Monday, June 30, 2008

Googling Morals

From the New York Times:

In the trial of a pornographic Web site operator, the defense plans to show that residents of Pensacola are more likely to use Google to search for terms like “orgy” than for “apple pie” or “watermelon.” The publicly accessible data is vague in that it does not specify how many people are searching for the terms, just their relative popularity over time. But the defense lawyer, Lawrence Walters, is arguing that the evidence is sufficient to demonstrate that interest in the sexual subjects exceeds that of more mainstream topics — and that by extension, the sexual material distributed by his client is not outside the norm.
By way of background, the defense would take such an approach because under current US law,
[t]he question of what constitutes obscenity relies on a three-part test established in a 1973 decision by the Supreme Court. Essential to the test has been whether the material in question is patently offensive or appeals to a prurient interest in sex — definitions that are based on “contemporary community standards.”
Defining "contemporary community standards" is no easy task, and I would think that hit rates on the googles would be a perfectly valid way to define what's really inside and outside the community's standards since it would produce metrics on what people actually do and prioritize as opposed to what people represent about what they do and prioritize. In principle, it holds the same promise as Nielsen ratings, which measure what people actually watch on tee-vee, whether or not it matches what they say they watch.

Web scold Andrew Keen doesn't like the idea:
If one accepts this argument, if enough people in a community enter "group sex" into Google then this establishes the media distribution of group sex acts as an acceptable communal moral standard. Instead of the wisdom of the crowd determining knowledge, what we have here is the morality of the crowd determining ethical standards. Google's artificial algorithm, then, becomes both the judge and the jury in establishing what is good and what is evil.
If large numbers of people are entering "group sex" into google, it indicates they have a strong interest in the topic. It doesn't necessarily mean they approve of it, but it does indicate curiosity, and we know from the first pages of Genesis where that leads.

Keen's sneering evocation of "Google's algorithm" doesn't suffice to demonstrate that it's a faulty or misleading algorithm. That is, I think, a question worth exploring -- do google's metrics produce a statistically defensible representation of the community's web browsing habits, or do they skew toward a few googlers with very strong interests?

But to Keen's larger point: to whatever extent anyone here is arguing that "the morality of the crowd" is "determining ethical standards," it's the law, not the counsel for the defense, and certainly not google's algorithms. It's the law that suggests a relationship between "community standards" and obscenity; google is just a measurement instrument, and I say a promising one.

What Emerges as the Crank Turns

Andrew Sullivan must have swallowed a bottle or two of strong antiemetics to get through the experience of re-reading a book by Bill Kristol written shortly before the US invasion of Iraq:

So let's be very, very clear: Kristol - not Rumsfeld or Franks or anyone else who bungled the execution - favored and supported a tiny post-war occupation force, less than half what was required even five years after invasion to prevent a metastasizing civil war. The civil war raged with enough ferocity to kill and maim and traumatize millions of Iraqis and thousands of Americans. Kristol sold the war on what turned out to be the preposterous sum of $16 billion a year. The figure has ended up at around $12 billion a month. So Kristol was off in his troops levels by a factor of two at the start of the occupation and by up to 20 today and he was off in his cost levels by a factor of ten. He also predicted "several thousand" troops by 2005, compared with 150,000 today.
In other words, as he propagandized for the invasion, Bill Kristol got things -- big things, small things, damnnear everything to which he dared to attach a definite claim -- spectacularly wrong.

Sullivan goes on to note that Kristol continues to cheer for the Iraq war without pause and without shame, and has been punished for his spectacular failures of judgment by landing a weekly column in the New York Times in addition to his continuing appearances on FoxNews.

The system works. This is the shape of accountability and public discourse in American politics.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Cook-Doctor Problem

PZ Myers is again the guest on this week's Point of Inquiry podcast, and this time he falls into a lot of verbal dancing on whether science and god-belief are compatible.

On one hand, Myers wants to promote science, especially biology and evolution, and this involves both showing and telling what's happening in the world of science. On the other hand, he wants to discredit faith-based thinking in favor of naturalism, both methodological and philosophical.

The first battle lends itself to making friends -- science is fascinating, enriching, even beautiful. The second battle lends itself to making enemies -- creationists are cranks and liars, supernatural beliefs are groundless, "god did it" is an explanatory dead-end.

Myers' blog, Pharyngula, reflects this same split in emphasis and approach: some posts talk up recent scientific findings, while other posts make slashing criticisms of religious believers and their beliefs. (I love both kinds and read his blog, er, religiously.)

The verbal dancing Myers did on this problem in reply to DJ Grothe's questions sound like Socratic dialogue and evoke the cook-doctor distinction that Plato makes in The Republic, Gorgias, and elsewhere: the cook combines ingredients with the aim of pleasing; the doctor combines ingredients with the aim of curing. A good cook makes a great-tasting meal; a good doctor will sometimes ask you to swallow something with a foul taste. But a good doctor fends off death while a good cook merely fends off hunger.

PZ Myers is conflicted on whether he wants to be more of a doctor or more of a cook. He shares this predicament with a great many bloggers, thinkers, and scientists.

Here, a variety of thinkers address whether science makes belief in god obsolete. Taken together, the answers stumble at least as much as PZ Myers did on POI.

Things Renounceable

  • Moments ago, in the course of an interview with Ryan Crocker on CNN, Candy Crowley just used the word "irregardless" where she meant "regardless." People who make this mistake, let alone on tee-vee, should be renounced.
  • The internets have made yet one more thing easier and faster: apostasy! Click here to Renounce Your Religion.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Jesus Probably Rode Dinosaurs

What else do you need to know? Jesus probably rode dinosaurs.

Did he ever take off that white robe and those sandals? Did he have a change of clothes of any sort?

(H/T Brad via)

Grover Norquist: Herbert Spencer without the book learning

Anti-taxation whiner Grover Norquist called Barack Obama "John Kerry with a tan", and I gather that strikes some as racist.

I'm not sure it's racist. It's true that he felt it necessary to call out Obama's skin color; he might have declared Obama "John Kerry with a better speech" or "John Kerry four years later," but he didn't. He didn't impute shortcomings to Obama based on his skin color. I expect we'll see plenty of unalloyed racism from Wide Stance troglodytes as the election season presses forward and the whisper campaign gets louder. This borderline quip will be far surpassed.

The real scandal is that Grover Norquist and the Social Darwinism he promotes are as prominent and "respectable" as they are.

Today in Christian Love

Wow, Fred Phelps sure knows a lot about Hell and George Carlin!



(H/T PZ Myers)

Game of the Day: iPod Shuffling Unto Political Unviability

Matthew Yglesias proposes a Game of the Day:

1. Take out your iPod (or Zune, I guess...really, who buys a Zune?)
2. Press shuffle songs.
3. Answer the following: a) How many songs before you come to one that would absolutely disqualify you from being President? b) What is that song?
He didn't exactly tag me, but he also didn't not tag me, and I want to play. My variation of the game will not involve the iPod itself since the headphones are currently caked with sweat and I don't want to deal with that. So instead I'm shuffling across my entire iTunes library in all its vastness, which seems more sporting anyway. So here it goes, live-blogged.

Metallica, "Leper Messiah" -- I barely listen to Metallica's lyrics, so I have no idea if this would disqualify me or not. Probably it would. But it f__ing rocks!

Dixie Chicks, "So Hard" -- Hmm. This would certainly lose some votes from the knuckle-draggers who are still, contra Natalie Maines, proud of president Bush. All sixty of them. Moving on.

Foo Fighters, "Everlong" -- Dang. I forgot how good a song this is. But no, I don't think it would DQ me from the presidency.

Elliott Smith, "Independence Day" -- Since he killed himself instead of embracing Jeebus and/or Wal-Mart, this might just be the one. But I don't really like this song so this isn't the hill I want to die on.

