Friday, November 30, 2007

Jesus is coming via I-35

Someone said he's in a bright orange '69 Camaro. But don't worry -- he's a very careful driver.

But seriously: Christian crazies are staging "purity sieges" along I-35 to stop gay bars, abortions, strip clubs, and other unchristian thoughts and deeds.

I used to live within a few miles of I-35. So long as these "purity seiges" don't interfere with the principle human activity undertaken along that interstate, drunk driving, I foresee little impact. Otherwise the middle of the country will grind to a freaking halt.

Encyclicals That Say Nothing

The Pope has spoken:

In the second encyclical of his papacy, Benedict urges Christians to put their hope for the future in God and not in technology, wealth or political ideologies ... "Let us put it very simply: man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope."
Yes, by all means, let us put it very simply: this is bullshit.

To see why only requires connecting these sonorous papal phrasings to real-world, concrete cases. Popes only issue so many encyclicals -- the Pope is said to be infallible, so he doesn't speak casually. So why do none of them say anything useful? How spectacularly useful would it have been for a medieval Pope to issue an encyclical giving a broad hint as to the true source of bubonic plague? He wouldn't even have needed to understand it -- god could just have used his magical powers to impel the Pope to say something about rats and fleas: "If you want to stop the plague, find ways to stop the rats and fleas." For all I know, that statement could sound downright elegant in Latin, and if not, surely it could have been Poped-up to fit the properly high encyclical style.

This Christian form of hope is a flimsy thing when pinned to concrete particulars. No doubt the Popes of the middle 1300s, when plague was ravaging "Christendom," gave the same kinds of encyclicals: hope for a really smashing afterlife, pray unceasingly, and above all trust in god rather than technology, wealth, political ideologies, or effective pesticides. Looking back, how well did it work? Upon what basis should anyone expect it to do better going forward?

With respect to bubonic plague, humankind now has a pretty solid grasp on stopping it thanks to advances in pest control and scientific medicine. New plagues and countless other threats are emerging, and there is absolutely no reason to believe "Christian hope" is going to stop them.

New Polls, Old Results

A new poll reveals the same old ignorance among Americans: belief in the devil outscores "belief in" evolution 62% to 42%. 82% profess believe in god, and 72% believe Jesus is the son of god.

Toward being as generous as possible to the latter: I can see how someone who doesn't actually exist can be believed to be the son of someone else who doesn't actually exist. For example, I believe that Bart is the son of Homer, and that Stewie is the son of Peter, and that Peter is the son of Mike. I further believe those are different Peters -- Griffin and Brady. I can relate to the belief that fictional characters have a certain something approximating realness.

So, in a sense -- squinting really hard here to fuzz up the stupid -- I believe that Jesus is the son of god, too. And that Athena sprung from the forehead of Zeus.

Sigh. I've addressed the topic of America's love affair with ignorance before, so I won't rehash except to say this is sad.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Tights Issue Comes Home

I took delivery of my first (two) pairs of new tights today, and I want to affirm, very expressly and openly, to a potential worldwide audience of billions (and an actual audience of three or four) that I will only wear the tights under shorts.

It's not that I think I look bad in them. I don't think I do. But isn't that the trouble with tights? People think they look OK in tights when they actually don't. I can't trust the image I see of myself in a mirror -- the blind spots are legion. For example, I have already formed an opinion about the job done by the guy who circumcised me, so I just don't look there closely or objectively.

I claim no right to foist this view on others. The tights will be covered.

Wide Stance Pique

I gather the portion of the blogosphere favoring the Wide Stance party is confused and angry about last night's CNN/Youtube debate in that it left an impression of a party of, by, and for everything that's nasty, narrow, stupid, and depraved.

But really, what's the worry? Let's review the contenders:

Rudy Giuliani - 9/11! His third wife is willing to overlook his serial adultery -- some of it was with her, and at taxpayer expense no less -- so why can't Values Voters? 9/11!! And while they're overlooking that, surely they can overlook his pro-choice and gay-friendly record as a politician. 9/11!

John McCain, Ron Paul - Each has a long voting record placing him within the mainstream of the party (Paul, McCain), but the Wide Stance base can't get over its pique at the few instances when they've doubted the goodness of torture or spoken favorably of the Constitution (respectively).

Mitt Romney - Sure, he follows a ridiculous cult, but he has changed several of his core beliefs to match what the focus groups say to believe.

Fred Thompson - So he can't stay awake for more than 15 minutes. Big deal. Why should he be awakened to answer the questions that don't interest him in the first place?

Mike Huckabee - He thinks he's running for Jesus, wise-cracking edition.

Tom Tancredo, Duncan Hunter - Identical twins suckled by Lou Dobbs. Observers could distinguish them with some effort, but why would we?

P.S. CNN sucks ass.

Asking Candidates About Beliefs

National Review chickenhawk Byron York comes dangerously close to posing a valid question:

The beauty of religious conservatives is that their dogma is open to scrutiny and investigation. Conservatives generally have a written canon that includes everything from the Bible to scores of political books. Liberalism's canon is largely unwritten, it's dogma made-up as they go along ... As someone who subscribes to the view that liberalism is a secular religion, it is very frustrating that liberal politicians do not offer up a paper trail for people to scrutinize the way conservatives do. Liberalism has a dogma as rich and serious as conservatism, but you can't go to a liberal politician and ask: Are you loyal to John Dewey? Richard Rorty? John Rawls? You can't ask what their bible is because they are acolytes of the bookless faith of good deeds, the cult of do-goodery. So when they argue for keeping "religion" out of politics they are saying "keep your religion out of politics."
Well, yes, I am most certainly saying keep your religion out of politics -- and I say the same to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, Al Gore. I am saying keep politics as secular as it can be, as secular as the Constitution is.

But I concede it's not quite that simple. York correctly observes that "people understand that your basic religious upbringing will inform your values and instincts toward certain policy questions." Thus questions about religion and religious beliefs can't simply be wished away if we expect to know anything worth knowing about political candidates.

York goes off the rails in his declaration that "liberalism is a secular religion," which enables an equivocation between religious and political creed. Whether or not "liberalism is a secular religion," the liberals who actually run for office do espouse a religious view: every Democrat currently running for President openly professes belief in Christianity.

So what's the problem? York is free to check the words of the Bible against the words and deeds of the Democrats. What, exactly, is stopping him? Nothing. I would consider such questions fair game (as he says he does when they're asked of Wide Stancers).

The stuff about Rawls, Dewey, Rorty, and "the bookless faith of good deeds" that York claims he can't pin down strikes me as nothing more than York's inability to formulate an interesting question about the liberal candidates' non-religious creeds.

I have a wild-ass guess about the alleged crisis as York poses it: maybe he can't, say, pin John Edwards down to an inconvenient tenet of John Rawls's philosophy because John Edwards hasn't claimed to revere John Rawls as an infallible source of wisdom. For all I know, John Edwards has never read a word written by John Rawls.

There is no double standard here. It's no easier to tag, say, John McCain or Rudy Giuliani with a sharp question about something Leo Strauss or Edmund Burke once wrote. I have no idea if they count themselves as Straussians or Burkeans.

To the extent York is saying there should be more substantive investigation of the philosophical underpinnings of the candidates' views of good government, I agree. This will take time away from discussions of hair cuts, cackles, woodenness, clothing choices, poll results, campaign tactics, and so on, so it would require the likes of Tim Russert, Chris Matthews, Joe Klein, Maureen Dowd, and several dozen more empty-headed big media scribblers to probe into matters in which they've shown absolutely no interest to date, so I don't expect it any time soon.

But here's a quick suggestion: be the change, Byron York. Wipe away your phony tears and ask all those questions you claim are forbidden. You're paid to do it, right?

"Subject - Verb - 9/11"

While mayor of 9/11, I mean New York City, Rudy Giuliani used taxpayer-funded resources to enable extra-marital 9/11s, I mean trysts, with his girlfriend, who is now his third 9/11, I mean wife.

Will the party of the Wide Stance reject him for this? 9/11?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Smackdown! Dennett versus D'Souza

Ah, to be on or near the campus of Tufts: there, this coming Friday (12/30), Daniel Dennett and Dinesh D'Souza will debate the question of god's existence.

I hope it makes it to youtube and podcast soon.

The Titles Say It All

If you're not careful, you'll learn something useful on Youtube. Good stuff.

The Origin of Life Made Easy:

God and DNA Made Easy:

Interactive Cartoons

Have you had a chance to play with this flash thingie? It's a lot of fun, especially the rag dolls. It reminds me of my childhood, when I would lull myself to sleep by imagining giving a terrible beating to a cartoon leprechaun loosely based on the Lucky Charms spokesleprechaun.

