Archive for December 1, 2010

It’s the End of the World as We Know It

Artist’s con­cep­tion of Titan, © Kees Veenenbos

and I feel fine.

The Inter­nets (a series of Tubes), social media sites, and even CNN are all a-​​Twitter (sorry) about a press con­fer­ence to be held tomor­row afternoon.

Much of the spec­u­la­tion has cen­tered on this hid­den mean­ing in this cryp­tic news release from NASA.

NASA will hold a news con­fer­ence at 2 p.m. EST on Thurs­day, Dec. 2, to dis­cuss an astro­bi­ol­ogy find­ing that will impact the search for evi­dence of extrater­res­trial life.”

As you might imag­ine, this has brought every­one out of the wood­work, from the sober­sided astro­physi­cist types I tend to hang with all the way to the tinfoil-​​hat cra­zies.

Blog­ger Jason Kot­tke has chan­neled many of the cra­zies with a blog post enti­tled “Has NASA Dis­cov­ered Extrater­res­trial Life?” Way to drive traf­fic to your blog, Jason.

The answer appears to be “no”. Based on what I’m read­ing, the best guess seems to be that sci­en­tists will announce a new break­through in arsenic exo­bi­ol­ogy. Nitro­gen, phos­pho­rus and arsenic all share the same abil­ity to trade elec­trons. (Pokemon-​​style elec­tron trad­ing is ram­pant amongst atoms and is the basis for chem­i­cal bonding.)

Nitro­gen and car­bon are the basis for pro­teins; phos­pho­rus and car­bon are the basis for nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) plus the “energy cur­rency” of the cell, adeno­sine triphos­phate or ATP. When the cell wants to store energy, it stores it in the bond between phos­phate #2 and phos­phate #3 of ATP (phos­phate = phos­pho­rus + four oxy­gens). When it needs energy, it breaks that bond and releases energy for use by other things. This works exactly like a cur­rency in eco­nom­ics, smooth­ing the com­merce within the cell by pro­vid­ing a com­mon medium of exchange.

It’s pos­si­ble they’ve dis­cov­ered that arsenic can be used in the same way, and that there is even an exam­ple at hand (like Saturn’s moon Titan). Or, it could be they’re just dis­cussing arsenic chem­istry in an exist­ing life­form here on Earth.

Or, maybe Michael Stipe is right, and it’s the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine.

Six o’clock — TV hour. Don’t get caught in for­eign tower. Slash and burn,
return, lis­ten to your­self churn. Lock him in uni­form and book burn­ing,
blood let­ting. Every motive esca­late. Auto­mo­tive incin­er­ate. Light a can­dle,
light a motive. Step down, step down. Watch a heel crush, crush. Uh oh,
this means no fear — cav­a­lier. Rene­gade and steer clear! A tour­na­ment,
a tour­na­ment, a tour­na­ment of lies. Offer me solu­tions, offer me alter­na­tives
and I decline.

 Stipe/​Berry/​Buck/​Mills

Land of 10,000 Recounts

To under­stand why we have a major recount in the governor’s elec­tion this year, and why we had one two years ago in the Sen­ate race, you have to under­stand some­thing about Minnesota.

The state motto is “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” but that’s a vast under­state­ment. There are far more than ten thou­sand named bod­ies of water, though many of them are just large per­ma­nent pud­dles. The motto should be, how­ever, “Land of Contrasts.”

We have harsh win­ters, and hot sum­mers. In Decem­ber and Jan­u­ary, the tem­per­a­ture can often get to 20 below zero in the south­ern part of the state, and per­haps 50 below in the north. Near Min­neapo­lis, our record low was –65. It wouldn’t sur­prise us to get four or five feet of snow. In sum­mer, it is not unusual to spend sev­eral days over 100 degrees. We get fierce thun­der­storms, some­times with enor­mous tor­na­does. Con­trasts, and extremes, you see.

Some of the ear­li­est Euro­pean set­tlers here were Swedes and oth­ers of Viking descent. Accord­ing to the Elder Edda, the Norse peo­ples held the world to be cre­ated out of ice and fire, and that cer­tainly fits this land. The Norse were a prac­ti­cal peo­ple, because they had to be in order to sur­vive. And so, Min­nesotans are prac­ti­cal. We tend to do what works.

That doesn’t mean it’s middle-​​of-​​the-​​road. Rather, it means we often embrace extremes. Many is the time I’ve seen my kids go out the door wear­ing shorts and a parka. It’s not uncom­mon in the spring and fall to use the fur­nace at night and the air con­di­tioner dur­ing the day.

