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Manifestos of the Moon

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Sam's wedding Oct. 12th, 2014 @ 06:48 pm
Yesterday evening Laura and I attended Samantha Selman's wedding to Christopher Owens. They had a large wedding tent set up in the rather woodsy front yard where the partly traditional but mostly nerdy ceremony took place. The front yard, for its part, belongs to Andrew Chiang, who played minister and oversaw their vows—which included a Lantern Oath for the ring exchange. Checkmark for nerdy.

I should add that Sam and Chris reside at Andrew's house, so this was a home wedding in every sense. Checkmark for comfortable.

Sam wore a white wedding dress while Chris wore a black tux. Checkmark for traditional.

The groomsmen, on the other hand, were anything but black & white—each was outfitted in a vest consisting of a different primary color. Lined up, they made a sort of rainbow. Checkmark for delightful.

Splashes of color is something every wedding—and every marriage—needs, and in this regard Sam and Chris began theirs very pleasantly indeed. Laura and I both had a great time, including a leisurely walk (as dusk set in) back to our car parked at a nearby church. Transportation was available but we chose to go on foot, and it turned out to be an enjoyable way to end the evening.

Congrats to Sam and Chris—may you live long and prosper, and enjoy each other to the full!

Updating my Journal Jun. 29th, 2014 @ 01:05 pm
I reached my 60th birthday a few days ago. Sporadically over the past few years I've opened my old journals—three-ring binders going back to 1972—and posted (or "re-posted" in a sense) some of those entries to LiveJournal. I've added a few letters I wrote in my youth, all in an effort to turn "Manifestos of the Moon" into what it was meant to be—a sort of biographical record of my emotional life. This re-posting is far from complete, but I've worked on it a bit more this morning.

For example this, from a letter I wrote to Nancy Cook in October,1980 (at the time I was working on an archaeology dig in Hartsville, Tennessee):

"I think of our fireplace back in Athens and imagine how I could be sitting in front of it with you—so cosy and warm, while the fire unblossoms vividly before us, flickering and twisting like a warm, warm dream. That is all I can have here—a dream of the fire and of you, the cold night whistling outside the house as I lay against you. The nights are the best time I have here, when I can be alone with my body and forget myself, and lapse out of existence into sleep, warm with the blankets."

Or this from a little over a year later, while traveling in the Ozarks:

"When I look at these mists that separate the trees near from the trees far, I realize how much in my life are separated the things up close from the things afar. Though my heart holds steady to the things far away and my mind, like a ship guided by an unknown captain, follows closely after—the tread tread tread of my feet bring me forever back to nearness. The eyes see far, as also they see near, but feet must be always nearby, stomping at the here and now.

So we come back to the old reality, that life is now; it is what happens right about our faces. What we see far off—that we can never have. For even when the hereness of our feet manage along to the far away land we once saw—it is a changed land, once again the old familiar here and now.

And when I look behind me, at the sudden nearness of this green hill as it rises so quickly from me, how I am struck by its presence, like a clairvoyance. It almost leaps at me. Reality wanders afoot, across the short, living space.

And the stars—there are no stars tonight, as dusk disappears—but last night, stars, vivid and near at hand. For on a dark night, when one is removed from the rampage of the city, distance disappears. The sky peels back, like an orange. The stars shoot down upon us, close, close, we can almost touch them, they are so near.

So the farthest away things, stars, become here and now in our faces."

Or this from a more troubled time five years earlier:

"I know now that there is a well of anger in every man, that occasionally springs up and brims over when frustration has flooded in too secretly and collected up. It is the frustration of trying to fit ourselves into lives, with the excess trimmed off and subverted. Too much that is vital in us is trimmed to size; too much is fatally denied. We cut off our arms and hands and half our penis, so that we can be slid smoothly into our slot. We bleed. Emotionally we are cut off, and we bleed. And the blood-water of frustration, life-frustration, wells up flooding and bursts over the rim in a show of anger.

But it's no cure. There is no cure, so long as our arms are cut off and we are stuffed in our slot. We bleed and we bleed and we bleed, until we are emotionally drained and all is pus, a cold-cereal pus inside us, and we are dead, and give the last twitches.

We are dead, we are dead. Snugly fit in our slots, cold, blood all drained out. We are dead, we are dead, bloodless dead. White cold pus all inside like mush, bones all rubbery like a penis, penis all wilted like a dried-out, plucked flower. Cold dead. Dead.

But still we think. Our brain still functions, like a computer of twitching reflexes. Twitch. Twitch. Twitch. And we pass another law. Twitch. Twitch. Twitch. And we build another city."

vegetarian restaurant Jun. 23rd, 2009 @ 05:43 pm
most of these recommendations were made by others

Loving Hut (coming to Atlanta)
Cafe Life (Roswell Rd)
Lovin' It Live (East Point)
Veggieland (Pharr Rd at Peachtree St.)
Cafe Sunflower (Sandy Springs, Buckhead)
Eclipse d'Luna
Green Sprout
Vegan Options
World Peace Cafe (Sandy Springs)(some Vegan)
Udipi Cafe (Decatur)
Soul Vegetarian Restaurant (mostly Vegan)
Soul Vegetarian International (mostly Vegan)
Dynamic Dish
Vatica (Marietta)
Calabash Vegetarian Kitchen (Vegan)
New Lucky China (look for vegetarian menu)
Chinese Buddha (ask for vegetarian menu)
Efe's (Marietta)
Rainbow Grocery (has a cafe)
Madras Sarvana Bhavan
Sweet Tomatoes (some meat dishes)
Lettuce Souprise You (some meat dishes)
R Thomas
The Flying Biscuit
Village Pizza (Cabbagetown) (has soy pizza)

Personally I love the vegetarian sandwiches at Mellow Mushroom
and you can't beat the vegetarian pizza at Elwood's Pizza (ask for it with no cheese)

Not a random point Nov. 22nd, 2008 @ 08:29 pm
The problem I have with most of the world's religions is not that they embrace the supernatural. The problem I have with them is that they think God is necessary. In other words, they are founded on the premise that without God life is inadequate.

This is what I hold against the religions of the world. They have faith in God, but when it comes to life they are faithless. They don't believe in life, and that makes them despicable.

van Susteren vs Sharpton Mar. 22nd, 2008 @ 04:06 pm
Greta van Susteren, the lawyer who became famous as a tv analyst during the O. J. Simpson trial -- now she's a staple on Fox News -- seems to be convinced that Rev. Wright (the preacher at Barack Obama's church in Chicago) spews out "hate speech against whites". She interviewed Al Sharpton to ask him why he and Obama don't condemn Wright for racist speech the way they condemmed Don Imus for his comments about the Rutgers women's rugby team.

The video's here: http://rawstory.com/rawreplay/?p=808 (Thanks, nausved, for the link.)

Sharpton points out that he sees Wright strongly criticizing the government and the Clintons but doesn't see him making sexist or racist comments like Imus did. Americans have a right, Sharpton argues, to say controversial things about the government or politicians -- Fox News commentators do it all the time. Show us an example, he requests, where Wright spews racial hatred. Van Susteren apparently isn't prepared to do so, and promises instead to have him back on the next day.

The next day is here: http://rawstory.com/rawreplay/index.php?p=814

Van Susteren recaps their disagreement the previous day, and then plays a tape of bits from various Wright sermons, asserting that they represent "hate against whites".

You can watch the video if you want. But I've noticed that many people -- especially conservatives -- are unable to focus on the actual words spoken rather than on their emotional reaction to those words (yes, liberals often have this problem too -- but mostly I see in it conservatives, perhaps because they dominate the realms of talk radio and email forwarding). Anyway, for that reason, I've transcribed the words coming from Rev. Wright's mouth. Put them down on paper so we can -- hopefully -- look at them calmly and accurately.

As you read these words, ask yourself: is this hate speech against whites? or instead is this liberal ranting against the government, the wealthy, and the Clintons? Greta van Susteren says its racism against whites. Al Sharpton says it's the latter. For my part, I'll follow each quote with my own opinion.

This government lied about their belief that all men are created equal. The truth is they believed all white men were created equal. The truth is they did not believe that even white women were created equal—in creation nor in civilization. The government had to pass an amendment to the Constitution to get white women the vote. Then the government had to pass an Equal Rights Amendment to get equal protection under the law for women. The government still thinks a woman has no rights over her own body, and between Uncle Clarence who sexually harassed Anita Hill, and the [closeted ?] [clanned ?] Court that is a throwback to the 19th Century, hand-picked by Daddy Bush, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, [but?] between Clarence and that stacked court they are about to undo Roe versus Wade just like they're about to undo affirmative action. The government lied in its founding document and the government is still lying today. --Rev. Wright

First, Wright is wrong: the ERA never passed. The four sentences prior to the ERA statement are uncontroversial facts of history (although most historians probably see it as something a lot more complex than the authors of the Constitution simply "lying" about their belief that all men are created equal -- the phrase comes from the Declaration, not the Constitution anyway).

