Saturday, August 22, 2009

Dangerously Dumb People in the World

Time for this week's supply of dangerously dumb people plaguing the world.


3rd: Governor Charlie Crist (R-FL), for crediting a prayer posted at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for aiding Florida's lack of hurricanes during his tenure. (Crist said he wasn't taking personal credit, however. God gets the gold star.) Well, where was God during Hurricane Andrew? I'm guessing a few prayers were provided hours before Andrew hit southern Florida, devastating the region. Or before Charley in 2004. And a hurricane most certainly will hit Florida again. Where will God be then, sir? What will your prayer be responsible for then?

2nd: Constituent Crazy, who decided to confront the wrong politician. Barney Frank strikes back at an attendee who asks Frank why he supports Nazi policy (i.e., Obama's health care plan). Frank responds brilliantly: "On what planet do you spend most of your time?"

And you have to watch the video:

1st: Rush Limbaugh hahaha, for his "clever" homophobic jab at Barney Frank:

Isn't it an established fact that Barney Frank himself spends most of his time living around Uranus?

Wow. Uranus jokes? Seriously? Those weren't funny in junior high, Rush.

What a pathetic excuse for a human being you are, Mr. Limbaugh. This week's dangerously dumb person in the world.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Stories from the Road -- Washington Pass

There is a beautiful highway in northern Washington that roadsters like me see everyday in our imaginations but only sometimes confirm with our experiences. Washington State Highway 20 passes through the Cascades east of Burlington, in what can be described as a drive of gradual pleasures. The view east from Burlington is a hopeful one, with rolling hills inundated with trees full of life. The highway disappears quickly into this noticeably less flat terrain, and what emerges is a mountain chain of varied sights and sounds.

I remember most the river. The Skagit River slowly appears to the south of the highway, revealing the gradually higher peaks of the typically snowy Cascades. But, the river was not the typical dark brown or blue color. It had a dark gray look that was striking to the eyes. In actuality, the water is a royal green color, indicative of rock flour created by snowmelt. Green water typically causes one to think of algae, or slime, or something unpleasant to the senses. But this color looked strikingly clean, only outranked by the tropical blues found in the ocean waters near the Bahamas.

The color also evokes a sense of urgency, as torrents of water rush to the flatter lands to the west. Mom and I stopped several times on our way up to Washington Pass to watch the strange-looking river. In one spot, numerous nameless waterfalls were visible hundreds of feet higher. No sounds could be heard from them. The distant waterfalls looked like silent hourglasses, with the spray of water spreading out as it touched the land below.

North Cascades National Park resides in much of this area. It is one of the most remote national parks in the contiguous United States. Because the highway had only recently opened before our visit, few other travelers were seen the whole day. The visitor center was quiet, and the sounds of the forests were of a lonely wind subtly shaking the tree leaves. I remember looking at an American flag at the visitor center and listening to the whirring of the breeze for what turned out to be several minutes. If ever there is a reason to explore the wilderness, it is to experience moments like that one.

The drive east continues through wilderness. A bright green lake known as Lake Diablo is one of the best highway views of a lake in the country. The sight of snow-capped mountains dissolving into the lightened sky above the starkly darker forests and shimmering waters is captivating. Mom and I spent almost a half hour at this stop, despite the stiff and cool late May breeze.

Waterfalls dotted the road for miles, most of them unnamed. One waterfall flows right into the river, a few miles west of Lake Diablo. It is known as Gorge Creek Falls, and is one of the most interesting sights in the Northwest. The waterfall is extremely narrow and obviously qualifies as a gorge. The waterfall is the same color as the river, but the creek below it is shallower. This exposes the extremely clear water that actually flows in this part of the country. The green color may be indicative of eroded rock, but the water is almost perfectly transparent. Rocks shine below the surface, providing a gorgeous canvas for the swiftly flowing water. It is a stunningly beautiful sight.

The best stop on the trip through the Cascades, though, is just after entering Okanogan County. The spine of the Cascades resides here, and this section of the road is known as Washington Pass. I was completely unaware of the beautiful sight I would soon take in here. It is one of my favorite viewpoints in America, and any mountain lover would be stunned at the visual that quickly appears.

Mom and I turned out to visit at the perfect time, when plenty of snow remained on the slopes. The bright white clashed beautifully with the yellows and oranges of the rocky cliffs and the greens and browns of the trees clinging to the sides for dear life. Rock slide after rock slide plunged from the peaks, showing the devastating power of gravity and snow. I will never forget this place.