I continue to dislike cartoon leprechauns, but they no longer inspire violent fantasy, and that has to be a good sign. Right?

The Groundless Leon Kass

Replying to a mass of twaddle-bearing hot air issued from the mouth of Leon Kass that condemns "soul-less scientism," John Tierney asks a simple question that breaks the legs of Kass's chair:

If I read the Book of Genesis and decide that God’s command to procreate includes using our divinely endowed gift, unshared by any lower animal, to clone ourselves and use other biotechnologies to extend our lives, how can Dr. Kass and I resolve our differences?
Did you hear Kass's arse hit the floor, or was it just me? This is precisely the problem with a faith-based or Biblical-based view of human nature, dignity, rights or whatever else: it is utterly unverifiable. It's a matter interpreting texts that are vague at best, texts that were manifestly not written to answer the questions foisted upon them.

What does the book of Genesis say about cloning? About DNA? Or about modern-day, science-based techniques to enhance human fertility? Nothing specific. Thus it must be inferred; it must be interpolated; it must be coaxed out of etymologies, transliterations, and dueling philologies; it must be wrung from the "spirit" or the "larger purpose" or the meaning-behind-the-meaning of the Biblical text, that being subject to nothing more than conjecture.

There is no shortage of self-styled prophets who will gladly tell us the real meaning: they're a dime a dozen, and they can't agree from one instance to the next. The book and the faith exist quite apart from these eager, easy feats of exegesis, and ground nothing.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Joe Klein and Time

I can't recall a recent incident that has shone as much bright light on the ugly, vapid, propagandistic practices of our national media. The more they speak, the more they reveal what they are.
That's Glenn Greenwald in his latest installment chasing down a blatant set of lies Joe Klein told in a Time magazine column, and Time's and Klein's shameless efforts to obfuscate, deflect, mislead, and otherwise evade basic standards of truth-telling, let alone journalism.

It's quite a story, and it reveals exactly what Greenwald says it reveals. Big national media outlets like Time are playing a game whose rules include shocking laziness and mendacity. And the joke is on all of us, because the net result of this game is now sitting in the White House.

Creationism Is Risible

This video provides a tidy example of how well creationists' claims stand up to science. Short answer: not very damn well at all.

I Call This Post "Mohammed"

... even though I don't care for that name. I insist the naming of this post is not sufficient reason to have me whipped, but I've been accused of drastically underappreciating holy texts and icons before.

I gather I have blasphemed against the religion of peace by doing so. Whatever. The wackos bothered by this would probably be a lot more offended if they learned what I consider the best use of Korans.

The Chicken Dance of Morning Coffee

Most work days, I settle for coffee from Seattle's Best because, while I happen to know that Seattle can do better than this, the franchise is on the ground floor of the building where I work, so convenience trumps all.

I can never be sure what the servers will charge me to fill my cup. I've been bringing the same cup for at least a year, and presenting it to the same cast of four or five servers, but there's no consistency: some days they see it as a small, other days as a medium, still others as a large. I never complain or even mention the day to day discrepancy, I just find it interesting to observe.

Maybe they think I haven't noticed; maybe they're observing me.

Another possibility: maybe another of the recurring customers is the actual social psychologist on the scene, observing me and them engage in this chicken dance of random coffee pricing.

Most likely of all: this isn't the slightest bit interesting to any observer at any time or place -- ergo it must be recorded here on my precious, precious blog.

Even Quieter

At least part of the inspiration for Spinal Tap is suddenly gone: The lead singer of Quiet Riot, Kevin DuBrow, has died.

Quiet Riot was somewhere along the leading edge of the pop musical movement that combined 1970s heavy metal, porno culture, and technological breakthroughs in hairspray technology that would follow an arc of increasing self-parody to Ratt, Motley Crue, Twisted Sister, Poison, Whitesnake, Bon Jovi, and a few dozen other bands I'm embarrassed to recall.

Peace to Mr. DuBrow's family. I hope this means there will be no more Quiet Riot music. Ever.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Watch Their Eyes

Have you heard of Conservapedia? If not, consider yourself lucky. If so, you already know it is an open-source repository of "conservative" nostrums and factoids structured on the wikipedia model. But it's far worse than that, judging by its own accounting of its most viewed pages. Here they are:

1. Main Page‎ [1,954,500]
2. Homosexuality‎ [1,863,699]
3. Homosexuality and Hepatitis‎ [518,437]
4. Homosexuality and Parasites‎ [460,277]
5. Gay Bowel Syndrome‎ [432,297]
6. Homosexuality and Promiscuity‎ [422,635]
7. Homosexual Couples and Domestic Violence‎ [374,493]
8. Homosexuality and Gonorrhea‎ [332,276]
9. Homosexuality and Anal Cancer‎ [294,914]
10. Homosexuality and Mental Health‎ [294,282]

There's a certain fixity of theme to the "conservative" mind, no? This raises the question always lurking beneath the surface of anti-gay activism: which group of people thinks about gay sex more frequently -- self-described gay men or self-described "conservatives"? I am less sure than ever.

And I am less sure than ever that self-described gays and self-described "conservatives" are, in any valid demographic sense, distinct groups of people.

Behold What God Enables

Responding to international criticism -- mind you, none from the Bush administration -- for sentencing a woman to lashings and jail time for having been gang-raped, the Saudi justice ministry released a statement noting that she

... confessed to doing what God has forbidden ... the charged girl is a married woman who confessed to having an affair with the man she was caught with.
Let's assume for the moment that the woman is indeed married and did truly confess to an affair. So what? The other part of the statement fills that blank: god has forbidden it. The astonishing backwardness of this "justice" comes directly from following god's rules as set down in bronze-age tales.

Jews and Christians shouldn't get too sanctimonious about this -- their holy books forbid infidelity just as strongly.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Davies on Faith and Science

Paul Davies has written an op-ed in the New York Times making the tired claim that science, no less than religion, rests on faith:

... to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You've got to believe that these laws won't fail, that we won't wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour.
As Davies is a populizer of science of some repute, he is not easily accused of simply denying science or berating scientists for not dropping to the right prayer mats; rather, the point seems to be to inflate faith's intellectual respectability by dragging science down -- to the level of untestable, unverifiable, speculative, unfalsifiable, pull-it-out-of-your-ass arbitrariness where theologies lurk and thrive.

A number of respected scientists -- Jerry Coyne, Nathan Myhrvold, Lawrence Krauss, Scott Atran, Sean Carroll, Jeremy Bernstein, PZ Myers, Lee Smolin -- have responded to Davies. Taken together, these rebuttals leave Davies argument looking bedraggled and asinine, and the following are a few of my favorite bits.

Nathan Myhrvold:
A working physicist assumes that [the universe is governed by a set of laws that we humans can figure out] because there is a 500 year history of propositions and tests. The net result is what we know about physics, which describes the world very well indeed.
Sean Carroll:
The more mundane 'why' questions make sense because they refer to objects and processes that are embedded in larger systems of cause and effect. The atmosphere is made of atoms, light is made of photons, and they obey the rules of atomic physics. ... In every case, our questions are being asked in the context of an explanatory framework in which it's perfectly clear what form a sensible answer might take.
The universe (in the sense of 'the entire natural world,' not only the physical region observable to us) isn't like that. It's not embedded in a bigger structure; it's all there is. We are lulled into asking 'why' questions about the universe by sloppily extending the way we think about local phenomena to the whole shebang.
... There is a chain of explanations concerning things that happen in the universe, which ultimately reaches to the fundamental laws of nature and stops. This is a simple hypothesis that fits all the data; until it stops being consistent with what we know about the universe, the burden of proof is on any alternative idea for why the laws take the form they do.
Jeremy Bernstein -- this is his entire entry:
Paul Davies's donnish question which he apparently tries out on the odd scientist —explain the laws of the universe—seems silly to me. Explain in terms of what?
PZ Myers:
Alas, Davies also brings up the anthropic principle, that tiresome exercise in metaphysical masturbation that always flounders somewhere in the repellent ditch between narcissism and solipsism. When someone says that life would not exist if the laws of physics were just a little bit different, I have to wonder…how do they know? Just as there are many different combinations of amino acids that can make any particular enzyme, why can't there be many different combinations of physical laws that can yield life? Do the experiment of testing different universes, then come talk to me. Until then, claiming that the anthropic principle, an undefined mish-mash of untested assumptions, supports your personal interpretation of how the universe exists and came to be is a self-delusional error.
There's lots more where this comes from. Happy reading!

This Must Stop

George Packer (one of the liberal hawks who has done so much to further the Bush-Cheney junta over the last several years) has written a commentary in the November 26 New Yorker that typifies all too well a tendency among certain left-of-center commentators that needs to stop yesterday: he claims to perceive good sense and moderation behind the tirelessly bellicose rhetoric of the GOP Presidential contenders.

Packer notes Romney's pledge to double Guantanimo, Giuliani's sickening relativism vis-a-vis torture (its moral status depends, he says, on who is doing it) and frenzied warmongering vis-a-vis Iran (why stop at only one trillion-dollar morass?), McCain's full-body embrace of Bush-Cheney's disaster, and the shrill denunciations from the right that have met Ron Paul's mentions of the Constitution. None of this worries Packer because he can divine what's really happening:

... a few of the Republicans seem to understand that Bush has driven the country into a ditch. But, because the thirty per cent of Americans who remain die-hard Bush supporters have a death grip on their party, those candidates won't say so, choosing to repress their constructive impulses and sound as shallow and jingoistic as possible while campaigning. Perhaps they're counting on changing course and governing differently once elected. It would be dangerous to assume that they can pull it off -- we've been there before. [emphasis mine]
Why does the New Yorker -- supposedly at the leading edge of brainy left-leaning discourse -- continue printing shit like this?

On what grounds can George Packer, who has been unremittingly wrong about the most signficant matters of foreign policy for at least the last seven years, presume to read constructive impulses behind the very public expression of explicitly destructive impulses? And why should anyone be asked to listen to mind-readings?

And that's not worst of it. Perhaps they're counting on changing course and governing differently once elected, Packer muses. In other words, they are lying about what they will do if elected President, and on the most fundamental matters. They'll actually repudiate and roll back the excesses of the Bush-Cheney junta, they're just lying through their teeth to placate the crazy GOP base voters.

Packer's mind reading indicates they'll actually seek to do the opposite of what they say they'll do, support what they say they oppose, oppose what they say they support -- the GOP stage is packed with candidates playing "opposites day."

Um, what's the evidence for this?

This is insane. The candidates should be evaluated based on what they actually say, and on what they've done and supported in the past. If their words and deeds indicate bellicosity and wrecklessness, their policies should be expected to follow suit. If there is some reason to believe they are misrepresenting their policy positions, this should count against them.

Packer is indulging in a pattern of thinking that has been enabling Bush-Cheney for far too long: an assumption that there is good sense, moderation, and reason underneath the insanity. We should allow not one more inch by telling ourselves, 'Surely they wouldn't do that', or 'Surely they don't mean that.'

They mean it, and they'll do it. It is dangerous magical thinking to assume otherwise.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

It Writes, Acts, & Directs Itself

Among the interminable trailers foisted on me as I awaited the showing of No Country for Old Men, the forthcoming Rob Reiner film co-starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, The Bucket List, seems a missed opportunity to break typecasting. Wouldn't it be interesting to see Jack Nicholson play the gentle, wise old sage with lessons to impart to Morgan Freeman's crusty, purblind old coot? That might be slightly interesting -- a challenge for the actors and the director, a flouting of expectations here and there.

Alas, no. Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson will reprise the same roles they've played in their last ten or fifteen films. It will have a respectable opening weekend, go to rental not long after that, and by this time next year, we'll see the DVD on sale for $8.99 in the impulse aisle at Target and wonder, without any sense of urgency, whether we've seen that particular permutation or not.

Which is not to say one of them won't be nominated for a supporting actor Oscar for his work in this film. This doesn't look like Rob Reiner's Oscar grab, but it wouldn't be the most suprising thing in the world.


The Plank Narrows

Another of the dwindling members of the so-called "coalition of the willing" has disappeared, now that Australia has voted out the Conservative Party headed by John Howard and voted in the Labor Party headed by Kevin Rudd.

Australia's new government has pledged to end its involvement in Iraq and to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol.

Well done, Australia.

Will It Blend?

Somebody please help me. I can't seem to stop watching these "Will It Blend?" videos, even though I know it's viral marketing, even though I know I'm falling into the heart of the trap by passing it along. A blogger has certain responsibilities.

Don't fail to watch the episode in which we learn an entire Thanksgiving meal will blend ... or will it?

Here's what I want to know: does the Bible blend? Does the Koran blend? Will they blend together?

Not Just Bad, 80s Bad

Andrew Sullivan has finished a reader poll on the worst videos of the 1980s, and I can't disagree with the winner: the video by Lionel Ritchie in which the blind girl makes a sculpture of Lionel Ritchie. This is horrible on so very many levels, and sadly typical of Lionel Ritchie's output.

It's hard to believe, but there was a years-long period in the 1980s when Lionel Ritchie could have farted into a microphone and it would have gone platinum. And as if all that weren't bad enough, now we have Nicole Ritchie to show for it.

See all the winners, losers, and honorable mentions here.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Talkie of Note: No Country for Old Men

You should go out and see No Country for Old Men. I had the pleasure(?) today, and I come away from it with that feeling that the best films give -- something between the suspicion that I've been given too little to make sense of, and the suspicion that I've been given too much. I'll need to think on this one for a while, and that will be easy since so many of the scenes wouldn't be leaving my conscious mind even if I wanted them to.

Tommy Lee Jones dominates every scene he's in even more than usual, and the fact that he's playing a character we've seen him play before doesn't detract because the "dismal tide" of the film's world overwhelms that character.

Load up on the antidepressants and get a ticket to this one.

Rear Window

This is how I picture my neighbors -- as people like Jimmy Stewart from Rear Window, who live their lives staring out the window, waiting for a neighbor like me to wander into view and kick up some drama. So it seems to me when I tend to the paranoid, and so I would feel if, hypothetically, holiday house guests were becoming so oppressive as to drive me outdoors to wander down the street and gaze at the moon and endure the sub-freezing wind chills. I would -- hypothetically -- feel them looking at me, judging me, evaluating me.

Regarding Tofurky

So I had my tofurky for Thanksgiving and I know my three readers have been living in a state of wretched limbo waiting for my evaluation of it. And here it goes: not bad! It's certainly easier to prepare than actual turkey, and the end product makes for a pretty good approximation of turkey in both flavor and texture.

Stuffing has always been my favorite part of the conventional Thanksgiving feast, and I'm happy to say the vegan stuffing that came in the tofurky kit was quite good. The gravy was quite good too.

The kit came with vegan dumplings but I didn't make them. Dumplings have never been part of the holiday experience for me, so I didn't see any point in trying to approximate them.

A lot of leftovers remain since I couldn't persuade the carnivores to try any of it. Their loss, I would say.

What Higher Good?

Tiny Frog is embarking on a critical response to Lee Strobel's The Case for Faith, a popular piece of Christian apologetics. Tiny Frog does a great job of dissecting and impugning the fake journalistic persona in which Strobel writes, and quotes this exchange between Strobel and a skeptic:

“It was a picture of a black woman in Northern Africa,” [the skeptic] explained. “They were experiencing a devastating drought. And she was holding her dead baby in her arms and looking up to heaven with the most forlorn expression. I looked at it and I thought, ‘Is it possible to believe that there is a loving or caring Creator when all this woman needed was rain?’”
I read this stuff about the forlornness of the skeptic as a subtle reinforcement of the cliche that non-believers are just sad sacks who haven't found the consolations and comforts of Jesus. But what is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence, so unless and until someone can show peer-reviewed social science demonstrating that embracing Christianity increases personal happiness, I'll set aside further comment on that aspect of Strobel's armchair theorizing.

Returning to the question of how a loving god can allow a mother to watch her child die in a drought, Strobel answers by way of Peter Kreeft:
“How can a mere finite human be sure that infinite wisdom would not tolerate certain short-range evils in order for more long-range goods that we couldn’t foresee?”
From there, Kreeft's and Strobel's argument takes the familiar direction of analogizing the human-god relationship to the raccoon-human relationship: just as a trapped raccoon can't understand the loving purpose behind the human's tranquilizer dart, so humans can't understand the loving purpose behind god's darts (pain and suffering of all sorts). In each case there is a much greater good being sought: the tranquilized raccoon will be released from the trap and set free, the darted humans will get "salvation," which entails, I don't know, sitting on a cloud and strumming a harp, watching the unsaved burn from the comfort of an air-conditioned heavenly box seat, or whatever.