Arcade Fire, "Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)" -- Nah. This wouldn't shock or appall anyone. All this song ever does is spawn fresh new Arcade Fire fans.

U2, "Out of Control" -- U2 from its infancy, before they became bigger than god! No way. This is destined for lame oldies playlists and Best of the 1980s collections. Wow, how young Bono sounds.

Bob Dylan, "Simple Twist of Fate" -- Dylan certainly has an edge and a cachet in the political realm, but this is no "Masters of War."

Pixies, "Tony's Theme" -- Gawd this song rawks. I wouldn't want to be president if it meant giving this song up. TOE! NEE! TOE! NEE!

Lucinda Williams, "West" -- Wow, what a mood swing from "Tony's Theme." Shuffle is fun. But no, I could still be president through this.

J.S. Bach, the Sarabande from Cello Suite #1 -- I'm sure this would get me tagged as elitist if one of the earlier ones hadn't. The cumulative effect is adding up to "not presidential material," I'm afraid.

Nirvana, "Dumb" -- Kurt Cobain also didn't seem to think that whatever is wrong with America is bound to be overpowered by what's right with America. The ice gets ever thinner.

Tori Amos, "Girl" -- She's weird. The sounds of ice cracking.

Liz Phair, "May Queen" -- Anyone who knows anything about Liz Phair knows that she doesn't hate sex. Can America accept a president who doesn't hate women who don't hate sex? Doubtful. Very doubtful indeed.

Bob Dylan, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" -- That tears it! Obviously I hate America and love the terrorists.

I don't want to be president anyway.

If it interests you and you have a blog, do play along.

Poem of the Day: The Road

-+-+ SPOILER ALERT -+-+

These are the closing lines of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which is a novel. Being the closing lines of a novel, no reasonable person would label it poetry, so I think it follows I am not a reasonable person. I suppose I'll just have to take that and move forward.

I hope the forthcoming film adaptation does no violence to this great book. Aragorn is playing one of the lead roles, which seems like good casting.

A note on the -+-+ SPOILER ALERT -+-+: This is a spoiler alert only in that I think it's best to reach this passage the old fashioned way, by reading the entire book and then landing here. It doesn't really "give away" any details of plot or character.

Cormac McCarthy, The Road (excerpt)

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Weird or Common? Valid or Nonsense?

I go back and forth over whether the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator amounts to anything more than a horoscope that replaces iffy animal and mythological archetypes with iffy terms from clinical psychology and Jungian typology.

The balance was tilted toward the skeptical earlier today, when two people in a group of six offered that they are INFPs, which happens to be the same thing I am.

First, INFPs (as one of them mentioned) are supposed to be extremely rare, and second, INFPs are supposed to be the sorts of people who would be loath to offer their Myers-Briggs type unless pressed to do so, and it took no pressing to get this out of those two.

While the other two are certainly odd carrots, they don't seem very introverted to me. I wanted to say: You want introverted? I'll show you introverted! but being a true INFP, I kept this to myself to avoid any confrontation, hemmed and hawed over it for several hours, and then discussed it in writing.

As I said, I'm not sure there's anything to this stuff. That a group of six would turn out to be 50% INFP seems to require an explanation if there is anything to any of it. I wonder if the web-based assessments are, in some way, biasing people toward the INFP category?

Whatever the case, please let's not be confrontational about it unless there's a dear principle at stake.

As from a Poorly-Written Screenplay About Hypocrisy

Senators David Vitter and Larry Craig are sponsoring a "Marriage Protection" Constitutional Amendment designed to protect marriage from closeted self-hating homosexuals, lying moralistic hypocrites, and gay people.

Yes, this is the same David "I pay for it" Vitter who so famously loves the whores. But he's sorry or whatever, and he dragged his wife and Jesus (not pictured) to the press conference to show just how much. He's sorry or whatever, but not sorry-or-whatever enough to decriminalize what he did, and not sorry-or-whatever enough to plead guilty and accept the legal punishments.

And yes, this is the same Larry "Wide Stance" Craig who solicited anonymous gay sex in an airport restroom in Minnesota, for which he plead guilty and then tried to change to innocent, in response to which he claimed he'd leave the Senate by October 1, 2007. He's still there, and -- let's say it all together: he is not gay, he has never been gay, as he all but screamed in a press conference to which he dragged his wife and Jesus (not pictured).

Surely a better screenwriter can be found. I'm all for suspending disbelief in the service of letting the spectacle take shape, but really this stretches things too far.

Louisiana: It Comes With A Larger Purchase

For whatever reason, before today I had never paused to notice how pathetic Louisiana's state quarter design really is. Yes, they show a horn in deference to the state's vaunted musical legacy, and yes, they show a pelican in hopes of suggesting there's still some coastline not rendered lifeless by petrochemicals and overfishing, but the map and the invocation of the Louisiana Purchase subtract all the state pride by saying, in effect: please forgive Louisiana, it came as part of a larger purchase.

And so it did. Which is not to say the state is completely without its claims to fame. Its Wide Stance Senator hates the gays but loves the whores, and its governer [hearts] ignorance and fights demons.

Previous state quarter coverage on this precious, precious blog:

Oklahoma
Oregon
Assorted

Another Missing Link

This handsome amphibian-fish creature, ventastega, is the latest no-longer-missing link between fish and the first land-dwelling amphibians. A new fossil find in Latvia has allowed a more complete reconstruction of the creature, first unearthed in 1994:

The new remains — including most of the creature’s skull, the braincase, half of the bones in its forelimb and a quarter of its pelvic girdle — suggest that Ventastega was an evolutionary intermediate between Tiktaalik, a four-limbed fish that lived about 382 million years ago ... and subsequent tetrapods such as Acanthostega, which were capable of walking on land.

The size and proportions of the new fossils hint that Ventastega probably measured between 1 and 1.3 meters in length.
The god of the gaps just found it necessary to wedge itself into an even smaller gap.

PZ Myers has more on the science and the discovery.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

I Am Trying To Break Your Heart

I am trying to get excited one way or the other about the Supreme Court's ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller that upholds a personal right to firearms:

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority in the landmark 5-to-4 decision, said the Constitution does not allow “the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home.” ... But the court held that the individual right to possess a gun “for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home” is not unlimited. “It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose,” Justice Scalia wrote. ... “The court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
Yawn. Much as I hate to agree with anything the troglodyte Antonin Scalia has written, I just don't care very much about guns or gun rights or gun control, and never really have.

Indeed, I'm not even sure I do agree with Scalia; I'm not even interested enough to read the opinion beyond the snippets presented in the Times article (which makes it sound, correctly or not, like a question-begging muddle: you can keep and bear arms except when you can't, which is where I thought we already were). I may or may not circle back and read the dissents, and don't expect to form a strong opinion if I do.

Yawn.

Infinity Goes Up On Trial

I am a fan and admirer of Keith Olbermann, but I think Glenn Greenwald has him dead to rights here, where he notes that in January, Olbermann used these words to characterize proposals to give immunity to telecommunications companies involved in illegal spying:

shameless, breathless, literally textbook example of Fascism -- the merged efforts of government and corporations that answer to no government.
But as of last evening's Countdown program, policy that had been a "textbook example of Fascism" transmogrified, by virtue of Barack Obama's embrace of it, into a show of "strength" and political acumen: a Profile in Courage (minus Ted Sorenson), a Sister Souljah Moment, arguably a Nixon-Goes-to-China moment, quite possibly a Corpse-of-Nixon-Mouth-Kisses-Sister-Souljah moment.

These moments and their nomenclature have a way of getting out of hand, so call it what you will. Value judgments are involved, and not necessarily simple ones. But Fascist Outrage to Show of Courage is quite a swing in appraisal in just a few months featuring no changes in the relevant underlying realities: FISA, spying, the fourth amendment, and so on are very much what they were in January.

It will be interesting to see how and whether Olbermann responds.

I Hate This Kind of Blog Post

I hate blog posts that, like this one, give excuses for a foreseeable pause in blog posts. What do you care if I'm feeling ill and not feeling very post-y? You come to a blog to read the posts, not posts about the absence of posts, and certainly not illness reports unless they're interesting. And like other people's dreams, reports of other people's illnesses are rarely interesting.

I say such things should be kept brief and vague, or preferably left unsaid altogether.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Suffering Child Rapists to Live

The Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty is excessive punishment for the crime of child rape, overturning the state law in Louisiana and several other states.

I have not read the decision but it sounds good enough. Why fix what isn't broken? I understand there are certain strong traditions in place touching on the fate of child rapists in prison. Should a guard carelessly make it known to the wider inmate community that the new convict is a child rapist, and should that guard carelessly turn his back a few times, what happens will happen. And as regrettable as all this carelessness may be, it's probably best dealt with inside the prison system -- shuffle the offending guard to another prison down the road where he can make a fresh start in his important work.

Forgiveness is key.

Ralph, You Made Me Go There

Ralph Nader, your work on behalf of government accountability and consumer advocacy was what it was, and thanks again for all of that. I am genuinely pleased to note that Public Citizen is still going strong and still doing important work. But if you're reduced to saying shit like this to grab headlines, it's well past time you hitched up your adult diaper, wiped the old man spittle from from your chin, and waddled into the sunset with your pants pulled up to your chest, shaking your fist and muttering at specters unseen:

Speaking with Colorado's Rocky Mountain News, Nader accused Obama of attempting to "talk white" and appealing to "white guilt" in his quest to win the White House.

"There's only one thing different about Barack Obama when it comes to being a Democratic presidential candidate. He's half African-American," Nader told the paper in comments published Tuesday.
Uh, yea. Thanks, Ralph, but I can speak for my own "white guilt" -- to whatever extent it exists, it doesn't need a vain old coot to bark for it.

But since you brought it up, at least one other similarity between Barack Obama and any other Democratic presidential candidate leaps to mind: his chances of carrying certain important states in November is reduced by your presence on the ballot, and regardless of the Democrat's skin color, a vote for Nader is a vote for the Wide Stance.

So fuck off already.

Torture: Return Serve

The Vietamese commander who detained, questioned, beat and tortured John McCain wants to set the record straight:

"But I can confirm to you that we never tortured him. We never tortured any prisoners."
This is positively Bush-esque in its brazen distortion of reality: whatever the facts, torture is something that others do. Despite being pro-torture now that he is no longer being tortured, McSame wants voters to believe he's against it.

It didn't take long for someone to return serve on the Bush-Cheney junta's perversions of the reality of torture. It should be hilarious to watch "conservatives" contort and pretzel their way around this.

(H/T Andrew Sullivan)

The War Metaphor and Its Limits

Media Matters notes that yesterday, Lou Dobbs took a long enough respite from complaining about Mexicans to allow Washington Times columnist Diana West to say the following about Barack Obama's approach to The War on Terr'rTM:

Senator Obama's made it very clear that he believes terrorism is simply a matter of cops and robbers. So, I think that what we're looking at is the divide between the so-called September 10th mindset of Senator Obama and the so-called September 11th mindset of John McCain.
Media Matters duly notes that Obama's approach to fighting terrorism is not, in fact, "simply a matter of cops and robbers," but includes the full gamut of military, diplomatic, intelligence, and law enforcement resources, as he outlined last August and elsewhere.

All well and good, but I think it's worthwhile to add another corrective to Ms. West's nonsense. Taking her September 10th mindset vs. September 11th mindset on its own terms, what would Ms. West have had the US do differently on 9/10/2001? Presumably it would not have involved a "cops and robbers" approach, since that's only for limp-wristed milquetoasts who hate America.

So thinking back to the 9/11 attacks, how would an appropriately manly, America-loving mindset have shown itself? Wikipedia has a timeline leading up to one of the attacks on the World Trade Center:
On September 10, Atta picked up al-Omari from the Milner Hotel in Boston, Massachusetts, and the two drove their rented Nissan to a Comfort Inn in Portland, Maine, where they arrived at 5:43 p.m. and spent the night in room 232 only to catch a US Airways flight back to Boston the following morning. .... The FBI also states that Atta made a credit-card purchase in Manhattan, New York on the 10th ... The two spent their last night pursuing ordinary activities: making two ATM withdrawals, and a 20-minute stop at Wal-Mart. FBI reports specified that "two middle-eastern men" were seen in the parking lot of a Pizza Hut, but despite alluding to Atta and Abdulaziz, does not explicitly say it was them ... On the morning of September 11, they drove to the Portland International Jetport, and took the 6:00 a.m. Colgan Air (U.S. Airways Express) BE-1900C flight to Logan International Airport in Boston.
Would Ms. West have scrambled F-16s and firebombed hotels, Wal-Marts, Pizza Huts, car-rental desks, airports, and ATMs stretching from Portland, Maine to Boston to Manhattan? Would she have dispatched ground troops and unleashed a naval bombardment of all such locales along the northeastern seaboard?

Or is Ms. West -- and everyone else who repeats this incredibly slapdash bit of pro-McSame wisdom -- perhaps a little too committed to the war metaphor?

Reading Failures

Encountering an instance in which praying for gays is declared "really inimical to the teachings of the Catholic church," Andrew Sullivan huffs:

The point of the Church, apparently, is to encourage gay people to feel shame and to deny even the validity of our identity. Note that this isn't about sex; it's about marginalizing a group already marginalized. Sometimes you wonder whether the Catholic hierarchy have ever read the Gospels.
Actually, no -- I don't, either sometimes or always, wonder if the Catholic hierarchy has been reading the Gospels. I'm quite sure they have been sideburns-deep in the Gospels and related twaddle for centuries.

Their failure is not a failure of reading or even of interpretation but a failure to recognize hateful, baseless bullshit when they read it; or a failure of the courage required to acknowledge bullshit as such, even when rendered in Latin or red typeface.

Of Bunnies, Sunshine, and Narcolepsy

Do you ever wonder why your narcoleptic friend isn't the most cheerful, chipper, sunny presence in the room? I would like to suggest that it has to do with a line this disorder continuously blurs between the thought "I am sleepy" and the thought "there is nothing worth being awake for." It's easy enough to recognize, on a conscious level, that these aren't the same responses, not reflective of the same inward or outward reality; but the conscious separation of them is yet one more thing requiring precisely what the narcoleptic finds in short supply -- the energy to push back, the refusal to give in and fade out.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Humanist Symposium #21

In case you missed it, Humanist Symposium #21 is up at Greta Christina's blog and features some excellent posts.

Humanist Symposium 22 is only a few weeks away and will be hosted right here on my own precious, precious blog.

False modesty is for weeners. You know you have a great post to submit to the next Humanist Symposium. Don't even try to deny it, just submit it.

Auden Wordled

(Click to enlarge.)

Here is W.H. Auden's "Ode to Terminus" as processed through Wordle. Neat!

Are You Sure? (On Marriage)

Hey gay people, are you sure you really want to be part of the Institution of MarriageTM? Are you sure you're sure? I'm really just asking, but I think it's worth considering very carefully in light of things like this:

There is no minimal age for entering marriage. You can have a marriage contract even with a one-year-old girl, not to mention a girl of nine, seven, or eight. This is merely a contract [indicating] consent. The guardian in such a case must be the father, because the father's opinion is obligatory. Thus, the girl becomes a wife... But is the girl ready for sex or not? What is the appropriate age for having sex for the first time? This varies according to environment and traditions ....
Well, it's nice to know that one-year-old girls aren't invariably declared ready for sex under Sharia.

Again, it's not really my place to say, but I think this illustrates the fact that there are certain in-groups that it's more honorable to be excluded from.

Dumb Iraq Question, I Realize

Why are scribblers like David Brooks assuring us of the success of "the surge" when the issues in Iraq, "surge" or no "surge," continue to be the extent and scope of the US occupation and the status of huge no-bid oil contracts for Exxon, Mobil, Shell, Total, and BP?

This seems like a big deal -- far bigger than the adjectives we choose to qualify "the surge":

[A]ides to Mr. Maliki from his Dawa Party said that American negotiators were demanding continued control of Iraqi airspace, immunity for American soldiers and security contractors, authority for more than 50 long-term bases, and the right to continue to carry out unimpeded military operations.

Iraqi officials object to those terms, and are particularly insistent about limiting immunity for security contractors and ensuring that future American military operations are restricted and have the blessing of the Iraqi government ...
Call me crazy, but the prospect of turning Iraq into a long-term ward of the United States and granting long-term contracts for controlling its most vital resources seems rather significant.

With such matters at hand, isn't it a rather bad time to massively scale back news coverage of Iraq, and spend whole columns prattling on about "the surge"?

To Believe Almost Everything is To Believe Almost Nothing

A new Pew survey reveals that Americans, by and large, believe almost everything:

70 percent of Americans affiliated with a religion or denomination said they agreed that “many religions can lead to eternal life,” including majorities among Protestants and Catholics. Among evangelical Christians, 57 percent agreed with the statement, and among Catholics, 79 percent did.

Among minority faiths, more than 80 percent of Jews, Hindus and Buddhists agreed with the statement, and more than half of Muslims did.
Ophelia Benson's take on this is something short of approving:
Many religions can lead to eternal life. Yuh huh. You got your Hinduism, and your Total Immersion, and your Church of the Talking Snake, and your Freshwater Baptist Twice Removed, and every dang one of them can lead to eternal life. You just follow them down Spang Road until you get to the fork, and there's your eternal life on your left - you can't miss it.
The trouble with believing almost anything, as Ophelia comments, is that it slides imperceptibly into believing in nothing at all -- it amounts to a blithe, uncritical, unthinking acceptance of whatever happens to be lying around bearing the label of God's Own Truth. And it opens the door wide open to the true believers:
As past surveys have shown, this report found that Americans who prayed more frequently and attended worship services more often tended to be more conservative and “somewhat more Republican” than other people. Majorities of Mormons and evangelicals say they are conservative, compared with 37 percent of Americans over all.
One such very conservative evangelical is James Dobson, who is perfectly happy to respond to the judgment-free, hands-off ethos of blithe religious tolerance and use it as a bludgeon to serve his political aims:
Dobson and Minnery accused Obama of wrongly equating Old Testament texts and dietary codes that no longer apply to Jesus' teachings in the New Testament.

"I think he's deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology," Dobson said.

"... He is dragging biblical understanding through the gutter."

...[Dobson] said Obama, who supports abortion rights, is trying to govern by the "lowest common denominator of morality," labeling it "a fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution."
Dobson has very definite views of which holy books are the real ones; and which Bible passages are the right ones to cherry-pick; and which readings of the Constitution and public policy these authorize.

While it may be, in the short term, conducive to a happy afternoon in the park, wishing away theological, political, and philosophical questions with a leveling relativism -- "everybody has a good point" -- is not going to work.

It takes more than nothing to oppose something noxious.

Monday, June 23, 2008

It's April 16 on 1178BCE. Do You Know Where Your Epic Hero Is?

Some scientists have cranked the nerd up to 11 and correlated some passages in Homer's Odyssey with astronomical events:

They say the epic poem appears to confirm that the return of Odysseus to the island of Ithaca coincided with a solar eclipse on April 16, 1178BC. In the Odyssey, the moment when Odysseus kills the suitors who have been courting Penelope, his wife, during his absence after the Trojan War, is marked by the Sun being “blotted from the sky”.
Another Monday, another rainbow unweaved.

I Think This Counts as Good News

Fewer American troops are being killed by IEDs in Iraq:

Roadside bomb attacks and fatalities in Iraq are down by almost 90% over the last year, according to Pentagon records and interviews with military leaders.
In May, 11 U.S. troops were killed by blasts from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) compared with 92 in May 2007, records show. That's an 88% decrease.
That's good news, but there's a caveat: the reduction has come as a result of evolving tactics, better armor, and most of all, from Iraqis:
Ad hoc local security forces, known as the Sons of Iraq, have provided on-the-ground intelligence to U.S. forces looking for IEDs, said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, who commanded a division in Baghdad from February 2007 until May.

Each member of the security forces earns about $8 per day. Lynch has hired about 36,000 of them to man checkpoints and provide intelligence on the insurgency. He said about 60% had been insurgents.
This form of peace and stability -- paying violent thugs not to be violent thugs, or to direct their violence elsewhere -- goes by the label "protection racket" in the context of organized crime, and is rarely confused with either peace or stability.

It's also worth noting, I think, that operating a protection racket can be equally effective at any level of troop deployment -- with or without a "surge," with 150,000 or 500 American troops on the ground, the payouts will have the same effect on the insurgents.

If the US is willing to "succeed" in Iraq by paying people not to bomb things, why not just make that official policy and end the occupation? Without US troops milling about Iraq, the number of targets decreases, so presumably the payout rate can begin to slide downward.

(H/T John Cole)

Twenty Years: Still Too Soon

I can't believe it's been twenty years since my high school graduation because I would expect the freshness and pain of the memories to have abated over that length of years. Alas, my desire not to be anywhere near Ponca City is as strong as it was throughout the late 1980s, so I will not be attending the 20-year reunion hootenanny.

I appreciate the work and effort that the organizers -- Deanna, Jennifer, Cherish, Johnny, Randy, others -- have evidently put into it. I can see how thankless an effort that must be, only to have twits like me not even bother to show up.

I have appointed Kurt I. and Devan P. as my spokesmodels. They will speak for me on all matters, including but not limited to details of my personal history that have unfolded since we last parted ways on the fruited plain. If they don't know an answer, I trust them to make up something interesting, and I hope they'll represent me well in my knack for managing to mention that I ran the Boston Marathon this year (I can work that into any given conversation within about 35 seconds).

That said, no matter what Kurt or Devan say, the answer to all questions amounting to requests for money is no.

I feel genuine regret over skipping a chance to renew acquaintances with all several of you. Like a latter-day Tom Joad, whenever someone makes an awkward, conversation-killing remark, I'll be there; whenever someone seems even uglier and more boring than you remember, I'll be there; whenever a group of people eyes the last can of beer, none wanting to be the jerk who grabs it, but each wanting it, I'll be there; whenever someone inserts himself into a high school memory in which he played no actual part, I'll be there, too.

(Photo Source)

RIP George Carlin

George Carlin has died at 71. Obscene, trenchant, hilarious, brilliant -- all these words and more fit him, truly one of the great comics of our day:

"Religion convinced the world that there's an invisible man in the sky who watches everything you do. And there's 10 things he doesn't want you to do or else you'll to to a burning place with a lake of fire until the end of eternity. But he loves you! ...And he needs money! He's all powerful, but he can't handle money! [...] I've begun worshipping the sun for a number of reasons. First of all, unlike some other gods I could mention, I can see the sun. It's there for me every day. And the things it brings me are quite apparent all the time: heat, light, food, a lovely day. There's no mystery, no one asks for money, I don't have to dress up, and there's no boring pageantry. And interestingly enough, I have found that the prayers I offer to the sun and the prayers I formerly offered to God are all answered at about the same 50-percent rate. [...] Religion is sort of like a lift in your shoes. If it makes you feel better, fine. Just don't ask me to wear your shoes. And let's not nail the lift to the natives' feet."
If his stand-up routine didn't puncture at least one of your pet ideas, you probably weren't listening. His voice will be missed.

