CNN Reports that Cheney accidentally shot a hunting partner,

or what you can find on the Internet.

Dick Cheney accidentally shot Austin Texas lawyer Harry Whittington in a hunting accident. at the Armstrong Ranch in Texas. This was not a working-class-guy day in the woods. The owners of the Armstrong Ranch are friends of the Bush family and were invited to a White House sleepover probably after the 2000 election.

When George W. Bush still governor there was a big flap when a former employee of the Texas Funeral Service Commission filed a whistle blower suit, alleging that she had been fired for trying to fine Service Corporation International (SCI) over irregular operation of funeral homes. In a shake up of the commission, Bush appointed Whittington to be board chairman of the commission.

SCI, owned by friends of the Bush family, continued to be in the news. In 2000-2001, Menorah Gardens, a subsidiary of SCI. “desecrated vaults, removed hundreds of bodies from two cemeteries in Florida and dumped the gruesome remains in woods frequented by wild hogs.” After Katrina, FEMA hired another SCI subsidiary, Kenyon International to set up mobile morgue in Baton Rouge.

Here are a couple of quotes from the Raw Story article.

Waltrip, chairman of SCI, is a longtime friend of Bush’s father, former President George Herbert Walker Bush. The firm’s political action committee donated $45,000 to George W. Bush’s 1994 gubernatorial campaign.

The company also contributed more than $100,000 for construction of the George H.W. Bush presidential library.

Waltrip and an SCI lobbyist met with Governor Bush’s chief of staff, Joe Allbaugh (Allbaugh was later appointed head of FEMA after Bush became President, but left to become a lobbyist representing Halliburton, among other corporate clients)

Some notes. White House for Sale tracks presidential campaign contributions for both parties. The first Austin Chronicle article spoke well of Whittington. There is more about him on the Internet that I didn’t chase down. There was some problem with the FEMA contract with Kenyon International and Governor Blanco is the one who signed off on the deal.

There is no scandal handling of Kenyon International’s handling of Katrina victims that I know of, but I’m not very comfortable with that arrangement. Shooting aside, the rest of the material shouldn’t be a surprise. It is pretty well know that W. has raised cronyism to a high art to the detriment of the public good. Fema’s handling of Katrina and appointment of coal company executives to oversee mine safety (and their actions) are two recent examples. Does this show that W. shook up the Texas Funeral service commission to protect a friend? Not really, but I suspect that he did.



O’Reilly doesn’t do well on the Letterman show

Last night O’Reilly was on the Letterman show. The segment started amicably, but when O’Reilly started in on his “War on Christmas shtick” things started going down hill for him. Then O’Reilly shifted topics to the war in Iraq. Well, all I can say is that Letterman was beautiful.

The video clip of the segment is on the first link here.

Iron men and wooden ships

This pretty picture, from today’s APOD, shows Venus in proximity to the December moon.

Even after the invention of the chronometer, mariners continued to use the competing method of lunar distance to determine longitude. They measured the angular distance between a bright star or planet and the closest limb of the moon to recover standard time (GMT). During the Napoleonic wars, Royal Navy ships would exchange their estimates of longitude and how they were determined. A Venus lunar was particularly valued as a cross check on their chronometers. “Scientific” Captains of that time (c. 1800) also determined time by observing occulations of Jupiter’s moons. The U.S. Navy dropped the lunar method in the early 1900s by removing the how-to from the 1911(?) edition of The American Practical Navigator.

Those were the days. (Particularly if you didn’t have to to the calculations yourself.)







Bush flips off the press

Crooksandliars captured this video clip1 from last night’s Leno. There was some discussion in the post at Crooksandliars as to whether it was Bush’s thumb or middle finger. I single framed through the clip a couple of times and have to agree with the folks who claim to have seen a knuckle to the left of the extended finger. Do we refer to the etended digit as the First Finger?

This isn’t the first time for W. Although I don’t have a link, I distinctly remember that he did something very similar during the election—only that time he made eye contact with the intended target. Just a frat boy who never grew up, except the pranks are lethal.

1. This link may or may not work the way I intended. When I tried it in the preview mode, I wound up at their home page.

Two in five Americans favor impeachment

Zogby released a poll on the 30th taken before and after the President’s recent prime time address. The poll showed no bounce in the President’s approval ratings that might be attributed to the address. In his release, Zogby prominently featured this question.

If it is found that President Bush did not tell the truth about his reasons for going to war with Iraq, Congress should hold him accountable through impeachment.

Here is a breakdown of responses. (Sorry, couldn’t configure the table quite the way I wanted.)
















Western States



Eastern States






Central/Great Lakes










The release also reported that Americans are tiring of the partisan division on Capitol Hill. (Duh)

The poll results were not reported in the three papers that I routinely look at. Since I had to be somewhere last night, I don’t know if the NewsHour picked it up or not. Perhaps they will tonight on their weekly political wrap up.

