Sunday, September 30, 2012

Science prizes from the ridiculous to the sublime

It's science award season and the past two Science Saturdays on Daily Kos have reflected that by including stories about the silliest and most respected science prizes. Last week's lead story described the IgNobel Prizes. From the L.A. Times.

Ig Nobel Prizes honor research on why coffee spills when you walk
By Karen Kaplan
September 21, 2012, 1:04 p.m.
The Nobel Prize. The Lasker Prize. The Fields Medal. The MacArthur Fellowships (a.k.a. “the genius grants”). The Kavli Prize. The Ig Nobels.

Among the various awards given for scientific achievement, the Ig Nobels may not be the most coveted — but they’re certainly the most fun. The winners are selected by the Annals of Improbable Research to recognize breakthroughs that first make you laugh, then make you think. “The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology,” according to the organization’s website.

The 2012 Ig Nobels Prizes were handed out Thursday night at Harvard University, a place that knows a thing or two about academic achievement. Winners traveled from as far away as Russia, Japan, Rwanda, France and California to participate in the celebration, and no fewer than five actual Nobel Laureates were on hand to serve as presenters.
My former hometown's newspaper liked the study of coffee spilling, but other news reports preferred the physics of ponytails when writing their headlines.

Of course, the IgNobel Prizes are parodies of the Nobel Prizes. Usually, they're awarded the next week. That's not the case this year, but that didn't prevent people from writing about them. Here's the editor of The Web of Science, which used to be the Science Citation Index, giving his forecast of Nobel Laureates based on how many times their papers have been cited by others.

Huffington Post: Naming the Nobels: Predicting the World's Most Prestigious Prizes in Science
David Pendlebury
Citation Analyst, Thomson Reuters
Posted: 09/28/2012 10:25 pm
In two weeks, the eyes of the world's research community will be fixed firmly on Stockholm for the announcement of the Nobel Prizes. In celebration, Thomson Reuters released its annual list of Citation Laureates, esteemed scientists whose contributions to medicine, physics, chemistry and economics make them likely contenders for a Nobel Prize.

Over a decade ago, Thomson Reuters began publishing its annual list of scientists considered candidates worthy of a Nobel Prize. The primary factor pointing to their nomination was their record of citations in scientific literature. At high frequency, citations are a strong indicator of peer esteem and research influence -- citations represent a formal repayment of intellectual debts by members of the scientific community.
...
Over the years, interest in the Thomson Reuters method of forecasting Nobel Prizes has grown and, in 2002, the company officially began releasing its picks. Since then, 26 Thomson Reuters Citation Laureates have gone on to receive a Nobel Prize. Last year, all nine of the winners in medicine, physics, chemistry, and economics were identified as Thomson Reuters Citation Laureates, either in 2008 or 2010. Thomson Reuters is the only organization to predict the Nobel Prizes quantitatively, and it does so through citation data from its Web of Knowledge research database.
No one had commented on that article when I read it (ETA: and they still haven't). I tried, but the site didn't acknowledge my login. Here's what my comment would have been.
The most fireworks over the winner will be over the Laureate for the Economics Prize, at least among the people on your list. Some political faction will make hay over the choice, while someone else's ox will be gored. People on the political Left should root for Atkinson and Deaton, while those on the Right should root for Ross. That would seem to make Shiller a safe choice, right? Don't count on it. He told the truth about the housing bubble back when people on the Right were denying there was any such thing.

Of course, the firestorm over the Economics prize will be nothing compared to the one over the Peace Prize. That always ticks people off!
The Literature Prize will also cause some controversy, as its much more subjective.

As for the hard science prizes, they're usually pretty boring, at least in terms of dispute over the value of the discovery. About the only one I have any personal interest in is Physiology or Medicine; one of the people named is a professor at UCLA. I'd like to see my undergraduate alma mater earn a Nobel.

Controversy aside, I wouldn't mind Shiller winning the economics prize. I'm more familiar with him than the others, and I actually use his work here from time to time--like right now. Here's the latest Case-Shiller Housing Index, courtesy of Calculated Risk.



Looks like housing prices have finally bottomed. That's good news, so it's time to break out Professor Farnsworth for the second time this month.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Endeavour's last flight and other space and astronomy news

I've delayed long enough in posting the space and astronomy news from last week's Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (2012 IgNobel Prizes edition) on Daily Kos, so here it is. The top story is the transcontinental flight of space shuttle Endeavour to its new home in a California museum.

NASA Television on YouTube: Endeavour Goes Cross-Country on This Week @NASA

Atop the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, Endeavour completes its journey from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to Los Angeles, where it'll go on display at the California Science Center next month. Also, Shuttle Social, Curiosity Cruises, Helping Hangout, Ride Remembered, and more.
I have more from the University of Arizona on YouTube, which was fortunate enough to have a flyover by request.

Space Shuttle Endeavour Flies Over UA Mall
 
On it's way to retirement at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, the space shuttle Endeavour few over the University of Arizona as thousands of students, faculty and staff looked on. Mark Kelly, the last person to command a mission aboard the shuttle, requested the UA visit in honor of his wife, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Viewers on the UA Mall cheered and took photographs of the shuttle as it passed.
This completes the previous chapter in human space flight by the U.S. May there be another one so that our society does not act out the tragic science fiction plot of losing the ability to travel to space as a sign of a declining technological civilization.

More news from the asteroid belt to college campuses over the jump

Social media shaping policy


In last week's Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (2012 IgNobel Prizes edition) on Daily Kos, I found these two stories about how social media is shaping policy. The first involves the use of social media in diplomacy. My reaction is "about time" considering how important social media was in the Arab Spring and also the current unrest over "The Innocence of Muslims."*

University of Arizona: UA Study Looks at Use of Social Media in Public Diplomacy
School of Journalism
September 17, 2012
The use of social media for the purpose of public diplomacy has increasingly drawn the attention of U.S. diplomacy professionals, observers and political analysts especially after the recent attacks on the U.S. embassies in Egypt and Libya that were triggered by outrage over an anti-Islamic video released on Sept. 11. As more riots are planned in neighboring countries, including Algeria and Yemen, U.S. embassies have used Twitter posts to save face and play defense.

Shahira Fahmy, an associate professor in the University of Arizona School of Journalism, and a colleague from the University of Texas examined foreign public diplomacy specialists’ adoption of social media such as Twitter for public diplomacy purposes. Using a survey of foreign embassies and consulates, their study explored whether effort and performance expectancy, social influence and attitudes, facilitating conditions and perceived credibility might have influenced the adoption of social media in public diplomacy practice.

“The U.S. government and foreign policy analysts have shown great interest and enthusiasm in exploring how to increase the efficiency of using social media for more effective public diplomacy. However, studies on the issue have been rare. By the time my colleague and I initiated this research in 2009, a search in the scholarly database ProQuest with key words ‘diplomacy’ and ‘social media’ or any type of the social media such as ‘blog,’ ‘YouTube,’ ‘Twitter,’ or ‘Wikipedia’ generated no results,” Fahmy said.
The second describes how researchers are monitoring social media for reports of adverse drug reactions. If it improves medical care, I'm all for it.

University of Virginia: Research To Sift Social Media for Early Signs of Adverse Drug Reactions
H. Brevy Cannon
September 20, 2012
The National Science Foundation has awarded a $130,000 grant to a team co-led by University of Virginia professor Ahmed Abbasi to fund research that will analyze social media, including tweets and online discussion forums, to identify adverse drug reactions – a process that promises to be much faster and perhaps also more accurate than the existing methods of identifying such reactions.

Using state-of-the-art data analysis tools, Abbasi, a professor of information technology at U.Va.’s McIntire School of Commerce, and four collaborators at West Virginia University will explore how tens of thousands of pharmaceutical-related comments shared on Web forums, blogs and other social media can be harnessed as an early-warning signal of adverse drug reactions.

