Thursday, January 31, 2008

Awkwardly Androgynous Moment

Nerdygirl brings forward an anecdote and seeks advice:

So I went to the ladies room this afternoon, as I am wont to do from time to time. There was a woman in there -- sixtyish, short gray hair, business skirt and suit jacket. I had this conversation with the crotchety old bitch:

COB: You're a girl, aren't you?

Me: Yes.

COB: I just wanted to make sure you didn't wander into the wrong restroom by mistake.

Me: That's very flattering, thank you.

COB: I didn't mean to be rude, I just couldn't tell.
She asks what she should have said in response to the COB, so with the caveat that I don't have much personal experience with such sexing confusions, here's my suggestion:
COB: You're a girl, aren't you?

Me: Well, I do lose track sometimes so I keep it written on my hand. [As the COB looks at the hand, flip her the bird.]
Or maybe this one is better:
Me: I guess it's time I re-shave the old mustache! [Flip the COB the bird anyway]
Or maybe even:
Me: [sarcastically] What do you think this is, 1962? These bathrooms have been co-ed for years!

"Talking Against Religion Is Unchaining a Tiger"

Maybe so, but nodding along "respectfully" when the tiger insists there's no need for the chain, and living in constant fear of the tiger, and doing nothing once the tiger is unleashed, aren't a good alternatives. Here's a bleak update on an ongoing story I've previously blogged upon:

A young man, a student of journalism, is sentenced to death by an Islamic court for downloading a report from the internet. The sentence is then upheld by the country's rulers. This is Afghanistan – not in Taliban times but six years after "liberation" and under the democratic rule of the West's ally Hamid Karzai.
Here's an online petition on behalf of Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the blasphemer in question. Please add your name and defy the beasts.


Wide Stance Plush Toys

The online store of the Republican party is selling these $35 pink elephants to underscore the party's fondness for expensive hallucinations.

And by the way, notwithstanding the elephant's wide stance, it is not gay. It has never been gay.

No one can accuse them of an excess of subtlety.


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Pope Sends Another Mash Note to Ignorance

Pope Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Ratzinger, has denounced book-learnin' again:

"In an age when scientific developments attract and seduce with the possibilities they offer, it's more important than ever to educate our contemporaries' consciences so that science does not become the criterion for goodness," he told scientists. [emphasis mine]
It's impossible to miss the provocative rhetoric embedded in the word "seduce," which is traditionally linked to the serpent of Eden fame, the same serpent who talked Eve into -- well, come to think of it -- into the attractive possibilities of knowledge and their potential to upset received notions of good and evil, precisely the risk the Pope attaches to science this week. For Mr. Ratzinger, nothing of consequence has changed since Eden, not even the diction: we're sequencing genomes instead of biting into apples, but it's all the same contemptible defiance. Lest we miss the allusions to Genesis, the Pope declares that
Man is not the fruit of chance or a bundle of convergences, determinisms or physical and chemical reactions ... [emphasis mine]
Well, "man" is subject to no determinisms except those outlined in the book of Genesis, which provides that women are bound to suffer in childbirth, men are bound to toil ceaslessly, and serpents, for their part, must slither on their bellies forevermore; above all, that we're all damned without the church's intercession. But apart from all that, the Pope wants everyone to know the slate is utterly clear.

The equation of science with serpentine, satanic temptation is, I suppose, boilerplate for the Pope given what the Pope claims to be, but that doesn't make it right. Whatever his claims, the Pope will merit actual authority -- indeed the rapt attention of the world -- the moment his pathways to knowledge, faith and revelation, outperform science on something of observable consequence to people's lives: the cure for a disease, a new source of energy, a way to handle nuclear waste, or the like. Yet once again, the Pope has taken the time to speak on god's behalf without saying anything of any practical use, indeed without saying anything beyond don't be seduced by the promise of greater knowledge, which might be the worst possible thing to say given the many challenges facing humankind.


The Disenchantment of the Cat's Purr

For this scientific study of cats, I picture John Cleese sitting in a lab coat with a very earnest look on his face and a cat in his lap, reaching down to pet the cat at intervals he tracks closely on a wristwatch:

During tests, the cats relaxed on blankets, and were encouraged to purr by occasionally stroking them. The small, lightweight Model 22 accelerometers were placed directly on the skin of the cats and stabilised using washable make-up glue and medical tape. Each recording session lasted between 6 and 10 minutes. Data was recorded on DAT recorders and analysed.
But alas it was no Monty Python parody, and the study appears to have buried yet another of nature's mysteries, why cats purr as they do, in the clumping litter of knowledge:
[T]hat the cats in this study produced frequencies that have been proven to improve healing time, strength and mobility could explain the purr's natural selection. After a day or night of hunting, purring could be likened to an internal vibrational therapeutic system, a sort of "kitty massage" that would keep muscles and ligaments in prime condition and less prone to injury.
Purring seems to be the secret behind cats' high pain threshold and rapid healing. It's not that they love you and adore your attentions -- rather, just as you've sometimes suspected, your cat would play with and then eat you if it had the chance, and the purring is nothing but the cat keeping in peak physical condition until that chance comes along.

Profiles in Chickenshit Relativism

Given that waterboarding is not part of the current program [of interrogation techniques used by US intelligence agents], and may never be added to the program, I do not think it would be appropriate for me to pass definitive judgment on the technique's legality
That's Attorney General Robert Mukasey, today, ducking under his desk like the craven milksop he is. You'll recall that when asked in his confirmation hearings whether waterboarding is torture, Mukasey claimed he couldn't say because he hadn't reviewed the classified details of the waterboardings, the ones that presumably would have made A and not-A equivalent. Now that he's had more than enough time to review the classified details, he's shivering under his desk, hoping with the rest of the Bush-Cheney junta that the clock will expire before the law finds them.

Walking Back Up the Pyramid

I have just finished reading Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, just in time to be able to link to Greta Christina's very nice summary and review of it (continued here), thus sparing me the trouble. Also, one of the book's authors, Carol Tavris, recently discussed the book on a Point of Inquiry podcast.

I agree with Greta C. that this is an excellent book, one well worth reading by anyone interested in how we humans decide, judge, and justify the things we think, say, and do, and I say that as someone who rarely makes it past the first seven or eight paragraphs of any book in the pop-psychology vein.

There is a good deal of heft and rigor behind the accessible prose and interesting anecdotes, but while the book's crowd-pleasing hook may be its direct relevance to a famously mulish White House occupant, its expositions of self-serving thought patterns gave me more than a few shocks of recognition.

I am a sucker for metaphors, and I really appreciate the authors' central metaphor, that of a pyramid: picture yourself and others facing a difficult choice as sitting on the apex of a pyramid, such that either side of the choice appears equally valid to all concerned. You all see good reasons to go one way, and good reasons to go the other. As you decide, it sends you down one side of the pyramid, and sends those choosing the other way down the opposite side of the pyramid. The further you travel the path down "your" side of the pyramid, the harder your mind works to develop and intensify rationalizations for having chosen that way, and thus you slide ever downward. Meanwhile, those who chose the other way have engaged in the same process of self-justification, and have also slid further down, so what began with everyone together, facing a difficult problem and seeing merits for alternate answers, ends with people far apart, separated by rationalizations, no longer able or willing to see the validity of the other choice. Now at the bottom of your side of the pyramid, to see the validity of the other side threatens the validity of your own side because of the sheer distance between them -- that distance measured in rationalizations and self-justifications, many or most of which will be bound to one's deepest and most cherished self-conceptions ('I am a good and smart person, I must have made the right choice.')

At bottom, the book is about dissonance, the incredible and expansive array of mind tricks by which we avoid it, and the harm this causes.

The challenge is how to walk back up that pyramid, and the authors offer no easy ways to do this because no easy ways are available: the evasions of dissonance are deeply entrenched in human psychology.

