Friday, March 31, 2006

Is There Anybody Out There?

In order to examine the potential for a universal theory of biological evolution, we have to start by establishing two basic conditions: a.) The natural laws governing the universe are mostly constant throughout four-dimensional space-time and b.) Nature is ultimately lazy, meaning that natural processes will follow paths of least resistance whenever possible. These criteria limit the search for alien biology to "life as we know it", but that shouldn't be seen as an overly conservative or unimaginative goal. It simply makes more sense to begin an investigation into extraterrestrial life from familiar territory. After all, would we even be able to recognize life that isn't carbon-based? Or, would such an entity seem to us as nothing more than an incrediblly complex albeit lifeless chemical phenomenon?

Our best bet is to identify extraterrestrial biochemistry that would be recognizable to inhabitants of a carbon-based biosphere on a world with a rich nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere and an abundance of liquid water. Some imaginative thinkers like to speculate about the possibility of silicon-based life and/or a biosphere where liquid ammonia is the primary solvent instead of water, but these conditions are far less probable than carbon-based biochemical systems existing on a watery world. Water exists throughout the universe, even in interstellar space; it's a good bet that, under an acceptable range of conditions, water is abundant enough on extraterrestrial worlds to allow for chemical evolution to take place and eventually give rise to self-replicating molecules such as RNA.

It should be noted that organic chemistry doesn't need to evolve directly in the surface of a planet from a non-organic, carbon-rich solution or "molecular soup" in order to account for the presence of life. It's entirely possible that organic molecules can be delivered to a planet during the late "bombardment phase" of planetary formation. Aromatic hydrocarbons have been identified in proto-planetary nebulae, indicating that chemical evolution need not be restricted to stable planetary surfaces in order to give rise to complex organic compounds. Interstellar water, cometary slush, or water found in nebulae could provide the medium for organic reactions to take place. The abundance of ultraviolet radiation in nebulae and interstellar space would encourage evolving organic reactions by randomly splitting molecules that could then recombine and eventually produce complex organic compounds. Once these compounds have formed within comets or proto-planetary nebulae, they could then be transported to the surface of clement worlds by means of cometary or asteroidal bombardment.

Now that we have one example of how organic compounds could be created and delivered to a planet, some consideration should be given to what might constitute a biologically clement world. Judging by early conditions found on our own planet, worlds with free water and a nascent atmosphere composed primarily of carbon dioxide gas discharged by volcanic vents are likely to give rise to complex biochemical systems over time. The planet in question should be sufficiently massive so that it curves space-time strongly enough (i.e. "has enough gravitational force") for the planet to retain an atmosphere. Also, the planet needs to orbit its parent star somewhere within the "Goldilocks zone"; not too hot (Venus) and not too cold (Mars) for liquid surface water to exist. The mean distance from Earth to the Sun is approximately 9.3*10^6 miles [roughly one Astronomical Unit (AU)], so the planet's orbital radius might correspond to one AU, give or take a few tens of millions of miles. The orbital period, length of a "solar" day, and axial tilt are probably negotiable, however it should be noted that if the planet's axial tilt is too extreme, one side of the planet would be frozen in perpetual night and the other hemisphere would be relentlessly baked by the planet's parent star. So, a safe bet would be that the tilt of the planet should be significantly less than 90 degrees in order for complex, advanced life-forms to exist.

So what the hell does all this have to do with the idea of "evolutionary uniformitarianism"?


First of all, the processes that formed this planet are universal. The formation of the Sun was not an exceptional event; the accretion of the planetary disc into nine major panets, moons, asteroids, comets, etc. followed universal laws; and the chemical composition and physical properties of the solar system are not exceptional. Over 120 extrasolar planets have been identified, so we know that solar systems can and do form elsewhere in the galaxy. There are even indications that stellar planetary systems might very well be the rule and not the exception, thus the potential for Earthlike alien worlds could be rather high. The same fundamental forces that drove the formation of our solar system have been producing solar systems across the universe (thanks, John...) for billions of years.

If fundamental natural forces are producing organic compounds in nebulae throughout the galaxy, then it stands to reason that the fundamental building blocks of all life -- local and extraterrestrial -- might very well be universal. In this sense, life can be seen as an emergent phenomenon throughout the cosmos.

If the same organic chemistry that evolved over time to produce life and eventually intelligence on this planet is widespread throughout the universe, then the biochemical foundation of life is both universal and, by definition, subject to the same rules that govern the evolution of biochemistry on this planet. Granted, other planets will present conditions that differ to a greater or lesser degree than what we find on Earth, but it seems reasonable to assume that biochemistry on clement alien worlds will be relentlessly driven toward greater complexity through natural selection, mutation, etc.