Tiny Frog picks apart this argument on good enough grounds, but I want to add a counterargument I consider more fundamental. We have a very clear and concrete understanding of the greater good that will come to the raccoon: it will be released from a painful trap and released to the wild, whereupon its life, and all the joys of raccoon-ness, will resume. It's easy to see how this good does outweigh the alarm and pain associated with the tranquilizer dart. But what is the larger good for the human in the analogy? Here's where I think the analogy reveals its shallowness.

Imagine yourself as a mother in a poor and drought-blighted time and place having to watch your child slowly, painfully waste away. Believing in an all-good and all-powerful god, you pray every day for rain. Day after day the rains fail to come, and at last the child dies as you clutch her desiccated body. The pain of the "dart" has only started, of course. The mother will live on, plagued by memories of the events and with agonized self-questioning over the pattern of choices that lead the mother and child to that time and place. For the rest of her life, any number of smells, sights, and sounds will trigger excruciatingly painful memories of the lost child. She will, of course, find it impossible to escape doubts about the efficacy of prayer and the goodness of god, and in that connection, if she lives on planet earth, she will never lack for people reminding her that such doubts will doom her to everlasting torment which, by the way, entails absolute and final estrangement from the lost child. (Whose own salvation is a matter of conjecture in any case.)

I would suggest that this human has experienced a profound psychic wound that can never be undone by any good, no matter how great. I would go so far as to say it is an insult to this pain to suggest there is any 'good' that can outweigh it. There are wounds that people simply do not bounce back from according to any method of psychology or any sober understanding of human nature. Human pain is cheapened and diminished by this 'higher good' bullshit.

What higher good? Sure, assuming the child was vacuumed up to heaven, and assuming the mother is vacuumed up to heaven after death, they will be reunited (I gather -- this is an unverifiable tenet of popular Christianity and similar monotheistic death cults). But how many painful years will have been lost, featuring what intervening experiences with what effects? What will the child's experience be during those intervening years, having lost the only love she ever knew? And while such a reunion can be supposed to be a profoundly happy one, the psychic wounds wouldn't disappear. The ways they perturbed and distorted the woman's outlook on life will not simply go away. Humans don't work this way.

If god has some greater form of psychological palliative that makes all this go away, that wipes away every taint of post-traumatic stress disorder (and similar psychological maladies), then bully for him, but it begs the question of why he hasn't shared it with the children he so loves. And note how an extra element of magical thinking has entered the scenario: that god will wave his hands and alter the workings of human emotions and human interactions in the favor of the saved. We're way beyond the terms of the raccoon-in-a-trap analogy now.

To summarize: what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence (to re-borrow that phrase from Christopher Hitchens), and I thereby dismiss the casual and lazy assertion of a 'higher good' that can nullify the very real pain experienced by humankind.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Buy Nothing Day

Having just sat through a tee-vee "news" report on the amazing deals on offer in the malls by tomorrow morning, and on retailers' hand-wringing about how much Americans will add to their credit card indebtedness this holiday season, I was reminded that tomorrow is "Buy Nothing Day."

I plan to honor Buy Nothing Day. I don't think much depends on it, and I don't plan anything more grandiose or dramatic than using the day to rest and, continuing the Thanksgiving theme, to appreciate what I have.

It does strike me as a little incongruent to follow Thanksgiving, a day of thanks and gratitude, with a headlong plunge into consumerism -- the ethic of the never-contented, the religion of gluttony and greed.

George Bush is right, even if he doesn't realize it, even if the way he's right is buried in multiple layers of wrong -- shopping is a political act. Going shopping does embody and express a set of values. Are they the right ones? This question is worth asking.

I am not innocent of consumerism (far from it) but I do think it's worthwhile to step back and take a fresh look now and then. Buy Nothing Day seems like a good opportunity to step back.

Facing an ethical dilemma? Ask a baby.

New scientific findings support the idea that morality is innate:

Babies as young as six months can distinguish between good and bad people, according to a study in which babies observed characters being helpful or unhelpful.

Scientists had thought that social judgments developed with language at about 18 months to two years old. But the results suggest that the ability to make moral judgments has innate foundations and is not just learned from parents.
Unless we suppose these babies were given intensive religious training (presumably in language they could not yet understand), this is further evidence that god's role in morality is wildly overstated. Which is to say, god and god-belief have nothing to do with morality -- and it's a good thing, too, since god doesn't exist and god-belief is a house built on sand.

It seems to me an analogy to beauty is helpful here: if we deny the assumption that a god is directing and supervising people's assessments of what's beautiful, and instead propose a naturalistic explanation (e.g., one from evolutionary psychology, such as that all assessments of beauty resolve to koinophilia), the bottom doesn't suddenly fall out of the idea of beauty. What were ugly and beautiful before remain so -- agreements, disagreements, inbetween. Neko Case remains hot, a verdant sunlit field still catches our fancy more than a garbage dump, etc.

If we're serious about upholding morality, we'll make a real effort to understand it. The scientific method will continue to be the path to that understanding, because nothing fails like prayer.

The Dilemma Has New Horns

Ah craaap. I now have reason to believe that my old college buddy HH is reading this blog now and then, so I'm going to have to dig deep and find ways to smarten it up. And there's no easy way to achieve that without driving it further and faster over the cliffs of pretentiousness and imperiousness.

All my po-mo instincts tell me to solve this by going obscure. Obscurantism can make this all seem very sophisticated and profound while remaining indefinite enough to avoid the charge that I think I know something or have something worth saying.

I doubt that would actually fool HH.


When Turkeys Trot

Right around 2,000 runners and walkers braved the near-freezing temperatures and very un-Portlandlike sunny skies for this morning's Turkey Trot at the Zoo, a four-mile jaunt down and back up a pretty forbidding set of hills in Portland's Washington Park. I finished in 26:50, for a 6:42 pace, somewhere among the top 30 or so finishers, claims you'll have to take on faith since this is classified as a "fun run" so there will be no standings or official times posted.

I am not lying. I ran it well, and I should have since this course overlaps with one of my regular training runs. I know every bend in the road and every change in elevation at least as well as the back of my hand.

Thanks to all the runners who shielded me from some of the wind as we stood there freezing our butts off at the start area.

The course finishes inside the zoo, and the best moment this time was when I passed the tiger exhibit to find that one of the tigers was up and about, pacing and looking over the field of runners trying to decide which of us to kill first after his escape. I can imagine worse ways to go.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Of Wiring, Near Misses, and Gratitude

Today provided only the latest illustration of how much depends on the "Y" in "DIY." Last night, only two days before the Big Thanksgiving* Feed, we noticed that the light fixture over the dining room table was no longer responding to its dimmer switch. After confirming the light bulbs themselves weren't the problem, my first method, denial, showed itself to be a failed one by morning, so I headed out to the store for a new dimmer switch.

Connecting the new switch began with a hilarious round of trial-and-error in the breaker closet, which included an instantaneous shutdown of the PC (always good for the hard drive) but eventually landed on a set of 'off' toggles that made all the outlets in the vicinity of the dining room unresponsive. So, confident I wouldn't get a shock, I removed the old dimmer switch, and then wired in the new dimmer switch -- a task that was unexpectedly flooded with light toward the end as I cinched down that last connection, light coming from the very light fixture I was re-wiring. I had done the whole job on hot wires.

Neat. I can be thankful that I achieved the enduring goal of the DIY'er, solving a house problem with minimal outlay of funds, without killing myself. I can also reach way back to junior high and give thanks that I actually paid some attention in the mandatory electricity shop class, which taught a healthy respect for electrical fixtures even when they're "off," because "off" can look a lot like "on."

I escaped this time, but I am confirmed in my belief that the "Y" in "DIY" should bring some actual knowledge to the situation, not just bluster wedded to frugality. Whew.

* Thanksgiving is another holiday I refuse to give to the Christians. There's plenty of reason for gratitude without any reference to the supernatural, and concentrating all of one's gratitude into a single holiday clears the rest of the calendar for ignoring or dismissing the contributions of others. [Insert winking emoticon]

Books, Marked

Via normblog, a question from dovegray reader: do you write in books? Even if they're not your own?

I do. Not only do I, but I appreciate it when others do as well. I have no scruples about marking up a library's property in this way, although I would not do it to a book borrowed from another person without permission. The distinction I make is that the books in the library are public property and therefore can and should bear the collective wisdom of the readers who have encountered the book: the passages they've chosen to highlight, the comments and notes they've been prompted to jot down. I find such markings helpful in the same way that I find reviews and criticism helpful: it gives me an idea of what others have found noteworthy about the work without demanding that I agree with the interpretation or the point of emphasis. It provides an entry point a few steps inside the conversation that the best books inspire.

