Saturday, November 28, 2009

POLITICS- Political Reality

Well, I was going to sit down for a few minutes and meditate before going to work, but I made the mistake of seeing if Matt Taibbi had said anything lately and- poof- no meditation for me.

Read the article for yourself. Basically what Matt is saying, better and more specifically, is what I’ve been saying for years: both the political parties in America work for the same people and those people aren’t the American Middle Class. Whether you are Obama supporter or Tea-bag Republican, if you think that the primary purpose of your party’s elected officials is to advance your agenda then you don’t perceive enough about how politics really works in this country to be shooting your mouth off about anything.

For years the Red States had both houses of the legislature and the presidency. Do they have an anti-abortion amendment? Flag burning amendment? Organized prayer in schools? The Ten Commandments in public buildings? A stop to illegal immigration? Lower taxes?

Hell no.

And the Blue Staters, who took the presidency and both houses last fall. Are they any better off? Has the surveillance of America e-mails, phone calls, bank records, and (for heaven’s sake) library use stopped? Are the troops out of Iraq? Is Guantanamo closed? Are gay rights being strongly protected by new laws?

Hell no.

It may sound cynical, but in modern America the opposite of cynicism is naivete. It isn’t paranoia if they really are out to get you. And it’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s paying attention that the rich and powerful in this country have been strengthening their powerbase for the last few decades. At the expense of the rest of us, many of which have been manipulated into endlessly arguing with each other about issues that don’t really matter to the people in charge. And while we’ve done it, they’ve been robbing us blind. Both parties are engaged in a classic game of “Let’s you and him fight” with the American people so they can pick all our pockets and put the necessary fortifications in place so that when we do finally wake up and realize that the house is on fire we won’t be able to do anything about it.

Friday, November 27, 2009

BLACK FRIDAY- Sit on the porch and feed all the kangaroos

It was this or the latest crop of pyromaniacal videos of turkey fryer accidents.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Random Quickies

Fast roundup of some cool stuff from over the last few days.

David Saltzburg is a name you might not know, but he’s the science advisor for the most nerdtastic sit-com since everybody on Gilligan’s island was waiting for The Professor to build a working shortwave out of coconuts and Tina Louise’s spaghetti straps. The Big Blog Theory is a great basic science blog and I think you’ll be surprised how far we’ve come since those seven stranded castaways were on the TV show Lost. FWIW, the comic book and sci-fi geek stuff is just as accurate.

The perfect gift for that multi-tasker on the go who you don’t like very much- The Laptop Steering Wheel Desk! Notice the later pictures of the product and the user comments.

Tennessee passed laws earlier this year to allow guns in restaurants, parks, and bars. I’ve given a lot of thought to what kind of mindset it takes to think you need a gun on your hip no matter where you go. No conclusions yet, but it’s been interesting to wonder what the world looks like to these people.

Am I the only person that, when told that a medium movie popcorn has the same caloric and nutritional value as three Big Macs, immediately thinks- well, what the hell, might as well have three Big Macs?

I also wonder if I’m the only person who watches the Apple computer ad campaign and thinks that John Hodgeman is smart, funny, and cool and that Justin Long is a dimwitted hipster douchebag? Learning that Apple computers are such soap bubbles that they can be broken by a little cigarette smoke only reinforces this idea. And learning that Apple voids your warranty if anyone has smoked in the house with your precious little computer-like status symbol just reaffirms that the douchebaggery goes all the way from the user to Steve Jobs in an unbroken line of vinegar and water.

And the iPhone sucks (bandwidth).

When I think of the Shroud of Turin I immediately free associate pareidolia and a line from the first Ghostbusters movie, “No human being would stack books like this.” Oh faith, why are you so faint?

What is the chance that two old women in Kentucky would try to decide for everybody else what books should be in the library? About the same as the Alaska governor thinking she was elected to tell people what to read. That is- about 100%. Here’s a hint, if you don’t read books and you don’t want anyone else to read them you are not contributing to the advancement of humanity.

