29 November 2007

Further reading

My earlier posting "internet insularity" wasn't particularly to do with atheism, but it has provoked further postings by Ute on speaking out as an atheist, by John Evo on atheist identity, and by Phillychief on (the lack of) such insularity among atheists. Some interesting discussions.

28 November 2007

It's not spring, but.....

.....I did some overdue spring-cleaning on the links list this morning (with more to come). If you notice any glitches with the new ones, let me know.

27 November 2007

Internet insularity

This article discusses how the internet has enabled Ron Paul's campaign to reach a level of hype far beyond its true significance. However, it's also a good starting-point to consider another phenomenon which has concerned me for a long time. Here's the closing:

How can we explain Ron Paul? This is a big country with hundreds of millions of people, some of whom are attracted to quirky, anti-establishment candidates. And some of those people are angry, looking for an outspoken leader and searching for an easy answer to the nation's problems. But there simply are not all that many of them. The Internet undoubtedly has made it easier for Paul supporters to connect with the campaign and with each other, and it's become a terrific way to raise cash for a candidate with emotional followers. But Web chatter, declarations of undying support on Facebook and even surprising fundraising totals don't make a serious contender out of a candidate from the political fringe.

What he's talking about here is something which we're all, to a greater or lesser extent, susceptible to. The internet makes it very, very easy to seek out fellow-bloggers and news sources which agree fairly closely with one's own political or social or religious views. It's easy to become part of a crowd who all agree with each other, and to draw information about the world mostly from people who agree as well.

This is comfortable, but it can be dangerous. In the first place, if you rarely hear opposing views expressed and make an effort to consider them seriously, you can drift into a frame of mind where opposing views seem so alien and bizarre to you that anyone who defends them must be stupid, insane, brainwashed, or acting from malevolent ulterior motives. After all, every website you read and everyone who posts comments on your blog agrees with you; who are they, those strange creatures off in the distance who actually take a completely different position?

In the second place, it can make you think that your own view of the world is far more widespread than it actually is. This problem existed before the internet, of course -- "How could that guy win the election when nobody I know voted for him?" -- but most of us understand that the people we know personally are a small, local, self-selected group which is very unlikely to be representative of society at large. With the internet, you're dealing with such a large number of people in such widespread locations that, for many people at least, it's apparently a lot harder to keep that in mind. Quite often, those whose views are in fact shared by only small minorities are convinced that they represent a substantial chunk of the population. After all, the internet has let them meet so many others who think the same way!

Sorry, but the reason Giuliani and Clinton have been topping the polls for months is that that's where the country's political center of gravity is. Kucinich, Brownback, Paul, and so forth have been heard. The reason they aren't getting anywhere is that most of their views are not shared by most of the public, even if everyone you know is fervently enamored of one of these candidates.

Faced with crushing disappointments from objective reality, in the form of poll or election results, it's easy to take solace in what I call the "people are sheep" mentality. I am part of a small, well-informed, thoughtful elite who understand the real picture, but the great herd masses out there are "sheeple" -- apathetic, passive, easily led, brainwashed by "the media", who now apparently have powers much like those of the evil wizards who in animist societies are thought to be behind everything bad that happens. That's why 97% of the electorate didn't vote for the guy I support.

I can claim rather more understanding of the "people are sheep" mentality than most can, because for fifteen years out of my life I identified with a particular ideological/philosophical movement which explicitly encouraged its adherents to think this way and to consider themselves an elite minority elevated above the slavish common herd. (In fact, they contained a much higher proportion of sociopaths, racists, emotionally-damaged control freaks, and miscellaneous crackpots than the general population.) Over time, though -- aside from the fact that most people who feel such a need to constantly assert their status as an elite superior to the "herd" are painfully-obviously nothing of the sort -- I could not avoid realizing that this simply did not reflect the reality of the world I saw around me. Most people are not so easily led unless it's in a direction they already want to go, for reasons of their own. At least in a developed and relatively-educated society like ours, most people have grounds for their beliefs which, even if they are wrong or illogical, can't be reduced to stupidity or brainwashing. The world is more complicated than that.

As an aside, being convinced that everyone who disagrees with you must be a media-brainwashed idiot can make you a rather nasty person. I saw other people who were like that, and I saw the same tendencies developing in myself.

Getting back to my main point, I fear that the internet is exacerba-ting the natural tendency of people to withdraw into encapsulated groups where everyone agrees with everyone else, which they then think are the world, or most of the world, or the only sane part of the world. This can be avoided, but it takes some conscious effort. My own regular political reading includes National Review, Michelle Malkin, Samizdata, Andrew Sullivan, and a wide range of bloggers whose opinions I don't agree with a large percentage of the time. This can cause aggravation, but it's necessary. The same applies even with flat-out enemies. Why do I focus on Islam so much? I have two university degrees in Islamic civilization, and was working on a third in the same subject when I decided that I couldn't stomach academia any more and quit. It's because of that level of knowledge about Islam that I came to understand how supremely dangerous it is.

That doesn't mean I'm eager to engage in arguments at all times with all comers; quite the opposite. Readers may have noticed that I almost never engage with questions like why I support abortion rights or why I don't believe in God. This is partly because I've already put in years of debating those issues, and quite frankly I'm burned out on it. In most cases, people who do want to engage with those questions have already done a very good job of stating the case (as with Black Sun Journal's page on global-warming denialism), and rather myself wearily rehashing what they have already done, I prefer to refer challengers to them and have done with it. Right now I'm much more interested in how the goals I support can be achieved than in going back over why I support them -- so that's what I write about.