The sentences that follow the ERA misstatement are an exaggeration -- after all Roe v Wade is still the law of the land as it currently stands. On the other hand, the Supreme Court may possibly overturn it, and yes, aspects of affirmative action (eg busing to integrate schools and the use of race-related selection criteria for admission to college -- but not law school -- have been overturned).

But to the bottom line: Is there any "hate against whites" in this segment of speech? No, unless reciting widely recognized facts of U. S. history (that blacks and women were initially disenfranchised, and slavery allowed) constitutes hate. I'm pretty sure that conservatives will agree that reciting historical facts does not constitute race hatred.

Nor do I even see "implied" hate except toward certain famous individuals: Clarence Thomas (for being against affirmative action and abortion rights, and for [allegedly] sexually harassing Anita Hill), George Bush (41), Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford (for "stacking" the court with justices against affirmative action and abortion rights, making it a throwback to the 19th century when separate but equal reigned and Jim Crow laws were the norm).

Score at this point: Greta is looking silly so far. This doesn't even come close to supporting her claim.

For every 1 Oprah, a billionaire, you've got 5 million blacks who are out of work. For every 1 Colin Powell, a millionaire, you've got 10 million blacks who cannot read. For every 1 Condolessa Rice, you've got 1 million in prison. For every 1 Tiger Woods, who needs to get beat at the Masters, with his [blazing hits?] playing on a course that discriminates against women, for every 1 Tiger Woods we got 10 thousand black kids who will never see a golf course. - Rev Wright

Ok, I detect some apparent animosity towards Tiger here (but my interpretation is possibly dependent on the phrase I couldn't understand), but "hate speech against whites"?

Come on, Greta, you are striking out big time so far. Are Wrights facts correct? Are there 5 million blacks out of work, are there 10 million blacks who can't read, are 10 thousand black kids who will never see a golf course -- I really don't know, but these figures sure seem plausible. As for "1 million in prison" (notice Wright didn't say "1 million blacks in prison") -- that figure was reported earlier this year in the major media. I'm not sure when Wright made this speech -- perhaps before the prison population quite hit a million, making this either a slight exaggeration or a matter of rounding off. Sure, Wright is a black minister and is concerned about how black people are faring in society, but how can this recitation of apparently accurate facts be called "hate against whites"?

So far Greta is looking very silly.

The government gives them the drugs, build bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing "God Bless America" -- No, no, no, not God bless America -- God damn America. That's in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating its citizens as less than human. God damn America as long as she is trying to act like she is God and she is supreme. -- Rev Wright

Wow -- harsh language, even for a preacher. But the basic message, that God will punish the nation for its evil ways, has been repeated in tens of thousands of pulpits across the country. And for a very simple reason: if the Bible is really God's word, then Americans are in trouble. We may "believe" in the Bible as God's word but we certainly don't follow most of its dictates.

Still, back to the charge of "hate speech against whites" -- it can't be found here either. Yes, Wright wants God to (or believes God already does) damn America for "killing innocent people", for "treating its citizens as less than human", for acting like it's God. But as Al Sharpton pointed out, Wright is denigrating the government, not denigrating white people on account of their skin color.

Oh, and that bit about the government giving them the drugs -- that is a reference, I take it, to the well-documented involvement of the CIA with drug smugglers. Former DEA agents have made the same claim. Obviously, most drugs smuggled into the U.S. are not brought in by foreign nationals funded by the CIA -- but enough has been to make the claim "the government gives them the drugs" feasible. Whether God will damn America or Americans because we've killed innocent people (think Iraq) or treated people inhumanly (think Jim Crow) is something those who believe in God can debate if they like. But the question at hand is something else: is this "hate speech against whites".

Sorry, Greta's score is still zilch.

I am sick of negros who just do not get it. Hillary was not a black boy raised in a single parent home, Barack was. Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people. Hillary can never know that. Hillary ain't never been called a [bleeped out - presumably "nigger"]. Hillary has never had her people defined as non-persons. Hillary ain't had to work twice as hard just to get accepted by the rich white folk who run everything or to get a passing grade when you know you are smarter than that 'C' student sitting in the White House. Oh I am so glad that I've got a God that knows what it is to be a poor black man and in a country and a culture that is controlled by and run by rich white people. - Rev Wright

Hate speech? Again no.

"Rich white people" run everything? Well that's his interpretation of it. Do rich people run everything? I doubt it, though I'm sure they have a lot more power on a per capita basis than poor or even middle class folk. Nor are all rich people in the United States white -- although virtually all of them are. Perhaps Wright is exaggerating a bit. Over-simplifying things. But is this "hate speech against whites"?

I can't see it. White people aren't being called any names except "rich" -- a term not exactly considered a racial slur in most quarters. And in fact he is not claiming that all or even most white people are rich -- he's not even stereotyping, as far as I can see. What he seems to be claiming is that that rich people run everything, and those rich people are overwhelmingly white.

Wright is also claiming that Hillary is not as qualified as Barack to represent the political aspirations of black people in America. I don't know, perhaps Greta disagrees with him on this. But she can hardly claim that Wright's position is implausible. More to the point: how can she claim this is "hate against whites". I'm white, and so far I haven't seen anything that attacks me or criticizes me or in any way offends me. Now, if I was rich I might see it differently. Then I might see myself as one of the people Wright is unhappy with. Even so, rich white people used to own black people as slaves (believe it or not, Greta, this is true), rich white people used to run around in white hooded costumes at night lynching black people (check your local history book for details), rich white people used to pass laws (sometimes they still do this today) making it more difficult for blacks to vote, rich white people used to stipulate that black people couldn't go to their restaurants or send black children to their schools or even go to the same bathrooms. Is it possible that they are unaware of this history at Fox News?

My point is this -- and Barack Obama makes the same point in his speech about this (see A More Perfect Union) -- Wright's anger against the government and "rich white people" has to be seen in the context of actual American history, and the economic and social consequences of that history. At the same time, Barack also makes the point that black people need to learn how to put that past behind themselves -- need to understand that most white people today (especially the younger generations) weren't around back then and aren't personally responsible. More importantly, society is not static but changing, improving. "This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected," Barack says in the speech.

I strongly recommend reading (or at least listening to) A More Perfect Union. I read it and when I came to the end I found myself crying. Things don't make me cry, especially political speeches. This is one of the few great speeches in American history.

But back to Rev. Wright.

There is a legitimate question that ought to be asked: has Wright in effect endorsed a political candidate in this sermon? If so, he has put the tax exempt status of his church in danger? The privilege of tax-exemption rests upon a church not being used to endorse candidates for public office.

Still, this is not the complaint Greta has made. She claims he is spewing anti-white hate. Her score: still stuck at zero.

Hillary is married to Bill and Bill has been good to us -- no he ain't. Bill did us just like he did Monica Lewinski. He was riding dirty, but he fixed it so that some of y'all are now riding pretty. Money talks and BS walks. - Rev. Wright

Rev. Wright accompanies this with undulating motions suggestive of sexual intercourse. (I suspect this is not typical preacher etiquette for a Sunday sermon in most churches.) Wright gets his facts wrong: Bill Clinton never had intercourse with Monica -- based on Ken Starr's report, their interactions were limited to oral sex -- so there was no "riding" going on. And this is rather crude (albeit it entertaining) behavior for Sunday church -- I guess that's what it takes to pack them in the pews in Chicago.

Again, as Al Sharpton pointed out, Wright does indeed attack the Clintons (so have a few conservatives, according to rumors I've heard), but this doesn't look anything like "hate speech against whites". I think its very bad taste for anyone to belittle Bill and Hillary in this way. But wait -- Republicans do it all the time. Still, I maintain that its a bad idea for Democrats to imitate Republican in this (and Wright does appear to be a Democrat of some sort), even Democrats who prefer Barack over Hillary. Especially Democrats who prefer Barack. It's not appropriate for his campaign.

But the bottom line is this: there is simply no hate speech against whites in the video clips Greta van Susteren presents here. It seems irrational to maintain otherwise. I can understand conservatives having an emotional response to some of Wright's statement. In their usual world it is conservative preachers who say God will damn America for x, y or z, not liberal ones. But on the question of whether this is racial hate speech, their emotions strike out.

