31 March 2014

France's nationalist wave

Local elections were just held all over France, and the big story is the strong showing of the National Front led by Marine Le Pen -- and once again casual US news consumers are being misled about what is going on.  I'll let the Huffington Post report on the election represent American liberal coverage of European nationalist movements in general -- it's typical enough.

To start with, there's the designation "far right" applied to the National Front, including in the headline.  "Far right" is often used, more out of laziness than malice in most cases, to conflate several European political movements which have a few things in common but are fundamentally different.  Sane, legitimate, and broadly-popular groups like Britain's UK Independence Party and the Dutch Freedom Party are lumped in with genuinely dangerous extremists like Greece's Golden Dawn or the British National Party.  These groups are not the same, and if you don't grasp the differences, you won't understand what's happening in Europe and will continue to happen in the future.

France's National Front is a special case, having actually moved from one category to the other.  Originally, under the leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen, it did indeed merit its image as a far-right, crypto-fascist party.  The founders included nostalgics for the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy regime and other neo-Nazi elements, and the group emphasized a rigid version of the local religion (Catholicism) and repeatedly indulged in anti-Semitic, anti-gay, and anti-feminist rhetoric.  None of these stances is popular in France, and what electoral success the Front had was due to its opposition to Muslim immigration, an issue the mainstream parties have failed to address (this pattern recurs in many western European countries).  This was ironic in that the Front's anti-Semitic, anti-gay, and anti-feminist views put it on the same side as the militant Islamists, who are the main advocates of such attitudes in western Europe today.

In early 2011 Jean-Marie Le Pen retired and his daughter Marine took over the party leadership, and took the Front in a different direction.  The opposition to immigration remained, but the Front made peace with secularism and modernity, purged anti-Semites, and shifted its focus to opposing the European Union and its overbearing incursions into the sovereignty of its member states, including France.

(A trick that can help you tell the popular nationalists from the fringe extremists:  look at pictures of their public marches and rallies.  If the crowd is all-male and no one is smiling, it's an extremist group, usually either fascist or Islamist.)

The Huffington Post mentions a few specific stances of this "far-right" party -- protectionist, anti-EU, anti-immigrant.  Let's look at these.

Protectionist:  It's traditionally been rightists who tore down trade barriers and exposed workers in developed countries to competition from low-wage Third World countries.  It's been the left that denounced the disastrous real-world consequences of this -- falling wages and loss of industrial jobs -- even if mainstream leftist parties such as our Democrats have been maddeningly unwilling to act accordingly.  Protectionism is not "far right".

Anti-EU:  The EU has wrecked the economies of southern Europe, partly by introducing the euro currency, but mainly by imposing austerity policies which prioritize deficit reduction over growth in spite of sky-high unemployment -- the same policies that Republicans in the US advocate.  Socialist parties, such as the one currently in power in France, have been punished by the voters because the EU does not allow them to govern as socialists.  Opposing the EU is not "far right".

Anti-immigrant:  The immigration issue in Europe does not resemble the issue in the US.  The main differences are that (a) European countries do not have a long history of high immigration as the US does, and are much more densely populated than the US, and (b) their immigration has come largely from Muslim countries, introducing a militant and sometimes violent religious element into societies far more secular than the US.  As I've discussed earlier, militant Islamists are western Europe's closest equivalent to our Christian Right.  Opponents of Islam are routinely denounced as racist, and there are some racists who use anti-Islam rhetoric as code, but opposing militant Islam itself is no more racist than opposing the Christian Right is.

France has by far the largest Muslim population in western Europe, so the issue is especially hot there.  Most immigrants and their descendants are assimilating, but a militant hard core remains, noisily agitating against secularism, gays, Jews, free expression, and modernity in general, and sometimes even plotting terrorist attacks, though nowadays these are usually caught by the police before being carried out.

Mainstream parties and media have responded to popular anger about austerity, the EU, Islamism, etc. mostly with stonewalling and name-calling.  Pim Fortuyn, the founder of the first Dutch anti-Islamist party, was a gay, Marxist professor and quickly became extremely popular, but that did not stop the media from branding him "far right".

This being the case, it's hardly surprising that exasperated voters increasingly support explicit nationalists like the National Front or Britain's UKIP, who are willing to address the real issues (and when no such party is available, there are sometimes significant protest votes for dangerous extremists like the pre-2011 National Front).  The trend will continue to escalate until the mainstream parties change their attitude.  As long as Americans lump together disparate groups using buzzwords like "far right", and try to understand Europe in terms of American political concepts which don't apply to a very different set of issues, they will not understand what is happening there.

30 March 2014

Link round-up for 30 March 2014

Ray "Bananas" Comfort has his own dreadful Noah movie.

Here are some upcoming genre movies that aren't sequels, remakes, or reboots (found via Mendip).

Check out these reviews of the Ted Cruz coloring book.

Tengrain, Big Bad Bald Bastard, and the FARK.com crowd assess those godawful Republican hipster video ads (also go to YouTube here and here to see the comments).  There are even parodies already.  And again, no, Rand Paul won't win millennials.

She's lucky pigs can't vote.

Protect kids from bad influences. And get married!

The Onion's Fred Phelps obituary fools a Republican.

Looking for a jock boyfriend?  Read this.

Here's a rich idiot about to get pwned by students.

The new Cosmos is the latest challenge to a long tradition of religious anti-intellectualism (found via Atheist Oasis).

Pro-life, up to a point.

Jezebel fisks Christie's disgraceful blame-it-all-on-Kelly bridgegate whitewash.

Religion poisons everything, including family relationships.

Gays are now more popular than Evangelicals.

Cut Social Security?  It's already stingy.

The FBI thwarts a planned terrorist attack in Texas.

Here are some real Obamacare horror stories.

Take the religious knowledge quiz (I got 14 out of 15 right).

What does a Tea-Partier do?

The IRS rules that bitcoins are property, but not money.

The oil industry continues to enrich itself at the country's expense.

Tennessee passes a law to protect anti-gay harassment in schools (found via Republic of Gilead).

Some on the left show a disturbing disrespect for freedom of expression.

Hobby Lobby is doing more than just attacking birth control.

Crooks and Liars looks at the Christian Right's weird persecution complex.

Innocent or guilty?  Depends what you can pay.

Here's what Obama should say about defense spending.

We need to know about politicians' religious beliefs.

Can fundamentalism keep young believers in the fold while isolating itself from mainstream culture (both found via Republic of Gilead)?  Not this one, apparently.

A Republican challenges Wall Street and gets smacked down.

Atheist support groups against sexual harassment don't seem to be doing a very good job.

Matt Barber warns the Republican party not to abandon the social-issues nutbars (found via Mock Paper Scissors).

What should replace the "LGBT" abbreviation?

History shows a certain pattern.

Purity balls just get creepier.

John Aziz shreds Erick Erickson's attack on the Yglesias debt video.

A very old British tradition is being revived (found via Mendip).

What's the difference between the US and Australia?

Check out this unbelievably huge rat that plagued a Swedish family (found via Mendip).

Why does the pop-music industry thrive in Sweden?  Because the blue-noses there once tried to stamp it out.

A tattoo-covered neo-Nazi porn star just can't get a break these days.

The Putin regime threatened several countries before a UN vote on Ukraine (found via Progressive Eruptions). Now, as sanctions bite, Putin calls Obama to ask for negotiations.  Alexander Motyl looks at the instability of the regime.

The BBC profiles Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi, the popular general who ended the Muslim Brotherhood's disastrous rule over Egypt.

Turkey's ruling Islamotards continue to fume impotently at Twitter.

Global warming is melting Alaska's permafrost, while New Mexico is overwhelmed by tumbleweeds.  The UN, at least, is confronting the problem.

Rosa Rubicondior looks at what a species is, how they arise, and how creationists exploit popular misunderstandings.

Many animals probably have a sense of humor.

28 March 2014

World Vision and the self-destruction of Christianity

It's been a wild week in the wacky world of Christianity.  World Vision, one of the largest Christian charities in the US (they aid children in impoverished countries), has long had a policy that unmarried employees have to refrain from sex as a condition of employment.  On Monday, it that it would accept legal gay marriages as valid for the purpose of the policy, allowing non-celibate gay people to be employees so long as they were married.

Conservative Christians predictably went absolutely bonkers (read the comments there too), and some regular donors to World Vision announced that they were halting their contributions.  So fierce was the firestorm that after two days, the chastised charity issued a whimpering and apologetic statement reversing its decision.  Some of the Christian Right welcomed the reversal, but others demanded further displays of contrition, such as the resignation of all board members who had voted for the original change, before World Vision could be declared cleansed of its sin and welcomed back into the fold.

Consider what actually happened here.  The most fervent and fiery segment of American Christendom, Evangelical and Catholic both, decided it could not support an organization dedicated to aiding Third World children if it allowed those loathsome fags (non-celibate ones, anyway) to help with the work.  Rejecting gays and denying any recognition to their relationships, even by a private charitable enterprise and not the law, is that important to them.

The main issue here isn't that the hard-liners won the fight and got World Vision to cave.  The main issue is that, in a high-visibility case, once again Christianity is defining itself by its fervent need to reject and exclude.  Most of the struggles that conservative Christians are waging in the name of "religious freedom" boil down to this -- they're always fighting for the right to not bake a cake for somebody, to not photograph somebody's event, to turn someone away, to refuse service to those people.  The details of each case, and whether they win or lose, are less important than the fact that this is how Christianity is defining itself in the public mind -- as a religion that first and foremost demands the right to reject and exclude certain people.

And what about that celibacy business?  World Vision required unmarried employees -- including heterosexual ones -- to abstain from sex?  I'm a bit surprised that such an intrusion by an employer into what individuals do on their own time is even legal, but that's not the point.  The point is that this is massively weird.  You have a girlfriend, so you're not good enough to help us feed hungry kids in Africa?  Really?  Once again, rejecting and excluding the "sinner" is the highest concern.

And they wonder why mainstream Americans are turning away from Christianity in ever-growing numbers?

Yes, I know the rule against sex outside marriage is in the Bible.  That's the point.  The Bible is full of stuff that makes you look like a complete nutcase if you actually take it seriously in the twenty-first century.  Do they also make their employees sign a promise not to covet their neighbor's ox or wear clothes made of different fabrics?

Christianity, or at least the Christian Right, is trapped in a vicious cycle of increasingly-concentrated crackpottery.  When an institution's extremists grow in influence and visibility within it, moderates tend to downplay their association with it, or depart entirely.  This leaves the extremists as a relatively bigger fish, because the pond is getting smaller.  So they become even more influential and visible, driving away more moderates, and so on.  The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the current cycle, beginning with the rise of the Moral Majority in the late 1970s, has been running during a period when the mainstream culture is evolving in the opposite direction -- indeed, the rise and militancy of the Christian Right has been mostly a reaction to those cultural changes.

The World Vision case suggests that they're already well past the point of no return.  This single step in the direction of the mainstream culture triggered so much fire and brimstone from the true believers that the heretics scuttled trembling back into line in just two days.  (The broader right wing has a similar problem.  The Republican establishment starts making an effort to get the crazies under control, and immediately RedState and Hot Air start calling everybody RINOs and the base nominates Susanne Atanus.)  Fred Phelps may have gone to his grave, but he beckons still, and all -- all save those who abandon the ship entirely -- shall follow.

26 March 2014

Quote for the day -- for liberation

(Click image for full-size)

24 March 2014

Link round-up for 23 March 2014 (late)

On April 5, watch out for the alien invasion (found via Mendip).  Oh, and then there's this bus stop.

Paul Ryan was right about these shiftless inner-city moochers.

No comment.

Here's the latest religious crackpot nominated by Republicans.  Lots more wackiness here.  But why is this guy still a Republican?

Think you've got a big gun?  Check out these (found via Mendip).

Conspiratards are conspiratards.

Sounds like advertising hasn't changed much since 1888.  Well, these ads are pretty bad.

They found one.

Paul Ryan's constituents speak out.

The Satanic Temple plans to turn Fred Phelps gay in the afterlife (sent by Mendip).  Naomi45 and Tengrain have obituaries, Jack Vance has more atheist reactions, and Laughing in Purgatory has a disco ball.

On Obamacare, goals differ.

Here are nine strategies from the most totally-lost war ever -- the Christian Right's war on masturbation (found via Atheist Oasis).

"The promotion of evolution is an act of disloyalty to America" (found via Green Eagle's Wingnut Wrapup).

The Pope has a talent for name-calling, apparently.

The "Food Movement" doesn't resolve the moral problems of meat-eating.

Hey, McConnell learned something.

The oppression of women stems mostly from a single source.

Ex-Muslim Marwa Berro speaks out on the hijab (found via Kaveh Mousavi).

Creationists freak out over Cosmos and evolution, while Fox viewers go full retard over new evidence for the big bang.

Juan Cole gives five signs of the coming world solar-power breakthrough.

Yes, the white race is under threat of genocide.

Wendy Davis's opponent is stumbling.

Car dealerships and oil companies are fighting hard to stop Tesla.

Rick Perry made his mark on Texas.

Measles is back, thanks to anti-vaccine idiots.

Finally, some sanity on "rape culture".

Time to support those who stand up against the purveyors of filth.

This guy is really, really upset that there exist people different from him (read the comments too).

Outrageous Christian supremacism in a Louisiana school gets slapped down.

Frank Moraes and Republic of Gilead have responses to my post on Ross Douthat.

The Kochs are sparing no expense to buy this election, even as their Obamacare lies are exposed.

If you're thinking of buying one of those electronic book reader things, read this.

Montana Republicans draw the line on racism, sort of.

Here's an inside look at the Keystone XL pipeline.  And there's a Koch finger in the oil sand pie.

Bertrand Russell offered ten commandments for sane people.

Americans aren't as libertarian as they claim, and won't vote for Rand Paul (the article is from a right-wing viewpoint but still worth a look).

A coal company has deliberately dumped 61 million gallons of toxic waste into North Carolina's water supply (found via Green Eagle).

You can't debate people who reject basic reality and embrace malignancy.

Here's a nice view out the window in Eilean Donan, Scotland.  And here's one of Bristol, England.

Maryam Namazie looks at nakedness and resistance to Islam.

The woods around Chernobyl are dead, but can't decay.

Thursday's new sanctions on Russia are much tougher and already biting.  Crimea shouldn't expect economic help, and Putin's natural-gas weapon is backfiring.  A Russian who lived in Ukraine speaks out.  Will Putin threaten Estonia next?

Kaveh Mousavi explains the Iranian political system.

Turkey's authoritarian Islamist government is trying block Twitter, and failing spectacularly.

Moroccan blogger Kacem El Ghazzali speaks out on blasphemy laws.

The historic Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers (I've been there) is among the casualties of the Syrian civil war.

China's wealthy are getting ready to get out (found via Earth-Bound Misfit).

Deity Shmeity interviews a South African atheist.

Clare Byarugaba of Uganda discusses the brutalization of gays in that country.

This what happens when you dry something on high heat -- Mercury is shrinking.

Australia is full of monsters, apparently (found via Mendip).

George Dvorsky has 20 important words for the 21st century.

How will life extension affect the punishment of criminals?

A genetically-engineered vaccine shows great promise against melanoma.

23 March 2014

A note

The link round-up will be late due to a hand problem which makes typing painful.  Hopefully Monday.

22 March 2014

A death to celebrate

So.  Fred Phelps has died.  Ever since it was announced a few days ago that his end was near, most atheist bloggers have been falling all over themselves to declare that, abhorrent as he was, it would of course be wrong to "sink to his level" by "celebrating the death" of a "tragically misguided old man" who led a "wasted life".

Oh, come on.  Phelps was not "misguided", he was evil.  He did not waste his life, he spent it doing exactly what he wanted to do.  Don't tell me he was brainwashed by a Christian upbringing.  Millions of people grow up with that, and do not end up behaving like Phelps did -- his own son Nathan managed to become a good and humane person.  Like all humans, Fred Phelps had free will and was fully responsible for his actions.

Phelps and his church specialized in picketing the funerals of dead homosexuals and soldiers, taunting and tormenting those who were already in grief over the loss of someone they cared about.  He did everything in his power to maximize the suffering of people who had done nothing to deserve it.  He richly earned the hatred and contempt of all decent people.

The capacity for hatred and anger is born in us for a reason.  There are people toward whom those emotions are appropriate, even necessary.  Fred Phelps was such a person.  I'm reminded of the death of bin Laden three years ago, when normal people celebrated and hand-wringers whined about it.  This is what happens when people become so hypnotized by abstractions and clichés that they lose touch with honest human feelings.  Here's one atheist who gets it.

Did Phelps do any good at all?  Some say he actually helped the cause of gay equality by giving the opposition a face so ugly that no one wanted to be associated with it.  That's almost right.  In an age of euphemism and mealy-mouthed language, his brutally straightforward evil showed what was behind the more mainstream enemy's façade of civility.

A few have said that Phelps is now in Hell.  This is nonsense.  Hell is nothing but a product of the same twisted imagination that produced the God he claimed to speak for.  Phelps tried to make other people's lives into Hell.  He is now nonexistent, and that is all.  His death does not diminish me, or you.

20 March 2014

Video of the day -- happy new year from the President

A reminder that, even as Putin seems to be isolating Russia from the West, another country is opening up.

Today is Nowruz or New Year's Day in the Persian Solar calendar (not to be confused with the Islamic calendar), which remains the official calendar in Iran and Afghanistan despite theocratic regimes.  The new year, as years are currently counted in Iran, is 1393.

18 March 2014

Agora -- death of a woman, and a world

The 2009 film Agora (starring Rachel Weisz, directed by Alejandro Amenábar) tells the story of Hypatia (350?-415 CE), the last great intellectual of the Classical world.  A Greek by ethnicity and culture, Hypatia was born and lived most of her life in Alexandria, Egypt, the second-greatest city in the Roman Empire, though she was educated in Athens.  She lived through and experienced the last declining years of the Classical civilization, and some historians use the date of her murder to mark the end of the Classical period.

The film takes some liberties with the details of historical events, but captures very well the atmosphere of the time -- the atmosphere of a civilization in inexorable decline toward collapse and barbarism.  The Roman Empire still ruled the Mediterranean basin including Egypt, but its glory days were long past.  The government was already officially Christian, and the new religion was spreading rapidly, including in Alexandria.

Hypatia was a philosopher and, as the film stresses, a teacher, specializing in astronomy and geometry.  Her investigation and speculation on the structure of the solar system exemplified the free-thinking and evidence-based approach at the root of both Classical and modern science.  At one point, she uses a simple experiment involving a ship and a dropped weight to refute an argument that the Earth cannot be moving.  In the thousand years of darkness that followed the fall of the Classical world, truth would be sought by consulting sacred texts, not by observation and experiment.

Hypatia's father Theon (Michael Lonsdale) is a major character in the film; a philosopher of note himself, he is fiercely devoted to his even more brilliant daughter.  In one scene, asked by a friend why he has not yet "married off" Hypatia, Theon replies, "Hypatia, subject to a man, with no freedom to teach or even speak her mind?  The most brilliant philosopher I know, having to give up her science?  No, that would be death to her."

In the end, she became a casualty of a struggle for power between Cyril (Sami Samir), the Christian Bishop of Alexandria, and Orestes (Oscar Isaac), the Prefect (governor) of Egypt, exemplifying the clash between the declining Roman civil authority and the rising power of the Christian religion.  Orestes had been a student of Hypatia's, and still sought her advice at times.  In this scene, Cyril uses a reading from the Bible to challenge Orestes:

A scene which was deleted but is on the DVD shows militant monks patrolling the streets and harassing "immodestly dressed" women, like the Saudi Mutawa or Iran's Basij.  But the film does not whitewash paganism.  In one scene, a pagan rabble-rouser whips up a crowd to attack Christians who have insulted the pagan gods; in another, Theon (shaken after witnessing a brutal killing by Christians) flogs one of his slaves who he has discovered is secretly a Christian.  There are also scenes of mob violence between Christians and Jews, with brutalities on both sides.  The point is that the Classical civilization was disintegrating in religious violence and fanaticism, while the declining Roman state was losing its power to perform the first duty of the state -- maintaining law and order.

Hypatia was murdered by a Christian mob, hacked to death with what a historian described as "oyster shells", in fact probably sharp pottery shards or roofing tiles (the film replaces this with stoning).  In the film, a sympathetic Christian spares her the worst by strangling her beforehand; in fact, there's no evidence that such a mercy happened.

The film speculates that before her death, Hypatia deduced that the Earth's orbit around the Sun is elliptical rather than perfectly circular, the discovery then being lost until Kepler made the same deduction 1,200 years later.  In fact, we don't know what she was working on when she was killed, and none of her own writings have survived; but given her interest in conic sections and astronomy, and the great insights attributed to her by her contemporaries, it's not an unreasonable guess.

Sets, costumes, and performances are flawless, immersing the viewer in the ancient world.  Several times the film uses an interesting device of pulling back the camera to show Alexandria or even the whole Earth as seen from space -- a reminder of the vast reality waiting to be discovered by humans, despite the painful struggles obstructing progress.

I found the film disturbing at times, not only because of the relentless brutality and destruction, but because of the tragic quality of the senescence and imminent death of a great civilization.  The fact that a thousand years later the Renaissance would rediscover the Classical world's achievements, and build on them to make further progress, would have been little comfort to thinkers such as Hypatia even if they had known.  But the film achieves what it sets out to do.  This is what that era must really have been like.

16 March 2014

Link round-up for 16 March 2014

Here's some Christian tolerance -- and check out the artist here.

Sadly No's Cerberus has a reply to Douthat's "surrender" essay.  Douthat continues to fret, and another religion-based anti-gay law suffers defeat.  But Satan has one more trick up his sleeve.

Cosmos is back, and the nutbars are unhappy.  If you missed the first episode, you can watch it here -- without censorship.

Charles Pierce ruthlessly pwns Sarah Palin.

Racist rallies attract huge crowds. More here and here.

Yet another study shows that kids raised by same-sex couples do just fine (found via Progressive Eruptions).

Here's the definitive word on Paul Ryan's "inner city" statement.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  Booman explains why he's really wrong.

Glenn Ford is found innocent and set free after 30 years on death row.

Chad Roberts wants Christians to quit stiffing waitresses.

Fair and Unbalanced dissects a dishonest anti-ACA ad.

Atheist Oasis looks at Americans' accelerating rejection of religion.

Pharyngula looks at the "long, rich, and complex" relationship between religion and science.

The comment thread here illustrates how divided Republicans are.  And Cardinal Dolan isn't homophobic enough for these commenters.  Even the Pope isn't evil enough for theologian Kelly Bowring (found via Mock Paper Scissors), but make no mistake -- he's still a lying scumbag.

When you get rid of regulations, you tend to quickly find out why they were enacted in the first place.

In Indiana, creationists get state legislators to do their dirty work.

The financial parasite class is still doing very well.

Who wouldn't be "outraged" at Michigan's rape-insurance law?

A Christian writer finally takes clerical abuse seriously -- but blames demons.

Why do we find some languages pleasanter-sounding than others?

A doctor corrects some myths about health care in Canada.

A top official involved in the British government's plan to block internet porn is arrested for kiddie porn.

Britain's new top vet challenges the cruel practices of kosher and halal animal slaughter.

Fifty thousand Russians rallied in Moscow yesterday against Putin's invasion of Crimea, many chanting "Russia without Putin".  The regime's absurd lies are proving counter-productive.  Ukrainians are mobilizing to fight, while Central Asians worry about the precedent and Germany, formerly taking a soft line, talks tough.  Don't be fooled -- eastern Ukraine is still Ukraine.  Scott Lively, as always, stands on the wrong side of history (found via Republic of Gilead), as does Franklin Graham.

Japan is stockpiling nuclear material under grossly-inadequate security.

Elephants can tell different human languages apart (found via Ranch Chimp).

Many factors played a role in the development of the human mind -- but all are explainable via evolution.

Here's another look at out-of-body experiences.

[Image at top:  Pussy Riot members address the huge anti-war rally in Moscow.  The banner behind them shows the Ukrainian and Russian flags and the words "For your and our freedom" in Ukrainian.]


Ed Kilgore has a bunch of data about the Florida special-election defeat, but the critical numbers are in his second paragraph.  Voter turnout was abysmal.  It was down 46% compared with 2012, and even down 21% compared with 2010, itself a very low-turnout election.

The pattern is historically consistent.  When turnout is low, Republicans win.  When it's high, we win.  And it tends to be low on election dates where the Presidency is not on the ballot -- such as 2014.  GOTV may well decide everything.

In a sense, FL-13 was encouraging despite being a defeat.  Such extremely low turnout should have strongly favored the Republican, yet Sink lost by a very narrow margin.  This implies that even a modest gain in turnout could sway the results in November.  As Kilgore says, it's going to be difficult.  But we know what we need to focus on.  PM Carpenter has some suggestions.

14 March 2014

Video of the day -- steampunk

"Steampunk" is a genre of SF/fantasy based on an alternate reality in which mechanical, especially steam-powered, technology prevails instead of electronic technology.  It's inspired by early efforts at mechanical computing such as the Babbage engine, and by the works of writers like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne imagining advanced machines based on the principles known in their time.  In this reality, things like robots, giant aircraft, and prosthetic limbs are fully developed by the late 19th century, but based on very different principles than their real-world counterparts.

Steampunk is more about art and imagery than storytelling.  Fiction does exist, but the focus is more on depicting what the steampunk world looks like than how it works or how it got the way it is.  Designs are often whimsical or wildly extrapolative, while clothes and architecture often have a quasi-Victorian or sometimes "wild west" look that contrasts with all the weird machinery.  The video above is a sampling of steampunk art, with steampunk-inspired music.  Some more info on the genre is here.

12 March 2014

Magnanimity in victory?

Ross Douthat's column "The Terms of Our Surrender" exemplifies a new line of argument for the Christianist struggle against gay rights.  Basically, he declares defeat and demands that we be magnanimous in victory.  He warns that the pro-gay-equality viewpoint has now become dominant in American society and that Christians who want to continue to discriminate against gays and reject the validity of gay marriage will face "constant pressure" and "procedural harassment" (he explicitly rejects the word "persecution", but other Christians have laid claim to it).  He wails that gays and their supporters are insisting on unconditional surrender rather than a negotiated settlement -- Arizona's recently-vetoed SB1062 being an example of an effort at the latter, which would have "accept[ed] same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent".

Note, by the way, the dishonesty of that phrasing.  Dissent, the right to express differing views, has never been under threat here -- the First Amendment protects the right to express hostility to gays, blacks, Jews, or anyone else.  SB1062 was about carving out protections for discrimination in business.

Andrew Sullivan, long a leading proponent of gay marriage, has addressed these issues several times in a spirit of offering concessions (he responds here to another, angrier screed by Rod Dreher).  But while Sullivan's voice has long been a valuable one on these matters, as a Christian (Catholic) and a self-described conservative (though I doubt many conservatives would accept him as one), he's not the best person to represent the rest of us in a "negotiation" that many do indeed believe should not be happening at all.

I say "the rest of us" because the gay community narrowly-defined is not the only party on our side in this conflict, nor is gay marriage the only issue.  The fight for gay rights is part of a far vaster struggle to roll back the oppressive dominance of Christianity (or Islam, depending on the country) and its taboo system over the broader culture.  Gay rights, abortion, birth control (!), evolution in the schools, prayer or religious symbols in official contexts, a whole panoply of norms for sexual behavior -- the religionists view all these issues as fronts of one single cultural war, and they're right.

Other bloggers such as Amanda Marcotte and Gin and Tacos have fisked Douthat far more thoroughly, while ThinkProgress does a good job of dismantling the "our anti-gay discrimination isn't as bad as lunch-counter owners refusing to serve blacks" arguments the religionists keep trotting out.  Those three links say most of what I think needs to be said on the subject.  But there's one more point that needs to be made, to all the religionists who whine that we "pagans" aren't being magnanimous in victory.

What the hell makes you think you deserve any magnanimity in your defeat?  You've had the upper hand for centuries, and what did you do with it?  To this day, Christianists relentlessly smear, defame, and attack gays, atheists, sexually-active single women, biological scientists, and anyone else whose behavior or thinking doesn't conform to the primitive taboo system of your barbaric and ridiculous religion.  Not an atom of magnanimity there.  American Christianist spokesmen cheer on and encourage brutal Christian thugs in the governments of Russia, Uganda, and Nigeria when they enact outrageous laws to enable hideous persecution.  You're still fighting to deny gay people the right to marry in the states where they haven't yet won it, and before Lawrence v. Texas swept away the last laws against homosexuality itself, you supported those, too.  You still smear Darwin as a progenitor of the Nazi regime, which actually banned his writings.  You supported and defended racist subjugation of black Americans, the very racism you now claim should not be compared to your hostility to gays.  What magnanimity did you show Alan Turing or Oscar Wilde?  What magnanimity did you show Galileo or Bruno?  Or Hypatia?  You wrecked our entire fucking civilization and plunged it into a thousand wasted years of stagnation and backwardness, and then fought against rebirth every step of the way.  And you guys don't change.  The only reason you aren't still brutalizing and terrorizing the rest of us is that you've lost the power to do it -- the majority of "Christians" in the Western world now only "believe" in a superficial and almost meaningless sense, and would recoil in healthy repulsion at the ghastly human costs of actually enforcing the taboo system.  You true believers are back in the minority now, and it's going to stay that way.

So stop whining about some baker being told he has to follow the same laws that apply to everyone else, and be grateful that you will never suffer even one-millionth of what you dished out when you had the power.

09 March 2014

Video of the day -- I wonder if you still remember

Memories -- not of what was, but of what might have been.

Link round-up for 9 March 2014

Who painted that?  Here's how to tell.

Some people have too much fun at work.

Cartoonists discover bitcoin.

Here's how American class warfare works.

If Jesus is the only way, answer this (see this too).

Which life-form is superior?

Even fundie nutters don't like the new Noah movie (and this was predictable).

"Mr. Hayes" has a KKK flag in front of his house, but he doesn't want anyone to worry (found via Mock Paper Scissors).

What's the point of this billboard?

Here's what some Christian saints said about women.

Amanda Marcotte and Gin and Tacos join in the mass pwnage of Ross Douthat's "surrender" essay.

The younger generation is more liberal, more optimistic, and less religious.

Meet John Derbyshire, an honest conservative.

Religion-based homophobia today does in fact parallel religious defenses of racism in the past.

Yes, the two parties are different.

A Catholic band in Boston will drop out of the St. Patrick's Day parade unless a gay veterans group is excluded.

Keystone XL would have a far worse impact that the State Department admits.

Small business supports raising the minimum wage, and experience shows it works (but this doesn't).

Not all opinions are equally valid (remember this).

Some Muslim immigrants are assimilating.

The Governor of Wyoming stands firm against science.

Booman Tribune gets on board with basic income; here's a feminist view.

Even some conservatives are really liberals.

Most opponents of gay marriage don't realize their view is now in the minority.  But anti-gay bigots are in retreat, even in the South (found via Republic of Gilead).

Even in a Fox poll, Hillary thrashes all comers -- so get ready for this (and maybe more of this).

Southerners should demand better.  So should Texans.

CPAC attendees talk about poor people like some exotic species they know nothing about.  Then they go out for illicit gay sexHuckabee and fans are nuts as usual.  There's minority outreach (with cluelessness).  But reality is a problem.

Presidents are held to different standards.

Slavery and a weak social safety net help explain why the US has historically been more religious than Europe (found via Republic of Gilead).

The US still leads the world in university rankings.

The Irish language is dying out.

Crimeans protest Russian occupation.  The pro-West / pro-Russia split in Ukraine is less geographical than generational, making partition impossible.  Putin's aggression has shattered the sense of connection with Russia, at least for now.  And the West has more leverage over Russia than in Soviet times (found via Horizons).

Frances Coppola reminds us that the euro currency has been a disastrous failure.

How much impact did World War I really have?

Here's a soldier's letter to his family.

Kaveh Mousavi compares Iran under the shâh and under the ayatollahs.

No Cross No Crescent profiles two wise men of the medieval Middle East.

Workers from the Fukushima reactor live a nightmare.

China hints at reining in North Korea.

A US judge allows Ugandan gays to sue Scott Lively for helping stir up anti-gay persecution in their country (found via Progressive Eruptions).

Rev. Njohi of the "Lord's Propeller Redemption Church" (?) has some odd ideas.

Your ancestors mated with chimpanzees.

This food habit could be as deadly as smoking.

Looks like we're finally going to Europa.

Human evolution hasn't stopped -- it's speeding up.

Craig Venter's latest project will join the fight against aging.

06 March 2014

The blip

In 2010 the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program detected a powerful radio signal of some interest.  The signal came from the direction of a star designated TYC 1220-91-1, which is very similar to our own Sun, though older; if other habitable planets like Earth exist in the universe at all, this star would be a good candidate to have one.  It's about 100 light-years away (to give you an idea of what that means, the outermost body in our own solar system, Pluto, is so far from Earth that the New Horizons probe launched toward it in 2006 will not get there until 2015, and TYC 1220-91-1 is about two hundred thousand times further away than Pluto).

The signal, however, was clearly not an attempt at communication by aliens, which is what SETI is interested in.  It had no internal structure suggesting encoded information, and it lasted just ten seconds and did not repeat, as a deliberate effort to communicate almost certainly would.  So what was it?  A blogger "Jadestar" has an idea.

At Arecibo in Puerto Rico, the US maintains a huge radio telescope which can also be used as an interplanetary radar station.  In this capacity, it works like ordinary radars which send radio signals that bounce off solid objects like airplanes and are reflected back to the transmitter, enabling those objects to be detected.  Arecibo, however, monitors asteroids in the inner solar system, enabling scientists to track their orbits and find out if any of them pose a risk of colliding with Earth at some time in the future.  Its radar signals are very powerful and focused -- among the most powerful radio signals ever generated on Earth.

If you were 100 light-years from our solar system, and Arecibo just happened to be aimed in exactly your direction while it was doing a radar scan for asteroids here, the radio pulse you would detect would look a lot like the one SETI picked up coming from TYC 1220-91-1.

So.  Maybe there's an Earthlike planet orbiting TYC 1220-91-1.  Maybe it has something like the Arecibo radio telescope on it.  Maybe they sometimes use that telescope to scan their inner solar system for dangerous asteroids, like we do.  And maybe, by pure chance, their radar transmitter happened to be pointing in exactly our direction for a few seconds.

If that's what it was, we'll never know for sure.  The odds of that exact alignment ever happening again are essentially zero.  If they use radio telescopes similar to ours, their general level of technological development is probably roughly similar to ours, and there's almost nothing a civilization like that does that would be detectable at such a distance -- ordinary radio and TV transmissions fade out in less than two light-years.  That one radio blip is all we're going to get.

Now, as I've expressed before, I think it's actually unlikely that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe.  But our knowledge is too incomplete for any such view to be more than tentative.  The radio blip could well have been produced by some natural phenomenon we haven't discovered yet.  But it just might have been a sign, even if faint and accidental, that other minds exist.

[Jadestar link found via Mendip.]

Ukraine mini-round-up

Alex Massie expresses pretty much what I think:  Putin has blown it and lost Ukraine for good.  He may also be losing his marbles.

The US State Department (!) debunks Putin's lies about Ukraine.

Yanukovych lived like a king in a country with an annual per-capita income of less than $4,000, and he wasn't alone.

Pussy Riot's Maria Alyokhina speaks out on Putin's aggression (how come in Russia even punk rockers are super-articulate and we get Justin Bieber?).

The Russian Orthodox Church plays an important role in Putin's regime (found via Republic of Gilead).

Fire erupts at a giant oil refinery in Tatarstan, central Russia -- Volga Tatars acting in solidarity with Crimean Tatars, perhaps?

An anchor at Putin's propaganda channel quits on the air, while another registers a protest.

The Reaction, Progressive Eruptions, and TPM comment on the disgraceful Republican sniping at Obama.

04 March 2014


We finally have some data on Russian public opinion about Putin's invasion of Crimea, and the results are astonishing.  The poll was conducted by the regime's own pollster and blatantly worded to elicit favorable responses, but it still shows that the Russian people are massively rejecting the invasion, with 73% opposed and just 15% in favor.  This in spite of all the propaganda tools that a police state with mostly-controlled media has at its disposal.

Russia is not a Western country, but the Russians are as educated and sophisticated as a Western population, perhaps more so.  Rather than trusting the establishment media, millions have been turning to the internet, or talking on the phone with friends or relatives in Ukraine, to get information from a broader range of sources.  The fact that the target is Ukraine matters a lot too.  Despite the ghastly history dividing them, Russia and Ukraine have common roots and are very culturally similar, probably more so even than the US and Canada are.  War against close relatives is a tough sell.

This raises a real question of how much Putin could rely on the Russian army if he chooses to widen the war.  The army is drawn from the people and has broadly the same attitudes.  Soldiers are trained to obey orders, but in this case, they'd be obeying reluctantly at best.

This brings me to an odd point about the Crimea invasion -- this is a war in which nobody has died yet.  Crimea is about as big as Massachusetts, with two million people, and Russia has invaded and occupied it with a force now estimated at 16,000 men -- so this is a fairly large-scale military operation, yet there have been no casualties.  That can only mean that leaders on both sides have given a high priority to avoiding actual combat.

The Russians have given several ultimatums to surrounded Ukrainian troops and ships in Crimea to surrender, then done nothing when the deadlines passed.  In an especially striking incident yesterday, a column of Ukrainian troops left their base and marched unarmed toward a nearby Russian-held airstrip, ignoring Russian orders to stop.  The confrontation ended with warning shots fired -- but again, no actual fighting.

This seems to be a war that nobody really wants to fight.  Russian troops engaged in "military exercises" near the Ukrainian border have already been pulled back to their bases.  Putin now knows he has no support from his own people for what he's doing.  Things could still go terribly wrong, but the chances of a good outcome look much better than they did when the invasion began.

02 March 2014

Some observations on the Russia-Ukraine crisis

I have to admit to being startled by the developments of the last few days; the downside of Russian military intervention in Ukraine seemed so obvious that I did not expect it at all.  That Putin is attempting such a high-risk gambit suggests that he has either (a) greatly misjudged the situation or (b) is a less rational actor than we've believed -- perhaps both.

So far, the Russian invasion is confined to Crimea.  Crimea is a peninsula barely attached to the mainland and with only a light Ukrainian military presence, and thus difficult for Ukraine to defend or reconquer; Russia's naval base at Sevastopol (retained since Soviet times despite the awkwardness of now being on foreign soil) has given the invaders an advantage.

It's possible, by the way, that Putin's move is widely supported by the Russian people, at least for now.  Russian state-controlled media have claimed that the invasion was necessitated by threats to ethnic Russians living in Crimea; this is a blatant lie, but it may take a while for objective news to filter into the Russian mass public mind through non-controlled channels such as the internet.  More alarmingly, there's nothing to stop Putin from manufacturing the same claims about ethnic Russians elsewhere in Ukraine, if he wants to broaden the invasion (claims of Russian rights being under siege were given credibility by the new Ukrainian government's stupid move, now rescinded, of stripping Russian of its status as a official language).  Some of the Russian public and media are not quite on board, though.

Ironically, it's very likely that if a referendum were held in Crimea, the option of leaving Ukraine and joining Russia would have won fairly anyway.  58% of Crimea's population is ethnic Russian (not ethnic Ukrainians who just speak Russian, as pretty much all Ukrainians do).  Putin is risking war for a prize that might well have been his by peaceful means anyway.

Another demographic point is that 12% of Crimea's population is Tatar.  The Tatars' native language is a form of Turkish and they are traditionally Muslim, though now heavily secularized as most ex-Soviet populations are.  They are fiercely opposed to Russian rule, largely due to the brutal persecution they suffered under Stalin.  Their presence raises the possibility of Turkey -- a NATO member with a large, powerful military trained and equipped by the US -- taking an interest in the conflict.  Turkey has intervened before when a Turkic population was threatened, actually invading Cyprus in 1974 to carve out a mini-state for the ethnic Turks there.

Ukraine is mobilizing its military, which at full strength (including reserves) is a formidable force of over 1,200,000 men.  As noted above, logistics and geography would make the reconquest of Crimea difficult, but if Putin invades other areas of Ukraine, all-out war seems inevitable.

There is an unfortunate circumstance that somewhat undermines our country's moral standing in this crisis.  Putin has invaded another country without provocation, using a trumped-up pretext based on blatant lies.  Unfortunately, that description is also true of President Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq.  I can hardly wait for this point to occur to Russia's propagandists -- not that they'll admit Putin is a liar, but the analogy will be useful to them.

Two wrongs don't make a right, of course.  What are our options?  Direct military intervention is out of the question.  As during the Cold War, direct conflict between Russian and American forces must be avoided because of the possibility of escalation, which is too dangerous to risk due to the huge nuclear arsenals on both sides.  Doing nothing (which includes ridiculous empty gestures like pulling out of the G8 summit) is also not an option -- as Poland's Prime Minister just pointed out, appeasing aggressive dictators is a strategy with a poor track record.

Economic sanctions seem like the best option.  Russia's economy is already in a slowdown, and really tough sanctions might precipitate a crisis severe enough that the resulting turmoil would bring down Putin's regime.  This would not be fast, though.  If Putin invades the rest of Ukraine and a prolonged war results, my preferred option would be the same strategy we used with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- all possible forms of support to the Ukrainians short of direct military involvement, to grind the Russians down in a war of attrition.  It's very questionable whether the Russian people, or perhaps even many Russian soldiers, would support a really bloody war against Ukraine.  Russians are very conscious of the close cultural and historical ties between the two nations.

I'm still hopeful that Putin won't launch a wider invasion,  He wanted to take over Ukraine intact, not have huge numbers of troops tied down for years occupying a sullen and restive country laid in ruins by war.  But the situation remains dangerous.  In the US, Republican politicians have already started irresponsibly slamming Obama for being "weak" because he hasn't rushed into some unspecified "action", as if the nuclear-armed Russian colossus were another Grenada.  This is what Republicans do; every crisis, no matter how serious, is just an opportunity to attack Obama.  And there may even be some value in it, since Putin will take Obama's threats more seriously if he sees that the US government is full of dangerous hotheads barely being kept under restraint.

But this crisis gives us more reason than ever to be glad that we have a calm and rational thinker as President.

Update:  It looks like the Russian economy is already paying a price for Putin's recklessness.