Archive for February, 2009

Why is there a fire hydrant in the middle of Forest Park?

| February 26, 2009 | 3 Replies
Why is there a fire hydrant in the middle of Forest Park?

Why is this fire hydrant in the middle of Forest Park, in St. Louis, Missouri? Is it there for the firefighters in case an ant hill catches fire? A flower?

If I used the logic employed by Creationists, I might simply say that God put that fire hydrant there. To the extent that anyone accepts such an explanation, there would be no need for further inquiry (nor any real possibility for further inquiry).

To the extent that someone accepts the “explanation” that “God did it,” he or she would miss out on a rich factual history, teaming with direct evidence upon which one can build an incredibly strong circumstantial case. One really can explain the presence of this hydrant, even without direct evidence (presumably, no one who saw this hydrant being installed is still alive).

I’m working on a post regarding creationism (including its modern version, “intelligent design”). Yesterday’s walk in the park reminded me that circumstantial evidence can be strong, indeed. In fact, circumstantial evidence can make for airtight cases. Circumstantial evidence can even be much stronger than authority (because authorities–e.g., the park police–are often wrong). Therefore, people who really want to know don’t simply throw up their hands and declare that the hydrant is there “Because God put it there” even when a person in a position of authority tells them this story.

hydrant-up-close1An inspection of this hydrant shows that it was manufactured in 1887 (or is that number 1881?). It was thus installed sometime after 1881. Why would it be installed in the middle of a park? Perhaps it wasn’t just a park back then. Perhaps it was installed because that land was to be the location of a huge construction project: the 1904 World’s Fair held in St. Louis. Perhaps, after the Fair was over, this hydrant was not removed. Perhaps there are some photos of the Fair that would include this little fire hydrant, a vestigial reminder that something much more elaborate once occupied this place. All of these questions can be answered if one takes the time to examine real evidence that is currently available. If one looked further for evidence, one would find tons of corroboration, including a huge “Flight Cage” that now houses a bird exhibit at the St. Louis Zoo, also an original part of the 1904 World’s Fair. Of course, one could also find numerous books filled with photos, names, dates and interviews. Notice that I’m referring to corroborative written materials–many sources that overlap–not simply reading one book over and over until one is more and more convinced.

Creationists are happy to employ these open-minded investigative methods almost always, in almost every aspect of their lives. This method of asking questions and then following the evidence wherever it leads is actually an extension of common sense. It’s a shame that when it comes to one particular incredibly important aspect of their lives, determining what kind of beings we are, creationists refuse to use this direct extension of common sense.

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Ron Paul: You can’t reinflate the bubble.

| February 26, 2009 | 11 Replies
Ron Paul: You can’t reinflate the bubble.

Ron Paul made an impassioned speech today. One of his points is that we can’t simply re-inflate the bubble. He further claimed that we certainly can’t solve our crisis by attempting to create “capital” with a printing press. He claims that we are at a sea change, and that we need to learn to live within our means. He’s got my attention.

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Incompetent people don’t realize that they are incompetent

| February 25, 2009 | 10 Replies
Incompetent people don’t realize that they are incompetent

Based on a new study reported by the NYT, people who do things badly

are usually supremely confident of their abilities — more confident, in fact, than people who do things well.

Humor-impaired joke-tellers rated themselves as funny . . .

One reason that the ignorant also tend to be the blissfully self-assured, the researchers believe, is that the skills required for competence often are the same skills necessary to recognize competence.

It would seem, then, that you shouldn’t ever ask someone whether they are good at what they do. This is a good reason to downplay the importance of oral interviews.

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American productivity versus wages over the decades

| February 25, 2009 | Reply
American productivity versus wages over the decades

Richard Wolff has been a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts since 1981. Media Education Foundation has just released a new video of Wolff, offering his opinions on the current economic crisis. Here’s the trailer, which offers some dramatic motion-graphs illustrating wage stagnation versus productivity in America. Here’s the blurb from MEF:

Professor Richard Wolff breaks down the root causes of today’s economic crisis, showing how it was decades in the making and in fact reflects seismic failures within the structures of American-style capitalism itself. Wolff traces the source of the economic crisis to the 1970s, when wages began to stagnate and American workers were forced into a dysfunctional spiral of borrowing and debt that ultimately exploded in the mortgage meltdown. By placing the crisis within this larger historical and systemic frame, Wolff argues convincingly that the proposed government bailouts, stimulus packages, and calls for increased market regulation will not be enough to address the real causes of the crisis, in the end suggesting that far more fundamental change will be necessary to avoid future catastrophes.

