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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Kansas: They Probably Think Dorothy Still has the Slippers, too.

The news from Kansas is so silly. In its retrograde insistence that "Intelligent Design" be taught alongside with the theory of evolution, the religious luddites fail to realize how damaging this all ultimately will be to religious freedom for the mixing of politics with religion inevitably leads to a form of official recognition for a particular orthodoxy that enlightened religious leaders fear. (An excellent book on the subject of religious orthodoxy and heresy is Blasphemy by Leonard Levy.

For recent articles related to science, evolution, intelligent design, and the appaling unintelligenc e of the American People see (link).

"It is impossible to underestimate the intelligence of the American People." H.L. Mencken

For a Link to National Science Foundation response to the soon-to-be-published Kansas Board of Ed. Report.

Blogger's comment:

: "This grows more depressing. As a National Merit Science Scholarship finalist during the heyday of science in the classrooms, it never occurred to me that the United States educational system could revert to a 15th century religious tapestry.
Is it purely a lack of the ability to think (47% Americans think that the sun revolves around the earth), or is it due to the fear of the consequences and difficult choices science can bring -- a desire to return to the Luddites?"

Sunday, October 23, 2005

U.S. Comptroller Warns the Deficit Could be Worse than a Category 6 Hurricane

David Walker, The U.S. Comptroller has been speaking across the country about the looming scenario that the federal debt could reach 600% of the GNP in 40 years. Audio and story are available from Minnesota Public Radio. (Link)

WMD analysis and the media elite

Excellent review of who knew what when regarding certain journalists and weapons of mass destruction. The fact remains our democracy has been ill-served by the mainstream media.

Additional comments from Margaret Orth on the media elite and how they have failed us.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Some Nifty Thrillers

I actually don't like the term thriller to describe a book, but when books don't seem to fit in the "mystery" category, there doesn't seem to be a sensible option for three books I very much enjoyed.

Zero Option by P.T. Deutermann describes massive governmental screw-ups that come close to causing a chemical weapons disaster. Dave Stafford, a Department of Defense Criminal Investigator, has been sent to investigate irregularities at a DMRO (place where old weapons are sent to be destroyed or rendered useless.) He stumbles on a frightening scenario. A cylinder containing "wet-eye" has been sent in error to the DMRO. The manager there, Carson, seeing a way to make a huge pile of money has removed the cylinder from the inventory list and offered it for sale on the black market. "Wet-eye" is a chemical and biological mix that does not kill, but renders blind anyone who comes in contact with it; their eyes melt in a rather horrible manner.

The army can't reveal it has lost a chemical weapon and the FBI we later learn was proposing to buy the item in a sting operation. No one can tell anyone else what is going on. Soon we have interlocking cover-ups and it all gets quite confusing. I suspect, the lack of inter-agency cooperation portrayed by Deutermann probably reflects reality, a truly scary thought. My only complaint with this page-turner is the use of a "psychic" teenager as a plot device, a cheap way and convenient device. Good book, nevertheless.

Blood Work by Michael Connelly, one of my favorite authors, brings back Terry McCaleb, ex-FBI agent who discovers a link between the murders of three individuals. He is brought into the case by the sister of one of the victims. McCaleb has a special interest in finding her killer because her death resulted in a heart becoming available for him; he was the recent recipient of a heart transplant.

Connelly has created a new character for his most recent work, Lincoln Lawyer, which, according to reviews, is first-rate. I'm looking forward to it.

P.T. Deutermann has also written Darkside, an excellent legal mystery. A midshipman at the Naval Academy is found dead, an apparent suicide, having jumped from a six-story window. He was wearing the panties of Julie Markham, a senior about to graduate. Her father, a history professor at the academy hires a sharp criminal lawyer, Liz DeWinter, to defend Julie when the Academy investigators begin to wonder about the connections she might have had with the deceased. Jim Hall, Annapolis security chief, begins a parallel investigation into weird events in the steam tunnels. Soon the investigations converge leading to an unlikely suspect. "Darkside" is the nickname given by plebes to the administration; it's also a metaphor for other goings-on. . .

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Train Driving and John McPhee

John McPhee has long been one of my favorite essayists. He just seems to write about things of interest to me. You may remember a review I wrote several months ago about his article in The New Yorker about barge traffic on the Illinois River. Apparently, that article, one I just finished related to coal trains (The New Yorker, October 3 and 10, 2005,) and several others with a transportation theme will be published as a book in the spring of 2006. I can hardly wait.

I have always been consumed by curiosity about what it's like to do different things so Driver: Six Weeks in an Eighteen-Wheeler, reviewed previously, and McPhee's coal and barge articles have been difficult to put down.

Driving a train would seem simple enough: you push the lever forward and off you go. Not so. Coal trains, of which just one power plant in Georgia requires 3 fully loaded trains per day to keep running, are usually more than one and one-half miles long and weigh 34,000 tons. They are by far the heaviest trains on the rails. The train is so long that the engine in front (these trains must have engines in front and back and often in the middle as well to adjust the strain on the couplers) will often be applying the brakes going down hill while the engines in back are pushing the cars still going up the other side of the rise. They can't go up hills, per se. A slop of even 1.5% makes the engines work hard.

