30 September 2011

Blasphemy Day International, 2011

September 30 is Blasphemy Day International, commemorating the anniversary of the 2005 publication of the famous Muhammad cartoons by the Jyllands-Posten newspaper in Denmark. Many secular newspapers showed solidarity by re-printing the cartoons, while prominent Christian authorities such as the Pope sided with Islam and condemned them. Several years later a religious fanatic tried to murder Kurt Westergaard, creator of the best-known of the cartoons (shown above).

Blasphemy is first and foremost a freedom-of-expression issue. The very concept of blasphemy as a "sin" or crime expresses the idea that religion should somehow be exempt from the kind of criticism, ridicule, and questioning to which all other important beliefs and institutions are subjected -- that is, that it deserves a kind of "respect" not extended to anything else, and which it itself so pointedly does not extend to the numerous targets of its own bigotry and taboos.

As I have explained earlier, I believe ridicule is the most effective tool we have for dealing with religion, and our opponents seem all too conscious of the fact that their belief systems are, shall we say, rather vulnerable to that tool, so it's hardly surprising that they want to take it away from us.

Blasphemy laws are gone or non-enforced in the West, but they are alive and well in some countries, and even within the West, the "new atheist" campaign of straight talk about religion has been met with howls of outrage, demands for "respect" (see above), and even threats.

In cases of more explicit disdain for religious taboos, the reactions can escalate to full-blown hysteria -- which just shows how vitally important it is to keep speaking out. If ever the bullies succeed in imposing silence via threats, free expression is doomed.

Of course, blasphemy is most effective when it sticks closest to reality.

As before, I'll finish up here with the greatest and most truth-filled Muhammad cartoon ever (warning: slightly gruesome).

28 September 2011

The US Air Force defends the Constitution

For some time now we've been hearing disturbing stories about religious proselytizing and pressure within the military, ranging from officers pushing religion on their subordinates to coercion to attend religious-themed events to an ethics/indoctrination course on "just war theory" that has come to be known as "Jesus Loves Nukes". Since the alarm was raised about such anti-Constitutional practices, the military has made some effort to curb them; for example, the "Jesus Loves Nukes" training was suspended at the beginning of August (the initiative for this, note, was taken by a group of Air Froce officers who are themselves mostly Christians).

This month General Norton Schwartz, the Air Force Chief of Staff, issued a memo firmly prohibiting this behavior:

Leaders at all levels.....must avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion. Commanders or supervisors who engage in such behavior may cause members to doubt their impartiality and objectivity.

[C]ommanders.....must refrain from appearing to endorse religion generally or any particular religion.

More on the memo and its background here. While one might wish that this action had been taken much earlier, it's understandable that the top leadership might not have been aware of activities like proselytizing within the ranks, or of the exact content of ethics- training courses, until word about these abuses filtered out into the civilian media and raised controversy. It's gratifying to see that, once the magnitude of the problem became clear, the Air Force's top officer issued such a firm directive. Now we need to see whether those officers who have been pushing religion will obey or defy it -- and, if the latter, how well it will be enforced.

Between this and the end of DADT, it's been a good month for the military.

25 September 2011

Quote for the day (2)

"The teabaggers incessantly tell us that our economy is strangled by government regulations and those mythical all-powerful unions. We're told that if we want to regain our place in the world, we must get rid of pesky regulatory agencies like the EPA, and we must destroy those few unions left -- because life is obviously just sooooooo much better in those southern "right to work" states like Alabama. Paradise on Earth, Alabama is. Okay. So why does Germany, for all of its problems, have a trade surplus? In Germany, the unions remain strong -- so strong that they actually help to run the corporations. Unions are so strong that companies give at least one full month of vacation to workers, who also get double pay in December. (They call that Weihnachtsgeld.) This means that the corporations pay 13 months of salary for 11 months of work. Long-time workers get even more -- 15, 16 months of salary for 11 months of work. As for regulations -- well, ask anyone who has ever lived in Germany: Everything there is regulated to an obscene degree. You can't install a goddamned door in a small office without having to meet the sort of specs one might expect to go into a space shuttle escape hatch. According to libertarian theory, Germany simply should not work. Everyone there should be starving. So again: Why do they have a trade surplus?"

Joseph Cannon on the economic Colossus of Europe (Germany is roughly tied with China, whose population is 15 times larger, for the status of world's biggest exporter)

Quotes for the day -- the right-wing mind

"The only way forward to a Grand Bargain is by calling the GOP bluff on taxes and going to the country on it. Once the Tea Party seized the House, this was always the likeliest scenario. Obama tried extremely hard to avoid it - which is what precipitated the last year of humiliations - which have taken a toll on his ratings and, far more dangerously, wounded his authority as president. And so, he has been forced into political contrast. To blame Obama for this seems absurd to me [.....] the current Republican party is a radical, extremist, reckless force that is far more concerned with defeating this president than in reforming the country on bipartisan lines."

Andrew Sullivan, who has plenty more to say

"We talk a lot about the seven centers of power or the seven mountains, asking God to come. If you are ever in any interces- sion set here at the house of prayer, you will find us often crying out God move on the hearts of the family; awaken the church in the West, in this city awaken the church; we cry out for the government, we’re in capital city and we better be crying out to the government; pray for the campuses and the youth to be moved; that God will move and change the media’s heart that He would begin to cause them to speak truth; that He would come and move in the marketplace and awaken and bring His people the finances to literally fund the Kingdom of God; that He come and move in every area in arts and entertainment. Those are the seven mountains of influence that God would begin to move, and we cry out for that because God wants to come, the Holy Spirit wants to come and it is like hot molten lava that He would literally sweep over every area."

Perry campaign leader Pam Olsen, who seems to have things on her mind

Link round-up for 25 September 2011

Real music has staying power.

Yep -- one of each.

"Red" the greyhound is a clever dog.

Macavity takes the bus for fish and chips. He's lucky he didn't take this train (found via Mendip).

Here's job creation in a nutshell.

Never question that which is holy.

Yesterday was National Punctuation Day (found via Mendip).

