29 July 2009

Forty days

Thursday will mark forty days since the murder of Nedâ Aghâ-Soltân, the woman whose bloody shooting has become one of the most-widely-recognized images from the Iranian uprising.

Forty days is the traditional mourning period in Iran. During the 1978-1979 revolution, the forty-day anniversary of the killings of victims of the regime often saw redoubled popular action.

The shaky theocracy may well find its hands full tomorrow.

Update (Thursday): Things are heating up at the cemetery -- Saeed Valadbaygi liveblogs.

28 July 2009

The coming economic collapse

The United States is now clearly heading out of the recession, and in time most of the rest of the world will follow. But one country is in danger of a real crash.

Atheist "incivility"

The Daily Dish has been having an on-again-off-again discussion of the rise of atheism. On the claim that atheists are "uncivil" in their opposition to religion, one atheist hits back (though not nearly hard enough) here.

My own take on it is this: I'm civil enough to religious people that I don't go onto their turf (their doorsteps, blogs, whatever) and pick fights with them. But if they won't observe the same courtesy -- if they come onto my turf and preach their superstitious rubbish at me -- well, I'm going to be as rude as I feel like being.

26 July 2009

The Gates incident

I've hardly mentioned the Gates arrest at all, but I think that this assessment (at a blog far from left-wing, please note) is on target:

.....the salient issue here isn’t race, but is actually citizen rights full stop. The officer, upon Gates proving that he was the home-owner to the officer’s satisfaction, should have turned right then and there and left.....

Nobody can fault Crowley for responding to the complaint. That’s his job, and surely Gates should have had more respect for that. But that’s besides the point. Gates was arrested not because he committed a crime, but because he was copping an attitude. And every time a cop gets so much leeway that he can arrest people willy-nilly for not showing what the officer deems to be an appropriate amount of respect, you don’t have justice, you have guys with guns with totally arbitrary arrest powers and big chips on their shoulders.

Some of the reaction on the right seems to follow the pattern: "This is a confrontation between a cop and a black guy, so the black guy must be in the wrong. There, now we have our conclusion, let's see what evidence we can find to support it." Rather odd coming from people so given to rhetoric about curbing arrogant state power.

Update: Good point. Also here.

Religious persecution

A big part of my subject matter here has concerned the repressive Iranian theocracy and its violence against those who challenge its power -- as well as the incessant (though now waning) efforts of the Christian Right to enact Christian taboos into law here in the US so that state power can be used to enforce them on everyone. Here's another case to consider:

North Korea publicly executed a Christian woman last month for distributing the Bible, which is banned in the communist nation, South Korean activists said Friday. Ri Hyon Ok, 33, was also accused of spying for South Korea and the United States and organizing dissidents.....Ri's parents, husband and three children were sent to a political prison camp in the northeastern city of Hoeryong the following day.....

While some might claim that this is an opposite type of case from what I usually talk about -- persecution of a Christian by non-Christians -- I would argue that it's actually the same type of case. As the article implies, the Kim cult is essentially a state religion in North Korea, as Islam is in Iran and as the Christian Right wants to make Christianity in our country. Ri was not murdered for being a Christian; she was murdered for dissenting from a state-backed religion. Any person -- Christian, Buddhist, atheist, or whatever -- who did the same would likely have met a similar fate. The lesson here is that a state-backed religion, regardless of which religion it is, is a deadly menace to freedom.

Found via The Secular Outpost.

25 July 2009

Two problems, two wheels

Over the last few months, two problems have forced themselves on my attention. First, the parking lot where I park for my job has raised its monthly charge from $75 to $110 (an increase which would have eaten up half of this year's cost-of-living raise from my employer, except that we're not getting one anyway because of the recession). Second, the weight I gained during the long period before October's surgery, when I couldn't walk properly, is not going away anything like as fast as I'd hoped.

These two problems might seem completely unrelated, but I've come up with a single solution for both. I bought a bicycle.

Portland is one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the US, and many people at my job ride them to work. Cost of parking at work for a bicycle: $0, which is $110 lower than $110 is.

Bike-riding is also real exercise -- and, according to my surgeon's office, it's particularly good for anyone who has had the specific operation I had.