There's abundant evidence for "evolutionary uniformitarianism" right here on Earth. Take, for example, the phenomenon of convergent evolution -- the same structures appear throughout the history of life among organisms that do not share immediate evolutionary ancestors. Sharks and ichthyosaurs share the same basic morphology (a vertical, lunate tail-fin, dorsal fins, "torpedo-shaped" bodies), yet one is a cartilaginous fish and the other is a long-extinct marine reptile. Many cetaceans such as dolphins, orcas, and other toothed whales share the same basic morphological characters seen in icthyosaurs and sharks, albeit with a few notable differences such as horizontal flukes versus vertical tails. That the same environmental pressures have produced such strikingly similar characters in cartilaginous fish, reptiles, and mammals indicates that the basic body plan shared by these three immediately unrelated organisms is the evolutionary ideal for large, active, marine predators.

Consider the multiple evolutionary lineages that led to the development of eyes throughout the animal kingdom. We share no immediate kinship with dragonflies or octopuses, yet we all have binary visual sensory organs that perform the same basic function. Each of these lineages evolved eyes independently of one another, yet even George W. Bush could identify an octopus’s eyes, if we gave him enough time. The point here is that, despite the fact that our eyes are basically unrelated to the eyes of a cephalopod, we can immediately recognize octopus eyes as visual organs that are functionally analogous to our own eyes.

Hemoglobin is yet another example of convergent evolution. Mammals and other animals use hemoglobin to transport oxygen through the bloodstream, yet we also find hemoglobin in legumes, proving that oxygen-transporting metalloproteins have evolved independently of animals. There are numerous examples of convergence in biological entities that seem to indicate a "universal ideal" with respect to evolving biological systems and structures suited for a given purpose.

Considering that conditions on other Earth-like worlds will be nominally similar to conditions found on our own planet and that the same organic chemicals found on Earth probably form the basis for life across the universe, it's not unreasonable to suppose that advanced alien life will not only be recognizable, but might even be eerily similar to life on our own planet due to the fundamental forces that drive biological evolution. These fundamental evolutionary forces -- the influence of environmental pressures and natural selection on complex biochemical systems -- are elegantly expressed through the phenomenon of convergent evolution.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Accidents Will Happen

So, let me get this straight: Donald Wildmon's American Family Association is filing a complaint against FOX because NASCAR driver Martin Truex, Jr. said "shit" on the air.

Evidently, the seven-second delay didn't catch the little "shit" (you'll pardon the weak humor I slipped in there for you) and, as a result, the very moral foundation of these United States has been compromised.

...Or, some cocksucker at FOX screwed up and let a "shit" slip and now, these insane motherfuckers that control the Evangelical Christian right are totally pissed off. Hey, look at the bright side; it could have been a lot worse! At least those lazy cunts over at FOX didn't pan to the fucking bleachers and show some nasty redneck gal flashing her tits!

It's not easy to work the "heavy seven" into one sentence; I made it in two, so there you go. Perhaps it would have been easier to just say "shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits" and let it go at that, but I've always been told that words have more meaning when used in context, hence the profane summary of the issue at hand.


The AFA is filing an on-line petition against the FOX Broadcasting Company for "broadcasting the "s" word during a NASCAR race when millions of families were watching with their children."

Uh, maybe we should pause to unpack this "controversy" and see just how insidious it really is? What say you?

First of all, NASCAR is a sporting event (according to some). What makes sports fun to watch is that fact that they're spontaneous and competitive. Competition appeals not only to the intellectual side of the brain (plays, strategies, good coaching, etc.), but it also satisfies strong emotional needs. You think you get fired up when your team is winning? Think about how the guys on the field/court/track must be feeling! Top o' the fuckin' world!

Well, top o' the world if they're winning, that is...

Losing inspires equally strong emotional responses, ranging from feeling bummed out at work all the next day to going out and starting a soccer riot to going apeshit and burning a few dozen police cars after your team loses the big game. When you get right down to it, sports are civilized proxies for warfare that satisfy a deep, primal, tribal need for different groups of humans to get together and kill each other. Look at soccer if you don't believe me! There's a theory floating around that soccer/rugby first came into being on the battlefields of ancient Europe. Celtic warriors would celebrate a victory by kicking the severed heads of fallen enemy warriors around the battleground. Eventually, this delightful activity evolved into a game with rules, player positions, and so on. Substitute a ball for a human head and bingo! You got'cherself a sport.

Now, anybody who has ever watched a live sporting event knows that the players get a little upset when things aren't going their way. Even milquetoast, whitey-white golfers are known to lose it from time to time. This anger manifests in anything from a player throwing a little tantrum to a player (illegally) throwing piece of equipment to some pituitary homunculus taking a hockey stick and beating the holy shit out of his opponent.

Considering the emotional investment made by athletes during competition, it stands to reason that a frustrated jock can be expected to bark a "fuck!" or a "shit!" now and again. Expressing anger clears the head by allowing players to vent their frustration and disgust so they can get their minds back on the game. There's no way in hell that you've never heard profanities uttered during a live sports broadcast; the censors simply can't be expected monitor what every player is going to spontaneously say during the course of a game. Therefore, you have to expect that a few "shits", "fucks", and "damns" are going to sneak through and be unintentionally broadcast all across the nation. I'm generous enough to make allowances for post-game interviews, seeing as how the humiliation and frustration of defeat will be fresh in the minds of the players while they're walking off the field or cleaning up in the locker room. Of course, the seven-second delay should be adequate to deal with any unexpected outbursts, but one little word is going to sneak through now and again. That's sports; that's life.

