Sunday, March 26, 2006
In an announcement that is certain to drive the Intelligent Design (Creationist) crowd even further into Denialville, the remains of another candidate in the sweepstakes to be the missing link between Homo Erectus and modern man were recently found in Ethiopia. Yahoo News AP wire excerpt:
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia - Scientists in northeastern Ethiopia said Saturday that they have discovered the skull of a small human ancestor that could be a missing link between the extinct Homo erectus and modern man.
The hominid cranium, found in two pieces and believed to be between 500,000 and 250,000 years old, "comes from a very significant period and is very close to the appearance of the anatomically modern human," said Sileshi Semaw, director of the Gona Paleoanthropological Research Project in Ethiopia.
Archaeologists found the early human cranium five weeks ago at Gawis in Ethiopia's northeastern Afar region, Sileshi said. Several stone tools and fossilized animals including two types of pigs, zebras, elephants, antelopes, cats, and rodents were also found at the site.
Sileshi, an Ethiopian paleoanthropologist based at Indiana University, said most fossil hominids are found in pieces but the near-complete skull, a rare find, provided a wealth of information. "The Gawis cranium provides us with the opportunity to look at the face of one of our ancestors," the archaeology project said in a statement.
Homo erectus, which many believe was an ancestor of modern Homo sapiens, is thought to have died out 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. The cranium dates to a time about which little is known, the transition from African Homo erectus to modern humans. The fossil record from Africa for this period is sparse and most of the specimens poorly dated, project archaeologists said.
The face and cranium of the fossil are recognizably different from those of modern humans, but bear unmistakable anatomical evidence that it belongs to the modern human's ancestry, Sileshi said.
Homo erectus left Africa about 2 million years ago and spread across Asia from Georgia in the Caucasus to China and Indonesia. It first appeared in Africa between 1 million and 2 million years ago. Between 1 million and perhaps 200,000 years ago, one or more species existed in Africa that gave rise to the earliest members of our own species Homo sapiens, between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago.
"This is really exciting because it joins a limited number of fossils which appear to be evolutionary between Homo erectus and our own species Homo sapiens," said Eric Delson, a paleoanthropologist at Lehman College of the City University of New York, who was not involved in the discovery but has followed the project.
Delson said the fossil found in Ethiopia "might represent a population broadly ancestral to modern humans or it might prove to be one of several side branches which died out without living descendants."
Snarky intro aside, this is a fascinating find on two major levels: One, it shows that the notion of the missing link is close to being a reality. Two, it further underscores a point that makes the ID advocates seem even sillier than they usually seem.
As detailed in the last sentence of the excerpt, it is well known that dozens of potential lines of ancient humans and proto-humans existed, but they are not around today because they were unable to adapt to their world (evolve) the way the immediate ancestors of modern Homo Sapiens could, and did.
Maybe this argument will make the IDers listen to reason for a change. Nah. They'll probably just twist the argument around to say that this discovery is proof that God tapped Homo Sapiens on the shoulder to inherit the world. Of course that would imply that God, either through aggression or negligence, condemned His (Her?) OTHER humanoid creations to extinction without a second thought. I have a feeling such a question would never occur to the average IDer.
Hot on the heels of yesterday's post detailing this case, it appears that Abdul Rahman, the former Muslim who converted to Christianity, and who was on trial for his life in Afghanistan, will apparently be released from jail tomorrow after the court presiding over the case returned a verdict of insufficient evidence to prosecute. Yahoo News AP wire excerpt:
KABUL, Afghanistan - A court on Sunday dismissed the case against an Afghan man facing possible execution for converting from Islam to Christianity, officials said, paving the way for his release.
The move eased pressure from the West but raised the dilemma of protecting Abdul Rahman after his release as Islamic clerics have called for him to be killed.
One official said freedom might come as soon as Monday for Rahman, who became a Christian in the 1990s while working for an aid group in neighboring Pakistan.
Muslim extremists, who have demanded death for Rahman as an apostate for rejecting Islam, warned the decision would touch off protests across this religiously conservative country. Some clerics previously vowed to incite Afghans to kill Rahman if he was let go.
Rahman was moved to Kabul's notorious high-security Policharki prison Friday after inmates at a jail in central Kabul threatened him, Policharki's warden, Gen. Shahmir Amirpur, said.
The case set off an outcry in the United States and other nations that helped oust the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001 and provide aid and military support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
A Supreme Court spokesman, Abdul Wakil Omeri, said the case had been dismissed because of "problems with the prosecutors' evidence." He said several of Rahman's relatives testified he is mentally unstable and prosecutors have to "decide if he is mentally fit to stand trial."
Another Afghan official closely involved with the case told The Associated Press that the court ruled there was insufficient evidence and returned the case to prosecutors for further investigation. But he said Rahman would be released in the meantime.
"The court dismissed today the case against Abdul Rahman for a lack of information and a lot of legal gaps in the case," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly comment on the case. "The decision about his release will be taken possibly tomorrow," the official added. "They don't have to keep him in jail while the attorney general is looking into the case."
This is certainly good news for Mr. Rahman. However, it is best to keep in mind that the issue of religious tolerance in this region is far from solved simply because a high-profile case happened to break the right way. This subject is a fascinating one in that it almost never involves the mention of science and logic, but rather depends mostly on invoking emotion and superstition, and that is where I get off this arcade ride of hypocrisy, double-talk and outright lies.
Unfortunately there are very powerful people in the world who control the discourse in these matters, and until they decide to give up their superstitions in favor of science and logic to guide their policies, we will all continue to suffer at the results of their ignorant acts.
Saturday, March 25, 2006
There has been a story that has been percolating all week long that I've been meaning to mention, but between the last throes of the bowling league insurgency, and preparing for re-enlistment in the softball/baseball armies, I simply haven't had the time. But that's okay since real big-time bloggers like Atrios, Digby and TBogg (all posted on my pitiful excuse for a blogg roll) have been on the case like failure on Dubya.
