Friday, December 30, 2011

Reason #100: NASA

At 4:21 PM EST on New Year's Eve, NASA's GRAIL-A probe will enter into orbit around the moon after a commute of more than three months. About a day later, another probe, cleverly named GRAIL-B, will begin its own orbit nearby. Both probes will then be gradually maneuvered and sped up until they are evenly circling the moon's poles about every two hours.

As the probes methodically pass over every bit of the moon's surface, their speeds will fluctuate constantly as a natural effect of the moon's variable gravity field (caused by craters, mountains, etc). These fluctuations will themselves lead to fluctuations in the distance between the two probes. And kind of like a pair of 3D glasses, it is this distance, after all that has been accomplished, that NASA will be measuring in order to create a precise map of the moon's entire gravity field, telling us all sorts of stuff about its composition both on and below the surface. This entire project will have been carried off at a cost of $496 million, or less than two days in Afghanistan.

This would be enough, I think, to serve as today's reason all on its own. But since it's Space Friday (which I'm now comfortable declaring to be an Official Thing), and my 100th entry, I think I should go on a little.

You see, yesterday it was announced that China has its own plans to go to the moon by the end of the decade. But not like the GRAIL probes - we're talking boots on ground.

I've never been the type to value or devalue human accomplishments based solely on their nation of origin, so this is great news purely on its own merit and I'm happy to promote it as such. But even from a jingoistic, pro-NASA standpoint, this is wonderful, because if America really wants to be seen as a superpower again, nothing would get our asses in gear like another space race.

Our problem lately, after all, isn't one of not seeming powerful enough. Nothing says power like around one thousand military bases on foreign soil. What makes a true superpower, to me, isn't military strength, or even general influence - it's leadership. What made the 50's and 60's America's "Golden Age" wasn't everybody being afraid of us, it was everybody wanting to be us.

Military dominance comes at a financial cost greater than even our loftiest ambitions for space travel--as I'm always quick to point out by comparing how much NASA missions cost compared to Afghanistan--and comes with no added inspirational value, at least not for the rest of the world. But when we got to the moon first, it was an accomplishment for all of mankind, and all of mankind saw it as such.

Again, I have no great personal need for America to be #1 at everything, and indeed, even something as comparably mundane as the GRAIL mission can play a role in educating and inspiring young people to get into science and math, but imagine what an entire new generation of space nerds could grow up to do with everything that we've accomplished already. Better yet - imagine what the current generation of Chinese children will in fact grow up to do because of their government's current plans. And think about, if China's "beating" us already, how much worse it will be when their boom generation of scientists, engineers, and astronomers goes up against another American generation of...what? Mortgage brokers?

In a broader sense, this kind of thing is what the federal government is for - what this blog is really about; the things that people can't do on their own, but that they should feel privileged to buy into. Who else is going to build the bridges, roads, and dams? Who's going to provide for the elderly (or anyone, for that matter) when they can no longer provide for themselves?

Anybody in America is free to buy a shotgun and a deadbolt, and look out for nothing but their own. But are we great because of that, or because we're more than that?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Reason #99: Textbooks

Along with a plethora of other laws set to go into effect at the start of the new year is SB 48, a California bill that, for the first time in the nation's history, mandates the teaching of LGBT history in a positive, civil-rights context, and prohibits the use of educational materials that reflect negatively on people due to their orientation (which seems to me to be kind of the same thing, but hey, whatever works).

Supporters say that aside from being more, y'know, accurate, the new textbooks will inculcate a better understanding of LGBT issues among young people (surprisingly, no minimum grade level is included for when the changes should be put in place) and cut down on the kind of anti-gay bullying that's become infamous across the country.

And just to make the law's opponents (who have tried and failed to get rid of the law once already) seem extra evil, I should mention that it puts the same rules in place for disabled people, as well. Which actually seems sort of weird to me, because it's not like FDR's been getting less attention in history books because he was in a wheelchair. But again - whatever works.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Reason #98: Ballots

Despite both campaigns' claims to the contrary, the Republican Party of Virginia has officially ruled that neither Rick Perry nor Newt Gingrich has met the requirements to be placed on the ballot in Virginia's Republican presidential primary. Gingrich says he wants to run as a write-in--despite the fact that, well, he can't--and Rick Perry has officially filed suit against the state Republican Party and Board of Elections, claiming that their official requirements for ballot placement are nothing less than unconstitutional.

Interestingly, Bachmann, Santorum, and Huntsman also failed to get on the ballot, but I guess even they can't be bothered to give a shit at this point.

I almost wrote about this topic in support of the Virginia ruling, but to be perfectly honest, I think Rick Perry *shudder* may have a point. While the Perry campaign claims to have submitted 11,911 signatures in all (the minimum is ten thousand), to be valid, signatures have to be collected by someone who is themselves registered to vote in that district, and there have to be at least 400 signatures from each of the State's eleven congressional districts.

What the failure to do so says about the effectiveness of Perry's (or Gingrich's) organization is one thing, and certainly they knew about the rules far ahead of time and should have had no problem following them, but it strikes the wrong tone with me for getting on a ballot to be that difficult - especially it it's just a primary. When only two of the seven major candidates (Romney and Paul) actually managed to qualify for your ballot, it should be clear that something's fucked up.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Reason #97: Cohabitation

On the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, is a 547-acre plot of land home to the FBI's training academy. The academy includes both driving and running courses, and obviously, a firing range, where more than one million bullets are fired every month.

