the USGS to blame?

As any geologist will tell you, it's a bad idea to put houses on the southeast side of the Big Island of Hawaii, where active lava flows have been moving since 1984, resulting in the destruction of one entire subdivision, the Royal Gardens.

Yet who is the blame for the insurance premium increases, according to homeowners? The USGS, of course.
An article discusses the situation of one homeowner:

"...her premiums are skyrocketing now even though her neighborhood hasn't seen new lava since 1790. 'I just keep looking and looking at these maps and (they don't) make any sense.'"

The maps "don't make any sense"?
What part of:
1) lava is flowing uphill from you right now,
2) lava has flowed where your house is as recently as 1790,
3) therefore, there is a high risk lava will do so again in the next few years
does not make any sense?
This is another example of the inability of the public to acknowledge that science actually means something more than guesswork and mystical beliefs.

David Brooks proposes this question:
"What would happen if a freak solar event sterilized the people on the half of the earth that happened to be facing the sun?"
His answer predicts the breakdown of civilization on the sterile half of the planet, due to a "cataclysmic spiritual crisis," involving the lack of a legacy, the desolation of a future without children. Brooks maintains, "We don't live individualistic lives," and that much of our current happiness results from thinking about the success of future generations.
What Brooks misses is that for many people, being childless is a perfectly happy existence--in fact, far happier than dealing with the myriad problems of parenting. As for our long-term historical legacy, I think Brooks overestimates the importance of such thoughts for the average person. People are motivated by immediate, individual gratification--the long-term consequences be damned. This attitude is prevalent in much of our actions regarding the environment.
The environment would be a great beneficiary of this thought-experiment. While we can strive to reduce our footprint, and in individual steps contribute less to destroying our planet, by far the biggest savings in environmental terms would result from population stability. In other words, if you change your incandescent lights to fluorescent, this saves a little energy. If you decide not to have a third child, this saves a great deal more.
Everywhere, in everything we do, we are faced by the crush of people--parking spaces virtually impossible to find, lines at the ATM, lines to get on the subway, lines to get in line on the freeway. Parts of this planet are virtually choking on the masses of people trying to eek out an existence. How like a breath of fresh air it would be to find the lines at the supermarket a little shorter, to find the lines at the DMV manageable.
Brooks envisions Mad Max-style apocalypse. I think another vision is of a population much better suited for our lifestyles.

Apollo 11

Today is the 40th anniversary of the most significant day in human history.

In her 1958 book The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt noted that the greatest event of the 20th century up to that point, was the escape of Earth by the Sputnik satellite, and that the glory and accomplishment of this event was almost completely overshadowed by the Cold War paranoia that dominate coverage of this Soviet triumph.
Eleven years later the crew of Apollo 11 would settle gently onto the surface of the moon. What transpired between Sputnik and Apollo 11 was a cooperative human endeavor unparalleled in history. Up to 400,000 people were employed in a variety of ways in the effort to achieve the lunar landing. It was an effort infinitely more complicated and risky than the building of the pyramids.
Many people during Apollo, and many people afterwards, bemoaned the money spent, and in their myopic view squandered, in putting men on the moon. However, in total NASA spent less than $20 billion dollars, which in today's terms would come to a little over $80 billion. The Bush administration routinely wrote $80 billion checks to fund oil-rich Iraq, yet somehow this expenditure raised not a fraction of the uproar that the Apollo budgets caused. Walter Mondale, who would later serve as Carter's vice president, made his political name in attacking Apollo spending.
The Apollo missions were not created by mysticism or superstition; Apollo achieved its victory because of science, reason, testing, and math. Apollo-do, the way of Apollo, like its mythical namesake, the bringer of light, can be a beacon for how we as a species might think and behave if we are to survive and prosper.
We humans need a goal, a task. Our spirit requires a quest. Without this necessity, we wander aimless, like a hound without a chase. Some ask why we should go back to the moon, why we should go to Mars. As an answer, simply look at the listless and disaffected youth who plague this country, so divorced from any goal that weekends are spent "cruising"--driving around and around aimlessly--while listening to toxic music blaring from speakers.
Imagine instead that the youth of this nation were set upon a goal, instructed from an early age they they must work to learn science and math, and given the pedagogical tools to enable them to reach their potential. As it stands now, most American students are lost to science, their potential squandered to their toxic "friends," with whom they mutually self-destruct in an indifferent orgy of excess and self-gratification. Imagine instead that the youth of our country were tasked with learning enough math and physics that they might make a serious attempt to solve a major problem.
As has become apparent over the course of the last few years, our petroleum lifestyle is unsustainable. Not only is peak oil production eminent, but the carbon dioxide waste of this energy source is rapidly changing our climate in unpredictable, but throughly negative, ways. Even worse, because of the grim irony that the world's oil reserves sit under nations that hate us, we prop up dictatorships--Saudi Arabia, Putin's Russia, Chavez's Venezuela, the Shah's Iran--with our money, making us complicit in funding regimes with terrible human rights records. We need a cleaner, more moral source of energy: fusion.
The science behind fusion is very complicated and the achievement of fusion will be a feat comparable with the Manhattan Project and Apollo. Imagine the benefits if we committed our nation to educating all of our children to learn enough math and physics that they could make a serious contribution to this problem. Most would not achieve this; but eventually a child would be born--an Einstein who would be squandered otherwise--who would have the insight to solve the problem of fusion. The benefits of having so many citizens so well educated would be astounding. It would cost money to educate children to this level, but education is now so terribly underfunded that perhaps only such a national mission could bring education funding up to a reasonable level. The benefits of achieving fusion would be practically unlimited, clean energy.
Apollo showed us what humans can achieve when the political will relaxes its death grip upon scientific innovation for a few years. The 20 July 1969 Apollo 11 may come to be regarded by historians as the first of many such human triumphs. Or perhaps the first lunar landing will mark the high water spot, when mankind's potential reached its apex, and then slid back into darkness, ignorance, and mysticism.

The Death of a Salesman

Michael Jackson is dead--not soon enough. Not before he used his money and fame to hurt unknown numbers of children.

In the midst of the adulation surrounding his death, there seems to be little talk of what this man did between his scarce, mediocre recordings. As The Smoking Gun has detailed, Jackson was a textbook molester, using power, intimidation, and psychological manipulation to sexually violate his victims.
There can be no factual doubt that Jackson was a child molester. Identification of markings on his body by the 1993 victim would only have been visible if the then-13 year-old had seen Jackson nude at close proximity. Items recovered from a "secret room" at Neverland Ranch further connected Jackson with his 2003 victim. In the first instance, Jackson purchased the silence of his victim; in the second, Jackson's purchased enough legal ammunition to distort justice. The deposition of the 1993 victim, as he detailed how Jackson manipulated him into ever-increasing sexual contact through shame and guilt makes harrowing reading.
Fans protested then and now that Jackson's behavior was offset by the inspiration of his music and his dancing. Nonsense. This is like saying Hitler's crimes are ameliorated by the fact that he painted a few pretty watercolors. Jackson's music was trite pop; no Tcshaikovsky he. What about his dancing--did it rise to the discipline and art of Baryshnikov? Even if one accepts the premise that some artistic achievement can offset the crime of hurting children, then Jackson's schtick hardly qualifies.
Jackson is gone. I fear that in the distance of memory, people will come to regard him higher than he deserves. Already he has been hailed as someone who healed the racial divide in America. Some may forget the monster that lurked behind the self-mutilated face. One thing is sure--he victims will never forget the horror.

Tweeting the Revolution

"Today, there is a social media revolution in Iran, whereby Twitter, Facebook and similar sites are serving as the vehicles by which those who reject the apparent election coup are assembling and disseminating valuable information in real time." --the New York Times

Historians note that the recent events in Iran are not the first time that social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook have played a part in major world revolutions.

Philadelphia, 1776.
GeorgeWashto69: Lol, their totally going 2 sign.
JimMad14: Sing?
GeorgeWashto69: sign some Dec of Indentpence. 2 booring to 2 read
LexHam: @Jim, dude, ware R u? we're signnng the Declaration now. get yer ass in here.
FrankBen29: Yo dogz, were U all be at? were dun signing
JimMad14: lol, missd it
GeorgeWashto69: wutz it say?
LexHam: dude, we were so stoned when we wrote it
FrankBen29: total 4:20

St. Petersburg, 1917
VladLen: lol@JoseStalin! dat tsarina skank is a total ho
HotToTrotsky8: i'd tap dat ass
JoseStalin: i kno
VladLen: bitter cold Russian winter make nip hard
JoseStalin: headlights
HotToTrotsky8: what is hedlight?
JoseStalin: lol@Trot. what R U, a peasant serf?
VladLen: lol@Trot, dude seriously, U need to get out more. Y dunt u come to Petrograd & hang wid us?
HotToTrotsky8: I dunno. I iz chillin were i iz at
JoseStalin: dude, totally come hang wid us.
HotToTrosky8: iz der anything 2 do thare?
VladLen: you know, fight the Tsar. foment demagoguery. seize means of production.
JoseStalin: totally easy to get the proletariat pissed off.
HotToTrotsky8: I dunno. Maybe I'll get a chance to come that way around November.

The Power of One

Twenty years ago today, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre, one anonymous man stood in a street, alone and unarmed, before a column of approaching tanks. We don't know what he had witnessed in the previous day, when the student-led, pro-democracy revolution taking place in Tiananmen was put down by indiscriminate machine gun fire into crowds and the use of tanks as steamrollers to crush people. Almost certainly the man had seen tanks rolling full speed into the crowds of protestors.

And yet, he chose to make a stand in the street, utterly alone.
Some historians, especially those influenced by Marx, posit that individuals do not much matter to the progress of history. We are told that if Hitler had not risen to power, then some other radical would have exploited the post-war chaos of Germany in the same way. And had Churchill not marshaled Britain to stay in the war during the darkest days, then some other politician would have. This Marxist view of history is, of course, speculative and cannot be disproven--a fact which hardly supports its thesis. The Marxist Chinese authorities must have philosophically assumed that an individual could not make a revolution. 
But those who understand the deeper flow of history know that individuals do matter. It mattered that Churchill and Hitler, as persons, engaged each other rather than other players. Almost any other politician would have settled with Hitler rather than continue what seemed like a hopeless war; almost any other tyrant would have had the sense of self-preservation not to invade Russia with the western front still unsettled. Individuals, it turns out, matter more than the masses.
It mattered that this unknown man found the suicidal courage to halt a column of tanks. For when revolution eventually comes to the tyrants who still rule China, as it inevitably must, then I think this man will stand again as the symbol of the democratic hope that was tragically crushed on that day twenty years ago. 
We have the Statue of Liberty. China will have one man before a tank.

Obama's health care planning

According to the New York Times

"President Obama said Wednesday that he was receptive to Congressional proposals that would require Americans to have health insurance and oblige employers to share in the cost. But he said there should be exemptions for people who cannot afford insurance and for small businesses in general.

Despite the panoply of problems facing the new president, he has rightly decreed that health care must, because of its tremendous costs to businesses and productivity, not be deferred while other, seemingly-more urgent problems are addressed. This is the correct, long-term thinking that we need.

However, as the quote above reveals, President Obama may be willing to settle for something less than a true fix for the health care crisis. Such a half-measure at this time would be a tragic decision.

Our health care system is deeply broken. The majority of Americans favor a nationalized, single-payer system. The benefits of such a system, to both individuals, families, and businesses, are manifest and undeniable. To enact something less than full, universal, simplified health care would squander this unique moment in American history where, for the first time since Truman, Americans seem ready to join the rest of the civilized world in terms of caring for its citizens.

"Requiring" individuals who are uninsured to purchase insurance is the wrong approach. This will be a crushing burden on the young, the unmarried, and those just starting out in life. Imagine barely scraping by, barely paying the bills, then suddenly being saddled with a new monthly premium bill in the range, depending on one's health, of $500-$700. Few uninsured individuals will be able to make an adjustment of that magnitude. Under this plan, however, those who cannot afford this new bill will be outlaws and subject to punishment. This is no way to reform health care. 

Allowing exemptions for small businesses and  those who cannot afford coverage is essentially no change from the present problem. Right now everyone is technically free to buy insurance; in reality, pre-existing conditions and high premiums are an insurmountable barrier for many.

The burden of premiums is particularly harsh on small businesses. The majority of jobs in America, and what will be the majority of new jobs if/when an economic recovery occurs, will be in small businesses. So rather than simply sweeping small businesses and individuals under the rug, these are the primary issues of health care reform.

If the president allows these groups to fall through the cracks of health care reform, if "reform" somehow bypasses the very groups it most needs to address, then this hollow health care fix will be a lasting shame to the Obama legacy.

America needs and wants not simply a larger bandaid, but radical surgery to extract the cancer that is rotting our economy.

Feynman lectures online

Vega has posted a set of Richard Feynman lectures at
Feynman, one of the great scientific geniuses of all time, also had an remarkable talent for explaining the complex to layman. Well worth a view.

Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel has known horrors none of us can imagine. Through his life's work and especially books such as Night, those of us born post-Holocaust can perhaps achieve some measure of understanding about that darkest moment in humankind's history. Wiesel, and his fellow survivor Primo Levi, bear un-silenceable witness to unspeakable crimes.

Another crime has just occured. Wiesel has lost his entire life's savings, and all the money of his Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, in the Bernie Madoff scandal. Instead of investing his client's money, Madoff spent it in a Ponzi scheme. The money is gone.

Surely many of Madoff's clients are equally hurt, but the great injustice here is the loss of funds for the Foundation for Humanity. Their important work in Darfur is a necessary reminder for the world that genocide is happening right now, this very day, far away from the world's attention. Everyone who feels outrage over the possibility of the Foundation for Humanity closing because of the greed of one man should donate now, in order to demonstrate that Madoff's malice cannot snuff out Wiesel's good work.

Last year a mentally-disturbed Holocaust denier--a redundancy if ever there were one--attacked Wiesel at a hotel in San Francisco.

Yet I suspect that despite being physically attacked at an advanced age, despite being left penniless in the wake of Madoff's obscene betrayal, Elie Wiesel--winner of the Nobel Prize and one of the most influential persons of the 20th century--has a sense of perspective about these hardships that few of us will ever have. He knows just how bad things can really become.


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