I haven’t viewed the entire video, only the trailer, but even the trailer presents important context for our current economic crisis.

I do hope that, in the full video, Wolff puts blame not only on the profit-makers but also on American consumers, who have clearly made quite a few terrible decisions in their attempts to live beyond their means. Not all of that accrued individual debt was for the purpose of buying essentials such as food, housing and health care. There is a LOT of blame to go around: my targets include the greedy and corrupt financial sector and many irresponsible consumers. Not that all businesses are greedy, nor all consumers irresponsible.

With this caveat, though, I did want to link to this video trailer because the graphs are mind-blowing. Further, MEF has put out terrific videos that offer clarity regarding many of our country’s most contentious issues. One example is the MEF production, War Made Easy.

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The Jindal Rebuttal

| February 25, 2009 | 6 Replies
The Jindal Rebuttal

I’ve mentioned the Louisiana Gov before, as he signed a Discovery Institute plan to allow creationism in biology classrooms into law. It shouldn’t have surprised me that Bobby Jindal was the chosen figurehead to rebut the first public Obama address to Congress. After all, he is young and dark with at least one foreigner for a parent. It seems a natural, from a certain game-playing point of view.

But the talking points have all been heard before. His speech may well have been finalized weeks ago. The allegations of “pork” about the massive stimulus bill are what irk me. The examples cited are so silly, I wonder how anyone believes them. The sum of all the line items to which so-called conservatives object add up to a fraction of the bill.

One line item he cited was a small fraction of a billion to upgrade aging government vehicles to newer, more fuel efficient models: Pure pork to the failing American Auto makers? It’s significantly less than what they are asking for as an encore direct handout.

There were mentions of some classic pork projects, like energy research and environmental studies. No one really needs to know how to prevent the collapse of our lifestyle, civilization, or species. Do they?

One allegation that puzzles me every time a conservative says it is that this stimulus bill builds a bigger government. How? One of the issues with it is that no bureaucracy was set up to monitor spending. No new agencies are being created, nor are existing ones being expanded. Exactly how is this spending measure making government bigger?

The biggest buildup of Big Brother government agencies was enacted by the previous administration. Why didn’t they object for the last 7 years? Homeland security is a bureaucracy established to coordinate the bureaucracies sitting on top of the agencies that actually do things having to do with internal and external security.

His parable of volunteer Katrina rescue boats was well aimed. They had to violate insurance regulations as if the flooding of a city was a non-typical circumstance. But it is a poor illustration of Big Brother governance. That the Dubya appointed management of FEMA failed, and his backup, Dubya himself, failed and that the manpower established to deal with such events was engaged on a foreign mission for which the Army was inadequate is hardly proof that government itself is a bad organization to organize rescue efforts.

But it does prove that we should be more careful in electing and appointing those in charge.

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George Lakoff deciphers “the Obama code”

| February 25, 2009 | 4 Replies
George Lakoff deciphers “the Obama code”

Barack Obama has quite a knack for addressing deep themes with his surface eloquence. What are those deep themes? Linguist George Lakoff has taken the time to set them out in a recent Huffpo article, and I think he’s thought it through impressively. Lakoff’s article is well worth a slow read. What is Obama really about?

Behind the Obama Code are seven crucial intellectual moves that I believe are historically, practically, and cognitively appropriate, as well as politically astute. They are not all obvious, and jointly they may seem mysterious. That is why it is worth sorting them out one-by-one.

Note that for Lakoff (and Obama), “progressive values” (#2) are the natural result of genuine and uncorrupted empathy:

Those empathy-based moral values are the opposite of the conservative focus on individual responsibility without social responsibility. They make it intolerable to tolerate a president who is The Decider–who gets to decide without caring about or listening to anybody. Empathy-based values are opposed to the pure self-interest of a laissez-faire “free market,” which assumes that greed is good and that seeking self-interest will magically maximize everyone’s interests. They oppose a purely self-interested view of America in foreign policy. Obama’s foreign policy is empathy-based, concerned with people as well as states–with poverty, education, disease, water, the rights of women and children, ethnic cleansing, and so on around the world.