But if you actually want to understand things like religion or the anti-abortion crusade -- even if only for the practical purpose of fighting against them more effectively -- they you need, at least occasionally, to read what they themselves have to say, in their own words. Otherwise you won't even be able to write about them and make sense.

OK, President Sarkozy.....

.....the French people elected you largely based on clear signals that, under your leadership, France would no longer tolerate this kind of barbarism.

Now it's happening again. Your hour to deliver has come. Do something.

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25 November 2007

Here's the conclusion

Apostate's Chapel has some great cartoons up about science and intelligent design -- the last one, in particular, perfectly expresses the essential difference between the two.

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Link roundup for 25 November 2007

Apparently the Apocalypse is coming again.....yawn.

I love this sign.

Every time I think Chick tracts couldn't possibly get any stupider, Jabberwock finds one that is even stupider. But surely this one must be the absolute rock bottom -- and Jabberwock's dissection is hilarious as usual.

Watch a priest go berserk.

I wonder if the Ron Paul campaign accepts these as donations.

Yet another televangelist sinks out of sight into a tar pit of sleaze. For more Christianity news, check out this megachurch leader and this bullying weirdo in Florida (found via Mendip). On a similar note, Daylight Atheism takes a look at the "prosperity gospel".

Russia is planning to develop nanotechnology-based weapons.

Italians resort to a simple but clever mosque-abatement tactic.

A British hair-salon owner is being sued for refusing to hire a Muslim who insisted on wearing a headscarf.

Bloggasm assesses the impact of Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion.

I'm glad to see this appreciation of Canada, whose contribution to the Afghan campaign should be more recognized in the US.

When is a terrorist not a terrorist? When he's a "counterweight".

More shameful denialism, this time on Iraq.

A California teacher describes how his views on illegal aliens changed due to personal experience (found via Chell's Roost).

The gun is civilization. Reason shows how gun control is wreaking havoc in Uganda, while Of Arms and the Law tells of how gun rights helped protect peaceful citizens from violent mobs in 1906.

Here's more debunking of the myth of US decline -- at The Times, at The Telegraph, at Real Clear Politics, and at The Economist.

Joshua Muravchik clarifies the problem of Iran's nuclear program in stark terms. And anyone who thinks that a nuclear-armed Iran could simply be deterred the way the USSR was needs to read this.

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Europe's forgotten genocide

In Ukraine, this weekend marks the 75th anniversary of the Holodomor, the great famine engineered by Stalin's regime which killed between three and ten million Ukrainians. Largely unknown in the West, the Holodomor remains a major issue in present-day Ukraine, where President Yushchenko has called for the removal of the remaining monuments of the Soviet era.

The country is gradually reclaiming its identity after centuries of Russian rule.

Battered by history as it has been, Ukraine is at least a functioning democracy. The former colonial power once again demonstrated this week that it is not, by arresting its leading opposition political figure.


The Dover intelligent-design trial (2)

I just viewed a DVD recording of this NOVA program about the trial, and I strongly encourage anyone who didn't see it when it originally aired to watch it however they can. It affirms that the struggle against the anti-evolution movement is slowly but surely moving in the right direction. Some highlights:

- The science teachers at Dover's high school showed admirable firmness in standing up to the school board's efforts to smuggle creationism* into the classroom. They, at least, knew very well what is and is not science, and did not knuckle under when the ignorant school authorities tried to introduce flagrantly false statements into the curriculum.

- While the controversy was raging, the people of Dover voted out the anti-evolution element on the school board in a high-turnout election. While the vote was close, it showed that the majority in the community supported keeping science classes for science.

- The judge in the case, himself a conservative Christian and Bush appointee with no particular training in science, allowed himself to be educated during the trial, and considered the issues with admirable impartiality. The result was a ruling which completely repudiated ID's claim to be a scientific theory.

- Several Dover residents who opposed ID, and even the judge himself, received death threats; the judge and his family are actually under special protection because of these threats. As frightening as this must be to the principals, it also suggests an increasing level of desperation among the enemy. Of course, no one on the pro-ID side received any death threats.

A telling moment at the trial occurs during the testimony of pro-ID witness Michael Behe, when a short passage from one of his books is cited which claims that the theory of evolution offers no explanation for the development of the immune system. The opposing counsel presents Behe with articles and whole books addressing that very subject, which eventually form a sizable stack in front of him. When evaluating any kind of fringe belief system, don't take on faith their assertions that the "orthodox" scholarship "has no answer" to their various claims; most of the time the statement is simply false, and such claims have in fact been abundantly refuted.

Note: If you follow the link in the first sentence of this posting, scroll down through the comments thread to the comment by "DaVinci" which includes the full text of a review by Richard Dawkins of Michael Behe's latest book.

*I am not going to dignify the anti-evolutionists' threadbare pretense that "intelligent design" is something other than creationism disguised with an euphemistic name.

24 November 2007

Quote for the day

"In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with every-one else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the person's becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American.....There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag.....We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language.....and we have room for but one sole loyalty, and that is a loyalty to the American people."

President Theodore Roosevelt

22 November 2007

Stem cell wars

Over the last two weeks we've seen two major breakthroughs in the field of stem-cell research. One, which I discussed here, uses a modified egg cell to create new stem cells with DNA taken from a specific patient by somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT -- see linked posting for more detail); the other involves "reprogramming" body cells to make them function like stem cells, again with the DNA of the specific patient from which the body cells were taken. The fact that two such important new advances have been made shows the vigor of progress in the field, and the more approaches we have available to work with, the better, since we don't know yet which method will prove most successful at developing actual therapies against human disease.