Naturally, the land has also become a safe haven for wildlife.

During hunting season, the academy is actually the one of the safest places for local deer to hang out (not to mention groundhogs, turkey vultures, and even a bear or two), and as a result they've become part of the family - hunters are allowed on the base proper, but not the FBI training grounds, which is probably mostly a security thing, but I'm going to go ahead and assume it's for the animals' sake as well.

What's interesting is that the deer will graze openly as close as fifteen feet away from the shooting targets, but despite becoming essentially immune to the sound of gunfire, they've learned over the years not to get any closer, and there are no records of any ever being hit accidentally.

They do occasionally run onto the jogging track, though, and allegedly once ate some flowers off of a 9/11 memorial - but that sounds like a frame-up to me.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Reason #96: Nabbing the Really Smart Ones

On December 12th, 18-year-old Isaiah Cutler robbed a market here in Pittsburgh with three other teenagers. They got away with over $8000 worth of cash and goods - including cigarettes and candy, because they're awesome like that.

About an hour later, seeking to further prove their own awesomeness, Cutler took a bunch of pictures with his friends showing off their goodies, and posted them on his Facebook page.

Needless to say, he's in jail now. He doesn't seem to have obtained an attorney yet, hopefully because no one is that desperate for work. What perplexes me, though, is that this all happened on December 12th, yet he's only been in prison since the 23rd. Rather than accept that it took almost two weeks for the Pittsburgh police to figure this one out, I'm choosing to believe they waited until right before Christmas to haul him away, because just arresting him normally wouldn't have been as much fun.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Reason #95: Lovejoy

Behold Comet Lovejoy as it careens toward Sarah Palin's house flies past the Earth yesterday.

Two neat things about this picture - how clearly you can see the different strata of Earth's atmosphere at the bottom, and how you can see two different tails at the top. The dust tail is the more curved one, whereas the ion tail, which aligns with the Sun's magnetic field, is straighter. Most comet photographs aren't clear enough to discern the two like that.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Reason #94: Stopgaps

Back in the ongoing drama over Obama's series of capital-J Jobs measures, the Senate passed its new version of the payroll tax cut, which favors lower-income employees rather than giving everyone an equal tax cut no matter how much they make, a week or so ago.

It's been held up in the Republican-controlled House all week, naturally, but today they at least were able to reach a deal to extend the current payroll tax cut two more months, so they can continue to argue about it without screwing everybody over at the end of the year. Which, unfortunately, constitutes a positive development by House standards.

Besides - kicking the can down the road worked so well with the supercommittee, right?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Reason #93: Less Mercury

The EPA revealed a huge new set of "Mercury and Air Toxics Standards", or MATS, to drastically cut mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Obama, naturally, and the clean(er) power industries are touting what a big accomplishment this is, but don't take their word for it - Scott Segal, a coal industry lobbyist, called MATS "the most extensive intervention into the power market and job market that EPA has ever attempted to implement." Sounds magnificent.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Reason #92: Less Crime

According to the FBI, in the first six months of 2011, violent crime went down 6.4% (compared to the first six months of last year), property crime (aka theft) went down 3.7%, and arson went down 8.6%. So yeah. Go cops.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Reason #91: Obama and the Supremes

The Supreme Court has officially scheduled five hours of arguments this March for the challenge to the individual mandate in Obama's health care reform package. From someone who's a little more familiar with court proceedings than the average Joe, five hours doesn't really seem like all that much (especially spread out over three days), but according to this article that's a record amount of argument time for the Supreme Court, only even approached before by McCain-Feingold's four hours in 2003.

Their ruling is expected to come over the summer just as the presidential election is heating up, and I've heard some say that it would actually be much better for him is they rule against it, because Obamacare is seen by conservatives as the quintessential liberal overreach, and going the other direction would just further galvanize existing anti-Obama sentiment. Personally, I'm rooting for it to fail if only so they can go back to the drawing board and take another shot at single-payer.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Reason #90: Hubble Make Pretty

I give you IRS 4, a young star about 2 thousand light years away and about fifteen times the size of the sun. This article explains why it looks the way it looks, but I can't quite get my head around it. Something about gas.

(Side note: I am on vacation for the next week or so. I'm going to endeavor to post something every weekday like usual, but more than likely they will be short and somewhat pithy, like this one. Rest assured that my full attention will have returned by Monday the 26th at the latest.)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Reason #89: Backing Away Slowly

So that's over.

After almost nine years, the Pentagon today officially declared the Iraq War to be ended. A few hundred military personnel are still on the ground as advisers and such, but considering the postwar presence we've maintained (and continue to maintain) in a lot of other places, I think we can call it progress.

My question, though, is just how many private contractors are still there? The Iraq War brought companies like Halliburton and Blackwater into the public consciousness it a totally new way, and as much as everybody will be talking about how this war impacted US foreign relations and the Middle East in general, the rise of war as a business model (not that it wasn't already going on) is, to me, just as big of a takeaway from Iraq as anything else, yet it's barely being talked about.