Finding a lovingly-marked but otherwise well-maintained used copy of a book at, say, Powell's feels like stealing: I get the book at a discount, annotated by previous readers.

One caveat: markings that occlude the text, in even the smallest way, are beyond the pale.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

FOX Sics Hitchens on Romney

I agree with what Hitchens is saying about Mitt Romney -- that he is obliged to account for his beliefs just as much as every other candidate for President, even when it comes to religious beliefs. It is incumbent on a Presidential candidate to explain his association with a racist sect, and to explain how he would respond when his oath to the Constitution runs up against his oaths to the sect.

I also find it interesting that FOX would call in Christopher Hitchens to discuss Mitt Romney's "weird" religion. I do not expect to see Neil Cavuto or any other FOX hack invite Hitchens to discuss the "weird" beliefs of Rudy Giuliani (that bread wafers become the flesh of Jesus), Mike Huckabee (that the earth is 6,000 years old), or Fred Thompson (that Jesus is OK with multiple divorces and serial adultery). I see this as FOX serving the Giuliani campaign by pushing anti-Mormon information through the vehicle of the ever-willing-to-offend Christopher Hitchens.

Big Stem Cell Development!

Scientists have taken major strides toward creating stem cells from human skin cells, eliminating the need to gather them from human blastocysts. I hope this proves out -- for the sake of the medical breakthroughs that may result from it, and for the sake of getting past the tedious god-addled arguments over the sanctity of blastocysts.

Yay science!

Illegal Mingling

Here's a little more detail and context from the case in Saudi Arabia where a woman was sentenced to jail time and lashings for having been gang-raped and for compounding that by reporting it to the legal authorities:

Moreover, the court in October 2006 also sentenced both the woman and man who had been raped to 90 lashes each for what it termed “illegal mingling.” Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned that the criminalization of any contact between unmarried individuals of the opposite sex in Saudi Arabia severely impedes the ability of rape victims to seek justice. A court may view a woman’s charge of rape as an admission of extramarital sexual relations (or “illegal mingling”) unless she can prove, by strict evidentiary standards, that this contact was legal and the intercourse was nonconsensual.[emphasis mine]
To report that you've been raped is presumptively to confess to the wrong kind of mingling -- the kind of mingling that god detests.

Here's the question: where would an atheist go to derive ethical conclusions as sordid and monstrous as this? What would the secular, godless, religion-free argument in favor of this outcome even sound like? Would the most cartoonish and moronic strains of redneck mysogyny dare to advance this? Insofar as it is even imaginable, the argument would be risible, and if proposed sincerely, outrageous. No one would accept it; it would mark its proponent as barbaric.

And yet, in 2007, such an argument slips through -- not only slips through but gathers the force of law -- because it accords with god's will. Look no further for the poison of religion.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Affirmations of Humanism: Another Point About Rhetoric

In places like here and here, pioneering secular humanist Paul Kurtz has criticized the "new atheists" (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et. al.) for failing to present positive alternatives to the faith-based nonsense they decry. I admire Kurtz a great deal, but I have objections to this, both factual and rhetorical.

Factually, nuh-uh! In The God Delusion and elsewhere, Dawkins goes on at length about the wonders of science -- he tirelessly celebrates the awe that comes with apprehending and investigating nature as it actually is. Hitchens seconds that in God Is Not Great, and adds the appreciation of literary, artistic, and cultural achievement. Harris agrees with all of the above and goes further by devoting the last third of The End of Faith to advancing a form of meditation which he intends as an alternative to experiences of the transcendent grounded in the supernatural twaddle of various faith traditions.

Moreover, still on the factual matter, it's a little daft to suggest that nothing positive is being proposed. Just as the abolition movement implicitly and explicitly promoted the positive agenda that slaves would become free people when slavery was overthrown, and just as the feminist critique implicitly and explicitly proposed that women would be considered full human beings, so too do the "new atheists" implicitly and explicitly promote the idea that the faith-addled will replace faith-based thinking with reason-based thinking.

Rhetorically, Kurtz of all people should realize the limits of proposing alternative creeds since he himself has spent the last five decades doing exactly this, over which time he has managed to elevate secular humanism from a microscopic movement to a very, very small one. Again, I admire Paul Kurtz, but as a matter of practical politics, his career is a testimony to the fact that positive social change requires a lot of noise-making, shameless attention-garnering, and other forms of drama; or at very least, it requires something more than making a well-reasoned plea for one's cause from the home office in upstate New York. The "new atheists" are getting noticed in a way that Kurtz's less confrontational work -- such as his book-length affirmations of secular humanism, Living Without Religion: Eupraxophy and Affirmations: Joyful And Creative Exuberance -- never has. Eupraxophy, considered as a meme, has never quite seized the popular imagination.

Which is not to say that Kurtz has wasted his efforts. Not at all. He is right that a positive vision must be laid out, and he has done indispensible work in this area. I admire, appreciate, and value everything he has done in the name of and for the sake of secular humanism.

But something must trigger the questions to which secular humanism has the answers. The "new atheism" is succeeding as that trigger.

Here is Kurtz's THE AFFIRMATION OF HUMANISM: A Statement of Principles presented in plain text to spare everyone the pain of linking to the PDF. These are wonderful, and deserve to be known and shared as widely as possible.

We are committed to the application of reason and science to the understanding of the universe and to the solving of human problems.

We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence, to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms, and to look outside nature for salvation.

We believe that scientific discovery and technology can attribute to the betterment of human life.

We believe in an open and pluralistic society and that democracy is the best guarantee of protecting human rights from authoritarian elites and repressive majorities.

We are committed to the principle of the separation of church and state.

We cultivate the arts of negotiation and compromise as a means of resolving differences and achieve mutual understanding.

We are concerned with securing justice and fairness in society and with eliminating discrimination and intolerance.

We believe in supporting the disadvantaged and the handicapped so that they will be able to help themselves.

We attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, and strive to work together for the common good of humanity.

We want to protect and enhance the earth to preserve it for future generations, and to avoid inflicting needless suffering on other species.

We believe in enjoying life here and now and in developing our creative talents to their fullest.

We believe in the cultivation of moral excellence.

We respect the right to privacy. Mature adults should be allowed to fulfill their aspiration, to express their sexual preferences, to exercise reproductive freedom, to have access to comprehensive and informed health-care, and to die with dignity.

We believe in the common moral decencies: altruism, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, responsibility. Humanist ethics is amenable to critical, rational guidance. There are normative standards that we discover together.

Moral principals are tested by their consequences.

We are deeply concerned with the moral education of our children. We want to nourish reason and compassion.

We are engaged by the arts no less than by sciences.

We are citizens of the universe and are excited by discoveries still to be made in the cosmos.

We are skeptical of untested claims to knowledge, and are open to novel ideas and seek new departures in our thinking.

We affirm humanism as a realistic alternative to theologies of despair and ideologies of violence and a source of rich personal significance and genuine satisfaction in the service to others.

We believe in optimism rather than pessimism, hope rather than despair, learning in the place of dogma, truth instead of ignorance, joy rather than guilt or sin, tolerance in the place of fear, love instead of hatred, compassion over selfishness, beauty instead of ugliness, and reason rather than blind faith or irrationality.

We believe in the fullest realization of the best and noblest that we are capable of as human beings.
[Once again, in this post, I refuse to indulge the internicene warring among labels -- atheist, agnostic, humanist, secular humanist, freethinker, secularist, doubter, skeptic, uncategorizable -- come one, come all. The affirmations and the negations are the important thing. Please leave the inward-pointing circular firing squads to the Democratic party.]

Anti-Torture, Anti-Terrorism

Norman at normblog notes an asymmetry in the fact that while many on the liberal-left have refused to rationalize, contextualize, or otherwise "understand" torture, there has been no such corresponding refusal when it comes to terrorism:

Yet it is also a telling absence by comparison with what has so far lurked in the shadows here, and which I now bring out into the open: I mean the richly abundant presence over the last few years, constituted by a thousand voices in the liberal press and at every place where anti-war and anti-war-on-terror people are gathered, of the discourse of understanding the root causes of terror. Torture is an indefensible practice; but so is the random murder of innocents. The absence of pleas for understanding in the former case, set beside the rich presence of pleas for understanding in the latter case, tells either of a wildly imbalanced distribution of sociological curiosity with respect to the two or of a much greater predisposition on the British liberal-left to condone terrorism than to excuse torture.
Commentators on the liberal-left will summarily denounce torture and will not countenance any explanations or excuses for it; they will not, Norman says, offer the same denunciation of terrorism.

