Sunday, October 31, 2010

Science Sunday: Universe-Wise, Why Is There Something & Not Nothing?

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the universe.

There is no bigger question than why there is something rather than nothing, which of course accounts for why you are reading this installment of Science Sunday with your morning coffee.

Michael Shermer, a college professor, prolific author and publisher of Skeptic magazine, provides a nuanced -- and for the most part testable -- series of answers to that question in a post at Big Questions Online. Herewith a condensed version with apologies to Mr. Shermer.

(1.) GOD

The theis'’s answer is that God existed before the universe and subsequently brought it into existence out of nothing. But this collides with the Judeo-Christian tradition and scientific worldview, so God would have to exist outside of space and time.


Asking why there is something rather than nothing presumes "nothing" is the natural state of things out of which "something" occurred, but maybe "something" is the natural state of things and "nothing" would be the mystery.


In order to answer the big question, we need a comprehensive theory of physics that connects the subatomic world described by quantum mechanics to the cosmic world described by general relativity. If someone asks you what really happened at the moment of the purported Big Bang, the only honest answer would be: "I don't know."


Our universe may be just one in a series of boom-and-bust cycles of expansion and contractions of universes, with the current iteration just one "episode" of the collapse and re-expansion in an eternal cycle.


Our universe may be just one of many bubble universes with varying sets of laws of nature. Universes like ours give birth to baby universes with those same laws of nature, some of which develop intelligent life smart enough to discover the Darwinian process of cosmic evolution.


Our universe may have sprung into existence from a bubble nucleation of spacetime. If so, then there may be multiple bubble nucleations that give rise to many universes that expand but remain separate from one another without any causal contact.


According to the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, there are an infinite number of universes in which every possible outcome of every possible choice that has ever been available, or will be available, has happened in one of those universes.


A multi-dimensional universe may come about when three-dimensional "branes" -- membrane-like structures on which our universe exists -- moves through higher-dimensional space and collides with another brane, the result of which is the energized creation of another universe.


Universes are created out of nothing, but in the scientific version of ex nihilo the nothing of the vacuum of space actually contains the theoretical spacetime mishmash called quantum foam, which may fluctuate to create baby universes.


This theory is based on the assumption that our brains form models of the world from sensory input, that we use the model most successful at explaining events, and that when more than one model makes accurate predictions we are free to use whichever model is most convenient.

Shermer concludes:

"In the meantime, in answer to the question Why is there something instead of nothing?, it is okay to say 'I don’t know' and keep searching. There is no need to turn to supernatural answers just to fulfill an emotional need for certainty and comfort. Science's uncertainty is its greatest strength. We should embrace it."

Saturday, October 30, 2010

William Hope's Halloween Hauntings

Paranormal investigator William Hope (1863–1933) used multiple exposure techniques to render the appearance of ghostly apparitions in his spooky photographs. His deception was publicly exposed in 1922, but he continued to dabble in the dark arts. More here.

Cartoon du Jour

Signe Wilkinson/Philadelphia Daily News

Horrifying, Indeed

Hat tip to The Big Picture

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Anonymous

Friday, October 29, 2010

In Which I Finally 'Get' Justin Bieber

I will be the first to admit that while I can name all 50 state capitals and know where most countries are located, I am a bit of a naif when it comes to popular cultural. By the time I discover that a singer is hot hot hot, they're usually not not not. So it comes as something of a shock that Justin Bieber seems to be staring back at me everywhere I turn these days, and in a last straw of sorts, I saw his face the other night in the potato latkes I fried up with some sea scallops.

This (what to call it?) . . . experience prompted me to try to find out what the big deal is about this lad, so I destroyed a few brain cells going to Justin Bieber fan websites, watching YouTube videos, and in something of an act of contrition for my ignorance, listening to him sing.

Taking account of the fact that I am a card-carrying member of a generation that had to take a school bus through snow to get to school, as opposed to my parents' generation, which had to walk through snow and endlessly prattled on about Abe Lincoln book learning by the meager light of a fireplace, I found young Bieber to be underwhelming: A cloyingly effeminate singer short on talent and long on that teenage heartthrob thing who defies convention by trying to act younger than his age. Which I suppose is exactly why he is so smashingly popular.

