Sunday, August 31, 2008

Islam, Rape, and Punishment

Commenter Nazir offers an observation that deserves the attention of people interested in human rights and human civilization:

whether rape alleged woman desreve jailing in islamic society/GOVERNANCE? SINCE; NEITHER AFGAN gOVERNMENT NOR any warring gropu has islamic governance as such replying the question does not arise. yet; in any civilised society where rape is termed as crime irrrespective of gender punishments are also prescribed.
I understand Nazir's native language is probably not English (and there's nothing wrong with that), so I apologize in advance if I have this wrong, but I take this statement as suggesting that punishing women for being raped has no basis in Islam.

This basic argument arises frequently: a skeptic points to an injustice perpetrated in the name of a particular religion, and a believer responds by saying the injustice cannot be blamed on the religion.

Well, in the present case, the blaming of Islam did not originate with the skeptic. It originated with Muslims -- not only Muslims, but Muslim clerics.

As I write this, people claiming to know and represent the traditions and teachings of Islam are punishing women for being raped. It is happening in Afghanistan, and it is also alarmingly widespread in Pakistan, where
the white-bearded judge who convicted [a victim of rape], Anwar Ali Khan, said he had simply followed the letter of the Koran-based law, known as hudood, that mandates punishments.

"The illegitimate child is not disowned by her and therefore is proof of zina," he said, referring to laws that forbid any sexual contact outside marriage. [emphasis mine]
Under really-existing Islamic law, under the purview of recognized authorities in Islam's legal standards, women are being raped and then jailed for it.

Speaking as a skeptic of Islam but more fundamentally as a human being, I say this is a despicable injustice whether "real" or "authentic" or "true" Islam sanctions it or not. If Islam sanctions this barbarity, then Islam is, ipso facto, fundamentally incompatible with human civilization.

If Muslims see this injustice for what it is, and honestly believe the Afghan and Pakistani clerics are abusing their faith, they would be well-served to direct their ire toward those who perpetuate the injustice. To the extent they do not do so, they tend to confirm Islam's complicity in this filthy, inexcusable barbarism.

(H/T Ophelia Benson)

I [Heart] Samantha Bee

As always, The Daily Show and Samantha Bee are spot-on with skewering McSame's selection of Palin.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Wide Stance: Outright Ban on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

The 2008 Republican party platform advocates banning "all embryonic stem-cell research, public or private."

Note those key words: all, public, and private.

So: under the GOP's way of thinking, such as it is, there is a strong right to life that overrides all other considerations. It begins when you're conceived and ends promptly after you're born.

Neat.

Choices and Taxes


For what it's worth, here's a graphical comparison from the Washington Post of the tax plans offered by McCain and Obama. I say it's worth little since the president has only so much control over setting tax rates. Congress will have its say.

Bill Clinton famously pushed through his changes to the tax code without a single Republican vote in Congress, and the first president Bush encountered a Congress eager to force him to eat his idiotic "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge. His judicially-installed son, George W., had the good fortune of a compliant and like-minded Congress for the first six years of his presidency.

A great many Americans are struggling economically. Very few of those, if any, are struggling economically because of the federal taxes they have to pay. But this country's politics are such that candidates who don't promise sweeping tax cuts are doomed, even as the same voters so insistent on receiving this pandering will, in other moods, lip-synch along as the same politicians bewail public debt. Sigh.

We really do have to pick our poisons in life. American politics at the national level, especially in matters of taxing and spending, is a game of forever deferring the picking.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Lady Quayle

McCain's VP choice supports creationism and doesn't think global warming is caused by human activity; naturally she's anti-abortion and anti-gay, but not as radically anti-gay as most of the Wide Stance party. Bravo?

Serious question: is there any remotely credible line of argument that says this person, Sarah Palin, is the most capable, most qualified, most prepared person to be the USA's next vice president? No one else matched or exceeded her promise? Her wealth of talent and experience were being tragically squandered in Juneau?

On the other hand, it's easy to see the crass political calculations behind this: she's a woman who can potentially reach those disaffected Clinton voters (assuming they're very confused); she's a doctrinaire Christianist who can shore up McCain's reputation with the far-right mouth-breathing Christianist hordes; she can endow the Republican ticket with the glow of "history in the making;" did I mention she's female and very, very Christian?

This choice is McCain putting "country first"? This choice embodies a triumph of McCain's sense of duty over his sense of personal ambition?

Wow.

Maybe she'll surprise us all but I am not holding my breath.

Meanwhile, can the Biden-Palin debate possibly offer a moment as great as this one from 1988?



Stay tuned!

Quelle Surprise!

It turns out John McSame's criticisms of Barack Obama's lack of experience, especially on foreign affairs, were completely phony: McSame has picked Alaska governor Sarah Palin to be his vice president.

At 44, Palin is younger than some of McSame's children, served as a small-town mayor before her election as Alaska's governor in 2006, and has no experience with foreign policy. None.

It's worth noting, too, that managing Alaska's state budget is not very difficult as these things go: the state in awash in so much oil money that it actually pays its residents. So while the McSame-Palin ticket can be counted on to promise sweeping but completely unspecified cuts to federal spending, these promises will ring exceptionally hollow even by the enormously low standards of such claims.

Words are words, but this choice makes a strong statement: a person's fitness for the commander-in-chief role bears no relationship to her experience. Perhaps the stronger statement is this: for all the professed concern for foreign policy and victory and honor and so on, McSame's highest priority is to try to attract disaffected Hillary Clinton voters who want to vote for someone with lady-parts. I am no judge of what political gambits will succeed or fail, but that seems like a longshot to me.

Barack Obama has vowed not to accuse his opponent of making important decisions based on cynical political calculations, but I have made no such vow. I think it's clear that McSame has made this choice based on his ambitions, not based on a sober assessment of what's foreseeably best for the United States. If that's not unpatriotic, nothing is.

Of course I could be wrong; I cannot read minds. Perhaps John McCain honestly believes that the person elected governor of Alaska less than two years ago really is the second most qualified person in the USA to be president (or is tied with others in that ranking). It falls to voters to consider the quality of that judgment.

Saddleback - Same Old Christianism

I've probably given Pastor Rick Warren more pixels than he deserves on this precious, precious blog, but for those who think he's some kind of departure from the Kulturkampf Christianism of Falwell, Robertson, Dobson, and the rest, it's worth noting the questions he chose to ask the presidential candidates -- and those he chose not to ask at the Saddleback Forum, in which McCain famously repeated his lie about a cross-in-the-dirt.

As shown in the transcripts (Obama, McCain), Pastor Rick hit on several hotbuttons of the Christian right: abortion (crocodile tears for blastocysts part I); gay marriage; stem cells research (crocodile tears for blastocysts part II); the concrete reality of evil, a way of fishing for the candidates to share his belief that the Devil himself walks among us and is currently reading The Nation or the New York Times; selection of Supreme Court Justices; the rights of faith-based organizations to receive federal funds while discriminating on religious grounds; merit pay for teachers, a way of fishing for support for "school choice," code for destroying public education; religious persecution in Iraq and China and Sudan, i.e., persecution of Christians in those places.

What topics did he not raise? Two big ones that allegedly distinguish him from the raving lunacy of the Christianist right: AIDS and climate change. He just couldn't find time to fit those in. In fact there was nothing about the environment on Pastor Rick's short list that evening. He also couldn't bring himself to mention torture. Or human rights. He did, I'll concede, kinda-sorta address poverty by asking a question about orphans living in faraway places.

In short, Pastor Rick's priorities as revealed in his choice of questions were exactly what we would expect from Falwell, Dobson, Hagee, Robertson, or any such wacko. He said what they'd say but without the southern accent.

The Speech

I'm biased, but I loved every word of Obama's acceptance speech (full text). If he can withstand the trashing that's sure to come from the McSame camp and actually win the presidency, this speech will be long remembered. From the closing:

You know, this country of ours has more wealth than any nation, but that's not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military on Earth, but that's not what makes us strong. Our universities and our culture are the envy of the world, but that's not what keeps the world coming to our shores.

