Wednesday, March 5, 2014

What planet are we on?

1. The Manhattan Project.  I have a copy of an anthology titled The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians (ed. Cynthia C. Kelly, Black Dog & Leventhal, 2007) (see illustration).  It's a very interesting read and highlights the fact that the notion of nuclear fission went from bare theory to a full-blown weapons application in the space of about seven years.  One can question the development of the atomic bomb (although the original driver for the project was the quite-rational fear that Nazi Germany would get the bomb first, and, in any case, advances in physics made nuclear weapons inevitable at some point in time), or, especially, the U.S.'s dropping it on Japanese cities to hasten Japan's surrender at the end of World War II.  However, taken purely as a matter of science and engineering, what the Manhattan Project accomplished in the three years between 1942 and 1945 was nothing short of miraculous.  (The space race of the 1960s, which culminated in the manned Apollo lunar landings in 1969-1972, produced equally prodigious results, if in a slightly longer timeframe.)  Which raises the question whether the U.S., or multiple countries acting in concert, could achieve anything today on a similar scale of innovation.  Yes, there have been fantastic inventions in the last 20-25 years; we have the Internet, portable computers, smart phones, iPods, PS3s, HD televisions, Blu-ray players, computer-aided design/manufacturing, 3D printers, lidar imaging systems, other-worldly satellite capabilities, high-yield farming, the Hubble space telescope, etc.  But where are the hydrogen-powered automobiles, the readily available fusion energy, and the transformative technologies (versus government handouts and subsidies) that would provide shelter, food, clean drinking water, and gainful employment to the world's poor?  I firmly believe we have the brain power and resources necessary to do all that -- what we lack is the will, a sense of urgency, and perhaps the requisite level of altruistic humanity.

2. Duke University's resident porn star.  I read a news story recently reporting that a female student at Duke University, the prestigious private university in North Carolina, is financing her education by "acting" in porn films.  (She apparently was "outed" when a male Duke student recognized her while watching Internet porn.)  One can sort of see her point -- how does one pay for an education at an extremely expensive college without rich parents and without running up six-figure student loan debts, at exorbitant interest rates, that take decades to pay off?  (On the other hand, isn't a college education supposed to enable people, particularly women, to avoid degrading work -- above all, in the sex trades?)  Based on the young woman's comments as quoted in the story, she's a free spirit who doesn't care much about her public image and thinks doing porn is "fun"; she plans to go to law school and has already carefully determined that having been a porn "actress" won't create "character" issues that might prevent her from being admitted to the bar.  (The cynic in me would say, to the contrary, it only enhances her qualifications to be a lawyer.)  So what can the university say about all this?  Colleges in general have done so little to control costs, in turn allowing tuition and fees to skyrocket in the confidence that young people will always be willing to pay them, that they almost cannot judge what anyone does -- legally and by choice, at least -- to be able to afford an education.  Institutions of higher learning may still cling to the self-delusion that a great part of their mission is to develop character in their students; however, whatever one thinks of this young woman's source of income, she puts the lie to that canard.  She is precisely at the intersection of American higher education and American popular culture.

[Update 3/7/14: I noticed last night that this young woman was on CNN (although I declined to watch her interview), so the story isn't going away.  This is the last reference I'll make to her, however.]

3. Mann v. Steyn, et al. I've been keenly interested in the libel lawsuit that Michael Mann, climatologist and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, has filed against the National Review and the columnist Mark Steyn.  The suit is a prime example of how litigation is often used in the U.S. to silence one's critics -- just run up their attorneys' fees and make their lives miserable with discovery requests and repeated motion hearings, and they'll usually try to settle -- underscoring why we should have the same "loser pays the winner's attorneys' fee" rule that Britain has.  (It will never happen, as trial lawyers have way too much influence on American politics to allow a change that would discourage the filing of lawsuits.)  It's getting to the point where proponents of anthropogenic "climate change," who have always been humorless and thin-skinned -- not to mention their being less than forthright about their research -- believe all skeptics should simply be made to shut up, which is not only inimical to rights guaranteed under the First Amendment but also a pretty strong indication that the "warmists" are losing ground in the public debate over global warming.  Michael Mann, however, seems to be particularly petulant when it comes to being criticized, although he should have known that Mark Steyn would never just give up, based on the latter's dogged defense (and ultimate vindication) of free speech in Canada's execrable "human rights commissions."  Indeed, it's easy to foresee an outcome in which Mann has to choose between making full disclosure of his research methods and results -- after all, the discovery process cuts both ways in civil litigation -- and having the suit dismissed.  I think it's as likely as not that Mann will be the one throwing in the towel in the end, but a trial, pitting free speech against climate-science dogma, would be sensational to say the least.

