Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Wiener of the week

Sometimes I think I should start an award for the most appalling people in the world. It's a pretty standard feature in lots of blogs, not mention on Keith Olbermann's Countdown. I could give it a cute name like the Oscar Meyer memorial wiener of the week award. But, it's a gag that's been done almost to death and some days the competition is almost too strong. There is not and never will be a shortage of jerks in the world. Plus, what would I do about people like Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, or anyone who writes for World News Daily? Bush deserves to win it every day for the continuing damage he does to world peace, the American constitution, and the English language. Do I deprive less well known, but still vile people of their day in the sun, the brutal exposing light of day, just because the better-known wingnuts hog the limelight? I suppose I could establish a hall of shame for the usual suspects. But that sounds like a lot of work.

If I did give out an OMMWOTW Award, this week it would unquestionably go to Principal Daphne Beasley of the Hollis F. Price Middle College High School in South Memphis, TN. Principal Beasley was the subject of a complaint (PDF) that the ACLU sent to the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners and will probably be the star of some law suits later this year. What did she do to deserve this attention?

Last fall Beasley announced over the school intercom system that she wanted all teachers and staff at the school to provide her with a list of all students who were couples, "hetero and homo." The purpose of compiling the list was that she wanted to monitor them personally to prevent students from engaging in public displays of affection. She posted the list near her desk in plain sight of staff and students. Soon after, a student informed her that two boys, known as Andrew and Nicholas in the complaint, were a gay couple and she added them to the list.

The boys had been quiet about their relationship and had never been observed in an sort of public display of affection at the school. Beasley called both of the boys' parents. According to Nicholas's mother who took notes, Beasley repeatedly asked her "Did you know your son is gay?" and went on to say that she didn't like gay people, wouldn't tolerate homosexuality at her school, and was glad she didn't have kids so she wouldn't have to deal with these problems.

Let's stop and look at the story so far. Why did Beasley really need this list? Are we expected to believe that she was unable to tell who was engaging in improper public displays of affection unless she had a suspect list. Or was the "hetero and homo" request nothing more than cover for her real purpose which was a gay whitch hunt all along? The latter is the belief of most of the commenters over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Even lacking that motive, it's voyuristic, extremely creepy, and possibly a violation of the right of privacy for her to be keeping such a list, as if the students were registered sex offenders.

Neither the ACLU complain nor the news coverage mention her calling the parents of any of the straight couples to report on their attachments. I think I'm safe in assuming that Andrew and Nicholas were singled out for different treatment than the straight kids. This must be an example of those "special rights" that we keep hearing about gays getting. More concrete examples of their special treatment are mentioned in the complaint. The two were prohibited from walking or studying together at the school. Nicholas, a straight-A (pardon the pun) student with a long history of community service, applied to go on a school sonsored trip to New Orleans to take part the reconstruction. He was denied permission and a student who had not applied went in his place. A teacher told Nicholas that some faculty were afraid he might "embarrass the school" by engaging in "inappropriate behavior." It goes without saying that both Andrew and Nicholas had to deal with verbal harassment from teachers and students once word got around the school about their orientation.

Keep in mind that neither student broke any of the rules of the school. They were singled out merely because Beasley heard from another student that they were gay.

The ACLU enumerates the specific laws that Beasley has violated and demands that the school board reprimand Beasley, apologise to all of the students on the watch list "hetero and homo," compensate deal with these problemsfor the harm (no monetary amount or form of compensation is listed), and institute policies to see that this never happens again. The school board, to their credit, have not circled the wagons but are promising to investigate and deal with the issue.

Reprimanding Beasley doesn't sound like enough to me. She has no concept of the the proper limits to her authority and no respect for the students. Anyone who is glad she doesn't have kids so she won't have to deal with these problems has no business being in education because, dealing with these problems is a huge part of her job. Whatever the school district does doesn't rule out personal civil suits between the parents of deal with these problems and Beasley.

The usual result of suits like this is that the victims' lives become a living hell. the news coverage has put a target on their back for every bigot in the county. No last names were mentioned in the news reports, but plenty of students will be happy to point them out. They have shaken the boat; they are now officially troublemakers. Even students and neighbors who are personally neutral on the issue of gay rights will hate them for embarrassing their community. Their lives are changed.

