Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"A Madness of Angels" by Kate Griffin

(cover image from Amazon.com)

I've been reading a lot of urban fantasy lately - Ben Aaronovitch, Benedict Jacka, Jim Butcher, among others. But A Madness of Angels (2009) by Kate Griffin (the pen name of Catherine Webb, who writes young adult fantasies under her real name) still managed to be quite unique.

Partly, that's due to the lush, descriptive language of the book. 450 pages long, this is a lot more detailed than most of the urban fantasies I've read. There's a good reason for that - it actually fits with the story - and the book kept my interest very well. What can I say? It works.

I wasn't too surprised. I picked up this book because of a review by a friend of mine, Tony Williams. An author himself - and a good one - he almost always favors shorter books, quicker reads. So when he liked it, despite its length, I had to take notice.

But the plot is different enough, too, from the usual. (One of my pet peeves with fantasy is the widespread lack of imagination among fantasy authors.) Two years after his murder - by magic - sorcerer Matthew Swift has returned to life. But he's not alone in his body.

"Life is magic." The idea here is that life itself creates magic, just by living. Swift is an urban sorcerer, someone who can get so caught up in the rhythms of the city that he risks getting lost in it. Yes, this is another fantasy set in London, and by another author who seems to love the city.

Who killed Matthew Swift, and who killed so many others in the two years he's been dead? And who brought him back? In a sense, this isn't just a fantasy, but a mystery, too.

I loved it, and since it's the first of a series, I've already ordered the sequel. I must admit to being skeptical that the sequels can be as good as this book - the whole idea won't be new anymore - but I'm anxious to find out.

Thanks, Tony, for the recommendation!

___
Note: My other book reviews are here.

"The Lost Fleet: Dauntless" by Jack Campbell

(cover image from Amazon.com)

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless (2006) by Jack Campbell is the first in his Lost Fleet series, and I'm not sure how I've missed it until now. I've certainly seen it often enough, but I guess it just didn't sound appealing until a trusted friend recommended it.

But I'm not sure why that is. A quote on the cover says, "A rousing adventure. . . the kind of hero Hornblower fans will love!" And I'm a huge fan of Horatio Hornblower.

I'm a fan of military science fiction, too. At least,... it's kind of a guilty pleasure, admittedly, since I rarely take it seriously, but I still find it fun. This is a little different from the typical military SF I read, though.

First, the story: John "Black Jack" Geary had become the great hero of his people in the century since he'd lost his life early in the war in a heroic rear-guard action. Only, it turned out he wasn't dead, just in suspended animation until their fleet stumbled upon his survival pod.

When the book begins, that fleet has suffered a crushing defeat, and Geary ends up in command of the remnants, facing a surrender-or-die ultimatum. Of course, you know that neither of those things is going to happen, but escape is the only chance they have. And they're far from home, deep in enemy territory.

At first, I wasn't sure if I was going to like this book, mostly because it's all told from Geary's point of view. The other characters are minor, at best. Typically, I like military fiction with lots of appealing characters - well, I like fiction in general with lots of appealing characters - so this was a bit different.

Geary faces not just opposition within the fleet, but his own doubts, as well. Some of his people think that he's the legend come back to life, destined to pull off miracle after miracle, but others doubt that he's even qualified to lead (most of his service life has been spent in suspended animation) or that there's anywhere to lead the fleet. And at least one of them fears that he's the legend - or that he thinks he is.

All this was interesting, but it took awhile before the book really grabbed me. But grab me it did, and I've already ordered the sequels. Still, there's another way that this book is atypical for military SF, and that's that it actually has something to say. It's actually thought-provoking.

Geary's service was pre-war and at the very beginning of the war. But the century of brutal war since then has changed his people and the fleet itself. No one else in his command really recognizes this, because they've grown up in it. And it takes awhile for Geary to recognize the changes, too.

These days, in a time when many politicians envisage a never-ending 'war on terror,' when we're told that torturing prisoners of war is just how we 'baptize terrorists,' when people who won't be doing the fighting and dying themselves can't wait to start the next war, this is a worthwhile theme to explore in science fiction, don't you think?

Also, most military science fiction seems to disparage democracy, apparently preferring a hereditary aristocracy, instead. That's how it seems to me, at least. Now, maybe an authoritarian outlook should be expected in people who write military fiction, I don't know. Certainly, the military itself isn't a democracy, and can't be.

But Geary's society does seem to be a democracy, and not a hopelessly inept or corrupt one. (Admittedly, we don't learn that much about it.) And the only civilian politician in the fleet isn't a fool or a coward. She doesn't like Geary much, but she's got good reason to distrust him. A legendary hero come back to life, if he could pull off another miracle, would have the kind of influence on a war-weary population that could indeed endanger their democracy.

So, although this book didn't immediately grab me, it was certainly interesting enough to keep reading. And as I did, I became more and more impressed as well as being increasingly entertained. I don't know how I missed this series previously, but I really hope the next books are as good as this one was.

___
Note: My other book reviews are here.

"Spheres of Influence" by Ryk E. Spoor

(cover image from Amazon.com)

Spheres of Influence (2013) by Ryk E. Spoor is the sequel, though definitely not the conclusion, to his Grand Central Arena. I enjoyed the first book, though I had some problems with it, and I enjoyed this one even more.

Mostly, I think, that's because I knew what to expect this time. I mean, I already knew - and accepted - that the book wouldn't be entirely to my taste in fiction. So I wasn't disappointed. I knew what I was getting, so... I guess I felt free to enjoy the parts I did like.

Fiction, after all, is inherently subjective. My taste in fiction isn't necessarily yours, and I can't expect every author to write to my tastes. So, can I criticize a book for not being exactly what I want in fiction? Well,... what else is there? Besides, the parts I liked were very much to my taste. That's probably why I enjoyed the book, don't you think?

Grand Central Arena introduced us to an incredible artifact where every technological species in the galaxy - once it has discovered FTL flight - ends up. "Arena" is the right word for it, because species compete for influence, prestige, and power, and humanity is very much the new kid on the block and a huge underdog.

