Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Living in Path of Disaster a Gamble

The devastation and loss of life from Hurricane Katrina will send this storm into the history books as one of the worst natural disasters ever to strike the United States. It is already being called the worst natural disaster since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake that leveled that city.

It will certainly go into the books as the most destructive hurricane, in terms of monetary damage, in U.S. history, although Hurricane Camille in 1969 was meteorologically a much stronger storm.

Like Katrina, Camille struck the Mississippi coast hard. Unlike Katrina, however, it struck while at maximum intensity. It remains the most intense storm ever to hit the U.S. with sustained wind speeds of 190 miles per hour at impact. Gusts were estimated to be more than 220 miles per hour in places.

But in 1969, the region was relatively sparsely populated. The death toll, estimated to be at least 255, would have been much higher if Camille had hit New Orleans, just to the west.

And that’s exactly what Katrina did. Katrina was a huge storm, with hurricane-force winds extending many dozens of miles from the eye wall. Even so, if it had hit only a few miles to the west of where it did, New Orleans would have received the full force of the storm instead of the glancing blow it got.

Even with the close side-swipe, however, New Orleans suffered extreme amounts of devastation. And most of it is due to the city’s topography. Much of it lies below sea level, relying on levees to hold back water from the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.

When Camille struck Biloxi in 1969, it produced a storm surge of 22 feet. Reports were heard of people climbing onto their rooftops to survive the encroaching ocean, even as far inland as two miles from the coast.

Yet, even knowing that such a scenario would surely repeat itself one day, residents vowed to rebuild. And so they did.

And now, the devastation has been repeated with Katrina. But even before the devastation had begun to be cleared away, news reports showed despondent residents vowing to stay and rebuild.

Hurricanes Katrina and Camille, along with 1992’s Andrew, which, like Katrina, struck both Florida and the Gulf Coast leaving billions of dollars in damage, were all natural disasters. As such, one might believe the extreme devastation could not have been avoided. After all, the technology does not exist now, let alone in 1969, to change the course of a hurricane, or to dissipate one.

But much of the loss of life and property could have been prevented.

In 1906, San Franciscans had no idea they were living on a major fault line. But after their rude awakening, they knew the score. They could rebuild, or they could look to build elsewhere. They chose to rebuild.

In 1969, the Gulf Coast along Mississippi had a few scattered towns and small cities. After their destruction by Camille, residents could have moved to safer ground, but they decided to stay put and rebuild.

New Orleans is a major city built below sea level in a region that is prone to hurricane strikes. It would be illogical to expect a major city, especially one with such historic significance, to pack it in and move upstream. But if it did, it would avoid being destroyed again in the future.

Today, million-dollar homes are being built right on top of major fault lines in San Francisco and Los Angeles. People are moving as close as they can to the sea shore in Florida and along the Gulf Coast.

It’s the same everywhere. In Italy, the City of Naples is paying people to move out of parts of the city that are in the red zone of Mount Vesuvius. Many are refusing because of the good volcanic soil used to grow grapes for wine.

I don’t mean to suggest that people who build near the seashore, near volcanoes, or on top of fault lines have it coming. And I certainly don’t mean to be insensitive to the tragedy.

But when people make a cognitive decision to live their lives in flood plains, beneath sea level near the coast, on a fault line, or close to an active volcano, then those people are gambling with their lives and property. Eventually, they will lose their wager. It’s inevitable.

Last week, nature cashed in on the people of New Orleans and the Mississippi coast.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

With Oil Prices so High it's Alternative Fuels to the Rescue

With the price of crude oil nearing $70 a barrel, forcing gasoline prices to record highs, there are those who wonder if the doom-and-gloom forecasts that say we’ll run out of petroleum sometime between 2012 and 2030 might be coming true even sooner.

One of those gloomy scenarios, the Olduvai theory, was first introduced by Richard Duncan in 1989. It claims industrialized civilization can last no longer than 100 years. Duncan put the starting point of industrialized civilization at 1930.

It predicts modern society will reach an “Olduvai cliff” by the year 2012, with continual rolling blackouts and permanent gas shortages, leading to economic collapse. So far, each pre-cliff event predicted by the theory has come true.

