Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Market-Driven to Insanity


I like the thrust of [John McSame's] market-driven approach, but by allowing insurance companies to deny people insurance for pre-existing conditions, and undermining the employer-based insurance system, the risk to people already dealing with medical issues is enormous. I'd love to be able to buy my own health insurance and keep it from job to job. But I'm HIV-positive and no one would sell it to me. And McCain's plan would leave people like me stranded.
Read this and marvel at how Sullivan contrives to treat "market-driven approach" as though it contrasts with "allowing insurance companies to deny people insurance for pre-existing conditions." These don't contrast at all -- for insurance companies, denying coverage to people likely to make claims is the quintessence of market-driven behavior. Exposing people with imperfect health to the full force of risk is the heart of treating health care as just another service for sale.

The market-driven approach to health care stands on the timeless wisdom that health care is something for which a rational consumer may develop a demand: he may wake up one morning and decide that it's finally time for that kidney transplant, or to do something about that exploding appendix, or to ask some pointed questions about the fainting episodes, or apply a splint to that nagging broken limb, or learn more about the three-year-old's persistent coughing and vomiting. Or he may choose instead to seek a different service -- the advice of a stock broker, the attentions of a masseuse, the know-how of a drywall installer. Who's to say what a choosy consumer might decide upon a morning? Surely not government!

The "market-driven approach" to health care is, and always has been, amenable to a two-word summary: get rich. Get rich and then you'll be able to afford whatever the doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies wish to charge for their expertise and service. For that matter, get rich and you can afford to hire your own personal physician and/or buy your own hospital and/or start your own pharmaceutical company. Amass a gigantic pile of money and you can be assured of affording all the medical care you'll ever want or need, pre-existing conditions notwithstanding.

That's John McSame's answer, which is and always has been the Wide Stance answer for health care: get rich. If you find you can't afford insurance or otherwise afford the health care you need, then get richer, because that's a clear market signal that you've failed to amass a large enough pile of money. Any questions?

In conclusion, I repeat: health care is not funny.

Framing Faith

Matt Nisbet really wants Richard Dawkins to hush:

As Dawkins even admits, he is a strategic liability to what he sometimes condescendingly refers to as the evolution defense lobby. Indeed, the association in the public's mind between evolution and atheism is only likely to grow stronger with the media campaign to promote Dawkins' next book, Only a Theory, for which he reportedly received a $3.5 million advance.
The mention of the $3.5 million paid to Dawkins -- is that some kind of elitist charge leveled at Dawkins? Are we now in a realm of discourse as childish as that? Could we not instead, perhaps, divine something about Dawkins' appeal as an author from the magnitude of the cash advance? (Would that be considered good framing, I wonder?) But I digress.

Once again, Nisbet has belabored the point that Richard Dawkins represents a walking, talking, book-writing black eye on the face of science because he has criticized religion forcefully and in public. Once again, this criticism elides the fact that Dawkins' The God Delusion is expressly a book about, well, the delusional nature of belief in god. It is not a book that sets out to popularize zoology only to clumsily blunder into questions of religion; it is a book that directly challenges faith-based truth claims.

In The God Delusion and in assorted other writings and speeches, Dawkins frames faith as a deficient means of arriving at reliable truths about the world, and does so brilliantly. This is not to say everyone likes it -- far from it, as Dawkins is the first to admit.

It seems clear that Matt Nisbet doesn't like writings that frame faith, but Nisbet fails to spell out why this argument is not worth engaging; and beyond that, Nisbet has given no reason to believe that this argument can succcessfully be wished away. It's not clear why it represents "good strategy," either in the long or short term, to pretend that science and faith are just two indistinguishable peas in an epistemological pod, differing only in subject matter. That is not their actual relationship, and no one on either side is distracted or deluded enough to believe it is.

But getting back to the particular nugget of wisdom quoted above: now that Dawkins has been so outspoken on the non-existence of god, Nisbet declares him a "strategic liability" for science who should go silent on evolution. For those of you keeping score at home, this means Nisbet has officially told Dawkins to shut up about god's existence and to shut up about evolution.

Is there anything Dawkins is allowed to write about? Presumably he shouldn't participate in any more documentaries or give any more speeches, either. May he go outdoors during daylight hours? Without a disguise? May he use sign language if he limits it to practical matters (e.g., we are out of toilet paper, I would prefer the fish, my tooth has an ache)? If he enters into a vow of silence and keeps it until his death, may he choose the words to appear on his tombstone? Or would that pose a strategic liability to science?

Biking in Portland Goes Platinum

By that I mean not the obscure album of that title, but the actual practice of bicycling in Portland. Something called the League of American Bicyclists has honored our fair Puddletown with its highest ranking, Platinum, for its support of bicycling. Yay us!

Just in time for spiraling gas prices, which are starting to get interesting in a dear-gawd-kill-me-now sort of way. Anyone for $10/gallon?

I don't commute by bike but I could, mostly. I couldn't commute all the way to work without undue risk; the Northwest Passage that goes from my house to my workplace and avoids the icebergs of bike-unfriendly streets has yet to be discovered. I could commute to the MAX stop instead of driving to it. The sticky part would be getting my son home without having to balance him on the handlebars. I'm sure there's a way, and I'm sure I'm going to need to find it as gas prices continue escalating.

Race and Presidential Politics

Andrew Sullivan, getting it mostly right:

It's extremely depressing that the first major national black politician who takes on the victimology of Sharpton and Jackson is greeted by the right with the kind of cynicism you see at Malkin or the Corner or Reynolds. It reveals, I think, the deeper truth: the Republican right only wants a black Republican to do this. They are not as interested in getting beyond the racial question, in changing the hopes and dreams of black America, as they are in exploiting it for partisan advantage. Their response to the first major black candidate for president tackling the old racial politics? "We don't believe him."
I think he's too charitable: I don't think the Wide Stance party wants a black candidate to break out of the rut any more than they want Obama to do so. I see no evidence of GOP eagerness to abandon the "southern strategy," which dries up and blows away without racial animus. At best, the Wide Stance has worked to widen its appeal to prejudice by broadening the definition of what constitutes a Scary Other: the definition now prominently includes gays, Spanish-speaking immigrants, secularists, and assorted "cultural elites," a.k.a. people who read books.

Expelling a Big Lie

Here is Richard Dawkins, correcting one of the central lies of Expelled, that Darwinian natural selection is linked with Nazism, anti-semitism, eugenics, and related ideas:

Now, to the matter of Darwin. The first thing to say is that natural selection is a scientific theory about the way evolution works in fact. It is either true or it is not, and whether or not we like it politically or morally is irrelevant. Scientific theories are not prescriptions for how we should behave. I have many times written (for example in the first chapter of A Devil's Chaplain) that I am a passionate Darwinian when it comes to the science of how life has actually evolved, but a passionate ANTI-Darwinian when it comes to the politics of how humans ought to behave. I have several times said that a society based on Darwinian principles would be a very unpleasant society in which to live. I have several times said, starting at the beginning of my very first book, The Selfish Gene, that we should learn to understand natural selection, so that we can oppose any tendency to apply it to human politics. Darwin himself said the same thing, in various different ways. So did his great friend and champion Thomas Henry Huxley.
To accept the science of evolution is not, in any sense, to accept any theory about human society or race relations.

Period. Full stop.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Obama and Wright As An Illustrative Reductio Ad Absurdum

The Obama-Wright controversy shows the limitations of America's fondness for religious politicians and illustrates why Americans should be careful what they ask for when they demand, as polls consistently suggest they do, that their political leaders believe in god and affiliate with organized religions.

Pastor Wright's batshit opinions are nothing more or less than the explicit expression of his religious outlook applied to political affairs: that AIDS is some kind of government conspiracy, that god will punish the USA for its disparate treatment of blacks in criminal enforcement, that 9/11 was god's punishment for some or other aspect of US foreign policy. I'm sure Pastor Wright could go on at length about the ways the USA continues to suffer for the sins of slavery and Jim Crow.

