Thursday, September 26, 2013

Excerpt from a WIP entitled "Smart Phone Dialogues"

The ideal place to perform any of these dialogues is in a crowded airport terminal gate with a lot of people sitting around waiting for their flights, although the pieces may be adapted to about any situation where you’re thrown in with a bunch of strangers that you know you’ll never see again and are guaranteed to be separated from within an hour or two. The dialogues should be especially effective if there is an idiot nearby who is doing the same thing, although really talking to another person.

Dialogue #2 – The Pet Vampire:
(Ringtone: Something from Kung Fu Vampire)
Hi, Sam; yeah, we got it done okay . . . took a little while, figuring out how to prepare those cow blood food bags instead of letting them bite our arms . . . but it turns out they’re super smart . . . train ‘em to do about anything.
Well, they’re pretty good sized, y’know, wingspan’s maybe a foot . . . like, you know it big time when they come through the living room. Like, you got a vampire bat flying through your house, and you got people over for dinner or something, and everyone notices right away. . . I mean, they’re pretty hard to ignore, especially when they’re flying around over the dinner table . . . (laughs) . . . almost imagine ‘em taking a hungry look at your rare steak, right?
Depends. Our colony is rabies free, so no need to worry about that. So sort of depends on how somebody wants to get bit. I’d be careful about offering a jugular, y’know! (laughs)
Oh? Cow blood. I mean, once we figured it out, these things breed really well, and when we started, we didn’t realize how easily they were trained. Y’know, they’re like house broken. Crap and pee in a litter box, just like your cat . . . I mean, like, these are serious bats, and they do bite, but mainly strangers, like when you have folks in for a party or something. .  . . But yeah, they just fly down, take a little nip off someone’s cheek, lap up a little blood, then take a dump in their litter and go back up.
Back up? Oh, it’s a little rack, up on the ceiling, sort of like a towel rack. Just screw it into the ceiling. Let ‘em loose the first time up near there, and they find it right away.
Litter box? Turns out all you need is a little sound generator . . . right frequency . . . yeah, after all, these are bats, y’know . . . they got big ears . . . they find it right away.
Depends on how many you order. . . I recommend a couple of females to start.
Cow blood? . . . Yeah, we finally bought our own herd, just to guarantee the supply, so we ship maybe a hundred gallons a day, all over the country (laughs). I mean, when you got a pet vampire, that’s a status symbol you gotta keep fed, right?
Yeah . . . better a bag of cow blood than your own, right? (laughs) Ended up with a bunch of scars on the arm, ‘til we figured that one out.
Five hundred each, plus shipping. We do overnight, Fed Ex, UPS, whichever you want . . . Need to get your litter box, your ceiling rack set up in whatever room you want ‘em to stay in, and a pretty good supply of blood . . . we’ll ship you a couple months’ supply . . . hundred bucks a quart . . . keep it in the freezer . . . thaw it out in the microwave when you need a bag . . . works like a charm.
Oh, now get this . . . we also got this Rent-a-Witch thing going.
Yeah, she’s a major babe. Tall, thin, stacked, real dark eyes, black hair, dresses up in one of those Elvira-type costumes . . . gets along great with the bats.
Thousand dollars an hour . . . two hour minimum . . . plus transportation and expenses . . . I mean if she gets on a plane to somewhere, and has to take along a couple of animals, ends up staying in a fancy hotel . . rents a decent car . . . could end up costing you four, sometimes five.
She’s booked for the next seven months.
She handles it all . . . puts a temporary rack in your house somewhere . . . takes care of the litter box . . . brings along some cow blood . . . shows up in costume.
Okay . . . I’ll put you down for a pair . . . and a two-night Rent-a-Witch gig . . . Friday, XXXXX, and Saturday, XXXXX . . . got it. (Pick dates some time eight months in the future.)
Twenty five percent down . . . non-refundable . . . I’ll do the calcs and send you an estimate, along with the contract paperwork . . . e-mail ?
(Pause . . . pretend to enter information in phone)
Hey, we also got a franchise deal, if you have a place to start a colony . . . okay, I’ll send you the info . . . works best if you have a barn, or something like that . . . some area of the house you’re not using.
Guano? We bag it for fertilizer . . . yeah, bat guano is really high in nitrogen . . . best fertilizer you got . . . ‘specially for vegetables . . . that part of the business works best if you got a barn, or outbuilding of some kind . . . guano’s not pure, of course . . . mixed in with that litter . . . but the litter’s good for your garden, too.
Well, if you go the franchise route . . . you can add a fertilizer operation, too, whenever you’re ready . . . usually works best when people can hide these things . . . a whole lot easier, and actually more profitable, than a pot farm. (laughs)
Nobody’s got caught yet, at least that we know of.
Okay . . . got you down for two females . . . two months’ supply of blood . . . litter box and ceiling roost rack . . . two nights of Rent-a-Witch . . . and a franchise information packet . . . anything else ?
Thanks, Sam . . . you’re a buddy . . . hey, have a good one . . . I’ll shoot you a text when the stuff goes on the truck . . . Thanks again. Say hi to the everyone back there . . . take care . . . and hey . . . be sure to return the Rent-a-Witch, right? (laughs)
(Pretends to log out of this conversation, enter a bunch of information, and makes another “call”)
Yeah . . . just booked ‘em for a couple more nights . . . big party in Dallas . . . bachelor’s party for a buddy’s gettin’ married for the third or fourth time . . . just sent you the info.
No problem . . . he promised to send her back . . . write that into the contract, okay? . . . Never find another Witch like that one, right? . . . See you in a couple of days.
(Pretends to log out of this conversation.)