The best I could find is this article from October that estimates around five thousand "security contractors" (aka Blackwater) will still be there in January of 2012. That's down from 9,500 at the time the article was written and more than fifteen thousand in the summer of 2009, but now that the military has essentially no presence there of any kind, will that make the private soldiers more accountable for their actions, or less?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Reason #88: Femto Photography

With funding from DARPA, the Army Research Office, and a number of private enterprises, MIT has developed a technique for recording bullet-time images of light in motion. Except "bullet-time" is a horrible way to put it because light moves around a million times faster than a bullet.

Direct, traditional photography is almost impossible at that speed, so what they've actually done is program sensors to take complex mathematical measurements of a subject as a pulse of light one trillionth of a second long is shot through said subject at 186 thousand miles per second. The measurements--the exposure, essentially--are then reconstructed into a more standard "image" of the subject, at a rate of half a trillion frames per second. Photographing a bullet, incidentally, only requires around 20 thousand frames per second.

Because the pulse is so short, the actual "beam" of light is only a millimeter or so long, which ironically makes it look kind of like a bullet, except, you know, all awesome and glowy and stuff. They for some reason chose to test this process with a Coke bottle, resulting in the extremely awesome video below. A lot more can be found on MIT's website here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Reason #87: Banning Cell Phones

I'm ashamed to say I don't know exactly what the law is in my state, but I'd long had a vague understanding that using a cell phone while driving is against the law - both here in Pennsylvania and in my home state of New York.

Turns out that some states have no rules whatsoever against phone use by drivers - twenty states still let even novice drivers use their phones, and around fifteen states still let drivers send text messages.

While they only really have the ability to make recommendations, the NTSB has finally come out in favor of a nationwide ban. The only way a driver would be allowed to talk on the phone, if they had their way, would be if the phone is hands-free to the point of being built into the car. So far, only ten states have gone that far on their own.

I for one think it makes at least as much sense as banning drunk driving. Endangering yourself is one thing--I don't really think there should be seatbelt laws, except probably for children--but endangering other people on the road is another.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Reason #86: VSLs

Have you ever seen Fight Club? There's a big speech near the beginning about how car companies have an actual mathematical process to determine their recall procedures - in short, if the lawsuits stemming from implementation of a defective part are estimated to be cheaper overall than the cost of recalling the part, they don't do the recall.

Turns out the government does that as well. Kinda.

The automatic Republican response whenever new environmental or safety regulations are proposed is always to bemoan the cost to businesses; it turns out, the government knows all too well how much a ban on, say, turpentine in Coca-Cola will cost the beverage industry. What they do with that information, then, is compare it to their department's VSL, or Value of a Statistical Life. If the lives it could save outvalue the cost to businesses, well, tough shit.

Assigning even a theoretical dollar value to a human being is icky from a PR standpoint, but when you think about it, this can actually be a fairly reasonable way of setting policy - indeed, the actual dollar value goes up and down based on various factors (up for cancer-fighting measures, perhaps, because cancer is seen as worse than the average malady; or down for older people, whom the Bush administration amusingly deemed to be of less value than the average person).

And if you're curious - they try to avoid talking about it, understandably, but according to the most recent story I found, the EPA currently values one human life at around $8 million.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Reason #85: The Ol' Heave Ho

Mankind has officially reached the heliopause.

But perhaps I should start at the beginning. Voyager 1 departed Earth in 1977, with the goal of doing a couple planetary flybys, followed by a straight-ish shot out of the solar system entirely. Three years later, it reached Saturn. The above image shows exponentially increasing distance, so if you look at Earth, then look at Saturn, it should not be surprising when I say that it is just now, 31 years after that, that Voyager is on the cusp of leaving the solar system entirely.

And even though it's been cruising for more than three decades, and is currently the fastest-moving probe in space at around eleven miles per second, it didn't become the farthest-reaching manmade object until 1998, when it finally passed Pioneer 10 (which was actually launched three years after Voyager I).

The outer "edge" of our solar system, it turns out, is determined by solar wind. Even as far out as Voyager is right now, charged particles from the sun are still blowing around. But out in what's known as the interstellar medium, there are other particles blowing back (from what? Fuck if I know). The point where winds (I love that they classify this stuff as "wind") pushing out from the sun and winds pushing in from outer space equalize is called the heliopause, and once you pass that, you are officially in interstellar space.

The trick is that when you're dealing with this kind of scale, even a "point" like the heliopause could take months or years to traverse, and there's no way to know exactly how big it is until you're through it. So while it's maybe a little too soon to start popping the champagne, we're far enough along that we can pretty safely classify Voyager 1 as the first manmade object to leave the solar system.

And with fifteen years of power left, there's still plenty of time to find a gas station.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Reason #84: Mumia

After 30 years of appeals and coming within spitting distance of the Supreme Court, former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal is at long last off death row. Convicted of killing a white cop in 1981, Mumia's death sentence has been a big rallying cry for lefties ever since due to allegations of systemic--and specific--bias regarding his initial trial, and due to the fact that he's since proven to be a fairly rational and well-spoken dude.

