Friday, December 28, 2012

Tribalism, Divisiveness, Dialog, and Morality

Tribalism (from whence comes our notions of "us" versus "them") contains both positive and negative aspects.  Within our "tribe" we have feelings of empathy, we provide help to tribe members, we forgive them their errors and overlook their flaws, we support their goals, and so on.  But for those outside our tribe, we have much less empathy (if any), we likely oppose their goals, we curse them for things they have said and done, we don't respect them, and may even hate them to the point of perpetrating violence upon them.  Tribalism is a source of altruism and kindness, but is the root of bigotry and violence - both at the same time.

Today, tribalism (in various flavors) seems to be a dominant aspect of our humanity:
  1. Religious believer versus Atheist
  2.   Christian versus Jew versus Muslim
  3.   Catholic versus Protestant
  4.   Mormon versus Non-Mormon
  5.   Fundamentalist versus Non-Fundamentalist
  6. Conservative versus Liberal
  7. Pro-life versus Pro-choice
  8. Gun control advocate versus Gun advocate
  9. Democrat versus Republican (US version)
  10. Heterosexual versus Homosexual 
  11. American versus Non-American 
  12. White versus Nonwhite
  13. ... many, many more ...
Most of us belong to many different tribes at the same time:  White-American-Christian- Fundamentalist-Conservative-Pro-life-Gun advocate-Republican-heterosexual - or Nonwhite-Canadian-Atheist-Liberal-Pro-choice-Gun control advocate-Homosexual.  Clearly, many other combinations are possible, but it should be evident that certain tribes are likely to be members of certain other tribes.  Interesting, no?

Recently, we all seem to be  advocating our viewpoint stridently, to the point where some folks are going off the deep end into outright hatred and even violence.  The tendency is to dehumanize anyone not of our tribe, to categorize them in highly pejorative ways, some going so far as to demonize their "opponents" - thereby justifying virtually anything done to the other tribe.

This sort of divisiveness is devastating to any dialog among diverse viewpoints.  If someone is labeled as a member of another tribe, then they're no longer listened to with any care.  Anything they say is flawed, and unworthy of attention.  If they make some reasonable point, shift the argument to some other issue.  Never respond to their questions.  Any lie is permissible if it might be of benefit to the tribe.  Blame them for not conceding every issue immediately.  Portray your tribe as the ones being persecuted, even as you seek relentlessly any advantage you can win.  Compromise to solve common problems is discarded at the outset.  Tribes simply seek to "win" any clash, regardless of any harm done to the other tribe(s) and anyone unlucky enough to be caught in the conflict's cross-fire.  All is fair in hate and war!  Keep the feud alive at all costs:  never forgive or forget any offense, no matter how long ago, or how trivial.  Feed your smoldering hatreds until the opportunity comes to take your vengeance.  Condemn anything done by members of the other tribe, no matter how successful or helpful it might have been.  Oppose them at any step along the way, even if it causes you harm - you must not allow the other tribe to succeed at anything!

Tribalism is a survival trait that helped humans be successful despite not having the physiology to defeat large predators.  We developed language within tribes and shared within our tribe whatever new things we learned to the betterment of all in the tribe.  Our morality evolved so that we cooperated rather than killing one another, stealing from each other, etc. - anything good for individuals within the tribe that also helped the whole tribe was given high value.  Evolution has hard-wired tribalistic morality deep within our psyche.

In today's world, however, tribalism's dark side - our willingness to do to members of other tribes what we would not sanction within our tribe has become a distinct liability.  It's paralyzing our ability to work together to solve common problems.  It's responsible for racism and bigotry of all kinds.  With modern weapons, war between tribes can escalate to the point where the immediate extinction of most, if not all, of the human race is possible.

When travelling about the world, one message comes across very clearly:  at the core, we humans are all the same.  We can interbreed with any other human on the Earth.  We all seek to make a living, support our families, raise our children, enjoy the good things that life has to offer.  Nevertheless, tribalism seems to compel us to put an undue emphasis on the things that divide us, and to ignore the many things we have in common.  We seem unable to forgive wrongs of the past in order to get along, to the common good of all.  We seem unable to see other tribes as anything but enemies.  We have little or no respect for the cultural differences among tribes.  We mostly seek only to convert or destroy tribal outsiders.

Such primitive thinking has become a distinct liability in today's world.  Tribalistic atavism must be overcome and calm, rational dialog needs to begin in order to seek solutions for the very big problems shared by everyone in the human race.  Economies must be stabilized, wars must be ended and cooperation to find a lasting peace is needed - too many valuable resources are being consumed for military ends.  Anthropogenic global climate change must be mitigated and renewable energy sources developed to replace the dwindling supply of fossil fuels.  An uncompromising position is simply not going to solve anything.  The very survival of our species is increasingly contingent on our overcoming narrow-minded, primitive tribalism.  If we can't do so, we likely will not survive without some sort of cataclysmic disaster that will inflict death and suffering on virtually all of us.  We can't put this off much longer ...

Friday, December 21, 2012

Christian Vandals

Recently, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) posted a banner near the courthouse (on city property) in Wilkes-Barre, PA.  The presence of this banner made it clear that the city wasn't promoting just the popular religions, but also the atheists in its community.  The fact that it was posted on city property justifies the religious elements also on display there - a Menorah and a Nativity scene.  Without it, the city could be sued for violation of the Constitutional "establishment clause" that prohibits government (at any level from local to federal) support of any particular religion.  I applaud the courage of the city to allow an atheist banner to be displayed!  But within a short time, that banner was vandalized.

Atheists by now are accustomed to having their billboards and banners attacked by christians.  Most of the time, the vandals escape any detection, perhaps in part because law enforcement seems disinclined to give tracking down the vandals of atheist property a high priority.  Imagine what would happen if atheists offended by religious symbols and messages vandalized them!  The religious community would be so outraged, a huge effort to find and prosecute them would commence immediately.  How often does this actually happen?  Pretty damned infrequently, apparently, because I know of no such incident.  Perhaps some examples of atheist vandalism can be dredged up.  But they would be quite exceptional, nevertheless.

Vandalism happens virtually every time an atheist message is displayed in public, usually within 48 hours of its appearance, even when displayed on private property!  Atheists know of many examples - the word of such incidents travels quickly and widely in the atheist sphere.  It seems there is no shortage of christian barbarians who simply can't tolerate any public display of atheism, despite the First Amendment.  Evidently, these barbarians believe the First Amendment only applies to them and their beliefs, and definitely not to anyone who disputes christian beliefs.  Of course, not all christians are intolerant enough to be vandals, but I'm pretty confident many allow themselves to be offended when they see an atheist messagem anyway.  Although they stop short of vandalism, they gripe and bitch on the interwebs and elsewhere about the "message of hate" promulgated by atheists - I'm damned if I see any hate expressed in the FFRF banner!  If any message of hate exists, it's clearly and unambiguously on display in the actions of christian vandals.

As my friend RJ Evans would say, the hypocrisy of christian barbarians reveals the lies of their justification for their actions.  In their mind, being offended offers adequate justification for a criminal act.  They should be tracked down and prosecuted, but few seem very eager to protect the rights of the atheist minority in this christian-dominated nation.  Such deeds make it clear that many christians simply don't follow their putative christian ideals of peace, love, and tolerance.  Again, not all christians behave this way, but many express their fear, hatred, and intolerance of atheism (and secular humanism) in other ways.

Many of my blog posts here have expressed my concerns for various aspects of the tyranny of the christian majority.  This banner vandalism incident is but another example that supports my concerns as real and meaningful, not a paranoid delusion.  Fortunately, the right to express myself still exists, so I choose to express a contrary, often negative view of the role religion has played throughout history.  Believers mostly like to see themselves as being victimized - persecuted - for their beliefs by such comments, but my criticisms are mere words, not overt criminal actions.  I would never advocate that religious believers be silenced, nor commit a crime against any of them.  I'm willing to die to preserve their right to believe as they wish, even though I have no respect for those beliefs.  Would they do the same for me?  Some, perhaps many, might be, but there are barbarians is their midst, mouthing the words of christian ideals but repudiating them by their actions.  Believers who don't support such actions should make it clear they repudiate such actions by the barbarians in their ranks!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

On Death, Risk, and Prevention

We all know that death is inevitable.  Death can be prevented in some situations, or delayed, but death always wins in the end.  However well or poorly we might accept that principle, there are some deaths we find especially difficult to accept.  The horrible shooting of elementary school children in Newtown, CT, has triggered a vast outpouring on the interwebs and in the meda.  Since that day, we've been bombarded with all sorts of commentary on the topic, ranging from profound to ridiculous.  One that I found particularly striking was this one, which begins to address the issue in terms of numbers and priorities.  As a scientist, I always find quantitative analysis to be enlightening, despite the clear dehumanizing aspect of reducing deaths to numbers.