One starting point is to understand how these mental tricks work. That alone won't stop them, but it's a start.

Another good starting point is to work to reshape one's self-conceptions to allow for mistakes -- know that good, caring, well-meaning, and smart people simply make mistakes, that mistakes can be a great way to learn, and that mistakes don't have to define us. Of course, this is a lot easier said than done.

By distilling these little lessons, I have not done the book or the topic justice, so I leave it here with a strong recommendation to read the book. I can guarantee you'll learn something important about yourself -- without that guarantee I will be forced to believe I've wasted my time reading it and blogging about it, and I can't have that.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Bush, One Tuesday Morning

Today, George W. Bush signed H.R. 4986 into law but added one of this famous signing statements, which Digby was kind enough to quote. Here's the signing statement as written by the so-called president (er, by one of his handlers with the ability to form complete sentences):

Provisions of the Act, including sections 841, 846, 1079, and 1222, purport to impose requirements that could inhibit the President's ability to carry out his constitutional obligations to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, to protect national security, to supervise the executive branch, and to execute his authority as Commander in Chief. The executive branch shall construe such provisions in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President.
In other words, Bush has no intention of carrying out sections 841, 847, 1079, and 1222 of the multi-section bill. Zeroing in on section 1222:

No funds appropriated pursuant to an authorization of appropriations in this Act may be obligated or expended for a purpose as follows:

(1) To establish any military installation or base for the purpose of providing for the permanent stationing of United States Armed Forces in Iraq.

(2) To exercise United States control of the oil resources of Iraq.
So, what our judicially-installed president has done this Tuesday morning is to announce his desire and intention to establish a permanent US military presence in Iraq and to control Iraq's oil.

Now, it might be objected that such grand plans fall outside the powers of the president, if only because George W. Bush will be replaced with a different president in less than a year. But that begs the question of whether Bush considers himself subject to the Consitution in the first place, which is an open question. Issuing piecemeal vetoes of legislation by means of signing statements is, itself, of highly dubious constitutionality -- there is certainly no warrant to be found for it in the executive powers listed in the Constitution -- a fact that is all the more galling when the very same Bush forced these words out of his own mouth just last night:
we must trust in the wisdom of our Founders and empower judges who understand that the Constitution means what it says. I have submitted judicial nominees who will rule by the letter of the law, not the whim of the gavel.
The whim of the gavel -- bad. The whim of a semi-literate drunk with accomplished parents and lots of money -- good.

Shark Porn

When I say sharks are magnificent, I should not be understood as speaking from the perspective of seals, who must be assumed to see the situation very differently. So with apologies to the seals, sharks are awesome.

More of the above can be seen here. (via)

Thomas Paine Turns 271

Today is the birthday of Thomas Paine, the great pamphleteer, American founding father, freethinker, and all-around rebel.

It's hard to know where to start or stop quoting from his The Age of Reason, surely one of the foundational texts of religious skepticism, but here's a good passage on revelation:

As it is necessary to affix right ideas to words, I will, before I proceed further into the subject, offer some observations on the word 'revelation.' Revelation when applied to religion, means something communicated immediately from God to man.

No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and, consequently, they are not obliged to believe it.

It is a contradiction in terms and ideas to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication. After this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner, for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.

When Moses told the children of Israel that he received the two tables of the commandments from the hand of God, they were not obliged to believe him, because they had no other authority for it than his telling them so; and I have no other authority for it than some historian telling me so, the commandments carrying no internal evidence of divinity with them. They contain some good moral precepts such as any man qualified to be a lawgiver or a legislator could produce himself, without having recourse to supernatural intervention. [NOTE: It is, however, necessary to except the declamation which says that God 'visits the sins of the fathers upon the children'. This is contrary to every principle of moral justice.--Author.]

When I am told that the Koran was written in Heaven, and brought to Mahomet by an angel, the account comes to near the same kind of hearsay evidence and second hand authority as the former. I did not see the angel myself, and therefore I have a right not to believe it.
Happy birthday, Thomas Paine.

Bush's Last SOTU

I tried listening to our so-called president's final State of the Union address last night, but on top of Bush's formidable rhetorical deficiencies, we had the spectacle of the Wide Stance members of Congress treating every sentence clause as an opportunity to grant a standing ovation. I did catch that he's still milking those ink-stained thumbs from 2004, when the Iraqi people elected a parliament that has since gathered to manifest pre-existing sectarian and ethnic chasms in the form of political chasms; and I caught his claim that even though all kinds of vague indicators show Iraq to be a fantastic success in all ways, we must not dare foresee an end to the occupation. The war is going great! Long live the war!

So I guess I was wrong to expect him to downplay Iraq. He's perfectly happy to talk about Iraq because everyone in his bubble keeps telling him how wonderful it is. It's the rest of the Wide Stance party, the part that still needs to win elections, that wants desperately to make it go away. And they want Bush himself to go away too, for that matter.

Did he promise to restore New Orleans again? I can only guess he did since he seemed to be re-reading from highlights of the last four or five SOTUs.

Less than a year to go.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Tonight's Big Speech: Iraq Who?

George W. Bush's State of the Union speech tonight is certain to include his usual litany of delusions in support of the larger delusion that history will vindicate his awful domestic and foreign policies. I expect his mentions of Iraq will be few and vaporous, in keeping with the current effort to disappear that war -- without, of course, meaningfully reducing the troop presence let alone decreasing the billions of dollars poured in.

He certainly won't dwell on untidy realities like the deaths of five more US soldiers this very day.

Comforting Ray with Some Anti-Islam Smack Talk

A Bible fan named Ray Comfort has recently indulged in a crybaby diatribe against atheists as follows:

If you are an atheist, I hope I’m ruffling your feathers. I want to get under your skin and ask why you don’t have the courage to even whisper to Muslims what you keep shouting at Christians. Prove me wrong. Get onto a Muslim website and tell them that you don’t believe their god exists. Do your little “I don’t believe in Zeus” thing. Tell them they believe a myth. Make sure you use the word "fairytale." Talk about Mohammed as you do Jesus (use your usual lower case for Mohammed). Do your “I don’t believe in the flying spaghetti monster” thing. Tell them that you believe that they weren’t made by (a) god, but that they evolved from primates (that will go down well).

Explain that you think they are blind simpletons to believe the way they do, and that even though there is a creation, you don't see any evidence that there is a Creator. Let them know that you think that it's intelligent to believe the way you do. You may as well explain that even though you don't believe in God's existence, you use His name as a cuss word, because you think it's worthless. Also, let them know in no uncertain terms that you believe that the Koran is full of mistakes (give some examples), and that their mosques are full of hypocrites.
Wow, Ray Comfort! The only ruffling of feathers you've achieved owes to how this challenge of yours forces me to repeat many of the criticisms I've already made of Islam on this precious, precious blog, but I am nothing if not willing to repeat myself, so I accept your playground-style dare in all its puerility. I decline to do so in the form of comments to other blogs and web sites, as I don't do much commenting of that sort on any topic, and I've maintained my own blog expressly for the purpose of collecting my thoughts, criticisms, cavils, tirades, and the like. Yours is a tall order, and I apologize in advance if I miss any of it, but here goes:

I am aware of no good reason to accept the factual existence of the god of Islam. I believe Islam is a myth, a fairy tale, a tangle of primitive superstitions and folklore the world would be better off treating as, at most, literature. I believe the god of Islam is no more real than Zeus or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

That said, I prefer to capitalize both "Mohammed" and "Jesus" for grammatical reasons, although I frequently decline to capitalize "god" because it is not a proper noun in English. The case of "muslim" seems unsettled, but I am happy to go with lower case because I don't think anything consequential turns on it, and why press the shift key needlessly?

We humans -- muslims and non-muslims alike -- are primates who share common ancestors with chimpanzees and other apes, and for that matter, with every other form of life on the planet. The best available evidence indicates that we humans evolved through purely natural processes in which god-like entities played no part whatsoever.

The Koran is full of mistakes and outright falsehoods, starting with all the places where it contradicts the above, and it is also full of nasty, crude, and backward teachings concerning, among other things, the status of women, non-believers, and sexuality. When many of Islam's most devout and vocal believers declare it commands them to convert or kill non-muslims, I don't quibble with the interpretation, but note how this demonstrates its incompatibility with civilized human conduct from the interpersonal to the societal level and every point inbetween. I can think of few things more dangerous or barbarous than the strict practice of Islam as it is given in its written traditions.

I have no doubt that Mosques are filled with hypocrites. If this were the most alarming thing about Islam, or if more of this hypocrisy impinged on the everyday political and interpersonal dramas I follow, I'd probably focus more on it. But the muslims who apply Islam's teachings the most sedulously and non-hypocritically bother me more and pose a bigger threat -- the ones who continue to maintain that novelists, cartoonists, and bloggers deserve to die for "blasphemy," for example; or the ones who believe women should not be allowed to vote, drive, go to school, enter professions, or even dress as they wish; or the ones who believe homosexuals and adulterers should be killed; or the ones who believe they'll do a supremely good deed meriting heavenly reward if they kill non-muslims in the course of killing themselves.

There you go, Ray Comfort, for whatever it's worth to you. By the way, none of this criticism of Islam brings your Christian beliefs an inch closer to being true or otherwise worthwhile.

(H/T Ed Brayton and Bing)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Partial Credit to Joe Klein

Please forgive me for quoting Joe Klein, who has shown grave shortcomings as a journalist and analyst, on Obama's recent victory over Clinton and what it portends:

It may well be true that any Democrat is going to have to handle that sort of sewage in the general election, but I've now -- belatedly! -- figured out that the real audacity in Barack Obama's campaign -- far more than his positions on the issues, which almost seem an afterthought -- is his outrageous belief that the entire country, not just Democrats, wants to see a straight up election; that the entire country is tired of the pestilence of tactical tricks that the Clintons learned from their co-dynasts, the Bushes. ... It is a hell of a bet Obama has made.
Klein is partly right: Obama is taking on a pretty big gamble, but it's not quite the one Klein portrays. Yes, Obama can be certain of facing "that sort of sewage in the general election" -- racial divisiveness, distracting half-truths, outright lies, and so on. Indeed he can count on everything he's seen from the Clintons increased to the tenth power after the Wide Stance machine moves in to fight him for the presidency.

Obama's true gamble is whether the likes of Joe Klein, Maureen Dowd, Tim Russert, Chris Matthews, Dan Abrams, Howard Fineman, David Brooks, and the rest of the usual suspects of conventional political wisdom will continue to portray the falsehoods, innuendo, and slime for what they are after the Clintons are no longer responsible for it.

Sadly, I see no reason to expect any such thing. I expect to see a continuation of the familiar dynamic in which Wide Stance candidates and operatives feed brazen lies to a news media that repeats it like mindless stenographers, pausing, at most, to insert a few "react" quotes from Democrats. I expect to see the opinion leaders in the news media establish and then rigidly enforce frames and narratives that include little substance or policy but endless style and tactics.

"The entire country" -- or most of it -- is, has been, and will continue to be ready to see a "straight-up election" contested on the basis of foreseeable policy consequences, but Obama's true gamble is whether the beltway news media is prepared to stop deranging and derailing elections into anything but that.

Postscript: In principle, the same gamble applies to the Clinton and Edwards candidacies, but in those cases, there is no reason to speak in terms of gambles when the odds are actually zero.

Creationists Are Funny (Or, How Not To Use Cotton Swabs)

Creationists are funny but not when they're trying to be, and when they're funny, it's not in a 'ha ha' or even a trenchant way. These cartoons are two examples from the painfully unfunny "CreationWise" comic strip that appears on Answers in Genesis, the leading web site of nonsensical, painfully dumb creationist twaddle. Or, as its enthusiasts like to call it, "mainstream creationism" or "Intelligent Design."

Regarding the first cartoon, while I don't claim to speak for Christians, I would answer that Christians (some of them, at least) are willing to say the biology in that book isn't real because the evidence indicates it isn't real. The biology in that book stands on the same quality of evidence as the biology behind the tales about storks.

The second cartoon suggests more in the way of answering the first cartoon. You have to get pretty wreckless with the cotton swabs before you've damaged your brain enough to affirm that a) dinosaurs lived alongside humans; b) dinosaurs (and all other animals) lived in harmony despite the presence of claws, fangs, antibodies, venom, camouflage, and countless other biological features used for attack, defense, sexual rivalry, scavenging, etc.; c) the harmony gave way to relentless predation, fussing, and feuding when and only when Adam and Eve ate the naughty fruit.

I know this next part didn't come out of the Bible, and I gather that renders it highly suspect in some circles, but the packaging of my cotton swabs gives some guidance I find worth passing along. It reads as follows:

CAUTION: Do not enter ear canal. Use only as directed. Entering the ear canal could cause injury. Keep out of reach of children.
That all makes sense to me, and I observe these guidelines. And, I know what you're thinking, and the answer is yes, the loophole is closed: "only as directed" does not admit "softening up the brain to make Biblical literalism go down more easily." It's not on the list, which I now reproduce in full and verbatim:
Live it.

God as Lobotomist

A post on Daylight Atheism links to an answer to a question I touched on a few days ago. Here is how a Christian web site explains how the saved will enjoy heaven even as they watch their damned loved ones boil, bake, fry, endure countless '404 page not available' errors, lose an infinity of socks in the laundry, and wait in endless queues only to pay exorbitant ticket prices for movies as bad as Congo:

God's Word foretells that the Lord will wipe away all tears and sorrow for Believers --that all the things of the past, sinful world will be removed in some way. We infer from this that all memories that are painful --such as knowledge that we have family and friends who are suffering eternal damnation because of their rejection of Salvation through God's son, Jesus Christ, will be totally erased in the Heavenly dimension. A primary Scripture for this Truth is the following:
"And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away." (Rev. 21:4)
This act of divine erasure is simply monstrous: a godly lobotomy that strips away awareness of loved ones, even curiosity about loved ones. These Christians want us to believe they look forward to a literal eternity of experience in which the absence of spouses, children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends -- the kinds of personal connections that define who we are and where we came from -- will never provoke a question. No one will ever think to ask because god's scalpel will cut it away (in much the same way and motivated by much the same logic by which devoted believers slice and mutilate the genitals of little girls).

This can't be a targeted, protected forgetting, but must be a profound diminution of consciousness -- wouldn't you see a fellow saved soul in the presence of a loved one you seem to lack and start poking at memories and asking questions? Wouldn't someone else think to ask about your siblings, parents, children, spouse, even if you didn't think of it on your own? If not in the first 15 minutes of heavenly experience, then surely in the fullness of eternity?

The bliss of a lobotomy is no bliss at all.

Excellent Talkie: There Will Be Blood

Thanks in no small part to Daniel Day Lewis's powerful acting performance, There Will Be Blood is a very good movie and a very back-loaded one. Don't take a bathroom break in the last 15 minutes or you'll miss way, way too much.

I can recommend the film very highly and suggest a few frames for understanding it: it is a retelling of the Biblical tale of Moses; it is a retelling of the Biblical tale of Jesus (which is, in its way, a retelling of the Moses tale); it is a retelling of Frankenstein and even Paradise Lost; it is a story about the interaction between capitalism and Christianity; it is a story about how fathers and sons interact and interrelate (and don't); it is a story about how and whether god, if there is a god at all, interacts with the world; it is, as with many epics, curiously lacking in females, which alone suggests a great deal.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

At Last, Reasons to Mention South Carolina

On one hand, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have gotten themselves into a pretty negative and personal contest for the Democratic presidential nomination. On the other hand, they have no significant policy disagreements of which I'm aware, which leaves little to dispute apart from presentation and personality. It's not clear how else they would proceed.

On one hand, Obama and Clinton have gone negative. On the other hand, there's actually nothing wrong with negative campaigning. It's perfectly legitimate, fair, and even essential to give reasons not to vote for the competing candidate, notwithstanding the hand-wringing it almost always inspires among pundits. Lying is a different matter.

On one hand, it's regrettable that Clinton's strategy is to portray Obama as 'The Black Candidate' in the Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton sense and thus to marginalize his candidacy. On the other hand, should Obama win the Democratic nomination, he can be assured of facing this line of attack in the general election campaign, so he might as well start honing his responses now.

On one hand, it's a shame, as a reader of Daily Dish perceptively noted yesterday, that Bill Clinton has held back all of his rhetorical and political might during all the years of Bush-Cheney's depredations, only to break them out in the service of his wife's presidential campaign, and against other Democrats to boot. We could have used Bill Clinton's keen sensibilities and formidable talents during some of the darker moments of the Bush-Cheney junta, or in other words, any goddamn weekday since about this time in 2001. On the other hand ... nothing. It's a shame.

Postscript: it's hilarious that both Rudy 911iani and Mitt "freedom requires religion" Romney got fewer votes than shitty character actor Fred Thompson in today's South Carolina Wide Stance primary, when a) Fred Thompson is no longer even running for president and b) Fred Thompson may or may not qualify as medically alive.

[Update/Correction: OK, so Thompson beat Romney and 911iani when he was still in the running since the Wide Stance primary in South Carolina took place last week. Still. Is the man even alive? Did he seem more alive before dropping out of the race? Really?]

Bush Sees Himself

The internets are swarming with mentions (e.g., here, here, here, & here) of Bush's favorite painting and What It Means, so what can yet another blog post on the subject possibly hurt?

Much has already been said about the fact that the painting is actually an illustration of a smooth-talking thief fleeing a lynch mob, whereas Bush sees

a horseman determinedly charging up what appears to be a steep and rough trail. This is us. What adds complete life to the painting for me is the message of Charles Wesley that we serve One greater than ourselves.[emphasis mine]
Bush's "this is us" intrigues me, and lends itself to a number of subtexts and interpretations. Here are a few ways I can see Bush identifying with the painting:

+ The rider looks like Bush. Or I should say a version of Bush who isn't afraid of horses.

+ The rider is backed on his great mission by a Coalition of the Willing of 36 members, 33 of which are not detectable.

+ The rider's half-emptied whiskey flask is thoroughly hidden away.

+ The horse and the rider move into harm's way without any armor plating to speak of.

The good news: a different president will take the oath in less than a year. The bad news: a lot more damage and a lot more stupid can be crammed into that last year.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Malkmus on the Internets

"Jo Jo's Jacket" by Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks: This video just keeps on giving!

Not Blindly

I've been trying all day to forget that I encountered this story in the New York Times, but without success. I wish I could say it's a mistake, or the propaganda of an overexuberant fellow atheist, but no, it's real:

Worldwide, female genital cutting affects up to 140 million women and girls in varying degrees of severity, according to estimates from the World Health Organization.
If you follow the link, be warned there is a slide show featuring a number of photographs. The article concludes with this gem:
As Western awareness of female genital cutting has grown, anthropologists, policy makers and health officials have warned against blindly judging those who practice it, saying that progress is best made by working with local leaders and opinion-makers to gradually shift the public discussion of female circumcision from what it’s believed to bestow upon a girl toward what it takes away. “These mothers believe they are doing something good for their children,” Guarenti, a native of Italy, told me. “For our culture that is not easily understandable. To judge them harshly is to isolate them. You cannot make change that way.”
I am not interested in the tactics of the debating point: I do judge them harshly and without hesitation, and there's no blindness involved. They should feel isolated, alienated, and estranged, because those words perfectly express their relationship with civilized conduct. This is the poison of religion, traditionalism, and tribalism. Shame on these monsters.

George W. Who?

Next week, American tee-vee viewers and radio listeners will, for the last time, experience the shock, awe, and mind-numbing idiocy of a George W. Bush "State of the Union" address. The Bush Legacy Project has hit upon the excellent idea of handing out free "I'm a Bush Republican" to all the Wide Stance members of Congress who have made the Bush-Cheney junta such a study in shock, awe, and mind-numbing incompetence.

I love the idea, but I wonder how many Wide Stancers will accept, let alone wear, the buttons in such a public forum. After all, they realize more clearly than anyone that their own future political fortunes rest on pretending George W. Bush doesn't exist and was never president.

Let Your Light So Shine

This, um, evocative image is posted at Pharyngula and readers are encouraged to follow the link to Pharyngula and suggest captions there.

I wouldn't be so gauche as to suggest any. Nothing, for example, like "Kids, you're Catholics. I know Father Green has already taught you about this."

Backfiring Pitch

When I was about 11, one of the kids at my school exposed me to a pitch for Christian belief that was roughly as manipulative and crass as this one. That started me down the road of reading the Bible starting at Genesis 1, which in turn raised a series of questions that led to a lot more reading going well beyond the Bible. And here I am today.

May the pitch do as much for you or someone close to you.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Thin Theology

A vacuous argument resurfaces in a review by Jessa Crispin:

When [Christopher Hitchens in God Is Not Great] is simply attacking religion, like when he points out the sinister origins of the Mormon faith, he can have moments of brilliance. But he ultimately makes the same mistake as Harris and Dawkins and equates God with religion.

None of them pause to consider the possibility that divinity could exist without religion. It’s obvious no one in this group has bothered to read any theology. Their attacks are as shallow as their research. Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins are scientists, journalists, and pundits — not philosophers. That’s fine when they’re dealing with religious history, but when they try to stare down the divine they are out of their league.
Um, these "moments of brilliance" the reviewer just attributed to Hitchens were addressed directly to Mormonism's intertwined historical and theological claims, with which he is very familiar.

But concerning the supposedly flat arguments made by Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins, the ones that could benefit from a prolonged studies in theology: which ones? What, specifically, has been overlooked? What insights, specifically, reside above and beyond the "league" of the arguments they actually advance?

As in so many instances where this lazy attack is made, no specifics are forthcoming. But in the interests of allowing bona fide theologians plumb these matters to their proper "philosophical" depths, Ophelia Benson takes notice of someone with an extensive background in theology, Father Gabriele Amorth, the Chief Exorcist at the Vatican, who insists:
Those modern theologians who identify Satan with the abstract idea of evil are completely mistaken. Theirs is true heresy; that is, it is openly in contrast with the Bible, the Fathers, and the Magisterium of the Church.
[Benson:] So much for all those people who keep trying to say that the 'New Atheists' go after crude targets that no one actually believes in. I think the Catholic church and its hierarchy count as someone? Someone with a fair amount of influence?
Father Amorth equates god with religion; equates demons with religion; and equates cinema-ready priest-refereed tugs-of-war between god and demons with religion. So how again have Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins done wrong by taking him and his ilk at their theological word?

Find someone pounding and yelling the demons out of a child, or conning old women out of their last dribbles of catfood money, or picketing funerals of soldiers who didn't hate gays enough, or threatening newspapers for putting Mohammed in a cartoon, or steering airliners into skyscrapers, or slicing off girls' genitals with sharpened rocks, and you'll find three other things: simplistic theology, committed believers, and outraged atheists.

And it seems you'll find a fourth: someone complaining that the atheists are the villains in the drama for not having spent enough time reading theology journals. Bullshit.

Photic Sneezers Unite!

Do you sneeze when exposed to an infant panda? I don't. Do you tend to sneeze when exposed to a strong light source? Me too! It turns out we photic sneezers are not weirdos! Still, science is just now getting its sneakers on when it comes to chasing this down:

Because this harmless (albeit potentially embarrassing) phenomenon doesn't seem to be linked with any other medical condition, scientific study of the subject has been scarce. Research has done little more than document its existence and attempt to gauge its prevalence. No rigorous studies exist, but informal surveys peg 10 to 35 percent of the population as photic sneezers.
Embarrassing? What's supposed to be embarrassing about it? Sneezing is ever so charming, and never more so than when you're congested and spew mucous or half-chewed bamboo shoots all over the damn place. It's enough to make me shake my tiny fist at the sun.

That this is a documented condition and not a flag of weirdo-ness is not actually news to me. There was a short piece discussing this in the Atlantic a few years ago, which noted that the military takes a more-than-casual interest in it given the dangers of pilots sneezing into their oxygen masks at the first sight of the sun.

Memo to Westboro Baptist: Damn the Whales

Sperm whales have been my favorite animals for a long time, and this allows me to appreciate them on a whole new level.

Making a Muddle of Love and Hate

PZ Myers at Pharyngula posted this flyer from the Westboro Baptist Church, the homosexuality-obsessed god enthusiasts famous for praising the 9/11 attacks and celebrating the damnation of US soldiers killed in Iraq.

The morals embodied in the flyer speak for themselves so I won't belabor that except to say a) these morals are Biblical and b) this is the purest expression of hate one could hope to find, notwithstanding the bleatings about "god's love" and "Christian love" and the like.

The question this raises anew for me is one I've never seen adequately answered: how do Christians look forward to a heaven knowing, as they must, that someone close to them will not have made god's final starting squad, but will be suffering in hell? Suppose you are "saved" by virtue of a last second hail mary but your spouse, parent, child, brother, sister, grandparent, friend, etc., goes, or already has gone, to the grave having turned the ball over on downs?

Sure, you're giggly-drunk in the one true faith and so certain of your heavenly reward that you're positively itching for death, and meanwhile you've done everything possible to spread The Good News About Salvation to everyone you care about, but aren't some of them likely to demur? What will heaven be like not only without them, but with the awareness that they're burning in hell?

Even if you accept the arrangement in the first flush of joy at having been saved, won't you, in the fullness of eternity, start to wonder if grandma, little brother, or that fond old uncle has really suffered enough for having joined the wrong branch of Christianity or used a prayer mat not quite pointed at Mecca?

That it seems devastatingly unhappy doesn't make it false, of course. Maybe that's just the way god rolls, but it tends to undercut the coherence of it all, and illustrates the emptiness of the claims of god's goodness. The fairy tale that puts "good/obedient" people in heaven and "bad/disobedient" people in hell gravely discounts the supreme importance of human interconnectedness: we are not beings that hatch from eggs and fend for ourselves from day one; we humans can't make sense of life, happiness, or sorrow except in reference to our relationships with other humans.

I know I'm just a filthy, hell-bound atheist and all, but I can honestly say that if heaven is filled with the sort of people who can carry on happily even knowing their loved ones are suffering eternally, I have no interest in the place. It sounds like a ward of self-righteous psychopaths, in fact. And if I ever want that, I can pay a visit to the Westboro Baptist Church.

This Just In ...

Bush has been a very, very crappy president.

The End of Tea & Koalas: Terror and the Future of My Armpits

I previously documented my ongoing difficulties with Jason brand tea oil deodorant, and now having made a good-faith effort to use up the deodorant as quickly as possible by slathering it on excessively this morning, I now know what I must do: I must throw the unused portion away. Armpits should not smell this way.

Nor can I live with the idea of selling it on craigslist; whatever price I might get for it, I can't, in good conscience, wish it on someone else at any price. A blogger has certain responsibilities.

Thanks to all those who stood by me in these dark, tea-soaked-koala-smelling hours, of which there are more to come -- as many as it takes for the current application to wear off.

Jason brand tea oil deodorant should be relabeled as "odorant." Whoever accidentally spilled tea into his armpits and thought he had accidentally discovered a remedy for natural armpit stench was delusional. This is an area where we can't afford delusions.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Religion of Peace™ Update: Death for Blasphemy

Perwiz Kambakhsh, a 23-year-old journalist and journalism student in Afghanistan, has been sentenced to death for downloading and distributing writings considered blasphemous:

The articles Kambakhsh downloaded came from sites including an Iranian blog, which includes articles questioning the origin of the Koran and its statements about women, among other issues.
He no longer deserves to walk the earth because he dared to read something about the origins of the Koran and the status of women, things that did not come directly from a court-approved cleric. It should surprise no one to learn that the court behind this verdict is very concerned that it be kept quiet, lest it reach people not yet righteous, holy, or loving enough to support the killing of people who willingly expose themselves and others to doubtful opinions:
The deputy provincial attorney general ... threatened at a media briefing Monday to arrest journalists who "support" Kambakhsh.
The article notes how this is hardly the only instance where Islamist courts in Afghanistan have tried to stop blasphemy by killing people who blaspheme (or read things that might include blasphemy, or read things written by blasphemers, etc.):
Another journalist, Ghows Zalmai, was also arrested three months ago on charges of distributing a translation of the Koran that clerics did not accept. Religious scholars have also called for his death.
It's worth noting that the convicted received his naughty content from a blog, and that should suggest the expansiveness of the repression represented in these rulings. Having seen verdicts like these, how could any web surfer take a chance that a banner ad could deliver anti-Islamic content? And clicking blogger's Next Blog > link or clicking a link to a random wikipedia article would be to play a game of Russian Roulette. For those who prefer to stay alive, these kinds of rulings mean "stay completely away from the internets."

Civilized people cannot accept this. The giving and receiving of offense is not and cannot be allowed to be a life-or-death matter. If it is "Islamophobic," "blasphemous," or merely "disrespectful" to affix the name "Mohammed" to all of my rolls of toilet paper, then so be it. I agree it is. It's a scurrilous, provocative, immature, and probably counterproductive thing to say. But it's nothing but words.

Respect gravitates to ideas and actions that deserve it, whether or not the respect is requested. Requiring respect is roughly as meaningful as requiring happiness or requiring love -- it doesn't work and it's a good thing it doesn't.

Killing people for impiety is indefensible barbarism, and is far more hurtful and dangerous than any series of words or any cluster of thoughts.

I Smell of Tea & Koalas

... and I don't like it. I bought some Jason tea tree deodorant stick because apparently I'm a sucker for anything with a koala on the label, and I don't like the way it makes me smell. It actually doesn't smell very tea-like, if you ask me, but I know you didn't ask me because no one has ever actually asked me that.

I think it smells like a well-exercised koala that has grown tired of waiting to pose for his next photo shoot, has escaped his holding pen, and has gone scampering through the processing plant where they make deodorant sticks. I sincerely hope they treat their model koalas better than that at Jason.

As grounded and useful as those musings are, they get me no closer to better-smelling armpits. I am staring down the barrel of several weeks of smelling like a sweaty, panicked, tea-stained koala, unless I choose one of these alternatives, each less inviting than the last:

+ Cake it on to use it up as fast as possible. I could probably slather it all on in less than a week, although I'd have to plan for limited arm motility during that time, and gird for a painful and bad-smelling lesson. On much the same logic, when my dad caught my sister smoking, he made her smoke an entire pack of really foul cigars, and as I recall, it made her vomit. She still smokes to this day, and the rapidly acquired taste for cigars must have come in handy now and then.

+ Throw it away. This seems wasteful. I put $4 into this deodorant! $4 would have purchased me a one-liter container filled with Diet Coke at last weekend's Walking with Dinosaurs: The Live Experience! I am not made of money.

+ Sell the unused portion on craigslist.

I don't know what to do.

Nine Hundred Thirty Five

A joint study by the Center for Public Integrity and The Fund For Independence in Journalism has reached conclusions that would have shocked the conscience only a few years ago:

The study counted 935 false statements in the two-year period. It found that in speeches, briefings, interviews and other venues, Bush and administration officials stated unequivocally on at least 532 occasions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or was trying to produce or obtain them or had links to al-Qaida or both.

"It is now beyond dispute that Iraq did not possess any weapons of mass destruction or have meaningful ties to al-Qaida," according to Charles Lewis and Mark Reading-Smith of the Fund for Independence in Journalism staff members, writing an overview of the study. "In short, the Bush administration led the nation to war on the basis of erroneous information that it methodically propagated and that culminated in military action against Iraq on March 19, 2003."

... Bush led with 259 false statements, 231 about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and 28 about Iraq's links to al-Qaida, the study found. [emphasis mine]
Wow, 935 lies here, 935 lies there, and pretty soon you're talking about a lot of lies!

The Bush-Cheney junta and their apologists can be expected to dismiss this on predictable grounds (a liberal is somewhere involved, the study's authors hate the troops, the study doesn't cite any of the handful of instances where the Bush-Cheney junta made truthful-ish public claims, the surge is working, the war will turn a corner in about six months, etc.), and I will grant one thing: while Bush might have lied the country into a deadly and costly war whose end is still not in sight, he has consistently told the truth about the extent and nature of his sexual congress with Monica Lewinsky. In psycho-sexual terms, Bush has indeed returned honor and decency to the White House, just as promised -- insofar as anyone has bothered to inquire into it, I should say.

"Is he having a laugh?"

That was my Ricky Gervais-inspired reaction to the news that Heath Ledger was found dead yesterday in New York City. But no, he was not having a laugh, Heath Ledger really died for some reason.

This is a sad thing. I enjoyed his work in the historically dubious The Patriot and the psycho-sexually compelling Brokeback Mountain, two films I enjoy despite their doubtful place in the canon of Great Important Films.

No, he wasn't having a laugh, and there's nothing funny about this. RIP, Heath Ledger.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Ray-Human Relations: Improving?

Sting rays have fallen from the 'fun sea creature' list since the unpleasantness with the Crocodile Hunter, but they are trying. It's fair to ask if they're trying too hard. What happens at the marina stays at the marina, I suppose, but what will be the long-term psycho-sexual effects -- for the woman no less than the sting ray?

Pictured: rising improv comic Deanna Moffitt and an unnamed sting ray

A Very Brady Eruption

The psycho-sexual undertones of this Brady Bunch vignette are pretty unmistakable. All in all, I wish they were more mistakable, but there would still be reasons to cringe upon viewing it.

Questions on Bible Times Zombies

Picking up the action in Matthew 27:50-53, we have this extraordinary set of events immediately following the death of Jesus:

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
No doubt the curtain was easily replaced, but what about the splitting rocks, shaking earth, and above all, the risen corpses? What, exactly, became of all these serious-sounding goings on? Did the resurrected people reveal secrets of the afterlife? Complain about the worms? About the money spent -- or not spent -- on their burial? Were refunds issued? And after they had finished their frolicking, did they quietly return to their graves? Or did they resume life and then have to die again? Did they get their old clothes, pets, jobs, spouses back or was it just too awkward for everyone concerned? The mind reels at the psycho-sexual dramas that must have unfolded.

Obviously whatever they did made no lasting impression. How strange! It seems like the kind of thing a chronicler or two would notice, all these erstwhile dead people wandering Palestine.

A Murder of Crows

Today as I was running through the park, I saw a large gathering of crows on the grass ahead of me and figured they'd disperse as I got closer, as crows usually do. Instead they held their ground and responded much as pigeons do, flying away not in response to the other crows' alarm but to my proximity.

I'd like to think they were doing a conscious bit of play-acting -- "let's be pigeons today!" -- but I actually think they were just damn cold and didn't want to fly unless absolutely necessary. And the way they squawked at me as they took flight confirmed this and added some annoyance that I didn't even have the courtesy to drop them some tasty pieces of trash.

They're right. I never carry trash when running, let alone tasty trash.

Pat Condell on Islam and "Cultural Sensitivity"

This is true, urgent, and well said.

God's Wishes and Federalism

I applaud the sprinkles of candor and intellectual honesty in Mike Huckabee's comments to fellow Christianists at the "Rediscovering God in America" conference yesterday:

Huckabee, who said he was not there as a presidential candidate, warmed up his conservative audience by declaring that overturning the Roe v. Wade court ruling was not enough because it would leave individual states to decide their own laws on abortion – a moral issue where there is a right and a wrong, contends the former pastor. He argues that a constitutional amendment that defines life at conception is necessary to prevent “50 versions of right and wrong.”
I subtract points for the embarrassingly dishonest claim that Huckabee was not there to represent his presidential campaign, but I expect a few brazen lies any time a prominent Christian gets in front of a microphone, and to the present point, I appreciate Huckabee's dismissal of federalism on moral questions.

It makes absolutely no sense to me when politicians rail on about a moral question only to conclude that it would be best to leave the question for individual states to decide. Some great moral question is in the balance -- abortion, birth control, euthanasia, drug legalization, torture, the rights of the accused -- but the politician would be unperturbed if, say, the state laws of Oklahoma and California embodied mutually exclusive answers?

So I applaud the firm consistency of Huckabee's enthusiasm for blastocysts:
How could we expect God’s future blessing on this country if we cannot come to the logical conclusion that every life He creates He creates with the same equal intrinsic value and worth as another?
He is not attempting to placate both sides of the abortion question, but openly declaring what he claims to believe, namely, that blastocysts are people too, and that his favorite god is likely to smite the USA if it doesn't protect blastocysts from border to border, regardless of state lines.

This statement, its context, and its positive reception by fellow believers should add to the enormous inventory of illustrations that when people profess a belief in god, they are referring to an involved, concerned, newspaper-reading, mind-reading personal entity who makes specific demands of individuals and society. The fuzzy god of highbrow debates and faculty lounges -- the indefinite, ineffable Spinozan entity that's just a convenient label for a lawful universe or for the unfolding human pursuit of truth -- is the exception to the rule, not the other way around.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Obama's Christianism?

Glenn Greenwald takes note of these flyers put out by the Obama presidential campaign, compares them with similarly overt faith-based appeals made by Mike Huckabee, and asks:

[I]n terms of the propriety of their religious appeals for votes, is there really any meaningful difference between the two campaigns? Is it possible to criticize Huckabee for inappropriately exploiting his status in Iowa as a "Christian leader" -- as many, many people did -- while believing that Obama's hailing of himself in South Carolina as a "Committed Christian" is perfectly fine? What's the difference?
At best, Obama is still trading in the same lazy shorthand that equates "Christian" with "good person," but more than that, he is reinforcing the same religiously based in-group/out-group distinction that the religious right feeds on. It's fair to say this flyer in isolation raises the question of whether the Obama campaign regards non-Christians as full citizens, but of course, it is not the only thing Obama has said about these topics. He has said, for example, the following:
Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what's possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.
This is a very different standard from the one invoked recently by Mike Huckabee, who proposed that the US Constitution needs to be changed to follow his favorite god's standards, and very different from the one issued by Mitt Romney, who declared that freedom and monotheism are interdependent, and could only acknowledge secularism enough to disparage it.

Another extenuating difference between this flyer and similar representations issued by assorted Wide Stance candidates is that Obama's opponents have circulated rumors that he is actually a muslim, so Obama is within his rights to respond to the lie.

It is also customary and fair to do some target marketing in the course of a political campaign: a flyer one distributes to a heavily jewish neighborhood can be expected to emphrasize Israel more than an ad directed at an entire large state or region; I frequently get mail from candidates stressing their pro-environment and/or pro-choice records. While I don't know, I suspect Obama's Christian-centered flyer is narrowly directed at a churchgoing subset of voters. This is fair.

To answer Glenn Greenwald's question: no, on the available evidence, this is not the same crap we've come to fear and loathe from the Wide Stance Christianists. We should be fair, accurate and open-minded about these topics, but not so open-minded that our brains tumble out.

Speak, Ethics

Upon his death, Vladimir Nabokov left behind an unpublished manuscript and clear instructions that it be destroyed and never published, and now Nabokov's son has to decide whether to follow his late father's wishes or publish the work.

If I were faced with this decision, I would start from the assumption that it is wrong to dishonor a person's last wishes but I would also take note of other competing goods and interests in the situation -- I am not prepared to elevate last wishes to the status of unimpeachable moral law. Namely, that the writings of Nabokov are of great interest and personal satisfaction to a great many people; that Nabokov has a reputation as a writer that is worthy of preserving (a fact that may tell either for or against publishing the work); that Nabokov may have given reasons for keeping the work unpublished, which may or may not continue to be valid (perhaps he wished to keep secrets that are now revealed by other means).

I would also want to take special care with my own motives: surely there is money to be made and fame to be had by publishing the work, for example.

I would want to weigh all of this and find the greatest overall good in a consequentialist, utilitarian sense. But in doing so, I would take care not to lose sight of the starting insight that I am presumptively bound to honor his last wishes. Whether I decide to publish or not, the very act of weighing consequences tends to violate that trust: by publishing it I have broken the trust in fact; by not publishing it, but still considering arguments for and against, I have broken the trust in spirit.

I hope we hear more about the circumstances of Nabokov's manuscript and the decision to publish or not. It's an interesting case.


I suggest watching this while attempting to drink only those liquids you're willing to spew all over your monitor. Here's "Maths" from Look Around You:

How have I just noticed this?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Why the Sarcasm?

Religion either wants unthinking obedience to ancient fables, or in its 'moderate' form, wants a hybrid combining the least ridiculous portions of the fables with more recent ideas, e.g., that slavery is wrong, that women are persons, that the earth orbits the sun, that dead people stay dead, etc.

Either way, I think people should be reading better books, and doing more and better thinking about morals, society, history, and the nature of the universe than simply repeating the precepts they were given as children. Better books than the texts of the Abrahamic faiths are not hard to find, and people should have the courage and integrity to admit they have little, and only a little, to learn from desert-dwelling primitives.

So yes, my comments about religion run to the harsh and sarcastic. I'll stop mocking the Abrahamic faiths when their believers stop threatening freedom, knowledge and peace with their backward teachings and phony certainties.

I doubt the sarcasm will convince very many of the faithful, but atheism has nothing to prove. The onus is on believers to demonstrate the veracity and value of their beliefs.

Ridicule is a proper response to ridiculous ideas.

The US Civil War Slightly Abbreviated

And so it came to pass that after four solid minutes of territorial ebb and flow, the Union was reunited and it lived happily ever after.

The End.

The Art of Marketing

... is apparently lost on the eschatology enthusiasts behind the forthcoming "Revelation Speaks Peace" because their mail flyer arrived in my mailbox yesterday.

The flaming, exploding earth and rolling tank imagery suggest words like "war," "upheaval," "chaos," or "discord," rather than "peace," but of course that misses the point. The pitch is that the world is falling apart and the only hope is that cash donations to this tee-vee pastor and a lot of wailing and gesturing will put Jesus in a mood to teleport you to a better world after you die, one not so bursting with lava or riddled with scary tanks.

Um, no thanks.

Dinosaurs Live! Kinda-Sorta

Yesterday I took in "Walking With Dinosaurs: The Live Experience," the very expensive stadium show follow up to the excellent Walking With Dinosaurs documentaries.

It had its moments, but I'd rather stick to the documentaries, which do a far better job of immersing you in a believable prehistoric world. The live-action dinosaur simulations were great for showing these creatures in their true scale, but the realism was not enough, especially the plants, lighting, and other scenery which were distractingly fake.

I certainly appreciated the way the show assumed the factuality of evolution and did not, even for the sake of the American audience, pretend that evolution is controversial.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Of Cocoa and Credulity

Like any hot-blooded Ameri-I-can, I believe everything I read, so when a recent issue of Runner's World told me I need to include some good sources of cocoa in my diet, I shouted "Sir yes sir!! How high!?" into the open face of the magazine.

Something else I read indicated I shouldn't subsist only on candy bars, so I wasn't sure what to do to obey the article in Runner's World. Soon enough, though, I found a new cereal by Kashi, the world's leading maker of cardboard-flavored breakfast cereals, called "Cocoa Beach Granola." It doesn't taste like cardboard at all! Oh is it ever delicious.

And according to an article I recently read, cocoa is a very good thing to have in your diet.

I am such a tool.

Blog Aesthetics

Here's Ursula K. Le Guin in the February 2008 Harper's, issuing yet another alarum about the state of reading and literacy:

The Internet offers everything to everybody: but perhaps because of that all-inclusiveness there is curiously little aesthetic satisfaction to be got from Web-surfing. You can look at pictures or listen to music or read a poem or a book on your computer, but these artifacts are made accessible by the Web, not created by it and not intrinsic to it. Perhaps blogging is an effort to bring creativity to networking, and perhaps blogs will develop aesthetic form, but they certainly haven't done it yet.
I'm not sure how to follow Le Guin's line from aesthetics to blogging to networking to creativity -- does she suggest these are the same things? points along a continuum? distinct entities whose boundaries the web has collapsed? -- but I think I read her as saying blogs have not staked out a distinctive aesthetic which, in the context of the rest of the article, seems to amount to a distinctive interaction between the creator and its audience (she speaks elsewhere of the way a tee-vee show just washes over a passive viewer whereas a book involves "actual collaboration with the writer's mind.")

Accepting this idea of aesthetics, and assuming that her use of "blogs" corresponds with the way actual bloggers understand the word -- I think there is considerable confusion in the meat world about what a blog is, and it's not without its blurred edges even within the online world -- can her claim about blogs possibly be true?

The phrasing of the question gives away my answer, for what it's worth: no, I don't think it is true, and I don't think it can be true. I don't think it is possible for any feat of human creativity (whether a cave painting, poem, song, sculpture, essay, play, book review, letter home, instant message, blog or whatever) to exist without some underlying theory of creator-audience interaction. For it to qualify as something recognizeable, it has to embody conventions and assumptions about representation, communication, clarity, subject matter, authority, beauty, length/duration, presentation, and much more. A novel form of creative output will, quite naturally, borrow its conventions and assumptions from existing forms, whether implicitly or explicitly.

None of this is to say the aesthetic theory has been or must be articulated. If Le Guin is simply saying that no one has yet articulated the aesthetics of blogging, she could be right (I honestly haven't sought it out). But I don't read her that way. I think she's claiming, instead, that blogs are aesthetically deficient -- whatever good is in them has been lifted from pre-existing forms -- and I think that assessment is, at best, premature. It's easy to go back in time and find similar declarations of the Death of Art inaugurated by an innovation -- novels will destroy epics, free verse will destroy poetry, movies will destroy the theater, modernism will destroy the visual arts, etc.

I think this claim likewise discounts the possibilities of blogging. There are and will be terrible, ugly, pointless, absolutely regrettable blogs, and we may lack a high theory of blogging that can help make aesthetic sense of the form, but this blogging thing will lurch forth in unexpected and fruitful directions.

A Few of Jesus's Superfriends

Here's a great clip from The God Who Wasn't There discussing the suspiciously Jesus-like predecessors of Jesus.

No one ever seems to fret about Pascal's Wagers with respect to Mithras or Osiris; no one ever seems to stress the importance of remaining agnostic (as distinct from arrogant, vain, presumptuous atheistic) with respect to Mithras and Osiris.

There are more clips from the film here.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Clowns Counterattack!

I can't believe these clowns:

Unhappy clowns from around the world say a study that reported that children didn't like them has wiped the big smile from their faces, and have been falling over their large shoes to put their case.

A poll by researchers looking at what decor to put in hospital children's wards found that youngsters do not like clowns on the walls and even older ones think they are scary.
Unhappy clowns from around the world ... More stories off the Reuters wire should start with prose that sings as that does.

I admire their fighting spirit, but these outspoken, back-talking clowns are wrong. Clowns are terrifying and they damn well know it.

Defining 'Effective'

The New York Times reports new findings that antidepressants are extremely effective at eliciting optimism from a particular segment of the population:

The makers of antidepressants like Prozac and Paxil never published the results of about a third of the drug trials that they conducted to win government approval, misleading doctors and consumers about the drugs’ true effectiveness, a new analysis has found.
Antidepressants like Prozac and Paxil give their manufacturers a boost in spirits so strong they can't bring themselves to notice, let alone make public, the studies that show these drugs don't do much at all for depression or anxiety.

Still, I think they should keep selling them even though they don't work, and doctors should continue dispensing them with all the care and gravity with which they'd dispense after dinner mints. I wonder how well after dinner mints perform in double-blind trials assessing their effectiveness against depression?


I am reliably informed that Dr. Laura, talk radio harpy with gigantic horse teeth, is visiting Portland right now.

Stay indoors.

100% Depleted Uranium!

Viral web videos just don't get any better than this.

Does Your Blog Blog About Blogging? This Blog Blogs About Blogging!

My friend from the meat world, AK, was concerned and exasperated enough with my fixation on god stuff and politics to make a pie chart depicting the breakdown by subject matter on this precious, precious blog.

I do blabber on about the god stuff and the politics a lot. I have no good excuse except to say it's an itch I feel a need to scratch. I don't have a clear sense of the audience for this blog but I do know my own future self will be an interested reader in much the same way that a dog will circle back to sniff at its own carpet puddles. I suppose the best way to say it is that I have absolutely no discipline when it comes to subject matter, tone, form, etc., because every time I try to place limits of that sort, it shuts the whole thing down. So I just write what I'm moved to write, pushing out blog entries much like a spider pushes out webbing, and the result is automatic writing filtered through what I've been reading, my mood swings, and whatever post hoc editing my microscopic attention span will permit me. It's part diary, part unfair screed, part unabomberesque batshit manifesto, part reflection, part college dorm bull session, part thinking-by-writing.

Of course, I also write in fear that the atheist blogroll will excommunicate me if I don't devote a goodly share of my posts to caustic put-downs of Jesus and all his superfriends, and with all the fame and fortune riding on that, I have to admit it exerts an influence.

Wow, last Friday I blogged about pie too. Maybe I should start a fabulous new meme to sweep the internets: Friday Pie Blogging.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Noisy Right God, Quiet Left God

An interesting study by Media Matters shows that US news media overwhelmingly associate religious belief with right-wing politics:

Religion is often depicted in the news media as a politically divisive force, with two sides roughly paralleling the broader political divide: On one side are cultural conservatives who ground their political values in religious beliefs; and on the other side are secular liberals, who have opted out of debates that center on religion-based values. The truth, however is far different: close to 90 percent of Americans today self-identify as religious, while only 22 percent belong to traditionalist sects.
I don't doubt this is true as far as it goes, but I expect it reflects nothing more than the fact that one of the major political parties, the Wide Stance party, has embraced a certain form of faith-based activism in its coalition, namely, a noisy, pushy, often fanatical brand of Christianity that can't stop thinking about blastocysts and gay sex. As news media spends most of its time covering politics and public policy, these religious believers get a great deal of attention (much of it happily received, I would point out), and they deserve to be reported on more than quieter, milder religious believers who are less politically engaged.

If all religious believers behaved as the non-right-wing religious movements do, theocracy would be a quaint idea, church-state separation could rest easy, creationism would not be dignified as a competitor with evolution in science education, there would be considerably fewer suicide attacks, rapists would go to jail instead of their victims, and this precious, precious blog would have to find something else to mock (no problem!).

But to paraphrase monumental asshole Donald Rumsfeld, the newspapers go to print with the religious movements we have, not the ones we wish we had.

An Illustrated Homily About a Cabbie

John Cole tells of a cab driver who suffered a mild heart attack and left the hospital with his life and a bill of $65,000. Sixty-five thousand American dollars!! It's a good thing mild heart attacks never involve costly follow-up care, and that cab drivers are so fantastically wealthy:

At any rate, my cab driver friend thanks all you out there with insurance, because believe me, he isn’t paying the bill. You are. And you are a damned fool if you think you aren’t.
Because it's really important and really true, for the sake of any libertarians who might have chanced by this post in a break between reading Ayn Rand and Market Fancy magazine, I want to re-quote the key part of that:
[H]e isn’t paying the bill. You are. And you are a damned fool if you think you aren’t.
We -- you, I, and even the invisible-hand-loving publishers and editors of Market Illustrated magazine -- are paying this bill. The providers who racked up that $65,000 bill will, sooner or later, recoup whatever part of that bill the fabulously wealthy cabbie leaves unpaid. They'll get it out of those of us who can pay our bills, whether insured or uninsured.

A Valediction: Forbidding Hype

Apple wants you to know they now sell a very, very thin laptop computer (at a very, very high price) -- the Macbook Air, "the world's thinnest notebook." Well, didn't something have to be? Do you know what the world's thinnest notebook computer was before this Macbook Air came out? I didn't. And that suggests something about the significance of being "the world's thinnest notebook," or so it seems to me.

Call me a cynic, but that this new computer fits in a standard manilla envelope means it is just that much easier to steal; and that it features a bunch of wireless I/O capacity means fresh new ways to lose your data.

At the further risk of marking myself as a crude, unlettered, swinish, unsophisticated, tasteless lackwit, I will make the broader claim that personal computers don't win or lose on style. Well, not if you're actually using them for the intended purpose, that is. However stylish your computer, you're still connecting to the same old internets, featuring crap like what you've just read here.

You can't polish a turd. So let us melt and make no noise yadda yadda.

(H/T John Donne)

Not Surprised

A former staffer and right-wing blogger professes shock that former Wide Stance Congressman Mark Siljander has been accused of, among other things, raising funds for a militant Islamist charity and lying to the FBI about it:

What makes the allegations in the indictment so shocking, is that Siljander is a Born-Again Evangelical Christian. We had fast days in his office. There were prayer circles.
Surprising? No. Two rather obvious explanations suggest themselves to me. One, that Congressman Siljander shouted a lot about Jesus in public but actually worshipped Mammon, which is, I think, a rather common religious orientation within the Wide Stance coalition; or two, that Congressman Siljander found a great deal of common ground between his Christianism and Islamism: hatred of gays, hatred of women, hatred of human sexuality, hatred of non-believers, hatred of the scientific world-view, hatred of Jews, the veneration of ancient lore, and so on. To a very close approximation, radical Islamists and radical Christianists share the same twisted view of humanity and the universe. Their differences are easily overstated.

There is a third possibility that ultimately stems from the second: that he saw it as his higher duty as a Congressman to further radical Islamism as a tactic to expedite the End Times confrontation that his brand of dead-ender Christianity so thirsts for.