Now, the "controversy" here is that some NASCAR guy said "shit" during a live broadcast and the censors didn't catch it. Well, the guy lost the race, so you know he's going to be a wee bit upset, even if NASCAR isn't really a sport. I'm sorry, but hitting the gas, shifting, and turning left is not a sport. It's definitely a competitive activity, but it's not a sport. Period. If driving a car is a sport -- something damn-near all of us can do -- then why isn't cooking a soufflé at a bake-off considered a sport?

Anyway, anyway...

I really don't see how this little episode warrants action on behalf of these hair-trigger moralists in the Evangelical fringe. Look, I could understand if "shit" was written into a script on a TV show and was broadcast without any warning. Some people are really offended by profanity. In some cases, I'm not at all offended by cussin', but that doesn't mean that I think you should be able to say whatever the hell you like on national TV. Freely expressing opinions, theories, beliefs, and emotions should never be compromised, but there are more civilized ways of speaking your mind than falling back on "shits" and "fucks" to emphasize your point. I'm offended by gratuitous usage of nudity and profanity, but not because I think it's "evil" or "perverse"; hell, I like cussin' and titty just as much as the next red-blooded American male. I just think it's cheap and sleazy to write profanity into a script or to show tits n' ass for no reason other than to pump up Nielsen ratings so the networks can satisfy the advertisers who pay to keep this artistically and culturally debased crap on the air.

I understand why religious folks would be offended at scripted profanity and nudity, but blowing a gasket over an accidental slip of the tongue is completely unreasonable. It was an accident, plain and simple. As cheap and sleazy as FOX may be, there's no way that they planned to let Truex say "shit" during a national broadcast. If these Evangelical lunatics are looking for an example of moral depravity, then where's their outrage at Fat Tony Scalia making a "Sicilian gesture" at a reporter as he was leaving church last Sunday? What about Bush's assertion that the Constitution was "just a goddamned piece of paper"?

Riddle me that, Mr. Wildmon.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Nature vs. Nurture

Considering our current administration's seemingly limitless capacity for lying, cheating, and being whiny titty-babies, perhaps we might spare ourselves more grief in the future if we can figure out how to spot a baby conservativ

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Solid Gold Fillings

Uh, it looks as if I've been a bit lax regarding the ol' blog, so here's some filler to tide over the faithful.

All three of you.

Top Twenty of the Week

01.) Teenage Fanclub - "Escher"
02.) Echobelly - "Car Fiction"
03.) The Decemberists - "The Engine Driver"
04.) Cocteau Twins - "Half-Gifts"
05.) Sam & Dave - "Hold On! I'm Coming"
06.) Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - "Helpless"
07.) The Bluetones - "Things Change"
08.) Harry Belafonte - "Jump in the Line"
09.) Led Zeppelin - "White Summer/Black Mountain Side"
10.) Komeda - "Flabbergast"
11.) Frank Black - "Headache"
12.) Gladys Knight & the Pips - "I Heard It Through the Grapevine"
13.) Living Colour - "Type"
14.) Verve - "Life's an Ocean"
15.) Pink Floyd - "Us and Them"
16.) The Police - "When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What's Still Around"
17.) John Lennon - "Nobody Told Me"
18.) Pavement - "Box Elder"
19.) The Smiths - "Ask"
20.) The Kinks - "When I See That Girl of Mine"

I swear, I'll post something substantive sometime soon. Really, I will.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons

Google the Red Planet.

Damien Lives

Opie Satan Warbucks Bush

Pierce Bush -- son of Neil "S&L Scandal" Bush and nephew of our illustrious Chimperor -- chimed in on his uncle's failed DPW scam deal this morning on the Today Show.

Quoth the Hellspawn: "I'm gonna go hit the bed, you know what I'm sayin' Campbell?"

Aw, hellz yeah, dawg! Pierce a mu'fuggin' pimp, yo!

Lookit, Pierce: If you're so interested in lending a hand to your dipshit uncle, then march your little lily-white, richie-rich, prep-school ass down to your local Army recruitment center and sign up to serve your country instead of making an ass of yourself on national television.

This kid totally destroys the myth that "it" (good looks, brains, having a soul, and so on) skips a generation.

You watch: This idiot is going to run for the presidency someday. I guarantee it.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Abandon Ship!

Man, oh man...

What the hell happened to all of that "political capital" we heard so much about? You didn't spend it already, did you George?!

Nearly four out of five Americans, including 70 percent of Republicans, believe civil war will break out in Iraq — the bloody hot spot upon which Bush has staked his presidency. Nearly 70 percent of people say the U.S. is on the wrong track, a 6-point jump since February.

The poll suggests that most Americans wonder whether Bush is up to the job. The survey, conducted Monday through Wednesday of 1,000 people, found that just 37 percent approve of his overall performance. That is the lowest of his presidency.

Bush's job approval among Republicans plummeted from 82 percent in February to 74 percent, a dangerous sign in a midterm election year when parties rely on enthusiasm from their most loyal voters. The biggest losses were among white males.

On issues, Bush's approval rating declined from 39 percent to 36 percent for his handling of domestic affairs and from 47 percent to 43 percent on foreign policy and terrorism. His approval ratings for dealing with the economy and Iraq held steady, but still hovered around 40 percent.

Personally, far fewer Americans consider Bush likable, honest, strong and dependable than they did just after his re-election campaign.

By comparison, Presidents Clinton and Reagan had public approval in the mid 60s at this stage of their second terms in office, while Eisenhower was close to 60 percent, according to Gallup polls. Nixon, who was increasingly tangled up in the Watergate scandal, was in the high 20s in early 1974.

The AP-Ipsos poll, which has a margin of error of 3 percentage points, gives Republicans reason to worry that they may inherit Bush's political woes. Two-thirds of the public disapproves of how the GOP-led Congress is handling its job and a surprising 53 percent of Republicans give Congress poor marks.

"Obviously, it's the winter of our discontent," said Rep. Tom Cole (news, bio, voting record), R-Okla.

By a 47-36 margin, people favor Democrats over Republicans when they are asked who should control Congress.

Bowing to ferocious opposition in Congress, a Dubai-owned company on Thursday abandoned its quest to take over operations at several U.S. ports. Bush had pledged to veto any attempt to block the transaction, pitting him against Republicans in Congress and most voters.

All this has Republican voters like Walter Wright of Fairfax Station, Va., worried for their party.

"We've gotten so carried away I wouldn't be surprised to see the Democrats take it because of discontent," he said. "People vote for change and hope for the best."

So much for Bush's "mandate".

...And no, I'm not talking about Jeff Gannon.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Alien Earthlings

Kiwa hirsuta

"There are fouler things than orcs in the deep places of the world." -- Gandalf the Grey

'Furry lobster' found in Pacific

Marine biologists have discovered a crustacean in the South Pacific that resembles a lobster or crab covered in what looks like silky fur.

Kiwa hirsuta is so distinct from other species that scientists have created a new taxonomic family for it.

A US-led team found the animal last year in waters 2,300m (7,540ft) deep at a site 1,500km (900 miles) south of Easter Island, an expert has claimed.

Details appear in the journal of Paris' National Museum of Natural History.

The animal is white and 15cm (5.9 ins) long, according to Michel Segonzac of the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea (Ifremer).

In what he has described as a "surprising characteristic", the animal's pincers are covered with sinuous, hair-like strands. It seems to reside around some Pacific deep sea hydrothermal vents, which spew out fluids that are toxic to many animals.

Dr Segonzac told the BBC News website that the "hairy" pincers contained lots of filamentous bacteria.

Some scientists think the bacteria detoxify poisonous minerals from the water, allowing K. hirsuta to survive around the vents.

Alternatively, the animal may actually feed on the bacteria that live in the hair-like strands.

But observations of its behaviour suggest it may be a general carnivore. Dr Segonzac said he and his colleagues saw the animal fighting with two crabs over a piece of shrimp.

K. hirsuta is blind; the researchers found it had only "the vestige of a membrane" in place of eyes, the Ifremer researcher said.

The researchers said that while legions of new ocean species are discovered each year, it is quite rare to find one that merits a new family.

The family was named Kiwaida, from Kiwa, the goddess of crustaceans in Polynesian mythology.

The diving expedition was organized by Robert Vrijenhoek of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California.

Life on this planet seems to have an infinite capacity for novelty and variety. If you were to see a furry lobster in a science fiction movie, you wouldn't think twice about it, but seeing one in the news...?! It's almost too ridiculous to accept as a real creature, but there it is, in all its hirsute glory: the Farrah Fawcett of the crustacean set.

"Fictional biology" is bound by our expectations for what constitutes a sufficiently "alien" creature, thus the fantastic animals we see in movies like "Star Wars" and "Lord of the Rings" always have a somewhat ridiculous air about them. After all, they were designed by human beings who, more often than not, don't have a background in or a rigorous understanding of the life sciences. Fictional creatures are typically either chimeras created by crossing familiar animals (elephants, dinosaurs, lizards, etc.) or, if the creatures in question are alien "people", they're designed as exotic reinterpretations of the human form. In order to distinguish these beings from morphologically "boring" schlubs like you and me, these "alien humans" are augmented with biologically improbable nonsense like big, honkin' horns; extra limbs; scales; wings; various cranial adornments (a.k.a. the "Star Trek" nose); an extra set of eyes; ridiculously small or ludicrously huge mouths; big, nasty, pointy teeth; and so on.

Despite all the gaudy embellishments and slaph-dash biological re-engineering imagined by fantasy and science fiction artists, no fictional animal has ever approached the "crazy logic" of creatures shaped by the forces of evolution right here on Earth. So, how do you build a better alien? Let's look to biology for some answers.

The forces that enable life to be established and flourish are fundamental.
One of the guiding principles of astrobiology is to assume that Earth is not exceptional and that other Earth-like planets must be subject to the same geological, chemical, physical, and biological laws. The environmental conditions present on our planet when life (specifically, self-replicating RNA molecules) first appeared around 4.0 billion years ago can be regarded as typical for all Earth-like planets, thus it stands to reason that the evolutionary process on other candidate worlds must be subject to the same basic factors that we find here on Earth. Water, sunlight, and carbon are present in sufficient proportions to allow organic reactions to take place; environmental conditions (temperature, atmospheric composition and density, basic geochemical conditions, gravitational conditions, tectonism) are similar to conditions found on our planet; life-forms analogous to our photosynthetic plants must have appeared before organisms that fuel their metabolic processes via oxygen respiration; and so on. Eventually, evolution and sheer luck (not too many major extinctions, asteroid collisions, ice ages, etc.) could produce recognizably advanced life forms capable of developing technologies, religions, cultures, sciences, political systems, languages, cuisine, art, sports, and fictional universes populated with improbable beings.

Nature is ultimately lazy -- life-forms won't evolve organs, structures, behaviors, or reproductive strategies that aren't essential. Animals as varied as peacocks, stegosaurs, mandrills, anteaters, frilled lizards, sauropods, flying snakes, giraffes, hammerhead sharks, pterosaurs, angelfish, pangolins, sea slugs, dimetrodons, and furry lobsters have evolved in accordance with the "nature is lazy" principle. These creatures display unique and sometimes startling adaptations, but their evolutionary heritage and genetic kinship with more "mundane" creatures is evident in their basic morphology. These creatures have been forged by the evolutionary process and are naturally "customized" to succeed on this planet.

If we are to assume that Earth is not an exceptional life-bearing planet, then it follows that the basic forces driving biological evolution could very well be universal. Of course, each life-bearing planet would have their own unique conditions that would contribute to the evolutionary process, but it is reasonable to hypothesize that some degree of "evolutionary uniformitarianism" exists across the universe.

So, is it not a valid supposition to assume that life on other planets would not only be recognizable, but might even appear somewhat mundane to Earthling observers? Considering that life always tries to follow the path of least resistance, it's not unreasonable to assume that our alien neighbors might be hauntingly familiar to Earthling eyes.

Personally, I can't wait to meet 'em. Of course, they'll probably be little more than microscopic, unicellular doo-dads, but hey -- you gotta start somewhere.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Sound of Leadership


Dyllis Philler

Nothing to report and too much too discuss, so it's top ten time. Gotta keep this damned blog alive somehow, so why not stoke it with filler? Ten plus ten plus ten more, into the breech, over the hills, and far away.

Top Thirty of the Week ~or~ A Lazy Shade of Tuesday

01.) Peter, Paul and Mary - "Too Much of Nothing"
02.) The Spinners - "I'll Be Around"
03.) The Pixies - "Gouge Away"
04.) The Flamingos - "I Only Have Eyes for You"
05.) Dolly Parton - "Jolene"
06.) The Beatles - "Slow Down"
07.) The Meters - "Cissy Strut"
08.) Led Zeppelin - "Gallows Pole"
09.) The White Stripes - "Hello Operator"
10.) The Fugees - "Killing Me Softly"
11.) The Black Keys - "The Breaks"
12.) The Jesus and Mary Chain - "Far Gone and Out"
13.) Pink Floyd - "Lucifer Sam"
14.) The Association - "Never My Love"
15.) The Kinks - "Milk Cow Blues"
16.) The Bar-Kays - "Soulfinger"
17.) Jimmie Rodgers - "Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas)"
18.) Grandpaboy - "Silent Film Star"
19.) The Pogues - "The Broad Majestic Shannon"
20.) Hank Williams - "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)"
21.) Maxwell - "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)"
22.) Loretta Lynn - "Portland Oregon"
23.) Buck Owens and His Buckaroos - "Rollin' in My Sweet Baby's Arms"
24.) The Byrds - "Eight Miles High"
25.) Faces - "You Can Make Me Dance, Sing or Anything"
26.) Buffalo Springfield - "For What It's Worth"
27.) PJ Harvey - "Yuri G"
28.) Prince and the Revolution - "Take Me With U"
29.) James Brown - "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose"
30.) The Rolling Stones - "Tumbling Dice"

Under and out.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Homeland Insecurity

The only thing this ridiculous administration has accomplished, outside of laying the groundwork for a corporatist/crypto-fascist market-state, is the shameless enshrinement
of mediocrity and the endless celebration of wanton incompetence. Sure, one could make the point that our narcissistic, incurious society has been doing the same for years, but now we're not just giving hacks, toilers, and imbeciles record contracts or movie deals; we're placing them in positions of power at the very top of the federal government.

