Dazzling Knowledge

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Tpotdomescandal's Top 10 TV Shows

#2 Seinfeld

“He took it out.” “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” “She’s a low-talker.” “Puffy shirt.” “I’m a marine biologist.” “The second spitter.” Everybody knows what these quotes mean, because Seinfeld produced some of the most memorable, and finniest lines, scenes, and characters in sitcom history. Two things really stand out about the success of Seinfeld. First, I was among many people who watched the show nearly every week while it was on. Occupying the prime Thursday night spot, Seinfeld was a shared community experience, and it earned it. Second, one can still enjoy watching just about any episode on syndication. If you want, you can probably watch two or three reruns every day. I still probably watch Seinfeld four or five times a week. The staying power is remarkable. Anyway, there’s not much more I can add to what’s already been said about a remarkable show about nothing starring an actor who couldn’t act. I don’t need to, because I know you love Seinfeld, too.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Do we need public finance of science?

As a scientist who wants to see the size of government reduced, I have maintained that we can and should cut public investment in science, as long as we cut almost everything else first. A new book, provocatively titled Sex, Science and Profits: How people evolved to make money, argues that public finance of science has been unnecessary in fueling technological progress and development, and that the government may be doing more harm than good (color me shocked!). Ron Bailey reviews:

Does government funding of scientific research speed technological progress and spur economic growth?

…in nearly every case the crucial inventions of the past two and half centuries were called forth by markets, not invented by scientists working from ivory towers. These include the steam engine, cotton gin, textile mills, railroad engines, the revolver, the
electric motor, telegraph, telephone, incandescent light bulb, radio, the airplane—the list is nearly endless.

The story of the airplane is instructive. After the Spanish-American War, the federal government supplied a grant of $73,000 to the director of the Smithsonian Institution, Samuel Pierpont Langley to develop heavier-than-air craft. All six of Langley's prototypes crashed, the last one on October 7, 1903. Two months later, Ohio bicycle mechanics, Orville and Wilbur Wright, launched their first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Their R&D budget? About $1,000.

…government funded civilian research didn't appear to hurt the private sector but there was not much evidence that it helped, at least in the short term. The report concluded, "Research and development (R&D) activities undertaken by the business sector seem to have high social returns, while no clear-cut relationship could be established between non-business-oriented R&D activities and growth." Economic growth associated with R&D was linked almost entirely to private sector research
funding. The OECD report did allow that perhaps publicly funded research might eventually result in long-term technology spillovers, but that contention was hard to evaluate. The 2003 OECD study also noted, "Taken at face value they suggest publicly-performed R&D crowds out resources that could be alternatively used by the private sector, including private R&D."

A 1995 analysis done by American University economist Walter Parker also finds that government funding crowds out private research. "Once private research is
explicitly controlled for, the direct effect of public research is weakly negative, as might be the case if public research has crowding-out effects which adversely affect private output growth," concludes Parker. Weakly negative? Government funding may retard technological progress? Is it possible that the funding for NASA has
crowded out
private space transport research and development? Or more currently, that private companies are not investing in carbon capture and sequestration research as a way to mitigate man-made global warming because they are waiting
for the federal government
to fund such research?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tpotdomescandal's Top 10 TV Shows

