Friday, June 29, 2012

Reason #225: HD 189733b

Thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope, researchers have been able to witness for the first time changes in an exoplanet' atmosphere caused by a solar flare--which is a big accomplishment purely in terms of our ability to detect extrasolar activity, but also has the potential to teach us more about how solar flares here in our own system can affect the atmosphere of Earth.

 HD 189733b, first discovered in 2005, is (or was) a gas giant with 14 percent more mass even than Jupiter, yet it orbits its sun from only three million miles away, or twelve times closer than does Mercury in our system.

So when a massive eruption was detected coming from its star just hours before a scheduled transit (when the planet passes between the star and Earth, thereby allowing us to take measurements of it), scientists quickly realized that the planet's atmosphere was basically evaporating--rocketing away at a rate of one thousand tons per second.

Even when taking into account its much larger size, the amount of X-rays HD 189733b would have absorbed during the flare up were measured to be around three million times more than the Earth does during even the worst solar flares we've classified thus far.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Reason #224: So That Happened

"If a tax is properly paid, the Government has no power to compel or punish individuals subject to it. We do not make light of the severe burden that taxation--especially taxation motivated by a regulatory purpose--can impose. But imposition of a tax nonetheless leaves an individual with a lawful choice to do or not do a certain act, so long as he is willing to pay a tax levied on that choice. The Affordable Care Act's requirement that certain individuals pay a financial penalty for not obtaining health insurance may reasonably be characterized as a tax. Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness."
Did not see that coming.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Reason #223: Tickets

According to Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel's office, last year Chicago made 18,298 arrests for possession of less than ten grams of pot, consuming more than 45 thousand of the police department's man-hours.

Well, no more! Starting August 4th, a new ordinance will go into effect that doesn't exactly decriminalize marijuana, but downgrades it from an arrestable offense to a ticketable offense if the person possesses less than fifteen grams (which, let's be honest, is still a decent amount of pot).

While I'd still prefer outright decriminalization, I have to admit that this is a very good step in that direction, if not an alternative. It still speaks to the taxation argument (increased revenue for the city) while emulating to a substantial degree the lightened police workload that would follow actual decriminalization.

One of the ordinance's opponents, Roberto Maldonado, inadvertently makes perhaps the best point about this. According to this article, "...he doesn't want his kids growing up thinking marijuana use is as bad as running a stop sign."

You are absolutely correct, Alderman Maldonado. Marijuana use is far, far less bad than running a stop sign.  I would love to see statistics on which of the two kills more people.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Reason #222: Endangerment

Continuing the week's theme of fair-to-middling judicial news in anticipation of the Obamacare ruling on Thursday, federal appeals ruled today strongly in favor of the Environmental Protection Agency in a suit brought by fourteen different states to block the agency's rules regarding greenhouse gases.

That sounds like a good thing on its face, and I mean, it is, but the suit wasn't over any esoteric little detail of the rules--it was over whether the EPA had the authority to do anything about global warming in the first place. At issue, it seems, was the notion that spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere constitutes "endangerment".

As opposed to being, y'know, a good thing.

So that's where we are with this: the EPA is, in fact, allowed to regulate pollution. Glad we got that settled.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Reason #221: Small Victories

The backbone of the Obama administration's fight against SB1070, Arizona's "papers-please" law, is not so much that checking people's documentation during traffic stops is itself unconstitutional, but more that the it's the federal government's job to determine immigration enforcement methods, and its authority in that regard overrides the states'.

So while some of the law's specific provisions were struck down by the Supreme Court today--such as criminalizing the act of seeking work and permitting the warantless arrests of suspected illegals whenever an officer feels he has probably cause--the core of the law is a little muddier. While the court did leave some wiggle room for it to be challenged again depending on how enforcement proceeds from here (many are still voicing concerns that racial profiling will continue as long as some aspect of the law remains in place), the state of Arizona's authority to set immigration enforcement laws of its own remains as it was.

Also noteworthy is that the decision was 5-3, which means that even if liberal justice Elena Kagan hadn't been recused from the case (she had been a part of the administration's initial challenge to the law before becoming a justice), the result would 've been the same.