This is Christianity filtered through the American black experience -- an experience that, for reasons any sane person can understand, prioritizes and highlights race relations over time. Christianity takes an understandable focus on race relations in a very imperfect society and perverts it into unhinged batshit because, like the other Abrahamic faiths, it doesn't prize rationality, reason, and evidence, but devotion, passion, and faith. It privileges the wants of a cranky and fickle divine agent far above what conforms with reason and evidence. People who spend their adult lives fishing through the Bible or the Koran looking for "relevance" and "meaning" and "wisdom" come, sooner or later, to absurdities.

We don't need to look very far to find Christianity filtered through different historical experiences. Mormons, Catholics, Southern Baptists, and assorted evangelicals have their own ideas about how this nation, and the individuals composing it, might win or lose god's favor.

When these ideas are spelled out in candid detail, they offend, divide, and take on an emetic sameness: famous preachers (Hagee, Robertson, Falwell in his day, Farrakhan, many others) speak for their sects in saying that this nation, collectively, earns god's disfavor so long as it permits gays to live in peace and equality, takes the wrong line vis-a-vis Israel and the Palestinians, insists on science in science classrooms. They declare AIDS and other STDs as god's vengeance for sexual conduct, and insist on sexual purity as their god sees it. For his part, the Pope adds to this by threatening lay Catholics with eternal damnation if they dare to vote for pro-choice candidates, and denounces other Christian sects as gravely deficient. Mormons, not to be outdone in their determination that non-Mormons are gravely deficient in the eyes of god, presume to baptise souls posthumously (hence their fascination with genealogy), thus granting the non-Mormon dead the chance to earn their magic underwear in a glorious Utah beyond the stars.

Shorn of the vaporous abstractions, religion is a nasty business. This is because god, as portrayed in the holy books and in the prophetic imagination, wants precisely what he wants, and sects form because someone believes he's figured it out -- that he has identified god's fondest desires in all their particulars, where all other sects, let alone other faith traditions, have misapprehended them.

Is anyone running for national office prepared to stand next to his/her preacher and issue a thumbs-up or thumbs-down as the preacher takes questions over points of doctrine as applied to contemporary political, social, economic, and scientific questions? How many candid answers and thumbs-up before this process appalls and alienates the vast majority of voters? How many thumbs-down before the politician's attachment to the faith is shown to be hazy, uneven, selective, opportunistic, "cafeteria"?

Should this exercise take place -- and I dearly hope it does for the sake of exposing the stupidity of the wish for godly politicians -- can we expect lamentations from the observers asking why-oh-why the politician didn't leave the scary sect and the nasty preacher long, long before?

I hear you, American voter, when you say you want your leaders to believe in god. I hear it, I just don't believe it. I think you want your leaders to pay vague, vacuous homage a god who approves of you.

I think you want god-believing leaders in the way a child wants a puppy -- such a charming idea when you're standing in the pet store and not considering the destroyed footwear, all-night barking, ruined furniture, veterinarian bills, and heaps of shit.

Good luck with that.

Obama Rejects & Denounces Wright

Barack Obama has put substantial new distance between himself and his former pastor:

I am outraged by the comments that were made and saddened by the spectacle that we saw yesterday ... What became clear to me was that he was presenting a world view that contradicts what I am and what I stand for ... I gave him the benefit of the doubt in my speech in Philadelphia explaining that he's done enormous good. ... But when he states and then amplifies such ridiculous propositions as the U.S. government somehow being involved in AIDS ... There are no excuses. They offended me. They rightly offend all Americans and they should be denounced.
Given the deference typically given to "Reverends" and similar religious loonies, this is a strong denunciation.

Wright is officially thrown under the bus. Our politics have already spent too much time on this "Reverend."

Good riddance.

Calamari for Everybody!

Here in the United States, we say "as boring as watching paint dry." Apparently the equivalent in New Zealand is "watching squid thaw:"

Marine scientists in New Zealand on Tuesday were thawing the corpse of the largest squid ever caught to try to unlock the secrets of one of the ocean's most mysterious beasts. No one has ever seen a living, grown colossal squid in its natural deep ocean habitat, and scientists hope their examination of the 1,089-pound, 26-foot long colossal squid, set to begin Wednesday, will help determine how the creatures live. The thawing and examination are being broadcast live on the Internet.
I believe this still image is taken from the first moments of the examination phase, just after the thawing. I am glad that guy on the right brought that hatchet -- we know so little of these mysterious beasts, one can't be too careful.

I am told this is the link to the squid-thawing webcast, although I can't seem to get it to work. Bon chance!

Reverend Noisemaker

It's for statements such as the following that I would reject "Reverend" Jeremiah Wright more than I would ever think to reject my white grandmother:

Jesus said, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you. Those are biblical principles, not Jeremiah Wright bombastic, divisive principles.
Yes, the Bible does say odious things like that, and they are not only divisive and bombastic but simplistic and equivocal to the point of moral absurdity. What does he mean by doing terrorism on other people? Who, precisely, is you? Does the you deployed here have a constant referent? Claims like this are counterproductive slapdash if the critical terms go undefined.

I had the chance to watch as "Reverend" Wright made these and other equally insipid remarks before the National Press Club yesterday, and marveled at how blithely he assumed all these open questions away --- aided by a chorus of people located out of camera range who apparently share his assumptions, clapping and hooting for every lazy applause line. It goes to illustrate Christopher Hitchens' debating point that you can attach the word "Reverend" to your name and get away with saying the most indefensible things.

I didn't hate everything he said -- he noted, for example, that his claims to patriotism are buttressed by six years of service in the Marines, contrasted with Cheney's zero and Bush's Vietnam-era assignment defending the Gulf Coast from its oversupplies of cocaine and whiskey -- but I am not in the "Reverend's" amen chorus. I am not impressed with a "Reverend" title; and I am even less impressed with the application of Biblical logic (such as it is) to questions of collective punishment. The political enemy of my political enemies is not my friend.

Barack Obama should not count himself in that chorus if he hopes to be president. He has stated he does not share Wright's outlook on a wide variety of matters, and that's great. He needs to get more specific with the rejections.

Short of that, Obama's godly entanglements will give us a third Bush term -- talk about your collective punishments. Religion poisons everything indeed.


Monday, April 28, 2008

Rotary Phone How-To

... because there are no stupid questions, only stupidly mistaken ideas of how to operate a rotary phone. Bookmark this spot should a rotary phone ever be seen or needed again.

I remember when AT&T was still a monopoly and we had nothing but rotary phones that came in roughly two styles; when it was Such A Big Deal for my mom to get a separate line for my four sisters so that she could continue living on the phone; and when getting a replacement telephone was roughly as enjoyable and affordable as getting a cable box is today. Sure, that sucked. But we've traded that out for a world in which innumerable telecommunication companies offer innumerable features and innovations, most of them in the realm of creative billing, few of them contributing to quality of life. If my mom were still alive today, she'd still live on the phone, but I'm far from convinced her life would be any richer for all the varieties of "messaging," and I am even less convinced she'd pay an equal or smaller proportion of her monthly income for it.

The Ex-Presidency of George W. Bush

What can we expect from George W. Bush as an ex-president?

Cuttin' brush, cashin' checks, sittin' in luxury boxes of major league baseball games, declaring Missions Accomplished? Will he continue to make that little grunt sound out of exasperation that others aren't attuned to his distorted oversimplifications? And will he continue to say "in other words" a lot? Can we, in short, expect his passionate engagement with the world of ideas and the English language to continue? Will he, perhaps, extend his self-comparisons with Winston Churchill by expanding and updating A History of the English-Speaking Peoples?

In all seriousness, I hope he finally becomes a reader. But by raising the possibility that he might someday exceed functional illiteracy, I've played right into the lowered-expectations game from which his political career has benefitted so mightily, in which anything he does that seems more thoughtful than drooling a booze-slobber mix onto his chest while filling an adult diaper is counted as a great success. And to be fair, for him, isn't it? Especially when it's without the direct, moment-to-moment, step-for-step guidance of Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Harriet Myers, Karen Hughes, or Alberto Gonzales?

Those are only tentative guesses. I say we can't find out soon enough. A curious world eagerly awaits his post-presidency.

