Thursday, April 22, 2010

Adventures with Jay Lake

My old friend Jay Lake discusses a dream in a recent blog post and refers to a series of real-life incidents, specifically:

“...a baby puke yellow Ford LTD wagon was in my life for a while back in the 1990s — that’s the car I flooded with raw sewage while driving it, if you’ve ever heard me tell that story; also the car I took over the river in Mexico on a canoe ferry. Also the car I was driving the night I nearly wound up in a shallow grave but for the luck of fools and the forbearance of some very puzzled, heavily armed men.”

Some of those events he’s referred to before, especially the crossing of the river on a ferry made from two canoes with wooden planks laid between them. For anyone inclined to doubt Jay, even by degree, I’d just like to step-up and say: forget it. Jay’s life specializes in weird, and I was there for all of the events he mentions above. What’s more, he left-out a number of other events relating to that same vehicle, like running aground in the beach-of-mosquitoes (all the other mosquitoes I have encountered in my entire life do not begin to equal the number that were attacking me at any given moment on that beach); the awkward joy with which we later sat in the thick smoke of burning cow dung and drank beers with the people who freed us; the 100% concrete (beds included), completely empty motel-of-the-damned that we stumbled upon in the middle of the night hoping for a place to sleep; the long, dead-slow descent of a rain drenched, fog bound, boulder strewn, cliff-side mountain road in the middle of the night, with one of us using a hand-held, million candle-power Q-beam light to make the edge of the road just barely visible for about six feet in front of us (the holder of the Q-beam was probably sitting out on the hood of the car to do that, but I can’t remember for sure). And there were other such events, I’m confident; some merely temporarily forgotten, others mercifully hidden away by subtle mental defense mechanisms.

One fascinating thing about the river crossing on the canoes: Early in the crossing the people responsible for the ferry decided that our fully-loaded station wagon was positioned too far forward for what we may laughingly call “safety.” So they told us to put it into reverse and back-up a little. Interesting physics experiment, that. As the fully-loaded station wagon had a far greater mass than the canoes and all the people who were riding that makeshift ferry with us, when the station wagon reversed it didn't move an inch, instead it flung the ferry forward. Fortunately, whoever was driving (it wasn’t me, but may have been Jay) didn’t panic, and stopped in time to prevent us from flinging the ferry out from under us. With a less competent driver, we’d have a story to tell of being caught in the middle of rural Mexico with our car and all of our possession at the bottom of a river ... and that’s a story I’m very glad I can’t tell.

Egads, I wish I had been into photography back then.

And that was followed by Jay’s trip to Ulan Bator … but that expedition I declined. Others will have to tell those stories.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Owlet no. 1 Hatched

Owlet no. 1 hatched sometime between midnight and 3:30 AM. So, the activity in the nest box is going to steadily increase from this point on. This is when the viewing really starts to become interesting.

The first look at the owlet came a bit before 6 AM. Those curious, and those who have QuickTime installed, can view two, short time-lapse movies of the owlet moving around; one seen from the side, and one seen from above. At this early stage, the owlet can't even lift its head, so there’s not a lot to see, but the movies will give you more of an idea of what a several hour old owlet looks like than any single image from the box. By the way, if you're having trouble making heads or tails of the little fellow, the owlet is laying on its belly, with its head between the remaining three eggs, and its tail pointing outwards. In the overhead view, a fragment of egg shell can be seen moving around on the owlet's left. Mme. Owl will have already eaten the rest of the egg shell in order to (1) reclaim the calcium, and (2) prevent any large pieces from coming to enclose any portion of the other eggs, thereby reducing the surface area through which air can pass to the fetuses.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What is the CDC?

From Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC, pg. 38, by J.B. McCormick, M.D., S. Fisher-Hoch, M.D., and L.A. Horvitz. Here McCormick relates a story from a trip to Sierra Leone in March, 1976, as part of an effort to deal with the Lassa Fever virus.

[....] When we were introduced to the secretary of health for Sierra Leone, his first question was: “What is the CDC? Does that stand for the Colonial Development Company?”

Not exactly a splendid start.

After we explained our purpose, the secretary wanted to know what the annual budget of the CDC was.

“Well,” Karl replied, “it’s about $120 million.”

His jaw dropped. He couldn’t believe it. The annual budget for the entire nation of Sierra Leone wasn’t that big. Then he sat back, studying us thoughtfully. He decided it was well worth his while to be collaborating on a project with such a lucratively endowed partner.

It’s nice to think of Americans showing up some place and dispelling old fears about us, and of us taking the long-view of a problem (in this case: don’t wait for a pathogen to arrive in America before trying to understand it and provide a treatment or cure) to the benefit of everyone. No charge. That’s my kind of America.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Authoritarians

Ever since I finished reading it a few weeks ago, I've been meaning to recommend the book The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba. So, consider it recommended. It’s available online for free at the page linked-to above. The book’s been out since 2006, so it’ll already be familiar to a lot of people, but it was news to me when I learned of it a few months back, and I know I’m not the only one. So, like I said: recommended.

There are more things of interest in that book than I can shake a stick at, so I’ll just touch on one: Altemeyer reproduces a quote from President Carter (see page 181) in which he was “describing the fundamentalist movements that have taken control of the Republican Party”, as Altemeyer characterized it. The quote is this:

“Almost invariably, fundamentalist movements are led by authoritarian males who consider themselves to be superior to others and, within religious groups, have an overwhelming commitment to subjugate women and to dominate their fellow believers.”

According to the footnotes, that’s from Carter’s book Our endangered values: America’s moral crisis, pg. 34.

