Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

December 20, 2003

Moss and the media

Randy Moss doesn't talk to reporters. This makes reporters mad. They then write nasty things about Randy Moss. Their chief criticism? That Randy Moss only talks to the media when he wants to, which is seldom. They go on to criticize his play, which is a stretch, since he is the best player in the NFL, but they do so anyway and imply that they wouldn't criticize him so much if he would just answer their questions.

I read an essay by a retired athlete once who wrote that, although he was college educated and had an opinion on many of the issues of the day, he was warned early on that if he opened his mouth he would be labeled "controversial," and the media hound him for the rest of his career. So, the team actually trained him and the rest of his teamates (in a seminar) how to give cliche answers that wouldn't sound too interesting and wouldn't draw attention.

Well, Randy Moss is too proud to go in front of the cameras and repeat stupid cliches. He is an original. He says just what he thinks. And it has gotten him in trouble. So, instead of being in constant trouble, he has just shut his mouth. Makes perfect sense. So much better than attending a training seminar on how to be boring. It makes me respect Moss.

I also respect Hall of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton, who never spoke to the media. Second-hand accounts say he was a complete card and practical joker, a devotee of classical music, a voracious reader, all in all an interesting person. He knew, however, that if that side of him was exposed to the media, they would eat him up. They resented him for it and portrayed him as moody, brooding, silent, difficult.

So, when we see dumb athletes saying dumb things on TV, we should remember that the smart ones are too smart to talk. If they talk, they are too smart to sound smart.

Philosphical implications of astronomy

As I was leaving the planetarium a couple of nights ago, an undergraduate college girl said to her boyfriend, "I don't, like, understand how these guys can study the stars and all that without, like, freakin out philosophically." Her boyfriend grunted. She went on, "I mean like they say 'oh the sun's going to burn out' and 'this star's going to blow up'--I'm like--wait a minute!"

The boyfriend didn't get it. He mumbled something about the sun not burning up for 50 million years, so it really doesn't matter.

The girl is right--I think the study of astronomy must have broad philosophical implications. I don't think the thoughts which result from studying the universe are remotely the same from person to person, but the questions raised are the right ones.

Carl Sagan, for example, used images of the a tiny earth taken from far out in space to illustrate that we better save our little dot in the universe because nobody else will. Some use the evidence of the universe to argue that their must be a divine plan, others use the same evidence to argue that things are just putzing along on their own.

Whatever the results, I find that the debates raised by astronomy are amongst the most interesting philosophical discussions of our time.

There will be a spate of new astronomical information coming down in the next weeks and months. A new space telescope, the Spitzer, just sent back its first images this week. Even those first images have answered some long-posed questions about areas of space which weren't visible before. The telescope has a life-span of five years, so astronomers are lined up for their turn.

In the next three weeks, four separate landing craft are set to land on the surface of Mars. I suspect such landings will make the news, however briefly. The landing craft are attempting to determine the possiblity of there ever having been life on Mars. That question is still very much open, made more open by the discovery of microbes on earth which can survive in conditions previously thought to be inimicable to life.

December 19, 2003

Visit to the Planetarium

Took in two shows at the University of Arizona planetarium last night. The first featured the telescopes on a 14,000 ft peak in Hawaii. The second showed some of the sights that can be seen in the Arizona sky, and explained how best to see them.

As with any hour-long presentation, I get restless when they include a lot of information I consider trivial. However, there are always one or two tidbits to be gleaned from even the most long-winded program.

Some of the tidbits:

•The number of degrees the north star is off the horizon equals your degrees of latitude. So, at the 47th parallel (northern Minnesota), the North Star is 47 degrees off the horizon. In Tucson, the North Star is 33 degrees off the horizon. It is easy to measure the degrees by extending your arm. The distance between the tip of your thumb and the tip of your pinky finger on an open hand is 20 degrees. A fist is roughly 10 degrees. Two fingers is 5 degrees, and so on.

•An observatory at the equator can see the entire sky through the course of a year. An observatory at the north pole only sees one-half of the sky.

•The star which forms the bend in the handle of the Big Dipper is actually a small cluster of stars. You can see two through binoculars, and six through a small telescope.

•The beautiful pictures of nebula that have come from the Hubble telescope are the result of very long photographic exposures--sometimes hours. The light from these nebula is so faint that the naked eye, even when aided by a powerful telescope, can never really discern the colors that show up so vividly in the pictures.