Beasley's life will be changed, too. Bigots and right-wing culture warriors will adopt her as a cause and rally to her defense. They will slander the students and announce that Beasley is the real victim here. She will be transformed into a martyr because she stood up for her (bad) values. Even if she's not religious, they will make this a religious issue. Expect to see the phrase lynch mob bandied about. There are already enough intemperate comments on the blogs that they can pick and choose from the worst to tar anyone who sides with the students. This fits right into the anti-ACLU narrative that portrays the group not as a defender of the right to be unpopular, but rather as the enemy of morality and religion. We will also be treated to the logic abusing argument that the ACLU should be defending her right to use a government paid position to force her narrow-minded religion on a captive audience and that's what the founding fathers wanted. Expect a circus.

They hate it, they really hate it

Some of the big name columnists have taken notice of McCain and Clinton's "gas tax holiday" pander and they all hate it, each from their own perspective. The big kids' critiques fall in two main categories, it won't work and it's bad energy policy.

Thomas Friedman dedicates his New York Times opinion column to bashing the idea:
This is not an energy policy. This is money laundering: we borrow money from China and ship it to Saudi Arabia and take a little cut for ourselves as it goes through our gas tanks. What a way to build our country.

Paul Krugman, Friedman's smarter New York Times colleague doesn't even think the idea is worth a full column, but gives it a few paragraphs in his blog:
It’s Econ 101 tax incidence theory: if the supply of a good is more or less unresponsive to the price, the price to consumers will always rise until the quantity demanded falls to match the quantity supplied. Cut taxes, and all that happens is that the pretax price rises by the same amount. The McCain gas tax plan is a giveaway to oil companies, disguised as a gift to consumers.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich also takes a shot on his blog:
Talk about dumb ideas. This will only encourage Americans to drive more, thereby increasing demand and causing gas prices to rise even higher. Driving more will also put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which fuels global warming. And this will cost taxpayers some $10 billion. It's a cheap political gimmick that does nothing to stem the rising price of oil.

Huffington Post has a round up of opinions here. Interestingly, they were only able to line up one opinion in favor the idea, but they have eight against even without asking me.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A bad idea whose time has not come

John McCain and Hillary Clinton are both pushing for "gas tax holiday" this summer, a three month moratorium on the collection of the federal gasoline tax. They claim that this would give relief to Americans who are suffering from the skyrocketing cost of driving. This is a bad idea on so many levels I'm not sure I can even count them, but I'll try. The Washington Post's Fact Checker column today names a few of the problems with this plan.

First, the plan only gives an illusion of relief. When Illinois tried such a stunt in 2000 only about sixty percent of the cut made it to the consumers. That is, when the state cut taxes by five cents per gallon and the gas stations cut prices by an average of just three cents. The other two cents were pocketed by the the gas stations and wholesellers. The current federal gas tax is a little over eighteen cents per gallon. Consumers can expect to see a ten or twelve cent cut in what they pay at the pump. If you use 200 gallons over the summer that means your savings will be twenty to twenty-five dollars over a three month period of time.

Second, even in the best of years, gas prices go up in the summer in response to increased demand and spot shortages. The simple fact that we expect them to go up means the oil companies can raise prices without a serious outcry even when demand does not increase. For consumers, this means the relief of a "gas tax holiday" would only last for a few weeks before rising prices put us right back where we started.

Third, gas taxes pay for work on our highways and bridges which are in dangerous ill repair. Cutting off funds for that work would not only result in laying off thousands of civil servants, but it would mean cutting off contracts for the already hurting construction sector and missing a whole season of work on decaying bridges and such. The alternative is that the federal government raise taxes somewhere else to make up the shortfall or add it to the national debt so we can pay for the work and then pay for it again in interest. For the taxpayers, this is worse than a shell game. At the end of the summer, right before the election, we would be faced with a sudden spike in gas prices. What politician facing reelection could resist the call to extend the tax moratorium? Neither Clinton nor McCain would want to be blamed for the sudden rise in prices, so they would be first in line calling for the moratorium--and budget shortfall--to be made permanent.

