31 January 2008


Every time I think that the election is a safe bet and that the long national nightmare that was born in hanging chads and Supreme Court hairsplitting is finally ordained to end in just one more year, I read something like this. And the fear comes back.

It's not that I'm afraid the right is going to outsmart us. It's that I'm afraid we're going to out-stupid ourselves. The problem isn't so much the narcissism of a Nader or a Bloomberg. The problem is the unworldly people who would vote for such a spoiler because the Democratic nominee doesn't serve up 100% of the exact, complete agenda they want (ignoring the fact that the nominee would be unelectable if he or she did do that). People who insist that nothing short of perfect is good enough, usually end up with much worse than they could have gotten if they'd been more realistic. Unfortunately, the rest of us get stuck with it too. A few thousand deluded people letting a few close states go red instead of blue is all it would take.

An even greater concern is the rancor between the supporters of the two major Democratic candidates. People who support Clinton or Obama at least clearly understand that politics is the art of the possible. But I worry that by the time one of them emerges as the nominee, some large fraction of the partisans of the other will be disappointed and angry enough to sit out the election. There are already signs of something similar happening among the various factions of Republicans, and I'd be delighted to see them torpedo their own eventual nominee in just such a fashion. But we can't count on it. Whether the other side is divided or not, we need to be united. There's too much at stake.

As it happens, I personally would probably not suffer too much from another Republican administration. I'm only 47 and in good health, so I'm unlikely to die or suffer some hideous debilitation because another four years obstruction of stem-cell research delayed a cure for something. Being a man, I'll never need an abortion; having had a vasectomy, I'm not worried about a future partner needing one. I live in the least religious state in the whole country, so I'm unlikely to be ostracized for being non-Christian even if that becomes commonplace elsewhere. I don't have any children to be brainwashed with creationist idiocy in school. I'm not gay, so I won't suffer legal discrimination or the psychological burden of being scapegoated by the powerful as the symbol of everything that's wrong with America in the eyes of God. Further neglect of global warming won't bring tornadoes or hurricanes or rising waters here to Portland. My job would be very difficult to outsource overseas.

But no man is an island, as the cliché has it. I'm an American and I am concerned about what happens to America. I don't want to see other Americans suffer those things even if I myself am safe from them. Even though I'm not gay, I cheered for the victory of gay marriage in Massachusetts because it was one of the few areas where we seemed to be moving forward instead of just struggling to avoid moving backward. Let the rightists get a majority on the Supreme Court -- something which is practically inevitable if any Republican wins the White House this year -- and we can forget about any more progress. And the struggle to avoid the erosion of what was won in previous decades will become much harder.

No matter how good the polls look or how much the Republicans squabble with each other, we can't afford to be complacent or take risks. Not until the night the electoral map lights up in blue and either Clinton or Obama is able to give a victory speech and tell us that, yes, it's really over at last.


And then there were six.....I mean five

Wow, Edwards and Giuliani both gone in one day! They're dropping like flies.....At least things are getting easier to follow.


29 January 2008


I had really hoped that Romney would win Florida, since I viewed him as a somewhat less formidable opponent than McCain. What's even scarier is that the rightist blogosphere is alive with rumors that McCain may choose Huckabee as his running mate! I'd like to think that such a choice would sink him in the general election, but if Quayle couldn't sink Bush the First.....

Oh, well, this thing's not over yet. And at least Clinton picked up a psychological boost, even if no delegates.


Quote for the day

"First, those who don’t want to nominate Hillary Clinton because they don’t want to return to the nastiness of the 1990s — a sizable group, at least in the punditocracy — are deluding themselves. Any Democrat who makes it to the White House can expect the same treatment: an unending procession of wild charges and fake scandals, dutifully given credence by major media organizations that somehow can’t bring themselves to declare the accusations unequivocally false (at least not on Page 1)."


The madness of crowds

Florida humorist Dave Barry looks at the nomination process and his state's dubious role in it.

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27 January 2008

The relentless carnage

Imagine a terrible disease.

Imagine that this disease is rather like AIDS. Given enough time, it kills every single person who suffers from it. It kills them all very slowly and rather horribly, by a gradual process of wasting and degeneration -- weakening the body, dulling the senses, enfeebling every organ, enervating the sex drive, sometimes even deadening the memory and the capacity for reason, so much so that identity itself begins to fade as death approaches.

Now imagine that every person on Earth has this disease.

Imagine that there is no cure. As with AIDS, science has found ways to alleviate some of the symptoms and to slow down the degeneration a little, but that is all. Only a small but growing number of visionary scientists even dare declare that a cure is possible.

Imagine that among the religious and the tradition-minded, there are many who believe that this disease is good -- who actually oppose all efforts to find a cure. The relentless toll of misery and death means nothing to them. The disease must be preserved, must be allowed to continue to torment and kill, for ever and ever.

This is the situation we are actually in right now.

The disease is called aging.

When the clock strikes midnight tonight, it will mark the end of yet another day during which approximately a hundred thousand human beings worldwide died of old age. The same thing happened yesterday -- another hundred thousand people died of old age yesterday, too. The same thing will happen tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, and so on. A hundred thousand a day. That's equivalent to a small city being wiped out every day. It's a greater toll than September 11 every hour.

We have come to accept this terrible situation as normal because for the whole history of our species there was nothing we could do about it, any more than we could do anything about smallpox or the Black Death. The aging process was beyond our understanding -- indeed, it was far beyond the range of things we were mentally equipped to question. It was simply a given, an immutable fact of existence.