It's not terribly clear to me--or anyone, really--whether this is an overall win for papers-please opponents, but it at least establishes that blatantly unconstitutional practices won't be tolerated. And with the court's ruling on Obamacare coming later this week, I'm inclined to take even an ambiguous win while I can.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Reason #220: Small Sky

On my vacation last month, I saw an IMAX movie called Space Junk, the subject of which should be clear. It dealt briefly with something called Big Sky Theory - the notion that three-dimensional space is so vast that collisions between flying objects are so unlikely as to be unworthy of our concern.

Needless to say, after fifty years of shooting random crap into orbit, and that crap slamming into other crap and generating even more crap, the area around the Earth is actually filling up with collision risks pretty quickly.

But meanwhile, the idea that the space has less, well, space in it than traditionally thought does have upsides. For one, NASA is about ninety-five percent of the way toward identifying, tracking, and cataloguing all nearby asteroids; or at least all the ones big enough to potentially threaten humanity were they to ever cross our path. Perhaps more significantly, according to this article, the notion of an asteroid ending life on Earth is becoming so unlikely that we may soon see the end of asteroid disaster movies.

Even smaller aasteroids pose a threat, of course, and the smaller they get the more there are to find and keep track of, but Lindley Johnson of NASA's Near Earth Object Observation Program (which categorically refuses to call itself NEOOP) goes so far as to say that in twenty or thirty years we'll have mapped every space rock big enough to damage even an area the size of, say, Kansas. And by that time, even if one does happen to be coming toward us, we'll have enough advance warning to allow for a whole suite of deflection and/or destruction options.

But in the meantime, if someone could get on that asteroid-destroys-Kansas movie, I'd really appreciate it.

UPDATE: now private enterprise is getting in on the game, too.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Reason #219: Fleeting Expletives and Momentary Nudity

The Supreme Court ruled today against the FCC and its fining of Fox and ABC over brief moments of naughty words and body parts, respectively, on the two networks. While skirting what would have been a very interesting stance on whether the FCC has to power to determine indecency in the first place, the ruling simply found that the FCC had failed to give the networks proper advance notice that "fleeting expletives and momentary nudity", in the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy, were finable offenses--as opposed to, y'know, good old-fashioned family entertainment.

Time was, things like that would've been instantly identifiable as offensive to the overwhelming majority of Americans, so it's actually very encouraging that seeing a lady's butt on NYPD Blue, as was the case regarding ABC's fine, now requires specific delineation as indecent content.

It's still silly, of course, but it seems to me that the further down the rabbit hole the FCC has to go in listing the exact things that aren't allowed on prime time television--and in what contexts and quantities--the more those things will start to seem silly to the rest of us, and maybe that will be lead to some relaxation of our utterly outmoded notions of indecency. And in the meantime, there's always FX and AMC.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Reason #218: White People Problems

So I was watching Hardball last night, and while discussing Obama's new immigration policy, someone raised the observation du jour of his reelection strategy--that he seems to be targeting a potential coalition of interest groups one at a time. Before Hispanics it was gays with his announced support for gay marriage, and before that it was women with that charming contraception kerfuffle (which, I suppose, was conservatives' own fault for bringing it up). Chris Matthews responded with something so the effect of, "so what's he going to do for white men?"

To which I say, screw 'em!

As a straight, white Christian male (well, raised Christian), nothing could be more refreshing in this year's election that the possibility that I might not be catered to in any specific way. The entire system is built to support and enforce the dominance of white men already, so the notion that the president has to pay us any excess attention to earn our votes is ridiculous, and any white men who think that way deserve to feel disenfranchised.

