Friday, September 8, 2017

Friday Trump & Politics Roundup - 20

Donald TrumpThis is my semi-regular feature to post links to articles about Donald Trump along with excerpts from those articles. Trump has the potential to cause so much damage to our country and the world that it's every citizen's responsibility to keep pressure on him and our other elected officials to try to minimize the damage. To read previous entries in this series and other Trump related posts, check out my Trump archives.

Prior to last week, it had been a little while since I've done one of these posts. But like I write in the introduction to every post in this series, it is every citizen's responsibility to keep pressure on Trump and our other elected officials to try to minimize the damage, so I can't just let these abuses and bad decisions slip through the cracks. Though to be honest, there's so much that's negative coming out of this administration that I can't keep up with all of it.


Medium - Carl Zimmer's Speech 'Let's Not Lose Our Minds': "Science, Journalism, and Democracy: Grappling With A New Reality"

I would highly recommend reading the whole article. It's focus is on what science journalists should do, but it's useful for all citizens in an age when the president and dominant political party are so anti-science.

It's been nearly ninety years since that Pravda article about Lysenko was published, helping to launch him on his dismal career. It's been over fifty years since he fell at last. When you hear this story, you may think, "Well, that's appalling, but it happened a long time ago, and in a faraway place. It has no meaning to us today in the United States in 2017."

I disagree. The things we are discussing today at this meeting -- democracy, science, and journalism -- are three valuable institutions that have made life in this country far better than it would be without them. They are worth defending, and worth keeping free of corruption.

We can look back over history to see how, in different places and different times, each of these pillars cracked and sometimes even fell. We should not be smug when we look back at these episodes. We should not be so arrogant as to believe we are so much smarter or nobler that we're immune from these disasters.

The article also included some chilling parallels between Stalin's Soviet Union and the current U.S. government (with some of these points being more parallel than others):

  • A government decided that an important area of research, one that the worldwide scientific community had been working on for decades, was wrong. Instead, they embraced weak evidence to the contrary.
  • It ignored its own best scientists and its scientific academies.
  • It glamorized someone who opposed that mainstream research based on weak research, turning his meager track record into a virtue.
  • It forced scientists to either be political allies or opponents.
  • It personally condemned scientists who supported the worldwide consensus and spoke out against the government's agenda, casting them as bad people hell-bent on harming the nation.
  • The damage to the scientific community rippled far, and lasted for years. It showed hostility to scientists from other countries, isolating them from international partnerships. It also created an atmosphere of fear that led to self-censorship.
  • And by turning away from the best science, a government did harm to its country.


Vox - Trump isn't delivering his own DACA policy because he's cowardly and weak: An evasion of responsibility.

Long before he was a politician, Donald Trump was a showman. So it's telling that on the biggest political story of the week, the great impresario of nativist backlash politics has decided to make himself scarce. Instead of announcing his plan to kill the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program with a six-month delay personally, Trump is letting Jeff Sessions act as the star of the DACA episode of the Trump Show.

That's no comfort to the 800,000 people -- and the millions of family members, friends, and co-workers who depend on them -- whose lives are about to be thrown into chaos. But it's a great reflection of the fundamental cowardice with which Trump has faced this issue. Rather than own up to his own decision and defend it, Trump this morning tweeted an exhortation to Congress to step up and solve the problem for him in some unspecified way.

Trump has let himself get jammed-up by nativist politicians who are more ideologically serious than he is. But rather than owning that decision -- and taking the hit with the broad public and the business community that would entail -- he's trying to punt, fudge, and avoid responsibility.


Bad Astronomy - Climate Science Denier Rep. Jim Bridenstine to be Nominated as NASA's Cheif

But where this really goes wrong is Bridenstine's very loud and strident denial of climate science.

Since he's a Republican from Oklahoma, this perhaps isn't surprising, but the breadth and depth of his denial is cause for great concern. He was elected to Congress in late 2012, and immediately launched into climate science denial grandstanding.

In June 2013, he gave a one-minute speech on the floor of Congress regurgitating straight-up denial propaganda...

But there's more, and this is critical. In 2013, when he had been in Congress just a few months, he sponsored a bill that would have gutted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's climate research, funneling that money instead into weather warning. While the latter is important, we do spend quite a bit on that already, and at the same time NOAA's research into climate leads the world and is an absolutely critical resource. This bill would have been atrocious and incredibly damaging, but happily it didn't pass.


Washington Post Op-ed - The Justice Department is squandering progress in forensic science

During the past decade, thanks largely to a 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences, we have made important progress in ridding our nation's courtrooms of such scenarios [faulty convictions]. But the Justice Department's recent decision to not renew the National Commission on Forensic Science -- the primary forum through which scientists, forensic lab technicians, lawyers and judges have worked together to guide the future of forensic science -- threatens to stall and even reverse that progress.


Reveal News - Trump administration suddenly pulls plug on teen pregnancy programs

The Trump administration has quietly axed $213.6 million in teen pregnancy prevention programs and research at more than 80 institutions around the country, including Children's Hospital of Los Angeles and Johns Hopkins University.

The decision by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will end five-year grants awarded by the Obama administration that were designed to find scientifically valid ways to help teenagers make healthy decisions that avoid unwanted pregnancies.

The elimination of two years of funding for the five-year projects shocked the professors and community health officials around the country who run them.

Health officials say cutting off money midway through multiyear research projects is highly unusual and wasteful because it means there can be no scientifically valid findings. The researchers will not have the funds to analyze data they have spent the past two years collecting or incorporate their findings into assistance for teens and their families.


Industrial Equipment News - Blog: Tariffs on Foreign Steel Are a Bad Idea

In order to restore American steel's flagging fortunes, the Trump administration has been exploring increased tariff or quota restrictions on steel imports, citing national security concerns.

Trump upped the ante this month in an exchange with reporters on Air Force One:

"Steel is a big problem... I mean, they're dumping steel. Not only China, but others. We're like a dumping ground, OK? They're dumping steel and destroying our steel industry. They've been doing it for decades, and I'm stopping it. It'll stop."

My research focuses on the politics of trade, including the use of restrictions like tariffs. A look back at the last time a president slapped tariffs on steel is illuminating for the current debate.

The impact of steel tariffs on other domestic manufacturers such as construction and automotive manufacturing is likely to be bad. However, the bigger concern would be that the WTO again rule such tariffs to be in violation of U.S. trade commitments. Such an event would likely touch off a trade war between the U.S. and its major trading partners, particularly the European Union.


Vanity Fair - Trump Wants a "Transparent" Border Wall to Prevent Injuries from Falling "Sacks of Drugs": That way when cartels "throw the large sacks of drugs over," Trump says, agents can see them.