To the Post's list I would like to add that the moratorium stunt does nothing to address the underlying causes of our pain. We need cars that get better mileage. We need to get more of our energy from non-fossil sources. We need urban mass transit that commuters will really use. We need to get more of the things we use from sources closer to our homes and eliminate transportation costs. What we do not need is another summer of putting off important decisions and pretending we can go on like we always have.

As a state senator, Obama voted for the Illinois moratorium. Within a few months, he knew that it was a mistake and called for its repeal. Clinton and McCain have the example of Illinois to show them that the idea is worthless, but they choose feel-good pandering instead of hard choices and real leadership. If they want to do something about prices that will have some real use, stop worrying about making it a little easier to visit Grandma this summer and start working on a plan to do something about heating fuel costs next winter so Grandma will live to see the following summer. We need more solutions, not more pandering.

Monday, April 28, 2008

You can have my balls when...

Senate lawmakers in Florida have voted to ban the fake bull testicles that dangle from the trailer hitches of many trucks and cars throughout the state.

Republican Sen. Cary Baker, a gun shop owner from Eustis, Florida, called the adornments offensive and proposed the ban. Motorists would be fined $60 for displaying the novelty items, which are known by brand names like "Truck Nutz" and resemble the south end of a bull moving north.

The Florida Senate voted last week to add the measure to a broader transportation bill, but it is not included in the House version.

In a spirited debate laced with double entendre, Senate lawmakers questioned whether the state should curtail freedom of expression in vehicle accessories.

When balls are outlawed only outlaws will have balls.

Friday, April 25, 2008

No More Rabbit Ears

A team of researchers in Korea have developed what they are calling a smart skin antenna. The material is a flat block about the size of the palm of your hand and contains hundreds of embedded microstrip antennas. Because the material would be flush with the outer surface of any vehicle it was used in, it would reduce drag and eliminate a site of potential structural weakness. The advantage in cars and airplanes is obvious. They also suggest using the material in consumer electronics to eliminate the extendible antenna in cell phones, boom boxes, and televisions. That last suggestion raises an important question for me. How would you attach the aluminium foil flags to these antennas when you want to improve the reception of your television set?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Chain gangs for McCain

The John McCain campaign got a great deal when they rented a hall from the city of Homewood, Alabama for a fund raiser. They were charged 80 percent less than Democrats had been for the same space and given free convict labor from the local jail to do the set-up. The deal was probably completely illegal since Homewood Mayor Barry McCulley gave the McCain campaign their discount on his own authority and by bypassing the normal procedures. This could easily be regarded as an in-kind donation to a political candidate.

Let's give McCain himself the benefit of the doubt and assume he knew nothing about this. He needs to step forward and offer to pay the full rental fee right now before it's used against him. Even that might not be enough to avoid a fine from the FEC for accepting an illegal contribution, but it would give him a ethically defensible position before the voters. This should be a gift to the Democrats if they are on the ball. But there's only a 50-50 chance of that--at best.

The secret of Bamiyan

The Taliban's insane destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 may ironically have led to a major historical discovery. Preservationists working at the site since the destruction have discovered the world's oldest oil paintings. In the cliffs behind the now famous nooks where the Buddha statues once stood, monks created monasteries by tunneling and expanding natural caves. These chambers were decorated with religious frescoes that include the oldest known oil paintings in the world. Most art history texts will tell you that oil painting was invented in Renaissance Europe. The paintings in the monks' chambers at Bamiyan are almost one thousand years older.
A combination of synchrotron techniques such as infrared micro-spectroscopy, micro X-ray fluorescence, micro X-ray absorption spectroscopy or micro X-ray diffraction was crucial for the outcome of the work. "On one hand, the paintings are arranged as superposition of multiple layers, which can be very thin. The micrometric beam provided by synchrotron sources was hence essential to analyze separately each of these layers. On the other hand, these paintings are made with inorganic pigments mixed in organic binders, so we needed different techniques to get the full picture" Marine Cotte, a research scientist at CNRS and an ESRF scientific collaborator explains.