Instead, it is that American spirit, that American promise, that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend.

That promise is our greatest inheritance. It's a promise I make to my daughters when I tuck them in at night and a promise that you make to yours, a promise that has led immigrants to cross oceans and pioneers to travel west, a promise that led workers to picket lines and women to reach for the ballot.

(APPLAUSE) And it is that promise that, 45 years ago today, brought Americans from every corner of this land to stand together on a Mall in Washington, before Lincoln's Memorial, and hear a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream.

(APPLAUSE) The men and women who gathered there could've heard many things. They could've heard words of anger and discord. They could've been told to succumb to the fear and frustrations of so many dreams deferred.

But what the people heard instead -- people of every creed and color, from every walk of life -- is that, in America, our destiny is inextricably linked, that together our dreams can be one.
For all this, the McCain camp will question Obama's love of country.

McCain turns 72 today and seems more and more bitter by the hour; Obama made genuine history last night. I look forward to seeing the contrast between the candidates sharpen as they appear together, in real time, in debates. The fight is on; may the Democrats have the wisdom to treat it as a fight, and as a fight they want to win.

Guys Tangled Up in Blue?

I just heard something that suggests I may have found a new folly to watch for: I overheard a guy report with seeming embarrassment that he would have to wear a blue shirt over blue pants today. I looked, and the blue pants in question were rather typical looking blue jeans. And then another guy chimed in rather uncertainly with, "well, don't feel bad, I am wearing blue and blue today too" or words to that effect. It was talked about almost as though they were talking about having backed over some kittens on the way in to town.

Do guys generally believe that blues don't go together? Do I need to call in the Queer Eye for the Straight Eye cast and stage an intervention?

What ever happened to that show anyway? Not that I ever watched.

Not that there's anything wrong with watching it.

After this, over the course of what seemed like ten minutes but may have been as many as twelve minutes, I checked around for guys who were wearing blue on blue, and didn't see many. As a rule, do guys think putting blues with blues is a fashion minefield akin to putting reds with reds or greens with greens or yellows with yellows?

For the record, fellow guys: it's very difficult to clash with shades of blue. I won't say it's impossible, but it's not easy. Blues get along with other shades of blue quite happily, and the darker blues are considered neutral, much like browns, tans, grays, or blacks.

Not that there's anything wrong with knowing this.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

McSame: The Audacity of Stopping the Count

One of John McCain's key advisors on health care policy, John Goodman, has a novel idea that happens to be exactly the Wide Stance party's answer to votes cast in swing states: stop the counting and declare victory!

“So I have a solution. And it will cost not one thin dime,” Mr. Goodman said. “The next president of the United States should sign an executive order requiring the Census Bureau to cease and desist from describing any American – even illegal aliens – as uninsured. Instead, the bureau should categorize people according to the likely source of payment should they need care. “So, there you have it. Voila! Problem solved.”
Brilliant! You'd think the Democrats would use a little of their free media during the party's national convention to cite this as just one instance of the radicalism and fraudulence of their Wide Stance opponents, but as Glenn Greenwald has accurately and depressingly noted, the DNC's speakers have been somewhere between mild and feckless in their criticisms of the Bush-Cheney-Rove-McCain GOP. Glennzilla:
[T]here is almost no mention of, let alone focus on, the sheer radicalism and extremism of the last eight years. During that time, our Government has systematically tortured people using sadistic techniques ordered by the White House; illegally and secretly spied on its own citizens; broken more laws than can be counted based on the twisted theory that the President has that power; asserted the authority to arrest and detain even U.S. citizens on U.S. soil and hold them for years without charges; abolished habeas corpus; created secret prisons in Eastern Europe and a black hole of lawlessness in Guantanamo; and explicitly abandoned and destroyed virtually every political value the U.S. has long claimed to embrace. ... The overriding impression one has is that the only things really wrong during the last eight years in this country are that gas prices are high and not everyone has health insurance.
Now is the time for full-throated, unapologetic, unwavering condemnation of the despicable and dishonorable direction Bush-Cheney have taken the country, and a clear statement that John McSame promises to continue that direction. That should not be the only message conveyed, but it should be a significant part of it.

Nazir's Nadir

In reply to an earlier post on punishing women for the "crime" of being raped, a commenter I'll call Nazir has a lot to say, some of which makes just enough sense to justify a response.

the learned author has in mistaken impression tried to join the circumstancial occasioning and theology together while commenting on the sex abuse of afgan woman.
Thanks for calling me learned, but I was not the one who joined the theology, the sex abuse, and the jailing together. Instead, the Afghan Colonel quoted in The Independent did all the joining, and I commented on it. Continuing Nazir verbatim:
the woman by nature is sex inclined which all religions including christainity and islam had never denied to her.
How generous of Christianity and Islam to let human nature be what it is! Yes, not just the women but also the men of our species are what you might label "sex inclined," but to say that Islam and Christianity never denied this is an odd statement. Christianity and Islam acknowledge it only to go to great lengths to quash it -- including, to circle back to the present case, the barbarous practice of punishing women for engaging in it at all, even when they had it forced on them. Continuing:
However; in Islam the regularised marriages with breeding the families is the concept which in broader turn means the creating and breeding a responsible society.this; inspite if someone or whole muslims involve themselves into adultry that shall not defat what theoogy had preached.
Whatever all that might mean, how would it justify jailing a woman who had been raped? Continuing:
the free sex concept which also includes extra-marital relations is barred by all religions including christainity and Islam.In islam the woman is not treated a mere sex object but a responsible nodle home point to integrate the family system.
Whatever all that might mean, how would it justify jailing a woman who had been raped? Are you suggesting a woman who has been raped is no longer capable of serving her required Islamic role as a "nodle home point to integrate the family system"? That her "family system" would be better served if she wasted away in jail? How so? What is the evidence for this claim? Look no further for evidence -- gesture vaguely toward Europe and issue the standard cliches:
the said system incidentaly has failed in europe where woman are treated nothing but sex choice and mostly marriage institution got abolished. Extra-marital relations proved medically fatal; although; bigoted books{as held by athiests} had already prohibited it.free sex comcept had serious social consequences and impacts for which european countries take help of sociologists to educate their people to have serious marital relationships and bring up homes.
To summarize that: from one end of the continent of Europe to the other, apparently because women are not jailed after they're raped according to Abrahamic standards, women are treated as nothing but sex toys (implying, apparently, that women even treat themselves and other women as sex toys and only as sex toys); marriage is fading and all but abolished; people are engaging in extra-marital sex and dropping like poisoned flies as a result; and sociologists are being called in as part of a last-ditch effort to salvage what's left of the family.

I haven't been to Europe in quite a while, but does that sound about right to any of my European readers?

And whatever that might mean -- whether my attempted summary does it justice or not -- how would it justify jailing a woman who had been raped? Suppose marriage is declining precipitously, that families are taking non-traditional forms, that extra-marital sex is happening on every clear stretch of sidewalk at all hours, that sociologists are commenting on all of the above, so what? Jailing women for being raped is still sheer savagery.

Besides which, didn't we already establish that women (and men) are "sex inclined" by nature? Is the world, for all this, running short of people? Is Europe, for all this, so terrible a place to be, and if so, why are so many people migrating there from Islamic societies? How is the standard of living so high?

What if -- and this is just a thought -- people in Europe are living the way they want to live, notwithstanding the barbaric barkings of centuries-old fables written by middle-eastern primitives?

