Saturday, April 30, 2011

The poetic story of the Voyager spacecraft

There's a lovely story on about Voyager 1 and 2, the spacecraft launched in 1977. It's not surprising that the tale is poetic -- after all, it involves Carl Sagan.

Voyager 1 and 2 were designed not only to provide scientific information about our solar system, but to act as ambassadors of the planet Earth. In this latter aspect, they are essentially greeting cards from the human race.

Nine months before the Voyagers were scheduled for launch, Carl Sagan was given the job of deciding what to put inside the spacecraft -- the collection of sights and sounds that might one day introduce the human race to aliens. They were pressed into a record that you see here. And yes, it was covered in gold.

The article outlines Sagan's vision for the project and discusses some of the choices he made. One day, an intelligent alien civilization may encounter the Voyagers and learn of our existence -- and a bit about who we are (or were, if we have gone extinct by that time or evolved into something so different that we can't even imagine it now).

So what do you put aboard a small spacecraft to tell the tale of Earth and its people to a group of aliens? Read the story. It's marvelous, and not long. I miss Carl Sagan. No one has come close to replacing his enormous vision, intellect and kindness. We lost a great one when he died. But at this very moment, the Voyager spacecraft are leaving our solar system and heading into the universe beyond. I like to think that a few million years from now, an alien civilization will come to come to know and appreciate us -- and Sagan, by extension -- when they discover this time capsule. It's a fitting legacy for such a grand old man of science.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Popey guy's fingers all over Doctor Vito

I have completed my analysis of the emails sent me by the many Libyan fans of this blog. It seems Doctor Vito's disappearance was indeed the result of foul play -- of the foulest kind.

It is now confirmed that the popey guy had a hand in it! In fact, his hand was the only one in it, and that hand was all over Doctor Vito.

Although my analysis of the Libyan emails is now complete, and it shows a clear trail of holy wafers leading directly to the evil Vatican and its popey prince, I am awaiting even more conclusive evidence. An organization much larger than the Vatican is looking into this now.

Wikileaks is on the case! Julian Assange has assured me he will find out exactly what happened to this grand man, this hero, this Doctor Vito. The moment I have the news in hand, I will pass it on to you, dear readers.

In the meantime, there is something each of you can do to help Doctor Vito. This suggestion comes directly from the Doctor Vito Institute (TM). They have asked me to request your aid. Here's the deal:

Go to a public place at 5PM each and every day, and look up into the sky and applaud with all your might for Doctor Vito. As you do this, you must chant "Free Doctor Vito! Free Doctor Vito!" This call is going out around the world. Soon there will be video on all the TV stations, showing good-hearted people everywhere, clapping at the sky and demanding Doctor Vito's immediate release. Because of our dedication -- and our tremendous numbers -- we will focus the world's attention on the plight of this great man, this philosopher extraordinaire, this Doctor Vito.

I -- and the Doctor Vito Foundation -- ask that you gather in His name (Doctor Vito's) and take photos of yourselves and your friends applauding the sky -- and then send them to me toute suite. Let's post them here and on every blog so the world knows we will not sit by idly as this travesty takes place.

Free Doctor Vito! Free Doctor Vito! Free Doctor Vito!

For new readers, the backstory can be found here, here and here.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

What's with the baseball umpires?

I love baseball but have no fondness for umpires. I would like to see them all sacked. We can track the ball with computers now so we know for sure when the ball hits or misses the strike zone -- so why is there still an ump at home plate? I could see keeping a few of them around for odd situations -- like a fight, for instance -- but that's it.

My complaints don't stop there. That's Jim Joyce in the picture. My beef with him is not that he ruined Gallaraga's no-hitter with a missed call. That's just one of those things. But why, please god why, does this man sound like a wounded hog when he makes the calls? Have you heard his calls? They don't sound human.

Beyond this complaint (and all the bad calls; don't get me started), I don't understand why the home plate umpires yell something other than "ball" or "strike" after a pitch. It's a binary choice, no? Yet it seems they choose any old rude sound they want -- and bellow it out for the rest of their lives. What are they doing? If you want to keep these relics in the game, make them say "strike" or "ball" -- and make them say it clearly. After all, they each make up their own versions of the hand signals too. One guy points, another punches the air, one calls balls while another doesn't, etc. It's a mixed-up mess.

And don't you love it when the umpires review a call? En masse, they trot off to a TV to watch a replay -- the same one we've seen five times; the one that shows it's definitely a home run -- and they come back and say it's a double. How can this be? Reality is reality, no? Apparently not, when you're an ump.

Nope. No fondness for the umps here. Absolutely none. I say "tro da bums out!"

PS: I've got a ton of baseball talk in my trusty notebook, just itchin' to go out to you. I can feel a baseball-language post coming on. Hang on! It's coming.

I don't remember tornadoes killing so many people

An article in the LA Times today reports that nearly 200 people died in the 24- to 36-hour span during which tornadoes pummeled the South. Doesn't that figure sound way out of line? This page states that only five tornadoes in the U.S. have ever killed more people than this. So it's happened before . . . yet somehow it feels like we're on a roll. There were 183 deaths in Alabama alone. That's insane. Are more on the way? Is this the new norm?

Floods everywhere, tornadoes killing people with regularity -- these events seem shocking to Americans. But I suspect we'll have to get used to it. Climate change has come home to roost. And yet we continue to do zilch about the problem of carbon emissions. As I often say on this blog, what's wrong with this picture?

Welcome to the new United States: powerless in the face of just about every obstacle. Heck, we can't even pick the right countries to start wars with, so I guess it's not surprising.

PS: Whenever there are reports of widespread tornado damage, I think of the loss of intellectual property. Yes, people lost their homes and communities and in many cases, their lives -- and that's awful. But no one ever talks about how many invisible items were lost. Had someone written a book or two and left it only on the computer, which was destroyed in the storm? Were a team's scientific findings and support materials lost? Had someone's physical collection of historic mementos been lost just before the person finally sat down to write that history book? I wonder why this sort of thing is never mentioned in news stories. Surely it's happened.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fun batch of words and phrases today

Today I'm jumping back to Robert Hendrickson's book, "The Facts on File: Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins". The following are Hendrickson's words

Fey. Fey usually means "being in unnaturally high spirits, or unreal, enchanted," as in "elves and other fey creatures." In times past someone who suddenly acted so lighthearted was thought to be on the point of death, fey deriving from the Anglo-Saxon faege, "on the verge of death."

Fifth wheel. Looking at the fifth wheel of wagons and carriages, many people thought it had no function, but this wheel, or circular plate, which was attached to the upper side of the front axle and never touched the ground, supported the vehicle's body when it made a turn. Ignorance prevailed, however, and the expression fifth wheel came to mean "a useless or needless person or thing in any enterprise."

To get a rise out of someone. These words first applied to fish rising to the bait. Writers on the art of angling popularized the word rise in this sense three hundred years ago, and the metaphor from fly-fishing became standard English. Just as the fish rises to the bait and is caught, the person who rises to the lure of a practical joke becomes the butt of it. From its original meaning of raising a laugh at someone's expense, the expression has been extended to include the idea of attracting attention in general -- getting a rise out of a sales prospect, etc.

Penthouse. Over the years folk etymology made penthouse out of pentice, the former word sounding more familiar to English ears even if pentice was correct. The pentice was a kind of "lean-to" attached to another building, usually a church, the word akin to "appendix." It took several centuries for penthouse, first recorded in early 1500s, to become the luxurious separate apartment or dwelling on a roof of a building that it generally is today.

Round robin. The round robin was originally a petition, its signatures arranged in a circular form to disguise the order of signing. Most probably it takes its name from the ruban rond, "round ribbon," in 17th-century France, where government officials devised a method of signing their petitions of grievances on ribbons that were attached to the documents in a circular form. In that way, no signer could be accused of signing the document first and risk having his head chopped off for instigating trouble. Ruban rond later became round robin in English and the custom continued in the British navy, where petitions of grievances were signed as if the signatures were spokes of a wheel radiating form it's hub. Today a round robin usually means a sports tournament where all of the contestants play each other at least once and losing a match doesn't result in immediate elimination.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Carroll calls out Douthat

Ross Douthat, one of the empty-headed, rightwing blowhard-columnists that the NY Times inexplicably hosts, wrote a truly sickening article about Hell yesterday. Short version: He likes the idea and wants it to exist. Eternal torment is a great idea, thinks little Ross. Here's a link to the thing, if you want to make yourself nauseous.

But a far better move is to read Sean Carroll's post on Douthat's column. Carroll is one of our preeminent physicists and he gives Douthat exactly what he deserves: a tongue-lashing. It's a great post that I think you'll enjoy reading.