What finally nixed the death sentence was a ruling that his jury had been given "potentially misleading" instructions, and therefore a new sentencing hearing needed to take place. The Supreme Court could have overruled that, but they declined to rule on the matter at all, which meant that federal prosecutors had to determine whether to press for the death penalty all over again, or just leave it lie at life in prison.

Instrumental to their decision not to purpue the death penalty this time around was Maureen Faulkner, the widow of the victim, who doesn't seem to have forgiven Mumia or anything, but says she came to the conclusion that at this point, there was no way the actual execution would ever actually get around to happening (some of the original witnesses have in fact died themselves in the intervening three decades), and would rather just move on with her life.

As I've said before, I won't profess to being an expert on the case, or really have any opinion on whether Mumia is guilty. But the system is undoubtedly biased (and was probably way worse 30 years ago), and anytime someone escapes execution, I count that as a win - especially if it means I don't have to hear hippies complain about it anymore.

Reason #83: 14 Years

'nuff said.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Reason #82: Gay Foreigners

In a story that sounds tailor-made for pissing off Tea Partiers, the Obama administration announced today that for the first time it would be directing foreign aid funds (gasp!) specifically toward fighting human rights violations (good heavens!) against the international LGBT community (no!! God, no!!).

And lest this come across as a treacly matter like hospital visitation or not getting the nice apartments, keep in mind that many countries, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, still treat homosexual activity of any kind as a crime. The money isn't going towards Adam and Steve's nest egg, it's giving them the ability to walk down the street together.

Hillary Clinton will be making remarks about the new directive, which will affect State Department funds as well as Homeland Security, Defense, and others, in Geneva later today.

Maybe she'll remind her boss about the whole marriage thing while she's at it.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Reason #81: No, Really - Kepler

To hell with Space Fridays - Kepler just found the first-ever extrasolar planet that's not drastically bigger than Earth and within not just the habitable region of its star, but the habitable region of a yellow star that's "just a bit smaller and cooler than out own."

It's too early to know anything about the composition of the planet, dubbed Kepler-22b, but NASA is already willing to say that the surface of a planet like this would be in the area of 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and could very well be significantly if not totally covered in oceans. Oceans!!

And now that we know Kepler-22b is there, on top of the fifty or so other "Earth-like" planets Kepler has found so far, NASA can hand its info off to SETI, who can begin scanning the area for radio signals and other signs of technology - though at 600 light years away, even if we picked up Kepler-22b's primetime television lineup, we'd be more than half a millennia too late to buy the DVDs. Nevertheless, folks, you have to admit that these are exciting times.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Reason #80: Kepler

For those of you not cool enough to know, the Kepler space telescope was launched a couple years ago at a cost of $600 million (or about four days in Afghanistan) with the goal of intensely analyzing the light coming from just one small patch of space. Using what's called the transit method, Kepler is designed to pick out the tiny variations that would signify the passage of a planet in front of any given star.

We've been using the transit method for a while now, but Kepler is sensitive enough to detect smaller, Earth-like planets within what's called the habitable zone of a solar system. It takes a lot of follow-up observation to confirm that any potential extrasolar planet Kepler detects is the real deal, and even once confirmed it's impossible right now to learn much more about these planets beyond that they exist.

That being said, the real beauty of Kepler's mission isn't in the data, it's in the extrapolation. By methodically scanning every available star in just one tiny area of the sky, we can take the amount of Earth-like planets in that area and deduce, for the first time, a more realistic sense of just what percentage of stars could at least potentially harbor life. In other words, we could finally fill in one of the numbers on the Drake Equation.

Just to give you an idea, Kepler found 1,235 potential planets in its first four months of observation, around 50 of which were in a habitable zone. That was announced in February. So I for one am very anxious to see what NASA has to say on Monday when they announce their results from the subsequent ten months.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Reason #79: Uppity Cops

It was 35 degrees out when police showed up to evict Vinia Hall from her Atlanta home Tuesday morning. That in and of itself probably wouldn't have mattered to them, but as it happens, Vinia Hall is 103 years old.

Though the house is legally owned by Hall's grandson (at least insofar as you can be said to legally own a home that's already three years post-foreclosure), it was inhabited only by Hall herself, who's been there for 53 years, and her 83-year-old daughter (I wonder what a numerologist would think of this story), and as the men who showed up to kick them out were not in fact comic book supervillains, they decided to hell with the bank and let them stay.

Though clearly there's no way in hell JP Morgan Chase, who issued the foreclosure, would dare go through with the eviction in the current anti-bank climate, all they've said on the matter so far is that they'll "work out a resolution to keep them in the home," which is funny to me because it pretends they have a choice.

Amusing aside #1: Deutsche Bank, who actually owns the home, clearly wants to stay as far away from the matter as possible, issuing a statement that “Deutsche Bank was not involved in any way in the decision to seek to evict Mrs. Lee and her daughter. As trustee, Deutsche Bank does not control decisions or actions related to foreclosures or evictions.” Eviction? What eviction? They're just mortgage payments! No biggie!

