Author Archive: Dan Klarmann

A convoluted mind behind a curly face. A regular traveler, a science buff, and first generation American. Graying of hair, yet still verdant of mind. Lives in South St. Louis City. See his personal website for (too much) more.

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The Polar Express: A Skeptical Review

| December 23, 2013 | Reply

PolarExpressI’d idly heard of the movie “The Polar Express” since it came out in 2004. This year, in a fit of holiday spirit, I queued it up on Netflix and played it through my Roku. I don’t know exactly what I expected from what was clearly a children’s Christmas movie, but it had moderately good reviews from a variety of sources.

Let me say up front that the animation was impressive; they managed to clear the edge of the Uncanny Valley on the almost believably human side. I enjoyed the attention to detail in the vintage buildings and the train itself. The many voices of Tom Hanks were also enjoyable, with clear jibes at famous phrases from some of his other movie appearances.

But the story was quite disturbing. It begins with a boy who is clearly climbing out of the pit of magical thinking and beginning to apply reason to observation, vis-a-vis Santa. But then he has a dream in which he is wooed by a stranger to get into a big dark vehicle to go somewhere unknown; a good message for any child? In this train, he meets a Disney cross section of humanity: Many white kids, a pale black girl, an ostracized poor kid, and a stereotypical Bronx Jewish know-it-all. Let’s ignore what this clearly Semitic character is doing on a train bound for Santa’s workshop.

The unnamed central character of the story is given several opportunities to show that he has superior morality, which I appreciate given his clearly agnostic bent. The other kids of deeper faith are mostly lacking empathy.

Anyway, after many improbable and long sequences of cartoon adrenaline action, they pass the Arctic Circle (accurately described as 66° North Latitude or about 2/3 of the way from the equator to the pole) and can see the North Pole itself (a few train lengths or 2,000 miles, depending on what you believe).

Once there, the agnostic protagonist, the poor kid, the dark girl, and the greedy Bronx kid get lost and only can find their way by following blind faith. In the end, our hero learns that he must ignore his intelligence and embrace total faith in the magical Mr. C. in order to function properly in society. The symbol of true faith in this story is being able to hear the sleigh bells. He could feel and see them all the time. But without faith, he was deaf to their mob-inspiring siren call. Yeah, the frenzy of the adoring mob when the bells rang was truly scary. Does anyone else notice the architectural similarities between the town square and the Vatican?

Anyway, when the lad of reinvigorated faith wakes from his epiphany, he notices that his parents, people of regularly declared faith, cannot actually hear the bells. They are just playing along, presumably for the safety of blending in. Our hero, in his adult voice-over condescension, claims to still hear the bells despite his near brush with rationality at the start of the story.

Anyway, the message of the film is clear: To be happy you must believe. To survive, at least pretend.

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An Odd Email, and the Evolving Web

| May 30, 2013 | Reply

I recently received the following email from someone at aol.com to one of my regular legitimate email addresses:

Subject: What are these?

These look like dodge cars in the shape of colorful onions.

What is Buckminster and Chihuly Do Rounds?

Hmm. I get quite a few engineered phishing emails. But this one was not quite of the mold. I decided to google the phrase, and it led me to the Neighborhood Stabilization Team for the City of St. Louis home page that looks like this:

NabStabChihuly

Ah Ha! I thought. So I replied:

I had to Google the phrase to remember what you are asking about. The site rotates several images, so you may need to hit refresh a few times to get back to mine: Neighborhood Stabilization Team

The caption made more sense with the full image that they showed back when I submitted my pic to the city.

This is the pond in front of the geodesic dome of the Climatron (which showed the dome above and its reflection below the strip that they still have on display).

So the title refers to the round dome designed by Buckminster Fuller and the round glass onions designed by Dale Chihuly, with a weak medical pun about “doing rounds” or seeing what there is to see.

But the city website designer eventually chopped the aspect ratio of the banner image from 4:3 to 9:16 to 3:17, removing most of the image, but keeping the now enigmatic title.

Here’s the original:

P1020234

So what happened is that I submitted a few pix to a photo contest in 2007, and one of my shots was used as a web page banner. But as the needs changed, so did the image, until the final view little resembles the intent nor aspect of the original. And the caption that has been propagated is more absurd than intended.

