Friday, April 30, 2010

Friday photo

Moose, Floating Island Lake, Yellowstone National Park, April 2004

Floating Island Lake is a tiny lake on the Mammoth-Tower road, an area of mostly open grass and sagebrush, with a number of glacial-remnant ponds filling the low spots. Generally, it's a rather dry area and not popular with moose; this is only the second one I ever saw here. Whenever I stopped at Floating Island Lake, it was mainly to watch and listen to the yellow-headed blackbirds (be sure to click on the link for the "typical voice").

This photo is a little heavy on digital noise, but I like how the reflection of the tree frames the moose in the water.

Selling your soul

I missed this when it hit the news two weeks ago, but some 7500 gamers unwittingly sold their souls to GameStation earlier this month. In an April Fool's joke, but one with a serious point to make, they inserted the following clause into their online contract;

"By placing an order via this Web site on the first day of the fourth month of the year 2010 Anno Domini, you agree to grant Us a non transferable option to claim, for now and for ever more, your immortal soul. Should We wish to exercise this option, you agree to surrender your immortal soul, and any claim you may have on it, within 5 (five) working days of receiving written notification from or one of its duly authorised minions."

The point, of course, is how many of us click through contracts without really reading them. Bad on us. The roughly 10% who did read it, and selected the opt-out option provided, were rewarded with a £5 voucher and the right to entertain other options on their souls. Perhaps the most amusing part - or, perhaps not - is that the company feels compelled to email all these people and explicitly waive all claims to any souls, just because there are a lot of yahoos who would seriously worry about a thing like that.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Beautiful libraries

I work here:

Nice. But can you blame me for wanting to work at one of these libraries?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Why government has betrayed Us

Here's an interesting survey from the University of Washington. Would you believe that those anti-government Tea Partiers are a bit, um , selective about when they oppose government action and when they approve it?*

Compared to TP opponents, as well as middle-of-the-road respondents, Tea Partiers are much more likely to favor wiretapping, indefinite imprisonment without trial, and racial profiling. Extraordinary police powers? Government good!

On the other hand, they're less likely to agree that "society should do whatever is necessary to ensure equal opportunity in this country," far more likely to agree that "We have gone too far in pushing equal rights in this country," and very unlikely to agree that "We don't give everyone an equal chance in this country." Enforce the 14th Amendment? Government bad!

But the strongest disagreement with the rest of the world shows up in their contempt for Barack Obama. He has no virtues. Few of them can even acknowledge that the President is knowledgeable and intelligent - but maybe that's because Fox News didn't let them see Obama single-handedly outclass the collective brainpower of an entire roomful of Republican Congressmen.**

So there's your Tea Party for you. Equality is bad, especially when it results in a black President. You're supposed to spy upon and imprison the people who scare me, not help them vote and work and get access to health care. Stinkin' traitors, letting Them run free in my country. We're gonna load up the RV and go tell that dang Congress how downtrodden we are.

* Rhetorical question. Of course I'd believe it.

** Give Obama credit for being bright, but let's face it - outwitting an entire roomful of legislators ought not to be possible. If Kobe Bryant goes 1 on 5, even he only wins if the five opponents are punks.

Friday, April 23, 2010

On critical thinking

Oh, for Goodness Sake showed me Anderson Cooper's wonderful interview of Arizona State Representative Cecil Ash. Ash is one of the proponents of the birther bill, which states that the Federal Elections Commission has no authority over a federal election in Arizona and presidential candidates need to present their birth certificates to the Arizona Secretary of State for approval.

Ash insists this is necessary, because there are all these rumors, don'cha know, and they have to be taken seriously. And every time Cooper* prods him with evidence that the rumors are unfounded, he responds with, "I don't know about that; you can't believe everything on the internet." A tour-de-force of the Will to Ignorance.

* Kudos to Cooper, btw, for responding to a moron as he deserves. Very rare in the media today.

Friday Photo

Bison in Gibbon Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, April 2004.

Last night I ran into a rather dreadful amount of traffic on the way home from work and a twelve minute drive took over half an hour. Yellowstone in April doesn't have that problem and those who know the gate combination (it's supposed to be secret, but any staff in the park learn it almost immediately) and drive into the park will have almost the only car on the road. Ninety minute drives in the summer become forty minute drives in the spring.

But that doesn't mean there are no hazards. Spring is the worst season for finding animals in the middle of the road*, as the roads have been plowed while the rest of the landscape is still full of snow. For a small herd of bison, using the bare road is a huge energy saver just when they're weakest from a long, hungry winter. You have to keep your eyes open while you're flouting that 35 MPH speed limit, because you're sure to encounter some furry friends along the way.

