30 March 2008

The deluge

Perhaps it starts with a slow escalation of cracking and grinding sounds, low and loud as thunder, resounding across the doomed landscape below. Perhaps it is preceded by an earthquake, a natural disaster acting here as the mere trigger of a far vaster cataclysm. Perhaps there is no warning at all.

Whatever the nature of the overture, what follows is the same.

A wall of concrete and steel -- one and a half miles in length and as high as a sixty-story building -- groans, shifts, heaves, and bursts asunder from the unthinkable pressure behind it. Through the rapidly-widening breach pours a torrent of water more massive than any flood in the memory of mankind. The colossal fluid juggernaut roars forward, unstoppable, driven by the force of the reservoir now unleashed -- a reservoir hundreds of miles long, holding almost ten cubic miles of water. Before it, defenseless, lies its prey: vast tracts of agricultural land among the most densely-populated on the planet, and the industrial heartland of a great nation.

Within hours, innumerable villages and several major cities have been scoured away as if they had never existed at all, and tens of millions of human beings are dead. Most of their bodies will never be found, for the torrent will not lose force appreciably until it has carried them out into the ocean a thousand miles downstream. Tens of millions more stand in mortal danger from the famine and disease which will ravage the gutted nation. As the news spreads worldwide, leaders in every capital tremble in anticipation of the great political upheaval which is sure to follow in the wake of the deadliest disaster in all of human history.

This nightmare scenario could actually materialize in the near future, thanks to a hideously-misguided engineering project of which most people in the Western world are only vaguely aware: the Three Gorges Dam in Hubei province, mainland China.

Under construction from 1994 to 2003, the gigantic dam (7,575 feet long and 607 feet high) is intended to generate electricity and control the disastrous floods to which the Yangtze has always been prone. When filled, its reservoir will be 410 miles long and contain 9.43 cubic miles of water (source), displacing 1,400,000 people. In effect, the project has created a lake in the deep interior of China -- a lake, however, restrained at one end only by a man-made barrier of concrete and steel.

China has suffered dam-related disasters before. In 1975, after a series of typhoons, a dam burst in Henan province; the resulting wave shattered the next dam downriver from it, and the one after that, and so on, until a total of sixty-two dams had been breached. The death toll from this event was estimated at between 80,000 and 230,000, while millions suffered from disease and famine. But those dams were not even close in scale to the Three Gorges Dam; it has been estimated that a breach in the latter would release a flow of water forty times the volume of that of the 1975 disaster.

The project has aroused a degree of outspoken opposition unusual in a totalitarian state, as hydrologists and engineers have drawn attention to the risks -- but the regime, as it typically does, has simply suppressed dissenting views.

Poor, totalitarian states are notoriously prone to corruption, which can lead to shoddy construction as builders and suppliers cut corners. There is already evidence that the Three Gorges Dam has suffered from this problem. There have been many reports of cracks in the dam (example here).

As if that weren't alarming enough in itself, there are six active earthquake faults near the dam, and there has been speculation that the tremendous weight of the water in the reservoir as it fills could actually trigger an earthquake.

The Yangtze valley is among the most densely-populated areas in China. Combined, the river's valley and its delta (which would also suffer at least some effects from flooding if the dam burst) contain one-third of China's population and account for almost one-half of the country's food production. The valley is also a major industrial region, including the industrial city of Wuhan (population eight million) a short distance downriver from the dam.

If disaster struck, there is obviously no hope that a country with a primitive infrastructure could evacuate a significant percentage of the endangered population in the few hours (at best) that would be available.

The Three Gorges Dam reservoir will be filled to capacity by the end of 2008.

29 March 2008

Book review: The Bible Unearthed

The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman

Is the Old Testament history or legend? It's clear to anyone with a functioning brain that the story of creation in Genesis has no relationship to anything that ever actually happened, but once the story reaches the time of Abraham, most people -- even quite a few atheists -- tend to assume that they're reading something fairly close to actual history, even if inevitably somewhat skewed to reflect the viewpoint of the ancient Israelites who, after all, wrote the narrative.

Wrong.

I've known for a long time that the story of Exodus was a myth. The Egyptian records of the time don't mention the Israelites or anything remotely resembling any of the events in the story. The whole story of the Israelite captivity in Egypt and their dramatic escape simply never happened in reality.

The Bible Unearthed looks at the rest of the Old Testament stories in the same light, comparing them with the known actual archaeological evidence and surviving records from the periods when the stories supposedly took place. In case after case, the record is clear: the "history" in the Old Testament bears little or no resemblance to what was actually happening during the periods it purports to describe. Instead, it appears to have been concocted in the sixth century BC as a heroic myth designed to bolster the interests of the kingdom of Judah and certain factions within it.

