Monday, December 27, 2010

Aggravations - part 1

I haven't had a whole lot to post of late. I pity those who have to crank out some content on a regular basis ... Anyway, what follows is me being gripy about certain things. There may be more of these in the future, so I'm labeling this the first installment of whining and complaining about things that annoy me.

1. I've come to really detest the combination dog tag/key card that gives me access to the Intergalactic Weather Center and my office therein. I dislike having to wear security "dog tags" in our building, anyway, but that's not why I'm griping about it. For the umpteenth time today, I set out to go to the office and realized after going about two miles that I didn't have my key card.* Sometimes I make it all the way to the office before realizing I've left the blasted thing at home! There's no point trying to enter the building without it, so I have no choice but to turn around and go back home, where I'll find it precisely where I've left it (e.g., next to my desk). In bygone days, we used a physical key to get into a building after hours, and perhaps another such key to open our office space. The key(s) would be safely and permanently on the same key ring that holds my car keys, so if I got into the car and was able to operate it, I'd be able to get into my office. With this damned thingy, if I forget to take it off before I leave the car, I'll have to take it off sometime in the house, and in doing so, there's a good chance I'll forget to bring it on my way out the door to get in my car next time. And, by the way, when the battery in my office lock goes dead, my key card won't open my office door. I dislike key cards!! Bring back physical keys!!

2. A common gripe of mine has been the extreme rarity with which other drivers use their turn signals here in AbNorman. However, of late, this gripe is being displaced by those who pull out of side streets into my traffic lane, at times in such a way that causes me to have to brake to prevent a collision, and then just poke-assing along. If you clowns were in such a hurry that you couldn't wait for me to pass before pulling out, why are you just dawdling along after you pull out? I would think you'd be accelerating like John Force and roaring down the road to get to your destination, so that I'd be left in your dust. Instead, after you force your way into traffic in front of me, it's the old helium foot on the accelerator! It's become almost laughable how many times this happens to me as I drive about AbNorman these days. I'm coming to expect it (and driving accordingly), just as I have to expect people to fail to signal their intentions to turn.

3. Some years ago, a colleague of mine used to amaze me by the vehemence of his reactions to certain stupid questions and comments that people would make. He was one of the true giants in my field and I admired his work but was always somewhat put off by his acerbic responses to certain questions regarding his work. I thought it was counter-productive to become upset with ignorance. Now, as time has passed, I find myself similarly put off by comparable stupid questions and/or comments. Although I'm still trying (sometimes unsuccessfully) to avoid my tendency for sarcasm as a way to respond to ignorant remarks, I have to admit that having to address the very same ignorant questions and/or comments about a subject over... and over... and over... for decades can become a serious source of aggravation. I think I now appreciate why this great man had this particular "flaw" in his demeanor. It seems that no matter how many times you show someone the errors in their interpretation, those errors never seem to go away. Someone new will express them, even if you've somehow managed to convince those who expressed them to you earlier. Of course, there's no guarantee that you will convince anyone to change their way of thinking. Ignorance is never in short supply, it seems. I still maintain it's counter-productive to become upset with ignorance, but experience continues to show me that my mentor blazed a path for me in this regard, as well.

* Now some of you (you know who you are!) might be tempted to go off about my increasing absent-mindedness as a function of my "advanced age." Balderdash - I've been absent-minded all my life, so it's not at all evident that this is a sign of anything!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Chasing mythology - 2

My next storm chasing mythology target is the often-repeated notion that storm chasing saves lives. Chasers rationalize their chasing in this way by claiming that they provide information about ongoing storms, including identifying when and where tornadoes are occurring. It may or may not be the case that an individual making such a claim actually takes the time to report what they're seeing in real time.

In any case, the fact is that it's only the National Weather Service (NWS) and civil authorities who can claim legitimately to save lives through the storm warnings they issue by using information that might (or might not) be provided by chasers. Chasing, per se, saves no lives, ever! In my experience, many chasers are too busy pursuing their hobby to be bothered with calling in their observations. In 1999, in a famous chaser convergence near Almena, KS, my wife and I were the only chasers amongst a multitude to call the NWS to report the development of a tornado. There were dozens of vehicles scurrying about in typical chaser convergence chaos, and no one apparently had called the NWS, even though a funnel cloud that would become a tornado was in progress! It was astonishing to me when we called the NWS to learn we had been the first to call!

The technology of chasing has made huge strides - now it's become possible for the NWS to follow the GPS locations of chasers and to call the chaser, rather than waiting for the chaser to call them. Live video streaming allows the NWS to see what some chasers see through their windshields. This is all well and good - it allows chasers the luxury of not having to bother with actively reporting what they see and to maintain the illusion that they're "contributing" information in this passive way. But it remains true that it's still not the chasers who are saving lives. That's the responsibility of the NWS and civil authorities (first responders, emergency managers, storm spotters, TV broadcasters, etc.) .

I know of no chasers who chase in order to save lives. Chasers chase because seeing storms is a passion, or because they want to become rich and/or famous people (drawing attention to themselves), or any of a host of other reasons, including science. Storm chasing is a basically selfish activity. Note that storm spotting can and does save lives, but spotting and chasing are very distinct activities! Spotters are volunteers serving their communities - chasers are simply pursuing their own interests.

Scientific storm chasers also like to use the "saving lives" card, arguing that their science will be put to use to increase warning lead times (an argument I've disputed here and here), or whatever. This argument is simply not valid - storm chasers working on a scientific project are also not chasing to save lives, although their scientific findings might someday be used successfully by someone who is responsible for saving lives. They're out there to do science, not to save lives. Their passion is for learning about the atmosphere. The new understanding they can derive from chasing might or might not have an impact on reducing storm-related fatalities. Life-saving isn't on their agenda when they go out on a chase.

Some storm chasers, myself included, have been involved in helping the NWS develop spotter training programs. I support this because I believe it's an important way for chasers to give something back to the society that supports the programs (like the NWS data) they use to intercept storms. In fact, I'm proud of having contributed to spotter training - but I make no claim that I saved lives by doing so. I give the credit for life-saving to the NWS and the civil authorities!!

The fact is that only the NWS and civil authorities save lives when tornadoes and severe storms threaten. Storm chasers are simply hoping to clean up their image by claiming that role for themselves. But no one has given them that responsibility (with the arguable exception of those chasers who chase for media broadcasters, a group that's been known to exceed their authority at times).

There is one way in which storm chasers might save lives - by stopping to render medical assistance to people injured by a storm. I know of no storm chaser who can say, however, that they've ever saved a victim's life. Perhaps a few such exist and I'm just unaware of their life-saving contributions. If so, I honor their unselfish actions. The number of lives saved via the direct first aid of storm chasers must be pretty small, though. Moreover, in order to save a life by this process, a storm chaser must stop chasing! In other words, it's not the chasing that has saved a life in such a case! The most such a chaser could say was that chasing brought him/her to a place where they could render life-saving aid. But saving a life wasn't on their agenda when they began the chase.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thanksgiving thoughts

My friend RJ Evans has written a wonderful essay, indicating that rather than expressing our gratitude to a non-existent deity, much of our gratitude should be directed to our fellow human beings. I agree completely with RJ's notion about this. I can begin by offering similar thanks to my wife, whose beauty and love have been the rock-solid core of my life for more than 35 years now. And thanks to the rest of my family (beginning with my mother and father), to the many friends along my path who have have added so much that is good to my life, and to my professional colleagues and mentors.