What has been interesting and alarming, however, is the massive outpouring of commentary about the second breakthrough from outside the world of science -- from the religious, ideological, and political forces which have opposed embryonic stem-cell research all along. The gist of this (for samples see here and here) is that the reprogramming success has supposedly ended the debate over stem-cell research by making it possible to "create stem cells" without harvesting them from actual embryos -- something which the SCNT technique still requires. The argument is then made that research based on obtaining stem cells from embryos -- which the Bush administration has de-funded because it violates religious taboos -- should be abandoned since an alternative process is now available.

Perhaps the most astonishing example is this bile-oozing entry from NRO, which shows the contempt and near-hatred with which science is viewed by more than a few religious conservatives. Not only is "the science establishment" relentlessly castigated for its objections to the obstruction of its work by Bush's crew of fanatics and ignoramuses, but the scientific community is simply assumed to have taken the stands it does for ideological reasons of its own, unconnected to the needs of the actual research, which apparently are just a pretext. To those who see the world entirely through the prism of ideology, everyone else's motivations must be as purely ideological as one's own, and their facts and reasons must be as invented or cherry-picked as one's own. (I've noticed that global-warming denialists seem to make this assumption about climate scientists as well.) As a general rule, anyone who rants about how evil and depraved scientists are, and believes that fundamentalist politicians know better than scientists do what is good for science, is unlikely to have anything worthwhile to say about any scientific subject.

In actuality, the reprogramming technique is unlikely to be as significant or as successful at developing actual therapies as the SCNT technique. SCNT generates actual stem cells in the same way as they are generated in the early stages of embryo development in nature; reprogramming changes body cells into "stem-like cells" by methods entirely dissimilar to anything found in nature. It seems likely (until further research provides data, we won't know) that cells produced by the former technique will have the full range of capabilities that naturally-occuring stem cells do, while those produced by the latter will have some but not all of those capabilities. Against this, of course, is the fact that SCNT requires human egg cells (which can only be obtained from women via an invasive surgical procedure, which limits the supply), while reprogramming does not. It would be absolutely criminal to abandon or slow down work on either technique. Millions of people right now are suffering from cerebral palsy, Parkinson's disease, macular degeneration, multiple sclerosis, and other conditions which have already been cured in lab animals using stem-cell therapies. Every day's delay in developing cures for those conditions in humans represents a vast amount of human misery. All advanced nations should be pouring funding into SCNT, reprogramming, and any other method that shows promise in moving stem-cell technology forward.

But to the religious ideologist, science must be forced to fit into the straitjacket of religious taboo. Inconvenient facts about the harm this does to actual, living people are simply to be brushed aside, like the moons of Jupiter which Galileo's devout contempo-raries insisted they could not see through his telescope.

20 January 2009 can't come soon enough.


21 November 2007

Support our troops (2)

Please tell me this is some kind of ghastly Monty Python concept and not reality.

If it is true, then I think those who constantly tie themselves in knots trying to defend every horror the administration comes up with have finally met their match.

Update: Apparently it is real. One Congressman (a Democrat, predictably) is sponsoring legislation to stop it.

Update 2: This report says that it's a "mistake". Some "mistake". I suspect backpedaling under the glare of publicity. It's not yet clear how many veterans have undergone this harassment or whether it will be officially rescinded in all cases.


18 November 2007

Link roundup for 18 November 2007

There have been a couple more exchanges in the life-after-death discussion here.

There are a lot of us around.


Considering how frequently I've been harassed over the years by Christian proselytizers, why couldn't I ever have been targeted by this bunch? (Yes, they're real.)

See creationism cartoons at Middle-Aged Vampiress Atheist and The Crossed Pond.

Check out the unusual street art of Mark Jenkins.

Pastafarianism has a serious point to make.

Teenage sex helps prevent delinquency.

Dang. I like Southwest Airlines, and now they've gone and done this. But it looks like the victim will get the last laugh, or at least some cash.

See spectacular photos of the recent storm in Crimea, here and here.

The Barna Group surveys atheism in the US. Of special interest is their breakdown of our country's adult population by religion: 58 million "active-faith Christians", 20 million atheists/agnostics -- and in between, 130 million people "who describe themselves as Christians, but who are Christian in name only".

A surfer is drawing attention in the world of theoretical physics.

Now that the evil Israeli occupation is gone, Gaza luxuriates in the rule of Hamas.

Richard Spencer debunks the myth of American decline.

Here's another example of Muslim cultural influence in Britain.

Is your hard drive made in China?

Public opinion is now turning strongly against free trade, and the seemingly endless quality problems with Chinese imports are part of the reason.

The elites of western Europe are carrying out a grand design to destroy national sovereignty and democracy on that continent. This isn't some crackpot conspiracy theory, it's real -- and it's not even particularly secret.

Religious bigotry is a force to be reckoned with in child-custody disputes.

Is the Southern Baptist Convention following in the footsteps of the Catholic Church?

These officials are standing firm against driver's licenses for illegal aliens -- and no one's calling them racists. (Found via Reverse Vampyr.)

This US veteran didn't stand idly by when he saw the American flag being insulted.

Islamic justice: We all remember the case of the Pakistani woman who was sentenced to death for being raped, but in Saudi Arabia, apparently, rape victims can get off with a mere jail sentence and flogging. Those damn bleeding-heart-liberal judges!

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Ron Paul in depth

I've already explained here why I could never support Ron Paul -- an anti-choice stance on abortion is a "deal breaker" issue for me. But there is much more to him than this.

