30 April 2010

Video of the week -- Cheb Khaled

I've loved this song for years, but only recently discovered this video of it. No idea why the guy with the beard is so grouchy.

The Florida Senate race

Florida's Governor Charlie Crist is, by Republican standards, a moderate, having supported abortion rights and Obama's econo-mic stimulus package and favored environmental protections (he opposed offshore oil drilling, for example, a position which has probably grown more popular over the last few days). He is also widely suspected to be gay. None of this sits well with the hard-line right; and when Crist decided to run for the Senate this year, much of the right backed the more conservative Marco Rubio for the Republican nomination. With Rubio polling far ahead of Crist among Republican primary voters, Crist has now dropped out and plans to run for the Senate seat as an independent.

The stage seems set for another NY-23-style debacle. Florida is the purplest of states, often splitting its vote almost exactly 50-50 (most notoriously in the 2000 Presidential election), not very hospitable turf for too-red or too-blue candidates. As a centrist, Crist would likely have won; he still has a good chance of winning as an independent. If he does, his bridges with the Republican party will have been well-burned. Even if he doesn't, he could split the Republican vote and help the Democrat, Kendrick Meek, to win. Either way the Republicans are now at real risk of failing to capture a Senate seat which, by sticking with Crist, they would likely have gained.

28 April 2010

A lesson from the salamanders

I've recently finished reading The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins, which contains an abundance of fascinating insights into evolutionary biology. One of the more interesting ones concerns the salamanders of California's Central Valley.

Salamander habitat consistes of the mountains around the valley, not the valley floor itself. That is, the area where salamanders are found is an elongated ring of uplands, surrounding an internal area of non-salamander-habitable territory (the valley floor).

If you look just at the southern end of the ring, you will find that there are two distinct varieties of salamander which can easily be distinguished on sight. To the east are salamanders whose hides are patterned with irregular patches of black and yellow, while those to the west are an even brown in color. The salamanders themselves are well aware of the difference -- there is a small area where their ranges overlap, but they do not interbreed with each other. By this criterion, they would normally be considered two separate species.

The interesting part comes when you head north along the two separated sides of the valley. Let's take the eastern side. There, as expected, you see only salamanders of the black-and-yellow patchy type. But as you head further north along the eastern foothills, the black-and-yellow patches get less and less distinct. By the time you get to the north end of the valley, there has been a smooth transition to salamanders with mostly-brown skin and indistinct lighter patches. Then, as you head down the western foothills of the valley -- the other side of the "ring" -- you find salamanders with fainter and fainter light patches as you go south. By the time you're back at the southern end of the valley where you started, they are the plain brown western salamanders you originally saw.

In the south, there are two distinct species. But around the "ring" of the valley, the one type gradually becomes the other, with no noticeable discontinuity at any point.

Dawkins uses this to illustrate how the division of our successive proto-human ancestors such as the Neanderthals, Homo ergaster, the australopithecines, etc. into successive species is misleading. If you were to meet a living Homo ergaster, you would certainly classify it as a separate species from yourself, and you'd be right. But if you had a complete record of all the hundred thousand or so generations of intermediate descendants of that creature which lead forward in time to yourself, you would see only gradual change, no sudden discontinuity. Anthropologists sometimes argue vociferously about where exactly the line between two such successor species should be drawn, but it's actually a meaningless question. Cases like the California salamanders, where we see a gradual transition between two distinct species which live at the same time, are rare -- but between two species separated in time, where one is the ancestor of the other, it's the norm.

It occurs to me that the salamander has a lesson for us in another area: human races. Of course, no serious anthropologist would argue that human racial differences are analogous to differences between species. Humans populations from different parts of the world can, and routinely do, interbreed when they come into prolonged contact -- despite efforts, in some cases, to prevent it by law and custom. All humans are the same species; genetically speaking the racial differences are superficial, and they are likely of recent origin (how they arose is a fascinating question which, unfortunately, I don't have space for here). Nevertheless, those differences are very noticeable, and throughout history many humans have attached importance to them, to the disastrous misfortune of humanity as a whole.

We all know, for example, of the horrors which have happened in our own country because so many people thought there were significant innate differences between light-skinned humans of European descent and dark-skinned humans of African descent. But the United States is like the southern end of the Central Valley. If you were to start out in, say, Scandinavia, and travel through western Russia, the Balkans, Turkey, the Fertile Crescent, Egypt, the Sudan, the Horn of Africa, and finally Central Africa, you would find that the human populations around you changed only gradually in skin color and facial features, with very little in the way of discontinuities. The same would be the case if you set out from Europe and traveled across Russia and Central Asia to China.

Even aside from the hundreds of millions of "mixed-race" people born in regions where migration has brought previously-distinct populations together, human racial variation has always been a matter of gradual gradation over geographical distance, not sharply-bounded categories. If more people had been aware of this throughout history, humanity might have avoided a great deal of nonsense and cruelty.

The Democrats have saved the economy

The Bush recession officially ended in July of 2009, and standard measures like GNP growth, the stock market, and corporate profits all show clear signs of a strong economic recovery. But what about the factor that most affects the average person -- jobs?

"There is evidence that an epic hiring boom is about to get started and that competition for the right workers is already pushing up wages in many industries. As a result, paychecks are about to start growing again, for the first time in more than a year.....Retail sales have been on a tear, rising 1.6% in March for the largest gain since November 2007. People who had long denied themselves the things they wanted rushed to buy cars, clothing and furniture. Historically, retail sales have presaged job market improvement coming out of recessions. In fact, over the past three months, according to a U.S. household employment survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 1.4 million jobs have been created."

Read the whole article here; there are further positive indicators. The recovery is becoming self-sustaining, no longer dependent on continuation of the government stimulus which jump-started it. In a few areas, such as IT, pay is already rising as employers compete for workers -- and the effect will spread as job growth continues.

There's been a flurry of concern about the drop in global markets due to the ongoing economic crisis in Greece, but the stock market is always going up and down because of one thing or another, and it's unlikely that a default (if it happens) in a country with only 2% of the EU's population would have any noticeable effect on job growth in the US.

Republicans and other gloom-mongers can and will keep up their ever-more-threadbare doomsaying, but the fact remains that the Democrats, helping along the natural resilience of this country, have brought the economy out of the horrendous mess created by the Republicans when they were in power.

The one real caveat is the projection that unemployment could still be as high as 9% at the end of 2010 -- an improvement over its peak of 10.1%, but we should be able to do better. The problem is that the recovery will emphasize sectors which, in many cases, are not the same as those where jobs have disappeared. While wages for many will soon rise with the demand for their skills, we must not forget those who remain jobless. Investment in retraining, stronger protections against age discrimination, and a jobs bill focused on infrastructure are still needed. There are, in short, still things for the government to do -- which is why we need to make sure that the do-nothing party which got us into this mess in the first place doesn't recover control of it.

26 April 2010

Flip the colors

Tim Wise has an interesting way of looking at the recent antics of the militant right. Found via Progressive Eruptions.

Ladies, show your power!

Today is the date set by blogger Jen McCreight for a scientific test of Islamotard Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi's "immodesty" theory of earthquakes. The idea has gone viral and the experiment is under way, so if you're a believer in Islamic geology, prepare to tremble; the rest of us wiil just enjoy the view.

24 April 2010

Link roundup for 24 April 2010

Aside from earthquakes, it looks like non-conformist women cause volcanic eruptions too (found via Mendip).

Obama's ties with the Red Menace are exposed.

Oh, so that's how they include God in the big bang theory.

Are the fundies running out of ideas?

Republican Sue Lowden of Nevada has achieved immortality with her suggestion that uninsured people could pay for health care with chickens; now there's a dance remix version (found via Mad Mike). My hip operation in 2008 cost $40,000 -- I wonder what that works out to in chickens?

On second thought, send your chickens to John Ensign's Senate campaign. He's desperate enough to take them.

The story of Chauncy Morlan (1869-1906) illustrates one way in which the 21st century is worse than the 19th. More here.

See Texas, land of bats.

The FCC is asking for public comment on net neutrality.

Oklahoma's new law to discourage abortion is beyond belief.

Republicans are getting worried about a Crist independent run for Senate in Florida.

Crispian Jago's skeptic trumps series continues, now including James Randi.

Parsley's Pics is running an excellent post series on the John Birch Society. Here's part one and part two -- part three is still to come.

Zirgar writes of his experience on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Republicans are still the party of obstruction.

Palin's death panels were imaginary. These are real.

Show the teabagger in your life these ten inconvenient tax truths (found via BlondeSense).

The South isn't the only place where Republicans are playing with secessionist fire -- they're now doing it in Minnesota too (found via Green Eagle).

From California, a horrific case of abuse of the elderly shows why marriage law must be reformed. More here.

Walled-In Pond debunks Newsweek's claims that Catholic priests are no more likely than other men to be molesters.

Let's see them pin this one on the gays: besides child molestation, it turns out Catholic priests have quite a track record of sexual abuse of nuns, at least in certain countries.

At 2010's Atheist Alliance International convention, one invited speaker will be absent (be sure to watch the Pat Condell video at the link).

German Catholics are losing faith in the Church, with 26% openly considering leaving it.

Other countries are less deferential to religion than we are -- check out these German magazine covers and this British video.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali talks about women in the Third World.

Here are more photos from St. George's Day (England's national holiday) yesterday -- the white flag with the red cross is the English (distinct from British) flag.

As China develops economically, it will awaken politically.

The world now views the US much more favorably than it did in Bush's time (and more favorably than it views Russia or China).

Fossils found in South Africa tell us much about hominids who lived 1,900,000 years ago. I wonder what these creatures would have thought if they could see the machines modern humans are using to study their remains?

"Bioprinting", the use of 3-D printers to produce new tissues from a patient's own cells, could be just four years away from becoming generally available.

23 April 2010

Happy St. George's Day

In solidarity with those across the Atlantic who, apparently, can't even put their own flag out on their own national holiday without being subject to harassment. (Background here.)

21 April 2010

Video of the week -- Pat Condell speaks for me

This has been in the links list for months, but I want to make sure that everyone sees it! A book of transcripts of Condell's videos is available here.

20 April 2010

Holy man announces cause of earthquakes

Forget all secular-humanist talk of plate tectonics -- senior Iranian cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi has announced that the real cause of earthquakes is women who "do not dress modestly".

The clergyman's pronouncement does leave me a bit puzzled as to why earthquakes are so rare in Scandinavia and eastern Europe but so common in the Middle East. As an alternate hypothesis, perhaps earthquakes are actually caused by wearing beards and turbans and talking rubbish?

Update: Blag Hag has proposed an experiment to test Sedighi's hypothesis. Mark your calendar for 26 April.

19 April 2010

The anniversary

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the Oklahoma City terrorist bombing. At a time of hysteria and violent rhetoric on the far right (most recently a Congresswoman calling the elected government of the US a "gangster government"), and with actual terrorism on the march from the Tiller murder to Austin to the Hutaree, it's a day to be especially alert. More on the anniversary here.

18 April 2010

Our side's trump cards

British blogger Crispian Jago imagines the intellectual warriors of unbelief as a deck of trump cards. I like the Christopher Hitchens card the best, but they're all amusing. Found via PZ Myers, who's in the deck as well.

The nature of the Infidel: an introduction

[Note: This was my self-intro posting at Mad Mike's America two weeks ago. I decided to put it up here too.]

In a soci­ety where reli­gion is per­va­sive and taken for granted, we unbe­liev­ers must always be con­sid­er­ing how to deal with its influ­ence, espe­cially when “holy” days roll around (the recent Easter post Zom­bieaster is a good exam­ple on MMA). Per­sonal “decon­ver­sion” (escape from reli­gion) sto­ries are a sta­ple of the athe­ist blo­gos­phere, and some who were raised with a reli­gion but aban­doned it still find them­selves nagged by "spiritual" questions.

My his­tory is dif­fer­ent. I grew up com­pletely with­out reli­gion, and so I have a rather dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on it.

I was born in the US, but my par­ents had immi­grated here from Britain in the 1950s. It’s hard to con­vey to Amer­i­cans what a non-issue reli­gion is in main­stream soci­ety in Britain. Many (per­haps most) peo­ple would, if you asked them, self-identify as “Chris­t­ian” in some very vague way, with­out actu­ally believ­ing in any­thing much. Fer­vent reli­gious belief is (out­side the small Mus­lim minor­ity) very rare, and mis­trusted. The word “Chris­t­ian” con­tin­ues by cul­tural inertia, almost devoid of sub­stance. My par­ents, as far as I know, never self-identified as “Chris­t­ian” to even that extent, but the word was all that was left to renounce.

That’s what I grew up with. I was not taught to reject reli­gion; as far as I can recall, the sub­ject never even came up. I was given a kid’s book of Bible sto­ries (I still have it some­where), but it was just one of the many sto­ry­books I had. As a teenager I became inter­ested in his­tory, and of course that included the influ­ence of reli­gion, but that’s all it ever was to me — a fea­ture of cultural anthropology.

To me, the sto­ries of Jesus and Jeho­vah stand on exactly the same foot­ing as the sto­ries of Zeus, Thor, Aton-Ra, Vishnu, Peter Pan, or Harry Pot­ter. They are just sto­ries which have influ­enced human cul­ture in var­i­ous ways; it does not occur to me to won­der if there are “truths” in some sense to be found in them. I do not believe humans have souls; I do not believe in anything “spir­i­tual” what­so­ever; there is no “God-shaped hole”. On the question of how human free will and con­scious­ness can be rec­on­ciled with the laws of physics, I’m quite con­tent to say that we sim­ply don’t know — yet. Our under­stand­ing of the brain con­tin­ues to advance, and we will fig­ure it out in a cou­ple of decades, as we have fig­ured out so many other things our ancestors thought must be supernatural.

If it weren’t for the fact that the soci­ety I live in is full of resid­ual reli­gious influ­ences — from cre­ation­ism in the schools to molesta­tion in the con­fes­sion­als to inces­sant efforts to enact ancient sex­ual taboos into mod­ern civil law — I’m quite sure that con­cepts like God, souls, spir­i­tu­al­ity, etc. would never even have occurred to me.

What fills me with awe is not the fan­tasies of other humans who lived mil­len­nia ago, but the stagger­ing sweep of achieve­ment since then. Consider how much more we know, how much longer we live, how much more we have, how disease-free our lives are, how many super­sti­tions and taboos we have been lib­er­ated from, com­pared with our ances­tors of a thou­sand years ago — or even a hun­dred. My grand­mother was born before the flight of the Wright broth­ers, and she lived to see men walk on the Moon; what she would have thought of the device on which you are read­ing this post, I can barely imagine.

That is achieve­ment, the achieve­ment of human rea­son­ing power and hard work.

It inspires me because I know where we started from. We are not “fallen” from some ideal state and in need of redemp­tion. We are a bunch of hair­less mutant chim­panzees, try­ing to understand the uni­verse and running a high-tech post-industrial civ­i­liza­tion with brains which basically evolved to hunt ani­mals on the Serengeti. If you look at it that way, we’re not doing so badly.

More random observations

There have been thirteen Popes named "Innocent", but I bet they were all guilty as hell.

Millions who are horrified at the thought of bestiality can eat meat without a qualm. Which fate do you think the animal itself would fight harder to avoid?

Mainstream pornography achieves something truly amazing: it makes sex look like a chore.

Making fun of the enemy is fine, so long as it doesn't lead to under-estimating them. That's dangerous.

An aphorism attributed to Lincoln: "If I call a dog's tail a leg, how many legs does it have? Four, because calling a tail a leg doesn't make it one." And calling illegal aliens "immigrants" doesn't make them immigrants.

If people do not communicate except when they disagree, there will be nothing but arguments.

Don't hold friends to a higher standard than enemies. It's friends who deserve the benefit of the doubt.

List of posts on healthy life extension

This is easily the most important topic I write about, so I'm assembling links to all my posts about it in one place for easy reference (will be updated as necessary).

Review of Aubrey de Grey's book Ending Aging (technological feasibility of radical life extension in the near future)

FAQ on common objections (to be updated as necessary)

Debate with a Wiccan on life extension

Discussion with Mendip on threats to life-extension technology

Some further observations on the above discussions

Debunking the stagnation argument

Debunking the boredom argument

Our present situation is intolerable and should be treated as an emergency

Our present situation is an outrage

The most important thing that happened in 2008

Achieving immortality is natural for humans

Aging robs humanity of creative talent just as war does

Humanoid robots are a step toward artificial bodies -- and we're making great progress on brain-machine interfacing

17 April 2010

A teabagger manifesto

This week a Texas-based tea party activist published the "Contract from America", a manifesto of the movement, listing three basic principles and ten agenda items adopted based on 450,000 votes cast on his website. A lot of it sounds like boilerplate or code -- for example, genuine "individual liberty" would include some of my own priority issues such as abortion rights, drug legalization, gun-ownership rights, etc., but this seems framed in such a way as to re-define "liberty" in purely economic terms. Still, check it out for yourself. The Crossed Pond comments here. Update: Mad Mike's America has some interesting info on the size of the movement.

Link roundup for 17 April 2010

What if our laws really were based on the Ten Commandments?

A Swedish prisoner vents his unhappiness with the guards.

Maybe this means pizza causes mutations (found via Mendip).

Health-care reform drives out capitalism.

Teabagger Barbie needs work. Update: The "original" teabagger Barbie art was pilfered from Blag Hag's atheist Barbie.

China is trying to encourage entrepreneurship, but this boy may have taken things a bit far.

The "Pascal's wager" case for religion can have complicated results.

Support the Yorkshire free willy campaign!

An illustrator creates a badass alphabet (found via Mendip).

Texas beware -- Osama is after your goats.

Teabaggers plan to start policing themselves to exclude racist and nutty elements.

Obama insists financial re-regulation must get "derivatives" under control. Republicans are firmly in Wall Street's pocket.

Green Eagle finds the teabags of April 15 limp and soggy.

Rand Paul's strong showing in the Kentucky Republican Senate primary illustrates divisions on the right.

Obama is interviewed for Australian TV about Afghanistan, global warming, and China (found via The Quiet Magpie).

Russia's President Medvedev assesses Obama. More here.

Tension over immigrants in already-densely-populated Britain may impact next month's election there.

Catholicism isn't the only religion with molesters.

The Atheist Camel refuses to cast pearls before swine.

Black Sun Journal looks at Easter in a world of collapsing religion.

Stunning video shows water buffalo fighting lions to rescue a calf.

"Near-death experiences" correlate with carbon dioxide levels in the bloodstream.

Stars died that we might live.

London will host a major transhumanist conference next weekend, with Aubrey de Grey as one of the speakers.

16 April 2010

Quote for the day

"There's a cliche that I hear all the time, and that I despise because it is so trite — organizing atheists is like herding cats. I die a little inside every time I hear it because it is so old, but also because it is inaccurate. Everyone seems to picture masses of willful domest- ic cats wanting to scurry off to play with yarn or chase down mice; it's just not right. Organizing atheists is like herding lions, or at least ideally it should be. What we want is a community of fiercely independent, roaring, wrestling, arguing, fighting freethinkers; cross them, and you will get rhetorically mauled, and our battles are not about polite batting about with little kitty paws at issues, but should involve claws and fangs and uncompromising forceful- ness. Everyone who is complaining that the harshness of the debate degrades the discourse, get stuffed; I think the call to weaken the vigor of the disagreement is the real degradation here."

Video of the week -- rappin' at the LHC!

What the Europeans have been up to, while we fiddle-faddle around with the creationism-in-the-schools nuts.....

Obama's order on gay hospital rights

The President has issued an order requiring most hospitals to let patients receive visits from same-gender partners and to respect patients' choices on whom to delegate their health-care decision-making ability. The order applies only to hospitals which receive federal funding, but there are few that do not.

The order alleviates a serious humanitarian problem. Since gays cannot yet marry in most states, partners do not automatically have these rights, the way spouses of heterosexual patients do. Patients have gone through hospital stays or even died without being able to see the person who is most important to them, while homophobic family members use their automatically-recognized rights as blood relatives as one more opportunity to torment and divide a couple.

In what will doubtless be just the first of many responses from Christian hate groups, the Family Research Council denounced the order as "pandering" and "undermining the definition of marriage", even though it says nothing about gay marriage. Humanitarian concerns mean nothing to these bigots; their sole concern is to protect the "right" to bully and discriminate.

14 April 2010

Cheer up

Enough of this dreary Confederacy/teabagger/Catholic Church stuff. Time for something cheerier.

People in San Francisco did a great counter-protest against the Westboro Baptist "God hates fags" Church, using signs parodying theirs. Found via Sue, who also reports on a plan to subvert the teabaggers from within.

While a few have been trying to honor traitors who fought to save slavery (but carefully pretending that that isn't quite what they're doing), others are working to build a memorial to the man who did more than any other to repair the damage done by slavery to this country. Found via TNLib.

Update: Watch this too -- great job by these school kids. Thanks to God Lizard for the link.

13 April 2010

Yes, the Confederacy was about slavery

Ta-Nehisi Coates cuts through the nonsense using actual historical documents of the time, most notably the declarations of secession issued by the traitorous state governments themselves. Yes, there were true Southern heroes back then -- they just aren't the people today's knuckle-draggers choose to glorify. And Coates ends with a valuable reminder that, in the United States, there is no singleness of identity -- not for anyone.

Found via Pharyngula, which sees some connections with modern teabaggerdom. If that's not alarming enough, read this story from Oklahoma (sent by Mendip), where a few teabaggers and state legislators are floating the idea of a "state militia" to resist "federal infringements on state sovereignty". It should be noted that other conservatives in Oklahoma oppose the idea and are focusing on legal ways of opposing federal actions, such as lawsuits. As for the nutters, let's hope they read the words of Sergeant C.

Oh, and one of the high holy days of the extreme right, April 19 (the anniversary of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing) is less than a week away.

Predators at bay in Connecticut

The Connecticut state legislature is considering a bill which would remove the statute of limitations from child-molestation cases -- that is, it would allow victims to sue regardless of how much time has passed since the crime (though victims over 48 when they sue would still face certain limitations). One major organization is fighting tooth and nail to stop this bill from passing. Care to guess which organization it is? Oh, hell, there's no need for guessing, is there -- you know as well as I do that it can only be the Catholic Church (link sent by Mendip).

The Church has issued a letter to its Connecticut parishioners declaring that the law would put "all Church institutions, including your parish, at risk" and that it would "undermine the mission of the Catholic Church in Connecticut, threatening our parishes, our schools, and our Catholic Charities." Gosh -- all the Church's insti-tutions in the state and everything it does would be endangered by making it easier for molestation victims to sue? Those closets must be even more bulging with skeletons than we thought!

This letter, and another official statement meant to be read out during Sunday Mass, urge parishioners to contact the legislature and oppose the bill. Let's hope that the Catholic laity have seen the reality of their warped priesthood and will disobey.

10 April 2010

Random observations on value and reward

Years ago, when I had some cash to spare, I used to play the stock market a bit. The $2,000 profit I made by making one lucky guess and two phone calls was taxed at a lower rate than the $2,000 I worked a month of eight-hour days to earn.

If every corporate executive in the country went on strike for a month, and every garbage collector in the country went on strike for a month, which absence would cause more actual problems?

When a company's Senior Executive Vice President of Something Frightfully Important quits, there is usually an exhaustive and expensive search process to find a replacement, lasting several months, during which the job stays vacant. When the accounting department's receptionist quits, they get a temp in within a day or two -- because that's something they actually can't do without.

I do not begrudge the fact that my immediate boss makes more money than I do. Managing people is genuinely hard work. And when she takes a week off, we feel the lack. But what are the guys up on the commanding heights doing for their huge salaries, that their jobs can be left unfilled for months with no noticeable effect?

If people were actually rewarded in proportion to the value they contribute, medical researchers would be taking home the seven-figure bonuses, and the titans of Wall Street would be out on the streets panhandling for enough change to buy the night's bottle of Thunderbird.

Sometimes, giving up is the right move

When I started bicycle commuting late last year, I had high hopes for it. I needed the exercise, having become sedentary and signifi-cantly overweight since my hip joint started to deteriorate three years ago. Even after the accident which left me with a concussion and broken bones, I didn't want to make an immediate decision about whether or not to continue. It's too easy to just give up right after a severe shock.

The injuries are long healed now. Having considered the question soberly, I decided that, in this case, giving up was the right move. Not everyone is cut out for bike-riding on a regular basis; if there's a knack for avoiding accidents, I probably don't have it. One injury accident in just a month and a half of regular riding is not a very encouraging track record (by comparison, I've driven cars for 30 years with only one accident, and that was caused by the other guy running a red light). The next time, if there was one, could easily be a lot worse.

I know well that Americans are notorious for fretting over risks which have, in fact, only a tiny probability of materializing. I'm not the kind of person who spends time worrying that the airline flight I'm on will be the one in ten million that gets hijacked, or obsessing over some disease I'm actually at negligible risk for. But I concluded that the risk of another serious bicycle accident was not negligible.

This week I finally put the bike up for sale. It found a buyer almost immediately. At least I got a good price for it. So that chapter is closed. Sometimes, giving up is the right move.

Link roundup for 10 April 2010

Only Jon Stewart and the Onion can do any justice to the Catholic Church's handling of the molestation-cover-up scandals.

Bill Maher looks at 2009's ridiculous Republicans (found via Sue).

Palin likes 'em invisible.

Gay Jesus isn't welcome in Fort Worth.

The Pope can't evade responsibility.

The latest Pigasus Awards for achievement in crackpottery have been announced.

Yikes! Save us from the smoke of Hell!

There's a new Barbie doll out -- and there should be another.

An unbeatable combination: chocolate, rock & roll, and a gorilla.

One Fly of Outta the Cornfield has a new landscape photo blog.

Sometimes the kid wins: Ranch Chimp tells of a molestation-free (but not sinless) Catholic childhood.

Sam Harris discusses religious "morality" as a distraction from real morality.

Handed lemons, Constance McMillen makes lemonade.

ZJ looks at the six biggest moral failings of God (amazing he was able to narrow it down to just six).

Unregulated water supplies pose a public health challenge.

Jack Cassell, the Florida urologist who famously tells pro-Obama voters to go elsewhere because he's mad about the new health law, doesn't seem to know what it actually says.

Obama is demanding action on improving mine safety.

Is the Tea Party movement politically mainstream? Not really.

Tarryl Clark is running against Michele Bachmann for her seat in Congress.

A former top aide to Colin Powell says that Bush knew hundreds of Guantánamo detainees were innocent.

A godless nation is a healthy nation.

The President of Poland has been killed in a plane crash in Russia.

Four Dinners looks at next month's British election.

A priestly-molestation hotline in Germany was overwhelmed with calls on its first day in operation.

Here's more on Irish reactions to the Pope's molestation "apology".

American Black Chick in Europe looks at the top five European misconceptions about Americans.

A gory crucifixion re-enactment frightens children in Australia.

The unconscionable thing about that "collateral murder" incident in Iraq was not the soldiers' actions but the military's cover-up.

Greece is on the brink of economic collapse (hmm, it seems like we've been hearing that for several weeks now).

Triton, a moon of Neptune, has seasons (found via Mendip) -- but all of them are cold and last more than 40 years.

The new era of healthy longevity will transform the world.

09 April 2010

Video of the week -- just for fun

A rap act in honor of a scientist -- I love it!

Honoring treason

Governor McDonnell of Virginia triggered a firestorm this week with his proclamation (link sent by Mendip) honoring the most monstrous, violent, and bloody act of treason ever committed against the American nation and Constitution. To be sure, that was not his intent. He released the proclamation last Friday by placing it, without fanfare, on his website, suggesting that he hoped it would not attract media attention. The point about it which sparked the most immediate outrage was its omission of any reference to slavery, which is a bit like issuing a proclamation in honor of the 9/11 hijackers without mentioning jihad. Later, under a barrage of criticism even from some of his allies, McDonnell apologized for the omission, calling it a "mistake" -- assuredly a startling one, since previous such proclamations by earlier Republican governors had included mention of slavery.

Whether this was just a crass, clumsy blunder or a crass, clumsy wolf-whistle, no one but McDonnell truly knows. However, he has in a way done the country a service, by drawing attention to the issue of Civil War history and its modern abuses.

David Frum cuts through the dishonest rhetoric which so often clouds this topic:

But the Civil War is a subject about which it is impossible to be bland, and in urging Virginians to remember, the proclamation engaged in some creative forgetting. It claimed that Confederate soldiers “fought for their homes and communities and Common-wealth.” None of those things was endangered in 1861. What was endangered was slavery.....

Oliver Willis puts it more bluntly:

When you celebrate the confederacy you support the idea of taking up arms against the United States in defense of the conti- nued enslavement of black people. To celebrate the Confederacy is to celebrate human bondage and treason. Period.

Citizen K reviews the revival of racism and terrorism after the war, and Beekeeper's Apprentice (who lives in Richmond) looks at the ongoing modern efforts to rehabilitate the Confederacy.

Frum and Willis are right. If any one action in American history met the standard of "levying war against" the United States (the Constitutional definition of treason), the secession of the South and the launching of the Civil war was it. The fault-line dividing the country was, and already had been for years, slavery. Certainly a Confederate victory would have kept slavery in existence much longer, probably decades. To claim that this was in any sense a noble cause, or that the people who fought for it were heroes, is an unspeakable outrage. To claim that embracing such an attitude and displaying the flag of treason is somehow compatible with American patriotism is bizarre.

I am not one of those people who looks down on the South, as the South. There are plenty of Southerners who are patriotic and non- racist, and there are plenty of racists and people with a nauseating disdain for patriotism in other parts of the country. The Constitu- tion itself says that "no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood" -- people are not responsible for the actions of their ancestors. But the Confederate fetish is an insult to the United States. It's also dangerous because it's divisive, in two ways.

Most obviously, of course, it insults black Americans, because the Confederacy fought, and indeed was established, to prolong the ghastly abuse of their ancestors.

Perhaps less obviously, it underhandedly legitimizes a kind of seditious talk which has become fashionable among extremists. Mutterings about secession do crop up here and there on the far right, and even the governor of Texas was caught making such remarks. Of course, there is not going to be another secession or another civil war, but that doesn't mean that this couldn't be a problem. Do we really want to let a version of Canada's endlessly-distracting Quebec issue arise in our country?

08 April 2010

Priests' paradise -- Alaska

Every time I think the Catholic-priest-molestation scandal can't get any worse -- it does.

On the morning of January 14 in Seattle, Ken Roosa and a small group Alaska Natives stood on the sidewalk outside Seattle University to announce a new lawsuit against the Jesuits, claiming a widespread conspiracy to dump pedophile priests in isolated Native villages where they could abuse children off the radar. "They did it because there was no money there, no power, no police".....

These abusers in Alaska, Wall said, were specifically sent to Alaska "to get them off the grid, where they could do the least amount of damage" to the church's public image.

Read the whole thing (found via PZ Myers, who has plenty to say too). The leaders of the Church cared nothing for the children who had been victimized, nor for those whom they knew full well these creatures would go on to victimize in Alaska, so long as everybody kept quiet. They cared only for the Church's reputation. So it's most appropriate that that reputation is now being slowly and publicly shredded, lawsuit by lawsuit.

Too bad it comes too late for the kids who committed suicide.

07 April 2010

Against the tide, meanly

In a final expression of the deep mean-spiritedness of "traditional values", Constance McMillen, the Mississippi lesbian teenager who won the right to bring a female date to the prom (background here and here) was directed to a fake event in order to exclude her from the real one. More at Dissenting Justice and Pharyngula.

That's what it has come to: a cruel, petty deception against an 18-year-old. A few weeks ago, almost nobody had heard of Itawamba County Agricultural High School; now it will be known around the world, for this.

Here are a couple more news items I spotted recently. Registered voters in California now support gay marriage 52%-40%, implying that Prop. 8 would lose heavily if it were re-voted today. And 50% of Americans say they would support an openly-gay President -- something difficult to imagine even a few years ago. The tide is turning, and fast. The bigots will still have their little victories here and there, for a while; but in the end they will lose, and their children will be ashamed of them.

Nested communities

While my real passion is technology -- the application of science to fight disease and aging, to protect the environment, and to expand the powers of the mind through systems like computers and the internet -- the discoveries of pure science itself often fascinate. Consider the case of Mixotricha paradoxa.

Mixotricha is a protozoan -- a microscopic one-celled organism (there are many species of protozoa, amoebas being another example). Under the microscope, it appears vaguely pear-shaped, covered with about 250,000 "cilia" -- tiny hair-like growths which wave in a synchronized way to propel it through its environment. (That environment itself is of some interest, but I'll get to that in a moment). Many protozoa have cilia, but Mixotricha is different. Its cilia are not really cilia. They are separate organisms, bacteria of the "spirochete" type, long and thin and active. These spirochete bacteria are attached to the surface of the Mixotricha by brackets and are symbiotic with it. They have been compared to rowers propelling a ship.

You might be surprised that 250,000 bacteria could be attached to one protozoan; however, even though bacteria and protozoa are both microscopic one-celled organisms, there is a tremendous difference in size between them.

There exist on Earth two types of cells. The "prokaryotic" type is tiny and simple, without much internal structure; the "eukaryotic" type is far larger, with very complex internal structure including a distinct nucleus. Bacteria, and a class of similar organisms called "archaea", are prokaryotic cells. Protozoa are eukaryotic cells. All multi-cellular organisms -- animals (including our noble selves), plants, fungi, etc. -- are made of eukaryotic cells.

Aside from the spirochetes, three other species of bacteria are symbiotic with Mixotricha, living on or even inside it, performing a variety of functions without which it could not survive, such as extracting energy from the nutrients which it absorbs from its environment.

(It's now believed, by the way, that eukaryotic cells first arose as symbiotic combinations of the original, simpler prokaryotic cells. Modern animal cells contain small fuel-processing bodies called "mitochondria" which have their own DNA and whose "ancestors" must have been bacteria which became symbiotic with larger cells billions of years ago and ended up being absorbed by them. The same is true of the "chloroplasts", photosynthesizing bodies, within plant cells. Mixotricha's symbiotic relationships may resemble the arrangements which gave rise to eukaryotic cells in the first place.)

Mixotricha are not solitary creatures; they swarm through their environment in great numbers. And each individual one of them is, as we have seen, host to a whole community of hundreds of thousands of bacteria.

And what is that environment in which these Mixotricha live? It is the digestive tract of a termite -- specifically, a termite of a species native to northern Australia. You probably know that termites cannot, on their own, digest the cellulose they eat; they depend on micro-organisms inside their digestive systems to do it for them. Mixotricha is one such micro-organism. (Different species of termites use different species of microscopic helpers.)

So each termite contains a huge community of Mixotricha in its gut, without which it could not survive. And each one of those Mixotricha in turn contains a vast number of symbiotic bacteria, without which it, likewise, could not survive.

Nor does it end there. Termites, of course, are social insects, living in colonies of millions. Most of the termites in such a colony are sterile, with the few "queen" termites functioning as egg-laying machines. Rather than viewing each termite as an individual, it's probably more correct to think of an entire colony as a super-organism, with the "queens" being analogous to stem cells which replenish the colony's numbers to replace worker termites as they die off; the flying termites which occasionally leave to start new colonies are the super-organism's reproductive organs, or spores.

Lives within lives within lives within lives.....

05 April 2010

Sergeant C speaks again

Sergeant C, the US Marine who wrote the dire warning to would-be insurrectionists which I linked here, has written a follow-up piece. There seems to be a problem with that link at the moment, but the entire text of the new essay (along with the old one) is re-posted at Just My Little Piece of the World.

Quote for the day

"I support anti-aging research and the search for longevity, even though many people tell me that this is 'against nature.' Human lifespan was less than 30 years before the Industrial Revolution, and not just due to 'high infant mortality.' Death was common, not only between birth and 10 years, but between 10 years and 20, and between 20 and 30; if the pox didn't get you, the plague gene-rally would. For the working class, lifespan was still only around 37 years when Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England. It was 50 for all classes in the Western democracies by 1900. It now* hovers around 73 years, and is increasing.....Each of these quantum leaps in lifespan, since modern technological medicine began, could be denounced as 'against nature' just as plausibly as modern longevity research can be so denounced.....I would find it most amusing and entertaining to live 300 or 400 years, or longer. (In that time, I might get smart enough to figure out what the hell is right or wrong for me most of the time, but I think it would take millenniums at least to figure out what the Ideologists all claim to know already, namely what is right and wrong for everybody.) Those who find this appalling to their religious prejudices will forever retain the option of 'suicide'
(refusal of life-supporting technology) at whatever age seems 'natural' to them -- at 30 if they think we have only become 'unnatural' since the French Revolution, at 50 if they think we only became 'unnatural' in this century, etc."

Robert Anton Wilson


04 April 2010

Mad Infidel's America

"Mad Mike" has paid me the great compliment of inviting me to be a contributing blogger on his site, Mad Mike's America. I'll likely be a somewhat infrequent poster there, as I am at The Swash Zone -- I never have as much time for the internet as I'd like -- but my introductory post is up.

03 April 2010

The evil empire strikes back (and falls flat)

This week the Catholic hierarchy finally managed to get their dicks out of their altar boys long enough to attempt a response to the storm of horrified outrage provoked by the endless molestation-coverup scandals. The results, as one might expect, were less than impressive. The Vatican started by blaming the media, notably the New York Times (link sent by TNLib), presumably for not keeping quiet about what the holy men of God had been up to, as they would have done in decades past. They tried blaming secularism too, and free-lance Catholic apologist Bill Donohue (who must be pretty busy these days) blamed the gays. The award for the most tasteless effort, however, must go to the Pope's own "personal preacher" (the Pope has a personal preacher?) for likening the public criticism of the Catholic Church to the history of "collective violence" against Jews -- a positively grotesque analogy, given the Church's own record in that area, as Oliver Willis observes. Short of accusing small boys of dressing alluringly and bringing it on themselves, it's hard to see how self-justification could sink any lower. The capo di tutti capi, He Who Zings Rats, has made it clear that he will never accept responsibility -- or behave responsibly -- come Hell or high water. Small wonder Maureen Dowd opined that the Church "gave up its credibility for Lent". Actually, credibility is the least of the Church's image problem.

Meanwhile, out in the real world, the consecrated hosts continued to hit the fan. A conservative German bishop was credibly accused of beating orphans. The Pope was implicated in the mishandling of yet another molesting-priest case, this one in Arizona (screw the internal Church processes, why didn't anybody call the police?!). One of the Pope's business competitors, the Archbishop of Canter-bury, declared that the Catholic Church in Ireland had "lost all credibility" due to its handling of the molestation scandals there.

Surveying the whole ghastly mess, a question arises: even aside from the child-molesting itself, does all this ass-covering, excuse-making, blame-shifting, and finger-pointing look even remotely like the behavior of people who sincerely expect to be judged in the afterlife for their actions? Do these sexually-twisted, power-obsessed, reptilian old men really believe their own bullcrap about Jesus and God actually existing, any more than I do?

Do they even know what they believe any more?

Коллекция ссылк для 3-го апреля 2010

Green Eagle has plenty of material for his latest Wingnut Wrapup.

Sounds like Limbaugh had a good day.

For the true meaning of tomorrow's holy day, read Zombieaster.

Rep. Johnson fears Guam might capsize? Mendip has some ideas to put his mind at rest.

These people stand unashamedly and uncompromisingly on the Bible.

Jumpin' Jesus, it's a Hutaree wedding! (Sent by Mendip).

A venerable Canadian magazine is changing its name.

The HCR "mandate" is unenforceable.

Sounds like Palin better not give up her day job (oops, too late).

How incongruous -- a urologist who's an asshole.

Obama has some fun with critics of HCR.

Hot on the heels of the already-infamous $2,000 lesbian BDSM show, the Republicans have sent out a fund-raising letter with a phone number on it which is actually a phone-sex line. Do we really want to put these people back in charge of the H-bombs?

Oliver Willis noticed that a National Review symposium on black unemployment didn't include any black participants. National Review responded to his post, and he dissects their response.

General Sheehan apologizes for his lies about the Srebrenica massacre.

An Iranian nuclear scientist who disappeared last year defected to the US.

Many impoverished regions have something in common.

Debating creationism is a waste of time.

If God existed, orgasms probably wouldn't.

A tiny tumor has nightmarish effects (found via Mendip).

I may get this book about one of the most dangerous scams of our time.

We have entered an era of mortality postponed (and we ain't seen nothin' yet!).

The Methuselah Foundation announces a new research prize, for building a new organ from a patient's own cells.

(Note: The title of this week's link roundup is in Russian as a small gesture of solidarity after the recent terrorist attacks.)

02 April 2010

How the left misunderstands the far right

It's the common opinion on the left that racism is the main (even if unacknowledged) driver of the apparently hysterical right-wing opposition to Obama and the Democratic agenda. On pretty much any comment thread (including some right here on my own blog) to a post about teabaggers, obstructionist Republicans, militias, fundamentalists, anti-gay hysteria, etc., one or more people will inevitably say "it's because they're racist" or "it's because they can't deal with the fact that we have a black President" or something similar. Almost never is any evidence cited to support this view; that's not felt to be necessary. It's asserted with the air of stating conventional wisdom, something that everybody already "knows". Even in a case like the Hutaree militia, with their endless talk of Christian warriors and fighting the Antichrist, a lot of people "know" that the underlying cause is racism.

I disagree. Racism is certainly there, and sometimes blatantly manifests itself, but I don't think it's the main problem. The main problem is religious fundamentalism.

Consider, for example, how the same array of right-wing forces would be reacting if Hillary had become President. I think it would be pretty much the same as what they're directing against Obama. Before Obama emerged as a big force in the Democratic primaries, when Hillary was the most prominent personality on the left, she was demonized in similar ways to how Obama now is -- and this was when even the prospect of her becoming President was a hazy possibility a couple of years in the future. If she actually were President, it would be worse.

It's hard to see how Repent Amarillo has anything to do with racism -- it looks more like Dominion Theology in action. The right's anti-gay and anti-abortion obsessions are solidly rooted in religion, and the same is true of the energy it puts into opposing the theory of evolution. The "Oath Keepers" actually reject racist elements. The bogeyman of Communism was always damned as "Godless", and even slavery and segregation and Jim Crow were routinely defended in Biblical terms.

There are some exceptions -- the histrionic fear and rage about health-care reform isn't obviously based on religion, for example, but it isn't obviously linked to racism either. More to the point, where did all these herds of agitated people acquire the impulse to firmly believe things which are so utterly contradicted by easily-available evidence? Another word for that kind of belief is "faith".

The problem is one I've written about before: The American left is overwhelmingly secular and has a lot of trouble understanding religion and the religious mentality. Confronted with a religious phenomenon, it tries to re-interpret that phenomenon in terms of something else which is more familiar -- taking religion not as the actual motivator but as a cover for something else.

This is why, for example, most American leftists don't understand Islamic terrorism -- they think in terms of historic grievances, colonialism, Israel, and so forth, and can't grasp or can't believe that the real roots of the problem lie in Islamic religious doctrines. (When 9/11 happened, I was horrified, but I wasn't surprised -- because Islam was my field of academic specialization, I know about its doctrines in detail, and I had been expecting for years that jihadists would eventually carry out such a major attack on us.) Atheist writer Sam Harris has pointed out the exact problem I'm talking about here:

Why would someone as conspicuously devoid of personal grievances or psychological dysfunction as Osama bin Laden -- who is neither poor, uneducated, delusional, nor a prior victim of Western aggression -- devote himself to cave-dwelling machina- tions with the intention of killing innumerable men, women, and children he has never met? The answer to this question is obvious -- if only because it has been patiently articulated ad nauseam by bin Laden himself. The answer is that men like bin Laden actually believe what they say they believe. They believe in the literal truth of the Koran. Why did nineteen well-educated, middle-class men trade their lives in this world for the privilege of killing thousands of our neighbors? Because they believed they would go straight to paradise for doing so. It is rare to find the behavior of human beings so fully and satisfactorily explained. Why have we been reluctant to accept this explanation? (The End of Faith, pp.28-29)

As Harris has also noted, American fundamentalists ironically understand the jihadists better than American leftists do, because their ways of thinking are more similar.

In the same way, leftists tend to re-interpret the Christian Right (and the whole scatter of phenomena mentioned above in the fourth paragraph) in terms of things like racism or economic factors, which are more familiar and which they're more comfor- table talking about. I think people from other Western countries, which lack any powerful home-grown equivalent to our Christian Right, tend to misinterpret our political scene the same way, for the same reason.

But just as with bin Laden, sometimes people actually do believe exactly what they say they believe, and that's that.

The hysteria of the far-right response to the 2008 election must be seen in light of the fact that the fundamentalists have been losing the culture war for years, and they know it. But as long as Bush and the party dominated by the Christian Right were in power, they had hope that the power of the state (and future Supreme Court appointments) would favor their cause. When that was swept away, defeat stared them in the face.

Racism is certainly there, but if Obama were white, we'd still be seeing basically the same range of reactions on the far right.

01 April 2010

A week of religion

What a week it's been for faith! Islamic suicide-bomber terrorists (excuse me, practitioners of the "religion of peace") struck Russia twice, first in the Moscow subway and then in Dagestan near the Caucasus mountains, killing at least fifty people. In Michigan and points nearby we had the "Hutaree" Christian "militia" (Hutarese for "terrorist organization"), whose own plans would doubtless have claimed an even larger death toll, had not the authorities forestalled them. The endless Catholic-priest child-molestation scandals continued to blow up in country after country, leaving the hierarchy with rotten egg running down its face; Pope "He Who Zings Rats" Benedict XVI is reduced to croaking "I am not a crook" as the world wonders, "What did the Pope know and when did he know it?" Finally, Fred "God hates fags" Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, the bunch who put the "protest" in "Protestant", are back in the news; having been sued for picketing the funeral of a US soldier killed in Iraq, they've now obtained a ruling claiming court costs from the soldier's father!

Apologists for religion have been busy making excuses, and the "no true Scotsman" fallacy has gotten a predictable workout.

Religion....."a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel." And the week isn't even over yet. Maybe the Buddhists or Hindus have something planned.