We’re getting closer and closer to defining our politics as a scientific imperative, day by day. A recently-published study tested a couple basic hypothesis aimed at predicting the relative prejudice we show those of opposing views. The result? Economic views hold considerably less prejudice than social ones, and there is literally no evidence to suggest that one side of the political spectrum is automatically more prejudiced against their opposition than the other.

The hypotheses tested included the idea that social and economic differences would elicit different degrees of prejudice, and that social conservatives would naturally be more prejudicial to opposing viewpoints than social liberals. After testing these hypotheses with a wide variety of test subjects and methodologies (how the test is conducted and scored), the first hypothesis showed strong signs of being accurate, while the second did not.

Conservative values quite often dovetail with racial, sexual or other prejudices. Sometimes, they just seem to exist to support those prejudices, which is the case where gendered bathrooms are concerned. It’s easy as Liberals to assume that political prejudice must automatically come with the package. It’s easy to believe that we are open-minded and without a trace of prejudice, because we fight for social justice.

But this study is a good sign that maybe none of those things are true. Our haste to believe that “objective truth” obviates the need for discussion is at least one good sign that this is not at all true.

It isn’t necessary to give up our values in order to acknowledge our faults. And Conservatives can go on being racist as ever. This study just makes clear that not all assumptions go with the others.

What is really interesting is how economic differences seem to elicit less prejudice. That would seem at odds with what Republican and Conservative strategies seem to be, focusing as they do on “tax and spend librulls.” It might be a point worth considering that economic differences aren’t the wedge people believe, according to the data. Demonizing Democrats seems to have worked, but when it come right down to economic issues – or issues framed as such – we’re a lot more likely to listen to one another.

I’ve been holding onto this article for a week, now, but I’m finally going to flag this for you now. It’s a great article with plenty worth reading in it. And in it, author William Davies asks the question many journalists have been asking since the election: are we living in a post-factual world? He weaves together the history of statistics as a tool of government along with what seems like a highly-energized world-wide rightward shift that seems to intentionally fly in the face of statistical and scientific fact.

I’m generally suspicious of any “grand unifying theory” of politics that blends political winds in the U.S., Britain, Eastern Europe and the Philippines. A general trend is worthy of consideration, but trying to blend them into some singular force evades the real human emotions and political grievances in play in all of those countries. It also highlights the weakness of a political system which recognizes only two diametric poles: any movement in any direction necessarily has to be viewed as either a rightward or leftward movement. Our political polarization has left us bereft of the vocabulary to describe it any other way.

About the best you can probably say about the combined shift in global politics is: “When the going gets tough, the tough take it out on the less-tough.” Regardless of the individual struggles in any one nation, there’s little doubt but that the population of refugees and asylees worldwide has reached the highest recorded levels. The trillions of dollars of global wealth lost in the subprime fiasco of 2008 has continued to trickle down, year over year, emptying bellies among the world’s poorest. Daily reports of terror attacks have eroded the confidence of even the safest people.

People – or at least enough people – in wealthier nations are increasingly saying “no” to pretty much everything. They’re focused on their countries, first. They’re withdrawing from unions. They’re reneging on promises. Yes, they are increasingly “clinging to their guns and their religion.”

But to the central question of whether our current culture is leaning not only rightward, but also away from science and statistics. It’s worth noting that science – yes, science – has already weighed in on this idea. The truth is that our political persuasion has little to nothing to do with our justifications. Our preferred reality has everything to do with an emotional connection to our beliefs. We generally choose to bolster our beliefs with facts that confirm them. And we do so after the fact.

For those whose beliefs swing right as defined by American politics, there is precious little in the way of scientific or statistical information to support their beliefs. And the number of available statistics is getting smaller every day.

The U.S. has actually admitted less refugees last year than it did in many other points in it’s history as recently as 1995. An American is 6 times more likely to die of shark attack than of refugee attack. And we’ve got a 1-in-49,000 chance of dying in a terrorist attack and a 1-in-400 chance of dying of a gunshot wound. An amazing shrinking and increasingly-unqualified pool of scientists believe climate change is either a hoax or attributable to “god” or whatever Conservatives insist on believing.

Americans generally are not with Conservatives on gay marriage. We’re not with Conservatives on marijuana legalization. We’re not impressed by private school vouchers. No one but a damned fool believes Mexico’s paying for the wall. The HPV vaccine will not make your daughter a slut, nor will vaccines cause autism. Obamacare is not the worst thing that’s ever happened to health care.

So pity poor Conservatives who insist on believing things for which there is no support whatsoever. Because their happy-go-angry bullshit train has just elected the man that’s already leaving a lot of them gobsmacked and red-faced. Small wonder, then, that the political right of our country are discarding facts, evidence, science and statistics as hokum. We are not living in a “post-factual world,” just because your beliefs are no longer supported by facts. You’re living in a bubble.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted on December 12th, 2006. It has been lightly edited to reflect some changing facts. If you have other updates that should be posted, please contact me

On August 31st of 1999, in the town of Buynaksk in the Dagestan province of southern Russia, a bomb is detonated in an apartment building, killing 64 people including Russian soldiers. This is the second bombing in a week and one of four bombings that will later be known as “The Russian Apartment Bombings.” These attacks will claim more than 300 lives in just under two weeks, and will be blamed on the growing Chechen separatist movement, prompting the Russian military to occupy that disputed territory. Before the dust has settled and the victims removed, the newly-elected President Putin will declare – fully two years before the United States – Russia’s own War on Terror.

