31 May 2009

Death of a freedom fighter

Several times over the last few months I have voiced the concern that some elements of the far right wing here in the United States are becoming so unhinged as to pose the possible threat of a new wave of domestic terrorism. Is the murder of Dr. George Tiller the beginning?

Update 1: Andrew Sullivan has more on the long history of right-wing Christian vilification and terrorization of Dr. Tiller

Update 2 (1 June): Memories of Dr. Tiller here.

30 May 2009

Link roundup for 30 May 2009

If you have a few bucks to spare, see here.

Everybody goofs off at work, but this was unwise (NSFW).

If you've ever dreamed of a vacation excursion to the dreariest country in the world, they're now taking applications.

Speaking of dreary utopian visions, you can get in on the ground floor (not the basement, it'll be flooded) of the nuttiest escapism idea since space colonies.

See photos of a rare natural phenomenon -- snow rollers (found via Exit Zero).

Your daughter stopped believing in God? Call the FBI!

Our civilization's roots lie in the Roman Empire, but I'm glad we didn't retain their choice of mouthwash.

Leo Gao and Cara Young ran away (sent by Ranch Chimp). What would you have done?

Some right-wingers have lately been fulminating that closures of Chrysler dealerships supposedly targeted pro-Republican dealers. Here's the reality (well, considering how many of these people think the Earth is 6,000 years old, you can't expect them to be too good with numbers or logic).

Real estate isn't as good an investment as people think, even in boom times (found via Exit Zero).

No parking: in Chicago, another crackpot privatization scheme goes awry (sent by Ranch Chimp).

This might have been appropriate as a Memorial Day posting: how many soldiers were killed or wounded in pointless fighting at the end of World War I after the armistice was signed?

A legislator in Swaziland wants to brand HIV-infected people with a warning logo. If they actually implement this, I predict the idea will be shelved after a few big shots test positive.

Mr. Lai Jiansheng of Guangzhou, China, has a no-nonsense attitude toward public suicide attempts.

A quick-thinking mother saved her home and children from flooding.

This new ranging system can pinpoint objects with nanometer precision (a nanometer is about 1/25,000,000 of an inch) at a range of up to 100 kilometers. That's equivalent to an accuracy of a few miles at interstellar distances.

New research offers hope to understand and combat the collapse of coral reefs.

New stem-cell treatments could be delayed for years in the US by the slowness of bureaucratic approvals. Doctors and patients are fighting to get things moving.

28 May 2009

Revenge of the sexy fascist lizards

Apparently the V series from 1985 is now being remade, with the benefit of a quarter-century's advancement in special effects; Stupid Evil Bastard has the scoop (and trailers). As best one can tell from what's onscreen, however, the basic concept will be very little changed from the original.

While certainly not hard SF, the original V worked pretty well as allegory, if a tad lurid (which is not always a bad thing), and its depiction of scientists as being demonized and persecuted like the Jews under fascism was actually rather timely given the looming anti-science crusades of the Christian Right. It may be, too, that the new show will be updated in interesting ways not evident from the trailer.

I wonder anew, though, at the prevalence of remakes and sequels when SF and fantasy have such a vast and deep reservoir of ideas available in their literature. Having read hundreds of novels and short stories in the genre, I know that the gulf between its literary and TV/movie incarnations is vast. When will the latter start to appreciate and exploit even a hundredth of the inspiration which is available from the former?

Look, I'm not asking for the impossible here. I'm not asking for Brian Lumley or William Barton. I know there are things TV or Hollywood simply wouldn't dare to do, not without watering down the curry into gruel. But is Larry Niven too much to hope for? Asimov? Will we ever even see a movie of I Am Legend which is actually like the book? Good adaptations do succeed -- recall Lord of the Rings. We just need more directors who are willing to take the chance.

Recovery

A survey of leading economists shows that 93% of them expect the recession will end for the US in the second half of 2009, with the remaining 7% believing it will end in the first quarter of 2010. One leading analyst says the economy has already turned the corner.

The aspect of the economy most important to the average person is, of course, unemployment. Unfortunately unemployment is what economists call a "lagging indicator", meaning it's usually one of the last measures to improve during a recovery. It may well be that jobs won't become more abundant until 2010, but that too will come. The doom-and-gloom crowd were wrong as usual. The worst is behind us.

Update (29 May): The GDP is better than expected, too.

Doubts on Sotomayor

As I discussed here, Obama's first Supreme Court nomination constitutes a practical test of what his true convictions are. Far too important to be dismissed as merely symbolic, such a pick will affect the course of the country for decades, either broadening or constricting personal freedom and individual rights depending on whether the choice is good or bad.

That Sonia Sotomayor is a woman and Hispanic means nothing to me one way or the other. I am concerned about the decisions that will come down, not about the gender or ethnicity of the person making those decisions.

And on the most pivotal issue likely to come before the Supreme Court at some point in the future, Roe vs. Wade, there are some grounds to think Sotomayor may not be reliable. According to the White House spokesman quoted, Obama did not even ask her for her views on the issue. If this is true (which, for obvious reasons, it may very well not be), it is unforgivable. The Democratic margin in the Senate is so large that the Republicans could not block his nominee, so he had no reason (or, rather, excuse) to make any concessions to their prejudices when making such an important decision. It is difficult to imagine a more fundamental personal right than the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, and it is precisely this right which has been the target of the most sustained attack from religious fanatics in this country since 1973. We are entitled to expect that a Democratic President would give us a nominee who can be relied on to defend that right, if nothing else.

It has to be stressed that it's too early to tell yet whether this is a real problem. Many judges do what judges are supposed to do, and uphold the law regardless of personal beliefs -- consider how many Supreme Court judges appointed by Republican Presidents have ended up voting to defend abortion rights. Several of Sotomayor's decisions which are cited had to do with China's policy of forced abortion, something no pro-choicer can support, and none of them were related to Roe vs. Wade. NARAL is on the case, urging Senators to get clarification of her views during the confirmation process. The situation bears close watching.

Update 1: Blogger Greg Sargent considers the problem here.

Update 2 (29 May): Kudos to the White House for addressing the issue.

27 May 2009

Silver lining

Closer examination of this week's California supreme court defeat over Proposition 8 suggests that there may be some good in it. Always remember, too, that Proposition 8 passed by a very small margin. The balance of opinion is inexorably shifting, and one way or another, this fight will be won in the end.

