New Horizons for Pluto

Pluto and CharonThere is exciting Pluto news. Joseph Stromberg over at Vox reported, NASA’s New Horizons Probe Is Visiting Pluto — and Just Sent Back Its First Color Photos. New Horizons left Earth in 2006 and will come within one Earth diameter to Pluto on 14 July. This is very cool, because we really know almost nothing about this bit of solar system debris that many people like to call a planet. In fact, that image on the left is the best picture we’ve ever taken of the little bugger and its biggest moon, Charon. But over the next three months, the images are going to get better and better.

I’ve long been of the opinion that we make far too big a deal of Pluto. When I used to teach astronomy, I would compare it to asteroids and show that there was really nothing that distinguished it from asteroids. But now it just seems to be a notable object in the Kuiper belt — although not even the most massive of the ones we know about. As I said: solar system debris. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t cool. I now find the little stuff orbiting the sun to be the most interesting part of astronomy. It really does allow us to look way back in time.

Of course, the bigger of space debris are less interesting. Anything large enough to become spherical — Eris, 2060 Chiron, 1 Ceres — have their own internal environments. In fact, it is speculated that Pluto might have volcanic activity. I’m sure that (as is usual for these things) there will be complete surprises. As I said, we know so little about this dwarf planet that it could hardly be otherwise. But over the past forty years of unmanned space exploration, we’ve really had to change how we look at the solar system. It is not as we once thought. But that’s even true of the Earth itself.

In addition to imaging devices, New Horizons has other equipment. In particular, the probe will be looking at the gases escaping from the surface of Pluto. The planet is ridiculously cold: between 33 K and 55 K. Even at that upper temperature, nitrogen is a solid. But small amounts of it sublimates to create an incredibly thin atmosphere (roughly one-half-millionth of the Earth’s surface pressure). This atmosphere also contains methane and carbon monoxide. Methane has long been thought to be a marker of life, but we’ve found so much of it in the solar system, I’m not sure what that means anymore. Regardless, it would be hard to imagine life on Pluto, but I wouldn’t rule anything out. Regardless, we should know a lot more in the coming months.

After it flies by Pluto, New Horizons is going to continue on further out into the Kuiper belt. The investigators have not settled on which object they are going to head toward. But this is a very exciting time. In fact, this is certainly the best time yet for astronomy. The advances in our knowledge brought on by terrestrial telescopes really don’t compare to what we are learning today. And it just gets all the more amazing. We know so much more today than we knew just twenty years ago when I was teaching this stuff. Stay tuned!

The Loving Christian Take on Hillary Clinton

Don FederThink Evita after Botox treatments. Think Madame Defarge on a bad hair day. Think Lady Macbeth with serious issues (“Out, out, damned bimbo!”).

To listen to the babbling heads, you’d think the Goldwater girl-turned-Alinsky-disciple could start preparing her acceptance speech (maybe Eleanor Roosevelt will help her write it). “Ooh, she’ll raise so much money.” “Ooh, women want a woman president.” In the immortal words of General Anthony McAuliffe: “Nuts!”

Win the White House? Hillary couldn’t win a popularity contest if she was the only contestant.

The Hideousness Factor — Lyndon Baines Johnson was the last profoundly ugly candidate to be elected president, and he was a legacy of the martyred JFK. Voters don’t want a leader who looks frazzled or frumpy. We’re told that Lincoln was too homely to be elected president in an age of television and paparazzi. But Lincoln’s homely face had a dignity, a gravitas. If nothing else, we want a face that reassures us, not one that scares us, a la Night of the Living Alinskyites.

—Don Feder, World Congress of Families Communications Director
Quoted in Another White Knight

Is Paul Krugman the Thumb of Bad Economics?

Paul KrugmanThis is funny. Moisés Naím over at The Atlantic wrote, Economists Still Think Economics Is the Best. It is about a new paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (JEP), The Superiority of Economists. It seems that economists think very highly of themselves. They think they are the most “scientific” of the social sciences and they tend not to reference other social sciences in their academic work. Even worse, the disciplines that they do tend to align closely with are really not good: finance and business.

None of this should come as a surprise. Dean Baker has spent the last two decades pointing out what gas bags economists are. That’s one of the reasons he’s my favorite economist. But in the Naím article, the picture that went along with it was a smiling Paul Krugman. He was not pleased and responded with a brief post, I Am Not a Generic Economist. He pointed out that he had written favorably about the JEP paper, “I guess I hope that these things are outliers. But if you feel cynical about economics after reading Fourcade, you may be right.” He asked, “So how, exactly, do I become the face of bad economics here?”

Here is the Face of Bad Economics:

Face of Bad Economics: Paul Krugman

Well, I guess someone noticed that Krugman was a bit angry. Or maybe they noticed that Krugman is not even mentioned in the article. So today, they changed the image in a way that will doubtless please the Nobel Prize winning economist. Now the article not only doesn’t have his face — it doesn’t have anyone’s face. Now it has thumbs:

The Thumbs of Bad Economics

That looks like an image taken at the stock exchange. But could one of those thumbs be Paul Krugman’s? We’ll probably never know. I doubt he cares if The Atlantic wants to make him the thumb of bad economics.

Original image taken from

Miscegenation Laws and Wedding Cakes

Ross DouthatGod’s older brother, Ross Douthat, was at The New York Times last week to explain why it is that laws against same sex marriage aren’t the same as miscegenation laws of the past. And the reason is, “This isn’t a structural system of oppression, a society-wide conspiracy like Jim Crow; we’re talking about a handful of shops across the country.” As you may be aware, Douthat has given up the culture war and just wants to be allowed to sit in his room praying and cursing the godless sinners who will burn in hell. Oh wait! He already has that right. He wants to be able to talk about this stuff in public and still get invited to Ezra Klein’s parties.

But I have to say, I really don’t understand Douthat’s reasoning here. He’s saying that discrimination should be allowed because not that many people would actually discriminate. Since the question is no longer whether same sex couples should be able to marry but rather whether bigot bakers should be able to refuse to put two male figures on the top of a wedding cake, the state has no right to interfere. But let’s suppose that a same sex couple lives in a small town where there is only one baker and she hates her some homos. To this couple, it doesn’t matter that there are thousands of bakers elsewhere who have no problem with same sex marriage.

Let’s think back to the miscegenation laws. It didn’t matter in 1966 that a mixed race couple in Mississippi could marry in New York. In fact, in 1966, mixed racial couples could marry in 33 states. By Douthat’s logic, Loving v Virginia — that case that found miscegenation laws unconstitutional — was not necessary. What’s more, we could get rid of the public accommodations clause in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, since at this point there wouldn’t be that many hotels that would discriminate.

But is this all just about a “handful of shops across the country”? Is it really true that this isn’t part of a “society-wide conspiracy like Jim Crow”? Well, it is certainly the case that the states that are now doing everything they can to oppress the LGBT community are the same ones that were enforcing miscegenation laws. Check out the interactive map of miscegenation laws. Through 1964, Indiana still enforced these laws. And the entire south enforced them until Loving in 1967. What’s more, members of the LGBT community are murdered at an alarming rate. In 2011, 30 were murdered. Being gay is not just a matter of being refused wedding cakes.

Jim Naureckas at FAIR provided a good overview of LGBT oppression in this country, A Non-Conspiracy of Douthat’s. To Douthat’s contention that there is not a “structural system of oppression,” he responded:

In 29 states, it is legal to fire, refuse to promote or harass someone on the job because of their sexual orientation. The same states allow landlords to refuse to rent to gay or lesbian tenants.

Fourteen states still have amendments in effect in their constitutions that deny their citizens the basic civil right of marriage on the basis of orientation.

Douthat is a smart guy. But reading him over the past couple of years has been very much like reading racist apologists from the 1960s. It starts with claims that the common good is to deprive rights. Then it shifts to claims that it is all just a matter of opinion and sincere people should be allowed to differ. I don’t think that Douthat will ever evolve past this point. As with the bigots of the past, he will just be passed by. But he’ll never lose his post at The New York Times because there aren’t many social conservatives who can communicate in full sentences.

Morning Music: Bessie Smith

St Louis BluesSince it is Bessie Smith’s birthday today, I figured we would listen to her do her hit “St Louis Blues,” written by blues legend W C Handy. For these Morning Music posts, I like to do live performances — and certainly avoid videos that simply include a single image. The problem with Smith is that she was only ever in one film, St Louis Blues — based on the song and produced by Handy himself.

The plot involves Smith catching her boyfriend (tap dancer Jimmy Mordecai) with another woman. Smith beats up the woman and then begs the boyfriend to stay. He leaves and Smith goes to a speakeasy to drown her sorrows. There she sings “St Louis Blues.” Afterward, her boyfriend comes back and they apparently reunite. But as they dance, he steals all her money and leaves. The film ends with Smith again at the bar sad and alone.

I remember once hearing Holly Near saying that she had never liked the blues, but eventually learned that it wasn’t the music she didn’t like. She didn’t like the tradition of “beat me, abuse me, I still love you” songs. That is definitely the nature of this movie, although not so much the song itself. I’ve set the video to start at the song because I don’t think the rest of it is all that interesting:

Anniversary Post: Teapot Dome Scandal

Albert FallOn this day in 1922, the Senate investigation of the Teapot Dome scandal started. I probably wouldn’t even bring it up, except for the fact that two years ago, 74% of Republicans polled said that the Benghazi “scandal” was worse than the Teapot Dome scandal. I’m pretty sure that almost none of those Republicans even knew what the Teapot Dome scandal was. And really, how could it ever be worse? There was no television at that time and thus no talking points to get wrong. Remember: the Benghazi “scandal” had nothing to do with the attack itself; it was all about what Susan Rice said on the Sunday morning political talk shows. That is the extent of Republican thinking on such matters. (It was only later that things were added as it became obvious that the Republicans were just scandal mongering and didn’t actually care about the attack.)

The scandal itself is nothing that special. Teapot Dome in Wyoming was one of several oil reserves held by the US Navy. When Warren Harding became president, he issued an executive order transferring control to the Department of the Interior. Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, leased the oil rights to a couple of different oil companies for great prices. There was no bidding — it was typical corruption. What is interesting is that this was not illegal.

What was illegal was that the oil companies gave Fall a few million dollars (in today’s currency). He was eventually jailed for a year. Interestingly, however, the man he was convicted of getting a bribe from, Edward Doheny, was found not guilty of bribing a public official. Sort of typical American justice, if you ask me.

What I think is very interesting in this case is that this 1922 act of public corruption is still the only thing that Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts thinks constitutes bribery. And of course, this isn’t how it works at all today. In general, these oil tycoons wouldn’t have to write checks to politicians; they would just write checks to super PACs who support the politicians. So John Roberts and the other crooks on the Supreme Court have simply defined corruption out of existence.

So there will be no more Teapot Dome scandals. We’ve sold honest government away so we can have anti-choice justices on the Supreme Court. Until they’re born, American humans will be the best protected in the world. After they are born, who cares? Certainly not the Supreme Court. Certainly not our politicians. Certainly not most of the American people. But at least the Teapot Dome scandal makes a good polling question. Is the Iran deal worse than the Teapot Dome scandal? I don’t know for sure, but I’ll bet 74% of Republicans would say yes.

Happy anniversary Teapot Dome scandal!