Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Men of the cloth - not

"God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble" it is written in the first letter of Peter. It seems the "Reverend" Wright has forgotten those kind of lines. The nauseating and odious Wright refuses to go quietly into his good night (all ten thousand square feet of it on a golf course) but rather wants to screw with the taller one. I am unclear as to the motive - perhaps it's the latter's failure to tithe on his full income. Anyway, among the many absurdities offered up to all and sundry the other day (Farrakhan one of the most important voices of the 20th century! - that says it all right there) Wright insinuated that being a pastor made him different from other men (read better), like the taller one is lesser by being a politician.

I think it is the conventional wisdom that the men of the cloth have a higher calling and purer motives; and so they tend to treated with greater reverence than mere mortals. Exactly how the likes of Sharpton, Jackson and now this Wright fit that image I'm not sure. In my experience though, pastors are no different from us non-pastors. Scratch them do they not bleed? They too have ambition, harbor lust for money, women and the trappings of success, enjoy the privilege of power. And these pastors are powerful people in their kingdoms. Church organizations are typically very top down, demanding and expecting obedience from the flock (sheep - appropriate description of the faithful even though it shares the image with the lamb of God). There are very few checks and balances provided the church leadership is tame and easily ruled by the pastor.

Sitting through sermon after sermon, it struck me how non-interactive the process is. In the classroom we long and hope for students to question and interrupt our sermons on bonding or stoichiometry. Such interruptions on a Sunday would wreck the timing of the script.

I should not unfairly tar all pastors with the brush used on the aforementioned. I recently listened to an interview with one Evelyn Davies on my favourite spiritual radio program from BBC Wales "All Things Considered" (not to be confused with the synonymous very different NPR animal). Evelyn Davies had just retired from being a vicar in a windswept remote St Hywyn's church at Aberdaron on the Llewn Peninsula on the north coast of Wales within sight of Bardsey Island where legend has it that thousands of Welsh saints are buried (or something like). She had gained some renown for having run a successful campaign to restore the historic (6th century!) church from near ruin. A figure more diametrically opposite to Wright in character is hard to imagine. In response to the question, "How would you like to be remembered?" came the immediate response, "Oh I don't want to be remembered at all." That is the humility that Peter was talking about.

Monday, April 21, 2008

"Expelled" from my viewing schedule

I had not heard of the upcoming film of the subject line until it was the subject of the weekly Scientific American podcast. Apparently, Expelled is a piece of pure propaganda aimed at promoting Intelligent Design. Having listened to the discussion I am unlikely to watch the film and I would recommend the same approach to anyone else no matter how open-minded, like myself, they may be. The film is marketed by the same company that made a blockbuster success out of the ultimately gory "Passion of the Christ" by skillful manipulation of the flock prior to its release. It is unlikely that the same approach will be successful with this film, lacking as it does a legitimate star and interesting story. For how many really know enough about the arguments to care that much about ID? I have never seen the Passion, not for any spiritual reasons, but because it is just way too violent for my delicate sensibilities to bear; but I recall the slightly uncomfortable feelings engendered by the church leadership, who were being lobbied by the film's marketers, encouraging us to go as if it was some kind of spiritual duty. Only later did it become evident that the ultra-violence in the film was motivated, perhaps entirely, by the antisemitic tendencies of our Mel that he let slip in a drunken moment of indiscretion. More on the antisemitic thing later. I will never see the Passion and maybe it is completely discredited now. The flock should feel that they were used and that is always the danger of being too much a sheep.

Anyway, back to Expelled. Scientific American doesn't mince its words when it comes to ID. It is not science end of story, QED. Not even worthy of a discussion of its merits. That is probably reasonable, though I myself some years ago invested time in trying to identify its legitimacy. I don't doubt that some involved in its development such as Michael Behe ("Darwin's Black Box" - which I read) and William Dembski are honest, decent souls who were motivated by honest thought and reason to explore the idea; regardless of its ultimate correctness, that was a reasonable thing to do. Somewhere along the road, ID was hijacked by stronger, darker forces armed with the agenda of infiltrating public school education with anti-evolutionary, creationist dogma. These forces were centered in the Discovery Institute (footnote: I am constantly alarmed by the existence of so many grandiosely named, improbably well funded bodies in this country that are motivated by highly questionable political, religious or economic motives), which wanted to put into practice the ideas expounded in Phillip Johnson's "Wedge of Truth" (confession: I read that too to my eternal shame).

