Friday, April 30, 2010

Non-Belief, Pt. 1: Childhood

All the time I grew up, I never heard anyone express the slightest doubt that God existed. Indeed, as far as I knew, I never knew anyone who wasn't a Christian. Sure, people went to different churches - the Methodist church in our small town, the Lutheran church just outside it, the Catholic church in the next town - but they were all Christian, and the differences didn't seem to matter much to anyone.

I must say that this was nice. It was definitely progress, compared to the bigotry faced by my Irish Catholic immigrant ancestors in the mid-1800's. And it was even more definitely progress considering the European religious wars, and the practice of burning heretics alive, from earlier centuries. As a child, I thus got the impression that your religion was your own business. We went to the Methodist church, but I had friends of many different religions (all Christian, though), and it just didn't matter.

Maybe if there'd been non-Christians around, I would have gotten a different impression, I don't know. I do remember going to the dime-store in a neighboring town with my Mom, when she told me that the owner was Jewish. This was a teachable moment. I don't remember her exact words, but I do remember her point: that some people were bigoted towards Jews, but how that wasn't right. I readily absorbed that lesson. It sounded right to me then, and it still does.

But everyone I knew - as far as I know - was a Christian. Everyone apparently believed in God. Except me. I know how untrustworthy our memories can be, but as far back as I can remember, I remember having doubts, strong doubts. I assume, at some age, that I must have believed what everyone told me. But I just don't remember that.

I do very clearly remember believing in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. In fact, I still remember when I asked my Mom if the Easter Bunny was really true. She just said, "What do you think?"  That sticks in my mind, because I still think it was a great answer. Maybe she didn't mean it this way, but I took it to mean that I had to decide for myself what to believe, not just when it came to the Easter Bunny, but with God, too.

But I don't think I believed in God even then, not really. After all, there was plenty of evidence for Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Someone brought us gifts at Christmas and signed the tags "from Santa." And plenty of people claimed to have seen him. In fact, we kids almost caught Santa one Christmas Eve. He had to leave so quickly that he left his empty toy bag behind. (I remember that it looked remarkably like a plain white pillowcase - but that still didn't make me even slightly suspicious.)

And someone always hid the Easter Eggs that we'd colored the day before - and brought us baskets of chocolates, too. Where did they come from if it wasn't the Easter Bunny?  Who left me money for my baby teeth if it wasn't the Tooth Fairy?  I understand now that none of this was good evidence, but at least it was evidence. And it wouldn't have taken good evidence to get me to believe in a god, not at all. But I did need some evidence.

As I say, I didn't know anyone who admitted doubts about God. But some people were regular church-goers, some were less frequent at services, and some rarely or never went to church. And how nice a person was didn't seem to have any connection to how religious they were. Some of the nicest people I've ever known have been deeply religious - and some of the nastiest, too. I always got the impression that going to church was supposed to make me a better person, but it really didn't seem to have that effect on other people.

I was always surprised to see that people who were so devout in church turned out to behave normally - some good and some bad - outside it. Clearly, church didn't make people good. Some people who went to church were already good, and some weren't. It was as simple as that.

And, of course, everyone was convinced that they'd go to Heaven when they died, and that unspecified "bad people" would go to Hell. But even as a child, I understood that they couldn't possibly know that. If you were alive, you couldn't have first-hand knowledge of the afterlife - and that was pretty obviously the case throughout human history. Santa Claus brought me presents every Christmas. Would I still have believed in him if those gifts were only supposed to arrive after I was dead?

This is how I remember it, although I could be wrong, of course. As I say, our memories are quite malleable and very unreliable. I did go to church, for awhile - I enjoyed the singing - but it all seemed very peculiar. Why did everyone else seem to believe all this?  I just didn't get it.

Now, admittedly, I used to read everything I could get my hands on. I know that there was a time I didn't know how to read, but I can't really remember that, either. Reading has always been a big part of my life. And as a child, I was always desperate for something new to read. I would dig through boxes of books in our basement - most of them very unappealing - looking for something to read. I went through the tiny library in our little town, and the even tinier library in our school. I was always reading.

And so my childhood in that small Nebraska town wasn't as provincial as you might expect. I learned about the rest of the world through books. I read about Mormons in Zane Grey westerns, sometimes as victims of bigots, sometimes victimizing others. I loved Charles Dickens (until high school English classes put paid to that forever). I read my Dad's childhood adventure stories. I read Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, falling in love with the Jewish daughter, Rebecca (or perhaps that didn't happen until I saw Elizabeth Taylor in the movie).

I read dog books and horse books. I read Harold Bell Wright. I read biographies of Alexander the Great and William the Conqueror (my disappointment with the endings of both books emphasized to me the difference between fiction and non-fiction). And for awhile, I was wild about ancient Greek and Roman mythology, understanding very clearly that these were religious beliefs at one time, too - but now just unbelievable stories.

So I wasn't restricted to just what I heard in my church or my town, or even to what I learned in school. (I remember my science teacher in 5th grade - who was also a Sunday School teacher, though not in our church - telling me that tattoos were wrong because they were "pagan.")  But I wasn't reading atheist manifestos, either. In fact, my all-time favorite childhood book was Swiss Family Robinson (not the Disney version, but the original 1812 novel by Johann Rudolf Wyss), in which the heroes were deeply religious Christians.

I never advertised my disbelief, just because it never seemed to be anyone else's business. (I didn't deny it, either, but I don't remember anyone who didn't just assume that I was a Christian.) It didn't occur to me to ask Mom and Dad. Perhaps that's because of Mom's answer about the Easter Bunny. Or perhaps it's just because I understood that they couldn't really know any more about it that I did, that no one had any special knowledge when it came to something based only on belief.

I remember some bull sessions in high school (one of my best friends - and a very nice guy - was deeply religious). But although I was amazed at how differently people could think - even given the same facts, we came to completely different conclusions - it didn't seem to be any big deal. After all, what difference did it make? This was America, where religious freedom was enshrined in our Constitution.

Well, the world has changed a lot since then, hasn't it? In Part 2 - whenever I get around to it - I'll explain how I came to decide that I just had to start publicly outing myself as an atheist.

Note: The rest of this series, including Part 2, is here.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

"A Case of Conscience" by James Blish

(cover image borrowed from another good review here)

I just re-read A Case of Conscience (1958) by James Blish, our April selection in the ClassicScienceFiction Yahoo Group. I first read it decades ago, but this is one book that stayed in my memory all those years (that's unusual, for me).

I'd say it's held up pretty well, but parts of it seem rather odd these days. It starts with four humans on the recently-discovered planet Lithia, which contains an intelligent reptilian species. Their job is to learn about the planet and recommend whether or not the planet should be opened for human activity. But basically, they're just trying to see what use the planet might be for human beings. After all, what good is a planet if we can't put it to our own use?

No one seems to be particularly interested in the Lithians, the first sentient aliens humans have ever encountered. No, they just wonder what good the planet might prove to be (for them), and whether there are any hidden dangers there. It's base colonialism, yes, but it also shows an incredible, almost unbelievable disinterest in what would actually be one of the biggest discoveries in human history. A whole 'nother planet with a brand new people, with their own history, their own culture, their own thoughts,... and all we care about is what use we can make of it.

Oddly enough, that's not the story. No, it just seems to be understood as... natural. Well, this book was written in the 1950's, but still. This mindset is just bizarre, don't you think?

