Thursday, November 27, 2014

"Darmstadt, the Philae has landed"; and Thoughts on Matters Cosmic and Petty (Update: More Photos)

On schedule, the Rosetta spacecraft of the European Space Agency arrived on station at the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (as I reported earlier) and launched the lander Philae, the first attempt at a soft landing on a comet.  Philae, about the size of a washing machine on a low tripod, was successful – mostly – in accomplishing its first and foremost mission of landing intact and functional.

The plan to deploy harpoons on the legs of the tripod apparently didn't work, but thrusters to help it bear down in the diaphanous gravity allowed it to come to a sliding stop, though up against a cliff face.  Initial signals from the lander came through but quickly attenuated to the point that Philae has gone into hibernation due to its solar panels not receiving an adequate amount of sunlight, blocked due to Philae's final position. 

First photo from the surface, showing the wall against which Philae stopped and one of its feet

It is expected that as 67P/C-G comes closer to the sun, the change in attitude of the comet and the increase in solar radiation will revive the lander. 
Sequence of Philae's descent, bounce, and final resting place, taken from Rosetta
Great excitement is being generated by the press in general with the news that the Rosetta and Philae system has detected "organic molecules" on the comet, which could add to the data that supports the theory that the building blocks of life on Earth could have come from comets crashing into the planet eons ago. 

A sub-text to this news is the argument that has been enjoined for a few centuries, since at least the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment if not earlier, of the question of whether life was created by God – or at least an Intelligent Design as it is now referred to in circles where such a discussion is allowed – or whether it arose as a result of a fortuitous comingling of elements that somehow led to living creatures, a phenomenon that can be reproduced elsewhere in the universe under ideal conditions, given enough time. 

I won't begin to engage in the debate here, but a strong undercurrent of the debate is a thrust to demonstrate that life could have been created by explainable scientific principles without having to rely on a belief in God.

An entire hypothesis has been formulated primarily through the efforts of British astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle (d 2001), a dedicated atheist who relented on his insistence that life had developed through natural means on Earth once it was demonstrated to him that such an event, given the time it would have taken, would have been (literally) astronomically impossible.  His concession of the point was to a fallback position that the elements of life were introduced to Earth through outside means, primarily through comets.  (This hypothesis would seem to spring from his earlier theory of nucleosynthesis, now widely accepted, that elements heavier than helium have been formed in the progressive life cycle of stars.)  The idea of 'panspermia' has gained some acceptance within the scientific community (including Stephen Hawking), yet whether or not it eventually has any realistic validity, it doesn't address the metaphysical question of the origin of life: if God did not create life spontaneously on Earth, then where did the life components of the comets (or wherever) come from, and did the metaphorical hand of God direct them to this very finely tuned cosmic petri dish that would allow life to flourish, certainly beyond the basic viral or bacteriological level of regenerated extremophiles?

But as to those organic molecules, lest the reading public become too enthusiastic with the news, one must remember that the term basically means that some form of carbon has been detected.  That could include such common compounds as methane and methanol, hardly conducive to life as we know it.  By that 'grubered' light, one could say that Jupiter could be teeming with life.

Yet I am also perplexed by the determination by some, particularly within the religious community, that we must somehow be alone in the universe, that God has somehow reserved the Earth exclusively within the impossibly imponderable vastness of the heavens to be the home of His children.  There is nothing in the Bible whatsoever that would indicate that God has not created other Gardens of Eden as distinct geneses.

And from the sublime to the ridiculous, a view of the other competitive news surrounding this seminal event perpetuates the lowly state of public attention to matters that should have real meaning.  One of the major news events at the time of the landing was the breathless and repetitive commentary on the bare derrière of the notable media prostitute Kim Kardashian, in a photo that had all the appearance of being a collaboration between Larry Flynt and Theodore Seuss.  (No, I won't post it here too.  Don't tell me you haven't already seen it – somewhere, everywhere.)

But a related story with an actual tie to the Philae landing involves the aftermath of an on-air interview with one of the key leaders of the effort, British physicist Matt Taylor.  It wasn't the interview itself that garnered the story, considering what should have been a spellbinding event, but rather the outcry about the (shall we say) eccentric Hawaiian-style shirt he wore, which included within the design a selection of cartoon pin-up girls sporting firearms, a gift from a female friend.  By all accounts, Dr Taylor is as brilliant as he is eccentrically insouciant, but the immediate backlash from the PC crowd, always on the lookout for an opportunity to be offended, reduced him to a tearful apology.  (Land on a comet?  Who cares; what about his shirt?!)