•Scientists remain quite ignorant about the existence of planets orbiting other stars. They can only detect such planets by sensing the vibration of such stars as they respond to the pull of their orbiting planets. Scientists have found 100 such planets orbiting the stars nearest us. The odds from these meager discoveries suggest that there are billions of planets in our galaxy alone. Then consider that they have counted over 150 billion galaxies so far. The mind boggles.

•Venus is bright in the early evening sky right now. In fact, it was so bright two evenings ago that I assumed it was a weather balloon. I learned last night that it is not.

Warming up in Tucson

This is what Arizona is all about--perfect, 80 degree day, still, clear skies. You almost don't know what to do with it. I am fully used to the traffic. When I first arrive here, my country habits make me rankle at every stop light. In fact, my first evening here, I felt road rage as I sat behind a stopped city bus for two or three green lights. I wanted to jump out and tell off the bus driver. Now I just put on some music and think about something else. Before you know it, you're there.

December 18, 2003

Justice in the news...

Seems as though the criminal justice system has been under more scrutiny than usual the past few weeks.

In response to the Dru Sjodin case, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty issued a call for the death penalty in Minnesota. Today, Pawlenty announced that he wants to discipline the doctors who allowed Alfonso Rodriguez, Jr., Sjodin's likely murderer, back on the street. In addition, Republicans in the Minnesota House of Representatives want to lock up level 3 sex offenders for good.

It is easy to score political points by acting tough when the public is inflamed by a sensational murder. Pawlenty's a bright guy, but he is acting a little unhinged with these pronouncements. If he was for the death penalty, he should have been pushing for it before the Sjodin case. There have been gruesome murders before, and there will be more in the future--one's views on the death penalty should not be altered by a single case, however infuriating, for there are broader issues at stake.

The decision to seek punishment for the doctors who let Rodriguez go is unwise. If they are human at all, they are mortified by what happened and feel a terrific sense of responsibility. We don't know the pressure they were under. If they kept a person confined after his sentence was complete, would they have to defend themselves in court later? These are people who are carrying out the law to the best of their ability. Don't discipline them. Instead, take the decision out of their hands by passing a law like the House Republicans propose, if that seems appropriate.

In fact, the governor should call those doctors, thank them for performing their most difficult job, and ask they what they would do to rectify the situation whereby Rodriguez was set free. They probably have some good ideas. Punishing them amounts to piling on. Their daily lives are probably quite difficult right now as it is.

Now we come to Lee Malvo, the seventeen year old who was convicted of murder in the Washington D.C. sniper case. I have a problem locking a kid up and throwing away the key. They older guy? Fine. Put him away. But a seventeen year old? There should be some way of giving him a second chance. You know 40 years of jail won't make him less likely to kill again.

Minnesota has tried something called "resortative justice." It is a system whereby the victims of crimes meet the perpetrators (if the victims are willing) and work out an appropriate solution. This has worked well in cases of vandalism and other minor matters. I think it would work particularly well with juveniles, for that is what is missing in their head...a sense for how their actions affect others.

Now, it might be extreme to do this in the case of Malvo. But it is worth imagining. Could there be a more educational form of punishment than to require him to sit down with the families of those he killed? Look through the photo albums? Meet the children? Then, after a few years of meetings--wouldn't the victims' families be the ones to judge whether he should be allowed back into society? Might this not help them work through their feelings of anger? (Pardon the lapse into Therapese.)

It's worth a thought, anyway.

Astronomical clarifications

I asked astronomer Ron Fevig to look over the account I wrote below of our conversation about the solar system, since no doubt I lost some of it in translation. I will let Ron do the talking:
(1) The largest main-belt asteroid, 1 Ceres, is a little over 900 km in
diameter or almost 600 miles across (not 200 miles).

(2) Long ago it was thought that the asteroid main-belt might have been
the result of a single planet that disintegrated. It is now believed
that numerous "protoplanets", small bodies that never formed one big
body due to Jupiter's influence, occupied the region and through
collisions have been ground down to the asteroids we now see.

(3) Only some of the comets originate in the Oort cloud. Many come from
the Kuiper Belt region just beyond Neptune.

The Oort cloud (sounds like it was discovered by a Dutch astronomer) is the name of the spherical orb of matter which surrounds the solar system far beyond the orbit of Pluto.

Thanks, Ron.

December 17, 2003

Tucson weather update:

Clear, sunny, 79 degrees today in Tucson. The stores had their doors thrown open. Windows down on the cars.

