31 January 2011
28 January 2011
27 January 2011
Farmer:'ere, vitin'ry, thou 'as t'stuff I've been dosing 'er with.
Herriot: (Sniffs bottle) Blimey, George! That's pure turpentine!
Farmer: Wha'? But 'e were such a nice feller! Only charged me 'alf a crown!
26 January 2011
25 January 2011
24 January 2011
"At exactly 8 Eastern tonight I will issue my first tweet. Well, other than THIS one :)"
...so that's 7pm, CST, and if my damned internet connection (which goes down everytime there's a light rain in the vicinity, never mind six inches of snow - curse you, Time Warner [but not as much as Comcast]) stays up, I'll be checking in.
22 January 2011
Last night, I think that something in American media died.
Whatever reality emerges as 'fact' in the wake if Keith Olbermann's sudden, indeed, precipitous departure from his flagship MSNBC programme, it is difficult to see how the media landscape can be enriched by this event. Yes, there is a proliferation of Internet sources that cater to not merely left-leaning audiences, but to those of us who prefer our news to be built on fact, rather than on ham-handedly spun webs of illogic. No, I'm not sure that any of them are quite enough.
There has always been something in Mr Olbermann's presentation that I thought that I recognized. At times bombastic, as was his privilege, and occasionally taking what seemed to me to be the wrong emphasis on a topic, there was something familiar in his voice, something which resonated with me. A man who cited the life and work of Spike Milligan, for example, to my mind was of the same stripe as me. And yes, he also rekindled a liking for James Thurber in me too. And even if the Thurber segment was born out of his own personal tragedy in the death of his father, even his handling of that painful moment demonstrated what seemed to me a very dignified, and human, response to the realities of life and living, without descending into maudlin sentimentality or the crassly offensive platitudes of the religious.
Yes, the constant summoning of the ghost of Bill O'Reilly (link to him yourself, I'm not going to help his traffic) was a bit overmuch. The vile excrescence that is Glenn Beck likewise, Olbermann's anger and obvious bewilderment that some of the more vile people on the media and political scene of late had careers, never mind followings, was a reminder that we as members of a notionally-advanced western society have a right to demand more of our public figures, certainly more than what we are getting now.
Many people are just stunned. While Twitter burst to life on the announcement, other media was, at first, more muted. It's more likely the fact that so many people are bound by their contracts to keep quiet, like Rachel Maddow, the super-intelligent and sparkling Olbermann protege, who was a guest on HBOs Real Time with Bill Maher when the news broke. The LA Times has a good précis in this morning's edition, but it seems to add little to what broke last night. Even Fox, which announced his departure with ill-restrained glee and are certainly no more gracious winners than they are losers, covered this story with their usual half-addled blend of journalism and spittle-flecked venom.
Finally, I wish that I could draw some other conclusion than that the sinister hand of Comcast was behind this, despite their immediate denial. Sometimes a denial is true, sometimes it is merely convenient and plausible. No one who knows can tell us, so let the speculation begin. Start feeding the rumor mill. If there are other conclusions to draw, let's have the evidence, but it just looks bad. In fact, you'd think a media company would have more sense about appearances and timelines, unless they're incompetent, or contemptuous. Which is it, then?
In the meantime, what to do with MSNBC? Reward them for this in some way? I both watch the channel (thankfully not on Comcast, who ever thought I'd be grateful for Time Warner?) and listen to their Sirius satellite feed when I drive (despite the rubbish adverts that they run). I consume two - well, now one, I guess - of their podcasts. And I won't immediately abandon the Rachel Maddow Show, nor Lawrence O'Donnell, for whom I am developing a taste. But I will be suspicious. And, ultimately, turning off the Telly and reading a book is often a better way to learn things. So take that, Phil Griffin and co.: you get ambiguity and a tentative sense of suspicion and betrayal. From your base. Happy?