For those of you unfamiliar with the trials and tribulations of recently new, and now former Washington Post hot young GOP pundit, Ben Domenech, the aforementioned blogmasters have been hitting this story like Big Papi with two on and two out in the bottom of the ninth. And since these blogs have done the critical work in explaining why, even in these days when Republicans seem to get away with just about everything, plagiarism is not something of which to be proud, and that, once a plagiarist has been exposed, as Domenech has been, he should probably tell his crazy colleagues over at his former redstate.com haunt to shut the hell up with the shrill, childish rationalizations of his lying work habits.
The best observation is on TBogg's blog. Scroll down to his post titled: The bruised honor of Ben Domenech to view the madness, and to admire the snark.
A sobering view of how little has changed in Afghanistan since the United States "toppled" Taliban forces in that country can be found in the trial of Abdul Rahman, who converted from Islam to Christianity, and who is on trial for his life for doing so. Yahoo News AP wire excerpt:
KABUL, Afghanistan - Under mounting foreign pressure, President Hamid Karzai searched on Saturday for a way to free an Afghan man on trial for converting from Islam to Christianity without angering Muslim clerics who have called for him to be killed.
Karzai and several Cabinet ministers discussed the case of Abdul Rahman, who faces a possible death sentence for alleged apostasy, an official at Karzai's palace said. But she declined to comment on the outcome of the talks on Saturday.
Hours earlier, another official said Rahman "could be released soon." Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
Pope Benedict XVI has sent a message to Karzai asking that the case be dropped, citing respect for religious freedom, the Vatican said Saturday. But clerics have questioned Karzai's authority to order Rahman's release and have warned of a possible revolt if he tries.
"The Quran is very clear and the words of our prophet are very clear. There can only be one outcome: death," said cleric Khoja Ahmad Sediqi, who is also a member of the Supreme Court. "If Karzai releases him, it will play into the hands of our enemy and there could be an uprising."
Rahman is being prosecuted under Afghanistan's Islamic laws for converting 16 years ago while working as a medical aid worker for an international Christian group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
The case has put Karzai in an awkward position. While the United States, Britain and other countries that prop up his government have demanded Rahman's release, the president would be reluctant to offend Islamic sensibilities at home or alienate religious conservatives who wield considerable power.
Diplomats have said the Afghan government is searching for a way to drop the case without inflaming tension here. Authorities said Rahman is suspected of being mentally ill and would undergo psychological examinations to see whether he is fit to stand trial.
The trial highlights a conflict of values between Afghanistan and its Western backers — notably American Christians who cheered the administration of President Bush when it toppled the oppressive Taliban regime in late 2001.
Bush expressed alarm about the case this week, but Christian lobby groups have urged him to do more.
As much as I'd like to blame Preznit Flight Suit Fantasy for this development, the truth is that in a region dominated by religious extremists, it makes no difference whether the Taliban is running things or not. I will, however, call the Preznit on his insistence, in his mid-week press conference, that things are just swell in Afghanistan these days.
In that pitiful appearance, the Preznit called on Helen Thomas for the first time in his second term, and she, being the only member of the "liberal press" who dares to ask the obvious questions, asked him, very directly, why he wanted to go to war in Iraq. In typical Bush fashion, the Preznit avoided answering the question by talking about how great things are in Afghanistan.
Well, I'm quite certain Mr. Rahman would differ with that view (as would other Christians and Muslim women). And I find it hard to believe that the troops we sent over there to straighten things out would view this development in a good light. I just hope that saner minds can get their points across and resolve this mess quickly and safely for Mr. Rahman.
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
Scientists have announced the unearthing, in Cyprus, of a 2,500-year-old sarcophagus decorated with images from the works of Homer. Yahoo News AP wire story:
NICOSIA, Cyprus - A 2,500-year-old sarcophagus with vivid color illustrations from Homer's epics has been discovered in western Cyprus, archaeologists said Monday.
Construction workers found the limestone sarcophagus last week in a tomb near the village of Kouklia, in the coastal Paphos area. The tomb, which probably belonged to an ancient warrior, had been looted during antiquity.
"The style of the decoration is unique, not so much from an artistic point of view, but for the subject and the colors used," said Pavlos Flourentzos, director of the island's antiquities department.
Only two similar sarcophagi have ever been discovered in Cyprus before. One is housed in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the other in the British Museum in London, but their colors are more faded, Flourentzos said.
Flourentzos said the coffin, painted in red, black and blue on a white background, dated to 500 B.C., when Greek cultural influence was gaining a firm hold on the eastern Mediterranean island. Pottery discovered in the tomb is expected to provide a precise date.
Experts believe the ornate decoration features the hero Ulysses in scenes from Homer's Iliad and Odyssey , both hugely popular throughout the Greek world. In one large painting, Ulysses and his comrades escape from the blind Cyclops Polyphemos' cave, hidden under a flock of sheep. Another depicts a battle between Greeks and Trojans from the Iliad. Archeologists think the scenes hint at the status of the coffin's occupant.
"Why else take these two pieces from Homer and why deal with Ulysses? Maybe this represents the dead person's character, who possibly was a warrior," Flourentzos said.
Other drawings depict a figure carrying a seriously injured or dead man and a lion fighting a wild boar under a tree. These are not believed to be linked with Homer's poems. Reflecting a long oral tradition loosely based on historic events, Homer's epics were probably composed around 800 B.C. and written down in the 6th century B.C.
The tomb was found in an area containing several ancient cemeteries which belonged to the nearby town of Palaepaphos, 11 miles inland from modern Paphos.
First settled around 2800 B.C., Palaepaphos was the site of a temple of Aphrodite, the ancient goddess of beauty who, according to mythology, was born in the sea off Paphos.
Until Schleimann found the ruins of Troy in the late 19th century, that city was deemed as simply a myth. With this discovery, as well as many others in this region, the question to ask is how many more myths are "real"? Another question on my mind is, how far back can we reasonably expect to find traces of civilization?
We know the Egyptians date back to about 3,000 B.C., and that the civilizations who influenced them, such as the Sumerians in what is today Iraq, were older still. Beyond that, we have Cro-Magnon cave paintings all over Europe. What is missing? Will we find the bridge that led us from foraging hunters to civilized farmers and city builders?
Sadly, many ancient stories about worldwide catastrophes, such as the Great Flood, which appears in dozens of cultures, may be accurate to the point where much of what those people had built was completely wiped out. But thanks to discoveries like this, and to the work done by researchers like Graham Hancock and David Hatcher Childress, we may yet find the missing pieces to this intriguing puzzle.
