Archive for October 11th, 2006|Daily archive page

Quicky: Skepchick is Psychic

Sure. You might think she’s a sceptic with one of the hottest sceptical calendars available for pre-ordering.

But I think she’s just a psychic – um – without sceptics clothing.

Though hospital spokespeople seem to be claiming that the primary goal is to provide medical relief to suffering people, a huge component is obviously conversion, as evidenced by the Jesus movie playing in the lobby and brochures that say the key to stopping terrorism lies in converting Muslims to Christianity, [at this point I rolled my eyes] an idea that I know just inspired a massive concurrent eye roll among my audience.

She knew what would happen. She can see across time and space… OMG!

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Poll Dancing

I’m not one to follow individual polls because they often don’t reflect more than the weeks news hiccup. Far more important are trends and historical values. That’s why Charles H. Franklin’s blog Political Arithmetik is a place I try to visit about once a week. He is a political science professor and teaches the statistical analysis of polls. If you really want to know what the numbers mean, this is the place to look.

So, how are the trends shaping up after the Republican IM nightmare? First, Professor Franklin looks at the generic ballot.

The post-Foley Folly polls find an upturn in the Democratic margin in the generic Congressional ballot. Prior to the Foley developments, Democrats held a 10.6 point lead in the polls. (This is the Dem percent minus the Rep percent.) That lead has now jumped to 12.8 points, the highest my trend estimate has reached in the 244 generic ballot polls taken this election cycle. This is all the more important because prior to the Foley Fiasco the trend had moved a bit down, then flattened (though still at or about 10.6, a very strong margin even then.) Whatever possible gains Republicans were beginning to make have now been wiped out.

I encourage you to go look at the original post. He always has excellent graphics accompanying his analysis. I usually just look at the pretty pictures anyway. It’s like poll porn.

Presidential approval is a second indication of Republican chances next month.

Four new polls find approval of President Bush has declined substantially since the end of September, following revelations of “overly friendly” email and IM messages from Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) to pre-adult House pages. All these polls were completed before North Korea tested what appears to have been a nuclear weapon on October 9.

[snip – Lot’s of detailed numbers]

With these new polls, the approval trend estimate has fallen sharply to 38.1%, a bit more than a 2 point drop since mid-September.

All the work George W. Bush and Karl Rove expended getting the nation nervous – eliminated by one paedophile congressman. And they can’t even manage to blame the Democrats – or Bill Clinton.

I would advise everyone to keep your eye on Professor Frankin’s blog. It’s informative and has just a hint of humor. For me, it’s better than a pole dance.

Why? And Why Didn’t It Work?

Hopefully this will be my last post about North Korea, but at the moment I just can’t resist.

The New York Times has an article exploring the reasons why Kim Jong-il would like to have a nuclear weapon. (Wouldn’t we all?)

The military in North Korea is by far the largest consumer of the country’s scarce resources. But even so, its combat jet pilots get only about two hours of flying time a month, its soldiers sometimes have to grow their own food, and much of its equipment is old and outclassed by that of its neighbors. According to South Korean and Western experts, if a conventional war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, the best the North Korean military could manage would be to fight to a bloody stalemate.

It is the deep insecurity born of these shortcomings, the experts say, and not any desire to grab attention or gain leverage, that drove President Kim Jong-il’s decision to defy international warnings and declare this week that his country had tested a nuclear weapon.

“I think North Korea wants an effective deterrent against the U.S. in case of war on the Korean peninsula,” said Park Yong Ok, a former lieutenant general in the South Korean army who served as vice minister for defense in the late 1990’s. “Kim Jong Il wants a nuclear weapon at hand. It’s not a bargaining chip.”

The gist of the article points to the fact that, despite it’s size, the North Korean army would be no match for modern military arsenals. The tanks (2000) and artillery pieces (8000) positioned close to the demilitarized zone and in range of Seoul, the South Korean capital, would have little or no chance against an onslaught by modern aircraft and precision guided munitions. This was shown during the two Gulf wars. Since Kim Jong-il knows he’s isolated, the only way he can feel safe is by possessing a weapon that makes attacking him unthinkable, a nuclear warhead. He really isn’t interested in talking, just surviving (and making movies).

So, if the goal is having a weapon, why test something that didn’t work. The Arms Control Wonk, Jeffery Lewis (see, I keep coming back to him) has an interesting analysis.

There may be a parable here about authoritarian societies and proliferation. Kim Jong Il probably believed the weapon would work because, as a colleague suggested, “doubts about a system don’t always go up easily in the command chain” of such countries.

Indeed, what David Kay called a “vortex of corruption” was a persistent drag on Iraqi WMD programs, particularly before 1991. The Iraq Survey Group suggested that Iraqi WMD efforts were “largely subsumed into corrupt money-raising schemes by scientists skilled in the arts of lying and surviving in a fevered police state.”

That would rather economically explain the both the Taepodong’s dismal record, as well as the nuclear dud.

This fascinating commentary connects the dots between what North Korea was supposed to be attempting, the amount of nuclear material they had and what was initially reported by the Russians. But the underlying thesis is that the North Korean leadership didn’t have a realistic idea of whether the weapon would work or not. Nay sayer’s have short lives in dictatorships.

Of course nay sayer’s have short terms in the Bush administration. But far be it from me to compare the current administration with a dictatorship; Or to compare George W. Bush and Kim Jong-il.

After all, Kim likes movies.

Space Empires

I just can’t get my feet back on the ground today. After talking about extrasolar planets and Battlestar Galactia, now I read over at DefenseTech an upsetting post by Theresa Hitchens and Haninah Levine about the new National Space Policy.

After four years and some 35 drafts, the Bush White House has finally released its long-awaited rewrite of the U.S. National Space Policy. Obviously, the administration was keen to get the word out – they quietly posted a 10-page unclassified summary on the Office of Science and Technology Policy’s website at 5 pm on Oct. 6 – the Friday before the Columbus Day long weekend.

Hmm. Maybe not.

When asked about the document, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow replied: “What, this old thing? Just something we inherited from our Uncle Bill.” Well, not literally, of course. But in a further indication that the administration intends to downplay the significance of the document, insiders have been characterizing the new NSP as “nothing new,” just a variation on the themes set by the Clinton administration in the last NSP.

The authors go on to describe the change from a document centered on peaceful space exploration in the interests of science and business to a document that reads more like a declaration from the DoD. The document is not something inherited from ‘Uncle Bill.’ I would argue Uncle Dick and Uncle Don had more to do with it. After spending a couple of minutes reading the 20 pages, 10 from Clinton and 10 from Bush the changes in this document aren’t minor, they are startling.

Then

For over three decades, the United States has led the world in the exploration and use of outer space. Our achievements in space have inspired a generation of Americans and people throughout the world. We will maintain this leadership role by supporting a strong, stable, and balanced national space program that serves our goals in national security, foreign policy, economic growth, environmental stewardship, and scientific and technical excellence. Access to and use of space are central for preserving peace and protecting U.S. national security as well as civil and commercial interests. The United States will pursue greater levels of partnership and cooperation in national and international space activities and work with other nations to ensure the continued exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes. [my emphasis]

The goals of the U.S. space program are to:
(a) Enhance knowledge of the Earth, the solar system, and the universe through human and  robotic exploration;
(b) Strengthen and maintain the national security of the United States;
(c) Enhance the economic competitiveness and scientific and technical capabilities of the United States;
(d) Encourage State, local, and private sector investment in, and use of, space technologies;
(e) Promote international cooperation to further U.S. domestic, national security, and foreign policies.

Now

For five decades, the United States has led the world in space exploration and use and has developed a solid civil, commercial, and national security space foundation. Space activities have improved life in the United States and around the world, enhancing security, protecting lives and the environment, speeding information flow, serving as an engine for economic growth, and revolutionizing the way people view their place in the world and the cosmos. Space has become a place that is increasingly used by a host of nations, consortia, businesses, and entrepreneurs.

In this new century, those who effectively utilize space will enjoy added prosperity and security and will hold a substantial advantage over those who do not. Freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power. In order to increase knowledge, discovery, economic prosperity, and to enhance the national security, the United States must have robust, effective, and efficient space capabilities. [my emphasis]

I highlighted what I consider to be the major difference here. In the old document, the US was trying to build partnerships and cooperate with other governments; the emphasis on national security, while present, wasn’t central. Now, not only is defense the number one issue but the new version reads as if the US were alone in a sea of space sharks.

Anyway, comparing the air and sea power to space flight is just so 60’s. But then again, Bush’s stance toward manned spaceflight, to the Moon, Mars and beyond (just no more money), sounds more like Kennedy and not what serious scientists would like. Even though the International Space Station still isn’t finished and the Shuttle has just about reached the end of it’s lifetime, Bush wants NASA to reorient towards putting a person on Mars. The Mars Rovers  are still producing excellent data (Yeah! Go Rovers!) but NASA is being forced to cut costs on unmanned missions. You couldn’t extend a manned mission by a factor of 10 like the unmanned rovers. This illustrates the difference between reality and politics.

But there is perhaps no better illustration of the differences between the two administration’s approaches to space science than the DSCOVR satellite. As featured in last months Seed, DSCOVR is a satellite designed to monitor the earth’s albedo, the amount of energy reflected back into space. This is a very important value necessary for studying the climatology and the greenhouse effect. This satellite was designed and built during the Clinton administration after the idea was proposed by Al Gore. Thus it’s pejorative ‘GoreSat’ by global warming deniers. It was competed and is now mothballed because the Bush administration refuses to let it be launched. (Even though the Russians offered to launch it for free.) This is the administration’s devotion to peaceful use of space technology.

I’m starting to wonder just how funny all those Darth Vader/Dick Cheney references on The Daily Show really are.

But wait! If Dick Cheney is Darth Vader, who is the evil emperor?

Stars – Starbuck – Battlestar Galactia!

Oh, Oh! The new season of Battlestar Galactia has started. At least that’s what I get to read in Slate which has a meta-review of some of the third season reviews.

You see, I am deprived. Living in Germany, there is no way for me to get the original broadcasts of the new Battlestar Galactica. Thus, you can imagine my frustration reading about how cool the new season is going to be.

I admit I was pretty sceptical at first. I liked the original Battlestar (Give me a break – I was also twelve, the perfect demographic. And I would still buy one of the pilots jackets.)  Not living in America, I missed all the discussions about whether Starbuck should be a woman or whether it was OK to have ‘skin-jobs’ or bla, bla, bla. I am not the stuff ‘fan-boy’ is made of. (Actually, I would probably grovel at the feet of Eugenie Scott, but that’s a different story.)

Anyway, I was interested in the remake. What got me to break down and order the first season on DVD was the perfectly cut intro showing the mushroom clouds over Caprica and that excellent theme music by Richard Gibbs. After seeing the first season, I was hooked. I ordered the second season as soon as it was available and got the pilot. I am, however, glad I didn’t see the pilot first. It was rough but not as edgy or dark as I had hoped. (Yes, I have really high darkness/edge criteria.)

Anyway the reviews are a good read although the Salon article does have some spoilers.

Sigh. Is getting to watch original episodes of BG worth moving back to the States? Probably not.  And besides, I’ve never even been to Starbucks. Honestly.

Heads Up: In The Stars

Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, has a cool post up that’s just out of this world – literally. Phil discusses the planet orbiting Epsilon Eridani.

This is a planet about 1.5 times the mass of Jupiter and was indirectly discovered by watching the star wobble as the planet orbits around it. Extrasolar planets are nothing new and astronomers have been finding these ‘planets’ since 1989. (Do we even know what a planet is? – Oh yeah) Depending on where you look and *cough* how you define what you are looking at, there are (as of today October 10, 2006) somewhere between 181 and 210 extrasolar planets. If you are interested in this kind of stuff, you might check out the California and Carnegie Extrasolar Planet Search or the JPL/Nasa PlanetQuest sites. Both let you get your feet wet in the wonderful worlds of extrasolar planets. For those with Shockwave, the PlanetQuest sight has an amazing 3D Worlds Atlas (click on the Explore the Universe in 3D image). Rotate, zoom, search – like a Heinlein description. This thing rocks!

The neat part of Phil’s post isn’t the fact that there are extrasolar planets. He makes two points. first that there is a disk of material orbiting Epsilon Eridani. The planet orbits in the same plane as the disk and thus supports the idea that planets form out of disks of material orbiting stars or proto-stars. He also manages to get a snarky jab at Creationists, ID-iots, Controverisals. (But then again that target is so broad, what branch of science can you look at and not find something they haven’t gotten wrong?)

More interesting is Phil’s discussion of the possibility of imaging the planet using the Hubble Space Telescope. That’s right, really take a picture of a planet orbiting a different star. That is too cool! This won’t be the kind of image popular science programs would present, a close up with the star in the background and clouds and things, it would be a blob of light right next to another blob of light and be kind of blurry. But, oh, the information in that blur. Scientists could learn lots about the planet just by being able to resolve it. According to Phil that should happen sometime next year.

I would advise you to start reading Phil’s blog every day, from now until the planet is imaged. You never know what might happen between now and then. I know, til then, I’ll be keeping my head in the stars and my eye on Phil’s blog.