Monday, March 31, 2008

What Emily Post Didn't Anticipate

I had planned to just keep my typing fingers still until the end of April (at which point the powers of academia will either fail me or pass me on to the next set of flaming hoops), but I am faced with an ethical dilemma to which I have no answer.

What do you do when you get a friend request from someone you don't know? Or worse yet, someone you know and just don't like all that much?

If I were a member of the 19th century landed gentry, I could invite the caller into my sitting room for cigars, and allow him no further and offer him sub-par sherry. That would have certainly driven home the message and no one would lose face or social grace.

Thoughts from the public are welcome.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Volunteers

When it comes to the Iraq War, I try to have sympathy for the Bush Administration.

Conspiracy theories aside, the planners of Iraq War – even if they are today dashing away from claiming responsibility for their actions – did not hope for a bungled war. These planners wanted a war where the U.S. would achieve quick victory, a war where our national self-interest would be improved. (I'll turn it back to the conspiracy theorists regarding what that self-interest was: Cheaper oil? Permanent U.S. military bases in the Middle East? The removal of Saddam Hussein and his WMDs?)

I try to have sympathy for these war planners, but then Dick Cheney – who appears to be the central figure of the entire Iraq War effort – starts talking, and my ability to have this sympathy is destroyed.

The recent public display of heartlessness by Dick Cheney concerning the pain that the Iraq War has wrought in the U.S. (...to say nothing of the much greater pain it has heaped upon the Iraqi people) literally takes my breath away. In a pair of interviews over the past week, Cheney provides a shocking window into his psyche.

So?
Last week, Cheney remarked "So?" when confronted by an interviewer with a poll indicating the public's broad current opposition to the Iraq War. Cheney claimed that it was important to not "be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls."

Of course, today's broad opposition to the Iraq War is hardly a "fluctuation." Polls on Iraq have indicated majority opposition against the war from late 2005 onward. A fluctuation? Maybe on a clock that is tracking time on a geologic scale.

Much as I hate this "So?" comment, our Constitution has set the bar for impeachment inadvisably high for people like Cheney. However strongly critics of the President and Vice President might argue for their impeachment, until Bush et al. do something that looks like "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes or Misdemeanors" in the eyes of today's Supreme Court, our best hope is to use the other machinery of the federal government to limit the executive branch's influence for the remainder of Bush's lame duck term.

In the end, I hate Cheney's "So?" attitude, but I understand where he's coming from. We elected them. Barring impeachment, we're stuck with them. Let's demand Congress exercise its power to limit their influence. Someone has to be the least popular Vice President ever, and Cheney appears content to play the role.

Yet, I was not compelled to write about "So?" It's Cheney's comment from today that compels me to write.

They Volunteered
Confronted in an interview with the fact that the U.S. has just passed the grim milestone of 4,000 Americans dead in the Iraq War, Cheney reminded his interviewer several times that these soldiers volunteered.

Reading the article, I'm simply awestruck by how jaw-droppingly heartless Cheney comes across. He rationalizes that whatever burden communities, spouses, relatives, friends, and children bear at the loss or injury of a family member, this burden is somehow greatly eased by the fact of our all-volunteer force.

This August, I will have been writing this blog for 5 years. Over the course of writing 800 or so blog posts during this time, I've tried to develop a tone that is less confrontational than when I started blogging. Writing in a manner that tries (and, of course, fails) to see issues in shades of gray has been a continual challenge, but it's worth it — especially in developing my ability to talk about issues with people with whom I strongly disagree.

Cheney's words erase these shades of gray: Vice President Cheney, you have said and felt a horrible thing. You (and those around you?) have created a rationalization that helps you sleep at night. You've shared this rationalization with us, and it is disgusting.

As with "So?", Cheney's words carry a kernel of truth. We have an all-volunteer army. The military interests of our nation are protected by volunteers in a way that they weren't at Antietam, at Cold Harbor, on Omaha Beach, or in the Ardennes.

And let's ignore that our military draws heavily on disadvantaged populations and minorities to fill its ranks. Let's grant Cheney that, yes, we have a "volunteer" force.

Being a conscript is not the same thing as being a volunteer; however, the military requires that ALL soldiers follow orders. When rank and file soldiers confront death, even certain death, they do so at the order of another. It doesn't matter whether they're a volunteer or a draftee. An ordered military presumes – it demands – that a soldier abandon a significant portion of his or her free will in the name of achieving an objective. They must trust the system and the objective.

Iraq is a failed objective, and our continued project in Iraq is driven as much by the well-understood theory of Irrational Escalation as it by an effort to achieve ever-shifting military and geopolitical objectives.

Our soldiers volunteered to join the military. And then they were asked to do the impossible in Iraq, all the while staying in theater longer than any other soldiers in US history. They have obeyed orders and fought bravely.

That they fight and die as volunteers should do nothing to help us sleep better at night.

Volunteers & Conscripts. Side By Side.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The 4 Steps of Irresponsible Science Reporting

It's easy to forget during an election year, but mass media doesn't limit its oversimplifications and distortions to political news. Media outlets are just as good at improperly framing science news as they are at skewing political news. Today's top science story provides a great example of their ability to confuse.

Step 1: Something Science-y Happens.
The first step in distorting science news is to report on something that is interesting to people who have even a passing curiosity regarding the world around them. Such an event happened on Wednesday morning.