The film takes the tawdry, appalling simplistic tack of painting all of science as being monolithically anti-Christian and atheistic, as if the the various theories of evolution (actually the film probably tries to establish that there is just one theory that is centuries old) are all motivated by atheistic belief rather than actual natural observation. This us-against-them paranoia does a horrible disservice to all scientists who have faith. Not for the first time does the film try to establish a link between Darwin and the Holocaust as evidenced by the extensive footage from concentration camps - Ben Stein (of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off") pondering deeply outside Auschwitz or some other concentration camp. WTF you are saying? Preposterous as it sounds, the argument goes something like belief in evolution leads directly to moral degradation and loss of belief in the value of human life. All "bad" things - genocide, abortion, homosexuality - are the fault of Darwin and his silly theory. Interestingly, the Jews themselves are far more likely to attribute the antisemitism that motivated the Holocaust to the Church and its history of antisemitism dating back to the Crucifixion. Martin Luther was not alone in giving vent to antisemitic feelings. Somehow that doesn't get a lot of air time in the modern church, seeing as how he is regarded as a hero of the Reformation.

The truly appalling and tragic aspect of Expelled and all the other misguided activities of the various Creationist-inspired groups is the squandering of vast resources in beating this dead anti-evolution horse for such little useful purpose. Think of what a difference could be made in the world, if the money wasted on the Creation Museum, for example, had been invested in legitimate research into curing diseases or eliminating poverty or developing alternative energy. Think what a positive public image the church would generate by directing its power to the good rather than towards promoting an untenable, unnecessary defence against reason.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

What's in your water?

Bottled water has been taking a beating, rightly so, over the past several months for being unnecessary and profligate of resources - one liter of the precious bottled nectar requiring three liters to manufacture, not to mention the petrochemicals and energy that are also consumed in the process. And all for so little gain given the stricter quality control standards applied to tap water compared with the bottled variant, surprising as that may seem, especially in light of the marketing ploys of the bottling companies. Yet the perception is widely held that tap water in this country is unsafe, or at least something to be wary of. Dulcie tells of a nutty columnist in the Tribune that happily ignored her mother's headache (it proved to be the harbinger of a fatal stroke) while studiously avoiding the dreaded tap water at all cost.

Now the bottle is fighting back: huge front page story the other day in the Tribune about "contamination" in Chicago water. There has been quite a bit of chatter recently about pharmaceuticals building up in water supplies and how it is even possible to detect illegal drug use by monitoring the effluent. Traces of pharmaceuticals and other chemicals were detected in various tap water sources around Chicago, but not in any of the bottled water supplies that were tested.

Cause for concern? I think not. Of course the take-away will be people getting all concerned about the purity of their tap water, which may prompt them to do things like install extra filters or purchase bottled products instead. I think the only significance of this story is the amazing ability of modern analytical techniques to detect fantastically minuscule quantities, so that almost nothing can be considered pure any more on that scale of impurity. The contaminants, like acetaminophen for example, were detected at the level of about one part per trillion - 1 in 10^12. That is one million times more dilute than one part per million or 1 ppm, a level where you might have to be concerned, where the Safe Drinking Water Act sets its levels for contaminants.

There are very few people who would think twice about popping a 100 mg dose of acetaminophen for a headache (actually I think the typical tablet contains 200 mg). So I did a quick calculation to determine how much water I would need to drink to get my from that source. In order to obtain 100 mg of acetaminophen from the Chicago water supply I would need to drink 4 L (about 1 gallon) per day for 30,000 years, a shade over 300 lifetimes. So tell me, should I be concerned? Should you?

Of course we should be vigilant about the purity of water and in fact the cities in America do a very good job on that. It is important to monitor the presence of new impurities that don't fall under the umbrella of contaminants listed in the Safe Drinking Water Act. I'm not sure it serves a useful purpose to report it in such a way that gives the impression that there is something really to be concerned about in the water right now. So why plonk it on the front page?