And we must ask, is van Susteren incapable of distinguishing hate speech from liberal complaints about how rich people have too much power or how blacks have been historically treated under a majority-white government? Apparently so, having breathed in too much Fox News miasma. Or something.

Final verdict: Greta van Susteren strikes out on all counts. Embarrassing.

old people are boat anchors Mar. 5th, 2008 @ 04:49 am
I first noticed that old people were a detriment to society when I was about 20 years old. What I noticed -- and it appalled me -- was that older people cared more for appearance than for reality. Or to put it bluntly: appearances tricked old people almost every time. Whether it was dress or haircut or makeup, old people could rarely see beyond to what a person actually said or how they behaved. It was as if their minds had fixated on certain standards of appearance when young, and were incapable of changing. It was worse than that, in fact, because their personal appearance standards had only a weak relationship to biological reality (eg, if a young man had a beard or long hair, the old clucked in disapproval as if there was something unnatural about it.)

Old people (to voice a complaint often made by the young) have petrified minds.

Let me be clear that I'm speaking only in generalities -- there are plenty of old people who don't fit the generality. If like me you are over 50 -- or 60, 70, 80 or 90 -- the fact that you are online reading this is good evidence that you don't fit the generality. Consider yourself excluded from the charges.

Of course I saw, even at 20, that the preference for appearance over reality was also a problem among my peers. I noticed this both in elementary and high school (I spent 7 years in elementary, 5 in high school, and never had a middle school or junior high experience). Kids often make judgments based on appearances rather than reality -- so do teachers. But the flaw is much more prominent in older people -- that's been my experience. This accounts for the nearly universal resistance older generations have against the doings of the young. In fact, is much broader than just a gullibility about appearance: it is a general closed-mindedness toward new behaviors and different ways of thinking. Let's call it the petrified mind phenomenon.

This problem with old minds has a biological explanation. The cortex -- and in particular the neo-cortex -- tends to be stratified between the left and right hemispheres. On the right side of the cortex is where patterns are manipulated and analyzed, where new associations and ideas are formed. On the left side is where those patterns and new associations are stored, thereby increasing the ability to recognize patterns in the future. Using a computer metaphor, you might think of the left hemisphere as the hard drive where information files are stored, and the right hemisphere as the RAM or working memory utilized by applications to run code and manipulate data. (I am greatly oversimplifying, and also pretending that there is more agreement among scientists about brain function than there is -- so please bear that in mind here.)

What scientists have noted is that as people get older, the functioning of the right hemisphere breaks down much more quickly than that of the left hemisphere. Older people gradually lose the "right brain" ability to analyze and combine patterns -- to think creatively, to create new patterns to recognize -- but maintain far longer the "left brain" pattern storage or memory storage. Eventually, as the right brain degrades, old people lose the ability to create new memories to store in the left brain. The common result is the ability to remember something that happened 5 decades ago clear as a bell, but something that happened 5 minutes ago or 5 days ago is gone forever.

For most of human history -- and prehistory -- this aging pattern of the brain hasn't been a problem. In fact was probably a plus. For most of our history the world changed little over the course of a lifetime -- certainly technological changes were mild and easily assimilated even by the old. And there weren't as many old. As a percentage of the total population, few lived much beyond 40 or 50. Those few provided a great continuity of knowledge in a era when continuity of knowledge was worth a premium. The value of those decades-old memories in their left hemisphere was incalculable, and the loss of right hemisphere ability to create new memories and patterns to recognize was insignificant in comparison.

But everything has changed today == that is to say, everything changes rapidly today. The technological changes which occurred over a lifetime in the 20th century were as extensive as all the technological changes of the previous 20 centuries. And the 21st century will easily trump that, assuming we avoid catastrophe. Continuity of knowledge is now preserved in books and digital media. Today, the petrified minds of the old are a liability rather than an asset.

Worst of all, people live far longer: there are dramatically more petrified minds, as a percentage of population, than there ever used to be. What makes it such a vexing problem for societies today is that the petrified minds are voters. They are, in a country like the United States, a majority of voters. That is why our future as a nation is so clouded. The least capable minds are in political control of our society.

As it happens, we have a contest over political control going on in 2008. I have been looking at the exit polls for the primaries, and sure enough the problem of petrified brains voting stands out.

First of all, there are too many old voters. Consider the Texas exit poll, which is more or less typical. In the Democratic primary, 66% of the voters were over 40. Two thirds of the decision makers! 56% (still a majority) are over the age of 45, and 43% over the age of 50. (The Republican primary is evey worse - fully 75% of voters were over 40, nearly a third over 60) Throughout human history, most people simply wouldn't have lived that long. And had they lived that long they would have appeared wise -- after all, technologically and socially the world would have barely changed from the way it was the day they were born. Contrast that to our day. Change is so rapid that by the time someone is 50 (much less 70 or 90) their long-stored memories are woefully out of date -- and constitute not wisdom but an anchor dragging against progress, resisting and preventing necessary adaptation to our changing world.

I hate to be blunt, but it's simply true: old people are a liability to society today. They are a boat anchor in a world where change is the norm and continuous adaptation a necessity. Old people, with their petrified brains, can't adapt. But they can vote, and vote in large numbers, and so sink us all.

And we see an example of this in the Democratic primary vote. There is a stark dividing line between how young people vote and old people vote. In Texas the dividing line is at about the age of 45. In other states it has sometimes been as high as age 55 or 60. But the dividing line is clear: younger voters go very strongly for Barack Obama, older voters strongly for Hillary Clinton.

Why the divide? Not, I think because of racism, even though older people are far more likely to be racist than younger people. Racists, if they are voting, are voting Republican. The key to understanding the age divide is in noting the dramatically different assessment between Clinton supporters and Obama supporters of which candidate has the best chance of beating John McCain. Fully 94% of Clinton voters believe Clinton has the best chance of beating McCain, while 81% of Obama voters think he has the best chance of winning in November. This raises an interesting question: in the face of countless polls which show McCain beating Clinton and Obama beat McCain among all voters, why would Clinton voters so overwhelmingly think otherwise?

The answer, I believe, is primarily due to the fact that Clinton supporters are old people with petrified brains. Appearance trumps reality every time for them. When their brains were young -- in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s -- it was unthinkable that someone with black skin could win the Presidency. They are not voting against Obama because he is black (a blackness, by the way, that is more appearance than reality -- he is after all 50% white too) but because in their petrified brains nobody with Obama's appearance could ever hope to be elected President of the United States.

Old people are boat anchors. They drag us down.

Of course there are individual exceptions, but in general old people are nothing but a liability. It was true when I was 20, and even though I'm over 50 now, my perspective hasn't changed.

Responses to Climate Skeptics Jan. 6th, 2008 @ 04:52 pm

Bill Maher is funny Jan. 6th, 2008 @ 10:56 am
Recently on Conan O'Brien's talk show, Bill Maher got off some funny lines. For example,

"You can't be a rational person six days a week and put on a suit and make rational decisions and go to work, and on one day of the week go to a building and think you're drinking the blood of a two thousand year old space god."

"I don't know what eternity is like. But I saw Rush Hour 3 so I know what it feels like."

Strings, Physics, & Visual Intelligence Oct. 20th, 2007 @ 03:58 pm
I recently purchased 3 books which I am concurrently reading:
The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next by Lee Smolin
The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From? by Victor J. Stenger
Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See by Donald D. Hoffman
Although Hoffman's book might appear to be on a subject unrelated to the others, that turns out not to be the case. The reason goes back to my maxim: biology trumps physics. What I mean by this is that we cannot understand the nature of the physical world until we first understand the nature of understanding. What are we doing when we make observations of the physical world and devise scientific laws or theories? Although published nearly 10 years ago, Visual Intelligence is the best introduction I have found to the subject.

I had a hard time deciding between Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics and another recent book which also derides String Theory: Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory And the Search for Unity in Physical Law by Peter Woit. In the end I chose Smolin's more for budgetary reasons than anything else.

