30 January 2013

The fires of fanaticism

The French army has mostly driven away the Islamists who had seized control of the city of Timbuktu and other areas of northern Mali, but before the fanatics retreated, they carried out an act which gives us all a sharp reminder of what they and those like them truly stand for.

Among ignorant Westerners, the very name "Timbuktu" has long been shorthand for the boondocks or for a place incredibly remote, but in fact the city has for centuries been a major trade and cultural center for west Africa and the Sahara.  As such, it is host to two archives containing thousands of irreplaceable medieval books and manuscripts embodying the culture and history of the region -- an aging library and a newly-built research center using modern techniques to preserve and study the centuries-old texts.

Before leaving Timbuktu, the Islamists burned down both buildings.

Why would they do this?  It's of a piece with the Taliban's infamous destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues, or the rioting and threats of violence over the Danish Muhammad cartoons or Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, or the destruction and banning of books in Europe centuries ago when Christianity had the upper hand there.  Religious fanatics cannot countenance the very existence of ideas that clash with their own.  Libraries and historical archives worthy of the name are completist, not orthodox; they preserve texts of all kinds, not just those reflecting the "correct" viewpoint.  And so, to the fanatic, they are citadels of deviant thought, best annihilated.

In Timbuktu the Islamists also destroyed the tombs of several Sufi saints, even though these were Islamic monuments.  Why?  Because the veneration of saints is a feature of Islam syncretized with local non-Islamic practices, in west Africa and elsewhere, and thus anathema to strict orthodox Islam.  True fanatics seem to hate most of all those who practice a slightly "wrong" form of the "right" religion.  Consider the violence and destruction wrought by Sunnis against Shiites and vice versa in Iraq, and by various Muslim factions against others in Pakistan, or the hideously bloody wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe centuries ago when people there still took religion seriously.  Heretical belief is as bad as unbelief, if not worse.

This mentality is far from unknown in our own country.  There have been symbolic burnings of Harry Potter books, and the Christian Right's constant denunciations of science, especially the theory of evolution, stem from the same mind-set.

Religion inevitably tends in this direction because its beliefs are inherently ridiculous and cannot compete or, in the long run, even survive in an open competition of ideas.  Even the presence of rival religions is dangerous.  Where a diversity of thought is allowed to exist, religion withers away, as has been happening for decades in all advanced countries.  Eruptions of fanaticism such as modern jihadism or our Christian Right are the panic-stricken hysterics of the shrinking core of fanatics who know their narrow orthodoxy is losing out.

Oh, and it turns out that quite a few of Timbuktu's medieval texts were saved after all; preservationists and local people had removed them from the archives before they were burned, because they knew what the Islamists are like and knew that they would be likely to destroy the manuscripts.  It's also reported that local people celebrated when the French drove the Islamists out, even though they are themselves mostly Muslim.  Normal people all over the world, it seems, recoil from religious fanaticism when they get a real taste of it.

27 January 2013

Link round-up for 27 January 2013

The iPad is making inroads among a long-overlooked class of customers.

A 10-day-old baby takes his first swim.

If they ever do ban guns.....

A mother talks common sense about God (found via Lady Atheist).

What would Jesus do?

Hillary Clinton is more popular than ever.

Reason Being looks at the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church -- and the joy of atheism.

Yes, there is a systematic campaign to silence women on the internet.

Another poll confirms that Americans overwhelmingly support keeping Roe v. Wade.

Use a credit card?  Watch out for surcharges.

There's new hard evidence supporting the view that many gay-haters have repressed homosexual urges.  And these guys sure don't seem to like women much.

Arizona Republicans propose an unconstitutional religious oath as a condition of receiving a high-school diploma (sent by Leslie Parsley).

Chemicals banned in Europe are still used in food in the under-regulated US.

Gary Bauer whinges that minorities are abandoning the fight against gay marriage (found via Republic of Gilead).  Hispanics in particular are abandoning social conservatism.

Boycott Terry Lee Forensics of Cedar City, Utah.

Lady Atheist looks at two books which make the case that Jesus never existed -- one of which got its author fired.

Interest in gun ownership runs high among young people.

Evidence emerges of a sex-abuse cover-up at Bob Jones University (found via Republic of Gilead).

Conservative austerity policies push Britain back into recession.

Here's an unusual photo from the 1941 bombing of London.

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day.  In Warsaw, an archive of memories survives.

A regional food fight breaks out in Berlin (found via Mendip).

Green Eagle looks at Israel's shift to the left.