Amusing aside #2: the incident clearly freaked out the daughter, who had trouble breathing and had to be rushed to the hospital, but Hall herself was unconcerned: "...I knew that they know what they were doing. God don’t let them do wrong." Man, it's too bad God doesn't seem to give a shit about all those other people who have been evicted.

But that, perhaps, is a different topic.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Reason #78: Microwaves, and/or Rules Pertaining Thereto

In addition to moving his jobs plan through Congress bit by bit, Obama has also been exploring his options for getting things done that don't require Congressional approval.

One such effort is getting the National Labor Relations Board (who knew?) to pass something called the Microwave Rule, which shortens the amount of time workers have to wait between forming a union and voting to join said union from 30 days to 10 days, which in turn gives employers less time to get in the way of said union formation.

I've never been able to grasp the whole union issue too thoroughly (why the hell it's called the Microwave Rule, for example), but while I do recognize that some unions are big and unwieldy and not necessarily helping, this appears to be a fair thing for them to want, so I'm glad it passed the NLRB (about 10 minutes ago, from the looks of it).

And Republicans are said to be enraged about it, which is probably the best evidence of all that it's a good thing.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Reason #77: The Soul of Wit

There are lots of reasons to lament Congressman Barney Frank's decision not to run for re-election next year, after over thirty years in office. If I felt like hedging a bit, I could talk about the potential of the Dodd-Frank bill, though much of that has yet to be fulfilled. I could go for the civil-rights angle and talk about his position as one of the most prominent openly gay public officials, going all the way back to his coming out in 1987. At the very least, I could tout the simple fact that he's interested in leaving Congress, rather than clinging to power as long as possible, as evidence of his solid character.

But instead, with a nod to the unfortunate, and highly disappointing, departure of Anthony Weiner from the antional stage, I just want to point out how funny Barney Frank is, and how much I'll miss that specific element upon his retirement from office.

Luckily, HuffPo saved me some work and compiled a showcase of nine of his greatest moments, including my personal favorite, asking a constituent "on which planet do you spend most of your time?"

Monday, November 28, 2011

Reason #76: Being the Bigger Man... Eventually

Emma Sullivan is probably a moron.

That was my immediate reaction to the news that the 18-year-old Topeka high school student told her governor, Sam Brownback, that he sucked. Like, totally in person and everything.

This happened at some kind of Youth in Government bullshit that Sullivan attended with the governor last week, and the only reason I know about it at all is because she followed up her comment, the exact wording of which is unclear to me, by bragging about it on Twitter alongside the hashtag #heblowsalot.

Unfortunately for her, Brownback's people saw the tweet (OMG!) and told on her, which led to an hour or so in the principle's office and an apology request from the school district.

While Brownback is a Republican and it's entirely possible that this girl has informed opinions on the man that I would actually agree with, if her actual comments were anything even close to "you suck", then she's certainly not doing anyone any good.

What I do appreciate is that cooler heads quickly prevailed and both the district and Brownback himself have decided that the whole mess was probably an overreaction - plus, y'know, that whole First Amendment thing.

For the record, Sullivan has declined to write an apology. That, I respect.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Reason #75: Mars, Bitches

Recent expeditions to Mars have discovered what seems to be methane in the atmosphere. Earth's methane comes largely, but not exclusively, from cow farts and other similarly delightful biological processes, and doesn't stick around for long once created, so finding it in the barely-extant Martian atmosphere would be a big sign not just that life has existed on Mars in the past, but that it's still there somewhere.

The evidence so far is controversial, naturally, so launching tomorrow from Cape Canaveral is the Mars Science Laboratory, carrying with it the new rover Curiosity, which is specifically designed to detect methane.

If it does so upon its arrival next August, that would appear to be the most significant evidence yet (aside from, y'know, the water) that for all Mars' wasteland-like qualities, there are still microorganisms, at the very least, quite literally farting around up there.

(Side Note - I'm hesitant to go so far as to declare Space Fridays a thing now, but I've managed to keep it up for three weeks running so far, and I'm going to do my best to keep it that way. Just so's ya know.)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Reason #74: Typos

Anyone who knows me in person knows that spelling is, to me, serious business. It's one thing to be realistic about one's own grammatical imperfections, but it's quite another to refuse to learn from them; to think that it doesn't really matter.

Exhibit A: This year's Board of Apportionment and Taxation election in Derby, Connecticut was a real barn burner. One man, James J. Butler, got 1,526 whole votes. This is interesting for a few reasons - one being that there are more than 1,500 off-year voters in Derby, Connecticut, another being that more than 1,500 people anywhere know what the fuck a Board of Apportionment and Taxation is and can be bothered to vote on it.

But most interesting is the fact that James J. Butler wasn't running - his father, James R. Butler, was. But the ballot spelled his name wrong. Naturally, government spokesbeings are thus far inclined to swear in the guy who didn't run and doesn't want the job. Also naturally, said guy has offered no official comment on the mess other than to call the city incompetent.

Speaking as a Junior myself, while there's no excusing the city's hand in this, could there be a better argument for more creative child naming? Especially when you and your son have the same freaking birthday?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Reason #73: Budget Hero

There's an interactive flash game online called Budget Hero (created by American Public Media, which is funded in part by the CPB and NEA), in which people can actually see for themselves how different budgetary decisions affect the future economy. I know what you're thinking, and oh yes - it's every bit as exciting as it sounds.