Need proof?

From Yahoo! News:

Guards Fault Homeland Security Protection

By LARRY MARGASAK, Associated Press Writer Mon Mar 6, 9:10 AM ET

WASHINGTON - The agency entrusted with protecting the U.S. homeland is having difficulty safeguarding its own headquarters, say private security guards at the complex.

The guards have taken their concerns to Congress, describing inadequate training, failed security tests and slow or confused reactions to bomb and biological threats.

For instance, when an envelope with suspicious powder was opened last fall at Homeland Security Department headquarters, guards said they watched in amazement as superiors carried it by the office of Secretary Michael Chertoff, took it outside and then shook it outside Chertoff's window without evacuating people nearby.

The scare, caused by white powder that proved to be harmless, "stands as one glaring example" of the agency's security problems, said Derrick Daniels, one of the first guards to respond to the incident.

"I had never previously been given training ... describing how to respond to a possible chemical attack," Daniels told The Associated Press. "I wouldn't feel safe nowhere on this compound as an officer."

I don't feel safe nowhere, neither, Mr. Daniels. Hell, we ain't go nobody what got any brains a-guardin' the Office of Homeland Security!

The brutal irony of this situation is sweet enough to give you cavities and strong enough to knock a buzzard off a shit-wagon from 50 paces.

What's even more troubling than Daniels' unbelievably stupid handling of what could have been anthrax is the fact that he previously worked for Wackenhut Services Inc. -- the Coca Cola of the mercenary biz. WSI was founded back in the late '50s by a former FBI agent and "Tailgunner" Joe
wannabe named George Wackenhut.

Daniels was employed until last fall by Wackenhut Services Inc., the private security firm that guards Homeland's headquarters in a residential area of Washington. The company has been criticized previously for its work at nuclear facilities and transporting nuclear weapons.

Homeland Security officials say they have little control over Wackenhut's training of guards but plan to improve that with a new contract. The company defends its performance, saying the suspicious powder incident was overblown because the mail had already been irradiated.

Two senators who fielded complaints from several Wackenhut employees are asking Homeland's internal watchdog, the inspector general, to investigate.

"If the allegations brought forward by the whistleblowers are correct, they represent both a security threat and a waste of taxpayer dollars," Democratic Sens. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Ron Wyden of Oregon wrote. "It would be ironic, to say the least, if DHS were unable to secure its own headquarters."

Daniels left Wackenhut and now works security for another company at another federal building. He is among 14 current and former Wackenhut employees — mostly guards — who were interviewed by The Associated Press or submitted written statements to Congress that were obtained by AP.

The pro-privatization/anti-government right-wing corporatist ideology argues that public institutions (schools, police forces, fire departments, etc.) need to be privatized so that market pressures can be brought to bear on these institutions in order to increase their efficiency and quality of service. Sounds good on paper, but in practice...? Well, let's just say that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

A litany of problems were listed by the guards, whose pay ranges from $15.60 to $23 an hour based on their position and level of security clearance. Among their examples of lax security:

_They have no training in responding to attacks with weapons of mass destruction;

_Chemical-sniffing dogs have been replaced with ineffective equipment that falsely indicates the presence of explosives.

_Vehicle entrances to Homeland Security's complex are lightly guarded;

_Guards with radios have trouble hearing each other, or have no radios, no batons and no pepper spray, leaving them with few options beyond lethal force with their handguns.

Wackenhut President Dave Foley disputed the allegations, saying officers have a minimum of one year's security experience, proper security clearances and training in vehicle screening, identification of personnel, handling of suspicious items and emergency response.

"In short, we believe our security personnel have been properly trained, have responded correctly to the various incidents that have occurred ... and that this facility is secure," he said. He declined, however, to address any of the current or former employees who have become whistleblowers.

Of course, if US government employees were charged with providing security, they could be held accountable by the public for failing in their duties. How could a privatized security firm hold their employees accountable in a meaningful way? Dock their Christmas bonuses? Fire 'em? Getting shit-canned stinks, but it doesn't hold a candle to standing trial before the American public.

So, does privatization of public services increase efficiency and quality of service?


Wackenhut is no stranger to criticism.

Over the last two years, the Energy Department inspector general concluded that Wackenhut guards had thwarted simulated terrorist attacks at a nuclear lab only after they were tipped off to the test; and that guards also had improperly handled the transport of nuclear and conventional weapons.

Homeland Security is based at a gated, former Navy campus in a college neighborhood — several miles from the heavily trafficked streets that house the FBI, Capitol, Treasury Department and White House.

Homeland Security spokesman Brian Doyle said Wackenhut guards are still operating under a contract signed with the Navy, and the agency has little control over their training. A soon-to-be-implemented replacement contract will impose new requirements on security guards, he said.

Daniels, the former guard who responded to the white powder incident, said the area where the powder was found wasn't evacuated for more than an hour. Available biohazard face shields went unused.

Doyle said the concerns were overblown because all mail going to the Homeland Security complex is irradiated to kill anthrax. He said "the incident was resolved before anything was moved."

Daniels said that after the envelope was taken outside, and the order finally given to evacuate the potentially infected area, employees had already gone to lunch and had to be rounded up and quarantined.

Former guard Bryan Adams recognized his inadequate training one day last August, when an employee reported a suspicious bag in the parking lot.

"I didn't have a clue about what to do," he said.

Adams said he closed the vehicle checkpoint with a cone, walked over to the bag and called superiors. Nobody cordoned off the area. Eventually, someone called a federal bomb squad, which arrived more than an hour after the discovery.

"If the bag had, in fact, contained the explosive device that was anticipated, the bomb could have detonated several times over in the hour that the bag sat there," Adams said.

The bag, it turned out, contained gym clothes.

Doyle, the Homeland spokesman, responded to several allegations raised by the guards. He said dogs were replaced because, "If you overuse them, their effectiveness drops." The detection equipment that substitutes for the dogs is a better method for detecting explosives, he said.

Guards who used the equipment said it was no match for the reliability of the dogs.

The Associated Press videotaped two vehicle entrances at Homeland headquarters with light security.

One is guarded only during morning and evening rush hours. Movable metal barriers and an unmanned security vehicle only partially blocked the driveway, leaving enough room for a small car or motorcycle to drive through.

Another entrance was guarded with a manned vehicle with two guards, but no other barriers.

Doyle said the vehicle entrances were adequate because in all cases, a 10-foot fence topped with barbed wire separates vehicles from all buildings.

Some guards who continue to work at Homeland, who would speak only on condition of anonymity because of fear of losing their jobs, said they knew of two instances in which individuals without identification got into the sensitive complex.

Another described how guards flunked a test by the
Secret Service, which sent vehicles into the compound with dummy government identification tags hanging from inside mirrors. Guards cleared such vehicles through on two occasions, this guard said, and one officer even copied down the false information without realizing it was supposed to match information on the employee's government badge.

Doyle, the agency spokesman, said such tests are conducted routinely and "I can assure you that if people fail the test they are let go."

Marixa Farrar, a former guard, said two guards always should have been stationed inside the main building where Chertoff had his office, but she often was on duty alone.

One day last fall a fire alarm rang. As employees walked by Farrar, they asked if this was a fire or a test.

"There were no radios, so I couldn't figure out if it was a serious alarm," she said.

There was no fire.

Would you want your local, privatized (i.e. "for-profit") fire or police department to be this incompetent? No, you wouldn't. This privatization nonsense doesn't have a damn thing to do with improving efficiency or quality of service. It's just another sleazy money-making scheme cooked up by a bunch of avaricious Republican shysters and former CEOs-turned-politicians.

Privatization is snake oil; nothing more. You're being suckered, America.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Where's Leni Riefenstahl When They Need Her?

The following article was taken from Hughes for America. He pretty much hits the nail on the head regarding the right-wing nonsense about how Hollywood is out of touch with middle America.


Movies and Middle America

It's a fairly common right-wing claim: Hollywood is out of touch with Middle America. Hosts and pundits typically trot it out each awards season, fueling the Republican base's notion of a liberal elite that, in their eyes, doesn't care about the average American.

People like movie critic and Republican radio personality Michael Medved, for instance, have made a nice career out of using their highly funded, big-city-housed positions to speak for the common man. Their thinly veiled opinions mask homophobia, anti-Semitism and jealousy.

Misguided in their notion of how Hollywood actually works and what art actually is, they appeal to the lowest common denominator to great success. They champion a return to a style of art that, to say the least, has roots in movements they'd rather you not know about. What's more, they're just wrong.

The thesis of last night's discussion on "Scarborough Country" can be found in a quote from guest host Michael Smerconish. The host, when asked what he meant when he discussed the "disastrous year for Tinseltown," said, "I mean that movies that are a bunch of losers that nobody goes to see are about to win all the awards." He later added, "Michael, these are movies that I don't even want arriving at my house in the sealed Netflix envelope, you know, lest the postman knows I'd be watching them, for goodness sakes."

This line of thinking can be found in this exchange between Smerconish and Time's Belinda Luscombe, who perfectly rebuts the host's right-wing talking points:

SMERCONISH: Hey, Belinda, let me get you in on the action here and ask you a question. What about my movies? You know, what about "The 40-Year-Old Virgin"? What about "Wedding Crashers"? What about some of the greats like "Caddyshack," and "Animal House," and "Slapshot"? Why are they never represented?

LUSCOMBE: Oh, they're represented, all right. What you're asking here basically is: Why don't sort of food critics go and eat at McDonald's? There's different types of food for different people.

You know, what is it about the Academy that is surprising you here? Even the word Academy - these are filmmakers. They're at the top of their game. They want to honor the films that are good films.