I must confess, however, that I found myself wondering if my son's old banana bike was still up in the attic and I could take it out for a spin with my Philadelphia Phillies baseball cap raked at that oh-so-Justin angle. In the dark of night, of course.

Cartoon du Jour

Chris Britt/Springfield (Ill.) State Journal Register

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

. . . SSSSHHHH . . .
By Gys van Zyl

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Now It's Voter Intimidation. Why Can't The Tea Party Leave Well Enough Alone?

The Tea Party is making headlines again this week and none of them have jack to do with policy or governance issues as mid-term elections draw ever closer.

There is, of course, the incident at a Rand Paul rally in Kentucky where a dirty rotten librul protester was knocked to a curb and stepped on, an interesting manifestation of the kind of freedom of speech the party claims that it eschews. Which followed an incident at a Joe Miller rally in Alaska where his goons rolled an uppity reporter.

And now there are reports out of Minnesota and Texas regarding what the party is advertising as challenges to voter registration fraud but is manifestly the kind of voter intimidation that their Republican elders have been practicing for years, including surveillance squads, video camera teams and tails of buses from senior centers to polling places, with the added incentive in Minnesota of a cash reward to vigilantes for each alleged perp that they collar.

The issue is not so much whether the Tea Party has the right to practice such thuggery; the so-called anti-voter registration fraud efforts bankrolled by the GOP flirt with illegality but arguably don't cross the line.

The issue is who gave the Tea Party the authority. No one, of course, and it is manifestly obvious that the people who will be targeted will largely be minorities and the polling places will be largely in minority neighborhoods. In other words, people who wear brown faces and not brown shirts.

Cartoon du Jour

Joel Pett/Lexington (Ky.) Herald Leader

Is It Just Me, Or Is There Something . . .

. . . to the fact that the U.S. currently occupies two of the more corrupt countries on Transparency International's newly released Corruption Perceptions Index?

Paul The Psychic Octopus (2008-2010)

Photograph by DPA

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Robert Frank

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Why The Mid-Terms Are Overhyped

Will next Tuesday's mid-term elections mark the beginning of the end of politics and government as we have known it? Or will the elections be just another a bump in a long road littered with flash-in-the-pan causes and one-hit wonders?

If history is any guide, the answer is yes and no.

Yes because an election held amidst the lingering aftershocks of a deep economic recession and an unbridled anger at Washington's perceived failures as represented by the Tea Party is bound to have some consequences.

No because while many outsiders will be elected, most will not, the vast majority of incumbents will return to Washington because voters tend to be pissed at Congress in general and not at the guy who gets their roads paved and alley lights repaired.

The bottom line is that the 112th Congress will look very similar to the 111th and sound very similar with smug Republican leaders saying that they will use any new-gained majorities to continue their obstructionist ways.

Which makes one wonder what all of the fireworks over the last several months have been all about.

Cartoon du Jour

Tom Toles/Universal Press Syndicate

Leo Cullum (1942-2010)


Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Roman Loranc

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Boy Am I Going Take Heat For This Post

Can a feminist be socially conservative? The answer, of course, depends on your definition of feminism and helps explain why politicians as diverse as Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton can claim to be feminists.

The mere mention of Palin and feminist in the same sentence gives old-line feminists agita, and this is pretty rich: A self-appointed group of superannuated bra burners has decided for the rest of us who can play in their tree house and who can't. Thanks, ladies . . . er, women.

As it is, I happen to think that neither Clinton nor Palin are feminists, but I suppose that because my experience with bras has been limited to unhooking a few in my time, my cred on the matter is suspect.

But I'll blunder on anyhow.

For me, Clinton's assertion that she is a feminist falls because of the simple fact that while feminists certainly should be forgiving of some spousal indiscretions, Bill Clinton has broken -- and by some accounts continues to break -- his wedding vows with such blue Gap dress regularity that a real feminist would have thrown the bum out years ago. Ditto for Elizabeth Edwards. (Oh, wait. She finally did throw the bum out.)

