Sunday
Feb232014

Strong Right Arm, Weak Left Brain

While rummaging about in my family photos, relics, and memorabilia, I ran across a folded piece of paper, addressed on the outside thus:

                     Mrs. Robert D. McHenry
                     of Lt. Robert D. McHenry
                     32nd SCU Hq. Comm.

I translate the last line as “32nd Statistical Control Unit, Headquarters Command”

Inside, a printed invitation:

                      Mrs. Curtis E. LeMay
        Requests the honor of your presence
                            at Tea
          on Wednesday, February fourth
               Fourteen hundred hours

                 Five Beethovenstraße

The date and day of the week place this in the year 1948, when we were living in Wiesbaden, Germany, and Lieutenant General LeMay was commander of the U.S. Air Force in Europe.

LeMay was already famous for his fierce bombing campaigns against Germany and then Japan, including the firebombing of Tokyo. He would go on to organize and just as fiercely defend the Strategic Air Command during the early years of the Cold War. He looked the part:




So much so that it is generally agreed that Sterling Hayden’s over-the-top portrayal of Gen. Jack D. Ripper in the 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove” is a parody of LeMay.

Alas, LeMay destroyed his own reputation with two spectacularly bad decisions. One was to suggest out loud that his strategy in Vietnam would have been to “bomb them back to the Stone Age,” and the other was to sign on as second banana in George Wallace’s 1968 third-party presidential campaign.

Friday
Feb212014

Flash ibn Gordon

The imams of the United Arab Emirates, in congress assembled, have issued a fatwa (fatwa: like a papal bull but usually funnier) banning Muslims from taking part in any expedition to Mars, on the ground that it would be dangerous to life.

Cultural relativists will explain that this actually explains nothing.

Fine.

 

Wednesday
Feb192014

Wasteland Redivivus

This is pretty stunning. Leonard Bernstein conducts the premiere of one of his compositions on the television program “Omnibus” in 1955. (Hat tip: Terry Teachout)

Let’s pause to think about these words:  Bernstein; premiere; television.

This was when there were a grand total of three, count them, 3, television networks. Somehow, CBS found time to air the show. (Later it ran on NBC.) Today, no man knows how many there are. Hundreds, literally. And which of them would air a program such as this one?

A&E, the “arts and entertainment” channel? Home of “Duck Dynasty” and “Bates Motel” and “Bad Ink” and “Rodeo Girls” and “Storage Wars”? I don’t think so.

Bravo, home of “Real Housewives” of this or that upper middle-class ghetto, and “Top Chef” and “Project Runway” and “Tamras OC Wedding” and god knows what else? Again, not bloody likely.

These were cable channels that began life promising to bring culture to the American viewing public. But not enough of that public wanted culture, and so they decided to compete for the lowest common denominator.

This morning, while running on a treadmill at my gym, I watched as the “History” channel explained how the government has been using “extremely low frequency” radio waves, bounced off the ionosphere, to control my mind. Most enlightening. I’ve always enjoyed history.

Newton Minow, thank thy lucky stars thou art not living at this hour!

Tuesday
Feb182014

Hawkeye Has a Good Idea

I am not Alan Alda’s biggest fan, though I quite liked him as Senator Vinick in the television series “West Wing.” An honest, thoughtful Republican, and from California; who’d a-thunk it? But he is up to something quite good nowadays, as Dahlia Lithwick explained at Slate today.

Alda is promoting a very fine idea, to pose a challenge to scientists to answer questions about the nature of things in a way that an 11-year-old can understand. We need scientists who can do that. But not all scientists are going to develop that skill, and those that do are not going to be available in sufficient numbers to teach science to all the 11-year-olds in the land. In short, we will continue to need science teachers. They are and will continue to be the essential middle element between those who know things and those who need to be educated.

So the question of how to provide every science classroom with a competent science teacher remains the crux of the matter. I have written before about my experience of science teachers. In brief, few were particularly well trained to teach, and almost none taught more than lists of names of things:  molecule, phlogiston, valence, and phenolphthalein in chemistry, for example; stamen, anther, pistil, and stomate in botany; dorsal fin, compound eye, mandible, and fibula in zoology; sedimentary, igneous, orogeny, and artesian in geology; and so on and on, to no particular benefit to anyone.