Full Story Link
Monday, March 20, 2006
The Red Sox made a couple of interesting moves today and on Sunday. The first was today's trade of lanky right-handed pitcher Bronson Arroyo to the Cincinnati Reds for slugging outfield prospect Wily Mo Pena. ESPN.com excerpt:
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Boston Red Sox traded pitcher Bronson Arroyo on Monday to the Cincinnati Reds for outfielder Wily Mo Pena.
Arroyo was 14-10 with a 4.51 ERA last season. The right-hander was part of a deep group of Red Sox starters and had taken a home-team discount when he signed a three-year contract worth $11.25 million on Jan. 19.
Pena, who can't be a free agent until after the 2008 season, batted .254 with 19 homers and 51 RBI last season and struck out 116 times with 20 walks. A 24-year-old right-handed hitter, he could play right field instead of lefty Trot Nixon when left-handers pitch against Boston.
Without the 29-year-old Arroyo, Boston still has Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield, Josh Beckett, Matt Clement, David Wells and Jonathan Papelbon as starters. Arroyo, who pitched five shutout innings Sunday after struggling in his first three exhibition appearances, was expected to start the season in the Boston's bullpen.
Arroyo had career highs last year with 14 wins, 32 starts and 205 1/3 innings pitched. "Because we have depth, we might not have been able to get enough out of him" this season, Boston manager Terry Francona said, "and that's not a knock on him."
In the past four seasons, Pena batted .248 with 51 homers and 134 RBI with the Reds. Pena played for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic and had four singles in 10 at-bats in three games.
"He's 24 years old. He's just a baby," said Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, who played with Pena on the Dominican team. "You know this game. It's a learning process."
Pena said he was surprised by the deal. He is still considered a raw talent but has outstanding power. "Players with this kind of power usually develop a better walk rate as they go forward into their mid- to late-20s," Epstein said.
Arroyo had better run support last year than he did in 2004 when he was 10-9, but I see some signs for potential alarm based on his 2005 performance. One, he pitched 26 more innings in 2005 than in 2004 (205 to 179), but struck out 42 fewer batters (100 to 142). That is not a good sign. That leads us to the Number Two warning sign. Arroyo's ERA increased by nearly half a run per nine innings (4.03 to 4.51). Again, not a good sign.
Arroyo has a decent fastball that he needs to use more often, as he did in yesterday's strong outing against AL East rival Baltimore. Last season, I saw a tendency in Arroyo to rely too heavily on his sweeping breaking ball, and when he fell behind and had to come in with the fastball it seemed more like a "get me over the plate" pitch than something with which to bury hitters. He'll have to improve on this tendency because he'll be pitching his 2006 home games in The Great American Ballpark, an even more hitter-friendly environment than Fenway. Anyway, Terry Francona now has one fewer starting pitcher in that crowded field about whom to worry. Good luck to you Bronson.
On the other side of the equation, Pena is indeed, a raw talent with a ton of power. I'm not sure how cutting his playing time in half will help him develop the way Epstein describes. The Sox starting OF is Manny Ramirez in LF, Coco Crisp in CF and Trot Nixon in RF. In camp are OFs Dustan Mohr, a gritty player who has been killing the ball this spring, Adam Stern, the Rule V kid from the Braves system who is now healthy, and who is also killing the ball. Utility man Willie Harris can play second base and all three outfield positions and is more noted for his speed, so he will figure into the mix somewhere.
So where does that leave Pena? As a right-handed hitter, he is a logical choice to play against lefties, allowing Nixon, who does not hit lefties well, to rest against them. But then isn't that what Mohr is for? I'm a bit confused by this deal. I wonder if Nixon, who signed a deal similar to Arroyo's a couple of years ago, is going to be dealt next, thereby giving Pena the starting RF job. Time will tell.
Or will it? On Sunday, the Red Sox announced the signing of former two-time AL MVP Juan Gonzalez to a minor-league deal. ESPN.com excerpt:
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Juan Gonzalez, limited to one at-bat last season, agreed to a minor-league contract with the Boston Red Sox on Sunday. The Red Sox hope the 36-year-old, oft-injured outfielder can bounce back and show the form he displayed when he had three 140-RBI seasons.
Gonzalez was expected to join the Red Sox for Tuesday's home game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He has 434 homers, 1,404 RBI and a .295 batting average in 17 major-league seasons. Boston has few available roster spots but the right-handed hitting Gonzalez could spell lefty-hitting Trot Nixon in right field. First, Gonzalez must come back from a torn hamstring that ruined his 2005 season. He was injured on June 1 during his only at-bat with Cleveland. The Indians didn't offer him salary arbitration this winter.
Hmmm, didn't the Sox pick up Pena to spell Nixon? Then again, I'm sure Mohr had that same impression when they signed HIM. This move could, in theory, help the Sox, but how healthy is Gonzalez? He was a hell of a hitter when he was with the Rangers, an RBI machine like Manny. Unfortunately, he has had a very hard time staying healthy in recent seasons, which makes this deal a HUGE question mark.
It is too much to ask that Gonzalez, who looks eerily like the late Thin Lizzy frontman Philip Lynott, to regain the form he had in his 1996 and 1998 MVP seasons. This could be an Orlando Cepeda/Andre Dawson type of signing, the type of deal the Sox could almost never resist: An aging slugger with right-handed pop to take aim at the Green Monster, only to show brief glimpses of what he once was after donning a Sox uniform. I wish him luck, not only in his hamstring rehab, but in a quest for playing time. Terry Francona has a LOT of decisions to make. Full story links below.
Juan Gonzalez Signing
Sunday, March 19, 2006
Putting politics aside for the moment, it is my pleasure to post a review of the CD Starbreaker. This band, of the same name, is the latest project to involve vocalist Tony Harnell, one of the finest, and most underrated hard rock singers around.
Harnell, who first appeared with the band TNT, and who has been a driving force behind the excellent Morning Wood and Westworld projects, showcases his soaring voice throughout this tight collection of songs. He is joined by bassist/producer Fabrizio Grossi, drummer John Macaluso and guitarist/keyboardist Magnus Karlsson.