Anyway, one of the humans has discovered vast supplies of lithium there, so he wants the Earth government to use the whole planet as a giant fusion bomb factory. (There's absolutely no concern or even interest in what the Lithians might think of this.) Note that they don't actually have any enemies on which to use the bombs, since the Earth is all under one government, controlled by the UN. And the friendly, planet-bound Lithians are the only aliens ever discovered. But that seems to be just an insignificant detail. Surely if you build enough bombs, you'll eventually find someone to bomb, right?

Maybe some group will try to revolt on Earth - and need to be nuked out of existence. Or maybe they'll find some other intelligent species, one not so welcoming as the Lithians, one with the temerity to actually want to "stay out of our frame of influence." (How dare they?!?)  We'll be "damned glad if we're able to plaster the enemy from pole to pole with fusion bombs" then, right?  (Ah, the 1950's! This brings back the wonderful stench of Joe McCarthy, doesn't it?)

And he suggests that they force the Lithians to work in these bomb factories, keeping them ignorant so they don't learn how to make bombs themselves. That sounds reasonable, doesn't it? Would this be slavery? Of course, not! Sure, they'd be forcing the aliens to work, but after all, they do plan to pay them for that work, although the Lithians don't use money and don't want anything the humans would exchange for their forced labor. But again, those are just minor details.

And again, oddly enough, that's not the story here, either. No, the real story begins when the Catholic priest, a Jesuit who's one of these four humans, advises that the planet be quarantined permanently. Why? Well, the aliens are a very nice, friendly, honest people with a pleasant, peaceful culture,... but they don't have any religion at all. How could this possibly be? Obviously, there's only one explanation possible: the whole thing must be a trap - a trap set by Satan to convince humans that they don't need religion!

Yeah, bizarre, huh? But what's really bizarre, is that the other three take him seriously! They don't agree with the priest, but they don't burst out laughing, either.

This is only the beginning of the book, but it's like reading something written in the Middle Ages. The mindset is really strange. Presumably, all this must have seemed reasonable in the 1950's, but it seems bizarre as hell today. (I guess maybe we have advanced, a bit.) By modern standards, no one in the book is particularly likable, and Earth society certainly isn't at all admirable. OK, this wasn't supposed to be a utopia even back then, but I suspect that it was meant to seem reasonable, even expected. Now, it just seems to be insane.

But don't get me wrong. This is really just the premise of the book (a book which won a Hugo Award in 1959 for best novel of the year.) If you can shrug off the mindset, and accept the premise, the story itself is interesting, even today. These four human beings return to the Earth, taking with them the gift of a fertilized alien egg. And that alien, damaged in transit and raised in a laboratory, becomes a major focus of the rest of the novel.

The question remains:  Is all this a supernatural trap, designed by Satan specifically to drag human beings into Hell? Or is it just what it appears to be, a different species with its own evolved biology and its own culture, which just doesn't happen to include the belief in invisible magical creatures? The neat thing about this book is that everything can be interpreted either way. You can accept the priestly explanation as being the literal truth, if you want. Or, just as easily, it can all be interpreted rationally, since there are perfectly reasonable secular explanations for everything. Even the very memorable ending of the story can be interpreted either way.

I loved this when I first read the book, and I still do. And after these four people - plus the alien egg - leave Lithia, things seem more reasonable (given the 1950's mindset, admittedly). The Catholic Church accepts the priest's explanation that it's all Satan setting a trap (with the pope's minor correction that Lithia must be just an illusion, since Satan isn't supposed to be able to create anything else). But the rest of the Earth seems to be... well, not rational, since they go ahead with the bomb-making proposal, but at least secular.

[As an aside, one interesting thing about this future Earth is that almost everyone lives underground. That's the result of the "shelter race," that part of the Cold War which followed the race for fusion bombs. This was the race to build bomb shelters, which ended up with the whole world living underground. I think it's interesting, because it must have seemed like a very plausible future history back in the late 1950's. When I went to grade school back then, there were always piles of Civil Defense pamphlets at every school function. They included plans for building your very own bomb shelter, and each urged all Americans to do so as a defense against nuclear war. (I could never understand why my parents wouldn't build one, especially since there were all those scare stories about how the Soviet Union was ahead of us in building shelters.) So I really enjoyed seeing this "shelter race" trend projected into the future.]

A Case of Conscience was one of the first science fiction books with a religious theme. But I admired it, and still do, for the clever way the author let each reader decide for himself what was really going on. You can interpret everything the way the priests do, that it's all about this supernatural battle, with Satan and God both being unhealthily obsessed with human beings. Or you can interpret everything in a secular fashion, since there are rational explanations for everything that happens. And your feelings about the outcome - whether the book is a tragedy or a triumph - will depend entirely on that interpretation. That's neat.

On the other hand, as I say, the mindset is hard to accept these days, especially since it doesn't seem to be criticized at all in this book. And no one, to my mind, is actually likable. Earth society is grim and unpleasant (ironically, Satan - if you accept the religious explanation of things - has created a far nicer world than Earth's religions have), and none of the humans are particularly admirable. (Priests are still required to be celibate, and I thought that this one, Father Ruiz-Sanchez, acted rather creepy when he was around the young woman in the story.)

A Case of Conscience is worth reading for any fan of science fiction, just because it is such a famous classic in the genre. It's still interesting today, though not particularly likable. I don't think I'd recommend it for its entertainment value, not these days. But it's an interesting example of 1950's science fiction.  (For another - brief - example, read on.)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Ben Nelson does it again

Ben Nelson (D, NE) is one of my senators - for my sins, apparently. The other is Mike Johanns (R, NE), who was a member of the disastrous Bush administration and whose sole accomplishment so far has been jumping on the bandwagon against ACORN, based on a faked video, just before they were driven into collapse. Yeah, a real pair of winners, huh?

But Nelson angers me more, mostly because I've always had to grit my teeth and vote for him, figuring that the alternative would be even worse. Not any more!  With his "Cornhusker Kickbacks" and his providing "bipartisan" cover to Republicans, I figure an official Republican wouldn't be any worse. Nelson gives Democrats a bad name. And with him out of office, at least there'd be a chance - if only a slim one - that a real Democrat could get elected to that Senate seat sometime.

What has he done this time? He joined the Republican filibuster against the financial reform bill!  OK, so it's not at all surprising that he'd vote against the bill itself, since his constituents have always been banks, insurance companies, and other financial corporations. (At least, I'm sure that's how he sees them.) And he's always been terrified of being seen as a Democrat in Nebraska - since our state is so red - so he normally tries to out-Republican the Republicans. After all, nothing matters besides getting reelected, right?

But he didn't just vote against the bill. He voted - with every single Republican - against letting the bill even come up for debate. He voted against letting anyone even have a chance to vote on the bill itself. Yeah, the filibuster used to be a rare tactic used in exceptional circumstances. Now, the Republicans filibuster pretty much everything.

And since Nelson was timid enough or desperate enough or just plain loony enough to vote with them, now the Republicans proudly proclaim that their filibuster was "bipartisan." Gah!

Of course Johanns voted the same way, but he obediently follows the Republican party line in everything. He wouldn't put the country above politics if his life depended on it. These days, you just expect that from Republicans, don't you? The surprise would be if they acted in any other way. Admittedly, with the lunatics in control of the party, a Republican politician doesn't dare even hint that he might work with Democrats to craft worthy legislation. Just look at Lindsey Graham.

