30 January 2020

The technological continuum

Some religionists claim that certain technological innovations such as contraception or genetic engineering are "against nature" (or, as the hard-line Catholics prefer, are violations of "the Natural Law", the grandiose name they give to their arbitrary and incoherent taboo system).  A version of this attitude is found among technophobes and negative nellies generally.  Oddly enough, such people seldom object to forms of technology which were commonplace a generation or two before their time, such as metalworking, printing, plumbing, etc.  Even the Amish use plenty of machines, rejecting only those invented after a certain point in history.

Technological development is a continuum.  It runs from the first flint arrowhead through clothing, the wheel, the aqueduct, the sail, vaccines, the airplane, genetic engineering, the internet -- and will continue through the cure of aging, virtual reality, brain-machine integration, mind uploading, and the Dyson sphere.  It is all a steady progression of escaping the horror of living at the mercy of nature and increasing our ability to shape our existence as we wish.  There is nowhere in that continuum where you can draw a line and say "before this point life was natural, but afterwards we became unnatural and need to go back."

People are free to refuse forms of technology they don't like -- I don't have a "smartphone" largely because I'm repulsed by the subculture they represent -- but it's absurd to pronounce that once technology allows people to do things that make you uncomfortable, it suddenly constitutes an unacceptable level of hubris or a violation of God's plan.  250 years ago religionists were making the same kind of objections to lightning rods.

That first flint arrowhead set us on the road to the conquest of the galaxy.  It is a long and hard road, but also wide and straight -- and there are no stop signs.

28 January 2020

The essential struggle

A motto I've used from time to time on this blog is:  "Leaders come and go.  Political parties come and go.  Nations come and go.  The essential struggle continues."  Here is a brief overview of what I mean by "the essential struggle".

1)  The struggle for knowledge against belief.  That is, for an understanding of reality based on evidence and observation, as opposed to errors and misconceptions based on religion, superstition, spirituality, faith, tradition, wishful thinking, etc.

2)  The struggle for individual self-determination against external control (it used to be possible to just say "freedom", but various groups have now promoted such weird re-definitions of that word that I need to say "individual self-determination" to be clear).  This is the principle of non serviam, of disobedience -- the assertion of the individual's will and right to make decisions about his or her own life, against restrictions, commands, or interference from outside the individual.  It rejects any "higher purpose" imposed on the individual's life by any "god", government, or society, in favor of the individual's own choices about that purpose.  It rejects all restrictions on thought, artistic creativity, or expression of opinion.

3)  The struggle for individuality against conformity.  For the strengthening and emphasis of the individual's distinct personality and ego; against all schemes that brainwash the individual into conformity to an ideal or to the typical; against all philosophies and ideologies which advocate suppression of the ego; against the mentality of the eastern religions which long for "nirvana" or merging of the individual consciousness into some universal psychic blob; against any claim that there is just one correct or ideal way for a person to live and be.

4)  The struggle for compassion against cruelty.  Both happiness and achievement flourish most when people's default approach to one another is helpfulness and cooperation.  The more pleasure and the less pain the world contains, the better it is for everyone.  This opposes the view of suffering as somehow ennobling or conducive to virtue, the impulse to shun and exclude those who are different, the mentality whose first reaction to human need is judgment rather than sympathy.

5)  The struggle for the supremacy of the human will over the mindless universe.  Most other animals exist at the mercy of their environment; humans can work to control their environment and reshape it for their own benefit.  This has included the development of agriculture; the deployment of countermeasures against the epidemic diseases that once killed us in great numbers; the use of dams, solar power plants, etc. to collect and transform energy for our own purposes, and so on.  In the future it will embrace the Technological Singularity, the eradication of aging and involuntary death, and the spread of human life beyond our solar system.  The enemy here has been concepts such as "hubris", belief systems which view humans as just another part of nature which should remain subject to the same mindless forces that shape the lives of other animals, the "there are things man was not meant to do/know" mentality, the eastern philosophies which view desire as something to be brainwashed into oblivion rather than achieved, and above all the resistance of religion to the progress of science and technology.

Both sides of this struggle have been represented in most times and places.  The above points should clarify how I define good and evil, allies and enemies.  Taking the long view, we have made great progress over the millennia -- but there is still much to do.  The essential struggle continues.

26 January 2020

Video of the day -- Alan Dershowitz goes to Hell

Yes, that's Kate McKinnon as Satan.  Found via Mock Paper Scissors.

Link round-up for 26 January 2020

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

o o o o o

What if lions took selfies?

There's something fishy about this post.

Beware -- he bites.

Accept your pun-ishment.

Her Royal Highness launches an emergency fund-raiser (but please donate to your local cat shelter instead).

This is the future liberals want.

Lady M makes dollhouse furniture by laser.

Science and religion work differently.

Romantic is romantic, in either case.

The gun obsession meets a deep psychological need.

How do you forgive yourself.....

This is not a sea monster.

Maybe quantum mechanics isn't so weird.

Cancel someone's day off, face the consequences.

I suspect this kind of thing happens to a lot of kids.

Driving while faithful is dangerous.

I already knew almost all of this.  Has so much really been forgotten?

It's the year of the horrid little scuttling thing -- which is supposed to be auspicious -- so long as the coronavirus doesn't get you.  Who thought up this calendar?

Beware of online personality quizzes.

It's good to ask follow-up questions.

All those cigarette butts couldn't have helped either.

Trump's pet religious nut believes in what's basically magic.

If you were ever a Christian, why?

Modern storytelling is trite and simplistic compared to traditional folk tales.

The forced-birth fetishists are united behind their candidate and ready to fight -- we must be as well.

This guy gets it.

It's not only abortion -- for some, access to birth control is under attack.

When you're in a strong position, taking a stand is worth the risk of losing a few fans.

We need more atheist blogs, and more blogs generally.  Every voice is unique, and "social media" are a pallid substitute.

Every time some Satanist announces a Black mass, the religio-nutballs start spending huge amounts of energy on vigils and rituals and whatnot.  It's like the real-world equivalent of trolling.

Same crime, different colors.

"Great torture, terrible suffering, horrible despair, terrible and indescribable suffering, caverns and pits of torture....." -- if you don't do and believe as I tell you to.

Ken Ham's Ark Encounter tries to entice children to visit its moronic paean to an imaginary genocide.

Never forgive what was done to this man.

Trump unveils more plans to facilitate discrimination.

Jerry Falwell Jr calls for civil disobedience, not against the gutting of health care or the caging of migrant children, but against gun control.

Pompeo made an utter fool of himself in this interview (found via Hackwhackers).

At some point it becomes treason.

Global warming is making libertarianism untenable (found via Crooks and Liars).

Remember what Martin Luther King said about war.

Looking at the record, Trump's relationship with the military is "complicated".

Views from the other side: coverage of the Richmond gun rally from two right-wing blogs and The Daily Stormer (the latter may surprise you).  The protesters did bring this interesting prop.

What does "America is a Christian nation" really imply?

Members of the Trump gang who committed crimes mustn't get away with it after he leaves office.

It's probably a myth that aluminum is a cause of Alzheimer's (found via Billions of Versions).

Yet another problem with colonizing Mars is dangerous radiation.

One cell to kill them all, one cell to find them.....

Dinosaurs were weird.

Even in the Netherlands, some people still have deep spiritual beliefs.

The haters must not win, but that means we must not let them.

Attacks by religio-nationalist mobs on India's universities are an attack on democracy itself.

In 2016, 6% of the popular vote was wasted on third candidates.  Trump's unpopularity is electorally unsurvivable if we all vote -- and avoid repeating that mistake.

We need to reach people who don't usually care about politics.

Moscow Mitch will win on impeachment, but may lose the war for the Senate.  The process is exposing the vacuous corruption of Republican senators, and that could be valuable.

What's our plan for after we win in November?

What's the Republicans' plan for after they acquit Trump?

More links here.

[Image at top:  Satanist march for reproductive freedom, date/location not known to me]

25 January 2020

Europe's failing politics

I've already posted about why the Conservative party landslide in last month's British election doesn't hold any particular lessons for electoral politics in the US -- the dominant issues and the character of the political parties involved in the two countries are simply too different.  It does, however, offer reminders about the roiling political situation in the UK and in western Europe generally -- a subject which continues to be widely misunderstood in the US, especially on the left.

This blog post by a British moderate leftist ("Against: totalitarianism.  For: liberty, secularism, enlightenment, cats.") sets things forth well, and with classic British bluntness.  First, he expresses the shock of seeing the Labour party so crushingly defeated (winning less than a third of the popular vote and a similar share of seats in Parliament) when its Conservative rival was so unappealing:

.....the Conservative Party will reign unchecked and unchallenged for at least another decade, quite possibly longer.  They will govern, moreover, regardless of performance.  That they will do so after a decade of austerity and ruthless infighting about Brexit boggles the political mind.

The Conservative Party will lead Britain into the 2020s despite food banks, the blight of homelessness, libraries shuttered, public services being slashed at and cut, the NHS in crisis, despite the chaotic and cruel implementation of Universal Credit.  We will be herded through the most profound and complicated constitutional change in half a century of British history by an unprincipled bluffer and chancer with a promiscuous attitude to both women and the truth.  Despite all the empty post-election rhetoric about forming a "resistance" to Tory rule, this is by any reckoning a complete and total failure of opposition.

There were warnings of impending disaster, but they went unheeded (note: "Tories" is a slang term for the Conservatives):

For sounding various warning bells my comrades and I on the Corbyn-sceptic left have been rewarded with years of abuse and slander from the proponents of a 'kindler, gentler' politics. We have been called 'Blairites', 'centrists', 'red Tories', 'Zios'. We have been told to "fuck off and join the Tories". We have lost friends. We have been blocked, unfriended and unfollowed.

He goes on to describe how the ideology-besotted Labour party lost touch with, and became contemptuous of, the typical working-class voter who was formerly at its core:

He has a deep love of country, cherishing its rights and freedoms which he sees as compromised by the European Union, which is why he voted to leave.  He also believes we should control immigration. He is, on the whole, proud of our history, our institutions, and our traditions.  He takes an especial pride in our armed forces, because he has relatives in the military, including his own son.  He is angry, true, but he is angry at the shabby state of the country; the way the once bustling high street now looks like a row of rotting teeth, reduced to a scattering of pound shops, charity shops and we-buy-your-gold pawnbrokers.  He is angry at the way those old industries, pounded by globalisation, have been largely replaced by low paying service sector work.  His wants are hardly obscure: to provide for his family, to own a decent home, a car, to save enough for a holiday now and again.  He wants to know that next year will be better than last year; that his struggle and toil is building towards something.

Despite claiming to speak for the poor and the vulnerable, the typical Corbynista couldn’t be further away from the object of his patronage if he tried.  The left may do a good job of keeping up appearances, but it doesn’t take much to jolt their true feelings from them.  They have, after all, spent three years telling ordinary British voters they were idiots for voting for Brexit.  They have called them ignorant, racist and xenophobic.  They said they were too stupid to understand what they were really voting for; that they were brainwashed by the tabloids, Nigel Farage and some words on the side of a bus.  They have openly discussed disregarding the largest democratic decision in British history.  They have done everything in their power to delay the process and undermine our negotiating position abroad.  They have cheered every defeat for the British government, lapped up every humiliation. All while comporting themselves like our self-appointed intellectual and moral superiors.  Is it any wonder, really, that the targets of such scorn rejected Corbynism en masse?

This is the core of the problem, and again, it extends across Europe, not just the UK.  For ordinary people's profound attachment to their own countries and cultures (whose roots go back more than a millennium), for their objections to mass immigration unprecedented in the history of those lands, for their concerns about the encroachment of a corrupt and unelected EU oligarchy upon national laws and sovereignty -- the mainstream parties have had no response to offer except scolding and name-calling.  This has generally been true of right-wing mainstream parties as much as the left, driving voters toward fringe parties, some of them dangerously extremist.

(As a personal aside, my own family roots lie among just such ordinary people, in the unfashionable industrial cities of England.  It was the Labour party government after World War II that gave them a chance at better lives, somewhat like the New Deal and the GI Bill in the US.  That the party is now led by snobs infected with the same slimy, aristocratic disdain for ordinary people that it once rebelled against -- this is beyond infuriating.  Yes, there are some hints of such disdain among the Democratic left activist fringe in the US, but nothing like this bad -- and the party leadership has not succumbed to it.)

The UK broke out of this pattern almost by accident when David Cameron, a Conservative prime minister as pro-EU as any other mainstream politician, called a referendum on leaving the EU.  He did this primarily as a threat to strengthen his hand in dealing with the EU oligarchy, probably never seriously considering that voters might actually choose to leave.  Even after the referendum, it took more than three years for a genuinely pro-Brexit figure -- Johnson -- to emerge as party leader.  It could just as easily have been the Labour party that got out ahead on this issue; it should have been.  But with the current leadership, such boldness was unthinkable -- and now it will be the Conservative party that reaps the benefits.

It could have been worse.  If the Brexit referendum had not happened, or if the elite had continued to obstruct the implementation of its verdict, by now the British people might well be on the verge of electing Farage or someone like him to lead the country -- a genuinely Trump-like figure in some ways, unlike Johnson -- out of sheer frustration with the arrogance and contempt of the mainstream parties.  The same risk exists in other European countries.  Some of them have already elected dangerously-fringe leaders.

One other matter is mentioned only in passing, but deserves more attention:

The most despairing thing about that period was watching good comrades on the left, some of whom had spent decades of their lives fighting for the labour movement, being lectured at and abused by Jew-baiting trustafarians who had joined the party five minutes ago.

After several decades of disrepute in the wake of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism has re-emerged in Europe and even become somewhat fashionable among certain elements of the activist-ideologist fringe.  In Britain, infuriatingly, it has become especially pervasive in the Labour party (another way in which British politics differs from ours, since over here it's mainly the Republican party which is infested with bigots).  Whether anti-Semitism is also on the rise among ordinary people, I don't know; certainly in the centuries before World War II it was a plague that transcended class boundaries.  But I think most voters in December were smart enough to see that Labour's obsessive Israel-bashing is, at the very least, irrelevant to their real problems.

Sensible Labourites now have several years to try to take back their party from the crazies and bigots.  By the time the next election comes around, Brexit will be an accomplished fact and hopefully fading as an electoral issue.  But variants of at least some of these problems exist in most European countries, and most mainstream parties still show no sign of being able to break out of their ideological bubbles and respond to their voters instead of insulting and psychoanalyzing them.  There is more upheaval to come, over there -- and the American left remains locked into a mind-set and vocabulary which precludes understanding it accurately.

22 January 2020

Exactly what we shouldn't be doing

Hillary Clinton is owed considerable deference as the actual voters' choice for president in 2016, the leader we should have had but were robbed of by the Electoral College.  Nevertheless, her recent comments about Bernie Sanders exemplify exactly what we shouldn't be doing right now.

If Sanders becomes our nominee, her words will become a talking point replayed endlessly in Republican commercials and interviews from that moment until election day.  If another candidate becomes the nominee, those same words will likely make it harder to unify the party.

There is too much of this going on, from candidates and from other prominent Democrats.  Yes, there are cases when criticism is necessary, but the first thought should always be, "If this candidate becomes the nominee, will what I am now saying help the Republicans defeat him or her?"  Because if our nominee (whoever it is) loses, Trump wins.

Defeating Trump must be the foremost consideration, always.

21 January 2020

Mars and Antarctica

One of the loopier ideas that regularly makes the rounds is colonizing Mars.  For one thing, a few individuals with more money and notoriety than sense are proponents and are able to keep drawing attention to the concept.  The most fundamental objection, of course, is that no one has ever been able to think of a convincing reason for sending humans to Mars.  Collection of scientific data can be (and is being) done far more cheaply and safely by machines.  No resource available on Mars would be worth the staggering cost of transporting it back to Earth.  As for the claim that we need a human population somewhere else to guarantee species survival in case something happens to Earth, I addressed that nonsense here.

To understand why colonizing Mars is never going to happen, look at Antarctica.  It's the only continent humans have never colonized in the sense of establishing a permanent self-sustaining population (though there are a few small bases there).  Why not?  Obviously, because the environment is too inhospitable.

But compare Antarctica with Mars.  Yes, Antarctica is cold, but Mars normally gets even colder at night.  Antarctica is somewhat remote, but Mars never gets closer than forty million miles away.  The cost of travel to Antarctica is not prohibitive.  NASA estimates that a manned expedition to Mars -- sending a few people for a brief stay, comparable to the Apollo Moon missions -- would cost $450 billion (yes, with a B).  That's two-thirds of the annual US military budget.  It's more than the annual economic output of most countries.  Now imagine what it would cost to set up a permanent colony.  Then imagine what voters would think of diverting such vast sums to that endeavor, given what the same money could accomplish if applied to ongoing problems on Earth.

Antarctica has breathable air and Earth-normal gravity, and while some dream of changing Mars's atmosphere to make it more Earthlike (a far from simple or easy process, if it's even possible), we will never be able to change its gravity.

Gravity is important.  There have been cases of astronauts spending periods of up to a year in zero gravity in space, and we know that it causes several serious health problems, such as vision disturbances and loss of bone and muscle mass.  Mars's surface gravity is only one-third as strong as Earth's.  Given the problems caused by a few months in zero gravity, it seems impossible that an entire lifetime lived in Martian gravity wouldn't also have serious detrimental effects.  For example, if pregnancy (a stressful process even under ideal conditions) cannot proceed normally in Martian gravity, then humans will never be able to reproduce naturally there.

The only solution I've seen proposed for this problem is to build human habitat inside a huge permanently-spinning wheel so that centrifugal force would mimic Earth's gravity.  This might work for a small base comparable to those that exist in Antarctica, but it would be completely impractical for the normal towns and cities which talk of "colonizing Mars" implies.

Carl Sagan was right.  "Like it or not -- for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand."

Humans have managed to live permanently and even thrive in environments as hostile as the deserts of Arabia and Australia or the highlands of Tibet and Peru.  We have not done so in Antarctica, not even with modern technology, not even in the fringes of the continent which have exposed soil (not ice) which could conceivably be made arable.  If we haven't done it there, we're not going to do it on Mars either.

19 January 2020

Link round-up for 19 January 2020

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

o o o o o

The love that dare not speak its name.....

Why don't churches have wifi?

It's the cutting edge of fashion for the horsey set.

Don't hassle me, I'm on the phone (found via Mock Paper Scissors).

.....you've got a cat.....

Don't be afraid of the lazy lizards.

Greta Thunberg has an unusual honor in Scotland.

War face!

RO looks at spices, BDSM gear, visiting Canadians, Fonzie, and unoriginal movies.

How do you handle small children who talk back?

She knows how deep to plant the daffodil bulbs.

It's a leap year, with animal pics, of course.

Cool cosplay, with cat -- but what an egg!

What would the Scarecrow sing today?

Giants are real.

Wingnuts just can't do humor.

Time for some Republican movies.

Portland, e-mail, don't much care, not that I know of, introverted, are you crazy?

Heh (found via Progressive Eruptions).

Sorry, this guy is completely loopy.

The world of romance-novel writers is bogged down in cliques and political correctness.

The Trump gang has just gotten worse in the new year.  "History will assume I was simply drunk out of my mind when I wrote this....."

Here's some advice for Iran.

Some take homophobia to bizarre, and very smelly, extremes.

Are there really people who hate freedom?  Discussion in the comments.

Never distort history -- if a photo isn't suitable for a particular purpose, just don't use it.

Next time a religionist asks you what evidence it would take to convince you God was real, ask him this.

Yes, life will continue coursing through the streets, but the world will be poorer.

Trump simply must win and the Democrats are evil, say the religio-nutters.

The media's fixation on "balance" prevents them from reporting the news accurately.

This guy seems to be drunk pretty often.

Don't you dare contaminate our arbitrary nonsense with different arbitrary nonsense (read the comments too).

The Christian Right's persecution complex is completely unmoored from reality.

These are Trump's enablers.

We need health coverage that approves treatment based on effectiveness, not profitability.

A prominent Catholic theologian recognizes that "religion has done more harm than good".

Facebook is using propaganda to convince us that it's taking a stand against propaganda.

Yes, failing to "honor God" enough really does mean you deserve to be tortured for eternity (don't tell me these people aren't dangerously disturbed).

Neoliberalism has failed the 99%, so what do we do now?

She seduced him into betraying his family.

West Virginia is considering a resolution to absorb counties and cities from Virginia that secede from the latter state because of its gun laws.

The Amish are a typical deeply-religious community (found via Civil Commotion).

The Parnas revelations should be a game-changer, but is anyone listening?  Humorists assess the evidence -- and Parnas sings!

ZOMG the reactionary Catholic types have discovered the QAnon thing.  It's going to be a perfect storm of crazy.

The "very fine people" are still out there.

Use technology to defeat surveillance.

Scientists have created a material with many of the properties of life (found via Mendip).

Here's a good illustration of the speed of light.

Artificial neurons have reached the point where they could replace damaged or defective biological ones (found via Notes from the UK).

Medieval manuscripts illuminate genetic history.

Fight fresh-water shortages with icebergs.

Australia's wildfires are God's punishment for abortion and gay marriage, according to this nutjob.

The destruction of the Ukrainian airliner has totally changed the focus of mass protests in Iran.  Influential cultural figures are now turning against the regime.

Taiwanese voters stand tough against the fascist regime in Beijing.

Democrats need to focus on what voters really care about (found via Fair and Unbalanced).

Some worry that if Trump loses in November but refuses to concede, the military would back him -- but I suspect they wouldn't.  Also, we should have known about this earlier.

The Cook Report now says we have a 33% chance of taking the Senate.

Trump threatens to take another crap on the constitution to whip up Evangelical voters.

There's a reason for Biden's lead in the polls.

Pence's role in the Soleimânî hit suggests he might be even more dangerous as president than Trump.

Twitter bots are driving much of the fuss over the Warren-Sanders squabble.  Remember, when Democrats become divided against each other, only Republicans benefit.

Trump is not a businessman president, he's an executive-producer president.

More links here.

[Image at top:  wreckage from Ukraine International Airlines flight 752, near Tehran]

17 January 2020

Quote for the day -- paradise

"With unending, unimaginable, and unbearable torture, fire, and pain, for Evangelicals, hell is the holy solution God creates for those who don't respond properly to His unfailing love.  With this nearly singular focus on matters of eternity, conservative Evangelicals have been quick to first ensure their place in heaven, and then meticulously define those who will be sent to hell.  Additionally, as they run their fingers through the Bible, they have been sure to carve out what they believe are the God-sanctioned requirements that must be met for one to truly have 'saving' faith.  From Calvinism to Arminianism, there are many different stances among conservative Evangelicals in regards to what 'true' salvation involves.  Yet, congruent in all of it is their focus on who's in and who's out. Inconvenienced and frustrated by what they see as a filthy, sinful, God-hating world, most conservative Evangelicals can't wait to get into their heaven.  For them, it's a place absent of all their enemies, disagreers, problems, and cares filled only with people who believe, act, and look like themselves..... This is their heaven, devoid of diversity, disagreers, doubters, and the people who believe, act, and sin differently than they.  It's a walled-off place accessible only to the spiritually elite who have ascended to a certain set of beliefs and behaviors.  Rewards and privileges are granted to the most faithful, and worship is joyfully extended to the god who sends, even from among their own, the unbelievers and rebellious to burn in hell."

Chris Kratzer

So according to Evangelical Christianity, after you die there are two possibilities (and only two -- in their view, you can't just cease to exist even if you want to).  Either you go to a place where you are burned and horribly tortured and exist in unendurable agony forever, or you go to a place full of the same smug, judgmental, self-righteous assholes and bullies who spent their lives trying to make this world as miserable as possible for everybody else.  And in either case, you can never escape, not even by dying (you're already dead, remember).  It goes on and on, never-ending.

Screw that, I'm staying here.

And they say we atheists have a hopeless and depressing view of reality!

15 January 2020

Post-apocalyptic computing

Well, it's after the 14th and my proudly Windows-7-powered computer has not yet exploded or otherwise shown any ill effects from Microsoft's much-anticipated dereliction.  In fact, it ran and installed a Windows update this morning (I thought they were going to stop sending those?), just as it has always done routinely.

Despite having solicited advice earlier, I haven't actually done much to prepare -- as regular readers know, matters of deeper import distracted me.  I'm still researching how I can (a) safely stay with Windows 7 indefinitely, or (b) effectively disable the spyware elements of Windows 10.  I'd be interested to hear from other netizens who have done, or are doing, those things.  (Linux and Apple aren't good options for me.)  Also, I gather some systems have a "time bomb" program which will "upgrade" (bah) to Windows 10 even without the owner's action or consent -- so the first thing I need to do now is to find out whether my computer has that, and if so, disable it.

Grrrr.  What a pointless hassle.  By defecating so copiously upon the preferences of so many millions of its customers, Microsoft has demonstrated once and for all that the free market does not work as advertised.

14 January 2020

A rival Pope?

Last year I discussed (OK, gloated over) the possibility of a schism in the Catholic Church as traditionalist believers foamed at the mouth over the possibility that the Amazon synod could lead to the Church accepting homosexuality and married priests (which, along with abortion, apparently form the evil trinity which constitutes Satan).  Already they are emerging as a rebellious faction within the Church, and some of them are starting to sound violently unhinged.  God's Church, they insist, just can't stop treating homos like shit, or allow Father Moe and Father Lester to get laid consensually so that they (one hopes) quit fiddling with the altar boys.  The traditionalists have faced a dilemma, though -- most of the hierarchy, including Pope Francis, is firmly in the reformist camp.  How can one uphold Catholic tradition by challenging the Pope and the rest of the clerical grandees to whom that same Catholic tradition requires deference?

This week a possible solution began to take shape.  Joseph Ratzinger, the former Pope Benedict XVI, broke the silence he has mostly imposed on himself since retiring from the Papacy in 2013.  He has, it emerged, co-authored a book defending the no-shagging-for-priests rule -- a frontal attack on one of the top items on the reformists' agenda.  It's also an implicit challenge to the authority of the current Pope Francis, in whose hands the decision about married priests rests.  Reformist leaders flew into an infuriated snit, while traditionalists rejoiced.

This roiling potpourri of Popery is unprecedented in the Church's modern history -- the last time a Pope resigned rather than dying in office, and thus hung around to shadow his successor's reign, was more than six hundred years ago.  Ratzinger commands enormous respect throughout the Church, and many traditionalists argue that he remains the true Pope, either because his resignation was invalid in some way or because Francis is a heretic and therefore illegitimate.

Ratzinger is not going to openly call for an uprising against Francis in the name of the Old Ways.  That's not how Popes do things.  As monarchs of a massively conservative institution, they are not revolutionaries.  But he's made himself a potential figurehead and rallying-point for the traditionalists, and that's all they need.  In fact, he'd probably be more effective as a reserved elder statesman issuing occasional encouraging hints (like his new book) than by wading into the fray.  It's more in line with how a Pope is supposed to behave.

I suspect the traditionalists will seize upon Ratzinger's book as a signal to launch their crusade against the reformists and against the very legitimacy of Francis.  Time, after all, is not on their side.  Ratzinger is 92, and more than half of the cardinals now entitled to vote for the next Pope were appointed by Francis, so that next Pope is likely to be another reformist.  If they don't act soon, they won't get a more promising opportunity in the foreseeable future.

And it's likely that Ratzinger really does support the traditionalist cause.  Why else would he write such a book -- with Robert Sarah, one of the few cardinals to have spoken out repeatedly and vociferously against the reformist agenda?  Again, he's not going to openly lead a revolution.  Popes don't do that.  But he's likely to encourage the traditionalists in whatever ways he considers appropriate to his position.  It's what he probably believes is the right thing to do -- and at 92, what does he have to lose?

The Methodists are already splitting into two denominations over the issue of homosexuality.  The Catholic Church can't do that since its members believe it to be the only "real" church, outside which there is no salvation.  Neither side can simply leave.  If there is a schism, the reformists and traditionalists will be two scorpions in a bottle.  And the whole institution's gravitas and power will suffer accordingly.

12 January 2020

Link round-up for 12 January 2020

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

o o o o o

Exercise can be difficult.  Reading books should be easier, but will justice prevail?

Obey the pharmacist.

There's a toy in every box!

From perfect picture to almost-perfect picture.

Whoever designed this sign knew exactly what he was doing.

See faces in the snow.

What could go wrong?

Physical books still far outsell their electronic rivals.

Cathedral art celebrates the talented Konrad von Hochstaden.

"Open a channel to the Ferengi vessel....."

A queen's hair is commemorated in the sky.

See Uranus moon the king of the fairies.

Writers, be careful around Dreame.

Prayer and logic don't mix.

Let's dance, retro style.

Insightful words from Alexander Leon apply to many other people as well as gays.

The Iran war is canceled, so Trump is back to his usual telling lies and babbling like an idiot.

The religious nuts are throwing a fit about a kids' cartoon show.

Is it legal?

Blogger Shower Cap has an SF/political comic coming out.

Some fundies have a problem with cats.

Protect internet privacy with lava lamps.

There's a good market for well-maintained decades-old tractors because the newer ones are so hard to repair.

"I am an atheist because....."

For wingnuts, everything is an opportunity to pick fights.

Which group is least humane?

The agenda of the "Make Women Great Again" conference must be seen to be believed.

Sports commentary has a long history of racism.

It's dangerous when the police rely on psychological bullshit.

This Christian author's list of the top three reasons people reject Christianity shows he's completely clueless about the actual reasons people leave Christianity.

Even The History Channel is now catering to the moron demographic.

"The church people gave us that piece of sh*t p***y-grabber?!  Yep, they did" (found via this more recent post which you should also read).

A Trumpanzee prepares for the dawn of socialism.

The Methodist split was largely geographical (African vs. American).

The Jehovah's Witnesses are off the hook for failing to report sexual abuse to the police.

It's absurd to expect Trump to recognize the concept of "too extreme".

True unbiased journalism must reject naïve neutrality.

Republican policy on Obamacare has been reduced to total incoherence (found via Fair and Unbalanced).

Every so often the bigot's mask slips.

The whole country should do this.

Trumpanzees' loyalty is rooted in astonishing ignorance.  They resort to dishonesty and hypocrisy to defend Trump's latest stupid moves.

Boeing hid problems with the 737 Max from the FAA.

Lindsey Graham takes on his character from the biggest shark around him.

Republicans keep trying to use the law to force everyone to obey the Christian taboo system.

Celery can have "negative calories", but only under rare circumstances.

Humpback whales are capable of inter-species altruism.

Lasers are a game-changer in missile-interception technology.

Canada suffered many losses aboard the Ukrainian airliner destroyed over Tehran.

Here are ten countries where you can live well and cheaply (but do some research before actually moving).

In the Netherlands, Catholics have dropped from 40% to barely 20% of the population since the sixties, and only a mainly-elderly minority of those are regular churchgoers.

Łódź, Poland, during World War II exemplified the horrors of Nazi racial policy.

Yes, it's free speech.  Deal with it.

Iranian reactions to the Soleimânî killing are more complex than they look.  The downing of the Ukrainian airliner led to protests calling for the death of the Supreme Leader.

Reminder -- the Iranian regime is a theocracy and behaves like one.

Most of the Western left doesn't understand the Middle East much better than Trump does.

Indigenous Taiwanese, descendants of the inhabitants before Chinese colonization 400 years ago, remain a distinct group in the country.

Trump's fate will be determined by how united Democrats are.

8 in 10 voters say "compromise and common ground should be the goal for political leaders".  Yes, that's impossible, but this is the electorate our candidates need to appeal to in order to win.

Poor Biden, nobody likes him except the voters.

More links here.

[Image at top: part of my own book collection, built up over decades]

09 January 2020

Video of the day -- not peace, but a sword

A recent dissertation by Michael Voris, head of the hard-line Catholic news site Church Militant.  Listen well -- and if you think he's alone in his views and vehemence, read the comments on the video's YouTube page.  Christian extremists (a minority within US Christianity, but not a tiny one) relish this kind of violent rhetoric, just as much as Islamist extremists do.  They want to destroy us.  Christianity in the US is in rapid decline -- for every person who joins the Catholic Church in the US, six leave -- but it's the most militant who stay, and the dwindling of their numbers agitates them to greater ferocity.  This mentality is what fuels the jihad against abortion and gay civil rights.  It may yet lead to much worse.  The death throes of religion are dangerous.

Update:  Notice that at 3:50 he says, rather emphatically, "God with us" -- a somewhat odd phrasing in context, but an exact translation of Gott mit uns, the motto of the Nazi SS.  Not a deliberate reference to the latter, I'm sure, but perhaps an echo of the same spirit.

07 January 2020

A last look back at 2019

Mainstream media coverage may not have reflected it, but the most important story of 2019 was the Amazon synod and the way it forced the divisions and conflicts within the Catholic Church to the surface.  Yes, there were other big stories -- the pro-independence election landslide in Britain, the Trump impeachment in the US, the Hong Kong protests and the Uighur persecution in China, the Kashmir crackdown and the new citizenship law (and protests) in India -- but each of these was basically a matter of the internal politics of just one country, and except for the British election, none of them seems likely to have much effect on the course of events even within its country.  A major upheaval and division within the Catholic Church, which now looks inevitable, will have a substantial impact on dozens of countries.

I posted about the synod's potential to trigger a schism, traditional Catholics' furious response to the Vatican's apparent embrace of paganism, and the hardening battle lines between the true believers and the leadership.  It's an unprecedented fracture within the largest, oldest, and most powerful religious organization in the world -- one which remains a dominant cultural force in Latin America, Poland, and the Philippines, and has substantial influence in sub-Saharan Africa and our own country.  Not even the Protestant Reformation offered such a stark challenge to such fundamental dogmas and taboos -- and this time the attack on orthodoxy is coming from the hierarchy itself, not lesser figures like Martin Luther.  Conservative Catholics find themselves in the bizarre position of rebelling against their traditional authorities to defend doctrines rooted in authoritarian tradition.

The decline of the Catholic Church has been under way for centuries and still has a long way to go.  But I suspect future historians will note 2019 as the pivotal year, the true beginning of the end.

Another recurring theme that struck me as significant was the massive investment in solar power in India, China, and several Arab countries.  Even with the Trump administration idiotically AWOL from the fight against global warming, the 96% of humanity that lives outside the US is taking serious action on the problem.  As the developing countries of the "Third World" catch up economically and technologically over the next couple of decades, their electricity consumption will dwarf that of the West (due to population size), so their commitment to meeting their needs from renewable energy is of huge significance.

Finally, the most important changes in the world are often ongoing trends, not sudden events -- such as the decline of religion as societies become more educated and more open to new information.  This graphic on the Arab world is particularly arresting (click to enlarge):
I've posted before about the secularization of Muslim populations in Europe, refuting the wingnut "Eurabia" fantasies that Islam will eventually overwhelm and dominate Europe.  But as Ibn Warraq predicted 25 years ago, in the face of inexorable modernity, Islam cannot even hold the ground where it has been most deeply entrenched the longest -- the Arab world itself.  The figures above show the same pattern as in the US -- the non-religious minority is growing fast, and is largest among the younger generation.  If religion is losing in these lands, in the long run it's doomed everywhere.  Know hope.

05 January 2020

Link round-up for 5 January 2020

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

o o o o o

This is not the future of men's fashion.

Start the week with a few jokesMore hereAnd here.

If you're not sick of snow yet, have some snowman cartoons.

British headline of the year.

Time to trim the hedges.

Nature is ruthless.

Healthy eating can be difficult.

Shower Cap reviews the last week of 2019.

It will make you want to give even more.

Christmas isn't what it used to be.

There is a whole science of weird pants, and apparently dinosaurs had thumbs.

Somebody should have locked this door.

If you're gonna do "fake news", do it right.

Giuliani evokes figures from classic cinema, among other things.

This is what eternity feels like.

Don't get too excited about Betelgeuse.

Parrots can learn to express themselves verbally like humans (found via Mock Paper Scissors).

Blog readers choose the 2019 ass clown of the year.

With a little luck, you can swap Christmas for Halloween, in spirit.

Why don't we have Star Trek transporters?

The old meanings of words may surprise you (found via Notes to Ponder).

Even if you don't know what vault lights are, you've probably seen them (found via Mendip).

I heartily concur with what this blogger says in this post -- trolls please note.

He died a fitting death for a priest.  An abuse victim responds.

Illinois inaugurates a lucrative new industry.

Some great pithy images here for making points.

Amazon is still treating employees like shit.

Your religion was chosen for you by a politician.

California moves to protect internet privacy.

Michigan leaders respond to the Soleimânî killing.

Cop pulls stupid prank, gets fired.

You can fight back.

Good point here about genealogy.

When idiots celebrate, stay indoors.

Three cheers for homosexuality for splitting the United Methodist Church in half.

See 2020 predictions by Rubber Hose and Electoral-Vote.

End Times bullshit is a hardy perennial.

If someone uses these buzzwords, he may be a fascist (commenters on the right-wing religious sites I read talk about "cultural Marxism" constantly).

Trump is purging science from US policy-making (and that's been a Republican goal since long before him).

Movies like Bombshell and Richard Jewell are turkeying out -- apparently the media aren't as interesting as they think they are.

War crimes are now being used as a marketing gimmick.

State legislatures plan on keeping busy this year.

No, hoping intolerant beliefs disappear is not, itself, intolerant.

Liberal Christianity has made a huge mistake by not confronting the Christian Right more aggressively.

A Republican has some ideas for Black History Month.

This is utterly shameful -- Jewish people in the US increasingly live in fear.

"Please (almost) die."

Whom would you hide in your attic?

Don't mess with Texas.....churches.

One party represents the country, the other does not.  One is full of crooks, the other is not.

Trump didn't have a good year.

Bill Barr is an avatar of theocratic fascism.

Reading real books brings distinctive health benefits (found via Mendip).

Renewable energy, even without subsidies, is now the cheapest option.

This was not "a man of honor".

Natural gas inspires an encouraging case of international cooperation in the Mediterranean.

Black African migrants face racism in Egypt.

India is building the world's biggest solar power farm.

Young people in Taiwan prefer to avoid the hassles which traditional Chinese culture imposes on having children.

Sub-Saharan African countries hope Brexit will give them an economic boost, but they're likely to be disappointed.

Black voters understand what's at stake this year.

Ocasio-Cortez's House seat could disappear after the census.

Some good discussion here about Biden's "Republican running mate" gaffe.  It was tailored to the time and place.

More links here.

[1,081 days down, 381 to go until the inauguration of a real President.]

04 January 2020

A few thoughts on the Iran crisis

First, it needs to be said that Qâsem Soleimânî was a high-ranking military officer and thus a legitimate military target under the circumstances (after Iranian-backed groups had attacked the US embassy).  His "assassination" was analogous to the US killing of Admiral Yamamoto during World War II by shooting down his plane.  However, we and Iran wouldn't be in this confrontation in the first place if Trump hadn't unilaterally trashed the nuclear agreement with Iran.  Ultimately the whole situation is his fault.

It's likely that Trump is spooked by impeachment and bad polling in advance of the election, and is trying to whip up a conflict with Iran (not necessarily a war -- he's an isolationist by instinct, not a warmonger -- but increased tensions and violence short of war) in hopes of triggering a rally-round-the-leader reaction here in the US.  The Iran regime is certainly aware of that factor and will take it into account in deciding what to do.

Iran will probably retaliate for the killing of Soleimânî.  Other elements in Iraq might also do so.  The Iranian special forces played a substantial role in defeating Dâ'ish (ISIL) and protecting Iraq's Shiites and Kurds against the murderous Saddamist/Sunni dead-enders and fanatics.  Soleimânî was probably quite popular among the people Iran helped save.  There has already been a mortar attack on the Green Zone in Baghdad which strikes me as too amateurish to be the work of Iran.

I think retaliation within the US is unlikely, at least for now.  That would represent a huge escalation.  Even Trump has not (so far) struck at Iranian forces within Iranian territory.  Assassination of a high-level US commander in Iraq, or attacks on US troops in Iraq or US facilities in Saudi Arabia, seem more likely to me.  The situation where I could see an Iranian attack on US territory as being likely is if Trump attacks Iranian territory first.  If he carries out some attack that kills Iranian civilians on Iranian soil, Iran would feel that the escalation had already taken place and that they should hit back by killing a comparable number of American civilians on American soil.

Would a real war with Iran boost Trump's standing in the US?  Initially it might, but as it dragged on, it would hurt him.  It would be nothing like the Iraq war.  Iran is much larger, more advanced, more unified, and under more intelligent leadership than Iraq was.  An invasion force would have to cross hundreds of miles of either mountains (coming from Iraq) or deserts (coming from Afghanistan) to reach the main population centers.  The government has strong institutions and could not be knocked out by killing just a few key people.  Iraq was a collage of mutually-hostile groups cobbled together into a phony state by the British after World War I, not a real country anybody would fight hard for; Iran’s sense of national identity goes back to Cyrus the Great, 300 years before China became a unified country.

In an all-out war, the US would lose far more troops than it did fighting Iraq.  Iran could wreck the whole Persian Gulf oil industry.  It could wreck the economy of our Saudi client state.  It has sleeper cells in Europe and Latin America ready to go into action against American targets.  There's some risk of cyber-attacks on US infrastructure.  Trump would face the choice of getting deeper and deeper into a bloody meat grinder with no prospect of success, or backing off and accepting defeat at the hands of what most Americans think of as a Third World country.  Either option would hurt his chances in the election.  Let's hope he realizes that.

More on Iran here.