Saturday, January 31, 2009

Things You Need to Know



Civilization would die without youtube.

Yankee Doodle Dandies

Often I observe the ebb and flow of US political discourse and wonder what a space alien would think. And then I realize there are billions of people who don't live here, and while they're not really so exotic or remote as space aliens -- most of them, anyway -- I do hope they find this sort of thing as absurd as I project they do: to a certain well-traveled school of thought here in the USA,

[t]he idea that other countries are doing better than we are in various ways is totally off the radar. Instead, when foreign countries are mentioned at all you get stuff like this:
“We have fundamental philosophical differences. We’re in an era of unfunded liabilities,” said John Culberson , R-Texas. “This stimulus is really a Trojan horse. It’s part of a plan that would turn the United States into France.”
France! A country so impoverished that its citizens are fleeing in droves, washing up on our shores desperate to experience the good life as it’s lived in suburban Houston.
Granted, maybe France is a special case. I understand there's a strain of longstanding animus between England and France dating at least to 1066, and that the Germans have their own distinctive brand of Francophobia. Etcetera.

But while that makes for a great comedy bit here and there, really, is it customary in non-USA nations for putatively serious elected officials to speak of France as if they're speaking of the most desperate sectors of Haiti, Zimbabwe, or Afghanistan?

If you count yourself an observer of the USA, does it strike you as odd that our elected officials can be considered respectable and responsible despite saying things like the above? It really does happen. It really is the norm. I know we Americans send out a lot of distortive junk -- images of gunfights in which no one gets hurt, the notion that a new kind of vacuum cleaner will relieve your worries, an unsourced but common claim that the very streets are paved with gold -- but when it comes to a statement like "we would hate to go down the same road as France or Sweden" in domestic policy, that's not a distortion. People really say exactly that kind of thing in big newspapers and in front of huge TV audiences, and doing so doesn't get them kicked off the "serious person" island.

The Fruits of Reaching Out

Four score minus sixty-nine days ago, Barack Obama opened his presidency with an invocation prayer delivered by Rick Warren, the social-climbing and camera-loving preacher famous for an insipid book outlining an easy-bake, feel-good form of Christianity. Those who supported Obama's gesture portrayed it as a tour de force of savvy communications, outreach, and bridge-building:

Obama understands the importance of focusing on commonly shared goals and values, in the process reaching out to unconventional allies to frame issues in a way that connect to the worldviews of hard to reach audiences. The latest example is the choice of Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at Obama's inauguration.
To be clear, the "unconventional allies" in question are American Christianists and American liberals. So, eleven days on, what are the fruits of this accommodation?

The Christianists are thoroughly unmoved judging from the unhinged Letter from 2012 in Obama’s America, a document purporting to originate from few years into the Obama presidency, when every imaginable far-right paranoid fantasy has come to pass. Though it runs to 16 pages, it never gets around to acknowledging the bridge-building symbolism of Obama's inclusion of pastor Warren, notwithstanding Warren's solidly anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-evolution bona fides.

What about those "commonly shared goals and values" such as poverty, AIDS, and climate change? The letter never touches on AIDS, mentions the word poverty only as a symptom of the Democrats' ruinous misrule (page 10, " ... cycles of poverty and violence in which generations had been trapped ..."), and cites climate change only to include it on a list of unspeakable horrors to which the far right has been subjected by 2012:
...the agenda of the homosexual activists, the agenda of the environmental activists, the agenda of the National Education Association, the agenda of the global-warming activists, the agenda of the abortion-rights activists, the agenda of the gun-control activists, the agenda of the euthanasia supporters, the agenda of the one-world government pacifists ... [page 15; emphasis mine]
And Obama's inclusion of Warren, even when combined with further attempts at outreach, got him exactly zero votes in the House for his economic stimulus bill.

It's not that outreach is folly. It is not. It is worthwhile to do what can be done to chip away at longstanding hostilities and seize on attainable agreements. But when it comes to Christianists and liberals in America, the two sides are enemies for non-trivial reasons, and that, too, is worth facing squarely. "Connecting with the worldviews of hard to reach audiences" sometimes entails telling them they lost the election and did so for good reason.

The WTF Blanket

I don't want a Snuggie (well, not very much), but the superior ad voiceover does make me want a WTF blanket. Who would I be fooling if I tried to claim advertising doesn't work? And on this, the weekend of the so-called Super Bowl, the most sacred of advertising occasions?

I do wish more could be as straight as this one:

(via Portland Mercury)

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Scarcely Notable Michael Steele

There's almost nothing worth knowing or thinking about the new chairman of the Wide Stance party, Michael Steele.

One might take note of the fact that he's African-American, and therefore vaults his party from being an entity of, by, and for white people to a party of, by, and for white people that's nominally headed by the one active African-American party member they could find. That's barely worth noting.

It's probably worth noting that Michael Steele is among the troglodytes who led the Wide Stance convention in a chant of "drill, baby, drill" last Fall:

Could the Wide Stance have drill-baby-drilled deeper into the depths of wingnut lunacy and picked someone worse? Surely. This is plenty deep enough.

Headlines as Stories

I call your attention to the second full headline shown on this clip from CNN's web site, the one in red, and ask: is there really more to this story than is already conveyed in the headline ("Haggard explains his sexual orientation")? As you might divine from the color variance, I did click the link to see if there was any text to the story, but as the little camera icon attests, it's one of those tedious CNN video clips and nothing more, so I backed out without watching.

Not that I've left anything to the imagination. Evidently, Ted Haggard spent some time in a CNN studio explaining his sexual orientation. There's no obvious end to what humans will discuss when it comes to sex, but then again, for most people in most situations, sexual orientation is not something to explain. To feel an urge to explain in this area is to explain quite a lot before a single explanatory word is spoken.

We get it, Ted Haggard. You're gay, or maybe bisexual, but not quite ready to say so. Your imaginary friend in the sky tells you it's icky to be anything but 100% straight. Tell him to fuck off and move on to something important, like helping you break your addiction to meth. Your imaginary friend won't help there either, but at least it's an actual problem.

What truly needs explaining is two headlines down from there: "octuplets mom has six other children." By the use of mom and children, I glean it's referring to a member of our species, but that only begs deeper questions:

  • Why is there an "octuplets mom" who is also a homo sapiens?
  • Why did she excrete eight children when she already had six?
  • Why did she already have six?
  • When do her mawkish appeals for donations begin -- "it's expensive raisin' fahr-teen babies!"?
The latter is especially urgent: I want to be sure I don't accidentally contribute.

Krugman in Portland

Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman came to Portland last night and I was among the lucky people to hear his account of where we are, how we got here, and how we might get out. Sigh.

This is a pretty good 3-minute encapsulation of what he said last night:

My conclusion, which is worth almost as much as you paid for it: we need to bulldoze several million houses, focusing the bulldozing on the areas of the country that have had the most severe declines in real estate prices. Mind you, I am not advocating that the occupants of these houses get bulldozed, and it's fine -- maybe better -- if most of the bulldozed houses are vacants. In fact, this plan needs those people not only to survive the bulldozing but to stay around and demand (in the economics sense, not necessarily the whining sense) replacement homes. This would eliminate the glut of housing that's paralyzing the housing market, thus stimulating direct activity in construction and lending.

There might be some drawbacks to this plan.

I also want to make clear that this fabulous bulldoze-millions-of-houses plan did NOT come from Paul Krugman. It's my brilliant scheme based on my own partial understanding of the situation.

Krugman blogs here. Read that.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Shame All Around

Hey Senate Democrats, now would be the time to piss and moan about someone Rod Blagojevich appointed because he's no longer the governor of Illinois:

Blagojevich was arrested on federal corruption charges in December. Federal authorities allege, among other things, that he was trying to sell or trade the Senate seat that became vacant after Barack Obama was elected president. After the governor's arrest, the state House voted overwhelmingly to impeach him.

The Senate vote was 59-0.
Might we look forward to the former governor's recitations of poetry and self-flattering historical musings on Hollywood Squares, perhaps alongside Alberto Gonzales and his hilarious "I don't recall" catch-phrase?

That peanut company from America did some clever lab-shopping to get the "non-poisoned" result it wanted:
Federal health officials say Peanut Corp. shipped tainted peanut products from its Blakely, Ga., facility after retesting them and getting a negative result for salmonella.

Peanut butter, peanut paste and other goods from the plant are being blamed for an outbreak that has sickened more than 500 people, triggered a massive international recall and raised doubts about the food industry's safety practices.
Would it be rude to propose that prosecutors do some clever prison-ward shopping to make sure that these assholes become bunkmates with a certain class of inmate -- say, a class of inmate with family members who ate tainted peanuts?

It's now harder to discriminate against women in the workplace:
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which passed 250-177, would give workers alleging unequal pay the right to sue within 180 days of their most recent paycheck.
The cited article is too kind to note that 172 of the 177 nay votes in the House came from Republicans, or that every male Republican Senator except Arlen Specter voted against it.

Shorter Andrew Sullivan Commenter

Unnamed commenter to Daily Dish, "Spaghetti Monsters, ctd."

  • Hey Andrew, long time reader, first time e-mailer. I can't believe people don't recognize that god is kittens, ponies, rainbows, and a warm feeling in the tummy. I defy anyone to say the same of the Flying Spaghetti Monster!

If it is true that
it's the "consequences" of God -- moral compunction, cultural taboo, social phenomena that amount to a de facto eschatology, etc. -- that actually constitute theism ...
then god is nothing but impulses and social norms for which twaddle-free, reality-based explanations exist. And there is either an eschatology or an illusion of an eschatology; a "de facto eschatology" doesn't make sense unless it is a different label for "illusion of eschatology." No one is denying the presence of illusions.

if belief in God is merely a testament to humanity's desire to believe ...
in morality, justice, and other high ideals, then the Flying Spaghetti Monster can do equally well since belief is nothing more than a reification: that X is a testament to humanity's desire to believe requires only that X embodies that which people desire to believe. The Flying Spaghetti Monster embodies morality, justice, and other high ideals at least as well as the leading gods.

'Shorter' concept lovingly borrowed from Sadly, No!

Sailing On

Every right-thinking person loathes Karl Marx and knows that every word Marx wrote was false, including these, which are no less false for having been co-written with Fredrick Engels:

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
Whew! I'm glad we live in a world in which we curtly reject such absurdities in favor of incontrovertible assessments such as this CATO-approved one:
[A] Fed policy of low interest rates, home mortgage deductions, the positive encouragement of sub-prime loans, etc., etc. have doubly or triply screwed over huge numbers of Americans. Lots of people are now losing their jobs in part because of stupid homeownership subsidies. The sensible thing to do when you can’t find work locally is to pick up and go where you can find a jobs [sic] ... If government policy can help in these circumstances, it’s going to be policy that encourages mobility, not rootedness. The first thing government can do is to stop subsidizing homeownership in a way that anchors people at precisely the times when they most need to set sail.
Every right-thinking person knows that the life well-lived is spent crouched and ready to pounce at the next glint of silver in the distance. The wise presume to possess only that which they can carry to that next horizon. Rootedness in all its sundry forms -- owning homes, living in the vicinity of family, speaking the language, etc. -- is anathema to our precious, precious economic system.

Marx was just as fat as Al Gore! May god damn his filthy soul!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

This Sets Us All Back

On behalf of our species, I am sorry. I am sorry to post it, and I am sorry it exists. I am sorry it was ever conceived or made. For that matter, I am sorry that its inspiration exists.

Watch at your peril:

There's got to be an unwieldy but useful compound word in German for the specific kind of mental anguish this produces.

(H/T Eyeteeth)

Judging Magazine Covers

Concerning that new issue of New Scientist appearing on newsstands, the one with cover art suggesting Darwin was wrong -- it's worth reading a little inside the magazine:

As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, we await a third revolution that will see biology changed and strengthened. None of this should give succour to creationists, whose blinkered universe is doubtless already buzzing with the news that "New Scientist has announced Darwin was wrong". Expect to find excerpts ripped out of context and presented as evidence that biologists are deserting the theory of evolution en masse. They are not. [emphasis mine]
In this case, "Darwin was wrong" is attention-grabbing shorthand for the narrower and rather prosaic claim that Darwin's "tree of life" metaphor has limited explanatory reach in the light of subsequent biological research.

So it is with metaphors, and so it is with the work of even the most distinguished scientists. The science Darwin pioneered has surpassed his insights in many particulars, but after a century and a half, the true marvel is in how well his ideas have held up.

Larry Moran has a very good write-up (or two) of the controversy involved in the magazine cover, but through this and all similar kerfuffles to come, it's worthwhile to keep in mind that Charles Darwin left a mix of solid foundations and dead ends. Which is only to say he was a great scientist, not an infallible authority.

(via Pharyngula)

Blog Design 101 - Big Face

I don't claim any mastery of blog layout aesthetics, but I know what disturbs me, and this disturbs me: I bounce over to Will Wilkinson's thought-provoking, albeit often disagreeable blog to find his face in my face. As I read, he watches over me expectantly; the impatience of his gaze, underscored by the all-business loosened knot of his tie, cannot be shaken; I experience whiffs of phantom halitosis; I can't help but worry that at any instant he'll exhale too forcefully and expel a nose hair onto my keyboard.

Mind you this screen shot (taken with the excellent Lightscreen utility) is a scaled-down version of the visual presentation as actually experienced.

It's worth remembering that many of us read blogs precisely to avoid interaction with actual human beings, with their piercing stares and unpredictable nose hairs and other unpleasant animal manifestations.

God in a Slogan

Responding to the atheist bus slogans that have roiled the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking worlds, Alan Jacobs offers some truth in advertising by way of alternates, including these:

“There’s probably no God. So forget about being reunited with loved ones when you die.”

“There’s probably no God. So realize that the people who cheated and abused you will never suffer retribution.”
Ouch! Correctly noting that the internet doesn't do irony, he clarifies his position:
[T]he slogan on the Atheist Bus makes the implicit but quite clear argument that religious belief is simply a source of “worry” and that if you give up that belief you’ll be better able to “enjoy your life.” However, abandoning religious belief does not always make people happier; nor is it true that everyone is fortunate enough to have an enjoyable life. These truths, and my post, have nothing whatsoever to do with the question of whether religion is true, but rather address the claims about happiness and enjoyment that the slogan makes.
True enough -- bus-side slogans are an awful way to conduct a thorough inquiry into a fundamental question about life, the universe, and everything. And yet judging from this post and the post on which I am commenting (and countless more besides), bus-side slogans do appear to succeed in opening the broader conversation.

The same applies to all slogans, of course, whether they appear in buses or not. The ubiquitous "John 3:16" does not suffice to solve all the puzzles of theodicy; it doesn't even get around to covering what "everlasting life" feels like if the set of "whosoever believeth in him" does not include, say, your parents and grandparents.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Infallibility Should Be Made of Sterner Stuff

Under the doctrine of Papal infallibility,

the Pope is preserved from even the possibility of error when he solemnly declares or promulgates to the Church a dogmatic teaching on faith or morals as being contained in divine revelation, or at least being intimately connected to divine revelation.
So it must be that somewhere amid one of those weasel-words, qualifiers, hems, haws, and hedges, there exists a crack wide enough to admit error in the Pope's recent decision to embrace a batshit-insane conspiracy-mongering Holocaust denier. The laity is not pleased and is mouthing off as though the Pope has erred:
If the Pope de-excommunicates a Holocaust denier, the Vatican press office should be working around the clock, with press releases flying, to provide context and do damage control. What's more, if the Pope de-excommunicates a Holocaust denier, the Pope himself needs to say something about it, and not just obliquely nod to the decision in his latest homily. Yes, the Church's primary business is saving souls, not public relations - but in this day and age, public relations is part of the business of saving souls. And nobody in Rome, from Benedict on down, seems to have figured that out.
A mere sheep instructing the shepherd!?! Such pride!

Speaking of which, the Vatican considers President Obama to be "arrogant" because he doesn't tow the line on family planning. Ophelia Benson is on it:
That's terrific, isn't it? An 'official' of an authoritarian moth-eaten hidebound reactionary gang of priests calls a guy elected in a landslide 'arrogant'...What does the Vatican 'official' think the Vatican is if not arrogant? Humbly obedient to god, no doubt, being conveniently blind to the fact that it's hard to obey someone who never communicates, and that what the Vatican chooses to pretend is what god commands is actually what the Vatican commands - that the Vatican selects its own laws and then pretends they are god's laws.
Just marvel at the things we are asked to pretend today. Good times.

Tuesday Script Flip: Guilt and God

Alexander Pruss ends a discussion of guilt as follows:

This is not an argument against atheism or for Christianity. It is merely an observation of an important difference between the two. My feeling is that non-religious moral thought, however, mitigates the difference by not taking guilt to be as significant as Christianity takes it. But that mitigation is mistaken.
Funny, because I'd say that guilt is a richer moral idea to atheists than to Christians -- it cuts more sharply because the reality that produced it is seen for what it is. Imagine something unambiguously terrible -- say, Joe gets reckless on a tractor and injures a child, and as a consequence, the child will be a quadriplegic for the rest of his life.

Pruss argues:
If Christianity is right, every wrongdoing is also a wrongdoing against God. One can then argue that God has the authority to forgive the wrongdoing on behalf of all the aggrieved parties, say because all of the goods of all the aggrieved parties come from God, or because the aggrieved parties' very possibility of being better or worse off is a participation in God, or some such story. If this is true, then every wrongdoing can be forgiven by God, in a way that removes guilt.
I am genuinely baffled at how it helps to insert a new stakeholder in the situation. At most, I can see how this would increase, not decrease, the net amount of guilt; but first I would need to understand the new stakeholder's connection to the case. I can readily understand the pain as the child and the child's loved ones experience it. I don't know what it could mean to say that someone calling himself 'God' suffers here.

It's truer to say I don't want to know, but alas, I think I do know. If the claim is that God's love outweighs all human love -- that being a sincere Christian in this situation involves minimizing all mortal perceptions -- Joe's, the child's, the parents', everyone's -- and fixating only on what God thinks about the situation, then it makes sense to say that this 'God' interloper can remove Joe's guilt. It's a tautology -- God's feelings and thoughts are the only ones that matter, so if God erases the guilt, then the guilt is gone.

I reject this. If, shortly after hearing the grim medical prognosis, Jesus himself beamed down from his spaceship and declared to Joe and all assembled, "I grant forgiveness, I remove Joe's guilt," I would think he is trifling with real pain. I would also question the assertion factually: despite Jesus's claim, it remains the fact that Joe's recklessness on a tractor caused the pain. If Jesus wants to do the Superman thing and circle the world fast enough to reverse time, that's his business, but in the timeline under discussion, Lois Lane's car is filling with gravel the child will never walk or feed himself because of what Joe did.

In this timeline and this world, we are all Joe, potentially or actually. We have to be constantly aware that our mistakes can create suffering in ourselves and others. This is how it seems because this is how it actually is; and it is what it is whether we like it or not.

It's worth noting that this is not an argument against Christianity or for atheism. It is merely an observation of an important difference between the two. My feeling is that religious moral thought, however, mitigates the difference by not taking guilt to be as significant as atheism takes it. But that mitigation is mistaken.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Multiple Reckoner Sightings

There are so many great versions of Radiohead's "Reckoner" on youtube, and this is among the best:

One of the intriguing things about Radiohead is how the album songs often don't sound as though they'd be easy to play live without trickery (pre-recorded segments, extra musicians, etc.). And yet by all accounts, they not only play their songs live, but do so beautifully and without compromising on complexity.

Not that anything critical hangs on it -- if they've fooled me, I'm a happy dupe.

City Workers and Mayor Adams

Portland blogger Jack Bog:

[T]oday I'd like to send out my best wishes to the people who work for the City of Portland. I can't imagine what morale must be like in city government right now. Chin up, folks.
Since we're projecting thoughts onto city employees, here goes another: to whatever extent your workplace morale hangs on the sexual purity of elected officials, or depends on the extent to which elected officials have fully disclosed their sexual histories, I can't imagine what you're thinking. Chin up, folks. Raise that chin and take a long hard look at whether the mayor's sex life -- this or any mayor's sex life -- rightly governs your day-to-day work or the mood in which you conduct it.

And as you carry out your work, if a disgruntled citizen broaches the mayor's sex life, I recommend this two-word reply, with or without the customary niceties: move on.

I think it goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: had Mayor Adams staked his political appeal on some version of sexual uprightness -- had he campaigned on "traditional family values" or some such -- we would have an issue of hypocrisy. But no, candidate-for-mayor Adams was famous in these terms only for being openly gay. He did not go around prating, as some politicians do, about the evils of "sexual deviancy," nor declaiming against the "threat of gay marriage," as some politicians do, nor any such thing.

Move on.

Vulcans and Teapots

The rhetorical hook of Russell's Teapot analogy is that we are indifferent to the suggestion that there exists a microscopic teapot orbiting the sun. At most, it's an amusingly perverse claim, but we do not feel an urge to declare ourselves "agnostic" on its truth or falseness. We take absence of evidence as evidence of absence and move serenely on.

We are not similarly indifferent to the suggestion that there may be a god watching. Nor at the suggestion that our dead loved ones may be, in some ghostly form, watching over us.

As truth claims strictly considered -- considered utterly dispassionately, as a Vulcan might consider them -- these suggestions are equally valid: while there is no convincing evidence for an orbiting teacup, ghosts, or god, it is not possible to be 100% certain that they do not exist. The absence of evidence may indicate nothing more than a failure to look in the right place or in the right manner.

Yet our response to them is not equal. Russell's explanation of the differing response is that god's existence, unlike the teapot's, is "affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school ... " Ross Douthat restates the same explanation and indeed adds to it:

An intuitive belief in some sort of presiding Agent seems to be an extremely common, albeit hardly universal, feature of human nature; this intuition has intersected, historically, with an enormous amount of subjective religious experience; and this intersection (along with, yes, the force of custom and tradition) has produced and sustained the religious traditions ... The story of our civilization, in particular, is a story in which an extremely large circle of non-insane human beings have perceived themselves to be experiencing an interaction with a being who seems recognizable as the Judeo-Christian God ... rather than merely being taught about Him in Sunday School.
God belief, unlike teapot belief, harmonizes with elements of our nature and aspects of our nurture. But, Douthat goes on to say, "this is not to say that humanity's religious experiences and intuitions are anything like a dispositive argument for the existence of God." Quite so.

Curiously, Douthat offers this in the course of disagreeing with Russell's analogy, or seeming to want to -- "the atheist who perceives the Christian God and the [orbiting teapot] as equally ridiculous hypotheses really needs to get out more often," he says -- despite having agreed with and expanded on Russell's own reasoning.

In strictly logical terms, these hypotheses are equally ridiculous, but we are not Vulcans. Russell's thought experiment is brilliant for forcing us to peer beneath the occlusions of emotion, nature and culture.

Mayor Adams Moving On

After some hemming and hawing, Portland's mayor is staying in office:

"I know I've screwed up and let people down. But I still think I have a positive contribution to make," Adams told The Oregonian on Sunday. "I've learned some really important lessons, and I know I have to work hard to rebuild trust. All I can do is show up on Monday morning and start that process."
While it remains true that Adams violated a kind of trust to which voters were never entitled (and still are not), it can only be good that he will be especially determined, and subject to particular pressure, to win and maintain credibility and trust. There surely are forms of trust to which voters are entitled in connection with a mayor: the expectation that he will use the office to place the public good over his private good, that he will listen to the community as he formulates and decides policy, that he will respect the lawful limits of his powers, and so on.

So now we move on to actual problems, of which there is no shortage. Good.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Ones We've Waited For

Heather MacDonald steps into a few confusions when she cites Rick Warren's invocation and then puzzles over the form of its god-free equivalent might take:

“Give to our new president Barack Obama the wisdom to lead us with humility, the courage to lead us with integrity, the compassion to lead us with generosity,” Warren said. [transcript]
Such public pronouncements are not mere empty gestures. We cannot take the continued strength of our values for granted; they need to be reinforced in public as well as private settings. Invoking God as the external source of those values is rhetorically and grammatically efficient; we can direct our wish towards someone with the power to grant it. One could rewrite Warren’s optative to remove its purported target—“May our new president Barack Obama possess the wisdom to lead us with humility, the courage to lead us with integrity, the compassion to lead us with generosity”—and perhaps that does the trick. The rewrite, which is a common enough form, does raise the question, however, who we think will fulfill our hope. In truth, it is the president himself who alone possesses the power to act with humility, integrity, and generosity, but saying so directly in such a setting is a bit awkward. Maybe it is enough to simply express the hope for such noble behavior in a general way, thus putting the stamp of public approval on the values being affirmed.
Since there is no good reason to believe god exists in the first place, it's even less reasonable to expect him (it? her? them?) to be listening, and still less to expect him to care about what has been asked, and even less to expect him to do as asked. In the face of this rather glaring shortcoming in the presentation, its "grammatical efficiency" is pretty weak tea. And for that matter, there's no shortage of grammatically efficient constructions one could use -- "May the market's invisible hand direct its servant, Barack Obama, to ...", "You who have been so kind to us these past centuries, O Lady Luck, please continue ..." etc. -- illustrating that "grammatical efficiency" is to public pronouncements what "let's be friends" is to romance.

I don't think MacDonald would disagree with anything I've said -- she is not a believer -- but I also think she is puzzled only because she has recoiled before its implications. Perhaps it is "awkward" to acknowledge it, but it is the president who will preserve, protect, defend, and affirm our values or fail to. And the judgment of whether he succeeds or fails will come from us and from future generations. We're the ones we've been waiting for, you might say -- and not because we are or must become exalted, heroic, idealized versions of ourselves but because there is no one else. We are responsible for very inch of progress and regress, now and always. There is no god, and nothing else superhuman or supernatural, to praise or blame or implore for what has happened and what comes next.

No, we certainly cannot take our values or their continuation for granted. Affirming them in public is a good thing. But doing so properly involves, it seems to me, a reality-based account of how we attained them and how we have protected them to date. It is worth noting -- perhaps not yelling, but just noting -- that none of the invocations of god in past inaugurals has had a thing to do with it. From the start, we have been the ones we've been waiting for.

MacDonald continues:
But there is another problem. Without officially-designated God-channelers, who should issue such public blessings? Can one public official do so for another? We have decided that preachers carry the moral authority to speak for the whole; it’s not obvious to me who stands in their place without the concept of God.
This was abundantly answered last Tuesday. Who came forward to affirm our values? Former presidents, existing members of Congress, members of the military, accomplished performing artists, a public intellectual or two. Reverend Lowry was selected to deliver a benediction not because he has an actual pipeline to a god -- people claiming such a pipeline are as common as termites -- but because he is bodily connected to the civil rights struggles. Aretha Franklin carried much the same affirmative symbolism, as well as embodying the excellence in the arts for which the USA is renowned. That same excellence put the Perlman-Ma-McGill-Montero quartet on the stage. And so on.*

Be it awkward or inefficient, let the grammar carry the truth: we're the ones.

* Rick Warren was selected because ... um ... because he represents the all-too-American struggle against being a transparent social-climbing asshole? Not sure.

Snow Returns

This, again, is the view down the street. Somebody shoot me.

Star Wars Re-Told

Star Wars: Retold (by someone who hasn't seen it) from Joe Nicolosi on Vimeo.

I would re-assemble Top Gun with roughly the same fidelity to the original.

(H/T Patrick Appel)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

There's Always Next Season

In Texas, a girl's high school basketball game ended in a 100-0 squeaker and

officials from the winning school say they are trying to do the right thing by seeking a forfeit and apologizing for the margin of victory.
The losing team -- the one that watched the other team roll up 100 points while it didn't manage even a single free throw -- consisted of high school girls with learning disabilities.

And yet I deny that apologizing and ceding a forfeit is the right thing. Were it the right thing to cede victory to the most sympathetic team, basketball wouldn't need a ball, courts, baskets, backboards, uniforms, referees who don't know a walking violation when they see it, or the rest.

Basketball is not about righting life's wrongs. One plays basketball for the same reason one plays any competitive team sport: to win the game by outscoring the other team. I know from experience it's painful to lose in basketball and in other sports, but the pain of losing, even losing by wide margins, is part of the ethos of sport. Scratch that -- it's in the very brick and mortar of sport.

But isn't it graceless, cruel, punitive? That the winning-but-guilty team was Christian ever more closely ties this case to Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals:
Watching suffering makes people feel good; creating suffering makes them feel even better—that’s a harsh principle, but an old, powerful, and human, all-too-human major principle, which, by the way, even the apes might perhaps agree with as well. For people say that, in thinking up bizarre cruelties, the apes already anticipate a great many human actions and are, as it were, an “audition.” Without cruelty there is no celebration: that’s what the oldest and longest human history teaches us—and with punishment, too, there is so much celebration!
Here, here. And without cruelty there is no competitive sport -- "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat" are interlaced.

And in any case, which brings more humiliation: losing 100-0 despite your best effort, or "winning" by means of a pity-based forfeit? No contest.

Up from Crap

A species of beetle has replaced the fine turds it would normally eat with millipedes:

A ferocious scarab species has been filmed in Peru attacking and eating millipedes 10 times its length ... The carnivorous beetles use the same mouthparts their cousins use to extract bacteria from dung and carrion as weapons to assault and kill their much larger prey.
Oooh burn! Millipedes are just one step up on the prey ladder from shit! Or so I was about to assert before I read that researchers
set up more than 1,000 traps containing different treats to tempt the beetles.

These included a traditional menu of dung, fungus and fruit, as well as millipedes, which were live, injured or dead.

They found D. valgum fed exclusively on the millipedes, preferring prey which were alive but injured.
Millipedes can take pride knowing their fresh flesh tastes better than decaying millipede flesh, fungus, fruit, and wads of scat.

I am probably anthropomorphizing all of this too much, but at least I've successfully fought the urge to embed icky animal fighting videos.

(via Cranium Creek)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Ask a stupid question ...

It looks more and more as though Portland's mayor won't remain in office much longer.

Assuming he does resign -- and I dearly hope he does not -- it reinforces the usefulness of contriving ways to get politicians to answer touchy questions about sex. It remains a manifestly viable tactic, however devious or dishonorable or fucking pointlessly asinine it is.

Even in very liberal Portland, we will see it again and again until enough of us refuse to indulge it. The ticking sound you hear is the countdown to the next empty, cheap, tawdry, easy-bake scandal of this kind.

The answer to an inconsequential, irrelevant, inappropriate question is inconsequential, inappropriate, and irrelevant. Bad questions produce bad answers, whether the answers are true or false.

For whatever it's worth, for me, it's not about Sam Adams in the least. I don't know him personally; I have never spoken with him; I don't think I've even seen him in person. I voted for him in November, but it was a coin-toss between him and Nick Fish, and I would have been content with either.

Sam Adams was not elected to babysit. Mayor is mayor, babysitter is babysitter. It's actually not difficult to tell the difference in these roles and what we legitimately expect of them.

It's hard to improve on this comment by Dan Savage:

And for the "it's the lies!" crowd: There was an anti-Sam-Adams demonstration at City Hall in Portland this morning. The assembled crowd of roughly twenty people was comprised, according to witnesses, almost entirely of Jesus freaks. I'm sure the only problem that Portland's Jesus freak community—or Portland's suburbs' Jesus freak community—has with Adams is that he told a lie. Until Adams was revealed to be a lair—until he confessed that, yes, he had cut down that cherry tree, bent that 18-year-old over it, and fucked the living God out of him—Portland's Jesus freak community was 100% behind the city's openly gay mayor. It was only when Adams' lies were revealed that the scales fell from their eyes and the local Jesus freaks decided they had no choice but to call on Sam Adams to resign.
Tick, tick, tick.

(image source)

Of Incarcerated Goats, Stolen Mazdas, and Journalism

It's not clear how, but surely the blame for this, um, fanciful instance of the journalistic trade lies with the internet generally and bloggers specifically:

One of Nigeria's biggest daily newspapers reported that police implicated a goat in an attempted automobile theft. In a front-page article on Friday, the Vanguard newspaper said that two men tried to steal a Mazda car two days earlier in Kwara State, with one suspect transforming himself into a goat as vigilantes cornered him.
Riiiiiiiight. Two men tried to steal a Mazda!? Besides that, any thief with the ability to transform himself into a goat would go for something roomier.

From an abundance of caution and a superabundance of credulity, Nigerian police are said to be detaining the goat.

Free the goat. Issue a half-assed retraction. Blame bloggers.

Peanut Butter: Delicious and Instructive

To a close first approximation, peanut butter makes everything taste better -- chocolate, jelly, ice cream, celery, bread, breakfast cereal, diet cola, insects, steak, fish sticks, sugar-free Kool Aid powder straight from the packet, bare spoons, you name it -- but salmonella? This is too much to ask of any fatty spread:

Federal officials are urging consumers to put off eating foods that contain peanut butter until assurances are made that the foods do not contain products manufactured by the Peanut Corp. of America, some of which were found to contain salmonella.

Food and Drug Administration officials said Saturday that peanut butter and peanut paste made from ground roasted peanuts, manufactured in Peanut Corp.'s Blakely, Georgia, plant were found to contain the bacteria, although a direct link to the strain that has now sickened 474 people in 43 states has not been found.
This is alarming for those of us who favor adding peanut butter to whatever we happen to be putting in our mouths. And hilariously enough, it turns out there's no sure way to track down peanut ingredients that originate with the cartoonishly-named* Peanut Corporation of America:
"The majority of products [like cookies, crackers, ice cream] are manufactured with products that don't come from PCA," said Dr. Stephen Sundlof, the FDA's [peanut butter crisis czar] ... until people can be sure that the peanut cookies or crackers they have do not contain product from Peanut Corp., the FDA is asking consumers to hold off on eating them.
As non-reassuring as all this may be, it does not change the fact, as reported earlier, that every jar of peanut butter that does not open up to reveal newly-evolved forms of life proves that evolutionary science is bunk, that Jesus is the king of kings, that Sarah Palin should be vice president, and that god doesn't heal amputees, stop hurricanes, or cleanse the salmonella from the peanut butter supplies because he doesn't bloody feel like it. (Now for the last time, get off his lawn!)

* The name "Peanut Corporation of America" is trying too hard. Obviously it is a front for something more sinister. But for what?

Viddying the Holy See

For purposes of this blog post, I am too kind to speculate on what the Catholic clergy is doing in lieu of winning souls for the home team, but the Pope has decided their efforts are inadequate enough that he has started his own youtube channel to reach the ungodly masses:

Users can view the site in Italian, English, Spanish, and German, and plans are in the works to include other languages, said Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi.

"With the YouTube platform, we now have the capacity to give young people direct access to the thinking, to the thoughts, to the words and deeds of the pope," said Monsignor Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council. "That allows them to share that with their friends."
For purposes of this blog post, I am not going to riff on the notion of the Church finding novel ways to reach the young people. That would be gauche.

Instead I will simply join in solidarity with the millions of kids in Catholic schools who are being shown this new youtube channel and expected to applaud, cheer, hoot, and otherwise display outward signs of eagerness to see the Vatican's videos.

And I am genuinely eager to see the video where the Pope dances around with a light saber, does his best dramatic chipmunk, and sneezes like a panda.

Musical Scandal

Barack Obama's embattled presidency has suffered a new embattling on the news that the John Williams piece played at his inauguration, "Air and Simple Gifts," was pre-recorded:

Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, & Co. pulled a Milli Vanilli on inauguration day, and they’re blaming it on the rain, er, the cold.
I knew Yo Yo Ma was a fraud or possibly a robot!

Actually, it makes sense. Musicians of this caliber tend to use rather old and delicate instruments that can't withstand subfreezing temperatures, strong winds, pigeon scat, and former president cooties. As the GOP enters day three of its earnest search for impeachment charges against President Obama, he shouldn't make it easy for them by presiding over the destruction of a centuries-old cello.

I say this adds to the reasons not to debut a new piece of music at a big public event, but to stick with familiar works. Maybe I'm retarded or something, but new music always sounds like a mess the first few times I hear it, after which it sinks in and either wins me or doesn't.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Cave Living FAIL

It turns out there's a downside to holing up in remote caves, willing yourself to believe barbaric fables, and honing those beliefs into murderous hatred of anyone who has kept track of post-700's developments in the arts and sciences -- you might just kill yourself and a few dozen of your angriest, most hidebound friends:

An al-Qaeda cell killed by the Black Death may have been developing biological weapons when it was infected, it has been reported.

The group of 40 terrorists were reported to have been killed by the plague at a training camp in Algeria earlier this month.

It was initially believed that they could have caught the disease through fleas on rats attracted by poor living conditions in their forest hideout.

But there are now claims the cell was developing the disease as a weapon to use against western cities.

Experts said that the group was developing chemical and biological weapons.
This doesn't read like the most solidly-sourced piece of news -- "experts said," "were reported," "there are now claims" -- but if true, let it serve as a clarion call to lighten up and find a better hobby.

One Standard, Whether Hard or Easy

Today, as he signed the executive order requiring all agents of the US government to follow the Army Field Manual in interrogations, President Obama gave a brief statement. I think this statement and I need to get a room:

This is me following through on not just a commitment I made during the campaign, but I think an understanding that dates back to our Founding Fathers, that we are willing to observe core standards of conduct, not just when it's easy, but also when it's hard.
The USA went with a written constitution on the theory that it binds the powerful to a definite standard despite vicissitudes in opinion, perceptions of expediency, or variations of fashion. If we are being what we aspire to be in our best moments, we follow written rules here in the USA whether it is hard or easy to do so.

I would like to thank whatever gods are watching that we have a president who recognizes this elementary truth, and since most of the gods seem preoccupied with sexual behavior, I would like to apologize for wanting to have sex with a soundbite. I'm pretty sure that's a stoneable offense in most of the leading holy books.


Waving Goodbye

Of all the photographs amassed during the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama's white-slavery sharia socialism, this is my favorite (source): President Obama and VP Biden with their wives waving goodbye and good riddance to former President Bush -- mark that, former President Bush -- as Marine One delivers him on a one-way trip to who-the-hell-cares-where, Texas.

Goodbye, George W. Bush. Don't let the chopper blades slice you on the way out.

And snarks aside, here's a really good reason for rejoicing:

President Obama signed executive orders Thursday directing the Central Intelligence Agency to shut what remains of its network of secret prisons and ordering the closing of the Guantánamo detention camp within a year ... [T]he orders bring to an end a Central Intelligence Agency program that kept terrorism suspects in secret custody for months or years, a practice that has brought fierce criticism from foreign governments and human rights activists. They will also prohibit the C.I.A. from using coercive interrogation methods, requiring the agency to follow the same rules used by the military in interrogating terrorism suspects ...
Goodbye and good riddance indeed.

Sex, Lies, and Mayor Adams

Portland's newest mayor, Sam Adams, seems sure to become Portland's newest former mayor:

Adams admitted that he had a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old Oregon legislative intern in the summer of 2005, that he repeatedly lied about the relationship and asked the young man to lie to help him get elected mayor.

Adams and Beau Breedlove, now 21, initially said that they became friends when Breedlove sought Adams' advice on how to be gay in political life. In truth, Adams said, he and Breedlove expressed some romantic attraction to each other from the very beginning -- though he said they waited until a few weeks after Breedlove turned 18, the age of consent, to have sex. The "mentoring part of it" was largely a lie, Adams has said.
That he "repeatedly lied" indicates that he was repeatedly asked, and I have to wonder why that is. Why was Sam Adams repeatedly asked about this?

Under Oregon law, Sam Adams cannot legally marry anyone to whom he is sexually attracted, so this leaves him with just a few options: (a) engage in extra-marital sex; (b) be entirely celibate -- and of course, everyone would take one look at Sam Adams and rest easy knowing that life-long abstinence would come easily and naturally to such a hideous creature; or (c) enter a sham marriage with a woman, which would raise concerns over his troubling lack of candor about his sex life, and gawd knows we can't have a mayor with a troubling lack of candor about his or her sex life, the best proof of which is all the detailed knowledge that we Portlanders carry around about the sex lives of former mayors Potter, Katz, Clark, and all the rest -- certainly former mayor Ladd, about whose sexual exploits, well, don't get me started! We all know how it was back in the 1850s with Mayor Ladd, am I right!?

With his support dwindling rapidly, Mayor Adams is expected to resign soon. It's a shame.

If you're reading this, it's none of your goddamn business whether or with whom or the next mayor has sex, so long as consenting adults are involved. If you're not reading this, same goes for you.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Tale of Two Dancers

The Netherlands is attempting to stomp on certain thoughts:

Dutch authorities will file charges against a lawmaker for inciting religious hatred in speeches and a film he made about Islam last year ...

The charges stem partly from a 15-minute film Wilders released online last March, "Fitna," which features disturbing images of terrorist acts superimposed over verses from the Quran to paint Islam as a threat to Western society.

The movie drew complaints from the European Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, as well as concern from the United States, which warned it could spark riots.
As the saying goes, it takes two to tango. This conflict features, on one hand, a filmmaker with opinions and, on the other, religious believers. True, if the filmmaker repudiated or stopped expressing the opinions, the conflict would vanish. But it is equally true that if the religious believers stopped caring what a filmmaker expresses about their beliefs, the conflict would disappear.

Dutch authorities need to explain why silencing the expressive filmmaker is better than shushing the oversensitive Muslims. Why not haul them into court and charge them with taking themselves and their beliefs too seriously?

Far better would be for the Dutch to recognize that legally sanctioning either dancer in this conflict violates basic freedoms. The Dutch should know better; this is unacceptable.

Minding the Gaps

Norm Geras's excellent commentary on Obama's inauguration speech quotes the new president:

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation...
Amen to that. Wasn't yesterday itself a most striking testimony to this greatness? A world never finished with mouthing off about the US, its shortcomings and its misdemeanours, couldn't take its eyes off what was happening there: this day of achievement, this huge democratic assembly symbolizing, renewing and reclaiming a tradition of democracy strengthened by its own coming together. By that very attention the world paid tribute to what it knows America to be.
I am wary of knows; I would place it no higher than wants, hopes, or expects. I share in those hopes and expectations for this country, and I also share in the mouthing off when they outshine the reality. Even in the light of our best days -- and yesterday was surely among those -- we cannot allow ourselves to forget that we are exactly and only as good as the sum of our deeds, and hence Obama continued the remark:
... we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned.
We should admire our ideals -- indeed, "we will not apologize for our way of life" -- but this requires clear-eyed attention to the gaps between the ideals and the reality.

Obama's Inaugural Address

A little word assumes a central role early in Obama's inaugural address, and curiously, it is not to first appearances a strong one:

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America - they will be met.
The challenges will not be conquered; not vanquished; not eliminated; not mastered; not even overcome, with all its resonances with the civil rights struggle. Variants of meet appear again and again as the speech progresses.

As applied for foreign affairs:
Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort - even greater cooperation and understanding between nations.
As applied to domestic initiatives:
We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.
As applied to the broadest statement of approach:
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.
The word's last appearance solves the puzzle and brings the curious diction in line with the broader theme of carrying our best traditions into the future. Obama quotes George Washington:
“Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”
Meet turns out to be as formidable as we need.

Had we but world enough and time for "Poem Voice"

Will Wilkinson liveblogged the inauguration and had this to say of Elizabeth Alexander's reading of her poem:

Poem voice! We know all about poem voice here at the U of Iowa.

Poem voice? It haunts me. Is there a kind of poem it doesn't turn to rot?

Apply it to this, or this, or this, or this. Or better yet: don't.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

God Stuff at the Inauguration

Pastor Rick Warren: his tripe wasn't as bad as I had come to dread -- no explicit bleating about blastocysts, no comparisons of gay marriage with man-dog couplings -- but it had its flaws. "[W]e know today that Dr. King, and a great cloud of witnesses, are shouting in heaven." Do we know that, Pastor Rick? We know that Dr. King is shouting, of all things? Is it a gleeful sort of shouting, or is it perhaps shouting words to the effect of "don't you dare invoke my name you fat white sack of crap!" And Pastor Rick got very Jesus-y toward the end, mentioning the "one who changed my life -- Yeshua, Isa, Jesús, Jesus." Uh, yea -- George Bush famously said the same dude change his life, too, and look how well that worked out for us.

Reverend Lowry: his benediction was more or less boilerplate groveling, but at least he was engaging; he sounded like he cared about the words coming out of his pie-hole. He convinced me to say "amen" along with him at the end.

Chief Justice Roberts: oddly, he posed the superfluous god chatter as a question -- "so help you god?" -- which I immediately and maybe unfairly took as an expression of doubt about Obama's belief in god and thus as a sop to the FOXNews wingnuts crying in their bags of Fritos over the event.

President Obama: he mentioned "nonbelievers" in his inaugural address, and not for the sake of ostracizing or castigating us! We exist! However ...

NPR's Mara Liasson: in the name of the perfect balance that all beltway gasbags perceive at the root of all things, Liasson saw fit to claim that Obama's mention of nonbelievers was matched by exactly similar utterances made by former President Bush in the past. Really? When did George W. Bush ever speak of nonbelievers as though we exist and belong in this country? I could be wrong, but I don't recall that ever happening.

Obama Steps In

Under the 20th Amendment, Barack Obama became President Obama at noon sharp today; we should all be grateful this is spelled out in the constitution, and particularly that it is not dependent on the oath that Chief Justice Roberts somehow managed to flub:

ROBERTS: Are you prepared to take the oath, Senator?
OBAMA: I am.
ROBERTS: I, Barack Hussein Obama...
OBAMA: I, Barack--
ROBERTS: solemnly swear...
OBAMA: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear...
ROBERTS: ...that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully...
OBAMA: ...that I will execute [pause]
ROBERTS: ...faithfully the office of president of the United States...
OBAMA: ...the office of president of the United States faithfully...
ROBERTS: ...and will, to the best of my ability...
OBAMA: ...and will to the best of my ability...
ROBERTS: ...preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
OBAMA: ...preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
ROBERTS: So help you God?
OBAMA: So help me God.
ROBERTS: Congratulations, Mr. President.
That Roberts, what a lackwit.

Much the same applies to Elizabeth Alexander, who offered an inaugural poem that had some nice lines ("A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, 'Take out your pencils. Begin.'") and some not so nice lines ("... [who] built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of."). And I have to ask, having heard it on the radio without the benefit of video: that was a robot reciting that poem, right? Was the actual poet busy or something?

At the precise moment when President Obama was clumsily sworn in, I was running by the Portland Opera building under cloudless skies. This is a good day.

Not Falling Asleep

Tantalizingly soon, the eight-year unpleasantness will pass and the new administration will take its place. As someone who appreciates a good turn of phrase, and freshly primed by Jill Lepore's fine piece on inaugural addresses past, I am wide awake, tuned in, and looking forward to hearing President Obama's speech, even knowing the variety of ways a piece of rhetoric -- let alone a highly-anticipated one -- can fail:

Economy isn’t everything. “Only the short ones are remembered,” Richard Nixon concluded, after reading all the inaugurals, an opinion that led him to say things briefly but didn’t save him from saying them badly: “The American dream does not come to those who fall asleep.” Even when Presidential inaugurals make more sense than that, they are not, on the whole, gripping. “The platitude quotient tends to be high, the rhetoric stately and self-serving, the ritual obsessive, and the surprises few,” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., observed in 1965, and that’s still true.
True enough. Barack Obama has spent most of his life up to this morning exceeding all but impossible expectations. And of course, the end of the speech is only the beginning of the challenges. So much needs rousing.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Observable Heroism

Chesley Sullenberger is a genuine hero. That said, this needs to be said:

Calling it a 'miracle' combines flimsy theology with groundless truth-claims, and it detracts from Chesley Sullenberger's heroism. Sullenberger used hard-earned knowledge and experience to avert greater disaster and save hundreds of lives. No supernatural beings were involved or needed.

And he was not alone in displaying courage and ability. This, too, needs to be said, even though Rachel Maddow does deploy the vacuous m-word along the way. Everything else she says deserves to be underscored, particularly everything beginning at about 2:45 into this video:

(via PZ Myers)

The Need for Creative Extremists

Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from a Birmingham Jail deserves to be read and imbibed in full, but these passages strike with particular resonance today:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." ...

Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured. ...

Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? ...

Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

Ethical Conundrums for the Incoming AG

For the Bush-Cheney junta, it's all over but for the last minute pardons, but the obtuseness and depravity continue to thrive, carried forward by the likes of Senator Cornyn of Texas, who challenged Eric Holder to a dazzling thought experiment:

HOLDER: I think your hypothetical assumes a premise that I’m not willing to concede.

CORNYN: I know you don’t like my hypothetical.

HOLDER: No, the hypothetical’s fine; the premise that underlies it I’m not willing to accept, and that is that waterboarding is the only way that I could get that information from those people.

CORNYN: Assume that it was. [emphasis mine]
Here, here! By all means dream up a situation in which waterboarding someone is the only available option. It happens all the time, right?

I only wish Senator Cornyn hadn't stopped there. For example, imagine a situation in which an interrogator's only available option is to tear off the roof of Senator Cornyn's private residence, seal the perimeter with duct tape, and fill the residence with pig shit.

And speaking of filled-with-pig-shit, consider Grover Norquist:
The other tax cut you could do is cutting the corporate rate. The U.S. corporate rate is 35 percent; the European rate is 25 percent. Obama is a more international guy, so we should be close to the European average. We’ll stop torturing people, we’ll stop torturing corporations, and that will make us more like Europe.
Imagine a situation in which the only available option for dealing with doughy hacks who morally equate a nominal tax rate of 35 percent with torture is to place them under house arrest at John Cornyn's private residence.

What now, Eric Holder? What do you do, cowboy?

Signs & Wonders

This list of 10 signs of evolution in modern humans is a cavalcade of vestigial body parts and ghosts of abilities past; my favorite item on the list is #7, extra ear muscles:

Also known as the extrinsic ear muscles, the auriculares muscles are used by animals to swivel and manipulate their ears (independently of their head) in order to focus their hearing on particular sounds. Humans still have the muscles that we would once have used for the very same reason - but our muscles are now so feeble that all they can do is give our ears a little wiggle.
We can barely move our ears, and the slight motion we're able to produce is useless as an adaptation i.e., it does nothing to increase acuity or directionality of hearing, doesn't seem to help newborns fit through the birth canal, plays no part in sexual display (it would already be a staple in porn if it were otherwise), etc.

In this instance, humans have weak versions of muscular structures observed in and used by most other mammals. Evolutionary science chalks this up to common ancestry.

ID/creationism has to chalk this up to ... um, what exactly? Commenters to the piece cited above offer the slapdash hypothesis that the Intelligent Designer used "templates" as he was performing his sundry acts of special creation. He was willing to trouble himself with all the countless differences between humans and (say) armadillos, but he couldn't be bothered to begin these efforts from separate "templates"? And the template had a checkbox for armored shell / no armored shell but it didn't have a checkbox for ear muscles / no ear muscles? Neat!

Science wins again.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Racism: Opinions Differ?

It bothers me that my employer doesn't honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day. No doubt there's a benign, sensible, reasonable, straightforward and totally non-racist explanation for this, but as I don't know what it is, and yet I don't want to speak ill of the people who pay me,* I will post this image in lieu of the reason.

Another view is possible. Consider that without racists, there wouldn't even be a question of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Without racism, MLK Jr. might have been just a preacher -- or President of the USA, or prosperous commercial fisherman, or someone whose ancestors were never loaded onto slave ships in the first place. Who knows? To imagine the history of North America without racism is to take on quite a mammoth counterfactual.

So those of us who have to trudge in to work tomorrow as though it is not a holiday have to grudgingly thank racists for making it a close call.**

*For purposes of this blog post.
**Not really. But it's an interesting counterfactual.***
***Not really.

Sunday Stereolab Blogging: "... rational and poetical"

If you're inclined to geek out on Stereolab, you can do worse than to review the series of "Stereolab Origins" videos posted on youtube (first in the series, embedding restricted) by madonofrio.

There's always the danger of learning something if you start exploring Stereolab on the internets. Case in point: this video of "Baby Lulu" from Sound-Dust, which uses bits from Guy Debord's short film Critique de la séparation.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Point is to Change It

In the spirit of The Brokers with Hands on their Faces Blog, I offer a candidate for the inaugural post of the Screen Shots of Plunging Retirement Statements Blog.

Just such a blog would make the world a better place in exactly the same way that a quarterly statement improves the numbers it reports.

It's a crying shame to watch all that money I did nothing to earn go down the drain.

Taibbi on Friedman: Putting a Porn-stache on the Obvious

Matt Taibbi is not a fan of Thomas Friedman:

[H]ow about Friedman’s analysis of America’s foreign policy outlook last May:
"The first rule of holes is when you’re in one, stop digging.When you’re in three, bring a lot of shovels.”
First of all, how can any single person be in three holes at once? Secondly, what the fuck is he talking about? If you’re supposed to stop digging when you’re in one hole, why should you dig more in three? How does that even begin to make sense? It’s stuff like this that makes me wonder if the editors over at the New York Times editorial page spend their afternoons dropping acid or drinking rubbing alcohol.
There's plenty more where that came from, and it's not all lengthy insults. Not that there's anything wrong with lengthy insults -- lengthy insults make the world go 'round on a certain reading of the world. Especially if they're as spot-on as this one:
This is Friedman’s life: He flies around the world, eats pricey lunches with other rich people and draws conclusions about the future of humanity by looking out his hotel window and counting the Applebee’s signs.
Taibbi's article also ridicules Friedman's porn-stache, as it should, but it gets too world weary by half with this criticism of Friedman's advocacy of 'green' technology:
The need for massive investment in green energy is an idea so obvious and inoffensive that even presidential candidates from both parties could be seen fighting over who’s for it more in nationally televised debates last fall ...
The idea may be obvious and inoffensive to Matt Taibbi, Thomas Friedman, and countless millions around the world -- it's certainly obvious and inoffensive to me and to any political figure I'd consider serious -- but we just endured eight long years under a presidential administration that considered it unobvious and offensive, if not downright abominable. And did Taibbi really believe McCain-Palin's greenwashed boilerplate?

Thomas Friedman may have a knack for wreckless imagery, a risible mustache, and a not-infrequent lack of rigor in his analyses, but it's to his credit that he states the obvious to audiences large enough to contain people who have labored to evade it. There are worse things than stating simple truths, even if it means passing them off as profundities.

In Soviet Russia, Lion Press You!

This is among the old-timey Russian ads posted at Brain Pickings. My Russian is extremely shaky, but this ad obviously promotes a product that endows its user with the strength to press an angry lion's head into the ground. Sadly, it does not appear to give its user the good sense to avoid messing with angry lions.

(via Eyeteeth)

Varieties of Good Country People

Sarah Palin, October 2008:

Compare with Flannery O'Connor's treatment of the same theme.


Friday, January 16, 2009

Does Religion Poison Everything? and Other Stupid Questions

Surely religion doesn't poison everything; surely that's an unfair exaggeration. Well, consider that the Catholic Church has made public the five very worst moral offenses it can bring itself to countenance, and has noted that

[f]or the "five worst sins" ... confession is not enough, and a special dispensation from the Pope himself is needed for absolution ...
So what are these offenses? Murder? Rape? Torture? Lying? Genocide? Running too many commercials during the end of a movie? Doing all of the above while putting pygmy rabbits in blenders? No. This is their list (quoted as summarized here):
  • "abortion"

  • "using the Eucharistic host in Satanic rites;" and pointedly including non-Satanic maltreatment of enchanted crackers:
    In July last year an American academic, to make a point about freedom of thought and religion, drove a nail through a Communion wafer and then threw it in a rubbish bin.
  • "paedophile offences committed by the clergy;"

  • "violation of the secrets of the confessional;"

  • "offences against the person of the Pope"
These are the Catholic Church's top five moral offenses. It is no surprise that a world view grounded in falsehoods, fantasies, and wish fulfillment ends in conclusions and priorities such as these. Not that competing Christian sects, Islam, or Judaism fare any better: in all of these cases, equally false premises lead to equally false conclusions. Garbage in, garbage out.

No, religion does not poison everything. It only poisons the very most important of things by distorting right and wrong beyond recognition.

More on this can be found from Rust Belt Philosophy, Ophelia Benson, The Bad Astronomer, and last but not least, the great defiler himself, PZ Myers, who feebly attempts to name greater offenses than the mistreatment of enchanted crackers.