Monday, March 31, 2008

2-D Barcode-A-Palooza

faith in honest doubt

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precious, precious blog

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I don't have the slightest fucking idea what this means

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That to the highth of this great Argument / I may assert th' Eternal Providence / And justify the ways of God to men.

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Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're tryin' to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin' you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft

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Generate 2-D barcodes, whatever they're good for, here.

(via)

Spring


Some days you're the tree and some days you're Max Von Sydow.

Leaving Believers Alone and Vice-Versa

Here's Oliver Kamm, quoting and then replying to Nigel Hawkes:

"To deny religion is to dismiss most of human history as an error, only now being corrected." I know literally no one who would "deny religion" in the sense of disputing its salience in human history. But whether there exists a personal God with an interest in our affairs is surely a question with a right and a wrong answer. I see no particular reason to demand of religious believers justification for their faith, provided - and it's an important qualification - they leave me alone. But I have little patience with the notion that those of us who reject, in the words of the Apostle Paul, the things which are not seen and are eternal, are somehow being obtuse in taking the question seriously. [emphasis mine]
I agree with Oliver Kamm here -- I am perfectly willing to demand nothing of and otherwise leave religious people undisturbed so long as they return the favor.

But I question whether it's possible for genuinely religious people, especially Christians and Muslims, to follow such a hands-off principle. Reaching out to non-believers and converting them -- spreading the teachings, winning converts, extending god's reach here on earth -- is a central duty in Islam and Christianity. If you're a Christian or a Muslim who isn't working to save souls by bringing people to a full appreciation of god's will, it's fair to say you're doing it wrong.

And the outreach goes beyond gaining individual converts. Christians and Muslims tend to want to bend entire societies toward their vision of god's will. They want to make man's law subordinate to god's law. This, too, is fundamental to these religious systems, although it is not the first priority of every believer in every sect in every time and place (please spare me the listing of Christian and Muslim communities that aren't, this morning, openly agitating for social and political change).

I also think Kamm is too quick to let pass this bit of twaddle from Nigel Hawkes:
But can literature, music, art and jurisprudence not also achieve truthfulness? Nobody denigrates Tolstoy or Mozart for lacking a GCSE in physics. The same applies in greater measure to religion. It is true that an absolutist belief in the Creation, for example, is incompatible with evolution by natural selection. This caused Darwin sleepless nights. But those who wear religious belief more lightly need not despair. They can see the Creation story as a parable, or a myth along the lines of Beowulf. Christian belief, at least in the Church of England (whose oft-derided spinelessness is actually a priceless virtue), does not depend on literal interpretations of the Bible.
Christians who are content to regard the Biblical creation myth as myth will be left alone, and they will be left alone because they will not, ipso facto, try to replace evolutionary theory with Genesis in science classes. But we know that all too many Christians and other religious believers are far from content to see their religious texts as mythical. And thus the battle is joined.

As for whether Tolstoy and Mozart "achieve truthfulness": I am afraid not. Literature, music and art can illustrate, illuminate, inspire, and even assert truth claims. Some of these will be deeply felt, resonant, and profound. But the method of validating these claims will be the scientific method, which is to say, these truth claims -- however appealing, elegant, beautiful, or otherwise attractive -- will stand or fall on the basis of of reason, evidence, and logical cogency. What The Death of Ivan Ilyich or Mozart's Piano Concerto #21 sings to your heart or suggests to your intuition may or may not prove out.

Prepare to be Shocked

A study has been done comparing homophobic men with non-homophobic men, and here's the abstract:

The authors investigated the role of homosexual arousal in exclusively heterosexual men who admitted negative affect toward homosexual individuals. Participants consisted of a group of homophobic men (n = 35) and a group of nonhomophobic men (n = 29); they were assigned to groups on the basis of their scores on the Index of Homophobia (W. W. Hudson & W. A. Ricketts, 1980). The men were exposed to sexually explicit erotic stimuli consisting of heterosexual, male homosexual, and lesbian videotapes, and changes in penile circumference were monitored. They also completed an Aggression Questionnaire (A. H. Buss & M. Perry, 1992). Both groups exhibited increases in penile circumference to the heterosexual and female homosexual videos. Only the homophobic men showed an increase in penile erection to male homosexual stimuli. The groups did not differ in aggression. Homophobia is apparently associated with homosexual arousal that the homophobic individual is either unaware of or denies. [emphasis mine]
Clearly it's only a single study and any single study doesn't prove anything, but it confirms what so many of us have so long suspected: there's a "methinks the lady doth protest too much" quality to vociferous anti-gay sentiment.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Not with the being gay part; the anti-gay sentiments are definitely wrong and need to stop.

(H/T Ed Brayton)

Sunday, March 30, 2008

He Probably Thinks He Threw a Strike

Baseball fans, who have an enormous capacity endure incompetence and disappointment, can be pushed only so far.



I was booing before he came onto the field and I'm still booing. We have about 296 days left to boo.

Peace, Pacification, and Islam

If Fitna strikes you as a little blunt and one-sided, here is another free video that goes into considerably more depth about the reality of Islam: Islam: What the West Needs to Know. (wikipedia link)

I would like to see a similar film on Christianity, one that conducts a no-nonsense inquiry into the claim that Christianity is a religion of peace. This is not to say that Christianity and Islam are exactly equivalent in their embrace of violence.

One important parallel is that for both Islam and Christianity, peace really means pacification. Pacification refers to a state in which non-believers have been cleared from the scene by banishment or death; or, at best, a state in which non-believers have been sufficiently cowed into silence, submission, and acceptance of lesser status. Islam: What the West Needs to Know establishes this for Islam, and Hector Avalos establishes this clearly for Islam, Christianity, and Judiaism in Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Pastor Wright of 1968

These comments were made on when Pastor Jeremiah Wright was 26:

God didn't call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war. . . . And we are criminals in that war. We've committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I'm going to continue to say it. And we won't stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation. But God has a way of even putting nations in their place ... And if you don't stop your reckless course, I [God] will rise up and break the backbone of your power.
These words were spoken by Martin Luther King Jr.

(via )

Islamism & Free Expression

Because the Koranic basis of Islam's hostility to western freedoms needs to be known and clearly understood, I've posted the Fitna video twice here, knowing that things have a funny way of vanishing from youtube and google video.





Islamists are working hard to suppress this Dutch film (background, more background), which tells part of the truth about their religion. It tells only part of that truth, but it's the part that most needs airing.

More excellent commentary on this film and the wider controversy can be found here and especially here on the Gene Expression blog.

At Butterflies & Wheels, Ophelia Benson cites the Fitna controversy as a relatively mild instance of broader ongoing efforts to restrict freedom of expression in the name of protecting religious believers from offense.

H/T to George Junior, who has also posted some apposite writings by and commentary on Spinoza.

We can have civilization and freedom or we can have Islamism. We cannot have both.

Earth Hour?

Tonight at 8pm, everyone is encouraged to power off the lights for one hour to make a statement about climate change.

I'm usually pretty supportive of bandwagons of this sort but I'm not participating in this one. I could cite the fact that I'm already enrolled in my energy utility's green power program (which I recommend for those eligible), but rationalizations are beside the point. I just find this irksome and I'm not doing it. Maybe I'll switch off a lamp. Maybe I'll defer starting the dishwasher or running a load of laundry. Maybe I'll be especially quick about closing the refrigerator door so the little bulb lights up for the least amount of time possible.

Maybe, but probably not. I am sure global warming will continue be a very serious problem in need of serious responses at 9pm tonight, whatever becomes of this hour-long gimmick.

But maybe I'm just being a petulant little shit about this. Here's some more information on the initiative:

Google write-up. I like google in black, whether it saves power or not.
World Wildlife Fund write-up.
Wikipedia write-up.
Earth Hour dot org write-up.