Altemeyer’s research suggests that those authoritarians are even worse than Carter described. But what interested me most about that quote is its relationship to something I heard President Carter say in an interview more than a decade ago, on PBS’ News Hour, in which he said something to the effect that the politicians and other movers and shakers he encountered in Washington during his presidency were unusually apt to state, at least privately, that they had attained their privilege, power and wealth due to being God’s chosen ones. The rest of us, by extension, were some lower order of being that was meant to be ruled by, and serve the interests of, them, the chosen ones. (I don’t remember him indicating that that viewpoint was specific to members of any one political party, by the way.) Carter, of course, was appalled by such assertions.

The existence of that attitude struck me as being of the utmost importance, both to explain a lot of things that happen in the halls of power, and as a warning of what more could happen, and so I set off to read almost everything President Carter had written, both before, and after, his presidency, hoping to find him expanding on that statement. Unfortunatley, while I found many interesting things in his books, I never found that statement, or anything like it.

Nonetheless, that statement, at least as I remember it, fits in very well with Altemeyer’s research, especially on what he calls the “Double Highs.” (See chapter 5.) And Altemeyer was good enough to specifically study the attitudes of the members of America’s state legislatures. (Regrettably, his survey was performed before the test for “double highs” existed, but the results are relevant, nonetheless.) He describes the results as follows:

I sent the thirty-item RWA scale I was using in my research then to fifty legislative chambers, and in every single one except the Louisiana House, the Republicans scored higher overall than the Democrats. Although the “right-wing” in right-wing authoritarianism refers to a psychological trait that endorses submission to established authority (see chapter 1), not a political ideology, the RWA scale finds different levels of this trait in politicians from the two parties. The Republicans scored almost 40 points higher than the Democrats on the average, on the 30-item scale.

The graph he provides showing where the Democrats and Republicans of the various state legislatures scored on the RWA scale (see figure 5.1 on page 201) shows Republicans scoring in a very tight grouping at the high end of the scale, and Democrats scattered all over the scale, though mostly scoring lower than Republicans. That probably explains the high cohesion within the Republican party, and what I perceive to be the low cohesion within the Democratic party. Offhand, I can’t find an indication of exactly when Altemeyer conducted those surveys, but he indicates that they were all done before 1994. So, if President Carter wasn’t noticing any more of the “I’m God’s chosen one” attitude in one party or the other during his administration (and that’s a big “if”, because he simply might not have mentioned it, or I may not have remembered him mentioning it, or it might have been edited out of the interview), Altemeyer’s data would indicate that holders of that attitude disproportionately and rapidly migrated to the Republican party.

That such a profoundly undemocratic attitude exists anywhere within our society is inevitably destructive. When it finds a place where it is welcome and can congregate it becomes lethal. And so to the “chosen ones” I say this: You are not superior to the rest of us, and your conceit that you are has soaked your hands in blood that will not wash off.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Beware Your Socialist Roads

In a time when intellectual standards have dropped so low that any involvement of government in the lives of its citizens can be labelled “socialism,” it seem only appropriate to warn the U.S. populace against using its socialist roadways.

Here’s how the Carfree Times (always worth a read) March, 2010, issue lays out the facts, as supplied by that well known band of socialist agitators that is the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDoT). This will be old news to anyone who follows transportation issues, but assertions I’ve encountered over the years, like “my vehicle registration fee pays for my share of the roads” suggests that these facts need to be repeated over and over again until a lot more people have heard them. (Perhaps painting them on the roads would do the trick....)

Road Taxes vs. Road Expenditures

The Texas Department of Transportation republished an earlier study that confirms the general wisdom: roads are very expensive. This comes from a pro-pavement DoT that now admits that the capital costs for design, construction, and maintenance of roads far exceeds the total tax receipts allocated for highways.

The study estimated that gasoline taxes would have to be raised six-fold to bring revenue in line with expenditures. The cost of gasoline (currently $2.50/gallon) would have to rise to $4.35.

"Green" cars are seen as a problem in themselves. Their lower demand for fuel will actually exacerbate the highway budget crisis.

The study revealed that no road pays for itself in gas taxes and fees.

For example, in Houston, the 15 miles of SH 99 from I-10 to US 290 will cost $1 billion to build and maintain over its lifetime, while only generating $162 million in gas taxes. That gives a tax gap ratio of .16, which means that the real gas tax rate people would need to pay on this segment of road to completely pay for it would be $2.22 per gallon.

None of this is news, but it's interesting to see the truth seeping out in a state such as Texas.

"TxDot’s newsletter
Keep Texas Moving
20 November 2009
"TxDOT: No road pays for itself
Gas tax is not enough"
Houston Tomorrow
2 December 2009
"Do roads pay for themselves?
Progressive Railroading blog
6 December 2009

As the TxDoT newsletter article goes on to explain, “This is just one example, but there is not one road in Texas that pays for itself based on the tax system of today. Some roads pay for about half their true cost, but most roads we have analyzed pay for considerably less.”

Anyone who thinks this is somehow a mistake, or a problem caused by the use of some gas taxes for purposes other than maintaining roads, or just some weird quirk of how things are done in Texas (socialist hotbed that it is), need only consider the Interstate Highway System. It’s best known to many people as their “freeways.” The Interstates were built at a cost to the states of ten cents on the dollar. In other words, the federal government subsidized their construction to the tune of 90% of their cost.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


From an old favorite:

"Exploiting?" asked Dirk. "Well, I suppose it would be if anybody ever paid me, but I do assure you, my dear Richard, that there never seems to be the remotest danger of that. I live in what are known as hopes. I hope for fascinating remunerative cases, my secretary hopes that I will pay her, her landlord hopes that she will produce some rent, the Electricity Board hopes that he will settle their bill, and so on. I find it a wonderfully optimistic way of life."

Dirk Gentley's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams, pg. 120.