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Churches and Candidates

| November 5, 2012 | 1 Reply

Through no effort of my own, I receive email bulletins from the Christian Coalition, an unabashedly theocratic (and more covertly white-centric) political action committee, yet somehow still tax free (503-(c)4).
The latest email tells people to bring voters their guides to church. Their splash page practically forces you to download it.

I am of the opinion that churches that want representation like this should be amenable to taxation. Naturally they argue that just because every member shills for their platform, the churches should not be held accountable. Can this be remedied?

Discussion?

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Military Voting Philosophy

| August 16, 2012 | 3 Replies

I remember the presidential election of 2004, during which the armed services were flooded with the message that it was seditious to speak out against your Commander in Chief, and certainly bad to consider voting against your own commander. Luminaries of the time like Ann Coulter published the principle that anyone who casts doubt on ones president is a traitor. This was a solidly accepted conservative plank.

But the message fed to members of the armed forces has changed for the 2012 election:

Not My President

This image has been going around on Facebook, among other sources. I suspect that the message they receive about their Commander in Chief is different than before. There also is a busy meme insinuating that Democrats are busily working to deny military members their right to absentee vote.

Does this mean that the military is a Republican organization? Or does it cleave to one of the Three Tea Party branches?

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How Rights Become Privileges: MO Amendment 2

| August 8, 2012 | 15 Replies

The 2012 Missouri primary had several important lessons to impart. The first, which I may have discussed in previous election years, is that the way to bring the “correct” voters to the polls is to have an apparently innocuous but important candidate or issue and a loud, contentious issue or candidate that only seems to matter to one side.

In this primary cycle, there was a preponderance of hotly contested Republican seats, and a very dangerous, never advertised Tea Party constitutional amendment. Republicans came out to vote overwhelmingly, and the Amendment passed resoundingly.

The full body of the amendment is at the bottom of this article.

Basically on the ballot it read as if it was just reinforcing the first clause of the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

  • In reality, it says that people have the right to worship the (singular, Christian) Almighty God (but not all those others) including to pray whenever their conscience dictates (such as during science classes).
  • Public meetings can now be started with exclusionary prayers as long as the officiant is invited by someone.
  • I have not yet figured out how the mandatory publishing of the Bill of Rights in schools will be twisted, but I expect as a precedent to posting the Ten Commandments adjacent (as an alleged inspirational source)
  • Students cannot be punished for refusing to do assignments that might conflict with their faith (evolution, geology, astronomy, etc).

So I expect Missouri to soon be incurring legal fees on the order of replacing several major bridges, or (more likely) in lieu of funding science education for a decade.

[More (Including the language of the Amendment)]

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Elementary Election Protest Too Muchedness

| July 31, 2012 | Reply
Elementary Election Protest Too Muchedness

For the last few weeks I’d been receiving approximately daily post cards protesting the electric company considering a rate hike of more than a few percent in order to finance and build future power plants to replace some of the nearing dangerously obsolete ones. Some mailing came from a very liberal local politician with whom I generally agree. Someone is spending bales of money to encourage people to not-want to spend more for what they are already getting. Seems like sweeping the water downstream, to me.

But I’m a Tanstaafl skeptic: Rebuilding infrastructure without incurring crippling debt does not seem like such a bad idea, my knee jerks. Also, local electric rates are lower than when I was in college, when adjusted for inflation, so it seems about time for a rate hike, anyway.

Yesterday I finally got a rebuttal mailing that describes the finances behind this odd campaign: PAC affiliated with aluminum corporation at play in state Senate primaries. Yep, an aluminum company fears that it will have to raise prices, because a major part of the process of making it requires megawatts of electricity.

Here’s how aluminum is made, if you are at all curious:

So now we know who has the profitability to outspend a huge power company on a campaign to make people do what they want to do anyway, and things are making sense, again.

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Carbon-14 Itself Argues for an Old Earth

| June 21, 2012 | Reply
Carbon-14 Itself Argues for an Old Earth

I was reading The Cosmic Story of Carbon-14 and had a thought involving the Abundance of the Elements and isotopes. We now know how the elements formed, and have measured their relative abundances for a while and across the universe. The theory of how they form matches every measurement. Basically, Hydrogen and traces of Helium have been around for over a dozen billion years. Heavier elements form when the mass attraction of enough hydrogen squishes a star’s core to fuse together helium and some lithium, a star is born.

