02.27.06

Plant fear, reap fear

Posted in Society at 9:20 by RjZ

Many around the web have already been observing that the row over Dubai Ports World’s purchase of British-owned P&O—and therefore the six or so U.S. ports on the eastern coast—is really a product of the fear that the Bush administration has planted over the last five years.

The administration has worked hard to sow fear and doubt about just about anything Muslim or Arab. They made up connections between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaida, and they have continued to raise the specter of Muslim extremists whenever poll ratings drop. It’s not surprising, then, that when a company owned by a perhaps questionable ally (but ally nonetheless) of the U.S. wants to operate ports in the States, everyone jumps on the bandwagon to show that they are better at protecting homeland security than the next guy.

In actuality, the owners of the ports have little to do with security (That’s handled by the Coast Guard.) and while it might be “easier for foreign nationals to infiltrate the U.S.,” there are dozens of ways to do this now. The 9-11 terrorists didn’t need to work for a port management company to come into the U.S. They came in through the front door! Dubai Ports World is owned, in part, by the government of Dubai, but the multinational management (with a U.S. American president) has an excellent reputation and simply runs ports well!

It’d be humorous to see the flowering of Bush’s tree of fear were it not for the isolationism that it creates. I can see the anti-WTO types teaming up with conservative Republicans to slow growth and prosperity, and save the borders of the U.S., all at the same time. In fact, though, the media and everyone else will notice that there’s nothing nefarious about trading one foreign national port-management company for another, and the Dubai company, if they’re nice enough to stick with the silly political wrangling in the U.S., will end up running the ports after all. In the meantime, the Democrats who have jumped on this issue to show that they’re tougher on security are, once again, see that they’ve picked the wrong horse when the realization occurs to us all that, instead of being thoughtful leaders, they once again offer a policy the center tenet of which is “They’re wrong!”

This is all frustrating to me because I hope to travel to many of these places someday, and U.S. politicians seem to be a doing a great job of alienating as many countries and cultures as possible. Maybe I should have gotten that Dutch passport when I had the chance!

(1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
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02.24.06

Asking “why” opens your mind

Posted in Society at 14:42 by RjZ

Oh, all right, I am a skeptic. That can be a challenge, living in Boulder, Colorado. It seems that, in spite of the large proportion of scientists and engineers living and working here, Boulder’s famous quirkiness attracts all kinds of ideas and beliefs. That’s one of the great things about it! The problem arises when I doubt ghosts or Reiki treatments or the Atkins diet. “You’re so closed-minded!” “You scientific types are all the same; if it’s not already in one of your books, it can’t be true.” “You don’t believe anything that science doesn’t accept; it’s like a religion to you… That’s just as bad, you know…”

I am a skeptic, but that doesn’t make me close-minded at all. And it doesn’t make me afraid of new ideas. Scientists are not quick to accept any new concept, but it would be completely false to characterize them as unwilling to accept new ideas; in fact, they revel in them. (It would also be false to say that all scientists are the same, but bear with me.)

In our last few years of college, a few of my fellow students and I were fretting what we would do if we were to pursue a Ph.D. In order to get a doctorate, the physics student must discover something new and novel. We were all facing the fact that the only way we were going to be able to do this would be to get so impossibly deep and esoteric about some tiny corner of physics that, while we’d discover something novel all right, no one, not even we, would care. Then along came cold fusion!

Woo-hoo! This turned everything upside-down! They’d be handing out doctorates left and right, now! We’d all be able to study something new and exciting and get a Ph.D. for free, practically. We’d study something that really would change the world! I imagine that, all over the nation and world, students and scientists were thrilled that the very foundations of what they thought they knew were being shaken! We weren’t close-minded about something new, we were thrilled to embrace it! And so we began looking at papers and trying to test it, looking for places where we’d be able to do some work, get Ph.D.s, and have as good a time as a physicist is likely to have. (We’d have to go make friends with the chemistry department, too, but there are worse things…) Quickly our group and many around the world started to discover problems with the claims of Fleischman and Pons. Damn. Bad scientist! No biscuit for you!

