31 May 2018


The other day I happened to be driving past a church and it occurred to me that I don't really have much idea what people actually do when they go to those places.  I'd always vaguely assumed they engaged in some sort of rituals, and I know that in Catholicism they do that thing where everybody comes up to the front and eats a wafer after the priest has recited some words over it which supposedly "transubstantiate" it into the flesh of Jesus, but aside from that, my concept of it all was rather hazy.  My academic study of comparative religion covered the supernatural beliefs, history, and cultural impact of the various religions fairly well, but details of rituals weren't emphasized.

So yesterday I asked someone who used to attend church (mainline Protestant) when she was younger.  She said there's a sermon by the presiding clergyman, praying, hymn-singing, and passing the collection plate -- and that's about it, though presumably there's some variation between sects and even between churches in the same sect.  I've already mentioned (item 7) why, to me, the concept of praying doesn't make sense.  I've seen videos of a few sermons; the fundamentalist ones seem heavy on ranting, denouncing "sin", and praising God, often with Bible passages illustrative of whatever the preacher is talking about, while the non-fundamentalist ones are more sedate and less intimidating versions of the same thing.  Does an all-powerful being really need praise and declarations of loyalty from the inhabitants of this one tiny speck of the vast universe he supposedly created?  Of course at the time these rituals originated, people believed that the Earth was the main part of the universe, but few modern people are so ignorant.

It's well known that church attendance, for many people, is a social activity -- it's where they meet people who become friends, and keep in touch with acquaintances they would otherwise rarely see.  I guess the shared participation in rituals mostly serves to reinforce group identity -- the rituals as such make little sense, but performing them together creates a sense of belonging.  The sermons presumably remind people of beliefs which most participants supposedly hold but don't actually think about much in daily life.  If so, the decline of church attendance throughout the world, even among people who still self-identify as Christian, is significant -- if they no longer want such reinforcement, they can't be attaching much importance to religion any more.

I'm sure that by now most readers are thinking that it's absurd for me to be mystified by something which is so perfectly ordinary to most Americans.  Even most atheists remember going to church before they abandoned religion, and on some level it still seems like a normal thing to them, even if they no longer do it.  Yet I'd ask you to look at it from my perspective too, and realize how incredibly weird, alien, and pointless all the ritual activities described above appear to someone who grew up without religion and never observed them.

I know I'm unusual in this respect.  I've interacted with quite a few atheists over the years, both in the blogosphere and in meatspace, but as best I can remember, none of them grew up completely without religious belief as I did -- every one of them started off in a religion, at least in childhood, and then broke free from it.  This illustrates why atheists are the fastest-growing demographic in the country -- most of the growth comes from people leaving other (religious) groups, not from people being born into atheism.  But since there are so many adult atheists now, there are a lot more children being born into non-religious environments, as I was.  Which means that in the coming decades the country will have a lot more adults like me -- people to whom Christianity and its practices seem as baffling and strange as the rituals of Hinduism or Buddhism do to the typical American Christian.  David Voas touched upon that point in this video:

To many Americans in the future, Christianity will look the way Islam looks to most Americans today -- a group with unfamiliar and bewildering beliefs and practices, largely represented in the popular mind by its extremist minority which holds intolerant, threatening, and frightening views.  It's hard to imagine them finding this appealing.  Even today, the number of atheists who join a religion is tiny compared with the veritable stampede in the opposite direction.  Whatever ground religion loses is, by the time the second generation arrives, lost to it forever.

29 May 2018

Video of the day -- God reveals himself

Found via Figuring Out Where I Belong blog.

28 May 2018

Image of the day -- Americans in action

We stopped them before -- we'll stop them again.

27 May 2018

Link round-up for 27 May 2018

Various interesting stuff I ran across on the net over the last week.

o o o o o

Save this bewitched dog.

%^*$#@!% illiterate morons.

This doesn't add up.

You will believe a man can fly.

A cat explains dogs.

Explore 700 years of schlong slang.

This packaging does not really make me think of high intelligence.

Evil weapon is evil.

See a history of internet cats.

"This is exactly how physics does not work."

This kids' movie is unsuitable for kids.  OK, they fixed it.

If you want leather shoes, there's now a humane option.

The Lord of the Rings films take you back in time.

Check out the anamorphic art of István Orosz.

People used to give children amazingly absurd names.

Give the ladies their pockets back.

This is how troll commenters work.

Alcoholics Anonymous is a cult, not a solution.

A "personal relationship with God" isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Bitcoin is a gargantuan waste of energy.

We're not "just as bad".

It's both.

Popular Science has some tips on teh shrooms (found via Tell Me a Story).

If you use Tumblr, here's how to deal with the new terms of service.

A rural Oregon school district practiced Bible bullying (found via Hackwhackers) -- but the good guys won in the end.

This is what Trumpanzees are really like.

Confide in your pastor?  Not a good idea.

Here are some great Sam Harris quotes.

This person needs to get a clue.

Dave Daubenmire has some issues about race.

Breaking free from religion is difficult, but rewarding.

US Muslims are abandoning religion at an even greater rate than Christians are.

Arizona makes a lunge back into the Dark Ages.

Republican tax "reform" works its magic in Kansas City.

The Gospels are a muddle of irresolvable contradictions.

The NFL's new effort to suppress peaceful protest smacks of hypocrisy.

To learn the truth, read the Bible.

"Fat acceptance" does real harm.

A father explains his regrets about Christian home-schooling.

These people exist.

A grieving mother gets a taste of God's love.

Wingnuts create fake Facebook pages to depict the Texas school shooter as a liberal.

He raped a 13-year-old?  No biggie, some people steal candy.

A Catholic cardinal says it plainly:  freedom of religion doesn't apply to any religion different from his.

Identity-politics nuts freak out at being called out.

To see the future Evangelicalism wants, study its past and present.

Commenters pwn a Randroid rant about socialism.

It's not easy being a Mediterranean sea turtle.

Some tarantulas keep pet frogs.

As technology advances, the view becomes clearer.

The Alt-Right is a tad disconcerted over the royal wedding.

The enemy is massively freaking out about the Irish abortion referendumJerry Coyne and Rosa Rubicondior assess the mass rejection of Church domination.  One priest delivered an anti-abortion rant in church -- and his congregation walked out.  Here's how the battle was won and lost.  It's heartening to see what factor most influenced voters.

The Irish vote raises the issue of restrictive laws in Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK.

Five major nations meet in Vienna to discuss how to save the Iran nuclear deal.  The EU will activate a law banning European companies from complying with US sanctions (this would give them cover to continue trading with Iran).  Europeans worry that the US may permanently cease to be a viable partner in global affairs.

Polish villages get the Good News from Jesus.

Though Tunisia is a democracy, its modernization still needs some work.

The violence in Burma isn't entirely one-sided.

Trump just can't imagine who the FBI informant in his campaign might be (found via Fair and Unbalanced).  And this looks pretty accurate.

The enemy knows what's at stake.  Do you?

The White House sinkhole prompts speculation.

As soon as he took office, Trump implemented the "global gag rule" on abortion (an example of what I meant here by "tries to enforce its religious taboos abroad"), and now wants to impose the same disastrous policy at home.

Most political "independents" shouldn't be taken seriously.

Having Trump on your resume isn't a selling point.

Mueller may have a Samson-in-the-temple plan in case he gets fired.

Republicans will have trouble appealing to younger voters.  In Illinois they've just nominated another godawful candidate.

Trump's negotiating skills stink.  And Pence is a bit reality-challenged.

The 2018 elections may depend on which foreign country has the best hackers.

Shower Cap reviews the week's madness.

For more link round-ups, see Miss Cellania, Fair and Unbalanced, and Perfect Number.

26 May 2018

Victory in Ireland

Yesterday the Republic of Ireland held a historic referendum on repealing the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution, which prohibited abortion under practically all circumstances (no exceptions for rape, fetal non-viability, etc.).  While polling had pointed to a narrow win for repeal, two exit polls show a landslide result, 68% to 32%, for repealing the amendment and thus legalizing abortion.  The margin was even more lopsided among younger voters, 87% to 13% among those under 24.  These are exit polls, and the actual vote counting won't be finished until later today (The Irish Times will have ongoing coverage), but even if the actual margin is somewhat narrower, this is a stunning win in a country that was totally in the grip of the Catholic Church a generation ago and had been one of the strongest bastions of the Church for fifteen centuries.

Ireland has been changing.  Three years ago it became the first country to legalize gay marriage by popular referendum (as opposed to court rulings or legislation), by a margin of 62% to 38%.  The current Prime Minister is openly gay.  78% of the population still identifies as Catholic, but weekly church attendance among Catholics is down from 91% in 1972 to 30% in 2011 (14% in Dublin), and many of those who still go do so only for family or social reasons.

Life under the abortion ban was marked by degradation and hypocrisy.  Many women needing abortions traveled to nearby Britain to obtain them, or resorted to unsafe illegal methods.  For some, yesterday's vote was a chance to strike back at oppressive tradition and its enforcers.

Based on what I've been seeing on hard-line Catholic websites, many opponents of repeal followed a strategy of mumbling to themselves, fiddling with beads, and not eating (or as they describe it, praying the Rosary and fasting).  For some reason, this apparently did not prove effective in changing the outcome.  One wishes our opponents would entirely confine themselves to such methods, but I suppose it's too much to hope for.

There is a lesson for Americans here.  Polling before the vote predicted a narrow win for repeal, while the exit polls show the actual result was around two-to-one.  There are a variety of reasons why polling can fail to predict a vote accurately.  In a case like this, where interest and emotion are running high, one possibility is failure to predict turnout.  Pollsters must guess at which groups will actually vote and in what numbers; if actual turnout patterns are different, the actual vote outcome may be far different from what the poll predicted.  In Ireland, by all accounts, turnout was astonishingly high.  The increased victory margin may reflect high turnout among groups that usually vote in only meager numbers, such as young people, or the pro-repeal side may have been more energized relative to its opponents than pollsters expected.  Here in the US, Democrats have often done better in special elections over the last year than polling suggested, and this too may reflect an especially motivated Democratic base.  But in November, the Trumpanzees too may be energized by fear of Trump being impeached if Democrats win the House.  In the polarized and intense politics of the US today, we can't let polls push us into overconfidence or despair.  Turnout will be everything, and every battle must be fought hard.

Update:  The official result is in -- 66.4% for repeal, 33.6% against.

24 May 2018

Dream world (2)

Oh, the visions some people entertain.....

[Previous "Dream world" post here.]

22 May 2018


"...you don't have to look too hard to find voices on social media urging you to abandon the Democratic Party for various perceived heresies. Telling you to stay home, or to throw your vote away on a useless wad of cud like Jill Stein. These voices elected Trump once, and they're hellbent on doing it again. I know y'all know that already, I just don't want you to be shy in calling 'em out. There's too much at stake." -- Shower Cap's Blog

Look, I get it.  Especially at times like this, when several Senate Democrats just broke ranks to help confirm Gina "Ve haff vays of making you tock" Haspel.  Being up for re-election in a red state is no excuse; appeasing Trumpanzees doesn't work, and you can't out-Republican the real Republican in the race.

But as bad as some Democrats are, would you rather have Republicans in those seats?  Republicans would have voted to confirm Haspel too, and they would have gone against us on other critical votes such as ACA repeal, on which all the Senate Democrats, even those who went the wrong way here, stood united.  The worst Democrat is better than the best Republican.

This applies to all of us, across the ideological spectrum.  There is no excuse for what is apparently happening in NE-02, where the DCCC seems to be withholding support from progressive Kara Eastman after she won the primary against their preferred candidate.  There's too much at stake for anyone to be playing these kinds of games.  If the Republican wins the seat because the establishment -- or conservative Democratic voters -- get in a snit about their guy losing the primary, the disgrace will be theirs.

Refusing to vote for a Democrat who isn't "the right kind" just makes it more likely that the Republican will win.  It doesn't matter that you think you're "sending a message" or don't want to dirty yourself by voting for a bad candidate.  Nobody cares about the intentions of a non-voter or third-party voter, only about the result.  It doesn't matter what Nader voters in 2000 thought they were doing.  What matters is that Bush became President, with all that followed.  And if you refuse to vote for a Democrat you think isn't good enough, and the Republican wins, the fact that you can stand around oozing virtue and ideological purity doesn't mean shit to the vulnerable person who loses his health insurance, food stamps, or civil rights as a result of Republicans holding power.

Unity is strength, division is weakness.  One of the most hopeful things about this political dark age is that the enemy is so factionalized and so prone to petty rivalries.  They already face the risk of losing a winnable race in West Virginia because a right-wing third candidate may divide their voters.  Whenever that happens on their side, it's good.  Whenever it happens on ours, it's bad.

We're a big diverse party because this is a big diverse country.  But we're up against an opposing party which stands for theocracy and economic oligarchy, and has lately sold itself out to a narcissistic megalomaniac with dictatorial tendencies who is destroying our country's standing in the world and may yet do horrifyingly worse.  We can't vote him out this year, but we can vote for those who offer some hope of reining him in.  Any Democrat you have the opportunity to vote for deserves your vote, whether it's Kara Eastman or Joe Manchin.  Because the alternative is intolerable.  It's really as simple as that.

20 May 2018

Link round-up for 20 May 2018

Various interesting stuff I ran across on the net over the last week.

o o o o o

A young man achieves basketball self-pwnage.

Watch a cat get frustrated (found via Miss Cellania).

Blogger Mike has a round-up of bad pants.  He also posts joke collections.

Scrat was here.

Here's some word-play similar in spirit to my "improving words" posts.

I can hardly wait to see the actual clothes.

The Aztec gods live again!

Duct tape can glow.

See the art of melon engineering.

Prehistoric phallic symbol?

Never mind the yellow brick road, follow the rainbow road.



American beef is safe to eat.

Pekka Pouta is the best TV weatherman.

Nice toy you got there, Mr. Solo.

Melania might like this joke.

Being in the Alt-Right can get confusing.

In China, the Avengers film characters have different names.

Magnetism is weird.

Here's a sculpture in Tokyo.

A few years back I posted about the awfulness of modern men's clothing.  Now this lady blogger has a similar complaint.  Oh, and I'm with Ms. Stewart here.

Check out this Japanese rice art.

She asked for suggestions for a name for her band.  She got them.

Netflix has some worthwhile SF.

If I tried this, I suspect I'd accidentally behead myself.

See rare photos from the last century.

What question would you ask, and of whom?

This is the longest distance you can travel in a straight line on dry land.

To my vast annoyance as a student of history, fundies are now comparing Trump to Cyrus the Great (I wrote about Cyrus here).

MDMA cheese parties are now a thing.

Forced-birth fetishists lament that they're losing young people's support.

On race, Missouri seems to be stuck in the 1950s.

To understand the Bible, read more than just the popular bits.

The regulations libertarians decry were implemented because of cases like this.

Bolton and Pompeo may clash over foreign policy, because the latter thinks further ahead.

Jesus loves you.

Here's a good tip on dealing with an introvert.

Michele Bachmann is no longer crazy enough for Rick Wiles.  But Tony Perkins is crazy enough for Trump.

This person is vile.

Fundie idiots link the Gaza violence with Biblical prophecy (found via Hackwhackers).

We can't solve the country's largest medical problem by shouting down people who talk about it.

The Trump EPA has suppressed a report on water contamination.

More gorillas and chimpanzees exist than we thought (found via Mike the Mad Biologist), but they're still endangered.

Saunas are good for you.

Container farms save water (must be expensive, though).

Europe takes a tough stand against Trump on the Iran deal and trade wars.

Japanese bus drivers show how to go on strike.

Deutsche Welle looks at Iran's military power.

Behold the brilliance of "the Trump doctrine" at work on North Korea.

After decades of sex-selective abortion in misogynistic cultures, India and China now suffer from a disastrous male-female imbalance.

Trump's pick to head the CDC is a true Christian and a bigoted quack.

Electoral-Vote.com looks at Tuesday's primary results.  Hackwhackers has more.  (Basically, Democrats went for electability while Republicans doubled down on Trumpism.)  It was a good day for women candidatesAppeasing Trumpanzees won't work -- just keep telling the truth.

This may be the ultimate Republican.

Calvin's has a Trump image round-up.  Shower Cap has the latest insanities.

"Big Shekels"?  Holy shit, can't they see what this looks like?

The Senate's net neutrality restoration won't get past the House or Trump, but Democrats have positioned themselves on the right side for November.

Happy anniversary -- cake and indictments all round!

The resistance is a marathon, not a sprint -- don't get worn down.

Leadership and courage can arise where some least expect them.

Keep an eye on Pence.  He's more dangerous than you think.

These are the useful lessons of Trump's election.

It's not just Russia -- there are hints of collusion with other foreign entities, notably in the Middle East.  Booman Tribune looks at factors affecting the chances of impeachment.  Even when Trump is out of office, he can still make trouble.

For more link round-ups, see Perfect Number, Mike the Mad Biologist, and Fair and Unbalanced.

[Image at top:  Ganymede, largest of the moons of Jupiter, discovered by Galileo in 1610]

17 May 2018

Trump and the end of an era

Trump is restructuring the democratic world, though in ways not congruent with his intentions, and the changes will go deeper the longer he remains in office.  He evidently believes that the power of the US enables it (well, him) to simply make demands on other countries and compel them to obey.  Combined with his ignorance about the world, this belief produces a pattern of erratic and alarming behavior which is eroding the leadership role the US has held since the end of World War II.

His early comments calling into question the US defense commitments to the democracies of Europe and East Asia must have set off alarm bells for the governments of those countries, and no doubt quite a few very sober high-level meetings took place in Tokyo, Berlin, Paris, etc. around that time.  The "axis of adults" in Washington eventually persuaded Trump to back down from some of his stupidest remarks, but his true attitude had been revealed, and other governments knew that they couldn't count on the "adults" to remain in place (indeed, all are now gone except Mattis).

Since then Trump has further damaged the US leadership role with such moves as withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, after which other countries (and even some US states and cities) simply went on following the accord without him.  His threats of trade war prompted Europe, not to submit, but to announce plans for retaliation.  No other major country has emulated his pointless and inflammatory gesture of moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.  His abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal reeked of arrogance, with his new ambassador to Germany imperiously ordering the world's fourth-largest economic power to slavishly fall into line.  The German people are already more fed up with Trump and the US than the diplomatic stance of Merkel's government would suggest.

The acid test of leadership, of course, is the ability and willingness to deter and contain the two giant mafia states, Russia and China, which pose an ongoing military threat to the democratic world.  US military power has traditionally filled that role -- but Trump has not only undermined the US commitment to its allies, but also has adopted a stance of appeasement toward Russia and recently, to some extent, China as well.  By now the other democracies realize that they can no longer rely on the US to protect them, or that at best that protection may come at a price in humiliating submission to bullying which they are not willing to pay.  The question is what to do about it -- and that question will soon become even more urgent, because Trump's foreign policy is about to become even worse.

Japan is already strengthening its military and becoming more assertive, building closer defense relations with other democracies such as Australia and nuclear-armed India.  North Korean belligerence has led to growing support in Japan for building its own nuclear deterrent, even though this would mean revising Japan's Constitution.  If Japan decides that it needs the ability to deter and contain China without US help -- and rationally, it may already have reached that conclusion -- expect to see more and stronger moves along these lines.

As for Europe, immediately after Trump abandoned the Iran deal, Germany, the UK, and France issued a joint statement committing themselves to upholding the agreement.  European nations recognize that it's now up to them to take the lead on the issue.  Note that the acrimony over the UK's decision to leave the European Union, deep as it is, has not at all damaged the Europeans' ability to cooperate closely in defying Trump.  Keep an eye on those three leading states in particular.  Germany, the UK, and France combined have over 200 million people; they're the world's fourth, fifth, and sixth largest economies; they are (like Japan and South Korea) technological and industrial powerhouses in various fields; and the UK and France have powerful military forces and nuclear arsenals of their own.  A close alliance of these three, within NATO, would be a very plausible claimant for the leading role in the Western world which Trump is abdicating.  It could even evolve into a power capable of deterring Russian threats against Europe, especially if a complete breach with the US puts the option of a nuclear Germany on the table.

But what about after Trump leaves office?  Won't things "get back to normal" then?  That depends on how long he remains in power.  If he were impeached and removed tomorrow, the global system would probably revert to something close to the pre-2017 status quo, though other nations will still be warier and less trusting of the US since they will fear the possibility of another Trump-like figure being elected in the future -- if it happened once, it could happen again.  But the longer he stays in place -- especially if he serves a full term -- the more damage he will do, and the more time the global system will have to reshape itself as the US becomes an obstacle to be worked around rather than a leader.  If Japan and Germany have built their own nuclear arsenals and alliance systems to contain the gangster states, and developed into independent and self-assertive world powers in their own right, they will not simply reverse all those developments when Trump leaves office.  Things will not "get back to normal".  There will be a new "normal".

In some ways, the free world might be better off with Japan and Germany in leading roles.  Despite their horrific crimes during World War II, those countries have now been stable democracies for generations, with populations more pacifist than most.  Being smaller than the US, they would be more dependent on allies, unable to assert the kind of overbearing go-it-alone stance that the US often did even before Trump.  And they lack any equivalent of the ignorant, deranged Christian Right demographic bloc which has played such a dangerous and reactionary role in US politics for decades and forms the core of Trump's support.

But Donald Trump, so far from "making America great again", will be remembered as the man who hastened the end of the era of American global dominance.

16 May 2018

Video of the day -- stupid aliens

The real problem here, of course, is stupid movie-writing.  If we ever actually suffer an alien invasion (unlikely, thank goodness), the invaders will be far from stupid, and our science fiction movies will have done a poor job of preparing us for the reality of dealing with them.  Next videos in this series here and here; the real stupidest movie aliens of all here; a surprise (but well-merited) entry here.

13 May 2018

Link round-up for 13 May 2018

Various interesting stuff I ran across on the net over the last week.

o o o o o

Please read this story through to the end, and consider whether you would be helping or hindering the struggle against the dragon.

He keeps trying, but.....

Cats meet robot.

Learn how the thagomizer got its name.  More science names here.

There is a secret hero in our midst.

This sounds like kind of a mess.

Blogger Ming has a good reason for not visiting Kansas City.

Donna at Tell Me a Story looks at some uncommon words.

You can tell a lot about some people by the socks they wear.

This music video will keep you guessing.

Here's an interesting fan theory about The Flintstones (found via Calvin's).

Tough guy not so tough (found via Politics Plus).

A Republican discovers the world of furries, and perhaps moves a step toward redemption.

Do not date this person.

See optical glass sculptures by Jack Storms.

Check out the paint job on this house.

Never stop learning.

I'm with Dr. Wren here.

This guy makes a good point about stories with a message.

The Ozarks will be exempt from the Apocalypse, apparently.

Why are these two garments judged differently?

Actions matter more than words.

Never forget the true meaning of that immortal photo of the Rembrandt and the cell phones.

A fashion exhibit triggers the most ridiculous round of bitching about "cultural appropriation" yet.  Sorry, everything is fair game for parody.

Keep these points in mind when you see a missing-person report.  And keep this in mind when you read any shocking story.

On censorship, this sets a standard to which we should all aspire.

The Trump administration is now suffering leaks about leaks.

The oligarchy doesn't want its subjects exposed to real information about the outside world.

Stagnant society, stagnant religion.

We don't need immigrants who lack skills and won't learn English.

Nobody really believes abortion is murder (found via Mike the Mad Biologist).

On sexual harassment, Republican women feel betrayed by their party (let's hope some of them reach the obvious conclusion).

Miscellanea Agnostica looks at Bryan Fischer's latest Christofascist bullshit.

Worst tweet ever.

Worst marriage ever?

I guess you'd call this libertarian fatigue.

They really are trying to turn the US into a Third World country (found via Mike the Mad Biologist).

Fundamentalism promotes child abuse as well as wife abuse.  It's a sick blood-fetish cult.

The driving force behind global-warming denialism is not ignorance.

An emphasis on young-Earth creationism can actually weaken Evangelicalism's hold over its adherents.

The passage of FOSTA/SESTA is already killing and terrorizing sex workers (found via Mike the Mad Biologist).

Louisiana's prison-labor system evokes a bygone era of evil.

"Understand" the Alt-Right?  We do understand them, and that's the problem.

Pi-hole is the latest innovation in ad-block technology.

If you make a really unnerving noise, you can intimidate anybody.

Exercise can make your kids smarter.

This week saw the anniversary of one of our greatest victories.

If sponges can do it, so can we.

Lifelike sculptures bring us face-to-face with early humans (found via Miss Cellania).

As Trump abandons the Iran nuclear deal, Europe must take the lead.  Germany, the UK, and France immediately issued this joint declaration (found via Hackwhackers).

Here's the residence of an 18th-century German bishop -- at that time most ordinary people lived in squalid hovels.

Trump's newest appointee thinks the world's fourth-largest economic power can just be ordered around.

Germany now has a nastier variant on the "sovereign citizen" movement, though so far in small numbers.

Here's why "Islamophobia" isn't like anti-Semitism. And here's another problem.

Atheism is spreading among Turkey's younger generation.

The caste system -- an integral part of the Hindu religion -- plays a role in India's rape epidemic.

"John McCain is a tricky figure for us Resisters. Saved Obamacare, passed the plutocracy-entrenching GOP tax bill, served his country, yet foisted Sarah Freakin' Palin upon it…it's complicated. I won't tell you how to feel about Senator McCain, but if the man doesn't want America's greatest domestic enemy stinking up his memorial service with treason and overcooked steak farts, well, I'd say he's earned the right to make that call."  More commentary here.

Richard Ojeda is the kind of Democrat who might have a shot in West Virginia.

Crabby Trumpanzees refuse to see who's hurting their business.  Let's hope the canning industry and Boeing employees understand better, as these businessmen do.

Few cities want to host the 2020 Republican convention.

Help Stormy Daniels in her battle to hold Trump accountable.

Here's an overview of Tuesday's primaries.  North Carolina's result gives us a shot at flipping a seat there.  The Republican winners are bigots and Blankenship is a sore loser.  We need to be unified to win in November.  But is the blue wave petering out?

The Trumplings are just disgusting.  They hate their own best people.  It doesn't help that Trump himself has no sense of humor.

Right-wing conference, the usual bullshit.

Go ahead, tell me I'm wrong to call these people "the enemy".

If Democrats are really audacious, they can use this plan to reverse Republicans' unfair advantage in the Senate and the Electoral College (found via Mike the Mad Biologist).  In the meantime, Connecticut is about to join the National Popular Vote compact.

For more link round-ups, see Fair and Unbalanced, Love Joy Feminism, Perfect Number, and Miss Cellania (special "calling the cops on black people" edition).

[Image at top found via Hackwhackers]

11 May 2018

Video of the day -- waking up

Three ordinary American young people describe their personal journeys out of the darkness.

09 May 2018

Book review -- the case for the future

Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker (2018)

If a person can be judged by his enemies, Steven Pinker should be very proud.  Few thinkers arouse such fierce and united opposition from religious reactionaries, anti-science nuts, authoritarians, collectivists, cynics, pessimists, "bio-ethicists", and in general the pushers of everything dreary and hostile to freedom and progress.  It's not hard to see why.  He not only refutes their nonsense, he's got mountains of hard data to back up his case.

Part of the book continues the theme of his earlier work The Better Angels of Our Nature, showing that in every measurable way, the world has been getting better for generations -- richer, less violent, more educated, better fed, safer, more accepting of equality for women and gays, and in many ways even more ecologically sustainable -- and that these trends are accelerating.  Knowing how pervasive popular beliefs to the contrary are, he backs up every point with evidence, anticipating and answering the obvious objections.  He doesn't deny that problems exist, of course, but puts them in perspective -- today's balance of problems and advantages is not only better, but vastly better, than any previous era's balance of problems and advantages.

Considerable space is spent addressing the threats which generate the most pervasive worry -- nuclear war, high-tech terrorism, runaway AI, ecological degradation, even overpopulation (I'm often amazed at how many people today still write about population growth as if it were the 1980s and still possible to pretend that people like Paul Ehrlich had some idea what they were talking about).  These problems are at least potentially real (well, not runaway AI), but there are things we can do, and have been doing, to mitigate them -- and none of them are grounds for thinking doom is inevitable or even likely.  Some types of apocalyptic-scale disaster, such as mega-epidemics, actually happened regularly in the past but are now very improbable.

The reason for this progressive trend is the rise of science, reason, and humanism -- the values of the Enlightenment.  Ever since these values emerged, they have been under sustained attack from advocates of the older, failed world-views they have been displacing, an attack which continues today and makes the robust defense of Enlightenment values a necessity -- hence the title of the book.

Pinker's critics like to accuse him of measuring good by dry facts and figures which don't necessarily reflect the true state of human happiness.  But those facts and figures represent real change which has had a massive effect on the human experience of life, like huge declines in infant mortality, or the eradication of smallpox.  Imagine the effect on overall human happiness of hundreds of millions of parents who don't suffer the death of a child, or hundreds of millions of people who don't suffer the death or disfigurement which smallpox inflicted on so many for generations before technology defeated it.  If you think that the great global advances in literacy, food security, access to clean water, contraception, etc. don't represent real gains in quality of life, try to imagine your own life without those things.

Pinker's optimism is decidedly not an argument for complacency.  Given that things have been improving so much, it's imperative that we accurately understand why, so we know how to keep things getting better and avoid regressing to humanity's earlier, more natural state of poverty, violence, and ignorance.  Since the trends are global, in order to understand why they are happening, we need to examine factors at work in a broad range of countries -- analysis based on events in just a single country or even a single cultural region is parochial and likely to give misleading answers.  Very often it turns out that the real reasons for the gains have nothing to do with the claims and prescriptions of any of our popular ideologies.

Toward the end, Pinker addresses the two main rivals of Enlightenment values.  One is the traditional religious world-view, exemplified by the American Christian Right and by the hard-line Islamism of the Saudi and Iranian regimes, Dâ'ish (ISIL), and similar groups.  The other is "romantic heroism: the idea that morality consists in the purity, authenticity, and greatness of an individual or a nation" (p. 419).  This includes, but is far broader than, movements such as Trumpism and the fascism of early 20th-century Europe.  Pinker shows that neither alternative can solve the world's problems or guarantee the continuation of progress the way science, reason, and humanism can -- and he's confident that in the long run neither of them can prevail, even if they manage to inflict setbacks for a few years in a few countries.

I disagree with Pinker on a couple of points.  He minimizes the problem of economic inequality, but doesn't address the biggest threat it poses, which is excessive concentration of power in the hands of the ultra-wealthy.  He favors nuclear energy over solar and wind energy to combat global warming, rightly showing that it is much safer than most people think, but doesn't address the issue of over-centralizing power generation in a few vulnerable reactors as opposed to a distributed network of smaller generators.  These are trivial compared to his overall case, though.

He finishes with a few much-needed admonitions.  "When we fail to acknowledge our hard-won progress, we may come to believe that perfect order and universal prosperity are the natural state of affairs, and that every problem is an outrage that calls for blaming evildoers, wrecking institutions, and empowering a leader who will restore the country to its rightful greatness..... Remember your history: the fact that something is bad today doesn't mean it was better in the past..... Not every problem is a Crisis, Plague, Epidemic, or Existential Threat, and not every change is the End of This, the Death of That, or the Dawn of a Post-Something Era.  Don't confuse pessimism with profundity: problems are inevitable, but problems are solvable, and diagnosing every setback as a symptom of a sick society is a cheap grab for gravitas" (p. 452).

I first heard about this book here and immediately knew I had to read it.  If you want to know the reality of the world which is too often masked by rhetoric and clichés, and don't mind having a few of your preconceived ideas challenged, I urge you to read it too.

08 May 2018

Random observations for May 2018

Libertarians claim it's all about freedom, but somehow it's never about our freedom, it's always about the "freedom" of powerful bullies to make our lives more miserable and constrained.

o o o o o

In a conflict, the blame almost never lies all on one side. But it also almost never lies equally on both sides.

o o o o o

When you're a kid, you think adults all have some kind of guidebook or rules for being an adult, something you don't know anything about.  In your twenties, you realize you still don't know the rules, so you start faking it.  By your forties at the latest, you should have figured out that everyone else is doing the same.

o o o o o

The best way to reduce inefficiency in the American office environment would be to make reorganization a felony.

o o o o o

For pretty much any shitty thing a person can imagine, there is a Republican somewhere who actually wants to do it.

o o o o o

If you can call the country you're in "fascist" or a "police state" in public and not get arrested, it probably isn't one.

o o o o o

From a logical perspective, what purpose is supposed to be served by praying?  God is supposed to be omniscient, right?  That means he already knows what you want, and how badly you want it, and whether or not you deserve to get it.  What possible difference can it make to ask him for it?   Do you think you're going to make him aware of some aspect of your wish that he had previously overlooked?

o o o o o

If you want a vision of a stupefyingly-boring eternity, consider the Christian view of Heaven. Since Heaven is supposed to be perfect, it couldn't progress or change. Most enjoyable activities, being considered "sinful" to some degree or at least hardly godly, would presumably be unavailable there. The traditional vision of Heaven would have me impatiently checking my watch after half an hour, never mind all eternity. Worst of all, the place would presumably be swarming with the kind of insufferable Bible-besotted prigs whose smug holiness makes everyone avoid them in real life.

o o o o o

I wouldn’t be impressed by the concept of reincarnation even if I believed in it. Believers in the idea generally hold that a reincarnated person has no, or almost no, memory of his previous life. If I die, and later another entity is born which is supposed to be a continuation of me, but that entity has no memory of being me, then it isn’t me.

[For previous random observations, see here.]

06 May 2018

Link round-up for 6 May 2018

Various interesting stuff I ran across on the net over the last week.

o o o o o

May 1 was Halfoween.

It's just "the end" in Swedish.

Las Vegas has a giant fire-shooting praying mantis with a British accent.

Roadway may be unsafe when wet.

Here are some good ideas.

This is the Alborz Mountains under the Moon (found via Lady, That's My Skull).

See what talking looks like, from the inside.

Brigadier Sir Nils Olaf III inspects his troops.

Should we read books that make us uncomfortable?

There are actually people who get worked up about this kind of nonsense.

Anastasia Bulgakova draws countries as fantasy warriors (found via Miss Cellania).

The description keeps saying Homo sapiens, but I don't think so.

The notorious education report "A Nation at Risk" wasn't quite what you probably think.

Religion makes people ridiculous.  Sometimes, dangerously so.

TPM looks at the godawful political art of Jon McNaughton (Green Eagle spotted this guy several years ago, and more recently his totally-deranged successor).

Professor Chaos fisks Ross Douthat's laborious misunderstanding of sexual liberation.

"The Right are the original snowflakes."

Economic inequality in the US is this bad.

18-year-old Keshia Thomas acted with genuine heroism in a perhaps unworthy cause.

"I'm too stupid to understand it, so it can't be true!"

Most pathetically desperate man ever.

The "spoon trick" can save women and girls from ghastly abuse.

An ex-fundamentalist describes the path to enlightenment.

No, Cambridge Analytica is not shutting down, it's just staging a thinly-disguised name change.

No, whites are not on the way to becoming a minority in the US.

2012's shocking Republican comments on rape were derived from traditional Biblical attitudes.

LifeSite News bills itself as a serious traditionalist-Catholic news site.  But this posting includes a reference and link implying it takes the claims of Democratic "spirit cooking" seriously -- claims as absurd and outrageous as the Pizzagate or blood libels.  (I wasn't able to point this out there, since LifeSite has long banned me from commenting.)

A standard libertarian caricature of liberals is roundly pwned by several commenters, including me.

A Chinese-style prom dress triggers the latest diarrheal burst of "cultural appropriation" nonsense.  Actual Chinese people are unoffended and a bit baffled.  Even the media are starting to wise up.

A new Republican-backed law threatens the safety of sex workers -- and the freedom of the internet for everyone (found via Politics Plus).

Ridiculous car prices are leading to dubious lending practices.

The reason people don't respect conservatism is that its ideas are bad.

There's a common thread among several recent outbursts of violence.

The US hasn't fought a war against a competent enemy in decades.  If we do have to, are we prepared?

Sorry, you can't "harmonize" sense and nonsense.

Footprints bear witness that hunters 10,000 years ago braved even the largest prey.

The warming of the Arctic affects the whole planet.

The US health-care system ranks worst -- and most expensive -- among 11 developed countries (found via Miss Cellania).

Canadian money is cool.

Thousands of people went to the coast of Britain to mumble to themselves and fiddle with trinkets, in an effort to get more people to believe in mumbling to themselves and fiddling with trinkets, and to promote the idea that women should be forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term.

A traveling blogger gets a taste of medieval Germany.

Dortmund's "Bordoll" is a brothel with a difference.

The European Union faces daunting budget problems now that it will soon no longer be able to sponge off of Britain.

A superhero comic annoys the bigots.

This piece of shit is what Israel is expected to negotiate with.

Molestation and embezzlement run rampant in the Catholic Church in Honduras.

This young man is worth a hundred of the sniveling Western cowards who would shy away from outspokenly supporting him.

Kazakhstan is changing its alphabet, not a simple or cheap matter.

This man speaks for me:  "What they need to be, is defeated" (found via Hackwhackers).

In Ohio, choose the real Democrat, not the wingnut.  And don't be fooled by both-siderist nonsense.

Erick Erickson shouldn't have to take this, but he shouldn't have dished it out either.

The firing of Patrick Conroy created an interesting split among Republicans.

"It’s been one bowling ball after another, propelled via howitzer, directly into our collective crotch."  If that's not painful enough, there's Giuliani.

Republicans may run against impeachment -- bad idea.

Republicans face another tough House special election in a red district.

Don't take millennials for granted.

For more links, see Fair and Unbalanced.