28 May 2013

When Planets Don't Collide; An Unwilling Passenger's Tale

There’s a whole lot of talk about how bad science education is in the United States and how vast is the ignorance of science. I keep finding anecdotal evidence that the people saying these things are right.

How can anybody let pass appallingly obvious inaccuracies and trust that things “just work” even though they have no clue how?

A couple days ago, there was a news report about a triple planetary conjunction in Western sky near the horizon right after sunset early this week. A conjunction occurs when planets appear near each other in the sky. Conjunctions have long been noticed by mankind.  I have heard some conjecture over the years that what is now called the “Star of Bethlehem” was really a planetary conjunction seen as a portent by astronomers/astrologers in Southwest Asia.

Triple conjunctions are somewhat unusual. Generally, they occur only every 3 to 5 years. This one consists of an alignment of Mercury, Venus and Jupiter.

The news accounts note that “Normally, Venus and Jupiter are tens of millions of miles apart.” Full stop.  What’s the obvious conclusion? Well, it’s that at the time of a conjunction, they are not tens of millions of miles apart. Shouldn't that be obvious? There they are in the sky, right next to each other.

Lord, preserve us from such fatuous thinking.

In a "clockwork universe” model, planets' orbits are fairly stable near-circular ellipses. They are far enough apart that the gravity of one planet has little impact on the orbit of another.

That’s a good thing.

If the orbits were close together, gravity would change the orbits of both planets. And if they could get close to each other, then they could get close to us, and that’s a real bad thing.

Given our distance from the sun and with the makeup of the Earth's atmosphere, this planet can have lots of liquid water. Life evolved into these conditions. (Life could have been directed to evolve into these conditions – same thing.)  We need liquid water.  If Earth’s orbit changed, we would quickly go to a place too hot or too cold for liquid water.  That is, we would die.

So, stable orbits are a good thing.

When allegedly intelligent people say that planets actually get close together, we're not dealing with some little pedantic faux pax.  We're dealing with dumb.

In truth, conjunctions occur because planets line up. They look close together. They are still “tens of millions of miles” apart.

Visually, this week's conjunction looks like this from above the orbital plane:

See?  Jupiter is still WAY the heck out there.

Oh well life goes on without our knowing stuff like that. 

Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes claiming ignorance of the heliocentric Copernican model of the solar system. 
[Dr. Watson is narrating.]  His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.
“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”
“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has difficulty laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."
“But the Solar System!,” I protested.
“What of the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

I always liked Sherlock Holmes, but his endorsement of selective ignorance is the dumbest thing that character ever said.

I remember reacting with a sort of cringing chuckle the first time I saw Star Wars. Han Solo bragged that the Millennium Falcon was fast. She was the ship “that made the Kessel run in 12 parsecs!” 

Please, please tell me you know that "parsec" is a unit of distance, not time.

Science explains things. I'm adding something electrical to the car. I have had to fiddle with wiring.  Tonight, I cut a wire, expecting to find two leads. There’s only one. Dummy me. I should have known. That explains what that black wire way over there is for. At least I can figure it out now and solder and shrinkwrap the right things.  I’m not a real good shot. I still know to aim higher at greater distances. The reason? Objects fall at the same speed, no matter what the horizontal velocity. I wear a seatbelt. The reason?  Conservation of momentum is a bitch.

Ignorance in science is one of the things draining our strength and capability as a people. Is it any wonder that Asians are manufacturing nearly all of our advanced products? 

Who thinks that’s good for America?

27 May 2013

A Little Book of Living Local History

Calling me any sort of historian is an incredible stretch. Saying that I’m interested in history, particularly the history of West Virginia and this part of West Virginia is right on.

For years, I have gathered books and some odd source documents, especially about the early Bar of Marion County and surrounding areas. And what started as a simple historical Bar list is slowly evolving into a slim volume on the history of this Bar and context of the times.

Now and then, I search what is available on eBay and bookfinder.com to find old books that I don’t have.

