Saturday, April 30, 2011

Genocide is moral, if God commands it?

This is a strange situation, where a seemingly sane Christian ends up supporting genocide, the killing of men, women, and children, just because it's in the Bible.

Well, you see, he believes God exists, and he believes that the Bible is God's word, and he believes that God is good. In fact, he defines God as being perfectly good. Therefore, if it's in the Bible, it must be good.

You see? It's all perfectly logical and perfectly crazy. That's because his initial premises are wrong. Either God does not exist or the Bible is not accurate or God is not good. (Or all three.) But if you simply won't accept any of those things, then you either have to ignore much of what's in the Bible or explain it away. Or accept it.

Here's an excerpt from PZ Myers' comments at Pharyngula, with a link to the post:
It's always interesting when some god-walloper honestly follows through on the logical implications of his beliefs — he basically is compelled to admit that if you worship a tyrannical monster, you have to end up rationalizing monstrous tyrannies. The latest to enlighten us with excuses for bronze age barbarisms and brutalities is William Lane Craig, who thinks that tales from the Bible of God's Chosen People slaughtering babies is A-OK:
Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God's grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven's incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.

Therefore, if I station myself outside a church door with an AK-47 and murder all the happy saved Christians exiting the service, I am doing the Lord's work. Well, gosh, Willie, not only do I get to be a mass-murderer for fun, I can be self-righteous about it, too! It's too bad I'm one of those atheists who doesn't believe in a Happy Fun Land for the dead, so I can't honestly do that in good conscience.

I will be interested to see if Craig now has a Christian perspective on abortion, that is, that it is a process that releases blameless innocents to heaven's incomparable joy, and is therefore to be encouraged.

Greta Christina has a great post on this, too. There's a lot to it, but here's an excerpt:
I want to make something very clear before I go on: William Lane Craig is not some drooling wingnut. He's not some extremist Fred Phelps type, ranting about how God's hateful vengeance is upon us for tolerating homosexuality. He's not some itinerant street preacher, railing on college campuses about premarital holding hands. He's an extensively educated, widely published, widely read theological scholar and debater. When believers accuse atheists of ignoring sophisticated modern theology, Craig is one of the people they're talking about.

And he said that as long as God gives the thumbs-up, it's okay to kill pretty much anybody. It's okay to kill bad people, because they're bad and they deserve it... and it's okay to kill good people, because they wind up in Heaven. As long as God gives the thumbs-up, it's okay to systematically wipe out entire races. As long as God gives the thumbs-up, it's okay to slaughter babies and children. Craig said -- not essentially, not as a paraphrase, but literally, in quotable words -- "the death of these children was actually their salvation."

She's right. William Lane Craig is one of those supposedly "sophisticated" believers. I've seen him debating Christopher Hitchens, and he comes off as knowledgeable, urbane, even charming.

Greta Christina makes another good point:
See, here's the thing. When faced with horrors in our past -- our personal history, or our human history -- non-believers don't have any need to defend them. When non-believers look at a human history full of genocide, infanticide, slavery, forced marriage, etc. etc. etc., we're entirely free to say, "Damn. That was terrible. That was some seriously screwed-up shit we did. We were wrong to do that. Let's not ever do that again."

But for people who believe in a holy book, it's not that simple. When faced with horrors in their religion's history -- horrors that their holy book defends, and even praises -- believers have to do one of two things. They have to either a) cherry-pick the bits they like and ignore the bits they don't; or b) come up with contorted rationalizations for why the most blatant, grotesque, black-and-white evil really isn't all that bad.

As she points out, if you decide to cherry-pick what you want to believe and what you don't, then how do you decide which parts are right and which parts are just fairy tales, just superstition? And when it comes to that point, what's to keep you from realizing that there's really no reason to believe any of it? After all, that's why most of us are atheists, because the evidence just isn't there.

Here's one more excerpt from Christina's post:
I've made this point before, and I'm sure I'll make it again: Religion, by its very nature as an untestable belief in undetectable beings and an unknowable afterlife, disables our reality checks. It ends the conversation. It cuts off inquiry: not only factual inquiry, but moral inquiry. Because God's law trumps human law, people who think they're obeying God can easily get cut off from their own moral instincts. And these moral contortions don't always lie in the realm of theological game-playing. They can have real-world consequences: from genocide to infanticide, from honor killings to abandoned gay children, from burned witches to battered wives to blown-up buildings.

As just one example among so very many: Look at the Lafferty brothers, Mormon fundamentalists who murdered an innocent woman and her 15-month-old daughter because they thought God had commanded them to do it. At many points in their journey across the continent on their way to the killings, they questioned whether brutally slaughtering their brother's wife and her infant child was really the right thing to do. But they always came to the same answer: Yes. It was right. They thought God had commanded it -- and that settled the question. It ended the conversation. It stopped their moral query dead in its tracks.

But don't just look at sociopathic murderers from a bonkers religious cult. That's too easy. Look at Mr. Theological Scholar himself, William Lane Craig. In this piece, Craig says that the Canaanites were evil, and deserving of genocide, because (among other things) they practiced infanticide. The very crime that God ordered the Israelites to commit. I shit you not. Quote: "By the time of their destruction, Canaanite culture was, in fact, debauched and cruel, embracing such practices as ritual prostitution and even child sacrifice." (Emphasis -- and dumbstruck bafflement -- mine.) And he says the infanticide of the Canaanite children was defensible and necessary because the Israelites needed to keep their tribal identity pure, and keep their God-given morality untainted by the Canaanite wickedness. Again, I shit you not. Again, quote: "By setting such strong, harsh dichotomies God taught Israel that any assimilation to pagan idolatry is intolerable." As if an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good god couldn't come up with a better way to teach a lesson about assimilation to pagan idolatry than murdering children.

Incredible, isn't it? Now Craig wrote that piece to answer a couple of questions, one wondering about Muslims justifying violence as the will of God. What's Craig's answer to that? He says that Muslims are perfectly justified in thinking that way. Their only error is that they've got the wrong god! Heh, heh. Really!

How does he know they've picked the wrong god? Well, because it's not the one William Lane Craig believes in, of course. It's not that one commands murder to be done and the other doesn't, no. Because they both do that. But in one case it's perfectly justified and in the other, it isn't. It's all a matter of being lucky enough to be born in a country and to a family where they worship the right god. Yeah, good luck with that!

Now if you're curious, here's Deuteronomy 20, one of the places where God - the right one, according to Craig - commands this particular bit of nastiness. Now I'm certainly no Biblical scholar, but I thought it was quite interesting.

You see, God doesn't command genocide against everyone. That's reserved for the five tribes he particularly dislikes, where "thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth." For everyone else, he's much kinder. In those situations, when a city resists, God just commands that every single male be killed.

The women and children, though, are to be enjoyed:
14But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the LORD thy God hath given thee.

It's sure good that this is the right god, isn't it, because otherwise this would be kind of a nasty thing.

Keep this in mind the next time your god wants you to kill, rape, or enslave someone. It's perfectly moral as long as you're sure you've got the right god.

Now me, I don't have a god at all, so I'm going to decide on morality for myself. And I'm not going to pretend that nasty shit like this is moral!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Believe it or believe it

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Again, this was broken up into two video clips. Here's the sequel.

You knew this was coming, right? Stephen Colbert had a segment on it, too. I blogged about this yesterday, and I don't have anything more to say, but it really deserves all the satire it can get, and then some.

I liked that reporter asking Donald Trump if he was just making all this nonsense up. Of course, Trump didn't answer the question. But for Trump, this is just free publicity. And he really can't be any crazier than any other Republican running for president, no matter what comes out of his mouth.

Trump is just showing us how crazy the entire Republican Party has become. The fringe has become the mainstream. The inmates have taken control of the asylum. The craziest people in America are leading one of our two main political parties. It's just incredible, isn't it?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Obama releases 'long form' birth certificate

From the Associated Press:
Responding to critics' relentless claims, President Barack Obama on Wednesday produced a detailed Hawaii birth certificate in an extraordinary attempt to bury the issue of where he was born and confirm his legitimacy to hold office. He declared, "We do not have time for this kind of silliness."

By going on national TV from the White House, Obama portrayed himself as a voice of reason amid a loud, lingering debate on his birth status. Though his personal attention to the issue elevated it as never before, Obama said to Republican detractors and the media, it is time to move on to bigger issues.

Citing huge budget decisions in Washington, Obama said, "I am confident that the American people and America's political leaders can come together in a bipartisan way and solve these problems. We always have. But we're not going to be able to do it if we are distracted."

So what's the Republican response?
In a statement after Obama spoke, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called the issue a distraction — and yet blamed Obama for playing campaign politics by addressing it.

"The president ought to spend his time getting serious about repairing our economy," Priebus said. "Unfortunately his campaign politics and talk about birth certificates is distracting him from our number one priority — our economy."

Yeah. "Why is President Obama distracting us with this nonsense?" They are blaming Obama for bringing it up! Heh, heh. That really takes gall, doesn't it? Of course, Republicans have nothing but gall.

After two years of relentless attacks on this fake "issue" - since Obama had released his official birth certificate long before now, and Hawaii state officials had confirmed it - polls show that less than a third of registered Republicans believe he was born in America.

So he finally gives in to the lunatics and requests a waiver from the Hawaii health department for the so-called "long form" document. And how will that work out?

First of all, do you really think this will stop the loons on the right, when the previous official birth certificate didn't? Not a chance! For example, here's Joseph Farah of World Nut Daily: "It would be a big mistake for everyone to jump to a conclusion now based on the release of this document, which raises as many questions as it answers."

And Orly Taitz isn't buying it, because the document lists Obama's father's race as "African," rather than "Negro." Surprise, surprise - when lunatics make up their minuscule little minds, no evidence is going to change them.

Second, Republican operatives like Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich are already patting themselves on the back for getting the President to, once again, fold like a cheap suit. At this point, does anyone believe that Obama will ever stand up to them on anything?

Yes, Obama is clearly just a typical Democrat in that respect. The right-wing is chalking up another in a never-ending series of wins. The thing is, you can't just say that you plan to grow a spine... someday. You actually have to demonstrate that you can stand up. Otherwise, your opponents know that it's just talk.

And as I say, the Republican National Committee is already turning this around and blaming Obama for "distracting" the country with nonsense when there are serious issues like Planned Parenthood unions jobs to address. Will it work? Well, at this point, I don't think there's anything too stupid for the American people to swallow.

I'm hugely disappointed in Barack Obama. No, not because of this single issue, but because he continues to bend over backward trying to appease his political enemies when there's literally nothing he could do that would make them happy. They hate him for who he is - a black Democrat in the White House - not what he does.

And meanwhile, while Democrats control the best bully pulpit in the world, we have no one standing up firmly for progressive values, no one fighting for our side. Obama apparently won't fight for anything, and he's not all that progressive, anyway. (But I could live with that if he'd just lead.)

Take a look at this column by Ezra Klein:
America is mired in three wars. The past decade was the hottest on record. Unemployment remains stuck near 9 percent, and there’s a small, albeit real, possibility that the U.S. government will default on its debt. So what’s dominating the news? A reality-television star who can’t persuade anyone that his hair is real is alleging that the president of the United States was born in Kenya.

Perhaps this is just the logical endpoint of two years spent arguing over what Barack Obama is — or isn’t. Muslim. Socialist. Marxist. Anti-colonialist. Racial healer. We’ve obsessed over every answer except the right one: President Obama, if you look closely at his positions, is a moderate Republican from the early 1990s. And the Republican Party he’s facing has abandoned many of its best ideas in its effort to oppose him.

If you put aside the emergency measures required by the financial crisis, three major policy ideas have dominated American politics in recent years: a health-care plan that uses an individual mandate and tax subsidies to achieve near-universal coverage; a cap-and-trade plan that attempts to raise the prices of environmental pollutants to better account for their costs; and bringing tax rates up from their Bush-era lows as part of a bid to reduce the deficit. In each case, the position that Obama and the Democrats have staked out is the very position that moderate Republicans staked out in the early ’90s — and often, well into the 2000s. ...

The normal reason a party abandons its policy ideas is that those ideas fail in practice. But that’s not the case here. These initiatives were wildly successful. Gov. Mitt Romney passed an individual mandate in Massachusetts and drove its number of uninsured below 5 percent. The Clean Air Act of 1990 solved the sulfur-dioxide problem. The 1990 budget deal helped cut the deficit and set the stage for a remarkable run of growth.

Rather, it appears that as Democrats moved to the right to pick up Republican votes, Republicans moved to the right to oppose Democratic proposals. As Gingrich’s quote suggests, cap and trade didn’t just have Republican support in the 1990s. John McCain included a cap-and-trade plan in his 2008 platform. The same goes for an individual mandate, which Grassley endorsed in June 2009 — mere months before he began calling the policy “unconstitutional.”

This White House has shown a strong preference for policies with demonstrated Republican support, but that’s been obscured by the Republican Party adopting a stance of unified, and occasionally hysterical, opposition (remember “death panels”?) — not to mention a flood of paranoia about the president’s “true” agenda and background. But as entertaining as the reality-TV version of politics might be, it can’t be permitted to, ahem, trump reality itself. If you want to obsess over origins in American politics, look at the president’s policies, not his birth certificate.

I don't have to agree with everything a politician believes or that a politician supports (not always the same thing). And I always knew that Barack Obama wasn't as liberal as his enemies made him out to be - or as many of his supporters hoped.

But yes, the Democratic Party has moved strongly to the right. And since I wasn't a moderate Republican in the early 1990s, I can't say that I like this much. It would have been different if they'd been able to "compromise" with the GOP by adopting these GOP positions. It would have been different if moving to the right had resulted in isolating the Republican Party in a tiny fringe position on the extreme-right.

But that's not what happened. Yes, the GOP moved right. The GOP moved incredibly, excessively, fanatically to the far-right, into quite literally the position of conspiracy theory crazies. But - thanks to Fox "News," I suspect - that hasn't seemed to hurt them a bit. They just get crazier and crazier, while I'm still waiting for a backlash among sane Republicans (are there any left?).

I've got to think that it's just racism. After all, do you really think it's just coincidence that half the country lost their minds when we elected the first black man as President of the United States? What else could it be?

Democrats have adopted Republican positions that the Republicans themselves are now calling "socialist" and "unconstitutional." It's just crazy. And meanwhile, what are people like me supposed to do, people who think we've been on the wrong path since Reagan and that, instead of continuing to move right when that's been a complete disaster for us, we need to take the opposite course?

Since Republicans have abandoned not just the political center but the moderate right as well, Democrats should be on top of the world. They've got the left, the center, and even much of the right. But they're apparently so inept at politics that they can't even make that work out for them! Or else America has just become so batshit crazy that nothing sane is going to work anymore.

I don't know. Either way, letting Republicans walk all over us is not going to be a winning strategy. Democrats couldn't even make tax cuts for the wealthy an effective political issue, not even after such tax cuts crashed our economy and gave us record-breaking deficits. And now Republicans want to kill Medicare, which is opposed by 84% of Americans! What do you want to bet that Democrats can't capitalize on that, either?

We need a leader in the White House. And we just don't have one. It's hard to believe, after the masterful campaign he ran in 2008, but Barack Obama has turned into a milquetoast as president. And he - and the rest of the Democrats - are running out of time to turn things around.

Unfortunately, America is also running out of time to turn things around.

Overwhelmed by a sense of our insignificance

The artist notes that "This week’s strip was inspired by the Pope, who nearly got it right, before hoisting his cassock and running away in terror."

Yup. To quote the pope: "If man were merely a random product of evolution in some place on the margins of the universe, then his life would make no sense or might even be a chance of nature." And that's just too scary for him.

Since he desperately wants to believe otherwise, he posits a magic man who created human beings for a reason. Yeah, there's absolutely no evidence of that, and the Pope certainly has no problem dismissing all other religions, which also have no good evidence backing them up.

Indeed, there is good evidence that we weren't created deliberately by a benevolent deity. If you look at our anatomy, we've got many features that aren't optimal, features that no "creator" worth his salt would ever deliberately design, features that only make sense in the light of unguided evolution.

But none of that matters to most believers, next to the desperate wish to believe it true. Indeed, it must be particularly intense among the celibate old men who run the Vatican, people who've given up their entire lives to support a lie. How much must those people desperately want it to be true?

Mitt Romney's "peacetime" gaffe

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Well, as I noted yesterday, there are still plenty of loons in the GOP presidential race, even with Haley Barbour dropping out.

But it's hard to consider Mitt Romney as a serious candidate (actually, it's hard to consider any of them as serious candidates, don't you think?), because he's flip-flopped so many times even he can't remember where he stands on the issues these days.

And since the Republicans demonized their own health care reform plan - after the Democrats adopted it - Romney's in a particularly difficult spot. After all, the rest of the Republican Party might have claimed to support that kind of health care reform, but Mitt Romney is the only guy who actually cared enough to pass it.

Of course, at the time, Romney thought it would help him, no doubt. I think it's pretty clear to everyone by now that Mitt Romney cares about nothing but Mitt Romney.

No wonder he's a Republican, huh?

The literal insult to injury amendment

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The second part of this is here. (Unfortunately, they broke this segment up into two parts, so they could stick another ad in between.)

Incredible, isn't it? This shows how Republicans can be complete dicks,... and how Democrats eagerly go along with it.

Well, come on! Can't you just hear the attack ads now? Democrats want your tax money to go to terrorists! And thanks to the GOP, corporations can now spend unlimited amounts of your money on political attacks like that.

So of course Democrats run screaming like little girls. You wouldn't expect them to grow a spine, would you? Well, I've got to admit that, given the demonstrated stupidity of the American people, maybe they've got reason.

But it's still pretty disgusting.

And there's another thing that gets me about this: Republicans have been ranting and raving about smaller government, about cutting government spending. So what do they do? They give the Department of Health and Human Services another congressionally mandated job to do - and a completely nonsensical one at that!

As P.J. O'Rourke said, "The Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work - and then they get elected and prove it." Likewise, they claim there's wasteful government spending, so when they get a little power, they make sure to add to it as much as they can!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Night

This sounds like my kind of game.  :)

This explains the comb-over

I figured I'd better post this quick, because Donald Trump won't last long. Too bad. Since he's gone all out for crazy, he's picked up a lot of support in the GOP, but it's just a joke, and everyone knows it. He's just using the media as they're using him, with only America harmed by it.

And Boss Hogg - er, Haley Barbour - has already dropped out of the race. That is a shame. He's such a perfect symbol of the GOP these days.

Luckily, there's no shortage of loons running for the Republican presidential nomination. Newt Gingrich, the perfect candidate to defend marriage? Sarah Palin, the half-term former governor who can see Russia from her bedroom? Michele Bachmann, the loon's loon? In fact, there seems to be nothing but loons left in the GOP, and especially in the leadership.

Still, Haley Barbour and Donald Trump would both add to the lunacy nicely. Barbour is out, but if we're lucky, maybe Trump will hang in there awhile. Yeah, if we're really lucky, Republicans will come to their senses. But I don't expect that to happen.

The third type is the most dangerous

Monday, April 25, 2011

Atheist or agnostic?

I hear a lot more people calling themselves atheists these days, so I think nonbelievers are starting to understand pretty well the difference between atheism and agnosticism. But among believers, there still seems to be a great deal of confusion about these terms.

Now, my definitions aren't dogma. You will find some atheists defining themselves differently, no doubt. We're all individuals, so that's inevitable. But I think a simple explanation of these two terms might be useful for some readers here.

I consider myself to be an atheist and an agnostic, but that's doesn't have to be the case for everyone. These labels don't describe quite the same thing. An agnostic is not just a wishy-washy atheist, though that's how many people seem to think. So you can be an agnostic without being an atheist. And you can also be an atheist without being an agnostic. But for most of us, both labels apply.

An agnostic says that you can't know for certain whether there is or isn't a god. Well, that seems rather self-evident to me. Of course you can't. I'd go even further than that, and say that you can't know anything for certain, beyond any possibility of error. Yeah, we've got good evidence that the Earth goes around the Sun, but I could think of several ways - right off the top of my head - that could be false.

Maybe an omnipotent, omniscient god just wants us to think that, for his own inscrutable reasons (note that "God works in mysterious ways"). Maybe we all live in a Matrix-style simulation, with nothing we perceive actually being real. Maybe advanced aliens are running a thought control experiment here. Or maybe I'm simply insane, just imagining... everything.

This is why I hate the word "proof" when applied to science. Science isn't about proof, it's about evidence. Nothing in science can be proven, such that scientists wouldn't change their minds given sufficient evidence. We don't accept the scientific consensus because of proof; we accept it because it's backed by plenty of good evidence. If the available evidence changes, so will the consensus.

So calling myself an agnostic seems to be like calling myself a human being. Is that really in doubt? Yes, I'll accept the label, but is it really necessary? It hardly seems to be very descriptive.

I'm also an atheist. In general, an atheist doesn't claim to know for absolute certain that there is no god. How could he? But like science, it's about evidence, not proof. If you claim there is a god, where's your evidence? If it's not good evidence - and I've never seen a speck of good evidence for that claim - why should anyone believe it?

I'm an atheist because theists have not presented sufficient evidence to back up their claim. Obviously, anyone can claim anything. But without evidence, why should anyone else believe it? I don't have to provide evidence that they're wrong, because it's the person who makes a claim who has the responsibility to back it up with evidence.

The only thing I'm saying is that you haven't made your case. You can claim you've invented cold fusion, too, or been anally probed by aliens. But if you don't have good evidence for those claims, I'm not going to believe them, either.

So I'm an agnostic and an atheist. I usually don't call myself an agnostic, just because that seems self-evident. And since a lot of people seem to think that "agnostic" just means "wishy-washy atheist," I shy away from the term for that reason, too. I know exactly why I'm an atheist, and I'm not wishy-washy about it at all. Your claim could be true, but you just haven't come close to demonstrating that it is true.

I don't believe there's a god, because I've never seen any good evidence that there is. For the same reason, I don't believe in Bigfoot, fairies, homeopathic medicine that's any more effective than a placebo, or flying pigs. It all boils down to Russell's teapot.

More and more nonbelievers have come to understand this, so more and more are calling themselves atheists, rather than agnostics. Yes, they're agnostics too, technically-speaking. But that isn't really very important. Atheists recognize that the case for God, like the case for Bigfoot, has not been made. That's all there is to it.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Mitt Romney haunted by his past mistakes

From The Onion:
Though Mitt Romney is considered to be a frontrunner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, the national spotlight has forced him to repeatedly confront a major skeleton in his political closet: that as governor of Massachusetts he once tried to help poor, uninsured sick people.

Romney, who signed the state's 2006 health care reform act, has said he "deeply regrets" giving people in poor physical and mental health the opportunity to seek medical attention, admitting that helping very sick people get better remains a dark cloud hovering over his political career, and his biggest obstacle to becoming president of the United States of America.

"Every day I am haunted by the fact that I gave impoverished Massachusetts citizens a chance to receive health care," Romney told reporters Wednesday, adding that he feels ashamed whenever he looks back at how he forged bipartisan support to help uninsured Americans afford medicine to cure their illnesses. "I'm only human, and I've made mistakes. None bigger, of course, than helping cancer patients receive chemotherapy treatments and making sure that those suffering from pediatric AIDS could obtain medications, but that's my cross to bear."

"My hope is that Republican voters will one day forgive me for making it easier for sick people—especially low-income sick people—to go to the hospital and see a doctor," Romney added. "It was wrong, and I'm sorry." ...

"I don't know what got into me back then," Romney said. "Wanting to make sure people were able to have health insurance if they left their job. Providing a federally funded website so individuals could compare the costs of insurance providers. Making certain that somebody who earns less than 150 percent of the poverty level can receive the same health care coverage as me or any government official. All I can say is that I was young and immature, and I am not that person anymore."

"The only solace I can take is in the hope that some of the folks I helped were terminally ill patients who eventually withered away and died," Romney added.

Though Romney has apologized profusely, Beltway insiders said he would need to distance himself from his I-tried-to-help-sickpeople image. Sources noted that Romney's current promise to take away health care from anyone who can't afford it is a step in the right direction, but might not be enough.

"The major strike against Mitt Romney is that he not only tried to help people get medical care, he actually did help people get medical care," conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg said. "No other Republican in the field has that type of baggage. And in the end, in order to defeat President Obama, the GOP needs someone who has a track record of never wanting to help sick people." ...

"I don't think I can vote for someone like that," Pennsylvania Republican Eric Tolbert said. "He says he's sorry, but how do I know that's the real Mitt Romney? What happens if he gets elected and tries to help sick people again?"

"I like Michele Bachmann now," Tolbert added. "Because what this country needs is a president who doesn't give a fuck about helping people."

You know, this would be a heck of a lot funnier if it wasn't true.

QOTD: Hitchens' address to American Atheists

Quote of the Day:
Dear fellow-unbelievers,

Nothing would have kept me from joining you except the loss of my voice (at least my speaking voice) which in turn is due to a long argument I am currently having with the specter of death. Nobody ever wins this argument, though there are some solid points to be made while the discussion goes on. I have found, as the enemy becomes more familiar, that all the special pleading for salvation, redemption and supernatural deliverance appears even more hollow and artificial to me than it did before. I hope to help defend and pass on the lessons of this for many years to come, but for now I have found my trust better placed in two things: the skill and principle of advanced medical science, and the comradeship of innumerable friends and family, all of them immune to the false consolations of religion. It is these forces among others which will speed the day when humanity emancipates itself from the mind-forged manacles of servility and superstitition. It is our innate solidarity, and not some despotism of the sky, which is the source of our morality and our sense of decency.

That essential sense of decency is outraged every day. Our theocratic enemy is in plain view. Protean in form, it extends from the overt menace of nuclear-armed mullahs to the insidious campaigns to have stultifying pseudo-science taught in American schools. But in the past few years, there have been heartening signs of a genuine and spontaneous resistance to this sinister nonsense: a resistance which repudiates the right of bullies and tyrants to make the absurd claim that they have god on their side. To have had a small part in this resistance has been the greatest honor of my lifetime: the pattern and original of all dictatorship is the surrender of reason to absolutism and the abandonment of critical, objective inquiry. The cheap name for this lethal delusion is religion, and we must learn new ways of combating it in the public sphere, just as we have learned to free ourselves of it in private.

Our weapons are the ironic mind against the literal: the open mind against the credulous; the courageous pursuit of truth against the fearful and abject forces who would set limits to investigation (and who stupidly claim that we already have all the truth we need). Perhaps above all, we affirm life over the cults of death and human sacrifice and are afraid, not of inevitable death, but rather of a human life that is cramped and distorted by the pathetic need to offer mindless adulation, or the dismal belief that the laws of nature respond to wailings and incantations.

As the heirs of a secular revolution, American atheists have a special responsibility to defend and uphold the Constitution that patrols the boundary between Church and State. This, too, is an honor and a privilege. Believe me when I say that I am present with you, even if not corporeally (and only metaphorically in spirit...) Resolve to build up Mr Jefferson's wall of separation. And don't keep the faith. - Christopher Hitchens

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Ayn Rand revival: economics, sex, and atheisim for dummies

I quoted a Susan Jacoby column a couple of posts ago, but I have to recommend this one, too. The title is The Ayn Rand revival: economics, sex, and atheism for dummies - how could that not catch your attention? - and it begins like this:
At 15, I read Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, the turgid romantic tale of a misunderstood genius-architect and his worshipful consort. They stand against a collectivist world determined to destroy the extraordinary individual and his equally extraordinary soul mate. Then I followed up with the even more turgid 1200-page Atlas Shrugged , which also involves misunderstood geniuses, collectivism and a sexy heroine fit for a superman. I fell in love with Rand the individualist and her atheism was a bonus.

What makes Rand the perfect philosopher-queen for a 15-year-old is that every adolescent considers herself a misunderstood genius hounded by that intimate collective, the family (which Rand considered the archetypal individual-destroying institution). So it says a good deal about the intellectual and emotional immaturity of the far right that Rand, who never really went away because there is an endless supply of teenagers responsive to her exaltation of selfishness as truth, is enjoying a huge revival in support of the Government-Is-The-Root-Of-All-Evil narrative.

I missed these books when I was 15 - I was reading Aldous Huxley and George Orwell - and it's probably a good thing. At least, the people these days who remain fans of Ayn Rand seem to make no sense at all.

Don't get me wrong. A little bit of libertarianism might well be useful in our political and economic discourse. But I've never known a libertarian who didn't go completely off the deep end, following their treasured philosophy to its most absurd conclusions. Is being a little bit libertarian like being a little bit pregnant, then? It frequently seems that way.

Another excerpt from Jacoby's column:
The influence of Rand on the current generation of anti-government activists is powerful. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), who is actually 41 but still looks like a teenager (I’m wondering if believing in Rand after age 25 stops you from getting wrinkles), credits his reading of Rand for the philosophy embodied in his deficit-cutting budget proposal. The Ryan budget would, among its other brilliant ideas, “reform” Medicare by turning it into a voucher program for old people to buy insurance. That no private insurance company will be willing to provide good insurance for 80-year-olds at any price (the sort of reality ignored by Rand in her worship of the market) is no problem if you embrace teenage logic. In the world of teenage fantasy, one never grows sick or old.

What’s fascinating about Rand’s appeal to the right is that the tea party (which, contrary to predictions by pundits, has turned out to be every bit as culturally and religiously conservative as the pre-tea party Republican base) is able to ignore her atheism, strong support for abortion, unconventional sexual views and oft-repeated disdain for the traditional family. I guess Rand’s views on money trump everything. In Atlas Shrugged, she writes, “Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns—or dollars. Take your choice—there is no other.”

That phrase “blood, whips and guns—or dollars” is, as the commercial says, priceless. Rand apparently never heard of systems—say, slavery—that depended on blood, whips, guns and dollars.

Yeah, Rand's atheism and her unconventional sexual views - actually, any hint of sex at all - would have been right up my alley when I was 15. After all, a turgid romance is better than no romance at all. But it's odd that the right wing ignores all that.

Then again, the right wing successfully ignores the fact that the basic goal of the Republican Party - pretty much their only goal, judging by what they did when they controlled all three branches of the federal government recently - is to give tax cuts to the rich. They talk a good game when it comes to those "culture war" issues, but that stuff is clearly not important to them.

In fact, it would be politically disastrous for the GOP if they were successful at ending abortion, since then all those one-issue voters might start thinking about what else the Republicans were doing. But again, it's weird how they can completely ignore their heroine's views on abortion, or anything else, except for her implausible economic ideas.

I’m wondering if this idealization of feminine hero-worship, which comes through strongly in Rand’s novels, is the real reason why so many conservative men remain boyishly attached to her. Her attitude about relations between men and women bears about as much relationship to real sex as her attitude about money being the root of all goodness does to the real market.

The atheism of this third-rate philosophy fellow traveler has always bothered me, because Rand’s devotion to tooth-and-claw social Darwinism, her insistence that people owe nothing to one another, represent a stereotype that religious believers commonly use against atheists. That her “objectivism” is based on faith as strongly as Das Kapital or the Summa Theologica is obvious to anyone who has the good sense to fall out of love with her at 16 after falling in love at 15.

We atheists aren't identical. We tend to be progressives, economically and socially, but we certainly aren't identical clones. I've known atheists who were libertarians and atheists who were communists (yeah, that seems so laughably old-fashioned these days, doesn't it?).

I come at my own atheism from skepticism and from science, basically from the idea that it's a good thing to have evidence backing up your beliefs. Claim whatever you like, but without evidence - good evidence - why should I believe it? But there's nothing scientific about social Darwinism, any more than there was anything skeptical about the official atheism of the Soviet Union. Both are completely alien to my kind of thinking.

Well, I never did read Ayn Rand. When I was older, I looked at her books, but they certainly didn't seem appealing then. I have, however, read many science fiction books with a libertarian slant. But they've never seemed very plausible. In fact, the most plausible SF treatment of a libertarian world that I can remember was Alexis A. Gilliland's The End of the Empire (1983), which was hardly very flattering to the whole concept.

But all of those books are just fiction. Yes, they can be entertaining, but does it really make sense to base your economic and political views on a work of fiction? That's something I've never understood about Ayn Rand fans. Fiction isn't real. Good fiction just has to seem plausible, not really be plausible. There's a big difference. (Later in her life, Ayn Rand did write non-fiction essays and books about her philosophy, but it generally seems like her fiction has been what her fans actually read.)

And very little I've heard about libertarian political and economic thought really makes sense. It might be plausible enough for fiction - like telepathy or faster-than-light spaceship drives - but that's a much lower hurdle. Or it should be. In real-life matters, we need to demand evidence that an appealing idea might actually work as claimed.

The atheist apologist, on nipples and bellybuttons

OK, I promised you another video clip from VoodooSixxx. Enjoy!

Heaven is for real

Today, in my local newspaper, there are a couple of puff pieces (here and here) about Heaven Is For Real, the latest "non-fiction" bestseller written by an evangelical pastor here in Nebraska (along with the co-author of Sarah Palin's Going Rogue).

Both articles were written by the same free-lance writer - a woman who clearly reveals her own bias with "It's because he is a child that Colton is a credible witness," and "There is a heaven, and it's a beautiful place with a big God and people who love us and are waiting for us." (And that's in her book review!) Yes, it's clearly no coincidence that these articles were published on Easter weekend.

But all I could think of, when I read them, was... how can anyone be this gullible? I hadn't heard of the book before, but apparently I'm in the minority, since 1.5 million copies are currently in print. Yeah, that's a real economic incentive to come up with something sensational, even if this pastor's religious motives weren't enough.

Of course, the scary thing is that he probably believes all this nonsense himself. And the really scary thing is that so many other people do, too. Yes, it's easy to believe what you want to believe, but... is there actually no limit to what ridiculous stuff you're willing to swallow, then?

Well, I won't repeat the comments I made at the JournalStar. Check out the articles for yourself, if you're curious. But if you want an antidote to the pablum in those articles, you might check out Susan Jacoby's post about the book.

Here's an excerpt:
No doubt the boy’s memories are as vivid and sincere as the memories of all of those preschoolers, coached by adults and “recovered memory” therapists in the 1980s, who claimed that they had been sexually abused en masse in nursery schools by teachers practicing Satanic rituals.

This book, and its commercial success, remind us again of the effectiveness of religious indoctrination early in life. They recall the truth of the Jesuit saying, “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man.” Can there possibly be any child raised by devout Christian parents who does not, well before kindergarten, have images of winged beings and puffy clouds embedded in his or her brain? Small children believe in Santa Claus for the same reason--because their parents, whom they love, teach them to believe in Santa. The difference is that, at an appropriate age, parents admit that the Santa story isn’t true. They never admit, however, that heaven is the same sort of story.

What is truly disturbing about this book’s huge commercial success is that it attests to the prevalence of unreason among vast numbers of Americans. (The book is way down in the ranks on in the United Kingdom.) The Americans buying the book are the same people fighting the teaching of evolution in public schools. They are probably the same people who think they can reduce the government deficit without either paying higher taxes or cutting the military budget, Social Security and Medicare benefits. In this universe of unreason, two plus two can equal anything you want and heaven is not only real but anything you want it to be. At age four, the inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality is charming. Among American adults, widespread identification with the mind of a preschooler is scary.

Jacoby brings up the big problem with religion. After all, does it really matter if foolish people believe a pleasant fantasy like this? What does it hurt if gullible people want to believe what they want to believe.

The problem is that, when you abandon rationality with something like this, you're likely to abandon it where it counts, too. If you don't use reason and evidence here, will you ever use them? In particular, will you use them when the results aren't something you particularly like?

Or will you refuse to accept the scientific consensus about global warming, for example, or evolution, because you want to believe something different? Where does believing in a pleasant fantasy cease to be just an unimportant quirk and become a serious problem for America and the world?

We already know that the scientific method is the best way we've ever discovered of distinguishing the truth from pleasant-sounding falsehoods. We already know that reason and evidence, together, are the most reliable way to determine the truth, and that we must never stop questioning what we think we know.

When you abandon them once - because, after all, what does it really matter? - why won't you abandon them the next time the truth isn't what you wish it was? In religion, faith is a virtue. In science, faith is a vice. If you decide to use faith for some things and science for others, how will you decide when you'll use which?

I'll tell you exactly how you'll decide: Whenever science tells you something you don't want to hear, you'll choose faith, instead. If you use faith for anything at all, that's how this will turn out. Your religion and your understanding of science may not conflict now, but when they do, which will you choose to believe?

If you understand why faith is not a reliable way to determine the truth, then why use it for anything? If you don't understand that, then inevitably you're just going to pick whatever you want to be true. We're seeing this everywhere in America right now (not just on the right, either). And that's the big problem I have with religion.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Christopher Hitchens drops the hammer

Here's the whole debate, if you're curious.

"I don't think that would be very ethical. I think it would be something of a breach of taste. But if it's in the name of God, it has a social license. Well fuck that, is what I say! And will say if it's my last breath."

Heh, heh. I like Christopher Hitchens when he's feisty like this.

PS. Apparently, this was a re-post. I guess it was originally posted at YouTube by VoodooSixxx, who has posted quite a number of interesting videos. For example, here's another clip of Christopher Hitchens in that same debate.

Maybe I'll post another of his videos tomorrow.

Yeah, we need more loons carrying guns

Isn't it wonderful how guns make us safer? If everyone just carried around a loaded pistol, we'd no doubt be the safest nation on Earth.

From TPM:
Just when you thought the sad saga of Quran-burning Florida pastor Terry Jones couldn't get more absurd...

According to Southfield, Michigan police, Jones' .40-caliber handgun fired accidentally as he was leaving a television studio there on Thursday night. This is presumably the same handgun he said he intended to bring to his planned anti-sharia law protest in Dearborn, Michigan on Friday, though he's said he's come to Dearborn "totally in peace."

Police told The Detroit Free Press that Jones was getting into the passenger side of his car at 11:10 p.m. Thursday night, after an interview at the TV station, when the gun went off, putting a bullet into the floorboard.

And yeah, he's protesting Sharia law in Michigan. Heh, heh. Honestly, can these people get any dumber?

Here's what the Dearborn, Michigan, mayor said about it:
If Dearborn practiced Sharia law, would we have three adult entertainment bars and more alcohol-licensed bars and restaurants per capita than most other cities?

Of course, it's our constitutional guarantee of the separation of church and state that ensures we can't be governed by Sharia law, even if Muslim Americans were more than an infinitesimal fraction of the population.

Oh, yeah, these right-wing Christian loons don't like the separation of church and state, do they? They want a theocracy, just like in Iran or Saudi Arabia, but they want it under the control of a different religion.

So which is it to be, Catholic or Protestant? And if Protestant, which sect? I'm sure all Christians will be able to agree on that, huh?

Yes, if these right-wing religious nuts ever do succeed in overturning our Constitution,... welcome to Baghdad!

Real Water - with added electrons!

'Most of the water we drink is very acidic,' say the makers of Real Water. 'Most diseases flourish and grow rapidly in an acidic environment.' Photograph: Alamy

Sometimes, you really have to wonder how dumb people can be. Check out this article from The Guardian:
"Did you know that most of the water you're drinking every day may actually be damaging your health?"

This is the bold claim made by Nevada-based Affinity Lifestyles. Fortunately, they have the solution: Real WaterTM with E2 technology.

The Real Water website describes how the water we drink – from the water I have in my glass right now, to the water you made your cup of tea with this morning – has been "damaged".

In an attempt to blind the reader with science, there are reams of misplaced claims and pseudo-facts. Take the claim that "many food and beverages ... are devoid of electrons" – which would make it an entirely new state of matter. ...

The E2, or Electron Energized, technology supposedly "adds hundreds of millions of free electrons" to "unclump" the water and give it an alkaline pH.

Professor [Stephen] Fletcher takes issue with the claim that the water was positively charged in the first place: "Water is always charge-balanced due to a scientific principle called 'electroneutrality'. It follows that the E2 technology cannot add 'hundreds of millions of free electrons' to anything, no matter how it works."

I asked Real Water about the treatment, but public information officer Xzavia Ross said: "Our process is proprietary so there really is no way we can disclose the process by which we add electrons to the water." ...

On the one hand this is an amusing read, leaving you astonished at the amount of tripe you can find online. On the other, this is a real company, making real sales at the expense of those who believe their outlandish claims. In an age when people are increasingly worried about their health, perhaps the most beneficial thing to take in large doses is scepticism.

Yeah, shrug this off with "a fool and his money are soon parted," if you wish. But it worries me, both because of the level of scientific ignorance it demonstrates here in America (where this company is located and probably makes most of its sales) and for the complete lack of skepticism it implies.

How dumb can people be? There's really no limit, apparently.

The first zombie apocalypse

From no gods allowed:
ZOMBIES!!!! We all know the Zombie Jesus story, but a whole crapload of dead people were reanimated just after Jesus H. kicked the can. They took two days fighting their way out of their tombs before running amok within Jerusalem. It’s right there in Matthew 27.
51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

Zombie mini-apocalypses must happen often enough in that part of the world that they’re not even worth recording. Come on! No one else even mentions it! I gotta hand it to whoever wrote the book of Matthew for having the foresight to include this enlightening event in the most infallible book ever written. If it hadn’t been for him, we’d only have one zombie stumbling around on Easter Sunday.

Heh, heh. He's right. It's in Matthew 27. I never knew that. It was apparently the first - and so far the only - zombie apocalypse.

To continue:
It took most of those zombies two days stuck inside their half smashed tombs before they could get out. Two days! While Jesus is out on holiday playing the last level of Doom III, a whole bunch of generally nice undead are stuck inside their graves scratching and moaning and breaking fingernails just trying to get a breath of fresh air. And brains.

This couldn’t have gone unnoticed. There have got to be a bunch of freaked out caretakers scared shitless because half their crop is trying to escape through damaged tombs. Did it make any difference that these zombies were holier than others? My guess is no. By the way, how could they even be holy if they haven’t accepted Jesus as their own personal savior? Something is amiss.

Back to the point. It’s Friday and you’re a caretaker of one of these graveyards. You’ve got a ton of cleanup to do after the earthquake and to make matters worse, a bunch of smug, holier-than-thou zombies are further damaging your tombs in their escape efforts. What do you do? Shit, they didn’t even have shotguns back then! I, for one, know when to get the hell out of town. I’d high-tail it out of Jerusalem, shrieking like a little girl all the way.

Check out the rest of this here. It really is pretty funny, with no one able to repel the zombies because it's the Sabbath.
Do you sit around on Saturday as instructed by the big guy, all the while glancing furtively out the windows across the yard to make sure the undead are still underground? Or do you risk breaking the Sabbath by either repelling zombies or running like hell? I’m assuming, of course, that it is considered work to kill the undead. I have no proof of this. These poor saps are backed into a corner. It’s either death by zombie or death by zealous law abiding Jew.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Now we know the truth!

As Dennis DiClaudio at Indecision Forever points out, now we know the truth. Barack Obama isn't Kenyan. He's Somalian!

84% oppose Republican Medicare plan

From Daily Kos:
The top lines of the WaPo/ABC Poll show a big problem for Republicans and their plan to gut Medicare. It's hugely unpopular. The vast majority want Medicare preserved as is, along with Medicaid, with (once again) tax increases on the wealthy the heavily preferred choice for addressing debt. Asked the basic question of what should be cut, 78% oppose cutting Medicare, 69% opposed cutting Medicaid, while 72% say tax the rich.

WaPO/ABC poll
(Washington Post, April 19, 2011)

But drill down on the internals for the Medicare questions, and you find that when the Republican plan is spelled out, and respondents are told that beneficiaries would "receive a check or voucher from the government each year for a fixed amount they can use to shop for their own private health insurance policy," and that—as the CBO projects—the cost of private insurance will likely outpace the cost of Medicare, opposition to the plan soars to 84%. ...

It would really be hard to come up with a less popular policy idea than the Republican plan for Medicare.

So, 84% of Americans oppose the Republican plan. Do you think Democrats might be capable enough to take advantage of this?

No, probably not, huh?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"Threshold" by Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor

(cover shot borrowed from SF & F Books on Mars)

Threshold (2010) by Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor is the sequel to Boundary (2006), which I read before I started this blog (thus, no review). In the first book, shortly after an archaeologist discovers the fossilized remains of an alien, killed by dinosaurs 65 million years ago, a space probe to Mars discovers similar remains in an ruined base on Phobos. Immediately, the government sends a research team to check it out.

It's a great story, with Flint's trademark teamwork approach and optimistic outlook. However, most of the story occurs before the team gets to Mars, and it doesn't grab the reader as quickly as it could. And I'm afraid the characters aren't especially appealing, either. (I'll get to that below.)

Threshold has the same appeal and the same flaws. The Ares Project, the research team in the first book, is busy colonizing Mars, working with the United Nations, while there's a new space race among Earth nations. When Ares discovers a new alien base on the asteroid Ceres, complete with alien ship and fusion reactors, the European Union sends a ship to spy on them. And that leads to a race to Saturn and attacks that could mean the first interplanetary war.

Like Boundary, Threshold is slow-starting, but it really gets going in the second half of the book. For a space enthusiast, it seems really optimistic, too. Sure, all this technology is discovered in rather improbable alien ruins, but that's just how things can move so quickly. As long as it seems plausible, then we can assume we'd discover these things on our own, eventually. (Yes, this is fiction, but it's optimistic fiction.)

But with both books, I keep thinking that I really should like them more than I do. Oh, they're entertaining, and I'm sure I'll buy the final volume. But they really don't grab me like I'd expect. And I think the problem - as in Spoor's standalone novel, Grand Central Arena - is with the characters.

The heroes of these books are athletic, attractive over-achievers, superior in pretty much every way. They've definitely got "the right stuff," with seemingly no flaws at all. I can't dislike them, but I can't find them appealing, either. I just find it hard to really care about them. It's like reading a book about homecoming kings and queens who ended up meeting all the high expectations everyone had of them.

Now, I don't know how an author writes characters that I immediately like, characters who are so appealing I just can't stop reading, because I care so much what happens to them. If I did, maybe I'd be writing books instead of just reading them. But maybe I can give some examples.

Think about Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan. He's a military genius, a brilliant man with incredible talents. But he's also a weird-looking little runt with brittle bones, a man about as far from a recruiting poster version of a soldier as you can get, who's born on a military-mad planet - and one where mutants are feared and despised, as well.

If Miles looked like his cousin Ivan, he'd just be an obnoxious know-it-all. Well, he's still an obnoxious know-it-all, I suppose, but we really care about him.

In Eric Flint's 1632 series, Gretchen is a gorgeous blonde with an incredible body. She's also smart and determined, with an iron will. But when we first meet her, she's a camp follower, carrying a rapist's bastard, trying desperately to protect her "family," most of whom aren't related to her at all. Would we care as much for her if she'd been a lord's daughter, someone who'd had every advantage from birth?

Or look at Mike Stearns, from the same series. He's truly an exceptional man, a brilliant leader, strong, powerful, confident. But he was a black sheep when he was younger, returning home when his family needed him. Without the truly incredible event that began the series, he would have spent his whole life as just an ordinary miner and union negotiator - skilled, but nothing exceptional. Stearns was not destined for greatness, but he courageously rose to the challenge when he was needed.

I'm not saying that characters need flaws. Indeed, I'd be hard pressed to identify a flaw in Mike Stearns. But appealing characters overcome their disadvantages. In Boundary and Threshold, it's hard to find anyone with a disadvantage to overcome. None of them have nightmares that plague them during stressful times. None have risen from bleak beginnings. None turned their lives around, and none have accomplished the unexpected, because great things were probably always expected of them.

Indeed, when these characters have any unique characteristics at all, it's that they're also gourmet cooks or experts in unarmed combat, in addition to all their other skills. I don't know. Maybe it's the whole situation. The first people on Mars are likely to be truly exceptional people, without a single flaw anywhere. That's quite true. But as characters, they're just not especially appealing.

As I noted, I had a similar problem with Grand Central Arena. I hated to say it, and I hate to say it here, because there's so much I like about these books. In so many ways, they're just what I'm looking for in science fiction. But characters - appealing characters, people that I can really, really care about - are so important to me in any work of fiction.

And,... OK, as long as I'm being critical, I might as well add that I didn't much like the bad guys in Threshold, either. First of all, you don't need highly capable bad guys - super-villains - in a story, because it's usually easy enough for dumb incompetents to cause harm. Just look at any drive-by shooting. And a really capable man who's especially good at his job is probably going to enjoy his work and have his pick of lucrative assignments. So why wouldn't he be happy with that?

And so you're left with a sociopath as an enemy, and I've never liked that. I guess it seems too easy, maybe. Or too random. Or... I don't know. But give me a better reason than that, please! The fact is, I always preferred Hal Clement's idea, that the universe makes a perfectly adequate villain. And indeed, that was exactly the case in Boundary. It could easily have been the same way in Threshold, especially given all the alien technology they were using.

I'm sure I'm sounding more critical than I mean to be. But if there wasn't so much to like here, I wouldn't be so disappointed in its flaws. Well, I will freely admit that these might not be flaws for anyone else. Characters just happen to be hugely important to me, and I have some real pet peeves, too. But my pet peeves might not be yours.

And consider this: I'm still buying this series in hardcover, and I'm not waiting until I can buy used books, either. So that must tell you something. As I say, there's a lot to like here.

How will you pay for health care?

Normally, I think that Democrats are hopelessly inept at politics, but this ad - from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee - is pretty clever.

Sure, when Republicans propose to end Medicare, that would seem to be a slam-dunk. But they've given Democrats such opportunities before - notably last fall, with their insistence that they'd only support tax cuts for the middle class if the wealthy got income and estate tax cuts - which the Democrats completely blew.

Of course, the real problem won't be coming up with the money to pay for health insurance. The problem will be that insurance companies won't want to insure the elderly. How can they make any money that way? The elderly all have a pre-existing condition: they're old.

After all, it's not the young who use health care, or not much. It's the elderly. In fact, a huge amount of our health care dollars go to care in the last year of a person's life. Insurance companies know that they can't raise premiums for the elderly high enough to make up for that.

And that's exactly why we have Medicare. We support Medicare for the elderly so that we'll have that same benefit when we get old. This is what civilized societies do. But unfortunately, there's a great debate in America about whether or not we want to be civilized.

PS. I liked Paul Krugman's comment about this: "Oh, and for all those older Americans who voted GOP last year because those nasty Democrats were going to cut Medicare, I have just one word: suckers!"

Creationist parenting

Check out the rest of the comic here.

The untold story of the hamster

(De Agostini / Getty Images)

Ever wonder where hamsters came from? It's a fascinating story, all described in this Smithsonian article:
In the spring of 1930, Aharoni staged an expedition to the hills of Syria, near Aleppo, one of the oldest cities in the world. His quest was simple: he wanted to catch the rare golden mammal whose Arabic name translates roughly as “mister saddlebags.” On finding the animal he would either ally it with its Hebrew name in the Torah or, as seemed more likely, name it himself. But there was another motive. One of Aharoni’s colleagues, Saul Adler, thought that the animal might be similar enough to humans to serve as a lab animal in medical research, particularly for the study of the parasitic disease leishmaniasis, which was and still is common in the region.

Yeah, in 1930, the hamster was rare and little-known. And it still is, in the wild. Every tame hamster on Earth - and there must be millions of them by now - are all descended from a brother and sister pair captured by Israel Aharoni.

This article describes his adventures in hilarious detail, complete with hamsters eating each other and chewing their way to freedom. And even now, according to this account, we know very little about wild hamsters. They remain rare and relatively unstudied.

It really is a fascinating article.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sharing the pain

Maybe you should bring the judge an apple

From The Economist:
A paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes how Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and his colleagues followed eight Israeli judges for ten months as they ruled on over 1,000 applications made by prisoners to parole boards. The plaintiffs were asking either to be allowed out on parole or to have the conditions of their incarceration changed. The team found that, at the start of the day, the judges granted around two-thirds of the applications before them. As the hours passed, that number fell sharply (see chart), eventually reaching zero. But clemency returned after each of two daily breaks, during which the judges retired for food. The approval rate shot back up to near its original value, before falling again as the day wore on. ...

The researchers offer two hypotheses for this rise in grumpiness. One is that blood-sugar level is the crucial variable. This, though, predicts that the precise amount of time since the judge last ate will be what matters. In fact, it is the number of cases he has heard since his last break, not the number of hours he has been sitting, which best matches the data. That is consistent with a second theory, familiar from other studies, that decision making is mentally taxing and that, if forced to keep deciding things, people get tired and start looking for easy answers. In this case, the easy answer is to maintain the status quo by denying the prisoner’s request.

Disturbing, don't you think? We like to think our system of justice is fairer than this. Yeah, you may not worry much about criminals. But it'll be too late to worry about fairness if you ever find yourself in this situation.

Our legal system needs to be fair to everyone, no matter who they are, because otherwise, it will be fair to no one.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Nothing more to talk about

This is a great video, but I'm not sure I agree with it.

Oh, I agree with the points she makes, absolutely. But when it comes to family, "nothing more to talk about" sounds rather... final.

And it's just not true, at least in most families. OK, I've never had this experience, with parents who just can't let it alone, parents who just can't accept that their child thinks differently than they do. But can't you find other things to talk about, besides religion?

If your parents will not respect your religious (or political) views, don't discuss religion (or politics) with them. Maybe that will be hard sometimes. Maybe, in some families, it can be impossible. If that's the case, I'm really sorry to hear it. But... I still can't advise shutting them out of your life completely.

There are many religious and political views I don't respect. But I still might respect the person who holds them. (I certainly respect any person's right to hold them.) I might even love the person who holds them.

Sometimes, in extreme circumstances, people must cut their family ties. I know that. But the vast majority of us don't face such extreme circumstances. So your family is annoying. Big deal. They're still family.

You don't have to spend a lot of time with people who make you crazy (and who can make you crazier than family?). But "nothing more to talk about"? That's rarely - very rarely - the case.

My suggestion is to keep to neutral topics, as much as possible. If they won't, even when you keep changing the subject, then keep the talk short. But don't stop talking entirely. You may disagree on virtually everything, but there are still things to talk about. Heck, comment on the weather. That's usually pretty safe.

I feel sorry for people who face this situation. I guess that's why this video gets to me. I won't pretend to have all the answers, but I don't like the idea of giving up on family unless there's really no other way. In most cases - not all, I know - that's just not true.

Fox News spins another one

These are great videos, since they make the bias at Fox "News" so easy to see. This anchor - one of the interchangeable blondes at Fox - misstates the law and then nods along with the right-wing loon they've invited to comment.

Well, you can see it here. But most of this stuff is too subtle for the average Fox viewer, I'm sure. The goal of Fox is to push their right-wing ideology, and one way they do that is to convince their viewers that everyone, except a few real leftists (from San Francisco, if they can work that in), agrees with them.

The "fair and balanced" Fox is horribly unfair and terribly unbalanced - er, imbalanced, I meant to say - and that's deliberate. Fox is not a news network. It's a propaganda mill masquerading as a news network.

I like the end of this:  "Which was more partisan: the decision of the 9th Circuit or the reporting of Fox News?" The answer is obvious, don't you think?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

"1635: The Dreeson Incident" by Eric Flint and Virginia DeMarce

1635: The Dreeson Incident is another in Eric Flint's 1632 series, this time with co-author Virginia DeMarce. It was first published in 2008, but I'd skipped this one previously. (Chronologically, therefore - and by publication date - it comes before the other two books I've reviewed in this series.)

The thing is, Eric Flint has a website where he posts snippets of upcoming books, and when I started to read this one there, I gave up in disgust. It was full of minor characters who were very hard to keep straight. It was, in fact, a lot like the other two books DeMarce co-authored with him, only even more so.

But I'm a big fan of the series, and I figured I probably should read it, especially after seeing the comments from Alex Champion following my review of 1635: The Eastern Front. So I picked up a very nice hardcover copy, used.

Well,... there are a lot of characters in this book. Most of them have shown up previously (particularly in short stories, I think), but it's very hard to keep these minor characters straight. And although the whole series is just chock full of great characters, these aren't really the most interesting (or the most admirable) of them.

And there's a lot of repetition, as Champion noted in his comments:
She spends too much time in the minutia. I recall in Dreeson Incident when Stoner's middle boy's Jenkins flame asked her mother about their family history and the mother summed up the same bits of info listed on the previous page. Aggravating.

There's a lot of depth that, upon rereading, really enriches the story but perhaps not enough to justify it. "Oh this character made this remark when at the same date in this other book she wrote another character sent the letter to...oooooh. Wow" happens quite a bit. I still prefer her to some of the Gazette contributors.

But he also says this:
The only thing that sustained me through Dreeson was that it finally addressed the problems that other authors generally ignored--what are the effects of all these adventures of war and intrigue doing to this small Appalachian town?

The reactions of Gretchen's youngest children and Rebecca's Sephie, especially since she arrives with a baby girl and an adopted toddler boy, to these strangers who are supposedly their mothers are priceless. Funny and tragic at the same time. Sephie is raised by Opa Abrabanel and visited every month or so by her dad. I'm a sucker for the child's perspective (the princess' take on her father's diplomacy as she's shuttled to Magdeburg is a favorite) but these moments illustrate the personal toll.

I like that kind of thing, myself. And those bits were great. But they were tiny bits in a huge mass of rather boring text. Oh, it wasn't that bad. It was certainly better reading it in book form than just a snippet every two days on Flint's website. But for two-thirds of the book, or more, there was nothing much to grab me. And I know Flint can do a lot better than that.

400 pages into the book there's an interesting event that's over all too quickly. And then we go back to the same stuff that filled the first part of it. Only at the very end did I get interested, especially with the comparison of antisemitism to race-related murders in the American South, and the remedy for both. (One of the things I love about this series is how it shows our own history and our own culture in a different light.)

I've read all the other novels in this series (but not all of the anthologies of shorter fiction), but I'd skipped this one. And really, I'd have to say I hadn't missed much. If you love the series, and especially if you're a real completest, you'll want to read this book. I'm actually glad I finally did. But most people could just as well skip it, I think.

Of course, if you really like the little family stories and Thanksgiving with difficult relatives, that kind of thing - and if you don't mind checking the family trees at the start of the book to try to keep everyone straight - you might like this book more than I did. Different strokes for different folks.

PS. Alex Champion says that DeMarce is a better short story writer, and indeed, this kind of thing works much better in short stories than in novels, I'd say. I've enjoyed the family stuff and the personal minutia in the 1632 short stories I've read. But then, it's easier to keep people straight in a short story which focuses on just a few people at a time.