The results showed a high diversity of pigments as well as binders and the scientists identified original ingredients and alteration compounds. Apart from oil-based paint layers, some of the layers were made of natural resins, proteins, gums, and, in some cases, a resinous, varnish-like layer. Protein-based material can indicate the use of hide glue or egg. Within the various pigments, the scientists found a high use of lead whites. These lead carbonates were often used, since Antiquity up to modern times, not only in paintings but also in cosmetics as face whiteners.

"This is the earliest clear example of oil paintings in the world, although drying oils were already used by ancient Romans and Egyptians, but only as medicines and cosmetics", explains Yoko Taniguchi, leader of the team.

Due to the large gap of time between the Bamiyan paintings and the Renaissance, it's unlikely that the knowledge of oil painting was transmitted from the East to Europe. It's more likely that it was independently discovered. As Taniguchi says, oil had been used with cosmetic pigments for thousands of years. For most of history, painters have not had access to mass produced or standardized formulas for paints. Each painter had to be an experimenter and chemist with his own secret recipes handed down by their various schools. If pigments mixed with oil were being used for one purpose (cosmetic) I'd expect that oil pigments for painting have been tried and forgotten several times over the millennia.

Hopefully, this will lead to more and better archaeology in Central Asia, one of the least studied parts of the Old World. When I taught a few classes in Ancient History, I was fascinated by the fact that most history concentrates on the outer edge of the Eurasian land mass and ignores the connecting region in the middle. We know that are was active. We know empires rose and fell there. But because of the difficulty of doing work there, the region has barely been studied, and most studies are as an extension of one of the periphery civilizations. There are wonderful things waiting to be found there, but they won't wait. Politics, thoughtless development, fundamentalist thugs, and climate change will destroy libraries worth of knowledge every year unless someone gets there first.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Hitler Action Figure

It's springtime for Hitler as a Ukrainian toy manufacturer releases a collectible Hitler doll complete with two changes of uniform, a leather trench coat, and his dog Blondi. About three million people died in Ukraine during the Nazi invasion. Neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism are major problems in Eastern Europe. This has to be the either the most tone deaf or cynically insensitive move by a business that I've run into in a long time.

Coming up next: "Cuddle Me Hitler" who sings the Horst Wessel song when you squeeze him.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Rodney Dangerfield of terror

The latest tape from al Qayda second banana Ayman al-Zawahiri complains that al Qayda doesn't get any respect. First Saddam got the credit for 9/11; now Iran is trying to hog the credit.
In a two-hour audiotape posted on an Islamist website, Osama Bin Laden's chief deputy responded to questions posted by al-Qaeda sympathisers.

In response to a question about persistent rumours in the Middle East that Israel was involved in the 9/11 attacks, Zawahiri said the rumour had begun on the Hezbollah television station, Al-Manar.

"The purpose of this lie is clear - [to suggest] that there are no heroes among the Sunnis who can hurt America as no-one else did in history, he said.

"Iranian media snapped up this lie and repeated it."

And what's the deal with the in-flight meals? If you weren't planning on commandeering the plane and taking everyone on board to a fiery death before eating the meal, you will after. Some days it just doesn't pay to be the scourge of humanity. Thank you. I'll be here all week. And don't forget to stone the waitresses for being filthy Jezebels.

The jet streams are shifting

Scientists at the Carnegie Institution have documented ongoing changes in the high-altitude bands of fast winds that strongly influence the paths of storms and other weather systems. The shifts are possibly in response to global warming.

This, to me, is the most important aspect of global warming (and the reason why I think "global warming" is a misleading name). The weather patterns are changing. The change might not be toward warmer weather at every spot on the face of the Earth or on every day of the year. Much of our construction in coastal areas and river bottoms as well as planning in our global agricultural system is based on assumptions that the near future climate will be similar to the near past climate. When the climate changes unpredictably, we get planning disasters. At the very least harmful end of things are golf course centered retirement communities that will fail if there isn't enough water. At the worst end are crop failures, spiking food costs, and local famines. Billions of dollars will be lost and people will die when we get it wrong.

