Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Elephant-shaped teapot dilemma

The SL is hijacked from something I heard on the radio the other day, and it seems to fit the subject at hand. The other evening Dulcie launched into a tirade about the amount of money people spend on pointless "crap" (as she refers to it) at Christmas. "Why are they doing this?" she rails. When in these moods, Dulcie can become a terrifying figure; grown men have been known to crumple into gibbering ruins before her onslaught. Fortunately I am largely immune, partly because I am not a fully grown man.

Anyway, her tirade brought me round to something I had been thinking about regarding carbon footprints: "virtual" carbon and its significance. If the carbon footprint of America was adjusted for all the carbon that was emitted in the production of the goods purchased by Americans, then it would be colossally higher. Concomitantly, the footprint of China, adjusted for the carbon emissions involved in producing goods for export to America, would be something like 30 % lower.

So, this means that America is even badder than generally thought environmentally wise. But wait, is this really fair? I mean, the analysis suggests that somehow the poor Chinese are being exploited by the nasty Americans and being forced to manufacture all that stuff against their will. Surely they derive some benefit from all this manufacturing? Like earning tons of money and becoming a fantastically wealthy nation that has totally transformed itself from the nation of "re-educated" peasants that Maoism had created.

So, I put the point to Dulcie about what would happen if we (collectively the nation, not just us two for we buy no crap) stopped buying stuff. What would all the Chinese do then. Oh, they could just go back to doing what they used to do and be happy she returned cheerfully. I don't think so.

The radio discussion from which I stole the SL was very much along the same lines, though perhaps a little more intellectually profound than ours. The dilemma is one of personal financial responsibility versus the needs of the larger economy. In difficult times it is individually fiscally responsible to leave the elephant-shaped teapot (the crap in Dulcie's more Saxon vernacular) on the store shelf. However, if everyone did the same, the economy would (has) frozen up. In other words, we should all do our bit and buy elephant-shaped teapots by the truck-load. Even better if said teapots were fabrice en U.S.A. Fat chance there though.

In an even bigger picture, the dilemma of the SL is probing the prevailing philosophy of society depending on economic growth. Ultimately, growth and sustainability are on a collision course. To achieve the latter, at some point the former goal must be moderated. We could start by not buying the elephant-shaped teapot.

Monday, December 22, 2008

All Natural

Have you, like me, wandered along the "health" isles of stores like Wholefoods and marveled at the endless rows of prodigiously expensive little bottles of vitamins, potions and supplements, proclaiming in strident tones, all natural, how a meaningful life is impossible without them? Largely overweight people are to be seen sweeping them off the shelves in droves, to be glugged down later with oceans of pomegranate juice and mountains of acai berries.

I have always held a healthy skepticism towards these products, and find them in a way to be in philosophical opposition to the whole natural/organic ethos of the Wholefoods concept. I mean, piles of little machine-produced pills are scarcely commensurate with images of lambs gamboling happily in their hillside fields, free-range poultry hailing the dawn and flapping their untethered wings, lusty cattle munching on their rich prairie grasses, or plump salmon leaping the ice-cold waters of the PNW. Yet they must be remarkably popular given their abundance.

Years ago I discovered that my financial advisor was a devout believer in the benefits to be derived from the variously colored and shaped tablets. I know this because one year, for my Christmas gift thanking me for my business, I received a year's subscription to some bogus health publication in lieu of the conventional food package of nasty, rock-hard smoked cheeses and greasy little salamis of vaguely Germanic inspiration, though one finds they invariably hail from only as far as Wisconsin. Incidentally, these days, my annual gift is a donation "in my name" to some obscure charity. What it is to be compassionate. In slight disbelief, seeing as how my millions are entrusted to his stewardship, I quizzed him on this health thing. Indeed, it transpired that each morning was celebrated with a veritable witch's brew of tablets and potions designed to promote good health and long life. Gazing upon his physique, hardly to be confused with that of Johnny Weismuller, I remained skeptical.

The latest wisdom about supplements, appearing this day in the Tribune, suggests that my skepticism is well placed. Research has shown that vitamin supplements have no important benefits. A survey involving 50,000 participants showed that vitamin C, E and selenium don't reduce the risk of prostate, colorectal, lung, bladder, or pancreatic cancer. (Mulling over that intelligence is a sure-fire way to start one's day with a squirm; even the Go Lean (but not lightly) hesitates in the craw). Other studies have shown that the tabs don't afford defence against cancers, strokes or cardiovascular disease. Indeed, some of them may have effects opposite to those intended; excessive imbibition of certain vitamins can have deleterious consequences for health. It's a bit of a surprise in a way as to why these studies yield such gloomy results. It is undoubtedly true that vitamins and minerals are essential for good health. So, it would seem to be pretty simple logic that taking proper amounts as supplements should be beneficial. Yet the research does not bear that out. The problem is thought to be that it is virtually impossible to establish a true placebo group - the control group that does not receive the supplements, but instead gets a placebo. It is impossible to eliminate intake of those vitamins or minerals under study from natural sources, and thus the impact of the supplemental substances is muddied.

For all that inconsequence, their popularity grows; the total market is about $10 billion compared with only $5 billion ten years ago. For once, I feel it pays to be a cheapskate and rely on a modest, balanced diet for one's regimen of chemicals. Just as nature intended.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


Largely lost amongst all the hurly-burly of Blugo's sudden but all-too-welcome arrest was a short article on the decision by the Department of Energy to award the Rare Isotope Beam (RIB) project to Michigan State University, the only other competitor in the field, rather than Argonne National Laboratory. The article appeared, appropriately enough, on the obituary page just above Betty Paige's obituary (they had "those" back in the fifties?).

This is a great pity, the loss of the RIB not Betty Paige, as I think I might have discussed on these very pages my, albeit remote, involvement with the project. What with the presence of Fermi Lab and the proton therapy centers sprouting like mushrooms in DuPage county, the addition of the RIB would have truly made this area a center of accelerators. The SSCP and his colleagues would be expected to educate future operators of these various bits of high-tech machinery. COD involvement aside, the project would have brought a lot of coin ($500 million or so) to struggling Argonne.

So, some lousy state university beats out the likes of one of the great national research laboratories that had its origins in nuclear fission. How does this happen? Well, some would argue it was a logical decision based on the fact that MSU already has existing technology and expertise, while for Argonne it would really be a new thing. The pre-existing facility at MSU was probably a major factor. Another was the readiness of the university to lob in some matching funds to sweeten the deal; a move not matched by Argonne apparently.

Which kind of brings me back around to that pelt-headed, potty-mouthed lout of a (hopefully) soon-to-be-ex governor, entertaining though his taped conversations may be. What, no thought of a bob or two from the state to grease the wheels, a few mil to land maybe 500? This sort of failure is truly Blugo's legacy. One might almost be tempted to forgive the craven nature of his (alleged) fattening at the trough, if there was something to show for it. However, not only has he been corrupt, he has been completely incompetent to boot.

Earlier this year, on a visit to the wooded hills around State College, Pennsylvania for a workshop on nanotechnology education at Penn State University, I was struck by what enlightened state government could do. Students pursuing a degree in nanotechnology from about twenty different community colleges got to spend one semester at Penn State funded completely by state money, fees and board and lodging. What a brilliant concept. What a fantastic opportunity for those students. The program was the result of a collaborative effort between the colleges, the university, regional industries and the state. Can one imagine such a scenario in Illinois, blessed as we are with the most dysfunctional, inefficient and broken system of government? The thought makes me weep.

Friday, December 12, 2008

High Dunsinane Hill has come to Springfield

"Where were you when Blugo was nabbed?" might not rank up with similar questions about JFK's assassination or 911, but, for corruption-weary Illinoisans, Tuesday was indeed a memorable day. I was preparing for class, last-minute deep-breathing exercises and so on, when Dulcie calls with the news. I respond appropriately enough with something along the lines of "(expletive) me."

By way of small digression, why is it that papers and news media tiptoe around the actual words with such delicacy, when it is as plain as day what was actually said? A "racial epithet," "f-bomb" and so on are the euphemisms used in polite society. What is avoided by not printing the actual letters? The far more cerebral New Yorker does not stand on such delicate ceremony; to them a fuck is a fuck, printed with an almost palpable defiance, much like David Mamet. Even a c is a c to them, but I couldn't bring myself to do that.

Joy of joys, my day was made, and I floated into the class as if on tiny clouds of air, my feet gilded with wings like an angel. The Tribune the following day made compulsive reading, with the full sordidness and vulgarity of the Thane of Ravenswood and his Lady Patty Macbeth laid bare courtesy of the wire. Far more gripping than even the best of The Sopranos could manage. The obvious comparison of Mrs Blugo to literature's most ambitious woman was made, though I fear that the formerlacks the latter's poetic power. One can scarcely picture potty-mouthed Patty galvanizing a faltering Rod with something along the lines of "Screw your courage to the sticking place and we'll not fail." "Unsex me here" perhaps. "Fuck the fuckers" more like; which I'm sure the eloquent Blugo could appreciate, speaking his language after all.

One can take the Macbeth analogy a bit further for this lovely couple, initially so brash and handsome, sweeping into the throne room on a wave of optimism, self-proclaimed reformers; then increasingly isolated as enemies mount, investigators circulate, and finally cornered in his castle, alone in a dark room in the early hours, in pyjamas. "Is this a joke?" the plaintive response. The real Macbeth showed greater courage at the finish:

"Yet I will try the last. Before my body
I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff,
And damn'd be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!'"