Currently, once drugs come to market, the FDA relies upon consumers to report adverse side-effects through physicians and other official reporting channels.
Welcome to the 21st Century; we live in science-fiction times.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The gas price rollercoaster finally descends

In the previous update, I passed on WXYZ's forecast that gas prices would drop during September. It took a while for that prediction to come true, but it finally did.

The corner station's price held steady at $3.99 for a couple of weeks before inching down to $3.98 in the middle of the month, when it remained until about a week ago, when it went down to $3.95. That's not falling like a parachute, that's gliding like a sailplane. Only this week did the price jump out and open its parachute. By Tuesday, the price dropped again to $3.92, which is where it was Wednesday morning when I decided not to fuel up my car, but wait until afternoon. That ended up being a smart decision, as the price fell to $3.85. I filled my tank up only halfway, as I suspected the price would fall even more before I needed to gas up again. That prediction came true even sooner than I expected, as the corner station was selling regular for $3.79 yesterday.

As for whether the price will continue to trend down or reverse course, normally it would continue to fall because summer driving season is over and demand for gas will decrease. These are not normal times. Here's what Bloomberg News had to say about oil prices yesterday.

Oil Recovers From 8-Week Low After U.S. Inventories Drop
Oil rebounded from the lowest close in almost two months and extended gains on speculation that China will take measures to stimulate its economy.
...
Oil for November delivery gained as much as $1.46 to $91.44 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange and was at $91.17 at 1:35 p.m. London time. The contract yesterday fell $1.39 to $89.98, the lowest close since Aug. 2. Prices are down 5.5 percent this month and up 7.3 percent this quarter.
Brent oil for November settlement rose $1.43, or 1.3 percent, to $111.47 a barrel on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange. The European benchmark grade’s premium to West Texas Intermediate was at $20.39 after closing yesterday at $20.06, the widest since Aug. 16.
According to the calculator at Econobrowser, a price of $111.47 for Brent crude means that the average price of gas in the U.S. should be $3.62. However, Econobrowser shows the latest price to be $112.37, meaning a price of $3.65. That's still lower than it is now, so expect prices at the pump to sink just a little more, but not much, as the fear premium over Iran is still in effect and U.S. gasoline inventories are down.
Gasoline inventories dropped 481,000 barrels last week, the Energy Department said. They were projected to gain 500,000 barrels, according to the median estimate of 11 analysts in the survey. Distillate supplies, a category that includes heating oil and diesel, declined 482,000 barrels compared with a forecast 500,000 barrel increase in the survey.
That's the bad news. Here's the good news.
U.S. oil production surged last week to the highest level since January 1997 after output rebounded from August shutdowns in the Gulf of Mexico because of Hurricane Isaac. Output rose by 3.7 percent to 6.509 million barrels a day in the week ended Sept. 21, the Energy Department said.

The nation met 83 percent of its energy needs in the first six months of the year, department data show. Imports have declined 3.2 percent from the same period a year earlier.
Everyone listen to Professor Farnsworth.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Science Fiction, Double Feature, Part 1

I concluded my previous post about Revolution with this footnote.
I also mentioned The Hunger Games. I've read the first book and have the movie recorded. I'll write something after I watch the movie.
My wife and I watched The Hunger Games last night, right after we saw the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie. It was enough to make me sing "Science fiction, double feature, late night show." Combined with the previous night's viewing of Revolution, we got a good dose of J.J. Abrams and post-apocalyptic science fiction. In fact, Star Trek qualifies as both, just like Revolution. As I responded to a PoliticusUSA article asking "where's my Star Trek future?"
[T]he author is premature in his being disgruntled. After all, the original series is set in 2265 according to Wikipedia. That's 250 years off. We have plenty of time to get there, including a nuclear world war. Memory Alpha, the Star Trek Wiki, has that conflict running from 2026 to 2053. According to the future history of Star Trek, a horrible 21st Century isn't a bug, it's a feature. We might have the Star Trek future he wants after all. We'll just have to suffer for the next 50 years to get there.
Not only is this true of Star Trek as a whole, it's true of this particular movie, as we get to watch the planet Vulcan implode into an artificial black hole at its core. Talk about collapse!

While J.J. Abrams went to great lengths to free his movies from the strictures of Star Trek canon by creating a new timeline that diverged just before Kirk's birth, he also went to great lengths to ensure that the characters would stay as intact as possible. Kirk is just as much a cocky, skirt-chasing wildman as ever (we even get to see him in bed with a green-skinned space babe), if not more so because he's younger and more damaged than the original. It's easy to see this 20-something grow in to the character who inspired "I can't hear you over the sound of how awesome I am" demotivational posters.


McCoy is the same pessimistic curmudgeonly worrywort, just a little younger. Spock is a bit more emotional than the original, highlighting his human side, but he's can be as logical and efficient as ever. It's not a bad change at all. Speaking of changes, Uhuru gets a major personality upgrade, something she needed from the original. She also gets to be Spock's love interest. Are we going to see a love triangle involving Nurse Chapel in this timeline? Another changed character is Scott, who is a little more fun-loving and rambunctuous. I'm not worried about that; he'll have plenty of time to become more dour as the series goes on. While all of the above are interesting differences in the portrayal of the characters, the differences all work.

On the other hand, Sulu and Chekov's characters are more like McCoy--just younger versions of themselves. That's not bad at all. In fact, one of my favorite moments came when Kirk asked Sulu what his hand-to-hand combat skill was. I just about fell off my couch laughing at the response--"Fencing." For someone who had been a Star Trek fan since the series first aired in 1966, it was perfect.


Oh, my!

Finally, I got to see one of my alma maters as Star Fleet Academy. Even before I watched the movie, I just knew that it would feature the Oviatt Library at CSUN. That building was so monumental that the students called in the Soviet Library. I was not disappointed.

CSUN Oviatt Library

As for how I felt about the movie, it left me feeling that the franchise was in good hands--and there will be a next movie in the franchise.


That's it for the first part of the science fiction double feature. The next installment will be about The Hunger Games.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A meta update on driving

In my first week of blogging, I related the following story I tell my students to describe the importance of forethought and sustainability considerations in consumption.
Back in 2002, my previous car was getting long in the tooth, so I started thinking about replacing it. My son suggested I buy an Aztek. At first, I liked the idea, as it was a rugged, outdoorsy car, which fit my self-image. Then I looked at the car. I could see all kinds of places for food and drink, storage for camping gear and coolers, and rear seats that folded down to make a bed. I then realized that my son was trying to convince me to buy a party-mobile that he could borrow! I might have actually gone along with this idea, but then I looked at the car's gas mileage--24 highway and 16 city. While gas was cheap then, I knew that, within the lifetime of the next car I would buy, it wouldn't be. I also was living 70 miles from my work. I didn't like the idea of trading in a car that got 40 miles to the gallon on the highway for one that was about half as efficient, especially when I knew I'd be paying a lot more for gas. So, I didn't buy an Aztek.

When I needed to buy a car, I got a Kia instead. It got 32 miles to the gallon, but it was an automatic. I was willing to sacrifice a few miles to the gallon so that my left foot and right hand could rest. Yeah, I'm a sucker for convenience, too.
As it turned out, my prediction was correct.  By May 2004, only two years later and less than a year after I bought the Kia in October 2003, gas had broken through $2.00/gallon.  Right after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans at the end of August 2005, gas jumped to $3.00/gallon.  By July 2008, it hit $4.00/gallon for the first time.  That Aztek would have been a disaster, especially since the miles I drove increased dramatically to 48,000 at their peak between May 2005 and May 2006.  Here's the short and long of the story I tell my students about that experience.
Six years ago, I drove 48,000 miles a year. Now I drive less than 10,000. I'm much happier driving much less.
...
From 2000-2004, I regularly put 40,000 miles on my car. In 2005, I began driving 1000 miles a week when school was in session to three different colleges and a tutoring service. Then on the weekends, I'd judge marching bands or cover drum and bugle corps shows. From May 2005 to May 2006, I drove 48,000 miles. That was the year I put my house up for sale, stopped seeing my long-distance girlfriend, and eventually sold my house. In June, I moved to the middle of my jobs and cut my driving down to 700 miles a week. Then I changed one of my jobsites and cut it down to 500 miles a week. Then I got a full-time job and quit my part-time jobs and dropped to 300 miles a week. Finally, we moved and I now drive 70 miles a week. I'm so close to work I could ride a bike on a good day.
I use a quote from a Forbes article to drive home the point: "This is why the most fuel-efficient vehicle is a moving van."  It's also how I'm contributing to the trend that I point out every time I post a driving update here, the decrease in miles driven by Americans since the end of 2007.  Calculated Risk posted an update of that statistic yesterday along with the following graph.


