Friday, July 30, 2010

"Klaatu barada nikto"

If you are not familiar with this phrase, you should be – these are the words one must utter to prevent the earth from being utterly reduced to a burned-out cinder. At least, that’s the story line from the classic 1951 science fiction film, "The Day the Earth Stood Still".

For those not familiar with the film’s plot; an alien ship from a far away solar system is dispatched to inform the Earthlings that their progress has not gone unnoticed among the Community of Planets. In actually their message for the inhabitants of Earth is a bit more draconian: they are compelled to deliver a stern warning to the aggressive and warlike human race against expanding their barbaric proclivities to the other peaceful planets. Oh and in case further admonishment proves inadequate for Earthlings to fully grasp; constable Gort, here (a robot), will ardently and dispassionately enforce the intergalactic law with absolute and devastating consequences.

The rather dire plot from “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was a product of our national fears of mutually-assured nuclear annihilation during the height of the Cold War. It was a time when many of my generation were taught to Duck and Cover in response to a surprise nuclear attack on our country.

But in thinking about this film I was drawn recently to ponder the method that space visitor Klaatu engaged in his attempt to convey his message to the whole of earth – he chose to seek out the best minds, the top scientists, the brightest intellects, in the hope that THEY would be the ones most likely to comprehend and successfully convince the global population of the dire nature of the message. It made me wonder – now, at a time when it seems we need it more than ever, where are the voices of the best minds, the scientists, the intellectuals today?

We are supposed to be living in The Information Age, yet our mass media is awash in an unmilled proliferation of facts, lies, opinions, conjecture and utter nonsense. Much of it is packaged as entertainment; quite often it is difficult to sort out which is which. Add to that the desire to pander to the lowest common denominator, packaged in sound bites, blurbs, jargon and catch phrases.

It’s no wonder we have trouble reconciling the limitless spectrum of ideas floating around. Recently the Boston Globe published a story (which was picked up by National Public Radio) reporting how facts SELDOM change people’s minds and can actually instead further confirm incorrect information in people’s minds.

There are hundreds of scientific, psychological, economic, sociological and other research organizations throughout the world which appear virtually untapped. Add to that the universities and foundations doing serious work (and I am not talking about political “spin” factory think tanks). Yet instead we are awash in the sea of banal talk show blather, profound stupidity and outright disinformation. And frankly, I’m getting quite fed up with the ubiquitous idiocy of Sarah Palin at every turn.

The base elements who have garnered most attention as of the last decade are blatantly anti-intellectual. Indeed, one of the prime “criticisms” leveled toward Obama during his campaign was that he was an “intellectual” (like that's a bad thing???) Twice the electorate demonstrated that Americans apparently preferred someone who was just like them; a dolt who they could share a beer with. (Unbeknownst to most of them, George Bush was a recovering alcoholic; he didn’t drink beer. But again, who needs facts!) These are now the very same simpletons who are decrying that the current administration is leading us into Communism or Fascism… complete with poster pictures of Obama with a Hitler moustache.

Yet frighteningly history records that the first steps that all Fascists regimes took on their road to power was to round up the intellectuals. Hitler did it, Stalin and Pol Pot as well… the list is long and it continues in areas of this globe even today. The intellectuals represent thought, reason, critical thinking – in short, potential opposition to those who would truly oppress us.

So that’s my question:

WHERE ARE THE VOICES OF THE BEST MINDS, THE TOP SCIENTISTS, THE BRIGHTEST INTELLECTS? And more importantly, when will they begin to become more fully engaged in the process of stewardship over our nations and our future?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Irony Lived

We are in the throes of moving from our home of 19 years to a newer, larger home across town. The amount of crap we have accumulated can only be described as nauseating. However, moving can provide a bit of amusement amid the chaos - case in point:

When we moved into this home almost two decades ago, among our kitchen wares we had a small glass mortar and pestle set. We used it in the kitchen to grind up spices or what have you. But I would say within a week, we had misplaced the pestle. Gone! Nowhere to be found. So we simply used the mortar as a syrup dispenser or ad-hoc creamer over the last 19 years.