A few days ago, I saw a reference in the Times-West Virginian to a privately published book by a long-passed Fairmont lawyer, Allison Sweeney Fleming. The book is entitled Memories of Fairmont, West Virginia: My Own Home Town, and was published in 1950.   The newspaper article had some sort of irrelevant quotation, but I still looked for and found a single copy available on bookfinder.com and forked over $44 for the 50 page tome.

I got my $44 back in the first 10 minutes.

A. S. Fleming was a descendant of a prominent and prolific Marion County family. Somehow, they were involved in the founding of the Fleming Memorial Presbyterian Church, and the author hints of some romantic drama in that genesis. No doubt, Fleming Avenue, which is in that neighborhood, is named for someone in the family.

These kinds of sources give us a living link to our past. Years ago, Arthur C. Clarke said that 30 ghosts stand behind each one of us. (That was in the prologue to 2001: A Space Odyssey.)  That’s how many humans have lived for every person alive today. (I suspect that the number is higher, but we’ll let that go for now.)

Each of them had a life.  I know A. S. Fleming only as a name on an old bar list with no other information. The same goes for lots of others. He knew many of them, and his book, this little book, brings him and them a little bit to life. Each of them had a childhood, an education and a family. A. S. Fleming himself was offered a pro baseball contract but turned it down to pursue his education. (That was around 1900, when a pro baseball contract wasn’t worth nearly what it is today.) He describes Tusca Morris is a fierce pitcher. Later, he was a fierce trial lawyer and faced Sen. M. M. Neely in 1952 in the Luella Mundel versus Thelma Loudin, Fairmont State College McCarthy-era slander trial.  That trial was on the front pages of national newspapers for a week.

Fleming knew Justice John W Mason, Justice H. H. Rose (whose granddaughter is a good friend and a great lawyer).  He knew my respected elder friend Judge J. Harper Meredith before he assume the Bench.  He knew Carter Jones when he was still a young blade driving a Cord automobile. He had talked with the older lawyers who recounted how Fontaine Smith always wore a stovepipe hat and long, black frock coat.  More than the guesses and interpretations of modern historians, these first-person accounts live for me.

This little book also had a personal connection. On the cover was a little printed return address label, “Mrs. William P. Lehman, 708 Mt. Vernon Ave., Fairmont, W. Va.”  On the flyleaf was stamped, “William P. Lehman, attorney-at-law.”

When I first hung out a shingle in 1978, my office was in the Security Bank, on the 7th floor. On the 4th floor, Bill Lehman still had an office, although due to advanced age he had quit coming in to work.  I passed his door now and then and wondered who he was and what he was like.

At the time, I was active in the county rescue company, the Marion County Rescue Squad. One day, we had a call to Mount Vernon Avenue.   The patient was Bill Lehman.  He was sick but alert.   I told him who I was and we talked on the way to the hospital and for a good while at the hospital. I made a new friend and a contact with the past. I think Bill died a couple of months later.

So I know the volume I’m reading again today is the same one that was in the hands of Bill Lehman, who knew the older-still lawyers. This is a connection and a little window into the true story of people whose actions and decisions affect what I do today.

That’s special.

25 May 2013

On My Honor – More On The Scouting Gay Ban: A Message to My Brothers & Sisters in Scouting

Last week, the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America ended the ban on homosexual youth members. The issue has been dividing Scouts – and attracting nosy, self-righteous ridicule – for some years.

Reactions outside Scouting have varied. Frankly, I don’t care.

The reactions from my brothers and sisters in Scouting have varied. 

I have not heard much exultation. No one in their right mind can believe that this whole episode has been a uniformly positive experience for American Scouting.

I have heard a good deal of relief. This is both practical and a reflection of the gratification that we are being true to Scouting principles. At least this part of the dispute is OVER.  (We still have to keep implementation going smoothly.  We still have to deal with the gay adult issue.) More importantly, the decision shows that Scouting again has looked at our values and decided what we stand for.

Another school of reaction is one of horror and betrayal. Some say that they will abandon Scouting. Others will send their awards and badges back to the organization. A few talk about founding some sort of “Scouting” which conforms to their Scouting weltanschauung.

I really doubt that there are any more homosexuals in society than there were 50 years ago. I also doubt if there are many more gay Scouts than there were 50 years ago. Then, homosexuality was so frowned upon that concealment was integral to the lifestyle. So, it’s not as if the concept of gay folks is new to Scouting. Only the acceptance of openness is new.