In what follows, I'm trying to stay as objective as possible, but I hope to retain at least some semblance of a human perspective at the same time.  I suppose you'll let me know my failures.  What clearly characterizes a lot of commentary regarding the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre is outrage and sorrow over the utter senselessness and evil nature of murdering young children.  Cutting these innocent lives short seems frighteningly malevolent and shattering in its impact on everyone, particularly so for the victims' friends and families.  I can only hope nothing of the sort ever happens within my family, so for the moment I remain completely unable to imagine the utter devastation over such losses.  The undeniable fact that all these children would have grown old and died eventually seems almost completely irrelevant - no doubt the friends and families are suffering profoundly from having these children taken from them.  The child victims will be forever young - destined never to grow up and become whatever their fate might otherwise have led them to become, had they lived.  Any notions of such unfulfilled destinies are, sadly, only speculation. 

The whole nation seems to be gripped by a collective, convulsive urge to do whatever it takes to prevent any more school massacres.  It's especially troubling that we don't know precisely what to do about the problem.  We wish to understand why someone would perpetrate such a heinous crime, and I believe that's mostly derived from the hope that if we can learn the Why? of it, then perhaps we could do something to prevent future repetitions.

Ive seen a diverse array of suggested explanations for the Why? of this tragedy.  Some have proposed their deity is angry with us for encouraging the teaching of evolution and encouraging the granting of equal rights to the LGBTs within our midst.  Some have suggested it's the loss of "Traditional American Values".  Some have suggested it's video games and other entertainment where violence is so extreme that people become accustomed to thinking of violence as a reasonable solution to their problems.  Some have suggested that our mental health care has deteriorated to the point that criminally insane people are not diagnosed and receive little or no effective treatment, either remaining free to pursue their insane compulsions or being warehoused in prisons for criminal acts they've committed.  Some believe that guns have become so pervasive in our society that gun violence must necessarily follow, proposing various levels of restrictions on gun access.  Some believe that we need more guns in the hands of more people, so that everyone has the ability to protect themselves from others carrying guns (legally or otherwise).  Some have said that we encourage shooters by giving them the fame (or, rather, infamy) they seem to crave.  There are likely many more opinions to be heard, but it's clear to me that there's no single issue among these (or others I may have not mentioned) that represents a place to look for a simple "solution" to the problem of school massacres.  It's a complex problem without obvious easy answers.

Further, if we consider not just school massacres, but all deaths involving firearms for instance, there are about 30,000 firearm deaths in the USA annually.  About 2/3 of them are associated with suicides, and around 1000 accidental shootings.  The rest (roughly 10,000) are either criminal acts or by law enforcement.  As a nation, the USA has many, many millions of guns already out there.   Any attempt to restrict opportunities to purchase guns legally won't affect gun ownership much, for a long time to come.  The constitutional right to bear arms is one of the bulwarks of American freedom - outright banning legal gun ownership is not an option without a Constitutional amendment that would never be ratified, and likely would not represent much of a solution, anyway.  Not for the school massacre problem, nor for the broader problem of any fatalities caused by firearms.  Without a gun, suicidal people would simply find another path to death.  It might make a dent in accidental firearm fatalities, but that;s just a small fraction of the deaths attributed to firearms.  And I have serious doubts that even more widespread gun use is going to represent much of a solution, either - gunfights have a high probability of "collateral damage" to innocent people not engaged in the fight.  Owning a gun and being trained to use it effectively in self-defense are quite different.  It takes far less effort to buy a gun than it does to be a responsible gun owner.  I'm not a gun person, although I own guns - there are reasonable additional restrictions on gun access that are far from a ban on gun ownership.

If we consider death in all its diverse causes (but ignoring deaths from various diseases and physical ailments), there are about as many fatalities annually in the USA from food poisoning as there are crime-related firearm fatalities, for example.  Four times that number are killed in motor vehicle accidents every year.  Smoking kills around 250,000 people per year.  More people die from natural hazards like floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, landslides, etc. than are killed in mass shootings, by far.  Of these much larger numbers of fatalities (compared to school shootings), most are preventable to some degree and so also can be considered "senseless and unnecessary".  Unfortunately, preventing school massacres, even if truly effective measures to do so could be found, are a drop in the bucket compared to the diverse other causes for untimely deaths.

I observe that we're currently spending billions annually to deal with the threat of terrorism. How many American civilians die every year from terrorism?  Since 9/11/2001, a few thousand have been killed, by far the majority of those on that one awful day 9/11/2001.  More American soldiers have died in wars on foreign soil since 9/11/2001 than civilian Americans have been killed by terrorists.  We're so terrified by terrorism, the terrorists are winning their war against us in many ways - we're sacrificing our freedoms for the illusion of security and have disrupted our society spending huge resources in response to our emotional fear, when the real risk from terrorism is far less than widely perceived!

The sad fact is that if we can be objective about the objective risks, and so know where to invest our resources, preventing school massacres should be far lower on our priority list than many other causes of death.  Sorry, but that's a an objective reality.  Should we give in to emotional hysteria about Newtown, CT, and in the process ignore all these other sources for untimely deaths?  Since we presently have no universally accepted "solution(s)" to reduce the frequency of school shootings, it's not even possible to estimate what the price for any proposed solutions might entail.  On the other hand, there are steps we can take to reduce untimely fatalities in other areas.  Should we forget about those measures and focus on school shootings to the exclusion of all else?  No, I just don't think so.  I certainly feel for the families and friends of the Sandy Hook school massacre victims, but should we ignore the feelings of the families and friends of someone who dies from food poisoning, or in a devastating tornado, or in a traffic accident?  Should we not seek to set priorities in a reasonably objective way, rather that allowing our emotions to hold sway?  I believe so.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Have we been good stewards of our Earth?

A good friend has noted that today is 12/12/12 ... the last such triplet of date-numbers for this century.  There will be no more until the next century.  Thus, it represents an opportunity for us to reflect on what our world will be like on the first of January 2101 (the next triplet: 1/1/1).  Many of us now living won't be around to see it, of course, so it also represents an opportunity for us to reflect on how well we've done.

I'm technically a "baby boomer" (born in 1945) even though I was conceived before WWII was over.  In the 1960s, we were teenagers - a time of rebellion against the "establishment", the "hippies", the sexual "revolution" (birth control pills and "free love"), anti-establishment protests, anti-war protests, the widespread use of marijuana and hallucinogenic drugs like LSD, and so on.  Peace and love were supposed to be our agenda.  So what happened to all that?  Well, for one thing, the drug culture destroyed some of it.  The end of the Vietnam War in 1974 killed off all the protests because the draft was no longer going to be a threat.  The assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King seemed to undermine the idealism that pervaded the 1960s.  The protesters grew up, got jobs, put on their work clothes, and became the establishment.  That youthful idealism seems to have wilted in the face of the realities of life by the 1970s.  Gradually, it seems the protesters who set out to "change the world" of the 1960s became the "me generation" - focused on the "good life" as seen on TV, and ultimately selfish.  We sold out.

So we confront today's prospects of:  economic collapse, profound environmental degradation including global warming, the threat of religious terrorism, deep political division, a diminishing supply of fossil fuels, a staggering national debt, a crumbling national infrastructure, sectarian violence around the world, the subversion of American politics by financial institutions and international corporations, massive unemployment,  a widening gap between the rich and the poor, an increase in the rate of plant and animal extinctions, an exploding world population, the rise of the specter of epidemics, the increasing lethality of weapons, public education underfunded and in rapid decline ... need I continue with this depressing list?  It seems the prospects for a bright future with the arrival of the next millenium are not very good.  An apocalypse of one sort or another seems inevitable ... yet we'll stick our heads into the sand - just pretend that all is grand (thank you, Steppenwolf)

My generation will be mostly gone by the middle of the 21st century.  How well have we done, as more and more of us approach retirement?   Answer:  see the preceding list.  It's not a record I have any cause to be proud of, certainly.  Yes, we've managed occasional spots of positive change.  I like to think that within the sphere of my influence, I've done some positive things.  I'm certainly not personally responsible for everything that's happened - a lot of what has transpired was against my wishes and I had no personal control over most of the events leading to where we are now.  Yet I wonder what I might have done to improve our situation as it now seems to be.  We seem to be on a path to self-destruction that I certainly didn't see ahead of us in the 1960s.  Honestly, even in retrospect, I don't see how I could have done much about the flow of events that have led us to where we are now.  Although I'm ashamed of the legacy my generation is leaving to our children and grandchildren, I just can't imagine what I should have done differently.  As individuals we seem powerless to alter the seemingly inexorable course of history's juggernaut.  All we can do is try to make a positive difference in our own little spheres, and that seems so inadequate in retrospect.

Of course, we may somehow muddle through all the impending threats, but the ultimate joker in the deck stacked against us is the inevitable decline in fossil fuels and what that portends for the lifestyle we now enjoy.  There are many very scary ramifications of the decline in energy availability.  Our stewardship of the Earth has not been one of great success - what we are passing on is significantly degraded from what we inherited.  Only time will tell how things will actually turn out, but I'm not at all proud of my generation's performance.  An apology seems pathetically unhelpful, too.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Traditional American Values - A Worthy Model To Live By?

