Tuesday, July 02, 2024

Not So Fast, Donald!

Many people are upset over the recent decision by the conservative Supreme Court that covers presidential immunity. Some think that this gives Donald Trump carte blanche to do anything he wants and exonerates him from all his past misdeeds. Among those celebrating is Trump himself.

Not so fast, Donald.

The wording of the decision is very important. 

“A former president is entitled to absolute immunity from criminal prosecution for actions within his ‘conclusive and preclusive constitutional authority,’ ” the ruling says. “There is no immunity for unofficial acts.”

That's pretty cut and dried.

It also says that the immunity covers official acts while he was president.

That has some very strong implications that a smart attorney could use.

1) Was he president when he committed these acts?

This is important because, in the case of the New York fraud convictions, these crimes took place before his inauguration in January 2016. 

Those convictions would still stand.

With the documents charges (which include espionage), those charges were for crimes after his term had ended and, therefore, still stand because presidential immunity wouldn't apply to a former president.

2) Were the acts part of his official duties?

Article II, sections 2 and 3 of the Constitution spell out the powers and duties of the president.

Would calling officials in Georgia to get them to change the outcome of the election fall under these powers? How would such a call fall under "conclusive and preclusive constitutional authority?" 

From where I'm sitting, this ruling doesn't change a damned thing and the prosecutions, as they now stand, should proceed without further delay.

I'm not a legal scholar so I need someone in the know to point out any flaws in my logic here. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

No Encounters of the First, Second or Third Kind

Extraterrestrials visiting Earth.

The idea conjures visions of strange beings but not so strange that we don't recognize them. ET, the aliens from Close Encounters, Klaatu, Marvin the Martian and countless others have graced our TV screens, theater marquees and the pages of comic books. We've seen humanoids, insect-like creatures, intelligent floating squid creatures and even rocks.

Just how likely is it that we've had visitors from distant worlds?

Let's break it down.

1) Technology and Energy
The technology to get a spacecraft of appreciable size (i.e. capable of supporting some kind of human sized organism inside) is doable. Humans have been doing it for nearly 60 years. However, none of those spacecraft have been built to sustain life for the amount of time it would take to fly among the stars.

"What about the International Space Station?" I hear you cry.

The ISS is quite a feat of engineering but it's not self-sustaining. If not for missions that take supplies and remove waste (old wrappers from food, soiled clothing and... other stuff), it would soon become unlivable.

Could a sufficiently advanced civilization build such a craft? Possibly.

But then there's the question of energy.

In order to hurl something the size of the ISS from here to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, in a reasonable amount of time, say 25 years, would take about 9 times the amount of energy that the entire United States generated in 2009. The power plant that would generate this energy would be enormous... and added weight means added energy to move it.

There are many fanciful, imagined means of propelling a spacecraft and maybe some of these exist in the labs of other civilizations. But, like it or not, they are still subject to the laws of physics and engineering.

Incidentally, as you get closer and closer to the speed of light, all forms of electromagnetic energy blue shift to shorter and shorter wavelengths. At sufficiently close to the speed of light, visible light can shift to become x-rays and gamma rays.

Add in more weight to shield the crew from being fried by those.

Let's put that aside for now to look at other issues.

2) Motivation
Why would they come here? What is here (besides us) that isn't more readily available elsewhere in the galaxy?

Water is far easier to come by in the outer solar system. There are entire worlds of ice and other volatiles and you don't have to try to drag them from the pit of Earth's gravity well.

The same goes for any minerals, metals or rare earth materials. Asteroids are far easier to mine for that stuff.

Are they curious about our civilizations?

For that, they need nothing more technologically advanced than the television. Even before the outbreak of World War 2, we were sending radio and television broadcasts out to the stars in an ever expanding sphere of radio noise. It's traveling outward at the speed of light and cannot be recalled.

They can learn our language, our writing and number systems watching a primer that's been transmitted for more than 50 years: Sesame Street.

If they send craft, they wouldn't even have to enter our atmosphere to collect useful information. Our own satellites do that.

Would they come to breed with us to make a human/alien hybrid?

Unlikely. You'd have better luck crossing a human with a rhododendron. At least those two have more genes in common that you would with an alien.

This is what makes it equally unlikely they want us or our livestock for food. We'd probably taste pretty nasty.

3) Awareness
How do they even know that we're here?

As mentioned before, we've been broadcasting radio noise for quite some time, about 100 years or so. That means any civilization that even had the slightest clue that we're here would have to be within 100 light years.

We know this region of space pretty well and we haven't detected even a peep of another civilization.