We are on the verge of being able to change that.

There is no greater moral imperative for modern science and technology, or for the governments which to a great extent fund and guide scientific research.

Every objection, every obstruction and delay, every vile law discouraging stem-cell research written by ignorant legislators brainwashed by Bronze Age religious taboos -- all of it prolongs the reign of this merciless horror that scythes down a hundred thousand of us every day.

A hundred thousand a day. Tens of millions every year. All of them cast into oblivion, never again to experience anything, to learn anything, to think anything.

I am infuriated with those "bio-ethicists" who actually want this relentless carnage to continue forever because they believe that a slow, ghastly, meaningless death is somehow an integral part of being human. I am frustrated with the millions who actually take a kind of pride in their bovine passivity in the face of the doom that slowly but surely creeps toward them, even when their eyes are opened to the possibility that a massive onslaught of money and brainpower could liberate our species forever from this horror in as little as twenty years.

I don't want to die. I don't see any reason why I should die. I don't see any reason why you should die either.

We can do it! But we as a species need to wake up both to the reality of our situation and to the fact of our power, now, to do something about it.

Like billions of others you are in a trance. And if you stay that way, eventually it will kill you.

Wake up!

Technology as liberator: an example

In one of my earliest postings, I pointed out that technology has been the leading force for the liberation of human beings and the improvement of human life. Now the Group News Blog offers a concrete example (please do read the whole thing).

Until recently, induced abortion was always a surgical procedure, one which had to be performed at clinics; and as we all know, the visibility and easy accessibility of those clinics made them, their clients, and their employees easy targets for harassment and for terrorism (if you think the word "terrorism" is an exaggeration, see the list of crimes about four paragraphs into the GNB posting).

But now RU-486, available in the US since 2000, is emerging as an alternative to surgery for most early abortions. Prescribed by a doctor and taken at home, it does what cars, home computers, the internet, and other such innovations have done in other areas: it decentralizes power by enabling individuals to do what formerly only some large institution could do.

It's not hard to imagine that in the near future, most abortions will be performed using RU-486 and abortion clinics will practically disappear because they are no longer needed. Robbed of a high-profile single target, the fanatics will, as the GNB puts it, be left "all dressed up and no one to terrorize".

There'll just be women here and there at home, carrying out their own decisions without having to go to some central location which is permanently fixed in the cross-hairs of the fanatics. Once again technology gives a boost to individual freedom.


A note: This is my 1,000th posting on this blog.

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South Carolina and identity politics

Obama, of course, won, and did so by a much larger margin than expected -- 55% to 27%. Some observers, predictably including Andrew Sullivan (whose Clinton-bashing has lately become both obsessive and thoroughly tiresome), are touting this as a turning point in the race. I'm not so sure.

For better or worse, the role of identity politics in this election is clearly large and growing. Black voters have overwhelmingly favored Obama at every opportunity. Almost all of Huckabee's votes have come from evangelical Christians. And women have favored Clinton by substantial margins.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with this. Democracy is meant to be a representative system, and particularly for groups which have usually been underrepresented at the highest levels of the government, it is understandable that they may prefer to see one of their own elevated to power.

To the extent that identity politics is a factor, however, it means that the outcome of voting will largely turn on the relative sizes of the demographic groups making up the electorate, and the extent to which each group's vote is swayed by identity considerations.

In South Carolina, Obama won only 25% of the white vote. The white male vote went Edwards 45%, Clinton 28%, Obama 27%; the white female vote went Clinton 42%, Edwards 36%, Obama 22%. Identity considerations clearly played a role. (Interestingly, race seems to trump gender among black women, 78% of whom voted for Obama.) To the extent that this pattern holds in the future, it will favor Clinton, especially after Edwards drops out, as he will sooner or later. Either a black President or a woman President would be a historic advance for a traditionally underrepresented group, but women make up a much larger share of the electorate.

(The fact that white males outside South Carolina have not shown a similar propensity to vote for Edwards reflects the fact that, to say the least, they're not a traditionally underrepresented group in politics, which makes identity-based voting redundant.)

Of course, not all voting is on an identity basis, as the Iowa result showed. The majority of people vote for the candidate who seems most capable and/or best represents their views on the issues, who may or may not be of the same identity group as themselves. Identity-based voting is a tendency, which apparently can give a candidate an advantage of ten or twenty percentage points among voters of that candidate's group. But in a close race, that is quite enough.

Aside from identity politics, South Carolina continues the pattern of remarkably high turnout on the Democratic side. Total turnout was 530,000, compared with 442,000 in the Republican primary a week before, in a state with more Republicans than Democrats. Clinton, losing the Democratic primary by a huge margin, got almost as many votes as the Republican winner; Obama got more votes than the top two Republicans combined (data here). It's clear which side is more fired up.

Republicans, meanwhile, are continuing to play demolition derby among themselves. One reason McCain is under attack from fellow conservatives is that, on a purely scientific question, he believes scientists rather than ideologues. Giuliani, who is probably the Republicans' best hope in the general election, is losing support because he is personally opposed to laws forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term; apparently not even the fact that he has promised to appoint reactionary judges can redeem him. If you think that our side is going to have trouble uniting behind our eventual nominee, just imagine what they're going to face.


25 January 2008

Link roundup for 25 January 2008

Mock Paper Scissors has a wonderful dissection of Republican economic plans -- and another fashion fiasco.


Don't like any of the candidates for President? Consider this guy.

An Apostate's Chapel takes a hilarious and terribly sad look at 19th-century sexuality.

Spanish Inquisitor reveals the ancestor of whales (second item).

Creationist wingnuts lay siege to the school boards of Texas and Florida.

Jay Cost assesses Fred Thompson.

Here's why Super Tuesday could leave the Republicans more divided than ever.

I predicted a few days ago that John McCain's emergence as the Republican front-runner meant he would soon be pelted with mud by his own side, and -- yikes! Splat! Glorp! Splud! Plop! Squelch! Rush Limbaugh and Tom DeLay are pretty down on him too.

Hillary Clinton claims voter intimidation in Nevada.

Christopher Hitchens looks at Mike Huckabee's disturbing affection for the Confederate flag.

NATO generals offer a grim dose of realism.

Things aren't looking good for secularism in Turkey.

I always figured this was fakery.

Black Americans are defying their self-appointed leaders on the issue of illegal immigration.

Exit Zero unveils an especially ugly piece of cultural relativism.

British scientists are testing a breakthrough stem-cell treatment for heart attack victims.

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23 January 2008

A conservative's dire warning

Columnist Marie Jon' warns us all of the horrors that lie in store if the left gains the Presidency:

Listen to Hillary Clinton who has just now "found her voice." At least progressives are honest when it comes to telling us what they want for America. Liberals will only be content when they live in the world envisioned by socialist billionaire George Soros. They are hell-bent on changing the United States into another Sweden.

You have to admit that's a pretty scary thought. Sweden is such a horrible place to live in, after all. We'd better vote instead for the Republicans -- who want to change the United States into another Iran.


35 years later

Yesterday was the 35th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade. Blogger assessments here and here.

I've taken a stand on this issue before. And I intend to do so again, by doing whatever I can to help prevent any Republican from winning the Presidency -- and thus the right to appoint Supreme Court judges -- this year.


And then there were seven

The winnowing begins -- one of the eight major candidates for President has withdrawn.

Fred Thompson was the only one of the five major Republicans who was not anathema to some big part of the Republican base. I don't think he ever had a really strong chance at the nomination, but he just might have emerged as a consensus candidate that all Republicans could live with. That option is now gone.

As an example of the possible impact of his withdrawal, consider South Carolina. McCain's much-ballyhooed victory there was by a small margin -- he got 33% of the vote and Huckabee got 30%. Had it not been for Thompson (Huckabee's fellow Southerner) drawing off a fair number of voters, Huckabee might well have edged out McCain, creating a very different narrative and media emphasis. So a Thompson-less race will probably strengthen Huckabee and undercut McCain's new front-runner position. The demolition derby continues.

(Note also that McCain's margin of victory over Huckabee was due to independents, who can vote in the South Carolina Republican primary. Huckabee got more votes than McCain among registered Republicans. And most of the upcoming Republican primaries do not allow independents to participate.)

Now Republicans turn their attention to Florida, where we shall see whether Giuliani's campaign can rise from the dead.


21 January 2008

Shooting Moby Dick in a barrel

This is just too good. Bill Maher and Dan Savage discuss Mike Huckabee.

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The Dream

Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks in Washington in 1963.

Most Americans know bits and pieces from this speech, but only by hearing it in full like this can you really grasp how this man electrified millions and changed the course of history.

To the contemporary ear (to mine, at least), one of the striking things about the speech is the unabashed patriotism which undergirds it. There is nothing here of the willful wallowing in cynicism and alienation which debilitates too many on the left today. King was calling his nation to account, challenging it to better itself and live up to its own ideals -- which is what a true patriot does.


19 January 2008

Hillary wins Nevada

An impressive victory, given that Nevada's powerful Culinary Workers' Union had endorsed Obama. Evidently the membership (heavily female and heavily Hispanic) had ideas of their own.

I confess to some disappointment that McCain has apparently won in South Carolina. I would far prefer to see the Republican party represented by Huckabee, a fundamentalist ignoramus who could never win the general election, than by McCain, a man of honor and gravitas who would be a much more formidable opponent. If the last few weeks are any guide, however, Democrats will have no need to undertake the disagreeable task of pelting McCain with mud and filth.

Republicans will do that.


Maybe there IS a just God after all!

The Creation Museum is facing financial collapse. Found via Middle-Aged Vampiress Atheist.


18 January 2008

Link roundup for 18 January 2008

This must be the most wonderful panel ever to appear in a Jack Chick tract.

Check out this edible art.

The Ron Paul Survival Report has more newsletters, and a flyer.

Is Huckabee a Reconstructionist? Stephen Bainbridge and Andrew Sullivan make the case. Sullivan also calls out Huckabee for his Biblical inconsistency. RCP says he can't win the nomination; I wish that I could be equally confident. Here's my own take on this extraordinary and frightening man -- and never forget this.

The rather low turnout for the Republican primaries and caucuses (compared to the mostly very high figures on the Democratic side) betrays poor morale and lack of enthusiasm. The party's prospects in the Senate look dismal. The GOP's strongest general-election candidate is turkeying out. The Republicans are divided, and this seasoned British observer of US politics thinks they're crazy. But our victory is not inevitable.

Sadly No digs up some really ugly stuff from the National Review in the fifties and sixties.

Mother Jones takes a look at tomorrow's Nevada caucus.

Democrats must pay attention to the working class. Note: I agree strongly with the views of Artur Davis and Martin Luther King Jr. cited at the end of the essay. Dividing the working class by race (as the essay itself bafflingly does) does not serve its interests, but rather the interests of its enemies.

The New York Sun assesses Obama's views on Israel -- he's much better on the issue than we've been led to believe.

Barney Frank has some sensible thoughts on laissez-faire.

Norman Podhoretz talks sense about Iran.

Matthew Hiasl Pan has lost his battle for legal personhood.

Is the United States heading for a female-dominated economy?

The claim that "intelligent design" is somehow different from plain old creationism is exposed as a flagrant lie.

Minnesota scientists craft a beating heart. Combined with stem cells, the same technique could someday produce made-to-order human organs for transplant.

DNA is helping nanotechnology march forward toward the vision of Drexler and Kurzweil.

Finally, here's an uplifting thought for the day.

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17 January 2008

It matters

I've noted -- hell, I've relished -- the infighting among Republicans many times. But there's discord on the Democratic side as well, and this concerns me. If left unchecked, it could endanger our ultimate victory in November, in two ways. First, if the rancor between the partisans of the three main Democratic candidates grows too strong (as it has threatened to do between Obama and Clinton supporters over the explosive accusations of sexism and racism, for example), then whichever of our candidates is finally nominated might find that the partisans of the other two refuse to vote for him or her. Second, those furthest to the left, who support a more radical agenda than any major candidate could ever adopt and remain electable, might similarly revolt in disgust over the eventual nominee's inevitable tacking toward the center for the general election -- and might even feel inclined to vote for a third candidate rather than for the Democrat.

We can see both of these phenomena roiling the Republican side (substitute furthest right for furthest left, but the divisive effect is just the same). Just look at how the mutual hostility between their various factions is escalating, and how the possibility of a Ron Paul third candidacy splitting the conservative vote worries their more thoughtful partisans. I don't want to see that happen with our side.

Unfortunately the internet promotes misunderstanding and conflict. It's an impersonal form of communication. People use very informal language which, in writing, is easily mistaken for being more aggressive and rude than the writer intended.

Half a million people voted for Nader in 2000. If all those votes had gone to Gore instead, several close states would have been "flipped" from red to blue, rendering the Florida fiasco irrelevant to the final electoral-college outcome. Most of those who voted for Nader held that, since Gore was not left-wing enough for their taste, it did not matter which of the two major candidates won; it was more important to register a strong protest vote and punish the Democratic party for not taking a (suicidal, from a general-election standpoint) harder-left line.

If you still believe that now, nothing I or anyone else can say can possibly help you. Anyone who can look at the last seven years and still think that it didn't matter whether Gore or Bush became President must be an illegal alien from Neptune. But I think most of us are smarter than that, and are capable of learning from the hideous and dangerous mess which the current administration has made of our country.

Of course, President Bush will not be on this year's ballot. One of the big three Democrats, and one of the big five Republicans, will be. But the two major parties are, if anything, more polarized and distinct from each other than they were (or, at least, than they visibly were) in 2000.

So the next time you feel exasperated with a supporter of a rival Democrat, or start to find some third-party alternative tempting, keep in mind what's at stake in 2008:

We're one Supreme Court appointment away from having Roe vs. Wade overturned.

Another four years of erosion of the separation of church and state will entrench the loss of crucial freedoms.

Another four years of no federal funding for stem-cell research will further delay progress in critical fields of medicine, leading to death and suffering on a much larger scale than is at stake in Iraq, even if it's in a less dramatic and visible form.

Another four years of inaction on global warming will let the problem grow worse, and more difficult and expensive to deal with.

There probably won't be some huge, monumental disaster like a declaration of martial law or a Constitutional amendment to create a theocracy. There'll just be some number of women who are forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term or die in back-alley abortions because they live in a state run by reactionaries who finally get to legislate their taboos. There'll just be more church involvement in politics, more discrimination and bigotry against non-Christians, more children subjected to creationist idiocy and state-sanctioned prayer in schools as the judges who presently block such evils are gradually replaced. There'll just be millions of people with Parkinson's disease, macular degeneration, spinal-cord injuries, and so on who will suffer needlessly because the development of stem-cell-based cures for those conditions will be delayed for years -- and some tens or hundreds of thousands of those people will die needlessly. There'll just be more deadly heat waves and monsoons in places like India and Indochina because the world's greatest industrial power wasted four more years pretending that the biggest remaining ecological problem of our time doesn't exist.

There will, in other words, be plenty of blood to go around, to stain the hands of every individual who looked at our present situation and nevertheless voted for a third candidate or didn't vote at all.

We can't afford another Republican administration. We can't. No matter who the Democrat is.

I support Clinton, but if it's Obama or Edwards, I'm not going to take my ball(ot) and go home in a snit. We can't afford the kind of internecine conflict that might make any of our allies do so. The stakes are too high.

Leave the circular firing squads to the Republicans.

(Note: This posting developed from a comment which I wrote on FranIAm's site here; Fran's own posting is a must-read.)


16 January 2008

Quote for the day

"I have opponents in this race who do not want to change the Con-stitution. But I believe it's a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God. And that's what we need to do -- to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards so it lines up with some contemporary view."

(found via Yikes!)

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Yes! Romney wins! The emergence of a clear Republican front-runner is once again prevented, allowing their demolition derby to continue. Now let's hope for Thompson to win South Carolina and Giuliani to win Florida, so that each of the Republican big five will have a victory to keep him in the race and keep the squabbling and confusion going. Update: read this too.

The Democratic process in Michigan was a peculiar one which paradoxically clarifies the front-runner situation rather than muddling it. Because the state had moved its primary earlier in the year than traditional rules allow, the national party had stripped the state of all of its Democratic delegates, rendering its primary officially moot. Both Obama and Edwards, bowing to the national party's wishes, withdrew their names from the Michigan ballot. Clinton, however, did not, and thus won an easy but apparently-meaningless victory (the "uncommitted" votes are Obama and Edwards supporters). Her gamble, however, is that the national Democratic party will eventually relent and give Michigan its delegates back, increasing her lead still further.

The best news is that Clinton and Obama have both called for a "ceasefire" in their recently-escalating feud over race and gender. We need to keep in mind that one or the other of them is going to be the nominee and we will all need to get together behind that person to beat the Republicans. We can't afford to risk a situation where so much hostility is created that Obama supporters find it impossible to vote for Clinton or vice versa. Let's leave the self-destructive infighting to the other side.


15 January 2008

A few more links I couldn't resist

Sadly No continues its exquisite smackdown of Jonah Goldberg. Topic of the day: Mussolini.

This list of the top 100 stupid things said by fundamentalists (found via Jabberwock) will make your hair stand on end -- I especially like the second one.

More conservative demolition derby: check out this eruption of abuse directed at John McCain, their own current front-runner.

On the same subject, BAC has a great video up, and the first cartoon here says it all about Hillary Clinton and the media.

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13 January 2008

Link roundup for 13 January 2008

Russian hackers make an amusing discovery.

Are we sure he quit drinking?

Australians are the masters at inventing new words (and the BBC apparently doesn't know the difference between a contraction and an acronym).

The Catholic Church, presumably in an effort to show that it is determined to help confront the problems of the modern world, has announced a new emphasis on exorcisms. Don't laugh. The man in this picture sure looks demonically-possessed to me!

Not to be outdone in the race back toward the Dark Ages, Mike Huckabee babbles incoherently (or maybe I should say "speaks in tongues"?) about evolution (found via Pharyngula). Again, don't laugh. The man has won a very high-level endorsement.

Check out the plans for what will soon be the largest building in the world -- Crystal Island.

It's no surprise that Muslims and Slavs don't get along -- an honor-killing-and-headscarf culture doesn't have much in common with a vodka-and-miniskirt culture, after all. But it's kind of weird that this fight is happening in Yorkshire.

Violent crime drives away tourists (well, duh.....). If you want subtropical beaches, next time try Hawaii.

Sam Harris discusses the indifference of nature in an essay which shows transhumanist leanings (found via Ordinary Girl).

George Dvorsky posts a fascinating transhumanist view of gender.

California scientists have developed an astonishingly-promising treatment for Alzheimer's disease.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali reviews a new book on Islamic imperialism.

Ms. Magazine disgraces itself.

George Will laments the disarray among Republicans. Those who favor our side will enjoy this video (read comments too).

As Ron Paul circles the drain, here's commentary from Virginia Postrel, David Frum, and Glenn Reynolds. And there's actually a blog for people who are annoyed with Paul.

Here's all the analysis you could ever want of New Hampshire and its implications for the future, and I think Charles Krauthammer has some good points about Obama here. This article takes a look at the Nevada race, while this cartoon from our local newspaper sums up the embarrassment of the media after New Hampshire.

We're seeing a shameful tactic to divide Democrats: unfounded accusations of racism. Here's evidence that the New Hampshire result was not due to racism.

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Thought for the day

It seems to be widely assumed that black voters will tend to prefer Obama because he's black, and pretty much everyone considers this perfectly acceptable. But if some women voters prefer Clinton because she's a woman, this is somehow less legitimate. It seems to me that the standard should be the same in both cases.

It is also regularly observed that electing our first black President would be a historic event and would send an important message to the rest of the world, and this is undoubtedly true. However, I do not see why electing our first woman President would be any less historic -- and this, too would send an important message to those regions of the world where women are still treated as something between second-class citizens and domestic animals.


12 January 2008

A bit of good news for the day

10 January 2008

After New Hampshire

The one thing that New Hampshire settled is that nothing is settled yet. It's not over till it's over. I still think that Hillary will be the Democratic nominee and the next President, but only a fool would claim to be able to see the future with certainty at this point.

As in Iowa, none of the eight major candidates* did badly enough to have reason to drop out. Some are doubtless disappointed -- it doesn't look like Edwards is getting anywhere, for example -- but Hillary's poll-defying return from the dead just shows that even a candidate who is being written off as finished can sometimes pull off a surprise victory and get back in the race. Those who aren't currently doing well will note this, and resist pressures to quit.

This means, among other things, that the Republicans will still continue to suffer the divisiveness brought on by a crowded field. Settling on a consensus candidate will be difficult because almost every one of their five leaders antagonizes some core Republican constituency. Huckabee infuriates small-government and secular conservatives; Romney is anathema to the anti-Mormon fundies; Giuliani inflames anti-abortion fanatics; McCain remains widely unforgiven for his support for the Bush illegal-alien amnesty and campaign-finance reform (yes, the latter is opposed with startling ferocity by some Republicans). Only Thompson seems to arouse no strong antipathy on the right, and he doesn't seem to arouse much enthusiasm either.

On the Democratic side, I think we will continue to see further cases of the pattern noted in New Hampshire, where Clinton does better against Obama in the actual voting than the polls have predicted. This will be, not because of the "Bradley effect", but because of something subtler. People responding to polls are likely to be reacting to the idealism Obama represents, but in the voting booth where the actual decision needs to be made, they will be swayed by the sobering question: which of these two is tough enough and ruthless enough to defeat the Republican nominee in the election and to overcome Congressional Republican resistance to Democratic policies afterwards (to say nothing of dealing with the jihadists)? Andrew Sullivan touts Obama's less divisive politics and the prospect of "transcending" the culture war, but we all know the Republicans would view this as weakness and take advantage of it; and as long as they keep attacking science, abortion rights, the separation of church and state, and so on, we need to keep fighting back -- to win, not "transcend". The time for conciliation is after we've won, not while the aggressor is still making war on us.

As I expected, the first actual votes have thrown a bucket of cold, harsh reality over the Ron Paul cult. No, there was not some vast pool of support for their guy lurking out there, below the polls' radar, waiting to emerge and startle the political world. The New Republic's exposé probably had (and will continue to have) an impact, but its general thrust won't be news to anyone who has looked into the issue on the internet, though of course TNR has a broader audience than Orcinus does. But it's Paul's own disturbing and extreme positions, and the Moonie-evoking obsessiveness of his followers in exalting him as more a messiah than a politician and in spamming every anti-Paul posting on the internet with a flood of robot-like comments, that have kept him on the fringe.

A few links of interest:

This posting sums up the current situation pretty well.

This attack on McCain's support for amnesty is harshly written, but the point is an important one, and such tough rhetoric is an important part of the conflicts within conservatism these days.

One of Sullivan's readers rebukes the media -- including him.

A Paulist blogger (with some pro-McCain leanings) laments New Hampshire.

Politics sure creates hard feelings, doesn't it? And with the internet being so conducive to overheated rhetoric and vulgar language, it's worth looking once again at this amusing video.

*Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, John McCain, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson.


08 January 2008

Too close to call?!

Hmmm.....it looks like New Hampshire isn't going to be another Obama landslide after all. Here's a frequently-refreshed tally of the Democratic vote -- as I write this, it shows Clinton with 39% and Obama with 36%, with 44% of precincts reporting. Whoever wins, it will probably be close.

It just goes to show that the media do not always serve us well as a guide to reality, nor do they have as much influence on voters as many people believe. After months during which the conventional wisdom was that Hillary was the "inevitable" nominee, she lost by a large margin in Iowa; now, a mere five days later, during which the media proclaimed a second defeat in New Hampshire to be equally inevitable and even speculated that her overall candidacy was now doomed, it looks like she may well achieve a narrow victory and at worst suffer a narrow loss.

For a couple of "reality check" articles, written before the voting started in New Hampshire, see here and here.

Update: She wins!


Back to politics

Just to lighten things up a bit before the political frenzy once again engulfs us, here's MPS with Romney and Giuliani (read comments too), and Bill Maher on the Republicans and religion.

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06 January 2008

Six important ideas

These six ideas are central to how I see the world. I cannot claim that any of them are proven facts (with the possible exception of #3), but there are what I consider very good reasons for thinking that they are true, and I expect that they will be shown to be true with the passage of time.

1) Humans do not have "souls". The one great central error in human thinking, from which I believe most of our other errors ultimately flow, is the concept that there is some sort of "soul" or "spirit" or "animating force" within a human being, a "ghost in the machine", something supernatural, unfathomable by the normal laws which describe the behavior of matter and energy. No. The mind is the aggregation of the vast system of highly complex operations which the brain performs. Admittedly, exactly how this works is probably the most challenging problem facing modern science and philosophy. We do know that very complex systems can generate "emergent properties", that is, properties qualitatively different from those of their simpler components, but the mammalian brain must surely be by far the most stunning example -- how does the interaction of complex patterns of signals cascading through networks of brain cells generate a mind with free will, self-awareness, and all the other traits which seem to differentiate humans and higher animals from everything else in the universe? We don't know yet, but that is no reason to invoke the supernatural. Humans have always come up with supernatural explanations for phenomena they did not understand, but when they did become capable of understanding those phenomena, it turned out that there was nothing supernatural involved. The same will happen in this case.

2) We are alone in the universe. For over a century, it was the default position of most scientists and other thinkers that the universe held other species at least as intelligent as ourselves, probably a great many of them. People debated whether they would turn out to be benevolent teachers to enlighten us, super-monsters out to enslave us or destroy us, or merely our equal partners in the advancement of a future shared civilization. But as our understanding of the universe and evolution has progressed, and as the total absence of any of the evidence we would expect to see has sunk in, a more sober view has begun to make headway. I highly recommend this book, which first helped me see the light (and which also contains the best and most readable overview of the evolution of life on Earth that I've seen); on a related subject, here is my interpretation of Fermi's paradox.

3) We humans of today are vastly superior -- mentally, physically, and morally -- to our ancestors of just a few centuries ago. Once nutrition, medical knowledge, and so forth began to improve, humans began growing larger, healthier, and more intelligent (especially as education spread). These healthier people produced healthier children, who not only started off advantaged at birth but also grew up in an environment which was continuing to improve. Over generations these effects have been cumulative, and the trend is still accelerating today. More here.

4) Because of #3, there is no sublime wisdom to be found in ancient "holy" texts or traditions. The reason why texts such as the Bible and Koran read like disjointed, befuddled ramblings is that they actually are disjointed, befuddled ramblings -- the work of minds which were probably, by our modern standards, literally subnormal and mentally retarded. They could not think anything like as clearly as we can, and they were totally ignorant of the true origin, and almost totally ignorant of the true nature, of the world and of mankind. This is why, as people like Christopher Hitchens have pointed out, such texts are riddled with contradictions and pathetic logical lapses which are obvious even to children today.

5) We will soon free our species from the ancient scourge of aging and death. This is the most important challenge facing our rapidly-advancing medical technology. The aging process is already fairly well understood; we know how it kills us, and we know in principle what we need to do to stop it. Actually getting there will take a massive investment of resources and brainpower, but the goal is in sight, even if hazy in the distance. More here; see also this site and this one.

6) The Singularity is near. By around 2045 we will have all the necessary technology to achieve the unification of human and machine intelligence, adding all the capabilities of computers (themselves vastly more advanced than the computers of today) to the powers which the human brain already possesses. Human intelligence will be able to increase without limit, even to levels trillions of times what it is today. The technological and cultural achievements which will follow this are as far beyond our present comprehension as the internet, genetic engineering, literature, or philosophy would be beyond the comprehension of a flea. Read this book for the whole story.

New year's resolutions

There are a couple of good postings on the subject here and here. I've never made new year's resolutions either. One thing that I do resolve to do is to stop getting into conflicts with other people by posting argumentative comments on their blogs -- unless there's a very good reason. But it has nothing to do with the "odometer" clicking over to mark one more year since the universally-known-to-be-incorrect birth-date of the sacrificial god-king of Christian mythology who almost certainly never existed in the first place. It's just a bad habit I need to get out of.

Link roundup for 6 January 2008

Sesame Street's "The Count" zeroes in on the right number.

Bill Maher speaks out on religion in politics and on missionaries.

Mendip notes that today is the birthday of the British comedian Rowan Atkinson, of Blackadder fame.

Jabberwock has a new Chick dissection posted. Today's topic is evolution.

Here's an interesting posting about Darwin and Malthus (found via Apostate's Chapel).

BAC has some noteworthy clips of Hillary at the debate.

Daylight Atheism has some sensible observations about the Bible's most amazing miracle.

Let them come to Sderot.

Mike Huckabee is a little off-target about the Ten Commandments (found via Mike's Weekly Skeptic Rant).

Here's an exhaustive overview of the notorious 2006 Lancet study, the source of the hugely-inflated figures for Iraqi civilian casualties which one still sees cited here and there.

Evolutionary Middleman posts the video of the recent roundtable among "the four horsemen of atheism" -- Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens.

Read this before you click on anything at Sears's website. Note the poll results at the lower right.

This Pakistani cleric is simply expressing the conventional Islamic stance toward non-Muslim societies as it has stood since Islam was founded -- but it's worth being reminded every so often what that stance actually is.

Finally, a very sad link. Andrew Olmsted was a blogger and an American soldier who was killed in action in Iraq this week. Here is his final posting, which has justifiably been drawing a great deal of attention around the internet.

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Quotes for the day

"While you believe that bringing an end to religion is an impossible goal, it is important to realize that much of the developed world has nearly accomplished it. Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the United Kingdom are among the least religious societies on earth. According to the United Nations' Human Development Report (2005) they are also the healthiest, as indicated by life expectancy, adult literacy, per capita income, educational attainment, gender equality, homicide rate, and infant mortality. Insofar as there is a crime problem in Western Europe, it is largely the product of immigration. Seventy percent of the inmates of France's jails, for instance, are Muslim. The Muslims of Western Europe are generally not atheists. Conversely, the fifty nations now ranked lowest in terms of the United Nations' human develop-ment index are unwaveringly religious."

Sam Harris
Letter to a Christian Nation, pp. 43-44

"I would be the first to admit that the prospects for eradicating religion in our time do not seem good. Still, the same could have been said about efforts to abolish slavery at the end of the eighteenth century. Anyone who spoke with confidence about eradicating slavery in the United States in the year 1775 surely appeared to be wasting his time, and wasting it dangerously. The analogy is not perfect, but it is suggestive."

Sam Harris
Letter to a Christian Nation, pp. 87-88



OK, enough politics for a while. Here's JibJab's look back at 2007.

I'm not going to try to do a summary of the whole year myself. One of the things that does stand out about 2007, though, was how the squeaky-clean plastic curtain of the Republican-fundamentalist Axis of Arrogant Moral Judgmentalism was cast aside to reveal, not a wizard, but something more like Sodom and Gomorrah. It turns out that Mark Foley and Ted Haggard were just a warm-up act. Larry Craig, David Vitter, Gary Aldridge, Bob Allen.....have I missed anyone? The only authority figure who managed to emerge from the closet with his dignity intact was Albus Dumbledore.

Just for clarification, I don't really object to eccentric sexual behavior, so long as it's among consenting adults. What I object to is these people ranting and raving and pushing for laws to limit everyone else's freedom. That's hypocrisy.

The most positive developments of the year? The achievement of two major new breakthroughs in stem-cell technology, and the success of the US change in military tactics in Iraq. We'll probably have to wait until a Democratic President takes office a year from now to see the greatest benefits from these, though.

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Demolition derby

Cheer up! For examples of how nasty the internecine squabbling among Republicans is getting, check out the comment threads here and here.

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04 January 2008

What do the caucus results mean?

As an indicator of where the country is headed, not much. But they can't be ignored, either. Let's see what we've got.

As a Clinton supporter, obviously I'm rather disappointed in the outcome. She ended up in an effective tie with Edwards for second (just a few hundred votes behind him), but that's not how the media spin things -- third is third. And Obama, who I think would be the weakest of the three in a general election, won by a clear margin. I doubt that this will have much impact on the eventual nomination, but what impact it does have is clearly not good.

The best consolation is that the other side's results are even worse for them. They too had a clear winner -- Huckabee, a candidate driven mostly by the Evangelical-Christian vote, who could not win the general election. Their strongest candidate for the general election, Giuliani, ended up with just 3% of the vote, barely a third as much as Ron Paul. And the caucuses have not even done the Republicans the favor of winnowing their overcrowded field -- not one of their five major candidates has a convincing reason to drop out. Huckabee, obviously, is more energized than ever. Romney's disappointing second place is still second place, and he is still the candidate of the conservative establishment. Thompson finished third, better than many expected. McCain is rising in the polls and may even win in New Hampshire. Even Giuliani's pathetic vote total means little since he never expected to do well in Iowa, didn't try very hard there, and saw the caucuses mainly as an arena for his rivals to wound each other. Republicans will remain divided. In national polls, the Democrats have a clear front-runner who is also their strongest candidate for the general election, while the Republicans remain in a muddle.

A few more observations:

Each party's caucuses gave victory to that party's weakest major candidate for the general election (though there's a grotesquely large difference of degree -- Obama is far more electable than Huckabee). This suggests to me that giving the caucuses such disproportionate weight in the nomination process does not do either party any favors.

Obama's victory in an overwhelmingly-white state seems to vindicate the observation I made a while ago -- that being black will not cost him a significant number of votes. This is not because racism doesn't exist, but because the kind of person who would never vote for a black candidate would probably never vote for any Democrat in the first place.

The United States is undergoing a powerful revival of populism, despite the punditocracy's increasingly-frantic efforts to dismiss it. Both Huckabee and Edwards owe some of their strength to this trend, and all candidates ignore it at their peril.

Four days to New Hampshire.....


03 January 2008

The Iowa caucuses

By this time tomorrow, if not considerably sooner, we'll be awash in analysis and spin concerning today's Iowa caucus results. I've already linked to what Hitchens has to say on this subject, and this is worth reading too. Whether the Iowa result today is good or bad (from your own viewpoint), it matters less than the hype suggests. This is not a primary, or anything like a primary. The turnout is small, there is no secret ballot, and arcane rules very different from what applies in a general election have great influence on the outcome. Yes, today's results will have some effect on the coming contests, and they'll give newspapers (and bloggers) something to write about, but the first actual primary is still five days away.


01 January 2008

The monstrous evil of Christianity and Islam

Link roundup for 1 January 2008

Here's a fun nativity scene (click to enlarge) and holiday greeting.

Christians in the Holy Land celebrate the season in their own way.

Check out these ice sculptures.


Sadly No has been doing a whole series of postings about Jonah Goldberg's book Liberal Fascism (which sounds preposterous, though I can't say for sure since I haven't read it). Here's the best one, addressing the perennial myth that Nazism was somehow an expression of homosexuality.

Exit Zero presents the wedding photo of the year.

Here's something very rare: an opinion poll of Saudi Arabian citizens. The most prominent result is also the least surprising -- Saudi Arabians really, really don't like Jews. The most surprising -- until you think about it a bit -- is that almost 40% of Saudi citizens favor military action to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

Months ago I linked to the great video of the song "Open Season" by Stuck Mojo. Here's an extended remix, with plenty of arresting and didactic visuals added. Stuck Mojo's original video is here.

Christopher Hitchens assesses Benazir Bhutto, and Phyllis Chesler puts her murder in the context of the war on women in Pakistan.

More Hitchens: he's scathing about the undemocratic character of the Iowa caucus process, and he appears with Bill Maher here.

Oderint dum metuant: according to Gallup, Hillary Clinton is the Democrat whom Republicans most fear. E. J. Dionne looks at the looming "civil war" among Republicans.

This article says that the Anglican Church has lost its dominant position in Britain to the Catholic Church, in the sense that the average attendance at Anglican religious services has now fallen slightly lower than at Catholic ones. But clearly the real story here is how low the figures are in absolute terms. Average attendance at Catholic Sunday Mass was 861,000, while that at Anglican services was 852,000 -- in a nation of sixty million. (The figures may be for England rather than the whole of Britain, but even England has over fifty million people.) I don't know how many British people are self-acknowledged atheists, but true believers are clearly a small minority now.

You Made Me Say It blog has plenty to say about this "creepy archbishop" and about some Christians' Christmas spirit.

Deeply Blasphemous debunks the delusion that science and religion are not in conflict.

Orcinus views the poisoned fruits of "free-trade fundamentalism".

Arizona's tough new employer-sanctions law to discourage illegal immigration has been upheld. And it's working.

Scientists at MIT have taken an important step toward artificial capillaries.

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