Friday, April 18, 2008

The first fruits of all your crops

Tithing is a very big thing in American churches and I was scarcely aware of the word prior to my arrival in this fair country lo these many years. I think the English church goer gives of the change that might be rattling around in his pocket; in America whole sermons are devoted to expositions of how to calculate a tenth (10 %). It's on the gross, before tax, inclusive of everything. Tithing enables the poor overworked pastors to have a little security in their retirement, witness the Rev. Jeremiah (biblical) Wright shuffling off to his $1 million golf course "parsonage" courtesy of the Trinity faithful; or the fella over at Harvest Bible Chapel moving, with much less publicity, into a $4 million shack.

I was just reading about the Obamas' publication of their 2007 income, which enjoyed a healthy bump over 2006. A whopping $3.9 million net on book sales, which just goes to prove that the world is full of dopes. We are always being urged to read; the public responds by spending masses of money on completely worthless books enriching a few frauds, vagabonds and swindlers (The Secret). Read a good book, like a novel or something. Come to think of it, perhaps that's what Audacity of Hope is.

Anyway, I noticed that, among the charitable donations, the Obamas yielded $26,270 to Trinity, which is almost exactly 10 % of their combined $260,735 salaries. Giving at the tithing level. The Rev. Wright should be thrilled you think to receive $26 K from one member. But wait, God says 10 % of the total: books aren't excluded; so I reckon the Obamas are in the hole to the tune of about $390 K. They could just about pay for the modest little retirement parsonage by themselves.

In fact it is the practice in many churches to make the 10 % rule the entry level minimum stake and encourage giving above and beyond for long-term senior members. So I could see a rounding up to about half a million would be in order here.

I noticed that Michelle has gone part-time at UofC Medical Center, her income plummeting to about $100 K. That is a cool part-time job - a job that is suitably vaguely defined and illusive of purpose. I would like that kind of part-time gig to fill in the idle hours between classes. Those gigs are hard to find, although one or two of my COD colleagues seem to have managed it.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Go to Bruges

The Savvy Cyber Professor's pick of the week in the movie scene is "In Bruges," which he and Dulcie caught last night in the caught-in-a-timewarp Glen cinema, the only reason to visit the ghost town that is Glen Ellyn of an evening, unless you include the Tap and Grill (or whatever it is), which was once the Firkin and Fox before its swift and unexpected demise while we were away last August, and where one can buy a pint of Alpha King for $4.50. I was a little surprised when Dulcie broached the idea since I knew the film to be somewhat violent; amateur online critiques did not bode well either (which we later realized derived from the undoubted dumbness of their scribes). Anyway we went, and enjoyed it unreservedly, laugh-out-loudly. The writing is as sharp as a knife and delightfully lacking in PC, with plenty of jokes about dwarfs and midgets and other protected species. Did I find myself laughing when Colin Farrell decks a woman with a punch? Well she was coming at him with a bottle he would say in justifying the action. The violence is contained and pleasantly predictable, enabling most of the film to be enjoyed by the squeamish. Bruges is a beautiful city (the Venice of Belgium - you what?) and, though I didn't ram it down Dulcie's throat, I did visit it once in my youth and enjoyed a Stella in the square, where much of the action occurs. I was a particular fan of Flemish painting (I hear you skeptical at this point) and there is plenty on offer in Bruges. The joke is of course that our heroes don't want to be there. Bruges is easy to get lost in one suggests, trying to understand why they are there. So is Croydon the other responds. I know. I have. There is a delightful conceit in that the film contains a subplot of our heroes stumbling upon a film being made in Bruges, the star of which is a dwarf - no one's made a film in Bruges one of the staff says (or something like). Fiennes makes a delayed entrance, and is really a relatively minor figure, with a London accent that sounds comically like a cross between Peter Cook and the Geico lizard. See it; it's a definite winner.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Driving with your trousers down is okay in private

Why do they entertain us so, these rich and powerful men? Following on the heels of the revelation of Eliot Spitzer's dabblings with "escorts" comes a far more racy expose, literally, of FIA supremo Max Mosley. To be honest, the main shock about the Spitzer thing is the amount he was prepared to pay for the service of "ladies of the night." Another reason was the titillating speculation about which other famous people had accounts with the same company (the Duke of Westminster, whoever he is, was on some lists). After all, another elected official recently bit the dust for the same reason, but he paid only $150. Was Spitzer a bigger fool for paying $5K for the act or doing it at all? Max Mosley would be passionately arguing that Eliot had done no wrong, as he now is about himself; and therein lies the rub.