4. Stupid things I've done.  Every once in a while, I remember things that I've done that were so stupid that they still cause me to cringe with embarrassment or shame.  Most of them were the result of immaturity, although it must be said that I'll always be immature for my age; thus I remain susceptible to embarrassing myself.  Still, there are some things for which I can't forgive myself, largely because -- immature or not -- I knew better.  I'll give one example: when I was in second grade, at age 7, I remember tormenting a girl named Susan Boardman one time outside of school.  Susan was a Mormon girl, physically frail and developmentally challenged...and, far from being the friend, defender, and sympathetic coreligionist I should have been, I did as other kids did and made fun of her.  Her plaintive cries of "'Top it!  'Top it!" will haunt me to my grave, and possibly beyond.  I hadn't quite yet reached the LDS "age of accountability" (8 years old) at that time, but it's still one of a number of things that I feel I can never atone for.

5. LDS Sunday meeting schedules.  It seems weird to think about the church meeting schedules we had when I was young and how different things are now.  Our ward, the Albuquerque 6th Ward, always had Primary on Wednesday afternoons, which meant that our teachers were strictly women.  My own mother went back to work when I was in the second grade, so one of our neighbors, Betty Iverson, used to drive a number of us kids to church and back on Wednesdays; I always loathed having to go on a weekday.  What is now Primary on Sundays used to be known as "Junior Sunday School," and Sunday School in general was separate from sacrament meeting, which was always on Sunday evenings.  (The schedule was slightly different on Fast Sundays, when fast-and-testimony meetings took place right after Sunday School.)  After I finally got out of Primary and became an Aaronic Priesthood holder at age 12 in 1971, it was very common for my father and me to make three separate trips (three miles one way) to church at the Eubank Blvd. building on Sundays -- one in the morning for priesthood meeting, a second at midday for Sunday School, and a third in the evening for a 90-minute sacrament meeting.  (For some years we had a bishop named Delbert T. Goates...apt name...who preferred having the late sacrament-meeting time -- thus we had the 5:30-7:00 pm time slot for years on end.)  The three-hour "consolidated" Sunday meeting schedule, first implemented in the early 80s, was a major improvement.  It did away with week-day Primary, long sacrament meetings, multiple trips to church every Sunday, "Junior Sunday School," and multiple administrations of the sacrament on Sunday (both in Sunday School "opening exercises" -- junior and senior -- and in sacrament meeting).  The one downside was that church members had fewer opportunities to visit with each other before and after meetings (although I'm so antisocial that you'd think I'd regard that as yet another positive).  The old "disjointed" meeting schedule seems completely antiquated now.

6. Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.  It's old news that President Bill Clinton had a dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky in the late 1990s, even though some Republicans seem to want to use it to attempt to cast a shadow on his wife Hillary in advance of the 2016 presidential election.  I got a good laugh, however, out of one liberal writer's incredulous reaction to the accusation that the media had done all they could to suppress the Clinton-Lewinsky story.  This writer wrote something to the effect of, "Man, just go back and look at news stories from 1998!  It was all Lewinsky, all the time!  The media couldn't get enough of her!"  I saw great irony there.  Never mind that it took Matt Drudge to break the story (when at least one "mainstream" journalist, Michael Isikoff of Newsweek, had known even more about it) -- most of the media's "frenzy" to cover the story entailed spinning it, in whatever manner necessary, to keep Clinton in office.  It obviously worked, but at a tremendous cost to journalistic credibility.  Conservatives know that no Republican president could have survived such an episode: one, other Republicans would never have tried to defend him, and the media (and feminists, whose credibility took an even greater hit for having "gone to the wall" for Clinton) would absolutely have drawn and quartered him.  The near-complete lack of self-awareness among leftoid reporters is hilarious at times.