Here's the song-by-song rundown:
1. Die For You – Starts off with a muffled techno shuffle before slamming into a solid hard rock groove. Harnell's voice soars over Karlsson's riffs as the Grossi/Macaluso rhythm section pound the point across.
2. Lies – The first single, and the standout track on this CD, it features an epic melody that gives Harnell's lyrics (which seem awfully critical of the Preznit Flight Suit Fantasy administration) plenty of punch. A quick sample: "Godless...though they claim to be...blessed in their quest for security / Not so different me from you, they try to tell us it's not true...Justify the madness, make us hate each other..." Karlsson throws out a quick, punchy solo as Macaluso and Grossi provide the feel with intensity. A true winner.
3. Break My Bones – A slamming rocker that features a more aggressive feel to Harnell's vocals. Karlsson fires away with a wah-wah driven solo as Macaluso and Grossi keep things tight on drums and bass.
4. Crushed – A midtempo rocker that shows Harnell going from gentle to forceful over Karlsson's piano playing. Karlsson later fires off another wah-wah tinged solo over Macaluso's fiery drumming and Grossi's stomping bass.
5. Days of Confusion – Probably the closest thing to a ballad on this CD. The beginning features some slow piano from Karlsson before the band kicks the volume back into gear. Harnell soars again with real emotion. Karlsson's guitar solo mirrors the main melody as the rhythm section stays in the pocket before the song ends with Karlsson's quiet piano work.
6. Transparent – A crunchy rocker with a soaring keyboard background over which Karlsson provides some crunchy riffs to accompany Harnell's lyrics about the dangers of being a phony. The middle section features some of Karlsson's nimble guitar work over Macaluso's jazz-like drumming and Grossi's pounding bass.
7. Light at the End of the World – Another song with a ballad-like feel. A quiet opening gives way to a harder, midtempo groove. Harnell gives it his all, especially on the choruses where his multi-tracked vocals shine with emotion. Karlsson lights it up with a brief solo that ends with a little flurry before the main melody re-asserts itself.
8. Cradle to the Grave – A heavy, grinding song that features Karlsson’s crunchy riffs and Grossi’s growling bass lines. Harnell adopts a more aggressive tone as the band slams away. Karlsson’s solo starts off quickly but falls into a funky groove with Grossi’s bass doubling up while Macaluso pounds away on the drum kit.
9. Underneath a Falling Sky – One of my favorite tracks, it features some of Harnell's finest singing. He manages to go from a low, almost whispering style to soaring urgency, especially on the choruses. Karlsson's solo is bright and melodic, probably his finest guitar work of the CD. Macaluso and Grossi manage the tempo changes.
10. Turn It Off – An uptempo rocker that showcases the entire band hitting on all cylinders. Harnell delivers his high-end vocals that work well in this aggressive groove. Karlsson delivers an effect-tinged solo over Macaluso's drums, which are all over the place as Grossi plants a firm foundation with his bass.
11. Dragonfly – A funky, spacey instrumental. Karlsson is showcased here. He throws out flurries of notes, crunchy riffs and muffled runs and a crazy solo. Grossi's bass work is prominent throughout, both as a rhythm and harmony device. Karlsson's two guitar solos are screaming sheets of sound over Macaluso's machine-gun drums.
12. Save Yourself – This one is an uptempo rocker that features some tight work from the rhythm section. Macaluso hits the kit hard and Grossi holds the point on bass with the tempo chmulti that guide the song before Karlsson's mulit-tracked solo. Harnell does the rest with his voice, which builds from mid-register to wailing as the song progresses to its sudden slam-bang ending.
13. Days of Confusion – This is a bonus track, and is the acoustic version of Track 5. This version works well with Karlsson's lilting acoustic guitar providing a nice counterpoint to Harnell's emotional vocals.
To sum it up, this is a solid hard rock CD. The songs are of a very high standard, so to hear standout tracks such as Lies, Days of Confusion, Light at the End of the World and Underneath a Falling Sky makes me wonder when the hell Harnell is going to get his due. He is a huge star in Europe and Japan, but is somewhat of a cult figure here in his home country. If you are a Tony Harnell fan, you will definitely enjoy his work on this outing. Veterans Macaluso and Grossi proved to be a steady, yet fiery team. Karlsson is definitely a guitar player to watch. His solos are short, but are full of fire, and he seems equally comfortable playing within the main melody or swerving off into a tempo change.
And speaking of guitar players, a belated Happy Birthday shout out to Scott Gorham, the man who dueled with Brian Robertson, Gary Moore, Snowy White, Midge Ure and John Sykes as the "Constant Guitarist" in Thin Lizzy. Scott's birthday fell on Saint Patrick's Day, which is quite the irony seeing that he played in an Irish band and was the lone American. Gorham was an underrated guitarist, but he was invaluable to Philip Lynott as he provided a bit of stability in a band that was filled with stormy personalities. Happy Birthday Scott!
The mysterious groveling at the feet of Preznit Flight Suit Fantasy continued as the latest spineless Democrat urged caution in the wake of last week's failed censure motion. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin (D - Fairy) thinks it is still "too early" to censure the Preznit. Why? Who the hell knows. Yahoo News AP wire excerpt:
WASHINGTON - A top Senate Democrat said Sunday that President Bush should be held responsible if he violated the law in authorizing the domestic spy program. But Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said it is too early to tell if either censure or impeachment of Bush would be appropriate.
"I can't rule anything out until the investigation is complete. I don't want to prejudge it," said Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat. "But if this president or any president violates the law, he has to be held accountable."
Hey Dick! How many more crimes does this madman have to commit before you wake the fuck up? The SOB has ADMITTED that he broke the law in this case, and that he intends to KEEP ON BREAKING THE LAW. What more evidence do you need to see before you act?
Durbin's colleague, Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., last week introduced censure legislation, saying Bush violated the law in not fully informing Congress or getting approval from a secretive court to conduct the eavesdropping program.
Appearing on "Fox News Sunday," Durbin said he so far has not heard a valid legal justification for the spy program that was put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. But he said considering the stronger sanction of impeachment was not a "valuable discussion at this point."