Victor J. Stenger is better known for the recent bestseller God: the Failed Hypothesis (perhaps the best of the recent bestsellers by atheists). I was more interested in spending my good money on Stenger's earlier work because it appears to do an excellent job of explaining 20th century physics & cosmology "without mathematical details so that the general reader can at least get a sense of the gigantic conceptual developments that took place over the last century." [p. 13] Still, Stenger is very aware that
No matter how valiantly scientists and science writers may work to express modern models in the vernacular, precise mathematical descriptions and their associated logical deductions can never be satisfactorily reduced to everyday language. Describing physical models in words is like describing great music in words. Just as you have to listen to music to appreciate it, you have to read the equations of physics to grasp their meaning. This has resulted in a sharp division between "knows" and "know-nots," drawn at such a high level of knowledge that it excludes the great bulk of humanity—from the person in the street to otherwise highly educated academics who have neglected their mathematical studies. Even many PhD physicists and astronomers whose specialties are in fields other than particle physics and cosmology do not fully appreciate these new developments because they are cast in a language that only the experts speak. [p. 13]
Stenger attempts to bridge this gap by use of a 130-page mathematical supplement, so that "anyone who has taken the major courses in a four-year curriculum of undergraduate physics, chemistry, engineering or mathematics should have no trouble" understanding "what has been one of the greatest achievements in human history." [p. 13]

But make no mistake, Stenger understands (as does Stephen Hawking and many other physicists) that physical theories are only useful models, not necessarily accurate descriptions of physical reality. He writes,
Perhaps we will never comprehend the true structure of reality. And perhaps we should not care. We have a model that fits the data, which is all we need for any conceivable application, save philosophical or theological discourse. [p. 188]

Stenger rejects, therefore, the notion that there exists a model or set of explanations which constitute "physical laws" which (in the words of Kip Thorne) "force the Universe to behave the way it does". [Thone as quoted on p. 8] Stenger explains,
You might think of science as a 100 megapixel digital camera taking pictures of whatever reality is out there, compared to drawing a picture in the dirt with a stick. The scientific picture gives a far better representation of that reality, but we still must be careful not to equate the image with reality. [p. 11]

Which brings us to Visual Intelligence and the biology of vision (really the biology of all phenomenal experiences), for Hoffman's book explains the scientific basis behind Stenger's refusal to equate physical models with reality. Analyzing numerous optical illusions, Hoffman establishes 35 "rules" which the human brain uses to create everything we see, including the experience of color, texture, lines, shape, objects and even their motions. The rules stem from what Hoffman describes as "the fundamental problem of vision" from the brain's perspective: the pattern, intensity and frequency of photons interacting with the light-sensitive rod and cone cells of the retina have "countless possible interpretations." The brain uses rules to create a visual field that is self-consistent and useful -- not (importantly) because that visual field is an accurate depiction of physical reality but because it is a useful model for an organism to exist in and manipulate that reality. This visual model (which I like to call a simulacrum) is created by the visual cortex of the brain.

Hoffman also references the experiences of patients with damage to various parts of the visual cortex in order to build his case. For example, damage to an area called V5 will prevent the perception of motion. Victims with such damage see object without a problem, for instance a car on a road. But they will suddenly see the car in a new location on the road and will insist that the car never moved from one spot to the next. All they perceive is a sudden "jump" to a new position. As it turns out the effect can be induced using what is called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) which temporarily impairs the functioning of V5. Hoffman explains,
The results with TMS on V5 are quite specific. Motion is impaired but not, for instance, color. And if TMS is applied to V5 on just the left side of the brain, then the subject loses motion on just the right half of the visual field. Converse, if TMS is applied to V5 on the just the right side of the brain, then the subject loses motion on just the left half of the visual field. [p. 141]
Likewise, damage to another part of the visual cortex, the lingual and fusiform gyri, causes loss of color vision. If damaged only in one hemisphere of the brain, the loss of color only occurs in half of the visual field.

Hoffman is careful to make a distinction between the "phenomenal" world which the brain creates (and which constitutes our experiences) and what he calls the "relational" world (which Stenger calls "physical reality" and Kant called the "noumenon"). In essence, Hoffman demonstrates that the brain creates visual, tactile, and auditory experiences to "model" this unknown reality in a useful way, just as scientists use instruments and mathematical formula to create useful scientific models of this same unknown reality. "The main difference," he writes, "is that the constructions of scientists are done consciously, but those of your visual intelligence are done, for the most part, unconsciously." [p. xii]

The key point, and it applies to vision models as much as it applies to scientific models, is that the models
...need not resemble the relational realm to be well adapted, they need only be a useful guide for behavior. The icons on your computer screen are a useful guide for behavior toward your computer, but those icons don't resemble the circuits and software that ultimately determine how well adapted your behaviors are. Indeed, the icons are a useful guide to behavior precisely because they don't resemble circuits and software. Circuits and software are extremely complex, and if your icons resembled them it would take you forever to get anything done on your computer. your behavior would be less adapted, not more. [p. 198]
Still, Hoffman considers the objection that "when I see a snake slithering toward me in the grass, then I would be a fool not to think that there really is a snake, and I would be a fool not to get out of the way." [p. 198] "Granted," he responds,
when you see snakes there are snakes, and you must take them seriously. Similarly, when you see a trash can icon on your computer screen, there really is a trash can icon, and when you see a document icon representing the text file you've been editing for the last five hours, there really is a document icon. And you must take these icons seriously. If you drag that document icon into that trash icon then you'll lose your last five hours of work. That's a serious consequence. To say that experiences provide a systematic but arbitrary guide to the relational realm is not to deny that experiences are real and must be taken seriously. But they don't entail that anything in the relational realm resembles a snake, just as a trash can icon doesn't entail that circuits and software resemble a trash can.   

Neither biology nor quantum theory dictates the nature of the relational realm. Nor does any other science. Each studies certain phenomena, and describes these by precise theories. In no case do the phenomena or the theories dictate the nature of the relational realm. We might hope that the theories of science will converge to a true theory of the relational realm. This is the hope of scientific realism. But it's a hope as yet unrealized, and a hope that cannot be proved true.

So this is a small sample of what happens when we peek behind the icons, when we ask what else there might be in addition to our perceptual constructions. We find a myriad of fascinating questions. We find that we've entered the province of philosophy and religion. Because the phenomenal and relational realms need not resemble each other, because their relationship is arbitrary and systematic, the tools of science can help us guess at the nature of the relational realm, but might never dictate a final verdict. [p. 199]
In fact, however, there certain things we can say definitively about the relational realm. The most important observation is that our bodies can interact with it. Whatever photons "really are", we nevertheless know that they interact with 11-cis retinal in the photosensitive cells of the retina. And this tells us something truly important: it tells us that the relational realm, reality, Kant's noumenon -- whatever one chooses to call it -- is not something which is spiritual or God-like. Rather, it must be bodily or physical in some sense. Stenger calls it "physical reality" and that seems entirely appropriate to me.

So I recommend these three books. But read Visual Intelligence first, for it provides the biological framework upon which all our scientific endeavor hangs.

My latest post Aug. 11th, 2007 @ 11:05 pm
at atheology.com is "Naturalism's Touchstone Proposition".

You can read it here : http://blog.atheology.com/2007/08/06/naturalisms-touchstone-proposition/

Virginia Tech & Self Esteem Apr. 21st, 2007 @ 06:53 pm
As might be expected, in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech horror a lot of experts have come out of the woodwork to offer explanations for Cho's behavior (or pontificate, at least, on how humans hanker for explanations in the face of tragedy). One such expert is Brad Bushman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. He was quoted in "Why? After a heartbreaking tragedy at Virginia Tech, some experts offer answers", an article by Stephanie Ramage published in the print edition of The Sunday Paper, April 22-26, 2007, pages 21-24.

Bushman blames the Virginia Tech shooting (as well as previous school shootings) on a culture of narcissism and the fostering of self-esteem among children. The problem with someone like Cho, he maintains, is not low self-esteem as popular opinion has it, but high self-esteem.

But this is talk without much thought behind it. Narcissus gazed into a pond, saw his own face, and fell in love with himself. Love as they say is blind, and consequently immune to the opinion of others. Self-love is equally blind, and the Narcissist loves himself despite what others think. If you have high self-esteem then the viewpoints of others are irrelevant: it is your assessment of your worth, not theirs, which matters. Bushman thinks this was Cho's fatal flaw, and that it led to him killing others and himself.

Which is nonsense even if it comes from a professor of psychology. The Narcissist doesn't need the esteem of others because he has all the self-esteem he needs: what we should expect instead is that he is, if not blind, at least indifferent to the esteem or lack of esteem bestowed on him by others. The Narcissist says to himself, I'm okay because I love myself and my opinion is the only one that matters to me. 

Suicide and narcissism don't fit together.* People who love themselves don't kill themselves. But Narcissism also does not fit with caring about other people's opinions. The narcissistic sense of worth comes from the self, not from others. When we look at Cho, and at other school killers (like those at Columbine), we see just the opposite. We see kids who are obsessed by the lack of esteem they receive from their peers, and who are determined to get even.