We took this drive in about five hours, which is criminally short for the length of time this area deserves. I will return one day soon to this outstanding portion of the country. But the sights of the Cascades and their fiercely independent appearance to that of the Rockies will remain for the rest of my days. It was one of my favorite road trip experiences of my life, and I think the pictures explain why.

The Skagit River on the west portion of the North Cascades Scenic Highway.
A snowmelt waterfall high above the Skagit River.
The whir of the small breeze near the visitor center of North Cascades National Park.
Lake Diablo.
Gorge Creek Falls.
The rocks in the green water of Gorge Creek.
Gorge Creek meets the Skagit River.
The astounding viewpoint near Washington Pass.
A glorious look at SH-20 at Washington Pass.
A view of the mountainside from the road.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Chaddie Sheperd Meets the Ethics

Today was Day 1 of "Professional Ethics Training", which even sounds eerily suspicious. I'm not sure how you can be trained to be ethical. No ethical dilemma that inevitably comes up with any job in any field is the same, and reactions to these dilemmas are commonly unpredictable, especially by the very people involved in these scenarios. I'm also not convinced that one can be trained to recognize these situations, or perhaps more correctly, that one *needs* to be trained to recognize these situations. Most people involved in ethical dilemmas immediately and instinctively recognize them as such, even if they would not label them in that manner.

People have a remarkable capacity to act against their better judgments in situations that seem overwhelmingly out of control. In yesterday's football rant, I suggested that most people tend to become coaches after a big loss, as if they somehow would have done a better job. I further suggested that these same people have no idea of the pressures and situational complications that arise in big-game situations, making their criticisms demonstrably arrogant and naive.

In the training session today, we were introduced to a psychological study that we know is prevalent in human behavior, whether we'd like to admit it or not. It is the so-called Milgram Study, in which the subjects were told by a "teacher" to provide increasingly high-voltage shocks to the learners whenever an answer they provide to a set of questions was incorrect. Of course, the "learner" was a part of the study and the real person being tested was the "shocker". In the study, nearly two-thirds of the shockers would continue to shock the "learners" with higher and higher voltage despite the increasingly audible (though completely fake) yelps of pain from the "learner". When the "shockers" would complain about the moral issues of the study, the "teacher" would continue to say that the study depends on the "shocker's" work and that the "teacher" would take full responsibility for the study. So the "shockers" continued.

This classic and very telling study illustrates how humans tend to act under authority. But in video tapings of the Milgram study (one of which was shown during the training session today), the actual subjects nearly always vocally complained at some point during the study over the troubling indicators that the "learner" was in pain. In other words, despite the subject's inability to act ethically during an ethically questionable situation, the subject nearly always recognized the situation as ethically questionable.

Guilt is a powerful ally in situations in which someone is tempted to do the "unethical" thing. For example, if I were to accidentally run into another person's vehicle in a parking lot, in which there were no witnesses, I would have a difficult time leaving the scene without notifying the other vehicle of my insurance information. Not because of any selflessness that I possess, but rather because the sense of guilt that would envelop me in the following days would be too much for me to take. This, by the way, is commonly overlooked by religious followers who can't understand the "moral compass" that many nonreligious people possess. Selfishness and the imperative for the social good commonly result in ethical behavior, despite other selfish alternatives and the lack of supernatural "punishment".

I happen to believe that people *always* act selfishly, no matter the circumstance. This may be an overgeneralization and is certainly biased from my own perspective, but listening to heroic story after heroic story, there is universally a personal element that at the very least suggests the hero does the heroic, seemingly unselfish action, because of a very selfish emotional conundrum. People often choose to do the unselfish thing because they have to live with whatever choice they decide.

This brings me back to the "training" aspect of ethics. As a scientist, I am obligated to advance the field, and this very powerful "belief system" outweighs any situation that may come up that poses an ethical dilemma. For example, if it turns out that something I do and report in meteorological journals is false or "no longer correct", it is my personal responsibility (indeed, obligation) to report it as such as soon as I possibly can. No matter how bad I may look as a result of the correction, the overwhelming guilt of "corrupting" or "impeding the forward progress" of the science outweighs any perception of me that would result. As a wise adviser recently told me: "My loyalties are to myself, and to the science." Words to live by, since the two are not inseparable in my "belief system".