There's more to the world of Harry Potter than meets the eye.

A good man needs some support.

Good grief, has TV really gotten this bad?

The Atheist Camel has questions for Perry.

If you use Craigslist, watch out for this scam.

From Oklahoma comes a horrifying story of police abuse.

Most Americans don't realize how unequal the distribution of wealth actually is.

Some rich people are good, others are not.

William Kristol watched the debate and says "Yikes."

Obama's polling surprisingly well in Texas.

Technology helps people stay in a bubble -- and craziness festers.

We'll never know, but Washington police may have prevented a massacre.

Joseph Cannon looks at the "fascism is leftist" nonsense.

Focus on the Family is shrinking.

2000 wasn't enough? Nader wants to screw up another election.

For the left to make progress, we need intelligent pragmatism.

Parsley's Pics has another right-wing review up. Republicans have launched almost a thousand state-level anti-abortion bills -- just imagine what could happen if the next two or three Supreme Court appointments are made by a Republican President.

Here's another reminder of what's at stake next year.

These people will vote -- will you?

"Of course this is a war on birth control."

Pension plans are under attack nation-wide.

Obamacare is beginning to work.

Pennsylvania Republicans' electoral-vote scheme could backfire.

Obama's jobs plan is economic patriotism.

Congressional teabaggers' obstruction of disaster relief is hurting their own constituents.

There's another book coming out on Palin.

The Air Force cracks down on proselytizing.

You probably don't know just how deranged the Catholic concept of infallibility really is.

There are practical reasons why irrational belief systems target children.

Lady Gaga is a more moral person than some fundies. A sad story from New York reminds us what's still at stake.

Yes, there is class warfare going on.

Rachel Maddow examines the torrent of nonsense being talked about prayer and Texas.

Here's another example of what we're up against.

This may be the moment when Perry lost the nomination to Romney.

Andrew Sullivan looks at the disgusting booing of a soldier by the Republican debate audience. If the right won't rebuke that, are we entitled to judge them all?

The "let him die" moment illuminates the libertarian mentality. Actually, most of the uninsured are in red states. Green Eagle thinks the right's fascination with death has a sinister meaning.

A former Randroid takes a more critical view.

Here are five things all the Republican Presidential candidates agree on.

Texas schools gradually come back to reality on sex education.

Amazon warehouse workers need a union.

It's hard to deal with people who don't operate in the real world.

Could serious social unrest erupt in the US?

Highlighting the contrast between the US right and its overseas counterparts, Britain's Conservative Prime Minister supports gay marriage.

A major Muslim conference in London condemns terrorism.

British scientists demand better school standards.

Germany's Oktoberfest attracts a new crowd.

European Christianity is no ally against Islam -- in Germany, the Pope attacks secularism and praises the religiosity of Muslims.

As German conservatives implode, the new Pirate party rises in Berlin.

The barbaric practice of bullfighting has been banned in Catalonia.

A New Zealand preacher experiences the blessings of faith.

Yes, I heard about that bizarre neutrino speed measurement at CERN -- but it will be a long time before we know what it means, if anything.

If I lived near Fargo ND, I'd be attending Project 42.

The skeptical community has a blind spot.

Here's more on the global-warming denialists' goofy misunder- standing of that CERN paper on cosmic rays.

"And the story it told of a river that flowed, made me sad to think it was dead....."

British scientists make a breakthrough on cancer.

A new study shows why exercise benefits the brain.

Here's the latest use of 3-D printing: artificial blood vessels.

Researchers re-create a powerful antibiotic -- from fifty-nine million years ago.

Maria Konovalenko has a report from the SENS5 conference in Cambridge, which showcased cutting-edge medical research and development from around the world.

22 September 2011

Troy Davis, and what we can still do

The authorities have no excuse. After so many cases of convicted people being proven innocent after years or decades in prison, going through with an execution in a case so fraught with doubt is nothing short of a crime.

Nothing can be done for Troy Davis now, but we still have over 13 months to help the Troy Davises of the future.

Don't let politicians who are cavalier about executions get into office. Don't let their base, the kind of people who cheer death for the crime of not being able to afford health insurance, be the only ones who turn out and decide the election. Don't let someone who would put more Antonin Scalias on the Supreme Court get into the White House. And don't listen to the fools who would sit back and let that happen because the alternative is less than perfect.

Update/clarification: This posting is not meant to support the crusade against the death penalty, with which I do not agree. The outrage lies in convicting and punishing a man when reasonable doubt clearly existed, rather than in the specific penalty chosen (although obviously the more severe the punishment, the greater the injustice). There are plenty of criminals who fully deserve the death penalty. Those who are innocent and wrongly convicted, or convicted of some phony "crime" such as possession of marijuana for personal use, do not deserve any penalty at all -- not even one day in prison.

21 September 2011

Discrimination: the cutting edge

Ed Brayton reports on a story of a type which is going to become more common. In brief, a gay couple in Illinois planned to hold a civil-commitment ceremony (actual gay marriage is not legal in Illinois yet). They approached two hotels about renting facilities, only to be turned down by both, for explicitly-stated reasons of anti-gay prejudice. Now they're planning to sue for discrimination.

This is the kind of thing that sets the bigots foaming at the mouth (even more than they already do, I mean), and, more damagingly, makes some less-prejudiced but not-too-thoughtful people think they might have a point. Aren't the owners of a private business entitled to turn down customers for reasons rooted in their own religious beliefs? Isn't this an example of gays getting pushy and forcing their agenda on people, just like the Christian Right says?

It's a debatable issue, or at least looks like one. Brayton, however, includes this very clarifying paragraph in his own discussion:

Some Christians claim that requiring them to serve gay custo- mers in any context is a violation of their religious freedom. But if it is, it is exactly the same as requiring them to serve customers of every race or gender. Discrimination on the basis of race can be and historically has been based on religion as well, yet almost no one seriously argues today that any business should be able to turn away a black person. Who is going to stand up and say that a business should be allowed to refuse to hire women because their sincerely-held religious beliefs tell them that women should stay at home and not work?