It didn’t work out, and I never did get that doctorate, but I did learn something from the experience. Good scientists and good skeptics are far from close-minded. Their interest in these subjects stems from wanting to learn and explore more and more. I’ve always been this way. As a kid, I took things apart to see how they worked. Mechanical things, electrical things… I wasn’t satisfied just using them. (Maybe all the electrical shocks explain why I am so intense now.) I am almost never satisfied with “That’s just the way it is.” I never really grew out of that age where kids ask “Why?” to nearly everything. I think that is what attracted me to study physics, and what attracts so many to study similar subjects and later become scientists and skeptics.

Those folks who complain to me when I roll my eyes at their claims that dowsing is possible and remote viewing really works think that we skeptics simply deny these claims out of hand. The tiresome reality is I couldn’t do that if I wanted to! It’s just not in my nature not to ask if these things are possible. Indeed, I am amazed at how much time is wasted by me and others researching these claims, probably because we feel compelled to. Come up with some new crazy claim, and off we go again, checking to see if it’s valid, just in case! What the proponents of psychic surgery and UFO abductions think is that, just because they haven’t explored the likelihood of these assertions, skeptics haven’t, and that we’re just close-minded when we doubt them.

Adj.
1. close-minded
– not ready to receive new ideas
narrow-minded, narrow – lacking tolerance or flexibility or breadth of view; “a brilliant but narrow-minded judge”; “narrow opinions”

Honestly, I don’t see the difference between lacking tolerance for the view that wood nymphs do exist and lacking tolerance for the view that they don’t. They’re both close-minded views, aren’t they? Believe whatever you wish. I don’t claim to have all the answers. I just wish those frowning anti-skeptics would let me do the same!

(1 votes, average: 4.00 out of 5)
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02.23.06

Fox News: Federalism May Offer Abortion Solution

Posted in at 17:25 by RjZ

Radley Balko is a “pro-life libertarian” who works for the Cato Institute. He makes a point in this article that I, too, have often made. That is, regardless of how individuals may feel about abortion, it’s probably not really a federal issue, but rather an issue for state’s rights.

Well, since he made the point and I didn’t, I guess I’ll point out what makes me squeamish about it. If we let states, or even cities and counties, as he suggests, decide whether their citizens have abortion rights or not, the result will essentially be barring poor citizens from abortions. The wealthy will travel to where they are legal, and perhaps even move there. The poor, meanwhile, will quite possibly be stuck by their circumstance, right where they are. In fact, the U.S. offers a high amount of mobility. It may not be such a burden to expect people to vote with their feet, but this concern should at least be considered.

While it pains me to say it, I must agree with Balko that Roe is probably on shaky constitutional ground. I also agree that repealing it will do little regarding the legality of abortion, save for returning this issue to the state’s rights question it rightfully is. The question remains as to what the states will actually do. This argument will continue to rage in the short term. I think the alternative view to the viability argument Balko makes may be useful for many if these discussions do, in fact, leave Washington and come to our backyards.

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Why wait for dessert?

Posted in Society at 9:59 by RjZ

I was brought up Jewish. Barely. We only got a menorah after I brought one back from a business trip to Israel. Instead, most years we had a Chanukah bush. A Chanukah bush is, of course, a Christmas tree with blue and white ornaments and dredels and things. In spite of my not-so-orthodox upbringing, a few things stuck from my Jewish tradition.

In the Christian tradition, families pray before the meal. “Lord, thanks for the bounty we are about to receive.” Jews, meanwhile, pray after the meal. I always thought it was because the Jews were always being persecuted and running away, so they weren’t sure they were going to get to eat the meal. Plus, why thank the Lord if the meal really wasn’t any good? “Lord, that was yummy, thanks,” or alternatively, “Let’s not say anything about this meal to the Lord, and maybe we can all forget that the meat was too dry and tough as leather.”