Twenty-three thousand coal trains leave the Powder River basin every year; that's thirty-four thousand miles of rolling coal in a never ending stream of coal for power plants. The Powder River basin coal generates less heat, i.e. fewer BTU's than eastern coal, but it has a much lower sulfur content so following stricter environmental regulations eastern mines have been dying while western ones are thriving. That's where the railroads come in.

Plant Scherer in Georgia, a large power plant, usually has a one-million-ton pile of coal in reserve. To understand the revived interest in nuclear power, that pile generates the equivalent of one truckload of mined uranium. "To get a million BTUs, fuel oil costs nine dollars (before recent price increases,) natural gas six dollars, coal one-dollar-eighty-five, and nuclear fifty cents."

"Plant Scherer burns the contents of thirteen hundred coal trains per year -- two thousand miles of coal cars, twelve million tons of the bedrock of Wyoming." The plant requires twelve thousand acres to store, process and burn the coal. Think about that the next time you turn the lights on.

For an interview with McPhee see (link.)

Sunday, October 09, 2005

I want this guy to be my lawyer

Talk about loopholes! Apparently, a defense lawyer reasoned, because it was illegal to be married again while to were already married, any subsequent marriage was invalid and therefore bigamy was impossible. Classic. Here's the story:

September 27, 2005 - You can't get married if you're already married.
That's the legal loophole that has led Virginia authorities to drop bigamy charges against Charles Hicks. Court records show he was married to seven women over the last 40 years.
Officials say he got hitched three times while married to someone else. But under Virginia law, the marriages are invalid. Hicks later divorced wife number-five and officials say therefore, his marriage to wife seven is legal.
However, prosecutors say they may file additional charges.
The 61-year-old Hicks is a former Naval Postgraduate School administrator and now works for the Army Publishing Directorate.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

George Will: "The President Has Forfeited His Right To Be Trusted As A Custodian Of The Constitution"... | The Huffington Post

When George Will starts writing like this.....

"Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that Miers's nomination resulted from the president's careful consultation with people capable of such judgments. If 100 such people had been asked to list 100 individuals who have given evidence of the reflectiveness and excellence requisite in a justice, Miers's name probably would not have appeared in any of the 10,000 places on those lists.

"In addition, the president has forfeited his right to be trusted as a custodian of the Constitution. The forfeiture occurred March 27, 2002, when, in a private act betokening an uneasy conscience, he signed the McCain-Feingold law expanding government regulation of the timing, quantity and content of political speech. The day before the 2000 Iowa caucuses he was asked -- to ensure a considered response from him, he had been told in advance that he would be asked -- whether McCain-Feingold's core purposes are unconstitutional. He unhesitatingly said, "I agree." Asked if he thought presidents have a duty, pursuant to their oath to defend the Constitution, to make an independent judgment about the constitutionality of bills and to veto those he thinks unconstitutional, he briskly said, "I do." "

The president has some serious issues to resolve.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

More on Hoaxes, e.g. intelligent design

Shamelessly borrowed from the newsletter of the Skeptic's Dictionary:

Earlier this month, Daniel Dennett wrote an op ed piece for the New York Times. Dennett wrote, among other things, that intelligent design (ID) may be "one of the most ingenious hoaxes in the history of science."

The proponents of intelligent design use a ploy that works something like this. First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist's work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as evidence that there is a "controversy" to teach.
Note that the trick is content-free. You can use it on any topic.

It gets better. The anti-evolutionist folks at the Discovery Institute sent out a press release recently that says, among other things, that

While the Discovery Institute opposes efforts to mandate the teaching of intelligent design in public schools, it even more strongly objects to the ACLU's Orwellian efforts to shut down classroom discussions of intelligent design through government-imposed censorship....The courts should not be used to censor scientific ideas or instruct scientists and educators in what are legitimate avenues of scientific research....The debate over evolution should be decided through scientific discussion and debate, not by gag orders imposed by the courts.

So, after you have created a controversy where there is none, you can now claim that those who oppose teaching your side of the controversy are enemies of free speech and of science itself! Never mind that the idea you are advocating did not emerge in the free-for-all debates among evolutionary scientists but came from outside the mainstream of scientific investigation, publication, and argument. Never mind that the view you are advocating is the quintessential anti-scientific viewpoint: (1) You claim science cannot now and never will be able to explain how some part of the biological world evolved; (2) you claim to have an explanation for the item science cannot explain; and, (3) you claim that your pathetic, fallacy-ridden metaphysical explanation is actually scientific.

The main goal of the anti-evolutionists is to discredit evolution. They have waged a very sophisticated and clever war against evolution. Granted, their task was made easier by the fact that about 20% of adult Americans are so scientifically illiterate they think the sun revolves around the earth once a day. If anything is Orwellian, it is the way the anti-evolutionists have convinced many politicians, school board members, and a good percentage of the general public that anti-science is science and that the anti-science is "a legitimate avenue of scientific research" and should be taught in the science classroom. It is just this side of brilliant the way the leaders of the anti-evolution (AE) movement have hoodwinked millions of people. On the Orwellian scale, the AE terrorization of evolution ranks right up there with what Republicans did to the word 'liberal' over the past thirty years. That campaign was so successful that liberals have given up and are now calling themselves "progressives." (See George Lakoff's essay "Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust." Better yet, read his book Don't Think of an Elephant.)

If anything is Orwellian, it is the notion that ID is a scientific theory that challenges natural selection. ID "researchers" have only two moves, both completely predictable and neither leading anywhere. One is to claim that something like the bacterium's flagellum can't be explained scientifically and that the best explanation is that an intelligent designer put the parts of the flagellum together. When scientists explain how the parts of the flagellum evolved and came together, the anti-evolutionists ignore the explanation and find some other scientific puzzle to declare scientifically insolvable except by appeal to an intelligent designer. This lateral process can go on for at least as long as there is life on earth. There is no light at the end of this tunnel; there is only more darkness. The other move is vertical. The anti-evolution "researcher," instead of finding more puzzles and declaring them insolvable until they're solved, can ask questions about the alleged intelligent designer. How intelligent must the designer be? Does its intelligence have to be infinite or would a finite amount of smarts be enough to pull off the task at hand? It would have to be very powerful, too. But how powerful would the designer have to be? Would it have to be omnipotent? Or, would a finite amount of power be sufficient to put the parts together? Could the designer have been designed? If so, who or what designed the designer? Will we ultimately be led by our intellectual musings to the undesigned designer? And, where did the designer get the parts? Could they have occurred naturally or would they need a creator? This vertical process is vaguely reminiscent of thousands of years of philosophical gibberish that has not led to a single item of scientific interest. Orwellian? If not, give me a synonym.

As most of you already know, there is a case in federal court involving a suit by several parents against the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board. Last October, the Dover Area School Board voted 6-3 to add “Intelligent Design Theory” to the district’s biology curriculum. A month later, the board changed its mind and instead said it would require teachers to read the following statement to all biology students:

The state standards require students to learn about Darwin's Theory of Evolution and to eventually take a standardized test of which evolution is a part. Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.
Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book 'Of Pandas and People,' is available for students to see if they would like to explore this view in an effort to gain an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves. As is true with any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind.
The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life up to individual students and their families. As a standards-driven district, class instruction focuses on the standards and preparing students to be successful on standards-based assessments.

Eleven parents, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the school board for requiring biology teachers to present "intelligent design" as an alternative to the scientific theory of natural selection. The trial began September 26th in Harrisburg federal court.

Even if the ACLU wins in Dover (which they probably will), it will be a small and short-lived victory. The cry of persecution will be heard throughout the land. What are the evolutionists afraid of? Why won't let their view be challenged? No matter how anyone responds to the anti-evolutionists, their case is made: the controversy grows. If the anti-evolutionists win the case, they win and if they lose the case they win.

A few years ago I reported on a session that took place at the World Skeptic's Conference in Los Angeles. The session featured Ken Miller, evolutionist and scientist for the plaintiffs in Dover, and William Dembski, Christian apologist for ID. I noted that the session was billed as Evolution vs. Intelligent Design and commented "Was this going to be a contest with a winner and a loser? If so, then we need no debate and should declare ID the winner. Why? Because 'vs.' implies they are competitors and the main point of the ID movement right now is to get people to believe that ID is a scientific theory that is in competition with natural selection." I stand corrected: the main point is to conjure up negative thoughts and feelings whenever the word 'evolution' is used. I now doubt that the ID folks really care whether ID is taught anywhere. (What is there to teach, anyway?) The main goal is, and always has been, to discredit evolution.

Our illustrious governor hasn't weighed in on the anti-evolution issue, but California's Superintendent of Public Education, Jack O'Connell, has: "Our state has been recognized across the country and around the world for the quality and rigor of our academic standards. Just like I will fight tooth and nail to protect California's high academic standards, I will fight to ensure that good science is protected in California classrooms." Translated: no anti-evolution here!

Life's Lovely Little Ironies

Remember Ashley Smith, the lady who subdued escaped killer Brian Nichols to surrender by reading to him from The Purpose Driven Life, a Christian best-seller? (Link) Well, it so happens that she gave him some crystal meth from her private stash, too. Guess they both got high on something other than Christian values. The revelations, that came in her recently released memoir, will reportedly not affect the $72,000 she received in rewards. (Link)

Blood Done Sign My Name

A colleague of mine forwarded the following quote from Timothy Tyson's book. It's wonderful:

"When I was only three years old, Mama found me on the floor with a book pulled tightly against my face, sobbing hard. When she asked me why on earth I was crying, I told her, "Because I can't get in the book." Now, I could not read at that age. What had happened, really, is that my mother had read so many books to me, so vividly, so beautifully, that I expected to be able to pick up the book and plunge instantly into beautiful depths of the imagination, and was disappointed that I could not. In later years, of course, I found exactly that kind of satisfaction in books, and I owe all that to Mama. Martha Buie Tyson stands like a tree beside the river of our lives, giving shade and sustenance, and teaching all of us by example."

(pg 355)