Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The last fishing boat on Lake Michigan

Here's a depressing article in the Los Angeles Times about the end of commercial fishing on Lake Michigan:
Today, for the first time since the 1800s, there are no commercial fishing boats operating out of Milwaukee.

The boats are gone because the fish are gone.

The lake appears from the shore as blue and beautiful as ever, but that's not the lake Dan Anderson sees through eyes creased and scorched from decades spent on the water and under the sun.

He sees a liquid desert. ...

This was once the wild, wooded Northwest, and the lake harbored one of the most spectacular freshwater fisheries in the world. Plump lake trout reigned atop a food web loaded with species such as perch, sturgeon, lake herring, whitefish and chubs.

As the article states, by 1900, commercial fishermen were hauling 41 million pounds of fish out of the lake every year. Through overfishing and pollution, the catch declined dramatically, but the real kiss of death for the lake was the invasion of quagga mussels, brought in the ballast water of ocean-going freighters.

Unfortunately, this is just one small sample of what's happening worldwide. In particular, we're rapidly destroying our oceans. Overfishing - and the use of fishing techniques that destroy as much as they catch - pollution, acidification (from increased amounts of carbon dioxide in the air),... it's really a combination of factors.

But the result is going to be catastrophic. As much food as we used to pull from Lake Michigan, it's a drop in the bucket compared to ocean catches. And because we're not fishing sustainably, sooner or later it will collapse.

We've already seen collapsing fish stocks of one species after another, but what do we do when the whole ocean is filled with jellyfish and little else? We're looking at a future of widespread starvation for people around the planet who depend on fishing for survival.

We know it's coming, and we're doing little or nothing to prevent it. What does that say about us?

Of course, Republicans want to gut the Environmental Protection Agency and end pretty much all governmental regulations. As you know, corporations will just naturally do the right thing. (Yeah, how'd that work out with mortgage banks?)

In fact, we should have had stronger regulations. Maybe then, there'd still be fish to catch in Lake Michigan.

Non-Belief, Pt. 7: Conversion

[I haven't written one of these for awhile, but if you're interested, the whole series is here.]

Since childhood, I've been fascinated by the mindset of Christians - and of religious believers in general. How could they think like that? Why were we so different?

As I described previously, I remember believing in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but there seemed to be evidence of them. I never saw any evidence - not even poor evidence - of a god. But everyone I knew believed.

I'm sure I must have believed what I was told at some point, when I was very young, though I don't remember it. Well, our memories aren't exactly reliable, are they? Likewise, I don't remember discussing this with anyone else, not until I was in high school. Maybe I did, but I don't remember it.

I do remember bull sessions in high school, where I tried to understand the religious mindset. Why did they believe in any god, and the Christian God in particular?

"It says so in the Bible." But, come on! It says something different in the Koran, so why don't you believe that? You're not a Christian because you believe what's written in the Bible. You believe what's written in the Bible because you're a Christian.

"Where did everything come from if God didn't create the universe?" But the correct answer to unknowns is "I don't know," not "God must have done it." And if something really can't come from nothing, then where did God come from?

"God," as an answer, really doesn't answer anything. Furthermore, don't you need actual, positive evidence of a god, not just "what else could it be?" I don't know what else it could be, but that doesn't imply anything about what it actually is.

In fact, science has long been chipping away at these questions, showing time and time again that a question has a perfectly natural explanation. And thereafter, "God" has had to retreat,... but only from that particular question and only very, very reluctantly.

But doesn't the fact that believers were wrong about the sun being a god driving a golden chariot across the sky, and that they were wrong about disease being caused by demons sent from Satan, and that they've been wrong about everything we've determined, so far, to have a natural explanation - and that not one single time have we seen the reverse, a natural explanation that turned out to have a supernatural one, instead - doesn't that imply that you're wrong in how you believe in the first place?

I'm not talking so much about what you believe as in how you believe it. Just as even a stopped clock is right twice a day, you might well stumble across a correct answer by accident. But should you count on that? Believing by faith is the wrong way to believe. It's simply believing what you've been told and believing what you want to believe. If you really want the truth, you need to used evidence-based thinking.

As I say, I've never understood the religious mindset, and I certainly don't now. And so, religion fascinates me. The religious mindset fascinates me. I've never understood how people can think this way. How can you believe by faith, rather than through evidence? It's so alien to me that it's absolutely fascinating.

In our high school bull sessions, I never convinced anyone to my point of view. But some people do change their minds. Most atheists and agnostics, in fact, were once religious believers - usually Christians, at least here in America.

I see lots of that on YouTube. The first speaker at the Oklahoma Freethought Convention, Dr. William Morgan, was actually one of the founding faculty at Oral Roberts University. Matt Dillahunty, on The Atheist Experience, was a believer into his late 30s, I believe. Most of the atheists I encounter here in America come from a Christian background (as I do), but grew up actually believing it.

And that fascinates me, too, because that experience is so different from my own. Oh, sure, I must have believed in God at some age, I suppose. But if so, it wasn't for very long. Really, that never made any sense to me. So I didn't have any kind of traumatic struggle, as these former-believers must have had, to change my mind.

How difficult must it be to finally decide that you've been wrong, that what you've believed your entire life - because you were taught from infancy to believe it - was not actually true? OK, this might not be too difficult in adolescence, but many atheists were fully adult before they stopped believing in God. By then, for most people, you tend to be pretty well fixed in your basic mindset.

It's not just an internal struggle, either. Almost invariably, these people had Christian family members - parents, grandparents, spouse - who would be deeply upset by such a change. And most of them socialized within their church, too, so their friends tended to be believers. How do you find the courage to upset all that? It can't be easy.

And why do you do it? Why not try to pretend you still believe? Why not just hide your doubts? Indeed, why recognize your doubts at all? Human beings are social animals. We want to fit in. And it's usually even easier to fool yourself than to fool other people. So why not just do that?

As I say, this fascinates me. I didn't have to go through this, so I don't know what it's like for other people. But it can't be easy. It must take a lot of courage. And so I'm fascinated with the stories of those who've thrown off their early conditioning and embraced reality (as I see it, of course).

(Note: There used to be a YouTube series by "LovingDoubt" which described this painful journey in detail. Sadly, she never finished it, leaving YouTube and removing all of the videos.)

So how does this happen? Why does it happen? I've been fascinated by this since the internet gave me the opportunity to hear such things. (Even today, I tend not to meet many other atheists in Nebraska, not face to face.) That wasn't my experience, but on YouTube and in blogs, I can learn about your experiences. So what's the common factor in them?

As far as I can tell, it's a sincere respect for the truth. The truth matters to these people. It might be more comforting to believe something else, but they're not willing to do that. Many of these converts to atheism began by trying to refute atheists. They educated themselves specifically to do battle for their God and their church. After all, they were sure they were right, so why should they fear the truth?

Many of them studied the Bible - really studied it. Of course, many believers do that, but mostly through "God Goggles." For most people, it's easy to dismiss or explain away anything that's awkward, while picking out those details that back up what you already believe. And many believers already think that the Bible is mostly metaphor, or that the Old Testament is myth, and only Jesus really matters.

Many of them watched debates on YouTube, or read Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens - just to refute them, of course - and otherwise got exposed to thinking they'd never heard before. But lots of people do that. Only some of them take what they've learned and really think about it. Only some of them pursue the truth no matter where it leads.

As I say, it's really easy to believe what you want to believe. (We skeptics must regularly remind ourselves of that, because we're only human, ourselves.) So I have to say that it takes an exceptional person to pursue the truth in a situation like this. You must really have to value the truth to choose it over peace of mind, over peace in your family, over fitting in. I think that's quite admirable.

And it always fascinates me. The religious mindset fascinates me because it's so different from my own. This conversion from believer to atheist fascinates me because I admire it so much. I can see  how difficult it must be, how much courage it must take to pursue the truth even as it goes where you really don't want to go,... and I really, really admire that. To me, it's fascinating that some people can actually do that, or maybe that they will actually do that.

I never had to worry about that. Religious belief just never made any sense to me. So I had it easy. Most people aren't so lucky.

Note: The rest of this series is here.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Michele Bachmann and Dominionism

This is something of a follow-up to my previous post. Cenk Uygur is absolutely right, but I wish he'd mentioned Rick Perry, not just Michele Bachmann.

I never thought Bachmann had much of a chance at the nomination, and certainly not in the general election. So she doesn't scare me like Perry does. Because Rick Perry is just like her, but he has a much better chance to get the Republican nomination.

And yeah, it's hard to believe we'd actually elect him to the presidency, but remember, we elected George W. Bush twice. Bush was re-elected even when we already knew how bad he was. And with the economy still terrible, there's just no telling how dumb my fellow voters will be (or, for many of them, how apathetic, which is just as bad).

Evangelicals wage spiritual warfare

Jeebus! If you want to be scared silly, read this article at NPR. (Hmm,... this isn't going to make them any more popular with the right-wing, I suspect.)
An emerging Christian movement that seeks to take dominion over politics, business and culture in preparation for the end times and the return of Jesus, is becoming more of a presence in American politics. The leaders are considered apostles and prophets, gifted by God for this role. ...

Two ministries in the movement planned and orchestrated Texas Gov. Rick Perry's recent prayer rally, where apostles and prophets from around the nation spoke or appeared onstage. The event was patterned after The Call, held at locations around the globe and led by Lou Engle, who has served in the Apostolic Council of Prophetic Elders of the NAR. Other NAR apostles endorsed Perry's event, including two who lead a 50-state "prayer warrior" network. Thomas Muthee, the Kenyan pastor who anointed Sarah Palin at the Wasilla Assembly of God Church in 2005, while praying for Jesus to protect her from the spirit of witchcraft, is also part of this movement. ...

[Rachel] Tabachnick says the movement currently works with a variety of politicians and has a presence in all 50 states. It also has very strong opinions about the direction it wants the country to take. For the past several years, she says, the NAR has run a campaign to reclaim what it calls the "seven mountains of culture" from demonic influence. The "mountains" are arts and entertainment; business; family; government; media; religion; and education.

"They teach quite literally that these 'mountains' have fallen under the control of demonic influences in society," says Tabachnick. "And therefore, they must reclaim them for God in order to bring about the kingdom of God on Earth. ... The apostles teach what's called 'strategic level spiritual warfare' [because they believe that the] reason why there is sin and corruption and poverty on the Earth is because the Earth is controlled by a hierarchy of demons under the authority of Satan."

As the article indicates, these people aren't just obsessed with the usual "culture war" issues - gay marriage, abortion, etc. They're also adamantly against Social Security and Medicare. They see "socialism" in everything, and they don't think the government should be providing any social safety nets at all.

I said this is scary, and I meant it, because Rick Perry is currently zooming to the top in the Republican presidential campaign. And Republicans have done a very good job of sabotaging our economic recovery. That, plus an astonishing lack of leadership and... fire from Barack Obama, has made the upcoming presidential contest a real question mark.

Earlier this month, Perry claimed that global warming is just a hoax, with greedy scientists manipulating the data for personal financial gain. (Gee, wouldn't it make more sense for them to sell out to the oil companies?)

Now you might shrug that off as just another politician trying to appeal to the loony, anti-science Republican base. But here's Rick Perry claiming that Social Security is just a "monstrous lie" and a "Ponzi scheme."

Social Security used to be the "third rail" of American politics, and it's still widely supported in America. So when a politician goes after Social Security like this, you can probably assume that (1) he's a true believer, and (2) he doesn't think it's going to hurt his chances of getting elected.

Well, Perry has God on his side, right? And more importantly, he's got a terrible economy on his side - and ignorant Americans eager to believe in miracles, especially when times are bad.

Think George W. Bush - another darling of these evangelical Christians - was bad? Well, Rick Perry is George W. Bush on steroids. We really could be headed for a theocracy in this country, if worse comes to worst.

How dead is dead?

Sometimes, you really have to wonder about people. At least, here's an article in The Economist that really makes me wonder.

Researchers were wondering how people perceive those in a persistent vegetative state, and they stumbled across something rather shocking:
They first asked 201 people stopped in public in New York and New England to answer questions after reading one of three short stories. In all three, a man called David was involved in a car accident and suffered serious injuries. In one, he recovered fully. In another, he died. In the third, his entire brain was destroyed except for one part that kept him breathing. Although he was technically alive, he would never again wake up.

After reading one of these stories, chosen at random, each participant was asked to rate David’s mental capacities, including whether he could influence the outcome of events, know right from wrong, remember incidents from his life, be aware of his environment, possess a personality and have emotions. Participants used a seven-point scale to make these ratings, where 3 indicated that they strongly agreed that he could do such things, 0 indicated that they neither agreed nor disagreed, and -3 indicated that they strongly disagreed.

The results, reported in Cognition, were that the fully recovered David rated an average of 1.77 and the dead David -0.29. That score for the dead David was surprising enough, suggesting as it did a considerable amount of mental acuity in the dead. What was extraordinary, though, was the result for the vegetative David: -1.73. In the view of the average New Yorker or New Englander, the vegetative David was more dead than the version who was dead.

Weird, huh? So they ran a follow-up study:
To investigate that, they ran a follow-up experiment which had two different descriptions of the dead David. One said he had simply passed away. The other directed the participant’s attention to the corpse. It read, “After being embalmed at the morgue, he was buried in the local cemetery. David now lies in a coffin underground.” No ambiguity there. In this follow-up study participants were also asked to rate how religious they were.

Once again, the vegetative David was seen to have less mind than the David who had “passed away”. This was equally true, regardless of how religious a participant said he was. However, ratings of the dead David’s mind in the story in which his corpse was embalmed and buried varied with the participant’s religiosity.

Irreligious participants gave the buried corpse about the same mental ratings as the vegetative patient (-1.51 and -1.64 respectively). Religious participants, however, continued to ascribe less mind to the irretrievably unconscious David than they did to his buried corpse (-1.57 and 0.59).

This seems to indicate that the "irreligious participants" were not entirely rational themselves, though more rational than the religious. I mean dead people - embalmed or not - are at least as dead as those in a persistent vegetative state, wouldn't you think?

And I can at least vaguely understand the justification for the religious in this. They want to believe that there's life after death - more life even than before death, apparently - and a person in a persistent vegetative state is probably a difficult gray area for them.

Of course, the evidence indicates that our thought processes, our memories, our personalities, our emotions - all are firmly linked to our flesh and blood bodies. An injury to your brain can damage all of these, so how can you imagine that they'd still exist when your brain was completely destroyed?

Really, there have been plenty of examples - for more than a century now - of people with brain injuries whose personalities were changed completely by the event. If an injury to your brain can change you from a pleasant, good-natured person to a nasty, disagreeable one, where is there room for a "soul" in that?

And if you can lose memories - permanently - due to a brain injury, how can you have any memories at all without a brain? Well, I've never understood this kind of thinking.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Finland's successful schools

Here's another interesting article in the Smithsonian, "Why are Finland's Schools Successful?"

And they are successful:
The transformation of the Finns’ education system began some 40 years ago as the key propellent of the country’s economic recovery plan. Educators had little idea it was so successful until 2000, when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide. ...

Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States.

Now, yes, Finland is not America. Only 4% of the country is foreign-born, so they are a much more homogenous nation. However, Finland's schools work for immigrants, too, not just for ethnic Finns.

I suspect the difference is that Finland is willing to spend money on minorities. They even spend extra in "positive discrimination money." Americans, on the other hand, are far too worried that their tax money might go to help "those people."

Finland is willing to do whatever it takes. Education is a priority for them - and that's not just lip service, like it is in America. And with our worship of competition, we've taken a completely different path:
In the United States, which has muddled along in the middle for the past decade, government officials have attempted to introduce marketplace competition into public schools. In recent years, a group of Wall Street financiers and philanthropists such as Bill Gates have put money behind private-sector ideas, such as vouchers, data-driven curriculum and charter schools, which have doubled in number in the past decade. President Obama, too, has apparently bet on compe­tition. His Race to the Top initiative invites states to compete for federal dollars using tests and other methods to measure teachers, a philosophy that would not fly in Finland. ...

Some of the more vocal conservative reformers in America have grown weary of the “We-Love-Finland crowd” or so-called Finnish Envy. They argue that the United States has little to learn from a country of only 5.4 million people—4 percent of them foreign born. Yet the Finns seem to be onto something. Neighboring Norway, a country of similar size, embraces education policies similar to those in the United States. It employs standardized exams and teachers without master’s degrees. And like America, Norway’s PISA scores have been stalled in the middle ranges for the better part of a decade.

Of course, we don't want to "throw money" at schools, right? Isn't that what we always hear? (But we have no problem with throwing money at the military, do we? We value our military. We don't value our schools - certainly not the schools other people's children attend.)

And note that Finnish schools haven't always been good:
Finland’s schools were not always a wonder. Until the late 1960s, Finns were still emerging from the cocoon of Soviet influence. Most children left public school after six years. (The rest went to private schools, academic grammar schools or folk schools, which tended to be less rigorous.) Only the privileged or lucky got a quality education. ...

In 1963, the Finnish Parliament made the bold decision to choose public education as its best shot at economic recovery. “I call this the Big Dream of Finnish education,” said Sahlberg, whose upcoming book, Finnish Lessons, is scheduled for release in October. “It was simply the idea that every child would have a very good public school. If we want to be competitive, we need to educate everybody. It all came out of a need to survive.”

Fancy that! And what's even more amazing, they followed through with it! We could do this, too. If we wanted to. If we were willing to do whatever it took, as the Finns are. If "no child left behind" was more than a campaign slogan in America.

America used to have the best system of public education in the world, bar none. Our public schools were the envy of the world. Well, no longer. Now we're lucky to be average. Well, you can't be average if you expect to effectively compete in the global marketplace. Certainly, you can't afford to be average in education if you expect to stay a world superpower.

And education is an investment. We can't afford to spend the money right now? We can't afford not to. If we won't invest in our children, what does that say about us? If we'd rather give tax cuts to the rich, what does that say about our priorities? What does that say about our common sense?

Instead of making excuses for why Finland is beating our pants off, why don't we learn what they have to teach us? But we don't want to do that, do we? When you get right down to it, we just don't care that much.

"Holmes on the Range" by Steve Hockensmith

It's a cold February in Montana, in 1893, when two cowboys - brothers - take a job at the Bar VR ranch, a place with a very unsavory reputation.

The younger brother, "Big Red," is literate, loquacious, and a bit too fond of alcohol. His brother, "Old Red" - all of 27 years old - is illiterate, but intelligent and discerning. He desperately wants to be a detective, like the great Sherlock Holmes. As it turns out, they both find plenty of mystery and danger at the ranch.

I haven't read a western since I sampled a few Zane Grey novels when I was a kid (always being desperate for something new to read). So the setting in this mystery didn't exactly appeal to me. And, well, I don't read that many mysteries, either, since they seldom do much for me. But I've been trying out a few recommendations lately.

Holmes on the Range (2006) was entertaining right from the start. I liked the humor in the book. The banter between the $5 a week cowhands was both funny and quite plausible. (I've worked in situations that weren't all that different, even a century later.)

But I really didn't expect to like the book at much as I did. As I say, it was fun enough, right from the start. But there came a time when I picked it up to read just a little more,... and I couldn't seem to put it down.

I'm not sure why that was, but I think it's just that, the more I read, the more I liked the characters. Those two cowboy brothers, all alone in the world except for each other, just grew on me. Oh, I liked them well enough at the beginning, but by the end of the book, I found myself wondering what happens next. (And this is the first book in a series, so I guess I'll find out.)

I'd guessed most of the mystery before they figured it out, but that doesn't bother me too much. I don't really read mysteries for the mystery, but rather for the characters (which is probably why I rarely find a mystery series I really like).

And yeah, this "Sherlock Holmes on the range" thing is a gimmick, but a clever one. I think Hockensmith pulls it off because his characters are both plausible and unique, as well as being likable. And it's probably also the case that the humor makes me take the book less seriously than I otherwise might.

But don't get me wrong. This story sneaks up on you. Hockensmith actually has a lot to say - about his characters and about their society. It's not a deep book, but it's deeper than it seems at first. The humor disguises that, I think.

At any rate, I'll be reading more. There are four more books in the series, so far. Now, I'm not going to rush out and buy them all, but I will definitely continue with the next volume. For me, with mysteries, that's about as good as it gets.

The struggle within Islam

Here's a rather optimistic article in the Smithsonian. "Terrorists get the headlines, but most Muslims want to reclaim their religion from extremists."

I'd like to believe that, so I need to remind myself to be appropriately skeptical. Then again, there are a lot of people in America who want to use fear - fear of Islam just one of many - for political gain. So we Americans are far more likely to hear a different kind of story, I think.

And stereotypes are invariably wrong. No group of people are exactly alike, and we're all more alike than we're different. Irrational fear is just that, irrational.

But let me just post some excerpts:
[E]ven as the outside world tried to segregate Muslims as “others,” most Muslims were trying to integrate into a globalizing world. For the West, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, obscured the Muslim quest for modernization; for Muslims, however, the airliner hijackings accelerated it. “Clearly 9/11 was a turning point for Americans,” Parvez Sharma, an Indian Muslim filmmaker, told me in 2010. “But it was even more so for Muslims,” who, he said, “are now trying to reclaim space denied us by some of our own people.”

This year’s uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and beyond have rocked the Islamic world, but the rebellions against geriatric despots reflect only a small part of the story, obscuring a broader trend that has emerged in recent years. For the majority of Muslims today, the central issue is not a clash with other civilizations but rather a struggle to reclaim Islam’s central values from a small but virulent minority. The new confrontation is effectively a jihad against The Jihad—in other words, a counter-jihad. ...

By 2010, public opinion polls in major Muslim countries showed dramatic declines in backing for Al Qaeda. Support for bin Laden dropped to 2 percent in Lebanon and 3 percent in Turkey. Even in such pivotal countries as Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia—populated by vastly different ethnic groups and continents apart—only around one in five Muslims expressed confidence in the Al Qaeda leader, the Pew Global Attitudes Project reported.

Muslim attitudes on modernization and fundamentalism also shifted. In a sampling of Muslim countries on three continents, the Pew survey found that among those who see a struggle between modernizers and fundamentalists, far more people—two to six times as many—identified with modernizers. Egypt and Jordan were the two exceptions; in each, the split was about even.

In the first month of Egypt’s uprising in 2011, another poll found that 52 percent of Egyptians disapproved of the Muslim Brotherhood and only 4 percent strongly approved of it. In a straw vote for president, Brotherhood leaders received barely 1 percent of the vote. That survey, by the pro-Israeli Washington Institute of Near East Policy, also found that just two out of ten Egyptians approved of Tehran’s Islamic government. “This is not,” the survey concluded, “an Islamic uprising.”

That's just an excerpt, which doesn't get into the details of the article. And the details are quite interesting. I recommend that you read the article itself.

It is easy to stereotype other people - other scary people, in particular. Likewise, we tend to give too much attention to the recent past, especially when it includes events such as 9/11, which shocked our entire nation. But the future does not have to be the same as the past. In fact, it rarely is.

Now don't get me wrong. I'd prefer that Islam disappear, just as I'd prefer that all religions fade away. I think that faith-based thinking is inherently a bad idea. Even if you happen to come up with the right answer, you've used the wrong method - a method which will very likely give you the wrong answer on the next question.

And I doubt if Islam is ever going to be my favorite religion. There are too many parts of it that just rub me the wrong way (the whole idea of submission, in fact - which is literally what "Islam" means).

But although I can, and do, argue against religion in general, it's not my place to tell everyone else what they must think, what they must believe. I strongly support freedom of religion as the best thing for the religious and non-religious alike. I strongly support the separation of church and state for the same reason.

And I'm sure that most American Christians do, too. For more than two hundred years, we've lived in a society where your religion, if any, was your own business, not your neighbor's, and certainly not your government's. That's worked very well for Christians, and it can work very well for Muslims, too.

I think most Muslims understand that. I'm confident, at least, that most American Muslims understand it. In many Muslim nations, they haven't had much experience with freedom. And freedom results in bad things as well as good. You have to understand that the good far outweighs the bad, and you have to realize that you can't get the good without the bad.

That's a difficult thing for even American Christians to accept. Certainly, Republicans seem to have trouble with it. But it's not an impossible concept for anyone. Most Christians do understand it, I think, and there's no reason most Muslims can't. Indeed, they might already.

Let me end this with one more excerpt, one more optimistic excerpt:
“Today, Al Qaeda is as significant to the Islamic world as the Ku Klux Klan is to the Americans—not much at all,” Ghada Shahbender, an Egyptian poet and activist, told me recently. “They’re violent, ugly, operate underground and are unacceptable to the majority of Muslims. They exist, but they’re freaks.

“Do I look at the Ku Klux Klan and draw conclusions about America from their behavior? Of course not,” she went on. “The KKK hasn’t been a story for many years for Americans. Al Qaeda is still a story, but it is headed in the same direction as the Klan.”

Let's hope that's true, huh? More importantly, let's work to make sure it becomes true, if it isn't already. Demonizing Muslims is not the way to empower the moderates. Just the reverse, in fact. Unfortunately, it might be a good way to get elected in America.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Friday, August 26, 2011

James Randi challenges top "psychics"

From JREF:
The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has just directed its Million Dollar Challenge toward the celebrity "psychic mediums" featured on last night’s episode of ABC’s Primetime Nightline: Beyond Belief.

“James Van Praagh and Allison DuBois have turned the huckster art of ‘cold reading’ into a multi-million-dollar industry, preying on families’ deepest fears and regrets,” said James Randi, founder of the JREF and a renowned magician and skeptic who also appeared in the episode. “They should be embarrassed by the transparent performances they revealed to the world on last night’s show.”

The JREF’s Million Dollar Challenge Director, Banachek, also featured in the episode, said, “We’re issuing a challenge to these fakers: for once, show that you can get this supposedly supernatural knowledge without cheating. If one of you can demonstrate your ‘psychic’ abilities on randomly chosen strangers—not celebrities—under mutually-agreed conditions, without relying on known cold-reading techniques such as fishing around with vague questions, and without just using Google—we will donate our million dollars to you or to the charity of your choice.”

In last night’s episode on “Psychic Powers,” self-proclaimed psychic medium James Van Praagh performed a reading on Good Morning America anchor Josh Elliott. Elliott initially appeared surprised by Van Praagh’s accuracy before finally revealing that “every talking point of the reading” seemed to have been lifted from a two-year-old interview with Elliott that was available through a simple internet search. When Van Praagh was asked to repeat his performance on the spot with an ABC producer, he declined to try, claiming he had become too tired.

In a later scene, “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” reality-show actor Allison DuBois, also billed as the inspiration for the TV drama Medium, performed a similar reading on ABC News correspondent David Wright. Self-proclaimed medium Rebecca Rosen also performed a reading, and both readings focused on Wright’s family and his late mother. Wright was surprised by their accuracy and said they revealed “details that don’t pop up on Google.” Yet, shortly after the show aired, a Twitter user posted a link to a New York Times wedding announcement that contained the relevant details about the Wright family.

So what do you think? How soon after Hell freezes over will these "psychics" accept Randi's challenge?

The problem in Oklahoma and Texas

Here's an article in the Los Angeles Times about the extreme weather this year. I noted particularly the situation in Oklahoma and Texas:
Oklahomans are accustomed to cruel climate. Frigid winters and searing summers are often made more unbearable by scouring winds. But even by Oklahoma standards, it's been a year of whipsaw weather. ...

Oklahoma's heat wave has so far claimed 14 lives. Since 2000, Oklahoma has had more federally declared weather-related disasters than any other state. ...

Drought-caused agricultural losses in Texas have been tallied at $5.2 billion so far. Some of the state's water-starved cities are beginning programs to recycle treated sewage for household use, a practice known as "toilet to tap."

The Lone Star State has been so beset by weather emergencies that Gov. Rick Perry has made a state disaster declaration every month since December.

So how do you explain this? Well, climatologists can't say that any particular weather event was caused by global warming, but they do point out that this is exactly what they've predicted to happen. But most people in Oklahoma and Texas don't "believe" in science.

Texas governor - and Republican presidential candidate - Rick Perry claims that global warming is some giant conspiracy by greedy scientists. And Oklahoma's Tom Coburn is one of the most notorious global warming deniers in the Senate.

But they do believe in God. So the explanation is obvious. People in Oklahoma and Texas have clearly angered the big guy. Now maybe just electing Republicans did it. That would be enough to anger any reasonable deity, I'd think.

But my guess is that there's just not enough of them worshiping Allah. Or maybe they're not facing Mecca when they pray. Every governmental body in both states holds a prayer before getting to business, but how many of them are Islamic prayers? Maybe they should be praising Mohammed, not Jesus.

Well, I don't know what else it could be. OK, maybe I do, but these people believe in faith, not science. From their point of view, this must be divine punishment, right? I've certainly heard warnings of that from them often enough. So maybe both states should become majority Muslim and see what happens.

Or maybe it's the Hindu deities who are upset. Well, they can try that next. In fact, there are all sorts of different religions they could try. Unfortunately, Christianity just doesn't seem to be working for them - not when they're being plagued with extreme weather and Republicans both!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

African Eve

You've probably heard the story of "African Eve" or "Mitochondrial Eve," the matrilineal most recent common ancestor of all human beings. But do you know what that actually means?

I was reading this post at Slashdot about "evangelical scientists" who are trying to adjust their faith with reality and have come face to face with the fact that it's "unlikely that we're all descended from a single pair of humans."

Here's how the original article at NPR puts it:
According to the Bible (Genesis 2:7), this is how humanity began: "The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." God then called the man Adam, and later created Eve from Adam's rib. [*]

Polls by Gallup and the Pew Research Center find that four out of 10 Americans believe this account. It's a central tenet for much of conservative Christianity, from evangelicals to confessional churches such as the Christian Reformed Church.

But now some conservative scholars are saying publicly that they can no longer believe the Genesis account. Asked how likely it is that we all descended from Adam and Eve, Dennis Venema, a biologist at Trinity Western University, replies: "That would be against all the genomic evidence that we've assembled over the last 20 years, so not likely at all."

OK, there's nothing too unusual about this. Americans who are ignorant about science - often willfully ignorant - might believe almost anything, but when people start learning more about biology and genetics, they find it increasingly hard to believe ancient myths.

But then I saw this comment at Slashdot:
>it is unlikely that we all descended from a single pair of humans.

I thought that Lucy/African Eve was the one that we're all descended from. Or was that a single pair of humans ... Lucy and multiple males.

There seems to be considerable confusion there, and I suspect that it's widespread. So let's take a look at this. (Note that I'm just a layman, no particular authority on any of this stuff. But I think I can explain the errors fairly well.)

First, there's the problem of confusing "Lucy" with "African Eve." Lucy is just a particular fossil of an Australopithecus female from 3.2 million years ago. She really has no connection with this "African Eve" idea.

African Eve, also called Mitochondial Eve, is an estimate of the matrilineal most recent common ancestor of all humans, based on mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down in the egg from your mother only.

With nuclear DNA, you get half from your mother (in the egg) and half from your father (in the sperm which fertilizes it). That mixes things up so that even siblings aren't normally identical.

But an egg is a lot bigger than sperm, and it contains a lot more. In particular, it contains mitochondria, which "power cells," more or less. Since you get it only from your mother, your mitochondrial DNA is identical to your mother's, except for any mutations. Obviously, when there is a successful mutation, that's often passed down to succeeding generations, too.

Therefore, we can follow this process in reverse, using an estimate of how frequently mutations occur, to get an idea of when our matrilineal most recent common ancestor lived. (We can do the same thing with y-chromosomes to find "Y-chromosomal Adam." It's the same basic idea.)

But what does this actually mean? First, we're all related, so it's inevitable that we would have a "most recent common ancestor." You could say the same thing about human beings and dogs, for that matter. The common ancestor of humans and dogs is much further in the past, but if you go back far enough, it's inevitable that we do have a most recent common ancestor.

So there's nothing unusual in having a most recent common ancestor. It's inevitable. And "Mitochondrial Eve" almost certainly isn't even it. She's just our most recent common ancestor entirely in the matrilineal line. We all got our mitochondrial DNA from our mothers, and they got it from their mothers, and so on - back to this so-called "Eve."

But that's not to say that there aren't more recent common ancestors, not just in the patrilineal, but in descent that wasn't entirely in one gender. In fact, that's far more likely to be the case.

So this also tells us that we have many, many common ancestors, some of whom almost certainly lived at the time of "Eve." We are not descended just from Eve and her mate(s), not at all. Most likely, we are all descended from many people in Eve's own village, and certainly many people who lived at the same time.

I think that "African Eve" has just been hyped by too many people. Yeah, that sells newspapers, no doubt. But it's led to widespread confusion about what it actually means. It's not really all that significant. In fact, it's inevitable that a "Mitochondrial Eve" would exist at some point. I think the only scientific interest in it is the estimate of dating.

And if you want an example of how inconsequential this really is, look at those dates. According to Wikipedia, Mitochondrial Eve, the matrilineal most recent common ancestor of all human beings, lived approximately 200,000 years ago. But our most recent common ancestor lived perhaps only 2,000 to 5,000 years ago.

Now that's quite remarkable, don't you think? (And no, that doesn't imply that Adam and Eve were real, not at all. We aren't descended just from that ancestor.)

* PS. I've actually known people who thought that men had fewer ribs than women, based on that old myth in Genesis about God creating Eve from one of Adam's ribs. Funny, huh? But I suppose it's a logical assumption if you actually believe that stuff.

Christopher Hitchens thinking on his feet

Since we were just talking about Christopher Hitchens (in the comments here), I thought I'd post this brief video clip.

Apparently, this comes at the end of a debate between Hitchens and Frank Turek, but I'm not sure which debate it was. They debated twice (the first is here, and the second here), and I just don't have time to watch them now.

Where do Texas governors come from?

From ABC News comes this quote of Texas Governor - and GOP presidential candidate - Rick Perry, replying to a young boy and his mom:
"Here your mom was asking about evolution, and you know it's a theory that's out there, and it's got some gaps in it. In Texas we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools," Perry said.  "Because I figure you're smart enough to figure out which one is right."

But obviously, Perry himself isn't that smart.

So, OK, this kid might indeed be smarter than Rick Perry. But if all schoolchildren are that smart, where do Texas governors come from?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Mount&Blade multiplayer

I don't play online multiplayer games, but I can really see the attraction in something like this.

Of course, I'm really, really bad at Mount&Blade, much as I enjoy the game, but it doesn't seem to matter much in this kind of play.

Anyway, I thought this was kind of fun to watch. And yes, I'll bet it's a lot of fun to play, too.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Stephen Fry on the Catholic Church

This isn't new. It was part of the Intelligence Squared debate, broadcast by the BBC, on the topic "The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world." I think that was in 2009, but I'm not positive.

I might have posted about it before. Heck, I might have posted this same video before. It's hard to keep track. But I stumbled across it (again?) today and it's too good to ignore. If you've seen it before, just skip it.

And if you want to watch the full debate, it's here. This excerpt is a whole lot shorter - and to my mind, it's probably the best part of it.

Economic facts: separating fact from fiction

Here's a great article at ProPublica that looks at five economic myths.
With the recent Iowa straw poll and President Obama's bus tour, Americans are hearing a cacophony of arguments about the wobbly economy. The federal stimulus package passed in 2009 was either a deficit-busting failure full of wasteful projects or an unparalleled rescue that would have been more successful if it had only been bigger. Taxes are either stifling or the lowest they've ever been. America needs to invest in infrastructure, or "infrastructure" is merely a euphemism for more government spending. So, here's our guide to the most prevalent economic myths.

Click on the link if you want to check them out. The nice thing about it is that it really is pretty balanced. This isn't a liberal organization. In fact, it's led by the former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal.

I'd actually say that it's a little too balanced, giving too much credit to conservative thinking. But I can't call it right-wing, either. It really does seem to be an independent investigation, which is exactly what ProPublica strives for.

And although they don't eliminate the BS entirely, they do a pretty good job of separating fact from fiction. I'm impressed. If you check it out, I think you will be, too.

I do wonder about this part, though:
Other economists, including John F. Cogan and John B. Taylor at Stanford University and the Hoover Institution, argue that the amount of stimulus spending wouldn't have mattered because it mainly reduced borrowing by state and local governments rather than increasing spending. So, they contend, the predicted benefits were washed out.

But is that really true? It's not for Nebraska, because my state is required to balance its budget every year. And I was under the impression that many, if not most, states were similarly restricted from deficit financing. Am I wrong?

In states like Nebraska, stimulus spending kept us from being forced to make even deeper cuts than we did. I suspect that was a big help to our economy. So I wonder how many states can run deficits.

And surely, even those wouldn't have borrowed everything they got in federal stimulus funds. It's just ridiculous to think that. They might not have cut everything, but they would have made deeper cuts than they did. And that would have made the recession deeper.

(Thanks, Jim, for the link!)

Giving versus taking

Click to embiggen, since this chart is too small here to see well.

But basically, it shows how blue states - Democrat-leaning states - tend to pay more in taxes than they receive from the federal government, while red states - Republican-leaning - do just the reverse. Maybe we should let the red states secede!

And as Tony Piro, the cartoonist, notes, the Tax Foundation is generally considered to be a conservative organization. That's where he got the data.

I've seen this before - or a chart very similar, at least - but it's worth repeating. (My only gripe is that he seems to have forgotten Nebraska even exists.)

And if 100 things weren't enough to irritate a Republican, you could always email him this. :)

Sunday, August 21, 2011


I haven't posted many political cartoons lately, so I thought I'd arrange a nice assortment today.

Don't expect to laugh, though. Crying might be more appropriate.

100 things you can say to irritate a Republican

From Addicting Info, here's 100 things you can say to irritate a Republican:
1. A Socialist wrote the Pledge of Allegiance.
2. Jesus healed the sick and helped the poor, for free.
3. Joseph McCarthy was an un-American, witch hunting sissy.
4. Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee were traitors.
5. The South lost the Civil War, get over it.
6. The Founding Fathers were liberals.
7. Fascism is a right-wing trait.
8. Sarah Palin is an ugly cow (said to conservative males).
9. The Earth is round.
10. Reagan raised taxes eleven times as President.
11. Reagan legalized abortion as Governor of California.
12. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency.
13. Ronald Reagan supported gun control.
14. Global warming is real.
15. Republicans hate illegal immigrants, unless they need their lawns mowed or their houses cleaned.
16. The military is a government-run institution, so why do Republicans approve the defense budget?
17. The Cold War is over and the Soviet Union no longer exists.
18. Paying taxes is patriotic.
19. Republicans: Peddling the same failed economic policies since 1880.
20. The Republican Party began as a liberal party.
21. The Presidents’ full name is Barack Hussein Obama and he was born in the United States of America.
22. George W. Bush held hands with the King of Saudi Arabia.
23. President Obama saved the American auto industry, while Republicans wanted to destroy it.
24. Hate is not a Christian virtue.
25. Jesus was a liberal.
26. Republicans spend MORE money than Democrats.
27. Tea parties are for little girls.
28. Public schools educate all children; private schools are for indoctrinating children.
29. The Constitution is the law, NOT the Bible.
30. Sharia law doesn’t exist in America.
31. The President is NOT a Muslim.
32. Corporations are NOT people. People are people.
33. Fox News isn’t real news, it’s just a racist, sexist, hateful, right-wing propaganda machine.
34. The Federal Reserve was a Republican idea.
35. Women are equal citizens who deserve equal rights.
36. Women control their own bodies.
37. Abortion is a relevant medical procedure, just ask Rick Santorum.
38. Please use spell check.
39. It’s “pundit”, not “pundint”.
40. Social Security is solvent through 2038.
41. Health care is a right, not a product.
42. Roe v. Wade was a bipartisan ruling made by a conservative leaning Supreme Court.
43. G.O.P also stands for Gross Old Perverts.
44. The donkey shouldn’t be the Democratic mascot because Republicans are the real jackasses.
45. Barack Obama ordered the killing of Osama Bin Laden. It took him two and half years to do what Bush couldn’t do in eight.
46. Waterboarding IS torture.
47. 9/11 happened on George W. Bush’s watch, therefore he did NOT keep America safe.
48. Republicans invaded Iraq for oil, so Iraq should be allowed to invade Texas to get it back.
49. Separation of church and state is in the Constitution, it’s called the First Amendment.
50. Muslims are protected by the Constitution, just as much as Christians.

I'll let you check the source if you want to see the rest of them. Yeah, there are some of these I wouldn't use (though I think I understand the point of #8), but in general, I like the list.

And I'll just repeat his last line here:
Bottom line? If you want to anger a conservative, tell them the truth.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Oklahoma Freethought Convention 2011

This is the first of the talks at the recent Oklahoma Freethought Convention. This speech and the other four are all available on The Thinking Atheist's channel on YouTube. Here's the playlist.

The videos are long - 45 to 55 minutes each - but the speakers are all really interesting. I highly recommend them.

It's a shame that something like this gets little or no attention in the mainstream media - apparently, there wasn't a single reporter there - and that it doesn't get a wider venue on television. But at least it's easily available on the internet, something that wasn't the case not many years ago.

As I say, they're all really interesting. Check them out.

A backlash in the GOP?

Are we starting to see a backlash in the GOP against the loons who've taken control of the party? Well, I wouldn't get your hopes up, but a former Reagan official did call Rick Perry an idiot recently.

From TPM:
Ronald Reagan's chief domestic policy adviser took Texas governor Rick Perry to the woodshed Friday for recent controversial statements -- in particular about his suggestion that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke would be committing treason by printing money to boost economic growth.

"Rick Perry's an idiot, and I don't think anyone would disagree with that," Bruce Bartlett said on CNN's American Morning.

Of course, Bartlett did write a book in 2006 with the title Imposter: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, so I don't suppose he's been all that welcome in Republican circles for awhile now.

But then, Jon Huntsman, who's still a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, has actually come out in support of both evolution and the scientific consensus on global warming, and neither position will do him much good with the GOP base.

Here's how Huntsman explained it:
[Jake] Tapper asked, "Were you just being cheeky or do you think there's a serious problem with what Governor Perry said?" Huntsman's response: "I think there's a serious problem. The minute that the Republican Party becomes the party - the anti-science party, we have a huge problem. We lose a whole lot of people who would otherwise allow us to win the election in 2012."

Huntsman went on to describe what he sees as the long term political downside to questioning science:
When we take a position that isn't willing to embrace evolution, when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 of 100 climate scientists have said, what the National Academy of Science - Sciences has said about what is causing climate change and man's contribution to it, I think we find ourselves on the wrong side of science, and, therefore, in a losing position....I can't remember a time in our history where we actually were willing to shun science and become a - a party that - that was antithetical to science. I'm not sure that's good for our future and it's not a winning formula.

He also noted that he wouldn't trust his Republican opponents on the economy:
Well, I wouldn't necessarily trust any of my opponents right now, who were on a recent debate stage with me, when every single one of them would have allowed this country to default. You can imagine, even given the uncertainty of the marketplace the last several days and even the last couple of weeks, if we had defaulted the first time in the history of the greatest country that ever was, being 25 percent of the world's GDP and having the largest financial services sector in this world by a long shot, if we had defaulted, Jake, this marketplace would be in absolute turmoil. And people who are already losing enough as it is on their 401(k)s and retirement programs and home valuations, it would have been catastrophic.

(Incidentally, TPM has a long list of prominent Republicans who claimed that default wouldn't be a big deal. Considering how the stock market has been crashing lately, most of them are trying to walk back from those claims now, I suspect.)

But here, too, I wonder. Huntsman isn't exactly a frontrunner in the campaign. I mean, he got a total of 69 votes in the Iowa straw poll the other day (Michele Bachmann got almost 5,000). Heck, Rick Perry got more than ten times that as a write-in candidate!

So I'm not counting on a sudden outbreak of sanity in the GOP. And although I'd love to see an outbreak of courage and common sense among independent voters, I'm really not seeing that, either. If there's a backlash coming, it's not real evident.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: we stopped dreaming

Dr. Tyson is right. And although I hate to plug my own blog posts - especially one that didn't catch anyone else's interest - I really must link to this one. We have become a timid little people, a people afraid to dream big, a people who think of all the reasons why we can't do something, rather than being courageous enough to try.

This isn't just about money, not even these days. And it's not even just about distrusting science, although that shows a similar level of cowardice, of refusing to face the truth. We used to dream big. Now, even our dreams are tiny, insignificant, timid little things.

If we can't regain that bold, optimistic, "can do" attitude we used to have, there's no hope for us. What has happened to my America? Really, what has happened to us?

Star Trek time warp

I'm not a huge Star Trek fan, but I thought this was funny.

I keep thinking that whoever did this must have a lot of time on his hands. Can you imagine how much work this must have been?

(And yes, I know this isn't new, since it was posted on YouTube in 2006. But it was new to me. I got the link from the SciFi_Discussion group on Yahoo.)

Friday, August 19, 2011

World of class warfare

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
World of Class Warfare - Warren Buffett vs. Wealthy Conservatives
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

"There is an ongoing argument in this very country about how best to close the enormous deficit that we have incurred. Republicans have proposed doing it entirely through spending cuts, whereas the Democrats have bravely fought back, insisting we do it... almost entirely through spending cuts."

Sadly, that's true. The Democratic position is almost as far right as the Republican position, just not as crazy.

But anyway,... so Warren Buffett is a "socialist" because he doesn't think he should pay a lower tax rate than his cleaning lady? If this is "class warfare," I guess Buffett must be a traitor, huh?

But really, returning tax rates for the wealthy to where they were in the 1990s is "class warfare"? You know, I remember the 1990s. But I don't remember a lot of billionaires in welfare lines back then. I don't remember soup kitchens clogged with millionaires and billionaires.

The rich were doing very, very well in the 1990s. Really, they were. Maybe they weren't quite as obscenely wealthy as today, after their enormous windfall from George W. Bush, but they sure as hell weren't hurting! And the rest of the country was doing a lot better.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
World of Class Warfare - The Poor's Free Ride Is Over
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

I'm not going to comment much on the second half of this, because apparently my computer problems aren't over. It's been crashing regularly this morning.

Well, Jon Stewart does a great job all by himself, anyway. Yeah, we don't want to tax the wealthy, because it just isn't worth it (even though giving them those tax cuts got us into this mess in the first place). Instead, we want to tax the poor. Because that's where the money... isn't, I guess.

But there is a lot of them. Maybe we could sell their organs or something...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Ring of Fire III" by Eric Flint (editor)

Ring of Fire III, like the first two volumes, is a collection of short stories by different authors, plus a novella by Eric Flint himself, set in Flint's 1632 universe.

(If you're not already a fan of this series, you certainly don't want to start here. Check out my previous comments to get some idea of the storyline.)

As Flint explains in a preface, these three volumes differ from the Grantville Gazette books, which are also anthologies by different authors, in that, "with a few exceptions, every story... is either closely connected to existing story lines in the series or opens up new story lines for future development."

Indeed, the first Ring of Fire introduced Tom Stone ("Stoner") and his family, who star in one of the best threads in the series with their adventures in Italy. It also showed us the beginning of the new American navy, which is such an important part of 1633. Likewise, Ring of Fire II described the romance between Eddie Cantrell and the Danish king's daughter, which is a big part of 1634: The Baltic War.

But before I talk about future storylines in this one, how do these stories hold up as stories? I must admit that I was a bit disappointed, overall. Partly, that's probably because the series has gone on for a long time now, so these just seemed to be "more of the same." They weren't bad, but most of them didn't stand out.

Also, in this kind of series, I really need to care about the characters. Eric Flint usually does that very well, but other authors aren't always so talented. (Or maybe it's just not a priority for them.) In fact, there were only a few stories that really grabbed me in this collection.

And finally, in regards to those future storylines, it gets harder to interest me in those, too, as the series continues. There is a limit in any series, even one with multiple authors. How much more can you really say that's both new and significantly different from what's already been said?

Certainly, the future storylines look ambitious, since they're planning books about the New World and about East Asia, in addition to the clear threat we've been seeing from the Ottoman Empire. So who knows, really?

At any rate, of the short stories, I especially loved "All God's Children in the Burning East" by Garrett W. Vance, and I can't wait to see what happens when 400 Asians - mostly Japanese Christians - arrive in Grantville. In this story, I really did care about the characters. As far as I know, I haven't read anything else by Vance, but he did a great job here.

"Falser Messiah" by Tim Roesch was neat, too, showing us what happens to children who are mentioned in Grantville's history books. It was another one where I liked the characters (mostly kids - and good kids, at that).

I don't mean to imply that the other stories were poor, certainly not. Some were very good, indeed. And if you're a fan of the series, you'll probably want to read them all. The problem is - well, my problem is that I've read a lot of stories set in this world, and I'm having a harder time really being blown away by any of them these days. Certainly, there weren't many here that really blew me away.

Then there's Eric Flint's novella at the end of the book. Flint has a couple of advantages. The first is that his two main characters, Tom and Rita Simpson, are people we've known - and liked - since the very first book in the series (pretty much from the first page, in fact).

It's also part of the main storyline, a book that bridges 1636: The Saxon Uprising and the next novel in that sequence. So it's a story I wanted to read, even before I knew it existed.

But it also demonstrates why I tend to like Eric Flint's books. There are three young women in the story who are trying to escape a city that's being sacked, along with their boss, a "fat asshole" that none of them actually like. If they're caught, they'll almost certainly be raped and murdered by enemy soldiers.

And yet, when their boss is badly injured and knocked unconscious, not one of them even considers leaving him behind, even though they've got the good excuse that he's just too big to carry. They don't even discuss it. They just find a way to manage it, even though it slows them down even further and makes their escape even more difficult than it already was.

My point is that Flint doesn't tell us what their personalities are like, he shows us. They don't make a big deal about it. They just do what they have to do. And another character in the story, a man, does the same thing. These are people we like, because we can see what kind of people they are, just in their actions during a dangerous situation.

I was very happy with the previous book in the 1632 series, and I'm looking forward to the next in the same thread (there are multiple threads going on, since this event has had worldwide implications). This anthology is not a necessary read in the series, not at all. If you're a big fan, you'll probably want to read it. If not, you could easily give it a miss.

I'm glad I read it, but then, I'm a big fan. :)

Christine O'Donnell walks off interview

Funny, isn't it? There's a real connection here to my last post. The myth of the Tea Party is that it's all about economic issues, about smaller government, less spending, and lower taxes. But the reality is quite different.

These are basically the same right-wing Christian evangelicals who gave us George W. Bush. He was their candidate, and they supported him enthusiastically. These are the same religious fanatics who've been fighting a "culture war," the same people who want to tear down the separation of church and state in America.

And Christine O'Donnell - who you can bet hasn't given up on her political aspirations, even though she might not be running for office right this minute - is trying to minimize that "culture war" stuff only because it's unpopular among the majority of Americans. She's just trying to position herself to best political advantage (since the Republican base already knows she's one of them).

Obviously, most people won't ever read her book. And of those who do, most will be true believers, just like her. But a TV interview is a completely different matter. So she won't talk about her real beliefs there, even walking off the set to avoid it.

Now, is Christine O'Donnell smart enough to think of all this on her own? I suspect not. I suspect that she - and other Tea Party favorites - have been taking instruction from people who do know what works best politically. I think they're deliberately pushing that myth of the Tea Party, while avoiding the loony social and religious issues, as much as possible - at least when they're not among supporters alone.

The loony social and religious issues are what they're really all about. But that's not going to fly among most of the American electorate. So they promote that myth of the Tea Party and plan to ride it all the way to electoral success.

Tea Party less popular than atheists?

That's what David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam claim in this column in The New York Times, that the Tea Party is even less popular than much maligned groups like “atheists” and “Muslims.”

Here's an excerpt:
Polls show that disapproval of the Tea Party is climbing. In April 2010, a New York Times/CBS News survey found that 18 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of it, 21 percent had a favorable opinion and 46 percent had not heard enough. Now, 14 months later, Tea Party supporters have slipped to 20 percent, while their opponents have more than doubled, to 40 percent.

Of course, politicians of all stripes are not faring well among the public these days. But in data we have recently collected, the Tea Party ranks lower than any of the 23 other groups we asked about — lower than both Republicans and Democrats. It is even less popular than much maligned groups like “atheists” and “Muslims.” Interestingly, one group that approaches it in unpopularity is the Christian Right.

That link leads to this article about the latest New York Times and CBS News poll. And the full results from that are here. That backs up the 20% favorable to 40% unfavorable response to the Tea Party (with the rest undecided or, basically, "don't know"), but it doesn't appear to have asked about atheists. (Of course, these two authors don't claim that it did. They just say "in data we have recently collected.")

However, the NY Times/CBS poll did ask about religion, and a whopping 19% answered "none." That's encouraging, don't you think? Indeed, although that's considerably less than "Protestant" at 50%, it's the same percentage as answered "Catholic." And it's far above "Jewish" (1%), "Muslim" (1%), and "Other" (6%). Another 4% replied with "don't know" or "not applicable," apparently. (I don't know what that's about.)

But let's go back to the original column:
Beginning in 2006 we interviewed a representative sample of 3,000 Americans as part of our continuing research into national political attitudes, and we returned to interview many of the same people again this summer. As a result, we can look at what people told us, long before there was a Tea Party, to predict who would become a Tea Party supporter five years later. We can also account for multiple influences simultaneously — isolating the impact of one factor while holding others constant.

Our analysis casts doubt on the Tea Party’s “origin story.” Early on, Tea Partiers were often described as nonpartisan political neophytes. Actually, the Tea Party’s supporters today were highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born, and were more likely than others to have contacted government officials. In fact, past Republican affiliation is the single strongest predictor of Tea Party support today. [my emphasis] ...

So what do Tea Partiers have in common? They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do.

More important, they were disproportionately social conservatives in 2006 — opposing abortion, for example — and still are today. Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics. And Tea Partiers continue to hold these views: they seek “deeply religious” elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates. The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government. [again, my emphasis, since it's clear these are the same people who gave us George W. Bush]

This inclination among the Tea Party faithful to mix religion and politics explains their support for Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. Their appeal to Tea Partiers lies less in what they say about the budget or taxes, and more in their overt use of religious language and imagery, including Mrs. Bachmann’s lengthy prayers at campaign stops and Mr. Perry’s prayer rally in Houston.

Yet it is precisely this infusion of religion into politics that most Americans increasingly oppose. While over the last five years Americans have become slightly more conservative economically, they have swung even further in opposition to mingling religion and politics. It thus makes sense that the Tea Party ranks alongside the Christian Right in unpopularity.

Encouraging, isn't it? Oh, not that Americans have become "slightly more conservative economically," of course. In fact, considering the disaster the right-wing has made of things in recent years, that we're actually more conservative now is hard to imagine. I mean, what would it take to discredit right-wing economic policy, if that hasn't?

But if we've moved even further in opposition to "mingling religion and politics," I guess I'll take that tradeoff and be quite pleased about it. I mean, if the Tea Party and the Christian Right are really that unpopular? You bet!

However, this is so very close to what I really want to believe that I'm going to remain a bit skeptical. No, I don't want to be depressed. But I'm not going to believe what two guys write in a newspaper just because I'd really, really like to believe it, either. I need more evidence than this.

So let's just view this as interesting and, yes, encouraging. The fact is, we need some encouragement. If we're discouraged and hopeless, we're all too likely to be apathetic. And in a democracy, that's disastrous. So if you can work up a little enthusiasm about this, that's not a bad thing at all.

More computer problems

I can't imagine how we managed without computers, but sometimes, I just want to take an axe to mine.

About three weeks ago, I lost my internet access for a few days. But that was only a bad modem. I had to wait for a new one to be shipped to me, but it wasn't a big problem or a huge expense. At the very least, the problem was relatively easy to diagnose, at least with the help of my ISP.

Then this week, on Tuesday, my uninterruptible power supply crapped out. But that was obvious. I don't know why - or even what, exactly, happened - but it was easy enough to buy a new UPS, so I was back up within hours.

Yeah, I didn't like the extra expense, but the hardest part of these things is usually just discovering which piece of hardware or software is causing the problem. (The howling alarm from the UPS, combined with the complete lack of power coming from it, was a pretty good clue this time.)

The rest of the afternoon, and all evening, my computer worked fine. But the next morning, I got the dreaded "blue screen of death" when I started the computer. And although I got it running a few times, and even ran a successful checkdisk, I kept getting that BSoD every 20 minutes or so.

So on Wednesday, I took the computer to the repair shop. Late in the day, I got the news: a bad motherboard. But wasn't that still under warranty? After all, this was the second time they'd diagnosed a bad motherboard. (Last time, when I just had an intermittent problem, it took them five weeks to finally repair my computer, and they installed a new hard drive first - without actually curing anything.)

"Oh, no," I was told. "I'm sure we didn't install this motherboard. I would have remembered ordering a board like this."  I was really sure that they had installed it, so I made him check his records. "No, I don't see it."

Well, I needed to think about what I wanted to do, anyway. But after I hung up, I checked my records. Yup, they'd installed the motherboard in December, 2009, so surely it was still under warranty. I called back and told them I had the invoice right in front of me. They'd definitely installed that motherboard only about a year and a half ago.

So OK, they found their records then, but there was a new problem. It was going to take up to two months to get the motherboard repaired or replaced under warranty. Now I was getting a little bit pissed. I didn't blame them for the faulty hardware. But on the other hand, I didn't buy the motherboard myself. I didn't even choose that brand (the computer had come with a different brand of motherboard).

I'd taken my computer to the repair shop a year and a half ago, and they'd diagnosed the problem and ordered a replacement motherboard they'd thought was of comparable quality. Maybe I was being unreasonable here, but I expected them to stand behind their choice.

To their credit, they agreed pretty readily to install a temporary motherboard - a cheaper one - while mine was being repaired or replaced. And although I had to pay for it, I'll get the cost of the motherboard back when they remove it again in a few weeks.

I'm still spending a couple of hundred dollars for labor, but even this lower-end motherboard would add a hundred to that. And I'm not going to be missing a computer for up to two months, either. So I'm quite happy with the deal...

...Especially since this does seem to have fixed the problem. My computer seems to be working fine, so apparently it was the motherboard. But what's going to go bad next?

This is like repairing a used car. How much money do you want to put into a used car before you finally decide to buy a new one? OK, maybe it's not quite like that. This was a high-end gaming computer when I bought it, but that was five years ago. And since then, I've had to replace everything but the case and the DVD burner (the power supply, the monitor, and the motherboard twice now).

Oh, well. I'd love to get a new computer, but I really don't need one. This one still does everything I want. And I've had major construction work done on my house twice so far this summer (not to mention needing a new furnace last winter). And given the way the stock market has been crashing, maybe I should be saving my pennies right now, huh?

I'm basically just bitching. If you can't gripe on your own blog, where can you? I seem to have computer problems about every six months or so, on average. And even when the parts are still under warranty, there's an expense. And the aggravation factor.

Really, it's hard to do without a computer these days. I've got my old Windows 98 machine, but as of three weeks ago, with this new modem, I can no longer use it to access the internet. I can still play games - old games, at least (but those are often what I'm playing, anyway) - but that's not the main reason why I need a computer.

It's amazing how quickly computers have become indispensable, isn't it?