Around 1980, National Scouting began an ill-fated journey into political swamps, a journey for which Scouts were ill-prepared. The Movement attempted to engage in political discussions. It tried to hammer-weld politics onto the traditional Scouting program of self-reliance, loyalty, citizenship, friendship and honor.

This was an attempt to weld lead onto steel. Something heavy, malleable and dull did nothing but weaken a strong, sharp program.

My brothers and sisters, my message today is this: 


Keep your eye on the ball.

Scouting is needed now more than ever. The moral deterioration of such great concern to most of us has been misidentified with the gay thing. Maybe that’s because some self-identified gay “activists” spout social/political blather which has little or nothing to do with rights or citizenship. Wow, what a shock. 

Just so, self-identified religious “activists” want to impose sharia law (or a Christian equivalent). Lots and lots of self-identified moralists of every stripe rail against all drugs – except for themselves. It is foolish of us to believe that they speak for anybody but themselves.

To my brothers and sisters who say, hey, I’m outta here because gay kids can join, I say: You are still my brother and my sister.  I cannot respect what you are doing. You are playing into the hands of those who destroy, not those who build.

The Biblical notion about the “house divided” remains true today.  Or, let’s use a Scouting metaphor. In the Order of the Arrow Ordeal “Tapout” ceremony at Camp Mountaineer, a single candidate is asked to surround a huge old oak tree beside the council fire. This tree is more than 100 years old and 6 feet in diameter. Of course a single person cannot stretch his arms around such a tree. Then, all the candidates are directed to join hands and surrounding the tree is done easily.

When one person leaves, that’s one less person to surround the tree, one less person to serve.

I say once again that sexuality has zero part in Scouting.  ‘Round the campfire, kids are not going to hear about the advantages of getting it on with Steve OR with Eve. This is not a part of life that we deal with. This is not a part of life we are designed to address.

Scouting is about self-reliance and self-confidence.. Kids achieve/advance to a fixed standard. Every kid can be a winner – not just by showing up, but by demonstrating skills that they have to work to gain and which will stand them in good stead for their entire lives.

When a kid knows that he can be dropped anywhere in nearly any weather and walk out healthy, that kid has a power which no school can give. When a kid finds herself part of a huge force for good deeds, she has a part of her lifetime identity.

These things are imparted to a few kids at a time and often to one kid at the time. Much of the teaching is done by older kids in the program. Much is done by adults who embrace service above self. Not one of my Scout leaders taught me a thing about romantic love. But they taught me most of what I know about love of humanity and comradeship. Those men – guys like Chris Gore, John Pitcher, B. I. Wixey, Junior Parks, Bob Elliott - gave me gifts that I cannot repay. I can only “pay forward.”   I have and can only continue to try to promote Scouting and Scouting skills to – you guessed it – one kid at a time.

Where we going with the gay ban and adult leaders? We need to keep talking. We need to keep thinking. We need to keep applying OUR values.

A note to activists of every description who are not from within the Movement:   You have your First Amendment rights. Use them. Don’t use them. I don’t care. We won’t be listening. You’re not a part of the solution – you’re part of the problem.

“A Scout is a friend to all and a brother to every other Scout.”

13 May 2013

A Hero On His Own

Good Heavens, sometimes I wonder if I am not becoming a bit of a “contrarian” myself. These Dispatches’ political/social commentary do seem to point out the motes in others’ eyes.

At least I think I turn discussions toward  some positive learning – usually a lesson that I need reinforced for myself.

Today, we’re looking at the “Cleveland Hero.” He’s Charles Ramsey, the guy who heard a young woman locked in a kidnapper’s house screaming. He broke down the door to get her out. This led to the rescue of three other young women held captive.

Ramsey was interviewed by a local TV station. He explained simply, if colorfully, what he did and what he was thinking at the time.

Follow-up stories have treated Ramsey rather shabbily.  It turns out that he has a minor criminal record and served jail time twice. News stations chased down a long-ago ex-wife and a lawyer who represented him in the past on a misdemeanor. Their message was that whatever he did in the past, they wished him well now. The lawyer even talked about Ramsey having “redeemed himself” by making the rescue.