And suddenly the matter comes into perspective, courtesy of Jim Crow and those segregated lunch counters of decades past. The law has long banned racial discrimination by businesses which provide public accommodation, and everyone accepts that as legitimate (well, almost everyone). So I don't see how it can be anything other than equally legitimate to ban such discrimination where gays are the victims.

The fundies will raise flaming hell, of course, because in their eyes the "right" to discriminate against gays (and attack them in other ways, for that matter) is apparently the most precious religious freedom there is. But if we're going to ban discrimination in public accommodation, we can't make exceptions just because a business owner's prejudices are rooted in religious belief. Racial prejudice was sometimes defended on religious grounds too, and as Brayton notes, many clear and explicit restrictions on women can be found in the various religions' holy texts.

Either we as a society are serious about equal protection, or we're not.

Oh, and the fact that organized religion is perceived as hostile to gays is a big part of why more and more Americans, and especially the young, are turning away from religion. The fundies should think carefully about whether they really want to choose this as their place to draw the line.

19 September 2011

Video of the week -- Heartland -- Ireland

Song "Heartland" by Irish ensemble Celtic Thunder; sung in English and Irish Gaelic.

18 September 2011

Link round-up for 18 September 2011

The English language is easy -- but which kind?

GSA teens in my home town get their message across with a little help from Lady Gaga.

Colerain is a winning school.

Ryanair advertises flights to Bavaria.

Watch those hyphens.

If you missed it last time around, check out the star battleship Astrology vs. Carl Sagan.

David Barton has identified the problem with Congress: demons.

Republicans pray to cleanse North America of the curses of the Indians.

Marijuana gains in popularity over more dangerous drugs.

Want to impress women? Be a killer and fumble your metaphors.

Serpent de-regulation probably won't do much for the economy.

What do you see in the glass?

Cartoons sum up fundamentalist hypocrisy.

Check out the wisdom of Pat Robertson (found via Kriss the Sexy Atheist).

If you like my link round-ups, Fair and Unbalanced has something similar.

A scientist looks at Bachmann's anti-vaccine blather.

Never forget who was most vile back in 2008.

Dan Savage has the Christian Right attitude on the HPV vaccine just right.

Michigan Republicans ban domestic-partner benefits.

PCTC dissects a weird conservative assessment of liberalism.

If you're a Christian and think you understand atheists, read this and this.

Will Bachmann respond to the mother of Justin Aaberg?

Perry doubles down on dumb; teabaggers like his science-bashing and the Republican party is shifting his way, but his hostility to Social Security isn't playing well with most voters. He's like Bush without the moderation. And why exactly did he mandate that HPV vaccine?

The NY-09 defeat was a price to be paid for being wrong on Israel.

Ohio fights back against Republican vote suppression.

An IMF study affirms that austerity policies make long-term unemployment worse. An earlier claim that 150 economists support austerity turns out to be bogus.

No, a slip of the tongue is not the same as being completely wrong about something.

Of all the 9-11 anniversary posts I saw this week, I think this one was the best.

Republicans who should know better hedge and fudge on science.

Fundamentalist nutters pray for dominion over America.

Obama's proposal for funding his jobs plan gets it right. The jobs plan now has its own website.

Jolly Roger has some reminders for liberals who lean toward Ron Paul (read this too).

Could Obamacare have saved a Paul staffer's life?

Like the Taliban blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas, American Dominionists destroy artifacts representing other belief systems.

The right and left really are different (more here).

Oregon Republicans retreat from bigotry.

I'm undecided about the Keystone XL pipeline; Norbrook makes a case against some of the protests.

At Heathrow, technology makes long airport walks obsolete.

73% of those charged in the recent British riots have previous criminal records.

Here's another view of the Gypsy "slave camp" story from Britain.

Swedes: your country is about to send an atheist to his death.

Let's hope the left turn in Denmark's election yesterday is a sign of things to come across Europe. Interesting aside from the rabidly pro-EU Der Speigel: "Denmark has weathered the European debt crisis relatively well because it is not in the euro zone".

European leaders' efforts to save the euro descend into confusion.

Blonde Nonbeliever has a guest post from an Italian atheist.

Japan saves energy by dressing down.

Victorious Libyan rebels make a creepy discovery beneath Tripoli.

Qaddhafi loyalists make their last stand using human shields.

Bangladesh takes a drastic wrong turn on media freedom.

Just-found sketches by a British soldier illustrate conditions in a World War II Japanese prison camp (found via Mendip).

Terrorists are targeting nanotechnologists world-wide (found via Histories of Things to Come).

For decades, war propaganda has exploited sexuality (found via Mendip).

Be extra-skeptical if you see any of these "quackronyms".

Florida confronts an invasion of giant snails.

Richard Dawkins explains why science is better than myth.

Here's what the gap between two tectonic plates looks like.

New technology will make wind power much cheaper.

Emily Baldry, age 6, did a little digging.

Today we could easily create a chimpanzee-human hybrid, but we shouldn't.

Behold the vastness of the universe.

Randal Koene reviews progress toward mind uploading (found via Maria Konovalenko).

17 September 2011

Obama 2012

Frustration with Obama's compromises, and with the slow pace of progress in the face of Republican obstruction, has led some to hope that Hillary Clinton will challenge him for the Democratic nomination next year. A recent poll showed that she is now the most popular political figure in the country; 34% of Americans think we would be better off with her as President.

Look, I understand the feeling. Anyone who was reading this blog in 2008 remembers that I strongly favored Clinton, and was even disaffected enough by Obama's nomination that I voted for McCain (in my defense, it was far less clear back then how dangerous Palin was, and no one could have anticipated how far off the deep end the Republicans were going to go). I still think she'd have made a better President, not only by being tougher, but ideologically -- Obama ran as a centrist more interested in "overcoming" partisan differences than in pushing a real liberal agenda for change, and no one should be surprised that he's governed that way. She might even have achieved somewhat more in office than Obama has, though the main limiting factor -- Republican obstructionism and sheer derangement -- would have been the same for either of them. (And no doubt the fringe-left nutters who constantly bash Obama would now be bashing Clinton just as much, if she'd been President for two and a half years and had to fight through all that same crap.)

But this isn't 2008. Obama is the President. A primary challenge now would be terribly dangerous. It would divide us when we most need to be united (think how the Republican primary battle is now creating a library of intra-party attacks on every contender who might be the eventual nominee -- do we need that?), leaving Obama -- or Clinton, if she somehow won -- in a weaker position for the general election.

Such a move would be touted by Republicans as a Democratic declaration of failure. How many times in modern American history has a sitting President at the end of his first term been rejected by his own party for re-nomination? How often has this happened and the replacement nominee then gone on to win the Presidency? Has that ever happened? Dumping Obama would reek of desperation.

And don't forget Obama does have a strong base of supporters. If they perceive the party as having back-stabbed their man, do you really imagine we could avoid a massive reverse-PUMA effect, maybe big enough to lose an election which, at the moment, looks like it might well be frighteningly close?

Finally, despite all the problems, Obama has achieved more than I expected. We've made a start, however imperfect, on the path to universal health-care coverage. DADT is gone. Stem-cell research has been re-funded, bringing closer the end of vast amounts of death and suffering. The recession was stopped from sliding into an outright depression, however slow recovery has been. And just think what the Supreme Court would be like now if we had another Scalia and Thomas there instead of Sotomayor and Kagan.

If you want a better Democratic President, you should work not only to re-elect Obama, but to take back the House and as many Senate seats as possible. Not only do we need to put an end to the obstructionism and damage that Republican control of the House is inflicting, but the party needs to be punished for its extremism; that's the only way it can be pushed back to the center, which is the only way we're ever going to permanently rid ourselves of the threat of totalitarian theocratic radicals taking over the whole government someday.

I hope Clinton runs in 2016. But next year is not the time. There's too much at stake. An internal fight would just weaken our own side against the Republicans.

We can't take that risk.

We can't take that risk.

We can't take that risk.

14 September 2011

Super-Earths and sexy aliens

"Exoplanets" -- planets outside our own solar system -- are now routinely being discovered, and as our instruments grow more sensitive, smaller and smaller planets are being detected. Indeed, some of the most recently-found exoplanets are almost as small as Earth, a few even being described as "Earth sized". Unfortunately MSM reports of these discoveries suffer from an odd and naïve misplacement of emphasis. A recent example:

Astronomers using a telescope in Chile have discovered 50 previously unknown exoplanets. The bumper haul of new worlds includes 16 "super-Earths" - planets with a greater mass than our own, but below those of gas giants such as Jupiter. One of these super-Earths orbits inside the habitable zone - the region around a star where conditions could be hospitable to life.

The news piece is illustrated with an artist's conception of a very Earthlike-looking world, and speculation about life occupies a good chunk of its length.

In these media reports, the prospect of life is always at the fore- front. It's understandable, in a way; we have more than enough lifeless rocks, big and small, in our own solar system, and these stories have to be made appealing to a public raised on a diet of science fiction rich with alien beings (usually scary or sexy or both) often by authors with little knowledge of either astronomy or evolution. One could easily conclude that the discovery of an abundance of verdant Earthlike worlds, complete with analogs of the Ewoks or the Na'vi or at least the Klingons, is just around the corner.

Er, not really.

First off, the term "super-Earth" just means a planet with a certain mass range, larger than Earth but smaller than the gas giants of our solar system. It says nothing about other characteristics we associate with Earth. Most of these planets are several times as massive as Earth, implying much higher gravity, a very different atmosphere, and other drastic differences.

The "habitability zone" (H-zone) means the range of distance from the local sun within which temperatures would allow liquid water to exist on a planet. Being in the H-zone doesn't mean a planet actually has liquid water, nor that conditions are otherwise at all suitable for life.

Nevertheless, it's clear that planets are a common phenomenon, and given the number of stars in our galaxy, there must be billions of planets in the H-zones of their local suns -- even billions of such planets which are similar in mass to Earth -- whether we happen to have spotted them yet or not. (There are, of course, also billions of other galaxies.) That doesn't mean that planets with complex life are likely to be common.

To start with, most stars are smaller and dimmer than our own Sun, meaning that the H-zone is closer in. A planet within the zone would likely be "tidally locked", with one side permanently facing the local sun and the other permanently facing away, as our own Moon is "tidally locked" to Earth. This would produce permanent extremes of heat and cold respectively on the two hemispheres, and the atmosphere would all freeze out on the cold side. Not very Earthlike.

Also, evolution takes time. Earth is 4.6 billion years old and life has existed for at least 3.6 billion years, yet organisms big enough to see have existed for probably less than 1 billion years. How common is it for a planet to stay within the H-zone for billions of years? Most stars exist in parts of the galaxy where stars are much closer together than in our own area; close encounters between stars, which would disrupt planetary orbits, must be frequent (by stellar-lifetime standards) events. Gas giants bigger or closer to the local sun than Jupiter (which seem to be common) would be even more disruptive to the orbits of smaller planets.

Then there are factors such as a planet's chemical composition, axial tilt, the make-up of its atmosphere (if any), the likelihood of a magnetic field strong enough to screen out cosmic rays, frequency of meteorite impacts releasing enough heat to sterilize the entire surface, etc., and, again, the probability of all these factors staying within life-friendly limits for billions of years. It's very likely that Earth is actually a freak case. Finally, there's the problem of the low probability of an initial appearance of life, even if conditions are perfect.

Remember, no matter how ordinary Earth seems to us, it is not necessarily typical. No matter how freakishly rare planets with complex life are, we must by definition be living on one of them.

However, we won't need to rely on such assessments for much longer. Soon, we'll be able to actually detect the presence of complex life -- if it exists at all -- by studying the composition of exoplanets' atmospheres. The clue will be free oxygen. Oxygen is very chemically reactive and would not remain in a planet's atmosphere for a long period of time unless some process is constantly replenishing it -- and the only plausible such process is photosynthesis. That is, the presence of a significant amount of free oxygen in an exoplanet's atmosphere would be pretty solid evidence of an ecosystem with something like Earthly plant life, which would mean other complex life could well be present too. I'm betting that we won't find any such cases -- but in a few years we'll actually know.

If we did find one or more such cases, it would actually be bad news. We would still be stuck with the Fermi paradox -- the total absence of any evidence for technological civilizations elsewhere in the universe. Remember, the universe is billions of years old. If technological civilizations are even somewhat abundant, some of them should be millions, or even hundreds of millions, of years older than we are. Consider how far human technology has advanced in the mere 400 years since real systematic science began, and how the pace of progress has steadily accelerated. A civilization a million years older than ours, anywhere in the galaxy, ought to be producing effects we could easily detect and identify. Since we don't see any such effects, such civilizations probably aren't out there.

If complex life is fantastically rare, Fermi's paradox would be instantly explained. But if it's common, we have a mystery. It might be that, for some reason, complex life almost never evolves high intelligence, but that doesn't seem very likely. Intelligence is too useful. We'd pretty much have to conclude that there's some unknown factor that always destroys technological civilizations before they get much more advanced than we are now -- and that we ourselves are therefore doomed. There is already something of a cottage industry of speculation along these lines, most of it scientifically-worthless venting of whatever form of cynicism about humanity happens to obsess a given writer.

But I don't think that's the case. Everything points to complex life, or even life in general, being freakishly rare.

One last point -- about those sexy aliens. Here's a photo of a female chimpanzee in estrus:

Recall that all life on Earth -- humans, apes, spiders, trees, mold, bacteria, everything -- descends from one common ancestor, whereas life on another planet would have a different origin and would have followed different evolutionary pathways. To a male chimpanzee, the image above would be the epitome of sexy, but frankly it doesn't do a thing for me, and if you're a typical human male, you feel the same. Now, not only is this a fellow Earthly animal, but of all the millions of animal species on Earth, it's the one most closely related to ourselves. Yet the standards of sexual attractiveness are obviously quite different. So, no, an organism that had evolved independently on a different planet would not look like Deanna Troi, or even like anything that the notoriously omnivorous Captain Kirk would give a second glance.

(Chimpanzee image found via PZ Myers, who makes a similar point.)

13 September 2011

Video of the week -- Dara O'Briain

Something light and fun to take away the aftertaste of yesterday's negativity. Another great O'Briain clip is here.

12 September 2011

Libertarians and liberals (2)

Libertarian blog The Crossed Pond recently put up a post asking why liberals generally don't perceive libertarians as potential allies. I responded with a comment there, and a long discussion ensued. I also re-posted most of my first comment as a posting here, and more comments ensued.

The reasons why I and other liberals don't view libertarianism as a potential ally can be summed up as follows:

A) Libertarianism today puts very little emphasis on fighting for aspects of personal freedom which are important to liberals, such as abortion rights, gay rights, drug decriminalization, workers' rights, etc. It seems mostly interested in opposing taxes and regulation. (Ironically, The Crossed Pond has since put up a new post which serves as a perfect example of this; it brushes off the "social issues", on which libertarians and liberals often agree, as being of no practical importance. I posted a comment explaining how this looks from our perspective, but the response makes it pretty clear that further discussion is pointless.)

B) Libertarians embrace figures such as Ron Paul (anti-abortion), Rand Paul (hostile to the Civil Rights Act and by implication to other government efforts to stop private-sector discrimination), and Ayn Rand (good grief, where do I begin?).

C) Libertarianism seems blind to the fact that many major threats to individual freedom originate from powerful private entities, not from government. Indeed, today libertarians seem more comfor- table defining themselves with the phrase "small government" than in terms of individual freedom.

D) The de facto effect of libertarian policies would be a society with even more gross inequality than we have now, and with less real freedom because the government, in its role as a mitigator of private entities' infringements on individual freedom, would be much weaker. These real-world practical consequences are what matters, not the theoretical underpinnings.

E) Libertarianism is hostile to environmental concerns and often embraces global-warming denialism, probably because most environmental problems can't be solved without large-scale government intervention. I didn't mention this in my earlier responses, but it's important.

F) Libertarianism self-defines as a sub-set of the right. Its heroes and candidates, such as the Pauls, invariably run as Republicans. Whatever disagreements it has with mainstream conservatism are internal debates within the right.

The libertarian response was basically threefold:

1) Yes, disagreements exist, but that's no reason to ignore areas of potential agreement. I would say that these disagreements are so important that they far outweigh the areas of agreement that exist.

2) Even if libertarian candidates won office, their program could only be implemented incrementally; it would not all go into effect at once. I'd say that incremental moves in the wrong direction are still moves in the wrong direction.

3) The picture I painted of libertarianism was inaccurate and full of sweeping generalizations. I would dispute that -- but if it's true, given that this is the common view liberals have of libertarianism, shouldn't libertarians take a closer look at how they present their ideology rather than accuse us of willfully misunderstanding it?

I'm aware that a lot of libertarians support the right to abortion and the right of gays to marry, but do they put as much energy into arguing for those things as they do into arguing against taxes and regulation? (Again, see here.) And I've seen no sign that libertarians support worker protection or anti-discrimination laws, where the threat to individual rights comes from the private sector rather than from government.

There probably are individual libertarians who not only are with us on individual-freedom issues such as those mentioned in (A) above if you ask them, but also recognize those things as a priority and give them due weight in deciding what candidates and which party to support, and those are people I can recognize as being on the same side. There is even a special value in recognizing that individual self-determination, rather than some armchair vision of what an optimal society should look like, is the proper basis for those things. But mainstream libertarianism today has pretty much settled in as a sub-set of the right wing, even if it dissents from the rest of the right on some issues, and we're sensible to recognize it as such.

11 September 2011

The anniversary

Never forget.
Never forgive.

Link round-up for 11 September 2011

God answers Perry.

Japan is awesome!

I've heard of flying fish, but.....

Murr Brewster takes a droll look at the constraints on Obama.

No one would mess with a Snape GPS.

Gee, and our firemen just rescue cats from trees.

Here's a flow-chart to help you choose a Republican candidate.

Does your Facebook photo provoke lust?

Fairies and aliens: different eras' interpretations of the same mental phenomena.

Watch out for this phone computer scam.

Here's another cool thing about Portland -- literary-themed bars (sent by Mendip).

An underground mini-library challenges a private school's banned-books list (found via Preliator pro Causa).

How many women meet the standard for Biblical marriage?

Here's an honest bumper sticker.

Norbrook has good reasons for avoiding social media.

Sacrilege! Orson Scott Card is re-writing Shakespeare. More here.

Huntsman can't be the Republican nominee -- he's reality-based.

If Perry is the nominee, the "anti-science" party label will stick.

Here's more on the Perry-Paul kerfluffle at the debate.

There are differences in methods among the theocrats, though the goal is the same.

Tennessee students face suspension for trying to start a gay- straight alliance group (found via Right Wing Watch).

Polls suggest North Carolina voters may reject a gay-marriage ban.

Dan Savage has a question for the Republican candidates.

Obama's jobs speech drew a huge audience.

Andrew Sullivan live-blogged the speech, and has a round-up of reactions.

Before the speech, Obama was preparing plan B.

Fundies don't understand how free expression works.

Stonekettle Station looks at work in the good old days.

Dissenting Justice challenges readers to name even one advanced nation that follows the teabagger model.

Perry's anti-intellectualism should be of concern to Christians.

If you haven't already, read Mike Lofgren's devastating insider view of the Republican party.

Keep talking about Cameron Todd Willingham.

Government spending cuts have made unemployment worse (well, duh).

Yikes, there are fags in the Justice Department (found via Parsley's Pics).

Erskine College in South Carolina drives out a man of integrity.

Joseph Cannon looks at sexual rumors surrounding Perry.

Listen for these code phrases from the Republicans (found via Republic of Gilead).

The Air Force has suspended its religious indoctrination "training", and not everybody's happy.

Joan Ruaiz reminds us what's at stake if Obama loses. Booman has more; here's a British view.

What would Dominionists do with gays?

Politics will re-align when the elderly understand their own interests better.

Business owners say taxes and regulations aren't what's holding up hiring.

Dysfunctional government provokes threats of revolt. More here.

Psychology may help us spot lone-wolf terrorists like Breivik before they strike. Read this too.

A few necessary reminders: The US was not founded as a Christian nation.

Some good news: American Muslims are much more moderate than other Muslim populations.

Francis Schaeffer, a co-founder of the modern Christian Right and major influence on Bachmann, counseled treason.

Texas is burning, as the drought becomes a test case of the power of prayer. Cutting fire departments can't have helped either.

No, religion is not necessary for morality (found via Acme's Buddhist Catalog); illustration here.

Fox crudely misquotes Hoffa to fabricate a threat of violence. Hoffa isn't concerned.

Mature Landscaping looks at the Obama-bashing left (this posting inspired a comment which I expanded into my own posting this week).

To inrease employment, we need to make it our central national goal.

Massachusetts and Texas are poles apart in health coverage.

George Packer thinks the Republicans will sabotage Obama's jobs plan, while still trying to blame him for the resulting failure.

Larry Sabato takes an early look at the Electoral College.

There's politics behind the Postal Service's money problems.

Perry's long soft-on-illegal-aliens record illustrates a difference between him and Romney on wages.

If you listen carefully, Obama has changed the subject.

Federal judge Sam Sparks slaps down theocratic meddling in Texas.

Italian workers stage an anti-austerity general strike.

Investors don't believe the EU bail-out of Greece will work.

Syria seems to be heading for a civil war that could be bloodier than Libya's.

Life-long captives see daylight for the first time.

Dolphin communications have some properties in common with human speech.

In the US, this was the second-hottest summer since record- keeping began.

Lady Atheist collects some examples of evolution in action, and an elegant case of speciation (I wrote about the same case, from a different viewpoint, here).

British researchers are testing technology to fight global warming.

Guanfacine may help rejuvenate aging brains -- and it's already approved for use on humans (as an ingredient in another medication).

Michael Anissimov looks at transhumanism as a transitional movement.

08 September 2011

The right and the debate

The debate affirmed this as a two-candidate race -- Romney vs. Perry. The rest are long shots. A few assessments from the right:

PJM thinks Perry's got it in the bag; David Frum is unimpressed; Nate Silver thinks the base still doesn't realize he's unelectable. Andrew Sullivan and The Crossed Pond did live-blogs; Sullivan also has a round-up of views.

But we'll need a few days to know how the base is reacting.

Update: Immoral Minority has some interesting pictures from during a commercial break at the debate.

07 September 2011

Libertarians and liberals

Libertarian blog The Crossed Pond asks why liberals don't view libertarians as potential allies. My response:

Thing is, nobody outside the libertarian domain itself is much interested in abstract theories. We’re interested in the practical consequences of applying the ideology.

I had strong libertarian leanings many years ago. Maybe I was fooling myself, but back then it seemed like libertarianism really did emphasize individual-freedom issues like decriminalizing drugs, defending abortion rights, and resisting the enforcement of religious taboos (homosexuality, etc.) through civil law. Now individual freedom has been relegated to a side issue and libertarianism is just about cutting taxes and gutting the kind of regulatory structure that differentiates us from a Third World country (I don’t deny that some regulations are irrational or ineffective, but libertarianism goes beyond wanting to cut out just those). If you point this out, you’re met with a blizzard of sophistry re-defining freedom in such a way that economic abstractions constitute a greater infringement on it than government efforts to dictate what individuals can and can’t do with their own anatomy do. If you point out that libertarian policies would allow inequality to get even worse, you’re met with more bloodless abstract claims that you shouldn’t object to rising inequality, even if reaches Latin American levels. This is neither persuasive nor appealing to anyone who doesn’t already support the ideology.

Ever since libertarianism allied itself with the Republican party, now dominated by anti-science theocrats, it has de-emphasized those aspects of its ideology which clash with theocracy.

The modern face of libertarianism is people like Ron Paul, who is against abortion and is therefore immediately disqualified as a supporter of individual freedom no matter what else he believes, or Rand Paul, who has objected to the application of desegregation to private businesses. He had solid libertarian grounds for doing so — which discredits libertarianism. A lot of modern libertarians take Ayn Rand seriously, for crying out loud. The fact that liberta- rians continue to tout Ron Paul despite his opposition to abortion shows that individual freedom is no longer their guiding principle.

If libertarians had their way, there would be even less of a social safety net than there is now, and even less constraint on the ability of large private interests like employers to abuse individuals. Under libertarianism, I would have less security and less freedom in a practical sense than I do now. And don’t even get me started on what the open-borders nonsense would lead to. Yes, my taxes would be a lot lower, but that’s of negligible importance by comparison.

It’s not about theory or ideology. It’s about practical real-world consequences. Libertarianism as currently self-defined, with its current leadership, is far too toxic to be a potential ally.

I think I got my point across to at least some extent; if anyone else wants to jump in, just follow the link.

06 September 2011

Teabaggers of the left

The deranged vitriol directed against Obama from the right wing is bizarre enough -- but what are we to make of the almost equally deranged attacks coming from some fringes of the left?

You know the kind of thing I mean. Throughout his Presidency, Obama has compromised with Republicans; the public option in health-care reform was lost, the Bush tax cuts were renewed, etc. Most of these compromises were necessary to get any progress at all, given the obstructionism of Republicans in Congress; a few were not.

But the reaction in some quarters has been ludicrously out of proportion. Obama is a closet right-winger. He's no better than Bush, no better than Bachmann. There's no difference between the parties. Given Obama's record -- stem-cell research re-funded, a major step toward universal health care, sane Supreme Court appointments, etc. -- and the dangerous extremism of today's Republicans, this is incomprehensible.

As for how exactly Obama could have done better, it's always vague clichés about "standing firm" and "using the bully pulpit" -- no specifics, no sign of understanding how politics actually works. (They often get the facts wrong, too. For example, in exchange for extending the Bush tax cuts, Obama was able to win an extension of unemployment benefits that saved millions from disaster.)

It's probably true that Obama has compromised too much. He did enter office with a naïve faith in bipartisanship which undercut chances for the real change he promised. It may be that he would have achieved more, marginally, by being more confrontational. But the guy who rolled back DADT is no better than this? That simply isn't reality.

The fulminators' usual response to such reminders is to claim that "if we keep voting for the lesser of two evils, we'll never be offered anything better". This ignores the reality of the political situation.

I've been dissatisfied with Obama in a lot of ways. (He was not my choice for the 2008 Democratic nominee.) I'm an atheist and a socialist; I'd like to see our social contract and social safety net rebuilt on the kind of model offered by places like Scandinavia and Germany; I'd like to see drugs and prostitution decriminalized and rationally regulated; I'd like to see all kinds of things. I too could well describe Obama and the present Democrats as the lesser of two evils. I certainly wish that a President and Congress fully in agreement with my own views could actually be elected. But they couldn't, and in this case, the lesser of two evils is a hell of a lot less evil. The fact that I can imagine better options doesn't mean those options are actually available. Incremental progress in the right direction is far better than letting theocratic/plutocratic reactionaries drag the country backward into some nightmarish cross between the Dark Ages and the Third World.

In other areas of life, people recognize this concept. You're never offered a job, or a residence, or whatever, that's exactly what you want. You choose the best one out of the options that are actually available.

Polls show Obama remains broadly popular on the mainstream left. The attacks from the left are coming from a noisy minority who have no more grasp of political reality than the teabaggers do. But that doesn't mean the problem isn't real. Consider the 2010 election, which was not a pendulum swing back to the right but rather a collapse of voter turn-out (38% vs 62% in 2008). That was what allowed Republicans to win so many seats and offices and do so much damage. The people who didn't vote in 2010 have blood on their hands just as much as the teabaggers do. And if the same happens next year, with the Presidency itself at stake, that will be even more true.

But the anti-Obama fulminators of the hard left vehemently reject any effort to remind them of what Obama has accomplished, or to point out how much worse any Republican alternative would be. There's some weird psychology operating there that I don't claim to understand. They seem to need something to be enraged about; they paradoxically feel dissatisfied, even disappointed, unless they can find some grounds to be miserable and pessimistic.

They really would hand over the country to evil in order to punish imperfect good.

So what can we do? Keep pointing out the facts, keep pointing out what is at stake. As always, those whose minds are already made up will remain unpersuaded -- they're unreachable -- but the real target is those who are on the fence about the issue. They may not comment on the debates, but they're often reading them.

This isn't an issue I plan to write a lot about -- to the extent that I write about politics at all, the danger looming on the far right is the greatest concern. But there are several blogs that do focus on confronting the problem of the perfectionist extreme left, and are doing an excellent job:

Angry Black Lady

Booman Tribune

Elect Democrats


The Only Adult in the Room (currently on hiatus)

The People's View*

Please Cut the Crap

Pragmatic Progressive Forum*


If you're disappointed but not sure what to do about it, you need to be reading them. There's too much at stake next year to risk blowing this.

Addendum: There's a precedent for what I'm talking about -- the 2000 election, in which several hundred thousand people threw away their votes on Nader because Gore wasn't left enough for them. There were several states which Bush carried by a margin smaller than the number of votes Nader got -- that is, if Gore had gotten the Nader votes, he would have carried those states, and would have won despite the Florida mess. The Naderites saddled the country with Bush, the Democratic party did not respond by moving further to the left, and Nader did not become a significant political force. Un-pragmatic purism achieved nothing -- except to empower the Republicans, at terrible cost to the country.

*Thanks to Leslie Parsley for the reminders.

05 September 2011

Videos of the week -- O'Reilly rocks!

This has been around for a while -- and it's a tad NSFW -- but it's funny. First, here's Bill O'Reilly freaking out at his teleprompter, apparently not realizing the camera is running:

And here's the techno-remix version:

04 September 2011

Link round-up for 4 September 2011

A trip to the Alaska state fair explains why there is no intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

Check out Latvia's milk carton regatta (found via Mendip).

From Benjamin Franklin to the present day, Americans have cherished the right to fart.

PETA makes a splash in Dallas.

Sophie Hirschfeld addresses some criticisms of the Slutwalks.

Hey, the police work hard and deserve some break time (but this is serious).

Oregon: Our bigots are weirder than your bigots.

If God is talking to us, why do we need Bachmann to interpret the message?

A father celebrates a thirteen-year-old girl's courage.

Here's a transparent-winged butterfly, the Sylphina angel.

The latest bleat from the right-wing noise machine is fake Paul Krugman quotes.

Whatever Obama's jobs plan is, his opponents will go on the attack.

Must-read: Martin Luther King's real achievement was to end a reign of terror.

If you haven't already, be sure to check out the blog The Reaction, which has excellent taste in guest bloggers.

Gut feeling is no basis for absolute truth.

Religious trouble-makers don't want to go along with the rules that apply to everyone else.

50% don't pay taxes? Not true.

Bigots won't be happy until everyone different from themselves is invisible (or ceases to exist).

Sam Harris challenges the Randroids and gets bombarded with clichés.

Yes, these people are serious: Ron Baity believes the fight for gay marriage is being led by Satan, and Bryan Fischer wants to make homosexuality illegal again. More weirdness here.

Even among evangelicals, younger people are more open-minded.

Milt Shook dissects the Obama-bashing hard left.

Liberal Lamp Post compares Obama with great liberal Presidents of the past.

Traditional values manifest themselves in Salt Lake City. And here's some Christian love in North Carolina.

Don't give too much credence to that "thirteen keys" thing that supposedly guarantees Obama's re-election.

For now, the Christian Right has chosen Perry as its champion, but Bachmann is still fighting him for that role, and Palin may not have given up yet. His surge of popularity among the far right may not last, especially as his record becomes better known. But all these candidates represent something genuinely new.

A new atheist video campaign is launched.

Justice has not been served in the Lawrence King case.

Kay Dennison contemplates her fate if the Republicans succeed in getting rid of Social Security.

Pastor Mike Stahl of Florida wants to put all atheists on a watch list.

The ACLU and NOW fight back against the right's onslaught on abortion rights; victories are won in Texas and Kansas.

The attack on the National Weather Service highlights the idiocy of libertarianism.

As Walker's brutal union-busting takes effect, teachers flee into early retirement.

Some Republican Governors oppose Cantor on disaster relief.

Bigots harass a gay-pride festival in North Carolina.

Here's the whole Obama-vs-Bush track record in three charts.

In economic hard times, older people suffer more.

The latest manifestation of teabaggerdom is school censorship (found via What Would Jack Do).

Ron Paul pines for the good old days; Ta-Nehisi Coates calls him to account. Dissenting Justice explains why Paul shouldn't become President, while a libertarian laments his status as the face of the movement.

Former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel condemns the modern party's extremism.

Judge Obama as Obama, not as a generic black politician.

Racism crops up in surprising places these days.

Here's a popular idea the government won't listen to.

Anti-intellectualism is an old tradition, but modern Republicans are taking it to new depths.

The Republican party in Gabrielle Giffords's district raffles off a Glock handgun -- the same kind of gun that was used to shoot Giffords (and kill several others).

Don't forget those home-grown American religious terrorists, the Hutaree.

Santorum is a bigot, but if you point this out, he'll call you a bigot.

Under Obama, the Justice Department has gotten tougher on the vicious thugs who harass abortion clinics.

Libertarianism's heroes opposed democracy and sympathized with fascism.

What would Dominionism do with gays? Here are Dominionists in their own words (found via Republic of Gilead), a history of the movement, the diversity of its branches, some blunt talk from one of its proponents, and a historical precedent for the anti-gay obsession.

Michael Behe's son Leo has gone over to the good guys.

Advocates try to win a public option for California.

Identifying criminals by line-up is fraught with problems.

The Ground Zero mosque will probably never be built, for reasons unrelated to the protests.

I guess LBJ was an optimist.

Wikileaks crosses the line, now unambiguously endangering innocent people.

Denmark finds a ready market for an unusual export.

Reykjavik has the coolest mayor.

Britain's Conservative government abandons a plan to discourage abortion.

Germany, too, has patriotic rich people.

Want to improve education? Look at Finland.

The Irish government continues its battle for justice against the evil Catholic Church.

German historian Hans-Joachim Voth says the euro can't survive. Merkel is still struggling to save it, while the Bundestag demands a say. David Frum warns America to prepare for the inevitable.

Germany takes steps to ensure fair taxation of entrepreneurs (found via Mendip).

Nothing important has ever come out of Hungary.

In Russia, there's a night club with a difference.

European leaders of the 1930s couldn't cope with Hitler because they couldn't quite believe he meant what he said (there's a lesson there for us today).

Most of western Europe has embraced austerity and budget cuts, and is locked in a spiral of economic decline: Argentina has taken the opposite course, and is thriving. Which example should we follow?

In Israel, nearly half a million march for a more just economy.

The US apologizes for a horrific medical experiment in Guatemala.

Even if an authoritarian regime can turn off the internet, it's not a good idea.

The President celebrates his victory in Libya.

Far left and right converge: Kucinich and a former Bush official both tried to help Qaddhafi. More here.

Libyan women celebrate the fall of Qaddhafi, who may have fled south.

What role will Islam play in the new Libya? It's debatable.

Religious fanatics subject Pakistan to a barbaric reign of terror.

Ai Weiwei speaks out about tyranny and oppression in China.

No, that new study does not show that cosmic rays rather than human activity are causing global warming.

Dolphins seem to have a sophisticated understanding of death. More on animal feelings about death here.

Languages make a trade-off between speed and information density.

There's garbage in the sky.

Texas scientists confirm that stem cells can safely be used to treat acute stroke in humans.

A man of integrity: The editor of a science journal resigns after publishing a flawed paper (found via His Vorpal Sword).

Exercise can counteract some of the effects of aging.

Michigan researchers develop remote-controlled cyborg beetles.

ZJ explains transhumanism.