Things I learned from Ferguson

These are reflection I had after a week or so of absorbing the Ferguson coverage onslaught, which is right in my backyard yet so far, far away. Continue reading Things I learned from Ferguson


A ‘big project’ that is taking a ‘couple centuries’

No really, it’s okay to talk about these things frankly!

Above all the B.S. and politics and hate, a thoughtful and real response, to a real question, by the U.S. president (which began with reporters pressing, “Will you personally go to Ferguson?”):

I have to be very careful about not prejudging these events before investigations are completed—the DOJ works for me and when they’re conducting an investigation I’ve got to make sure that I don’t look like I’m putting my thumb on the scales one way or the other. So it’s hard for me to address a specific case beyond making sure that it’s conducted in a way that’s transparent, where there’s accountability, where people can trust the process, hoping that with a fair and just process you end up with a fair and just outcome.

But as I think I’ve said on some past occasions, part of the ongoing challenge of perfecting our union has involved dealing with communities that feel left behind, who as a consequence of tragic histories often find themselves isolated, often find themselves without hope, without economic prospects. You have young men of color in many communities who are more likely to end up in jail or in the criminal justice system than they are in a good job or in college. And part of my job that I can do I think without any potential conflicts is to get at those root causes.

Continue reading A ‘big project’ that is taking a ‘couple centuries’

Thinking of Robin Williams and ‘What Dreams May Come’

“What Dreams May Come” is so breathtaking, so beautiful, so bold in its imagination, that it’s a surprise at the end to find it doesn’t finally deliver. It takes us to the emotional brink but it doesn’t push us over.

That’s the beginning of Roger Ebert’s review from 1998. With Robin Williams’ death by apparent suicide Monday, I haven’t been able to shake thoughts of the movie.

I too loved the film; I too was disappointed it didn’t fully reach its potential. But I remember “forgiving” the film for its exhausted conclusion because it had given me so much through the rest.

Continue reading Thinking of Robin Williams and ‘What Dreams May Come’

The lost art of visual comedy?

Hadn’t thought about this before: Despite their cartoonish violence and zombie-type silly gore, I’ve uncharacteristically found movies by Edgar Wright (“Shaud of the Dead,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” “Hot Fuzz”) alluring.

Why? There is a lot of brilliant visual comedy — not just sight gags, but creative use of film — which this video argues is becoming a lost art in the comedies that dominate today:

Via The Verge.

The Solar Glitch

In one of those lovely “This could happen to YOU!” stories, my favorite astronomer says 2012 really could have been bad. Like, “global disaster” bad:

In July 2012 the Earth dodged a bullet. Or more accurately, the bullet was misaimed. But had it hit, we’d have been in big trouble.

The bullet in this case was a solar storm, an eruption of a billion tons of plasma exploding outward from the Sun. This kind of event—called a coronal mass ejection, or CME—is actually relatively common. But this particular CME was a monster … in fact, it may have been the most powerful one ever seen.

People sometimes ask me if anything in astronomy actually worries me. Something like this is near the top…

What’s this? A “space weather expert” explains:

Coronal mass ejections are caused when the magnetic field in the sun’s atmosphere gets disrupted and then the plasma, the sun’s hot ionized gas, erupts and send charged particles into space. Think of it like a hurricane — is it headed toward us or not headed toward us? If we’re lucky, it misses us.


What went wrong in the 1989 storm?

In the U.K., there were two damaged transformers that had to be repaired. But no power cuts. The worst thing is what happened in Quebec. In Quebec, the power system went from normal operation to failure in 90 seconds. It  affected around 6 million people. The impact was reckoned to be $2 billion Canadian in 1989 prices.

We had lots of disruption to communications to spacecraft operations. The North American Aerospace Defense Command has big radars tracking everything in space, and as they describe it, they lost 1,600 space objects. They found them again, but for a few days they didn’t know where they were.


A serious concern would be whole regions losing electrical power for some significant time. Here in the U.K., the official assessment is that we could lose one or two regions where the power might be out for several months.


And then, the toughest lament of the scientist:

We had a recent flare-up of publicity in March thanks to a solar storm that didn’t really amount to much. Is this sort of coverage a good thing or a bad thing?

It makes such a good scare story, and it’s entertaining. It was a mildly interesting event, certainly, but not at all big-league stuff. It makes people think, “Oh it’s nothing really,” so experts like myself are in danger of being in the crying-wolf situation. That’s something that is a concern to me, personally.

Of course Killing Joke covered this. Of course it was in the album called 2012 (well…MMXII):

Cities on blackout, satellites are knocked out
I-phones, laptops, it’s one big belly flop
Servers, TV, alarms and security
Everything’s gone in seconds

Cars are all crashing, planes are all grounded
Everyone knows it’s over

Borders on lock down, everything’s on shut down
Everyone knows it’s over

The solar storms have come and chaos rules outside
The freezer’s broke, the food is off, the GPS has died

Communications have all gone down, the world is flying blind
Everyone’s at boiling point — and noone’s got the ice


Hallmark Time, Awkward Time

For this special day, poison your (pregnant) mother with a cola!
For this special day, poison your (pregnant) mother with a cola!

I don’t do well with Hallmark holidays. To be honest, I just about hate them. That sounds silly and pretentious — “Get over yourself!” — but I can’t help my antennae being ruffled by the more contrived and manipulative parts of our surroundings.

So I’ll try to elucidate my feelings here.

For the sake of my loved ones who enjoy them, I do try to get into the “spirit” of these days. But this creates an awkward, repetitive clash between my natural inclinations to be genuine and to please.

Despite my efforts to “just go with it,” whether it’s Valentine’s Day reminding me of how many people are made miserable by that commercial push, or a parents’ “Day” reminding me of corporations filling windows in the calendar while telling me when and how to show appreciation that is already innate and heartfelt, it always feels different degrees of flat.

And that’s before the ads.

Continue reading Hallmark Time, Awkward Time

First-World Soap Opera Reduced to Third-World Propaganda?

How wild would it be if something once so fun and inspiring became a rejected afterthought due to all the cynical profit-mongering and slop attached to it?

Publics may finally be getting wise to the fact that the long-term economic benefits of hosting mega-events like the Olympics or the World Cup are usually negligible at best. This is going to mean that fewer democratic countries will make bids for them and the ones that do, like Brazil, will do so in the face of widespread popular opposition. For the Winter Olympics, where thanks to weather and geography, the number of potential hosts is small (and thanks to climate change getting smaller), the problem will be more acute.

Slate: How Come Nobody Wants to Host the Winter Olympics?

Sports Fans: Your owner will die, or go bankrupt, or lose interest, or get arrested, then you’ll have another one

I try to make this point (and the point in my headline above) to people quite often, but never with such dead-on metaphor:

Owners and sponsors in any context are at best the sausage makers of sports. You don’t want to see them, much less know how they got into a position to buy a team, put astonishing athletes on it and make the tasty meat you, the sports consumer, devour happily. Generally speaking: The less you have to deal with them as a fan, the better. You do not need to see shots of the Kraft family in the box at Patriots games. You do not need to hear owners’ acceptance speeches after winning, or introduce the bowl game as a sponsor, or wheel Michael Vick out in a wheelchair yourself. You don’t care as long as the team competes and the owners and sponsors do not embarrass you for your loyalty to their products.*

*See: Donald Sterling.

From “Nascar, GM, and the average fan:  A new low in corporate sponsorship”

No one saw it coming (Or: Miami was a place)

“What should I tell her?
She’s going to ask.
If I ignore it, it gets uncomfortable
She’ll want to argue about the past.”

–“If I Were Going,” Afghan Whigs

Well this is a fine how-do-you-do:

Two scientific papers released on Monday by the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters came to similar conclusions by different means. Both groups of scientists found that West Antarctic glaciers had retreated far enough to set off an inherent instability in the ice sheet, one that experts have feared for decades. NASA called a telephone news conference Monday to highlight the urgency of the findings.


Those six glaciers alone could cause the ocean to rise four feet as they disappear, Dr. Rignot said, possibly within a couple of centuries. He added that their disappearance will most likely destabilize other sectors of the ice sheet, so the ultimate rise could be triple that.

As usual, the believed causes are complex and multi-layered. Bu that doesn’t make for good sound bites.

And while the cause of the stronger winds is somewhat unclear, many researchers consider human-induced global warming to be a significant factor. The winds help to isolate Antarctica and keep it cold at the surface, but as global warming proceeds, that means a sharper temperature difference between the Antarctic and the rest of the globe. That temperature difference provides further energy for the winds, which in turn stir up the ocean waters.

Sorry, Mother. Sorry, daughter.

"Now that I know the final conflict is within…"