Now, I'm a sucker for aliens - the more the better - and I love the idea behind this series. It's ridiculously implausible, sure, but so what? I can accept pretty much anything as the premise in a science fiction novel, though I insist that the story follow along plausibly from there. If you can't, what are you doing reading science fiction? :)

Furthermore, I love seeing human beings standing up for other underdogs - alien underdogs - making friends where that's possible, and then kicking butt where arrogant butts really need to be kicked. It's great fun. Fantasy, sure. But it's still lots of fun.

Those things are very definitely to my taste. Superheroes are not, and neither are super-villains. (I never liked comic books much, even as a kid.) I criticized the characterization in the first book, and this one doubles-down on that. But it's probably more fair to say that it's just a matter of taste.

Spheres of Influence introduces a new character who's even more of a superhero than those in the first book. And it seems to introduce one or two new super-villains, too. Now, we see almost nothing of the latter characters, so I can't say much about them, so far. I'm not entirely happy at where that seems to be going. But we'll see.

The superheroes? Well, that's definitely not to my taste. But, as I say, I knew what I was getting into this time. So it didn't bother me. I just enjoyed the story (and I did enjoy the story).

Let me just add that I find it wildly implausible that people could create what are basically superheroes in the first place, but if we could do that, why couldn't alien species which are far, far more advanced than human beings?

And that point in the book where human politics took center stage? I would have been on the other side in that debate. It's not just that I don't want to read about superheroes, but I don't want even a superhero deciding everything for the human race, either. So in some respects, this book rubbed me the wrong way.

The remarkable thing is probably that I enjoyed it as much as I did. I didn't really take it seriously (but you don't take comic books seriously, either, do you?) and just had fun. I knew that parts of the book weren't going to be to my taste, so I didn't let it bother me.

Hmm,... I said I didn't take it seriously, but there is one theme in the book which has the potential to be thought-provoking, and that's the whole issue of living with AI. Can AI be people? And whatever your answer to that, can we live together in peace?

Maybe we'll see more of that in the next book, and maybe not. I wouldn't expect much but entertainment from this series. But it is entertaining, and I'll definitely be continuing with the story whenever the next volume is published.

___
Note: My other book reviews are here.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Fukushima health effects in America?



Nice job checking out these claims, isn't it? Sadly, you can't trust the news media to do any fact-checking at all. Journalism these days is just reporting what some guy says - and the wilder the claim, the better.

I've said it before, but this is why you look for the scientific consensus. Even if these were valid studies, they would have to be confirmed by other researchers before being taken seriously. Instead, they got a lot of attention - which was exactly what these anti-nuclear activists and the media both wanted - while apparently being a complete load of crap.

Wasn't the Fukushima nuclear disaster bad enough without making up stuff about it?

"Broken Homes" by Ben Aaronovitch

(cover image from Amazon.com)

Broken Homes (2013) is the fourth book in Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant (Rivers of London) series. It's been a few weeks since I read it, and I don't have too much to say about it. (There's a connection between those two facts, but I'm not sure which is the cause and which the effect - maybe some of both in each?)

If you've read the first three books - and you do need to read this series in order - you'll know what to expect. (If not, read my reviews of them.) That's not a bad thing, since the series has been very entertaining. Even the shocking surprise at the end of this book is reminiscent of the first book in the series.

But I worry where this series might be going. Mostly - almost entirely - that's because I dislike recurring super-villains. I don't particularly like villains at all, but I positively hate recurring super-villains. That's just personal taste,... but so is everything else I say about a book. :)

Still, who knows? Certainly not me. Clearly, the author doesn't mind surprising his readers, so I really have no idea if that's where he's going or not.

As I've said before, I like Peter Grant's scientific, evidence-based approach to magic, so I'd really like to see more of that. This is fantasy, of course, but he approaches magic like a scientist. That doesn't seem to the traditional way magic has been studied, so I'd love to seem more results from that.

But that's more than enough of speculating about the future of this series, isn't it? This book was very entertaining, with a shocking surprise or two. If you enjoyed the first three books, you'll enjoy this one. As for the fifth book, we'll just have to wait and see.

___
Note: My other book reviews - including comments on the other books in this series - are here.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

A rising tide lifts all boats


Actually, in economics, a rising tide does lift all boats. But you don't get that rising tide by giving more and more to the 1% until their cup runneth over.

If the 99% are doing well, the 1% will be doing even better. But the reverse isn't true. Of course, the 1% own the media and most politicians, and they've got plenty of money for propaganda, which is why there's even a debate about it.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Cliven Bundy and the end of racism



A welfare rancher complaining about welfare? This just gets better and better worse and worse, doesn't it? I mean, at first I had to laugh, but then I realized just how bad it really is. (Note that this is a follow-up to earlier videos this week - here and here.)

This, too, is the result of the Republican Party's notorious 'Southern strategy' of deliberately wooing white racists. Is it so surprising that racists have other loony ideas, too?

Note that the five Republicans on the Supreme Court have completely gutted the Voting Rights Act because, like other white Republicans, they've decided that racism is over. Yeah, surprise, surprise - the political party built on the strategy of deliberately wooing white racists has decided that racism is over.

Affirmative action? Not necessary, say right-wing white people, because racism is over. No matter what that Kenyan in the White House thinks, huh?

(Note that this latest Supreme Court decision doesn't actually ban affirmative action, since the question was whether or not a state could ban race as a factor in college admissions. Legally, that's a different question, and one of the Democrats on the Court, Stephen Breyer, actually sided with the Republicans this time, though he wrote a separate opinion about why.)

Is racism over? Heh, heh. You have to laugh out loud at even hearing the question, don't you? How could anyone be dumb enough to think otherwise? But for a lily-white Republican Party, especially one built from the remains of the segregationist Dixiecrats,... well, they're faith-based, so there's nothing too crazy for them to believe when they really, really want to believe it.

Oddly enough, Republican politicians are backing off on their fervent support of Bundy after these latest remarks. But why? I'm serious. Why? Is racism more problematic than domestic terrorism? Wouldn't you think that both would be problematic?

Of course, these guys were carrying guns, so they must be the good guys, huh? After all, you don't dare piss off the NRA.

Is that it? Don't ask me. I struggle to understand the mindset of these people, anyway.

...

Oh, OK. Here's the reason:
The controversy marks another major headache for establishment Republicans working to build better relationships with blacks and Hispanics — crucial voting blocs that have increasingly supported Democrats in recent elections. The GOP is in the midst of a messaging tour aimed at reintroducing the party to minority voters, including lawmaker visits to minority neighborhoods and to historically black colleges. ...

The rancher is the latest in a series of figures — including rock singer Ted Nugent and “Duck Dynasty” reality show star Phil Robertson — who made controversial racial remarks after being championed by conservatives. Republican operatives acknowledge that those associations have damaged the party’s attempts to rebrand itself.

Republican politicians and right-wing political pundits want votes, that's all. If they could woo racists to get those votes, that's what they'd do - and did. If they could keep their base happy by championing domestic terrorists like Bundy and his supporters, they'd eagerly do so.

But they've been losing younger voters and, especially, minority voters, and they're desperate to get a least a few of those votes, too. If blatant racism weren't a problem with those demographics, they'd be fine with blatant racism. But as it is, they'd prefer to keep the dog whistle less obvious.

I suppose that makes sense, yet... how in the world could you even imagine voting for a politician who supported Cliven Bundy in the first place? If you were that gullible and that loony, would racism really be the final straw? Really?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Sola Scriptura



This is great, isn't it?

Religion starts with the idea that it already knows everything, and that ancient myths can't possibly be wrong. Therefore, the investigation of reality is always a threat to them.

If that investigation backs up what they already believe, it's unnecessary. And if it doesn't, as is almost always the case, it must be ignored, suppressed, denied, or rationalized away - usually in that order.

This is the problem with faith-based thinking, and that applies as much to the Catholic Church - indeed, to all religion - as to Protestant denominations. (Indeed, the Protestant Reformation led to the end of the Dark Ages, although that was not because it was any less faith-based, but just because it broke the monopoly power of the Catholic Church.)

Grazed and confused + free lawnmowing service



Of course, this is a followup to Monday's episode. Clearly, Sean Hannity was angry that Jon Stewart had laughed at him, so he decided to give the comic even more fodder. Heh, heh. Great, isn't it?

Now, Stewart ended this very well - remarkably well, in fact. That second clip was superb! And normally, I don't even watch the "Moment of Zen" stuff at the very end of the show. But I saw this and just had to post it:


Yeah, these people aren't domestic terrorists. They're just providing a free lawnmower service (otherwise known as over-grazing public land without even bothering to pay the limited fees involved).

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The broads must be crazy



Funny, isn't it? Why the double-standard? Some of this is just politics, sure. But mostly, it's just unconscious assumptions based on what we've grown up to expect is normal.

Men and women alike absorb these assumptions from childhood. Unless you really think about it, you probably won't even notice them. Why assume that grandchildren will affect Hillary Clinton's political career, when it had zero effect for Mitt Romney or any other man? That assumption is sexist, even if our nation is sexist enough that it will have an effect. (Our media are, after all, already making a big deal about it.)

Our very language perpetuates stereotypes. 'Pussy' and 'dick' are both negative connotations, but they mean very different things - and it's not a coincidence which is which. That's why I never describe courage as having 'balls.' Women have at least as much courage as men, although even women may think they shouldn't show it.

And speaking of courage, note that, if men got pregnant, there would be zero controversy about birth control. That would be absolutely inconceivable. But because it's just women who get pregnant, that's 'God's will,' right? It's their own fault, anyway, for having sex. (Even women often think that women - other women, at least - shouldn't be having sex - not without some kind of punishment, at least.)

Sexism is like racism - we've made great progress, but we've got a long way to go. To progress further, we must recognize the problem, so I applaud Jon Stewart here.

New Age bullshit generator

Well, this will certainly make Deepak Chopra's life a lot easier, huh?

New Age Bullshit Generator

Namaste. Do you want to sell a New Age product and/or service? Tired of coming up with meaningless copy for your starry-eyed customers? Want to join the ranks of bestselling self-help authors? We can help.

Just click and the truth will manifest


Click the Reionize electrons button at the top of the page to generate a full page of New Age poppycock.

It works, too, although I value my readers far too much to inflict the result on you. If you're curious, try it out yourself.

In a blog post, Seb Pearce explains further why he created this:
A while back, I was on a philosophy debate binge. Watching Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens annihilate their opponents with precision and wit is my idea of a good night in [mine, too], and YouTube’s “related videos” are a deep, dark rabbithole.

I stumbled upon two debates involving Deepak Chopra: one alongside possible alien Jean Houston against Sam Harris and Michael Shermer called Does God Have A Future? and one against Richard Dawkins at the Dangerous Ideas festival. I had never seen Chopra speak before, and I was only familiar with his name from cheesy-looking self-help titles. As I watched the debate, his childish behaviour and smugness amazed me. He constantly interrupted and talked over the others, usually to make cheap shots or have the last word instead of making a sound argument. He got weirdly defensive when Harris pointed out that nobody at the debate was qualified to talk about quantum physics — quantum is one of his favourite buzzwords — and boasted that he was the most qualified one there because he’s an MD(!). It’s clear the man isn’t used to being challenged.

The thing that really impressed me, though, was his command of the vocabulary of woo (short for woo-woo for those not in the skeptic scene). This word is a blanket term for pseudoscience, New Age thinking, dubious alternative medicine and other things that reek of the heady fumes of snake oil. ...

As I sat there listening to the debates, I thought to myself, “This all sounds like random sequences of buzzwords. I bet I could write code to generate it.” It seemed like not only a fun side project, but a great way to prove how easy it is to make hogwash that looks compelling. It might help show that it’s the language games and emotions that lure people into this stuff. I started scribbling down any words I could think of that evoked a feeling of bullshit: quantum, growth, matrix, path, potential, flowering

And thus the New Age Bullshit Generator was born.

He really did do a great job with this. Try it out. This random bullshit generator sounds just like much of the 'real' woo I've heard.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Apocalypse Cow - welfare ranchers and shoe-spiracies



I know I keep saying this, but every time I think these right-wing loons have gotten as crazy as they can get, they get even worse. If this guy were black, they'd be calling him a welfare cheat. Well, that's exactly what he is.

Ranchers like him pay far less than they should for grazing rights - far less than they would on private land, certainly. And look at how he's abused that. The land shouldn't look like that, even out west, although those people undoubtedly think it looks normal.

But he'd be a welfare rancher even if he were paying those low fees. He's not, and he hasn't been for twenty years! And this isn't some poor guy. He owes more than a million dollars in unpaid grazing fees. So why hasn't he been thrown in jail long before now?

Yet, these militia loons are heroes to the right-wing? Have they forgotten the Oklahoma City bombing already? These are domestic terrorists, and like all fanatics, they don't care about anyone else - even their own wives and children, apparently.

Now you might think there's no connection between those videos and the following two, but I'd disagree. I think that crazy connects them. I think that faith-based thinking connects them. Certainly, Fox 'News' connects them.



This is what happens when you lose connection to reality, and the right-wing has definitely lost that connection.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter


Bunnies and eggs are probably the least silly things about Easter. They're symbols of spring, after all, and celebrations of spring have always been common in temperate societies worldwide.

Resurrection myths are a natural fit with that, and there have likewise been many of those in cultures worldwide, too. Even the name, "Easter," seems to have come from an Anglo-Saxon goddess.

Most likely, this is similar to Christmas, with the Catholic Church just adopting existing festivals and rebranding them as Christian. After all, a pagan would generally care a lot more about losing an excuse to party than what precise god he was forced to worship. (He'd almost certainly have little choice about that, anyway.)

Now, if you believe in a literal Garden of Eden - Adam and Eve, the talking snake, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil - that's pretty silly, true. But if you're too sophisticated for such primitive stories, that destroys the whole point of Jesus being sacrificed 'for our sins.'

Jesus was supposed to be a scapegoat, because primitive people at the time believed in scapegoats. Jews would literally use a goat to take away the sins of the tribe.

Jesus was also a blood sacrifice, of course. God demanded blood for all sorts of sins - animal blood, by that time, though there are plenty of clues that early Jews practiced human sacrifice, too. In fact, Jewish scapegoats came in pairs, with one sacrificed on a bloody altar and the other magically invested with the sins of the tribe and driven off to die in the wilderness (taking their sins along with it).

But animal blood - even human blood - didn't have enough mojo to overcome original sin. To do that kind of magic required divine blood. So Jesus was both a blood sacrifice and a scapegoat. That was the whole point of the crucifixion, for early Christians.

True, neither Jesus nor Yahweh seem to have actually sacrificed much. Crucifixion was a slow, painful death, but countless criminals were executed in that way over the centuries. And those people stayed dead. Jesus came back to life after three days, so how much of a sacrifice was it really?

Also, you'd think an omnipotent, omniscient god could just change his mind and forgive people, without all that pain and bloodshed, wouldn't you? After all, he does change his mind in the Bible on other occasions. Why in the world would he have to sacrifice himself to himself to convince himself to forgive people for something none of them had done, anyway? If he didn't want to break any 'rules,' why not? They were rules that he, himself, had invented.

Silly, huh? But actually, it gets even sillier if you don't believe that the Garden of Eden literally existed - that whole bit about the talking snake and all. Because in that case, there was no original sin and therefore no reason for Jesus to be sacrificed on the cross in the first place.

In fact, it's beyond silly to believe this stuff, anyway - especially the resurrection stories. If someone today told you that a guy had been dead and buried three days, then came back to life, would you believe that? Would you believe it just on his say-so, even if he did claim to witness it first-hand?

Well, that's far better evidence than you have for Jesus. None of the people who wrote the Gospels, long after-the-fact, even claim to be eyewitnesses. They're all anonymous, but they wrote in highly-educated Greek, not the Aramaic Jesus' poor, illiterate disciples would have spoken.

Even the earliest, Mark, wasn't written until decades later, and the original ending (the women leave the tomb and never tell anyone) seems to indicate that the whole thing was meant to be fiction. Later Christians changed that, and later authors adopted much of Mark's story, but all four Gospels disagree significantly on the details of the crucifixion and the resurrection. (Note that there were a lot more stories which varied a lot more than this, but a thousand years of burning heresies - and heretics - meant that few survived.)

Of course, as I say, they were all just writing stories about what they'd heard - most likely nowhere near Palestine, either. But if they weren't just writing for entertainment, they were also missionaries. They were trying to convince other people that their own religious beliefs were true. Thus, they all tried to embellish the story (which had almost certainly been embellished long before they'd ever heard it, themselves).

The fact that many 21st Century Americans still believe this stuff just blows my mind. I don't fault the primitive, ignorant people of two thousand years ago for believing in magic. These kinds of stories were widespread - about all sorts of gods, demi-gods, and heroes. (Do you really think the virgin birth story was unique?)

But today, we know so very much more than the people back then. How can we cling so desperately to such primitive superstition? I just don't get it.

Stormfront

From the Southern Poverty Law Center:
A typical murderer drawn to the racist forum Stormfront.org is a frustrated, unemployed, white adult male living with his mother or an estranged spouse or girlfriend. She is the sole provider in the household. Forensic psychologists call him a “wound collector.” Instead of building his resume, seeking employment or further education, he projects his grievances on society and searches the Internet for an excuse or an explanation unrelated to his behavior or the choices he has made in life.

His escalation follows a predictable trajectory. From right-wing antigovernment websites and conspiracy hatcheries, he migrates to militant hate sites that blame society’s ills on ethnicity and shifting demographics. He soon learns his race is endangered — a target of “white genocide.” After reading and lurking for a while, he needs to talk to someone about it, signing up as a registered user on a racist forum where he commiserates in an echo chamber of angry fellow failures where Jews, gays, minorities and multiculturalism are blamed for everything.

Assured of the supremacy of his race and frustrated by the inferiority of his achievements, he binges online for hours every day, self-medicating, slowly sipping a cocktail of rage. He gradually gains acceptance in this online birthing den of self-described “lone wolves,” but he gets no relief, no practical remedies, no suggestions to improve his circumstances. He just gets angrier.

And then he gets a gun. ...

Though on any given day, fewer than 1,800 registered members log on to Stormfront, and less than half of the site’s visitors even reside in the United States, a two-year study by the Intelligence Report shows that registered Stormfront users have been disproportionately responsible for some of the most lethal hate crimes and mass killings since the site was put up in 1995. In the past five years alone, Stormfront members have murdered close to 100 people. The Report’s research shows that Stormfront’s bias-related murder rate began to accelerate rapidly in early 2009, after Barack Obama became the nation’s first black president.

The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks hate groups, and there's lots more to this report. Of course, these violent racists are a small minority in America, but bigots aren't, and bigots feed into this kind of thinking.

Right-wing political pundits and media figures foster this kind of thing, too. (Ron Paul, for example?) Sure, for them it's just a way to make money and gain political power. If they're associated with violence, it tends to be counterproductive. But when you push fear and hate, what do you expect will be the result?

It doesn't take any intelligence or expertise to kill people. Any loser can do it. It's easy to get a gun in America, and even a moron can pull a trigger. And these are the kind of people the NRA thinks should have free access to machine guns, assault rifles, and high-capacity magazines!

But only for personal protection, right? Well, you have to prepare for the upcoming race war, huh?

Friday, April 18, 2014

The GOP adopts recycling


This is just an assortment of miscellaneous political cartoons I've seen recently, with no particular theme but politics. Enjoy!













Can it get any better for atheists?

Can it get any better than this?
John, the Grand Dragon of the Pennsylvania Confederate Knights of the Ku Klux Klan [what, "John" doesn't have a last name?] says ... the Klan of today isn't the same violent group it was decades ago. He says the term “hate group” doesn't apply anymore. He says they don’t hate individual races.

He says now the Klan fights for prayer in school and the constitution...

Yup, if you can believe Grand Dragon 'John,' the Ku Klux Klan is going to be fighting for prayer in public schools now. (I assume he means organized prayer - Christian only, of course - since prayer has always been legal in every school in America, public and private alike.)

But can it get any better for us atheists than to have the Ku Klux Klan firmly on the other side? Of course, they always have been, but this just makes it more visible. I hope we hear lots more from them on this issue. :)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Orbital mechanics

(xkcd)

For those of you so woefully uncultured and ignorant that you don't understand this cartoon, Kerbal Space Program is a computer game - not one I play, myself, but one I've seen enough to find this funny. :)

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Devil made me do it



That's Dan Barker, apparently in a debate with Dinesh D'Souza.

Now, for a contrast, how about this?



With a real universe as amazing as that, why do we need a fake universe, a fantasy universe, an imaginary universe? Why do we cling to primitive superstition in an age of scientific miracles? Why do we insist on ignorance when real, demonstrable knowledge is so widely available?

Can you explain that? I can't.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The survivor, pt. 4

Southbridge - click image to embiggen

This is part 4 of my current play of Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead, continuing directly from part 3. But if you want to start at the beginning, or you want information on how to install the game or tips for beginners on playing it, check out the links here.

It continued to rain off and on all fall, so I stayed close. But when the first of winter dawned bright and sunny, I headed south, looking for a way around the town (still trying to get to that school).

Where the road had led south out of town was now a huge crater filled with rubble, and the nearby river had backed up in there, creating a nasty-looking swamp. It looked lifeless in the bright winter light, but still not something I could easily traverse with my baggage cart. 

To the east was a suburb, thick with houses - and zombies. So I went back to my hotel room to see if I could work my way across town from there. Ultimately, that worked fine, though I came face-to-face with a shocker zombie when I opened the door of a restaurant one night.

Luckily, it was at night, so it couldn't see me, and I was able to take it down with my throwing axes. I'd seen these creatures before, but only at a distance, so I wasn't entirely sure of their capabilities. They were always surrounded by the crackle and glow of static electricity, and I'd seen one send a bolt of lightning a surprising distance. (Sure enough, when I butchered this one, it turned out to have a bionic installed.)

There was a flat, open area in the middle of town there - not a park, but what looked to be empty ground developers had put together for a future project. That was a real help to me, as I was trying to find a way across town without bumping into zombies every two seconds. To the east of that was an apartment tower - still apart from the rest of the town - which I was able to clear and have available as an emergency bolthole. South of that, outside of town a ways, was the school.

As it turned out, it wasn't a college, but apparently a combination high school and middle school. It was big, and packed with zombies - the vast majority of them just kids. Well, what had been kids, at least. These had been older children than those near the swing sets in the park, but still just kids.

I had a hard time there. It wasn't that they were hard to kill - they were even easier than the ordinary zombies - but it just broke my heart.

Eventually, I got over it. Yeah, the whole thing was incredibly tragic, but it had been over and done with long before I got there. Nothing I could do would change anything. Those kids had already died. Their corpses were still moving, true, but they could no longer feel pain. They could no longer feel anything. I was on cleanup duty, nothing more.

As I say, I got over it. I cleared the whole school, and by the end of it, I was hardly feeling anything at all.

There weren't any houses especially close by, and a school still seemed a likely place for survivors to go - for the same reason I went there - so I built a fireplace and a bed in an interior classroom. I tried to clean up the place, too, so those hypothetical survivors wouldn't have to go through what I did.

I stayed there a little while, reading through the library books - mostly rather elementary texts, but still useful - and exploring the city nearby. At one point, I stumbled across a huge pack of zombie dogs. Now, these creatures weren't a big problem singly anymore, but I was glad I could stand in a doorway to fight off a whole pack of them. I wouldn't have wanted to be surrounded on open ground!

Shoggoth

At another point, I encountered a horror the size of six men, with arms as wide as a trash can. Honestly, it was like the Incredible Hulk of zombies. It was fast, too, so it was on me before I could do much to slow it down.

Luckily, I dodged its attack - I don't know if I'd have survived getting hit by the thing - and chopped it down to size with my machete. It all happened too quickly for me to get scared, but I'm not ashamed to tell you that I shook for awhile afterwards.

I also encountered a zombie which had the unmistakeable gleam of intelligence in its eyes. It was still hostile - and still very dead - but there was more there than even with those 'scientist' zombies I'd encountered. It wasn't human anymore, whatever it was, and it terrified the hell out of me!

This one I encountered in a house, when I opened the door to a back room, so I could rush forward and decapitate it before it could really respond at all. But what would I have done, otherwise? My recent experiences were convincing me that I needed a ranged attack - something better than just throwing stuff.

I figured I had two options, basically. A rifle would work well, except that the more powerful rifles would be noisy, even with a suppressor. And ammunition might be a problem. Still, with a bayonet, a rifle would work well enough as a melee weapon, too - at least against lesser creatures, so I could save ammo.

A bow, on the other hand, would be quiet. And I was pretty sure I could make arrows - a bow, too, for that matter - since I'd learned a lot about such things in the past year. I'd have to carry a separate melee weapon, but that wasn't really a downside, since I'd come to rely on such weapons and felt more comfortable with one as backup, at least.

So I decided to go with archery, at least on a trial basis. I studied awhile at the school, then returned to my hotel room, where I crafted a fine bow - eventually - and some decent arrows. And then I practiced awhile.

Mi-go

By mid-winter, I thought I had the basics down. After all, I'd still have my melee weapons with me. (In fact, I'd taken the opportunity to forge a sword - in the Japanese style, according to the instructions I'd found - which was deadlier than anything I'd wielded before.) And the weather had surprised me by being clear and sunny most of the time.

So I thought I'd head to the northeast, to that second school shown on my map. I still thought that schools were a likely location to find other survivors, and a library would always be helpful. Worse come to worst, I could still clear out the school, so if survivors did show up, they wouldn't have to go through all that.

So that's what I did. I loaded up my luggage cart with spare gear, so I could easily establish a base, once I got there. And I stopped at my hideouts along the way, checking on things and picking up other useful items. Nothing had changed at my evac shelter. Well, that was both good and bad, I suppose.

The trip was uneventful, though I did spot some weird kind of walking fungus just before I got there. The school, unfortunately, was much like the last one. I went ahead and cleared it of zombies, then built a secure and reasonably comfortable base inside, both for me and for whoever might come afterwards. (Hope springs eternal.)

The library there was in good shape, but there wasn't much I hadn't already read (or, at least, collected, planning to read later). There were some houses to the north and a sewage treatment plant to the east. I checked out the latter, but didn't bother trying to bypass a locked security door.

Instead, I went back to that science lab nearby - the first I'd entered, months previously, in the forest northeast of the evac shelter. I built a little base there, too, disassembling the furniture in a storage room to make space for me and my equipment. I figured it was time to see what was underground.

North of Southbridge

It varied between mundane and horrifying. There weren't many zombies underground, although there was the occasional automated turret I had to watch out for. There weren't any people, either - and few corpses - though I found lots of living quarters, with clothes and other supplies scattered around.

I didn't try to hack into the computers - yes, some of the computers were still running - but I still discovered more than I wanted to about the experiments going on there. OK, they were developing bionics, of course. Installing machine components to enhance human capabilities was hardly revolutionary - I'd regularly been finding such things in zombies, too - although the variety there was certainly impressive.

Much more unsettling were the cloning labs and the mutagenic experimentation. There were vats filled with mutated limbs, and I discovered research journals which described deliberate attempts to manipulate the human body biologically - and some of the mutagens they'd developed, as well.

These weren't really mutations, not as a biologist would define the term. (Whether or not their creations would breed true was frightening, but undetermined.) No, these were ways of manipulating an adult human body to cause it to change in a deliberate, but usually bizarre, manner.

There were purifying agents, too, which would apparently undo such changes - some of them, at least - but there seemed to be far less research attention paid to that. Instead, the scientists there seem to have gone completely off the rails in attempting to create stranger and stranger alterations in the basic human form. (And whom had they used as test subjects? That wasn't mentioned at all.)

I suppose this was another military project - what wasn't, these days? - or had started that way, at least. But once they'd begun, maybe it had devolved into a contest, with each researcher trying to outdo the others in outlandish. Who in the world could have thought this was a good idea?

Yet, as bizarre and as frightening at that was, it was far from the most bizarre, the most frightening of what I discovered down there (and I haven't even looked everywhere, not yet).

At one point, I heard voices coming from a room to the south. Survivors? At last? I thought I heard gunfire, too, so I was afraid that human beings were under attack. But what I discovered paralyzed me with fright - literally.

Gozu

Thank god these... nightmares were still enclosed in their individual cages, I hoped securely. When they saw me, they beat against the glass walls separating us, and my heart nearly stopped. I suppose those walls have held them for at least a year now (and how had they survived so long? - clearly, they weren't of natural origin), so I'd have no reason to expect them to break out now. But that didn't do much to settle my nerves, and it still doesn't.

How can I describe creatures I don't even want to think about? 'Bizarre' doesn't even begin to describe them. One, which looked like a cross between a fungus and a crab - in pink, with a head like the inside of a fish - was the creature I'd heard speaking English. But no two sentences connected in any meaningful way. It was all just insane babbling.

Another, like a fat man with a cow's head, constantly dribbling milk from slack lips, paralyzed me in my tracks, when I saw it. Incongruously, it was wearing nothing but a pair of tighty whities. Of course, everything about these creatures was incongruous, and that was certainly no source of amusement - then or now.

There were six of them, each stranger than the rest. (No, that doesn't make sense, but nothing about these creatures made sense.) Some seemed to have no connection to anything on Earth, but others were such a hodgepodge of Earth-like features, they didn't seem completely alien, either. No, that's not right. They were alien - incredibly alien - but it was as if they'd been molded into some bizarre amalgamation when they'd arrived in our universe.

Yes, I was convinced that these... things weren't even of our own dimension. Zombies looked homey - almost as cuddly as kittens - compared to these living nightmares. If I'd been a religious man, I would have thought them demons from the pit of Hell. These creatures made my blood freeze. I wanted to slit my own throat just to get away from them.

Instead, I left - as soon as my legs would work again. I closed the door behind me - as if that would do any good - and I went back upstairs. And now, between bouts of the shakes and periods of paralyzing, immobilizing fear, I'm trying to think.

Previously, I'd assumed that zombies had been the result of an experiment by the military which had escaped their control. Those giant insects, too. Well, we'd had previous experience with such things, so that seemed reasonable.

The blobs, though... the blobs were harder to imagine as a creation of human scientists - possible, maybe, but I don't know how. But these things? There was no way in hell that human beings had created these things.

Yes, scientists had been researching both electromechanical and biological methods of changing human beings. But what if they hadn't created a zombie virus? What if they had, instead, opened a door to another plane, another dimension, another reality? What if they'd accidentally let something truly alien enter our universe?

All of these things - the zombies, the giant insects, the blobs, that weird fungal creature I'd seen - all of them could ultimately stem from the same source, the same source as those terrifying things downstairs. I don't know why they were all different, but why would I? Maybe the computers downstairs would tell me something, if I could learn enough about hacking computers to bypass their passwords (and I were brave enough to go down those stairs again).

But I was sure of one thing. That portal I'd seen? The rumors I'd heard about such things, the rumors which had caused me to run away in panic the minute I'd seen it? These creatures had been the basis of those rumors, I was sure of it. Rumors couldn't prepare me for the reality, because they were far worse in person than I could have ever imagined, but this was the source of the terror which seeped into even the vague rumors I'd heard. I was sure of that.

So now what? Undoubtedly, that portal wasn't the only source of such terrors. For this kind of damage, there had to be more portals on the face of the Earth than just one, in an ordinary grocery store in one small town in America. But it was the portal I knew about. And what had been emerging from it? What was still emerging from it?

I was just paralyzed with indecision. What to do, what to do, what to do?

___
Note: You can find my other posts about computer games - including more posts about this one - here.

Friday, April 11, 2014

More false history from David Barton



I wouldn't expect ordinary people to know which parts of the Pony Express legend are true and which were simply made up afterwards, but David Barton pretends to be a historian!

He's actually a Christian evangelical and right-wing political activist, but he pretends to be teaching real history. I've blogged about him before (here and here, for example), but this is just more evidence that you can't believe a word he says.

Now, in this instance, there seems to be no particular reason for Barton to get it wrong - I mean, it's not like his deliberate errors when he's lying for Jesus - except maybe to make his talk more entertaining. But it does show his ignorance. And, more importantly, it shows his carelessness with the reality behind his words.

Like most faith-based people, he doesn't really care if his beliefs are true or not. And he certainly doesn't care if his statements are true, because he's using them for a purpose. That purpose might be to convince people to follow his own particular religious and political beliefs, or it might be just to remain a celebrity among right-wing evangelicals, but either way, the truth of what he's saying simply doesn't matter much to him.

After all, he already knows the Truth, right? (Apparently, when you capitalize that word, it no longer needs to have any connection to reality. That's been my experience online, certainly.)

We atheists are scary! :)


Stephen Colbert taking over the Late Show


I don't know what to think about Stephen Colbert moving to the Late Show on CBS. On the one hand, I'll really, really miss The Colbert Report (and no, he won't be doing his new show in character, apparently).

On the other hand, life is change. If you don't move, you die. Besides, right-wingers really hate it:
On Tuesday, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly (more than anyone the inspiration for "Stephen Colbert") tore into Colbert, branding him "one of the biggest mouthpieces for the progressive movement, ... playing exclusively to other believers."

And, just hours after Colbert was named the new "Late Show" host, conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh was growling that "CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America."

"No longer is comedy going to be a covert assault on traditional American values (and) conservatives," he went on. "Now it's just wide out in the open."

That may be a premature assessment. O'Reilly may place Colbert in the ranks of "ideological fanatics." But ideology has never been at home on major late-night talk shows, which traditionally shoot for reassurance and diversion. What do such constraints mean for Colbert, and for viewers who dote on what he does as "Stephen Colbert"?

Yes, that last line is worrisome. But let's hope that Rush Limbaugh is right, for the first time in his life, and that Colbert won't pay the slightest attention to such "constraints."

Besides, if CBS has any sense at all, will they really want to ruin what has made Stephen Colbert an internet sensation? Hopefully, this is their attempt to move into the 21st Century, instead of clinging desperately to the 20th.

If nothing else, I hope that Colbert at least continues to take potshots at Fox 'News,' like this:


Heh, heh. Sometimes, I have to wonder if Bill O'Reilly is just putting on an act, himself. Still fighting the Vietnam War? Could he be any more out of touch? Or is his right-wing persona just as much an act as Stephen Colbert's?

The funny thing is that I regularly hear right-wingers parrot his remarks online. Still, even for O'Reilly, contradicting himself in his very next sentence is pretty bizarre, don't you think? O'Reilly favors laws which combat institutional bias, but doesn't think the government should be involved? Say what?

Anyway, I hope this kind of thing doesn't go away. But we've only got another eight months of The Colbert Report, with Stephen Colbert taking over the Late Show sometime in 2015. So I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Back to the torture



This just astonishes me! Cheney? Rumsfeld? Bush? The people who lied to get us into war and then tortured prisoners of war in order to try to justify it,... how do they dare even show their faces in public?

And why would anyone listen to them when they do? Why would anyone even care what they think? We're still trying to dig out of the first war they saddled us with, not to mention the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, thanks to their idiotic domestic policies.

Yes, Dick, it was torture. For a good century, certainly, America had considered it torture when it was done to our own troops, at least. If you don't consider it torture, I'd love to see it done to you. (Oh, man, how I would love that!) Then we could see what you thought after that.

And Rumsfeld? Please grin your way back under that rock you crawled out from under!


At least Bush is so embarrassed, or clueless, or simply unwelcome even in his own party that he generally stays under that rock. But when he crawls out, it's to softball interviews and art exhibits? He's apparently not embarrassed enough, huh?

By rights, all three of these people should be in jail right now. But there seem to be no consequences for crimes committed by the wealthy and politically connected at the highest levels of our society, and there's certainly no consequence to being criminally wrong about pretty much everything.

But why in the world would people still listen to anything they have to say? Haven't they done enough damage to our country? All three together aren't worth a bucket of warm spit.

Catherine Deveny's atheist alphabet



I think I like 'V' the best. :) But it's all pretty good.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Game developers in a fight with Satan


From Polygon:
"I need to be clear on this point: Are you telling me that Satan is literally working to confound your plans to release this game? You're saying that the actual Devil is scheming against you?"

I'm sitting in a nondescript office in an unremarkable neighborhood in Bakersfield, CA, interviewing three men about their plans for a Biblical game based on the life of Abraham.

"I believe that, 100 percent," replies Richard Gaeta, a co-founder of Phoenix Interactive. He argues that since the launch of the Kickstarter for Bible Chronicles: The Call of Abraham, trouble has come into all their lives.

"It's very tangible," adds his business partner Martin Bertram. "From projects falling through and people that were lined up to help us make this a success falling through. Lots of factors raining down on us like fire and brimstone."

Nobody is winking or joking or pulling my leg. There is no irony here. They are absolutely serious.

I just had to post this, given my interest in both computer games and faith-based thinking. How far into fantasy can people get? Their Kickstarter request failed, and it's all Satan's fault?

They requested $100,000 on Kickstarter, but they got only $19,000 in pledges. Hey, that happens. Frequently. It doesn't take Satan.

What's more shocking to me is that they got only 199 people to back the project! They couldn't even find more than 199 people who'd support this entirely for the goal to "stir hunger for God's word"? (Note that those people pledged nearly $100 apiece, on average, so I suspect that most of them were just Christians - or family members - not gamers.)

But they had faith. In fact, as another article says, "Prayer and conviction have kept them moving toward their goal of releasing a game every 1.5 years, beginning later this year."

Get that? They haven't actually created even one game yet, but through prayer, they've set a goal of creating one every year and a half. Starting with their first game. Which they haven't made yet and can't get anyone to support. Now that's faith!

I don't know what surprises me the most about this, but I think it's the fact that they couldn't get funding, even though they're backed by an assortment of religious leaders. After all, if there's one thing religious groups have in spades, it's money.

As an atheist, I wouldn't care if a game were based on Bible stories or not. I play plenty of fantasy games based on mythology, so why would this be any different? I do have to wonder at the choice of Abraham, though. That's the best they could do?

Still, I must admit to being curious about how they'd handle Abraham pimping out his wife to the Pharaoh, and again - when Sarah was more than 90 years old! - to Abimelech. Or that whole Hagar thing, including sending off his slave mistress and his first-born son to die in the wilderness.

Of course, given the fact that he was quite willing to cut the throat of his second son, Isaac, and burn him on a makeshift altar, Abraham was never going to get any father-of-the-year awards, huh?

And I wonder, how much freedom of action would you have, if your game is supposed to remain Biblically accurate? A wide-open world is fine - great, even - but not if you can't actually do anything but look around in it.

But,... Satan? Really? Even believing that a literal Satan actually exists is a bit much, but believing that you're so important he's taking a personal interest in defeating your game-developing ambitions? (Of course, your God is completely impotent, absolutely useless in support, if he gives a crap at all, right? So Satan gets everything his own way.)

Well, this is faith-based thinking. At least it's relatively harmless in this case. I just wish that were always true!

___
*PS. No, this game does not have "top-notch graphics" - not for 2014, certainly. Now, I don't particularly care about fancy graphics, but if you're going to brag about the "visually stimulating" graphics, you'd better have something to brag about.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Bank notary refuses service to American Atheists



Can you imagine the uproar if this notary had refused - for "personal reasons" - to do business with Jews or Muslims,... or Catholics?

The fact is, it wouldn't even have occurred to her. So what if the bank's customers didn't share her religion? And if she had done that, the uproar would have been huge, and she certainly would have been fired.

So why would she even think of discriminating against atheists? Why is it that atheists aren't automatically included in our respect for diversity and the freedom of religion? Buddhists don't believe in your god either, you know.

As this article points out, the Supreme Court is currently hearing a case about this very subject:
This is really the same issue which the Supreme Court is deciding in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. At stake is quite literally the ability of corporations or the individuals that work for them to legally discriminate for "personal" reasons. (We can call them religious reasons, but why bother? One need only cite a religion -- any old religion -- to qualify.) We are talking about 70 years of civil rights law being swept away in one fell swoop. If one bank employee can refuse to provide service for an atheist, why shouldn't a pharmacist be able to refuse to sell heart medicine to a Muslim?

Freedom of religion means that you can believe whatever you want in America. You can worship, or not, as you please. You can speak as you wish. You can gather together with like-minded people and try to convert the heathens, if you want.

But you still have to live in peace in a diverse nation, where other people might not share your beliefs. So what? That's none of your business. You can't dictate to your neighbors. You can't dictate to your employees. You can't dictate to your customers.

This is America. If you want to force other people to believe as you do - and that's exactly what this is all about - then move to Afghanistan and join the Taliban.

Money is speech,... or legalized corruption?



Yeah, it's a shame that billionaires have so little power in America, isn't it? I'm glad that the Republicans on the Supreme Court are standing up to for them.

After all, 646 (Stephen Colbert says it was just 591) of the richest people in America reached the campaign limits in the last election cycle. Those are the people the Republican Party thinks don't have enough influence in our country?

And note that this does not include the amount of money they can donate to PACs and SuperPACs (which is, thanks to previous terrible decisions by the Republicans on the Supreme Court, unlimited).

Oh, and note that Shaun McCutcheon is a self-described activist for the Republican Party, and that the Republican National Committee joined him in his lawsuit. (Here's the Wikipedia entry.) Wow, and the five Republicans on the Supreme Court, appointed by Republican presidents, agreed with the Republican Party in this? Shocking, isn't it?

According to the five Republicans on the Supreme Court - and like most of these terrible decisions, it was opposed by the four Democrats on the Court - the only corruption that matters is when you get a specific agreement from a candidate to vote a specific way due to that particular bribe.

Indeed, according to them, even the appearance of corruption is only valid in that particular, narrow, and hard-to-prove scenario. If the candidate just winks when he takes the money, well, there's nothing wrong with that, right?

This is why the terrible results of voting for Republican presidents lasts for long, long after that president is gone. We still have a slim majority of Supreme Court justices who are far right-wing Republicans. And just as they gave us George W. Bush as president, in a 5 to 4 decision back in 2000, they're continuing to make similar disastrous decisions even today.

Stephen Colbert talked about this last night, too: