Saturday, February 27, 2010

I Did It!

In an earlier posting, I had mentioned my craving for poutine... the Canadian contribution to cardiac-clogging cuisine. Well, today I satisfied those cravings. For lunch today, I mixed fries, cheese curds and gravy and made my own poutine. For a first attempt, I must say it came out quite well.
I loved it. The rest of the family were - shall we say - slightly less enthusiastic. Too bad for them.
One thing I can say: although plain poutine is delicious by itself, topping it off with bacon bits will cause you to face Ottawa and bow down in reverence to our northern neighbo(u)rs.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Book Review: "The Humans Who Went Extinct"

Pity the poor Neanderthals. Not only did they have the misfortune of going extinct, they did so millennia before they could hire a good public relations firm to polish their image. As a result, to call someone a “Neanderthal” has become an insult… evoking images of knuckle-dragging, stupid, lazy apelike creatures who liked to club each other over the head at the entrances to their filthy unadorned caves.

The narrative in popular culture has been that the Neanderthals were too stupid to survive whereas Homo sapiens, with their advanced intelligence, were able to adapt and prosper.

According to the new book “The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why the Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived” by Clive Finlayson, however, this isn’t necessarily the way it really happened. In fact, argues Finlayson, Neanderthals were much more advanced than we give them credit for and their extinction – and our ancestors’ survival – may be more the result of chance environmental circumstance than to any inherent superiority of modern humans. One surprising bit of evidence is the picture on the book’s cover: a reconstruction – based on the latest skeletal and genetic evidence - of what a Neanderthal boy may have looked like. Instead of the brutish caricature we have become accustomed to, the boy looks remarkably… well… human.

When I went to school, the standard model of human evolution was summed up in the familiar illustration showing a succession of creatures in a straight line, starting with a small monkey-like critter on one end and evolving – neatly and one species at a time - almost inevitably into modern humans at the other end. Finlayson’s book shows that the truth is far more complex and far more difficult to unravel from the fossil, genetic and cultural evidence. Rather than a simple progression from one hominid species to another, human origins are a complex tangled bush with many dead-ends and multiple branches co-existing in time, if not in location.

In fact, one of the amazing speculations in this book is that Homo sapiens, Homo neaderthalensis and a remnant population of Homo erectus may have all been living at times that overlapped.

The author of this book knows his stuff since he was involved in studying one of the final homes of the Neanderthals: a cave on the rock of Gibraltar. By studying the clues left behind in that cave, he has been able to reconstruct details of their life that were previously unknown.

Case in point: anyone (or anything) that has ever tried to catch a rabbit can attest to the fact that doing so is a difficult prospect. When my mentally defective yet lovable maltipoo Lily sees one, for example, she becomes a canine torpedo… but despite her best efforts and numerous close calls she never seems to catch one. In short, if you’re lazy and stupid, you can pretty much forget about adding bunny cacciatore to your cave’s menu. Thing is, an examination of the bones in the cave showed that rabbits made up a majority of them. Neanderthals obviously weren’t as dopey as advertised.

Why, then, did they die out? In his explanation, it’s easy to draw parallels between Finlayson’s work and that of Jered Diamond who argued in “Guns, Germs and Steel” that the cultural and technological differences between human populations on different continents had more to do with geographic chance than with any inherent differences between the abilities of these populations. To put things in an oversimplified form, Neanderthals preferred to hunt by ambush. This method worked best in wooded areas where animals were more usually alone and easier to sneak up on. When the climate changed and these wooded areas were replaced by open grassland, it was to the detriment of the Neanderthals. When you’re in an open plain, it’s kind of difficult to sneak up on a Wooly Mammoth.
Homo sapiens, however, used hunting methods better suited to hunting in these expanding grasslands. Thus they survived and the Neanderthals died out. (Like I said, this is an oversimplified version, but the book discusses things in far better detail.)

I suppose I could write more but – although it appears the Neanderthals weren’t lazy and slothful - I most decidedly am, so I’ll just leave things off here. Suffice to say that this is a fascinating book and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the complex story of human origins.

Not Really a Podcast, but...