The fact that there is so much uncertainty and debate about how much or even if the oceans are going to rise, whether or not hurricanes will get stronger or not, and how annual rainfall patterns are going to shift means our ability to plan in any meaningful way is suffering. That is the real danger of global warming.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Cassini gets another tour of duty

The Cassini-Huygens probe orbiting Saturn is functioning so well that NASA has extended its mission for two more years. The extended mission will make flybys of three more moons and continue to study the rings and magnetosphere of the giant planet. We get to look forward to two more years of heartbreakingly wonderful pictures of strange other worlds.

When a satellite like Cassini continues to function long beyond its expected lifespan, the main limits on continuing to use it are fuel for maneuvering (there is no way to refuel it) and, most importantly a budget, for people here on Earth.

It's frustrating to know that a satellite like this might continue to send data and answer questions for years, but we might have to shut it down because NASA can't afford to pay a ground crew to ask the questions or listen to the answers. The entire cost of the Cassini-Huygens mission so far, has been 3.26 billion over twenty-five years. That includes planning, development, construction, launch, ground control, and administration. We even got the Europeans to pay twenty percent of the cost. That is less than we spend in Iraq in one week.

One of the most common John McCain ads on line is his grizzly bear ad. He shows a picture of a bear and the text tells us that the government wants to spend three million dollars to study grizzly bear DNA in Glacier National Park. Even with no sound, the sneer is clear. When he appears in person, the bear anecdote is a major laugh line. He asks whether we are checking their DNA as part of a paternity suit, then he lets the audience know that a McCain administration won't be wasting our hard-earned tax money on bear DNA. That three million dollars he's so concerned about would pay for about twelve minutes of the Iraq War. He's completely unconcerned over how much longer we continue that adventure. The rest of his life, decades beyond that, even a million years, he doesn't care. He claims to hate war more than any man alive, but he'll keep wasting national treasure, prestige, and lives indefinitely rather than have his masculinity questioned.

I have an idea; let's get McCain and all the other insecure or scared Americans a lifetime supply of Viagra or Valium, end the war, and put a fraction of the money saved into doing some useful science. Productive satellites should get additional tours of duty; twenty five year old National Guard members should come home to their families and communities.

Important questions that must be asked

Senator McCain, some of your detractors argue that you have a short fuse. You have a bad temper. That you can be difficult to deal with. How do you respond to these critics and don't you think having a bad temper might come in useful if you happened to discover Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Hugo Chavez, naked, burning American flags in a flag factory?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Some pirates are better at plundering than others

Republican state representative Juan Zapata of Florida wants to empty museums and sell off the state's Spanish treasure in order to raise cash and balance the state budget. "We have some interesting goodies in the closet," he explained. "Why not have an interesting garage sale, put them out there and see what we can get for them?" Zapata went so far as to write up his plan, specifying some of the most famous treasure ever recovered in Florida--artifacts from the wreck of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha--as the objects to go on the auction block, and attached the plan to another bill as an amendment.

However, Zapata's plan had to be withdrawn because Florida doesn't own the Atocha artifacts and the real owner isn't planning on donating them to the state. The Secretary of State's office is not enthusiastic about selling the artifacts that they do own. "These are tough times, but we don't sell treasure as a Florida family," said Ryan Wheeler, the state's chief of archaeological research. "We don't sell the family Bible," he added, "or grandmother's china." The Secretary of State's office made no effort to supply Zapata with information about which artifacts they do own.

With bold ideas like that one, Zapata should apply for a job in the Iraqi reconstruction. He could organize a raid on the national museum in Baghdad and sell the loot to private collectors. Oh wait, Donald Rumsfeld already did that.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Early elephant was amphibious

A team of Oxford scientists has used isotope analysis of fossil tooth enamel to prove something long suspected about Moeritherium, one of the earliest kin of elephants: that they lived a semi-aquatic lifestyle similar to modern hippos. We already knew that earlier on the family line of proboscideans diverged from the sireneans (manatees and sea cows) who returned to the ocean just as the ceteaceans (whales) were doing. Now we have proof that the proboscideans hung around in the water a little longer before moving back onto the land. Modern elephants, by the way, like water and are excellent swimmers.

