Saturday, October 31, 2009

Saturday Things

It has been the best of times, it has been the worst of times:

  • A day since I came across it (via), but it still strikes me the same way: what a colossal asshole Steve Fuller is. Who is Steve Fuller, you ask? Don't bother spending much time on that before taking in his obituary to Norm Levitt. Readers of this blog will know that I am something of a student of asshole-ishness, but Fuller's effort exposes me as a rank dilettante.
  • A far-flung correspondent reports to me from the Tulsa Run 15K that the event is rife with religious signs and religious music; three guesses as to the religion, and the first three guesses don't count. My correspondent also reports an odd excess of female participants in full facial makeup. Weird.
  • Jason Rosenhouse:
    It is completely unremarkable that so many people think evolution renders Christian belief unreasonable. There is a reason so many highly educated people must write at book length just to show that major Christian claims about the world (that humans hold a privileged place in creation; that the world is superintended by a God who is all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful; that the Bible is inerrant and sacred) are not quite impossible in the light of evolution.
    I believe "not quite impossible" is today's best example of damnation by faint praise.
  • Here is the amazing finish of the 10k in the 1964 Olympics -- apparently TV used to look this way:

Friday, October 30, 2009

I Pick Up Scents of Science


I knew I detected the scent of a jaw-dropping science thingy on the web, and here it is, a slider control attached to graphics that allows you to see the relative size of items ranging from a coffee bean to a carbon atom.

Fantastic!

My screen scrape, cool as it is, doesn't do justice to the item scraped.

(via Ian, via Sully)

God-Drunk Anti-Gay Animus Turned Up to 11

As the free world continues waiting for a coherent non-religious argument against legal equality in marriage, "amazing" is one word for this presentation taped in Washington DC; I would have gone with "shockingly stupid" or "astoundingly moronic." Do yourself the favor of watching the god-addled witness after minute three or so, when she turns the bat-shit insanity up to 11 and comes close to breaking the knob trying to find a 12:



Rightwingwatch.org has a distressingly extensive library of equally insipid videos of speakers and assorted bigots who can't seem to distinguish the United States from the theocracy they've constructed in their heads.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

"Are you thinking of what to say or are you just looking at that door?"

The line above, as spoken by Betty Draper, inaugurates the most pivotal scenes of the most recent episode of Mad Men.

That's quite a line, one that passably summarizes the entire series to date: in their social world centered on advertising, salesmanship, pick-up lines, deception, and every kind of supporting verbal legerdemain, will the characters come up with the right words to answer the situation or will they depart, willingly or otherwise?

To the musings of Amanda Marcotte and Brian Moon, I will note the visual motif of open doors, which are rife in this episode -- for example, as it is framed, Betty and Don have their most significant conversation to date with an open door directly in the background of each. This builds the tension over whether the person Don left in the car will come walking through one of them, and underscores the broader theme of transition: moving forward, being there rather than here, decision, motion, leaving or staying, past versus future, changing from one place to another place, going from one state to another.

Conventional marriages, participants in which Don and Betty present themselves to the public, include a ritual of passing through an open doorway, and they also end when someone walks out a door.

The episode ends on what might be an even stronger line: without realizing the freight of the question, a neighbor -- while standing in an opened door -- asks Betty and Don with their trick-or-treating kids, "And who are you supposed to be?"

In reply, Don's look of shock combined with a wry smile suggests he is thinking of what to say while looking for a door.

Who indeed? Through what door?

Contra Monoganazism

Being a live-and-let-live sort of guy, I agree completely with Dan Savage:

I'm all for equal marriage rights for people who make monogamous commitments, despite their terrible track record. But the monogamous have to find a way to discuss their unnatural lifestyle choices that doesn't amount to an attack on those who made a more natural choice.
The rest of Savage's piece, which introduces the term "monoganazis" to the world (as far as I know), can and should be read in full.

I know lots of self-proclaimed monogamous people; many of them are friends of mine, and some are even in my family. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Thanking "GOD"


Sometimes quotation marks are equal parts unnecessary and edifying, as in this example highlighted at the Huffington Post. From start to finish, the sign reads

THANK "GOD" FOR ALL THE TROOPS FROM THE AMERICAN FAMILY
... or, if we include the ribbons, which we can do with only a slight diminution in the quality of English usage the sign displays, it reads
YELLOW RIBBON THANK "GOD" FOR ALL THE TROOPS FROM THE AMERICAN FAMILY YELLOW RIBBON
The most eye-catching mistake is, of course, the scare-quotes around the word god, which challenge the reader to question the place of god in the graceless affirmation. Were the sign merely thanking god for all the troops, we might pass it off as just another instance in which someone has thrown good billboard money down a hole to grovel before imaginary entities, though the careful reader might still balk at "ALL THE TROOPS," a formulation that includes, among others, foreign troops, enemy troops, long-dead troops, hypothetical troops, fictional troops, future troops, non-participating troops, AWOL troops, treasonous troops, and so on. "ALL THE TROOPS" even includes gay troops, and something tells me the people who paid for this sign are actually not willing to thank god, "GOD," or anyone else for gay troops.

As it stands, though, the scare-quotes around god compound the confusions by broadening the possible readings. GOD is one thing; "GOD" conveys something like "so-called god," "the one that simpletons call god," (did Karen Armstrong conceive this sign?), "this god thing, whatever the hell that's supposed to mean," or perhaps "the one we have nick-named 'god' in jest," or what have you. Needless to say, imposing this confusion on the entity being thanked casts doubts on the sincerity of the gratitude -- it invites a sarcastic reading, as in, "thanks a lot, god, for these worthless fucking troops," which I charitably(?) assume to be roughly the opposite of the intended meaning.

I will decline to unpack "FROM THE AMERICAN FAMILY," except to say that it should have said "AN AMERICAN FAMILY," or better yet, it should have listed the names of the specific people responsible -- or maybe I should say the "competent English speakers" responsible for the billboard. As wildly overbroad reifications go, "THE AMERICAN FAMILY" is one I would prefer never to see in public, since I am credibly included in it, and thus accountable for its expressions. While I share in some possible readings of this mess of a billboard, I would prefer to speak for myself, "speak" for myself, and "speak for myself."

If you didn't already know, there already exists The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks that explores this verbal gaffe in all its variety and profusion.

Wednesday Randomizer Blogging

The Word knows what to do:

Usual rules. The first five tunes that come up on shuffle or random. No editing, no second goes, no apologies, no excuses. Do it now.
I did as instructed, but it may be worth noting that I did several rounds rather than just one -- I'm confident in my current music catalog based on some hard-headed paring I've done recently -- and I used MediaMonkey. I [heart] MediaMonkey.

The Beatles, "Why Don't We Do It In the Road"
Rush, "Closer to the Heart"
Sonic Youth, "Unwind"
Portishead, "It Could Be Sweet"
Rilo Kiley, "Hail To Whatever You Found in the Sunlight That Surrounds You"

Silver Jews, "New Orleans"
The Mountain Goats, "Wizard Buys a Hat"
Sliver Jews, "Time Will Break the World"
Neko Case, "Torchlight"
Broadcast, "The Book Lovers"

Neko Case, "I Missed the Point"
Stereolab, "One Finger Symphony"
Stephen Malkmus, "Church on White"
Stereolab, "Space Age Batchelor Pad Music (Mellow)"
Arcade Fire, "No Cars Go"

The Shins, "Sea Legs"
Bob Dylan, "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll"
Radiohead, "Street Spirit (Fade Out)"
Smashing Pumpkins, "Muzzle"
Monade, "Sunrise Telling"

Pink Floyd, "In the Flesh"
The Bird & The Bee, "You're a Cad"
U2, "Breathe"
Neko Case, "Tightly"
Thurston Moore, "Fri/End"

Massive Attack, "Unfinished Sympathy"
Franz Schubert (Moore/Fischer-Dieskau), "Schwanengesang X: Das Fischermadchen"
Death Cab for Cutie, "Summer Skin"
The Beatles, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)"
Bob Dylan, "Ballad of a Thin Man"

Luna, "I Can't Wait"
Bob Dylan, "North Country Blues"
Bob Dylan, "Obviously 5 Believers"
The Beatles, "Think For Yourself"
Stereolab, "Op Hop Destination"

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Broadening the Flattening

Norm Geras takes note of a sloppy bit of moral flattening issued by filmmaker Michael Haneke.

[Michael Haneke] There is just as much evil in all of us as there is good... We're all continuously guilty, even if we're not doing it intentionally to be evil. Here we are sitting in luxury hotels, living it up on the the backs of others in the third world. We all have a guilty conscience, but we do very little about it.
[Norm Geras] I'd say that rather flattens out the concept of evil and renders it less than useful. The potentiality for evil may inhere in many people but one shouldn't just take it as read that it is present in all, and one shouldn't accept, either, that there is as much evil in all of us as there is good, or that there is as much evil in some of us as in others of us. It makes a difference what people do, how they actually behave, and if they behave well then their capacity to do evil in certain circumstances doesn't quite count in the same way as if they had done it.
I agree with Norm's assessment, but I think it's worth noting that the assessment, as well as the flattening it targets, goes well beyond Michael Haneke. The notion that everyone is continuously guilty is, of course, a foundational precept of Christianity, often cited in the form of Paul's epistle to the Romans (3:21-26):
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. [emphasis mine]
There is no difference worth noticing from one person's deeds to another's, declares one of the foremost architects of the Christian creed. This has all kinds of ugly ramifications, only the least of which is indifference as to whether Haneke's 1997 Funny Games was better than the 2007 remake of it. If the flattened view is taken seriously, as it apparently still is, it follows that the deeds depicted in both versions of the film are inconsequential. That the brutalizers and the brutalized are moral equals is a filthy conceit, but a strangely commonly-held one.

Good Earwigs: The National and Bon Iver

I posted on The National once before, confidently predicting that it would become one of my favorite music acts of all time. Well, yes and no, as it turns out: yes, they've made a handful of songs that stay in the head in a good way, but no, much of their work has gone off the playlist and stands little chance of returning.

Here's a nice fan-made video of one of their better songs, "Fake Empire," which I don't take to be about literal empires at all:



While I'm posting on songs that won't quite leave the inner ear without a struggle, here's a nice performance of Bon Iver's "Skinny Love" on the Letterman show:



The studio version of "Skinny Love" sounds like this, and I am glad something does.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Columbia Gorge Half Marathon 2009 - On the Medal


One last thing worth noting about the Columbia Gorge marathon/half-marathon -- I've amassed a pretty large collection of race medals over the course of my running habit, enough to say with no small authority: the medal we got upon finishing the run yesterday is what a post-race medal looks like when the race organizers are actually trying. No, it's not precious medals that we can melt down and sell for buckets of cash; no, it's not a singularity the like of which the world has never seen; no, it would not have made a bad day into a good day; but this post-race medal has the look of one in to which someone put some care, thoughtfulness, and creativity. I appreciate that.

Well done and thank you!

Columbia Gorge Half Marathon 2009: Monotonous Beauty

As vaguely live-blogged yesterday, I completed the Columbia Gorge half marathon in a time of 1:33:10 (7:07 min/mi pace, official), which was only 9 seconds too slow for a PR at that distance. As advertised, the course was challenging -- hills up, hills down, repeat for 13 miles and change -- but staggeringly beautiful, actually monotonously beautiful if that's even possible.

I mean, how many times can you round another slight bend in the Columbia River Highway State Trail to reveal a breathtaking natural vista without getting slightly agitated with it? My eyes wanted to find something ugly just for the contrast, but there was nothing ugly, nor even average, nor even merely above average, to be seen. The photo at left of Multnomah Falls, mediocre as it is from my camera phone, gives a sense of the colors in the gorge yesterday.

It was a terrific event, one I encourage fellow runners to add to their calendars in future years. My thanks go out to the event's organizers and the volunteers who made it all possible.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Whew- the Columbia Gorge half marathon course was spectacular. I finished in 93 minutes or so, & now I am cold. VERY cold. VERY.

Fell deeds awake! Swords will be shaken, shields will be broken! Also- run starts in 15 minutes.

Correction - I could still set a world record for whining today. Eye of the tiger!

Hood River update - no longer dark but very cold. I demand that no rain fall on us. If it does, I will refuse to set a world record.

I am at the packet pickup for the Columbia Gorge half marathon. Hood River is lovely- if only the sun would rise and show it. Dark!

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Dreams in Question

Hamlet was famously beset with fearful dreams of what may come should he kill himself:

To die- to sleep-
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die- to sleep.
To sleep- perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
What dreams might those be? Most of us have to guess at the post-death -- I, for one, expect a small, featureless room without furnishings, cable, or pets, but stocked with self-help books on how to rattle things, move chairs, knock things off shelves, and otherwise serve as a quality poltergeist -- but Hamlet's dreams of it have been recently sharpened from the ghost of his father:
I am thy father's spirit,
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin'd to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg'd away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.
The ghost doesn't say much, but what he says draws a grim portrait. Then again, maybe crazy Hamlet imagined the entire sequence, and the ghost was nothing more than another bored, sock-hiding poltergeist.

Grayson v. Loons

I have ignored the ACORN-related kerfuffles because it's nothing more than an idiotic chew-toy for right-wing fanatics, but I do love this back-and-forth featuring every American liberal's newest man-crush, and certainly mine, Representative Alan Grayson:



Lawyers exist to draw subtle distinctions, of course, but Representative Broun does not strike me as a subtle distinctions sort of fellow. He strikes me as a knuckle-dragging, denialist moron.

Glennzilla has searingly addressed the bill of attainder in question.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Impeaching Jephthah

In a comment to my send-up of Judges 11, commenter pplr does some squinting and finds room to exonerate the god of the Bible, citing a few of my assumptions about the story:

1st assumption, Jep cut a deal. Where does it say God accepted any deal? And even if God was willing to cut a deal where does it say God accepted, or even wanted, the terms offered? It does appear that Jep made the offer unsolicited.

2nd assumption, God helped in the battle. Maybe God helped him because he did win and maybe he would have won anyway because he had the leadership skills to run raids on the local community anyway (these skills possibly being why the local community turned to him in the first place).
I grant a few of the assumptions I made are not expressly supported in the text, but I think they're valid. (This is not a new controversy.)

For starters, Judges 11 appears to state pretty plainly that god had a hand in helping Jephthah to victory, and therefore had accepted the terms of Jephthah's nasty deal:
[32] So Jephthah crossed over to the sons of Ammon to fight against them; and the LORD gave them into his hand.

[33] He struck them with a very great slaughter from Aroer to the entrance of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the sons of Ammon were subdued before the sons of Israel. [emphasis mine]
Had the distinction been as important as you say, the part in bold would have been the place to state something more like, "Jephthah claimed the LORD had handed over his enemies," or "that stupid, rotten Jephthah concluded that his victory was assisted by god even though it wasn't" or words to that effect.

Moreover, in Jephthah's letter threatening the Ammonites (verses 21-25), he seems quite sure that god has played a direct role in Israeli battlefield glories of the past. Nothing in the text corrects him on that point.

As an aside, I originally didn't mention the begged question of why someone of Jephthah's stature would have the idea that god would accept burnt flesh as payment for military assistance. I mean, though a vegetarian, I like the smell of some cooked meats; I would hardly enable or assist mass slaughter to get that smell.

Certainly Jephthah thinks god is behind his martial successes -- I realize Jephthah's interpretations aren't controlling of the god character's choices, but that renews the question of why, if god so abhors the idea of Jephthah's killing and child-burning and so on, he didn't step in? He could have stepped in without touching Jephthah's free will -- just by declaring, either to Jephthah himself or to the scribes who took down this tale, "You got this completely wrong. You made a deal but didn't bother noticing that I didn't even respond, let alone accept its terms. It serves you right that your only child is dead, you dumb-ass! Now let that be a lesson for the rest of you." Or whatever.

I do not want to go too far off track. My claim about this section of Judges is that it makes an exceedingly poor case for believing in the Bible god. It is not alone in this respect, but I thought it worth highlighting, because that's the sort of thing I highlight on this precious, precious blog, being a category 5 asshole and all. I came to this Jephthah business in the first place because you mentioned it in a previous comment.

The tale of Jephthah illustrates a god who is at best lackadaisical, willing to let people use his name to justify breaking what you claim are his clear prohibitions (and are certainly prohibitions under any civilized code of conduct); or at worst, it reveals a god who likes the smell of burning flesh so much that he'll direct the outcomes of international battles for it and take it in the form of a dude roasting his only child. Either way, this tale paints an ugly portrait.

If this tale is meant to illustrate the evils of daughter-burning, or the evils of invoking god's name for war, or the evils of sticking to a deal with an excess of hard-headedness, it's a spectacular failure. A handful of verses later, and Jephthah expands his rule and dies quietly, having learned nothing in the meanwhile -- by Judges 12:2, he's back to issuing bold claims about god having helped him in military campaigns.

I think it goes without saying that I do not consider the tale of Jephthah to be terribly important: as history, it's sketchy at best, and as a moral exemplum, well, I've covered that. I would gladly count it among the countless bits of regrettable ancient lore that interest a few philologists. In the real world, though, it has come down to us as part of the book of Judges, a canonical text of at least two major world religions, and possibly a third, depending on who is doing the interpreting. Right now, as you're reading this, someone is waving a copy of that book -- not just Judges but the whole kaboodle in which it is anthologized -- and declaring it an unimpeachable guide to human affairs. Someone out there with a mind to sacrificing a loved one for a "higher cause" or waging merciless war against god's less-favored people has this book, with its supposed authority, to call upon. It matters for this reason, and because it does matter, it needs to be read without blinders.

(image source)

Future Slip

This song by Samara Lubelski intrigues me -- I like its sound, I like its provenance: Samara Lubelski collaborated with Thurston Moore in his most recent solo record, on which she played some stirring violin.



This is "Field the Mine" from her new release, Future Slip, which The Quietus has written up in characteristically delphic rock-critic-ese:

The contrast pulls and pushes your sympathies: sometimes the guitars get in the way of Lubelski's developing melodies, at other points you can't wait for them to tear the track up. The music itself is self-destructive too, with propulsive drum grooves again falling victim to the assembled percussion and guitar smash, destroying what's had been slowly building.

There are some wonderful highlights. 'The Evolution Flow' plays out picked guitar parts and feels like a Californian dusk, Lubelski's vocals stretching elastically, a strong chorus gently delivered with the smoky grace of a chanteuse.
It's difficult to say what that means, but I think they like it, and based on what I've heard so far, so do I.

Bot-Skeptical: Windows 7


Thus we see the limitations of bots such as the one used by Amazon dot com to coax passers-by into adding more useless crap to their virtual shopping carts. Does anyone believe that Windows 7 Professional Upgrade, Windows 7 Ultimate Upgrade, and Windows 7 Home Premium Upgrade are "frequently bought together" as this artificially-intelligent interface proclaims?

I have my doubts, but then again, one should not underestimate the power of confusion. If anyone is plunking down the $539.97 to make that purchase, please do stop. You need, at most, only one of these Windows 7 upgrades to escape the miasma of Windows Vista.

If Windows 7 fails to live up to the better-than-Vista hype, um ... we'll all buy Macs? We'll all switch over to google's Chrome vaporware or some other Linux thingy? Of course. Of course we will.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Judging Judges

Judges 11:29-38 tells the story of Jephthah, who cut a deal with god whereby in exchange for military assistance, Jephthah would make a pleasing fire:

[30] Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, "If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand,

[31] then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the LORD'S, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering."
These books are so old that it's dicey to try to recreate the frame of reference or state of mind of the characters, but Jephthah must have been hoping that the sad old three-legged farm dog, or the cat who wouldn't stop shitting on his pillow, would do the greeting upon his triumphant return.

Alas, no. As if cribbed from one of the be-careful-what-you-ask-for themed tales from Chaucer, The Twilight Zone, or Cormac McCarthy, it was neither the crippled dog nor the feculent cat that greeted Jephthah's return, but something he failed to account for:
[34] When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, behold, his daughter was coming out to meet him with tambourines and with dancing. Now she was his one and only child; besides her he had no son or daughter.

[35] When he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, "Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are among those who trouble me; for I have given my word to the LORD, and I cannot take it back."
That's right, Jephthah. You "cannot" take it back, even though it means you'll have to burn your only child alive; after all, if you were to take it back, who knows what might happen? You might end up having to watch a loved one burn to death or something awful like that. Or maybe god would send a whole plague of three-legged dogs and shitting cats. Who knows? You don't become a great leader by not looking out for #1, am I right?

The story manages to go downhill from here. Aware of the deal between god and dear old dad under which she would be put to flame, Jephthah's daughter acquiesces, asking only for a couple of months to wander the mountains and bewail the fact that she would die a virgin. And then, rather matter-of-factly,
[a]t the end of two months she returned to her father, who did to her according to the vow which he had made ...
Evidently god was no longer in the same humane-intervention-y mood as when Abraham was just about to plunge the knife into his son, because god lets the burning-daughter-as-payment transaction go forward without lifting an almighty finger.

Even a dog knows to save an innocent from a cruel fate (more on that), but that's not how Bible-god rolls.

Worship that Bible god as much as you like, or pretend to do so by wishing away passages like this one, but don't hold your breath waiting for this example to inspire conversions.

Here's another take on the light-hearted tale of Jephthah and what it suggests about the god character of the Bible and his righteous followers:

Ninety-Five



Americans for Democratic Action has settled the matter: I am 95% liberal. Neat!

The 20-question quiz, whose questions range from the vague to the middling, is available here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Et Tu, Shermer?

Among so many valid statements, did Michael Shermer really need to say this in the course of chiding Bill Maher's suspension of reality-based thinking on H1N1 and vaccinations? To answer my own question: no, Michael Shermer did not need to say it, and he should not have:

In fact, the very principle of how vaccinations work is additional proof (as if we needed more) against the creationists that evolution happened ... Our immune system “adapts” to the invading pathogens and “evolves” to fight them, such that when it encounters a biologically similar pathogen (which itself may have evolved) it has in its armory the weapons needed to fight it.
Whuh?

The metaphor comparing species-level adaptation and individual-level immune response is too big for the scare-quotes in which Shermer couches it. Species do not either survive or perish from novel environmental challenges in the same way that the immune system either kills or succumbs to novel pathogens; immune systems do not consist of individuals that differentially reproduce based on varying ability to fend off novel pathogens. Beyond the level of "stuff changes to aid survival," this metaphor makes a slapdash mess of the science Shermer is trying to defend.

There's plenty to admire in Shermer's criticisms of Maher, and I share in his hope that Maher will broaden his commendable pro-reality bias to embrace the relevant science, but it does no favors for evolution or scientific medicine to throw them together in such a distorting, unnecessary way.

By way of background, here is Bill Maher achieving what I would normally find unthinkable -- an atheist debating a right-wing Christian, with the right-wing Christian taking the pro-science side:



Sigh. Bill Maher, please rejoin reality, and lest I overstate my objections to Michael Shermer's letter, he hits exactly the right note with this:
Vaccinations are not 100% effective, nor are they risk free. But the benefits far outweigh the risks, and when communities in the U.S. and the U.K. in recent years have foregone vaccinations in large numbers, herd immunity is lost and communicable diseases have come roaring back. This is yet another example of evolution at work, but in this case it is working against us.

For Those Long Nights at Sea

This is a nice and recent photo of Neko Case (source), taken soon after a discussion with The New Yorker's Sasha Frere Jones:

She opted for cowboy boots over heels. Her red hair was untamed, and had a kind of stage presence of its own.

Case, it turns out, prefers to answer questions with metaphors ... overlapping allusions to masonry, cobras, and diesel machinery. When the conversation shifted to Grace Jones' comeback tour and the giant strawberry Jones is prone to wear on her head, Case stressed the importance of each performer discovering his or her own gargantuan fruit. Her interviewer was overwhelmed: "I'm going to have the most fucked up dreams tonight," Frere-Jones said.
It's safe to say Neko Case has this effect on people.

But don't take my word for it -- not on that or anything else. Here's a performance of "Mood to Burn Bridges" from a few years back, taped in a small venue that I really think she could destroy with her voice if she had a mind to:

Mmmmmm God

I'm with PZ Myers on this -- I was skeptical going in, but the guy makes a compelling case for his conversion from atheism to god-belief. It's definitely food for thought:



To those who might suspect me of sarcasm in this, I put all that aside and note that the arguments regularly put forward by believers are no more convincing than this one.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Nothing New Here

A poorly-supported, unreasonable assertion is a poorly-supported, unreasonable assertion. A world in which ideas are freely thought and expressed is a world in which baseless assertions are subject to scrutiny and challenge. No matter the emotional, sociological, or political atmospherics, a bad idea is a bad idea, and in a world of free people, bad ideas can run but cannot hide.

'New atheism' is the above applied to religious assertions. There's nothing new about it.

Whatever Doesn't Kill You ...

... will give you leg cramps. Or maybe it will kill you after all:

Three men died within 16 minutes of each other while running a marathon in Detroit, officials said.

Temperatures were cool and emergency personnel stationed throughout the course were able to reach all three men seconds after they collapsed on Sunday morning, race officials said.
Weird. Sad. Whether distance running is good for the heart is sometimes thrashed out in the press, and likely will be again after what happened in Detroit, but my working hypothesis continues to be that distance running is a net good for health.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Deep in the (Tiny, Black) Heart of Texas

What these Texas jurors lacked in moral imagination they also lacked in common sense and ability to follow simple instructions:

Before sending Khristian Oliver to his death after he was convicted of murdering his victim — who was bludgeoned with a gun barrel — jurors read passages of the Old Testament, including one that states that a killer who uses an iron object to kill “shall surely be put to death”. Oliver, 32, is due to be executed on November 5 ... During the trial, the jurors were instructed by the judge not to refer to anything that was not presented as evidence in the courtroom.
I assume, perhaps unfairly, that the Old Testament was not presented as evidence at trial, and therefore the jurors' use of it violated the judge's order. These not-very-detail-oriented jurors were, moreover, putting their attention on the Bible rather than the evidence long before sentencing:
a Danish journalist interviewed a fifth juror, who said that “about 80 per cent” of the jurors had “brought scripture into the deliberation” and that they had consulted the Bible “long before we ever reached a verdict”.
Maybe I misremember the tone and temper of the place, but the Texas I've experienced and read about is not short of rationalizations for putting people to death. Under Texas law, execution was evidently an available option in this case.

Note to jurors in Texas death penalty cases: you don't need the Bible if you want to kill people for killing people. Listen to the prosecuting attorneys, and you'll be pleasantly surprised that your state's lawmakers have provided a variety of updated barbarities. Jury duty will end soon enough, and the Bible's bloodlust will still be waiting for you back at home.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Poem of the Day: "Song"

This poem is an elegant presentation of oblivion, but maybe not as sure of its claims as it first seems, concluding two batches of declarations with conditional couplets.

Christina Georgina Rossetti, "Song"

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.

An audible reading of this poem is available at Classic Poetry Aloud.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Broadcast Still


Stereolab having entered its indefinite hiatus, it's great to see that one of the next best things after Monade, Broadcast, continues making new music:

In anticipation of their own full-length album due next year, Broadcast are back with a new collaborative mini-album 'Broadcast & The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age' and a month long US tour...
Broadcast is a little hit-and-miss, but these fan-made videos of "The Book Lovers," "Corporeal," and "Papercuts" give an idea of what the band is capable of. It's better than a sharp kick to the groin.

Jesus Christ, Put Down That Dinosaur

With Jesus sequestered away in his heavenly attic loft hugging dinosaurs and such, won't someone please think of the children?

Maybe. A definitely-not-racist official of Tangipahoa Parish in Louisiana has answered the call:

Bardwell told Hammond's Daily Star newspaper that he was concerned for the children who might be born of the relationship and that, in his experience, most interracial marriages don't last.

"I'm not a racist," Bardwell told the newspaper. "I do ceremonies for black couples right here in my house. My main concern is for the children."

Bardwell, stressing that he couldn't personally endorse the marriage, said his wife referred the couple to another justice of the peace.
All of that sounds great until we learn that Bardwell's wife just passed the couple down the road to another, less vigilant official who allowed their doomed union to go forward. Oh, the fecklessness of man!

The conclusion is every bit as inescapable and firm as Bardwell's non-racist-ness and "the new South's" newness: for the sake of the children, Jesus needs to leave the celestial petting zoo, return to earth, and do what's necessary to keep the races properly separated.



(image fetched here, though I strongly doubt it originated there)

The Fuel Behind Winter Light

If true, this means we need to re-think all our preconceptions of Sweden as a land of boundlessly gentle and gleeful people:

The Swedes ... have found a new use for rabbits: heating fuel. According to Der Spiegel, stray rabbits in Stockholm are being shot, frozen and then shipped to a heating plant to be incinerated ... The Swedes have a variety of similar efforts, including turning slaughterhouse trimmings into biogas, a methane fuel that runs taxicabs in Linkoping in southern Sweden.
I might have known all was not well in Sweden based on all the stern faces and the presence of a hunting shotgun in Winter Light.

In their defense,
the bunnies are a menace; a plague of wild and stray pet rabbits is devouring [Stockholm]'s parks. Some 3,000 have been killed thus far this year, down from 6,000 last year, Tommy Tuvunger, a professional hunter who works for the city, told [Der Spiegel].
Really, what choice do they have? The bunnies would gun down the Swedes and use their biomass for fuel if they had the wits, technology, and opposeable thumbs to pull it off.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

WWIBD (What Would Inglourious Basterds Do)?

In a way, the guy brandishing this tattoo is doing a service to the world by making the Bible's hatred of gays almost literally ineradicable: so long as this meat-head is still walking the earth with that arm intact, it's that much harder to whitewash the reality of the Bible.

In a truer way, the person brandishing this tattoo is just another anti-gay bigot to add to an enormous world supply -- and as it turns out, one who runs in social circles whose bigotry inspires them to outright violence.

The character of Lieutenant Raines had a similar idea for leaving indelible markings of ideological commitment.


Please put down the knife, Lt. Raines, the troglodyte has come to us already self-carved with some of the foundational cant of his idiocy. I think it's time to call in the Bear-Jew -- not that there's anything noble or glorious about that approach, but it worked in the movie.


That makes it legitimate, right?



(via Andrew Sullivan)

Of Pterosaur Modularity

If CNN is to be believed -- and mind you, it is not, or only within strict limits -- easily-surprised scientists have found fossils of a transitional form of flying dinosaur:

The fossils were found in northeast China earlier this year, embedded in rock dating back 160 million years, and have been called "Darwinopterus" after the renowned naturalist Charles Darwin.

The creature's discovery has astounded scientists because their age puts them within two recognized groups of pterodactyls -- primitive long-tailed forms and advanced short-tail forms -- and they display characteristics of both.

The combination of features indicates that the primitive pterodactyls evolved relatively quickly, and that certain groups of features changed at the same time.

Traditional evolutionary theory suggests that one feature -- a tail for instance -- would slowly evolve over time.

"Darwinopterus came as quite a shock to us," said David Unwin, from the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies ... [emphasis mine]
Yes, scientists have discovered a fantastic new species of pterosaur; but no, this stuff about "traditional evolutionary theory" demanding that creatures slowly evolve over time (whatever slowly means) is hogwash. The pace of evolutionary change is a source of lively scientific interest and research, but suffice to say there is no "tradition" that establishes a "slowly" against which any given discovered instance of "not-slowly" will astound scientists.

David Unwin's "shock" and "astoundedness" is placed in more complete, less dramatic context in the hands of Darren Naish's delicious geek-out on the discovery, which includes more genuine pterosaur science than any ten CNN butt-scratchings:
So it's almost as if the head and neck were evolving at different rates from the rest of the body: in other words, Darwinopterus looks like a classic case of 'mosaic evolution' or modularity (hence the species name). This much-discussed evolutionary phenomenon has been considered controversial, in part due to a lack of good examples: Darwinopterus looks like one of the best yet discovered ... Darwinopterus lends support to the hypothesis that different segments of anatomy - the modules - can become disassociated, and then evolve at separate rates relative to one another.
There's a good deal more to be said about this discovery and of the deficiencies of CNN's reporting, but I am going to have to leave it there.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Massage the History" at the Boundary

I suppose "Massage the History" is a boundary song for Sonic Youth, one that separates those who love the band from those who, well, don't. Speaking from my side of the line, it's a fantastic piece of work:



Before it gets fully Sonic-Youthy by the last third or so, and apart from Kim Gordon's vocals, "Massage the History" could comfortably fit on Thurston Moore's most recent solo album, Trees Outside the Academy. Some of Lee Ranaldo's atmospheric guitar work on "Massage the History" approximates Samara Lubelski's violin heard on songs from that fine album, one of the better of which is "The Shape is in a Trance."

Here is one of a few fair-to-middling live versions of "Massage the History."

Only in America

I share Heather MacDonald's question:

I keep waiting for the doughty advocates of “increasing health insurance competition by more government regulation” (that may or may not include a public option) to explain why insurance should not be available across state lines. Not only is this reform missing from Democrat proposals, the reason why it is missing remains completely off-stage. I’d like to hear some rationale for so limiting the insurance market, even if it’s a specious one.
Indeed. Why should this be? In what way is this justifiable in a civilized, law-bound society?

Digby wonders the same:
I can't think of a single reason why the insurers should keep their anti-trust exemption. In fact, it seems absurd that they had one in the first place ... Only in America could a group of corporations get away with holding a gun to the government's head and basically saying that any plan to regulate them will result in them raising prices so high their own customers won't be able to afford to buy their product anymore. The fact that their "product" is the difference between life and death isn't even mentioned.
Pricing people out of health care because they can, strong-arming Congress as though they're a coeval branch of government, deciding questions of life and death -- somehow, this is all part of the everyday work of a legal commercial enterprise.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The World's Most Annoying Spider

The smart money says this spider is about to devour this ant, right? Bet on the ant! Bet on the ant! The third species pictured, an acacia tree, is also involved in a surprising natural drama:

The jumping arachnid [Bagheera kiplingi], which is 5-6mm long, has developed a taste for the tips of the acacia plants - known as Beltian bodies - which are packed full of protein.

But to reach this leafy fare, the spider has to evade the attention of ants, which live in the hollow spines of the tree.

The ants and acacia trees have co-evolved to form a mutually beneficial relationship: the aggressive ants protect the trees from predators, swarming to attack any invaders; and in return for acting as bodyguards, the ants get to gorge on the acacias' Beltian bodies themselves.
The spider is almost entirely vegetarian, which suggests the possibility that the other spiders consider it preachy and notice bitterly that it still wears belts and shoes made from ant leather.

Amazing.

Poem of the Day: "The Plain Sense of Things"

This poem imagines the end of imagination, invokes a pond subtracted of everything that makes it identifiable as a pond, and in its title offers "plain sense" without making any. Are these paradoxes or are they just broken promises?

Wallace Stevens, "The Plain Sense of Things"

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as necessity requires.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Silverman Solves World Hunger

I saw this four minutes of densely-packed irreverence on the Bill Maher show on Friday night and I'm glad to see it has made it to the youtubes:



OK, well, this is probably not the most practical solution to world hunger, but the approach the Catholic Church has taken to date has conclusively failed, and there's no denying the Vatican is a vast reserve of wealth just sitting there waiting to serve a useful end. I say it's worth trying.

(via Lunar Obverse)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Neko Case on Prairie Home Companion

Starting some time tomorrow, the most recent episode of Prairie Home Companion will be available from the show archives. Who cares? Well, I care because Neko Case was a guest of the show, and despite my efforts to juggle things successfully, I failed to listen in when it was originally broadcast.

Last week's show featured Wilco, another notable instance of a good thing adding to another good thing.



(image source: photographer, collection)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Animals. With Lightsabers.

It's Saturday -- if you need more than that and an image of a hummingbird with a lightsaber, it's probably time to consider paring back your needs.

The hummingbirds are not alone -- there is plenty more where that came from at Animals with Lightsabers, and if you don't want to browse through them all the old-fashioned way, try the random link.

Fifteen Kilometers in the Gorge


Earlier today I completed the Blue Lake 15k in a time of 1:07:41 (7:16 min/mi pace, official). Suffice to say there are a lot of reasons to love this event, including these: it offers a mostly flat course with a grand view of Mt. Hood on a clear day, as today was (image source); it attracts a not-too-large, not-too-small turnout of participants, something on the order of a few hundred counting everyone; it's pretty close to where I live (your mileage may vary); and best of all, everyone is friendly and sportsmanlike.

There's no pressure, no self-importance, no airs, no pretensions -- just a nice run on a nice fall day, and afterwards, you leave with some cookies, a commemorative race bib, a new shirt, and if you've been fortunate, a ribbon signifying your age group standings (I came in third in mine, and so what).

It's what it looks like when runners come together to do what they love in a place that's hard not to love.

Truth Matters?

Responding to more brazen intellectual dishonesty from Chris Mooney, Ophelia Benson issues a reminder of what is and is not eligible for compromise:

[W]hat's at stake with this disagreement - atheism v vague woolly whateverism - is basically epistemological, and that's not about what is or isn't in the center. It's not about majorities, it's not about polite conformity, it's not about not alienating people. That's what Mooney always refuses to get, or else to accept, or else to care about - that there are principled reasons not to compromise or split the difference or 'move to the center' on epistemic issues, and we bristle at being told to treat truth claims the same way we treat campaign promises or votes on highway bills.
Truth claims either succeed or fail: either sacrificing foreigners to the great pyramid god will bring favorable weather or it will not, either prayer cures disease or it does not, either it is possible or impossible for a person to live a few days inside a whale, and so on. Whether such truth claims appeal to 'the center' or 'the majority' or any other group is a different matter. The difference matters if truth matters.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Nobel Prize for Pissing Off the American Far Right Goes to ...

Glenn Greenwald has expressed everything I would hope to say about President Obama's curious receipt of the Nobel Prize, concluding with this characteristic bit of coy understatement:

We're currently occupying and waging wars in two separate Muslim countries and making clear we reserve the "right" to attack a third. Someone who made meaningful changes to those realities would truly be a man of peace. It's unreasonable to expect that Obama would magically transform all of this in nine months, and he certainly hasn't. Instead, he presides over it and is continuing much of it. One can reasonably debate how much blame he merits for all of that, but there are simply no meaningful "peace" accomplishment in his record -- at least not yet -- and there's plenty of the opposite. That's what makes this Prize so painfully and self-evidently ludicrous.
I would also second the milder remarks on this development at Obscene Desserts, particularly the idea that Barack Obama and the Nobel Prize itself would be best served by his polite declining of the award.

I have not had the stomach to check on it, but I have to assume that FOXNews and the rest of the American far right is reacting by swearing eternal enmity for the Nobel Prize committee, if not all things Swedish, if not all things originating from the European land mass. Granting the award to Jimmy Carter (but never Ronald Reagan), Al Gore (but never George W. Bush), and the people who most authoritatively countered the Bush-Cheney Iraq weapons lies does make for an unambiguous remonstrance of the American right's view of war and peace.

Not that he asked me, but I say President Obama should deliver one of his lovely speeches in which he honors the gesture and the reasons given for it, but declines the award while pledging to make true on its spirit.

Whatever he does, the president should keep it short -- there's far more important work to be attended to.

Two Things Meme

Picking up on Norm Geras's refinement of an intriguing meme, I shall use no more than 150 words to write of two things I do not understand about myself.

Only two? Sigh. The rules are the rules -- as far as I know, blog memes are legally binding under international law -- so here goes:

  1. I don't understand my indifference to some temptations that catch up so many others. A simple example is smoking -- I grew up surrounded by smokers, but have never had the slightest urge.
  2. I am puzzled at the pattern, if it is a pattern, of what I remember and forget. I can hold short numeric sequences in my head indefinitely if needed, and yet I draw a near-total blank on 2th, 4th, and 7th grades. I remember a zippered shirt I wore and a book on giant squids I paged through one day when I was four, but that's the only thing I remember about being four.
So there are my two. I don't do the tagging thing, but if you are reading this instance of the meme and find it worth taking up, please consider yourself tagged. I would be delighted if you would link back to this precious, precious blog so that I can, via the powers of the googles, read of your two self-mysteries, but of course that's up to you.

Why You Threw Your iPod Shuffle in the River

I know why you threw your new iPod Shuffle into the nearest river. Before I explain, I want to note that I was content to let the existence of this new product go unnoticed on this precious, precious blog until Apple insulted me, my family, my cats, TV Dinners, all national flags, all flavors of pie, and, most egregiously of all, every music-loving runner in the universe with this:


The person in the photograph is obviously a runner decked out in her new iPod Shuffle, running shirt, running shoes, and running knickers. In this image and beyond, the Apple site explicitly acknowledges running and connects it with this gadget, and I wish it hadn't. The trouble?

To create the world’s smallest music player, we moved the controls from iPod shuffle to the earphone cord. This makes iPod shuffle smaller than ever, and the controls are right where you can reach them. So when you want to play, pause, or skip to the next tune, you don’t have to fumble for your iPod shuffle — just follow the cord and press a button.
Catch that? Before it entered its underwater grave, you didn't have to fumble for your iPod Shuffle -- after all, who can keep track of where the hell they clipped the expensive music player? Apple spared us that laborious task in favor of following the cord to the little control thingy attached to the headphone unit itself.

That control thingy was indeed as easy to locate as Apple claims. In fact, it was extremely conspicuous as it bounced along with your running motion and tugged the earpiece out of your right ear shortly before the other one fell out of your left ear. This is the kind of thing that's difficult not to notice.

That is when you chucked the damn thing into the nearest river, lake, pond, well, ocean, puddle, trash bin, toilet, or other dark receptacle that was most handy when you reached your limit. Maybe you didn't toss it after the first few times it happened, but sooner or later, you realized that the newly-designed iPod Shuffle was really intended for the sort of music listeners who never, ever move as they listen to it.

In fairness, before you discarded the device, there were consolations in the form of worthless features:
you can navigate your music — and activate the VoiceOver feature — without taking your eyes off your run, your ride, or whatever you’re doing.
Hearing a robot's voice tell you the names of songs and playlists was super while it lasted.

Again in fairness, you had options:
iPod shuffle includes these easy-access controls, but you can also use headphones with similar controls from manufacturers like Scosche, Klipsch, V-MODA, and Belkin.
You had options -- upwards of four options, each adding considerably more expense to your initial purchase without negating the idiotic dead-weight-attached-to-one-earpiece / very-few-compatible-headphones design.

Belkin makes a game effort at negating the flaw with a standalone control thingy that sits between the iPod and the headphones you want to use (shown right), but of course, this adds two more fault-prone connection points between you and the music source, and moreover cancels out the horseshit above about "not having to fumble for your iPod." No, with the Belkin thingy, you have to fish for the Belkin thingy. Thanks for trying, Belkin, but you can't polish a turd.

If you will sometimes chance to move as you listen to your MP3 player, and yet want a lightweight and unobtrusive music-playing machine, the Sansa Clip is a far better choice. It generously allows you to use any standard headphones you like, doesn't get in your way, and so long as you remember where you clipped it, requires minimal fumbling.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Audacity of Not Giving a Shit: A Thought Experiment

Imagine the roles were reversed, and a Democrat had said something as crass and irresponsible as Republican Congressman Paul Broun recently said out loud, in public, and in the presence of cameras and microphones. Broun, you may recall (whether you want to or not), is the elected representative featured in this video, in which he tells a constituent to treat chronic depression by checking into an emergency room and/or waiting around for a kindly medical professional to treat him pro bono:



This is the sort of moment that savvy leaders of a political movement would seize upon to illustrate what we are told are stark differences between the pro- and anti- sides of health care reform.

I am confident that if roles were reversed, such a statement would be paraded about for maximum political and rhetorical effect. I will go beyond that and say that if roles were truly reversed -- had a Democrat actually said something as foul and inhuman as this -- the parading of it would be right. The political faction capable of such execrable statements deserves to be called out, castigated, and relegated to the margins of civilized discourse.

Alas, no. As things actually are, the Democratic party's leader, who also happens to be the free world's leader, who also happens to command the single most potent bully pulpit in existence, who also happens to be immersed in a fight for health care reform whose results he claims to care about, has not so much as mentioned Rep. Broun's comments (unless google can't find it, which seems unlikely).

In some sense, politics is a game -- a game involving life or death matters, to be sure, but recognizably a form of structured, mostly-civilized conflict pitting recognizable sides against sides and producing victories and defeats. It is one thing to lose the game -- such are the breaks, such is conflict.

It is dishonorable and contemptible to play the game without caring enough about the outcome to try to succeed, especially when the outcomes matter so much to the lives of human beings.

Our Decreasingly Hilarious Political Situation


John Stewart is a funny guy -- I wish I could share in his willingness to make fun of President Obama's craven betrayal on DADT (video link).

As with the failures in reforming health care, restoring the rule of law, addressing climate change, and too much else, the margin of good feeling for this administration and the Democratic party as a whole is thinning down to zero. I'm all out of benefit-of-doubt grants.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Unpainted Theology

As he frequently does, Jason Rosenhouse poses a revealing and fruitful question, this time in reply to yet another instance in which a god-botherer (Andrew Sullivan) drops old names in lieu of making good arguments. Rosenhouse starts off with sarcasm but finishes solidly:

[I]f you express in a blog post or in an e-mail the view that the problem of evil and suffering poses some problems for Christianity, you are required to discuss the musings of various long-dead theologians on the matter. As another of Sullivan's correspondents pointed out, one wonders why Kierkegaard and Niebuhr had to revisit the issue if those early folks had already polished it off.
Here, here. If Kierkegaard (d. 1855) and Niebuhr (d. 1971) added insights to those already made centuries before by reputed titans of Christian thought such as Augustine and Aquinas, doesn't one of these follow?
  1. Augustine, Aquinas, and other foundational Christian thinkers left substantial theological work undone, in which case even the most erudite Christians between their time and Niebuhr's were deficient in the theological understanding that Sullivan finds so priceless today; or
  2. The latter-day theologians had nothing of consequence to add to the early ones, in which case Sullivan has accused them of plagiarism or a kindred form of fraud even as he demands they be read; or
  3. Sullivan has acknowledged that Christian theology, on the whole, has been a centuries-long slapdash patchwork on which roughly 100 generations have pissed away some very sharp minds without arriving at anything definite: Augustine chewed at it, and later on Aquinas chewed it, and then this guy and that guy and these other guys came along and gnawed some more, but after all these centuries, it's a thudding hodge-podge, the proper response to which, I gather, is to make sure to have read all of it before presuming to say anything about any of it. Curious.
Of course, Sullivan and like-minded god-botherers could cut through the above by simply making the arguments he has in mind rather than belching forth names. Rather than rolling eyes, sighing, and accusing atheists of inattention to the collected works of Augustine, Niebuhr, and every theologian inbetween, he could state specifically what has been overlooked, or at least reiterate the broad outlines.

Long story short: the problem of evil does not vanish by gesturing vaguely toward a thick stack of theology books, no matter how famous the authors' names.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Never-Ending War

Phila explains, at long last, why we fight:

[L]ike most American officials, [US Defense Secretary] Gates seems to have a secret decoder ring that tells him what [Al Qaeda's] utterances really mean. They couldn't want us to occupy Afghanistan, obviously, so we'd better spend whatever it takes to stay there indefinitely...even if our alleged inability to afford a humane healthcare system kills more Americans annually than Osama bin Laden manages in his wettest dreams. The alternative would be to hand a "victory" to Al-Qaeda, and only a really terrible person would consider doing that.

Having AQ around certainly makes governance easier. All you need to do is explain what they want, and not only are you justified in doing the opposite (which coincidentally happens to be what you already intended), but you can also preemptively paint your opponents as people who want to feed the Mujahideen turtle soup with a gold spoon. Nice work if you can get it.
Indeed so. There are valid reasons to consider AQ to be a dangerous threat, but it does not follow that occupying foreign nations, whether Iraq or Afghanistan or any other, is a promising solution.

If one of the measures of success in Afghanistan is, as Gates recently said -- repeating a bit of wisdom that is by no means unique but widely avowed among US policymakers -- "denying Al Qaeda and their allies a sanctuary [and] preventing another 9/11," it follows that this war will never end because it can never succeed. There is no nation-state on earth, and possibly no jurisdiction of any size, that has been, or foreseeably will be, rid of militants eager and able to execute ideologically-driven, deadly, destructive schemes.

The 9/11 attack required a modicum of flight training, a few box-cutters, the cold resolve to die for a cause, and just enough imagination to assemble these pieces together. The 1995 attack in Oklahoma City assembled a different array of pieces, but called for nothing more sophisticated. Countless others have died in even simpler schemes -- this, this, this, and this, to cite only a few of the more recent and more infamous.

Do such plots here in the USA indicate that one or another foreign force should be occupying this country? Should our policymakers be grounding more of their views and plans in confident readings of the thoughts of extant Tim McVeighs and Seung-Hui Chos? Most Americans would answer no, as I would, but it's not clear where this conclusion can be found in the too-common logic of Secretary Gates.

Which Kind of Homo's Devil Machine? Mac or PC? Who Cares?


As batshit-insane religious fanatics go, you could do worse than the creator of this sign, who at least shows a slight penchant for turning a phrase. Dear reader, you are experiencing these words thanks to a homo's devil machine.

But I didn't come here to praise this fanatic but to highlight her astonishing stupidity. Her contempt for the homo devil machines and all they have wrought -- declining readership of newspapers, digital photography, labor-saving abbreviations such as UR for your / you're, edifying videos of sneezing pandas and lusty parrots, the MP3 format, whole new classes of insufferable nerds, bytes of porn that may soon exceed the total count of atoms in the known universe, unprecedented access to the complete works of Homo sapiens -- is so vast and far-reaching that she explicitly allows that it cancels out Turing's more proximate contributions to today's status quo:

During the Second World War, Turing was a main participant in the efforts at Bletchley Park to break German ciphers. Building on cryptanalysis work carried out in Poland by Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski from Cipher Bureau before the war, he contributed several insights into breaking both the Enigma machine and the Lorenz SZ 40/42 (a Teletype cipher attachment codenamed "Tunny" by the British), and was, for a time, head of Hut 8, the section responsible for reading German naval signals.

Since September 1938, Turing had been working part-time for the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS), the British code breaking organisation. He worked on the problem of the German Enigma machine, and collaborated with Dilly Knox, a senior GCCS codebreaker.[20] On 4 September 1939, the day after the UK declared war on Germany, Turing reported to Bletchley Park, the wartime station of GCCS.[21]
Who cares about Alan Turing's significant contributions to stopping the Nazis, she shrugs. He committed thought crimes defined in Leviticus and the epistles of Paul!

I wonder. Had Turing volunteered for a Bible-mandated death-by-stoning rather than for the British war effort against Germany, would this sign-wielder's life be measurably better or worse? Maybe she would say it doesn't matter, in keeping with a fellow Christian's recent observation (Cf.) that
[t]he problem is who we are. The state of our world is proof of who we are. What we do is just a symptom of who we are. The fact is, there are no good people or right hearts, for all of us are corrupt and fall short of God’s expectations for us.
So whether you're roasting in a German-made oven for having been born to the wrong grandparents or walking around freely, who cares?

Update: An alert commenter notes that I might quite possibly just maybe have overlooked the parody in the 'homo's devil machine' sign. I did notice the rainbow flag, but reasoned the person brought it so as to defile it under the approving gaze of heaven.

Beyond that, it did occur to me that this protest might not be in earnest, but ultimately I sided with the more-interesting-to-me direction of taking it straight.

After all, we do live in a world in which religious nuts will say anything, no matter how patently idiotic, if they think it will put them on their favorite god's side of sexual propriety (e.g.); and we certainly live in a world in which large numbers of people emphatically rank any transgressions against good sense, common decency, or humane conduct below the acceptance of their favorite god's various money- and soul-saving offers (e.g.).

Last and not least, the world has been far too late in appreciating the work of Alan Turing, and for no better reason than for his sexual inclinations. After this bigotry is finally reduced to a regrettable memory, he will be rightly remembered as a towering figure in computer science, mathematics, and philosophy.

But really, whatever else is true, the term homo's devil machine for computer must live on or all my blogging as been in vain. A blogger has certain responsibilities.



(via PZ Myers)