Through an accident of birth, I was born in a nation where I benefited from the economic prosperity provided by loving parents so that I could pursue my dreams. The nation into which I was born has granted me more freedom and prosperity (by means of those freedoms) than can be found in most countries around the planet, thanks to the wisdom and foresight of those who created this nation. There can be no doubt that I have many people to thank for what has been a very happy and fulfilling life. If I'm run over by a truck tomorrow, it will have been all of you who made my time on Earth so delightful. I offer my gratitude to you all.

But ... there's a missing element here. Through some mysterious accident over which none of us had any control whatsoever, we came into existence through a serious of "miracles" that we simply don't understand. Science has shed light on the process, but much remains unknown and could remain so for a long time. Somehow, a universe was created billions of years ago. Within this universe, stars formed, organized themselves into galaxies - many of those stars blew up in gargantuan explosions that seeded the universe with the heavier elements that today form the matter from which we and our Earth have been made.

On this Earth, that matter organized itself into life somehow, which then evolved over billions of years to create us and the environment which makes our lives possible. Within the Earth's environment, I've been fortunate enough to have the means to travel and to chase storms. By this means, I've experienced many times the wonder and awe of the natural world around me in ways that transcend mere words, transporting me into a place where I can lose my self and feel deep in my mind that wordless joy at knowing I'm a part of something that surpasses all understanding.

As Robinson Jeffers has put it:

Then what is the answer?— Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know that great civilizations have broken down into violence,
and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose
the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted
and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness.
These dreams will not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear
the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing and man dissevered from the earth and stars
and his history... for contemplation or in fact...
Often appears atrociously ugly.
Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things,
the divine beauty of the universe.
Love that, not man apart from that,
or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.

Many people choose to create an anthropomorphic entity - a deity - to whom they attribute all the wonder around them. Many people choose to let a self-appointed clergy tell them how to worship this deity. Many people choose to become slaves to a religion, which can manifest itself in terribly cruel ways - justifying their excesses, their violence to others, their lies, their contradictions on the basis of those evils being the will of this imagined deity. They then express their gratitude for their many blessings to this deity. I choose not to follow this path.

But then, to whom should I be grateful for the many blessings provided by the universe in which it's been my good fortune to be born? I don't believe there's any being to whom I need to express my thanks. I don't believe the universe knows or cares about what I think, but to be allowed to glimpse the majesty and power begs for a target for my gratitude. The very indifference of the universe to me and my petty concerns seems to fill this disembodied spirit with something I admire. The universe has been about its "business" for billions of years before me. That "business" will continue for billions of years after me. Further, I don't feel any need to ascertain any personal meaning in the business of the universe - for me it's enough to know that I'm a player in something that I'll never understand. A part of the whole, not me apart from that whole.

What amazes me is that through processes I can't begin to fathom, I've been granted a brief time when I've become conscious that I'm a part of this majestic drama. We humans are only infinitesimal specks within this grand tapestry, but somehow, for no evident reason, we've been given the privilege of awareness of our connection to this vast process, and the curiosity to seek an understanding of it. We are self-aware matter - and I feel a deep gratitude for being given this existence. The fact that I can't express this gratitude to some being is irrelevant. But I'm grateful, nevertheless.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Chasing mythology - 1

A persistent myth associated with storm chasing is that by getting measuring systems into tornadoes, this provides data for research that ultimately will lead to saving lives. I see this myth repeated enough in media interviews to become something of a mantra for everyone out there chasing tornadoes, both privately and for actual scientific programs like VORTEX-2. It usually is coupled with the notion that such research will increase tornado warning lead times, and the result will be lives spared.

Putting scientific instruments into tornadoes involves considerable risk - we see this on the TV soap opera "Storm Chasers" on a routine basis. It's not inconceivable that chasers could be seriously injured or killed in such attempts. In fact, the more risks taken, the more likely such casualties become. But what's the potential benefit of learning more about what goes on inside tornadoes? I think obtaining such measurements is an important way to learn more about tornado dynamics. But - I have no reason to believe that an increased knowledge of tornado dynamics will have any impact whatsoever on the issue of providing improved tornado warnings!

As I've written elsewhere, tornado warnings for the types of tornadoes most likely to cause casualties are already pretty good, for the most part. Most tornado fatalities occur in association with tornadoes for which the warnings were out well in advance, rather than with those tornadoes occurring with little or no warning. Casualties from tornadoes for which no warning was given are not unheard of, unfortunately, but only comprise a relatively small minority of tornado casualties. The tornadoes most likely to cause casualties are violent, long-track tornadoes that only occur rarely without being anticipated well in advance!

Moreover, having a lot of knowledge of tornado dynamics does nothing obvious that will improve our ability to anticipate which storms will go on to produce tornadoes. It seems evident to me that studying the effect (the tornado) is not likely to provide much help without knowing a lot more about the cause (the storm that produces the tornado). The single biggest issue confronting those responsible for issuing warnings (i.e., National Weather Service forecasters) is how to recognize in advance:

(1) which storms will go on to become tornadic,
(2) when such storms will begin to produce tornadoes, and
(3) when such storms will stop producing tornadoes,

with high confidence (and accuracy). As of this moment, our attempts to do so in the real world are not always very accurate - we issue far too many false alarms because we generally prefer to warn for a storm that doesn't produce a tornado, rather than to miss putting out a warning for a storm that does become tornadic. No one ever is killed by a non-event.

This uncertainty is not about the tornadoes themselves (and their inner workings) but is all about the storms from which tornadoes are produced. If someone wants to improve tornado warnings, we need to learn precisely why most severe storms don't produce tornadoes, and how to recognize that with some reasonable degree of confidence. It's at least as difficult not to issue a tornado warning (when none is needed), as it is to issue that warning (when it's appropriate to do so).

When people justify the risks they are taking in order to obtain data inside tornadoes, it's basically not true that such research will lead to saving lives in the future. There may be perfectly valid reasons to learn about tornado dynamics, but saving lives simply isn't among them.

Friday, October 1, 2010

We scientists are freaks! - Part 3

... again, picking up the thread ...

No matter how non-scientists view us, it can't be denied that science (which arguably began in Greece, long ago) has become enormously successful. The new knowledge we've gained has made new technologies possible that have transformed our lives dramatically. Compare today's world with that of 200 years ago! The changes over the last 200 years are vastly greater than the changes over the preceding 2000 years, by far!!

Of course, some might justifiably say that many of those changes have not been for the good of humanity. Technologies have been used to cause pain and death. Some have carried with them unanticipated penalties that have been responsible for degradation and suffering. The question has been raised, "Just because it's possible to do something, does that mean we should do it?" Numerous examples come to mind: nuclear fission, genetic manipulation, global climate change, environmental destruction, etc. There are many important issues in today's world related to the use and abuse of science and its associated technology. Our world must make choices about what to do and what not to do. To make intelligent choices, people need to have an accurate understanding of the issues they confront.

It's a source of constant frustration for non-scientists to discover that science is nearly always incapable of offering black-and-white answers to vexing questions. Scientists always talk of probabilities, not certainties. They hedge their interpretations with numerous qualifications because that's the way science actually works. Scientists are not truthsayers, although they have a deep commitment to truth. We don't claim to have all the answers - in fact, we often emphasize that our knowledge is quite provisional and limited. Nevertheless, those societies which support science because of the value of its contributions, would prefer that we give them simple answers to hard questions. If the questions are simple, perhaps science can offer more compelling results, but hard questions don't lend themselves to simple answers.