* Except for Hayden Valley between mid-July and the end of August; that's the season of the bison rut and they tend to congregate in that area. Most of the year, bison will scatter across the land, but they come together during the mating season and in Hayden Valley they can block the road for an hour. Tourists love it; employees hate it.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Nein! Nein! Nein! Nein! Nein!

Get this: obscure film gets vaulted to international fame by knock-off parodies; distributer sues to stop it. Everyone who thinks that's a dumb move will leave the room now.

A cynic* might note that Constantin Film waited until they had already gained the benefit of thousands of hours of free advertising, but it's still a bad move. Even Star Wars can be forgotten if no one's reminded of it.

[Update: Constantin Film's decision is being mocked. Guess how?]
* Not me, of course; I'm just pointing out what a cynic might say.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Generation gap

Breaking news out of Michigan State! Teenagers today are no more selfish and lazy than their parents! Old folks are full of shit when they praise their younger selves!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Good plan

A man named Paul Schlesselman has just been sentenced to 10 years in prison for plotting to kill Barack Obama. Here was the plan:

He acknowledged having plotted to kill some 88 people and decapitate 14 African-Americans, before a final act assassinating Obama, who was at the time bidding to become the country's first black president.

Now that's brilliant. Get above the radar before attacking the hard target. Make yourself the most hunted man in America and then try to get close to the President. But I suppose anyone who could feel victimized as a white man, in a majority white society, wouldn't have a track record of success.

On unity and division

How sneaky is Satan? So sneaky that he can sow division among Christians simply be appealing to unity! Now that's clever, although it helps if you have the right material to work with - material like George O. Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God.

Wood signed this little thing called a Covenant for Civility, in which he pledged:

that when we disagree, we will do so respectfully, without falsely impugning the other’s motives, attacking the other’s character, or questioning the other’s faith, and recognizing in humility that in our limited, human opinions, “we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We will therefore “be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2).

4) We will ever be mindful of the language we use in expressing our disagreements, being neither arrogant nor boastful in our beliefs: “Before destruction one’s heart is haughty, but humility goes before honor” (Proverbs 18:12).

Note that this isn't a promise to agree with anyone, or even to respect their point of view. Deeply-felt disagreement is the entire premise of the document; the signer merely promises not to be an asshole about it.

Apparently, Wood knows his own mind less well than, say, Draco Malfoy. He seems to have imagined that only his type of Christian would be signing this, and only belatedly realized he had been tricked into embracing a world larger than his imagination:

"The problem is the tent that has grown so large on the signatures of this that are including people who are supportive of gay marriage and abortion rights," spokeswoman Juleen Turnage said in an interview Tuesday. "He just felt that he could not become a part of a large tent."

I wonder which part of the pledge Wood no longer feels he could uphold: is it impossible to criticize gay marriage without falsely impugning the other’s motives, or does he feel an absolute necessity of attacking the other’s character?* For whatever reason, "I will not be an asshole" seems to be a pledge he is unwilling to keep.

* Yes, I'm aware that I'm also attacking Wood's character. But refusing even to be civil to those you disagree with? I can't help seeing that as a character flaw.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Friday photo

Trumpeter Swan, North Twin Lake, Yellowstone National Park. April 2004.

Watching Trumpeter swans is one of the treats of visiting Yellowstone, as you'll rarely see one elsewhere; they're not particularly common inside the park, either. Extensively hunted for their plumage during the 19th Century, nearly all the birds in the lower 48 states were exterminated, except for a few dozen that managed to persist in Yellowstone. In Canada and Alaska, only a few thousand survived, so one the species was probably only one nasty disease away from extinction. The situation is a little better now, with the population south of Canada now around 5000, and about 500 of those swans living in the Rocky Mountain region.

For years the most visible swans in Yellowstone were a pair that nested on the Madison River, in the western side of the park, and the occasional hatching of cygnets was a cause for celebration. Most of my swan photos were taken there. The spring of 2004 was the only time I ever spotted a swan on one of the Twin Lakes (south of Mammoth Hot Springs) and I suspect this was a nonresident bird wintering in the park, who soon flew back north for the summer.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The more things change ....

