Sunday, May 31, 2009

Hope Springs Eternal for Texas: McLeroy Confirmation Fails!

Creationist dentist and anti-science fool Don McLeroy failed to be confirmed for yet another stint as Chairman of the Texas Board of Education. The vote was along party lines, with 19 Republicans voting for and 11 Democrats (yes, we still have some in Texas) voting against, making the total two short of the 21 required. Cited reasons for the down vote were:

Divisiveness and the dsyfunctionality of the board under his leadership, leading to it becoming "the laughingstock of the nation".

Businesspeople concerned by the board's hostility to science considering leaving Texas for better schools.

McLeroy's endorsement of a book that says parents who want their kids to learn about evolution are “monsters,” scientists are “atheists,” and clergy who see no conflict between science and faith are “morons”, as well as McLeroy's comment that “Scientific consensus means nothing.”

Lack of credibility of the board under Mr. McLeroy undermining education, endless culture wars that have plagued the board, and its general divisiveness.

McLeroy's supporters by contrast, demonstrated that they are as ignorant and antagonistic towards science as he is, claiming he has a "better scientific background than most" because of his BS in engineering and his position as a dentist, "a theory is just a theory", religion is foundational to education, rejecting him would amount to a religious test for office, and that "in God we trust" applies as well in science as anywhere.

Wow. It's a nice victory, but obviously we have a long way to go. Governor Perry's next nomination is likely to be just as big an idiot, and needs to be voted down just as fervently. Further, senators Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, and Dan Patrick, R-Houston, need to go as well for their 16th century views on the subject. Texas children deserve better.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

How to Respond When You're Told You Hate America

A commenter named Fred on this Townhall post put it perfectly how we should respond to those who'd accuse us of hating America merely because we disagree with them:

"I was about to ask you the same thing - why do YOU hate this country so adamantly and completely?

You hate the government, you hate the people who voted for the government, you hate those who support the government, (the majority of Americans) you hate the country's laws, you hate everybody who doesn't agree with you, you hate newspapers and media, all run by other Americans, you hate everybody who doesn't share your religious convictions, you hate teachers, intellectuals, writers, Democrats, philosophers, basically you hate every American and every American institution that isn't a mirror of your own warped perceptions. The only people you seem to admire are those who hate America even more than you do, or who can express it better.

All you ever do in this barrel of hate-swill called Town hALL is spend your God-given time on earth expressing your hatred of America and Americans, or supporting America haters like Rush limbaugh or Ann Coulter who make alot of money telling you that you're absolutely right to do so."

I can't improve on that, except to reproduce the first response he got from an intellectual named GunnyG:

"I would explain it to you but you liberals are too stupid to understand or YOU WOULD NOT BE LIBERALS!

Ol Purple Lips is attacking the Constitution, the Free market, Capitalism, and our way of life, i.e., things like the 1st Am and 2d AM, raising our taxes to payoff his cultists, and we're supposed to like it?


And they wonder why they can't seem to persuade anyone that they aren't a bunch of ignorant loons tightly gripping their gods and guns. Read the entire exchange: it's highly amusing watching those angry, deranged people get called for what they are on their own home turf. It reminds me of going to a Walter Mondale rally on my college campus, and we Reagan supporters had them outnumbered even there. It spells the same doom. 2010 can't get here fast enough.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Why Religion Matters to Atheists

One of the more moronic arguments made against atheists is to ask why we care so much about something we don't believe in. Dinesh D'Souza has a particular fondness for this argument, usually couching it in terms like "I don't believe in unicorns, but I'm not writing books about why I don't believe in them." Yes DD, and there also happen not to be people in your culture beating you over the head with unicornisms, trying to convert you to unicornism, and limiting your freedoms because of what they think the big Unicorn in the Sky wants.

For an impassioned, detailed explanation of why it all matters, check out this video from a little energetic chatterbox who youtube's by "gogreen". Oh, and if her cleavage bothers you, watch this one

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Another Child Killed by Prayer

The trial of another case of child neglect via religion continues, as the mother accused of homicide for praying for her dying 11-year-old daughter instead of seeking medical help decided Thursday to call no witnesses in her defense.:

Leilani Neumann 41, is charged with second-degree reckless homicide in the death of her daughter at their rural Weston home. Her husband also has been charged and will be tried in July.

Prosecutors contend a reasonable parent would have known something was gravely wrong with Madeline. They said her mother recklessly killed her by ignoring obvious symptoms, such as she couldn't walk or talk, and prayed instead of rushing her to a doctor.

Neumann has said the family believes healing comes from God, and she never expected Madeline to die.

Neumann's mother, Evalani Gordon, 62, of San Diego, Calif., said her daughter was comfortable with the decision to offer no defense witnesses, believing God has "influenced" Linehan to give wise counsel.

Gordon said she told her daughter on the morning that Madeline could not walk, talk or drink to take the girl to a doctor for at least a medical checkup.

But Gordon said she is now proud that her daughter displayed such strong faith in God, a stronger faith than hers at that moment.

"It was a tragic loss and we miss our granddaughter very much," the grandmother said. "But we believe God had a purpose in taking her. We don't understand, but God's ways are perfect and sure."

There is no kind way to put it. These people are insane, and dangerously so, and we are insane as a society to let them anywhere near any children.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Taking Chance: A Brief Review

Spoiler alert.

I just finished watching 'Taking Chance', a film about an aging Lt. Colonel in the Marines who, while working a desk job, volunteers to escort a KIA soldier's body home. The film is powerful, but with very little dialogue. It's driven by the imagery and reactions of the people whose path is crossed by the escort with the box that has to go a certain way everywhere (feet first), and of course the emotions of the escort himself as he considers the significance of the man in the coffin, and their respective places in the Iraq conflict. Aside from one overzealous asshole at the airport metal detector, the reactions are entirely positive - a spontaneous funeral escort on the highway, workers at various places stopping for a salute, or just a moment of respect.

I found this a bit unrealistic at first, but I was reminded that the movie takes place in 2004, when America was still more or less unified on the rightness of what we were doing, and the evidence that motivated us to do it. I doubt escorts get that solid a show of support these days, and that is a true shame. But the bigger point this movie brings to mind is one I've made before: the charge that those who oppose a war - any war - are somehow anti-military, is dishonest at best, and downright insulting at worst, to all those Americans who object to the waste of that most precious of commodities: those willing to risk their lives in battle for the sake of everyone else.

Everyone who does so deserves the utmost respect of the rest of us for it, and luckily in America most of them still get it. The opinions of all the people standing at attention when the body passed were not uniform on the war. Some love it, some hate it, and many are unsure what to think. But it doesn't matter. Whether we think the action they were ordered into is just, winnable, or even intelligent, is irrelevant to the respect deserved by those in the uniform who were willing to go. They were willing. That's enough, and it's a tribute to America that we still understand that. Let no one sully that with baseless accusations of anti-Americanism on the part of their political opponents. That diminishes us all, not the least, the men in the coffins.

Fun with Abbreviations

Ever have one of those days at work where you've got to make an abbreviation and all efforts produce unacceptable answers? Think PZ Myers referring to Expelled associate producer Mark Mathis as the "Ass. Prod." Apologies for the technical actuaria

So I’m sitting here working and need to abbreviate an ultimate incurred IBNR estimate. So first I try:


But it looks too much like Ul test, like some sort of Uber test, so maybe if I substitute Inc for Ult:


Yeah, that’d go over big in the meetings (to think nothing of UltIncest). Then I try:


Hmmm, don’t want to have ‘rest’ in there. Finally I settle on:


I fear for the first person in a meeting who asks me why I didn’t pick something more intuitive. I haven’t wrestled with an abbreviation this much since I became an Actuarial Associate. Somehow Act. Ass. didn’t work for me.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

So It's Not Just Me: Demographic Changes in the GOP

Well, the polls and surveys are being taken, and as we've all seen the GOP has taken a beating lately. But what demographic group has fled the GOP in the greatest proportion to turn a once deadlocked party race in 2001 to a 53%/39% dominant position for the Democrats? The young? the poor? Liberals? The unchurched? Nah, they all came in second behind:

College graduate:

Dropping 10 points from 47% to 37%, nothing gave you a better indication that someone may have left the GOP behind than the fact that they were educated.

And here sometimes I thought it was just me. But it isn't, is it? We've watched the George Bushes, Sarah Palins and Joe the Plumbers, and listened to what comes out of their mouths, and before our ideological or religious biases even get a chance to enter the interpretation our cerebrum is going "THIS PERSON IS FUCKING STUPID!"

And we're not going to take it any more.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Here Come the Nones

Quick, what was the only demographic in the recent American Religious Identification Survey to grow in all 50 states over the last 18 years?

The Nones.

Polls show that the ranks of atheists are growing. The American Religious Identification Survey, a major study released last month, found that those who claimed "no religion" were the only demographic group that grew in all 50 states in the last 18 years.

Nationally, the "nones" in the population nearly doubled, to 15 percent in 2008 from 8 percent in 1990. In South Carolina, they more than tripled, to 10 percent from 3 percent. Not all the "nones" are necessarily committed atheists or agnostics, but they make up a pool of potential supporters.

Local and national atheist organizations have flourished in recent years, fed by outrage over the Bush administration's embrace of the religious right. A spate of best-selling books on atheism also popularized the notion that nonbelief is not just an argument but a cause, like environmentalism or muscular dystrophy.

The study goes further to say that "in recent decades the challenge to Christianity in American society does not come from other world religions or new religious movements (NRMs) but rather from a rejection of all organized religions". To add a little xenophobic insult to injury, the largest gain in absolute population were the Catholics, whose 11 million person growth was attributed largely to
immigration from Latin America.

No wonder Joe the Plumber and Sarah Palin are freaking out. They are being squeezed between the atheists and the Mexicans, led by a black president. If current trends continue, the Nones could become almost 1/4 of the population, not including the 8% who didn't know or care.

Also, "when asked about the existence of God less than 70 percent of Americans now believe in the traditional theological concept of a personal God...and over 12 percent believe in a deist or paganistic concept of the Divine as a higher power." May the force be with them.

All of this further adds support for the claim that, whatever we once were, we are not a Christian Nation. The downside is that the figures for 2001 and 2008 show little change, so we may have hit a new social equilibrium of around 16% or so of good wholesome atheists out there. Still, that's enough. All we have to do now is to continue opening our mouths and being less tolerant of all this foolishness in the name of gods.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Bad Dog Aggression Study: "It's the Training, not the Breed". Attention Parents!

In the battle for a dog's behavior, a new study says you have more to say than the dog's genes.

According to Joaquín Pérez-Guisado, the main author of the study and a researcher from the UCO, some of the factors that cause aggressiveness in dogs are: first-time dog ownership; failure to subject the dog to basic obedience training; spoiling or pampering the dog; not using physical punishment when it is required; buying a dog as a present, as a guard dog or on impulse; spaying female dogs; leaving the dog with a constant supply of food, or spending very little time with the dog in general and on its walks.

"Failure to observe all of these modifiable factors will encourage this type of aggressiveness and would conform to what we would colloquially call 'giving our dog a bad education'", Pérez-Guisado explains to SINC.

The study, which has recently been published in the Journal of Animal and Veterinary Advances, is based on the following fact: approximately 40% of dominance aggression in dogs is associated with a lack of authority on the part of the owners who have never performed basic obedience training with their pets or who have only carried out the bare minimum of training.

Pity more parents don't follow similar guidelines. Aside from the spaying, every one of those factors could be applied to the raising of children. I especially like the phrase "physical punishment when it is required", as opposed to the knee-jerk reaction some have with regard to human children that such connotes some inherent barbarism. We, like the dogs, are social physical beings, and like every other such species, we will sometimes discipline each other effectively with violence. Our lingual abilities are to be used liberally no doubt. But still, sometimes words just won't achieve the understanding of your authority, or the necessary urgency of getting out of the street. Nothing on the order of an inquisition is needed, but technically violence nonetheless, if nothing more than a quick, painless slap on the hand. It's a pity that corporal punishment is so often depicted as a form of abuse carried out by sadists. Used properly and in a structured way, it helps prevent situations like that from ever coming to fruition. That was my experience as a difficult child, as well as an adult who's dealt with my share.

But back to the dogs.

According to Pérez-Guisado, certain breeds, male sex, a small size, or an age of between 5-7 years old are "the dog-dependent factors associated with greater dominance aggression". Nevertheless, these factors have "minimal effect" on whether the dog behaves aggressively. Factors linked to the owner's actions are more influential.

So it isn't just my imagination that those little yappy things pretending to be dogs are indeed annoying. Who decided it was useful to have a 5 pound dog in the first place? Hell, I've never had a 5 pound cat. If my cat can kill and eat it, it's not a dog.

And if it misbehaves? Gee, this sounds familiar:

To correct the animal's behaviour, the owner should handle it appropriately and "re-establish dominance over the dog", the researcher adds. In terms of physical punishment, Pérez-Guisado points out that "this method cannot be used with all dogs given the danger involved, although it could be used to re-establish dominance over puppies or small and easy-to-control dogs". However, "it should never be used as justification for treating a dog brutally, since physical punishment should be used more as a way to frighten and demonstrate the dominance we have over the dog than to inflict great suffering on the animal", the vet states.

Human version: Pop a three year old once in a while, don't spank your teens. If it's coming to that, you've already lost control of the situation. Your pop psychology for the day.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Portugal's Success Ending the War on Drugs

Portugal did the unthinkable. It legalized possession of drugs, across the board. It did so 8 years ago. And the results? None of the bogeyman stories we are so used to hearing came true. Everything got better, not worse:

The paper, published by Cato in April, found that in the five years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.

"Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success," says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. "It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does."

Compared to the European Union and the U.S., Portugal's drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

The Cato paper reports that between 2001 and 2006 in Portugal, rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%; drug use in older teens also declined. Lifetime heroin use among 16-to-18-year-olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8% (although there was a slight increase in marijuana use in that age group). New HIV infections in drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003, and deaths related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half. In addition, the number of people on methadone and buprenorphine treatment for drug addiction rose to 14,877 from 6,040, after decriminalization, and money saved on enforcement allowed for increased funding of drug-free treatment as well.

Of course, all this was expected from the data we did have, and from the consistently dishonest rhetoric used over the years by those who have defended the drug war so vigorously. What's now new is actual politicians are starting to pay a little attention to reality and at least consider there might be a better way:

Portugal's case study is of some interest to lawmakers in the U.S., confronted now with the violent overflow of escalating drug gang wars in Mexico. The U.S. has long championed a hard-line drug policy, supporting only international agreements that enforce drug prohibition and imposing on its citizens some of the world's harshest penalties for drug possession and sales. Yet America has the highest rates of cocaine and marijuana use in the world, and while most of the E.U. (including Holland) has more liberal drug laws than the U.S., it also has less drug use.

"I think we can learn that we should stop being reflexively opposed when someone else does [decriminalize] and should take seriously the possibility that anti-user enforcement isn't having much influence on our drug consumption," says Mark Kleiman, author of the forthcoming When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment and director of the drug policy analysis program at UCLA. Kleiman does not consider Portugal a realistic model for the U.S., however, because of differences in size and culture between the two countries.

But there is a movement afoot in the U.S., in the legislatures of New York State, California and Massachusetts, to reconsider our overly punitive drug laws. Recently, Senators Jim Webb and Arlen Specter proposed that Congress create a national commission, not unlike Portugal's, to deal with prison reform and overhaul drug-sentencing policy. As Webb noted, the U.S. is home to 5% of the global population but 25% of its prisoners.

It's one small step for man...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ant Stinger Family Tree

Here's a terrific little article about the stingers in ants, complete with a family tree. Ants apparently evolved from the wasps, and the evolutionary trend is to lose the stingers altogether. Common pests like fire ants seem to still have their stingers primarily to combat vertebrates, not other insects.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Charlotte Allen and the Straw Man Atheist

One of the things that drives atheists crazy is the need in conversations to constantly say "No, that isn't what I think", "No, we don't do that", and "Yes, we do have morals, believe it or not". Millions of Americans have these ironclad opinions of atheists, born mostly from conversations from their friends, their family, their pastors, anyone but, you know, actual atheists. Major networks even have discussions about atheism with no atheists in attendance! Thus, what comes out of their mouths is usually a completely misinformed, clueless understanding of what makes atheists tick. Charlotte Allen's latest article is a perfect example, overflowing with arrogant ignorance and therefore worthy of a full fisking.

I can't stand atheists -- but it's not because they don't believe in God. It's because they're crashing bores...Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins ("The God Delusion") and political journalist Christopher Hitchens ("God Is Not Great") [indulge] in a philosophically primitive opposition of faith and reason that assumes that if science can't prove something, it doesn't exist.

Right out of the gate, the bullshit begins. Sorry Charlotte, neither Hitchens, nor Dawkins, nor most any atheist you care to cite has said any such thing. You do have a cite for your claim right? No? Gee, now why do you suppose that is? That's right: Charlotte is making shit up. Color me pious with surprise.

What we in the reality-based community DO say, however, is that without solid evidence (and that means verifiable experimental results, not the any-story-I-find-believable version so many anti-science Christians prefer), one has very little reason to believe in something. Further, in the case of Gods, with their almighty powers and limitless knowledge, the very notion that evidence for them is hard to find is evidence of their nonexistence, and we await the day that changes with great eagerness. Until then, gods belong in the same category as leprechauns, unicorns, floating teapots, and flying spaghetti monsters: as interesting, but nonexistent, concepts. In fact, the teapot is Dawkins contribution to the refutation of Allen's foolishness, a fact she'd have been aware of if she, I don't know, actually read the books she's criticizing. I know, I'm such a picky shit.

But let's not bore Charlotte with facts, she's got some victim-blaming to do:

My problem with atheists is their tiresome -- and way old -- insistence that they are being oppressed and their fixation with the fine points of Christianity.

Yeah, how dare atheists insist they are oppressed just because they are de facto forbidden from earning high office in our national elections (de jure in some states), risk firings and expulsion from family and social groups for expressing their views, have politicians say they can't be good citizens, and have themselves used as a synonym for "evil" as no other group can be. It's just all in our imagination, and if we'd just be quiet and stop causing a fuss, everything will be fine just like it used to be. That should sound familiar to black and gay readers. It's first defense of the oppressor to deny the reality of his oppression and blame its victims.

As for the finer points of Christianity, again, if you read anything about the subject of your article, you'd know that one of the most common criticisms of Dawkins and Hitchens is that they practically ignore all the fine points of Christianity as irrelevant given they call into question it's foundational presupposition. It's been so common that their response even has a name The Courier's Reply. MSU again.

Read Dawkins, or Hitchens, or the works of fellow atheists Sam Harris ("The End of Faith") and Daniel Dennett ("Breaking the Spell"), or visit an atheist website or blog (there are zillions of them, bearing such titles as "God Is for Suckers," "God Is Imaginary" and "God Is Pretend"), and your eyes will glaze over as you peruse -- again and again -- the obsessively tiny range of topics around which atheists circle like water in a drain.

Well, since Charlotte is either lying about reading any of this stuff, or has atrocious recall, we can take her characterization of atheist sites with a grain of salt. However, it is worth noting that atheism is, in fact, a tiny range of a topic. Contrary to the ignorant babblings of people like Charlotte, atheism implies little other than "nonbelief in gods". So there is the philosophy and science behind that, and the social repercussions of being an atheist in a society dominated by believers. Just what else would Ms. Allen have atheists talk about? There's no such thing as "atheist cooking" or "atheist math" or "atheist football".

First off, there's atheist victimology: Boohoo, everybody hates us 'cuz we don't believe in God. Although a recent Pew Forum survey on religion found that 16% of Americans describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, only 1.6% call themselves atheists, with another 2.4% weighing in as agnostics (a group despised as wishy-washy by atheists).

One might be forgiven for wondering if part of the text was lost between the first two sentences. How is the number of people hated relevant to whether they are hated? And if atheists are so small that discrimination against them doesn't matter, then what about discrimination against Jews, Muslims, and Mormons, who are even fewer in number? Charlotte, of course, fails to tell us.

You or I might attribute the low numbers to atheists' failure to win converts to their unbelief, but atheists say the problem is persecution so relentless that it drives tens of millions of God-deniers into a closet of feigned faith, like gays before Stonewall.

Once again, when reality conflicts with ideology, Charlotte rejects reality. Never mind the millions of personal stories from atheists of their fear at coming out and calling themselves atheists publicly, and the backlash many experienced as a result. Never mind the association of "atheist" to "evil" common in many US subcultures that makes it understandably difficult for many to accept the title "atheist". Just stick your fingers in your ears like Charlotte and wish it all away.

In his online "Atheist Manifesto," Harris writes that "no person, whatever his or her qualifications, can seek public office in the United States without pretending to be certain that ... God exists." The evidence? Antique clauses in the constitutions of six -- count 'em -- states barring atheists from office.The U.S. Supreme Court ruled such provisions unenforceable nearly 50 years ago...

Perhaps Charlotte has missed that in our elections, candidates routinely fall all over themselves expressing their god belief, and the huge proportion of society (61% according to the very same Pew Research Center Charlotte referenced above) who flat says under no uncertain terms that they'd refuse to vote for such a person. And pardon me, but are there any clauses, antique or otherwise, barring any other group from holding office? Why are we atheists so special?

...but that doesn't stop atheists from bewailing that they have to hide their Godlessness from friends, relatives, employers and potential dates.

Right, because somehow the fact that antique constitutional clauses forbidding atheist candidates have been ruled unenforceable, magically that makes all the social problems of being an atheist disappear.

Maybe atheists wouldn't be so unpopular

It's worth noting that there is no evidence (I know Charlotte could give a rats ass about that sort of thing, but I figured some of you would) that atheist outspokenness has negatively effected public perceptions of atheists. Prior to all the new atheists coming out loudly and proudly, those who'd not vote for one was still above 60%. This should come as no surprise: no oppressed group ever changed the behavior of their oppressors by being nice.

...if they stopped beating the drum until the hide splits on their second-favorite topic: How stupid people are who believe in God. This is a favorite Dawkins theme. In a recent interview with Trina Hoaks, the atheist blogger for the website, Dawkins described religious believers as follows: "They feel uneducated, which they are; often rather stupid, which they are; inferior, which they are; and paranoid about pointy-headed intellectuals from the East Coast looking down on them, which, with some justification, they do." Thanks, Richard!

Yes, Dawkins, Dennett, Myers, and many others have made those general claims about the general groups (nothing absolute). There is much evidence to support this contention, as can be seen any time education levels are juxtaposed with religious fervor, or decidedly Parochial schools' academic reputations are compared with those not so saddled with ancient mythology. Charlotte's own words here do nothing to refute those claims, and as usual, she can't be bothered to supply any counter-evidence of her own.

Myers' blog exemplifies atheists' frenzied fascination with Christianity and the Bible. Atheist website after atheist website insists that Jesus either didn't exist or "was a jerk" (in the words of one blogger) because he didn't eliminate smallpox or world poverty. At the American Atheists website, a writer complains that God "set up" Adam and Eve, knowing in advance that they would eat the forbidden fruit. A blogger on A Is for Atheist has been going through the Bible chapter by chapter and verse by verse in order to prove its "insanity" (he or she had gotten up to the Book of Joshua when I last looked).

OK, well, was Jesus a jerk or not? If he was all-powerful, why didn't he eliminate smallpox or poverty? Did or did not your all-knowing God know ahead of time that Adam and Eve would eat the forbidden fruit if it was put in the garden? Is much of the Bible insane?

Again, we get no answers from Ms. Allen on any of this. Here are the good atheists taking the subject seriously, asking fairly obvious questions about it, and taking it's claims to their logical conclusions. The problem is what again? It seems with Ms Allen, the problem is insisting on evidence.

Another topic that atheists beat like the hammer on the anvil in the old Anacin commercials is Darwinism versus creationism. Maybe Darwin-o-mania stems from the fact that this year marks the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth in 1809, but haven't atheists heard that many religious people (including the late Pope John Paul II) don't have a problem with evolution but, rather, regard it as God's way of letting his living creation unfold? Furthermore, even if human nature as we know it is a matter of lucky adaptations, how exactly does that disprove the existence of God?

Once again we get a heaping helping of MSU from Ms. No Research. Any cursory reading of the evolution/creation debate will reveal clearly that those claiming evolution would disprove God are the creationists, while the scientists are the ones to note that many religious people like the Pope accept evolution. It should also come as an embarrassing surprise to Ms. Foot-n-mouth that noted Christian biologist Ken Miller is championed by the science side, not the creation side. I know, I shouldn't confuse Charlotte with facts.

And then there's the question of why atheists are so intent on trying to prove that God not only doesn't exist but is evil to boot. Dawkins, writing in "The God Delusion," accuses the deity of being a "petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak" as well as a "misogynistic, homophobic, racist ... bully." If there is no God -- and you'd be way beyond stupid to think differently -- why does it matter whether he's good or evil?

Um, because people who believe in Yahweh because they bought the propaganda that he is all-good might change their minds if they realized just what a petty, unjust, misogynistic, homophobic, racist control freak he is. And those of us who feel the effects of these believers beliefs would prefer they not worship someone like that. Is this really all that hard to understand?

The problem with atheists -- and what makes them such excruciating snoozes -- is that few of them are interested in making serious metaphysical or epistemological arguments against God's existence, or in taking on the serious arguments that theologians have made attempting to reconcile, say, God's omniscience with free will or God's goodness with human suffering.

Charlotte knows this of course from her thorough reading of the covers of these books. Fact is the serious metaphysical battles over the existence of gods were hashed out centuries ago, and you lost. Besides, those arguments might be interesting to academics, but they are completely irrelevant to most believers, and it is those bases at which we atheists rightly aim.

Atheists seem to assume that the whole idea of God is a ridiculous absurdity, the "flying spaghetti monster" of atheists' typically lame jokes. They think that lobbing a few Gaza-style rockets accusing God of failing to create a world more to their liking ("If there's a God, why aren't I rich?" "If there's a God, why didn't he give me two heads so I could sleep with one head while I get some work done with the other?") will suffice to knock down the entire edifice of belief.

The only absurdity here is Charlotte's depiction of atheists, which describes no one I've ever met or read. We don't ask why God didn't make us rich. We ask why God decided that Amber Haggerman's fate should be to be raped and murdered short of her 12th birthday and left to rot in a ditch. It's all of part of His plan right? He knows all, right? He's all-powerful, right? Pardon us for considering such a character an absurdity, and not even one of the more interesting ones.

And psssst. Charlotte. You know that Flying Spaghetti Monster? It was supposed to be lame, to make fun of the equally lame Intelligent Design. Do you research your topics at all before you write? I mean what's next, writing an article about football and wondering why offensive linemen are so obsessed with being large and strong?

What primarily seems to motivate atheists isn't rationalism but anger -- anger that the world isn't perfect, that someone forced them to go to church as children, that the Bible contains apparent contradictions, that human beings can be hypocrites and commit crimes in the name of faith. The vitriol is extraordinary.

Ah yes, the accusation of anger. No criticism of atheists is complete without a dismissal of us because all the idiocy I've described might annoy us to the point of being angry. It's not about a world that isn't perfect. It's about a world full of people who think they have a right to limit my freedoms, my participation in society, and sometimes my life itself, simply because I don't believe a bunch of obviously made-up bullshit for which they cannot provide one iota of bona fide evidence (and again, that means verifiable experimental results, not the any-story-I-find-believable version so many anti-science Christians prefer).

Oh, you're not obsessed with unicorns now Charlotte, but consider what it would be like if 85% of society believed in unicorns, and basically insisted you at least pretend to believe in them, or they'll inflict social, legal, and political repercussions on you. Imagine being told you needed to stop eating and be quiet in the middle of the meal as the Unicornists made their traditional midmeal toast to His Horniness. Imagine being told if you admit to denying His reality, you cannot be a good president, or a good citizen, or a good parent. Imagine having attendance at a Unicornist meeting a condition of your freedom? Imagine having a guy tell you he won't date you if you don't believe in unicorns. Think you might get a little annoyed at all that unicorn bullshit? I do. Empathy just isn't your strong suit.

What atheists don't seem to realize is that even for believers, faith is never easy in this world of injustice, pain and delusion. Even for believers, God exists just beyond the scrim of the senses.

Oh we believe it just fine. It's made abundantly clear every time we get into a debate with you about it, reveal your arguments to be illogical, and your presumptions in error, and watch you dance and fall back on either faith or a scientific relativism ("who knows for sure what is true?") that should make you choke on the hypocrisy (morals are absolute, but science is relative?). Our question to you is why? Why put such an investment that is just beyond the scrim of sense. And why in the world would you take a belief based on such an admittedly shoddy standard and feel compelled to force everyone around you to pretend as if they had the same poorly based view?

So, atheists, how about losing the tired sarcasm and boring self-pity and engaging believers seriously?

Sure Charlotte, right after you stop trying to enforce your baseless views on us (Jesus would NOT approve). Keep your silly views to yourself, restrict their influence in your life to dealings with yourself and those who believe as you do, and deal with the rest of us using only, as the president so wisely said, "what we can all see". Then you won't have to deal with any of our sarcasm, or lack of seriousness anger at your mistreatment any more. Keep telling us we are horrible and evil and not entitled to some things in society that you are entitled to, due to our lack of belief in unicorns, and we'll keep laughing at you and making fun of you. Because believe it or not, you sound EXACTLY as stupid to us as a Unicornist would sound to you.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Gym Electricity in Oregon

For years I have wondered why gyms use artificial resistance in their workout machines instead of hooking up electrical generators to them and having the electric bill paid by the workouts. Well, They are trying it out in Oregon, and the results are intriguing, as are the answers to my question. The concept has problems on both ends: high upfront cost ($700 per machine), and low ongoing yield:

The amount of electricity produced is small. The university estimates that 3,000 people a day on 20 machines would generate 6,000 kilowatt hours a year, enough to power one small energy-efficient house in the Northwest. But it fits in with other sustainability projects, such as solar panels on the rec center roof, and a high sense of being green among the student body.

The power is a drop in the bucket compared to the University of Oregon's overall electricity consumption, which is equivalent to 2,280 houses, said sustainability director Steve Mital. estimates a typical 30-minute workout on one machine generates enough electricity to run a laptop computer for an hour, or a compact fluorescent light bulb for 2 1/2 hours.

"We're not going to get off Middle Eastern oil by connecting up all the ellipticals all over the country," said Mital. "We bought it and installed it mostly because it's an educational opportunity. People will be on those things sweating away and it gets them thinking."

In addition, I think it will send home the message that the solutions to our energy problems are not in increasing supply, but in decreasing demand. We need to use less, not produce more.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Barton vs Chu: Delusion of the Highest Order

Watch this exchange between Representative Joe Barton and Energy Secretary Chu, on how the oil and gas got under the arctic ocean and into Alaska.

You know the conversation is not going to go well when someone begins as Barton did:

"You're our scientist, so I have one simple question for you..."

In other words, you think you know everything, so you should be able to give me a simple answer to whatever I ask you, because as we all know, every question can be answered with one sentence.

Of course, Chu explains right away that it is a "complicated story" involving hundreds of millions of years of tectonic plate activity, but Barton, brilliant nonscientist that he is, of course thinks he knows what the real answer is:

"Isn't it obvious that at one time it was a lot warmer in Alaska and on the north pole. It wasn't a big pipeline that we created in Texas and shipped it up there and then put it under ground so we could now pump it out and ship it back."

I don't know what's funnier, that a congressman could make such asinine statements, or that he thinks he really nailed Chu with this exchange. A big pipeline? Too bad Chu didn't answer this way:

No, it's not obvious you ignorant hack, that's why we do science, and why scientists study for decades and do painstaking research to discover truths about our world. When we leave it to amateurs like you, we get absurdities like your prehistoric pipeline.

I know it wouldn't be politically palatable, but I can dream can't I?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Obama Eliminates Funding for Abstinence-only Sex Ed

Missed so far in the big abortion debate was a nice reversal of a faith-based issue making that issue worse: abstinence-only education. Compared to "just hold it" potty training by Roy Zimmerman, I think its more like "stay on the ground" flight training. Abstinence-only sex-ed had failed by any logical measure, and existed solely because of religious convictions overriding science in the eyes of much of the electorate. Obama reversing this policy is a nice step in the direction not only of good science, but of the one goal everyone shares in the abortion debate: reducing the number of abortions.

Sad that those yelling "Baby killer!" in the crowd at Notre Dame won't be taking this into consideration. It's just entirely too gray for their black and white world.

Another way of Looking at the Cycles of Climate Change

Harold, frequent contributor to Panda's Thumb, had an interesting observation of the argument that global warming is cyclical and caused by powerful forces on earth, and therefore we humans can't have had anything to do with it:

Indeed, just because multiple factors contribute to climate changes, does not mean that human activity cannot be an important factor.

In fact, I find this kind of logic exactly backwards.

If the climate had been exceptionally stable and unchanging for the past millions or billions of years, then it might make sense to deny that anything we puny humans could do would impact it.

And indeed, its a pretty safe bet that were that the case, it would be the first argument the deniers would trot out.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Fighting Giraffes

The next time you look at a giraffe and think it's so calm and quiet, pop up this video.

Ouch. I think the body shot around 1:27 was the one that ultimately did the job.

Oprah + Jenny = Crapola

Let Oprah know you don't approve of her giving a TV show to anti-science loon and former Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy. Promoting paranormal woo is one thing. This anti-vax stuff is downright dangerous, and threatens to once again unleash diseases like measles upon us in force which we once had under control.

Jenny McCarthy is the perfect answer to the question "What is the harm?" when people defend sloppy irrational thinking.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Social Security Analysis

For a really nice detailed analysis of the social security crisis, check out this article. It's nice to see all the data laid out clearly, something you'll never see a politician do.

Cardinal says Atheists Aren't Human

Listen to Cardinal Cormack Murphy claim atheists are not totally human if they leave out the transcendant:

"It is a diminshment of what it is to be human, in the sense I believe humanity is directed, [because?] made by god, I think if you leave that out, you're not fully human"

Yet it is we atheists who are supposedly so arrogant because we challenge such gibberish, and dehumanizing gibberish at that. The comments at Youtube say it all:

Dglas - "The cardinal is a dinosaur gronking plaintively at the changing weather. It's all done but the bleating. You are the past, cardinal, a dysfunctional past worthy of being remembered only as a lesson in how things can go terribly awry."

Zariabyron - "people bitch about dawkins and hitchens and all but they never claimed that theists arent human"

Superwolf76 - "As if using terms like ''the transcendent" mean anything anymore. It helps nothing. Transcend from what? Transcend to what? Transcend nature? Transcend evil? Transcend the temporal? Transcend shopping at cheesy strip malls? Transcend religion?"

CosmosLoyal - "An elderly sex starved man in a frock who believes in virgin births, reversals in the laws of physics and celestial homo sapiens creating the Universe thinks I am not fully human? Yet more nonsense from the worlds largest paedophile ring."

And there are some there that aren't at all nice as well.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

If Jesus Ran for President

I don't know how I missed this one. Edward Current is hilarious.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Why Gay Marriage and not Divorce?

As I read frantic screed after frantic screed about the horrors we'll get if we allow homosexuals to marry (none of which we've seen of course), I find myself drifting to the why-not-divorce argument. Marriage, after all, was defined to be "til death do us part", or at least its been that way a long long time. Allowing divorce redefined marriage significantly, putting the lie to the argument that the definition of marriage has remained unchanged for thousands of years, even more recently than did the dominance of polygamy in the no-so-distant past. It also did so in arguably a more fundamental way than does allowing gays to marry.

Nonetheless, the real power, in this context, of considering divorce is in the threat it poses to marriage, at least from the social conservative point of view. Allowing people to marry, divorce, and remarry an unlimited number of times, reportedly caused one unknown anthropologist to describe the American social system as "group marriage, one at a time". Surely the aliens categorizing human social groups are going to see that as stranger than allowing any two people to join for life, regardless of whether their naughty bits match.

In fact, I think the right is missing out on an opportunity here. They shouldn't say "no homosexual marriage", but rather "no homosexual marriage with divorce", or better yet "no divorce at all". Of course they'd be in the small minority, especially since many of them are divorced, but at least their position would have some coherence. It has none now.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Letter to Obama: Let the Wingnuttery Begin!

There's a letter going around supposedly actually written and sent to President Obama, although I have my doubts. Nevertheless, it obviously strikes home with some people out there, and will likely be shoved in the faces of people who might like a bit more reality with their e-mail diet. I'll do what I can:

To my liberal friends who might believe that this is disrespectful to the President; I will respect this President as much as you respected the previous one. Letter to our President.

OK, right away we see we are dealing with a partisan versed in the faux "fair and balanced" shtick. Such folks tacitly ask us to assume all presidents equally worthy of respect, thus the tit-for-tat implication. If the previous president was disrespected, they'd have us believe, then being equally disrespectful to this one is justified. Don't confuse them with the facts. Reality has a liberal bias, you betcha.

What's even worse is that the people making such statements are the very same people who, up until January 2009, were telling us that we should always respect the president no matter what we think of him personally or his policies. Which is it, are we to respect a president no matter what, or only as much as the previous president was? Or might we (gasp) evaluate the politics and respect or disrespect each president as our political judgement warrants? Sure, the latter runs the risk of your guy losing the objective analysis, but that should prompt a search for better candidates, not these silly semantic games.

With my high hopes for rationality already dashed before we begin, I wade into the letter with sadly lowered expectations.

April 17, 2009

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Mr. Obama:

I have had it with you and your administration, sir.

Three months. The man has been in the office for three months, and you've already had it with him? My goodness, what could he have done so quickly? Has he failed in his appointment duties, or his civic duties? Has he failed to wield the veto pen rightly? Did he break the law or have others do so? Did he commit treason? These are the sorts of crimes and misdemeanors I'd expect for a reaction like that. So let's hear about all these horrible things Obama has done that warrant complete dismissal of him and his administration.

Your conduct on your recent trip overseas has convinced me that you are not an adequate representative of the United States of America collectively or of me personally. You are so obsessed with appeasing the Europeans and the Muslim world that you have abdicated the responsibilities of the President of the United States of America. You are responsible to the citizens of the United States. You are not responsible to the peoples of any other country on earth.

Really? Wow. Strong words there. This should be good. How, exactly, has Obama abdicated the responsibilities of the POTUS?

I personally resent that you go around the world apologizing for the United States telling Europeans that we are arrogant and do not care about their status in the world. Sir, what do you think the First World War and the Second World War were all about if not the consideration of the peoples of Europe? Are you brain dead? What do you think the Marshall Plan was all about? Do you not understand or know the history of the 20th century?

Wow. Where to begin? Most basically, the writer is under the grossly mistaken impression that it is among the duties of the POTUS to not behave in a way the writer resents. When one loses an election, one has to put up with a president that does things you hate. That's how the system works: you lose, you don't get your way. You can and should exercise your rights in expressing your disagreement with any politician, but do so under no illusion that the president owes you political decisions that meet your approval. That game was played in November, and you don't get another chance at the title until November 2012.

As for what WWI and WWI were about, they were about 70 and 90 years ago, and Obama's comments were about America recently. We cannot rely on ancient historical merits to justify current misbehavior. More importantly, Obama's comment were, as usual, taken out of context, because right after he commented on America's arrogance towards Europe, he then took Europe to task for its arrogance towards us. It was a two-way discussion and criticism, as a way of forming a new dialogue. But of course, if you only get your news from faux news sources, who conveniently cut the tape of his speech right before the comments on Europe, you only get half the story, and consequently, no understanding of what was actually going on.

Where do you get off telling a Muslim country that the United States does not consider itself a Christian country? Have you not read the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States? This country was founded on Judeo-Christian ethics and the principles governing this country, at least until you came along, come directly from this heritage. Do you not understand this?

Apparently the writer has not read those documents, because if he had he'd understand that this is historical revisionist claptrap, since there is nothing whatever supporting the assertions above. In the DoI Jefferson use the term "endowed by our creator", by which he meant nature, not the Christian God. Jefferson was not a believer in Jesus or the trinity. And the Constitution? It makes no mention of Jesus, Christianity, God, or anything overtly religious. It names no commandments, quotes no scripture, and contains not a single "amen". For a document describing a Christian nation, it is strangely bereft of Christianity.

The nation as a whole, and the government, has never presented itself as a Christian nation and indeed has at times clearly denounced that notion. From The Treaty of Tripoli:

"As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion;"

To put the final nail in this coffin of a Christian nation, simply examine our laws for evidence of being based on Christianity. If one peruses the Ten Commandments one quickly realizes that not only are most of them NOT enshrined in our laws, and indeed it would be illegally unconstitutional to do so, the ones that are (murder, theft, perjury) are common to practically every culture on earth and as such cannot be attributed to Christianity.

The United States has only been a Christian nation in the sense that the majority of its citizens have been Christians. That is rapidly changing however, as unbelievers and believers of other religions are growing rapidly. This is not coincidental to these shrill cries from the author of this letter. Christians have enjoyed a socially dominant, advantageous position in our society for a long time, controlling nearly every arena of power (until recently, our national congress was, at least publicly, 100% Judeo-Christian.) They are, like every group in power, loathe to lose it, and will fight it to their dying breath.

Your bowing to the king of Saudi Arabia is an affront to all Americans. Our President does not bow down to anyone, let alone the king of Saudi Arabia. You don't show Great Britain, our best and one of our oldest allies, the respect they deserve yet you bow down to the king of Saudi Arabia. How dare you, sir! How dare you!

Yes, how dare he! He should have held his hand, kiss him on the cheek, and reorient our entire foreign policy to protect the Saudi's oil interests like Bush did. US presidents have been sucking up to Saudi Arabia for a long long time sir. Amazing you're only noticing now.

You can’t find the time to visit the graves of our greatest generation because you don’t want to offend the Germans but make time to visit a mosque in Turkey. You offended our dead and every veteran when you give the Germans more respect than the people who saved the German people from themselves. What’s the matter with you?

Since all of this seems to be passing over our letter writer's head, let's spell it out nice and simple for him. Obama went to Europe to patch up relations with the region, to make amends for the actions of a former holder of that office who called them "old Europe", and basically presided with the attitude of "if you don't like what we are doing, tough shit." He also found we aren't so powerful that we can accomplish much that way. And when one is on such a mission, talking to and visiting one's enemies, or friends who've cooled towards us, is far more important than talking to allies like Britain with whom we have no such problems. Jesus ate with the lepers, not the saints. You'd think those on the Christian right would understand this better.

I am convinced that you and the members of your administration have the historical and intellectual depth of a mud puddle and should be ashamed of yourselves, all of you.

Historical and intellectual depth? Is he serial? He's accused the President of the United States of abdicating the responsibilities of the office because he:

Apologized for past American arrogance
Noting that the United States is not a Christian nation
Bowed in greeting to a foreign leader
Didn't visit a cemetery
Visited a Turkish Mosque

This is his idea of historical and intellectual depth? Is he trying to win the award for Symbolism-Over-Substance rant of the year? Sadly, this is the kind of minutia favored by the paranoid and partisan, unable to see anything except "we good, you bad", "you" being a president from the other party.

You are so self-righteously offended by the big bankers and the American automobile manufacturers yet do nothing about the real thieves in this situation, Mr. Dodd, Mr. Frank, Franklin Raines, Jamie Gorelic, the Fannie Mae bonuses, and the Freddie Mac bonuses. What do you intend to do about them? Anything? I seriously doubt it. Executives at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will be receiving $210 million in bonuses over an eighteen-month period, that's $45 million more than the AIG bonuses. In fact, Fannie and Freddie executives have already been awarded $51 million – not a bad take. Who authorized that and why haven’t you expressed your outrage at this group who are largely responsible for the economic mess we have right now.

This is just ignorant, special-pleading blithering, since Bush is guilty of all of the above as well. Funny how the letter writer can remember everything back to WWI when he thinks it suits his cause, but forgets something that happened mere months ago when it doesn't. Further, the causes of the financial collapse long predate Fannie and Freddie and Frank, beginning in earnest with legislation sponsored by Republicans and signed by Bill Clinton (it was bipartisan idiocy) allowed the mortgage swaps that built the house of cards that recently came crashing down on our heads. The notion that this is all the doing of Fannie, Freddie, and Frank is pure partisan historical revisionism.

What about the U.S. House members passing out $9.1 million in bonuses to their staff members – on top of the $2.5 million in automatic pay raises that lawmakers gave themselves? I understand the average House aide got a 17% bonus. I took a 5% cut in my pay to save jobs with my employer. You haven’t said anything about that. Who authorized that? I surely didn’t!

Again we have our letter-writer thinking the POTUS has the duty to investigate every issue he personally finds of interest, even one involving tiny (by government standards) amounts of money, and on an issue (politicians policing themselves) that has hardly been on the radar of presidents past. In other words, this is just another case of grasping at any straw with which to criticize Obama, never mind the relevancy or lack of consistency in doing so.

I resent that you take me and my fellow citizens as brain-dead and not caring about what you idiots do. We are watching what you are doing and we are getting increasingly fed up with all of you. I also want you to know that I personally find just about everything you do and say to be offensive to every one of my sensibilities. I promise you that I will work tirelessly to see that you do not get a chance to spend two terms destroying my beautiful country.

When one essentially calls for the president's head by making loud, ignorant, irrelevant criticisms of him, one can hardly be surprised at being taken for brain-dead. If you clearly demonstrate that you haven't the foggiest understanding of what the president is attempting to accomplish, and think you are discovering secrets about his behavior that are all out there in the public arena already, you will not only be taken for being brain-dead, but a loon as well. In case it needs reminding, there is no article in the constitution that says "The president shall not do or say anything that is offensive to the sensibilities of members of the opposition party", and for what should be, to the non-braindead, obvious reasons. We settle our political differences at the ballot box, and when you lose, you can be guaranteed that the winners will offend your sensibilities, just like you will offend theirs when you win. Ah, I believe what you tell them is that they should deal with facts and not obsess so much over their feelings.


Every real American

P.S. I rarely ask that emails be 'passed around'.............PLEASE SEND THIS TO YOUR EMAIL's past time for all Americans to wake up!

Oh we will, but not for the reasons you think. To those of us not living in your little faux news, paranoid, historically illiterate bubble, letters like this are hilarious. They promise political victories for us in the reality-based world, for you see, you are not the majority any more. That is what the Faith-based wrld cannot possibly accept, but it is revealed in every poll. The letter-writer is in the minority, and no matter how many emails he writes and sends around, he is still going to be there because we all already know about the things he is ranting about. We just don't agree at all with his interpretation of them, and shouting the same ignorant claptrap louder and more often isn't going to change anything. Have all the TEA parties you want. Won't change a thing.

YOU, Mr. "Real American" must change, or face the consequences in continuous political marginalization until your opinion matters no more than those of the Natural Law Party and the Communist Party, not engaged seriously, but laughed at as loons. We who disagree with you are also real Americans you know, we have more votes, and we have more facts.

Do you hear us laughing? Get used to it.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Brilliant Political Timing: 16th Century Devices to be Sold

Talk about your brilliant political timing. New York's Guernsey's auction house is auctioning off a privately owned collection of 16the century torture devices, with the proceeds going, wait for it, to Amnesty International and other organizations committed to preventing torture. You do the math.

The 252 devices include iron masks, boots, thumbscrews, foot squeezers, ropes, leg irons, chains, rings, manacles and "witch-catchers."

The exhibit brings an interesting issue to mind aside from the obvious one. It reminds us just how far we've come on torture, at least in the west. Some of this stuff is painful to read about, much less experience, which I can't say about water boarding or much else the US has been accused of (not that that justifies any of it - let's be clear - no fucking way). I mean come on, something called a "tongue tearer" for we nonbelievers? Makes me never want to say "ah, men" again. It could also have the opposite effect from the one the promoters desire, and cause less outrage at what has gone on recently, given how tame it looks to what has been considered fine torture in the past.

Still, I hope it has the intended result. Nothing about what went on with the previous administration bothered me more than its condoning of torture (with the dismissal of habeas corpus a close second). It took away the notion that we Americans are different than our opponents and enemies by more than just our uniforms and belief in the rightness of our cause. It took away any thought, childish or otherwise, that we were the good guys. No more could we get the advantage of having enemies surrender on the word that they'd have it better as our prisoner than as a subject of their despot. No more would we have the moral high ground. And all for something that has questionable value at best. The Jack Bauer scenarios are effectively just that, fiction, the sort of thing that happens with so little frequency that no cost is worth having them as an option. One might as well justify killing puppies on the off-chance God's a cat.

The sooner America no longer tortures, and stands strongly against it again, no weasel words, no politics, the better.

Star Trek: The Movie Review, Spoiler-free

I just went and saw the new Star Trek movie, and wow, what a ride. Here's my spoiler-free review. The casting was supurb, with the possible exception of Spock's parents, who were both played by actors with too long a history for me to see anyone else. That and neither bears nearly as much resemblance to the originals as the rest of the cast. As for the rest, most of them didn't have to say a word to be instantly recognizable. Special kudos to the new Sulu. George Takei always had a little too much of a wuss factor for my tastes. This one kicked ass. As for the new Uhura, she more than fulfills the Trek tradition of gorgeous women. The new Chekov's accent went a bit far, but it did make for some good humorous moments.

The movie makes the best use of time travel I can recall (more on that later). In fact, it might be the first absolutely necessary use in cinematic history, solving the biggest problem that could face a prequel with so much history behind it. Do NOT think you can watch this film and even remotely know what's going to happen merely because you can recite original series lines from memory. A few of the key characters are in the same places, but there's a new history to be made, so expect many variations.

The film rewards longtime fans with many classic lines and scenarios, delivered expertly. What would a Trek movie be without at least one "fascinating" from Spock, a few "I'm a doctor, not a [you name the specialist]" quips from McCoy, and a "I'm given her all she's got Captain" from Scotty? Kirk even shows his penchant for green women (really any women). Don't wait for "Beam me up Scotty" though. Didn't happen in the original, interestingly enough, and I suspect it was left out here as a nugget for us.

The pace is fast and furious, but without being incoherent and stupid. They give us just enough history to fill out the characters', um, characters, and then right to the good stuff. Our villain actually has more than one dimension (something sorely lacking in films lately), an easily understandable motive, and a good scumbag rating. You'll really hate this guy.

There are a few logic problems, like opening a hatch in a huge elevated pipeline of water and having only a small portion spill out and stop, as opposed to the waterfall we expected. Generally speaking though, the film scored very high on the realism scale.
But if I may, there are a few things I've seen enough of in Sci-fi movies for one lifetime. So please, from a fan who can quote dialogue from memory, and gets chills from those opening notes, in the next Star Trek movie, I beg you, let there be none of the following:

Time travel. I understand why it was necessary this one time. But generally, it makes for logically incoherent plots, and is just plain lazy writing. There can be no urgency for the time traveler, since if he fails to attain his goal, he could always simply travel back in time before his first attempt and try again. It's the sci-fi version of wishing for infinite wishes. It would also enable anyone with that power to get pretty much any information they need, rendering all interrogation scenes moot. Time travel drove me away from the Voyager series, which seemed to have it in at least half the first episodes. You're already in the 23rd century for crying out loud, in a galaxy far more populated with interesting diverse humanoid species than we've got any business expecting ours to be. If you can't write an interesting plot without traveling in time, it's time for a career change.

Anyone saying "I've never seen anything like it". It was OK the first few hundred times, but enough already. Can we get a little more descriptive please?

Ditto for "if we do that, it'll be too late".

Someone falling a considerable height or sliding at great speed stopping himself with finger strength that would make Spiderman jealous. Again, are writers so lazy they can't create drama without something so jarringly impossible, in whatever century?

Really cool creatures like, say, a carnivorous snow crab the size of a brontosaur, who are destroyed or defeated with simple, uninteresting, unrealistic weapons, like a single lighted stick. Please. That's the best you could think of?

Yet even with all that, the new Trek rocked. 9 out of 10. Go check it out, and do it in the theatre. Home systems just won't do.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Christian School Threatens Expulsion for Secular Prom Attendee

In a move Jesus would surely approve (not!), a fundamentalist school with social rules straight out of the 1950's (no dancing, rock music, hand-holding or kissing), has threatened to expel (savor the irony) a student who plans on attending his girlfriend's prom at a school with a 21st century curriculum.:

17-year-old Tyler Frost who is scheduled to receive his diploma May 24, would be suspended from classes and receive an "incomplete" on remaining assignments, principal Tim England said. Frost also would not be permitted to attend graduation but would get a diploma once he completes final exams. If Frost is involved with alcohol or sex at the prom, he will be expelled, England said. Frost's stepfather Stephan Johnson said the school's rules should not apply outside the classroom.

I'm totally with the stepfather on this one. I've never understood where schools, parochial or otherwise, think they get the right to dictate how students live outside school time. Inside the school, they have every right to enforce whatever rules they see fit, appropriate to their charge. But outside the school, the parents' views hold sway.

Spare me the pedantic "but they signed onto the rules" argument. That just backs up the problem a step: schools do not have the right to demand a say-so in how a child lives outside the school time, so the contract or whatever they signed should be null and void. It is not as if it was an agreement between parties of comparable negotiation positions.

Wake up Heritage Christian School. It's not 1950 any more, and there is no way to make it so again even if we wanted to.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Santa Barabra Wildfire Rages: Amazing Photos

The Santa Barbara wildfires continue to rage, and you can view some amazing photos here. My favorites:

That's the fire, not the sun. What a depressing way to start the morning.

Hey there's...where my house...was. That must be an unbelievable feeling.

OMG, Jesus is in the fire! No, that's the flames through the cracks in a burning house. There are at least 75 destroyed, and its far likely the number will be far greater.

The rescue helicopter is dwarfed by the monster.

Contrary to popular mythology, animals do not have magical abilities to escape, and sometimes they join us as victims.

Try to imagine waking up in the house on the right and this being the view.

Here's your "holy shit" moment.

Bravely run away!

Do you feel puny yet? I keep hearing George Carlin in my head saying "ask those people in Pompei, frozen into place, whether they feel like a threat to the planet today...The planet isn't going anywhere...we are!"

Apparently the palm trees explode. Nice.

Save Ginger and Mary Ann!

I love the smell of California burning in the morning...not.

That's molten aluminum.

Here are your real heroes. Sure, it's their job, but come on: would you have that job? You gotta love the beast to charge in there. Let's hope they all live to fight another day.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Another Republican Dances around Evolution

Watch Chris Matthews skewer GOP Representative Mike Pence by simply asking him whether or not he believes in evolution. Pence dances madly trying to change the subject to God, stem cells, global warming, or anything else that would allow him to weasel out of ticking off his fundamentalist base.

It will be interesting to see how quickly politicians who know better stop prostrating themselves to that base once they come to understand that they can't win with it while alienating everyone else.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Joel Walker Pwns Don McLeroy

Joel Walker, a fiscally and socially conservative churchgoing Republican with a Ph.D. in theoretical physics who is running for the College Station, Texas, Schools' Board of Trustees, has written a wonderful response to another of Texas BOE Chairman Don McLeroy's ignorant screeds. The final paragraph sums it up nicely:

Admitting some few exceptions, the considered verdict on these matters among active researchers in the relevant fields is settled, with a statistical weight approaching unanimity. It is inappropriate to ask our high school students to sit in their judgment; we must first simply educate them as to what has been learned. Surely the ultimate truths of science are not up for, nor are ever settled by, a vote of men. As a practical matter however, the science standards of our state are up for vote once each decade. An entrenched mindset bordering on reflexive antipathy to the opinions of our most distinguished scholars has no place on our State Board of Education. It is not in keeping with the mission of the Texas Education Code nor does it well serve the obligations of that high post to our students and citizenry. The struggle continues, with biology texts up for approval in 2011. We must vote with vigilance to achieve sound representation.

You can read more about it here, as well as some of the heat McLeroy is getting over the embarrassment he is bringing to Texas. Typically creationists involved in education get the boot politically once their views become public, so let's hope McLeroy is booted out on his butt as he so richly deserves. Let's also hope Governor Rick Perry gets a little political heat for appointing such a grossly unqualified person in the first place. One might as well appoint a blind man to be head of the snipers.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Secular Case for Gay Marriage Examined

Pradeep submitted this old article by a chap named Adam Kolasinksi for criticism, and I am happy to oblige.

The debate over whether the state ought to recognize gay marriages has thus far focused on the issue as one of civil rights. Such a treatment is erroneous because state recognition of marriage is not a universal right. States regulate marriage in many ways besides denying men the right to marry men, and women the right to marry women. Roughly half of all states prohibit first cousins from marrying, and all prohibit marriage of closer blood relatives, even if the individuals being married are sterile. In all states, it is illegal to attempt to marry more than one person, or even to pass off more than one person as one's spouse. Some states restrict the marriage of people suffering from syphilis or other venereal diseases. Homosexuals, therefore, are not the only people to be denied the right to marry the person of their choosing.

It does not follow from the nonuniversality of the marriage right that it is not a civil right. Take as a counterexample the right to vote. The states also regulate voting in many ways, disallowing the right to those under 18, felons, the unregistered. and doubtless other groups. Yet were they to deny it to blacks or women, or dare we think it, homosexuals, it would be a clear civil rights issue. Homosexuals have the same right to vote as everyone else. Should they have the same right with regard to marriage? Or, to put it another way, should our right to marry any person we choose who is single, adult, and of the opposite sex, simply be revised to omit that last criteria? It recently had an additional criteria, requiring the happy couple be of the same race. This was changed in Loving v. Virginia in 1967. Why not the criteria requiring gender difference be removed in 2009 in similar fashion? Whatever else may be said of the idea, the argument that it is not a civil rights issue won't fly.

I do not claim that all of these other types of couples restricted from marrying are equivalent to homosexual couples. I only bring them up to illustrate that marriage is heavily regulated, and for good reason.

Yes. Close relatives are forbidden from marrying to prevent birth defects in potential offspring, and to aid in beneficial diffusion of genetic material (giving our species better survival odds in the face of diseases and other threats) as well as social customs, inventions and knowledge, which have obvious benefits. These benefits would be hampered in a society that allowed siblings to court siblings. Brothers would have a near insurmountable advantage against any other suitor, daily access being the most obvious. This would cause much more isolation in the society, as families and cultures would mix less, and thus invariably lag behind those who socialize freely, as history has shown repeatedly. Ask China.

The benefits of restricting diseased people are obvious enough. As for polygamy, that was the dominant form for most of human history, though it does seem less optimal in a modern civilization than monogamy. It would contract the genetic variability discussed above, as well as create a potentially dramatic negative social change with a much higher population of single men.

The challenge is for people like Mr. Kolasinksi to present equally compelling reasons to deny the right of marriage to homosexuals. So far these reasons have varied from nonexistent, to blatantly false ("the definition of marriage hasn't changed in thousands of years), circular ("it will lead to more people thinking being gay is OK"), and absurdly ignorant ("homosexuality goes against evolution"). The anti-gay marriage crowd has just about the worst quality of argument of any group currently waging political war this side of the Natural Law Party. Let's see if Mr. Kolasinksi can improve on that.

When a state recognizes a marriage, it bestows upon the couple certain benefits which are costly to both the state and other individuals. Collecting a deceased spouse's social security, claiming an extra tax exemption for a spouse, and having the right to be covered under a spouse's health insurance policy are just a few examples of the costly benefits associated with marriage. In a sense, a married couple receives a subsidy.

If this is his best case for the "marriage subsidy" argument, its a weak one, for in the second two examples the otherwise single people would get their own tax exemption and health insurance elsewhere were they not married. True, many such situations are cheaper if one is married, but first of all, this is just the gross side of the argument, and second, in many cases it is more expensive to be married. Whether being married increases or decreases one's income taxes depends greatly on what the relative levels of income are between the couple. At some level, certainly below $250k apiece, a couple who make roughly equal incomes will pay more income tax married than their combined payments would be if they filed singly.

So if Kolasinksi is going to argue that marriage is in effect a social investment from which we should expect a healthy return, he's going to have to do a lot better than collecting a deceased spouse's SS checks.

Why? Because a marriage between to [sic] unrelated heterosexuals is likely to result in a family with children, and propagation of society is a compelling state interest. For this reason, states have, in varying degrees, restricted from marriage couples unlikely to produce children.

Oh my, where to begin. First off marriage is not required to procreate. Second, homosexuals are such a small percentage of the population that it is unlikely their marriage status would effect the birth rate significantly. Third, the argument is contradictory at its core - if we want more babies, and marriage creates more babies, then we'd want as many married people as we could get. That is, unless Kolasinksi dares argue that homosexuals disallowed from marrying each other will become good heterosexually married baby makers. It is not as though there is a limit on marriage licenses. Further, current rates of procreation are far beyond what is needed for our society to survive, and there are many compelling arguments that it is in society's interests to have fewer, not more children. Underpopulation is not a problem under which the earth suffers.

And of course the biggest problem with Kolasinksi's argument is that it is a blatant case of special pleading, as he finds a way to weasel out of eliminating any other sterile group from the marriage pool:

Granted, these restrictions are not absolute. A small minority of married couples are infertile. However, excluding sterile couples from marriage, in all but the most obvious cases such as those of blood relatives, would be costly. Few people who are sterile know it, and fertility tests are too expensive and burdensome to mandate... Some couples who marry plan not to have children, but without mind-reaching technology, excluding them is impossible. Elderly couples can marry, but such cases are so rare that it is simply not worth the effort to restrict them. The marriage laws, therefore, ensure, albeit imperfectly, that the vast majority of couples who do get the benefits of marriage are those who bear children.

Now that there's a dance Fred Astaire could appreciate plenty. Elderly couples marrying are rare? Says who? And homosexuals marrying isn't? How rare do they have to be before it's worth the effort to restrict them? Please. Kolasinksi is yanking arguments from his keister. We don't allow people under certain ages (depending on the state) to marry, I suspect the enforcement effort would be comparable. And closing in even worse logic, his last claim is backwards. The premises he's working with would suggest the desire to ensure the highest proportion of wannabe procreators get married, not the other way around.

Homosexual relationships do nothing to serve the state interest of propagating society, so there is no reason for the state to grant them the costly benefits of marriage, unless they serve some other state interest. The burden of proof, therefore, is on the advocates of gay marriage to show what state interest these marriages serve. Thus far, this burden has not been met.

Say no more. Society has thousands of orphans that would benefit from being raised in a loving stable two-parent home, and it just so happens we have a small percentage of the population capable of creating such homes, but incapable (at least together and without considerable medical assistance) of having children of their own. It's a match made in Family Values Heaven. What say ye Kolasinksi?

One may argue that lesbians are capable of procreating via artificial insemination, so the state does have an interest in recognizing lesbian marriages, but a lesbian's sexual relationship, committed or not, has no bearing on her ability to reproduce.

Neither does anyone elses. See above.

Perhaps it may serve a state interest to recognize gay marriages to make it easier for gay couples to adopt. However, there is ample evidence (see, for example, David Popenoe's Life Without Father) that children need both a male and female parent for proper development. Unfortunately, small sample sizes and other methodological problems make it impossible to draw conclusions from studies that directly examine the effects of gay parenting. However, the empirically verified common wisdom about the importance of a mother and father in a child's development should give advocates of gay adoption pause. The differences between men and women extend beyond anatomy, so it is essential for a child to be nurtured by parents of both sexes if a child is to learn to function in a society made up of both sexes. Is it wise to have a social policy that encourages family arrangements that deny children such essentials? Gays are not necessarily bad parents, nor will they necessarily make their children gay, but they cannot provide a set of parents that includes both a male and a female.

Kolasinksi misses the point here by assuming a false choice: two heterosexual parents vs two homosexual parents. The fact of life for millions of children is one overworked parent, gay or straight, and the statistics have been plentiful as to the negative correlation of that and the quality adult that child becomes. Kolasinksi's political allies are quick to raise these statistics when arguing against allowing/condoning single parentage, yet now somehow they would have us believe that children in homes with two homosexual parents would be worse off than with one. His argument defeats itself.

Some have compared the prohibition of homosexual marriage to the prohibition of interracial marriage. This analogy fails because fertility does not depend on race, making race irrelevant to the state's interest in marriage. By contrast, homosexuality is highly relevant because it precludes procreation.

False premise and false logic: the state's interest in marriage goes far beyond fertility issues (it was originally primarily about property), and homosexuality does not preclude procreation. It simply makes it more difficult, requiring some form of medical intervention, similar to heterosexual women who get pregnant via invitro fertilization. I suppose Kolasinksi would dismiss that group as too small to worry about as well. How convenient.

Some argue that homosexual marriages serve a state interest because they enable gays to live in committed relationships. However, there is nothing stopping homosexuals from living in such relationships today.

There is nothing stopping heterosexuals from living in such relationships either, and yet they still (mostly) prefer the stability, property arrangements, family structure, and legal protections of getting married. Why shouldn't gays want the same things, and further, why wouldn't the family values crowd cheer that desire? It makes little sense to criticize people for living uncommitted socially irresponsible lives while simultaneously denying them the ability to live otherwise.

Advocates of gay marriage claim gay couples need marriage in order to have hospital visitation and inheritance rights, but they can easily obtain these rights by writing a living will and having each partner designate the other as trustee and heir. There is nothing stopping gay couples from signing a joint lease or owning a house jointly, as many single straight people do with roommates. The only benefits of marriage from which homosexual couples are restricted are those that are costly to the state and society.

Yet as we've already established earlier, the costs to the state Kolasinksi has presented are either deceptive, or tiny. Again, there is nothing stopping heterosexuals from doing the things Kolasinksi suggests, and yet the primary purpose of marriage originally was about property, because the benefits to both partners (especially the least self-sufficient one) were considerable. Why deny them to homosexuals?

Some argue that the link between marriage and procreation is not as strong as it once was, and they are correct. Until recently, the primary purpose of marriage, in every society around the world, has been procreation.

No, it has been about distribution and control of property, and about having a life partner, depending on how recently he means. To my knowledge there has never been a major society that set procreation requirements on people who wanted to get married.

In the 20th century, Western societies have downplayed the procreative aspect of marriage, much to our detriment. As a result, the happiness of the parties to the marriage, rather than the good of the children or the social order, has become its primary end, with disastrous consequences. When married persons care more about themselves than their responsibilities to their children and society, they become more willing to abandon these responsibilities, leading to broken homes, a plummeting birthrate, and countless other social pathologies that have become rampant over the last 40 years.

A plummeting birthrate is a social pathology? What a strange worldview that reveals. As for broken homes, if that is the concern of Kolasinksi and his crew, then why aren't they calling for a reversal of the most recent redefinition of marriage: divorce? That changed the definition of marriage from "til death do us part" to "as long as we like it". The irony is rich that a group battling hard to prevent one tiny group from forming stable committed families, while making no effort to prevent over half of Americans from dissolving their marriages, would call itself "pro family". Oh, and I know I'm picky and all, but what does any of this have to do with homosexual marriage?

Homosexual marriage is not the cause for any of these pathologies, but it will exacerbate them, as the granting of marital benefits to a category of sexual relationships that are necessarily sterile can only widen the separation between marriage and procreation.

Not significantly. That separation has been made huge by myriad factors whose effects are larger than that of homosexual marriage by orders of magnitude, such as the increasing average age for marriage.

The biggest danger homosexual civil marriage presents is the enshrining into law the notion that sexual love, regardless of its fecundity, is the sole criterion for marriage.

Divorce already did that. There's no putting the genie back in to the bottle now.

If the state must recognize a marriage of two men simply because they love one another, upon what basis cant it deny marital recognition to a group of two men and three women, for example, or a sterile brother and sister who claim to love each other?

For the exact same reasons it does now. None of them depend on the heterosexuality of the people in question. This is a blatant red herring.

Homosexual activists protest that they only want all couples treated equally. But why is sexual love between two people more worthy of state sanction that love between three, or five? When the purpose of marriage is procreation, the answer is obvious.

On the contrary, if procreation is the goal, then polygamy, not monogamy, is the preferred choice. Once again Kolasinksi's argument fails even granting his flawed premises.

If sexual love becomes the primary purpose, the restriction of marriage to couples loses its logical basis, leading to marital chaos.

Except that it hasn't, which is a perfect way to end this article, for Kolasinksi's arguments are giant speculations at best, mere guesswork as to what would happen were gay marriage allowed. The problem is this isn't theoretical any more: several states and countries have legalized gay marriage and so far not a single one of the nightmares brewing in the imaginations of the Family Values crowd have transpired. Old-fashioned heterosexual marriage continues on its merry way in those places as if nothing has happened, because, well, nothing has.