#3 The Sopranos

I actually became a fan of the Sopranos late in the game. Despite all I heard about HBO’s groundbreaking series, I was reluctant to watch. I am no fan of the mobster genre, and am normally turned off by the glamorization of the lifestyle that occurs in works of fiction such as The Godfather. Then I finally watched the first episode and was blown away. To me the show wasn’t just about the Mob, but used the drama of a Mob kingpin’s family to examine the trials and tribulations of modern suburban living in America. I was hooked right away, and The Sopranos became must-see TV.
The Sopranos certainly did not glamorize the Mafia lifestyle. While we certainly rooted for Tony as the protagonist in sometimes complex ways, it was hard to view him as heroic in any way. Contrast him with Michael Corleone: “Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.” Tony is never presented as a noble figure who is cast in the role of Mob boss through a series of unavoidable circumstances. Instead, you watch how every breath of his miserable life is consumed with petty sin and violence. He steals from everybody. He is capable of violence for any reason at any time. He lies and prevaricates and rationalizes constantly. His sex scenes were always ugly, and never titillating. Of course, he was still a good protagonist because he seemed like the best of a bad lot. All of the other characters were pathetic, psycho, proud, unstable, or a combination of the above.
Of course, I have to talk about the final episode. My first reaction was ambivalent. I didn’t think it was great, I didn’t hate it, and I didn’t feel too strongly about it. In the next few days, I realized what a genius move David Chase had done. While indulging my bad habit of listening to sports talk radio, I notice that the idiots who call sports talk radio almost all hated the ending. It occurred to me that anything that pisses off idiots this much had to have something going for it. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that if you disliked the final episode that you are an idiot, I’m just saying that if you are an idiot, the final episode apparently made you apoplectic. There’s just something to be said for that. Plus I like how nobody gets off the hook. We enjoyed watching the contemptible antics of Tony Soprano for eight years. We were not allowed to purify our souls by enjoying watching him get his final comeuppance.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Tpotdomescandal's Top 10 TV Shows

#4 Dexter

With just two seasons in the books, Dexter is already a heavyweight in my mind. It’s a Showtime series about a man, Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) who is a forensic investigator by day and a serial killer by night. The first season was the best thing I’d seen on TV since the first season of The Sopranos. The show is typical of contemporary high-minded dramas in that the storylines involve several characters interacting and moving parallel to each other over the course of several episodes. At the same time, each episode normally succeeds in telling an interesting story in itself.

Since the protagonist is a sadistic murderer, the viewer is definitely dealing with some moral gray areas. The show succeeds in dealing with this in a few ways. First, you’re definitely rooting for Dexter, even if you feel uncomfortable about it at times. Second, it doesn’t devolve into merely a creepy vigilante drama; the moral ambiguity is maintained. Finally, the show itself doesn’t celebrate depravity, or ask the viewers to feel either comfortable with evil or desensitized.

Dexter also happens to be great popcorn TV. The show is scary, suspenseful, mysterious, and sometimes wickedly funny. Hall gives a performance for the ages. His character is constantly lying and scheming and full of rage, and Hall masterfully uses facial expressions and body language to convey Dexter's often subtle, sometimes outrageous, and constantly changing emotional states.

Dexter’s relationships with his foster father and sister are major plot features, but I’ll avoid spoilers here, as the show is current, and I’m kind of one of its evangelists. Dexter and his colleagues are definitely known to down some beers at the bowling alley.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Tpotdomescandal's Top 10 TV Shows

#5 The X-Files

The show started out as a quirky sci-fi drama that appealed mainly to quirky fans of the paranormal like myself, but it became much more. As the production values and writing improved, the show weaved together a grand plot of alien visitors and government cover-ups while delivering a new monster mystery every week. The show really became great when 1) the relationship between FBI special agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) became one of TV’s classic unfulfilled sexual tension stories and 2) the episodes included more humor and irony while still bringing some of the best horror and suspense to primetime TV. Also, Scully definitely had great “nerd sex appeal” for a while. At its peak, The X-Files was my favorite show, but the downer final seasons in which Duchovny and Anderson were replaced with scabs were dreadful.

Skepticism of the government was a huge theme, as they were literally the bad guys in many episodes (Trust No One!). The stereotype of the smoking villain was a major topic. The Mulder family was an important theme with Fox’s obsessive pursuit of his abducted sister, and the implications of a Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader thing going on between Fox and the Cigarette-Smoking-Man. Spirituality wasn’t an overriding theme, but angels, devils, and stigmata made their appearances, along with Scully’s Catholicism. Even sports came up more often than you’d think. One of my favorite episodes explored race and alienation in the form of a Negro League team called the Grays that had a secret alien on it.

More on farming

In addition to ending farm subsidies, I think we can all agree with these propositions from Joel Salatin, the self-proclaimed “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic.”