As Argentina threatens war over the Falklands, a destroyer which played a major role in the 1982 war sinks while moored at its dock.

Morocco may soon stop forcing rape victims to marry their rapists.  In Afghanistan, a victim is re-raped by the authorities.

Here's a look at marital bliss in India.

Is Kim Jong Un the most dangerous Kim yet?  (And why can't a man with all that power get a better haircut?)

Indonesian judge Muhammad Daming Sanusi would make a great Republican.

A soccer game brings out offensive superstitions about women (sent by Ahab).

A dolphin entangled in a fishing line appears to ask for human help.

The humble spotted salamander is the first known solar-powered vertebrate.

This huge ancient riverbed is of interest mainly because of where it is.

Neurobiology is starting to understand what speaking in tongues is.

A 2,000-year-old mass grave in Denmark sheds light on ancient Germanic warfare.

Chilean scientists are working on a vaccine for alcoholism.

[Image at top found via Reason Being.]

24 January 2013

A small step toward independence?

Just when the European Union's oligarchs had managed to convince the world that the EU's existential crisis was subsiding, British Prime Minister David Cameron has tossed a grenade -- albeit one more of nerf than of steel -- into their foxhole of denialism.  In a speech yesterday, Cameron declared that if he wins the next British national election in 2015, he will negotiate the return to Britain of sovereign powers it had formerly ceded to the EU, and will then hold a referendum on the new arrangement by 2017.  He even adumbrated, very vaguely, the possibility of Britain leaving the EU if it refuses to negotiate.

The nerf here is squishy indeed.  Cameron has two years before the next election -- why not negotiate now and run for re-election in 2015 on the basis of recovered national sovereignty (something which would be popular in Britain)?  Voters remember an earlier half-promise of a referendum on the EU by Cameron's Conservative party, a referendum which it never delivered; they're well aware that by 2017 it will be all too easy for a safely re-elected Cameron to say that conditions have changed and perhaps it would not be wise to er um blah blah blah.

It's still a significant move, though, not so much for what it says about future government action as about the current state of politics.  In the last election, the Conservatives still got far fewer votes than the opposing Labour party, despite the latter's deep unpopularity; the Conservatives now rule only due to a shaky coalition with the small, annoying Liberal Democrat party.  Since that election, the Conservatives' austerity policies have strangled the economic recovery that was beginning under Labour.  Cameron needs a "game change" to have much hope of winning in 2015.  The EU is unpopular in Britain and the new UK Independence Party (UKIP) has been siphoning away Conservative voters in polls and local elections; an anti-EU move was the obvious option to be that "game change" -- especially with some in the Labour party hinting at a referendum promise of their own, which would have fatally outflanked Cameron..

So why such a feeble effort?  Cameron's heart is not in it.  Like almost all European mainstream-party politicians, he's a pro-EU true believer.  He may well actually favor some recovery of sovereign powers from the EU, but has always been reluctant to even talk about a referendum, and would recoil from the idea of leaving the EU.  Everyone in Britain knows these things.  The UKIP's boisterous and somewhat Barney-Frank-like leader, Nigel Farage, is firmly unimpressed.

Cameron may, however, have started something he cannot control.  One must never under-estimate the depths of the EU oligarchs' arrogance.  Their reaction is the best evidence that there's more here than mere fluff.  They've already swatted down his reluctant ploy, declaring that "Europe à la carte is not an option".  Rather than go along with his game of using anti-EU rhetoric to get re-elected and then (probably) letting the whole thing get quietly watered down, they've loudly and firmly painted him into a corner.  Why?  The key, I think, is in this remark by "a senior EU politician":

A list of demands would have been very negative. There's a risk we'll shut the door in his face. It's not possible to have member states sending in lists [of demands]. Then you'll have the Swedes, the Dutch, and the Czechs doing the same. That will leave you not with a union, but with a kind of regional alliance. Anyone doing that will get short shrift.

That's what they're really afraid of.  The EU is unpopular across much of Europe, for varying reasons, but smaller countries are reluctant to challenge the thuggish oligarchy.  A first move by a large country like Britain could embolden them and start the whole thing unraveling.  This politician was praising Cameron for not making specific demands yet, but any effort at "negotiation" will require that.  That's what the oligarchs are determined to prevent, and that's why, rhetorically, they are "shutting the door in his face" already, or at least demanding that he stop even trying to open it.

