Archive | June, 2012

Pluto the Dwarf and the Politics of Science

29 Jun

I was doing my usual situation review at 5AM when it struck me that the object officially known as 134340 Pluto would be a good case study for the role of social construction and politics in science. When I was growing up that object was known as Pluto (Wikipedia entry here), the ninth planet of our solar system. It was discovered in 1930 after a search that had begun in the 1840s. The name was suggested a British school girl, Venetia Burney and, soon after being applied to the planet, was applied to a cartoon dog by the Walt Disney Company.

And that’s where things stood until early in the last decade of the 20th Century when astronomers began to discover other similar objects “out there” in what became known as the Kuiper belt (Wikipedia article here). A number of the moons of other planets are hypothesized to be members of the Kuiper belt.

Then, 136199 Eris was discovered early in 2005. It’s much farther out in space then 134340 Pluto; but it orbits the sun; has its own moon, Dysnomia; and is larger than 134340 Pluto. Whoops! We’ve got problems, Houston.

It was one thing to discover the Pluto was one of a bunch of objects out there, some of which may be orbiting other planets as moons. As long as Pluto was larger than those other objects it made sense to classify it as a plant along with the other 8 (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) and thus as something other than those other KBOs (Kuiper Belt Objects). But if Eris is larger than Pluto, albeit farther out, this classification is looking a bit capricious and arbitrary.

What to do?

Well, in 2006 the International Astronomical Union met, adopted an official definition of planet, and Pluto was demoted to dwarfhood, along with Eris, Ceres, Haumea, and Makemake. People were not happy, not happy at all. But that’s life.

The reclassification of Pluto was a political matter in the sense that it involved negotiations among different parties with different interests. But it wasn’t political in the sense that those competing parties were competing over laws, budgets, resources, and programs that have a strong influence on how many people live their lives. It was a matter of social construction in the utterly trivial sense that any named entities are social constructions by virtue of the fact that language itself is a social construction.

Scientific practice is full of this kind of politics and this kind of social construction. It’s ongoing and has been since forever, almost. But it mostly takes place out of public view and concerns matters which are intelligible only to highly educated specialists. But everyone knew about Pluto and the concept of a planet is an easy one to grasp. And so this scientific spat had a public face that got petitions circulated and passed some amusing laws in California, New Mexico, and Illinois.

The case of global warming is different and far more consequential. The science is difficult and problematic even within the scientific community; the relevant scientific models cannot be grasped without considerable mathematical and technical sophistication. The implications of the science are staggering. The lives of billions of humans and countless nonhumans are at stake, if not immediately or in the near future, then over the next century or so.

Things ARE going to change. We don’t know what those changes will be or how much we can influence them. All we know is that the longer we wait to act, the less we’ll be able to influence those changes.

And some people refuse to believe even that.


A Community Garden Builds Itself

28 Jun

Not, mind you, that the rocks just up and cleared themselves out of the way, nor did lumber arrange itself into planter boxes, much less did the dirt leap into the boxes followed in close order by seeds, seedlings, shoots, and sprouts. Nothing like that. But the garden wasn’t planned by spreadsheet and Gant charts, nor was it built by highly organized teams working against the clock, on time and on budget. Fact is, if you’d been on site any Saturday—and a few weekdays here and there—from mid-April through May and into mid-June it’s not clear to me just what you’d have seen. And I was there.


It all depends on just when you showed up. You might have seen people building things, planting things, watering the plants, and painting the wall. But you might have seen some women and girls tossing rocks over a wall, or a young boy burying himself to his neck in a mound of dirt, or a middle-aged man taking photographs of a plush-toy frog lounging in the lettuce, or men women boys girls and dogs chillin’ around the barbecue listening to hip-hop and Rnb on the radio.

Not a high-energy task-oriented workforce at all. But they built the garden. We, we built the garden—I’m the guy who photographed the toy frog. Also shoveled some dirt. And ate some barbecue.

This and more happened on Pacific Avenue near Commnipaw in the Lafayette neighborhood of Jersey City in the Spring and early Summer of 2012. Come to think of it, not far from where Henry Hudson first set foot in the New World in 1609. The Lafayette Community Learning Garden.


