I Miss the GOP

I miss the rational right of center political voice that balanced the liberal leaning left.  I miss the party that had a plan.  Granted, the plan was generally business friendly and fiscally conservative, but it was the appropriate counterweight to the Democrats proposals to empower and support people and protect the environment.

There was a collective recognition of the natural ebb and flow of politics.  Power shifted back and forth between the parties, but both sides sought compromises as best they were able, and ultimately cooperated at least to some degree to solve problems.

That train left the station about a decade ago, and it ain’t comin’ back.

The GOP seems ever more focused on political power for it’s own sake.  They take it personally when they lose at the polls and they want retributions for those rebukes.  The result has become a party whose only apparent function is to demonize the Democrats and impede progress.  They have become the neighborhood kid who owns the football.  And they are not letting anyone play with it unless they get to be quarterback.  If they aren’t in charge, then no one has fun.

They correctly recognize that the coming 2010 and 2012 elections will in large part be determined by the economy.  If the economy remains stalled and unemployment remains high until 2012, then they will do well at the polls.  If the economy recovers, then they are toast.  As a result, they are committed to doing everything in their power to assure we are all still suffering two years hence.

In case that sounds far-fetched, consider what John Boehner told the Christian Science Monitor when asked what his top three priorities would be should the GOP retake the House and he becomes Speaker.  Boehner’s plan (and by extension, the GOP’s plan) is to repeal the healthcare bill, make sure no sort of energy reform is passed, and extend the Bush tax cuts.  In essence, the plan is to erase the Obama administration and go back to where we were in 2008.  Then sit there until it all gets better.

Still not convinced?  Consider the increasing calls from GOP mouthpieces to open investigations or even move toward impeachment of Obama.  If that’s not loony enough for you, consider the Iowa Republican Party platform.  Note, this is not some Tea Party fringe group, but the statewide party platform.  Among other things it advocates for ratification of the original 13th Amendment to the Constitution.  The original 13th was not the repeal of slavery, but a never ratified proposal to revoke the citizenship of anyone accepting a title of nobility from a foreign government.  Why are they advocating this?  Because there is a belief that Obama’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize can be used to revoke his citizenship and oust him from office.

This is insane, and it is not remotely helpful.  Following eight years of Clinton witch hunts that finally nailed the guy on lying about a tryst with an intern, the Democrats turned the other cheek and declined the opportunity to pursue Bush and/or Cheney for launching a war on fabricated data and then repeatedly violating the Geneva Convention and international laws regarding torture.  As a response, the GOP is now pledging to start the witch hunts anew on Obama if they are restored to power.  The olive branch meant nothing.  And next time it likely won’t be extended, meaning we can likely look forward to Democrats becoming less cooperative and more openly hostile to the next GOP administration.  Lovely.

Is this the world we want to live in?  These are supposed to be political parties not warring factions.  These are supposed to be statesmen, but they are acting more like a teenage girl whose BFF just dissed her on Facebook.

Time in a Bottle

TardisTime travel is one of those things that seems so simple until you think about it too much and then your brain just hurts. It isn’t so much the mechanics of traveling in time.  It doesn’t really matter if you prefer to travel in a DeLorean, a phone booth, a TARDIS, or a starship slingshot around the sun.  In a pinch you can even use an enchanted pocket watch or even the occasional hot tub.  After all, while Einstein’s relativity predicts it should be possible, his equations didn’t specify the type of vehicle required.  Yet it’s the mind bending implications of what happens once you do start hopping about on the timeline that are really interesting.

The implications of being able to travel in time depend entirely on the assumptions you make about how time is woven together.  And this is something humans currently don’t understand, which gives you a lot of latitude to be ridiculously creative.  This is maybe why it is a frequent dinner table topic at my house.

Most often in fiction, time is seen as a dependent tapestry of sorts.  If you go back and make changes, then your future is disrupted.  The most obvious problem here being the famed “grandfather paradox.”  Suppose you went back in time and killed your grandfather before your father was ever born.  Then you would not have been born.  So you couldn’t have gone back in time to kill your grandfather.  So he’s still alive, and you are born… except that you killed him.

There are other silly implications of the tapestry model which Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure had great fun with, and Dr. Who inexplicably adopted for their most recent season finale.  Assuming you have access to a time machine, you can effect instantaneous changes to the present by simply deciding that at some point in the future you’ll go back into the past and effect the change.  Suppose you find yourself locked out of your house.  You could decide that later today you’ll pop back to yesterday and hide the spare key under the plant on the porch.  Voila!  The key is now there when previously it wasn’t.  So basically, as soon as you get your hands on a flux capacitor, you can perform magic.  Cooler yet, you will have always been able to perform magic.  And since you can’t, it means you never will.  Another dream shot to hell.