One can picture the Mell family fingering the youthful Blugo for greatness, tossing assorted eye of newt, tail of toad, spleen of dog, or whatever, into the Allclad, predicting a bright future: Congress and Guvnor too. All hail, Blugo! hail to thee Thane of Ravenswood!" "All hail, Blugo, hail to thee, Congressman of the something district!" "All hail, Blugo, thou shalt be governor hereafter!" "Fucking golden!" was perhaps the response, but there were no wires back then to record the dialog for posterity. Is it possible that Patrick Fitzgerald is not of woman born? Is he alone capable of smiting the tyrant's head from off his shoulders?

So why is that, on that most glorious of days when corruption is met with its comeuppance, the rest of the politicians are so distraught, mumbling and dissembling about it being a sad day for Illinois, a sad day for the governor. No! No it isn't sad at all! It is a day of singular celebration. The wicked are sent scurrying for their burrows in the dark; the righteous may once again walk in the light, like the day in Narnia when the White Queen lost her power.

What makes a sad day is when the new king of Camelot, the tall, sylvan-tongued Barack who pulled the mighty sword from the stone and smote the nasty Republicans, can only muster that it would be impolitic of him to comment. He later managed a little stronger, but it was too late, too late to have said something to make us believe that there really will be Camelot in Washington. It is a sad day when that same king finds it impolitic to comment on the treachery of another, Durbin, pleading for mercy for the unrepentant, imprisoned Ryan. It is a sad day when that same king, he of transparency and change, given every opportunity to promote said change in Cook County, instead backed the infant son of the stricken Stroger, thereby ensuring for the citizens of that county many more years of the same corrupt self-interest. Of course those citizens really brought it upon themselves by voting for a corpse, but at least he could have made a symbolic gesture. I fear Camelot-come-to-Washington will be little different from Chicago City Hall. Stay those tears you romantic fools; a single person, even one of golden tongue and much intelligence, cannot overcome a system, particularly when he was the product of the system.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Setting the world on fire

In an article in The New Yorker about the rise of over parenting, evidence for this trend cited growing pressure on youth to be successful in the university entrance process. Not surprisingly, applicants resort to plagiarism (the Illinois way) when preparing applications. Even Oxford and Cambridge are not immune to this; or perhaps it should be that especially Oxford and Cambridge are subject to this. The article stated that two hundred and thirty-four applicants to read chemistry at those venerable institutions cited the same example, 'burning a hole in my pyjamas at age eight,' as a formative experience. Two things are noteworthy here. One, it demonstrates an alarming bankruptcy of imagination amongst these applicants that they feel the need to search for a formative experience on the internet. Two, it is perhaps even more alarming that said applicants would think that an Oxford don would be impressed by such a puerile notion.

Times have obviously changed in the entrance process to Oxford. Although my memory is dimmed by the passage of time, I don't recall having to cite a "formative experience" in my application. I'm sure I would have been hard-pressed to come up with something suitably impressive. I was just good at it. Isn't that enough? There were the exams, late in the year; then the anxious wait for the summons to the interview. Alan Bennett's account of his interview resonates somewhat with my own experience of what was probably the most nerve-wracking moment of my young career. I had not yet tackled the driving test, for at that age had no interest or need for cars.

In the dark of a winter night I alighted from the train at Oxford station and walked the mile or so to New College clutching the map tightly so as to be able to navigate the narrow, echoing alleys that snake between the colleges. I entered the college through the narrow door within the larger gate by a porter's lodge that was dark and uninhabited. After a couple of laps of the quadrangle I singularly failed to discover any living thing. All was dark, damp and just a little bit terrifying. Eventually someone appeared, as if from nowhere, and was able to direct me to where I needed to go. There was a slit-like opening in what I later learned was the old city wall; and on the other side of that opening lay another quadrangle wherein life prospered. I was then able to locate my room and prepare for the interviews. I can't remember now if a scout summoned me from my slumbers or not; of course, in later life, the scout, a mainstay of the Oxford tradition, would become a stabilizing influence in one's college career. I'm sure they are all vanished from the scene now, doubtless replaced by eastern European immigrants and the like. The scouts of old would display a kind of parallel lineage to the students; my scout had relatives at several colleges and was clearly well bred for the job.

All meals during the interview stay were taken in college, and we candidates quickly discerned preferred colleges whereat to dine at different times of the day: breakfast at Brasenose, lunch at Wadham, dinner at John's, that kind of thing.

The interview itself was a rather quiet affair. Neither of my would-be tutors was possessed of a particularly dynamic personality. They sat back in their armchairs in a dim, musty, ever-so-slightly claustrophobic room, located somewhere up an improbably ancient creaking staircase, while I teetered on the edge of an old, large, leathery sofa (do I dare slide back in it and relax?). Not being possessed of a dynamic personality either, the interview was pretty low-key. I have no recollection of what was discussed, though I am pretty sure I was not asked about any formative experiences. What impression did I make in those few minutes? Whatever it was, it was not bad enough to undo any good work I might have done in the exams, and I was duly offered a place.

When I look back, my education seems frightfully random: the choice of high school, the selection of chemistry, the choice of college; they were mostly accidents. Did I make any real, informed, intentional decisions at any point? I think not. Much like chemistry itself: a series of random collisions.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Enemies of science

I mentioned in my last post that the Discovery Institute is the public enemy number one of science education. There are, however, enemies everywhere, and many occupy influential positions in large churches near you. As I was gaily going about my business the other day, I flipped the radio to WMBI (Moody Radio), since there was nothing particularly stimulating on The Score. It's an obvious alternative I know. I tuned in just at the moment when pastor James MacDonald was reaching one of his trademark climaxes. For those not in the know, MacDonald is the CEO of one of the largest, and most successful, (if you measure success in church by attendance) suburban churches. Like other successful pastors of the new, young, attractive, media-savvy, seeker-sensitive breed, he had the good sense to locate in an affluent area. Consider Rick Warren and Bill Hybels (the latter the founder of the hyper-mega Willow Creek located in that suburban slum Barrington). I know, the rich also need converting too and, as we read in the Bible, wealth is the biggest obstacle to faith; so these people really have a tougher challenge than the folks that labor in the fields of the poor and needy - like shooting fish in a barrel there I guess. MacDonald made the news a couple of years ago by shelling out a few mill for a mansion once owned by former Illinois Senator Peter Fitzgerald. Also, like many modern pastors, MacDonald is in tune with the modern communications methods and has a blog. I note that he has adopted the shaved-head look - a sort of ecumenical Tom Collichio. Hmmm.

I'm just getting hopelessly sidetracked here, but I wanted to set the scene. Anyway, the moment I tune in, MacDonald is at the pinnacle of a major moment: "Evolution is the biggest lie run up Satan's flag pole." he screams. He goes on to question why this "lie" is defended. Apparently, "they," scientists I suppose, want to deny the truth of God's creation. He then proceeded to trot out some of the wonders of nature, like bugs that spit out two chemicals from opposite sides of their mouths that form an explosive mixture when combined, as proof of God's creation. If I've heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times; but the argument proves nothing. It is a false argument.

Why James, why? Why are you and so many of your ilk so committed to keeping your flocks believing in fairy tales? You say so many good things, and do many good things, but when it comes to the principles of science it all goes horribly wrong. And all for what? Is our salvation dependent upon disavowing evolution? I think not.

The evangelical anti-scientific bias was clearly manifested in Sarah Palin. If for no other reason than Sarah Palin would not be Vice President was I profoundly relieved by Obama's election. Apart from the more obvious problems like her belief in Creationism (which to her credit she did not make a big deal of), or skepticism about global warming (more worrying given her location), was her profound ignorance of the importance of basic scientific research. She mocked, for example, the funding of research on fruit flies in France, as if this was a ridiculous misuse of public funds. She was unable to connect that research with its profound economic implications for agriculture in California. Overall, I found the U.S. press to be rather soft on Palin's grotesque deficiencies and utter lack of suitability for a position of public importance. Lawrence Krauss in the New Scientist did not pull any punches in his assessment. "...she is ignorant." "She is also uninterested:..." "She is unqualified:..." "And she is so inarticulate..." All of these positions are unarguable. And yet, shockingly, she was popular. Even educated people thought she was "smart."

Warming to my task of outing champions of ignorance and anti-science, I will conclude with an observation on the most vile and loathsome creature that haunts our radio stations. I'm talking, of course, of the odious Limbaugh. On Dulcie and Aylwin's big beer adventure across the western wastes that the Giants in the Earth had settled little more than a century before, we found that the vast emptiness of the land was mirrored by a similar vacuity in the air waves. There was one constant to keep us company on those long hauls across the plains: Rush Limbaugh. With ceaseless, unflagging commitment (must be the pills I guess), he talked to us at seemingly every hour of the day. Well when I say "talk," I really mean rant. If it was not Rush, it was another of his ilk, Sean Hannity for example. It's hard to tell them apart since they all sound alike. It all sort of melded into a background drone of hyperbole and exclamation points. Eventually you go mad, buy a pick-up and hang a giant American flag out the window.

It was truly terrifying. Whereas I felt strong enough to withstand the relentless assault on reason, I'm sure the vast armies of loyal listeners had been completely and irrevocably corrupted. I was shocked, though I probably shouldn't have been, by Limbaugh's antipathy towards the alternative energy crowd. Limbaugh has a very simplistic view of life; he espouses no deep principles; he invites no discussion of ideas; ultimately he says very little in fact. His rant is one of pure destruction. So, I was a little taken aback by the vitriol spewed over any that promote the need for developing new energy sources and demand that global warming be treated seriously. All such people are liberal, left-wing idiots out to delude the American people. All. That includes me I suppose. Now I take personal offense. This was at the time of the "drill baby drill" anthem and that business about inflating one's tires. Of course they had a field day with that on shriek radio.