Perhaps the more important thing to look out for is how ethics are omnipresent in virtually everything that you do. It comes up in meteorology in many ways, including authorship issues, what to include and not include in publications, how financial and time constraints with funding affect the scientific bottom line, etc. Maybe most importantly, it is there in the personal relationships you have with your peers. Is it harder or easier to review a friend's scientific work, even under the auspice of anonymity? (And is anonymity the best way to peer review? I think this is a very debatable issue, at the very least!) Can people stoke the fire in a work environment they are happy with? How does an ethical dilemma affect those you work with, and what are the perspectives of other people?

All of these topics were brought up in the training session today, but these are things that, I believe, the good scientists (and employees in general) already think about constantly. Not doing so is what is so unethical.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Football Snark

I tend to get snarky at this time of year, typically because school is starting. Well, I have no classes this fall, and I'm still getting snarky. So I have figured out that my snarkiness exists for reasons not exclusively tied to classes. And one of those reasons, dear readers, is because it is nearing football time in Oklahoma. Yes, it's time once again for my annual rant against Oklahoma football fans.

Well, I should clarify. I'm a fan of the Sooners, a big fan. I like football, too. Not as much as basketball and hockey, but I have spent many a fall Saturday watching game after game with a bratwurst in one hand and a remote in the other. And I don't think all Oklahoma fans are annoying, or even a large percentage of them. No, I'm snarking against the Sooner fanatics. The fans who talk about the players in May, who count down the days to the next football game starting in February, who think a coach should be fired for losing one game in a ten-plus game season.

I dealt with this in Nebraska for eighteen years. It is no better here, and after observing both the Cornhusker and Sooner football empires, I can honestly say that neither fan base is significantly better or worse than the other. It is just as bad here as it is there, so any complaints I have expressed against Cornhusker fans are just as valid here.

My least favorite Mondays of the year are autumn Mondays, when the spectators of the latest game discuss in excruciatingly minute detail every play of the previous game. I don't mind a brief discussion of the big moments of the game, but details on how players sluggishly broke from the huddle on particular third downs are a little much, thanks.

And, as much as I abhor I-80 in Nebraska on game days, the painfully unprepared streets of Norman are beyond an inconvenience. The streets are downright anarchy before and after the game and deserted during. So, if anything is to be done during the four-hour Sooner lovefest, it is to be done during the four-hour lovefest, when I'd much rather be taking part in the lovefest from the comfort of my lovely sofa.

Now, the streets of Norman are not Oklahoma fans, but I think they are a very convenient metaphor for them. See, the least annoying part of Oklahoma fandom occurs during the game, when spectators are so caught up in the moment that I can observe their genuine love for the sport. The most annoying part is before the game, when everybody is in "Can't wait for the game" or "Here's what I think will happen" mode, where the fanatics and fake professionals, respectively, sort of dominate the airwaves at the expense of the more grounded fans. And after the game, everyone's a critic...or, in this case, a coach. And although it is tempting to believe that you could coach a team better than some of the coaches after the bad games, I personally contend that that is an incredibly arrogant and naive take on the sport. On any sport, really.

Coaching sports is commonly about war strategy and the unspoken truths of human emotion. A strategy for winning a game is a lot like an investment. It's hard to say that an investment is a failure and to formulate a new plan when you are the formulator of the original plan, even when the thought has festered in your mind that disaster is approaching. It's an admission of failure, and as someone who knows a lot about failure, I can tell you admission of it does not come easily. Why would coaching be any different? Add to that the concepts of rivalry, a battle of wits, and an omnipresent zealous fan base who demands victory after victory, and the buildup of pressure is something that 20/20 hindsight is blind to. *This* is what I cannot stand about the Oklahoma fans I'm trying to exploit here, and football fanatics in general. People may be able to diagnose the reasons for failure, but contending that you can do better than the coaches? Shut up.

All snark aside, I reiterate my love for college football, and Sooner football specifically. And I am looking forward to a new season coming to a television near me. But, I know real fans when I see them, and I'm finding fewer and fewer of them in football stadiums. I can always count on them in soccer stadiums and volleyball arenas, though. Popularity can be a good thing, but it has its caveats. Oklahoma fanaticism is absolutely one of those caveats.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Growing Up: You Can't Go Home Again

Once or twice each month, I will take a trip down Childhood Lane. This is not nostalgia or putting a hand in the face of those bitter Tekamah years. This is more of a way of giving everyone an idea of where I came from, why I'm here, and what, I think, made me go from Point A to Point B. And hey, maybe they'll be somewhat entertaining to read.


I grew up in a small town in eastern Nebraska. There is no question that Tekamah is a farming community. It is nothing less and certainly nothing more. A drive through town on US 75 is an enlightening, if not forgettable, experience. The town's most beautiful building is the court house, which is across the street from the twisted, mangled halls of Tekamah-Herman Schools.

The grass is green on the lawns of the town. Not the residential green color of the uppity neighborhoods of suburbia and not the run-down greens of the decrepit shacks that dot the poverty lines of city after city across the nation. This green has the stench of artificiality, the putrid smell of appearances outlining the wide open curtains of a small town with ears leaning toward the windows and mouths next to the phone.

I was never a fan of Tekamah, and this is well-known to everyone I grew up with. In the halls of the school, it was commonly overheard that I believed Tekamah was the epicenter of hell's next construction project. But, like most people's memories of youth, there was a lot of good amidst the bad. In the years just after high school, I often focused on the bad and brought as much distance as possible between me and the town that made me. Now, it is a little different. The bad things are reminders of why I'm here, and the good things are the angels constantly telling me what to strive for.

One of my favorite things about growing up in rural Nebraska was its openness to the world. A view in any direction was endless, and a view upward was commonly a natural masterpiece. I spent many days in my front yard looking up at the contrails from hours past disintegrating at a painfully slow pace. An occasional flock of swallows chattered high in the air, and a neighborhood cat would walk up to me asking for its next meal of whatever I could find.

There was a view of the sky in my front yard that is forever etched in my mind. One block west, the land buckled upward in what could only be described as the molehill of Tekamah. City trees were everywhere, which lined the western sky in a sinusoidal pattern that was best observed in the flashes of lightning at night. My view out of my bedroom was to the south, and when a storm approached, I would have the images of the silhouetted tree "spokes" piercing the brighter white-blue light strobing in my head like an acid trip.

There was neighborhood football, in which I would play the quarterback for both teams, and I would see the football in slow motion almost camouflaged in the trees of autumn. I remember the faded Christmas lights outlined like a scatter plot on the lowest level of our house, and a tall evergreen only lit to about two-thirds of the way to the top. An occasional snow angel was drawn by the neighborhood kids on our lawn, which looked like ghosts in the dimly lit corridor of Main Street at night.

Going to Tekamah each time I return is a chore of psychological proportions. I remember things visually in ways tainted by the memories I had and the memories I've made since then. My life has been a series of contradictions, of living in places I sincerely do not belong out of necessity for attaining a life I have so far only dreamed of. I live in a perpetual middle ground of happiness with work and a constant disdain for where I am. It is quite likely that when the negativity of home is gone, I will never be encouraged to move again. So, interestingly, I almost see this middle ground as a blessing. Being satisfied so early in life is undesirable to me, really. If I'm happy and satisfied, what else will I have to live for?

If growing up in Tekamah has taught me anything, it is that if you never like home, you can't go home again. You don't even want to. And that's a good thing.

"You're not Mr. Draper."

I used to be a movie lover. I still am, actually, but I haven't seen a movie in several months. Grad student life is full of work and distractions, which inevitably leads to some hobbies being eradicated from the schedule. I used to review movies frequently and still do whenever I see one. I haven't seen one in a while and really don't have the desire to see any in the near future.

In the present days of DVR and TiVo, television has reigned supreme for me. All of the old jokes about television remain. "Over 900 channels, and I can't find a damn thing to watch." Horse pucky. There is always something fascinating to watch on the tube, and I don't have 900 channels.

Television is a much more reliable means of entertainment. Great movies are hard to come by, for various reasons. Even "genre films" known for a large number of masterpieces have plenty of clunkers in their midst, and no director or actor that I'm aware of has had a perfect score. But with television, there is much more consistency in the end product. Great television series typically score home runs week after week, with only the occasional drag-you-down. And it is usually very obvious when a series begins to run out of steam. (Think of Lost during Season 3, or maybe even this last season. Think of Grey's Anatomy now. And so on.)

Because of television's reliability, accessibility, and technological advances, it's a no-brainer to me to follow what's on it rather than on the big screen. And as a new season of television begins, now fully removed from the woeful writer's strike nearly two years ago, there is much to look forward to. However, I'm sticking with the old favorites in this post and will assess the newbies when the pilots come out in late September.

There are eight must-see shows, in my opinion, on television right now. This is not a completely exhaustive list, since I do not get HBO or Showtime and because I don't have 24 hours a day to watch television. But, as for DVR-appointment-television
, these are the shows to be watching...

Mad Men -- The new season starts today, and I couldn't be more excited. I actually liked Season 2 far less than most viewers, as I thought it suffered from a little too much self-importance and convenient symbolism. But...even on the worst days, this show is better than basically anything else out there. An exceptional look at how the 1960s was a decade of the contradiction of appearances to reality, what better way to express this duality than from the advertising market? The show is slow...very pace, but the dialogue is tinged with an edge and suspense better than anything 24 could cook up. And the ensemble is simply superb. Jon Hamm is a master of his craft, and Elisabeth Moss has grown so much as an actress since her early days on The West Wing.

Breaking Bad -- Season 2 concluded early this summer with a blistering finale centered, literally, on the sky falling on the main character. A premise so bizarrely inaccessible that it could only turn into the best show on television. A middle-aged brilliant loser diagnosed with terminal cancer uses his "prognosis negative" as a wake-up call to leave his family all the money in the world by utilizing his knowledge of chemistry to make the best methamphetamine on the market. His downward spiral into criminal madness has been a harrowing thrill-ride into human oblivion. Meanwhile, his partner, a former student who has lived in the drug world all his life, is the actual show's hero. Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul have done the best work of anyone on television (besides Mary McDonnell from BSG) in the past year and have deservedly earned Emmy nominations for their work. The show is a visual and storytelling masterpiece, and is easily the most intense and the most provocative show on television. This is the best show you are not watching.

Burn Notice -- I love Chuck, as will be mentioned below, but this is the best spy show on television. For me, there is nothing funnier and more rewarding than watching Michael Westen, Sam Axe, and Fionna Glenanne clean the streets of Miami week after week. This is popcorn television at its finest, and the latest season only confirms that. Gabrielle Anwar is doing particularly good work this season, and Bruce Campbell is a comedic rock star. The summer finale, which just aired two weeks ago, was stunningly good.

Supernatural -- Here's the show that knows how The X-Files worked. Focus on the story, and the characters will become important. From the show's lowly beginnings, this has become a sci-fi winner in every respect. Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki play brothers Sam and Dean effortlessly well in a premise that can easily be viewed as "been there, done that". Maybe, but not this well. In particular, look for the episodes written by Ben Edlund, which are always a step above the rest.

Chuck -- I think this is the best comedy on television. Period. Adam Baldwin can do more with a grunt than anything any actor on The Office can do. And the glee with which this show is presented week after week. Things are funnier when you know the cast and crew are having a blast. No one has more fun than those involved with this show, including its viewers. A spy comedy, a nerd herd, and a complete romantic pair mismatch made in heaven? Yes, I'll be watching.

30 Rock -- Yes, this season showed a slump in quality. But I don't laugh harder during any other show. The outrageous satire continues to shine when it parodies reality in the most ridiculous of ways. And who better than to pair Alec Baldwin, master of deadpan, with Tina Fey, master of clumsy comedy. The show has lost a little focus since its uproarious first two seasons, but I'm hoping for a resurgence this fall. Less famous names, more focus on parodying the craft.

Lost -- I hated the time travel season. I think the show has lost itself in its mythology hopelessly now. But when the show focuses on the characters, nothing comes close to engaging me as much as this sci-fi thriller. Going into its last season, there are many unanswered questions, some of which, I imagine, will be unanswerable. But I can't wait to see them try anyway. If only to see the great cast work its magic one more time.

Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations -- Every time I watch this show, I learn a lot about food and a great deal more about the crazy, beautiful world this is. Bourdain approaches his travels with a humorous combination of zeal and cynicism. And almost always, he ends up loving a country he never expected to care about. He learns about culture through his knowledge and love for food. There's no better way. And Bourdain's clever wit; nearly infinite knowledge of anything in literature, art, music, movies, and television; and refusal to become snobbish about food make this show a winner week after week. Currently in Season 5, Bourdain has already begun traveling the world for Season 6. I couldn't be happier.