Palin is even easier to pigeon hole, and her yammering about "the emerging conservative feminist identity" is a knee slappper. This is because one of the things that defines a feminist for me is that they fight for social justice in general and women's rights in particular. I can't find a scintilla of evidence that the Saracudda has ever fought for anything other than her own self interests. Ditto for Christine O'Donnell.

Where the twains of the former half-term governor and present Secretary of State do meet is that they are role models, albeit very different ones.

Palin is a role model for takers: Millions of bucks for books in which she says nothing and television appearances in which she says even less, using her severely retarded son as a stage prop, and happily endorsing candidates as long her travel expenses are covered and the candidate's handlers agree to a list of dressing room requirements that would make Ozzie Osborne blush.

Clinton is a role model for givers: A nearly lifelong dedication to public service and good causes, the patience of a saint, the graciousness to accept her fair-and-square defeat to Barack Obama and his offer of a Cabinet level position at which she has excelled, and a determined and successful effort to shield her daughter from the harsh glare of the media spotlight when she was a child.

But no, neither are feminists.

Cartoon du Jour

Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

Gregory Isaacs (1951-2010)

Photograph by Andy Sheppard/Redfems

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Wim van Egmond

Monday, October 25, 2010

'Your Son . . . Has Paid A Soldier's Debt'

Mark Daily was the young Californian who had been persuaded by Christopher Hitchens' writings to enlist and volunteer for Iraq, where he was killed by a roadside bomb after volunteering to take the place of a colleague.

In Hitch-22, Hitchens recalls his horror and guilt after he learned of Daily's death. He reaches out to Daily's family and later is invited to join them for the scattering of the 23-year-old's ashes:
So it was that in August I found myself on the dunes by an especially lovely and remote stretch of Oregon coastline. . . . As the sun began to sink on a day that had been devoted to reminiscence and moderate drinking, we took up the tattered Stars and Stripes that had flown outside the family home since Mark's deployment and walked to his favorite spot to plant it. Everyone was supposed to say something, but when John Daily took the first scoop from the urn and spread the ashes on the breeze, there was something so unutterably final in the gesture that tears seemed as natural as breathing and I wasn't at all sure that I could go through with it. My idea had been to quote from the last scene of Macbeth, which is the only passage I know that can hope to rise to such an occasion. The tyrant and usurper has been killed, but Ross has to tell old Siward that his boy has perished in the struggle:

Your son, my lord, has paid a soldier's debt;
He only lived but till he was a man;
The which no sooner had his prowess confirm'd
In the unshrinking station where he fought,
But like a man he died.

This being Shakespeare, the truly emotional and understated moment follows a beat or two later, when Ross adds:

Your cause of sorrow
Must not be measured by his worth, for then
It hath no end.

Cartoon du Jour

Tom Toles/Universal Press Syndicate

Benoît Mandelbrot (1924-2010)


Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Joachim Eskildsen

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Science Sunday: Waiting For Godot

Nature magazine asked three Nobel Prize winners in the sciences what discovery would herald a scientific revolution in the 21st century. As you would imagine, their responses were deeply thought provoking.

Arno Penzias, co-discoverer of cosmic background radiation, answers:
"A scientific model of how mammalian genomes pack so much into so little space. Just think of the amount of information stored in a mere three billion base pairs, let alone all else these mere molecules must accomplish. Measured from a computer perspective, that's four bits of storage per pair -- or about one tenth as much as a high-end iPod Touch. How can so little 'memory' store the exquisite details of our entire bestiary? Consider, for example, that experiments have shown that a newly-born mountain goat is wary of heights from the instant that it opens its eyes for the first time."
John Mather, co-discoverer of the anisotropy in cosmic background radiation, answers:
"Room-temperature superconductivity could enable efficient sharing of electrical power around the world, changing the economic balance dramatically. It could also enable magnetic levitation for transportation, changing the entire structure of nations. Similarly, any other discovery or innovation that changes the availability of energy for food, transportation and shelter would have extraordinary impact."
And this more whimsical answer from Peter Agre, who shared the chemistry prize for discovery of a water channel protein in cell membranes:
"Discovery of the molecular explanation for happiness would be revolutionary. But this may not be just wishful thinking. Neuroscientists are making incredible breakthroughs in understanding the actions of serotonin. So who knows?"
Who knows, indeed.