I want to ask Limbaugh one thing. Well, I don't really want to ask him because, in all honesty, I don't care what that idiot thinks. But, for the sake of argument, let's say I want to ask him one thing. What is deeply offensive to you, sweet charming Rush, about developing alternative energy? Simply from a business sense alone it represents the best hope for the future. The world is pregnant with opportunity in the development of a new era of energy businesses that will profit Americans rather than criminals, terrorists and despots. Whatever the future holds for climate change, the world will, sooner or later, be reliant almost entirely on other energy sources. Why not be in the forefront, rather than entrenched in bitter denial?

Boards gone wild

To borrow the SL from Dean Dad's (pseudonym or real?) blog posting, which made it the third article to appear in national publications discussing the events at the last board meeting. The first posting on insidehighered.com I mentioned previously. The other appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. And I'm not including in that tally articles in the local papers and the Tribune.

I can't imagine that the BOT anticipated this kind of publicity when it launched into this o'erly hasty and ill-conceived policy "revision." Not surprisingly, the item that got the attention of the education press was the "Academic Bill of Rights" known as ABOR. Academic freedom is a dreadfully sensitive topic to my fellow academics. They naturally bristle at the right-wing-inspired ABOR penned by leftie-turned-rightie David Horowitz. Perhaps, like reformed smokers or new convert to religion, there is nothing more dangerous than a reformed leftie. On the surface of it, there is nothing particularly offensive in its language. I was going to reproduce the eight principles (eight rather than the canonical seven?) here, but they are too long and boring. If my interested readers want to study them then I supply a link to my number one source of information, wikipedia of course.

The dangers are all in the subtext and the motivation of the people behind the promotion of ABOR. It's still unclear as to the motivation of the two BOT members responsible for its appearance in the proposed policy manual, where parts of it appear largely verbatim under "educational philosophy." Was it simply a matter of borrowing high-sounding language to avoid the labor of coming up with their own? Or are they motivated by the same zealous philosophies that drive the likes of the Discovery Institute, public enemy number one of science education? Time may tell I suppose, though the elections in April will hopefully render the question moot.

Monday, November 24, 2008

In the news

Congratulations to the BoT for making the national news. An article covering the policy-making zeal of some of its members appeared in Insidehighered.com

Unlike the local papers that seemed to provide a slightly nuanced account of events, this article exposes the extreme-right motives of the architects of the new policies.

Most people, myself included, are blissfully unaware of the "Academic Bill or Rights," known as ABOR, and its architect David Horowitz. It turns out that the "Educational Philosophy" in the BoT's proposed manual is an essential lifting of the language from ABOR. At first I didn't understand why some of my more clued-in colleagues were upset. On the surface it all seems harmless enough; on the surface the language seems inoffensive and indeed entirely reasonable. Below the surface lurk the dangers; for the ABOR was devised to wrest academic institutions away from the overly left-wing faculties that supposedly controlled them. The ABOR could be used, for example, to insert Creationism (see archives for comments on that) into the teaching of biology and so on. The extremists have become very cunning at adopting language that seems unarguable as a kind of Trojan Horse to infiltrate unwary academic institutions. The Intelligent Designers did not die in Dover; they have simply morphed into other even more subtle forms.

Now here we are at our little community college, in the shallower pools and further ebbs of higher education, seemingly having to deal with this nonsense. Even more reason to be vigilant come April.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Board Games

Forgive me Father for I have sinned; it has been eleven days since my last post. My loyal readers (all four of them) are doubtless yearning to be fed and I have been negligent in my duties; not because I have been short of things to say, far from it in fact, as thoughts continually bubble up within me like marsh gas in a stagnant pond, but rather short of time to put them down. Yes, even this idle, highly paid educator has been busy, though I'm sure that my close personal friend Head of the Family from the Herald discussion board wouldn't believe me.

COD made the paper three times this past Friday - even the Tribune was there - on account of the rousing Board meeting on Thursday evening. While you might think that the somewhat controversial selection of Dr. Breuder, later of Harper College, to be the next Pres would be the main topic, in fact the seemingly far duller subject of the Policy Manual was the main event.

What started out in the summer as a fairly harmless directive to review the policies transformed dramatically into a firestorm, that put all the other bad decisions into the shade, when new-boy-on-the-block, appointed (not elected) Mr. Atkinson, surprised the entire community by presenting an entirely new policy manual back in October with the recommendation that it be adopted in November. The college community was grudgingly invited to submit comments to an e-mail address. Review of the manual revealed it to be a power grab that was as massive as it was clumsy and preposterous.

Students, community members, and even the faculty were shaken from their slumbers to respond. This past Thursday, the night the policy manual was originally urged to be voted on, saw more than a hundred people attend the meeting and thirty or so speak out over a period of more than an hour. Students were upset, rightly so, because the new policy inserted the president as the boss of the newspaper. A good old-fashioned protest was staged. I'm not so sure the electrical tape and teeshirts were necessary, but I did observe many make impassioned, bold statements. Faculty are upset, rightfully so, for many reasons, most of which involve the board absconding with the curriculum and control. The board sat there in silence, absorbing one withering blast after another. The tone was set by Tom Tipton, who, with quite searing clarity, denounced the proposed revisions would represent the worst decision ever made. The session was neatly book-ended by a similarly thunderous wallop by community member Tom Wendorf.

The process has been slowed, but will it be changed. The grand architect of the scheme seems unrepentant judging by his remarks to the Naperville Sun,

'He made no apologies for what he and the rest of the board are trying to do with the policy revision.

"It would be an abdication of our responsibility as trustees to surrender our policy making to the faculty or any other constituency," he said."'

Makes for an interesting winter of discontent ahead.

There is an election in April where four members of the current board are up, including the appointed grand architect. Let the community decide what it wants in their BOT.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Daddy's gone to Knoxville

As I enter the echoing halls of Chicago Orchard's terminal 2 in the monstrously early hours of a Sunday morn, for once scarcely a soul about, I'm greeted once more by the somber monotone informing that the security threat has been "elevated" to orange. There follows the various admonitions about what to do with baggage, and how much liquid one can carry on - in a zip-lock bag of course. Well of course it's orange! It always has, and always will be, for otherwise how can it be justified that we be subjugated to the absurd humiliations that constitute passing through the narrow way that is security? I must at all times be showing some "Government-issued ID," though on occasion my Oxford Bodleian Library card has sufficed, along with the boarding pass; people wearing blue latex gloves intently scan them both as if they were forgeries. And what, pray tell, is the function of the zip-lock? Is a sandwich bag without a zipper insufficient containment for my liquid? On this particular journey I felt the economic pain of heightened terrorist awareness. It is my custom when making journeys to foreign parts to carry a tincture of my pleasure to ease the boredom of the lonely hotel room in some far-flung clime devoid of the civilizing aspects of home. Said tincture, now being viewed with the deepest suspicion, must be packed in the checked luggage. Now I must be checking said luggage for a fee of $15. Total cost of my slightly sinful pleasure: $30. All because some dopes in England allegedly tried to make bombs from liquids a few years ago.

Enough of the preamble. I was being taken to Oak Ridge National Laboratory as part of the inaugural Science and Energy Research Challenge (SERCh) sponsored by the Department of Energy. One of my students, Amanda Manley, had entered a poster based on her work done at Argonne over the summer, and was accepted into the finals. The result: expenses-paid trips for both of us. You can read the press release here:

I had not been to this part of the world previously (I think I had been to or near Memphis previously); this part of the world being in or near the Smokey Mountains. At this time of year the scenery was mildly beautiful with the fall colors still maintaining their hold. Oak Ridge National Lab is deep within a vast tract of woodland, even more vast than Argonne. The buildings I visited all seemed brand new; what, no war-time piles and ancient lavatories - the hallmark of Argonne?

The weekend was something of a forced march, allowing little time for rest as we were shuttled on and off buses between airport, hotel and lab. Many was the person to be seen nodding off, including the SSCP, during yet another presentation. Though, to be fair, many of the presentations were excellent in both being entertaining and scientifically interesting. We were shown the sights, being treated, to some extent, like schoolchildren being wowed by the wonders of big science. We saw a room full of giant computers that are almost instantly obsolete by the time they are installed. They do amazing calculations. I was duly amazed. They also consume huge amounts of electricity and water. We saw the brand new Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) (I note my Mozilla spell-checker does not recognize "spallation"), the opening of which was largely responsible for the shuttering of the grand old IPNS at Argonne earlier this year; though the abruptness of the latter's closing on the day after Christmas or something, as noted in an earlier post on this column, was more due to cost cutting. The SNS is another super-mega instrument that consumes huge quantities of resources but provides, in the blink of an eye, structural information on complex molecules. My mind wandered back to the days of my youth when we wandered over to A.E.R.E. Harwell to do neutron diffraction using the neutrons that emerged from an ancient nuclear reactor. Even a simple structure would involve days of data collection, followed by months of refinement, and quite probably unsuccessful. We were being wooed to submit proposals to use it. Note to self: must submit proposal to SNS.

The main event was the poster session. There were five categories and prizes of real cash were awarded to three students in each, with one overall winner getting an additional $10k. Serious coin here. I know that in the evening of my late youth I can be inclined to occasional cynicism, but I have to say in all honesty I was really awed by the quality of the work, the quality of the presentations, and the quality of the students. The presentations at the end of the FaST program at Argonne can often be quite embarrassingly bad. Here I was overhearing earnest, confident discussions among students that were totally over my head; things about dark matter and weird quantum stuff; and they understood it.

One of the division winners was a lad from Naperville. For those unfamiliar with America's third best place to live (or whatever it is), there are four high schools associated with Naperville. The two downtown schools in District 203 are traditionally associated with academic excellence. Then there is the provincial District 204 with its fancy palace called Nequa (the place that Je$$e Jack$on gets all upset about), that all the nouveau riche want their children to go to (easy access to pot). The fourth school is the one no one wants to go to - too close to Aurora. Needless to say this student came from that school. A nicer and more intelligent person would be hard to find.