Well then what WOULD be a valuable discussion Dick? If, as almost everyone seems to agree, the spying program is illegal, then it follows that this is EXACTLY the discussion we should be having.
"It's valuable that Senator Feingold is moving us forward to finally be a catalyst to have the kind of hearings and the kind of deliberations as to what lies behind this warrantless wiretap situation," said Durbin, calling the overall inquiries so far by the Republican-controlled Senate inadequate.
"We have a responsibility to ask the hard questions, to find out what the nature of the program is and whether the president violated the law," Durbin said.
Hey Dick, enough with the phony "tough" talk. Back the words up with action. You and your colleagues may be the only thing that can stop this petty little tyrant of a president from becoming the dictator he wishes to be. Do your goddamned jobs, because it is way past the time for you and your colleagues to prove that you are earning your bloated paychecks.
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
In the You've Got To Be Shitting Me department, we have the story about how, Russ Feingold's fellow Senate Democrats left the poor bastard hanging in the wind over his effort to censure the Preznit's illegal wiretapping. Yahoo News AP wire excerpt:
WASHINGTON - Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold accused fellow Democrats on Tuesday of cowering rather than joining him on trying to censure President Bush over domestic spying.
"Democrats run and hide" when the administration invokes the war on terrorism, Feingold told reporters. Feingold introduced censure legislation Monday in the Senate but not a single Democrat has embraced it. Several have said they want to see the results of a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation before supporting any punitive legislation.
Republicans dismissed the proposal Tuesday as being more about Feingold's 2008 presidential aspirations than Bush's actions. On and off the Senate floor, they have dared Democrats to vote for the resolution.
"I'm amazed at Democrats ... cowering with this president's numbers so low," Feingold said. The latest AP-Ipsos poll on Bush, conducted last week, found just 37 percent of the 1,000 people surveyed approving his overall performance, the lowest of his presidency.
You're not alone in your amazement Russ. Christ, what will it take before the rest of the gang acts? Single-digit approval numbers? What's this bullshit about waiting to "see the results of a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation"? What do they think those results will be? The committee will be run by, and populated with Republicans, and they would rather eat worms than defy Clueless Leader.
How many more things does this administration have to have turn to shit with its reverse Midas touch before the opposition party feels sufficiently motivated to make an effort to stop the madness? WMD? Out of control budget and trade deficits? The Katrina screwup? The bungled Iraq occupation? The domestic spying program? Prisoner abuse? The hamstringing of Medicare? The Abramoff scandal? The Medeivalization of the Supreme Court? I'm sure I've forgotten a crime or seven, but any ONE of these things on its own should have been enough to get Harry Reid, and before him Tom Daschle, to stand up and hold this administration's feet to the fire.
Hell, the Republicans impeached Bill Clinton for having a girlfriend and we can't get ONE DEMOCRATIC SENATOR to stand with Russ Feingold as he tries to hold Preznit "As Long As I'm The Dictator" accountable for his idiotic actions? And people wonder why I'm a political pessimist...
Full Unbelievable Story
Monday, March 13, 2006
Another startling discovery was announced concerning a "cold Earth" orbiting a distant star. This story comes at you courtesy of Space.com via Yahoo News. Excerpt:
Astronomers announced today the discovery of a frigid extrasolar planet several times larger than Earth orbiting a small red dwarf star roughly 9,000 light years away.
The finding alters astronomers' perceptions of planetary system formation and the distribution of planets in the galaxy, suggesting that large rock-ice worlds might outnumber gas giants like Jupiter. The newfound planet is about 13 times more massive than Earth and likely has an icy and rocky but barren terrestrial surface, and it is one of the coldest planets ever discovered outside of our solar system.
It orbits 250 million miles away from a red dwarf star, which is about half the size of our Sun and much cooler. The orbital distance is about the same as our solar system's asteroid belt is from the Sun.
The planet is similar in rocky structure to Earth and it is described a "super-Earth." But being so far away from a red dwarf means that its surface temperature is an inhospitable -330 degrees Fahrenheit (-201 Celsius), about the same as Uranus. That's too cold for liquid water or life as we know it.
Further analysis of the system revealed the absence of Jupiter-like gas giants, and scientists suspect the system literally ran out of gas and failed to form any. This may have starved the newfound planet of the raw materials it needed to turn into a gas giant itself.
"This icy super-Earth dominates the region around its star that in our solar system is populated by the gas-giant planets, Jupiter and Saturn. We've never seen a system like this before, because we've never had the means to find them," said study author Andrew Gould of The Ohio State University and leader of the MicroFUN planet-searching team.
Astronomers discovered this latest planet, catalogued as OGLE-2005-BLG-169lb, with a technique called microlensing, an effect where the gravity of a foreground star makes a more distant star appear brighter. If the foreground star is orbited by a planet, the planet's gravity can periodically warp the brightness of the background star by tiny amounts.
This shift is a telltale indicator of a planet, but is so brief that scientists must monitor the star closely and make multiple observations to confirm the planet's existence. In this case, the scientists were concerned that the warp wasn't caused by a planet, so they wrote a special computer program to speed up their models and confirm the existence of the Neptune-sized object.
The more we search, combined with the various new ways of searching, the more we find that planets are fairly common. And now, we seem to be finding planets that are closer to the size of Earth than ever. Is it just a matter of time before we stumble on to worlds that are even more similar to our own? Well, it would help if these worlds orbited stable, Main Sequence stars like our Sun rather than red dwarfs, which are prone to heavy flare activity, or hot, white stars that bathe their planets in continuous deadly radiation.
The next challenge will be to conquer the problem of the large distances involved in interstellar communication and travel, but for now, just establishing that there are planets out there that are somewhat similar to our own gives us hope that we'll have a reason for seeking these worlds out.
Thanks to fellow space enthusiast Em Jeigh, I bring you the following Sky and Telescope report about liquid water having been detected on Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons. Excerpt:
March 10, 2006 In this week's issue of the journal Science, astronomers working with Cassini orbiter data publish a suite of papers detailing the story behind the active volcanism on Saturn's small moon Enceladus. The moon was long suspected to be the source of the water-ice particles forming Saturn's tenuous E ring. The latest work supports the idea that Enceladus has reservoirs of liquid water near the surface, which provide the source for active geysers in the southern hemisphere.
