The Amateur

When Barack Obama became President, I expected, as a Conservative, that he would promote a great many policies that I did not approve of. I did not expect, however, the sheer incompetence that he and his administration should demonstrate. And, even as the months and years went by, I never realized the scale of this incompetence until I read Edward Klein’s book, The Amateur.

Klein begins by examining Barack Obama’s rather slim record before he became President. Birthers or people who believe that Obama is some kind of sinister Manchurian Candidate will not find such to satisfy them here. Klein notes that Obama’s careers as president of the Harvard Law Review, Illinois State Senator, and United States Senator were all most notable for a singular lack of any actual accomplishments or any substantial trail left behind. Obama seems to have been far more interested in making grand speeches than in the daily details work of the legislator. He seldom attended committee meetings and seemed to be not very interested in his constituents.

Klein goes on to point out that these personality traits have persisted into Obama’s career in the White House.  The trouble with Barack Obama is that he has not had the sort of experiences in his life that would have prepared him for the Presidency. This, by itself, would not be a fatal flaw, as Obama could have surrounded himself with experts in foreign and domestic policy whose advice he could have sought. President Obama, however, does not seem to be aware that he is inexperienced and has a high enough opinion of himself that he believes himself to be more knowledgeable than the experts. The result is an administration that continually makes foolish mistakes and is incapable of learning from these mistakes. Barack Obama, then, is in the words of Bill Clinton, an amateur.

It would, perhaps, be easy to dismiss The Amateur as yet another partisan hit job on Obama. Liberal supporters of Obama will certainly see it that way, just as many Conservatives will delight in the anecdotes of the President’s incompetence. I think that honest observers will find that the arguments in The Amateur ring true as they scan the headlines and see ample evidence that few, if any, in the Obama administration really know what they are doing. Honest Liberals would do well to read this book and consider whether Barack Obama is really the best their side has to offer.

Butterfly Mutations



I have to confess that when I first read this article from AP on the effects of the radiation released from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant the first image that popped into my head was some horrific monsters from Japan’s Toho Studios. Toho, if you don’t know, is the studio responsible for the endless Godzilla series as well as a number of low budget monster movies, including Mothra, the giant butterfly.


But, of course, real life is never that cool and the mutations the article is talking about are quite a bit less dramatic, though perhaps still disturbing in terms of the public health of nearby residents of Fukushima.

Radiation that leaked from the Fukushima nuclear plant following last year’s tsunami caused mutations in some butterflies – including dented eyes and stunted wings – though humans seem relatively unaffected, researchers say.

The mutations are the first evidence that the radiation has caused genetic changes in living organisms. They are likely to add to concerns about potential health risks among humans though there is no evidence of it yet. Scientists say more study is needed to link human health with the Fukushima disaster.

The catastrophic meltdowns in three reactors of Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant after it was damaged by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, prompted a public backlash against nuclear power, and forced the government to reassess resource-scarce Japan’s entire energy strategy.

But the most visible example of the radiation’s effect was claimed by a group of Japanese researchers who found radical physical changes in successive generations of a type of butterfly, which they said was caused by radiation exposure. They also said that the threat to humans – a much larger and longer-lived species – remains unclear.

“Our findings suggest that the contaminants are causing ecological damage. I do not know its implication to humans,” Joji Otaki of the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa, a member of the research team, told The Associated Press in an email.

A separate study, released this week, found very low levels of radioactivity in people who were living near the Fukushima plant when it suffered the meltdowns.

The research on the butterflies was published in Scientific Reports, an open-access online journal by the Nature publication group, which provides faster publication and peer review by at least one scientist.

It says pale grass blue butterflies, a common species in Japan, collected from several areas near the Fukushima plant showed signs of genetic mutations, such as dented eyes, malformed legs and antennae, and stunted wings.

Other experts said they viewed the research as significant.