My goat girl did not win anything. The fact that she was there at all was pretty amazing though. Must do it again next year.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

God among the gearboxes

Naturally the whole country is currently tuned in to Speed Channel to watch the F-1 finale in Sao Paulo. With British darling Lewis 7 points ahead of the Brazilian Felipe, it is surely his to lose (again). Both have revealed in the course of the last few days their strong faith. In this most materialistic and glamorous of sports, any mention of God seems very out of place. Of course, the late (and definitely not immortal, despite his sublime brilliance) Ayrton Senna, the thinking man's racing driver, was also deeply spiritual. Nonetheless, the public face of F-1 is much more that of Flavio, silver-haired, aging-trendy boss of Renault, who has never met a girl he wouldn't shag. Have to note now that Lewis, a humble lad from south London, has now acquired a pop tartlet: not a Spice Girl but a Pussycat Doll? As I'm sitting here waiting for the start, God, evidently paying attention, has clearly demonstrated a sense of humour as he has sent a downpour on to the starting grid moments before the getaway. The start has been delayed 10 minutes as teams fiddle with the wets. This yet again shows why F-1 is vastly superior to vulgar NASCAR: in the event of rain, the whole show in the latter case stops and they bring out a giant vacuum cleaner and some squeegees.

Fast Forward to the finish. God again displaying a sense of humour as rain arrives in the last four laps and the drivers dive for the pits. Lewis wins, loses and wins again the title on the final two laps. Mind-blowing drama. No fake cautions required here. Does Lewis' success in the relatively exclusive backwater of F-1 foreshadow success of an ethnically similar gentleman on the larger world stage this coming week?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Dark days on Fawell

And not just because the long days of summer have been hurtling towards those dark mornings of winter; even now, when I rise from my bed of pain of a morning, the sun is barely visible, poking reluctantly above the trees on Raintree. No, the darkness on Fawell is emanating from the boardroom: for the second time in little over a week, my breakfast's Go Lean-inspired equilibrium was disturbed by the newspaper.

Last week, the disturbance was caused by one trustee, new boy on the block Atkinson (not elected by the way, but selected by other BOT members to replace one of the two resigned trustees), engaging in a crude, pre-meditated and thoroughly classless ambush on a fellow trustee at the board meeting. It was all recounted in the Herald: Atkinson spending nearly nine minutes of the board's time revealing (shock, horror!!) Trustee Wessel's well-known connections with a group called DuPage United.

This time the story was in the Tribune .

Read it yourself if you wish; I do not intend to discuss the tawdry issues at hand here. For one thing, I know very little about the individuals involved. What clutched at my colon and impelled me to the heights of unquenchable fury was the fact that the BOT chairman's attorney, a certain Chuck Roberts, has attempted to drag the SSCP into the mess by insinuating that the allegations in question are motivated by faculty members objecting to the new policy of wide-open public accessibility of the college's financial records.

Quoting from the article, "He's basically opened the checkbook for review by everybody," Roberts said Thursday ... "If I was a highly paid faculty member, that may make me a little nervous. There's been a little bit of a tussle over that kind of stuff."

Note yet again the qualifier "highly paid" applied to faculty member. As Dulcie rather acerbically observed, "Have they seen where you live?" Whether or not we are or are not "highly paid," as Mr. Roberts implies, (there's irony, a lawyer implying a college professor is "highly paid." Just so you know, I don't bill people for every phone call I make, or every time I use the lavatory), it is all beside the point. As countless people observed in comments on the column, the suggestion is as dumb as it is erroneous. The "transparency" policy adopted to humour Mr. GoodforIllinois occurred just a few weeks ago, at least a year after the original allegations arose. Mr. Roberts, for your client's sake, I hope you make better arguments in court.

There is an election in April 2009 for four of the BOT seats. It would be nice in future to read articles about the COD that involve student success and achievement, rather than the machinations of BOT members.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Golf carts no more

As both an ardent fan of F1 racing and student of alternative energy, the recent article in New Scientist on electric cars took my immediate fancy. The main feature of the article was the Tesla roadster prototype funded by some Californian whiz who had made masses of money doing something else. Although there are shades of the Monty Python line, "...made a cool 4 million in vanadium and sank it all into diesel powered nuns..." (Editor's note: the internet is an amazing thing: I enter diesel powered nuns into Google, every academic's best friend, to check the accuracy, and get 76,200 hits; and there's even a blog of the name "dieselpowerednuns."), initial results are certainly impressive from the performance perspective; while massive questions of cost and practicality remain.

Time was when the electric car was a tiny, nasty little box with absolutely no performance and even less range; it was as if it were necessary to carry around a long cable so it could plugged in every few miles to recharge. It's not the first car to have changed the image, but the Tesla blows it out of the water, with its blinding acceleration and claimed top speed of 200 mph apparently limited internally. I don't recall the range but for sure it is far superior to yesterday's golf carts. So what is the difference? All in the battery. The Tesla derives its awesome power from a lithium battery that weighs in at a mind-blowing 450 kg. Lithium batteries are the wunderkind of modern batteries, since lithium combines very low atomic mass with very high reduction potential (the bit that makes the voltage). So they combine low mass with high energy density unparalleled by other competing battery technologies. As a side note, the SSCP is not slow to point out that he worked on lithium batteries back in his youth at Exxon. That was the era of the first oil crisis.

The amazing thing about the Tesla power plant is that the size of the battery far exceeds anything I have been familiar with. The lithium battery powering this laptop as I type weighs maybe 100 grams. It would also cost be about $150 to replace unless I buy one from some disreputable place on eBay. Two issues with lithium batteries are safety and cost. I already alluded to the latter. Little wonder then that the Tesla would set you back $100,000. At that price it is hardly the answer to all our transportation issues; but to be fair to the developer, he does say that the Tesla is a kind of marketing vehicle and that "future products" would emphasize lower-performance, mass-production type cars.

The safety issue represents a longer term problem perhaps. Most people have heard about, or seen pictures of, laptops spontaneously bursting into flames. Imagine that happening on an airplane with an armed marshal sat in the row behind you. My understanding was that the size of the lithium battery was limited by this safety concern. Imagine the conflagration that would ensue if a 450 kg battery (4,000 times larger than the laptop battery) went off. An earlier lithium-powered car made by Volvo (also a high-performance sex machine) used hundreds of tiny cells. Evidently things have moved on.

Looking down the road there are other things to be concerned about. So, if each existing automobile, not to mention the millions more that will appear in places like India, China and Brazil, uses a lithium battery like the one in the Tesla, that means a lot of lithium. At a stroke we will have moved from concerns about peak oil to concerns about peak lithium. In all probability, the latter will be an even more massive problem. And then supply issues will negatively impact prices and so on.

Then what about the recharging? Although the Tesla emits no carbon in its travels, other than that emitted by the driver, the production of electricity to recharge the battery currently does. Although calculations show that, apparently, the carbon footprint of electrical power generation is lower than that of fossil-fuel-powered cars, it is far from zero. So, to some degree, the carbon problem is simply moved somewhere else by the Tesla. Then of course there is the irritating charging time.

The developer is disdainful of the fuel cell approach; but at least the latter requires no long charge times; nor does it hold the owner hostage to the cost of lithium. Of course fuel cell technology will require a hydrogen infrastructure, which is still in its infancy; and that is probably a stretch.

Still, all-in-all, interesting times in electrical transportation.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Hmmm. Firm.

Word of the week from COD.

I was listening to my uber-favorite podcast, BBC Radio Wales' "All Things Considered" - not to be confused with NPR's version (I think I may have said this once before), while going about my constitutional amidst the autumnal splendor of Danada/Herrick Lake preserve. The mellifluous Roy Jenkins, as soothing a voice as can be heard on the radio, was interviewing some old geezer who had kept a diary on a daily basis for more than thirty years; it might have been fifty, but I forget. Seeing as how the "blog" is the contemporary version of the Letts Schoolboy's diary, the medium that the interviewee had begun his diarying with, I find it unimaginable that I could maintain such a regimen. For one thing, there is a degree of narcissism involved in writing something in a form for others to read. Being one visited occasionally by self-doubts about the value of my thoughts, that narcissism is occasionally defeated. And then there are the times that one simply has nothing to say.

Dulcie looks up from the kitchen table over her glass of Punte Mes (I have introduced her successfully - perhaps too successfully - to the delights of Italian bitter aperitifs, which all started with the search for Fernet Branca inspired by James Harrison Patterson) with the question, "Did I know that T.S. Eliot wrote Prufrock when he was only 23?" Since among the immortal lines there are bits such as "I grow old, I grow old..." I found that fairly amazing. On more than one occasion do I find myself identifying with the poem's hero. The tea and cake and ices lines: definitely been there. At the moment though, my trousers are not yet rolled. For the moment. Later, who knows.

Given that the youth of today read about five minutes a day on the average for pleasure, I wonder how many have heard of T.S. Eliot. Let alone read anything.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Postcard from the Kremlin

This is my 101st post, which has taken about 18 months to achieve. There are those that make a hundred posts a day; such is the fecundity of their brains, the nimbleness of their fingers, and the unlimited availability of their time. Despite my being a "teacher;" reviled the length and breadth of DuPage county by the likes of "Head of the Family," occasional contributor to the lavatory wall that is the comments section in the Daily Herald; for working as little as possible, the time afforded to me for gifting to the world my genius with the pen is limited. Or perhaps I am as idle and lazy as Head of the Family believes. As I pen these immortal words I am still in my pajamas, or what passes for them these days (don't imagine too deeply), knowing that I must to the COD shortly. Damn! I must do the washing up too before Dulcie returns to find it strewn about the kitchen like the remnants of Hurricane Gustav.