There also are non-scientific aspects to many of these hard questions. Scientific understanding isn't the only important part of the modern challenges we confront. Economic aspects of these questions may be as challenging as the science. And ethical issues are almost always problematic in the "big questions" now demanding decisions. Even aesthetic concerns can be involved. At a time when the world is facing serious difficulties, it will take multidisciplinary involvement to work out satisfactory, practical solutions. I believe the pattern of scientific thinking can be a valuable tool, even when applied to other aspects of these problems. Successful scientists think for themselves, rather than blindly following the consensus, and I believe that even children not destined for careers in science need to know how to think for themselves. Scientists question the validity of assumptions. Scientists look to evidence, not preconceived ideas. Political slogans and selfish misrepresentations are rampant now, and it can be hard work to know what to believe. In these days of TV and the Internet, people are buried under an avalanche of "information" - some significant fraction of this information is just plain garbage. Children need to be taught how to sift the wheat from the chaff, to ignore the garbage and use the information to make decisions (large or small). Scientific thinking is a good pattern to follow in learning how to think for yourself.

All scientists should consider themselves to be educators, whether or not they are actually employed as such. We need to learn how to explain ourselves more effectively and to show why what we do is important. That importance is not just for society as a whole, but for every man and woman on the planet. It's ever more important for scientists to make the effort to be able to explain what they're doing to a 12-year old (which is not an easy thing to do). Unfortunately, some scientists who have made serious efforts to educate the public (Carl Sagan, Jacques Cousteau) wind up being criticized and demeaned for being "mere popularizers"! As if being a "popularizer" is some sort of inferior version of a scientist!! The need for popularizing science has never been greater.

One of the concerns I have for education is that it seems that most people come out of the process with little or no appreciation for, nor any substantial understanding of, how science works and the role it plays in their lives. They say things like "Science is boring!", or "Science is too hard for me!", or "Why should I care about science?" If this is happening as I perceive it, then something is tragically wrong with education. Children are born with natural curiosity, eager to understand the world around them. But only a few retain that child-like curiosity about the natural world for their entire lives. Most people have lost their love of learning by the time they're 12 years old. School is day prison for them, and day-care for their parents. It's a business for the educators, not a place where a new generation is imbued with a love for free inquiry. I think back to my elementary school days, and I can't recall a single teacher who reinforced my love of learning. I learned mostly at home, not at school, because what happened at school was boring, difficult, and not obviously of any interest to me. My own experiences has shown me why most people lose their love of learning - school mostly sucks!! I'm unusual because school couldn't kill my curiosity.

This mostly negative impact of education is intolerable in a world where science and technology are so important. Science is of critical importance to people if they care about the future of their society, and the world they will pass on to their children. We need better educators, and they need the resources to make science come alive for their students; to show their students why learning about how the natural world operates can add value and a sense of wonder to their lives.

For me, science has been a lifelong adventure. Going to "work" as a scientist has always seemed like play to me, and I've been able to earn a living for myself and my family in the process. I've had the chance to travel and meet fantastic people around the world because of my science. If I could, I'd take that curiosity and joy of learning I've had all my life and give it to every man, woman, and child on the planet.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

We scientists are freaks! - Part 2

So to pick up the thread where I left off ...

Although I've dedicated my life to becoming a meteorologist and contributing to the process of understanding the atmosphere, I've had many other interests: geology (esp. volcanology), astronomy, arachnology (esp. spiders), history, drawing and painting, photography, journalism, certain sports, genealogy, and so on. I couldn't make all these interests the basis for my career, but I've never lost interest in them. In many ways, I see connections among all my diverse interests - as I see them, they're not separate, isolated boxes, but rather are intertwined, as described so brilliantly by Douglas Hofstadter in Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. In effect, they're a mostly invisible part of my meteorological science ...

Science and art are very different human endeavors - what sets science apart from all other things that humans do is that we scientists have a very clear way to define progress. That is, science is focused on understanding (the root of the word science is from the Latin word for knowledge), and to gain understanding we have to solve problems, to answer questions. Science can measure its progress by the ability to provide solutions to previously unsolved problems; solutions that can work in a very tangible, even practical way, and which help to gain new understanding - understanding that did not exist before that solution was developed. Modern technology is built on the framework provided by scientific understanding. To be ignorant about science is to be ignorant of technology. To be ignorant of technology is to be ignorant about the modern world. To be ignorant about the modern world is to be irresponsible! I've worked hard all my life to find out how little I truly know. I resent those who come by their ignorance the easy way! Ignorance is not equivalent to stupidity, but to be willfully ignorant is an act of stupidity.

Although we could attempt to measure progress by means of the changes that have gone on in, say, the world of art, those changes don't represent solutions to heretofore unsolved problems. Does cubism represent progress over impressionism in painting? They're different approaches to painting, and according to one's personal taste, some might see cubism as progress, but others might dispute that cubism was progress at all! Much of modern art is only understandable when seen as a statement about the styles of art that preceded it. To the non-artist, such an abstraction is opaque and can take away no clear message from such art.

I once saw a display of art where one artist had taken a toilet, broken it into several large pieces, and mounted the fragments on a stand. I have problems with this art for at least two reasons: (1) there is no craftsmanship required to break a toilet into pieces, and (2) whatever message the artist may have been trying to express is pretty difficult to fathom. This sort of 'art' doesn't succeed in conveying much of a message to most of us, except perhaps a few "illuminati" who know the artist. It's a sort of 'inside joke' on the rest of us - the ignorant masses. Much of modern art (atonal, arythmic music, paint splashed randomly on canvas, plays that seek to have no characters and tell no story, etc.) doesn't stand on its own. Such art can only be seen as a some sort of statement within the context of earlier art.

In contrast with such art, when I listen to classical music, or I see an impressionist painting, or watch a professionally-done play (or movie), there's both craftsmanship on the part of the artist and an emotional response associated with the experience. I get a very direct sense of connection with the artist. Perhaps that sense is only an illusion, but I believe I feel something of what the artist must have felt when creating the work. The best art, in my view then, is art that anyone can understand and which triggers an emotional response. This sense of connection can span hundreds of years, can cross cultural barriers, and spans the globe when the art is capable of standing on its own.

Science, like art, involves communication. But scientific communication is dependent on expressing ourselves in a way that provides an accurate understanding of our ideas. Scientific communication is an art form, seeking to say what we intend, and avoid any misinterpretation. Unfortunately, this can make scientific papers very hard to read and comprehend. New terms must be defined very carefully. New concepts must be explained so as to avoid misinterpretation. Interpretations must include appropriate qualification, to preclude any implication of undeserved generality. The language of science is laced with jargon - this also makes it difficult for non-scientists to understand the communication between scientists, which can sound like some sort of secret code. The coding is not generally held as a secret, but it takes time and effort to read it.

During the education process I went through, I often had a sense of joy and wonder when I encountered the ideas of earlier scientists. The insight I had gained by reading about them was inspiring and crossed time and space to dazzle me with its brilliant light (the cartoon cliche about a light bulb above someone's head is not without value as an analogy). In the process I experienced an echo of the insight when it first was created by someone, perhaps long ago. The idea may have been old by the time I read it, but it was very new to me! I could only imagine at the time what it would be like to be the very first person to have such an insight.

We scientists discuss our ideas at conferences, over the Internet, over the phone, and so on, but mostly in journals that record what we have learned at regular intervals. Scientific journals are not at all a record of established facts - journals are more like diaries, recording the ideas we had along the way, in order that we all can consider those ideas within the continuing discussion that is science. Journals are more akin to a heavily-moderated forum on the Internet.