Okay, as if I hadn't bogged down both my readers with enough audio links in my previous posting, there's one more site I want to mention: the Presidential Recordings section in the Scripps Library folder in the Miller Center for Public Affairs website.
This is a fascinating collection of secret presidential recordings from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon. (Nixon is the last one - at least as far as we know - who made secret recordings. If you don't know why his successors finally realized secretly taping things probably wasn't such a great idea, you need a refresher course in US history.)
Anyway, these recordings are a fascinating look into not only the processes of presidential power but also into the personalities of the presidents themselves. Roosevelt can be heard trading chatty "off the record" stories with members of the press. Johnson is revealed as a master of arm-twisting and consensus-building (and in LBJ's world, these were often one and the same). One of Johnson's last requests to his secretary was that his recordings be destroyed. Luckily for history and for Johnson's legacy , they were preserved. Although the recordings reveal a more unguarded side of LBJ, they also reveal a more human side. Johnson seems like a genuinely likable man who actually wanted to do the right thing and knew how to get things done. Unfortunately, you can also hear the slow and almost imperceptible descent into the tragic quagmire of Vietnam. I honestly think if it weren't for Vietnam, Johnson would now be regarded as one of our greatest presidents. I think these recordings bear that out.
The Nixon recordings, on the other hand, reveal a president who - quite frankly - was a jerk. Where Johnson tried to build alliances, Nixon's tapes reveal him as paranoid, vengeful, short-tempered and petty. And those aren't even the tapes that deal with Watergate. Nixon doesn't come off well at all.
But those are just my opinions. The cool thing is you can go directly to the website and listen for yourself. If you're a history nerd, you'll love it!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Podcasts I Dig

I have heard of studies in which people were asked what purchases they have made that have made them happiest and are then asked which purchases have cost them the most. The interesting thing is there is usually very little overlap between the two lists.
For me, a recent purchase that has brought me a great deal of pleasure has been a 2GB Sony Walkman MP3 player... purchased dirt cheap since it was a store display model. It has brought me countless hours of enjoyment while doing housework, walking the Maltipoo or just lounging around.
While, like many MP3 listeners, I enjoy my share of music, the majority of my listening time is devoted to podcasts. Not that anyone has asked, but I figured I would share my list of favorite podcasts in case you would like to know why I’m the way I am.

So, in no particular order:

WORLD OF RADIO – While I now listen to this program in podcast form, my experience with it goes back for decades before podcasts were even invented. Having been a dedicated listener to international shortwave broadcasts since the 1970’s, I remember hearing this program, with host Glenn Hauser, since it began airing on shortwave in the 1980’s. Glenn’s take on the world of international broadcasting is clear and detailed. It is by far the best resource for anyone who likes listening to shortwave or other international broadcasting. While his delivery style may make the average golf announcer seem hyperactive in comparison, Hauser delivers the goods in a no-nonsense manner that is a refreshing change from many “style over substance” programs. He does have a wry sense of humor, but you have to listen closely or you might miss it.

FREETHOUGHT RADIO – Sponsored by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, this weekly podcast is derived from a radio program aired locally in the Madison, Wisconsin area and on a few other radio stations throughout the nation (and had previously been on the Air America network before its demise). This podcast deals with state-church separation issues, primarily ones in the United States. They usually interview guest authors and activists who are often fascinating and offer views not usually heard elsewhere. I can’t tell you how many books I have read after hearing their authors interviewed on this program.
This program is a good source of information on current events involving religion, the civil rights of non-believers and the intersection and entanglement of religion with politics.

PLANETARY RADIO – The weekly podcast of the Planetary Society. This podcast provides the latest news about space exploration both current and planned, manned and unmanned. Geeky yet accessible. They feature a weekly space trivia contest on which yours truly once won a Mars T-shirt. How can I not love a show like that? They also offer tips on “What’s Up” in the night sky for the current week. Listen. Then stargaze. Heck… listen WHILE stargazing!