Life at the COD is taking on some of the elements of one of those C.P. Snow novels in a university setting full of Machiavellian plots and internecine goings on. Who would have thought the same possible at the linoleum floor educational level. As I think I have commented previously, time was I knew not the BOT, its members, when they met or what they did, if anything. Times have changed. Over my morning Go Lean (but not lightly), I read the Herald article in which one BOT member publicly attacked another one for allegedly master-minding "protests" against the BOT actions. This same BOT in the course of the past few months assassinated the president, swiftly replacing him with a stand-in puppet. In recent weeks, the Vice-President for Academic Affairs was similarly gunned down in the car park (behind one of the new weed-strewn bioswales - so that's what they are for); and, just for completeness, the Associate Dean of Natural Science has also been offered cyanide pills. Given that the Dean is on a year's sabbatical, my entire management line has been removed in less time than it normally takes to convene a committee meeting. All this is supposedly done with the interest of the tax-payer at heart, but the costs are not inconsequential: paying for two presidents as we are now, with money being spent trying to find a third.

The Gang of Four is unhappy. It doesn't like having to pay attention to the views of others, particularly those that have any experience or interest in education. It appears hostile to education and those that actually do it. To placate one anti-tax activist, the salaries are all going to be posted. For what? To denigrate the employees. It attacks the student newspaper because the latter actually has the bollocks to write about what is going on and questioning the wisdom of recent decisions. It tries to eliminate public comment at its meetings and bristles when anyone approaches the microphone. Board procedures are invoked to discourage the emergence of opinion. It has foisted upon the college a "revised" policy manual that weighs twice as much as the previous one, and wants to force it through the process avoiding any form of due process in so doing.

And I want to know why? What motivates these people? They have no interest in education, no background in it, no vision, no mission, no desire to promote it. Why has the once peaceful little COD been turned into some sort of politically motivated circus that successfully generates masses of bad press.

There is an election in April.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Clean coal: put that in your stack and smoke it

It was about a year ago that Mattoon was on the brink of becoming the epicentre of advanced coal research with the awarding of the giant Futuregen project to that small burg somewhere off I-57, close to the home of Eastern Illinois University. Parents, do your children a favor by not ruining their college years by sending them there.

Although Dulcie informs that I was incorrect in remembering there to be a Sonic burger place, I must have been confusing it with St. Louis (easily done), the lone restaurant near the interstate exit, whatever it was, defined fine dining in that area. Rightly or wrongly, and that is a debate rich in nuance, Mattoon's glory was short-lived as Futuregen got slashed a few weeks later as being too expensive.

For my loyal readers unfamiliar with Futuregen, it is/was an ambitious project aimed at developing carbon-free emissions in a coal-fired power station. Since almost all the energy from the combustion of coal involves converting carbon into carbon dioxide, this is a mighty problem. Coal is almost all carbon; whereas natural gas, methane (CH4) has four hydrogen atoms for every carbon atom, so energy from burning the latter comes from both creation of CO2 (bad) and H2O (not bad). Fans of alternative energy sources are largely opposed to any research on improving coal. The trouble is, there's lots of it and, for several decades, no conceivable way that the non-carbon alternatives will replace it.

Earlier this week, an advanced emissionless power plant, much smaller than the one proposed in Futuregen, was unveiled in Germany (the former East Germany as people are still wont to say). It is fairly amazing that this idea really has practical and economic utility, but perhaps it does. For one thing, the coal must be burned in pure oxygen rather than air (only 21 % oxygen) to ensure complete conversion into CO2. All this CO2 must then be captured in the exhaust. It is then pressurized, liquefied, and stored in tanks for later disposal. The current design has the tanks being transported for injection underground at another location. This is the equally improbable-sounding carbon sequestration where, instead of releasing the CO2 into the atmosphere (bad), it is pumped deep underground where it will happily live ever after in the seams of some old mine or something.

Compare all that effort with simply taking a lump of coal and burning it, and you have to wonder how it can be cost-effective. Then consider the logistics of converting every single coal-fired power station to this kind of process. Bear in mind that the infrastructure of capturing, transporting and sequestering mammoth quantities of CO2 is yet to be developed. Bear in mind also that new power stations are popping up in India and China like mushrooms in the Morton Arboretum in the damp fall weather.

The enormity of the problem of eliminating carbon from the energy game is so massive that it seems that all solutions are pointless. It will never be a question that one approach is the way. However, if all of the myriad approaches using various renewables, sustainables, bio-this's and thats, futuristic clean coal, and even including the nuke (nukular in the GOP parlance), are all applied, then a difference can be made, over time and with monumental investment at the government level. If all the money frittered away in the pathetically wrong-headed attempt to impose "democracy" on a unwilling foreign country, much of which ended up in the pockets of the president's pals, was focused on developing those sources, think where we might be now. Maybe Mattoon would have become more than just a one-burger town.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

If the glove fits...

The news came over my radio Saturday announcing that O.J. Simpson had been found guilty on all counts. A flood of memories provoked by the juxtaposition of those words: Simpson and guilty. Was it almost fifteen years now when he was the beneficiary of one of the most celebrated miscarriages of justice in modern history? The most celebrated perhaps if not the greatest. For day in, day out, there are more grievous perversions of the system of justice as innocent men, lacking the celebrity and resources of the likes of Simpson, are quietly put away. Some of them may get lucky decades later, when some vital evidence missing at the time surfaces. Many do not. The sordid imperfections that permeate the system are the strongest argument I know against the death penalty. (As an aside, how are those folks who are so pro-life with their Christian worldview usually so profoundly pro-death when it comes to law and order? Not to mention the obsession with rights to carry guns)

Almost fifteen years: the white Bronco, the weird chase, the envelope, the cut on the finger, the horrid slaughter, Judge Ito, the rest. I was spending a lot of time cutting and polishing crystals for my fledgling company using the equipment at the then Amoco Optics. The radio was on the whole time and the trial was a constant fixture, like a soap opera. In spite of the Himalayas of evidence the jury saw fit to acquit. One could really question the efficacy of the jury system.

Is it possible that justice could finally be served, or at least repaid a little? No doubt there will be an appeal. This is America, and, as everyone knows, freedom is always available at a price. Back then, a cavalcade of "celebrity" lawyers whored themselves to get a piece of the action. It was a truly disgusting sight. And it paid off. Hopefully this time it won't happen and the Goldman's will get a semblance of justice at long last.

Safe inside the "Ivory Tower"

While it might be a bit of a stretch to equate the rusting hulk of the Berg Instructional Center (pity poor Mr. Berg for having his name attached to this monument to horrible 1970's "architecture," with its ugly rusting walls and lexan windows rendered utterly opaque by degradation and rivers of rust) with the ivory towers of learning, nonetheless, it is a place of learning, albeit at the lower end of the spectrum of higher education. I like to tell people when introduced to them that I am very familiar with the lower reaches of higher ed. And, being so, the college is largely insulated from the horrors that a plummeting economy visit upon people in the real world, as Dulcie likes to refer to everyone else; college professors do not live in the real world.

It is largely true, as scarcely a whisper of the recent panics on Wall Street filtered into my soulless square of a cubicle that passes for an office. Indeed, on the latest Black Monday, I arrived home blissfully unaware of the disaster; Dulcie rolling her eyes in scornful disbelief at my ignorance.

I'm sure the protection afforded us teachers is partly responsible for the hatred that many of the community apparently have for the profession. A letter in the Daily Herald regarding the publishing of the salaries provoked an astonishing vitriolic torrent of abusive "discussion." Notable among the posts was the hostility of some towards teachers ("Head of the Family" in particular, anonymous coward): how we are only interested in working as little as possible for as much as possible. Having spent the best part of a Saturday without receiving a cent of compensation, not to mention the weeks in the summer working with my research students for next to nothing, I am not entirely in agreement with this viewpoint of the teacher; though I can think of a few that might qualify - where art though football guy?

While for most, the daily rumination revolves around whether or not their employer will weather the storm, for the COD faculty the current crisis is the modification of the reading requirement - a decision made without their full consultation, blessing and consent.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The beautiful language

Feathers of our great and glorious faculty have been ruffled recently by the announcement that the reading test applied to determine entry into some classes maybe relaxed in certain situations to accommodate the needs of the computer system that is meant to control all these things. What Big Brother wants...

In some situations this may well be a good thing. Dulcie, ever anxious to improve her learning, avaricious for learning, insatiable consumer of books, addict of Bravo, attempted to register for an accounting class. Having waded through the several screens, surely enough of a prerequisite in itself, to register for the chosen class, she found herself blocked by the need, apparently, to take the reading test. Here is an adult woman (age not to be disclosed), a professional, a previous student at COD, now apparently required to take a reading test. How preposterous is that?

A recent correspondence from the college indicates perhaps that the reading test may well be put to better use in the hiring of personnel than the registering of students. I present it here verbatim to allow you to enjoy in full the mutilation of my native language.

"I would like inform you that, our next Diesel fuel delivery, will be containing a 5% Bio-Diesel formula. So I am asking for two mean's of assistance from you as supervisor's as well as from your departments' as a whole, in the means of, all your patience during this trial/experiment, while we iron out any issues that may arise from using a bio-diesel formula, we may or may not experience any issue's with this fuel, because as a starter point we are only running a 5% mix, so if any of you experience any problem's in both performance and or strange Oder's while driving these diesel vehicles, please contact me any way you would like. Thank you for you help and future understanding while we convert to this new fuel. I am including my contact information, please feel free to contact me at any time if any issues arise from this bio-diesel in your College vehicle."

Sunday, September 21, 2008

DuPage: nucleus of proton therapy

With the recent approval of a proton therapy center in Warrenville, DuPage county will soon boast having two of these "cutting-edge" facilities, as it will add to the one being built by Northern Illinois University in West Chicago. Your savvy cyber professor is not without interest in this development since he is involved in some peripheral manner with developing education for future operators of these facilities. If Argonne lands the mammoth Rare Isotope Beam Facility (FRIB) contract from DoE, then truly DuPage will be a nuclear center nonpareil. FRIB will utterly dwarf in scope and money what will be spent on these proton therapy centers. I hope Argonne gets it because it will be exciting times in accelerator technician education.