Don’t believe in evolution? I’ve got news for you, nobody cares what you believe. The great thing about science is that no belief is required for it to work. Guess you also don’t believe in Doberman Pinschers.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

MOVIES- Zombieland isn't bad

Not since SHAWN OF THE DEAD has there been a funnier and more unserious movie about the unserious idea of a zombie apocalypse than ZOMBIELAND. A lot of reviewers didn’t care for the tone and I wasn’t impressed by the ad campaign but I found myself amused and pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t just a long tribute to mayhem. In fact, if you’re in the right mood it’s a pretty entertaining couple of hours. True, if any of your critical faculties are engaged you are going to be frustrated- where do they get the unlimited supplies of gasoline they seem to have access to and why does the electricity still work after everyone has been turned into the cannibalistic living undead- but if you simply take the movie on its own terms it has a pretty good mix of pathos and carnage, just a little teenage angst, and a wonderful turn by Woody Harrelson playing what could be easily imagined as a version of his breakout character, Woody Boyd, driven insane by the end of the world. The direction is unremarkable, the acting is fine, the dialog is predictable and not terribly witty, and the special effects are anything but special. Yet I didn’t find myself getting bored and the movie managed never to insult my intelligence too much. And there are times when it’s actually funny. (Rule One for surviving a zombie holocaust: Cardio!) Not a great movie, but for a mindless romp through a decimated civilization that never tries to be anything else the damn thing worked! If you have an evening to kill and a big bag of microwave popcorn then give it a try.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


I have no plans to talk about my ongoing divorce. It's not that I feel it's private or that I'm embarrassed, it's just that I don't really have anything to say. But a friend sent me this and it's funny enough to share. (FWIW, the line about not being a "licensed therapist" is especially funny in light of the fact that she's been lying on her resume for as long as I've known her about having a BA in business when she never finished high school and flunked out of community college because she couldn't pass remedial algebra.)

BIG QUESTIONS- The Meaning of Life (part 1 in a series)

I think I’m in love.

Oh yes, definitely I have fallen in love. She’s funny, smart, uncompromising, and very nice to look at. I admit, she’s picking the low hanging fruit. But even the staunchest Christian has to admit that there’s nothing more tempting than an attractive woman picking fruit. And I have always had a soft spot for smart asses.

As I’ve said previously, I frequent the HairyFishNuts blog, mostly because the writer is often knee slapping funny. But over the years I’ve watched him fight a tireless battle against religion. I admire his stamina, but watching the non-believers who wander into the site from time to time and often following them home to their blogs I’ve come to believe that he is, as the bible would say, kicking against the pricks. (works on so many levels;-) Of course, he isn’t alone. The Internet is full of people like him- K-rina in the video above, endless flame wars, it seems that every time religion is mentioned the same types show up to offer the same arguments that Voltaire and Thomas Aquinas voiced centuries ago and said far better.

I also reflect on my own personal discussions concerning things like science and evolution with believers. And my conclusion is that the problems isn’t so much that members of the two sides have been convinced by differing information and might change their minds if they came to understand the other side of the argument, it’s that the people on the two sides of the divide have fundamentally different ways of looking at reality and are completely intransigent. I think that a lot of these debates are held for the benefit of the people who are debating- to sure up their own thinking- and the only people who might be swayed are the spectators who haven’t made up their minds yet.

When I look back on my life I’ve got to admit that I’ve always been of a scientific mindset. Not only in the case of being fascinated by science and learning all I can about the world, but also as a matter of intrinsic philosophy. I can’t remember a time when, even as a little child, I didn’t question things and discard ideas when convinced that they were erroneous. Long before I had been taught the scientific method in school I was already a devout practitioner. I question everything, especially my own conclusions. And I'm a firm believer that Voltaire was right when he said that you can tell more about a man from his questions than his answers.

But, having said that, I also can’t remember a time, even as a small child, when I wasn’t fascinated by religion. I was a born seeker, looking for answers, and religion claimed to have them. I’ve explored a great number of religions. And practiced a number of them to ‘try them on’ as it were. I feel that I can see both sides of the debate. But I can’t help being logical and questioning. I understand the need to feel like part of something grander than yourself, and I deeply feel that connecting with other people is part of being human. As far as we can tell, humanity is the only creature on the planet that can feel empathy. And that's the basis of religion- feeling for others. Jesus called it loving your brother as you love yourself.

So for the next few posts I’m going to retrace the steps that I’ve taken to come to my (tenitive) conclusions. Perhaps an even handed exploration by someone who isn’t antagonistic to either side is a good idea. There seems to be far too much acrimony in the debate. Both sides show their worst sides as they contend with each other. It's time for a dispassionate look at the question from the middle.


I watched a couple of episodes of Cosmos yesterday and was once again taken with the beauty of Sagan's ideas and the poetry of his writing. The video posted in the last entry is genuinely moving. If you didn't watch it, you should. I came across a couple of other things he said that I thought were interesting and wanted to share them here. Over the next few postings I'm going to be exploring a few big questions which my mind was set turning around while watching his program. These might set the tone.