What is obvious -- and would be obvious to Bushman if he stopped and thought a moment -- is that most school shooters have way too little self-esteem. They are inordinately reliant on the esteem of others and when it doesn't materialize, they go into a murderous rage. Bushman is quoted point-blank in the article as saying "The problem is not low self-esteem." He is dead wrong.

And yet he might be right about his larger point, which is that efforts to build up children's self-esteem set them up for enormous disappointment and failure. Bushman explains, "Because of the self-esteem movement, you have sports teams where everybody gets a trophy regardless of skill." He maintains that the result is that children

believe that they are entitled to admiration and respect and, when they don't get it, become aggressive. Bushman blames the self-esteem movement of the past 20 years for producing a generation of people who think the world has turned upside down when they are not singled out for their "special-ness". [op cit]

Of course, if someone actually thought they were special, they wouldn't be perturbed if others didn't. Their own self-love is all that is needed. Narcissism, in this respect, is actually one of the keys to good mental health. Rather, it is people who are reliant on the esteem of others who are mentally at risk if that esteem is not forthcoming.

I haven't studied the techniques of the self-esteem movement. But it is obvious that giving a trophy to someone doesn't build self-esteem. What is a trophy? It is recognition by others. It is quite possible that Bushman is right, that giving out trophies, calling everyone "winners", ends up producing children reliant on the esteem of others. Hard to see how that develops self-esteem. Instead it may create a dependence on the love of others in order to feel worthwhile.

Low self-esteem must mean exactly that: that you are not convinced of your own worth, in which case you become dependent on others to convince you of that self-worth. And what if they don't? The result, it seems to me, is likely to be depression and anger and, I can imagine, an exaggerated insistence on your importance: an arching desire to prove that importance to everyone. An extreme version of this seems to be what motivates school killers like Cho. With a gun they have ultimate importance: the power to end life.

The narcissist doesn't need the love of others, because he has his own self-love. He inherently knows he is supremely important. Others aren't important enough to diminish that, no matter what opinion they might have of the narcissist. Self-love, like love, is blind. And also self-sufficient.

Self-sufficient is just what Cho wasn't. He needed the esteem of others in order to feel his life was sufficient. He didn't get it, and it drove him to kill as many people as he could along with himself. Bushman is obviously wrong on this.

But it is public failure, not public success, which encourages you to develop self-esteem. Failure forces you to place your self-worth somewhere other than in recognition and esteem from others. It pushes you toward self-reliance, that is, toward the recognition that your life is okay no matter what others think, no matter how loved or unloved you may be. Because you have gazed into the pond of life and found yourself, and you are in love. In love with life, whatever it is, whatever anyone else thinks it is.

Narcissism is obviously only one aspect of good mental health. By itself, narcissism leads to indifference toward others and supreme selfishness. It has to be tempered with the discovery that everyone has their own pond of life, ponds just like your pond. So that in loving yourself, you love them. In loving them, you love yourself. Therefore do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The golden rule is a natural outgrowth of this discovery.

It helps also to realize that you will die and cease to exist. For that means that the only eternity you can get is in the continued existence of those who are like you, and the ponds of life they gaze into. And this makes others all the more important.

Of course, we realize that others aren't like us in our thoughts or our personal likes and dislikes. There are infinite options for thoughts, and so it should come as no surprise that no two people have -- or could ever have -- the same thoughts. It is not our minds that are alike: none of us are ever of exactly the same mind. What we do have in common are our bodily feelings. Our bodies are individualized, but our human feelings are universal.

At least when we are healthy, they are universal. We know it is possible for pathology to lead to abnormal feelings like Cho's, with terrible consequences. This doesn't undermine my point: healthy human feelings are common to us all, and make us equivalent to one another, substitutes for each other.

All we have.

* It's true that in one version of the Narcissus myth, he kills himself. The suicide results not from Narcissus being in love with himself but from his being in love with his reflection in the water which he mistakes for someone else. When the reflection doesn't return his love, Narcissus kills himself out of despair. This version paints a Narcissus with low self-esteem reliant on the love of another who, as it turns out, is only a reflection and not a real person.  However one wants to interpret the myth, the fact remains that self-love is essential to mental health, and self-esteem a necessity if one is to avoid an unhealthy reliance on the esteem of others.

An atheist in Congress Mar. 20th, 2007 @ 09:52 pm
Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) was "outed" last week as an atheist by the Secular Coalition for America. Voluntarily outed, I should point out, since he admitted that he is "a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being".

And the reaction?

Very positive, so far.
Of the 500 or so responses Stark has received, all but about 25 have been supportive. Even critics didn't write the type of harsh screeds that might be expected on a hot-button topic like religion.

"The negative responses were the most reasoned and reasonable I've ever received,'' he said. "In this instance, the people who have disagreed with me have been polite and reasonable. All in all, this has been a pleasurable experience.''
At town hall meetings in his local district on Saturday, the audience applauded Stark when the matter of his non-belief was brought up.

Stark represents possibly the most liberal district in the country. SFGATE also did a street poll asking "Would a candidate's atheism be a deal-breaker at the polls for you?" A number of the respondents actually saw it as a positive ("Religion leads some politicians to do some pretty dreadful things" observed Tom Turner of Berkeley). But I liked Rudy Rivers comment best:
I was brought up in the church and still stand by those beliefs. Congressman Stark's atheism has nothing to do with his character. I have called on him to help me with several of life's problems, and he responded well. I voted for him before I knew about his comments, and I would vote for him again now that I know. He doesn't have to be my clone to do a good job.--sfgate.com street poll
I like that. Not only liberal but pragmatic. It's a good combination.

Hemant Mehta ofFriendlyAtheist.com provides some background to the "outing" after talking with Lori Lipman Brown of Secular Coalition for America.
The contest began last October. People were invited to submit the name of “the highest level atheist, humanist, freethinker or other nontheist currently holding elected public office in the United States of America.” The person who could identify this official (if the official was willing to “out” his or her self publicly) would win $1,000. The contest ended on December 31, 2006.
. . .
Once the nominations were received, the staff of the SCA sent the named public officials a letter explaining the contest and requested a response as to whether the person (1) was a nontheist who would allow the SCA to announce this fact, (2) was a theist, or (3) felt that this was not a question they wished to discuss in the context of an elected position. In many instances, follow-up phone calls were made when warranted, and in the case of Congressman Stark, there were face-to-face meetings with his staff.
Only 3 other atheists were publicly identified, and they held strictly local positions: "Terry S. Doran, president of the School Board in Berkeley, California; Nancy Glista on the School Committee in Franklin, Maine; and Michael Cerone, a Town Meeting Member from Arlington, Massachusetts."
Other entries
» I'm still around
Don't forget to check out my posts at atheology.com
» Best Presentation of Atheism
The best presentation of the case for atheism I have found is ebonmusing.org

I must also highly recommend the companion blog daylightatheism.org
» John Mark Karr - the Media's mistakes
I hope John Mark Karr turns out to be the one who killed JonBenet Ramsey, and that if so he gets convicted and justly sentenced. But like many people I have serious doubts at this point. When I first saw the video of him saying he with JonBenet when she died, my immediate gut feelling was that he was lying.

I don't want him to be lying. I want this case solved and the killer punished.

But was Karr even in Colorado? His ex-wife says no. Is the unidentified DNA found at the crime scene his? Could he have known about John Ramsey's $118,000 bonus, as the author of the ransom note obviously did?

What about the police contention that Karr knows something about the state of JonBenet's body that only the chief medical examiner and lead investigators knew? Is that possible, given that the autopsy report has been available on the web for years? This particular case has had so many leaks and revelations over the years, so many speculations and documentaries and books written (including books by ex-lead investigators), one can't help but wonder if any significant fact about the crime scene truly remains a secret.

We'll have to wait and see.

Here are some significant mistakes and omissions the news media has made in covering Karr's arrest: Read more: 5 media mistakes & omissions . . .Collapse )
» Underwear and Male Violence
Let's talk about one of the few unmentioned -- if not unmentionable -- subjects remaining: the problem men have with underwear. It's not something men talk about, even though it's pretty easy to articulate the problem. Put simply, the male anatomy is incompatible with underwear.

Saying "incompatible" is an understatement of course, perhaps a dramatic one (as my title implies -- but I'll get to that later).

