Monday, September 30, 2013

We've been to the Moon!

Great video, isn't it?

Irish children to learn about atheism in school

From The Guardian:
In a historic move that will cheer Richard Dawkins, lessons about atheism are to be taught in Ireland's primary schools for the first time.

The lessons on atheism, agnosticism and humanism for thousands of primary-school pupils in Ireland will be drawn up by Atheist Ireland and multi-denominational school provider Educate Together, in an education system that the Catholic church hierarchy has traditionally dominated.

Up to 16,000 primary schoolchildren who attend the fast-growing multi-denominational Irish school sector will receive tuition about atheism as part of their basic introduction course to ethics and belief systems, including other religions.

From September 2014 children could be reading texts such as Dawkins' The Magic of Reality, his book aimed at children, according to Atheist Ireland. ...

Jane Donnelly, a member of Atheist Ireland and a parent of two children in an Irish secondary school, welcomed the creation of an atheism alternative for Irish pupils.

"I opted my two girls out of religious education classes and they were told to go to the library and find a philosophy book to read during RE instead. The range of philosophy books was very limited so I sent them into school each day with a copy of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion for them to read."

Hmm,... keep in mind that 93% of Irish children attend Catholic schools. That "multi-denominational Irish school sector" might be "fast-growing," but it's still tiny.

Furthermore, you have to wonder how atheism will be taught by teachers who are almost certainly overwhelmingly Catholic, themselves. I know how this would work in America, at least!

And atheism isn't a religion. If you're teaching about world religions, then atheism certainly deserves a mention, and it's undeniably pertinent to courses in ethics and belief systems. But we atheists don't have any dogma. We don't have a holy book. We don't have a pope.

Richard Dawkins is no more an atheist than I am. He has a greater ability to write about atheism than I do, but he has no more right to define it. I'm happy to see his books getting read, especially by young people, but atheism doesn't have a hierarchy. So each atheist needs to decide what he believes for himself.

Sure, reading Dawkins - and even reading me - is an important part of that. Listening to what other people have to say is one way we decide what's true and what isn't. So all of this is fine, but... atheism isn't just another religion.

Still, if children are taught about world religions, or if children are taught about ethics and belief systems, atheism should have a place at the table. And the fact that it's happening in Ireland, which has been one of the most god-ridden places* on the planet, is a huge advance.

Maybe it will come to America next, huh? :)

* Notes from that same article:
• God is omnipresent in the 1937 Irish constitution, with article 6.1 stating: "All powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive, under God, from the people"; and article 44.1 noting: "The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion."

• Since the foundation of the republic, the Catholic church controls up to 93% of the state's 3,200 primary schools.

• The Catholic church's near monopoly of influence in education means that the ultimate power in each school is the local Catholic bishop. ...

• The Irish taxpayer, and not the church, pays the bills for all the schools the hierarchy controls.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Teabaggers plan armed overthrow of America

From Addicting Info:
To the cheers of Tea Party members everywhere, Larry Klayman called for a coup to overthrow our elected government, and replace it with a new dictatorship. Now he has expanded this, and given the dates for the armed insurrection in Washington DC:
Last Wednesday, the great usurper, Barack Hussein Obama, after having been indicted by an Ocala, Florida citizens’ grand jury [not a real grand jury], was convicted by a people’s court [not a real court] of defrauding the American people and Floridians by proffering them with a fake birth certificate. See As readers of this column and know too well, Obama is not a natural born citizen eligible to be president of the United States, as he was not born in this country to two American citizen parents. However, to justify his fraud and his elections to the highest office in the land, and after years of inquiry, in 2011 the Obama White House posted on its website a birth certificate purporting to show him having been born in Hawaii. The problem is however, according to forensic experts, the birth certificate is altered and forged.

The day of reckoning has come. Obama, having failed to plead in response to the indictment [not a real indictment] that was served upon him, waived his right to a jury trial. Thumbing his nose at We the People, as the citizens’ prosecutor [not a real prosecutor], I appeared before a citizens’ court judge [not a real judge] and presented evidence from Cold Case Posse investigator Michael Zullo showing that Obama tricked voters into electing him in 2008 and 2012. As a result, the citizens’ judge found him guilty on two counts of falsifying information to federal and state election officials. He was thus sentenced to the maximum prison term for these offenses of 10 years, and ordered to immediately surrender himself into the custody of the citizens of the United States and Florida.

Of course, Obama will not willingly obey the law of the people. He will attempt to hide behind the iron fences of the White House, perhaps cowering under his desk for fear that the people will rise up and demand his ouster.

On November 19, 2013, a day that will hopefully live on in the history of our once great republic, I call upon millions of Americans who have been appalled and disgusted by Obama’s criminality – his Muslim, socialist, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, anti-white, pro-illegal immigrant, pro-radical gay and lesbian agenda – among other outrages, to descend on Washington, D.C., en masse, and demand that he leave town and resign from office if he does not want to face prison time.

Yup, more Birther nonsense. This is the same old racism, the same old threat. As when they were founded in 2002, the Tea Party has been the refuge of racists and bigots. The supporters of the Tea Party just can’t stand the idea of a black man as President. And studies back this idea up.

And now, this, a call to overthrow the democracy of the United States and impose their religiously-driven ideology onto the United States. On a schedule too. November 19th, they plan to march on Washington and, as pointed out in his previous call, they plan to send Obama to “72 Virgins,” a thinly veiled death threat. And, he has numerous allies ready to fight. After all, it was not even a few months ago that the NRA, long a supporter of such violent rhetoric, was caught handing out pamphlets calling for a violent overthrow and the usurping of democracy.

After all, as that flyer said:

Some people have become so hysterical at the election of our first black president that they've completely lost their minds. Of course, their fear has been encouraged by Fox 'News' and other Republican outlets - not for armed insurrection, but for political purposes.

And they were none too stable in the first place, I'm sure. But that just makes encouraging them even worse.

Obviously, they're not going to get their millions of Americans marching on Washington. (Yeah, I'm sure that President Obama is 'cowering under his desk'!) They'll be lucky to get a handful. After all, who would take this seriously?

Unfortunately, all it would take is one nut with a gun to cause a great deal of harm. It's happened before. And with the crazy rhetoric about 'Obamacare' just adding to the birther, 'Muslim,' 'socialist' nonsense, who knows when one of these dim bulbs will pop?

Note: My thanks to Jeff for the link.

Amazing science

Well, how do you like that? We atheists have our own hymns now. :)

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The GOP's debt ceiling ransom

Democratic politicians are going to have a big job convincing me they're not as timid, ineffectual, and politically craven as they have been in recent decades. But this is a nice start.

Admittedly, it's all talk, so far.

But at least we're hearing good things:

The reincarnation of Joe McCarthy

The more I see of him, the more Ted Cruz seems like the reincarnation of Joe McCarthy - but possibly with a worse sense of ethics.

After all, as much as he lied, I suspect that McCarthy really was worried about Communism. Cruz is just an opportunist. He knows darn well that he's lying about the Republicans' own health care plan, that this is all just partisan political games.

And note that this wasn't even a filibuster. Rachel Maddow explains it very well. (Unfortunately, her video from MSNBC breaks my post so I'm going to embed it at the bottom here.)

I also wanted to embed the following clip from President Obama's speech. He's laughing, and I fully understand why. But why haven't the Republicans been laughed off the political stage by now? Is it just because Obama is black, so racists will believe anything about him, no matter how stupid?

How crazy can they get, how hilariously insane, before the American people - and our news media - will stop taking Republicans seriously?