A local weekly discussion show, carried on PBS, did pick up the story. For various reasons, three of the four panel members , one a columnist for the Post-Dispatch, didn’t believe the story was newsworthy. The moderator disdainfully introduced the subject by saying that the question should never have been asked.

Generalizing a bit, I ask—The liberal media bias is where?

For some reason the hyperlink didn’t pick up. Here is the URL

A Cock and Bull Story

On a recent AAR broadcast, Al Franken and his longtime friend and former partner Tom Davis performed a sketch on creation theory. Franken played Pat Robertson, the host of the TV show PTL/TGIF. Davis played an elder of the Cheyenne Nation, who was on the show to discuss his efforts to promote including creation theory in the tribal schools’ curricula.

After the opening pleasantries, the dialog went something like this.

Robertson. I’m glad to see that you’ll be teaching about God in your schools.

Elder. God? No Mahota. (|:|) Mahota the all-spirit who lived in the void.

(|:||) Mahota wanted to fill the void. So Mahota created the water and filled the void with the waters, and he created many creatures to populate the waters.

(|:|||) Now Mahota wanted a place to stand. So Mahota summoned all the swiftest of his flying creatures and bade them to fly swiftly and far and to find a suitable place for Him to stand. They all returned, one-at-a-time and said, “Mahota, I flew far searched many places. Yet I couldn’t find any place for you to stand.

(|:||||) After all the swiftly flying creatures of the water had returned, little loon, who was not swift, swam up to Mahota and said “Mahota, I heard what yo said the the swiftly flying creatures and dove deep in the waters and brought you something in my bill that you might use to build a place to stand. Little loon then dropped a ball of mud from his bill into Mahota’s hand. Mahota pondered on little loon’s gift for a time and then said, “Little loon, as a reward for your cleverness, from this time your flesh will forever taste of mud so that you will be prey to none of my other creature.”

(|:|||||) Mahota then summoned grandmother turtle and smeared the mud on her back. And now Mahota had a suitable place to stand.

[There were several interruptions to the elder’s narrative because of disputes over the exact sequence of the creation and over whether Mahota created man from his own rib or God created Eve from Adam’s rib. And now my two favorite exchanges.]

Robertson. What a cock and bull story.

Elder. Cock and Bull. (Short pause) Cock and Bull is Blackfoot. I’m Cheyenne

Robertson. That’s a long winded tale.

Elder. That was the annotated version. When I tell it around the council fire, it takes nearly six hours.

[The interview ended on a note of disharmony.]

1. The spelling of the All Spirit’s name approximates what I remember hearing. No problem—he understands my good intentions and respect.
2. I originally capitalized reference to the All Spirit in the manner of the Christians. But, reflecting on the elder’s tone of voice, I realized that the All Spirit must be kind as well as wise and that the Cheyenne People are comfortable in their relationship with him.
3. The full hand painted version of the Collected Tales of the Cheyenne People is currently on museum tour. A schedule is available at The collection is now annotated with precise dates, which are based on the famous twelve-moons calculations executed by the revered, pre-enlightenment medicine man James Also-Knows-Other’s-Tales. (Conversion to our CE/BCE system is exquisitely complex. Sun will soon begin testing the necessary objects, scheduled for inclusion in the next major release of Java.)


No wonder they called radio the theater of the mind. In the early 60s Bob and Ray built a routine around that idea. (Opening sound effects—door closing, then footfalls echoing in an empty mind.) Those were the days.

Summer Reading

Although not your standard escapist novels, these two books are definitely beach worthy. The first is The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris. The second is The Ethical Brain by Michael Gazzaniga. Harris has a degree in Philosophy and is now completing a doctorate in neurosciece. Gazzaniga is a prominent neuroscientist and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

The End of Faith evolved from a long essay, written after 9/11, on the need to set aside belief that is unsupported by evidence. Along the way, Harris covers a lot of history, some neuroscience and a bit of philosophy (duality). Much of his commentary on religion will be very familiar to the regulars. His basic argument, though, is that we are wired to believe (what we see), beliefs influence our emotional state and very much influence the actions that we take. However, acting on beliefs that have not been verified by fact(s) can lead to disastrous results. For a recent example, consider the tragedy described in Mayo’s post here.

Harris takes no prisoners. On Islam and the Koran he comes down right next to Pat Robertson, his description of the Bible as codified barbarity is akin to Tom Paine’s but without the Deism, and on religious moderates I will let him speak for himself.

One of the central themes of this book, however, is that religeous moderates are themselves the bearers of of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others. I hope to show that very ideal of religeous tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principle forces driving us to the abyss.

Another of his themes is that there is some sort of spiritual need in our psyche that will not be fulfilled by a “mere understanding of our world, scientific or otherwise.”

There is clearly a sacred dimension to our existence, and coming to terms with it could well be the highest purpose of human life. But we will find that it requires no faith in untestable propositions.