Bill McBride at Calculated Risk analyzed the trends and expected that, despite falling gas prices during July and early August, miles driven would remain depressed, possibly for the forseeable future.
Gasoline prices peaked in April at close to $4.00 per gallon, and then started falling.
Gasoline prices were down in July to an average of $3.50 per gallon according to the EIA. Last year, prices in July averaged $3.70 per gallon - and even with the decline in gasoline prices, miles driven declined year-over-year in July. 
Just looking at gasoline prices suggest miles driven will be down in August too. 
However, as I've mentioned before, gasoline prices are just part of the story. The lack of growth in miles driven over the last 4+ years is probably also due to the lingering effects of the great recession (high unemployment rate and lack of wage growth), the aging of the overall population (over 55 drivers drive fewer miles) and changing driving habits of young drivers. With all these factors, it may be years before we see a new peak in miles driven.
It's already been years since the last peak. The current spell of lower total miles driven is at 56 months and counting. The previous record of 39 months was set in 1982, so we're in uncharted territory. Don't worry, I'm prepared. I even have a quote and cartoon for that.
Hang on for "a long, wild ride into the unknown." May I be up to being a worthy tour guide.


Yes, I used to wear a work uniform like that. Stop laughing.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Revolution: A World Made by Hand

I mentioned the TV show Revolution last May,* when I wrote that the trailer looked intriguing. My wife and I finally watched the first two episodes last night, and I have to say that the show lived up to my expectations. I found the characters interesting, the action exciting, if bloody (the show has a TV 14 rating, and deserves it), and the handling of the post-collapse setting fairly realistic. For a taste of the setting, characters, and violence, here's a clip of a particularly dramatic and action-packed scene.

Captain Tom Neville comes to Sylvania Estates in search of Ben Matheson.
As you can see, it pulls no punches.

Even the weird science that underlies the premise has been handled well so far. The show acknowledges that shutting off electricity permanently violates the laws of physics, but notes that if it's man-made, it's not only explainable, but reversible. That premise will be driving the plot for years as the characters pursue their epic quest. It's also what will make this world different from Kunstler's "A World Made by Hand" series, which it strongly resembles on the surface. While I've only read excerpts of his books, I know enough to say that he likes the post-collapse world he's created. I have difficulty imagining him making anyone who wanted to turn the power back on as the heroes of his fiction.

As for the plot, well, this is J.J. Abrams, who created Lost. It took me until the polar bears showed up in that show to realize that I was watching a science fiction program. At least with Revolution, I know it's a science fiction series from the get-go. Also, since this is J.J. Abrams, I'm looking forward to seeing how deep the rabbit hole goes. I'm sure it will take several seasons to get to the bottom, let alone explore all the side tunnels--and there will be side tunnels, as the show's creators and the actors hint to in this promo clip.

Get the lowdown on the premiere episode from the actors and creators of Revolution.
As someone who used to work at a now-closed roadside attraction, I find the abandoned amusement park in the first episode creepy. I should get used to it, as the rest of the first two episodes have lots of derelict vehicles of all kinds littered all over the landscape, to say nothing of all the ghost cities and empty highways.

In case you are wondering, there is already a TVTropes page for the show. Keep an eye on it as the list of tropes and examples expand.

*I also mentioned The Hunger Games. I've read the first book and have the movie recorded. I'll write something after I watch the movie.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Four years ago: The Dark Bailout

Here's another reminder of how things look better than four years ago, when we were partying like 1929.  This is what ABC News posted about an event that happened four years ago tonight.

Bush: Bail Out Economy, or Face 'Long and Painful Recession'
It also came a day after Bush went before the nation to argue for his administration's proposed $700 billion bailout of the financial system, which had been met with skepticism by some in Congress and the American public.

"Our entire economy is in danger," Bush said, urging Congress to take quick action and outlining his rationale for the bailout.

Failing to pass a rescue plan, Bush said, would create the risk of a "long and painful recession" -- meaning more foreclosures, lost jobs, declining home values, business failures, stock losses and difficulty getting loans.
Too late. The market had already slipped into a financial panic and the economy had been in recession since December 2007 and would remain in recession until July 2009. TARP, which is what the bailout would become, wasn't enough to stop what had already started. It was enough to keep overnight credit markets open, thus preventing a complete collapse. This means that the skeptics and critics were both right and wrong. TARP didn't work as advertised, because it was too little, too late, but was adequate to prevent an even bigger disaster. It also, as this cartoon I used to conclude my previous post entry about four years ago, put the taxpayers under water.


I won't bore my readers with the entire speech here.* Instead, I present "The Dark Bailout," which appeared the next day.


As for how things have improved since then, even William Kristol admitted that "Obama Team Has Turned Around" Bush's Financial Meltdown. Yes, really.

*If you're interested, the text of the speech is here and Talking Points Memo has the video here.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The psychology of campaign ads plus a bad sign for representative democracy

In the tip jar to Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (2012 IgNobel Prizes edition) on Daily Kos, I included these four items. The first, from Ohio State University, describes how people tune out ads they don't want to pay attention to. It's a good example of "don't confuse me with the 'facts'; my mind's made up."

Zheng Wang, assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University, demonstrates how she and her colleagues measured physiological responses to viewing presidental campaign ads.
Your Body Doesn’t Lie: People Ignore Political Ads of Candidates They Oppose
September 17, 2012
COLUMBUS, Ohio - A recent study examined people’s bodily responses while watching presidential campaign ads - and discovered another way that people avoid political information that challenges their beliefs.

In the last days of the 2008 campaign, researchers had people watch a variety of actual ads for Republican presidential candidate John McCain and his Democratic rival Barack Obama while the viewers’ heart rates, skin conductance and activation of facial muscles were monitored.

The results showed that partisan participants reacted strongly to ads featuring their favored candidate, but barely responded to ads featuring the rival candidate.

In comparison, people who didn’t favor one candidate over the other showed similar physiological response patterns and intensity to ads for both Obama and McCain.
I admit to doing this myself, as I am already tuning out the ads for the positions I disagree with on some of the ballot proposals. While the above is normal, the next pair of articles should give one pause, as they demonstrate that negative ads are becoming less effective for a paradoxical reason, decreased faith in government. It seems that one can't discourage someone who doesn't believe in government in the first place.

University of Florida: Negative political ads pack punch with voters who trust politicians, UF study shows September 18, 2012
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Contrary to conventional wisdom, negative political advertisements don’t always work as well as some believe. In part, this is because the audience with which they seem to work best — people who think government works — has been shrinking.

In a study presented in September to the American Political Science Association, University of Florida political science professor Stephen Craig and Paulina S. Rippere, a UF doctoral student and faculty member at Flagler College, examined the effect of negative ads on voters with varying levels of trust and confidence in their political leaders. The findings suggest that political trust and political knowledge can play a role in shaping citizens’ reactions to negative campaign appeals.
University of Arizona: Key Undecided, Independent Voters Seek Different Tone for Campaign Most American voters have lost confidence in the ability of elected officials to solve the problems facing the U.S., finds a new survey commissioned by the National Institute for Civil Discourse.
National Institute for Civil Discourse
September 14, 2012
WASHINGTON, D.C. – A survey commissioned by the National Institute for Civil Discourse, headquartered at the University of Arizona, indicates that a majority of American voters have lost confidence in the ability of elected leaders to solve the problems facing our country. In fact, fewer than one in 10 American voters has “a great deal” of confidence in elected officials to solve the problems of our country – while twice as many say they have no confidence at all.

“We’ve known for some time how dissatisfied the electorate has become with Congress,” said Carolyn Lukensmeyer, the institute’s executive director. “This is the strongest indication we’ve seen that voters think our Congressional leaders are incapable of solving problems.”

Survey respondents identified several underlying causes for the problem-solving paralysis. Most often cited (90 percent) was politicians’ unwillingness to cross party lines, while 83 percent cited the lack of respectful dialogue as an obstacle to solving problems.
In other words, compromise and civility would be good things. Too bad one of the parties has turned into an authoritarian movement, something that precludes either. If the lack of faith in our elected representatives continues, the authoritarian movement might just--paradoxically--succeed.

As for what things would look like if there were more civility, Northern Arizona University is attempting to provide an example.

Statewide forum sets stage for civil discourse on ballot initiatives
September 18, 2012
Arizona voters from all political affiliations are invited to participate in a public forum simulcast around the state that is designed to bring together people with varying opinions to engage in civil dialogue about three upcoming ballot initiatives.

The event, called “Mapping Arizona’s Future,” is being hosted locally by Northern Arizona University’s Philosophy in the Public Interest and Coconino Community College, in collaboration with the non-partisan organization Project Civil Discourse.

“Being able to discuss matters—even potentially controversial ones—with respect and civility allows for better problem-solving and ultimately higher-leveled thinking,” said Leah Bornstein, president of Coconino Community College.
Good luck, NAU. We'll need it.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Happy Autumnal Equinox!

Solstices and Equinoxes

Washington Post: Autumnal equinox brings first day of fall Saturday morning
Eager to say goodbye to summer once and for all? Say hello to fall: the 2012 autumnal equinox occurs this Saturday, September 22 at 10:49 a.m. (EDT).

As the new season begins, Earth’s axis will be tilted neither away from nor towards the sun, allowing the sun’s direct rays to shine overhead at the equator before moving into the Southern Hemisphere.
In addition to wishing you all a happy equinox, I hope you all enjoy this blog's 700th post.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Right learned all the wrong lessons from 1984



Expanding on the theme of the Republican Party having become an authoritarian movement, Paul Krugman makes a comparison to a fictional totalitarian organization in When The Inner Party Believes The Prolefeed
.The “lucky ducky” trope is clearly, obviously nonsense; equally obviously, it was originally created in an effort to dupe people who didn’t know better. It was and is what Orwell called “prolefeed”, junk aimed at the ignorant masses (ignorant by design), the people who are ready to believe at a moment’s notice that we’ve always been at war with Eastasia.

In Orwell’s vision, however, the Party – and especially the Inner Party – wasn’t supposed to consume this same tripe. It was supposed to understand the true Party agenda and vision (a boot stomping on a human face forever).

So it actually is a revelation to see Romney and friends obviously swallowing the prolefeed whole. The news here isn’t really about their lack of empathy; it’s about their raw ignorance.
While I agree with Krugman about the aptness of the comparison, I think he's wrong about the order. I think this is what a faction of the "Inner Party" wanted to believe all along, and now that they've taken over, they're now passing it out as prolefeed. I should know; I was a Republican for 22 years ending in 2000. I remember seeing this meme from the inside even back then.

Above based on a comment I left on Michigan Liberal.

Neil Armstrong buried at sea and other space and astronomy news

Here is the space and astronomy news originally posted in Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (End of primary season edition) at Daily Kos.

NASA Television on YouTube: The Nation says Farewell to Neil Armstrong on This Week @ NASA


NASA Administrator Charles Bolden joined other agency officials and dignitaries at the Washington National Cathedral to honor the life and career of astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, who died Aug. 25. The memorial was broadcast live on NASA Television and streamed on nasa.gov and the National Cathedral's website.
More news over the jump.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Talking like Ragnar the Pirate

Fat Cat goes Galt

When I searched for pirate while writing yesterday's entry about Talk Like a Pirate Day, I found the following paragraph in a drinking game about Atlas Shrugged.
7.Every time someone mentions the Pirate, drink. Seriously, there's a pirate. His name is Ragnar and he’s a Viking god with golden hair and a face so handsome it can never be scared. Is he a hero or villain? You get one guess.
Yes, there is an Objectivist pirate who is a hero to Rand, but read the following passage about his motivation and see if it fits that of a conventional hero.
Ragnar Danneskjold: "But I’ve chosen a special mission of my own. I’m after a man whom I want to destroy. He died many centuries ago, but until the last trace of him is wiped out of men’s minds, we will not have a decent world to live in."

Hank Rearden: "What man?"

Ragnar: "Robin Hood. ...He was the man who robbed the rich and gave to the poor. Well, I'm the man who robs the poor and gives to the rich – or, to be exact, the man who robs the thieving poor and gives back to the productive rich."
...
"What I actually am, Mr. Rearden, is a policeman. It is a policeman's duty to protect men from criminals – criminals being those who seize wealth by force. ... But when robbery becomes the purpose of the law...then it is an outlaw who has to become a policeman."
Another source supplies more of Ragnar's animosity to Robin of Locksley.
[Robin Hood] is not remembered as a champion of property, but as a champion of need, not as a defender of the robbed, but as a provider of the poor. He is held to be the first man who assumed a halo of virtue by practicing charity with wealth which he did not own, by giving away goods which he had not produced, by making others pay for the luxury of his pity. He is the man who became a symbol of the idea that need, not achievement, is the source of rights, that we don’t have to produce, only to want, that the earned does not belong to us, but the unearned does. He became a justification for every mediocrity who, unable to make his own living, had demanded the power to dispose of the property of his betters, by proclaiming his willingness to devote his life to his inferiors at the price of robbing his superiors. It is this foulest of creatures – the double-parasite who lives on the sores of the poor and the blood of the rich – whom men have come to regard as the moral idea." ". . . Do you wonder why the world is collapsing around us? That is what I am fighting, Mr. Rearden. Until men learn that of all human symbols, Robin Hood is the most immoral and the most contemptible, there will be no justice on earth and no way for mankind to survive."
As Smoop's page on him concludes, the other strike leaders don't completely approve of Ragnar's methods. As for me, I don't approve of Ragnar at all. That's one pirate I'd rather not hear people speaking like, even if he has an argh sound in his name.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Talk Like a Pirate Day




In case you want to get a better look...

 
As I posted for my mood when I first posted this on my LiveJournal in 2009, "Say "Arr" for me baby!"
That written, one doesn't have to say "Arr" to talk like a pirate, as Johnny Depp demonstrates in one of my favorite scenes from the first Pirates of the Carribean movie.

I like it so much that I use a modified version when I receive surprising confirmation of a fact. "So there is [such and such]. That's interesting. That's very interesting." Keep an eye out for it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Video from Narb: How Troy saved its library

Just when I thought I had blogged everything I could about Troy's library, Narb sent me a link to this video, which describes a campaign I called "a cruel but effective political practical joke." Now that I have the story from the perspective of the people responsible, I'm describing it as "trolling for a good cause."

Troy Library from Jennie Hochthanner on Vimeo.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Examiner.com article on tax policy forum

A free public event featuring former presidential economic advisers will be held at U of M's Ross School of Business from 4:00 to 5:30 P.M. on Tuesday, September 18th.
Credit: Andrew Horne on Wikipedia
Former presidential economic advisers discuss Obama, Romney tax policies Tuesday at U of M
If anyone in Washtenaw County wants to hear what the experts think about the tax policies of President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, they'll have their opportunity this Tuesday afternoon. That's when three former economic advisers to both Republican and Democratic presidents along with an adviser to John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign will discuss the candidates' tax policies at a free event open to the public on the University of Michigan campus.

"Presidential Election Forums: What's at Stake in the Tax Policy Debate?" will be held from 4:00-5:30 P.M. on Tuesday, September 18th, at the Blau Auditorium of the Ross School of Business, which is at 701 Tappan Street in Ann Arbor. The event is sponsored by the U of M's Office of Tax Policy Research.

The featured speakers include two former Assistant Secretaries of the Treasury, one each from the Reagan and Clinton administrations, a former member of the Council for Economic Advisers under Reagan, and the senior economic adviser to the 2008 McCain campaign.
There may be two former Republican officials at this event, but don't expect either of them to be very sympathetic to Romney's or Ryan's tax plans. One of them is Bruce Bartlett, who has turned against the current GOP tax policies. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about his current views.
In August 2009, Bartlett wrote a piece for the Daily Beast in which he attributed the recession of 2009 to George Bush and Republicans, whose policies he claimed resulted in an inferior record of economic performance to those of President Clinton. In the same editorial, Bartlett wrote that instead of enacting meaningful healthcare reform, President Bush pushed through a costly Medicare drug plan by personally exerting pressure on reluctant conservatives to vote for the program. Bartlett claimed that because reforming Medicare is an important part of getting health costs under control generally, Bush could have used the opportunity to develop a comprehensive health-reform plan and that "[b]y not doing so, he left his party with nothing to offer as an alternative to the Obama plan." Bartlett concluded:
Until conservatives once again hold Republicans to the same standard they hold Democrats, they will have no credibility and deserve no respect. They can start building some by admitting to themselves that Bush caused many of the problems they are protesting.
In his book, The New American Economy: The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward, Bartlett defends Keynesian economic policies, stating that while supply-side economics was appropriate for the 1970s and 1980s, supply side arguments do not fit contemporary conditions.

During an interview on CNN on August 19, 2011, Bartlett stated that presidential candidate Rick Perry "is an idiot, and I don't think anybody would disagree with that." The comment was in reference to Perry's earlier assertion that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's actions would be "almost treasonous" if the Federal Reserve were to engage in expansionary monetary policy before the 2012 election in order to stimulate the economy.
"Almost treasonous?" Tell that to Wall Street after Bernanke did exactly that.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Election news from campuses on the campaign trail

In Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (End of primary season edition) last night on Daily Kos, I marked the end of a series.
Between now and the end of the primary/caucus season, Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday will highlight the research stories from the public universities in each of the states having elections and caucuses during the week (or in the upcoming weeks if there is no primary or caucus that week). Tonight's edition highlights the science, space, environment, health, and energy stories from universities in the states of Delaware, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island (list from Politics1.com) and will be the last to do so, as primary season is over.
As for what will replace that series, I plan on replacing it with featuring the research of public universities in swing states, with the additions of states hosting presidential and vice-presidential debates. As of right now, that would mean stories from Colorado, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia, along with Kentucky and New York the weeks surrounding the vice-presidential debate in Danville, Kentucky on October 11th and the second presidential debate in at Hofstra University in New York on October 16th. The schedule shows the other two debates are already in swing states, Colorado and Florida. If other states come into play, I might add them. In particular, I'm keeping a close eye on Wisconsin, not only because Paul Ryan might once again make that state close, but because the University of Wisconsin provides good stories.

Enough of my plans for the future. Follow over the jump for the beginning of my celebration of the end of this series with election news for the past month originally included in Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (Curiosity's first destination edition), Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (Labor Day weekend edition), and Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (35th Anniversary of Voyager 1 edition).

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Four years ago, we were partying like 1929--what a difference today!

The news on Wall Street this week has been the best since the start of the Great Recession. Earlier this week, Krugman posted this chart of the DJIA since the beginning of 2008 in A Vote of Confidence.


That was Wednesday. Since then, it has continued to climb, as Reuters reports in Wall Street ends at multi-year highs on Fed.
U.S. stocks rose for a fourth straight session on Friday to close out the week at nearly five-year highs after the Federal Reserve took bold action to spur the economy, a move that could keep equities buoyed in the coming months.
...
The Dow and the S&P 500 both closed at their highest levels since December 2007, while the Nasdaq ended at the highest since November 2000. The small-cap Russell 2000 .RUT index closed at the highest since April 2011.

The Dow Jones industrial average .DJI ended up 53.51 points, or 0.40 percent, to 13,593.37. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index .SPX closed up 5.78 points, or 0.40 percent, to 1,465.77. The Nasdaq Composite Index .IXIC gained 28.12 points, or 0.89 percent, to 3,183.95.

For the week, the Dow rose 2.2 percent, the S&P climbed 1.9 percent and the Nasdaq added 1.5 percent.

The S&P is now just 6 percent below its all-time closing high of 1,565.15 despite a relatively weak economy and economic risks around the world.
That's quite a change from four years ago today, when Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. From Wikipedia:
Financial services firm Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on September 15, 2008. The filing remains the largest bankruptcy filing in U.S. history, with Lehman holding over $600 billion in assets.
Follow over the jump for a flashback to the eve of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, when I posted Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1929! to the unfunnybusiness community on JournalFen and then reposted it to my LiveJournal.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Saving Detroit: this year's student essay topic


Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the 2012-2013 Student Essay Contest topic for the college where I teach.*
Saving Detroit

As the 2011 Super Bowl commercial featuring Detroit might indicate, Detroit has developed a reputation for being hard, tough, edgy and auto-centric. Considering the beginnings of our town, steeped in the automotive industry, this is not surprising. Part of this reputation, however, stems also from the notorious race riots of '43 and '67, the persistent crime rate and steeply falling population. Because of recent shifts in the auto industry as well as these less attractive factors, many believe that Detroit is a lost cause with little hope of recovering from persistent decline.

Those who live in and around Detroit, however, have an opportunity to see many other aspects of the city, to take part in a diverse, culturally sophisticated and cosmopolitan community. In fact, despite declining population in the city, a grass roots movement is alive and kicking, hoping to build, promote and develop the best parts of Detroit in such a way that it will once again be a destination rather than an effigy of past glories
As a citizen of the Detroit Metro area, write an essay that argues why Detroit is worth saving. Your essay should be academic in nature and should rely upon first-hand experience and/or research to support its central argument.
I swear I had nothing to do with choosing this topic or crafting the write-up. That written, I couldn't have done a better job myself. Honestly, it encapsulates much of the theme of this blog, including my sentiment that "exciting things are happening here, and I wouldn't miss them for the world." Of course, I'm going to promote this essay contest to my students, including giving extra credit for submissions. That the winner receives $1000, second place $750, third place $500, and five honorable mentions should convince them even more.

*I'm pseudonymous here, but I'm not anonymous. After all, I link to Examiner.com articles with my real name.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Kunstler vs. visual displays in cars

In an addendum to this week's missive of DOOM, Kunstler threw one final brickbat at the latest technology in cars.
Sidebar on How "Smart" We Think We Are

TV commercial seen during the Women's finals of the US Tennis Open:

Cadillac is bragging that they have replaced the old dashboard knobs and toggles with a "smart" iPad-type control system. Has a car company ever done something so fucking stupid? The whole point of knobs and toggles is that you can keep your eyes on the road while adjusting things by feel. An iPad you actually have to look at to see what you're tapping on. Expect a colossal death toll from buyers of the latest Cadillacs in the next couple of years. I suppose there's poetic justice in the automobile age winding down on a note of such supernatural idiocy.
That Kunstler ranted about this topic is a bit of a coincidence as I included a similar story in Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (35th Anniversary of Voyager 1 edition) at Daily Kos last Saturday. It turns out that GPS systems share the same issue as the Cadillac dashboard controls. The problem is that today's drivers prefer to look at their controls, even if it impairs their driving, as the New York Times reported in When GPS Confuses, You May Be to Blame.
A group of researchers led by Andrew L. Kun, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of New Hampshire, placed test subjects in immersive driving simulators and tracked the frequency and duration of their glances at a navigation screen, when their eyes left the road. They found that in a majority of instances, these glances lasted for more than 200 milliseconds, long enough to empirically affect driving.

In the experiment, the display was large and easy to see, mounted atop the dashboard. “You did not have to change your gaze angle much to see it,” Dr. Kun said. Consulting a smartphone’s navigation app, on a much smaller screen and held lower, makes it more likely that a driver’s eyes will leave the road for longer stretches.

“Voice-only instructions delivered subjects to their destinations, and you could argue that they drove better because they looked at the road more,” Dr. Kun said of his test subjects. “Yet a majority preferred having a navigation screen — they felt anxious without it.”
There's more at the link, which describes most navigations failures from using GPS as the result of user error.

In case you're wondering what Kunstler is so upset about, here is GeekBeat.TV previewing the new CUE dashboard system in this year's Cadillacs.

Cadillac gave us a sneak peak at their new CUE system. It stands for Cadillac User Experience, and it consists of a few things, all based around a better user experience and at the same time keeping you safe while still using technology (like your mobile phone).
I kind of like it. As for Kunstler, well, it's no secret that he hates technology, or at least faith that technology will save us. He even has a book out called "Too Much Magic" about that topic. I haven't read it yet, but I'm sure I'll get around to it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Examiner.com article on Michigan Supreme Court nominees


Michigan Democrats' "Three Supremes" at this spring's endorsement convention.

Four of five women nominated for Michigan Supreme Court share U of M ties
This past weekend, Michigan's Democrats and Republicans nominated four women for seats on the state's highest court. While they may be divided by ideology and party loyalty, all four nominees share a connection to Washtenaw County through their experiences at the University of Michigan, which three attended and the fourth teaches.

All three of the Democrats' nominees, who the party is marketing as "The Three Supremes," either attended the University of Michigan or currently teach there. Oakland County District Court Judge Shelia Johnson graduated from the University of Michigan Law School. Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Connie Kelley graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. before earning her law degree from Wayne State University. Bridget Mary McCormack currently serves as the Associate Dean of Clinical Affairs at the University of Michigan Law School.

Republican nominee and Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Colleen O'Brian also went to the University of Michigan, earning a Bachelors degree before attending the Detroit College of Law.
I think I found a unique angle to report on the Michigan Supreme Court contest--five female candidates for three seats, and four of them have University of Michigan connections.

Two notes. First, the image above is not one of those illustrating my article; to see those, click on Five women are running for Michigan Supreme Court. Second, the fifth woman is Mindy Berry Barry,* the nominee of the U.S. Taxpayers Party. As you can guess, she didn't go to the University of Michigan, so she didn't get mentioned in the first three paragraphs.

*I didn't catch this mistake until today (10/24/12), when I decided to Google for 'Mindy Berry Michigan Supreme Court'--one of the top search terms for the past week or so--and found this entry to be the number one result.  For all of you who are looking for information on Mindy Barry (not Berry), click on the link to the Examiner.com article about the Taxpayer Party's nominees.  You'll find what you're looking for there.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Examiner.com article on Michigan Republican convention

As I wrote earlier:
I'm working on a story for Examiner.com on the Michigan Republican Convention, which produced a lot more drama than the Michigan Democratic Convention.
That article is now published.

State Board of Education member Nancy Danhof (pictured with her husband Bill) lost her bid for re-nomination this Saturday.
Credit: Nancy Danhof's campaign website.
Republicans reject incumbent State Board of Education member at state convention
One of Will Rogers' best remembered sayings about politics was that he was not a member of any organized political party; he was a Democrat. Less well remembered was his comparison of the two major parties: "Democrats never agree on anything, that's why they're Democrats. If they agreed with each other, they'd be Republicans." Rogers might have had a different opinion of the two major parties if he had lived to observe this weekend's state conventions.

The Michigan Republicans just finished a contentious convention in Grand Rapids on Saturday. They voted not to re-nominate a sitting member of the State Board of Education, instead nominating two more conservative candidates. The delegates also narrowly picked the establishment candidate for State Supreme Court over a more insurgent choice after a hard-fought campaign to win delegates and decided among multiple candidates for the two nominees each for the governing boards of all three of Michigan's major research universities.

In contrast, the Michigan Democrats held a more orderly meeting in Lansing today. All of their candidates had already been approved at an endorsement convention in Detroit this past spring and all were officially nominated today. The only uncertainty was which two of their candidates for State Supreme Court would run for the two eight-year terms, and which would face Republican appointee Brian Zahra for the two years remaining for his seat on the bench.
Yeah, I couldn't resist throwing an insult originally meant for Democrats at the Republicans. I'm in good company, since a lot of Democrats did that in Charlotte last week. Hey, that's why I keep a blog, so I can express my opinions instead of the facts. Speaking of facts, if you want them, please read the article. If you want more of my opinions, follow over the jump.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Voyager 1 launch 35th anniversary and other space and astronomy news

I'm working on a story for Examiner.com on the Michigan Republican Convention, which produced a lot more drama that the Michigan Democratic Convention. While I write that, enjoy this past week's space and astronomy news from Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (35th Anniversary of Voyager 1 edition) on Daily Kos. As you can see, the top story for today's entry, which comes from Science News, is the same as that of the Daily Kos diary.

Voyager chasing solar system's edge
On 35th anniversary of spacecraft’s launch, scientists ponder when it will move beyond the sun’s reach
By Nadia Drake
Web edition : Wednesday, September 5th, 2012
NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched 35 years ago on September 5, 1977, is bracing for a controlled plunge into interstellar space. Soon the craft will leave the solar system behind, bursting through the windy bubble blown by sun.

The question is: How soon? That boundary may be a bit farther away than expected, a team from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory reports in the Sept. 6 Nature.

Now 18 billion kilometers away, Voyager 1 is the most distant spacecraft flung from Earth. Voyager 2, launched two weeks earlier, is trailing its twin by about 3.4 billion kilometers.
More stories over the jump.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Matt Taibbi and Mike Lofgren are on the same page about the global rich

Both authors see the main conflict of the near future as one between a global plutocracy and the rest of us. This is remarkable because they are from opposite ends of the political spectrum. First, Matt Taibbi, who concluded Greed and Debt: The True Story of Mitt Romney and Bain Capital with this prediction.
Romney, on the other hand, is a perfect representative of one side of the ominous cultural divide that will define the next generation, not just here in America but all over the world. Forget about the Southern strategy, blue versus red, swing states and swing voters – all of those political clich├ęs are quaint relics of a less threatening era that is now part of our past, or soon will be. The next conflict defining us all is much more unnerving.

That conflict will be between people who live somewhere, and people who live nowhere. It will be between people who consider themselves citizens of actual countries, to which they have patriotic allegiance, and people to whom nations are meaningless, who live in a stateless global archipelago of privilege – a collection of private schools, tax havens and gated residential communities with little or no connection to the outside world.
Thanks to author Robert Frank, I have a name for this archipelago--Richistan. Bloomfield Hills is a island in the archipelago. So is Park City, Utah, and parts of the west side of Los Angeles. I'm familiar with all of them, but those are stories for another time.

Back to Taibbi.
Mitt Romney isn't blue or red. He's an archipelago man. That's a big reason that voters have been slow to warm up to him. From LBJ to Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Sarah Palin, Americans like their politicians to sound like they're from somewhere, to be human symbols of our love affair with small towns, the girl next door, the little pink houses of Mellencamp myth. Most of those mythical American towns grew up around factories – think chocolate bars from Hershey, baseball bats from Louisville, cereals from Battle Creek. Deep down, what scares voters in both parties the most is the thought that these unique and vital places are vanishing or eroding – overrun by immigrants or the forces of globalism or both, with giant Walmarts descending like spaceships to replace the corner grocer, the family barber and the local hardware store, and 1,000 cable channels replacing the school dance and the gossip at the local diner.

Obama ran on "change" in 2008, but Mitt Romney represents a far more real and seismic shift in the American landscape. Romney is the frontman and apostle of an economic revolution, in which transactions are manufactured instead of products, wealth is generated without accompanying prosperity, and Cayman Islands partnerships are lovingly erected and nurtured while American communities fall apart. The entire purpose of the business model that Romney helped pioneer is to move money into the archipelago from the places outside it, using massive amounts of taxpayer-subsidized debt to enrich a handful of billionaires. It's a vision of society that's crazy, vicious and almost unbelievably selfish, yet it's running for president, and it has a chance of winning. Perhaps that change is coming whether we like it or not. Perhaps Mitt Romney is the best man to manage the transition. But it seems a little early to vote for that kind of wholesale surrender.
That Taibbi would write this should come as no surprise; the man has been muckraking the rich and powerful for years from a decidedly left-leaning perspective.*

What is a surprise is that Mike Lofgren, a former Republican congressional staffer with impeccable conservative credentials, says very much the same thing and got it published in The American Conservative as The Revolt of the Rich. He opens his piece with this retrospective.
At the end of the Cold War many writers predicted the decline of the traditional nation-state. Some looked at the demise of the Soviet Union and foresaw the territorial state breaking up into statelets of different ethnic, religious, or economic compositions. This happened in the Balkans, the former Czechoslovakia, and Sudan. Others predicted a weakening of the state due to the rise of Fourth Generation warfare and the inability of national armies to adapt to it. The quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan lend credence to that theory. There have been numerous books about globalization and how it would eliminate borders. But I am unaware of a well-developed theory from that time about how the super-rich and the corporations they run would secede from the nation state.

I do not mean secession by physical withdrawal from the territory of the state, although that happens from time to time—for example, Erik Prince, who was born into a fortune, is related to the even bigger Amway fortune, and made yet another fortune as CEO of the mercenary-for-hire firm Blackwater, moved his company (renamed Xe) to the United Arab Emirates in 2011. What I mean by secession is a withdrawal into enclaves, an internal immigration, whereby the rich disconnect themselves from the civic life of the nation and from any concern about its well being except as a place to extract loot.
There may not have been well-developed theories in the social sciences to that effect in 1993, but science fiction was already on the case. Snow Crash, published in 1992, described just such a society in the early 21st Century. From the Wikipedia entry.
The story begins and ends in Los Angeles, which is no longer part of what is left of the United States. The time is not clearly specified but internal references are consistent with a date in the early 21st century. In this hypothetical reality, the federal government of the United States has ceded most of its power to private organizations and entrepreneurs. Franchising, individual sovereignty and private vehicles reign (along with drug trafficking, violent crime, and traffic congestion). Mercenary armies compete for national defense contracts while private security guards preserve the peace in gated, sovereign housing developments. Highway companies compete to attract drivers to their roads rather than the competitors', and all mail delivery is by hired courier. The remnants of government maintain authority only in isolated compounds where they transact tedious make-work that is, by and large, irrelevant to the dynamic society around them.

Much of the territory ceded by the government has been carved up into sovereign enclaves, each run by its own big business franchise (such as "Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong") or the various residential burbclaves (suburban enclaves). This arrangement resembles anarcho-capitalism, a theme Stephenson carries over to his next novel The Diamond Age.
Welcome to the cyberpunk future.

Back to Lofgren, who should have been reading science fiction for an idea of the post-Cold-War future.
Our plutocracy now lives like the British in colonial India: in the place and ruling it, but not of it. If one can afford private security, public safety is of no concern; if one owns a Gulfstream jet, crumbling bridges cause less apprehension—and viable public transportation doesn’t even show up on the radar screen. With private doctors on call and a chartered plane to get to the Mayo Clinic, why worry about Medicare?

Being in the country but not of it is what gives the contemporary American super-rich their quality of being abstracted and clueless. Perhaps that explains why Mitt Romney’s regular-guy anecdotes always seem a bit strained.
Ah, yes, Mitt Romney. His presence seems to be the catalyst for these analyses, as he embodies the global rich.

Lofgren sounds a more dire warning than Taibbi, who sees this as the conflict of the future. Lofgren thinks that the future is now.
But in globalized postmodern America, what if this whole vision about where order, stability, and a tolerable framework for governance come from, and who threatens those values, is inverted? What if Christopher Lasch came closer to the truth in The Revolt of the Elites, wherein he wrote, “In our time, the chief threat seems to come from those at the top of the social hierarchy, not the masses”? Lasch held that the elites—by which he meant not just the super-wealthy but also their managerial coat holders and professional apologists—were undermining the country’s promise as a constitutional republic with their prehensile greed, their asocial cultural values, and their absence of civic responsibility.

Lasch wrote that in 1995. Now, almost two decades later, the super-rich have achieved escape velocity from the gravitational pull of the very society they rule over. They have seceded from America.
Welcome to Richistan.


*Taibbi has more to say about Romney and his wealth. In particular, he has a very succinct take-down of what Bain Capital did to KB Toys.  I plan on excerpting that in a future entry.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Senator Schumer supports science

While nearly all the political commentators are buzzing about the speeches of President Obama, former President Bill Clinton, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden, I want to call attention to one of the speakers on the undercard Wednesday, Senator Chuck Schumer. Note that I didn't write that I wanted to call attention to his speech. I've embedded it below, and it's just a standard political speech, as you can see for yourself.


Instead, I want to call attention to Senator Schumer's efforts on behalf of universities in New York to support science spending, something I think is important. First, here is the senator assuring Cornell University that they'll be able to operate their synchotron.

Cornell University: Cornell synchrotron gets support from N.Y.'s senior senator
By Anne Ju
June 19, 2012
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer visited campus June 18 with some welcome news: Cornell's world-renowned synchrotron X-ray facility will continue being funded.

The Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS), one of five national hard X-ray facilities for synchrotron X-ray research, had been under threat of closure due to possible cuts from the National Science Foundation, its primary funder.

Though CHESS officials say peer reviews had consistently endorsed the facility's science and training programs, the NSF had questioned if it should continue to support a synchrotron light source, or if it should leave this task to the Department of Energy, which runs other facilities.
That's not all. The next week, Schumer appeared at SUNY Stony Brook to promote their energy research center.

SUNY Stony Brook: Senator Schumer Supports SBU-BNL Energy Hub
Posted by editor
on Tuesday, June 26th, 2012 @ 10:10 am
On Monday, June 25, 2012, Senator Charles Schumer made a trip to the Stony Brook University Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center at the University’s Research and Development Park to show his support for the merits of a joint application submitted dubbed the Center for Extended Lifetime Energy Storage Technologies (CELESTE) by Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) and Stony Brook University in response to a call for entries to a competition for Department of Energy funding for a new Energy Innovation Hub.

He met with Stony Brook President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., MD, BNL Director Samuel Aronson and scientists from SBU and BNL who collaborated on the proposal, then addressed the press and a group of interested parties from around the Stony Brook campus.

Press Release Issued by Senator Schumer’s Office

Schumer Calls for $120M Package for Funding LI Electric Battery Hub; Project Would Revolutionize Battery Market and Make LI the Research Center for Electric Car Battery Development
As I remarked in Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (PPACA upheld! edition) on Daily Kos:
Last week, the news was Cornell synchrotron gets support from N.Y.'s senior senator. I guess Schumer wants to make sure he has the vote of New York scientists all locked up. :-)
I'm not a scientist in New York, but if I were, Schumer would certainly have my vote!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

National Review ironically reveals another deep truth about the current GOP

Kunstler ranted about the current state of the major parties over at his blog on Monday.
In the vicious vacuum that national party politics has become, the Republicans and Democrats are already dead. They choked to death on the toxic fumes of their own excreta. They are empty, hollow institutions animated only by the parasites that feed on and squirm over the residue of decomposing tissue within the dissolving membranes of their legitimacy. Think of the fabled Koch brothers as botfly larvae and the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association PAC (SIFMA PAC) as a mass of writhing maggots.
I disagree with him about the state of the Democratic Party, otherwise I wouldn't be a precinct delegate for them,* but I thought he was on track for the GOP.
I think you're onto something, but you may have the wrong metaphor. Think of something much more sinister.

As I tell my liberal friends who keep thinking that the GOP should be dead by now, the GOP as a traditional party engaged in electoral politics is already dead. What it is now, as described by "EscapefromWisconsin" over at the Hipcrime Vocab, is an authoritarian movement. That makes it an undead party in a democratic system. As Bela Lugosi's Dracula said in the eponymous movie, "There are far worse things awaiting Man than Death." Yeah, and one of them has happened to the GOP.
Here's Bela saying that line in a fan video of "Bela Lugosi's Dead."


As if to prove the point, cover of The National Review portrays the Republican ticket in the socialist realist style of Soviet propaganda art.


AmericaBlog pointed out that this was an obvious tribute/imitation to a Soviet propaganda poster.
If you're a student of history, this style will be familiar - it's communist. And this image below is clearly the Soviet propaganda poster the Romney/Ryan image was based on.


There's no way this is a coincidence. Down to the flag it's the same poster. Some of the commenters noted that Romney's and Ryan's arms are suggestive of the hammer and sickle, but the books and architectural plans take the place of the hammer, their curved arms are the sickle.

I get that the National Review thought they were being ironic or satirical, but I'm not sure portraying Romney and Ryan in the guise of America's biggest enemy of the last century is politically wise.
Just as I described in Old man yelling at chair accidentally reveals a deeper truth, people who are supposed to be the messengers of the GOP are unintentionally showing the authoritarian reality behind the party's republican facade.

AmericaBlog is not the only one to notice this. In Republican war on higher education and social science, I quoted Paul Krugman from The New Political Correctness, who remarked about the similarity to the Soviets.
And then there’s the teaching of history. Eric Rauchway has a great post about attacks on the history curriculum, in which even talking about “immigration and ethnicity” or “environmental history” becomes part of a left-wing conspiracy. As he says, he’ll name his new course “US History: The Awesomeness of Awesome Americans.” That, after all, seems to be the only safe kind of thing to say.

Actually, this reminds me of an essay I read a long time ago about Soviet science fiction. The author — if anyone remembers where this came from — noted that most science fiction is about one of two thoughts: “if only”, or “if this goes on”. Both were subversive, from the Soviet point of view: the first implied that things could be better, the second that there was something wrong with the way things are. So stories had to be written about “if only this goes on”, extolling the wonders of being wonderful Soviets.

And now that’s happening in America.
As you can see, I finally got around to presenting more evidence supporting the comparison to the Soviets--and there's plenty were that came from. Until I return to the subject, I'll leave you with "Eye spy the GOP's authoritarian impulses on display."

*That doesn't mean I can't see where he's coming from.  After all, Bill Clinton was able to get a bunch of left-leaning delegates who dislike Simpson-Bowles to cheer for it last night, and President Obama is rumored to be speaking about entitlement reform tonight, another topic that the left doesn't care for much.  Just the same, the Democrats are still a normal party pursuing electoral politics in a democratic system, so they're not undead like the GOP.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Airships from another world in Alaska?

Here's an item I originally filed under energy in Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (Curiosity's first destination edition) on Daily Kos.

University of Alaska, Fairbanks: Workshop to examine cargo airship feasibility in Alaska
James Harper
907-451-2990
8/17/12
The University of Alaska Fairbanks and NASA will gather roughly 100 business executives, researchers and government officials in Anchorage next week for the second annual Cargo Airships for Northern Operations Workshop.

The workshop, which will run Aug. 22-24 at UAA, will examine how airships could transform Alaska’s commercial transportation system.

“Airship technologies have the potential to move fuel, construction equipment, and supplies to villages and projects in rural Alaska when ice roads, river ships and barges can’t do the job,” said. Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, the event’s keynote speaker. “Airships could have a significant effect on economics and life in the bush and the ultimate feasibility of energy and natural resource projects around the state.”
This news item struck a bit of a nerve with me, as airships are an way to show viewers and readers that they are not in the modern world, at least this modern world. TVTropes even has an entry for it, Zeppelins from Another World. Here's what the Tropers have to say about airships, both in reality and in fiction.
"A startling number of alternative histories wind up strengthening the marginal technology of airships and zeppelins, for example. This is a matter of flavor rather than logic, but this is a game book, after all."
— GURPS Infinite Worlds
If your characters have entered a parallel universe that's just a few steps removed from our own, the fastest way to establish it is by sticking a whopping great Zeppelin airship in the sky.

In our world Zeppelins and other airships lost popularity in the late 1930s in part due to a series of catastrophic crashes (culminating in the the fiery Hindenburg disaster) but mostly because advances in other aircraft technologies had rendered them obsolete. More recently, airships have made a bit of a comeback for niches such as advertising, pleasure cruising, humanitarian aid, cargo hauling [emphasis mine, P-S], law enforcement, military surveillance, photography, and scientific research where airships' strengths in vertical flight, massive payloads, cheap cost, fuel efficiency, loiter time and relative silence outweigh their obvious speed and bulk disadvantages.

Zeppelins aren't just the fastest way to indicate that you've found yourself in an Alternate Universe setting, they're quite often a striking symbol of dystopia. Like Spy Satellites, Zeppelins can be used to survey the populace, only hundreds of times cheaper and more effectively, with next to unlimited endurance. They are also much more visible than a satellite, obviously, often leading to their use as a Propaganda Machine, acting like Big Brother's evil Goodyear Blimp.

The name of Zeppelin strictly refers only to airships with a rigid external frame, a propulsion and steering mechanism, and no anxiety that users will be put off by the name. Alternate universe plane-spotters, take note.

So by filling up Earth 2 with bulbous aircraft rather than hovercars or spaceships, you are suggesting a world that is of a similar time period to our own, but just happened to follow a different technological route. It also helps that they have lots of Diesel Punk and Steam Punk cred and are sufficiently olde-worlde to be used in fantasy stories too. They are also cool.
Note that I emphasized the item about cargo hauling. TVTropes links to an article in The Register, Airship 'Sky Tugs' ordered from Lockheed for Canadian oilfields, about this very application.
P-791 military hover suck-blimp gets civil application
By Lewis Page
Posted in Science, 28th March 2011 13:56 GMT

The famous P-791 prototype airship - built last decade for a military transport programme which eventually came to nothing - is to give birth to new, mighty commercial versions of itself with Canadian financial backing.
...
Alberta-based private company Aviation Capital Enterprises says it has inked a deal with US aerospace colossus Lockheed, builder of the P-791, to "design, develop, build, flight test and Federal Aviation Administration certify a family of hybrid aircraft". The first ship, dubbed "SkyTug" and able to lift 20 tons, is to be delivered in 2012. Further versions are to scale up to "several hundred tons", apparently.
I don't think it's a coincidence that this airship is being ordered for cargo operations in the far north. For all I know, this may be where the Alaskans got the idea.

The Register has more about the airship's capabilities.
According to Aviation Capital, the fully vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) capable SkyTug will provide "greater payload and range at a fraction of the cost of a helicopter". The larger ships that will follow apparently won't be fully VTOL - they'll require something of a run-up on the ground to generate dynamic lift and get airborne, rather as an aeroplane does.

However the big ships aren't expected to need massive runways: they'll be able to land and take off from "unimproved surfaces and water". This will be achieved by the cunning air-cushion undercarriage which is such a novel feature of the P-791: rather than wheels or skids, the airships will move about on the ground supported on air blown down through big skirt assemblies, just like a hovercraft.
Here's what one looks like in action.


Eye spy a science fiction trope come to life, and being used to assist in energy extraction.