I’ve always extended this tradition by suggesting that dessert, the sweet reward you give yourself at the end of meal, can as easily precede as follow the entree. Let’s face it: pie is better than turkey. You’d hate to load up on turkey and not have enough room for pie, or worse, fall asleep from the tryptophan before you even get to the pie course. Then what would you have to be thankful for?

(1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
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02.21.06

Understatement: Cost estimates were off the mark

Posted in at 14:26 by RjZ

ABC News: Bush Administration’s War Spending Nears Half-Trillion Dollars

I am not so young that I can’t remember, way back in the beginning of 2002, the Bush administration telling (lying to) us that the war would cost between $50 billion and $70 billion. Here we are a few years later, and we’re well on our way to half a trillion!

Here’s an honest question: Back around the 2004 election, there was much talk by people in the political middle that, regardless of whether you thought it was right to go to war or not, clearly we couldn’t just walk away from what we’d created. My question is: what price peace? There are many more facets to this question, but maybe my fearless readers can let me know what they think about this one alone. How much do we have to pay before we do just “cut and run?”

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Another argument for states’ rights!

Posted in , Liberty at 14:08 by RjZ

The Kelo vs. New London case may have been one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in decades. It’s nice to see States Curbing Right to Seize Private Homes – New York Times

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02.20.06

I drive like you do

Posted in Travel at 15:04 by RjZ

“I drive like you do” is a bumper sticker I once saw. I still remember it nearly every time I get upset at someone’s driving. We’ve all inadvertently cut someone off, tailgated, caught ourselves driving too slowly, or forgotten a turn signal while our minds wandered. When someone else does it, we find ourselves getting angry, but the fact is, there are lot of drivers our there, and this may be that person’s moment of driving just like you sometimes do.

“I drive like you do” doesn’t really apply everywhere, though. U.S. Americans have big, safe roads and huge, cocoon-like cars, so that the worst things we usually deal with are people who we think are rude and signs that aren’t very clear. We don’t, for example, have much experience with things like roundabouts.

roundabout
The arrows don’t really mean anything. Actually cars drive in virtually any direction you can imagine.

In the United Kingdom, there are complex roundabouts of roundabouts, probably influenced by ancient Celtic symbols of fertility. Imagine an inner circle, surrounded by five or more small circles, and then a larger circle around this. Spokes come off the larger circle, and these are the converging roads from which you may choose—if you ever get out of the roundabout! My strategy? Don’t even try to get into the inner circle!

There are two huge roundabouts in Paris. They’re called the Peripheriques. They’re not really roundabouts, of course, but many old European cities are designed around the cow paths that originally threaded through the city. Over centuries, they’ve straightened things out a tiny bit, and now one frequently finds the spoke-and-wheel city layout that Paris exemplifies. The Peripheriques, an inner and an outer one, are the wheel parts. The larger one is like a highway all the way around the city, with signs telling the driver stuck in traffic how long it will take to get to major spokes like the stadium or the Champs Elysées. It gives the drivers something to hope for. The reason for this traffic may have more to do with the drivers than the inefficiencies of the spoke-and-wheel layout. Idling along, I would often see drivers stopped in the middle of the lane, exactly where their cars had failed them. The hood would be up and the beret-wearing man would be bent over the front bumper, smoking and pretending he knew where the smoke emanating from his car was coming from. (All right, I made up the part about the beret.) The only people unaffected by this obstruction, which would eventually wrap all the way around the circle until there was traffic in front of this guy, were the death-lusty scooter drivers who would weave in and out of the randomly moving vehicles, all jostling around the man and car, who were both smoking and wondering who was going to do something first.