Amongst my conservative friends and acquaintances, a common mantra is the call for a return to "Traditional American Values" (or TAVs, for short) - almost always without a specific listing of just what those values are.  This absence of a listing is a crucial one, because I believe that most conservatives I know haven't really sat down and decided precisely what they believe those TAVs to be.  It would be interesting to have each of them do so, but on their own, without coaching from anyone else.  I suspect the lists would have a fair amount of variability.  I'm going to list some of the possible elements of those TAVS I think conservative might include, but without any attempt to be comprehensive:

  1. Belief in the god of the bible
  2. Regular church attendance
  3. Sex permitted only within the confines of heterosexual marriage, for the sole purpose of reproduction
  4. No artificial means of contraception
  5. Hard work and sacrifice
  6. Ambition
  7. Capitalism and free-market competition
  8. Frequent and open displays of patriotism
  9. Generosity toward the disadvantaged
  10. Democracy
  11. Compromise as a means of solving conflict
  12. Honesty
  13. Importance of family

However, I doubt if any conservatives would want to list the following as TAVs:

  1. Racism and bigotry - tribalism
  2. Aggressive wars of unilateral (or nearly so) intervention on foreign soil
  3. Genocide
  4. Slavery
  5. Wide disparity between the rich and the poor
  6. Discrimination in the workplace, schools, and in the community
  7. Xenophobia and isolationism
  8. American arrogance
  9. Special privileges for the rich
  10. Tyranny of the majority
  11. Cover-ups and propaganda
  12. Intrusion of government into the sexual lives of consenting adults
  13. Welfare for the wealthy and privileged

This despite the fact that all of the second list above have been elements of American life for most of its entire existence, and hence could easily be considered "traditional" values, of a sort.  Values could be said to include not just our ideals, but what we actually do, after all. 

The fact is that America has encompassed a broad range of values during its relatively short history.  The important issue in defining TAVs is to decide who gets to make out the "official" list!  If we consider the diversity of the American people,  all of whom either came here from somewhere else or their ancestors did, I'm going to guess that if we were to conduct a comprehensive survey, the TAV lists would be all over the place.  What's traditional about American values is that we don't agree on what those values are!!

What I would propose as the ideals that should be considered TAVs are those embodied in our national Constitution, including its Amendments.  There's nothing in the Constitution about sexual orientation, or political viewpoint, or economics, or religion precisely because the framers felt that those were private issues - not to be subject to the whims of a national government.  The ideals in the Constitution have been under siege for the duration of the USA, and often are honored more in the breach than by observance.  Some people just can't seem to shake off the notion that they have the right to tell other people what they should think, say, and do.  We've not done a good job of living up to the very ideals that form the only true basis for our nation.  Our nation is not a nation based on the values of any religion - to say so is to ignore history or to try to revise it to fit some other goal, like imposition of a theocracy.

Many of the conservatives I know are in favor of various violations of our Constitutionally-guranteed rights and freedoms.  They support the intrusion of their views on religion and most definitely sexual behavior (rules about sex they themselves typically don't follow!) into federal, state, and local government, and at the same time claim to be persecuted for their beliefs!  They want to disenfranchise anyone with whom they disagree, silence dissent, and force us all into lockstep with what they think is right!  That's not a TAV - it's fascism/theocracy!  What many conservatives call TAVs are often radical new notions that are quite poisonous and contrary to the ideals of the Constitution.  They pine wistfully for a return to what they think are TAVs, even though most of their nostalgic look backward in time is bogus, revisionist history.

I'm all for a return to the values embodied in the Constitution, but not the radical notions of many so-called conservatives.  Spare our nation from their vile notions about American values!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Fallout from Sandy

A while back, I posted a long rant about the process that results in "Service Assessments" from NOAA/NWS.  The idea of learning from the past is a good one, but the process by which this is done has been flawed for decades.

 In the wake of "Superstorm" Sandy, we are beginning to hear some complaints about the service provided the NWS warnings.  A service assessement is going to be done.  Some people seem to think that the warnings should have been hurricane warnings, even though the storm that made landfall was no longer being recognized as a tropical storm by the National Hurricane Center.  I'm reminded of some ill-conceived notions that have held sway in some NWS offices in the past that tornado warnings should be issued for really dangerous non-tornadic storms, just because it was felt that recipients of the warnings would be more likely to react than if they were "just severe thunderstorm warnings"!

It's my firm belief that lying to the public is not something that will turn out well for the NWS in the long run.  Part of the issue is that we humans see things in categorical "boxes" - tornadoes in one box, severe thunderstorms in another - tropical cyclones in one box, extratropical storms in another.  A lot of effort is expended in trying to get reality to fit in those neat little boxes.  Unfortunately, the atmosphere knows nothing of our categories and classifications.  The atmosphere just produces weather, and it's up to us to try to understand it, forecast it, and communicate information about it to the public as best we can.

The facts are that the storm known as "Sandy" was well-anticipated many days in advance, including the transition from a tropical to an extratropical storm about the time when the storm would make landfall.  The forecasts and warnings were for high winds, heavy rain, and a potentially dangerous storm surge - which is pretty much exactly what the storm produced!  Should it really matter to the public what label we assign to the storm?  If the public has that perception and would have been more likely to respond if it had been called a hurricane, then in my view, it's not the forecasts and warnings that are to blame for any shortfall in response.  It's a dismal failure to communicate to the public the reality posed by natural hazards.  Hurricanes are not the only meteorological threat to people living in coastal areas.

It's been my experience that most people around the world are dangerously ignorant of the threats they face from natural hazards.  Far too many people have faith in the comforting falsehood that bad events can't happen to them, so there is no need to prepare for such things.  Far too few people recognize the discomforting reality that their sense of security is an illusion, and so prepare accordingly.  Ignorance of the possibility of life-threatening events (tornadoes, flash floods, tropical storms, etc.) is not bliss - it can be a fatal mistake.  Is it the government's responsibility to look out for everyone's personal safety?  Goverment agences like the NWS do as much as they can to warn people when threatening weather is possible.  Most of the time, most people are unaffected (these are rare events, after all!).  But then those same people choose to gripe and complain when they receive a warning and nothing happens to them personally.  It's as yet not possible to warn only those specific areas that will be affected most seriously, and it won't be possible any time soon.  Perfect forecasts are simply not possible.  We can never be absolutely certain - but the forecasts and warnings for Sandy were pretty damned good!!

The "cry wolf" syndrome no doubt affects how the public perceives weather warnings, but I believe that by far the most important factor when people choose to ignore warnings is the so-called "normalcy bias".  People are ignorant enough to believe that if they've never experienced something in their short lives, then that "something" is just not possible.  They just can't believe that something bad is about to happen to them - personally!!  Hence, they simply choose to ignore the warnings and to do nothing to prepare.

In the wake of the complaining about Sandy, there almost certainly will be some response by NOAA/NWS bureaucrats.  Almost certainly, they will cave in to the pressure to call extratropical storms (or storms in transition) "hurricanes" in order to placate the fools who are now griping about the forecasts for Sandy.  Almost certainly, this capitulation to public pressure will come back to haunt them.  The service assessment coming out of this almost certainly will be flawed, at least in part for reasons discussed in my rant (linked above).  Having Mike Smith of Accuweather be on the team will almost certainly be a big mistake - he has his own agenda of self-promotion first and foremost on his mind (which is always the case) and he'll be empowered to influence the findings in a way that matches his agenda.  This likely will not be in best interest of NOAA/NWS.

CORRECTION ... it seems that Mike Smith and other non-government members have been left off the service assessment team. I had not seen the latest information before posting this.  See my comment on this blog.

I see what's going on with a sense of frustration.  And it's not limited to the USA, or the East Coast.  I see it happening over and over around the world.  Giving the public what they think they want isn't always the right thing to do.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

What goes around, comes around!

It seems, from what I read on the interwebs, that the American Petroleum Institute (API) is asking for federal aid to mitigate the effects of "warming-induced" drought on Mississippi River barge traffic (which carries a lot of petroleum products, of course).  Without that help, they say they'll have to use more expensive transportation methods.

The notion that the current drought has been caused by, or deepened by the effects of global warming is pretty arguable, as I've noted in a recent blog.  However, it doesn't take a genius to see a connection between rising temperatures and the likelihood of drought - the physical linkage is much more obvious than between, say, increasing temperatures and tornado/hurricane frequencies or intensities.  But let's put aside for the moment the issue of whether or not the current global warming trend (which is, according to climate scientists, directly attributable to greenhouse gas emissions from burning of fossil fuels) has "induced" the current drought.

The irony is  that the API has been, and is continuing to be, a force for the "business as usual" crowd who choose to deny the reality of anthropogenic global warming and to work to prevent any activity that could wean us from our dependence on fossil fuels - see here for the API's stand on renewable energy research.  It would seem that corporate America (especially the petroleum industry and its partners) is not interested in seeing us give up our addiction to fossil fuels any time soon.  Imagine that!!  What a surprise!!  Nevertheless, they now want to be bailed out by the government so they won't have to pass the increased cost of transportation of their products on to the American public, who no doubt will howl in protest over having to pay more at the pump! Oh yes, make no mistake, they will pass on that added cost, rest assured.  And all of us will have to ante up. 

Of course, the rich corporate CEOs will continue to live the good life, and likely will escape having to pay most of the tax burden their policies will force on us inevitably.  They'll probably get bonuses for their mismanagement!

Let me try to explain something ... fossil petroleum products of all sorts (oil, coal, natural gas) are only available in finite quantities.  They cannot last forever.  That's an inescapable consequence of their finite quantity.  If our rate of consumption is some very tiny fraction of what is a very large quantity, then we might anticipate continuing to consume for a long time to come.  Of course, this would only be delaying the inevitable time when we eventually will have consumed almost all of that resource.  This is precisely what we're doing, notably beginning in the 20th century, when our transportation and energy production infrastructure came to be almost exclusively dominated by fossil fuel use.  And that is continuing to contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.  Even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases entirely (not very likely at any time soon!), those gases already in the atmosphere will continue to add to a global temperature rise for many years to come!

At the beginning of the 20th century, our consumption rate was small and the resource appeared to be vast.  As our rate of consumption increased (more cars, more highways, less use of rail, etc.), what may have looked at the time as an almost inexhaustible resource began dwindling rapidly.  World wars (and lesser ones) proved to be greedy consumers of fossil fuels.  We are now past (or nearly so, depending on to whom you listen) the peak worldwide production of oil.  Its price is inevitably going to increase as the supply declines.  China is exploding as a first world consumer, as is India.  All nations aspiring to first world status are simply adding billions of consumers of what must now be seen as a dwindling, very much finite resource.

As a species and as a nation, we've squandered the natural resource of fossil fuel, which could have been used more wisely to put us on a path toward renewable energy in the future.  But American corporations dominate American politics in today's world, and they've lined up almost uniformly in the "business as usual" camp, seeking to block any efforts to wean us from our addiction to fossil fuel.  Among other things, this has widened the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" in our society.  Corporate CEOs reward themselves with huge bonuses and live in luxurious splendor, even as the middle class is drifting toward poverty and the economy is tilting toward an ultimate collapse - and the global climate is warming.  Combined with the dwindling fossil fuel resources and associated energy cost increases, it's possible to foresee an imminent complete collapse of the existing American lifestyle.  That would be one form of "solution" to our existing challenges.  The transition will be very ugly with human suffering ... can we  stick our heads into the sand and just pretend that all is grand (from Steppenwolf "The Ostrich")?

Anyone not growing their own food, making their own clothing, and living "off the grid" in the wild is contributing to the problem, of course - that includes yours truly.  But that doesn't negate the fact that some are more responsible for this mess than others.  Those who have opposed the findings and recommendations global climate science, those who have participated in the corporate domination of the American government to prevent almost all efforts to move us off ground zero toward independence from fossil fuel, those who have opposed government support for research into renewable energy ... they bear the lion's share of the guilt.  And now they have the monumental gall to ask the government to bail them out for a problem they have worked very hard to create!!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Let me try to explain

Two recent Facebook topics and their associated discussions have inspired me to offer two short pieces to try to explain some current issues.

Linking specific weather events to climate change

Advocates for anthropogenic global warming (AGW) often criticize those AGW deniers who cite recent blizzards, cold snaps, etc. as counterexamples to AGW, and rightly so.  But recently, some AGW advocates have at least hinted at the Sandy "megastorm" as being linked to AGW.  Folks, anyone making such a linkage is being hypocritical and is, in fact, dead wrong.

There can be little doubt that a warmer climate will have some impacts on the weather.  However, the primary thing to keep in mind is that the climate is the time average of the weather over many years (there is no specific number of years, of course).  If we wish to examine the record of global temperature, we can use various sources to produce a record thousands of years in length, and it turns out that there is unmistakeable evidence for global warming in recent years.   If we were to choose a single year as a proxy for that long-term record, what would we have?  We'd have precisely nothing of value in anticipating the future.  It makes no sense to choose a particular year as the prototype for what is to come - the weather (as well as the climate) has been changing all the time, going back to the development of the atmosphere in the very distant past.  No single data point on that long trend tells us anything about the long-term averages (i.e., the climate)!

In the same way, no single weather event (e.g., an outbreak of tornadoes in 2011, or a powerful storm bringing storm surge onto the East Coast in 2012) tells us anything about how climate might be changing.  What makes this even more problematic is that our record of storm events doesn't begin to sample the full range of what is possible, and is plagued with a host of "secular" changes in the way storms are observed and recorded.  Our knowledge of storms going backwards in time becomes unreliable long before our knowledge of global temperature becomes unreliable.

The challenge is to know just how AGW might alter the associated weather events.  If we had a reliable record of storms comparable to the global average temperature records we can construct, then there might be some hope of anticipating what AGW might do to the frequency or intensity of storms.  But the fact is that no such record exists and any linkage of a specific storm to global climate is just as stupid as picking a particular year to represent that global climate.  That is, it's just plain stupid! 

Is CO2 a pollutant?

We generally consider pollutants to be noxious substances in the environment.  There are many natural processes that produce carbon dioxide (CO2), including animals breathing, volcanic eruptions and fumaroles, etc.  At the moment, the percentage of CO2 in the global atmosphere is about 0.04 percent (about 4 parts per 10,000) - it is properly referred to as a trace gas.  Whereas some compounds like nitrous oxides (NOx) or sulphur dioxide (S02) are toxic even at relative low concentrations, CO2 must reach levels of about 5 percent to be toxic (more than a thousand times the current global atmospheric value).

However, CO2 need not be toxic for it to have a deleterious impact.  CO2 is one of several "greenhouse gases" that act to inhibit the radiation of longwave infrared (thermal) energy from the Earth back into space.  This greenhouse effect is what makes the Earth habitable for us - without it, our temperature changes between night and day would be much larger!  The role of manmade CO2 on the global average temperature is clearly discernible from existing records of CO2 and temperature.  The growing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is beyond reasonable doubt a primary driver in the existing undeniable global warming trend.  Thus, although CO2 is not thought of traditionally as a "pollutant", the increasing levels of atmospheric CO2 (as a result primarily of burning fossil fuels of all sorts) are being reflected in the current warming trend.  Thus, CO2 is becoming a "pollutant" in the sense of having (unintended) noxious effects, even though it remains at levels well below human toxicity.

The human species is addicted to the use of energy and has been since the prehistoric discovery of fire.  We extract energy in a variety of ways, and in our modern technological civilizations, we pay for the cost of extracting energy in terms of our electricity and fuel bills.  These prices pay for the infrastructure that allows us the luxury of having that extracted energy on demand, with the flip of a switch.  And as the world supply of fossil fuels diminishes, the infrastructure costs will increase.  And an undiminished demand in the face of decreasing supply also drives the price upward.

However, we're not yet paying for the environmental degradation associated with extracting and using that energy.  We all want cheap energy (yes, me, too!), but eventually the price of environmental degradation will come due - and some forms of energy extraction have a much higher environmental impact than others.  The Second Law of Thermodynamics can be interpreted as an old saying:  There ain't no free lunch!   However, although no form of energy can be entirely free of cost, the environmental costs we eventually will have to pay are higher for some forms of energy extraction than for others.  The choices are ours.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Violence in response to violence - An ineffective tactic

The recent rocket exchanges between Palestinian terrorists and Israel underscore some important aspects of the so-called "War on Terror".  I'm going to try to show how ineffective this process is for both sides in the Middle East conflict.  Retaliatory violence in response to violence never works against terrorism.  Retaliation makes sense, perhaps, only in the case where one nation is attacking and invading another nation in a more or less "set piece" military conflict.  I have absolutely no problem with a nation defending itself in this sort of engagement.

In the Middle East, of course, the Palestinians were more or less evicted from their lands at the end of WWII, with the collaboration of the victorious allies.  Claims to the incredibly harsh landscapes of the Middle East have been in dispute for far longer than that, no doubt extending back at least 2000 years, and likely much more than that.  Who "owns" the Middle East?  All the ethnic groups, separated by atavistic tribalism and poisonous religious influences, have some historical claim to the lands that have some validity.  In all their wars, the land has changed hands many times, to the point where no claim can be said to be absolute.  It's pretty evident that no lasting peaceful "solution" to this problem has ever been possible.  Both sides are deeply suspicious of each other and separated by millennia of previous violence against one another.

In this atmosphere of deep-seated hatred and historical mistrust (an atmosphere comparable to the Balkans in Europe), we find ourselves in the middle of a fresh round of mutual retaliatory attacks. Some Americans believe that the only possible response to a terrorist attack is retaliation in kind.  Some even advocate truly insane things, such as bombing the terrorists with thermonuclear bombs!  This sort of biblical old testament - "eye for an eye" reaction is precisely what was supposedly repudiated in the bible's new testament, but many religious right-wing "conservatives" conveniently overlook that point in their support of Israel's military responses to terrorist attacks.

The main problem with this tactic is that the evidence of at least 2000 years of history shows that it doesn't work!  Lasting peace in the Middle East simply hasn't been possible for all these years because all sides see it as some sort of holy war, when it's really nothing more than primitive tribalism.  All their wars have settled nothing, including wars fought with extreme violence (attempts at genocide)!  If the peoples of the Middle East could be convinced to forget the past and try to co-exist in a peaceful arrangement with equal treatment for all, the terrorists would become universally irrelevant and lose their support base in the populace.  But in the Middle East, it seems, past "wrongs" can never be forgiven, present-day provocations must be answered in kind, and death dealt out to the opposition!  Religious differences feed and reinforce the tribalism, and both sides proclaim that the deity they have in common is on their side, naturally!

Terrorism is a different animal completely from a war of national aggression.  The Palestinians engage in terrorism because it's a tactic best suited for the weak.  The muslims of the Middle East have learned, more or less, they'll be defeated in any aggressive set-piece war against Israel.  The Israelis, with their national existence at stake, have developed a very competent military machine in response to the repeated attempts to wipe them out militarily.  Terrorism is the only path left for the muslims to pursue if they wish to strike at Israel.  I'm not justifying terrorism with its violence visited on the innocent, of course, merely explaining it.  But it unites the Palestinians by showing they don't have to take perceived aggression by the Israelis without some sort of response!  The problem with attempting to "destroy" the terrorists is that it's simply not possible to do so.  And terrorism isn't going to to destroy Israel!  Responding to violence with violence simply means the Israelis have lowered themselves from the moral high ground down into the same moral sewer occupied by the terrorists.  In effect, muslim terrorism wins whenever they can cause Israel to retaliate in kind.  Killing individual terrorists does two things:  (1) makes them martyrs for the cause, and (2) typically includes "collateral damage" - i.e., casualties among non-terrorist civilians.  Both of these results are the best tools for recruiting that terrorists possess!  Killing terrorists begets new terrorists!  It doesn't discourage them - it stiffens their resistance and brings new volunteers to the cause.  It fans the flames of the religious and deep-seated hatred that drives them to terrorism.  For both sides, it just does not work and so is an ineffective tool for "solving" the problems of the Middle East.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Secession? Pathetic!

In the wake of the re-election of Barack Obama to a second term in the Presidency, we've learned that hundreds of thousands of people in all 50 states have signed petitions to secede from the union.  Evidently, the lunatic right-wing supporters of "tea party" politics are willing to destroy the very fabric of our union for the simple reason that their side didn't win the Presidency.  Incredible!

Obviously, this echoes the circumstances that tore the nation apart at the end of 1860, with the election of Abraham Lincoln (ironically, a Republican) to the Presidency.  At issue then was the institution of slavery, which was deeply embedded in the South as an economic necessity for the way that wealthy landowners chose to operate.  Lincoln scared the South because he was perceived to be an abolitionist.  Although there were other differences between Northern and Southern states that exacerbated the antagonisms, the clear driving motivation was the issue of slavery.  Lincoln's election was the "last straw" for the slave states in the South.  In the end, more than 600, 000 Americans died on both sides in a bloody civil war that went on for more than four years - the South was defeated on the battlefields eventually and the union was preserved.  But not necessarily for all time, it seems.

In the same way that common Southerners (even those without slaves!) were induced to fight and die for the institution of slavery, it seems that common Americans today are being duped to support policies that favor the rich and are harmful to those very same common people who are some of the most ardent supporters of tea party politics.   The liberal Republican party of Abraham Lincoln that supported the rights of all Americans, including slaves, has become the party of racism, exclusion, and corporate greed.  In fact, they moved so far to the right, in response to pressure from the teabaggers, they lost the election!

Today, the right-wing politics driving this talk of secession are not focused on a single overriding issue, but there's a strong undercurrent of racism in the profound hatred the teabaggers feel for Barack Obama.  They've masqueraded that racism in a host of smokescreens, but it seems pretty clear to me that the morons signing petitions for secession are likely united only in their racist contempt for the current administration, if they could face that truth about themselves.

When GWB and Crime, Inc. came to power in 2000 and won a second term in 2004, many liberals felt a sense of utter despair and helplessness in the face of those defeats.  I know I did - GWB represented a viewpoint that was about as far as possible from my own.  A few said they would leave the country - perhaps a very small number did so, but it was mostly just empty threats in the face of what seemed like an endless repudiation of everything they stood for in terms of a secular union providing freedom and liberty for all.  I won't rehash all of that - instead, I want to point out that there was never a hint of any liberal movement for secession, regardless of the frustration level.  We survived 8 years of GWB and elected Barack Obama in 2008.

What we are seeing now is bunch of cry-babies whining over having their hopes of getting that black man out of office utterly smashed.  They're going to have to endure 8 years of Barack Obama, just as liberals had to survive 8 years of GWB!  All this teeth-gnashing and stupid talk of secession is nothing more (or less) than an indicator of the hypocrisy of the radical right wing politics.  One minute they're waving the US flag and claiming to be patriots.  The next minute, they're talking about destroying the fabric of the nation that flag represents.   These people aren't patriots;  they're simply morons and losers of the worst sort.  If they don't get their way, they want to take their tiny bag of marbles and run away, without any thought about the consequences for themselves, to say nothing of the effects on others.

Too many Americans have fought in too many conflicts, sending young men and women home in body bags, to preserve that union for us to have to put up with this childish whining and idiotic talk of secession.  The very same concerns that convinced Abraham Lincoln to defend the integrity of the union are present today.  A real secession movement might well trigger events that, once set in motion, will lead us to civil war.

Yes, we're deeply divided politically in this nation.  But let's consider actually thinking things over rationally before we start talking about breaking up the United States of America!  Even a few moments of rational thought should suffice to cause any talk of secession to be rejected as absurd and perhaps even potentially treasonous.  Is anyone willing to entertain the possibility of another blood-soaked civil war just because the election didn't turn out the way some people wanted?  Really??  If we're so deeply conflicted that civil war is becoming an option to consider, then perhaps we as a nation will deserve such a horror!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The day has come ... for some ...

During the night, the storm known as "Sandy" has slammed its core onto the New Jersey coast.  It's not yet known the extent of the damage and casualties.  Likely the damage toll will be enormous.  Hopefully, evacuations have limited the casualities.

For meteorologists, and selected others, we've known that a storm like this was coming.  Not just days in advance, but years!  Be it a "tropical cyclone" or a "nor'easter" or a hybrid cyclone, like Sandy has been becoming, it doesn't matter what we call it.  Strong winds and low pressure produce a "storm surge" that spreads death and destruction over wide areas.  The winds topple trees, shred low-quality housing, and fan fires that can start from downed electrical lines.  Such storms put at risk any one and any property close to the coast, regardless of the names we give them.

For decades, now, the humming machine of "development" has been busy, putting lives and property at risk by building in zones that would be at peril from such a storm.  Some people have warned against this very occurrence, but because they couldn't say precisely where or when it would happen, those warnings have gone unheeded.  Various amendments to infrastructure that could minimize the damage and casualties have been given low priorities by politicians and the general public - "Oh, we can't afford those improvements, now!  Maybe later!"

Well, the time for such has come and gone.  The ticking clock has wound down and the alarm has already gone off.  We will see over the next several days just what has happened as a result of Sandy.  Those who argued against development along the eastern coasts have been vindicated, and the disbelievers have learned that the forecasts of gloom and doom were not paranoid delusions but solid predictions based on a knowledge of the past and the inevitability of the future.

The same nay-sayers who acted as if this day would never come, now will start searching for someone to blame for their misfortunes resulting from the storm.  In reality, they mostly have themselves to blame - they were too ignorant to learn about the very real hazards they confronted, too short-sighted to imagine they would ever become victims.  What resources they saved by making storm preparations low priority will be swamped by the bill for the storm damage.  As the old advert saying went, "Pay me now - or pay me much more, later!"  Yes, preparations can be costly, but the damage will be even more so.  It's your choice ...

For many, the storm known as Sandy will be seared into their memories, some even suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder for decades.  But the memory will eventually pass, likely before the next big storm hits over the same areas affected by Sandy.  The terror and tragedy will be mostly forgotten within one generation, and nearly gone within two.   In sixty years, the collective memory of this night will have passed into the vague recesses of the past.

Most areas along the east coast of the USA will not have experienced this sort of devastation.  How many will grasp the significance of Sandy for themselves?  Likely far too few.  Their complacency will be reinforced - "I was right - bad things always happen to someone else!  For me, such an experience is not possible, so I need do nothing to examine my situation and prepare for such an event."  For them, the clock is still ticking, but the inexorable passage of time will make disaster inevitable for many of them.  Will they be ready?  Will they heed the warning to abandon developments that put lives and property at risk?  Probably not.

NOTE added:  As bad as Sandy has been, it is far from the worst sort of event that is possible.  It's good to hear that evacuations saved many lives, unlike the Hurricane Katrina disaster.  But Sandy is well short of the worst possible storm making landfall on the east coast.  The media make Sandy seem to be of epic proportions, but nature has more powerful punches it can throw at us.  And the threat goes into states on the Gulf Coast as well as the Atlantic Coast, so people should be thankful they were spared, and more willing than ever to begin preparations ... now!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Creeping Theocracy Via Sexual “Morality”

I’m often told by my believer friends that my concerns about the USA becoming a theocracy are baseless and paranoid.  Such thoughts, I’m assured, are simply imaginary and have little chance of realization. Nevertheless, I believe my concerns aren't delusional, but have a firm basis in the reality of legislation in the USA even as I write this.  In particular, I've been reading lately of the blatant imposition of religious morality onto the laws of our secular nation.  The conservative christian fundamentalists (aka the 'religious reich') already have managed to push their will regarding sexual morality into many aspects of American life.  Banning the sale of alcohol on Sundays has been with us for a long time, but it represents just one of many examples where religious morality has become the law of our land already.

For instance, there are widespread limitations on the availability of sexually-oriented material of all sorts.  Censorship on television is rampant, including the censorship of words commonly-used in everyday speech.  Religious morality has become the "community standard" by which material is judged to be subject to censorship.  Why must the religious impose their standards on everyone?  Why should my right to access to material I enjoy be limited by those who are absolutely free to choose not to access that material?  I'm not forcing them to watch sexually-oriented television, or buy such pornographic magazines, or read literature containing words they find offensive, so why are they preventing me from having access to it? 

The religious who support these "standards"  typically respond that they're worried about children being influenced negatively by hearing "bad" (according to whom?) words and seeing "indecent" (again, according to whom?) things.  There's no evidence to support such an excuse for censorship, and I can think of no good reason why children need to be sheltered from sexual content until their honeymoon night.  It's absolutely absurd, for instance, that the many children who saw Janet Jackson's nipple during the Superbowl XXXVIII halftime show were somehow permanently damaged by such a sight.  All people, including children, have nipples, for Pete's sake!  The furor was far in excess of the significance of the event.  A rationale based on "protecting" children from the reality around them has no basis in fact, so it's nothing more than the religious right lying to get their morality imposed on us all.

Need I describe at length the existing laws regarding abortion and contraception in the USA?  If you wish to have a more thorough documentation of these, I recommend the excellent book "America's War on Sex" by Marty Klein.  Although the bible is silent regarding abortion and contraception (among many other topics since the technology for these didn’t exist in biblical times), America's conservative christians (aka the religious reich) have successfully implemented many barriers and limitations on both of these technologies.  The argument is made that these methods of reducing the consequences of sexual "misconduct" (i.e., any sexual activity not authorized by the interpreters of biblical content) will encourage promiscuity.  What's so bad about promiscuity, anyway?  Who has the right to decide how much sexual activity is enough?  The religious reich believes they do!!

The religious reich believes that any sex outside of marriage between a man and woman for the sole purpose of reproduction is forbidden.  Fine.  If they want to limit themselves in this way, let them do so in the privacy of their own domiciles.  Why do they need to push their version of morality on everyone else?  Why should they care what goes on in the private lives of someone who isn’t a believer in their particular form of "morality"?  Why should they have the right to dictate to women how to express their sexuality?  Why should they have the right to tell women how to operate their reproductive system?  Why should they have the right to make same-sex relationships exempt from equal rights under the law?  Why should they have the right to make anal and oral sex illegal for everyone?  The simple answer is, of course, they shouldn’t have that right.  But they're doing so anyway.

In another compelling book "Sex and God:  How Religion Distorts Sexuality" by Darrel Ray, we read that the goal of the fundamentalist religious authorities is to gain power over people’s lives.  When religions can control the sex lives of their followers, they are well on their way to controlling the rest of their activities.  They have convinced most people that sex is "dirty", the human body is "obscene", and sexual behaviors outside of penis-vagina intercourse for the purpose of making babies within the "sacred" institution of marriage are "evil" and cause all sorts of harm (the evidence for which is nonexistent).  The real harm, of course, is the scarred psyches of our children who can wind up despising their bodies, fearful of sex, ashamed of their sexuality and feeling guilty over doing the very things they are told are wrong – because the urge to do those things is nearly irresistible.  The guilt leads people back to religion, of course, where the message of the "original sin" and the worthlessness of humans is reinforced.  This is simply a way to maintain religious control over people's lives.  The fear and guilt aren't working to prevent unwanted teen pregnancies and the spread of STDs - children are engaging in sex at the same frequency everywhere, no matter what indoctrination is imposed on them by sanctimonious religious believers.

So irresistible are those urges, in fact, that many members of the religious reich participate in those very verboten acts, on a regular basis, as is frequently revealed in the media.  The monumental hypocrisy of these characters illustrates their complete lack of credibility in inflicting  their personal morality on the rest of us in the form of laws criminalize the same acts in which they themselves engage!  We don’t want or need their "authorization" for what we choose to do - we reject categorically their morality, which purports to have sacrosanct ideals but which in the reality of their lives just mirrors their hypocrisy.  They have no Constitutional right to impose their morality on us all, so we should oppose all such efforts.

Their answer to everything – abstinence from any sexual activity not "authorized" by these hypocrites – has been shown repeatedly not to be at all effective, whereas modern technology (condoms, contraceptives, etc.) has been given rigorous scientific testing and shown to be effective at reducing  unwanted consequences of sexual activity.  The details are expressed at length in "America’s War on Sex" where it is shown that the religious reich goes to extreme lengths, including outright lies and falsehoods, to discredit these technologies and prevent their use.  Abstinence, they claim, is the only acceptable answer, despite the reality that abstinence has been shown to be ineffective at reducing the spread of STDs, unwanted pregnancies, and so on.

We have the illogical spectacle of opposition to abortion at the same time they oppose the use of contraception!  The biggest contribution to a reduction of unwanted pregnancies would be the use of contraceptives (in their many forms, including "the morning after" pill).  It's clear that using these contraceptive technologies would not support the pure abstinence program of the religious reich, so their response is to use their political power to impose all sorts of obstacles to the use and sale of contraceptives at the same time abortion is being heavily restricted (with a growing movement to outlaw it in all circumstances - no exceptions!). 

In terms of sexual morality, the religious reich has been very effective in infusing their version of "morality" into the laws of our secular nation.  An explanation for their effectiveness is the classic case of the tyranny of the majority.  wo Many people (even those who partake of "unauthorized" sex in their private lives) are willing to stand behind the forceful imposition of religious morality on all people of the nation.  Unfortunately, many "moderate" believers are among those who choose not to vote at all, or to accept the religious version of "morality" and so are unwilling to oppose efforts to force it down everyone's throat.

One need look no farther to see the clear and present danger of creeping theocracy.  We must resist this unconstitutional imposition of religious sexual "morality" on the nation.  Let them try to live up to their own ideals (at which they often are unsuccessful!) in their private lives, but deny them the right to impose those rules on the rest of us!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Naming Winter Storms? Oh, Really?

The Weather Channel, a self-proclaimed "world class" weather organization, has decided they want to name winter storms.  They explain this here.  Of course, this explanation is hogwash.  What it boils down to is this:  the Weather Channel gets their largest market share during hurricanes.  The TV marketing consultants that advise the Weather Channel about policy know that it's during hurricanes approaching the US coast when the largest number of people put their eyeballs in front of that nearly endless stream of Weather Channel advertisements.  Although ostensibly about the weather, what the Weather Channel has evolved into is primarily entertainment.  It's pretty evident to me this recent change is just a marketing ploy to increase their market share in the non-hurricane season.  Nothing more.  Their pious rationalizations about communicating important weather information to the public strike me as a pretty thin argument.   The Weather Channel is mostly about TV entertainment, not the weather.  Advertising revenue provides the fuel for that entertainment.  Named storms are sexier than boring old meteorology so they attract more viewers, who are thereby subjected to brainwashing to convince them to buy an advertiser's products and/or services.  So ... naming winter storms is seen as the path to bigger profits and more advertising revenue.  Plain and simple - easy-peasey.

Weather geeks no longer turn to Weather Channel programming, with its seemingly endless adverts and "weather magazine" programs, to obtain the weather information they crave.  The Internet serves those actually interested in the weather most every day just fine, without the Weather Channel's pointless banter by stereotypically attractive on-camera "talent", annoying technical errors, and horribly trite "explanations" that ultimately fail to provide substantive, accurate information to the public.  There was a time in the past when the Weather Channel had very few commercials and they actually had some people behind the scenes who more or less knew what they were doing and tried to help the on-camera "talent" convey an accurate and meaningful weather "briefing" - remember when their weather maps actually had isobars on them?

Those days are long gone.  Years ago, the consultants advised Weather Channel management to water down the meteorology in favor of more entertainment.  That technical jargon just doesn't capture the interest of the great unwashed masses.  Hence, much of the prime-time content is filled with "weather magazine"-type programming:  pseudo documentaries and other light "entertainment" rather than a steady focus on the ongoing weather.  It was at that point that I stopped watching.

That same source - the Internet - serves the general public as well, these days.  Most people aren't interested in the weather unless it affects them directly and significantly.  One can go many places on the Web to find weather information, including directly from the National Weather Service.  Obviously the Weather Channel hopes you'll consult their website on those relatively infrequent times when the public wants a forecast, or whatever.  I would guess that a lot of that market share is being soaked up by local weather broadcasters during the morning and evening news, which many people watch anyway.  They "know" and trust their local broadcasters, even if they sometimes make fun of them.  I've not done a study of how the public gets their weather information, but in my experience, waiting for up to 30 min for the specific information that interests you can be pretty annoying.  Why wait when you can go right to what you want, without having to put up with all the yelling advertisers and babble that doesn't matter to you?

Without knowing for sure, I'd guess the Weather Channel's market share has been declining.  Introducing this marketing ploy of naming winter storms because they want to "do their part" to communicate weather information to an information-starved public strikes me as pretty transparent.  Sorry, but I'm not buying it.  Nor am I watching it.  You're not going to convince me that naming winter storms is some sort of communications breakthrough!

A Challenge to Opponents of Same-Sex Marriage

In the relatively recent history of the controversy about same-sex marriage, it's been asserted by many that they must oppose same-sex marriage in order to "protect the sanctity of marriage" or words of that sort.  For the life of me, I just can't see how the marriage of two people who happen to be of the same sex alters heterosexual marriage in any negative way.

Much of the opposition to same-sex marriage springs from religion, of course.  Religion poisons much of whatever it touches, and in this case, there seems to be some sort of religious homophobic reaction to the very idea of same-sex marriages.  As it stands, the only "sanctity" I can tie to the religious opposition to same-sex marriage is the outrageous sanctimoniousness of the religion-based opposition.  I don't want to go down this path in this discussion, however.

My personal heterosexual marriage has lasted for more than 37 years.  In that time, my wife and I have come to realize that many of our good friends are gay or lesbian.  We feel no particular threat from that knowledge  There may be even more than we realize, of course - some may have chosen to remain "in the closet" for reasons of their own.  [Most of the reasons homosexuals keep that knowledge about themselves a secret have a real basis in a rational fear of the consequences  "coming out" can have on their lives.]   In our 37+ years of marriage, our friendships with gays and lesbians have enriched our lives in many quite positive ways and we have no shame or hesitation in openly declaring our support for our homosexual friends.  They should have the same right as heterosexuals to the "institution" of marriage.  In no way has our marriage ever been threatened by our friendship with homosexuals, married or not. 

I haven't seen a single instance where meaningful evidence has been offered in any of the arguments on this topic to suggest that same-sex marriage alters heterosexual marriages in any noticeable, negative way.  Some fraction of heterosexual marriages involve one (or both) partners who are bisexual.  So what?  In an adult consensual relationship, such things are only a problem when done without the partner's knowledge and approval.  That's nothing different from existing hereosexual infidelity in a marriage.

Some small fraction of heterosexual marriages involve one partner who is secretly a homosexual.  Therefore, it's at least logically possible that legalizing same-sex marriage might affect those people within that fraction of all existing marriages.  In cases where one partner is "living a lie" by being a homosexual within a heterosexual marriage, this might motivate some to come out and admit to their secret and thereby alter their marriage to an opposite-sex partner.  Such things are happening now, so the legalization of same-sex marriage is unlikely to cause much of a change - perhaps only hastening the demise of such flawed marriages.  I see no reason to believe legalizing same-sex marriage would alter these existing situations in any significant way.

Bisexuality and homosexuality have been with us throughout the history of the human race.  They're not going to disappear because some people feel threatened by them (for no good reason).  It is in fact a very natural thing that some fraction of the population is homosexual or bisexual, as science has revealed.  We're far from the only animal species with homosexuality and bisexuality! 

Insofar as I can tell, virtually all the opposition to same-sex marriage is based on homophobia - reinforced by religion-based condemnation of homosexuality.  The argument that recognizing the legality of same-sex marriage somehow alters the institution of heterosexual marriage in a destructive way is completely specious.  Permitting legal same-sex marriage is nothing more than granting equal rights to gays and lesbians, which they should already have here in the USA! 

My challenge to all those who oppose same-sex marriage involves two things: 

1.  Provide me with a logical reason for the assertion that legalizing same sex marriage alters heterosexual marriage in any negative way (that's not already happening as discussed above), and 

2.  Show me the compelling empirical evidence that legalizing same-sex marriage would destroy heterosexual marriage.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Numerical Models and Research

Note:  This topic is very much focused on science, and may be challenging to nonscientist readers.  I have tried to provide some background, but within the confines of a blog, this is necessarily heavily abbreviated.  

Several years ago, I wrote an extended essay about the use of numerical models in weather forecasting and research.  In this blog, I want to emphasize something I think is pretty important to consider when using numerical models in a research mode.  Numerical models of the atmosphere are approximations to the mathematical models used to create the numerical model - they are a model (i.e., an approximation) of a model.  The mathematical model in turn is a model of reality - this is an interesting aspect of mathematics - that is, mathematics can be used to describe phenomena in the real world - but I digress ...

The mathematical formulae approximated in the numerical model are drawn from physical laws (e.g.,  conservation of mass, energy, and momentum) that are assumed to apply to any physical system.  Atmospheric models typically do not include relativistic effects or quantum physics, for instance, which are assumed to be unimportant to the atmosphere.  In a model of the atmosphere, the equations describing those physical laws are written in a form suitable to apply to the fluid that is the atmosphere.  Depending on the model, certain physical effects are assumed to be important while others are ignored.  No practical model of anything can incorporate everything

It's implicitly assumed that the aforementioned physical laws govern the temporal behavior of air "parcels" - an air parcel isn't defined in quantitative terms in any absolute sense, but is, rather, of indefinite size.  The properties of the air (temperature, humidity, pressure, wind velocity) within the parcel include the possibility of spatial variations within the parcel -  parcel properties need not be constant within that indefinite volume.  If the model is started at some instant with whatever knowledge we have of the distribution of atmospheric properties over a volume containing a large number of parcels (up to and including the entire, global atmosphere) at that given instant, then the model can be used to predict the evolution of that distribution over time.  This is the basis for using numerical models to predict the weather days in advance.  Numerical forecast models have been quite successful in advancing the art and science of weather forecasting!

Nevertheless, a huge problem in atmospheric science is that physical processes can affect the weather over an enormous range of time and space scales, from the microscopic at least to the size of the Earth (if not the whole solar system)!  If we consider the volume within which the model operates and the model operates on something less than a global scale, there may be relevant physical processes that are too large to be included in the model.   Anything less than global scale introduces spatial domain boundaries that represent another complication.

On the other hand, the number of parcels we choose to include within the domain over which the model operates determines its resolution, where by "resolution" we mean its ability to represent physical processes properly.  Any practical model cannot have infinite resolution, so in addition to processes that are too large to be included in the model, there are also processes operating on scales that are too small to be represented.  They 'fall through the cracks' as it were.  If it's deemed that processes not describable within the model by specifying parcel properties are nevertheless important, they must be represented within the model is some other way, such that the model can incorporate them in its mathematical framework - this is called parameterization.  It's a way to include physical processes felt to be important but not resolvable within the model.  There's considerable art associated with developing such schemes, but they inevitably misrepresent the processes they've been developed to represent. 

Anything contained within the model by whatever means (either by direct representation or by parameterization) defines the physical processes allowed by that model.  Thus, any model is necessarily an approximation to the real atmosphere, that resolves certain processes, represents other process that can't be resolved in some relatively crude way, and finally, ignores many processes.

The main point of this very abbreviated tutorial is to provide some basis for what I'm about to say.   Research scientists use models to try to understand the physics of the atmosphere.  They can develop and study modeling results to explore the quantitative implications of the physical processes represented within the model.  What researchers may sometimes fail to keep in mind is that once the model has been developed, it can only represent those physical processes allowed by the assumptions the model developers have made about what is and is not important within that model.  The model is utterly and totally blind to any process that can't be represented by its numerical formulae.  The assumptions made in building the model inevitably restrict the possibilities for what the model can show, right from the outset.  The atmosphere contained within the model is only a "toy atmosphere" - an idealization.  If an error was made anywhere in the development of the model (from the assumptions to the mathematical formulations, to the numerical approximations, and finally to the computer code used to run the model), then the challenge to using that model is to  know how to recognize that error and track down its source.

New physical insight can be developed from numerical simulation models, but such insight has to be firmly vetted via empirical evidence.  New understanding doesn't spring automatically from running and analyzing the results of numerical simulation models.

Numerical models can be seductive in their appearance of great precision and apparent quantitative insight.  But the old computational law applies to them:  garbage in, garbage out.  The key to using such models is that they must remain grounded in the principle of observational confirmation.  A pure modeling effort not validated against empirical evidence is nothing more than speculation!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Personal Character of Religious Belief

In discussions with believers, I've come to the conclusion that although most believers claim affiliation with a particular version of religious belief (and there are tens of thousands of diverse versions of religious belief), those who are not "fundamentalists" (i.e., who accept the literal truth of all the words of their chosen deity as documented in scriptures) have a tendency to have their own more or less unique, personal set of beliefs.  Why is this the case?

The primary reason is the nature of the "holy" scriptures upon which most believers assume these religions are based.  If one actually reads these documents, they're full of contradictions, nebulous parables, outright historical and scientific errors. etc.  To me, the most logical explanation for these problems is that the scriptures are essentially mythical (fictional) accounts written by multiple authors, transcribed into new languages over the time they've endured since they first were written - on the order of 2,000+ years ago.

If one assume that a reasonable position is not to accept the literal truth of all the scriptures, thereby neatly avoiding all the contradictions and errors, then one is left with an inescapable conclusion:  any meaning we assign to the scriptures is necessarily the result of fallible human interpretations.  Since sane people presently seem unable to consult the putative deity who wrote (or inspired the writing of) the scriptures for guidance regarding his intended meanings within the challenging biblical narratives, we have no way to be absolutely sure of the deity's intended meanings.  What we have is our personal interpretation, and the interpretations of others - unavoidably human.  If we decline to accept a fundamentalist's literal acceptance of scriptural words, we must conclude that our personal interpretation of the words upon which our faith rests is not divine, but very much a human (even individual) perspective.

Curiously, even fundamentalist sects disagree about their seemingly literal interpretations of the scriptures!  But fundamentalists must somehow accommodate logical contradictions within the scriptures they claim to be word-for-word truth, so they seem to have no problem with one more logical contradiction!

The clergy generally claim to possess the correct interpretation of scriptures, of course.  Their sole qualification for such a claim is their ordination as clergy, a rite of dubious divinity that depends on their having been indoctrinated with the dogma of their particular brand of belief, typically via religious schooling.  From where does their docrine come?  Presumably, such dogma has been passed down from the human founders of that sect, with the possibility of changes having occurred in that doctrine over the centuries.  The catholics no longer feel upset with Galileo and Copernicus, for instance.  Hence, it seems that religious doctrine is not unchangeable and absolutely valid for all time, after all.  If it came directly from an eternal, all-everything deity, why would it ever have to change?  Inescapably, this means sectarian doctrine is undeniably a human invention (for all but fundamentalists).  The human founders of the sect had some set of doctrinal beliefs they agreed upon and passed on, but those have evolved with time, as generations of sectarian clergy have been forced to put new interpretations into that doctrine by the changing world around them.  Would not an all-everything deity have been able to shape an unchangeable doctrine?  But I digress ...

Consider the interpretation of indisputably human writings, as opposed to writings attributed to a deity.  For many human writings, the intended meaning of the author is pretty easy to deduce.  Manuals and textbooks certainly have such tightly constrained meanings, that it's nigh unto impossible to misinterpret them.  They may be poorly written or so challenging to understand that we need help from someone to make out what they're saying, but we can test our interpretations of their contents.  If we use the instruction manual for our computers, the test is to see if we can make it work properly.  If we try to solve problems using the principles written in a textbook, the test is to see if we obtain the correct solution.  We don't need to talk to the author to know for sure we got it right.  Confirming religious document interpretations is much more problematic, unless you're willing to accept the logically unacceptable circular argument of using scripture to confirm your interpretation of the scriptures.

Other human writings can be much more challenging to interpret than textbooks or manuals, of course, especially fiction.  Most all of us have read Moby Dick at some point in our academic lives, and it's fairly obvious that the characters and actions in that book are allegorical.  It's not just a pointless story about some guys and a whale - its people and events in their lives symbolize other things.  This book may have been the first time we, as students, began to understand metaphor and its uses in literature.  Can we be absolutely certain we understand what Herman Melville intended when we finish the book?  Most of us probably received some guidance about that from our teachers, who in turn got it from their teachers, and so on.  Perhaps the first teacher who used Moby Dick in a class could have asked Melville in person, but now that time has passed.  We either have to trust the interpretations suggested to us by our teachers, or we have to derive our own interpretation.  In either case, the meanings assigned to the characters and events in the story might be different from Melville actually intended!  If you think what was taught to you about Moby Dick is a load of crap, you're free to invent your own interpretation, up to and including the conclusion it's just a made-up pointless yarn about some guys and a whale!

When I read the non-fiction book PairyErth by William Least Heat-Moon, I speculated on why he chose to present the people and events of Chase County, Kansas (a place to which my storm chasing causes me to return occasionally).  A few years ago, I was listening to an interview with him on National Public Radio, and he said he picked Chase County, Kansas, because he though it might superficially be considered the most boring and uninteresting county in the US!  The book proceeds to show precisely the opposite, of course.  That was the point of the book, and I had suspected that to be the case, but it was good to have my interpretation confirmed!  It was the fact that he was still alive and able to answer that question that allowed me to confirm my reading of the book.

When a book is claimed to have divine origins (or at least inspiration), then believers can use it to justify genocide, racism, misogyny, murder, etc.  Establishing the intended meaning of the author(s) seems to be fairly important in this regard.  Obviously, not everyone puts such an interpretation on scriptures - what many non-fundamentalist believers say is that those who commit such terrible injustices in the name of their deity are not "true" believers.  Such a response is, of course, clearly associated with a high degree of confidence that the responder is a true believer.

Such confidence may not logically be warranted, given the tens of thousands of different belief systems out there.  Just how can one be absolutely certain that your doctrine is the right one among the many?  The inevitable answer is ... faith (belief without evidence), of course.  In my viewpoint, faith is a shaky foundation on which to build a belief in a supernatural deity who is supposed to rule our lives.  Can we put our complete trust in the clergy, or even in our own personal ability to interpret what supposedly sacred scripture tells us?  At present, in the USA, you can make your own choices, of course.  Thanks to faith, in many places around the world, you don't have that freedom!!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Public Education Under Attack

My insightful friend Ronald Bruce Myer (aka the pseudonym "John Mill") recently posted an outstanding essay about teachers under fire in today's America (also posted at American Heathen).  I really can't add a lot to his essay.  Teachers are not deserving of the criticisms currently being leveled at them as a result of political issues that have no roots in education, per se.  To teach in public schools today is to be forced to accept pitifully low wages in return for an enormous workload if the teacher truly is committed to being an educator.  I absolutely endorse Ron's statement:

Teachers deserve respect, not derision. If they are protected from being fired for reasons unconnected with job performance (tenure), that is a good thing. If they make good money, that’s another measure of respect. Teachers are not the problem. They don’t teach because they make a lot of money, they teach because they make a lot of difference.

My contribution to this topic begins, like Ron's, with some personal observations.  My family raised me to have a great deal of respect for public education.   Although I have some issues with the public education system (see discussions here, here, and here), time has reinforced the message I first heard at home.  I'm going to resist extending this discussion into the challenges with fixing the real problems of the public education system, though.  That topic may be the subject of a future post.

Education is an essential component of creating a truly informed electorate, an important component of a nation deeply dependent on technology, and an important component in the pursuit of individual, personal goals.  Without public education, the government is free to dominate a nation of predominantly ignorant citizens.  Ignorant people have no bullshit filter, are unaware of the lessons of history, the nuances of where modern science interacts with public policy, the validity of what they see in the media, etc.  They don't have a deep understanding of the issues in political elections and so have no guidance about for whom to vote, save the evil of "party loyalty".  Such "sheeple" are far more easily led down the paths leading to tyranny and oppression than an educated, knowledgeable electorate.  The commitment made in the USA to public education has been a commitment, ultimately, to freedom and liberty for all of us.

When the education system is not just being criticized (and some aspects of the system certainly deserve criticism), but is under open confrontational attack, all of us should understand that our future as citizens in a free nation is being threatened.  As a schoolboy, I was aware that teachers were respected for what they were attempting to do:  to make a positive difference in the lives and futures of the young people they were charged with teaching.  Teachers deserve respect because they're doing their jobs at considerable personal cost - many of them could have taken better-paying jobs elsewhere that would have required far less effort.  But they chose to teach, many of them owing to a personal commitment to being an educator.  In effect, teaching in public schools is charity work for the benefit of all!

The problem public school teachers faced when I was a boy has remained a problem to this very day.  Public education is paid for with taxes, and many taxpayers actually question the value of the public education system - evidently they have little or no real understanding of public education's role in maintaining the high status of the USA.  As our commitment nationally to public education has declined, so has our stature around the world declined, by any of a large number and variety of  measures.  Public education has been a shining star historically in the USA, but its status and funding (which have been and remain very low) have never been remotely comparable to its real value in the American form of democracy (which is very high).

Public schools are being micromanaged by incompetent local school boards packed with people who have few or no qualifications to manage the educational system but often with a political agenda (and even a religious agenda!).  The schools themselves have become supersaturated with parasitic bureaucrats who claim high salaries but do no teaching and who bring no useful skills to the system.  These bloodsuckers presume to "manage" education in ways that simply impede the education process, and siphon off much needed resources that teachers require to do their jobs at the appropriate level. 

Now we add to that niggardly attitude about paying for the value of public education a declining respect for the teachers themselves.  They're being targeted by the so-called Tea Party conservatives, apparently as representatives of a whole class of imaginary parasites pulling down big salaries at taxpayer cost, when the reality is far from that false image.  We're actually experiencing the lowest tax rates in recent USA history!  The whole campaign against teachers (here is an example) is simply a cog in the wheel of the right-wing religious extremist agenda.

We need to repudiate this attempt to belittle and downgrade the public education system, and return to a high level of respect for teachers, as well as to reverse the long-standing trend to spend the least possible on public education.  If our young people are our future, should we not be willing to invest heavily in that future?  I've never understood how anyone could believe otherwise!!