Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Candidates' Debate

For a fine concise overview of last night's GOP presidential candidates' debate check out Michael Barone's piece at The Washington Examiner. He evaluates not only the candidates' performance but also that of the moderators, particularly Brian Williams, who sounded as though his questions were written for him by the Obama campaign.

Some of the folks at MSNBC that I've heard today seem to have been scandalized by Rick Perry referring to Social Security as a Ponzi scheme, but I have yet to hear anyone explain why he's wrong. The only criticism I've heard anyone make that addressed the appropriateness of his characterization was by someone on the radio who pointed out that it's actually worse than a Ponzi scheme for three reasons:

  • In a Ponzi scheme participation is voluntary, in SS it's mandatory.
  • In a Ponzi scheme when the money runs out the scheme collapses, in SS the government just raises your taxes.
  • In a Ponzi scheme all investor contributions go to providing benefits for other investors, whereas in SS contributions go to support a massive bureaucracy and for other governmental expenses.
Anyway, despite the two moderators' attempts to trivialize the debate and to shield Mr. Obama from criticism, it was clear that everyone on that stage is more qualified to serve as president than was candidate Obama.

Banned Books Week

Students of karate hone their skills by performing a ritual series of moves, a kind of dance called a kata, against an imaginary opponent. It's like fighting someone who's not really there. Somewhat amusingly, political liberals also have katas during the performance of which they fight against opponents who don't really exist. One of these phantom fights will be conducted at the end of this month. It goes under the name of Banned Books Week, an annual ritual celebrated every September since 1982.

Jonah Goldberg describes the exercise at
It's an exciting time. There are going to be special readings of "banned books" not merely in bookstores (where the banned books will, tellingly, be for sale) but online as well. This year, explains, "readers will be able to proclaim the virtues of their favorite banned books by posting videos of themselves reading excerpts to a dedicated YouTube channel." It's all so very brave and subversive!

Already, news outlets are dusting off familiar stories about the scary climate of censorship in the land. Indeed, it's a staple of nearly every major newspaper to at least let the American Library Association air its dire warnings about the growing threat to the freedom to read. Last year, on the eve of Banned Books Week, the ALA's official magazine, American Libraries, ran a story headlined, "Book banning alive and well in the U.S."

It's a storyline the American left in particular seems to desperately want to be true. Recently, an American writer penned a lengthy online piece for the British newspaper The (London) Guardian headlined "The Tea Party moves to ban books." The left-wing activist group Think Progress announces, "Censorship On The Rise: U.S. Schools Have Banned More Than 20 Books This Year."

The problem: None of this is remotely true. Banned Books Week is an exercise in propaganda.
Indeed, stout-hearted liberals don their martial arts attire, cinch their symbolic black belts, and, like a Monty Python troupe, march forth to fight courageously against an imaginary opponent. Goldberg explains:
For starters, as a legal matter no book in America is banned, period, full stop (not counting, I suppose, some hard-core illegal child porn or some such out there). Any citizen can go to a bookstore or and buy any book legally in print -- or out of print for that matter.

When the American Library Association talks about censorship of books, it invariably refers to "banned or challenged" books. A "banned" book is a book that has been removed from a public library or school's shelves or reading lists due to pressure from someone who isn't a librarian or teacher. In practice, this means pretty much any book that's pulled off the shelves of a library can be counted as "banned." Even so, that's very rare, which is why the ALA lump "banned" and "challenged" together. Moreover, it's crazy. If the mere absence of a book counts as a "ban," then 99.99 percent of books have been banned somewhere.

Meanwhile, a challenge happens when someone -- usually a parent -- questions the suitability of a book. If you complain that your 8-year-old kid shouldn't be reading a book with lots of sex, violence or profanity until he or she is a little older, you're not a good parent; you're a would-be book-banner. The preferred tactic of the BBWers is to highlight a stupid decision by one school somewhere in America and hype the anecdote as a trend. So when a school in Missouri recently removed Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five" from its shelves, it was immediately decried as the harbinger of a national trend. (The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library immediately offered all the school's students free copies of the "banned" book)

To get a sense of how overhyped these sorts of stories are, consider that reported challenges have dropped from 513 in 2008 to 348 last year. The historic norm is a mere 400 to 500 bans or challenges.

Well, there are almost 100,000 public schools in America (98,706 in 2009) educating roughly 50 million students. (There are 33,000 private schools. And some 10,000 public libraries). So if there were, say, 500 parent-driven "bans or challenges" in a given year in public schools, that would mean for every 200 public schools, or every 100,000 students, at least one parent even complained about an age-inappropriate book. What an epidemic!
But perhaps Goldberg is being too harsh. Why make such a big deal about the facts if progressives feel good pretending to smite the dreaded foe hip and thigh?

Like the karate student whose practice of the kata makes him more formidable in actual battle, perhaps some day we'll see these staunch defenders of free speech stand athwart the school board doorway when a mob of outraged Muslims shows up to demand that a book critical of Islam or the Prophet be removed from a school library. I'm sure the practice our mighty freedom warriors received against their make believe opponents will empower them to mount fierce resistance when confronted with the real thing.

The Higgs Boson

Those who do a little reading in modern physics will probably be aware that one of the grand hopes behind the construction of the Large Hadron Collider (below), a huge atom smasher near Geneva, Switzerland, was that it would be able to accelerate particles to such high energies that the Higgs boson, sometimes called the "God particle", would be revealed.

The Large Hadron Collider

The Higgs is predicted by string theory, and if the Higgs isn't found it would be devastating to those physicists who have invested the last four decades of their lives in trying to demonstrate that string theory is correct. Moreover, since string theory is the fundamental support for other theories like the multiverse, parallel universes, and extra dimensions, these ideas, too, might be rendered less tenable should the Higgs not appear in the LHC experiments.

Here's a good video on the role that the Higgs plays in contemporary subatomic physics:
Recently, the news coming out of Geneva has been disappointing to those who hoped to find the Higgs. Tests that should have confirmed its existence haven't. According to an article in Wired if it's not found by 2013 scientists will have to reassess their models of how the universe works.