“Scientists have long known that radiation can be hazardous to human and animal health. Studies of this sort at Fukushima and Chernobyl provide invaluable information concerning just how hazardous radioactive contaminants could be for human populations living in these areas in the future,” Tim Mousseau of the University of South Carolina, told the AP by email.

“Butterflies as a group are important bio-indicators for the effects of environmental stressors like radioactive contaminants,” said Mousseau, who also is not part of the Japanese research.

The results show the butterflies were deteriorating both physically and genetically, with the share of those showing abnormalities increasing from 12 percent in the first generation to 18 percent in the second and 34 percent in the third.

To study the genetic changes, the scientists raised the new generations of the butterflies in Okinawa, which has not been affected by the radiation releases, mating each abnormal butterfly with one unaffected by such changes.

The researchers also demonstrated the effects of internal exposure to radiation by feeding leaves from plants from the area near the Fukushima nuclear plant to the butterfly larvae.

“The possible risk of internal exposure from ingestion should be investigated more accurately in the near future,” it said.

Humans are, obviously, longer lived than insects and there is much more time between generations so there might not be any noticeable increase in birth defects in humans for some time. I suppose it would depend on how much continuing exposure the people in the area have been getting. They will also have to monitor people for increase cancer rates, etc. I hope that the humans are not as badly affected as the butterflies.



Mars Time



The Martian day, called a “sol” is 24 hours and 39 minutes, making it 39 minutes longer than an Earth day. In order to properly monitor a Mars rover‘s mission, many of the scientists and engineers involved switch to Mars time, at least for the first three months. A forty minute longer day may not seem like much of an adjustment, but that daily forty minutes adds up and before too long you are out of sync with Earth’s day and night. Here is the story from AP about a whole family that is trying the adjustment out.

Since the landing of NASA’s newest Mars rover, flight director David Oh’s family has taken the unusual step of tagging along as he leaves Earth time behind and syncs his body clock with the red planet.

Every mission to Mars, a small army of scientists and engineers reports to duty on “Mars time” for the first three months. But it’s almost unheard of for an entire family to flip their orderly lives upside down, shifting to what amounts to a time zone change a day.

Intrigued about abiding by extraterrestrial time, Oh’s wife, Bryn, could not pass up the chance to take their kids – 13-year-old Braden, 10-year-old Ashlyn and 8-year-old Devyn – on a Martian adventure from their home near the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory where the Curiosity rover was built.

“We all feel a little sleepy, a little jet-lagged all day long, but everyone is doing great,” Bryn Oh said, two weeks into the experiment.

Days on Mars last a tad longer. Earth rotates on its axis once every 24 hours – the definition of a day. Neighbor Mars spins more lazily. Days there – known as sols – last 39 minutes and 35 seconds longer than on Earth. The difference may not seem like much each day, but it adds up.

To stay in lockstep, nearly 800 people on the $2.5 billion project have surrendered to the Martian cycle of light and dark. In the simplest sense, each day slides forward 40 minutes. That results in wacky work, sleep and eating schedules. Many say it feels like perpetual jet lag.

The Oh family broke in slowly. A sign on their front door warns: “On Mars Time: Flight Director Asleep. Come Back Later.”

Days before Curiosity’s Aug. 5 touchdown, the children stayed up until 11:30 p.m. and slept in until 10 a.m. In the beginning, it wasn’t much different from a typical day on summer vacation. As the days wore on, they stayed up later and later, waking up in the afternoon and evening.

One day last week, the family ate a 3 p.m. breakfast, 8 p.m. lunch, 2:30 a.m. dinner and 5 a.m. dessert before heading off to bed.

To sleep when the sun is out, their bedroom windows are covered with aluminum foil or cloth to keep out any sliver of light. In the hallway, a handmade calendar keeps track of the days and schedules are written on an oversized mirror. A digital clock in the master bedroom is set to Mars time.