If only he had worn a burqa, these feminist harridans would have kept silent.

It's good to see that we have our priorities in order.

And speaking of order, a delightful twist is that the shirt in question almost immediately sold out.  Maybe the site will be able to fire up production on another series, but it will take at least eight weeks to catch up with the overwhelming number of orders.

It would be a good shirt for concealed carry too.

Update: Now we have a color photo of the comet:

... as well as a sense of scale, a representation of the comet resting on Los Angeles:
In contrast, 67P/C-G's long-axis diameter of 2.5 miles can be used to help visualize the Chicxulub meteor that impacted near present-day Yucutan, which caused the extinction-level event that wiped out the dinosaurs at the abrupt end of the Cretaceous period some 66 million years ago.  That meteor was estimated to have a diameter of at least 6 miles.

Considering some of the cultural detritus that LA represents, the above photo can be an almost appealing fantasy.

Ronald Reagan on Thanksgiving

"As we celebrate Thanksgiving ... we should ask what we can do as individuals to demonstrate our gratitude to God for all He has done.  Such reflection can only add to the significance of this precious day of remembrance.  Let us recommit ourselves to that devotion to God and family that has played such an important role in making this a great Nation, and which will be needed as a source of strength if we are to remain a great people." --Ronald Reagan, 1981

Thursday, November 20, 2014

CNN Blows Reporting of Synagogue Attack

In a stunning case of ‘burying the lede’, CNN single-handedly makes the case for media bias with its initial reportage of a deadly attack in Jerusalem, as reported by C W Swanson:

To fill in some gaps in the story – chasms, actually – the reason that the police shot dead the two Palestinians is that the Arabs were already engaged in an attack on a synagogue (not a mosque), with “hand guns, axes, and meat cleavers”, which resulted in five dead (including a Briton and three Americans), and eight wounded.

A snippet of the scene at the site of the attack

Is it possible to get this story more wrong, in an area that is already highly inflammatory?  One would think that CNN would want to be especially careful, considering its history with former Chief News Executive Eason Jordan, who admitted to being a shill for Saddam Hussein and who then accused US troops of deliberately targeting journalists.

This is after an AP story earlier which concerned a Palestinian who drove his car into a crowd near a train station, wounding 17 and killing a five-year-old girl.  The headline was "Israeli police shoot a man in East Jerusalem".

[Dick Stanley of Texas Scribbler reports that CNN has now apologized for the headline, saying that their "coverage did not immediately reflect the fact that the two Palestinians killed were the attackers."  CNN at least made the effort to correct that portion of the story.]

The story failed to note the standard Palestinian celebration of dancing in the streets and passing out candy and pastries.  President Obama rightly condemned the "horrific" attack but predictably called on "both Palestinians and Israelis to try to work together to lower tensions and reject violence."  There is precious little chance of that happening, certainly in the case of the jubilant Palestinians.
Palestinians celebrate the two dead attackers pictured in the background

John Kerry for his part provided some more realistic comments:
To have this kind of act, which is a pure result of incitement, of calls for "days of rage," of irresponsibility is unacceptable. 

The Palestinian leadership must condemn this and they must begin to take serious steps to restrain any kind of incitement that comes from their language, from other people's language, and exhibit the kind of leadership that is necessary to put this region on a different path.
Now if only that same sentiment could be conveyed by the administration to the waiting 'activists' in Ferguson, Missouri.

Monday, November 10, 2014

United States Marine Corps, 239 years

Happy Birthday, Marines, and Semper Fidelis.

The preferred uniform of the day

Established by an act of the Second Continental Congress on 10 November 1775 (seventeen days before the US Navy), we trace our spiritual beginning to the first recruitment at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia.
Go ye and commemorate this day likewise.

1 November 1921

From:  Major General John A. Lejeune, USMC,
  Commandant of the Marine Corps

Title:  Marine Corps Birthday Message

Category:    Marine Corps Order No. 47 (Series 1921)

The following will be read to the command on the 10th of November, 1921, and hereafter on the 10th of November of every year.  Should the order not be received by the 10th of November, 1921, it will be read upon receipt.