The Importance of Awareness

This video takes a humorous approach to showing the limits of awareness:



And the following would be the "scared straight" approach:

Friday, March 28, 2008

Framing A Quote of the Week

I follow the Framing Science blog and have watched that space eagerly for further discussion of the PZ Myers-Richard Dawkins-Expelled miasma, not really expecting much (background on the miasma here, here, here).

Instead, after several days of not mentioning the topic on his Framing Science blog, Matt Nisbet has posted what he labels a "quote of the week" from E.O. Wilson, which I reproduce here because I agree it is a statement worth repeating, subject to qualifications I'll outline presently:

Let us-- in the service of a transcendent moral obligation and concern put aside our differences for the time being and not fuss with each other over evolution. In other words where it all came from. Let us agree looking at the evidence that is disappearing. And let us, dare I use the word, gather at the river.

Come together on common ground where we can exercise the extraordinary power we have jointly. And I argue and few people disagreed with me that science and religion are the two most powerful social forces in the world. Having them at odds at each other all the way up to the highest levels of government and-- the popular media all the time is not productive.
Indeed. Let atheists and religious believers seek and find common cause for the sake of the biosphere.

That said, having followed the bundle of controversies referenced here, I can't fail to note some subtexts. And those subtexts are, to borrow a phrase, "not productive." To wit:
  • It would seem that Nisbet is replying to the many forceful disagreements with his "filthy atheists should shut up" framing notion by supplying a positive example of framing. This is hardly the first time that Nisbet has taken an opportunity to sing encomiums to E.O. Wilson as a science communicator; his 29 February 2008 appearance on the Point of Inquiry podcast was another recent example. All's fair in blogging and love, so fair enough. Still ...
  • The trouble is, E.O. Wilson does not write books or blog about the question of god's existence or involve himself in the ongoing daily struggles over evolution and creationism/ID. So, contra Nisbet, I make the point again (this was the first time): after E.O. Wilson writes a book about god's existence, or writes a book about the threats and lies of the creationist/ID movement, or after one of the "new atheists" writes a book intended to raise awareness of environmental challenges, then we will have a like-with-like comparison of framing. We will have that comparison from which to draw meaningful lessons after the people in question have framed the same topics, not before. Until then, rhapsodizing about E.O. Wilson is a red herring.
  • In support of the previous point, at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious: defending the biosphere is a critical undertaking; so is defending the integrity of science against its philosophical and cultural adversaries. These are sometimes, but only sometimes, the same fight.

The Bitter 19%-28%

I generally believe that opinion polling does what it claims to do, but this is a recent and much-discussed polling result that I very much doubt:

19% of Obama supporters and 28% of Clinton supporters claim they'll vote for McCain if their preferred Democrat is not nominated.

Two grounds for skepticism: first, November is very far off and a great deal will happen between now and then. The political fixations and tensions of the present moment are likely to be forgotten seven months from now. By November, American politics will be well out of the weeds of the Clinton-Obama contest. It seems impossible to think so now, but it will be so.

Second, I think Clinton supporters and Obama supporters are just mirroring the intensity of the rivalry. They're saying and thinking things about the other candidacy that they don't, in their hearts, really believe. The most committed portion of each side would like to see the other side back down, and the threat to vote for McSame is a bluff to that end. I have had moments where I've come close to telling myself or vocalizing that I'll never vote for Hillary Clinton. But it's not true. I will vote for her if she emerges with the Democratic nomination (assuming she does so without actually destroying the party). I would hold my nose as I did so, but between Clinton and McSame, I would vote for Clinton, and likewise, Democrats who favored Clinton in the primary and facing the choice of Obama versus McSame will choose Obama.

President Obama. Get used to that.

I take this as a valid scientific poll that accurately captures the sentiments and dynamics of the race as it stands today. But the race, and its underlying sentiments and dynamics, will change a great deal as the general election nears.

Low Prices & No Decency

In case you missed my previous link to this, and just in case you're feeling a little short on reasons to despise Wal-Mart, check out this story:



Appalling.

If You Liked Bush, You'll Love McCain

Glennzilla cuts through the packaging and states what should be blindingly obvious to all voters about Chalky McSame's foreseeable foreign policy:

McCain is a pure neoconservative in exactly the way that Bush and Cheney are, which is exactly why David Brooks, and like-minded ideologues like Bill Kristol, swoon over McCain's foreign policy "principles." That's fine. Brooks is a neoconservative and it's thus perfectly natural that he would find a neoconservative foreign policy speech to be filled with wisdom and insight. But to pretend that it's some grand departure from the Bush/Cheney approach is pure deceit.

Just as was true for Bush in 2000, McCain is running at a time when the Republican brand is sullied (in 2000 because of the ugly Gingrich/impeachment crusades and in 2008 because of the destructive Bush years). Thus, McCain is being politically marketed in exactly the same way that Bush the presidential candidate was (he's a uniter not divider; a new kind of Republican; you always know where he stands; he's a conservative who deviates from dogma and appeals to Democrats; he transcends partisanship; we're going to be a more humble nation, etc. etc.). It's exactly the same wrapping. And te media believed all of that about Bush and they now believe it all about McCain.

But beyond just the political packaging, McCain -- with a couple of pointed exceptions -- is a carbon copy of Bush in substance as well, at least with regard to war and foreign policy. [emphasis mine]
It's not a crime to favor the Bush-McCain view of foreign policy, but everyone should understand that a McCain presidency represents a direct continuation of Bush-Cheney policy.

The political media love McCain but have soured on Bush. This doesn't change their sameness on policy.

I hope people who assumed the best about Bush in 2000 and 2004 will think twice and think twice again before accepting the packaging, branding, spin, and other obfuscation on McCain. A lot of well-meaning people realized only too late that Bush was not the "uniter" he claimed to be, nor the "compassionate conservative" he claimed to be, nor the advocate of "humility" he claimed to be. Likewise McCain is no "maverick" in any substantive sense.

If you genuinely believe Bush-Cheney have the right policies on foreign affairs, in Iraq and beyond, you would be well-served to vote for McCain. A vote for McCain is a third vote for Bush-Cheney.

Health Care in the USA

This chart filched from Paul Krugman represents the percentage of GDP spent on health care in 1970 and then in 2004 by the US, Canada, Germany, and the UK.

We win! USA! USA! USA!

Here are some more statistics on the same five nations from the World Health Organization.

USA:
Gross national income per capita (PPP international $): 41,950
Life expectancy at birth m/f (years): 75/80
Healthy life expectancy at birth m/f (years, 2002): 67/71
Probability of dying under five (per 1 000 live births): 8
Probability of dying between 15 and 60 years m/f (per 1 000 population): 137/81
Total expenditure on health per capita (Intl $, 2004): 6,096
Total expenditure on health as % of GDP (2004): 15.4

Canada:
Gross national income per capita (PPP international $): 32,220
Life expectancy at birth m/f (years): 78/83
Healthy life expectancy at birth m/f (years, 2002): 70/74
Probability of dying under five (per 1 000 live births): 6
Probability of dying between 15 and 60 years m/f (per 1 000 population): 90/56
Total expenditure on health per capita (Intl $, 2004): 3,173
Total expenditure on health as % of GDP (2004): 9.8

Germany:
Gross national income per capita (PPP international $): 29,210
Life expectancy at birth m/f (years): 76/82
Healthy life expectancy at birth m/f (years, 2002): 70/74
Probability of dying under five (per 1 000 live births): 5
Probability of dying between 15 and 60 years m/f (per 1 000 population): 110/57
Total expenditure on health per capita (Intl $, 2004): 3,171
Total expenditure on health as % of GDP (2004): 10.6

United Kingdom:
Gross national income per capita (PPP international $): 32,690
Life expectancy at birth m/f (years): 77/81
Healthy life expectancy at birth m/f (years, 2002): 69/72
Probability of dying under five (per 1 000 live births): 6
Probability of dying between 15 and 60 years m/f (per 1 000 population): 101/62
Total expenditure on health per capita (Intl $, 2004): 2,560
Total expenditure on health as % of GDP (2004): 8.1

We in the USA spend a lot more and get poorer results for it. But who knows? Maybe the approach we've tried just needs to be continued a little longer and more intensely. Maybe we here in the USA can eventually pester enough people to stop eating fast food, stop smoking, eat a lot of fruit, wring every available dime out of the court system, and haggle with health care professionals over treatments and diagnoses. Maybe doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the soul of good sense and wise public policy.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Genius of Crackpots



In fairness, when you really figure something out, it's a lot harder to call you a crackpot.