A little explanation is in order, at least for the benefit of female readers. Testicles, which have two primary functions -- generating sperm and secreting hormones such testosterone -- are designed to be air cooled. Wikipedia explains:
"In mammals, the testes are located outside of the body, as they are suspended by the spermatic cord and within the scrotum. This is due to the fact that spermatogenesis in mammals is more efficient at a temperature somewhat less than the core body temperature (37°C or 98.6°F for humans). The cremasteric muscle is part of the spermatic cord. When this muscle contracts, the cord is shortened and the testicle is moved closer up toward the body, which provides slightly more warmth to maintain optimal testicular temperature. When the temperature needs to be lowered, the cremasteric muscle relaxes and the testicle is lowered away from the warm body and are able to cool. This phenomenon is known as the cremasteric reflex." -- "Testes", Wikipedia
Wikipedia slyly says spermatogenesis is more efficient when cooler than basal body temperature, but the phrase "more efficient" disguises the real problem: copying errors. If a man's testicles get too hot (or too cold) his sperm doesn't develop properly, becomes damaged and causes birth defects. (It is well known that the vast majority of birth defects in humans are the result of such "copying errors" in the sperm, not in the egg.).

So, if a man's testicles get too hot, the reproductive consequences can be severe. The human body, of course, has an easy solution. When it's cold, muscles pull the testicles up tight into the crotch where the higher temperature of the body warms things up. In milder and especially in hot weather, those same muscles drop the testicles away from the body where they can be air-cooled as the man moves around.

That's where the problem with underwear crops up. Male underwear prevents air-cooling. Even worse, it presses the testicles into the crotch where the heat of the body bakes the little spermazoa, reducing their number and motility, and facilitating copying errors.

Quite honestly, in a sane society men would be encouraged to parade around naked in the summertime. It would be the best way to reduce birth defects, and for that reason alone nudity should be considered a matter of public health. As a matter policy, outdoor areas should be designated clothing-optional. This would have happened long ago, of course, if we didn't live an a religiously insane society, one where the body itself is considered obscene -- where testicles aren't supposed to exist and if they do, they must be kept out of sight in the dark, hot, hidden crotch.
Read more. . .Collapse )
» esli Boga net - znachit vsio pozvoleno
While attempting to track down exact wording and attribution for Dostoevsky's famous phrase, "If God does not exist, everything is permitted" -- which supposedly was uttered by Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov, I discovered David Cortesi's assertion that the famous quote is not to be found in English translations of The Brothers Karamazov or in any of Dostoevsky's novels. Cortesi suspects, instead, that the famous phrase comes from Sartre, who supposedly wrote
"The existentialist...finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven....Dostoevsky once wrote, 'If God did not exist, everything would be permitted,..." -- www.science.wayne.edu/~mlee/antipsyc/duerf2.html
Even Christiaan Stange's Doetoevsky Research Station website admits the uncertainty of the quote.

But apparently the phrase does occur in the novel's original Russian -- according to an email to sent to Cortesi by someone named Valeria. She claims that the Russian phrase "esli Boga net - znachit vsio pozvoleno" is indeed spoken by Ivan Karamazov in the untranslated novel. She translates it as "if there is no God, that means everything is permitted/allowed/permissible." Unfortunately, she didn't reveal to Cortesi where in the novel this wording occurs so that it can be confirmed.

Searching for the Russian phrase on Google, Yahoo and AltaVista got me nowhere. Additionally, I have been unable to locate the novel in its original Russian online, or else it would be easy enough to search for the quote (and thereby locate the corresponding passage in the English translation).

As far as the English translation goes, I have tried to go through it searching for every phrase containing the word "God" and I cannot see where Ivan used this particular wording, or anything close to it. Ivan presents the general idea, surely enough, but not the wording in question. For example, in Book I "History of a Family" Chapter 6, we find Miusov recalling a speech in which Ivan
"solemnly declared in argument that there was nothing in the whole world to make men love their neighbours. That there was no law of nature that man should love mankind, and that, if there had been any love on earth hitherto, it was not owing to a natural law, but simply because men have believed in immortality. Ivan Fyodorovitch added in parenthesis that the whole natural law lies in that faith, and that if you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful, even cannibalism. That's not all. He ended by asserting that for every individual, like ourselves, who does not believe in God or immortality, the moral law of nature must immediately be changed into the exact contrary of the former religious law, and that egoism, even to crime, must become not only lawful but even recognised as the inevitable, the most rational, even honourable outcome of his position. " [emphasis added]
Asked if this is what he really believes, Ivan himself responds,
"Yes. That was my contention. There is no virtue if there is no immortality." [emphasis added]
Although the idea is here, the famous quote is not.

Ivan's hypothesis, that if there is no God/ no immortality, then everything is lawful, is crucial to the plot of the novel. Influenced by Ivan's ideas, Smerdyakov commits murder and justifies it by quoting Ivan. In Book XI, Chapter 8 ("The Third and Last Interview with Smerdyakov") Smerdyakov tells Ivan he felt no compunction against behaving immorally
"chiefly because 'all things are lawful.' That was quite right what you taught me, for you talked a lot to me about that. For if there's no everlasting God, there's no such thing as virtue, and there's no need of it. You were right there. So that's how I looked at it." [emphasis added]
It appears to me that the most likely source for the famous quote is actually Ivan's brother, Mitya Karamazov. In Book XI, Chapter 4 "A Hymn and a Secret", Mitya tells Alyosha about a conversation he had with the atheist Rakitin.
"'But what will become of men then?' I asked him [Rakitin], 'without God and immortal life? All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?' 'Didn't you know?' he [Rakitin] said laughing, 'a clever man can do what he likes,' he said. 'A clever man knows his way about, but you've put your foot in it, committing a murder, and now you are rotting in prison.' He says that to my face!" [emphasis added]
A final possibility is that the quote actually comes from another character, Father Zossima (in Book VI "The Russian Monk" Chapter 3 "Conversations and Exhortations of Father Zossima" Section F "Of Masters and Servants, and of whether it is possible for them to be Brothers in the Spirit") for we find Zossima asking "if you have no God what is the meaning of crime?"
"It is different with the upper classes. They, following science, want to base justice on reason alone, but not with Christ, as before, and they have already proclaimed that there is no crime, that there is no sin. And that's consistent, for if you have no God what is the meaning of crime?" [emphasis added]
So although the idea for the famous phrase "If there is no God, everything is permitted" can be attributed to Ivan Karamazov, it is quite possible that the actual quote comes from a different character in the novel: Smerdyakov or Mitya or Father Zossima. I'm hoping someone who has access to The Brothers Karamazov in Russian can search for "esli Boga net -- znachit, vsio pozvoleno" and find out where the quote is located and which character says it. Anyone?
» How Attacking Iran Benefits China
It’s widely recognized that the greatest beneficiary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq has been Iran. Just as clearly, the biggest beneficiary of a U. S. attack on Iran will be China.

This is why the administration’s recent exhortation to China’s leader, Hue, to intervene in getting Iran to drop its nuclear ambitions is likely to be futile. Hue of course will want to create the appearance of trying to bring the Iranian leadership around, but it is not in China’s strategic interest for that to actually happen. Secretly, in fact, Hue must be hoping that the Bush administration will be foolish enough to attack Iran—preferably with tactical nukes—just as they were fooling enough to invade Iraq.

The consequences of a U. S. attack would be as positive for China as they would be negative for the United States. Hue diplomatic task is to nod and pretend to assist while making sure not to actually do anything that might be perceived in the Muslim world as abetting the U. S. attack.

China has already benefited indirectly from the invasion of Iraq, but what they stand to gain from a repeat with Iran is far greater. Some might object that a U. S. strike against Iran will lead to oil disruptions – both in the flow of Iranian oil and in retaliatory sabotage elsewhere. But whereas China depends on oil in order to fuel its extraordinary growth rate, the U. S.depends on oil to avoid economic collapse. To put it another way: for China oil is an enabler; for the U.S. oil is an addiction. China is in a vastly stronger position to weather oil disruptions than is the United States or Europe.

Which is why any oil disruptions which result from striking Iran can only lead to further engagement of the U. S.military in the middle east. We may be forced to commit troops to defend oil facilities and shipping lanes and engage in military strikes against suspected terrorist cells throughout the region. Thus we are likely to become embroiled in a wider middle-east/Islamic terrorist war which will look to the world very much like oil-hungry Christians against oil-possessing Muslims. At which point bin Laden will have achieved his wildest dream.

And note that U. S. defense of middle eastern oil supplies will surely include defending China’s oil supplies as well. This is because the U. S. economy has become dependent not just on oil but also on cheap Chinese manufacturing. Having outsourced our industrial capacity, our economy is susceptible not just to an oil shock but also - perhaps even more so - to a “China shock” thanks to our incredible dependence on Chinese imports. And let's be clear: having dismantled manufacturing within the U. S. mainland over the past 3 decades, it would take years to rebuild that capacity.