Hat tip to Chet Raymo at Science Musings

Saturday, October 23, 2010

This Post Is Not About Juan Williams

There can be no better news for those of us who think that Sarah Palin is a dangerous nut than the fact that there are Republicans who agree. How else to explain why party operatives are putting out negative stories about her two weeks before mid-term elections?

Cartoon du Jour

Tony Auth/The Philadelphia Inquirer

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Andrea Orlioni

Friday, October 22, 2010

Was Thomas Jefferson A Failed Idealist? No, But He Was A Deeply Flawed One

(Thomas Jefferson has been much on my mind lately, a consequence of the madness that masquerades for the mid-term elections. This post was originally published in June 2008.)

To visit the homes of many famous people is usually not to really know them. A conspicuous exception is Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, the third president's self-designed masterpiece of Palladian architecture where he lived for 56 historic years -- from 1770 before he wrote the Declaration of Independence until his death on July 4, 1826.

Monticello, Italian for "little mountain," sits atop an 850-foot peak in the Southwest Mountains above Charlottesville, Virginia and the world famous university that he founded. What was so striking for this first-time visitor was how small the house depicted on the flip side of the American nickel and countless other places actually is.

Befitting the life of the great man himself, Monticello seems much larger on the inside. It also is full of hidden passageways, secret chambers and other surprises.

Indeed, if you like your dead presidents simple, then Jefferson is not your man, and t
hat overriding fact rings out from Alan Pell's Twilight At Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson.

This 322-page exposition on the outer actions and inner thoughts of the most complex and contradictory Founding Father focuses on the 17 turbulent years after Jefferson handed the reins of state to James Madison in March 1809, ducked out of his successor's inaugural ball through a back door and without fanfare rode into a retirement during which he never stopped fretting about the future of a republic at whose birth he had played such a huge role.

Writes Crawford:

"The survival of this exercise in self-government -- the first in the history of the world, he believed -- could never be taken for granted, as each day brought new dangers."

How prescient that seems almost two centuries after Jefferson's passing because of an exercise in imperial excess, power grabbing and vainglory known as the presidency of George Walker Bush.

* * * * *
Jefferson was a republican in politics, a deist in religion and a classicist in his tastes. He also was a spendthrift, shopaholic and lousy farmer, was overly possessive of his daughters and granddaughters to the consternation of their husbands, and was a master deal maker, something that to this day marks him as a hypocrite in his critics' eyes.

The greatest irony and failure of Jefferson's presidency was his insistence on the 1807 Embargo Act against England and France.

Writes Crawford:

"[This] occured not because this advocate of political liberty exaggerated his countrymen's desire to be free from government interference, but because he underestimated it."

The greatest paradox of Jefferson's life is what he thought about slavery, a subject that has been dissected to a farethewell in hundreds of books, most notably Dumas Malone's six-volume biography, Jefferson and His Time.

Jefferson opposed slavery in abstract political and social terms, but he also was a slaveholder and dealt with them as a day-to-day reality. His views did not so much evolve as remain in conflict with his actions, and while he tried while in public office to abolish or limit the advancement of slavery, he owned many slaves (whom he treated with respect and kindness by the standards of the day) until he drew his last breath.

Explains Crawford:

"Developed over years of practical political experience and scholarly study, Jefferson's approach to the problem of ending slavery, and of effecting radical social change of any kind, is at once more searching than has generally been granted, less self-serving than might be supposed, and yet nearly as imprisoning to thought and inhibiting to action as the political and economic realities that it attempted to explain.