Sadly, this puts to death one of my favorite images. Old descriptions the Moeritherium sometimes describe its size as about the same as an English sheepdog. I always pictured them as little woolly mammoths happily frolicking on the shores of the Tethys Sea. Now, however, we think they probably looked a lot more like modern tapirs. Bummer.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Davis apologizes, sort of

Monique Davis, the Illinois legislator who made national news (including being named Worst Person in the World by Keith Olbermann) for her tirade against an atheist who was trying to testify before her committee last week, has apologized. Rob Sherman, the object of her rage, accepted her apology. Sherman tells us about it:
Yesterday, State Representative Monique Davis (D-Chicago) called me from the Floor of the Illinois House of Representatives to apologize for what she had said to me at last Wednesday's hearing of the House State Government Administration Committee.


Rep. Davis said that she had been upset, earlier in the day, to learn that a twenty-second and twenty-third Chicago Public School student this school year had been shot to death that morning. She said that it was wrong for her to take out her anger, frustrations and emotions on me, and that she apologized to me.

I told her that her explanation was reasonable and that I forgave her.

While it's nice that there is peace between Davis and Sherman, Davis' words disenfranchised a larger group than just Sherman and her apology (at least, as much of it as is reported) isn't sufficient to undo the damage of her words. Look again at what she said:
Davis: So, I don’t know what you have against God, but some of us don’t have much against him. We look forward to him and his blessings. And it’s really a tragedy--it’s tragic--when a person who is engaged in anything related to God, they want to fight. They want to fight prayer in school. I don’t see you fighting guns in school. You know? I’m trying to understand the philosophy that you want to spread in the state of Illinois. This is the Land of Lincoln. This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God, where people believe in protecting their children. We don't want-- In my opinion-- What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous, it’s dangerous--

Sherman: What’s dangerous, ma’am?

Davis: It’s dangerous to the progression of this state. And it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! Now you will go to court to fight kids to have the opportunity to be quiet for a minute. But damn if you’ll go to school to fight for them to keep guns out of their hands. I am fed up! Get out of that seat!

Voices: Amen! Amen! (scattered applause)

Sherman: Thank you for sharing your perspective with me, and I’m sure that if this matter does go to court--

Davis (voice rising to a shout): Get out of that seat! You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying!

Voices: That's right.

Davis: You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.

Davis' apology explains the the nonsequitor of her demanding to know why Sherman wasn't doing something about guns in schools.

If that was the extent of her outburst, the apology would be more than adequate. She apologised for taking her frustrations out on Sherman. In effect she apologized for her rudeness. But her outburst was more than a rude tone or waste of Sherman's time through changing the subject. She attacked Sherman's belief system--a belief system shared by millions. She denied the rights of those millions to take part in government. She denied several of the basic tenants of our system of government--free speech, free exchange of ideas, and equal access to government. She insulted everyone who believes in those things, even if they do not share Sherman's atheism. She insulted the children of Illinois by implying that they are too fragile to survive exposure to challenging ideas. Her moment of frustration does not explain or excuse any of those aspects of her outburst.

Outbursts like that do not come from nowhere. Davis' anti-democratic feelings were not created in that moment by her rising frustration over school violence any more than Mel Gibson's anti-Semetic outburst was created by a few drinks too many. All that frustration did was lower her defenses so that she allowed her darkest feelings to have voice.

Some bloggers have compared Davis to Oklahoma State Rep. Sally Kern and her unrepentant homophobia. Davis they say is the better of two for her apology. I'm not so certain. Davis apologized only to Sherman and only for her rudeness. She has not apologized to all the others who were offended by her sentiments and she has not implied in the slightest that she feels that there is anything wrong with those sentiments or that she understands why anyone would object to an elected official expressing such anti-democratic bile. If, like Kern, Davis is unrepentant in her bigotry but not willing to stand by her remarks, then she is cowardly as well as bigoted. In this country we consider having courage in your convictions a virtue; that would make Kern actually the better of the two.