1. Make and sell ready-to-eat foods on the farm: “Virginia just legalized homemade jams and jellies to sell. As ridiculous as that sounds, that’s a pretty important shot across the bow.”

2. Sell raw milk and other dairy products: “Officialdom believes that only pasteurized milk is safe. The fact that people have been drinking raw milk throughout human history, and still drink it all over the world and in 20-some states, means nothing to them.”

3. Sell custom-slaughtered meat by the piece: “My position is that if meat [slaughtered outside the normal factory processes] is OK for people to eat, give away, or feed their children—which indicates that it is not an inherently hazardous product—we should have freedom to also sell it. The restrictions are on the commerce of it. The attitude is: The only thing that is safe to eat is something with a government stamp on it, unless you get it free. Exchange money, and it’s somehow not safe.”

Of course, some of the arguments of small-farming advocates are so irrational that they make my head spin. It's people like Dan Barber that make me skeptical of the whole movement.

Farm frenzy continues

Regardless of your basic positions on organic, agribusiness, etc., I think that the best farm policies will evolve in an environment without the market-distorting effects of special interest legislation. That said, ugh:

"We need to stand up to the special interests, bring Republicans and Democrats together, and pass the farm bill immediately," Barack Obama declared last November. It was a weird thing to say, since the farm bill, which subsidizes an arbitrarily chosen section of the economy at the expense of taxpayers and consumers in general, is special-interest legislation by definition.

Whole thing here.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Tpotdomescandal's Top 10 TV Shows

#6 Battlestar Galactica

Suicide bombings, secret agents, a president who leads with religious faith, torture, biological warfare. Am I talking about 24? Love triangles, estranged fathers, secret adoptions, dead fiancées. Am I talking about Days of Our Lives? Actually, I’m talking about Battlestar Galactica on the SciFi Network. This remake of the 1970’s cult classic is one of the smartest shows on television. In this version, the Cylons, who look like humans, chase the last survivors of the attack on the human colonies across the universe while the humans look for a legendary home called Earth. Edward James Olmos plays Commander Adama and is a total badass. The show also features many strong female characters: the edgy, cigar-chomping antihero, Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff), the resolute President Roslin (Mary McDonnell), the evil but beguiling #6 (Tricia Helfer). By the way, #6 can take over my home planet any day. My favorite character is Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis), the brilliant but egocentric scientist who carries on a secret mental love affair with a cylon beauty.

The action sequences are terrific, especially for basic cable, and the romance and relationship drama make for good popcorn television. However, the real beauty of the show is the moral drama. The show is definitely not about something as simple as good humans versus evil robots. After some particularly jarring scenes, I am reminded, “Oh yeah, we’re not the good guys, we’re just humans.”

There’s a lot of drinking and smoking and cursing (Frak!). The whole series is pervaded by spirituality and metaphysiscs. Is there one God, or are there many? Can we change our destiny? What about sin, freedom, and community? Family ties are important, too. Commander Adama’s relationship with his son, Captain Lee Adama (Jamie Bamber) has many ups and downs. Anti-government themes explored include the tension between liberty and security, and the distinction between terrorism and freedom-fighting.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Tpotdomescandal's Top 10 TV Shows

#7 Cheers

There are a few sitcoms that everyone watched, and remained almost eternally enjoyable in syndication. Cheers was one of those sitcoms. Indeed, ask even the most casual consumers of pop culture can tell you al about Sam, Diane, Rebecca, Cliff, Norm, Coach, Woody, Carla, and Frasier. It claimed to be the place where everybody knows your name, but it was also the place where you know everybody’s names.

I take perverse Domer pride in pointing out that George Wendt (Norm) failed out of Notre Dame.

The show had a sports angle, as Sam was a retired relief pitcher, and everybody was drinking all the time, of course.

Dying Professor's lecture

I guess I'll get around to being the last blogger to post a link to the famous Last Lecture. It's about 12 minutes long, but very inspirational.

Green Conservatives

When I have to go into Whole Foods, I am suffocated by the feeling that I'm surrounded by a bunch of commie, pinko, hippie liberals. I feel like yellin pro-Bush slogans just to cheese them off. That said, my sister and mother like whole foods, too, and they're Christian neocons! My sister's interest in green conservatism prompted my previous post on organic foods. Anyway, I'm a fan of all things that fit the category of what I call "Purple America," that is, neither red nor blue, so here's an article on green conservatism that my sister likes. The article is by the "Crunchy Con," Rod Dreher. I was attracted to some of his writings because he has some Christian anarchist in him, but I am all too often disappointed by his reasoning. Still:

Earth Day is not my day, not really.

As both a conservative and an avid indoorsman, I've always seen it as a high holy day for hippies, Whole Foods devotees, spotted-owl fetishists and sundry crunchy-granola types who believe that "Think Globally, Act Locally" is the Eleventh Commandment.

But you know, I've got to wonder how much longer we on the right can justify an environmental philosophy that amounts to little more than sneering at liberal tree-huggers.

For one thing, whatever the self-righteous excesses of the environmentalist left, it is impossible to be true to traditional conservative values (to say nothing of the Christian faith conservatives like me profess) and hold laissez faire attitudes about the use and abuse of the natural world. And for another, have you noticed that, um, it's getting really warm in here?

I justified my hostility to environmentalists because of their alarmism, their stridency and even a narrow but toxic vein of misanthropy among their lot. What turned me around was reading Dominion, a book by former Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully, who made a conservative moral case for animal welfare.

Scully's critique rests on the classical virtue of piety — a term taken these days to mean religiosity but which, in its older usage, means a deep sense of reverence and humility as a fundamental stance to reality. In fact, piety toward nature is part of traditional conservatism's intellectual patrimony.

Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver, two founding fathers of modern American conservatism, hated the way industrial capitalism saw nature as merely a thing to be exploited. Weaver observed that we moderns "have allowed ourselves to be blinded by the insolence of material success [and] the animal desire to consume." He saw this as alienating us from nature and the foundations of a sustainable conservative order.

Kirk wrote: "In America, especially, we live beyond our means by consuming the portion of posterity, insatiably devouring minerals and forests and the very soil, lowering the water table, to gratify the appetites of the present tenants of the country." He demanded that Americans act with more self-discipline to honor "the future partners in our contract with eternal society."

A world with no limits

As it turns out, the ecological catastrophe Kirk feared that would be the consequence of our impiety appears not to be one of radically diminished resources, but of potentially catastrophic climate change. It comes from an arrogant refusal by a modern consumerist society to accept limits on its desires. Kirk's idea of the "eternal society" evaporates before the insatiable demands of the Everlasting Now.

No serious person can deny the overwhelming scientific evidence that the world's climate is changing dramatically for the worse. Conservative skeptics, however, argue that the science isn't clear enough to pinpoint the degree to which human activity is responsible. Even if that were true, given the staggering magnitude of the stakes, it is wildly imprudent to wait for a level of certainty that may never come, or come too late.

Tim Flannery, an Australian scientist and former global-warming skeptic, says there is no way to account for the temperature rise outside of human activity. In his book The Weather Makers, Flannery writes, "Skepticism is an indispensable element in scientific inquiry, but when the intention is to mislead rather than clarify, we have not skepticism but deceit."

There's much self-deceit about global warming among us conservatives. To take this stuff seriously would mean confronting the fact that we cannot continue living as we like. It would mean dealing like grown-ups with the real possibility that we are condemning future generations to excruciating hardship because we refuse our duty to stewardship.

A spiritual duty

For too long, conservatives have ceded political efforts to care for creation to liberals. We Christian conservatives are finally recognizing that conservation is a matter of moral and spiritual integrity. And we're learning that the challenge facing humankind from climate change dwarfs the narcissism of the usual left-right politics.

Politics, however, is the primary way to address a challenge to the commons this massive — and politics won't shift until our paradigm for thinking and talking about the environment does. The responsibility for that lies with open-minded and imaginative folks from both the liberal and conservative camps — men and women who care more about conserving the natural world and the human civilization dependent on it than they do about protecting their political purity and fundraising base.