The only goal of any scientist is to gain new understanding, whereby one person's idea can inspire another to pursue a related idea and move everyone forward in the process. Science is not at all a mere collection of facts. Its ideas are always provisional - the best we might have at a particular moment, but always subject to revision by someone. Science uses logic - the ideas must satisfy logical criteria - but the basic task of science is to subject our ideas to creatively-inspired tests (which also involves developing new methods for evaluating the data from observational tests). Evidence coming from those tests can be used to evaluate competing ideas, thereby allowing the profession to arrive at a consensus regarding our understanding. That consensus is always changing, dramatically on occasions but more normally by small increments, as we develop new ideas and obtain new evidence. Science is evidence-based. The only ideas of value to science are those logically consistent ideas that can be tested on the basis of evidence.

Again, a pause ... more to come ...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

We scientists are freaks!

Conversations with my friends today have brought home to me a theme I've written about in places, but never with the thoughts crystallizing in my head today. The theme is the way by which scientists are trained to think about the world. Of course, there is no simple formula for the so-called 'scientific method' but there clearly is a way to think like a scientist.

A scientist uses logic (mathematical logic, as well as classical logic) and evidence in a way that many non-scientists seem unable to do. Logic forces us to consider the logical implications of our ideas, and when logic is incapable of resolving issues, we scientists turn not to faith but to evidence. We seek to develop ways by which the evidence can help us decide the validity of some hypothesis (idea). Ideas are cheap - but it involves creativity and effort to develop meaningful ways to evaluate our ideas. Scientists don't accept arguments by authority - no matter what credentials an individual might have, they're insufficient to keep others from questioning the ideas of the most famous scientist. We have no sacred texts, full of revealed truth. Truth in science is an ideal towards which we can strive but will never achieve. Honesty is the foundation of science, any intentional dishonesty is anathema. And so on ...

Although I make no claims that science is the answer to all our problems - far from it, actually - it's a way of thinking I believe can be applied successfully in many ways. When we're confronted with a problem, there's no one way to seek solutions to that problem, but any proposed solution should be based solidly on logic and evidence. If a proposed solution is illogical, or contrary to the evidence, it can't be considered to be of much value. When societies struggle to deal with complex problems like global climate change, extremist terror, abortion rights, the national economy, genetic manipulation, evolution, and so on, it seems to me that if people are going to vote on such topics, they need to have at least some understanding of the issues. It's not enough simply to accept someone's word about important issues! People shouldn't be willing to let someone else tell them what to think - they need to know how to think it out for themselves, and then do that thinking. Ostensibly, education should provide people with the tools to do this, but the sad fact is that most people find education to be boring and consider it to be irrelevant. And in many ways, that assessment is all too true - education in the USA gets low budgets and little priority.

You may not be a global change scientist, but if 99+% of global climate change scientists accept the IPCC position on the subject, is it rational and/or logical simply to disagree with that consensus? On what basis might a non-scientist disagree with the findings of the vast majority of global climate change scientists? Are you similarly inclined to dispute Einstein's Theory of Relativity? It's not that the consensus represents some sort of sacred truth - the IPCC report is not immune from dissenting opinions, but if you're claiming it's wrong in some way, surely you can offer extraordinarily compelling evidence to support your rejection of the consensus. How many global climate change deniers have provided such irrefutable evidence? The answer to that is clear: none of them.

When you see a debate between a global climate change denier and a global climate change scientist, the odds that one of them is correct are not 50-50! If you can't evaluate the scientific arguments, then it seems to me that a logical position is to accept the arguments of someone who has 99+% of that science community behind her/him! It's not a 'coin flip' - the debaters are not on equal footing. Not by a long shot!

Most people around the world seem to be drifting away from any interest in science and the technology derived from it. This, despite the overwhelming dependence in our modern world on science and technology! How can this be happening? It seems to me that the technology most of us use is making us lazy. It's work to think. Understanding and choosing among competing ideas takes substantial effort. Apparently, it's easier just to follow some demagogue masquerading as a 'pundit'! If education is to be effective, the recipient must be a fully-engaged participant in the process, no matter what the topic - no matter how good or bad the teacher might be. Education is not something we inflict on young people, it's a process they should understand and know how to continue for the rest of their lives! It's a commitment to learning no matter what the topic and without regard to the teacher's abilities.

One of my friends said it well - "We scientists are freaks!" For many of us, science necessarily is a lifelong dedication to gaining new understanding. And most of us are not only interested in science. Many of us are serious students of history, or some art, or journalism, or other topics. We are the most well-rounded people in my circle of acquaintances - how many artists do you know who are seriously involved in a hobby related to some science? I'm very proud of being associated with people who are likely to be capable thinkers and learners in many areas, not just their technical specialties.

I have much more to say on this, so I'll continue in my next posting.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Experiencing the Mediterranean

Yesterday, a friend of mine took me with him on an afternoon jaunt to Port de Valldemossa, on the northern coast of Mallorca. I'd been there before and looked forward to a return on a warm, sunny fall day. We arrived to find the place more crowded than I'd ever seen it - apparently others had a similar idea!

After parking, we sauntered along the jetty, which includes a boat ramp on one end, and the other end creates a small part of the bay that is sheltered from the waves by a breakwater, that's made of concrete, with large rocks piled up, facing the ocean. My friend Alan mentioned as we ambled along the jetty that the place where we were walking was wet, a clear sign that we might be getting soaked by the waves crashing along the breakwater. But we remained standing at the end of the jetty in the warm sun, chatting about nothing particularly meaningful for a few minutes.

Then a large wave hit the breakwater and some seawater rolled over the concrete, spending its energy as it spread out and stopped its progress in front of our feet. Seconds later, another larger wave hit the breakwater - this time, the seawater surged completely over the jetty, but only to a depth of about 1/4 of an inch on the concrete. This was followed almost immediately by an even larger wave, that sent a wall of water over the breakwater that was at least 3 meters high! This slammed into us, knocking Alan off his feet, and pushing both of us steadily toward the 1 meter dropoff into the harbor!! I was still standing and I felt the power of the breaking wave sliding me along the concrete so I instinctively dropped to my hands and knees, which reduced the area of my body facing the wave's power and I came to a stop less than a meter from the edge. The wave washed past us into the harbor.

We stood up, and took stock. We were thoroughly soaked with sea water - I could taste the salt. My very expensive camera was pretty wet, Alan's cell phone had been in his pocket and also was quite wet ... and a group of people on the harbor shore were looking at us. Perhaps they were stifling their laughter at our obvious stupidity. Perhaps they were concerned for our safety. But they said nothing. Alan and I looked at each other - and burst out laughing! We were O.K. and had simply behaved stupidly enough to have been caught precisely by the very situation we had anticipated but foolishly ignored.

We hung around the port for quite a while after that, having moved to a position where we were no longer threatened by the wave action. I did some photography - my camera turned out to be still working with no apparent problems. Alan's cell phone also worked. We were in the sun, hoping that our clothes would dry out, which they did to some extent. I had scraped my knee on the concrete and had a small trickle of blood to show for our experience - Alan scraped his elbow and had a similar trickle. Eventually, we retired to the bar for a beer, laughed about our soaking in the Mediterranean Sea, and imagined how the story might grow with the telling (enormous megalodon sharks circling in the harbor below the 30 meter drop to the harbor, waiting for us to become their next meal, my lower leg severed by the force of the 40 meter tsunami, Alan's arm hanging by a few threads, etc.)

We can laugh at ourselves, so we did. But in the final analysis, we were simply stupid, and a relatively modest wave showed us the enormous power of moving water in a way that was only embarrassing, not life-threatening. I hope I make no similar mistakes in the future, but ...

