30 December 2007

This person speaks for me

Andrew Sullivan quotes (probably disapprovingly) an e-mail from a Democrat:

What you don't understand is that we don't want to work with the Republicans. We want to shove our policies down their throats as they have done to us in the past seven years. That's Hillary's appeal to us -- taking no prisoners in defeating that party. As you know, that party takes no prisoners against us.

That's how I feel. I don't want to find common ground with the conservatives. I want to defeat them, to crush them. I want to see generous federal funding for stem-cell research, gay marriage legally recognized in all fifty states whether the bigots and haters like it or not, strict separation of church and state, Supreme Court judges who will safeguard Roe vs. Wade from all challenges, a health-care system covering all of our citizens like every other developed nation on this planet has, and a complete end to faith-based initiatives and global-warming denialism and signing statements and abstinence-only sex education and pamphlets saying the Grand Canyon is 6,000 years old and federal agencies managed by dumb hicks from Pat Robertson's "law school" and pretending it's OK to have an evolution-denying President and preachy moralists who turn out to be diaper/wetsuit/public-toilet weirdos and all the other ridiculous nonsense that these drooling nutjobs have perpetrated to turn the greatest nation on Earth into a laughingstock or worse in the eyes of thinking people.

The time is now. The incompetence and ideological blindness of the Bush administration have turned conservatism into a dirty word among most moderates. Having unleashed the demon of fundamentalism for short-term electoral gain, conservatism is now tearing itself apart over absurd theological arcana which in a sane culture would have no place in politics at all. This is no time for compromise, this is the time to win. The conservatives are on the ropes. Kick them until they're down, and when they're down, kick them some more.


27 December 2007

Quotes for the day

"Benazir was a secular woman who vowed to fight the terrorists more aggressively than the Pakistani male leaders had. In the jihadis' universe, nothing more terrible could be imagined than a secular woman waging a potentially victorious war against them. The freedom of women in the world—with the frightening prospect of the domination of men by women in any form, from the class-room to the ballot box—drives them around the bend. As she knew. She was one of many women in the front lines of the war against the terror masters, and I often think that, after the American armed forces, brave women are indeed the greatest threat to our fanatical enemies. And they know it, which is why they killed her."

"This is not some extraordinary event. This is not the work of some lone madman. This is how militant Islamists contest elections – not just in Pakistan but also in Lebanon and Gaza and wherever they they get a foothold. Why bother with opeds, TV commercials, high-priced campaign strategists, spin doctors and pollsters when with one suicide bomber you can eliminate your opponent entirely?"


And we think US politics is rough.....

Pakistani politician and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has been assassinated by a suicide bomber.

My take on the Huckabee phenomenon

It is certainly possible -- though still somewhat unlikely -- that Mike Huckabee could win the Republican nomination for the Presidency. Whether or not he does, his candidacy is highlighting and exacerbating the severe internal divisions within American conservatism. And barring some bizarrely unlikely circumstance, he cannot win a general election.

Politically-activist Christian Right fundamentalism has been an important component of the Republican coalition at least since 1980. There is, however, a widespread feeling among Christian fundamentalists that they have not gained much in return for their support of the party. Abortion is still legal, gay marriage has become legal in one state and public acceptance of homosexuality continues to increase, American society is continuing to turn against fundamentalism, and now the Republican party is even seriously considering an adherent of what they consider to be a heretical cult (Romney) for its Presidential nominee. In Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher who quotes the Bible constantly and emphasizes his fundamentalist roots as the core of his campaign, they have found one of their own to rally behand -- a man who, as he himself has said, comes not to them , but from them.

Secular conservatives -- the kind who are more concerned about taxes and regulations than abortion and homosexuality -- are getting nervous. Having encouraged the Christian Right to get involved in politics for almost three decades as a pool of reliable Republican-party voters and activists, they are now finding they have created a monster they cannot control. Huckabee especially worries them because he is not closely aligned at all with secular conservatives on non-religious issues they consider important -- his record shows support for big government and high taxes, for example. (Fundamentalists reply that they've been expected by the secular conservatives to support another candidate -- Giuliani -- who is well to the right on secular conservative issues but not on issues such as abortion which are important to fundamentalists, so why shouldn't the seculars be expected to rally behind Huckabee on the same basis?)