Boston Marathon -- That Bloody Bib Revisited

Given the extreme care with which I make assertions on this precious, precious blog, I would hate to be accused of exaggerating on the matter of the bloody bib I previously mentioned, so I've posted a photo here (click to enlarge if ye dare). I might have scanned it before putting it on The Wall of Bibs, but this is an example of the sort of small housekeeping details I am not yet in the mood to master as I drag-ass back to the post-vacation Real World. Other examples include changing the cat's litter box and thinking about serious topics.

Detailed spectroscopic analysis of the image will reveal that the blood stained on the right side of this bib is of the B+ type, originating from the right nipple of a male Homo sapiens -- or, to avoid too many assumptions, and in keeping with my characteristic false modesty, I'll just say a specimen belonging to the genus Homo. It will also reveal trace amounts of Poland Spring water (also sold as Boston tap water), Gatorade (also sold as Kool Aid), and substantial amounts of dried sweat (also sold as flavoring for Starbucks Morning Blend coffee).

My full Boston Marathon coverage:
One Tip
Bloody Bib

Low Expectations Hitched to Self-Deceiving Nonsense

A fresh entry for the Nothing Fails Like Prayer files:

Rocky Twyman has a radical solution for surging gasoline prices: prayer.
Twyman - a community organizer, church choir director and public relations consultant from the Washington, D.C., suburbs - staged a pray-in at a San Francisco Chevron station on Friday, asking God for cheaper gas. He did the same thing in the nation's Capitol on Wednesday, with volunteers from a soup kitchen joining in.
This is what irks me about god believers: they aim so low. If you're going to waste your time and make an idiot of yourself by apostrophizing the skies with entreaties, why not ask for something worth having? Lower gas prices? Why not ask your favorite god to grant the insight for developing a practical fuel from something that's already and foreseeably plentiful -- bacteria, self-pity, greenhouse gases, excess body fat, out-of-tune singing, irritable bloggers, the color green, prayer itself?

Why not be honest and pray for what you really want -- the immediate elimination of all the other people who are chasing the same diminishing petroleum reserves as you? An all-powerful god could, one would think, set them up on their own planet with its own biosphere just waiting to be wrecked. That's the hope of heaven, or so it has always seemed to me: a world much like this one, only without all the people the believer doesn't like.

My Lone Boston Marathon Tip

My one tip for Boston Marathon participants is to use the bag check-in/check-out system. When you pick up your bib and timing chip, you're also issued a large plastic bag and a ID sticker showing your name and bib number.

On the morning of the race, shuttle buses take you from Boston Common to the starting point in Hopkinton, and due to the large number of participants making the same journey (~25,000 this year), the process of delivering runners to Hopkinton takes place over a span of hours. Consequently, you can expect to arrive in Hopkinton at least an hour before you actually start running -- in my case, I arrived there shortly before 7am, so I actually had more than three hours to kill before running. This will be morning hours in the Boston area in April, so it will be cold. Even this year, under ideal weather conditions, and despite the ready availability of coffee, it was cold, cold, cold.

You will want that bag with you. You will want it to contain something to read, perhaps an MP3 player, or something else to occupy you during those long hours when you're waiting to run; you will want it to contain, perhaps, an alternate set of running clothes, since the weather might change its mood while you wait; you will want it to contain some kind of blanket that you can put down on wet grass; and you will want it as a place to store the warmer, weather-ready clothes you've thoughtfully worn over your running clothes to Hopkinton.

I came perilously close to skipping the bag check-in/check-out system and just showing up in Hopkinton wearing and carrying only the stuff I'd have on the run. This would have been a disaster. I saw a few people who took this bagless approach and they looked absolutely miserable -- cold, bored, and did I mention cold?

Use the bag check-in/check-out system. That's my tip.

Happy running!

My full Boston Marathon coverage:
One Tip
Bloody Bib

Sunday, April 27, 2008

God, One Week Later

My still-unfinished review of all my usual blogs and news sources reveals that, a week later -- a week during which I stayed away from the internets, ran a marathon, explored greater Boston, and paid too much money for bad food -- people continue to believe in god. This disappoints me. I had allowed myself to hope that I would return to a more reasonable and reason-guided world. I feel a chilling decrease of confidence in my hope that I'll return to work to find that I've been expected to work substantially fewer hours for substantially higher pay. Sigh.

Alas, bullshit and its opponents continue their sparring. Chris Hedges continues peddling his book, I Don't Believe in Atheists, and Ophelia Benson has canvassed some of its most galling insipidities (here and here) that the rest of us don't have to; starting from there, Dr. John Carter Wood takes up the (arguably) most wrong-headed of Hedges' tantrum against atheism, that it represents a form of utopianism:

Evolutionary psychology is based on the notion that our minds are shaped by our animal nature with all the limits to perfection that that brings with it. (Dawkins even has a chapter in The Extended Phenotype that is called 'Constraints on Perfection'!) Christopher Hitchens uses the words 'primate' and 'mammal' throughout God Is Not Great to refer to various human beings on practically every other page.

Just precisely where in all this can you find a vision of human perfectionism?
Indeed, on top of the frequent uses of 'mammal' and 'primate' to highlight the limits of human capability, one of Hitchens' central themes in God Is Not Great is the claim that religion is man-made, that religion as it actually exists and has existed through recorded time -- its texts, its artifacts, its histories, its assorted behavioral manifestations -- show every sign of being the ugly, uneven, capricious, ungainly, unsightly, sordid, exceedingly imperfect products of human agency.

Human productions are a fine mess, says Hitchens, and the religions are but a clarion example. It's not easy to imagine how an author could demonstrate a deeper devotion to anti-utopianism and "man's imperfectability" than to write an entire book on the theme that religion is such a colossal fuck-up that it must originate with primates like us.

And so it goes.

Telling Time in Boston

I demand that this clock tower (the Custom House Tower), now located in downtown Boston, be disassembled brick-by-brick and reassembled in Portland.

I demand it!

Boston is a beautiful city, especially when the weather cooperates.

Boston's Hooker Entrance

Isn't it interesting that the non-specialist, generic, garden-variety prostitutes have their own designated entrance at the Massachussetts State House?

I am mortally certain I am the first person ever to turn that sign into a joke.

Whaling Boston

You can go whale-watching in Boston? I wouldn't have thought so, but yes you can. We got some really good looks at a small group of humpback whales we were harrassing with our whale-watching boat in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

Whales are neat.

Feeding in Boston

Questions and observations about dining in Boston:

1) How on earth can this number of Dunkin Donuts franchises be sustained? Sweet Jesus H. Rove! There's a franchise on every corner! More than one if it's a high-foot-traffic sort of corner!

2) Note to chefs and assorted food preparers of greater Boston: the flesh of the chicken, no matter how prepared, is not a vegetarian food item. The same goes for the flesh of fish. One more note: a soup that contains vegetables and noodles in a beef broth is not a vegetarian soup. I realize it does not contain chunks of floating meat, but the word beef in the broth indicates the presence of dead cow in the soup. I'm glad we had this talk because there are no stupid questions, only stupid ideas of what constitutes vegetarian.

3) Hey Starbucks! I see you have a large footprint in Boston also, albeit not as large as Dunkin Donuts. Your coffee sucks there too, and at $2.45 for a "lahge," it's an even bigger rip-off than it is around here. I ask that you get your servers to line up behind one standard: here in Portland, they get testy when I say "large" instead of "venti." There in Boston, they don't seem to know what the fuck I'm talking about when I say "venti," so I have to use the inelegant English equivalent, "large," and then Bostonize it, producing "lahge." And all this and no flavor for only $2.45! It would be a real fucking shame if you went out of business. The retail spaces you vacate would be filled with Dunkin Donuts in Boston, or perhaps Au Bon Pain franchises.

4) Speaking of which, Au Bon Pain: thank you for having actual vegetarian items on your menu. Please find someone who can speak something approaching English to work in at least one of your fucking franchises located here in the United States. Spanish would be acceptable in a great many locations, but I'd prefer English. And please coach the employees to use the same words for the food items throughout the retail exchange: if it says, for example, "caprese" on the big menu above the employee's head, the employee should use that same word, or something that sounds like it, when announcing that the "caprese" is ready to be handed to the customer. The employee should not, for example, stand there holding the sandwich repeatedly yodeling a single-syllable word from whatever his non-English, non-Spanish native language happens to be. Oh, and lower your prices. They're obscene.

Boston Marathon 2008 - The Bloody Bib

I made it all the way through the Boston Marathon. My finish time (3:30:53) and pace (8:03) was on the slow end of the range I was hoping for, but I finished it, never stopped running, and made it to the end only slightly bloodied and moderately battered.

The weather was quite good. The clouds seemed to clear away almost exactly as we got started, and the temperatures climbed into the high 50s within a short while. I actually found it to be a little too hot -- I found myself grabbing cups of water and pouring them over my head by mile 10, which is not something I expected. While high 50s and sunny isn't exactly hot weather, it's hot running weather by my standards (apparently).

Of the four marathons I've now completed, this was the most draining and difficult, but I can't blame the weather. I started out at a slow pace, hoping I would develop confidence about my shin splints, post-flu weakness, and most of all, work past the calf cramping trouble I had in the Portland marathon last fall. While I did successfully avoid shin splints and cramps, by mile 18 or so, any confidence I might have gained was lost in the overall lack of energy I was feeling. Those last eight miles or so were a very difficult slog, and I could have sworn they tucked a couple of extra miles into the space between mile marker 25 and the finish line.

The trouble wasn't the course, although heartbreak hill (and the two or three hills leading up to it) certainly did catch my attention. Considered solely as a 26.2 mile course, this wasn't difficult.

My trouble was motivation. As I waited for the race to begin, I was feeling more dread than anything else. I couldn't fix my mind on any kind of competitive goal; I couldn't make myself really, truly care about my finish time; I had no "eye of the tiger" to bring to the situation. I just wanted to get going and get finished, and my overall slowness reflected that.

I was happy to see that I had developed enough nipple chafing to have bled all over my shirt, all the way through to my bib. My Boston marathon bib has real, honest-to-goodness marathon blood (and sweat and Gatorade) on it! It's so much the better keepsake for that.

From start to finish, the crowd support was amazing -- people lined the entire course and cheered in numbers. The highlight was passing by the campus of Wellesley College near the mid-point, where a good 100 to 200 yards was taken up by a succession of raucusly cheering co-eds, holding out their hands for a "high five" and even holding "kiss me" signs. That was truly inspiring and fun. (Update: This was the famous "Wellesley Scream Tunnel"). It was also fun to "high five" dozens of kids along the way, from the first mile all the way into downtown Boston. The people of the area get behind this event to a degree I did not expect. I kept waiting to see the crowds thin out but they only got heavier and more spirited as we reached Boston.

My time did not qualify me for next year's Boston Marathon, and I don't think I'd sign up even if it had, nor do I have any further marathons on my calendar. For now, I am content to stick to the shorter running events. Running the Boston Marathon was a fantastic experience that I am glad to be looking back on, one that I'll treasure more and more as the more painful and harder moments recede from memory.

My full Boston Marathon coverage:
One Tip
Bloody Bib

Boston Is Neat

New Old South Church and a piece of the Public Library.

I like Boston. Boston is like three or four Portlands packed into roughly the same space as the existing Portland, with the driving correspondingly more hellish. Not that I tried to drive -- even the Boston tourist puffery is clear that driving there is not recommended. Here are a few takeaways:
  • The MBTA, aka the "T", Boston's mass transit system, is excellent. It gets you everywhere you want to go quickly, and most of the people riding it are not scary weirdos. But get the hell out of their way because they know where they're going and know exactly how many seconds they have to get to the connecting train.
  • Boston is a great city to walk (weather permitting) but you'll quickly learn that the stoplights are bollocks. They follow no schedule that makes sense to anyone. Ever wonder why people form the habit of ignoring crosswalk signals? Go walk around Boston for an hour and you'll form the habit just as strongly.
  • Dear Gawd Boston loves the Red Sox. Everyone there is required to wear a Red Sox cap (preferably over a Red Sox shirt) at all times, and since they're sold in every imaginable color, there's no problem with clashing. A few outliers may still honor the New England Patriots with their clothing, but real Bostonians love the Red Sox. The Celtics? The who? They're in the NBA playoffs and favored to challenge for a championship, but the SOX! The SOX! Their 162-game regular season is underway! Nothing else matters!
  • Boston is old. Boston's older buildings were already ancient by the time Portland's oldest buildings were being drawn up.
  • Boston has a marathon that's pretty famous. More on that presently.

Hast seen the White Whale? The Week of Silence Ends.

It seems my week on vacation in sunny Boston did not stop the events of the world from proceeding apace. The television in my hotel chamber informed of continuing developments (sic) in the world of politics, where voters in Pennsylvania chose Bill Clinton over Reverend Jeremiah Wright by a 10-point margin, prompting CNN's Wolf Blitzer to soil himself with glee (on camera!) over the fact that he could continue to manufacture dramatic-sounding campaign-themed news items.

And then I plugged in my reader on the googles and all the blogs were wicked jammed with unread items! I don't know if I will ever catch up, just as I doubt I will ever lose my fake Boston-esque use of "wicked" as an all-purpose adjective, adverb, and intensive.

This precious, precious blog is wicked behind. I shall try to catch up for the sake of whatever subset of you five readers who have not unsubscribed during The Week of Silence.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Three-Variable Funny Test

My results for this test:

Your Score: the Cutting Edge
(66% dark, 46% spontaneous, 15% vulgar)

your humor style:

Your humor's mostly innocent and off-the-cuff, but somehow there's something slightly menacing about you. Part of your humor is making people a little uncomfortable, even if the things you say aren't themselves confrontational. You probably have a very dry delivery, or are seriously over-the-top.

Your type is the most likely to appreciate a good insult and/or broken bone and/or very very fat person dancing.

PEOPLE LIKE YOU: David Letterman - John Belushi
Sure, whatever. Where's this video of the very very fat person dancing?

ABC's Political Coverage

I would love to believe ABC is some kind of outlier.

Slow-Motion Water Balloon Videos

Slow-motion water balloon videos. Slow-motion water balloon videos! What else do you need to know?

As with all things youtube, these two lead to many more. How on earth did people get through their days before youtube?


A Holiday of Sorts

Today is my mom's birthday. Had she lived past January 2000, she would have turned 65 today. This image doesn't match how she looks in my mind's eye, where she still makes daily appearances, but how she looked the last time I saw her in person, just a few months after my son was born.

She didn't teach me everything I know, but she taught me more than enough. Happy birthday, mom.

Two Blogging Notes

First, my blogging will be spotty at best for the next week as I leave the comforting comforts of home for a visit to the exotic climes of eastern Massachussetts. I don't have a laptop -- I don't do laptops -- and besides, I don't know if Wi-Fi has made it to the east coast of the United States yet. It's possible I'll find an internets-connected computer somewhere amid the speaking apes and the half-submerged Lady Liberty, but I have laid no plans.

I have no idea how I'll survive an entire week without committing every single thought to this precious, precious blog, but heck, I'll try anything at least once, no matter how foolish.

You maniacs! You blew it up!

Second, for the sake of all of us who use feed aggregators (bloglines, google reader, whatever) to read blogs, could you perty-please set your option to send the entirety of your blog posts through syndication? The attached screen shot shows the relevant setting in, and it's probably similar for typepad, wordpress, and the rest. I realize there are reasons to send only part of the post through -- because you want people to visit your blog directly and click the ads and/or experience the awesomeness of your layout, etc., but you should also know that this makes visits to your blog less and less likely. If the first 255 characters don't grab me, I don't click through, I just mark it as read and move on, so I miss whatever you took the time to write after the 255th character and I don't visit directly. Over time, as your first 255 characters seize my interest less and less, I more and more categorize yours as an unfriendly, unwelcoming, high-maintenance sort of blog, one that I read, anticipate, and enjoy less and less. Soon enough I am not even exchanging greetings or making eye contact with the blog, and from there it's only a matter of time before I drop it altogether. And I don't think I'm alone in this.