Elsewhere, former KGB/FSB agent turned political dissident Alexander Litvinenko sits in prison on charges stemming from an alleged misuse of power in the line of duty in the early nineties. Litvinenko had been working in the Central Staff of the FSB, charged with counter terrorism and infiltration of organized crime. In time, Litvinenko will publish a book charging Vladimir Putin with using the FSB to mastermind the Russian Apartment Bombings. In time, Alexander Litvinenko will die.

Seven years later, as Litvinenko’s body is put to rest, dead of a polonium-210 poisoning – while former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar recuperates from the same poison, while Italian security expert Mario Scaramella recuperates from the same poisoning and while traces of radiation are showing up throughout London and on British Airlines planes – the headlines ring with the echoes of that far-away explosion. The seeds that formed the Chechen conflict have until now registered not a whit on American media radars, but that is changing. Gone are the days when tales of KGB spies filled our prime time television shows, but the truth of the current controversy will prove much stranger than the fiction of our past.

As different media outlets here and abroad report on the developments of the day, they pepper those reports with innuendo and accusations stretching over more than a decade, a parade of Russian spies, business men and politicians, all in a bewildering panoply that leaves our heads whirling. Accounts seem to suggest many connections and relationships from the past, but in this avalanche of information, it is difficult to know what those are. Stitching together news articles, Wikipedia entries and other information, this article seeks to illuminate some of those connections.

Alexander Litvinenko began his career in the KGB in 1986 during the tumultuous days of Perestroika, rising rapidly in the ranks and developing his career in the Counterintelligence department of the KGB, the Third Chief Directorate. A great many other men’s careers were formulating as well, including Yegor Gaidar. Gaidar is an economist and writer for the “Communist” ideological journal who would soon renounce his Communist Party affiliation along with his long-time ally, Anatoly Chubais. Gaidar and Chubais would both go to work for the newly-minted Boris Yeltsin Administration and go on to be known as “The Young Reformers,” ushering in an era of decentralization.

In those formative years, Vladimir Putin was struggling with a less-than-illustrious career in the KGB. After having graduated from the International Department of the Law Faculty in the Leningrad State University, Putin eventually got stuck in what he regarded as a minor post in East Germany. Eventually by 1991, he became the head of the International Committee of the St. Petersburg Mayor’s office, promoting foreign investment, but he would soon resign his post in the KGB entirely.

Litvinenko was meanwhile promoted to his counter-terrorism, mob-busting role in the Central Staff. In the following year, Yegor Gaidar became Russia’s Prime Minister for a brief stint and Litvinenko was promoted to the detail of the Main Directorate charged with protecting Gaidar.

It is in this six-month period of Gaidar’s Prime Ministership that he and his friend, now the Vice Premier of Russia, Anatoly Chubais, become known as “The Young Reformers,” and probably not without a little irony. The Yeltsin Administration generally – and this period specifically – are marked by vast instability, civil unrest and lawlessness. Before long, inexperienced decentralization turned into corporate oligarchy.

And chief among the burgeoning corporatist petitioners to the Yeltsin Administration would be Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky is generally known as the chief proponent and one of the primary benefactors of the new-found Russian economic “liberalism,” working his way into intimate familiarity with Boris Yeltsin and using that influence to land lucrative government contracts. He is also a man familiar enough with the Russian Mafia to have survived several assassination attempts, including a shootout in the middle of Moscow.

Much of the mafia hostility was because of Berezovsky’s closeness to the Chechen mafia. Indeed, Boris Berezovsky is reported to have many ties with Chechens, though apparently nothing proven to connect him with Chechen organized crime, specifically. Ties to Chechnya do not seem to have done anyone good in Russia, and indeed with the Chechen conflict due to flair up again in a few years, Berezovsky and may others would find themselves at the wrong end of Russian government fire.

Russia’s credit problems and wide-spread corruption abounded, the Ruble plummeted on the world market, and public opinion began to shift in the direction of the hard-liner’s old ways. Eventually, while then-Communist Party Leader Mikhail Gorbachev was on vacation, the KGB became emboldened to attempt to force him from power in a coup. This was the famous moment in Russian history when Boris Yeltsin stood on the back of a tank and declared the insurrection defeated. All of us in the West cheered and felt better in that moment, but after the cameras left and the moment was gone, the very real problems that led to the coup remained. It was during this coup attempt that Vladimir Putin resigned from the KGB.

The KGB was formally disbanded and reconstituted as the FSB. Boris Yeltsin’s entire cabinet, including Gaidar and Chubais, were fired. Still, the problem persisted, and probably in no little part this was due to Berezovsky.