(1) On November 10, 1775, a Corps of Marines was created by a resolution of Continental Congress.  Since that date many thousand men have borne the name "Marine".  In memory of them it is fitting that we who are Marines should commemorate the birthday of our corps by calling to mind the glories of its long and illustrious history.

(2) The record of our corps is one which will bear comparison with that of the most famous military organizations in the world's history.  During 90 of the 146 years of its existence the Marine Corps has been in action against the Nation's foes.  From the Battle of Trenton to the Argonne, Marines have won foremost honors in war, and is the long eras of tranquility at home, generation after generation of Marines have grown gray in war in both hemispheres and in every corner of the seven seas, that our country and its citizens might enjoy peace and security.

(3) In every battle and skirmish since the birth of our corps, Marines have acquitted themselves with the greatest distinction, winning new honors on each occasion until the term "Marine" has come to signify all that is highest in military efficiency and soldierly virtue.

(4) This high name of distinction and soldierly repute we who are Marines today have received from those who preceded us in the corps.  With it we have also received from them the eternal spirit which has animated our corps from generation to generation and has been the distinguishing mark of the Marines in every age.  So long as that spirit continues to flourish Marines will be found equal to every emergency in the future as they have been in the past, and the men of our Nation will regard us as worthy successors to the long line of illustrious men who have served as "Soldiers of the Sea" since the founding of the Corps.

John A. Lejeune,
Major General Commandant

Friday, November 7, 2014

Thoughts on the 2014 Election Results

The dust has settled sufficiently and I have a few moments to jot down some thoughts on the aftermath of the drubbing that the Democrats suffered in the mid-term elections.

First of all, a self-critique in that my predictions, written in haste due to time and computer constraints.  I too was off by a matter of some degrees, though like the others mine didn't suffer as much as the national posse of pundits in the 2012 vote with the shocking re-election of Obama.  It will take some time to determine whether this year's overall victory was primarily the result of good Republican get-out-the-vote effort or whether it was a conservative uprising which drew along the votes of the independents who hoped for change.

As for pollsters, the Real Clear Politics combination of the most popular polls only accentuated the error of the predictions of close-run races and the Democrats holding on to prevail.  This modern fad of meta-analysis – taking a number of studies or polls and combining them to arrive at a greater number of data points (n), which then supposedly arrives at a more accurate guess – is again born out to be a more massive version of "garbage in, garbage out".  This collection of polls is heavily influenced by the appeal of "sexing up" the conclusions (in what seems to be a new British term of art as it relates to political science) or cheerleading for the guy who brought you to the dance.  (Academics suffer this same discrepancy in areas where there are abundant numbers of studies in whatever happens to be stylish or PC at the moment.  The Global Warmists are an incandescent example of this fallacy.)

In case anyone cares to notice (and I haven't seen much evidence of it at the moment) Nate Silver, the wunderkind of the 538 poll that nailed the 2012 presidential result for Obama, was one of those out in the wilderness this year.  Rasmussen, on the other hand, did much to restore its tarnished reputation, and thus over the long haul remains the victor in a group that has no real champions.

Polling continues to degrade as a predictive tool.  It still primarily relies on telephone calls to accumulate its data, and those from home telephones.  This is becoming increasingly inaccurate as a random data base due to the fact that the people at home who actually answer the phone (how many of us still have a home phone number that is used exclusively as a means to obtain internet access?) are not a representative sample of the voting public, such as stay-at-home moms and the unemployed or self-employed.  It also relies on people who are politically aware and involved to the extent that they would want to spend the time answering the droning questions of the pollsters.

Some have delved into the area of social media, tracking the number of times that a subject (like a candidate or party) is mentioned, but the ability to discern the positives from the negatives doesn't exist, nor does it take into account the seemingly endless supply of trolls who apparently live to track these subjects online and make never-ending snipes.  These people truly lack the ability to understand the command "Get a life."  We have also seen how some have taken advantage of the technology to create large waves of supporters out of thin air.

Another admonition of poll taking weighs against the man in the street interview (i.e., people who are motivated to talk to you as opposed to the far greater number who refuse), but again, few commentators seem to notice that exit polls are exactly that.  Exit polls are further attenuated by not taking into account the number of absentee voters or mail-in ballots.