On a lighter note, apparently not every objection to gay marriage is based on religious bigotry. Here's one that's based on -- well, I'm not sure if there even is a word for this kind of "argument", but it's more than a little too self-revealing.

Update: A federal suit has been filed to overturn Proposition 8 -- supported, interestingly, by a prominent Republican, Ted Olson.

26 May 2009

Christian bigotry strikes again

Amanda Donaldson, a Texas woman undergoing cancer treatment, was recently fired by her Christian employer because she is an atheist. Found via Forever in Hell; latest updates here. Please do read and spread the word.

Is there no limit to the depths to which these bigots will sink?

Update: More here, including the employer's (unconvincing) side of the story.

24 May 2009

The self-pwning pundit

If you could use a few laughs, check out this example of right-wing double standards, dissected in classic Sadly No style.

Quote for the day

"In researching this post, I came across Naomi Wolf’s predictably nauseating take on the question of women and pornography today. Near as I can figure, the sexually liberated hippie feminists of her youth have seen the Augustinian error of their ways, and have come to realize that scantily, comfortably clad, youthful free love prevents women, and men, from appreciating the benefit of covered-from-head-to-toe femininity, with nudity only to be shared during mind-blowing, middle-aged sex with one’s husband. The basis for the Stepford Feminist’s argument seems to be that, in her mind, contrary to Andrea Dworkin’s prediction that unbridled pornography would unleash the male beast, the easy availability of pornographic imagery of perfectly proportioned women has desensitized young men to the imperfect reality of flesh and blood ones. Her evidence is anecdotal, and only proves that she only talked to a couple of guys. You don’t have to throw a rock very far to find all manner of men happily, lovingly, and intimately involved with women who would never make the centerfold. Methinks Naomi’s full of hooey."

blogger Cinie, here

23 May 2009

The old future and the new

This posting put me in mind of this and this and the whole curious matter of how the people of the fifties and sixties, as fascinated as they evidently were by the future, so misread the way things would actually develop.

I think the flaw in that era's pop-culture concept of the future was actually a lack of imagination. They got the future wrong because they expected it to be essentially like their own present and past.

Skyscrapers had been getting taller and taller, so they expected buildings a mile high. Cars had been getting faster and faster, so they expected flying cars. TV had been getting more and more sophisticated, so they expected giant, 3-D TV sets (well, although 3-D never caught on, some people are willing to pay absurd prices for gigantic TV sets, so they got that one somewhat right). They expected that the age of European exploration and colonization of the world would be repeated, using spaceships, on the Moon and Mars and eventually (in that quintessentially-sixties vision of the future, Star Trek) out among the stars. On the dystopian side, wars and plagues had felled great empires in the distant past, so a whole string of SF novels and movies portrayed the destruction of our own civilization through such agencies.

The reason progress didn't take the forms anticipated is that such things would have been pointless or un-economical or both. The European age of exploration, for example, was driven by trade, but there is nothing we could get from another planet whose value would approach the cost of shipping it back to Earth. Nor could colonies on the Moon or Mars repay anything like their even more immense cost. Gagarin's flight and the manned Moon landings were superpower prestige-competition projects; today's manned activities in space are confined to near-Earth orbit and serve little practical purpose.

Almost no one in that era anticipated that things would move onto a fundamentally different path. No one anticipated the internet. No one anticipated the real role of computers (yes, Star Trek had "advanced" computers, but they were either big and clunky or else semi-anthropomorphic, not small and ubiquitous and used in the ways we actually use them). No one anticipated that sophisticated space probes would enable us to explore the solar system without the risk and expense of sending humans. Very few anticipated how ever-cheaper, ever-more-powerful data-processing technology would revolutionize everything from communications to politics to medicine. No one anticipated that gays would follow women and blacks into general social equality. Amid the grim Sargasso of dystopian visions of overpopulation, hardly anyone expected that birth rates almost everywhere would plummet below replacement level within forty years -- or that a world of seven billion people would suffer an epidemic of obesity.

But.....one of the most exciting projects which is now approaching technological feasibility, the radical extension of the human life span, was anticipated by a man of exceptional insight long before the mid-twentieth century. These words were written in 1773:

Your observations on the causes of death, and the experiments which you propose for recalling to life those who appear to be killed by lightning, demonstrate equally your sagacity and your humanity. It appears that the doctrine of life and death in general is yet but little understood... I wish it were possible... to invent a method of embalming drowned persons, in such a manner that they might be recalled to life at any period, however distant; for having a very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America a hundred years hence, I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country! But... in all probability, we live in a century too little advanced, and too near the infancy of science, to see such an art brought in our time to its perfection.

Link roundup for 23 May 2009

Rush Limbaugh is gibbering and hooting with alarm at the thought that the recent "Ida" discovery affirms that humans such as himself are ultimately descended from monkeys.

Jabberwock dissects another Godawful Chick tract.

Here's a way for atheists to make money from Christians' belief in the Rapture (sent by Mendip).

President Dick Cheney shows the Moon who's boss.

Techno-paranoia has a long history.

How many Muslims today would obey this order of the Prophet?

Andrew Breitbart flips the bird at the wrong demo.

Bodybuilders gathered for a competition flee at the unexpected arrival of drug testers.

I believe in total freedom of expression, even for hate speech -- but if anything qualifies as hate speech, surely it's this stuff.

Not all executive bonuses in the financial sector are paid for out of bailout money from taxpayers.

Philadelphia, Mississippi, site of one of the most notorious KKK murders of the 1960s, has elected its first black mayor.

There's testimony from several quarters that Bush's invasion of Iraq was partly motivated by his belief in Biblical prophecy. If so, this (sent by Ranch Chimp) is an ironic outcome.

If you have a son coming of age, beware of this (unless he's gay).

In Ireland, a new 2,600-page official report reveals that sexual abuse of children was endemic in Catholic schools and orphanages for decades.

We view Robert Mugabe as the quintessential reality-challenged African despot, but His Excellency President Professor Dr. Al-Haji Yahya Jammeh of Gambia is an even better claimant for that role.

Low conviction rates provoke different responses depending on the alleged crime.

There they go again, those Gawdless secklar hoomanist scientists, looking at actual data instead of reading right-wing columnists and pundits like right-thinking people do.

Being fluent in a tone language may help humans develop "perfect pitch" (the article mentions East Asian tone languages, but many African languages also use tones for semantic differentiation -- it would be interesting to know if they confer the same advantage).

The genetic defect which causes Down syndrome may reduce vulnerability to cancer. And British scientists have developed a modified virus that attacks cancer cells.

21 May 2009

Otherworldly visions to feed your mind

A recent conversation over at Vamp's Worldview got me thinking about some of the more memorable science-fiction novels I've read over the years. These definitely aren't among the best-known works in the genre, but they are worth reading if you like SF that's written for grown-ups and doesn't pull its punches.

Inherit the Stars by James P. Hogan (1977): In the near future, on the Moon, astronauts discover the dead body of a man in a spacesuit. The mystery begins when it turns out that the corpse has been lying there on the Moon for fifty thousand years. This seems impossible since (a) there could not have been a civilization on Earth 50,000 years ago which was advanced enough to send men to the Moon (if there had been, there would still be abundant evidence of it on Earth today and we would already know about it), while (b) evolution on another planet would not produce a species identical to human beings. So where did the dead man on the Moon come from? It's a riveting story, one of the few SF novels purely about the struggle to solve a scientific mystery.

Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement (1953): A space probe has crashed on a bizarre alien planet whose surface gravity ranges from 3 to 700 times that of Earth; humans trying to recover the probe must deal with an environment and intelligent natives very different to anything familiar. It's a well-thought-out exploration of an odd premise, with one of the more likable alien species in SF.

Gold the Man by Joseph Green (1971): After Earth suffers a series of ineffectual attacks by giant aliens, two scientists (one of them genetically engineered for superhuman intelligence) are sent to infiltrate the aliens' home planet and bring back information -- inside a control room built into the brain of a captured alien, who becomes a sort of zombie controlled by the humans. The protago-nist, long uncomfortable with his own altered humanity, finds himself torn between his own species and the giants.

A Plague of Pythons by Frederik Pohl (1965): Absolute power corrupts absolutely. After a Soviet experiment gives a small number of people the power to take control of other humans' bodies remotely (rather as demons were thought to "possess" people in the Dark Ages), they unleash a reign of terror on the world. Being able to do anything they choose to anyone anywhere, with no fear of reprisal, over time they sink into utter depravity. When an "ordinary" man is offered a chance to join these "gods", he learns what temptation really means.

The Twilight Men (translation of Wenn das der Führer wüßte) by Otto Basil (1968): What would the world be like if the Nazis had won the war? Twenty years after the great victory, much-enlarged Germany remains a militarized nation with troops holding down an empire spanning half the globe; the regime is as corrupt and cynical as aging totalitarian states everywhere tend to become, while the propaganda-brainwashed German masses stagnate in superstition. The Jews are, of course, virtually extinct. The world lives under a tense nuclear stalemate between the two rival superpowers, Germany and Japan -- but of course those regimes prove less adept at keeping the situation stable than the US and the USSR did in real history. As the final war begins, the two huge rival empires start to disintegrate in chaos and rebellion.

When Heaven Fell by William Barton (1995): The conquest of Earth by more advanced aliens is a common SF theme, but what would it really be like? Set about twenty years after the conquest of Earth by the "Master Race" (who rule most of the galaxy), this story gives us no clever gimmick or whiz-kid hero implausibly defeating vastly-superior technology, but rather the remants of humanity struggling to adapt to a ghastly situation it is utterly helpless to escape. Since the Master Race prefer to rule conquered planets through merceneries and intermediaries, a few privileged niches exist for those willing to collaborate; the worst horrors lie not in what they do to us, but in what some humans do to others -- in part, to squelch well-intentioned revolts which could achieve nothing but provoke horrific retaliation. This will make you feel very glad to remember that we're probably, in fact, alone in the universe.

19 May 2009

The crusade

"Open the gates that the righteous nation may enter, the nation that keeps faith."

"Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand."

"Commit to the LORD whatever you do, and your plans will succeed."

These and other Bible quotations were printed on the covers of military-intelligence briefings on Iraq sent by Donald Rumsfeld to President Bush and top military leaders. See here, and be sure to click at the bottom for the slideshow of actual cover sheets.

These were official US government documents. It's no wonder Bush thought he was on a crusade (a term he himself used), with Rumsfeld fueling his fantasies with this kind of medieval crap.

17 May 2009

Exorcism

Today marks one month since I quit alcohol. I consider it to also mark my first month of true freedom. No addict is genuinely free; he is degradingly bound in subservience to a master, even if that master is a substance rather than a person.

I first started with alcohol during a trip to Germany in 1984. From then until the 17th of April this year, I was never really free of its power. For two decades I regularly drank in quantities that would have put a less vigorous person's life in danger; over the last few years I gradually cut it down, but it was always a struggle. If there is such a thing as an innate predisposition to alcoholism, I likely have it. But despite a few humiliating incidents (notably once being overcome by nausea in my then-girlfriend's apartment), it never seemed to be doing any permanent damage. Over the years, more doctors than I can count have ordered liver-function tests, but the results always came back completely normal. I've always been very healthy, and I figured my tough constitution was simply too resilient for the stuff to harm me.

I was wrong.

One of the lesser-known effects that heavy drinking can produce (and if you drink a lot, you need to be aware of this) is premature arthritis. It was this that caused the degeneration of my hip joint over a period of about two years, which finally required surgery in October. More recently it has begun to affect my finger joints as well, though not seriously enough to interfere with work. When the doctors explained, before the surgery, that alcohol was the probable cause of the damage, I realized that things had to change. I could not continue on a course that had proven self-destructive.

After October I cut it back to one day per week. It worked for a while. Early in April, though, I had a disastrous relapse. If it hadn't happened then, it would have been some other time. I realized then that the only option was to cut it out of my life totally.

If you're like most people and can have just one or two drinks now and then and no more, you're fortunate. If you can't control it -- well, you can't control it. You may think you can, but eventually it will always get the better of you. And even if it's not causing any harm you're aware of, it may be doing something more insidious. The only solution is to stop. It took me a quarter-century to figure that out. But I understand it now, and I'm not going back.

To see the truth for themselves

One of the biggest obstacles to a real understanding of the Islamic threat is the meme (it deserves that title) that Islam itself is not innately violent and expansionist -- that the problem is inherent only in "radicals" and "extremists", that jihadism originates just with certain groups, certain governments, and certain sects, and that if only those specific malefactors were defeated, the danger would end, as Islam itself would then be able to peacefully co-exist with the rest of the world.

A person who believes this is not necessarily an Islamist sympa-thizer. He may not even necessarily be completely ignorant about the problem. He may simply be approaching it on the basis of some general theory of violent or insurgent movements which explains most such phenomena quite well but ill-equips him to understand Islam.

What causes people to hold the viewpoint described in the first paragraph is a lack of specific knowledge. Fortunately, there is a simple and straightforward way to overcome that lack.

Tell them to read the Koran.

The Koran* defines Islam (along with the Hadîth, but the Koran is the supreme authority). It is Islam's "constitution"; it has the final say. No human version or interpretation of Islam that conflicts with the Koran can stand.

The case which I and others have stated -- that Islam itself (not just particular Islamic groups or particular forms of Islam) is inherently violent, imperialist, misogynistic, and dangerous to global civilization -- is not merely an opinion or a point of view. It is an objective fact which can be proven. The most irrefutable proof lies in the Koran. The person who wants to avoid seeing the true nature of Islam can argue with what you or I or any given scholar says, but they cannot argue with the plain words of the Koran.

Anyone can read the Koran; it is much shorter than the Bible and somewhat less turgid, though even more repetitious. Not much background knowledge is necessary. The reader does need to know about the concept of "abrogation", which is how Islam deals with the problem of contradictions in the Koran: whichever verse is chronologically later simply cancels, or "abrogates", the earlier one (more here). Also, the order in which chapters are presented in the standard Koranic text is not chronological, so one needs to know the order of revelation, but a good translation will explain this (chapters from Mecca are earlier, while those from Medina are later, basically). And make sure an accurate translation is used; some English versions are slightly "sanitized" to avoid shocking infidel sensibilities.

Reading the Koran can also overcome some other, less common misconceptions about Islam:

Islam has many valid forms and interpretations, as Christianity does. The Bible is a collection of diverse documents spanning centuries; it is so incoherent and riddled with contradictions that one can take almost any stance on any issue and find support for it somewhere in the Bible. The Koran and Hadîth are a record of the statements, "revelations", and actions of one individual. There are few contradictions and, as noted above, all such cases are easily resolved by abrogation. (For that matter, there are many versions of the Bible, but only one recognized version of the Koran.) The doctrine set forth is thus quite coherent. Anyone who grasps that doctrine can see that people like the Taliban and al-Qâ'idah are acting in accordance with it, while "moderate" Islam is not.

Islam today is at a historical stage equivalent to the barbaric Christianity of the Dark Ages; given time, it will evolve into a harmless form as Christianity has. Again, the Bible allows almost any set of ideas to be justified as "Christian", depending on the norms of a given time and place. The Koran does not allow any- thing like as much flexibility. Some Muslims may be ignorant of details of Islamic doctrine, while others may renounce the religion and cease to be Muslims at all, but Islam cannot become other than what it is.

Opposing Islam itself is racist. Islam is a totalitarian ideology which aspires to rule all people; it is not a race or an ethnic group. Opposing Islam is no more racist than opposing Communism is. Just as some of the most vigorous anti-Communists were Russians or Chinese who had seen the evils of Communism and revolted against it, so many of the most courageous opponents of Islam today are atheists who were raised Muslim but left Islam -- people like Ibn Warraq, Wafa Sultan, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Obviously these individuals are not racist against their own ethnic groups -- on the contrary, they are fighting against an ideology which holds those peoples in thrall.

No doubt there are some people whose minds are so firmly made up that they can read the Koran and still continue to believe that Islam itself is not inherently dangerous (just as there are people who can go through a whole degree program in biology and still cling to creationism). Such people are unreachable; but there are, I think, not too many of them. Most Western people acknowledge having only a limited knowledge of Islam. They go by what they have heard here and there, by analogies with Christianity which seem superficially reasonable, by a desire to avoid appearing "racist". They don't get it, but they can get it. They just need to see the truth for themselves.

So tell them to read the Koran.

===============================

*Note on spelling: There is a standard system, widely used in academia but little-known elsewhere, for transliterating Arabic words from the very different Arabic alphabet into our own. In that system, the holy book's name is spelled "Qur'ân", with the Q representing a consonant not found in any Western language, the apostrophe representing a glottal stop, and the bar over the A showing that it is elongated (the distinction between long and short vowels is very important in Arabic). Having studied Islam at a university for several years, I am familiar with the system, and I use it for Arabic words which are not common in English and thus have not acquired a standard English spelling. For words which do have such a standard spelling, such as "Koran" and "Mecca", I use that rather than the transliteration ("Qur'ân", "Makkah", etc.) which would be less familiar to most readers.

16 May 2009

Quote for the day

"Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus."
Thomas Jefferson

One more on our side

The latest addition to my links list, and one of the more readable sites I've found recently, is Forever in Hell, an atheist blog mostly devoted to entertainingly dissecting stupid Christian propaganda. Recent postings have deconstructed such oddities as atheism as a craze, an effort at hip scripture, the proposed Year of the Bible, how liberals win elections, and the "I don't understand it, therefore you're an idiot" school of creationism (don't miss the Four Horse-men of the Atheist Apocalypse). It's one of the most-frequently-posted blogs out there -- I guess the fundies just provide so much good material to work with? The one point I don't get is why the blogger named herself "Personal Failure" -- surely a misnomer, though maybe it's explained somewhere I haven't looked yet.

Link roundup for 16 May 2009

Now there's a solution for those pesky priests: Priest-Off!

This movie looks preposterous, but perhaps fun in a Godzilla-ish kind of way.

The American Institute of Physics shows some impressive visual illusions.

Exit Zero has photos of Maya ruins in Belize, and finds a village of part-time Mennonites.

HTML Mencken says Obama is turning wingnutty. More blogger commentary on the torture issue from The Crossed Pond, Alex Goodall, Michael Boh, Papamoka, and Ranch Chimp; of course Andrew Sullivan continues to cover it in depth.

21 Democrats are among the Senators who fumbled the ball on credit-card interest-rate regulation.

Conservatism continues to attack those few of its own members who perversely persist in displaying signs of realism or sanity. NRO Corner poster Jerry Taylor is the latest target, for daring to point out that Rush Limbaugh is, in fact, disliked by the huge majority of Americans. But Republicans do have a plan: re-name their opponents. Gavin M has more on conservatism here.

Craigslist's decision to eliminate its "erotic services" section will increase the dangers and problems associated with prostitution.

Somebody in the Czech Republic is waging a sticker campaign against Islam.

European courts try to stop parents from giving their children stupid names. Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116 could not be reached for comment.

CNN reports on the scandal over British politicians' expense claims (sent by Ranch Chimp). Like the AIG bonuses here, the expense scandal in Britain has provoked widespread outrage because it symbolizes a deeply-corrupted system. Dungeekin ropes in Michael Jackson.

Unenlightened Commentary points out how the EU is alien to the spirit of European history. It's also massively corrupt.

Totally disgusting: Austrian neo-Nazis attack Holocaust survivors at a memorial service.

An orangutan in Australia figured out how to short-circuit an electric fence in order to escape her enclosure. Orangutans are, I think, probably the second most intelligent species on Earth after ourselves. Pics of the Brookfield Zoo's new baby orangutan here.

This 37-million-year-old primate may be a distant ancestor of the modern apes -- including humans.

When the brain needs to perform a new function, it often adapts an existing mechanism for the new purpose. Math, for example, is apparently done by the neurocircuitry that evolved to control eye movements.

Here's a material ten billion times stronger than steel. Too bad it also weighs several hundred million tons per cubic inch and can't, in fact, exist on Earth at all.

Texas is fighting pesky fire ants by using parasitic flies whose maggots eat the ants' brains.

Meanwhile, Canadian scientists battle the cow fart peril.

60 Minutes reports on the US Air Force's impressive remote-controlled aircraft (sent by Ranch Chimp); text version here.

Don't put too much faith in antioxidants.

15 May 2009

The dawn

One of the long-standing mysteries about the origin of life is the formation of nucleotides from simpler constituent molecules. Once one assumes the existence of RNA (a molecule similar to DNA, though less stable), the path to primitive forms of true life is fairly straightforward. RNA, in turn, is built up from nucleotides. But the nucleotides themselves are quite complex. How did they form from the simpler constituents existing on pre-biotic Earth? Now a British chemist has found the answer. The last gap in our knowledge of the path from the non-living to the living -- and ultimately to ourselves -- has finally been filled in.

Torture: the truth must come out

I haven't said much so far about the issue of torture of detainees under the Bush administration. A lot of internet discussion has focused on whether torture in the abstract can ever be justified, as with "ticking bomb" scenarios (an atom bomb hidden in Manhattan will detonate in an hour, a captured terrorist knows where it is but won't talk, so what do you do, etc.). This is not very enlightening -- for almost any evil, one could imagine a scenario in which a case could be made that it is justified to avoid an even greater evil. I haven't seen a clear answer to the question of whether torture ever actually produced information which prevented a terrorist attack, nor can I comfortably answer "yes" or "no", as some people apparently can, to the question of whether the torture of known terrorists could be justified in such a case. Also, there are serious practical issues to consider: for example, information gained by torture is notoriously inaccurate (Jesse Ventura, who actually experienced waterboarding as part of his Navy SEAL training, recently said that given an hour with Dick Cheney he could get him to confess to the Tate murders).

But the real question here isn't whether torture in the abstract can be justified in this or that hypothetical scenario; it's whether the actual Bush administration did immoral things or not. And on that question, things are a lot clearer.

It's being credibly reported that much of the torture was intended not to get information that might prevent future terrorist attacks, but rather to create "evidence" for (actually non-existent) links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qâ'idah, in order to justify the invasion of Iraq. McClatchy reports here (read this too).

Let me say that again in case it didn't sink in. If these reports are true, the President of the United States had people tortured in order to fabricate a justification for a decision he had made. Not to make America safer from terrorism, but to cover himself.

If this is true, then there are simply no words to describe the depth of depravity involved -- or the harm that has been done to what America is supposed to represent.

We already know enough that there can be no turning back. We cannot simply "move forward" and put this behind us. A problem that everyone knows about never just goes away because people don't talk about it. It festers in the dark and corrupts everything around it. The government must investigate, establish the truth for all to see, and -- if these claims are true -- try those responsible and punish the guilty, including the very highest. Until we do that, it will never be "behind us".

10 May 2009

In our nature

In this posting three weeks ago, I linked to a news article on the extension of healthy life span, which included this quote:

He says that we are also living to an “unnatural age” because technology has defied nature. “In the Stone Age men and women died in their thirties, once they had had children, because they were not needed by evolution to carry on. Now health technolo- gy wipes out evolution and we are into an unnatural stage. No one was meant to live to this age.”

Rita commented:

I don't know if I agree that this is unnatural. Perhaps some of our current ideas of evolution are in danger of being outmoded like some of our current ideas of religion?

To which I responded:

Evolution never "meant" us to wear clothes, or take medicine, or read and write, or be able to travel to another continent in a few hours. All those things are just as "unnatural" as using modern technology to live to 90, or future technology to live to 190. To look at it another way, every animal has naturally evolved with various tools for survival, and in our case, the main tool is intelli- gence. So everything we do with that intelligence to extend our lives and protect ourselves is "natural".

I think this point deserves a bit of elaboration.

Projections of the feasible technology of the next forty years (such as the eradication of the aging process and death from old age, use of full-immersion virtual reality to broaden the range of human experience, and the achievement of mind-computer integration to vastly increase human intelligence, capabilities, and even the subtlety and intensity of emotional life) often meet the objection that such developments would be "unnatural" or contrary to our essence as humans. I've never seen any reason to consider this a bad thing in itself. If living forever would be "unnatural", so what? I don't want to die; I don't care whether someone thinks it would be "unnatural" for me to succeed in avoiding death for hundreds or even millions of years, rather than mere decades. The same is true of the vast increase in intelligence and richness of life which we will gain from direct integration of computer technology (far more powerful than today's, of course) with the human mind. Since I find this desirable, I do not care if anyone considers it "unnatural".

There is, however, another important point here. As I said above, human intelligence is a natural phenomenon; it's what evolution has given us to use to survive and thrive. The way we use our intelligence for that purpose is to create tools which increase our capabilities -- that is, we create technology. The first human to chip out a flint arrowhead was engaged in this process just as much as the humans of today using stem cells to repair damaged organs are.

Most people who think it would be "unnatural" to cure aging so that people can live for centuries probably do not think brushing their teeth is "unnatural", but fundamentally it's the same thing. In both cases, one is using tools created by human intelligence to prevent damage which would otherwise slowly degrade one's health. Since we understand what causes tooth decay, it's perfectly natural for us as intelligent creatures to make and use tools to avoid it. The aging process is far more complex, as are the tools we will need to develop to stop it, but the principle is the same.

Vaccines and antibiotics, by which we defeated the epidemics which once routinely devastated whole populations, are the product of human intelligence. So was the early agriculture by which our ancestors secured a more abundant and reliable food supply. Since human intelligence is a natural phenomenon, flint arrowheads and agriculture are also natural. And so are tooth- brushes and vaccines and antibiotics. And so is the life-extension technology we will develop in the next twenty years. It's all part of a continuum.

The same is true of the enhancement of the mind. The written language which the hand-wringers use to express their objections is itself a technology. It's a human invention, thousands of years old, which supplements both our memories and our ability to communicate. That is, it's an enhancement of the innate abilities of our brains. Education is another such enhancement. So are the computer systems which we use to perform mathematical calcula- tions and to store, access, and process information, all far more quickly and accurately than our unaided brains could do (and often in ways which our unaided brains could not do at all). All these things augment the capabilities of our minds, and computers especially are rapidly increasing their, and therefore our, powers. The obstacle we face now is that we can access this supplemental machine "intelligence" only through slow, clumsy interfaces of keyboards, monitors, and (soon) speech. The machine intelligence of the mid-21st century will not only be trillions of times as powerful as today's, it will be as seamlessly part of us as our innate biological intelligence is. It will be the natural culmination of the process of using increasingly powerful tools to augment our mental abilities -- a process that began with the Sumerians six thousand years ago scratching out cuneiform symbols to help them remember things.

What really bothers the hand-wringers, I think, is the radical nature of the transformation which is coming. Extending the life expectancy from 40 to 80, or having movies and stereo systems, or using education to help us think more clearly, is all very well; but living forever and making virtual reality indistinguishable from real experience and becoming trillions of times more aware and intelligent, all represent too much of a leap -- especially in less than forty years.

But all of that, too, is part of a natural continuum. The exponential acceleration of progress has been going on for a billion years. It's stopping or retarding this acceleration which would be unnatural, and probably impossible.

When a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, the transformation is a radical one, but it is not contrary to nature. The potential for it was innate in the caterpillar from the beginning of its life, as the Technological Singularity was foreshadowed by the first flint arrowhead. Aborting the transformation so that the caterpillar just stayed a caterpillar would not be honoring nature; it would be a profound violation of the caterpillar's nature, and a tragic waste of potential.

That is what the Luddites and technophobes want to do to the human race -- but they will fail. We will fulfill our potential and achieve the culmination of that billion years of development. We will become what it was always in our nature to become.

09 May 2009

Quote for the day

"Sure, it can be comical to watch Republican National Committee (RNC) gaffe machine Michael Steele riff on his hip-hop vision for the party or Texas Governor Rick Perry carry on about secession or Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann explain how F.D.R.'s "Hoot-Smalley" Act caused the Depression (the Smoot-Hawley Act, a Republican tariff bill, was enacted before F.D.R.'s presidency), but haplessness does not equal hopelessness. And yes, the Republican brand could benefit from spokesmen less familiar and less reviled than Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and Newt Gingrich, but the party does have some fresher faces stepping out of the wings. The Democratic critiques of the GOP — that it's the Party of No, or No Ideas — are not helpful either.....Republicans actually have plenty of ideas. That's the problem. The party's ideas — about economic issues, social issues and just about everything else — are not popular ideas. They are extremely conservative ideas tarred by association with the extremely unpopular George W. Bush, who helped downsize the party to its extremely conservative base. A hard-right agenda of slashing taxes for the investor class, protecting marriage from gays, blocking universal health insurance and extolling the glories of waterboarding produces terrific ratings for Rush Limbaugh, but it's not a majority agenda. The party's new, Hooverish focus on austerity on the brink of another depression does not seem to fit the national mood, and it's shamelessly hypocritical, given the party's recent history of massive deficit spending on pork, war and prescription drugs in good times, not to mention its continuing support for deficit-exploding tax cuts in bad times."

Link roundup for 9 May 2009

This "viral video" dates back all the way to 2000. But it's still fun!

The mainstream film industry is still churning out dismal product.

In case the glimpse of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the video I linked earlier wasn't enough for you, here's a portrait.

Britain is being rocked by revelations of how politicians have been abusing their government expense accounts. Counting Cats is on the case, here and here and here.

Police abuse their authority in Texas (sent by Ranch Chimp) and Detroit.

The worst "disease" we face isn't swine flu -- it's this.

I've gotten out of the habit of reading most websites devoted to atheism specifically, because they seem fixated on rehashing the same old arguments we've been having with God-believers for decades now, if not generations. Pat Condell thinks that debating irrational dogma is pointless; Black Sun Journal seems to agree.

Forever in Hell analyzes missionary dating. Sounds to me like a new version of flirty fishing, except you won't actually get any.

DemWit posts a very useful article on how to detect dishonest propaganda; some of these points also apply to religion and pseudoscience.

Hilzoy responds to a bizarre Republican video ad against closing Guantanamo.

Bush-era tax policy actually encouraged American companies to send jobs overseas. Will Obama change this?

Anonymous Liberal has some good advice for Republicans which they won't take.

This map showing the distribution of people without health insurance is rather interesting. The uninsured are concentrated in Texas, the South, and the mountain west -- no surprises there. But the region with the fewest uninsured people is the rust belt. Must be all those union jobs.

A German foreign-policy expert whines that the Israeli foreign minister "sees us Europeans as a pile of cowards." Gosh, I wonder why that could be.

But the French Foreign Minister is right to oppose Turkey joining the EU, according to this report by Christopher Hitchens.

In a video from 2007, Pat Condell discusses Islam in Europe.

What if someone starts trying to fix global warming unilaterally?

Russian scientists think they know what caused the 1908 Tunguska explosion -- and it's still out there.

Bill Gates is funding some far-out scientific research (but this looks like real stuff to me, not pseudoscience or "alternative" quackery).

Cowardice

This happened several months ago.

There was a blog I'd gotten into the habit of reading now and then. The author was an artist -- and also a member of a minority which (though utterly harmless) is almost universally despised and misunderstood,* even in the country where he lives, which is one of the most tolerant countries in the world. Where Jews 200 years ago were, blacks 60 years ago were, and gays 30 years ago were, they are today.

Despite a creative and lively personality, he clearly felt weighed down by the menacing social environment he constantly had to deal with. Finally, in one painful posting, he bluntly lamented the situation, wondering if a day would ever come when people like him would be able to live freely and openly, without fear of persecution.

I felt an urge to post a comment or contact him -- because I know that that day is coming, and most likely well within his lifetime. I don't know whether or not I could have convinced him, but I could certainly have tried.

But I didn't. I worried that any such communication could be traced back to me somehow, that I might be suspected of being one of them. And so, out of fear, I didn't do the right thing.

A few days after that, the blog disappeared. I don't know whether someone denounced him to the hosting service and they deleted it, or if he took it down himself out of fear or despair. And that was the end of that.

Later on the same morning when I'd found it gone, I was out at an ATM to get some cash and I noticed that the person who had been there before me had left his card in the machine. I ejected it and ran after him -- his car was just pulling out -- and managed to catch him and give it back. He was suitably appreciative. It was a trivial incident, but it made me feel better.

*Please don't e-mail and ask for details. I'm not going to say any more about this.

08 May 2009

Defusing the bomb

In Denmark, the birth rate among the "immigrant" (that is, mostly Muslim) population has fallen dramatically, from 3.04 per woman in 1998 to 1.94 today -- hardly different from the 1.91-per-woman rate among the ethnic Danish population. Similar trends have been reported from elsewhere in western Europe. This is further evidence that Muslim populations in Europe are being culturally assimilated by their host countries, despite the tremendous resistance which Islam presents to this process. The Muslim population will continue to grow for a while simply because it is younger and contains a higher proportion of people in the child-producing years, but the threat of Muslim populations growing dramatically larger than their present size appears to have been defused (barring immigration at implausible levels). And the de-Islamization of the existing Muslim populations will continue and probably increase.

That birth rate of 1.91 among ethnic Danes, by the way, represents a substantial increase compared with the recent past; in fact, it's the highest since 1975. A similar resurgence in birth rates among indigenous peoples has been going on throughout western Europe.

Islam continues to present a formidable threat, both from violent jihadism and from its tendency to create failed societies that can't adapt to modernity. But claims that it might overwhelm Europe demographically in a matter of decades -- never very credible in the first place -- now seem absurd.

07 May 2009

Flawed business model

Rupert Murdoch [smirk] is planning [giggle] to charge money [snicker] for access to the websites [struggling to hold it in] of his conglomerate's newspapers [cracks up, blasts tea through nose all over computer monitor]!

Oh, what's the use. The comments on the article (238 of them so far) say all that needs to be said. One of the commenters thinks Murdoch looks like Davros.....well, remember how Davros ended up.....exterminate!-ed by his own lunatic creation. Somehow I doubt Murdoch's idea will work out much better.

The true test

Part of my reason for opposing Obama during the Democratic nomination process was that I feared he was not a true liberal by conviction. As I discussed here, it's frankly still difficult to come to a conclusion on that point. He has made many positive moves -- rescinding stem-cell-research restrictions and the abortion "global gag rule", beginnings of action on global warming, an occasional verbal nod to the non-religious. But there have also been warning signs -- Rick Warren, the delay of action on DADT, the lack of firm accountability for Wall Street dinosaurs bailed out at taxpayer expense (the AIG bonuses were a symbolic issue, but a telling one). And given the massive mandate represented by the across-the-board Democratic victories last year (far more than a mere repudiation of Bush personally), we had every right and reason to expect a much bolder and more aggressive liberal agenda.

Now comes the true test. With David Souter's impending resigna-tion from the Supreme Court, Obama faces his most significant decision yet. His choice will help shape the country for decades, casting a perhaps deciding vote on the Constitutionality of laws on abortion, gay marriage, workers' rights, government intrusion on citizens' privacy, and other issues we haven't even thought of yet. This is not just a symbolic gimmick like Rick Warren. This is real.

Furthermore, Obama has an unusual degree of freedom of action. The Democrats have reached 60 seats in the Senate, and while some Democrats may not vote the party line, the same is true of a number of moderate Republicans (assuming they will even stay Republicans much longer). Conservatism as a movement may recover at some time in the future, but right now it's in disarray (big tent, anyone?). Obama's personal popularity remains high. He will not face voters for another three and a half years, nor will any of the Senators who support him for another one and a half years; by then, even if no other major issues have arisen, the economic recovery will be complete and will dominate voters' assessment of the Democrats' performance in office.

He has, in short, no excuses. This is the decision that will finally show us the real Obama. Will he waste it on yet another vain effort to "reach out" to right-wingers who will despise and denounce him no matter what he does? Or will he seize the opportunity, exercise the mandate the American people gave to him and his party, and make "change we can believe in" more than just a slogan?

05 May 2009

Billions for Wall Street, not a penny for retirees

If you're on Social Security, read this. Check out the DU link too.

Obsolescence

I happened to be flipping through an old magazine this morning (cover date September 1985) and I noticed a picture of one of those old rotary-dial phones everyone had back then. It attracted my attention for some reason and I realized that, even though I'd used such phones years ago, I couldn't remember now exactly how they worked. Did you put your finger in the first hole and turn the dial until your finger was on the number you wanted, or.....

04 May 2009

Mâ hastîm

The phrase above* means "we exist" in Persian; it is also the slogan and, by default, the name of a new and rapidly-spreading anti-regime movement in Iran.

The movement sprang up in late March around the Persian new year. Its origins were patriotic, apparently rooted in popular support for Iranian territorial claims against Arab states in the Persian Gulf. Since then it has evolved toward an angry, though so far non-violent, opposition to the rule of the mullahs, embracing such symbols as the pre-1979 Iranian flag. It's still too early to tell where this will go, if anywhere, but it bears watching.

The website is here (note: scroll bar on the left); even if you can't read Persian, the visuals tell a story of their own. A brief article in English is here.

*Pronunciation: approximately rhymes with English "saw", while hastîm is pronounced "hass-TEEM".

03 May 2009

Sports tip for the day

"Football and basketball are sports that require a lot of move-ment and jumping," Sheikh Abdullah al-Maneea, member of the official Supreme Council of Religious Scholars [of Saudi Arabia], said in a religious opinion published in Okaz newspaper Thurs-day. He said such excessive movement may harm girls who are still virgins, possibly causing them to lose their virginity.

Well, I'd say any girl who managed to actually lose her virginity while playing football or basketball at the same time would have to be pretty energetic.....

02 May 2009

When pigs fly? Swine flew!

AAARRRGH! We're doomed! The economy's heading into a new Great Depression! And the swine flu is going to kill us all! And Europe will become Islamic in fifty years! And China is about to replace us as the world's leading power! And Obama is a Commie who's going to take our guns and make us use crappy light bulbs and ride the bus! And what about that man with a knife sneaking up behind you as you sit at the computer! Made you look, didn't I? BOO! Hahaha!

Panic-mongering is not a victimless crime. It may sell newspapers and boost ratings, but it also fills millions of people with needless anxiety, and can cause unnecessary or counterproductive actions to be taken due to hysteria.

Now that the media are starting to notice that the great swine-flu "pandemic" has killed just a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands who "normally" die from "ordinary" flu every year anyway, and economics experts are shifting from tentative predictions of recovery to debates about just how durable the recovery which has already begun will turn out to be, it is perhaps a good time to step back and reconsider our membership in the panic-of-the-month club.

Of course, there are such things as real existential threats. Soviet expansionism was a real threat. Islam and global warming are. And don't forget, as we mostly do, the most terrible mass killer of all. But real threats like these tend to be long-term, ongoing things, rather complicated and not amenable to sensationalism and sound-bites (though the media do try), usually existing in the mass public mind on a background-noise level (if at all) while the media-driven fad-crises erupt and vanish every few months; and they do have solutions, though those solutions also tend to be long-term, rather complex or technical, and not at all helped along by hysteria or impatience. In fact, the endless succession of fad-panics just distracts people and confuses them about what issues actually need attention.

Oh, and if you must whip up hysteria about things, please at least spell them right! It's F-L-U. F-L-U-E is a different word.

Link roundup for 2 May 2009

In 1973, the Catholic Church's Archdiocesian Youth Commission designed a logo for itself. I'd say they blew it.

"It has historically been the case." With a headline like this, you just know the guy's a right-winger.

You may need religion! Found via Around Town with Rita.

If you really do need a religion, this one should be fun. Found via Mendip.

But be careful about making fun of religion in Ireland.

"This apeshit isn’t going to go itself, you know." Teeth are still gnashing over Arlen Specter.

Frodology blog considers the burning theological question of rapture abortions.

You've heard of God-awful poetry -- here's the real thing, with commentary.

Bill Nye the Secklar Hoomnist Innaleckshul discovers that science is offensive -- to stupid people. Sent by Mendip.

The more religious people are, the more pro-torture they are.

There has been a stunning shift of public opinion in favor of gay marriage -- in just the past one month.

It seems as if the main lasting effect of that stupid "storm" anti-gay-marriage ad has been to inspire parodies. Here's another one.

A hate-crimes bill inspired by the Matthew Shepard case provokes some ugliness in Congress.

Ta-Nehisi Coates cuts through the nonsense about the Confederate flag.

"Specters" haunting Europe? Some Labour party MPs (members of Parliament) in Britain are considering defecting to a rival party.

The European country with the most liberal drug laws (it's not the Netherlands) sets an example from which we Americans have much to learn.

A haunting message is found inside a 65-year-old wall.

This thread has some interesting discussion of national identity in Britain.

General Petraeus has a stark warning about Pakistan.

The airline BMI kowtows to barbarism. Found via Counting Cats. See this too.

This video about the erosion of gun rights in Britain and Australia should make us grateful for our written Constitution and Bill of Rights. Sent by Ranch Chimp.

Russia now has its own foundation, Наука за продление жизни ("Science for Extension of Life"), to promote Aubrey de Grey's ideas.

While Bush was obstructing stem-cell research in the US, progress continued elsewhere. Here's a report from China.

01 May 2009

Turbulence across the pond

Last year we Americans kicked out a flagrantly-incompetent and deeply-unpopular government which had grown arrogant and out-of-touch after being in power too long. Some time in the next 14 months -- and, it now looks, perhaps sooner rather than later -- the British will get a chance to do the same.

Background: The Labour party has governed Britain since winning a landslide victory in 1997. Like the Bush administration, it has presided over an outrageous government-spending binge and led its country into the unpopular Iraq war. There has also been a series of scandals and displays of ineptitude, while officials enrich themselves by "snouting at the trough" of public funds. Perhaps most unpopular of all is the large-scale Muslim immigration into Britain (though this has been happening everywhere in western Europe, regardless of which party was in power), though the main concern is Islamic cultural imperialism and abuse of the public benefits system, not competition for jobs. The government's feeble response to Islamist provocations, and an attitude of political correctness reminiscent of the US 25 or 30 years ago, infuriate the public. Consequently, the Labour party is now badly trailing the rival Conservative party in the polls (note that "conservative" in western Europe has a very different meaning than in the US; it is not associated with religious fanaticism, which hardly exists there except among Muslims, and British "Conservatives" are to the left of our Democrats on economics). This video of Daniel Hannan, a British member of the EU Parliament, denouncing Prime Minister Gordon Brown caused a sensation in Britain a month ago (the smirking man in the purple tie seen at 2:55 is Brown; I would have loved to watch someone telling off Bush to his face like this when he was still in power).

The British political system is structured very differently from our own three-branch system. There is no written Constitution, nor a Supreme Court to override unconstitutional legislation; nor is there a separate executive branch. The Prime Minister is merely the head of whichever party controls Parliament, rather as if the most senior member of whichever party controlled Congress automatically became President (an important effect of this is that British voters cannot limit the head of state's power by giving control of the legislature to the party opposite to his, as American voters often do). Elections do not happen at fixed intervals; they must be no more than five years apart, but can be held earlier if the ruling party so decides or if an important Parliamentary vote goes against the ruling party and forces a crisis.

The next election deadline is in mid-2010, but a Parliamentary crisis may arrive much sooner. The penultimate straw landed on the camel this week in the form of a vote concerning the "Gurkhas", Nepalese soldiers who have served in the British military (this is a long-standing tradition) and the right of about 36,000 of them to settle in Britain. Brown's government favored rules which would have excluded most of them, citing the cost; Parliament voted down the restrictions. The Gurkhas are popular in Britain, and Brown's sudden reticence about admitting 36,000 of them did not sit well with a population already exasperated at the presence of over two million Muslim immigrants; more on these issues here. Brown has been humiliated and his power is eroding; it's too soon to say that an early election will be necessary, but it could happen. One can only hope it does. Just imagine where we'd be now if we'd been able to get rid of Bush a year early.