In 1996, Forbes Magazine published an article by journalist Paul Klebnikov about Berezovsky entitled “Godfather of the Kremlin,” detailing the close ties Berezovsky had to both organized crime and the heads of state in Moscow. Berezovsky tried to sue Forbes to get the article retracted, but curiously did not pursue that course for the book of the same name that Klebnikov released later that same year.

The following year, Alexander Litvinenko was promoted to Senior Operational Officer of the FSB Seventh Section, this time guarding Boris Berezovsky himself. Berezovsky currently held the post of Secretary to the Security Council and had recently become the chairman of ORT, Russia’s biggest media outlet. He became head of ORT when the post became available; the chair had been vacated by a man who was recently killed in a gangland-style murder. Litvinenko would keep his post as Berezovsky’s protector for another four years, and maintain his relationship with Berezovsky right up to the moment of his polonium intoxication.

In July of 1998, Vladimir Putin returned to the agency he left in ’92, now reformulated into the FSB, to become the first civilian leader of the KGB/FSB in its history. His brief tenure at the FSB must have been a tumultuous one. By November 17th of that same year, Alexander Litvinenko and four other FSB officers would accuse the FSB of returning to a practice of political assassination; specifically, they accused the Director of Analysis of Criminal Organizations of ordering the execution of Boris Berezovsky and also an FSB agent turned attorney Mikhail Trepashkin. His closeness to the Chechen resistance was suspected to be one of the main reasons that he was being targeted.

Two days after the announcement, Galina Starovoitova, leader of the Democratic Russia Party and defender of ethnic minorities in Russia including the Chechens, was shot dead in the entryway to her apartment. Vladimir Putin declared no evidence to suggest that her murder was politically motivated.

Alexander Litvinenko, meanwhile, would be dismissed from the FSB and arrested on charges which twice failed to stick, but not before spending some time in the Moscow prison system. It would be during his third time arrested in 1999 when the Russian Apartment Bombings would commence. After he was released from prison, he and Mikhail Trepashkin began work on an independent investigation of the apartment bombings to find the guilty party, but this investigation went nowhere largely due to Kremlin stonewalling.

In 2001, Litvinenko and fellow former FSB security agent Andrei Lugovoi participated in a jail break of Nikolai Glushkov, business partner of Boris Berezovsky in one of his first companies, Aeroflot. Lugovoi and Litvinenko had worked together in the past, guarding both Yegor Gaidar and Berezovsky as members of the FSB. Glushkov was currently serving time in the pokey for fraud. The attempt failed.

Despite the Kremlin stonewalling and despite their investigation not really producing much evidence according to reports, Litvinenko published a book in 2002 entitled Blowing up Russia : Terror from Within. In it, he charged that it was Vladimir Putin, facilitated by the FSB, who was personally responsible for the Russian Apartment Bombings, and that his objective was to force the Second Chechen Conflict into being and ride that into the Kremlin as the new president. He also writes a second book, The Gang from Lubyanka, which alleges that Putin is personally involved in organized crime.

This is an interesting charge from a former mob-busting KGB cop whose publishing career was funded entirely by his former boss, mob-adjacent Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky, meanwhile, fled the country in this same year to avoid prosecution by the FSB. Whether the FSB was after him for his criminal associations or because his opinions as a member of the government against the escalation of the Chechen Conflict were not welcome remains in question.

Litvinenko kept up his attack against the Kremlin and his personal nemesis, Vladimir Putin. In an interview held in 2003 for the Australian SBS television network, Litvinenko alleged that two of the terrorists involved in the Moscow theatre crisis were in fact working for the FSB. This allegation was seconded by Mikhail Trepashkin. Also in 2003, Anna Politkovskaya, journalist, activist and friend of Litvinenko’s, released a book entitled A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya. Her book painted a picture for the world of the brutality of the Chechen Conflict and also pinned Putin’s rise to power to the escalation of violence in Chechnya.

During this same time, Boris Berezovsky became an investor in Neil Bush’s Ignite! Learning company while living in London in exile, putting him in the same company as George Herbert Walker Bush and Sun Myung Moon, who together with other investors were paying then Governor of Florida an extra $180,000 annually. In presidential politics elsewhere, Berezovsky was alleged to have participated illegally in funding the presidential candidacy of Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko, and a former president produced documents confirming it in 2005.

In July of 2005, Paul Klebnikov, author of the book detailing Boris Berezovsky’s alleged mob connections, was murdered in Moscow. In that same month, Litvinenko spoke to a Polish newspaper and posited that Ayman al-Zawahiri and other al-Qaeda members were trained in Dagastan by the FSB in 1998. Moreover, within the context of the London bombings, Litvinenko told reporters that the KGB/FSB were the main supporters of terrorism worldwide.