To get around this, some physicists have proposed a quantum model of time.  Essentially it posits that time is not linear, but rather branches out at each instance to allow for all possible outcomes.  So when you go back and make a change, it’s not really a change since both the reality with the change and without the change co-exist.  Aside from the brain cramp induced by trying to conceive of a tree with infinite branches each in turn having infinite child branches and so on out until infinity, this creates the WTF paradox.  In essence, any time you are confronted with a decision, it doesn’t matter what you do because the mere existence of the decision point means you made all available choices in one of the parallel universes.  So why sweat the choice?  I mean, WTF?  Is your grandpa alive or dead?  Well, yes.

Along comes Seth Lloyd at MIT who has another model for all this timey-wimey stuff.  Since quantum outcomes are all probabilistic, Lloyd’s theory is that probabilities are altered to prevent paradoxes.  That is, the universe actually enforces rules against time travel paradoxes by making paradox inducing actions improbable.  This is all predicated on the existence of “closed timelike curves”.  These structures are information pathways across space-time that link paradoxical events.  In essence, should you try and go back and kill your grandfather, the chances of the bullet being a dud or the gun misfiring become a statistical certainty.  Basically, the universe will simply not allow you to ruin your grandmother’s day.

Einstein’s equations allow for these closed timelike curves, and Lloyd’s team has even done some experiments with photons demonstrating that quantum statistics are demonstrably altered when paradoxical possibilities are introduced.  This is a far cry from proof about how time works, but it is one of the more promising steps I’ve seen, and so far it makes my brain hurt less than the other possibilities.  And understanding the nature of time is somewhat of a prerequisite to doing a time-ship conversion on an old British police box.

Pass the salad please?

A Moon Too Far

Two days before I was born President Kennedy issued a challenge before Congress to put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of that decade.  With six months to spare, an eight-year old me watched fuzzy images of astronauts stepping onto another world.  Mission accomplished.  In 2005 dollars, the Apollo program was estimated to have cost $170 billion.  It required the unwavering bipartisan support of Congress across four elections, and the support of three Presidents.  Add to that, the space program was commensurate with one of the most unpopular wars in US history, a time of great social unrest, and also the dawn of one of the most sweeping social entitlement programs.

Man on MoonToday’s question is, do you think we could possibly pull off a moon mission scale project today?  That is, if we set forth a national project that was financially non-trivial and wouldn’t see results for eight or ten years, even if that project had more direct tangible benefit to our collective welfare than Apollo, could we sustain the required momentum?  I fear the answer is, not a chance in hell.

It would seem that as a country we’ve lost our collective ability to plan more than a short time into the future.  This is most evident in politics where everyone is playing for the best leverage in the next election with little regard for what’s best for the country.  Our leaders look to polls and surveys to see what the popular position will be.

Industry isn’t much better.  Long term investment is down.  It’s all about how to maximize share price and next quarter’s balance sheet.  Executives are mostly looking to make a quick name for themselves so they can hop to the next multi-million dollar job.

And consumers aren’t immune either.  How many are putting off buying that new flat screen or living room set rather than saving for their kids’ college or their own retirement?  How many buy houses they have no hope of paying off?

What led us to this state is less certain, but it would be hard to argue that we are here.  Is our desire for immediate gratification driven by marketing messages?  You can have it all, now.  Why wait?  Alternatively, perhaps it’s the inundation with media and information.  There’s so very much to process in the here and now that’s it’s difficult to think about the future.  Or perhaps it is the uncertainty of the future itself that fuels our short attention span.  The world is changing so very fast that glimpsing the world our children will live in is very difficult.  There are so many possible futures that it’s just easier to live in the now and let the future fall where it may.

I don’t personally think it seems so bleak.  It’s not clear what has driven this change, but as long as we are this short sighted, we are unlikely to ever return to the hay-day for which we pine.  We desperately need some sort of collective vision of what we can become.  We will never be of one mind, but we can be of one goal.  At the fuzzy level, we are.  We all want this to be a great and prosperous country.  But that’s not an actionable goal.  It’s about as useful as your kid declaring that when he grows up he wants to be rich.