Friday we began cleaning up dishes in preparation for them to be packed for the move. Nancy noticed the mortar had a large crack in the glass. Now of no use, and with the pestle long gone, we tossed the broken mortar into the trash.

Saturday Nancy was standing on a stool retrieving dishes from the uppermost cabinets. Calling to me to come in from the other room - there in her outstretched hand, one single day after the broken mortar had been discarded... was the missing pestle!

~ ~ ~

Editors note: The last household items to be dismantled and moved will be the computer room and equipment. I love visiting your blogs but may be offline for a few days until my Internet isolation can be restored. But, I'll be back (hopefully sans a major heart event).

Friday, July 23, 2010

"Ye shall know them by their fruits"

Pictured is a letter to the editor which a newspaper in the US actually deemed appropriate to publish. The existence of this letter was forwarded to me by an e-mail from an acquaintance.

Whether you are a "believer" or an Atheist, I think most would find the tone of this letter exceedingly inflammatory!


Which is why it is important to remain a Skeptic regarding ANY information that comes one's way.

From the Skeptic's friend, ... it should probably be noted that, as at lease one writer speculated, it was a complete joke."

The real story can be read here.

As we Skeptics oft do say; It's important to always keep an Open Mind - but not so open that your brains fall out.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

July 20 1949

Today July 20th is my birthday. I made it to 61 in fairly one piece minus an appendix, tonsils and a gall bladder. My crusty aortic valve apparently is the result of a manufacturer’s defect; however my mother already warned me that the warranty on my parts has long expired. So it will need replacing at my expense sometime in the near future.

All in all I’ve had a pretty good life. I have a very smart and beautiful wife – when we married we contributed to our partnership each a pair of bright, happy and healthy kids from previous spouses. Some of them in turn have begat another four raucous and happy grand kids who we thoroughly enjoy.

I was born in the best place one could possibly hail from: San Francisco, California. It is a remarkable city with a colorful history and a unique feel about it even today which is quite unlike any other city I have known. I’m very proud to claim it as my birthplace.

I am thoroughly happy with the name my parents gave me. I share it with many other Roberts of distinction: Robert Oppenheimer, Robert DuVall, Robert De Niro, Robert Frost, Robert Lewis Stevenson, "Robert the Bruce" of Scotland, Robert Hook (father of microscopy), Robert E. Lee. Robert is of Germanic origin meaning “bright”. It’s a versatile name; I can be Robert when austerity is called for yet be Bob when hanging out with family and friends. My mother once told me she had considered naming me “Steve” – I’m glad she didn’t, my three best friends growing up were all named Steve.

Remarkable events have fallen on my birthday over the years: July 20. In 1960 the first submarine fired a Polaris missile. Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon on my birthday in 1969. In 1994 Comet Shoemaker-Levy crashed into Jupiter.

I grew up under the fearful cloud of Communism yet I lived to witness it crumble into rubble in divided Berlin. I have seen two presidents shot, (one killed) the culmination of the Civil Rights movement and noted multiple revisions of the World Atlas as several countries changed their names. I’ve witnessed computers shrink from room size to the palm of my hand, I’ve watched (on black-and-white TV) the first surgery done on beating hearts and had my own life spared more than once by medically cultured bread mold.

I’ve not always loved my work, but I was always paid adequately and never had to give up my weekends or holidays. As a young adult I had aspired to be a movie director. That wish came true when I released my documentary, “Andrus” in 2008. The fact is that almost all of my fondest wishes eventually came true.

The overriding majority of the combined knowledge of all mankind has been accumulated during my lifetime. And I exist amongst the first generation of humans on this planet who may have unlocked the secrets to the very origins of our universe.

My home is situated in the most beautiful part of the most beautiful country on this planet. In my lifetimes I’ve known great food, fantastic sex, true friends and shared in the most profound gift of love.

And, for my birthday, my wife will be making me a spice cake with chocolate frosting - My absolute favorite! I couldn’t ask for a better life.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Solving a Cold Case

Recently airing on one of those “Strange, But True” genera TV shows was the curious case of beachcombers along the shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca near Vancouver BC encountering individual sneakers having washed up on the shore containing apparently severed human feet. Actually, several of these had been discovered which sparked a very creepy mystery and ensuing investigation. You can read a newspaper story here published in the “Vancouver Sun”.

Speculation quickly arose that some crazed murderer was severing his victim’s feet and throwing them into Strait. Or perhaps a boat had sunk and sharks had eaten the poor victims, all except their feet.

The mystery, as it turned out, proved to be the result of a normal function of human decay called “Disarticulation” – the separation of bones at the joints as a result of normal decomposition. Tracking the location of the washed-up feet and comparing the prevailing currents in the strait, it was determined the victims were most likely suicides who had jumped off a bridge spanning the river which opened into the strait. As their bodies sank then decomposed the foot would disarticulate from the leg as the connective tissue holding the bones together dissolved. The buoyant sneaker would then float to the surface where the prevailing current would deposit the sneaker, foot still inside, on to the shore. Mystery solved.

However the following case of disarticulation had a quite different origin - the true story as was told to me first-hand by my brother-in-law:

George worked for the Oregon Fish and Wildlife service at the Trask River fish hatchery in Tillamook country. The hatchery consisted of several large concrete pools which were stocked with salmon fry, hand fed until they were fingerlings sufficiently robust to be released into the river to make their way to the ocean.

Large quantities of fish food obtained in 50 pound bags are required to feed the thousands of hungry mouths. To keep the food from going bad (it stinks pretty badly even when frozen), the bags of feed are stored in a room size walk-in freezer. This freezer often ends up becoming the repository of all kinds of things requiring cold storage.

On this particular hot day, George decided to have the crew go through the neglected freezer room to clean out much of the frozen junk that had accumulated over the years. There were bags and boxes, cans and barrels; all manner of frozen junk. The guys were all pulling out and peering into containers when suddenly one of the crew screamed “OH MY GOD…” tossing the bag in his hands away and onto the floor.

The men gathered around then George picked the paper bag from the floor – peering inside he could see it contained a frozen HUMAN HAND severed at the wrist.

After some discussion, they decided to contact the State Police. At first no one could come up with an explanation for the rather unsettling discovery. But eventually someone at the local District Attorney’s office solved the mystery: The local Coroner had removed the hand from the body of a murder victim several years previously, pending trial of the perpetrator, so the family could proceed with the funeral and burying of their loved one. The hand had been retained in the event that the victim’s identity might had required verification during the trial.

However the trial had been concluded long since and the severed hand stored in the fish hatchery freezer had long been forgotten.

Besides this had been a common practice for the State Game Wardens who often stored illegally hunted game in the freezer as evidence in game poaching trials. Being located on State property, the hatchery freezer was a perfect cold storage evidence locker.

For about a week at the hatchery there was a lot of joking; “Can I give you a hand with that?” or “Hey lets give George a big hand.” One thing the guys at the hatchery could claim, however, was that they had genuinely solved a “Cold Case”.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Letting go of Fear

I’m terrified of heights; that and the dentist. But being in high places is particularly anxiety inducing to me. I guess my worst possible scenario would be visiting a dentist whose office is located on the top floor of a very tall building.

But I digress; in my late 30’s I did volunteer work with juvenile offenders. Rather than incarcerate these problem teens, this program would have them participate in different sorts of community service activities. But the program was also designed to provide some positive guidance, self esteem and confidence building. (Although a couple of them didn’t seem to be lacking any confidence when they robbed a gas station.) Anyway…

On one particular outing with the Troubled Teens we went through an exercise called a High Ropes Course. This involves having a person climb up to a platform high in a tree and then walk a tight rope. Of course the person was tethered with a harness and safety line; but the safety person was also another Troubled Teen. I guess the idea was this would foment some concept of trust in others as well as team building and all that malarkey. (Again, they seemed to have worked well as a team knocking over the gas station.) Anyway….

As one of the adult supervisors on this expedition, I hadn’t actually expected to try the climb up to the platform some 110 or more feet up the tall tree. When asked, I politely declined and instead continued to help the boys. But it was all too obvious to the teens that I wasn’t willing to risk the climb myself. I hate competition and I hate even more macho competition, but my reputation was being challenged here. As we were wrapping up the exercise for the day, my self esteem relented; I agreed to try the climb up to the platform on the wobbly rope ladder.

The climb wasn’t difficult itself but upon reaching the top and transitioning from the ladder to the platform, I was in mortal terror. An instructor was already on the platform, attached to the tree by a safety line as well. She helped me onto the platform wherein I hugged the trunk of that tree like a bear. Noticing my hyperventilating she reassured me that I was safely attached to the tree and wasn’t going anywhere.

Okay, main problem overcome… except now I had to get back down. The instructor offered to have me lowered on the safety line, but the thought of having my scared ass lowered to the ground like a sack of flour in front of these cocky teens was not an attractive prospect. I opted to attempt to rappel to the ground by myself.

After a brief explanation of the rappel equipment, I lay on my stomach on the platform, legs dangling in space. My heart was racing, my head pounding - I thought I would self combust from the adrenaline coursing through me. I inched back and down, whimpering as I worked my way off the platform tensing the rappel line.

Then there I was… free of the platform, dangling there suspended in space.

And at that moment a funny thing happened… my fear completely and utterly disappeared. It was as if the “fear switch” in my brain had been turned OFF! I’m hanging there by the rope, clearly not falling to my death. This was really cool! I lowered myself to the ground thinking that was totally fun. Still it seemed odd to me that safely perched on the platform I would be so afraid yet actually suspended from the rope my fear dissipated!

Fast forward another decade – I was at the Willamette Valley Parachute Club Drop Zone for my first skydive. I had just survived a serious and nearly fatal heart infection the previous year and now felt somehow compelled to experience things in my life that I had always been afraid to do. The plan was for me to do a “tandem” skydive where one is attached (securely) to an experienced skydiver by a special harness.

Following roughly two hours of “training” we were ready to go up in the plane and experience my first skydive. The aircraft was a small 4-passenger Cessna in which all the seats but the pilot’s had been removed. I actually like flying in airplanes and was having a pretty good time, that is, until the tandem master opened the door of the tiny aircraft and I looked out – down, actually.

The TERROR was indescribable; there was NOTHING between me and the earth 12,000 feet below. I was a sack of dead weight as I felt the Tandem Master shove me toward the opening rush of wind.

“Ready” I heard. My body rocked forward.…
“Set” rocking now back...
“GO” Then in a terrifying forward somersault into empty space our conjoined bodies were accelerating toward earth.

The rush of wind was deafening. I felt the tandem master doing something, but soon we started to “helicopter”; the ground below me was spinning – double spinning as I could not get both my eyes to track together. After what seemed like an eternity I heard a distinct “fump” then felt as though I was being lifted upward. Within three seconds the chute was fully opened, the air became deathly quiet. I felt like I was going to vomit. I didn’t.

Then there was magic. The ride under canopy was wonderful; the feeling as if “flying”, exquisite. I could see the mountains and clear up and down the length of the valley. We gently touched down on my ass in wheat field stubble. Then it was over. Within minutes I was safely in the car heading home. I was a different man when I woke the following morning.

One week later I returned to the drop zone to sign up for lessons. I HAD to know if I could skydive independently, completely responsible for my own safety. Somehow the experience at the high ropes course years previously had suggested to me that possibly, if I could again take control of that “fear switch” in my brain, could I overcome fear as a barrier to other aspects of my life?

I was a sport skydiver for two years. By that time I had resolved to not let fear prevent me from doing the things I wanted to do.

Oh and in case you are wondering… I visit my dentist regularly every six months.

Photo: The author (right) having just completed a skydive from 10,000'.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Future is Here Now ... (in just a bit)

Our kids told us that they watch streaming video on their televisions. I have a NetFlix account so we can rent DVDs through the mail. But I then discovered in my NetFlix queue on the web site that some films have a “Play Now” feature associated with them.

However playing movies on my PC hasn’t really appealed to me all that much. For one thing, the monitor is small in comparison to the screen size of a television. But also, I believe my poor ass would go numb if I sat in a steno chair for two hours watching a movie.

But I decided to give this video streaming thing a try, so I commenced figuring out how to connect Nancy’s laptop computer to the TV. Allow me to explain just how EASY this is to do.
[Disclaimer – Warning: The following is not for the technically-challenged or persons with impetuous tendencies or who suffer unrelenting levels of impatience which could possibly be classified as borderline pathological.]
First connect the S-Video cable from the S-Video port on the computer to the S-Video port on the TV. Hint: The brilliant computer engineers have designed the S-Video port to look exactly like a mouse port, so you only have a 50/50 chance plugging it into the right place.

Using a 1/8” Stereo-to-RCA adapter cable, connect the earphone/speaker output on the computer to the two RCA jacks on the TV. Hint: You are in luck here as there will be three, not two, RCA jacks on the TV, so you have better odds of beating those tricky computer engineers and getting the right connection this time than you did with the S-Video.

Boot your computer and turn on the TV. Using your TV's remote, find the “input channel” for the auxiliary input on the TV. Hint: It would be "Channel 1" if channel 1 existed... which it doesn't so THAT is your auxiliary input.

When your computer asks if you want to update the latest Microsoft patches, click “No”. Hint: If you click “yes”, go you might as well go get a beer and do something else cause you just committed yourself to an hour of rebooting your after every patch. Don't do that again!!

When your computer asks if you want to check for virus, better click “Yes” this time. Go have another, it's gonna be a while… again.

Now located the video you wish to display on your TV, like from your "play now" queue in NetFlix (or any video you can find, YouTube is cool).

Now the PC will ask if you want to update your Flash or Windows video program. Click answer: “NO, NO, GODDAM NO”. This is because some anal retentive software engineer has just developed yet another a new “improved” video codec so now nothing you want to watch that was created from the dawn of computing up until last week will EVER display on the updated video software. Trust me, they’re idiots.

Using your mouse and/or keyboard, redirect your monitor output to the S-Video port connected to the TV. Hint: How do you do this? I have no f*#king clue, but you can mess with your video settings clicking randomly until it either shows on the TV or all you see is blue on your PC’s monitor. If you screw this up, that’s YOUR problem!

Now figure out why the sound is NOT working. Try the following:
1. Set the volume slider on the video all the way up.
2. Set the volume setting for the PC all the way up.
3. Go into the volume setting Control Panel, determine if the output to the earphone/speaker port is muted.
4. Turn the volume knob up on the side of the PC.
5. Now turn the volume all the way up on the television.
6. Check that you haven’t plugged the 1/8” Stereo jack into the “microphone” jack instead. Hint: Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you... those two plugs look identical as well. (I'm telling ya... I didn’t design this crap.)
7. If the sound isn’t blasting now so loudly that your windows are breaking, give up - you are beyond hopeless at this point.

Assuming you now have your computer display showing on your TV; sit down and enjoy your video on the big screen. If the video stops, starts, hesitates and stutters, you either need to pay to upgrade your Internet connection to Terra-Mega-Gigabit Internet service or buy a more powerful PC; meaning one that was manufactured at least within the last two months.

Your TV remote with all the buttons on it; now all it is good for is changing the volume on the TV.

If advertisements pop up on the TV screen for cheap Viagra or offering to upgrade your Solitaire, you’re going to need to get your ass off the chair, go to the PC and kill those pop-ups.

Oh and finally, if you’ve actually made it this far and the video on your TV suddenly goes completely black: You probably forgot to plug the PC power cord into the wall – you just wasted all of your battery charge setting up the goddam thing up.

Next week: Programming your garage door opener to operate your toaster.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Shoot for the Moon

Several US astronauts, including John Glenn, the first man to orbit the earth, have sent a letter to President Obama urging that funding for MANNED space programs be continued – including the specific goal of sending a manned mission again to the moon. The aging space shuttles are being retired soon; in fact the “Atlantis” shuttle recently made what is expected to be its final flight. Future service missions to the International Space Station will be conducted through purchasing space on Russian rockets.

This is a very sad turn of events for me as it appears that I will have witnessed both the zenith and the nadir of the manned space program within my lifetime.

I was a kid in Boy Scout camp when I first watched the Russian Sputnik satellite orbit overhead; it looked like a star moving slowly through the sky. It frightened Americans that a hostile nation (Russia) could potentially develop a strategic advantage over our national security. Looking back at that time when our Military-Industrial Complex was fanning the flames of the Cold War, I see today that our fears might have been greatly overstated. Nonetheless, it did spur our leaders to take a more aggressive effort to move man into space even though the true motives at the time might have been intentionally unclear.

Space travel was every young boys dream back in the 1950’s. Astronauts were our heroes, our role models. I remember when Disney came out with a series of space travel educational animations: Tomorrowland: Disney in Space and Beyond. In entertaining Disney style they explained the complex physics of space travel; acceleration, weightlessness, mass, cosmic rays. I couldn’t get enough of it. Just a few years ago Disney released the Tomorrow Land series on DVD. I promptly bought the set.

Then in what for me was a most profound stroke of luck, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on my 20th birthday, July 20, 1969. It seemed that the heavens were calling specifically to me.

But over the decades the inertia to break from the bounds of our planet has fallen into obscurity. The Shuttle program might even have fallen victim to its own success. I recall that the original goal of the shuttle program was that commuting to and from space would be considered routine. It accomplished exactly that.

Serious planetary scientists will agree that, in all practicality, it is far more cost effective, pracitcal and safer to send unmanned vehicles to explore our universe. The Hubble telescope has been immensely more successful in accumulating scientific data than was originally imagined. Other unmanned probes have traveled for decades, skirting the back yards of the planets and their moons. The earliest of our missions have now traveled entirely out of our solar system. Yet we are no nearer to sending humans on such long and risky missions.

And yet unmanned probes, and the remarkable information and pictures they send back, don’t quite touch that core sense of true “exploration” that exists within our hearts and minds; it doesn’t address that strong desire within us as a species for placing a human foot on unfamiliar soil for the very first time.

Astronomer Neil DeGrasse-Tyson recently on TV decried the loss of funding to our manned space program. He also had been inspired to science by the lure of adventurous astronauts severing our tie to Mother Earth. DeGrasse-Tyson worries that with the elimination of the manned space missions, where will our young people look to today to inspire adventure like those heroes who inspired us back in the 1950’s? Where now are the new frontiers?

I have often confessed to my children that I believe that my generation has seen the best times that Man has ever had, and ever will have, on this planet. The demise of the manned space programs is one of many losses that I believe move to confirm my sense of loss.

Oddly Blogger has recently been mysteriously losing comments, not sure why?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Still more Dumb Questions

Yet again, I continue to occasionally embarrass myself by repeatedly stepping into forehead-slapping moments.

This time I’m in the “Dollar Store”, where everything in the store costs, you guessed it, $1 – Obviously none of the items on the shelves are marked with price tags.

So what do I do? In a totally mindless act I take an item off the shelf, walk up to the cashier and ask: “How much is this?”

And finally this...
From the personal diary entry of King George III of England -

"July 4th 1776 - Nothing of consequence happened today."