Friday, July 27, 2007

Close Encounters of the Blurred Kind

NASA is calling "troubling" reports that some astronauts on the space shuttle were allowed to fly while drunk. According to NASA's own report:
Several senior flight surgeons expressed their belief that their medical opinions regarding astronaut fitness for duty, flight safety and mission accomplishment were not valued by leadership other than to validate that all (medical) systems were “go” for on-time mission completion. Instances were described where major crew medical or behavioral problems were identified to astronaut leadership and the medical advice was disregarded. This disregard was described as “demoralizing” to the point where they said they are less likely to report concerns of performance decrement. Crew members raised concerns regarding substandard astronaut task performance which were similarly disregarded.
Troubling? I'll say. Including the cost of the shuttle itself, each launch costs 1.3 billion dollars. That's some pretty expensive equipment to be turning over to people in no shape to operate it. How could NASA flight controllers allow drunken astronauts into space? Forgetting the danger to the shuttle, how are besotted astronauts supposed to carry out their scientific mission?

I guess they realize there is no scientific mission. It's not that NASA doesn't do some good science--it's just that all the good science is done by unmanned space probes and earthbound scientists. The manned mission is a taxpayer-financed corporate welfare system that allows over-testosteroned space jockeys and love-crazed borderline-personalitied Alex Forrests to play Star Trek--and not the Captain Picard Star Trek with the good special effects, but the Captain Kirk Star Trek with the cheesy sets and rubbery-faced aliens. What are we getting for our billions of dollars? According to NASA, we're getting space age golf clubs and new generation toy airplanes. In other words, it just doesn't matter if the shuttle astronauts are drunker than Barney Gumble.

NPR quoted one NASA official as claiming that the agency's oversight functions failed because of NASA's "can-do" spirit. That's right--they couldn't let a little thing like a drunken astronaut stand in the way of colonizing the planets and exploring the asteroid belt. Apparently, the people running the manned space program at NASA are as much a part of the reality-based world as their current boss.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Latest From the Discovery Institute

Apparently someone over at the Discovery Institute has decided to clean up their web page a bit. Click here for a pretty concise summary of their thoughts on a recent talk by P.Z. Meyers of Pharyngula.

Friday, July 20, 2007

No, Really. Let's Go Ahead And Rush to Judgment.

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick has been indicted on federal conspiracy charges related to a dogfighting ring in Virginia. Vick will also likely face state charges. Dogfighting is a heinously inhumane practice (Hipparchia, from whom I stole the picture at left, links to a video report). No person with an ounce of humanity could defend dogfighting with a straight face.

So, the NFL has to disassociate themselves from Vick posthaste, right? Not so fast, according to ESPN columnist Mike Sando. Sando entreats us to let the legal wrangling run its course. The NFL, he says, has to "protect its long-term interests" by allowing Vick simply to sit out, just in case. According to Sando:
...a civil society can't let emotions interfere with due process. No matter how repulsive the charges, no matter how much we love our pets, no matter how bad the indictment makes Vick appear, it's unfair to judge without weighing the evidence.
This is ESPN folks. They've excoriated Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire for alleged steroid use, even though neither of them has been indicted for any crime. Why, then, should Vick be accorded the full protection of "innocent until proven guilty?" The difference is the victim. In the case of Bonds and McGwire, the perceived victim is "the integrity of the sport." In the case of Vick, the victims are just a bunch of dogs. Not nearly as important as 2,474 yards of total offense, right?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

New York Times Reports the Non-Existence of Souls

Perhaps I should have sold my soul before the market tanked. Maybe I could still get something for it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

He Calls His Knife "Hoyle's Jetliner"

A man in Australia stabbed a Scottish tourist, apparently angry over the victim's belief in evolution. Perhaps I'll be a little more polite when arguing with creationists.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Whoops. Our Bad.

The Commonwealth of Virginia this week attempted to right a wrong, and declared Earl Washington, Jr. innocent of a rape and murder that DNA evidence determined that he didn't commit. Even though this evidence was uncovered six years ago--and another man was convicted of the crimes--a special prosecutor in the case insisted for years that Washington was still a suspect. That's right--the prosecutor, James Camblos, would rather see an innocent man convicted than admit that he had erred in the case. (This might have something to do with the fact that Camblos once acted as a defense attorney for the real killer, Kenneth Tinsley). At one point, Washington was only days away from execution for a crime he didn't commit. [NOTE--James Camblos was not the original prosecutor in this case, as is implied by my post. Instead, John Bennett was the trial prosecutor in the Washington case. My apologies. Please see the note from Factchecker in the comments section below for another view on the case, as well as my later post here.]

This guy wasn't so lucky. Cameron Todd Willingham was excecuted in Texas in 2004 for setting a fire that killed his children, when forensics techniques available at the time of his trial would have demonstrated that the fire was not an arson, had anyone paid attention to them. One of the original investigators of the fire said at the time of the execution, "At the time of the Corsicana fire, we were still testifying to things that aren't accurate today. They were true then, but they aren't now." What is true now is that Willingham is dead. Texas Governor Rick Perry was presented with the new information, but decided to go ahead and off Willingham anyway.