All the rest form from the extreme compression and sudden release of supernovas. All that hydrogen and helium (basically protons and neutrons as there are no attached electrons at those pressures) are squeezed to dissolve into a quark soup then expanded and quick-frozen before they can push themselves apart. What is expected from this is an asymptotic curve of element abundances with hydrogen at the high end, and slight peaks forming at iron, xenon, and lead (particularly stable elements).

This is what is measured in our solar system:


Don’t let the zig-zag pattern confuse you. Odd numbered elements are harder to hold together than even ones; each pair of protons needs a pair of neutrons to let them stick together. But odd numbered ones have that odd pair of singles; they are just less likely to form.

But how does Carbon-14 fit in? What really freezes out from the splash of quark soup is not so much elements as isotopes. Every possible isotope forms in its proportional place along the curve. Then the unstable ones follow a decay chain until either they reach a stable element, or we measure them somewhere along the way. Uranium, for example, has 3 isotopes that last long enough to have hung around the 5 billion years or so for us to measure them. Technetium, on the other hand, is only found today as a decay byproduct from other elements.

So back to carbon. The three most common isotopes of carbon weigh 12, 13, and 14 atomic units (aka fermion masses: neutrons or protons). C-12 is most of it, C-13 is 1.1%, and C-14 is about 1/1,000,000,000,000 part of it. Carbon 13 is an odd-numbered isotope, and therefore intrinsically rare. Carbon-14 has a half life of 5,730 years. So if it were created in the expected normal proportion to carbon-12 billions of years ago, we would expect to not see any left. Where it all comes from is recent nuclear collisions between protons (cosmic rays) and nitrogen in the upper atmosphere. (More details here).

We see the amount of carbon-14 that we’d expect for a regular continuous influx of cosmic rays that we do measure. But if all the elements had been made 10,000 years ago, we’d expect about C-14 to be about 1/4 of the total carbon, not the mere 1/1012 of it that we know is produced by cosmic ray collisions.

It turns out that comparing the abundance of isotopes of any element indicates the age of the planet to be between 4,000,000,000 and 5,000,000,000 years.

But what (I can predict this argument) if God created the elements with the isotope distributions intentionally skewed to just look like everything is that old? The old God-is-a-liar and created the young world old to eventually test faith of careful observers argument. I counter this with:

Given God and the Devil, which one has the power to put consistent evidence in every crevice of this and other planets and throughout the universe for every method of observation in every discipline for all interested observers of any faith,
and which one might inspire a few men men to write and edit a book and spread its message eagerly that can be interpreted to contradict that massive universe of evidence?

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Why is Jerry Sandusky News?

| June 19, 2012 | 6 Replies
Why is Jerry Sandusky News?

I was sitting in the barber chair this morning, where they had on some national news show that spent the entire time I was there discussing the ongoing trial of (alleged) pedophile Jerry Sandusky. I’ve been hearing about this on news stations for months. They are spending as long on the nightly news discussing this trial as they do on the collapse of the European economies or the coups in various major oil-producing nations.

I am truly puzzled about the coverage. There are likely several pedophiles on trial any given day. Why are they not newsworthy? Is it because he is a coach? Many of them are. Was it because he was a winning coach?

I just don’t understand why this one (alleged) pedophile is as newsworthy as wars deposing dictators to replace them with democratically elected Islamist regimes. Are both events shaping the course of civilization?

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Wacky Conspiracy

| May 30, 2012 | 2 Replies
Wacky Conspiracy

Sure, the Birthers and Truthers are ramping up their positions this election year. But how about this?

Step one: Note an uptick in gun violence as the weather warms up (as recently has been reported in places like Seattle).

Step Two: Encourage the “Liberal Media” like Fox News and CNN to run with the statistical spike, rolling out regular stories about gun violence.

Step Three: Sit back as the predictable political posturing by liberal politicians results in writing moderate gun control legislation.

Step Four: Respond in the early fall with a fervent campaign push saying, “See? We Told you Obama is after your guns!”

Result: Getting out the conservative voters who otherwise wouldn’t bother voting for that Mormon not-conservative-enough Romney.

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