Continuing Nazir:
the free sex concept looks irritant to disciplined lady in europe when her husband visits gay clubs or intends to go for gay marriages.
Let's stipulate this is so: that the typical European woman of today becomes irritated when her significant other visits gay clubs and/or marries a gay partner. It follows that the European woman in question has made a rather grave miscalculation about her boyfriend (sadly, it happens), and yet -- and yet -- because she is a free and autonomous individual, she can dump her gay-married boyfriend and move on! Isn't that nice? And no one needed to go to jail, have a limb hacked off in a football stadium, or otherwise pretend that backward fables bear on the situation.
The learned author felt emotionally strange not allowing afgan woman to go for open consented sex looking apparantly different from rape;but failed to appreciate that animal kingdom who had long back adopted free sex concept still limited their positions by not going homosexual; the sex trait ironically under advanced concept and away from God horror present society had legallised and accepted. thanks
I have a hard time making sense of that last part -- it seems to suggest that animals are never homosexual (false!) but have hindered their advancement, presumably to personhood, by practicing free sex. Um ... neat? What corner of the Koran was that bit of nonsense pulled from? Not that it matters, since the Koran does not matter, and not that the answer will foreseeably justify jailing a woman for having been raped.

No, Nazir, thank you.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

My Turn

I got a speeding ticket today, the first speeding ticket in my entire long career as a shitty careful driver.

I didn't argue, I didn't make smart-alecky faces, I didn't claim my speedometer had been sabotaged, nor did I invent a pitiable tale of having to get home in time to save the puppies from the chainsaw or whatever. I said very little, in fact. When Officer Not-Quite-Friendly asked me if I knew how fast I had been going, I answered honestly that no, I didn't know, but that I had been keeping up with the rest of the traffic around me. And that's the weird thing -- I was in a grouping of cars that were all moving at the same speed. Why me? Have I turned black or something?

I had it coming. I was speeding, and, um, it's not the first time I've exceeded the posted speed limit since the late-middle-1980s when I first took the wheel (legally). Call it the law of averages, call it kismet, call it fate, call it a turn o' the wheel of fortune.

It will cost me $206 of the best dollars I have had. And I'd rather not think about what it will do to my insurance rates from this point forward.

RIP Kevin Duckworth

I can't believe I just learned of the death of former Portland Trailblazer Kevin Duckworth. He's not only a prominent member of the great Blazers teams from the early 1990s (before it all went to pot) but the only Blazer I've ever managed to encounter around town: I once saw him making his way through the Lloyd Center. He was a very large human!

He was a very good player and, from everything I ever heard, a solid member of the community. We Blazer fans have lost one of the good ones.

(photo source)

Handy Resources for Obama Supporters

The ever-indispensable Media Matters has assembled an interesting interactive tool providing context and corrections to the smears currently arrayed against Barack Obama, "Swiftboating 2.0":

As the means of communication have evolved, presidential campaigns have grown increasingly multifaceted, with each election featuring layers of complexity that were not present four years before. The most striking feature of the 2008 election may be the sheer volume and variation of the attacks being directed at Sen. Barack Obama. Though they come from many sources, arrive through a variety of media, and cover a wide range of subjects, a close examination reveals a unified thematic structure to these attacks.
Here is the interactive version. Here is the text-only version.

Of course the Obama campaign maintains its own site dedicated to counteracting the massive waves of bullshit coming from the right, Fight the Smears.

There may be valid reasons for voting for McCain over Obama, but surely any self-respecting voter will make the choice based on the best available information, not a pack of distortions.

Mindreading McSame

Ed Brayton refers to a very pro-choice-sounding John McCain from 1999 and muses:

I've said all along that the religious right is correct not to trust McCain. He isn't one of them and he never has been. He's been frantically pandering to them for the last few years because he knows he has to do so to have any chance of winning the presidency, but that isn't what he really believes. His real beliefs were stated when he called Falwell and Robertson "agents of intolerance." He's not really anti-abortion, nor is he a particularly religious man at all.
With all due respect to Ed Brayton, whose analysis and writing I treasure, I have no idea how he can speak so authoritatively on what John McCain really believes. I certainly agree McCain has a pronounced tendency to speak on both sides of major policy questions, especially over the long expanse of his public career, but that underscores the futility of trying to divine "the real McCain."

We know McCain wants to be president -- he's been extremely consistent there -- and we know what he has promised to do if he gets what he wants. I see no reason to pretend he's more moderate than his stated policy choices indicate; surely one of the lessons of the Bush-Cheney disaster is to assume these moderate-sounding noises are just that, noises emitted for the sake of the campaign.

Certainly McCain has gone to great lengths to pander to the religious right, not least in his very public promises to nominate Supreme Court Justices in the mold of Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and Roberts, which is a pretty unmistakable dogwhistle that he'll nominate people who will overturn Roe vs. Wade and otherwise curtail reproductive freedoms and privacy rights. And dogwhistles aside, he's made absolutely no secret of his views on abortion rights:
"I have stated time after time after time that Roe v Wade was a bad decision, that I support a woman — the rights of the unborn — that I have fought for human rights and human dignity throughout my entire political career," McCain said. "To me, it's an issue of human rights and human dignity."
He has been equally clear on his promises to stop not only gay marriage but gay civil unions. On the evolution-creationism divide, McCain has taken the pro-creationism "let them hear both sides" position quite clearly -- note the explicit agreement with unabashed Christianist Mike Huckabee:
I believe that’s up to the school districts. But I think that every American should be exposed to all theories. But I can’t say it more eloquently than Pastor Huckabee — Governor Huckabee just did, and I admire his description, because I hold that view.

The point is that the time before time — there’s no doubt in my mind that the hand of God was in what we are today. And I do believe that we are unique, and I believe that God loves us. But I also believe that all of our children in school can be taught different views on different issues. But I leave the curricula up to the school boards.
Again, leaving it up to local school boards is the Christianist position, their preferred means of inserting creationism into science classes.

Last but not least, McCain has agreed with the foundational claim of the Christianists:
I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation.
There's no need to read the man's mind. He's promises a continuation of Bush-Cheney on all significant fronts, and we have every reason to assume he will do so if elected.

Hillary Clinton Returns Strongly

Notwithstanding the efforts of political pundits to wring out and gin up every hint of Clinton-Obama tension in hopes of restoring last spring's highest-rated reality-based melodrama, Hillary Clinton's speech to the Democratic National Convention said everything it needed to say, especially this:

I want you to ask yourselves: Were you in this campaign just for me? Or were you in it for that young Marine and others like him? Were you in it for that mom struggling with cancer while raising her kids? Were you in it for that young boy and his mom surviving on the minimum wage? Were you in it for all the people in this country who feel invisible?

We need leaders once again who can tap into that special blend of American confidence and optimism that has enabled generations before us to meet our toughest challenges. Leaders who can help us show ourselves and the world that with our ingenuity, creativity and innovative spirit, there are no limits to what is possible in America.

Now, this will not be easy. Progress never is. But it will be impossible if we don't fight to put a Democrat back into the White House. ...

We are Americans. We're not big on quitting.

But remember, before we can keep going, we have to get going by electing Barack Obama the next president of the United States.

We don't have a moment to lose or a vote to spare.
Exactly. Clinton campaigned on the basis of policy choices that are almost identical to those of Barack Obama and very different from those of John McCain. Those Clinton supporters who favored that cause should support Barack Obama because he will pursue that same cause; whereas those Clinton supporters for whom Clinton herself was the cause -- because she's has lady-parts, because of some regional affiliation, because she downs a shot of Crown Royal for the cameras, because she is married to Bill Clinton, and yes, I'll say it, because she's white -- they have lost their cause for now.

Melodrama and interpersonal spats aside, Barack Obama is now the standard-bearer for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party. John McCain is the standard-bearer for George W. Bush and the Republican party. That's the truth, and that's the choice, and I thank Hillary Clinton for stating it so clearly for her supporters and for all Americans within earshot.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Buttons McCain Won't Wear


For my part, I know the answer and I want one of the buttons!

(H/T Eyeteeth)

Stereolab Videos!

Here's a quite possibly official video of "Three Women" from the new album, Chemical Chords.



And here's "Neon Beanbag" played live and fast.



Go ahead and try not to like them. I don't think it's possible.

Finding Gossip and Love in All the Wrong Places

While I remain convinced that this whole internet thing is bound to catch on, recent days have brought instances of a couple of the sillier stigmas still attached to it. To wit:

  • Would you be shocked to learn that college students, whether they are on a university campus or enrolled in an online college, are trading in mean-spirited, unsubstantiated, unfair, deeply personal, potentially damaging gossip about one another? I wouldn't. I think this sort of thing goes back to the very beginnings of college students, and indeed, I would not be a bit surprised to learn that vicious gossip among young adults predates the inception of the modern university system by, oh, something on the order of a hundred thousand years. All well and good, but I hope you're seated because yesterday's Talk of the Nation broadcast discussed the fact that this exact sort of gossip has now begun appearing on the internets! Surely the end is nigh.

    The conversation passed into the ninth level of the absurd when one of the participants noted that most people have enough common sense to receive anonymous online postings, especially ones betraying obvious personal biases and agendas, with some skepticism; to which another participant responded by noting that in many such cases, people close to the situation know there is some truth to the accusations, back-stabbing, and assorted calumny. So ... if they already know of the situations described and the characters involved, the evil internets have added exactly what to the situation?

  • My calendars indicate we are well into the second half of 2008 CE, but apparently it's still too soon for couples to stop feeling ashamed for having met online. After confessing with evident embarrassment that he met his wife in an online dating forum, an unnamed party I'll call M* felt it necessary to declare "it's just as good as meeting someone in a bar." Well, it depends, doesn't it? What sort of bar are we talking about? And what sort of online dating forum? Bars tend to attract and coalesce around certain kinds of people -- there are biker bars, hipster bars, gay bars, swinger bars, sports bars, bars that serve as the barely-concealed entry points to brothels, and so on. Likewise, there are online match-making sites intended for widely various audiences, tastes, and self-descriptions. Is any bar hookup less unseemly than any online meetup? Really? I don't think so.
It's 2008 and humans are much as they were centuries before. The internet is still new and sometimes alarming, but I wonder just how much of the hype is justified as assessed on the level of basic human experience. For all the breathless excitement and fevered worries of the panters aligned on a rather familiar pro and con axis, it seems to me that people and people's problems are much as they have been, whether or not rendered in pixels and HTML.

----------------
* I feel obliged to confine my more detailed and incriminating revelations about M to the bathroom's graffiti wall, the calling circle, the employee lounge, and the water cooler; I would hate to think of the catastrophic consequences of releasing any of it to the internets.

Humanist Symposium Twenty Four

The 24th Humanist Symposium is up at Uncredible Hallq and I promise there's nothing about the Hood to Coast there. Do read that and don't be shy about contributing your own entry to the next edition to be hosted at Freethought Fort Wayne.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Underappreciated Beast: The Marine Iguana

The fantasies of cryptozoology have nothing on the realities of the marine iguana. Consider some of its ridiculousness:

  • It's a lizard that feeds on bugs? No. Greens? No. It dives into the seas around the Galapagos Islands and chews algae from the rocks.
  • Because it spends so much time in sea water, it tends to get clogged with sea salt. So what does it do? Forcefully expels the sea salt from its nostrils -- that's right, this lizard does sea salt snot rockets!
  • Charles Darwin himself seems to have been very amused by them, treating them as a stoned teenager might treat an ugly dog. Read this passage from The Voyage of the Beagle and feel free to insert 'dude' and 'totally' and plenty of snickering:
    [T]hey will sooner allow a person to catch hold of their tails than jump into the water. They do not seem to have any notion of biting; but when much frightened they squirt a drop of fluid from each nostril. I threw one several times as far as I could, into a deep pool left by the retiring tide; but it invariably returned in a direct line to the spot where I stood. It swam near the bottom, with a very graceful and rapid movement, and occasionally aided itself over the uneven ground with its feet. As soon as it arrived near the edge, but still being under water, it tried to conceal itself in the tufts of sea-weed, or it entered some crevice. As soon as it thought the danger was past, it crawled out on the dry rocks, and shuffled away as quickly as it could. I several times caught this same lizard, by driving it down to a point, and though possessed of such perfect powers of diving and swimming, nothing would induce it to enter the water; and as often as I threw it in, it returned in the manner above described. Perhaps this singular piece of apparent stupidity may be accounted for by the circumstance, that this reptile has no enemy whatever on shore, whereas at sea it must often fall a prey to the numerous sharks. Hence, probably, urged by a fixed and hereditary instinct that the shore is its place of safety, whatever the emergency may be, it there takes refuge.

(H/T PZ Myers)

Hood to Coast 2008 - Miscellany & Review

Team. I couldn't have hoped for a friendlier team than Team Run Like the Wynn, consisting of Holly, Brad, Michelyn, Anna, Roy, Abu, Priscilla, Chet, Mike, Robin, and Lisa. I didn't really know any of them before the race, and now, even after I know how they all smell after a long run or three, I like them. There was no squabbling, plenty of humor and mutual support, and a laid-back approach to all things good, bad, and inbetween.

Roosters. I had forgotten how loud a rooster can be, but I was reminded somewhere along my second leg, around 4am somewhere in the pitch black night in the outskirts of St. Helens, when a rooster decided it was damn well morning enough and that everyone within six country miles needed to know it. With my iPod blaring I couldn't hear vans driving by, I couldn't hear my own footfalls nor the footfalls of others, but I could hear that rooster clearly. I am glad I have plenty of experience with roosters because the calls it was emitting were not classically roosterish sounds; I can imagine a rooster-inexperienced person being a little unhorsed by the experience there in the predawn hours of nowhere.

Sleep. I'm still recovering from the lost sleep and still somewhat puzzled over how I got by with so little. I suppose I have no right to be surprised; it's not as though I often challenge myself to stay awake for long stretches of time. Yet while it was happening, I was struck at how routine it felt. Yes, I was sleepy, but it felt more or less the same as the kind of sleepy I always feel tugging at me -- I felt no sleepier en route to leg two at 2am Saturday morning than I had felt en route to leg one at 4:30pm Friday afternoon. I did notice that, compared with the teammates, I seemed better able to handle getting up at 2am after our 90-minute night's sleep, judging from the quiet of the van en route to the van exchange.

Driving. I live in terror of being asked to drive one of the vans during a H2C -- given the vagaries of my sleep patterns and the volatility of schedule of an H2C, I don't want to be behind the wheel. If anyone could ever find a way to get us lost despite all the maps and strong visual hints (such as the long procession of H2C-decorated minivans), and if anyone could find a way to create a 36-minivan pile-up from 36 minivans that had been traveling at or below 5MPH in an orderly line, that would be me. I should never, ever drive in this event. If we're down to my driving or walking on blistered feet, we should walk. Hey, we're distance runners, aren't we?

So in that connection I can't speak highly enough of getting yourself on a team that includes a husband and wife who happen to own the very same kind of minivan that everyone rents for this event (Dodge Grand Caravan), and who are willing and experienced in driving it. Shout out and huzzahs to teammates Mike and Lisa!

Congestion. I think the lack of sleep was pretty widespread in this H2C and fits with the overall impression that this H2C field was unusually crowded and the van backups were unusually long. Compared with previous years, we spent more time in traffic and less time at our destinations, and that cut into the time available for little things like sleeping, eating, portable-toileting, and stretching. I wonder if the race coordinators let a few extra teams slip in this year? There are advantages and disadvantages to expanding the field, but I have to think we were very close to the maximum carrying capacity this year. These are narrow country roads.

Volunteers. The volunteers were fabulous and I thank them all. Their red shirts were beacons of hope -- running around a corner in the middle of nowhere and seeing a red shirt meant you were close to the finish of your leg, and as if that weren't enough, they were the ones directing traffic (human and van), keeping increasingly sleep-deprived runners pointed the right direction, pointing out parking spots, enforcing rules, and otherwise maintaining order.

Locals. The people along the way were of two kinds: out of the way or unfailingly nice. This is excellent given that this event has to be a huge pain in the ass for anyone who lives along the course. Of course this event would be impossible without the generosity of the people who open up their properties for use as temporary parking lots.

Portable Toilets. The Honey Buckets were, as always, bulwarks of civilization. In every H2C, there are certain teams that share your same start time and maintain roughly your same pace, so you see them at exchange after exchange. This year, the Honey Bucket men were an unexpected addition to that category. Their very foul-smelling and extremely necessary maintenance truck seemed to arrive at every exchange at about the same time as our van did, so we got plenty of opportunities to see them at their duty, using their powerful vaccum pumps to suckle those basins dry and carry the offal to places we don't want to visit in nightmares. A big tip of the hat to them.

Crazy Fast

American Olympian Ryan Hall ran a 2:12 marathon in Beijing, an extremely fast marathon by any human standard, and it got him only a 10th place finish. Something of the race's amazing pace is captured in this factoid:

The lead pack passed five kilometers in 14:34, fast enough to win last week's women's 5,000 meters on the track by more than a minute. Yet these guys still had 23 miles to go.
A minute ahead of the Olympic champion in the women's 5K with another 37K and change to go? Even more unbelieveable is that they stayed within 10 seconds per mile of that same pace all the way to the finish, with Kenyan Samuel Kamau Wanjiru breaking the Olympic record and winning the gold in 2:06.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Ponca City Makes the WaPo!

Well dog my cat! Ponca City, Oklahoma has been mentioned in a newspaper that is not printed in Ponca City, Oklahoma!

Who was Obama's mother? The shorthand version of the story has a woman from Kansas marrying a man from Kenya, but while Stanley Ann Dunham was born in Wichita in the fall of 1942, it is a stretch to call her a Jayhawk. After leaving Kansas when she was a youngster, she and her parents lived in Berkeley, Calif., for two years, Ponca City, Okla., for two years, and Wichita Falls, Tex., for three years before they ventured to the Seattle area. [emphasis mine]
For whatever it's worth, I probably would not have bothered typing out the whole of "Oklahoma" either -- I mean, why bother? People will have forgotten which state that is by the time they reach the "ma."

Behold the cities with which Ponca City is rubbing shoulders in that passage -- Wichita, Kansas; Berkeley, California; Wichita Falls, Texas; Seattle, Washington -- each and all places people have heard about! Well, except Wichita, Kansas and Wichita Falls, Texas. No one has heard of those.

That a prominent newspaper such as the Washington Post has, in at least an indirect way, acknowledged the existence of Ponca City, Oklahoma is almost the sort of small fact that can make the difference in a foreseeably close election. Almost.

(H/T to far-flung correspondent Shane)

Hood to Coast 2008: More or Less Awake & Running

I slept for a grand total of two hours between rising Friday morning at 6am and collapsing Saturday night at 11:30pm, and in that long interim I served as the leg 7 runner for another Hood to Coast experience. It was fun? It was fun!

The leg by leg breakdown:

Leg 7: I got started at 6:13pm under sunny and humid conditions, and it was clear I had misjudged the heat and my hydration when I was already feeling drymouth within the first 200 yards. Fortunately my team handed me a water bottle a couple of miles in, so I drank some and sloshed the rest on myself over the remaining hilly miles in the countryside near Sandy, and arrived at the finish at 6:53. I was pleasantly surprised at the time I had made on this 5.69-mile leg -- it felt slower than the 7:05 mile/minute pace.

Leg 19: This was to be the leg where I would either make or squander my fame and fortune -- 5.89 miles and rated "very hard" over the hills near St. Helens, Oregon. Feeling refreshed after a 90-minute cat nap on teammate Mike's recliner chair and rejuvenated by the perversity of the 3:49am start time, I ran it in a total of 42 minutes (7:08 pace).

Leg 31: This was supposed to be the easy leg, "moderate"-rated, flat, and only 4 miles, but of course it was leg three, and I had somehow contrived not to get any sleep. Moreover it was hot (low 80s) and very sunny again by my 1:04pm start time, but I pushed pretty hard and came in at 27:30, for a 6:52 pace.

While I didn't run as fast as I ran in last year's H2C, I did set a personal best for road-kills (+1 for passing another runner, -1 for being passed): +13 on my first leg, +14 on my second leg, and +22 on my last leg, for a grand total of +49. There were three instances where I served as the road-kill for much faster runners, all three occurring in the second leg. Those guys were fast, and hats off to them.

There's more to tell about this H2C experience but my mind is still pretty addled from the long weekend of sleeplessness, stench, baby-wipe baths, portable toilets, and so on. For now I'm getting some more sleep.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Prager Prates

Professional whiner Dennis Prager allows himself to face the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad prospect that there is no god, and pretends to mark the consequences, none of which deserve the pixels spent displaying them, but, well, what's stupid for if not rebutting?

3. Life is ultimately a tragic fare if there is no God. We live, we suffer, we die – some horrifically, many prematurely – and there is only oblivion afterward.
That's a rather stark way of putting it, but fair enough. That something is emotionally distressing does not make it false. A better way to think about the same reality is to recognize that we only have this little time with which to work, so we have to make the best of things -- relieve what suffering we can, right as many wrongs as we can, cancel as many tragedies as we can, live as fully as possible, leave a beautiful and/or interesting corpse.
4. Human beings need instruction manuals. This is as true for acting morally and wisely as it is for properly flying an airplane. One's heart is often no better a guide to what is right and wrong than it is to the right and wrong way to fly an airplane. The post-religious secular world claims to need no manual; the heart and reason are sufficient guides to leading a good life and to making a good world.
Sweet Jeebus H. Rove, where do I begin?!? I merely ask everyone to bookmark this spot on the internets for the sake of the next time you encounter the claim that believers don't treat the Bible (or the Koran) as some kind of authoritative "instruction manual" for life. Unaccountably prominent radio blatherer Dennis Prager just put the matter exactly that way: without following the assorted instructions set forth in the Bible, we're lost.

Poor pixels. They deserve better.

(via Ed Brayton)

Make Your Choices Hobson's, Not Hobbesian

There are Hobson's choices but, apparently, not Hobbesian choices. Please make a note of it lest you face the brutal snickers and cutting japes of usage nerds.

Ahem, present company included. And yet I don't think I knew that; I'm pretty sure I would have sided with Hobbesian choice over Hobson's choice had I not been corrected in the matter by Bpaul. I am pleased to be corrected.

For all this, I am quite sure I have seen Hobbesian choice in print many times -- as an idiom intended to mean the same thing as the idiom Hobson's choice, not as a colorful way of bringing anecdotes about Thomas Hobbes into a discussion; it certainly turns up in the googles plenty of times, and rarely for the sake of being cited as a solecism. So what's the word for a mistake that has been used so often that it becomes normalized? Bushism?

Irregardless in the place of regardless will never be normalized on my watch. Never. Not if I live to be 992.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Are Oil Prices Rigged?

The question of whether oil prices are rigged may turn on another question: when buyers and sellers negotiate over the price of oil, where do they look for price signals?

The case for yes, they're rigged, as advanced by Ari Officer and Garrett Hayes, seems to hinge on this claim:

[T]he vast majority of oil consumed in the world is purchased through private deals, given the massive undertaking of physically delivering millions of barrels. However, a series of private deals cannot establish a market price. Because pricing in the futures market is transparent, in that trade activity is publicly available, it establishes the widely accepted benchmark for the price of oil. In other words, the futures market serves as the price discovery mechanism for the oil the world consumes.
The case for no, it's not rigged, as advanced by Paul Krugman, goes this way:
Imagine that Joe Shmoe and Harriet Who, neither of whom has any direct involvement in the production of oil, make a bet: Joe says oil is going to $150, Harriet says it won’t. What direct effect does this have on the spot price of oil — the actual price people pay to have a barrel of black gunk delivered?

The answer, surely, is none. Who cares what bets people not involved in buying or selling the stuff make? And if there are 10 million Joe Shmoes, it still doesn’t make any difference.

Well, a futures contract is a bet about the future price. It has no, zero, nada direct effect on the spot price. And that’s true no matter how many Joe Shmoes there are, that is, no matter how big the positions are.
Presumably the spot price is negotiated on the basis of something, but if the actual deals are as closed as Officer and Hayes suggest, Krugman's distinction between spot deals and bets becomes hard to maintain.

This seems like an empirical question. Does someone have the answer?

It's Been Too Long

It has been far, far too long since I posted this historic image depicting a snake that has somehow contrived to wrap a handsome man's nasal cavity around its body. Snakes are so clever! (It's even in the Bible!)

This is also a note to say I will be out in the wilderness for the next day or two and away from the internets, so activity on this precious, precious blog will be limited to a few scheduled posts I've placed in the chute. I should be back to my regular blogging habits, such as they are, by Sunday.

Meanwhile, let us all mourn a little for that snake.

Distance Between Church and State

Perhaps Americans are coming around to the wisdom of "being careful what you ask for" when it comes to churches meddling in the affairs of the state?

A new survey finds a narrow majority of the public saying that churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters and not express their views on day-to-day social and political matters. For a decade, majorities of Americans had voiced support for religious institutions speaking out on such issues.
I withhold further snarks and simply say this is good.

Hood to Coast 2008: Live-Blogging the Overpacking

As it was exactly this moment a year ago, I am preparing to depart for the Hood to Coast experience and wrestling with my strong predilection for overpacking.

This year it's even more acute because the weather has been so variable of late: 100+ temperatures a week ago today, 60s and rainy in recent days. Sure, the forecasts indicate clear skies and temperatures in the 70s and 80s for daytime highs, but what do they know?

Are they sure it won't rain? Are they sure they're sure?

What's going to be the best thing to wear between legs? How cold will it be at night?

"What if" and "just in case" really overload a duffle.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

McSame: The Audacity of Counting Residences

I wasn't going to post on this latest gaffe in the presidential campaign, but judging from the way it is circulating via e-mail, it seems to have seized people's attention and interest more than the typical meme of the day, and, well, a blogger has certain responsibilities:

When asked, the humble, salt-of-the-earth, man-of-the-people John McCain can't seem to state how many residences he owns.



All's fair in pig-wrestling, I suppose, but there's something exceedingly phony about millionaire elites squabbling with one another over which of them is the more convincing pauper. I gather they would correct that to say which of them is the more convincing champion of paupers. That said, if we must have class-based populism, it's nice to see it center on class, not cultural affinities.

Hood to Coast: Tents are an Abomination

I hate to be a buzz-kill for people who love tents, but it turns out that tents are forbidden in the Hood to Coast:

Teams or participants found using tents at designated sleeping areas will be asked to dismantle them and risk dq. Tents take up valuable space for others to sleep.
I think dq is shorthand for disqualification. I can understand the desire not to type that whole word -- it's very wearying, which is to say, wryg (also a common Welsh word for all I know; more on what I know and don't know presently).

Unlike so many of the commandments of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which set forth dq-worthy offenses without providing a rationale -- don't eat owls, period; stone disobedient children to death, period -- it's nice that the Hood to Coast rule-makers see fit to provide a reason for their rules. Tents take up valuable space, they say, and that's why we will dq your sorry butt -- nay, your entire team's entire sorry butt! -- if you dare use one.

I felt it my duty to bring attention to this rule for anyone out there using this blog as a primary source of information about the Hood to Coast. Speaking of whom, anyone using this blog as a primary source of information about the Hood to Coast should stop doing that and use the official site instead. I have no idea what I'm talking about! Just yesterday I was blabbering on about tents as though their use would not risk dq!

McSame: The Audacity of Running for Bush's Third Term

Even though it's plainly true, John McCain and his supporters tend to bristle at the suggestion that McCain is in lockstep with George W. Bush on every important public policy matter facing the country. But in other moods, McCain embraces the sameness:

[McCain] declined to outwardly criticize Bush and flatly stated that he wouldn’t do anything as president to underscore his difference with the unpopular incumbent.

“I don’t have any need to show that I’m different than President Bush,” McCain said when asked if he'd take any steps after being elected to demonstrate where he’d diverge from his predecessor. [emphases mine]
McSame went on to make a pledge that should sound emetically familiar to anyone who has observed American politics for the last several years -- he promised he'll play nice while pursuing the exact same policy agenda as Bush-Cheney:
McCain made plain, however, that he would aim to take a far more transparent and consensus-oriented approach than Bush, whose promise to be a uniter, not a divider, was unfulfilled.

“First thing I’d do [as president] is to go to see the speaker of the House and the majority leader of the Senate — I assume that that would be Sen. Reid, I hope not, but I think that’s probably the reality of this election — and I would say, 'Let’s have an agenda, let’s work together. We know what the solutions are, and we know what the options are — Social Security, on restraining spending, on Medicare, on all of these, energy independence, on all of these issues,'” McCain said when asked how his approach to governance and politics would differ from Bush.
If we recall and reflect on Bush's 2000 campaign, we see that McCain's 2008 campaign is more of the same of more of the same, nearly to the punctuation marks. In 2000, Bush pledged to be a uniter, not a divider; he pledged to restore honor and dignity to the White House; he pledged to bring a needed measure of civility to partisan divides; he pledged to be a different kind of conservative, a "compassionate conservative." All of the above proved to be ruinously false.

Will Americans play the suckers to the same pitch yet again?

Bush's approval ratings have declined steadily over the course of his presidency, as it has become more and more clear with each passing month that his pledges to play nice were false, merely the pleasing mask he donned to win campaigns. Over that same period, as popular opinion of Bush descended, McCain's closeness to Bush increased. The video says it all:



(via Yglesias)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Hood to Coast 2008 - Sloppy Wet?

The current 10-day forecast (via) for this general vicinity calls for rain today, rain tomorrow, and clearing Friday, but since weather forecasting has not advanced beyond coin-tossing, entrails-reading, darts-thrown-at-a-wall-of-balloons, or similar forms of sheer guessing for this general vicinity, we must face the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad prospect of a wet, sloppy, rainy Hood to Coast 2008, which begins Friday and carries into Saturday.

Or would it be so terrible? Running in the rain is a joy, but of course, the H2C is more about the 20+ hours spent not running -- time spent festering in a minivan with five increasingly foul-smelling teammates, trying but failing to catch some sleep, wishing there was something to eat other than the meager provisions you thought sounded good a day before, gazing upon the spectacle as a whole and marveling at its defiance of common sense. It's exactly like Cormac McCarthy's The Road only with more people, more minivans, fewer makeshift weapons, fewer rickety shopping carts, slightly less rummaging and pilfering, and a medal and team photo at the end instead of [++++++++++++++++ SPOILER ALERT ++++++++++++++++] the death of your sole companion followed by adoption by a new family of wandering survivors.

[++++++++++++++++ END SPOILER ALERT ++++++++++++++++]

As I was saying, will it be so terrible to have a H2C in the rain and mud? It would tend to keep us inside the vans more and wandering around less. I would expect a musty rain or 'wet dog' smell to mingle with the sweat-and-topical-analgesic mix we can already anticipate. I would expect a pervasive wetness to seize everything inside the van and out, thus an increased risk of chafing. There would be selective pressures favoring rain-resistant clothes, rain-resistant sleeping bags, and tents. I would expect greater urgency to the comments, facial expressions, and body language asking "Now why again are we putting ourselves through this?"

Bring the rain!

McCain Apologetics Pwned.

