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What Pluto Really Is

That is not a difficult question, thanks to the miracles of modern science. Pluto is a large ball of rock and ice.

Dan Durda’s concept of the Pluto-Charon system on the Astronomy Picture of the Day archive.

Update Sep. 2nd. Also from the APOD Archive, Pluto in true color at the highest resolution currently available.

Pluto is the same today as it was last year. The only difference is that the Astronomical Union decided to put it in a different category. That means nothing, absolutely nothing, outside our own heads.

Inside our heads, however, which is where we spend much of our time, it makes a huge difference. People hate learning new names for things just as much as they hate having the “shift” key suddenly appear in a strange place on a new keyboard. It means having to expend neurons on relearning something that functioned perfectly well before.

The problem of names is not unique to Pluto. It’s something biologists have dealt with for hundreds of years. Recently, for instance, Apatosaurus was found to be the correct name for the much better known brontosaurus. That created a good bit of annoyance. Well-known genera of orchids, like Odontoglossum, turn out to be invalid and all have to be renamed. Not only do all the textbooks have to be rewritten, but thousands of horticulturalists have to redo labels, change marketing materials, and somehow stop their prize plants from losing name recognition. These problems are expensive as well as annoying. People talk–and I’m not sure they’re always joking– about taking out contracts on the scientists wreaking the cognitive havoc.

Botanists have actually been dealing with this problem longer than any other branch of science, and if the astronomers had one of those nice broad liberal arts backgrounds we hear so much about, the kind that makes them aware of disciplines outside their own, then they would have realized that the solution to their problem was staring them in the face.

It’s called conservation of names. When a technically incorrect name is in wide usage, and when it would be too disruptive to people’s minds to change it, then the name can be conserved. It’s just a name, remember. We humans came up with it in the first place. Like Humpty Dumpty, we can do anything we want with it. So the Astronomical Union could have said, “Pluto isn’t a planet,” or “Ceres and Vesta really are planets. However,” they could have continued, “we’ll conserve the popular designations, and only we scientists will have to do the mental gymnastics necessary to remember what the right name really is.” Which is as it should be. If they didn’t want to do mental gymnastics, they shouldn’t have become scientists.

Instead the dingbats decided to mess with everyone else’s mind, and now they’re reaping their just desserts. Hopefully, that’ll teach them a thing or two, including the concept of conservation.

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We need a new word. Something that describes intelligent people urging the stupid use of force. If you were feeling temperate, you might want to call it pundofallacy, but I’m not and I don’t.

What brought this on is an article in the TimesOnline, “It sounded so good to start with. But where did it all go wrong, George?” by Gerard Baker, Aug 18 2006.

…as the world contemplates the nervous breakdown of American policy in the Middle East, it is something President George Bush should surely be asking himself, or at least his fellow Americans. How’m I doin’?

Let’s see. You invaded Iraq because you argued you would be able to bring about a peaceful, democratic society in the heart of the Arab world, a step vital to the eradication of modern terrorism. Many of us supported the project because we believed the stakes were so high that you would not stint in committing the resources necessary to achieve it.

But you tried to do it on the cheap. If many of us miscalculated the scale of the threat Iraq posed, there was no excuse for the woeful lack of preparation by your Administration for the task of pacifying the country.

So far, so good, assuming by “resources” he means keeping order until people without guns, including women, had a voice. Assuming he means intelligently applied, uncorrupt resources for rebuilding the mess left after Saddam and over a decade of sanctions. But the reasoning floats into fantasy after this.

…you supported and perhaps even encouraged Israel to invade Lebanon last month, after repeated provocations by terrorists. The aim — a good one in principle — was to crush Hezbollah, weaken its Syrian and Iranian sponsors and put Lebanon on a path to long-term, terror-free stability.

There’s the old “crush the terrorists” dream. Yes, it would be nice if you could just stomp them like so many cockroaches. Have you ever tried to get rid of cockroaches by stomping them? I mean, to really get rid of them all, not just one? Of course not. It would be idiotic. The intelligent application of force in that case involves cleaning the kitchen. “Crushing” terrorists makes as much sense as crushing an oil spill.

There was a saying in the sixties, “If it feels good, do it.” This works for some things–sex, for instance–but it falls down badly as a method of anger management. Everybody hates people who hurt them. Everybody wants to hurt them back. It feels good. It just doesn’t happen to work as a way of stopping people from hurting you.

That point bears repeating. It does not work. It’s not that it’s unkind, or that I feel sorry for the poor terrorists in some liberal, pinko, namby pamby way. It’s that it does not work. The real cowardice is to avoid the facts–which are, I repeat, that it does not work–and to avoid effective action. That action may be something deeply unsatisfying, like cleaning the kitchen in the case of cockroaches, or paying the economic price in the West of having actual human rights in the Middle East.

That said, there is one way in which crushing enemies can work. Every last one of them has to be crushed. There are no terrorists among the Tasmanian aborigines because there aren’t any Tasmanian aborigines. They were all killed in a literal genocide. People convinced of the pundophallacy that brute force should work have to remember that it only works when the enemy is eliminated, culturally or literally. They should stop hiding behind limp-wristed, liberal ideas like democracy if they really believe in force.

(None of this is to say that strength is totally useless. Every village needs its policeman, and the global village is no exception. But that’s intelligently applied force, and it’s applied to exceptional cases that stand out on a background of law-abiding people. Police forces are never effective when whole populations are breaking the law, and our current intractable terrorist problems are embedded in widespread popular support in their communites. … Widespread, and getting wider.)

Further in the article, Baker continues:

The common critique of US foreign policy these past few years has been that it was insufficiently multilateral. That if only the US would work a bit more with the French and the Russians, be a little bit warmer to the Palestinians, sign up to international treaties, say nice things about the United Nations, the world would be a much safer and calmer place.

I always found that a slightly old-fashioned critique. The events of September 11, taken together with the other, steadily escalating acts of terrorism committed against the West in the past 30 years, required a radical new departure for the international system. Preventing the lunatics from blowing us all to the hereafter was going to require that the US, the only country with the power to stop it, break a bit of crockery.

And through the rest of the piece to the end:

… [T]he US could take the risk of alienating the world and discarding international law only if its leadership was going to be effective …. [I]t went all mushy and multilateralist …. [T]the world’s only superpower,… pinned down like Gulliver, tormented by an army of fundamentalist Lilliputians. … I don’t truly see how the failings in the Middle East could have been avoided by Washington’s being nicer to foreigners. What’s been missing is resolute leadership.

He starts with a different fallacy in that section. Russia has as much “power” to blow things up as the US. Russia, China, and India have plenty of men under arms. Europe, Japan, China, India, and Brazil have plenty of economic power, and enough, if they worked together, to force action even from the US.

So, no, the US is not the only country with the power to stop it. The US is the single largest concentration of power, and the US has the easiest time exercising that power. But using that fact as a reason for inaction, especially on the part of a European, is pathetic. Europe definitely had enough power, in any sense of the word, to get in there and start cleaning the kitchen. Of course, now that the US has tipped a pig’s breakfast onto the floor, I can see where the Europeans might want us to clean up our own mess first, but that’s a different matter than saying the US is the only country with the power to do anything.

Otherwise, it’s the same fallacy repeated. “Breaking crockery” will prevent “lunatics.” It might, or it might not. It depends on the relationship between the crockery and the lunatics. Since in actual fact the relationship seems to be that lunatics feed on broken crockery, this is one more example of dreaming that force will solve something because it feels so good.

“Effective” (read “strong”) leadership is useless if the strength is applied to bashing your head against a wall that you’re building yourself.

“Pinned down like Gulliver.” Of course they’re pinned down. The intelligent application of strength wins every time.

“I don’t truly see how” anything could be solved by “being nicer to foreigners.” Well, the British could have not invaded Iraq for its oil at the beginning of the First World War. The CIA could have not overthrown democratically elected Mossadegh and installed the Shah in 1953. The US could be not supporting totalitarian, torturing dictators in Saudi Arabia. Little things like that.

The core problem of terrorism is the lunatics. Removing what they feed on by paying the price of real human rights is part of the solution. Another equally difficult and unglamorous part is recognizing that the specific lunacy in question, fundamentalism, is everywhere. It is used by politicians to gain power everywhere, and has the same effect everywhere. Fundamentalism spreads intolerance, which ends in killing, wherever it goes. We need to deal with the theocrats–our own as well as everyone else’s. It’s the separation of religion and state we need to achieve–in our own governments as well as others’.

Nobody wants to hear that. It’s much easier to blow things up.


Baker ends with this, which is wrong on every level.

“It is hard for me to recall a time when the world was such a scary place.” Balderdash. I remember all too well those years and years when the whole world could have been obliterated in half an hour. The whole world. The entire planet. The only thing that comes close for scariness is global warming.

Then: “No one should rejoice at America’s weakness. The world is scarier still because of it.” I don’t know about that. If the US is going to be a pro-torture country that detains people without trial, it can’t get weak enough for me. The US has some distance to go before becoming a global dictator, but dictators are preferable only to total destruction. Those are not our only choices.

Aug. 22, 2006 Tom Tomorrow says it much better.

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Cure for terrorism? Islamic law for women

This is down there with “Attack Iraq because of terrorists in Afghanistan.”

A headline today in the UK newspaper Independent:
Let us adopt Islamic family law to curb extremists, Muslims tell Kelly.”

Dr Syed Aziz Pasha, secretary general of the Union of Muslim Organisations of the UK and Ireland, said he had asked for holidays to mark Muslim festivals and Islamic laws to cover family affairs which would apply only to Muslims.

Dr Pasha said he was not seeking sharia law for criminal offences but he said Muslim communities in Britain should be able to operate Islamic codes for marriage and family life.

Ri-i-ight. I’ve noticed the problem too. It’s all the young men running around without their veils on. And the wild girls: don’t get me started. They come under bad influences, and the next thing you know, they’re carrying blow-your-socks-off-red lipstick on to airplanes.

The application of a bit of Muslim family law should sort that right out.

Update, Aug. 21, 2006
British Muslim MP, Shahid Malik, says the same, more elegantly.

As I have repeatedly said, in this world of indiscriminate terrorist bombings, where Muslims are just as likely to be the victims of terrorism as other British and US citizens, we Muslims have an equal stake in fighting extremism.

When Lord Ahmed, the Muslim Labour peer, heard my comments — I said essentially that if Muslims wanted sharia they should go and live somewhere where they have it — he accused me of doing the BNP’s work. He is entitled to his opinion. However, a little honesty, like mine, in this whole debate might just restore trust in politicians and ease the population’s anxieties.

[earlier in the piece] …given that these [terrorist] acts are carried out in the name of our religion — Islam — we have a greater responsibility not merely to condemn but to confront the extremists.

I don’t know about “greater” responsibility, but certainly as much. And confronting extremism, rather than aiding and abetting it, might be worth a try, perhaps, bizarre as it sounds.

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AOL: get out of my underwear drawer!

There’s a big flap, as there should be, over AOL releasing information about searches that is detailed enough to identify individuals. Google says they’d never, ever, ever do something like that. Sure, they could, but they wouldn’t. Honest.

On the other side are privacy advocates saying all this information needs to be safeguarded by neutral third parties. Or someone trustworthy. Or something.

Let’s step back a moment, and think about why search information needs to be saved. It’s not to help you recover lost searches which you forgot to back up. It’s not to help scientists discover the Grand Unified Theory of Information. Searches are saved so that the search engine can target ads more precisely. Precise targeting allows the search company to charge more for ad placement.

We’re supposed to live under a constant spiritual colonoscopy, as it were, so that Google can make money.

I don’t think so.

Privacy should not be the last priority. Marketing should not be the first. It’s way past time for legislation that puts those two in their proper relationship.

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The government is not just in Washington

The Cheney Administration’s policies affect all of us all the time. I know that. But it feels different when it’s personal.

I lead a sheltered life, there’s no question about that. Anyone who looks at my flickr photo set, which swaps in and out on this blog, can see just how sheltered it is. But the first faint corrosions of the zone of destruction are starting to touch even me.

One of my in-laws has led a long and full life, and has reached the age where her bones are not so much bones as a loose aggregation of calcium and hope. Without her regular dose of Fosamax, she can (and does) develop hairline fractures just from walking. Fosamax is expensive. The new prescription drug bill is so useless that it is still considerably cheaper for her to buy the medicine in Canada, as she’s been doing for years. The Fosamax sold in Canada–at least the stuff she’s been getting–is shipped there from New Jersey and repackaged for the Canadian market.

