Friday, April 26, 2013

Reason #286: Madmen

I believe I've touched on this before, but Wonkblog recently commemorated the launch of the latest season of Mad Men by pointing out how much worse Congressional politics was in the sixties. It's taken for granted these days that the country is polarized to the point of retardation, but what the piece contends is that the American people, as a whole, are getting along better than they have in living memory--it's only their representatives that hate each other.

Back in the sixties, the two parties were much closer together politically, as the graph above shows. But that's because the huge social rifts that were opened up by the Civil Rights movement, women's liberation, and the like had yet to embed themselves in the two-party system. In other words, there were racists and hippies on both sides, and compromise was reached, largely, by trying to appease both of them rather than one or the other; which is how you end up with concepts like "separate but equal".

Two generations or so later, most of the conservatives have been sifted into the Republican Party and most of the liberals into the Democratic Party--but the proportions thereof haven't changed all that much, except, of course, for the softening of a lot of the bigotry. In fact, you could be particularly cynical and say that polarization is reflective of increased efficiency, in that the whole point of political parties is to unite people with common beliefs into discrete voting entities.

The problem going forward is the parties becoming so discrete that they can't overlap even a tiny bit and nothing gets done--but that's only a problem in a two-party system. My hope, and the increasing divide between establishment and radical conservatives seems to suggest this, is that today's polarization could lead to the two parties finally fracturing into several smaller ones. That would mean that no one party could hold sway over the entire government, and legislation would become a process of genuine coalition-building like it is in many other countries.

Further Reading

‘Mad Men’ should make you feel better about politics today

VoteView - Political Polarization

Friday, April 19, 2013

Reason #285: Space Artists

I thought this would be another nice day for something pleasant to think about, so let's check back in with the good ol' Kepler Space Telescope. Kepler, you may remember, is designed specifically to look for exoplanets by measuring the amount of light coming in from distant stars--if the light dims a little bit every, say, 365 days, then it's a good bet a planet is passing in front of it.

For a long time it was mostly picking up enormous gas giants, which is cool, but not that exciting if you're hoping for something with more of an "Earth" feel. Well, as time has gone on and Kepler's methods have gotten more and more refined, it's starting to pick up planets closer and closer to the size of Earth--some even within their star's habitable zone, such as Keplers 62-e and 62-f, envisioned above. Both are less than twice the size of Earth, which by planetary standards is incredibly close, and both are believed to have rocky composition--though 62-e could potentially be covered in liquid water.

I've done a few posts along these general lines already, and while it's great to see not just the amount of new data but its increasing relevance to the hunt for extraterrestrial life, what I'm really starting to appreciate is the people NASA must have tucked away somewhere churning out digital paintings of every new body they come across, many of which make really snazzy blog post headers. I mean, look at that damn picture up there--if that doesn't make you want to get your ass to another planet, nothing will.

Further Reading

Kepler telescope spots two planets in life-friendly orbit

Reason #80: Kepler

Reason #81: No, Really - Kepler

Reason #170: Yet More Kepler

Friday, April 12, 2013

Reason #284: The BRAIN Initiative

Early last week, President Obama unveiled the latest of what his administration is calling its Grand Challenges (capital letters and everything)--a prospective $100 million research project called the BRAIN Initiative, which stands for pretty much what you'd think it stands for.

The goal of the Initiative is to map the pathways of the human brain, similar to how the Human Genome Project, well, mapped the human genome. That operation was indeed revolutionary, and today the cost to have your genome totally sequenced has plummeted from the initial $100 million (the same amount BRAIN started with, as it happens) to a mere $7000, which isn't totally out of the question for people interested in the ultimate in personalized medicine.

Mapping the brain, though, could be even more interesting given where artificial intelligence research is these days (and, sure enough, among the several existing research groups who will be contributing to the Initiative are DARPA, they of horrifying robotic insect swarm and equally-horrifying headless cheetah fame). All this is only even possible thanks to the exponential growth of modern processing power, known as Moore's Law, which means that the smarter computers get, the faster they continue to get smarter (ask me about the Singularity sometime).

Does this mean that in a few years we'll be able to carry around a backup of our entire brain on a flash drive? No idea. Let's find out, shall we?

Further Reading - BRAIN Initiative Challenges Researchers to Unlock Mysteries of Human Mind - 21st Century Grand Challenges

Wikipedia - Moore's Law

Friday, April 5, 2013

Reason #283: The Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society

With all the gun talk lately, it's been a while since I talked about something genuinely uplifting, and that's what this blog is supposed to be for--celebrating good laws, not obsessing over bad ones.

On that note, I would like to call your attention to The People v. Ramona Santorelli and Mary Lou Schloss, in which the New York Court of Appeals ruled that prohibiting female toplessness in public was discriminatory so long as male toplessness was allowed--ergo, anywhere a man can take off his shirt, so can a woman. The case, involving two women arrested in a Rochester public park in 1986, has been settled law for over twenty years, yet very few people are aware of it, and a number of women have even been wrongfully arrested over the years--sometimes resulting in pricey remuneration.

Enter the Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society, whose mouthful of a name somewhat obscures their true goals--throughout the last couple of summers (and even once in a while in the winters), this mostly-female group of friends has been getting topless in public areas around New York City to hang out, read trashy drama, and raise awareness not just of said drama, but of the fact that what they're doing is not only totally legal, but really not that big of a deal. A glance through their website reveals (pun appreciated but not intended) dozens of such adventures so far, and while they clearly don't mind the bit of attention they do receive, it really does seem that by and large no one gives a shit--which is as it should be.

So while OCTPFAS has been the main subject of this piece, I guess the spirit of the blog demands that I thank Misses Santorelli and Schloss, whose forward thinking, and legal stick-to-it-iveness, forced the state of New York's hand in this matter and will hopefully pave the way for lots more similar decisions in the future.

Just as soon as everybody in the other states hears about it.

Further Reading

The People v. Ramona Santorelli and Mary Lou Schloss

Bra-vo! $29G in topless suit

The Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society