Perhaps Davis did express some understanding of the magnitude of her offense and it wasn't reported. I've hunted for that, but haven't found it. Maybe she will have more to say later. I hope so. One of the most appalling aspects of the outburst was that she was applauded as she disparaged the most fundamental of American values. People present called out "Amen" and "that's right" rather than "shame on you." Such people should not be encouraged. Davis needs to make clear just where she stands. Is she for the Constitution and American values or is she for fear and hatred?

It looks like I'm not the only one who was not impressed by Davis' limited apology.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

archy interviews a pharaoh

April is National Poetry Month. This seems like as good a time as any to share some of the journalistic jottings of our patron cockroach. Archy, for those who do not yet know, was once a vers libre bard, but he died and his soul went into the body of a cockroach. It gave his new perspective on life, but expression was the need of his soul. So he struck up a deal with a reporter. In exchange for a little exposure and an occasional apple peel, Archy would pound out stories of life from the underside, diving headfirst onto the typewriter keys, one painful letter at a time, sans capitalization and punctuation. Some said the experience made him a lowbrow poet. He didn't mind what they said as long as they read.

This one was written in the mid twenties at the height of the excitement over Carter's revelations from the tomb of King Tut and at the depth of that long national nightmare called prohibition.

boss i went
and interviewed the mummy
of the egyptian pharaoh
in the metropolitan museum
as you bade me to do

what ho
my regal leatherface
says i

little scatter footed
says he

kingly has been
says i
what was your ambition
when you had any

and journalistic insect
says the royal crackling
in my tender prime
i was too dignified
to have anything as vulgar
as ambition
the ra ra boys
in the seti set
were too haughty
to be ambitious
we used to spend our time
feeding the ibises
and ordering
pyramids sent home to try on
but if i had my life
to live over again
i would give dignity
the regal razz
and hire myself out
to work in a brewery

old tan and tarry
says i
i detect in your speech
the overtones
of melancholy

yes i am sad
says the majestic mackerel
i am as sad
as the song
of a soudanese jackal
who is wailing for the blood red
moon he cannot reach and rip

on what are you brooding
with such a wistful
there in the silences
confide in me
my perial pretzel
says i

i brood on beer
my scampering whiffle snoot
on beer says he

my sympathies
are with your royal
dryness says i

my little pest
says he
you must be respectful
in the presence
of a mighty desolation
little archy
forty centuries of thirst
look down upon you

oh by isis
and by osiris
says the princely raisin
and by pish and phthush and phthah
by the sacred book perembru
and all the gods
that rule from the upper
cataract of the nile
to the delta of the duodenum
i am dry
i am as dry
as the next morning mouth
of a dissipated desert
as dry as the hoofs
of the camels of timbuctoo
little fussy face
i am as dry as the heart
of a sand storm
at high noon in hell
i have been lying here
and there
for four thousand years
with silicon in my esophagus
as gravel in my gizzard
of beer

divine drouth
says i
imperial fritter
continue to think
there is no law against
that in this country
old salt codfish
if you keep quiet about it
not yet

what country is this
asks the poor prune

my reverend juicelessness
this is a beerless country
says i

well well said the royal
my political opponents back home
always maintained
that i would wind up in hell
and it seems they had the right dope

and with these hopeless words
the unfortunate residuum
gave a great cough of despair
and turned to dust and debris
right in my face
it being the only time
i ever actually saw anybody
put the cough
into sarcophagus

dear boss as i scurry about
i hear of a great many
tragedies in our midsts
personally i yearn
for some dear friend to pass over
and leave to me
a boot legacy
yours for the second coming
of gambrinus


Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Smallest extrasolar planet found

The smallest planet discovered outside our solar system has been announced by Spanish astronomers. The rocky planet, known by the catchy name GJ 436c, is about five times the size of the Earth and circles a red dwarf star 30 light years away in the constellation Leo. Till now, most of the 300 or so extrasolar planets we've been able to find have been gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. The importance of this discovery is that we are starting to develop techniques that will allow us to find Earth-sized planets in just a few years. When we start finding Earth-sized planets, we can start sifting through them to find Earth-like planets and candidates for life bearing planets. Then we invade.