And really, I wouldn't be so mad at Nelson if he'd just voted against this bill. I wouldn't be happy with him, but I wouldn't be this furious. Because that's what democracy is all about. We've elected our representatives (even though I don't like either one of my own Senators, majority rules) and in that capacity, they vote on legislation. But that's not what's going on here. That's not what's going on with any of these bills. Instead, Republicans - and one loony Democrat - are simply blocking votes from occurring at all.

Personally, I wonder if the current filibuster rules are even constitutional. But either way, Republicans are abusing the system. Republicans are simply not allowing democracy in the U.S. Senate. The whole country should be outraged by this. And we've got one "Democrat" (only because he wouldn't have a chance, ironically, of getting elected as a Republican in Nebraska) helping them do it.

Oh, well, at least this isn't Arizona, right?

PS. I called Nelson's office here in Lincoln to express my displeasure, and I've got to say that I feel sorry for those people answering the phones. What a job!  No, I was polite. But many Republicans here in Nebraska dislike Nelson at least as much as I do, so do they get any calls from people who are happy? I suspect that even telemarketing might be more fun than answering calls for Nelson these days!

Arizona, the Meth Lab of Democracy

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This is Jon Stewart's take on the lunacy going on in Arizona (only some of which was mentioned in my previous post). Why does he always make the point so much clearer than our news media do?  Funnier, too, of course.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Have Republicans completely lost their minds?


Dan Ariely

This isn't new, since Dan Ariely gave this talk at the TED Conference in December, 2008, but it shows both optical illusions and cognitive illusions, which were mentioned in my previous post. Besides, it's really entertaining.

How to Think Rationally

Modern liberal democracies are based on the belief that the truth will win in an open marketplace of ideas. But as we're discovering more and more often these days, people aren't that rational. I'm not just talking about Fox "News" and the Tea Party movement, but about all of us.

There's a natural human tendency to believe what we want to believe and dismiss any evidence that contradicts it. In fact, hearing evidence against our beliefs often reinforces them. Professional political liars know this, and take advantage of it. A bald-faced lie will not only be believed by many people, but attempts to correct the lie will just increase the effect. It's win-win for the liar.

The truth is sometimes a poor competitor in the marketplace of ideas - complicated, unsatisfying, full of dilemmas, always vulnerable to misinterpretation and abuse. - George F. Kennen

This is human nature,... and it's rather scary, don't you think? Of course, we see it every day in politics. Sarah Palin should have been laughed into insignificance with that "death panels" claim, along with every other Republican who gave it lip service. They all knew that it was a lie, and so did any rational observer. But it still worked politically. It wasn't even close to being true, but it fit the narrative they were pushing. In politics, that's success.

And studies of Fox "News" viewers, many of whom still believe that Saddam Hussein had something to do with the 9/11 attacks or that we really did find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, have shown that these false beliefs are actually strengthened - greatly strengthened - when these people are shown evidence that they're false. Apparently, just reminding them of the circumstances when they formed their original beliefs serves to cement those false beliefs even further.

What ails the truth is that it is mainly uncomfortable, and often dull. The human mind seeks something more amusing, and more caressing. - H. L. Mencken

But it's not just politics. It's everywhere in human societies. Medical researchers find that their careful, evidence-based discoveries are disregarded by people who just "know" that they're wrong. And it's not only anti-vaccine activists who refuse to accept scientific findings - basically, all of them - which go against their preconceived notions, either. This is common, very common.

Climatologists struggle with global warming deniers. Biologists struggle with creationists. Pharmacologists struggle with homeopaths. But in all of these cases, the scientific consensus is clear. It's just that ordinary people refuse to accept the science. In fact, in this study, people were more likely to believe in ESP when they were told that scientists rejected it.

Truthiness is what you want the facts to be, as opposed to what the facts are. - Stephen Colbert

But don't get too smug. This is human nature, and it affects all of us. We are all likely to accept evidence that confirms our existing beliefs and dismiss that which doesn't. We pay more attention to data that confirms our biases, and we trust it more. When we've made up our minds, we resist changing our opinion, even when the evidence indicates that we should.

We pick sides - not just in politics - and we naturally root for our side, whatever that happens to be. It's not just on the conscious level, but unconsciously, too. It's very easy to believe what we want to be true and very easy to dismiss what we don't. That's true for every single one of us. So what can we do about it? Read further if you want my suggestions.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

2009 Hugo Award Short Story Nominees

This isn't particularly new, since these stories were nominated for a Hugo Award last year, but we've been reading them this month in the ModernScienceFiction2 Yahoo Group. We haven't gotten to the 2010 Hugo nominees yet, but three of those stories were also nominated for a 2009 Nebula Award, and we read them in March. We'll get to the other two soon enough, I imagine.

Anyway, these are the five short stories nominated for a Hugo last year. All of them are (legally) available free online, so I'll include the link to each story.

My favorite of the bunch was the eventual winner of the award, "Exhalation" by Ted Chiang. In a strange tale of a mechanical world, a sentient robot dissects his own brain to discover the secret of intelligent thought - and the doom which awaits his whole universe. The comparison to entropy in our own universe is clear, and quite clever. It's really a unique story, and very good - not one of my all-time favorites, but easily good enough to top this list.

"26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" by Kij Johnson is a pure fantasy which was also nominated for a Nebula Award (the only short story in 2008 which was on both ballots), and which won the 2009 World Fantasy Award for best short story. This is another odd story, but it's also cute, romantic, and pleasant. Aimee runs a magic act where 26 monkeys vanish into a bathtub, and she has no idea how it's done.

I didn't think the story was anything special when I first read it a year ago, but I liked it better this time. Maybe my expectations were too high last year. I've been disappointed in a lot of award nominees lately, so maybe my standards are simply lower now. Or maybe I've just finally wrapped my head around the fact that the Hugo is awarded for science fiction and fantasy. I really don't know.

"Evil Robot Monkey" by Mary Robinette Kowal is a short, sad story about a chimpanzee with an implant - making him smarter than other chimps, but still just an animal to humans. It's very good, but very short, which I guess is why I didn't rank it above the previous story. And good as it is, it really doesn't bring anything new to science fiction.

Don't get me wrong, it's a great little story. And this is a classic theme in SF - for good reason. But I expect a lot from award nominees. And three of these stories were really unusual (two of them successfully). So maybe this story just suffers in comparison.

I was less impressed with the last two nominees, but Michael Swanwick's "From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled" really tries to be unique. In fact, I think it tries too hard. It's a shame, too, because I think there was a good story there. And I've read some excellent short fiction from Swanwick in the past.

Narrated by a man's protective suit, which is imprinted with the mental pattern of his lover, this is the story of the lone surviving human and a millipede-like alien escaping from a destroyed alien structure/city and traveling across a hot - boiling water hot! - jungle world.

The story is actually stranger than it sounds from this description, and it comes close to being quite interesting. But I'd say it's too consciously stylish (that's really the best way I can think to describe it). The descriptions, for example, don't work. (Can you picture an alien face "like a cross between the front of a locomotive and a tree grinder"?  Me, neither.)

And the ending,... well, I still don't know what I think about that. In fact, I'm not entirely sure what I think about the whole story. I guess I'll say, "Nice try." It's an impressive attempt, but ultimately unsuccessful (for me, at least - it must have worked for other people, I assume, or it wouldn't have been nominated for this award).

Finally, there's "Article of Faith" by Mike Resnick. A robot worker at a church decides that he has a soul and tries to worship with the congregation, with unsurprising results. OK, it's obvious from the start where this story is going, but it's still emotionally effective. But I had two big problems with it.