This excerpt is from the chapter entitled "Why are politicians so scientifically illiterate?"

As indicated in the previous chapter, testable assertions are the hallmark of science, and I’ll expand on this scientific property within the context of political action later in this chapter. But for the moment, we should remember that in the political arena, assertions are testable only within an historical framework. In other words, politics is an historical discipline with its own rules of evidence that may not match those of proximal or normal science, i.e., the kind of science that does experiments with material amenable to experimentation. Within the realm of history, you can’t really do “experiments,” as we properly define the term; you can only assess the validity of some assertion by looking back on what actually happened when you acted as if that assertion was true. There is no better example of this kind of historical assertion testing than the Iraq war that began with the invasion of that nation by a group of other nations, led mostly by the United States, in 2003. The assertion was that Saddam was developing, or had, and intended to use “weapons of mass destruction,” the assertion that Iraqis would quickly adopt an American-style democracy once their dictator was overthrown, the assertion that Iraq would be a business-friendly working environment shortly after hostilities ceased, all were tested and shown to be false. But unlike a real experiment, say involving bacterial metabolism, you can’t go back and start over with Iraq.
The vast majority of all politicians rely on public approval to sustain their employment. In addition, once in office, the trappings of power can become quite seductive. These two facets of political life are among the main reasons that politicians are so scientifically illiterate, or at least act as if they are. Nevertheless, most if not all positions occupied by politicians also involve major responsibilities, compliance with various laws, ceremonial activities, and nowadays, public scrutiny of religious beliefs and behaviors demonstrating “faith.”  Nobody who professes to be an atheist should be so stupid as to spend money running for public office in the United States of America, no matter how lowly that office might be or how qualified the individual. Elected membership on the Lancaster County, Nebraska, Weed Control Authority comes immediately to mind; no self-proclaimed secular humanists need apply. Thus politicians are scientifically illiterate, or act as if they are, because the demands of public office, the need for public approval, and the constant scrutiny of their faith-based behavior, all job-related phenomena that work to make such literacy a liability instead of an asset.
Besides the factors of responsibility, approval, and scrutiny, it is also important to remember that mobs want answers and solutions, not questions and problems, from their leaders. In general, science tends to produce more questions and problems than answers and solutions. This tendency derives from the fundamental nature of science as an activity. Elsewhere in this book I use the metaphor of an island of understanding in a sea of ignorance to explain why science produces more problems than solutions. Remember that as an island grows in size (increase in understanding), its shoreline (the boundary between understanding and ignorance) also grows. All the questions and problems lie along this boundary. In addition, to continue with the metaphor, the larger an island gets, the more geographically diverse it tends to become. If that geographic diversity involves mountains, then we have a high perch from which to observe the sea of ignorance. Routinely such observation shows that sea to be much larger than we imagined when we were only down on our hands and knees in the sand studying nature at the [metaphorical] shore.
The familiar case of New Orleans vs. Hurricane Katrina beautifully illustrates all these points about breadth of knowledge, comparative thinking, observations, history, and the basic properties of science. Breadth of knowledge is perhaps the most important factor that should have been considered in the political decisions involving the Mississippi Delta ecology. Thus a broadly educated politician would never simply ask how much money an ecological project—for example, a system of levees and an artificial river (the New Orleans shipping channel)—costs, or how much money the public is willing to spend on such a project. Instead, as a minimum, a broadly educated politician considers history, socio-economic conditions, the probability of disaster, the quality of expertise consulted, whether or not that expertise is in agreement with other expertise from diverse sources, the nature of observations, the process of analysis, and whether the process itself has obvious flaws or internal contradictions. In other words, to really assess the adequacy of New Orleans levees, one would have to study the Mississippi Delta using approaches that would be quite familiar to any evolutionary biologist.
Research over the past half century, i.e., activity increasing both the size of our island of understanding and the length of its shoreline boundary with the sea of ignorance, clearly revealed (produced) more questions and problems about the Mississippi Delta region than answers and solutions. Such research involved new technologies such as satellite imagery, geographic information system software, and socio-economic analysis, as well as experience derived from study of the Achafalaya River and its basin using more conventional methods—measurement of stream flow, sedimentation and erosion rates, pressures on diversion dams and gates, etc. Over the years, the scientific community came to realize that the initial problem and its solution, namely, keeping water out of New Orleans by building levees, was actually only a small part of a much larger problem, specifically, long term management of the interrelationship between a nation’s economy and one of the world’s largest rivers. This kind of collective activity, in which a truly massive ecosystem is the primary player at the center of a highly integrated, far-reaching, transportation and financial network, does not lend itself to governance by mobs that want answers and solutions, not questions and problems, from their leaders. Instead, this kind of system requires almost Jeffersonian dignity, patience, foresight, and breadth, traits that don’t survive well in our Third Millennium media-driven electioneering environment.
Such a broad education, and its use in a public arena, is therefore a lot, indeed probably too much, to ask of any modern politician. But then, of course, it is the job of any newspaper reporter half-way qualified for his or her job to ask the right questions of elected officials in order to reveal their breadth of knowledge, in situations involving natural phenomena, or, in the best of all worlds, to inspire those politicians to acquire knowledge, wisdom, and some decent honest advisers who are not just sycophants. Sadly, perhaps for reasons that are deeply embedded in the human DNA, as a general rule we are not patient with careful analysis, complex interactions between elements of nature, varying degrees of probability, and leaders who are honest about the chances that disaster will befall us. Instead, we seem to admire leaders who are strong advocates of actions based on our beliefs and desires, who inspire us to be courageous, and who tend to simplify a complex universe down to issues and explanations we can understand. And leaders who can convince us we are in danger, and seem to be fighting that danger in an obvious way, are the ones we seem to admire the most. None of this typical interaction between a population and its chosen leaders promotes scientific literacy or honesty about the relationship between nature and people.

INTELLIGENT DESIGNER is available on kindle, nook, and, and as a nice paperback from

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Dangerous Technology

Potentially Dangerous Technology

According to Wikipedia, that source of all modern knowledge, in 2009 there were 254,212,610 lethal weapons in the United States, the sale and servicing of which being important enough to the economy so that two presidents felt compelled to provide billions of dollars to keep the weapons’ manufacturers solvent during economic hard times. Americans use these weapons to kill approximately 40,000 of their fellow citizens annually, although some of the fatalities are undoubtedly illegal immigrants. Among the 40,000 dead are people of all ages, including infants. Furthermore, we purchase these weapons at the rate of about five to eight million a year. Use of these weapons also wounds tens of thousands more, some of them severely, with wounds including paralysis, loss of limbs and eyesight, and brain damage. An enormous number of us think nothing at all about endangering our fellow Americans through daily use of these instruments of mass destruction. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I am talking, of course, about motor vehicles.
As is the case with deaths from firearms, the United States ranks high in terms of automobile deaths with 15.5 per 100,000 citizens per year, slightly ahead of Belgium (15.4). Globally, the overall motor vehicle injury rate is about double the death rate, at 30.8 per 100,000 per year for males and 11.0 for females; the vast majority of these injuries occur in nations with relatively low economic status, especially in Africa and Southeast Asia. In the United States, almost a hundred people a day die in motor vehicle accidents (93 is the reported number), which are the leading cause of death among people younger than their mid-forties, and result in over $400 billion per year in medical costs and lost productivity. Obviously, we’re willing to pay an enormous price for our freedom and mobility.
 In contrast to some other hazards such as guns, illegal narcotics, and unwanted pregnancy, we as a nation treat motor vehicle death and injury mostly as a public health problem rather than a legal one. Thus we have a multi-faceted approach to the control of death and injury from several-thousand-pound packages of steel, plastic, and highly combustible liquids legally traveling at speeds up to 75 MPH on publically-owned property. We enact laws designed to protect people from their own irresponsible behavior (seat belt use laws, speed limits, legal blood alcohol limits), we design machinery to reduce the effects of both irresponsible behavior and simple accidents (air bags, antilock brakes, head supports and cushions), and we take away their rights to use these weapons if used in irresponsible manner (DUI, multiple traffic violations). We routinely imprison people who use these weapons in a way that hurts others (motor vehicle homicide). Finally, we pass laws to help protect people from financial problems resulting from irresponsible behavior of others using the weapons (required liability insurance).
We also spend a great deal of tax money to build and maintain places where these weapons can be used safely, if used responsibly (streets and highways.) Our public health measures are not 100% effective because we still kill and maim tens of thousands of our fellow citizens annually; as a result, statistically speaking, American motor vehicles are much more dangerous than American shotguns, rifles, and pistols. Furthermore, we glorify the use of big, explosive, vehicles in a variety of ways: television ads that attempt to join glamour and sex with this technology, designs that build convenience and luxury into them, and formalized contests in which we eagerly watch for their destruction (NASCAR, Indianapolis 500).

Motor vehicles are not nearly as dangerous, however, as a much smaller, more easily concealed, and strikingly simple, technology, namely, cigarettes. These items consist basically of plant leaves wrapped in paper. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation’s agency responsible for health statistics, in the United States over 440,000 die prematurely, every year, from smoking, and over eight million have chronic, serious, illness, e.g., emphysema, resulting from tobacco use. Second hand smoke is a major health hazard to non-smokers, with over half of American children under age eleven being exposed, the results being everything from sudden death syndrome, asthma, and respiratory tract infections, to lung cancer. According to CDC, second hand smoke causes annually in non-smokers about 3000 lung cancer deaths, 46,000 deaths from heart disease, and up to 300,000 cases of lower respiratory tract infections in children younger than two years old. The public health toll from tobacco use is estimated at about $200 billion a year, half of that in lost productivity.

(John Janovy, Jr.)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Pete Ricketts decides to run for governor of Nebraska

An excerpt from a book project I was working on a few years ago (and am still working on, although not quite so seriously at the moment because of other obligations):

Those are the fundamental properties of American “democracy.” All who are citizens of this nation possess the right, by virtue of citizenship, to oppose elected officials verbally and politically, to criticize those same officials, often unmercifully and publicly, to try and influence politicians at all levels with letters, e-mails, and hired lobbyists, to run for office against incumbents if we desire, and to vote. We may not accomplish much by doing any of these activities, but at least we don’t routinely get arrested and/or shot. As of this writing, this type of “democracy” is not reproducing itself very successfully anywhere in the world. The Pax Americana is proving itself to be a weak competitor for the hearts and minds of humans, especially those in what we call the “developing world.” In fact it is struggling to sustain itself in its own heartland. In an ideal America, none of these fundamental properties could be subverted by people participating in the system. The brutal truth is that anywhere the Republican Party is in power, it is likely to be working overtime to subvert the system through gerrymandering, intimidation of appointed officials, making it harder for poor and minorities to vote, promoting scientific illiteracy, ignoring scientific evidence when it contradicts ideology, and spying on its own citizens illegally.
In other words, we are evolving noticeably, if not relatively quickly, toward a totalitarian state, and that evolution is slowed mainly by some institutions that are constantly under attack from a variety of directions. Public schools, libraries, universities, museums, various arts organizations, and the entertainment industry are all routine targets for conservative elected officials. In some cases these officials use budgetary power; in others their words are sufficient to marginalize, if not demonize, a segment of our society. An excellent example of our cultural evolution is provided by a recent Republican candidate for United States Senate from Nebraska, Pete Ricketts, heir to the Ameritrade fortune, much of which he spent on his own campaign. Mr. Ricketts is not particularly important on global scale; I’m using him as an example because he’s handy, illustrative, and of a rather common type.
In the spring of 2006, Mr. Ricketts won the Republican primary election for a candidate to oppose Sen. Ben Nelson (D); Ricketts’ campaign rhetoric consisted primarily of variations on the theme of “faith, family, and hard work . . . values taught and shared in my home.” He swept us in by continuing “Those are my values, our values, Nebraska values that I will take to Washington.” Of the five videos you can (or could) access through his web (, one is entitled “Believe” and another is “Mom.” You are also invited to contribute to the Nebraska Families for Pete Ricketts pool. That is the extent of the civics discourse contributed by Mr. Ricketts. The family values candidate also contributed $4.5 million of his own money to this pool before May 8, 2006.
 No journalist ever asked Mr. Ricketts how he would have handled the low level radioactive waste storage site issue that has plagued the state like a cancer, how, exactly, he would get us out of Iraq or Afghanistan, what, exactly, he understood about global climate change, whether he could even define the terms “demography” or “ethnic diversity,” whether he ever took a course in a foreign language, what he understood about basic science and technology, to what extent he understood the arts’ contribution to our national economy and image, what he knew about the cost of producing ethanol from corn (as opposed to sugar cane), to what extent drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would or could actually reduce gasoline prices and guarantee our energy future, and just exactly how he would propose to handle the health care delivery system problems faced by our nation. Needless to say, Mr. Ricketts did not offer any answers to any of these questions on his own.
“Nebraska values” it turns out are stereotypical neoconservative: anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-evolution, suspicious, if not outright disdainful, of science in general (but not applied science producing value-added discoveries involving agricultural products), and deeply religious, mostly Catholic. Are these “Nebraska values” wrong or dangerous? No, certainly not as held by free individuals in a truly democratic society. Whether they are wrong or dangerous, or perhaps more properly completely inadequate, as a basis for making international decisions in the Third Millennium, that is an open, and debatable, question.
But the most troubling question of all is: Are these values, combined with a candidate’s careful failure to reveal the extent to which he or she understands science and demographics, unique to Nebraska? If they are, then nobody should worry, or even care, about Pete Ricketts assuming an elective position with some power to influence global events. If they are not, then we have plenty to worry about because science and demography will be our challenges in the future, the former because it is completely re-defining what is meant by the term “human being,” the latter because demographic changes determine the boundary conditions under which this new form of human evolves.

(John Janovy , Jr.)