I'm sure that most of my readers, all three of them, have no clue as to the identity of Max or what the FIA is. I tried to explain to Dulcie that the FIA is a really important world-wide organization involving motorsports and car manufacturers; but in response to her interrogation about what they actually do, I was unable to provide an answer. Like a lot of organizations dominated by rich men, they probably sit around and chortle a lot about nothing in particular while spending a lot of money in the process.

Being the biggest fan of F1 in COD and perhaps all of DuPage county, I am very familiar with Max since the FIA presides over F1. Last year was the infamous Spygate scandal involving McLaren stealing stuff from Ferrari (I know in this country that Spygate refers to the New England Patriots taking pictures of other teams (how dull) but that was really very small beer compared to the $100 million fine that Max and his kangaroo court imposed on the hapless McLaren and heavy-but-humble Ron Dennis for what appeared to be scarcely proven indiscretions using information that a disgruntled Ferrari man had given their lead designer since fired. It seems that sucking up to the royalty of Ferrari and the patrician Max's (Max is the son of Oswald Mosley, friend of Hitler and founder of the British Nazi party - viewers of Remains of the Day will have glimpsed Mosley's cameo in that film - a fact that plays heavily into this story) hatred of working class Ron Dennis probably had more to do with it).

This lead-in is getting way too long and most readers will have already given up. Like get to the point WTF. Anyway, the bottom line, pun intended, is that Max got caught up in a really racy, pun intended, kinky sex thing involving several prostitutes and spanking and alleged Nazi role-playing. It even made it to NPR and I sat transfixed in the car park listening to the report. It was introduced with the disclaimer that the subject might be offensive to some viewers. I'm thinking that should apply to all NPR broadcasts but that's probably a little unfair. Why single out a spanking story for that appellation, while lots of rants on Christians pass un-commented on? The News of the World posted video allegedly showing Max engaging in some S&M with a group of prostitutes with, the News alleges, Nazi themes. The scientist in me demanded proof; so to You Tube I went; and there it is, a grainy minute or so. (Isn't it strange how the blurry bits always seem to coincide with the more important areas in the shot? And I thought picture quality is meant to be good in this digital age). We don't get the whole thing, but there is indeed someone who looks uncommonly like Max (though I haven't seen him elsewhere without trousers) getting his bottom thoroughly thrashed.

Tellingly, Max doesn't deny it happened (well how could he?); though he does respond immediately that he has received scores of messages of "support." (Subtext: rich powerful men do this sort of thing all the time). His protest is that what he does in his private life is own business; and anyway it wasn't "illegal." (The latter justification reminds me of that used by people, usually men, who do bad things to others, like beating their wives or engaging in sexual perversity, when they say in their defence that the Bible doesn't say it's wrong or maybe even the Bible says it's right - like women "obeying" their husbands.) The only thing he denied was the Nazi bit. He doesn't intend to resign from the FIA claiming his private behavior doesn't interfere with his ability to do his job. Bill Clinton could resonate with that I think; and he may have a point. After all, as far as can be told, nothing more offensive than a lollipop has ever been popped into any one's mouth in the Oval Office during the tenure of the Current Occupant, and look what a hash has been made of it in the meantime.

Contrary to what Max is claiming, there is a groundswell of concern among the car manufacturers and teams that Max has to go having been caught with his trousers down. However, their expressed concern is more over the Nazi role playing than the kinky sex stuff. The implication there is that, provided they weren't imitating the SS, then the rest is really okay and so carry on Max. I don't understand that distinction; what is the difference? One is morally wrong yet the other is morally okay? Degrading women is degrading with or without SS frills. All moral questions aside, one simply marvels in disbelief that the likes of Max have such delusions of grandeur, such fabulist self-images, such hubris that they have no sense of shame. On the other hand, we would be the less entertained if they did.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Poll or pole tax: a loser no matter which way you spell it

Margaret Thatcher was one of the greatest prime ministers of the modern era, or probably any era for that matter. The shadow she cast upon future leaders of the Conservative party was so great that they were shrivelled by it. Only the boyish Scot appears to have been successful in throwing it off, perhaps not coincidentally because folks got fed up with so many years of Tony Blinton, now awash in cash; though his success in that department pales into insignificance compared with his mentor Bill; after his retirement and conversion to Catholicism. But I digress.

