Sunday, December 31, 2006

It's almost a new year
Drink responsibly.
Drive carefully.
Remember to write 2007 on all your checks.
Change the battery in your smoke detector.
Change the copyright date on your websites or blogs.
Call an old friend out of the blue.
Don't get carried away with resolutions.
Do something nice for a stranger.
Find an excuse to pamper yourself.
Learn a new trick.
Keep reading archy.
The coming apocalypse of gay marriage
John M. Lynch is reporting that Yahoo! is running two different stories about the same AP poll on people's opinions of what to expect in the coming year. The headlines are:
AP poll: Americans optimistic for 2007

Poll: Americans see gloom, doom in 2007

John just comments on the headlines, but he should have read the complete stories. These really are the messages of the two completely different stories.

The optimism story, by AP writer Nancy Benac, is the less remarkable of the two stories. Benac comments that, while people were generally downbeat about the state of the country, politics and international affairs, they were generally upbeat about the state of their family lives and hopeful for their personal futures.

The pessimism piece, by AP writer Darlene Superville, is interesting because of what she sees as bad things on the horizon. They are war with Iran or North Korea, bird flu, terrorist attacks, global warming, and legalized gay marriage. The inclusion of legalized gay marriage isn't a slip up--an out of place item included in a list--Superville draws the point out for comment.
Fewer than half the public think it likely the U.S. will go to war with Iran or North Korea. Should it come down to that, 40 percent think the battle will be with Iran while 26 percent said North Korea.

Higher gas prices, legalized gay marriage and the possible arrival of bird flu also are seen as being in the cards.

More than 90 percent of people think higher gas prices are likely. A gallon of self-serve regular gasoline averaged $2.29 last week, compared with $3 over the summer.

Also, 57 percent said it is likely that another state will legalize gay marriage. Same-sex marriage is legal in Massachusetts; four other states offer civil unions or domestic partnerships.

It's unclear from the article whether the poll respondents identified gay marriage as a bad thing or whether this is editorializing by the writer. I'm trying to locate the text of the poll. I suspect the poll was done as a value-free laundry list of items: "Which of the following do you expect to occur in 2007?" If that is the case, Ms. Superville has some explaining to do.

This article, with its message that gay marriage is a disaster on par with global pandemics and war with minor nuclear powers, is being sent out to hundreds of papers. Whose opinion is that. We at least deserve some clarification as to just what it is that's being reported here.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Okay, I wasn't finished
How can the Bush administration feel that there is still some value to be had in interogating low-level fighters five years after they were captured, but also feel that a head of state, who controlled a large military and intelligence apparatus for decades, is better put permanently beyond the reach of questioners?

After all of the ethical and moral reasons for opposing the death penalty have been exhausted, historians, journalists, and prosecutors should oppose it for the simple reason that dead men tell no tales. We can argue all day whether a swift extinction or a slow, powerless rotting is the more just end for someone like Saddam and not come to an agreement (you know where I stand), but the one thing that all sides should agree on is that Saddam won't be giving up any of the information he had after last night. To whose advantage that serves is, I suppose, another question we could argue all day.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Justice, my ass
I see that our allies in the completely independent and democratic Republic of Iraq have executed their former ruler, Saddam Hussein. I'm sure George Bush is happy tonight. I do not feel that America is any safer. I have nothing else to say.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Say hello to Isis
I'm always excited when a new tool is added to our kit for understanding the world and its life. The latest new tool is Isis, a remotely operated, deep water submarine that the British are about to launch off Antarctica. Isis was built in collaboration with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and is based on the design of WHOI's famous Jason II remotely operated sub.

Following training missions at Loch Ness and other places, Isis is ready for her first scientific mission.
Professor Julian Dowdeswell, director of the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, is the principal investigator on this three-week-long inaugural research cruise.

He will be using Isis to investigate in fine detail the sea-floor sediments, which have been delivered to Marguerite Bay by the massive ice-sheets that covered the bay about 20,000 years ago.

The ROV will be traversing the relatively shallow waters of the bay to the continental shelf edge and then down the steeper continental slope beyond.

"The environmental history of the Antarctic is held in these sediments," he said.

Marguerite Bay is on the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and was under ice during the last ice age. Besides studying the sediment, Isis will take a census of ocean floor species at different depths. The bay should be comparable to the Southeast coast of Alaska or Norway. Both of those areas were under ice during the ice ages and now host vibrant, though over fished, ecosystems.

After the Marguerite Bay mission, Isis will head back to Europe to spend some time with the HERMES team, which does research on the deep sea margins of Europe.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

A Christmas warning
I've run this post for the last two years but I think the message is still important.


The men in black (MIB) entered UFO lore in 1956 in a book entitled They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers. The author was one Gray Barker who had been a member of one of the first UFO groups, the rather ambitiously named International Flying Saucer Bureau (IFSB). Though Barker's book dealt with a number of paranormal topics, the largest part of it dealt with his former boss, IFSB founder Albert Bender.

In 1953 the IFSB was about two years old with a few hundred dues paying members (called "investigators") who all received the Bureau's newsletter "Space Review." The group was doing well enough when, in October 1953, Bender stopped publication of Space Review, and dissolved the IFSB. The last issue of "Space Review" gave only this explanation.
STATEMENT OF IMPORTANCE: The mystery of the flying saucers is no longer a mystery. The source is already known, but any information about this is being withheld by order from a higher source. We would like to print the full story in Space Review, but because of the nature of the information we are very sorry that we have been advised in the negative.

According to Barker, the reason Bender had so abruptly ended the group was that three mysterious men in black had visited Bender and warned him off. But before they did, the MIBs were good enough to explain at least part of the true secret of the flying saucers. UFOs, they said, actually come from Antarctica. They have bases in both polar regions and regularly fly between them.

Enough UFO stories end with the craft departing due north or south that the Barker's version of Bender's visitors has been adopted by conspiracy theorists who believe in a decidedly terrestrial origin for saucers (Bender told a different story in his own book in 1963). My personal favorite is Atlanteans from within the hollow earth, but Nazi refugees from super-scientific bases beneath the ice caps has its devotees, too.

They are all wrong. The MIBs are the key. The mundane explanation is that they work for this government or that and are trying to hide the truth about the extraterrestrial origin of UFOs. But that could itself be disinformation. No government has the ability to do what the MIBs do.

Think for a moment about the men in black. They have appeared all over the world. They have a special interest in unidentified flying objects and protecting the polar regions. They seem to actually know what is in the minds of the people they visit. Who has the ability to manage an intelligence network like that? Who has the ability to travel everywhere at any time and even seemingly appear in two places at once? Who has a special interest in protecting the polar regions? Who knows when you are sleeping? Who knows when you are awake? Who knows if you've been good or bad?

I think you know the answer.

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and watch your back.
My favorite holiday card
Carl Buell has painted the best holiday card of the year and posted it for us all to enjoy.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The last days of shopping

On the weekend 'fore Christmas
All 'round the block
All the men-folk were
Desperately trying to shop.

"Who knew of this Chrismas?
Who knew of these gifts?"
They cry in voice
That's both wounded and miffed.

"Whose idea was this?
It's Hallmark I blame!
The fault couldn't lie
In my planning, foresight, or brain."

"Who are all these people
Out here today?
How can I shop
When they're all in my way?"

"There's not any parking
At all in the lot.
The person in charge
Deserves to be shot."

"How can I pick gifts
For my wife and my cat?
I'll take one of those
And, I suppose, one of that."

"I should be back home
Sipping heavily spiked nog.
Well, at least I'll have something
About which to blog."

Yet somehow they finish
The men-folk so dear
And swear things will be different
When they do it next year.

Hope yours goes well,

John / archy
Spread some cheer among the bloggers
Coturnix has a post naming some bloggers who could use your help this season.
Mr. Shakes had a traffic accident. Help the Shakes manor with a little donation on their PayPal button.

Also, Wampum folks need money for the generator in order to run the Koufaxes. Choose between PayPal button and button.

To Bora's list, I'd like to add the following:

SZ at World o' Crap has been doing her best to adopt every homeless animal in Utah, while dealing with her own chronic medical problems, writing a book, and keeping up her blog. All she asks is that we send a few bucks to feed the critters. I'm all for that, but I'm buying a copy of her book, too.

I think everyone knows that Digby's Hullaballoo is one of the most consistently excellent political blogs around. Successful blogs have to pay for their servers and such and Digby's bills are due.

It would be great if you could give to all four, but even a few bucks to just one blog goes a long way toward keeping the whole enterprise afloat.
Bad History time
The twelfth installment of the Carnival of Bad History is up at The Axis of Evel Knievel. This month we learn how how many battleships were really sunk at Pearl Harbor, get a nomination for the worst ever portrayal of JFK in a movie, discuss the proper name for the unpleasantness in Iraq, and get a big heapin' helpin' of Pinochet.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Blogger gossip
It looks like the Mid-Winter Secular-Fest crash in blogger traffic has begun. I'm down to about two-thirds the the traffic I was getting last week. How are things at other sites?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Carl Sagan cat post
Today is the tenth anniversary of Carl Sagan's premature death from myelodysplasia. Skeptics and science bloggers are having a mini blog-a-thon to commemorate our loss. As a non-scientist, my links to Sagan are small, I enjoyed Cosmos, I read a few of his books, he threw my best friend out of his yard. Beyond that, I remember Sagan best as the archenemy of Immanuel Velikovsky. I don't think either Sagan or Velikovsky regarded Sagan as such, but to the Velikovskian underground, Sagan occupies that role. Velikovsky's followers were so offended by Sagan's brief moment defending science against Velikovsky's version of catastrophism, that one follower wrote a 360 page book refuting Sagan.

Someday, I'll tell that story. But today, I want to join the rest of the raional bloggers in remembering a man who made science real and human for millions.

Marlow and I celebrating Sagan.

PS - We're not out of focus. We're in an ideterminate eigenstate until Dr. Schroedinger comes by to check on our health.
Edison's lightbulbs
Five days after our big windstorm and 130,000 people are still without power in the Seattle area and many of the traffic lights don't work. Since this happened only a week before the darkest day of the year, it's only natural that many of my neighbors have a newfound appreciation for the wonder of electric light.

However, a week before the storm a co-worker and I were already talking about what a great invention light was. This is the story that spared our conversation.
A set of lightbulbs belonging to Thomas Edison could fetch US $500 000 when it goes under the hammer in London next week. The set contains rare bulbs dating from the 1880s, including several made by Edison and his fierce competitor, Joseph Swan. But the star of the collection is one of Edison's unappreciated inventions: a bulb that may well have been the world's first vacuum tube.

The items were collected to serve as evidence in a trial in which Edison successfully sued the U.S. Electric Light Co. for violating a patent on the design of his lightbulb. Edison, who was famously litigious, collected examples of the designs used by leading lightbulb makers in an effort to show that U.S. Electric Light must have copied his version. At the trial, two of the bulbs were deliberately broken so that the court could study their construction.

The evidence was lost after the trial, apparently after John Howell, Edison's secretary, stored it in an attic. "By rights, it shouldn't even still exist," says Laurence Fisher, a specialist in technical apparatus at Christie's auction house in London

To us, it seemed a no-brainer that some collector or museum would pick up these artifacts. They are unique, historically significant, and part of a well-known technology story. At one time every child learned the story of Edison and the lightbulb. It was a great edifying story of perseverance and American ingenuity. It was the archetype for narrative for the era of tinkerer/inventors. So, my co-worker and I were surprised to hear that the lightbulbs were withdrawn from the auction after failing to bring even the minimum acceptable bid.

The price wouldn't be outrageous for art, show business memorabilia, or even an equivalently rare book. It's also not that historical and scientific memorabilia don't sell well. Objects associated with space and the military command prime prices. So why didn't it sell? Is technology, as a subset historical/scientific memorabilia collecting, not yet a mature enough field command top prices, or was there something too mundane about lightbulbs to catch the interest of the right collectors? Or were they just overpriced?

Any thoughts?
New front opened in War on Christmas
I'm sure Bill O'Reilly will manage to blame this on American secular liberals.
LONDON (Reuters) - Father Christmas was forced to swap his traditional red and white hat for protective headgear after children pelted him with mince pies in Scotland.

Santa was hit on the head by pastries thrown from a balcony as he handed out gold chocolate coins at a shopping center in the town of Paisley, near Glasgow, at the weekend.

"Health and safety is paramount," center manager Andrew MacKinnon said Wednesday. "We issued him with a yellow hardhat equipped with a pair of reindeer antlers to make it look more festive."

Sunday, December 17, 2006

A blast from the past
I'm always amazed at how much data there is to be squeezed out of the ice. A team in Antarctica is taking the first steps toward reconstructing ancient wind patterns on the white continent.
US scientists have reconstructed a 40,000-year record of wind conditions at the South Pole.

They assembled the climate data by measuring the distribution of dust layers seen in two ice boreholes.

A comparison of the layers allowed the University of California-Berkeley team to gauge how rough snow surfaces would have been in ancient times.

The researchers then used this "proxy" to assess the probable strength of wind needed to produce those features.

The technique needs refinement and works best in the deeper parts of the ice. Nonetheless, scientists are confident it gives at least a broad record of conditions at the pole some 30,000 to 70,000 years ago.

And if combined with a number of palaeo-wind records gathered from around the continent, it could provide a useful tool to test climate computer models, they believe.

Two holes aren’t going to allow for much reconstruction. They will need to drill hundreds of holes all over the continent to map wind patterns. Once they have collected the data, it will be available for dozens of fields. They talk of testing modern weather models, but I can see this data being useful for all kinds of earth sciences as well as paleontology and normal history.

Dendrochronology--dating with tree rings--was originally thought of merely as a method of dating wooden artifacts. But once the data had been gathered to create chronologies of different types of wood in different locations, other fields took the data and used it to recreate historical climates and ecologies. These recreations allowed still other fields to test theories of population growth and migration. Data from the ice is the same.

One of the side tragedies of our current blind attitude toward global warming is that every glacier that disappears takes the equivalent of a major library full of scientific and historical data with it. Ever if everything turns ot fine future generations of scholars will condemn our decades for having burned a hundred libraries of Alexandria.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Time jumps the shark
For the first five decades or so, Time Magazine's "Man of the Year" issue was a meaningful exercise in taking stock of the year. The object was to name the one individual who most shaped the year, for better or worse. Sometimes the effort was complicated by the fact that the most significant happening of the year might not have been creditable to a single individual. Some years the greatest impact was made by a trend maturing or a natural catastrophe, but still the editors of Time managed to find an outstanding individual and frame an intelligent essay around their significance.

Their fist lame cop-out came in 1966 when they named the "Younger Generation." Since then, they've had a half dozen of these concept people of the year covers. At some point, they seem to have decided every American president should get at least one cover, whether they deserve it or not. In 2001, they gave it Rudy Giuliani, even though, by any measure, Osama bin Laden had a greater effect than almost anyone. Giuliani made Americans feel better for a few days or weeks in response to bin Laden while bin Laden's attack changed the direction of global affairs more abruptly than any event since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This week they announce that the cover will be awarded to everyone. That's right, you, me, some teenager in Bangalore, and a lady who works in the Coca Cola bottling plant outside Buenos Aires. The cover will have a little mirror so every shopper who sees it will stop and say "it's me!"

If the Time editors no longer have the guts to put an unpopular person on the cover or the intellectual insight to really analyze the year and make an argument about what made it tick, then maybe they should retire the venerable institution. Otherwise, what can we look forward to next year, puppies? Please, put it out of our misery.

August J. Pollock comments on the utter lameness of it all.
I survived the big blow of ought six
No, I don't mean the election. Last night the Northwest had a windstorm that came out of the North Pacific with torrential rain and near-hurricane force winds. Our friends in the Southeast might laugh at our 60-80 mph winds, just as our friends in Montana laughed at out our three-inch snowstorm a few weeks ago, but imagine the native conditions. That snowstorm hit an urban area of a million people with fewer than a hindered snowplows or sanding trucks. Last night's windstorm hit a dense rainforest that was only used to winds of half that speed. On many hundreds of streets heavy cedar or spruce branches broke loose and fell into the street, onto power lines, or both.

Outside of the city cores, most of the Northwest urban strip is without power a day later. About 1.5 million people are in the dark while the metropolitan and state authorities try to clear the fallen trees from the roads so they can get crews to the wires.

This morning, all of the schools were closed and most businesses were closed. Except mine. I had to go to work, and I had to cross the fjord-like Lake Washington to get there. The closest bridge was closed. At the height of the storm, they opened the draw span on the bridge, to avoid damage, and damaged the draw span doing it. This is not an unusual occurrence, but that is the route that I normally take to work, so I had to take a long, dark detour around the lake to get to work.

When I got there, a co-worker commented, "Well, the city only has so much equipment to deal with this. We'll just have to let them take their time." I responded, "yeah, normally we would call out the National Guard to deal with this, but they're all in Iraq." Normally, I keep my politics to myself, but I don't think anyone is surprised to find out that the gray-bearded hippie-looking guy is, in fact, a gray-bearded hippie.

Today, the pundit classes are all suggesting that President Bush will ignore the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group and and send more troops to Iraq. Sen. John McCain is encouraging this approach. Lieberman is encouraging it. Gen. Peter Schoomaker is encouraging it. No one will say where we will get the troops. Should we take the last of the Nation Guard? Should we call up the oldest of the reserve? Should we revive the draft? Or should we count on the patriotic young college Republicans to step up and fight the war they so strongly support?

Anyone who asks for more troops, without offering a source for getting those troops, is just playing a propaganda game. Or, to use the favorite word of the conservative pundits, they are not serious. It doesn't matter if they are Gen. Schoomaker, Sen. Lieberman, or St. McCain, demanding troops without offering a source for those troops is bullshit, pure and simple. Worse, they are encouraging the alcoholic Bush to play a gambler's game. Don’t give up while you still have something to save, bet the farm on a final roll of the dice in the hopes that one big win will reverse all of your previous losses, and make your folly worthwhile in the end.

If Bush was playing with his own fate, it might be safe to let him play this foolish game. Tragically, he's playing with the lives of thousands of Americans, tens of thousands of Iraqis, and the honor of America for a generation to come. When Bush retires, he will retreat into his bubble of prosperous sycophants and never face the consequences of his actions. Meanwhile, my neighbors and I must live in a world Bush has made measurably worse. When a natural disaster happens, we have no National Guard to help us even though that's what thousands of our fellow citizens volunteered to do and that's what all of us are paying for.

Every extra day we wait for the damage of this storm to be cleared away is as clearly the fault of George W. Bush as is each death in Iraq. My neighbors might not be able to notice every death in a foreign land, but I hope they can notice the impassability of their own streets and the darkness in their own houses.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Would you like a condom with that cupcake?
Usually when I talk about Bill O'Reilly, it is to point out that he is a pompous bully and a self-reightous boob with whom I strongly disagree on almost everything. I think he's a bigot, a hypocrite, more than a bit paranoid, and a jerk, but I didn't think he was actually stupid--till now.
On the December 13 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, Bill O'Reilly dismissed scientific research on same-sex parenting to assert that "[n]ature dictates that a dad and a mom is the optimum" form of child-rearing. O'Reilly asked "why," if children suffer no psychosocial deficit from being raised by same-sex parents, "wouldn't nature then make it that anybody could get pregnant by eating a cupcake?"

Bill O'Reilly has a known problem with food products and sex (Google falafel and O'Reilly for the story so far).

So as not be accused of taking his words out of context, lets look at the full exchange from his show (in which his sense of persecution and self-importance are on full display).
O'REILLY: So what you're saying to me is that a lesbian couple and a gay-guy couple are just as equipped to raise a child as heterosexual parents? That's what you're saying?

[Jennifer] CHRISLER: Absolutely. Yeah, without a doubt --

O'REILLY: No difference.

CHRISLER: -- because love --

O'REILLY: No difference.

CHRISLER: -- stability, commitment, kindness, caring, values, morals, discipline, guidance, that's what really makes good parents, and if we want to be worried about what we're going to talk about here, we should talk about what are the qualities of a parent that really make a difference for a child, and that's what it is.

O'REILLY: All right, well, I disagree with you. I'm going with nature. I'm going with -- Miss Vincent, I'm going with -- I'm throwing in with Mother Nature here and I'm going best-case scenario, dad and a mom. Am I a bigot?

O'reilly has brought this guest on to represent an opinion with which he disagrees, but as soon as she does disagree with him, he starts demanding to know if they are insulting him. Sure, part of the nature of talking head shows is to highlight differences and try to generate interest by fanning the flames controversy, but there is something very pathological about this barroom brawler tactic of turning every disagreement into a personal insult.
[Norah] VINCENT: No, you're not a bigot for saying that, but nature is procreation, and we're talking about something cultural called parenting.

O'REILLY: No, I'm talking about raising kids.

Which is the complete opposite of parenting.
O'REILLY: I'm talking about -- I know there are bad parents --

VINCENT: Well, there's nothing inherent in biology --

O'REILLY: -- and I know there are good gay parents. Absolutely, all right?


O'REILLY: But I'm talking optimum, best for the kid, having a mom and a dad. Are you going to call me a bigot for that?

VINCENT: Not at all, no. It's a legitimate preference.

O'REILLY: Are you going to, Miss Chrisler, call me a bigot for that?

CHRISLER: Nope, I'm just going to call you wrong --

O'REILLY: Wrong.

CHRISLER: -- which you are. So --

O'REILLY: You know, why wouldn't -- why wouldn't nature then make it that anybody could get pregnant by eating a cupcake? You know? You know, you just throw --

CHRISLER: Well, we'd have --

O'REILLY: You take Mother Nature.

CHRISLER: We'd have a lot of people, wouldn't we?

O'REILLY: You know the old commercial -- don't fool around with Mother Nature? What you're doing is you're taking Mother Nature and you're throwing it right out the window, and I just think it's crazy. I really do. And that's not based on religion or morals or -- Annie [sic], you're a good person, Norah's a good person. All right? But it's just that you say, "Hell with nature -- the hell with it. We're going to do what we want. It's just as good. And you guys are crazy." And that's what you're saying.

O'Reilly's logic, if we can call it that, seems to be that because male and female parts are necessary for procreation, then male and female parts must be necessary for good parenting (or raising kids)--not preferred, necessary. Because, in O'Reilly's mind, that proposition is true, the reverse must also be true. If male and female parts were not required for good parenting, then they would not be required for procreation. This is already completely unlogical, but he goes on into the realm of the completely silly. If anything can raise a child (a point no one is arguing), then anything can make a child. Since cupcakes can't make children, then lesbians can't raise children. To O'reilly's mind, some sort of valid point has been made.

This is the sort of argument ad absurdum that a somewhat clever thirteen-year old might attempt. It is not the sort of argument that an experienced public debator and supposed adult should make. Why does anyone still listen to this silly man?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

There are limits
I'm not a car person, but even I can tell that this is just wrong.
The next generation of the Ford Mustang could include some previously unthinkable variants including a four-door sedan and a station wagon, according to a report in the magazine AutoWeek.

"To a Mustang purist, this is blasphemy," said Bob Gritzinger, AutoWeek's senior editor for news.

What next, a Lotus snowplow?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Weighty issues
Do you have enough to worry about? Do you sometimes worry that you're not worried about the right things? If you watch the news you are probably already worried about employment insecurity, foreign terrorists, the War on Christmas, e-coli in your fast food, Nicole Ritchie's weight, global warming, and carnivorous sponges. But what about those threats that the news isn't reporting? Fortunately, I'm here to fill you in on them.

The theory of catastrophic pole shift is an unorthodox geological theory that claims many mysteries of the past, such as the sinking of Atlantis, the extinction of the mammoths, and the flood of Noah, can all be explained by a periodic slipping of the Earth's crust. The most common version of the theory, first published by Hugh Auchincloss Brown and later popularized by Charles Hapgood, states that the weight of ice accumulating at the poles periodically destabilizes the Earth's rotational balance, causing the Earth's outer crust to slip over the Earth's core moving the ice-heavy poles closer to the equator. Since the ice melts in the course of this movement, the total movement is usually less than ninety degrees, but is accompanied by catastrophic floods and massive changes in the distribution of land, water, and ice across the Earth's surface. After the last polar shift, the Atlanteans built pyramids all over the world as a crystal clear warning that we should worry about the poles.

Since the 1960s, a number of writers have warned about this danger. It would seem that global warming has temporarily saved us from this problem by reducing the mass of ice growing at the poles. But the problem is not ice in and of itself; it is weight which is not distributed in a balanced manner at the equator.

Earlier this fall, the United States gained its three-hundred-millionth inhabitant. Each one of those three-hundred-million weighs more than their counterparts in previous American history. The growing obesity of the average American is no longer merely a public health problem, it is a threat to the physical stability of the planet. As this mass of fat Americans builds up in the middle latitudes, the centrifugal force of our spinning Earth will cause the United States to slip toward the equator. Most of Argentina will slip below the Antarctic circle. On the other side of the Earth, India will move into the latitude currently inhabited by Central Siberia. That is, unless the Indians fight back by putting on some weight.

The complacent among us might think that this is nothing to worry about. All we need to do is teach the Indians about super-sizing and the problem will be solved. But it's not that simple. What if the Indians put on too much weight? Then they slip towards the equator and we move up where Canada is. Miami ends up where Winnipeg is and trades hurricanes for Arctic blizzards.* The East-West struggle of the twenty-first century might not be Harrington's war of civilizations, it be the war of diets. American ingenuity will serve us well in the coming battle. If the Indians start to look a little plump, the patriotic American food industry can roll out a new irresistible cookie crammed with saturated fat and sugar to re-establish the balance of powers.

This danger is almost as dire as that posed by the balloonosphere, but we're up to the challenge.

* A little known law of catastrophism states that no matter what happens, South Florida gets wind. Even if we should manage to develop totally perfect weather control, South Florida will still have the Cuban exile community and Rush Limbaugh to blow hard over them.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Ignorance of geography - part 568
We need a pithy term for ignorance of geography, something analogous to illiteracy or innumeracy. Ignogeographic? Map illiterate? Lost?

Our latest example of geographic illiteracy comes to us courtesy of The New York Times editorial page (I scanned it from my hard copy, the original might be hidden behind their pay-per-view wall). This map is part of an illustration by Guy Billout to an opinion piece. The border that is displays are over fifteen years out of date. The two Yemens united in 1990 and Jordan gave up all territorial claims to the West Bank in 1988.

I suppose an argument could be made that this illustration is supposed to be art, not information. Artists can't be expected to keep track of details like which countries still exist in the world. However, if that argument was made, I would reject it. Art conveys information just as surely as photos and graphs. It's no crime if an illustration to a news piece lacks information, but it is a crime if it conveys incorrect information. Maybe The New York Times should send a new atlas to each of their artists as Christmas present.
Building a better mosquito
Mosquitoes are a highly successful branch of the insects. They have been around since the Jurassic and currently have about 3500 species spread across all the continents except Antarctica. In many places, the size, number, and voraciousness of the mosquitoes is a matter of perverse local pride.

Mosquitoes are more than an annoyance. Because the females use mammal blood to feed their young, they are a health hazard to their neighbors, both from the sores left by their bites and, more importantly, by the diseases they can carry. Mosquitoes have been identified as the major vector for the spread of yellow fever, West Nile virus, and malaria. This has made mosquito control one of the leading priorities of public health in many parts of the world.

For years this has involved trying to kill as many mosquitoes as possible or stop them from breeding by destroying their breeding grounds. The latter strategy has now fallen into disfavor as many of those breeding grounds are important ecosystems. In addition, some mosquitoes fill important roles in their ecosystems so wiping them out would be a bad idea even if we could do it. For example, among the thirty or so species of mosquito in Alaska, the non-bloodsucking males are a major source of pollination for plants on the tundra.

A new approach is needed (via Coturnix).
Eliminating the pests appears impossible. But scientists are attempting to re-engineer them so they cannot carry disease. If they manage that, they must create enough mutants to mate with wild insects and one day to outnumber them.

Researchers chasing this dream, including an N.C. State University entomologist, know they may court controversy. Genetically modified crop plants such as soybeans, corn and cotton have become common in the United States, but an altered organism on wings would be a first.

Critics of bio-engineering, especially in Europe, view some genetic alterations as unnatural, even monstrous. People fearful of so-called Frankenfood could sound similar alarms over Frankenbugs.

But with advances in molecular biology and millions of dollars from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, this quest may be within reach. And its promise is huge, the scientists say.

I'm not sure whether this is the best approach or even whether it will work, but I'm glad to see some creative thought (and money) being applied to the problem.

Monday, December 11, 2006

AOL should be ashamed
This morning on the way to work, Clever Wife and I discussed some of the potential Democratic candidates for President next year. I suggested that the white guys are going to have trouble getting coverage because the press gaggle will be so enamored with the novelty factor of Obama and Hillary. I predicted endless news stories of the "Is America Ready to Vote for a Woman/Negro" variety. I was half joking.

Just now I opened up AOL to check my mail.

I want to cry.
The AP should be ashamed
The bones of a baby plesiosaur have been recovered from the Antarctic. This is one of the most complete plesiosaur fossils ever recovered. Getting it out of Antarctica in the face of sub-zero temperatures and high winds required a heroic effort of scientists aided by the Argentine Air Force. What does the Associated Press think is the most important thing to tell us about it?
In life, 70 million years ago, the five-foot-long animal would have resembled Nessie, the long-necked creature reported to inhabit Scotland's Loch Ness.

They also point out that it swam just like those cute pengiuns that we all love. I can't wait fore the plush dolls.
Public financing
This is as good an argument for public financing and spending caps in elections as any that I could think of.
Over the past 40 years, the industrialization and centralization of our food system has greatly magnified the potential for big outbreaks. Today only 13 slaughterhouses process the majority of the beef consumed by 300 million Americans.

And the fast-food industry's demand for uniform products has encouraged centralization in every agricultural sector. Fruits and vegetables are now being grown, packaged and shipped like industrial commodities. As a result, a little contamination can go a long way. The Taco Bell distribution center in New Jersey now being investigated as a possible source of E. coli supplies more than 1,100 restaurants in the Northeast.

While threats to the food supply have been growing, food-safety regulations have been weakened. Since 2000, the fast-food and meatpacking industries have given about four-fifths of their political donations to Republican candidates for national office.

Now that Democrats are in charge of congress, will things change? You bet they will! These industries will fire their well-connected Republican lobbyists, hire well-connected Democratic lobbyists, and direct about four-fifths of their political donations to Democratic candidates. Those of us who actually consume food don't have well-connected lobbyists to hand out buckets of cash, so we will continue to have no voice in the safety of our food.

Things won't be quite as bad as all that. For a variety of reasons, not as many Democrats will sell their souls (and their constituents' health) to the corporate food industry as did the Republicans. Some Democrats have very real principles and will try to undo the damage that the Republicans have done to our regulatory infrastructure over the last decade. Some Democrats will refuse their money just to hold a grudge against those industries that so strongly supported the Republican Party in the past (though an equal number will take the money just to show that they are not anti-business).

It would be nice if our representative could reject these fair weather friends and do what is best for the least powerful among their constituents. But the sad truth is that running for office is an insanely expensive business. We no longer have a limited election season; raising money is a full-time occupation for national office holders. Night after night, they debase themselves by calling deep pocketed donors to beg for a few bucks. How tempting is it to accept those buckets of money being handed out by lobbyists? All they have to do is see the corporate side of things. After all, the companies are also American. They have interests, too. And if they are profitable, doesn't some of the wealth trickle down to their employees? Taking the corporate side is really a populist thing to do if you turn you head and squint just so.