I haven't ridden one for almost forty years, but it's surprising how fast all the necessary habits come back once you call upon them. What my first practice riding session did make clear, though, is that sedentary living for decades really, really leaves you out of shape. After just twenty minutes I was out of breath, muscles aching, the whole bit. Luckily I have plenty of time to build up to the point of being able to use it for commuting. But it's a forceful reminder that evolution never designed us to sit still all day and get flabby. We don't realize what we've done to ourselves until we have to stir ourselves to unaccustomed activity. Sedentary exis-tence weakens and ages us -- it is, quite literally, no way to live.

Well, enough of that. I am not going to end up as just another middle-aged guy with his stomach sticking out over his beltline. Nor am I going to keep paying a ridiculous amount of money for a parking space. Two problems, one solution -- with two wheels.

Quote for the day

"Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument. Teaching children that unquestioned faith is a virtue primes them -- given certain other ingredients that are not hard to come by -- to grow up into potentially lethal weapons for future jihads or crusades. Immunized against fear by the promise of a martyr's paradise, the authentic faith-head deserves a high place in the history of armaments, alongside the longbow, the warhorse, the tank and the cluster bomb. If children were taught to question and think through their beliefs, instead of being taught the superior virtue of faith without question, it is a good bet that there would be no suicide bombers. Suicide bombers do what they do because they really believe what they were taught in their religious schools: that duty to God exceeds all other priorities, and that martyrdom in his service will be rewarded in the gardens of Paradise. And they were taught that lesson not necessarily by extremist fanatics but by decent, gentle, mainstream religious instructors, who lined them up in their madrasas, sitting in rows, rhythmically nodding their innocent little heads up and down while they learned every word of the holy book like demented parrots."
Richard Dawkins

Link roundup for 25 July 2009

"No matter how hard he thumped his Bible....." Yet another family-values Religiopublican gets caught with his pants down. (And this George Bush art is classic.)

The world hasn't ended -- what a disappointment!

Please read this posting about it.

This method for dealing with drought sounds worth watching.

Skippy the Bush Kangaroo looks at Palin's family and loony-right delusions about liberals.

The MSM opt for sizzle over steak once again.

"Hope and change"? Forget it.

Outside religious groups are pouring money into a campaign to overturn Maine's marriage-equality law.

Conrad Strong looks at right-wing pundits and the birth-certificate crackpottery. Not surprisingly, the McCain campaign checked out this "issue" before the election, but concluded that there was no substance to it.

A Daily Dish e-mailer offers some straight talk about the menace of religion.

Randall Terry joins the ranks of right-wing crazies threatening terrorism against the United States.

Young people are drifting away from Christianity -- and religious education doesn't help.

The ACLU is pushing back against yet another effort to undermine the establishment clause.

If Obama wants to take a stand on police abuse, there are cases out there which are much worse than the Gates incident.

It doesn't work! So let's do more of it!

In India, Hillary Clinton talks education.

Sandly No looks at socialized medicine in Thailand (and math in Texas).

Wealthy interests stand to make tens of billions in profits from the extinction of the bluefin tuna.

Government officials in Britain are out of touch on immigration.

The Russian regime wants to make it illegal to mention certain inconvenient historical facts.

Stem cells can restore lost memory.

The astonishing self-healing powers of flatworms hold clues which could help humans.

23 July 2009

The Freeper rebellion

Has the wingnut right now moved beyond shooting doctors and yearning for Islamic terrorist attacks to actually conspiring to overthrow the US government? Sadly No and Wonkette report (thanks Mendip for the Wonkette link).

22 July 2009

Beyond the Moon

This Monday marked the fortieth anniversary of the first manned landing on the Moon. I've lost track of (and am losing patience with) the number of blog postings I've seen claiming that, in the meantime, we've retreated from space because no humans have walked on the Moon since the end of the Apollo program.

Of course, we have not retreated from space. During those forty years we’ve explored most of the solar system, using technology as far advanced over the Saturn V as the Saturn V was over the Wright brothers’ plane. Advanced enough, in fact, to abandon the expensive, dangerous, and pointless practice of sending humans along physically.

We will never forget the drama of that day in 1969 and the courage it took to step out into an utterly lifeless, waterless, airless desert a quarter million miles from home. But today, sending humans to the Moon or the other planets would merely be a stunt. Anything that humans could do there can now be done at least as well by machines for a tiny fraction of the cost. So far from abandoning space exploration over the last few decades, we've figured out the right way to do it.

20 July 2009

Quote for the day

"All the birthers* I've seen have been polykooks. This is typical and well documented. People who believe one impossible thing, usually believe most or all impossible things. Most also believe that the moon landings were faked, vaccines make you sick, the swine flu was genetically engineered by the Illuminati, the earth is 6,000 years old, the ancient Jews had pet dinosaurs. evolution is impossible, chemtrails make you dull witted, global warming isn't happening, UFO flying saucers are piloted by demons, George Bush isn't stupid, xian morality exists, and Dick Cheney isn't evil. The more imaginative weave them all into tapestries of lunacy. The Illuminati with the aid of the RCC and elves in their flying saucers piloted by Bigfoot and demons, visited Obama in Kenya for his birth and planned to take everyone's guns away after putting mind control and sterilizing chemicals in the water supply. I know one such. She is a severe schizophrenic who hates doctors because they are always trying to prescribe Zyprexa which she won't take. She also moves frequently because of evictions from places for disruptive and erratic behaviorial problems. They are just lunatics. The USA as a world leader in lots of things, is a world leader in crackpots and crackpottery."
"Raven" (#64 here)

*Birthers: people who believe that Barack Obama is not a natural-born citizen and is thus ineligible to be President.

19 July 2009

Six views of our planet

These are composite pictures in which every part of the Earth's surface is shown as it appears at night, with almost all illumination coming from artificial sources, so that brightness indicates popu-lation density and economic development. Click any picture for a larger version.

1. View centered on the North Pole. The closely-related civiliza-tions of America, Europe, and Russia surround the Arctic and form a distinct northern tier of the world.

2. View centered on the Congo basin, showing the great difference in magnitude of power generation between Europe and Africa, though the two continents are roughly equal in population.

3. View centered on Moscow.

4. View centered on the Gobi desert. Clearly visible are the Indian subcontinent, eastern Asia, and southeast Asia -- together, home to two-thirds of humanity.

5. View centered on Australia.

6. View centered on our country.

18 July 2009

Why health-care reform probably won't happen

I've had very little to say about health-care reform -- I don't have the necessary knowledge (nor, frankly, the interest) to contribute much of value, so I'd rather leave the topic to those who do.

Nevertheless, I'd be willing to bet that, in the end, reform will fail.

I've already mentioned a couple of land-mine issues (illegal-alien coverage, fear by the 85% who do currently have insurance that their choice or quality of care could decrease) that could lead to mass public rejection of reform. But these are just specific cases of the more general problem. Health care is one-sixth of the national economy and impacts an issue of great importance to people -- their health. The whole thing is just too big, too complicated, too emotionally-charged, with too many powerful constituencies and interest groups wanting a say, too many different ideas for what to do, too many people who would reject any type of reform other than their preferred one as being not a "real" reform.

This is not the kind of thing our political system handles well, even with one party overwhelmingly dominant.

Furthermore, health care is the textbook example of a good which people think they should have unlimited access to, regardless of whether they (or anyone) can pay for it. Anything that smacks of rationing will likely lead to a rejection of reform, even if rationing actually exists in other forms in the present system. Better the devil we know. Most of the insured 85% are happy enough with what they have. There isn't going to be a huge upsurge of public pressure to get this done.

The timing, too, could hardly be worse. We're just now entering a fragile economic recovery, and employment probably won't start to improve for at least another six months. Any new tax could be denounced, with some justice, as a threat to tip the economy back into recession.

There are already signs that the whole thing is falling apart.

Nice try, but I don't think it's going to happen.

Why I don't read many atheism blogs

Despite the fact that I'm an atheist and a fairly outspoken one, I have little time for most atheism blogs -- by which I mean blogs whose primary purpose is to promote atheism, not merely any blog written by a person who happens to be an atheist.

Most atheism blogs in this sense seem dedicated to endlessly re-hashing what are basically the same debates and arguments we've been having with god-believers for decades, if not generations. I had my fill of those arguments quite some time ago -- long before the internet was on the scene, in fact -- and I find little interest in repeating the same conversations over and over.

More fundamentally, I've come to concur with Pat Condell that the best way to confront religion is via ridicule, not debate -- because religion is inherently ridiculous, and the most effective way to combat it is to highlight this. Trying to have a serious "debate" about the befuddled hash of incoherence that passes for "ideas" in religion means according religion a seriousness and credibility and respect that it simply does not merit. It's like "debating" the "stork hypothesis" of where babies come from; the mere act of attempting such a debate would dignify the absurd.

A blog whose approach to religion I do like (though religion isn't its sole topic) is Pharyngula.

Link roundup for 18 July 2009

Is Michelle Obama a Satanist?

PZ Myers has video of the sacrifice of Abraham.

MSM news gets set to music.

Watch what you say in Ireland.

Be careful talking about human rights in Russia, too.

Christian Fellowship House -- or den of adultery?

Prospects seem good for the Democrats to pick up more seats in Congress next year.

Conor Clarke looks at citation of foreign law in US courts.

There's an Orwellian problem with the Kindle.

The Iranian theocracy's fear tactics are losing their effectiveness.

A visitor just back from Iran reports on the breadth of support for the uprising (this is two days before the huge protests on Friday).

China is "an empire desperately trying to make the world think it's a state" -- and it's on a collision course with jihadism.

Sadly No dissects a typical case of right-wing misunderstanding of science.

Venus might have been more Earthlike in the distant past.

Aubrey de Grey discusses the current state of anti-aging research (found via Fight Aging).

Plans for the 2009 Singularity Summit in New York City have been announced.

17 July 2009

"A gift to our nation"

The uprising in the streets of Tehran is escalating dramatically. Much attention has been focused on today's sermon by Hashemi Rafsanjani, a powerful insider within the regime who expresses reformist views but whose goals remain unclear. NIAC has this interesting report:

A very unusual event occurred before Rafsanjani’s speech, when the head of the organization that oversees the Friday prayers (Taqavi) spoke. In Friday prayers, people are supposed to repeat what the speakers chant. Today, it was different. When Taqavi said “Death to America,” people responded “Death to Russia” or “Death to China” instead. Also, when he said “The blood in our veins, is a gift to our leader,” people said “The blood in our veins, is a gift to our nation.” According to our witness, “whenever Taqavi mentioned the name of the Supreme Leader, people would whistle and boo.” Typically, when the Supreme Leader’s name is mentioned people chant “salavat” (a phrase in Arabic meaning “peace be upon Prophet Mohammad").

Saeed Valadbaygi has a report and pictures from today's protests (he mentions a claim that turnout reached two million, though the source of the figure is unclear), with highlights from Rafsanjani's sermon. Andrew Sullivan's blog (currently without Andrew Sulli-van) has ongoing coverage, though focused more on the internal machinations within the regime than on the uprising itself. This video, if it is truly from today, substantiates the claim that the protest crowds are approaching the size of those seen in June.

16 July 2009

The real "pro-life" battle

Biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey explains the shift in focus in his recent published work on aging. While his ideas have gained consi-derable acceptance among researchers, more progress still needs to be made in showing the general public that the eradication of aging -- by far the commonest cause of death in humans -- is both technologically feasible and desirable.

I have, of course, long sought to contribute to that latter goal in a modest way with this blog. For those new to the concept, see my overview of de Grey's ideas here.

"Better off dead"

The Iranian theocracy has been using rape to degrade and humiliate arrested protesters in its prisons. Of course most authoritarian regimes do this, but the sick sexually-twisted "values" of a puritanical traditional society make it especially effective (and damaging), as Shirin Sâdeghi explains.

15 July 2009

Psychological background noise

From time to time we see surveys purporting to show that some startlingly-large fraction of the US population believes in various forms of superstitious nonsense -- ghosts, reincarnation, psychic powers, etc. The standard response to such data is to declare them evidence of a shockingly low standard of education among the general public, and to fret that Something Must Be Done.

I have a rather different take on it.

What's striking is that many of the most popular superstitions are utterly irreconcilable with Christianity. Take ghosts, for example. The standard Christian view is that the dead are immediately hauled before God, judged, and sent to either Heaven or Hell (in some variants, this happens on Judgment Day, when the dead rise from their graves after having been in a sort of suspended anima-tion). This doesn't allow for the dead to hang around particular sites on Earth for centuries in a non-corporeal but self-aware form and "haunt" people. Reincarnation presents a similar problem. According to Christianity, you live once, die once, and go to an eternal reward or punishment. You don't live a long succession of separate lives, one after another. It should be logically impossible to be a Christian and also believe in ghosts or reincarnation or several other popular superstitions.

Yet many people supposedly do. It's claimed that around 80% of the US population self-identifies as Christian, yet I've also seen claims that about half of all Americans believe in ghosts, or say they do. Can 30% of the population (or actually more, since most atheists probably aren't among the ghost-believers) really hold two beliefs that are so obviously mutually exclusive?

This bolsters the view I've long held, that Americans in general are not nearly as religious as they are generally thought to be. As Christopher Hitchens says, many people claim to be religious in surveys because it's expected of them, but this doesn't reflect reality. Many others have a religious belief so vague and sketchy as to be practically meaningless (other surveys show that huge numbers of self-proclaimed Christians flunk tests of even very basic Bible knowledge, for example). The only way a "Christian" can believe in ghosts or reincarnation is if his Christian beliefs are superficial and he has hardly ever given them much serious thought.

He probably hasn't ever given ghosts or reincarnation much serious thought either.

Yes, there is a hard core of seriously-religious people in the US -- the ones who send money to TV evangelists, buy their books, go proselytizing door-to-door, and vote for people like Huckabee in Republican primaries. But this is a minority. For most Americans, I think, both religion and popular superstitions are more like a hazy psychological background noise, picked up from family and pop culture and continuing by inertia, not much examined or considered, and having little impact on how life is lived or thought about. This may be depressing to those who would prefer every-one to adhere to strict standards of rationality, but it is a far cry from dangerous fanaticism.

14 July 2009

Mini-roundup for 14 July 2009

A few more.....

If this is a real movie it will require more suspension of disbelief than that Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus thing, but it could be fun, in a Sky Captain-ish sort of way.

As for little Suzie, apparently she'll believe anything.

Where do they get people like this? I suspect inbreeding. Zirgar suspects worse.

Republicans -- the next generation!

I'm really gonna enjoy watching the inevitable lawsuit take this restaurant down.

A true story of abortion cuts through the crap.

Michael Boh has had it with bipartisanship.

A family in Saudi Arabia is suing a genie.

Chinese people show normal human reactions.

Tehrân jang-e means roughly "Tehran is at war".

Saeed Valadbaygi has the latest developments in Iran.

13 July 2009

The links list

I've revised the links list a bit, deleting several links which go to sites that no longer exist or which aren't of as much interest as I originally thought. I also added two sites which I regularly read, Ron Chusid's Liberal Values and group blog The Crossed Pond (besides, the latter just added me). Both are frequently updated and consistently interesting.

I may be re-organizing it a bit too -- what I've always tried to do is group similar sites together, but in the course of almost three years the results have become somewhat haphazard. Maybe I'll try dividing it into sections.

Quote for the day

"One problem is that such debates never end. Every week there are new people who want to argue that Saddam really did have WMD, creationism is a sensible alternative to the science of evolution, the scientific consensus on global warming is wrong, abortion is the killing of babies, the Founding Fathers did not really intend for the United States to have separation of church and state, Barack Obama is not an American citizen, or whatever Fox or Rush Lim-baugh is talking about that day is true. It is not worth the time to debate each new person who raises the same arguments, especi-ally as those who hold such beliefs are not likely to change their minds regardless of how strong the facts contradict their views."

A big part of why I use comment moderation, right there.

10 July 2009

Mini-roundup for 10 July 2009

There will not be the usual link rounup tomorrow because I will be out of town. Here are a few items:

You could win a vacation -- but there's a catch.

Zirgar has a friendly letter to Sarah Palin.

Looks like we have a positive ID on Vamp's sewer monster (found via Mendip).

If you have ads on your blog, read this.

The fight for gay marriage is going federal.

Mountain Sage debunks myths about the House energy bill.

Here's an instructive comparison of Massachusetts and Georgia.

Reconstitution 2.0 looks at Republican self-reliance and family values.

The Iranian uprising took to the streets again yesterday; NIAC and Saeed Valadbaygi have roundups. Better-than-usual MSM report here.

Britain's new overseas-intelligence chief suffers an embarrassing security breach.

Christianity in Europe may be watered-down compared with here, but the bigotry inherent in it still shines through.

NASA satellites provide new data on the thinning of Arctic sea ice.

Rapamycin shows promise in slowing aging in mice -- even those which are already "middle-aged" (for mice). More here, though the assessment strikes me as unduly negative.

Liberal Values has a couple of good postings on science and the right wing, here and here.

08 July 2009

The 18th of Tir

As I write this, in Iran it's already the early morning of Thursday, the 9th of July -- or the 18th of Tir in the traditional Iranian calendar. Partly because it's the anniversary of the beginning of the great student rebellion of 1999, this date has been chosen for nationwide rallies and the launch of a new national strike.

The regime has declared widespread closures throughout Tehran, supposedly due to air pollution, but in fact to blunt and disguise the effects of the planned strike.

The struggle continues.

Update (9 July): Live-blogging here and here.

06 July 2009

Harry Potter's on our side

"I'm an atheist, but I'm very relaxed about it. I don't preach my atheism, but I have a huge amount of respect for people like Richard Dawkins who do. Anything he does on television, I will watch."
Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe
(found via Liberal Values)

Ever notice that in the whole of the seven-volume Harry Potter series, there's not a single reference to God or religion at all?

Update: At least he's not one of those militant atheists.

Teabagging the GOP

This person thinks that Palin has a plan to launch a new political party rooted in the "tea party" movement. Oh please, God or Satan or whoever, let it be true!

(And yes, they are actually analyzing her "MacArthur" quote as evidence of her "sophisticated" grasp of military history without noticing that the quote is really from a different general, Oliver Prince Smith.)

05 July 2009

Quote for the day

"When did the GOP become such a bunch of quitters? What ever happened to the party of Larry Craig and his you'll-never-take-me-from-this-stall-alive spirit?"

The left and the political future

It is, of course, unlikely that the Republican party will completely collapse as an effective political force; parties have been in such dire straits before and bounced back, and given enough time the Republicans probably will too. But what if this really is the end? If the Democratic party is the only major national party remaining, where do we go from there?

Since the nature of our system and the sheer size of our country pretty much preclude a brand-new party getting big enough to count for anything, the most likely way for the two-party system to be restored would be a split in the Democratic party. Assuming that Republicans were no longer a factor, this would actually be healthy, because the Democratic party has some serious issues that need straightening out.

I strongly opposed Obama during the primaries because I did not believe he was a committed man of the left; and I think his record has at least partly vindicated that concern. Nor is the Democratic party a true party of the left, on many issues.

A true man of the left would not have wasted so much energy and political capital on reaching out the right. A true man of the left would not have embraced Rick Warren (a symbolic point, but a telling one). A true man of the left would not leave DADT twisting in the wind (the President does not negotiate with generals, he commands them). The list of such disappointments seems to grow longer every week; almost every left-wing blogger has written at least one posting on the subject.

A true party of the left would have tied the Wall Street bailouts to far stricter accountability and oversight; it would have harnessed the public fury over bonuses into political clout to pursue the guilty and enforce reforms, not tried to quash it. A true party of the left would fully support the liberal democracy of Israel against the fascist dictatorships and medieval theocracies ranged against it. A true party of the left would never tolerate illegal immigration which undercuts the prosperity of American workers (remember them?) and which, because it mostly comes from backward, conservative, religion-dominated societies, presents a long-term threat to liberal values in this country. It's quite natural that the Republicans represent the interests of the nanny-and-gardener-hiring class against the interests of people who must compete for construction jobs, but it's madness for Democrats to do the same.

These contradictions need to be brought out in the open, debated, and resolved. If we no longer need to circle the wagons against the right, they will be.

Tyranny, freedom, and priorities

There used to be a saying in certain circles that "the personal is political", but this is exactly wrong. The personal is personal, and that's what makes it so important. The personal must be shielded from the grubby interference of the political.

The government that forbids you to have an abortion when you want to (or forces you to have one when you don't want to, as in China), or dictates what you can and cannot do sexually with another consenting adult, or restricts what you can smoke or ingest in your own private space where no one else is affected, is a thousand times more evil and oppressive than the government which merely puts onerous restrictions on economic activity, as bad as those are. The very idea that any authority should try to interfere with the actions of adult humans in such profoundly personal realms is an unspeakable outrage. If you do not have the absolute freedom to make such decisions about your own body -- your very self -- then you have no meaningful freedom at all.

(This is not to say that property rights are not important, only that personal freedom is qualitatively different -- there is a profound difference between "that which I own" and "that which is I".)

Note too that personal freedom, as the term suggests, can inhere only in a person -- an individual -- not in a group or a community or a political unit of whatever size. Conservatives sometimes affect to attach great importance to whether laws limiting, say, abortion or drug use are imposed by local or by national government. Rubbish. That makes no difference at all. A law restricting my personal freedom is just as outrageous whether it comes from the federal government or from the city council. It's none of their damn business either way.

Nor do I care at all whether such laws are supported by majority vote. The laws against interracial marriage had majority support back in the 1960s when the Supreme Court struck them down. Striking them down was nevertheless a solid victory for freedom. Making personal freedom dependent on the approval of 51% of the population reduces rights to the level of fads.

This is the main reason why I identify with the left -- because the left has a better track record on most personal-freedom issues. It's unfortunate, because the right does have some worthwhile ideas in other areas. But until they drop the whole totalitarian panoply of abortion restrictions and gay-bashing and the rest of the theo-cratic "social issues" from their agenda, it's war, and those other matters will have to wait. It's a question of priorities.

04 July 2009

The spirit is alive

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness..... when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

These words are not the most-often-cited part of the Declaration, but they are the core of it. The legitimacy of a government comes not from force, not from God, not from royal succession, but from the consent of the people it governs. There would have been little point in establishing the United States as an independent nation if it had been just another monarchy or theocracy. It's the principle that the people determine the government and not vice-versa that was important.

The United States in practice fell far short of its ideals until much later. One-eighth of our people were enslaved until 1865; one-half were disenfranchised until 1920. The fight to preserve and expand freedom in other areas continued, and continues today. But the ideals have always been there, calling us in the right direction.

On these anniversaries, distracted by mall sales and fireworks, we modern Americans too easily neglect to keep those ideals in our thoughts. Yet they have thrived and spread -- even, as we have so recently been reminded, to the far side of the world.

Link roundup for 4 July 2009

See if you can figure out what this unknown life form is.

A bubble is caught at the instant of popping (found via Mendip).

Cuteness break: baby otters!

These creatures are considerably less attractive, but they've achieved world peace.

More Iranian rap: Farinâz sings Be Nâm-e Zan ("In the Name of Woman"). I liked the comment by "Sheilamazhari" -- the Persian-language part means "No Muslim is Iranian, and no Iranian is Muslim".

Ranch Chimp sends news of two world-class idiots. One, here in Portland, called 911 over a botched hamburger order; the other, on RC's own home turf of Dallas, stole a truck and -- well, see for yourself.

In other idiot news, Oklahoma legislator and religious loon Sally Kern has introduced a proclamation blaming the recession on debauchery and ungodliness. Dissenting Justice and Forever in Hell have reactions.

Special bonus idiot: this must be the stupidest reason ever for wanting an abortion.

Some Americans don't want to learn the lesson of Iran.

Here's another egregious example of right-wing trolling. Notice how "Gideon" stomps onto someone else's turf, shits on everyone in sight, and then acts like the offended party when he gets called on it. (Normally I wouldn't link to a post just for the comments thread, but the point of this post is the stupidity of so much blog commenting. Besides, there's a cool blogging-chimp poster -- RC, is that you?)

It's not just the MSM that favor trivia over substance -- the Senate does too.

The evil of faith claims another child victim.

We should pay more attention to Vice Presidents.

More right-wing abuse of power: Bush used the Justice Depart-ment to target political opponents.

Palin has resigned as Governor of Alaska. The Brad Blog thinks there's a scandal about to break (found via Nancy).

Utter vileness: right-wingers hope for an attack on America.

Forty years after Stonewall, Police raid a gay bar in Fort Worth and attack customers, putting one in intensive care. More here and here (both sent by Ranch Chimp).

Better news from India, which has decriminalized homosexuality. The anti-gay law was a holdover from the days of British rule, but (predictably) was fervently supported by Indian religious leaders.

For Dominion Day, ManticoreWeb has a list of things to like about Canada.

Turkey doesn't seem to grasp the concept of free expression.

Iran news: The Tehran bazaar defied the theocracy Thursday and went on strike; major gatherings are planned nationwide for next Thursday, the 9th. The theocracy plans to murder 29 prisoners tomorrow. A friend of one arrested student describes the abuses being inflicted in detention. The doctor who tried to help Nedâ Aghâ-Soltân has escaped from Iran and speaks out here. The theocracy's British propaganda arm, Press TV (should be called "Mullah Haw-Haw") loses a spokesman.

03 July 2009

A few points about health-care reform

I haven't written much about health-care reform because, frankly, it's a subject about which I don't know enough to contribute much. But I do have a few observations.

1) The national health systems in use in other countries vary widely in the quality of care they provide and in the degree of satisfaction that their people have with them. It's important not to rush into an ill-conceived plan here which, if implemented, might be worse than the situation we have now, when a more carefully-designed reform would produce better results. It's also important to avoid putting all our eggs in the basket of a plan which would risk rejection by the public. Any proposal under consideration needs to have a realistic chance of being enacted, or it's pointless.

2) Most things that work well, work well because of the element of competition -- if the customer can take his business elsewhere, the provider has an incentive to do a good job. Any national health plan must keep the element of competition between providers. Even if there's a single (governmental) payer, there need to be competing service providers and the ability of patients to switch from one to another to maintain the incentive for performance. The best way to do this would probably be a voucher system. Remember that while 15% of the population lacks insurance, 85% do have it, and they won't support (or allow their representatives to support) a reform which leaves them with less choice than they have now.

3) A question which will need to be addressed: Will the publicly-funded health plan serve illegal aliens? If it won't, we'll need to finally create some national system for distinguishing citizens and legal residents from illegal aliens. If the national health plan will serve illegal aliens, public opposition will prevent it from ever being implemented in the first place. A plan that spends taxpayer money to cover people who aren't even supposed to be in the country is a non-starter. It would be too unpopular. It would even risk handing the Republicans an issue they could use to revive their fortunes.

House on Mars

I've already posted about old-fashioned visions of the future and why one common element of those visions, colonization of other planets, never happened -- the lack of any benefit to be derived from doing so which could even begin to cover the staggering costs involved. (The popular but silly idea of off-Earth colonies as a hedge against human extinction in the event of some global disaster is discussed here.) Beyond such practical considerations, however, it's obvious that the thought of a "house on Mars" (or on Titan or Ganymede or whatever) holds a strong visceral appeal for some people which has nothing to do with usefulness or economic practicality. They want to be there. It's a romantic idea to them.

I don't get it. Yes, I could understand it back in the days when we pictured Mars as a world of canals and exotic creatures, but now? Now that we know what all those places are actually like?

If you really want a house in the middle of a frozen, lifeless, dimly-lit wasteland where nothing ever happens and where you would immediately die if you stepped out of doors without elaborate protection, you can probably get one in Antarctica -- and for literally a millionth of the cost. I'm sure Saturn is an impressive sight from its nearer moons, but a single piece of scenery that never changes would pall eventually, and then what would you have? There's less to go out and do on a dead world than there is in the tiniest and dullest town in whatever country you live in, never mind Rome or New York or London or Tokyo.

Well, that's not quite true. There's one very worthwhile thing to do on other planets -- scientific research. And we're going about that the right way, by sending ever-more-sophisticated machines to do it for us, rather than sealing humans into large tin cans for a years-long voyage, at the end of which they would probably be in no psychological condition to spend further years collecting data.

But there are reasons why nobody wants a house in Antarctica.