" . . . That Jefferson could not act when urged to do more to end an institution that he acknowledged to be a moral wrong indicates the extent to which he was lacking in moral imagination. Trained up in the early forms of utilitarianism, Jefferson believed for most of his life that the proper subject of ethics was the maximization of human happiness. Happiness consists of tranquility of soul, which is achieved not by heroic gesture but through prudent conduct."

Crawford acknowledges that this is a surprisingly constricted view for the author of the Declaration of Independence:

"It is nonetheless the one by which Jefferson lived, even if he seems never to have been completely comfortable with it. He could always insist, as he did throughout his life, that the time to end slavery had not arrived. But, tragically, that was so in part because Jefferson had resolutely chosen not to hasten its coming."

In the end, Crawford takes the road less traveled, spending little time on Jefferson's famous retirement years correspondence with John Adams, his predecessor as president, and perhaps too much time on Jefferson's daily routine and family life with all of its illnesses, miscarriages, scandals and deaths.

After reading Twilight at Monticello, one might wonder if Jefferson was a failed idealist. I do not believe so, but he certainly was a flawed one.

The Dear Friend & Conscience and I lucked into nearly perfect circumstances when we visited Monticello -- a Monday morning in early summer where there were virtually no other tourists and the mountains to the west were covered by a thick fog, which Margaret Bayard Smith, a dear friend of Jefferson's, wrote in 1809:

"[H]ad the appearance of the ocean and was unbroken except when the wood covered hills rose above the plain and looked like islands. As the sun rose, the fog was broken and exhibited the most various and fantastic forms, lakes, rivers, bays, and as it ascended, it hung in white fleecy clouds on the sides of the mountains. By the afternoon, when the clouds had rolled over the mountains, you could hardly believe it was the same scene."

That the scene was indeed the same on our visit is a testament to the private, nonprofit Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which maintains the Monticello plantation, supports scholarly research and however belatedly has come to acknowledge -- and even underwritten studies -- that show Jefferson almost certainly fathered six of slave Sally Hemings' children.

Monticello is about 125 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. and is open every day of the year except Christmas.

More here.

Cartoon du Jour

Tom Toles/Universal Press Syndicate

Johnny Sheffield (1931-2010)

Photograph by MGM via Photofest

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Kevin Ng

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Constitution Takes Another Beating

The train wreck known as Christine O'Donnell is taking a well-deserved thrashing for her abject ignorance about a document that she claims to revere: The U.S. Constitution. During a radio debate at a Delaware law school with Chris Coons, her Democratic senatorial opponent, she expressed shock that the Constitution delineated the separation of church and state.

"Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?" O'Donnell asked Coons amid audible gasps and laughter from the crowd of law students and attorneys.

Coons replied that O’Donnell had just revealed her fundamental misunderstanding of what our Constitution is.

" . . . The First Amendment establishes a separation," Coons explained. At which point O’Donnell interrupted him to again ask "The First Amendment does? . . . So you're telling me that the separation of church and state, the phrase 'separation of church and state,' is in the First Amendment?"

It is no surprise that O'Donnell, whose vapidity has gifted late-night talk show hosts with a steady supply of material, didn't understand so fundamental a concept, and later in the debate couldn't explain what the 14th and 15th amendments are about. She and the Tea Party posse have not so much been willfully ignorant about the Constitution as twisted it so suit their own right-wing pretzel logic.

But less noticed or commented on was that Coons also flunked the Constitutional test, failing to name all five freedoms protected by the 1st Amendment. (Speech, Press, Religion, Petition and being able to give obscene amounts of money anonymously to political campaigns . . . er, Assembly.)

* * * * *

This ignorance is not necessarily new.

My German Jewish grandfather arrived in the U.S. at the turn of the last century with 12 cents in his pocket and went on to become a prosperous dry goods merchant. His way of thanking his adopted country was to hand out copies of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution to high school civics classes, and he was saddened at how many students knew nothing about the core documents of our democracy.