I could quibble with this in a few ways, but I won't. I'll just say: terrorism is not excusable. The sociological explanations are not only misguided (as they threaten to make excuses) but also factually shaky: the worst terrorists on the scene today come from privilege and education. At the same time it would be wreckless and simplistic to suggest that cultural and economic privation have nothing to do with it; even the Bush administration is mentally alive enough to realize that people need positive prospects and good options if they are to forsake violence.

I will add that the fight against faith-based thinking is integral to a fight against terroristic violence, and is motivated strongly by the abhorrence of it. The promotion of freethought is aimed directly at impeaching the certainties that allow people to maim and kill for their creed. The effort to get people to re-think is inextricable from the effort to stop terrorism.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

MS Gay

On the merits, I don't really want a copy of Windows Vista, but I am reconsidering after having been reminded that Microsoft is being harrassed by idiotic Christians over its mildly pro-gay company policies. Maybe I'll go ahead and get a copy of MS Flight Simulator while I'm at it. Or an xbox 360! Jesus's birthday is coming up, after all -- 'tis the season for exchanging gifts.

Ed Brayton has a little more background and a video.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Winter Light: A Film About Love, Life, God, and Other Trivialities

Here is one of the great scenes of any film between Gunnar Björnstrand as Tomas and Ingrid Thulin as Märta in Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light. Don't think it's all in Tomas's favor until you see the very end of the scene, when he opens the door to leave ...

Tyson: Science and Rhetoric

I've just listened to the latest Point of Inquiry (full podcast archive here) featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson, the brilliant astrophysicist perhaps best-known for hosting the NOVA ScienceNOW PBS program. Tyson makes an impassioned and well-reasoned case for science education, starting with the insight that scientists have to value the art of rhetoric when dealing with the public. His comments on this subject apply more broadly and deserve careful consideration, including a few places where I think he misses.

Rhetoric is my word, not his, but notwithstanding its negative connotations, it is the proper term for his advocacy that a) the science academy recognize the importance of reaching popular audiences and move past the prejudice that scientists who step outside the cloisters of the labs and the technical journals are somehow defective, "mere popularizers"; and b) that when reaching out to the public, follow the first commandment of good rhetoric, which is know thy audience.

Tyson illustrates the latter point by reference to his lively guest appearances on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, where he takes time to research the venues in advance and thus to know, for example, that when interacting with Stephen Colbert, he will get few and brief opportunities to speak amid the bluster of Colbert's over-the-top persona. Showing up expecting to present a detailed summary of recent research on dark matter or quasars just isn't going to work. He recognizes that he is stepping into someone else's format and "home turf" and shapes his message accordingly. He mentions having made similar preparations when asked to write an article for Parade magazine.

Tyson sees his task as thinking up ways to present science in a way that is engaging to the audience, without, on the one hand, dumbing down the material, or on the other, trading in abstrusities, jargon, and name-dropping.

As is so often the case with the best ideas, this is obvious. And yet how maddeningly commonplace is it for scientists (and not only scientists but assorted academics, thinkers, and even politicians) to ignore it? Most of what we experience in mass media falls into the 'dumbing down' category, but seeing the other extreme requires no more than wandering into the nearest academic library and thumbing through a specialized periodical. It's not for mere lack of marketing that these don't reach mass audiences.

When applying this point to the freethought-atheist "movement," Tyson gets it mostly right but missteps rather badly, in my judgment, when he notes that approximately 7% of working scientists continue to believe in a personal god, and declares that atheists should focus their attention to these cases before trying to separate the masses from their beliefs in supernaturalism. Should we not first explain how it is that god belief can persist in these analytical, logical, rigorous minds? This disappoints me because it betrays the fact that Tyson does not appear to have read or otherwise engaged the most recent work of Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, which poses precisely this question, offers a few tentative but promising answers to it, and explains the question's salience using almost exactly the same terms as Tyson.

And how has Dennett been received for posing this question at book length? At best, in the same polarizing manner as Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Grayling, Onfray -- as just another of the "new atheists" who can be curtly dismissed in many quarters for not having read enough theology. And if Tyson's reaction is indicative, Dennett's work has also been received as though it had never been done. Disappointing.

It is important to understand the origins of religious belief. It is an interesting and important question, one that should be opened to scientific scrutiny, but the taboos will need to bend a little to make way for this research, and it is naive to think otherwise. And that's where the "new atheism" comes in -- shattering the taboos and doing so without apology, euphemism, or glad-handing (a different and risky feat of rhetoric in its own right, I recognize).

The "new atheist" approach is brash, harsh, and prickly at times. This, too, considers its audience, but unblinkingly challenges it to re-think basic premises. Just as science needs its smiling Neil deGrasse Tysons following the appealing model of Carl Sagan, so too does it need its Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harrises, naming names and calling bullshit when necessary. (Hitchens is not a scientist, but Tyson spoke of him as though he is, and so I am running with it.)

Tyson can and should continue to be a forceful and appealing voice for science, but he should not hesitate to do so from the position of a moderate, poised between the nonsense of supernaturalism and the iconoclasm of "new atheism."

Call it the pro-science, anti-bullshit good-cop bad-cop routine. Whatever works.

David Cross on Religion


Friday, November 16, 2007

Science for Christmas

Among its many good offerings, the anthology Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion has a debate on what to tell kids about Santa Claus: play along with the myth or quash it from the start.

Since I came to this book already a few years down the road, well into having taken the "play along" side with my son, the only question is how to break the news that Santa Claus is as phony as Jesus or Allah. And there too the book had a great example to share: treat it as a scientific investigation! So that's what we're doing this year.

In lieu of definite pronouncements about the existence or nonexistence of Santa Claus, we've started talking about the kinds of physical evidence that Santa Claus would, if he visited, leave. What about footprints? Mightn't he trip the same motion sensors that the opposums occassionally trip in the back yard? Are there ways to rig up a video capture?

It's a terrific opportunity to think creatively about generating evidence, think through what the evidence might suggest, form testable hypotheses, and draw valid conclusions. And of course it's also an exercise in separating out wishes and prejudices and letting the evidence settle the question.

It's going to be fun and maybe even educational!

Puddle-Town Follies

I'm always amused at the sight of people, especially Portlanders, fleeing the rain as though it's not water but Drano falling from the clouds.

It makes me want to wipe it frantically from my face and eyes and shout "it burns! how it burns!"

People, People

Speaking of shallow media, People has named Matt Damon the sexiest man alive.

Whuh? Did Richard Dawkins die? I have nothing against Matt Damon, but please. At least People doesn't claim to be a serious publication. Have you ever actually read a copy? You can blast through an entire copy, front to back, ads and all, in about six minutes without, of course, learning a damn thing worth knowing.

Reminder: I am not gay. I have never been gay.

What a (Media) World

I could only stomach a little of last night's 91st debate among the Democratic Presidential candidates, but apparently it closed with an asinine question posed by an audience member to Hillary Clinton about diamonds versus pearls, and apparently that question was planted by ... wait for it ... CNN itself, which is supposedly a news organization.

I did watch enough of the proceedings to agree with Matthew Yglesias' criticism of bullshit journalist Wolf Blitzer's clowning:

The voters are curious and want to learn where the candidates stand. Blitzer doesn't care about informing the public about the issues -- he actually objects when candidates try to explain their views on broad immigration policy issues -- he's just interested in trying to embarrass the candidates.
Why are voters so appallingly misinformed about public policy and the candidates they're asked to vote for? This is why. It's because the biggest names and institutions in journalism are profit-seeking, status-seeking peddlars of the titillating and the shallow. They know that ratings come from presenting simplistic dramas -- Will Barack Obama "take the gloves off" vis-a-vis Hillary Clinton? Will a candidate give a "yes" or "no" answer to a complex question that can later be converted into a "flip-flop"?

Lazy voters demand easy answers and simple tales. News organizations happily supply it even if it means, as in this case, openly manipulating the process to quash more thoughtful voters. Supply meets demand, Ambien and Viagra ads reach large numbers of eyeballs, shareholders get paid, the likes of Wolf Blitzer calls himself a journalist, and ... wait for it ... we get Presidents like George W. Bush.

This arrangement is profoundly broken.

The WGA Strike Explained

Here is a funny and very informative video explaining the nature of the dispute between the Writer's Guild of America and the big media companies.

The ongoing strike represents the 933rd straight time dating back to my infancy when I've taken labor's side against management. Maybe I'll see management's side in instance #934, but don't count on it.