Skeptics will wonder at the utility of these centers. For many years the efficacy of proton therapy in the targeted treatment of tumors has been established. This efficacy comes with a cost: over twice as much as conventional treatment. It has not been demonstrated yet that proton therapy is a necessary alternative in a sufficiently broad range of procedures to justify the additional cost. Is this another situation of an expensive new technology chasing an application? Back in the day, lasers (or laser as the medical community likes to refer to them as - "We use laser.") received a great deal of hype when they were introduced into surgical procedures. There was a lot of aggressive marketing to replace conventional surgical procedures with "laser." Quickly it became apparent that, in many cases, the laser was not superior but was much more expensive. Just as I was trying to get into developing a laser product idea, I encountered a tremendous amount of antipathy: once bitten, twice shy kind of response.

The managers of the proton centers won't care if their procedures are not really necessary. Provided they can load them up with patients that the insurance companies will pay for they will be happy. The rest of us will foot the bill down the road.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Meet COD's new friend of the people

With all the talk and irritation swirling over the new "transparency" policy, intended largely to demean and denigrate COD employees by publishing earnings for all to see, I was motivated to discover who or what was behind it all. There was talk of the "lone blogger," echoes of lone gunman or the Unabomber there, who had started it all. The so-called organization forthegoodofillinois.org - it is really a website - appears to be a front for one Andrew Andrzejewski self-proclaimed friend of the good citizens of Illinois and watchdog of public spending, or so one is led to believe. The website is loaded with pictures of our hero and I discovered one with him posing with certain members of the BOT. What a surprise: only four of them are shown - the four that voted for publishing the salaries. Was the photo shot before or after the vote? Did he have to pay? A final question, in the interest of transparency, is the hair real?

One has to wonder at the real motivation for meddlers like this who present a front so righteous and public spirited. Buried within all the overt desire to promote good government is usually a more malicious intent. That intent usually involves reducing public spending on anything. Why is it, for example, that so many right-wing folks are global warming skeptics? You will find them crawling all over promoting the idea that global warming has nothing to do with carbon emissions. I think it stems from a desire to reduce public spending. In the global warming case, reduce public spending on alternative energy research. In transparency in local government it is reducing spending on education and everything else that relies on it. Publishing salaries is one way to alienate the college from the public. These crusading meddlers ultimately want to smash all the systems to prove they don't work.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The See-Through Professor

Back in the day when I joined this most esteemed center of learning, this Harvard of southern Glen Ellyn, this beacon of knowledge, I only had the vaguest notion of what or who the Board of Trustees was. I never really heard anything about them and never went to the meetings, nor did I ever hear about what happened at any of the meetings; I could not have told you their names. For five years as an adjunct (disposable) I only had the dimmest awareness that there was a president; he would make an occasional appearance, offer an utterance over his wire-framed spectacles about nothing in particular and retreat into the shadows for another year. Perhaps it was better that way: a sign of good management is often an invisible one. Times have changed. Or me. I rather think it is the former. The BOT is now much more visible; one would go the extent of saying that it has become intrusive, even to the point of divisive and destructive. The faces on it have changed: more male, more right wing anti-tax Republican, more "fiscally responsible," decidedly less friendly towards education. I was showing Dulcie the latest article in the Herald (to be further discussed) and the comments that it provoked (dozens of them - you would think it was an article about abortion or teaching evolution or something really controversial) and she responded in that insightful way of hers that to her; and she is no friend of education either, and thinks I have the cushiest job around - and there to my own defence I must differ; the BOT appeared to be angry that COD was somehow involved in education rather than doing something more useful like selling stuff, or making money. Indeed it does seem that way at times.

I have already reported on the whacking of the president on the quiet of the day after Memorial Day. Yesterday, the Vice President of Academic Affairs followed a similar path. In the interests of transparency, explanations yet to be forthcoming... Further, the BOT is yet to explain to the taxpayers why there are now two presidents rather than just one; it hardly seems in keeping with their penny-conscious philosophy and concern for the taxpayers and stakeholders etc.

While administrators tend not to be the greatest friends of faculty members this wholesale slaughter does not sit well. To add to the general ill feelings around the campus, now the BOT appears to be bending over backwards to appease a single anti-public-spending activist nutcase who masquerades as public spending watchdog "forthegoodofillinois" (never trust organizations that sound overly patriotic or do-goody) by voting to publish all the incomes with names of the employees on some public website. While it is not the end of the world, and in any event this sort of information is available anyway, the haste and enthusiasm with which the BOT jumped at the chance, ignoring the wishes of the employees that it represents, leaves a bad taste. And really, what good does it serve? The BOT appears to be repeating with interests the types of actions that earned it such critical reviews in the Fisher Report published in 2000.

An article published in the Herald incited a monumental flurry of comments. The general tone and nastiness of many are quite shocking to behold. What is it about teachers and the profession of teaching that unleashes such venom? Do all those folks have woodsheds as a result of some horrible abuse as a student?

Needless to say, the BOT elections this coming April will be far more significant than most previous ones. The future is at stake.

Opposites attract

The result of my rant against the likes of eminent global warming skeptic nutter and general crackpot (he was a Thatcherite) Third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, is that an ad appears on my blog page advertizing a "layman's guide" to "flaws" in the case for global warming. The nerve of it.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Mob rules

As is my custom of the morning, I take my daily bowl of Go Lean (but not lightly) with a browse of the Tribune; the idle life of the college professor ideally suited to those extended, leisurely morning repasts with opportunity for reflection upon the ways of the world. An article on the proposed irradiation of produce to eliminate bacteria on the front page caught my eye. When I began the educational trail as a fresh-face adjunct (how soon the optimism of youth gives way to the cynicism of old age in the academic setting), food irradiation was a "hot topic" in the food world. It served as an interesting case study in perception versus reality in assessing risk.

Anything containing the word radiation leaps to the top of the charts in perceived risk, regardless of any facts pointing to its absence. One can discover these disconnects all over the place from the mundane to the sophisticated. We think nothing of driving a car to work (pretty high risk of trouble) but sweat feverishly when the airplane takes off (pretty low risk of trouble). How many pages are devoted to shark attacks (almost no fatalities) versus say coal mining (high numbers of injuries).

Radiation though is the number one bad word, perhaps closely followed by chemical. The reasons for that are pretty clear: the awfulness of Hiroshima that ushered in the nuclear age; the hugely published Chernobyl disaster; the ghastliness associated with radiation sickness. Selling radiation presents a major challenge to the nuclear industry, but I don't think that it has really embraced the challenge.

A decade ago food irradiation was established as a perfectly acceptable and safe technique for sanitizing various food groups by several organizations including food organizations that had no ties with the nuclear industry. Yet the public perception could still be swayed by a collection of dedicated anti-nuclear groups that operated a number of anti-irradiation websites. While the mainstream organizations found no evidence of health effects with irradiated food, the anti-nuke activists referenced various "studies" that found sickness in dogs and other troubling things. The innocent investigator would be left wondering what is what when confronted by this apparent conflict in findings. Who has the time to sort out which of the "evidence" presented is bona fide and which is fake? And that is the point of course: the activists recognize that all you have to do to establish doubt is to suggest problems; it isn't necessary to have any real proof of any problems.

Ten years later nothing has really changed regarding irradiation. The problem, the article stated was consumer acceptance. What is wrong with this picture? It is all arse backwards. It is absurd that uneducated consumers should be dictating what is or is not acceptable. If a process has been established as safe by a critical mass of research, then that should be the end of it; the consumer should be satisfied. Unfortunately that is not the case in this country at least. It points to a fundamental lack of respect for science in the general populace and an overwhelming vulnerability to misleading influences from special interest groups.

Maybe I am weird, but for my part I am far more comfortable munching a tomato that has been zapped by gamma rays than one that may be crawling in e-coli.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Justifiable exclusion or suppression?

So many things to talk about it's hard to know where to begin. One thing is for sure, unlike many people who seem to be able to make a living writing their diary on the internet - all those bloggers who blather interminably and normally crudely about the daily political round - the SSCP lacks sufficient time (though Dulcie would probably disagree) to attend to these sorts of writings. I mean I still have my real book to finish; so how can I be wasting time doodling here?

An article in New Scientist, my absolute favourite science publication, which it is my custom to review over a pint of filthy at my local hostelry (which is on the verge of going out of business it would appear), caught my eye. The author was Lawrence Krauss, who is some kind of physicist often found to be slagging off the faith people in his defence of the rationality of science: he criticized the magazine recently for accepting advertising money from the Templeton Foundation. But that is another story.

In this article he was discussing how the line can be drawn between uncensored, open debate on scientific issues and the exercise of control on the content in these debates. The determining factor should be that the former should be restricted to discussions where there are legitimate scientific differences to discuss. That sounds fair; but exactly who gets to define what is "legitimate" can be the problem. He was relaying the slightly embarrassing, yet highly amusing, tale of how his American Physical Society's Forum on Physics and Society had inadvertently invited a climate change "skeptic" (that means nutter), a certain Christopher Monckton of Brenchley (you know with a name like that you should be wary), to share the stage in a discussion of the accuracy of climate change predictions. The slightly amazing thing is that no one in the publication seemed to be aware who is this Monckton chappie was, even though I have previously exposed him in these very pages. They even addressed him as Dr. Monckton, even though he is no closer to obtaining a PhD than the fellow who delivers my newspaper, with all apologies to the latter if he is an out-of-work Fermi physicist. The wily Monckton wasted no time in seizing his opportunity and now claims to the world that his concocted "evidence" for the absence of climate change has been peer reviewed in a prestigious publication. This is not the case; it was (foolishly) invited, which is way different from enduring the critical eye of review. Worse, political opportunists such as Senator Inhofe are now using this unfortunate blunder as evidence that the American Physical Society is skeptical of climate change. This changes the episode from a slightly amusing gaffe to something of serious consequence. The level of high octane ranting against climate change and alternative energy proponents on the part of the nutty right-wing commentators such as the odious, vile and loathsome Rush Limbaugh, the only person you hear on the radio west of the Mississippi it seems, is truly terrifying. Collectively anyone supporting action against global warming and in favour of alternative energy is part of an extreme liberal, left-wing, Marxist conspiracy to take over the world. The solution according to Limbaugh is simply to drill a bunch of holes.