Since 1973, at least 120 people have been released from death row after being exonerated. Capital punishment has been demonstrated to be arbitary, racist, expensive, and ineffective as a deterrent. How many innocent persons must fall victim to overzealous prosecutors and publicity-hungry politicians before we finally condemn this barbaric practice?

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Book Review--Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon

In the hottest part of the summer of 1985, the future Mrs. Archaeopteryx and I loaded our camping gear into my ’78 Ford Fairmont (no air conditioning) and drove to the Grand Canyon on a journey that would have made Chevy Chase proud. The trip included a busted alternator, a night spent in the parking lot of the high school in Checotah, Oklahoma, an encounter with a friendly but incompetent police officer, a trip to the auto repair shop at Grand Canyon National Park, and finally a hike to Phantom Ranch in the bottom of the Canyon, where I got in an argument with an snippy ranger named Lorne. The hike to the bottom of the Canyon, a nine-mile walk, took 11 hours. By the time we reached a shade-free series of switchbacks suggestively named “The Devil’s Corkscrew,” temperatures had reached 100 degrees. Like many first-time hikers in the canyon, we didn’t carry enough water or food. By the time we made it to the last part of the hike—two miles or so of thick sand alongside the Colorado River—we were completely exhausted and near heatstroke. We collapsed into a cool creek near the campground, then set up our tent. We slept fitfully in the heat—thanks Lorne—then got up about 4 a.m. to begin the return hike. The hike up the canyon wall took only eight hours. Because we started earlier, we avoided much of the heat, but each step we took came with increased altitude, and as we neared the top, we had to stop every 100 yards or so to catch our breath. We were unprepared for the heat and altitude of the Grand Canyon, and it was a wonder we didn’t have to be evacuated out by the National Park Service.

Last month I accompanied a group of students to the Grand Canyon. While shopping in the bookstore at the North Rim, I happened across a book titled Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon. I flipped through the pages, and was hooked. The book is a discussion of every recorded death that has occurred in and around the Canyon since Americans began visiting in the 1800s. There are lists of every careless slip, every fall from a rubber raft, every heat-assisted heart attack, and every forlorn leap from a mile-high ledge. The book includes chapters on falls, heatstroke, flash floods, rafting accidents, plane crashes, freak accidents, suicide, and murder.

Here is the story of a priest who led two teenaged boys into the crazy heat of the canyon, and fell to his death; one of his charges died of heatstroke, but the second boy miraculously survived. A few pages later is the story of United Flight 718, which strayed a bit from its flight plan so its passengers could have a better view of the canyon; unfortunately, the pilot of TWA Flight 2 had the same idea at the same time. All 128 people aboard both planes died, and it took many days of dangerous canyon-climbing to retrieve their remains. One cocky fellow, admonished by his son to be careful, told him “you have to take some chances in this life,” then stepped into an unsupported snow bank and fell 500 feet to his death. Three members of the first expedition of John Wesley Powell—the one-armed explorer who first mapped the Canyon—split off from the group, and climbed the canyon walls, only to be met and murdered by Mormon settlers.

It becomes clear early into the book that the main killer of visitors to the Grand Canyon is stupidity. This fact was not lost on me as I recalled the hike that my wife and I made 22 years ago. Our story was very much like that of many of the victims recounted in the book—we were stupid, but unlike the folks in the book, we were lucky. Hikers in the canyon underestimate the effects of heat. They wander off maintained trails. They ignore posted signs warning of the vicious currents in the Colorado River. Tourists climb over guardrails, and roughhouse on the edge of a 5,000-foot deep abyss. River rafters fail to properly scout rapids, or ride through whitewater without life vests. The canyon is not forgiving of carelessness.

The authors—Michael Ghiglieri and Thomas Myers—are experienced river runners and hikers who ostensibly use the stories in the book to analyze the fatalities for common threads. They claim to be—and try to be—respectful of those who have died, but occasionally it becomes difficult for them to hide their astonishment at people who skip along retaining walls before plunging to their deaths, or at a fellow who is struck by lightning and survives while a bystander dies, or the unfortunate soul who is crushed by a falling mule. Their analysis is fruitless except to demonstrate that the depth of human stupidity is greater than that of the canyon. The book is generally well-written except for the last chapter, a rant against personal injury lawyers whom the authors apparently think are ruining the Grand Canyon by forcing the Park Service to install guard rails on every rim and trail. This goofy—and baseless—diatribe feels as if it was added at the behest of editors to give the book a purpose beyond rubbernecking, but gawking at disastrous missteps is what this book is about. That, and being glad that my wife and I aren’t in the index.

Just Like the College Where I Work

From the brilliant Toothpaste for Dinner