Monday, September 13, 2010

And here I am yet again!

Coming back to Mallorca once again has been a really good thing! My trips here before each have been different, and this one is no exception. Some things remain the same: the beauty of this place and the warmth of those who live here - and some things change: almost all the students I knew here in 2003/4 have (thanks to their efforts) graduated and moved on to new things in their lives. I miss them, and wish them all the best.

I'm living in an apartment that is one floor down and across the stairwell from where I lived in Bunyola last time. The Bar Paris is still about 30 meters from the front door of the building, but my friend Jaime (the owner) is no longer running the place - he is renting it to a new team. It has a different ambience, now, without Jaime. I ran into him over the weekend in Cafe Central - he drives a taxi on weekends and I suppose he is in a position similar to mine: semi-retirement. One of his friends told me he has a room just chock-full of money!! I wonder if he's actually well-to-do. I hope so!!

I'm still in the process of settling in, and likely will do some traveling about with my camera as time permits. I hope to swim in the Mediterranean this time - since most of my trips here have been in winter, I've not done that yet!

It is such a great thing to have a chance to be with my UIB friends again: Arnau Amengual, Romu Romero, Victor Homar, Sergio Alonso, Clemente Ramis. It's as if no time at all has gone by since last we met. Although I did see Victor's family on my first day here - Tony is growing up fast and Annie is a beautiful new addition (born nearly the same time as my granddaughter, Teresa) - so I can see the passage of time clearly. But my friends have aged well, and nearly look the same.

This lovely island will always be special to me! You can never completely re-create experiences of the past, but new experiences are inevitable, and I look forward to those!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Our best friends

We here in the USA still are blessed with an incredible gift from our founders ... the Bill of Rights and Freedom of Speech, in particular. With all of the angst ongoing around the world over such things as terrorism, violent crime, educational system failures, bigotry of all sorts, economic downturns, peak oil, environmental disasters, white collar crime ... the list goes on and on ... we here in the USA currrently are having an extended, intense 'conversation' on all these topics via the media (including the Internet). Viewpoints across a broad spectrum are being voiced and heard, the issues are being explored and debated, and at least some of us are being stimulated to think about the issues, possibly even modifying our positions with regard to them on the basis of what we've heard and learned from others.

For some reason, today I feel encouraged by all of this ferment. I'm pleased to see that Freedom of Speech still is alive and well, despite the fact that some of those being allowed to speak their minds would seek to abolish that freedom were they to gain power. Extremists of all sorts have been part of human society virtually from its very beginnings, and some well-intentioned folks are moved to limit the Freedom of Speech, ostensibly to prevent these extremists from destroying all our freedoms. I hope you can see the flaw in that argument - it reminds me of the comment from some Army officer during our vain military intervention in Vietnam: "We had to destroy that village in order to save it!" If we succumb to fear so thoroughly that we sacrifice our freedom to save it, then those who seek to destroy those freedoms will have succeeded and we'll have helped them to do it! It was Ben Franklin himself who said, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Fortunately, we can continue to carry on the many heated debates we're seeing within our deeply divided citizenry. Many, perhaps most, people with a viewpoint see their opponents in the debate as enemies to be overwhelmed, put down, and even silenced. This is simply an erroneous perspective. As I've been saying to my students for many years, "Your most severe critic is your best friend!" Why do I say that? Because your critics will assail vigorously whatever you say, perhaps finding logical loopholes and contradictions you missed. You'll be forced to refine your viewpoint ever farther. Some of your critics will fail to understand properly what you're saying, so their criticisms will reveal ways by which you can clarify your position, thereby expanding the range of folks who can grasp and contemplate what you're asserting.

Unfortunately, sometimes your severest critics are just - there's no point in being PC - morons. An illogical or irrational argument is of no value to you. I recommend you simply walk away from engaging in debates with morons. There's little to be gained, there. Even moronic arguments have the right to be voiced and heard, of course. I'm perfectly content with letting such points be made and then letting others decide for themselves that they're moronic. My default position is that I assume you can recognize a moronic argument when you see it. You won't need me to point out the flaws. The source of a moronic argument is virtually certain to have a closed mind on the topic, and if you discover that to be the case, then further discussion is pointless.

Far from seeing my opponents in a debate as my enemies, I embrace them as my friends, even if they choose not to reciprocate. Intolerance for the viewpoints of others is a dangerous attitude to have, especially when demagogues seek to wrap themselves in patriotism and religious fervor and use that to set people against each other. This is the Orwellian vision immortalized in the novel 1984. That year came ... and went ... without a descent into that nightmarish world. I'd like to think that one reason that prediction for the future failed to eventuate is that we in the USA have not yet succumbed to paranoid delusions of how our enemies will destroy us from within, so we have not yet abandoned our commitment to the Bill of Rights.

Fear-mongers among us seek to gain power by trading on concerns for our safety in order to abrogate the freedoms currently enjoyed by their opponents. If we are confident that our national commitment to freedom is the right path, then we should not give in to fear of those who might threaten that freedom and do their dirty work for them!

The polarizing issue of the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" is a classic example of how fear is being exploited by extremists on both sides of the debate. Muslim terrorists are exploiting the fears of muslims around the world that the west is seeking to destroy islam. Christian extremists are exploiting the acts of a small number of muslim extremists to sow fear of all muslims. When people feel they're likely to be attacked, it's natural to respond in ways that would sacrifice freedom for security. We as a nation have a bad history of doing so in times of actual war, sadly. There are groups on both sides who see this growing paranoia as a means to gain power - I suppose most such demagogues don't actually want outright war, although that might not be true of all such. They just want the fear to be perpetuated, the bogeyman to remain just outside the door, and to be kept at bay by the "inspired leadership" of the demagogues.

So long as the arguments we're having are loud and public, I'm feeling reasonably good about this nation. I have confidence that the majority of our citizens will not be swayed by the ravings of extremists. Let them rant! Our freedoms are the envy of many people around the world. It's those very freedoms that extremists would repeal, so I think we need to calm down a bit and recognize that our opponents in an argument aren't evil monsters that we should seek to silence. They can be our best friends!!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Do you even have a clue?

Tonight, I was watching some TV programs about geophysical hazards: earthquakes and dust storms, in particular. It occurred to me that most viewers of such programs likely consider it unlikely that they would experience such monumental dislocations as a major earthquake or a 'black blizzard' of the sort that people in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s went through. They can't begin to imagine what it might be like because they feel secure in their 'normalcy bias' - "It hasn't happened to me yet, so it won't ever happen to me!" Are you willing to bet your life on that?

Listen up, folks - there's a non-zero probabilty that you could experience a geophysical hazard of such monumental proportions you'd be very unlikely to survive it! Most of you can't even begin to imagine what might be in store for you. Yeah, sure - the odds that any one of you in particular will have to deal with such a geophysical disaster are relatively low. Be thankful for that! If you should be unlucky enough to be there when terrible things happen, and you manage to live through it, you'll never have the same sense of security you had before. Your sense of invulnerability on this uncertain planet is completely without justification! There's no security here! Earth is not a world without risk - a world in which your sense of security is justified.

Rather, your continued existence is only as a statistical accident. For most people, most of the time, you're O.K. But there are no guarantees - the security you feel can be withdrawn without notice, at any time. Deadly weather (tornadoes, hurricanes, thunderstorms, heat waves, blizzards, extreme cold, dust storms, etc.), deadly geophysical hazards (earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, avalanches, tsunamis, etc.), and astrophysical disasters (asteroid and comet impacts, solar storms, etc.) can occur without warning, snuffing out your life and/or your existence as you currently know it suddenly and with little or no advance notice. Yeah, it's unfair, but in the physical world, fairness is not at all guaranteed.