Interesting short article at WSJ: Twitter Updates, the 18th Century Edition

A quick look at a few of the entries from several diaries shows that Twitter’s famous 140-character limit wouldn’t have been a problem for these writers:

April 27, 1770: Made Mead. At the assembly.
May 14, 1770: Mrs. Mascarene here and Mrs. Cownsheild. Taken very ill. The Doctor bled me. Took an anodyne.
Sept. 7, 1792: Fidelia Mirick here a visiting to-day.
Jan. 26, 1873: Cold disagreeable day. Felt very badly all day long and lay on the sofa all day. Nothing took place worth noting.

Before the end of the 19th century, diaries weren’t considered private or introspective. Instead, people wrote semi-public diaries that were often shared among faraway family members and others. And space was at a premium; by the mid-1800s, popular “pocket diaries” were only about 2 inches by 4 inches and were intended to be more mobile than earlier books.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Friday photo

University of Michigan North Campus, 2010

Either this had something to do with Earth Day, or the Ents are still working over some of Saruman's precious machinery. Subtlety and nuance aren't qualities you often find in environmentalists, I'm afraid.

Protesting taxes

T.H. Breen, a prominent historian of early America, has an interesting column in the Washington Post, in which he contrasts today's Tea Party protests with their professed models, the colonial rebels against Great Britain:

When Americans protest, whether it is today's Tea Party members or Vietnam Veterans Against the War being arrested on Lexington Green in 1971, they often lay claim to the ordinary patriots of the Revolution. The impulse of many protesters has been to assert kinship with the middling Americans who came forward to resist British imperial power.

Breen bears no love for the Tea Partiers, but wants to retain their heroes as his heroes. In doing so, he goes a little too far in defending their rebellion:

[T]he colonists did not protest taxation. To be clear: They protested against taxation without representation, an entirely different matter. During the summer of 1774, when Parliament punished the city of Boston for the destruction of the East India Company's tea, people throughout Massachusetts Bay continued to pay taxes to the colonial government. At this chaotic moment, rather than keep their money, colonists voted in town after town to no longer transfer tax revenue to Harrison Gray, a treasurer of loyalist sympathies, but instead to send "moneys which they then had, or in future might have in their hands, belonging to the Province" to one Henry Gardner. Anyone who misses this point risks missing the fact that ordinary American patriots accepted the legitimate burdens of supporting a government in which they enjoyed genuine representation.

What Breen says is true, but what he doesn't say is also true: in the first decade after the end of the war, Americans did take up arms against taxes themselves - taxes that were levied by legal entities, to which the taxed parties had elected representatives of their own choosing.

Struggling with the debt it had racked up, Massachusetts levied such heavy taxes1 that, in 1785-86, 1500 farmers2 created an ad hoc army under one Daniel Shays and used force to shut down the local courts, so that those courts couldn't carry out foreclosures for tax delinquency. Although Shays was a veteran of the Revolution, his men were more angry than brave and they were easily routed by a small militia force. Still, the incident scared the hell out of the ruling classes and helped persuade them to get off their duffs and do something about their ineffective national government, a government that couldn't raise revenue to either reduce the debt or pay for an army to put down rebellion. A few years later, a brand new federal Constitution was born.

In 1794, another group of farmers also revolted, this time in Pennsylvania. Again, a large group of men with guns shut down the courts and attacked tax collectors, but this time were overawed by a 13,000 man force led by General President Washington himself. But just like Shays, the Whiskey Rebels3 were represented in the government that taxed them and they objected anyway. It wasn't about representation - it was about taxes. If the Revolutionary generation was as principled as Breen portrays them, then independence seems to have suddenly sapped their virtue.

1 Exactly as Britain had first levied the Stamp Act to deal with its debt from the Seven Years War. Kind of ironic, you might say.

2 Taxes were levied primarily on land, so farmers bore a much heavier burden than did city-dwelling merchants and mechanics.

3 Farmers were turning their corn into whiskey because it was easier and cheaper to transport that way; as with land taxes, the tax on distilled liquors fell disproportionately on them.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

More on orbits

If you spent any time playing with the model solar system I mentioned awhile back, then here's a challenge for you: see if you can get it to do what two moons of Saturn do.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

ISS and the moon

The International Space Station crosses between moon and Earth.

Do click on the image for a larger version.

NASA image of the day, via Bad Astronomy

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Archival funny

Godwin's law in the archives:

Derangement and Description

Friday, April 2, 2010

Friday photo

Teton Range, Wyoming. May 2004

I once heard James Watt speak at the University of Wyoming and he mentioned, with pride, that while he was Secretary of the Interior, he would frequently find himself being led through scenic areas by local politicians, who would coyly ask him what was the most beautiful place he'd ever seen. Anyone would know enough to name the local garden spot, but Watt was one of the worst politicians ever born, and parochial even by Wyoming standards.* He would gleefully insult the locals by replying, "Jackson Hole, Wyoming!"