Look, I like the movies Smerconish mentions. I pay to see them. I have a good time. I laugh my ass off. But I know their place. So does Luscombe. The Academy Awards, accordingly, aren't the place for Best Picture That Appealed to the Widest Audience and Starred Will Ferrell and/or Vince Vaughn. They're the place for Best Picture. The year's best movie, as chosen by filmmakers, not Joe Sixpack. It seems what Smerconish is suggesting is that the Nobel Prize should go to the next bozo that lights his farts on fire.

But Medved, another "Scarborough Country" guest Thursday, wasn't far behind Smerconish, arguing "there were populist films that were critically acclaimed that could easily have been nominated." Films like "Walk the Line" and "Cinderella Man," a movie Medved said was "pro-faith, pro-family and that connected with mainstream Americans in a way that the nominated films don't." There, in that statement, is the hypocrisy inherent in the right-wing argument. Critically acclaimed films that offer viewpoints similar to Medved's: Good. Critically acclaimed films that offer viewpoints different from Medved's: Bad. The only agenda he wants Hollywood to pursue, therefore, is his. And I thought we put the Hays Code behind us a long time ago.

The mistake people like Smerconish and Medved make is blaming select movies - the critical successes with themes running counter to their conservative mindset - for Hollywood's dwindling box-office results. In other words, they're blaming the working parts of the machine for a failure caused by an overabundance of faulty parts. It's a classic right-wing shell game.

People aren't going to the movies because of films like "Brokeback Mountain," "Syriana," "Good Night, and Good Luck. " and "Capote". They're not going because the rest of the movies - from big-budget blockbusters to comedies to thrillers - are flat-out terrible. They're bland, they lack good stories, they're nothing more than excuses to try the latest special effects.

Looking past the Stalinist and Nazi heritage at the base of the right-wing argument, you'll find a more modern conceit: The average is better than the special. That notion is the converse, of course, of the anti-elitist argument the right loves to use. And it can be found everywhere, from reality television to the music industry to the White House.

As I wrote before, "In the last 25 years, America has drifted from a nation of experts to a nation of amateurs. We've gone from the best and the brightest to the so-so and the mediocre. We've traded our admiration for intelligence for a love of the lowest common denominator. And it should stop as soon as possible, or else our once-great nation's slide toward irrelevance will proceed unabated."

I don't watch the Food Network to see people like me cooking. I watch to see experts making great food. I don't listen to music to hear what an "American Idol" winner has to offer. I listen to hear good acts making good music, now a rarity. I don't watch television to see what I could see if I walked into the apartments across the street. I watch to see talented actors acting in well-written, thought-provoking shows.

But those are the more trivial examples of this maddening trend. The best example resides in the White House. Supporters of President Bush argue that he's a man of the people, that he says what he means and means what he says, that they'd like to have a beer with him. Nevermind the fact that Bush came from a privileged background, that what he says borders on incoherent and that he's a dry drunk who probably shouldn't be within arm's length of a bottle of booze.

I find it distressing that, during recent presidential campaigns, more emphasis has been placed on pancake flipping, hunting and football throwing than on whether or not the candidate has a brain in his head. Sure, some people like that Bush is just like them, but I don't. I'd prefer someone who knows how to respond to a disaster or who has more than an elementary knowledge of foreign policy. The president is our leader. Not our wingman.

That desire to champion the average is exactly what's wrong with America. And it's what's wrong with the right-wing critique of Hollywood as well. At a time when we should be demanding more, some are demanding less. Be it movies or be it politics. And the less we demand of others - and ourselves - the more we sink into the quicksand.

"Why doesn't Hollywood get the message?" Smerconish said Thursday. It would make sense to ask him the same question.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Scene Not Herd

In accordance with the death of February (my calendar proxy for relationships: cold and short) and the upcoming vernal equinox, my musical diet has begin the annual shift from winter music (ambient; metal; sad-sack, lonely-hearts, drinking classics) to spring-tastic goodness (shoegaze, the Beatles, British Invaders
, pop). So, to mark the occasion, I present my Top Ten of the Week: Sprink Editchion.

01.) The Boo Radleys - "Does This Hurt?"
02.) My Bloody Valentine - "Off Your Face"
03.) Lush - "De-Luxe"
04.) Cocteau Twins - "Carolyn's Fingers"
05.) Medicine - "Fried Awake"
06.) Kitchens of Distinction - "What Happens Now?"
07.) Curve - "No Escape from Heaven"
08.) Ride - "Seagull"
09.) Chapterhouse - "Pearl"
10.) Spiritualized - "Run"

Damn, I miss shoegaze...

It's been nigh on fifteen years since the salad days of the early '90s shoegaze boom and I'm still waiting for something better to come along. Y'all can keep your homely, rattrap, indie-rock nonsense; I'll take big, beautiful, shimmering, guitar-pop supernovae, thanks. You can have all the Chan Marshalls and all the Steven Malkmuses in the world; just give me Liz Fraser and Kevin Shields and I'm a happy camper.

We're still waiting, Mr. Shields...