Our planet is not some place that protects you from all hazards, and there is no certainty that you personally will not someday experience catastrophic events from the known hazards that can happen on this planet. If you believe you live on a benign world, secure from deadly hazards, then you will do nothing to prepare for such hazards - and you may well die as a direct result of your ignorance and your erroneous sense of security. Ignorance is not bliss in this real world. Rather, your ignorance can be directly related to your vulnerability to geophysical hazards.

If you don't believe me, go ahead and assume it will never happen to you. Continue to wrap yourself in your bogus security blanket - but don't blame me if you're unlucky! - caught unprepared when some geophysical hazard blows you and your loved ones away. Being prepared is associated with recognizing your vulnerability. Ignore that at your peril!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Another Zoo Concert

Vickie and I went to another concert at the Zoo Amphitheatre in OKC - this one put on by Buddy Guy, Al Green, and B.B. King. I admit that I mostly went because of Buddy Guy, but also because I wanted to see B.B. King live.

In my clearly biased viewpoint, Buddy Guy was the hit of the show. I don't have his exact setlist but it included:

1. (I'm your) Hoochie Coochie Man (Muddy Waters cover)
2. Someone Else is Slippin' In
3. Skin Deep
4. Nobody Understands Me but My Guitar
5. Strange Brew (Cream cover)
6. Drownin' on Dry Land (Albert King cover)
7. Boom Boom (John Lee Hooker cover)
8. She's Nineteen Years Old (Muddy Waters cover)
9. Love Her With A Feeling

Buddy Guy was the "warmup" - I suppose he's less "famous" than Al Green and B.B. King, but he started the show when at least half the seats were empty and lots of people were still coming in. Continuing the theme from my last concert, we were in a section where a lot of folks were just sitting there. One guy in front of me never even applauded a single time!! Was he there against his will? I just don't get it.

Anyway, Buddy started with Hoochie Koochie Man, and there's a line that goes:
Gypsy woman told my momma, before I was born
You got a boy-child comin', gonna be a ...

and he just stopped, obviously waiting for the crowd to respond. I shouted "son-of-a-gun!" ... and I was the only one in the crowd I heard responding. So Buddy stopped right there and told the crowd that he'd done the same thing in Germany a while back and the crowd in Germany didn't "fuck it up like you just did!" As happened with the Dylan concert a few weeks ago, it seemed that nothing was going to get the crowd to come alive and get into the show, and especially this crowd, which seemed remarkably not into the blues!! Buddy even came out into the audience while playing his guitar - that got some response. He's 73 years old but still a high-energy performer and can play the hell out of his guitar!!

When he was done, there was an extended break while Al Green set up. I'm not that big a fan, but when he started highlighting a lot of old Motown tunes that I'd grown up with, I noted that the crowd seemed to rev up quite a bit. Must have been a fair percentage of OFs (Old Farts) like me in attendance. Anyway, Reverend Al put on a good show and demonstrated the shownmanship that the best performers had. I was enthusiastically applauding at the end.

When B.B. King finally came out, he had quite a band with him. I was reminded of the recent Bob Dylan concert I attended. When both these veteran performers began their careers, they were accompanying themselves only with their own playing skills on stage, while literally (or figuratively) sitting alone on a stool upon the stage. This was a band with horns, a drummer, 3 guitarists, etc. A large rock band. The tunes that I liked the most were those where it was mostly the King himself playing nearly alone. He wound up the show exactly at the mandatory Zoo curfew of 11 pm, even though he evidently wanted to play on, and many of us would have preferred that he play on. B.B. King is now 84 years old, and my chances ever to see him live again are diminishing rapidly. I'm very glad I attended and got the chance to see him live - he can still play, he can still sing, he can still entertain. Even if I'm not his biggest fan, I loved the moment for what it was. I, too, wished he could have gone on for more time, but the Zoo curfew has to be honored.

On a side note ... it was Friday night and I was interested to see how many Hawaiian shirts were being worn (including mine, of course). Friday has always been Hawaiian shirt day in the meteorology department at OU, but apparently that tradition is wider than I thought!!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Interdisciplinary collaboration

Given the frequency with which my thoughts have turned to this topic in the past 30+ years, I'm somewhat surprised to note that I've not expounded on this before in a blog or Web essay. Perhaps I have and simply lost track of it. Anyway, I'll try to keep this short - a colleague has noted recently that the so-called "National" Weather Center (NWC) here in Norman has failed to become a paragon of inter-organizational communication and collaboration. This comes as no surprise to me.

Back before the new building, when the OU School of Meteorology (OU SoM) and the NOAA components in Norman still were separated by about 4 miles, collaboration was quite evidently infrequent. This had come as a huge surprise to young, idealistic me when I first arrived in Norman for grad school (in 1967) - not only was collaboration infrequent, but there was a strong miasma of mutual disrespect. These attitudes were still firmly in place when I returned to NSSL in 1986 after having been gone for 10 years. I believe them to have persisted to this very day, and that they will continue indefinitely unless something radically different happens. I won't go into all the details here, for the sake of brevity and to avoid plowing up old ground - but the history of disrespect is real and can't be swept under the rug. Old wounds still fester and poison the air. Dismissing this as "the past" (as has been done by some unnamed NWC unit managers) is simply unmindful of our history, and so the mistakes of the past continue to be made over and over again.

The issues that separated the OU SoM and NOAA organizations in 1967 (and before) have not changed. I believed at the time the new building was being proposed that 4 miles separating the units was not the cause of the general absence of collaboration, so moving the units together would not result in the sudden dawn of a new day with regard to their interaction. Lo, and behold, it seems my forecast was correct.

Considering in the broadest possible perspective, there's virtually nothing that management can do to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration. They can discourage it, but they can't encourage it. Why? Because scientific collaboration comes out of two things not in their control:

1. Mutual respect between (among) the potential collaborators
2. Recognition of a convergence of interest around some project that would advance both sides

Collaboration comes from the bottom up, and can't be imposed from the top down. When the desire for collaboration is mutual and strong, management can place barriers in front of it or they can encourage it, but mere distance won't be an issue if the potential collaborators are determined to make something happen. Putting people together in close proximity doesn't have any necessary impact on this "organic" growth of mutual self-interest. It might make some aspects of it slightly easier, but it doesn't create a desire for collaboration in any way. If collaboration was the justification for building the NWC edifice, then it was built on a fallacy, and is now living a lie: the lie that it representing any significant change in the collaboration among its units.

The general absence of mutual respect in the Norman weather community has virtually precluded widespread collaboration here for as long as I can remember. This doesn't mean that isolated incidences of collaboration have not sprung up. For instance, as of this moment, I have a wonderfully productive ongoing collaboration with two OU SoM faculty: Profs. Lance Leslie and Michael Richman. But as a "community" we have been and continue to be a failure with regard to mutualism.

In an even broader sphere, true interdisciplinary collaboration (e.g., between meteorologists and sociologists) is uncommon for several reasons:

1. Mutual disrespect and misunderstanding
2. An inability to recognize and seize upon instances of convergent interests
3. An absence of funding support for interdisciplinary projects
4. Career advancement in specialized disciplines typically is not enhanced by interdisciplinary projects
5. Bureaucratic barriers to interdisiplinarity

Interdisciplinarity is inevitably an orphan. Most everyone pays it lip service, but whenever and wherever individuals try to advance it, they're blocked by the narrow-mindedness and parsimony of their disciplinary peers and supervisors. Why waste time and resources messing around with them (in a tone with a clear implication of contempt for them), when we have so much to do in our own sphere?