At 2:12 am EDT on Wednesday, the effects of a star explosion arrived at our planet. The visible effects of the explosion could be seen by the naked eye for about a minute. This celestial event was made all the more exceptional due to the astonishing distance between the Earth and the star: More than 7 billion light years — about halfway across the universe.

Normally, naked eye visibility is limited to about 1500-2000 stars. The most distant object or structure generally visible to the naked eye is the Triangulum Galaxy, about 3 million light years away (1/2500th of the distance to Wednesday's explosion). Being able to see something more than 7 billion light years away? That's cool. Let's write a story.

Step 2: A Story is Written.
Never-happened-before astronomy stories make for good sound bite-length stories, so it's unsurprising that major news websites all featured this story during the week. The NY Times pointed out in its story that this explosion was a gamma ray burst, which "might mark the implosion of a massive star into a black hole, or the collision of a pair of dense neutron stars." CNN.com left the gamma ray details of its story, noting that the story involved an "aging star."

Step 3: A Thoughtless Reader Poll is Created.
It's someone's job at CNN.com to create reader polls on the basis of the stories of the day. As minor political controversies of this election season have illustrated, the raison d'être of CNN.com's online reader polls appears to be to inflame reader opinion and heighten their interest in the news — even if that means leading them astray.

Before looking at the CNN.com poll below, let's remember what this story is about. According to the NY Times, we're talking about "the implosion of a massive star into a black hole, or the collision of a pair of dense neutron stars." With that in mind, here's the CNN.com Quickvote reader poll:Of course, it's all but a truism that our planet's eventual fate is to be consumed by our dying star. 900 million years from now, our sun's hydrogen will be on its way to depletion. The resulting expansion of our star into a red giant will make our planet inhospitable. Billions of years later, the sun will expand enough to consume the Earth — but we certainly won't be around to complain.

Current supernovae models indicate that our sun is nowhere near massive enough to explode in a supernova. Even less likely is that our star could experience the kind of core collapse supernova that may be the cause of the massive gamma ray burst in the article.

Step 4: Poll Participants Leave More Misinformed Than They Came.
As of this morning, 72% of Quickvote respondents think it's possible that our star will explode and vaporize our planet.
Of course, some of the "yes" folks are those who know something about our star's life cycle and our planet's eventual demise. However, others of these folks are just babes in the woods, alarmed that our star might explode at any moment — just like that star in the article!

An appropriate follow-on to this poll would be a story like What Is Our Government Doing to Prevent the Sun From Exploding? They could even accept responses from readers. I might propose a system of gigantic belts that would prevent the Sun from expanding. No, wait! How about a giant fire extinguisher so we could partially hose down the Sun, should it get too hot?!

(If you like curmudgeon-y blog posts complaining about CNN.com's absurd astronomy coverage, you might enjoy this old Sauntering post, where we look at the some of the ridiculous images that CNN.com pairs with any story about a potential meteor/asteroid/comet impact.)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Where Should I Park My 4 Guys?

Here she comes in her palanquin
on the back of an elephant
on a bed made of linen and sequins and silk...

The Infanta by The Decemberists
I'm a big fan of the Decemberists, but I sometimes suspect that frontman Colin Meloy pens his songs with one hand on a piano, the other on a thesaurus. Her palanquin? What the heck is a palanquin?

It's pretty clear from the context of the rest of the verse that a palanquin is something like an elaborate saddle for riding atop an animal. Yet, the real magic of the internet is that you only wonder these things for a moment now — before you turn to Wikipedia and get the (collectively created) answer.

Yes, a palanquin can be a small cabin supported by one or more animals...

...however, it can also be such a cabin supported by one or more people, as you've certainly seen in movies.

There's something astonishingly servile about a palanquin (or litter or sedan chair, as these contraptions are also known) when carried by other people. In many/most cases, the people riding in the palanquin could just as easily be walking; however, the dictates of society mean that they get to ride, borne quite literally on the backs of the less socially favored.

This menial, servile past was brought closer to home for me when I learned that Ben Franklin, afflicted by the gout and unable to ride a horse to the Constitutional Convention, was carried to the convention in his sedan chair. Franklin was borne by four convicts, and their appearance is partially captured in the painting below:

When You Care Enough to Give the Gift of Ostrich

So, Dad got ostrich meat for his birthday.

Why give the gift of meat, specifically flightless bird meat? First, my grandparents have the habit of sending us meats for the holidays. Giving meat almost feels like perpetuating an animal-flesh-based family tradition. Second, Dad's into all things healthy — whether that be the newest workout craze or a health-conscious food alternative. Ostrich is quite good for you, and I know that he's had it before. Third, Dad seems to already own every possible material good that he could want. Why not give him a gift that makes for an amusing story?

I found the ostrich meat at Amazon.com, where it was on offer from a third-party seller who is also interested in selling you alligator and buffalo meat. Since I made the purchase through Amazon, their comparison shopping software tracked the purchase. The next time I visited Amazon.com, I think the What Do Customers Buy After Viewing This Item? feature effectively captured the serious and buttoned-up nature of today's ostrich meat buyer:


We are a stuffy set, we ostrich meat buyers.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Monday, March 03, 2008

Almost Walking Unaided.
Almost Typing Unintentionally.

According to my rough estimate, someone in my family is about 1" away from becoming a contributor to this blog.

Note the tip-toes. Good effort, Katie!