Sunday, December 19, 2010

I'm still kicking, too

With final grades set to post, and the grim fates of my innumerable students now sealed, a grueling semester finally comes to a close. I expect I will need about a week's worth of convalescence, and maybe then I can finally get back to some pretense of regular work on my blog and website. I seriously have no idea how P. Z. Myers does it.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Ronald Dworkin on one of those great mysteries

Ronald Dworkin asks, "Why do so many Americans insist on voting against their own best interests?"  Both of the two possible answers he identifies ring true:
[1] They might mean, first, that their new government is not theirs because it is not remotely of their kind or culture; it is not representative of them. Most who think that would have in mind, of course, their president; they think him not one of them because he is so different.


[2] All their lives they have assumed that their country is the most powerful, most prosperous, most democratic, economically and culturally the most influential—altogether the most envied and wonderful country in the world. They are coming slowly and painfully to realize that that is no longer true; they are angry and they want someone to blame.
But Dworkin need not have been so wordy. He could simply have pointed out that Americans are people, and that idiocy is part of the human condition.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The foundation of secular biblical hermeneutics

Biblicists do not generally believe that Scripture is meaningless, inadvertently meaningful, or laden with such a surfeit of possible meanings that championing any particular one might be described as an expression of one’s ideological commitments. Although by no stretch of the imagination an uncritical cohort, exegetes are not inclined to pursue or articulate conclusions of this nature. One need not be a sociologist of knowledge to understand why. Still, it bears repeating that our secular outrages are parasitic on the most fundamental premises of this religiously inflected discipline. To their immense credit, biblical exegetes—who are rarely secularists—have produced all the explosive raw materials. Secular hermeneutics differs mainly in its critical orientation—its eagerness to detonate.

Berlinerblau, Jacques. The Secular Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. p. 52.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Political future

P.Z. Myers, spot-on as usual, warns of the approach of the turtle:
What really makes me despair, though, is that I can guess exactly how the Democrats will respond to this drubbing. Instead of refocusing on the liberal and progressive values that ought to be their main message, they're going to turtle up. They do it every time. Instead of trying to distinguish themselves from the loonies on the right, they'll all move closer to what they'll call "moderate", but is actually more of a conservative right-wing position. And the next election will be even worse.

Unless somebody on our side wakes up and realizes that they're in a fight, and that conciliatory measures are not called for. I'm looking at you, Obama. But somehow, I don't think he's the right man for the job.
It is one of those curiosities that makes one tear out one's hair: the fanatics that practically define today's political right do not want to compromise with anyone, while the do-gooders that practically define today's political center and left insist on compromising with everyone. One speaks only the language of good and evil, while the other has neither word in its vocabulary. Where is the party that starts from a strong spirit of compromise, but draws the line at accommodating fanaticism?

Paul Krugman also gets it right:
Aha. I almost forgot to mention this, but one of the surprises of last night is that Harry Reid, supposedly a completely hopeless case, is still Senator.

How did that happen? Reid did something Democrats almost never do: instead of apologizing for his party, he ran against a person with a habit of making crazy statements by hitting hard, again and again, with ads calling her a crazy person. It was very rude and uncivil. And it worked.
Reid understood exactly what he was fighting against, and chose his tactics accordingly.

Update: Forgot to mention another point-on analysis, to similar effect, from Chris Hedges, channeled through Hume's Ghost:
As long as the liberal class speaks in the dead voice of moderation it will continue to fuel the right-wing backlash. Only when it appropriates this rage as its own, only when it stands up to established systems of power, including the Democratic Party, will we have any hope of holding off the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Do the right thing

Get out and vote, you bastards! And give to charity! And build robots!

Update: I just realized that this is my 200th post. How very fortunate and appropriate that it is robot-related.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Thursday, October 28, 2010

My all-time favorite verse of scripture

Whence this creation has arisen—perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not—the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows—or perhaps he does not know.
Rig Veda 10.129.7 (Nāsadīya), from The Rig Veda, tr. Wendy Doniger (New York: Penguin, 1981).

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Two more podcasts

1. Marcus du Sautoy's 10-part, non-technical A Brief History of Mathematics, for BBC 4 Radio. Finished this one (at 2x acceleration) in two bus trips today.

2. Peter Adamson's in-progress History of Philosophy Podcast, from King's College London, which ambitiously intends to go through the entire history of the field with no gaps. I would do this myself, but I think my speaking voice is horrible, and the pace of my written history of philosophy (still on Anaximenes!) inspires no confidence.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Wikileaks war logs

Wikileaks has released more Iraq war logs. The information coming out is important: reports of detainee abuse and executions by Iraqi civilian forces, a formal policy by coalition forces to effectively ignore such actions, and a secret civilian death tally. I do not at all buy the government's refrain that all of this should be kept under wraps because it endangers US troops. Both times I was in Iraq, I would have been happy to see this information come out, even if it would have increased my risk of being killed: when a democracy goes to war, the citizens need to understand what is actually happening on the ground. I would not have wanted such information withheld, even to protect me; having actually served, of course, I'm quite sure that the only thing anyone is trying to protect here, is his or her career.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Lunar transit

Another absolutely mind-blowing image from the Solar Dynamics Observatory, brought to you courtesy of NASA's Image of the Day. Be sure to look at the amazing detail in the full-sized version.

Friday, October 15, 2010


M8, the Lagoon Nebula, courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope, and NASA's Image of the Day.

How can we be sure about anything at all?

It has been ages since I published anything at my parent site (, but, happily, I managed to find a little bit of extra time today to do so. Naturally, by "extra time," I mean "time during which I should be asleep."

I covered Descartes this week in my Introduction to Philosophy classes, and spent considerable time using odd neurological conditions to motivate a very disturbing skeptical move Descartes makes almost in passing in the Meditations on First Philosophy. I had produced a rough draft of an article on precisely that topic for my website about a year ago, but never got around to finishing it. Being able to discuss the vexing matter in class was sufficiently awesome that it motivated me to pull the article out of the dusty file archives of my computer and finally complete it. So, here's the question: how can we be sure about anything at all?

And no, I do not talk about Putnam and internal realism. I'm putting most of my readers through enough without all of that.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Invisible Gorilla

Yesterday, I finished The Invisible Gorilla, which I had been listening to in audiobook format during my transit to and from work. The book is one of a long line I have read which describe how vast the difference is between the way our minds function, and the way we think they function. Our minds feel transparent to us, but they most assuredly are not. The Invisible Gorilla is, in my humble estimation, the best book of the lot—no surprise, since the authors are the researchers who came up with the original test for which the book is named. If I teach another introductory logic and reasoning class, I will use this book.

A video of the original test is below. I have included a second test after that, in case the first is already too familiar to have any effect, or if the name of the book clues you in too much.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


How news websites write about scientific papers. Even if Robbins were way off base (he isn't), his choice of graphics truly is optimized for his key target demographic, or at least for some demographic to which I happen to belong.

H/T: The Panda's Thumb.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Dawkins against the Pope

Video footage of a Dawkins speech to a crowd of around 10,000 at the Protest the Pope rally in London:

H/T: Why Evolution is True

Cross-posted to The Secular Outpost.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

No more IRR

One notable item in my personal life: my Individual Ready Reserve status with the Marine Corps expired on the 2nd of this month. For some reason, I thought it was supposed to expire in November, but I checked my DD-214, and, sure enough, the four-year commitment to IRR that was tacked on to my four-year active duty enlistment expired on the 2nd.