A friend of mine observed that Cairenes are related to bats. (Google seems to think that citizens of Cairo are known as, well, “citizens of Cairo.” I’ll go with “Cairenes.”) Cairo is a city of 10 million people. It has huge boulevards, often five lanes on a side—except that the drivers mostly ignore these lane demarcations. They race through the streets, from five to nine abreast, honking their horns constantly, “Honk-honk-ho-ho-ho-ho-honk-honk-honk,” in effort, presumably by echolocation, to notify other drivers of their presence. The horn itself is often located on a lever sticking out of the steering column, instead of the middle of the wheel, to facilitate the constant honking without even removing hands from the wheel. I asked my cab driver why there was a traffic officer in each intersection directing the traffic. My cab driver explained that, until fairly recently, they hadn’t even had many traffic signals. The Cairenes apparently consider them a city beautification project!

Cambodian truck
Speeding by us on a dirt road was a truck over-filled with people breathing in dust that would later give me a lung infection.

Phnom Phen, Cambodia, may be worse. Cambodia is an amazing place, for its resilience if nothing else. They’ve been through the extermination of a majority of their citizens by the Khmer Rouge. In fact, if you meet a man about my age in Cambodia, there is a good chance that he was in the Khmer Rouge, and may even have been one of the guards who committed so many atrocities. After all, if he’s still alive, he’d have to be former Khmer Rouge, because nearly everyone else was killed! Adding insult to injury, civil war followed for years after the reign of Pol Pot. Today, though the people are remarkably friendly, I am not surprised that they don’t have much affection for authority. The traffic signals in Phnom Phen may be city beautification projects, but the traffic officers must be, too. “Racing” to the airport to make my return flight, it became obvious why it was a good idea to leave plenty of time. Cars inched past traffic police, hands raised and whistles blowing, in all four directions. The police would give stern looks to the drivers, who ignored them and the traffic signals with equal disregard.

India seems to have given up on both traffic signals and traffic police. As a former British colony, India often has large, complex traffic circles. Unlike in the U.K., however, there’s much more than just cars and trucks on the road. Drivers follow a might-makes-right hierarchy in order to survive. According to my observations, right-of-way is determined as follows: cows -> all other animals -> trucks, busses, to smallest cars -> tuc tucs and other motorized contraptions -> bicycles and other human-powered contraptions -> and finally, if you’re crazy enough to try walking on the street, pedestrians.

Even outside the city, on the rather narrow, pot-holed roads, the hierarchy holds. Indians also employ the Cairene strategy. Trucks have fantastic, detailed advertisements on their backs, and often in mirror reverse on the front, that say “Honk Please!” They come at each other, both in the center of the road, honking madly and playing chicken until the last possible second, when the driver with the smallest truck—or the least courage—slows and veers off to the side.

Here in the U.S., when I am angry at other drivers—yelling from within my safe cocoon to let off steam, and thankfully not offending my fellow travelers, oblivious inside their own cocoons—I remember that their mistakes are not unlike my own. If that isn’t enough to calm me back down quickly, I can at least be thankful that the only thing I have to avoid is oblivious drivers, not camels or mopeds struggling to carry a family of four along with their belongings stacked up eight feet or higher above them. Thankfully, even driving can be a lesson in how to live peaceably with each other. Just don’t cut me off!

(1 votes, average: 4.00 out of 5)
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02.16.06

One person’s monster is another’s inspiration

Posted in Travel at 11:21 by RjZ

I am not the only person around who has traveled a bit. It’s a pleasure to meet people who’ve been to exotic places, because we often immediately have so many shared experiences and insights that only going someplace with completely different toilets can bring. I have had the pleasure of seeing quite a few places and a wide variety of toilets. What excites me about traveling is seeing the other ways people interact with each other and their society. What we take for granted is not a given somewhere else, and to assume it is is to miss a huge part of the experience of travel. Still, I am often surprised by those who have traveled so much, but somehow kept their eyes closed to this experience.

Religion pervades the very core of our lives. In the West, for example, when we gesture “me,” we point to our hearts. The origin of this gesture, this language of the body, is likely that in Judeo-Christian societies the soul is located (figuratively at least) in the bloody muscle beating in our chest: the heart. The soul is “me,” so I might as well point to where it is when I want to gesture “me.” In Japan, the “me” gesture is made by pointing the index finger at the nose. The head does all the talking and communicating, so “me” clearly isn’t in their hearts, but in the center of their faces. There is much meaning even in a simple gesture if we are aware of it.