The article goes on about the various troubles the family has in essentially rotating their day and nights forward about a time zone every day. I wonder what effect the slightly longer Martian day might have on any colonists. They wouldn’t have the trouble of having to contend with Earthly time cues, such as sunrise and sunset, or with human activities, which on Mars would be in accord with the Martian day. I don’t think the extra forty minutes would be too hard to adjust to, if everyone in the colony were on the same time.

They would have to do something about their clocks. Would they divided a Martian day into 24 slightly longer Martian hours? What about minutes and seconds? The Martian year is about 687 Earth days. Would Martian colonists measure time by Earth years or Mars years? If I lived on Mars, would I be able to get away with saying I am 20 (Martian) years old?

It will be interesting to see how they figure these sorts of things out. I hope I live to see a colony on Mars.



U.S.S Constitution

I saw this at Walter Russel Mead’s blog, Via Meadia.

The USS Constitution, named by President George Washington and nearly as old as our venerable founding document itself,  is still going strong. Old Ironsides, as the ship has been lovingly known ever since British cannonballs harmlessly bounced off her sides in  the War of 1812, set sail once more out of Boston harbor, for just the second time in the last 131 years, to celebrate the 200-year old victory that gave her her nickname:

Some 285 people were on board the ship, which sailed under her own power for 17 minutes, traveling a distance of 1,100 yards.

Tugs were then reattached to Constitution’s sides and she returned to her pier by early afternoon. The ship, which doubles as a museum, receives more than half a million visitors each year.

The Constitution is the oldest commissioned warship in the world still afloat. And although the United States is often called a young country, the American Republic is actually one of the oldest surviving governments in a world that often lunges from one revolution to the next. Here’s to many happy returns—for both Constitutions.USS Constitution, the oldest U.S. Warship curr...

We don’t often think of it, but if you look around the world, how many countries have the same government they did back in 1787. France was still a monarchy and fated to go through five republics, two empires and a restoration. China was an empire ruled by the foreign Manchus. Germany and Italy didn’t exist as countries. The only country with a constitution older than ours, that I can think of, might be Great Britain’s unwritten constitution. Even then, I think the British form of government has changed more than ours has over the last century. Japan has the world’s oldest royal family, but the politics of Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate were significantly different than they were in the twentieth and twenty-first century.

It is actually rather amazing that the United States is still ruled under the same basic form of government since we were only thirteen states on the Atlantic seaboard. Some might think that it is past time for a new constitution, but I don’t think we could ever be lucky enough to find people of the caliber of George Washington or James Madison, or any of the other founding fathers in this day and age. Lesser sons of great sires are we.

A Little Optimistic



I don’t want to be overconfident, but I am starting to feel just a little optimistic about our chances in November. Most of the polls that I have seen have Romney and Obama tied. That is not the reason for my slight optimism. Polls this early don’t really mean a lot. I have, however, seen all kinds of signs that voters do not like Obama, or what he represents very much.

There was the Chick-Fil-A incident. I imagine that a lot of the people who went out of their way to buy chicken sandwiches can just as easily go out of their way to vote. I doubt many will be voting for the first Presidential candidate for support same-sex marriage. Then there is the baker who refused to be part of a photo-op with Vice-President Joe Biden, and who saw his business increase exponentially.

There is Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan to be his running mate. Ryan was supposed to be too extreme with his plans to reform Medicare. The Democrats are already planning to depict Ryan throwing old people over a cliff, but according to Michael Barone, this doesn’t seem to be working out so well.

Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan was supposed to be a problem for the Republicans. So said a chorus of chortling Democrats. So said a gaggle of anonymous seasoned Republican operatives. All of which was echoed gleefully by mainstream media.

The problem, these purveyors of the conventional wisdom all said, was Medicare — to be more specific, the future changes in Medicare set out in the budget resolutions Ryan fashioned as House Budget Committee chairman and persuaded almost all House and Senate Republicans to vote for.

But while Democrats licked their chops at the prospect of scaring old ladies that they’d be sent downhill in wheelchairs, the Medicare issue seems to be working in the other direction.

