Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Reason #247: Early Deals

Hoping to avoid another ugly budget showdown in the middle of the election, Harry Reid and John Boehner have, with the tacit support of President Obama, reached a temporary spending deal to give Congress an operating budget for the next six months, meaning that the real fun won't begin until President Romney--ha, just kidding--until Obama's second term begins in January.

The deal sets a $1.047 trillion cap on government spending for the next fiscal year. More hardcore conservatives were shooting for a $1.028 trillion cap proposed by Paul Ryan, which doesn't seem like a big deal until you realize it's $19 billion.

A Republican aide said that getting this out of the way two months or so early "will keep the larger focus on jobs, the economy and President Obama’s failed economic policies", implicitly admitting that a fight over the budget would instead remind people of failed Republican policies.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Reason #246: Charges

James Holmes went before a judge again today, his hair dye faded further still, and was formally charged with twenty-four counts of first-degree murder--two for each fatality--and a whopping 116 counts of attempted murder; one, presumably, for every other person in the theater.

He's facing two counts per murder because on top of one standard first-degree charge each, prosecutors are adding another charge for first-degree "with extreme indifference". That's another way of calling it a "depraved heart" murder, which is a classification usually given to innocent bystanders, and typically accompanies a second-degree charge, so it's significant that both sets of charges are being treated as first-degree.

Naturally, there remains the possibility that prosecutors will seek the death penalty, but no word on the matter came out of today's proceedings. Meanwhile, Holmes' public defender has until November to cobble together an insanity plea--which isn't guaranteed, but it's the only possible way Holmes could get out of this without several life sentences at least.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Reason #245: Burns So Good

It's been a while since I did a pretty-picture-themed Space Friday, so here is the highest-resolution image ever taken of the surface of the sun.

On July 11, the High Resolution Coronal Imager was launched into suborbital space for a whirlwind ten minutes, during which time it focused its lens on the "extreme ultraviolet" range of one particular sunspot, producing the most detailed images of the corona ever by a factor of five--a video sequence of which can be found at the link.

The mission was intended not only to give solar researchers a whole new level of data to pore over, but as a demonstration of NASA's light and efficient "sounding rocket" program, which was able to get the teensy 464-pound telescope into orbit and back with little to no fuss, and will likely be the model for a lot of quick missions like this in the future.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Reason #244: Bad Chicken

As most people have heard by now, the president of Chick-fil-A is in hot water for speaking out against same-sex marriage, and for donating money to anti-gay causes. A few days ago, just when you thought it couldn't get worse than losing the support of the Muppets, the mayor of Boston, Thomas Menino, released an open letter kindly suggesting that the chain stay the fuck out of Boston. Rahm Emanuel has now expressed similar feelings, but as it turns out--no, you can't actually ban a business from your city because you don't like the guy who runs it, on account of that whole First-Amendment thing.

I don't think either man genuinely has (or had) plans to try, either directly or indirectly, to fight Chick-fil-A's efforts to operate in their cities (which it is indeed doing), but this entire situation, I think, is actually a wonderful example of the First Amendment in action--Dan Cathy, the amusingly-effeminately-named Chick-fil-A president, is completely free to express his opinion, Emanuel and Menino are completely free to use their positions to call bullshit on his opinion (and even organize boycotts or protests if they so desire), and gay couples are completely free to stand in front of Chick-fil-A locations and make out.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Reason #243: Audits

Whenever people mention Ron Paul to me, the first thing I usually say in response is that I'm glad to have his worldview represented. There are all sorts of iffy details from a progressive standpoint, and even some from a conservative one, but American politics is not suffering from an excess of disagreements, but a dearth of consistency--and Paul is nothing if not consistent.

Now, as he rounds third base on his last term as a US congressman, proof of his message's endurance has appeared at last: in a 327-98 vote, the House approved today a measure calling for an audit of the Federal Reserve. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, notably, spoke out against the measure and its potential to "politicize" the Fed, but enough Democrats voted for it anyway that it sailed through with more than three-quarters of the vote. Not only does it not have a chance of passing in the Senate, it's my understanding that it won't even be brought up for a vote, which is unfortunate.

Now, does the Fed need to be audited? I have no freaking idea. But it does imply a certain boost of transparency, doesn't it? I have a hard time thinking that's a bad thing.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Reason #242: Futility

In the abstract, politicization of a tragedy is bad. That's an understood reality, and no one is going to challenge it. But however crass it may be to call for more talk about gun control after a massacre like the one in Colorado on Friday, it's nowhere near as crass as calling for less.

If you're opposed to gun control, in general or in any particular, that's fine--your voice should be a part of the conversation. But the fact is that we're not having this conversation 99% of the time, so if we don't seize upon moments like this to try and start a dialogue, when exactly is the right time?