Distance doesn't preclude collaboration. Proximity doesn't guarantee it. When collaboration does occur, it can be a very rewarding experience, no matter what it might or might not do for your career. In fact, if advancement of your career is your primary goal, then .. you're not very committed to your profession. Hmmmmm ...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Evil people

A recent spoof about Fox News (concerning whether they were evil ... or stupid) on The Daily Show got me to thinking about what it means to be an evil person. One place to begin is at, which offers the following for the adjective "evil":

1. morally wrong or bad; immoral; wicked: evil deeds; an evil life.
2. harmful; injurious: evil laws.
3. characterized or accompanied by misfortune or suffering; unfortunate; disastrous: to be fallen on evil days.
4. due to actual or imputed bad conduct or character: an evil reputation.
5. marked by anger, irritability, irascibility, etc.: He is known for his evil disposition.

Unfortunately, the preceding definitions don't make it entirely evident what "evil deeds" might be. Of course, when the issue of "morality" comes up, this is virtually guaranteed to create controversy, since there are conflicting opinions regarding the morality of various acts. For example, it is generally accepted that killing is immoral - unless you're killing the "enemy" for your country, or the heretics, infidels, and apostates identified by your religious denomination. Thus, it seems that even the believers in moral absolutes find it possible to violate the dictates of their nation and/or religion.

Whenever the subject of "evil" comes up, the name of Adolf Hitler eventually intrudes into the conversation. Perhaps
Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili ("Stalin") might also surface in the discussion eventually. Most everyone would agree that these men were evil incarnate - together they combined to cause many tens of millions of deaths, with Stalin accounting for more than Hitler, actually. I could go on naming people (mostly men) whom most would agree were evil: Charlie Manson, Jim Jones, Kim Il-Sung, Pol Pot, and so on. Of course, such folks also had their proponents at the time. At the time the deeds were being done, these "evil" people were perceived (at least at first) by their proponents as doing good things. (I'm reminded of the saying "Extremism in defense of Liberty is no vice!") Such proponents might say their leaders were just a bit too carried away with enthusiasm for their programs, but they weren't evil programs! Evil deeds are often justified as being necessary, despite their cruelty, in order that good will come of it! Historically, this is the argument of all evil people.

Many evil deeds are done by people who believe themselves to be good, because they feel they're in the right and their actions are justified by the good ends they serve. It's often said by evil people that the end justifies the means, after all. Such people don't imagine themselves to be evil, but their deeds proclaim it! Evil people almost never see themselves as doing evil. Rather, they believe themselves to be a force for good, willing to do the unthinkable to reach some goal that makes their evil deeds worthwhile.

Thus, most evil deeds are committed by people who have some cause that renders justifiable any action, no matter how evil. Murder, racism, slavery, torture, rape - all are done by ostensibly good people who have rationalized their evil actions. When the acts become horrific enough, we decide that such people are criminal sociopaths - criminally insane. Unless, of course, they're our national and/or religious leaders; in which case, the adherents line up to bathe themselves in the agony being inflicted on others, to show their unity behind the cause that justifies the deeds. Or they stand by silently, saying nothing, perhaps for fear of becoming victims themselves or perhaps because they can't decide what to do. Massively evil deeds require the active or passive cooperation of many, many followers, as well as the evil leaders. An evil leader can carry out his evil acts only with the explicit or implicit cooperation of his nation (or sect). At the Nuremburg war crimes trials, we repudiated the notion that "I was just following orders!" is a valid excuse for perpetrating evil deeds ... or did we?

So long as people choose to let demagogues and fanatics make their decisions for them, do their thinking for them, and determine their agenda, such people are liable to commit evil deeds, thereby becoming evil without even thinking about it. It seems in today's world, we have vast numbers of demagogues and fanatics on all sides. In a war between opposing fanatics, moderates will be forced to choose: with us ... or against us. What choices will you make?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

We're Losing the War on Terror

What I see happening at the NWC tells me that we as a nation are losing the war on terror. As I suggested in an essay posted shortly after 9/11, if the terrorists succeed in making us give up our freedom in the name of security, then they've won. Most Americans have been told by their leaders that fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is keeping the war on terrorism off of American soil. Supposedly, were it not for our military operations in those places (that already have been responsible for more American fatalities than the 9/11 attacks), this war could be ongoing in America. That is simply not the case - the war on terror is being fought right here, right now! It's similar to Vietnam - military victories and defeats in Vietnam were inconsequential to the war being fought in America between those who supported the war and those who opposed it. The communists in Vietnam knew that if they continued to kill Americans, we eventually would lose our willingness to fight those battles. They were willing to sacrifice 20 or more Vietnamese for every American fatality, because they knew the important battle wasn't being fought with guns. That battle was fought with what was being shown on television news every night in American homes. How did the Vietnamese communists know that would work to get American troops out of Vietnam? Because they had studied history, including that of the American Revolution, where we used similar tactics to free the USA from England.

The war on terror is similar to the Vietnam war, in that the real battle is for 'hearts and minds' in the USA, not military success. If the terrorists induce us to become a police state, and/or a christian theocracy, then they've won the war!

This is just not a war that can be won by killing all the terrorists. For each terrorist we kill, for each muslim we persecute and disenfranchise, for each innocent non-combatant that dies, more terrorists spring up. Terrorism can't be defeated by military operations. The islamic terrorists aren't interested in invading the US, conquering us to turn us into a vassal state. They hope to turn us onto ourselves by convincing us that our freedoms put us in danger. They succeed not by military victories but by fanning the flames of our fear. We have a whole segment of our population that benefits from fear-mongering. They're encouraging us to give up freedoms that have defined us as a nation, simply for the sake of an illusion of security. Turning the USA into a christian police state won't make us more secure - it will be the fulfillment of the dark vision of Orwell's 1984. We can win this war only by conquering our fear.

Why have muslims left their homelands to come to the USA? I suppose this is seen by some to be a vast conspiracy, a fifth column festering within our borders, nests of snakes ready to strike when commanded by their muslim masters. But the reality is that most of them came to the USA to escape the tyranny of the theocracies running their homelands. They came to the USA for the same reason that most of our ancestors came to the USA - for freedom and for the economic opportunities they can develop for themselves, which they saw they couldn't have in their homelands. Any hidden terrorist cells within the American muslims must be a tiny, tiny minority. Persecuting American muslims by denying them the same rights all Americans are supposed to have only confirms islamic terrorist propaganda - that the USA has declared war on all of islam. It recruits terrorists.

At the start of WWII, the US shamefully interred Japanese, German, and Italian Americans (sometimes 2nd or 3rd generation Americans) simply because of their national origins. Not because they had done anything to cast suspicion on themselves. Just because they were connected, however tenuously, with governments with which we were at war. There was no attempt to sift the chaff from the wheat - all were guilty without cause or trial. This is a shameful episode in our history - a self-induced repudiation of the freedoms that we were at war at that very time to protect! It seems that today, some would have us follow that same path: to deny some of our citizens the very rights that many thousands of Americans have fought for and died to preserve. Martin Niemöller once wrote:

  • They came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
  • Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
  • Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
  • Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up.

