Monday, May 30, 2011

The wildly successful Bristol Palin

Who would have thought that getting knocked up in high school was such a great career move? Candie's Foundation, which promotes abstinence-only sex education - and has hired the world's most famous failure of abstinence-only sex education as its figurehead - has released its tax information for 2009.

These tax forms show that Bristol Palin was paid $262,500 in 2009. Yes, more than a quarter of a million dollars in one year for demonstrating to sane people what a failure abstinence-only sex education really is. Nice work, if you can get it.

This "non-profit" foundation spent another $165,000 on advertising, including that hilariously inept video of Palin and "The Situation." But guess how much money actually went to pregnancy prevention? Only $35,000. Yeah, they paid Bristol seven and a half times as much as they spent on what was supposedly their purpose.

This whole foundation - which is tax-free, remember - seems to be nothing but a promotional vehicle for Bristol Palin, the perfect role-model for young girls.

Yes, little girls, you, too, can make the big bucks and join "Dancing with the Stars." All you need to do is get pregnant while in high school. Oh, and have Sarah Palin for a mom, too. But maybe if you just change your last name to "Palin," that might do well enough. Your fans won't be too bright, after all.

Bristol Palin is a perfect example of the shallow end of the gene pool in America. She's a celebrity - basically, someone famous for being famous - and that's all it takes. She has no talent and little education. But like her mother, she's a relentless self-promoter.

Think about it. She's a highly-paid spokesperson for abstinence-only sex education, despite being a perfect example of the failure of abstinence-only sex education. But none of that matters, since she's a celebrity - and, frankly, because the abstinence-only sex education movement isn't actually about teen pregnancy. No, it's all about the "culture war" in America.

The fact that abstinence-only sex education doesn't work is completely immaterial. This is a faith-based project, and it's supported by the same ignorant hicks who cheer wildly at Sarah Palin rallies. Bristol Palin has the right name, and she's a celebrity because she's a celebrity. Apparently, that's all it takes.

And like her mother before her, Bristol Palin is milking it for all she can get. Sadly, that's a lot. She's actually moving into televangelists' kind of money. Well, there's a sucker born every minute, I guess.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Lyin', the Witch, and the Wardrobe

John Cole at Balloon Juice has been collecting potential titles for the new Sarah Palin movie. Here are a few of my favorites:

From Here to Inanity
Citizen Vain
Red Yawn
The Aleutianist
The Scum Also Rises
Chariots of Liar
From Within Sight of Russia With Love
The Devil Wears Mukluks
Swindler’s List
John McCain’s a Series of Unfortunate Events
The Lyin’, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Driving Miss Crazy
Inarticulate Proposal
Chariots of Bile
Jackass 4
The Lying Game
The Woman Who Knew Too Little
True Grift
Fahrenheit All of Them
12 Million Angry White Men

Read the rest of them here (note the comments, too).

Or check out #palinfilmnames on Twitter. Some of my favorites from there:

Honey I Refudiated the Kids
It Came From Wasilla
Every Which Way but Moose
Nones With Guns
Half-Baked Alaska
The English Challenged Patient
Million Dollar Barbie
Raging Bullshit
Attack of the 50-IQ-point Woman

Funny, huh? Maybe I should try. Hmm,... I'd suggest "Psycho" or "The Hustler," but I think they've been taken. So how about "It's a Wonderful Lie"?  :)

Fox News forgets the First Amendment

Spring flooding


I've been playing the PC game Terraria recently, so I thought I'd post a bit about that. The above video is the first of a whole series on YouTube, and they got me interested enough to buy the game myself. (There are many other YouTube videos about Terraria, too, of course - here is another series I've enjoyed.)

I hesitated, because the game seems to have stolen a lot from Minecraft. Well, we knew that was going to happen, right? And this is a side-scroller, so the gameplay is quite different. Besides, I sort of like to see games borrowing from Minecraft (and Dwarf Fortress, which I've seen happen, as well), since those games contain features which I'd love to see become more common.

I also hesitated, because Terraria is available only on Steam. Frankly, Steam is my least favorite gaming platform. I particularly dislike the fact that I have to start Steam, and connect with their servers, before I can play even a single-player game. But Terraria was only $10, and I figured I'd go ahead and try it anyway.

At first, I thought I'd made a huge mistake. I'm really, really bad at this kind of game. Those videos make it look easy, and it probably is for most people - but not for me. But I did get a little better as I continued, and it is fun. Still, I think I almost prefer watching those YouTube videos of other people playing. Heh, heh.

Well, not really. I won't ever get very far in the game, but it's already been worth the money. I'm easily bored, so I tend to jump from one game to the next, without getting very far in any of them. But if it wasn't fun, I wouldn't do it.

I should, however, note a huge design flaw in Terraria: There's no way to pause the game! Isn't that crazy? Was the game made for eight-year-olds who, presumably, can play entirely without interruptions? For the rest of us, that's nearly impossible, don't you think? Heck, I'm better off than most, since I live alone. But what about when the phone rings, or when someone comes to the door?

But this is still a great game. Like Minecraft, you start on a new world in the morning, and you have to build a shelter before nightfall. So, just like Minecraft, the first thing you need to do is chop down trees to get lumber. You start with a copper axe and a copper pick (for digging through dirt and rock). And you can make everything else you need (again, like Minecraft).

In Terraria, though, you're not safe even during the day. Even when you first arrive on your new world, slimes will come from both directions. They're not actually aggressive, not if you don't hit them. But since this game is entirely two-dimensional, they will hit you - and hurt you - while they're traveling through, unless you actively avoid them.

But you need to kill some of them anyway, since you get gel from slimes, and you need gel to make torches (gel plays the role in Terraria that coal and charcoal play in Minecraft). Torches are needed for light, at night and underground, though they don't stop monsters from spawning (solid walls, placed as a background, do that). And yes, at night, zombies and demon eyes appear.

Terraria is a side-scroller, and you can move right or left along the surface of the world. But the biggest part of the world is underground. You can mine pretty much anywhere, through rock and soil, but you're better off finding a natural cavern. There are caverns extending far, far underground, and they get more dangerous the further down you go.

But there's treasure down there, too. You can find some copper and iron on the surface, but there's more underground. And there's also silver and gold. And gems. And treasure chests. And the monsters all drop loot when you kill them.

For someone as inept as I am, the neat thing about the game is that you can play at your own pace. No, there aren't any difficulty settings. But I can decide when and where to go underground, and I can decide when to leave my secure little home at night. Plus, death isn't much of a setback.

When you die, you just reappear at your spawn point (where you initially started the game, unless you've made a bed and set your spawn point elsewhere), with your entire inventory intact. You do drop half of the coins you were carrying, but you can go back and pick them up again. And if you store your more valuable coins in a chest in your house, you won't lose any of those.

Death is rather common. Well, it's a dangerous world. If you're a long way from home, you'll probably hate dying, since it will be such a long trip back. But it's not all that significant, either. And this encourages exploration. Especially when you're underground, the temptation is just to keep going a little further. That can keep you playing for hours. So maybe dying occasionally isn't so bad, especially if you need to get some sleep at night.

Terraria really is a great little game. I don't normally play side-scrollers or platformers. (That might be why I'm so bad at this.) But Terraria takes from Minecraft two features that really make a difference. The first is crafting. In both games, you can make a wide variety of furniture and equipment. And you can make homes, too. That constructive part of these games is important to me, since I get really bored just killing things.

And second, you can completely re-arrange the terrain. You can dig anywhere and put the rock and soil anywhere you want. You can completely level a mountain, or build one. You can cut down trees and plant them. Minecraft is 3D, while Terraria is more like living in an ant farm. But in both cases, that freedom to re-make the world is a really big part of the gameplay.

There's no demo of Terraria, but there are a lot of YouTube videos showing how the game works. And it's only $10, so it's not a big investment, even if you don't play it much. If you do buy it, you might need to check the Terraria Wiki sometimes (there's a link on the Terraria website, too).

But it's really not that complicated. Pressing the escape key opens up your inventory and shows you what you can make out of what you're carrying. If you click on an item in the crafting area, it will show you exactly what components it will require. And if you stand near a forge, a workbench, an anvil, or an alchemy table, you'll have even more crafting options.

You can see, in most of those videos, gamers figuring out these things. They often miss some things - for example, that a hammer can remove what an axe or a pick cannot - but that's just part of the learning process. If you get confused, just check the wiki. But you probably won't need to do that very often.

I can see why Terraria has become such a big hit. Well, Minecraft was an even bigger hit. That should tell game developers something. Meanwhile, if you like to waste a little time playing computer games, like me, you could do far worse than Terraria.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

QOTD: Abortion saved my life

Quote of the Day:
There's this lawmaker out of Kansas, Rep. Peter DeGraaf, who has a lot to say about abortion. He's currently best known for saying that women should plan ahead in case of rape and not expect their regular insurance to cover an abortion after an assault. And I could spend a lot of time discussing the flaws in his logic, or even hashing out when life begins, but what I'm really concerned about is the idea that anyone besides a pregnant woman should have a say in what she does with her body after finding out she's pregnant.

I'm a mom, and I love my sons more than anything. And it is because I love them that I had an abortion at 20 weeks. ...

I was taking an afternoon nap when the hemorrhaging started while my toddler napped in his room when I woke up to find blood gushing upward from my body. Though I didn't know it at the time, I was experiencing a placental abruption, a complication my doctor had told me was a possibility. My husband was at work, so I had to do my best to take care of me and my toddler on my own. I managed to get to the phone and make arrangements for both of my children before going to a Chicago hospital.

Everyone knew the pregnancy wasn't viable, that it couldn't be viable given the amount of blood I was losing, but it still took hours for anyone at the hospital to do anything. The doctor on call didn't do abortions. At all. Ever. In fact, no one on call that night did. Meanwhile, an ignorant batch of medical students had gathered to study me -- one actually showed me the ultrasound of our dying child while asking me if it was a planned pregnancy. Several wanted to examine me while I lay there bleeding and in pain. No one gave me anything for the pain or even respected my request to close the door even though I was on the labor and delivery floor listening to other women have healthy babies as the baby I had been trying to save died in my womb.

A very kind nurse risked her job to call a doctor from the Reproductive Health Clinic who was not on call, and asked her to come in to save my life. Fortunately she was home, and got there relatively quickly. By the time she arrived, I was in bad shape. The blood loss had rendered me nearly incoherent, but she still moved me to a different wing and got me the painkillers no one else had during the screaming hours I'd spent in the hospital. ...

Later I found out that the doctor had taken my husband aside as they brought me into surgery. She promised him she would do her best to save me, but she warned him there was a distinct possibility that she would fail. The doctor who didn't do abortions was supposed to have contacted her (or someone else who would perform the procedure) immediately. He didn't. Neither did his students. Supposedly there was a communication breakdown and they thought she had been notified, but I doubt it. I don't know if his objections were religious or not; all I know is that when a bleeding woman was brought to him for treatment he refused to do the only thing that could stop the bleeding. Because he didn't do abortions. Ever.

My two kids at home almost lost their mother because someone decided that my life was worth less than that of a fetus that was going to die anyway. My husband had told them exactly what my regular doctor said, and the ER doctor had already warned us what would have to happen. Yet none of this mattered when confronted by the idea that no one needs an abortion. You shouldn't need to know the details of why a woman aborts to trust her to make the best decision for herself. I don't regret my abortion, but I would also never use my situation to suggest that the only time another woman should have the procedure is when her life is at stake. After my family found out I'd had an abortion, I got a phone call from a cousin who felt the need to tell me I was wrong to have interfered with God's plan. And in that moment I understood exactly what kind of people judge a woman's reproductive choices. - Mikki Kendall

Thursday, May 26, 2011

QOTD: Physics and the immortality of the soul

Quote of the Day:
Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there's no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die. If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter?

Everything we know about quantum field theory (QFT) says that there aren't any sensible answers to these questions. Of course, everything we know about quantum field theory could be wrong. Also, the Moon could be made of green cheese.

Among advocates for life after death, nobody even tries to sit down and do the hard work of explaining how the basic physics of atoms and electrons would have to be altered in order for this to be true. If we tried, the fundamental absurdity of the task would quickly become evident.

Even if you don't believe that human beings are "simply" collections of atoms evolving and interacting according to rules laid down in the Standard Model of particle physics, most people would grudgingly admit that atoms are part of who we are. If it's really nothing but atoms and the known forces, there is clearly no way for the soul to survive death. Believing in life after death, to put it mildly, requires physics beyond the Standard Model. Most importantly, we need some way for that "new physics" to interact with the atoms that we do have.

Very roughly speaking, when most people think about an immaterial soul that persists after death, they have in mind some sort of blob of spirit energy that takes up residence near our brain, and drives around our body like a soccer mom driving an SUV. The questions are these: what form does that spirit energy take, and how does it interact with our ordinary atoms? Not only is new physics required, but dramatically new physics. Within QFT, there can't be a new collection of "spirit particles" and "spirit forces" that interact with our regular atoms, because we would have detected them in existing experiments. Ockham's razor is not on your side here, since you have to posit a completely new realm of reality obeying very different rules than the ones we know. ...

Nobody ever asks these questions out loud, possibly because of how silly they sound. Once you start asking them, the choice you are faced with becomes clear: either overthrow everything we think we have learned about modern physics, or distrust the stew of religious accounts/unreliable testimony/wishful thinking that makes people believe in the possibility of life after death. It's not a difficult decision, as scientific theory-choice goes.

We don't choose theories in a vacuum. We are allowed -- indeed, required -- to ask how claims about how the world works fit in with other things we know about how the world works. I've been talking here like a particle physicist, but there's an analogous line of reasoning that would come from evolutionary biology. Presumably amino acids and proteins don't have souls that persist after death. What about viruses or bacteria? Where upon the chain of evolution from our monocellular ancestors to today did organisms stop being described purely as atoms interacting through gravity and electromagnetism, and develop an immaterial immortal soul?

There's no reason to be agnostic about ideas that are dramatically incompatible with everything we know about modern science. Once we get over any reluctance to face reality on this issue, we can get down to the much more interesting questions of how human beings and consciousness really work. - Sean Carroll

Selective attention test

This has been out for at least a year, but I thought I'd post it anyway. It's a lot of fun.

Note that there are more of these videos at Simons Lab.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

CBPP chart on public debt

I think I posted an earlier version of this chart last year. It shows the current and projected debt of the U.S. federal government, and the reason for it. (The chart was created by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, based on Congressional Budget Office estimates. I got it from TPM.)

It's pretty clear who we can blame for skyrocketing deficits, don't you think? Without the Bush tax cuts, the two unnecessary wars Bush started, and the economic collapse his policies caused, we'd be in good shape right now. Yes, all too many Democrats went along with the Republicans in these things, but they were Republican policies that went so terribly wrong.

And the funny thing is, they haven't changed their policies one bit. In particular, they're still pushing to cut taxes on the rich - and paying for it, in part, by destroying Medicare. Incredible, isn't it? Why does anyone still vote Republican?

PS. There are more great charts from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities here on their Flickr page. For example, the following chart is basically the same thing, only showing more clearly what would happen if we end the Bush tax cuts:

However, although the shapes of these two graphs are similar, with both showing that simply ending the Bush tax cuts would stabilize our growing debt, the scale is different. They're both debt to GDP ratio, so I don't understand why they aren't identical.

Hmm,...the first graph shows "debt held by the public, which reflects funds that the federal government borrows in credit markets to finance deficits and other cash needs" (quote from CBPP article here). Maybe that doesn't include Social Security surpluses, since that cuts down on the amount of borrowing we need to do (but doesn't make government debt any less).

Top ten myths about the brain

I like these "top ten myths" kinds of stories, since I'm always interested in finding errors in my assumptions. From childhood, we hear so many things that seem to be accepted knowledge. But it's remarkable how many of them aren't actually true.

So here's The Smithsonian with the top ten myths about the brain. For example:
2. “Flashbulb memories” are precise, detailed and persistent.
We all have memories that feel as vivid and accurate as a snapshot, usually of some shocking, dramatic event—the assassination of President Kennedy, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the attacks of September 11, 2001. People remember exactly where they were, what they were doing, who they were with, what they saw or heard. But several clever experiments have tested people’s memory immediately after a tragedy and again several months or years later. The test subjects tend to be confident that their memories are accurate and say the flashbulb memories are more vivid than other memories. Vivid they may be, but the memories decay over time just as other memories do. People forget important details and add incorrect ones, with no awareness that they’re recreating a muddled scene in their minds rather than calling up a perfect, photographic reproduction.

Not that is something I'd always thought. Oh, I know perfectly well how unreliable our memories are and how easy it is to change them, or even invent brand-new, but completely false, memories out of whole cloth. Children are especially susceptible to this, but it's quite common even among adults.

But those "flashbulb memories" really seem accurate, don't they? It's hard to imagine that memories which are so vivid in our minds are also inaccurate.

I want to show you one other excerpt from this article, not because it's something I'd believed, but just because it's both important and interesting. (This isn't the entire myth, but just one paragraph in the explanation.)
Women are thought to outperform men on tests of empathy. They do—unless test subjects are told that men are particularly good at the test, in which case men perform as well as or better than women. The same pattern holds in reverse for tests of spatial reasoning. Whenever stereotypes are brought to mind, even by something as simple as asking test subjects to check a box next to their gender, sex differences are exaggerated. Women college students told that a test is something women usually do poorly on, do poorly. Women college students told that a test is something college students usually do well on, do well. Across countries—and across time—the more prevalent the belief is that men are better than women in math, the greater the difference in girls’ and boys’ math scores. And that’s not because girls in Iceland have more specialized brain hemispheres than do girls in Italy.

The thing to remember about myths like this is that our expectations matter. Even such a simple reminder of gender as checking a box on a test reminds women of the stereotypes. I'm sure this works the same way for racial minorities, too. When you expect to do poorly, you will. Even worse, you might not even try, because you expect the result that society has told you to expect.

Apparently, in some poor school districts, studying and trying to get good grades is "acting white." Yeah, that seems stupid to you and I, but if you don't think you can compete anyway, this is a way to dismiss the whole idea of school. Kids who say this are already convinced they can't do the work. They don't realize that effort is the biggest determination of success. Or else they just don't have faith in themselves.

And no, that's not restricted to racial minorities or to women. When I went to school, I could see it in many of my classmates. They weren't dumb, but they thought they were. And so they suffered from terrible test anxiety. And many of them wouldn't even try to learn, since they were so certain they'd fail.

It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that was even without contending with stereotypes, since most of them were boys and all were white. (The girls had their own problems, generally doing very well in school, but staying away from the advanced classes that prepared students for college. Well, back then, women were secretaries, waitresses, or wives and mothers. Women were supposed to help men succeed, rather than striving for success themselves.)

We can overcome these stereotypes. We can teach all children. We can make sure that all reach their full potential. But it will take work. It will take excellent teachers and committed parents (and when the parents aren't supportive, it will take even more work). And it will take money, lots of money.

But these days, all too many Americans don't value education. And we're not willing to pay taxes, since the right-wing has convinced us that government can't do anything right (ironically, that's just what the right-wing has demonstrated when they've held power). Weapons and prisons, that's about all we're willing to spend money on these days. Well, I guess we've become hopeless cowards, too.

But we'll never change unless we try. It's frustrating, it may even seem hopeless, but it's only hopeless if we quit trying. That's just as true for adults as for children.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The power of faith

Here's an interesting article in The Economist about the placebo effect in medicine:
A placebo is a sham medical treatment—a pharmacologically inert sugar pill, perhaps, or a piece of pretend surgery. Its main scientific use at the moment is in clinical trials as a baseline for comparison with another treatment. But just because the medicine is not real does not mean it doesn’t work. That is precisely the point of using it in trials: researchers have known for years that comparing treatment against no treatment at all will give a misleading result. ...

One conclusion emerging from the research, says Irving Kirsch, a professor at Harvard Medical School who wrote the preface to the volume, is that the effect is strongest for those disorders that are predominantly mental and subjective... In the case of depression, says Dr Kirsch, giving patients placebo pills can produce very nearly the same effect as dosing them with the latest antidepressant medicines.

Pain is another nerve-related symptom susceptible to treatment by placebo. Here, patients’ expectations influence the potency of the effect. Telling someone that you are giving him morphine provides more pain relief than saying you are dosing him with aspirin—even when both pills actually contain nothing more than sugar. Neuro-imaging shows that this deception stimulates the production of naturally occurring painkilling chemicals in the brain. A paper in Philosophical Transactions by Karin Meissner of Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich concludes that placebo treatments are also able to affect the autonomic nervous system, which controls unconscious functions such as heartbeat, blood pressure, digestion and the like. Drama is important, too. Placebo injections are more effective than placebo pills, and neither is as potent as sham surgery. And the more positive a doctor is when telling a patient about the placebo he is prescribing, the more likely it is to do that patient good.

Drama is important, and so is a positive attitude. This really is faith-based medicine. Witch-doctors always were dramatic and always certain of their procedures (or, at least, expressed such certainty to their patients). And so are complementary and alternative medicine practitioners these days.
Unlike their conventional counterparts, practitioners of alternative medicine often excel at harnessing the placebo effect, says Dr [Edzard] Ernst [professor of complimentary medicine at the Peninsula Medical School in England]. They offer long, relaxed consultations with their customers (exactly the sort of “good bedside manner” that harried modern doctors struggle to provide). And they believe passionately in their treatments, which are often delivered with great and reassuring ceremony. That alone can be enough to do good, even though the magnets, crystals and ultra-dilute solutions applied to the patients are, by themselves, completely useless.

I understand why people go to quacks, rather than to real doctors. A visit to the doctor can be frustrating. (In my experience, it's almost always frustrating.) Most doctors don't seem to listen, and usually don't even seem to care. If they can't help, they just shrug it off. After all, they've got more important things to do (but probably not more important to you).

Alternative medicine practitioners probably can't help, either, but they think they can. Or, at least, they say they can. And they act like they care. Their treatments might be complete nonsense, but if you think they'll work, they might - especially on very subjective matters, such as pain relief.

But, of course, there are definite limitations to placebos. The point of medicine - real medicine - is to do better than placebos. That's why real medicine is tested against controls. And we've made huge progress. Medical care these days is far better than what a witch-doctor or other faith-healer could have done for us centuries ago, and far better than what faith-healers can do for us today.

Most alternative medicine is a scam. Promoters might believe in what they're pushing or might not. (Most likely, alternative medicine practitioners do believe in what they're doing, because it's always easy to believe what you want to believe.) The industry is big money these days, but their supporters also have faith. Well, faith is a terrible thing, especially when it's misplaced.
Over the years Dr Ernst and his group have run clinical trials and published over 160 meta-analyses of other studies. (Meta-analysis is a statistical technique for extracting information from lots of small trials that are not, by themselves, statistically reliable.) His findings are stark. According to his “Guide to Complementary and Alternative Medicine”, around 95% of the treatments he and his colleagues examined—in fields as diverse as acupuncture, herbal medicine, homeopathy and reflexology—are statistically indistinguishable from placebo treatments. In only 5% of cases was there either a clear benefit above and beyond a placebo (there is, for instance, evidence suggesting that St John’s Wort, a herbal remedy, can help with mild depression), or even just a hint that something interesting was happening to suggest that further research might be warranted.

It was, at times, a lonely experience. Money was hard to come by. Practitioners of alternative medicine became increasingly reluctant to co-operate as the negative results piled up (a row in 2005 with an alternative-medicine lobby group founded by Prince Charles did not help), while traditional medical-research bodies saw investigations into things like Ayurvedic healing as a waste of time.

Yet Dr Ernst believes his work helps address a serious public-health problem. He points out that conventional medicines must be shown to be both safe and efficacious before they can be licensed for sale. That is rarely true of alternative treatments, which rely on a mixture of appeals to tradition and to the “natural” wholesomeness of their products to reassure consumers. That explains why, for instance, some homeopaths can market treatments for malaria, despite a lack of evidence to suggest that such treatments work, or why some chiropractors can claim to cure infertility.

Think about it. 95% of such treatments were shown to be ineffective, and of the other 5%, there might only be "a hint that something interesting was happening." That's a far cry from actually being an effective treatment.

There are at least three things to take from this:

First, real medicine has to demonstrate, under strict controls, that it actually works - and works better than a placebo. I don't care how much money the pharmaceutical industry has - and yes, money always has influence - they've still got to get through stringent scientific trials. Those trials won't always work as intended, but they're still the best way we've ever discovered at separating the wheat from the chaff.

Second, complementary and alternative medicine, and "natural" supplements and the like, generally get a free pass on showing that they actually do anything worthwhile. That's because they're popular (faith-based thinking is clearly dominant, at least here in America), and politicians will usually bend over backward for anything popular.

But that's why they can continue to sell stuff - billions of dollars worth - that has not been shown to be effective and that, indeed, has frequently been proven to be completely worthless. Except as a placebo, of course. Homeopathy, for example, has never been shown to work, but belief is a powerful thing. And, of course, there's a lot of money behind this industry, too.

And third, keep in mind that the placebo effect also works with real medicine. When you take aspirin, you get the pain reliever in aspirin along with the placebo effect of taking the pills. If you think that Aleve or Tylenol work better than aspirin, they probably will. But at least part of that will be because of the placebo effect.

I don't know which pain reliever actually works best in clinical trials, and I suspect there's some individual variation, anyway. But if you find one you think works better than the others, it probably will. That's because - partly, at least - the placebo effect will be greater with that one. Yes, the placebo effect is part of what makes real medicine effective, too.

Funny, isn't it? But always keep in mind that taking real medicine has benefits in addition to just the placebo effect. With real medicine, you do get the placebo effect, but also more than that. Personally, I don't like being scammed out of my money. And I don't like to feel gullible, in any case. So I always want to use what's been demonstrated, in careful scientific research, to actually work.

And you know? I'd like to see complementary and alternative medicine required to follow the same rules as real medicine. If you claim it works, then demonstrate that. If it really does work, you should be able to do that, right?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

After the Rapture

Oh, well, what are you going to do? I guess I'll have to go mow the lawn now.

No, I certainly wasn't expecting to be raptured myself. But really, if the world was ending, I'd hardly have to keep my lawn neat, wouldn't you think?

Well, I suppose there might have been a downside to it, too, huh?

Rapture update

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Nothing yet

Germ theory denialism

Incredible, isn't it? It makes me wonder if the Flat Earth Society isn't just a joke, after all, as I've always assumed.

"A healthy strong body well nourished and properly exercised will easily be able to fight off just about any germ that invades its body without the need for magic elixirs." Yeah, right. Tell that to the millions of native Americans who died from European diseases. Or didn't they get enough exercise, then? Tell that to polio victims. Oh, we solved that problem, didn't we?

This video shows a couple of things that are key to rational skepticism. First, note that people can be smart about some things but very stupid about others. Bill Maher is a perfect example. That's why we skeptics don't have dogma and don't rely upon faith in our leaders. Anyone can be wrong, sometimes stupidly wrong.

Argument from authority is a logical fallacy, and this is a great example why. You can agree with Bill Maher about many things - I do - but any skeptic must recognize that he's batshit crazy when it comes to others. And Maher isn't alone in that, not at all.

Second, note that you can find pretty much anything on the internet, so if you go looking for confirmation, you're likely to find whatever you want to find. Since it's human nature to believe what you really want to believe, what fits with your existing opinions, a person searching for knowledge is likely to just confirm what he already thinks.

Funny, isn't it? These two problems are equal, but opposite. If you can't believe authority, but you also can't believe what you find for yourself, what can you do?

Well, when it comes to scientific issues, you really need to understand the scientific method. The scientific method, you see, is designed to overcome our problems with human nature. It's not perfect, but it's easily the best way we've ever discovered of determining the truth.

For us laymen, the key thing to remember is probably that it doesn't matter what any individual scientist says. Scientists are people, too, and they can have all the flaws of the rest of us. No, it's the scientific consensus - and, more precisely, the consensus of the experts in that particular field (a scientist outside his field of expertise is little better than any layman) - that we should accept.

Naturally, our acceptance is provisional, as all science is provisional. If the scientific consensus changes - which is rare, but does happen - then our thinking should change with it. Science isn't about proof, except in the old sense of "proving" - i.e. testing - the data. But that actually means you can be more sure the scientific consensus is right, not less.

So, when it comes to the germ theory of disease (I don't have to tell you what "theory" means, do I?), we should accept the consensus of medical researchers. When it comes to evolution, we should accept the consensus of biologists. When it comes to global warming, we should accept the consensus of climatologists.

For us laymen, choosing to believe anything other than the scientific consensus is just picking what you want to believe. The scientific consensus may be wrong, of course, but that's not the way to bet. Choosing to believe a politician, a media figure, or an individual scientist over the consensus of the experts is simply wishful-thinking.

What about when it comes to non-scientific issues? Well, that's harder, but the same principles apply. Argument from authority is still erroneous, but it's very hard for non-experts to decide who to believe. But often, there's still a consensus of people who are experts.

On matters of history, there's usually a consensus among professional historians. Choosing to believe a rogue amateur historian like David Barton is just picking what you want to believe. There's often a consensus among professional economists, too, though that may be harder to determine. In a case like that, the best you can do might be to just listen to diverse arguments.

And then there's theology. What about that? Well, in matters of theology, there's clearly no consensus. Really, nothing could be more obvious than that, since every single religion on Earth is a minority position.

Furthermore, the missionary impulse is paramount in most religions. The goal isn't to discover the truth, since every believer thinks he already knows the truth (even though it's completely different from what's just as firmly believed by most other believers). No, the goal is to persuade other people that those beliefs are true.

So professional theologians might know more about what historical figures have written about religion, but as to whether any of it is true or not,... not so much. If it were otherwise, there would actually be a consensus on this stuff. And that's why religion is based on faith, not evidence - and why skeptics should remain skeptical about all of it.

But in matters about this world, the real world, there are ways we can minimize our chances of being wrong. Germ theory denialism, like global warming denialism and evolution denialism, demonstrates the wrong way of choosing positions. In scientific issues like this, choosing anything but the scientific consensus is just picking what you want to believe, rather than what is (very likely) true.

And it doesn't matter whether it's the right-wing's refusal to accept the consensus on global warming or the far left's touching faith in homeopathy or natural foods. Whatever your political persuasion, you need to accept science, even when you'd prefer to believe otherwise. And the only way to do that is to accept the scientific consensus.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Everybody Draw Mohammed Day

Yes, this is the second annual Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.

I'm not an artist myself - I mean I'm really not an artist (in grade school, I drew a picture of a woman that my classmates thought was a gorilla) - so I thought I'd just include the above link to submissions by others. (Clearly, many of them aren't artists, either!)

What's the point? Well, basically, you can believe anything you want, but you can't force everyone else to believe it, too.

The whole prohibition on drawing Mohammed is especially ridiculous. Apparently, it's not even in the Koran. And the idea was to avoid worshiping a graven image, basically to keep believers from worshiping Mohammed instead of Allah.

But I'm not Muslim, so there's absolutely no danger of me worshiping Mohammed! And this hysteria over cartoons and drawings of Mohammed just shows that Muslims have indeed turned to worshiping him. It's funny, but this whole controversy just demonstrates what the prohibition was meant to prevent in the first place.

Well, I suppose it's just human nature, huh? At least, it seems to be natural for believers. (I can't say I really worship anything, though I do love, of course.)

At any rate, Everybody Draw Mohammed Day is intended to support freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Governments and corporations have been hopeless cowards on this issue, so it's up to individuals to stand up for what's right. You have the right to believe whatever you want. And you have the right to say what you want, with only very, very narrow restrictions to protect public safety and privacy.

You do not have the right to not have your feelings hurt. You do not have the right to force everyone else to believe as you do. You do not have the right to even demand respect.

The answer to free speech is more free speech. If you don't like what you see and hear, then you can express that opinion - peacefully - just like I can express my opinion. Does my opinion differ from yours? Too bad. Your opinion differs from mine, but you don't see me behaving like a mindless barbarian. If you don't like what I write here, leave me a comment.

For the most part, Christianity has learned to live with freedom of speech and freedom of religion. And note that those freedoms - including the strict separation of church and state - haven't hurt Christianity in America in the slightest.

Well, the vast majority of American Muslims understand that, I'm sure (better than many Christians do, since Muslims are such a minority here). But overseas, most Muslims live in primitive societies ruled by dictatorial regimes. They haven't had any experience with civil rights. (No, that doesn't excuse them, not when it comes to violence.)

And it seems to be the nature of many, if not most, true believers to want to force their beliefs on others. In America, Christians have been chipping away at the separation between church and state for more than 200 years. Luckily, other Americans - Christian and non-Christian alike - have resisted abandoning our cherished freedoms.

But those freedoms are always at risk. It requires eternal vigilance, and it's not easy. This isn't much, but I try to do my part. What about you?

Catholic bishops: Blame it on those damned hippies

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Apparently, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, priests raped children - and the Catholic Church covered it up, even helping them find new victims - because of "free-love in the 1960s." Oh, it's all so clear now.

It's funny, though. I lived through the 1960s, but I completely missed that part about abusing children. Certainly, I missed out on Prieststock. I guess I never realized how the Catholic Church was leading the hippie movement back then.

But I suppose they must have been keeping it a secret, huh? Kind of like what they did for priests raping children?

Of course, those dirty hippies weren't the only problem. Poor training of priests "contributed" to the problem. Well, how is a priest supposed to know he's not supposed to molest children? Really, were they just supposed to guess that was wrong?

As we all know, human beings have to be specifically prohibited from an action by God, or else there's no telling what we might do. This is a perfect example. The Catholic Church - not God, but clearly speaking for God - didn't tell priests they shouldn't rape children, so why wouldn't they? Thankfully, the church now recognizes that was an unfortunate oversight in their training program.

Problem fixed, huh?

I guess we don't need Donald Trump

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OK, so I was wrong. With Newt Gingrich in the race, I guess we don't need Donald Trump after all.

Morgellons disease

Here's an interesting article in The Seattle Times:
They complain of mysterious, creepy symptoms: bugs — or some form of infestation — crawling beneath their skin, sometimes burrowing to the surface, leaving odd specks and colored filaments in their wake.

They have flocked to websites to share details of their malady, which they call Morgellons disease; they have charged the medical community with ignoring their plight and have strong-armed the government into studying it.

They go from doctor to doctor, carrying specimens in Ziploc bags and on glass slides, desperate to find a physical cause.

Now a Mayo Clinic study reviewing samples provided by 108 such patients, published Monday in the Archives of Dermatology, has concluded that the perceived infestation exists only in their minds.

Although one patient who consulted dermatologists for Morgellons was found to have pubic lice, microscopic examination showed that none of the remaining 107 patients — who were seen over a seven-year period ending in 2007 — had any evidence of infestation by bugs or parasites, despite their firm conviction that they did.

Instead, the authors concluded, the rashes, eruptions and skin ulcerations patients suffered were either mundane skin conditions that gave rise to delusions of infestation, or the result of sufferers scratching or picking at their skin to make it go away.

And the fibers and filaments so often described and offered as evidence of infestation were, upon microscopic examination, skin flakes, scabs, hair, lint, textile fiber and everyday debris.

I sympathize with these people. But this kind of thing seems to be more common than ever. People imagine something worrisome, so they start to dwell on it. That makes the symptoms worse. And with the internet these days, you can almost always find someone else with the same delusion, no matter what it might be.

Outside the political arena, we've seen it most prominently with believers in a vaccine-autism link. Autism is real, of course, and a link with vaccines wasn't necessarily a ridiculous idea. But it turned out to be based on fake research. It turned out to be completely bogus. Yet the true believers refuse to accept that, no matter what. They are so convinced they are right that nothing will change their minds.

The human mind is a complex thing. Incidents of mass hysteria have never been uncommon, but with the internet, these things don't even have to be localized geographically anymore. And some people are just naturally fantasy-prone. Some people are more gullible than others. Some are naturally more skeptical and some less.

If you've ever seen a stage hypnotist, you'll know that some people are better subjects than others. A stage hypnotist generally gathers a bunch of people from the audience, and then quickly identifies the best for his purposes. There's almost always someone who's very susceptible to suggestion. Well, that includes self-hypnosis, too.

And it's also the case that doctors often act like they don't really care. They're busy, and they can't spend much time with each patient. Frequently, they don't even seem willing to listen to a complaint. Or it seems to the patient that they leap to a diagnosis without even thinking about it. Going to a doctor can be a very frustrating experience.

Providers of alternative medicine, on the other hand, may not actually do anything useful but listen sympathetically. That placebo effect is quite powerful, though. Homeopathic preparations might be nothing but pure water, but if you think they're supposed to do something, you still might feel better.

And spinal manipulation might do nothing to fix your hangnail or cure your headaches, but a chiropractor is likely to listen to you and to act like he cares. And since pain is subjective, that might actually help, too. (I don't mean to imply that chiropractors don't do anything useful, but very few of them limit themselves to what they can usefully affect.)

But this is why the scientific method is so crucial in medicine. Double-blind testing is essential to determine what works and what just makes people think it's working. Sugar pills might actually "work," but it's just the placebo effect. Real medicine must be shown to work better than placebos.

And what do they call alternative medicine that actually works better than a placebo? Medicine.

Well, I just think this article is interesting, because it shows how powerful our minds are. It shows how we can even imagine maladies that don't exist. I'm certain that these people were suffering, but they weren't suffering from anything real. It was all in their minds.

It's also a cautionary tale. It shows the importance of maintaining a skeptical, scientific mindset. Just because you can find other people who believe the same things you do, that doesn't mean they're real. You can find almost anything on the internet these days. The trouble is determining what to believe.

It's very, very easy to believe what you want to believe. That's the case for all of us. Yes, it applies to skeptics as much as to anyone else. But skeptics understand that and try to compensate for it. Skeptics know that the scientific method was developed to help counter that natural inclination. They understand how it works and why, though it's far from perfect, it's the best way to determine the truth.

This won't keep you from ever being wrong. But it will help you be right more often. It will help keep your imagination from running away with you. An imagination is a great thing, but you have to keep it under control. Just because you can imagine something, that doesn't mean that it's real.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

QOTD: And then the shitstorm rolled in

Quote of the Day:
My graduation from high school is this Friday. I live in the Bible Belt of the United States. The school was going to perform a prayer at graduation, but due to me sending the superintendent an email stating it was against Louisiana state law and that I would be forced to contact the ACLU if they ignored me, they ceased it. The school backed down, but that's when the shitstorm rolled in. Everyone is trying to get it back in the ceremony now. I'm not worried about it, but everyone hates me... kind of worried about attending graduation now. It's attracted more hostility than I thought.

My reasoning behind it is that it's emotionally stressing on anyone who isn't Christian. No one else wanted to stand up for their constitutional right of having freedom of and FROM religion. I was also hoping to encourage other atheists to come out and be heard. I'm one of maybe three atheists in this town that I currently know of. One of the others is afraid to come out of the (atheist) closet.

Though I've caused my classmates to hate me, I feel like I've done the right thing. Regardless of their thoughts on it, basically saying I am ruining their fun and their lives, I feel like I've helped someone out there. I didn't do this for me or just atheists, but anyone who doesn't believe in their god that prayer to Yahweh may affect.

Moral of the story: though the opposition may be great, majority doesn't necessarily mean right. Thank you for reading. Wish me luck at graduation.

EDIT: Well, it hit the fan a couple hours ago. They've already assembled a group of supporters at a local church and called in the newspaper. I've had to deactivate my Facebook account and I can't reason with any of them. They refuse to listen. The whole town hates me, aside from a few closet atheists that are silently supporting, which I don't blame them looking at what I've incited here. Thanks for the support though. - Damon Fowler

A second chance to make a first impression,... and Newt Gingrich blew it!

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I posted a little about this on Tuesday, but I thought Jon Stewart did a great job, as usual.

It's kind of funny. In the Democratic Party, politicians are eager to show their independence from the Democratic base. But in the Republican Party, any deviation from dogma is heresy and any criticism of the extremists in their base, however mild, will get you crucified.

In both cases, politicians could use a little more courage, don't you think? But then, I guess we tend to get the kinds of politicians we deserve.

Stephen Colbert covered this same topic here. He includes Gingrich's flip-flop on individual mandates, which I also mentioned Tuesday.

Newt has barely begun his campaign, and already he's dug himself a couple of deep holes. Jeebus, Michele Bachmann is almost seeming smart in comparison, just by keeping her mouth firmly shut. (But, of course, it won't stay shut. We all know that, any day now, she's bound to open it wide enough to insert her foot.)

Of course, Gingrich's big problem in both cases is that he simply told the truth. Individual mandates are critical for health care reform, as even Republicans recognized when this was their health care plan. And destroying Medicare is right-wing social engineering at its worst, designed by libertarian fanatics and pushed by the extremists who've taken control of the GOP.

But those truths are unwelcome in the Republican Party, and Newt still has to get the nomination. So look for him - and all the other candidates - to hew to the party line, no matter how ridiculous it is, at least until the nomination is decided. And that's going to give the Democrats plenty of ammunition, if they're only smart enough and aggressive enough to take advantage of it.

Or will they just blow it, as usual? I'm not confident in the Democrats being anything but hopelessly inept when it comes to politics. Well, that's the good thing about pessimism. At least I don't have to worry about being unpleasantly surprised.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wonderful world?

Thanks, Jim, for sending me this one! It's great!

"Betrayer" by C. J. Cherryh

Betrayer is the 12th in C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner series, a continuation of the story from Deceiver. (Yeah, I don't know what's up with these titles, either. I have no idea who the "betrayer" in this book is actually supposed to be.)

This isn't a standalone book, not at all. If you're not already a fan of the series, you need to start with Foreigner and read the whole series in order. This book is even less standalone than most, since it starts immediately where the previous left off, with Bren and his bodyguard already guests/captives of Machigi, lord of the Taisigin Marid.

Since you really can't read this book without already knowing what it's about, I'm going to skip all that. Read my review of Deceiver if you're curious about the series. (It really is one of the best.) I complained that the previous book stopped abruptly. Well, this one is just the continuation of that story.

At 328 pages, it's shorter than the other books, and it actually seems shorter than that. Really, not too much happens in this book. Much time is spent on a long trek across country, on foot, with Bren struggling with boredom, as well as fear. No, I wasn't struggling with boredom myself, not quite, but I did have to wonder what was up with that. Is Cherryh running out of new things to tell us?

Like the last few books, this one is split between Bren and Cajeiri, the young son of the atevi leader, and that alone has kept the series fresh. I've got to think that we've learned all we can about Bren and his associates. And while there are still new developments in atevi society - which is really quite a remarkable achievement - it's Cajeiri and the whole process of growing up atevi that's been most interesting recently.

That said, there's not too much new in that part of the book, either - some, certainly, but not much. If you look at Deceiver and Betrayer together, they make a very good story (and maybe I should add in Conspirator, since Cherryh seems to write this series in trilogies). But Betrayer by itself is a bit short of content.

I certainly can't complain about this series, and not even about the recent books, not really. But I have to wonder how much more Cherryh can tell us about her characters and her world. If she does intend to continue with the series - and I'm not so sure that she should - I'd suggest switching the focus entirely to Cajeiri.

And if she does that, she might move things along a little quicker. These last three books take place in a very short period of time. That means that Cajeiri doesn't get a chance to grow much older. Of course, we still get a good look at him from this snapshot. And he's at the age where he really is changing rather quickly

Hmm,... I'm not telling you much about this particular book, am I? Well, there's just not much to tell. You'll want to read it if you're a fan of the series, but that's mostly in order to conclude Deceiver. I was very pleased with that book, and so I was glad to see those events wrapped up in this one. But I can't say too much about Betrayer by itself, because it really doesn't stand by itself.

If you want to know the truth, I think Cherryh should have make Deceiver a little longer and concluded the story there. There really isn't enough happening here for a separate book, and it feels a little padded to make it long enough to be published separately.

The best thing I can say is that Cherryh hasn't run out of new things to tell us. After twelve books, that's really quite remarkable. Betrayer is a decent conclusion of the fourth Foreigner trilogy, but it is a conclusion, so nothing much new happens. On the other hand, it really doesn't feel like the conclusion of the series.

So I don't think you'll be blown away by Betrayer, or even consider it one of the more noteworthy books in the series. It's good, but I have this nagging feeling that it could have been better. And that's not what I expect from any book by C. J. Cherryh.

America needs Donald Trump

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I'm not a comedian, but I sympathize. Without Trump, what's left? Well, there's Newt Gingrich, of course. And Rick Santorum. And T-Paw. And let's never forget Michele Bachmann. OK, OK, we don't really need Donald Trump for comic relief, I guess.

In fact, it might be nice to see one Republican candidate who wasn't a complete joke. But I'm still going to miss the Donald.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

All good jokes must end

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We all knew Donald Trump wouldn't stick it out for long. His candidacy has been a joke from beginning to end, a way to publicize Donald Trump, and just incidentally, as Indecision Forever put it, "a race-baiting manipulation of the country's basest instincts."

Then again, you could say the same thing about most of the Republican candidates. Still, Trump was never a serious candidate, except perhaps in Trump's own mind (and I have my doubts even about that).

Mike Huckabee, though, is different. Huckabee is a dangerous theocrat who's as loony as they get, but also smooth. If you don't know much about him, he can seem reasonable. He scares me more than most of the Republicans, because I think he'd have a lot better chance of getting elected. And then we'd really be in trouble!

But note that he said he wouldn't run for president this year. I suspect that Huckabee just doesn't like the odds of running against a sitting president, especially one with the campaign skills of Barack Obama. Yeah, it's a very weak Republican field, which would make it easier to win the primary. But then there's that general election...

So I suspect that Huckabee plans to wait until 2016, when there won't be an incumbent in the White House. Meanwhile, he'll keep campaigning, with the help of his TV show and the rest of Fox "News."

And that's the other thing. Huckabee is making big bucks on Fox - maybe not as much as Sarah Palin, but certainly not chickenfeed, either. And he has a platform for pushing whatever he wants, which also keeps him in the limelight. Why risk all that, especially now, when he can ride the gravy train for another four years or so and probably have a much better chance then?

That's certainly why Sarah Palin isn't running. Of course, in her case, I doubt if she'll ever run, not as long as she's making the big bucks on Fox (and with her relentless self-promotion elsewhere). After all, that's why she quit as governor half-way through her first term. The money is just too big a draw for her. And it's a pretty big draw for Huckabee, too, I'm sure.

Well, I'm happy enough to see Huckabee drop out. Who knows? Maybe America will take a few steps towards sanity in the next four years. Yeah, maybe the horse will learn to sing.

I'll miss the Donald, though. Sure there's plenty of insanity among the rest of the GOP candidates, but Trump just seemed so very proud of his. And as Johann Hari said, Trump was every trend in Republican politics taken to its logical conclusion. Well, I would have said its most absurd conclusion, but no matter. With Trump, you really see what you're getting when you vote Republican.

However, we've still got Newt, don't we? This week, he contradicted himself from one day to the next:
"I agree that all of us have a responsibility to help pay for health care. And I think that there are ways to do it that make most libertarians relatively happy. I've said consistently, where there's some requirement you either have health insurance or you post a bond or in some way you indicate you're going to be held accountable."

-- Newt Gingrich, on Meet the Press yesterday, acknowledging his previous support of the individual mandate.

"I am completely opposed to the ObamaCare mandate on individuals. I fought it for two and a half years."

-- Gingrich, in a video released today.

That was impressive, even for a Republican. Usually, they take a few weeks before contradicting themselves:
During an appearance on Meet the Press yesterday, 2012 presidential candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) called Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) proposal to transform Medicare into a “premium support” system for future retirees “too big a jump” and suggested that the reform was tantamount to “right-wing social engineering.”

The comments come just weeks after Gingrich praised Ryan for being a “brave” “man of ideas.” Asked by Time’s Jay Newton-Small if he would have voted for the GOP budget, Gingrich responded, “Sure.” “I think it’s the first step,” he added. “You need an entirely new set of solutions.”

And with Michele Bachmann in the campaign, we'll never be short of crazy. Still, I'm going to miss Donald Trump even more than Haley Barbour, and for much the same reason. They're both living embodiments of Republicanism.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The filter bubble

All of these TED talks are interesting, but I thought this one by Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, was particularly important.

And it's interesting that he got a standing ovation from the VIPs at the talk, including some of the top executives from Google, Facebook, and the other internet gatekeepers he criticizes.

"Among Others" by Jo Walton

Among Others is a remarkable book aimed squarely at classic science fiction fans like me. Oddly, it's a fantasy itself. But then, science fiction and fantasy have always been inextricably mixed.

The protagonist is a 15-year-old crippled girl, who's run away from her evil witch of a mother and ends up attending an English boarding school. Books, especially science fiction, are her love and her refuge, and since the story is set in 1979, they tend to be the classics I, too, know and love.

And she sees fairies. She works magic. I don't know. Often, while reading this book, I wished that Jo Walton had skipped the fantasy part of it. It's not that the fantasy isn't interesting. It's just that I enjoyed the rest of it so much that I guess I resented being reminded that it's just fiction.

Walton clearly loves the same books I do. I've read most of the books her character mentions (although some of them are a bit vague in my mind after all these years), and I recognized most of the rest. In a few cases, I didn't recognize the title or the author, and I wanted to stop right there and try to find a copy.

Mori, her character, even dislikes the same books I do, more or less. But she loves the genre. As she writes in her diary, "One of the things I've always liked about science fiction is the way it makes you think about things, and look at things from angles you'd never have thought about before." Exactly!

The book is written as diary entries, beginning - after a brief prologue - the day before her arrival at a posh boarding school. Through these entries, we slowly learn of what's happened in the past, as well as what's going on in her life. And there are all sorts of digressions, mostly about books or that connect what she's read to her current circumstance:
I would have made much greater sacrifices. I was prepared to die, and Mor did die. I should think of it as a war-wound, an old soldier's scars. Frodo lost a finger, and all his own possibility of happiness. Tolkien understood about the things that happen after the end. Because this is after the end, this is all the Scouring of the Shire, this is figuring out how to live in the time that wasn't supposed to happen after the glorious last stand. I saved the world, or I think I did, and look, the world is still here, with sunsets and interlibrary loans. And it doesn't care about me any more than the Shire cared about Frodo. But that doesn't matter.

The early part of the book is wonderful. I actually wanted to read it slowly, to think about everything and to savor the experience. Then, about half-way through the book, Mori joins a science fiction reading group, and her interaction with other SF fans really speaks to me, too. I belong to the Classic Science Fiction group online, and it's really the same way. I've never met any of the members face to face, but we love the same kinds of things. And we get into huge discussions about books, with many different opinions, but everyone expects disagreement, even welcomes it.

Book-lovers understand that not everyone likes the same thing. Tastes differ. And when it comes to fiction, it's all subjective. Everyone's opinion is just as valid as anyone else's. But we all share that love for reading, and in particular, that love for science fiction. Mori discovers the same thing in her karass.

Later in the book, I thought the story dragged just a bit. I can't complain too much about that, and indeed, I was quite satisfied with the ending. The fantasy part, too, worked out well. I still wonder if it would have worked better as science fiction itself or, indeed, just as an experience in the real world. But that's nitpicking, it really is.

If you love to read, and especially if you love to read classic science fiction, this book is probably for you. I've read other books that celebrate reading, like Silverlock by John Myers Myers, but this one really hit the perfect target with me. Maybe that won't be the case with you, but maybe it will.

Here's another sample:
     "It would be money down the drain. I just can't do it. It would be like teaching a horse to sing."
     "Do you know the story about that?" he asked, turning his head, and incidentally blowing smoke at me, yuck.
     "Don't kill me, give me a year, and I'll teach your horse to sing. Anything might happen in a year, the king might die, I might die, or the horse might learn to sing." I summarised. It's in The Mote in God's Eye, which is probably why it was in his mind.
     "It's a story about procrastination," Daniel said, as if he was the world's expert in procrastination.
     "It's a story about hope," I said. "We don't know what happened at the end of the year."
     "If the horse had learned to sing, we'd know."
     "It might have become the origin of the Centaur legend. It might have gone to Narnia, taking the man with it. It might have become the ancestor of Caligula's horse Incitatus who he made a senator. There might have been a whole tribe of singing horses and Incitatus was their bid for equality, only it all went wrong."
     Daniel gave me a very strange look, and I wished I'd saved this for people who would appreciate it.

If you appreciated that, you might appreciate this book, too. I did.

QOTD: Confused about the nature of the problem

Quote of the Day:
Many of our secular critics worry that if we oblige people to choose between reason and faith, they will choose faith and cease to support scientific research; if, on the other hand, we ceaselessly reiterate that there is no conflict between religion and science, we might cajole great multitudes into accepting the truth of evolution (as though this were an end in itself). Here is a version of this charge that, I fear, most people would accept, taken from journalist Chris Mooney and marine biologist Sheril Kirshenbaum’s book Unscientific America:
If the goal is to create an America more friendly toward science and reason, the combativeness of the New Atheists is strongly counterproductive. If anything, they work in ironic combination with their dire enemies, the anti-science conservative Christians who populate the creation science and intelligent design movements, to ensure we’ll continue to be polarized over subjects like the teaching of evolution when we don’t have to be. America is a very religious nation, and if forced to choose between faith and science, vast numbers of Americans will select the former. The New Atheists err in insisting that such a choice needs to be made. Atheism is not the logically inevitable outcome of scientific reasoning, any more than intelligent design is a necessary corollary of religious faith. A great many scientists believe in God with no sense of internal contradiction, just as many religious believers accept evolution as the correct theory to explain the development, diversity, and inter-relatedness of life on Earth. The New Atheists, like the fundamentalists they so despise, are setting up a false dichotomy that can only damage the cause of scientific literacy for generations to come. It threatens to leave science itself caught in the middle between extremes, unable to find cover in a destructive, seemingly unending, culture war.

The first thing to observe is that Mooney and Kirshenbaum are confused about the nature of the problem. The goal is not to get more Americans to merely accept the truth of evolution (or any other scientific theory); the goal is to get them to value the principles of reasoning and educated discourse that now make a belief in evolution obligatory. Doubt about evolution is merely a symptom of an underlying condition; the condition is faith itself — conviction without sufficient reason, hope mistaken for knowledge, bad ideas protected from good ones, good ideas obscured by bad ones, wishful thinking elevated to a principle of salvation, etc. Mooney and Kirshenbaum seem to imagine that we can get people to value intellectual honesty by lying to them.

While it is invariably advertised as an expression of “respect” for people of faith, the accommodationism that Mooney and Kirshenbaum recommend is nothing more than naked condescension, motivated by fear. They assure us that people will choose religion over science, no matter how good a case is made against religion. In certain contexts, this fear is probably warranted. I wouldn’t be eager to spell out the irrationality of Islam while standing in the Great Mosque in Mecca. But let’s be honest about how Mooney and Kirshenbaum view public discourse in the United States: Watch what you say, or the Christian mob will burn down the Library of Alexandria all over again. By comparison, the “combativeness” of the “New Atheists” seems quite collegial. We are merely guilty of assuming that our fellow Homo sapiens possess the requisite intelligence and emotional maturity to respond to rational argument, satire, and ridicule on the subject of religion — just as they respond to these discursive pressures on all other subjects. Of course, we could be wrong. But let’s admit which side in this debate currently views our neighbors as dangerous children and which views them as adults who might prefer not to be completely mistaken about the nature of reality. - Sam Harris