A still more glorious dawn awaits
Not a sunrise
But a galaxy rise
A morning filled with four hundred billion suns
Rising with the Milky Way

A couple more pertinent quotes from Carl Sagan-

I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time - when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.
- Carl Sagan, Demon Haunted World

You can't convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it's based on a deep seated need to believe.
- Dr. Arroway in Carl Sagan's Contact

If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?....For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.
- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy. Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science?
- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

Is it fair to be suspicious of an entire profession because of a few bad apples? There are at least two important differences, it seems to me. First, no one doubts that science actually works, whatever mistaken and fraudulent claim may from time to time be offered. But whether there are any miraculous cures from faith-healing, beyond the body's own ability to cure itself, is very much at issue. Secondly, the expose' of fraud and error in science is made almost exclusively by science. But the exposure of fraud and error in faith-healing is almost never done by other faith-healers.
- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

There are no forbidden questions in science, no matters too sensitive or delicate to be probed, no sacred truths.
- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

Monday, November 9, 2009

SCIENCE- Carl Sagan

A couple of months ago I was browsing through Half Price Books in Lexington, Ky and came across an almost complete library of Carl Sagan’s writing in hardcover. I had read several of his books in high school but had long since lost the copies that I had owned, so I decided to buy the store clean. Within a couple of weeks I noticed that the Science Channel was sporadically re-broadcasting the old Cosmos television show and had my TIVO start trolling for it. But I didn’t realize until this morning that today would have been his 75th birthday if he were still alive.

Carl Sagan remains to this day perhaps the greatest popularizer of science in my lifetime. Since his death there are others who have attempted to fill his shoes- Neil Degrasse Tyson comes immediately to mind, along with Bill Nye, and even the Mythbusters, although personally I think Timothy Ferris comes closest to his style and range of subject material- but no one has really come close. In addition to explaining science he was widely known for his views on history, politics, religion, superstition, skepticism, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and the human condition. His was a popular guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (of all places) and even debated William F. Buckley after the original showing of Nick Mayer’s movie about nuclear war, THE DAY AFTER. (Famously saying that the nuclear arms race was like two men standing waist deep in gasoline, one with three matches and the other with five.)

His books included:

Dragons of Eden- an exploration of the evolution of human intelligence that explained the triune brain architecture, dividing the brain into R-Complex, Limbic, and Cortical levels and explaining how each controlled different sets of behaviors and expanded on the lower levels.

The Demon Haunted World- an examination of the evidence for the paranormal, including everything from UFOs to ghosts, and a plea for using the same tools of logic and reason to evaluate all claims whether they seem natural or supernatural.

Broca’s Brain- about his love affair with science. A book that opens with a rather macabre anecdote about his trip to the Musee de L’Homme (Museum of Man) in Paris where, while exploring a room filled with jars containing human heads, he chanced upon the preserved brain of Paul Broca- the foremost expert on the anatomy of the brain in the 19th century.

But perhaps Sagan’s crowning achievement was the television series Cosmos. Produced for PBS in 1980 and capitalizing on the popularity of STAR WARS, Cosmos put Sagan on the bridge of an imaginary spaceship by which he could explore the wonders of the universe. But it was no dreary travelogue of roadside attractions throughout the galaxy. Sagan used it as a platform for everything he found interesting, from history to philosophy. In the first episode he recounted the story of Eratosthenes calculating the circumference of the earth over two hundred years before the birth of Christ by measuring the shadows of two sticks, one in Alexandria and the other in Syene; conducted a tour of the universe through the solar system, galaxy, neighboring galaxy M31, and the local group; discussed pulsars and light years; visited a fictional inhabited planet in the Orion Nebula; flew down the Valles Marinaris on Mars; toured the ancient library at Alexandria during its height; and condensed the history of the universe down into the space of one year.

And that was the first episode.

The second episode told the story of life on Earth, explaining evolution through the example of Heike Crabs, which seem to have the faces of Samurai on their shells, and touched on biochemistry and biology. Episode five told the story of Mars, including both Percival Lowell and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Episode nine explained atomic physics with an apple pie and went on to talk about wormholes in space and remind us that we are “made of starstuff”.