Trump went on to say that the wall needs one thing: transparency. "You have to be able to see through it," he explained. "In other words, if you can't see through that wall--so it could be a steel wall with openings, but you have to have openings because you have to see what's on the other side of the wall."

The wall needs to be see-through, the president continued, because drug dealers may otherwise throw large bags of drugs over the wall to the other side, and hit innocent passers-by. "As horrible as it sounds, when they throw the large sacks of drugs over, and if you have people on the other side of the wall, you don't see them--they hit you on the head with 60 pounds of stuff? It's over," he added. "As crazy as that sounds, you need transparency through that wall. But we have some incredible designs."

How in the hell did this man get elected?


Vox - A new interview reveals Trump's ignorance to be surprisingly wide-ranging: He doesn't know what he doesn't know.

But reading the transcript of Donald Trump's recent interview with three New York Times reporters, two things stand out. One is the sheer range of subjects that Trump does not understand correctly -- from French urban planning to health insurance to Russian military history to where Baltimore is to domestic policy in the 1990s to his own regulatory initiatives. The other is that Trump is determined, across the board, to simply bluff and bluster through rather than admitting to any uncertainty or gaps in his knowledge.
The complete interview is a little bit hard to parse, since Trump keeps ducking off the record and the transcript interrupts. But it really is worth taking in the whole thing -- the scope is breathtaking.

Headings from the article:

  • Trump doesn't seem to know what health insurance is
  • Trump confuses two different Napoleons
  • Trump misdescribes his tax plan
  • Trump doesn't know American political history
  • Trump makes lots of weird, trivial errors
  • Trump's combination of ignorance and arrogance is dangerous

Friday, September 1, 2017

Friday Trump & Politics Roundup - 19, The Disgraceful Arpaio Pardon

Donald TrumpThis is my semi-regular feature to post links to articles about Donald Trump along with excerpts from those articles. Trump has the potential to cause so much damage to our country and the world that it's every citizen's responsibility to keep pressure on him and our other elected officials to try to minimize the damage. To read previous entries in this series and other Trump related posts, check out my Trump archives.

It's been a little while since I've done one of these posts, partly because I was on vacation, and partly because I've been busy with other things. I have a back log of articles to post in the next entry, but right now, there's one act by Trump so disgraceful and worrying that I'm going to focus solely on it - the pardon of Joe Arpaio.

New York Magazine - Trump Flaunts His Indifference to the Rule of Law

Even a week later, the stench of it hangs in the air. The pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio is one of the more chilling authoritarian moves that Trump has made so far. I say this not simply because Arpaio treated prisoners in his charge in barbaric ways; not just because the president described this brutality as Arpaio simply "doing his job"; not even because Arpaio proudly and constantly engaged in racial profiling, making Latino citizens and noncitizens alike afraid to leave their own homes. I say it for a simpler reason: because it is Trump's deepest indication yet that the rule of law means nothing to him.
It is a pardon seemingly designed to blow a raspberry at the court system, and tell anyone in law enforcement or border control or ICE or anywhere for that matter that, if you commit brutal or illegal acts, the big man has your back. / This is government as an unaccountable, legally immune thug.


Rolling Stone - Why Trump's Arpaio Pardon Is So Terrifying: This isn't how things are supposed to work in a country that adheres to the rule of law

Before getting to the egregiousness of the misdemeanor pardon, it's worth briefly surveying Arpaio's violations of the Constitution and other abuses of power. For example, he violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment by subjecting pre-trial detainees - that is, people who have not been convicted of a crime and are presumed innocent - to dangerously high temperatures and contaminated food. Arpaio erected an outdoor jail in Phoenix known as Tent City that he himself referred to as a "concentration camp" and which remained in use for more than two decades. Numerous prisoners died in his jails, and the county paid out millions of dollars in wrongful death damages and settlements. Arpaio also had critics in government and the media arrested, resulting in the county having to make further payouts. (There's more; for a fuller picture, see the Phoenix New Times' reporting highlights.)
By pardoning someone with Arpaio's history of illegally targeting racial minorities, Trump endorsed the use of policing practices to deprive people of color of their rights under the Constitution. Furthermore, by pardoning Arpaio for the specific crime of defying a court order, Trump announced his intention to free his cronies from accountability for lawbreaking, raising the possibility that he will discourage his campaign associates from providing evidence in the Russia investigation with the promise of pardons if they are held in contempt of Congress or the courts.
That is precisely the opposite of how things are supposed to work in a country that adheres to the rule of law, in which the rules are supposed to apply to even those with the most power and connections. The U.S. system of checks and balances is designed to constrain the power of elected officials. But Trump appears prepared to use his pardon power to make an end run around the judiciary, gutting its ability to enforce its orders that the Constitution be obeyed. The pardon power is broad, but if Trump is going to use it to obstruct justice, Congress needs to stop him.


The Daily Show

And here's why Trump's pardon is an even bigger deal than merely condoning Arpaio's illegal actions. Remember how the three branches of government are supposed to be equal? Well, convicting someone of contempt is the one and only way the judicial branch can put muscle behind its decisions. So when the President of the United States steps in and pardons someone's contempt conviction, he's essentially rendering the courts powerless.
It feels like Trump did this, not just to reward Arpaio's loyalty, but to send a message to all his other cronies from the campaign, 'Hey guys, good news. We get our own set of laws. You don't need to cooperate with Mueller in the Russia investigation. I'll just pardon you.'

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A Parable of Puppies and God

PuppyImagine that you have a puppy that you know likes to chew on garden hoses (yes, that's personal experience). You've tried training him, and maybe he's even been getting better, but you know he's still not perfect. Well, you've been using the hose for a day's worth of chores in the back yard. And when you're all finished up with the chores, you see the hose laying out, and it crosses your mind that if you leave the puppy unattended in the backyard, there's a good chance he's going to chew on the hose and ruin it. But you're tired and don't really feel like rolling up the hose, so you take your chances. You go inside to relax in the a/c and have a beer or two, while you leave the puppy playing outside. Well, later that night, you go out to find the hose destroyed because the puppy chewed on it. Is the puppy really entirely to blame for the situation? Sure, what he did was wrong, and he was disobedient to the way you'd been training him. But you knew that was one of the puppy's shortcomings, and you left the hose out there, anyway. The whole situation could have been avoided if you'd just put the hose away and not tempted the puppy.

The Bible tells the story of an all knowing and all powerful god, who created a garden of paradise with everything every creature would ever need. And he created humans, knowing their faults even better than you knew the puppy's (faults that he must have created on purpose, since he is, after all, all knowing and all powerful). And then, this god put the one thing that could wreck the entire situation right in the middle of the garden - the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And then, he just tells these innocents not to eat from it. Hell, he hadn't even given his newly created humans any sense of good and evil, because they could only get that by eating from the tree. He didn't even put a fence around it! Oh, and he also created a serpent that he must have had a good idea would try to tempt his humans.