ASTRONOMYCAST – Hosted by Fraser Cane and Dr. Pamela Gay, this podcast is perfect both for the astronomy geek as well as those with a more casual interest in the subject. The latter, though, should be warned that a few listens to this podcast will likely transform you into the former. The hosts of this podcast know their stuff and aren’t afraid to tackle complex subjects in such a way that it becomes understandable to an intelligent layman. (Well… usually. I fear I may have injured something in my brain after hearing an episode on the expansion of the early universe.) Although my interest in the subject matter would make this podcast a “must listen” for me anyway, I must now confess one of my darkest secrets: I find Dr. Gay’s voice incredibly sexy. The fact that she uses its bubbly velvet softness to explain such things as binary stars and multiverses only increases her siren-song irresistibility. Go ahead… call me a sexist male chauvinist pig. I defiantly and shamelessly choose to luxuriate under the warm blanket of her techno-verbage. I’ve written before about how I think nerdy women are totally hot… and Dr. Gay is the alpha nerdess. I willingly submit to her geekdom!
Oh… and even if you are somehow waxen-eared enough to be immune to the charms of Dr. Gay’s dulcet tones, you’ll probably like this podcast anyway. Lots of good astronomy info. It’ll help your brain “get its geek on”! Dig it.

QUIRKS AND QUARKS – Since NPR killed “Sounds Like Science” years ago, this Canadian offering is now probably the best weekly science show in an audio format. On each episode, host Bob McDonald presents several interesting stories from the world of science and technology. This is always cool stuff. There is never a dull story. This program has a way of making things you thought you didn’t care about sound interesting. This is another of those shows that help keep bookstores and libraries in business since many of the people interviewed on the program have written books about their work. Like science itself, you never know what’s going to happen next. One story may be about feathered dinosaurs, the next could be about algae and the next could be about advanced particle physics. If variety is indeed the spice of life, you can think of Quirks and Quarks as the “General Tso’s Chicken” of science podcasts.

SKEPTICS GUIDE TO THE UNIVERSE – AWE! SOME! This show is a geek’s dream come true. It takes media coverage of science news and subjects it to a good dose of critical thinking. It also shamelessly smacks down stupidity in the popular milieu. It’s smart, fast-paced, irreverent and always cool. This is one show that will not only make you smarter, it’ll make you cooler and make your breath minty fresh! Well, okay, maybe not… but it IS a really amazingly groovy show. They have great interviews with guests who are always interesting and informative, the hosts are bubbling over with delicious nerd-cred and their look at the science headlines and regular features such as “Who’s That Noisy” and “Science or Fiction” will give your gray matter a workout. Listen or be condemned to eternal suckage!
(By the way, the SGU has a companion podcast called “5x5” in which the hosts of the SGU discuss a given topic of interest for about 5 minutes. Also very cool.)

SKEPTICALITY – Hosted by Derek & Swoopy, this is one of the pioneering skeptical podcasts. Just to put things in perspective, back in the day, the mainstream media usually presented “both sides” of an issue in the interest of “fairness”. While in the field of political opinions this may have some merit, the media unfortunately thought this template would work when reporting the field of science as well. It doesn’t. Science isn’t about opinion; it’s about methods of determining truth. There generally aren’t “two sides” of an issue in science. You either have the evidence to back up your assertions or you don’t. If, for example, I don’t have evidence to back up my hypothesis and you do, then my opinion ISN’T “equal” to yours. The evidence gives your view more validity. And if I am intellectually honest, I will readily concede that you are right and I am wrong in that case. The process of winnowing truth from bullshit is what skepticism is all about. Derek & Swoopy were one of the first if not THE first to present skeptical ideas in a popular podcast form. Many have followed their lead and many of these successors are great in their own right, but Skepticality still deserves credit and still delivers the goods!

SKEPTOID – A real cool weekly program hosted and researched by Brian Dunning. This program typically examines some sort of mysterious/unexplained phenomenon and uses science, investigation and critical thinking to get to the truth. Very detailed, very thorough and very entertaining. Each episode usually is 10-12 minutes long and this convenient length makes it a good listen for me just before bedtime.

ARE WE ALONE – Although this weekly podcast is produced by the SETI institute, (you know… SETI as in the folks looking for extraterrestrial life) this show is about much more than seeking out little green men.
This program features much more ambitious audio production standards than the typical podcast. Whereas some science podcasts deal with several different stories that are in the news, Are We Alone tends to go with a theme and stick with it for the entire show. These folks seem to have access to great guests who know their stuff. I have a feeling we can expect some great episodes from these folks in the future.