Despite her success and power, Maggie came a cropper when she stubbornly attempted to impose the poll tax against the wisdom of most party members. Now another form of pole tax has bitten the dust in Texas, though perhaps it is of less consequence, since there are only 162 strip clubs where this $5 a head tax would have applied. It was declared unconstitutional because there was deemed to be no connection between indigent health care and strip joints.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Whither basic science?

There was a column in the Tribune this week written by a physicist from U of I which echoed a podcast I heard on Scientific American of an interview with Robert Rosner (head of Argonne National Lab) on the fate of basic scientific research in the U.S.A. and the consequences of it demise. Physics in general and Argonne in particular took a beating in its funding at the hands of our far-thinking Congress, with a number of high-energy physics projects getting chopped.

I could have written the article, although I might have dispensed with the somewhat patronizing couple of lines explaining atoms for a layman, in the sense that it mirrored my own thoughts on the role of science in the development of society. There are two issues here. Is there a sane thinking person alive that disagrees that science is essential for the future prosperity and well-being of the planet? I realize that there are some anti-technology types out there who argue for a return to the simple life and, indeed, Al Gore strikes that pose in his book (which I haven't read of course). But I did say sane thinking. As the article and Rosner both argue, future technology emerges from basic research over a long period and in often unpredictable ways. Examples of the transistor, laser and magnetic resonance all attest to this, having dramatic impacts on every-day life decades after the first laboratory demonstration. The sort of bean-counting short-term financial planning that dominates industry these days could not possibly have foretold those developments. I have had personal experience working with lasers and magnetic resonance which resonate (so to speak) with the arguments for basic research for its own sake. Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) dates back to the 30's. However, it wasn't until magnetic technology developed that the technique really took off in the 70's and 80's, and I spent some early research years applying NMR to structural problems. Even then, the wiggly traces on a long sheet of graph paper, which might have profound significance for an arcane topic of chemical interest (and which would provoke hostility from the more synthetically minded chemistry brethren), seemed a long way from every-day importance to society. Yet in 1984 I attended a lecture, at Argonne in fact, on the then fledgling magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The cross-sections of the body obtained using this technique seemed nothing short of miraculous. Now of course MRI is completely routine, 70 years after the first mention of NMR. The nuclear was dropped to avoid scaring the patients. I don't think Bloch, Purcell, Bloembergen and co envisaged MRI machines in hospitals at any time.

Lasers came much later, in the fifties, again very much as research toys. Now of course they are everywhere, in multitudes of applications, in all sizes and powers and colors (of radiation). I don't think Charles Townes thought about DVD players or optical communications or LASIK any time during his work. I spent an interesting few years growing crystals for making new types of laser. I was engaged in that work at Amoco back in the day when those sorts of companies still invested in basic research largely for its own sake. I rather knew the game was up when a group of management consultants hired by Amoco rolled through assessing our capabilities. One of them was a smooth-talking confident youth, a graduate of Cambridge, who had taken a direction in business management. Amoco, recognizing the "error" of their ways, consequently chopped that activity. Shortly thereafter, Amoco itself became subsumed into BP, the higher-ups no doubt pocketing some decent coin. Short term gain, long term damage. I think I am correct in saying that the chairman of Exxon made more money last year as an individual than was spent on all of Amoco's basic research in 1993. Is that progress?

Okay, so support of basic research is essential for producing new technologies that are not predicted from the outset. The other concern is the damage done to the future of science by the lack of people entering it. What is the motivation when they read in the paper that the money is going away? Why should young and intelligent students flog away for years at a hard subject (there is no denying that as much as we try to make it attractive) when prospects are poor?