* * * * *

The Constitution is, of course, a remarkable document. Yes, it does not explicitly acknowledge the rights of women, as well as avoids addressing slavery, which was the political third rail of the era. But beyond the original Bill of Rights it has been amended a mere 17 times in 227 years, including two amendments that redress slavery, and five of those 17 amendments are technical fixes.

This has not deterred tireless Republican culture warriors who spent much of the last decade unsuccessfully trying to pass amendments banning abortion, same-sex marriage and flag burning, establishing English as the "official" language, permitting prayer in public schools, and so on and so forth.

But now, in a reversal of field, some Republicans are trying to get rid of amendments that don't pass their political purity test.

Three amendments are currently in the crosshairs of the Iowa Republican Party --
the 14th (on birthright citizenship), the 16th (a progressive federal income tax), and the 17th (U.S. senators elected by the public).

Like the initiatives to pass new amendments, the efforts of right-wing Republicans generally and the Iowa GOP in particular to abolish amendments will go down in flames.

The biggest reason is that there are too many issues that transcend tinkering with the Constitution, besides which most of us have the good sense to know that if it ain't broken then there's no reason to fix it.

It's just that good sense does not apply to too many Republicans these days.

* * * * *

Perhaps the harshest indictment of that overweaning American ignorance is what people say when actually confronted with a copy of the Constitution.

Several years ago, a team of college students showed copies of the Constitution to shoppers at a major mall. An unhealthy majority declared that it must be some sort of radical manifesto. Several thought it the work of Communists.

As my grandfather would say, oy vey!

Cartoon du Jour

Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

Paris . . . Uh, Wants To Give Back

For the umpteenth time, Paris Hilton says she's tired of partying and wants to give back, so she's gonna donate some dough to a childrens' charity and do other good stuff.

"When you have been going out for so long, the (party) scene gets old, and I'm moving on with my life and on to bigger and better things," she explains.

But Paris omits one tiny detail: She has been ordered to do 200 hours of community service by a judge in lieu of jail time for once again being caught packing her cute little nose.

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

(New Brighton, England -- 1985)

By Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Why France Is Running On Empty

Even with the myriad problems on this side of the pond, it remains easy to make fun of France, a nation with a rich cultural past but problematic present, and a population that seems . . . well, spoiled rotten.

How else to explain the endless cycle of strikes affecting everything from trains and planes to postal deliveries, six alone since early September, while the current shutdowns are over the Sarkozy government's attempt to raise the legal minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 in an effort to reform the country's wildly generous pension system. Yes, 62.

But the current round of shutdowns is a lulu, shuttering all of France's oil refineries. As if on cue, truck drivers and school students also went out on strike. The latter a group that will not have to grapple with retirement issues until the year 2050, at the earliest, but strikes fear into the heart of French officials everywhere who recall how these precious young dears rioted in 1968, bringing the country to a standstill.

The French have slowly but surely lost their competitive edge in the ferocious world economic battlefield (sound familiar?) in large part because of a citizenry accustomed to living on Easy Street.

Don't expect that to change anytime soon.

Photograph by The Associated Press

Cartoon du Jour

Jeff Danziger/New York Times News Syndicate

'It's Only Castles Burning'

By Neil Young
Old man lying by the side of the road
With the lorries rolling by,
Blue moon sinking from the weight of the load
And the building scrape the sky,
Cold wind ripping down the allay at dawn
And the morning paper flies,
Dead man lying by the side of the road
With the daylight in his eyes.

Don't let it bring you down
It's only castles burning,
Find someone who's turning
And you will come around.

Blind man running through the light of the night
With an answer in his hand,
Come on down to the river of sight
And you can really understand,
Red lights flashing through the window in the rain,
Can you hear the sirens moan?
White cane lying in a gutter in the lane,
If you're walking home alone.

Don't let it bring you down
It's only castles burning,
Just find someone who's turning
And you will come around.

Don't let it bring you down
It's only castles burning,
Just find someone who's turning
And you will come around.

"Burning Castle Before a City" (after 1650)

Aert van der Neer

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Viktor Sykora

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mayday! Mayday! Random Thoughts Two Weeks From Election Armageddon

No, the Armageddon will not be for the Democratic Party, which will most certainly take it on the chin on November 2, but for the American people, who deserve politicians who are sincere about governing.

