Barack Obama: “Let’s just stay normal”

September 13, 2012

I’m perplexed by people like Lou Pritchett, who claimed not to know who Barack Obama was after the last presidential election, or like Dinesh D’Souza, who make up fantastic webs of stories about how President Obama is Auric Goldfinger, the Brain and Lex Luthor rolled into one, based on less than gossamer.

Cover of Vanity Fair, October 2012, Issue #626

Cover of Vanity Fair, October 2012, Issue #626, containing Michael Lewis’s article, “Obama’s Way.”

One can read Obama’s books.  One can read the stories about him by people who know him.  One can read stories by good journalists who write about people in high office.

I’m fascinated with the profile of Obama in the current issue of Vanity Fair, by Michael Lewis, “Obama’s Way.”  It lends insights on leadership, foreign policy, and how a celebrity or high office holder (or both) can work to stay grounded and do a good job.

To someone who has staffed government agencies, and worked for elected and appointed officials, Lewis’s profile tells a lot in just a few words.

One summer morning I met him outside the private elevator that brings him down from the residence. His morning commute, of roughly 70 yards, started in the ground-floor center hall, and continued past a pair of oil paintings, of Rosalynn Carter and Betty Ford, and through two sets of double doors, guarded by a Secret Service officer. After a short walk along a back porch, guarded by several other men in black, he passed through a set of French doors into the reception area outside the Oval Office. His secretary, Anita, was already at her desk. Anita, he explained, has been with him since he campaigned for the Senate, back in 2004. As political attachments go, eight years isn’t a long time; in his case, it counts as forever. Eight years ago he could have taken a group tour of the White House and no one would have recognized him.

Passing Anita, the president walked into the Oval Office. “When I’m in Washington I spend half my time in this place,” he said. “It’s surprisingly comfortable.” During the week he is never alone in the office, but on weekends he can come down and have the place to himself. The first time Obama set foot in this room was right after he’d been elected, to pay a call on George Bush. The second time was the first day he arrived for work—and the first thing he did was call in several junior people who had been with him since long before anyone cared who he was so they might see how it felt to sit in the Oval Office. “Let’s just stay normal,” he said to them.

You should read the article.  And pass it on.  Get the print version, secretly run a few copies and pass them around to your friends and people you go to church with, or your poker buddies, or the other professors in the biology department.  What do they think of the story?

Stick to the facts, in other words.  Make your own decisions on good information.

Lou Pritchett?  You still out in the wilderness?  Read this.

“Let’s just stay normal.”

Michael Lewis and President Barack Obama walk the White House breezeway during interviews for the article in the photo; image from the article in the magazine, October 2012

Michael Lewis and President Barack Obama walk the White House colonnade during interviews for the article in the photo; image from the article in the magazine, October 2012; White House photo by Pete Souza


Annals of global warming: Understanding climate change, modeling, glaciers and water supply

September 13, 2012

Even during the sturm und drang and donner und blitzen of a presidential election year, scientists carry on their work to understand our planet, its weather and climate, and help others understand it, too.

Good on them.

Comes this morning an e-update newsletter from the National Academy of Sciences, with news on the study of climate change.

First:

A National Strategy for Advancing Climate Modeling

A new report from the National Research Council concludes that climate models will need to evolve substantially to deliver climate projections at the scale and level of detail desired by decision makers. As climate change has pushed climate patterns outside of historic norms, the need for detailed projections is growing across all sectors, including agriculture, insurance, and emergency preparedness planning.

Despite much recent progress in developing reliable climate models, there are still efficiencies to be gained across the large and diverse U.S. climate modeling community. Evolving to a more unified climate modeling enterprise–in particular by developing a common software infrastructure shared by all climate researchers, and holding an annual climate modeling forum–could help speed progress.

Learn more about the report at a free webinar on September 28 at 1:30 pm EST, where you’ll be able to watch live presentations by the report’s authoring committee and ask questions about the report’s findings.

Second:

New Website Provides “101” on Climate Modeling

Earth’s climate system is, in a word, complicated. It incorporates thousands of factors that interact in space and time around the globe and over many generations. For several decades, scientists have used the world’s most advanced computers to both simulate climate and predict future climate. Industries such as those mentioned above increasingly rely on information from these models to guide decision making–and with a changing climate, the information is more important than ever. Along with its new report about advancing climate modeling, the Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate has released Climate Modeling 101, a website designed to help the public learn more about the basics of climate modeling–how they work and why they are important. The site features short videos and animations that explain everything from the difference between climate and weather to how climate models are built and verified.

Third:

Impact of Himalayan Glaciers on Water Supply Unclear

Another report from National Research Council, released on September 12, 2012, concludes that, although scientific evidence shows that most glaciers in South Asia’s Hindu Kush Himalayan region are retreating, the consequences for the region’s water supply are unclear. The study looks at the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, where several of Asia’s great river systems meet, providing water for drinking, irrigation, and other uses for about 1.5 billion people.

Recent studies show that at lower elevations, glacial retreat is unlikely to cause significant changes in water availability over the next several decades, but other factors, including groundwater depletion and increasing human water use, could have a greater impact. Higher elevation areas could experience altered water flow in some river basins if current rates of glacial retreat continue, but shifts in the location, intensity, and variability of rain and snow due to climate change will likely have a greater impact on regional water supplies.

Along with the report, the NRC has released a slideshow of stunning images and data-rich maps that explain what was learned in the report.

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Happy birthday, H. L. Mencken (a day late)

September 13, 2012

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, September 12, 1880:  Henry Louis Mencken.

H. L. Mencken at his piano, 1942.  Photo from the Library of Congress collection

H. L. Mencken at his piano, 1942. Photo from the Library of Congress, via Gibbons

Mencken is the guy who invented the Millard Fillmore bathtub hoaxSo here at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, we owe a birthday greeting to the guy, no?

As a quintessential curmudgeon, Mencken took a cynical pose on many issues.  Why?  His creed explains:

Mencken’s Creed

I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind – that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.
I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.
I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty. . .
I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.
I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech. . .
I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.
I believe in the reality of progress.
I — but the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.

The Mencken Society plans an event commemorating his birthday.  David Donovan will speak on “H.L. Mencken and the Saturday Night Club” on Saturday, September 29, 2012 at 1:00 p.m. at the the Pratt Library’s Southeast Anchor Library, 3601 Eastern Avenue (S Conkling St), Baltimore, MD 21224.  Donovan is a librarian and musicologist from the Pratt Library; the Saturday Night Club was a group of musicians with whom Mencken played piano.

It would be a great day to be in Baltimore.

I wonder what Mencken would have made of Kennedy’s speech in 1962 about going to the Moon.

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