Monday, October 31, 2011

The Fox News spin zone

Mason Crumpacker, one smart little kid!


Mason Crumpacker is the 8-year-old girl (now nine) who caused such a stir at the recent Texas Freethought Convention in Houston when she asked Christopher Hitchens a question.

Here's her mother's account of the event. It begins like this:
Finally, Mason’s mom Anne sends the following account of the episode:
“Mommy, I want to ask a question.”

I looked up from my cheesecake, “Yes?”

“No, I want to ask a question on the microphone.  Can I?”

“I suppose.” Sip of coffee.“Is it a good question?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Is it respectful?”

“Yes.”

“Fine.”

“Well, how do I do it?”

I’m back to the cheesecake, “You’ll need to find the man with the microphone.”

And then, in one of my more embarrassing parenting moments, my eight-year-old daughter trotted off into the darkened ballroom of approximately one thousand hardcore atheists in pursuit of an answer.

I won't post the rest, but it really is a great read. Christopher Hitchens, who's currently dying of cancer, ended up spending 15 minutes talking to the girl.

On Friday, the Dallas News published an interview with Mason. You can read the whole thing here, but I'll just pick out a few of the questions and answers I thought were particularly fun. (Remember, this girl has just turned nine.)
Why did you decide to go to an atheist convention?

I thought it would be interesting to meet different freethinkers and see what they thought about the world. I just wanted to boost my intellectual curiosity.

How does a religion have to “make sense”?

If someone questions [a religious belief] and just says, how do you know this is right? The priest says: Well, it’s in the Bible, isn’t it? Everything revolves around the Bible. Some people believe that if the Bible says it, it’s true, completely true. If I do decide to believe in something, they should have further proof.

Without religion, how would children distinguish between right and wrong?

I personally think they would have their parents to guide them along the way. And if their parents were raised right, they could have an open mind, have fun and be safe.

Why did you decide it was important to ask a question of Hitchens?

Because I had just found out that he was dying, and he’s a brilliant man. And I felt that his knowledge of the world shouldn’t be wasted, and that someone should continue what he started.

Where will he go when he dies?

Nowhere.

Did he answer you the way you expected to be answered?

Yes. He was very honest to me and very, very nice. I think all adults should be honest to kids with their answers and take them seriously. They’re living people, too. I especially hate when adults dumb it down for me.

So which are you, an atheist, an agnostic or a freethinker?

I wouldn’t say I’ve decided my religion yet. I’m going to kind of experiment around and see if there’s any religion I like in particular. But if I do decide to be a freethinker, the chances are very high. … I just want it all to make sense.

Is there anything that Hitchens has said or written that you don’t agree with?

I haven’t read Christopher Hitchens. I’m 9.

Why do you think we’re here? How did we get here?

By evolution. We evolved from tiny little microscopic cells, which formatted into bigger cells, which created the first fish, who slowly evolved into lizards, who became the dinosaurs. And then [they] kind of started over again but took a different path to becoming the first mammal, which became the chimp-like creature we call Australopithecus afarensis, who slowly evolved into Homo habilis, who evolved into Homo erectus, to Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon people who slowly gave way to who we are. [She turns to her parents.] Did I do good with that? … [She then translates each into French.]

These are the kinds of questions that occupy a lot of adult thought. People might want to know: Why aren’t you busy thinking 9-year-old thoughts? Why aren’t you just enjoying your childhood?

I am enjoying my childhood. I’m kind of shocked about that. I think questioning beliefs is good for a 9-year-old, since most 9-year-olds are halfway out of the house. It’s a good time to start questioning things and questioning their beliefs and making them become good people who know a lot about the world.

That's one smart little kid, isn't she? I particularly liked that, "I haven't read Christopher Hitchens. I'm 9."

Note that I just picked out some of the questions and answers from that interview. But it makes me a little more optimistic for the future if this is the kind of kids we Americans are raising.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Defense Keynesians

TPM calls them "defense Keynesians," Republicans who are eager to cut spending,... just not on anything they like.

And when it comes to cuts in defense spending, they use arguments which sound suspiciously Keynesian, arguments which they reject when it comes to spending on "health care, education, research, or safety net programs."
“What’s more, cutting our military—either by eliminating programs or laying off soldiers—brings grave economic costs,” wrote Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week. “[I]f the super committee fails to reach an agreement, its automatic cuts would kill upwards of 800,000 active-duty, civilian and industrial American jobs. This would inflate our unemployment rate by a full percentage point, close shipyards and assembly lines, and damage the industrial base that our warfighters need to stay fully supplied and equipped.”

“Should another $600 billion in cuts come to pass, at least 200,000 pink slips could be delivered to active-duty warfighters; at least 13 percent of our servicemembers will be forced out,” wrote Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) in Stars And Stripes last week. “Another 200,000 job losses will come to Department of Defense civilians working at installations across the country. We would be asking 1 in 4 highly skilled defense civilians to leave service.”

In an impact assessment last month, Armed Services Committee staff concluded that deep budget cuts — or, worse, the $600 billion trigger — would eradicate military, civilian defense, and defense industry jobs.

There’s truth to that. But where have these guys been the last 10 months?

Since they took over the House of Representatives in January, the GOP has been on a single-minded pursuit of deep cuts to almost to all other federal programs. They fought for $100 billion in immediate cuts to so called non-defense discretionary programs — education, research, health care, and others that receive annual funding from Congress — and $2.4 trillion in further cuts over 10 years to both discretionary programs and programs like Medicare, that are funded automatically.

That was the GOP agenda, despite a crippled economy, and despite warnings from economists that cutting government spending during a time of weak consumer demand would make things worse and could even risk a second recession.

Over the last 10 months, the GOP has dismissed or denied those warnings, in a number of ways. In the early days of the 112th Congress, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) touted the Republicans’ vision of a “Cut & Grow” economy — one that somehow produced new jobs as the result of a trimmed federal government.

During a February press conference House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) acknowledged that GOP-pushed cuts would likely result in public sector job losses but, he said, “If some of those jobs are lost so be it. We’re broke.”

Other Republicans stick to the notion that cutting simply implies more jobs. In March, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) knocked Democrats for failing “to produce any credible plans that cut spending in order to grow the economy.” And later, as co-chair of the Super Committee claimed “a path to credible deficit reduction is a jobs program.”

Yeah, cutting government spending is a "jobs program," except when it comes to defense spending, which Republicans love. Suddenly, when it comes to defense spending and only to defense spending, they acknowledge that cuts will make unemployment and our general level of economic activity even worse.

That's true, of course. So will cuts in health care, education, research, and safety net programs. And at a time when our only enemy is a rag-tag band of religious nuts using improvised explosives, it's hard to imagine why we really need to spend more on our military than the rest of the world combined.

But I'm just glad that the Republican Party has finally acknowledged the value of Keynesian economics. :)

Can James Van Praagh Talk With Dead People?



Funny, huh? "So if he won't talk to us and he won't talk to the media, we wonder if he won't talk to some dead people." Heh, heh.

Even if Van Praagh didn't want the money (he seems to be making a pretty good living with this scam), he could always donate it to charity, right? And can you think of anything which would convince the world better than demonstrating your talent to the James Randi Educational Foundation and winning a million dollars from them?

Damon Fowler's adventures with indoctrination


Here's an interesting guest post at MU SASHA, the University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics group.

What makes it particularly interesting is that it was written by Damon Fowler, the kid who caused such an uproar in Louisiana last May when he objected to sectarian prayers at his high school graduation ceremony.

An excerpt:
I stood in front of a large man in a suit; someone I’d known my whole life (as far as I could remember). With my mom standing next to me, he asked the question, “Would you like to accept Jesus as your lord and savior?” Not wanting to disappoint either, I said “yes”. I was about 4 years old. I didn’t understand what I was agreeing to and it certainly wasn’t an option to say “no”. This is one of my earliest memories as a child growing up in the small town of Bastrop, Louisiana, and the initiation of my indoctrination into the Christian faith.

When you’re indoctrinated, you’re taught to act and think a certain way. This usually occurs during the developmental years of a child’s life, attacking their brain when it’s like a sponge. It’s absorbing the world around it, learning how it works and how to be a part of it. Children look to authority figures (usually parents) for these examples, and when the parent is telling them that there is a force that controls the universe, that loves you, but will burn you in hellfire for eternity if you’re bad, the child believes. All of these older people telling me the same thing can’t be wrong, right?

Indoctrination has been compared to brainwashing many times, which I see as a faulty comparison. Brainwashing is the act of breaking down someone’s mind and removing preexisting beliefs so that they can become molded to anything you want. Indoctrination has no need to break down the mind. The mind is there and ready to be molded. All you need is a set of hands.

My family attended an Assembly of God church for my entire conscious life. All five brothers and sisters were forced to go twice every Sunday and once on Wednesday night. I never thought anything of it, because that was something that I grew with. My world was small, as a lot of people’s are as children. I knew nothing beyond Bastrop.

The few churches I attended could definitely be considered cults. There is no disputing that. All of the people within the church body were weak-minded, and you had a single authoritarian figure telling everyone what they should and shouldn’t like, what is sin, what they should allow their children to do. If the pastor called Harry Potter evil, Harry Potter is out of your house. It was obvious when observing my parents that they accepted anything their pastor had to say with no questions, as they had 3-4 different pastors, all with slight variations in opinions which mirrored onto my parents.

Growing up, I never knew of any other ways of thinking. I only knew about Christianity until I was nearly a teen. Then learned about all of the “wrong” religions, but I knew nothing more than their names and that they were wrong. Any outside beliefs were scorned or not even brought up. I didn’t even know what to call a person who didn’t believe in a god until I was around 15 years old and came across something on the internet.

All of my friends, family, teachers, authority figures were at least a theist. This forced me to think that Christianity was right. The majority of Bastrop was quite judgmental, anti-gay, and hypocritical. They did not exemplify what they expected of others. When indoctrinated, you not only inherit the belief itself, but since everyone does certain things, you consider those things to be norm. Yes, I used to be like them. I defended the Bible with weak evidence without even reading it, I was a homophobe, I was hypocritical, and I judged people. It was only in my early to mid teens that I actually considered that maybe it wasn’t the right way to do things. It took years to break those habits, and I feel I still have years of work ahead to erase many other things that were hardwired into my brain when I was younger.

There's more, and it's all good. He had, and still has, it much tougher than I did. My own experience was very easy, even though I, too, grew up not knowing any other atheists. And yet, Damon had the courage to stand up for what was right. I really admire that.

Just breaking free of this indoctrination must have been difficult enough. It doesn't sound like there were many people in his small Louisiana town who even accomplished that much. I didn't have to break free of anything. My religious indoctrination was far less intense, and it just never took. As far as I can remember, I was always amazed that other people actually believed that stuff.

Maybe that's why I so admire people who can break free of their early conditioning, people who start to think for themselves and - unlike most people who attempt that - actually decide that what they've been taught is wrong.

And then to take an unpopular stand to uphold the separation of church and state? Very impressive! I hope things go very well for Damon Fowler.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

QOTD: Marco Rubio haunted by his immigrant past

Quote of the Day:
Fortunately for Marco Rubio, he is a handsome, up-and-coming star within the Republican Party, whose Cuban roots have a particular appeal in South Florida and assisted his rise to national prominence. Unfortunately for Marco Rubio
He was the son of exiles, [Rubio] told audiences, Cuban Americans forced off their beloved island after "a thug," Fidel Castro, took power. But a review of documents — including naturalization papers and other official records — reveals that Rubio's dramatic account of his family saga embellishes the facts. The documents show that Rubio’s parents came to the United States and were admitted for permanent residence more than 2 1/2 years before Castro's forces overthrew the Cuban government and took power on New Year's Day 1959.
...
I think I know why this matters so much. According to some, if you escaped from Castro's Cuba after the Revolution, you're a sexy anti-communist exile, ready to work hard and defend freedom. But if you emigrated from Cuba while Castro was still hanging out in Mexico, you're just another Hispanic immigrant, coming to steal our jobs and take our welfare (somehow at the same time).

In fact, there's one U.S. Senator who has become particularly adept at distinguishing between different kinds of deserving and undeserving immigrants. - Ilya Gerner

The problem with relativism



This clip was first uploaded in May, but I thought it was important enough to post now.

Besides, it's far older than that. Note that this is just an excerpt from the Trialogues at the Edge of the Millennium at the University of California at Vera Cruz in 1998. There's a playlist here which may (or may not) contain the whole thing. Sorry, but I really don't have time to watch it now.

But this clip gets to something that's really important. How do you tell that what you believe is true, or even reasonable? Think about that. Republicans believe that you should think with your gut, instead of your brain, but this kind of thinking isn't just on the right.

Personally, I think that it's a good thing to have reasons - good reasons - for what you believe. Whatever you believe, ask yourself why you believe it. What makes you think that you're right? And how would you know if you were wrong? (If there's no way to tell if you're wrong, then you probably are wrong. You're probably just believing what you want to believe.)

Reason and logic are critical, but even they aren't enough without evidence. True, evidence-based thinking doesn't guarantee that you'll always be right, but it gives you a better chance of that. And if you are wrong, the evidence will eventually tell you that. (You do change your mind when the evidence indicates that you've been wrong, don't you?)

As I say, irrational thinking isn't just on the right. It's widespread on the far-left, too. It may not be quite as dangerous on the left, because those people have little political power these days, while the far-right controls the entire Republican Party. But it's certainly not harmless, either.

Now, I generally say what I mean. When someone else makes a claim, I think about it. I actually think about it. And if I disagree - or even if I'm not sure whether or not I agree - I often speak up. I figure that, if you've got reasons for what you believe, you'll tell me those reasons. And then I figure that I'll think about those, too.

But that's rarely how it goes. Most people seem to get upset by my objections. Why? Wouldn't you want to know if you were wrong? I would. And if you're not wrong, why would my comments bother you? Can't you just explain why you know you're right?

I try to be polite. Oh, not here on this blog. I don't bother much with politeness here, especially to people who'll never read what I say, anyway. But I do try to be polite elsewhere. Not polite enough, apparently. Or maybe my comments just seem that way.

But frankly, that's become my new method of spotting complete bullshit. If you get angry when I examine your claims, that's pretty good evidence that they're nothing but bull.

As I say, if you have good reasons for what you believe, you'll simply tell me those reasons. It's only when people can't, it's only when what they believe is complete nonsense, that they tend to get angry.

That's not a perfect way of telling shit from shinola, but it's a pretty good clue.

10 reasons Christians should reject Romney

Here's a post at World Nut Daily by a former chaplain in the U.S. Navy, giving the ten reasons why Christians should never vote for Mitt Romney.

Let me just list the first here:
Romney forced homosexual marriage upon Massachusetts.

Shocking, isn't it? Why haven't we heard more of this? Apparently, all Massachusetts residents now have to marry someone of the same sex!

I wouldn't want to be forced into marriage, not even a heterosexual marriage. How could Romney do this?

I hope there's at least an age limit. Surely children aren't forced to marry! When does homosexual marriage become a requirement, when they turn 18? Can they at least choose their own spouse? What if they can't find someone of the same sex who wants to marry them? Is there a lottery, then?

And as this columnist says, "But as governor, Romney didn't wait for the legislature to act, he just ordered the marriage licenses and weddings to go forward, all by himself."

Yeah, that's pretty shocking, alright. And the rest of his reasons are... similar. Worst of all, Romney even goes so far as to criticize Texas!
After visiting Houston, Romney criticized the city's aesthetics, saying, "This is what happens when you don't have zoning."

Now that's really going too far, don't you think? Forcing all Massachusetts residents into homosexual marriages is one thing, but criticizing Texas is serious! Yeah, I can't imagine how any Christian could vote for him after that, can you?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy

(image from Armchair General)

Years ago, I stumbled across a great computer game called Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord. Published by Battlefront.com, it was not your typical wargame.Yeah, it was a complicated, impressively detailed, authentic representation of World War II combat, but it was all presented in beautiful graphics.

It was turn-based, but with a twist. You had all the time in the world to give your units orders, but when you ended the turn, the game would calculate the results and then show the next minute's action on-screen. For that minute, you could only watch the results, as your soldiers attempted to carry out their orders.

You could watch the video over and over again, from any angle, zoomed in or out, and even lock the view to a particular unit, if you wanted. Once you were satisfied that you'd learned all you needed to learn from it - and enjoyed the action fully - it was time to move on and give orders for the next minute.

Now I'm not much of a wargamer. When playing computer games, I generally prefer building to destroying. And I would neither know nor particularly care that World War II was modeled authentically in this game, from the uniforms right right down to the smallest weapons.

But as a strategy game, Combat Mission was great fun. Well, it's been a few years since then, and there have been several new Combat Mission games, but it's not until now that I picked up the latest game in the series, a game which goes right back to the setting of the original. It's called Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy.

Basically, it's the same World War II game I loved in the past, but even better. The graphics are much better, for one thing, and every man in your troop is modeled individually. And although you can now play in pausable real-time, if you wish, it still has the old turn-based gameplay that I love, too.

I said I wasn't a fan of wargames, and I'm not a fan of war, either. I admire bravery and I like strategy, but I know the difference between real war and a computer game. This is realistic, in the sense that weapons and even soldier behavior is modeled accurately, but no one actually bleeds, no one actually suffers. In that sense, it's no more real than chess.

And it's really a great strategy game. Note that it's not easy. It's very complicated, with a significant learning curve. Luckily, it also has an extensive tutorial. So far, that's all I've been doing. I just finished the last tutorial battle today, and I've owned the game nearly a month already.

It's not that I haven't been playing it, but each battle takes a very long time. Well, it takes me a long time. You can watch YouTube videos (like this excellent tutorial, for example) which will give you a good idea of the gameplay, but I'm a lot slower than that.

Still, there's no hurry, and I like to take my time. The result, so far, has been great. I've been playing the Americans (outside the tutorials, you can play either side, I believe), and when I make any mistake at all, the Germans take advantage of it. In fact, that's a good way to learn. In most games, the AI is terrible. Here, you can really learn from how the computer plays the game.

(image from Blue's News)

For the most part, the Americans are on the attack, with the Germans defending. But at one point in the tutorial, American glider troops are defending a town from the attacking German army. For me, it was another good lesson in tactics.

I set up all my troops as best I could, trying for overlapping fields of fire. But on the first turn, the Germans shot smoke at two locations near our town, right where the gentle breeze would blow smoke across my front line. Within a couple of minutes, my guys couldn't see anything in front of them. So much for fields of fire!

Luckily, before I lost visibility entirely, I ordered a mortar attack at two locations where I thought it most likely the Germans would gather for attack. Note that that's kind of different, too. Mortar fire isn't magic. For one thing, you need a forward observer as a spotter, and he has to be able to see where he's directing the fire.

And he has to be able to communicate to the mortar team. This is World War II, so radios aren't overly common. Unless both are in radio contact, the mortar team needs to be close enough to the spotter to hear or see his commands. And finally, it takes awhile - usually at least three minutes before you get anything at all. So you have to direct mortar fire to where the enemy will be, not to where they are.

This time, it worked out perfectly. But I really had to work for the win. In a strategy game, that's just perfect!

I had another fun incident in that battle, too. You've got to realize that behavior is modeled quite well in this game, and that includes how human beings vary. In general, troops behave as you expect, but some are exceptionally brave, or exceptionally foolhardy, or exceptionally timid. You just can't predict everything that will happen.

In this case, I had a bazooka team hiding behind a "bocage" (basically, a heavily-wooded fence row), when a German halftrack drove into range. So on the next turn, I gave them orders to stop hiding (so they'd start shooting). But instead of shooting the armored vehicle with their bazooka, these idiots fired off a few shots with their rifles, giving away their position. Next thing I knew, they were dead.

I rushed another anti-tank team forward, but meanwhile, the gunner on that halftrack was playing havoc with my other troops. The funny thing is that they'd driven right to the spot where I'd targeted my mortars, and there was shrapnel as well as bullets flying everywhere.

Ordinarily, that would have suppressed the halftrack gunner, at least somewhat. But this happened to be a particularly brave guy, and he stayed on the job, firing at one of my squads after another, while mortars rained down all around him.

When my second anti-tank team missed with their first shot (they hit the hedge which gave partial cover to the halftrack), I thought we were sunk. But just then, one of our mortar rounds landed right on top of the open halftrack, destroying it completely. Yes, sometimes your luck is good. (Sometimes, even my luck is good.)

From what I've seen of wargames, many of them model this kind of thing, if not down to the level of the individual soldier. But this is the only one I know where you can watch how your orders play out. You see your guys firing. You see them hugging the ground, pinned by cover fire. And you see them dying. (And yes, a wounded man can be patched up and kept from bleeding to death, assuming that his teammates have the time to act as medics, while they're not under direct fire.)

As far as I'm concerned, this kind of gameplay is the best of both worlds. I can take my time setting up my troops and giving orders, making sure everything is how I want it. But then I can see those orders play out in a realistic gameworld, with beautiful graphics and at any level of detail I want.

YouTube has several videos of Combat Mission gameplay, if you're curious. (Here's another, the first of three battles. But note that only the third is in turn-based mode.) There's also a very extensive demo available at Battlefront.com. You can play quite a long time, with most of the gameplay features enabled, just to see if you like it before you buy it.

Really, you can't ask for more than that. Now I know this game won't appeal to everyone, but if you like strategy games or you find World War II fascinating, give it a try.

(image from Blue's News)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Science: What's it up to?

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I blogged about that global warming news the other day, but I thought it was well worth repeating. Besides, it's useful as an introduction to the second video clip.

Actually, it was worth it just for this: "Climategate was a huge news story. I'll bet debunking Climategate is going to be huuuger."  Then, after a whole lot of McRib: "I don't get this, man. Climategate was huge news! The debunking of Climategate got a total of 24 seconds of cable news coverage. Liberal media! Doh!"

OK, watch the video. It's better than my transcript of it, I assure you.

And it does provide a perfect lead-in to that second clip. What is science up to? Well, science wants to discover the truth. But the truth isn't very popular in the Republican Party. And that's putting it mildly!

How does Rick Perry know that "substantial numbers of scientists" have "manipulated data"? His gut tells him that. Evidence? Hey, he don't need no evidence! Evidence is for those evil brainiacs. No, real Americans don't use their brains, they use their guts.

And what makes this funny - as well as tragic - is that this Republican strategist doesn't have a clue how ridiculous she is. It seems perfectly reasonable to her to listen to her gut, rather than accept the scientific evidence:

"Scientists are scamming the American people right and left for their own finantshual gain." Does she have any evidence of this? "I think that every American, if they really thought about it, would have a gut feeling that some of these numbers that the scientists are putting out are not right."

But scientific results are peer-reviewed, checked and double-checked and triple-checked by independent researchers. Sure, they're all scientists. But the very best way to get ahead in science is to demonstrate that other scientists are wrong. There's no advantage to covering up the truth. You really have to know nothing about science to expect this kind of global conspiracy.

"Scientists are the only people qualified to comment on scientific theories. This is what raises doubt, with not only Republicans, but Americans."

Um,... what? So you just ignore scientists and believe whatever you want to believe? How does that make any sense at all? Are you going to ignore what doctors tell you, too, because only doctors are qualified to give medical advice?

This is today's Republican Party. Note that this isn't some random Republican in the street, some complete moron with no real knowledge about anything, much. This is a Republican Party strategist. These are Republican Party presidential candidates. These are the leaders of the party.

It's absolutely incredible, don't you think?

Why Occupy Wall Street?



Yeah, still with the videos. Well, what can I say?

Note that I particularly like Elizabeth Warren in this. (I'm not so sure about that "audit the Fed" stuff.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The pattern in the Republican presidential campaign

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Hey, when even Pat Robertson says that Republican presidential candidates are saying crazy things, you know it's bad! Of course, he still agrees with their lunacy. He just thinks they should be more discreet, keeping it a secret from the voters.

Well, maybe he's right (assuming, of course, that you have no ethical standards at all). But even sane Republicans - if there are any - are between a rock and a hard place. To get the nomination, you have to be crazy enough to appeal to the Republican base. And that's crazy, indeed.

But to win the general election, presumably, you have to show at least a little sanity. So if you go far enough into crazy-land to cinch the Republican nomination, it's going to make it just that much harder to win the general election. (This assumes, of course, that these people aren't as crazy as they sound. For some of them, at least, that's probably not a wise assumption.)

I still think that Mitt Romney has the best chance here. He's so phony that no one thinks he believes what he says. That hurts him in the nomination process, yes, but it will help him in the general election. He can say whatever crazy thing he wants right now, and everyone will just assume that he's pandering to the GOP base. I mean, it's just Romney. Of course he's lying.

And Republicans are faith-based. They find it easy to believe what they want to believe. It's still a stretch to believe that Romney has become one of them, but if they really, really want to believe it - and they will, if it's the best way to take power again - they'll rally around him.

Besides, who else is there? They don't really have any choice. (Republicans are not going to nominate a black man for the presidency, even one as loony as Herman Cain.) No, I still think it's going to be Romney. The Republican base will make him grovel, and they'll insist on a bona fide right-wing loon for vice-president, but they'll come around to Romney in the end, just as they rallied around John McCain in 2008.

But will that be better or worse for America? If Romney has a better chance of winning the general election, that's bad - especially since he'll still have to keep the Republican base happy. And we'll be more likely to have a Republican Congress, too. That's really bad.

Would even Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry be much worse than Romney, assuming that he'll continue pandering (which I think is inevitable, at least in his first term)? And he'll have a better chance of winning - and of getting Congress to go along with whatever he proposes. I don't know. It's all pretty scary, isn't it?

Maybe elections should be held on Halloween, rather than just after it...

Tort reform

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Incidentally, if you want the straight dope about that McDonalds hot coffee "frivolous lawsuit," check this out. Here's an excerpt:
Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was in the passenger seat of her grandson's car when she was severely burned by McDonalds coffee in February 1992. Liebeck, 79 at the time, ordered coffee that was served in a Styrofoam cup at the drive-through window of a local McDonalds.

After receiving the order, the grandson pulled his car forward and stopped momentarily so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. (Critics of civil justice, who have pounced on this case, often charge that Liebeck was driving the car or that the vehicle was in motion when she spilled the coffee; neither is true.) Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and attempted to remove the plastic lid from the cup. As she removed the lid, the entire contents of the cup spilled into her lap.

The sweatpants Liebeck was wearing absorbed the coffee and held it next to her skin. A vascular surgeon determined that Liebeck suffered full thickness burns (or third-degree burns) over 6 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. She was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent skin grafting. Liebeck, who also underwent debridement treatments, sought to settle her claim for $20,000, but McDonalds refused.

During discovery, McDonalds produced documents showing more than 700 claims by people burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some claims involved third-degree burns substantially similar to Liebecks. This history documented McDonalds' knowledge about the extent and nature of this hazard.

It sounds crazy to sue a restaurant because their coffee is hot, doesn't it? But who expects eight days of hospitalization and skin grafts from spilling coffee on yourself? Yes, coffee is hot, but this hot?

You've probably spilled coffee on yourself, haven't you? I certainly have. But I didn't get third degree burns from it. I wouldn't expect to get third degree burns. And McDonalds was selling this stuff through their drive-through window! Would anyone expect life-threatening danger from it? (Make no mistake, third-degree burns over 6% of your body is serious, especially for a 79-year-old.)

Corporations have a financial interest in tort "reform." And there are frivolous lawsuits, of course, but very few of them get very far in our court system. Note that most of them you see in emails are complete lies. (Check out this from Snopes.com, for example.)

This sums it up pretty well, I think (it's also from that article at Snopes):
When we hear such stories, it's hard not to be rabidly in favor of tort reform — these kinds of cases make it appear that the idiots have taken over the asylum and only the rapid institution of some rules is going to bring things back into a semblance of sanity. Yet this solution is not all skittles and beer; many see such changes as potentially denying those in need of legal remedy their day in court and refusing them their right to be heard. The cap on jury awards is also viewed by some as unfair to the seriously injured, who may well require a large sum to afford the cost of living with whatever disability someone else's negligence or recklessness left them with. Capped awards are also scant deterrent to large corporations who could easily afford the judgments against them and therefore have little reason to mend their ways. Big Business is poised to benefit under tort reform in that it will no longer need to fear the courts. ...

It's a complicated issue, one not made any easier to make sense of by lists of fake cases of horrendous miscarriages of justice. One has to wonder why someone is so busy trying to stir up outrage and who or what that outrage would ultimately benefit.

Herman Cain's campaign ad

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So, is this a deliberate attempt to appeal to the loons in the Republican base, or just more hilarious, but random, crazy from the GOP? Does the anti-science dogma of the Republican Party extend to the medical effects of tobacco? Still? I mean, there's crazy and then there's crazy, right?

Sure, big oil is following the playbook of big tobacco in attempting to sow doubts about real science. But come on! Tobacco did finally lose that fight, didn't it? Didn't it? I mean, are we Americans that dumb?

True, tobacco companies are still making money hand over fist. And it can't be just kids who are still buying the stuff, I suppose. (Just mostly.) So maybe this does appeal to the loons in the GOP base, I don't know.

But when I look at this ad, with one man taking a slow, satisfied drag from a cigarette, and then Cain giving that seductive smile, I can't help but think that those two men have just had wild, passionate gay sex. And that's not an image I want in my mind!

Make it go away! Please, make it go away!

Adam and Eve

Monday, October 24, 2011

Wall Street 2011


Just a few more political cartoons I thought were funny,... and appropriate.








The fantasy novelist's exam

From the introduction:
Ever since J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis created the worlds of Middle Earth and Narnia, it seems like every windbag off the street thinks he can write great, original fantasy, too. The problem is that most of this "great, original fantasy" is actually poor, derivative fantasy. Frankly, we're sick of it, so we've compiled a list of rip-off tip-offs in the form of an exam. We think anybody considering writing a fantasy novel should be required to take this exam first. Answering "yes" to any one question results in failure and means that the prospective novel should be abandoned at once.

Yeah, it's pretty funny - and all too true. I wish all fantasy authors were required to take this exam. :)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Homeopathy and the FDA

Sorry, I take it all back

I used to watch some Nebraska football - in this state, it's hard to avoid - but I haven't in years. And I've always been pretty dismissive about watching sports on television.

Yes, I'd say, I can understand the interest in playing sports. But sitting and watching someone else play them? It's not just a horrible time-waster, I actually find it hard to see anything positive about it.

But just today, I realized that I've been spending more time watching other people play computer games - in YouTube videos - than I've been spending playing them myself! Suddenly, I realized that I was being a real hypocrite criticizing couch potato sports fans.

OK, you've got me. I hereby apologize for everything I've said about watching football and golf on TV. And yes, even basketball, too. Hockey? Well,... I don't know. I've got to maintain some standards, right? :)

But yeah, I've been busy lately - trying to get some yardwork done while the weather's still nice - and I haven't wanted to spend too much time reading or playing games. But somehow, I've still worked in plenty of time for watching YouTube videos. And most of them have been of gamers playing games.

For example, I've been watching Tales of Lumin as he plays Minecraft, Terraria, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I've got the first two games myself, but Lumin goes into them without knowing very much about them. It was especially fun to see him play Minecraft. He brings a lot of enthusiasm to his gameplay.

I've never played Deus Ex - neither the original game nor this sequel - and it really doesn't seem to be my kind of game. But it's still a lot of fun to watch. (Note: for this and the other games mentioned here, click on the correct "playlist" on the right side of the screen at their YouTube channel. If you start with the first video clip in a series, they will usually load in order automatically after that.)

I've also watched Jef Major ("one 'F' Jef") play a number of games, including Mount&Blade, Silent Storm: Sentinels, and It Came from the Desert. I've owned Mount&Blade for a long time, and it's lots of fun, even though I'm really, really bad at it. But watching Jef play it makes me want to play again - or, better yet, buy one of the newer sequels.

Silent Storm is a game I somehow missed when it first came out. I really wish I could find a copy of it, because I'd love to play it. But it doesn't seem to be available anywhere. (The Sentinels expansion is still being sold, but you need the original game to play it.)

And I'd never even heard of It Came from the Desert. I don't suppose I'll ever play it, but I enjoyed the playthrough.

I watched Revocane play Fort Zombie and made the mistake of thinking I might be able to play it myself. Heh, heh. Well, it was only $10, so I wasn't risking much. But it's almost unplayable for me. I'm pretty bad at games like that, and the controls are just terrible. Frankly, it was a lot more fun to watch.

I also watched him play Dwarf Fortress a little bit - and Jef Major, too. But although that's a wonderful game, it doesn't work very well on a video clip playthrough. It's just too hard to tell what's going on. That's really one I need to play myself (and I will, again - sometime).

I watched Tanit playing Combat Mission: Shockforce, which got me to buy Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy, which I do intend to blog about sometime soon. It's lots of fun! And watching Box MacLeod playing Jagged Alliance 2: Urban Chaos got me to reinstall JA2, myself. (Ah, so many games, so little time!)

Even that isn't all of them. I've been watching gameplay videos for some time now - from Paul Soares, Jr., PlumpHelmetPunk, GrimithR, and many others. What can I say? It's addicting. Almost invariably, I get enthused and either buy the game or jump back into it, if I already own it. But I seem to spend far more time watching these videos than actually playing the games myself.

So, yes, I take it all back. I guess I understand why you watch sports on TV for hour on end. Of course, those games seem kind of dull to me, when you could be playing - or even watching - Minecraft, Silent Storm, or Mount&Blade. But to each his own. :)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Americans love the millionaire tax



68% to 27% is pretty darn popular! But is it popular enough to get timid Democrats to fight for it? Is it popular enough to keep Republicans from filibustering it? Is it popular enough to get Barack Obama to stand up and lead on this issue?

I guess we'll see, huh?

The Koch brothers accidentally fund real science

It really is pretty funny. Global warming deniers thought they had an ally in physicist Richard Muller, but it turns out that Muller is a real scientist after all.

From Mother Jones:
Physicists are notorious for believing that other scientists are mathematically incompetent. And University of California-Berkeley physicist Richard Muller is notorious for believing that conventional wisdom is often wrong. For example, the conventional wisdom about climate change. Muller has criticized Al Gore in the past as an "exaggerator," has spoken warmly of climate skeptic Anthony Watts, and has said that Steve McIntyre's famous takedown of the "hockey stick" climate graph made him "uncomfortable" with the paper the hockey stick was originally based on.

So in 2010 he started up the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project (BEST) to show the world how to do climate analysis right. Who better, after all? "Muller's views on climate have made him a darling of skeptics," said Scientific American, "and newly elected Republicans in the House of Representatives, who invited him to testify to the Committee on Science, Space and Technology about his preliminary results." The Koch Foundation, founded by the billionaire oil brothers who have been major funders of the climate-denial machine, gave BEST a $150,000 grant.

But Muller's congressional testimony last March didn't go according to plan. He told them a preliminary analysis suggested that the three main climate models in use today—each of which uses a different estimating technique, and each of which has potential flaws—are all pretty accurate: Global temperatures have gone up considerably over the past century, and the increase has accelerated over the past few decades. Yesterday, BEST confirmed these results and others in its first set of published papers about land temperatures. (Ocean studies will come later.) ...

In the press release announcing the results, Muller said, "Our biggest surprise was that the new results agreed so closely with the warming values published previously by other teams in the US and the UK." In other words, climate scientists know what they're doing after all.

According to TPM, the global warming deniers are already abandoning Muller:
“When we began our study, we felt that skeptics had raised legitimate issues, and we didn’t know what we’d find,” Muller wrote in a Friday Wall Street Journal op-ed. “Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups. We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that. They managed to avoid bias in their data selection, homogenization and other corrections. Global warming is real. Perhaps our results will help cool this portion of the climate debate.”

That’s put a small but influential group of anthropogenic global warming skeptics and climate change deniers on the war path.

Blogger Anthony Watts — a meteorologist and blogger who doubts greenhouse gases contribute to warming — was excited about Muller’s group’s work and in March boasted “I’m prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong.”

On Thursday he appended an asterisk to that contention — he can’t accept the group’s conclusions because they haven’t been peer reviewed.

“Since the paper has not completed peer review yet, it would be inappropriate for me to publicly comment on the conclusions, especially in light of a basic procedural error that has been discovered in the methodology that will likely require a rework of the data and calculations, and thus the conclusions may also change,” Watts wrote.

Taking a different approach, Marc Morano — a former aide to Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and author of the website Climate Depot has a different, subtler line of attack: “[T]he climate debate has not centered on whether the Earth has warmed since the end of the Little Ice Age about 1850 or since the 1950s. The climate debate is about how much humans may or may not be contributing to the warming trend,” Morano wrote Friday, calling Muller a “befuddled warmist.”
Climate Depot since at least March of 2011 had been publicly warning that Muller’s entire BEST project was a predetermined con set up to take down a straw man argument. See: On 3-23-11, Climate Depot wrote in group email to fellow skeptics: ‘This whole [Muller] project has to be a set up to screw skeptics. Who disputes warming has taken place? Why have we allowed Muller to set up a straw man argument to take cheap shots at skeptics? It appears Muller is incapable of running this project.
Funny, huh? I wonder what the Koch brothers think about their $150,000? Of course, that's chump change for them. But they probably won't make the mistake of picking a real scientist next time. Scientists tend to value the truth.

Then meets now

Was 1957 America better than today?

Here's an "outright rant" by scientist and SF author David Brin about one of those crazy emails that our relatives keep sending us. It's kind of funny, especially since I know exactly how he feels. I've seen similar emails many times. Heck, I might have received this exact one.

An excerpt:
All right… this one put me into fill-tilt rant mode!  It’s a reaction to one of those email circulars that our crazy uncles keep sending us – you know the kind, offering vast, sweeping, counter-factual assertions in lieu of evidence, logic or even common sense, all in order to justify hating half of their fellow citizens. I generally ignore them, but this one is wildly popular among millions of “values” Americans who have been talked into full-scale nostalgia. It needs an answer.

So read on only if you’re in a mood for pyrotechnics!

Nostalgia is for cretins. America was built by men and women who dreamed and built. Who believed – and believe – in progress. Who forgo the sick drug of hate and negotiate solutions. By people who respect skill and knowledge and the folks who have them.

America was not built by fellows like the author of this maudlin paean to yesteryear: HIGH SCHOOL — 1957 vs. 2010 who claims to have witnessed “how far our nation has declined socially, morally and spiritually…” proceeding to list scenarios such as: “Billy breaks a window in his neighbor’s car and his Dad gives him a whipping with his belt.

Brin proceeds to give some examples of how 1957 is worse than 2011, but then, to be fair, he gives some examples of how it was worse, too. Here's one:
1957: Thalidomide babies are born armless. The bald eagle almost vanishes. Unregulated, toxins leak into places like Love Canal. Lakes are dying everywhere. People die unnecessarily, neglecting to use seatbelts or helmets. School kids cry because the air hurts to breathe. Polio so terrifies parents that they keep children locked inside during summer, forbidding them from going to the public pool. (I remember it all.)

But in 1957 wise and good people dream of an era when scientists can help us all figure out what substances work and which ones do harm. Following 1957′s Sputnik scare, Americans think scientists are wonderful! Soon, Jonas Salk is the most popular man in America.

2011: Ungrateful imbeciles rage against science, following radio  ignoramuses into snits against vaccination, economics, meteorology, evolution, medicine and biology. Science has made terrific progress and we know tons more! Blue America keeps getting healthier and living longer. It’s an age of real wonders and American science literacy is second only to Japan’s.

But meanwhile, there’s another America – that keeps smoking and shovels down pork rinds, while self-righteously screeching that liberals are ordering them what to eat – (a damned lie).  And they die young.

And the War Against Science  (and every other profession that knows stuff — like journalists, teachers, doctors, professors, civil servants, attorneys and skilled labor) rages on. Yep, some things are much worse.

It's pretty good. It's the kind of post I've been meaning to write. Of course, I don't get many of those loony emails these days (because I answer them, in detail). But I still get some.

In particular, I get emails filled with complete lies, that anyone could tell were complete lies if they just spent 60 seconds or so at Snopes.com. But no, that's too much to ask, huh? So these crazy things get forwarded on to everyone they know.

But I'll let David Brin do the ranting, at least for today. He does it pretty well.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Bill O'Reilly, the pinheaded patriot

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The death of Muammar Gaddafi

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Think about how this would have gone if a Republican president had been in charge. Yeah, and for the death of Osama bin Laden, too.

Obviously, there would have been an orgy of über-patriotism. Heck, George W. Bush would probably have worn his flight suit even to bed! And he would have pranced around playing "Commander-in-Chief" more than he did already.

Republicans would have exulted in that orgy, but Democrats would have tried to outdo even them in conspicuous, over-the-top patriotism. Can you imagine, in that circumstance, anyone shrugging it off as a win for Britain and France, not America? Can you imagine even that "too soon to tell" narrative from a Democrat, if a Republican had accomplished all this?

Muammar Gaddafi (or however you spell it - there are a million different ways in the Western press) was a murderous madman who oppressed his own people and hated America. You cannot exult in the death of Saddam Hussein - at the cost of trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives - without being even happier at this result, at no cost in American life at all (and very little financial cost, relatively speaking).

Unless you're a Republican, of course. If you're a Republican, then anything a Democrat does is reason for disapproval and dismay. If Barack Obama walked on water, it would be seen as showboating, and they'd claim he was pretending to be Jesus (while also insisting that George W. Bush showed him how to do it).

Crazy, isn't it? "Is there no one, is there no Republican that can be gracious and statesmanlike in this situation?" No, Jon Stewart, there isn't. That's the Republican Party in America these days.

But I do like Andrew Sullivan's comment about this (posted earlier): "To rid the world of Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki and Moammar Qaddafi within six months: if Obama were a Republican, he'd be on Mount Rushmore by now."

Why Richard Dawkins won't debate William Lane Craig

Richard Dawkins has a column in The Guardian explaining why he won't debate William Lane Craig, the Christian apologist:
For some years now, Craig has been increasingly importunate in his efforts to cajole, harass or defame me into a debate with him. I have consistently refused, in the spirit, if not the letter, of a famous retort by the then president of the Royal Society: "That would look great on your CV, not so good on mine". ...

But Craig is not just a figure of fun. He has a dark side, and that is putting it kindly. Most churchmen these days wisely disown the horrific genocides ordered by the God of the Old Testament. Anyone who criticises the divine bloodlust is loudly accused of unfairly ignoring the historical context, and of naive literalism towards what was never more than metaphor or myth. You would search far to find a modern preacher willing to defend God's commandment, in Deuteronomy 20: 13-15, to kill all the men in a conquered city and to seize the women, children and livestock as plunder. And verses 16 and 17 are even worse:
"But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them"

You might say that such a call to genocide could never have come from a good and loving God. Any decent bishop, priest, vicar or rabbi would agree. But listen to Craig. He begins by arguing that the Canaanites were debauched and sinful and therefore deserved to be slaughtered. He then notices the plight of the Canaanite children.
"But why take the lives of innocent children? The terrible totality of the destruction was undoubtedly related to the prohibition of assimilation to pagan nations on Israel's part. In commanding complete destruction of the Canaanites, the Lord says, 'You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons, or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods' (Deut 7.3-4). […] God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel. […] Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God's grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven's incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives."

Do not plead that I have taken these revolting words out of context. What context could possibly justify them? ...

A later post by Craig is – if possible – even more shocking. Referring to his earlier article (above) he says:
"I have come to appreciate as a result of a closer reading of the biblical text that God's command to Israel was not primarily to exterminate the Canaanites but to drive them out of the land.[…] Canaan was being given over to Israel, whom God had now brought out of Egypt. If the Canaanite tribes, seeing the armies of Israel, had simply chosen to flee, no one would have been killed at all. There was no command to pursue and hunt down the Canaanite peoples.

It is therefore completely misleading to characterise God's command to Israel as a command to commit genocide. Rather it was first and foremost a command to drive the tribes out of the land and to occupy it. Only those who remained behind were to be utterly exterminated. No one had to die in this whole affair."

So, apparently it was the Canaanites' own fault for not running away. Right.

Would you shake hands with a man who could write stuff like that? Would you share a platform with him? I wouldn't, and I won't.

Yeah, it's OK to murder children, because they're better off for it. Think about that. What kind of insane maniac would believe something like that?

And it's not really murder, because if your home is invaded, you can always just run away, right? If you stay to try to defend your home and protect your family from losing everything, instead of running off to die of starvation and exposure in the wilderness, well, it's your own fault, huh?

Once before, I blogged about William Lane Craig's appalling beliefs. That post got quite a few comments from believers. Oddly enough, none tried to defend Craig, though. Apparently, that was too difficult to even attempt.

Let's face it, there's only one reason why Craig attempts to justify such things, anyway. As a Christian, he believes that the Bible is the word of God. Therefore, he must either ignore or explain away the really disgusting parts of it (just as believers either ignore or explain away those parts of the Bible that are flat out wrong in a scientific sense, too).

A rational person would just note that the Bible was written - and rewritten - by scores of rather primitive people, people who didn't know as much as we do about the world and whose ethical beliefs were deplorable. They were simply wrong. No problem.

But a believer starts out with certain Truths that he won't question and can't abandon. To a Christian, the Bible isn't just some book. A believer isn't trying to determine the truth, since he thinks he already knows it. Instead, he's just trying to justify that belief.

Anyone can be wrong, but it takes religion to believe really crazy stuff like this. Without religion, this wouldn't be difficult at all. Any of us would understand how wrong it is.

William Lane Craig desperately wants to be noticed, but I'd say he doesn't deserve to be taken seriously. Besides, he already debated Christopher Hitchens, at Biola University two years ago. If you're curious about how that went, here's the whole thing.

QOTD: A tale of two presidents

Quote of the Day:
A reader writes:
Bush and Saddam - One Trillion dollars and thousands of US lives.

Obama and Qaddafi - One Billion dollars and zero US lives.

Meep Meep indeed.

And this time, the Arab world loves us as well.

To rid the world of Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki and Moammar Qaddafi within six months: if Obama were a Republican, he'd be on Mount Rushmore by now. - Andrew Sullivan