If our representatives didn't have to raise money every moment of every day, they might save their consciences from being twisted like pretzels. If our representatives didn't have to raise money every moment of every day, they might have more time to educate themselves on the issues that they legislate. It's much easier to keep a clear head when there aren't hundreds of people making it very profitable for you to have a muddy head. There are plenty of people in Washington who are willing to hurt us just for the hell of it, wouldn't it be nice if we could keep just a few on our side for a little while.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Evolution in action
Or is it?
A surprisingly recent instance of human evolution has been detected among the peoples of East Africa. It is the ability to digest milk in adulthood, conferred by genetic changes that occurred as recently as 3,000 years ago, a team of geneticists has found.

The finding is a striking example of a cultural practice — the raising of dairy cattle — feeding back into the human genome. It also seems to be one of the first instances of convergent human evolution to be documented at the genetic level. ...

Throughout most of human history, the ability to digest lactose, the principal sugar of milk, has been switched off after weaning because there is no further need for the lactase enzyme that breaks the sugar apart. But when cattle were first domesticated 9,000 years ago and people later started to consume their milk as well as their meat, natural selection would have favored anyone with a mutation that kept the lactase gene switched on.

Such a mutation is known to have arisen among an early cattle-raising people, the Funnel Beaker culture, which flourished some 5,000 to 6,000 years ago in north-central Europe. People with a persistently active lactase gene have no problem digesting milk and are said to be lactose tolerant.

Almost all Dutch people and 99 percent of Swedes are lactose-tolerant, but the mutation becomes progressively less common in Europeans who live at increasing distance from the ancient Funnel Beaker region.

Geneticists wondered if the lactose tolerance mutation in Europeans, first identified in 2002, had arisen among pastoral peoples elsewhere. But it seemed to be largely absent from Africa, even though pastoral peoples there generally have some degree of tolerance.

A research team led by Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Maryland has now resolved much of the puzzle. After testing for lactose tolerance and genetic makeup among 43 ethnic groups of East Africa, she and her colleagues have found three new mutations, all independent of each other and of the European mutation, which keep the lactase gene permanently switched on.

The creationist approach to this should be to paraphrase Ben Franklin and view this as proof that there is a benevolent God and He wants us to have ice cream.
Pinochet is dead
I wish he could have been tried for his crimes. It might not have brought closure to all of the families of his victims, but it would have been good Chile to have a thorough airing of the facts. However, it was never very likely that he was really going to be tried, so the next best thing is to get him off the stage so Chile can move on into the post-Pinochet era.

I'm told you should only speak good of the dead. Pinochet is dead. Good.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Miserable failure
This is interesting.
On the eve of a report that repudiates his son’s leadership, former president George H.W. Bush broke down crying when he recalled how his other son, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, lost an election a dozen years ago and then came back to serve two successful terms...

The setting was a leadership summit Monday in Tallahassee, where the elder Bush had come to lecture and to pay homage to Jeb, who is leaving office with a 53 percent approval rating, putting him ninth among the 50 governors in popularity. The former president was reflecting on how well Jeb handled defeat in 1994 when he lost his composure. “He didn’t whine about it,” he said, putting a handkerchief to his face in an effort to stifle his sobbing.

That election turned out to be pivotal because it disrupted the plan Papa Bush had for his sons, which may be why he was crying, and why the country cries with him. The family’s grand design had the No. 2 son, Jeb, by far the brighter and more responsible, ascend to the presidency while George, the partying frat-boy type, settled for second best in Texas. The plan went awry when Jeb, contrary to conventional wisdom, lost in Florida, and George unexpectedly defeated Ann Richards in Texas. With the favored heir on the sidelines, the family calculus shifted. They’d go for the presidency with the son that won and not the one they wished had won.

The son who was wrongly launched has made such a mess of things that he has ruined the family franchise. Without getting too Oedipal, it’s fair to say that so many mistakes George W. Bush made are the result of his need to distinguish himself from his father and show that he’s smarter and tougher. His need to outdo his father and at the same time vindicate his father’s failure to get re-elected makes for a complicated stew of emotions.


The Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by [family fixer James] Baker, pulls no punches in calling Bush’s policies a failure. It’s a statement of the obvious, but when you have a collection of Washington wise men, plus retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor (perhaps doing penance for her vote that put Bush in the White House during the disputed 2000 race), it’s the equivalent of last rites for Bush’s Iraq policy, along with his presidency.


He’s an accidental president, a man who was vaulted into a job he wasn’t prepared for, and who treated war like a lark. Bush’s father observed between sobs in his Florida speech, “A true measure of a man is how you handle victory and how you handle defeat.” He was talking about Jeb, but surely it’s his first-born who triggers the tears.

This is not so much interesting to me because of the content. It's not a new interpretation. I've been pushing this interpretation since I started blogging, and I don't claim that it is original to me. Many other bloggers interpret the Bush presidency as an Oedipal tragedy. I find it interesting because of the source: Newsweek magazine. What was once the provenance of whacked-out, Bush-hating bloggers is now inside-the-beltway conventional wisdom.

It's taken a long time for them to catch up with the rest of us. If the keepers of the conventional wisdom had accepted what was obvious to the rest of us a few years sooner, they might have stopped the Bush melodrama in 2004 and saved hundreds of American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqis. I suppose late is better than never, unless you are one of those dead Americans, Iraqis, their families, or friends.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Uh oh
We're exposed. One of our own has gone and given up the game.
With Democrats about to assume control of both houses of Congress, we liberals will have an unprecedented opportunity to vanquish Christmas once and for all.


I for one understand that Christmas is the only thing standing between me and my lifelong dream of euthanizing my relatives, grabbing their inheritance, buying lots of drugs, getting a sex change, and marrying a lesbian. If Nancy Pelosi is as dedicated to her San Francisco values as the conservative media say she is, then she should put ending Christmas and subsidizing my lifestyle at the top of her legislative agenda. After all, if Speaker Pelosi decided to forsake destroying Christmas in favor other policies, it could signal that the right-wing punditocracy has been exaggerating the left’s ambitions to abolish religion from the public square all along. And, really, what are the chances of that?
Lost species
Anyone who has been reading archy for a while knows I have a special fascination for Woolly Mammoths and other ice age megafauna. That interest springs in part from having lived in Alaska and come to love the local giant mammals. It also springs from that contrary streak that makes some of us seek out obscure areas of interest. If I have a side interest in paleontology, it won't be for dinosaurs, about which any twelve-year old knows more than me; it will be for obscure giant mammals of the recent past.

However, being an amateur means I'm not always up on the latest data. Once I was smug because I knew that Baluchitherium was the biggest land mammal of all time, but today I learned over at Carl Buell's Olduvai George that Baluchitherium is no longer a recognized species, it's been merged with several of its cousins into a single species, Paraceratherium. Mentioning a Baluchitherium in front of a knowledgeable naturalist would have been as embarrassing as saying Brontosaurus in front of the previously mentioned smart twelve-year old. At least I avoided that faux pas, but now I have to learn how to pronounce Paraceratherium.

This brings us to bears. Carl wrote to commiserate with me over lost species and mentioned that someone had once classified brown bears into over 90 species. Bears are getting back into a neighborhood where I'm comfortable. Today, there are maybe five species recognized in the genus Ursus (true bears). There are only about two-dozen recognized sub-species of bears in the world. The exact numbers constantly change.

After a little Googling I found that the mystery naturalist was Clinton Hart Merriam, the first chief of the USDA’s Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy, an agency that preceded the National Wildlife Research Center, and one of the founders of the National Geographic Society. He was no wacky amateur; he was one of the leading authorities of his day whose works are still quoted. So how did he find so many species of bears? It seems that Merriam was an arch splitter.

It is common to divide paleontologists and naturalists into two camps--lumpers and splitters. Lumpers find a new specimen, whether a fossil or a living creature, and want to jam it into an existing species to keep the family tree as simple as possible. Splitters want to create a new species or even genus for every new sample. For living things, genetics have simplified this argument (but not ended it). Bears come in many sizes, colors, and even patterns of markings.
Merriam was the sort of scientist who had a color chart and set of calipers ready for all occasions. Whenever a hunter brought in a skull or pelt that showed a new combination of characteristics, Merriam was ready to declare a new species.

This is not a completely ridiculous approach. Species is a remarkably vague concept. In general it means a population capable of breeding and producing fertile offspring. Some related species can breed together and produce sterile hybrids (horses and donkeys produce sterile mules). Genetics isn't the only limit. Some species simply won't breed because of behavior or non-overlapping ranges. Many naturalists now divide African elephants into two species, forest and savannah elephants, who never mix even though they are nearly genetically identical.

Most bear species can interbreed, but don't. This creates some odd situations along the divides. Polar bears and brown bears are closer related to each other than either is to North American black bears, and hybrids do occasionally appear. One was killed in Canada last spring and is probably a result of the two bears' ranges changing due to global warming. While many of Merriam's species were likely just local populations or unusual individuals, some might have been interesting hybrids.

Now I'm hunting for a copy of Merriam's complete classification to see if I can figure out how many of his "species" are extinct.
Mammoth rubbings
If this can be proved, it's very cool.
On a sunny, brisk late November day, Edward Breck Parkman hunched over and rubbed his back, pachyderm-like, against a large rock jutting out of a meadow on the rugged, green coastline near Bodega Bay.

The senior archaeologist for the California Department of Parks and Recreation does not usually play-act in the field, but on this day he wanted to re-create in real life the scene from the late Pleistocene Epoch that he has brought to life in the minds of scientists and researchers around the globe.

"I'm a mammoth, a big old mammoth, the leader of the tribe," he declared, eyes wide and a look of wonder sneaking out around his bushy, graying goatee. "I like these overhanging rocks because they give a better angle to rub up against."

Parkman believes, and he has a growing body of evidence to prove that mammoths and other large Ice Age creatures once used these very rocks near Duncan's Landing, along the Sonoma Coast State Beach, to scratch their backs. He claims the giant mammals rubbed so much that large swaths of rock have been buffered smooth.


On this particular outcropping there are uncharacteristic patches of dark, smooth polished rock that can be seen up to a height of 14 feet.

"This goes up 14 feet, and then it stops," Parkman said, pointing to an area as smooth as honed marble. "That's the size of an adult male mammoth. And there are a dozen other polished rocks within sight of us."

Experts on rock polish have examined the smooth areas, including a geologist from Sonoma State University who reported that he couldn't find any other geological explanation for the rubbings. In fact, a microscopic analysis of the polished rock shows that the smooth areas are virtually identical to known elephant rubbing rocks in Africa, down to the tiny scratches caused by gravel particles on the skin.

As rare as fossils are, direct evidence of the behavior of extinct animals is even more rare and usually determined by making analogies to living species in a similar ecological niche. Rubbing is quite common among large mammals who don't have the flexibility to scratch everywhere. In the northwestern woods, I've seen trees with tufts of fur in the bark where bears have leaned in to scratch their backs. Elephants rub as part of their grooming to remove dust, derma, bugs, and just to scratch.

The mammoths in this area would have been Columbian Mammoths, the slightly larger and older cousins of the Woolly Mammoth. While Woolly Mammoths lived on the steppe-like, cold, northern prairies, Columbian Mammoths lived in forest and plain all through North America. Their bones have been found from the Canadian border to central Mexico.

Short of finding sone hairs in a crack in the rocks, Parkman is going to have a rough time proving his theory. Just becase something makes sense doesn't mean it's correct. Still, it's an exciting concept.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Boilerplate fringe
Most writers of fringe science and history adheres fairly closely to certain stylistic conventions. Their style drips with equal parts self-pity and conspiracy mongering, contempt and bitterness at the academic establishment that fails to accept the writer's theory. Naturally, their theory is not rejected because the establishment thinks that it is wrong or poorly argued. No, their theory is rejected because it challenges the prevailing paradigm, because the establishment academics are protecting their jobs, and because academia is restricted club, run by a bunch of mean gunky-heads, and the writer wouldn't join their stupid club even if they begged him to, and they will, mark my words. At this point the author compares himself to Galileo or some other persecuted martyr to the truth.

The style remains the same whether the subject is creationism, holocaust denial, alternative medicine, or something less harmful. Take the following example. By replacing a few key words (indicated by square brackets), this could be about almost anything:
[Some science], when interpreted with an open mind, has now actually proved beyond reasonable doubt that [my theory is right], but the proof is ignored. Vested interest in the status quo has won the day. Huge amounts of public money are being spent on studying [the accepted theories], and hundreds of books written about them .... Sadly, it seems no one in academia has had the courage publicly to question seriously the basic assumptions upon which [the accepted theories are] founded.

Sadly the response to innovative thinking in academia is often to try to drown both the innovator and his work in a tide of ridicule and misrepresentation. The dogma of the Establishment, which strictly controls what is taught to the next generation, has ever been fiercely defended. But it has often been wrong. To take a much quoted example, the Catholic Church burnt Bruno alive at the stake in 1600AD for refusing to believe that the Earth was the centre of the Universe, a dogma they had been teaching unchallenged for some 1300 years. Academia today is exerting an ever-tighter control on what is taught, and on the subjects suitable for research. The politically accepted, yet seriously flawed system of 'peer review' plays into the hands of the Guardians of the Dogma who control research publications, enabling them to stifle innovative theories which contradict their own.

Without peeking, would you have known that the subject was archaeology?
David Neiwert has long been the go-to guy for information on right-wing eliminationism. He's finally gathering his thought on this subject into a long-overdue, serialized blog-monograph on the subject. David is wisely limiting his topic to the traitors-in-our-midst impulse to homicide. Someday I'd like to see someone take on the vaporize-the-foreigners impulse (represented by Bill O'Reilly twice this week) and compare it to domestic eliminationism. Is it possible to desire one type of wholesale extermination one and not the other?

The first part is here. We eagerly await the rest of the series.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The next theory
I love this sort of news. It fills in some more details of Earth history and human prehistory and shows how there is always something new to discover.
A massive tsunami smashed Mediterranean shores some 8,000 years ago when a giant chunk of volcano fell into the sea, researchers say.

Waves up to 165 feet (50 meters) high swept the eastern Mediterranean, triggered by a landslide on Mount Etna on the island of Sicily, according to the new study.

The research team says the natural disaster likely destroyed ancient communities, with a series of killer waves hitting the eastern Mediterranean coastline from Italy to Egypt.


The researchers also speculate that a Neolithic village just off the coast of present-day Israel was hit by the tsunami.

The well-preserved Atlit-Yam settlement, which due to altered sea levels today lies submerged, "shows evidence of a sudden abandonment" 7,000 to 8,000 years ago, the researchers write.

Mt. Etna is one of the best studied volcanoes in the world. Since at least the time of the Classical Greeks, curious men have been climbing into Etna to measure, and test, and just see what's going on. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that the science of geology was born in Etna.

Mt. Etna is a pretty typical cinder cone* type of volcano. In a cinder cone, lava and ash pile up around the volcanic vent forming a fairly symmetrical cone shaped mountain. This is the cartoon volcano that most kindergarteners learn to draw. Cinder cones become most dangerous when they become tall without becoming very wide; their slopes become too steep to be stable. Because a cinder cone is essentially a pile of rubble, it's very easy for an enormous chunk of it to slide off.

Eruptions are the most dangerous time. One point seven cubic miles of Mt. Saint Helens slid off during the 1980 eruption when the rising magma chamber caused that side of the mountain to bulge outward. Other volcanoes give way when they become saturated with water, as happens in frequently in Central America and the Andes during the rainy seasons. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch caused the side of Casita Volcano in Nicaragua to collapse, creating a landslide that wiped out two villages and killed over 2,000 people.

When such landslides happen on the shore or underwater, they cause some of the biggest tsunami known to science. In the event called the Nuuanu landslide, 3000 cubic kilometers of the Hawaiian island of Oahu broke off and slid northeast. The slide would have caused a 70 meter (215 foot) tsunami in southern California. Fortunately, this was about 1.5 million years ago and only mastodons were there to see it.

Back to Mt. Etna. This story is interesting enough in its own right, but my first thought was to wonder which fringe researchers will be encouraged in what direction by it. Sudden gigantic tsunami smashes around the Eastern Mediterranean wiping out costal communities just before the dawn of history--that has possibilities. I'm sure someone can work this into a theory of Atlantis or the Biblical flood.

In their 1998 book, Noah's Flood, William Ryan and Walter Pitman described a massive flood through the Bosporus into the Black Sea about 7600 years ago. At the time, they believe the Black Sea was a landlocked glacial lake about five hundred feet lower than the present sea. As the oceans and seas rose at the end of the last ice age, the Mediterranean eventually became deep enough to flood over the narrow ridge separating its Sea of Marmora arm from this lake. The lake filled to it's present level in less than a year. Any people present on the shores of the old lake would have had to flee as everything they knew disappeared beneath the expanding sea.

Ryan and Pitman's geology was quite good and, although some geologists question their interpretation of the evidence, many were convinced. Unfortunately, Ryan and Pitman chose to push their narrative beyond their area of expertise. They speculated than the primitive farmers who escaped from the rising waters were responsible for the spread of agriculture, the spread of the Indo-European and Semitic languages, and the origin of the Biblical flood myth. This speculation was a nice hook on which to base their popular book, but was nowhere near as well supported by the evidence as was their straight geological narrative. Scientists in a half-dozen fields cringed at what they saw as naive and sensationalist nonsense. Worse, hundreds of catastrophist theorists claimed that Ryan and Pitman, who are real scientists, supported their preferred theories of the past, whether Noah, Atlantis, or rogue planets.

The Mt. Etna landslide and tsunami is not only liable to get the same treatment down the line, it could even be made to fit into the Black Sea narrative. The timelines are compatible. Suppose it was the Etna tsunami that first sloshed the water in the Sea of Marmora over the ridge separating it from Black Lake and started carving the Bosporus channel? Most Atlantis theorists like to work a volcano into their story (even though Plato doesn't mention one). By combining the Etna landslide and the Black Sea flood we get more than enough tectonic drama to keep the Atlantis fans happy. There is even a school of thought that thinks the Bosporus and Dardanelles were the Pillars of Hercules and not the Straits of Gibraltar.

When the inevitable catastrophist book on the Mt. Etna landslide and tsunami comes out, remember that you read it here first.

* I've simplified a bit. Many geologists distinguish between different types of cones depending on the type of material that has piled up. I've lumped them all together.

Friday, December 01, 2006

What is a terrorist meal?
This shouldn't surprise us:
Without notifying the public, federal agents for the past four years have assigned millions of international travelers, including Americans, computer-generated scores rating the risk they pose of being terrorists or criminals.

The travelers are not allowed to see or directly challenge these risk assessments, which the government intends to keep on file for 40 years.

The scores are assigned to people entering and leaving the United States after computers assess their travel records, including where they are from, how they paid for tickets, their motor vehicle records, past one-way travel, seating preference and what kind of meal they ordered.

This is fairly typical for this administration: wholesale secret intelligence gathering, indiscriminate surveillance of everyone, possibly illegally interlinked databases, co-opting corporate America to supply information for a covert law enforcement program, no oversight, no appeal, no due process. But what's this about the meals? What do terrorists typically eat? Are they more likely to drink Pepsi than Coke? Could it be that anyone who orders a halal or kosher meal is flagged and diet is a surrogate for religious profiling?