The problem is exacerbated by the candidacy of Romney, who seems to be emerging as the candidate of choice for what might be called the more sane social conservatives -- the ones who are against abortion and stem-cell research but not crazy enough to be comfortable with thinking in terms like "heretical cult" when analyzing 21st-century American politics (Romney was recently endorsed by National Review). To them, Romney's membership in a bizarre offshoot religion of Christianity is mildly troubling but does not offset the fact that they judge him the most electable candidate who shares their positions on most of the issues. To millions of fundamentalists, Mormonism is a deal-breaker, an absolute barrier to support. A profound split is hardening between fundamentalists who can't stomach Romney and old-line secular conservatives who can't stomach Huckabee. (And both sides seem to have finally decided they can't stomach Giuliani, who would probably have the best chance in the general election of any Republican.) To make matters worse, the recent public airing of fundamentalist hostility to Mormonism is antagonizing Mormons, who have long been one of the most reliably Republican-voting blocs of all.

How this battle within conservatism will pan out, I can't predict. But I do know that anyone who thinks Huckabee is too un-serious a candidate to win the nomination is fooling himself. The Christian Right is the most powerful bloc in the Republican coalition, and largely lives in a separate subculture and even a separate reality of its own, where their vitriol against abortion, their weird obsession with homosexuality, and their rejection of the central truth of modern science (evolution) are normal and un-embarrassing and even admirable.

What I am sure of is that if Huckabee is the nominee, his chances of winning the general election are just about zero. Huckabee is, as I noted above, a supporter of big government and high taxes; he's ignorant of the world outside the United States; he's a fervent defender of the "rights" of illegal aliens. In other words, President Huckabee would be exactly like the current President Bush except with an even more emphatic tilt toward religious wingnuttery -- not exactly what the country is now hungering for.

To look at it more analytically, either a Huckabee or a Romney nomination would divide conservatives, but in different ways. If Romney is the nominee and the fundamentalists are disgruntled, they might stay home on election day, but I can't imagine many of them actually going so far as to vote for the Democrat. But if Huckabee is the nominee, it's much easier to imagine significant numbers of disgruntled secular conservatives actually voting for Hillary Clinton. Given the choice between two big-government candidates, at least some of them would prefer the one who isn't an alarming and naive Bible-thumper -- and Hillary would have some credibility in positioning herself as tougher, or at least more knowledgeable, than Huckabee on the Islamic threat.

One of the most intelligent of the secular conservatives, Andrew Sullivan, put the situation bluntly here:

And that is why part of me, I confess, wants Huckabee to win. So he can lose. So the GOP can lose - as spectacularly and humilia-tingly as possible. If we are to rid conservatism of this theocratic cancer, we need to start over. Maybe it has to get worse before it can get better. But it is certainly too late for fellow-traveling Christianists like Lowry and Krauthammer to start whining now. This is their party. And they asked for every last bit of it.

I came to the conclusion some time ago that I don't want to see Giuliani nominated, even though he's clearly the best of the Republican candidates. He'd have the best chance of winning the general election, and I don't want to see another Republican administration, regardless of who heads it. And in fact, he'd probably lose, which would let the Christian Right crow that the GOP lost the election because it nominated a man unacceptable to fundamentalists. This would postpone, as Bush's victory in 2000 did, the internal reckoning that conservatism desperately needs to have. Far better for the GOP to nominate the fundamentalists' choice, lose in a landslide, and let the fur fly. Right now the US has only one major party that a self-aware non-fundamentalist can support. That's not a healthy situation. The sooner the Republican party recovers from that "theocratic cancer" and becomes a sane option again, the better for our country.

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19 December 2007

Link roundup for 19 December 2007

I know, postings have been sparse lately -- I was stressed out
with various issues last week and busy this week. But the wacky world of the internet never rests.....Just to start with, check out Edinburgh's latest tourist attraction.

Everyone likes to share a good laugh -- even orangutans (yes, apes have a sense of humor).

This must be the world's classiest-looking computer.

Here's a review of a new book on the absurd sexual paranoia of the Christian Right -- the statistics on abstinence-only sex education are especially interesting.

See some interesting views on the Huckabee phenomenon here and here. Religious issues are now so dominant in the Republican party that it's even starting to bother Charles Krauthammer. Andrew Sullivan points out that the GOP has only itself to blame for what it has become.

"Qatif girl" has received a royal "pardon",which just shows that bleeding-heart-liberal political interference in the justice system is not confined to the West. What's Shariah law coming to, when even the most flagrant rape victims go unpunished? In other Middle Eastern rape news, right-wing bloggers are swinging into action on the Halliburton/KBR case I linked to here. Meanwhile, Islamic justice and blogging are both alive and well in Iran.

Black Sun Journal denounces ridiculous Islamic rationalizations about the Aqsa Parvez murder. And the Toronto Sun isn't afraid to name the real problem.

Evangelical pastors lead the fight against witchcraft in Nigeria (found via Apostate's Chapel).

Iraq's oil output now exceeds pre-invasion levels. There's good news from Afghanistan too.

There's a new paper out on the brain processes which underlie belief -- by Sam Harris, who is planning a similar study on religious faith. That should be interesting.

The struggle against stupid pro-death platitudes goes on.

Here's a German view of America's turn away from globalization.

Pundits keep telling us that the illegal-alien issue won't sway many votes in next year's election. The facts are otherwise.

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17 December 2007

No more temping!

Today I accepted an offer of a permanent job. This return to a stable source of income means that the gamble I took earlier this year has paid off. Despite subsisting on temp work for several months, I didn't have to give up my long-planned trip. The new job pays slightly less than the old one, but still significantly more than the minimum I need to make ends meet, and overall the work situation is better. As risky as it might have seemed at the time, I'm very glad I made the move I did.

A leap into the unknown can be daunting to contemplate, but if you are unhappy with what you have, take a chance. Very likely there is something better out there for you.

16 December 2007

It doesn't even have vampires?!

I haven't decided yet whether or not I'll go to see The Golden Compass, but one film I'll definitely be giving a miss is I Am Legend. Richard Matheson's masterpiece has been cinematically desecrated on at least two previous occasions, but at least those earlier versions were honest enough not to use the same title. This one, by calling itself I Am Legend, is as good as claiming to be Matheson's book, and it is not. This is not Matheson.

Why won't Hollywood make a book adaptation which is actually like the book? Could it be that, in some cases, they know they just don't have what it takes to be worthy of the original work?

12 December 2007

Link roundup for 12 December 2007

If you're not sure which candidate for President to support, check out Tengrain's guide to the Republicans and Democrats.

Want to write a letter to God? Now you can!

If this is what Texas suburbia is really like, I'm less worried than ever about Huckabee becoming President.

Help this blogger name his teddy bear.

Here's yet another Republican freak.

Can animals get into Heaven? Apparently some Christians are surprisingly confused.

A study of Shakespeare shows how language affects thought.

Christopher Hitchens declares that we should abolish the CIA.

A Muslim talks about his life in Israel.

Exit Zero offers a trip to the Dark Ages.

An Apostate's Chapel has an arresting posting on the ugly concept of "secret sin" -- the fundamentalist's all-purpose excuse.

Here's a short life sketch of the world's most courageous atheist.

Islamic culture asserts itself in Canada and Britain.

Prepare to be shocked at this Halliburton/KBR story from Iraq.

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11 December 2007

The National Intelligence Estimate on Iran (2)

An essential read about this document. It doesn't say what the media commentators have been saying it says.

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09 December 2007

The poison pill

A link from here (see comments 3 and 4) drew my attention once again to the issue of racism as it relates to the movement to stop illegal immigration. The pro-amnesty side is constantly accusing us of being racists; the worst thing that could possibly happen to the anti-illegal-immigration movement is that it associate itself with people who actually are racists. I've already expressed what I think about the issue here, but it bears repeating.

This is not Europe. We must offer no compromise or opening whatsoever to racism or anti-Semitism. Those things mean the death of our nation.


More on Romney

I know, I'm picking on the guy. But he's brought it on himself by helping to make the Republican party a place where candidates are judged by religious purity. His vision of America excludes me. And there's a rational alternative to a Mormon President.

This is interesting, if true.

What have the Republicans become! The worthiest man among them, Giuliani, has been elbowed into the background by Elmer Gantry impersonators bickering about the details of primitive superstitions. Is this how the mightiest nation on Earth chooses a leader in the twenty-first century?

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Thought for the day

If "atheism is a religion" as some Christians like to assert, then health is a disease, silence is a noise, and peace is a type of war.


08 December 2007

E-mail problem?

My Blogger account is set up to e-mail me whenever anyone posts a comment, but during this week several e-mails failed to arrive (so if your comments were slow to appear, that's the reason). It seems to be OK now. I don't know whether the problem was with Blogger or my e-mail system, so if you sent me an e-mail this week and are puzzled that I didn't respond, please re-send.

Link roundup for 8 December 2007

When I noticed this headline, "San Francisco Offers Gift Cards for Guns", I thought, "What a great idea! If you're not sure what kind of gun your beloved would like for Christmas, just give a gift card for one instead." Then I read the article. Never mind.

"They call me....."

Think your last vacation was a disappointment? Check out what these Chinese tourists had to put up with.

Evolutionary Middleman reminds us that there's almost nothing Christian about "Christmas".

This posting on real vs. ersatz paganism has been attracting a lot of positive attention from pagan bloggers.

Check out the strange art of Eric Feng.

Will 2008 be the year DRM finally dies?

An Arizona scientist takes another step toward brain-computer integration.

An anti-aging drug which mimics the beneficial effects of calorie restriction is about to begin testing on humans. However, a Texas researcher claims there's another option (found via Mendip).

Aubrey de Grey expounds "our duty to fight aging to the death" and debunks some of the common deathist arguments (found via Sentient Developments).

Christopher Hitchens reviews (perhaps "disembowels" would be a better word) Romney's speech on religion; TCS is almost equally unimpressed.

Several atheist bloggers have posted their personal stories of "deconversion", the process of breaking free from religion. Having grown up without religion myself, this is an experience I never had, but it's clear that the psychological struggle involved is often intense, even though the reward more than repays the effort. See postings by JP, the Chaplain, the Lifeguard (the latest addition to my links list -- see The Meme Pool) and also this posting by the Exterminator.

Michael Newdow is back in action against the Christian slogans which were added to US currency and the Pledge of Allegiance a few decades ago (found via Chell's Roost).

Secularism is more important than democracy.

Free expression is under attack in Canada.

These days, it takes a big man to admit that he was wrong about something. John Murtha is such a man.

American workers are not getting their share of our country's growing prosperity, and suffer increasing abuses in the work environment. RCP argues that it's time to re-open the debate on free trade.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaks the harsh truth about the barbarism of Islamic law and the myth of "moderate" Islam. Read this too.

Britain's House of Lords confronts the European Union's onslaught against national sovereignty and democracy. Of particular interest is the claim that 80% of the British would favor leaving the EU "if that meant regaining control of our borders."

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The National Intelligence Estimate on Iran

Just as November's breakthrough in cell reprogramming triggered a fusillade of right-wing declarations that "the stem cell wars are over" because embryonic stem cell research is no longer needed, so the recent release of the NIE alleging that Iran suspended its nuclear-weapons program in 2003 has now prompted a similar barrage of assertions that the option of an airstrike against Iran is off the table. The intent in both cases is the same: to narrow the range of the politically possible by drowning out anyone who tries to remind the world of the reality of the situation.

The best overview of this particular situation that I've seen so far is here; this comment is also worth reading. The Israelis, who for obvious reasons have the best intelligence-gathering capabilities where the Middle East is concerned, aren't buying the new NIE's claims; France and Germany don't seem impressed either. Here's a sober assessment of the implications for US politics; here's an even more sobering assessment of the implications for Iran.

Remember, we can't afford to be wrong about this one. The likely consequences of misjudgment are too horrifying to contemplate.

Update: The US public isn't buying it either.

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Quote for the day

This person's vote will count for as much as yours:

"Hillary does not have a back bone, SHE HAS A MOUTH AND A AZZ, both are INTERCHANGEABLE!! Obama is the closest to have a back bone, He at least is trying to developed one. John Edwards sold his back bone to Satin the same time he sold his soul to Satin. Hillary and John both have trained under the teachings of Hitler. Both combined are the physical form of the long dreaded ANTI-CHRIST!! Now I say this in a very Professional Way, and it comes from the Bottom Of My Heart!! Both are wonderful people when they are sleeping, and very trustworthy as long as you watch them very closely. Just because children and dogs wont stand being around them, and when they come into the presence of anything holy, they both go into convulsions. They can't stand daylight, or Holy Water. I've not smelt anything like them since the 1987 Scratch-N-Sniff edition of Hustler Magazine and I've noticed that their eyes have a reddish glow when in the deep woods of Transylvania, the true place of their birth.. I know of no one who would vote for them without consuming large amounts of Hard Liquor and money!! If I had but one breath left in me, I would point at them and laugh!! If I had but one fart left in me, I'd do the same!! When it is their time to go to the great there after, We shall then Know GLOBAL WARMING, because Hell must increase in temperature in preparation for them!! But other than that, those who will vote for them deserve just what they get!!"

"Delta Wild Man", commenting here

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07 December 2007

A date for our enemies to consider

Today is the 66th anniversary of this -- which led directly and inevitably to this. Nemo me impune lacessit!


Romney's speech (2)

Romney's challenge has been compared to that faced by John F. Kennedy when he ran for President nearly half a century ago in a political environment profoundly suspicious of "Papism". In fact, the problem he faces is completely different. Kennedy merely had to convince the country that he would keep his religion out of governance. The Christian Right base of the modern Republican party firmly believes that religion deserves to have a major role in governance. Romney's task was to convince these people that he would indeed be strongly influenced by religion in his conduct as President -- but that it nevertheless does not matter which religion he believes in. This is an impossible position. His speech probably did as good a job of defending it as is humanly possible, but in the end it's simply untenable.

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Romney and Mormonism

An unnoticed effect of Mitt Romney's campaign for the Republican nomination may be to exacerbate internal theological divisions within the Christian Right. Only the tip shows on NRO's The Corner here and here, but I suspect the iceberg is quite real.

Most Americans know little about Mormonism and have never given much thought to the question of whether it should be classi-fied as a sect of Christianity or as a separate religion. Romney's presence as a major contender in the race, however, is drawing attention to the issue. In fact, Mormon doctrines include concepts which are radically incompatible with most Christians' idea of Christianity, such as the claim that God was once human and that humans can become gods, or that the American Indians are the descendants of the ancient Hebrews. To atheists, the differences between one set of zany ideas about the supernatural and another can seem trivial, but to fundamentalists, these things matter.

There is already division within the Christian Right between those who cannot stomach Romney because they consider his religion an un-Christian cult and those who are willing to ignore doctrinal differences because they think he's their best chance at getting another anti-freedom theocrat into the White House and fending off the specter of Hillary. It's hardly surprising that Mormons -- traditionally one of the most solidly conservative-voting blocs in the United States -- are taking offense at the former position. Yet as more and more Americans, including many fundamentalists, start learning about Mormonism, that camp is sure to grow.

To say that Mormon disgruntlement at anti-Mormon Republicans is "putting Utah up for grabs in the presidential election" is surely hyperbole -- Utah usually gives over 70% of its Presidential vote to the Republican candidate, a formidable margin to overcome. But it might make a difference to Congressional races in nearby states where Mormons are a large minority but not a majority. The divide among Christian fundamentalists over Romney's candidacy could be more significant, keeping fundamentalist support split between Romney and Huckabee rather than united. If this leaves the Christian Right divided into two camps which are embittered at each other over the issue -- or, better yet, if the Republican party ends up with a nominee whom a large chunk of its base is committed to denouncing as a heretic -- so much the better.

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06 December 2007

Romney's speech

An atheist blogger reacts.

If you think it would have been politically impossible for Romney to explicitly say that atheism is just as legitimate as "faith", take a look at what President Bush once said on the subject.

Update (7 December): No comment.

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05 December 2007

Quote for the day

"It remains an inconvenient truth that those neocons now hailing the surge's success would not be able to do so if Americans had taken their advice and voted Republican in 2006. Rumsfeld would still be defense secretary and Cheney's grip on national policy would remain unshakable."

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04 December 2007

Behold the face of faith

Medical technology could have helped Jose Mestre -- but only if he were willing to accept a blood transfusion, which is forbidden by his Jehovah's Witness religion. Rather than compromise his beliefs, he allowed his facial tumor to grow untreated for decades. Here is the result (warning: very disturbing photos). It is striking that, despite the obvious intensity of his faith, his God has not chosen to save him (and his family) from this terrible ordeal.

Another infuriating Jehovah's Witness story is here.


Ape memory

Japanese researchers have verified that chimpanzees have better memories than we do, outperforming human university students in lab memory tests. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, working mostly with bonobos at the Yerkes Primate Center in Georgia, noted the same thing about them several years ago.

I suspect that much of this actually reflects a difference between literate and illiterate, rather than a difference between species. Literate humans write down everything important; we do not rely on our memories much, so they atrophy. Non-human great apes cannot do this. Anthropologists studying illiterate human cultures have often found that humans in those cultures have astonishingly good memories by our standards.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that, at least in one area, our cousin species are actually our mental superiors.


03 December 2007

Carnal logic

Black Sun Journal wipes the floor with another clueless theist (read this too).


02 December 2007

Storm schmorm

All we've had so far is a bunch of rain. The trees surrounding my home, silhouetted against the faint light of the sky, aren't swaying back and forth at all. The electricity is still on as far up and down Powell Boulevard as I can see. Maybe it will get worse later, but so far I'm not impressed.

The root of faith and rage

This was originally a comment on this thread at An Apostate's Chapel, but I wanted to have it as a posting of its own here as well.

Fellow commenter John Evo wrote:

How much is the idea of death important to belief? Both your own mortality and also the notion of losing loved ones, who will never be seen again? It seems to me that when I listen closely to people talking about their religion, it always comes back to that - after all the wonderful intellectualizing about other aspects of spirituality.

My response:

I’ve thought for a long time that this is actually the main reason why religion is so pervasive and why people throughout history have defended it so belligerently and even violently. Most humans enjoy what life has to offer and don’t want it to end. On a deeper level, we’re hard-wired by evolution to be afraid of death — if there had ever been any primates which had no fear of death, they wouldn’t have been as careful as others about avoiding being killed, and so they weren’t the ones who lived long enough to pass on their genes and evolve into our noble selves.

People react with consternation and rage when their religion is challenged because on some level they realize it’s facing them with the possibility that they might not have life after death after all. It’s terrifying. It’s a threat.

What we’re dealing with there is a visceral instinctive response to a perceived threatening situation. Reason and argument have very little to do with it.

As a corollary which has intrigued me for a long time, it will be fascinating to see whether the decline of religious fervor in the developed world accelerates once it becomes widely understood that, very soon, death will no longer be inevitable.


An evocative calendar

The Ukrainian and Russian languages are very similar, but one of the interesting differences between them is in the names of the months. Russian simply uses the same Latin-derived names as most European languages do, adapted to the Russian phonetic system: Yanvar, Fevral, Mart, Aprel, etc. Ukrainian, however, uses names with indigenous Slavic roots, evocative of an earlier time when the cycles of nature loomed much larger in human consciousness. Here are the months, their Ukrainian names, and the literal meanings of those names:

January -- Sichen -- cut
February -- Lyuti -- fierce
March -- Berezen -- birchwood
April -- Kviten -- flowers
May -- Traven -- grass
June -- Cherven -- worms
July -- Lypen -- lime tree
August -- Serpen -- sickle
September -- Veresen -- heather
October -- Zhovten -- yellow
November -- Lystopad -- falling leaves
December -- Hruden -- snowballs

The exact significance of some of these isn't obvious at first glance; the first two refer to the cutting and fierce quality of the freezing-cold winter winds, for example, while August is harvest time and in October the fields turn yellow (the simple blue-and-gold stripes of the Ukrainian flag, by the way, symbolize the fields below the sky). These names are not mere archaisms but remain in use in modern Ukrainian; I remember being initially puzzled by seeing references to Veresen during my trip there.


01 December 2007

First snow

Portland, or at least the east side, got a light dusting of snow today, starting at 11:00 AM and lasting just six minutes. It was so sparse it melted on contact with the ground. But winter is really here.

A large storm is forecast for Sunday evening through Monday morning, with power outages likely -- so if this site seems inert for a while, I'll be offline, catching up on my Russian grammar by flashlight.

Link roundup for 1 December 2007

A passel of fundie wackjobs have somehow decided that the I-35 freeway in the central United States is the "highway of holiness" mentioned in the book of Isaiah in the Bible -- and have launched a series of "purity sieges" to harass nearby porn shops, gay bars, and so forth. Found via Andrew Sullivan.

Dennis Hastert -- horror/porn movie prop?

Big Heathen Mike has a wrathful posting about the "Qatif girl" case. Found via Tales of an Ordinary Girl -- her blog and Mike's are both worthwhile sites specializing in Randi-style skeptical thinking.

I hate pranks. This one was worse than most.

Is renting your home a better investment decision than buying?

Ralph Peters explains why the latest round of Arab-Israeli talks won't get anywhere.

The Texas state director of school science curriculum has been forced out after resisting higher officials' efforts to introduce intelligent design (found via Mock Paper Scissors, here). On a lighter note, here's an ID cartoon, and another one which I linked to long ago but is worth revisiting.

The NOVA report on the Dover ID trial, which I discussed here, can now be viewed online here at Ironwolf, who also offers some "nerdcore" videos.

The greatest Muhammad cartoon ever (warning: gruesome) contains more truth about its subject than I could pack into a thousand-word essay. Here's its creator's website.

This posting, and particularly the comments thread, offers some alarming insights into Ron Paul's views on separation of church and state. (My own main Ron Paul posting is here.)

Are the Democrats the natural party for atheists? Note that this posting is written from a testy Republican viewpoint, but to me at least, that just makes it more fun.

Over a century ago, two thinkers reached different conclusions about the theory of evolution from the same facts. One of them grasped that human knowledge on an important point (in this case, the energy source of the Sun) was incomplete at the time, while the other did not. Even today, people often forget that the mere fact that we don't understand something doesn't legitimize a religious "explanation".

American and Japanese researchers report progress toward a treatment for macular degeneration. Note also this linked story about how cigarette smoke increases the risk of developing the disease -- including exposure of non-smokers to second-hand smoke.

I've already posted here about the huge barrage of "end of the stem-cell wars" ideological flatulence which greeted last month's cell-reprogramming breakthrough. Finally one major media outlet, Time magazine, talks some sense.

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Man as ape

Various schools of thought look upon man primarily as a "rational being", or as a "spiritual being", or as an "economic actor" (depen-ding on which school of thought it is), with our biological nature being secondary. I look upon man as fundamentally a primate; specifically, one of the five closely-related species collectively known as the great apes.

Rational thought is a learned skill, rather like typing or driving, necessary in certain situations and called upon when those situations arise. It's also hard work, and even those who are very good at it don't generally do it much except when they actually have to. For establishing what is true and what is false, rational thought is essential, and any attempt to address such questions without using it will produce results similar to trying to navigate a car down a busy street without using any of one's knowledge of how to drive. But dealing with such questions occupies only a small fraction of a normal human's time or attention, and man is no more fundamentally a "rational being" than a good secretary is fundamentally a "typing being".

Spirituality, as best I can assess it (never having been a spiritual person), seems to be a learned form of anti-rationality; if rational thought is analogous to typing or driving, spirituality could be said to be analogous to drunkenness. There are times when a person wants to suspend the capacity for critical thinking and simply let the gusher of emotion and response flow freely, unencumbered by judgment (or embarrassment); for such a purpose, I suppose either form of "spirit" will serve. I see nothing wrong with this, so long as it does not intrude into areas of life where normal thinking and behavior need to be free of its interference. Since the majority of humans claim to have some sort of spiritual side, I can only assume it must serve some function for them, even though I don't understand it (just as a person who has never drunk or wanted to drink alcohol can probably never understand why some people enjoy being drunk). Pushing my analogy to the breaking point, trying to produce rational thought while under the influence of spiritual beliefs would be like drunken driving, and the results are usually about equally good.

Economics describes an important subset of human interactions, but not a very large one. I have dozens of significant interactions with other humans every day, and no more than two or three of them involve any sort of exchange of value for value. It certainly makes sense to think of humans only as economic actors when analyzing that class of behavior, as much as it makes sense to think of the man at the chessboard as just a chess player when one is considering his strategy at the game; but no more so.

But the constellation of instincts, feelings, and responses we share with our great-ape cousins, inherited from common ancestors, is with us at all times. In particular, anyone who has seriously studied our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, can only be astonished at how closely their mental life, behavior, and social interaction resemble our own, revealing the true origin of our own. The subtle interplay of cooperation, aggression, friendship, rivalry, and so forth that one sees within established human groups; the tendency of males to organize into dominance hierarchies and the ways in which they interact within them; the very strong tendency toward territorial social-group solidarity (operating at many levels, from the nation-state to the street gang) which unites even rivals within the group against strangers from without; the development of the mother-child relationship as offspring grow up; in all these ways, our species is still very much like its chimpanzee cousin, though our interactions are somewhat more complex due to our greater intelligence.

One can even see in them the roots of those faculties which we have been accustomed to believe elevate our noble selves above the rest of the animal kingdom. Rational thought? Members of all four of the other great-ape species have proven capable of solving surprisingly complex logical problems. Economics? Obviously apes do not use money, but among chimpanzees, fairly explicit cases of males offering females food in exchange for sex have been observed, suggesting that the world's oldest profession deserves its title. Spirituality? Well, like humans, the other apes are smart enough to wonder about things which they are not smart enough to figure out; but as far as we can tell, they do not possess the specialized brain functions needed to conclude that anything which baffles them must be the work of a cosmic super-ape, much less burn each other at the stake over disputes about which kinds of fruit that super-ape prefers them to eat. But chimpanzees have been observed to stare raptly at spectacles such as waterfalls and sunsets. It is hardly implausible to think that these creatures, so neurologically similar to ourselves, have a sense of awe.

Our ape heritage has its dangerous side, of course -- and we have largely learned to control that aspect of ourselves and channel its expression into fantasy rather than actual behavior, otherwise we could not build and maintain the sophisticated civilizations we have today. But that heritage is also at the root of most of what makes life worth living. It is not something we can "transcend" by reciting platitudes or offering mindless devotion to a (less-hairy) cosmic super-ape. It is what we truly are.

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