A similar prediction is the Hubbert peak oil theory, although it lacks such exact dates as the Olduvai theory. Introduced by geophysicist M. K. Hubbert, the peak oil theory states that world oil production will form a steep bell-shaped curve, with decline in production mirroring the rapid increase in oil production seen in the twentieth century.

Many oil experts place the year of peak oil production at 2007, although some say it will be next year.

Of course, most of these predictions assume that there will be no new technologies coming down the pike that will create alternatives to petroleum, which is the main source of the world’s energy now and has been for more than 100 years.

But alternative fuel sources have existed for years. Until now, however, they have been too expensive to be taken seriously.

Between 1920 and 1970, the price of oil remained fairly constant, even dropping slightly. It peaked sharply in 1973 and again in 1980. In fact, the 1980 spike was more dramatic than this year’s increase in oil prices.

But on average, the price of oil has remained generally too low to justify any large-scale production of alternative fuels.

During World War II, however, Germany did rely on an alternative fuel production method. It is called the Fisher-Tropsch process in honor of the two Germans who invented it in the 1920s.

The process produces synthetic petroleum by cooking hydrogen gas in the presence of carbon monoxide to yield long-chain hydrocarbons, which can then be refined into diesel fuel, kerosene, and gasoline. South Africa also used this process during the apartheid years.

Both South Africa and Germany were cut off from petroleum imports, so they had to use their vast supplies of coal as the feedstock for the production of the raw ingredients needed for the Fisher-Tropsch process. Although expensive, it supplied these countries with all the oil they needed.

The world has vast reserves of coal. The U.S. also has rich deposits of coal in many areas, including Indiana.

While crude oil was hovering at less than $25 per barrel, in 1999 dollars, for much of the last century, the gasification of coal for use in the Fisher-Tropsch process was not economical. A barrel of oil produced from that process would cost about $32.

But now that the price of crude has risen to more than twice that price, some oil experts, and some politicians, are taking another look at synthetically-produced oil.

Last week Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana announced a plan that would use Montana’s vast coal reserves to power the United States for the next 40 years. And his plan is attracting the attention of oil analysts from all over the U.S.

Schweitzer claims his plan can produce gasoline for about a dollar per gallon. He said Montana is sitting on more usable energy resources than the whole of the Middle East.

Of course, Montana is not the only state with coal reserves. The main problem, other than the initial investment capital, is that nobody wants a coal mine in his back yard. If we really do elect to use coal gasification to produce synthetic oil, it would mean an increase in strip mining of coal across the country.

But Schweitzer said it could be accomplished without any major environmental impact, at least for the foreseeable future. And if the world is to avoid the Olduvai cliff, we may not have much choice.

Technology Behind Gadgets Enhances Their Enjoyment

Those who know me probably also know that I like gadgets. Yes, I just love my electronic widgets and doodads.

Take for example back in the mid-1980s when the new-fangled stereo component, the CD player, started to hit the market. It didn’t take very long for “record” stores to completely replace their stocks of vinyl albums with the new digital medium, the compact disc. And it didn’t take long for me to own one.

I’m never among the first to jump onto the bandwagon of new devices. I know that first-generation devices are always bare-bones and expensive. I grit my teeth and wait it out until the price comes down and they have worked out the bugs.

But if the technology catches on, I’m usually there for round two.

It was a similar situation when DVDs started to become popular. I love DVD. I own a DVD player that also plays Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio, an audio format that has four times the resolution of standard CDs. I also own two DVD recorders – one on my computer and one on top of my TV set, which replaced my aging VCR.

To me, the technology that makes CDs and DVDs work is fascinating. Teenagers today, who may not have ever seen a vinyl record, take the technology for granted. But I know how different a CD is from an old-fashioned record.

The 45-RPM or LP vinyl discs were based on exactly the same technology that Thomas Edison used when he first recorded his voice by etching a groove onto a wax cylinder. It is an exceedingly simple concept.

Put a needle in the grooves of a vinyl record, start it rotating and the grooves cause the needle to vibrate. The only thing you have to do to hear it is amplify it.

In the old days, the amplification came by causing the needle to vibrate a diaphragm connected to the armature. The diaphragm’s vibrations were amplified by the resonance chamber of the Victrola, as the players were called.

Later, electronic amplifiers connected to speakers were used in place of the diaphragm. Finally high fidelity, or hi-fi, stereo players became the norm. But even they used Edison’s technique of setting a needle onto etched grooves, which cause it to vibrate.