During my stay in Europe, I visited many, mostly Catholic, churches. I was not brought up going to churches, but I began to make some connections. Nearly every church has the stations of the cross displayed in some representation or another. Traditionally these images are meant to inspire and, more importantly, perhaps, to teach the illiterate about the Bible. By the same token, there are often ornate statues of various scenes and people from the Bible. After a while, you get to know them very well by their icons. I learned about St. Sebastian; always tied to a tree and shot full of arrows. I learned of St. Peter and his keys and Archangel Michael and his sword and many more, too.

So I noticed a funny thing while traveling in India. For a newcomer, it can be difficult to tell if Shiva is a man or a woman from the representations, let alone who each of the myriad deities are, but keep your eyes open and a pattern emerges. Shiva is often pictured with dreadlocks wrapped, turban-like, around his head, and with a black snake (Naga) around his neck. (Indeed, many Sadhus, holy ascetics, wear their hair just like the representations of Shiva.) Brahma is always riding a bull. Famous, elephant-headed Ganesh is often seen riding or being pulled in a chariot by rats. Durga is depicted riding a tiger. The frequently seen many-handed statues are not meant to imply that Hindus believe their deities are related to octopi, but rather are just a figurative tool to show more of the symbols they are often associated with.

At dinner one evening in Jaipur, I had met fellow tourists, two women from Holland where I was living at the time, who seemed to be traveling the same route I was on. We got to talking about the things we had mutually seen, and they remarked about the strange depictions of all the gods. “They look like monsters,” one remarked.

I pointed out how similar I thought they were to all the statues I’d seen in Catholic churches. Sebastian being tied and tortured on a tree and, of course, the myriad crucifixion images seemed pretty scary to me, too, I continued. The poor women couldn’t rebut my comment fast enough. “There is no comparison at all between the saints and Shiva with a snake around his neck,” they told me. “There are no elephant-headed people in Christianity!” (There are people with horns and tails and wings, though…) “It’s not the same thing at all! How could you say this?” they asked, outraged!

Perhaps the reason these women didn’t notice the similarities in religious iconography is because they’re traveling with their eyes closed to what they already know. For me, it’s perhaps the most important lesson I have learned from traveling: don’t let your assumptions and paradigms close your eyes to knowledge and new experience. People around the world don’t always think like I might expect them to. Their “me” might be on their face instead of in their hearts. And people often think just like everyone else, even if it doesn’t seem like they do. Their monstrous images are just as positive and inspiring as the ones I see back home. This thought helps me keep my mind open to different ideas. True, I had to go to several continents to learn such a simple lesson, but I did get lots of nifty souvenirs along the way.

(1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
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Maybe the world is flat and the Apollo landings were faked.

Posted in Society at 9:13 by RjZ

Did you know that if a lot of people believe something, then it must be true? And worse, questioning what a lot of people believe is censorship? That’s what John West maintains.

John G. West, associate director of the Center for Science and Culture, referring to several polls that show public support for criticism of evolution in science classes, said, ”The effort to try to suppress ideas that you dislike, to use the government to suppress ideas you dislike, has a failed history… Do they really want to be on the side of the people who didn’t want to let John Scopes talk or who tried to censor Galileo?”

That’s just ripe. The Center for Science and Culture (which sounds creepy to me) is part of the Discovery Institute, whose only discovery seems to be, “Wow! The world is complex. It’s so complex, in fact, that I have no idea how it could work.” They never mention that God (or even the Flying Spaghetti Monster) could have designed it all; they just stop there.

Mr. West is claiming censorship because he, and lots of people like him, believe in Intelligent Design, and the Ohio School Board has decided to stop giving this view the time of day. Lots of people believe that the earth is flat and the Apollo landings were fake, but we don’t teach those in school, and that’s not censorship, is it?

