Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Let Sally Ride rest in peace, Ctd

Apparently, I wasn't alone in my negative reaction to Andrew Sullivan's post yesterday about Sally Ride. To his credit, he writes today, "The in-tray and our Facebook page are flooded with dissents." A sample from one dissenter:
You list the numerous accomplishments of Sally Ride and then deride her for not having also fought for your pet cause? She hits 10 out of 10 on the lifetime achievement scale and you berate her because she didn't turn it up to 11. Good grief. How many crusades does one have to be on the forefront of before Andrew says, "Ok, I guess that's good enough."
The "pet cause" charge is unfair. Still, Sullivan remains unrepentant. That's worth a few points for grit, I suppose. Sully is sometimes quick to react emotionally. If history is any guide, I suspect he'll come around in a few days.

Sexism, alas, is alive and well

Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto felt the cold wrath of the Twitterverse after he tweeted this gem: "I hope the girls whose boyfriends died to save them [in Aurora] were worthy of the sacrifice." Taranto later conceded that this was “an ill-considered tweet.” Ya think?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Madness in orange

Clever, and true

"Guns don't kill people. They just make it very easy." (A reader on Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish blog.)

Let Sally Ride rest in peace

There are times when gay activists should, well, shut the fuck up. Andrew Sullivan, a proud gay man, made this problematic observation about the late Sally Ride, the first American woman in space:
"Her achievements as a woman and as a scientist and as an astronaut and as a brilliant, principled investigator of NASA's screw-ups will always stand, and vastly outshine any flaws. But the truth remains: she had a chance to expand people's horizons and young lesbians' hope and self-esteem, and she chose not to. She was the absent heroine."
An absent heroine? Really, Andrew? Like most folks, I had no idea Ride was gay. More to the point, I could care less. Ride chose to keep her sexuality private. You know, like most people. Though she was openly gay, she opted not to go all Joan of Arc about it. Sullivan, frothing with righteous indignation, is insisting that she was obligated to help lead the Hundred Years' War for gay rights. Um, no, she wasn't. Ride was content to shatter NASA's glass ceiling by pioneering space for females, no trivial task. Sullivan is flat wrong to redefine Ride to fit his own narrow precepts. And nobody has a monopoly on truth. An absent heroine? Hardly. Tell that to the millions of girls -- gay or straight -- that Dr. Ride has inspired by her example and fortitude.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The 'Dark Knight' Rises, Again

Sadly, as Hamlet said, "murder, though it have no tongue, will speak." Man's penchant for evil, for senseless killing, has always mirrored our capacity for good. The nation is, yet again, convulsing en masse over another example of this self-evident truth. This time, a midnight showing of the newest Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, provided the killing ground. A lone gunman walked into a packed Colorado theater, opened fire, and killed or wounded some 50 moviegoers. The story has sucked the oxygen from all other news today. It is media-driven overreaction, but an understandable one. The tragedy, the latest in a long tradition of such tragedies, should at least give us pause. But so should the awful fact that 250 people were killed in Syria yesterday, the "highest death toll in a single day since the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad erupted 16 months ago," according to Reuters. Echoing Columbine, the "Dark Knight," this time in the guise of a demented, 24-year-old Ph.D candidate, has risen again in Colorado. Unfortunately, he is legion the world over.

The heart of the matter

The juxtaposition of the story (below) about the tragic Colorado shooting and an advertisement promoting the very instrument the alleged gunman used to carry it out speaks volumes. To their credit, The Denver Post pulled the ad from their website and apologized. Too bad we cannot do the same with a certain mindset relating to guns.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Blue Fairy economics

Let's face it: People are fundamentally irrational. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Oversimplifying the complex, finding levity in gravity, and clinging to a belief in Pinocchio's Blue Fairy, can be helpful in keeping one's sanity. Still, there is a price to pay for our quick willingness to untether ourselves from cold reality. For example, Mitt Romney has actually gotten some traction with his I-know-how-the-economy-works-therefore-I-can-cure-what-ails-us shtick. This is rubbish, of course. Yet, some folks are swallowing it whole.

As Prospect writer Paul Waldman notes, having a president with solid economic knowledge (along with an equal grasp of foreign affairs) is indeed desirable. But, "the presidency is not a technocratic position." Waldman finds it odd that Romney has based his entire candidacy on the premise that his self-proclaimed business acumen will allow him to "make dramatic improvements in the economy."
Waldman writes: "But if there were a magic key to unlock spectacular growth and widely shared prosperity, you'd think we would have found it by now. There hasn't been a president in decades, the current one included, who didn't have lots of businesspeople working in his administration. And Barack Obama talks to corporate leaders all the time. If Romney knows something they don't, he hasn't told us what it is."
Of course he hasn't. He only hopes that his Pixie Dust strategy works long enough to get him elected. And it might. But neither Romney nor the man he wants to replace are in possession of a magic wand that will "deliver us to political nirvana." The difference is that Mr. Obama is well aware of that fact. But the election, alas, may come down to how much of the electorate still believes in the Blue Fairy.

Hmm ...

James Carville (interviewed by CBS News): "The only person who has seen Romney's taxes is John McCain and he took one look and picked Sarah Palin."

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Writing with ancient bones

On the first day of class, it's not unusual for a teacher to put chalk to blackboard to spell out her name. What she's really doing, as NPR science writer Robert Krulwich put it, is "crushing the skeletons of terribly ancient earthlings" against a hard surface to visibly communicate her identity. Behold what a piece of chalk looks like under the microscope:

Krulwich explains:
"Chalk is composed of extremely small white globules. They look, up close, like snowballs made from brittle paper plates. Those plates, it turns out, are part of ancient skeletons [single-celled phytoplankton algae] that once belonged to roundish little critters that lived and floated in the sea, captured a little sunshine and carbon, then died and sank to the bottom. There still are trillions of them floating about in the oceans today, sucking up carbon dioxide, pocketing the carbon. Over the millennia, so many have died and plopped on top of each other, the weight of them and the water above has pressed them into a white blanket of rock, entirely composed of teeny skeletons. ... The White Cliffs of Dover are all chalk, piled hundreds of feet high."
Nature never ceases to astound.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The 'Bain' of the conservative elite

Andrew Sullivan's take on the campaign woes of Mitt Romney and the state of American conservatism:
"The reason America's elite finds itself under so much criticism is not that they are elites. It is that they have become self-serving, accountability-free elites. Romney's pique that he could even be challenged to take responsibility for a company of which he was legally CEO is a perfect symbol of this abdication of responsibility. Think of the contrast with his father - a man who actually ran an industrial business well, who expressed solidarity with the civil rights movement when so many didn't, released twelve years of tax returns to prove he wasn't gaming anything, and invited reporters in for a Sunday service at his local LDS church. George Romney clearly felt that with great wealth comes great responsibility and accountability. Mitt is fine with the wealth part; just not the responsibility and accountability. Which is a pretty good summary of what has gone wrong with American conservatism today."

Friday, July 13, 2012

The definition of moxie

During the early stages of World War II, Nazi Germany attempted to use its Luftwaffe to decimate the Royal Air Force (RAF) -- especially Fighter Command -- as a prelude to an amphibious and airborne invasion of the UK. The campaign is famously known as the Battle of Britain. Herr Hitler, however, underestimated Britain's will to resist. Historian Michael Korda (The Untold Story of the Battle of Britain, 2010) writes: "At all times, new pilots had 'almost no chance at all' of surviving their first five sorties because of inexperience, because they received the most-damaged and least-reliable planes, and because they were likely to be their formations' tail-end charlie and thus most vulnerable. For the survivors, the odds of survival rose during the next 15 sorties as their skill and confidence grew. After 20, however, the odds again decreased to zero." Those are frightening odds. And yet, they kept flying. To be sure, patriotism, duty, a fierce determination to defend one's homeland, and sheer moxie were the main factors motivating these brave pilots. But without putting too fine a point on it, there was also the saving grace of youth. The average age of RAF pilots was 20 -- a time when we are utterly convinced of our own immortality. During the Battle of Britain, of course, this mistaken presumption was godsend.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Caped Crusader needs a bigger cape

Holy roadkill, Batman! Superhero flying isn't as easy as it looks. Physics students at a British university have concluded that: “Gliding using a batcape is not a safe way to travel." The math doesn't add up. "After accounting for the drag and lift forces acting on Bruce Wayne in flight, the doomed trajectory was calculated. The 15.4-foot wingspan is just half that of an ordinary hang glider and, when launching off an 492-foot-high Gotham city skyscraper and gliding (successfully, the team predicted) for around 1,150 feet, Batman’s velocity would peak at 68 mph before leveling off at a life-threatening 50 mph descent." In other words, the Caped Crusader would be "a messy afterthought for Gotham city’s road sweepers." Heh.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

So, it's not just me

The Gallup Poll reports that only 21% of adults have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in television news — a drop from 27% last year and from 46% when Gallup started tracking confidence in TV news in 1993.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Once upon a time in the South ...

THE OTHER DAY, I happened across the glossy website of Louisiana’s Southdown Plantation House, “a 19th-century sugar manor house and home to the Terrebonne [Parish] Museum of history, culture, and arts.”

Tourism is its raison d'etre today, of course.

The manor house and museum, located in the city of Houma, is run by the Terrebonne Historical & Cultural Society. On its “history” page, they write:
“For more than nearly a century and a half, sugar was king in South Louisiana, enticing pioneers to the region and rewarding them with prosperity and progress. ... Southdown Plantation House is a lasting tribute to the sugar industry which helped to nurture Terrebonne Parish from its infancy to its present population of over 100,000 residents. Four generations of the Minor Family, along with hundreds of mill workers, fieldworkers, and their families, lived and labored at Southdown Plantation. The Minor Family occupied Southdown House until 1936.” (My italics)
Ah, the pastoral South — so quaint, so genteel.

A succinct timeline is provided. In 1798, the first owners receive Spanish land grants. From 1821-1828, an indigo plantation was established. In 1828, the William J. Minor family purchases the 1,020 acres to establish Southdown Plantation. In 1831, the principle crop changes to sugarcane. First sugar mill built in 1846. In 1859, Minor builds Southdown Plantation House as a one-story Greek Revival house.

And then … the timeline suddenly jumps to 1893 when we learn that William's son, Henry, adds the second floor and details of Victorian architecture.

Um, wait. What happened between 1859 and 1893? That’s nearly a 50-year gap, people.

Slavery (as in human chattel) is what happened — oh, and that whole Civil War thing. My jaw nearly dropped to my keyboard at the omissions. I mean, “Hundreds of mill workers, fieldworkers, and their families, lived and labored at Southdown Plantation?” Seriously? I daresay there was a tad more to the bucolic scene they airily paint.

In reality, sugarcane production in antebellum Louisiana was nothing short of a horror show. When African American slaves weren’t cutting cane, they’d help bundle up the stalks for stacking in windrows or transport to a plantation mill. It was backbreaking work, and notoriously dangerous. The “fieldworkers” would have labored dawn to dusk in oppressive heat and swampy conditions with the constant threat of injury from sharp hatchets being swung only inches away. And there was no such thing as sick leave. If you could walk, you were worked. The monotonous toil must have felt endless to those who endured it under the uncaring eyes of the overseers, and their lash. Oh, and let’s not forget one other pesky detail: The exquisite Southdown Plantation House, in all of its Greek Revival glory, was mostly built by slave labor.

Look, I don’t hold the current generation of Anglo Louisianans responsible for the sins of their great-great-great grandfathers. Indeed, I doubt that this whitewashing of history was even done consciously by the Society members. Let’s call it bad-memory tissue rejection and leave it at that. But those reasons make it no less appalling.

(NOTE: The above photo is the manor house as it appeared in 1891. Click here to see it today.)