The CD and DVD work on completely different principals from vinyl records. They both use lasers to read microscopic pits that are stamped within the metallic layer of a plastic disc. These pits scatter the laser light, whereas the flat areas between the pits reflect the laser light onto a sensor. Nothing is vibrating at all.

A microcomputer chip converts the series of on-and-off laser signals into the only language a computer can understand, 1s and 0s. A vast number of these 1s and 0s are then combined to form the code which the compute recognizes as a certain sound.

This digital code is then converted into an analog sound signal, by a different computer component. It is then amplified and sent to the speakers.

To me, it’s all quite fascinating. It adds an extra dimension to listening to good music. I now not only can sit back and appreciate the high quality sound of a brilliantly-mixed DVD-Audio recording in digital 5.1 surround sound, I can also appreciate the technology that went into making it all happen.

Most people don’t have to think about it; they just listen and enjoy. But, to me, thinking about how the technology works is part of the enjoyment.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Intelligent Design: The Opposite of Science

It is one of the great enigmas of our time that the same people who utterly depend on the products of modern science for their health, leisure, even life, can be so naïve and obtuse when it comes to one scientific theory that is the cornerstone of biology: evolution.

Anyone who understands what a scientific theory is will also understand that intelligent design, aka creationism, is not one.

Evolution is a scientific theory. It should be taught as such. And in most schools it is. The misinformation seems to be in determining exactly what a scientific theory is and how it differs from a scientific law or hypothesis, or a religion.

A scientific law is like the law of gravity or Newton’s laws of motion. They are simple, direct, truthful statements that define a very specific observation. Laws are simply statements that everyone agrees to be true, so that they can move on.

Hypotheses are deductions based on observations and what is known to be true at the time. They are educated guesses, not haphazard or wild guesses.

A theory is an explanation of a set of related observations or events based upon proven hypotheses and verified multiple times by detached groups of researchers. One scientist cannot create a theory; he can only create a hypothesis.

In general, both a scientific theory and a scientific law are accepted to be true by the scientific community as a whole. Both are used to make predictions of events. Both are used to advance technology.

The biggest difference between a law and a theory is that a theory is much more complex and dynamic. A law governs a single action, whereas a theory explains a whole series of related phenomena.

Compare a slingshot to an automobile. A scientific law is analogous to a slingshot. A slingshot has but one moving part - the rubber band. If you put a rock in it and draw it back, the rock will fly out at a predictable speed, depending upon the distance the band is drawn back.

An automobile, on the other hand, has many moving parts, all working in unison to perform the chore of transporting someone from one point to another point. An automobile is a complex piece of machinery. Sometimes, improvements are made to one or more component parts. But the function of the automobile as a whole remains unchanged.

A theory is like the automobile. Components of it can be changed or improved upon without changing the overall truth of the theory as a whole.

Some scientific theories include the theory of evolution, the theory of relativity and the quantum theory. All of these theories are well-documented and proved beyond reasonable doubt. Yet scientists continue to tinker with the component hypotheses of each theory in an attempt to make them more elegant and concise, or to make them more all-encompassing. Theories can be tweaked, but they are seldom, if ever, entirely replaced.

Most importantly, scientific theories are a part of how science works. You start with a question to which you do not know the answer. You observe, collect data, perform experiments and then come up with a hypothesis to explain it. Other scientists take your hypothesis and verify it with observations of their own.

Over time, it develops into a theory, which nearly all scientists can then use to predict what will happen next. Or if the facts do not support the hypothesis, it is abandoned, even if the hypothesis was an elegant one. Thomas Huxley once wrote, "The great tragedy of Science is the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact."

Creationism is not a theory, nor even a hypothesis, because it was not arrived at by the scientific method. Creationism starts out with the answer - that God created everything. Then it works backward to try to find pieces of "evidence" to support the conclusion that has already been made. It is the opposite of science.

If schools want to teach a class in creationism, they must call it what it really is: religion, not science. And it’s not just any religion. Catholics and many Protestant denominations, such as Disciples of Christ, Lutherans, and most Methodists have no problem accepting the scientific truth of evolution. Creationism is part of the conservative, fundamentalist religions. But they are the ones who scream the loudest for their reactionary causes.