As the country finally moves into a position where whites aren't the majority, I eagerly look forward to their emergence as a special interest group like all the others, rather than the default. Here's hoping it starts this year.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Reason #217: Containment

After days battling a 92-square-mile wildfire in northern Colorado, firefighters have now contained around half of the conflagration. At least 189 houses have been destroyed since a lightning strike triggered the wildfire on June 9th, and while the containment is making progress, officials say it could be weeks or even months before the entire thing is under control.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Reason #216: Cessation

Showing nothing short of contempt for both Congress' authority and Space Fridays, President Obama on Friday announced that after deporting more illegal immigrants than any president since the 50's, his administration was immediately ceasing the deportation of anyone under thirty--with clean work, school or military records--who came here under the age of sixteen and had been here for at least five years already.

While neglecting to enforce a policy it doesn't agree with isn't the same as enacting a different policy (nor is it unheard of for this administration), the move was an unexpected burst of sunlight over a population of nearly one million young illegal immigrants brought here by their parents, many of whom are pursuing an education (or even military service) despite the constant threat that they'll be forcibly removed from the country.

As Obama himself pointed out, this isn't amnesty, and it isn't a path to citizenship. What it is, I think, is a simple acknowledgement of reality, and a refusal to compound our problems by commiting an even greater injustice against some of our best and brightest young people because of a crime they had no part in.

Many are pointing out the other reality here; that the move will almost certainly boost Obama's already-strong support among Hispanic voters, the same way coming out for gay marriage did with that group. To which I say - whatever gets the job done. If only every year was an election year.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Reason #215: Phytoplankton

One side effect of Arctic ice melting due to climate change is something called melt ponds--small pools of standing water where there has historically just been solid ice.

So while a lot of the ice is melting off into the oceans, there are also all these little ponds forming all over the place at the same time. This is still bad, though, right?

Well, technically, but here's the thing--NASA researchers have been investigating these new bodies of water in what, again, has been essentially a frozen wasteland for all of recorded history. And what they've found, in amounts far exceeding anywhere else seen on Earth, is phytoplankton; tiny microscopic plants that form the absolute ground level of the food chain in a sea ecosystem.

These critters can't show up without sunlight, and now that the ice is melting, sunlight is getting much farther down below the surface than it usually does--which means phytoplankton, which means more complex sea life suddenly has something to survive on, and so on and so forth until next thing you know, you've got a vertiable arctic oasis, ruled over by a benevolent race of lobster people.

I should note that the above article does not explicitly mention lobster people, but c'mon--read between the lines.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Reason #214: Conviction

Continuing the recent spate of Stand Your Ground news, a man in Texas was convicted of murder today--after a mere five hours of jury deliberation--after unsuccessfully using that state's Stand Your Ground law as his defense.

What is not in dispute is that the man, Raul Rodriguez, left his house to confront neighbors about the excessively loud party they were having, and shortly thereafter shot and killed an unarmed schoolteacher named Kelly Danaher.

From a certain point of view, the conviction actually reinforces the conceit behind Stand Your Ground laws. Supporters claim that the laws are not meant to protect aggressors, and if one attempts to hide behind it, this suggests that they will ultimately fail.

But leave aside the fact that a large majority of Stand Your Ground defenses prove successful (seventy percent in Florida), and the fact that you're twice as likely to get away with a homicide if you lie in a Stand Your Ground state.

Even if we could trust the judicial system to properly weed out all the bullshit Stand Your Ground Defenses and prosecute those people accordingly, the bigger problem with the laws might be that more people are willing to at least, pardon the pun, take a shot at it. Rodriguez, in fact, went so far as to say "I am standing my ground here" to police dispatchers immediately prior to shooting the guy.

Whether or not the jury happened to agree with him, it's clear he acted as he did while fully conscious of what his story would be afterward. Would he still have shot an unarmed man if he didn't think that would be an option? Would be have brought his gun in the first place?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Reason #213: Release

A wealth of new evidence in the Trayvon Martin case will soon be made available to the public following a judge's order today. They're still withholding photos of Trayvon's body and the names of key witnesses--which probably makes sense--but a number of statements and e-mails from said witnesses will be released, as well as a great deal of information on George Zimmerman, such as the results of medical tests performed on him that day, his own statements to the police, and transcripts of his calls--to 9-1-1 and, later, from prison.