He is not talking new wave. At the end of the book he discusses the hard question of neuroscience—consciousness. And, suddenly, after a lot of hard core materialism (mind is matter), he is into the wisdom the east.

Gazzaniga is a kinder, gentler author who discusses a number of current moral or ethical issues in light of what he knows about neuroscience. These include: conferring moral status on an embryo, aging, brain enhancement (through genetic engineering, or training or drugs), and a section titled Free Will, Personal Responsibility and the law. The chapters are reasonably short and each concludes with a section in which he gives his take on the issue just discussed.

A digression on free will. Neuroscience shows that our brains actually make decisions shortly before we become conscious that we have done so. This clearly has to be an evolved survival skill. Here Gazzaniga uses the phrase “free won’t.” Mental impairment aside, we have the ability to veto our unconsciously-generated decisions to act; and are, therefore, accountable for our actions.

I found the closing chapters of the book to be the most interesting. Is there a genetic basis for religiosity? Gazzaniga gets at my God-gene question in a couple of ways. The first is through what he calls the left-hemisphere interpreter. This is a construct that derives from his work with split brain patients. The left brain quite literally makes up stories to explain events. (Question to self. Is it more than coincidence that the major speech processing centers are also located in the left hemisphere?). Here is an abbreviated quote.

Any time our left brain is confronted with information that does not jibe with our self image, knowledge or conceptual framework, our left-hemisphere interpreter creates a belief to enable all incoming information to make sense and mesh with our ongoing idea of ourself. Nowhere does this operate more than on the cultural phenomen of religeous belief.

[Omitted material contrasts religions that originated in Egypt and Messopotamia]

One has to think, it seems to me, that religions, while originating from a common moral core we all possess, are interpretations built on surrounding cultural realities.

Hugely fascinating. In some sense, then, there is a genetic basis for religiosity. The evolved brain provides a fertile bed for religious thought. (That was my aha moment not Gazzaniga’s. That said, his chapter on how the interpreter operates to resolve moral dilemmas was worth the price of both books.)

Gazaniga’s other take on religion is what Toby Lester of the Atalantic Monthly calls “supernatural selection.” In addition to providing a place of worship, churches that survive also provide social services that their members find useful: promotion of health, mate selection, and security. As examples he cites the growth of the Mormon Church and the differential success of new starts in Africa. He also speculates about the success of religious concepts that mesh with our sense of self (spirit = person). Here he is describing God-memes rather than God-genes. I have to believe that the two interact powerfully.

After a chapter on temporal lobe epilepsy and religious belief, he closes with a discussion of scientific evidence that might support a universal inate moral sense.

Both authors champion reason in their own way. Harris offers a terse prescription for the problem that he outlined. That being to answer our children’s questions truthfully. Gazzinaga’s insights show just how improbable it is that we will ever do so.

Google Maps and Firefox Enhancements

It is so nice to have applications that just keep getting better.

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune reviewed an enhancement for Google Maps and a new extension for Firefox called Scrapbook.

Google Maps has incorporated address-specific satellite imagery. There now two links in the upper right hand corner—Map and Satellite. This feature allows you to toggle back and forth. In the satellite mode, you can zoom in to a simulated altitude of 1,000 feet.

The URL for the Scrapbook homepage is

This extension provides a sidebar where you can store and manage web pages, fragments of web pages, and more. Here is a quick overview.

ScrapBook is a Firefox extension, which helps you to save Web pages and easily manage collections. Key features are lightness, speed, accuracy and multi-language support. Major features are:

  * Save Web page
  * Save snippet of Web page
  * Save linked Web page
  * Organize the collection in the same way as Bookmarks tree
  * Full text search and quick filtering search of the collection
  * Simple Editing of the collected Web page
  * Text/HTML edit feature resembling Opera’s Notes

Much more detail is available on the home page.

Einstein’s birthday is next Monday

On today’s Talk of the Nation – Science Friday, Ira Flatow commemorated Einstein’s 126th by interviewing Dennis Overbye, science correspondent at The New York Times. The audio of this segment is available here. A recording of a 1979 interview with some of Einstein’s colleagues and students provides a very personal touch.

When I was in Junior High School, we had a somewhat overbearing substitute teacher, who one day asked us to name some famous person who would be remembered by history. My hand was first in the air, but when I said Einstein, she checked me by saying that Einstein was merely a scientist, whereas Albert Schweitzer was doing really important work.

Of course both were worthy in their own way. But-as the NPR piece indicated-Einstein was America’s first rock star.


When you learn about something in the St. Louis paper, you know that you are not on the cusp of a cool new on-line endeavor. The idea with Googlewhack is to find a two word combination that returns a single web page when the (unquoted) combo is used in a Google search. The page cannot be a word list and both words have to be in the on-line dictionary (The Googlewhack web site runs a validation check.) According to the article, the exercise the improves the mental acuity of those who probably have too much spare time.

It took about a half dozen tries, but I made it to the Whack Stack with existential palmerworm (don’t ask.)