Although climate change is a pretty hot topic, so to speak, and there are well-funded "skeptics" out there trying to obfuscate the issues with their fake science such as the aforementioned crackpot Monckton, the most popular arena where the boundaries between legitimate discussion and fake science are blurred is undoubtedly evolution. Although the Dover decision may have derailed the Creationist community, operating under the guise of "Intelligent Design," momentarily, like one of those creatures from the horror flicks, it refuses to die completely. This time the approach is even sneakier as the proponents of "ID" (do we really have to continue the pretense?) are pursuing legislation in states like Louisiana that support the "legitimate" questioning of scientific theories in high schools. On the surface it sounds great; I regard skepticism and critical thinking as primary characteristics of a scientific mind. Scratch a little bit deeper and the true motivation of the initiative is revealed: there is really only one theory that is being called into question. Why am I not surprised. So, the story goes, weakness in the scientific theories can be discussed and alternatives (now what might they be?) reviewed, or something like that. So here we are again, pitching millions of man years of research and facts against a few nutty activists and their preconceived ideologies. Is that legitimate debate? I don't think so. Time was, in my naive youth, at the very dawn of ID, which I think emanated from honest men, I would have countenanced the discussion. When ID was hijacked by the Creationist activists and became a weapon in their "wedge of truth" strategy (courtesy of clever but devious creatures like Phillip Johnson (I note in passing that he is a son of Aurora) things changed (trust a lawyer to muddy things up): it's no longer about science, but about social and religious (not even theological) agendas. Nowadays the very mention of ID has me rushing headlong for the porcelain.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Where did the summer go?

Noting with horror that the last post was July 22, more than a month ago, I am left wondering where the time went. My gentle readers, all four of them, though perhaps I exaggerate, are probably pondering the fate of the Super Savvy Cyber Professor. It has been just a blink of time between the fierce heat of July and the beginning of a new academic year at the college of last resort. In truth, my Argonne sojourn; another triumph for my two wonderful students Amanda Manley and Julie Bafia, who were such great ambassadors for the COD; combined with a full load of teaching - a torrid evening class with a very intelligent group of high performers that lacked only personality - left the SSCP a little drained and lacking both time and creativity to attend to his blogging. Immediately after the end of term began Dulcie and Aylwin's Big Beer Adventure, which involved driving the big Acura to Portland, Oregon in a quest for craft beer. Connection to the outside world, i.e. the internet, at each roadside motel was occasionally a fickle thing and the driver's tired arms were normally in no mood to attend to his blogging. Over time some reports of our adventures in Beervana - how Portland is known in the beer world - may emerge, but my main conclusion from the journey is that America is very large. The maps do not lie. The other main conclusion is that America is by far the most advanced brewing nation in the world and should no longer tolerate cheap jibes from the likes of the English about weak (it never has been actually), tasteless (that has been just) beer.

I was going to write about my reaction to the beginning of term but now I find I must prepare for class. More later, but I did want to register my continued existence, lest you were concerned.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Want free cash? "Tutor" some children with Hollywood Hendon

All one hears about these days is that the State of Illinois doesn't have a pot to piss in money-wise. My future retirement is regularly plundered to make ends meet, various programs go unfunded and the state struggles to meet its obligations to honest providers of services. It turns out though, according to a lengthy expose in the Tribune, that money appears to fall off trees if you want to tutor needy children after school, particularly if you are a buddy of Rickey "Hollywood" (as he likes to be known) Hendon. A noble idea perhaps, if it is actually carried out. Tens of thousands of dollars have been handed out by the State Board of Education without apparently any attempt to establish accountability. Qualifications to receive money: some association with Hollywood. It is not even necessary to be able to spell or construct a grammatical sentence, let alone have a real plan.

Needless to say, the aforementioned Hendon has no shame about stealing taxpayers' money from across the state and handing it out to his cronies. It's Chicago: if not him then someone else.

It's all very different from the days I obtained a Technology Challenge Grant from the state and I had to account for every penny that they gave me. It did not seem that important, however, to have obtained any concrete results from the money, provided it had been spent according to what the budget had ordained.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

NU - The expensive choice for summer crash courses

The long hot days of summer must be here; not necessarily evidenced by the weather, though it has been hot the past few days, but by the types of articles that make it into the Tribune's main section. Saturday's paper featured a lengthy piece on summer science courses at Northwestern, written in such a way as to suggest that this was something really unusual. Perhaps that is the case at one of the world's most prestigious educational institutions, but at the humble COD it is standard practice during the short summer session to offer the first year chemistry course (or the second year organic) in ten weeks. NU is on quarters and they offer three classes in 9 weeks (3 weeks each). Okay, that is one week less than our two five week semester classes but, hey, that is NU after all.

We refer to them affectionately as the "suicides," though I am not aware of any actual evidence to support that appellation. As the article noted, the casualties are usually heavy: during the first half this summer, 10 out of 24 fell by the wayside; but unusually 22 out of 24 are still hanging in there. Many, if not most, of our students visit from other universities to take the course at a massive discount. I would like to tell the Tribune author that a student could take the classes at COD for maybe $1500 compared with the $9K shelled out at NU. Before you all come back with the old community college line, I should tell you that many of the students find the COD experience to be better than their "real" university education, and many tell me how well prepared they are for tests like PCATs and MCATs. So I think we do something right. It might lack the cache of NU but COD, at least in chemistry, provides an excellent value-for-money education. It's more than just ash trays.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Is that nanotechnology in your trousers or are you just happy to see me?

I thought the SL of this post might be a good title for a talk on nanotechnology I gave to a group of youthful students recently but respect for political correctness got the better of me. One could only wonder at the scope of the sexual harassment suits that might follow such an opening gambit. The days of risque banter in the classroom are long gone I fear.

This was the first talk on nanotechnology I had given and I had spent a rather anxious Sunday putting it together. It is the intention to offer a course, that I have designed, in the fall, although the reluctance of some of my colleagues in the division in supporting this venture is slightly surprising to say the least. In a review of the program that is currently underway, one advanced the suggestion that nanotech should be dropped! FU2 dear. I'm not sure of the identity of the individual though I have a pretty good idea.

My fear is that COD is a day late and a dollar short in the nanotech field, as readers of the Tribune might have seen a large article last Sunday on nanotechnology education with a focus on Harper College and its new program unfolding this fall. We have a lot of work to do. The skeptics will wonder how many students will want to sign up for this program and ask how many jobs are out there for these putative nanotechnicians. These are fair questions; I am also interested to know the answers. But if the answers are vague is this a justification for not trying to build for the future? Whatever the reality that nanotechnology eventually becomes, surely it will be something more than nothing, for it is so broad and so varied. This is very different from the superconducting bubble that swelled up so dramatically and faded with quiet disappointment a couple of decades ago. Sadly there are still not trains running on rails of liquid nitrogen, nor will there ever be. As I trudge between the dull red brick of Argonne's aging buildings, I am reminded of the superconductivity conference I attended in the late 80's: the first meeting I ever attended at which fashionably dressed bankers mingled with scientists, eager to buy in to a piece of the action. Looking beyond the obvious hype associated with nanobots and other far-fetched fantasies, the real applications of nanoscale materials across society in both technical (cancer treatment) and mundane (waterproof trousers)applications for me make the choice a no-brainer.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Nominative Determinism at Argonne

I read that a scientist at Argonne named Khalil Amine received a performance award this week. Another example of nominative determinism, though I rather think he should be an organic chemist rather than being involved with batteries.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Fine country for old men

This is my third summer at Argonne National Laboratory; each time I enter its gates I feel as if I am going back in time thirty years. Is it the buildings, the people or both? Argonne began to take shape after the Second World War as nuclear energy research was wisely moved from its location at the University of Chicago. Buildings have been added over the years; but until recently they have all followed the same drab low, red-brick style. I work in 205 which is the home of the historical Chemical Engineering Technology Division (CMT - always curious as to how CMT derives from that name), though a reorganization late last year has the name changed to Chemical Science and Engineering (CSE). Outwardly little has changed. The interior of 205 is fantastically drab and depressing; not a single cent has been spent on decor or upkeep. The floors, wall coverings and furniture are ancient (there are apparently some WWII surplus desks floating around), dull and sterile and appear to have never been subjected to rehabilitation. The lavs are a delight to anyone interested in WC archeology, though perhaps less inviting to those who enjoy their evacuations in modern shiny porcelain. I wondered if it was just me so I shared my observations with my office mate, who joined Argonne about five years ago from Northwestern. She admitted to being in culture shock for about six months after arriving from the comparative luxury and modernity of NU; and she had been a graduate student.

A fascinating feature of 205 is the haphazard layout of labs. There is no rhyme or reason to it; the labs belonging to the various groups are randomly dotted throughout the building making lengthy treks along corridors from one to another part of the routine. Occasionally one is required to ascend an ancient grey iron staircase into a gloomy attic where will be revealed a secret room containing perhaps an NMR spectrometer or XRD machine.