David Brooks repeats a not quite believable lament about the nasty direction the McCain campaign has taken of late:

McCain and his advisers have been compelled to adjust to the hostile environment around them. They have been compelled, at least in their telling, to abandon the campaign they had hoped to run. Now they are running a much more conventional race, the kind McCain himself used to ridicule.

The man who lampooned the Message of the Week is now relentlessly on message (as observers of his fine performance at Saddleback Church can attest). The man who hopes to inspire a new generation of Americans now attacks Obama daily. It is the only way he can get the networks to pay attention.
To which hilzoy replies with a rare degree of pwnage:
But let's pretend, just for the sake of argument, that they are right to say that the only way to win, this year, is by taking the low road. Would that mean that they have to take it? Of course not. That means you have a choice between honor and ambition; between running a decent campaign and a sordid one; between being a candidate the country can be proud of and being a candidate who contributes to the degradation and trivialization of political discourse.

You would have no choice only if you assumed that your own ambitions were more important than your honor.
I believe that would be game, set, and match, especially given the centrality of the "country first" theme in McCain's own campaign, of a piece with his bizarre accusations that Barack Obama has ambition. That said, one of my favorite aphorisms of Nietzsche applies here:
Life no argument.— We have arranged for ourselves a world in which we can live—by positing bodies, lines, planes, causes and effects, motion and rest, form and content; without these articles of faith nobody now could endure life. But that does not prove them. Life is no argument. The conditions of life might include error.
Counted votes, not arguments, win elections.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Borders is "Probably" Worthless, or, A Stereolab-Related Lament

This being release day in the USA for the new Stereolab album, Chemical Chords (amazon), I took time from my ongoing dawdling to seek a copy of the CD at the downtown Portland Borders book and music and coffee and cards and magazines and etcetera store. I fully expected to pay the fullest possible retail, but being one of the last seven or eight suckers people who actually buys music CDs, and being a sucker for big fan of Stereolab, I was willing to pay it.

Alas it was not on the shelves. It was not to be found on the shelf touting new releases, nor was it in the Stereolab tab of the pop/rock section. I wandered around looking lost, but on this day, the several dozen store employees who fill their work hours doing goodness-knows-what were in full cockroach mode, fleeing the sight of me. I checked their "title sleuth" kiosk, which is a poorly-concealed PC running a web browser attached to the Borders store database, which cheerfully assured me that the CD was "probably in stock" or words to that effect, words I found to be more than "probably" unhelpful.

I bought the CD from another store, one that does actually give the impression of trying to sell music to the last few of us who buy it: Everyday Music on Burnside. They not only had it, but at a reasonable price, and in exactly the spot in the store where one would expect to find it -- filed under Stereolab in pop/rock.

I expect to have these fourteen new songs permanently stored in my mental inventory of Stereolab by this time tomorrow. I expect also to find less and less reason to enter Borders from this point forward, "probably" no reason at all, unless I'm just feeling especially self-hating (which usually impels me to enter Ross instead).

Star Wars Episode 2.5: The Attack on the Viewer

Matt Yglesias has posted on something I had hoped to forget, the new Star Wars film The Clone Wars, to which my son dragged me last weekend.

The popcorn was good, but oh dear gawd did the movie ever suck. Well, not in every last way -- it was animated, and the style of animation lends itself to the kinds of action that nine-year-old boys, and sometimes their fathers, are drawn to: profusions of laser blasts going every which way, light saber duels, exploding mechanical beasts, endless impossible feats of tumbling.

The story made little sense, failed utterly to give viewers any reason to care about the dramatic outcome or the fate of the characters -- insofar as these fates were a matter of suspense, this story wedging somewhere between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith -- and was borne aloft on embarrassingly bad dialogue. It bore the stamp of George Lucas, in other words.

One Lucasian flaw was particularly acute in this film: the ability of Jedi Knights to anticipate the activities of robots. I don't see how this can work. The force, as I understand it, is some kind of transcendent thingy that flows through all living things, and Jedis are set apart for their ability to wield and manipulate it: they can read and influence the thoughts of man and beast, remotely sense the presence of other life forms, especially other Jedi-eligible life forms who are "strong in the force." So Darth Vader can know that Luke Skywalker is close by and vice-versa, Yoda can anticipate the saber parries of the Emperor before they happen, etc. Utter bullshit, but fair enough for a fantasy film franchise. It has never made sense to me how such a thingy should provide even the most force-endowed person with insights into the future actions of a robot, and yet Jedis routinely deflect the laser blasts of robots, detect robots before they're visible, and so on.

Are there any Star Wars geeks out there who would care to clear this up for me? I could probably google it but I'm too busy complaining.

Standards Corroborated

Ross Douthat calls out Andrew Sullivan but his criticisms apply to everyone questioning McCain's cross-in-the-dirt anecdote:

It is, of course, possible that Andrew's suspicions are justified and McCain invented (or at the very least seriously embellished) the story to pander to the dread Christianists; all sorts of things are possible when you're dealing with a story that almost by definition can't be corroborated. But if this is the standard we're establishing, it's also possible that Jerome Corsi is right when he insinuates that Barack Obama is deliberately concealing the extent of his childhood exposure to Islam in order to maintain his political viability. After all, who can really say?
But this is decidedly not the standard I am applying, nor the one I believe anyone else is applying.

In and of themselves, McCain's anecdote about the cross and Obama's childhood exposures to Islam lack corroboration -- witness accounts are spotty to fleeting to nonexistent, time travel is not an option.

But in McCain's case, we have something rather more substantial: starting almost immediately after his release, McCain wrote of his experiences in captivity, including his experiences of Christmas, when the cross-in-the-dirt incident is said to have taken place. The cross-in-the-dirt tale does not appear in any of these accounts before 1999, twenty-six years after his release. McCain now presents it as a singularly significant moment in his religious life. Why would he say nothing of it for so many years?

Moreover, the cross-in-the-dirt tale bears a striking resemblance to a tale previously circulated but never attached to McCain before McCain did the attaching in 1999.

McCain has made his POW experience central to his political career and to his current campaign for the presidency, and he's within his rights to do so. It does demonstrate a "grace under pressure" quality that few others can equal. But the cross-in-the-dirt story, which attempts to link his patriotic commitment with a crowd-pleasing belief system, appears on good evidence to be a fabrication. It is fair to point this out, and it is fair for voters to consider whether they want a candidate who would lie about such a thing, or at best, to muddle his own recollections to such a degree.

In America, The Customer is Always Right

And especially so when the customer believes in an interventionist god, and the product is medical care for the dying:

An eye-opening survey reveals widespread belief that divine intervention can revive dying patients .... More than half of randomly surveyed [American] adults -- 57 percent -- said God's intervention could save a family member even if physicians declared treatment would be futile. And nearly three-quarters said patients have a right to demand that treatment continue.
The story goes on to note that in some cases, hospitals actually have to go to court to discontinue treatments for patients with no chance of recovery -- in effect, they have to get a court of law to pry loose someone's delusions.

It's understandable because people hear stories of miracles -- they read of them in the Bible, they encounter reports of them daily on religious broadcasts, they expose themselves to a never-ending stream of fictionalizations featuring deus ex machina endings, they receive breathless anecdotes of when "the doctors were wrong." This sort of thing doesn't come from nowhere:
The mother "absolutely did not want to withdraw" medical equipment despite the severity of her child's brain injuries, which ensured she would never wake up, Sise said. "The mom was playing religious tapes in the room, and obviously was very focused on looking for a miracle."
But when that mother leaves the hospital with those religious tapes and the body of her dead daughter, the faith that began as a fount of hope now serves as a freight of self-incrimination: why did god not see fit to answer my prayers?

