Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Christmas tree - but not the good kind

Depressing, isn't it? I mean, really, really depressing. Why does a comedy show make me so depressed?

But maybe this will help. This is Elizabeth Warren's speech on the Senate floor:

Of course, she lost. Citigroup got its way,... as usual. But at least she spoke out. At least she was willing to rock the boat.

I wish I could vote for Elizabeth Warren,... for president, maybe? Yeah, that's probably just wishful-thinking, huh? But she's really impressive, isn't she? At the very least, she needs to get enough support that other Democrats will take notice.

After all, running away from their own president, their own party, their own successes didn't help them much last month, did it? Maybe they got more campaign donations that way, but since they still lost, what good was it?

But yeah, expecting Democratic politicians to learn from that experience is really wishful-thinking, isn't it?

I'm depressed.

Ah, Christmas!

Yup. I've been there. :)

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Immoral Kombat: The Hurt Liker

Dick Cheney just gets crazier and crazier, doesn't he? Jebus, what a disaster he and George W. Bush have been to our country! Ignorance and ideology, immune to reason and evidence, superbly confident, despite being wrong about pretty much everything, year after year.

This is the problem with faith-based thinking. If you have faith, your dogma simply can't be wrong. No matter what, you'll continue to believe what you want to believe. Therefore, even the most horrendous disasters will not get you to admit a mistake or change your mind in any way.

Of course, you know that Jesus would support torture, right? Well, why not? What's the point of having a religion at all if you can't believe whatever the hell you want to believe? So of course your god is always going to agree with you.

Monday, December 15, 2014

David Christian: The history of the world in 18 minutes

Actually, this is more like the history of our universe in 18 minutes. Fascinating, isn't it?

David Christian is the creator of the "Big History" project, currently being adapted for use in American high schools. (My thanks to Jim Harris for the link.)

I haven't watched the Big History videos - just not enough time for everything - but this video is thought-provoking, isn't it? With a vast universe and an inconceivable length of time, rare events can happen. To us, they might seem magical, but that's because our own experience is very limited in time and space.

If an omniscient, omnipotent god created everything, that amount of time and space would be completely unnecessary (not to mention that, if a universe requires a creator, so does the creator - but that's a different issue).

All of life on Earth is equivalent to the scum on one grain of sand in the largest desert you can imagine. That desert wasn't created for the microbes living in the scum. That would be ridiculous. Those microbes might think so, if they could think at all, but there's no way in hell that would be "intelligent design."

No, the vast size of the universe - in both space and time - explains how exceedingly rare events can happen naturally - occasionally, somewhere. That length of time and that amount of space is hard for human beings to grasp, since it's so outside the reality of our ordinary lives. But it's still true.

When primitive human beings were imagining explanations for the questions they had about the universe, this wasn't the explanation they came up with. No, that has taken science. Sadly, plenty of people still prefer the myths they were taught from infancy.

Cheney has no problem with torturing the innocent

Wow! Just,... wow! I knew that Dick Cheney was an evil bastard, but this is still shocking. This man was Vice-President of the United States of America!
Host Chuck Todd asked Cheney to respond to the Senate Intelligence Committee report's account that one detainee was "chained to the wall of a cell, doused with water, froze to death in CIA custody."

"And it turned out it was a case of mistaken identity," Todd said.

"Right," Cheney responded. "But the problem I have was with all of the folks that we did release that end up back on the battlefield."

"I’m more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that in fact were innocent," he continued.

Todd pressed Cheney, asking if he was okay with the fact that about 25 percent of the detainees interrogated were actually innocent.

"I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective..."

Dick Cheney has "no problem" with America murdering - torturing to death - an innocent man. And he has "no problem" with the fact that one-quarter of the people we tortured were actually innocent. We tortured them for information they did not have.

For any number of reasons, torture isn't right, even if you're only torturing people who do have the information you need. (Was it OK for the Gestapo to torture people during World War II, as long as those people were associated with the Allies or the Resistance? Torturers usually have a reason for torturing people, you know.)

But to be so completely unconcerned about torturing innocent people - killing at least one of them - well, this just blows my mind. I know that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney don't dare leave the United States, for fear of arrest for war crimes, but why aren't they in jail, awaiting trial, here?

In America, both Bush and Cheney are treated as celebrities, rather than criminals. What is wrong with us?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Richard Carrier: the case for atheism

This is a brief, but very good, argument for the claim that a 'God' does not exist.

Of course, atheism is basically just the lack of belief in a god or gods. When it comes to god-claims, we atheists don't have the burden of proof. It's the person claiming that a god does exist who must demonstrate that his claim is valid. If he fails to do so, we shouldn't believe his claim.

(It's also up to him to define 'God,' especially since believers can't even agree among themselves about what a god is, let alone which one exists. If we claim that a god doesn't exist, it's up to us to explain what we mean by 'god.' And that's really foolish, trying to define what we don't think exists, anyway.)

But some people do make the claim that a god doesn't exist, and in America, at least, it's almost always assumed to be the Christian 'God' (who is also the god of the Muslims and the Jews). Carrier does a pretty good job backing up that claim, so while it might not be strictly necessary (the lack of evidence for a god is enough reason to disbelieve), this is valuable, nonetheless.

I'm reminded of Creationism, which can easily be dismissed, based on the complete lack of evidence backing it up. However, there's actually plenty of evidence - plenty of evidence - disproving "Intelligent Design." It's not strictly necessary, given the lack of evidence for Creationism, but a little overkill can't hurt, can it?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Intelligent Design

John McCain on torture

In recent years, I've lost almost all respect for John McCain. He could have helped bring our country together, but instead he pandered to the lunatic GOP base to advance his own political ambition.

Or he could have gone off the rails, mentally, himself, I suppose. Or some of both?

Either way, he's been consistent in his opposition to torture. Of course, he was tortured. Is that what it takes? Does every conservative need to be tortured in order to see how wrong - and how counterproductive - it is?

Do conservatives simply lack empathy? I've noticed before that conservatives with a son or daughter who is gay tend to be more supportive of gay rights. Does it have to be personal for them? Are they unable - or simply uninterested - to imagine themselves in someone else's shoes?

At any rate, McCain is right on this, and he's one of the very few Republicans standing up against torturing prisoners of war. (I'm still shocked by it. America torturing prisoners of war. And even worse, large numbers of Americans supporting torture. Incredible, isn't it? And very, very depressing.)

Cultural imperialism

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Torture: the pushback

Every so often, the old John McCain - the good John McCain - shows up again. Whenever it seems like he's gone for good, having sold his soul to the far right-wing who've taken over the Republican Party, he appears before us like the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Then there's Fox 'News':

Finally, here's Stephen Colbert's take on this:

I'm not sure I can say any more about this. It's just too disgusting. But this is far too important to shrug off.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Torturing prisoners of war

America tortured prisoners of war.

OK, we knew that, I know. But I, for one, still find it hard to believe. America - America - tortured prisoners of war!

When I grew up, we were the good guys. Maybe the Soviet Union would torture people, but never America. Certainly, the Nazis tortured people, and so did Imperial Japan. After World War II, we held trials and found them guilty of war crimes.

And yes, waterboarding is torture. America has considered waterboarding to be torture - when it was done by our enemies, at least - for more than a hundred years. (We did far more than just waterboarding prisoners, but even that is torture.)

As I say, we knew that. For several years now, we've known that the Bush Administration tortured prisoners of war. But now, with the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee torture report, it turns out that the truth was even worse - far worse - than what we'd learned earlier.

Don't read further unless you have a strong stomach. This, for example, is from one article summing up the report:
Interrogations that lasted for days on end. Detainees forced to stand on broken legs, or go 180 hours in a row without sleep. A prison so cold, one suspect essentially froze to death. The Senate Intelligence Committee is finally releasing its review of the CIA’s detention and interrogation programs. And it is brutal. ...

Contrary to CIA’s description to the Department of Justice, the Senate report says that the waterboarding was physically harmful, leading to convulsions and vomiting. During one session, detainee Abu Zubaydah became “completely unresponsive with bubbles rising through his open full mouth.” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded at least 183 times, which the Senate report describes as escalating into a “series of near drownings.” ...

In November 2002, a detainee who had been held partially nude and chained to the floor died, apparently from hypothermia. This case appears similar to the that of Gul Rahman, who died of similarly explained causes at an Afghan site known as the “Salt Pit,” also in November 2002. The site was also called “The Dark Prison” by former captives. ...

At the Cobalt facility, the CIA also forced some detainees who had broken feet or legs to stand in stress-inducing positions, despite having earlier pledged that they wouldn’t subject those wounded individuals to treatment that might exacerbate their injuries.

Starting with Abu Zubaydah, and following with other detainees, the CIA deployed the harshest techniques from the beginning without trying to first elicit information in an “open, non-threatening manner,” the committee found. The torture continued nearly non-stop, for days or weeks at a time.

The CIA instructed personnel at the site that the interrogation of Zubaydah, who’d been shot during his capture, should take “precedence over his medical care,” the committee found, leading to an infection in a bullet wound incurred during his capture. Zubaydah lost his left eye while in custody. The CIA’s instructions also ran contrary to how it told the Justice Department the prisoner would be treated.

At least five detainees were subjected to “rectal feeding” or “rectal hydration,” without any documented medical need. “While IV infusion is safe and effective,” one officer wrote, rectal hydration could be used as a form of behavior control.

Others were deprived of sleep, which could involve staying awake for as long as 180 hours—sometimes standing, sometimes with their hands shackled above their heads.

Some detainees were forced to walk around naked, or shackled with their hands above their heads. In other instances, naked detainees were hooded and dragged up and down corridors while subject to physical abuse. ...

CIA officers threatened to harm detainees’ children, sexually abuse their mothers, and “cut [a detainee’s] mother’s throat.” In addition, several detainees were led to believe they would die in custody, with one told he would leave in a coffin-shaped box.

Detainees wouldn’t see their day in court because “we can never let the world know what I have done to you,” one interrogator said.

That's just a sample from one article which in itself is just sampling the huge, detailed report. America did that. That's what the Republicans did to my country. They turned us into torturers!

Want more? How about this?
The torture used by the CIA were "not an effective means" of extracting accurate information or getting detainees to cooperate, the report found. Not once was there a 24-like ticking time bomb scenario which prompted the use of torture. Even worse, "multiple" detainees who were tortured had fabricated information or provided faulty intelligence under duress, while other detainees who were not tortured provided useful information.

Despite all that, the report says, the CIA deliberately misled the Department of Justice, Congress and the media by claiming that tortured detainees were producing valuable intelligence. The report said that "interrogations of CIA detainees were brutal and far worse than the CIA represented."

Coercive interrogation methods included waterboarding, sleep deprivation for up to 180 hours, nudity, slaps, slamming detainees against a wall. At least three detainees were threatened with harm to their families, including the threat of raping a detainee's mother. And it gets worse.

"At least five CIA detainees were subjected to 'rectal rehydration' or rectal feeding without documented medical necessity," the report reads, documenting in gruesome detail one such example involving detainee Majid Khan. [How did that turn out? Khan tried to commit suicide multiple times, including trying to tear out the veins in his arm with his teeth.]

Sickened yet? Apparently, the CIA itself determined later that 26 of these people were being held by mistake - and two of them had actually been working for the CIA as informants. Not that we should be torturing anyone, but still, how insane is that?

Nor did torture help us catch Osama bin Laden, though after Barack Obama had him tracked down and killed, the CIA claimed that it had. (They lied.) Again, it wouldn't matter if that claim had been true. Do you really think that the Gestapo didn't have their own good reasons for torturing people?

This is what the right-wing Republicans in the George W. Bush administration - including the president himself - did to our country. Even now, many Republicans still support torturing prisoners of war. (Not John McCain, to his credit.)

Fox 'News' is freaking out (here and here, for example) not about the horrific details of America torturing prisoners of war, but about telling the American people that these things happened.

Why aren't George W. Bush and Dick Cheney - for starters - in jail right now, awaiting trial?
According to [Ben] Emmerson ["the U.N.'s special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights"], international law prohibits granting immunity to public officials who allow the use of torture, and this applies not just to the actual perpetrators but also to those who plan and authorize it. As a result, he said, the U.S. government is "legally obliged to bring those responsible to justice."

Human Rights Watch's executive director Kenneth Roth also said "unless this important truth-telling process leads to prosecution of officials, torture will remain a 'policy option' for future presidents."

PZ Myers summed this up quite well, commenting on Andrea Tantaros' rant about how 'awesome' we are:
Americans tortured an innocent mentally handicapped man in order to get his relatives to give up information. Americans stuck a hose in a man’s anus and poured hummus into his rectum. Americans ran a deep, dark pit of a dungeon and slowly tortured and killed people.

We no longer get to wear the Awesome badge. It’s gone. We never get it back. We’re going to have to spend centuries trying to repair our reputation, and even if we become secular saints, it’s still going to be a huge stain in our history.

But no, we’re not even going to try to make amends, because Fox News is still our mouthpiece and Dick Cheney still stalks the earth, telling everyone that torture is still the right thing to do.

Frankly, we lost the moral high ground when Republican lies got us to invade an innocent country. After torturing prisoners of war, what right do we have to claim to be better than anyone else?

The George W. Bush administration did this to us. They couldn't have done more damage to our country if they'd been trying to bring America down.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Media counter-errorism

I like this. I like the fact that Jon Stewart readily admits an error - a small error, admittedly, and one which didn't affect his point, but definitely an error. One error, and he admits it.

But I must admit that I particularly liked his reaction to Brian Kilmeade. Kilmeade isn't the only clueless asshole on Fox, and we saw clips from other Fox 'News' personalities who said some incredibly stupid things, but that 9/11 comment really takes the cake, doesn't it?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


It's really incredible that Fox News accuses others of inciting people, isn't it? It's definitely the pot calling the kettle,... er, black.

This is all rather depressing. Heck, it's 2014, for chrissake! Yet since Barack Obama has been president, his right-wing opponents have been pushing racism as a political strategy And they're still doing it.

And all that victimhood crap? Do these people have no self-awareness at all? No one whines about being victims - with so little justification - as much as the white right-wing Christians on Fox 'News.'

Remember, it's time for our annual War on Christmas. LOL

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The history of poop

OK, my title might not be entirely accurate, but it's a fascinating video, isn't it?

How online harrassment became art

Another talk from Skepticon 7 - but this one is depressing and even embarrassing (embarrassing to me as a man and as an atheist).

This is "Surly Amy" - Amy Davis Roth. I'm glad she hasn't let the harassment stop her, but it can't be easy. The haters are a minority, but they're loud and just incredibly obsessive.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Is God outside the realm of science?

Here's another of my favorite speakers, Scott Clifton - again at Skepticon 7 last weekend. (That must have been a great conference.)

I'm reminded of a caller to the Atheist Experience TV show recently. He tried to use the watchmaker analogy to make his case for creationism. As I recall, his example involved finding a metal wing (bird or airplane wing, I'm not sure which). Wouldn't we be justified in deciding that such an artifact must have had a creator?

But later, he admitted that he thinks everything was deliberately created by his god. In his view, even rocks aren't natural, but are just as much deliberate creations as that metal wing. 'God' created them all for a purpose. Thus, nothing is natural.

But if nothing is natural, we have no way of distinguishing a metal wing from anything else. Since everything is created, in his view, a watch lying on a beach is no different from each grain of sand which makes up that beach.

The only way the watchmaker analogy works - and it doesn't work very well in any case - is if we have natural stuff to compare it with. Thus, this is a creationist argument which refutes itself.

Is the supernatural outside the purview of science? Well, does it exist in reality? If so, why would it be exempt from scientific study? If it has absolutely no effect on our universe - which isn't claimed by any theist I've ever heard, anyway - it might be impossible to study, but it would still be within the realm of science.

But doesn't science study the natural world? Sure, but if gods exist, their realm is the natural world. In fact, as Scott Clifton points out, if 'God' created our universe, nothing here is natural - thus, everything in our own universe is artificial, and only the realm which includes the gods is 'natural.'

We separate religious claims from all other claims about reality because religion doesn't want its claims to be investigated. To keep religion happy, even the National Academy of Sciences pretends that those claims are outside its purview.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Matt Dillahunty: Challenging Christianity

Matt Dillahunty does a great job in these talks, doesn't he? This is from Skepticon 7 in Springfield, MO, last weekend.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving

(via Pharyngula)

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

In many ways, Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday. (Shopping is even a part of it these days, as Christmas sales have already started.)

Even in grade school, the myths of Thanksgiving - much more than the history of it - get pounded into everyone. (Part of that is because there's no separation of church and state issues when it comes to this holiday.)

But I was an adult before I heard this, and I can't tell you how profoundly I was affected by it:
From 1616 to 1619, a series of virgin-soil epidemics spread by European trading vessels ravaged the New England seaboard, wiping out up to 95 percent of the Algonkian-speaking native population from Maine to Narragansett Bay. The coast was a vast killing zone of abandoned agricultural fields and decimated villages littered with piles of bones and skulls. This is what the Pilgrims encountered when they landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Not a pristine wilderness, but the devastated ruins of a once-thriving culture, a haunting boneyard which English libertine Thomas Morton later described as a “newfound Golgotha.”

My ancestors were among those Europeans who settled in what is now Massachusetts and Connecticut in the early 1600s. In school, I'd always heard that they'd found what they considered to be nearly-empty wilderness, but the implication was always that the natives had a hunting and gathering lifestyle which necessitated a very low population level (in other words, that Europeans simply misunderstood when they thought the land empty).

In fact, the native tribes had already been devastated - nearly wiped out - by European diseases before most of them had ever even seen a European. The land was empty - relatively speaking - because so many of the previous inhabitants had already died in horrendous epidemics.

No one is to blame for that. The Europeans had no more idea of what caused disease than the Native Americans did. There is plenty of blame which can be assigned to other historical events, but not to this. It was a tragedy, made even worse because the natives - at the end of a long line of immigration, themselves - were less diverse genetically than other populations of human beings.

Eventually, they would have recovered from that, and from subsequent epidemics, too. But 'empty' land is a powerful attraction to... well, human beings in general. And the surviving tribes weren't given the time they needed.

As that column continues:
The collision of worldviews [*] is almost impossible to imagine. On the one hand, a European society full of religious fervor and colonizing energy; on the other, a native society shattered and reeling from the greatest catastrophe it had ever known. The Puritans were forever examining their own spiritual state. Having come to America with the goal of separating themselves from polluted forms of worship, a great deal of their energy was focused on battling demons, both within themselves and at large in the world. Puritan clerics confused the Indian deity Kiehtan with God, and they conflated Hobbamock, a fearsome nocturnal spirit associated with Indian shamans, or powwows, with Satan. Because of this special connection many Puritans believed that the powwows, and by extension all the New England Indians, were bound by a covenant with the devil. Indians thus became symbolic adversaries, their very existence a threat to the Englishmen’s prized religious identities.

Meanwhile, the Great Migration of the 1630s was bringing in thousands of new colonists, many of them younger siblings shut out of an inheritance back in England, who were hungry for the opportunity to become property owners in their own right. There was a great need for more land. And so, tragically – and not for the last time in American history – self-interest, fear, and deep-seated ideology coincided. Indian-hating became the fashion. Religious piety provided a motive for armed violence.

In May of 1637, colonists from Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay, with a group of their Indian allies, set fire to a fortified Pequot stronghold on the Mystic River. An estimated 700 Pequots perished, mostly women and children, and the few survivors were shipped to Bermuda and sold into slavery. On the heels of the virgin-soil epidemics that had decimated the native population, the ghastly specter of genocide had reached the shores of America. In 1675, bloody King Phillip’s War put the finishing touches on what was more or less the total extermination of the eastern woodland Indians.

"Self-interest, fear, and deep-seated ideology." Yup. It's always easy to believe what you want to believe. And we see how well fear works to cause disaster, even today.

I don't dwell on the past. We can't change the past, and it's important to look forward. Of course, I'm a white descendent of those first 'illegal immigrants,' so that's easy for me to say, isn't it? But look at Islamic countries which are still bitter about the Crusades, for chrissake, blaming their lack of progress since then on everyone else but themselves. Dwelling on the past does no one any good.

Nevertheless, we certainly shouldn't forget the past, and we shouldn't disguise reality with happy myths - even on Thanksgiving. We can't be blamed for our ancestors, and our ancestors can't be blamed for those disease epidemics. But there is plenty they can and should be blamed for, and we European-Americans have benefited from some truly horrific acts (including slavery, of course).

We are not to blame for those acts, but we still benefit from them, even today. Even if your ancestors didn't arrive in this land until centuries later, you still benefit from them. I'm not a Christian. I don't believe we inherit the sins of our forefathers. But we do have obligations. It's just that those obligations are to everyone, and that we need to focus on the path ahead, not back.

Use the lessons of the past to avoid making similar mistakes now and in the future. Recognize the horrors which self-interest, fear, and deep-seated ideology can cause. Determine to do right to everyone going forward (recognizing that mistakes will still be made, since we're never going to be perfect).

Above all, we need to reject the approach of right-wing apologists like David Barton and the Texas State Board of Education to just rewrite history so that it agrees with what you want to believe, rather than accepting reality.

However, in America, Thanksgiving is more about myths than about history. And we Americans are very resistant to giving up our myths.

*PS. Given the situation, I don't see how that "collision of worldviews" would ever have turned out well. That's not to excuse anything, but just to recognize that people are people. Self-interest, fear, and deep-seated ideology are powerful motivators. We struggle with them even today.

But that's not to say that a collision of worldviews will always end badly, certainly not. Back then, the native tribes had been - and continued to be - decimated by disease epidemics. That left them too weak to offer much resistance. Plus, we do learn. We aren't the same people as our ancestors. None of us are.

Today's right-wing fanatics look at history - their distorted view of history, at least - and proclaim that Hispanic immigration is going to end with all white Americans - and all black Americans, too, apparently - ethnically cleansed (among other hysterically crazy claims). Yeah, talk about self-interest, fear, and deep-seated ideology, huh?

But how crazy is that? Historically, America has not just survived, but prospered, from wave after wave of immigration. All of our ancestors were immigrants (even the Native Americans, I'd argue). We became Americans. That's one of the great things America has shown the world.

It hasn't always been easy. There were riots in some American cities when my Irish ancestors started arriving here in large numbers. Now, their descendents protest against other immigrants. (It's the American way, huh? LOL)

The fact is, a collision of worldviews is a good thing, if violence isn't involved. We benefit from competing ideas. Of course, new ideas bring change, and conservatives in general fear change. But that's what brings progress. Stagnation is never good.