As reported in the June 2005, November 2005 and March 2006 issues of Sky & Telescope, the hopes for discovering evidence for liquid water near the icy moon's surface grew more promising through 2005 as the intrepid orbiter completed a series of close flybys of Enceladus. First, observations by the craft's magnetometer hinted of a possible atmosphere of primarily water-ice crystals around the moon. Then thermal measurements of the southern hemisphere located a "hot" spot where liquid water could exist just below the surface. Stellar-occultation measurements conclusively identified a tenuous atmosphere above the hot spot.
"Other moons in the solar system have liquid-water oceans covered by kilometers of icy crust," says imaging team member Andrew Ingersoll (Caltech). "What's different here is that pockets of liquid water may be no more than tens of meters below the surface."
This is potentially huge. Once we get off our collective asses and begin to spread out into the Solar System, water will be an even more precious commodity than it is now. If there are any more smart people left at NASA, they will have already started thinking about expeditions to set up permanent stations to gather and process this water. Maybe after the Bush team is finally retired, and we get some real leadership, we can concentrate on grand ideas like that for a change.
Thursday, March 09, 2006
Have astronomers figured out what drives the Sun's electromagnetic activity cycle? That question seems to be answered in the following Sky and Telescope article describing some recent work done in this area. Excerpt:
March 8, 2006 Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, have declared a breakthough in understanding our Sun's 11-year activity cycle. And they are using their new model to make predictions: that the next solar cycle will be 30 to 50 percent stronger than the one now ending, and that it will begin 6 to 12 months late.
Team leader Mausumi Dikpati described the group's findings at a March 6th NASA press conference. "For the first time we can predict the strength of the 11-year solar activity cycle based on the underlying solar physics," she said. The breakthrough came from recognizing a slow, large-scale circulation pattern involving much of the Sun's bulk. In addition to other, smaller-scale motions, solar material flows in a huge, slow "conveyor belt" from near the Sun's equator toward the poles, then sinks down to the bottom of the solar convection zone 200,000 kilometers (124,000 miles) deep. There it flows back toward the equator by a mere 1 meter per second, then rises back up to complete the loop.
Even though sunspots don't last long on the surface, when they break up they leave magnetic traces embedded in the near-surface material. When this material sinks down to the bottom of the convention zone, the Sun's differential rotation at that great depth stretches the remnant magnetic fields east-west, thereby strengthening the fields (drawing on the Sun's rotational energy). When the newly strengthened embedded fields get carried up again, they become the seeds for a new solar cycle.
The scientists based their model on helioseismology studies of motions in the Sun's interior, along with records of the last 12 solar cycles going back to 1880. Their model successfully simulates the timing and strength of the last eight cycles. "So we have confidence in predicting the future," Dikpati said. The last sunspot cycle peaked in 2001–2002; we're now just about at sunspot minimum. The team predicts that the first spots of the next cycle won't appear until late 2007 or early 2008.
Solar activity — sunspots, flares, coronal mass ejections, and other violent magnetic events on the Sun's surface — has many effects on and around Earth. Solar outbursts interfere with radio communications, cause auroras to light the night and electricity to surge in power lines, threaten satellites and astronauts with high-energy protons, and degrade the accuracy of GPS systems. Therefore, accurate solar forecasts are highly valued.
A few years ago, during a heavy outburst of solar activity that accompanied the last peak, the U.S. and Canada saw several communications satellites zapped by the particles described in the last paragraph. The circuits were fried, which led to massive radio and television blackouts. That period also saw the phenomenon of the Northern Lights to be observed at latitudes much further to the south than usual. So to be able to predict the Sun's activity would, if nothing else, give us the opportunity to position our communications satellites on the night side to avoid having them get their wiring scrambled again.
Wednesday, March 08, 2006
This early morning post honors Jim Rice, former Boston Red Sox slugger, who turns 53 today. Rice was one of the most feared hitters in the American League from 1975-1986. Beset by injuries during the final three years of his career, from 1987-1989, he came to an abrupt halt and retired after the 1989 season with numbers that should have, by now, put him into the Hall of Fame.
Here's a quick rundown: Rice was AL MVP in 1978 with league-leading marks in homers (46), RBI (139), hits (213), total bases (406, incidentally, the first time an AL player passed the 400 TB mark since a fellow named DiMaggio did it in 1937 for one of those obscure New York teams), slugging percentage (.600) and triples (15), while hitting .315, third best in the AL behind Rod Carew (.333) and Al Oliver (.324). In all, Rice led the AL in homers three times, in RBI twice, in total bases four times, times having reached base once, slugging percentage twice, triples once and hits once. He also had four seasons in which he had 200 or more hits, and eight seasons in which he had 100 or more RBI. Simply stated, the man put runs on the scoreboard.
Detractors will point to three things that justify his exclusion from Cooperstown. First, they'll claim he was a lousy defensive outfielder. It is true that Rice was a bit tentative defensively when he first reached the majors, but he worked hard at defense, and posted league average range factors for putouts, and above average assist totals for his career. He became an expert at playing balls high off of the Green Monster into singles with barehanded grabs and quick, accurate throws back to the infield. As a quick aside, from 1978-1980, when all three men were healthy, you could argue that the Red Sox outfield of Rice in LF, Fred Lynn in CF and Dwight Evans in RF was one of the best all-around units in the game.
The second thing naysayers will point out is that he hit into a ton of double plays. He led the AL in that dubious category four times (all in consecutive years), including a single-season record 36 in 1984 (a season in which he still had 122 RBI, second in the league to teammate Tony Armas and his 123 that year). What goes unstated is the fact that the Red Sox, almost always a station-to-station baserunning team, never put runners in motion on running counts. If any of the Rice's contemporaries had to hit under such one-dimensional offensive conditions, it is a good bet that their GIDP rates would be comparable to Rice's. In fact, Dave Winfield, playing for the Yankees in 1983 hit into 30 DPs to finish second behind Rice and Armas that year, both of whom hit into 31. Conversely, Greg Luzinski of the White Sox, a far slower runner than Armas, Rice or Winfield, hit into just 10 DPs that year. The difference can be found in the fact that the White Sox put their baserunners into motion far more often than the Red Sox and Yankees did, thereby generating more offense as a result (they won the AL West title that season).
