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NBC/Second Life interview

A recording of my discussion tonight with NBC science editor Alan Boyle and JPL scientist Dr. Joy Crisp.

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/virtually-speaking-science/2013/08/08/alan-boyle-yr-1-curiosity-on-mars

Podcast Wednesday, August 7 at 8 PM EDT.

I will be participating in NBC Science Editor Alan Boyle’s podcast Wednesday, August 7, at 8 PM EDT. The topic will be the one year anniversary of the Curiosity landing. Mr. Boyle is a journalist specializing in science and technology news and has worked for msnbc.com as a science editor since 1996. Please tune in!

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/virtually-speaking-science/2013/08/08/alan-boyle-yr-1-curiosity-on-mars

House of Cards

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Anyone who has read my reviews knows that I don’t bother to review stories or movies that I don’t like. House of Cards, which is an updated and Americanized version of the 1990 British mini-series of the same title is no exception to that rule. I confess that I fully expected this to be just another of the many failed attempts by American movie producers to re-make a fine British film. The rather sorry U.S. version of State of Play immediately comes to mind. But unlike that dud, this is a live round.

Played brilliantly by Kevin Spacey, Francis Underwood is the central character in this series and the Democratic Majority Whip of the U.S. House of Representatives. In the original, the incomparable Ian Richardson played Francis Urquhart, the main character and Chief Whip of the British House of Commons. The basic premise of the new series is the same as that of the old one. In each case, the main character feels his talents and efforts are undervalued by the leader of their party and they each resolve to right this wrong. Both are devious, devilishly wicked and relentless in pursuit of their aims. As they plot and scheme, both characters occasionally talk directly through the camera to the audience in Shakespearian fashion. As did Urquhart, Underwood ruthlessly uses and exploits people in his quest to achieve power for himself. It is a tribute to the writers and the actors in each series that we continue to want our main character to succeed no matter what evil deeds he does. In an amusing nod to the original series, Underwood borrows one of Urquhart’s favorite lines. When confronted with a question he doesn’t wish to answer, he states: “You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.”

Diane Fletcher played Elizabeth Urquhart in the original series and was excellent as the Lady to Urquhart’s Macbeth. Robin Wright is equally excellent as Claire Underwood in the new series. Her role is more complex, however, as she has her own ambitious career and is often at odds with her husband when their interests conflict. Robin Wright brings the role off with her usual style. Kate Mara plays Zoe Barnes, the young journalist whom Underwood uses to leak stories damaging to his enemies, and who in turn uses him as a valuable source of inside information. As the ambitious young reporter, Mara is every bit as convincing as Susannah Harker was in the original series. Several other supporting cast members include: Corey Stoll as Congressman Peter Russo whom Underwood blackmails into doing his bidding; Michael Kelly as Doug Stamper, Underwood’s chief of staff and chief fixer; and Kristen Connolly as Christina Gallagher, Russo’s loyal assistant. All of these actors turn in excellent and believable performances.

There is one caveat to my praise for the series. There are occasional lapses into what I can only term coarseness in both the language and the action. For example, in the original series, Francis Urquhart and the young journalist become lovers, but their physical liaisons are understated and held largely off screen. In this series, Francis Underwood and Zoe Barnes also become lovers, but their liaisons are very explicit, enough so that I found them off putting. Now, I can assure you that I am not a prude and am aware that nearly twenty-five years have passed since the original version was made. And no one who has been awake during this period could reasonably deny that social discourse has become increasingly crude. So in their defense, perhaps the producers are simply recognizing this trend by making the dialog and action conform to contemporary standards, or the lack thereof. Nonetheless this coarseness was not present in the very stylish British version and I do not feel it is necessary here.

All that being said, this is a very classy and well put together series. The plot and characters are strong, the cast is top shelf and the production values are excellent. I highly recommend the series and am looking forward to the next season.

 

The Coldest March

Book cover

The Coldest March, by Susan Solomon revisits the often maligned Robert Falcon Scott Expedition to the South Pole mounted from 1910 through 1912, but from a much different point of view than that held by the current purveyors of conventional historical wisdom. An atmospheric scientist, Dr. Solomon analyzes the expedition’s detailed log books, scientific records, the writings of the survivors of the venture, and the writings of the men who accompanied Scott on his final and fatal drive to the Pole. She also carefully examines each of Scott’s mistakes, mistakes that he himself notes in nearly every case, mistakes that his critics have contended were fatal and an indication of his incompetence, and she follows their effects on the actual conduct of the mission. Dr. Solomon comes to conclusions that largely discredit Scott’s critics and also shed new light on the vast amount of new scientific information Scott’s large expedition accumulated. She shows that Scott and his scientific team were in fact scientists first and adventures second.