Once Cameron realizes that his timidity is not winning him any Brownie points in Brussels, and once his voters deconstruct how little his promises, as presently stated, are worth, he'll face a choice -- cave to the EU and drop the whole thing, or push more clearly for recovering sovereignty.  The latter option has the merit of improving his chances of winning the next election.  And his words may already be resonating beyond Britain.  Germany's biggest tabloid, Bild, is cheering Cameron for standing up to those who think that "the European project is too important for democratic participation" or that "the rest of the world knows better what the British need".

It's a small step.  But when the snow is already so unsettled, even a nerf grenade just might, eventually, start an avalanche.

20 January 2013

Video of the day -- the true roots of morality

Morality doesn't come from religion -- it evolved, like everything else about us.  Found via Ranch Chimp.

Link round-up for 20 January 2013

Oh, this should be fun:  Glenn Beck is planning a separatist libertarian community in rural Texas. Somebody's also planning a right-wing "Citadel" in Idaho.

Some university students have found an alternative to onerous student loans.

Here's the US as right-wingers see it.

Selling your stuff on E-Bay?  Be careful when taking pictures of it.

Headline of the week.

Rick Scott gets some surprising support (sent by Mendip).

The University of Missouri is now offering an incest class.

Evangelical Christianity faces divisions, as younger adherents tire of reactionary stances on sexuality (found via Republic of Gilead).

We should try sharply raising the minimum wage.

A man who helped Sandy Hook victims is now being harassed by denialist nutjobs.  Mentality on display here.

Desperate to remain relevant, Republicans threaten to gerrymander the Electoral College.

The South is increasingly culturally isolated.

Here's the whole health-care issue in one sentence.

Boeing ignored union and technicians' concerns about outsourcing most work on the 787 -- and now the plane stands revealed as suffering from frightening defects.

Kevin Drum pwns Michael Gerson.

Americans favor keeping Roe v. Wade, 63% to 29%.  We also have a favorable view of the NRA, 54% to 38%.

Republican-led state governments scheme to shift even more of the tax burden from corporations and the rich to ordinary people.

Monumental police malfeasance costs the city of Chicago $22,500,000.

The conservative Heritage Foundation rates socialist countries as having the most economic freedom.

Two years is hardly enough.

Britain is preparing to defend the Falkland Islands, again.

Two Catholic hospitals in Germany turn away a rape victim (found via Lady Atheist).

Creationists win a disturbing victory in Turkey.

Islamists create bloody havoc in southern Thailand.

American fundamentalists show their true colors in Uganda -- and in Britain.

The National Intelligence Council looks at near-future technology.

The media are still dropping the ball on global warming.

There's now substantial evidence that pedophilia is an innate sexual orientation, like homosexuality.

Brooke Greenberg stopped aging at five.  If scientists can figure out why, the implications could be enormous.

19 January 2013

Quote for the day -- religion is doomed

"A traditional religion, one built on “right belief,” requires a closed information system. That is why the Catholic Church put an official seal of approval on some ancient texts and banned or burned others. It is why some Bible-believing Christians are forbidden to marry nonbelievers. It is why Quiverfull moms home-school their kids with carefully screened textbooks. It is why, when you get sucked into conversations with your fundamentalist Uncle George from Florida, you sometimes wonder if he has some superpower that allows him to magically close down all avenues into his mind. (He does!)

"Religions have spent eons honing defenses that keep outside information away from insiders. The innermost ring wall is a set of certainties and associated emotions like anxiety and disgust and righteous indignation that block curiosity. The outer wall is a set of behaviors aimed at insulating believers from contradictory evidence and from heretics who are potential transmitters of dangerous ideas. These behaviors range from memorizing sacred texts to wearing distinctive undergarments to killing infidels. Such defenses worked beautifully during humanity’s infancy. But they weren’t really designed for the current information age.

"Tech-savvy mega-churches may have Twitter missionaries, and Calvinist cuties may make viral videos about how Jesus worship isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship, but that doesn’t change the facts: the free flow of information is really, really bad for the product they are selling."

Valerie Tarico -- read the whole thing for more on how the hard work of dedicated people, and the very nature of modern civilization, are systematically defeating religion.  Found via Republic of Gilead.

14 January 2013

Video of the day -- canoe dancing

From "Portlandia", a satirical TV show about my home city.  I'm told there are people in Portland who actually do this.

13 January 2013

Link round-up for 13 January 2013

Here's a simple solution to global warming.

Get your copy of the Lesbian Last Supper.

Brazilian police arrest a co-conspirator in an attempted prison break.

Check out the Best Picture nominees.

An Illinois Catholic priest calls 911.

Deep in the New Mexico desert is a shrine to nuttiness.

A major California industry uses the First Amendment to oppose a government effort to destroy it.

Christian Right anti-gay activist Lisa Biron is a paragon of morality.

You can get free gasoline from these guys, but there's a catch.

Hart Williams has a book out about Ayn Rand.

Choose well.

Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema sets a patriotic precedent at her swearing-in.

Rosa Rubicondior profiles a famous Christian and the man who inspired him.

Why are so few women libertarians?

Nuttiest conspiracy theory ever:  the Sandy Hook shooting was a staged event with actors.  More here.

The Bill of Rights does not apply only to 18th-century technology.

Here's the Steubenville story in detail.

Derek Shrout of Alabama didn't need a gun.

Much of the conservative media is a money-making scam.

The Bible has a lot to say about rape.

2010's wave of teabagger legislators has been focusing on just one thing.

Apple joins the trend of bringing manufacturing jobs back to the US.

This isn't a conservative country any more.

Stay away from this café.

Limbaugh has lost over 2,200 sponsors.

Prominent atheist Sam Harris takes a sober look at the gun issue.

Another prominent Republican pulls an Akin.  Yes, guys, keep talking.

Violent video games aren't to blame.

The trillion-dollar coin thing won't work.

The anti-gun Journal-News, which provoked outrage by publishing a map of gun-permit holders' names and addresses, hires armed guards to protect itself.

Atheist Revolution looks at feminism and atheism.

Oddly enough, the Democrats are much better at technology than the anti-science party is. 

Outrage without action is just whining.

Sara Ege's 7-year-old son wasn't doing very well at memorizing the Koran, so she killed him (sent by Ahab).

Glasgow's Catholic Archbishop upholds his church's tradition of bigotry (found via Republic of Gilead).

Germany is leading the way in the transition to solar power.

While the rest of Europe stagnates under austerity policies, Germany's powerful unions push for major pay increases.

Guru Asaram Bapu seems to want to be the Akin of India.

Asad's threat to deploy chemical weapons produced a rare case of united international action.

Dubai is a ridiculously tacky failure.

Here's a new look at why the Vikings abandoned their Greenland colony.

Global warming is already affecting the US economy, and it will get worse.

12 January 2013

Video of the day -- natural selection in action

It's getting snowy out there.  Drive carefully.  (Found via Lady Atheist; video is from Russia.)

11 January 2013


Arthur C. Clarke's novel Rendezvous with Rama tells the story of a huge, mysterious alien artifact that drifts into our solar system in the 22nd century, and mankind's efforts to study and understand it.  The artifact is originally detected by a program set up to spot dangerous asteroids, and the novel has a strikingly-written prologue describing a disastrous meteor impact which had originally caused mankind to set up this program:

At 0946 GMT on the morning of September 11 in the exceptionally beautiful summer of the year 2077, most of the inhabitants of Europe saw a dazzling fireball appear in the eastern sky.  Within seconds it was brighter than the Sun, and as it moved across the heavens -- at first in utter silence -- it left behind it a churning column of dust and smoke.  Somewhere above Austria it began to disintegrate, producing a series of concussions so violent that more than a million people had their hearing permanently damaged.  They were the lucky ones.  Moving at fifty kilometers a second, a thousand tons of rock and metal impacted on the plains of northern Italy, destroying in a few flaming moments the labor of centuries.  The cities of Padua and Verona were wiped from the face of the Earth, and the last glories of Venice sank forever beneath the sea as the waters of the Adriatic came thundering landward after the hammer blow from space.  Six hundred thousand people died, and the total damage was more than a trillion dollars.....

No doubt you noticed the date at the beginning -- September 11.  The novel was published in 1973, long before the 2001 terrorist attack.  The first time I re-read it after 2001, noticing the date startled me slightly; but of course it's just a coincidence.  There are only 366 dates available on the calendar (even allowing for leap years), and given the number of novels in which some disaster is described as happening on a specific date, it's inevitable that sometimes a date will be chosen that, years later, just happens to become the date of a real disaster.

But to the mind of the mathematical illiterate, who has no grasp of statistics or probability, there is no such thing as coincidence.  If you have a dream about a car crash, and the next day you actually have a car accident (or even a near-miss), that means something.  You don't think of the huge numbers of dreams about car crashes which happen in a population of billions, and the huge number of car crashes that take place, and the inevitability that a few will coincide by random chance.  If you're thinking about talking with Joe, and the phone rings and it is Joe, it was a premonition; never mind the vast number of people who, on any given day, are thinking about talking with somebody, and the vast number of phone calls made, and the inevitability of occasional coincidences.  Many of our mystical and even religious beliefs are ultimately rooted in such fallacies.

So the next time somebody tells you about some seemingly-inexplicable correlation, remember Rendezvous with Rama.  Sometimes -- most of the time, in fact -- a coincidence is just a coincidence.

08 January 2013

Languages you've probably never heard

Here are some samples of languages which most Americans never hear.


Irish Gaelic:



A couple of points about this one:  I have stood on the very spot where the performers are standing, in Independence Square in Kiev.  And while this is obviously pop music, it's also a patriotic song (what sounds like "oo-kra-yee-na" is how the name of the country is pronounced in Ukrainian) -- in eastern Europe there's no felt contradiction between pop culture and patriotism.


This commemorates the great mass protests of 2009 in Iran.  Tehrân Jang-e means "Tehran is at war".

These languages have something in common -- they all belong to the Indo-European family, as English does, which means they are related to English.  However, except in the case of Afrikaans, the relationship is not very close, and it would take some knowledge of linguistics to notice the similarities.

Finally, a language which may sound almost equally foreign, but actually is not -- this is a sample of English as spoken almost a thousand years ago, before the Norman conquest of England:

06 January 2013

Link round-up for 6 January 2013

Great cities, by starlight alone.

Does the Gospel of Matthew portray Jesus making an ass of himself?

Best headline evah.

Check out Pat Robertson's failed predictions for 2012.

Good grief, is Boehner's boozing really this bad?

What really happened on the seventh day?

Ad-blocking software will doom online ads (and about bloody time -- on a lot of sites the ad-clog is getting intolerable -- YouTube is almost unwatchable now).

The old South was economically inefficient.

Why is the law harassing harmless people like Sarah Dae Walker?

Sean Hannity was one of the big losers of the 2012 election.

Here's one conservative who gets it about taxes.

Sorry, but religion is garbage and the concept of "atheist fundamentalism" is nonsense.

California can teach us a lot about dealing with extremist obstructionism.

The Catholic Church continues to flounder on gay marriage and morality (found via Republic of Gilead).

Republican vote-suppression efforts backfired (read the comments, especially #6).

Lady Atheist has some awards for 2012.

The future belongs to the left.

Religionists think they know our minds better than we do.

Here's another Republican official trying to trash the First Amendment (found via Republic of Gilead).

That Journal-News online map of gun-permit holders' names and addresses is endangering police officers.

A potential massacre at a Texas movie theater is stopped by an armed guard.

No, the US does not have exceptional social mobility.

Defying the Catholic Church, Ireland plans to repeal its abortion ban.

France's top court annuls the largely-symbolic 75% top tax rate, while Britain will crack down on corporate tax evasion.

The Iranian theocracy persecutes union activists.

Malala Yousafzai has been released from hospital as an outpatient.

Indian blogger Avicenna reports from one of the many protests against his country's rape epidemic.  Here's a report from the state of Haryana, where traditional authorities are complicit in the problem.

China is re-discovering its sexual past.

An elevated freeway in northern China collapses ten months after being built.  The regime is touting a new anti-corruption drive, but there's less here than meets the eye.

Indonesia's Aceh province (notoriously the most religious part of the country) bans women straddling motorcycles.

Here's a real war on Christmas.

Mayan-calendar end-of-the-world retards vandalize an actual ancient Mayan pyramid.

This is what Mars would look like as a living planet.

Criminality and low intelligence correlate with lead exposure.

We evolved amid trees, and they seem to be good for our brains.

04 January 2013

Disease and cure

01 January 2013

Best of the Infidel, 2012

Tribute to a life-form long vanished

A more extremist Republican party?

The right wing's ancient evil

The Northwest Free-thought Alliance conference

Flipping the bird at the Ten Commandments

The liberation of Europe -- France leads the way

Man, beast, and the big lie

The euro crisis -- the basics

Stagnation inexorable?

Prometheus (movie review)

Ode to orthography

Nietzsche's sister and her colony in Paraguay (book review)

The first Occupier

Syrian nightmare

Liberal Christians and the gay conundrum

Hostile, poisonous -- and full of rancor

The party of Akin

On pa-troll

Of parasites and projection

Know the enemy

Pakistani spring?

Victory! (the election)

Israel, lies, and reality

Lincoln (movie review)

What the NRA gets right, and wrong

Christmas is an Iranian / Roman holiday unconnected with Jesus