Emptv.com has put together an issue-by-issue exploration of Paul's positions, with an abundance of citations and links. On most social issues, his aims are indistinguishable, in terms of what their practical effect would be, from those of the Christian Right. (I note that he favors the ban on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research which is my own biggest single complaint about the Bush administration.)

Orcinus has been analyzing the Ron Paul phenomenon in depth, focusing on the strong support he has received from racist and extreme-right elements; see here, here, and here. Paul's defenders argue that this is "guilt by association", and if Paul were merely receiving unwanted support from extremists whom he has done nothing to court, they would have a point; but that is not the case (read this too). Orcinus has also posted Paul's entire legislative record, and defends its coverage of him against critics here.

This TNR blog posting and follow-up are also of interest.

Almost everyone will find a few things about Paul to like; I'm all for gun rights and asserting American national sovereignty against UN encroachments, for example. But on the whole Paul's ideology is extremist, authoritarian, unrealistic, devoid of pragmatism, and dangerous.

Update 1: There's much more good information about Ron Paul on Terrence C. Watson's blog.

Update 2 (1 December 2007): This posting and its comment thread offer some alarming insights into Paul's views on separation of church and state.

Update 3 (11 January 2008): Here's the TNR exposé of Paul's newsletters, and some libertarian comments on them collected by David Frum.

Update 4 (13 January 2008): Here's further commentary from Virginia Postrel and Glenn Reynolds, and a blog for people who are annoyed with Ron Paul.


17 November 2007

The end of American dominance

The age of American hegemony is almost over. The future belongs to fast-growing China. In a couple of decades, if not before, China will be recognized as the world's leading nation, while the US will have sunk down into the ranks of the has-been powers, nursing its memories of past glories and wondering what went wrong.

It must be true -- all the smartest pundits are saying it! And they have always been right before. Let's look at the record.

In the 1950s and 1960s, it was obvious that the Soviet Union was pulling ahead. Sputnik and Gagarin revealed a technological lead that the US would never be able to overcome -- chaotic American capitalism just couldn't compete with scientific socialism. We were bogged down in the Vietnam mess and America's youth all just wanted to tune out, drop in, and get turned on, or something like that. Everyone could see that we were becoming decadent and falling behind. And they were right! Just look at how nowadays the Soviet Union is.....er.....never mind.

In the 1970s, the oil-rich Arab states clearly held the future in their hands. Americans fumed helplessly in gas lines as the Arabs withheld oil exports to Western countries which supported Israel, then jacked up prices on the oil they did sell. Saudi Arabia's per-capita income soared past America's. Pessimists warned that the Arab world would soon become a mighty economic and political Colossus, while the West would sink into decline and subservience under the lash of the irresistable "oil weapon". And they were right! Just look at how that Colossus has.....oh, wait a minute. Saudi Arabia's per-capita income is now only about one-fifth of ours, and the economic output of the Arab world (population 300 million) is smaller than Spain's (population 40 million), while the Arabs are still fragmented into twenty quarrelsome states with systems of government that would be an embarrassment to a troop of baboons. Never mind.

In the 1980s, Japan stood at the brink of world leadership. Books like Japan as Number One were best-sellers, and the Japanese were buying up American real estate left and right. Japan was pulling ahead technologically, and the US had no hope of catching up. Somnolent American companies couldn't compete. Experts said that the US would soon need to get used to playing second fiddle in a Japanese-led world. And they were right! Just see how Taiwan, South Korea, western Europe, and even the US itself now look for their security to.....oh, wait, it's still the US military. And notice that the main international currency is now.....oh, wait, it's still the dollar. And of course today the world's leading center of technological innovation is.....oh, wait, it's still the United States. Never mind.

In the 1990s, the European Union was the planet's rising star. Two dozen highly-advanced nations had joined forces and committed themselves to "ever closer union". Central planning by the expert bureaucrats of Brussels would outperform the messy American free market. European leaders gloated that they were building a superstate to rival and eventually surpass the US. And they were right! Notice how Google, GPS, and Boeing have been driven from the market by Quaero, Galileo, and Airbus.....OK, bad example. Notice how the EU with a population of only 450 million sustains an economic output the same size as that of the US with its 300 million.....OK, another bad example. Notice how the purchasing-power-adjusted standard of living in Germany and France has now.....been overtaken by Arkansas. Never mind.

So trust me, the pundits are right. The future belongs to China. The decline and fall of America is an all-too-plausible scenario. After all, it has already happened so many times!

16 November 2007

Oregon's triumph

Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) this week announced an important breakthrough in embryonic stem-cell technology.

It has long been a goal of stem-cell research to be able to create embryonic stem cells with the DNA of a specific individual, so that therapies involving the implantation of stem cells could be done without risk of rejection by the body's immune system. There is an established method for doing this, called "somatic cell nuclear transfer" (SCNT). The way SCNT works is that a cell -- any cell -- is taken from the adult organism's body (skin cells are often used, since they are easily accessible), and its nucleus, containing the individual's DNA, is extracted. An egg cell from a female is also procured, and its nucleus carefully removed, leaving the rest of the egg cell intact. Then the nucleus from the adult organism is implanted in the egg cell and fused with it by means of either a jolt of electricity or certain chemicals. If the procedure is carried out correctly, the result is a viable egg cell with the adult organism's DNA. The egg cell then divides as it normally would, eventually developing into a microscopic ball of embryonic stem cells -- all containing the DNA of the individual from which the implanted nucleus was taken -- which can then be extracted and used for whatever therapies that individual needs.