And if it is taught in schools, it should be labeled as such. Then let the schools who teach it be exposed to the consequences of intermingling church and state, for that is exactly what they would be doing.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

New Race to Moon Really Isn't

Some of you are old enough to remember the Space Race of the 1960s. It was a race to the moon between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was spurred on with the surprise launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in the late 1950s.

We all know the outcome of that race, and many of us can remember the moment the green flag was officially dropped. In 1962, Pres. Kennedy gave our nation the challenge of sending a man to the moon and bringing him safely home to earth before that decade was out.

On July 20, 1969, his goal was reached with the landing of the Eagle lunar lander on the surface of the moon. The U.S. had won the race. But after our success, the Soviets denied they were even in the race, accusing America of needlessly risking human lives on the moon when robots would suffice.

Today, there is a new space race, of sorts. It is between the U.S. and the remnant nation of the Soviet Union, Russia. But this time, Russia is likely to win.

Again, the race is to the moon. But while NASA remains marred in bureaucratic red tape and budgetary matters, Russia has found exciting new ways to fund its future missions to the moon.

It’s a total irony. The thing that brought communism to its knees was the bureaucratic nightmare that was inherent in the communist system. While the Soviet economy was trudging along at a snail’s pace, the vibrant U.S. economy out-classed it at every turn.

Now, NASA’s lunar plans are bogged down by the federal bureaucracy while Russia has taken its cue from good old-fashioned Western capitalism. It has contracted with Space Adventures to send two tourists to the moon by 2010.

Each tourist must pay $100 million for the privilege to orbit the moon, not land on it. If successful, future flights may even send tourists to the moon’s surface.

Space Adventures, working with the Russian Space Agency, was the company that sent the first tourist to the International Space Station.

It’s a bold plan, but it is also cutting edge capitalism. That’s why a similar public-private partnership between NASA and a private contractor might be worth pursuing at full throttle.

The new race to the moon is barely a race. It won’t even be close if Russia’s plans stay on track, because the U.S. won’t be ready to send anyone back to the moon until at least 2018, if then.

One reason is because NASA is building the next lunar mission from scratch, using new technologies, some of which haven’t even been developed yet. On the other hand, Russia will use stock equipment and yesterday’s technology to accomplish the task.

While I’m all for using advanced technology whenever possible, I also see no need to reinvent the wheel. By the time the next moon mission is ready to go, most of the people who worked on the first moon mission will be old and gray, or dead.

When all the people who know how to send us to the moon are gone, we will have no choice but to rediscover how to get there.

It has always been a mystery to me how we, as a nation, could have progressed so far so fast in the area of space technology, and then let it all slip away.

It took us only 8 years to get to the moon the first time, once we decided to go. That was more than 40 years ago. Pres. Bush has set a much more modest goal of returning to the moon by 2020.

We’ve decided to go to the moon again, which is good. But this time it will take us 15 years to get back. Is that progress?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Nations Don't Need Religion to be Prosperous

Japan is a free country, officially a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. There is freedom of speech and religion there.

Japan has one of the most powerful economies on the planet as well as some of the brightest minds. Ninety-nine percent of its population is literate. And they live a very long time, on average, with a life expectancy of more than 80 years.

Violent crime there is almost non-existent. People get along well with each other, for the most part. And its citizens have a high degree of morality, which is reflected in the way they carry on their personal affairs with each other.

The Netherlands, like Japan, has a very high literacy rate – 99 percent. It, too, is a constitutional monarchy and like most other democratic nations, it has all the requisite freedoms, including freedom of religion.

The serious crime rate in the Netherlands is less than half that in the U.S. And, like Japan, people there usually live to be a ripe old age, with a life expectancy of almost 79 years.

The economy of the Netherlands is also quite strong for a small country. Generally, people there are happy and healthy.

So why did I provide summaries for two seemingly unrelated countries?

From the data, these two nations are doing quite well. Their people are peace-loving, happy, long-living, and moral.

But they also have one more thing in common. Christianity generally plays a minor role in the lives of the majority of the population in both these countries.

In Japan, less than one percent of the population claim to be Christian, although Christians are certainly tolerated there. In the Netherlands, the percent who call themselves Christian is a bit higher, about 50 percent. But most of those are not fundamentalists. And a large minority of the population, some 40 percent, claim they are not affiliated with any religion at all.