I have not yet quite managed to wrap my mind around this. Although the probability of my being recalled went effectively to zero a year ago, I have not felt like a proper civilian since the moment I stepped aboard the bus to MCRD San Diego. I had a jolt of pure "former Marine" sensation today, and it felt good, but it was fleeting. I think it will take quite some time for it to really sink in that this part of my life is over.

Not dead

I apologize for my lowered blogging frequency. Classes are just placing a heavy demand on my time. You may be assured that I am not, at the time of this writing, dead.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Keith Parsons on the [aborted] Qur'an burning

Keith Parsons gets everything right in his post on the planned Qur'an burning in Florida, now called off: it should have been a contemptible non-event, unworthy of more than a moment's attention. Instead, it has been built up into some weird national scandal. Of course, there is a scandal here—the fact that freedom once again has lost out to fear of terror. I have nothing nice to say about Terry Jones, but when it comes down to a choice between bigots who want to exercise their constitutional rights and murderous bigots who threaten mayhem and death in response, I know damn well where I stand.

The last word, as so often happens, goes to Jesus and Mo:

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Arizona often feels like a wasteland

But not all the time. Put clouds in the sky, keep the temperature below 100°, and it's a match for nearly anywhere.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Schopenhauer being, well, Schopenhauer, Part III

Final installment. The only thing more enjoyable than a passage in which Schopenhauer goes on the attack, is one in which his attack is coupled with disarmingly frank praise for the virtues of his own work. Once again, from On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (E.J.F. Payne tr., LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1974):

Exhibit A:
I have shown all this so irrefutably and clearly that no one with a spark of judgement can any longer believe in that fiction after he has read it. “Well, they probably have done this!” Oh no! They will take good care not to venture on slippery ground! Maintaining silence and keeping the mouth shut; these constitute their whole talent and sole means against intellect, mental powers, seriousness, and truth. In none of the products of their useless scribblings that have appeared since 1841 has a single word been said about my ethics, although it is unquestionably the most important ethical work that has appeared in the last sixty years. Indeed, so great is their fear of me and my truth, that the book has not even been announced in any of the literary journals that are issued by universities or academies. Zitto, zitto, lest the public should notice anything; this is and remains their whole policy. Of course, the instinct of self-preservation may be at the bottom of this crafty conduct. For is not a philosophy that is directed to truth and has no other consideration bound to play the role of the iron pot among the earthen ones, when it makes its appearance among the the petty systems that are framed under the influence of a thousand regards and motives by men thus qualified on account of their way of thinking? (73-74)
Exhibit B:
On the other hand, the professors of philosophy have taken no more notice of this truth than they have of the other great and important truths whose exposition has been the task and toil of my whole life in order that they may become the permanent possession of mankind. This is not to their taste; it does not serve their purpose at all or lead to theology. It is certainly not suited to the proper training of students for the highest State posts. In short, professors do not want to learn anything from me; they do not see how much they would have to learn, namely all that their children and their children’s children will learn from me. Instead of this, each sits down to enrich the public with his original ideas in a long spun-out system of metaphysics. If for this fingers are a qualification, then he is qualified. (75- 76)

Friday, September 3, 2010

Discovery Channel gunman

Here's my two cents on James Lee.

First, I'm not at all sad that he's dead. Good riddance.

Second, naturally he has become, in the eyes of the right, the poster-child for the left. That's unfair, and the people who push that view know its unfair, but naturally they press on anyway, because fairness doesn't come into the picture when one is fighting evil, right? Thus, we are witness to the same kind of logic that holds up the one example of Baruch Goldstein as a counterweight to the collected mass of all of the suicide bombers sent forth by Hamas. The right still is much more dangerous than the left. And, again, this is something that even everyone on the right knows; it is not without reason that the left is stereotyped as the wishy-washy, Kumbaya-singing, love-and-roses, side—characteristics which do not lend themselves so readily to violence.

Third, though,—and this stands completely irrespective of whether or not Lee was mentally ill—Lee's motivations were shaped by left-wing ideology. I do not think this can simply be dismissed, any more than one can simply dismiss the ideological motivations of sundry people on the right, mentally ill or not, who have taken up arms against targets identified by right-wing pundits. Fact is, a non-negligible segment of the left does spew hateful, apocalyptic rhetoric that can set the right kind of person on a path of violence. That rhetoric is as vile as the stuff pumped through the air by Fox News and friends; mercifully, it is not as widespread or effectively communicated, and hence not as dangerous, but that does not change what it is, and what it can do, and what it can become.

Clean house, people.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Schopenhauer being, well, Schopenhauer, Part II

There is a remarkable, long, searing passage in On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (E.J.F. Payne tr., LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1974) in which Schopenhauer pretends to record the reassuring words German professors say to the besieged cosmological argument, about how they will save it simply by assuming an air of superiority, invoking the "Absolute," and banging their fists on tables. I can't quote the section in full, because it goes on for about three pages, but here are some of the highlights:
The Germans are accustomed to accept words instead of ideas. Are they not trained by us for this purpose from early youth? Just look at Hegelry; what is it but empty, hollow, and even nauseous verbiage? And yet how brilliant was the career of this philosophical creature of the ministry! It needed only a few mercenary fellows to sing the praises of the bad, and their voices found an echo in the hollow emptiness of a thousand numbskulls, an echo resounding and spreading even at the present time. See how soon a great philosopher was made from a common head, indeed from a common charlatan!


If you feel nervous, always bear in mind that we are in Germany where man have been able to do what would have been impossible elsewhere. I refer to the fact that in Germany men procalim as a great mind and profound thinker a dull, ignorant philosophaster, a scribbler of nonsense, who by his ineffably hollow verbiage thoroughly and permanently disorganizes their brains; I refer to our dearly beloved Hegel. Not only have they been able to so this with impunity and without incurring ridicule, but they have believed it for the last thirty years, and believe it to this day! (60-61)

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Schopenhauer being, well, Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer, whatever else one may think of him, is one of the finest craftsmen of insults to grace the history of philosophy. I am in the process of reading On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (E.J.F. Payne tr., LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1974), and already by page 16, he cannot hold himself back—here, he manages to insult Schelling, Hegel, the ontological argument, and the German people as a whole, all in less than a paragraph (characteristically, Hegel fares the worst):
On the other hand, we can see how much Herr v. Schelling venerates the ontological proof in a long note on page 152 of the first volume of his Philosphische Schriften of 1809. Yet we can see something even more instructive, namely, how an impudent assumption of fine airs and swagger are sufficient to throw dust into German eyes. But so thoroughly contemptible a creature as Hegel, whose whole pseudo-philosophy was really a monstrous amplification of the ontological proof, tried to defend this proof against Kant's Critique. This is an alliance of which the ontological proof itself might be ashamed, however little in other respects it may be given to blushing. I must not be required to speak with deference about men who have brought philosophy into contempt.
Oh, Schopenhauer. Will you ever change?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Violence and opposition to Islam

The English Defence League riot today in Bradford raises, again, a worrying question: must the choice, in practice, come down to a choice between radical Islam and radical anti-Islam? I still have hope for the United States, but I am afraid that the future in Europe looks bleak—I fear that these two sides will just continue to grow, and that the matter ultimately will be resolved through violence, with the highest price paid, as always, by the innocent.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Intellectual honesty

From Susan Haack's Defending Science—within Reason (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2003), p. 306:
We describe a person as honest who is truthful in his dealings with others; we describe a person as intellectually honest who is truthful in his dealings with himself.
Not that this is our literal behavior. We in fact describe a person as both honest and intellectually honest who tells us what we want to hear.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Frailty, thy name is Blackboard 9

Sorry, just venting my frustration. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you are one of the fortunate ones.

