I don't often promote movies, but I encourage everyone to go see Serenity this weekend. The show it is based off, Firefly, was incredible and I know this is going to be a great follow up. DO IT!

The God of Rock

I had the great fortune to see Robert Plant and his new band, The Strange Sensation, in concert last Sunday night at the Chateau Ste Michelle Winery. While they played a nice selection of songs from their new album, they also busted out some classic Zeppelin. I admit, I practically cried. They played Gallow's Pole, When the Levee Breaks, Black Dog, Whole Lotta Love, and Misty Mountain Hop. Plant is an amazing performer live. Very chatty with the crowd, displaying his impressive knowledge of music. He dedicated the concert to John Bonham. Sunday was the anniversary of his premature death 25 years ago. All in all, it was a dream come true for me. Hopefully, I'll get to see him again soon.


Happy Birthday

Harriet the tortoise turned 175 on the 18th. This toroise was captured by Charles Darwin (yes, Charles Darwin) on his trip to the Galapagos. It amazes me that she's still alive and I had never heard of her before.

How Do We Pay?

Something to ponder, via Cosmic Variance:

The number being tossed about for post-Katrina reconstruction is $200 billion. That’s a lot of money, even for a cosmologist. If you spent a dollar per month throughout the entire existence of our observable universe, you’d only get up to about $164 billion.

How can we possibly pay for it? Mark Schmitt points to two ideas: a bad one and a good one. The bad one is a project being organized by Glenn Reynolds and N.Z. Bear to point the finger of shame at wasteful pork in the discretionary budget, in hopes that Congress will be moved to slice away this excess fat and free up funds for more important things. The germ of the idea is okay — wasteful pork is bad, why not trim it away — but the idea that they’ll reach $200 billion is fantasy-land. (At the moment they’ve reached about $14 billion, using an expansive definition of “pork” that includes, for example, all federal domestic-violence programs.) That’s because the part of the federal budget that they would even consider trimming is only about $500 billion. Schmitt quotes Stan Collender in the National Journal, who explains that “Social Security, interest on the debt, most other federal mandatory spending, the Pentagon, the costs of activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, homeland security and foreign aid'’ are off the table. The remaining $500 billion, by the way, includes all spending on science, education, and wasteful stuff like that. Rail against pork all you like, but it doesn’t make up 40% of the discretionary budget.

The good idea comes from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. They point out the obvious thing: the reason the government is having trouble paying its bills is because its revenues, as a fraction of GDP, are lower than they have been in decades. But even better, they home in on two tax cuts scheduled to kick in during 2006, which represent a particularly egregious example of benefiting the rich. One deals with personal exemptions, and the other sets the values of allowed itemized deductions, both applying to couples making over $218,950 or individuals making over $145,950.

who benefits from these tax cuts?

Some interesting features of these tax cuts:

  • President Bush didn’t even ask for them; they were inserted by Congress during the budget reconciliation process.
  • 54% of the money from these cuts will go to households earning over one million dollars per year, the wealthiest 0.2% of households.
  • 97% of the money from these cuts will go to households earning over $200,000 per year, the wealthiest 3.7% of households.
  • The total cost of the cuts, including interest on accrued debt, is $197 billion over ten years.


Who's On 1st?

George: Condi! Nice to see you. What's happening?

Condi: Sir, I have the report here about the new leader of China.

George: Great. Lay it on me.

Condi: Hu is the new leader of China.

George: That's what I want to know.

Condi: That's what I'm telling you.

George: That's what I'm asking you. Who is the new leader of China?

Condi: Yes.

George: I mean the fellow's name.

Condi: Hu.

George: The guy in China.

Condi: Hu.

George: The new leader of China.

Condi: Hu.

George: The main man in China!

Condi: Hu is leading China.

George: Now whaddya' asking me for?

Condi: I'm telling you, Hu is leading China.

George: Well, I'm asking you. Who is leading China?

Condi: That's the man's name.

George: That's who's name?

Condi: Yes.

George: Will you, or will you not, tell me the name of the new leader of China?

Condi: Yes, sir.

George: Yassir? Yassir Arafat is in China? I thought he's dead in the Middle East.

Condi: That's correct.

George: Then who is in China?

Condi: Yes, sir.

George: Yassir is in China?

Condi: No, sir.

George: Then who is?

Condi: Yes, sir.

George: Yassir?

Condi: No, sir.

George: Look Condi. I need to know the name of the new leader of China. Get me the Secretary General of the U.N. on the phone.

Condi: Kofi?

George: No, thanks.