Gays, God, and For the Bible Tells Me So

For the Bible Tells Me So makes a very moving appeal on behalf of accepting gays and lesbians by presenting the history of several families with deeply religious and conventional backgrounds who find, to the surprise of all, that one member of the family is gay. As a presentation of the idea that gay people come from very normal, boring, everyday backgrounds and live very normal, boring, everyday lives, it succeeds wonderfully. It turns out that gays and lesbians are just like you and me, just more gay and lesbian. This is still news to too many people, and I praise the film for the effectiveness with which it makes this salient observation.

As a presentation on theology, it fares badly. It discusses the several places in the Bible -- New Testament and Old -- in which homosexuality is condemned, including Leviticus 20:13:

If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.
In the face of such teachings, the film interviews assorted preachers, theologians, and believers who repeatedly make the point that such a passage is not to be taken literally. They point out that no one bothers to take surrounding passages literally, such as Leviticus 20:9 and 20:10:
If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death. He has cursed his father or his mother, and his blood will be on his own head.

If a man commits adultery with another man's wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.
It turns out that god wants to kill pretty much everyone for pretty much everything that has ever happened in a novel, and plenty besides that -- Deuteronomy 22, for example, is a smörgåsbord of offenses to god that never quite seem to make it to state-level ballot measures. Why, many in the film ask, is so much passion and energy devoted to one bit of Biblical teaching but not to all?

It's a valid question in its way, but it does not erase the force or clarity of Leviticus 20:13. God wants the gays killed yesterday. Period. And in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6, Paul made clear that gentle Jesus meek and mild still wanted the gays killed yesterday.

Other participants in the film make the point that the Bible's anti-gay passages can only be properly understood "in context," and whatever that context is -- I didn't get a clear sense of it except to note that no two of them seemed to agree on what it was -- it amounts to a negation of what the text flatly says. So if we read Leviticus 20:13 "in context," it should come with clarifying text, something along these lines -- clarifying, contextualizing words highlighted with bolding:
God would be a real asshole if he said that if a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.
Or here's another try:
Back in the bad old days, before he had really thought through the matter thoroughly, god would say that if a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.
Or here's a final try at pegging that proper context:
If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. Just kidding! Wouldn't that be awful!? Be as gay as you like.
Far from me to make light of anti-gay bigotry. In fact my point here is to take careful note of a very significant example and source of it: Christianity. Or if you prefer, Judeo-Christianity, or Abrahamic religion.

As he is represented in the so-called holy books of the world's three leading brands of monotheism, god is an anti-gay bigot. We can lay that bigotry at the feet of the fallible persons who actually wrote the books, and watch the baton of bigotry pass along to the many who have carefully preserved the books (strongly anti-gay sentiments unaltered) down to the present time. We can, I suppose, "feel in our hearts" that god has been misquoted, which seems to be the bottom line of many of the decent and well-meaning people presented in For the Bible Tells Me So.

To me, the proper response is to see the matter clearly and follow the implications. If you're gay, god wants you dead. If you have a gay child or a gay sibling, god wants your gay child or gay sibling dead. If you still want to cling to god through that, knowing what you know about love and life, feel free to do so. But for me, this is just one example of how the god of the Bible is a twisted monster, and a good enough reason I am glad he doesn't actually exist. That's my context.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring -- ?

Somewhere in the tension between these two commentaries there something worth teasing out. Comment the first, by Matt Yglesias:

There's been something a bit odd about scanning the news all day and seeing all these accounts of media people lecturing the audience that, contrary to the opinions of the people who watched the debate last night, that the performance of the debate moderators was, in fact, very good. If voters don't think the debate focused on important, interesting topics, then too bad for them! If voters don't think the debate was informative, then too bad for them! The press, once again, gives itself a standing ovation and that's what matters.

On an unrelated note, I've been in about a million conversations navel-gazing conversations about the decline of "old media" like newspapers, magazines, and network television and never once has anyone suggested that declining audience might be in any way related to the quality of the product. Everyone knows that it's the public's duty to read newspapers, whether they find them useful and informative or not.
And then there's comment the second, by Andrew Keen:
What a bloody citizen-farce. The 61 year-old "citizen-blogger" who revealed Obama's small town America remarks to a closed group of San Francisco donors is called Mayhill Fowler. She "works" for OffTheBus.Net, the citizen-newspaper which obviously takes advantage of clueless alter-kuckers like Fowler for their "news". Fowler, of course, shouldn't have revealed Obama's off-the-record remarks. But then she's a self-acknowledged dabbler rather than a trained journalist, isn't paid for her work and has no traditional editor at the exploitative OffTheBus. In the end, the New York Times tells us, she decided to go public with the grenade of a story after talking with her husband who told her to publish it because it was "newsworthy."
So Yglesias offers a vivid illustration of the now classic "new media" criticism of "old media:" that the establishment press corps is rotten, corrupt, incompetent, infinitely self-regarding, blindly conformist, and in all ways useless. Its pretensions to professionalism are a mockery, an entry barrier protecting the rot. Meanwhile, Keen points out that "bittergate" is traceable to "new media" in the form of an unpaid, untrained, non-professional Jane six-pack with a blog who has shown just as vividly how and why "a little learning is a dangerous thing."

I would like to believe, along with Keen, that a professional journalist answering to a professional editor would have eschewed this non-story. I would like to believe, along with Yglesias, that "new media" in all its free-wheeling manifestations will curb, if not counter, the excesses and abuses of establishment media.

I'd like to believe a lot of things. For now I am going to clutch my guns and my anti-religious beliefs and await clarity.

Elites on Elitism

Further to a this "bittergate" horseshit, Atrios quotes Chris "Tweety" Matthews from a profile written on him in The New York Times:

“I don’t think people look at me as the establishment, do you?” Matthews asked me. “Am I part of the winner’s circle in American life? I don’t think so.”
Tweety makes $5 million a year peddling personality-driven bullshit masquerading as political discourse on tee-vee.

Actual elites are wringing their hands about "elitists" who uncharitably use the word "bitter." This has to stop.

The Sum of Equivocations

George Junior brings forward a nice passage -- well, maybe nice isn't the word -- from Nietzsche's The Antichrist which expresses the way Christianity builds its house using blocks made of soft gelatin:

Under Christianity neither morality nor religion has any point of contact with actuality.

It offers purely imaginary causes ("God" "soul," "ego," "spirit," "free will"--or even "unfree"), and purely imaginary effects ("sin" "salvation" "grace," "punishment," "forgiveness of sins"). Intercourse between imaginary beings ("God," "spirits," "souls"); an imaginary natural history (anthropocentric; a total denial of the concept of natural causes); an imaginary psychology (misunderstandings of self, misinterpretations of agreeable or disagreeable general feelings--for example, of the states of the nervus sympathicus with the help of the sign-language of religio-ethical balderdash--, "repentance," "pangs of conscience," "temptation by the devil," "the presence of God"); an imaginary teleology (the "kingdom of God," "the last judgment," "eternal life").

This purely fictitious world, greatly to its disadvantage, is to be differentiated from the world of dreams; the later at least reflects reality, whereas the former falsifies it, cheapens it and denies it. Once the concept of "nature" had been opposed to the concept of "God," the word "natural" necessarily took on the meaning of "abominable"--the whole of that fictitious world has its sources in hatred of the natural (--the real!--), and is no more than evidence of a profound uneasiness in the presence of reality. . . .
So goes the H.L. Mencken translation; I think I prefer Walter Kaufman's translation of the last part:
This world of pure fiction is vastly inferior to the world of dreams insofar as the latter mirrors reality, whereas the former falsifies, devalues, and negates reality. Once the concept of "nature" had been invented as the opposite of "God," "natural" had to become a synonym of "reprehensible": this whole world of fiction is rooted in hatred of the natural (of reality!); it is the expression of a profound vexation at the sight of reality.