I can't wait for Blackboard 10:
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Cordoba House: What's in a name?

I'm trying to quickly read through Feisal Abdul Rauf's 2004 book, What's Right with Islam, to try to get a sense of the man. I mentioned in an earlier post that some of the critics of Park51 point to the initial name "Cordoba House" as evidence that the project was intended as a symbol of Islamic conquest. I also pointed to Carl Pyrdum's response to this claim, wherein he pointed out that, among other things, the name is far more strongly associated with Islamic tolerance. So, it's interesting to read the last paragraph of Rauf's introduction:
We strive for a "New Cordoba," a time when Jews, Christians, Muslims, and all other faith traditions will live together in peace, enjoying a renewed vision of what the good society can look like. In this good society all religious voices are welcome and given maximum freedom, and no one religion (or even atheism) is allowed to inhibit any other. Toward this dream we aspire.
So, barring dissimulation—a charge for which I have not yet seen any good evidence—that's what the name "Cordoba" means to Rauf.

I want to finish the book before I comment more generally on him, but I must say that so far, he sounds much more like a fluffy religious leftist type (like Karen Armstrong, who wrote the foreword) than a jihadi monster.

Richard Dawkins: Faith School Menace?

Richard Dawkins' Channel 4 program about faith schools in the UK:

This is part 1/4. The rest will play automatically, in sequence.

H/T: Why Evolution is True

Cross-posted to The Secular Outpost

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Hypocrisy, left and right

I wonder what would happen if someone were to physically attack Park51 after it was built.

My prediction: we would see a massive outpouring of hypocrisy. People on the left, who talk about nothing but "understanding the root causes" whenever members of the so-called "privileged" groups are attacked, would dismiss as sheer bigotry (and maybe racism, the most over-used slur on the left) any reference to the root causes of the rage of the attackers. People on the right, who in the same instances dismiss as political correctness and anti-Americanism any reference to root causes—any suggestion that American polices might have made some causal contribution to the violent hatred a large part of the rest of the world feels toward us—would, all of the sudden, start talking about how understandable—if inexcusable—the act was, and how Muslims need to understand that you can't just build an Islamic center near the World Trade Center site and not expect repercussions, even though we—of course—think there was no excuse for the acts. Right and left would, that is, completely exchange the rhetoric exhibited in the aftermath of events like September 11. Cooler heads, who know how to split the difference, will be few and far between.

I think this is a very safe prediction, but I hope it never will be put to the test.*

*And, honestly, I am not worried that it will be. Whatever defects modern Americans might have, we still are very good—left, right, and center—about not solving domestic issues with violence. I still fear a tipping point in the future, especially if a Democrat wins the next Presidential election, but I am not worried about it in the immediacy.

Photo: wasp's nest?

Attached to the far groove of my patio door, 3 cm tall. What does it belong to?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Do anti-Islam protests cause radicalization?

The New York Times reports:
Some counterterrorism experts say the anti-Muslim sentiment that has saturated the airwaves and blogs in the debate over plans for an Islamic center near ground zero in Lower Manhattan is playing into the hands of extremists by bolstering their claims that the United States is hostile to Islam.
The evidence the experts in question site is that radical and terrorist Islamic organizations are reporting the protests with seeming glee.

It is no surprise that al Qaeda and the likes would seize upon all of this, but I have to wonder what kind of impact it really has on radicalization. I can't see the Islamic world becoming any more radicalized against the United States just because a lot of US citizens equate Muslims with terrorists. I tend to think that those in the Islamic world who have not already become radicalized by religious or foreign policy concerns will not become radicalized by the domestic hostility of many American non-Muslims toward American Muslims. They may deplore that hostility, but would it really cause them to wish to kill Americans indiscriminately, any more than the mistreatment of non-Muslims in some Islamic nations causes those of us not already radicalized to wish to kill Muslims wholesale?

On learning

Awareness of one's own ignorance increases (or ought to) as an exponential function of one's knowledge—so often does the entry of a tiny new fact into one's mind open up grand vistas of wild and unknown territory. Many times, one is forced even to look back over lands already mapped out, only to find them distorted beyond recognition. This is both curse and blessing for an explorer—curse because one will never learn everything, and blessing, because one will never learn everything. Whether it makes life, on the whole, wonderful or intolerable depends on the balance of joy one gets from learning something new, against the suffocation and despair one feels for not knowing it all.

I am not yet decided where I stand. I know that the beauty of new facts—even new doubts—in their infinite variation, give me more than enough motive to keep going; yet, every step is bittersweet.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

School's in

I taught my first class of the semester at ASU today. Nearly everything about the experience was bad: the day was hot and miserable, I just discovered I no longer have even shared cubicle space (meaning I have to carry out my office hours on a bench in front of my classroom), my classroom has two huge stone pillars right in the middle, and transportation back home was late. The silver lining that compensates for it all: it looks like I have a really great group of students. It is the students that make or break a class; everything else is a footnote.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

No libertarian impulses after all

I used to think I was torn between libertarianism and a moderate communitarianism (closer to Scandanavia than the United States, without going the full distance). It seems, on deeper reflection, that I have misidentified one of the poles.

I understand libertarianism as the stance according to which the state ought to take care of national defense and enforcement of voluntary contracts, and that's it. What appealed to me in this scheme is that I thought it respected negative rights, while denying that there are positive rights (where having a negative right to x means that if you have x, then no one has a right to take x away from you; while having a positive right to x means that if you lack x, then others are obligated to provide you with x). I have strong intuitions that resonate with that. Although I generally think far more highly of people who take care of others, than those who do not, the notion that it is permissible to forcibly redistribute resources does not sit right with me, at least half of the time, no matter how selfish the victims of redistribution might be.

So far, so good, except that the stance on rights I have described is not (assuming I have understood it correctly) libertarianism. Mandatory contributions to national defense or a contract enforcement system seem to me just as suspect as welfare or a national health care plan—if I think I'm strong or smart enough to survive on my own, and don't want anyone else's help, why should I be forced to help maintain even this bare structure libertarians want? Libertarianism does accept a positive right after all—the right to have one's own negative rights defended by third parties. But once the door to positive rights is cracked open, I don't see how one can shut out myriad other rights—like a right to decent health care—that libertarians would deny.

The upshot is that real poles that tear my political intuitions apart are not moderate communitarianism and libertarianism, but moderate communitarianism and anarchism. This should not surprise me, given my predilection for the much-maligned Wolff, but it does.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Philosopher's Annual

Here's a good philosophy resource I haven't seen before: The Philosopher's Annual. Somewhat redundant, for me, since I have university journal access, but it's nice to see what other philosophers think the must-read articles of the year are.

Monday, August 16, 2010

No, Virginia, genocide is not OK

I just ran into another Christian defense of genocide, and finally could take no more, and had to write about it. The result is one of more ungentlemanly articles I have written, but I think—certainly hope—it is fair. You'll have to judge.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Christopher Hitchens on Charlie Rose

Great interview, as always is the case with Hitchens. It's terrific that he has not retreated from public life. If you're looking for his current thoughts about religion, you have to wait until the last ten minutes, but do yourself a favor and don't skip ahead.

