Sunday, May 31, 2009

Against Abortion? Put a Bullet in Someone

The full picture is only just emerging, but it appears that one of the sanctity-of-human-life types has shot a man dead:

Dr. George Tiller ... was shot and killed at his church Sunday morning ... Tiller, 67, was one of the few U.S. physicians who still performed late-term abortions ... Sunday afternoon, authorities took a man into custody near Kansas City after stopping a car that matched a description of the killer's getaway vehicle ...
It's too bad on so many levels: too bad for those close to Dr. Tiller; too bad that a man who dedicated his career to women's health and reproductive freedom is now dead; and it's too bad that this situation has already begun spawning so many tedious tugs-of-war over whether this cold-blooded murder carried out inside a church is a Jesus-approved tactic.

Above all, perhaps, it's too bad that all those unwanted children that were bound to be adopted, lovingly raised, and responsibly nurtured by this "pro-life" enthusiast will now go on being unwanted since the enthusiast in question will spend the next several years tied up in the legal process and criminal justice system.

No, all those adoptions that were such a matter of arithmetic inevitability this time ysterday seem vanishingly unlikely now. What a pity.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Unexamined Life Is Not for Me

Sometimes I am prone to forgetting that everything is terrible, and in those moments, if I am brave enough to re-embrace reality, I turn to Everything is Terrible to remind me of the world's vast stores of the terrible.

Today, a visit to those edifying climes produced a palpable hit only a few posts in: a bracing message from no less than the guy who portrayed TV's Spock and some English-sounding guy that Y2K would likely spell ruin for everything we labeled civilization circa 1999. Watch and be sobered:



Now, some might object that portrayed-Spock-on-TV and English-sounding-dude were resoundingly refuted by the non-event that was the changeover from 1999 to 2000. Alas, this would be to mistake the forest for the trees. While 00:00 on 1/1/2000 was not interestingly more disastrous than 23:59 on 12/31/1999, the specifics of the alarmist warnings barely dip below the surface of those times -- or these.

Everything is terrible.

The Rebuke of W

Some familiar calumnies have arrived by way of a comment by "w":

You are a luciferian or satanist. Not simpy because you reject christianity. This is not personal. Ir is your focus against all religions that impute fear as a motivation for conversion. You are more focused on prosperity and meterial growth on earth. You are 100% earthly minded so your hope dies with you. Sorry thats all u get in this life. Turn to Christ u will have more beyond ur limited achievement.
I already asked the commenter not to leave me in suspense on whether I am a "luciferian" or a "satanist," and pending that, I will offer a few more remarks.

As it happens, I'm not terribly focused on prosperity and "meterial [sic] growth" as these things go. You clearly have not seen the car I drive, nor compared that car with the car I could afford, let alone compared it with the car I could "afford" by modern-day American standards, which means something more like, "I can somehow manage to get a lender to finance despite all known tenets of underwriting." Clearly you're unfamiliar with the clothes I wear, the house I live in, the cuisine I purchase, etc. It's all pretty unexciting where it's not outright downscale, and rest assured even the best of it won't be appearing in any upscale fashion magazines any time soon.

But as you say, this is not personal, and I agree.

I have goals, hopes, and aspirations, but they actually have little to do with money or material things. The money and the things are secondary; a necessary evil, means to higher ends.

That said, I am not interested in engaging in a fatuous poverty-off with you or anyone. That's your game. I am not an ascetic and I don't play one on the internets. It's your creed that pretends that poverty is some kind of exalted state -- or in certain theological-political moods it does, depending on the local point trying to be scored -- and I do not share in this creed, either broadly or in this particular. I have seen poverty up close and I know that those who experience it don't inherit the earth or lasso the moon or otherwise resemble the lachrymose treacle found in the Beatitudes. They suffer in assorted ways, and the striving they must do is not ennobling. Feel free to give away all your money and possessions if you really think otherwise, but don't wait for me, as I won't be joining you.

So while I do not focus on "prosperity and meterial [sic] growth" in any significant way, I also do not apologize for avoiding poverty and attaining some of life's comforts. You can pretend to condemn this approach to life if you think it will assist your groveling before your favorite god watching from his invisible sky attic, but I call bullshit.

As for your pronouncements on the foreseeable life-span of my hopes, you can go ahead and fuck the fuck right off. If I thought you were speaking from a grounding in reality, I might take this as a simple statement of fact -- i.e., "people die" -- and move on. But given your professed creed, you are instead articulating (with almost complete English words) an anticipation that you will be "saved" from death and that people like me will not be, and this disparity pleases you. Or perhaps you intend it as leverage in converting me to your definitely-not-fear-based religion, and are in the familiar proselyter's habit of labeling this form of manipulation as "love." Whatever that is, it's not love, so I call bullshit once more.

Whatever. As you say, this is not personal, and I agree.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Mind the Gyre

Phila likes these structures (well, kind of) and so do I:

[T]he special cladding system was installed on-site by forming foil-thin steel into structural shapes and then coating the inside with [CFC-free] spray foam insulation. The polished and crinkled steel not only provides windowsills and eaves but creates an interesting facade of fragmented reflections of sky, forest, and grass which gives the buildings a striking look that is entirely made up of their surroundings.

The timber-framed sheds are split down the middle to accommodate a common entry and provide substantial daylighting and ventilation to the studios on either side.
I'm generally wary of metal as a design element -- too harsh, too cold -- which is why I insist that all my buildings, furnishings, and vehicles be made of wood, thatch, rawhide, or peat. In this case, though, the surface reflectiveness and its unevenness removes much of what I don't like about metal.

There are practicalities to consider, however. In a forested setting, as shown here, the buildings will take on a calming green appearance. Set in a pasture amid cows and sheep, they would enhance the delightfully pastoral qualities of the setting. If applied to several consecutive structures in a dense urban residential area, however, it would risk becoming a gyre of hideous glare under conditions of daylight, and at night, if (heavens forbid) a car should pull up with its high-beam headlights on, it's legal blindness all around.

Beware. Meanwhile, admire the resourcefulness and unexpected elegance.

Poem of the Day: "Ephemera"

W.B. Yeats, "Ephemera"

'Your eyes that once were never weary of mine
Are bowed in sorrow under pendulous lids,
Because our love is waning.'

And then she:
'Although our love is waning, let us stand
By the long border of the lake once more,
Together in that hour of gentleness
When the poor tired child, Passion, falls asleep:
How far away the stars seem, and how far
Is our first kiss, and ah, how old my heart!'

Pensive they paced along the faded leaves,
While slowly he whose hand held hers replied:
'Passion has often worn our wandering hearts.'

The woods were round them, and the yellow leaves
Fell like faint meteors in the gloom, and once
A rabbit old and lame limped down the path;
Autumn was over him: and now they stood
On the lone border of the lake once more:
Turning, he saw that she had thrust dead leaves
Gathered in silence, dewy as her eyes,
In bosom and hair.

'Ah, do not mourn,' he said,
'That we are tired, for other loves await us;
Hate on and love through unrepining hours.
Before us lies eternity; our souls
Are love, and a continual farewell.'

If that doesn't put you in an appropriately wistful state of mind on this Friday, you can always try this -- a song that has said many things to me over the years, but has never stopped speaking clearly.

(via Normblog)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Suppose God is Subjective. And ... ?

Once again, I've issued a comment on another blog only to edit and reproduce it on this precious, precious blog. This time, the point of departure is the claim by a visitor to Rust Belt Philosophy that

religion or God is a subjective experience that can’t be shared with anyone else, and that is why it has nothing to do with science.
I would be interested to hear the commenter or anyone offer the 'cash value' of the claim that god is a subjective experience. I've encountered that claim and like-sounding ones plenty of times but I'm not sure where it gets us. Frankly, I wonder if it ultimately delivers anything apart from an escape clause from challenges to the truth or falseness of the proposition that god exists.

Suppose we grant that god is a purely subjective experience. Isn't the same true of dreams? Is god a particular kind of dream? Perhaps, on this view, god is among the archetypal dreams we humans tend to have, along the lines of falling anxiety or the one where you type a really long comment and realize, even as you're typing it, that no one in his right mind will ever read it, and yet you can't seem to stop yourself? (Everyone else has that one too, right?)

If so, isn't it a worthwhile question to investigate why this god dream takes the precise forms it takes -- e.g., people have it while awake, its particulars often mingle with 'regular' dreams, people routinely exchange messages with it, or believe they are doing so. Significantly -- or so it seems to me -- people across time, circumstance, and culture consistently mistake it for something non-subjective, and get so entranced with it that they devote considerable resources to it, up to and including their own lives and the lives of others.

Considering all of the above -- and yet staying within the hypothesis that it is merely a subjective phenomenon -- don't we have the stuff of a profoundly rich scientific investigation, or rather a thick bundle of them?

Which is to say, as with dreams proper, surely the questions and answers are only getting started with the assertion that god and religious experience are purely subjective. The most basic grasp of the human condition would be lacking if it did not realize that dreams are subjective projections of the mind, rather than the product of external agencies (as has been believed); but that insight only opens the door to countless new inquiries, many still uncharted or poorly understood in the case of dreams, but surely not scientific non-starters in virtue of their being subjective. So it could be reasonably expected vis-a-vis the finding that god is subjective.

To name only several more possibilities: What are the evolutionary origins of god-as-subjective experience? What is the role of this subjective experience in childhood development? Are there varying genetic predispositions? What causes the experiences? What kinds of psychological, cognitive, and/or physiological states give rise to them? Are there different kinds of these experiences that we might fruitfully distinguish based on minute observation of physical correlates? Do men and women, young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick, experience them the same way, with the same frequency, etc.? Do animals share versions of these experience? What effects do they have, if any, on the rest of the experiencing consciousness?

Are there particular brain disorders that alter -- enhance, suppress, intensify, whatever -- the subjective experiences in question? For example, in the world of dreams proper, narcolepsy is, according to the best available evidence, a condition of brain chemistry and physiology that, among other things, gives rise to particular kinds of dreams that non-narcoleptics never, or perhaps only rarely, experience. Might there be an analogous condition that generates subjective religious experiences?

In keeping with the spirit of Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, the assertion that god is subjective is a thoroughfare to a profound scientific program, not a barrier separating god from science.

Almost Understanding Rush

Matt Yglesias almost gets it completely right when discussing Rush Limbaugh as a bearer of movement conservatism's take on race relations. Almost:

You never hear Rush Limbaugh decrying everyday racism against non-whites in the United States. You never hear him recounting an anecdote about an African-American man having trouble hailing a cab or being followed by a shopkeeper. He doesn’t do stories about how people with stereotypically “black” names suffer job discrimination. He doesn’t bemoan the fact that the United States has an aircraft carrier named after a fanatical segregationist. Which is fine. Everyone’s interested in some things and not in others. Rush isn’t interested in racism. Except that like most conservatives, he’s actually very interested in allegations of racial discrimination against white people. He sees the defense of white interests as integral to his political mission. And he hates identity politics.
That last sentence is oddly, strikingly false, because if there's anything Rush Limbaugh adores, it's identity politics. That Limbaugh rejects the label for his faction's racial projections, postures, and biases is true enough, but the denial of the label is itself a gambit of his faction's participation in those politics.

Rush Limbaugh hates the identity politics of others. Which is to say he hates identity politics as practiced by and on behalf of people who fall outside the cordon of his identity politics, which represents, more or less, straight white male Christian Southerners. It's his right to do so, but he has no right to be indulged in the lies he tells along the way.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Rep. Culberson: A Titan Among the Stupid

The good people at Think Progress have assembled a nice compilation of Congressman John Culberson's staggeringly incoherent statement on gay marriage:


If your head doesn't hurt enough after listening to that, zero in on this part of the statement, which is, let's recall, part of a larger statement in which the Congressman demands that governments legislate significant details of human pair bonds:

Their private life is their private business. I’m fundamentally a libertarian at heart. And I do believe in the 10th amendment. I don’t want to hear about somebody’s private behavior ... fundamentally, the right of privacy’s fundamental. I’m not interested — what people do at home’s their own business.
He's a "libertarian at heart," so what's the proper label for this scattered mess he's just pulled out of his ass?

This is just sloppy work. The lack of practice in reciting the scripts is clear for all to see -- he's not keeping the usual casuistries straight at all.

Feature Request for All Makers of MP3 Players: Now in Bleg Form!

The following is a feature request I just entered at the SanDisk feature suggestion thingy. As I fell off the turnip truck prior to this morning, I fully expect that this feature request will join gazillions like it in a black maw from which no feature request has ever returned.

Naturally, or so I will suggest, I've decided to add the same suggestion to this precious, precious blog, that I might deliver it into an entirely separate maw-of-no-return. What's not worth doing is not worth doing well, I always say.

I throw this suggestion out to the entire universe of companies that make MP3 players because while I do like my Sansa Clip quite a bit, I'd buy any comparable device that had this requested feature.

I've had a Sansa Clip 4GB for a few months now. As I frequently use it while I'm running, I do not like having to unclip it, hold it up, and look at the screen to perform tasks. I'd prefer to use this mental energy on running, which is to say, on the fear of shin splints, cramps, and rabid beasts. That takes focus, people!

It would be fantastic to be able to define key-press shortcuts that quickly hop from wherever I am to FM radio, or a specific playlist, or the GoList, or Play All Music, or whatever.

Example: pressing the home button 3 times in rapid succession takes the device directly to [user-defined destination].

It would even be a step forward if the shortcuts were pre-defined at the time of manufacture and not user-customizable, so that we'd have a selection of eyes-free, feel-only navigation shortcuts.

All of this reminds me: do not turn the Sansa Clip into a "touch screen" device, and this applies to all makes and models of MP3 players. Buttons are fine; buttons are proven; buttons work; the button is a beautiful thing. A touch screen device has its place, but it is all but useless to anyone who wants to use the device in an eyes-free fashion, e.g., runners, cyclists, the seeing-impaired, anyone who doesn't enjoy farting around with a little video screen, etc.

(image source)

Music and God

The Reasonable Doubts podcast is looking for input on

a song you like that deals with themes of atheism, humanistic ethics, naturalistic philosophy and all those sorts of things ...
They provide not one, not two, but three ways you can contribute to this effort.

I don't speak for them, but I'd say go ahead and forgo REM's "Losing My Religion" and XTC's "Dear God" (even as performed by Sarah McLachlan). Whatever the qualities of those songs, suffice to say this ground has been covered.

Naturally, or so I will assert, this got me to thinking of what Neko Case songs seem most apposite. Two songs from Fox Confessor Brings the Flood float to the top:

"Margaret vs. Pauline" is a meditation on the randomness of fate in a universe that doesn't bend toward justice at all (nor necessarily away from it), ending with these lines:
Two girls ride the blue line
Two girls walk down the same street
One left her sweater sittin' on the train
The other lost three fingers at the cannery
Everything's so easy for Pauline
And then there's "At Last," a short song that describes and finally embraces the limits of human experience and insight:
I can say that I've lived here in honor and danger
But I'm just an animal and cannot explain a life
Down this chain of days I wished to stay among my people
Relation now means nothing, having chosen so to find

And if death should smell my breathing
As it pass beneath my window
Let it lead me trembling, trembling
I own every bell that tolls me
We are what we are, know what we know, and love what we love, it seems to say, and anything more is mewling speculation. This is a strong affirmation: "I own every bell that tolls me."

Neko Case expands on this theme of human limits throughout Middle Cyclone.

The smart money says that others may be able to cite other songs in this naturalistic, god-free vein and refer them to the guys at Reasonable Doubts.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sotomayor and Sides

I think LarryNiven may be too kind to "our side" when he says, in reference to the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court,

... there are certainly people for whom "the right hates her" is a convincing reason to declare in favor of Sotomayor even without knowing anything else about her.
At this stage, to put it bluntly -- and in a way I know will not be pleasing to all members of "our side," certainly not at first blush -- what precious little we know of this nominee is obscuring of what is supposed to matter about her potential as a Supreme Court Justice.

It's not that being Hispanic, female, and having risen from humble beginnings to a distinguished academic and professional altitude is inconsequential; it's that the consequences of such a background don't, themselves, declare any allegiances or align her with any particular vision. Her background has not been shown to be productive of qualities, dispositions, or capacities that "our side" would want from a high court nominee. Clarence Thomas and Thurgood Marshall had similar backgrounds, considered in terms of race, gender, childhood circumstances, and education, and yet no one would confuse the two as jurists.

Sotomayor's demographic background is carrying a lot of freight for "our side," which implies it is carrying similar amounts of freight for "the other side" -- in both cases, it is too much freight. I say all should pause and try to understand exactly which side Sotomayor is on based on her record as a judge and advocate, and declare itself after this is established.

Following God Into War

New reporting strengthens the claims that former President Bush was driven by theological fancies in his pursuit of the Iraq war:

In 2003 while lobbying leaders to put together the Coalition of the Willing, President Bush spoke to France’s President Jacques Chirac. Bush wove a story about how the Biblical creatures Gog and Magog were at work in the Middle East and how they must be defeated.

In Genesis and Ezekiel Gog and Magog are forces of the Apocalypse who are prophesied to come out of the north and destroy Israel unless stopped. The Book of Revelation took up the Old Testament prophesy:
“And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle … and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them.”
Bush believed the time had now come for that battle, telling Chirac:
“This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins”.
It may be that people will find rationalizations justify whatever they're inclined to do, but it still remains true that religiously-based rationalizations are a particularly noxious and dangerous instance of this. The person who manages to convince himself that his reasons and goals are god's reasons and goals will naturally regard his opponents as quite literally evil, or at best acting in the unknowing service of evil. If the religious believer is Christian or Muslim, the creed itself readies him to accept and expect that the world will be hostile since the world is fundamentally corrupt, and will explicitly demand steadfast devotion to god's truth no matter the obstacles (stubborn facts, valid arguments, cogent reasoning, experienced judgment, etc.). The creed conditions Christian and Muslim believers to expect strife, hardship, persecution, ridicule, and setbacks that are, to all appearances, calamitous.

This elaborate buttressing structure is rarely if ever matched by the kinds of everyday, garden-variety ideological attachments that motivate people.

Secularism is a response to this danger. Secularism demands that religion and state stay as separate as possible, and insists that political leaders assess their choices and pursue policies based on public reasons, evidence, and experience, not those of revelation or personal communion with unseen authorities. It's little wonder that secularism is, to many religious believers, a literally satanic force.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Fortified with Irony: The Bird and the Bee

I can't quite account for it, but I really like the Bird and the Bee. I was expecting to tire of it after first finding their charms by way of pandora, but they're clingly little devils. I think it's the fog of irony through which they present themselves, or so I interpret the experience. I can relate.

Here they are on the Jimmy Kimmel show -- if you like this at all, be sure to try "Polite Dance Song" too.

Why Naturalism?

In How I Became and Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity, John W. Loftus quotes Barbara Forrest:

[T]he relationship between methodological and philosophical naturalism, while not one of logical entailment, is the only reasonable metaphysical conclusion given (1) the demonstrated success of methodological naturalism, combined with (2) the massive amount of knowledge gained by it, (3) the lack of a method or epistemology for knowing the supernatural, and (4) the subsequent lack of evidence for the supernatural. The above factors together provide solid grounding for philosophical naturalism, while supernaturalism remains little more than a logical possibility.
And there it is -- as calm, clear, and concise a statement on why naturalism beats the alternatives as you're likely to find.

Cf.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Terminator 4: Rise of the WTF?!?

I watched the new, widely-panned Terminator film earlier today and I doubt I have enough information to form the basis of a review, even the kind of half-assed review that occassionally fleshes out the pixels of this precious, precious blog.

To put it briefly, I didn't get it. I didn't follow the plot. I'm not making any sort of high-minded criticism of the presentation, such as calling attention to continuity problems or finding characters' motivations uncredible (though that would be easy enough in this case); it's rather that I didn't understand the story on the most basic level. I have tried to reassemble the sequence of events depicted and implied in whatever the hell I saw today, but to no avail.

I'll grant it looked really cool in spots: a few scenes were genuinely thrilling and came respectably close to showing us action sequences that we haven't seen a dozen times before.

One would think Christian Bale would have reserved a potentially career-defining tantrum for the set of a better film than this, but I suppose one must fly into rages on the sets of the shitty films we have, not those we wish we had.

Whatever.

"I am a Dawkins fan, but ..."

I hereby step out of comments to make an extended reply to an anonymous commenter who wrote (commenting on this):

I am a Dawkins fan, but I think your last sentence is too strong. What would you think of a man who denied the existence of sea serpents, or of paranormal phenomena generally, without troubling to find out what those things are understood to be by those who believe in them?
Frankly, the first thing I'd think of such a man is to wonder why a grown man is preoccupied with sea serpents, but on to bigger and better substance.

To such a person I would insist on the usual: sure, let's take a careful look at the paranormal phenomenon, drawing on the most reliable methods, tools, and expertise available. At the end of that, we should expect to arrive at one of three places: that it was never anything other than normal in the first place (there was either a mistake or a fraud); that it appears to be something heretofore unknown, so that the boundaries of normal are now widened (this is rare but it certainly happens); or that we still don't know enough even after the best possible assessment, so its status remains indeterminate.

In The God Delusion and in assorted other writings and speeches, Dawkins has spelled out the claims he's assessing, and they surely come with theological ramifications: that an agent existed and willed the life, the universe, and everything into existence at a particular point in time; and that a specific individual came to exist on earth in a specific place and time, performed thus and so feats, spread thus and so teachings that came directly from the aforementioned creator-entity, came to a seemingly normal death (not to say a pleasant one), but lived on to take a place of privilege beside the creator-entity in a realm beyond the earth.

This is a fair enough approximation, I think, of Dawkins's starting point -- one I've stated broadly enough to cover essential claims of all three Abrahamic faiths -- and it's not difficult to see where he gets it. Suffice to say Dawkins didn't originate this picture of reality.

Dawkins then evaluates this claim in the light of everything he knows about the development of life on earth, biology, geology, physics, astronomy, math, history, anthropology, philosophy, and other disciplines. In some of these areas, he is already an established expert; in others, he draws on the expertise of others. At the end of his analysis, Dawkins concludes it is very likely that god does not exist.

Without question, there is more theology than is dreamt of in the collected works of Richard Dawkins. Fair enough. Every critic of Dawkins is free to specify what he left out and how it impinges on the quality of his arguments and conclusions.

To be useful, this criticism needs to be specific and clear -- it is not interesting or informative merely to list books, thinkers, or schools of thought that Dawkins didn't include in his end notes.

I offer a guess. I guess that it's something along the lines of "god cannot be detected or observed by any means."

If this guess is right, I call it bullshit: unhelpful bullshit, dead-end bullshit, vacuous bullshit. If god is such that his/its existence cannot be traced to any evidence or effect in the observable universe, then there's nothing to discuss or dispute, let alone revere, love, expect love from, grovel toward, appeal to, or otherwise ponder. If god is some ineffable, unknowable, impenetrably mysterious blob -- or if god is just a label for everything we can never know -- then we're far afield of anything that sane people trouble themselves talking about, and far afield of what religious believers routinely bother to pray to. A wise man once said what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

RD on Faith and Reason: "Moderate Christianity" Explored

The most recent Reasonable Doubts podcast consists of the Doubtcasters (Jeremy Beahan, Luke Galen, and David Fletcher) appearing as guests on the "Reason and Faith" radio program, which is hosted by three Christian pastors. All parties to the conversation remained congenial and civil throughout, which was not only refreshing but seems to have cleared the way to illuminate a number of the questions I've had about "moderate" forms of god-belief -- which is not to say clear answers were forthcoming. Some highlights:

  • In minute ~36, one of the theists claims it is "rational" to consider the question of god's existence/non-existence, and at least one of the Doubtcasters agrees (as do I): it is a significant question, and that being so, there is nothing irrational in taking it up. What's irrational is to cling to a particular answer to it when that answer lacks a basis in solid evidence and valid reasoning.
  • In minute 32, one of the Doubtcasters asks the central question dogging moderate, i.e., non-literalist, non-fundamentalist, Christianity: "how do you discover truth about god?" also expressed as "what's the method that you use to discern the nature of god?"* This is met with (quite literally) several seconds of radio silence before one of the theists issues a non-responsive digression that begins with a citation of Plato's Timaeus and sputters along about how various mythical, philosophical, and literary traditions offer insights into the human condition -- a claim with which no thinking person would disagree, but that does nothing to answer the question posed.
  • This digression ends with the following statement on the status of Biblical scripture (around 36:09) -- recall these are the words of a pastor: "Its power is indisputable, its authority is highly disputable."
The latter strikes me as a "game over" moment for moderate Christianity, as would be parallel statements for moderate versions of Islam and other monotheisms: to dispute the authority of scripture is to remove any rationale for elevating it above any other book -- that is to say, to dispute the authority of scripture is to remove its status as scripture.

Here was an ideal opportunity for three self-labeled moderate Christians to draw a distinction between "the Bible is special" and "the Bible is just a book." They conspicuously declined to draw any such line. They all but announced that they use the Bible as a trove of useful maxims, homilies, and notions, without explaining why they use the Bible instead of any of countless other books.

Any atheist could do the same. In fact, I think I will do so now:
The words of wise men are heard in quiet more than the cry of him that ruleth among fools.
I leave to the reader what this passage might suggest to those who put money in the collection plates during the sermons of moderates.



* Near the end of the podcast -- around minute 81, having not received a clear answer, one of the Doubtcasters rephrases again, by this time resorting to a series of rephrasings in hopes of pinning down this central matter: "how can you discern between what in the Bible is legitimate" versus "old cultural baggage seeping through?"

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Another Delusion Flushed Away

Prepare to read something else you'll wish you hadn't:

As the summer swim season starts Memorial Day weekend, water quality and health experts have a message for swimmers: Please don't pee in the pool.

Although urine in the water probably will not cause swimmers to go to the emergency room, it causes "more of a respiratory, ocular irritation: the red puffy eyes or a cough, an itchy throat," said Michele Hlavsa, an epidemiologist in the division of parasitic diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."A big health message is not to urinate or pee in the water."
Back in the days when I went swimming regularly, I frequently experienced ocular irritation, and not uncommonly, a cough or itchy throat. Before now, I had been led to believe this was a result of the chlorine in the pool, not a consequence of all the urine I had excreted into the water.

If this is right, I had pee eyes, not chlorine eyes.

Does God Hate Women?

Ophelia Benson has collaborated with Jeremy Stangroom on a new book that sounds provocative and worthwhile:

Perhaps you're wondering what kind of book it is. The title might be a clue: Does God Hate Women? [Amazon link] It's about the role of religion in the subordination of women, and it's critical of many religious practices and beliefs and claims.

It's not an ecumenical kind of book. It's not conciliatory. It's not about can't we all get along. It's not about cohesion, or respecting all religious and philosophical beliefs, or universal blanket tolerance, or saying that at bottom we all agree on the basics. It's not that kind of book. It's the other kind. It makes moral and political claims, and it disagrees with and opposes other moral and political claims. That's the kind of book it is, and that's always been the kind of book it would be. There's never been any ambiguity about that. It's always been a book that some people were going to disagree with.
Reading between the lines of Ophelia's missive, I detect that she has been dealing with people -- publishers? editors? readers asked to give input? -- who are concerned with the non-conciliatory, combative tone and content of the book.

I can say this: I plan to read this book. I'm sure there are people who wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole, and others who might give it a glance but wouldn't short-list it for the next round of Christmas stocking stuffers, but it definitely sounds like my kind of book. And I know I am not alone in that.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Response to the Courtier's Reply

This is a slightly edited version of a comment I chipped in at The Film Talk in an exchange ensuing from Gareth Higgins's claim that

at the end of it all, the questions of the interaction between faith and science that the film [Angels and Demons] mentions deserve a better hearing than they’re getting either in movies like this, or in the work of Richard Dawkins.
Frequent flyers in the theism-atheism debates will recognize this quick jape directed at Richard Dawkins as a version of the Courtier's Reply, and it strikes me as not enough merely to parody the Courtier's Reply but to specify exactly what's wrong with it. So this is an attempt in that vein.

Concerning Richard Dawkins:

(a) He has said many times -- and I think he has a very good point here -- that the relevance of theology depends completely on the quality of an underlying truth claim, namely that a god either does or does not exist. If god does not exist, then theology does not matter at all, as it is nothing more than an edifice of word games and just-so stories stacked on a delusion. If god does exist, nothing could be important than theology (defined here as the discipline devoted to understanding god's revelations, his will, his rules, etc.)

(b) While Dawkins has no discernible background in theology, his work in science establishes his expertise as an evaluator of fact-based hypotheses, and he insists, rightly, that the question of god's existence is question of fact. Dawkins has a strong record of winnowing what's demonstrably true from the nice-sounding-but-false, the not-particularly-nice-sounding-but-false, and the outright-laughably-false. He is explicit about his method of evaluating truth claims, and having applied it to the question of god's existence/non-existence, he has concluded it is false -- or, more exactly, he has found it very likely false. Readers of The God Delusion will recall he assigns it a 6 on a 7-point scale where 1 = 100% certainly true and 7 = 100% certainly false.

People rather vociferously differ on whether Dawkins succeeded or failed in arriving at that conclusion, and on whether his method for getting to that conclusion is properly suited to the question. But make no mistake: that god very likely does not exist is Dawkins's paramount conclusion.

I think he's right with (a) above, and that being so, he does indeed spend no time on theology. I would expect him to change on that -- I know I would -- were someone to successfully demonstrate, with strong reasoning and evidence and a supportable truth-evaluation methodology whose terms are specified, that the 6 needs to be dialed back to a lower number.

Finally, I would simply ask the critics who continue to issue variations of the Courtier's Reply whether and to what extent they have considered all the theology that they have rejected -- Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, Catholic, Protestant, Shinto, competing sects, etc.

Do they insist that every thinking person devote serious attention all the theology he/she does not currently embrace -- suspending judgment until it has all been given a fair hearing? Or do they, as I suspect tends to be the case, selectively apply this to Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, PZ Myers, and other atheists?

I continue to affirm, along with Dawkins, that questions of theology matter only after god's existence has been demonstrated.

Rocks on Children

Stop me if you've heard this one before:

Sexual abuse of children in Irish state and church-run institutions for boys was “endemic” and covered up by the clergy ... “The recidivist nature of sexual abuse was known to religious authorities,” the government-appointed Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse said in its report, published in Dublin [on 20 May]. “The risk was seen by the congregations in terms of potential for scandal and bad publicity should the abuse be disclosed. The danger to children was not taken into account.” ... The document is the result of almost 10 years of investigation into beatings and rapes at orphanages, schools and hospitals from the 1930s until the 1990s ... “The schools investigated revealed a substantial level of sexual abuse of boys in care that extended over a range from improper touching and fondling to rape with violence,” according to the report. Corporal punishment in girls’ schools was “pervasive, severe, arbitrary and unpredictable.”
Beating children, raping children, covering it up: when the Jesus character of the Bible so famously said "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church," the statement didn't express the fact that there would be so many children crushed under that rock. Call it another failed prophecy.

Cf.

Fun with Ontology

The ontological argument for the existence of god plays a tedious set of word games that proceed on a definition of god as that than which nothing greater can be conceived.

But why stop the tedious word games there? Let us consider that than which nothing more ...
... oblong, pear-shaped, round, circular, triangular, pointy, small, large, gun-obsessed, pickled, witty, cheesy, peculiar, greedy, sleazy, disgusting, vomit-inducing, brittle, red, orange, purple, whitish-gray, peppery, salamander-shaped, reminiscent of the TV show Maude, wistful, cheery, grumpy, frumpy, Utah-ish, gassy, thin-skinned, petulant, groovy, sedulous, watery, dry, sunny, gravitational, horizontal, crescent-moonish, artificial, made-up, lunar, inky, bloody, fart-smelling, giggle-inducing, troublesome, luminescent, dispositive, warlike, irrational, inseparable, humiliated, humiliated, wrong, citizen-spirited, ridiculous, loosey-goosey, fabulous, perpendicular, trapezoidal, imaginary, distant, close, pain-relieving, indirect, frozen, musty ...
... can be conceived. Mustn't all these exist -- not to say they all must exist in a single entity? I don't know, but the honest inquirer in pursuit of this word game must place due emphasis on conceived. The most Utah-ish entity that exists may or may not measure up to the most Utah-ish entity conceivable.

Neat.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Will Pines

George F. Will recently took a brief break from lying about climate change and castigating blue jeans to shake his tiny pale fist at government's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad tendency to make rules:

Once upon a time, government was supposed to defend the shores, deliver the mail and let people get on with their lives. Today's far-seeing and fastidious government, not content with designing the cars Americans drive to their homes and the lightbulbs they use in their homes (do you know that, come 2014, the incandescent lightbulb will be illegal?), wants to say where their homes can be. And to think that Republican Ray LaHood, Secretary of Behavior Modification, is an enthusiast for this, well, cozy relationship between Washington and Peoria, and everywhere else, too.
This is teh awesome! Stay precious, Newsweek. Whatever you're paying George F. Will to write this kind of offal, I hope you'll double it.

As to the substance, I nominate George F. Will's double-gated community (wherever it is) for first in line to become free of all these unbearable restrictions that so bedevil us -- including, naturally, all neighborhood covenants and zoning laws. As he says, government should restrict its actions to delivering the mail, protecting the borders, and -- Will was too incensed with the prospect of criminalized light bulbs to mention this function of government from the good ole days -- gobbling up larger and larger shares of the Native Americans' land. If Will's neighbors across the street want to convert their house into a Taco Bell, and if the neighbors to one side want to open up a strip club, and if the neighbors to the other side want to raze the house and mine for precious metals, who could rightly stand in the way?

Of course, if the neighbor across from the precious metals mine wants to set up a chapel in which gay marriage ceremonies take place, and if the neighbor across the street from the strip club wants to open up a brothel, and if someone else down the street chooses to use his property for a clinic that provides family planning services, a free needle exchange, and medicinal marijuana, George F. Will will expect his panicked calls to the Secretary of Behavior Modification to be answered forthwith.

I can't wait to read that column!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Obama in a Triangle

This evening's Rachel Maddow show opened with this informative discussion of President Obama's meeting earlier today with [unnamed] civil liberties and human rights groups:

I hope these groups expressed their discontent as clearly and forcefully as this report suggests. As to the idea that Obama bristles at the suggestion that his policies are converging on those of his predecessor, well, the best way for him to avoid such comparisons is to advance policies that unambiguously differ from those of his predecessor.

And while the reporter, Mike Isikoff, did not put it quite this plainly, I gather Obama has fallen for the idea that he should be in good standing on the liberal left because of the volume and intensity of criticism he receives from the far right. I dearly hope Obama is smarter than to fall for that fallacy. He should know by now that the far right will excoriate him no matter what he does, no matter what he says, and without concern for internal consistency.

What the far right wants is a different president; what the liberal-left wants -- or should want if it's following its principles -- is a president who will follow the Constitution and restore the rule of law. We thought we voted in such a president last November. That we find him backtracking, temporizing, stammering and sulking in an imagined triangulation is a profound disappointment, and, word-mincing aside, a loud and clear "fuck you" to the hopes his candidacy raised.

Of course, time and deeds will tell. Tomorrow will feature one of those "major addresses" that could say a lot about the course he'll take. Or it could prove to be more pretty words strung together.

Star Trek: A Reboot Explained

++++ Spoiler Alert ++++
The extremely well thought out text appearing below this will surely reveal details of plot, character, personal quirks, gratuitous name-calling, and other things decent people try to avoid.



Thus sayeth LarryNiven:
... the new "Star Trek," which I fail to understand as a reboot even though that's what everyone says it is.
Isn't the idea that a crazy miner Romulan went back in time, ass-dragged Spock with him, and made planet Vulcan implode using a red dot thing? And in turn, doesn't this put us back at star date [whatever star date it was before Captain Kirk got old and fat, around when he first assumed the captain's chair of the Enterprise, long before TJ Hooker or Priceline ads]?

Moreover, the Captain Pike story is re-scrambled in this new timeline, although -- damn the luck -- Pike still wound up in a wheelchair in this scenario. That dude can't buy a break in any universe.

So it's an alternate timeline, one with at least two glaring differences: a raging-mad-at-Romulans version of Spock and a big hole in the sky where the planet Vulcan used to be. Presumably the small number of surviving Vulcans, together with their lack of a home planet, implies more human-Vulcan and [whatever]-Vulcan hybridization going forward. Maybe the remaining Vulcans will need to pare back on that insane mating ritual of theirs as a result of their need to branch into other species (so to speak)? This can only be a net good for the dating scene.

Also, in this new timeline, Reboot-Spock knows Reboot-Scotty is a fraud because he knows the older Spock spoon-fed him that beam-to-a-ship-while-in-warp equation that made Scotty so famous in the other timeline. I expect Reboot-Spock will be watching Reboot-Scotty closely for signs that he's getting all his good ideas from time travelers -- perhaps future versions of Spock himself -- and will likely spread nasty rumors about him, give him a demeaning nickname, and otherwise treat him with contempt.

For his part, Reboot-Scotty may well stop making any effort toward increasing his engineering acumen, expecting instead that time travelers will continue to show up and give him useful ideas. That's how this precious, precious blog gets written, so for me this is a no-brainer.

Finally, Reboot-Spock will go forward knowing exactly how he'll look if he makes it to Leonard Nimoy's age. That can't be consequence-free, even for someone so devoted to pure logic.

A Nostrum Encountered

One of my "friends" in a social networking site that shall go unnamed* has a profile blurb stating the following:

Only two defining forces have ever offered to die for you:
1. Jesus Christ
2. The American GI.
One died for your soul, the other for your freedom.
Upon reading this, it carried a slight patina of credibility: the members of the US military are rightly renowned for their willingness to die for the sake of the US national defense, and the Jesus character from the New Testament did withhold his putative omnipotence long enough to endure a torturous execution, and did so, we are told, for the expiation of our sins.

On a few seconds' more reflection, it turns out this kind of willing sacrifice is not so rare after all: martyrdom is hardly unheard of above and beyond the case of Jesus, and mortal risk comes attached to many occupations, a few obvious examples being police officers, firefighters, and prison guards. And there are many more -- they don't mean Deadliest Catch from the crabs' perspective.

What's worse about the right-wing nostrum is how the two sacrifices it's willing to consider are wholly at odds with each other. Jesus sacrificed himself because we're incorrigible sinners without any hope of meriting god's favor on our own, whereas US soldiers routinely die to preserve our "way of life," which consists of large doses of greed, gluttony, lust, envy, sloth, pride, and assorted varieties of wrath. Jesus died to whisk away our sin; soldiers die to keep us neck-deep in it. Some fanatical Christians, perhaps most famously the knuckle-draggers of Fred Phelps's church, not only notice but loudly and rudely deplore this disparity.

In short, this nostrum my "friend" so proudly displays is, at best, a gross oversimplification. Soldiers do place their lives at peril, and we should acknowledge and thank them for that. But they're not the only ones worthy to be so acknowledged.

* Unnamed except to say that it is not MySpace, which is garbage.

Adding Disagreeably

Some people see something on the web that's disagreeable and pointless and ask "why?" But not this blogger. No, I see something like that and ask, "how can I make it more disagreeable and more pointless?"

Case in point: music reviews on Amazon.com in general, and unfavorable reviews of Neko Case's Middle Cyclone in particular. Maybe it's just my vanity speaking, but I honestly believe I can add to the quantity of disagreeable pointlessness displayed in these reviews by quoting them and adding my own rebuttals, rebukes, snarks, japes, grouses, and other approximations of insight. Let's find out!

I consider the four one-star reviews:

By kibblenibbler (CT) - See all my reviews
star only to help bring down the rating of this title closer to what it actually should be. the multitude of 5 star gushers here waxing rhapsodic are very, very much off the mark regarding Middle Cyclone. while it is at least a passable record, perhaps even a good one at that, it is, to be sure, hardly great, certainly not worthy of the 5 stars that should be reserved for titles of that quality and that quality alone. that said, if you want to know where I'm coming from with this, what my tastes are like, take a look at some of my other reviews/my lists/my guide...
kibblenibbler sees himself as a sort of Karmic enforcer of Amazon.com reviews, bringing its product ratings into proper balance as he understands it. We should consider the stress that surely attends this self-imposed burden before too harshly condemning his free-wheeling capitalization scheme, and then we should move on because he didn't actually get around to saying anything definite about the work under review. We should move on, but not before pausing over his invitation to read his other reviews. Does anyone feel even the slightest inclination to accept, based on this offering? Me neither.
I'm always dubious when I see a celebrity photos retouched. I feel the same way when I hear so much reverb in the production of Neko's songs. After a while all the songs sound the same: Hootin' and hollerin'. With echoes.
To his credit, Michael Rowley does at least deliver glancing blows to the work at hand, and wants the world to know: celebrity portraits that show signs of retouching are an abomination, and on an album cover, they're a star-subtracting offense. And I must admit he may be on to something: it may be that Neko Case, the actual singer-songwriter, does not, at all times of day and in all situations, look exactly as she is shown on the album cover: shoeless, bearing a sword, standing on the hood of a muscle car against a pure white background.

The reviewer's disdain for retouched portraiture is matched by a curious disdain for reverberation, a disdain he finds too obvious to explain, but one that spells doom for the last ~50 years of popular music if it extends to the electric guitar. I read him to say that reverberation indicates overproduction of the sort that some singers use to exaggerate their vocal range and power. To which I can only say that if Michael Rowley thinks Neko Case's vocal range and power is the end-product of studio legerdemain, he is either batshit-insane or the single laziest researcher in the annals of internet gabbery, given the vast quantity of live, freely available recordings of Neko Case's singing. Are all those youtube videos (just for starters) remastered, overproduced, voice-flattering fakes?

And what, pray tell, is wrong with "hootin' and hollerin'"? In any case, any proper fan of hootin' and hollerin' would laugh at the suggestion that this album is rife with it. Next!
By Sandra Morrison "smorr452" (Galveston, Texas) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)
I purchased this album after reading the reviews and listening to NPR. This is the most boring, dirge-like music I have listened to in many years. The tunes are all alike, the words are without a doubt trite, cliche and uninspired. I can't believe that ANYONE would consider this to be anything but the ramblings of a pre-teen girl with hormonal problems. Now I am stuck with this [...] which will go into the CDs I will never listen to again section of my several thousand CD collection. Is there a way to give a negative amount of stars? If so, this rates a negative 850.
Sweet Karl Rove's Ghost! A negative 850! Surely this is an all-time low. There are so many questions raised by this review. In what sense are the songs all alike, and assuming they are so, in what sense is this a bad thing? I have gone to some length exploring the extent to which the album's songs are thematically unified, as I think they are, but surely the unification is not, of itself, a flaw -- or is it? Should a proper album jump willy-nilly from theme to theme? Why? Who says? Sandra Morrison, that's who! Or so I gather. I have to conclude there are a great many well-loved albums she would hate if this is her standard.

More intriguing is the claim that Middle Cyclone is cliche, which suggests there are numerous records known to Sandra Morrison that cover the same ground, lyrically and musically. Which ones? I mean, it's not as though Middle Cyclone is an absolute singularity -- it fits more or less comfortably into a musical genre (or two), into its creator's larger oevre, and into a poetic-thematic tradition, no doubt -- but if there are bunches of recordings out there of which it is merely a pale copy, I want to know which ones because I want those albums! Do tell!

Last but not least, there is the charge of "ramblings of a pre-teen girl with hormonal problems" of which I offer the following translation: that Neko Case is not dead inside, not content to sit creaking in a rocking chair to await death. I agree completely! A sense of life and passion does indeed shine through these songs. How this should take the album down to -850 stars is beyond me. Maybe the reviewer thought she was ordering something by, I don't know, a choir of pro-abstinence, asexual scolds? Big mistake, dear.
By Richard Michaud "Jeepin Life is Good!" (Hamilton, NJ United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)
neko case-marais la nuit

30 plus minutes of a "4 minute loop of frogs"=the most irritating 30 minutes and waste of time in recording history. I actually listened to the CD and IMHO...it's crap and the last track is 30+ minutes of my life that I'll never be able to get back. Maybe I should tape Pumba my Pug, snoring and loop it for 70 minutes and sell it as my latest album. Good ideas.....I got a million of em!
... and I might buy that pug-themed album if the pug snoring is the last of 15 songs, where the first 14 are something else. Middle Cyclone would be an example of this approach to album-making, if the reviewer needs one. But despite his claim to have listened to the album, Richard Michaud was evidently too occupied with his jeepin' life (whatever the hell that is) and the agonies that accompany his experience of pond sounds to have noticed those first 14 songs -- or, expressed in his preferred unit of measure, those first ~42 minutes of the album. And I have to say, those first ~42 minutes are vividly distinct from marais la nuit, albeit thematically connected (to the chagrin of some, I gather).