With the United States terminally embroiled in a fight for economic survival against Islamic terrorism in order to safeguard our oil supply, China would soon catapult into the leading economic superpower in the world. Furthermore, the likehood of another major terrorist attack on U. S. soil within the decade, already increased 3-fold by the invasion of Iraq, would increase 3-fold again with the bombing of Iran, especially so if we used tactical nukes.

Internally, the next major attack on U. S. soil (we are talking 9-11 size or greater) would inflict a possibly fatal blow on American freedom, particularly if we continue to have political cowards holding office. Politically the United States would start to look a lot more like China, perhaps with more economic freedom but indistinguishable in terms of civil liberties.

That is the path we are embarked upon.

And make no mistake, striking Iran is the Bush's preferred option. Most likely he will try to use the election cycle to get Congressional authorization for military action "upon determination by the Administration that diplomatic efforts have failed" (similar to the authorization for the Iraq invasion) before November, though the actual attack would not come until after the election.

This entry has been dual-posted at www.atheology.com
» al-Qaida infiltrated Dubai government
In the midst of all the controversy over allowing the state-owned Dubai Ports to manage seaports in the U.S., I never saw anyone mention that al-Qaida had infiltrated the government of United Arab Emirates.

Maybe I missed it. I heard all about money being funneled to terrorists through Dubai, about UAE bank secrecy rules making it difficult to trace that monetary flow, about terrorists traveling in and out of that country's port.

But no where did I see it mentioned that al-Qaida had actually infiltrated various Dubai government ministries--and bragged about it! Yet documents taken from a captured computer which belonged to a high-ranking al-Qaida official confirm this. "You are well aware that we have infiltrated your security, censorship, and monetary agencies along with other agencies that should not be mentioned." this official warned the emirates of Dubai and Abu-Dhabi.
Read more . . .Collapse )
» spelling test
Good speller? Try this test to see if you can pick out the correctly spelled word. Is it seperate or separate? Villify or vilify? occurrance or occurance? Are you embarassed - or are you embarrassed? These are not easy, especially the last ten.


I actually did pretty well (mostly by luck) and missed only 6 (or, as I prefer to say, only 5 since for one "Merriam-Webster lists both as correct" which is good enough for me). Interesting, they claim that "the below-averge speller will only get 6 of the 50 right" - pretty bad since by randomly guessing you should get around 25 right.
» Understanding our existence
The most interesting questions are those which our biases prevent us from ever asking, or knowing that they are questions which can be asked. Or sometimes questions are asked within the context of a worldview which causes us to miss the importance of question.

Why do we experience our thoughts and feelings?
Read long & rambling entryCollapse )
» Orwellian IRS
"IRS Issues Proposed Regulations to Safeguard Taxpayer Information" headlined the new release from the Internal Revenue Service. The new guidelines, said the IRS, follow the principle that "that tax return preparers may not disclose or use tax return information for purposes other than tax return preparation without the knowing, informed and voluntary consent of the taxpayer."

But in actuality the new proposals will for the first time allow tax preparers to sell the information in tax returns to marketing & data brokering companies. Previously tax return information was considered private and sacrosanct. The new regulation proposal was published in the Federal Register last Dec 8th, under a label that said it was "not a significant regulatory action."

If the new regulation goes into effect then tax preparers, tax preparation software and websites will be required by law to offer you the opportunity to "opt out" of having your tax return data sold to others. Vigilance may be required.

IRS spokesperson William Cressman defended the rule change in obfuscating language that would have impressed Orwell. "The heart of this proposed regulation is about the right of taxpayers to control their tax return information," he explained. "The idea is to emphasize taxpayer consent and set clear boundaries on how tax return preparers can use or disclose tax return information."

You will be in charge, you see, because you will have the power to search for and uncheck the little box that allows your tax information to be marketed.

The IRS says it's too late for the public to provide comment by email, but for a short time they will still accept comments mailed to
CC:PA:LPD:PR (REG-137243-02)
Room 5203
Internal Revenue Service, Box 7604
Ben Franklin Station, Washington, D.C. 20044
Before yesterday, the IRS had only gotten about a dozen comments on the proposed rule change. Read more about this here on the Philadelphia Daily News website.
» mad cows, mad humans
Associated Press
Update 12: Government to Scale Back Mad Cow Testing
By LIBBY QUAID , 03.14.2006, 06:20 PM

Despite the confirmation of a third case of mad cow disease, the government intends to scale back testing for the brain-wasting disorder blamed for the deaths of more than 150 people in Europe.
When questioned about why the Bush Administration would reduce testing to 1/10th its current level shortly after a cow in Alabama was confirmed to have the disease, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns explained, "Keep in mind the testing was for surveillance. It was to get an idea of the condition of the herd."

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is the cow form of an incurable brain disease known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE) which can be transmitted between several mammal species. In sheep the disease has long been called scrapie; in humans it is known as vJCD (variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease). Scientists have identified prions as the infectious agent behind this neuron-destroying illness.

The only way for a cow to get mad cow disease is to ingest infectious prions from the brain or blood of an animal that has the disease. Prevention shouldn't be much of a problem, since cows are naturally vegetarian. Unfortunately the feed industry has long used waste animal matter in cattle feed as a way to quickly bulk up cows. Our government has recommended that this practice be stopped, but compliance is voluntary.

The upshot is that if a cow in Alabama tested positive for BSE then the "condition of the herd" to use Johanns phrase, is that the herd is still munching on contaminated feed.

Unfortunately mad cow disease has to eat away at neurons in the brain for years before a cow becomes noticeably ill. (In fact, BSE flies under the radar for the first 2 years or so before the best scientific tests can even detect its presence.) Eventually the cow will lose so many neurons it will have difficulty walking or standing and become a "downer". Downers are no longer allowed into the human food chain. But for every downer with BSE there must be other infected cows whose disease hasn't progressed to that stage yet. There is nothing to prevent them from ending up in your hamburger.

For the last few years the Department of Agriculture has been testing 1% of the cows entering slaughterhouses. The new plan is to reduce it to 1/10th of 1%. According to Jean Halloran of Consumers Union, "This starts to be so small that in our opinion, it approaches a policy of don't look, don't find."

It usually takes a decade or so before the symptoms of vJCD show up in humans.
» Evolution is the dividing line
It's not surprising that the issue of teaching evolution (or not -- or countering it with intelligent design) keeps cropping up around the country.

For practical purposes, evolution is the dividing line between theism and atheism.

Evolution points the way to a naturalistic explanation for the design we see in the world around us. If evolution is false, a naturalistic explanation for design becomes extremely difficult to hold, so that for all practical purposes we can say that if evolution is false atheism is probably false. Conversely we can say that if evolution is true, then theism is probably false.*

Only probably.

But that's enough to make evolution into a continental divide.

* That's because theism has a very difficult time explaining certain congenital flaws in the world's design, while evolution breezes through. For example, life must eat other life to survive -- a fact of existence which poses no problems for evolution, yet stymies theism. So long as theism is the only choice its inherent difficulties must be accepted, but if the scientific view of evolution is valid then theism is not the only choice. Nor the best.

This observation is actually strengthened by a declaration made by The Vatican's Observatory Director, George Coyne. Coyne, who is ordained but is also an astrophysicist, whole-heartedly embraces evolution. But at what cost?
"The intelligent design movement belittles God. It makes God a designer, an engineer," said Vatican Observatory Director George Coyne, an astrophysicist who is also ordained. "The God of religious faith is a god of love. He did not design me." --CNN article 2/20/2006
If evolution is true, then God is driven out of the design business. That's a valid move to make, and reminds me of Process Theology. But surely it leaves us with a God less compelling and less necessary than the one we had before.
» Voodoo Media Coverage
Is the economy really looking fine, as widely claimed in the media? Is outsourcing jobs to other countries really a good thing for Americans, as our erstwhile President and media have also reported recently? Or are we living in a time of voodoo media coverage of voodoo economics?

According to economist Paul Craig Roberts, it's the latter.

But wait-- Roberts is not your typical critic. He's not a homeboy for the Democrats. He comes from the right, not the left side of the ballpark.

"Paul Craig Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration. He was Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Contributing Editor of National Review."

In an article in Counterpunch titled "How the Economic News is Spun", Roberts explains that despite the bright face put out by the media, the economy is turning sour for Americans. Read excerpt from Roberts" articleCollapse ) In fact this stalwart of the right ends up sounding a theme popular with Noam Chomsky, that stalwart of the left.
In America "truth" has long been for sale. We see it in expert witness testimony, in the corrupt reports from forensic labs that send innocent people to prison, and even in policy disputes among scientists themselves. . . .