Finally, no poll can take into account the actual turn-out.  People may say early on that they will definitely vote, or will declare that they aren't particularly interested, or fall into the 'pox on both your houses' category, but nothing can take into account who actually shows up at the polls or mails in their ballot.

So this election showed up these discrepancies in spades.

Supposedly safe elections for the Democrats turned into squeakers, like the down the wire loss of Scott Brown in New Hampshire and the shocking near-upset of John Warner in Virginia by Ed Gillespie, who just minutes ago conceded the election, less than 17,000 votes shy of victory among over 2.1 million cast.  Both Governor Brownback and Senator Roberts in Kansas were due for a drubbing but both Republicans won handily.  Democrat Governor Hickenlooper of Colorado was buoyed enough by the time-honored tradition of last-minute votes flooding in from urban bastions of Denver and Boulder to overcome his challenger (NB: Hickenlooper relied exclusively on positive campaigning), but Senator Mark Udall was soundly defeated by Republican Cody Gardner.

David Perdue blasted past Michelle Nunn in Georgia in what was supposed to be a tight race, to retain the seat for the Republicans, and to such an extent that it eliminated the need for a state law-imposed run-off. 

The only US Senate seats left to decide is Louisiana, where another required run-off pits beleaguered Democrat dynast Mary Landrieu against the combined conservative vote for her Republican challenger Bill Cassidy on 6 December, and the electoral black hole of Alaska where incumbent Democrat Mark Begich is trailing Dan Sullivan by some 3.6 points.  Votes trickling in by snowmobile and dogsled aren't expected to be finally tallied until 11 November.  As for Louisiana, news has trickled out that the DSCC is pulling funding for Landrieu's run-off campaign.  It appears likely that the Republicans will ultimately gain nine Senate seats when it's all over.

Republicans were elected governor in such deep indigo states as Illinois, Massachusetts and Maryland with vote totals beyond the margin of error and, more importantly, beyond the margin of fraud.  Scott Walker was elected or re-elected governor of Wisconsin for the third time in four years, draining huge resources from government bureaucrat unions such as SEIU in their literally desperate attempts to unseat him.

As for the House of Representatives, time and space constrain me from listing detailed results, but the Republicans at the moment have picked up twelve seats for a current total of 245 versus 181 for the Democrats, with 9 races still undecided.

More importantly for the future, though, is looking at the more local campaigns for the states.  Republicans now have 31 governorships against the Democrats' 19, and of the 98 state legislative bodies, Republicans now control 69 of them, or 70%.  (Nebraska doesn't count in the tally since it has a unique unicameral legislature that is officially non-partisan, but conservatives dominate in that body.)  For those states where one party controls both the governorship and both state legislative bodies, Republicans have 24 against the Democrats with six.

The press is not acting favorably to Obama's press conference, where he refused to pony up to the fact that the Democrats have taken another "shellacking", as he phrased the previous mid-terms in 2010.  The best he could do was to admit that "the Republicans had a good night", but his voice rose perceptibly in speaking of how he heard the "two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday."  How the Great One can divinely discern their thoughts is left unexplained, but let me offer this observation: to refuse to decide is to decide.  Voter participation in America has typically been well below the totals in other Western countries in Europe (or Australia, where people are compelled to vote by law, odd in a democracy).  Even in presidential election years, voter turn-out usually is no better than 60%.  But those who refuse to vote either are satisfied with the expected outcome (and despite how much the polls were off, the Republicans were expected to win anyway, just not to this degree) or simply don't want to vote.  I'd say leave them alone – attempts to compel them to vote against their will are pernicious. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Election Night Projections

God save me, because I just can’t help myself.  Prognosticating election night results is a tradition of political masochism but we are drawn to it like a moth to the flame.

Within my academic background, I have been thrice thrust into the area of political statistics (the only real claim that Political Science can make for being a science, but even then it is hardly better than casting bones), and I have taken and retained enough training to be able to discern the numbers better than the typical man on the street, and I thus retain that healthy sense of skepticism that must keep technicians of that craft sane.

What follows will be a shortened rendering of what I expect to see tonight for the Senate races, partly from a sense of gentility for the time involved to read, bereft of numbers and such imponderables as Yule’s Q and Tau-B, but also from the stark realisation, driven home so deeply from the cold reversals of the 2012 ‘expert’ predictions (and that would include me) and from the fact that now I lurk in the forest shadows of the discipline, unable in my later and intervening years to bask in the reflected glory of actual experts like Michael Barone and Nate Silver.