Neat!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ida, Narrower of Gaps

Yet again, science has forced the god-of-the-gaps to squeeze into an even smaller space, this time upon the discovery of an evolutionary antecedent to modern primates. Laelaps has an excellent summary together with discussion of the shoddy journalism announcing it:

Before I jump into my criticisms of the paper describing Darwinius masillae, Ida's scientific name, I do want to stress how spectacular the fossil really is. The primate fossil record is extremely fragmentary, and if you want to know anything about fossil primates you are going to have to know your teeth. That's usually all that is left of them. Ida, then, is a paleontologist's dream come true. Not only is it a complete specimen but parts of the primate's last meal were preserved inside its stomach and its body outline was marked by bacteria that fed on the decomposing carcass during fossilization. This is the first time a fossil primate has been found exhibiting such extraordinary preservation.
All this in a fossil dating back 47 million years! PZ Myers has more on this fantastic, if overhyped, finding.

Point-Counterpoint on Civility and Abortion

I am almost prepared to agree with Alan Jacobs in his assessment of President Obama's commencement address at Notre Dame. Almost. Jacobs:

We really should treat one another respectfully and not caricature our opponents’ views. But it’s also important to note that this can only be the primary concern for those who support legal abortion, and especially those like the President who oppose any significant restrictions on abortion whatsoever. If you have already decided that abortion is not the taking of a person’s life, then of course civility in debate is going to be at the forefront of your mind. Thus the widespread applause for Obama’s generosity of spirit, even among people who have no intention of treating the pro-life movement with anything but contempt.
Jacobs is correct on the narrow point, that abortion is, generally speaking, a matter in which civility can more easily rise in priority for those of us in favor of the "pro-choice" status quo; and of course he's right on the narrow point that we should strive not to caricature our opponents' positions.

But on the larger point, no, I think it's important and fair to expect people to scale their certainty with the availability and quality of evidence undergirding the certainty. I would expect Jacobs would be nodding right along with Obama had he been asking for civility from Muslims who were screaming for the head of someone who dared to draw a cartoon of Mohammed.

That said, yes, I agree that we on the "pro-choice" side could stand to do some honest reckoning of the degree to which we respect the "pro-life" position. I include myself in this although I've never spent much energy trying to convince "pro-lifers" that I respect their position. I don't. I respect their right to hold the position, and I respect "pro-lifers" as much as I respect any other people; and as to the matter itself, I recognize that details matter, that there are relevant nuances to consider, and that "bad cases make bad law," yadda yadda yadda, but cutting through all the pleasantries, euphemism, and hedges, I'm not kidding about siding with the "pro-choice" position and against the "pro-life" position.

Whether it's red-faced shrieking about "killing babies" or "blasphemous" representations of Mohammed, I simply don't find the shrieking believable. I don't find that degree of passion justifiable on reasonable grounds, and so, yes, I cop to the charge: concerning the anti-abortion position, I think it's more phony than not when it reaches the point of screaming and throwing the word "murderer" around, let alone planting bombs and shooting guns.

I think people should say what they mean and mean what they say, and we should all hitch up our big-boy and big-girl diapers and accept that life includes people with whom we will always disagree. And yes, I apply this standard to Obama too, who is, insofar as I am able to judge it, a frequent violator.

Hey You

If there must be such a thing as power ballads fueled by a combination of childhood trauma and psychedelic drugs, they should be like "Hey You" by Pink Floyd.

I don't find the lyrics particularly difficult to puzzle out, but this video provides them (plus a few extra comments):



This video was assembled by a fan using (mostly) clips from The Wall:

Monday, May 18, 2009

Shorter GOP on Torture

The Republican Party on Torture

  • In a perfect world, we would have a body of written laws and an independent branch of government empowered to investigate and apply the laws to specific circumstances, such as the treatment of wartime detainees. In the world as it is, all we have is varying accounts of what the CIA said to Nancy Pelosi a few years ago.


'Shorter' concept lovingly borrowed from Sadly, No!

The Red House: Furniture for Almost All the Peoples of the World

Are you a white person looking to buy furniture? Maybe you're a black person looking for furniture? If so, this ad is for you.

Even Latinos are included in this ad's generous sweep, though they have to wait for the last few seconds.

Truth as a Verb: A Case Study

Through the lens of Bible-informed faith, witches exist and pose a threat, even if they are children:

They are blamed for causing illness, death and destruction, prompting some communities to put them through harrowing punishments to "cleanse" them of their supposed magical powers.

"Children accused of witchcraft are often incarcerated in churches for weeks on end and beaten, starved and tortured in order to extract a confession," said Gary Foxcroft, program director of Stepping Stones Nigeria, a nonprofit that helps alleged witch children in the region.

Many of those targeted have traits that make them stand out, including learning disabilities, stubbornness and ailments such as epilepsy, he added.
It turns out that there are well-founded naturalistic accounts of these "traits" having nothing to do with witches, but the Bible says what it says, and the Bible's peddlars are consistent in nothing if not promoting a Biblical understanding of the world:
Pastors have been accused of worsening the problem by claiming to have powers to recognize and exorcise "child witches," sometimes for a fee, aid workers said.
And there it is -- a further illustration, for anyone still in suspense on the point, that the how of truth matters more than the what.

Not every lens is equal; the manner in which truth claims arise and are subsequently authenticated matters. If the question is "what is true today, and how do we know?" -- how is truth done -- then even the noblest and most resonant expressions appearing in ancient texts are deficient. Yes, the various prophets said fine things about peace, love, and understanding along the way. But everything imputed to them finds its authorization from precisely the same source as the present case in which sick children are tortured for "witchcraft."

The privileging of texts scratched out by ignorant primitives thousands of years ago is dangerous no matter the substance of the particular claim. The abuse of reality and reason produces, sooner or later, the abuse of human beings.

(via TwoBlueDay)

Best Mad Scheme Ever

PZ Myers is enthusiastic about the prospect of tweaking chickens' development to make living dinosaurs, a blueprint of which he found in a new book by Jack Horner and James Gorman. Enthusiasm is one thing; the surprising thing is that Myers, who knows developmental biology if anyone does, finds the scheme plausible:

And then, once you've got a tailed chicken, you could work on adding teeth to the jaws. And foreclaws. And while you're at it, find the little genomic slider that controls body size, and turn it up to 11. What he's proposing is a step-by-step analysis of chicken-vs.-dinosaur decisions in the developmental pathways, and inserting intentional atavisms into them. This is all incredibly ambitious, and it might not work…but the only way to find out is try. I like that in a scientist. Turning a chicken into a T. rex is a true Mad Scientist project, and one that I must applaud.
Yes! I would prefer we hold off on turning up the genomic body size slider to 11 until after we've thoroughly validated the approach, if only because a shins-high T-Rex would be absolutely adorable, whereas a full-sized one would likely create public relations problems from all the heedless predation.

Start small, I say -- but do start today.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Plus Ca Change -- God's Law, God's Followers

I wonder if anyone will answer Ophelia Benson's questions? The questions arose in a dispute with Brandon at Siris and concern, broadly, the ways and extent to which Islam-as-creed is distinct from Muslims-as-people.

I have touched on this question myself many times, and in the spirit of not reinventing the wheel (or the butterfly), I've reproduced something I wrote a year ago that's of direct relevance to the matters at hand. I've edited it ever so slightly:

There is violence and intolerance aplenty in the world's leading holy books: see here a quiz and its answers comparing the viciousness of the Old Testament, New Testament, and the Koran; here's more violence in the Koran; and still more violence in the Koran.

All well and good, but again and again, the point is made that no meaningful conclusions about a person's beliefs follow from the person's choice of holy books. Castigating Sam Harris for his most recent castigation of Islamic dogma, Tristero makes the point:

[W]hile it is certainly possible to read the texts of Islam (at least, the translated texts) as supporting a political program and the use of violence to gain power, it is not a necessary reading any more than a reading of the Hebrew Bible necessarily supports the violent suppression of objections to Israeli settlements.
And then broadens the point:
[T]here is no such thing as "Islam" but Islams - plural. To lump all Islams together and condemn the aggregate as inherently violent is not merely silly, but bizarre.
Presumably, Tristero would not want to condemn the aggregate as illiberal either. Granted, there are violent and non-violent, illiberal and liberal people who self-label as devout Muslims, just as there are child-rapist-shielding and non-child-rapist-shielding people who self-label as devout Christians, and it's worthwhile to draw the distinctions among them.

To that end, exactly how do we draw the distinctions? I want to understand the non-literalists. Apparently a person can be a devout Muslim while blithely ignoring substantial swaths of the Koran. What is the Koran to such a person? Did god dictate it to Mohammed? If so, doesn't it have to be humbly accepted as the teaching of a much greater intelligence? If not, isn't it just another book? If it's somewhere between -- in part just another book, in part the words of god himself -- how do we know which is which? On whose authority? According to what interpretive scheme? If it's a matter of deducing the "correct" passages from their agreement with an overarching, fundamental essence of the faith -- peace, submission, love, charity, service, truth, what have you -- who decides the essence of the faith? Who defines these loaded terms? Doesn't this stance just beg the same basic questions?

I really don't get it. I have the same questions about the forms of Judaism and Christianity that wish away substantial portions of god's supposed revelation.

Stripping away the platitudes and euphemisms, the forms of Abrahamic monotheism that sweep away the embarrassments and evils of the really-existing holy books amount to special pleading. They sound like groundless assertions that a set of piety-encrusted wishes, hopes, and aspirations are true -- true as in authenticated by a god, notwithstanding what the god actually left in the way of concrete revelation.

This is good enough? This merits respect?

We continue to await a better account of non-literalist belief.

Sights at the Zoo


Wolves at play in the snow -- like dogs, only wilder; like freshly-fallen snow, only trucked in from the mountains or generated by a snow machine.


Hippos have very, very large heads. It is said (or so I assume) that on the morning of 17 May, if a hippo sees its own shadow, no one will be able to tell as it will take no apparent notice -- and therefore, by some unfathomable process, Summer will arrive in 35 days.


I noted that this Speke's Gazelle would only engage in this feeding behavior when there were no giraffes around to mock her exertions.

I don't get out to the Oregon Zoo often enough. They do excellent conservation work, and beyond that, they link the culture of the city with a beautiful selection of the world's fauna.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Music and American Television

Here is a live performance of "When the Roses Bloom Again" by Laura Cantrell, who seems to have been born to sing this song (and others besides):



This performance appears to have been broadcast on BBC TV, which makes it yet another instance in which interesting music shows up on British, rather than American, TV -- and in this case, it's difficult to imagine how this music could be more American: the performer is American, the song was originally written by American A.P. Carter, its lyrical referent is the American Civil War.

Though I've not carried out the requisite sociological research, I believe I am on firm footing when I say the United States has numerous music fans, and of these, many who watch television. So where the hell is interesting music on American television?

Well, we have MTV, right? MTV! Music TeleVision! Below are tonight's listings on MTV as screen-scraped from the local cable monopoly's online TV listings page (click images to enlarge). I have no idea what these programs are about, but a glance at their descriptions reveals no discernible relationship with music. They seem to be something more in the "reality TV" category, or the "situation comedy (comedy conspiciously omitted)" category, or who-the-hell-cares. Maybe they're game shows? Shows centered on footage of car chases? On footage of the physical arrests of trailer trash and/or racial minorities? I keep suggesting possibilities as though I wish to find out, when in fact I do not.


I grant I have not fully canvassed the issues raised here -- Laura Cantrell, being a country-ish performer, is unlikely to appear on even a hypothetical version of MTV that concerned itself with music-oriented television; there is such a thing as a Country Music channel (CMT) that may, indeed, produce and broadcast music-oriented programming; perhaps there is another bona-fide music-oriented channel of which I am unaware (VH1?); it may be that my one-night sampling of MTV's programming is an exception to a music-rich-programming rule.

I doubt all of the above, especially the latter, but since I have long since fallen out of the habit of even remembering the existence of MTV, I can't speak with any confidence about the general nature of its programming.

I want my M TV; MTV can go hang.

Same Shit, Different Day. Thursday Excepted.

Glennzilla runs down what has been a grim week in the Obama administration's rollbacks of civil liberties:

Monday - Obama administration's letter to Britian threatening to cut off intelligence-sharing if British courts reveal the details of how we tortured British resident Binyam Mohamed;

Tuesday - Promoted to military commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChyrstal, who was deeply involved in some of the worst abuses of the Bush era;

Wednesday - Announced he was reversing himself and would try to conceal photographic evidence showing widespread detainee abuse -- despite the rulings from two separate courts (four federal judges unanimously) that the law compels their disclosure;

Friday -Unveiled his plan to preserve a modified system of military commissions for trying Guantanamo detainees, rather than using our extant-judicial processes for doing so.
At least the president didn't treat the Constitution like so much toilet paper on Thursday, assuming this list is complete.

Notwithstanding a very qualified agreement with Wednesday's entry -- an agreement that stands on purely substantive grounds and does not even consider the legalities -- this is not the change I voted for.

I am losing track -- was it one president ago or two who said the following marvelous words?
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.
This is exactly right, which is what makes Obama's recent actions so exactly wrong. We did not need another president who either doesn't connect his words with his deeds, or doesn't care that they contradict.

Shameful.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Telling Indexes

For reasons that presently escape me but are no doubt crudely pecuniary, CNN has decided to notice the existence of scholar and agnostic Bart Ehrman:

Ehrman backs his arguments with a deep knowledge of the culture and history of the New Testament world. He's written 20 books on early Christianity and is an authority on ancient manuscripts used to translate the Bible.

His claims, though, take on some of Christianity's most sacred tenets, like the resurrection of Jesus. Ehrman says he doesn't think the resurrection took place. There's no proof Jesus physically rose from the dead, and the resurrection stories contradict one another, he says.
That Ehrman does indeed ground his skepticism of Christianity in a thorough knowledge of its theology, source texts, and even the languages in which the texts were written; and that he tends to come across in an easygoing and friendly manner poses an interesting challenge for the anti-new-atheist flacks: the Courtier's Reply, according to which religious skepticism is dismissed on grounds of an alleged failure to consider the past 3,000 years worth of theology, does not work for Ehrman. It does not work against other critics of religion, but it falls with an especially audible thud in Ehrman's case.

It would be interesting to observe, for example, whether Terry Eagleton or Chris Hedges -- who appear to have written the same unreadable book, give or take a few turns of phrase, sloppy misattributions, and points of emphasis -- have seen fit to mention Ehrman. Amazon.com's helpful "look inside this book" feature reveals that Eagleton's index includes zero mentions of Bart Ehrman; and Hedges' version of the same book matches that zero; as does Dinesh D'Souza's; as does this one.

Telling, no?

I do not mean to suggest Ehrman is without his critics. But he has the scholarly background to tell a naked emperor from a clothed one, and from that expertise he has come to a decidedly new-atheistic set of conclusions, albeit without the same self-label.

Telling. Yes.