The common cry from those who put our president in office is that we need to let God play a vital role in the affairs of this nation. They say they voted for morality instead of prosperity.

There is the ubiquitous, though entirely false, claim that our country was founded on Christianity and that in order to become a great nation again, we need to follow the path of righteousness.

But as the statistics show, a nation doesn’t have to follow God or have a national religion to be proud, moral, prosperous and free.

In the 1500s, while Holland was basking in freedom, the rest of Europe was cloaking scientific discoveries and arresting their purveyors for blasphemy. Christian countries were engaging in witch hunts and holding trials for heresy during the Inquisition.

During colonial days in this country, the fundamentalist Puritans were burning innocent women at the stake, claiming them to be witches. This was done in the name of the Lord.

Throughout history, Christian nations have been the most ruthless, barbaric, and lawless nations on record. But, of course, they excuse themselves for killing heathens because, well, heathens don’t believe in God.

Those who say this country needs to get back to God don’t necessarily mean we should follow a religion in general. They want us to follow the right-wing evangelical fundamentalist brand of Christianity. Those liberal, freethinking, open-minded religions don’t count, even if they do call themselves Christian.

I used to call myself a Christian because I believed in the teachings of Jesus Christ. I no longer call myself that, not because I’ve turned against Christ’s teachings, but because I’m embarrassed to associate myself with the fundamentalist right. They have done more harm to Christianity than any other force in modern times.

Even some of the more moderate Christian leaders agree. I received an e-mail last week from a religious leader who said in part, “I'm an Episcopal priest living in a hotbed of evangelical fundamentalists, and I often feel horrendously outnumbered.”

What we need is to adopt a national sense of ethical logic and religious moderation. We need to run our affairs based on what is best for the majority while still protecting the minority. We need to worship the way we want, but to allow others to do the same without judgment or interference.

Most of all, we must not allow the fanatics of the religious right to take control of this country, despite the fact that our president is one of them.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Lawmakers Shouldn't Limit Eminent Domain Decision

Can government entities, such as towns, cities, or states take your private property from you and use it for public purposes?

The Fifth Amendment says in part, “nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” So as long as you are paid a fair price, the Constitution gives the government the right to forcibly take your property for public use. It's called eminent domain.

Before its recess in June the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted “public use” to also include use by private companies as long as it is part of an economic development initiative by a local government. “Promoting economic development is a traditional and long-accepted function of government,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.

The court ruling has sparked an almost unprecedented backlash from politicians and private citizens alike, across the entire political spectrum. Republicans hate the ruling because they say it endangers property rights. Democrats don’t like it because they say it makes homeowners in poor neighborhoods vulnerable to government land grabs.

Shortly after the ruling, bills were introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate that would withhold federal dollars from local development projects if cities use eminent domain to acquire property for economic development purposes. The House passed its version by a wide margin.

Hoosier lawmakers are also considering ways to limit the impact of the ruling. A study committee has been formed, chaired by Rep. Dave Wolkins, R-Winona Lake. “We're gonna try and nip it, nip it early,” said Wolkins.

But while property owners and legislators have blasted the high court’s decision, some mayors and private developers are hailing it. Mishawaka Mayor Jeff Rea praised it as an economic development tool, saying it would help cities to eliminate blighted areas.

Cities generally use eminent domain only as a last resort, even for public projects such as roads and airports. It is unlikely that any mayor would employ the tool with reckless abandon.

In fact, some experts say the Supreme Court ruling actually protects property owners because of the narrow reach of the decision. Others aren’t buying it, however, including former Justice Sandra Day O’Conner who voted in the minority in the 5-4 decision.

In Indiana, projects such as the I-69 extension project and the new Colts stadium could be affected by any change in the eminent domain law. Wolkins wants to go beyond prohibiting local governments from using eminent domain for private economic development projects; he also wants local authorities to pay 150 percent or more of the appraised value of any property acquired through eminent domain.

Such a requirement would, of course, add substantially to the cost of public works projects and may cause some to be canceled entirely.

Eminent domain was used much more frequently in the 1960s, especially in inner city areas to help wipe out urban blight. Ironically, there hasn’t been any widespread abuse of the procedure since then.

If used properly and with due caution, eminent domain can be an invaluable tool for economic progress. It is constitutional, and it’s absolutely essential for certain types of public projects such as roads and highways.

Local governments have a vested interest in economic development projects. They are for the public good. Cities must weigh what is best for the public in general against what is best for the individual and make decisions accordingly.

But it is also incumbent upon local officials not to yield to temptation to abuse their power. Forcing the transfer of private property from an individual to a commercial developer should only be done when there is a proven public need. But that option should not be taken completely off the table by lawmakers.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Evolution Gets Hammered on Two Fronts

I have written before about the debate between the scientific theory of evolution and the religious theory of intelligent design, so I won’t rehash the details here.

But recently two news stories have been published that have muddied the already-mucky waters on the subject. It’s a new development that may need clarifying.

First of all, Pres. Bush has chimed in on the debate. During a question-and-answer session that took place prior to the start of his long vacation, Bush took the position that intelligent design should probably be taught along side evolution in biology classes.

He declined to give his personal belief about intelligent design and said that it should be up to local school districts to decide whether or not to teach it. But when asked if he thought it should be taught in school he said, “I felt like both sides ought to be properly taught.” And that is, “so people can understand what the debate is about.”

It sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? And, although I disagree with Bush on just about every important issue, I agree with him on this, up to a point.

He left out one very important factor, however.

The debate that continues to rage between religious fundamentalists and science associations is indeed a current event that young people should not only be exposed to, but invited to participate in. But in what class do students usually study and debate current events?

Most schools offer courses in social studies that cover current events. Some schools may also offer courses in philosophy and religion, in which different religious and philosophical views are discussed.

But Bush apparently meant that he favors teaching intelligent design as an alternative theory to evolution in science classes. Almost all scientists, and the vast majority of religious leaders, feel that would be a grave mistake, since intelligent design isn’t science.

Bush’s science advisor, Joseph H. Marburger III, tried to clear things up a bit, stating that intelligent design is not a scientific concept. Perhaps he should have informed his boss first.

Even some right-wing organizations are worried about Bush’s statement. Among them are conservatives who want the Republican Party to be something other than a political arm of the religious right.

Unlike Calvin Coolidge, a conservative who was president during the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, Bush never hesitates to introduce his views on controversial issues.

Coolidge clearly understood the separation of powers in the federal government and that, although he would have had the constitutional right to voice his opinion, it would have been improper for him to take sides in the trial.

Bush could learn something from history.

The second attack on evolution came from Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in an op-ed piece in the New York Times last month. In the editorial, he claimed that certain aspects of the theory of evolution cannot be reconciled with Catholicism.

He said that there was “purpose and design” in nature that was incompatible with evolution. That seems to throw support to the intelligent design concept.

Officially, the Catholic Church’s position on evolution was last stated in 2004 by the International Theological Commission. In a document entitled “Communion and Stewardship,” it states that Catholic theology does not commit the church to one side or the other in the dispute. It stated that even if evolution appears “random” and “undirected” from an empirical point of view it could still be part of God’s plan.

Schönborn’s editorial does not represent an official shift in the Vatican’s position. The appearance of his editorial was orchestrated by a conservative think tank that supports intelligent design. The new pope has yet to state a position on evolution.

But, together with Bush’s apparent endorsement of intelligent design, the cardinal’s remarks may embolden conservative Christians to take their struggle even further as they try to inoculate the science curriculums in state after state with their bogus “theory.”

That would be a mistake, according to aerospace engineer and science consultant Rand Simberg. A political conservative, Simberg wrote on his Web site that intelligent design “doesn't belong in a science classroom, except as an example of what's not science.”

No matter what one’s faith tells them about the development of life, it should be exceedingly apparent that Simberg is correct. If it isn’t science, keep it out of the science classroom.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Say Again, Mr. President

Every modern president has had his share of bloopers and flubs.

Reagan uttered, “We start bombing in five minutes,” into an open microphone he thought was off. He was referring to the then Soviet Union.

And who can forget Bill Clinton’s, “It depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is.”

Everybody makes flubs now and then. It’s embarrassing, but we know when we’ve done it and usually acknowledge it.