But as it is, too many Democrats are cowards, afraid of the big shadows that health-care reform and their other accomplishments have cast, while too many Republicans are empty suits -- or skirts -- who in keeping with the Age of Palin are adept at talking while not really saying anything.

* * * * *
It will not occur to Republicans amidst their pre- and post-election high-fiving that the GOP's gains will not be a result of presenting appealing policy alternatives to the Democrats but by simply not being Democrats.

Pitifully few Republican candidates in major races have put any meat on their platforms, and many merely echo the "Pledge to America" cobbled together by Mother Ship Republicans, a grab bag of empty rhetoric if ever there was one.

* * * * *
This, of course, is the Year of the Tea Party, and as is typical of maverick political movements, it's long-term viability as a national entity is suspect for several reasons.

First, the movement is chockablock with internal contradictions and radical positions that eventually will become internal conflicts and then, if history is a guide, internal fissures.

Second, as we have seen with no less an eminence than President Hopenchange himself, Washington has a way of bending the politician to its will and not the other way around. Tea Partiers are against government in key respects but will tasked with running it.

Third, their generic outrage, victimhood, confrontational styles and too often their bigotry play well out on the hustings, but inside the beltway and on the Sunday TV talk show treadmill is an altogether different matter. They will have to leave their clown cars at home.

* * * * *
It will be ironic but fitting if Republicans fall a seat short of recapturing the Senate because of Christine O'Donnell, a candidate whose vacuity stands head and shoulders among all others in a year of vacuous candidates.

Voters in Delaware are notoriously ticket splitty, having once elected a Democratic governor and Republican lieutenant governor, and you can be sure that they have the former witches' number: A big fat zero. The result of which will be gifting the Democrats a seat that was a GOP given.

* * * * *
Even an opportunistic boot licker like Karl Rove understands that an already considerably diminished Republican Party in the thrall of a movement dominated by people who occupy the lunatic fringe will continue to be starved of the oxygen that sustains and grows political parties -- new voters in appreciable numbers.

es, the Democrats have plenty of problems of their own, but polls show that fewer young people and women are migrating to the GOP. Its scorched earth minority "outreach" has turned off black voters, while it has assiduously alienated Hispanics, who are the fastest growing minority voting bloc.

And now it has alienated witches in a year in which polls will open a mere handful of hours after the end of Halloween.

* * * * *
Then there is the ongoing "conversation" about the future of conservatism -- which is to say the future of the Republican Party -- which more resembles a food fight than an effort to secure a brighter future.

Part of the difficulty here is that while Americans are mad as hell and aren't going to take it any more, most of them still want Washington to help alleviate their pain and suffering. That runs counter to the conservative tenets of smaller government, smaller deficits and fewer entitlements that Big Bush Government cheerleaders have shamelessly supported. And the last time I checked will still be very much in the party's majority when the112th Congress is sworn in.

There's only one certainty amidst all of this uncertainty, boys and girls. Despite the Republicans' mid-term surge, lacking broad mainstream appeal and given the roster of their presidential wannabes, Mr. Hopenchange is sure to win a second term.

Cartoon du Jour

Tom Toles/Universal Press Syndicate

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Jacek Stefan

Monday, October 18, 2010

Why The Vampire Elite Is A Far Greater Threat To Our Security Than Terrorists

A friend has appropriated the perfect term to describe the people who are sucking the middle class dry from their big corner offices in skyscrapers across America. He calls them the Vampire Elite. They represent a far greater threat to our security than feckless domestic terrorists or even Al Qaeda, yet most Republicans are in their thrall and most Democrats too cowardly to face them down although nothing less than the future of the American Dream is at stake.

The Obama administration was going to have a dickens of a time getting the U.S. back on the road to prosperity after his predecessor gifted us the worst recession since the Great Depression.

But it is the Vampire Elite -- the corporate big shots and bankers and
stockbrokers and their super-rich clients -- who are the greatest impediment.

I don't know if vampires are soulless, but the Vampire Elite sure is. It played the system with Swiss watch-like precision during the Bush years, reaping record profits for Wall Street while visiting pain upon Main Street.

Then there is the revolving door between corporate executives, lobbyists and regulators which continues to spin greedily on despite Obama's vows as a candidate to change the culture of Washington, including injecting some transparency into its incestual acts. In fact, key members of the president's economic brain trust were key Wall Street players.

Meanwhile, many of the jobs that used to exist simply aren't coming back.

As in at least 25 percent of the 8.4 million jobs that disappeared during the recession, according to some economists. In fact, with job creation expected to be about 133,000 new jobs per month at best over the next year -- and 100,000 new people entering the work force every month -- it will take more than 20 years at this rate to replace all the jobs that were lost, and that ain't gonna happen.

Corporations also have been fiendishly efficient at figuring out how much money they can save when they get rid of workers.

In fact, corporations have laid off so many lower-paid workers that they are flush with cash, a staggering $1.18 trillion to be exact, and productivity has gone up as the people with the big corner offices have become even more adept at busting the humps of their workers.

The coup de grâce, as it were, is the Citizens United ruling earlier this year by the slavishly big-business Supreme Court. The nihilist majority justices gave corporations free rein to buy politicians out in the open, as opposed to the various forms of big-business bribery that already grease the skids of many a campaign and legislative initiative.

The system is working exactly as the Vampire Elite intended, and there is very little that you and I -- let alone President Obama -- can do about it.

Cartoon du Jour

Matt Davies/Westchester (N.Y.) Journal News

Meet Me At The Corner Of Trap & Main

Ever heard of a trap street? I didn't think so.

A trap street is a fictitious aspect of a map intended to trap potential copyright violators. There also are trap towns, trap mountains, trap elevations and even trap rooms.

Barbara Billingsley (1915-2010)


Beautiful Photograph du Jour

(Daguerreotype - 1856)
By Southworth & Hawes

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Science Sunday: So There's An Earth-Like Planet, But How The Heck To Get There?

Whose imagination isn't fired by the notion that there may be Earth-like planets out there?

Well, astrophysicists have discovered Gliese 581 g, the first potentially habitable planet outside our solar system. Gliese 581 g is a daunting 20 light-years from Earth, and despite its rocky surface is thought to be potentially habitable because it may have the most basic and essential conditions needed to support extraterrestrial life.

Okay, so what if things get really weird on Terra Firma and we'd like to visit Gliese 581 g? Is that possible?

Only by bending the laws of physics.

"Unlike crossing the Atlantic or putting a man on the moon, interstellar travel isn't an engineering problem; it's a physics problem," writes Brian Palmer in Slate. "Scientists have given up on the idea of traveling to distant solar systems through anything resembling traditional means."

For one thing, it would take far too long.

Palmer explains that current space shuttles don't go much faster than 17,500 miles per hour, a pace that would take 766,000 years to get to Gliese 581 g -- more than three times longer than we've been hanging around on our own planet.

And even if we had the technology to go faster, the energy considerations are daunting. If we wanted to get to Proxima Centauri -- the second-closest star to Earth at a mere 4.22 light-years away -- within a century on conventional propellant, the space vehicle's fuel tank would have to be larger than the visible universe. As a consequence, astrophysicists are focusing on technology that would permit shuttles to travel faster than light, without fuel, or both.

Current ideas for pulling off this trick include technologies familiar to Star Trek fans, including laser sails, warp drives, and wormholes.

Laser sails, says Palmer, are the most technically feasible option:

"When a beam of light strikes an object, it exerts a small amount of force. In a vacuum environment, like space, the force can drive an object forward. If we gave a space ship enough jet fuel to put it into outer space, we could shine a laser beam on its reflective sail to move it farther and farther away. In theory, we could push it all the way to Gliese 581 g."

Alas, this concept has serious limitations. Even a laser beam loses focus over great distances, and even if it got to Gliese 581 g, there would be no way to slow it down.