There are probably Democratic candidates running somewhere who are worth supporting, and more who are at least worth voting for, but the supply of either is pretty meager these days. From his background and some of the quotes Lambert highlighted, I doubt that Ilya Sheyman is one of them. He strikes me as a young Barack Obama, minus having done something else for a few years besides politics.

(h/t Joyce Arnold for that Corrente link.)

Saturday Entertainment

This week, it's been this song that's been playing in my head:

Why, you might ask, would a life-long secularist like me be enchanted with this song? First, let's deal with this choice of video.

If playing a bad rendition of a song would have gotten that song out of my head, this would have done it. Unfortunately, just putting up a video that has no visuals in it doesn't make much sense to me. So you get the movie version. The original version is much better, though.

As for what I love about this song, to me, it's not about the question of whether Tommy will be "saved" in any religious sense of the word. The song is about his family's concerns for Tommy's future. He needs to be saved in a very real sense - from the isolation he's built up around himself. Being able to understand religious ideas, and either accepting or rejecting them, is something he can't do. So is everything else he should be experiencing and learning. This concern is one thing that the movie's version of the song gets across, particularly his parents' growing despair over his condition.

I recently saw the Burien Little Theatre (BLT) production of The Who's Tommy, which is one of the shows I mentioned a few weeks ago. Since I work in theatre in this area, I don't feel right about saying much regarding either this or the Centerstage version that will be appearing in early May. I will say, though, that I think the BLT version renders this song better than anything I've heard. It's meant to be a choral number, and they perform it that way. The show's director made a smart choice to not try to recreate the movie's scene, for any one of a number of reasons, but I think it works at least as well at portraying the situation as the movie does.

As someone who is both a fan of The Who and of theatre, I think the BLT version is worth checking out if you live in the Seattle-Tacoma area. (see NOTE 1) As I watched the show, there were songs that I enjoyed more the way The Who did them, and one or two where I liked the movie version better. But it's still a great show, and I don't think any aging rock and roll fans will be disappointed. If you miss it, though, Centerstage will be doing it as well. Check those links for showtimes and other relevant information.

NOTE 1: The Who's Tommy is playing this weekend and next at Burien Little Theatre. Check BLT's site for showtimes, ticket information, and directions.

UPDATE/CORRECTION: Changed the sentence about when Centerstage's version of The Who's Tommy begins its run. Originally, I'd said it was April.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Twittering Of The Day

If you wanted to know what would make PZ Myers believe in a god, here's your answer:

Image credit: Screenshot of this Twitter message by Cujo359

Apparently, wearing a white hat into a Calgary bar is a good thing.

Internet Bubble Universes Are All Around Us

I suspect I'm a pretty typical web user in many ways. While I'm a lot more technically inclined than most, I tend to have particular patterns or habits when it comes to what I look at and what I don't. I tend not to visit many sites that are strictly conservative, for instance, for quite a few reasons.

Sadly, though, it's becoming harder for Internet users to break out of whatever habits they are in, thanks to how filtering software works at some of the bigger web sites and search engines, as Eli Pariser explains in this video:

This is yet another reason I avoid going to some of these more "social" sites like Facebook and MySpace. I use Duck Duck Go as a search engine, partly because they do not try to tailor content for, or identify users. If I'm going to select what I do and do not want to see, I want to make that selection. I don't want it done for me.

That's becoming an increasingly hard thing to achieve on the Internet, and I think it's doing as much as anything to keep us all in our own little information bubbles, where things we might not want to see never reach us.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Quote Of The Day

Image credit: Eric Walton/Occupy Together

I love this. Michael Moore, writing in The Nation about Occupy Wall Street:
It’s important to remember, though, that Occupy Wall Street is about occupying Wall Street. The other Occupies that have sprung up around the country are in solidarity, and while they attack the tentacles and the symptoms of the beast that exist locally everywhere, the head can be chopped off only in one place—and that place is in downtown Manhattan, where this movement started and must continue.

Our kids—the heart and soul of this movement—have watched us for years beating our heads against the walls of power, always marching on Washington, sending in checks to the environmental groups, giving up red meat—and what they got from this is that they are the first generation who will now be worse off than their parents. They still love us (which is remarkable when you think of the world we’ve handed them), but they are taking a different path from ours. Let them. The kids are all right. Do they know where their path will lead? Not necessarily—but that’s the beauty of Occupy Wall Street. The mystery of what’s ahead is the lure. Millions want in on that adventure because, deep down, they know they have no choice. And they know that there’s more of them than the men on Wall Street who currently occupy America. They have no choice but to win.

The Purpose of Occupy Wall Street Is to Occupy Wall Street
What I love about it is that if you read this article I wrote months ago:
You don't arrange a protest to deliver a doctoral thesis. You arrange a protest to deliver one simple demand to your rulers: Get it done.

Besides, there is a more specific message, and to anyone who is willing to listen for a moment, it's loud and clear. It's our first "bullet point":

  • Stop letting this place suck the life from our country

Phrase that any way you want. Stop the greed. Stop the "I've got mine, the hell with you" attitude. Stop obsessing about taxes when we already pay less than just about any advanced country. Stop the ruthless pursuit of profit, no matter what the cost to the society you live within. Stop the endless control fraud with no one being punished except people who had a friend willing to tip them off.

They're protesting at the black heart of our nation's financial sector - the place where people did their level best to ruin our economy, were bailed out by the government to the tune of trillions of dollars, and gave themselves bonuses while exclaiming about how it's "class warfare" to make them pay more to clean up the mess they made.

The Place Is The Message
It's perfectly clear that many of us knew it was about the place. All the people who were asking what the point of it was didn't have a clue. I suspect most still don't, because when you don't want to understand something it's a whole lot less likely that you will. But that's what this lovely Darwinian world that is being handed to us by our rulers is really about: Adapt or perish. Our kids will adapt. They're strong, and I'm amazed how smart they are given how little we taught them.

They'll do all right. The useful idiots who can't figure it out will be gone soon enough.

Understanding Physics Is A Conservative Bias

It's astounding what you can learn on the Internet. Take this story, for example:
Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory announced Wednesday that they have been able to confirm a new high-efficiency solar cell design that utilizes nearly the entire solar spectrum.

Translation: They figured out a way to make solar panels generate electricity in the dark.

Scientists Develop Affordable Solar Panels That Work In The Dark
Now, I would think that anyone who stayed awake through his high school physics would know that there is something lost in that translation, but let me elaborate:

No, it doesn't mean that there are solar panels that work in the dark.

During the day, tremendous amounts of solar energy hit the surface of the Earth. It's something like a kilowatt (1000 watts) per square meter. If you're not used to the metric system, think of it as being the same as a square yard, because for the purposes of this discussion, it's close enough.

At night, however, almost no light energy hits the surface, even when there's a full moon and an aurora borealis (or an aurora australis). It's hard to turn solar energy into electricity when there's no solar energy. This, one would think, is rather obvious when one thinks about it.

Image credit: Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory

Of course, reading the Lawrence Berkeley Lab press release on the subject confirms that they are, indeed, merely talking about how it makes use of different kinds of semiconductors to collect light energy at several different wavelengths. So, yes, this is just about being better at converting solar energy during the day. Even the caption for this picture mentions that it converts sunlight, not moonbeams.

Yet, both this article and the one it was quoting got that wrong somehow. How they got all that wrong, I don't know, but scientific literacy being what it is these days, I'm not too terribly surprised.

Curious to see whether anyone else caught onto this, I read the comments. Someone did, indeed, catch the problem:
I don't see how using the full solar spectrum translates into generating electricity in the dark. To me, it only means getting more energy when the sun is shining. They do that by using all of the sunlight. Conventional solar cells can convert only a limited range of frequencies, and the rest of the sunlight is wasted--either reflected or absorbed or transmitted without converting it to electricity. They might use only the red light and ignore the rest. Or only infrared and not visible or ultraviolet light.

Scientists Develop Affordable Solar Panels That Work In The Dark: Comment by Cliff Lewis
Someone was paying attention in his physics class, apparently. Someone else commented that he agreed, so there are at least a few of us still out there.

Then I read this comment:
Well if this kind of story sets off your BS detector then maybe your BS detector needs to be re-calibrated.

The naysayers, that at the slightest provocation, jump to squash enthusiasm for development of alternative energies of all kinds are quite transparent. You are conservatives, or "independents" who want things to be just like they always were. OIL is king. Period. Even if it drives us into the dark ages. No other source can exist unless it's also enviro-adverse. Like Coal. Or Gas. It just kills you to think they we might actually pull off this "Energy out of thin air" pipe dream.

Sorry buddy. We're forging ahead and it's going to happen.

Scientists Develop Affordable Solar Panels That Work In The Dark: Comment by Ron Brunton
Not only am I a racist, because I think Barack Obama's doing a lousy job as President, but I am apparently a conservative, because I understand physics.

I learned that today, and I was reminded that not all stupid people are conservatives.

UPDATE (Mar. 15): Earlier today, someone from the LBL domain visited this article. So far, no correction that I've noticed either in comments or via e-mail. If someone familiar with the technology does have a correction I'm glad to hear about it, even if I end up looking stupid, too.

Actually, I'm told I'm rather good at that.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

π Day

Caption: The circumference divided by the diameter, that's what we're talking about.

Image credit: Kjoonlee/Wikimedia

I almost missed it again, but it's Pi Day, the day when we celebrate one of the most fundamental constants of mathematics, π (pi). Pi is, of course the constant used to calculate the circumference of a circle from its radius. When you're making a wheel or a gear, that's a good thing to know, if you don't want to waste a lot of time and materials.

Still, figuring out π's value was no easy task. It took some of the most clever abstract thinkers of ancient times. Wikipedia describes it this way:
π is an irrational number, meaning that it cannot be written as the ratio of two integers. π is also a transcendental number, meaning that there is no polynomial with rational coefficients for which π is a root. An important consequence of the transcendence of π is the fact that it is not constructible.

Wikipedia: Pi: Irrationality and transcendence
It wasn't easy. But if people hadn't tried to figure out the size of this funny number, we wouldn't be able to do a great many things today, like calculate orbits of planets, cut gears precisely, or make heads or tails of electromagnetic waves.

So, happy π day.

Quote Of The Day

Caption: A graph having something to do with credit rationing. See image credit for a reference.

Image credit:

Yes, the day is an hour old, but I doubt I'll find a better one that explains so much about where we are. This gem is from Paul Krugman, trying to find a way of explaining why a nation isn't like a family when it comes to how to deal with tough economic times. After admitting he was stymied for the moment, he discusses Europe's latest laboratory experiment in austerity:
[Y]ou might argue that slashing government spending doesn’t actually cost jobs — that is, you might argue that if you spent the past few years in a cave or a conservative think tank, cut off from any information about how austerity is working in practice. For the results of austerity policies in Europe have been as good a test as you ever get in macroeconomics, and without exception big cuts in government spending have been followed by big declines in GDP.

Losing The Belt
I'm on record as thinking that theory doesn't typically mean a whole heck of a lot in economics, because it's so often not accompanied by data that confirms it absolutely. Here is a case, though, where it does.

There are two lessons we can learn from this quote:
  • Austerity doesn't work in these circumstances. It's as simple as that.
  • Sometimes an analogy isn't necessary to understand something.
There. Lesson over. Now go figure out what that damn graph means, and if you figure it out, let me know.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"The color has nothing to do with the past or the present"

Caption: Iraqi railroad engineer Abdul Latif Salman walks along Saddam Hussein's old train near Baghdad in the Al Jazeera documentary "Witness: The Green Train".

Image credit: Screenshot of this Al Jazeera video by Cujo359

Something I don't discuss here, because it's seldom relevant to anything, is that I've always been interested in trains. Yes, I have some model trains. Every once in a great while, I even pull them out of their boxes and run them.

So when I saw a video at Al Jazeera about trains in Iraq, I was especially interested. First, of course, to see the trains. There's another reason, though. Trains go everywhere in a country that's prosperous. They do that in America, even, though they're far more likely to be freight trains. Back in the day, they used to say that you could see a different version of America from trains. You could see peoples' back yards, the industrial buildings they try to keep away from the rich parts of town, and lots of other things you wouldn't see taking a car, let alone a plane. And so it seems to be in Iraq, too.

Here's a quote from the Al Jazeera web page for the video:
Once upon a time Iraq boasted an extensive railway network criss-crossing the country. But like so much else there, trains were a victim of the years of conflict and now only a skeleton service still runs.

Sixty-one year-old Abdul Latif Salman has a unique connection to the railways and a personal history that mirrors the turbulence of recent decades.

In his youth he was one of three drivers assigned to Saddam Hussein's private luxury train.

He was later a prisoner of war in Iran for ten years and his son was killed by a bomb attack on a government building in Iraq.

Witness: The Green Train
That last paragraph says so much about Iraq. In a way, the American invasion was only the latest in a long line of miseries the Iraqis have had to endure over the years. Their war with Iran, years of Saddam Hussein's rule and the embargoes it brought on, and finally the invasion and the civil war that followed have come one after another to this once prosperous country.

The title of the report is "The Green Train", a reference to the color the train that runs from Baghdad to Basra used to be. They're painted blue now, for reasons that Abdul Salman doesn't understand. His thought on that is the title of this article: "The color has nothing to do with the past or the present." It seems like Iraq's leaders have taken a page out of our book - if something is unpopular, make some quick superficial change, and people will feel better. At least, such must be the theory behind that sort of rule. Whatever it is, I don't think it works very well. The only green train I saw was the old train of Saddam's, still in a train yard where it had been stripped bare by looters after the Iraqi government collapsed.

As we follow Abdul Salman we see the realities of the new Iraq - the road blocks, the almost constant presence of security people, the lack of crowds. Salman is a fan of movies. He mentions having seen The Birds and Psycho, for instance. He mentions that in today's Iraq, a few hundred people gathered together in a crowd would be too tempting a target for bombings. Things weren't like that before the invasion, he says, and I'm sure he's right. Maybe if there's any lesson we should learn from the disaster of our war in Iraq, it's that this is what happens after. We should also remember that there are reasons you don't want government so small you can drown it in a bathtub. We drowned Iraq's government, and the result was years of chaos.

People keep talking every September about how I'm supposed to remember 9/11. I say they should remember this. Remember Abdul Salman's decade as a prisoner of war, in a war we helped continue because we didn't like what Iran did to us. Remember his dead son, killed in the unrest that followed the invasion. Remember the cinemas no one can visit for fear they'll be killed thanks to that unrest. Multiply all that by tens of thousands of times, for everyone it happened to in Iraq when we invaded the place. Remember what misdirected anger and obsessive fear can do to a country, when you have the power that we do.

Remember that, for fuck sake.

As someone who is interested in trains, I can see something of American rail fans in Abdul Salman. He knows the history of his country's trains. He talks about Agatha Christie having ridden trains there while she and her husband lived in the country. You can imagine him shaking his head as he relates the story of how American armed convoys expected his coworkers to stop a train for them. He wonders why they have to change the color of the trains, when the color they were was something people knew.

Abdul Latif Salman sees a part of his country many people probably don't. If you want to see what Iraq looks like today, watching this video is well worth the time. It's something you're not likely to see on U.S. television for many years to come.

UPDATE: Changed the paragraph that referred to the death of Salman's son. His son was killed by a suicide bomber.

Quote Of The Day

Caption: My copy of Consider Phlebas, the first of Iain M. Banks' science fiction novels about the Culture, one possible future for humanity.

Image credit: Cujo359

P.Z. Myers, discussing what an ideal culture might look like:
Actually, my ideal community is The Culture. Spaceships optional.

This Is Not The Church Of The FTB
[link from original]

As someone who has read just about all of Iain M. Banks' Culture novels, I'd have to agree. The Culture is a society where people need little or no governing, because they know how a civilized society should behave and they behave that way. There's no poverty, and at least within its own boundaries, no war. While the Culture is an element in each novel, it is not a series like the Foundation novels. Each novel is about different worlds, all of which are richly imagined and interesting, if not necessarily attractive, places.

Of course, a society with no conflict would be a very uninteresting place to write about, so nearly all Banks' novels revolve around the doings of Special Circumstances, a group that's a cross between our special forces and the Foreign Service. Its job is to meet, communicate with, and sometimes interfere in the alien cultures around it. While its methods might be a little underhanded at times, it never approaches the absurd ways our society, and previous dominant ones, have interfered with other societies for comfort or profit.

In fact, it's hard to imagine much of anything that's happened in the last decade or so happening in the Culture, despite the nearly complete freedom of action all its citizens enjoy.

It would be a lovely future, if only we could figure out how to get there from the almost mirror image universe we live in now.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Quote Of The Day

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, on why the banks are likely to reject even the sweetheart deal the country's state attorneys general have offered them:
This settlement farce reveals yet again that contracts in America have become decidedly one sided affairs: banks will take advantage of every trap and snare, and engage in further abuses if they can get away with them, but woe betide anyone on the other side. You have perilous little hope that you will get a fair hearing from regulators (witness the farce of the OCC foreclosure reviews) or courts, since banks both outgun and outlie most opponents.

The Legal Lie at the Heart of the $8.5 Billion Bank of America and Federal/State Mortgage Settlements
Over the last couple of decades the banks and the government representatives they own have turned our courts into their own little echo chamber. The Obama Administration are the worst yet in this regard. You are about as likely to get justice there, if you're an ordinary citizen, as you are to win the lottery.

Less likely, actually, if you buy a lottery ticket.

Even More On Captchas

It's been almost two weeks since my last article on the subject of captchas, those annoying scribbles that many comment forms insist you interpret properly so that you can prove you're not a computer. So, it's probably time for another one.

The best way I've found to deal with them is with my web browser's zoom feature. Here, reprinted from previous articles, is the short course on how to use them:

  • Zoom in (enlarge): Ctrl-+
  • Zoom out (reduce): Ctrl--
  • Reset to normal size: Ctrl-0
Where Ctrl- followed by a symbol means hold down that key in the lower corner of the keyboard marked Ctrl, and then hit the key represented by the symbol. For those using Apple computers, substitute the Command key for the Ctrl key.

What I didn't explicitly mention before is that you can hit the Ctrl-+ key multiple times to make what you want to see (captchas, in this case) as big as you want. Here's a sample image I took today of a Google comment form at normal size:

then after hitting the zoom in key three times, it's something that's large enough to interpret:

Maybe. It also might be helpful to note that Google's captchas are distorted versions of the font that most modern browsers use to display text. If what you type doesn't resemble the letters in the captcha, then you're probably not typing the right thing.

Anyway, your comments are important, so let me know if this isn't enough help, and we'll see what else I can do without increasing my workload too much.

Pir Zubair Shah: My Drone War

Caption: An ML-1Q Predator unmanned aerial vehicle that now appears in the Smithsonian Museum. This was one of the first UAVs to carry armament.

Image credit cliff1066

As a report for Newsday and The New York Times, Pir Zubair Shah has covered the secret war America has waged against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the region of Pakistan near the Afghanistan border. His article this month in Foreign Policy is well worth a read, not only for what it tells us about that war, but about its effect on its targets. As Shah has said, the area is an isolated one, and both the U.S. and Pakistani governments divulge little about the war.

Here he discusses his first look at the results of a unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strike in Waziristan:
n January 2006, ... I got an early-morning phone call at my home in Islamabad from a colleague at Newsday, where I was then working as a fixer and bureau manager. There had been another drone strike in the Bajaur tribal area, he told me; could I go investigate? I picked up a friend who worked for the BBC and drove north to Bajaur to see my first drone strike. It would be the first newspaper story to appear under my own byline -- and my first experience covering the drone war.

As we drove into Damadola, a farming village sprawled across a wide valley, I spotted the bodies of a cow and a calf, splayed out underneath a tree with their eyes wide open. Nearby were the fresh ruins of three houses.

The drone's presumed target had been Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had been rumored to be in the area. I arrived on the scene ahead of most other reporters, and the families of the victims took me to see their newly dug graves. "All those killed, including women and children, are from this village," a villager told me as he showed me the burial site. "There were no foreigners here." Then I noticed something odd: Although I counted 13 graves, the locals would only tell me the names of seven women and children who had been killed. When it came to the men, they were silent. Later, a Pakistani official told me foreigners had indeed been present, including Zawahiri, though he had left some time before the missile hit. Drones were not yet common, but the fugitive al Qaeda No. 2 had long since become accustomed to moving quickly from place to place.

My Drone War
Those few paragraphs say a lot about the situation. Any information has to be pieced together from multiple sources, because no one - the governments, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the people caught in between, are likely to tell everything they know. Waziristan is mountain country. It sounds like a Middle Eastern version of Appalachia - populated by people who mistrust any outsiders, particularly if they're representatives of a remote central authority. The governments and the people they are targeting have their own reasons for keeping mum. It's the perfect place to carry on a war without anyone being able to come to an informed judgment on whether that war is worth fighting or not.

I've mentioned before the idea that for a government that can do it, using UAVs as a means of attacking suspected terrorists is one that holds few dangers. Unfortunately, for the people who are near the intended targets, that is seldom the case.

I had not heard of Pir Zubair Shah, but if winning the Pulitzer Prize means anything anymore, he's done some good reporting on this phenomenon. His Foreign Policy article is a good overview of his experience in covering this strange new kind of war.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Spring Backward?

Caption: The clock tower at King's Street Station, London, England.

Image credit: Mike Quinn/UK Geographic

That whole "Spring forward. Fall backward." mnemonic made a whole lot more sense back in the days when we started daylight savings time in Spring. Now that we need to save more energy, or something, we're doing it earlier. Like, today. At least, that's true if you're in the United States. If you aren't, you may have a saner schedule to work with.

If you live in the United States, and you're not in Arizona, you probably need to set your clock ahead one hour this morning.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

February Job Numbers

For the third month in a row, the monthly employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that significantly more jobs were created than are needed to keep up with population growth:
The February employment situation report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed a labor market steadily moving in the right direction, with the addition of 227,000 jobs and the unemployment rate holding steady at 8.3 percent. Furthermore, this release marks two full years of job growth (excluding changes in employment due to temporary workers hired to conduct the 2010 Census).

Strengthened Jobs Recovery
There is genuine good news here, particularly that there are at least 31,000 new manufacturing jobs. Unfortunately, there is lots of bad news, still. As I've noted before, the worst news is that we are still ten million jobs away from employment levels during the George W. Bush Administration.

The folks crowing over this news as a good thing for President Obama's reelection potential should heed the words of Robert Reich:
The major driver of the U.S. economy over the past several months hasn’t been consumer spending. It’s been businesses rebuilding depleted inventories. Wholesalers increased their stockpiles again in February, bringing them up almost a quarter from their low in September 2009.

But businesses won’t continue to rebuild inventories unless consumers start buying again. big-time. And consumers won’t resume spending as they did before the recession until they’re far better off financially.

Yet how can they be sufficiently better off when their major asset has shrunk so much and when so few of the economic gains are going to them?

This is the central paradox at the heart of the American economy today. If it’s not resolved, the jobs recovery will stall, as it did last sprin

The Precarious Jobs Recovery
Plus, as Reich reminds us, it will still take several years to get back to those not-so-heady days of the Bush Administration.

There's another reason to be concerned, and that is probably the biggest concern for Democrats wondering about their re-election chances. Matt Stoller gives us just one example of why:
The Government Accountability Office continues its subtle war on the talking point used by Treasury that “TARP made money”. Here’s the GAO, with a report out today.
As of January 31, 2012, 341 institutions had exited CPP, almost half by repaying CPP with funds from other federal programs. Institutions continue to exit CPP, but the number of institutions missing scheduled dividend or interest payments has increased.
Much of the government-supplied TARP funding (to small banks) was replaced by the Small Business Lending Fund passed in 2010, which Republicans called “TARP 2.0″. The larger banks, however, where much of the bank-based credit creation in the economy takes place, didn’t use this program. Instead, they got an implicit subsidy of between $6B and $300B a year from the widespread belief that the government will not let their bondholders lose money.

GAO: Almost Half of Bailed Banks Repaid the Government With Money “From Other Federal Programs”
[See Stoller's article for supporting links.]

The TARP "repayment" that the Obama Administration keeps bragging about is an illusion. As I've pointed out before, that's only a small fraction of what taxpayers are effectively on the hook for.

The banking regulations in the Dodd-Franks bill that passed last year are a joke in comparison to what was needed. The financial sector of this country, which represents roughly a third of our economy, is the same unregulated casino it was in 2007, when the house of cards finally collapsed. Sooner or later, it will collapse again.

Plus, of course, the Obama Administration have virtually guaranteed that hundreds of thousands of homeowners, possibly millions, will be screwed out of whatever they had invested in their homes.

Except for those few who might not have found work otherwise, only fools celebrate news like this. We're so far from daylight that it's hard to remember what it actually looks like.

Quote Of The Day

Caption: Why is this man smiling? Maybe it's because he's finally leaving Crazytown.

Image credit: U.S. Congress/Wikimedia

Glenn Greenwald tries to sum up the congressional career of Dennis Kucinich, and what his actions and the criticism he garnered for them say about Washington, DC these days:
Would it have been better if he had won more fights? Sure. Could he have been a more shrewd and calculating political operative? Probably. But his failure to get Washington to see the wretched errors of its ways reflects far more on them than it does on him. Faced with a militarized and corporatized state and a cowardly political and media class that enables it, Kucinich did what he should have done: opposed it loudly, courageously, consistently, and passionately.

In sum, Kucinich was one of the those rare people in Washington whose commitment to his beliefs outweighed both his loyalty to his Party and his desperation to cling to political office. He thus often highlighted the severe flaws, deceit and cowardice of his fellow Democrats and their Party as well as the broader political class. That’s why he has to be vilified as crazy and wacky. He’s long been delivering an unpleasant message about the Democratic Party and Washington generally, and like all unwanted messengers, has to be dismissed and marginalized so that this criticism disappears. Thus, those who brought us the Iraq War, Endless War in general, citizen assassinations, the systematic incineration of the Constitution known as the War on Terror, the financial collapse, the destruction of the middle class, and the financial and political supremacy of banker-criminals are sane and respectable. Those who most vehemently opposed those assaults, like Dennis Kucinich, are the “wackiest.”

Dennis Kucinich and “wackiness”
It's hard not to look at what's been happening in DC these days, and not be thoroughly depressed by it. At least, that's true if you're someone who understands what the balance of powers and the Bill of Rights mean, and why they (used to?) exist. We have seen both our power as citizens and our economic well being diminished continually by the actions of both of the major political parties for at least the last twenty years. Yet, most of the time, what we see both in the news and in most of the progressive publications that cover DC is little more than partisan bickering. Contrast, for instance, the amount of virtual ink spilled in the last week over Rush Limbaugh's rude and provocative commentary about a young woman who testified before an ad-hoc Democratic congressional committee set up to discuss birth control, with the near silence on the Attorney General's assertion this week that the U.S. government is free to assassinate its citizens if the President feels the need.

Tell me that's not crazy.

As I've mentioned in the past, some of what is cited as proof that Kucinich is crazy is nothing more than supposition piled on top of nonsense. It is also true that, like his opposite number on the Right Ron Paul, he is someone who commits the ultimate sin in DC - seeing things differently. Like Ron Paul, he only looks crazy until you contrast him to the people around him.

I'd much rather have a Congress and a White House run by folks like Kucinich and Paul than people like Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Harry Reid. Kucinich and Paul are people who call out what they see as nonsense. Sometimes they don't get it right, but they're way more honest than the whores of the status quo who seem to run just about everything in DC, including the press.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Still More Atheist Outrage

Apparently, atheists are getting uppity again:
On Monday, March 5, American Atheists will erect two billboards with identical wording: You know it's a myth, and you have a choice. One board in Brooklyn will have both Hebrew and English, and the sister board in Arabic will be erected in Paterson NJ. Each will have the Hebrew and Arabic word for Yahweh/Allah on the left side.

American Atheists: Billboards 2012
Which, I think means in Hebrew "the god whose name we dare not speak is a myth". In any case, you'd think that if people get upset over this, then surely they'll be mortally offended by someone actually declaring that what they believe in is a myth. The New York Daily News found someone willing to comment:
Mohamed Elfilali, executive director of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, was not particularly troubled by news of the billboards. "It is not the first and won’t be the last time people have said things about God or religion,” he told CNN. “I respect people’s opinion about God; obviously they are entitled to it. I don’t think God is a myth, but that doesn’t exclude people to have a different opinion.”

Billboards saying God is “a myth” to go up in Jewish and Muslim communities
Strange as it might seem, I don't find it all that remarkable that there are religious leaders out there who can accept that there are people who aren't going to believe what they do. As I've mentioned a time or two, faith that's shaken by someone professing differing views isn't all that strong. What I find remarkable is that a major newspaper actually bothered to find such a person.

Every once in a while, it's nice to be surprised. As for the billboards themselves, let's hope they let people who haven't dared admit they are non-believers know that there are folks like them out there.

How About Aiming Higher?

Image credit: Cosmic Beaver

Economist Dean Baker wrote this at his blog yesterday:
It is unlikely that drivers would even notice the difference between a policy where we told the oil industry that it could drill wherever it wants and pay no attention to the number of people it kills in the process or the resulting damage to the environment and local economies and a policy where we banned all new offshore drilling. Over the next 2 years the difference would be virtually non-existent and even after 10 years it is unlikely to change the price of gas by more than 2-3 percent.

There Is Little Disagreement That Drilling Off the U.S. Coast Will Have Almost Zero Impact on the Price of Gas
Why is that? Part of the reason is something I wrote last year, when I was discussing the Obama Administration's decision to open up more areas of the Gulf of Mexico to offshore drilling:
According to the CIA World Factbook entry on the United States, we use roughly 19.5 million barrels of oil a day. Just multiplying that number by 365 shows that we use about 7.1 billion barrels a year. Subtracting our domestic oil production from that total, we import roughly 4 billion barrels a year. Everything they hope to find in the areas Obama is proposing to open up is about seven month's worth of consumption, or a year's worth of imports. For this, we will risk turning valuable beaches and fisheries into oil slicks.

Change, Baby, Change
Understanding why this would make almost no difference requires only the most modest understanding of mathematics. Most of the available oil is elsewhere. We are the world's biggest importer of oil. We are also the world's tenth largest (See NOTE 1) producer of oil. We produce lots of the stuff, and yet we continue to import large quantities. Drilling in all the offshore deposits we know about won't change that one bit.

As Dr. Baker mentions, there is a single market for oil. There is no reason to think that the oil extracted from the Gulf of Mexico won't end up in European or Latin American gas tanks.

What will make the price of oil products easier to live with, and lower our imports of them, is to reduce demand for them. There are a number of ways to do that. Conserving energy is one way to do that. Finding alternative fuels is another, which is why this program may have at least as much impact on our oil imports as anything else the Obama Administration has done:
Caption: From the original article: An F-16 from the 180th Fighter Wing undergoes preflight checks before taxiing down the runway, Feb. 12, 2012, at Ohio Air National Guard Base. The jet is operating on a 50/50 blend of conventional and biofuel as a part of a field service evaluation.

Image credit: Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock/USAF

In a joint effort by Airmen from the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and Airmen from the Ohio Air National Guard's 180th Fighter Wing, the F-16 Fight Falcon is currently undergoing a field service evaluation of biofuel.
Although other airframes, such as the C-17 Globemaster III, have been certified to use biofuel for unrestricted operations, this is the first evaluation of the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
Two F-16s from the 180th FW fleet have been designated to test the 50/50 blend of Jet Propellant-8 petroleum and Hydroprocessed Renewable Jet fuel derived from the camelina plant. Camelina is essentially a weed that grows throughout the United States and requires very little horticulture.

Ohio Airmen help F-16 go 'green'
The article goes on to explain that the biofuel is produced using algae. Taking something that is basically yard waste, then applying some goo to it that can be produced locally to make jet fuel is, potentially, a much bigger reduction of our foreign oil demands. In all, we burn the equivalent of a half billion barrels a year of petroleum as jet fuel. Reducing that by half could save at least a quarter of a billion barrels a year in imports.

How troublesome is this new kind of fuel? After all, jet engines are finely balanced machines. It doesn't take much at all to turn them into clattering junk. The Ohio Air National Guard article explains:
Another goal for the researchers and developers was to make the transition as seamless as possible. To date, there has been no additional training, equipment or maintenance required to begin using the fuel.

"When we first started this we were a little concerned because a few years ago we made the switch from JP4 to JP8 jet fuel," said Col. Scott Reed, the 180th Maintenance Group commander. "The difference between the two caused a few hiccups initially. Some of the gaskets and O-rings didn't expand as they normally would in the presence of the fuel, so we had leaks."
"The truth of it is there has been absolutely no noticeable difference whatsoever," Reed said. "There have been no fuel leaks, no operational impact."

Ohio Airmen help F-16 go 'green'
In short, it's been less of a problem than transitioning from an earlier version of purely petroleum-based fuel, and the planes that use it can use either that or the Air Force's standard fuel.

We're a lot of testing and a couple of hundred biochemical plants away from producing that much biofuel, but it's a resource we'll never run out of. In the long run, it makes a lot more sense to try things like this than to expose our beaches and fishing grounds to the kind of damage we saw last year.

Some of the earlier biofuels efforts by the Pentagon were initiated by the Bush Administration. I think that fact alone should show that not wanting to be dependent on imported fuel for our own defense is something of a no-brainer. Of course, there are plenty of other good reasons to make ourselves less dependent on petroleum products, particularly those we import from politically unstable parts of the world. We can keep risking our recreational areas, our wilderness refuges, and our food supply by continuing to open up more potentially hazardous areas to drilling, or we can, umm, aim higher.

NOTE 1: That list has us at number eleven, but the members of the European Union are also listed there. We are tenth, whether you count Norway as part of the EU, or ignore the EU as being double-counted.