Romney and Ryan have gone on the offense, noting that while their plan calls for no changes for current Medicare recipients and those over 55, Obamacare, saved from demolition by Chief Justice John Roberts, cuts $716 billion from the politically popular Medicare to pay for Obama’s politically unpopular health care law.

The Romney campaign is putting TV advertising money behind this message, and it will have plenty more to spend — quite possibly more than the Obama forces — once the Romney-Ryan ticket is officially nominated in Tampa, Fla., in 10 days. Team Obama is visibly squirming.

It turns out that Ryan and Romney, who in late 2011 and early 2012 moved quietly but deliberately toward embracing the Ryan agenda, may have outthought their adversaries.

Those last-minute Mediscare-type mailings to seniors, which enabled Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles to narrowly defeat Jeb Bush in the 1994 Florida governor race, don’t work so well anymore when the issue is brought out fully in the light of day.

Dare I hope that the American people are ready for an intelligent conversation on our looming entitlements crisis? If so, than Obama doesn’t have a chance. All he and the Democrats have to offer is scare tactics and a stubborn refusal to permit any reform that might possibly harm any of the interests that fund their party. So much for being “progressive”. As Barone concludes.

This election can be seen as a contest between the Founders’ ideas and those of the Progressives, who saw the Founders as outmoded in an industrial era.

Ryan strengthens Romney in his invocation of the Founders. Obama is stuck with the tinny and outdated debunking of the Progressives. Which rings truer today?



No Man is an Island

As the poet John Donne put it,

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Though he had it slightly wrong. If the latest research in biology is any indication, we are, each one of us, a continent, perhaps even a world in ourselves. That is the impression I got when I read this article in The Economist.

The traditional view is that a human body is a collection of 10 trillion cells which are themselves the products of 23,000 genes. If the revolutionaries are correct, these numbers radically underestimate the truth. For in the nooks and crannies of every human being, and especially in his or her guts, dwells the microbiome: 100 trillion bacteria of several hundred species bearing 3m non-human genes. The biological Robespierres believe these should count, too; that humans are not single organisms, but superorganisms made up of lots of smaller organisms working together.

It might sound perverse to claim bacterial cells and genes as part of the body, but the revolutionary case is a good one. For the bugs are neither parasites nor passengers. They are, rather, fully paid-up members of a community of which the human “host” is but a single (if dominating) member. This view is increasingly popular: the world’s leading scientific journals, Nature and Science, have both reviewed it extensively in recent months. It is also important: it will help the science and practice of medicine

The microbiome does many jobs in exchange for the raw materials and shelter its host provides. One is to feed people more than 10% of their daily calories. These are derived from plant carbohydrates that human enzymes are unable to break down. And not just plant carbohydrates. Mother’s milk contains carbohydrates called glycans which human enzymes cannot digest, but bacterial ones can.

This alone shows how closely host and microbiome have co-evolved over the years. But digestion is not the only nutritional service provided. The microbiome also makes vitamins, notably B2, B12 and folic acid. It is, moreover, capable of adjusting its output to its host’s needs and diet. The microbiomes of babies make more folic acid than do those of adults. And microbiomes in vitamin-hungry places like Malawi and rural Venezuela turn out more of these chemicals than do those in the guts of North Americans.

The microbiome also maintains the host’s health by keeping hostile interlopers at bay. An alien bug that causes diarrhoea, for instance, is as much an enemy of the microbiome as of the host. Both have an interest in zapping it. And both contribute to the task. Host and microbiome, then, are allies. But there is more to it than that. For the latest research shows their physiologies are linked in ways which make the idea of a human superorganism more than just a rhetorical flourish.

So, each one of us is not just a single entity, but a whole community of microbes. I’ll never feel lonely again. Meanwhile, we should all be good to our bacteria, they are our closest friends.

Serious Questions


With the economy going downhill and an increasingly dangerous world we live in, it is nice to know that the media is willing to ask President Obama the tough, hard-hitting questions.


Well, maybe not.


Run Joe Run!

There has been some talk that Obama should drop Joe Biden from the ticket and select a new running mate. Biden still has many supporters, though, who want him to stay on. The trouble is they are Republicans.


I say Biden in 2016!



John Kerry and the Truth Team

John Kerry
John Kerry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I got an update from the Truth Team today, written by none other than former presidential candidate John Kerry.

Trust me: You and I learned the hard way eight years ago this August that in the new world we’re living in — one with 24-hour news cycles, the internet, blogs, the echo chamber, and now the new Citizens United-fueled Republican money machine — even completely baseless attacks can stick if people don’t call them out quickly enough. No matter how self-evidently false the attacks are, or how disreputable the people telling them may be, there’s no attack that can’t take hold.

Seeing the new outrageous attacks made against President Obama from a shadowy Republican-allied veterans group called OPSEC, which take issue with the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, remind me all too well of the notorious “Swift Boat” attacks I faced in the 2004 campaign. I honor and appreciate the service of my fellow veterans, but a false attack is a false attack — no matter who’s making it.

This would be the same John Kerry who testified about atrocities committed by his fellow servicemen. Atrocities that were apparently a product of his imagination. He can say what he wants about the “Swift Boat” attacks, but the fact that some of the men who served with him were willing to come forward to oppose his candidacy for the Presidency says a lot about just what his fellow veterans really thought of him.


There They Go Again

The American Atheists have decided to win converts and friends by putting up billboards mocking Romney and Obama’s religions. I read the story in USA Today.

Hey, President Obama and contender Mitt Romney, the American Atheistswant your attention. They’re unveiling a new in-your-face-to-the-faithful billboard campaign, timed to the national presidential nominating conventions.

Today’s press conference revealed signs that call God “sadistic” and Jesus “useless” as a savior (his image is show as toast, literally) and conclude that Atheism, by contrast, is “simply reasonable.”

Presumably, Catholics such as Vice President Biden and Romney’s running mate choice Paul Ryan, are covered in this hit on Christians such as Obama, a mainline Protestant.

But evidently the American Atheists don’t consider Mormons to be Christians, since they prepared a separate billboard attack on their faith. It derides their idea of God as a “space alien” and notes that Mormons offer a proxy baptism to dead relatives — a practice the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints acknowledges has gotten out of hand with some believers inappropriately baptizing Holocaust victims and others not related to their own families.


But Silverman’s idea of “fun” may not align with that of the faithful his group loves to jab. As he said then,

We’re not the softies. We are proud to be the Marines of free thought, proud to be the edge of the sword.

The same group flew a banner over New York City on the Fourth of July proclaiming, “Atheism is patriotic.”

Now, MacBain says, the billboards are aimed at mocking the “silliness” of religion. In an email before today’s press conference, she wrote that questioning the religious views of men who want to lead the free world is essential because,

If a person believes stupid things, then we have every right to question his or her judgment, and that directly impacts how the non-religious voter votes.

More demands — like non-religious people to be appointed to the Cabinet and the Supreme Court — are at their website.

I have to wonder, do they honestly think anyone is likely to be converted by such tactics. Maybe they aren’t looking for converts but want more people to feel empowered to “come out of the closet” as Atheists. I think, that if I were an unbeliever, these sort of antics would make me wary of identifying myself as an Atheist. I might call myself an agnostic or non-religious instead. It seems that I am not alone in thinking that way.

Interestingly, for all the increasing public presence of unbelievers — billboards, rallies, conventions, etc. — the attention has not boosted their percentage of the U.S. population significantly in the last decade.

Most people who say they have no religious identity also call themselves spiritual but not religious, and many give the entire topic a big “so what” shrug.

On the other hand, I think that I prefer the honest Atheist over the wishy-washy spiritual but not religious types. It may be just a prejudice of mine, but I think that the SBNRs are people who seek the comforts of religion without the demands. That is, they want to feel good about themselves, but don’t want to have to follow any rules or do anything that might make themselves or others uncomfortable.