Finally, thank you, Keith, if i may be so familiar. It has been a good run, and I've appreciated what you have done and tried to do. Your exit, whatever the motivation, was dignified and premature. Best wishes.
The Countdown website is still up for the moment. Enjoy it while you can.
Good night, and good luck.
21 January 2011
20 January 2011
The stark difference in colour is clear, as well, from this photograph of the hummingbird feeder. Even in winter, without snow, there are muted greys, browns, as well as the never-completely-gone greens. Again, in the space of a mere fifteen days, how easy it is to forget.
19 January 2011
I was reading an entertaining list of the 50 Most Loathsome Americans of 2010 (H/T to the ever-present PZ Myers, who writes as much and as well as I one day hope to do). Sure, some of my personal favourites were missing from the list, but for the most part, it's a thoughtful examination of some of the more repugnant figures of the last year.
At Number 23 was the lamentable Joe Barton, best known in 2010 for apologising to BP CEO Tony Hayward (a classic wide boy if ever there were one) for the Obama Administration having had the temerity to ask that BP put money aside to pay for environmental damage caused by their [allegedly] negligent pouring of
But apparently, Barton, who whatever his faults does hold a degree in engineering, and who also worked for oil and gas company Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) back in the 1980s, before their purchase and eventual dissolution by BP America in 2000, revealed in a hearing in 2009 that... wait for it... that he didn't know where oil came from. And, further, that he doesn't understand one of the foundational notions of geology: plate tectonics.
Okay, lots of people don't necessarily know where oil comes from, or even assume that it is the product of dead dinosaurs, which is mainly the fault of cartoons (I never found 'The Flintstones' funny anyway) and those damned Sinclair dinosaurs. Hell, Keith Olbermann made that slip on one occasion, and I didn't get too bothered. It's a popular misconception. It happens.
But not only that: Barton didn't understand anything about where oil and gas came from. To quote the article:
"Chu and other administration officials are testifying today before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Barton, the top Republican on the committee and a recipient of $1,330,160 in oil money, was flabbergasted by the concept of continental drift. After Chu explained that “oil and gas is the result of hundreds of millions of years of geology and in that time also the plates have moved around,” Barton questioned whether oil didn’t actually reach Alaska through a secret Texas pipeline:
[Barton:]"Isn’t it obvious that at one time it was a lot warmer in Alaska and on the North Pole? It wasn’t a big pipeline that we’ve created from Texas and shipped it up there and put it under ground so we can now pump it up?"
I don't know enough about the man to be able to tell if he was trying to be funny, or if he's just an unmitigated ass. Let's leave my suspicions unspoken, shall we?
And further, Barton, who apparently didn't learn anything at school, thought that he had "baffled" Dr Chu, a physicist, as revealed in this tweet:
I seemed to have baffled the Energy Sec with basic question - Where does oil come from? Check out the video: http://bit.ly/O4m0p #tcot
No, you cussing prang-warbler, you didn't baffle Dr Chu, except perhaps in the sense that he was baffled as to how in the seven levels of hell that you, Mr Barton, ever became a member of a House Committee dealing with anything more important than sandwich fillings in the Congressional cafeteria. If anything, you gave him six seconds to answer a question that needs more time to answer, and you didn't comprehend the answer as far as he was able to get. The failure to understand, obviously, was yours, and not his.
Which leads me to my real question: what the hell is this man doing on a Committee that deals with the exploration for and exploitation of energy resources? It's been almost two years since this happened, and he's still bloody there. If that doesn't frighten you, just a little bit (even in a world of frightening things, many of them with an "R" after their names), then you, mon ami, are impervious to fear.
17 January 2011
It has happened again this year.
It will probably happen next year as well.
The consequences, if it does not fail, will be... what?
The National Center for Science Education is reporting that a new bill, House Bill No. 195, has been introduced in the Missouri House of Representatives. Its purpose? To instate religion in public schools, through the tired old trope of "science isn't fair, because our myths and fairy stories aren't taught as being of equal gravity and importance". No, it doesn't use those exact words.
Here's Section 3 of the proposed bill:
"3. This section only protects the teaching of scientific information and this section shall not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or nonbeliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion. Scientific information includes physical evidence and logical inferences based upon evidence."
Sounds innocuous, doesn't it? In fact, to me, it sounds pretty reasonable. Schools have no business talking about religion at all, except to acknowledge its role in history. And students shouldn't be burdened with the philosophical views of others, beyond the evidence found in science. If a fifteen year-old wants to talk philosophy, they can do it on their own time, right (not that I'd want to be a part of that conversation - I remember being fifteen, so no, thanks)? But you knew there was a catch, didn't you? There is, and it's embodied in sections One and Two:
"Section A. Chapter 170, RSMo, is amended by adding thereto one new section, to be known as section 170.335, to read as follows:
"170.335. 1. The state board of education, public elementary and secondary school governing authorities, superintendents of schools, school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues, including biological and chemical evolution. Such educational authorities in this state shall also endeavor to assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies. Toward this end, teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of the theory of biological and hypotheses of chemical evolution."
"2. Neither the state board of education, nor any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, superintendent of schools, or school system administrator, nor any public elementary or secondary school principal or administrator shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of biological or chemical evolution whenever these subjects are taught within the course curriculum schedule."
The emphasis is mine in both.
I should point out, before going any further, that this has happened before. And each time, the bill has never even gotten out of committee. Which was a good thing, for the reasons that follow.
"Strengths and weaknesses" language is code. We've seen it in Kansas, in Texas, in Kentucky - in more states than I care to name. It is code developed by organisations which, rather than focusing on their own fields are determined to meddle in science education, and to put things into it that don't belong there. The argument goes something like this:
- Evidence for unguided biological evolution is really strong. It comes from genetics, paleontology, comparative anatomy, geology, chemistry, and cosmology. And we don't like that, not one little bit.
- We must therefore undermine the evidence by creating fake controversies, grey areas, and muddying the waters around key points of what are, to all intents and purposes, scientific facts. This ensures our continued power and control over a significant number of the next generation, because we have created doubt in the process not only of thinking about biology, but in thinking about evidence and ratiocination as a whole. If we pretend that evidence is relative or subjective, then we have all the doubt that we need.
- To create these fake controversies, we must insert the "strengths and weaknesses" language into state level educational legislation, because teaching creationism and religion as fact in public schools has been struck down, repeatedly, in courts at every level.
I'll try to make this simple. Creationism is not science, it is religion. Intelligent design is not science, it is religion. If you use "strengths and weaknesses" language, you immediately give the game away that what you are trying to do is bring theodicy into public schools through some kind of magic door. It doesn't matter how much you conceal it in misleading terminology, in disingenuous arguments about "equal time for equal theories" (which they are not), in frankly mendacious comparisons of biologists and other scientists to every bogeyman in history. IT DOESN'T MATTER.
And when you say that "scientists disagree" about evolution, that's true. But what you should say - if you were honest, or if you understood or cared anything at all about science - is that scientists disagree about key points in evolutionary theory. They don't disagree about the theory's validity itself, unless they are one of your handful of third-tier biologists, dentists, and assorted designers of pencil sharpeners, who you seem to think have the same weight of evidence behind them as geneticists, molecular biologists, paleontologists and the like who actually do this work for a living.
What we have here is not a failure to communicate. What we have is a failure to understand.
Which in itself is readily comprehensible. How can you expect to cut school funding for a generation and still have an educated population which can evaluate data and make sense of it, or even think critically? In that way, I don't blame the voters of Missouri for botching this one. I do blame the cynical opportunists of politicians looking to shore up their misguided base for the next election cycle.
Why is this important? Consider this: evolution is the foundational notion of all modern biology, and all of the biological technology industries (biotech) rely on the implications of evolutionary thought . Is there some irony, therefore, in this: a two and a half year old statistic, published on Reuters, and of which I only became aware due to - of all things - a billboard on Interstate 35 on the Kansas side of downtown Kansas City:
"A national site selection magazine has placed Kansas in its Top 10 list of states in the nation for biotechnology, along with states such as California, Massachusetts, and Illinois."
Note this, though: that selection was before the current economic disaster through which we are suffering, and, indeed, before Kansans cleverly elected a confirmed anti-evolutionist and former presidential candidate, Sam Brownback, to be governor.
Missouri, also, fancies itself as a biotechnology hub. The following statement is from the front page of the website of Stowers Insitute, a Kansas City, Missouri-based biotechnology research organisation:
"The Stowers Institute for Medical Research aspires to be one of the most innovative biomedical research organizations in the world. The Institute conducts basic research on genes and proteins that control fundamental processes in living cells to unlock the mysteries of disease and find the keys to their causes, treatment, and prevention. "
You will observe: it doesn't say word one about Intelligent Design. Or creationism. Or magic men knocking up a six thousand year old universe on a whim one Thursday when there was nothing good on the telly. Or any of the other fabricated fantasy propounded by these witless legislators. And it never would, because ID and creationism are, at best, philosophical positions (if you want to be really generous): THEY ARE NOT SCIENCE. It's against this backdrop that these slack-jawed yokels have once again flopped this bill like so much freshly-caught fish onto the legislative counter.
There's a concern among some observers that due to the particular brand of anti-intellectual, anti-science thinking endemic to this new class of Tea Party caffeine junkies and reincarnated Known Nothings, legislation like this bill might find its sea legs and actually be scheduled on a legislative docket. It might even come to a vote in the Missouri legislature. And if it were to pass, think of the waste. The waste of time, the waste of resources, and the waste of money. Imagine how likely high tech industries would be to locate in a state where it says, right there in the statutes, that the students you get from Missouri high schools and universities will be among the best and the brightest... as long as they aren't expected to evaluate a gene sequence, correctly date a limestone layer, or understand that our Sun didn't just switch on one day when someone said "fiat lux".
Know this: evolution is real. It is a fact. If that does something to your conception of the universe, then that's between you and the universe. It has nothing, however, to do with empirical reality.
16 January 2011
The funny thing is this: it's not as though I haven't been writing. And it's not as though I haven't had things to write about. 2010 was a year that had a lot going on in it for me (and here, just for now, let's pretend that the last sentence was vaguely grammatical). But the fact is that my perfectionism often gets the better of me, to the extent that if I find that I don't have the time to do something right, I tend to avoid doing it at all.
No more, though. Let's try this out for a bit, and see what happens.
The thing about organizing your feeds in an app like Pulse is that, if you're like me and have carelessly filled up all of the slots *before* deciding that you'd like to organise the five available columns of entries according to your own peculiar tastes, the task becomes rather more of a mind-cuss than it should be.
Example: do you remember, if you are of a certain age, the square puzzles with a single piece missing, locked in a grid so that the only way to solve the puzzle was to slide pieces around each other, in seemingly more chaotic patterns, until you were finally able to make up the image of a monkey, or whatever? Well,that much the same as organizing feeds in Pulse when you've filled up eleven of your available twelve slots in each of the five columns, and then decide that you want to undertake a wholesale move of every entry. And as I hated those bloody little puzzles as a child in the 70s, moving things in Pulse made me feel the same way.
The cheat, I then remembered, was to pop out the puzzle pieces and to click them back into place in the right order. Or, in the modern metaphor, to delete blogs that I realized I'd never bloody read anyway, and pare back to the core. There. Job done. Blog consumption happiness achieved, ghost of childhood frustrations, defeated, ridiculously First World sort of not-problem, solved.
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad (this is your one advertisement, BlogPress, so make it count)