(H/T dday on the quote)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Napping for Dummies

Via German Joys, here's a guide from the Boston Globe on how to nap. It's a little amateurish -- clearly they don't have any narcoleptics on board to advise them on such important matters -- but it's pro-nap, and I'm for everything that makes this world a more pro-nap kind of place.

Actually, that's wrong. I have no actual napping advice that's of use to anyone, to wit: sit down in a moderately quiet location at least an hour after getting up from bed in the morning. Wait for sleep to arrive, which shouldn't take long. That's how to take a nap, as far as I know; I might as well try to explain how to chew and swallow food.

What I could use is a guide on how not to nap.

The Bible and Peter Singer

I've always been rather fond of this Biblical self-contradiction because it features the words of Jesus himself, and in my old family Bible, the dueling passages appear on the very same page. Does Jesus want his followers to do good deeds in public or in private? Take it away, Jesus:

"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:14-16)
And just a few brief passages later:
"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men." (Matthew 6:1-2)
Jesus could not have been more clear, in a sense: follow me, because I have all the answers you seek. All the answers. In another, truer, more straightforward sense, Jesus presents us with a tangled knot and proceeds to pull harder on all the available threads. Neat!

Peter Singer is no god and doesn't claim to be, but he cites psychological research and sides with the 'let your light shine' view of the matter:
A substantial body of current psychological research points against Jesus' advice [that would be the advice in Matthew 5:14, shortly before Jesus changed his all-knowing mind and declared Matthew 6:1]. One of the most significant factors determining whether people give to charity is their beliefs about what others are doing. Those who make it known that they give to charity increase the likelihood that others will do the same.
So it's not only bragging to note that I recently donated some money to the Red Cross for their flood relief efforts and other good work. Not only bragging.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Punctuation, Importance Thereof



A comma or period in the text indicates a pause.

Music That's Better Than It Sounds: Portishead



Don't trust your first fifteen listens.

Cf. Mark Twain on Wagner, more or less

Sweeping Up



In view of this video (via Matthew Yglesias) of rioters in Boston after the Celtics won the NBA championship last week, we should expect knuckle-draggers like Cal Thomas and Rush Limbaugh to treat us to sweeping generalizations about the ways of white people very soon.

And surely John Derbyshire, eschewing the crudity of lesser right-wing pundits, will grace us with subtler insights that still, in the end, remind us of the terrible, no good, very bad tendencies of white people.

Right?

Any minute now?

Religion: In a Word, Breezy

PZ Myers of Pharyngula fame is the guest on this week's Point of Inquiry podcast (and next week's too, apparently), and he turns down every polite invitation from host DJ Grothe to reconcile religion and science.

Myers' point on this could not be more straightforward: religion consists in telling people the sky is green; science disrupts this not by telling people the sky is blue but by encouraging people to look at the sky for themselves, and building on the work of others, to investigate it rigorously.

Plenty of people maintain religious beliefs alongside a scientific outlook. Nevertheless, the embrace of the scientific outlook correlates with religious skepticism because, upon encountering scientific methods and results, religious answers come to seem thin and insubstantial. After just a little physics and a little biology, the book of Genesis comes across as more than a little breezy in its presentation of what happened, how, and why.

Myers didn't use the word, but I say that's a good a one-word description of religion: breezy.

Patriotism Inflated

This might be the best $44.62 you'll ever spend, but then again maybe not. Wal-Mart's stirring pitch:

Let everyone know how much you support our troops with this inflatable American flag ribbon. Standing six feet tall and intended for either indoor or outdoor use, this patriotic ribbon is easy to set up and lights up. Stakes and tethers are included.
I hope the image of the huge inflatable patriotic thingy makes it to Photoshop Disasters. I wonder what that child was really gesturing at before he was edited in to this scene? And I wonder the same thing about the crisply-manicured McMansion in the simulated background.

In short, there is nothing real in this image.

Friday, June 20, 2008

That Porn Makes Us Ethical

Does fantasizing with pornography constitute infidelity? Ross Douthat seems to think so (and again), while Will Wilkinson disagrees rather vehemently. The bouncing ball of hyperlinks comes to this thought as expressed by Alexander Pruss:

It is true that when sane people fantasize, they can typically distinguish fact from fiction. But at the same time, what gives pleasure in the fantasy is a deliberate mental relaxing of the distinction, a willing suspension of disbelief. To treat the characters that inhabit one's fantasy as pawns to be moved in accordance with one's desires for one's gratification is seriously problematic, and it develops a disrespectful habit of the mental treatment of others. Even if one is right that this habit will not overflow into controlling behavior—and how can one be sure of that?—the mental attitudes are themselves morally bad.
I just can't agree with this. I would say instead that the ability to fantasize -- treating others as "pawns to be moved in accordance with one's desires" in one's interior mental theater -- is the saving grace of ethical conduct in that it allows one to explore desires and interactions without actually violating another person's autonomy.

I deny that fantasizing about a person actually involves that person in any important sense. Pruss thinks otherwise.

It seems to me that fantasy makes morality, including but not limited to sexual morality, possible. We are capable of being moral, rather than simply impulsive or instinctive, insofar as we can put on mental plays and observe the results; and for those of us who are not perfect hermits, this includes sharing in the fantasies produced by others (gossip, conversations, books, plays, films, Victoria's Secret catalogs, etc.). I think it would be genuinely destructive of morals to stop fantasy.

Here's a thought experiment (yes, this is a thought experiment about thought experiments): imagine a person who, taking Pruss's idea of fantasy as entirely convincing, literally never thinks about sex. If he encounters it in conversation, reading, visual media, or elsewhere, he turns away and expels it utterly from his thoughts. Putting aside the practical difficulties of achieving this -- this is a thought experiment after all -- how prepared is that person for ethically sound sexual interaction when some actual, real-world, bona fide sex breaks out in his presence? Not at all, I would say.

Such a person has not, by definition, thought it through. He has nothing to work with, nothing to guide his decisionmaking -- nothing but impulse and instinct, that is, and we know what those will instruct him to do: they will instruct him to do what every crocodile impulsively and instinctively does when a careless faun comes too close, which is to take the biggest bite possible, with no concern for the faun.

It would not escape this to say that he would have moral teachings to guide him. To be able to observe a rule like "thou shalt not commit adultery" or "thou shalt not rape" requires understanding the terms of the rule, and this necessitates the scenes of mental theater -- plots, characters, anecdotes, parables, listings of dos and don'ts, heavy-handed educational films or ABC After School Specials -- in which both sides of the moral line is displayed. "Don't rape" can have no meaning to our test subject who truly never thinks about sex.

To understand a moral rule well enough to follow it involves the ability to project oneself into real-world situations in which the rule would obtain. The beings who learn moral rules by breaking them in the course of blindly following impulses are called, variously, children, animals, monsters, lunatics, or the like. And children become adults, as opposed to lunatics or monsters, by virtue of a steadily greater ability to monitor and obey the line between fantasy and reality.

That's the key as I see it -- for fantasy to contribute to morality in the way I've outlined, the line between fantasy and reality has to be minded carefully. It requires a being who can perceive the fantasy-reality distinction in the first place and further understand that what's permissible in fantasy is not necessarily permissible in reality. Competent human adults do this as a matter of course. People routinely entertain and sometimes maintain sexual fantasies, with and without the aid of pornographic images, and yet the world keeps going.

Sex, pornography, and related subjects seize our interest rather readily, and this, I think, obscures the fact that the preoccupation with sexual fantasy is just one more instance of a very human frailty: that sometimes, for a variety of reasons, our fantasies get more than their share of our thoughts, time, and energy. It would be cavalier to shrug the shoulders and say "big deal" to such instances; but likewise it goes too far to elevate the ethical importance of sexual fantasies over other fantasies.