Lego David Sings of Victory

This is just one in the series of King David's psalm of victory now posted at Brick Testament.

Well done!

Familiar Story

"The family that prays together stays together" -- I suppose so, unless one of them dies:

An 11-year-old girl died after her parents prayed for healing rather than seek medical help for a treatable form of diabetes, police said Tuesday. ... [A]n autopsy determined the girl died from diabetic ketoacidosis, an ailment that left her with too little insulin in her body, and she had probably been ill for about 30 days, suffering symptoms like nausea, vomiting, excessive thirst, loss of appetite and weakness.
Science-based medicine, which successfully treats this condition for millions on a daily basis, is apparently a Satanic fraud to be rejected and denounced by obedient servants of god. So these parents did.

The certainty that god's will as reported in the Bible is the ultimate source authority, and the moral perversion that arises from that belief, are all too familiar. It sounds much like the Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac only it leaves out the crucial scene from the fable in which god intervenes and saves the child.

Do these parents honestly believe they did the right thing? The story goes on: "the mother believes the girl could still be resurrected, the police chief said." The dead body of her daughter hasn't convinced her that she has made a profound mistake in moral judgment. She still expects god will feel her sincerity and send her daughter back to life.

Presumably they can now pray for that resurrection too. Nothing fails like prayer.

But the news isn't all bad: there are still three siblings on whose bodies the parents may sharpen their devotion and hone their faith.

(via)

Thursday Wish

I wish every American would watch After Innocence, which brings to light the work of the Innocence Project.

Caring is a pain in the ass but injustice only moves when it is pushed.

What a King Values

It should rate as nothing higher than scurrilous that a modern state should still be under the thumb of a monarchy, let alone that a king should issue fatuous pontifications that anyone should take seriously. But that's the reality of currrent-day Saudi Arabia, and this is their king:

"If God wills it, we will then meet with our brothers from other religions, including those of the Torah and the Gospel to come up with ways to safeguard humanity," he added. The king, who is the guardian of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, said the major faiths shared a desire to combat "the disintegration of the family and the rise of atheism in the world".

According to the official Saudi Press Agency King Abdullah said "I have noticed that the family system has weakened and that atheism has increased. That is an unacceptable behavior to all religions, to the Koran, the Torah and the Bible. We ask God to save humanity. There is a lack of ethics, loyalty and sincerity for our religions and humanity."
Note how sincerity is listed as though it's a virtue, when it isn't: no matter how loud someone screams or how real their tears, it doesn't make them right, but faith-based thinking encourages this mistake.

It should not be forgotten that this is an Abrahamic notion of family that the Saudi King, his handholding pal, and the rest of his proposed Coalition of the Sincere wish to uphold: one in which disobedient children are to be stoned (perhaps only figuratively if the mood is right) and wives answer to husbands as to a king.

No.

(via)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Election 2008: Dramatis Personae

Barack Obama, Democrat. The good guy. The candidate I support. Yes we can and so on.

Tonya Harding-Clinton, whatever party Joe Lieberman is in. Day after day, she reveals herself to be trailer trash masquerading as someone who is competitive in a contest in which all are interested, but her only real chance is to take the tire-iron of racial animus to Obama's kneecap. She can't recede to the below-the-fold stories in the lesser gossip rags too soon.

Chalky McSame, Wide Stance party. Why "Chalky"? Look at the man! He's the chalkiest! His forehead alone could stock an elementary school's chalk trays for a year! Why "McSame"? Because he is Bush again. Witness:

The Fine Line Between Self-Love and Self-Hate

For those of you breathlessly awaiting an update on my marathon training: today, upwards of 13 hours after my last measured elevated body temperature, and a full week since I last put Asics to pavement, I set out for a 5.5-mile jaunt under pouring rains, strong winds, and 38 balmy degrees Fahrenheit. It was awesomely stupid and stupidly awesome, but it goes to show that life sometimes forces a choice between forms of self-hatred: the kind where you lie there musing endlessly over how much muscle mass and aerobic capacity you've lost, versus the kind where you do push your flu-stressed body harder than any dumbass would.

The beauty of it is, in the end I got both: days of the former, and this afternoon the latter.

For all that, the run went reasonably well. I found, to my surprise, that I actually had an easier time breathing while I was running, and the lingering congestion returned almost immediately after I stopped. So that was encouraging, though possibly in a 'wow, I just tricked my lungs into bleeding later' kind of way. I felt pretty weak out there, but considering the conditions, internal and external, it could easily have been worse.

I'm done with the crazy goals; I'm down to the merely stupid ones. One way or another, I've got to run myself back into shape. I retain no big ambitions for Boston other than finishing the damn thing feeling as though I belong in a marathon rather than such films as 'When Marathons Kill' and other cautionary athletic training films from which we remember actor Troy McClure.

Offense-Giving Run Amok!

First it was novels and films, then defamatory cartoons. Didn't Islam's very most dedicated followers try to warn us this was all a slippery slope by rioting, killing filmmakers, and issuing death threats? Well, look where it has slid now -- the Pope has publicly converted someone to some other religion! One that isn't Islam! In public!

Aref Ali Nayed, the head of Jordan's Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre, called the baptism of journalist Magdi Allam a deliberate and provocative act.

The Vatican has not yet commented, but its official newspaper said the gesture aimed to promote religious freedom.
Of course we know that "religious freedom" for the Vatican genuinely embraces this particular conversion and it alone, but still, what next? Restaurants that serve pork? Women in cars? Evolution taught in science classes? Wise-cracking blogs?

Freedom's a bitch. And she doesn't wear a burka unless she feels like it.

Abe, Isaac, and Noam

What does the tale of Abraham and Isaac truly mean? Does it mean, as it rather straightforwardly states, that Abraham earned the highest favor of god because he did exactly as god commanded without asking questions, even when god commanded him to kill his own son (Genesis 22)? I'm not sure, but the Chomskybot at least sounds sure of itself:

Furthermore, this selectionally introduced contextual feature cannot be arbitrary in irrelevant intervening contexts in selectional rules. Notice, incidentally, that the speaker-hearer's linguistic intuition does not affect the structure of an abstract underlying order. Let us continue to suppose that the fundamental error of regarding functional notions as categorial is not quite equivalent to a general convention regarding the forms of the grammar. To characterize a linguistic level L, an important property of these three types of EC is rather different from the system of base rules exclusive of the lexicon. From C1, it follows that the theory of syntactic features developed earlier suffices to account for the traditional practice of grammarians.
(via)

Points of Interest: Bat Loss, Patterns, Shariah

Bats like this one are dying en masse in the northeastern United States for unknown reasons. This could be very good news for midges, mosquitoes, and other flying insects that the bats hunt with such amazing grace. Oh, to have the power of sonar but for a day, adding it to our strong tendency to find patterns:

At a more general level, humans are extraordinary open-ended pattern detectors, because we so compulsively inhabit the cognitive niche. Art plays with cognitive patterns at high intensity. The pleasure this generates is an essential part of what it is to be human and matters both at the individual level, for audiences and artists, and at the social level, for the patterns we share (in design, music, dance, and story). The pleasure art’s intense play with patterns affords compels our engagement again and again and helps shape our capacity to create and process pattern more swiftly. Perhaps it even helps explain the so-called Flynn effect, the fact—and it seems to be one—that IQs have risen with each of the last few generations: perhaps as a consequence of the modern bombardment of the high-density patterns of art through television, dvds, music and iPods, computer games, YouTube and the like.
Flynn effect notwithstanding, Noah Feldman appears to have spent too much time ignoring patterns and admiring Shariah and not enough time inquiring as to its legitimacy, as Noah Millman points out:
Islamism in the Muslim world is a populist and reactionary movement. And populist reaction does not lead to his ideals of an enlightened clerisy that “checks” abuses of power. Literalism, obscurantism and pedantry are endemic features of populist, reactionary religion which is best understood as a feature of modernism rather than of traditionalism. One of the ways that fundamentalism, a reactionary response to modernism, absorbs modernism is by subverting traditional meritocratic authority – thus, preachers will appeal to the lowest-common-denominator believer by appeals to prejudice and simplistic interpretations, and authority is increasingly derived not from expertise (evaluated by other experts) but by authenticity (as perceived by the crowd).
The furtherance of Shariah is the furtherance of the rule of law? I call batshit.

War is Peace, 2008 = 2006, etc.

Just yesterday, I heard one of the dozens of interchangeable pro-war talking heads declare on tee-vee that the civil war is over in Iraq and that talk of ethnic, religious, and political violence is "2006 news." Since the pro-war talking heads endlessly recycled on tee-vee are never wrong, it follows that it is still 2006, despite what our calendars seem to indicate, because this is what's happening now:

Heavy fighting broke out Tuesday in two of Iraq’s largest cities, as Iraqi ground forces and helicopters mounted a huge operation to break the grip of the Shiite militias controlling Basra, and Iraqi forces clashed with militias in Baghdad. The battles, along with indications in recent weeks that militia and insurgent attacks had already been creeping up, raised fears across Iraq that Moktada al-Sadr, the renegade Shiite cleric, could pull out of a cease-fire he declared last summer ... There were also serious clashes in the southern cities of Kut and Hilla.
Adjust your calendars accordingly.

As it was in 2006, so it is now: whatever set of facts are presented, the Bush-Cheney junta's answer will be the same as the McCain answer: continued occupation, indefinite occupation, ceaseless occupation, war without end. This war can only end when we deprive the warmongers of political power.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

R.E.M. and Free Will

R.E.M. will be releasing a new studio album, Accelerate, in less than a week, and I not only wonder if I should buy it, but whether I can actually choose to buy it or not. I have not tested the latter question since I first became aware that there was band called R.E.M. with albums for sale, and that was either 1986 or 1987. So very long ago!

Despite my longstanding fan-dom, they've done a poor job of reaching me with the news of the new album, of which I've only heard despite there having been a promotional web site established for it as far back as February. So very long ago!

The promotional site is moderately annoying, as most promotional web sites tend to be, but the music it promotes fails to suck, and that's a very good thing. R.E.M. hasn't made an album that failed to suck since 1992's Automatic for the People (so long ago!), although subsequent releases have had their high points. It was, after all, the tour in support of 1994's not-half-bad Monster that brought me into meaningful contact with Sonic Youth for the first time so very long ago.

I don't have to buy it. It can stay right there on the shelf. Really.

Posters with Punch


Austin Cline has put together this and a number of other superb Christianist propaganda posters. Do check them out!

As Baseball Season Begins ...

Encountering another complaint that spectator sports are nothing better than an opiate of the masses, Norm Geras notes

It is loved the world over and by millions of people. This is not because these people are either deluded or have cramped little lives. It's because, at its best, sport is simply brilliant. It offers those who love it something they get nowhere else - a combination of drama, spectacle, great skill, the observation of individual character under pressure, a contest that seems at the time to matter even if (when all is said and done) it matters only in a limited way, and moments of thrilling beauty. Those who treat it as merely a compensation for limited lives or horizons, or, worse still, look down their intellectual noses at it as some form of vulgarity, don't as a rule know what they're talking about.
For me it has always come down to the element of drama. Sports was reality tee-vee before anyone ever knew that label, and for that matter, before anyone knew of tee-vee. The most compelling thing about following sports is that it pits persons in high-conflict situations to which no one can tell the outcome beforehand. It conforms to the rough shape of conventional narrative without any guarantee of narrative's conventional consolations: in sports, not every fall is rounded off by a second coming; the 'good guys' may win in the end, or they may not. The experience of that uncertainty is the experience of true drama.

And you're free, with almost no penalty, to change your mind about who the 'good guys' are -- and that, too, can be part of the drama as it is felt and experienced. The latter isn't really possible with Homer or Shakespeare: it's possible to force yourself to root for Iago, but it's hard to truly feel it. The artist and his artifice is too strong; Iago is written to be despicable, and he is.

Then again, I've been working to get over "the catch" and the 49ers since they crushed my spirit in 1981 and I've never really felt that either. So read that as you will.

Monday, March 24, 2008

A Half-Thought on Clinton

Could it be as simple as this: that victory means never giving up no matter what. She likes to tout her status as an established fighter of the GOP lie machine, but is there really more to the victory the Clintons achieved? Simply not to be run out of office before the statutory moment?

Victory isn't never giving up no matter how high the debt of shame. We should know this from the example of George W. Bush.

I wonder if Hillary Clinton is capable of imagining a deeper victory.

Can we see our way to a better, more complete, truer form of victory? Yes we can.

The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of Violent Repression

This design by Michael Parisi & Rebecca Cadman is one of several hacks of the Olympic logo highlighted on Eyeteeth.

By stepping up its brutal repression of Tibet even as it makes final preparations for the 2008 Olympic games, China is playing a game of chicken it expects to win.

The leverage of cheap labor is manifestly powerful. China will, it seems, continue to get away with murder so long as it keeps the sweatshops humming.

Not My Business

It is not my business how George W. Bush celebrates Easter. It is not my business how he and his wife dress up to celebrate Easter. It is not my business if the person in the bunny costume is Laura Bush. It is not my business if George W. Bush is sober in his private moments with someone in a bunny costume. It is not my business if the photographer framed this photo this way to hide the fact, if it is a fact, that George W. Bush is not wearing pants.

It's not my business.

(H/T Portland Mercury)

Four Thousand

Four thousand American soldiers have now died in Iraq, just in time for Easter and only a few days away from the five-year anniversary of the disaster's inception. These were brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, friends. The same is true of all the 82,000 - 89,000 lives lost to this war to date.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Science and Faith

Science and faith both make truth claims with far-reaching consequences for human life and how we understand it. They address many questions in common.

One of these is a way to get to reliable, repeatable, accessible truths, and the other is not.

One uses a proven and nonsubjective method to find and validate its truth claims, and the other does not.

Because science and faith are not equal in the method by which they produce the results they produce, they are not morally equivalent. Nor are they deserving of equal esteem.

They are not, under some surface or other, the same thing -- they are not two paths to the same ultimate destination. To assert this would be to write a teleology for which there is no evidence.

We can wish the conflict away, and celebrate points of common cause and comity. We can push the conflicts to the margins and declare a pox on them. This will not erase the fact that science and religion offer distinct ways of getting to the truth, and that these differences matter.

Sometimes people will notice this conflict and choose not to wish it away. They will embrace the conflict for the sake of truth, heedless of the 'politics' of doing so, because truth is, unavoidably at times, despite our fondest wishes, more important than getting along.

