Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The question of extraterrestrial life - It may be resolved sooner than you think

One of the important questions that we will almost certainly answer this century, one way or another, is the question about the existence of life elsewhere in the universe. Actually, we might answer that in the next 10 months or so.

It turns out that there is a tremendous amount of life existing below the surface of the Earth. By some estimates the total mass of living organisms below the surface is as much if not more of the total mass of living organisms above the surface. When you look at another planet such as Mars where the surface conditions are rather harsh, many scientists believe that life is much more likely to exist below the surface of Mars than on its surface. This would also be consistent with surface life developing during a milder Mars climate billions of years ago, then spreading underground and surviving there as much of the Martian atmosphere slowly leaked away into space over the course of billions of years.

If everything goes as planed, in about ten months the most advanced generation yet of spacecraft will land on Mars to look for life. NASA's Phoenix Mission will land on the northern plains and dig three-feet into the soil and ice looking for evidence of microbial life. Should it find any, and some experts think it is likely, then a tremendous set of questions open up. Could this Martian life have come from Earth, or visa-versa? We know that meteor impacts on each planet occasionally jettison rocks into space that eventually crash into the other planet. Or is it based on a chemistry that is total different from any life on Earth? Either way, the discovery of the first extraterrestrial life will put us at the dawn of a major new scientific journey that will eventually tell us much more about our place in the grand scheme of things in the universe.

For an interesting discussion of this topic and its possible consequences, check out this article on Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos Revisited

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Rise of Large Private Armies - Part 2

I intended to post more optimistic views, but I received some comments on my previous post on the rise of large private armies and first wanted to follow up on that. We should all be aware that the legal rules have been set in place to establish marshal law when then next major terrorist attack or natural disaster occurs (are you living in denial about this?). If you want to know what marshal law would be like, just consider the situation where our normal civil liberties already don't apply and security is considered paramount. I'm talking about customs at large airports. A growing number of reports have documented almost unbelievably harsh treatment from the security personal hired to do this work. For example, consider the case of some big-name Finnish musicians traveling to Minnesota for a music tour. One is allegedly the "Bruce Springsteen" of Finland. They've done nothing wrong. But this is what they get at the airport according to a report posted by Andrew Sullivan:
Immigration agents at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport subjected them to more than two hours of interrogation that the musicians considered so harsh and demeaning that they filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki.

"It was almost three hours of screaming, door-slamming and accusations, according to the report I received," said Marianne Wargelin, honorary Finnish consul for the Dakotas and most of Minnesota, which has the second largest Finnish-American population in the nation...

"They threatened us with severe punishments if we talk to each other," according to the complaint signed by musicians Ninni Poijärvi and Mika Kuokkanen, "Through the walls, I can hear officers yelling, screaming. They ask about the purpose of our trip -- except we are only allowed to give yes-or-no answers. I try to talk about our plans to meet with Finnish-American folk musicians. Nobody listens. They interrupt me constantly and they yell, 'You are a liar!"'

It's no wonder that American has earned the reputation of one of the most unfriendly places to visit by foreign travelers. Tourist and business travel are down sharply, as Fareed Zakaria discussed in a recent Newsweek article. This should be very disturbing and somewhat scary. This is not the America I grew up in! But Americans have a long history for not putting up with this type of outrageous behavior for long. I thank both Andrew Sullivan and Fareed Zakaria for publicising this matter while it's still easy to do something about it before it spreads during moments of fear.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Barry Bonds Indictment - more of a beginning than an end

On the News Hour last evening, Brooks and Shields were discussing the recent indictment of Barry Bonds for lying to a Congressional committee about his steroid use. One of the commentators, David Brooks, said "it will lead to the end of the steroid era [in baseball]". Ha, I thought, that couldn't be further from the truth. As I've said before, the increasing and pervasive use of performance enhancing drugs will bring an end to professional and Olympic sports as we know them today. Barry Bonds is just the beginning. The lesson other athletes have learned is that performance enhancing drugs can produce major benefits, but you just need do it in a way that won't be caught.

The tour de France bicycle race has been plagued by doping scandals for many years. The 2006 winner Floyd Landis was found guilty of doping and was stripped of his title. This year (2007) rider Alexander Vinokourov tested positive for blood doping after winning one of the time trials and was disqualified. And Michael Rasmussen of Denmark, who was leading the race at the time, was removed from the race for missing random drug tests.

In the most recent of a long list of Olympic doping scandals, sprinter Marion Jones admitted to the use of banned drugs and voluntarily returned her gold medals from the 2000 Sydney Olympics ( showing some integrity on her part). Normally those gold medals would now be awarded to the 2nd place finisher. But to illustrate just how bad things have become, the International Olympic Committee is considering the unusual step of leaving the gold medal for the 200m sprint unawarded to anyone. It turns out that the 2nd place finisher, Greek sprinter Katerina Thanou was caught up in a doping scandal at the 2004 Athens Games.

The performance benefits are so great that people are risking their entire careers by using these drugs. And as new designer drugs are becoming available that are much harder to detect, I'm afraid that it will become almost impossible for an athlete to remain competitive at the highest levels without taking them. And we are only a decade or so away from the introduction of genetically modified athletes.