What elitist rot.

What we have here is an ordinary guy. He works as a restaurant dishwasher, a low-paid, unskilled job. His employer says that he’s a happy guy to be around and that he works hard. There’s a great deal of dignity in that, because that can’t be said about a lot of people.

Add to that that his number came up for one of those never-predictable moments when a person is challenged to go outside his comfort zone for damn good reason. As we have shifted away from a No-Questions-Asked-I’ll-Help-My-Neighbor approach, we have begun to lose cohesion as a people. When someone bucks that trend and gives unselfish service, it is noteworthy.

It is UNworthy of anyone to resurrect a less-than-perfect past. Those who would grant Ramsey “redemption” are bona fide hypocrites.

You there, you who are so free with forgiveness – You’re the same guy who drove drunk all the time in school, right? And you! That little affair of yours appears to have been hushed up, wasn’t it?  Over there, you – You slipped those phony deductions past that old IRS, didn’t you?   

Don’t you all be talking redemption. You’re not The One qualified to do it.  Not even close.

Ramsey has stepped forward and affirmed his own dignity and values. He doesn’t need anybody’s permission. He stood up on his own. 

God bless that guy.

09 May 2013

Jodi Arias, Nancy Grace and the Talking Heads; Bring in The Clowns

I got in late last night. As I was prepping for today, I flipped on CNN. 

One Jodi Arias, a 20-something woman, just has been convicted of capital murder in a trial court in Arizona.

This case is vital to her. It is vital to the friends and families of the deceased victim. Also, it has garnered a great deal of press attention.

However, as murder cases go, the facts are really rather ordinary. I can think of three cases I’ve done and at least a dozen done by friends which have more interesting and more challenging facts.

The boredom within this case did not keep Nancy Grace & The Talking Heads – what amounts to a low class rap group – from assaulting viewers with a splash of appallingly arrogant and ignorant bullshit.  These people opening their mouths for money are like… No, I won’t go there.

A jury of Arizona citizens found Arias guilty of “premeditated murder” which, in Arizona, makes her eligible for the death penalty. As I understand it, the next step will be the “penalty phase,” where the jury decides between life in prison without parole and execution by lethal injection.

All of this strikes me as terribly unfortunate, but not unfair. I cannot make an intelligent comment about the verdict. In fact, nobody who did not attend the entire trial can INTELLIGENTLY comment on the verdict.

The issue was not whether the defendant shot and stabbed the victim, a boyfriend.  The issue was whether the killing was justified. Despite all of the lurid TV and movie depictions of self-defense, when you have a dead body lying there, the person still standing needs to have a pretty good story with proof to back it up. Arias told a lot of lies at the beginning, which always makes a self-defense claim dubious at best.

Penitentiaries are awful places. Perhaps I’ll blog a bit about that sometime. A popular assertion is that the criminal should live in misery, squalor, fear and the reality or equivalence of torture. To those who adhere to that view, I say drop by Sears, Roebuck – they’re having a sale on humanity. Read a little bit of your Bible. Try the red letters. 

Prisons are there to isolate criminals from other citizens. That isolation is a very negative consequence of criminal actions. Often, it promotes the safety of other citizens. Sometimes, penitentiaries help offenders reform. In my experience, that’s mostly been by separating those most likely to reform from drugs and gangs and giving them the opportunity honestly to reflect about their lives.  But reformation is not the way to bet.

So Jodi Arias will have her entire remaining life to reflect. The only question is, will it be long and possibly ended by old age or short and ended by lethal injection? She gave a short interview after the verdict where she said she preferred death to a life sentence.

But that’s not enough for Nancy Grace & The Talking Heads. Arias has not suffered enough. They know that she has no emotions, no pure thoughts.  “Oh, puh-LEASE,” huffs the oddly-named Grace.  A “well-qualified psychologist” adds that “obviously, she is a contrarian, and will say the exact opposite of what she wants.” She adds that Arias is incapable of emotion. Another voice chimes in, “She is using reverse psychology!”