Here are Lakoff’s seven insights into the ideas that drive Obama’s spoken words:

1. Values Over Programs

2. Progressive Values are American Values

3. Biconceptualism and the New Bipartisanship

4. Protection and Empowerment

5. Morality and Economics Fit Together

6. Systemic Causation and Systemic Risk

7. Contested Concepts and Patriotic Language

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Straight talk about Canada’s oil sands

| February 24, 2009 | Reply
Straight talk about Canada’s oil sands

Would you like to learn the unvarnished story about oil sands, an often highly-touted source of fuel?

The March issue of National Geographic has a detailed article on oil sands, focusing on a production facility in Alberta Canada: “Scraping Bottom.” It’s an already profitable environment-unfriendly carbon-irresponsible way to feed America’s often-wasteful craving for fuel.

[Photo: Wikimedia Commons]

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A program that gets college students enthusiastic about the scientific theory of evolution

| February 24, 2009 | 2 Replies
A program that gets college students enthusiastic about the scientific theory of evolution

David Sloan Wilson has written some terrific articles on the topic of evolution. I recently ran across a 2005 article he wrote for PLoS Biology www.plosbiology.org titled “Evolution for Everyone: How to Increase Acceptance of, Interest in, and Knowledge about Evolution.” The article explains the method by which Binghamton University has successfully infused its undergraduate curriculum with real-life applications of evolutionary theory. The EvoS program began in 2002. Here’s the mission of EvoS:

The mission of EvoS is to advance the study of evolution in all its manifestations, including all aspects of humanity in addition to the biological sciences.
Many organizations and websites promote the study of evolution, but EvoS is unique in two respects.

• EvoS is based on the realization that evolutionary theory will probably never be generally accepted–no matter how well supported by facts–unless its consequences for human affairs are fully addressed. Once evolution is seen as unthreatening, explanatory, and useful for solving life’s problems, then it becomes not just acceptable but irresistable to the average person (see the tutorial for more).

• EvoS makes a connection between evolutionary theory and the unification of knowledge, which has always been the goal of a liberal arts education and contemporary efforts to integrate across disciplines. The same kind of unification that took place in the biological sciences during the 20th century is now taking places for the human behavioral sciences and humanities–but is not yet reflected in the structure of higher education. EvoS is the first program to diagnose this problem and comprehensively provide a solution at a campus-wide scale.

David Sloan Wilson explains that the Binghamton program makes use of 50 faculty members representing 15 departments. The program was created based on the following assumption: “Evolution can be made acceptable, interesting, and powerfully relevant to just about anyone in the space of a single semester.”

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Spending time at the Dallas-Fort-Worth Airport (DFW)

| February 23, 2009 | Reply
Spending time at the Dallas-Fort-Worth Airport (DFW)

I spent the afternoon at Dallas-Fort-Worth Airport, unsuccessfully trying to get on a standby flight, then waiting for my originally scheduled flight. While I waited, I walked about, amazed at the size of the airport. The airport stretches as far as the eye can see.

Gazing out of the terminal, you can see several control towers in the distance. A woman at the information booth told me that DFW covers more ground than Manhattan. I had a difficult time believing it, but it turns out that it’s true. I learned here that DFW covers more than 29.8 square miles (18,076 acres), whereas Manhattan covers only 22.96 square miles. The airport is so big, that it is necessary to travel between terminals on an elaborate tram system (“Skylink” covers a 5-mile route at speeds of up to 35 mph).

The vast grounds of DFW are lone-star-attitudeoverwhelming, but so is the interior. It’s an entire city, staffed with 60,000 employees. There must be hundreds of restaurants and stores. Including this one, called “Lone Star Attitude.” I noticed this store because I sat across from it waiting for my standby flight. It was a bit creepy, looking at the cows dressed up in human clothes. I think I’ll get over it, but I did wonder whether this was an effective form of marketing. Perhaps only in Texas.

cow-mannequins

[Photos by Erich Vieth]

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