As with any preoccupation with fantasy, an obsession with sexually-charged mental theater (with or without porn) likely signals a problem on the reality side of the divide. Whatever understandable feelings of inadequacy or tension it might produce in particular human relationships, sexual fantasizing does no special harm, and it's a good thing it doesn't, because it's not going away.

So go ahead and scroll back up and get another good look at that photo of Jeri Ryan.

Offshore Drilling Numbers

Economist Dean Baker wades into the noise about the newly-reborn offshore drilling controversy and notices something:

I haven't seen any analysis of the tradeoffs in the reporting thus far. After all, why use numbers when we can say that this is just a question of values -- the environment or cheap energy?
Baker then proceeds to offer a set of numbers to attach to this question, which he admits are rough:
In today's prices, we would be looking at a drop in the price of a barrel of oil from around $135 to $131. If this were passed on one to one in gas prices (this is long-run story), we might expect to see a drop in the price of a gallon of gas from around $4.00 to around $3.92 a gallon.
Eight cents per gallon -- and not tomorrow, not next week, not next year, but in thirty years.

Baker's calculations may or may not be right, but he is definitely asking the right questions and addressing them in a responsible, informative way. Heading into the presidential campaign, will we see this treated as the empirical question it is, or will we see it framed solely as an unhelpful "values" debate?

Commuting's Brave New World

Spiraling gas prices have thrust a new commuting regime upon us all and it demands that we reinforce the hard-won lessons of the past -- or, in some cases, get and stay current with those lessons.

Exhibit A: The photo shown here displays both the promise and peril of the hordes who have recently added their distinctiveness to the Borg that is the MAX. Promise: maybe, upon a sunny day, someone will get on the MAX wearing revealing clothing. Peril: same as promise. Suffice to say not every member of the Borg should dress like Seven-of-Nine.

Exhibit B: I've already covered the apposite lessons, but with gas prices spiraling ever higher and the weather improving, I've noticed an uptick in bike commuting, and this calls for a refresher on key points.

Toward avoiding overgeneralizing, I direct this comment to the woman who passed over the Hawthorne bridge traveling west this morning at approximately 7:12AM on a blue bike: from the evidence of the saggy back tire and your fearful riding style, I gather you are new to bike commuting. Perhaps that isn't even your bike; no doubt you'd be much happier if only you could return to commuting as the only passenger in a huge SUV. But so long as you are riding that blue bike with the sagging back tire, stay in the goddamn bike lane as you pass over the bridge. And speed the fuck up -- you're endangering not only the pedestrians whom you're crowding to the bridge's railing, but also the many bikes that are passing you on the left, unsure of whether or when you'll go darting into the bike lane.

And after you leave the bridge and approach the exit ramp to Naito Parkway, if you make a left-turn signal, do turn left. Today, your slow pace and left turn signal backed up the cars unfortunate enough to find themselves lining up behind you; it slowed them because they were sure, from the evidence of your hand signal, that you'd be entering the left lane at any second. And yet you didn't. You kept going west, very slowly.

I have been known to post unflattering photographs of people who disturb the commutes of others. Out of courtesy, and more so because I didn't have my camera handy, I am not posting any such photos of you at this time. I promise no such discretion going forward.

Thanks all, and happy commuting!

Murphy's Law v. Adidas

If only for the sake of keeping in touch with my hypocrisy, I entered a shoe store yesterday and proceeded to try on all the Adidas shoes they offered. I was really hoping to leverage Murphy's Law by finding, on the very same day when I traded in recklessly overbroad statements about the narrowness of Adidas shoes, that many Adidas shoes are not too narrow for my feet.

It worked. I liked some of the Adidas shoes I tried on and didn't like others, but I didn't have any particular trouble with their width. Take that, Murphy, you filthy bitch!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Artificer of All Urethras & His Mysterious Ways

An Oregon teenager has received the answer to his prayers -- a painful and unnecessary death:

The 16-year-old, Neil Beagley, suffered from an inflammation in his urethra, a tube leading from his bladder, which made him unable to urinate, Deputy State Medical Examiner Dr. Clifford Nelson told ABC News affiliate KATU-TV in Portland.

Beagley filled up with urine, and that eventually ruined his bladder, kidneys and heart, said Nelson. He called it "an absolutely horrible way to die."

The teen's condition could have been treated with the use of a catheter, however, Nelson said.
As he is over 14, he was within his legal rights to decline medical care under Oregon law, and his family, fellow members of the Followers of Christ Church, have told police that he did voluntarily opt for prayer over treatment.

Nothing fails like prayer? Well, it depends on how you look at it. Maybe it really was god's answer: "No, Neil, I won't be unblocking your urethra, even though I could do so easily, since I am the designer and artificer of all urethras. You will die painfully and then we'll have a nice long talk about it in the afterlife."

Then again, since god didn't unblock the urethra, it must mean Neil wasn't sincere or sycophantic or pure or whatever enough in god's eyes. So I think we are left to deduce that Neil went straight from his agonizing death to the torments of hell.

Praise his name.

Habeas Corpus Illustrated

The recent Supreme Court ruling in Boumediene v. Bush has given rise to a great deal of dishonest screeching and caterwauling from right-wing pundits.

The fundamental issue -- what habeas corpus means and what it doesn't -- deserves to be clarified. It does not require legal expertise to understand these matters.

Suppose the president -- any president, whether Bush or his successor -- is given false information indicating you are not an American citizen and that you are engaged in terrorist activities. Suppose the incriminating information is merely mistaken; no conscious dishonesty has been involved in its collection or application.

Prior to Boumediene, the president could have you arrested and held in Gitmo upon the basis of this false information. Indefinitely.

Thanks to the ruling, this is where habeas corpus comes in -- and this is why habeas corpus is in the Constitution (see section 9, clause 2).

Exercising your habeas corpus right entails appearing before a court of law and showing that a mistake has been made. It is the step where you would produce your birth certificate, driver's license, voter registration, marriage license, many consecutive years of utility bill payments, paycheck stubs, and other such documentation illustrating that, for whatever reason, you are not the person the authorities thought you were.

With habeas corpus, you can go to court to make the singular point: you have the wrong person, and here's the proof.

Without habeas corpus, you can sit in a cell until the president decides to let you out.

Habeas corpus is as fundamental as it gets. It constitutes a really bright line separating free societies from the other kind.

Further reading: here's a good summary of the Boumediene ruling, which goes into more detail and addresses many a nuance I've not even tried to cover here.

Adidas v. Wal-Mart

Adidas is throwing mud at Wal-Mart and its crappy shoes:

At least two Wal-Mart athletic shoe models are built with substandard materials and fell apart during simulated running tests, Adidas claimed in court papers filed June 13 in federal court in Portland, Oregon.

... One Wal-Mart model was heavily damaged during a 120-mile (193 kilometer) simulated run, according to Teston's declaration. The other model didn't complete the test performed by Adidas because it fell apart after 97 miles, he said. Adidas's shoes are required to complete the same test without significant wear.
Whatever adds to the shame of Wal-Mart is fine by me, and I have no trouble believing their shoes are not made well, so huzzahs to Adidas.

That said, Adidas makes some great-looking shoes -- that's why Wal-Mart is ripping them off in the first place -- and I wish they would sell more models in varying widths. I don't even bother trying them on any more since every pair I've ever tried has been too narrow.

Unremunerated Teen Angst

James Wood's discussion of Bart Ehrman's God's Problem contains some high points:

During my teens, two members of my parents’ congregation died of cancer, despite all the prayers offered up on their behalf. When I looked at the congregants kneeling on cushions, their heads bent to touch the wooden pews, it seemed to me as if they were literally butting their heads against a palpable impossibility. And this was years before I discovered Samuel Butler’s image for the inutility of prayer in his novel “The Way of All Flesh”—the bee that has strayed into a drawing room and is buzzing against the wallpaper, trying to extract nectar from one of the painted roses.
Call me a sucker for bee metaphors. But Wood's discussion also contains at least one low point, as when Wood ends his own autobiographical musings and turns to the book under discussion, in which Ehrman dares to notice Christians whose prayers spared them, but not their Christian neighbors a few miles away, from a tornado:
There is something adolescent about such complaint; I can hear it like a boy’s breaking voice in my own prose. For anti-theodicy is permanent rebellion. It is not quite atheism but wounded theism, condemned to argue ceaselessly against a God it is supposed not to believe in. Bart D. Ehrman’s new book, “God’s Problem," ... is highly adolescent in tone. Its jabbing subtitle, “How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer,” sounds as if it should be furiously triple-underlined on the dust jacket.
The high-handed sniffing about ceaseless adolescent woundedness would be infinitely more convincing if it came attached to answers to Ehrman's questions. But it doesn't.

It's not enough to say -- as atheists commonly hear -- "you sound so adolescent," as if adolescent were a direct synonym for misguided. Out of the mouths of babes, right?

This anti-atheist trope ("you sound like a whiny teenager") strikes me as a particular instance of the larger pattern of special pleading and double standards that enter into pro-theist arguments, as described recently and cogently by Ophelia Benson here and here.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Pragmatism and Moderation in Islam

Stephen A. Cook:

Given the wildly different criteria for what constitutes “a moderate,” policymakers will run in circles trying to determine who is a moderate and worthy of support, and who is not. One person’s moderate is another person’s radical, and another person’s moderate is little more than a patsy of the West. A policy built on support for moderate Islam is only asking for trouble.

A smarter position is to avoid theological discussions altogether. As with all faiths, there will be heated debates between competing groups within Islam over the proper interpretation of sacred texts and the relationship between religion and politics. Yet because these arguments are so opaque to outsiders, policymakers should resist the urge to jump in. Given that moderation is in the eye of the beholder, Washington should not have an ideological litmus test for whom it wishes to engage. Rather, policymakers should focus on identifying those who can contribute pragmatic solutions to the many problems we confront in the region, “moderate” or not.
Identifying moderates is thorny -- there I agree. I fail to see how identifying "those who can contribute pragmatic solutions" is any easier, and nothing in Cook's article actually sharpens the distinction.

It certainly doesn't help matters that moderates and non-moderates alike always think their programs are eminently pragmatic; the distinction, if it exists, will not come from asking all the moderates and non-moderates to raise their hands if they have pragmatic answers on offer.

I would say that "avoiding theological discussions altogether" is exactly the wrong approach to this, delicate though it may be to do so. One can get a very reliable sense of both moderation and pragmatism from the extent to which a given political figure chooses to ground his political program in the Koran, the hadith, and similar "sacred" sources: the moderate and pragmatic voices will show the greater willingness to see past primitive fables.

(via Andrew Sullivan)

World's Funniest Kangaroo Attack Videos

Count no male kangaroo happy unless he's kicking the crap out of another male kangaroo:



Hey! Let's put a kangaroo on live tee-vee and give it some boxing gloves! What's the worst that could happen?



Not even the forbidding background music and extensive injury report can make the giggling stop over this one:

Cabbage!

Here's a recent photo of the newest cat in the house, Columbus. I still call him Cabbage right up until I pass out from how cute he is.

Lakers Destroyed

I hate to be small and petty, but I don't hate it very much: watching the Boston Celtics crush the Los Angeles Lakers by 39 points last night has now entered the ranks of my most cherished sports moments.

But the news isn't all good. Henceforth, any televised sporting event that does not feature a record-shattering, season-ending collapse of the Lakers (and especially Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson) will have a hard time measuring up. This sets a very high bar indeed.

[photo source]

Sick of Paper Phone Books?

Maybe you're one of the estimated three Americans who enjoys the sight of a new phone book having been dropped unceremoniously in your driveway, soggy from rainwater and filled with phone listings you'll never, ever check.

Just in case you're not enthusiastic about the phone books, here is an online thingy that claims to take you off the distribution list for the major telephone directories.

I can't really vouch for it beyond noting that I haven't received any new phone books in the fifteen minutes since I signed up. That's a start?

(H/T Eyeteeth)

Doing the Collapse

Nicole Jeray has narcolepsy and cataplexy, but she's still a professional golfer:

"I never thought that I had a problem until I started falling to the ground," Jeray said. "Whenever I had emotion, I would get paralyzed and fall to the ground. I mean, I was falling asleep for years before that, and I went to doctors, but nobody ever found anything wrong with me, so I just kept going on."
Fershizzle. Narcolepsy is pretty far down the list of diagnoses that doctors consider probable enough to test for. Common misdiagnoses include schizophrenia, epilepsy, depression, laziness, lack of character, and bad attitude -- not to say any of these is necessarily mutually exclusive of narcolepsy, but still.
Physicians and patients need to be more aware of narcolepsy, Jeray said.

"If every person in the world knew what narcolepsy was, it would be so easily diagnosed," she said. "But the problem is nobody knows. You watch the movie, and you think it's this girl falling asleep in her bowl of soup."
Movie? What movie? Sounds funny! It's funny until you're the one choking in the soup, unable to pull yourself out, reflecting on the absurdity of living this long only to die by drowning in a couple of inches of soup.

Cataplexy has never made me collapse into soup, but that's mostly because so little of my life has been spent hovering above soup in emotionally fraught circumstances. It's a combination of luck and skill, like so many things.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

McSame and the C-Word



And that's not even the worst of it. The man wants to be president and yet he seems very confused about very basic matters -- e.g., he doesn't seem to know what a cap-and-trade system is, even though he says he supports it; he can't seem to decide if he's for or against offshore oil drilling from one speech to the next; and he finds the whole Sunni-Shia thing endlessly baffling.

If John McCain weren't a daffy, potty-mouthed, warmongering Bush clone, he might make a decent choice for president.

Can't we do better?

Points Pedantic & Political

Sigh. A blogger has certain responsibilities, even if pursuing them marks him as a preachy, captious, sniveling Category Five asshole:

  • Do the people who refer to McDonald's as "Mickey D's" realize they are an embarrassment to our entire species? I am convinced that every time an adult human being says "Mickey D's" out loud -- an instance of which I just experienced on a very public stretch of sidewalk, and no it was not an ironic usage -- it silently but ineluctably deducts points in our favor racked up by the likes of Aristotle, Da Vinci, Shakespeare, and Darwin. Refer to the fast-food chain if you must, but please don't give it nicknames.
  • Would people kindly stop using "swathe" when they mean to use "swath"? I won't name the prominent bloggers who have been doing this of late -- I respect them more than that. And by all means don't take my word for it, but check the dictionary yourself: here's swath and here's swathe.
  • Now that I've warmed your hearts with my imperious cavils, I request that you add your name to the ACLU's petition against immunity for law-breaking telecommunications companies. Glennzilla has an excellent write-up of the relevant issues, the current happenings, and why it matters.
Thanks all.

I [Heart] Voltaire

Voltaire on the "Limits of the Human Mind" from his Philosophical Dictionary:

Someone asked Newton one day why he walked when he wanted to, and how his arm and his hand moved at his will. He answered manfully that he had no idea. "But at least," his interlocutor said to him, "you who understand so well the gravitation of the planets will tell me why they turn in one direction rather than in another!" And he again confessed that he had no idea.

Those who taught that the ocean was salt for fear that it might become putrid, and that the tides were made to bring our ships into port (The Abbé Pluche in "The Spectacle of Nature"), were somewhat ashamed when the reply was made to them that the Mediterranean has ports and no ebb. Musschenbroeck himself fell into this inadvertence.

Has anyone ever been able to say precisely how a log is changed on the hearth into burning carbon, and by what mechanism lime is kindled by fresh water?

Is the first principle of the movement of the heart in animals properly understood? does one know clearly how generation is accomplished? has one guessed what gives us sensations, ideas, memory? We do not understand the essence of matter any more than the children who touch its surface.

Who will teach us by what mechanism this grain of wheat that we throw into the ground rises again to produce a pipe laden with an ear of corn, and how the same soil produces an apple at the top of this tree, and a chestnut on its neighbour? Many teachers have said—"What do I not know?" Montaigne used to say—"What do I know?"

Ruthlessly trenchant fellow, wordy pedagogue, meddlesome theorist, you seek the limits of your mind. They are at the end of your nose.

Strategy Requires Defining the Enemy

Oliver Kamm:

The most fundamental decision in western security policy in the past seven years has not been the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. It has been the recognition that the most voluble adversaries of western society are not merely a criminal subculture, and still less an incipient liberation movement. Rather, they are a reactionary, millenarian and atavistic force with whom accommodation is impossible as well as intensely undesirable.
I agree the "voluble adversaries of western society" should not be confused with an "incipient liberation movement." But beyond that, this seems to suggest that "criminal subculture" and "millenarian and atavistic force" are mutually exclusive, but I see no basis for this. Al Qaida and similar groups are precisely all of the above: sprawling, stateless, criminal organizations consisting of reactionary religious zealots with whom compromise is both impossible and undesirable.

The point is important because the strategic approach to combatting terrorism hinges on it. Kamm reveals which kind of war on terror he'd like to see continued:
The grand strategy pursued by the US under Bush has overestimated the plasticity of the international order, but it has got one big thing right. There is an integral connection between the terrorism that targets western societies and the autocratic states in which Islamist fanaticism is incubated.
Kamm wants to target the autocratic states that incubate Islamist movements. But this is an odd statement given that Kamm just told us that "the most fundamental decision in western security policy in the past seven years has not been the overthrow of Saddam Hussein," which sounds like a concession that terminating one of the "autocratic states" has done little to roll back the efforts of the "reactionary, millenarian and atavistic" forces with which Kamm is rightly concerned. And indeed it has not, as even its current champion, General Petraeus, has had to concede.

Bush has not gotten "one big thing" right. His strategy of throwing thoughtless military might into Iraq has been akin to a man holding a hammer who goes in search of a nail. When it comes to fighting terrorism, there are better ideas attached to clearer visions available.

Talking Torture Over Beer

McClatchy Newspapers has been doing some excellent news gathering and reporting, including a new report showing that abuse and torture of Afghan detainees began very early in Bush's war on terror:

The guards kicked, kneed and punched many of the men until they collapsed in pain. U.S. troops shackled and dragged other detainees to small isolation rooms, then hung them by their wrists from chains dangling from the wire mesh ceiling.

Former guards and detainees whom McClatchy interviewed said Bagram was a center of systematic brutality for at least 20 months, starting in late 2001. Yet the soldiers responsible have escaped serious punishment.

The public outcry in the United States and abroad has focused on detainee abuse at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, but sadistic violence first appeared at Bagram, north of Kabul, and at a similar U.S. internment camp at Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan.
In response to one of Bush's rote denials, Andrew Sullivan reminds me of me:
The trouble with having someone with the rigid dry-drunk denial mechanisms of this president is that he simply cannot accept what he is: the first president in the history of the United States to have ordered his underlings to torture prisoners.
I hope all the people who voted for Bush enjoyed that beer they found so easy and charming to visualize having with him.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Mixed Day for Homophobes

There is both good and bad news for homophobes today.

  • Gay people can start marrying today in California. This affords the anti-gay bigot a fresh excuse to throw a poo-flinging snit over gays' terrible, horrible, no good, very bad effects on The Sanctity of Marriage® or whatever.
  • There is new science indicating physiological correlates of homosexuality, further suggesting homosexuality is a biological trait rather than a chosen behavior.

Grammar and its Discontents

Who loves grammar as much as me I? Martha Brockenbrough seems to, as she has collected twelve grammar rules she finds unhelpful. On "that" and "which":

I fed the dog that barked.
I fed the dog, which barked.

...[Y]ou can say "I fed the dog which barked" and still be correct. It sounds a bit more pompous, but it's not wrong, not if we're to go by the example of many accomplished writers.

That said, it's not correct to write, "I fed the dog, that barked." "Which" can go both ways, but "that" can't.
To me, "I fed the dog which barked" sounds wrong, whether or not it sounds pompous. I try to avoid "which" in every case where "that" will serve. On split infinitives:
The ban on split infinitives--those "to-plus-a-verb phrases"--owes its existence to the idea that Latin grammar is superior to English.
Agreed. This holdover from Latin grammar has deranged so many otherwise readable English sentences that it ought to be drawn and quartered, its sections flung to the far corners of the English-speaking world and denied a proper Christian burial. Old school! I really dislike this rule. But lest anyone accuse me of holding to the principle of readability above all:
It Ain't So No. 5: Don't say "hopefully." Say "I'm hopeful" or "It is hoped."
I agree that "I'm hopeful" and "it is hoped" can be disruptive and awkward, but I would like to see "hopefully" go the way of common decency. It doesn't make sense, and how dare an idiom not make sense when unpacked into its literal constituents!!! I would hope we can find alternatives.

The use of "like":
It Ain't So, No. 9: Don't use "like" as a conjunction.

Is it wrong to say, "I feel like a million bucks"? Or is it better to say, "I feel as though I am worth a million bucks"? If you were to say the latter, anyone in earshot would be perfectly justified in making fun of you. It's been used as a conjunction since at least 1200, according to the Oxford English Dictionary [OED].
We have to be careful here. If we insist on dropping "like," either as a conjunction or as an all-purpose conversational gap-filler, large swaths of the English-speaking world will fall silent: much of California, the campus of Reed College, every last hippy. And don't fool yourself -- if the hippies stop talking, they'll just make up for it by playing bongos, and, like, no one needs that.

We Are the Little Green Men We've Been Waiting For

It turns out that some of the chemical constituents of life came from space. This is one of those scientific findings that is begging to be misconstrued and, um, enlarged in the telling (see blog post title), so astronomer Phil Plait has helpfully summarized the high points:

1) Researchers have found that some molecules which are the basis for life on Earth can have an extraterrestrial origin.

2) These molecules survived their impact with Earth.

3) These alien molecules may have been crucial to the development of life on Earth.

4) These needed building blocks of life may have also been formed right here on Earth, so we can’t fly off the handle.

5) Intact life from space — bacteria, viruses, and such — is still just an idea, with no credible supporting evidence.

But the really big point is that this is an amazing and wonderful discovery! It is entirely possible that life here — or at least the necessary components of it — began out there.
Amazing! As Carl Sagan said many times, we are all star-stuff.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sunday Eye-Candy: Air-Diving Rays

From the perspective of the rays, propelling themselves into the air from the water must be akin to diving.





(H/T Deep Sea News)

Odd Flyovers

As I was running the Helvetia Half yesterday, a B-17 flew over. I know! I was at least as aghast and surprised and skeptical as you are! But it happened.

It looked a lot like the one pictured here, although I was seeing it from below rather than from above; I was somewhere around mile 10 when I saw it, so I could not rule out hallucination as the source of the vision, but I know my WWII-era aircraft and trust that hallucinations, should I have them, will produce something better than this.

The B-17 I saw must have been the one referenced in this news story, which also states the plane is only one of a dozen of its kind that still flies.

It was quite a thing to see, but the sound was more noticeable. A fleet of these in formation must have made a truly horrifying din, all the more, of course, if you were one of the Germans foreseeably on the receiving end of the bombs it was flying over to deliver.