Scott’s critics, viewing events through the crystal clear lens of hindsight, point out errors that were real but not fatal. They are the normal mistakes that one makes as a decision maker in a complex situation. Oftentimes, Scott was the first to point out his errors himself, in his own journals and diaries.  The bumbler and fool depicted by most modern historians of these events would never recognize his own mistakes, much less acknowledge them. His errors were no more than those of any ship’s captain who makes minor logistical mistakes during the course of a long voyage, all of which become irrelevant if the ship is struck by a typhoon. The “ship” of Scott’s final trek was sunk because of ghastly weather, not minor errors in provisioning and equipment.

While not seeking to diminish his achievement, Amundsen’s expedition was a simple flag and footprints effort, with little attention paid to anything other than making it to the Pole and back again. It was well planned and well equipped to do that, but in no respect equaled the scientific ambitions and achievements of Scott’s efforts. That being said, it is important to remember that Amundsen’s success was largely due to his respect for and consultation with Inuits and Laplanders who had the experience and knowledge borne of centuries of cultural survival an arctic environment. The favorable outcome resulting from Amundsen’s choice of practical experience over science and technology confirms the validity of his decision.

At the time when Amundsen and Scott were racing to the Pole, Great Britain was the premier imperial power in the world. The British Empire spanned the globe while British science and technology was recognized as second to none. Coming from such a background, Scott would have been inhuman not to lean heavily on the tried and true methods established in an earlier expedition when he and Ernest Shackleton made it to 82 degrees south and later by Shackleton again, who made it to 87.5 degrees south. Both were British projects and Scott was naturally inclined to trust his own judgment and that of his own kind of men over any other. In addition, the scientific goals and accomplishments of the expedition were so numerous and varied, that the actual assault on the Pole seems almost an afterthought, a necessary concession to the backers of the venture.

Herself a polar explorer and world renowned atmospheric scientist, I can think of no contemporary author more qualified to write this history of the Scott Expedition than Susan Solomon. Her conclusion, based upon temperature and wind measurements made by the explorers at the time and confirmed by comparison with data since collected by modern automatic weather stations, was that Scott’s return trip across the Ross Ice Shelf was battered by weather that not even skilled adventurers with modern equipment could have survived. If Scott’s group had experienced normal weather for the season, they most likely would have made it back to base handily. But they didn’t. Their trek experienced a one in fifteen year freak freeze that doomed them as certainly as it would have doomed Amundsen or anyone else who might have encountered it.

In addition to being thoroughly researched, well organized, and well written, this book has many fine maps and some heretofore unpublished photographs. Dr. Solomon has also prepared several excellent graphs comparing the temperatures and wind velocities experienced by the several polar expeditions of that period as well those recorded by modern instruments. I highly recommend this excellent book for anyone who wishes to get a clearer understanding of the Antarctic explorations in the early 20th century as well as an understanding of what the conditions are like seen from a modern viewpoint.

As a personal note, I was in London in 1973 and went aboard the Discovery, Scott’s ship on his first Antarctic expedition. Parked on the Thames, the ship had many documents and artifacts from the period of Antarctic exploration. At that time my only knowledge of Scott’s final expedition was from a PBS documentary that essentially depicted him as a disorganized incompetent. I vividly recall that the journals, detailed records, equipment and general impression one got of Scott in viewing his effects seemed in stark contrast to that notion, but I never really explored any further. This book vindicates the essentially visceral impression I had 40 years ago.

 

A Review of Citizen of the Galaxy

Citizen of the Galaxy Cover

Published in 1957 by Charles Scribner’s sons and copyrighted that same year by Robert A. Heinlein, Citizen of the Galaxy is the tenth of the Heinlein Juveniles and takes place in a far distant future where humankind has spread widely through the Galaxy. Probably around age ten or twelve at the beginning of the story, Thorby, the main character, is a boy, who lives on a planet where despite being set far in the future, the social organization resembles that of ancient Babylon.