Anyone who believes in Hell is an evil, hateful pig. Just saying.

American decline: the infrastructure problem(s)

Mmmmmm. Don't you love the smell of a good diatribe in the morning? Nice! Here goes . . .

Americans are aware of our collapsing infrastructure because they've seen bridges fall and buildings explode. They couldn't help but notice. Yet we're doing nothing about this deficiency. We know it's there, smoking silently in the background but so far our only response has been to hope it doesn't blow our way too soon. The future? Meh. We'll just try to sneak by for now.

There are other types of infrastructure, too. And in America they are all collapsing. For one, our system of rules is collapsing (or has already collapsed). We no longer have to follow "our" laws. Torture? Fine. Imprisoned without trial? Fine. Money taken from poor people and given to the rich? Check. Illicit wars? Bang, we're there. You see, there are no rules anymore. They collapsed. That infrastructure is gone.

History is gone, too. Now it's whatever you want it to be. Federal government officials haven't read the constitution, don't know what's in it, and have no interest in remedying their ignorance. The heck with rules and history and understanding, they say. But government can't function without a basic understanding of how society, civilization and logic work. All these are missing from our elected officials. They lack the mental infrastructure to govern and as a result, real progress has become impossible.

And just a passing note about knowledge. It, too, requires an infrastructure -- one that agrees on what is, and isn't, true. When all parties can have their own version of "knowledge"-- knowledge has left the building. It too needed an infrastructure: one of trust. That is gone.

On our newscasts, once a vital counterpoint to any threat to the American way of life, we now have a sea of Ted Baxters. They not only don't understand the issues, they don't even understand the words. They will happily read a story that is illogical, where one part is in fatal conflict with another, without batting an eyelash. In truth, they don't even notice. Without a comprehensive background in anything, these generic, soulless mannequins have become the collective voice of our land. They lack the mental infrastructure to think their way out of a paper bag -- and they are the ones who deliver essential news to the American people. 

There is a basic, mental infrastructure required for civilization to function. We now lack that infrastructure. And what little we have will soon be lost because there is no knowledgeable next generation, ready to take the reins of our country. America's schools provide education that is clearly inferior to the education provided for students in all other developed nations. Apparently, we don't care about this. In fact, state and local governments are currently slashing at school budgets with the intensity of a Freddy Kreuger. Without educated Americans, where will America be in 25 years? We are eating our young.

Mental bridges are collapsing all around us and I don't think many Americans are aware of this. And so the decline continues unabated. It is invisible. No one sees it; no one talks about it. The collapse is upon us.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Is pollen affecting you?

About three days ago, warm, humid air arrived. Yeesh. Made me remember why I dislike summer. And it seems to have acted as a signal for all the plants and trees to release their pollen -- all their pollen, in one rude, sneezey dump. I'm a wreck!

It's hard to think and impossible to function. I've been in a stupor for the past three days. (What with the Vito news, this is probably a blessing). As a result, I'm stumbling through my days and accomplishing almost nothing. This is not good. Today I'm going to try to blast my way through the wall of pollen, using the formidable weapon of espresso. I'm pouring cup after cup into my face. Surely I'll wake up at some point. Surely.

Anyone else under the weather because of pollen? Do tell. (And if you don't get the inside joke in the image caption, and feel left out as a result, see here.)

A weird publishing notion: endless morphs

First the background: when you self-publish a digital book, you have the odd ability to change the text anytime you want. Just replace the book for sale by uploading a revised version -- and that's that. The problem, of course, is that readers will end up with different versions of the book. While musing about this, I wondered if an author could embrace this capability to the Nth degree.

What if there could be a new kind of writer -- one who constantly alters his book? If you bought it last month, you would have a significantly different version than someone who bought it today. A writer could conceivably write only one book -- and then alter it for the rest of his life and call this process "art". Hopefully, a loyal cult of readers would buy the book over and over, thrilled by the changes.

With each different version the author could invite readers further into the book, sometimes by changing events but often simply by presenting different angles from which to view events familiar from prior versions. The reader's perceptions would change with each new version. In essence, the writer would not only be toying with his book but with his audience, over years and decades -- nicely, I hope. And the cult of loyal readers would in the end have gone on an extended artistic journey with the author. Sounds quite intimate, really.

With enough creativity, this could become a a viable (albeit exhausting) art form. As icing on the cake, I think it would be great fun if the writer kept no records of previous versions, believing the book to be only what it was at the moment. And of course, the moment wouldn't last. Maybe the genre could be called "active morph".

(And a wise author would always hold back the latest version, to be released in case of his death -- ideally, one year later. One must always be prepared.)

Fran Liebowitz would be all over this. Just think. She'd never have to write that next book.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

I don't want to worry anyone but . . .

Doctor Vito is missing! He and I were in constant contact until his appearance on Al Jazeera but right after that, he stopped responding to my emails. Then late last night I received a tweet from Chiffon Reeve of the Doctor Vito Foundation -- and it's as bad as I feared.

Chiffon, who was traveling with Doctor Vito, said she left their suite at a Libyan hotel so Doctor Vito could have sex with some women. She was afraid to leave the building because the streets were wild with protests, so she brought her laptop to the lobby and spent a few hours visiting atheist web sites and listening to the explosions and gunfire.

She said she must have dozed off at some point because she awakened at 1:15 am. And when she packed up the laptop and returned to their room, she found it empty! And on the bed, arranged in a cross, were ten special-issue Vatican bibles -- the rare "Pilgrim" volumes. Chiffon's blood ran cold the moment she saw the evil tomes. Doctor Vito had disappeared as a result of religious foul play!

It has been 18 long hours since Chiffon gave me the awful news. I haven't heard a peep since her tweet -- and that means Doctor Vito is still missing!

I know that a huge number of Libyans read this blog. I beg you, please put your revolution aside for the moment and help us find this invaluable intellectual! The man is a noted expert! That's Doctor Vito's image at the top of this post. [See it here.] Memorize his face and keep your eyes peeled for him! Please know that I understand you're busy right now and this request comes at a bad time for you, but for heaven's sake drop everything and help us find Doctor Vito!

Rest assured, Worldsers. I will keep you advised of any late-breaking news. For now, keep your fingers crossed! And Chiffon, if you're out there, tweet me!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Sundance documentary: "Waste: The Nuclear Nightmare""

Sundance presented a slew of nice documentaries for Earth Day this year. I watched one the other night and it had a big effect on me. It's called "Waste: The Nuclear Nightmare". It's a French film about the problems posed by nuclear waste. If you get a chance to see it, please do. It'll rock your world. Here's a link to an article about the film.

I'm not going to run the whole thing down for you, but I do want to discuss one aspect of it. The videographers spoke to a group of French engineers who are trying to come up with a foolproof way to store nuclear waste. They are building a subterranean storage chamber deep underground. They located an ideal site in northern France where there is a tremendous, natural clay chamber deep in the Earth. Clay is a great substance for the storage of nuclear waste because it provides an effective barrier to moisture.

The thing that got me was something one of the engineers said. He spoke candidly about their fears and the factors they're trying to take into consideration in their plans. Here's the problem: the waste will have to remain sequestered for 200,000 years. As the engineer voiced his deep concerns about this time span, I got goosebumps.

He said the problem is that no society has ever lasted 200,000 years. None has come close. Therefore there is no assurance that the site would remain protected in the future. After all, whose responsibility would it be? They realized they couldn't even guarantee that knowledge of the site would continue into the future. Insane as it sounds, people might forget what's down there.

There are two ways of looking at this, the engineer said. If they put a marker above-ground that states what is buried there, it might help future humans to avoid the spot. But on the other hand, the marker might attract people to the site. They might dig down to the radioactive material, for whatever reason. They might not even understand that it's dangerous. We cannot predict the society -- or lack of one -- that will exist at some future date.

So even this well-considered plan seems dicey. And this is just one tiny project in one of many countries that have nuclear technology. The Earth already has so much toxic nuclear waste that this plan is not feasible on a grand scale -- and not everyone will be able to find a convenient clay deposit so far underground. In other words, looking at the big picture, this solves nothing.

The main problem is the tremendous span of time involved. We cannot manage any problem for 200,000 years, yet we are creating a problem that will exist for 200,000 years. What's wrong with this picture? And knowing this, how can we be possibly be expanding our use of nuclear power at this time? But that is exactly what's happening, here and in other countries. Do we have the right to endanger humanity's future for the next 200,000 years? The answer is obvious: no.

Nuclear power must end. It should never have been undertaken as a power generation scheme in the first place. It's not like scientists didn't know about the toxic by-products of nuclear reactors when industrial nations first started down this toxic road. But they did it anyway and they're continuing to do it now.