By the summer of this year 2006, Alexander Litvinenko was accusing Vladimir Putin of pedophilia. It is hard to say what motivates anyone involved in these twisting, turning corridors of relationships and enmity, but by now, Litvinenko is utterly inscrutable to someone on the outside. Putin the Pedophile seems something of a stretch, and all of his accusations combined start to sound impossible. But while Litvinenko and Berezovsky might be considered the men in black hats by this point in their history, remember that they are the losers in a deadly game of power and murder. Certainly, the winner must be better at the game?

On October 7th, Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in the elevator of her central Moscow apartment. Litvinenko, Anatoly Chubais and many others lay the blame for the journalist’s death squarely on Vladimir Putin. November 1st, Litvinenko met with a few old friends before eventually succumbing to sickness due to a radioactive poisoning.

One was Andrei Lugovoi, his partner in jailbreaking for Berezovsky. Lugovoi brought with him an associate by the name of Dmitry Kovtun and one other. It is believed by Scotland Yard that this was the moment of his intoxication. But Litvinenko also met with Boris Berezovsky himself.

He also met with an Italian security expert of whom little is known, Mario Scaramella. Scaramella was supposed to have been in possession of documents showing that the Putin government was targeting Russian émigrés to Britain for assassination. Scaramella was also supposed to have had documents proving that Putin was responsible for Politkovskaya’s assassination. None of this evidence has surfaced subsequent to Litvinenko’s death.

So what, exactly, did happen on that day? Even time may never tell, but it is certain that picking a favourite Russian politico based on a moral compass is folly at best. No one seems to hold the high ground. The best that can be said of Litvinenko and Berezovsky is that they fought for an oppressed people, but even that seems like a plausibly justifiable cover for plain-old swindling. Meanwhile, the enemies of the state and of Putin’s ambition keep ending up dead and it seems more and more to Western eyes that nothing really much has changed in Russia.

It has been said that the Soviets killed dissidents and exiles because their continued existence represented an affront to the Kremlin’s power. Perhaps Litvinenko’s continued escalation of rhetoric against Moscow was a mirror image. Perhaps he believed that the purpose of dissidence is to give your expatriate government as many sucker-punches as you can before they eventually take you down. Who knows? Perhaps he was even right.

Looking forward to getting back to the science blogging I love after the election, I decided to tackle a concept many have heard about but few understand. The Higgs Boson was officially discovered in 2013, but it’s theoretical existence has existed as a quirk in the math of quantum physics for nearly 80 years before it’s discovery.

Is it really a “God Particle?” What makes it so god-like? In this quick 4:30 thought experiment, I give you a simple way of understanding what is significant about the Higgs Field, the universal energy field from which the Boson gets it’s name. Please enjoy:

I have a good friend whose name you surely know if you live in the Rochester area: Evan Dawson. I met him when he worked for 13WHAM as a reporter on their nightly news, and he’s now moved on to host his radio show, Connections with Evan Dawson all week on WXXI radio. I mention him because, as you may also know, he wrote a book called Summer in a Glass about Upstate New York’s wine region and the men and women who shape that industry’s fate.

It is a book rich with poetic turns of phrase; it is a book filled with impressions of the country, the people, the history. Very clearly, Evan has a deep and abiding respect for the industry and the products of its labour. It’s a great book and you should definitely read it.

Flash back to a grown-ass adult trying to buy a goddamned bag of weed in the same state: sitting in the cigarette-reeking back of some asshole 20-something’s mini Toyota pickup truck – not the “back seat,” just a subwoofer he never bothered to plug in – waiting patiently among the food wrappers, old clothing and personal hygiene implements for an overpriced bag of agricultural product no more harmful than the stuff Evan waxes poetic about in his book.

With apologies to Evan, we live in a state that doesn’t just allow you to make wine, beer and now hard alcohol: it fetishizes those things as though they were some noble thing. “Uncork New York,” as they say. Every festival in Rochester has a wine tent. There are stores throughout the Finger Lakes that don’t even sell wine, just all the wine accessories you could possibly want including tee shirts, bottle openers, earrings. Evan’s is, as you might suspect, hardly the only written document on the subject.

Matter of fact, there is a comfort care home down the road from me that can’t house more than five people; they’re having a wine tasting in a couple weeks. A home for five people, all of whom must certainly have been told to stop drinking alcohol thirty years ago, and they’re having a wine tasting.

I don’t begrudge the alcohol industry’s success in New York State. Hell, I even used to write a column for (585) Magazine called Over Drinks, dedicated to the topic. But as silly as it’s ever been for weed to be illegal when alcohol is legal, that goes doubly and trebly for a state that makes such a farcically big deal out of hootch. There are those who want or need marijuana for medical use, recreational use and research, but even attempts to make medical weed available have stalled.

If any state in the union ought to have promotions all summer long for it’s Marijuana Region, it is a state as hilly and sunny as New York. We have conditions to make beautiful, award-winning ganja to suit every palate and preference. Setivas. Indikas. Candy bars and sodas. And sure! Why not a weed-themed New York State tee shirt?

“New York State of Mind,” or “We Came, We Saw, We Smoked,” or “My Parents Went to Weed Country, and I Had to Buy This Shirt Online Because They Forgot.” Just as suggestions. Perhaps there could be a “Toke New York” campaign with billboards on the 90?

