Pluto Retires at 76

I’ve spent the last 10 days ensconced in a news-free enclave by the lake. For all I know, Lebanon is nothing but one large smoldering crater by now. Or maybe we’ve pulled out of Iraq. But one news tidbit did leak into the otherwise info-sterile cottage. Pluto is no longer a planet.

This triggered a cottage wide debate which divided the house into two factions. On the one side, Pluto is just a big rock in a funky orbit and isn’t really distinguishable from all the other similar size rocks in similar orbits which seem to be circling the sun in greater numbers than we knew. On the other, Pluto has always been a planet, so why mess with it now? There was clearly no healing this rift, so we did the only logical thing – broke out the snacks until everyone was in a sugar coma and couldn’t have cared less.

But in retrospect, I think there are some important lessons to be learned. Up until now, there has never been a formal definition of “planet”. It was sort of like the pornography of astronomy. You knew it when you saw it. But recent discoveries of several more Pluto-like bodies in our solar system, as well as the discovery of a number of extra-solar planets, some several times larger than Jupiter, created the need for a more formal definition. Do we make the other rocks planets too, or downgrade Pluto?

The third option of grandfathering Pluto as a planet and ignoring the others is not really an option that the science community could cope with. It rather defies the whole point of science to allow exceptions to definitions. Besides, the argument of “it’s always been that way” is really a generation centric comment. It would be like arguing that there have always been 50 stars on the American flag. Historically, that’s just not true. But it has been true in our lifetime.

Further, I think it’s a great lesson for those not in the science field that science is all about revision and continued understanding. Even if that new understanding means you have to back up and admit that you were wrong before. This happens all the time in science, just not too often in areas that the general public actually perceives. When I was in school, protons and electrons were indivisible particles. No one knew about quarks, much less strings. Dinosaurs used to be cold blooded lizards. The sun used to orbit the earth, which itself, used to be rather flat. New information brings revisions in understanding of how the universe works. This is the very essence of science.

It’s disingenuous for people to bark that scientists can’t be trusted because they keep changing their minds. That connotes a notion of whimsy to the revisions. That’s not how it works. Science is exacting and meticulous; it’s collaborative; it’s iterative; and it’s not above saying it was wrong.

You can either accept that as a good thing, or risk sailing off the edge of your precariously flat earth.


Shorts Aren’t Just for Electricians

I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s wearing briefs like every other boy on the planet. Let’s face it. The pants of that era were way to tight to entertain boxers. And the shorts in the 70’s were sufficiently short that briefs were required to prevent any accidental “spillage”. Hence the prevalent attitude at the time that boxers were what old men wore. You know, the men with the baggy pants hitched up under their armpits?

So it was a difficult transition a few years back when I made the switch to boxers. Of course, by then, the prevalent attitude was that briefs were what old men wore. You know, the men with the pants that weren’t baggy? But boxers turned out to be a wonderfully liberating experience. There was new freedom of movement, and eventually a nagging question of why I was wearing underwear at all. What purpose did it really serve? I mean sure, it made sense in centuries past. Back then your outer clothes were hardly ever washed and were made from rough scratchy material. Fresh underwear was the only way to explain how Hoss Cartwright was able to wear the exact same outfit for all 128 seasons of Bonanza. But today’s fabrics and laundry intensive culture made me wonder if underwear was a vestigial garment. Kind of the apparel appendix.

But the tides have shifted again. Today the rage is boxer-briefs. An all-in-one worst-of-both-worlds sort of approach to filling a need you may not have anyway. And frankly, this just isn’t fair. Guys do not need 3 choices for a given garment. Two is the accepted standard. Straight tie or bow tie; double breasted or single breasted; sneakers or shoes; jeans or pants; boxers or briefs. It’s how nature intended it. It’s been hard enough to cope with the color choices getting outside the Crayola 8-Pack. This is not a complication my life requires.

Yet the good little consumer in me picked up a pack of the damn things to give ’em a whirl. I have to report that they provide none of the support of briefs, but they make up for that by removing the joyous freedom of boxers. Their only redeeming fact may be “containment”. Sometimes when wearing boxers and loose legged shorts, you worry about “containment” (needlessly for most of us, but it’s ego soothing to at least worry). Boxer-Briefs solve that problem. However, they do now require you to wonder if your underwear matches the shorts you have on.