I see the Discovery Institute like this: a group of religious people lobby every scientist they can find who isn’t actually an atheist (I’m sure there are plenty who are not.) to say that because they study physics or chemistry, they are authorities on the origins of the universe and life on Earth, and that they too question Darwin’s theory of evolution. I believe in the marketplace of ideas, but I am skeptical of the marketing of ideas. Proving your cause by associating it with smart people is marketing, not proof. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman once said, “I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy.”

The Discovery Institute comes up with clever, important-sounding names for committees in their organization, and then they make all sorts of quotes supporting each other such that when they make it into the news, the rest of us hear that the serious-sounding Center for Science and Culture thinks that Ohio’s decision to stop teaching about a controversy that does not exist and stop confusing its students is tantamount to censoring Galileo! Hilarious comparisons, since in both cases they were censored, at least at first, and in both cases they were censored by religious groups.

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02.15.06

Where is Monaco d’Alemagna?

Posted in Travel at 13:41 by RjZ

According to NBC the winter Olympics are being held this year in Torino, Italy. NPR commentator Frank Deford notes that while we might already be familiar with the Shroud of Turin, the network didn’t seem to think it was necessary to change Italy to Italia or neighboring Florence, Milan or Naples to Firenze, Milano or Napoli. It’s inconsistent to be sure, but I think this might be the beginning of a positive trend.

It can be difficult to transliterate sounds from one language to another. Schezuan has so many spellings in English because even the northern Chinese aren’t sure how their southern neighbors pronounce it. My Chinese colleague hides his frustration well when I ask him over and over to repeat things he’s trying to teach me in Chinese that I still can’t make out. To be fair, we should also be entitled to mispronouce cities and countries using the vowels and consonants from our mother tongue. Even if it bothers the French, it seems to me it’s alright if in English, France rhymes with Lance and not with nonchalance (which would be just as easy to say!)

There is no challenge, however, for the English speaking tongue to wrap around Torino. Nor is it particularly difficult to say Italia (ee-tahl-ee-ah). Indeed, there is no great feat involved in pronouncing Deutschland (doytch-lahnd) for Germany. Of course I am aware of the historical nature of words like Germany (which stems from the Latin Germania) but it sure can be confusing when you step off the plane for Germany and land in a country you never knew you were heading for.

This problem is by no means restricted to English. Suppose you’re touring Europe a bit this year and catching the Olympics. You land in Paris (pair-ee) and want to take the train up to Holland, that’s Nederland (nay-der-land) to the locals . In France, that won’t work at all. You’ll have to ask for tickets to Le Pays Bas (le pay-bah). Had you landed in Frankfurt, instead, you’d have to ask for tickets to der Niederlande (dare knee-der-lahnd-uh) instead! Make sure you’ve brought your phrase book!

Some countries can’t even agree within their own borders what to call themselves. Holland is known, even to the Dutch as both Nederland and Holland (hoe-lahnd). In Switzlerand, each of the four national languages has it’s own translation for the mountainous region: Der Schweiz (dare shveytz), Suisse (swees-eh), Svizzera, and Svizra. Mostly the Swiss speak two or three of the other languages. Mostly.

As long as we can approximately pronounce the sounds of the cities and countries in our own language, why wouldn’t we want to do so the same way the folks who live there do? It would be a lovely gesture and sure make traveling around Europe and many other regions much easier! Don’t believe me?

Suppose you continue on your trip to around Europe and in Holland, you decide to stop in Germany, that’s Duitsland (dowts-lahnd) in Dutch, continue through Der Schweiz-Suisse-Svizzera-Svizra-Switzerland and on to Torino to enjoy the Olympics. After that, you’d like to go over the German Alps and check out München (moon-chen, or Munich) in Germany. You peruse the train schedules trying to find how long your journey will take but try as you might you can’t seem to find Munich or München, or really anything like it. Do you think you would have known to ask the cashier at the counter for tickets to Monaco d’Alemange? That sound much like München or Munich to you? If you both called it München (moon-chen is close enough) you might be there by now!

(1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
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