Unfortunately, the GOP still has the power to do great harm to America. They are taking hostages, holding a gun to America's head, threatening to shoot if they don't get everything they want.

Most people think it's just rhetoric, that they're not really as crazy as they pretend to be - not all of them, at least. But what if they are? What if there are enough Republicans who really are that crazy? This probably isn't an act for all of them, so how do you tell the truly insane from the people just pretending to be insane for political advantage?

Or what if they go too far and simply see no way out but to pull the trigger? That's what worries me. When it comes to economic terrorism, it's a reasonable worry, I'd think.

Anyway, here's that clip with Rachel Maddow. (It's supposed to be just the first ten minutes of an extended clip. I hope it works, because it seems to be doing strange things here.)

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The ArmA Song

This is pretty funny if you've played one of the Arma games. If not, don't bother, because you won't get it.

BTW, don't "press the G-key to check your pack" if you're playing Arma 3! Heh, heh. But again, you won't get that if you're not a person who plays these games.*

* In Arma 2, pressing 'G' opens up your gear - a very common action in the game. But in Arma 3, that command is 'I' (for "inventory"). In the latter game, pressing 'G' throws a grenade - which has made for some exciting and hilarious times as Arma 2 players try to relearn the new controls.

School officials' incredibly bigoted texts

From Salon:
Not your best moment, Keystone State. Just last week, Pennsylvania was in the news when gun-loving small town police chief Mark Kessler’s expletive-infused rants against “libtards” went viral – and cost him his job. Now, Coatesville Area School District superintendent Richard Como and Director of Athletics and Activities Jim Donato have gained national attention for their abrupt departures from their positions – and the slew of hateful and racist messages discovered on their district-issued cell phones. Board president Neil Campbell has called the texts “sickening and obviously unacceptable.”

The incendiary messages, which all date from this past June, are a regular cavalcade of bigotry. And a source told the Philadelphia Inquirer Monday that “What has been made public represents a fraction of the messages between the men.” In one exchange, the two riff on how “All should have whatever first names they want… then last name is [n-word]!” Over the course of their messages, they also speculate in details on other people’s sex lives, discuss a “Jew red haired ESL” teacher, “that ape,” “cotton pickers” and a “skinny bitch,” among others. Intriguingly, there’s also a reference to a “MAJOR sneak” who “made at least 1500 – 2000 on kickback.” But to be honest, my favorite is the damming understatement that “This fucking phone! No idea how to work!”

Actually, it was "This fucking phone! NO IDEA how to work!" Given that these were school district phones, and that a district IT worker discovered the texts while switching hardware, I'd agree that they were clueless as well as racist, sexist, and otherwise complete morons.

Imagine what chance you'd have to get a good education with people like that in charge - unless, of course, you were a straight, white Christian football player. This was the school superintendent and the athletics director, but do you really think they were the only two Neanderthals with this kind of thinking? They were just the two who got caught. (Some of the texts are here. Warning: you may lose all hope in humanity.)

I think about things like this whenever I hear some loon claim that white men - or just white Christian men - are the only ones who really suffer discrimination these days. Yeah, right. Because it's minorities who hold all the powerful positions in America, huh?

But at least this is enough to get people fired, these days. We do progress, if slowly.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Elizabeth Loftus: the fiction of memory

All of these TED talks are interesting, though I've heard the information is not always valid. This, however, is something everyone should know. Our memories are very fallible and very fragile. What you remember is not necessarily what happened.

I dare say that all of us have memories which aren't accurate. We remember things that didn't happen at all, or we just get the details wrong (sometimes, important details). It's not like replaying a video recorder. In fact, it's so easy to change memories, we can do it by accident.

I'd be especially skeptical of so-called repressed memories, which condition seems to be very, very rare, if it happens at all. (Normally, the problem is just the opposite: people can't forget their bad memories.) And we should all know how unreliable eyewitness testimony is, not just because we can be wrong, but because of how easily memories can be manipulated.

Unfortunately, false memories feel just as real as those which really happened. That's because the mind helpfully fills in the details for us. When you bring up a memory, it's not really a snapshot of those events, though it may seem like it. That's just not how the brain works.

When it comes to memory, just... be cautious. If it's not backed up by hard evidence, I wouldn't be too confident.

One of the best political ads ever

Clever, isn't it? Not that it would go over well here in Nebraska, but a Democrat wouldn't win in Nebraska anyway, let alone a progressive Democrat.

For Massachusetts, though, I suspect that it will work just fine (admittedly, I don't know who else is running).

Sunday, September 22, 2013

What is cancer?

PZ Myers has written a post called What are oncogenes? and I want to reblog the first part of that, because it's such a clear, easy-to-understand description of cancer:
Cancer is not a creative, original disease; it has not been honed by ages of evolution to craft novel lines of attack on your body. Instead, it’s an opportunistic thief. Cancer misuses and perverts existing processes in your cells to send them out of control. Everything cancer does is simply the same thing your cells normally do, only amplified and unconstrained, driven by damage to the genes that would normally regulate their behavior.

Here’s a metaphor, a car with a dangerous defect. It has acquired a glitch in the accelerator so that every time you start it up, it immediately roars up to full speed, as if you’d floored the pedal. The problem hasn’t created anything new in the car, it’s just taken something you normally need to do, that is, regulate the speed of the machine, and stripped you of all ability to control it. That’s what an oncogene does; it is a gene that is normally involved in controlling the rate of cell proliferation, for instance, and a mutation has broken it in such a way that it now tells the cell to divide as rapidly as possible.

Now if you were driving down the freeway and suddenly your accelerator were stuck and you couldn’t slow it down, you’d have alternative strategies to stop (and so does the cell). You could hit the brakes or shift gears or turn off the ignition key. Cancers acquire another set of mutations that destroy the ability to shut off cell processes, analogous to breaking the brake pedal or snapping off the gear shift handle. These genes that can block the effects of out-of-control cell regulators are called tumor suppressors, and I’ll write about those at another time. Today I focus on oncogenes, regulators of the cell that must be damaged by mutation to produce an excessive response.

The first concern that comes to everyone’s mind is that you don’t want to have your cells running amuck — no one wants cancer. Just as you can do your best to maintain your car, you can also live sensibly — eat in moderation, avoid carcinogens or other behaviors that expose you to radiation, and get regular checkups — to reduce the likelihood of deleterious mutations. But they can happen anyway, through no fault of your own. Every time your cells divide, there is a very small chance of an error in replication that inserts a mutation into an oncogene. Just existing, even while doing everything exactly right to maximize your health, brings with it a base chance for a mutation. Given normal rates of cell division, every single one of you reading this is going to acquire about 20,000 DNA lesions today and every day. Almost every one of them will be patched up by DNA repair mechanisms (you have no idea how important DNA repair is to your continued health), but even so, one will occasionally slip through — over your lifetime, your cells will acquire an estimated 10,000 mutations. Live long enough, playing these odds, and cancer is essentially inevitable.

So cancer is fundamentally a chance process. There is no reason people get cancer, no purpose behind it, and everyone is susceptible. Some behaviors can increase the odds — smoking, failing to use sunblock — and you can also inherit genetic predispositions that increase the likelihood of acquiring a full set of mutations that lead to cancer, but ultimately, no one is at fault for cancer.

Fascinating, isn't it? Myers continues with details about oncogenes, if you're interested. (Well, he is a biology professor.) But when I read this, all I could think was,... is it any wonder that evolution is the foundation of modern biology?

Keep in mind that he's not talking about sex cells here, not specifically. Cancer isn't hereditary (though the susceptibility to certain cancers can be), because most of these mutations are to other parts of the body.

But it's a numbers game: 20,000 DNA lesions every day! Only a tiny fraction of those slip through your body's repair mechanisms, but those add up to around 10,000 unrepaired mutations in your lifetime (obviously, depending on how long you live, among other things). Given the numbers - and the reality of 7 billion people on the planet - even long odds will give results that are relatively common (just like the fact that we see many lottery winners, even though our own odds of winning any lottery are pathetic).

Evolution occurs for similar reasons: regular mutations (but these in cells where they do affect reproduction) over long periods of time (sometimes, millions of generations). Most of those have no effect, and most of the remainder are deleterious. But given high enough numbers, even a very small chance can produce an advantageous result eventually.

Of course, results are only beneficial given the circumstances. There's a lot more to evolution than just mutations! A mutation has to be beneficial to that specific organism in those specific circumstances - and even then, it will just increase its odds of survival, its odds of successful reproduction, not guarantee anything.

But in an isolated population, such a mutation will have a chance to spread. Meanwhile, mutations continue. Evolution doesn't happen like magic, as Creationists claim (and, ironically, as their god supposedly created everything), but building on what has come before - in each separate group of each separate species.

Well, I'm getting off the subject here, aren't I? (Not too unusual, for me.) And I'm not a biologist myself, so I'm hardly qualified to explain such things. But I certainly liked this description of cancer.

And, you know, I really have to think that our susceptibility to lottery scams is based on that same difficulty with odds and large numbers which makes so many people doubt evolution, too.

It's your fault (no, it isn't)

This is a great video, but it's difficult to watch. As a man, I find it difficult, at least. And you do not want to read the comments on YouTube (although most of that seems to be just one guy).

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Nina Davuluri, Miss America

I didn't want to post anything about this. I like to laugh at racists and other idiots, but... sometimes, it's just too depressing.

You've heard about it, I'm sure - how our first Indian-American Miss America has been the subject of, not just racist comments, but the most unbelievably stupid comments you can imagine. (If that doesn't depress you enough, here's more.)

Nina is a 24-year-old American. She was born in New York (which might upset some of these loons in itself), but her family moved to Oklahoma when she was four. She went to college in Michigan.

What part of that makes her a 'terrorist'? Oh, yeah, her brown skin, huh?

What part of that makes her a foreigner, an 'Arab,' a 'Muslim'? Oh, yeah, her brown skin.

Heck, why would it matter if she were an Arab or a Muslim? (I'm not sure if the fact that her parents are Hindus makes this any stupider or not. It's about as stupid as you can get already, don't you think?)

And these are my fellow Americans making these comments - Americans who don't know the difference between Hindus and Muslims, Americans who don't know the difference between India and Egypt, Americans who think that a bikini-clad American woman must be a member of Al-Qaeda,... apparently because she has a brown skin.

But that's not the message I want to leave you with. There's another way to think of this.

Sure, there are racist idiots in America. There will always be racist idiots, and not just in America, either. With 350 million people in the United States - and 7 billion people worldwide - some will always be batshit crazy and too dumb to pour water out of a boot. That's just reality.

But look at it another way. This is Miss America. Like it or not (and I'm not a fan of beauty pageants), this is a symbol of our country. Furthermore, it's probably not something which appeals to a particularly sophisticated segment of our citizenry. If it's not as redneck as NASCAR or professional wrestling, it's close.

Yet it's this venue which has chosen a non-white American of Indian ancestry to represent America. Furthermore, although Nina is the first Indian-American to win the pageant, she's not the first non-white Miss America - far from it. Seven black women have won the pageant in recent decades, and one Asian - Filipino-American Angela Perez Baraquio

Think about that. For its first 35 years, Miss America pageant rules required that all contestants be white. The first African-American didn't compete at the national level until 1970 (Cheryl Brown, Miss Iowa). But when Vanessa Williams won the crown in 1984 as the first black Miss America, runner-up Suzette Charles (who would take over when Williams resigned) was also black.

The racist - and unbelievably stupid - backlash against Nina Davuluri is disgusting and depressing, but let's take it in context. We're still a country where a non-white Indian-American can be a symbol of America - in a very redneck, low-class kind of way - and be accepted by the vast majority of beauty pageant fans.

I'm not a fan of beauty pageants myself, and I'd never consider this to be progress for women. But racial progress? You bet! Despite the loud-mouthed morons, the vast majority of Miss America enthusiasts do welcome her as a beautiful symbol of our country. That's progress. (And let's not forget it, lest we become discouraged and resigned to the status quo.)

Just as the election of our first black president shows how much progress we've made, despite bringing a whole lot of hysterical racists out of the closet, this, too, demonstrates our progress, despite the lunatic reactions from some incredibly moronic individuals.

And we've made this progress among beauty pageant enthusiasts, who really can't be among the most sophisticated people in our society, don't you think? At least, going by the comments at those "Public Shaming" tumblr pages, these are not very sophisticated people!

Friday, September 20, 2013

The American Dream, NRA version

From the Grand Rapids Press:
Two men died Wednesday, Sept. 18, in a shootout that stemmed from a road rage confrontation, Ionia police said.

Ionia Department of Public Safety officers were dispatched to Wonder Wand Car Wash in the 400 block of South Steele Street shortly before 7 p.m. on reports of shots fired. Police arrived to find two men with gunshot wounds.

Initial investigation shows the Ionia men, ages 43 and 56, pulled into the car wash parking lot after a road rage incident. They exited their vehicles and eventually drew handguns and exchanged fire, police said. It wasn't clear what the two men were arguing about.

Life EMS transported the men to Sparrow Ionia Hospital, where they were pronounced dead.

Police said both men, whose identities have not been released, held permits to carry concealed weapons.

Get that? Two men got angry when driving. (Yeah, that never happens, does it?) But these two men both had permits to carry concealed weapons. So they stopped and shot it out, both ending up dead.

Wow, it's the NRA dream, isn't it? Just think about how much safer those men were, carrying heat. After all, what would they have done if they'd gotten angry and didn't have a gun handy?

And think about how safe any bystanders were, too. The only thing which would have made them safer was if the bystanders, too, had been carrying guns, so they could join in the fun.

This is why having a gun at all times is so very necessary. After all, you never know when you might get angry - at your wife, at your neighbor's kid, at some random bad driver you'll never see again. (I guess you'll really never see him again, when the both of you end up dead.)

Without that gun, you might have to punch someone. Or, more likely, you'd be too timid for that, so you'd just flip the guy off and never stop, never get out of your car, never confront some anonymous moron at all - not without your steel courage.

You know, I was just thinking. Guess what the Internet needs. Yup, some way to shoot people. You meet these anonymous idiots all the time in website comments, right? Well, right now, all you can do is yell at them. Where's the satisfaction in that?

What the Internet really needs is concealed guns, don't you think? That way, when you get angry, you can actually shoot people. Just think of how much safer that would make all of us.

You know, the National Rifle Association really needs to look into that, to do some research into what could be a huge expansion of their business plan. There must be some way we can carry our Precious while we're surfing the web.

After all, you can never be too safe.

PS. Hat tip to TPM for the link.

Obamacare government shutdown

The Colbert Report
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I like how Sean Hannity (Fox 'News,' of course) claims that it's the Democrats who'll shut down the government (if they refuse to give Republicans everything they want).

You know, we just had an election last year, and the Republicans made 'Obamacare' a centerpiece of their strategy. They lost. They lost bigtime. But now they want to hold America hostage until they get their way anyway?

Isn't this a democracy? You win some, you lose some. But not for Republicans, apparently. To them, if you lose a vote, you just take hostages and put a gun to someone's head. And, according to Fox 'News,' if that gun goes off, it's your fault for not giving in.

Note that these statewide health insurance marketplaces are supposed to begin in less than two weeks. Insurance companies already have their prices set, based on the current law.

Also note that the whole idea here was developed by right-wing Republicans as their free-market, capitalistic, insurance company-friendly alternative to government-run health care. The only reason they oppose it now - their own plan! - is because they've vowed to oppose everything the Democrats try to do.

You know, the Republican Party could have just taken credit for this program. (And, trust me, that's exactly what they'll try to do, eventually.) After all, right now they're terrified that their own program will be popular! How crazy is that?

But they've demonized 'Obamacare' so much that even Mitt Romney was forced to run away from it - his signature achievement as governor of Massachusetts - last year.

I think it's great that their cynical political manipulations are biting them in the ass, but it's not so great what they're doing to America. Or what they're doing to us Americans who, unlike their billionaire supporters, really need health insurance.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

What links these mass shootings?

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How could we have let this mentally disturbed man with a history of gun violence get his hands on a... military ID card? Steve Doocy at Fox 'News': "Maybe too many people have these cards."

Worse yet, how could we  have let this dangerous guy... play computer games? We all know that games kill, don't we? Heck, I've killed countless pixels, myself.

And let me tell you, sitting at a computer clicking a mouse couldn't prepare you any better for killing real people. In fact, I think that's what they do in military boot camps, isn't it?

As "new Gretchen" says on Fox 'News' why aren't we investigating people who play computer games? There can't be that many of us, especially at the age of these shooters. For that matter, I wonder how many of these killers began their lives drinking milk? That's pretty suspicious, too, don't you think?

After all, if it's not video games and it's not milk, what else could it be? Is there anything else that links these episodes of gun violence? ... Nope, I can't think of a thing.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Protecting men from themselves

Apparently, this is a repeat from 2007. I just wish this re-run had come out a few days earlier, since it would have been a perfect illustration for this post.

Oh, well, I'll just post it now. :)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Robert Reich - sane and optimistic

I like this guy. Robert Reich is not just eminently sane, he's also optimistic - and that's a hard trick to pull off these days, don't you think? But he doesn't just demonstrate how bad things are, he shows that we've gone through bad times before,... and changed course.

That's the real strength of America, that it doesn't take a violent revolution to effect change. It's not just economics, either, but social issues, too - which are arguably much harder to change.

It took a long time - much too long - but think of the enormous changes in civil rights we've accomplished in this country. In my lifetime, we went from state-mandated segregation and anti-miscegenation laws to a black president and non-white Miss America pageant winners (think about it).

And that was accomplished largely peacefully. Just think of what an incredible accomplishment that was, that it didn't take a violent revolution to effect such an enormous change. And today, gay rights are moving forward at an absolutely astonishing speed - astonishing to anyone who understands how difficult it can be to get people to change their mind.

When it comes to economics, we've been on the wrong path for decades. Republicans used the political power the Dixiecrats gave them, when their 'Southern strategy' of deliberately wooing white racists succeeded in taking the entire South from the Democrats, to do what they really wanted to do - which wasn't to bring back segregation, but to give tax cuts to the wealthy and otherwise turn our economy hard to the right.

But as Reich points out, we've been there before. We changed course before - peacefully, at the ballot box - and we can do it again.

Of course, it won't be easy. No change is easy. And the five right-wing Republicans on our Supreme Court have made it even harder with their Citizens United decision (and similar decisions which have made the Chamber of Commerce the overwhelming winner in Supreme Court decisions in recent years).

Just last week, I blogged about one secret money group - not even the largest in America - which gave a quarter of a billion dollars to influence elections last year, all anonymously. These are the 1% - often using corporate money, also in secret - buying politicians. It's dark money, it's corrupt,... but it's legal, thanks to the GOP.

And even Democrats need money - lots and lots of money - to get elected these days. Do you wonder why Democratic politicians are so timid at turning our economy around? If they anger the wealthy, they're toast.

So what do I hear from progressives? They claim that "both parties are the same," and use that as an excuse to sit on the couch bitching instead of voting. Or they throw their vote away on some third party candidate, like Ralph Nader voters did in Florida in 2000. (America would not have been perfect with Al Gore as president, instead of George W. Bush, but rational people don't expect perfection. Frankly, better would have been wonderful, compared to what we got!)

As Robert Reich and Jon Stewart both point out, many people demand perfection, they demand permanent fixes, they demand... a complete fantasy world. Reality isn't like that. Reality is a constant struggle. Reality is things getting better and things getting worse. The best you can hope for is that we're moving in the right direction, and even then, it's likely to be temporary.

But we do progress. Think of the long struggle of African Americans - generation after generation of slavery, of segregation, of the worst kinds of bigotry. It's not over yet, either. But there's certainly been progress. You can't deny that. Progress is hard, progress is slow, and progress isn't guaranteed. But we've done it before, and we can do it again.

But be careful of right-wing propaganda. As Reich says in that second clip, "If you convince people - particularly the people who would otherwise be activist - that there's no hope, that they ought to be cynical because everything is just... crap, well, then you are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because if people give up on politics, they're giving up on democracy."

Reich is both rational and optimistic, and I love that. I watch him on YouTube sometimes (here, for example), and he's always sane, he's always rational, he always makes sense. But for me, what's been happening in America is depressing. Robert Reich knows a lot more about this than I do, yet he's still optimistic. That's encouraging, don't you think?

Of course, if you want to be depressed, there's plenty of reason for it:

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OK, full disclosure: I retired early, so I live on my investments. I'm not rich, but the stock market boom has been great for me. The tax benefits have been great for me, too - much better than when I was working for a living.

But I don't think that's right. And, certainly, the vast majority of people benefiting from this don't need the help. The 1% have always done just fine. They really don't need the Republicans pushing even more money their way.

Monday, September 16, 2013

"The Player of Games" by Iain M. Banks

(cover image from

Tragically, Iain M. Banks died this summer, age 59. I'd never read anything by him, but he was regularly recommended to me. In particular, since I'm such a fan of computer games, The Player of Games (1988) was often recommended. So I finally decided I needed to read it.

This book is part of his Culture series, where a highly advanced, galaxy-spanning civilization of humans (primarily) and intelligent AI live in a virtual utopia. There are no laws, no crime, no money, and no need to work. Vast 'Minds' run things for the benefit of all.

Gurgeh is a renowned game-player, and the book opens with him playing something like an advanced (though not very advanced) first-person shooter. The first couple of pages made it seem like this would be the perfect book for me, but that was quite misleading. As it turned out, Gurgeh - the protagonist in the book - hated games like that and never played another.

He was a "game-player," true, but his interest was in games more like chess. I have no interest in games like that, so the fact that I'm also a game-player is simply immaterial here. (Really, we're talking apples and oranges.) Indeed, I was hugely disappointed when this became clear, about page five.

I didn't like the main character much - not at first, certainly - and none of the other characters were especially appealing, either. They were interesting, yes, but I didn't really care what happened to any of them. And I found the first 150 pages of the book to be very slow - fairly interesting, but no more than that.

Things did pick up after that. Gurgeh starts out rather bored with life (and that doesn't make him any more likable). But then he gets blackmailed into traveling clear across the galaxy to visit an alien empire which is based entirely on a very complicated game. Once he got there, the book became much more interesting.

Gurgeh is to play the game himself, but he's not really sure why he's there. Their society is not at all admirable, and it's quite a shock to him. But the whole point to his journey is unclear until the very end.

Frankly, I found that part of it very hard to believe. The basic idea just didn't make much sense to me. (I don't want to give away any spoilers here, so I won't say more than that.) But the latter part of the book was still quite entertaining. I'm glad I read it,... but I can't say I'm eager to read more in the series.

Author Tony Williams, a friend of mine, just wrote a review of Matter, another in Banks' Culture series, and that book sounds very similar to this one. Oh, the setting is different and the plot is different, but the style sounds very similar (including the slow start).

I don't think that style particularly appeals to me, not these days. I don't have as much patience as I used to, and I really want characters I care about. I can definitely understand the popularity of Iain M. Banks, but I probably won't be reading more in this series.

Obviously, this is all a matter of personal taste, and I'm not denying that there's a lot to like in The Player of Games. I suspect that I might have loved it, years ago. I've changed since then, and I don't think it's been for the better. But, either way, I'm glad I read the book. I'm just not motivated to read more in this series.

PS. The rest of my book reviews are here.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Non-Belief, Pt. 13: The Explanatory Power of God

I've often wondered about the explanatory power of God. Does believing in God actually explain anything? If you don't just assume that God exists, would postulating his existence - or the existence of any god - solve any problems or answer any questions?

Christians often tell me that science can explain 'how,' but not 'why.' Of course, that's not true. 'Why' is a big part of science. But when it comes to the universe, we don't know 'why.' And when it comes to each of us as individuals, 'why' might be meaningless in any real sense.

But does 'God' help?

I don't know why I was born, though I think that my parents wanted kids (for whatever reason). Still, maybe I was a complete accident. Maybe their birth control failed, I don't know. But what would that mean to me?

Heck, maybe they wanted a supply of organs in case they ever needed a transplant. Maybe my reason for existing was so I could be a potential organ-donor. In a sense, that would have been my 'purpose.' But if so, should I consider that to be my purpose now?

My parents' reasons for having children did affect my life, no doubt. But whatever their reasons, is that really my 'purpose' in life? Of course not. Their reasons are their own, not mine.

So, does 'God' help? Assuming that a god exists, do his reasons for creating me define my purpose in life? If he wanted another slave to worship him for eternity, should I accept that as my 'purpose'? Why? Why would his purpose make any more difference than my parents' purpose in creating me?

Of course, God really screwed up if he did want a worshipful slave. So if he really does exist, and he really is omniscient and omnipotent, I assume he just wanted another soul to torture for eternity in Hell (billions are not enough, apparently). Should I accept that as my 'purpose,' then? (Indeed, if that were the case, my becoming a Christian would be going against God's will. But that's a paradox I'll leave for another time.)

My point is, how can any other being define my 'purpose' for me? If my parents can't, how can a god? I know that my parents created me - maybe not the people I think are my parents, but someone. If they had a reason for that, why would that define my 'purpose in life' now? If I have a purpose, it's something I must define for myself.

And 'God' makes absolutely no difference to that.

Likewise, I have theists ask me why the universe exists. (I don't know.) Why does anything exist? Why is there something rather than nothing? (I don't know.) Why did the Big Bang happen? (I don't know.) Why are these the physical characteristics of the universe and not some other characteristics? (I don't know.)

Obviously, there's a lot I don't know. There's a lot that we don't know. But does 'God,' as an explanation, actually help? Is there any explanatory power to 'God'?

You tell me that God created the universe, so that's why it exists. OK. You don't have any evidence of that, so I don't know why you'd believe it. (That's why I don't believe it.) But assuming that it's true, who created God?

If 'God' is the reason why there's something rather than nothing, then why is there a god rather than nothing? If God caused the Big Bang, then who caused God? If God created a universe with precisely these characteristics, then who created a God with precisely his characteristics?

Christian apologists try to get around such questions by answering that God always existed. But if a god can always exist, then so can a universe. (It doesn't have to be this one, but could be a precursor universe. Or a 'multiverse.') If God doesn't need a cause, then the ultimate cause of the Big Bang, whatever it is (assuming a 'cause' at all), also doesn't need a cause, not necessarily.

And if a universe with precisely these characteristics is unlikely, then a god with precisely the characteristics needed to make such a universe out of nothing has to be even more unlikely. You're not solving any problems by answering 'God,' you're just making the issues even more difficult to explain.

'God' seems to have no explanatory power whatsoever. Is there any question you can answer with 'God' which actually helps solve the problem? 'God' can't be the ultimate answer to 'why,' because that just makes the problem bigger. 'God' as an explanation just begs the question.

This is Pt. 13 in my Non-Belief series. The others are here.

Edit: I debated with myself about adding this postscript here, since it has nothing to do with the rest of the post, but... OK, here it is.  Re. my ending statement that "God as an explanation just begs the question," yes, I know that begging the question is a known logical fallacy with a completely different meaning.

Technically, "begging the question" means to assume a premise which would automatically make your conclusion true. Since you haven't demonstrated that your premise is true, this does nothing to demonstrate the truth of your conclusion, but that's not always obvious. This is a common logical fallacy.

But in modern usage, as Wikipedia points out, "begging the question" is often used to mean "raises the question," and that's how I'm using it.  'God,' as an explanation, just pushes the question back a step, rather than answering anything. If 'God' is the answer to why there's something rather than nothing, then why is there a god rather than nothing? See?

Purists don't like this usage, but it just sounds better to me - and apparently to many people. In Latin (again, according to Wikipedia), that logical fallacy was called petitio principii, "assuming the initial point." I don't know how we got "begging the question" out of that! But, hey, English is a living language, so I'm going to use what sounds best to me.

But after debating this awhile, I finally decided I would explain myself. (More than you wanted to know, huh?)

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Protecting our daughters?

I don't have any daughters, so I can only imagine how angry this video would make me if I did. Heck, I'm angry enough, already.

Now, you might think it perfectly natural for fathers to worry about their daughters, and so it is. Indeed, parents (men and women) worry about their children (daughters and sons). But to "Fix the Family" (Catholic, of course) it's the man who leads. What his wife thinks about anything,... well, who cares?

On the other hand, sons can't be expected to control themselves, right? "Very few men can restrain themselves or control themselves with a woman." (Um, if men can't control themselves, but women can, why isn't it the wife who should lead the family?)

Just think about that. That's what the Taliban thinks. That's why they make their women wear burqas. Men can't be expected to control themselves when they see an attractive woman, so women have to cover themselves. (Why don't they make the men wear blindfolds, instead? It's their problem, isn't it?)

So, of course, if a woman is raped, it's not really the rapist's fault. Men simply can't control themselves. Even when it comes to consensual sex, men can't be expected to behave rationally, right? (Heck, even if you don't care about your daughters, think about what you're teaching your sons.)

When it comes to sexual matters, this guy is implying that women are to blame no matter what. If men can't be expected to restrain themselves, then it's the woman's responsibility for... everything.

Nice, isn't it? This lets us men completely off the hook, just because we're men. We simply can't control ourselves. Poor us! But women,... oh, women can control themselves, so whatever happens, it must be their fault.

You might think he has a point about "dressing with dignity," but fashions are merely cultural artifacts. A burqa is considered proper in some cultures. Anything less than that would be considered immodest. This guy wouldn't go that far, I suspect, but why not? The principle is the same. Either way, you shouldn't expect your daughters today to dress as women did in some arbitrary time and place of the past.

He just goes on and on. No dancing. No sports ("revealing clothes and posture"). No college. "Is the loss of our daughter's purity worth them getting a degree they're probably not going to use?"

Right, what use would a woman have for a college degree? After all, she's just going to stay home cooking and cleaning for her man, right? So the only thing she really needs to know is that her husband is boss.

Right now, you might begin to suspect that this video is a parody, but it isn't. This is really what "Fix the Family" is all about. Purity? Purity? Could you focus on anything less important than that?

There's prudence, yes. Teach your daughters (and your sons) about making smart choices. Teach them that they're in control (your sons, too). Warn them about potential dangers, absolutely. But purity? This isn't the Dark Ages. There's absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying your youth, enjoying your health, enjoying your sexuality.

This guy is just creepy as hell, isn't he? Jezebel has a pretty good reply to this video, especially this part:
Dear good Catholic daughters, and daughters in general, and anyone who has ever come into contact with the teachings of a kookooroo like Raylan Alleman:

1. You do not have to obey.

It's okay if you don't believe me right now—I'm just going to keep hammering this one point over and over again for the rest of my life, just to do my part to ensure the message is there, steadfast and unequivocal, any time someone needs it. Contrary to what people might have told you, your life is yours—not your father's, not your husband's, not the Pope's, not some radical internet creep's. People who come at you with shit like this are liars with their own best interests in mind, not yours:
My personal impression is that the day-to-day grind of a job is below the dignity of women. In a way, it is like being a hired hand, as result of the fall and the penalty for original sin.

The "personal impressions" of Raylan Alleman, self-appointed internet lady-wrangler, are irrelevant to your life. You get to do whatever the fuck you want, within legal boundaries. You can still hold yourself to the moral code of your choice, immerse yourself in the church of your choice, marry someone whose faith you respect, and so on, but your church's jurisdiction over your life ends where your personal liberty begins. "Obedience" is part of the lexicon of slavery, and that is precisely how Raylan Alleman is using it. Your purpose is to stay home, stay tethered, stay ignorant, and stay harmless. Have more babies! Clean some stuff! Avoid critical thinking—it isn't your place (besides, we wouldn't want you getting critical of your husband and your life). Avoid going outside and making a mark on the world with your radiant brain and agency—that's your husband's place.

Well, fuck that. It is your place. Every place is your place. You are a human being and you have just as much a right to thrive and grow in any place you choose as some man who didn't do anything exceptional except be born. These places were built on your back too. You were born too and this is your life and you can do what you want with it. Obey yourself.

Jezebel - Lindy - has much more to say. (Here's another great line: "That's why you shouldn't take economic advice from people who were home-schooled by people who were home-schooled by people who think college is just one big Marxist jizz fountain.")

But Raylan Alleman has more to say, too - like "What's with all the Angry Women" and "Feminist Lie #4 - All Girls Need to go to College." Frankly, I don't know if it's all this crazy, because there was a limit on how much bullshit I could take.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Selling America to the highest bidder

From TPM:
An almost completely unknown group with strong ties to the Koch brothers has identified itself as the secret source of almost a quarter of a billion dollars received by conservative political groups in 2012.

The group, Freedom Partners, raised $256 million in the year following its creation in November 2011, and made grants totaling $236 million to conservative groups, according to Politico, which was shown a draft of an IRS document the group plans to file shortly. As Politico put it, the upshot of Freedom Partners’ revelation is that “a totally unknown group was the largest sugar daddy for conservative groups in the last election, second in total spending only to Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS.” ...

Originally named the Association for American Innovation, Freedom Partners is organized as a 501(c)6 tax-exempt chamber of commerce. The designation allow it to keep its donors secret (but is different from the 501(c)4 “social welfare” group status that became popular after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.) On its website, which was registered in early September, Freedom Partners claims to have over 200 members. And according to Politico, those members are drawn from the semiannual conferences hosted by Charles and David Koch, the billionaire businessmen and conservative donors. Each member of Freedom Partners pays at least $100,000 in annual dues. ...

Freedom Partners was able to remain in the shadows during an election year because many (if not all) of the groups it gave money to in 2012 also keep their donors secret. But while dark money groups don’t have to disclose many details about the money they take in, they do have to tell the IRS more about the money they give out in the form of grants. Hence the IRS filing that the group shared with Politico.

This is "dark money." It's not just that we're auctioning off America to the highest bidder, but that these people are doing it in secret (all legal, thanks to the five right-wing Republicans on our Supreme Court).

Freedom Partners claims to have "over 200 members." Wow, that's really a grassroots group, huh? They spent 256 million dollars to influence elections, anonymously, in one year! That's a quarter of a billion dollars spent to give themselves tax breaks! Do you wonder why politicians don't give your opinions much notice?

The thing is, they still need votes. We don't have to be influenced by this. But most people will be. Most people don't pay attention - even those few who are willing to get off the couch to vote at all - and most are quite willing to believe whatever they want to believe.

That's why money influences elections. That's why campaign ads work. And that's why politicians on both sides of the aisle spend most of their time fund-raising. But as the wealthy just get wealthier - thanks to government subsidies, as well as tax breaks (socialism for the rich; capitalism for the poor and middle class) - they're having it easier and easier to buy elections.

And keep it all in the dark, too. Even now, nearly a year after the November elections, we're just learning how much money was spent,... and we still don't know - and won't ever, likely - who spent it and where the money came from. These days, thanks again to the Republicans on our Supreme Court, even corporations can buy politicians in secret.

That might be your money. If you own stock or mutual funds - in your IRA or 401-k, perhaps - it likely is your money, at least in part. But you'll never know that, because corporate CEOs can keep that a secret even from the people who supposedly 'own' the corporation.

Dark money. Has corruption ever been easier?

Fundamentalist Christian conspiracy theories

From AlterNet, these are supposed to be the "10 Weirdest Fundamentalist Christian Conspiracy Theories":
For the Christian right, having a “faith-based” worldview extends far beyond claims about demons and angels. Unsurprisingly, the world of fundamentalist Christians is absolutely crawling with conspiracy theories, urban legends, and just plain bizarre beliefs about how the world works.

And they are weird. After reading the first one, you wonder how they could get any weirder:
1) Same-sex marriage is an elaborate scheme concocted by lesbians to entrap men. David Usher of the Center for Marriage Policy managed to cough up a theory that is an outstanding blend of homophobia, misogynist myths about the mendacity of women, and paranoia about the supposed gravy train that is child support. He argues that women will marry each other and conscript men into supporting them by “pretending they are using birth control when they are not.” The men will then “become economically conscripted third parties to these marriages, but get nothing in return,” presumably because the only reason a man would want to care for his own children would be in exchange for sex and housework. He also assumes that the only sources of income women have access to are child support and welfare; the possibility that women hold jobs doesn’t seem to occur to him.

Usher is trying to find a way to justify the increasingly ridiculous right-wing claim that same-sex marriage is somehow undermining “traditional” heterosexual marriage. He has zero-evidence for his claim outside of his belief that women are generally sleazy liars, and will “cheat” men out of the straight marriages they’re entitled to by sneaking off with women.

Of course, some of these are just... expected in today's batshit crazy world:
6) Obama is the Antichrist and plans to rule America by sharia law. Even though you’d think Obama would be getting on with this plan already instead of wasting time talking about bombing Syria, the belief that any day now a combination of sharia law and the apocalypse will be brought on by Obama still rules in Christian right circles. Public Policy Polling found that an alarming 13 percent of Americans are sure Obama is the Antichrist and another 13 percent entertained the possibility. Christian right-wingers are always on the lookout for “evidence” that Obama’s secret sharia plan is about to take off, leading to headlines likes this one from “Obama administration paves the way for sharia law.”

Barack Obama has been president for four and a half years now and has been killing Muslim terrorists - not just Osama bin Laden, but notably him, too - for all that time. And if he's got Satan in his pocket, he's being remarkably slow at demonstrating that, don't you think?

Yet more that one quarter of Americans still think he might be the 'Antichrist' (with half of them sure of it). This is hardly a tiny fringe! What does it say about America when more than one-quarter of us are batshit crazy?

Still, as I say, you'd have to expect this one. It's no less crazy than the others, but you just knew that it would be on this list, didn't you? So I guess some of the others here just strike me as being weirder. Like this one, for example:
10) Birth control pill turns your uterus into a grave littered with teeny-weeny corpses of fully formed babies. Kevin Swanson, Christian right talk show host, expelled this one recently, claiming that “certain doctors and certain scientists” are finding that women on the pill have, “these little tiny fetuses, these little babies, that are embedded into the womb.” An evocative image, albeit one that requires not only falsely believing the pill “kills” embryos (it works by suppressing ovulation), but also simply refusing to believe that menstruation actually exists.

But this is what happens when you're faith-based, when you're both anti-science and completely ignorant of it, when what you want to believe is all that matters. Reality means nothing to the faith-based.

In fact, I'm beginning to wonder if faith itself is simply a sign of insanity. The more faith you have, the less connection to reality. And keep in mind that if you believe by faith at all, you're supporting faith-based thinking. You might not be this crazy, not yet, but faith-based thinking leads to this kind of thing (on the left, too, I assure you).

There are seven more crazy conspiracy theories on AlterNet's list, but I know that's not all of them. Yes, we can laugh at these people, but there's a lot of them. They may not completely control the Republican Party, but they've got a frightening amount of influence in it.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Rand Paul opposes... everything

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Here's a guy who hates every potential action - plus inaction, too.

Well, he's not president, and unless America loses its mind, he'll never be president. So he doesn't need to make a choice. All he needs is to criticize every potential choice the president might make.

Of course, like every ambitious Republican, opposing everything the president does, doesn't do, might do, or people can be convinced he might do is a good move politically for him. And that's all that counts, right?

The most embarrassing press conference in the history of the world

Remember, these are the same people who've been pushing crazy conspiracy theories which have already had a negative effect in Egypt. I blogged about that a week ago.

At the time, I noted how TPM called it "The Weirdest Story in the History of the World." Well, now we have the most embarrassing press conference in the history of the world - by the three dumbest members of Congress.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Atheists are corrupt, vile, and demon-possessed

Corrupt, vile, and demon-possessed? Wow, it's like he knows me.

"It's not just a choice to doubt, to unbelieve (sic)." Actually, it's not a choice at all. How in the world can you believe such extraordinary things, based on nothing at all but the desire to believe?

"Their deeds are vile. There's no one among them that does good." That's so generous of you, 'Dr. Chaps.' (And I don't even want to know how he got that nickname!)

The wonk gap

I don't read Paul Krugman nearly as often as I used to, not since The New York Times went behind a paywall. That's a real shame, as his recent column clearly demonstrates:
On Saturday, Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming delivered the weekly Republican address. He ignored Syria, presumably because his party is deeply conflicted on the issue. (For the record, so am I.) Instead, he demanded repeal of the Affordable Care Act. “The health care law,” he declared, “has proven to be unpopular, unworkable and unaffordable,” and he predicted “sticker shock” in the months ahead.

So, another week, another denunciation of Obamacare. Who cares? But Mr. Barrasso’s remarks were actually interesting, although not in the way he intended. You see, all the recent news on health costs has been good. So Mr. Barrasso is predicting sticker shock precisely when serious fears of such a shock are fading fast. Why would he do that?

Well, one likely answer is that he hasn’t heard any of the good news. Think about it: Who would tell him?

My guess, in other words, was that Mr. Barrasso was inadvertently illustrating the widening “wonk gap” — the G.O.P.’s near-complete lack of expertise on anything substantive. Health care is the most prominent example, but the dumbing down extends across the spectrum, from budget issues to national security to poll analysis. Remember, Mitt Romney and much of his party went into Election Day expecting victory.

About health reform: Mr. Barrasso was wrong about everything, even the “unpopular” bit, as I’ll explain in a minute. Mainly, however, he was completely missing the story on affordability.

For the truth is that the good news on costs just keeps coming in. There has been a striking slowdown in overall health costs since the Affordable Care Act was enacted, with many experts giving the law at least partial credit. And we now have a good idea what insurance premiums will be once the law goes fully into effect; a comprehensive survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that on average premiums will be significantly lower than those predicted by the Congressional Budget Office when the law was passed.

But do Republican politicians know any of this? Not if they’re listening to conservative “experts,” who have been offering a steady stream of misinformation.

The "wonk gap" isn't original with Krugman. Indeed, he links to this column from last year in Washington Monthly: state it more simply, the right has us licked on the propaganda front. As I was saying before, when it comes to catchy slogans premised on their ideological assumptions (“job creators,” etc), lockstep message discipline, and mind-numbing repetition, liberals just can’t compete. ...

However, the left has an equally lopsided advantage when it comes to a different type of pundit: wonks. The left’s wonk bench is both wide and deep. These folks are ideologically inclined, certainly, but are also dedicated to study, empirical analysis, and informed debate. They argue mostly through evidence-based reasoning, sometimes shot through with a bit of sarcasm or anger, but they’re uncomfortable with abject partisanship.

They do have a strength, though, which was on vivid display yesterday when Mitt Romney finally released a few niggling details about some of his policies. Team Wonk sank their teeth into that like a bunch of half-starved wolverines. (Finally, something we can analyze!) Jon Cohn dug into Romney’s health-care plan (yikes), while Matt Yglesias found some disturbing implications in the education plan. Today, Suzy Khimm took a more even look at Romney’s education plan, and they’ll probably be gnawing over the scraps all weekend.

The right simply doesn’t have that kind of policy muscle, though it remains to be seen whether their increasing disregard for evidence and policy will hurt them electorally.

The thing is, Republicans are faith-based, not evidence-based. What's important to them isn't that their beliefs are true, but just that they're their beliefs. Their strength lies in propaganda, partly because the facts don't back them up, but mostly because they don't care if the facts back them up.

Now, there's way too much faith-based thinking on the left, too, but for the most part, it's not in the mainstream. Evidence-based thinking is very welcome in the Democratic Party. Indeed, most liberals care a great deal what the truth is - and aren't shy at criticizing their own side, if necessary. All of that is evident in this "wonk gap."

Krugman continues:
At the same time, in an echo of the Romney camp’s polling fantasies, other conservative “experts” are creating false impressions about public opinion [of 'Obamacare']. Just after Kaiser released a poll showing a strong majority — 57 percent — opposed to the idea of defunding health reform, the Heritage Foundation put out a poster claiming that 57 percent of Americans want reform defunded. Did the experts at Heritage simply read the numbers upside down? No, they claimed, they were referring to some other poll. Whatever really happened, the practical effect was to delude the right-wing faithful.

And the point is that episodes like this have become the rule, not the exception, on the right. How many Republicans know, for example, that government employment has declined, not risen, under President Obama? Certainly Senator Rand Paul was incredulous when I pointed this out to him on TV last fall. On the contrary, he insisted, “the size of growth of government is enormous under President Obama” — which was completely untrue but was presumably what his sources had told him, knowing that it was what he wanted to hear.

For that, surely, is what the wonk gap is all about. Political conservatism and serious policy analysis can coexist, and there was a time when they did. Back in the 1980s, after all, health experts at Heritage made a good-faith effort to devise a plan for universal health coverage — and what they came up with was the system now known as Obamacare.

But that was then. Modern conservatism has become a sort of cult, very much given to conspiracy theorizing when confronted with inconvenient facts. Liberal policies were supposed to cause hyperinflation, so low measured inflation must reflect statistical fraud; the threat of climate change implies the need for public action, so global warming must be a gigantic scientific hoax. Oh, and Mitt Romney would have won if only he had been a real conservative.

It’s all kind of funny, in a way. Unfortunately, however, this runaway cult controls the House, which gives it immense destructive power — the power, for example, to wreak havoc on the economy by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. And it’s disturbing to realize that this power rests in the hands of men who, thanks to the wonk gap, quite literally have no idea what they’re doing.

To my mind, this is where religion and politics intersect - and why I think faith-based thinking is so dangerous. If you're going to believe in anything without evidence or even despite the evidence, where do you stop?

You might think that it doesn't matter if religious people believe a pleasant fantasy, just because they really want to believe it. What does it hurt, after all? Can't we atheists just let them believe whatever makes them happy?

But if you're going to believe in things just because you want to believe them, where will you draw the line? Believers tend to think that their religion is the most important thing in the world. So if you're going to accept that on faith, why wouldn't you do the same with everything else?

And that's exactly what's happened in the Republican Party. On the right, it's no longer important what's true and what isn't. The right-wing has become entirely faith-based. Reality is whatever they want it to be, and if the facts disagree, the facts must be wrong.

Faith is not a virtue. I'll keep hammering that here, over and over again, because it's so important. You might think that it's harmless to believe in gods and fairies and living forever and ever in Heaven, and maybe it would be if you restricted faith-based thinking to one hour every Sunday, but that's not what happens.

What happens is that it becomes easier and easier to just believe, rather than going to the work of finding out. After all, sometimes reality isn't what you'd want it to be. And if you're not going to accept reality all of the time, where do you draw the line?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Syria - What to do?

Believe it or not, I don't comment on everything here. Well, OK, maybe I do. But I don't think I have the answer to everything. How's that?

Sometimes, I don't know what to do. Sometimes, I don't see any good options. Sometimes, I lean one way,... but not very confidently.

Syria - to attack or not to attack - is probably one of those issues. But I was reading this column by fellow Lincoln resident Clay Farris Naff, I made a comment (of course!), and I thought I'd post it here, somewhat expanded.

Right now, we're tired of war,... and rightly so. George W. Bush not only leaped to war in Afghanistan (when he could have considered the 9/11 attacks to be a criminal matter, a police matter, as we have every other terrorist attack in America), he also had us invade a completely innocent country, Iraq - a nation which had never attacked us and was no threat to us whatsoever.

Now, Barack Obama wants to strike Syria from the air - no invasion, no ground troops - to punish Bashar al-Assad for using poison gas on rebel populations.

Right-wingers - who'd normally be overjoyed at the thought of any war they didn't have to fight, themselves - are reluctant because Obama wants it and they've vowed never to support our first black president in anything. Liberals tend to be more consistent in their opposition to war, though our recent experiences with the Bush administration are certainly having an effect there, too.

But there's one big difference here which hasn't been getting enough notice. We invaded Iraq because of the rosy expectations of right-wingers in the Bush administration. We'd be "greeted as liberators." The war would "pay for itself." Iraq would become a prosperous (oil-rich) modern democracy and, yes, this would open up a perfect opportunity for Christian missionaries, too!

War with Iraq was such a good opportunity, how could we afford to pass it up? (Even if they had to invent a reason for it, which they did.)

But there's none of that with Syria today. There aren't any rosy expectations. The Obama administration doesn't see any good options, whatever they do (or don't do). They're simply between a rock and a hard place.

Since World War I, we've pretty well drawn a line in the sand when it comes to using poison gas in war. But we let it go when Iraq used poison gas against Iran, so what did that tell Assad in Syria? If we let it go again, when he's gassing his own citizens, what will that tell other dictators? How many more will see poison gas as an option?

After we witnessed the horrors of poison gas attacks in World War I, the world came together in revulsion against it. We vowed that it wouldn't happen again, and we've done fairly well in keeping that promise, despite the fact that poison gas is very easy to manufacture and easy - these days - for almost any regime to use.

Poison gas is the poor man's choice in weapons of mass destruction. If dictators could get nuclear weapons, they would. But they can get poison gas - if they dare to use it. The question is whether the world will let them use it with impunity.

There are no good choices here; there's only the lesser of two evils. Doing nothing is also a choice. Doing nothing will demonstrate to other dictators that we don't care. Now, maybe there are better options than a military strike on Syria,... but I don't know what they'd be.

Frankly, I don't have any good ideas here. There aren't any good ideas, not as far as I can tell. And I think the Obama administration feels the same way. (I must say, I like that a lot better than the magical thinking of the Bush administration, whether I agree with their decisions or not.)

In this case, striking Syria might not seem... glorious, but I think it might be necessary. We are not expecting miracles, we really aren't. I don't think that anyone is expecting miracles, not in this case. But not acting might be the worst thing we could do.

That's my thinking right now, but I'd be glad to hear what you think.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Jaclyn becomes an atheist

I posted a video of Jaclyn Glenn about a week ago, her "coming out" as a liberal. But I didn't realize at the time - not until I was just idly browsing her other videos (hey, I was eating lunch!) - that she's pretty much a brand-new atheist.

Just a year and a half ago, she posted this video as a Christian, if a very liberal one:

But five months later, she's become an agnostic - and one who is tired of the whole debate on religion. Can't we all just get along?

She's definitely not going to be posting about religion anymore! "I'm done talking about religion. I'm bored with it. I'm moving on with my life."

Well, just five months after that, it's "Message to Christians: BACK THE F*CK OFF!" I had to laugh. Not only is Jaclyn still posting about religion, she's mincing no words. In fact, she's even been taking on Ray Comfort in recent videos.

OK, I do think this is funny, but it's inspiring, too. Like the vast majority of us, Jaclyn was raised a Christian. She even attended Catholic schools.

As with many young people, it was the Catholic Church stance on social issues which turned her off. But she didn't abandon Christianity, not then. After all, it's easy enough to find a Christian church which will agree with you, pretty much whatever you want to believe.

And in decades past, that would have probably been the end of it. She would have settled in quite happily as a liberal Christian.

But now we've got the Internet. Now, we atheists are coming out of the closet. And we've got a good argument, if I do say so myself.

Agnosticism is the next obvious step. Of course, you can be an agnostic and an atheist (I am). They're not mutually exclusive. Sure, no one can know for sure (the agnostic position), but atheism is about belief. Does it make sense to believe without good evidence?

If you don't believe in Islam or Hinduism without good evidence, why would you make an exception for Christianity? If you don't believe in leprechauns or werewolves, because there's no good evidence that they exist, why would you make an exception for gods, angels, or demons?

Not everyone makes it this far, because it's hard. It's hard for most people to reject what they've been taught all their life, especially when you really, really want to believe it. (And who really wants to die?) It takes courage, and it takes intellectual honesty.

Not everyone is willing to accept... reality. But this kind of deconversion is happening more and more often these days. So I thought this was kind of inspiring. Don't you agree?