More on Last Night's Disgrace

Bob Somerby:

ABC News had traveled about, taping questions from Pennsylvanians. Which question was presented to Obama? A woman asked him to explain why he doesn’t wear a lapel pin.

Should that question have been selected? You can make a case for almost anything. And it’s true—this matter has been bruited about; almost surely, there are other Pennsylvanians who are wondering about it. Some Pennsylvanians, including that woman, may even cast their vote on this basis. ... But ABC News had less than two hours, and the world is full of complex issues. At some point, journalists have to set their priorities.
Hunter at Daily Kos:
It says something truly impressive about the press that a few statements by a presidential candidate's preacher bear far more weight to the future of our nation than the challenges of terrorism or war. It is truly a celebration of our own national collapse into idiocracy that we can furrow our brows and question the patriotism of a candidate, deeply probe their patriotism based on whether or not they regularly don a made-in-China American flag pin, but a substantive discussion of energy policy, or healthcare, or the deficit, or the housing crisis, or global climate change, or the government approval of torture, or trade issues, or the plight of one-industry small American towns, or the fight over domestic espionage and FISA, or the makeup of the Supreme Court -- those were of no significance, in comparison ... Truly, we have become a nation led by the most lazy and ignorant. It seems impossible to mock or satirize just how shallowly the media considers the actual world ramifications of each election, how glancingly they explore the actual truth behind political assertion or rhetoric, or how gleefully they molest our discourse while praising themselves for those selfsame acts. And that, in turn, is precisely how we elected our current Idiot Boy King, a man who has the eloquent demeanor of a month-old Christmas tree and the nuance of a Saturday morning cartoon.
Another writer, DHinMI, at Daily Kos:
Gibson and Stephanopolus were too concerned with "bitter" and flag pins and superexcellentness of cutting the capital gains tax to ever get around asking Obama and Clinton questions about any of the following subjects:

The financial crisis
The collapse of housing values in the US and around the world
Health care
The declining value of the US Dollar
The decline of American manufacturing
The Supreme Court
The burgeoning world food crisis.
Global warming
The attacks on organized labor and the working class
Terrorism and al Qaeda
Civil liberties and constraints on government surveillance

Let Them Know. Hold Them Accountable.

Here's a form you can use to send complaints to ABC News. Please use it.

Here's what I said -- wasn't I ever so civil, and within the character limit.

The performance of Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos in last night's Obama-Clinton debate was deplorable. Should ABC News sponsor future presidential debates, please instruct the moderators to focus their attention on the pressing issues facing this country and its future: the war in Iraq, the economy, health care, the environment, torture and human rights. Very important matters are at stake and you do a disservice to the country to neglect them in favor of personality-driven junk.
You can also call them if that's more your speed. Here's a tip or two from Sadly, No!:
Main ABC switchboard: 212-456-7777

Please be polite. Let the people at the ABC switchboard know that you are not upset at them. Ask them politely if they would convey to someone in charge how deeply displeased you were with the questions in tonight’s debate. Let them know that you are distressed that it took the “reporters” moderating the debate a full 45 minutes to ask one single question about substance.
If you find yourself waiting on hold, you might use the time to read Glenn "Glennzilla" Greenwald's excellent remarks on how last night's shameful clowning pleases exactly two constituencies: the right wing and the elite political press.

Gibson and Stephanopoulos: Despicable and Typical

I am happy to say I missed some of last night's Obama-Clinton debate moderated by the execrable George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson. I wish I had missed more of it; I wish it hadn't taken place. The way big-name "journalists" steer this country's politics into trivia is disgraceful.

Andrew Sullivan captures the disgust of those of us who give a shit about the fate of the country enough to give a shit about its next president:

We are losing a war, we have destroyed our fiscal future, the planet is in distress, we have effectively quit the Geneva Conventions, the economy, propped up by massive public and private debt, is teetering ... and we all have to actually defend the fact that this election will be decided on the basis of closet Muslims, flag lapel pins, and '60s terrorists?
Certainly the wreckless Hillary Clinton shares some of the blame for these idiotic diversions, but we have the chance to vote her out of the picture. Brainless, overpaid, trivia-whoring losers like Gibson and Stephanopoulos -- not to mention Chris Matthews, Maureen Dowd, David Brooks, Wolf Blitzer, and far too many more -- remain fixed in place, doing everything possible to derail and divert politics into bullshit topics they find humorous and easy to discuss.

It's high time for an opportunity for Americans to vote these vapid pigs off the island. Too much is at stake.

Spandrels and Gods

Paul at Café Philos asks if belief in god is a spandrel.

I say yes. I think it's an example of the human tendency to find agency in the observable world: if a comet comes crashing through the roof of your settlement, you will tend to ask the same questions and make the same assumptions as if a spear comes through the roof of your settlement -- you'll wonder who threw it and why. If you lack the proclivity that forms these assumptions and questions, you won't last long in a world in which there really are people who throw spears and rocks. The tendency to find agency confers a Darwinian advantage.

We have a deeply ingrained mental habit to associate causation with a person -- or something else that's close enough, an animal with an agenda. In fact, it takes some discipline to suppress this tendency and to understand, for example, that atoms, televisions, the tides, the weather, the moon, microbes, brush fires, and Windows-based PCs do what they do without there being a "little person" causing it and willing it. The idea of wholly deterministic entities wars with our most basic intuitions about cause and effect.

The god beyond and behind the stars that caused everything -- the one who throws the comets and the lightning bolts, the one who mercifully calls off the microbes or wrathfully redirects the brush fires -- is a construction of and the ultimate example of this mental habit.

I don't even think this mental habit is unique to humans. How long would a typical predator last without a basic working understanding that other predators are on the prowl? And how well would prey do if they didn't have a tendency to pay special attention to the strivings and schemings of predators, as when a bush shakes in a peculiar way? Predators and prey have rudimentary forms of this tendency to locate agency in the world; the ones we consider intelligent, like orcas and seals, have relatively ornate spandrels, whereas the ones that have just a few effective tricks, like wolf spiders and crickets, possess less ornate spandrels. We humans decorate and embellish our spandrels to the point that they become superhuman agencies.

This is not to say that the tendency to locate agency is the only naturalistic explanation for belief in gods, but I think it's a significant one. This explanation does not, incidentally, imply that gods don't exist. They may actually exist and our belief in them may still be spandrels.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Travis Outlaw Closes Out the Blazers' Season


Watch out, rest of the NBA. The Portland Trailblazers are getting another lottery pick after finishing at .500 in a strong western conference and missing the playoffs.

Next year's pick will be added to a lineup already bursting with young talent, including this year's overall number one pick, the recovering Greg Oden and last year's rookie of the year, Brandon Roy.

McSame, Torture, & Tweety

Yesterday, John McSame sat down with the bloated face of Tweety and had, to his credit, very sensible things to say about torture:

If we’re not any better than our enemies, then does it make it harder for young people to choose. I was in Baghdad over Thanksgiving last year. I met with a former high-ranking member of al Qaida. I asked him, I said, How did you do so well after the initial military success that the Americans and the coalition forces had? ... He said, Abu Ghraib was my greatest recruiting tool. Everybody here knows what Abu Ghraib was. So my point is that for the future of this country, we have to make sure that we remain a nation that does not do things that our enemies do. And I promise you, my friends, I’ll close Guantanamo Bay and we will never torture another person in our custody again.
I am very glad to hear these words from John McSame. I don't believe them, but I am glad he spoke them, and I will hold him to them.

I don't believe the words because McSame recently voted to perpetuate the Bush-Cheney torture policy.

Naturally, Tweety didn't ask McSame to square his anti-torture statement with his recent pro-torture vote, because Tweety's expertise and interests are limited to Bill Clinton's sex life, Hillary Clinton's distressing femaleness, and Barack Obama's worrying tendency to drink orange juice and bowl poorly.

No Mystery

Be careful what you say:

A Turkish barber accused of swearing at God is sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia, with his family back in Turkey calling on authorities to intervene.

Sabri Boğday from the southern Hatay province went to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia 11 years ago and opened a barbershop.

According to reports, Boğday argued with his neighbor, an Egyptian tailor, and was arrested after the tailor told the police that he had sworn at God.

While Boğday has been in prison for the past 13 months, the Egyptian who made the allegation has disappeared.
You'd think that spending 13 months in prison would be more than adequate punishment for swearing at god, or even at Santa Claus for that matter, but thinking is the problem here, right? Boğday the barber appears to have held the wrong thoughts about god and given verbal expression to them.

But stepping back, marvel at the sequence of events: an Egyptian told authorities that a Turk had sworn at god in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities arrested the Turk and locked him in prison for 13 months. The Egyptian vanished, which precludes the suspect's opportunity to confront his accuser in open court, if indeed that was not already precluded by the same body of august legal traditions that made swearing at god a capital crime in the first place.

God's ways aren't mysterious; "mysterious" is not the word for this.

Nice Dog Evil Dog? Left Dog Right Dog? Red Dog Green Dog?

A Scientific American article by Michael Shermer attempts to offer a helpful insight based on recent scientific findings:

The next time you come face to face with a dog wagging its tail, you can make a quick determination on whether to reach out and pet it or step back in deference: check the tail-wag bias. If the wagging tail leans to the dog’s right, you’re safe; if the tail leans to the dog’s left, don’t move. [emphasis mine]
The quoted text is clear that we're talking about the dog's left (indicates evil) and the dog's right (indicates nice), but the accompanying illustration reverses the perspective.

Or is it simply reversing the convention whereby green = nice and red = evil?

I am now more confused than ever about how to distinguish evil dogs from nice dogs. Moreover this gives absolutely no guidance on dogs that don't have tails or that aren't wagging them. I am suddenly confused about red and green, and don't even get me started on the fact that the illustrator chose to put the dogs side by side, left and right.

Sometimes I hate science.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Making of Twaddle

Attempting to summarize some of the back and forth in the comments today, Mike observed as follows:

I must say that after reading all this I conclude that I'm looking at two very different philosophies that ideally arrive at the same result.
(1) There is no God. Therefore it is up to us to do what is right and make the best of our time on earth. We may get screwed over, but that's life.
(2) God has a plan, but we are unable to comprehend it and so cannot hope to abide by it. Therefore it is up to us to do what is right and make the best of our time on earth.We may get screwed over,but that's life. [emphasis mine]
I have seen discussions of this sort land at approximately this point, but I don't think this one has. This one has veered a different (familiar) direction, and I think the trajectory owes to the highlighted section: God has a plan, but we are unable to comprehend it and so cannot hope to abide by it. Commenter Zombie has been very emphatic about the first clause (that god has a plan), and when pressed, he has retreated to the second clause (that we are unable to comprehend it), and that has allowed him to evade anything as definite as the third clause (that we know what to do).

My attempt has been to get to an understanding of what this plan is. Zombie claims he doesn't know, but the way he has expressed this not-knowing has been hand-waving about the "human" ideas of perfection and benevolence as distinct, he asserts, from the "godly" versions of these. How dare we apply "human" versions of these ideas to god, he keeps asking.

Well, if god's perfection and benevolence are of some rarefied form that is, in principle, beyond our reach, then we're in the free fall of equivocation. To be clear: I understand perfect and benevolent as they are regularly used in English sentences, but I have no idea what to make of the super-charged "godly" variants that don't, Zombie assures us, connect with what we find in everyday spoken and written English. I've asked, but he hasn't answered.

But do notice that he has not, for all this professed ignorance, retreated from the underlying claim that god deserves our respect, admiration, and obedience.

So the resting point seems to be a familiar muddle: that god should be obeyed even as god cannot be understood. God is good, but good doesn't mean what you might think it means. In fact, it doesn't mean anything you'll ever understand, no matter how long or how persistently you try to track it down, because god is working at a much higher level while we're stuck down here at the kids' table.

Likewise: god loves you, but according to no love you'll ever relate to; god is benevolent, but not according to your regular idea of benevolent. Etcetera.

Which is to say, finally, nothing of any value whatsoever. A telltale sign of a discussion that has landed precisely nowhere is the insistence that words no longer mean what they did when the conversation began, and yet won't be redefined.

This has been an exercise in watching the manufacture of twaddle. I think I'd rather watch sausage being made: at least sausage can be used at the end, and I concede that even as a vegetarian.

McSame = Bush

McSame. McSame. Did I say McSame? Yes, McSame.

And this is a good reminder of the priorities we'd be re-electing by electing McSame.

Expelled Exposed

The National Center for Science Education has put together this little film and a number other resource for countering the shamelessly dishonest new anti-evolution film starring non-star Ben Stein. Check it out at Expelled Exposed.

Nice Summary

Writing on a far distant thread, Massimo Pigliucci neatly summarizes my last two posts about god stuff and much else that passes into this precious, precious blog: God believers complain

... that atheists just don't understand. No, we don't. We cannot understand because we live by the apparently misguided idea that belief ought to be proportional to evidence, that one of the best attributes of humanity is its ability to reason, and that blind faith is not worthy of praise, but rather is the sort of evil that brings people to slam airplanes into skyscrapers, killing thousands whose only “sin” was to be born in a different culture. As Blaise Pascal (a highly religious philosopher) put it, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

No, I don't understand statements that convert "eternity" into some kind of pleasure-induced inattention to the clock. What if a person's transfixing, time-negating joy is inherently anchored in and dependent on time itself -- for example, what if it has to do with completing a marathon in a personal best time? Is this possibility excluded from "eternity"?

And I don't understand assertions that god has a great plan that counterbalances all the suffering of the world, which, when its obvious shortcomings are noticed, is quickly traded out for assertions that god has an irreducibly mysterious plan.

A Zombie Recites His Lines

In a comment, Zombie asks:

Who are we to even question a perfect God as imperfect people? Who are we to sit in judgment of the actions of God? We make mistakes daily and think with minds that are flawed and seemingly unable to get a grip on reality. If we can't see God's master plan we get angry with Him. But who told us that we are entitled to see God's master plan?
You've only begged the question of god's perfection by asserting it (after begging the question of god's existence by asserting that), but the answer to the "who are we" question is that we are beings who understand suffering based on direct, all-too-common experience of it. We also have vast reservoirs of experience with addressing suffering by contextualizing it: the pin-prick hurts, but it hurts less than the polio it is preventing; the childbirth hurts, but the birth and life of the child outweighs it; the hard work is unpleasant, but the money is good and useful.

Likewise we are asked to contextualize the sum of suffering in the world by noting the grandeur of god's plan. This can't be done without inquiring into the nature of god's plan, so put up or shut up. This is no more impertinent than the same question as put to a boss, a dictator, a doctor, a parent, a teacher, a ship's captain, or anyone else who proposed a course of suffering for the sake of a larger good. What is the larger good and how does it compare with the suffering demanded for its sake? If the boss, dictator, doctor, parent, parent, teacher, or ship's captain simply waved his hands and said "the plan and its goodness is inherently beyond your comprehension" then we would rightly call bullshit. And I call bullshit on the exact same non-answer given for god's supposed plan.

So put up or shut up: in exchange for the millions of parents who have prayed over a dying child, in exchange for every moment's suffering experienced in the Holocaust, in exchange for every rapist who has gone to the grave undetected, in exchange for every person burned or crushed for having decided to show up to work on 9/11, god offers what, precisely? What possible good outweighs this and the rest of the unspeakably dismal tide of human affairs?

Zombie continues:
Maybe this sounds silly to you, believing in God, but with some thought, think of the alternatives. We created ourselves out of some explosion somewhere in space from things that created themselves, then kept changing from one appearance to another for millions of years never leaving behind any fossil evidence. Come on, that is so unbelievable it reeks of humor.
It sounds quite a bit worse than silly, but silly fits too. Please be aware that the alternatives are not made untrue by your feelings of incredulity. One virtue of the alternatives, even in the bastardized form you've given here, is the absence of any assumption that there is a 'purpose' or 'love' at the root of it all. We don't have to insult ourselves hunting around for explanations of how a material universe doesn't seem to care about our suffering. I don't offer that as a consolation but in support of the possibility -- I would say the evident reality -- that the universe is not furnished to provide consolation to humans.

Finally, there is an abundance of accumulated wisdom, experience, evidence, and reason that can take us step-wise from simpler to more complex life forms, and that can explain the 'orderliness' of, say, spherical planets, elliptical orbits, Euclidean geometry, and molecular structures. Whereas the alternative, untroubled by either reason or evidence, is that some magic human-like being with a human-like consciousness always existed. And then one day decided to make some people, and place them in a garden with a talking snake, and ... well, we all know the rest of the fable.

Monday, April 14, 2008

I Tried. Really.

I've been keeping the following statement on the idea of eternity in my hamster-clutch of items to blog upon for a good solid week. I've read it and re-read it and re-read it again, waiting for the epiphany that would drop the scales from my eyes, show me perspective I hadn't previously considered, and expose the small-minded character of my filthy, wretched atheism. But the epiphany has not arrived. Here's the statement from Andrew Sullivan:

The precious gift of religious life lies in part, in Oakeshott's words, "in the poetic quality, humble or magnificent, of the images, the rites, the observances, and the offerings (the wisp of wheat on the wayside calvary) in which it recalls to us that 'eternity is in love with the productions of time' and invites us to live 'so far as is possible' as an immortal."
I'm reminded again of T.S. Eliot's assertion that
"to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint."
These moments may come upon us when we least expect them. We may see flashes of eternity in the simple grin of a child in a game of hide and seek, in the approach of the tide on an autumn afternoon, in the eyes of a lover in sex, or in a grandmother's ritual - but we know them when we see them. The key is to be open to them, because they happen all the time, all around us. But we are too "busy" to notice.
To be fair to Sullivan, I'm equally flummoxed about what T.S. Eliot and Michael Oakeshott are trying to express here, but I am willing to concede that Sullivan has quoted both appropriately in support of whatever point he is attempting to make, if only because I am not very familiar with Oakeshott and because I've always considered T.S. Eliot a reliable source of obscurantist crap.

The most charitable reading I can muster is to say that eternity, according to Sullivan, should be understood as appreciating the beauty of the present -- a state of being and a frame of mind so immersed in the fullness of a moment's experience that time recedes to utter inconsequentiality. That's not a new idea, and in the end, it just gives me a headache to label it as "eternity" -- much less to try to harmonize it with the otherly-vacuous sputterings about "eternity" that pockmark the written traditions of the leading brands of Abrahamic faith, which appears to have been Sullivan's starting intention.


Speaking of obscurantist crap, the new film Expelled takes crap and lying to toxic levels.

Elitism in American Politics

The supposedly hurtful nub of Barack Obama's recent comments is the following:

... they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
This has been taken to mean that Obama is explaining the charm of guns, the appeal of religion, and the pull of nativism -- that in the absence of political factors, people would be indifferent to guns, would never have bothered with religion, and would welcome unfettered free trade and the widest imaginable multiculturalism.

No. This is a tendentious and fallacious reading of what Obama is saying (and not expressing effectively, as he freely admits). Obama is not accounting for the origins of beliefs and commitments, but for the origins of politics centered on particular beliefs and commitments. He is suggesting that people have gravitated to a politics focused on "god, guns, and guts" because they have seen -- and have been strongly encouraged to see -- the failures and shortcomings of other forms of politics centered on other values.

For decades, American conservatives have consciously fed a sense of outrage centered on "god, guns, and guts," part and parcel of which is an embittered attack on "cultural elites" and "government bureaucrats" who threaten "traditional values" and thumb their noses at "common sense." Fundamentally this politics is about redefining elitism: it removes elitism from the realm of the economic and diverts it to the cultural. This is the game of politics as it has been played in the United States; it doesn't explain religious belief or other cultural markers, but makes political use of them. (And fair enough, by the way.)

The beliefs and commitments existed well before the politics and will endure beyond them. There is nothing insincere about the beliefs or commitments, nor do they have a simple etiology, whether political or otherwise; they are as genuine as any other expression of human culture. Barack Obama recognizes this, but he is calling attention to the political uses made of them as he seeks to widen the political frame.


Demand Accountability for Torture

From Crooks and Liars:

Call on your members of Congress to demand an independent prosecutor to investigate possible violations by the Bush administration of laws including the War Crimes Act, the federal Anti-Torture Act and federal assault laws.
Here is the online petition. Do sign on.

I actually think the proper mechanism for investigating this matter is an impeachment trial, but an independent prosecutor would be a slightly lesser circus. Whatever works.

Re-Saddening the Clown: A Rethinking

I have done some more thinking on my previously-stated view of the incident in which Illinois state representative Monique Davis made disparaging remarks about atheism and atheists. This thinking has been informed by reading more of the commentary on the topic and listening to the most recent Point of Inquiry podcast, which touched on the subject. My new assessment relates closely to a comment on my original post offered by Lynet of Elliptica fame:

She owes an apology to the atheists in her state, too -- or if not an apology, an explanation that she does in fact stand by her statements ... At present, we really don't know where Rep. Davis stands.
It is both important and fair to notice that we don't actually know what Rep. Davis apologized for, apart from what we might deduce from the fact that Rob Sherman, the party directly involved, accepted the apology. But with due respect, this is not really about Rob Sherman, nor about Rob Sherman's emotional states. If Rep. Davis and Rob Sherman have reached a personal peace on this matter, then that's well and good for those two, but there's a deeper wrong here that has not, to my knowledge, been addressed.

Here are her full remarks:
"I don't know what you have against God, but some of us don't have much against him. We look forward to him and his blessings... I'm trying to understand the philosophy that you want to spread in the state of Illinois... This is the land of Lincoln where people believe in God... What you have to sprew and spread is extremely dangerous... It's dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists... Get out of that seat! You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon."
Her statement claims that atheists have no legitimate say in the affairs of government. Whatever damage she may be doing to anyone's feelings, she is drawing a line between an in-group of worthy citizens and an out-group of atheists: Monique Davis, "the people," "the children," and no less than Abraham Lincoln belong to the in-group, while Rob Sherman and all atheists belong to the out-group.

This is unacceptable. Under the Constitution, all citizens, regardless of religion, have a right to be there -- to speak their minds and be heard (not necessarily to be liked or agreed with), to seek redress of their grievances (not necessarily to get their way politically), to petition their government officials and enjoin their fellow citizens.

If Rep. Davis' apology does not encompass a full about-face on this fundamental matter of law and civics, then she should not bother with apologies but should tender her resignation from the Illinois state assembly, every bit as much as we would rightly expect the resignation of a state representative who scolded Jews or Catholics by saying "you have no right to be here!"

Politicians who can't or won't abide this standard are well out of bounds. Whatever private peace Rep. Davis might have made with Rob Sherman, she needs to make a public peace with the Constitution. Or leave office.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

I drink your milkshake!

Over the weekend I finally had a chance to see Atonement followed by a re-viewing of There Will Be Blood. Atonement got off to a very slow start before getting very, very good and finishing powerfully. I generally disapprove of film/literature that "goes meta" and becomes a meditation on film/literature, but Atonement is an exception: a genuine story does break through the navel-gazing metatext about the uses and illusions of representation.

I still think There Will Be Blood was the class of the 2007 Best Picture Oscar nominees -- not to say the film I enjoyed most, but the one that came closest to the mark of Best Picture Oscar-worthiness. But Oscar or no Oscar, I was struck by how firmly each scene had stuck in my head over the months between the first and second viewing.

Question: are Paul and Eli really different people? Is there really an Eli Sunday and a Paul Sunday? I have not read the Upton Sinclar novel on which this film is loosely based (and will not - I got my fill of Upton Sinclair with The Jungle), so I don't know if the ambiguity carries through there. The same actor played both characters, little apparent effort was taken to visually distinguish them, and they were never shown side by side. I find it an interesting open question whether Eli and Paul are just two warring personalities in the same character, and how the characters in the fictional world who might care about the question -- Eli himself, the elder Sunday, and Daniel Plainview -- would see it.