Through the looking glass

Recent episodes of a Saudi sitcom have the two main characters, both Muslim, discover that their mother's relatives are Christian, and that their uncle is a priest. The two, while remaining true to Islam, slowly gain respect for the faith. Not everyone is happy about this development.
Independent Islamic scholar Abdulwahab al-Salhi said the "indecent lot of 'Tash Ma Tash' ... used drama to destroy Muslims' stable religious principles by portraying Christians as believers and not apostates."
Hear, hear. Enough with this kind of PC garbage from the liberal media, designed to subvert the true values upon which this great nation was founded.

Question about Raza and Fatah's question

Sarah Palin approvingly tweets a question from an article by Raheel Raza and Tarek Fatah, critical of Park51. Here's the relevant passage from the article:
Do [Imam Rauf and his cohorts] not understand that building a mosque at Ground Zero is equivalent to permitting a Serbian Orthodox church near the killing fields of Srebrenica where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered?
I don't understand: are Raza and Fatah saying that the Serbian Orthodox Church should not be allowed to open any new churches within walking distance of Srebrenica or any of the surrounding villages where massacres took place, even if there still are Serbian Orthodox worshipers there, and even if the church is not intended as a provocation? Maybe they really are saying that. But I seriously doubt many of the people who cite them approvingly would agree with such sentiments. Wouldn't most of the same people attacking Park51 right now scream bloody murder about political correctness and hypocrisy if the Muslims in Srebrenica tried to prevent a new Orthodox church from being built there? Wouldn't they react with disgust to people who defended such a move because they thought that sensitivity to the feelings of Muslims was more important than religious freedom? And wouldn't they be correct in doing so?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

"True" religion and violence

I agree with most of President Obama's Iftar dinner speech last night, but not all of it. At one point, the President claims:
Al Qaeda’s cause is not Islam—it is a gross distortion of Islam. These are not religious leaders—these are terrorists who murder innocent men, women and children.
What is al Qaeda's cause? Presumably, according to the President, it is "nihilism." Nonsense. One of the great modern myths shared by the left and the center is that there is a dichotomy between "true" religion and violence, such that people who commit violent acts, no matter how obviously religious they are, cannot really count as religious at all. This is practically the mirror image of the myth on the right that "true" Islam is evil, so that special burdens can be justifiably placed on all those who would worship in a mosque.
The President was right to come to the defense of embattled American Muslims like Sharjeel Kashmir, who writes:
The day before the World Trade Center bombings, America was my home. The next day, I woke up a stranger in a strange land. I wish every American could understand that I am not the enemy.
What the President ought not to have done was to try to define Islamic terrorism out of existence. Steering away from Scylla, he plunged right into the gaping maw of Charybdis.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Adolix Split and Merge PDF

If you need to split or merge PDFs, but don't want to use web services, and can't afford the pro versions of Adobe or Foxit, Adolix's Split and Merge PDF does a great job. I just started using it, to help me correct page-ordering problems in scanned documents, and so far it has proved to be intuitive and lightning-fast. And it's freeware.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Merchants of Doubt

The contents of Oreskes and Conway's Merchants of Doubt need to be shouted from every rooftop. The anti-science segments of the right are correct about this much: profit, politics, and ideology have done a tremendous job of obstructing legitimate science, especially where environmental issues are concerned. They just happen to be wrong about everything else. It's quite amazing: a thick chain—same strategies, same players—running all the way from denial of the hazards of direct smoking, through denial of problems from acid rain, CFC damage to the ozone layer, and the dangers of secondhand smoke, all the way to contemporary denial of anthropogenic global warming, and modern revisionism about Rachel Carson and DDT—all driven by hysteria about socialism, and by dedicated funding from corporate interests.

I'm too worn out to do more rooftop-shouting right now—as sober as Oreskes and Conway are, the book is emotionally exhausting—so, I'll just point you to a partial synopsis by the authors, and their Facebook page, which will link you up to plenty of reviews and more.

Questionable endorsements

I hear some buzz surrounding Gaubatz and Sperry's Muslim Mafia, and I'm generally on board for their kind of thing, so I'm like, "Cool, let me go look up more about it." I start in on the publisher's description:
You've heard about the courageous young investigators who covertly videotaped officials of ACORN advocating illegal activities.

Nice work, guys: you talked a prospective buyer right out of it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A plea for gay bars everywhere

Juli Weiner reports:
Important news in the annals of publicity stunts today, as Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld announced on his blog—the truly unfortunately named “Daily Gut”—that he has aims to open a Ground Zero–area gay bar catering to Muslim men in the space next to a proposed mosque. “As you know, the Muslim faith doesn't look kindly upon homosexuality, which is why I’m building this bar. It is an effort to break down barriers and reduce deadly homophobia in the Islamic world,” the Red Eye host wrote, identifying the bar’s raison d'ĂȘtre. “After all, the belief driving them to open up their center near Ground Zero, is no different than mine.”
Gutfeld is a bigot, but I actually don't have a problem with the idea of opening up a gay bar next to Park51. When a religion itself supports bigotry, it deserves to have its sensibilities stomped over—if the attendees of Park51 have a problem with gay bars, I could care less about their hurt feelings. If they don't have a problem, then the whole thing is a non-issue. The only catch is, that everyone who supports this move automatically forfeits any right to complain when their own bigoted religious sensibilities are stomped all over, as surely will happen in retaliation.

So, I say, yes—yes to a gay bar next to Park51, yes to a gay bar next to Trinity Church, yes to a gay bar next to the Mormon Tabernacle. From coast to coast, a great big yes to gay bars everywhere. Wherever a minaret stands, or a giant cross looms—indeed, wherever two or more are gathered together in His name—let there also be a gay bar there. Hallelujah, and God Bless America!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Thoughts on Park51/Cordoba House

My views on the construction of Park51/Cordoba House have changed quite a bit over time. The issue is, I admit, difficult for me to get clarity on. So, naturally, I will blog about it and seek feedback.

While I do not think the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero is a provocation in and of itself, I would consider it a provocation if it were intended as such. If those responsible for Park51/Cordoba House intend it as a symbol of Islamic conquest, then the project is an abomination, and should be viewed no differently than an al-Qaeda training center. If, however, the people responsible for the project do not intend it as such, then it is not a provocation, even if it hurts the feelings of those who equate September 11 with Islam across the board.

So, the question that exercises me is whether I can discern the intent of the project managers. Here are the items I have seen offered as evidence that the center is intended as a provocation, and what I think about them:

1. Initial reports said that Cordoba House, as it was named at the time of the reports, was slated to open on September 11, 2011. Later reports say this is not true. I do not what to believe, here. If it does turn out that any of the project managers so much as suggested that it be opened on September 11, that would, of course, be virtually a smoking gun to me. I can think of one or two reasons why a perfectly loyal American Muslim might want to open an Islamic center near Ground Zero on September 11, but I would need to see proof that these reasons were their real motivation—the burden of proof would swing firmly to their side, as far as I am concerned.

2. Some have argued that the name Cordoba House, by referencing Cordoba, is itself a symbol of Islamic conquest. Carl Pyrdum, however, has written a response to this claim which shows selection of the name to be consistent with the wish to promote a message of interfaith harmony. The initial naming of the center is, therefore, ambiguous, and intent cannot be inferred from it.