Bottom line: When people like me start to believe Earth Day is for us, too, the earth will move under Washington's feet. But as long as cultural perceptions keep Earth Day a sectarian holiday for secular liberals, the pace of political change will be, alas, glacial.

Me, I'll just continue to sneer at liberal tree-huggers.

Organic food myths, continued

My sister wanted me to post the response to the Independent's article on organic food myths. Here are excerpts, with my rebuttals in bold.

Fact one: Organic farming is good for the environment

Organic farming is not perfect; it was only developed 60 years ago, and we still have much to learn. Agreed, so why don’t you work on it before you use the state to force it on everybody. Over those years, organic research has been starved of funding because most investment went first into developing pesticides and then into GM crops. The fruits of those investments are what is called “The Green Revolution,” which has produced an abundance of safe, healthy food, and represents one of the greatest achievements in human history. Organic farming was started by scientists and farmers who wanted to develop what we would now call a more sustainable way of producing food. Their main concern was with the link between healthy soils, healthy food and human health. However, those pioneers did create a farming system that has clear environmental benefits. Organic farming is better for wildlife on farms. The science is clear cut. Scientific literature reviews have found that, overall, organic farms have 30 per cent more wild species, and 50 per cent higher numbers of those species. Based on scientific research, the Government says that organic farming has clear environmental benefits – better for wildlife, lower pollution from sprays, produces fewer dangerous wastes and less carbon dioxide. The Sustainable Development Commission says that organic certification represents "the gold standard" for sustainable food production. I farmed non-organically for more than 30 years, and switched to organic, mainly to try to bring back wildlife on the farm. We have far more birds, and data on hares before and after switching to organic show numbers doubled from 20 to 40. This year we found 56.

Fact two: Organic farming is more sustainable

First of all, I wish someone would explain what “sustainable” means. Last week's article contained several errors – for example, the statement that organic tomatoes take double the amount of energy to produce is wrong, as were the figures for different types of tomato. The information on the climate change impact of organic food omitted one of the key benefits of organic farming: storing carbon in the soil. When this is included, the climate change impact of organic food goes down by between 12 and 80 per cent. Government-funded studies have shown that across a range of sectors, organic farming uses 26 per cent less energy than non-organic farming to produce the same amount of food, and the Government agrees that organic farming is better for climate change. If this is true, then the cost savings must be immense. Then, by all means, bring your foods to market at a lower cost, and we won’t have to worry about this whole argument.

Fact three: Organic farming doesn't use pesticides

We've never claimed this! Perhaps not, but I assure you that this is a very commonly held misconception. Hence a myth.

Fact four: Pesticide levels in conventional food are dangerous

I'd say certainly risky, and potentially dangerous. In the EU, one food item in 30 contains levels above European legal limits. Nearly 40 pesticides, which we were promised were safe, have been banned or withdrawn from use over the past decade. People who want to reduce their exposure to potentially harmful pesticides can buy organic food. A US study showed that within one day of switching to an organic diet no traces of pesticides could be found in children's urine. When the children switched back to a non-organic diet, pesticides were found immediately. We live longer, healthier lives than ever. Age-adjusted cancer rates are down. Still, ideologues declare harmless substances “risky,” lobby for them to be banned, then claim that the fact that they were banned is evidence that they were dangerous. This is pure sophistry.

Fact five: Organic farming is healthier

In terms of food safety, the Food Standards Agency says there is no difference between organic and non-organic food. Right, so it’s not healthier.

Fact six: Organic food contains more nutrients

Published research shows that, on average, organic food contains higher levels of vitamin C and essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron and chromium, as well as cancer-fighting antioxidants. Organic milk is naturally higher in Omega 3 fatty acids, Vitamin E, Vitamin A (beta-carotene) and some other antioxidants than non-organic milk. I’ve seen research that supports this, in some cases. Again, if you can provide a better product, then do it. Why do you need to cajole the rest of us into consuming something that you claim is cheaper, cleaner, more nutritious, and safer?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

American child

Do you like pictures of babies? Country music? Well, if you're like 50% of my readership, then you are my mother or sister, so yes. Enjoy.