It's time to end the insanity. Nuclear power is anti-human, anti-Earth, anti-life and anti-future. We must call for an end to nuclear power now.

Friday, April 22, 2011

I broke up with Crow

Or he broke up with me. I'm really not sure. Maybe he got upset when I started seeing other birds. I know it looked bad but I didn't mean anything by it. They were just birds I knew casually.

But he never comes around anymore. I see him wandering the fields late in the afternoon, looking like he's lost. I could go after him but then I'd look like a fool. I just have to accept it and move on.

We had a beautiful thing going on there, for a little while. It's sad that it had to end. I try not to think about him but I confess I'm not always successful. I'll be watching TV and I'll suddenly find myself thinking about how cute he looks when he jumps along the ground instead of walking. Or I'll remember the way he cocked his head to look at me, that one time.

But that's all in the past. I'm going to try not to dwell on it. In fact, I wish him well. I want him to be happy, whoever he ends up with. I'm not bitter. I wish him all the joy in the world in his new life.

Question for longtime baseball fans

How did you watch baseball before TiVo came along? I mean, how could you? Baseball is wall-to-wall commercials. It's literally infested with them.

Every pitching change brings a commercial. And if they change pitchers after every single batter: too bad. You get commercials after every change. And not short ones, either.

While the game is on, the announcers inject commercials right into their commentary -- as if it's an old Burns & Allen show, fer god's sake. Even the damn graphics have commercials built into them. And I won't even mention the physical stadium, which is literally tattooed with product names.

Strangest of all is that the commercials themselves come with commercials. I'm always dumbfounded when they got to break, saying "This pitching change brought to you by Toyota." What exactly is the benefit here that I should be thankful Toyota is providing for me? Since the commercial is the only thing "brought to" me during the pitching change, and it's a Taco Bell commercial, I'm not sure what it means to say "this pitching change brought to you by Toyota." It's insane. There are layers upon layers of commercials. Aaaaaargh!

The only way I can watch a game is with one finger hovering over the fast-forward button. And I would never watch a game in real-time. Never.

So, tell me. How did you survive this commercial onslaught in the days before TiVo? I only came to baseball full-time about five years ago. In other words, TiVo was always available to me as a fan. But you didn't have that. So tell me: how the hell did you survive baseball without TiVo?

The popey guy's empty words

The popey guy did an Easter-themed Q&A on TV yesterday and the subject was, by and large, human suffering. Here's an excerpt from an article on MSNBC, recounting the exchange he had with a 7-year-old girl:
The first question posed came from Elena, a Japanese girl who told the pope many children her age were killed and asked why children have to be so sad.
"I also have the same questions: why is it this way? Why do you have to suffer so much while others live in ease?" Benedict said. "And we do not have the answers but we know that Jesus suffered as you do, an innocent." Trying for words of comfort, the pope told her that "even if we are still sad, God is by your side."
He said the girl should tell herself: "One day, I will understand that this suffering was not empty, it wasn't in vain, but behind it was a good plan, a plan of love."
Christians have been trotting out this inane "argument" for as long as they've been around. Apparently this is why, after a massive earthquake, children are buried alive and then eaten by rats as they suffer their last moments on this Earth -- because "behind it [is] a good plan, a plan of love."

These people are monsters. What kind of scum do you have to be to make an argument like this -- and in public, no less, and when speaking to children? Anyone who hears this and thinks it makes sense is intrinsically disordered -- just like the popey guy.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Did you see Doctor Vito last night?!

I was watching Al Jazeera TV last night when suddenly who should appear on my screen but Doctor Vito! And he mentioned the blog!

Here's an excerpt from the interview:
Al Jazeera reporter: Doctor Vito, thank you so much for agreeing to appear on the show today.

Doctor Vito: As long as those five beautiful women show up at my room tonight, we're even, buddy.

Al Jazeera: Tell me, Doctor Vito, what brings you to Libya?

Doctor Vito: Well, I'm starting a new gig at a blog next week and I wanted to rest up, to get ready, you know? So I just picked a country name out of a hat. (Notices activity in the square outside, visible through studio window.) What's going on out there? A festival?

Al Jazeera: (Looks embarrassed) I'm sorry. I was under the impression that you were here to talk about the Libyan situation.

Doctor Vito: What Libyan situation? Is it okay if I smoke? (Takes out pack of Luckies, lights one.) It's just that my new gig is on this great blog called The Worlds Blog. (Smiles broadly). It's number one on the Vatican's hate list. That's how the whole thing came about. In a men's room in Rome last month, I noticed the popey guy hanging out near the stalls and overheard him spewing venom about this blog. So I checked it out. Love the baseball talk! (Link to the Worlds Blog appears at bottom of Al Jazeera screen.)
Tell me, son. Is something going on in this country? (Looks out window, sees multiple explosions, sits up straighter.) Hell! Now you tell me what's going on right now!
And then we lost electricity. I never did find out what happened during the rest of the show. But let me tell you: the blog hits shot up after Al Jazeera showed the site address onscreen. Dog! I swear, you guys are gonna love Doctor Vito. He is so aware. It's eerie!

School for kids in Japan's disaster zone

I want to put a link to this story on the blog because I know some of you can't get past the Times paywall and would otherwise miss it. They've got a nice piece today about kids returning to school in the disaster zone in Japan. You'll be able to read the story if you follow this link.

Hmmmm. After posting this, when I followed the link from the blog, it still did the paywall thing. The Times made a big deal of saying this wouldn't happen when a link comes from a blog. Let me know if you experience paywall blockage after following the link. You don't think the Times could have lied, do you?! Heaven forfend!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

It's word day. Woot!

Today's entries come from "A Browser's Dictionary: A Compendium of Curious Expressions & Intriguing Facts" by John Ciardi.

Feisty. Root sense: "Farty," but see below. Born in New England, I first heard this word when my Missouri-born wife described someone as "fat and feisty." I have since heard it in Oregon, Colorado, Michigan, Pennsylvania and the South . . . OED lists it only in the Supplement and then as a variant of fist, to fart; which is Intermediate English peiz-, to blow, to pass wind. Suffixed -d from Latin, pedere, to fart . . . Old English, fistan, Middle English, fisten, to fart, which became obsolete in standard British circa 1650. But in some Germanic variant form . . . feist, curiously defined by Jamieson, Dictionary of the Scottish Language, as, "The act of breaking wind in a suppressed manner from behind . . . also akin to Scottish fissle, a sustained low sound."

Hair of the dog (that bit one). Now, a morning-after drink as a cure for a hangover. But earlier based on a received medical principle that like cures like; in Latin, similia similibus curantur; and traceable to the earliest practice of witch doctors. So in the Middle Ages a common cure for dogbite was to place a hair of the dog in the wound (which would then infallibly heal), or to burn the hair of the dog, put the ash in water, and drink it. (Even today nothing is more effective than a witch doctor or two in treating a hangover.)

Meticulous. Exactingly careful in the handling of details. (Most dictionaries give as a second sense "excessively precise, overcareful," but though this derogatory sense is justified by the root, I must say that I have never felt it to function in modern American, meticulousness labeling an honored quality of accountants, lawyers, surgeons, etc., the pejorative occurring only when qualified, as in "overmeticulous, excessively meticulous.") [Root sense: "in dread; as if one's life depended on it." Latin, metis, fear; (per)iculosus, fearful, perilous, going to meticulosus, fearful, in dread.]

Vaudeville. Theatrical variety performances. (Vaudeville is supposed to have died in the Great Depression of the thirties, but it has in fact only moved to TV, though there one misses the acrobats and the animal acts.) [French chansons du Vau de Vire, songs of the Valley of the Vire, after the many ditties written in the fifteenth century by Olivier Basselin and named by him after his birthplace in the Vire Valley. Immensely popular as theatrical music, the songs gave their name to the variety entertainments performed to their strains.]

Stay tuned. More next Thursday.

The spiral notebooks they use in heaven.

Cue the celestial choir! I've located the ultimate spiral notebook -- and of course it's made by Clairefontaine. They call these Linicolor Spiral Notebooks, for some reason.

They're very cool. They come in various sizes but this is the one I like. It's 6 3/4 inches by 8 5/8 inches -- just the right size for tossing into a bag or briefcase. And of course the notebooks contain excellent, thick, smooth Clairefontaine paper that is more than suitable for fountain pens -- it's heaven. Best of all, the plastic covers are slightly semi-transparent, so you can see your handwriting on the top page. And wait till you feel the cover! It's got a ribbed design that you cannot stop touching. It's literally fun to drag your finger across the plastic.