3. Some people declare Abdul Rauf a militant, on the basis of statements he made after September 11, which connected the root causes of Islamic terror to United States foreign policy, and pointed out that the United States has participated in avoidable massacres of civilians during wartime. I can do no better than quote Fareed Zakaria, here:
He has said one or two things about American foreign policy that strike me as overly critical—but it’s stuff you could read on The Huffington Post any day. On Islam, his main subject, Rauf’s views are clear: he routinely denounces all terrorism—as he did again last week, publicly. He speaks of the need for Muslims to live peacefully with all other religions. He emphasizes the commonalities among all faiths. He advocates equal rights for women, and argues against laws that in any way punish non-Muslims. His last book, What’s Right With Islam Is What’s Right With America, argues that the United States is actually the ideal Islamic society because it encourages diversity and promotes freedom for individuals and for all religions. His vision of Islam is bin Laden’s nightmare.
This is the part where critics begin to shout "Taqiyya!" And, truthfully, they may well be right. However, they must prove the charge, not take it for granted. The assumption of taqiyya on the part of any Muslim cleric who seems moderate reminds me of the reasoning of the door gunner in Full Metal Jacket, while mowing down droves of Vietnamese villagers from above: "Anyone who runs, is a VC. Anyone who stands still, is a well-disciplined VC!" Great caution must be taken, or this kind of thing can become Kafka-esque.

My conclusion at this time is that, notwithstanding concerns about the initial building date reports, I do not, personally, have enough evidence to impute the intention of provocation to the people behind Park51/Cordoba House, and, as such, I am unwilling to oppose it. Maybe readers can clue me in to more evidence I have overlooked, or considerations other than the ones I am concerned about. But I will say this much: the situation is sufficiently ambiguous that I hope that once the center is built (as it surely will be), residents will engage with it, and keep close watch on what is said and done in it—if there truly are militant intentions behind it, that will emerge much more clearly over time, and can be dealt with then. If not, then it is all the same to me whether an Islamic center or a Christian one, or a Burlington Coat Factory, sits there.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Escape and Triumph

Believe it or not, I do have a few heroes—people who manage to make me feel, in unguarded moments, as though the erasure of humanity from the universe might not be a good thing. After having finished Escape and Triumph, I have to declare Carolyn Jessop one of my new heroines.

Jessop reminds me very much of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, my other hero of the female persuasion. Both women showed remarkable courage and resourcefulness is extracting themselves from violent, oppressive religious communities—Somali Islam in Ali's case, the FLDS in Jessop's case. Despite the much lower risk of outright murder in Jessop's case, her story is the more remarkable for the extraordinary feat she pulled off in extracting all eight of her children with her, including one who required constant medical attention. Word has it Jessop is about to remarry, this time by her own choice, to a man she loves—good for you, Carolyn, and many happy years.

The problem with trying to do continental philosophy

By Odin's beard, this is the truth. (Warning: vulgar f**king language alert.)

H/T: Leiter Reports.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Bird cognition with respect to crackers and water

Every once in a while, an animal will do something that really surprises me, though this no doubt speaks more to my human parochiality than anything else.

As anyone who has walked along Mill Avenue at dusk is aware—painfully so, for those who run the gauntlet without earplugs and an umbrella—Tempe has a sizable Great-tailed Grackle population. They are the most common of birds, and always seemed to me unremarkable, though fun. But when I was reading outdoors at ASU a few months ago, I saw a female of the species fly over to a nearby puddle, and repeatedly dip a cracker into the water before pecking at it. I have never seen this kind of thing before. I did not automatically impute food-softening intention to the bird, thinking that the behavior I observed might be accidental, but I have seen it twice more since then (once today, prompting this post). I wonder where this behavior comes from—is it hardwired into them, do they each learn it by trial-and-error, or do they learn it from one another?

Remembering distantly that crows can solve problems that will leave your Golden Retriever baffled, I search a little on the web and find this:

Not grackles, but still—cooool.

On mixing it up

Personal question to any readers who would like to give their input: how often do you change anything in your life—from the major (like careers or citizenship) to the minor (like furniture arrangement or walking routes)—simply for the sake of breaking routine?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Environmentalists and environmentalists

In a way, modern environmentalism, which is pragmatic, businesslike, collaborative, and climate-focused, has been hamstrung by historical environmentalism, which was often shrill, exclusionary, irrational, and microfocused. Being mischaracterized as a tree-hugger is something that makes my job, and the jobs of others in my field, much more challenging than it would be otherwise. In 1997 I attended the first American intensive training in the "Natural Step" in Santa Fe. The Natural Step is a Swedish approach to sustainability. The meeting was filled with hard-core businesspeople, scientists, and some equally hard-core "environmentalists." At the end, one woman stood up and said, "I cry for the earth every day," and broke down in tears. It was horrifying to me. Get this woman out of this room and out of the environmental movement, I thought.
— Auden Schendler, executive director of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company. From Getting Green Done (New York: Public Affairs, 2009), p. 114

Thursday, July 29, 2010

NOAA study / Phytoplankton decline

Right on the heels of the "35th birthday of global warming," NOAA has released a new study:
The 2009 State of the Climate report released today draws on data for 10 key climate indicators that all point to the same finding: the scientific evidence that our world is warming is unmistakable. More than 300 scientists from 160 research groups in 48 countries contributed to the report, which confirms that the past decade was the warmest on record and that the Earth has been growing warmer over the last 50 years. (full summary)

I cannot tell from the summary whether the report purports to offer additional evidence that these changes are anthropogenic, but since I still run into people who insist, on the basis of a cold winter or two cherry-picked years to compare, that the Earth actually has been cooling, this report looks like it will be worthwhile to read even if it says nothing about the anthropogenic connection. Access the NOAA report in full.

In a releated story, a Nature study reports a massive global decline in phytoplankton biomass since 1899, at a "global rate of decline of ~1% of the global median per year," and reveals that the "long-term declining trends are related to increasing sea surface termperatures." The authors of the study are not confident about extrapolation from this into the future, which is good, since the story would otherwise be the most terrifying thing I have ever heard.

H/T: Little Green Footballs.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

RealClimate: Happy 35th birthday, global warming!

RealClimate discusses Wally Broecker's prescient 1975 Science paper, “Are we on the brink of a pronounced global warming?” which appears to contain the first use of the term "global warming" in the scientific literature:
Overall, Broecker’s paper (together with that of Sawyer) shows that valid predictions of global warming were published in the 1970s in the top journals Science and Nature, and warming has been proceeding almost exactly as predicted for at least 35 years now. Some important aspects were not understood back then, like the role of greenhouse gases other than CO2, of aerosol particles and of ocean heat storage. That the predictions were almost spot-on involved an element of luck, since the neglected processes do not all affect the result in the same direction but partly cancel. Nevertheless, the basic fact that rising CO2 would cause a “pronounced global warming”, as Broecker put it, was well understood in the 1970s. In a 1979 TV interview, Steve Schneider rightly described this as a consensus amongst experts, with controversy remaining about the exact magnitude and effects.
Read the RealClimate post in full.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Darwin's Sacred Cause

It has taken me more than a month, but I have finally made my way through Desmond and Moore's dense, excruciatingly detailed Darwin's Sacred Cause. The subtitle of the book gives a good synopsis of what it's all about: "How a hatred of slavery shaped Darwin's views on human evolution."

The evidence Desmond and Moore marshal is substantial, filling 376 pages of smallish text; not only do they describe how deeply involved the Darwins and Wedgwoods were in the anti-slavery movement, they reveal how so much of Darwin's work was informed and motivated by the desire to refute a then-prevalent justification for slavery—the opinion that Africans actually constituted a separate species, and did not participate in the brotherhood of humanity with the white people who longed to be their masters.