A third thing that pops up in the effort to deny Rice his Hall of Fame ticket is the fact that he hit just .225 in 71 post-season at-bats. Yes, that is a crucial negative, but the man had over 8,000 major-league at-bats. Do we really want to penalize him for 71 at-bats in 1986 and 1988? Did the HOF voters kill Ted Williams chances for immortality because he hit just .200 in his only World Series appearance (1946)? Stan Musial hit just .256 in four World Series appearances with the Cardinals. Willie Mays hit just .239 in his World Series appearances. Going way back in time, Ty Cobb hit .262 in his three World Series appearances, over 100 points below his lifetime average of .366. Does the fact that these men had batting slumps over a few dozen high-profile games diminish their collective greatness? Let's examine the converse: Brian Doyle hit .438 for the Yankees in the 1978 World Series as a replacement for the injured Willie Randolph. Does anyone think that he belongs in the Hall purely based on that performance?
Rice is also hurt, in the eyes of some, for slipping below the magic .300 mark for his career (he finished with a .298 batting average), and for failing to reach the 400 homer plateau (he finished with 382). Mickey Mantle also failed to hit .300 lifetime (he also ended his career at .298). Al Kaline hit .297 lifetime, plus he retired one homer shy of 400. Are their Hall of Fame credentials null and void because of these things?
Rice was also famous for being unfriendly to the media as a player. Back in the late 1970s, that meant you didn't say much, if anything to reporters. I suppose if he'd put on a dress, or had multiple body piercings and tattoos a la Dennis Rodman, then that would have made him media darling. Whatever. That has nothing to do with what Jim Rice accomplished on the field. Was he a perfect player? No he wasn't, but then again, who is? He was a high-average hitter with power who took over for Carl Yastrzemski in left field, and continued the tradition of Hall of Fame caliber play at that position that Ted Williams established in 1940 (Williams played right field in his rookie year of 1939). It is long past the time for Rice's accomplishments to be acknowledged with his enshrinement into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Jim Rice's Career Stats
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
Jupiter's New Little Red Spot
Today I bring you two hot articles I spied on the Sky and Telescope web site. The first article describes a new feature on the disk of Jupiter, the largest planet in our Solar System. Apparently, a new red spot, slightly smaller than the famous Great Red Spot, has been detected in the Jovian atmosphere. Excerpt:
March 6, 2006 There's a strange event brewing on Jupiter. The long-enduring, much-observed "white oval" on Jupiter designated BA has been reddening, and now its color is almost identical to the famous Great Red Spot. The oval lies in the South Temperate Belt. It preceeds the Great Red Spot by about 1 hour of Jupiter's rotation.
The new red spot, affectionately dubbed "Red Junior" or "Red Spot Junior" by some astronomers, is nearly half the size of the Great Red Spot, which means it has about the same diameter as Earth. It can be seen in telescopes with apertures 10 inches or larger.
The color change was discovered on February 24, 2006, by Philippine-based planetary imager Christopher Go, who sent out an alert through the Jupiter Section of the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers.
By watching the formation of this new red storm, astronomers may gain precious insight into the Great Red Spot. Despite the fact that astronomers have observed the Spot since the 1600s, they know little about it other than its size (twice the diameter of Earth), wind speed (maximum 435 kilometers per hour, or 270 mph), and altitude (it pokes about 8 km above Jupiter's cloud tops). The storm was discovered as soon as telescopes were good enough to resolve it, so nobody knows how long it has been raging. Its energy source remains unknown. In fact, astronomers have not even conclusively identified the chemicals responsible for its red color, though they probably involve trace amounts of sulfur, phosphorus, and hydrocarbons.
I haven't quite got the equipment the article claims to be a requirement to see this phenomenon, but I'll give it a whirl anyway. My Meade 125-ETX (a 5-inch Matsukov-Cassegrain) can grasp up to 350 power, which is practically useless due to the proportional decrease in light transmission and apparent field size. About half that, 175 power, is best under good seeing conditions. Maybe I'll get lucky.
Near Earth Asteroid Approaches
The second article is a story about a near-Earth asteroid that will pass us by less than ten times the Earth-Moon distance over the next few nights. Excerpt:
On March 6th and 7th, 2006, the near-Earth asteroid 2000 PN9 (also known as asteroid number 23187) will be flying by Earth, missing us by 2 million miles in the northern sky. The asteroid will be 12th magnitude those evenings as it races across the sky; users of 4- or 6-inch and larger telescopes should be able to see it creeping against the background stars Â if they know exactly where to look. On March 8th it will be faded to magnitude 12Â½; on March 9th and 10th it will be magnitude 13.
Again, this baby will be tough for my Meade to bag, as its magnitude is at the theoretical limit for an instrument of that size. Still, I'll give it a go, and maybe again, I'll get lucky.
Little Red Spot Story
Near Earth Asteroid Story
Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett dead at 45
By now, most of you already know that Baseball Hall of Fame outfielder Kirby Puckett, who led his Minnesota Twins to two World Series titles in 1987 and 1991, died after having suffered a stroke.
Puckett, with his stout build, came to the majors as a singles hitter who could fly. He ran down almost everything in center field, and after a few years began to hit home runs. As he developed power, he became a star, and a lovable one at that. He had a wide smile and displayed an obvious joy when he played the game.
Among Kirby's accomplishments was his 1989 American League batting title (.339). He also led the AL in hits four times (and had five seasons with 200 or more), in total bases twice, and RBI once. On defense, he led AL outfielders in putouts three times, and in assists once.
I remember Kirby Puckett as a hustling player who you never wanted to see bat against your team with the game on the line because he was almost impossible to pitch to. At 5' 8" he had a small strike zone, but swung at everything, producing hard line drives into the gaps, almost at will. Puckett was elected to Baseball's Hall of Fame in 2001.
Kirby Puckett's career stats
Monday, March 06, 2006
At Work and Play with the Internationals. Birthdays and Anniversaries.