Truly, these are the notebooks they use in heaven. They seem to be permanently on sale at writersbloc for $6 instead of the stated $10 price. Six bucks is totally worth it. You must buy one right this second! Here's the link. They come in five bright colors but you can't specify which one you want. It's a grab-bag thing. However, if you buy five, they give you a pack containing one of each color.

Hurry, go buy some!

Next step in Japan's radiation story

There's an article in the Wall Street Journal today about Japan's attempt to deal with the huge volume of irradiated water that has accumulated as a result of hosing down the reactors for such a long time. They mention the size of the problem:
". . . there is altogether an estimated 67,500 tons of water from the three most heavily damaged reactor units that needs to be either processed or stored."
That's a lot of water. I read the story and it seems they believe they'll be able to filter the radioactivity from the water at processing plants, which they're now building. Their current aim is to move the water via a hose strung from the nuclear plant to a huge cistern in the ground. Then they'll move the water again, this time from the cistern to the processing plants, once they're operational.

Sounds pretty shaky to me. The article also mentioned an idea to switch from hosing the rods with water, to cooling them down with refrigerated air. They don't mention how this will be accomplished. It sounds like there's a long way to go before this situation is truly defused.

My heart goes out to all the people in Japan who have to live through this terrible time. From out the blue comes doom. Sometimes that's the way things happen, and it must seem very unfair to those who suffer the consequences.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Doctor Vito not amused

Uh-oh. I just got a testy email from Doctor Vito. It seems he visited the blog to check out the questions that readers have posed for his first column, and came away sorely disappointed.

He was horrified to find only two, brief questions awaiting him. He told me he had expected to find at least a few hundred, if not over a thousand, questions. To find only two, well it hit the man below the belt. It really did.  I've never read a sadder email.

People, you must try harder. How can we expect this great man to deliver his special brand of wisdom to us if we can't even pose a few decent questions? Consider yourselves sternly spoken-to.

Now, I hope to find at least 50 questions in the comments. I really do. It's in your hands, readers. Do we attract a true intellectual to this site, or not?

Universal recipient question

I am a universal recipient, which means I have blood type AB-negative. My body can utilize anyone's blood. No matter the type, my body will not reject it.

A question that has lurked in the back of my mind for years is this -- when a universal recipient needs an organ transplant, can they take absolutely anyone's organ? Do we not reject organs, in other words, because we are universal recipients? You'd think so, wouldn't you? Blood, organs -- it all sounds the same to me.

I've never searched for the answer to this question -- but I will do so now -- live on the internets!  (And yeah, sure, I could just ask my doctor but that's no fun. All answers must come from the digital internets or they don't count. Silly.)

Another, related question also lurks in my mind: if no one else can accept a universal recipient's blood except other universal recipients -- who can take anyone's blood, let us remember -- then does it make any sense for a universal recipient to donate blood?

I will now consult the Intertubes live, right before your eyes! Here we go . . . eenie, meenie, chili . . .  no, no, wait . . . I know! I'll try the googley thing. Just a moment . . . okay! I found this comment on a transplant forum thread:
"So, an AB type recipient is very fortunate. He/she can receive a transplant from an "O", or an "A", or a "B" or an "AB", either plus or minus. But an "AB" can only DONATE to another "AB". "AB"s are only 3% of the population in the U.S."
There you go. Peons ask and the Intertubes answer. So if this comment is accurate -- and of course it is; I found it on the internet, didn't I? -- the magic also works with organs. In summary, we AB-negatives (and ABs in general, according to that extended thread) are fairly useless in terms of blood or organ donations, but we are excellent recipients of both. Weird.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Warding off the malocchio

The post about old Italian ladies in black revved up some memories. I remember my mother telling me how to ward off the malocchio -- the evil eye. If you had a headache, if you were sick, or if things in your life were going badly, this meant the malocchio had your number. So you had to outsmart the demon by doing everything you could to ward it off before it got to you. Prevention is always the answer, even in meaningless folk tales.

Here is how you ward off the malocchio. You make a fist with your primary hand, leaving the index and middle finger straight. Then you bring your hand to your mouth, with the two fingers pointing forward. And you make this sound: "ft, ft, ft, ft, ft, ft". You actually pronounce the f and the t, and you do it very quickly. It's sort of like choreographed spitting. And all the while, you have to scrunch your face into an angry, threatening display, to show the malocchio your inner strength. And you turn your head from side to side, spreading the "ft, ft, ft, ft" all over the place. (You never know where the malocchio might be). This is 100% guaranteed to keep the malocchio away.

I didn't want to ask my mother to pose for a photo while doing this, because old people think you're making fun of them when you do stuff like that, especially when it's going to end up on the Intertubes. So I asked my sister to take my photo as I did battle with this powerful, ancient and evil spirit.

You know what to do, lads. And remember, now that you know this technique -- you will be safe for all eternity. Talk about a blog bonus!

I miss Al Franken's Air America show

This morning I was reading yet another inane story about how evolution isn't true, when my mind brought me back to a promo Al Franken once did for his show on Air America.

He announced something incredibly stupid that the anti-evolution crowd had come up with, and then asked: "So. Who are you going to believe? The people who studied this all their lives? Or the stupid people?"

You don't get this kind of humor from anyone else. Al Franken is a gem. It's great that he's standing up for us in Congress but I miss the fun and games he used to provide. No one else comes close to his brand of alert, informed and intelligent humor.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Work update

It's confession time. I've been hiding the fact that . . . I'm reading Xmas Carol. Yes, again. I wasn't sure you could take the news so I hid this from you. But I'm well into my reading of the book now and can report that it sounds darned good. I'm hardly changing a word as I go along. I may have the final version in my hands. I'll report again when I'm finished reading it. Like last time, I want to read it slowly so I appreciate the value of each scene. 

Meanwhile, Carmine tells me he's enjoying the book. I think he's almost at the halfway point. So far I haven't heard a bad word about Xmas Carol from a reader. The plot seems to agree with folks -- well, liberal folks, anyway.

I just wanted to let you know this is still the blog of a working fiction writer. So hang on. Xmas Carol will soon be with you.

By the way, I've started to post my blog stuff late in the evening rather than in the mornings. This way there will be something fresh here each day for early risers. This has been your work update.

Old Italian women in black veils

It's sad that I couldn't even snag a photo to go with this post. If you search the internet for images of old women in veils, it returns only Islamic veils -- because no other veils exist anymore. Sigh. Oh, and it shows photos of the popey guy, for some reason. I didn't know he was into veils. Figures. Anyway, I couldn't find one old-timey, old-lady veil. So much for a graphic element for this post.

What first brought these veils to mind was something I saw in the New York news a couple of weeks ago. A 90-year-old woman, Florence D’Imperio, was caught (on video) stealing food from a food pantry -- lots of food, with many others helping cart it away. She wasn't a poor woman in need of food; she was someone who worked at the donation center. She was merely stealing food from poor people for profit.

Days later, she appeared in court wearing one of those old-lady, dark black veils that completely covers your face and reveals nothing. I thought this move on her part was very funny but I can't find a photo of it, damn it. Bad photo days: they're worse than bad hair days.

Anyway, this reminded me of something from my childhood. In our all-Italian neighborhood of immigrants in lower Manhattan, any woman whose husband died wore black for the rest of her life -- shoes, stockings, dress, coat, bag and, of course, the veil. They were no longer people after their husbands died. I think that was the message. And of course, most of these women were old. They tended to accumulate in the landscape over time, what with all the men dying of booze and heart attacks.

Right around the corner from us was St. Joachim's Church on Roosevelt Street. It was built in the late 1800s as a place of worship for the throngs of Italian immigrants who had come to live in lower Manhattan. This church was home base for all the old ladies in black. They practically lived there, going to early mass, visiting during the day to light votive candles, and never missing an evening novena -- or god forbid, a funeral.

What was particularly amusing about these old women was that they "hired out" as mourners for funerals. That always cracked me up. If someone died you handed these old ladies some money and a chorus of crying women in black showed up for the funeral. They were called "wailers" and that's what they did: wailed with all their might throughout the service. It was a very different time, a different world.

I searched for a photo of St. Joachim's and couldn't find one of those, either. Jeez! What's wrong with the Intertubes lately? Do any of you remember these old ladies? They are, alas, just about gone -- except, of course, for the illustrious Florence D’Imperio.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A new era for this humble blog

A tremendous honor has befallen this blog. I have just been notified that final arrangements to secure the services of Doctor Vito, Noted Expert, were successful! Yes, Doctor Vito will be contributing a regular column to The Worlds Blog, beginning next week.

As I'm sure readers know, Doctor Vito is an expert in all matters. The New York Times once referred to him as "the final arbiter of all things". His credentials cannot be questioned. And this is the calibee of columnist that will soon be available to readers of The World Blog. I am so excited, I can hardly speak.