Darwin, of course, did the equivalent of driving this nail with a hydrogen bomb, destroying not only the myth of separate ancestry between blacks and whites, but that of separate ancestry between humans and the rest of the living world. It is unfortunate that he still accepted some form of a hierarchy among races, but, situated in his era—for which one's attitude toward slavery must be the strongest litmus test of humanism1—he was very much a progressive.

That proponents of slavery adapted to Darwin, and sought new justifications within the context of the very science that denied them their old ones, is testament to the limitless corruption of humanity, forever ensnared in tribalism.

1 And yes, friends, Wilberforce aces that litmus test, too—let's give credit where credit is due: on the wrong side of history where science is concerned, but a humanist nevertheless.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Why I like Hume

Now you know.


Time to ask questions, indeed. Reminds me of this letter. Don't know who it belongs to? Look here.

Will the right renounce the rhetoric of violence, or continue to play it up for profit and votes?

Monday, July 19, 2010

This state keeps getting better and better

AZ Sheriff Babeu appears on a white nationalist program, invites listeners to join his "posse". That's Sheriff Babeu, of the "Complete the Danged Fence" ad. I wonder if McCain is still proud to be "one of us."

What does America say to the wrongfully detained?

Too good not to quote in full. Says Hume's Ghost:
Dear Mr. Odaini,

Gee wiz, we're sorry we stole eight years of your life from you—the prime of your youth—by putting you in prison and holding you there while denying you the basic human liberties that are supposed to be the bedrock principles of the nation and the basis of our legal system and what not; and we're gosh darn sorry that we conspired to keep you in prison even after we knew you should be released, but you have to admit, you do have a Muslim sounding name, and you were transfered into our Kafka-esque prison camp, which is your fault and not ours, but rest assured that we'll put this behind us by Looking Forward, Not Back, as we'll do for the other 75% of such persons who fell victim to America's extralegal prison camp. We are sure this will be a great comfort to you, to know that we will not think of this again, and to help us not think of it again, we will make an exception to our Looking Forward, Not Back motto, to persecute anyone who has the nerve to bring to our attention any other such perfidy. With a little bit of time, we'll be able to forgive you for getting yourself wrongfully locked up in Guantanamo all those years, giving people the silly notion that we're the sort of country that goes around locking up Muslims while denying them due process. Shoot, some of us will probably have already done you the favor of never even having heard of you, as is a habit with such matters.

You are welcome. (The Daily Doubter)
More like "Swift's Ghost" to me. I blush that I am one of those who does not recall ever having heard of Odaini. But I have heard of him now. Thanks, HG.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

If The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ had been written by anyone other than the author of the fantastic His Dark Materials trilogy, I would not have picked it up. The publisher's summary of the premise made the book sound, frankly, clunky and insipid. However, my confidence in Pullman was rewarded: the book is a good book, easy and fluid, and actually quite interesting to read. I finished it in an hour, and think it an hour well spent in a time when my excursions into fiction are rare. I don't like spoilers, so I'll confine my comments to this endorsement.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Get well, Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens reports:
I have been advised by my physician that I must undergo a course of chemotherapy on my esophagus. This advice seems persuasive to me. I regret having had to cancel so many engagements at such short notice.
All the best, and get well soon—the world still needs you.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Jesus and Mo on accomodationism

Jesus and Mo is nearly always right on the mark: it proves that if a picture is worth a thousand words, a series of pictures with word bubbles is worth a million.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Three fiendishly difficult logical puzzles

The following are my three favorite logical puzzles of all time. Don't even bother trying them if you don't have a firm grounding in set theory and modal logic.

Logical Puzzle #1: A Cretan says "All Cretans are Cretans." Suppose he is telling the truth. Does it follow that all Cretans are Cretans? Really? All of them?

Logical Puzzle #2:. You must transport three sheep across a river, but your boat can hold only you and one sheep at a time. How can you transport all three sheep across the river so that none of them eat one another?

Logical Puzzle #3:. You visit the Island of Knights and Knaves. Knights always tell the truth on weekdays and when it is cold outside. Knaves always lie on weekends and when it is warm outside. What time is it?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Cosmos is on Hulu

The entirety of Carl Sagan's Cosmos is on Hulu! It's probably been there for ages, and I was too busy watching crap like Starship Troopers to notice. Yes, yes, Starship Troopers is entertaining crap, but Cosmos is entertaining, too, and not crap. Plus, it has Carl Sagan. Watch it quick, before Hulu's subscription policy kicks in, and kills off the whole website.

The Greatest Show on Earth

I can't believe I haven't yet plugged Richard Dawkins' latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, on this blog. Dawkins had to call me up the other day to remind me. The conversation went something like this:

Dawkins: Oi! Read me bloomin' new book! I'm Richard Dawkins, I am!

Me: I read it a while ago, Dr. Dawkins. I just forgot to promote it on my blog.

Dawkins: Blimey!

OK, none of that happened, but it could have. Anyway, suffice it to say that The Greatest Show on Earth is signature Dawkins: reading it, one not only absorbs information effortlessly, but feels clearly that one is in the presence of a man who harbors deep love for the natural world and the correct tools for understanding it. Unfortunately, as the book is an intelligent book, concerned with things that actually are true, it is unsuitable for most audiences.

Friday, June 18, 2010

How not to protest the Cordoba Initiative

Elle Mikulincer-Weiss, Fifth Column at the Town Hall:
After a slow discussion about a new theatre project, the board moved to the main event. I struggled to hear the speakers over the shouts of Pamela Geller, who manages the conservative blog Atlas Shrugs. She was sitting a few rows behind me with some sign-carriers who looked like they lived outside the neighborhood, and whenever a speaker from the Coroda Project [sic] spoke, shouts of “Fifth column!” and “No more Shariah!” erupted behind me.

Judging by the crowd’s reaction, the Cordoba Initiative may have scored a major victory without lifting a finger. Instead of guns, the right-wingers seemed to have brought “weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, to be found only in the minds of men,” as the “Twilight Zone” episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” puts it. Listening to conspiracy theories about Muslims wanting to destroy democracy, I wondered whether I was an insane person in a reasonable world or if the whole world had gone crazy.


The protesters did not seem interested in empathy, though. When I heard one of them sound a shofar as a rallying cry, I asked why he chose a symbol of Jewish heritage to energize his cause.

“Well, I’m Christian so it’s my heritage now and I don’t care if Jews are insulted,” he replied.

“You lost that right when you rejected God,” his friend said. “It’s my religious heritage now, so why should I care what you think? Besides, Jews constantly don’t see what’s in front of them. They should have left Nazi Germany and gone to America. We’re a Christian nation.”
And it goes on. I'm accustomed to seeing this kind of behavior from Muslim protesters in YouTube clips; guess they don't have a monopoly.

The story of Dr. Wakefield

Brought to us by Darryl Cunningham.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

I just heard about Tim Farley's What's the Harm? site on the latest Point of Inquiry podcast. Looks like a good resource.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The atheist holiday: story completed

Saw yet another version of this joke e-mail posted on a religious bigot's blog:
Florida Court Sets Atheist Holy Day! Gotta love this Judge!

You must read this.....a proper decision by the courts...for a change.