Condi: You want Kofi?

George: No.

Condi: You don't want Kofi.

George: No. But now that you mention it, I could use a glass of milk. And then get me the U.N.

Condi: Yes, sir.

George: Not Yassir! The guy at the U.N.

Condi: Kofi?

George: Milk! Will you please make the call?

Condi: And call who?

George: Who is the guy at the U.N?

Condi: Hu is the guy in China

George: Will you stay out of China?!

Condi: Yes, sir.

George: And stay out of the Middle East! Just get me the guy at the U.N.

Condi: Kofi.

George: All right! With cream and two sugars.


Why Education is Important

Over on Carl Zimmer's blog, the Loom, is a comment from some fellow named Philip Heywood. He says, regarding his skepticism of evolution,

"I will check some of those references, although I don't know whether they will or will not assist a layman such as myself in seeing how humans can be descended from monkeys yet not be giving birth to monkeys."

My first inclination after reading this was to curl up in my oven and light myself on fire. The scientific ignorance here is appalling, yet this is a fairly common misconception. How many adults share this idea is probably pretty high (which is scary). Humans did not descend from modern monkeys; we share a common ancestor from around 7 million + years ago (read Richard Dawkin's latest book, The Ancestor's Tale for a highly entertaining account of evolution). One of the reasons I'm going to start teaching evolution next year to 5th/6th graders is to hopefully produce some future adults who actually understand the scientific context of statements like these and know why they are ridiculous.


What Evolution Is

In the recent issue of the New Scientist, Richard Dawkins explains concisely what evolution is. It is very straightforward and clear.

The world is divided into things that look designed (like birds and airliners) and things that don't (rocks and mountains). Things that look designed are divided into those that really are designed (submarines and tin openers) and those that aren't (sharks and hedgehogs). The diagnostic of things that look (or are) designed is that their parts are assembled in ways that are statistically improbable in a functional direction. They do something well: for instance, fly.

Darwinian natural selection can produce an uncanny illusion of design. An engineer would be hard put to decide whether a bird or a plane was the more aerodynamically elegant.

So powerful is the illusion of design, it took humanity until the mid-19th century to realise that it is an illusion. In 1859, Charles Darwin announced one of the greatest ideas ever to occur to a human mind: cumulative evolution by natural selection. Living complexity is indeed orders of magnitude too improbable to have come about by chance. But only if we assume that all the luck has to come in one fell swoop. When cascades of small chance steps accumulate, you can reach prodigious heights of adaptive complexity. That cumulative build-up is evolution. Its guiding force is natural selection.

Every living creature has ancestors, but only a fraction have descendants. All inherit the genes of an unbroken sequence of successful ancestors, none of whom died young and none of whom failed to reproduce. Genes that program embryos to develop into adults who can successfully reproduce automatically survive in the gene pool, at the expense of genes that fail. This is natural selection at the gene level, and we notice its consequences at the organism level. There has to be an ultimate source of new genetic variation, and it is mutation. Copies of newly mutated genes are reshuffled through the gene pool by sexual reproduction, and selection removes them from the pool in a way that is non-random.

What makes for success in the business of life varies from species to species. Some swim, some walk, some fly, some climb, some root themselves into the soil and tilt green solar panels toward the sun. All this diversity stems from successive branchings, starting from a single bacterium-like ancestor, which lived between 3 and 4 billion years ago. Each branching event is called a speciation: a breeding population splits into two, and they go their separately evolving ways. Among sexually reproducing species, speciation is said to have occurred when the two gene pools have separated so far that they can no longer interbreed. Speciation begins by accident. When separation has reached the stage where there is no interbreeding even without a geographical barrier, we have the origin of a new species.

Natural selection is quintessentially non-random, yet it is lamentably often miscalled random. This one mistake underlies much of the sceptical backlash against evolution. Chance cannot explain life. Design is as bad an explanation as chance because it raises bigger questions than it answers. Evolution by natural selection is the only workable theory ever proposed that is capable of explaining life, and it does so brilliantly.

A huge problem with the public understanding of all things science revolves around terminology. Most people don't really know what a scientific "theory" is or "hypothesis." They typically prescribe the colloquial meaning, which is different. One of the things I'm working on with my elementary students is having them not only learn the correct definitions of these words, but then applying them to real experiments that they design (using a variety of plants). If we can correct these common misconceptions at an early age, kids will be that much more informed when they are adults.