First, too much of it doesn't make sense. I just couldn't maintain my suspension of disbelief. The robot is too ignorant about some things (and ignorant like a two-year-old: "God must be very large to need such high ceilings"), while being too knowledgeable, too perceptive, in other situations. OK, that might actually make sense, except for where he was ignorant and where he was perceptive. I just couldn't buy it.

Also, the story is very, very similar to "Samaritan" by Connie Willis, a much better short story (her first, I think) written clear back in 1978. OK, in her story it's an orangutan, not a robot, who gets religion, but that's really not a big difference. The two stories are still very similar.

Now, I'm certainly not claiming that Resnick copied the Willis story, not at all. But if you're going to nominate a modern story for an award, a SF story that is very, very similar to a 30-year-old story, the new story really needs to be better than the old one. This one isn't. For both of these reasons, "Article of Faith" gets my lowest ranking here.

The Dandelion King

I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who likes dandelions. No, that photo isn't of my yard, but from this blog post in the New York Times by "the Dandelion King." And it's not so much that he likes dandelions as that he's surrendered in the war against them.

As I’ve told my neighbors, I feel bad about lowering the value of their property. I mean, it isn’t my goal to have a front yard that, by standard reckoning, is unattractive. The unkept look of my lawn is just a byproduct of a conclusion I reached a few years ago: the war on weeds, though not unwinnable, isn’t winnable at a morally acceptable cost.

Me? I like dandelions. I think they're a wonderful sign of spring. They're really lovely, don't you think? Even the seed heads are kind of neat, though all flowers get a bit ratty after the blooms die. But that doesn't keep you from enjoying other varieties, does it? So why should it matter with dandelions?

And I really dislike the monoculture lawns that are supposed to be the ideal these days (a wrong-headed idea heavily promoted by the lawn chemical industry). I dislike the whole idea of a monoculture - especially a chemically-maintained one - and I just think they're boring, too. Sure, keep your grass neatly cut, but... more than that? Why?

A healthy lawn should have a diverse mix of species. It should be a place that rabbits love, and birds, too. The soil should be rich with organic matter, not drenched with chemicals, and it should be filled with a variety of worms. (Can you believe it? Some people ask Backyard Farmer how to kill their nightcrawlers, because they don't like the tiny holes and lumps of dirt - the natural aeration - the worms create.)

It's also true that I grow a lot of fruit trees, bushes, and vines which are easily damaged by broadleaf herbicides. My grapes, in particular, are highly susceptible to 2,4-D. I often get damage just from herbicide drift from the neighbors.

But not from many of them. In my neighborhood, a lawn full of dandelions, clover, and violets is not unusual. But I still think I'm highly unusual in liking lawns like that. Certainly, I've never met anyone else who's expressed agreement with me on this. Luckily, I don't need validation on my opinions.  :)

I am trying to get buffalo grass established in my lawn, at least on the parking, where it's sunny enough. It's naturally short, it's very drought resistant (once established), and I just like the look of it. But I'm not doing a very good job of it. Partly, that's because I'm not as interested in the lawn. And partly because I'm very, very busy with all my fruit-growing. That's been a lot more work than I ever expected.

And I have a garden in the summer, too. And a lot of other interests, including - just recently - this blog. My lawn is far down the list in importance. I keep it mowed, but that's about it. Luckily, dandelions don't need much care (another thing I like about them).

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Faith Healing

This is copied, with permission, from several posts - and one brief email - by John Palmer on the Skeptics Forum Yahoo Group. I thought his personal experience with this faith healer was very interesting. Of course, this isn't meant to be statistically valid, just... interesting.

Note that I've pieced this story together from multiple postings, so I'm the one at fault if it's at all disjointed. I tried to fit things together without actually changing anything John wrote:

I am a musician who was hired for a five night gig which turned out to be a healing evangelist. I played for half-an-hour per night, then left the “show” to eat, returning to collect my gear at the end of the evening. That meant that I was in a position to observe the goings on for twenty minutes or so each evening while I waited for it to end.

"Okay, so how does an event like this unfold?" I wondered, very nervous after being let in only forty-five minutes ahead of the audience, to set up our gear and do our sound checks.

It began with the local pastor introducing the "healer" and calling out that "god loves a willing giver" so as to get the money collection going. The "healer" then came over to us to ask us to play a song while people dance and gave money. He asked something like " Can you play Dum do wo do sunshine god, whoa, yes lord?"

That was the point where I was thinking this was going to be a gig like no other. Just to mention that I have studied violin for 45 years, classical, bluegrass, country, jazz. But. No. No don't know that song. Anyway we hacked something together with a little rhythm to it.

After that the "healer" just starts to do a John Edward kind of thing, calling out really obvious concerns in this manner: "I can feel that someone here has family troubles".

When he has about twenty people all standing at the front of the hall he starts going along to them, one after another, staring at them closely, yelling really loudly at them and pushing them, in many cases they fall right back. Right back into the arms of the fortuitously positioned ushers.

The first night I thought it was a pure entertainment for those involved. There seems to be a general amusement at the goings on. For example the "healer" would call out: "I feel that there is someone out there who can't sleep!" Even easier was when he would call for those who had "family problems" or "concerns for a loved one".

The thing is, that first night, I thought of the evening's events as being the very definition of theatre: "the willing suspension of disbelief". It seemed like fun, an amusement, everyone laughed when he said things like: "Sell your house" or "throw away your diabetes medication".

I never dreamed anyone would take it seriously. ... Really it was all so funny, and everyone was just cracking up throughout the evening. Really having what looked to me to be a lot of fun.

But John decided to get some phone numbers and check back with a few of the believers to see if they felt they'd really been healed.

My follow up focused on six believers and their outcomes over a six month period. With contact initiated by me at 30 days, 90 days and 180 days.

My six case studies had the following afflictions: 2 people with diabetes, one with cancer, one wheelchair bound with arthritis, and two with undiagnosed conditions - one with a sore shoulder, one with problems sleeping.

I asked each of them the following questions:

Did you observe, or feel any changes during the healing?

Did you follow the advice, or direction given by the "healer"?

Do you believe you were healed?

If yes to the above question is there any medical evidence of healing?

Do you believe anyone else was healed?

I wanted only yes and no questions to keep it as simple as possible.


After one month 4 of 6 respondents claimed to having been healed.

After three months, only the cancer patient claimed to have been cured. Quote: "My doctor told me it's a miracle, there is no medical explanation for my complete recovery!"

After six months, not one subject claimed that they were healed. However most respondents claimed that OTHER people had been healed.

The only person who claimed to have medical evidence is now in his last days, succumbing to various cancers throughout his body.

What can I say? It's perfectly natural that people in pain hope for a miracle cure. And it's not surprising that most of them might think there's some improvement after that elaborate charade.

Partly, that's due to the placebo effect, and partly because illnesses regularly have ups and downs. As this tragic story shows, even cancer goes into spontaneous remission on occasion, though that doesn't always last.

And yet, though none of these people were cured by this faith healer, they all thought that other people had been healed. I wish John had asked them if they'd go again, or recommend the faith healer to others. I suspect that they would.

Just a cartoon

Dorothy Height, 1912-2010

 (from NOW photos)

Here's a fascinating obituary of a woman I'd never heard of. There are obits in The Washington Post ("founding matriarch of U.S. civil rights movement") and The New York Times ("largely unsung giant of the civil rights era"), too.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Lowden Medical Plan

Democrats are having a lot of fun with Sue Lowden, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Nevada. Her plan for health care reform - repeated by the candidate when the laughter first began - is for Americans to take chickens and other produce to their doctors and barter for care. Seriously!

She's apparently not the only Republican who's confused about what century this is, either. But as a serious candidate for the U.S. Senate, she's getting the most attention. Here's how Josh Marshall at TPM puts it:

This does put the Nevada senate race into a certain clarifying perspective. The Health Care Reform bill wasn't Harry Reid's bill -- ideas and strategy from lots of people went into it. And many people had endless criticisms of how he managed the process over the course of 2009 and 2010. At the end of the day, though, it passed. The Senate is where it happened. And Reid was central to the entire thing. That is an historic accomplishment. If his career in politics ends in January, his place in history will be secure.

So on the one side you have Harry Reid, a key architect of comprehensive Health Care Reform, the product of decades of activism, in all its messiness and policy complexity.

And on the other you have Sue Lowden, who thinks bartering livestock and other commodities for health care services from doctors is a way to rein in spiraling health care costs. (If you think that's an exaggeration, take a minute and watch this video.) There's no end of comedic possibilities thinking through the logistical and logical difficulties of managing co-pays and long-term care and drug costs in chickens and other barter payment. But step back and give it a serious look and ... well, this is this woman's take on confronting medical inflation. It's funny and also sad. But as a contrast it's stark and painful.

Seriously, think about it for a minute. 

Yes, seriously, just think about that. Nevadans, please think about that! Check that video of Sue Lowden "doubling down" on her barter idea. This wasn't a slip of the tongue. It's really the only thing Republicans have to offer for health care reform (certainly now that they've refused to support a bill that is essentially Republican in the first place, just because it was proposed by Democrats).

As I noted, Democrats are having a lot of fun with this. Here's Sue Lowden's Chickens for Checkups, where you can send a letter to the candidate requesting her help looking for a doctor (for rickets, the vapors, and other old-timey ailments) who will take what you're willing to barter (chickens, goats, indentured servitude).

Apparently, it's not just the official Democratic Party, either. Here's the Lowden Medical Procedure to Chicken Converter, where you can calculate the number of chickens you need to bring to the doctor for various procedures (for a flu shot, you must take the doctor 5 chickens, according to this; for hip replacement surgery, 6,549 chickens).

This handy calculator converts many common procedures into chickens so you won’t look like an idiot at your next Doctor’s Appointment.

And there's a guy in Reno trying to trade a chicken for a heart transplant, on Craigslist.

But Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman explains why this would be dumb even without the chickens:

Sure, it’s funny to see a 21st-century political candidate pining for the days of a barter economy. But her remarks would have been breathtakingly ignorant even if she had called for payments in cash.

The key fact about health care — the central issue in health care economics — is that it’s all about the big-ticket items. Checkups don’t cost much; neither does the treatment of minor illnesses. The money that matters goes to bypasses and dialysis — costs that are highly unpredictable, and that almost nobody can afford to pay out of pocket. Modern health care, if it’s going to be provided at all, has to be paid for mainly out of insurance.

Conservatives don’t like this; if few of them propose paying in chickens, there is nonetheless a constant refrain of calls for making the market for health care more like the market for bread, with consumers paying out of medical accounts and engaging in comparison shopping. There is, for example, vast romanticizing of things like Lasik and cosmetic surgery, which are held up as models for health care as a whole — even though they’re actually very poor models. (They’re discretionary and fairly cheap — not at all like the procedures that dominate health costs in the real world.)

Why this preference for cash? Because even conservatives know in their hearts that insurance markets are deeply imperfect, which means that standard free-market arguments become very weak once insurers are involved. And so they pretend that we don’t really need all that insurance.

The business with the chickens adds an additional level of absurdity. But Ms. Lowden’s perspective is ludicrous even without the feathers.

James Randi at TED

The Decade in Dumb

 (graphic by Plognark)

Well, it's 2010 and I was just thinking back over the past decade. Are we Americans getting dumber, or does it just seem like that? It's been completely nuts in recent years, don't you think? So I was just wondering, what's the dumbest thing from the past ten years?

Let's keep this to public figures, shall we? That won't be too tough, I suspect. Yes, I know that stupid criminals are all over the Internet, but that's setting the bar a bit too low. After all, criminals can't be too bright in the first place. And skip the anonymous tea-baggers, like the guy who wants to keep the federal government out of Medicare. Again, too easy.

However, Sarah Palin's comment about "death panels" is very definitely in the running. (In fact, it's probably in my top five.) She's a public figure, after all (too public, IMHO). But it's not just politicians. Religious leaders are also eligible, as long as they are known widely enough to be considered public figures. And other celebrities, of course.

Naturally, with the Bush Administration in power for eight of these years, there's no shortage of dumb. But I'm not looking for the most dangerous, the most damaging, or even the most important incident of stupidity in the past ten years. Just the one thing that strikes you for being purely, incredibly, impossibly... dumb.

My pick for the Dumbest of the Decade? Heh, heh. Well, remember freedom fries?

On March 11, 2003, Representatives Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) and Walter B. Jones, Jr. (R-North Carolina) declared that all references to French fries and French toast on the menus of the restaurants and snack bars run by the House of Representatives would be removed. House cafeterias were ordered to rename French fries to "freedom fries". ... The simultaneous renaming of French toast to "freedom toast" attracted less attention.

Of course, these two Republican lunatics were upset that France wasn't sufficiently supportive of our invading an innocent country. But let's think about this for a minute. The move was reminiscent of World War I, when Americans renamed a number of items - notably changing "sauerkraut" to "liberty cabbage" - in order to reject anything German. It's closing in on a century since then, so you'd think we'd be more mature now, though this is part of a long history of such efforts in wartime.

But France was never our enemy. In fact, it's our oldest ally. France gave us the Statue of Liberty, for chrissake. How stupid can you get? And, of course, the fact that they were right about Iraq just adds to the sheer dumbness of freedom fries. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the country did not attack America or threaten us in any way. Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11 and, in fact, he was the enemy of our enemies. And taking out Iraq was of huge benefit to Iran, as well as being a great recruitment tool for al-Qaeda.

The decision to invade Iraq could itself be in the running for sheer stupidity, but IMHO, that just adds to the wonderful dumbness of freedom fries. And freedom fries is so delightfully petty, too, isn't it? How could you get dumber than this?

Of course, private restaurants across the country began to copy this inanity (although I can't say that I ever saw freedom fries on a menu here in Nebraska). According to Wikipedia, even the makers of French's Mustard felt required to issue a press release explaining the brand name and "affirming its patriotism." Heh, heh. How loony is that?

France simply pointed out that French fries were actually Belgian.

OK, think you can top this? I'd be interested in what you would nominate for the Dumbest of the Decade.

South Park Death Threats

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
South Park Death Threats
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Whatever you think of South Park, it's completely ridiculous that a tiny group of insanely (literally) religious Muslims - in New York, no less - should have this kind of effect. According to this article, and to this brief announcement from the show's creators, it was Comedy Central that actually censored the show, following death threats from Revolution Muslim, a lunatic group of "probably fewer than 10 extremists."

Then again, the whole idea of riots and murder because of perceived insults belongs in the dustbin of history (that part of our history which was particularly loony, at that). I must admit that I hear some fundamentalist Christians with "fatwa envy," apparently dreaming of the good ole days when they could burn heretics alive. Some of those people actually seem jealous of how insane extremist Muslims can be. But in general, you don't get this kind of lunacy from other religious groups.

These days, civilized believers generally understand that you fight speech with other speech. I'm not a big fan of South Park, though some of the shows have indeed been very funny (others, not so much). But if you don't like it, don't watch it. If you think that your religion is being criticized unfairly, speak out. But death threats? How stupid is that?

I don't mean to tar all Muslims with the same brush, but rational Muslims do need to speak up at times like this. Loudly! You need to make it clear that this kind of behavior - the death threats, I mean,... obviously - is unacceptable, period. If you're too cowardly to speak up, then you're just letting the lunatics hijack your "peaceful" religion. And you're letting them keep you in the Dark Ages, when you could be part of a modern, civilized, diverse society.

And speaking of cowardly, Comedy Central doesn't come off very well in this, either. OK, they don't want their people in danger, just because of some lame comedy show. But we Americans need to learn that terrorism works best on cowards. I realize that Fox "News" and other right-wing politicians constantly push irrational fear on the American public, but have we all become timid little people with no backbone whatsoever? Just because they constantly try to scare us, to advance their own political goals, that doesn't mean we can't stand up and boldly resist their campaigns of fear.

And look at the outsized effect this particular threat has had. Look at the publicity this tiny little group of lunatics have received (note that I'm deliberately not linking to their website). Should Comedy Central have paid any attention to these people at all? Honestly, is it any wonder that these people use terrorism and threats of terrorism when they seem to work so well on us? Why don't we understand that our own cowardice, our own over-reaction to things like this (and to isolated incidents like the "shoe bomber," the "underwear bomber," etc.) just plays into their hands?

As a people, we are already hopelessly gullible, it seems - and, admittedly, not too smart - but are we really cowardly enough to let less than a dozen religious nuts intimidate us like this? I'm not at all religious, but Muslims are not my enemy. Violent religious extremists, of any persuasion, are my enemy, and the enemy of every civilized human being. Are we too cowardly to stand up to our enemies?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Illustrated Dwarf Fortress Battle Report

If you're not familiar with Dwarf Fortress, see my earlier post. Otherwise, here's an illustrated battle report that's pretty neat - and rather funny, if you've played the game at all.

It begins when the thriving fortress, "Bronzemurder," population 66, disturbs a legendary fell beast far underground. Well, see for yourself. (Keep in mind that these dwarves are individuals, with emotions, not the typical indistinguishable computer "units." Under enough stress, they can become traumatized.)

Speek English, Morans!

The funniest part of this, for me, was the little Tea Partiers at the bottom of the comic.

Keep singing

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ask a Biologist

At the Ask a Biologist website, anyone can ask questions which will be answered by professional scientists. Yes, it's aimed at school kids, but it's open to everyone (and given the embarrassingly low level of knowledge of the biological sciences, at least in America, that's a very good thing).

It's also a fascinating site to browse, since the questions and answers are posted online. Check out the "Popular Questions," or just click on "Browse Answers."

This website is based in Great Britain, but that's the neat thing about science - it's universal. Unlike religion, the answers don't change depending on geographical location. Science is science.

Anti-Muslim, or just Pro-Bacon?

(photo from Indecision Forever)

Here's a weird story. A Muslim family had their application to become foster parents denied because they allow no pork products in the house.

We are denying your application because of concerns raised by statements made during the home study interview, specifically your explicit request to prohibit pork products within your home environment.

OK, I'll admit that I'm a huge fan of bacon.

Mmm,... bacon!

But I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that bacon is essential for raising a kid. I wonder if Maryland prohibits Jews from being foster parents, too? How about vegetarians? Something really doesn't seem right about this.

Then again, I do love bacon. And ham (the good stuff, not that water-soaked abomination that passes for ham these days). And pork chops and pork roast and, ooh, pickled pigs feet (must be served cold, though). And head cheese sandwiches. And fried pork rinds. Oh, man, hang on while I go get a snack...


Beware of earthquakes next Monday!

This little bit of supernatural thinking has been floating around the blogosphere today:
"Many women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes," Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi was quoted as saying by Iranian media. Sedighi is Tehran's acting Friday prayer leader.
I have a modest proposal.

Sedighi claims that not dressing modestly causes earthquakes. If so, we should be able to test this claim scientifically. You all remember the homeopathy overdose?

Time for a Boobquake.

On Monday, April 26th, I will wear the most cleavage-showing shirt I own. Yes, the one usually reserved for a night on the town. I encourage other female skeptics to join me and embrace the supposed supernatural power of their breasts. Or short shorts, if that's your preferred form of immodesty. With the power of our scandalous bodies combined, we should surely produce an earthquake.

(Edit: Looks like this story has been picked up by CNN. Judging by the comments, there's a lot of interest in this experiment.)

Thomas Jefferson pwns Sarah Palin

The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion - the Treaty of Tripoli, passed unanimously by the U.S. Senate and signed by President John Adams in 1797. (According to Wikipedia, this was only the third recorded unanimous vote - out of 339 total votes - in the Senate.)

Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. - President Thomas Jefferson

In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is error alone that needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. - President Thomas Jefferson

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. - President Thomas Jefferson

Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual. ... Erecting the "wall of separation between church and state," therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society. - President Thomas Jefferson

Christianity neither is, nor ever was, a part of the common law. - President Thomas Jefferson

I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition one redeeming feature. They are all alike, founded upon fables and mythologies. - President Thomas Jefferson

I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state. - President Thomas Jefferson

History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes. - President Thomas Jefferson

The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. - President Thomas Jefferson

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Tea Party and Ross Perot

Is there a political connection between the Tea Partiers and the Ross Perot movement of the early 1990's? I've seen claims that they have a lot of things in common, but here's an interesting post at which disputes that.

These quotes are from Ronald B. Rapoport of William & Mary, co-author of Three's a Crowd: The Dynamic of Third Parties, Ross Perot, and Republican Resurgence:

The major difference is that Perot movement was a total rejection of both parties, while the tea party movement is a total rejection of only one party--the Democrats.

Whereas only 5% of tea party supporters said that they usually or always voted Democratic, fully one-third of Perot supporters had voted for Walter Mondale in 1984 and slightly more had voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988.

In the New York Times survey, 54% of tea partiers rated the Republican Party favorably. Only 17% of Perot callers rated either party as “above average” or “outstanding” and 43% rated both parties as “below average,” or “poor” with 8% rating the Republicans as “above average” or “outstanding,” and 9% rating the Democrats as “outstanding” or “above average.” Sixty-nine percent rated the Republicans as “below average” or “poor,” with 64% saying the same about Democrats.

The level of favorability among tea partiers for George W. Bush is extraordinarily high—far more than in the population as a whole. Fifty-seven percent of tea party supporters rate Bush favorably, and only 27% rate him unfavorably (for the sample as a whole the corresponding percentages are reversed 27% favorable, 58% unfavorable. On the other hand Perot supporters rated both Geroge H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton unfavorably, Bush moreso than Clinton.

Perot callers were slightly right of center on the liberal-conservative scale, but on specific issues they were were not consistently conservative. They strongly favored abortion rights, national health insurance, and government controls on pollution, while strongly opposing affirmative action, gun control and the revocation of the death penalty.

... On the other hand the tea party movement and the Perot supporters were both about 60% male and over 90% white.

Master of Orion has started selling classic Atari PC games, and their first offers are really something: Master of Orion 1 & 2, together for only $5.99, and Outcast, also only $5.99.

I never played Outcast, but that 1999 action-adventure game has a lot of fans. Check out this retrospective. (There's even an Open Outcast fan project working on a modern sequel.)

The original Master of Orion, though, is one of my all-time favorite games. Released in 1993, it's probably #3 on my personal list of favorite strategy games, just behind Civilization II and X-Com: UFO Defense. And although I was disappointed in the 1996 sequel (why, I don't remember), I was just about the only one. If anything, MOO2 is even more highly regarded than the original.

1993 was a long time ago in computer years, but makes sure these old games work on modern computers (bundling DOS games with DOSBox, already set to run the game). Of course, the graphics aren't much. They weren't much even back then. But it's a great game.

(screenshot from Wikipedia)

Master of Orion is a turn-based strategy game, sort of like a space-based Civilization. Like the latter game, the opportunities to build were a much bigger attraction for me than just waging war (though warfare is still a critical part of both games). In MOO, you colonize star systems. Planets vary widely, and you must research terraforming technology to settle many of them. It's been a long time, but it always seemed to me that improving planets was a very satisfying part of this game.

MOO also had a unique research feature. In most strategy games, after a few plays, you learn what works best, and then you use that strategy in every subsequent game. In MOO, (unless you played the Psilon race, who were research specialists), your research options had random gaps. You never had the opportunity to research every single technology in the game, but you never knew ahead of time which technologies would be missing.

It wasn't a big difference. You wouldn't miss out on a whole branch of technology, but just an improvement here and there. But this meant that your optimal play was slightly different for each game. For example, I used to like building huge fleets of tiny, laser-armed ships. But if I didn't get early research options in laser technology, it would make more sense to use missile weapons. That's a minor matter, of course, but this feature really did make a difference during gameplay. It encouraged you to play different games differently.

I kept Master of Orion on my hard drive for years, but as I say, it's been a long time now since I've played it. I still have MOO and MOO2, but at this price, I'm tempted to buy them again through, since then I wouldn't have to worry about getting them to run in Windows XP. But there's only so much time in a day, and right now, I don't have any time to spare. But I'm sure tempted.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Abortion Politics

Anti-abortion activists are the dedicated foot-soldiers of the GOP. Republican leaders can count on the pro-life base for donations, volunteer work, and assured voting behavior. Many of these people are single-issue voters. Nothing matters to them as much as abortion. And the Republican Party platform has included a firm anti-abortion plank for years.

So why is abortion still legal in America? The GOP controlled Congress for 12 straight years recently. They had their guy in the White House for eight. The Supreme Court, while technically nonpartisan, has been packed with Republicans, too. For a full six years during the Bush Administration, they controlled all three branches of the federal government. Yet they never once even made a serious attempt to outlaw abortion. Why not?

Note that they worked hard on tax cuts for the rich - and got them. Well, Democrats in Congress were pretty spineless, giving Bush pretty much all he wanted (including war with an innocent country). And note that there are a number of conservative, anti-abortion Democrats in Congress. The Democratic Party isn't anywhere near as monolithic as the GOP. It's rare to find a Republican who'll go his own way, but the reverse is true across the aisle. It's very rare to have every Democrat heading in the same direction.

So why wasn't there even a serious attempt to end abortion in America? They had years, after all. Well, I think it's obvious that the GOP doesn't want to end abortion in this country, and certainly doesn't want to see an end to the abortion wars. In fact, I'll bet the whole idea fills them with dread.

Think about it. Pro-life activists are the most reliable voters the Republican Party has. No matter what, as long as the GOP pays plenty of lip service to ending abortion, these people will be there. But what if abortion actually did end? What if long-term contraceptives became so effective, so cheap, and so readily available that there were very few unintended pregnancies? What if the whole issue became relatively unimportant to everyone?

All those single-issue anti-abortion activists would start looking at the other GOP policies - the tax cuts for the rich, the deregulation of banks, the invasion of an innocent country, the torture of prisoners, the politicization of the Justice Department, the anti-environment, pro-pollution policies,...  Suddenly, the most dedicated members of the Republican Party would start looking at what else they were actually supporting. And some of them - quite possibly a lot of them - would not like what they saw.

IMHO, this is why the Republican Party did not even make a serious attempt to outlaw abortion when they were in power. It's not at all to their benefit to give pro-lifers anything but rhetoric. Oh, sure, Republicans in state legislatures - like Nebraska, just recently - will continue to pass restrictive measures on abortion. But those generally don't accomplish anything, before being shot down by the courts. It's just a way to keep the abortion issue front and center, a way to keep their activists happy.

But the last thing they want is to actually succeed in eliminating abortion. Can you imagine what a disaster that would be for the Republican Party? They'd have to find some other issue to fire up the base, something important enough that their members would overlook the other disastrous policies of the GOP. It's no wonder than nothing changed on the abortion front in the Bush years, wouldn't you agree?

You must be so proud.

(Calamities of Nature by Tony Piro)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Dwarf Fortress

After a year and a half of development, Tarn Adams has finally released a new version of Dwarf Fortress, one of the most incredible computer games out there. How incredible?  Well, this might give you some idea: the game is free to download and play, so the solitary developer (with some help from his brother) lives on the voluntary donations from his many fans. Yes, his fans continued to donate even during that year and a half between DF versions - and in the middle of an economic collapse, too!

Dwarf Fortress is a single-player game, a detailed fantasy world simulation with two different kinds of play. But the "adventure mode" - basically, a single-character, turn-based RPG - has seen little development so far. The meat of the game is in "fortress mode," where you take a few dwarves, and an assortment of supplies, into the gameworld and attempt to build a thriving colony.

You can't win the game, you can only lose it. That is, the game continues as long as you want, provided your dwarves survive. But losing is common - and frequently hilarious. The motto of Dwarf Fortress is "Losing is Fun," and it's true. If your fortress is overrun by enemies, gets flooded out (deliberately or not) by water or magma, or simply disintegrates socially as unhappy dwarves run amok, that's fun, too. And then you can start a new fortress somewhere else (in the same gameworld, which will incorporate your first effort into its history) and try again.

This isn't your typical commercial game. For one thing, it uses ASCII graphics - basically just simple letters and symbols which stand for animals and items in the game. There are some minor graphical add-ons developed by fans, such as the May Green tileset shown below, but clearly, the graphics aren't the draw here.

The interface is pretty bad, too. This is a complicated game, and Tarn has been busy adding even more details to it. He hasn't wanted to work on upgrading the interface until he knows exactly what features will be in the final game. Meanwhile, it's certainly playable, but you have to work at learning the commands. There's a significant learning curve here.

So, other than poor - almost non-existent - graphics and a terrible interface, what else does this game have to offer? Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that it takes a pretty decent computer to run it. Sounds great so far, doesn't it? But there's a reason why this game is famous among gamers in the know. I'll get to that - if I haven't scared you off already - after the jump.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Why have fire departments?

(photo by millzero)

Let's start with this article by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman. Shocking, isn't it?

On Tuesday, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, called for the abolition of municipal fire departments.

Firefighters, he declared, “won’t solve the problems that led to recent fires. They will make them worse.” The existence of fire departments, he went on, “not only allows for taxpayer-funded bailouts of burning buildings; it institutionalizes them.” He concluded, “The way to solve this problem is to let the people who make the mistakes that lead to fires pay for them. We won’t solve this problem until the biggest buildings are allowed to burn.”

Well, why not? Public fire departments are just "socialism," after all. Why should the government get involved? If I own a firetrap, I should just accept the risk that my property might burn to the ground, right?

Of course, that's completely ridiculous. Fire tends to spread. If my house catches fire, my neighbor's house might be the next to go. Even in rural areas that's the case, certainly here in Nebraska, where fires spread literally on the wind. After many devastating fires in large cities, we eventually learned the value of public fire departments, "socialism" or not.

O.K., I fibbed a bit. Mr. McConnell said almost everything I attributed to him, but he was talking about financial reform, not fire reform. In particular, he was objecting not to the existence of fire departments, but to legislation that would give the government the power to seize and restructure failing financial institutions.

But it amounts to the same thing.

Another thing we learned long ago was that bank failures also tend to spread. When one bank collapses, there's a good chance that other banks will also collapse, with bankruptcies spreading from one to another. I was going to say that we learned this in the 1930's, but in fact, we learned that long before then. But it was only in the 1930's that we came up with a solution: the federal regulation of banks, which was combined with a guarantee of deposits.

And it worked great! It completely stopped the periodic cascades of bank failures that had plagued America since our founding. Unfortunately, as the Great Depression faded from our collective consciousness, right-wing ideologues started dismantling those protections that had served us so well. At the same time, financial innovation created new ways to get around the old rules on regulation. Well, we all know what happened then, don't we?

In his speech, Mr. McConnell seemed to be saying that in the future, the U.S. government should just let banks fail. We “must put an end to taxpayer funded bailouts for Wall Street banks.” What’s wrong with that?

The answer is that letting banks fail — as opposed to seizing and restructuring them — is a bad idea for the same reason that it’s a bad idea to stand aside while an urban office building burns. In both cases, the damage has a tendency to spread. In 1930, U.S. officials stood aside as banks failed; the result was the Great Depression. In 2008, they stood aside as Lehman Brothers imploded; within days, credit markets had frozen and we were staring into the economic abyss.

So it’s crucial to avoid disorderly bank collapses, just as it’s crucial to avoid out-of-control urban fires.

Since the 1930s, we’ve had a standard procedure for dealing with failing banks: the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation has the right to seize a bank that’s on the brink, protecting its depositors while cleaning out the stockholders. In the crisis of 2008, however, it became clear that this procedure wasn’t up to dealing with complex modern financial institutions like Lehman or Citigroup.

So proposed reform legislation gives regulators “resolution authority,” which basically means giving them the ability to deal with the likes of Lehman in much the same way that the F.D.I.C. deals with conventional banks. Who could object to that?

Well, we all know the answer to that, don't we? Since this was proposed by a Democratic president and Democrats in Congress, the "Party of No" must oppose it. It's as simple as that. The good of the country is nothing to them, compared to political advantage.

But how in the world could this tactic work for them? We've just seen the results of the GOP mania for financial deregulation, and bankers are nearly as unpopular as terrorists (more unpopular than Christian terrorists, I suspect). Republicans had always claimed than bank CEO's didn't need regulation, which would just hold them back, because they'd just naturally do the right thing.

Unfortunately, it turned out that the right thing for bank executives - increasing risk in order to maximize their multi-million dollar annual bonuses - was not the right think for the banks, and certainly not for America. When banks collapse, the executives keep all that money they got in previous years. Shareholders lose big, but not bank CEO's. That's one reason why deregulation didn't work. We all saw it, and just recently. So how could anyone argue otherwise?

Now, Mr. McConnell surely isn’t sincere; while pretending to oppose bank bailouts, he’s actually doing the bankers’ bidding. ...

His talking points come straight out of a memo Frank Luntz, the Republican political consultant, circulated in January on how to oppose financial reform. “Frankly,” wrote Mr. Luntz, “the single best way to kill any legislation is to link it to the Big Bank Bailout.” And Mr. McConnell is following those stage directions.

Ah, yes. The "bailout" isn't popular, to say the least. It just didn't seem fair - and it wasn't, not really. It was just necessary. Would you really cut off your nose in order to spite your face? Doubtful. So why would you accept a complete meltdown of our global economy just because a rescue attempt wouldn't be "fair"?

Of course, most people are also very confused about the "bailout." For one thing, this was something undertaken by the Bush administration, not Barack Obama. The TARP program happened before Obama took office. I've got to give them at least some credit for that. They may have wrecked our economy, but they did the right thing in this case,... basically. Yes, it was far from perfect. But it didn't "bail out" the owners of these banks. They lost almost everything. It just kept the business itself as a going concern.

So yes, it benefited some of the bank employees who caused these problems in the first place. And it benefited bond-holders, since they didn't lose on supposedly "safe" investments. But mostly, it benefited us. It benefited all of us, by keeping our economy from crashing further. This is why we're not currently in another Great Depression. Bad as this economy is, it could have been far, far worse.

It’s a truly shameless performance: Mr. McConnell is pretending to stand up for taxpayers against Wall Street while in fact doing just the opposite. In recent weeks, he and other Republican leaders have held meetings with Wall Street executives and lobbyists, in which the G.O.P. and the financial industry have sought to coordinate their political strategy.

And let me assure you, Wall Street isn’t lobbying to prevent future bank bailouts. If anything, it’s trying to ensure that there will be more bailouts. By depriving regulators of the tools they need to seize failing financial firms, financial lobbyists increase the chances that when the next crisis strikes, taxpayers will end up paying a ransom to stockholders and executives as the price of avoiding collapse.

Even more important, however, the financial industry wants to avoid serious regulation; it wants to be left free to engage in the same behavior that created this crisis. It’s worth remembering that between the 1930s and the 1980s, there weren’t any really big financial bailouts, because strong regulation kept most banks out of trouble. It was only with Reagan-era deregulation that big bank disasters re-emerged. In fact, relative to the size of the economy, the taxpayer costs of the savings and loan disaster, which unfolded in the Reagan years, were much higher than anything likely to happen under President Obama.

Wall Street executives have made out like bandits in recent years, and it's not just Bush's (and Reagan's) tax cuts for the rich. Risky behavior pays off for CEO's and other executives who get multi-million dollar bonuses based on short-term profits. They pocket that money when times are good, and they keep it even when they run their corporation into the ground. When the music stops, the rest of us are left in the lurch, while Wall Street executives risk little or nothing.

None of this should be surprising. We don't even have to go all the way back to the 1930's, because we also went through it in the savings and loan disaster, during the Reagan administration (but not between the two eras, when financial regulation was kept intact). The facts aren't even in dispute. It's just that Wall Streeters want to keep this pattern of "I win, you lose" since it's very lucrative for them personally. And Republicans are their guys in the government.

Of course, these days that might not even matter, much. If Democrats propose anything, the Republicans will automatically oppose it. And they'll not just vote against it, in one solid block, but try to prevent a vote from even taking place, using the filibuster for virtually everything these days. Why do we let them get away with this? Well, they're good at confusing ignorant, gullible people - and they've got Fox "News" pushing their lies all the way.

Should we get rid of public fire departments? Of course not! And we shouldn't get rid of government oversight of the financial industry, either - for basically the same reason. When a fire starts, there's a good chance that it will spread. So it's in our interest - all of us - to see that the initial fires are contained, as quickly, as easily, and as cheaply as possible.