I’ve also discovered that my butt is 3 1/2 butts too small to fill out the Boxer-Briefs so that I look like the guys on the Hanes’ commercials. This would be a major problem for me if my butt-less-ness was the only thing keeping me from looking like a Hanes model. But I have other issues to deal with. Like what the hell do old men wear now? My AARP card is just a few years off. I need to know what restaurants give senior discounts, how far apart do I need to plant the flamingos in my yard, and what style of underwear should I be putting on under the clothes that will embarrass my children?


The Price to Not Go BOOM!

We have reason to wallow in a moment of pride. Cooperation between Pakistani, British, and American law enforcement agencies foiled a plot to bring down a number of airliners. This saved countless lives and was a clear victory for the good guys.

But a few things are worthy of note. This victory was achieved by the police, not the military. Further evidence that the real war on terror has less to do with armored humvees and small artillery, and more to do with intelligence and surveillance. It’s also important to recognize that while this was a victory, many of the same agencies failed to find the plot which destroyed the British subway stations last year. This is also the reality of terror plots. Some will succeed, no matter how hard we try.

Does that mean we shouldn’t try? Absolutely not. We must remain vigilant. We must fund every means of legal electronic and human surveillance to stay ahead of these groups. We should support small military incursions to disrupt the ability of these groups to organize and train. And we must take reasonable precautions in our own lives to identify and prevent terror plots. But what constitutes a “reasonable precaution”? And why are we so twitchy about airplanes? And why are we so good at screening for plots that have already happened, and so bad at anticipating new ones?

In the wake of the latest plot, airlines have banned all liquids and gels from being carried on board. Why now? Acetone peroxide (the liquid chemical explosive planned in the airline plot) was the same chemical used in last year’s British subway bombing. The chemical is stupidly easy to make. It’s kitchen chemistry. It’s also dangerously unstable, but this isn’t much of a deterrent for a would-be suicide bomber. And this is hardly the only easy to make home explosive. I can accept that prior to 9/11 we lacked the imagination that someone would use a plane itself as a projectile weapon. But given the obvious danger of explosives on planes, how much imagination did it require to think that someone might use an explosive they could make in their kitchen from products that can buy at the corner drugstore? Clearly, this was a case where the probable danger didn’t warrant the hassle, inconvenience, and frankly the futility of trying to prevent it.

As an example, the current prohibitions make exceptions for prescription drugs where the drugs are in their original bottle and issued to the person named on the ticket. Acetone peroxide can also be made into (or purchased as) a powder, which is reasonably stable in small quantities. How hard would it be to empty drug capsules and replace the contents with explosive powder. An in-flight trip to the rest room would provide an opportunity to empty all the capsule contents into a single container. This IED does not even require a detonator. It will explode upon physical shock. It could be thrown and explode on contact.

Most of the airport security is designed to make you feel safer more than it is to make you safe. Do you recall the spate of incidents a few years ago showing that our security leaks like a sieve? A Transportation Department test found that screeners missed 30% of guns, 60% of simulated explosives and 70% of knives. I personally travel with a small Leatherman-like tool in my bag. It has a small blade which is illegal by the current regulations. However, because of the way the tool folds, it has never been caught by x-ray screening. I lose it occasionally when I get selected for a random bag search, but that’s the only time.

The point is that there is no 100% guarantee of safety on airplanes. Curiously, we accept this reality on trains. Despite train bombings in Spain (2004), England (2005), and India (2006), we still blissfully get on commuter trains in crowded cities most every day. Surveillance has increased, but no one requires you to remove your shoes and surrender your Diet Pepsi prior to boarding the subway.

So let’s not over react here. Security is a good thing when done usefully and thoroughly. But as a dog & pony show it’s just inconvenient and demeaning.


Oh God!

Reuters reports that Conservative Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson said on Thursday the wave of scorching temperatures across the United States has converted him into a believer in global warming. “We really need to address the burning of fossil fuels,” Robertson said on his 700 Club broadcast. “It is getting hotter, and the icecaps are melting and there is a buildup of carbon dioxide in the air.”

This week the heat index, the perceived temperature based on both air temperatures and humidity, reached 115 Fahrenheit in some regions of the U.S. East Coast. The 76-year-old Robertson told viewers that was “the most convincing evidence I’ve seen on global warming in a long time.”

Maybe he should talk to Senator James Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe says that global warming is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”

These men are both mental midgets, but perhaps this means that intellectually they see eye-to-eye. Of course, global warming is a long-term big-picture phenomena. It doesn’t directly influence short term weather like heat waves or hurricanes. But if that’s what it takes to bring these dolts to their senses, crank up the heat. I suspect the only way neo-cons will ever accept the realities of global warming is if God makes the point. Perhaps He does work in mysterious ways.