A few weeks ago, suddenly her Fosamax didn’t arrive. After some flapping around, it emerged that US Customs had intercepted this package of illegal drugs. They just stopped the shipment. They didn’t do anything, at least not so’s any of us noticed, to make sure that patients didn’t get sick or die because of their actions. Except for the fact that nobody showed up in a bulletproof vest to throw this white-haired lady in the slammer, she might as well have been sneaking heroin into the country.

If globalization is such a good thing, why is it bad for her to buy drugs from Canada? One argument the congressional stooges of the pharmaceutical industry have made is that nobody except the US knows how to make safe drugs. Even granting that ridiculous proposition, why are drugs that are good enough for New Jersey not good enough for the rest of us?

It’s obvious to everybody by now (it is, isn’t it?) that the purpose of the prescription drug bill was purely to protect corporate profits. That can actually be a legitimate goal. A noncompetitive industry, in the strict economic sense, may have so much social value that it’s worth subsidizing. Japanese rice growers and Swiss milk farmers come to mind.

The US pharmaceutical industry doesn’t fit the paradigm in any way, shape, or form. It has had the highest profits in recent years of just about any sector except oil. (Speaking as a sheltered person who owns drug stocks, trust me on this.) Drug execs keep pissing and moaning about research and development costs. The lion’s share of R&D that’s not a sure thing is paid out of government grants. A lot of drug company-funded R&D involves stuff like figuring out ways to repackage patented drugs and extend the patent just before it runs out. The really big costs for drug companies are advertising. You know what? I have a real hard time feeling sorry for the poor drug giants creaking under their huge burdens.

But I am furious on a whole deeper level, now that the cruelty of protecting vast profits has hurt a friend of mine.

The other faint touch of corrosion involves Iraq. Anyone who’s read this blog knows that I’m anguished about everything that US policies cause in the Middle East. Everything.

Well, a couple of years ago I met a young man, a buddy of a relative. He’s a friendly guy with a blond buzz cut, a quick smile, and a roll-on-the-floor sense of what’s funny. He’d qualified as a school teacher by entering the Reserve and using some of their programs that help people better themselves. When I met him, he’d been teaching school (I think it was third grade) for a few years, was married, and had young children. He’s not stupid. The minute the Shrub got elected selected in 2000, he got out of the Reserve.

You know where this is headed. He got called up. Under emergency regulations of some kind of other, that can happen any time for five years after you get out. With a few weeks left to go on his five years, he got called up. He’s driving one of those insufficiently armored targets on the Baghdad Road right now. He’d been doing it for way too long, and was due to go home August 1st. A few days before that, Rumsfeld decided that those particular pawns had to stay in his hellish game for another four months. I think they got four days’ notice. I guess cannon fodder doesn’t need weeks or months to make arrangements for the rest of its life.

You’ll notice that another four months keeps the troops there till December first, and after whatever it is that happens in early November. No doubt, when someone was figuring out how many US soldiers had to stay so that a few thousand could be brought home for the TV cameras in, say, September or October, somebody suddenly saw they’d be a few thousand short.

So now my friend is still driving on the Baghdad Road.

I wonder if he ever has that great big blue-eyed smile any more. Maybe when he talks to his family now and again. Although, if he’s anything like me, talking to his family will just make it hurt more. All I can say is that he hasn’t been killed yet. I hope to God it stays that way.

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trying out Picasa’s upload

flamingo searching for something good (This is me, trying out the “blogthis” button on Google’s Picasa Posted by Picasa.

For those who care about this sort of thing: the “img src” points to the file on my actual computer. Seems a bit braindead, since personal computers get turned off. What were they thinking?)

update after posting: no, the photo is on Not sure if I’m happy about Google uploading it without telling me first where it plans to put it. What if they changed their copyright policies and I wanted to remove it? Hmph. Grump.

Update after transferring to wordpress: The photo on blogger seems to have vaporized. So much for that. Instead, [No, now it’s back. You’ll notice I haven’t used Google’s “service” since this first try….] … enjoy the tawny frogmouth chick by Morgana on Barbelith.
tawny frogmouth chick.  Photographer: Morgana

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