AMERICAN FREETHOUGHT – Two guys from Atlanta discussing current topics in freethought and conducting interviews. Good stuff! I haven’t listened to this podcast as long as I have some others, but what I’ve heard thus far has been well worth the listen.

SECULAR NATION – One guy from Atlanta presenting articles from Secular Nation magazine. This one is sometimes more of an “audio book” than a discussion or interview program, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The articles are always thought-provoking, in-depth examinations of issues of interest to the atheist/freethought community and well worth a listen.

NON-PROPHETS – This one has been a favorite of mine for years. The format is simplicity itself: a group of atheists from the Austin Texas area sit around a microphone and discuss current events from an atheist perspective. Opinionated and informed, this show is at its best when discussing current happenings in the news. Sometimes it can get into some rather philosophical discussions such as the nature of free will and the like which – to me – devolve into an atheist version of the old “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” debate. But when they get going on current topics in the news, they’re great. One thing that makes this podcast interesting is the fact that the hosts don’t always agree on the issues and their sometimes spirited debates can expose listeners to opinions one might not have previously considered. This podcast underscores that atheist opinions are not monolithic and there are a wide range of ideas within the movement. Worth checking out!

RATIONALLY SPEAKING – I can’t say too much about this podcast yet because at the time of this writing it is still brand new, with only a couple episodes having been produced. One promising thing this podcast has going for it is host Massimo Pigliucci, whom I have heard interviewed on other podcasts in the past. Dr. Pigliucci is both a scientist and philosopher which allows him some fascinating insights not only into what the science is, but why it matters and how it may affect us. This one has some real potential!

FOR GOOD REASON – This is another new one. Sort of. Unless it isn’t. Host DJ Grothe used to host the “Point of Inquiry” podcast for the Center for Inquiry. He is now the head honcho of the James Randi Educational Foundation and is doing this podcast… which is kind of like his old podcast but with a different title and different theme music. So it’s new. Or old. Or… whatever. All I care about is it’s good. DJ Grothe has a way of booking great guests though he doesn’t fawningly lob softball questions at them. He asks tough questions that get to the heart of complex issues and that’s what makes this podcast stand out.


For those who don’t yet know about it, is one of the greatest websites out there. In the past, the question was “which five books (or records) would you take with you if you were to be stranded on a desert island?” Nowadays, I suppose the question would be updated to “if you were trapped on a desert island and had to choose only five websites you could access, which sites would they be?” would be a no-brainer choice for me. has a mind-bogglingly immense treasure trove of printed material, scanned books, audio and video offerings of all sorts. Just how much stuff do they have? Let me put it this way, they had some song demos I myself had recorded years ago which I didn’t even have copies of!

I can’t mention without giving a shout-out to Aaron Stengel, who is the supreme overlord and main worker bee of the Flint Underground Music Archive (see the ad/link at the top of this blog). Many of the audio offerings on the FUMA are also available on I’m not a techie-nerd so I don’t know how that all works, but if you’re looking for cool Flint toonz, the Flint Underground Music Archive as well as can get ‘em to ya.

Another of my favorite search items on are the audio compendiums of someone going by the name Norelpref. I have no idea who Norelpref is and, perversely, I have no desire to find out. If I were to learn anything about Norelpref it would be like learning the Tooth Fairy is really your mom or that the Wizard of Oz is just Some-Guy-Behind-a-Curtain. I prefer the blissful ignorance of believing these amazing audio collages will just sort of appear sui generis on the website.
How does one describe the Norelpref compendiums? Well… you can’t, really. Each one is approximately an hour’s worth of sliced-up manipulated audio strangeness that is immensely fascinating if you give it a chance. Let's just say this: imagine having a demon-possessed radio that switched stations at random, recording its output, running that tape through a high-speed blender and then listening to the resultant audio under the influence of mescaline. That just begins to describe this show’s weirdness.
Alternately nightmarish and hilarious. Always compelling. If you want audio art, this is the real deal. Just download one and listen for yourself.