And that’s one of the things that set the series apart from most science documentaries. If you are used to the standard History or Discovery channel docs then you are in for an awakening. This is not an hour of your life spent watching two teams of scientists using PET scanners to unlock the mystery of whether or not early Etruscan wine mugs were designed to be right or left handed. This is a 13 hour exploration of the universe as we understand it and man’s place in it as we might conceive it to be. And it’s written with poetry, perspective, and passion. Under Sagan’s probing eye we see even the most mundane things in a new light. He called libraries “communal repositories of memory”. And on the subject of books he said:

What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree, with flexible parts, on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you are inside the mind of another person. Maybe somebody dead for thousands of years, across the millennia, an author speaking clearly and silently inside your head, only to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions. Binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. Books are proof that humans are capable of working magic.
Cosmos episode 11, The Persistence of Memory

And in the last episode he contemplated the final destiny of our species. In the late seventies the great threat of annihilation was a full-out nuclear exchange between the superpowers. But even here, Sagan’s thoughtfulness went beyond that possibility to examine the underlying danger.

I saw east Africa and thought a few million years ago we humans took our first steps there. Our brains grew and changed. The old parts began to be guided by the new parts. And this made us human, with compassion and foresight and reason. But instead we listened to that reptilian voice within us counseling fear, territoriality, aggression. We accepted the products of science but we rejected its methods.
Cosmos- Who Speaks for Earth?

It’s hard to put it more succinctly and beautifully. Today we might not fear an attack from the former Soviet Union, but the forces of ignorance and superstition are even more active now than they were then. Trying to destroy our society by turning their backs on the science that allowed it to become great, turning the technology that science gave us against it and us.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Sagan.

Cosmos is available from for free and on Netflix streaming if you are a member. Sagan’s books are in your local library and available from Amazon.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

WTF- Of All the Videos Online

...this is the funniest one I've seen in a long time.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

MOVIES- Seven Pounds

Will Smith seems to have settled into a rhythm. Every three movies he does includes a Sci-Fi movie, a comedy, and a serious film. There’s no question he’s done all right with the sci-fi genre. Sure there is crap like WILD, WILD WEST and I, ROBOT. Crap that would be unforgivable if not for MEN IN BLACK, and INDEPENDENCE DAY. Well, OK, not so much INDEPENDENCE DAY. But I didn’t think Hancock was too bad. And I AM LEGEND wouldn’t have been so bad without the focus-group ending the studio tacked on.

His comedies like HITCH and, well, MEN IN BLACK have been entertaining. Although he was pretty much just a straight man for Kevin James in HITCH, and we’ve already used MIB once already so it really doesn’t count. And OTOH there are such non-classics as BAD BOYS- with or without Roman numerals- and the aforementioned WWW.

Well, at least he’s made some serious dramas such as ALI and SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION. But when you really think about it, ALI wasn’t really a high point for either him or director Michael Mann even though it was a dearly held project for both of them. And SIX DEGREES is really more of a party game than a movie- talk talk talk talk talk. And every other serious thing he’s attempted isn’t really very serious. LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE is a milquetoast example of what somebody once called the Magic Negro genre. ENEMY OF THE STATE isn’t bad but it’s Bruckheimer and Tony Scott so you could have put Ben Affleck in the role instead and nobody would have noticed. THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS got a lot of props from Oprah. But if she had James Frey back on for a public bitch slapping over A Million Little Pieces being a bunch of BS, then she should have saved a few backhands for the makers of this “based on a true story” film which completely ignores Chris Gardner’s infidelity, drug use, child abandonment, and spousal abuse and which takes the “magic Negro” idea to a new level.

Wow, now that I think about it, Will Smith hasn’t made many very good movies.

Don’t get me wrong. He also hasn’t made many bad movies. None of the films mentioned are actually bad. And I think they’ve usually made some money. But if you take out MEN IN BLACK they are a steady run of three out of five stars. Pure mediocrity. Nothing challenging, nothing inspired, no great breakout performances, just a long string of nice movies.

And that seems to be the secret of Will’s personal success. He seems like a nice guy. Not a great artist, doesn’t vanish into a role, just shows up on time and does his job. And boy, has it ever worked for him. He’s done 13 movies in the last decade and his name is attached to 25 projects in development!

Well, there’s the secret of success boys and girls: be nice.

Of course it doesn’t hurt to be good looking, tall, well built, and have a little talent as well.

Being lucky as hell is also a good idea.

Which brings me to his most recent movie SEVEN POUNDS, which is available for streaming via Netflix. I’m not going to say anything about the plot for fear of spoiling any tiny surprises there may be. Smith is charming, he plays a really nice guy, and some melodrama ensues. If you like Will Smith’s movies then you’ll probably like this movie.

But it could just as easily starred Ben Affleck.