Either way, while half a dozen other states have a referendum on the ballot this November to legalize weed, our silly-ass pols sit in Albany trying to figure out which universities are going to get weed in pill form. And then get a drink of wine with dinner. Because thank you, New York.

Never forget. That’s the mantra from sun-up to sun-down on this September 11th, “celebrated” every year. Everywhere on my Twitter feed, on my Facebook feed: the images of buildings on fire; of sand storm New York City streets; of a skyline that less and less of us recognize as changed.

History is receding from us as our universe expands – not simply does the distance between you and 911 change, but the distance between it and Pearl Harbor, too. Events twice as far away recede from our view at twice the rate, all of it unreachable no matter how hard you try.

What do we lose if we let go of things we can’t hold, anyway? I know Hitler did wrong, having never lived through the Holocaust. I know slavery was wrong, having never been a slave. Based on what I see, what we seem to want to hold onto is the pain. Tributes and memes and links and tweets and posts and blogs and images and hashtags. All seem to ask me to hold onto the surreal, hallucinogenic fear of that moment, staring at an attack less than an hour by plane from Ginna that just took down two of the most iconic buildings in my state. And the Pentagon.

Does that sound like a good idea? Would any shrink – anywhere – recommend that you live the grinding horror of that day annually? It seems instead to be a call to revanchism. To a perpetual feeling of loss and a need for redemption. Redemption that cannot ever come. Instead of appealing to our desire for peace, so much of what I see on 911 is almost fetish-like grinding of our still-open wounds.

We make a lot of fun of ourselves every year because we celebrate Memorial Day and Labor Day and Independence Day with such frivolities as hamburgers, beer and football. Which is proof enough that no, we have not forgotten the meaning of those days. We celebrate Thanksgiving with turkey, beer and football. Christmas? Ham, wine and football.

Meat, booze and sports are how Americans pay tribute to the things that matter to us. It’s impossible not to laugh at, and would you have it any other way? And September just happens to be the hands-down best time for all of these things. I’m not just saying that because September is my birth month. But it helps.

While people remain in our politics like Rudy Giuliani and others who wrap themselves in the death shrouds of 911, whether or not they were there, I suppose there will be no turning to those days. Not easily, anyways. But I for one welcome the slowly-cooling crispy skin of a hot dog, eaten under the same beautiful cerulean skies that greeted me the day so much of our world changed. Skies like that only happen in September. I can be satisfied with chasing my kid around the property while friends and family pass in and out of my porch door, busy getting lunch ready. I can be very happy that this day is not That Day.

And I won’t forget, I promise.

Olympic Champion swimmer Katinka Hosszú. Photo credit: Doha Stadium Plus Qatar @ Flickr.com

This quadrennial athletic competition has seen it’s share of controversy. In particular, it seems NBC Sports can’t stop tripping over it’s dick with all the sexist spin on the news. For his part, Sports Analyst Dan Hicks pointed out the “crucial” role that Olympic Record Breaker Hosszu’s coach played in her victory. He later defended that description of Shane Tusup, while apologizing for offending the audience.

No doubt, lots of champions owe their success to their coaches. Coaches represent an often decades-long brain trust of coaching and performing experience. Athletes have talent – and many possess a keen mind as well – but coaches focus those raw talents a young athlete has into a peak performer. And in the case of Katinka Hosszú and her boyfriend, insiders say that there really is a pretty specific dynamic that matters when telling Katrinka’s story.

But it strikes me that I can’t really give you the names of any coaches in Olympic sport at all. None, that is, except Martha and Bela Karolyi of Olympic Women’s Gymnastics fame. If you asked 100 Americans the names of three other Olympic coaches and the Karolyis, I think we know whom a majority would recognize.

I don’t know who Ryan Lochte’s coach is, nor Michael Phelps’. But I certainly know the athletes’ names for their gold-studded histories. Usain Bolt, I know. His coach, I do not.

What I’m getting at, here, is that sports media seems to possess a deep dependency on coaches when discussing women’s athletics generally. We know, for example, that Martha Karolyi is a “queen maker” in the US Women’s Gymnastics Team. Women do not automatically go to the Olympics or compete for any one metal simply because they can or because they scored the highest in Nationals.

Martha Karolyi, via NBC Sports.

Martha decides who goes and who stays. And in the process, we are treated to literally hours worth of collected video of Martha – sitting in the stands, no less – watching the gymnasts and presumably making her decisions.

If a similar decision making process happens on the US Men’s Gymnastics Team, I don’t know about it. And I have literally no idea whatsoever who the head coach of that team is. In fact, Google searching ‘us men’s olympic gymnastics “head coach”‘ returned the Wikipedia pages of Martha and Bela first, followed by a 2009 article naming Kevin Mazeika as the head coach of the men’s team. The fourth entry is finally a list of head coaches throughout the last decade or so, through which I can scroll to finally find my answer: Mark Williams.

So. Mark Williams.

I’m not sure if this is because the media can’t help of thinking of women athletes as silly girls who can’t be trusted with their own athletic careers, or if this is just an old, bad habit. It’s worth pointing out that “Women’s” gymnastics includes athletes barely over 16 years old. Regardless, perhaps if the media is seeking to avoid this kind of blow-up in the future, it ought better to focus on how it treats coaches in it’s storytelling than to any one blow-up.

One guy moose hunting in Alaska decided to take out his hovercraft. Somehow, this one event becomes a case before the Supreme Court that could have huge impacts for the environment and the definition of sovereignty between states, the Federal government and its citizens. It’s hard to fathom how one moose hunter in Alaska could suddenly become important to those of us in Rochester, NY. But as it turns out, he is.

John Sturgeon is by all appearances a pretty ordinary Alaska resident. His soft-spoken and respectful words in the Court make him seem like a pretty likeable guy. He hunts moose in Alaska, which is not at all controversial or illegal. And like any hunter, he takes what advantage he can – when he can – to get within shooting distance of his quarry. His choice one day eight years ago was to ride a hovercraft, which has the advantage of being able to cross rivers as easily as flat land.

His hovercraft broke down while he was out and two men approached to see what was going on. According to reports, the three men interacted for about a half an hour before the two strangers identified themselves as rangers. It was then that they informed Mr. Sturgeon that the hovercraft was not permitted to be used on Federal lands.

In Rochester, what is public and what is private land is rarely all that much in dispute, save perhaps for a stretch here or there where a park backs up to a private residence. But out west, questions abound. Over hundreds of acres of lands. New York State is about 12% government protected land; in Alaska that number is 61%. And it is the question of whose authority – federal or state – governs the land on which Mr. Sturgeon was hunting that is the problem.

In excellent reporting at Alaska Public Radio, the issue Justices seem to be getting hung up on is the word “solely.” Specifically, that the stewardship of the land that Mr. Sturgeon was hunting on is a bit of a cypher. What seems to have started as a sharing plan between state and federal agencies has devolved into a regulatory quagmire. The question of whether or not a hovercraft is permitted on that land depends entirely on the subtle distinctions in the code.

But if issues of jurisprudence and sovereignty are what complicate the case, they are not the only issues at stake. The responsibility with which we’ve entrusted our Federal government is to maintain a healthy environment within the preserves they manage. That charge is not about the simple management of a park for our recreation: it is about maintaining a pristine wilderness that we squander at our peril. Mr. Sturgeon himself benefits from those efforts, as evidenced by the fact that he’s hunting there at all.

Protecting the land means having clear laws and regulations about what is and what is not allowed to be used within the preserves. But in this case, there isn’t even consensus on what the federal preserves are. In such a case where the land is not claimed by any private party, it’s in the interest of science and our environment to interpret those rules broadly. Better that regulations within those territories be over-broad than under-cautious.

On the opposite side of science’s interests in this case are the interests of the State of Alaska and it’s residents. Those residents and elected leaders of Alaska can rightly ask why their regulation should be or has to be inferior to those of the Federal government? It becomes increasingly clear to we in the East that the Bundys of Malheur fame represent an ugly, violent inflection on what is a common sentiment in the West. And this case represents a much softer tone, but it’s no less urgent.

It’s also hard to escape the seemingly-tricky behavior of the park rangers in this case. Here in Rochester, police wear uniforms. You can ask for their badge numbers. But in Alaska, park rangers just look like bros? Walking in the woods? It may not be central to the case, but the idea that a cop sidles up next to you and raps with you for half an hour, then whips out a badge seems like entrapment, somehow. Mr. Sturgeon wasn’t hitting up a hooker. He was hunting.

There’s no clear indication that the Court prefers one argument over the other. There’s no indication that they were about to get into a Clash of the Titans fight over the heart and soul of the Constitution, either. But an empty seat on the Supreme Court could mean a year or more of ambiguity, into which who knows what manner of protest might pour?

With only eight Justices, it’s still possible that the Court can come to an agreeable compromise and close the case. But if everyone plays by their appointment-ordained roles, this thing doesn’t go anywhere. In the interim, do hovercraft sales skyrocket in Alaska? Along with beef jerky?

There are many ways in which the sudden and suddenly-political death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has the potential to impact the ordinary lives of every citizen. So far, no one has declared an upside, which is a statement unto itself. We here at DFE decided to take a look from the perspective we know best.

There are a number of cases either before the Supreme Court right now, possibly held up over the threatened year of inaction between now and Election Day, or heard but not yet ruled on. Many of those either rely on the legal interpretation of science or affect interests of the scientific community.

One big story that’s not really getting a lot of play in mainstream channels is the fate of the Clean Power Plan. The Clean Power Plan is the Obama Administration’s EPA plan for cutting emissions at power plants. Power plant hydrocarbon emissions make up a substantial 40% of the total for the United States. The Obama Administration plans to leave as its environmental legacy a system aimed at cutting those emissions by 2030.