The customer might have done well to enter the store with a more realistic frame of reference. Illusions are a natural response to distress, so it would be uncharitable to deny people their hopes in a moment of panic or loss. But it is also necessary to look past the moment and see illusions for what they are and to redirect our energies to solving and preventing problems here and now. The practical, results-minded, science-based medical research done today translates to fewer disconsolate parents tomorrow.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Traditional Values

For women in Afghanistan, extramarital sex is a crime -- even if the sex was against the woman's will:

Two-thirds of the women in Lashkar Gah's medieval-looking jail have been convicted of illegal sexual relations, but most are simply rape victims – mirroring the situation nationwide. The system does not distinguish between those who have been attacked and those who have chosen to run off with a man. ... Colonel Ghulam Ali, a high-ranking regional security officer, explained sternly that he supported the authorities' right to convict victims of rape. "In Afghanistan whether it is forced or not forced it is a crime because the Islamic rules say that it is," he claimed. "I think it is good. There are many diseases that can be created in today's world, such as HIV, through illegal sexual relations." [emphasis mine]
Take note of the structure of the situation: a despicable injustice is done on a large scale, and when asked to justify it, the perpetrator calmly replies that he's just following god's rules. So in addition raping with impunity, and in addition to enabling others' in raping with impunity, he can claim the honor of godly submission.

Behold the fruits of godly submission.

(H/T Ophelia Benson)

McSame: The Audacity of Self-Aggrandizement

John McCain spent upwards of five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, during which time he was tortured. That's an amazing and commendable thing to endure for one's country, and I am hardly one to cavil with the details of the psychological and mental work a person does to survive hardships of that magnitude. If John McCain says that his faith in god was part of how he got through his days, I take him at his word.

But thirty years on, as he attempts to win the presidency, McCain has gotten very specific about some of the ways his faith informed his wartime perseverance, and some of the specifics he has cited as recently as Saturday's forum with Pastor Rick Warren -- about a guard drawing a cross in the sand of his holding cell and the two of them, McCain and the sympathetic Vietnamese guard, sharing a moment of Christian community -- are not holding up to scrutiny (Cf. here, here, here).

The anecdote does not appear to have appeared in any of McCain's several accounts of his captivity written before 1999, and it bears a striking resemblance to an anecdote offered by Alexander Solzhenitsyn about his experiences in the Soviet gulag system.

So what is to be made of this? McCain's biography and reputed penchant for "straight talk" are central to his presidential campaign. His former POW status is invoked regularly, and if today is any indication, flagrantly. In the context of a relatively minor spat over whether McCain did or did not gain an unfair advantage in Saturday's forum, his campaign issued a statement that implies that his former POW status exempts him from the routine give and take of electoral politics:

“The insinuation from the Obama campaign that John McCain, a former prisoner of war, cheated is outrageous,” [emphasis mine]
McCain seems determined to "connect with" Christian and Christianist voters, and by all accounts his cross-in-the-sand anecdote went over very well in Saturday's forum.

It seems to me that the truth and the transparent political expediency of the anecdote should matter to people who fancy themselves "values voters." Relying on faith to endure hardships is blameless, and for some, even commendable; lying about it is not honorable. And mixing your own biography with someone else's indicates, at best, a decline of mental capacity that should give pause to would-be voters.

Of Off

Had I not walked up to this and photographed it, I would not have thought it possible for someone to mistake of and off. The slight variation between the two F's suggests the possibility that a prankster inserted the second F, but this would probably require taking the sign down from its free-hanging position to write the second F on a hard surface, and using a matching red pen, and doing so in public. Sadly, no, I suspect this was written at a single sitting by the same author, an English speaker who just hasn't encountered the words of or off frequently enough to distinguish the two.

The longer I stare at the words off and of, the more I am struck by their oddness. What is a single f doing at the end of an o, and is it enough to make a whole word? And does the second f at the end of off really help matters, or does their combination seem to overpower the weak vowel? I have to suspect that these very common English words, off and of, feature prominently in marking a passage as English-seeming when encountered by a non-English speaker, in the way that lots of W's and Y's flags a passage as Welsh-seeming or a surplus of doubled A's and E's flags a passage as Dutch-seeming.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Non-Answers in Genesis

Heralded public intellectual and high-stakes power broker Pastor Rick Warren speaks for millions when he says:

If you're asking me do I believe in evolution, the answer is no, I don't. I believe that God, at a moment, created man. I do believe Genesis is literal, but I do also know metaphorical terms are used. Did God come down and blow in man's nose? If you believe in God, you don't have a problem accepting miracles. So if God wants to do it that way, it's fine with me.
Genesis includes the story of Noah's Ark, in which an elderly middle-eastern man with no apparent means of global circumnavigation was commanded by god to build a very large boat and fill it with breeding pairs of every species on earth. Noah and his family would hold the animals on the ship while god went about flooding every other man, woman, child, and creature to death and oblivion -- yes, he was that angry.

People attached to the view that "Genesis is literal [sic]" have long struggled to explain how and why Noah and his vessel saved elephants and koalas and mosquitos and the e coli bacteria and HIV, but none of the dinosaurs; and how and why piranhas and bottlenose dolphins would be at risk from drowning in the first place, and how an ark (of all things) would help them with any such problem; and how and why plesiosaurs or icthyosaurs died in a flood.

All well and good, but the good people at the denialism blog have a much better, more focused question for Pastor Rick and others who "believe Genesis is literal [sic]":
Hypothesis: The Biblical Deluge occured at a certain time which is knowable from scripture. The events surrounding it is known from scripture. Therefore, scientific facts should confirm these events.

What is one of the singular biological events of the Flood? Two. By. Two. A small founder population of each species to repopulate the globe. If this in fact happened, it should be possible to do genomic analysis to show a founder that dates back to the year of the flood.

This is actual science. Either genetic history of extant species bears out this few thousand year old founder hypothesis, or it doesn't.
The smart money says it doesn't, but this is a perfectly straightforward opportunity for creationists to put up or shut up.

Lower Gas Prices? Yes!

According to highly-qualified presidential debate moderator Pastor Rick Warren, "God sometimes says yes, God sometimes says no and God sometimes says wait" in reply to the prayers made to him/her/it. While uncounted millions received replies of "no" or "wait" to their prayers about cancer, malaria, AIDS, crippling injury, home foreclosure, malnutrition, natural disaster, war, and the like, other recent prayers received a "yes":

A prayer group in Washington DC is claiming the credit for the recent sharp drop in the US price of petrol.

Rocky Twyman, 59, a veteran community campaigner, started Pray At The Pump meetings at petrol stations in April.

Since then, the average price of what the US calls gasoline has fallen from more than $4 a gallon to $3.80.
Get the ambulance here a little faster? "Wait." Find me a job so that I can keep the house? "No." Knock twenty cents off the price of a gallon of gas. "Yes."

In the face of all this and worse, Pastor Rick Warren avers "I do believe in the goodness of God, and I do believe that he knows better than I do." It's difficult to imagine what combination of circumstances would cause Pastor Rick to doubt the goodness or wisdom of his favorite god; as we linger over that thought, let's observe and give thanks that Pastor Rick is here to vet our presidential candidates for us.

Blazing

Did everyone see Jamaican Usain Bolt win the gold at the 100 meter dash? He beat his own world record and didn't seem to be trying. Amazing. Treat yourself to the video if you haven't already seen it.

Body and Mind

Sport is antithetical to art and culture? Please.

Funny, then, that some very cultured people, including Norm Geras, Francis Sedgemore, and The Wife, are rebutting the claim, and that the latter should bring forth the Latin maxim -- also inscribed on my own Road ID tag for whatever it's worth -- mens sana in corpore sano (healthy mind in a healthy body), given to us by that paragon of brute backwardness from Roman times, the poet Juvenal.

Of course the idea that human flourishing involves developing both the body and the mind was already old by the time Juvenal got to it, having been celebrated by the Greeks as the ideals of paideia and arete.

Sport is the disciplined perfection of physical exertion -- it is what running, jumping, lifting, and throwing look like when the cultivated human mind is brought to bear on them. It bears the same relationship to natural human physicality as poetry stands to natural human vocalization. Beyond merely beautiful (which it is), sport is the quintessence of culture, not in any tension with it.