This is my tendentious, longwinded and fever-fogged prologue to the unfolding conflict between a pack of liars pushing a fraudulent abuse of science, a group of evolutionary biologists who won't shrink from calling the liars on their lies, and an officious communications expert. Here's a good enough starting point for catching up on it -- it's quite a drama over a deplorable film.

Religion: A Placebo with Side-Effects

Laura at Token Offerings has written a nice post on the placebo effects of religion, noting, among other things,

How could they [life-long religious believers] understand their lives outside the context of their faith? If this is the placebo effect of religion, is it really such a bad thing? There are some people who would not be able to endure their suffering without believing that God has a good reason for it, and that it will be revealed in the fullness of time. I understand the kind of fear, pain and despair that makes people reach out into the darkness and grab hold of whatever comforts them.
The hope and consolation of religion is surely its most defensible feature, and it's not adequate to answer it with "that's irrational." I would not say any such thing to, say, a sick person grasping for hope and finding it in religious belief. To do so would be cruel, misplaced, and ineffective.

And no one is immune to it. I enjoy the experience of buying a lottery ticket now and then because of the license it gives me to daydream about the possibilities. I certainly don't want a statistician to get in my face at that moment and remind me of the vanishingly small odds of my actual winning. I know the odds are practically zero. I know I won't really win the lottery. But I still enjoy the daydream, and more than that, the enjoyment of the daydream makes the day a little brighter. An unreasonable hope feels almost exactly as nourishing as a well-founded hope.

The lesson I take from these thoughts is that it's always important to pick one's battles carefully, with a clear view of the wider human context and the foreseeable stakes. Arguing the existence or nonexistence of god with a terminal cancer patient is a non-starter -- if you "win" the argument you've done nothing better than deprive someone of hopes in favor of a pointlessly narrow victory for capital-T Truth.

But there are other contexts, and other ends beyond hope and consolation served by religion: repression, ignorance, intolerance, violence, etc. The trick is that some of these are sometimes dressed up as appeals to hope, or mixed with appeals to hope. Surely a typical suicide bomber has a mixture of motives and ends in mind when contemplating the decision to detonate -- to advance this or that cause he finds noble, to please god, to destroy an evil, to give inspiration to fellow believers, to prove his courage, etc. And there it gets tricky. Not all of these ends and motives are evil when taken in purest isolation and regarded in the most charitable light. But the task of delegitimizing suicide bombing by undercutting the underlying beliefs entails doing damage to all the varied ends and motives.

This is where the placebo metaphor breaks down: unlike a typical placebo, the placebo of religion has dangerous side-effects that must be monitored. It's a question of trade-offs, and while some engagements with religion demand generosity and forebearance, others require questioning and confrontation.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Wanted: A More Orderly Flu

After a full day of more or less consistent decline, my fever came storming back starting promptly at 3pm today and is now hovering around 102. What changed at 3pm to cause this? Nothing I can name. I really must put my foot down and insist on a more orderly, predictable, logical flu.

Fevers suck.

Get your flu shot.

The Fake Outrage of Typical White Persons

Those looking for a hook on which to hang fake outrage have found this statement by Barack Obama convenient:

The point I was making was not that Grandmother harbors any racial animosity. She doesn't. But she is a typical white person, who, if she sees somebody on the street that she doesn't know, you know, there's a reaction that's been bred in our experiences that don't go away and that sometimes come out in the wrong way, and that's just the nature of race in our society.
What is Barack Obama, who is half white, declaring to be typically white about his grandmother?

That when she encounters an unfamiliar nonwhite person on the street, she has a fearful reaction. That this reaction is, quite naturally, a product of her experiences -- which is to say, actual past encounters with unfamiliar nonwhites, and mediated past encounters with unfamiliar nonwhites i.e., encounters from films, tee-vee programs, newspaper accounts, books, and so on.

He does not suggest she is controlled by the fearful reaction.

He does not exclude the possibility of neutral or positive reactions in addition to the fearful reaction.

To say that white people are typically averse to encountering unfamiliar nonwhites "on the street" (which implies an unfamiliar or semi-familiar setting) is to say what every white person would freely admit in every circumstance save one, that one being the circumstance of trying to make a self-serving point about race relations. Show me a white person who is bragging of his willingness to walk through a predominantly black part of town at any time of day, and I'll show you a white person who is trying to deny that racial distrust and animus still exists in America.

And that is false. The racial animus is less than it was in the past, as Obama has stated clearly in his recent statements on race relations. But to wish it away -- to locate its corpse in the dried ink of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation or the majority decision in Brown vs. Board of Education or Lyndon Johnson's signature on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or a handwritten manuscript of Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing -- is to play a very old and familiar game of pretend. Things are better, but problems remain.

I grew up in a household in which the "n-word" was common, and among friends and schoolmates and a broader community for whom it was commonplace. (I do not suggest it was every third word spoken, but anyone who says it was not commonly spoken, especially in whites-only settings, in North Central Oklahoma circa 1970-1988 is simply lying, or was running in very charmed circles to which I was never exposed.) I used the word -- with all its intended diminishment if not malice -- for the first 18 years of my life, and it would be a lie to say I last spoke it in anger at age 18.

I'm not proud of it, but that's the truth. I also don't cry myself to sleep over it every night -- that, too, is the truth. Am I "throwing myself or others under the bus" by saying these things? No. I am acknowledging the truth. That's what grownups do, and that's what Obama's recent statements on race have challenged us to do.

We are creatures of habit and impulse as well as reason and morality. The habits and impulses almost always assert themselves before reason and morality temper them. Barack Obama's grandmother sounds typically white to me in the following sense: whatever racist impulses may first seize her, she is able to override with better judgment. This is how I take his comment that she harbors no racial animosity but isn't necessarily eager to find herself in a random spot in Detroit at 11pm.

Can't we all just get along? Not if we lie to ourselves and pretend.

The Serpent Tempts Eve

Paradise Lost is John Milton's retelling of Genesis expanded to twelve books and well over 10,000 lines, and the scene in which Eve eats the forbidden fruit doesn't happen until book nine. Below I've excerpted the key passage -- from the time the serpent appears to Eve in the garden until she bites the apple -- slightly annotated.

His gentle dumb expression turned at length
The eye of Eve to mark his play; he, glad
Of her attention gained, with serpent-tongue
Organick, or impulse of vocal air,
His fraudulent temptation thus began.
Wonder not, sovran Mistress, if perhaps
Thou canst, who art sole wonder! much less arm
Thy looks, the Heaven of mildness, with disdain,
Displeased that I approach thee thus, and gaze
Insatiate; I thus single;nor have feared
Thy awful brow, more awful thus retired.
Fairest resemblance of thy Maker fair,
Thee all things living gaze on, all things thine
By gift, and thy celestial beauty adore
With ravishment beheld! there best beheld,
Where universally admired; but here
In this enclosure wild, these beasts among,
Beholders rude, and shallow to discern
Half what in thee is fair, one man except,
Who sees thee? and what is one? who should be seen
A Goddess among Gods, adored and served
By Angels numberless, thy daily train.
That has to be first ever and longest use of the 'is heaven missing an angel?' pick-up line.
So glozed the Tempter, and his proem tuned:
Into the heart of Eve his words made way,
Though at the voice much marvelling; at length,
Not unamazed, she thus in answer spake.
The line worked! You can almost see Eve flicking her hair.
What may this mean? language of man pronounced
By tongue of brute, and human sense expressed?
The first, at least, of these I thought denied
To beasts; whom God, on their creation-day,
Created mute to all articulate sound:
The latter I demur; for in their looks
Much reason, and in their actions, oft appears.
Thee, Serpent, subtlest beast of all the field
I knew, but not with human voice endued;
Redouble then this miracle, and say,
How camest thou speakable of mute, and how
To me so friendly grown above the rest
Of brutal kind, that daily are in sight?
Say, for such wonder claims attention due.
Eve plays it coyly, but she is certainly intrigued by a talking snake.
To whom the guileful Tempter thus replied.
Empress of this fair world, resplendent Eve!
Easy to me it is to tell thee all
What thou commandest; and right thou shouldst be obeyed:
I was at first as other beasts that graze
The trodden herb, of abject thoughts and low,
As was my food; nor aught but food discerned
Or sex, and apprehended nothing high:
Till, on a day roving the field, I chanced
A goodly tree far distant to behold
Loaden with fruit of fairest colours mixed,
Ruddy and gold: I nearer drew to gaze;
When from the boughs a savoury odour blown,
Grateful to appetite, more pleased my sense
Than smell of sweetest fennel, or the teats
Of ewe or goat dropping with milk at even,
Unsucked of lamb or kid, that tend their play.
To satisfy the sharp desire I had
Of tasting those fair apples, I resolved
Not to defer; hunger and thirst at once,
Powerful persuaders, quickened at the scent
Of that alluring fruit, urged me so keen.
About the mossy trunk I wound me soon;
For, high from ground, the branches would require
Thy utmost reach or Adam's: Round the tree
All other beasts that saw, with like desire
Longing and envying stood, but could not reach.
Amid the tree now got, where plenty hung
Tempting so nigh, to pluck and eat my fill
I spared not; for, such pleasure till that hour,
At feed or fountain, never had I found.
Sated at length, ere long I might perceive
Strange alteration in me, to degree
Of reason in my inward powers; and speech
Wanted not long; though to this shape retained.
Thenceforth to speculations high or deep
I turned my thoughts, and with capacious mind
Considered all things visible in Heaven,
Or Earth, or Middle; all things fair and good:
But all that fair and good in thy divine
Semblance, and in thy beauty's heavenly ray,
United I beheld; no fair to thine
Equivalent or second! which compelled
Me thus, though importune perhaps, to come
And gaze, and worship thee of right declared
Sovran of creatures, universal Dame!
The serpent switches seamlessly from pick-up artist to salesman (as if there's a difference): 'I can speak because of some really terrific fruit I found.' But wary of her wariness -- she labled him "subtlest beast of all the field" just a moment ago, recalling the warnings of Adam and others -- he describes her as "sovran" for the second time in the brief encounter, wishing to assure her that she's in charge.
So talked the spirited sly Snake; and Eve,
Yet more amazed, unwary thus replied.
Serpent, thy overpraising leaves in doubt
The virtue of that fruit, in thee first proved:
But say, where grows the tree? from hence how far?
For many are the trees of God that grow
In Paradise, and various, yet unknown
To us; in such abundance lies our choice,
As leaves a greater store of fruit untouched,
Still hanging incorruptible, till men
Grow up to their provision, and more hands
Help to disburden Nature of her birth.
To whom the wily Adder, blithe and glad.
'Unwary' is right. The serpent has succeeded in making her feel implicitly 'sovran:' she is not connecting the dots between the fruit that made this snake such a charming pick-up artist and the fruit that God has forbidden.
Empress, the way is ready, and not long;
Beyond a row of myrtles, on a flat,
Fast by a fountain, one small thicket past
Of blowing myrrh and balm: if thou accept
My conduct, I can bring thee thither soon
Who wouldn't want to go there??
Lead then, said Eve. He, leading, swiftly rolled
In tangles, and made intricate seem straight,
To mischief swift. Hope elevates, and joy
Brightens his crest; as when a wandering fire,
Compact of unctuous vapour, which the night
Condenses, and the cold environs round,
Kindled through agitation to a flame,
Which oft, they say, some evil Spirit attends,
Hovering and blazing with delusive light,
Misleads the amazed night-wanderer from his way
To bogs and mires, and oft through pond or pool;
There swallowed up and lost, from succour far.
That's quite an image of a night fire lighting a wanderer to ruin, but is it too lovely by half? Milton must have put a lot of hours into these passages, as they are not only the turning point of the current poem but, as he saw the matter, of human history itself.
So glistered the dire Snake, and into fraud
Led Eve, our credulous mother, to the tree
Of prohibition, root of all our woe;
Which when she saw, thus to her guide she spake.
Serpent, we might have spared our coming hither,
Fruitless to me, though fruit be here to excess,
The credit of whose virtue rest with thee;
Wonderous indeed, if cause of such effects.
But of this tree we may not taste nor touch;
God so commanded, and left that command
Sole daughter of his voice; the rest, we live
Law to ourselves; our reason is our law.
Eve at last recognizes where she is and recites the party line, albeit rather mechanically. And she used the r-word: "reason." The snake sees his opening.
To whom the Tempter guilefully replied.
Indeed! hath God then said that of the fruit
Of all these garden-trees ye shall not eat,
Yet Lords declared of all in earth or air?
To whom thus Eve, yet sinless. Of the fruit
Of each tree in the garden we may eat;
But of the fruit of this fair tree amidst
The garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat
Thereof, nor shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
She scarce had said, though brief, when now more bold
"She scarce had said, though brief" -- her recitation is ever more mechanical and brief; and recitation it is, for here she could almost be reading from the King James Bible. Milton seems to be highlighting the inadequate terseness of Genesis here -- in case the reader missed that point in the very fact that he felt the need to expand it to more than 10,000 lines.
The Tempter, but with show of zeal and love
To Man, and indignation at his wrong,
New part puts on; and, as to passion moved,
Fluctuates disturbed, yet comely and in act
Raised, as of some great matter to begin.
As when of old some orator renowned,
In Athens or free Rome, where eloquence
Flourished, since mute! to some great cause addressed,
Stood in himself collected; while each part,
Motion, each act, won audience ere the tongue;
Sometimes in highth began, as no delay
Of preface brooking, through his zeal of right:
So standing, moving, or to highth up grown,
The Tempter, all impassioned, thus began.
Prepare for some elaborate speech-ifying!
O sacred, wise, and wisdom-giving Plant,
Mother of science! now I feel thy power
Within me clear; not only to discern
Things in their causes, but to trace the ways
Of highest agents, deemed however wise.
Queen of this universe! do not believe
Those rigid threats of death: ye shall not die:
How should you? by the fruit? it gives you life
To knowledge; by the threatener? look on me,
Me, who have touched and tasted; yet both live,
And life more perfect have attained than Fate
Meant me, by venturing higher than my lot.
Die? Who's going to die? I didn't die! It turned me into a fancy snake who talks and reasons!
Shall that be shut to Man, which to the Beast
Is open? or will God incense his ire
For such a petty trespass? and not praise
Rather your dauntless virtue, whom the pain
Of death denounced, whatever thing death be,
Deterred not from achieving what might lead
To happier life, knowledge of good and evil;
Of good, how just? of evil, if what is evil
Be real, why not known, since easier shunned?
God therefore cannot hurt ye, and be just;
Not just, not God; not feared then, nor obeyed:
Your fear itself of death removes the fear.
Why then was this forbid? Why, but to awe;
Why, but to keep ye low and ignorant,
His worshippers? He knows that in the day
Ye eat thereof, your eyes that seem so clear,
Yet are but dim, shall perfectly be then
Opened and cleared, and ye shall be as Gods,
Knowing both good and evil, as they know.
That ye shall be as Gods, since I as Man,
Internal Man, is but proportion meet;
I, of brute, human; ye, of human, Gods.
So ye shall die perhaps, by putting off
Human, to put on Gods; death to be wished,
Though threatened, which no worse than this can bring.
And what are Gods, that Man may not become
As they, participating God-like food?
The Gods are first, and that advantage use
On our belief, that all from them proceeds:
I question it; for this fair earth I see,
Warmed by the sun, producing every kind;
Them, nothing: if they all things, who enclosed
Knowledge of good and evil in this tree,
That whoso eats thereof, forthwith attains
Wisdom without their leave? and wherein lies
The offence, that Man should thus attain to know?
What can your knowledge hurt him, or this tree
Impart against his will, if all be his?
Or is it envy? and can envy dwell
In heavenly breasts? These, these, and many more
Causes import your need of this fair fruit.
Goddess humane, reach then, and freely taste!
He ended; and his words, replete with guile,
Into her heart too easy entrance won:
Milton twice labels this withering array of arguments with 'guile,' once at the start, and once at the end; but they are really arguments of reason, and the conflation of guile and reason is very much the point. It is the point of the doctrine Milton is seeking to propound, but what makes Paradise Lost and Milton interesting is the question of whether he really believed his own case. He gives the serpent some very good arguments here, and throughout the text, Satan is the more compelling character with all the best lines, all the best struggles, and all the best arguments -- and this poem is, after all, an argument: "That to the highth of this great Argument / I may assert th' Eternal Providence / And justify the ways of God to men."
Fixed on the fruit she gazed, which to behold
Might tempt alone; and in her ears the sound
Yet rung of his persuasive words, impregned
With reason, to her seeming, and with truth:
The serpent's arguments have been reasonable. And haven't they?
Mean while the hour of noon drew on, and waked
An eager appetite, raised by the smell
So savoury of that fruit, which with desire,
Inclinable now grown to touch or taste,
Solicited her longing eye; yet first
Pausing a while, thus to herself she mused.
Great are thy virtues, doubtless, best of fruits,
Though kept from man, and worthy to be admired;
Whose taste, too long forborn, at first assay
Gave elocution to the mute, and taught
The tongue not made for speech to speak thy praise:
Thy praise he also, who forbids thy use,
Conceals not from us, naming thee the tree
Of knowledge, knowledge both of good and evil;
Forbids us then to taste! but his forbidding
Commends thee more, while it infers the good
By thee communicated, and our want:
For good unknown sure is not had; or, had
And yet unknown, is as not had at all.
In plain then, what forbids he but to know,
Forbids us good, forbids us to be wise?
Such prohibitions bind not. But, if death
Bind us with after-bands, what profits then
Our inward freedom? In the day we eat
Of this fair fruit, our doom is, we shall die!
How dies the Serpent? he hath eaten and lives,
And knows, and speaks, and reasons, and discerns,
Irrational till then. For us alone
Was death invented? or to us denied
This intellectual food, for beasts reserved?
For beasts it seems: yet that one beast which first
Hath tasted envies not, but brings with joy
The good befallen him, author unsuspect,
Friendly to man, far from deceit or guile.
What fear I then? rather, what know to fear
Under this ignorance of good and evil,
Of God or death, of law or penalty?
She doesn't really understand the stakes. Can she? Note she accepts the serpent's factual premises -- that he was just another beast before he ate the fruit. This isn't true but how could she know that?
Here grows the cure of all, this fruit divine,
Fair to the eye, inviting to the taste,
Of virtue to make wise: What hinders then
To reach, and feed at once both body and mind?
So saying, her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she eat!
Earth felt the wound; and Nature from her seat,
Sighing through all her works, gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.
And that, as they say, was that. Everything thereafter that falls under the glib heading of the vale of tears -- malaria, genocide, human chattel slavery, greed, gluttony, lust, cancer, the film oevre of Michael Crichton and the musical oevre of Kenny G -- flows from this moment.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Robots Shall Claim Our Pets