Another cool feature at is a gigabyte-bustingly-huge collection of old time radio shows. I sometimes like to just pick one at random and listen to it. By doing so, I’ve discovered some real gems I may not have otherwise known about. The old series “Vic and Sade” is one example. If I may digress to make a point, I’ve always felt the way to distinguish between a late Baby Boomer and an early Gen X-er was whether or not they thought the TV series “Seinfeld” was great. If they did: Gen-X. If not, like me: Baby Boomer. Those who drone on about the greatness of “Seinfeld” generally make a big deal about how the series was “about nothing”. Well, “Vic and Sade” was doing that back in the 1930’s. And doing it far better, in my opinion. Vic and Sade is a quirky, low-key but strangely compelling series. Sadly, many of the original recordings were destroyed prior to 1940, but luckily the recordings which survive are easily accessible on There are a gazillion other old radio shows to choose from, too, so look around!

One final thought before I complete my rambling for the day: you may have noticed that a number of the podcasts I listen to are from an atheist or freethought perspective. The fact that I myself am an atheist, of course, has a lot to do with that, but despite the fact that many of these programs have been around for years now, with others constantly starting up, their very existence is still a source of fascination to me. Those of you readers who may be decades younger than me may not recall a time when an atheist viewpoint could not be expressed openly in the media without it either being sensationalized or the atheist view being presented as part of a “debate” with a religious person since the presenting entity somehow felt a need to “balance” the atheist’s views with a religious viewpoint. (Of course, the hypocrisy of that view was easily exposed when it was pointed out that when, say, Billy Graham or a Catholic bishop were interviewed, the media outlets never seemed to deem it necessary to book an atheist onto the interview for “equal time” or “balance”.)
The fact that the internet allows open unfiltered expression of atheist viewpoints BY atheists via podcasts is, I think, a major contributing factor in the recent significant increase in the number of Americans openly embracing atheism, especially among younger people.
It’s wonderful that atheists can openly express their opinions and that I am free to blog about it. Yet another reason to love the internet!
Those of you who have grown up with the internet should realize what a wonderful thing it is. Imagine a world where there were only three TV networks and the only easily available up-to-date printed matter was the local newspaper. It wasn’t that long ago, kiddies! Please don’t take it for granted!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Dealing With the Deficit - One Suggestion

I've heard in the news that President Obama has appointed a bipartisan committee to look into reducing the budget deficit. This, I feel, is a crucial task which must be dealt with effectively and decisively if we are to ensure the long-term survival of our national economy. If we continue with high levels of deficit spending, we will need to keep borrowing from other countries (i.e., China) and pay them back with interest. While I make no apologies for the fact I think government spending on projects designed to help people is a good thing, we must bear in mind that if the interest payments continue to grow, that money going toward these ever-increasing interest payments will then be unavailable for other purposes.

Reducing the deficit is simple: in theory. It can be achieved by raising taxes and cutting spending. Thing is, neither of these is popular and neither is the type of thing that will increase a politician's chances of re-election. But the cold fact is the deficit needs to be brought under control in the short term in order for us to achieve the economic stability to achieve longer term goals. Rather than keep borrowing from our grandchildren, (to say nothing of the Chinese) I think we will need to sacrifice now in order to create the conditions in which our grandchildren can utilize government as a means of improving their quality of life.

We will need to come to the realization that hard and unpopular choices will need to be made in dealing with the situation. President Obama has reportedly said that in dealing with the the deficit, "everything will be on the table". That is as it should be. As a progressive-type, cutting spending on programs isn't something I like to think about. But the fact is this situation is so serious that it must be dealt with in a coldly rational, unflinching and adult manner.

I do have one suggestion, though, which I think will be worth considering. It is a compromise which will be painful for both sides of the political spectrum, but will - I feel - be ultimately necessary if we are to achieve fiscal stability. Here's the deal: liberals like myself don't like cutting programs. Conservatives don't like raising taxes. The hard reality of the situation is both will need to happen if we are to get the deficit under control. I therefore propose that for the amount of cuts that are made in government spending, there should be an equivalent amount of tax increases. In other words, for each million dollars that is cut in spending, there should also be a million dollars in tax increases. That way, both sides of the political spectrum will share in the sacrifice. I would hope the budgets cuts and tax increases will be wisely administered (such that the program cuts will not disproportionately affect those who need them the most and that the tax increases will primarily affect those who can most readily afford them) so that the negative effects on the average citizen will be kept to a minimum, but the key, I feel, is that BOTH will need to be done if we are to achieve financial stability.