All that's needed now is your participation. That's right. I want you to dig deep and come up with your most pressing questions about life, love, reality, sex, science, relationships, outer space, morality, indigenous practices -- anything. Remember: there is no topic on which Doctor Vito is not an expert. So ask away.

But as with all things in life, there's a catch. As you know, Doctor Vito is an effete snob. So if you don't come up with interesting questions, he will not write a column! This is his way and we can't argue with genius. So I'm begging you: be creative! Remember, you must stimulate the man to generate a response. And oh, what a response it will be!

You may submit questions for Doctor Vito in the comments of this post (or in any future post). I know I can count on you to add the final ingredient to the mix: questions truly worthy of a great mind. This is your big chance, people. Don't blow it!

Geese marching in V formation

We often see geese flying in a V formation. But the other day, I saw the geese in our yard using this move on the ground. It happened so quickly that I couldn't get a shot of them doing it, but I'm going to keep my eye out and my camera handy for the next appearance of this behavior.

When I went looking for a photo (or even a mention) of geese using this formation on the ground, I found nothing. I was surprised. You'd think there would be photos or a discussion of this somewhere. Perhaps I used the wrong search terms.

In any case, what they do is the following. When a predator lands on the ground in territory that the geese consider theirs, they step into V formation. It's just like the V they form when flying, but it takes place on solid ground. What they do is approach the threat as one unit, a huge, V-shaped monster. It seems to the predator that he's being "surrounded" as the lead goose's aggressiveness is amplified by the two arms of the phalanx.

The geese on our property, perhaps 20 or 30 of them, did this to a turkey vulture the other day. They marched in a well-formed V, with heads held low and necks extended far forward in threatening fashion. And they made lots of noise as they approached, so they presented not only a visual but an auditory wall of hyped-up geese.

Worked like a charm. The turkey vulture flew off and didn't return. I will definitely try to get a photo the next time this happens. Birds are so cool. By the way, this is exactly what Konrad Lorenz pointed to in his book, "On Aggression". In the animal world, aggressive displays are a way to funnel aggression into activities that allow the creatures to express the feeling of aggression while protecting their territory and causing no harm to themselves -- or even to the predator for whom the display is intended. 

This is a talent humans must develop. We don't need to obliterate countries and people. Instead, we could learn to channel our aggression into non-destructive displays such as sports. Have a beef with another country? Play a soccer match to decide who wins. Preen and strut and threaten all you want -- year-round if it makes you happy -- but in the end, only play an aggressive game. The geese have this all worked out. So do fish and a zillion other animals. So how come we can't manage this simple trick?

Baseball talk!

Now that I'm doing posts about the language of baseball, I always keep a pad and pen at my side when watching a game. I've been collecting words and phrases since before the season began. What's happening at this point is that they're falling into categories. Each category will end up being a post (like the recent one about the physical nature of baseball talk; that's one category). But some baseball talk is hard to categorize. It's just loose talk. Here's some of it, all from the mouths of our intrepid baseball announcers:

"He's been around Major League Baseball for a long time -- first with the Orioles, then the Tigers -- and he even spent a cup of coffee with the Reds." This seems to mean he wasn't there long. Nice: spent a cuppa coffee.

"And of course, he played in the Dominican." Baseball has no time for Republics. None at all.

One endearing thing the announcers sometimes say about a player whose at-bat went well, is "He has a nice idea up there." It's kind of sweet, like they're old men sitting in rocking chairs in front of a general store and commenting on the passers-by.They even repeat themselves like old men: "Yup, a nice idea."

Now, here's one that I've got a question about. As they announce the line-ups, when they come to the catcher they'll often say, "And Castro (or Varitek or whoever) gets the nod tonight." At first I saw this as just meaning that the manager picked this guy to play tonight. Nice and simple. They have several back-up catchers and this one "got the nod". However, I've come to realize they never say this about a second baseman. You don't hear ". . . and Pedroia gets the nod tonight at 2nd." Doesn't happen. So could this mean the catcher "gets the nod" from the pitcher, as in the pitcher nods to him when he puts down the right sign? (Another way this is said is "So-and-so gets the call behind the plate" which seems like a variation on the same theme: the catcher "calling" the game this time, rather than the pitcher nodding at him.) Peanut gallery input requested.

"And now the pesky Red Sox 2nd baseman, Dustin Pedroia, steps into the batter's box." Ever notice how they only call the small guys "pesky"? For instance, they never say, "and now the pesky Alex Rodriguez" (or god forbid, Barry Bonds). Pesky = tiny and swattable. It is a dismissive term reserved for short guys (who are also tough, which is what makes them so darn pesky).

Here's another one: If a team gets any players on base, they're "trying to get something going here in the (whatever) inning." Apparently if no one is on base, they're not trying to get something going.

And finally, I'm always amused when a pitcher makes his first throw of the day -- a really fast one -- and the announcer says: "95 miles and hour, right out of bed!" Makes me laugh every time.

Okay, kids, that's it for now. But I've got a ton more. Stay tuned.

Friday, April 15, 2011

I know, I know.

I've been all doom and gloom today on the blog. But cheer up. There are some really fun posts coming this weekend. First up, I've got a new post on baseball language. It's funny and interesting and I think fans of baseball talk will get a big kick out of it.

But more important, a new and exciting, soon-to-be-regular feature on this blog will debut this weekend. You will be so thrilled when you see it. It's tres fabulous; I envy you!

I hereby promise that the weekend's posts will be light and fun. So tune in this Saturday and Sunday -- and be ready for the first appearance of something startlingly new and refreshing! This blog will never be the same.

A bitter truth from the tragedy in Newburgh

You've probably heard about the woman who killed herself and three of her four young children in Newburgh, New York. Only a ten-year-old son survived after fighting his way out of the car window after his deranged mother drove the vehicle into the river. I want to point out something the news stories fail to mention.

First, I don't blame this woman in any way for what she did. Obviously she was overwhelmed by depression and unable to make a sensible choice in her last moments. It's particularly sad that she arrived at this state of mind because psychological intervention might have saved the day. But she didn't get any help and so she took this drastic step. On so many levels, it never should have happened. However, there's an ominous subtext to this story.

From what I've been able to gather from print articles and TV news, it's a safe bet that the woman was christian. Since they're still performing inane christian ceremonies down by the dock where she murdered her children, this seems very likely. Plus, there was a big image of jesus on her front door the day after the tragedy. Hard to say if it was there before she murdered these innocent children, but the signs all seem to indicate that the woman was a "good christian".

So I ask a simple question: How much easier was it for this woman to murder her young children directly because of her ludicrous belief in jeebus? After all, the children would only be uncomfortable for a minute or two -- and then they'd be safe for all eternity in jeebus' arms. Hallelujah!

Do you think that without this inane belief in the christian afterlife, she would have taken the lives of her children? Jeebus makes it really easy to kill kids, and that's a fact. Easy as pie, in fact -- because the only thing that really matters is the children's nonexistent, make-believe, never-gonna-happen afterlife with jeebus.

Christianity is disgusting in so many ways. This is one of them.

The deep concerns of the popey guy

AP yesterday:
A Chinese bishop whose ordination caused a crisis in the Vatican's relations with China may avoid excommunication because he may have been pressured into being consecrated without the pope's consent, the Vatican said Thursday.
It must be grand to spend one's day worrying about the rules of make-believe. I guess it's like playing an endless game of Dungeons and Dragons. I'll bet they have a lot of fun over there in the vatican, pulling on different costumes and picking out shoes and excommunicating people and everything.

And in the meantime, the sexual abuse of children by priests continues unabated. From AP today:
A former bishop's televised admission that he sexually abused two of his nephews caused an uproar in Belgium on Friday, with the prime minister, senior clergy and a prosecutor expressing shock at the way the ex-prelate made light of his offenses.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Let's talk about words

Today's words are taken from John Ciardi's "A Browser's Dictionary: A Compendium of Curious Expressions and Intriguing Facts". By the way, this book seems to be out of print and I've discovered there is a "Second Browser's Dictionary" and a third and a fourth! But you can only get the first one for a decent price. The others are available used, for exorbitant sums. I also bumped into the fact that Ciardi died in the 80s. Sad, that. I'd love to see the other versions. Okay, enough from me. Here are today's words. 

Bikini. The minimal two-string, three-cup (all demitasses) bathing suit. [After Bikini, the atoll in the Marshall Islands used as the site of the 1956 A-bomb tests.] Historic. The next-to-nothing bathing suit was introduced in France at about the time of the tests and in the U.S. soon after them. The take is told that in the slick chic of ad-agency jargon they were called bikinis, first, to suggest the state of nature, and second, because they would have the impact of an atomic bomb (bum?). The language, in its often easy tolerance of the absurd and even of the disastrous, accepted the term at once, and with no sense of indignation at this coupling of the poisoned islands and these little swishes of chic.