The Bible is full of anachronisms: camels are described as being in common use in periods long before the camel had actually been domesticated by humans, for example. Cities and states described as being large and important in the stories of Abraham and Moses either did not exist at those times or were insignificant -- though they were indeed large and important in the sixth century BC (by analogy, imagine a story set in the year 1500 in North America referring to Los Angeles as a huge city, or to the Cold War with the Soviet Union).

Archaeological evidence from cities where the Old Testament describes tremendous battles and destruction show no sign of such events having happened. At the time when Jerusalem was supposed to have been the glorious capital of David and Solomon, it was in fact a sleepy little town.

The verdict of the evidence is clear. Abraham and Moses are pure myth. The invasion of Canaan, the battle of Jericho, the conquest and resettlement of the land -- none of it really happened (as best we can tell, the Israelites originated as a dissident group within Canaanite society and gradually became a distinct people -- they were not invaders from without). David and Solomon may have existed, but if so, they were chieftains of a tiny and backward collection of hill tribes, not the monarchs of a mighty empire. Only with the Omride dynasty does the Old Testament narrative begin to fall into line with real history -- we know King Ahab existed because he's mentioned in contemporary Assyrian records, for example.

Perhaps most interestingly of all, the dominant theme of the Old Testament -- that the Israelites started off as monotheists but had to be repeatedly punished by God for backsliding into paganism -- probably isn't true either. There's evidence of typically Canaanite pagan worship at Israelite rural sites throughout "Biblical" times. The Bible stories were apparently written to strengthen the hand of the monotheistic camp in sixth-century Judah; there's no way of knowing how old the monotheist tendency among the Israelites really was, or how dominant it was in the centuries before the stories were written.

In hindsight, none of this should be considered surprising. Most primitive peoples have myths about their origins and ancient heroes, and no anthropologist would ever mistake such myths for literal history, though in most cases they probably do incorporate a few vague and distorted memories of actual events. It's just a historical accident that one such tribal myth got incorporated into a set of texts which, centuries later, was declared by powerful religious leaders to be the infallible word of God.

Thanks to Handmaiden for bringing this book to my attention.

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26 March 2008

Quote for the day

"Now, by way of which vent or orifice is this venom creeping back into our national bloodstream? Where is hatred and tribalism and ignorance most commonly incubated, and from which platform is it most commonly yelled? If you answered 'the churches' and 'the pulpits,' you got both answers right. The Ku Klux Klan (originally a Protestant identity movement, as many people prefer to forget) and the Nation of Islam (a black sectarian mutation of Quranic teaching) may be weak these days, but bigotry of all sorts is freely available, and openly inculcated into children, by any otherwise unemployable dirtbag who can perform the easy feat of putting Reverend in front of his name. And this clerical vileness has now reached the point of disfiguring the campaigns of both leading candidates for our presidency. If you think Jeremiah Wright is gruesome, wait until you get a load of the next Chicago 'Reverend,' one James Meeks, another South Side horror show with a special sideline in the baiting of homosexuals. He, too, has been an Obama supporter, and his church has been an occasional recipient of Obama's patronage. And perhaps he, too, can hope to be called 'controversial' for his use of the term house nigger to describe those he doesn't like and for his view that it was 'the Hollywood Jews' who brought us Brokeback Mountain. Meanwhile, the Republican nominee adorns himself with two further reverends: one named John Hagee, who thinks that the pope is the Antichrist, and another named Rod Parsley, who has declared that the United States has a mission to obliterate Islam. Is it conceivable that such repellent dolts would be allowed into public life if they were not in tax-free clerical garb? How true it is that religion poisons everything."

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If you think Wal-Mart is unfairly maligned.....

.....read this story of its treatment of the brain-damaged mother of a fallen soldier. Found via Chell's Roost.

23 March 2008

Link roundup for 23 March 2008

Some of Ron Paul's followers, apparently feeling that the earlier plan to take over Texas was too ambitious, are now trying to start their own separate Paulist communities, free from the rules of the oppressive unconstitutional US government and, apparently, of correct spelling as well.

Don't miss Phillychief's great re-interpretation of Easter.

Here's a roundup of depictions of Martian war machines (click on the pictures for bigger versions).

The Tibet crackdown has again revealed the ugly reality behind the myth of a modernizing China. Calls are now being heard for a boycott of the Olympic opening ceremony.

More assessments of the Obama-Wright issue, from Mickey Kaus, Michael Meyers, and the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times looks at the Donner Party Democrats.

Here's an impressive photo of an avalanche -- on Mars (found via Ordinary Girl).

Scientists have discovered giant sea life near Antarctica.

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20 March 2008

Obama and Wright

Barack Obama is not going to be President.

The Jeremiah Wright problem is not going away. If Obama is the Democratic nominee, the Republicans will use it to destroy him, and McCain will win the general election. The practical question is whether or not the Democratic party will grasp this fact quickly enough.

Obama's speech this week (video and full text here) was certainly a brilliant dissertation on the issue of race in America. Unfortunate-ly, that issue is not the issue Obama needed to address.

The issue he needed to address was his decision to maintain for twenty years (most of his adult life) an intimate association with a preacher of hatred and lunacy. Only a small part of his speech confronted that specific question, and the results were not reassuring.

Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely - just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.

There -- right there -- is the problem. There are issues on which people can legitimately "strongly disagree" and leave it at that. Virulent racial hatred, claims that the US brought September 11 on itself, and paranoid fantasies about AIDS being deliberately engineered to kill non-whites, are not among them. Millions of people, hearing or reading these words, will have thought, "If my pastor, priest, or rabbi consistently preached ravings as ugly as these, I would long ago have left and found myself a new one." Obama must have known for years how vile Wright's ideology was. He did not leave and find himself a new pastor. That's the problem.

Here is Obama's next paragraph:

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country - a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

But although the "firestorm" is recent, the remarks which Obama recognizes as more than "simply controversial" are not. Again, Wright has been preaching this kind of material for years. His first statements about September 11 date to a few days after almost three thousand Americans of all races (and many non-Americans also) had been murdered by barbarians loyal to those "perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam" which Obama rightly condemns.

Again, Obama knew all along what Wright was preaching. He chose to stay. That's the issue.

He points out that there is more to Wright than his ideology. Probably true, but also probably true of almost every preacher of hatred one could name. If, say, Hillary Clinton turned out to have stayed for twenty years in the congregation of a clergyman who preached the equivalent kind of paranoid anti-black hatred, pointing to his good works in other areas would cut no ice.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.

The entire black community cannot be equated with one single paranoid and hateful individual.

I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother

As many commenters have pointed out, biological relationships are not a matter of choice the way one's decision to affiliate (and stay affiliated) with a pastor is. And occasional stereotypical remarks or nervousness around young men on the street is not equivalent to consistent preaching of paranoia and bigotry.

Wright's ravings about AIDS, September 11, and so forth do not "reflect the complexities of race in this country". They are evil and outrageous, no matter who preaches them or why. They were not enough to make Obama leave and find a new pastor. This suggests that he did not find them to be as evil and outrageous as they in fact are. That's the issue.

The hard core of Obama's supporters are already diligently working to convince themselves that the speech has put the Wright problem to rest. None of their rationalization will cut any ice with the broad mass of people in the political center who will decide the election. It's not that they'll think Obama himself is racist or paranoid (I don't believe he is). The issue in their minds will remain: Didn't Obama realize how terrible this stuff was? He couldn't have, or else he'd have dumped the guy. And he's still defending the fact that he didn't -- he still doesn't get it. I can't see any possible response to this. Obama is an intelligent man and he must know how serious a problem he has here. His speech this week was thus probably the best defense he is able to make. It was not good enough. As for his supporters, some of their efforts -- such as constructing arguments for why "God damn America" isn't so outrageous in context -- will merely dig the hole deeper.

What should the Democratic party do? It faces a crucial choice.

One option, the superficially-easy one, is to let itself be lulled by the reassurances of those who claim that the Wright problem is being laid to rest. In this scenario, the nomination contest will continue along the trajectory it has followed since Iowa, and Obama will be the nominee. October will be awash in Wright's ravings and in thunderous reminders that Obama chose to keep this man as his pastor for two decades, Obama supporters will trot out their rationalizations and evasions, the political center will recoil in revulsion, and McCain will be the next President.

The other option is for the party to recognize that Obama can't win the general election with this albatross weighing him down, and choose accordingly. This seems to be exactly the kind of situation that the institution of superdelegates was designed for. There is also evidence that the party rank and file are getting it.

Whether enough people will understand the reality of the situation quickly enough to avert disaster is the big question. I'm not going to make any predictions now.

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14 March 2008

The Infidel is [OUT]

I'll be heading out of town later today, returning late Sunday. Here's some other worthwhile stuff to read:

A heartwarming case of interspecies cooperation.

Questions on the new Catholic sins and the price of gasoline (read this too).

Pop-culture versions of the Last Supper.

A novel anti-Shariah protest in Europe.

Christian whining in Britain.

Flagrant bigotry enshrined in the Arkansas constitution.

More on nanotechnology in Japan.

Eliot Spitzer

I haven't had much to say about the Spitzer, er, affair because I haven't been following it very closely. However, I gather that he's one of those moral-crusader types who made a name for himself via, among other things, aggressive harassment of prostitution "rings" while at the same time being a perennial clandestine patron of their services, and at top dollar at that. Since being caught with his, um, hand in the, er, cookie jar, of course, he has treated us to at least one public appearance in which he implicitly affirmed his commitment to family values by utilizing his wife in the (surely) profoundly-humiliating role of a silent standing-by-her-man prop at his side.

All I can say is, the man is clearly in the wrong party. He's one diaper away from a rewarding lifetime career as a Republican Senator, at the very least. But while he clearly has the hypocrisy side down pat, he does need to work on his chutzpah. No actual Republican would have resigned so easily. Hey, if Larry Craig can brazen it out, so can you!

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12 March 2008

Symantec update

Since posting this letter on this blog, I've been contacted by two Symantec employees who left messages in the form of comments (I didn't post them because they contained individual e-mail addresses; rather, I responded to them directly). After further exchanges, I've been assured that the duplicate charge to my credit card will be reversed. I'm going to wait and see whether that actually happens, but it's more encouraging than the quagmire I was dealing with before.

Link roundup for 12 March 2008

Hey Richard Dawkins, is this your teapot? More proof that the Islamists have no sense of humor. At least tea is good for you.

If one takes certain aspects of Christian doctrine seriously, the most fortunate "people" are miscarried fetuses.

Here's a look at the twentieth century -- from 1900.

The special election in Illinois holds ominous portents for the Republicans. Voter self-identification is shifting strongly toward the Democrats (found via Tennessee Guerrilla Women).

"In case you haven't noticed, we in Washington aren't functioning as we should be.....It's getting harder and harder to do the Lord's work in the City of Satan." Mike Huckabee? Alan Keyes? No, John McCain (link sent by Mendip). McCain also seems swayed by junk science, which is a Republican tradition (found via Open Left), and has won at least one scary endorsement. Here's a sober view of his dubious dealings.

Is Obama tough enough? Voters in key swing states don't seem to be enthralled (neither do the British).

Jay Cost looks at a case for Clinton; Marie Cocco looks at the math. Here are some telling quotes.

Some say our society is too litigous, but I don't think this is an improvement.

Self-esteem: the new snake oil.

Canadian essayist Salim Mansur speaks out on multiculturalism.

Life in Iran just gets worse and worse.

Does Hamas want a new hot war with Israel?

An Idaho science teacher finds a way to sneak "intelligent design" into the classroom. With such people "teaching" our children, are these so surprising?

The surprising longevity of birds may hold useful clues.

Genetic engineering creates a new weapon against HIV.

A very simple computer, made of just 17 molecules, has been used to control simple nano-machines -- another step toward the vision of Kurzweil and Drexler.

Here's Kurzweil on the prospects for solar power.

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09 March 2008

Where's Vamp?

Anyone know if "Vamp", formerly of "Middle-Aged Vampiress Atheist" and "Atheistic Viewpoint", has a new blog?

The pretty months begin with March

The weather is still quite cool here, but no longer bitingly cold -- and that means that skirts and sandals have started to reappear. In a place where the actual warm season is fairly short, many local ladies can't wait for summer to start showing themselves off. And so, just as with the flowers of spring to come, the re-emergence of beauty is the surest sign that the dreariness of winter is over.

A letter to the president of Symantec

I've heard that when all else fails, writing to the president of the company sometimes works.

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Dear Mr. Thompson,

I am writing to let you know about the terrible job your customer service people are doing, and to ask for your help in resolving the problem I have been having with your company.

My Norton Antivirus came up for automatic annual renewal recently. When I received my credit card statement, I saw that Symantec had double-charged me for the renewal fee of $49.99. The duplicate charge caused my credit card to go over its credit limit, so the credit card company had also charged me an over-limit fee.

I went to your website to try to resolve the duplicate-charge problem using the online chat option. The chat session was very frustrating and confusing, with your representative first saying there was no duplicate charge, then saying that the billings were for two different programs, then again saying there was no dupli-cate charge, etc. Eventually he suggested I fax a copy of my credit card statement to Symantec at 866-639-4216, which I did, along with an explanatory cover letter and a printout of the online chat session. I specifically requested a response by e-mail (I am mildly hearing-impaired and don’t like to use telephones when I can avoid it).

Eleven days later, having received no response whatsoever, I sent the fax again.

Yesterday – almost two full weeks after the second fax – I got a message on my phone answering machine asking me to call 800-379-2566. I called the number. I got an automated voice saying that I needed a "priority ID" to use the system and that there was a charge of $9.95 for doing so. I have no idea what a "priority ID" is – the phone message from Symantec had not mentioned this – and I certainly have no intention of paying Symantec ten dollars to correct its own billing mistake. Nothing I could do on the phone could get me to a live person.

Can you imagine how frustrating this experience has been? What would you think of a company which treated you like this when you tried to get them to fix a simple duplicate-billing error?

I am finished with trying to resolve this problem via your custo-mer service people. They are worse than useless. I want you per-sonally to take a hand in getting this problem fixed. I enclose a copy of the fax I sent, including the printout of the online chat session. What I mean by "getting this problem fixed" is that (1) the duplicate charge to my credit card is reversed, and (2) there is no interruption of the anti-virus protection I paid for.

Frustratedly,
[Signed]

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It's now four weeks since I mailed this.....No results so far.

Update (12 March): See here.

But those are the rules!

It's become a common refrain among Obama supporters.

Yes, refusing to seat the delegations from Florida and Michigan because those states held their primaries early may be unfair and undemocratic. But those are the rules! Everybody knew the rules before the game started. It would be wrong to change the rules halfway through the game.

Yes, having some states' delegations chosen not in primaries but in caucuses, which exclude those who can't set aside several hours on a given day to participate (that is, mostly disenfranchising Clinton's "beer track" supporters in favor of Obama's "wine track" crowd) may be undemocratic and unfair. But those are the rules! Delegates allocated by caucuses must count just as much as those elected in primaries.

It's odd, then, to hear the same people asserting vehemently that the superdelegates should be bound to vote in accordance with the popular vote, or the elected-delegate tally, or whatever, even though the party rules say they are free to vote as they think best.

By the time this thing gets to the convention, barring some weird and improbable event, Clinton and Obama will still be close to tied in both the popular vote and the elected delegate count, though it's likely that Obama will still have a small lead in both. In effect, the party will be split down the middle. If the superdelegates judge that the candidate who is slightly behind in the popular vote is more likely to win in November than the one who is slightly ahead, and vote accordingly, it will doubtless be denounced as unfair and undemocratic. But those are the rules! The superdelegates have that power. Everyone knew the rules before the game started.

And if the fight has become so dirty by then that the two camps are at daggers drawn with each other, and the nomination of either candidate would be likely to make the other's supporters take their ball(ot)s and stomp home in a snit on election day, then the super-delegates will have every right and reason to sit out the first ballot so that neither candidate wins, thus freeing the party to embrace instead the man who, after all, won the popular vote of the entire country eight years ago. That's in the rules, too. And at that point it might be the only thing that can save us.

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05 March 2008

Yes she can!

Once again the media and the pundits had written Clinton off, and once again her supporters roared back "Not so fast!"

The internet is awash in analysis, so I'm going to mention just a few points I think are especially important.

(1) Texas is particularly interesting since it holds both a primary and a caucus. Clinton won the primary (in which 2,500,000 people voted), while Obama won the caucus (in which 100,000 people voted). This bolsters the argument that caucuses are not a good measure of broad voter preference.

(2) Realistically, neither candidate can win with elected delegates alone -- the numbers are too close, and they're going to stay close. So the superdelegates will decide in the end. There are all sorts of arguments that can be made about how the superdelegates ought to vote. The main significance of yesterday -- and of the contests to come -- will be in determining which of those arguments carries more force.

(3) Whichever candidate wins, the supporters of the other will be disappointed, even angry. I feel more strongly than ever that the winner must offer the loser the VP position. It's hard to see any other move that could really reunify the party. If Clinton wins, Obama in 2016 will still be younger than she is now, with the experience issue laid to rest by eight years in the Vice Presidency; he should capture that year's nomination easily. If Obama wins, Clinton may find the VP position less appealing, but he could still win over many of her supporters by making the offer.

(4) The night would have been truly perfect if Ron Paul had lost his primary fight and thus his chances of keeping his seat in Congress, thus bolstering the likelihood of his making a Naderesque third-candidate Presidential run and peeling off just enough votes from McCain in November to flip a few close states from red to blue. It didn't happen. But I'm not ready to count him out as a factor yet. Even if he doesn't run, enough of his besotted followers may write in his name to flip a state or two our way.

(5) Take another look at that statistic in (1). Two and a half million Texans -- more than a tenth of the state's total population -- voted in the Democratic primary. I've always said that Texas is not what northerners who have never been there imagine it to be. Don't be surprised if Texas is actually seriously in play in November.

Update: Clinton hints at a joint ticket.

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