Not only can you pick and choose different policies (and see well-researched, nonpartisan pros and cons for each) from health insurance mandates to eliminating school lunch programs, but you get to choose specific priorities, like wellness or security, and the game will tell you the effects your decisions are having on those areas specifically, on top of their overall budgetary effect.

The goal is to keep the economy churning (and the debt under control) for as long as possible before everything goes to hell, but tellingly, it doesn't seem to be possible to literally "win" the game - they appear to define success based on whether one's grandchildren are still around when the cannibal horde shows up.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Reason #72: Keeping the Pressure Up

Not two seconds after the supercommittee (Super Committee?) officially shit the bed yesterday, Republicans began making noise about backing out of the automatic cuts that were scheduled to go through if they failed to find a better deal - those being $600 billion in defense spending and $600 billion in domestic spending over ten years (I've said my piece on the whole "over ten years" thing already).

Amazingly, yet perhaps unsurprisingly, Obama quickly popped up to state that no, you don't get off that easy. Since none of the aforementioned cuts are supposed to go into effect for a year or so anyway, Obama made it clear that he will gleefully veto any legislative attempt to neuter the original cuts - which were, after all, already inscribed into law when the supercommittee was created in the first damn place.

(Side Note - almost forgot to give a shout out to Randall at He profiled WIEPT a couple weeks ago and it meant a lot to me. If you're looking for more interesting stuff to read here on Blogger and elsewhere, definitely give him a look.)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Reason #71: Following Through

One of the things I'm enjoying about this blog as the months tick by is the opportunity to revisit things from time to time as they progress through the workings of government. For example: the legislative measure granting tax credits to employers who hire veterans (and even bigger tax credits to those who hire disabled veterans) was signed into law today, after passing the Senate 95-0 and the House 422-0, astonishing no one so much as myself.

This is the first piece of legislation out of Obama's ginormous jobs package to actually get through, so while it's sort of an optimistic moment in and of itself, mostly we've just succeeded in establishing where the line is for just how obstructionist the Republicans are willing to get.

Maybe this is a good strategy, actually - handing out tax breaks based solely on how absurdly sympathetic someone is. We know Newt Gingrich, for one, would love to start hiring more children.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Reason #70: I Can See My House From Up Here

Above is a series of time-lapse videos compiled from actual photographs taken by NASA on board the International Space Station. This is the greatest thing that has ever been done, and if it were the only thing NASA had ever accomplished in its entire 53-year history, it would still be worth it.

Watch it in HD and full-screen mode or I will come to your house and beat you with a pipe.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Reason #69: Heh... "69"...

Even though the state of California successfully passed Proposition 8, its anti-gay-marriage ballot initiative, the governor and attorney general have refused to defend it against the legal challenges that have since come up. After being tied up in state courts for--I dunno, like 57 years now, the California Supreme Court has at long last ruled that the initiative's proponents have the legal right to defend it in place of the state government.

Technically, that's a loss for those trying to get rid of Prop 8...but then it gets interesting. Now that the initiative has legal defenders, the federal challenges brought by its opponents can move to federal appeals court. A federal appeals ruling could come "any day now", according to those in the know, but however that ruling goes, it will undoubtedly be itself appealed, which means that...eventually...the Supreme Court will get it.

And once the Supreme Court is forced to rule on gay marriage... well...we'll see, won't we?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Reason #68: Please Don't Shoot the White House

While his motives are as yet unknown, Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez, the man who appears to have shot at (and hit) the White House with an AK-47 on Friday, is rumored to have spent some amount of time in the Occupy DC camp - and, indeed, police scoured the area Friday night while still in the early stages of the manhunt that ended today in Pennsylvania.

I don't know what evidence they had initially that connected him to Occupy, but c'mon - just look at this fucker; he might as well have a "99%" tattoo on his forehead.

I won't go so far as to suggest that was part of any actual pro-Occupy stratagem on his part, because clearly the dude is a nutbar, but assuming the Occupy camps aren't all scattered by the fuzz in the near future, maybe let's put some effort into monitoring the kind of people who are hanging around? I can only imagine the kind of rhetoric that gets tossed around those camps when things get heated, but I can imagine all too well what it could inspire the wrong kind of person to do.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Reason #67: Pajama Recall

While the reality isn't quite as much fun as that title makes it sound, there were indeed pajama parties in Wisconsin last night to celebrate the midnight launch of a recall effort for Scott Walker, he of that whole collective-bargaining unpleasantness last Spring.

The goal is 540 thousand signatures in 60 days--or about nine thousand per day--just to get the recall on a ballot. No specific individual has stepped forward to challenge Walker yet, but if the signature drive succeeds, an election could be held as soon as March.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Reason #66: Take This Job and Occupy It

Because the police raid on Occupy Oakland worked just so darn well the last time, authorities tried it again today. This time, of course, they showed up at 4am, and at a time when many of the protestors were marching on another area nearby. Though it apparently took literally hundreds of police officers, they did succeed this time in taking out the big, scary tents and scattering the remaining occupiers - ultimately arresting 32 of them.