I repeat: it is our freedom that terrorists fear the most. Not our guns, not our bombs, not our technology. It is by standing as a beacon of civilized light in a sea of barbaric darkness that we Americans can defeat terrorism. We can't win by killing. We can't win by imposing ever-tightening security on ourselves, limiting our freedoms for the illusion of protection. We can't win by becoming mirror images of our enemies. The only thing we really have to fear ... is fear itself!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The wasteland

Almost 50 years ago, the former head of the FCC, Newton Minow, described television as a "vast wasteland". As time has passed, I can't help but agree and point out that things haven't improved as the technology has advanced. I was watching a program on the History Channel tonight about the notion of "The Gates of Hell". I suppose it's possible to stretch far enough to consider this topic potentially worthwhile for a historical review, but the program as produced seemed determined to offer as much pseudo-scientific evidence as possible for the reality of Hell; that it was a real physical place where sinners were tormented for Eternity. Had the program chosen to provide a review of the history of the concept of Hell, then it might have been a valid presentation for what I think the History Channel should offer: history! Unfortunately, the producers seemed determined to push forward the manifestly religious agenda of the reality of Hell. Oooooo! Scary!! It even went so far as to reinforce the notion that the craters of volcanoes and other real-world geophysical locations were plausible as real entrances to the underworld of Hell.

The whole suite of programs (including the History Channel and the Science Channel) falling under the aegis of the so-called Discovery Channel, and their imitators, have been steadfastly pouring out this sort of television trash, even as the scientific and historical literacy of Americans continues to plummet to new lows. Is there any wonder that more and more people turn to myths and mumbo-jumbo? Many, perhaps even the majority, get their ideas from a medium they trust to dispense information, when what it really dispenses is sensationalist crapola as an excuse to push insurance, beer, cars, and loans through the eyeballs of the viewers directly into their barely-functional brains.

There was another entire program at the same time tonight, on a different channel obviously, about Area 51, another topic of apparently great interest for the scientifically illiterate, indulging in the childish fantasy world of UFOs and alien visitations. There were testimonials on that program about the legitimacy of the rumors concerning alien visitations being investigated by the US Government, and other similar hogwash. Again, the implicit message is that this balderdash is reality. Stay tuned during our adverts for the next installment of irrational trash.

TV news has descended into a realm of self-indulgent reportage, devoid of any commitment to journalistic ideals. The line between editorial content and real news has been blurred to the point where most can't tell the difference between the actual news and the babblings of pseudo-pundits - politically-motivated hacks masquerading as journalists, or experts in something.

I find the entire notion of "reality" shows as having stepped off into Orwellian NewSpeak: they're absurd nonsense that has virtually no connection with reality. I find it astonishing and disappointing that anyone feels they're entertained by this drivel. Game shows, sitcoms, soap operas ... all pure, Grade-A, nuclear waste for the brain.

I enjoy watching some sports events on TV, but I find myself so frustrated with the obligatory commentary and grotesquely exaggerated hype, the monumental stupidity of the same old questions being posed to athletes: How did losing make you feel? How do you respond to your critics? Do you feel any pressure coming in to the big game? And of course, the endless adverts ...

On cable, I have scores of movies to choose from ... and mostly nothing worth watching.

Dotted here and there amidst the desert of nonsense is an occasional oasis of rationality, or real information, or entertainment. Somehow, the Daily Show survives and represents the only news worth watching. Occasionally, some reasonably informative science documentaries are produced, despite being drowned out by the howling mob of misinformation. But Newton Minow's comment still applies today and apparently the public has such an appetite for rubbish, the wasteland will never change. It's a formula that works, I suppose.

It might be that I'm the one with a problem. There's a simple solution, naturally - don't watch it! Sometimes I find myself drawn to watch certain programs, despite my anticipation that I'll be frustrated by them - it's sort of a morbid fascination, perhaps, with what the producers are going to do with a nominally interesting topic. It is amusing to see how bad a program can be, at times.

Hallowed ground? Really??

Given the brouhaha about the "mosque" (Actually a community center) being proposed near ground zero in NYC, there's been a lot of incredible claims about Ground Zero being "hallowed ground". According to, to be "hallowed" is to be "regarded as holy; venerated; sacred". Isn't this more than a bit hyperbolic? Yes, Lincoln used such florid wording regarding Gettysburg when he dedicated the cemetery there during the Civil War, so I suppose it's natural to expect politicians to exaggerate for the sake of their political well-being, but is this ground really sacred now? Really??

There have been proposals for new commercial buildings to be erected on the site, so it seems to me that the site where the World Trade Center (WTC) once stood can't be all that sacred. Where were the priests of this "holy" site, whipping the masses into a frenzy when those proposals were being discussed? I note that no one has proposed putting a Wal-Mart Supercenter on the Gettysburg battleground site - it's been preserved more or less as it was in 1863. They didn't put a Radio Shack into the location where the OKC Murrah Building once stood - rather, they made it a national memorial. That is secular consecration. Just how "venerated" can the WTC site truly be if we can countenance erecting commercial buildings there? This should be a complete non-issue, and it would be just that were it not for the crass behavior of politicians, using religious terminology to mold public opinion.

Somehow, we're supposed to be outraged by a Muslim community center being built many hundreds of yards from the WTC site. The putative "holiness" of the site where this community center is to be built is on pretty tenous footing. It used to be a coat factory, for pete's sake! The absurdity of this nonsense is simply a reflection of the christian nationalist party (CNP - aka republicans) and its media cheerleaders (Faux News) seeking to make political capital of this non-issue. The intentionally religious tone of this campaign transparently seeks to pit the christians (the majority) against the muslims (a minority). The majority christians are being manipulated to repudiate our Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom - a very dangerous first step toward the breakdown of our traditional American separation of church and state. For the sake of political gain by the CNP, Americans are being encouraged to sanction the same sort of state-supported religious persecution that muslim theocracies visit on their people. Shouldn't we be held to a higher standard than those theocracies? I guess it's the biblical "eye for an eye" policy, but it puts us on equal footing with them, right down there in the barbarous dirt. Ignorant Americans are being encouraged to commit hate crimes and visit mistreatment on all muslims here in the USA. This is simply shameful.

I'm not that big a fan of islam, in the name of which many barbarous acts have been committed, anymore than I'm a fan of christianity, which has its share of barbarity to rationalize - however, the emotional manipulations of the CNP and the so-called "tea baggers" in this episode are both illogical and detestable. The non-radical muslims have themselves to blame for some of this, unfortunately, by failing to repudiate, in the strongest possible terms, the actions of their religion's extremists, which is typical of all religious moderates, it seems. But that's no excuse for what's happening in this sorry episode. Assuming our freedoms can survive this current attack, we'll look back on it the same way we now feel about our treatment of Japanese-Americans in WWII ... with shame at allowing our emotions to overcome our reason.

How much confidence do we really have in our nation and its ideals if we can't tolerate the building of a place of community activities at the site of a former coat factory? The whole point of protecting the rights of minorities, even minorities who would repudiate our values if they came to power, is that we believe freedom is the highest political value. If we believe that, then we have no need to fear the rantings and denunciations of some radical group. We have no basis for this irrational fear, unless we've lost confidence in the very ideals that are the foundation for this nation. Some politicians (and their media allies) are exploiting our fears to incite the mob for political expediency. Democracy without protection of the rights of minorities becomes the tyranny of the majority, which our founders recognized and hoped to prevent. Sacrificing our freedoms because we're afraid is handing victory to the terrorists! This is precisely what they want!

Calling the WTC site "hallowed ground" is irrational and disgusting, done cynically and with intent, simply to whip the great unwashed masses into a frenzy and sweep the CNP into power in the next election. Wake up, people!! You're being used. And our freedom is in danger, not from the terrorists and certainly not from muslims in general, but from the fear being used by politicians for their own selfish ends.