The walls of 205 are hung with rows of aging black and white portraits of its storied engineers and scientists. They are stereotypes of the fifties scientist: male, short hair, tie, glasses. One looks up and finds the living members of 205 to be little different from the faces staring down from the walls; in some cases they are the same ones. Argonne is an aging population: too old, too white and too male, or so it seems. Because of, or maybe in spite of all this, Argonne is a center of basic research across many scientific frontiers. The cracked avocado tiles in the lavs not withstanding, my annual exposure to its inner workings are a rewarding experience.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Splendor in the grass

The SSCP and his moll indulged in a rare taste of culture en plein air and a little dejeuner sur l'herbe the other weekend when they took in ELH's concert at Morton Arboretum just down the road in Lisle. It is a sure sign of encroaching middle age when a two-mile drive seems like a major adventure. I find it a little odd to find myself, a one-time hardcore Rolling Stones fan, now getting all misty-eyed over a similarly aging country star. Not sure exactly how it happened but it might have been the evening I turned on Prairie Home Companion (another sure sign of age) to hear Mark Knopfler and ELH sharing their then new Road Running album. About once every two decades I hear a transcendent song and If This is Goodbye was one such. Of course, being a huge Dire Straits fan FROM THE VERY BEGINNING (not just from that infernally popular song about fridges) didn't do any harm.

Anyway, the Arb, as we affectionately call the salt king's garden, was the perfect locale for ELH's mellifluous, melodic, melancholic music; as we sat back in the fading light the songs swirled among the rustling leaves of a pleasant summer evening.

The occasion was not without its annoying aspects though: surprisingly biting insects was not one of them but the other humanity there was. Perhaps I have led a sheltered life and know not the ways of the modern world; but when I attend an event of the performing arts, it is my expectation that the audience is indeed there to be auditors: silent listeners in other words, and participants only when called upon. It seems I am mistaken; for at the Arb, at our somewhat distant location from the stage, the gentle vocals of ELH had to compete, often unsuccessfully, with the constant, clanging chatter of the crowd. Does this happen at the theatre, at the Lyric, even at the local cinema? I think not for the most part. Okay, being a college professor (not that kind of doctor) means I am not the world's wealthiest man, but I still think $50 is a significant sum for most people (to put it in perspective we are inclined to wait for films to make the rounds of the Glen ($6.50) and tolerate the ancient seats and the sticky floors); so why do they bother to spend $50 just to sit and chat. One woman in front chose the beginning of the set to show the rest of her group some photos on her camera; our view of the stage was compromised by the girth of her not inconsiderable rear end. To our left two young women continued an animated conversion in which one of them had her back to the stage the entire time; fortunately she left early. Why bother coming in the first place?

The other notable about the event was the TSA-like rigour with which the Arb staff interrogated our "carry-ons." Although we were not required to remove our shoes, belts or even trousers, the contents of the picnic baskets were subject to intense scrutiny for any contraband drink. Not that drinking was not permitted; only that drink purchased on the grounds was permitted. How I was quaking with fear as the Argentine Torrontes secreted in one of those ridiculously expensive environmentally conscious (supposedly) SIGG metallic bottles was likely to be exposed. Fortunately, the indolent youth that search our bag did not bother to open it, and we were able to dull the pain of the ceaseless chatter without recourse to the local beverage.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Night of the long knife

The Tuesday after Memorial Day began my third sojourn at Argonne National Labs, working with some COD students in the newly named Chemical Science and Engineering Division (it used to be CMT - Chemical Engineering Technology - how does one get CMT out of that?) on fuel cells. The previous day we had indulged in a quiet and meditative stroll around Oak Park gazing enviously at all the Frank Lloyd Wright houses and their knock-offs, remarking at the alarming number of Obama signs in front lawns. The day did not pass completely without incident as there was a tense moment at Poor Phil's over some incorrectly identified Three Floyds Dreadnaught. Just for the record, it's not Dreadnaught, despite their claims; but at least we didn't pay for it.

Anyway, back to the Tuesday, I did not get to read my e-m until early evening and so was completely shocked upon opening the mailbox to find an "Official Communication" informing the "transitioning" of President Sunil Chand to the position of "President Emeritus" effective immediately. In other words he had been whacked that very day, on the quiet of a Tuesday after Memorial Day, with all the students and most of the faculty gone to the country, in a hastily gathered and private board meeting. The gang of thugs, dummies and failed political hopefuls that is the BoT of COD had just performed its Soprano-esque dispatch of our leader.

Trustees of the College of DuPage regularly take the opportunity to say when the microphone is on that decisions are made with the interests of taxpayers in mind. Many decisions that have been made call this into question however. For the second time in five years the college will be paying for two presidents as Dr. Chand is under contract and a replacement, Hal McAninch, he of the Arts Center, had to be brought in as interim. The likely cost of this as-yet unexplained move is about $400,000. History reveals several other questionable costly actions by the Board. Notable examples include $650,000 for a parking lot that was never used, and $90,000 for a PR firm hired preemptively without discussion with the administration. One could go on: the soccer stadium fantasy, the Costa Rica cock-up...

More damaging to the COD infrastructure than these individual actions is the Board's intrusive, bullying and meddling style. Research revealed a review of the college performed in 1999 – 2000 by James Fisher, Ltd. In this breathtakingly scathing report the Board is described as being "…persistently guilty of inappropriate interference in the college's operations." There are other gems too: "Many of its actions provide text book case studies of how a board of control should not exercise its responsibilities."

Clearly the present group has neither read from nor heeded the message. Concerned taxpayers have a right to hear explanations about expensive and disruptive Board decisions. They also have opportunity and responsibility to make changes. There are four seats up for election in 2009. I urge voters to choose candidates that are committed to creating a board dedicated to strategic long-term governance rather than costly micro-management.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

FIA endorses spanky

As predicted in this column several days ago, Max Mosley was able to hang on to his seat on the FIA more successfully than he holds on to his trousers when there are whip-lashing prostitutes around. The margin of victory, 103-55, was larger than I had anticipated. Motoring federations around the world appear comfortable to have their figurehead indulge in S&M orgies in his "private" life.

The vote is not truly representative of the importance of the member organizations. As Paul Stoddart (an entrepreneurial former F1 owner from Australia that patrician Max despises) remarked, 80 % of the countries that voted yes people wouldn't be able to recognize. Those that voted no include places like American and Germany, and manufacturers of some note - Honda, Toyota... What does it matter that the United Arab Emirates chief of motorsport was fulsome in his support of the trouser-less one? Motorsport in the United Arab Emirates? Something about turbo-charged camels I suppose.

What these rich folks who get to play at being important in things like the FIA will find when they get to play favourites is that people will realize they don't need them. It is already happening with organizations that matter already leaving. Does the FIA actually do anything important? Certainly not for F1.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


F1 never fails to entertain, off the track as much as on in the last couple of seasons. Last year was Spygate, which gave the patrician Max Mosley, President of the FIA, opportunity to give a good reaming to working class Ron Dennis, boss of McLaren, for allegedly using purloined Ferrari information, courtesy of a disgruntled Ferrari man, on his cars. The extent to which McLaren did so, Ron denies it, and the advantage if any gained, will never be known for sure; but I suspect the lordly Max did not regret slapping the $100 million penalty on Ron.

This season the aforementioned Max himself is the centerpiece of the continuing off-track entertainment for his starring role in a spanking video with several prostitutes which, according to the film's producers, the ever-scholarly, truth-seeking, and even-minded News of the World, has clear "Nazi role-playing." Max is the son of English fascist Oswald Mosley (watch Remains of the Day for a review of the English aristocracy's attitudes towards Germany in the years before WWII). Max considers the whole thing a terrible invasion of his privacy (the kind of "what I do in my private life is my business" attitude) and is determined to stay on. A meeting of the FIA in June will determine his fate. My money is on his staying. Needless to say, Ron Dennis denies any role in the sting, though he would not be at all at fault for deriving just a crumb of satisfaction from seeing Max's lashed bottom available for public scrutiny.

Apart from the obvious voyeuristic appeal - YouTube videos and all - Spankygate provides an informative insight into the minds of rich, powerful men. Some have come out in support, like his chums at Ferrari (some say the F in FIA stands for Ferrari); and one can appreciate the natural affinity of the class-conscious Max with the faux aristocracy of Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo (kind of like the mysterious "Count" in Real Housewives of NYC - yes I do my homework here). They say that Max is doing a good job and his "private life" (now extremely public) has nothing to do with it. Except that no one now wants to touch Mosley with a ten foot pole, as he has been unwelcome at any of the F1 races since the scandal began. For others, the sticking point seems to be the Nazi bit; as if to say it was really okay provided there wasn't any of that stuff going on. Are we to conclude that the FIA members are not opposed to a bit of slap and tickle (and spanking) - it all being in good sport? Maybe strippers emerging from large cakes is a regular item on the agenda at their meetings on road safety or whatever else they prate on about.

I told Dulcie about it in great excitement when the story first broke and her first world-weary question was, "What is the FIA?" I replied that it was a really important organization. Ever penetrating she asks what they did. I had to say I really didn't know; but they are "really important." On reflection I still don't really know, but I suspect it is a collection of middle-aged men having regular parties at other people's expense in order to create a sense of importance where none might really exist. Max thinks he is important and is telling the FIA members that F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone (he of the short stature and two tongues) will steal F1 away from the FIA if Max is whacked. Truth be told that F1 needs the FIA as much as a healthy prostate needs a poorly lubricated finger. Bernie probably would want to steal it, but he is too smart to actually say so before doing it; and has responded to the FIA by rebuking everything Max has claimed.

However it plays out, once again one is left to marvel at the hubris and utter lack of shame displayed by these folks in high places who risk all by indulging in perverse antics, thinking all the while that they have the right to do so and can get away with it.