Tucson is my annual time of trying to get my act together. In other words, I try to get in a little better shape and develop better habits. So this afternoon I ran around the block and jumped some rope, and followed that with a very healthy Greek salad.

Now I can barely move. And I am hungry for something substantial.

Something's Gotta Give

Attended the above movie last night. I think it is the first movie I have seen in a theater in four years. It was a sweet, harmless, feel-good movie starring Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton. There was no violence. That is important to me, as I get nightmares when they have blood spattering all over.

Diane and Jack fall in love. That's the basic plot. Jack is an aging philanderer and Diane is an emotionally cold divorcee. They hate each other at first but eventually make each other cry. This means they have gotten in touch with themselves, at which point Jack dumps his harem of bimbos for Diane and Diane dumps Keanu Reeves, twenty years her junior, for Jack.

I think they both blew it, frankly.

The last scene of the movie features a thoroughly domesticated Jack tossing his baby step-granddaughter in the air in a fancy restaurant, after which he surrepetitously gropes Diane as if they were teenagers.

I think this is what they call a chick flick. The tough man is tamed--I would say neutered. The emotionally cold woman discovers she can act like a teenager again, and oh what a relief that is. You don't want to lose the ability to sob and giggle. How refreshing to have your serene post-menopausal world turned upside down by a hairy gorilla with a gut.

The movie ends in a happily-ever-after scene, which is a necessity for a chick flick, but which sort of robs the whole thing of credibility for me. C'mon! It's never that simple.

Fertile's oldest resident dies

Ella Ellegaard died this week at age 107. She lived in her own home up to last spring when she went into Fair Meadow nursing home in Fertile. They threw a birthday bash at Fair Meadow for Ella this fall. Afterwards, she sent a gracious note of thanks in the Fertile Journal, as usual.

Ella kept most of her marbles up to the end, although the last time I was at Fair Meadow she insisted she was 112 years old. I didn't argue. How often to you get people adding five years to their age?

She wore an emergency beeper around her neck the last years she was in her house. She would often bump it by accident, and the paramedics knew enough just to drive by her house--she would wave from the kitchen window if she was okay.

Ella gardened, baked and cooked until she was well over 100 years old. She had a heavy Scandinavian accent, heavier than you usually hear nowadays. In one of her last interviews with the local paper, she bemoaned the fast pace of life these days, saying that even though life might be easier, "it's not all good." She was a local treasure.

December 16, 2003

Talking outer space with a pro

University of Arizona astronomer Ron Fevig is an expert on near-earth asteroids. He also has roots in the Old Country (my father went to daily vacation Bible school at the same church as his mother), which led him to this weblog, which resulted in us having lunch this afternoon.

Naturally, I was full of questions. Ron studies the light which reflects off asteroids in order to discover the chemical composition of the surface of the asteroid. That chemical composition tells a great deal about the history of each particular asteroid.

But Ron had to start with the basics for me. Asteroids are chunks of rock which orbit the sun but are too small to be classified as planets. They range from tiny chunks of rock to one which is 200 miles across. They originate in the "asteroid belt," which lies between Mars and Jupiter. That belt may be a planet which disintegrated in big collision, but researchers aren't sure.

Most of the asteroids stay in that belt. They orbit the sun on roughly the same plane as the planets, and in the same counter-clockwise direction (if you were standing on the north pole of the sun). Where things get complicated is when some of the asteroids get thrown into an unstable, or very eccentric elliptical orbit by the gravitational influence of a planet, such as Jupiter, or by a collision, or by other forces. Such asteroids can actually cross into the earth's orbit and could pose a threat to life on earth if they were to crash into our planet.

So, I asked Ron, is everything in the solar system on a flat plane? All the planets and the asteroids? I had imagined the planets whirling around the sun from all different directions. In fact, Ron said, they are all on roughly the same plane, although the orbit of Pluto (which Ron argues might not really be a planet) is off by 20 degrees. Asteroids, like Pluto, are not so strictly limited to the plane (called the ecliptic). Some of their orbits deviate as much as twenty degrees from the ecliptic as well.

However, comets are a different animal. They come in from way, way out, from a spherical orb of ice chunks which surrounds the entire solar system about 100,000 times as far away from the sun as the distance from the sun to the earth. Some of those chunks are on orbits which take thousands of years to complete--and are at this moment moving at slow speeds, unseen, undiscovered, unlit, out on the edge of solar system, where the sun's gravitational influence is nearly equalled by the influence of the next nearest stars.