The story opens at a slave auction where Thorby is the object of the bidding. In a scene that is both disgusting and comical, Thorby finds himself sold to an almost penniless beggar named Baslim and his new master appears to be only one step above slavery himself. The first part of the story concerns the evolution of a master-slave relationship into a father-son relationship during which Thorby discovers that Baslim the beggar is not what he seems. As time passes and Thorby grows into a teenager, Baslim gives him messages to deliver to people around the spaceport near where they live. He gradually suspects that Baslim is engaged in some sort of covert activity but doesn’t learn the exact nature of that activity until much later in the story. Baslim utilizes hypnosis to give Thorby a complex set of instructions to be used in the event that anything should happen to him.  When Baslim disappears, Thorby carries out the instructions and after several suspenseful brushes with danger, finds himself aboard an outward bound starship named Sisu.

Thorby’s education continues aboard Sisu. Run by a family of interstellar traders whom he learns owed Baslim a large debt, Thorby is taken in as a repayment for that debt. The family was a member of a larger group of traders who call themselves simply the people, and who regard themselves as culturally superior to the populations of the various planets with whom they trade and to whom they refer as fraki. The ship also bristles with weapons as insurance against attacks by pirates and Thorby spends the next two years in the Sisu learning to become a first class fire control officer. During this time he also receives an excellent cultural education from an anthropologist who happens to be traveling with the ship to study their society. Eventually, Sisu meets up with a ship of the elite space guard and through a convoluted series of events, Thorby learns that like Baslim, he isn’t what he appears to be.

With a point of view first seen from the perspective of a pre-teen child, this book is a departure from the other juveniles in which the protagonists are usually several years older. We get to see Thorby grow and mature under Baslim’s guidance. Heinlein establishes that he believed in the importance of environment on human development by showing that when treated as a worthless slave during his formative years, that is what Thorby became. In a similar vein, as Baslim worked to educate and instill a sense of personal pride in him, Thorby gradually ceased to think like a slave, even though the local social structure required that he continue to act like one. The possibility and value of self-improvement is a recurrent theme throughout the Heinlein Juveniles.

In addition, slavery as an abhorrent but persistent institution is one of the main themes of this novel. Heinlein clearly recognized it, identified it in its many forms and just as clearly hated it. Slavery is there on the first page of the book as well as the last and I am convinced that Heinlein did not regard slavery as a dead institution, else why write it into a story set in a distant future? He knew that slavery existed even in his then modern world of the 1950’s, even as it still does today. While he often metaphorically referred to the communist nations as slave states, the slavery he describes in this novel is the real thing, complete with ownership papers that describe the slave as property and a tattoo on the slave to mark his place in society.

Personal and family loyalty is another theme that Heinlein addressed in this book. Thorby feels loyalty to Baslim and a need to follow his instructions long after he knew he was dead. He finds himself faced with a challenge when those instructions conflict with the new loyalty he feels for his adopted family and with his own desires. Later in the story, the issue comes up again when he discovers his true identity and is presented with a choice between resuming the role he was born to, or pursuing a course of his own making. How Thorby resolves this final conflict is the climax of the book and I will allow the reader to enjoy the discovery.

On the scientific side, sleep learning and hypnosis are used by Baslim as methods of training Thorby, and also of sending a message that uses Thorby as the unwitting messenger. Such techniques have since been largely discredited, but at the time this book was written, were considered by many to be cutting edge science. Heinlein also makes computers a primary method of navigation and fire control for Sisu, even though at the time this book was written, computers were still glorified adding machines that filled up entire buildings, were fragile and temperamental. He presciently foresaw that they would increase in power and reliability while decreasing in size. A weapon used by slavers to paralyze the occupants of a starship is another invention that Heinlein proposes. While seeming far-fetched at first glance, such weapons are currently under study by our own defense department. Finally, the Sisu utilized fusion power for its propulsion and made use of the space/time anomalies postulated by Einstein that we now call wormholes. As always, Heinlein’s science was right at the edge.

This is an outstanding book and it operates effectively on several levels. If none of the other elements I described earlier were present, as a coming of age story with only the psychological themes, it would still be a good tale. But with those themes present this is a great tale. If you like action and suspense woven into a realistic and human story, this book is for you.

 

A Plan to Reduce Homicides in the US

Below is an outline of a five point plan to reduce both individual and mass homicides in the US.