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Jill Stein Needs Your Help, Running Green, Running for Peace

26 Jun


FROM: David Swanson, Medea Benjamin, Leah Bolger, Bruce Gagnon, Chris Hedges, George Martin and Kevin Zeese

Dear Friends in the Peace Movement,

We can’t afford to let this opportunity slip by. By taking action over the next five days the peace community has a chance to inject a compelling and courageous peace advocate into the 2012 presidential campaign, to have a voice in the national debate over war, militarism, and military spending.

You know what is going to happen if we leave this election up to the two major party candidates. President Obama will defend his troop surges, his excessive Pentagon budgets, his preparations for war with Iran,  his escalation of the drone wars, his crackdowns on whistleblowers, his indefinite detention policy, and his new role as manager of the White House assassination list. Mitt Romney will not question these policies, but will promise to pursue them with even more enthusiasm. In debates and interviews, the American people will have the Big Lie drilled into their consciousness: that our nation must accept escalating military engagement and must visit worldwide violence against all who defy the U.S. government. Continue reading

America’s Shameful Human Rights Record –

25 Jun

Revelations that top officials are targeting people to be assassinated abroad, including American citizens, are only the most recent, disturbing proof of how far our nation’s violation of human rights has extended. This development began after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has been sanctioned and escalated by bipartisan executive and legislative actions, without dissent from the general public. As a result, our country can no longer speak with moral authority on these critical issues.

While the country has made mistakes in the past, the widespread abuse of human rights over the last decade has been a dramatic change from the past. With leadership from the United States, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 as “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” This was a bold and clear commitment that power would no longer serve as a cover to oppress or injure people, and it established equal rights of all people to life, liberty, security of person, equal protection of the law and freedom from torture, arbitrary detention or forced exile.

The declaration has been invoked by human rights activists and the international community to replace most of the world’s dictatorships with democracies and to promote the rule of law in domestic and global affairs. It is disturbing that, instead of strengthening these principles, our government’s counterterrorism policies are now clearly violating at least 10 of the declaration’s 30 articles, including the prohibition against “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

via America’s Shameful Human Rights Record –, written by President Jimmy Carter.

Truth and Tradition in Disney’s Dumbo

25 Jun

Several years ago I sent a long email to Mike Barrier, the animation historian, about Disney’s Dumbo. I couple days later I noticed that he’d posted it on his website, along with some frame grabs he’d added. I’m now reposting that essay here.

That’s all well and good, you say, but what has THAT got to do with Truth, Tradition, and the American Way?

Everything, I say, well, not everything, but a lot. Which I explain in some detail in the analysis. But I’ll give you a little taste here and now.

In the first place that film reaches deep into American myth and lore: trains, the circus, the value of labor. Yes, the value of labor, in Dumbo. The tent-raising scene is stunning, showing hard-working men. AND animals, because the animals helped raise the tent as well. So we’ve got cross-species solidarity. Further, those workers and animals are skeptical about management, deeply skeptical. Yet management, then as now, is sneaky.

Sneaky sneaky sneaky!

The film depicts managment manipulation of workers to set them at odds with one another. We see scapegoating in action. Poor little Dumbo is made to take the fall for managment greed and stupidity. Let me repeat that: Dumbo is made to take the fall for managment greed and stupidity.

And you know how Dumbo gets out of it? Interspecies solidarity with Timothy Mouse and with a mess of jivometric crows. Those crows teach Dumbo about the importance of groovology. There is nothing so deep and traditional about America as groovology, groovology of all sorts. Why, the first book published in America was a hymnal. What’s hymn singing but Groovology 103?–patty cake is Groovology 101 and double-dutch is Groovology 102.

I’ve gone on enough setting up this thing. Read review, watch the movie, and ask yourself: Could this film be made in American today and now with the 1% lording it over the 99%?


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Environment Petition: Governor Quinn: Don’t Let Big Plastic Bully Me! |

25 Jun

Go to the link below and sign the petition. I did.

Once again, big corporations are trying to use big government to control the rights of citizens in towns all over America, but this time you can help me stop it!

My name is Abby Goldberg, and as a 12-year-old girl who, after seeing the devastation that millions of plastic bags have caused the environment and ocean life, I made my school project this year to be getting a local ban on single-use plastic shopping bags in my home town Grayslake, IL.