Dodgers. The National League baseball team, once central to the mythology of Brooklyn and Miss Marianne Moore, which broke Miss Moore's heart by moving to Los Angeles, where the earthquake is already coiled to swallow the team into the pit for its perfidy. [In the late nineteenth century, when Brooklyn was still an independent municipality, Brooklynites were commonly called Trolley Dodgers because of the unusually large number of horse-drawn trolley cars that clanged through its crowded streets before the extension of the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit subway. The baseball team was first known by the full municipal nickname, later shortened to Dodgers. Not -- as fanciful persons have asserted -- because a streetcar line ran through the outfield of the team's first playing field, forcing outfielders to dodge a trolley when fielding a ball.]

Long in the tooth. Getting on in years, Roger Fredland used to be a bit of a heller, but he's getting to be short of breath and long in the tooth. [There being no truth in horse traders, the potential buyer checks the horse's age by examining its teeth. Constant grinding of fodder causes the horse's gums to recede, whereby the teeth of old horses seem to grow long. Dating unknown. Probably of remote folk origin.]

Nines: dressed to the nines. Dressed to perfection. [Probably not, as often suggested, from Middle English to then eynes, to the eyes (in which then is the dative of the), later nonced to to the neynes; the form is unattested. It is not possible to be certain, but the form is likely based on numerology, once a "science" as seriously regarded as alchemy and astrology. Numerologically, 9 (a trinity of trinities) stood for perfection. The use of plural nines would imply "the sum of all perfections."] (Note from Keith: I like the original suggestion that he casts off. "To then eynes" sounds perfectly logical as the derivation of this phrase.)

Scholar. One who studies. [Nor would a modern reader sense any contradiction in "hard-working scholar"; yet the root sense is "leisure". 1. leisure; 2. a work of leisure; 3, a gathering place (an informal school) where men of leisure met for discussion. So the phrase:] a gentleman and a scholar. A man of leisure and of learning. [The phrase being a pure survival of the root sense.] Historic. The root sense offers a fair glimpse into one aspect of Greek society, in which the labor of slaves permitted the cultivation of philosophy and the arts by men of leisure.

PS: What is "nonced"? I know you're wondering. Here goes:

Nonce: for the nonce. For this one time. For the time being. Middle English for then anes, for that one time; the form then nonced, the n shifting from then to anes: for the nanes, which was modified to for the nonce.]

So in the history of the phrase to the nines, Ciardi used nonce to indicate the change from "to then eynes" to "to the neynes". He said it nonced from one phrase to the other. Got it now?

Fun baseball language post coming up this weekend. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Michio Kaku on Fukushima danger

New York's Daily News today has an interview with Michio Kaku, the physicist, about Fukushima raising the threat level to 7, equal to Chernobyl. Here's an excerpt:
"Chernobyl went through 600,000 workers, with each spending just a short time at the site to avoid radiation sickness. Everyone got a medal," he said. "Many of the workers (at Fukushima) don't even know how much radiation they've absorbed. Some of them are going to die. They've probably received the lethal amount of radiation already."
I've never heard about the 600,000 workers they cycled through Chernobyl. I'd love to read a comprehensive book about what happened there. For instance, how did this work out? Have those 600,000 workers remained healthy? And what on Earth will happen to the Japanese people who lived close to Fukushima Dai'ichi?

Popey guy likes pedophile bishop

So the popey guy let another pedophile bishop off the hook. What a shock, huh? You can click this link to visit the NYT story. Here's an excerpt:
"If the pope can't ever bring himself to say 'this man is being demoted because he enabled pedophile priests to hurt kids,' then there's little real chance for internal reform." 
Duh. Yeah. The Roman Catholic Church is a well-organized pedophile machine and that's all there is to it. Mind you, the popey guy might get scared by all the publicity and do something, you know, right in this instance. But to date, he hasn't. And if he only does the right thing when a spotlight is shone on a single incident by the press, that's not a policy that will protect kids. But then, protecting kids has never been a goal of the Roman Catholic church. 

Jesus skips camp; shows up for season

During baseball's spring training, I noticed that the players did not make the sign of the cross before taking a swing. And the pitchers never knelt in ceremonial, look-at-me-I'm-holy prayer before taking the mound. It was refreshing to see that Jesus wasn't invited to camp.

But on Opening Day, Jesus charged out onto the field with our boys. Hooray! Now the lads don't have to suffer outside the sight of their Lord. They are again in his Grace. We know because the stupid twits never miss an opportunity to flash that magic hand across their head, shoulders and heart. Jeebus rides with them once again! I can't wait to see my first pitcher kneeling so everyone can check out how pious he is.

So yes, Jeebus is back. But let us remember for all time that He is not welcome at spring training. I get more fond of spring training with each passing year. It's a good, clean time.

PS: I was going to include a photo of players or teams praying but was utterly horrified by the sheer glut of such pictures I found with a simple search. Ugh. There is no god, people. And players shouldn't bring their absurd religious fantasies into the national game of baseball. They soil the game (and their religion too, by the way; but that's another post for a different blog).

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Another take on whether we're real

In a post called "Is the 'real me' real?", Frank Wilson ponders the central question of human reality: what is consciousness? It's just a short dip in the pool but I enjoyed reading it. The comments were interesting, too, though god-talk surfaced at the end, like flies drawn to a body. The answer is never god, people. Unless the question is "what doesn't exist yet wastes more human energy than anything else?"

If you'd like an interesting read, try Wilson's post. If nothing else, it will reassure you that there are other thinking people out there. You are not alone; it only seems that way.

By the way, I found this on a blog called When Falls the Coliseum: A Journal of American Culture [or Lack Thereof]. It seems like an interesting site and I've tossed the link into my regular blog-batch folder. Click on the site name to get there.

PS: Art by Carmine. I like this half-collapsed lady.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Unveiling France's bigotry

Mohammed Khan on Al Jazeera English today in an article called "Unveiling French Hypocrisy":
Forcing women to uncover their faces will not create some form of 'moderate Islam' but it does unveil French bigotry.
Indeed. France has acted shamefully in this matter. "You cannot legislate discrimination", as former NYC Health Commissioner Stephen Josephs used to say in reference to AIDS matters. I think that should be a bedrock principle of law: you cannot build a law in order to promulgate a discriminatory policy. Period.

Sign of the times

AP today:
In the unlikely location of a North Carolina jewelry store near the beach, a lavishly jeweled cross and a ring once owned by Pope Paul VI sit under lock and key, awaiting transfer to an even less familiar venue for symbols of Roman Catholic authority: an eBay auction.

CNN article on evolution and religion

Usually I hate articles written by people who say they believe in both evolution and god. But CNN featured one that wasn't half-bad. "Would Jesus believe in evolution?" is by Frank Giberson and it's not the typical dreck such a title promises. He sticks to the science and says Jesus would have to believe in evolution because it's true. I have to give the guy credit: he gave no quarter to his religious readers, saying this is undoubtedly the case: evolution is real and cannot be denied. You don't hear god folk talk like that very often.

(Mind you, he's also trying to pretend that belief in evolution is compatible with belief in god, which is just foolish. That's always the subtext when science & god types write articles. The truth is that evolution leaves no room for a god. Religion and evolution are like matter and anti-matter: they annihilate each other; they cannot co-exist. But at least he understands the other half of the equation -- that evolution is real and that believing otherwise does not make it go away. There's this, you know, evidence everywhere.)

Moving right along, I was struck by an alarming statistic he cited:
A 2010 Gallup poll indicated that 4 in 10 Americans think that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”
I've seen the statistic before but each time I bump into it is like driving my car into a wall. I don't understand how people can live in the same world I live in and yet manage to avoid reality. It's shocking how little exercise these people's brains get. Forty percent of the people living in the United States don't seem to think at all, as evidenced by this poll result.

Evolution is not elective. Reality isn't a menu where you pick and choose. It's just there; it's reality. Evolution is the reason you're here and able to read this post. I'm aghast that so many people in our country don't even understand what they are. Because that's literally what this means: they think they're some sort of fairytale creatures.

Wake up, people. Instead of living the life that nature gave you, you walked into a dark closet, shut the door behind you and chose to live in a fantasy. And as you stand there in the dark, you furiously ignore the world that is all around you. Remove those blinders and take your brain out for a test drive. Thinking is fun.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Remember when stuff used to work?

(If you're not in the mood for a rant, skip the first six paragraphs and jump to the science news in the first paragraph that has bold green lettering.)