What was not taught is what science is. What it is is a way of thinking, a way of observing and assessing, and a way of testing to see if what we think might be true is actually -- maybe -- true. It is a refinement, a formalization of what we all do when we are trying to solve practical problems and are concerned with getting answers that work, and work best. Students need to store up a general understanding of how we currently think the universe works, but it is more important that they come to understand how provisional our answers are and how better answers are going to be found, and by some among themselves.

Friday
Feb072014

Again With the "Science"

There is no way of knowing how many people find themselves undecided as between the theory of biological evolution through natural selection, on the one hand, and the tenets of young-Earth creationism on the other. I, for one, doubt that they constitute a substantial portion of the overall population. Certainly there can have been only a few such present when, the other day, Bill Nye the Science Guy debated the question with Ken Ham of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.

For that reason it’s not at all clear to me why the debate took place. Who hoped to convince whom of what? The choice between evidence-based, carefully reasoned scientific theory and faith-based, artfully rationalized assertion is pretty stark, and those who have chosen sides are not to be swayed easily. Any who were swayed by an evening of is-too-are-not will just as easily sway back again.

Writing in Slate, William Saletan called the bout for Nye but seemed to agree that there was little point to the exercise. Creationism, he wrote, depends upon what Nye called “magical” beliefs, by which he meant beliefs whipped up -- not so much out of whole cloth as from thin air -- to explain away inconvenient evidence. This is certainly correct. But Saletan went on to suppose that it is such beliefs that keep Ham and his co-believers “sane.” Now, that’s a term in law, not in psychology, and may therefore be technically accurate. But I wonder how a philosopher, or a psychiatrist, would judge this odd mental structure, jerry-built and utterly dependent upon ad hoc buttressing.

Saletan ends his piece with a call for toleration all around: “We can live with [creationism] as a compartmentalized fetish.”

Sorry, but no.

If there is one characteristic common to cranks of every stripe, it is their impulse to share, then push, then legislate their notions. In the case of creation “science” and its pseudo-academic stalking horse Intelligent Design, we have seen and still see that impulse at work in several states. At this moment the main battle is in Texas, but it has popped up all over the country wherever the believers have managed to gain footholds in the school boards. Idiotic beliefs are as apt to remain compartmentalized as cockroaches.

Yesterday’s Chicago Tribune brought a mildly entertaining example. Columnist Rex W. Huppke talked with a fellow in California who believes very, very strongly in the existence of life on Mars. He describes himself as a “scientist and astrobiologist,” although he seems not to have any of the conventional credentials. This chap’s interest was captured by NASA’s announcement that a photo from the Mars explorer Opportunity showed an odd looking rock where none had been just days before.

The “scientist” believes the rock, which has been dubbed the “jelly doughnut,” is a sort of mushroom. Why? Here is his “scientific” reasoning: “They said it just appeared. And I thought, mushrooms do that, too. It was like a little E.T., right there waving at us.”

If you detect just the teensiest slippage in logical rigor in that argument you just might be sane.

Our “scientist” has no intention of keeping his view compartmentalized. Quite the opposite. He has filed suit against NASA, demanding that scientists there investigate the rock fully or, if they already have (and he mentions a possible “purposeful attempt to deceive the public and scientific community”), to release the complete results thereof.

What is common to Ken Ham and Mushroom Man, whose respective ideas are wildly divergent, and all their ilk is that each develops a complex of theorizing whose purpose is to prove the validity of a prior belief. This is, of course, the exact opposite of the method of science, properly understood and conducted.

And there is one other commonality: They insist on pushing their nuttiness into the public sphere. “Compartmentalizing” is not the solution; “quarantine” might be closer to the mark.

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

UPDATE! UPDATE!

NASA claims to have solved the mystery.

In the immortal words of Bernie, faithful Indian companion, "Uh-huh; sure."

(Ten, count 'em, ten! Bobb-o Bonus Big-Deal points for identifying Bernie.)