I'm back after a busy latter half of the previous week spent with the Internationals from work, and a busier weekend of birthday and anniversary parties. Jim and Mark are on their way back to Ireland. There was no way they'd miss Saint Patrick's Day at home. And Julie from Australia, who leaves for home tomorrow, seems to have been able to cope with the cold weather and the challenge of driving on the "wrong" side of the road, with the steering wheel on the "wrong" side of the car. I can attest that it takes more than a bit of concentration to handle such a paradigm shift, having done the same last year in Sydney and previously on trips to Ireland and Barbados.
Julie, however, presented a different difficulty with her sense of direction. She claims that the path of the Sun, which looks as if it moves from left to right in the Northern Hemisphere, has her all messed up. The Sun looks as if it moves in the opposite manner in the Southern Hemisphere, so she automatically assumes that, looking in the direction of the Sun, that East is to her right rather than her left. I was floored by this. I spent three weeks in Australia last year, and had no such difficulty, but then again, I am a stargazer, so I may be a bit more accustomed to looking at the sky to find orient myself than Julie is. Still, I'll have to consult some colleagues who have spent time in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to see if they too have been affected by this phenomenon.
On the birthday front, my brother-in-law celebrated his 35th a mere two days before his and my sister's three-year wedding anniversary. My other sister is also married (for 12 years). I, on the other hand, remain single. So ladies, just think: If you like what you read on this blog, consider it to be just the tip of the iceberg! I'm waiting...
Dark Ages, Here We Come...
Anyway, on to the news. The governor of South Dakota has helped to hasten America's retreat to the Dark Ages by signing a hideous bill that would make illegal any abortions performed that are done so without the health of the mother at stake. Yahoo News AP wire excerpt:
PIERRE, S.D. - Gov. Mike Rounds signed legislation Monday that would ban most abortions in South Dakota, a law he acknowledged would be tied up in court for years while the state challenges the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.
The bill would make it a crime for doctors to perform an abortion unless the procedure was necessary to save the woman's life. It would make no exception for cases of rape or incest.
The governor issued a written statement saying he expected a lengthy legal battle over the law, which, he said, would not take effect unless the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it.
"In the history of the world, the true test of a civilization is how well people treat the most vulnerable and most helpless in their society. The sponsors and supporters of this bill believe that abortion is wrong because unborn children are the most vulnerable and most helpless persons in our society. I agree with them," Rounds said in the statement.
Read the bold type in the second paragraph of the excerpt. Then read the last paragraph again, and try to believe that both situations can exist simultaneously. Apparently Governor Rounds believes that victims of rape or incest do not qualify as part of "the most vulnerable and most helpless in their society". Does it advance the ideals of an advanced society to make women bear children conceived through acts of violence? How civilized are we to make a women attacked by male relatives bear these children? I'm lost here. Does an unborn child's right to life trump the circumstances of its having been conceived?
The governor declined all media requests for interviews Monday.
The Legislature passed the bill last month after supporters argued that the recent appointment of conservative justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito have made the U.S. Supreme Court more likely to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Abortion opponents already are offering money to help the state pay legal bills for the anticipated court challenge, Rounds has said. Lawmakers said an anonymous donor has pledged $1 million to defend the ban, and the Legislature set up a special account to accept donations for legal fees.
Some other states are considering similar bans on abortion.
Under the new law, doctors could get up to five years in prison for performing an illegal abortion.
Well, this is the America that the Bush crowd wants, and it looks like it is going to become a sick reality unless the Democrats can grow some spine and gain some seats back in the upcoming mid-term elections. Sadly, with the additions of Justices Roberts and Alito, it is too late to do anything about the Supreme Court, but the fewer religiously insane legislators we have, the smaller the chances of similarly restrictive laws being passed will become.
Full Twisted Story
Thursday, March 02, 2006
Last night was a group get-together for my department that included the presence of our international crew of Jim and Mark from Cork, Ireland, and Julie from North Ryde, Australia. I had quite a bit to discuss with Julie, as she was the candidate I interviewed, when I was in Australia last year, for the position she currently holds. After catching up on some gossip, she claimed to be less than enthusiastic about our cold temperatures saying: "It's tough to come to a place where the temperature in Fahrenheit (27 degrees) is less than the temperature back home in Celsius (28 degrees, or 82 F)." I couldn't agree more. But we managed to have a fun time nonetheless.
This rare early morning post is to let you know about a new comet that has emerged in the morning skies. Sky and Telescope excerpt:
Sometimes comets give us years of advance warning before they come into good view, and sometimes they take us by surprise. On January 2, 2006, Grzegorz Pojmanski at Warsaw University Astronomical Observatory in Poland noticed a 12th-magnitude comet on a sky-survey image taken the day before in Chile. The comet was in the constellation Indus in the far southern sky. But as soon as astronomers were able to collect more position measurements and calculate an orbit, it became clear that the object would be heading north as it rounded the Sun.
By early February Comet Pojmanski (designated C/2006 A1) was brightening faster than expected for a comet on its trajectory. On February 27th it was glowing at about magnitude 5.5 as it emerged into view very low in the dawn for observers at mid-northern latitudes. It's visible in binoculars — latitude and sky conditions permitting.
The time to look is just after morning twilight begins at your location. Go out and scan just above the horizon to the left of dazzlingly bright Venus, as shown above. Note the shape of the triangle that Venus and Altair form with the comet's position. (The comet is plotted at 12:00 Universal Time on the indicated dates, which is around dawn on the same date in the time zones of the Americas. As days go by, the entire star field including the comet's position rise slightly to the upper right with respect to the horizon. Venus will remain at about the same height above the horizon but will shift slightly left.)
Each morning, Comet Pojmanski will rise a little higher and become easier to see from northern latitudes, but at the same time it's fading. On March 1st it's only 8° above the horizon at the start of dawn as seen from 40° north latitude, but the comet gains altitude every day: to about 20° on March 8th. By then, however, it will be starting to fade rapidly, probably dimming to magnitude 6.2 by March 11th and losing 0.1 magnitude per day thereafter.
I managed to spot the little bugger this morning without binoculars. It looked like a faint, fuzzy speck in the sky about 15 degrees east of Venus. Through my Tasco 7x50 binoculars, it looked like a bright, hazy star with hints of green. Get out early on one of the next few mornings and see if you can catch a glimpse of this object while it is still fairly easy to spot (weather permitting of course). Good luck!