12.22.2010

A Light Diversion

Ole' Pliny has been battling against the forces of evil and disease so I've been a bit out of pocket. The battle goes well and the new year may be a big one.

On the eve of what I hope is a splendid holiday for you all I'm posting some images of some of my favorite flags. Wonder how many you recognize...




I submitted this one to the contest to design a new Oregon flag - didn't win.



The above is my Mac screen saver



12.02.2010

Well, that would have sucked!

Mohamed Mohamud (is that like Duran Duran?). A twisted teen douche bag who thought it would be grand to blow up a bunch of families at a tree lighting ceremony. Funny to know that you and yours were the target of a murderer. Thought it was a good way to show his faith - not faithful enough to blow himself up too, but hey he was just a weekend jihadist.

Interesting perspectives around Bridgetown.
  • Fire bomb his mosque (no doubt a pickup and some beer were involved with this at some level)
  • Host a candlelight vigil at his damaged mosque to show support for religious freedom
  • Station a lot more police around the transit centers.
  • Have a really bad week if you look or dress a certain way carrying a backpack.
  • Call it entrapment when he remote triggered his dud bomb from the safety of Union Station. (He should have suspected something was amiss when he found Doris Day parking downtown.)
  • Rail that Portland quit the joint terrorism task force
  • Rail that it’s an FBI conspiracy to punish us for quitting the joint task force
  • Complain that the FBI sure went through all the motions to prove this was a legit attempt.
  • Complain that this is the same FBI that framed an odd duck lawyer in town for the Madrid bombings
  • Complain that the mayor was at the ceremony and was never informed that he was in absolutely no danger (well, at least from the bomber guy...)
  • Wonder why in 2010 we still let large windowless vans park next to huge public affairs (particularly ones with six 55 gallon drums in the back).
  • Wonder who sold six 55 gallon drums to a angry looking teenager.
  • We are catching the Kramer lookalike shoe bombers and the idiot kids - but what about the real dudes who aren’t complete idiots?
  • Portland! are you kidding me? So much for being a city known for acceptance of most anything. We do draw the line for acceptable behavior somewhere north of corpse strewn streets.
  • If it had been real, coming off an airline gropefest to find out that all that security would have just meant you wasted 30 minutes of your last day...

11.16.2010

Another Question to Consider

At this point in history are there reasons to reject evolutionary theory as the best explanation for the historical development of life on earth other than:
a) Ignorance of the facts
b) Misrepresentation of the facts
c) Deliberate lying
or
4) Wishful thinking (the 4 is for you pboy...)

10.31.2010

Tea Party Apocalypse: A Pliny Halloween Treat

"Well, that's your trouble boy. Shootin 'em in the head don't do shit. Their brains ain't what's controllin 'em. Never was, I suspect."

Sheriff Tyree's admonition to Chuck seemed a bit condescending in that uneducated-but-smarter-than-you style that flourishes in the rural south, but it was true enough. Shooting them in the head really didn't do shit save splattering a bunch of truly friggin repugnant corruption about. More often than not, the 'about' was likely to be your shoes or your hair. It was sticky and stanky as hell particularly in the hair.

These weren't your garden variety George Romero or Lucio Fulci zombies out there. No, not so lucky. These were Tea Party Zombies. I’d seen ones with their heads blown clean off and they still moved about clutching some inane homemade sign. They would move around, bump into things, and get caught in a corner just like one of those old electric football game players, my brother had as a kid, but they could still cause damage. You needed to put them down once and for all.

"See, they run on bile. So yall hafta be sure and shoot 'em in the liver. Otherwise they likely to just keep comin."

Sheriff Tyree was a walking encyclopedia of practical zombie information and he seemed to delight in the fact that here at last was a criminal element that would never get the benefit of council or require a pesky trial. He liked that the only ‘technicalities’ that complicated his job now were things like the relative advantage of say a Winchester 300 magnum or a 308 Marlin.

Doc Solesky chimed in as well. "Sheriff's right. I dissected one of those hideous creatures and the gallbladder was huge. It was bigger than a softball! Never seen so much bile from one creature." Clearly he'd never met Sara Palin or Rush Limbaugh.

Oh, sorry, I forgot to introduce myself. My name’s Jake. Far as I know, I'm the last survivor in my family.

Chuck and his sister had just shown up yesterday. Their survival alone to this point was nothing short of miraculous. Ralph, one of the token Yankee’s, theorized that the confederate flag plate on the front of their SUV had something to do with it. May have worked as a Bagger smoke screen. Hard to know but here they were. They might come in handy soon, if as nothing more than extra bait. In a tight spot extra bait was a blessing. Creating a target rich environment so to speak. Better odds of escape.

I had learned a lot myself over the last few weeks. I'd fallen into a coma after the 2008 elections and awoke 2 years later in an abandoned room at a rehab center. A lot had changed. The existence of the Tea Party Zombies was a change I'd had a hard time believing in but here they were in the rotting flesh. What actually had caused the Tea Party Zombies in the first place, was open to debate. Nobody knew for sure. Few people bothered to call them Tea Party Zombies. Some used the shorthand of TPZ's. But most just called them Tea Baggers or just baggers. The first ones afflicted by the plague seemed to have been susceptible to an airborne pathogen of some kind that robbed them of any logical faculties. Others succumbed after a bite. There didn't seem to be any rational reason as to why average people had suddenly lost their memories for recent events, gone berserk and paranoid, created raging signs with poor spelling and grammar, and started to eat brains. It didn't matter at this point anyway because they had. Cause and effect didn't matter much now to the survivors anymore than it ever had to the Baggers. Living through the day was all that counted now. Use your head or a bagger would use it for an ash tray.

It had been hard for me to come to grips with the fact that here was a group of creatures that looked sort of human but clearly weren’t. I’d almost lost my own sorry cabbage a couple of times early on when I’d tried to get through to a couple of them, not knowing what had happened. It was no use at all. Reasoning with a brain eating zombie is not a productive use of your time. Better to just shoot them in the liver and be done with it.

Our group was a loose collection of survivors from all walks of life. In addition to me and the others I've mentioned there were about 20 more. A eclectic group. The teen sibs, Tom the grocer, the sheriff, the doc, a couple of engineers, but thank god, no lawyers.

Baggers were everywhere but they really were dense around this place. Just our luck we’d made it to the little shopping center in the dark only to find that a Denny’s, a KFC and a MCL were right next door. Grease matched up well with brains apparently. The group needed to relocate fast. Supplies were running thin at this little urban mall in any case. Plus the baggers were instinctively congregating at the doors in anticipation of Black Friday even though weeks away. Brains weren’t the only things the Baggers wanted to consume.

There was a big city bus a block away that would do nicely as a form of urban tank to get us into the country side. But that meant running the gauntlet through a crowd of baggers. Having a functioning human brain made you a tasty target for their mob. At least they weren’t organized. Each one would fight all the others for the contents of your skull.

We were comparing ideas about the best way to get to that bus. Chuck’s baby sister Cora suggested that everyone could make a sign and pick out some costume from Spencer Gifts.

“That way we might all blend in enough to get to the bus.”

It wasn’t the stupidest idea anyone had heard lately but Ralph wasn’t so keen on that idea.

"That's fine and dandy for all you white folk but I can carry all the signs in the world and it won't fool them a bit!"

Ralph was right about that. The average TPZ's skin had been pretty pale long before they had taken to cranial cuisine.

Outside the locked gates of the mall the baggers slogged about with their signs. Sometimes the spelling was so bad that it was hard to know what they were trying to convey. But what could you expect from brainless zombies. Many chanted religious slogans by rote but I doubted that the answer to the question ‘what would Jesus do?’ had ever been to go forth and eat brains. My last Sunday school had been years ago but I couldn't recall that part.

We talked a while about the best way to get to the bus, but pretty quickly concluded that our standard approach was best. I agreed that it was the best bet but wasn’t all that happy about it for obvious reasons.