Again: hundreds of cops, 32 arrests.

Nevertheless, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan's top legal adviser, Dan Siegel, called the raid "tragically unnecessary" and resigned pretty much immediately. Siegel had voiced opposition to the infamously violent raid a few weeks ago, and had indeed been urged to resign to prove he meant it. Looks like he was convinced.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Reason #65: Dear God What's That Light??

Because I haven't done space in a while, I thought today I'd point out NASA's handy web page devoted specifically to listing all the myriad ways in which the world will not, in fact, end next year.

It starts with the more infamous Mayan calendar stuff (and something about a Sumerian planet called Nibiru that I'd never heard of), then moves on to polar shift (wasn't that 2012's version? Never saw it), meteors, and most recently, rogue solar flares.

While none of the above will seriously jeopardize the return of Mad Men next year, it seems that the sun actually does have an 11-year solar flare cycle, and 2012 is in fact near the peak of this particular cycle, but all that means for us is some fussy electronics and signal interr--- *FZZZZZT*

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Reason #64: Have Lungs Will Travel

In July, the EPA instituted something called the Cross State Air Pollution Rule, which significantly cuts certain kinds of air pollution based on their tendency to cross state lines and cause health problems in those on the far side of said lines (because killing people in your own state is alright). Naturally, the Republican House would not stand for this, so they passed a bill that would overrule, rule.

The bill got to the Senate today, sponsored by one Rand Paul, where it was trounced, relatively speaking, 56-41. President Obama, of course, had already promised to veto it even if it had made it through the Senate.

There's something to be said for passing a bill you know won't survive for purely philosophical reasons - I don't mean to suggest that that can never be something worth doing. But while Democrats might do that with, say, certain aspects of Obama's jobs package (the veteran tax credit passed today, for example), it's crazy to me that the Republicans are not only supportive of pollution on paper, in an abstract sense, they're actually willing to go to the mat to make strictly symbolic gestures to show just how much they support it.

Yay pollution!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Reason #63: Smart Voting

To recap:

No, John Kasich, you can't cut down on union bargaining rights in Ohio (but you can challenge the constitutionality of Obamacare).

No, Maine Republicans, you can't keep people from registering to vote on Election Day.

No, Russell Pearce, you can't kick off the wave of papers-please laws across the country and get away with it.

And last but not least, no, Mississippi, a miscarriage is not a crime scene.

Plus some other stuff.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Reason #62: Rage Voting

No, really. Voting can be a lot of fun.

Like, say your district has a really heated race going on for County Executive, and one guy decides to robocall you four times, twice at work and twice while you're on vacation.

Getting to walk into an actual, physical voting booth and punch in a vote for the other guy, who has no chance of winning, whose first name makes "Barack" look like "Steve", purely out of spite?

It's a delightful time.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Reason #61: People Eventually Leave the Military

Sometime today, the Senate will hold a test vote on a bill that gives a $5600 tax credit to employers who hire veterans who have been unemployed for more than six months - or $9600 if said veterans are diabled.

The measure, of course, is just one teensy part of the jobs plan that was resoundingly thrashed when presented in toto, so there's every chance that it will itself be a teensy bit thrashed if it gets to the House.

Because, y'know, Obama.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Reason #60: Retroactive Medals

More than 60 years after serving in some of the bloodiest battles of World War II, the so-called Montford Point Marines, the first black Marines in the American armed service, have at long last been retroactively awarded a Congressional Gold Medal.

Granted, Montford Point trained 20 thousand black Marines during the forties, and they've been awarded just one gold medal collectively, but as long as that doesn't work out to 5/8 of a medal per person I think we can let it slide.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Reason #59: Learning From Last Week...Or Not

Aaaaand now South Carolina is at it. I'm starting to worry that papers-please laws are going to become to this election cycle what gay marriage was to 2004 - bullshit wedge issues that nobody will care about in a few years anyway.

The funny thing is that this time, Obama is challenging it months ahead of time - all they're doing is giving him opportunities to practice for the general election.

Godspeed, rednecks.

(side note - I've been traveling for the last couple days, so the schedule has been a little wonky. My apologies.)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Reason #58: Drugs Are Bad, M'kay

As I've mentioned before, maybe the strongest, most stark evidence of continuing racism in America is the criminal justice system. And within that problem, the biggest offender may be mandatory minimums - rules that set the least severe sentencing option for those convicted of a given crime.

Most famously are the minimum sentences for crack-related changes (black drug) versus those for powdered cocaine-related charges (white drug), which have for decades involved a 100-to-1 disparity.

In other words, getting caught with 5 grams of crack brings a minimum sentence of 5 years in jail, which is the same minimum sentence you get for 500 grams of cocaine.

The good news is, thanks to last year's Fair Sentencing Act (why it took a year to go into effect I couldn't say), the 100-to-1 disparity has been whittled down to 18-to-1, which still sucks, but hey - it's progress. Especially for the roughly 12 thousand current inmates, who can now request reduced sentences - 1800 of which can be released immediately (or as close to immediately as the government gets).

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Reason #57: The Department of Motherfuckin' Justice, Bitch

I know the point of this blog is to highlight government actions I support, but it's nice every now and then to find a government action I want to stand up and applaud.

The ongoing drama surrounding Alabama's recent papers-please law has made it seem, to me at least, unlikely that its worst aspect--the removal from public schools of children whose immigration status is questionable--would ever really be implemented all the way.

But just to make sure, the US Department of Justice sent letters on Monday to Alabama's superintendents and school boards stating that under no circumstances is any child to be turned away from a state school, even if they're wearing a sombrero that says "I just snuck across the border and all I got was this lousy hat" on it.

Furthermore, they have two weeks to send statistics on their ESL (English as a Second Language) student populations to the DOJ so they can determine to what extent children may have already withdrawn from school in fear of the new law, in case further legal action against the state is necessary.

The DOJ added, "now get the fuck out of my sight."

Monday, October 31, 2011

Reason #56: Counting

If the reports today about the world population hitting seven billion--only twelve years after six billion--are freaking you out a bit, well, good. But you may only have to freak out about 99.95% as much as you are, because the number everybody's referencing today comes from the UN, whereas the US Census Bureau's official estimate is 28 million lower. That would mean we've still got as much as four months before reaching the dreaded round number.

If that still freaks you out, well, again - that's good. But maybe take a moment and read The Coming Population Crash by Fred Pearce; there's substantial evidence that we may not continue for long on the skyrocketing path of the last hundred years or so.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Reason #55: Enormous Metal Chicks

I wanted very badly to write about the Statue of Liberty for Reason #11.5, but alas - she's French. Now that the old girl is celebrating her 125th birthday, though, I can proudly mention today's Liberty Island naturalization ceremony bringing 125 new citizens into the US. For a ceremony in NYC, though, I wonder how many of those immigrants were from Mexico.

And what do you suppose they told Immigration Applicant #126?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Reason #54: No, You Can't Have Your Leopards Back

Of the fifty-something animals Terry Thompson released on his property last week, there are six still alive - three leopards, an ape, and a bear. And now his widow is trying, unsuccessfully, to get them back.

I understand that the zoo, which has been taking care of them so far, doesn't necessarily have a legal right to them, but if the legal owner of a handgun shoots a bunch of people with it, does his family get the gun back afterward? Legally these animals are evidence now, so the obvious answer is to keep them in little plastic bags in a police station basement.

Side note: while there was a lot of talk last week about how lax Ohio's animal ownership regulations are, it turns out that there actually was a law on the books banning the sale of exotic animals, and Ohio's brilliant governor John Kasich let it expire earlier this year. Damn that big government getting between me and my grizzly bears.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Reason #53: Busting Bunker Busters

Per Rachel Maddow last night (and this article), Tuesday marked the completion of the disassembly of the last existing B53 nuclear bomb. The B53s were all retired from active service (can't imagine what active service for a nuclear bomb would entail) as of 1997, and they've been navigating a tricky disassembly process more or less since then - Tuesday's bomb, for example, took three years to safely deconstruct, which is even more nuts when you discover that it was supposed to take seven years.

One of the reasons it took so long is that the bombs--which I'd remind you were still in active service until 1997--were built so long ago that the original engineers had died.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Reason #52: Good Old-Fashioned Cocaine Farming

Last week, police in Michigan caught 87-year-old farmer Leo Sharp (pictured above) with 229 pounds of cocaine in the bed of his truck - almost $3 million worth. In keeping with my comments yesterday, I would just like to say that if you're north of 85 years old, you should be able to do whatever you damn well want with as many drugs as you damn well please. If anything, it should carry the same penalty as when your dad catches you smoking - he should have to do all that coke himself.

Incidentally, his defense was that he'd been forced to transport it at gunpoint. But c'mon, look at that son of a bitch - nobody's making him do shit.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Reason #51: Welfare for Everybody!

A month or so ago, I came a hair's breadth away from talking about a new law in Florida that requires all welfare applicants to pass a drug test. No one wants people using government assistance to buy drugs, certainly, but it still seemed stupid to me in a sort of indefinable way, and this blog is supposed to be about good things the government is doing, so I let it go.

In retrospect, it's much more clear to me why it's a stupid law, so the news that a federal judge has blocked the law in response to a lawsuit brought on by the ACLU gives me cause to finally bring it up.

First of all, not only has no one proven that implementation of the law actually saves money, but some figures (I would link to something but this was something I saw weeks ago and I forget where) suggest that the cost of implementing that many drug tests--applicants pay the $35/40 fee themselves but are reimbursed if they pass--far outweighs the money saved by denying benefits to the 2% or so who test positive.

Secondly, I know a lot of people hear "ACLU" and want to kill the discussion right there, so I should point out that the suit was brought by an ex-Navy single father who wanted the money so he could finish his degree. What really brought me around on this one wasn't the fiscal questions, it was the notion that this guy shouldn't be allowed to get high once in a while if he wants to.

Maybe weed isn't the best possible use of one's welfare benefits, and maybe there are other people with serious addictions that would genuinely abuse the system given the opportunity, but unless we want to have a conversation about policing all of welfare recipients' spending habits--beer? Movie tickets? Candy bars?--I see no fair reason to single drugs out.

And if it doesn't really save the government money anyway, why even waste our time having the conversation?