Watt may not have been worth a fresh buffalo chip as a diplomat, but I can't fault his taste in scenery. I have a dozen or more Most Beautiful Spots on Earth, but the Tetons stand at the top of the list.

* Imagine a Texan hiding an inferiority complex and you'll get the idea

Perpetual Fool's Day

Yesterday you may have participated in April Fool's Day, that once-a-year appreciation of deceptive bullshit. But in the world of religious apology, every day is Fool's Day. So let's have some cheap fun with this bit of wishful thinking from one David R. Reagan:

Stoner begins with a very interesting observation. He points out that his copy of Young's General Astronomy, published in 1898, is full of errors. Yet, the Bible, written over 2,000 years ago is devoid of scientific error. For example, the shape of the earth is mentioned in Isaiah 40:22. Gravity can be found in Job 26:7. Ecclesiastes 1:6 mentions atmospheric circulation. A reference to ocean currents can be found in Psalm 8:8, and the hydraulic cycle is described in Ecclesiastes 1:7 and Isaiah 55:10. The second law of thermodynamics is outlined in Psalm 102:25-27 and Romans 8:21. And these are only a few examples of scientific truths written in the Scriptures long before they were "discovered" by scientists.

Gosh, the Bible is a basic science textbook? Let's see what we can learn!

Isaiah 40:22:
"It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in."

Yep, the earth is round - but round in a flat, 2-dimensional way, not spherical in 3 dimensions. Thus the expression "pennies from heaven," perhaps. So not only do we live in Flatland, we now know that when God plays games with us, he's playing disc golf, not basketball.

Job 26:7:
"He stretches out the north over empty space And hangs the earth on nothing."

Deriving F = Gm1m2/r2 from this verse is left as an exercise for the reader. Speaking of stretching, it's quite a reach to get even a mention of gravity from this verse. No mention that the gravitational attraction between the sun and earth is what keeps our planet from flying off into cold empty space. We don't even get informed that things fall to the ground, but maybe that's because the reference in Job 5:7 to sparks flying upward would hopelessly confuse us.

Ecclesiastes 1:6:
"Blowing toward the south, Then turning toward the north, The wind continues swirling along; And on its circular courses the wind returns."

Because before people started quoting the Bible, no one had ever encountered a windbag arguing in circles before ....

Psalm 8:8:
"The birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, Whatever passes through the paths of the seas."

That's all you need to know about the circulation of ocean currents. Seizing upon the word "paths," I suppose we could even work this out as an anticipation of plate tectonics, too, since if paths implies currents, and there are paths on the ground, then that would imply earth currents, too. See? You can find it all there, once someone else has gone and discovered it for real.

Ecclesiastes 1:7:
"All the rivers flow into the sea, Yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, There they flow again."

Isaiah 55:10:
"For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater;"

A lazy student might not connect the verse in Ecclesiastes to rain and snow, or the verse in Isaiah to rivers and oceans, but please! Pay attention! Does God have to spell out every detail? There's only one book between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah in the Protestant Bible, although it does happen to be the Song of Songs and all that sexy imagery can distract.

Psalm 102:25-27:
"Of old You founded the earth, And the heavens are the work of Your hands. Even they will perish, but You endure; And all of them will wear out like a garment; Like clothing You will change them and they will be changed. But You are the same, And Your years will not come to an end."

Romans 8:21:
"the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God."

Yep, things wear out. That's not quite what the Second Law of Thermodynamics says, but it's a true statement nonetheless and we all know that atheists denied the Theory of Wear & Tear for ages before scientists rediscovered it (although the atheists still deny the evidence - even the octogenarians). They also discovered the Third Law, which states that entropy is arrested only when the temperature reaches absolute zero and
all processes cease. You always suspected that Hell would be a more happening place than Heaven, didn't you?

So that's it. If anyone ever insists that there's science in the Bible, you have a pretty good idea what they're talking about - parenthetical banalities that wouldn't surprise a six-year-old. While the Greeks and the Chinese were proving the Pythagorean Theorem, the Hebrews weren't even trying. Jews do a lot better these days, but some Christians prefer intellectual stagnation as much as they long for an unchanging Heaven.