If history has a lesson for us it is that we respond to competition.  We rallied together against the Nazis.  The fear of communism drove enormous growth in science and technology, and in large part was likely the underlying driving force behind Apollo.  We have enemies now in Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but they are not useful as competition.  We need something larger, something that demands more of us.  I’m thinking China.  Economically, China is the largest looming threat on the planet.  Not that they are evil or anything, or that we even need to hate them.  But they may well be in a position a decade hence to just buy us for petty cash.  We could do with a healthy desire to beat them at that game.  To rebuild our own economy, infrastructure, and industrial base to out compete them in the global market.  This is a challenge worthy of the people who put a man on the moon.  And wouldn’t it be nice to be a part of something productive again?

Now, if only we had a Kennedy to inspire us…

Tortured Logic

Here’s a plan, let’s outsource a large portion of government jobs as a way of creating private sector employment.  Let that sink in for a moment.  Wait until you get the uncontrollable urge to smack yourself on the forehead… then go ahead and give in a good whack.  There you go.

Yet this is Cal Thomas’ latest proposal.  Now I grant you that I almost always find Thomas to be wrong.  In fact, I was having a little trouble coping with a column he wrote a couple weeks back on Law and Marriage because I thought he raised an interesting point.  I figured I must be missing something.  But rarely does Thomas put forth an idea which is is so demonstrably wrong as his plan to outsource government jobs.

Let’s follow the dollars here for a moment.  Taxes are collected.  Out of those taxes, money is budgeted to pay for a government service.  The government service contracts with a private company to fulfill that service.  The private company hires someone to do the job.  Connect all the dots, and that person’s wages are being paid with tax dollars.  Yet somehow this counts as private sector employment?

Keep in mind, this is the same crowd who would strictly oppose those same tax dollars being spent for that same purpose if the same person was hired by the government rather than the private company to do the job.  They would also oppose those tax dollars being given as a grant to a private company to do a function.

What if the government were to cut out the middleman and just buy the company and run it for the purposes of doing the job?  That’s textbook Socialism, and is so wrong Cal Thomas would just stroke out.

If you’re an advocate for small government, then fine.  But you can’t get there by outsourcing government jobs to the private sector.  Those are still jobs being paid for by tax dollars, and additionally, taxes are paying for the profit the private company has to make as well.  That’s not to say outsourcing is always a bad idea.  But you can’t count it as private sector employment.  Geezsh!

Is Cheerleading a Sport?

A US judge in Connecticut says no, cheerleading is not a sport, at least under Title IX.  As a consequence, he’s ruled Quinnipiac University can’t drop its girls volleyball team because the competitive cheer team doesn’t count as an alternative.

It’s worth noting the ruling seems to be more on the organization of cheerleading than the team or the activity.  An activity can be considered a sport under Title IX if it meets specific criteria. It must have coaches, practices, competitions during a defined season and a governing organization. The activity also must have competition as its primary goal.  In this case, it seems the lack of a governing organization and a defined season schedule were mostly to blame.

Still, cheerleading is left in an odd position.  No sane person could argue that today’s cheerleaders are not athletes and do not train hard.  The physical exertion, the injuries, the demanding coaches, and the long hours in the gym are on par with any other sport.  Further, anyone who’s ever been to a cheer competition, could not remotely claim this is not a competitive activity.  And if you think the kids are motivated, you should see how rabid the fans are.

I personally believe that the biggest detriment to cheerleading being accepted as a sport is its legacy.  It was historically a sideline activity for another sport.  And vestiges of that remain today.  School cheer teams are often required to still adorn the sidelines of games.  And in many cases, the cheerleaders consider this a nuisance that distracts them from their real focus and their real passion, the competitions. It seems that cheerleading would be way better off if it renamed itself to something like Synchronized Gymnastics and left all the sideline activities and the school spirit behind.

Competition cheerleading is part dance and part choreographed aerobics all blended with a healthy dose of tumbling.  Yes, it’s a judged sport, but so is gymnastics.  And like gymnastics, there are standards and required moves.  Yes, there’s a ridiculous amount of attention on hair and makeup, but synchronized swimming and ice skating have similar aesthetic requirements.

There is only one truly unique aspect to cheerleaders.  Something I don’t think any name change or official recognition will ever make different.  It’s something I call autophotoassemblage.  If you are in the vicinity of a group of cheerleaders and give any indication you are inclined to take a picture of them, they will magically self-arrange into a group pose and turn on a smile.  Even just removing the lens cap from your camera is often enough.  You never have to pose them.  Sometimes they’ll fuss with a few positions before the shot settles, but you just need to wait with your camera until everyone is still.  Click.  It’s a great picture.  In fact, I don’t think it’s even possible to take a bad picture of cheerleaders.

Titans' Cheer

While I don’t think autophotoassemblage should in any way inhibit cheerleading from being recognized as a sport, it remains one of the great mysteries of the universe.