But Pres. George W. Bush is so inarticulate and clueless that coherent speech on his part is actually quite rare. I’ve read quotes by him in news stories that seemed to be thoughtful and even eloquent. But then when I see a video clip on the TV news of the same quote at the same event, he sounds hesitant and goofy, mispronouncing words and speaking with tentativeness.

He sounds his best only after editors have cleaned up his speech.

Of course, lacking an ability to speak eloquently does not necessarily translate into sheer stupidity. Bush is a Harvard graduate, even in spite of his less-than-stellar grade point average and his obvious connections. But his past business failures coupled with his seeming lack of understanding of reality make me believe that his poor speaking ability is connected to a below average intellect, at least by presidential standards.

Another thing that leads me to believe his bubble is slightly off plumb is his intransigence. He is a very stubborn man, even when he is proven wrong. Rather than admit his mistakes he tries to rationalize them.

One can never predict how history will remember a president, but it very well could turn out that “W” will be remembered as one of America’s lamest and least effective presidents. He would certainly get my vote.

Consider some of his stupidest remarks made in public:

“Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.” —Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2004

And who could forget this gem: “There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again.” —Nashville, Tenn., Sept. 17, 2002

And, apparently, he believes he’s the pope: “I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn't do my job.” —July 9, 2004

During Bush’s reelection campaign, he accused his opponent of flip-flopping on various issues. But would Bush ever flip flop? No way!

Or would he?

Here’s what he said on Sept. 13, 2001: “The most important thing is for us to find Osama bin Laden. It is our number one priority and we will not rest until we find him. But a few months later, he said, “I don't know where bin Laden is. I have no idea and really don't care. It's not that important. It's not our priority.” —Washington, D.C., March 13, 2002

Those are just a few of the many dozens of Bushisms that have been uttered publicly by our president. It’s comical, except that it’s very serious, seeing as he is the president and all.

But at least his convictions are strong, as he so aptly stated when in Rome in 2001, “I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe — I believe what I believe is right."

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Moralists Have Problems with Snuppy

Last week a South Korean researcher, Woo-Suk Hwang, went frolicking with his new Afghan puppy named Snuppy. It was a remarkable event.

The remarkable thing wasn’t that this man played with his puppy, but that the puppy was the world’s first cloned dog. Sure, there have been cloned sheep, cattle, and other animals, but never a dog.

For some reason known only to the researchers, cloning dogs is an extremely difficult task. To get Snuppy, Hwang had to use over a thousand cloned embryos transferred into 123 surrogates in order to achieve only two puppies, one of which died of pneumonia not long after birth. That left Snuppy, now two months old.

Hwang has become a hero to South Koreans. The government there has rewarded his diligence and expertise by funding new labs for him.

South Korea wants to be in the forefront when it comes to cloning, including research involving the production of cloned human embryos for the extraction of stem cells.

In South Korea, as in many other countries, it is illegal to produce a human clone. Hwang agrees with this prohibition, saying that the ethical and moral costs of producing a human clone are too high.

But his country is among those that see huge societal rewards from funding cloning projects that might lead to cures for genetic disorders such as diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, or that might lead to therapy that will help to regenerate damaged nerve and spinal tissue.

But the Catholic Ethics Committee isn’t too pleased with Dr. Hwang’s cloned puppy. They say the more animals that are cloned, the more likely someone will clone a human one day. And they don’t like the idea of using human embryos for research. One member called it an affront to the culture of life.

Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? Ever since long before the Middle Ages the Catholic’s corrupt hierarchical control structure has done more to hinder scientific progress than any other single entity in history. If it were not for religious influences, man may have walked on the moon 200 years ago.

Meanwhile, though, back in the U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist broke ranks with Pres. Bush on the matter of using federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. Frist now says he supports legislation, currently wending its way through Congress, which would permit the use of federal funds for such research.

Bush, in 2001, while allowing such funding, placed such tight restrictions on it that most scientists believe it completely hamstrings their research. Bush has allowed research to continue using lines of stem cells that were already in existence prior to 2001.

The bill passed by the House last month and currently under consideration by the Senate, where it is expected to pass by a wide majority, would allow new stem cell lines to be used as long as the embryos they are obtained from are among the hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos created in fertility clinics. Most of those embryos will be discarded anyway.

Last week, Bush held firm to his 2001 executive order, saying he would veto the bill. “They have the prerogative to pass laws. I have the prerogative to set limits on what I think is right,” Bush said.