It was my turn to be the rabbit for roundup. Roundup was our nickname for the standard escape plan. It wasn't the safest job in town. True, the TPZ's were mostly over weight and slow as hell but there were a lot of them and they could pop out of an unexpected hole at any moment. One bite and you were a goner. It wasn't quick and it was ugly to watch. First sign was a fever and chills followed by a memory loss, narcissism, and hoarding. Then paroxysms of shouting made up historical facts. Before long you'd find them slowly creating an error laden sign on a discarded piece of cardboard and you'd better shoot them in the liver by then or the next moment they'd be trying to eat your brain.

The rabbit's job wasn't safe but it was simple. Go out and get the attention of some Baggers and draw them into some kind of kill zone or away from the main body. Depended on circumstances. If culling the herd of baggers was the goal the kill zone could be Claymores, fertilizer bombs, diesel oil and old rags, or tapes of Oprah. Get enough of them in one place to make it worthwhile to blow them up or burn them out. The Harley brothers preferred the 'plinking' method. Get them out in the parking lot and shoot them from the roof. Not real sporting but war isn’t. In a past life the Harley's would likely have supported some of the same causes as were reflected by the Baggers' signs, but when ever would there be open season to shoot people? To them it was best to enjoy it while it lasted.

I’d come up with a variation that was ironic and effective. We had come upon a military convoy with some Claymore’s in boxes and found some DVD players in another truck. We’d set up a claymore right behind the DVD vid screen and play some old Fox News tapes we found and loaded onto some blank discs. The baggers would all fight to get a view of the screen. And in so doing would line up perfectly in the ideal directional kill zone for the claymores. I was glad to get rid of baggers and finally find a constructive use for Fox News.

My rabbit costume was easy. It was an old Obama Halloween mask. It worked great with the baggers. That Obama mask would have rousted them from eating even Noam Chomsky's brain. They could not resist. Particularly if you chanted, "Yes we can!, Allah Akbar!, or kill the fetus!" while wearing it. Get them stirred up enough to chase you and the others could escape. Let them chase you for a while then either give them the slip and double back to the group or deploy the last resort.

It was Ralph who had stumbled upon the last ditch defense when trapped by a mob of the Baggers. He had been cornered in an abandoned camera store at the mall when he picked up a camcorder intent on nothing more than throwing it at them as a last resort when they had all stopped and started flashing their signs into the lens while hollering about tax and spend. It was instinctive - see a camera and start ranting. Ralph was cool and clever enough to slowly exit the store with the camera up to his face as if recording. Once out in the mall he ran like the devil before the Baggers figured it out.

One thing was for sure. Bagger activity was getting worse the closer we got to November 2. Time to get out of the city and into the country. There were still baggers but you could see them from way off and, plink, that was that. Tomorrow we would get the bus and move out.

-----------------------------------------------

These baggers had been organized. It chilled me to the bone to realize that. That’s the only way they could have gotten Chuck, the doc, and the Harley boys. We’d been ambushed and never got near that bus. I almost didn’t make it back.

Somewhere out in that mob was something that could control the baggers. They were dangerous enough when they were flitting about on their own agenda. But bring all that brain eating craziness together with focus and we were all screwed. We were dead unless we could figure out what was happening and kill or destroy it.

We were all pretty quiet for the next few days while we tried to regroup. Then it made a mistake that changed everything. I was up on the roof doing some recon when it happened. A bunch of baggers congregated around some shadowed figure about 2 clicks up the road. Next thing I know, this group goes off and a new group assembles. Went that way for hours and each time the little group of baggers seemed like they were up to some organized mischief that didn’t bode well for us. And the thing kept disappearing into a building just out of rifle range.

We argued for hours about my plan. I finally convinced the Sheriff to go along. Once he was on board the rest folded as well. An assault on bagger central. Try and take out that thing pulling the strings. No finesse what so ever. Run straight at them and shoot from the hip. Shotguns primarily. Less chance of missing the liver that way at this range. Anyone left at the end would try to take out the leader. We’d see what happened then. Not much of a plan but the details were easy to remember.

We rushed out and caught them by surprise. They weren’t used to people with living brains coming out firing from the hip. Guess they expected us to always try and talk our way out of trouble or be more subtle. No, this time the direct approach was all we planned. It was rush, run and shoot. Mowing them down in waves. The creature in charge hadn’t anticipated what we’d do. Never expected it. Thought we’d wait for its soldiers to pick us off. Guess again bucko!

We all made it to the building and fought through to a large auditorium where it was surrounded by garden variety baggers. It was hideous in an HP Lovecraft sort of way but it explained a lot. Tom the grocer was right on top of it but he hesitated and the drone baggers were on him before he could move. The leader was a contorted mutant. A full sized adult body carrying a wretched naked imp growing out of its abdomen. It was the hellish little horror that was giving orders while smiling a satanic little grin. It laughed as Tom the grocer was pulled down by the baggers. The grotesque little parasite didn’t see me coming though.

I shot the vile thing in the head. Right between its beady little pig eyes. Then I shot it in the liver. It was dead for good this time. Sheriff Tyree shot it a half dozen times as well. A few others took their turns until it was pretty well pulped. At once, the baggers lost cohesion and turned on one another giving us time to escape. As we trotted away toward that bus the Sheriff smirked at me.

“Jake, boy, why’d you shoot it in the head? You know that don’t kill ‘em.”

I smiled back for the first time in quite a while. “No, but it did wipe that crappy little smile off the bastard’s face, didn’t it.”

Tyree smiled a huge toothy grim and laughed out loud. “Damn straight! Today has been a good day, all in all.”

It was strange but I couldn’t help but agree.

10.29.2010

Recognizing a Keen Insight - my first Guest post of a sort...

This takes me all the way back to the idea of time and procedural development: DNA just exists, it can be modified by RNA and proteins to exist in a different state, but itself acts as nothing more than memory [short term (epigenetic modification) and long term (mutation)]. "Life" is the procedural existence of this memory and is influenced by the interaction of inputs with this memory.
Jared from Mors dei left this little snippet attached at the end of our last discussion thread. I repost it here because I think it is rare that such a keen insight is ever so succinctly stated in the blogosphere. Think about this one.

10.20.2010

Some Philosophy Worth Considering

Can thought exist outside of time?
Is the second law of thermodynamics a requirement for memory?

NO LURKING! Share your thoughts.

10.11.2010

Spontaneous Creation: Probability's Choice

What follows are some high level thoughts about the problems with some common deist arguments. I don't have any problem with people believing as they wish. - faith is after all a personal thing. I have a problem with people twisting logic and bits and pieces of science to either make their arguments or discredit science. Or claiming that science is akin to a religion. It isn't. Some deists love to cross the Yalu River of epistemology to attack skeptics and then retreat when pursued. Pliny’s tired of that tactic, so here goes. I will argue that a lot of what some will claim is beyond our ability to know, isn't.

Can a universe just happen? That is a pivotal question and one that is a cornerstone of deist arguments. But one that may not be out of our reach particularly if we build a case starting from some very basic premises. I'll start with the most basic - the probability of spontaneous emergence versus divine creation.

The Probability Argument: Probability is the likelihood of an event occurring divided by the number of possible outcomes. Deists argue that the probability of the universe spontaneously coming into existence is very, very low. No argument there if we are talking about the set of all possible events. Maybe not if we are talking about the set of all possible universal origins. The Deist slight of hand at this point is to posit that a 'first mover' creating the universe is more likely. Such claims aren't supported by facts, just strong assertions. The argument goes, it's far easier to imagine that the mysterious prime mover can create a universe than to imagine it occurring spontaneously. It may be easier for many to imagine but there are at least 3 big problems with the argument - Time, the problem of delayed origins, and the problem of structure.

Time: Probability calculations deal with the incidence of an event, i.e., the percentage of new events with respect to a population of events for a given period of time. That last part is the crux of the issue - time. In our example the incidence of events that lead to a Big Bang would be low amongst a set of all events that could occur. But probability doesn't deal with the prevalence of an event or the percentage of existing events within a given population for a given period of time. Probability arguments are more about will something occur than has it already occurred. This is critical. One, time is a characteristic of a universe where entropy is a driver. Time, as we know it did not exist prior to the Big Bang. Therefore incidence (or the likelihood that something will happen) potentially has no bearing to the discussion of universal origins. Where time is absent, the probability that something that is possible could in fact occur (be prevalent within the population of all possible events) becomes moot. Absent time, any viable possibility will likely be present in the set of possible events. Once it occurred time becomes a factor, but not before. Therefore, it is reasonable to state that the probability of spontaneous origins of the universe is irrelevant when time is excluded from the debate, and if possible, it would have occurred. In the end, probability becomes far less important than possibility. Absent time the whole argument boils down to which, if either, of our two contending explanations is actually possible.

Possibility: If time is excluded the next factor to consider is the limit of what is possible. Is it possible that a universe could spring into existence? We have evidence that, at the quantum level, at least, particles do in fact spring into existence from time to time. And that's just something we have been able to observe in the last few years. Can vastly larger amounts of energy come into being under certain circumstances when time is not a factor? Not to be glib, but the difference from a particle and a universe blasting into existence is a problem of magnitude not a limit of possibility. There is no scientific limit that says no. And if it happened that way, there is also science to explain how an irregular soup of extreme energy could condense in all sorts of ways convenient to humans over a period of say, 14 billion years. Is it a common event? Fortunately for us, no. There appeared to be just enough heterogeneity in the singular event of the Big Bang that over time the structure we observe (and from which our bounty flows) could come into being - at the expense of creating more disordered than ordered states. (Remember, the vastness of the universe allows for a lot of nooks and crannies to fill with disorder to feed the needs of entities that crave structure like ourselves.) Science suggests that such an event is possible and absent the limits of time, the prevalence of such an event, within the set of all possible events should be high enough to account for us. After all, one such event is all we need. Absent time, all possibilities become eventualities. (Suggesting that the multiverse theory might not be a bad one.) But this line of argument spells trouble for the deist. Even absent time there is no logical reason to assume that impossible events could occur. Science suggest that the Big Bang is not an impossible event. Ok so far. The question that we can now turn back on the deists is this; What is the likelihood and possibility of the prime mover? Is the prime mover an impossible event? The problems of delayed origins and structure suggest that such a thing may not be possible.

Delayed Origins: Deists conveniently side step the problem of where did the all powerful first mover come from. But consider for a moment that all the deist really is doing when they say the universe had to have a creator is push the problem of spontaneous creation back to before the Big Bang. That's cheating but they don't always get called on it. At some point you have to account for the origins of the prime mover. The prime mover has to be created or just be. The ‘just be’ option isn't reasonable. We’ll return to that later on. If a huge quantity of energy with minimal variation in it is hard to imagine then a fully formed super being just blinking into relief stretches credulity far, far, far more. To be fair, the time problem would suggest that, if possible, even this scenario might be present in the set of all eventualities. But the self organizing super being? Is that possible? No, because of the structure problem.

The Structure Problem: Disembodied beings are the mainstay of religion and its modern descendant, science fiction. But are they even possible? This is central to deism and any variation. Certainly we have no extant science to describe intelligence without physicality. The argument must hedge on either the evolution of nonphysical super intelligence (transcendence) or the spontaneous creation of a wholly formed super being with some type of nonphysical structure. Reality will require some type of structure upon which to hang all this mental power both to support things like thought and memories, and to allow the entity to interact with its environment. Structure requires raw materials. Maintenance of structure requires enormous energy. A body, even a non-corporeal one’s gotta eat to live. A human needs about 1200 to 1600 Cal/day to live. An elephant consumes 150 - 170 kg of vegetation per day, and a Blue Whale 5 - 6 metric tones a day during the feeding season; Imagine what a god would have to eat in a day. Particularly one able to create a universe from simple ingredients. The energy required would be orders upon orders of magnitude higher than that required to spark the Big Bang in the first place - how likely is that - how possible. Against what backdrop or framework would (could) such an entity hold itself together and interact with the Uberverse? Astute readers might note that this discussion seems predicated on an entity behaving in a manner similar to life in this universe where entropy and time are factors. Yes it does. The notion of thought without the arrow of time (needed for any self-aware entity) is impossible on many levels; some obvious some not. But that is a big subject that will be addressed in a later post. For now it is enough to say that thought without history - without time - is nothing but a jumbled mess. For this reason we can discount the possibility of spontaneous incorporation of super powerful entities outside of time. And they would have to have existed outside of time to have created the universe.

What about evolution of such an entity (I admit it’s a bit cheeky to be discussing the evolution of a god used by many to discount human evolution but you know how Pliny loves his irony...). Evolution requires two things; an abundance of naturally occurring options and mechanisms to stratify the reproductive success of those options in future generations. Neither of these can violate basic physics in the process either. No magic is permitted. Greater organizational complexity must be payed for by robbing Peter to pay Paul - entropy of the system must increase overall. In biological systems we can think of entropy as metabolism - an entity has gotta eat to organize and maintain. And it pumps heat and waste products into its universe in order to obey the laws of physics. Absent active intake of new sources of energy there is no way to maintain let alone grow. All processes within a living entity (physical or otherwise) require energy. The larger or more involved the process (or the entity) the more energy is required.

A super being faces obstacles on both sides of the evolutionary equation. A source of supernatural source material and the energy requirements needed to sustain the survival of a naturally selected super being. Remember we aren’t just talking Superman here - we are talking about a being that creates universes! For such a thing we have no mechanisms that can account for that via any kind of incrementalism. How does a thing evolve to not need a body? In two words - it doesn’t. It would have to contain or be able to co-opt existing non-corporeal substrates to be able to gain any advantage. Can such a thing occur? Not from what we can infer. Evolution is repackaging, reordering, duplicating, etc. existing biological structure that gains advantage. Not creating and testing new avenues of structure using different raw materials. So gods evolving seems out of the picture.

Absent gods, can we get here - to where we are in the schema of creation? Only if we can explain the spontaneous emergence of life.

Life?: Could life spontaneously emerge? Certainly if a universe can why not life within it? But life faces problems that the universe did not - life must contend with a defined set of parameters and the clock, for time is a player once the universe exists. Can science explain spontaneous origins within a period of 10 billion years? As it turns out, yes. What follows is a very cursory story of a possible creation event.

In the beginning there were the elements. Forged in the hearts of dying stars. Scattered about by explosions so big that we don't have words to do it justice. Some of those elements happened to condense along with many others to form a rocky planet just far enough from its primary star to have liquid water. Through well known chemical processes these became compounds including lipids, amino acids and nucleic acids. No magic save physics was required to reach that point. Nucleic acids could become RNA strands through self-catalyzing reactions that can be mimicked in a lab today. Lipids could form globules encasing small quantities of fluid and any random compounds so engulfed. Peptides could form from the amino acids. All these things can be replicated today. There appear to have been ample avenues for these events to have occurred on the primordial Earth.

And so it probably went for some very long time until perhaps through countless random mutations of unstable nucleic acid strands a sequence of base pairs had enough affinity for a particular set of amino acids that they came into proximity long enough and frequently enough to create a peptide that made that particular strand less unstable. If so, it might have stoked the first fires of natural selection. How at such a primitive level? If it were more stable it might catalyze more copies of itself and begin to represent a larger and larger percent of the available strands. Natural selection is simple reproductive success. We tend to think of it only in the context of living systems but in pre-life conditions, reproductive success may be nothing more than greater chemical stability and superior catalysis. Is that enough to favor one arrangement of compounds over another? - just ask DuPont or any other chemical manufacturing company. Perhaps the strands were aided in this by being surrounded by the lipid globules preventing dilution of the reactive elements allowing for more reactions. Maybe not. But this imagining once again does not require magic beyond organic chemistry.

Although all these reactions were merely the product of simple chemistry at some point perhaps either a random mutation in a nucleic acid strand or a random combination in a peptide created from raw amino acids created a new sequence. One that made it easier for our more stable nucleic acid strand to be created from random nucleotides floating about. A catalyst. The first enzyme. Back and forth it went for time beyond imagining. The addition of a new peptide making it easier to create a new peptide or nucleic acid strand or visa versa. Natural selection by chemical stability and the ability to replicate from the primordial soup. (Remember - creation of the options for selection is random but natural selection is very nonrandom and an extremely powerful driver.) In time enough of these accidents accumulated that a tally of useful bits could be immortalized in a strand of nucleic acid sequences. Maybe some combination made it more likely that those lipids would aggregate around the reactive mass of more complex compounds. And the principle players required to make a cell were brought together. For now, all powered by the heat of the earth’s creation. There may have been many contending arrangements fighting for supremacy but eventually some structures centered around using DNA provided just enough stability to improve their replicative success and just enough chemical divergence to ramp up the engine of selection. The other contenders hadn't a chance. Soon the victor's descendants would stumble upon a chemical arrangement that would allow them to gather a small part of the enormous energy of our local star. But physics still ruled. Organizing that all that energy required a larger component of disorder within the ecosystem. As a consequence they would pollute the atmosphere with a terrible poison - oxygen. A pollutant that would turn out to greatly accelerate local disorder (satisfying thermodynamics) but also provide the ample power needed for more complex life. A billion or two years later, one family of their distant descendants would ponder and argue the nature of existence.

There are other far more sophisticated and detailed explanations and theories for what started the engine of creation here on Earth but the point is simply that it need not have been helped along by any mystic hand. Did it happen just this way - probably not exactly, but it could. It requires no retreat into metaphysical realms where magic of some sort is applied. Now we have a spontaneously emerging universe and spontaneously emerging life within it. None of which requires any journey into the unknowable. With the trail of reasonable science this becomes by far the more likely explanation. It requires neither a first mover to kick start it nor a maintenance crew to keep it going (the maintenance crew considerations actually do face known hard science that discredits the need for frequent tuning).

There are other issues facing the deists. I’ll close with a couple more.

Missing Energy: If you dial your TV to a station without a signal, you’ll see snow. Some of that snow is energy left over from the Big Bang - an echo across 14 billion years of creation itself. It still gives me shivers. The Big Bang left a signal (and a whole lot more of course...). Immense as it was, it still had to play by its own rules. Forces, energy, mass effects, gravitation, all these things play by the rules and leave traces even if we haven’t figured them all out yet. A visitor or tender of a universal terrarium of sorts would have to leave a trace - either by disrupting reality’s structure or by leaving energy traces in its wake. So if gods are about they are leaving a mark somewhere. And science should be able to find it. Nothing yet. (Dark Matter and Dark Energy? sorry, no joy but that is a long post for another time). This returns to the structure problem - what is a god's finger and how does it move stuff about, absent one? Alteration, movement, effects - all require a mechanism to transfer energy from one thing to another. Where does it come from, how did it come to be, where are its fingerprints - lots of hard questions without deist answers. Fortunately the mechanist doesn't need to answer these 'angels on the head of a pin', level questions. Testable mechanisms exist.

The Anthropic Principle: This universe of ours seems really well tailored to our needs, therefore it's evidence of design or so the argument goes. Not really and I'll limit my rebuttal to two things. One, the old correlation is not causation truth. Is it really surprising that we as life forms would in fact find ourselves in a universe that makes life possible? Would life evolve in a universe that didn't have the structure to support life? Of course not. We live because of the good fortune of being in one possible universe that allows us to exist in the first place. There's no other place we could be! Finding that a universe within which life evolved can in fact support the evolution of life is not a big revelation. Finding life in one that didn't would be a far more compelling argument for having had some help.

Perhaps even more damning is he fact that 99.99+% of this universe of ours is really, really hostile to life. Gamma ray bursters, black holes, super novas, hard vacuum, solar flares, asteroid bombardment, galaxy collisions, stellar nurseries, etc. - not exactly a cake walk. Life can exist - but just barely. Maybe not hostile but at least supremely apathetic.

The credibility problem: Nonbelievers often say that if there was some science, say, in the Bible then we would all believe. The equation for calculating the area of a circle, the structure of DNA etc., but that isn’t true. All that would prove is a superior knowledge of science not proof of divine origins. Certainly not enough to prove that the authors actually created a universe. Tecumseh’s brother, The Prophet, gained power by predicting an eclipse by reading a farmer’s almanac. Not exactly divine revelation but sufficient amongst a group of scientifically uneducated people steeped in mysticism. A graduate student transported back in time could have created a compelling Bible account for science and creation that would be convincing. But not divine. The true skeptic is going to require a lot more - some sort of treatise by Victor Frankenstein, “How I did It!” with charts and graphs I suppose... Many like myself believe that when all the mystery is stripped away, we will be staring at the face of - mathematics.

So now I will end this with by simply saying that the theory of spontaneous emergence of the universe and of life within it is a reasoned probability based upon what we know and can infer. Time may tell...

10.04.2010

The Gods of the Gaps: a Simple Metaphor

The theory of evolution is an extraordinary scientific achievement. The richness of detail and the amazing complementary data from many disciplines, not to mention its predictive successes all speak of a very refined framework. But like all science there are gaps in what we know. A lot of people get fixated on the fact that the theory of evolution has a few holes in it here and there - a missing transition species here, an undefined biochemical mechanism there, etc. Scientists don't seem as concerned about this as the lay public because they see a very different path than does the average Joe.

Imagine that you come upon the scene below.
Now imagine that you are asked to suggest a plausible explanation about what the missing section looked like. Not too hard, is it. Now imagine a slightly larger gap like the one below.
Is it any harder to deduce what the path looked like on the basis of these images? Would your first inclination be to imagine a wild and circuitous route like the one below leading 'who knows where'?

Probably not. You might not know the exact details of how the bridge was constructed but you probably wouldn't imagine it levitated...

9.29.2010

Competing Creation Stories: Part one

Teaching the controversy


Or, how, outside of a Texas school board meeting, can anyone think that the above picture is rational?

(PS, I am considering submitting a new science book to the TSB. The above is an illustration used in the physical science section on fulcrums and levers.)

9.26.2010

Deist Logic

There are desists of many sorts. Some just believe. Some insist on creating a logic structure to justify said beliefs, and some try to get others to accept their constructs as an external validation. I suppose that is to be expected; if you forgo the responsibility of having to account for your own purpose in the universe then you may always be looking for external validations. Personally I find the general desist argument more interesting since it can jink and dive into many more areas of philosophy and semantics than can the believer in a specific faith.

A common misdirection used by apologist deists goes like this: what I say is logical; therefore, it is true. One problem is that these notions, logic and truth, are not inextricably linked. Logic, intuition, etc are useful. But absent rigorous evaluation of the central premises or assumptions of either, they are often false. Wrong far more often than gives us comfort. Take this recent example of deist logic.
  1. Absent gods there can be no moral truth
  2. There are moral truths
  3. Therefore god exists.
This statement is logical. But is it true?

The nonbeliever may agree with '1'; probably does in fact. But '2' becomes the lynch pin. Are there moral truths? The nonbeliever usually says no. Human history certainly supports this position. Deists try to gloss over '2' as a given. It isn't by any stretch. The burden lies with the deist to prove that '2' is true. For '2' to be true, the deist must prove the existence of objective moral truths that cannot be reasonably discounted as no more than simple feelings or perceptions (no matter how deep or seemingly true) which are known to be vulnerable to cognitive bias. Science has proven many times that intuition is often false no matter how intense. Although logical, the previous logic statement is meaningless since it’s based upon false assumption of fixed moral truth absent any objective proof of the existence of such a thing. Absent fact (not the same as flowery philosophy and semantic misdirection) the deist may counter that the depth of feelings and numbers who share them has some importance to truth (sorry, only in elections). But these don't when actually subjected to rigorous testing. Truth and perception are often at odds. With these facts in mind, it is more correct to counter the deist 's logic as follows:
  1. Absent gods there can be no moral truth
  2. We have no objective evidence that there are moral truths
  3. Therefore the existence of gods cannot be gleaned from what we know of moral truth
Which blows a hole in the deist’s position. The fixed navigation point of rigid morality is crucial to the deist's position since at its source must be god. Take it away and they are adrift. But the deist will often counter with the knee -jerk response of ‘have you considered the consequences of this?’

I’m not quite sure why deists imagine that nonbelievers haven’t considered what this means. We do. Probably more than deists who have the benefit of shifting responsibility to god X. As I stated before, humans are responsible for creating our system of morality. Yes it is relative but justice and fairness can be obtained through the use of empathy. Perhaps the purest sense we have. The deist insists that moral relativism prevents the nonbeliever from making or defending a moral position relative to any other. Not true.

As example, let’s consider pedophilia. As a father, I am revolted by the notion of harming my children in any way. Nor am I open to someone else doing it. Don’t need any god to tell me that. As a father, I can be empathetic. I can extend my sense of duty to my children, to children in general. Through empathy, imagining what harm could come to my own dear children, I cannot allow anything like it to be permissible to any children. Therefore I am supportive of the relative moralistic position that children should be protected. I am eager to enter into a social contract that holds this position as moral. I am willing to accept it as a fact that kids are off limits. I refuse to accept it as permissible despite historical evidence that other cultures do not agree. I know that it is historically a relative position. Does not mean I am unwilling to push this as an absolute. It’s also pragmatic. If I am comfortable that my children are safe from predation it leaves me more time to do other things than killing pedophiles or defending my offspring. Other fathers feel the same. By agreeing that my offspring are safer when yours are too, the morality becomes easy and the argument that one position equals another becomes specious. Thus does a relative social contract become canon. Why should one accept the premise that you should keep your hands off my kids? Because enough fathers and mothers have banded together to get this canonized and to create a penalty structure should you chose otherwise. Yep, just the power of the majority.

Sorry believers - you of all people should accept the notion of ‘might makes right’. After all you invoke the power of a god to enforce your moral claims. Nonbelievers just have to resort to the power of consensus. (the power of democracy compels thee, the power....)

Deists make the mistake of thinking that basic morality is based upon philosophy. It isn't. It's based upon pragmatic social contracts enforced by the will of the strong or the well organized. As individuals have gained in stature over countless generations, the basic morality has evolved from what's good for the leader to what's good for the tribe. Over time it is aided by repetition and assumption so that future generations just assume it as a given (Much like how religion keeps hold). It seems natural because that's what we've been indoctrinated to believe.

Moral relativism is harder. It’s dangerous. It’s the truth we face. Wishing it were not so does nothing but complicate the real work of creating workable long term social structures based upon the interactions of short sighted biological entities most concerned with their own immediate needs (you and me).

So where does that leave us with respect to the deist? Back to the importance of the moral truth argument. If we invoke some science into the assumptions, we can turn this around on the deist. in any number of logical ways. For example:
  1. Absent gods there can be no moral truths
  2. People have a strong sense of the existence of moral truths despite vast scientific and historical proof to the contrary.
  3. Therefore people invent gods to account for their sense.
Or
  1. People are uncomfortable with the notion of moral relativism
  2. Invented gods provide an pseudo-external source for fixed morality
  3. Therefore people embrace invented gods to ease their discomfort with moral relativism.
Or
  1. Revealed morality is intellectually and socially cheap
  2. Moral relativism is intellectually and socially costly.
  3. Therefore, people embrace revealed morality to avoid the intellectual and social costs of moral relativism.
Notice that each of these positions is logically consistent. Furthermore, they are culturally and scientifically more sound than the deist’s position since the assumptions can be validated. The deist is claiming that we are essentially doomed if gods don't exist - who will guide us? Humans cannot determine reasonable moral values absent higher authority. Therefore our only salvation is a higher authority, regardless of objective proof. So it has to be true! Wishful thinking must be true? Seems a poor foundation for truth. It also seems like poor support for the existence of gods - if they don't exist we are screwed. It may be true if we don't get our collective act together but debating nonexistent parental figures isn't helping address our real problems.

Still, this logic often fails to persuade a believer. Many will continue to hold to the notion 'that it just feels right' to believe thus and so. Deists are often dogged in their belief of the claim that depth of feeling is a valid gauge of reality regardless of the objective evidence. Not surprising since long ago the promoters of religion realized that pushing the faith argument (belief regardless of fact) was the key to spiritual enlightenment. Clever of them since it allows believers an out regardless of the weight of evidence. That the god works in ever more mysterious ways seems not to bother anyone all that much. I know it's redundant to rehash why this isn't so, but since it's such a common tactic, it's worth repeating. To paraphrase a recent quote that illustrates this:
If we strongly perceive that something is obviously amiss in the world we are justified (absent some error theory) in believing our perceptions.
Do people do exactly that a lot of the time? Absolutely. It is human nature. Is it justifiable from a scientific perspective? No. Not justified at all. In fact, one can argue that the scientific method was invented as a means to mitigate our known perceptive biases. The above is a typical human response. Nevertheless it slams head first into a brick wall of objective science which refutes it. There exists ample ‘error theory’ to explain these run away feelings. Cognitive science demonstrates conclusively that people believe many things in their hearts that are not objectively true. This is my area of study and the limits of human delusional thinking are vast. The studies are compelling and reproducible. It’s science after all. We aren’t justified in concluding anything purely on the basis of our strength of feeling. Deists may counter that science cannot disprove the existence of god, yadda, yadda, however science can prove the existence and impact of cognitive biases on human thinking. Epistemology can't provide the usual sanctuary when you cross the borders of hard science as the above quote clearly does. Much in science may begin in the far less structured land of philosophy but most is discarded and any that remains must cut objective muster. And the validity of strong perceptions absent evidence has been ground into dust through science.

Rejecting the unproven concept of absolute morality in light of what we know of cognitive bias we can take a stab at alternative statements of logic for the deist to consider. It is logical to propose:
  1. People deeply believe many things
  2. Cognitive science demonstrates that many deep feelings point to false beliefs
  3. Therefore deep beliefs may not be true.
Or, a bit more bluntly:
  1. Cognitive bias research demonstrates how people falsely believe in extraordinary things absent proof.
  2. Gods are extraordinary things absent proof.
  3. Therefore, gods are a form of cognitive bias.
It may not be comforting, but that doesn't make it false. Truth is not the result of a popularity contest or an ad campaign. It cares not one bit how many feel otherwise or how strongly. You can't phase the truth by not believing in it. You can only prevent yourself from dealing with it.

9.22.2010

Egged on by Benedict

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it. ~Buddha
Hard for me to imagine such a quote ever coming from the current pontiff. Pope Benedict has taken time off from ridding the Roman Catholic Church of any of its recent pesky Brownian motion toward bits of humanitarianism to strike out at atheists and the 'marginalization of Christianity'. He trotted out the usual 'Hitler was an atheist' falsehood as his prime example. I will ignore for a moment the bilious taste of irony in my mouth created by a former Hitler youth falling back on the tradition of deflecting the failings of his culture onto the backs of an unpopular minority. Hard to imagine that one rising to the rank of Pope could be so woefully ill informed, particularly as he was a Catholic within that very regime.

Deflecting blame to avoid accountability is pretty much the political standard throughout the world. Common it is. But sorry, it ain't anywhere near the moral high ground. In fact it is so far from it that the curvature of the earth prevents one from even seeing the moral high ground from your position.

But for now I'd like to make a point that doesn't seem to be the focus of much attention in this endless, and frankly irrelevant, lying about Hitler's religiosity. Where were all the Christians? Presumably, Nazi Germany was not largely populated by atheists. Yes, there were a few who resisted but it isn't clear that their religion had much to do with the moral stand they took. The point is simple; if Christianity is this wellspring of moral virtue then the large numbers of German, (and Polish and French, etc...) Christians should have had a more demonstrable impact on the behavior of the population regardless of whether Hitler was an atheist (which he clearly left no record of being) or not. Also presumably a Christian nation such as Germany wouldn't have elected an atheist to high office anyway. And before you argue that it wouldn't have mattered, consider how the extermination of 'mental defectives' in Germany was stopped by popular dissent (including the Catholic Church) before the war started. Plus there is that pesky truism that one's morality is all that's left in situations where nothing else matters.

So on the face of it, the presence or absence of Christian faith did not steel all that many people to take any risks in stopping the Nazi killings. And since it did not, then it's not reasonable to argue that it is a bastion of moral superiority.
Character is doing the right thing when nobody's looking. There are too many people who think that the only thing that's right is to get by, and the only thing that's wrong is to get caught. ~J.C. Watts
If God is always looking, how can one test his or her true character? There is all this emphasis on wronging God (who presumably should be in a position to take care of Himself anyway) and little on the wronging of one's fellow human beings. It's as if they believe that character only counts if they can force others to abide by the same rules.

Beyond that I would agree with His ----ness to some degree in that there is some marginalization of Christianity. I would disagree that this is necessarily a bad thing. What he's complaining about using his stance of false victimization, is that the market place of ideas has a whole lot more shelf space dedicated to things other than his religion, or its off shoots. That's to be expected now that science is freed of theological constraints and he is limited to searing his opponents with words only...

Old Benedict keeps failing into the same trap; and leading his followers to the same. So much arguing about fighting and being right - so little about just being true.

9.17.2010

Phoney!

I have a confession to make. Please don’t think badly of me. I don’t have a smart phone.

At one point I considered buying one of those Gitterbug phones - the ones aimed at the elderly with poor vision and a tremor. They have giant keys and you can only use them to make a phone call. You can’t control all aspects of your life remotely. They force you to actually live your life rather than comment on what you are doing from second to second.

My wife’s new phone looks like a Swiss army knife or something that 'Q' sent her since it has so many little doohickies that can open and fold out to assume some completely mysterious configuration. I fear that one is a ray gun. So many buttons and panels.

I like the iPhone for that reason. It has no keys and looks clean when it’s turned off. It’s black screen is less accusatory than all those buttons and panels that the android phone has that can make me feel completely worthless and weak even when powered down. Makes me feel like I should turn it on and read the instruction manual.

My current phone outclasses Captain Kirk's from TOS, but not much else. And it is awful for texting.

Texting actually has some utility in my world. We used to have these texting pagers that had a mini-keyboard. Turned out that we pages less but communicated more. You could more easily work with the team without having to sit around paging and waiting. Of course the hospital got rid of them.

With my ancient phone, texting is a lot like talking to Steven Hawking. My daughter and now my wife, have wondrous phones with full key boards that allow them to whisk off lengthy texts before I can select, ‘ditto’ from the old style of my phone. The language of Shakespeare reduced to textual grunts more akin to the lexicon of a caveman.

I find myself automatically texting ‘k luv u’ in response to almost anything as a simple expedient. Much like a dog rolling over in response to just about any human sentence. I may need a new phone before my daughter is old enough to text “can I buy a new car with your Amex?”

9.08.2010

Patience: A Short Story

This idea for a short story came about when I thought up the little technical curiosity that is the centerpiece of the story. It's something different.
____________________________________________________

It was always nice to look down at the world from 45,000 feet. You could enjoy the beauty of the earth without having to filter out all the suckers cluttering up the landscape. From here, they didn’t even register as ants. The sprawl and detritus they left in their wakes was invisible. Granted, those suckers had made him a very rich man, but that didn’t make him any fonder of them. For years he had been amazed by how easy it had been to push buttons and manipulate opinion by the right turn of a phrase or strategically recursive sound bite.

Up here, you didn’t have to see the lives broken by misdeeds. It was clean and clear. Not like recent world history at all.

This trip was very special. Thomas Archibald was journeying for the last time. Of that he was sure. Enroute to China from his homeland. Traveling in high style, courtesy of a lot of the people who would be only too happy to see him dead. Enjoying the luxuries of one of his favorite models of private jet. Quietly leased for this one flight. A man like him had to be careful. Particularly a man like him.

It wasn’t everybody who could thumb his nose at the United States and live, in plain sight, to tell about it. Years earlier he had used his wealth and media empire to support a failed coup. Of course it had all been couched in a promise to 'take back America', but at its core it was no different from any banana republic power grab. Exactly what they were taking America back from was pretty nebulous - other than a democratically elected administration and that pesky Constitution.

The President and his family had been lost but the Vice President had turned out to be better at his job than had been supposed. Turned out that the American heartland didn’t consider treason and murder to be appropriate family values no matter how you spun it. An unfortunate and unforeseen complication from the perspective of the conspirators. The fury against Muslims in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks was nothing compared to the rage that flared when the extent of the betrayal became known. And the identity of those responsible. The gallows and firing ranges had been pretty busy with the grim work of retribution, fed by almost every court in the land. All busy handling trials at all levels of society and government. The appeals process took a back seat to expediency. If a case could be moved to a military court, it was.

The work of rough justice had been aided by the fact that the conspirators hadn’t felt a particular need to cover their tracks. After all, they had successfully spread disinformation for years and no one had ever been able to take them to task. They got cocky. They had forgotten that people will go along with a lot when it doesn't directly affect them, but not so much when it does. Their well greased apparatus for disseminating and coordinating information betrayed them for it had created clear paths for the investigators to follow. Details that should have been eliminated had been retained probably in anticipation of the huge book deals that these self-styled patriots imagined would be coming their way.

The so called civilized world was appalled at the carnage. At first, great lengths were taken to ensure that it was all very legal (or at least seemed defensible to those in charge) but the shear volume and speed of it looked more and more like a purge to outsiders. There had been riots, organized attacks and episodes of madness. For a time it looked as if civil war would erupt. In truth, many little civil wars resulted. Every nut job with a grudge streamed from the woodwork. Fortunately they weren’t organized. But squelching them all took a toll on a battered nation. The Constitution turned out to be poor protection from bullets entering flesh. Once people stopped looking to it for protection, things spiraled out of control.

Posse Comitatus was conveniently overlooked. On more than one occasion a smart bomb ended negotiations with some fringe group. In the simple economics of the time, social order by time-on-target artillery was cheaper than trials of large numbers of renegades. As it turned out, the unabridged freedom to bear arms had not resulted in any pockets of resistance that a task force of M1a2 TUSK's couldn’t handle. Granted, a few RPG’s and the like were smuggled in to the country. But once the source of the shipments had been identified, the high altitude regime change in the wrecked city of Pyongyang, seemed to have dissuaded copycats.

Some cool headed leaders from both major political parties finally were able to quell the worst of the violence. The fact that the most rabid factions were among the now glorious dead didn't hurt. They convinced enough people that they had been fooled into becoming pawns to power brokers. The upheaval damn near collapsed the world’s economy, already reeling from a world wide recession. Millions suffered world-wide. Some, directly from the fighting in America, some from the economic turmoil, and some from the small wars that erupted when it was realized that America was preoccupied at the moment.

Relations with Canada would never be the same as U.S. forces had paid no heed to map coordinates when pursuing targets. A lot of the targets seemed to be in northern border states which didn’t help. The official U.S. position of ‘what are you going to do about it?’ pretty much ended the any pretense. Canada briefly considered an EU offer of garrison troops along its border but concluded that fueling the paranoia of the times was probably not in their interests, particularly considering that the great majority of their population lived in tactical striking distance from U.S. bases. The ruins of northern Mexico reinforced the presumed wisdom of that decision. The U.S. had made it clear to the EU that their little offer would not be soon forgotten. In the U.S. the threat of EU intervention wasn’t seen as defending a sovereign nation from the spill over of violence within its borders. It was seen as a long standing wish to see America humbled. It would be decades, if ever, before the rift with Europe was healed. An angry America turned west in search of friends. Ironically the tragic vein that had replaced eternal optimism in the American character helped the nation's relationships with Russia and India.

In addition to stoking the paranoia that quieted calmer voices of reason, people like Archibald served as fodder for those looking to shed foreign influence within the United States. Like most of what transpired during this time, it was a mixed bag. American industries began a renaissance but the impact on innocent foreign nationals was tragic.

There were still occasional flash points where a small group of the disgruntled and well armed rebel wannabes would try something but the police and federal agencies had gotten extremely efficient at handling these situations. They were aided by the fact that the public had no tolerance for their alleged grievances and didn’t protest too much when the government didn’t spend a lot of time negotiating with anyone it considered a domestic terrorist. It would be some time before history would know whether one form of tyranny had grow from the ashes of another.

As for Archibald, he had been tried, convicted and sentenced to death in absentia. He had stirred the pot via his media control, financed some of the preparations for the revolt and had stood ready to spin the cabalists’ message once the green light was given to move forward. He was aware of the timing and location of the attack against the President that would launch the coup. Now, he was the last of the instigators. He honestly had been surprised by the failure of the coup and was even more surprised that the U.S. had survived the aftermath and rebounded. It was a different America to be sure. One that had shed any pretense of really caring all that much about the rest of the world. American political relationships were no longer couched in the rhetoric of human rights and freedom. They were colder, subtler and more politically pragmatic. American policies looked more and more like those of the Europeans which further worried the EU.

The death sentence actually made it easier for him. His homeland didn't extradite to countries with the death penalty. His wealth and media dominance kept him out of jail at home and they had been too close an ally of the US for America to try anything too suspicious on their soil.

America seethed. He liked that. Knowing that his freedom made them crazy. He had hidden away his wealth and they couldn't touch him. True, he had to move about with an entourage of former Spetsnaz the size of a Presidential Secret Service detail, but so what. He could afford it using money largely collected from the very Americans who wanted him dead. He lived very well. His overseas travel had to be limited to countries disinclined to pass him along to the U.S. government but even he had to make certain allowances to reality. He did it as much to tweak the current US President as to enjoy the variety of experiences. The President who had vowed to see him hang before he left office 7 years and 10 months earlier. Fat chance at this point.

Travel wasn't easy but he liked the game. Elaborate decoys were deployed before any trip and even with human intelligence he would be gone before America could bring any of its still vaunted military power to bear. His security service kept track of the comings and goings of US assets and withdrew to safety any time a carrier came anywhere close. Even America couldn’t afford to be everywhere at once.

Not that he would need to play this game much longer anyway. Whiskey and cigarettes would do the work that the DoD couldn't. True, he would be dead in a few months but it would be of natural causes not a US rope. This trip to China was one last opportunity to spit in Uncle Sam’s eye. The simple pleasures of extreme wealth. Never mind that he had taken part in the murder of a decent man and his innocent family for political and economic gain. Never mind that millions had suffered and would suffer from his greed. He was a master at spin even in his own mind.

His security experts had come up with a pretty solid plan that seemed to have worked before. Several different aircraft had been held at different locations and prepped for the journey. Hand picked and vetted crews would simultaneously descend on each and prepare them for take off. No one was allowed near the planes after that. At the last second Archibald would board a randomly selected plane, from one of a number of identical SUV’s and take off. The other cars held families that had just ‘won’ a vacation to this or that place and who would fly in identical aircraft. Very expensive but it prevented any explosive stowaways due to the high risk of collateral damage. And what price was too high for piece of mind? America was trying to rebuild its international image to some degree in order to expand markets for its new goods. So it seemed unlikely they would blow up a bunch of planes loaded with civilians just to get him. It was one thing to slaughter the citizens of a rogue state, quite different the citizens of a country historically an ally. At least he hoped so.

Another clean getaway and a few hours to rest.

Ninety minutes into the flight, the copilot was the first to notice that something was wrong.

The pilot had gone to the head, and the copilot was alone in the cockpit wearing an oxygen mask, per protocol. The autopilot had been engaged 30 minutes earlier and the aircraft had left the track of the northern most ground control station of Archibald’s homeland. They were in international airspace. For a couple of hours they would be out of range of any land based radar stations.

The aircraft’s heading and altitude had changed. The copilot disengaged the autopilot and attempted to take manual control. Standard procedure except that it didn’t work. The autopilot did not disengage and they continued on the new course. The pilot returned and got the news. For the next several minutes they went through a series of procedures to try to regain control.

Archibald's Russian head of security was a man accustomed to noticing details most people would miss. The fact that the plane no longer had the rising sun out its starboard windows was not a subtle detail. Instead of flying almost due north, they were heading east. That was not in the plan. He motioned to one of his men to follow and he went to the cockpit with gun drawn.

The pilots were too occupied to come unhinged by his combat entrance, and it was immediately clear to him that they were trying to respond to a crisis not of their doing.
He demanded an explanation.

The pilot looked at the copilot, then sighed. “We’re in big trouble. There appears to be no way to control the plane.”

Not entirely true.

Twenty thousand feet above and 5 miles behind them a very dark gray aircraft, known to but a few, rode in their blind spot. The plane looked something like the love child of a Lear Jet and an F22. Within the tiny configurable cabin behind its cockpit a young woman from Topeka was operating controls that looked surprisingly like the cockpit of Archibald’s private jet. Her view screen looked exactly like the images coming from Archibald’s low light sensors. That’s because they were. She was very pleased to be a part of this mission. Topeka was still rebuilding.

Archibald had forgotten the two indelible facts of American history; The United States will go to almost any length to destroy an enemy once they are pissed off. And they can be extremely resourceful going about it.

Archibald insisted on one of two types of aircraft for his little jaunts. Both were very advanced. Both used fly-by-wire controls instead of wires and cables. Electronic impulses replaced tugs on wire and software replaced physical connections to the control surfaces. It was much more reliable - unless the US President had engaged the defense industry to create a configurable software program that could be downloaded into the fly-by-wire control systems during routine maintenance of all similar aircraft operating in the region and activated once a human observer confirmed a certain party’s location. Software that could not be accessed in the air. Software that isolated the cockpit controls and which took inputs remotely from a surrogate pilot in another location. In this case one from Topeka riding in a billion dollar spy plane. Yes there would be hell to pay when it got out that they had been tampering with the flight controls of private jets, but what were they really going to do about it. Besides, American planes had already been reconfigured and modified so that the same could not be done to them. As was mentioned before - America was less worried about public relations than in times past.

The black ops bird also had very sophisticated jamming gear to prevent any bothersome communications from the target aircraft once it was discovered that they had been digitally hijacked.

Archibald and company had a nervous couple of hours where they tried various means to regain control without success. Once all the options were exhausted there was nothing left but to await the final destination of the aircraft. They landed on a fairly short strip carved out of a dense jungle on some unfamiliar little isle. They came to a stop on the baking tarmac and the environmental controls shut down by remote command. The shadowing plane that did not officially exist, continued east to rendezvous with an aerial tanker for the long journey back to its hanger in the deserts of Nevada where many of its predecessors had found refuge from prying eyes. It's crew relieved that all the months of waiting in that miserable heat on a largely deserted island was over.

The field was austere. A leftover from one of the last century's wars. One hanger sat about 1000 meters from where the aircraft was parked. Fairly dense jungle came to within 500 meters of either side of the runway. Several dozen heavily armed and camouflaged troops stood 3 meters beyond the edge of the jungle in plain view. They slowly disappeared into the trees once they were sure that they had been registered by the security services on the plane.

Without air-conditioning the temperature was already starting to rise. A tropical noon sun on a black runway in a tin can is not going to be comfortable for long. Ten minutes passed and a single jeep pulled up with a driver holding a white flag and a request that Archibald's head of security accompany him.

After a brief face to face with the American military commander, the security chief returned to the plane. He was convinced that the American had not been bluffing when he'd said that either taking Archibald alive or throwing all the parts in a bag for the forensics guys to sort through was an acceptable outcome to his mission.

Archibald's security chief signaled to his men. They streamed out in single file with hands held high. They would be screened for weapons and transported home. Richer and alive. The flight crew did the same only far less professionally and clearly expecting to be shot in the process.

Archibald had panicked and barricaded himself in the lavatory. The door of the loo did not offer much resistance to a trained soldier. Hands bound, he was led from the plane amid a flurry of the kinds of protests one might expect. They drove him to the hanger where a large plane with US markings was being prepared for departure. He was led up he stairs and less than gently deposited in a chair opposite a large desk. A senior officer from U.S. Airforce intelligence stood next to a Deputy Attorneys General seated at the desk. Next to him was a camera crew displaying the logo of his former news service. It was a nice touch though it didn’t really register with him. Everyone on board looked very pleased. High tech innovation, human intelligence, bold leadership and the warrior mentality were hard to beat.

The Deputy smiled, “Hello Mr Archibald. It’s good to finally meet you. I have so been looking forward to it. Oh, the President wanted me to convey this message. He says don’t worry. He is assured that a new rope has been selected just for your one time use. He’s grateful to be able to put a period to this whole nasty business before he leaves office. Welcome back to United States Territory.”