This one is a no-brainer: the writers need to be paid for their work in whatever medium it generates revenue. Simple.

Quicksand Jesus

Never having been to Dayton, Ohio, I've never had the pleasure of seeing this in person, but the sight of Jesus sinking into the quicksand and beseeching the heavens with "What do you MEAN stop struggling!?!?" (as told in one of the lesser-read apocrypha) must be awe-inspiring. Or something.

I can't know, but I suspect sinking in quicksand was sort of a first draft of the sacrificial death that would make Jesus so weirdly beloved. I can see how he would overrule it -- when people die in quicksand, no one bothers to dig them out and give them a proper burial. So he would have had to emerge from the quicksand a few days later, at which point the obvious objection would have been even more obvious: "Hey Jesus, why didn't you just pull yourself out of the quicksand in the first place?"

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Experience Need Not Apply

Here is just one of several postings in the blogosphere in which the writer suggests that those who doubt that waterboarding is torture undergo it themselves. I appreciate the spirit of this debating point, and I agree with the underlying claim it is making, but it grants too much to the deniers.

Waterboarding has been labeled "simulated drowning", but there is nothing simulated about the drowning. The only thing simulated, arguably, is death by drowning, as waterboarding involves reviving the victim. The victim, of course, cannot know that he will be revived -- for that matter, the torturer cannot be certain that he'll successfully pull back before the victim actually dies -- and therefore the victim loses consciousness with no reason to believe he will survive the ordeal.

It is, by design, a physical and psychological ordeal -- this is prima facie and undeniable. Waterboarding is designed to extract information by use of the instinctual panic together with the physical agony of drowning. As such it is torture; notwithstanding AG Mukasey's absurd casuistries, there are no nuances to consider. We no more need experience to know it is torture than we would need experience to know it would be torture to slam the detainee's kneecaps with a hammer, or lift the detainee into the air by a noose around his neck, or apply red-hot steel to the detainee's bare hands.

There's no good reason to indulge this despicable and degrading verbal game-playing and legalistic equivocating. Waterboarding is torture.

Faith-Based Justice for Rape

In Saudi Arabia, a woman has been sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in jail for having been gang-raped.

Sadly, yes, you read that correctly.

This contortion of justice arises from Islam, and that says all that needs to be said about Islam for civilized human beings. We can have justice or Islam, but we can't have both.

Why I Write Such Good Potato Posts

The following three paragraphs appear verbatim in a recent piece published in my home town newspaper, the Ponca City News:

Potatoes often have personalities of their own. A children's game "Mr. Potato Head" furnishes head parts, ears, noses, lips, mustaches and on and on to change facial expressions.

This game didn't need batteries, just a potato from the garden or grocery store. Long before these plastic facial parts for the valued vegetable became popular, I could already see natural potato eyes.

But then the other night I definitely saw a face on the man-in-the-moon.
While I did not write these scratchings, and don't know who did, I don't deny echoes of my own writing: the way the author presents Mr. Potato Head toy as though expecting no one else to have heard of it before; the fawning adulation of potatoes; the questionable use of hyphenation ("man-in-the-moon"); the recitation of completely uninteresting, decontextualized, vaguely self-aggrandizing details ("I could already see natural potato eyes"); the wistful hearkening to a saner, warmer pre-battery age; the questionable transition in subject matter (from something about potatoes straight to something about the moon); the way it so urgently begs the question of why someone bothered to write it, let alone loose it upon the public.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Breathtaking Inanity

I completed my viewing of NOVA on Intelligent Design, and it reminded me that Pat Robertson said the following when the voters of Dover, PA voted in a pro-science school board in 2005:

I’d like to say to the good citizens of Dover. If there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city. And don’t wonder why He hasn’t helped you when problems begin, if they begin.
I wonder how soon Pat Robertson will die? He's not looking very good lately, and his preacher voice is starting to falter when he tells old ladies to send him their cat food cash.

Don't misread me -- it would be wrong to wish him dead, and it would be shortsighted not to see how much value he adds by showing everyone the true face of god's bottomless love. I'm just musing aloud on how many ticks are left on the ol' clock.

Also, I wonder what it suggests that Dover, Pennsylvania still has not been destroyed by fire, floods, tempests, plagues, or any other godly smitings, while Christ-soaked Georgia lingers in drought despite the prayers of its governor?

The Lincoln Bedroom Then and Now

Does anyone remember when the threat to civilization from Bill Clinton's sex life was matched only by the threat posed by Bill Clinton's guest list for the Lincoln Bedroom? If you've managed to forget, the harrowing image shown here represents a typical view out the bedroom window during those dark days. Truly those were times when one clung to one's closest friends and family members hoping the darkness would pass, dropping phrases like "widening gyre" and "the centre cannot hold" with chilling abandon. I still swoon at the memories of it.

Yes, the guest list of the Lincoln Bedroom was of monumental importance back in the late 1990s.

Um .... Has anyone ever asked who Bush is allowing into the Lincoln Bedroom? Wherefore all the intense journalistic curiosity over it?

No doubt Bush the Accountable is only granting the privilege to his most dedicated political opponents. Or granting stays based on a lottery system of unimpeachable integrity. I simply can't imagine otherwise given the overwhelming gravity of it all.

Just asking.

Jesus, Could You Spare Some Raindrops?

I try to be generous in the face of our species' shortcomings, especially when people are in dire circumstances, really I do. But ...

Georgia's governor, who belongs to the Party of the Wide Stance, has taken to conducting prayer sessions on the capitol steps to bring an end to the terrible drought affecting much of the state.

I don't see a church-state issue here -- at least not one worth fighting about. I don't see an offense to my sensibilities as a person who never issues prayers, let alone weather-related ones. I just see a feckless idiot doing what feckless idiots do.

While Jesus should have no trouble hooking this up, being omnipotent and all, he unfortunately doesn't exist. Maybe Georgia politicians should have conserved when there was still time for it to make a difference? Nah. The Party of the Wide Stance doesn't ever want to be accused of asking anyone to sacrifice unless they're poor or seeking their day in court.

Sadly for the people of Georgia, nothing fails like prayer.

The Day After Judgment Day

If you missed last night's airing of NOVA's Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, concerning the conflict between evolution and its nonscientific opponents, you missed two excellent hours of tee-vee. And I say that having watched only the first hour! I have recorded the rest and will watch it as soon as I can squeeze it in.

The show began with the context of the dispute over science teaching in Dover, Pennsylvania, and how this spilled into the federal courts. And this is where it started getting good, as it used the court transcript to dramatize the testimony given in the case. The scientists put forth some riveting and compelling evidence in favor of evolution, which the broadcast supplemented with animations and graphics. "That's amazing! Why didn't I already know that!?" seems to have been the consensus reaction to much of the scientific testimony as it was given in court. The NOVA program does an excellent job of recreating this sense of discovery and awe.

Pharyngula (who stayed up through the whole show) has already chimed in with a nice summary and assessment.

I hope it starts showing up on youtube or google video. I'll post links to the videos as soon as I come across them. Meanwhile, if you did miss it, keep an eye on your local listings for rebroadcasts -- PBS stations tend to replay their programs.

Update: apparently you'll be able to watch the show online here by November 16.

Well done, NOVA. This is a wonderful example of what public broadcasting can be.

Eight Things I Hate About Me

Having been duly tagged by Domestically Challenged, I hereby offer my entry to the 8-item list blog meme thingy, slightly annotated. A blogger has certain responsibilities.

8 things I'm passionate about:
[In no particular order.]

+ Human rights.
+ Justice, fairness, even-handedness, reciprocity.
+ Progress aided by inquisitiveness and candid self-criticism -- personal, political, scientific, global. There's probably a nice German compound word that fits here.
+ Thoughtfully engaging arts, culture, science, history, knowledge, learning.
+ Protecting the biosphere.
+ Actively opposing bullshit, anti-intellectualism, ignorance, tribalism, prejudice.
+ Running.
+ The boy.

8 things I say often:
[Some of these are whispered under my breath to myself. Others represent my latest attempt at my signature catch-phrase for the next sit-com based on my life. The first sit-com based on my life was, of course, Diff'rent Strokes, for which I am still owed gobs of back royalties.]

+ "Jesus F---ing Christ!"
+ "Did that really just happen?"
+ "It's time for your bath."
+ "A blogger has certain responsibilities."
+ "Quit being such a weener-baby."
+ "I'm sleepy."
+ "You can't polish a turd."
+ "Wilbur, shut your cake-hole."