In Florida , an atheist created a case against the upcoming Easter and Passover Holy days. He hired an attorney to bring a discrimination case against Christians and Jews and observances of their holy days. The argument was that it was unfair that atheists had no such recognized days.

The case was brought before a judge. After listening to the passionate presentation by the lawyer, the judge banged his gavel declaring, "Case dismissed!"

The lawyer immediately stood objecting to the ruling saying, "Your honor, How can you possibly dismiss this case? The Christians have Christmas, Easter and others. The Jews have Passover, Yom Kippur and Hanukkah, yet my client and all other atheists have no such holidays."

The judge leaned forward in his chair saying, "But you do. Your client, counsel, is woefully ignorant."

The lawyer said, "Your Honor, we are unaware of any special observance or holiday for atheists."

The judge said, "The calendar says April 1st is April Fools Day. Psalm 14:1 states, 'The fool says in his heart, there is no God.' Thus, it is the opinion of this court, that, if your client says there is no God, then he is a fool. Therefore, April 1st is his day. Court is adjourned."
You gotta love a Judge that knows his scripture! 

But the blog accidentally cuts off the end of the story. Allow me to rectify:
Suddenly, in a flash of light, the risen Christ appeared in the courtroom. The judge turned pale as Jesus pointed a finger at him and said, in a booming voice:

Verily, it is written: "But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell." [Matthew 5:22]

And a fiery chasm opened before the judge, who toppled forward, screaming, into the depths of Hell.

As did all of the bigots who forwarded the stupid e-mail.

You gotta love Christians who don't know the Bible.


Monday, June 14, 2010

LOL. What a pretentious doofus.

Funny, except people like him will probably end up putting half of the country up against the wall.

H/T: Little Green Footballs.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Neil deGrasse Tyson on scientific literacy

I'm late to this, but it's still worth reposting:

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Tim Dickinson has an upsetting article in Rolling Stone on "the inside story of how Obama failed to crack down on the corruption of the Bush years—and let the world's most dangerous oil company get away with murder."

It's great that Obama says that he takes responsibility for the Gulf spill, and that the buck stops with him, and all that. Surely, he'll resign. Who knows, maybe someday we'll even get that mythical creature at the helm: a President who does not issue a blank check to big business.

H/T: The Daily Doubter.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Chomsky and Horowitz, 2gether 4ever!

Those on the left will be dismayed to hear that I have long been a fan of David Horowitz, albeit with some severe misgivings. Those on the right will be dismayed to hear that I have, of recent, developed (not without some kicking and screaming) a similar attitude toward Noam Chomsky. I'm trying to keep up with both, as I feel that, between the two, I can get a decent sense of the lay of the land. My most recent foray has been into Chomsky and Achcar's Perilous Power and David Horowitz's Unholy Alliance; unsurprisingly, the two books stake out positions about as different as any two books can. In keeping with my general attitude towards the two authors,* I agree with large swathes of both books, and think that both suffer from parallel problems where they go wrong.

In a nutshell: Chomsky does a fine job of highlighting some of the United States' serious moral defects, and ably exposes the hypocrisy of some of our country's uncritical defenders. Horowitz does an equally fine job of highlighting some of the serious moral defects of the United States' enemies, and equally ably exposes the hypocrisy of some of our country's uncritical critics. Both, however, suffer from Manichean excesses; hence, their appearances in one another's books. The truth is not always to be found in middle ground, but here is a case where I think it is so: there is, in the world, more than enough corruption and idiocy to go around. One ought to be able to acknowledge the checkered moral histories and current policies of all countries and all ideologies, one's own favorites included. The most powerful country in the world has, perhaps, the most opportunity to unleash its corruption and idiocy on the rest of the world, but this does not make the rest of the world any less corrupt or idiotic in its own right; the only difference is between those who, through cruelty or indifference, step on others to lift themselves up, and those who would do so, if only they had the power. Truly, there is no one innocent. Without this recognition, without perceiving the need to fight on all fronts at once, there is no hope—either we will be overrun by enemies, or we will conquer all foes and lose ourselves in the process.

* What about Achcar, you ask? He lost me in the first chapter; those who (like me) have had their opinions of Chomsky primed by people like Horowitz will be surprised to see Chomsky slapping down Achcar repeatedly in the first chapter for his forays into true nuttiness.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

How BP handles coffee spills.

This is almost as funny and sad as the McCain "fence" ad. Well... OK... it doesn't even come close to the McCain ad, but it's still both funny and sad.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Poisoner's Handbook

I have wanted to read Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook since hearing an interview with her on the Scientific American podcast. The book does not disappoint: Blum is a very talented writer, and the book is full of surprises. I had not known, for instance, that so many people in the United States died from drinking denatured alcohol during the Prohibition era, and that the federal government's response was to try to make denatured alcohol even more poisonous. I was unaware that companies touted newly discovered radioisotopes as health products, even selling water laced with radium as a rejuvenating drink. And none of this even gets us into the many murder stories or tales of science versus politics centering upon the book's two heroes. If you think you will not be able to enjoy a book which is fundamentally about forensic chemistry, guess again.

Friday, May 7, 2010

American Academy of Pediatrics on female genital mutilation

The American Academy of Pediatrics' policy statement on female genital mutilation can be found here. The statement is far more nuanced than was suggested by the original reports I read—what initially seemed blind obeisance to multiculturalism is actually an attempt to minimize harm:
Most forms of FGC* are decidedly harmful, and pediatricians should decline to perform them, even in the absence of any legal constraints. However, the ritual nick suggested by some pediatricians is not physically harmful and is much less extensive than routine newborn male genital cutting. There is reason to believe that offering such a compromise may build trust between hospitals and immigrant communities, save some girls from undergoing disfiguring and life-threatening procedures in their native countries, and play a role in the eventual eradication of FGC. It might be more effective if federal and state laws enabled pediatricians to reach out to families by offering a ritual nick as a possible compromise to avoid greater harm.

Efforts should be made to use all available educational and counseling resources to dissuade parents from seeking a ritual genital procedure for their daughter. For circumstances in which an infant, child, or adolescent seems to be at risk of FGC, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that its members educate and counsel the family about the detrimental health effects of FGC. Parents should be reminded that performing FGC is illegal and constitutes child abuse in the United States.
The primary goal here seems not to be mere trust-building for its own sake, contrary to the way the policy has been publicized, but rather to find the most effective route to saving girls from having their genitals mutilated. The key worry is that mere illegalization of FGM, without offering the "ritual nick," will just result in families sending their girls back to their barbaric home countries to have the full procedure performed.

I understand why admirable groups like Equality Now are opposed to this policy, but I am not sure they are right. The danger of the AAP policy is that it may help to legitimize female genital mutilation. But the intent of the policy is to actually prevent female genital mutilation by offering a substitute which, while outrageous in itself, is far better than the alternative. It is not clear which effect is more probable. I think this is something that deserves to be tried, and carefully monitored, so we can determine empirically the fastest route to eliminating female genital mutilation.

*FGC refers to "female genital cutting"—a term which the AAP insists on using instead of the more accurate "female genital mutilation," because using the latter term is "inflammatory" and "culturally insensitive." This part, of course, really is blind obeisance to cultural relativism. Sometimes neutral terms do not accurately describe a practice.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Singer faces jail-time for remarks about Bible

This just goes to show you—the willingness to impose barbaric laws and squelch free speech, in the name of protecting one's precious, brittle feelings, is not by any means the exclusively Muslim quality it is often portrayed as. On the contrary, any religion, given sufficient power, will, in an apoplectic fit of self-righteous rage, oppress those who offend them in the slightest.
Better known by her stage name Doda, the 26-year-old singer ruffled conservative sentiment in Catholic Poland by explaining that she believed more in dinosaurs than the Bible because "it is hard to believe in something written by people who drank too much wine and smoked herbal cigarettes." This prompted furious Catholic groups to lodge complaints with the prosecutor's office.

"It is clear that Doda thinks that the Bible was written by drunkards and junkies," said Ryszard Nowak, chairman of the Committee for the Defence Against Sects, an organisation dedicated to protecting Christian values. "I believe that she committed a crime and offended the religious feelings of both Christians and Jews." If found guilty the pop star faces a two-year jail sentence or a hefty fine under Polish blasphemy laws.
Spoken like a true mullah, Nowak! For those who would counsel Europe to fend off the encroachment of Islam by encouraging a serious return to Christianity, you are trading one hell for another—there are things in the world that are just as bad as sharia.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Blackboard test generator

I'm in the middle of working on the last quizzes for my classes, and thought I would take a break to make a related post, here.

On the off chance that any of my readers teach Internet or hybrid classes using Blackboard, I have found a very useful tool for quiz generation: you just write a text document according to these specifications, and then paste it into the generator here. It will give you a file which from which you can upload all of your questions at once using the last option in the "Add" drop-down menu when you create a new quiz. It doesn't do everything, but it eliminates about a third of the work; and, frankly, for me, more advanced test software, like Respondus, just has too many bells and whistles to be practical.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


No, no, NO! They're supposed to do math and kill people, not act all friendly and play the marimba!

Well, I guess it's kinda doing math. But it needs to work more on killing people, instead of jamming with them.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Beyond Hubble

We're all familiar with the spectacular images from the Hubble Space Telescope. But the end of Hubble won't spell the end of spectacular images. Take a look at the images from the Solar Dynamics Observatory (the one to the left is from the SDO's Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA), released as NASA's Image of the Day.

Such awesome sights bring to mind the eloquent words of C. Montgomery Burns:

Since the dawn of time, man has yearned to destroy the Sun.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Vaccine War

Frontline, great as usual, had a good episode on the "war" over vaccination, with special focus on the alleged link to autism:

The last segment, in particular, raises an interesting ethical issue I have discussed in some of my previous bioethics classes: to what extent is it permissible, or even obligatory, to override a parent's autonomy in order to protect the parent's own child? What happens when the parental decision places other children at risk? Is the level of risk all that is important? Obviously, this question arises in many contexts outside of bioethical issues, as well.

Col. Jessep was right.

Some people can't handle the truth. Look what happened when PZ Myers' readers responded the "wrong" way to a Minnesota Republicans poll. Silver lining: at least the Republican site has dropped even the pretense of objectivity.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot

Listened to the first episode of Luke Muelhauser's Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot podcast. The sound quality of the interview in this episode was poor (the rest was good), but Muelhauser has a pretty amazing line-up of interviews, and I really like his style—I definitely intend to catch up with the rest, and keep up.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Dead Yemeni child bride tied up, raped, says mom

Lest we imagine that pedophilia is exclusively a Catholic problem, the Associated Press gives us a stark reminder that there are large groups of people who not only rape children, or hide and protect child rapists when they think the news might affect the wealth and prestige of their bigoted organizations, but who actually consider it a perfectly acceptable moral practice to begin with:
A 13-year-old Yemeni child bride who bled to death shortly after marriage was tied down and forced to have sex by her husband, according to interviews with the child's mother, police and medical reports.

The girl's mother, Nijma Ahmed, 50, told the Associated Press that before her daughter lost consciousness, she said that her husband had tied her up and forced himself on her. "She looked like she was butchered," she said about her daughter's injuries.

Elham Assi, 13, bled to death hours after she spoke to her mother and just days after she was married to a 23-year-old man. She died on April 2 in the deeply poor Yemeni village of Shueba, some 200 kilometers northwest of the capital. Her husband, Abed al-Hikmi, is in police custody.

The practice of marrying young girls is widespread in Yemen where a quarter of all females marry before the age of 15, according to a 2009 report by the country's Ministry of Social Affairs. Traditional families prefer young brides because they are seen as more obedient and are expected to have more children.
Religion, of course, is involved:
Legislation to ban child brides has been stalled by opposition from religious leaders...

A February 2009 law set the minimum age for marriage at 17, but it was repealed and sent back to parliament's constitutional committee for review after some lawmakers called it un-Islamic.
But, after all, why not? Isn't Muhammad a role model for us all?

Update: In response to this post, some loser actually wrote in, complaining that atheists "try to eliminate all the dreams and hopes of humanity." Right: the rape of children isn't the problem, it's atheism. Nice priorities, you sack of shit.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


You know, trying to deal with the Florida problem in The Drunkard's Walk is difficult enough in itself, but it's a thousand times more difficult when you have this running through your head in a continuous loop.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Rule of what?

Hume's Ghost makes a very good point:
As Greenwald notes [link], the Obama administration attempted to invoke state secrets to prevent the court from ruling on the Bush administration's criminal [NSA eavesdropping] program; yet that's the sort of thing that doesn't seem to bother the Beck's or Hannity's of the world: their conception of "tyranny" is the top marginal tax rate going up a few percentage points or the EPA preventing some corporation from dumping toxic waste into the local water.
While the right wing has gone into bizarro-cuckoo-conspiracy land where the Obama administration is concerned, it strangely gives a free pass to real-world instances where the administration is in the wrong. Not that surprising, though, since these are instances where the sins of the administration mesh with the sins of the previous one.

HG's "Quote of the day" from Greenwald bears repeating, in case you're too lazy to follow the links above:
That means that all 3 federal judges to consider the question have concluded that Bush's NSA program violated the criminal law (FISA). That law provides that anyone who violates it has committed a felony and shall be subject to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine for each offense. The law really does say that. Just click on that link and you'll see.  It's been obvious for more than four years that Bush, Cheney, NSA Director (and former CIA Director) Michael Hayden and many other Bush officials broke the law—committed felonies—in spying on Americans without warrants. Yet another federal judge has now found their conduct illegal. If we were a country that actually lived under The Rule of Law, this would be a huge story, one that would produce the same consequences for the lawbreakers as a bank robbery, embezzlement or major drug dealing. But since we're not such a country, it isn't and it doesn't.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The truth is the truth

Predictably, some people are more upset about what follows than about institutional toleration and concealment of child molestation, but what can you do? Those types we will have with us always. For those, on the other hand, who aren't afraid to call a spade a spade, there's Richard Dawkins:
"Should the pope resign?" No. As the College of Cardinals must have recognized when they elected him, he is perfectly—ideally—qualified to lead the Roman Catholic Church. A leering old villain in a frock, who spent decades conspiring behind closed doors for the position he now holds; a man who believes he is infallible and acts the part; a man whose preaching of scientific falsehood is responsible for the deaths of countless AIDS victims in Africa; a man whose first instinct when his priests are caught with their pants down is to cover up the scandal and damn the young victims to silence: in short, exactly the right man for the job. He should not resign, moreover, because he is perfectly positioned to accelerate the downfall of the evil, corrupt organization whose character he fits like a glove, and of which he is the absolute and historically appropriate monarch.

No, Pope Ratzinger should not resign. He should remain in charge of the whole rotten edifice—the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution—while it tumbles, amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears. (link)