Think about it - gun control opponents are essentially saying "how dare you try to convince people of something when they're most likely to be convinced?" It's the same argument the Bush people used to use about not criticizing the president while the nation was at war--even if the war is the subject of your criticism.

In any event, in the midst of President Obama's deafening silence on the matter, a handful of Democratic congressmen and women are indeed calling for limits on the availability of high-capacity clips like the one James Holmes used to shoot seventy people in something like two minutes.

They will be ignored, and they will fail utterly. But bless them for saying it.

(Side Note: as the blog approaches its one-year anniversary, and its 250th entry, I'm running a couple more simple survey questions. They can be found on the right until the end of next week.)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Reason #241: Taking Them Alive

I'm not equipped to say what did or didn't happen inside Columbine High School, or at Virginia Tech, that led to Harris, Klebold, and Cho taking their own lives prior to being arrested after their respective shooting rampages. In all likelihood, not one of them ever had the slightest interest in surviving to stand trial, and if they got what they wanted in that regard, then it's just one more crime to add to their lists.

But whether it's due to differences in police response or simply a lack of determination on the part of the shooters, it's been very encouraging to see two major shooting sprees now--Jared Lee Loughner in Arizona and now James Holmes in Colorado--end with the perpretrators behind bars, with long, sad trials ahead of them, rather than retreating into death without ever having to answer for their crimes.

I've heard a lot of people bemoan the amount of attention these shooters get in the media, and I can agree to a certain extent, but on balance I think it's better that the public get to know someone like Holmes very well, and learn just how depraved and pathetic he likely is.

Anyone who would look at the man in the picture above and see an example to live up to is too far gone already.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Reason #240: Liquid-Hot Magma

Using the Spitzer Space Telescope, NASA has discovered a new rarity in the exoplanet field--a planet smaller than the Earth. UCF-1.01, as it's been called, is only 5200 miles in diameter and orbits its star much closer than even Mercury does in our system. Not only does that mean that its year only takes 1.4 Earth days, but it couldn't possibly contain an atmosphere of any kind, and scientists say the entire surface is likely molten--the first such planet I'm aware of. We've already found ice planets and desert planets; now we just need a forest moon like Endor and we'll have the Star Wars hat trick.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Reason #239: Accountability

Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona likes to call himself the toughest sheriff in America--primarily due to his hardline battle against illegal immigration. Sure enough, whenever his officers conduct a sweep for suspected illegal activity--and there have been many--they make a point of asking for people's documentation.

This has resulted in both an ongoing debate on the legality of "papers please" laws nationally and a big bump in the amount of illegal immigrant detainees locally. 57 percent, in fact, of the 1500 people Arpaio's sweeps have arrested in the last four years or so have just so happened to end up being illegal immigrants.

Amazing numbers, right? Surely Maricopa County must be utterly flooded with illegals if 57 percent of the people who get arrested for completely random, everyday, non-immigration reasons also happen to be undocumented?

Well, either that or the deputies are unfairly targeting Hispanics and Hispanic neighborhoods. And that's just what the Department of Justice was alleging (well, on top of other things) when they filed suit against Arpaio's office last spring. No date for that trial has yet been set, but in the meantime, another trial began today for a similar suit brought by a coalition of Arpaio's opponents, including the Arizona ACLU.

While the DOJ's allegations are more broad, and the consequences likely more severe, many are watching the ACLU case, expected to last most of the next month, to get a sense of how the DOJ's will go. And if the DOJ's case is successful--combined with the Supreme Court's mostly-tough ruling on immigration enforcement last month, we could soon be looking at a very different state of affairs in the Southwest--and a bunch of even more riled-up old white guys.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Reason #238: The Master Teacher Corps

Starting with fifty mentors and expanding over the following four years to include a roster of ten thousand teachers, President Obama's proposed Master Teacher Corps is a $1 billion initiative to bolster the ranks of STEM teachers in American schools, and address the widespread failures of our educational system to provide students with the math and science skills they need to become employable and productive members of society.

Master Teachers will be chosen based not just on their bona fides, but through a "competitive process", searching for proven records of STEM teaching and a history of positive results. Members of the Corps will then be responsible not only for their own continuing careers, but for training others at their schools. In return for this increased standard of service, they will receive up to a $20 thousand stipend on top of their current base salaries.

All this will be packaged, of course, in the president's next budget request, which will meet with categorical failure in the Republican Congress. So, hey, maybe next year.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Reason #237: Soot

While most environmental issues are nation-wide, or worldwide, here in Pennsylvania, you hear a lot about coal. Right now, federal regulators are in Philadelphia at an open forum to hear thoughts from the public on the possibility of tighter air quality standards from the EPA regarding the amount of soot in the air--specifically, lowering the standard from 15 micrograms per cubic meter to 12 or 13.