8 books I've read recently:
[Does this count episodes of tee-vee shows? But seriously. Inclusion on this list should not be construed as an assessment of the book. I am taking this to mean the last eight books I've read, not in any particular order, and not counting books I've read to my son.]

+ Fighting Words by Hector Avalos (in progress)
+ The Courtier and the Heretic by Matthew Stewart
+ A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Laurence Sterne
+ I Am America (And So Can You) by Stephen Colbert (in progress)
+ Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris [re-read]
+ Rameau's Nephew by Diderot
+ Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion by Dale McGowan (editor)
+ God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

8 things I want to do before I die:

+ Go back in time and mingle with dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasties.
+ Run the Boston Marathon.
+ Run a half-marathon or marathon somewhere in Europe.
+ Wreak my terrible vengeance upon Ponca City, Oklahoma. Note to Department of Homeland Security minders: this will be a non-violent sort of terrible vengeance.
+ Go an entire day without feeling I've had to compromise (and live to tell about it).
+++ The other three are mine-all-mine.

8 songs I can listen to over and over again:
[Hurry! This list subject to major revision within the next 45 seconds.]

+ "Guided by Wire" by Neko Case
+ "When The Ship Comes In" by Bob Dylan
+ "Imagine" by John Lennon
+ "2 Portes, 7 Fenetres" by Monade
+ "The Way It Is" by Laura Cantrell
+ "Incinerate" by Sonic Youth
+ "Das Lied Im Grunen" by Franz Schubert
+ "Whiskey Breath" by DeVotchka

8 things that attract me to my friends:
[Whew. I'm glad this wasn't "list eight friends."]

+ They put up with me.
+ They have a sense of humor, especially about themselves, and appreciate my humor.
+ They are willing to think and re-think.
+ They make me look good when I stand next to them. Thanks again, Tom.
+ They like me but don't need me -- they impose no obligations.
+ They share at least some of my interests, and challenge me in interesting ways.
+ They're capable of empathy.
+ They don't make me feel inadequate, alien, or uncomfortable. In some inscrutable way they're "my kind of people."

8 things I learned in the last year:

+ Apparently sane, grown-up people in civilized societies think torture is subject to debate.
+ Blogs and Blogging are a valuable window onto the world.
+ Recognizing that I have narcolepsy is but a single small step toward actually living with narcolepsy.
+ Muscle-cramping is a risk worth taking seriously.
+ Marathons are difficult.
+ Some people are truly in my corner and others are not (lesson ongoing).
+ You can't polish a turd (lesson ongoing).
+ There is always more to learn (lesson ongoing).

I don't feel like tagging anyone else with this; I always want to be the guy who breaks the chain letter and risks the wrath of god, Pat Robertson, lightning bolts, and/or the Africanized honey bees. A blogger has certain responsibilities. If you have a blog, and you think this meme worth continuing there, consider yourself tagged.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Turkey, Strangling, and Variants

With Thanksgiving just over a week away, I picked up a Tofurky meal kit today, figuring I'd need to give myself plenty of time to fatten and slaughter it before the big day. Traditionally, one strangles the Tofurky kit with one's bare hands, making eye contact the entire time, and I am nothing if not a sucker for the tried and true when it comes to Thanksgiving, the day into which we cram all our gratitude so that it won't spill out and interrupt the rest of the year.

Tofurky? Yes. I'm pretty sure this crosses a line that makes me a weirdo, but I've been accused of worse. I don't know what to expect from Tofurky, never having tried it, but based on my previous experience with simulated meats crafted from soybean scraps, I am not hopeful. Then again I never much liked the flavor of turkey flesh back when I ate that kind of thing.

I am glad the kit doesn't have any pumpkin pie in it. Pumpkins should not be made into pies, and I can never maintain eye contact when I'm strangling the pumpkin. Orange is a very underrated color, and pumpkins deserve better.

Don't worry, there will still be dead turkey around here for those who have not crossed the weirdo line.

Annoyance Ratio

I think this AP story on the fact that Fred Thompson once portrayed General Grant might represent a new record in ratio of things I'm really sick of to total word count.

Total words (including title): 171

Things I'm sick of: 8.

1. Puff-pieces masquerading as news.
2. Fred Thompson, generally. The man is a joke.
3. Fred Thompson's presidential campaign, which is based on his fame from tee-vee.
4. The spiraling inability to distinguish tee-vee from reality.
5. The South, generally. This bit of atavism won't stop the next bullshit news story about the South from reminding us all of how very much the South has changed since the bad old days of yore.
6. The goddamn South still holding a grudge about the goddamn Civil War.
7. A statement like this one from the article -- "But that wasn't all good for someone campaigning in the South." -- which places us, the recipient of the news item, in a position of third-person omniscience from which to observe the effects of this or that on voters, as if voters belong to a separate species we're studying in a lab. So much political reporting falls into this perspective.
8. A news item pushed out by a supposedly reputable news-gathering institution, AP, that exhibits no actual news-gathering effort. The reporter got off the Thompson campaign bus, listened to Fred T. crack wise about his portrayal of General Grant to the Citadel audience, and wrote it down as though he, the reporter, noticed and wrote up a piece of news.

So that makes eight annoyances in 171 words, which works out to an annoyance roughly every 21 words. That's high.

Polls and Mirrors

It's tempting to take poll results like this and crow about what it suggests about one's political leanings. But I question whether this amounts to anything more than "reds" and "blues" and "purples" lining up behind the respective stereotypes. Are conservatives, having identified themselves as such to a telephone pollster, going to say they like world music and PBS documentaries? Likewise, are self-labeled liberals going to profess admiration for violent action films and NASCAR?

To me, this has the ring of a poll that just spits back what everyone already thinks he knows. Garbage-in, garbage-out.

Arguably it comes down to the neutrality with which the questions were phrased, sequenced, and framed. No doubt the polling outfit went to some effort to conceal the overall aims of the study. But based on the subject matter, I would expect even the dimmest respondent to be capable of forming conclusions about the broader questions the study expects to answer, and shaping his responses accordingly.

It is, after all, intrinsic to the narrative of "reds" and "blues" that they have distinct cultural styles and preferences. That narrative is all but inescapable.

None of which is to suggest that American conservatives are anything other than barely-literate, badly-informed staple viewers of FoxNews who don't listen to any viewpoints other than their own.

Everybody already knows that.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Pointless Metric of the Day

[Post deleted on grounds it was crap.]

Insult? Trivialize? Fine.

I agree, mostly, with Greta Christina's recent post, "Godless is the New Black: Is Atheism Just a Trend?", which concludes as follows:

If you don't want to engage with or think about the atheist movement, then don't. Nobody's making you. But if you don't have anything to say about it, then don't say anything about it. Don't go into atheist blogs and forums, don't get into conversations and debates about the atheist movement, if all you're going to do is unthinkingly dismiss us by saying that our movement is "just a trend." It's insulting and trivializing to us... and it makes you look like a high school kid who thinks that not caring about anything makes you look cool. [emphasis mine]
I agree with Greta C. that atheism has a certain cachet right now -- certainly more of a cachet than I ever remember it having, and I put it that way to highlight the fact that I've been interested in atheism, and in a position to watch its level of cultural trendiness, since I became an atheist, which was quite a while before it had any cachet whatsoever. I came to an explicit embrace of atheism based on reading copies of The Humanist magazine in the Ponca City public library in the middle 1980s. And even then I was drawn to the magazine because it gave voice to doubts, questions and conclusions that were already inchoate in my teen bosom.

So yes, I agree atheism is a bit trendy right now. That's not saying much: that's not saying much for it, and that's also not saying much against it.

While I agree with Greta C's claim that "it is insulting and trivializing to us" to dismiss atheism merely by eschewing its trendiness, I don't expect atheism's opponents to care about what we find insulting or trivializing. When roles are reversed and Christians, Muslims, Jews, and other religionists note the personal offense they take in forceful atheistic arguments, I sympathize, but only slightly, and to no real effect. It gains no ground on the underlying truth propositions.

Accordingly, I say: insult and trivialize if you must, religionists, but I don't grant you power over my emotions, and I'm not going to whimper and go away if you refuse to stop being so mean about my position on god, devils, unicorns, magic underwear, astrology, and fairies. I think I speak for most atheists in saying that.

Meanwhile, know that we remain open to a logical and substantiated showing that atheism is wrong. Scoffing at atheism's trendiness, and leaving it there, is a very weak and unconvincing argument. If you're against atheism, you're going to have to do a lot better than scoff, jape, and tweak noses.