Wednesday, December 30, 2009

'What Darwin Never Knew'

NOVA's "What Darwin Never Knew" was a real treat. The segment covering HOX genes was too summary, but overall the 2 hour Evo-Devo special was superb and reminds me why PBS is our only, if tiny, answer to the BBC. Watch.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Broken Chamber

Paul Krugman sees the harbinger of a terminally ill body upon looking at the Senate.  So do I.  The level of dysfunction due to the antidemocratic power structures that rule the chamber - in plain sight - have peaked since Republicans became the minority in 2006.  The filibuster is now used to threaten roughly 70% of legislation.  Any time the minority party wants to throw a wrench in the democratic process they have taken to it, without castigation from the public for choking majority rule.  It is no matter that they are currently outnumbered by 150%, the minority now wields kill-power without fearing reprisal.  The filibuster has become a given tactic on virtually every piece of legislation.

Of course it has - if the majority were to pass a good bill that was efficient and improved conditions for the American public, they would be rewarded electorally for governing effectively.  So as long as there are no public rebukes, it will always be in the political interest of the minority to derail any potential progress brought by the majority.  Regarding the healthcare bill, and last nights cloture vote, Krugman warns:

"the fact that it was such a close thing shows that the Senate — and, therefore, the U.S. government as a whole — has become ominously dysfunctional.  After all, Democrats won big last year, running on a platform that put health reform front and center.  In any other advanced democracy this would have given them the mandate and the ability to make major changes.  But the need for 60 votes to cut off Senate debate and end a filibuster — a requirement that appears nowhere in the Constitution, but is simply a self-imposed rule — turned what should have been a straightforward piece of legislating into a nail-biter.  And it gave a handful of wavering senators extraordinary power to shape the bill.  

Now consider what lies ahead.  We need fundamental financial reform.  We need to deal with climate change.  We need to deal with our long-run budget deficit.  What are the chances that we can do all that — or, I’m tempted to say, any of it — if doing anything requires 60 votes in a deeply polarized Senate?"

We, the most powerful democratic nation, are watching the machinery of government breakdown to the pace of, well, a filibuster.

Here fo the full article.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Universe We Glimpse

Shown here is a breathtaking 6 minute space flight, zooming outward from the Himalayas, past the planets, and past the galaxy all the way to the edge of the known universe, before zooming home again.

The model reflected in this video is based on real mapping data.  Watch this video in full screen.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Stop The Insanity... End Minority Rule

If you were to ask me what should be done in a hypothetical situation 8 years from now, when a Republican controlled Congress is trying to privatize social security and increase spending (as they delight in doing while they're in power), while simultaneously deregulating the banks and cutting taxes for the wealthy, I would say "filibuster."

Of course I would want a filibuster, it's a powerful way to stop the other side from getting what they want in a patently anti-democratic way.  If the case could be made that it would be "better for the country" to stop the legislation aforementioned, then by all means, filibuster!  Isn't it great to have the filibuster in our arsenal?

No. It is breaking the institution of Congress, and vastly diminishing the power of our democracy.

"It means the minority party has a continual stake in Congress not really working, because that means the president can't really succeed... The filibuster will end when Congress decides that it wants to be an effective, powerful institution again. But that's the only incentive Congress has to end it. So long as it's simply a question of partisan power, someone will always be in the minority, and so someone will always see the filibuster as serving their interests."

-Ezra Klein has written an simple explanation that all should read... Click here to Read the full article.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Beautiful Vision Of The Galactic Center

The music is so... spacey.

(Click on the video while playing to watch in full)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Roger Ebert Slams Superstitious Creationists, and New-Agers'

Roger Ebert rips into the trendy New-Age phenomoenon, leading into a broader polemic on creationism, politics, and the media.  His critique of the way our media treats manufactured controversies, the evolution "debate" (which is, of course, nothing even resembling a debate), and religious literalism is refreshing.  Particularly so when it comes from a well-known TV personality:
  • "My only purpose today is to state early and often that if a Presidential candidate believes early humans used saddles to ride on the backs of dinosaurs, as they are depicted at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, that candidate should not be elected President. 
  • And if a candidate counts among close friends and advisors anyone in communication with the spirit world, that candidate should not be elected President. 
  • And if a candidate accounts for the fact that humanoid and dinosaur bones are never found at the same level in the fossil record by evoking the action of sediment after the Great Flood, that candidate should not be President. 
  • And if a candidate has a spirit guide, consults his or her Chart and takes more than a passing amusement in the horoscope, that candidate should not be elected President. 
  • I would be much relieved if the MSM would subscribe to these guidelines now, when our minds are clear, and not muddle them later in the fray of an election. Serious belief in either the New Age or Creationism should be as much a cause for ineligibility as -- why, not being born in the United States."
Read the full article HERE.

Probable Pair-Instability Supernovae Explosion

Scientists seem to have observed the explosion last year of a 200 solar-mass star. Stars this big are rare today but are thought to have been common in the early universe.  The heavy elements forged together in that massive nuclear furnace were detected in surprising amounts, leading scientists to regard Supernovae SN 2007bi as relevant to the early evolution of the universe.
"The heavy elements spewed into space in the deaths of similar early, massive stars may have stunted the growth of later stellar generations. That's because gas clouds containing iron and other heavy elements tend to fragment into smaller knots that give birth to relatively lightweight stars like the sun.... 
Though some less-massive stars also spew metals when they die, pair-instability supernovae are especially prolific polluters. "One such explosion can pollute an entire small ancient galaxy," Gal-Yam told New Scientist...  The dwarf galaxy where SN 2007bi occurred seems to have low metal content, the team says, which might explain how the star that went supernova was able to form."

Stars born with more than about 140 times the mass of the sun die as "pair-instability supernova" that spew heavy elements into space (Illustration: NASA/CXC/M Weiss)
Stars born with more than about 140 times the mass of the sun die as "pair-instability supernova" that spew heavy elements into space (Illustration: NASA/CXC/M Weiss)
More at New Scientist. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Better Than Fantasy

These are some great Hubble images that Alan Taylor at put together. Click on the animation to go to the collection.
I know the Eagle Nebula is super-serialized at this point, but it never ceases to shake me when I stare at it.  Each of those little 'pinches' diverging from the main column of gas and dust covers an area larger than the Solar System, and contains a star being born before our very eyes.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Protest

Andrew Sullivan has abandoned the caricature of what used to be the conservative movement... with a bang!  His announcement reads powerfully - a blistering critique of the modern Republican party which has itself become a factory of farcical policies, inherently venomous to American principles.

I will never agree with Sullivan's accomodationism when it comes to religion and superstition, but in his summary description of the impulses governing the modern conservative movement, he has been bang on:

  • "I cannot support a movement that claims to believe in limited government but backed an unlimited domestic and foreign policy presidency that assumed illegal, extra-constitutional dictatorial powers until forced by the system to return to the rule of law. 
  • I cannot support a movement that exploded spending and borrowing and blames its successor for the debt. 
  • I cannot support a movement that so abandoned government's minimal and vital role to police markets and address natural disasters that it gave us Katrina and the financial meltdown of 2008. 
  • I cannot support a movement that holds torture as a core value. 
  • I cannot support a movement that holds that purely religious doctrine should govern civil political decisions and that uses the sacredness of religious faith for the pursuit of worldly power. 
  • I cannot support a movement that is deeply homophobic, cynically deploys fear of homosexuals to win votes, and gives off such a racist vibe that its share of the minority vote remains pitiful. 
  • I cannot support a movement which has no real respect for the institutions of government and is prepared to use any tactic and any means to fight political warfare rather than conduct a political conversation. 
  • I cannot support a movement that sees permanent war as compatible with liberal democratic norms and limited government. 
  • I cannot support a movement that criminalizes private behavior in the war on drugs. 
  • I cannot support a movement that would back a vice-presidential candidate manifestly unqualified and duplicitous because of identity politics and electoral cynicism. 
  • I cannot support a movement that regards gay people as threats to their own families. 
  • I cannot support a movement that does not accept evolution as a fact. 
  • I cannot support a movement that sees climate change as a hoax and offers domestic oil exploration as the core plank of an energy policy. 
  • I cannot support a movement that refuses ever to raise taxes, while proposing no meaningful reductions in government spending. 
  • I cannot support a movement that refuses to distance itself from a demagogue like Rush Limbaugh or a nutjob like Glenn Beck. 
  • I cannot support a movement that believes that the United States should be the sole global power, should sustain a permanent war machine to police the entire planet, and sees violence as the core tool for international relations.

Does this make me a "radical leftist" as Michelle Malkin would say? Emphatically not. But it sure disqualifies me from the current American right.
To paraphrase Reagan, I didn't leave the conservative movement. It left me.
And increasingly, I'm not alone."

Bravo Mr. Sullivan.

Intelligence Squared Debate: Atheism Is the New Fundamentalism

Richard Dawkins and A.C. bring the pain:

Click to redirect to Youtube video with parts 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.