Last but not least, the results of Trayvon's autopsy will also be released. Naturally, the cause of death is the one thing not in dispute right now, but it will be very edifying to find out, say, how badly he seemed to have fared in the initial fight, and how extensively his hands were injured from hitting Zimmerman back. For the first time, we might soon have a real sense of how the fight went down.

Zimmerman and his wife, meanwhile, are both in jail after Judge Kenneth Lester, who authorized today's release, determined that they had lied to the court about their finances; in particular, how much money they had accumulated from sympathetic online donations. I don't know how big of a sentence you can get for perjury, but wouldn't it be interesting if George Zimmerman got off and his wife went to jail instead?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Reason #212: Confirmation

Like they've been doing with every action the Obama administration takes, Senate Republicans have been attempting to filibuster the confirmation of judge Andrew David Hurwitz for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. They say Hurwitz is "not simply another liberal nominee", but that as someone who clerked--clerked, by god--for a liberal Supreme Court justice during the Roe v. Wade decision--forty years ago, mind you--the idea of this man holding the *cough* monumental power that comes with being one of the twenty-nine judges in the 9th Circuit was just the kind of beyond-the-pale disaster-level scenario the filibuster was clearly designed for.

Amazingly, a handful of Republican senators broke ranks, and Hurwitz was confirmed today, which at this point is a remarkable accomplishment for the Senate, if for no one else.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Reason #211: Authorization

Amidst extended negotiations regarding base pay and the length of school days, the Chicago Teacher's Union voted overwhelmingly today to authorize a strike. Negotiations are still ongoing, of course, and representatives of Chicago Public Schools were quick to point out that their final (or at least latest) offer is still forthcoming. The vote simply permits the union to call a strike if it deems one necessary, thereby giving it more leverage in negotiations.

After offering and then rescinding a four percent pay increase last year, Major Ravenstahl's administration is now pushing for a ten percent longer school day and a guaranteed pay raise in a teacher's first year of two percent--which already seems iffy from a mathematical standpoint.

The teacher's union, meanwhile, is seeking reduced class sizes, two-year contracts instead of CPS' five, a twenty-four percent raise the first year and a five percent raise the second year.

Strikes are always complicated, and I won't pretend to be an expert in the finer points of the Chicago Public School system, but that is indeed quite a gulf between the two sides' positions, and given the huge loss for organized labor in Wisconsin last week, I'm happy to err on the side of the union having a little extra bargaining power here. Maybe a twenty-four percent raise is more than they need, maybe not--but a two percent raise in exchange for ten percent more work certainly doesn't seem right. And at the very least, I'm in favor of anything that leads to longer school days. Let's just hope they don't end up striking first.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Reason #210: Bake Sales

To protest the proposed loss of $300 million from NASA's budget this year, scientists and NASA supporters are organizing a mass demonstration in almost twenty locations across the country. To make their point extra clear, these demonstrations will be taking the form of bake sales and car washes.

Oh, scientists - always so clever. The sad part is, the demonstrations will also serve as genuine fundraisers, which should tell you just how hard up for funding they really are.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Reason #209: Petitions

The task force that Florida has convened to re-examine the Stand Your Ground law will be meeting for the first time this Tuesday. Trayvon Martin's parents will be present for the meeting, and are expected to deliver a 340-thousand-signature petition calling on the task force to either amend or repeal the law outright.

Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Times has been investigating almost 200 separate criminal cases where Stand Your Ground was involved, and its findings run the gamut from shocking to not-very-shocking to outright ridiculous.

For example, nearly seventy percent of cases where the defendant invokes Stand Your Ground have resulted in an acquittal. If you break that number down further, you will find that fifty-nine percent of cases involving a white victim ended with acquittal, while that was true of seventy-three percent of cases involving a black victim. In other words, juries are at least fourteen percent more likely to acquit you if you claim to have felt threatened by a black person.

And if you think that's bad, wait until you hear about the guy who tried to use the law to get away with shooting a bear.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Reason #208: No License For You

Adding more fuel to the fire of the nationwide ban on driving and texting that the NTSB proposed last year, an 18-year-old in Massachusetts today became the first person in that state to be convicted of "negligent operation while texting", in addition to motor vehicle homicide.