Are we really so shallow that we are buying this bullshit? Who are these people to say – let alone declare with some supposed authority – what this defendant is thinking? They spout nonsense to satiate a prurient public desire for blood, sex and revenge.

After all, don’t we want reassured that no matter how negative our lives might be, no matter what sins we might commit, we are the blessed ones because we are not like that black-hearted Jodi Arias? 

Nancy Grace has reassured us – hasn’t she?

The whole thing is just pathetic.

It doesn’t bother me that Arias was convicted. It doesn’t really bother me that she faces a long or short incarceration. That’s our law.  That is our social compact. 

But I don’t know how she feels.  And it doesn’t matter. The result will be the same no matter how she feels or what she thinks.  I hope she makes peace with her God.  I can’t control that nor know whether she does.

We cannot turn the end of a great tragedy into a great triumph of justice by hate or arrogance. A wise choice for a mature society is to move forward, accepting that we must do the very unpleasant work of cleaning up murder scenes with all that entails, years into the future.

Anybody who exults over that is an idiot.

05 May 2013

Whining: The Victimization of Piers Morgan

It’s that time of year, time for the National Rifle Association national meeting.  As one might expect, the national gun control debate is getting big play at the convention.

Today, cnn.com had a headline:

“CEO of NRA slams Piers Morgan”

I continue to wonder why we are so concerned about who slams who, but arguments directed at the person rather than the issue are not terribly useful. 

So, I looked at the story.  It showed CNN commentator Piers Morgan talking about a snippet of the speech given by National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre:

Morgan:NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre attacked me personally for my stance on gun control.  Listen to this.

LaPierre:We know how they play the game.  Pres. Obama or Michael Bloomberg or some other official trots out on national television to scold and shame us, suggesting that there’s something wrong with law-abiding people who want to own firearms.  And then what happens, all the Piers Morgan’s, Lawrence O’Donnell’s and Rachel Maddow’s, they pound the message over and over again.

Morgan:That’s right, Mr. LaPierre, and I’ll continue to pound that message and continue to show shocking footage [and footage is shown from a police dash-cam of a guy exiting his car and opening fire on the police] until people like you realize the damage that guns do to Americans every day. This man used an assault rifle.  He also used a 40-bullet magazine, two things that you don’t think should be banned.  Try telling that to those police officers. 

That was it. 


That’s a personal attack?

(By the way, I'd never heard of Lawrence O'Donnell.)

There is no doubt that Piers Morgan is one of the louder and more articulate voices against the widespread presence of firearms in America. Indeed, I have heard personal attacks on him, but this isn’t one of them. Most of those that attacks start with the fact that he is a British citizen, which under American law is no more relevant than any other personal attack. The Bill of Rights does not “give” any sorts of rights. It restricts government from infringing on the rights which the people – including foreign nationals present in the United States – already have. Free speech is one of those.

It disturbs me that anybody is supposed to believe that this is a personal attack or that somehow it gives credibility to anybody with reference to the merits of the gun issue.

Do you want to hear something of a more effective personal attack? Some official from the “Gun Owners of America” appeared on the program of, you guessed it, Piers Morgan. This fellow, one Larry Pratt, was sincere but not really well armed for a battle of wits. Among Morgan’s observations to him:

You’re an unbelievably stupid man, aren’t you?
You don’t give a damn, do you, about the gun murder rate in America?
I know why sales of these weapons have been soaring ... It’s down to idiots like you.
You wouldn’t  understand the meaning of the phrase “high level argument.”
You are a dangerous man.

Even so, I’m not really shocked by that, either. You play, you pay. You make an appearance on an “opinion,” program, you take your chances that the host will be a bit of an asshole.  

But it’s still all terribly tiresome. Waving the bloody shirt is an American pastime and it’s quite useful for those occasions when rational argument will interfere with political plans. Gun controllists are hardly the first to reach for the bloody shirts and they won’t be the last. And some of us will to be dumb enough to disengage our brains and react without thinking.

The problem violence in America is anything but simple. Anyone who thinks it is, anyone who thinks it will be solved by eliminating guns or by arming everyone, that person is the dangerous one.