The teabaggers will hate the tax increases. People like me will hate the cuts in government programs. That's too bad. This is a problem so serious we must all make realistic sacrifices. Only if we control the deficit will we be able to ensure the stable financial foundation we will need for our nation's future.

But BOTH sides will need to give up things important to them. If we do not agree to share the sacrifices brought about by tax increases and budget cuts we will inevitably share in the financial disaster that awaits those who refuse to compromise.

And that's why I am willing to compromise on government spending if the conservatives are willing to compromise on tax increases. But BOTH must happen... and in equal proportions.

It's the least we can do for our grandchildren.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

If It Weren't for Bad Luck...

The kids had Monday off for Presidents' Day. The Sloan Museum had a presentation on "Michigan Birds of Prey". My daughter, being a huge nature fan, wanted to go. Unfortunately, pre-registration was required - a fact I didn't realize until Saturday. It turned out that the Sloan doesn't do registration on the weekends, but we were told that there were still openings available and that if we showed up a half-hour before the presentation, we should be able to attend. So that's what we did... only to find out there were no openings left. Maddie made certain to inform me I was the Worst Dad in the World. That, combined with the skull-bursting headache that had been plaguing me all day just made me feel like I was living in a magical world of sunflowers and cupcakes.

Of course, the way my luck has been going lately, if we HAD been able to get into the Birds of Prey session, this is what likely would have happened:

"Hi, kids! Today's bird presentation is brought to you by CAMP: the Christian Animal Ministry Program! There was a slight typo in the flyer for today's event. Instead of "Birds of Prey" it should have read 'Birds That Pray'! Here's Polly the Parrot to start things off... Hey, Polly... can you tell the boys and girls who loves them?"

"Awwwwk! JESUS! Awwwk!"

"That's right, Polly! Jesus loves us all! Look at the beautiful feathers God created for Polly! Isn't that wonderful? Some evil scientists like Charles Darwin said that God DIDN'T create you, and for that blasphemy, Darwin is now burning in eternal agony in the fires of HELL! We Christians all know that God created you just as you are about 6,000 years ago! Now, let's have Millie the Mynah Bird sing about how... like birds... we should "flock" to church every Sunday!"

Yeah... just my luck...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

NASA's Budget - Part 2

In an earlier post, I decried the fact that Project Constellation and its projected return to the moon had been scrapped in the latest NASA budget. Since writing that initial post, I have heard more details about it. Some space enthusiasts have voiced cautious optimism, pointing out that the updated budget has, in fact, more money allocated to NASA and that among the items being funded is research for a next-generation heavy-lift rocket, which would be a prerequisite to space exploration beyond low Earth orbit.
While that indeed softens some of the blow from the cancellation of Project Constellation, I am troubled by the lack of specifics in the new budget. In fact, many knowledgeable people who have voiced public opinions are lukewarm about it at best. (i.e., when asked if they thought the new direction NASA is taking will be a good thing the answer was almost universally “I hope so.”)
Given the fact that there is no timetable stated for future human space missions or specified objectives for such flights, this new NASA plan seems to me to consist of nothing more than budget lines and pixie dust.
I may, of course, be wrong about this and this change in direction may, in fact, be the harbinger of a new era in space exploration which could turn out to be more efficient than Project Constellation had become.
I hope so.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Credit Where It's Due

Many conservatives are dead set against a national health care plan claiming whenever the government does anything they screw it up.
I got a chance to determine whether that was the case for myself last week as I applied online for Michigan Unemployment Insurance. I found it was quite easy to do: they had an online instructional video that clearly explained the steps and the information you should have handy before applying. This helped the application process itself go smoothly. I applied on Monday and on Wednesday afternoon I had already received a confirmation letter in the mail letting me know what the amount of the payments would be and giving instructions on how to proceed.
I found the process to be efficient, relatively simple and - so far - trouble free.
Maybe government isn't the problem after all! :-)