Two Februarys ago, the teenager, Aaron Deveau, crossed into ongoing traffic and ran head-on into 55-year-old Donald Bowley, Jr, severely injuring his passenger and eventually killing Bowley himself. While the prosecution failed to prove that Deveau had been texting at the exact moment of the crash, I think the 193 messages he sent--sent--that day, the last of which being roughly one minute before the crash, were sufficient evidence as to the cause of his distraction.

The jury agreed, and sentenced him to two-and-a-half years in prison (one more beyond time already served), a strangely-low forty hours of community service, and most appropriately, revoked his driver's license for fifteen years.

In keeping with my reaction to the Dharun Ravi hate-crime case, I think this is another good example of not over-punishing someone. At Deveau's age, an extended prison sentence could only be detrimental to his growth into a responsible adult, while the loss of his license will ensure that the accident is never far from his mind, and that he'll be unable to make the same mistake again for a long time.

Now, if they were to catch him driving without a license sometime in the next fifteen years, that's a different story.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Reason #207: Number Twos

Yesterday, American drones killed Al-Qaeda's latest second-in-command, Abu Yahya al-Libi, in a village in Pakistan. Over Pakistan's protests, there have been at least seven drone strikes in Pakistani territory in the last two weeks.

Going back even further, al-Libi is the second number-two man we've killed in Pakistan in the last year, on top of a number of other high-value targets.

Say what you will about Obama's ramping-up of drone strikes since taking office, but it's my feeling that expecting the president to have absolutely zero blood on his hands is, while admirable, laughably impractical. Until such time as we achieve absolute world peace, there are going to be people the president needs to kill, and if you look at the wide variety of ways leaders have chosen to do so throughout time, drones are far and away the cleanest (and most cost-effective) we've come up with so far.

Imagine if Bush had just sent a drone after Saddam Hussein?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Reason #206: Coronation Chicken

Beginning over the weekend, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II is celebrating the 60th anniversary of her coronation--or, in Britishese, her "Diamond Jubilee".

The centerpiece of the Jubilee was a mammoth pageant down the Thames river on Sunday, which featured hundreds of boats, including one that dates all the way back to 1740, one that participated in the last Diamond Jubilee in 1897, and one that's basically a giant floating belfry complete with eight new church bells cast just for the occasion. The famous Tower Bridge, home of the Crown Jewels, was even raised to let the procession through, which I gather is a relatively big deal.

Meanwhile, today's main event is a comparably mammoth jubilee concert and five-course jubilee picnic for the royal family and twelve thousand of their closest friends--or cheapest friends, as the tickets were free--capped off with the traditional main course, known as, I shit you not, Coronation Chicken.

And looking at all of this, soaking up the opulent opulence of it all, all I can think is--no bridge to nowhere, no study conducted about studies, no Congressional pay increase, will ever be anywhere near as big of a waste of money as the goddamned royal family.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Reason #205: Rick Scott Really Dislikes Voting

We interrupt your regularly scheduled Space Friday to bring you this breaking news item from, well, last night.

The Justice Department has officially ordered Florida to cease purging its voter rolls--ostensibly to remove ineligble felons, illegal immigrants, and so forth--in advance of the upcoming election, due to their not having obtained permission from the federal government first. They needed to get permission first because parts of the state are subject to the preclearance clause of the Voting Rights Act, which I detailed in an earlier blog.

Not only did they not bother to ask first, but another law required the purge to have been done by May 16, which they also failed to do.

Both of these, of course, are procedural requirements more than anything else; semantic arguments, not philosophical ones. Luckily, there are lots of those, as well - the DOJ order was prompted by, in addition to the aforementioned, reports that governor Rick Scott was using an outdated driver's license database--incorrectly identifying literally thousands of people as non-citizens--and unfairly targeting Hispanics and Democrats for purging over other groups.

And last but not least, let's not forget that Florida has historically had little to no problems with voter fraud of any kind. What other reason could they possibly have for purging Hispanics from the voter rolls months before the election? I simply can't imagine.