But the bombshell from just a week and a half ago was that the Supreme Court ordered the program halted pending a hearing in the Court. That hearing could be pending for quite some time if Republicans make good with their post-election nomination plans. And if a Democrat wins the White House, they may find some new excuse to stall longer.

The Clean Power Plan is a fairly modest proposal that doesn’t even set the goal of the program for another four years. It stipulates that emissions in 2030 will not be more than 16% less than those in 2020. Legally loopy enough for you? Well, get ready for the reason the SCOTUS put the Clean Power Plan on hold:

The various parties challenging the Clean Power Plan, which include multiple states and energy companies, raise several disagreements with how the EPA has interpreted its own authority to regulate under the Clean Air Act. The most difficult question presented by this case, however, isalso the most absurd. A quarter-century ago, Congress enacted two conflicting amendments to the Clean Air Act. One of these amendments arguably prevents the EPA from moving forward with the Clean Power Plan, the other does not.

It is as if Schrödinger’s cat were written into the United States Code. The cat is both alive and dead. The Clean Power Plan is both legal and illegal.

In other words, there is nothing about the letter of the law that is unconstitutional. This is only a matter of which cat gets to exist, based on neither random chance nor on cosmic coincidence. Purely – exclusively – based on politics. And now the politics of the Supreme Court may be changing. Will be changing, one way or the other.

Way back when, monsters like Ted Bundy were taken off the streets in part because of a relatively new scientific field called bite-mark forensics. The idea was that the arrangement of teeth in a suspect’s mouth would leave a signature bite mark. If that bite mark could be traced back to a suspect, then this was proof that the bite had to have come from his or her mouth.

The only downside to that concept was that it never had a single shred of scientific proof that it worked. Nothing at all.

The problem with bite mark analysis is that, while it is true that a mouth full of teeth will leave a distinct pattern on something flat and immobile, most things in this world are not quite so perfectly constructed for bite mark analysis. in the particularly ghoulish case of tooth marks in flesh, the flesh tends to bend and warp and flesh does. This renders what little reliability bite-mark forensics has moot.

So, this is another one of those cases where forensic science is getting gut-punched while case after case is overturned on the basis of evidence once presented to us as infallible.

Bite mark forensics is the study of how bite marks can be used to identify the dental “signature” of an individual. Such evidence has been used to convict Ted Bundy, among others.

Source: Texas bans the use of bite mark forensics in court cases – DragonFlyEye.Net

Does the origin of your meat concern you? Since the outbreaks of 2003, the Country of Origin law has required meat packers to reveal where any meat you buy comes from. Now Congress has repealed the law, making determining the source of your red meat even harder to figure this out.

Congress has tried to prevent repealing the act, in part because of the World Trade Organization’s objections. The World Trade Organization had recently authorized Canada and Mexico to begin more than $1 billion in economic retaliation against the United States. Thankfully U.S exporters can now relax now that the law has been lifted and there will be no need for such a drastic retaliation.

In the United States, there’s really no need to worry about disease since there has only been 4 confirmed cases of mad cow disease in the United States since 1996. What about other countries that our meat might be coming from though?

The United Kingdom coming in first with 177 confirmed cases and France with 27 confirmed cases might not be as healthy as one would have previously thought. Technology advances in 2008 that allow us to test live cows for the disease instead of having to wait post-mortem will also help. This should prevent the spread of mad cow disease between cattle and limit the chances of it getting spread to humans.

For many, buying locally and supporting American industries are important values. Although only 8-20 percent of the total United States meat supplies comes from foreign sources, with the repeal of this law its going to be extremely difficult to know exactly which meat is foreign and which was born, raised or slaughtered here.

For other people, ensuring the freshness of the food they eat is important. Not because it could be coming from a different country but many meat manufacturers alter the meat to make it last longer than it typically would. For example, while many might look to color to determine how fresh a package of ground beef might be, this can be false due to the treatment that the meat undergoes.

Many manufacturers inject meat with carbon monoxide in order to give it a fresh pink color. This works because the carbon monoxide binds with a pigment in the meat so that it brings out the vibrant red colors. Unfortunately this false advertising can cause the meat to look edible and fresh but in reality it could be days, weeks or even years old and still have that same bright color to it.

So while your meat might be safe from disease, the idea of how fresh your meat is could be the main cause for consumers’ concern. It’s now up to the consumer to make sure that freshness is guaranteed and in order to do that you should ask the butcher at your grocery store but if that’s not enough for you, then buy from a local butcher who personally deals with the meat. With changes to your food happening daily, it becomes increasingly important to know not only the capabilities of the companies but what you could be feeding your family.

Social media was all aglow with the news yesterday that there may be a new planet in our Solar System, much further out than anyone expected. The new potential planet has been dubbed, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, “Planet 9.” But what exactly is this new “planet?” How have we missed it for so long? How could we know it exists now? What is Planet 9?

Here’s a little primer on the new discovery and the history of planet exploration. It’s just for the sake of granting a bit of clarity to what is sure to be generally awful reporting in mainstream circles.

What is Planet 9?