Early results, which should come soon after the polls close in Georgia at 7:00 PM local, will be an indicator about how the important Senate race will be between Democrat Sam Nunn’s daughter Michelle and Republican businessman David Perdue (no relation to the chicken magnate).  This has a distinct possibility of extending into early January because of Georgia’s election laws which call for a run-off in case a candidate doesn’t pull in more than 50% of the vote on election night.  The latest polls put Perdue slightly ahead, but an even more important factor is that one major poll has him at 49.8% – solidifying this race early could be a major bellwether for how the rest of the evening goes.  As it currently stands, Perdue would likely win a run-off but nothing is guaranteed in politics.

In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader (and future Majority Leader if all goes right) Mitch McConnell has been pulling away from Alison Lundergan Grimes, partly due to gaining Republican votes from the previously safe Democrat bastion of eastern coal country, decimated by Obama’s energy policies (or rather lack thereof, other than to make the cost of coal “skyrocket”).  This should be a fairly easy win for McConnell.

Democrat Mark Warner will probably win re-election in Virginia, but it will be interesting to see if his lead against shrinks to contestable margins – another sign of things to come.

North Carolina is still one race to watch – too close to call, but the Democrats are pouring money into the race as a Must Win, and are relying on the 30% black population of the state to pull them through, about the only time that Democrats actually pay attention to the black community.  Incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan is still expected to win over Republican Thom Tillis, tarred by being Speaker of the House in a state where the legislature is held in some degree of well-deserved contempt.  If it drifts the other way, this will be big news early on.

West Virginia will surely elect Republican Shelly Moore Capito, the first Republican senator in that state since 1956, replacing the seeming senator-for-life David Rockefeller, the very epitome of the rich limousine liberal Democrat.  This is one more step in the steady progression of turning the Mountain State red.

New Hampshire is still too close to call and promises to be one of the most watched results.  Incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen has a very narrow lead that is buried in the margin of error, against former Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown, who was at least born in New Hampshire.  A lot has been intimated about Brown being a carpetbagger, but this is from the same party that is perfectly fine with New York carpetbaggers such as Robert Kennedy and Hillary Clinton.

In Arkansas, Republican Tom Cotton has a comfortable lead over incumbent Mark Pryor, so another gain for the GOP.

Colorado will also be a pick-up for the Republicans with Cory Gardner taking the seat from Mark of the Udall dynasty.  Colorado Republican voters were incensed at the heavy-handed tactics of the gun control efforts of the Democrats, and two Democrat state senators were recalled with a third being forced to resign in lieu of another recall, all so that the Democrat Governor John Hickenlooper could replace her with another Democrat and thus retain control of that body.  This election is a continuation of that counter-attack, and Hickenlooper himself is in danger of losing his seat.

Kansas is still too close to call, and lackluster Republican Senator Pat Roberts could be collateral damage to the likely defeat of Republican Governor Sam Brownback.  Independent Greg Orman, up until now a Democrat but taking advantage of a political maneuver, promises to caucus with the majority party, in a transparent demonstration of political prostitution.  It is still too close to call, but advantage Democrat at the moment.

South Dakota will surely be picked up by Republican Mike Rounds, another gain for the GOP.

Lousiana is paired with Georgia in its run-off system, so incumbent Mary Landrieu, also a dynastic successor and who was bought in the most recent Louisiana Purchase in order to secure her vote for ObamaCare, will probably move into another election where her Republican challenger Bill Cassidy will pick up the needed majority in December.  Mary, you may recall, has the tendency to describe her constituents as racists and sexists, much like the late but not lamented Representative John Murtha of Pennsylvania.

Joni Ernst will win easily in Iowa for several reasons, running against Bruce Braley, who once expressed disdain for Senator Chuck Grassley as a "corn farmer who never went to law school."

Republican Steve Daines will take Montana.

Alaska will be hard to call simply for the fact that it is Alaska, a perennial enigma for many reasons mostly to do with geography.  Results will be late due in no small part for the fact that some votes have to be brought in from the North Slope area and elsewhere by snowmobile.  I predict that Republican Dan Sullivan will defeat incumbent Mark Begich.

For a final tally, my estimate is that the Republicans will likely pick up seven seats in the Senate.  For the sake of time, Republicans will pick up 9 to 11 seats in the House.