We used to have an effective system in this country that guaranteed important issues would receive appropriate attention. That system is gone.

In those ancient days, we had legislators who were elected by an informed population and were beholden to the people they served. They cared about the citizens of the United States and often acted in a selfless manner, devoting their considerable energies to improving the quality of life for normal, everyday Americans. When something critical occurred, something with a bearing on our safety or health, for instance, they would bring the issue up in Congress. It might have been a slow process but it did get things done. And sure, there were idiots in Congress then, too. But the sensible people outweighed them. They knew what was important: our country.

Back then, if Congress or the president chose to ignore a pressing problem, the news media would hold their feet to the fire. They were fierce and vocal advocates for the truth, if you can imagine such a thing. I know this must sound absurd to young people who've known only the current, nonsensical, national discourse but the press used to care about publishing the truth. It was their, you know, job.

If our government did something shady, the Fourth Estate understood that its role was to point this out and keep the pressure on until the government changed course. They were the last line of defense for our democracy, keeping the big guy at bay so the little guy could survive. But as I say, that's all gone.

None of these essential tools for democracy is currently operative in our reality-show version of America. We have a disengaged, uninformed population; an irrational, knowledge-free Congress that doesn't understand its job and is blissfully unfamiliar with the Constitution; and there isn't the slightest evidence of an active, ethical press in our country. And all this is occurring as corporate money is flooding our government and warping it beyond recognition. The system that governs our lives no longer works.

Magnifying these problems, our nation's attention is driven by a stunningly mediocre, misinformed, corporate-directed media. This unprepared crew consistently avoids important matters, never separates truth from fiction, and always prefers to focus on American "culture". This is now the American way.

Because of these tremendous basic failures in American society, an important story will probably be missed: there is potentially disastrous news out of the Arctic. Here is an excerpt from the linked article:
Nanoparticles, which are now present in everything from socks to salad dressing and suntan lotion, may have irreparably damaging effects on soil systems and the environment, Queen's researchers have discovered.
We've been producing nanoparticles by the zillions every day for many years without the slightest idea what they're doing to the environment. Why test before using something, right? It might cut into profits and that would be un-American.

Well, it turns out these nanoparticles have a calamitous effect on the environment. Here's a bit more:
The researchers first examined the indigenous microbe communities living in the uncontaminated soil samples before adding three different kinds of nanoparticles, including silver. The soil samples were then left for six months to see how the addition of the nanoparticles affected the microbe communities. What the researchers found was both remarkable and concerning.
The original analysis of the uncontaminated soil had identified a beneficial microbe that helps fix nitrogen to plants. As plants are unable to fix nitrogen themselves and nitrogen fixation is essential for plant nutrition, the presence of these particular microbes in soil is vital for plant growth. The analysis of the soil sample six months after the addition of the silver nanoparticles showed negligible quantities of the important nitrogen-fixing species remaining and laboratory experiments showed that they were more than a million times [more] susceptible to silver nanoparticles than other species.
Silver nanoparticles are everywhere. We've been downright fond of sticking them in just about everything we made for the last decade. You know the clothing and furniture that's advertised as "resistant" to stains, smells, etc.? Yup: silver nanoparticles. Pretty much anything touted as anti-bacterial or anti-fungal has silver nanoparticles in it. They're in your toothpaste, your sunblock and your make-up. They're everywhere, which means they'll undoubtedly get everywhere in the environment, including the soil. We have poisoned the Earth.

The implications for the biosphere are alarming. I'll be very interested to see how this story is covered by our misshapen media -- if it's covered at all. This is bad, folks. We'll need more studies to get a better handle on the environmental effects but if the initial study is correct, this could be a very big deal.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Jason Rosenhouse outlines Dawkins' talk

I'm a big, big fan of Richard Dawkins. No one is more clear-thinking, in my estimation. At Jason Rosenhouse's blog today is a post about a talk Dawkins just gave at the University of Maryland. Here's an excerpt:
The conversation next addressed the gradualness of evolutionary change. If you imagine lining up all of your ancestors from the present to the dawn of time, you would not find two consecutive ancestors that were of different species. But because of the spans of time involved, the small, negligible variations from one generation to the next get magnified into large changes indeed. He likened this to a child growing up. There is no clear dividing point between babyhood and toddlerhood, just as there is no definitive moment when you suddenly go from being a child to being an adult (in all but the legal sense of course), but with the benefit of hindsight you can see that great changes have taken place.
No one tells it like Dawkins. Reading "The Selfish Gene" changed my life by making me understand evolution. Wattaguy! I'd love to hear him in person one day.

Things are getting spookier

If you're not into physics, perhaps you should skip this post. I don't think it will mean much to you. But if you're a physics fan, check this out. There's an article today reporting that researchers were able to keep large molecules in a state of superposition. Now that's spooky. Here's an excerpt:
The use of specifically synthesized organic molecules consisting of complexes of up to 430 atoms enabled the researchers to demonstrate the quantum wave nature in mass and size regimes that hitherto had been experimentally inaccessible. These particles are comparable in size, mass and complexity to Insulin molecules and exhibit many features of classical objects. Nevertheless, in the current experiment the tailor-made molecules can exist in a superposition of clearly distinguishable positions and therefore -- similar to 'Schroedinger's cat' -- in a state that is excluded in classical physics.
They've never done this with something so large before. Putting large molecules into a state of superposition is big news. For those following along in the peanut gallery, the short version is that when something is in superposition, it's neither here nor there. It is neither particle nor wave, but both -- like Schroedinger's cat that is dead and alive at the same time. The idea that something isn't really there in the sense we're accustomed to is a totally weird feature of the quantum realm.

On the tiniest levels, stuff is sorta there but it's also sorta in many other places. What's shocking is that the reality we see all around us -- which seems hard and real and quite substantial -- is necessarily built from tiny stuff that's only sorta there. I love this. It makes me smile every time I think about it. What could be more fun? I mean, think about it. How could "big reality" be based on a "tiny reality" that includes things that are only sorta there? That is awesome.

The thing about this test is that it moves the dividing line between up here on the classical level, and down there, where things are neither here nor there, but everywhere. The question is: where exactly does it change? Where is the line that separates the tiny stuff that's only sorta there, and the classical stuff we see all around us? By putting larger molecules into a state of superposition, they moved the dividing line. This is big news.

Reality is fascinating. Religious types ought to check it out some time. It's way more interesting than that silly god idea someone once came up with. Way.

Friday, April 8, 2011

What is wrong with some men?

Saw this in the news today:
Premier Silvio Berlusconi doesn't seem to be letting his legal woes get him down, joking Friday to two young blondes that he'd like to invite them to his famed "bunga bunga" parties.
Ugh. Some men are just disgusting. I'm lookin' at you, Silvio. You belong in a carnival.

Huge excitement in the physics community

A potential discovery has physicists watching Fermi lab closely. At the only US atom smasher, evidence may have surfaced for a new force of nature -- something utterly unknown to science. From an article on
"There could be some new force beyond the force that we know," said Giovanni Punzi, a physicist with the international research team that is analyzing the data from the US Department of Energy's Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

"If it is confirmed, it could point to a whole new world of interactions," he told AFP.
New discoveries, new science, new breakthroughs -- the kind of thing that can change the course of civilization. But there's a fly in the works:
The US machine began its work in the mid 1980s, and is scheduled for shutdown later this year when its funding runs dry.
That's right. Congress refused to allocate $100-million to keep Fermi lab going. Note that this amount of money is one-third of what it costs to run the war in Afghanistan for one day

Cutting-edge science is being conducted at Fermi lab. And Congress just shut it down. (Hat tip to Steven D at Booman Tribune.)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Religious twits

In the New York Times today:
LONDON (AP) — The Church of England has published a prayer in advance of the royal wedding asking God's help for Prince William and his fiancee Kate Middleton to be faithful. 

The prayer published Thursday seeks God's help so that the couple can live in lifelong faithfulness to each other. They plan to marry April 29 at Westminster Abbey.

The new prayer seeks God's help to strengthen the couple's will and deepen their love for one another. 

Roman Catholic leaders in England and Wales have also issued a similar prayer on behalf of William and Middleton. 
 Isn't that special? It must be grand to be a religious "leader".

"What did you do today?"
"I issued a prayer."

Issuing a prayer. Nice work if you can get it. Religious twits.

Another sign of the American decline

There's a really creepy tale over at the LA Times this morning about reprehensible goings-on at the Boston Medical Group. Here's the story: Clinic settles lawsuits but still faces scrutiny over erectile dysfunction injections.

Have these people no sense of decency? I don't understand how so many Americans became so disconnected from their moral center in the past decade. I really don't. Maybe they never had a moral center?