See, there it is. Bush has the prerogative to set limits based on what HE believes is right. Never mind that a firm majority of the House of Representatives and the Senate, both of which are controlled by his own party, disagree with him. Never mind that the vast majority of Americans, something like 70 percent, believe that embryonic stem cell research is ok.

Once our president has made up his mind on something, it’s carved in stone. It doesn’t matter if he is later proved wrong, as he was with his assertion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction hidden all over that country. It doesn’t matter that a huge majority of his constituents and members of Congress disagree with him.

No, once he digs in on an issue, there is no longer any room for debate. He’s right; the majority is wrong. That’s what it takes to please the right-wing religious dogmatists who put him in office.

Bush will be remembered as one of America’s least effect, yet most arrogant presidents. Thankfully, he won’t be in office next term.

Frist, who may be a Republican hopeful for the 2008 election, knows that he can’t win by going against the moderate majority in America, even if he alienates the religious right. That, plus the fact that he is a doctor, is probably what made him change his mind on the stem cell issue.

Bush has nothing to lose. He can afford to stand firm, no matter who it alienates. And being the stubborn man he is, standing firm must be in his genes.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Technology Divide Exists Among Consumers

So you just have to own that new highly-gadetized cell phone with built-in flash camera with video option? Are you looking at getting that huge hang-on-the-wall flat panel plasma HDTV home theater system – for the family, of course?

Well, you’re not alone.

According to the latest Forrester Research study, which annually polls nearly 69,000 people in the U.S. and Canada, more and more households are being filled up with the latest techno-gadgets. And that trend should continue through at least 2010.

Consider the DVD. It wsn’t that long ago that the DVD player supplanted the VCR. Was it really only five years ago that one could walk into a video rental store and find only a few DVD titles relegated to a small display on the side wall?

Today, of course, DVD titles make up more than 90 percent of the shelf space. Some rental stores don’t even bother with VHS titles any longer.

By 2010, it is estimated that more than 90 percent of U.S. households will own a DVD player. More than a third of households will own a DVD recorder. The VCR will likely hang around awhile, so families can watch the home videos taken on those old VHS camcorders, even though many of them will get transferred to a DVD.

In 2002, the PC was the most popular high-tech device owned by families. In 2010, although it will continue toward saturation, it will be overtaken by several other electronic gadgets. The DVD player, the cell phone, and the digital camera will either tie or surpass the personal computer in household saturation.

Of these, the digital camera will see the most remarkable growth. In 2002, only 21 million households had a digital camera. By 2010, an estimated 82 million households will have at least one. Say goodbye to film, and to traditional video tape.

Consumers are already replacing their older analog camcorders with the newer digital video recorders. And now, Hollywood is starting to follow the consumer trend.

It was announced last week that the film industry has agreed on a format for converting to digital. George Lucas of Star Wars fame has long been a proponent of digital movies. His last two Star Wars movies were shot using digital video and then transferred to film for distribution to theaters.

But with the new standards in place, and with the improvement in digital movie cameras, Hollywood filmmakers will no longer be tied to traditional film.

Digital video has a lot of advantages over film. Directors can see what they have shot instantly, without waiting for the film to be developed. Post production is easier and cheaper. And instead of having to cart large reels of film to theaters by truck, studios can transmit their latest releases via satellite.

On the downside, theaters will need to convert to digital projectors. Each one costs about $100 thousand. But with all the savings created by producing a movie digitally, the studios are likely to kick in on the cost of the projectors.

There are still gaps between different types of consumers in the adoption of high-tech gadgets, though. About one-fourth of consumers are tech-savvy and can afford any newly-released technological device. They are the first to buy new high-tech products, even at the higher introductory prices.

Another quarter are tech savvy, but lower-income. They will buy the gadgets, but only after the price comes down.

Then there is the low-tech crowd. The wealthier ones will buy new technological devices only if convinced of the need, such as by increasing their productivity.

Finally, the tech-squeamish, low-income segment won’t buy any new gadgets until they are thoroughly convinced of the need to and only then if the price is right.

I aspire to be in the first category, but unfortunately, price is a consideration for me. Luckily, though, by the time the price of a new gadget comes down to within reason, the bugs have been worked out of it. So I guess it’s worth the wait.