I need the cat version.

(via)

Reality, Clinton, and the Political Media

Via Daily Kos, here's Politico coming around to reality:

One big fact has largely been lost in the recent coverage of the Democratic presidential race: Hillary Rodham Clinton has virtually no chance of winning.

Her own campaign acknowledges there is no way that she will finish ahead in pledged delegates. That means the only way she wins is if Democratic superdelegates are ready to risk a backlash of historic proportions from the party’s most reliable constituency.

Unless Clinton is able to at least win the primary popular vote — which also would take nothing less than an electoral miracle — and use that achievement to pressure superdelegates, she has only one scenario for victory. An African-American opponent and his backers would be told that, even though he won the contest with voters, the prize is going to someone else.

People who think that scenario is even remotely likely are living on another planet.[emphasis mine]
Here on earth, it's time to stop pretending there is a race between Obama and Clinton. Here on earth, Obama has won, Clinton has lost.

So why the charade?

Clinton is willing to keep the charade going because she doesn't want to lose -- it must be degrading to be nothing more than the Senator from New York -- and because she still counts on the possibility of trashing Obama and cajoling enough super delegates to put her over the top. As with her practice of running television ads that endorse John McCain for president, this is astonishingly short-sighted. Supposing she did achieve victory by trashing Obama and pulling in enough superdelegates to override the will of Democratic voters, can she not see that her own party would despise her at the end of it, adding their merited disgust to the preternatural hatred that independents and Republicans have long held for her? Does she not see that uniting 100% of voters against her represents a flawed electoral strategy in November?

The political media are willing to perpetuate the Clinton-is-still-viable charade because conflict sells, and the internecine spats between Obama and Clinton fill news cycles. Democrats squabbling with Democrats is classic man bites dog.

This nonsense needs to stop.

Cautionary Flu Tale

It's too late for me -- I'm accounting for some portion of that gleaming yellow flu-infected coloration of Oregon -- but maybe it's not too late for you to get your flu shot. So get your flu shot! You don't want this!

A couple of evenings ago, I was fine. I laid out my running clothes fully expecting to go running first thing the next morning. Some time in the middle of the night -- I try never to look at a clock in the middle of the night to keep from obsessing over the current time and how many minutes I have until the alarm goes off -- I became congested, and then more congested, and then slightly feverish and congested, and so on my second wakening I took some Nyquil. (You did want to hear this story, right?)

Hours later, Nyquil had done little, but the petulant 'tweet tweet tweet' of the birds told me it was morning. I decided I couldn't be any less comfortable in bed so I went downstairs hoping to find a differently-uncomfortable spot near the tee-vee and the computer. It was all I could do to log in to work to say I wouldn't be in.

And then it really got bad. For roughly the next twelve hours I lay motionless in a reclining chair, drifting in and out of consciousness, not bothering to take my usual anti-narcolepsy meds, taking feckless handfuls of acetaminophen, wondering how long before the bed sores would start to form, and how soon after that my flesh would start to become embedded in the very weave of the reclining chair fabric.

But really there was no wondering to do at all, just a deep mental fog that allowed in only the simplest perceptions -- cat is/is not currently on me; tee-vee is/is not too loud; it would/would not be better to go ahead and pee where I am sitting, etc. Daytime tee-vee offered up its usual quality -- documentaries about UFOs and ghost stories, college basketball, people yelling at each other about politics, all of it dumbfounding. Is this what it's like to be a Republican?

I can honestly say that between about 3pm and 8pm yesterday, the thought of walking out to fetch the mail sounded as difficult and pointless as a 30-mile run would sound on a regular day.

Today is a little better. I can think some and sit up straight with a lot less effort.

Get your flu shot.

Christianity and Politics

A few days after the 9/11 attacks, obese pastor Jerry Falwell waddled onto the set of Pat Robertson's fundraising tee-vee show and laid out the Biblical understanding of history:

I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen' ... I do believe, as a theologian, based upon many Scriptures and particularly Proverbs 14:23, which says 'living by God's principles promotes a nation to greatness, violating those principles brings a nation to shame' ... I therefore believe that that created an environment which possibly has caused God to lift the veil of protection which has allowed no one to attack America on our soil since 1812 ...
The idea is that god is watching and judging at all times, and won't hesitate to "lift his protection" to allow bad things to happen. McCain paramour Pastor Hagee applied the same Biblical understanding to hurricane Katrina:
I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they are -- were recipients of the judgment of God for that. The newspaper carried the story in our local area that was not carried nationally that there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came. And the promise of that parade was that it was going to reach a level of sexuality never demonstrated before in any of the other Gay Pride parades. So I believe that the judgment of God is a very real thing. I know that there are people who demur from that, but I believe that the Bible teaches that when you violate the law of God, that God brings punishment sometimes before the day of judgment. And I believe that the Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans.
Falwell, Robertson, and Hagee have the Bible right -- this is indeed how the god of the Bible rolls in terms of effecting social, political, and historical change.

Is anyone genuinely surprised that a few left-leaning pastors have arrived at the same theology? Here's Pastor Wright explaining that god will do very bad things to America if it doesn't change its ways:
The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.
This is Christianity. The Bible teaches that god will indeed "damn America" if it doesn't do the right thing.

I think this is patent nonsense from the word go -- there isn't a god, and he's not sending storms or highjackers. But when Christians object to this theology, I can't help but hear them say something very different: how dare you suggest god doesn't agree with my politics! (Note the humility.)

So long as Americans insist that presidential candidates be Christians, we can expect this special pleading to continue.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Ralph to Lisa: Do You Like ... Stuff?

If you like ... stuff, you might like this production of the ZehnKatzen Times flying under the banner of 'semiotics,' arguably the most popular word in American university English departments circa 1990.

You'll find a couple more here, and more to come?


P.S. Today I'm slammed with unwelcome microbes so my plans to make sense are even less firm than usual.

Trust But Verify - vuxhfir

Having suffered a spamming, I've added the word verification thingy to comments on this precious, precious blog. It's still anonymous but you have to enter an obscure word like vuxhfir to get the comment to appear.

Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Got Milton?


If you've ever wanted to be talked into taking up Paradise Lost or Milton generally, you could do worse than starting here:

The vastness of the spaces through which his aerial beings move; the brilliant ambivalences of the villain who is Satan, soliloquising dramatically; the enchanted perspectives of paradise with its two freshly formed residents who busy themselves pruning roses, heaping up vegetarian meals for the entertainment of archangel visitors, and setting out the ground rules for marriage - none of this has any parallel in English poetry. Milton makes you think, provokes you into arguments about power, good and evil, about responsibility, innocence and the right to knowledge. He shows God forbidding this right, but we remember that Milton had himself defended it furiously in his essay on the freedom of the press, "Areopagitica". The clash between Milton the Renaissance humanist and Milton the faithful servant of God makes things interesting.

Reality Check: A Few Things Atheists Are Not Doing

The critics of "new atheists" paint quite a grim portrait of their adversaries. Here's John Gray:

Evangelical atheists never doubt that human life can be transformed if everyone accepts their view of things, and they are certain that one way of living - their own, suitably embellished - is right for everybody.
Chris Hedges goes further:
They [the "new atheists"] argue ... that some human beings, maybe many human beings, have to be eradicated to achieve this better world. They see only one truth — their truth. Human beings must become like them, think like them, and adopt their values, which they insist are universal, or be banished from civilized society. All other values, which they never investigate or examine, are dismissed as inferior.
It sounds terrible. One question, though: where on planet earth are atheists (new or old) carrying out such horrors?

This is not to say it is difficult to find people eager to eradicate contrary ideas and to degrade or destroy the people holding, or perceived as holding, threatening ideas. If you're an American, this is your tax dollars at work:
[T]he abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was de facto United States policy. The authorization of torture and the decriminalization of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of captives in wartime have been among the defining legacies of the current Administration; and the rules of interrogation that produced the abuses documented on the M.I. block in the fall of 2003 were the direct expression of the hostility toward international law and military doctrine that was found in the White House, the Vice-President’s office, and at the highest levels of the Justice and Defense Departments.

The Abu Ghraib rules, promulgated by Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of ground forces in Iraq, elaborated on the interrogation rules for Guantánamo Bay, which had been issued by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; they were designed to create far more license than restriction for interrogators who sought to break prisoners. [more images here]
The hideous depredations of Abu Ghraib, Guantanimo, and the rest don't come from Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or even Christopher Hitchens, but from George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and General Sanchez. These are Christians, not book-peddling atheists, behind these actually-occurring atrocities.

The 9/11 highjackers were acting from faith in god, not killing thousands fresh from reading Michel Onfray. Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and assorted Danish newspaper editors and cartoonists live under the threat of death for expressing the wrong opinions about god, not about Dan Dennett's books.

Religious motives are behind ongoing efforts to kill journalists, kill homosexuals, force people into marriages, and outlaw freedom of conscience and speech.

There are very real assaults on human rights in the world today. Many can be traced directly to religious motives, others to the cynical maneuverings of the vocally religious (and good luck separating the two). To lay these violations, in either degree or kind, at the feet of atheism is a shockingly stupid lie.

"Hast Seen the White Whale?"

A research biologist from Seattle can now claim the gold doubloon that Captain Ahab nailed to the mast of the Pequod.

I realize skin color is notoriously unchosen, but I would have hoped for a brighter shade of white on this freak of an orca. The dull brownish hue gives the impression of a failure to wash more than a defiance of phenotypic trends.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama's Speech: Et Tu, Tweety? Et Tu, Murray?

Regarding Obama's speech on race today: I just heard Chris Matthews -- Chris Matthews of all people, Tweety himself -- praise it by saying "I've never heard a speech on race that was as BS-free as this one I heard today." I might have the verbatim wording off a little, but it's very close.

He happens to be right: the speech was extremely free of bullshit as these sorts of proclamations go. The speech didn't pander and didn't oversimplify. It condemned ideas but acknowledged and shielded personal connections. It saw multiple sides, and didn't wish away ugly truths. It challenged everyone to think anew about this tangle of controversies and antagonisms.

And in that same vein, here's Charles Murray (of race and IQ fame) on Obama's speech:

I read the various posts here on "The Corner," mostly pretty ho-hum or critical about Obama's speech. Then I figured I'd better read the text (I tried to find a video of it, but couldn't). I've just finished. Has any other major American politician ever made a speech on race that comes even close to this one? As far as I'm concerned, it is just plain flat out brilliant—rhetorically, but also in capturing a lot of nuance about race in America. It is so far above the standard we're used to from our pols.... But you know me. Starry-eyed Obama groupie.
When self-identified conservatives like Charles Murray and beltway opinion leaders like Tweety issue this degree of praise, suffice to say you've made a good speech.

This speech might have a sweep and a force beyond what anyone has guessed so far. Maybe.

I know, I know -- mere words. But words have power, and some words live longer than others.

Obama on Race

Barack Obama has delivered a major speech on race, politics, and religion. Do read it; it will make you a better person. Or watch and listen to it ...



A few responses, of many that are sure to come:

Andrew Sullivan:

Its ability to embrace both the legitimate fears and resentments of whites and the understandable anger and dashed hopes of many blacks was, in my view, unique in recent American history. And it was a reflection of faith - deep, hopeful, transcending faith in the promises of the Gospels. And it was about America - its unique promise, its historic purpose, and our duty to take up the burden to perfect this union - today, in our time, in our way ...
Matthew Yglesias:
What Obama is showing us here is that precisely because he's black, he's able to acknowledge and validate these [white] resentments in a way that would be very difficult for a white liberal politician ...
Tim Dickinson of Rolling Stone:
Unfortunately, it’s a speech that’s much too smart to be dissected appropriately by the hacky denizens of mid-morning cable TV ...