9.07.2010

What if Glenn Beck, did a Glenn Beck, on Glenn Beck?

Warning: what follows is Pliny satire which as everyone knows, is a tenuous construct at best. It is the product of a deranged mind that finds humor in all the wrong places, usually merely amusing himself.
________________________________________________________

What if Glenn Beck, did a Glenn Beck, on Glenn Beck? It amused ole Pliny no end to imagine what he might come up with if push came to shove and he came to the same conclusions as the rest of us through self-loathing introspection. Kind of like a dog chasing its tail. It's obviously a parody. Since he has referred to himself as nothing more than a clown, I'm sure he won't mind a little good-natured fun.








On second thought it's not bat____ crazy enough to be an effective parody...


9.01.2010

Individual Freedom vs Collective Power: the yin and yang of the American Soul

Too often, inner peace insists upon external validation from another’ assent. Inner peace requiring external control. Ideological victory rather than internal complacency is the measure of success.
Call me simplistic but American Democracy is a tug of war between Individualism and Collectivism. The law of the jungle vs herd mentality. Individualism is the belief that society and government exist solely to preserve one’s ability to do anything they want. Collectivism is the notion that society and government exist to restrain individual behaviors in keeping with the ideology of the collective - a construct that usually props up the views of the collectivists or (probably more often) the puppet masters who pull their strings. From this perspective religion, political movements (with the possible exception of Objectivism...), value structures, blah, blah, blah, are all forms of collectivism.

The brilliance of the founders of this country was recognizing that both extremes are pretty bad news. Neither is a viable or desirable solution. Democracy requires careful measures of both. Their biggest blunder were that they were politicians and were afraid to spell this out unambiguously. For all their talk about inalienable rights they didn’t trust the individual to be rational. Hence the creation of a Republic, not a Democracy, the wisdom of which becomes more apparent every day. Too bad it slippery-sloped its way toward Democracy over the years.

Individualists tend to ignore the real benefits of collectivism and Collectivists often trod on the liberties of individuals. Democracy requires a constant balancing act between the two extremes. It clings to a precarious toe-hold on a steep hill with the abyss of individualism on one side and that of collectivism on the other. It’s an inherently unstable process which requires tremendous expenditures of energy to maintain.

The old saw about your rights ending at the end of my nose pretty much sums up the challenge. What stirs the pot is one’s definition as to the location the end of your nose - is it a physical or metaphorical concept? Collectivists tend to think of it metaphorically - as they tend to have very big noses that they stick into other people’s business with righteous abandon. Of course since the Collectivist is certain of their superior position, this interference is considered to really be for the other person’s good. Individualists tend to rail that they can’t understand how you could be so stupid as to stand so close to their flailing arms so as to get you nose in a jam in the first place.

With the exception of sociopaths individualists usually aren’t a huge problem since narcissism keeps them largely occupied and in any case makes it hard for them to organize in any meaningful fashion (ever watched the Democratic national Convention...). They are the social equivalent of a leaky faucet - representing more of an annoyance and minimal cost burden.

Collectivists however are a constant threat to social harmony but ironically are required for it to exist in the first place. Sad as it is, some rulebook is required for a society with a population larger than one. Absent a rulebook one is left with chaos and the prospect of invading hordes, screaming Canadians rushing the border, or some other calamity. There in lies the rub of course. What rulebook to apply. Democracy insists that we make value judgments -create rules - no matter how much that bothers individualists. And these value judgments are necessarily a moving target - no matter how much that appalls collectivists. Often Collectivists view any changing in the rules as a form of victimization. But that’s not oppression it’s just that the market place of ideas has opened up. And these new competing ideas often come up because of the nagging rant of some Individualist on the fringes.

My vote for the rule book always ends up with the US Constitution for at least two really good reasons:
  1. It's short and to the point
  2. Everybody knows that somebody made it all up
It’s a great system as long as people pay attention.

8.17.2010

Voices of Reason

As the pundits rave about the Mosque in New York, I thought it might be useful to reflect on the words of a far greater American than Glen Beck that sheds light on this situation.

Gentleman.

While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and happy people.

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington
To the Newport, Rhode Island Jewish community, 1791

6.30.2010

Overwhelmed

Taking another break, obviously. Things have accelerated in my line of research to a fever pace and I am at the keyboard 10 hours a day so that provides you with a merciful respite from my rants other than the odd visit to one of your sites to see what's about. Our second phase trial went blisteringly well and has shaken the healthcare reform tree very hard. I'm not sure when I'll be coming up for air if at all. When I do continue blogging it may be under my given name and very specific to my line of research and work - with the odd subversive poem thrown in ;).

5.17.2010

The Ant and the Grasshopper

In a field one summer’s day, a grasshopper was hopping about, chirping, singing to its hearts content and taking time to actually enjoy the beauty of the world about.

An ant passed by bearing along with great toil an ear of corn, a crushing hunk of imposed guilt, and a sack of feelings of inadequacy he was taking to his nest.

“Why not come and chat with me, and drink of the bounty of this life?” said the grasshopper, “instead of toiling and moiling for a future after death in that peculiar way of yours?”

“I am helping lay up the bounty needed to ensure my salvation and I recommend you do the same”

“Why bother about that?” said the grasshopper, “we have plenty of things to enjoy here and at present.”

But the any went on its way and continued its toil, unchanged except for the requisite shunning of the grasshopper.

When the winter of its life came the grasshopper looked back without regret on a joyous life well lived. Thinking this life was all he got, he tended to enjoy the here and now finding beauty in a lot of little moments that toiling after some future reward might have caused him to overlook. Life alone provided ample surprise, purpose and reward in unexpected places.

The ant had forgone much in order to prepare for what would come in time and hoped, at last for a reward for all that toil though never knowing in the end that his husk and that of the grasshopper made the same mindless dust in the earth.

The grasshopper looked on at all the preparations and effort put forth by the ant to the exclusion of much else. And before he passed on the grasshopper knew that the best days aren’t by necessity the ones prepared for... ;)

5.06.2010

The Explanation for a Lot of Our Problems...

Familiars know that I like gardening. I’ve wanted to plant a section of espalier fruit trees in a troublesome section of the postage stamp that constitutes my urban landscape for a long time. The plan was simple - anchor each of three espalier trees to a simple lattice made from two capped cedar posts painted to match the house with steel wire strung between to hold one of three branches on either side of the tree’s trunk. Other than the fact that the ground in that area is harder than diamond and I had to dig up to 4 feet with a hand post hole digger, no problem.

The area in question is on a complex slope so making the posts look right and be even at the top was a bit of a sticky wicket. And that was before all my help arrived. I use this label generously to describe all the people who showed up to tell me what I was doing wrong without solicitation.

One of the burdens I have is that being a surgeon I can be a bit of a perfectionist - not a bad thing in your surgeon by the way. I fussed with those poles for some time to ensure that they were level in all planes and that the tops of each pair was exactly level with each other before I fixed the posts. I admit that the ground created an optical illusion before the trees were planted that made them look tilty. I even re-plumbed them once just to be sure. But being quite confident in the basic reliability of a level bubble I set out to fix the posts. Firstly my beloved Mrs Pliny came out and told me the posts were crooked. I begged to differ and tried to assure her that they were plumb. She insisted on seeing for herself - several times. Finally convinced she still said it looked wrong. Nevertheless, being a rational being (other than that one crazy albeit fortunate impulse 18 years ago to marry ole Pliny) she let it drop. Not the neighbors however. They came over and all proceeded to tell me the posts were crooked. I had each watch as I re-leveled each plane on the posts proving that indeed the bubble was centered in all planes. They still weren’t convinced. One guy kept insisting that it was crooked. I said, “What are you going to believe, your eyes or gravity?” He chose his eyes.

One guy had a transit. He shot the posts with respect to the lines of my house and proved that it was spot on. Still not all were convinced. When the things were done (having escaped the possibility that my head might explode), people liked them even if they aren’t convinced by levels, measurements, surveys and simple math.

And we wonder why evolution is such a hard sell...