So, the 'unexpected' (cough, cough) happened, and the humans were tempted into eating the fruit of this tree. And God found out. Now, if you found a ruined hose that your puppy had chewed, you might be tempted to scold him or yell at him. But you sure as hell wouldn't physically injure the dog. But what did God do? He cursed ALL women, not just the one who ate the fruit, to have painful childbirth, and to be ruled over by their husbands. And he cursed ALL men to endless days of toil. And, he kicked humanity out of the garden. And according to certain fundamentalist religions, the Fall precipitated all manner of other negative consequences on the whole universe. And remember, this was supposed to be an all knowing God. So, unless he was completely incompetent, it seems like he was setting Adam and Eve up for failure on purpose.

And it doesn't get any better. Throughout the rest of the Bible, there are all types of other examples of this character acting cruelly - the massacre of Noah's flood, the plagues of Egypt (remember, God himself hardened Pharaoh's heart on several occasions to prolong this suffering just so that God could show off - and he punished all Egyptians, even their slaves), Job, the genocides when the Israelites conquered the promised land, and worst of all, Hell to punish souls for eternity for finite sins.

In the Bible, God is always the source of the worst suffering and atrocities in the stories. Sure, the stories are told from the point of view of people afraid of that god and groveling lest they suffer even more, but it's pretty clear who the Big Bad is. From a reality viewpoint, I'm not mad at God, because God's not real. But in the framework of the fictional stories written about him, God's the villain, and you would like to see him get his comeuppance (which, thanks to another fictional story, His Dark Materials, we do finally get to see).

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

---

This entry was adapted from a Quora answer, How mad are atheists at God, on a scale of 1 to 10?

Monday, August 21, 2017

Eclipse Watching

I was all set to break out my daughter's Astroscan telescope with the sun viewing screen for the eclipse. But when I went to go grab the sun viewing screen last night, it wasn't where I thought it was. And for a variety of home improvement & other reasons, our house is a bit of a mess right now, so further searching for the screen proved fruitless. But, at least I still had the telescope itself and the lenses. And I happened to come across a creative idea on Google this morning - a homemade sun funnel (directions from NASA). So I took a bit of an early lunch break, ran to Walmart, and bought everything I'd need to make it, then came back, and with the help of a co-worker (I have a broken foot right now and didn't want to go tramping around the shop), got it all put together just in time for the eclipse. Here are a few photos of what we saw here in Wichita Falls - the first showing our setup, the second at the max obscuration, and the third a little later, but with my camera's brightness adjusted to make the sun spots more clear.

Eclipse Viewing Setup
Eclipse at Max Obscuration for Wichita Falls
Eclipse Viewing Setup
(Click on images to embiggen.)

Since we're engineers, we also couldn't resist taking measurements. We pulled out a tape measure, and took the following measurements from the image projected on the screen:

Eclipse 2017 Measurements in Wichita Falls

Assuming the same diameter for the moon and sun, those measurements correspond to a max obscuration of 82.5%. According to NASA, max obscuration where we were watching was 77.44% - not too bad for our less than precise methods.

Anyway, it was a nice little diversion today at work, going out every half hour or so to check on the eclipse's progress. One guy's wife and son even showed up to take a look. And the homemade sun funnel worked great - though I already have ideas for minor improvements before the next eclipse.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Why I Like Wichita Falls

The Falls of Wichita FallsI just recently came across and answered a Quora question, Do you like Wichita falls, TX?. Out of all the answers I've written for Quora, I suspect this is one of the most niche answers. So, to help maybe a few more people see it, and for anybody who might be interested, here's my answer (slightly edited).

---

Yes, I like Wichita Falls, Texas. I moved here back in 2001, in my early 20s. As a point of reference, before that, I'd grown up / lived in Pennsylvania (outside of Pottstown, on the edge of Pennsylvania Dutch Country), Maryland (outside Frederick, before it built up like it is now), and inside the D.C. beltway (College Park and Greenbelt, and working in Crystal City and Alexandria).

Now, I'm not one of those people who says, I wasn't born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could. I mean, if I could by magic live back in the northeast but instantly arrive in Texas for my job and to visit my friends/family here whenever I wanted, I'd probably do it. And Wichita Falls was certainly a culture shock coming straight from D.C. But Wichita Falls grows on you.


The Good:

Perfect Sized City - Wichita Falls has around 100,000 people. That's big enough that there are enough major stores to support everything you need - Walmart (obviously), Kohls, Penney's, Lowes, Home Depot, Sam's, Ross, Academy, O'Reilly's, Autozone, furniture stores, etc. There are also plenty of restaurants, both chains and local places. Granted, we don't have every major store or restaurant chain, but we have enough.

Barbecue - Speaking of restaurants, if you're comparing Wichita Falls to cities in the northeast or the West Coast, barbecue is one of America's greatest culinary gifts to the world. Smoked brisket and sausage are delicious, and there are a few good local places around here to get it. Or, once you make a few friends, you'll probably meet someone with their own smoker.

No Traffic - Compared to bigger cities, traffic in Wichita Falls is minimal. There are a few shopping areas where the traffic has picked up a bit in the time I've been here, but nothing too bad. We always joke that you can get anywhere in Wichita Falls, from anywhere else in Wichita Falls, in less than 10 minutes (some trips may be more like 15). Compared to my in-laws down in the DFW metroplex, that's great. It can take them 10 minutes just to get to the closest grocery store.

No Crowds - Last time I visited my parents up in Maryland and went shopping at Costco, I was overwhelmed by the crowds. No matter where I tried to stand, I could never find an out of the way corner. It was just people, people, everywhere. Wichita Falls is much more laid back. You can shop in relative peace no matter where you go, or walk down the sidewalks in downtown without being caught up in a sea of people.

Generally Helpful People - I've always been the type of person to stop and help someone broken down in an intersection. But here in Wichita Falls, by the time I pull over and make my way over to their car, there's usually a group of other people who've done the same thing, so we end up with a team of people to push the car somewhere safer.

Major Cities Nearby - Making up for the lack of major cultural attractions in Wichita Falls, we have bigger cities within a 2 hr drive - Oklahoma City to the north, and the DFW metroplex to the southeast. DFW is actually the 4th largest metropolitan area in the U.S., behind only New York, L.A., and Chicago, so you know that DFW is going to have a lot of everything - museums, theater, stores, zoos, restaurants, Six Flags, major leage sports, etc.

Local Cultural Attractions - The previous point doesn't mean that Wichita Falls doesn't have anything like that. We have two community theaters, several local museums, an indoor football team, a reviving downtown and art scene, etc. If you keep an eye out for announcements, there's almost always something going on. It's just that a lot of it isn't quite to the same caliber as what you'd find in a bigger city. (Sadly, we no longer have an ice hockey team - they just announced in April that this was their final season - End of era for Wildcats and their loyal supporters).

Local Traditions - A town like Wichita Falls has a lot of local traditions - the Old High vs. Rider football game, mums, Midwestern State University's homecomeing celebrations, debutantes, cotillion (this, not the dance), etc. My daughter has grown up her whole life here, so she really gets to be a part of all these traditions.

More Multicultural Than You'd Expect - There are two reasons for this. There's a NATO Training Air Force Base in town, so we have a large number of foreign military personnel and their families. The local university, Midwestern State, also actively recruits from foreign countries, especially the Caribbean. So, the Caribbean Student Union puts on a CaribFest every year. The Germans host an OktoberFest every year. The Dutch host the Queen's Birthday. There's a lot more multiculturalism than you'd expect from a smallish Texas town.

Inexpensive Cost of Living - Here's a link - Wichita Falls, Texas Cost of Living. Housing, especially, is less expensive in Wichita Falls than many other areas around the country. I love the house we have, but know it would cost a fortune back in the regions where I grew up.


The Bad:

Politics - Wichita Falls is about as red as you can get. Maybe that would be a plus for some people, but it drives me up the wall. For example, here are the Wichita County 2016 Election results. Straight Party tickets were 15,302 Republican vs. 4,870 Democratic. Trump won 27,609 votes, compared to only 8,752 for Clinton. Our representative in the State Board of Education has pushed for creationism in the classroom. Related to that (and religion - see below), we also have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation.

Religion - This is another that depends on your personal views, but Wichita Falls is way too religious for my taste (I happen to be an atheist - which I don't volunteer freely to just anyone I meet here given the). Just about any public dinner, whether a school function, Girl Scouts, an Air Force event, or anything else, starts with a prayer, not to mention PTA meetings, and even during an emergency city council meeting a couple years ago. Wednesday night church services are common, in addition to going on Sunday. My daughter's high school biology teacher started off the unit on evolution by saying that she was a Christian and didn't believe in it, but it was part of the curriculum so they had to get through it. On the plus side, going to Walmart on a Sunday morning means absolutely no lines at the cash register.

Racism - Yes, I know racism is an issue everywhere. Back where I lived in Maryland, the local KKK headquarters was just a few towns north of me. And not everybody here is a racist. But the people who are racist are much more open about it. I had a guy at a bar complain to me about "n*ggers" right after a black guy sitting next to us got up to leave. I've had coworkers complain about good white girls dating black guys. I was at a party a few miles out of town in the country where a few guys started talking about whether or not to go burn a cross in a house where a black family had just moved in (they didn't, but guess where I've never gone back). Iowa Park, a town about 15 minutes away, is even worse. My wife and her black friend were refused service at a restaurant. Some black friends of ours who used to live there always came to Wichita Falls to grocery shop because of all the stares they got in Iowa Park (they were military, and didn't realize the town's reputation before moving in).

Climate - It's not quite the desert, but it's right on the edge. It gets hot in the summer. One year, we had over 100 days in a row where the high exceeded 100°F, and you can usually expect at least a few days every summer to exceed 110°F. The all time high was 117°F. Though, I will say that you get used to it. 100° days don't really phase me anymore. And it also means you get plenty of use out of a swimming pool - not like my friends' pools in PA growing up.

It's also pretty dry. If you want to grow a garden or flowers, you definitely have to water, since you can't rely on the rain. We just got out of a horrible drought, that was so bad we resorted to recycling treated waste water directly back into the drinking water supply ("Toilet to tap" wastewater recycling begins in Texas city). And with global warming, I only suspect droughts like that will become more common.

But when it does rain, especially in the summer, it can come in buckets. The rains that ended the last major drought actually caused flooding, and we were one forecasted storm away from a catastrophic flood (the reason for the aforementioned emergency city council meeting).

Winters aren't great, either. The thermometer shows a warmer temperature than the areas where I grew up, but the wind just cuts right through you. It's cold enough to make you uncomfortable, but not quite cold enough to give you much snow to have fun in. Though, you can expect one good snowfall per winter - just don't expect the snow to last more than a day or two before it melts. And since snow and freezing rain are so uncommon, the local governments don't invest much in equipment to handle it, so the roads are really bad when it does happen.

Geography - There are a few tiny hills around town, but not many. We're in the North Central Plains. So, if you like variation, head down to the Texas Hill Country, or North to the Wichita Mountains (a great day trip), but don't expect to see too much of interest in Wichita Falls. And don't expect to see many real trees outside what people have planted in their yards. Mesquite has taken over just about everywhere, along with not uncommon patches of cactus.

---

So, on the whole, I like it in Wichita Falls. It may not have been my first choice, but now that I have roots here, I plan to stay a while. I'd much rather be here than anywhere in the DFW Metroplex. Wichita Falls has the feel of a big small town, where you know or know of just about everybody, but with enough amenities to be comfortable. And even though there are some racists, bigots, and religious zealots, there are enough good people to counter them (and everywhere has their fair share, anyway). And there are big cities close enough by to get your fill of 'culture' without having to deal with the traffic on a day to day basis.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Friday Trump & Politics Roundup - 18

Donald TrumpThis is my semi-regular feature to post links to articles about Donald Trump along with excerpts from those articles. Trump has the potential to cause so much damage to our country and the world that it's every citizen's responsibility to keep pressure on him and our other elected officials to try to minimize the damage. To read previous entries in this series and other Trump related posts, check out my Trump archives.

Obviously, there's a lot more news that I haven't included here. Bad news comes out of the Trump administration and Republican controlled House and Senate too fast for me to keep up with it all. (I wonder if that's a strategy - overwhelm the public with so much that people can't be outraged about everything.)

And damn, these posts are so freakin' depressing. If I just quit giving a damn about other people, I suppose I could ignore Trump and all the damage he's causing and just enjoy my own comfortable little bubble. But these are literally life and death stakes. His Mexico City policy is going to kill tens of thousands of people. The new Republican healthcare bill could kill tens of thousands per year more.

How in the hell did we get here as a nation where we've voted in such horrible politicians? The 4th of July is coming up in just a couple weeks, and I'm struggling with how to celebrate pride in America when I'm so disgusted and embarrassed with the current state of government. Setting off fireworks and waving flags seem hollow when an incompetent proto-fascist demagogue like Trump is leading the nation.


HAI Press Release - Helicopter Association International Strongly Opposes President Trump's Air Traffic Control Privatization Plan

Helicopter Association International (HAI) today joined other national organizations in opposing privatization of the nation's air traffic control (ATC) system.

These organizations signed a joint letter to President Donald Trump, expressing concerns that the plan would directly and significantly benefit the airline industry while destabilizing the current successful ATC system and raising costs through user fees that would be passed on to consumers.

"All stakeholders on both sides of this issue acknowledge that we already have the safest, most efficient air traffic control system in the world," said Matt Zuccaro, president and CEO of HAI. "So what problem are they trying to solve?"

"This initiative appears to be an effort by the airlines for more control of the airspace and the airports," continued Zuccaro. "As we all witness the airlines struggling with their own internal technology issues and related problems, does it really make sense to hand over control of the best ATC system in the world to them?"

Related: Joint Letter from 16 Aviation Associations Regarding Trump's Proposal to Privatize Air Traffic Control (the letter mentioned above)

Related: PR Newswire - Airline Passenger Group Says Airline Control Of FAA Not The Answer

Related: National Air Transportation Association - Myths and Facts Surrounding Air Traffic Control Corporatization


Newsweek - Will Trump Visit U.K? After attack on Sadiq Khan, Theresa May Faces Calls to Cancel State Trip

[This was particularly shameful behavior from Trump. And baffling. How can you screw up foreign relations so badly with the U.K.? Who criticizes a mayor in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack?]

President Donald Trump's already controversial planned state visit to the United Kingdom has just become a whole lot more contentious. Multiple tweets attacking London mayor Sadiq Khan in the wake of Saturday's attack in London that left seven people dead have led several leading British politicians to call for Prime Minister Theresa May to cancel the invitation.

"Sadiq Khan has shown dignity and leadership," said Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats. "Theresa May absolutely must withdraw the state visit. This is a man insulting our national values at a time of introspection and mourning."

Those comments were slammed by senior Labour member of Parliament David Lammy.

"You are truly beneath contempt," he said in a series of tweets in reply to Trump. "You are just a troll. Show some bottle please PM. Cancel the state visit and tell Trump where to get off.

"You demean your office by misquoting and smearing the Mayor of a city that has just been attacked and is also the capital of your close ally. You besmirch the presidency, you taint previous Presidents with your behavior & you bring shame on your great country and its great people."

Related: The Guardian Editorial - The Guardian view on Trump's state visit to the UK: his invitation should be rescinded

Related: The Guardian - Trump's state visit to Britain put on hold: US president told Theresa May he did not want trip to go ahead if there were large-scale public protests


Industrial Equipment News - Energy Chief: Carbon Dioxide Not Prime Driver of Warming: His view is contrary to mainstream climate science.

Asked on CNBC's "Squawk Box" whether carbon emissions are primarily responsible for climate change, Perry said no, adding that "most likely the primary control knob is the ocean waters and this environment that we live in."

Perry's view is contrary to mainstream climate science, including analyses by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The EPA under President Donald Trump recently removed a web page that declared "carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas that is contributing to recent climate change."


Nature Op-ed - Fight the silencing of gun research

In the half-century since the assassination of Martin Luther King, more civilians in the United States have been killed with guns than American soldiers have died in all US wars since the nation was founded in 1776. Currently, on an average day, about 300 Americans are shot and 100 die from gunshot wounds -- in murders, attempted suicides or accidents (see go.nature.com/2qnp4m2).
Yet the US government, at the behest of the gun lobby, limits the collection of data, prevents researchers from obtaining much of the data that are collected and severely restricts the funds available for research on guns. I have watched this first-hand, being one of a half-dozen or so gun researchers in the United States who has continuously published in this field over the past two decades.
Because of a two-decade stranglehold on US gun research, there are few, if any, scientific studies for people to refer to when promoting or countering proposed changes to gun control. Policymakers are essentially flying blind for what is currently classified as the third leading cause of US injury and death, after motor vehicles and opioids (see go.nature.com/2rpky2y).
Alarmingly, the gun lobby is increasingly aligning itself with a broad political movement that sees science not as a search for truth and understanding, but as a tool for promoting partisan agendas (see go.nature.com/2sderwh). The American Bar Association and many medical societies have spoken out on the firearm funding limitations imposed by Congress. Now all scientific associations need to add their voices.


Vox - World leaders tell jokes about Trump. But the implications aren't funny at all.

It's one thing when American late-night TV show hosts and online commenters make fun of President Donald Trump. It becomes something completely different -- and, frankly, alarming -- when world leaders mock the president.
But even though Turnbull thought his comments were off the record, he was still mocking the US president as a pompous clown in front of a room full of journalists and fellow politicians. When viewed in a wider context, that's more than a bit unnerving. This is an ally of the United States blatantly demonstrating that he doesn't take the president seriously.


Washington Post Op-ed - Trump said foreign leaders wouldn't laugh at the U.S. Now they're laughing at him.

"In the private conversations I've had with heads of states and ministers of foreign relations ... they all feel what Turnbull just basically came out and said: This is, by far, the least capable person ever to sit in the office and it's appalling they have to deal with him," said Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, a global risk-assessment firm. "Even in a country that really needs to have a good relationship with the United States, you're just not willing to deal with it. Your own ego will say, 'Screw this guy.' "


Vox - Trump wants to deport Iraqi Christians. A federal judge may have just saved them.: ICE officials arrested dozens of Iraqi Christian nationals over the weekend of June 10th in Michigan. The ACLU is fighting to keep them home.

When more than 100 Iraqi Chaldean Christians in Michigan were arrested and threatened with immediate deportation the weekend of June 10th, the Trump administration's oft-repeated promises to protect Christians around the world rang not just darkly hollow but demonstrably false. After all, local activists argued, deporting Christians back to the war zones of Iraq was tantamount to a death sentence.
"Not only is it immoral to send people to a country where they are likely to be violently persecuted, it expressly violates United States and international law and treaties," Kary Moss, the executive director of the ACLU of Michigan told the Huffington Post soon after the arrests. "Our immigration policy shouldn't amount to a death sentence for anyone."


Vox - John Oliver: it's time for Trump to stop lying to coal miners

Oliver points out that the coal industry employs fewer people than JC Penny ("I didn't even know JC Penny had employees anymore!") but, to his credit, takes the suffering of coal communities seriously.

In fact, he takes it so seriously that he dares to tell them the truth. Oliver does two things that are rare in mainstream media reports about coal. First, he cites research showing that competition from natural gas and renewables, not Obama regulations, is killing US coal.

Second, he makes clear that the interests of coal miners and coal executives often diverge -- that it's coal CEOs, not coal miners, that Trump is close to. In fact, coal executives are in the process of trying to screw over retired miners as we speak.

Related: Washington Post Fact Checker - Pruitt's claim that 'almost 50,000 jobs' have been gained in coal [Spoiler - It's a lie.]


NY Times Op-ed - Paul Krugman - Pure Class Warfare, With Extra Contempt

he Senate version of Trumpcare - the Better Care Reconciliation Act - is out. The substance is terrible: tens of millions of people will experience financial distress if this passes, and tens if not hundreds of thousands will die premature deaths, all for the sake of tax cuts for a handful of wealthy people. What's even more amazing is that Republicans are making almost no effort to justify this massive upward redistribution of income. They're doing it because they can, because they believe that the tribalism of their voters is strong enough that they will continue to support politicians who are ruining their lives.
This bill does nothing to reduce health care costs. It does nothing to improve the functioning of health insurance markets - in fact, it will send them into death spirals by reducing subsidies and eliminating the individual mandate. There is nothing at all in the bill that will make health care more affordable for those currently having trouble paying for it. And it will gradually squeeze Medicaid, eventually destroying any possibility of insurance for millions.

Who benefits? It's all about the tax cuts, almost half of which will go to people with incomes over $1 million, the great bulk to people with incomes over 200K.

Related: Vox - The Better Care Reconciliation Act: the Senate bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, explained


Vox - The health bill might pass because Trump has launched the era of Nothing Matters politics

Since taking office, his signature values -- showmanship, shamelessness, and corruption -- have spread like kudzu in official Washington. It's now a country where Cabinet secretaries go on television to lie and claim that a $600 billion cut to Medicaid won't cause anyone to lose coverage. It's a country where the speaker of the House introduces an amendment to erode protections for patients with preexisting conditions and then immediately tweets that it's just been "VERIFIED" (by whom?) that the opposite is happening. Republican senators who a couple of months ago were criticizing the House bill's Medicaid cuts as too harsh are now warming up to a Senate bill whose cuts are even harsher.

The watchwords of Trump-era politics are "LOL nothing matters." If you're in a jam, you just lie about it. If you're caught in an embarrassing situation, you create a new provocation and hope that people move on. Everything is founded, most of all, on the assumption that the basic tribal impulses of negative partisanship will keep everyone on their side, while knowing that gerrymandering means Republicans will win every toss-up election. If you happened to believe that Republicans in office would deliver on their health care promises, well, you might be interested in a degree from Trump University.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Responding to Article - Atheists Aren't Dogmatic

eSkepticThe latest issue of Skeptic magazine had an article with a few things I disagree with. Skeptic recently shared the article in their eSkeptic section, so you can read it even if you aren't a member of the Skeptics Society. Here's the link:

The Three Shades of Atheism: How Atheists Differ in Their Views on God

The authors conducted a survey to try to help categorize atheist beliefs and the percentage of atheists with those beliefs. They came up with 4 categories to characterize atheist responses. Unfortunately, I think their categories are flawed.

Gnostic-Atheism: Any explicit or implied characterization of the participant's position as certain or definite.

Agnostic-Atheism: Any effort made to distinguish between a "belief" and "knowledge" position; or participants who indicate that they are open to evidence: they describe their belief as malleable and open to changing based on new information, evidence, or "proof."

Ambivalent-Atheism: Any use of the phrase "I don't know" or "I am not sure," or similar characterizations of belief, without further explanation.

Other: Any statement that does not fit the criteria of the other categories.

The problem is, their definitions for 'gnostic-atheism' and 'agnostic-atheism' aren't mutually exclusive. You can be certain of something based on all the evidence you've seen so far, but still open to changing your mind if new evidence comes to light. I discussed this in detail in my essay, Confidence in Scientific Knowledge, so for this entry, let's just look at a few other knowledge claims as examples.

  • I am certain the Earth revolves around the Sun. However, if somebody showed me convincing evidence to the contrary (and it would take a hell of a lot of evidence at this point), I could be convinced to change my mind.
  • I am certain that the American Revolution took place in the late 1700s. However, with sufficient evidence, I could be convinced to believe that all of our history books were wrong.
  • I am certain garden fairies don't exist. However, I could be swayed by convincing evidence.

As long as we're using language in the normal way, 'certain' just means very, very high confidence. And there are lots of things were reasonably certain about, but could be convinced to change our minds on given sufficient contrary evidence.

The conclusion was especially galling:

Gnostic-theists would be individuals who equate their beliefs with facts, dogmatically insisting that they have positive knowledge of God's existence. Agnostic-theists would be individuals who accept the distinction between belief and knowledge, thereby demonstrating a degree of skepticism about their own position, and would indicate that their belief is based on faith, intuition, or an interpretation of natural phenomena. A 5-level, bipolar scale relating theistic and atheistic beliefs would be:
  1. Gnostic-Atheism
  2. Agnostic-Atheism
  3. Nonbelief
  4. Agnostic-Theism
  5. Gnostic-Theism

The scale represents maximum darkness at both ends, the domains of dogmatic thinking. Maintaining a skeptical attitude toward one's own beliefs can be a challenge but, as the achievements of science have shown, it is a better route to enlightenment.

Were any of my previous examples 'dogmatic'? Is it dogmatic to be certain the Earth orbits the Sun? Is it dogmatic to be certain that fairies don't exist? Is it dogmatic to be certain that leprechauns aren't real? Is it dogmatic to be certain magic unicorns are just fantasy? Why, out of all the mythical and imagined possibilities dreamt up by humans, do gods get treated differently, and why does saying you're reasonably certain that gods don't exist get you labeled 'dogmatic'?

Image Source: Skeptics Society eSkeptic

---

Related Reading:
Answer to the Question - How sure are you that your atheism is correct?
 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Evolution in Action - Visualizing Bacteria Evolving Antibiotic Resistance

e. coliNot too long ago, I came across a question on Quora, Evolutionary biologists usually say that organisms adapt to their environment. Does this not contradict Darwinism?. It seemed like a good opportunity to explain how natural selection adapts organisms to their environments, and especially to use a recent experiment involving e. coli. Here's what I wrote, with some very minor edits.

---

I'm going to assume that by 'Darwinism', you mean natural selection. Organisms adapting to their environments is pretty much textbook natural selection, but let's go through an example to see what this means.

There was a very interesting experiment/demonstration last year involving bacteria and antibiotics. A team of researchers from Harvard Medical School and Technion - Israel Institute of Technology made in effect a giant petri dish - a rectangle 2 ft x 4 ft. The unique aspect of this petri dish, besides its size, was that it was divided into regions with varying concentrations of an antibiotic. Either end of the rectangle was free of antibiotic. The next region in had the minimum concentration to kill the e. coli bacteria that were the subject of the experiment. Each subsequent region moving in increased the concentration ten fold, until the center region, which had a concentration 1000 times higher than what would normally kill e. coli.

e. coli experiment setup
Image Source: Screen Capture from Video Shown Below
(Click to embiggen)


So, the researchers seeded the antibiotic free ends with e. coli, and then let them grow, taking periodic photos of the petri dish, and combinging them all into a time lapse movie. I'd really recommend watching the whole thing. It's really very interesting, with more explanation than what I've provided here, and only 2 minutes long.


So, let's take a closer look at one instant to see what exactly is going on. At one point, the tray looked like this:

e. coli experiment screenshot 1
Image Source: Screen Capture from Video Shown Above
(Click to embiggen)


So, the antibiotic free ends are completely colonized by bacteria. The two regions with the lowest concentration of antibiotic have just begun to be colonized. There are several small resistant colonies, and you can see where each one of those colonies got their starts. What happened was that the original e. coli, with no antibiotic resistance spread across the agar until they hit the antibiotic. Since they weren't resistant, that was as far as they could go without dying. But those e. coli kept on living and reproducing, with mutations appearing throughout the population. In bacteria that just happened to be at the boundary of the antibiotic, who also happened to acquire just the right mutations to make them resistant to the antibiotic, they now had a whole new environment opened up to them and their descendants.

Notice that there's really no pattern to where those colonies got their starts. It was basically random, because mutations are random. No bacteria were trying to evolve. No bacteria were attempting to figure out a strategy to survive the antibiotic. Bacteria don't even have brains to try to do any of that. It was just whatever bacteria happened to be lucky enough to acquire the appropriate mutations by chance, an error at the chemical level when copying DNA.

Once those first resistant bacteria entered this new region, they spread. Then, once they hit the region with 10x the antibiotic concentration, they were contained again, until a few more bacteria happened to acquire the proper mutations by luck, and had a new environment opened up to them and their descendants. This repeated, until the bacteria were eventually colonizing the region with 1000x the concentration of antibiotic that would have killed the original e. coli that seeded the plate:

e. coli experiment screenshot 2
Image Source: Screen Capture from Video Shown Above
(Click to embiggen)


So, these e. coli were adapting to their environment. However, it wasn't any conscious intent, or Lamarckian type of use and disuse. It was random mutations creating variation in the e. coli populations. Whichever e. coli happened to be lucky enough to have mutations to survive the antibiotic were the ones that thrived. Any e. coli that weren't lucky enough to have those mutations were limited to their existing environments.

This experiment had a pretty strong selection pressure with the antibiotic, but the same principles are at work in nature with other selection pressures. Whatever individuals happen to be lucky enough to acquire by chance the mutations best suited to an environment will be the ones that have the most offspring, increasing the frequency of whatever mutation that benefited them. Multiply this over generations, with natural selection 'ratcheting' additional mutations, so that the population becomes better and better suited to the environment. That is what is meant by saying that organisms adapt to their environment.

---

More info on the e. coli experiment:

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Friday, June 9, 2017

What Would Happn if Everybody on an Airliner Jumped at the Same Time?

Vomit CometI recently came across the Quora question, If everybody on a Boeing 747 jumped at the same time, what would happen to the plane?. The first answer I read was spectacularly wrong, and most of the others were either guesses, jokes, or just generalities without much substance. So, I did what any good engineer would do and calculated it. Here's what I wrote.

---

In general - not much is going to happen if everybody on a 747 jumps at the same time. Just from a big picture view - there is no major change to the external forces acting on the aircraft/passenger system. So, you would expect the combined center of gravity to continue along the same path. And since most people can't jump very high, and the aircraft weighs substantially more than the passengers, the aircraft isn't going to be affected much at all.

In general, when the passengers jump, they'll push the aircraft down slightly, in proportion to their own mass and how far they jumped up. Then, since the lift didn't go away on the aircraft, the lift will first slow down the aircraft's slight descent, then cause the aircraft to start to climb again as the passengers start to fall.

But we don't have to just hand-wave an answer. We've got equations - we can calculate what will happen. So, I made a super simple model of this, with one mass to represent the aircraft, and another to represent the passengers*.

According to Wikipedia, a 747-400ER can hold 660 passengers, and has max takeoff weight of 910,000 lbs. According to FAA Advisory Circular 120-27E, average adult passenger weight in the winter, including "a 16-pound allowance for personal items and carry-on bags" is 195 lbs. Assuming the plane is full of adults, and that they're not going to be holding their carry-ons when they jump, that's 179 lbs per passenger, or a total of 118,140 lbs for all the passengers combined. That leaves 791,860 lbs for the aircraft itself.

For the forces, I assumed that the passengers jumping would be applying a constant force 2x their weight for 0.2 seconds. For the lift on the 747, I assumed that it would remain unchanged. Granted, there will be a small change in angle of attack (not pitch) due to the changes in vertical velocity, but I assumed it would be negligible.

So, what actually happens? This:

Δh vs. t

For passengers jumping ~1.3 ft into the air, the airframe itself will dip ~0.2 ft (2.4 in). Unsurprisingly - that's the same ratio as passenger weight to aircraft weight (confirming that the combined center of gravity does indeed continue on the same path unaltered). As the passengers reach the apex of their leap, the 747 reaches the bottom of its dip, and they quickly come back in contact again in less than a second.

I did skip out on what happens when they come back in contact, since I only did a super simple model and didn't really feel like spending a lot of time on it. They won't come smacking into each other. Rather, it'll probably be something like a mirror image of the jump, where the passengers flex their legs as they land to cushion the coming back together.

And of course, if you change up the assumptions, this will all change accordingly, but this puts the whole thing into perspective, showing the magnitudes and general behavior.

---

*Here's a fuller description of the simple model, attempting to put it terms that most people can understand. Like I said, I broke the system up into 2 bodies - one for the 747, and one for the passengers. Here's a diagram of the forces acting on each body (insert joke about spherical cows here):

Free Body Diagram

Note first of all that I'm only looking at forces in the vertical direction, since that's the only thing changing in this problem. Thrust and drag are staying constant, so the speed of the aircraft isn't going to change. Next, note that thanks to Newton's Third Law, we know that the force the passengers are pushing down on the 747 is the same magnitude but in the opposite direction as the force that the 747 is pushing up on the passengers. That's the magenta arrow on each body. Finally, note that that's the only force that changes during the entire problem. The weight of the aircraft is essentially constant. The weight of the passengers is essentially constant. And like I already explained up above, I assumed that the lift remained constant. So, here are graphs of what those forces look like, with an additional solid curve showing the net forces on each body (or the summation of forces, designated with the Σ label):

Forces on 747


Forces on Pax

Note that just before the jump, everything was in equilibrium, with no net forces. As the passengers jumped, they pushed down on the plane. Once they were in the air, that force, Fy_pax_to_747, went to zero, and then only lift and gravity were acting on the 747, and only gravity was acting on the passengers.

Next, we use Newton's second law, F=ma, to figure out the accelerations on the bodies. Since the force of the passengers jumping was modeled so simply as a constant force for 0.2 seconds, and all other forces were constant, the accelerations also all turned out to be constant.

a vs. t

For a constant acceleration, it's easy to calculate velocity, using the formula V2 = V1 + a*Δt. That produces accelerations over time that look like:

V vs. t

Finally, I used the velocities to calculate how far the bodies moved. I actually broke it up into 0.001 second increments, and did this linearly, with the simple formula h2 = h1 + V*Δt. That's not exactly accurate when velocity isn't constant. There are more exact formulas you can use, but when you break it up into such short segments, you're going to be very, very close. And with Excel, it's very easy to do this brute force approach. And doing that gave the graph I already showed up above, but which I'll repeat again here for completeness:

Δh vs. t

Image Source: NASA by way of Business Insider

Friday, June 2, 2017

H.P. Lovecraft - Overrated

I've recently been reading a collection of several H.P. Lovecraft short stories*. I was excited when I first bought the book. There are all these pop culture references on the Internet to the Cthulhu mythos, the Old Ones, "the complete irrelevance of mankind in the face of the cosmic horrors that apparently exist in the universe" (Wikipedia), and beings "so horrific that direct knowledge of them meant insanity for the victim" (Wikipedia again). Sounds like pretty deep stuff, like stories to make you really ponder the universe and humanity's place in it.

Well, I'm about halfway through the collection, and it's little more than B-movie quality plotlines. The monsters are basically just monsters, with a thin veneer of exposition about them being ancient aliens from distant corners of the universe. But that thin veneer doesn't really add much. Replace the alien aspects with more traditional magic, fairy tale, or fantasy elements, and the stories wouldn't really change. Once the monsters are finally unleashed towards the ends of the stories, they could just as easily be the Blob or a werewolf - generic, mindless killing machines.

But even worse is his writing style. There's a certain well known writing technique, Show, don't tell. Writers can go overboard with it or overuse it, but the point is to paint a picture with words, not just say what's going on. The classic example is, 'Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.' Well, it seems that H.P. Lovecraft never got the memo. Do you know how to tell if a scene is supposed to be scary in a Lovecraft story? The narrator will tell you it's scary, or he'll throw scary sounding adjectives into an otherwise normal description of a scene.

Consider this paragraph, from At the Mountains of Madness:

The effect of the monstrous sight was indescribable, for some fiendish violation of known natural law seemed certain at the outset. Here, on a hellishly ancient table-land fully 20,000 feet high, and in a climate deadly to habitation since a pre-human age not less than 500,000 years ago, there stretched nearly to the vision's limit a tangle of orderly stone which only the desperation of mental self-defence could possibly attribute to any but a conscious and artificial cause.

Pretty scare ruins, huh. You can tell because they're 'monstrous' and 'fiendish' and 'on a hellishly ancient' landscape, in a 'deadly' climate. And just a bit later, we learn that ,"It was, very clearly, the blasphemous city of the mirage in stark, objective, and ineluctable reality." But take away those adjectives, and you're left with merely an unusual set of ruins.

Or consider this paragraph, from The Dunwich Horror:

Morning found Dr. Armitage in a cold sweat of terror and a frenzy of wakeful concentration. He had not left the manuscript all night, but sat at his table under the electric light turning page after page with shaking hands as fast as he could decipher the cryptic text. He had nervously telephoned his wife he would not be home, and when she brought him a breakfast from the house he could scarcely dispose of a mouthful. All that day he read on, now and then halted maddeningly as a reapplication of the complex key became necessary. Lunch and dinner were brought him, but he ate only the smallest fraction of either. Toward the middle of the next night he drowsed off in his chair, but soon woke out of a tangle of nightmares almost as hideous as the truths and menaces to man's existence that he had uncovered.

This text that Armitage is translating is supposed to be terrifying, but we only know that because the narrator says Armitage is scared, and in a rather conventional way of having nightmares. You know what I have nightmares about, still? College finals. Not particularly horrifying.

Or consider this from The Call of Cthulhu;

Johansen, thank God, did not know quite all, even though he saw the city and the Thing, but I shall never sleep calmly again when I think of the horrors that lurk ceaselessly behind life in time and in space, and of those unhallowed blasphemies from elder stars which dream beneath the sea, known and favoured by a nightmare cult ready and eager to loose them on the world whenever another earthquake shall heave their monstrous stone city again to the sun and air.

Again, we know this is scary, because the narrator tells us how scared he is, followed by an adjective laden description of what he's scared of. But take away the spooky adjectives (unhallowed, nightmare, monstrous) and replace the over the top nouns (the Thing, horrors, blasphemies) with more neutral descriptions, and it's not really terrifying.

I would have quipped that the only way Lovecraft knew how to make a scary setting was with a thesaurus, but here's an article where someone counted how many times Lovecraft used certain words in his stories, Wordcount for Lovecraft's Favorite Words. As that person put it, "One of the things any fan of Lovecraft discovers early on is that Lovecraft was very attached to certain words. We either laugh or groan every time we hear something described as 'indescribable' or called 'unnamable' or 'antiquarian' or 'cyclopean.' "

Granted, I am being a little harsh. Lovecraft obviously wouldn't have had a following if he didn't describe scenes at all. But there are way too many sections where he doesn't show us how the story is scary. He just tells us it's scary, and uses distractingly bloated prose to try to convince us.

I will say that the stories aren't horrible. The big problem is that my expectations were too high. There's such a huge Lovecraft following on the Internet that I was expecting great, when the reality is only mediocre to decent. They're worth reading just to see what all the hubbub is about, but don't expect deep thought provoking stories that make you face "the complete irrelevance of mankind in the face of the cosmic horrors that apparently exist in the universe".


Out of the stories in the collection I'm reading, the two best by far are "At the Mountains of Madness" and "The Shadow out of Time". Despite the problems discussed above, they're actually pretty good and enjoyable to read. Just don't expect masterpieces.

And this review didn't even get into Lovecraft's racism, which was bad even for his time.

*The collection I'm reading isn't actually the product I linked to up above. The collection I'm reading is a 'bargain' book from Books-A-Million, The Essential Stories of H.P. Lovecraft, that I bought on a whim at the bookstore. However, for 1 novella and 6 short stories, it's $8 (I think I got it half off), while the complete collection I linked to, with 1 novel, 4 novellas, and 53 short stories is only $11.23, so I figured if anybody was actually going to follow the link and buy something, the complete collection was a much better deal. And for a nice hardcover, that's not a bad price. However, given that his writings are all in the public domain, you can read electronic versions for much cheaper, or even free. Here's one such collection, HPLovecraft.com - His Writings.

Archives

Buy My Book

Recent Comments

Selling Out



Powered by
Movable Type 5.12