The few reporters and columnists who are brave or naive enough to speak out are constrained by editors who are constrained by owners and advertisers. For example, it is impermissible to examine the gaping holes in the 9/11 Commission Report. Publications and editors are intimidated by the charge of "conspiracy theory," just as criticism of Israel is muted for fear of being labeled "anti-semitic."

All of these reasons and others make truth a scarce commodity. Censorship exists everywhere and is especially heavy in the US mainstream media.

Roberts article can be read in full here.
» Homeland Security is Watching
"The balance on their JCPenney Platinum MasterCard had gotten to an unhealthy level. So they sent in a large payment, a check for $6,522. And an alarm went off. A red flag went up."

By law the bank was required to notify homeland security.

The only thing Deana and Walter Soehnge did "was pay down their debt. They didn't call a suspected terrorist on their cell phone. They didn't try to sneak a machine gun through customs.They just paid a hefty chunk of their credit card balance."

The bank received their check, but withheld crediting their account. Why? They called to find out.

"They were told, as they moved up the managerial ladder at the call center, that the amount they had sent in was much larger than their normal monthly payment. And if the increase hits a certain percentage higher than that normal payment, Homeland Security has to be notified. And the money doesn't move until the threat alert is lifted."

Apparently this is allowed by the Bank Privacy Act passed by Congress and signed into law by the President as a way of preventing another terrorist attack.

"It's scary how easily someone in Homeland Security can get permission to spy," Walter Soehnge told Scripps Howard News Service.

Read the full article at the Scripps Howard News Service web page.
» Askari Mosque Bombing
The bombing of the Askari Mosque in Samarra by commandos dressed up as Iraqi security forces yesterday is something we may look back on as the event that finally triggered all out civil war in Iraq. "Men dressed as Iraqi police commandos slipped into Samarra's shrine of two revered leaders of Shi’ite Islam, set up explosives and blew it up this morning, causing the golden dome to collapse and with it, perhaps, American hopes for a national unity government in Iraq." http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1161937,00.html?cnn=yes

Writing in her blog this morning, Riverbend describes its significance for MuslimsCollapse )

and she worries about the consequences:
"There has been gunfire all over Baghdad since morning. The streets near our neighborhood were eerily empty and calm but there was a tension that had us all sitting on edge. We heard about problems in areas like Baladiyat where there was some rioting and vandalism, etc. and several mosques in Baghdad were attacked. I think what has everyone most disturbed is the fact that the reaction was so swift, like it was just waiting to happen.

All morning we’ve been hearing/watching both Shia and Sunni religious figures speak out against the explosions and emphasise that this is what is wanted by the enemies of Iraq - this is what they would like to achieve - divide and conquer. Extreme Shia are blaming extreme Sunnis and Iraq seems to be falling apart at the seams under foreign occupiers and local fanatics.

No one went to work today as the streets were mostly closed. The situation isn’t good at all. I don’t think I remember things being this tense- everyone is just watching and waiting quietly. There’s so much talk of civil war and yet, with the people I know - Sunnis and Shia alike - I can hardly believe it is a possibility. Educated, sophisticated Iraqis are horrified with the idea of turning against each other, and even not-so-educated Iraqis seem very aware that this is a small part of a bigger, more ominous plan…

Several mosques have been taken over by the Mahdi militia and the Badir people seem to be everywhere. Tomorrow no one is going to work or college or anywhere.

People are scared and watchful. We can only pray."

Another writer, a Sunni in Baghdad, fears this "may be the start of when it all goes really wrong" while his wife discovers "the smell of civil war everywhere"Collapse )
» Bad People
The National Journal has been looking at the prisoners still remaining at Guantanamo Bay, and what they are finding should make all of us who are Americans ashamed. And afraid, because it is likely that our evil behavior as a nation will come back to haunt us down the road. In the long run being evil is a loser's strategy. Bush is turning American into a loser, both morally and economically.

In 3 articles by Corine Hegland and a summary by Stuart Taylor Jr, they have exposed the astonishing extent of the Bush Administrations lying about the captives at Guantanamo. Hegland's three articles are Empty Evidence and Guantanamo's Grip and Who is at Guantanamo? Taylor article is Falsehoods about Guantanamo

"These are people picked up off the battlefield in Afghanistan. They weren't wearing uniforms ... but they were there to kill."
-- President Bush, June 20, 2005

"These detainees are dangerous enemy combatants....They were picked up on the battlefield, fighting American forces, trying to kill American forces."
-- White House press secretary Scott McClellan, June 21, 2005

"The people that are there are people we picked up on the battlefield, primarily in Afghanistan. They're terrorists. They're bomb makers. They're facilitators of terror. They're members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban....We've let go those that we've deemed not to be a continuing threat. But the 520-some that are there now are serious, deadly threats to the United States."
-- Vice President Cheney, June 23, 2005

"These are people, all of whom were captured on a battlefield. They're terrorists, trainers, bomb makers, recruiters, financiers, [Osama bin Laden's] bodyguards, would-be suicide bombers, probably the 20th 9/11 hijacker."
-- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, June 27, 2005

Taylor writes: "These quotes are representative of countless assertions by administration officials over the past four years that all -- or the vast majority -- of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are Qaeda terrorists or Taliban fighters captured on "the battlefield."
. . .

The assertions have been false. And those quoted above came long after the evidence of their falsity should have been manifest to Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their subordinates.
. . .

A high percentage, perhaps the majority, of the 500-odd men now held at Guantanamo were not captured on any battlefield, let alone on "the battlefield in Afghanistan" (as Bush asserted) while "trying to kill American forces" (as McClellan claimed).

Fewer than 20 percent of the Guantanamo detainees, the best available evidence suggests, have ever been Qaeda members.

Many scores, and perhaps hundreds, of the detainees were not even Taliban foot soldiers, let alone Qaeda terrorists. They were innocent, wrongly seized noncombatants with no intention of joining the Qaeda campaign to murder Americans.

The majority were not captured by U.S. forces but rather handed over by reward-seeking Pakistanis and Afghan warlords and by villagers of highly doubtful reliability.

These locals had strong incentives to tar as terrorists any and all Arabs they could get their hands on as the Arabs fled war-torn Afghanistan in late 2001 and 2002 -- including noncombatant teachers and humanitarian workers. And the Bush administration has apparently made very little effort to corroborate the plausible claims of innocence detailed by many of the men who were handed over.

. . .

My estimates above are based largely on extrapolation from Hegland's analysis of these 132 federal court files. They appear to be reasonably representative of the men still at Guantanamo; certainly, the government has given no indication that its evidence is any weaker in these 132 cases than in the other 370 or so.

It is, therefore, quite remarkable to learn (from Hegland) that well over half (75) of the 132 are not even accused of fighting the United States or its allies on any battlefield in post-9/11 Afghanistan or anywhere else.

Indeed, only 35 percent of them (more precisely, of the 115 whose court files specify the locus of capture) were seized in Afghanistan; 55 percent were picked up by Pakistanis in Pakistan.

. . .

The tribunal hearings, based largely on such guilt-by-association logic, have been travesties of unfairness. The detainees are presumed guilty unless they can prove their innocence -- without help from lawyers and without being permitted to know the details and sources of the evidence against them. This evidence is almost entirely hearsay from people without firsthand knowledge and statements from other detainees desperate to satisfy their brutally coercive interrogators.
. . .

The Pentagon responded then that Guantanamo was an oasis of "humane" treatment.

Last July, the Pentagon elaborated in a report of an investigation into complaints by FBI agents of abusive interrogation methods. Many of these methods -- such as shackling detainees to the floor for hours in painful positions, keeping them shivering cold during interrogations, grilling them for 16 hours nonstop, waking them up by moving them every few hours, using loud music and strobe lights -- had been officially approved as "humane," the Pentagon report explained.

Bush has also pledged that the Guantanamo detainees are treated "humanely." At the same time, he has stressed, "I know for certain ... that these are bad people" -- all of them, he has implied.

If the president believes either of these assertions, he is a fool. If he does not, choose your own word for him."

My word would be "criminal". And not just Bush, but Cheney and Rumsfeld and Gonzales and Yoo and a host of others. But when I consider the U. S. Constitution a different group of words come to mind: betrayers, traitors, destroyers of the goodness and the dream of America.

» Mr Conservative
"When you say 'radical right' today, I think of these moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican Party and make a religious organization out of it. If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye." --Barry Goldwater ("Mr. Conservative"), 1994

And say hello to a colossally foolish foreign policy, indefinite detentions without trials, abuse & torture of prisoners, wiretapping without warrants--who knows what else--presided over by prayer, sanctioned by "faith", and delivered in the name of Jesus against the Islamic infidels.
» