Monday, April 30, 2012

Creationist accepts evolution

Funny, isn't it? Hovind accepts everything about evolution, but the name.

Of course, he'd deny that, but... well, you watched the video, right?

The funniest thing is this whole idea of getting a five-year-old to decide what's the same "kind" of animal. I suppose that's because, if you're much older than that, you'll realize just how stupid it is.

Without a definition of "kind," it's pretty worthless as a term, isn't it? Well, Hovind had a definition, but he didn't stick with it, because it would have proven him wrong. But would a five-year-old consider a Tasmanian wolf the same "kind" as a dog? Almost certainly, especially if his other choice was a banana!

And what's with the creationist fascination with bananas, anyway? (Of course, the really hilarious thing about Ray Comfort's argument is that bananas are a domesticated fruit, with the Cavendish banana specifically selected by human beings for the traits we like. And I'm a little uncertain about that whole "point at the top for ease of entry" comment. I really don't think I want to know...)

Anyway, I thought this video clip was excellent. But I'm sure it won't convince anyone who really wants to believe what he wants to believe.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Animal morality: a sense of fairness

This is a very brief excerpt (2 minutes) of a longer talk (17 minutes), which I'll embed below the fold. If you have the time, I recommend the whole thing. But this little excerpt will give you the general idea.

As we get better at studying other animals, we learn that morality - or the basics of it, at least - isn't limited to human beings. A sense of fairness isn't morality in itself, but it's an important part of it. And the longer video clip also shows examples of cooperation, empathy, and reciprocity.

The evidence seems clear that we evolved our basic moral instincts. There's no need for a god to tell us what to do. We can figure that out for ourselves, given those feelings which other animals also feel, to some extent.

For human beings, like other social animals, it's not a dog-eat-dog world. After all, we live together. We survive and thrive in groups, not as solitary individuals. For human beings - and for chimps - cooperation is even more important than competition.

It's ironic that chimpanzees seem to understand that better than many humans.

Anyway, I thought this was neat. Check below the fold, if you want to watch the whole 17-minute talk. (Note the end, where Frans de Waal says that "philosophers need to rethink their philosophy." I'll be posting something about that soon, if I can find the time.)

"Dog and Dragon" by Dave Freer

(cover from

Dog and Dragon (2012) by Dave Freer is the sequel to his 2009 fantasy, Dragon's Ring, which really impressed me.

As I said then, I knew that Freer could write appealing characters, but the book surprised me by being a lot better than I expected. This book, on the other hand, was exactly what I expected, and that's both good and bad.

The main characters are the same - with the possible exception of the dog, which gets a lot more attention here - and they're still appealing. The book begins right where Dragon's Ring left off, and you know exactly what to expect.

But that's kind of the downside, too, because you know exactly what to expect from the book, right from the start. The first book surprised me because it was better than I expected. But one thing this one will never do is surprise you.

Now, don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the book. It's a fast, easy read, and I enjoyed spending time with these characters again. If you liked the first book, you'll probably like this one. But I really hope he's not going to write a series of these. Freer can do better than this.

As I said, the main characters are still appealing, and so are the minor characters. Dave Freer has a real knack for writing characters we care about. But this is really a generic fantasy, even more than the first book (which had some features I particularly liked).

You could write the plot for this one in your sleep, and I kind of hate to see Freer waste his talent that way. I'm not going to tell you what that plot is, because that will give away the ending of the first book, and I hate to write spoilers. But let me just say that, if you've read the first book, you'll know exactly where this one goes.

Of course, sequels generally have the problem that readers already know a great deal about the characters and their world, so sequels are rarely as good as the initial book. It takes a really good author to overcome that - someone like Lois McMaster Bujold, for example.

She does it by finding new things to tell us about her characters and her world, and also by introducing additional characters - important characters - as the series continues, characters who also develop as she finds new things to tell us about them, too.

In Dog and Dragon, the world is actually new, but it's very generic and quite a bit like the old one. The main characters are the same, and Freer doesn't find anything new to tell us. They're still appealing, but we already got to know them in the first book.

The minor characters are appealing, too, but most of them are very minor.  And as in the first book, there's no way to become attached to most of them, or to any particular setting, either. For the most part, Freer's primary characters move through their worlds without becoming attached to anything but each other.

I don't want to give you the wrong impression. I enjoyed this book. I sat down and read it in a single day. And if you enjoyed the first book, too, you'll probably enjoy this one. But it's like cotton candy - not much substance to it. So it's also a bit disappointing.

As I said about Dragon's Ring, I'd like to see Freer turn to science fiction for his next book. Fantasy tends to be pretty light-weight anyway, and I'd like to see his characters set into a world with more substance.

At the very least, I'd like to see his characters develop ties, instead of moving through their lives like characters from a television series, encountering new people and new problems every week without becoming attached to any of them.

Yes, Freer can write appealing characters, but does he have anything important to tell us about the human condition? Does he have anything important to tell us about... anything much? Entertainment is great, but I'm not a huge fan of cotton candy. How about some meat?

And Dragon's Ring was really quite impressive. He showed a lot of promise there, even more than in A Mankind Witch, which I also enjoyed. (Sorry, no review of that one.) There were small parts of Dragon's Ring which really added to the experience.

So I have a lot of hope for Dave Freer. I don't want him to turn into another Piers Anthony (as lucrative as that might be for him). I think he can do better than that, and better than this.

Dog and Dragon was fun enough for an idle afternoon, and I hope he makes some money from it. But I also hope he thinks about what he's doing next time. I hope he challenges himself. He knows how to write appealing characters, and that's very important to me. But that needs to be only the start of writing good fiction.

2012 White House Correspondents Dinner

These are always a lot of fun, don't you think? I'd say last year's speech was better, but this was pretty good, too.

And here's Jimmy Kimmel:

If you're curious here's Seth Meyers in 2011. (Note his comments about Donald Trump,... and Trump's stone-faced expression in response.)

And here's the great Stephen Colbert in 2006. Yeah, I couldn't resist posting the link to this again.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Obama and Romney speak to students

I thought the contrast here was pretty funny, especially the expressions on student faces behind the speakers. Of course, those people are always hand-picked by the campaign, but in Romney's case, they hardly seemed like they wanted to be there.

Yeah, these are just brief excerpts, maybe not representative of the entire speech from either candidate, but I did think it was pretty funny.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Fox News fraud on voter fraud

And you wonder why Fox 'News' viewers believe in such things?

Fox is the propaganda arm of the Republican Party. Or, it might be more accurate to say that the Republican Party is the political arm of Fox. Either way, Fox is trying to elect Republicans, and they're not too concerned about what methods they use.

In this case, if Republicans make it difficult for Democratic-leaning constituencies to vote, then that will depress votes for Democrats. After all, the easier you make it to vote, the more people who will vote. And vice versa.

This will affect elections far, far more than the kind of voter fraud that's one person pretending to be someone else, which would require a massive conspiracy that would never, ever stay a secret for long. No, if there were a big problem with that kind of voter fraud, the Republicans would have found it.

They've certainly been searching long and hard for just such an excuse. The Bush Administration even fired federal prosecutors who weren't eager enough for their voter fraud witch hunts. And, obviously, they certainly wouldn't have to lie about this stuff if they'd ever found anything.

Our place in history

Another great video! This one really makes you appreciate how fragile life is, doesn't it?

Each of us could die at any moment. We will die, each of us, at some point. In fact, our whole species could be wiped out by just one asteroid, just one supernova, just one gamma ray burst.

Even easier - much, much easier - our civilization could collapse. How many years would it take to struggle up out of that, especially without the easy resources we've already depleted.

None of this should make us cower in our beds, afraid to get up in the morning. Our ancestors faced the same dangers - much worse dangers, in fact - and faced them bravely. No, this isn't an excuse to fear, but a reason for resolve.

Of course, the dinosaurs didn't know they were doomed, and we do. Well, then, we must treasure every day. We must work to change what we can and face what we can't, while never forgetting to appreciate what we have.

You won a lottery, just by being born. And you won another by being born in our modern era of abundant food, effective medical care, and widespread opportunity. An asteroid could strike tomorrow,... but it probably won't.

So we do what we can to make a good life, not just for ourselves but for others - and for others not yet born. We study. We learn. Eventually, we'll want to leave this planet - some of us - so one asteroid won't take us all out. (And before then, we'll want to learn to defend ourselves.)

Eventually, we'll want to leave this solar system - some of us - so one gamma ray burst won't wipe us out. But none of us alive today will be here for that. So be it.

We've already seen more wonders than Aristotle, more wonders than Galileo, more wonders than Isaac Newton. Should we be greedy? Should we be upset that we won't see them all?

Well, you can be upset if you want, but it won't change matters. That's reality.

We live at a time when videos like this can thrill us, amaze us, inspire us. Let's do our part to make sure future humans have it even better. That's our place in history.

"To Say Nothing of the Dog" by Connie Willis

(cover from

This was a re-read for me, but I enjoyed it just as much the second time. Of course, I love this kind of humor.

It's funny, but To Say Nothing of the Dog (1998) is set in the same time-travel universe as her earlier Doomsday Book - an incredible book, powerful and heartrending, first published in 1992 - which won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best science fiction. (Note that this one also won the Hugo Award.)

Well, it's the same up-time setting as her recent Blackout and All Clear, too. But if you expect the same thing, you'll be quite surprised, because To Say Nothing of the Dog is pure comedy. The difference, of course, is the down-time setting. The Victorian age probably has more potential for humor than the Black Death and the London Blitz combined, don't you think?

This book actually starts during the Blitz (which is definitely a favorite setting for Connie Willis), though in Coventry, in the recently bombed-out cathedral. Historian Ned Henry is searching the rubble for the bishop's bird stump, a truly execrable piece of Victorian bric-a-brac (not the typical "bird stump" vase, but something made of heavy wrought iron).

Time-travel had been discovered decades previously, but when it proved to be impossible to plunder the past - since time-travelers couldn't bring items back with them - corporations had abandoned the effort, leaving it to university researchers. These historians, always short of funds, had to keep their wealthy donors happy. Hmm,... it's really a pretty plausible near-future, isn't it?

Anyway, Ned Henry has been making so many jumps into the past, at the request of their patron, Lady Schrapnell, that he's become time-lagged. So to let him rest, and keep him far from Lady Schrapnell, he's sent to the Victorian age on vacation.

Only, that's not the only reason he's sent there. Unfortunately, due to the symptoms of time-lag, he arrives with no clue to what he's supposed to be doing or who he's supposed to meet. And he ends up changing history in small ways which appear to be a real threat to the future - potentially even changing the result of World War II.

But that comes later. At the start, To Say Nothing of the Dog is laugh-out-loud funny. (The title comes from Jerome K. Jerome's hilarious 1889 travel book, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), which is a wonderful read itself. In fact, Ned encounters those other boaters at one point.)

This is largely a comedy of upper-class Victorian mannerisms, and Connie Willis does a great job with it. But the book is so full of details - penwipers, Napoleon's hemorrhoids, nacreous ryukins, Ensign Klepperman (who, like the bishop's bird stump, didn't actually exist, but should have) - that it's really an amazing effort.

After a hundred and fifty pages, I just couldn't see how Willis could keep going. (The book is almost 500 pages long.)  But she does. The key, I think, is that To Say Nothing of the Dog changes. The first part of the book is laugh-out-loud funny, but although it stays humorous, there's more to the book than that.

For one thing, it becomes more of a romantic comedy, once Ned gets together with Verity Kindle, a fellow historian. But more than that, there's a mystery that becomes more and more important to the story.

The problem with time travel, after all, is that you might accidentally change history. Now, this is a humorous book, so we're pretty sure nothing serious is going to happen. But the characters don't know that, and they become increasingly concerned.

Apparently, there's a self-repairing mechanism where the timeline will - somehow - keep the general course of history the same, even if the minor details differ. But even small changes can have a big effect. Everything is connected. Pull on one string, and the whole fabric might unravel.

Now, none of this is plausible, not at all. But come on, it's time travel! You pretty much have to accept the premise in a story like this, or you won't have any time travel stories at all. There's a reason why this is science fiction.

And it's not just fiction, it's humorous fiction. If you can't accept the premise of humorous science fiction - pretty much whatever it is - then I'd just forget about it.

At any rate, if you're willing to accept the premise of To Say Nothing of the Dog, it's not just funny but suspenseful, too. The main characters are appealing, and they're also trying to mend the tear in the continuum - at least, as they see it. And there are several mysteries along the way.

So the book... progresses, I guess. It's not 500 pages of Victorian jokes, which would get a bit old after awhile. It stays humorous, but as the story develops, there's more and more to it. The last part of the book is particularly hard to put down.

And it's rather an optimistic book, too. I mean, it's easy to like the people of our future (the time travelers are from 2057). And although terrible things have happened in their past, they've survived with their humanity intact. It's not at all a bad place, the England of 2057.

These days, there seems to be a shortage of optimistic near-future science fiction (admittedly, almost all of the action in this book takes place in the past). And there also seems to be a real shortage of humorous science fiction. For me, this does the trick in both respects. I loved it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Rational thoughts on the divine

I've seen similar video compilations, but I thought this one included some particularly interesting observations.

I especially liked Richard Carrier's comment that a human brain is an energy hog (and it requires a skull so big that childbirth regularly killed mothers). If we don't actually need a brain to think and feel and remember, if a flesh-and-blood brain is entirely superfluous, why in the world would an "intelligent designer" give us one?

And as Sam Harris says, for those who think that a fertilized egg is a "person," because that's when God gives it a soul, what happens when a zygote splits into identical twins? Do they each get half a soul?

How about when two embryos fuse into one individual? What happens to the extra soul? Or does that person have two souls, then? As Harris says, that "arithmetic of souls" doesn't make any sense.

Finally, Vilayanur Ramachandran talks about studying split-brain patients. One side of a person's brain believes in God; the other doesn't. What happens to that person after he dies? Will God cut his soul in half, one part to be tortured forever, while the other half experiences unending bliss?

Those were just a few highlights. Stephen Fry was also excellent, as usual. Really, I thought the whole thing was very well done.

Hating on the young for being young

Do elderly conservatives hate young people for being young? That's the suggestion of this post at Pandagon.

An excerpt:
Needless to say, [Rep. Virginia] Foxx considers herself "pro-life". I point this out, because "pro-life" people want you to believe that they're in it not to punish women for being sexual, but that they just really are The Protectors of the Young. Well, that's clearly bullshit. Anyone who really cared a whit about the young would take this student debt and employment crisis seriously. I'd argue that instead of actually being protectors of the young, conservatives are haters of the young. Anti-choice is actually a piece of this, because the idealized victim of their policies is a young woman, being punished for her youth and sexuality. It really comes across in the comments of this article about the employment/debt crisis that Atrios linked:
They want to go to a boutique college, borrow money or receive grants to cover the $50K tuition, major in an arcane subject like gender studies or urban anthropology, and then have someone hand them a well paying job, so they can maintain a hipster lifestyle in a trendy neighborhood.

Here are the most popular majors, in order, according to the Princeton Review: business, psychology, nursing, biology, education, English, economics, communications, political science, and computer science. It seems that kids are mostly picking majors that will lead to the kind of professional careers that they're told they should want. This commenter betrays himself with his ignorance, sure, but also with the phrase "hipster lifestyle". This is all about hating the young for being young, wanting them to suffer because they still have hard bodies and high libidos while your aging body makes it increasingly hard to ignore that death is coming for all of us. It's basically asshole behavior, believing that you had a right to be young, but no one else does now that you aren't anymore. ...

Please review that list of the most popular majors to understand what an asshole this guy is. One in every four degrees handed out is a business degree. The notion that kids aren't viewing their education as job training is a farce. On the contrary, the complaint now is that students are too focused on how to get from school to work, and find any class that doesn't have immediately obvious relevance for future employment to be a waste of time. Once again, the underlying sentiment here is that now that the commenter is no longer young, no one else has a right to be, and that young people should have grim, colorless lives so that he feels better about not being young anymore.

These people aren't the protectors of the young. Remember these attitudes every time a conservative waxes on about how they love babies. If they really did, they would want those babies to have meaningful lives with joy and color in them, not the grim existences of all work and no play that these wingnuts feel is the only acceptable youth now that theirs is gone.

I'm no longer young, myself, but there might be something to this.

Partly, I suppose, it's just human nature. One of the favorite occupations of the old is to complain about the young.

Do we just forget what it was like when we were that age? Is it all a matter of remembering the past through rose-colored glasses, or more that we simply find it easy to excuse our own behavior, when focusing so intently on everyone else's?

And conservatives find it harder than most to keep up. These people drag their feet as society advances, ending up completely out of step in the modern world (even more so than the rest of us). That seems to make them angry - angry, perhaps, at their lost youth, angry that the world has moved on without them.

And so, a person who was once young himself becomes a grumpy old man, yelling at the kids to stay off his lawn. But always "pro-life": loving fetuses, while ignoring children and hating youth.

I don't know. Are most conservatives like this, or just the wingnuts who've taken control of today's Republican Party? Or is it something else entirely?

It's an interesting thought - and maybe worth remembering when you get older. :)

Unlike some people

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Fox 'News.' What else can I say? They're not really a news network, but the propaganda arm of the Republican Party. Of course they're going to misquote Barack Obama. If you expect them to be accurate, let alone 'fair and balanced,' you haven't been paying attention.

I'm shocked, though, that at least two newspapers haven't gotten that message. Well, one newspaper, anyway. After all, the New York Post is also owned by Rupert Murdoch. I'm sure they've got the same mandate to elect Republicans as Fox.

But there's another thing about this. Listen to Barack Obama in those excerpts. It's not just that he wasn't attacking Mitt Romney (not even by implication). He was saying something important.

Public education used to be valued by all Americans. This is how you gave kids a chance. Free public education and affordable universities meant that middle class people could also get a good education, that it wasn't reserved just for the wealthy.

Well, college tuition costs have been skyrocketing, and we've been laying off teachers in order to give tax cuts to the rich. Schools in many poor districts hardly deserve the name.

We are developing a hereditary aristocracy here, and we're doing it deliberately. Republicans are even trying to eliminate the estate tax! And again, they're slashing spending on anything the rich don't need - like public education.

If you're lucky enough to be Mitt Romney, born into wealth, you've got it made. You don't even have to pay the same tax rate as the little people. And note that his sons already have a $100 million trust fund, so they'd never really have to work a day in their lives. This is a hereditary aristocracy in all but name.

If your parents aren't so rich, though - and especially if they're poor - well, you should have thought of that before you picked them. When I was young, a kid could still hope, with a little luck, to pay his own way through college. I'd sure hate to try that now!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Atheist Experience: skepticism

This is an excerpt from the Atheist Experience TV show, episode #692, with hosts Matt Dillahunty and Don Baker.

This is my perspective, too. First and foremost, I'm a skeptic. I think that the truth matters, and that it's a good idea to have evidence backing up your beliefs (and no, that thought is not original with me, either).

I come by my atheism because of my skepticism, because no religion or religious belief seems to have real evidence backing it up. Well, religions are faith-based, not evidence-based, for good reason. It's not coincidence that Doubting Thomas wasn't presented as a role-model in the Bible. (If you haven't read your Bible, the lesson was "believe as you're told.")

Now, it's not that every religious person is going to burn witches alive or fly planes into buildings, but when you believe by faith, anything is possible. And although a lack of skepticism is damaging in many areas of our society, religion seems to pose the biggest danger to civilized society these days.

Moderate and liberal believers are a lot easier to get along with than the fanatics, but they still end up supporting faith-based thinking. After all, when you believe by faith, how can you really say that anyone else is wrong when he uses the same method to determine the truth that you do - faith?

Evidence-based thinkers tend to come to a consensus on what's true and what isn't. Science doesn't depend on where you were born or what your parents thought. And that consensus is what allows science to progress, continually building on previous discoveries.

Skepticism is all about being evidence-based. (No, it's not the same as disbelief or denial.) We skeptics apportion our belief to the evidence. Well, we care about the truth. Even if we'd prefer a fantasy, we want to deal honestly - maybe even courageously - with reality.

We think that's a good thing - and we have evidence to back that up. :)

QOTD: Screw you. My mom worked.

Quote of the Day:
The last one may be one of my least favorite of meaningless platitudes in circulation in the U.S., the whole "stay-at-home moms are the hardest working, bestest people that ever worked!" one. It's a common feature on STFU Parents, with housewives braying about how, unlike everyone else, they work 24/7 and don't get vacations and blah blah.

There's a very serious and insulting problem with this platitude: It carries with it the assumption that working mothers (a term that is commonly understood to mean women who have paid employment while raising children at home) don't raise their children.

Think about it: [Ann] Romney is saying she made the "choice" to raise her five boys by staying home, as if her boys would have gone unraised if she'd had a job outside of the home. To which I say, screw you. My mom worked. [WCG: My mom worked, too. And screw anyone who says she didn't work twice as hard as Ann Romney.] In this country, most moms work. Their kids don't run around like wild animals, naked and barefoot and killing pigeons to survive. Hell, in some families, believe it or not, dads some times pitch in and raise their kids. (That last bit was mega-sarcasm, for the utterly literal.)

[Hillary] Rosen's point stands. Romney's tweet actually confirms that she has no idea what it's like for most women to be out there, worrying about how to make enough money to take care of themselves and their families. That she had the choice to stay home makes that very clear. And that's even if you don't know about Romney's financial situation. The reality is that she could afford economic dependence, because if she ever got divorced, her alimony payments would be enough to keep a whole neighborhood of single mother-led households afloat. Hell, Romney doesn't even have much in common with most stay-at-home moms. In the real world, many stay-at-home moms are living in poverty, unable to afford a job because of the costs of child care, and often living on a patchwork of family help, food stamps, and under-the-table employment. Even those who don't live in poverty are often living in a much more financially precarious situation than the "choice" stay-at-home mothers the media loves so much. The reality is that most mothers work, since most middle class families rely on women holding paid employment to stay afloat. More than 3/4 of women with children under age 15 at home have paid employment outside of the home. - Amanda Marcotte

Romney relies on large donations

From TPM, that chart shows the campaign donations last month to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, broken down by size.

The difference is striking, isn't it? Money is critical in modern American politics - too critical, in fact - and one large donation can easily offset many, many small donations. That's why the wealthy tend to be treated so well.

But Barack Obama still took in nearly as much money from small donations - under $200 - as from large ones. Romney's support, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly from large donations.

Luckily for Mitt Romney - thanks to the Republicans on the Supreme Court - there is no effective limit anymore to how much money the wealthy can donate. (Note that this makes up for Romney's apparent funding shortfall in the above chart.)
Fortunately for Romney, his biggest supporters will have many more options for helping him out beyond a max donation this cycle. Thanks to the post-Citizens United system, independent groups, including a Super PAC dedicated to electing him, Restore Our Future, can raise unlimited funds from wealthy donors. And they’re having plenty of success so far. The largest such group, the Karl Rove-connected American Crossroads, says it has raised $49 million over the last three months. Meanwhile, Priorities USA, a Democratic Super PAC dedicated to re-electing Obama, announced raising just $4.5 million in the same period.

And they don't even have to use their own money. Now that corporations are considered "people," corporate CEOs can donate unlimited amounts of shareholders' money, too - your money, if you own any stocks or mutual funds. And they don't even have to tell you about it.

This is the first presidential election since Citizens United, and the right-wing is going all out to take advantage of it. And that's just one of a series of 5-4 decisions in which Republican political activists on the Supreme Court are changing America to match their right-wing extremist vision of our country.

If we elect another Republican president, we could be locked into that course for generations.

A young black man, being late

This is the kind of experience so far beyond my expectations, as a white man, that I can hardly even grasp it. Think we have a color-blind society? Think again.

An excerpt:
We rushed to the orthodontist, and pulled in to the parking lot, right next to the path to the front door. I got out of the car, and noticed another car pulling in behind us. My mom, rifling through her purse, told me to go and check in before I was late, and then shooed me away. "Go! Go!"

As I took a step, I heard a loud voice yell at me, "Get back in the car!"

I looked over, and saw that the car behind us was a black police cruiser. No sirens, no lights, nothing to warn us of any impending trouble. Just a cruiser that pulled in behind us, and was now yelling at me.

I bent over and shot a look at my mom, silently asking what the fuck was going on. She looked up at me, still not aware the cop was behind her, and said, "What? Go inside!"

I stood up, and looked over at the cop, a younger white woman, tense and inexplicably angry, and saw her standing behind her open door, gun pointed at me. "Get. In. The. Car." ...

A few minutes later, we found out that the officer was giving my mom a speeding ticket. Curiously, the ticket was for a stretch of road two miles away from the lot in which we were now parked, and she had only started following us within the last half-mile or so, but at that point, nobody was in a mood to argue.

There's a reason that Trayvon Martin's story hits me so hard. When you're thirteen and threatened with a bullet through the chest for getting your braces tightened, it teaches you how the world works, and does it in a hurry.

The world never worked that way for me. Even when I was young, out drinking with my friends, when we were stopped by the police, the expectation (on both sides) was very different.

But we were middle-class white college students. We knew that the police worked for us, and we expected to be treated that way. And the police knew it, too.

Of course, the police weren't scared of us. And if an officer had pulled a gun on us for no reason - after all, this was supposedly just about a speeding ticket! - there would have been real repercussions. They knew that. And we, too, knew that - or would have, if the possibility had ever occurred to us.

This isn't just racial profiling, it's the kind of stereotyping that's widespread throughout America. Tell me again about that color-blind society. But first, maybe you should talk to someone who isn't white.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Wake up with Elizabeth Warren

This is why Elizabeth Warren is getting campaign contributions from small donors all across America - including me. She's impressive, don't you think?

BTW, note that "Morning Joe" is a former Republican Congressman, not a Democrat and not a liberal.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Shock and awe

Neat, isn't it?

But I'm wondering if this should have been two videos, since the second half is so different from the first. Still, the whole thing is very well done.

I feel the same way, too, in my awe about the universe. I wonder how people can be satisfied with a rather pedestrian creation fable, when reality is so very much more awe-inspiring.

Mitt happens

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Note that Charles Krauthammer calls Mitt Romney a "northeastern Republican." (That's supposed to be a bad thing.) Of course, the Northeast used to be the Republican stronghold. That was back when Republicans were conservative, not crazy.

And that was back when the South was solidly Democratic, instead of solidly Republican, as it is today. These things are related.

I keep mentioning this, because it's so important (and, to me, so fascinating), but this is all a result of the GOP's notorious "Southern strategy" of deliberately appealing to white racists, after the Democrats passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawing racial segregation.

Politically, it was wildly successful, because the Republicans took the entire South away from the Democrats. True, they lost the African American vote, but that was a pretty good trade, at least if you look at it in purely political terms.

But as the South became more and more important to the GOP, it inevitably started changing the GOP. Northeastern Republicans became unhappy with the racism, with the fundamentalist "culture wars," with the loss of respect for science and the increasing xenophobia.

The Republican Party kept Wall Street, because the GOP remained overwhelmingly focused on tax cuts for the rich. And the wealthy were largely willing to accept the crazy in exchange for that financial bonanza, certainly as long as it remained mostly just lip-service. But ordinary people in the Northeast were not.

And as moderates left the GOP - were driven out, pretty much - the right-wing fanatics got more and more powerful. At first, Republican politicians could just throw them a bone occasionally. Those people were useful, but not to be taken seriously.

Now, however, they're the Republican base. Now, this mindset controls the Republican Party. These people sneer at the "northeastern Republicans" they replaced. And this is a perfect example.

They weren't quite able to derail the Romney nomination, but if you think about it, it's just incredible how close they came to picking Rick Santorum as their presidential nominee! I mean, just think about it - Rick Santorum!

But every candidate, including Mitt Romney, has been trying his damnedest to suck up to the crazies. There is really no choice, for a Republican. As I say, thanks to that "Southern strategy," they're now the Republican base.

And Sarah Palin is right that Romney will have to surround himself with their people. He's picked his bed, and now he's going to have to lie in it (and "lie" is the operative word here). He won't be a moderate president, no matter what he really thinks - and at this point, he's flip-flopped so many times that I doubt if he "really thinks" anything.

Re. this "pivot" to supporting Romney, that's Fox News, to a great extent. Roger Ailes made that perfectly clear when he told Newt Gingrich he wouldn't be welcome back at Fox.

As much as any one entity can be said to run the Republican Party these days, it's Fox 'News.' Fox both incites and guides the crazies in the GOP base, and it regularly employs Republican politicians when they're not actually - officially - running for office or in office.

Fox doesn't just pay them, but also gives them a platform to express their views and a way to stay in the limelight, which is absolutely essential for any celebrity/politician. Keeping Fox 'News' happy is the number one goal of most Republican politicians, at least at the national level - at a minimum, equal to keeping contributors happy.

Fox is the propaganda arm of the GOP, but that understates the power of Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes. When they say it's time to settle on Mitt Romney, it's time to settle on Mitt Romney - at least for any Republican with political ambition.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Group conformity to absurd beliefs

And you wonder why religion has such a hold on people?

Now don't get upset. Obviously, I'm not talking about your religion. I'm talking about all those other people who believe absurd things because that's what their family and friends believe, that's what their society believes, and - usually - that's what they were brought up to believe.

You, of course, are independently-minded. You would never go along with the crowd - not when it comes to sports teams or music or movies, and certainly not when it comes to religion. It's just coincidence that you happened to be brought up in the right belief, unlike all those billions of people elsewhere, who are so credulous that they continue to believe the ridiculous things they were taught.

We are social animals. We want to get along. We desperately want to fit in with "our" people. That might mean a different group at work, in your church, and in your neighborhood, but in each of those settings, we generally want to fit in. We want to be part of the group, rather than the outsider, the outcast, the weirdo.

It doesn't have to be a big group, and it doesn't have to be a mainstream group (though it usually is, pretty much by definition). Indeed, being part of a group that everyone else thinks is weird often makes you more determined than ever to conform to your own "non-conforming" group.

If you're a Moonie or a Hare Krishna, for example, a big part of your group solidarity is that most people think you're nuts. That tends to wed you to your group even tighter. After all, it's your group of true-believers against the world. You have a mission. You are one of the favored few who know the "Truth." And, most importantly, you belong. You are an integral part of a group that believes the exact same thing.

It's natural. We evolved this way, because we're social animals. We're not lone wolves (and a "lone wolf" is an aberrant individual in wolf society, too, since wolves are very much pack animals). We live in groups, we depend on the group, we survive and thrive as the group survives and thrives.

And religion is one of the ways groups have maintained their solidarity. Different groups have different beliefs, but everyone within each group tends to believe the same thing. It's comforting, for us human beings, to belong. Today, that's why absurd beliefs persist, because we want to conform to our society.

When everyone else is facing backwards, it takes both an independent mind and a strong will to face forward.

So much for deficit reduction

From TPM:
Republicans are still running on deficit reduction, but as the election nears, their governing agenda reveals something that close observers recognized all along: Deficit reduction was never the point. Whether acceding to political reality, or proactively moving messaging bills through the House, the GOP has quietly let on that they’re fine with deficits — as long as they come in the right flavor.

House Republican leaders began the year with an embarrassing defeat over extending the 2012 payroll tax holiday. Democrats held their ground and insisted that the payroll tax cut either be paid for with a mix of spending cuts and higher taxes on the wealthy, or not at all — no more of the GOP’s cuts-only approach. The GOP blinked and agreed to add more than $100 billion to the debt, rather than accept even a penny in higher taxes on the wealthy, or face the blame for allowing the payroll tax cut to lapse.

Weeks later, Republicans unveiled their new budget, written by Rep. Paul Ryan, which includes steep tax cuts and military-spending increases — both of which run counter to the deficit-cutting ethos to which the GOP laid claim. ...

The contrast is particularly stark this week: Senate Republicans blocked the Buffett Rule, dismissing its capacity to raise $47 billion over 10 years, while House Republicans are pushing a broad business tax cut that would add $46 billion to the deficit in just one year [my emphasis]. On top of that, House committees are now looking for ways to override automatic cuts to defense spending they agreed to last August as a means of enforcing the controversial debt-limit deal.

This is no surprise to anyone who's been paying attention (far too few of us, I'm afraid). The Republican Party uses the mounting deficit as a political talking point, but it's certainly not something they care about.

In fact, a higher deficit simply gives them more political ammunition to use against the Obama administration, even when they're responsible for it. (Likewise, they've been dragging their feet on the economic recovery - even actively sabotaging it - because a terrible economy helps them. And as the "anti-government" party, a U.S. government that doesn't work also benefits them, even when they're responsible for that.)

Look at the George W. Bush administration. Republicans controlled all three branches of the federal government, and the deficit skyrocketed. It's still increasing, overwhelmingly as a result of Bush's tax cuts for the rich, the two unnecessary wars he started (without raising taxes to pay for), and GOP policies which collapsed our economy into a new Great Depression.

And Republicans haven't changed their minds about any of these things. Rather than let Bush's tax cuts expire as scheduled, they want them extended permanently, plus even more cuts for the very wealthiest of Americans. They want a third war, with Iran - again, without paying for it - and they want to increase military spending, even though we already spend more on our military than the rest of the world combined.

They pooh-pooh $47 billion as not enough money to even bother with. Really, why should the wealthy, poor things, have to pay as high a tax rate as the rest of us? At the same time, when it's spending they don't like (anything but military spending or corporate welfare), costs thousands of times less than that give them apoplexy.

Well, if you believe anything the Republicans say, you haven't been paying attention in recent years. Unfortunately, that describes a good half of our country. I hope it's not more than that, but I'm not optimistic.

That anyone still votes Republican, after what they've done to us in the past decade or so, just amazes me. That the polls are close really beggars belief.

QOTD: the divine will of God

Quote of the Day:
My parents were both Presbyterians and very devoted church people of that faith. When I was old enough to understand a moderate amount of the English language my mother gave me a history of my very early youth. She informed me that when a few weeks old I was baptized by their pastor at the Presbyterian church and dedicated to God and his service.

Later on, when several months old [my emphasis], they broke my will after the ritual of the Scottish Covenanters to prepare me for service with the divine will of God. This was done by whipping me with switches, until even under the application of the whips, I stopped crying and moaned in submission, or that I had not vocal power to cry. That was called breaking my will, which paid the interest on part of the original sin.

When I was a little older, I was instructed how to say my prayers and taught a few New Testament verses, which I was obliged to repeat Sunday morning and say the prayer soon after retiring for the night. At the age of between four and five, I was taken to Sunday school and was taught oral lessons from the Testament, as I could not read yet. ...

About this age [between four and five], my father would whip me for the least departure from what he called the right way of doing to satisfy God's demands upon parents for the right way of bringing up children. To show me that he had high authority for the punishments, he would read occasionally from the Bible that Solomon said, "Spare the rod, spoil the child." Then he would comment upon the passage saying that he did not desire to whip me, but it was his solemn duty, as Solomon was inspired to write the passage, and, if he did not comply, God would bring him to an account for not doing his duty, which was to save me from an awful hereafter. At one time, father whipped me every Monday morning, after Solomon's and God's plan, to keep me good during the week. In my heart, I cursed God and Solomon. At about five, I contemplated burning the Bible; it was kept on a shelf over the fireplace; nearly every time I passed it I made faces at it. I tried to think of some way that I could destroy the awful book that was the means of keeping my back scarred and sore.

But my resolution was not put in practice because I imagined that father would nearly kill me,... - Bushnell A. Wright, M.D., Los Angeles, California

Note: This is an excerpt from the last letter in Letters from an Atheist Nation by Thomas Lawson, which I reviewed here.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The wars on Fox

The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Battle for the War on Women
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

Yeah, on Fox, there's a 'war' on everything else, but calling Republican efforts a "war on women" is just ridiculous, huh?

I thought that was really funny, but the first part of The Daily Show was pretty good, too.

Jon Stewart's first segment was about the media firestorm over that comment by Democrat Hilary Rosen that Ann Romney had "never worked a day in her life."
A media circus ensued, and included a conference call on which women supporters of Romney’s insisted Rosen’s gaffe represented the official opinion of the White House, and a kiss-off of the “Hilary whatserface” incident from Barbara Bush, who liberally tossed around the word “whatever.”

But just as Republicans were basking in it all — Rosen had apologized by the afternoon — the Catholic League For Religious and Civil Rights, a conservative group, lashed out at Rosen for being a lesbian, and caught all adoptive parents in the crossfire.

“Lesbian Dem Hilary Rosen tells Ann Romney she never worked a day in her life,” the Catholic League tweeted. “Unlike Rosen, who had to adopt kids, Ann raised 5 of her own.”

And so, less than 24 hours after the leadership of the Democratic Party had to disavow the comments of a person not at all involved in their presidential campaign, the Republican Party had to do the exact same thing.

Crazy, huh? Especially since Rosen was right. After all, no one is saying that raising kids is easy - certainly not Hilary Rosen, who's a mom, herself.

I'm sure it wasn't easy for my parents, both of whom also worked full-time jobs. Indeed, most mothers do have to work, as well as raise their children.

I don't know how it is in the jet set, but among people I know, "work" is usually something you have to do so you can do the things you want to do, such as raising children.

But even if you consider raising children to be "work" - and there's no way I'd argue that with you - most stay-at-home mothers aren't multimillionaires who can afford cooks, maids, and gardeners.

Maybe it's a bit easier when you can send your kids to boarding school, too. (Mitt Romney attended a private boarding school. I don't know if his sons attended school there, but they could certainly afford it.)

None of this is meant to criticize Ann Romney, who's volunteered for charities and struggled with some really serious diseases. But when she's supposed to be the one advising her husband about women's economic issues, it's certainly fair to point out that she's never shared any of those issues.

After all, Ann Romney has always been rich. I don't know if it's literally true that she "never worked a day in her life," but it's certainly true that she's never had to work a day in her life, as most people mean that. As far as I can tell, she's never worked for a paycheck and never needed to. That doesn't make her a bad person, but it does mean that she's probably not the best adviser on women's economic issues.

And the really hilarious thing, as Stewart pointed out in his second segment, is that Mitt Romney himself - not three months ago - seemed to deny that raising children was "work." He wanted poor moms to have the "dignity of work." But just poor and middle class moms. For rich people, I guess, money is "dignity" enough.

Newt Gingrich has his limits

Newt Gingrich has been in politics a long time, so he's used to the rough-and-tumble of it. Certainly, he can stand his own when it comes to the media.

Unless, of course, he's being interviewed by a college kid from a student newspaper:
At a Tea Party rally in Greensboro Saturday, I had scheduled a private interview with the presidential candidate through his staff.

His aide gave no preconditions; no topics were off limits.

That’s why I was so surprised when, before I had finished asking my first question, that same aide cut the interview short and prompted Secret Service to grab and briefly detain me as the former speaker was led away.

The unexpected reaction came in response to a question about Fox News chairman Roger Ailes. Last week, in a speech he gave at the University, Ailes had some harsh words for Gingrich, claiming the candidate was “trying to get a job at CNN, because he knows he isn’t going to get to come back to Fox.”

Gingrich was a former paid Fox News contributor. At a campaign stop in Delaware last week, he told supporters that Ailes’ network was biased against his campaign.

“We are more likely to get neutral coverage out of CNN than we are of Fox, and we’re more likely to get distortion out of Fox,” he told supporters.

But before I even had a chance on Saturday to relay Ailes’ comments, his aide pressed his hands against me, and several Secret Service agents stopped me in my tracks.

“You’re not asking that. You’re done,” his aide said.

Not “Next question.” Just, “You’re done.”

I was surprised that they weren’t ready for the question. I was surprised that they were so surprised I might ask it.

To be honest, I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the speaker in a tough back-and-forth. After all, in the struggle between politicians and members of the media, he’s a pro; I’m an amateur.

At my other job at a grocery store, my hardest-hitting question is usually, “Paper or plastic?”

Funny, huh? But Fox 'News' is a touchy subject among Republicans.

Fox pretends - not very well - to be a news network. In reality, they're just the propaganda arm of the Republican Party.

Note Roger Ailes' comment that Gingrich "knows he isn't going to come back to Fox." Why not? Well, because Fox is backing Mitt Romney, and Gingrich isn't playing ball.

Now think about that. If Fox were a news network, how would that sound? No one at CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, or MSNBC would ever say something like that about a political candidate. But the agenda at Fox is to elect Republicans, and the boss decides which Republicans.

In fact, the relationship has become rather one-sided. As conservative David Frum once said, "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we're discovering that we work for Fox."

That's literally true in many cases. When Republican politicians aren't running for office, or in office, they tend to get paid by Fox News. Newt Gingrich is far from the only candidate who worked for Fox and, no doubt, expected to return if he didn't get elected.

Fox News is not just the propaganda arm of the Republican Party, but also the support system for Republican politicians. But this has given Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes so much power that the Republican Party does pretty much work for them, rather than the other way around.

Few Republicans dare cross Fox News. Newt Gingrich is only doing so because he has little to lose, at this point. And his ego is pretty big, too. (Yeah, that's an understatement, huh?)

But this line of questioning still scares him, even when it comes from a college student.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Republican speaker has trouble with "smart girl"

Gee, it's a real mystery why Republicans are having trouble with women, isn't it?

Furthermore, this guy is speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates. Is he really this dumb? Doesn't he understand what the word "inaccurate" means? Or does he just think he can buffalo this... girl, Anna Scholl, executive director of ProgressVA?

This is about the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-funded right-wing group which basically ghostwrites many of our laws. Their legislative supporters introduce bills which are actually written by ALEC, bills which become law all across America. (If you want to know more, check out this article in the Washington Post.)

The specific issue here was the tax-money the state of Virginia spends to send legislators to ALEC conferences. Howell claimed that the ProgressVA report was inaccurate, but couldn't identify any inaccuracies. Well, you saw the video.

One other thing I might mention is that Speaker Howell is a former chairman of ALEC.

The color-blind society, part 3

This is the third post - the concluding post (the others are here and here) - of this series about race in America - by a white guy. Yeah, I'm a real expert, huh? But now, it's time to look at fixes.

As I said last time, this is about our American society, not about individuals. I'm not talking about blame here, and I'm certainly not talking about excuses. As the right-wing constantly reminds us, life isn't fair. And things are certainly a heck of a lot better than they used to be!

Maybe Trayvon Martin was shot because he was black, I don't know. But I'm not sure we should accept any excuse less than that. Certainly, there is still far too much racism in America. But minorities have a chance now, and individuals need to take that chance. And if they fail, they just need to keep on trying.

But, as I also pointed out last time, we are so far from a color-blind society, here in America, that the whole idea is laughable. After all, we've had centuries to get here, and there's no magic wand which will make all that disappear. Dreaming of a color-blind society is fine, but that's still going to be a fantasy throughout our lifetimes, at least. Let's not pretend otherwise.

And before I get started here, let me note that race - when it comes to human beings - isn't a scientific term. In other species, biologists speak of races - subspecies - sometimes, but we human beings don't have subspecies. In human beings, "race" is entirely a social concept, not a scientific one.

Still, this social concept, this cultural artifact, has had an immense influence here in America. In particular, the South's "peculiar institution" - slavery - affected every aspect of life there, and the generations of segregation and discrimination which followed didn't help at all. These things didn't stay in the South, either.

To this day, there might be nothing which has a bigger influence on your life than your race, with the possible exception of your gender. We are not color-blind. That doesn't mean we're all racists (not without defining the word so broadly that it loses all meaning), but there are still plenty of racists around, under any definition. We can acknowledge that, while still recognizing the enormous advances we've made.

Really, just think about how much we've changed, just in my lifetime. White people are the overwhelming majority in America, and we have always been on top here, just automatically. That was especially the case in the South, but not just there. So to change that was to give up power, for the white majority to give up that automatic advantage, which we've enjoyed for hundreds of years.

To think that we could have done this peacefully, made such wrenching changes democratically, without a violent revolution in our society, is just incredible. In my lifetime, we've gone from racial segregation to our first black president. Today, even our conservative political party supports racial equality. A politician speaking out in favor of segregation today - even in the South - would be almost as shocking as one speaking out in favor of slavery.

This really shows how strong, and how adaptable, America is. I don't think that even we who lived through this change really understand how remarkable it was. We have a long way to go, but the fact that we made it this far is really admirable, I'd say.

Of course, centuries of bigotry have had an effect. Generations of slavery, followed by generations of the worst kinds of discrimination, have had an effect. (Again, I'm mostly talking about African Americans here, although other minorities have also suffered.) Race may be only a social construct, but everything from income levels to educational attainment to crime rates shows the effects of our past mistakes.

So what do we do about that? Conservatives want to do nothing. That's the whole point of promoting this idea of a new "color-blind" society. If you don't see race, as Stephen Colbert humorously claims, then obviously you can't do anything to repair race-based inequality. Well, when you're already on top, it might not seem so important, huh?

But we'll never have a color-blind society as long as these inequalities stay so pronounced. So what can we do about it?

It might seem reasonable to make up for centuries of discrimination by giving racial minorities some clear advantage. Yeah, it's that terrible bugaboo, "reverse discrimination." Or, as supporters call it, affirmative action. Is it fair? Well, as the right-wing continually reminds us, life isn't fair. And the status quo is hardly fair, either. I mentioned some of that in my last post.

Of course, it's unpopular with much of the white majority, but that's no surprise. The popularity of government programs generally depends on how much benefit you're getting from them. And it might be divisive, but heck, everything is divisive these days. Even the Republican's own health care plan became divisive once the Democrats adopted it! These days, what isn't divisive? And note that it would probably be effective. That's important.

Unfortunately, it's hard to do without running afoul of the Supreme Court, especially given the far-right makeup of the court these days. And unpopularity does matter in a democracy. For all right-wingers talk about how life isn't fair, they tend to be the first to scream when it's unfair to them. But let's face it, fairness matters. We human beings do care when things aren't fair. And we should, too.

So let's look at this a little differently. What things aren't fair now? And what could we do to make them fairer? If you think about it, what we really want for racial minorities - indeed, for all Americans - is the opportunity to live a good life. As individuals, we'll never have complete equality. We aren't clones, and we don't want to become clones. But for different populations, we want an equal opportunity, or as equal as we can reasonably make it. Certainly, we want everyone to have a good chance at a happy, productive life.

We don't have that now. Children don't all have a decent chance at a good life. They don't all have a safe and secure - and loving - home environment. Our schools are funded locally, so children from poor neighborhoods often don't get the kind of education they need to succeed. Their environment is frequently neither safe nor encouraging. They don't have the same opportunities. Often, they're not even aware of the opportunities.

These aren't just minority kids, but there are a larger proportion of minorities who are poor. In fact, that's the whole point. If this weren't the case, we probably wouldn't be worrying about race in the first place. (Hopefully, we'd still be worrying about children.)

But if we set a goal of giving every child a good chance - the very best chance we can - the racial angle will tend to take care of itself. This would mean spending money - serious money - in poor neighborhoods, on everything from prenatal care to social services to crime prevention to education. And yes, this would mean helping adults, too, since the biggest influence on a child is his parents. It might be a generation before we saw the end results, but we already have evidence that these things will work.

And there's more. As I noted in my last post, there are advantages white people - and especially white men - receive which tend to get overlooked. For one thing, we tend to have white male bosses. And we often have opportunities for employment - good employment - because of who we know, or who our families know. These are institutional advantages, and they tend to perpetuate themselves over generations.

What we need is a slight counterweight to that - nothing much, just something which opens up opportunities for other people, too. I suggest that society simply expect - and, therefore, effectively require - diversity.

We already do this in the political arena. Even Republicans make a point of showcasing their diverse membership. Even when the GOP convention floor is lily-white, they make sure there's a diverse lineup in the good seats, where the cameras are aimed. (Is that unfair? Do their elderly white supporters get angry about not getting such attention? I don't know.)

And even Republican presidents make cabinet picks with a concern for diversity. That's expected these days. And it should be expected elsewhere, too.

If your school board doesn't hire teachers and principals, both men and women, of diverse race, that should be an immediate red flag. If a company hires no one but white men for executive positions, that should immediately raise questions. We should expect diversity, and not just a token here and there, either.

Part of this is because we should value diversity. We really should. We should recognize the advantages diversity gives us, advantages which give America a real competitive edge. But it's also a way to counteract the natural tendency of white men to hire people just like them. Generally speaking, minorities and women don't have a fair chance, since - for historical reasons - the vast majority of bosses are white men.

This isn't "reverse discrimination," though it could be called affirmative action, I suppose. It's just the recognition that America is a diverse nation and the expectation that this diversity be evident in our neighborhoods, our schools, our jobs, our government, even our board rooms.

We are starting to do this already. This isn't a big change I'm proposing. A far, far bigger change is my previous proposal that all children get a good start at life. That's where we're really failing these days. But together, these could lead us towards that color-blind society we all say we want, and do it fairly, too.

Plus, this could give our economy the biggest shot in the arm since the GI Bill of 1944. Like that, this would be an investment in our future. Really, it's high time we started investing in America again.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Getting started with Dwarf Fortress

Lately, I've been posting stories about my latest Dwarf Fortress game, Summitspear, so I thought I'd post a newbie guide for those who might want to try the game themselves.

Dwarf Fortress is a great game, but it's still in development (and likely will be for years and years) and it doesn't exactly hold your hand. In fact, it's not the slightest bit user-friendly. The developer has tons of fans (he's received more than $23,000 in voluntary donations in just the first three months of this year), but I suspect that many people who've tried the game gave up before they really got started.

Certainly, the game isn't for everyone, but it's free, so why not give it a try? But note that you have to be prepared to give it some effort. Also, remember that there's no way to actually win the game. There are many ways to lose, but keep in mind the Dwarf Fortress motto: "Losing Is Fun."

OK, suppose you want to give it a spin. I posted the first clip of a video tutorial awhile back. That's still very useful, but I thought I'd just give some step-by-step directions here. (Note that these are for the complete newbie.)

Since this won't interest most of my readers, I'll put my detailed instructions below the fold:

Friday, April 13, 2012

"Letters from an Atheist Nation" by Thomas Lawson

(cover from

I mentioned this book in October. At the time, it was only available as a Kindle download, but it was later released as a trade paperback.

Letters from an Atheist Nation: Godless Voices of America in 1903 is a collection of letters, from atheists, agnostics, and other freethinkers, which were printed in the Blue Grass Blade newspaper in 1903.

The story of the Blue Grass Blade itself, a freethought newspaper in Bible Belt Kentucky, and of its founder, Charles C. Moore, a former minister, is quite interesting. Lawson writes about that in his 33-page preface.

The rest of the book contains letters from the newspaper's readers, in response to a request for brief articles on "Why I am an atheist" (including "all who doubt or deny the existence of a Supreme Being," whatever they called themselves - after all, we nonbelievers don't follow the same dogma).

I must say that I was surprised at how large the book was: 350 pages, including preface, index, and 17 pages of footnotes. Lawson did a great job with it.

And I found it fascinating, for all sorts of reasons. For one thing, I just liked these people:
I do not believe in being good for fear of being forever damned, but I believe in being good and doing good because it is right to do good. - Margaret Coppock, 28, Indianapolis, Indiana

That we should do right, there appears no question, but it should be to make this life, and the lives of those who should live after we are dead, more worth the living and not that we be rewarded, or for fear of punishment after we are dead. - George W. Hall, Noblesville, Indiana

Atheism says: "The time to be happy is now, the place to be happy is here, and the way to be happy is to make others so." Therefore, I am an Atheist. - Miss Sadie E. Roberts, 22, Bennington, Kansas

But the most damnable and infamous requisition is: Believe what my middle man tells you to believe whether you can or not, or be eternally damned and burnt forever, never to die, but always living in order to be tortured. Did you ever hear of any man so mean, the very embodiment of the fiercest undying tyranny and cruelty? I want such a God to distinctly understand that I would not speak to Him on the highway. - Brooke Bartlett, Crews, Alabama


Most of the arguments are surprisingly modern - pretty much the same things atheists are saying today. Some use an old-fashioned manner of speaking (and one or two include racial slurs which would certainly not be acceptable today), but in most cases, I know exactly where they're coming from. Yes, this is how I see it, too.

As is true today, most of these atheists were raised Christian:
But one day I got to the place where Joshua led his people over the Jordan dry-shod and blew down the walls of Jericho with ram's horns (Goodness, I thought, those were tough horns!),...

But the sequel was what got away with all my preconceived ideas of justice and right. They took Achan out and stoned him to death (good enough for Achan; he belonged to the tribe of Judas), but they went further: they killed his wife and children. What the little innocent children had to do with it was never made plain to me. Alas, they are all dead now and I will never know. But this was not all. They "stoned" to death the old man Achan and his wife, and all the family and connections, including Achan's mother-in-law and his cousins, and his aunts, and all the cattle and sheep and goats and asses. The good book does not say anything about whether they killed Achan's dogs, too, I believe, but I suppose they made a "clean sweep."

Well, all this seemed to a little boy as I read it to have been done by the immediate direction of God, and my boyish sense of justice kicked against it, and my old man's sense of justice is still "kicking." - Frank Burns, Washington, D.C.

Of course, he could number the hairs of a man's head and count the useless sparrows, and could reverse the order of the solar system and hold the sun and moon in check while murder and carnage went merrily on, and the very diadem of all morality, the purity of womanhood, was treated with contempt and fiendishly outraged at his express command.

While the above phase of infinite character was unfolding before my youthful thinker, I was sincerely seeking for information that would throw light on the inconsistencies, but I was ignored, or punished, or given such absurd interpretations that my skepticism was confirmed, and I slowly, but surely, concluded that the whole business was nothing but an exaggerated Santa Clause [sic] - the one for children and the other for adults, and both equally false. - Walter Collins, Los Angeles, California

About 50 years ago, a Presbyterian preacher assured me that God's Bible sanctioned slavery, and he quoted several texts from the Old and New Testaments to prove it. And I said in my heart, if God and His Bible sanction slavery they may both go to hell.

Old God, you are a myth, a creature of the imagination. A good Christian will have a good God, and a bad Christian will have a bad God. And there you are. Good-bye, God. - William W. Martin, Mableton, Georgia

These are all individuals. They're not parroting dogma. They don't just disagree about labels, they think for themselves in other ways, too. Their letters aren't products of cut-and-paste reasoning, barely-understood ideas taken from someone else, but heartfelt words from ordinary people who've actually thought about what they believe.

In most cases, their arguments are just as valid today as they were in 1903. But science has advanced since then, so that's not always the case. I thought it was funny to read the "something can't come from nothing" argument used to argue for atheism, when today it's commonly used by theists to explain the necessity for God (wrongly, in both cases).
And, as space of necessity is eternal, so matter of necessity is eternal also. If at any time in the remote past matter had not existed, it would not exist now; from nothing nothing can come. Being eternal, it could not have been created, hence no "Creator." - Otto Wettstein, LaGrange, Illinois

Of course, the Big Bang theory did not exist in 1903. But this should teach us not be so sure we know what can and can't be true.

On the other hand, the Big Bang theory was developed because evidence that went against existing thinking wasn't just dismissed. When new evidence indicated that existing theories were wrong, science went with the evidence and not with "faith" in their prior "dogma."

As I say, these letters came from ordinary people of all walks of life, mostly men, but many women, from all across America (one letter from here in Nebraska), and of pretty much all ages - the  youngest, only 14:
Lastly, observing everyday life, I can't say that people are made better by religion. Their belief in a God puts them in constant fear of him (if they truly believe), and this makes them cringing cowards. People commit all kinds of sins and then think that by offering prayers to their God they are forgiven. I cannot believe in such a pest as that one preying on the people today - the pest of religion. - Anna Fritz, 14, San Francisco, California

Yes, Anna, I think that was my first observation, too, that people aren't made better by religion.

Many of these atheists and agnostics assumed that religion would lose ground in the world as science advanced. They'd be disappointed if they could see us now, more than a hundred years later. Not only are we still fighting religious wars, but religious superstition has a firm hold on America, itself.

Still, this book is encouraging, if only for the quality of these letters. And the whole thing was interesting. I'll admit that it took some effort to finish, since there are a lot of letters here, and of necessity, the arguments tend to repeat after awhile.

But the very last letter in the book was one I would have hated to miss. I don't think I'll post an excerpt from that one, now. I'll make a separate post of it, sometime. So I'll end with this, instead:
Belief is the effect of evidence upon the mind. It is not under our control, it is involuntary. So how can one be rightly blamed for one's belief? When I was young, they taught me that the Bible is infallible. They said it is the word of God; that it contains the whole and holy truth and nothing but the truth.

Before I read it, I supposed all this was true, but after I perused it for myself I thought I knew it wasn't. I thought I found injustice, crimes, and cruelties upheld by God; some silly ceremonies, some false, absurd, ridiculous, and foolish fairy tales and fables; some contradictions and conflicts with science and with common sense...

I believe in one standard of morality for men and women. I believe in cremation, in free speech and free press, and in liberty and justice. I don't believe that one man can rightly be held responsible for the deeds of another, or that one man can be good for another. I don't believe in the immaculate conception of Christ or in miracles, ghosts, spirits, witches, devils, or hells. Most Christians do. I prefer kindness to cruelty, facts to falsehoods, the demonstrated truth to blind faith, reason to religion, and science to superstition. My religion is help for the living; hope for the dead. - William E. Johnson, McLeansboro, Illinois

Note: I posted an excerpt from the last letter in the book here.

Survivalist singles

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Last week, Stephen Colbert talked about multimillion dollar survivalist shelters - all the rage among the wealthy, apparently. Now, it's survivalist singles. Hey, ladies, how can you resist?

I see that there are twice as many men as women signed up for that doomsday dating service. I must say I'm shocked the ratio is that good.

But, heck, if half of those men are gay, everyone could find a match. Or they could agree to share. Ladies, now's your chance to take care of two Neanderthals - and all without electricity.

"Apparently, most women are not turned on by the 'Off Grid' living." Man, that's a surprise, isn't it? Crapping in an outhouse, getting water from the creek, up at dawn to prepare breakfast for your man, roasting squirrel over a wood fire - how could you get more romantic than that?

And you get to have children without all those nasty doctors and nurses, modern medical care, or even diapers - lots and lots of children!

You know, a lot of people look back at the past through rose-colored glasses. Ah, it was a simpler time then, wasn't it? But gazing backward from the comfort of your modern home is probably a lot more fun than actually living like that.

My elderly mother grew up without indoor plumbing. I'll ask her how she'd like to return to those days. :)