Ron showed me a computer he uses to track man-made satellites. I found out that the Hubble telescope, probably the most famous of the 10s of thousands of man-made satellites orbiting the earth, was passing through the Arizona skies just after sunset tonight. It would take all of a few minutes to cross the Arizona sky, so you couldn't blink or you'd miss it.

Ron took me for a tour of the NASA Regional Image Library, where the public is free to view thousands of pictures taken from the earliest NASA missions to the most recent. The curator pulled out a photo album containing some of the photos taken on Apollo XIII. It was eerie to see the pictures of those astronauts, who were exhausted after nearly losing their oxygen supply, displayed in what could have been a family photo album. I plan to return to do some digging.

We went to the lab where Ron is working on a tiny cube which will be sent into space to orbit the earth next fall for the purposes of communication. It is about six inches square, but contains computer chips which will be powered by tiny solar panels. It was sitting on the table, looking much like the innards of a small television. We did not play catch with it.

The research project has rented space on a former Soviet ICBM to send the tiny cube into space. The cost? About $10,000 per pound. That's the going rate for postage into space. The Russians are retooling their old nuclear missiles to take payloads into space--they need the hard currency, after all.

So, a fascinating day. What a pleasure to hear somebody talk about their passion--especially when it is a topic which interests me to no end.

Puffery alert

I just passed by a sign in a window which said: "If this door is locked, please utilize the side door." Utilize. Wouldn't use have worked just as well? Oh well, I am on the campus of a university, where signs become signage. where buildings become facilities, and where teachers become educators.

I suspect the human thirst for significance causes people to use three syllable words when one or two would do. What else could explain people substituting individual for person?? The word individual has a purpose, and it is not as a substitute for the word person. The IRS has it right: individual taxes as opposed to corporate taxes. You only use the word "individual" to contrast a single person to a group. But to say "Saddam is one evil individual" is to attempt to bestow the appearance of intellectuality to a statement which would be better expressed emotionally: "Saddam is a total bastard."

Some use the word facility as a substitute for the word building. This robs us of the use of the word facility for other more descriptive purposes. Facility arises from the word facile, which is roughly synonomous with nimble. "Her facile fingers flew across the keyboard." It is so much more appealing to envision somebody with facility at the keyboard than it is to imagine somebody utilizing a facility.

As for utilize, I can't think of any reason to choose it over use. It is an ugly word.

December 15, 2003

Politics on the web

The internet is full of weblogs like this one, with most of the more popular ones devoted to politics. Because it costs little or nothing to run a weblog, anybody can start one. You don't have to have advertisers, you don't have to have editors, you don't have to have a printing press, and you don't even have to have readers.

Needless to say, the range of opinion expressed on the internet is much wider than what is found in the old-media magazines or television shows. However, that does not necessarily mean that people actually read a wider variety of opinions. For, on the internet today, whatever your interest, or your world view, you will find somebody who shares it. They will lead you to others with the same ideas, and soon you will have a little gang (or a big gang) that scratches each other's back, quotes each other, and congratulates each other on saying the right thing.

And if you, or your group, are the type that thrives on having enemies, the internet will provide plenty of them, too. For example, the right-of-center pro-war webloggers have made great sport out of digging up quotes from loony leftwingers who pull for the USA to get its clocked cleaned in Iraq and everywhere. There are plenty of them, especially at universities. A Howard Dean supporter with no official position in the campaign complains on a campaign message board that Saddam's capture ends any hope of a Democrat taking the White House. Some student at a university somewhere calls George Bush a Nazi. A correspondent admits to feeling sorry for the scruffy, bewildered Saddam.

These quotes are predictable and come from people writing in an unguarded, spontaneous fashion to a group of people they think are sympathetic. They forget that the whole world has access to what you post on the web. I am sure some of these people are puzzled when they suddenly get hundreds of angry emails in response to something they dashed off in a hurry, without thought.

In this week's US News and World Report, columnist John Leo, who is known for pointing out absurdities committed by the politically correct on campuses, digs deep into weblogs on the internet to find his targets--people who have referred to Bush as a Nazi. There are many, most of them academic wing-nuts. They get more notoriety than they deserve when Leo tears them apart in his column in a national magazine.

Many of these people are paper tigers. They have no audience until somebody discovers that they said something stupid. Suddenly, they are deluged with criticism far disproportionate to their position or their influence. Why? Because they are providing an enemy for a group of people who thrives on having enemies.

What is different today? The internet allows a lot more people--many of them naive, some of them stupid--the freedom to make their opinions available to the world. Most of those opinions lie dormant on a server somewhere, and deservedly so. But who knows when one sentence, one phrase, might be discovered because it serves somebody's interest. Suddenly it will be broadcast to the millions--within a few hours after it was plunked out on the keyboard in some dorm room!

December 14, 2003

Changes to website

This website has changed a little--web designer Anne Timpany is whipping things into their final form. The book ordering site is up and ready, and the first book order came in this morning! I will now be posting the weekly newspaper column in a different section, which will be linked to in the left margin. I think Anne and her cohort Ashley have done a great job building this website--the design is theirs, "they" being, a web design company in the Washington D.C. area. I felt it important to bring in a prestigous firm from the nation's capitol to design this website, and I don't regret it. Come to find out, the company's owner, Anne Timpany, is my first cousin! It's a small world...

Beautiful day in Tucson

I just drove downtown to the University neighborhood, and took a long walk (in shorts and t-shirt) through the campus to the library, where I am enjoying high speed internet access. But what a stunning afternoon. Upper 60s. Slight breeze. Deep blue skies. Mountains visible at the end of every street. Palm trees, eucalyptus trees, the elegant gnarled mesquite trees, a couple of trees blooming yellow, pansies blooming in the flower beds, college kids playing catch with baseballs and footballs, all of the red brick buildings set aglow by the setting sun. I report this not to gloat (yeah right), but to say the charm of such weather in the middle of winter never wears off. It is just as fun now as it was the first time I stepped off the train in Tucson eight years ago.

Getting inside the monster's mind

What goes on in the mind of a monster? The two beasts at the forefront of the national consciousness right now are Saddam Hussein, captured last night, and Alfonso Rodriguez, Jr., the suspect in the kidnapping and likely murder of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin.

Saddam’s crimes are on a larger scale, but I suspect the mental workings of a murderous tyrant are the same as those of a psychopathic rapist like Rodriguez. They live by twisted rules. They show no apparent remorse for the suffering they cause.

The two great criminals of the 20th century, Hitler and Stalin, had brilliant minds which where employed to evil ends. I often wonder what we could have learned had Hitler had been captured alive, or if Stalin had been overthrown and tried for deaths of tens of millions.

What can we learn today? Rodriguez isn’t talking, but apparently Saddam Hussein is. I hope that in the course of these trials some insight is gained into the workings of the murderous mind.

There is no way to bring such people a justice commensurate with the crimes committed. A hanging is too quick and easy. In the dark corners of one’s mind, one dreams up methods of retribution that involve medieval forms of torture.

But the temptation of such methods must be resisted in a civilized society. For civility to be triumphant, a society must rise above eye-for-an-eye justice and concentrate instead upon the pragmatic goal of making the world safe.

It is easy to be enraged with the lawyer defending Rodriguez, or with the slow grinding of the justice system even when guilt is so obvious. However, it is that same system that would be our greatest ally if any one of us were ever falsely accused.

We forget that the justice system of the United States was built from the very beginning more to protect the innocent than to punish the guilty. The Founding Fathers were adamant that it would be better for a guilty person to get off than it would be for an innocent person to be punished. I am glad of this, as frustrating it can be to watch the justice system at work in the case of monsters like Rodriguez.

With retribution ruled out, all we can do is put the monster away and learn what we can learn.

I recall in Churchill’s World War II memoirs his tale of a night spent drinking with Stalin at the Kremlin. Churchill knew Stalin was a monster, but he also knew Stalin was essential in the fight to rid the world of Hitler. Since he was in the same room with a monster and knew it, Churchill decided to learn what he could learn. It was his chance, he said later, to interview the devil.

Taking on the role of scholar, Churchill jovially asked Stalin questions such as: which was more difficult, killing millions of peasants in order to communalize agriculture in the Ukraine, or fighting Hitler?”

Oh, Stalin replied, fighting Hitler was nothing compared to killing millions of his own citizens. Stalin had no moral compunctions about killing his own people; he just found the job more difficult than the job of killing Germans.

I admit that I dream of what it would be like to be a mouse in the corner that night in the Kremlin, or to be able to watch Saddam questioned in captivity--my curiosity about these horrible human mutations leads me to think that sudden death for any murderous psychopath is not only too good a fate for them, but would eliminate an invaluable opportunity to study how these brilliantly horrible minds work.