My friends and I were making great progress, until the oil and chemical industry pulled a dirty trick to kill my campaign; these lobbyists used the politicians that they bought to pass a bill that would make it illegal for towns across Illinois to create plastic bag bans!  Even worse, they’re trying to make it look like a green environmental bill, by putting in a few ridiculously-low requirements for so-called “recycling” of plastic bags, and are bragging they’re going to make it “a model bill for all states!”

Now it’s in the hands of our Governor to stop them with a veto, but he needs to hear from all of us!

I am heartbroken and so angry, because kids and adults like me are standing up to Big Oil and Big Plastic by creating bans everywhere, including in Los Angeles, Hawaii, Seattle, Toronto, Austin, Mexico City, Mumbai, Italy, Rwanda and more! Why? Because bag bans can be literally 2000% more effective than “bring your own bag” campaigns!

via Environment Petition: Governor Quinn: Don’t Let Big Plastic Bully Me! |

Green Being

25 Jun


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Burger King: Carving Up the Cow for Fun and Profit

23 Jun

Financial engineering has been part of the Burger King story for so long that it’s hard to believe there is still anything worth plucking from its carcass. “It’s been run as a cash cow for Wall Street,” said Bob Goldin, an executive vice president of Technomic, a food service consulting firm. Along the way it’s had 13 chief executives in 25 years, numerous strategy shifts and marketing campaigns — and has been constantly starved for cash. But, hey, the private equity guys got theirs. And isn’t that what really matters?

And Romney’s old firm, Bain, got in on the action:

 In 2002, Goldman Sachs, along with two private equity firms, TGP and … hmmm … Bain Capital, teamed up to buy Burger King. This is exactly the kind of situation private equity firms like to trumpet: taking over a downtrodden company and nursing it back to health. And to get them their due, Burger King’s new owners did some good, stabilizing both the company and the franchisees, many of whom were in worse shape than Burger King itself.

But the private equity investors also cut themselves an incredibly sweet deal. Their $1.5 billion purchase price included only $210 million of their own money; the rest was borrowed. They immediately began taking out tens of millions of dollars in fees. Four years later, they took Burger King public. But, first, they rewarded themselves with a $448 million dividend. In all, according to The Wall Street Journal, “the firms received $511 million in dividend, fees, expense reimbursements and interest” — while still retaining a 76 percent stake.

Does it need to be said that Burger King was soon back to its old struggling self? Or that the solution, once again, was to sell to another private equity firm? Of course not! In 2010, Bain, Goldman and TPG cashed out, selling Burger King to 3G Capital, for $3.3 billion. In sum, the original private equity troika reaped a fortune by selling a company that was in nearly as much trouble as it had been when they first bought it. Surely this represents the apotheosis of financial engineering.

What’re the chances that Romney’s going to roll us the same way?


via Burger King, the Cash Cow –

After Rio+20, We Have to Solve the Earth’s Problems –

23 Jun

We saw in the myriad Rio+20-related announcements from countries, communities and companies around the globe that they were taking action themselves — irrespective of any United Nations document. World development banks agreed to invest in a cleaner transportation network, for instance. Developing countries agreed to phase out incandescent light bulbs. Australia, Mexico and other coastal countries committed to protecting their irreplaceable seas.

We heard it from the young people who spoke at Rio+20 — sometimes through tears and with cracking voices — about the fears they have for the world we’re leaving for them.

Most of all, we recognized that the world’s people can assert their will and power to fix our problems.

The fact that 50,000 people came to Rio and that hundreds of thousands more participated virtually through technologies like YouTube and Twitter made that loud and clear. The incredible energy and the enthusiasm they demonstrated is only a hint of what individuals can do.

via After Rio+20, We Have to Solve the Earth’s Problems –

For the Ron Paul Wing, Now What? –

22 Jun

There are now

two significant competing visions of what the Republican Party will be, a struggle, by the way, that is no longer between a vast majority and a tiny fringe. Paul people consider themselves not weird outsiders, but the true conservatives who actually want to rein in government within affordable, constitutional limits. Ron Paul’s campaign spokesmen are quick to distance themselves from any hint of the Paul movement being an angry, raucous anti-establishment rabble — the words “respect” and “decorum” flow from their lips as much as “limited government” and “end the Fed now.”

via For the Ron Paul Wing, Now What? –