Monday, April 07, 2008

When it's gone, it's gone

Minnesota's freshman congressperson, Michele Bachmann*, took advantage of an appearance before members of the Monticello Chamber of Commerce to express her support for a big fence to keep foreigners out of the US.
She was particularly emotional about immigration, a subject that she made headlines with back in February when she was very critical of the system that allowed the woman charged with crashing into a bus in Cottonwood, Minn., to continue driving.

“We’re losing our country,” she said. “People are not assimilating themselves to America. They’re not speaking [our language], and you must speak it if you want to succeed here in this country.”

A spokesperson for the American Indian Movement was sympathetic. "We know how you feel," he said.

* No relation to Bachmann Turner Overdrive.

Dylan gets a Pulitzer

Bob Dylan has been awarded a special music citation by the Pulitzer committee for his profound impact on popular music and American culture. The plaque will make a nice visual break on his wall of Grammys and gold records. I guess the only challenge left is "Dancing With the Stars."

Atheists have no rights

When an atheist, Rob Sherman, tried to testify before the Illinois state legislature opposing a grant of a million dollars to a local church, Rep. Monique Davis cut him off, shouting, "Get out of that seat! You have no right to be here!"

Sherman is an activist atheist who is not content to quietly sit by and allow pandering politicians to chip away at the wall of separation. He had a previous run-in with the Illinois legislature when he and his daughter sued over a law requiring public schools to observe a moment of silence in the classroom. The law was called the “Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act.” In response to his suit, the legislature removed all references of prayer from the bill and changed it from a mandatory moment of silence to a voluntary one. At his most recent appearance before the legislature, Rep. Davis appeared to still be nursing grudge over the suit (she was one of the sponsors of the bill).

Chicago Tribune writer Eric Zorn brought up the incident of Davis' ordering Sherman out of the legislature with the hypothetical, "consider what the outcry would have been if a lawmaker had launched a similar attack on the beliefs of a religious person." (Zorn's transcript at the link is slightly abridged. I corrected it using the state's MP3 file to which he links.)
Davis: So, I don’t know what you have against God, but some of us don’t have much against him. We look forward to him and his blessings. And it’s really a tragedy--it’s tragic--when a person who is engaged in anything related to God, they want to fight. They want to fight prayer in school. I don’t see you fighting guns in school. You know? I’m trying to understand the philosophy that you want to spread in the state of Illinois. This is the Land of Lincoln. This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God, where people believe in protecting their children. We don't want --In my opinion-- What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous, it’s dangerous--

Sherman: What’s dangerous, ma’am?

Davis: It’s dangerous to the progression of this state. And it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! Now you will go to court to fight kids to have the opportunity to be quiet for a minute. But damn if you’ll go to school to fight for them to keep guns out of their hands. I am fed up! Get out of that seat!

Voices: Amen! Amen! (scattered applause)

Sherman: Thank you for sharing your perspective with me, and I’m sure that if this matter does go to court--

Davis (voice rising to a shout): Get out of that seat! You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying!

Voices: That's right.

Davis: You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.

At this point, the chair interrupted telling Sherman he could not respond to her comments and that he should direct his testimony only to the business he had come to testify about.

Davis' ignorance of, or contempt for, the Constitution and especially the First Amendment is appalling. In recent years, this sort of freewheeling revision of the founding principles of the United States has been the stock and trade of the religious right and its allies in the Republican Party. Davis, I'm sad to say, is a Democrat. I suppose she's proof that no party has a lock on ignorance or virtue. And Amy Sullivan says Democrats aren't doing enough to attract the religious bigot vote.

Let's take a look at exactly what Davis is trampling.
Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Not only does Davis imply an official state religion, she also denies free speech and the right to petition the government. If she had told Sherman he couldn't meet with other atheists, she would have had a clean sweep of the whole amendment. This is from a legislator with multiple degrees in education.

Rob Sherman is currently running as the Green Party for the state legislature from a district in Chicago. Unfortunately, he isn't running in Davis' district.