A few words from Ciardi

The following is from John Ciardi's "A Browser's Dictionary: A Compendium of Curious Expressions & Intriguing Facts". 

Gossip. Originally, either of the two godparents who served as baptismal sponsors. In late Old English godsibb, godsibbe (sibling). Middle English forms: godsip, gossyp. The sense shift from god-parent to tittle-tattler took place late in the sixteenth century. Historic: A man and a woman sponsored an infant at its baptism, taking a vow to oversee its religious development. So sacred was this vow that godsibbes were forbidden to marry, they being already joined in a sacramental obligation. That vow, when conscientiously fulfilled, would require regular intimate discussions between the godparents, whence the sense shift to "people often seen with their heads together in intimate conversation about someone else."

Jerkwater town. The most primitive of small towns. Originally, a town on the railroad line, but too backward to have even a water tower. Early steam engines had an insatiable appetite for water. When they ran out at a town without a water tower, the train crew had to "jerk" water in buckets from the local wells and haul it laboriously to the locomotive. Needless to say, jerking water was not their most popular sport, whence the contempt with which they labeled the place a jerkwater town.

Mutual admiration society. A company of friends in which every member praises every other. . . [F]rom Society of Mutual Admiration, coined by Oliver Wendell Holmes in Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, two chapters of which were written for the New England Magazine in 1731-1832; the rest for the Atlantic Monthly starting in 1857. After the 25-year interim, Holmes began again with the calmly underplayed, "I was just going to say when I was interrupted . . ."]

Pipsqueak. An insignificant runt. Echoic. In World War I, a name given to a small German shell, because it exploded with a pip after giving off a squeak in flight -- or so rendered by British and American troops by comparison with the shrill whistle and boom of heavy artillery. Then, by extension, any insignificant thing; and then the original reference fading from memory.

Rascal. A scamp. Certainly something less than a villain. No one, for example, has ever thought to call Hitler a rascal. And in fact, the term is often used affectionately for one who has misbehaved in an endearing way. But at root: "one of the cruddy rabble," and specifically "one with a filthy skin disease" (a crud-scratcher), possibly with reference to the lesions of advanced syphilis, assumed by aristocrats to be the price the rabble paid for its depraved life-style (but ask Henry VII, who died of the royal form of the same crud). [red, rad, to scrape, scratch, gnaw . . . Latin, radere, with same senses; Provencal: rasca, rash, crud; and finally to Middle English: rascaille, the cruddy rabble.]

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Brave workers still toiling at Fukushima Dai-ichi

Hat tip to Annie, who sent me a link to this story. It's called "Japanese tsunami survivor returns to help save nuclear plant". Note that once again, the good articles are coming from outside the United States. This one is in the West Australian.

These heroic workers are willingly taking on a suicide mission to help save their country. I call that newsworthy. Here's an excerpt from the article:
Three weeks after watching a massive wave smash into the Fukushima nuclear plant, Hiroyuki Kohno is heading back to the disaster zone to join crews struggling to avert a meltdown.
The 44-year-old radiation controller, who has worked in the nuclear industry since his late teens, has taken on a job many others have declined, with a clear understanding that the mission will likely be the last of his career.
Why don't we see articles like this in US newspapers? I don't understand this lapse. It's such a compelling story yet we only find comprehensive coverage of the nuclear crisis in foreign newspapers. American "news" is officially a joke now. We can't do anything right.

NOVA on the Japan quake

After giving a heads-up here about the show being on, I did watch it. Twice, in fact. It was called "Japan's Killer Quake" and it was fascinating. I don't know how they gathered so much information in that short a time -- it was the kind of thing you hope to see many months after a disaster. Yet it was only a couple of weeks after the quake when they made this show. Amazing.

There was quite a bit of new footage of the tsunami striking towns and farms. The power of this tsunami was unimaginable. As one observer said, it's not even water by the time it hits you. It's a moving debris field, carrying houses and cars and boats and entire villages. It's not water you're facing; it's more like a bulldozer coming at you. You can't survive.

For me, there were two highlights in the show. One was the tourist's video of the liquifaction that was occurring all around him. The ground was literally liquifying, and this steady amateur videographer recorded it all, including the ground opening up fissures, and then closing, and opening, etc. I think the guy deserves a reward for being a stalwart person. His camera didn't even shake.

Another highlight was Chris Goldfinger, a marine geologist from Oregon State University, who lived through the quake at a Japanese airport and reported ever so calmly about what it is like to live through five full minutes of the ground shaking. That's a very long quake. This one just wouldn't stop.

They revealed new scientific data on the show, including the surprising fact that the ground literally dropped as much as three feet onshore because of the quake, making the oncoming tidal wave taller in comparison and enabling its passage over the many, towering sea walls Japan had built for just this eventuality. This lowering of the ground paved the way for the enormous destruction that followed.

It was an amazing show and I hope you saw it. Please free to add your own comments. What did you think?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Good article on Japan

Dahr Jamail has written a great article on the situation in Japan. It's over at Al Jazeera English and it's called "'No safe levels' of radiation in Japan". It's a comprehensive article -- the kind we should be seeing everywhere but aren't. American media is dead in the head about this. Stop with the war porn -- tell us what's going on in Japan!

Anyway, great piece. Read it if you've got the time.

My Times paywall experience

Seems like a clunky paywall to me. So far, it's acted like an ineffective, demented, old man.

Many days ago, a message popped up while I was on the New York Times web site. It said I had five more free stories to read -- and then I'd have to haul out my wallet.

About 30 stories later, yesterday, it told me I had four more free stories to read -- and then I'd really be in trouble.

I've been clicking on their stories all day without a peep from their end. Neat paywall they've got. What's your experience been?

UPDATE: The Times hive-mind finally decided I'd read enough for free. However, I was ready for them. I had already downloaded a nice little "bookmarklet" that cuts right through the paywall and lets you read whatever you'd like. Clicked it and I was in. Still reading the Times for free. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Soft hands and a nice pat on the butt

As the title of today's post implies, baseball's language takes many forms -- and it definitely includes those pats on the butt. Since baseball is physical its no surprise that its language is, too. We see this language happen live on our screen in every game. And of course, we learn the language of baseball from our trusty baseball announcers. Let's listen in and see what they say. There's almost always a physical angle to it.

When a player reaches down to scoop up a low ball -- and his hand just misses it, coming up empty -- the announcer will often say, "He couldn't get a handle on it." I love that. As if the ball is a little suitcase with a handy feature on top -- a very physical image.

"Oh! What a tough error!" This is what announcers say when the ball is very hard to catch and the fielder understandably misses it -- yet it gets called an error by the baseball gods. The error is tough in the same way it's tough when a child gets pushed over by a bully. A good kid like him didn't deserve that kind of treatment. And it's also about the harshness of the call. To judge this very-hard-to-catch ball as something that should definitely have been caught is the definition of being tough. It's heartless. And with all the struggle this implies, it's physical. Just ask the player who feels like he was punched in the gut by the call.

And let's get down to it. What's with all those pats on the butt? They're obviously a big part of baseball's language because you see them in every game. I'd be curious to learn how readers view this behavior. What do you think is being passed from one player to another by a pat on the butt? And why choose the butt to pat? Arms aren't good enough? I ask these things, but for me there's no mystery to it. A pat on the butt inevitably harkens back to childhood. It's what you do with a toddler or pre-toddler: you pat him on the butt as a sign of approval and support. That's exactly how I see baseball's pats. And yes, there is an infantile aspect to the behavior.

Soft hands is a baseball phrase I love. It's what they say about a player who can catch anything they throw at him: he's got soft hands. It's as if the ball falls easily into the comfortable folds of his sainted palms and blessed fingers. You gotta have soft hands to be a Gold Glover.

Sometimes a pitcher is having a great day and hitting all his "targets", i.e., the mitt the catcher holds up. At those times the announcers say the pitcher is really commanding his sinking fastball (or slider or whatever). I like the use of the word command here. It's a macho, king-of-the-mountain word as if the balls are his minions and he has directed them to follow his every manly order. He is the lord of all things; he has command.

And how about the way the catcher frames the ball for the home base umpire by turning into a statue once he catches it? "See, Mr. Umpire -- it was a strike! Really!" Framing is such a good term for this. The catcher is literally snatching a moment in time and freezing it into a 3D photo. He physically frames a version of reality (his version) for the ump by holding his position.

But of course, in many instances the catcher is trying to deceive the umpire -- because deception is built into baseball. Stay tuned. Baseball's language of deception is coming soon . . . and off in the distance, I can dimly see the post after that . . . why, yes I can see it now . . it's . . . the language of baseball voodoo! All this coming soon to a blog near you! Be still, your heart.