While SCNT has been carried out in some mammal species, it has never been successfully done in primates, because the egg cells of primates are especially vulnerable to damage by the standard procedures used to remove the original nucleus and insert its replacement. Since humans are primates, this was a serious obstacle to the development of stem-cell therapies for human patients.

This week, OHSU's scientists announced that they had succeeded in performing SCNT using cells from rhesus monkeys -- a primate species -- and had created a viable line of embryonic stem cells containing the DNA of a specific individual monkey.

The next step, of course, is to try the same process with human cells, and OHSU's achievement has made scientists confident that the same methods will work for our own species. It's a huge step toward the day when the almost magical potential of embryonic stem cells will be routinely exploited to the full to cure countless terrible diseases in human beings. And it was done right here in the Portland area.

Official OHSU press release

New York Times report

Los Angeles Times report

Washington Post report


Spitzer gives up

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer has abandoned his plan to give driver's licenses to illegal aliens, due to mass public opposition which had driven his approval rating down to Bushian levels. It's a perfect example of what John Derbyshire calls the Great Elite Back-Down Issue:

Same thing with the various congressional attempts at "compre-hensive immigration reform." Our Senators stir themselves from their oak-paneled offices and antique-leather armchairs to cook up a new scheme to amnesty all those polite, nice folk who are doing their yard work for them. Seems like a great idea! Then suddenly they can't hear themselves talk for the roar of phone calls and faxes coming in from their constituents. Elite Back-Down Two. It's all totally baffling to them. Who are these people making such a fuss about a perfectly reasonable, humane proposal? It's us, buddy, the great unwashed. This is still a democracy we have here. Try to keep that in mind, eh?

Do go read the whole thing, it's exquisite (see also this). Spitzer, however, has apparently not given up on the clueless-politician-of-the-year award he seems to be trying for: his latest big idea is taxing internet sales.


13 November 2007

And with strange eons.....

My earlier posting here about life after death has provoked an interesting discussion -- see the comments section.

My interlocutor John Evo-Mid, by the way, is inviting challenges to his own views here. Note that what he has in mind is clearly challenges based on evidence and reason -- that is, "Your wrong cuz the Baaaable sez so" is unlikely to cut the mustard.


12 November 2007

Democrats contemplate.....

.....a tougher line on illegal immigration. And about time, too -- the Republicans are sure to exploit this issue like crazy, since it's just about the only winning issue they've got left (at least among those who bizarrely forget that it was Bush who was the biggest amnesty backer in June). Check out, for example, Tom Tancredo's hard-hitting new TV ad.

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11 November 2007

Support our troops

Don't leave them to end up like this.

Unfortunately I don't see much basis for hope that this disgrace will be addressed effectively as long as the current administration is in office.


The Dover intelligent-design trial

This landmark event/fiasco, which I mentioned here (full report here), will be the subject of a TV documentary this Tuesday.

10 November 2007

Link roundup for 10 November 2007

I guess the lead-contamination thing was getting monotonous -- China has now been selling the Australians toys tainted with a substance that turns into GHB (yes, the highly-toxic "date-rape drug") when ingested (link sent by Mendip). They've turned up in the US as well.

Here's a list of the ten American cities that have had the largest percentage population growth since the year 2000. I'm utterly unsurprised that three of them are in Texas and all of them are in the southern third of the country.

Whither the Christian Right? Are they reconciling themselves to a less fanatical politics and a more secular Republican party, or will they yet rise in fiery (and illiterate) revolt? In any case, one of their great moral paragons is back in the news (found via Mendip), as are the good old pro-life pro-murder nutjobs.

Here's a discussion on third-party candidacies.

Susan Faludi has an interesting take on Hillary Clinton's use of the "gender card".

Required reading for Hillary: 77% of Americans oppose driver's licenses for illegal aliens. And blogger Reverse Vampyr has postings here and here on the behavior of illegals during the California wildfires.

Heather Mac Donald has always been one of our best fighters on the illegal-alien issue. Here's a new interview with her. Profile here, along with links to more of her essays on the subject (scroll down to "Immigration").

It's always good news when slime like this get their just desserts. But I have to say, when I saw the phrase "worldwide child sex network", my first thought was: "Which one? The Catholic Church or the UN Peacekeepers?"

There's a new wave of Palestinian refugees -- Arab residents of East Jerusalem are swarming to apply for Israeli citizenship to avoid living under the violent and corrupt "Palestinian Authority".

Meanwhile, anti-Semitism rises in Britain (read this too).

A clever hoax exposes the gullibility and anti-scientific thinking of global-warming denialists.

As atheism raises its profile and Christianity loses ground, some of the religious are growing agitated and angry, and lashing out at us in whatever ways they can. Examples are dissected at Black Sun Journal and Atheist Haven. There's also the tawdry exploitation of Antony Flew. Meanwhile, here's something that may help explain the decline of religion: between 1947 and 2002, the average IQ of Americans rose 18 points.

And I loved this comment by this pastor-turned-atheist: "I swung all the way across, and I dumped out all the bathwater and found there was no baby there." Found via Middle-Aged Vampiress Atheist (if that's not an intriguing blog name, I don't know what is).

Elevated IQs and skeptical thinking were nowhere in evidence among the victims of this religious con-man.

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06 November 2007

The subprime housing mortgage whatever

I'm sorry, I just can't be bothered. This is not the 1930s. The US economy is now so much better understood and so well protected by institutional mechanisms designed to stabilize it that this stuff has hardly any detectable impact on the real world that most of us live in. Every few years we're told that the economy is threatened with collapse because of the dot-com stock bubble, soaring house prices, falling house prices, borrowing too much money from China, China threatening not to lend us enough money, or what have you. What substantial impact have any of these "crises" had on the things that actually affect the life of the average person -- unemployment levels and wages? How many of us would even have noticed that these "emergencies" were happening at all, if it weren't for arm-waving pundits fretting about them on the news?

Nobody should be very surprised that the housing-loan industry is in something of a mess at the moment. We all know about the careless lending habits of banks. They send out pre-approved credit-card applications to unemployed people, dead people, dogs, inflatable sex dolls, you name it. They’ll give anyone a credit card. I'll bet there are even a few dogs here and there who have received housing loans. Aside from all the people who can’t pay their loans back, we’re also in one of those back-to-reality drops that always happens after house-price inflation has been going for a while. Generally speaking, anything that lowers inflation is good, and the fact that houses are getting cheaper means more people will be able to afford them. Of course, some loan-crazed bankers and some individuals who invested based on the belief that house prices would keep going up and up for ever and ever will undergo financial sodomization, but that’s the way that the free market is supposed to work – there are penalties for being stupid.

So some people win a bit, and some lose a bit, and life goes on as before, until the next crisis that sets the pundits fretting on TV.

The adventures of Republicans (3)

They've caught another one -- just across the river from me, this time.

05 November 2007

No more hedging

Michael Barone argues that illegal immigration will be a major issue in next year's election:

The reason is that the Democrats -- and Bush -- are out of line with public opinion on the issue. That became clear as the Senate debated a comprehensive immigration bill in May and June. Most Republicans and many Democrats, in the Senate and among the public, turned against the bill. Supporters of the bill tended to ascribe that to something like racism: They just don't like having so many Mexicans around. But if you listened to the opponents, you heard something else. They want the current law to be enforced. It bothers them that we have something like 12 million illegal immigrants in our country. It bothers them that most of the southern border is unfenced and unpatrolled. It bothers them that illegal immigrants routinely use forged documents to get jobs -- or are given jobs with no documents at all. You don't have to be a racist to be bothered by such things. You just have to be a citizen who thinks that massive failure to enforce the law is corrosive to society.

Yelling "racist!" at people who are concerned about this problem doesn't work any more -- it just makes people mad. The Democrats need to get on the right side of the issue. If they don't, it could become their biggest electoral liability next year.

Here's an interesting "political culture clash" from Virginia.

Update (6 November): Read this and this too.


04 November 2007

The true face of the UN

For the umpteenth time, UN peacekeeping troops have been fingered for "sexual misconduct and abuse" involving underage girls. As Glenn Reynolds observes, "If American troops had the kind of sex-scandal track record that U.N. peacekeepers do, we'd never hear the end of it. Since it's the U.N., though, we barely hear the beginning."


Zappa-ing the evangelists

Go and watch this video right this minute. Go!

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Bill Maher

Since I don't watch TV, I've been only vaguely aware of Bill Maher, but YouTube has many good clips of his. I've already linked to this interview with Russian Presidential candidate Garry Kasparov and this takedown of the "values voters". Here he is on Mormonism, on feminism, on Jesus Camp, on [c]rap music, on Jerry Falwell and homosexuality, on the (true, and infuriating) source of all those incompetent Bush appointees, and -- the best clip of all -- on the fundamental insanity of religion.

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Link roundup for 4 November 2007

"Pastafarians" challenge the Godless Commie atheistic "theory of gravity".

Ukraine's (probable) Prime-Minister-to-be wants to take a radical step toward freedom and modernity: abolishing the draft and establishing a professional military.

Dmitri Simes assesses the chill between Russia and the US from the Russian point of view. While I think he rather overstates his case, especially where Ukraine is concerned, it's a case Americans need to be aware of.

Here's more on the link between obesity and cancer.

The ghastly miscarriage of justice in the Genarlow Wilson case has focused attention on Draconian sex laws.

Racism isn't all that common any more, but it isn't dead.

Muslim men in Malaysia are feeling abused by women. Personally I rather enjoy the form of abuse the author is complaining about. I guess I'm just a glutton for punishment.

As of today there's a year to go until the election, and voters are already angry. Despite the title of the article, the information presented sounds to me like bad news for the Republicans.

David Kirkpatrick reports that the Christian Right is splintering and declining as a political force.

Is the Chinese economic miracle for real?

A majority of Americans favor an airstrike against Iran to prevent that country from building nuclear weapons. I stand by what I said on this issue here.

Here's an argument that an attack on Iran would "destroy the GOP". Sounds like a win-win situation to me.

Is the "anti-war" movement fizzling out?

Hard-line Islam continues to advance its cause in Britain, while this courageous Norwegian is condemned by the Islamists and appeasers for speaking out against theocratic oppression. It's all in a day's work for the Religion of Peace.

Here's some straight talk on Saudi Arabia.

Oklahoma has enacted a tough new law to crack down on illegal aliens and on Americans who abet them (found via this posting at Chell's Roost). Mark Steyn has a reminder about the price of laxity. Concern about the issue is growing in Iowa, creating a challenge for Democratic Presidential contenders. Finally, expect to see more articles like this in the mainstream media, bewailing the impact of enforcement upon employers of illegals. My point of view is, if you can't run a profitable business without breaking laws which have good reason to exist, you shouldn't be in business. Are we going to allow people to freely violate any law which prevents them from cutting costs?

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03 November 2007

My visit with Washoe and her family

On 21 June 2003 I attended a "Chimposium" (special chimpanzee seminar) at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI) in Bellingham, Washington -- the home of the recently-deceased sign-language pioneer Washoe and three other signing chimpanzees. It was literally a one-of-a-kind experience; to my knowledge, no other institution involved in ape language research offers this kind of educational package to the general public.

The main facility at CHCI, which is part of Central Washington University, consists of a single large specially-designed building, the majority of which is occupied by an open-space area open to the sky (though escape-proof) where the chimpanzees live. Their living area also includes some indoor rooms. The human section of the structure consists of some offices, a lecture room, areas for observing the chimpanzees, and so forth. CHCI was founded by, and is still headed by, Dr. Roger Fouts, a pioneer in the field of ape communication using American Sign Language (ASL).

Washoe, the first ape ever to learn ASL, was brought to the US from Africa as a baby and raised by humans – mostly by Dr. Fouts. Tatu, the other female in the group, is slightly younger than Washoe and is the smallest individual in the group. The two males are both significantly younger. Loulis was adopted by Washoe when he was a baby, and learned ASL from her rather than from humans – the first case of an ape teaching a human language to another ape. Dar is the largest member of the group (taking after his father, who was the largest chimpanzee in captivity at 235 pounds), but has a rather shy personality. The group formerly included another female, Moja, who died in 2002 at the age of 29. A plaque and floral display in memory of Moja is located next to the path leading to the entrance to CHCI.

There are two kinds of "Chimposium". The basic Chimposium is held every Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon and is one hour in length. It includes basic information on chimpanzees and about CHCI, and one visit with the chimpanzees. The advanced Chimposium, held approximately one Saturday per month, lasts all afternoon. It includes much more specialized and detailed lectures as well as two chimpanzee visits. The basic Chimposium is a prerequisite for the advanced one; I went to both on the same day. The basic Chimposium that day had at least twenty attendees, the advanced one about a dozen.

It needs to be emphasized that CHCI is not run like a zoo; rather, it is an example of the best available solution to the problem of what to do with chimpanzees who have lived for all or most of their lives in human-controlled environments, mostly for the purposes of scientific research or entertainment. Such chimpanzees would find it almost impossible to adapt to life in the wild in Africa; they know nothing about jungle survival skills or wild chimpanzee culture, and would be extremely unlikely ever to be accepted as members of existing wild chimpanzee communities. A number of sanctuaries exist in various parts of the United States, where chimpanzees who have been "retired" from use by humans can live in environments designed as best as possible to allow them to behave in the ways that are natural to them. CHCI is essentially one such sanctuary. Its residents live under conditions where they can get plenty of exercise and mental stimulation, and can socialize or be alone, as they choose. With the exception of the Chimposiums (which serve to raise money as well as to provide education), CHCI is not open to the public. Some research does go on there, but the Institute’s philosophy is that the needs and preferences of the chimpanzees come first – they may cooperate with research projects or not, as they choose. While it is vastly superior to the awful conditions in which most chimpanzees in captivity live, CHCI is not an ideal environment for them, as its own staff acknowledges. The total volume of space in which they reside is not much bigger than a large house, and they can never go outside it (chimpanzees in the wild are accustomed to roving for miles each day as they search for food). But since humans cannot give these creatures back the natural lives which were taken from them, sanctuaries such as CHCI are the best that can be done for them.

The first lecture was accompanied by a short video of the late Moja engaged in various activities including, incongruously, cleaning her teeth with dental floss. All the chimpanzees at CHCI floss and brush regularly, gaining the same benefits in dental health as humans do.

The lectures covered basic chimpanzee anatomy and behavior, the history of CHCI and of Dr. Fouts’s earlier involvement with ape language research, and similar topics. Most of the lectures were accompanied by videos. One of these showed an arresting incident which is described in Dr. Fouts’s book Next of Kin. One of the original chimpanzees in the early ASL project was an amiable young male named Booee, whom Fouts came to regard as a friend. At the age of fourteen (equivalent to roughly twenty in a human) Booee was transferred to LEMSIP, a biomedical research lab in New York state (Fouts did not own the chimpanzees in the ASL project or have legal control of them, so he was unable to prevent this). Thirteen years later he visited LEMSIP as part of the filming of a TV documentary on ape biomedical research. Despite the long separation, Booee recognized him immediately and began signing at him. The two had an intense interaction for several minutes; when Fouts had to depart, leaving Booee once again alone in his barren cage at the lab, the chimpanzee visibly slumped in despair. The TV documentary camera recorded the whole scene and it was included in one of the tapes shown at the Chimposium. I have seen humans conversing in ASL, and watching Fouts and Booee signing after their long separation, it was perfectly obvious that this was a true conversation between members of two different intelligent species. (The scene evidently had a similarly electrifying effect when the documentary was aired. The network was deluged with donations from people wanting to help buy Booee out of the lab, while LEMSIP was inundated with protest mail. Five months later, not only Booee but eight other chimpanzees from the lab were "retired" to a sanctuary in California.)

The most disquieting lecture concerned what is known as the "bushmeat crisis". Bushmeat is a term for the meat of large, exotic forest animals, including apes. In many parts of Africa, bushmeat hunting is being carried out on such a scale that it has overtaken habitat destruction as the greatest threat to the very survival of chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas. It is not subsistence hunting, but for market; bushmeat actually commands higher prices per pound than the meat of conventional domesticated food animals. It has become a high-status luxury food among central Africa’s small middle-class population. It is even exported to Europe, despite being illegal there, with several tons arriving in London alone each year (I strongly suspect that the main consumers there are people of African origin, not indigenous Europeans). A video which accompanied this lecture, filmed partly in African meat markets, was quite gruesome; in particular, two bonobo carcasses, which had been smoked whole rather than being butchered first, bore a grisly resemblance to charred human corpses.

Due to bushmeat hunting and habitat destruction by the exploding human population (tropical Africa now holds over three hundred million humans and fewer than three hundred thousand apes), it is estimated that the chimpanzee will become extinct in the wild within the next twenty years. This would leave the few thousand captive chimpanzees in labs, zoos, and sanctuaries as the sole representatives of their kind – and the elaborate cultures of the wild chimpanzee communities, along with the wealth of insights they could offer us about the development of human behavior and ways of life, would be irretrievably lost.

The chimpanzee visits – three in all – were an intense experience. Beforehand, the staff gave the attendees some tips on how to behave. Standing completely upright, showing one’s upper teeth, and waving one’s arms are all interpreted by chimpanzees as aggressive behavior; a hunched posture and keeping the upper teeth covered are preferred. The actual observation area is a long room with large windows to allow viewing of the chimpanzees’ outdoor enclosure and two of their indoor rooms. These windows, for reasons which rapidly became obvious, are made of inch-thick bulletproof glass. The chimpanzees have the option of going to other rooms which are not visible from the observation area, if they do not wish to "meet" the Chimposium attendees; however, in all three of the visits when I was there, most of them remained in the visible rooms.

The chimpanzees are familiar with the CHCI staff, but as the lecturer explained, they react very differently to humans who are strangers to them. For the first few minutes of each of the first two visits, they became very visibly agitated. Washoe, as the dominant individual, made several impressive displays: rearing up at full height with all her hair puffed out, she screeched, charged, and thumped on the glass windows with her fists with an intimidatingly loud impact eloquent of the vastly superior physical strength of her species. Loulis engaged in similar behavior to a lesser extent. Had we not known the glass was unbreakable, these aggressive displays would actually have been extremely frightening. Their purpose is to assert dominance over strangers within what the chimpanzees consider their home. (The reason chimpanzees in zoos do not behave this way toward visitors is that they do not feel dominant in the zoo environment; they feel dominated by the zookeepers, and by extension by humans in general.) It seems very unlikely that Washoe and Loulis felt seriously threatened by us or wanted to commit real violence; Tatu napped undisturbed through one of these displays, while Dar largely ignored them.

After a few minutes, when the apes apparently felt they had made their point, they calmed down. Tatu napped or played, Dar hung out at the back end of the room, and Washoe went back to leafing through the magazine which she had been looking at (chimpanzees cannot read, but they like looking at pictures – Washoe was said to be especially partial to shoe catalogs). Loulis took a more active interest in the visitors, staying at the front of the room, right near the glass separating him from us, through which he studied us with what seemed to be wary curiosity.

Many people think of chimpanzees as being small, "cute" animals, but this is because they have seen them only in movies or TV com-mercials or similar entertainment settings, and the chimpanzees used in such situations are almost always small children. Older chimpanzees are much more difficult and dangerous to handle due to their intelligence and great strength. The adults at CHCI are large, almost as large as adult humans, and even give a somewhat hulking impression up close. I did experience the feeling many primatologists note: when you meet an ape up close and the ape is not acting in a threatening way, it feels much more like being in the presence of a person than of an animal. They look and act far more like humans than like dogs, monkeys, etc.

At the end of the advanced Chimposium the attendees were given a light dinner, which we ate while watching the chimpanzees having their own dinner on closed-circuit TV. I was struck by the thoroughness of the precautions the staff took, while giving the chimpanzees their food, to avoid getting even momentarily into a position where they could be grabbed by one of them. There is no such thing as a "tame" or "domesticated" chimpanzee, and even individuals as thoroughly habituated to humans as these, so it seemed, were not to be fully trusted – just as, perhaps, no human being who was being held captive for life could be totally trusted to never try to harm his captors, no matter how humane and well-intentioned the captivity.

By coincidence, 21 June happened to be the date CHCI celebrated as Washoe’s birthday (since she was born in the wild in Africa, her exact birthday is unknown; the date was an estimate). Every year on her birthday Washoe received a bouquet of roses sent by an anonymous admirer. On the day of the Chimposium I attended, the roses duly arrived and were given to Washoe at dinnertime. She devoured them slowly, one at a time, savoring her dessert.


02 November 2007

The elephant in the Democrats' living room

Hillary Clinton's waffly response on driver's licences for illegal aliens during the recent Democratic debate has drawn attention to the Democrats' greatest vulnerability: their weakness on the illegal-immigration issue.

The problem won't go away:

One poll finding this week that shook Democrats.....asked voters to pick two from a list of seven problems that explained "why the country is going in the wrong direction." The survey found that among independent voters, 40 percent -- by far the largest group -- picked this option: "Our borders have been left unprotected and illegal immigration is growing." By contrast, a lack of action on health care was named by only 24 percent of independents as a core problem, and Iraq by 23 percent.

It's an issue on which the people are prepared to get mad and fight the government -- as they did in June.

Here's an intelligent, if perhaps a little too pessimistic, look at the problem. In my view, it may actually be beneficial to have the Democrats' biggest weak point forced out onto the table so early in the campaign season, rather than being left to become a major Republican weapon against them during the general-election campaign. Hillary has toughened her stance on issues like Iran and military response to future terrorist acts, thus inoculating herself against another potential line of attack. She still has time to do the same on illegal immigration — if she understands what’s at stake.

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01 November 2007


The first non-human to learn a human language (and to teach that language to others of her kind) has died.