This ten­dency to extremes extends to our pol­i­tics as well. Dur­ing the period from 2000 to 2002, we had one of the most con­ser­v­a­tive of the nation’s Sen­a­tors (Rod Grams) as well as one of the most lib­eral (Paul Well­stone). Our Gov­er­nor was a mod­er­ate inde­pen­dent (for­mer pro­fes­sional wrestler Jesse Ven­tura, from the Reform Party). Our state Sen­ate was major­ity Repub­li­can, and the state House was major­ity Demo­c­rat. All at the same time. This is how we are.

My own leg­isla­tive dis­trict, a heav­ily Jew­ish sub­ur­ban area, elected the first Mus­lim to the United States Con­gress, now three-​​term Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Keith Ellison—who was sworn into office, by the way, on a Koran once owned by Thomas Jef­fer­son. He’s a proud and out­spo­ken mem­ber of the House Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus. But Min­nesota is also home to famous right-​​wing crazy lady Michele Bachmann.

Bob Dylan is from Min­nesota, and so is Prince, and the clos­est thing mod­ern Amer­ica has to Mark Twain, humorist Gar­ri­son Keil­lor. Min­nesota is home to Hiawatha and to Paul Bun­yon, and to the only gas sta­tion arche­tected by Frank Lloyd Wright.

We have a long pro­gres­sive tradition—not because of ide­ol­ogy, but because it works. Min­nesota was home to Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey, and Wal­ter Mon­dale. We tra­di­tion­ally have high taxes, because we have to keep the roads clear of snow—and because we value edu­ca­tion. For a long time, Min­nesota ranked near the top in aca­d­e­mic achieve­ments scores and num­ber of both high school and col­lege graduates.

Despite high taxes – or. more likely, because of them—it’s a great place to live, full of muse­ums and zoos and the­aters and state parks, all the things that make life worth liv­ing. We have among the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of mil­lion­aires, and of For­tune 500 com­pany head­quar­ters. So much for the lie that high taxes drive busi­nesses away. Wealthy peo­ple and big com­pa­nies want to locate to places where their chil­dren will get a good edu­ca­tion and they can visit well-​​tended and pro­tected wilder­ness when­ever they want.

We also have Min­neso­taCare, a very suc­cess­ful state-​​run health care sys­tem for the poor. We have the Mayo Clinic. We are a world cen­ter for dia­betes research.

Our cur­rent Gov­er­nor is Tim Paw­lenty, first elected in a squeaker of an elec­tion in 2002 when Jesse Ven­tura declined to seek a sec­ond term. Paw­lenty was reëlected in 2006 in a three-​​way con­test in which he got 46% of the vote. Min­nesota has a his­tory of cen­trist and mod­er­ate Repub­li­can gov­er­nors (see: Arnie Carl­son). Paw­lenty seemed to be of the same mold; soft-​​spoken, polite, hand­some, unthreat­en­ing. I met him once. He’s tall and gan­gly with hands the size of ten­nis rackets.

He promised not to raise taxes. He didn’t — though he did raise all of the regres­sive user fees and license fees he could think of. Minnesota’s infra­struc­ture has decayed from lack of fund­ing. Local levies and prop­erty taxes have sky­rock­eted. The once-​​beautiful state parks are now in woe­ful dis­re­pair. Min­neso­taCare is being dis­man­tled. Aca­d­e­mic test scores have plum­meted. And on August 27, 2007, the Inter­state 35 bridge over the Mis­sis­sippi River in the mid­dle of down­town Min­neapo­lis col­lapsed in the midst of rush hour, due to inad­e­quate main­te­nance. Thir­teen peo­ple died.

Paw­lenty has decided to try to do to the coun­try what he’s done to Min­nesota. He declined to seek a third term as Gov­er­nor, and has been run­ning for Pres­i­dent for the last two years, instead of gov­ern­ing. But from his record, we’re prob­a­bly bet­ter off hav­ing his inattention.

So in this land of con­trasts, we had a vacancy com­ing in the Governor’s man­sion. The major can­di­dates in 2010 were Repub­li­can Tom Emmer, a right-​​wing Tea Party type; Demo­c­rat Mark Day­ton, a fire­brand lib­eral mil­lion­aire, heir to the Day­ton depart­ment story fam­ily for­tune; and Tom Horner from the Inde­pen­dence Party, because a Min­nesota Gov­er­nor’s race would not be com­plete with­out a major third-​​party candidate.

This being a land of con­trasts, it was, of course, a razor-​​thin elec­tion that requires a recount. The unof­fi­cial totals after the elec­tion gave Day­ton 919,214 votes to Emmer’s 910,459, with 251,485 going to Horner, and four other minor-​​party can­di­dates each get­ting between 4000 and 8000 votes. Day­ton and Emmer were sep­a­rated by less than one half of one per­cent of the total vote, trig­ger­ing an auto­matic recount.

We’ll look at how that’s work­ing out tomorrow.

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