Law Enforcement:

1. End the war on drugs. After battling for 50 years, with countless wasted lives and mountains of wasted money, it should be obvious to everyone that it this a pointless exercise. We have the highest imprisonment rate as a proportion of our total population in the world. A large proportion of these prisoners are there as a result of the illegal drug traffic and its ancillary crime and violence. Save the billions being spent on drug agents and jails for the other things to be suggested below.

2. Dismantle the internal anti-terrorism apparatus. It is too costly, it truncates privacy rights by creating a surveillance society and it accomplishes nothing. The FBI is quite capable of protecting us without tapping everyone’s phone and reading their e-mail. Abolish the TSA. Let the carriers handle security and pass the cost on to the travelers. Save the billions for other things to be suggested below.

3. Use information sharing to prevent mental patients from buying guns legally. The current instant check system is efficient and non-intrusive, but is only as good as the information it is given. In every case, the mass murderers have histories of mental illness that would have prevented them from buying a handgun in most states, if the sellers had only had the information. They didn’t because instant check didn’t. This can be done with very little money and quickly. Include military semi-autos in the group of firearms that need instant check to buy.

4. Stop illegal gun traffic. Use item 3 to end the illegal gun trafficking, including any being done by the BATF. Banning the private ownership of categories of firearms by law abiding, mentally sound citizens does nothing the stop this traffic. Law enforcement has to focus on the bad guys rather than the objects.

Prevention:

5. Use the savings from 1 and 2 to increase funding for mental health treatment of troubled young people. In many cases, the families had nowhere to turn when dealing with their violently paranoid children. This needs to end. Mental health professionals will tell you that there is no way to predict of a specific individual will commit a mass killing, and I agree with that, but I can make an observation: None of the mass killers were undergoing active psychiatric treatment at the times they committed their crimes. Lots of people fit the “profile,” but the ones who do it are always alone in whatever mental state that allows them to commit these atrocities. We don’t have to let this happen and we shouldn’t.

 

Flim Flam Man

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It is becoming increasingly obvious that the President has no intention, nor did he ever intend to “make a deal” to avoid the looming budget crisis. That it was always his intention to raise everyone’s taxes to the level they were before President Bush cut them should be clear for anyone to see. The so called “fiscal cliff” was set up as result of negotiations between Jack Lew, his Chief of Staff and a former Citibank COO, and Congress during the last crisis over raising the debt ceiling. As a result of the negotiations, if no deal is made, taxes revert to their pre-2001 levels, social security withholding goes up by 2% of earnings, and there will be automatic cuts in defense and other areas of the government. All of these are outcomes favored by the President and his party. He knows that raising taxes on people earning under $250,000 per year will raise three times as much cash for the government as raising taxes on the higher earners. That why the deal was set up this way. All he has to do is say “no” to whatever the Republicans offer and he gets what he wants: more money for his programs, less money for defense and he can blame it on the Republicans.

All of the talk about protecting the “middle class” and taxing the wealthy that he fed the voters during the campaign was a smoke screen covering his real intention which was to simply raise everyone’s taxes. Like any good con, this one worked by making the mark, in this case the middle class voters that voted for him, believe they were going to bilk some other guy, in this case the over $250K set, out of some money, of which they would get a share in the form of government services for which they don’t have to pay. Being the good flim flam man that he is, the President had those voters, more commonly known as suckers, looking at what his one hand was doing while he was lifting their wallets with the other.

Anyway, it’s done now.  Oh, just so you don’t feel left out, for all you social security oldies like me, he has proposed a 5% cut in benefits. I know a lot of you voted for him. Congratulations on a job well done!

Shooting Incident

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Predictably, the incident in Connecticut has brought the usual suspects forward to demand gun control. We have 15,000 homicides in the US every year, year after year, decade after decade. Multiple or mass homicides average 150 per year, year after year, decade after decade. That is only 1% of the annual homicides. The huge difference in these two numbers would suggest that the focus needs to be on the larger problem rather than the smaller, but more visible one.

The problem isn’t the weapons. To address that is a cheap and politically easy way to pretend we are dealing with what is really a public health issue. Addressing mental health in a comprehensive way that insures that people can and do obtain treatment for psychological disorders such as the extreme paranoia that propels these incidents is complicated and costly, which is why the pols prefer “gun control.” The problem with it is that it doesn’t address the pathologies that cause the killing sprees in the first place and consequently doesn’t work. The other countries often cited as examples of successful gun control have such public health systems in place. That is why they didn’t have the high homicide rates even before outlawing guns.

We had an assault weapons ban for 10 years and it had no effect at all on the statistics cited above: none. Outlawing AR-15’s will not even touch the issue of homicide, but it will step all over our Second Amendment. I do not trust government, any government, not to abuse a disarmed public. Those who want power over others always clamor for more. This incident simply gives them an excuse. I like all of the Amendments to the Constitution and believe they were put there for valid reasons. All governments should fear their citizenry to a certain degree. It is healthy and Thomas Jefferson agreed. They won’t fear a disarmed rabble, they will simply exploit them.

Student Loans

Student Debt

Federally insured student loans have long been regarded by the press, by academia, by parents and by students as a great vehicle for obtaining higher education. They are in such high regard by almost everyone, that both presidential candidates promised to make more of them available to students if they were elected. Perhaps we should revisit the premises on which this almost universal belief in their value are based.  I say almost, because the chief skeptics of the program are the students who have graduated and found themselves faced with a huge debt, limited means with which to repay that debt, and since it is a federal debt, unlike a private obligation, they can be hounded to their graves by collectors.

Each time a president raises the amount of money the student may borrow, the institutions raise their tuition. It is automatic. Watch for it the next time an announcement is made. Within weeks, your local university will announce that it has to raise its tuition. The student loan program has evolved into a way for the Federal government to give money to colleges and universities, and mortgage the students in the process. They are mortgaging the future of the very students they are purporting to help. As a former financial counselor, I saw many young people buried under those things with little to show for it. There should be extensive counseling done by a THIRD PARTY with no interest in the transaction, so that the student can make a rational determination of how much borrowing makes sense for the career they are training for. Right now, the loans are originated by a financial aid officer in the employ of the college or university. Their job is to get the maximum amount for each student, so that the money can then be paid to the university. Very neat and highly unethical. The whole thing resembles a criminal enterprise and now that the banks have been removed from the process, the chief criminal will be the US Government.

There might be some justification for it if the colleges and universities were delivering a valuable product to the student borrowers. But bloated administrative staffs filled with armies of highly paid, non-teaching personnel, huge building projects and curricula that are irrelevant to the actual workplace the students will face upon graduation have rendered the schools the best educated welfare queens in the country. When I attended the University of California, the classes were bigger, the professors taught more of them, there were fewer administrators and there was NO TUITION. My first quarter at UC Davis cost $37.50 in student fees and $40 for books.  Compare that to the bill presented to the average college student today. Are they receiving a better product than we received? I doubt it, but they are receiving a much bigger bill.

The ostensible purpose of the program is to make college affordable to those who don’t have the money to pay for it now. The actual result has been to raise the cost of college to the point that almost no one can afford it without borrowing. It is a system of perverse incentives for the colleges that are the chief beneficiaries of the program and it should be phased out.

Housekeeping

Official_portrait_of_Barack_Obama

Keeping the lights on and the bills paid is part of what is commonly known as housekeeping and is one of the jobs of the head of the household. If there is insufficient income to pay the bills, the head of the household has to either reduce expenses, increase the household income or both. Since there are other people in the household who have an interest in these matters, their input is important, particularly if one of the other members is a spouse with a co-equal voice in such decisions.  The discussions regarding what expenses to cut and how to increase the family income will very likely be unpleasant, possibly acrimonious. Nonetheless, it this the responsibility of the head of the household, and remember that he not only took that job voluntarily, he actively sought the job, to resolve these differences and get the problem solved. Leaving town and complaining to friends about the intransigence of other members of the household is not an option. It is showboating and the action of an adolescent, not an adult.

Housekeeping is not glamorous or fun, but it has to be done if the other things the family wishes to do are to be possible.  The American family can’t go to the moon and Mars, cure disease, help the less fortunate, protect the natural world, fight for freedom or do any of the other more exciting and glamorous things we would prefer to do if we can’t keep the lights on. It is time for the head of the household to return to the kitchen table, sit down and hammer out a plan that will keep the lights on. He won’t like the final plan, nor is it likely that the rest of the family will either; but in the end, everyone will be able to live with it.