Usually air-pollution standards, at least that I've heard about, seem to be in terms of parts per million, so even "twelve micrograms per cubic meter" sounds pretty friggin' high, doesn't it? The bulwark of air quality that is the American Petroleum Institute wants the question on the EPA's table to be how much soot is acceptable, rather than how much is healthy--because apparently they see those as two different things--adding that "there's health evidence that cuts both ways. Right now, we don't think it is so compelling that EPA is required to tighten the standard right now," because if the facts are a wash, why not err on the side of less healthy, am I right?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Reason #236: Someone Must Save Us From The Naked Ladies

In the wake of the Fourth of July holiday, automobile accidents led to 479 DUI arrests and nine fatalities--none, thankfully, caused by this unfortunate woman who apparently started walking out into the passing lane of the California Freeway (against traffic, no less) whilst removing her clothes.

Luckily (I daresay, conveniently so), Johhny Law was quick to the scene and the woman was apprehended and removed to a mental health evaluation with no serious accidents resulting.

Note to future drunk drivers: if you simply must drive drunk, remember to remove your clothes first, thereby ensuring that people will A) notice you and B) slow down considerably.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Reason #235: I Gotcher 'Celestial Body' Right Here

In other "small sky" news, the number of moons known to be orbiting Pluto is now up to five - once more sending a message of "go fuck yourself" from the little planet that could to the scientists who downgraded it to a "dwarf planet" in 2006.

Indeed, of the four Plutonian moons we knew about before now, only the biggest--Charon--was discovered prior to the reclassification. Scientists are leaning toward the theory that the unusual number of moons (for something Pluto's size, anyway) is due to a collision between Pluto and another object in the Kuiper belt billions of years ago - which only makes Pluto seem even more badass, if you ask me.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Reason #234: Two Strikes

In 2010, Juan Antonio Rosa, of San Antonio, Texas, was released early from a five-year prison sentence for possession of child pornography. Shortly thereafter, he got a job working at a local Wendy's - clearly, the man was turning his life around. Then in July 2011, his apartment was raided by ICE and child porn was once again found on his computer.

Fast-forward to now, and Rosa has just been sentenced to 22 years in a federal prison (the original conviction was a state charge). Not just for possession, mind you, but for selling copies of his child porn via the drive-through at his Wendy's. It seems he would meet prospective customers online and arrange for them to deliver a password--"Scooby-Doo"--when they arrived in his drive-through, after which they would find a memory card hidden amongst their food, and Rosa would find himself fifty dollars richer.

Wendy's management, naturally, denies any knowledge of the operation, and Rosa, for his part--after apologizing two his wife and two young daughters--made sure to remind everyone that "it's not for me. I'm just trying to make some money off of it."

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Reason #233: Restraining Orders

A new law in Mississippi would require anyone who provides abortions to be a certified OB-GYN with admission privileges for their local hospital. The law's purpose is said to be protecting patients from "unscrupulous practitioners", who might, I dunno, sell your unborn fetus on the black market or something.

In any event, the reality is that Mississippi only has one abortion clinic left as it is--the Jackson Women's Health Organization--and for a variety of red-tape reasons, none of its doctors are currently able to conform with the law. This is very intentional, and for all the talk about protecting patients, no less than the state's governor, Phil Bryant, has gone on record as hoping the law will effectively "end abortion in Mississippi".

In any event, while the law technically went into effect at the beginning of July, the one abortion clinic has remained open pending a federal review of the law. Today was the official hearing on the matter, and after hearing arguments from both sides, District Judge Daniel  Jordan has elected to exend his official restraining order on the law's enforcement.

Though Jordan had not yet announced the length of the order, it is now up to the law's opponents to demonstrate that the law places substantial obstacles in front of those seeking abortions, which the Supreme Court has ruled in the past is unconstitutional so long as Roe V. Wade remains in place.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Reason #232: Heat Waves

Every year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, in conjunction with scientists from 47 other countries, publishes a "State of the Climate" report, assessing the previous year's weather and noting any unusual incidents and trends.

Though it makes a point of being as apolitical as possible and does not blame climate change for conditions that are not conclusively known to have been caused by climate change, this year's report finally broke down and added a new section detailing the wide range of conditions that seem to be climate-change-related.