Small-minded Government

From the journal Nature:

The term 'natural disaster' doesn't really do justice to the scenes that unfolded in the southern United States last week. For a start, the main cause of death in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will have been drowning as a result of the flooding in New Orleans that sprang from a widely anticipated failure of the city's flood defences. There is an overwhelming sense that the human calamity that befell the city was avoidable and represents a failure of the US government to protect its most vulnerable citizens.

Much of the blame for the painfully slow reaction to the hurricane has fallen on President George W. Bush, and for good reason. His belated and uninspiring personal response to the crisis has invited widespread criticism. The Department of Homeland Security, the newly created government department that fumbled the early rescue efforts, is viewed as Bush's creation and is ineptly staffed by the president's appointees.

Yet as criticism rains down on the administration, it should be pointed out that several contributory factors that led up to this fiasco preceded Bush's arrival in the White House. These include rampant poverty among African-Americans in New Orleans and other US cities; a systematic failure to build public infrastructure commensurate with America's vast wealth; the habitual creation of dysfunctional government agencies by congressional fiat; and the failure of scientists to successfully convey their concerns to policy-makers.

Previous US flood disasters — notably in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1889 and in the New Orleans area in 1927 — prompted major political upheaval. It is not inconceivable that Katrina will force America's leaders to confront poverty and support public investment in infrastructure. But short of such far-reaching change, the disaster should lead to an immediate re-examination of how the federal government is organized, and how it responds to scientific advice.

The Department of Homeland Security was originally conceived in Congress as a response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. After initially opposing the idea, Bush co-opted it, removed its most potent aspect (the incorporation of the intelligence agencies) and implemented what was basically an amalgamation of existing government departments, including the once-admired Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

According to many observers (see After the flood), the reorganization has weakened FEMA and focused its attention on such scenarios as bioterror attacks. The public face presented by FEMA has been diminished, and the agency seems to have retreated from its traditional position at the forefront of disaster response. This weakening has left city and state governments in Mississippi and Louisiana bereft of leadership from the federal government at their moment of greatest need. The lesson is that sweeping reorganizations of government agencies in response to particular crises can have severe adverse consequences.

Sweeping reorganizations of government agencies in response to particular crises can have severe adverse consequences.

Knowledge of the risk of a storm-induced flood in New Orleans has been widespread in the scientific community for years, and researchers have sought to improve our understanding of it. Much of this work has taken into account stubborn facts such as the propensity of the poor, the elderly and the sick to ignore evacuation orders.

There seems to be a disconnect, however, between the process that identifies such risks and the people who make the decisions that might manage them. There are indications that many senior politicians — not just President Bush — were simply unaware that the New Orleans flood risk even existed.

River management, meanwhile, has developed into something of a scientific backwater in the United States, some of its practitioners complain. It has also been a subject of bitter political contention — generally between the supporters of the Army Corps of Engineers, which likes to build levees, and environmentalists, who favour marshland conservation and more 'natural' river flow. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, this dialogue-of-the-deaf must end, and the assessment and management of natural risks should be genuinely embraced as a national priority.

Nature. 2005. 437: 169.


Sage Advice

Here is some wisdom our CIC could have used:

The duty of the general is to ride by the ranks on horseback, show himself to those in danger, praise the brave, threaten the cowardly, encourage the lazy, fill up the gaps, transpose a unit if necessary, bring aid to the wearied, anticipate the crisis, the hour and the outcome (emphasis mine).

This was said by the Greek general Onasander in the first century a.d. President Bush couldn't have anticipated the hurricane, but he should have known the potential outcomes since they have been talked about for years. I don't think I need to recount the fiasco that was called a response since it has been discussed elsewhere. I do recommend going to the New Orleans Picayune site for some blistering editorials they have written.

Must See

On September 30th comes the follow-up movie to the tv series Firefly. It's going to be incredible. Don't miss it!

Who Needs the EPA Anyway?

From Cosmic Variance:

"The White House has convened a Cabinet-level task force in the aftermath
of Hurricane Katrina that does not include EPA, prompting a number
government watchdog groups to raise concerns that the exclusion may
reflect an effort to downplay the extent of environmental contamination
in the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast region.

President Bush announced Aug. 31 that the Red Cross and 10 federal
agencies, including the Small Business Administration and the Department
of Labor, but not EPA, are part of the “federal response” to the damage
caused by the hurricane.


One source with the government watchdog group OMB Watch says the
administration was “short sighted by not including [EPA] right away,”
saying it is likely that toxic material, human waste and other
contaminants released as as a result of the hurricane are polluting the
area and threatening public health. The source speculates that the White
House excluded EPA from the task force because of a fear that agency
staff may find politically damaging information, similar to what
happened in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, when EPA was critical of the
administration’s response to the environmental contamination caused by
the terrorist attacks."

CNN reports the floodwaters in NO are contaminated with E. coli (and probably other nasty bugs that haven't been identified yet). So, why would the EPA be needed? It's not like they have the resources and experience to be helpful in this type of situation.


I Love Opus

Click on the picture for a larger view.

Louisiana Senator's Statement

U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, D-La., issued the following statement this afternoon regarding her call yesterday for President Bush to appoint a cabinet-level official to oversee Hurricane Katrina relief and recovery efforts within 24 hours.

Sen. Landrieu said:

“Yesterday, I was hoping President Bush would come away from his tour of the regional devastation triggered by Hurricane Katrina with a new understanding for the magnitude of the suffering and for the abject failures of the current Federal Emergency Management Agency. 24 hours later, the President has yet to answer my call for a cabinet-level official to lead our efforts. Meanwhile, FEMA, now a shell of what it once was, continues to be overwhelmed by the task at hand.

“I understand that the U.S. Forest Service had water-tanker aircraft available to help douse the fires raging on our riverfront, but FEMA has yet to accept the aid. When Amtrak offered trains to evacuate significant numbers of victims – far more efficiently than buses – FEMA again dragged its feet. Offers of medicine, communications equipment and other desperately needed items continue to flow in, only to be ignored by the agency.

“But perhaps the greatest disappointment stands at the breached 17th Street levee. Touring this critical site yesterday with the President, I saw what I believed to be a real and significant effort to get a handle on a major cause of this catastrophe. Flying over this critical spot again this morning, less than 24 hours later, it became apparent that yesterday we witnessed a hastily prepared stage set for a Presidential photo opportunity; and the desperately needed resources we saw were this morning reduced to a single, lonely piece of equipment. The good and decent people of southeast Louisiana and the Gulf Coast – black and white, rich and poor, young and old – deserve far better from their national government.

“Mr. President, I’m imploring you once again to get a cabinet-level official stood up as soon as possible to get this entire operation moving forward regionwide with all the resources – military and otherwise – necessary to relieve the unmitigated suffering and economic damage that is unfolding.”

Today’s aerial tour of the 17th Street levee will be featured tomorrow on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos. Later, Sen. Landrieu will also appear on CBS’s 60 Minutes.

What Can You Say?

Bush Visit Grounded Relief Helicopters

Sat Sep 3rd, 2005 at 19:52:54 PDT

From the AP (via Coldfury and Digby):

In St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, just south of New Orleans, victims of the hurricane are still waiting for food and water and for buses to escape the floodwaters, [ Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La.] said. And for the entire time Bush was in the state, the congressman said, a ban on helicopter flights further stalled the delivery of food and supplies.

Confirmed by the Times-Picayune.


Heads in the Sand

Via Pharyngula:

George W. Bush, September 2005:
"I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."

Scientific American, October 2001:
New Orleans is a disaster waiting to happen. The city lies below sea level, in a bowl bordered by levees that fend off Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the Mississippi River to the south and west. And because of a damning confluence of factors, the city is sinking further, putting it at increasing flood risk after even minor storms. The low-lying Mississippi Delta, which buffers the city from the gulf, is also rapidly disappearing. A year from now another 25 to 30 square miles of delta marsh--an area the size of Manhattan--will have vanished. An acre disappears every 24 minutes. Each loss gives a storm surge a clearer path to wash over the delta and pour into the bowl, trapping one million people inside and another million in surrounding communities. Extensive evacuation would be impossible because the surging water would cut off the few escape routes. Scientists at Louisiana State University (L.S.U.), who have modeled hundreds of possible storm tracks on advanced computers, predict that more than 100,000 people could die. The body bags wouldn't go very far.

The fact that our president can say those words shows how incompetent he is. Our government was not ready for this and did not respond well at all. People deserve to be pissed about this.

We’ve got a lot of rebuilding to do. First, we’re going to save lives and stabilize the situation. And then we’re going to help these communities rebuild. The good news is — and it’s hard for some to see it now — that out of this chaos is going to come a fantastic Gulf Coast, like it was before. Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott’s house — he’s lost his entire house — there’s going to be a fantastic house. And I’m looking forward to sitting on the porch. (Laughter.)

President George W. Bush

CNN Anchor:

The people we are seeing in this footage are largely black and largely poor, and they are largely being left behind. What message does this send to the rest of the world about America?

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay:

What it tells me is we’re doing a wonderful job…