Meet my Paladin

His name is Hayek. I thought he was a badass. Dom thinks he looks like the gay lovechild of He-Man and Randy "Macho Man" Savage. What do you think?

Friday, May 02, 2008

Organic food myths

From an article in the Independent that calls for sanity and reason when discussing food options.

Myth one: Organic farming is good for the environment
The study of Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) for the UK, sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, should concern anyone who buys organic. It shows that milk and dairy production is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). A litre of organic milk requires 80 per cent more land than conventional milk to produce, has 20 per cent greater global warming potential, releases 60 per cent more nutrients to water sources, and contributes 70 per cent more to acid rain.

Myth two: Organic farming is more sustainable
Organic potatoes use less energy in terms of fertiliser production, but need more fossil fuel for ploughing. A hectare of conventionally farmed land produces 2.5 times more potatoes than an organic one.

Myth three: Organic farming doesn't use pesticides
For example, organic farmers can treat fungal diseases with copper solutions. Unlike modern, biodegradable, pesticides copper stays toxic in the soil for ever. The organic insecticide rotenone (in derris) is highly neurotoxic to humans – exposure can cause Parkinson's disease. But none of these "natural" chemicals is a reason not to buy organic food; nor are the man-made chemicals used in conventional farming.

Myth four: Pesticide levels in conventional food are dangerous
The proponents of organic food – particularly celebrities, such as Gwyneth Paltrow, who have jumped on the organic bandwagon – say there is a "cocktail effect" of pesticides. Some point to an "epidemic of cancer". In fact, there is no epidemic of cancer. When age-standardised, cancer rates are falling dramatically and have been doing so for 50 years.

Myth five: Organic food is healthier
Large studies in Holland, Denmark and Austria found the food-poisoning bacterium Campylobacter in 100 per cent of organic chicken flocks but only a third of conventional flocks; equal rates of contamination with Salmonella (despite many organic flocks being vaccinated against it); and 72 per cent of organic chickens infected with parasites.
This high level of infection among organic chickens could cross-contaminate non-organic chickens processed on the same production lines. Organic farmers boast that their animals are not routinely treated with antibiotics or (for example) worming medicines. But, as a result, organic animals suffer more diseases. In 2006 an Austrian and Dutch study found that a quarter of organic pigs had pneumonia against 4 per cent of conventionally raised pigs; their piglets died twice as often.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Tpotdomescandal's Top 10 TV shows

#8: Quantum Leap

Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished .... He awoke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey is Al, an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear. And so Dr. Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.

It still gives me chills. Quantum Leap was a fine example of episodic programming, in which each episode began and ended in a similar manner and told a similar type of story. I often prefer more complex structures in television, but Quantum Leap excelled because of its heart and its unique ability to completely change settings from week to week. The show’s great heart came off as genuine, rather than hokey. Part of the reason is that Scott Bakula’s Sam Beckett was believable in his heroism and innocence. You rooted for him to right what once went wrong. The structure of the show allowed Sam to be in a different era every episode (well, between 1958 and 1987). This added variety and increased its appeal, especially to nostalgic types who grew up in the 50s and 60s. The show could be funny, dramatic, or smart, but it was always about doing the right thing. In fact, like Futurama, Quantum Leap succeds as a sincere and intelligent scifi porogram precisely because it avoids the pretention and jargon of conventional scifi. The cigar-chomping skirt-chasing Al was a classic sidekick character.

The spiritual theme developed over time, and in the final seasons, there was a good deal of metaphysics. Righting what once went wrong explicitly took on a dimension of working to do God's will. There was even an anti-leaper working for the devil to make things wrong. All along, Al puffed his cigar.

If you're not familiar with the art of wikigroaning, quantum leap (scientific term) vs. Quantum Leap (television series), is a great example.