When we search for extraterrestrial signals, we search for radio signals because that's what we broadcast. Aliens detecting our radio signals would search for them because that's what they use. So we should have heard them by now. There have been a few interesting traces of signals but nothing yet that would indicate they've "got their ears on."

Any civilization outside that 100 light year radius wouldn't have any way to detect that we're here.

4) Technology We Haven't Discovered
It's true that we haven't reached the pinnacle of what we can achieve technologically. But that technology is always going to be limited by physics. There are no magic shortcuts around it, either.

Science fiction has come up with some wonderful imaginative devices but that's what they are and that's what they'll remain: fiction.

Faster than light technology? Transporters? Great for getting people around in SF movies but they go beyond impractical to the impossible.

And that brings us to our final point.

5) Practicality
It's simply not practical nor is it necessary for an alien civilization to visit Earth.

Better to stay at home and learn about us from our radio and television signals.

Is there other life in the universe?

The simple answer is we don't know.

It's not a satisfying answer but it's the best one. It leaves room for possibilities.

Nobody wants there to be more than I do. And, yes, I'd love to hear that first signal. I'd even like to be proven wrong about aliens visiting this planet.

But I live in the real world and expect real evidence.

Shapeless blips from wing cameras?

Sorry, but that could be anything.

We don't know what they are but that's no reason to declare that it must be extraterrestrial.

You simply don't explain the unexplained with the inexplicable or unlikely.

Admitting that we don't know is the first step.

Then we search to find out what it really is.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Mobilizing to Storm Area 51: A Few Reasons Why It's One of the Most Asinine Ideas Ever

It would seem that a large number of people are talking about storming Area 51 in Nevada.

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last 60 years, you know that Area 51 is a government test facility. Some people believe that there are aliens (possibly alive, probably dead), alien technology and so on.

These people think that if their numbers are sufficient, they should be able to capture this area. Their motto is "They Can't Shoot Us All."

I'm going to address these two ideas separately.

First, aliens.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11. The spacecraft that carried the three astronauts to and from the moon, the command module, could fit in a two car garage. It had roughly the same space and weight at a modern minivan (with surprisingly less technological advancement but that's another blog post).

In order to hurl a spacecraft of that size to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, in a time span of 25 years, it would require the same amount of energy that the entire United States consumed in 2009.

Consider what it takes to generate that kind of energy.

Proxima Centauri has no planets that seem to meet the criteria needed for intelligent life to develop. Any alien life would have to travel a much greater distance which would require even more energy.

For the sake of argument, let's say that aliens did manage to get to Earth.

They've traveled more than 25 trillion miles across unimaginable spans of space and managed to keep their crew alive for the decades (if not centuries) it took to cross that void. Their technical prowess is far beyond what we can even imagine.

Then they crash outside Roswell, New Mexico?


Pun intended, the odds against aliens in Area 51 are astronomical.

Now, the intended raid.

Like it or not, the United States has enemies in the world. That means we need a military and that military needs weapons. In this modern, technological age, that means advanced weapons. When we develop weapons to give us a strategic advantage, we don't want our enemies to know about them.

Sometimes, we have to keep secrets.

Facilities like Area 51 exist to protect those secrets.

Anyone trespassing on the Groom Lake Testing Facility (the actual name of this facility) is subject to arrest, imprisonment and fine. Anyone resisting arrest could be subject to much worse.

To those who say, "They can't shoot us all," I offer a challenge:

They might not have to shoot everyone.

Just a few. Maybe just one.

Do you think it's worth your life to enter this base? And for what?

Have you ever seen an Air Force A-10 in action?

I have. The weaponry on the A-10 can take out a tank. I don't even want to consider what a single strafing run would do in a crowd of a thousand people.

Then multiply that by a few strafing runs in a crowd of tens of thousands.

Think they can't shoot you all?

Guess again.

Why not mobilize this kind of energy towards a worthwhile goal like letting the Senate know they aren't doing their jobs? Feeding the hungry? Building homeless shelters?

That's worth getting a bunch of people together for.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

A Case of (and for) Coulrophobia

NB: This is from a Facebook post I made in 2013. I'm reposting it here so a friend who couldn't see it on Facebook can see it here.

Coulrophobia is a fear of clowns.

Let's face it. Clowns are goddamned creepy as hell. The white face, the big gaping red smiles, the weird hair and clothing... what's to love about that?

I get a bit creeped out by clowns but I have a damned good reason beyond their general creepiness.

When I was a kid, my grandmother dragged my sister and me to funerals. She was a funeral junkie and we had to go with her. I was about 5 when I saw my first corpse in a box. Sometimes, the relationship with the dearly departed might be tenuous at best. One time, I got dragged to the funeral of the uncle of my Cub Scout denmother because my grandmother thought I should attend.

When I was about seven or so, her brother-in-law died so she schlepped us to his funeral. At the gathering afterwards, my sister and I sat bored. We knew most of the people but they were there to talk grown up talk. Nobody really noticed two bored kids.

Then we spotted her. We didn't know who she was.

She wore what looked like a square dance dress but it was black with white polka dots. This was accented with white petticoats, white gloves with lace at the wrists, patent red leather pumps with a matching purse, black fishnet stockings and a black pillbox hat with a small veil. Her face was made-up with thick, white pancake makeup. The stubble of her shaved eyebrows showed through this. With an eyebrow pencil, she had drawn in high, arching eyebrows that made her eyes look like a McDonald's sign. Her eyeshadow faded from pale green to purple. She had a perfect circle of red rouge on each cheek. Her lipstick had been applied outside her lip line to form a cupid's bow. Her hair stuck out from under the hat in what looked like a bright orange Brillo pad. When she smiled, she revealed crooked teeth stained yellow from years of smoking.

Based on her appearance, the question my sister asked her seemed natural.

"Are you the kind of clown who does funny tricks or magic tricks?"

The woman screamed at us, "Get away from me, you little bastards!"

This was Nell, who was married to my grandmother's brother, Ashley.

About six months later, we'd hear of Nell again. What follows is from the police report I read in 1981.

One evening, Ashley fell asleep in his recliner watching the 10:00 news. Nell came up behind him and pulverized his head with a two pound blacksmith's hammer. The report I read said that she was probably aware of what she was doing when she delivered the first blow but the next 50 or so, she was just swinging.

She then doused his body with cooking oil, set him on fire and left the house.

Neighbors called the fire department when they saw smoke pouring from one of the windows of Nell and Ashley's house. The first fireman in the door vomited on the floor. The fire had pretty much burned out to reveal what was left of Ashley Gilson in the metal frame of his recliner. A streak of blood, skull and brain matter ran across the ceiling and wall behind his chair. His head was gone. His fingerprints had been burned away. The closest anyone ever got to making a positive ID on his body was when my great-grandmother identified his wedding ring.

Nell was found at a local bar, drinking beer and acting like there wasn't a problem in the world. An officer approached her and told her that her husband was dead.

Without putting her beer down, she replied, "Must have been suicide."

The officer said, "Mrs. Gilson, what really happened?"

After this "intense" questioning, she related the whole story then lead the police to the place she had hidden the hammer, a copse in a tombstone at a nearby cemetery.

She was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a mental hospital near Salem, Oregon. From time to time, they'd call my grandmother to tell her that Nell had made another attempt at suicide.

After about 8 years, Nell was released and nobody ever knew what became of her. I'm sure she's dead by now. If not, she'd be 105 or so.

Until I reached my teen years, I'd see her in my dreams. She'd be in her funeral get-up and carrying a bloody hammer.

I think my fear of clowns is reasonable.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

I Ain't 'Fraid of...

In a Facebook post on a friend's page, folks were talking about ghosts.

You might want to grab a snack because this might be a long one.

Just this very morning, I caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye. It seemed to dash quickly across the doorway to the kitchen. For the briefest moment, I thought it was our cat.

Our cat died 6 months ago.

At some point in your life, you might have had a strange feeling, seen something you couldn't explain or had some kind of odd sensory experience.

It wasn't a ghost.

It wasn't a flying saucer, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, a chupacabra, a vampire or any of the other myriad denizens of cheap novels, tabloid headlines or "history" channel programs.

What was it?

I don't know. But neither do you.

The human mind is a pretty amazing thing but we all have to admit that it's not infallible. It can be tricked. It can even trick itself.

When you think you see something, your mind wants to fill in the gaps and will often try to make sense of that sensation.  So it will attribute that sensation to something it knows, sometimes from experience and sometimes due to exposure to your culture and media. It will attach the meaning to what it most closely resembles.

This morning, my brain was convinced it saw the ghost of our cat.

But what did I actually see?

I don't know.

Believe it or not, that's an entirely satisfactory answer. It's satisfactory because it's true. I really don't know what I thought I saw.

I'll entertain some possibilities of what it might have been based on actual experience and more likely explanations.

It might have been the shadow of  bird flying past the kitchen window. Given the angle of the sun this morning, it's not the best explanation but it's possible.

It might have been an afterimage of my tablet screen. I'd been talking with my wife while holding my iPad in my lap. The screen was bright and at the periphery of my vision so when I looked back at the tablet, that afterimage could have looked like it was moving across the entry to the kitchen.

This latter explanation is plausible.

But the truth of the matter is that I don't know and will probably never know. And I'm OK with that.

At times like this, I often apply what is called the law of parsimony (often mistakenly called Occam's Razor which is almost but not quite this): the answer that requires the fewest assumptions is likely the correct one.

Which is more likely?

  1. In defiance of the laws of physics, some vestige of my cat has remained in the house she occupied for nearly 11 years and appeared briefly in my peripheral vision only to completely disappear when I looked directly in that area.
  2. A transient visual phenomenon (possibly an afterimage) was at the periphery of my vision and my fallible human mind interpreted it as seeing my departed cat.

Logic dictates it was the latter.

But even if I never know exactly what I saw, it's erroneous thinking to attribute it to something supernatural. There is probably a perfectly mundane (if unsatisfying) explanation.

And this applies to things other than my experience this morning.

I leave you with these things to consider:

Unknown doesn't mean unknowable.

Unexplained doesn't mean inexplicable.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Thirty eight years and going...

On the afternoon of February 13, 1981, I was visiting the campus of Boise State University to visit some friends. I'd dropped out because I thought I had no money (not realizing that I still had thousands of dollars in unclaimed financial aid). I'd given blood and it was cold and snowy. I had just missed a bus and it would be half an hour before another would come along so I decided to duck into the nearest public building to stay warm. 

It was the science building, not a building I'd visited before. 

I'd completely read the campus newspaper that I had with me and hoped to find something else to read. 

There was a piece of paper on a bench. Both sides were covered with handwriting. 

These weren't lecture notes and there was no name. 

Someone intended for this paper to be found. 

The page's creator had written numerous quotes from famous people, most of whom were familiar to me.
Religion is all bunk! (Thomas Edison)
I don't believe in God because I don't believe in Mother Goose. (Clarence Darrow)
But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. (Thomas Jefferson)
Both sides of the page were covered with similar quotations from Thomas Paine, Mark Twain and others. In the top, right-hand corner of one side, there was a word I'd never seen before.


I knew enough of Greek from my Bible studies to know that the root word of this was theos meaning "god." A theist was a person who believe in a god or gods. 

I also knew enough to know that the prefix "a" in this word meant "no" or "not" so atheist must mean a person who didn't believe in gods. 

A few years earlier, I'd given up on the idea of the god of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (the same god... just differences in doctrine). But I didn't know there was a word for what I was. 

Suddenly, the bus didn't seem that important. I rushed across Capital Boulevard to the Boise Public Library to see if I could find out more. 

Remember that this was 1981. Christopher Hitchens hadn't published any books yet. Richard Dawkins had only one published book that was about biology (a topic that was of no interest to me at the time). David Silverman was 14. 

Pickings were slim. 

However, one of the quotes on the paper (which I kept for years) was from Mark Twain's "Letters from the Earth." The library had a copy of that which I checked out and kept until it was so much overdue that I got a call. It pained me to return it but I did. 

Fortunately, a friend who owned a small bookstore found a copy later in the spring and I still have that copy.

That silly little piece of paper might have been found by anyone. Maybe it would have just been thrown away. But I found it and it planted a seed that has grown and still lives in me today.

Today, I no longer prevaricate when someone asks me which church I go to. 

I just smile and say, "Me? I don't go to any church. I'm an atheist."

And, thanks to folks like the aforementioned Hitchens, Dawkins and Silverman, I've got the tools to explain that position.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Help! Help! I'm Being Repressed!!

I've been involved in a conversation about an old song that some radio stations are refusing to play because it offends some members of the "#metoo" movement. There are folks on both sides of this argument.

I'm not going to discuss that. It's neither here nor there.

What I'm going to discuss is censorship especially what it is and isn't.

First, some questions:

  1. Is this song readily available if you wish to purchase it or otherwise acquire it?
  2. Has the government issued an official ban on this song?
  3. Are you in danger of arrest or other legal action if you are found with this song in your possession?

If your answers to these questions are yes, no, and no, congratulations! This song isn't being censored.

Now people may choose to engage in a form of self censorship by refusing to listen to any radio station that chooses to play it. That's their right.

A radio station may see that playing this song has cost them a segment of their listening audience and they may decide that this segment is significant enough for them to stop playing the song. Again, that's their right.

Neither of these actions has removed the song from your playlist if you want to keep it there.

Here's the surprising thing: you can say, write, play or perform any work you want (within reason*) However, nobody anywhere is obligated to give you a platform for distribution of that work. That's not censorship. That's an editorial or marketing decision.

You can still go somewhere else to get it.

*Within reason means that you can't publish child pornography or similar exploitative works. Nor can you publish works that incite people to violence although with the advent of certain "news" organizations, that's becoming questionable.