Among the noteworthy evidence:
  • 2011 was one of the fifteen warmest years on record (from the last hundred years or so).
  • Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have reached 390 parts per million, the highest ever recorded.
  • Major droughts like the one in Texas last year are now twenty times more likely than they were fifty years ago.
  • Abnormally warm Novembers like the one England experienced last year are now sixty-two times more likely than fifty years ago.
 The report focuses on comparisons--twenty times more likely, sixty-two times more likely--thanks to what's called event attribution science. Like I mentioned at the top, it's very hard to point to climate change as the absolute cause of any one event, so the best researchers can do is point out the degree of improbability associated with the event, and track the evolution of that improbability.

For the record, the overall odds of last year's heat pattern happening randomly are one in 1.6 million.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Reason #231: Here We Go Again

For the first time this year, President Obama has begun to push for the Bush Tax Cuts, set to expire at the end off the year, to be renewed only for taxpayers making less than $250 thousand. We had this debate in 2008, and again in 2010, when he famously (infamously?) gave in and extended the cuts for everyone for two more years. 2010 gave him a reprieve until after this year's election (and helped grease the wheels for Don't Ask, Don't Tell), but rather than avoid the subject, he now seems committed to making "tax fairness" a major platform of his campaign.

Indeed, while Democrats are expected to bring Obama's version of the extension to Congress in the next month, no one really expects it to reach his desk before November. The posture is the key thing here - Democrats know it's politically impossible right now, but they want voters to go into their booths in four months beleiving that this is where the Dems drew their line in the sand.

The Republicans, for their part, seem happy to draw their own line in front of renewing the entirety of the tax cut, and are of course preparing their own doomed piece of legislation reflecting as much.

The 2000 presidential election was the first one I really paid attention to (and was old enough to understand), and I remember very well the near-universal rallying cry of "these two people (Bush and Gore) are identical, so who gives a shit?" As much as people complain about the hyper-partisanship that has become the status quo in Washington, there's something to be said for the two parties at least having clear distinctions for once--on both fiscal and social issues.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Reason #230: Unknown Regions


Well, they found the Higgs boson. Or at least a boson, that's probably the Higgs.

Assuming the math continues to bear out, that completes the Standard Model of particle physics, explaining how mass is conferred unto matter by the laws of physics, and validating generations of both theory and practice - and all without engulfing the Earth in a black hole.

Now let's get started on the other 83% of the universe.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Reason #229: Denied

A year and a half after first being charged with covering up sex crimes in the Catholic Church, Monsignor William Lynn, the highest-ranking church official to be convicted in the scandal thus far, has decided that despite the fact that he hasn't even been sentenced yet, he's had enough jail already, thank you very much,

Alas, his request to be transferred to house arrest was denied today by a Common Pleas judge. Lynn's lawyers claimed that he was being unfairly targeted because of his status in the Catholic Church, saying that he was "taking the weight of the church on his shoulders".

Because if there's one thing the American government hates, it's Christianity, am I right?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Reason #227: Sorry

Last November, an accidental clash between US forces and Pakistani border security resulted in the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers. After a month of investigation, the Pentagon concluded that the incident was the result of the US commander's mistaken impression that there were no government forces in that area of the border, which therefore meant that the forces firing at them from Pakistan were insurgents - at which point a helicopter strike was called in. The whole affair also resulted in Pakistan closing off certain military supply routes the US had been using to reinforce its operations in Afghanistan.

So that was last December. Now, on July 3rd, Secretary of State has officially apologized for the incident, thus concluding seven months of wasting $100 million a month on other supply routes. So for those of you keeping track of how the Pentagon spends out money--and those of you who think the US should never apologize for anything--we now know exactly what a single apology is worth to us: $700 million.

Pakistan also demanded something about stopping drone strikes on their territory, but we're just gonna go ahead and ignore that.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Reason #226: Pentagon Pride

Recently, a Pentagon auditorium held a standing-room-only event with around 400 uniformed officers present, in which members of the armed forces from a variety of divisions and background came together to share the stories of their service with one another. It was a refined, military-style event through and through, with the one exception being that this was the Pentagon's first-ever celebration of LGBT Pride Month.

Aside from the obvious, one good thing about the DADT repeal that's starting to come out (pardon the pun) in the new, more tolerant Pentagon is the discrepancy between the military's lack of prejudice against homosexuality itself and the continuing denial of spousal benefits for same-sex couples, including those promised in the G.I. Bill, mandated by the federal Defense of Marriage law, which applies to military and civilian marriages alike.

Some in Congress are attempting to devise workarounds involving the definition of "spouse", but not only will such efforts fail to get through the Republican-controlled House, they would only be stopgap measures anyway. Sooner or later the Supreme Court will be forced to rule on same-sex marriage--in a way that takes into account out entire system of marriage licensing and benefits thereof--and every conflict like this one will only serve as one more nail in the coffin of the anti-gay-marriage argument.