Well, for one thing, it’s not definitively a planet just yet. For now, Planet 9 is a bunch of clues that all seem – to the eyes of the researchers following it – to point in the direction of a previously-unknown planet. Scientists are extrapolating a possible conclusion from odd data they have collected. Which is definitely not the same thing as coming to a firm conclusion.

What data? And what’s so weird about it?

The study published yesterday concerns itself with objects in the Kuiper Belt, another asteroid belt like the one between Mars and Jupiter, positioned outside of the orbit of Pluto. Actually Pluto, recently demoted from planet to planetesimal, stands at the inner doorway to the Kuiper Belt.

What is Planet 9? An example of an elliptical orbit

An illustration of orbital eccentricity. Note that normal orbits are oblong, deviating from the perfect circle.

On the opposite edge of the Kuiper Belt, scientists have observed an irregularity about the way the asteroids move. You would expect that objects orbiting another object would move in oblong circular patterns like our Earth does. Such an orbit is called “elliptical” and the deviation an orbit has from a perfect circle is known as “orbital eccentricity.”

But the Kuiper Belt objects scientists are observing don’t quite behave that way. Thier orbits are much more eccentric at what’s known as the perihelion, which is where the object is closest to the sun. Many theories have been posited to explain this eccentricity, but so far a working model has not been agreed upon by scientists studying the phenomenon.

This study by two boffins of the American Astrological Society posits that the eccentricity could be accounted for by the gravity of another planet, interfering with the orbits of the asteroids and space debris.

So, we can’t see it. Have we ever discovered a planet this way?

What is Planet 9? Urbain Jean Joseph Leverrier

Urbain Jean Joseph Leverrier \

Yes! The planet Neptune was predicted by a man by the name of Urbain Jean Joseph Leverrier after astronomers puzzled at the odd eccentricities of Uranus’ orbit. Noticing that Uranus did not quite move in the path predicted by Sir Isaac Newton – whose theory of gravity we still use today to calculate the movement of heavenly bodies – Leverrier reversed the math and determined that an object of exactly the mass of Neptune would exist just beyond Uranus. And he predicted the position of Neptune within one arc degree, which is very close, indeed.

On the other hand, the very same Leverrier also predicted the planet Vulcan would exist just inside the orbit of Mercury, because again astronomers found eccentricities they could not account for. Don’t bother looking up Vulcan in a Solar System atlas, because it doesn’t exist. It turned out that, close as Mercury is to the Sun, Newtonian physics actually do break down. It would take decades and an entirely new field of physics – Einstein’s Relativity – to explain that particular mystery.

It seems doubtful that an entirely new way of calculating gravity would be required to solve the mystery of the Kuiper Belt and the putative “Planet 9.” But strange things happen in space.

How could there be a new planet? After all our astronomical exploration?

Space is big. That may seem silly to say, but it’s a really, really hard thing to quantify for those who don’t deal with it every day.

Solar system planets, relative distance. Planet 9 would be double this.

The proposed planet is about nine times the size of Earth. For perspective, Jupiter is 12 times the size of Earth and Neptune is about five times larger than Earth. This proposed planet, if it exists, would be at least 50 astronomical units (AU) away from Earth. That’s 50 times the distance from the Sun to the Earth. We didn’t know about Neptune until Leverrier, and this object is almost twice the distance from us.

Could we have missed an object that small and that far away? Absolutely. Even the Kuiper Belt itself was only just discovered in the 90’s, so there’s a lot left to understand.

How could there be another planet, way out there?

Our Solar System presents itself as a remarkably orderly affair: rocky inner worlds formed of rock and metal, followed by gas giants floating loftily in the outer solar system. But elsewhere in the galaxy, we have discovered some damned-strange stuff: “Hot Jupiters” orbiting closer to their parent stars than Mercury or planets that slingshot in wildly eccentric orbits. Most of these bizarre planets, it is thought, have had their orbits interrupted in some way, which either flings gas giants into the center of a system or else hurls a rocky world in a crazy orbit.

Even within the Solar System, there are oddities. Scientists believe Mars’ moons Phobos and Deimos are actually gravitational “abductees,” having been snatched into Mars’ orbit when they passed too close to it. Uranus rolls on it’s axis like a barrel, instead of a top as most planets do; scientists believe that this is because Uranus was collided with and had its orbit altered. Our own moon Luna is made of the same stuff as Earth because it is the result of a massive collision between Earth and some other protoplanet in Earth’s ancient history.

So while Planet 9 is by no means the only answer to the question of the Kuiper Belt’s odd orbital mystery, it is far from being an impossibility. But until we get a telescope trained in that direction – exactly in that direction – we won’t know for sure. Even then, there won’t be a lot of light from the far-distant sun, so spotting it will be tricky.

Whether Planet 9 turns out to be a new planet, a crazy loophole in Newtonian physics or some other unexpected wonder, our understanding of gravitational physics and our Solar System will be greatly enhanced. We will know something about our universe that no previous human generation has ever known. But as wonderful as that sounds,.. I think we’re all hoping for a new planet. Right?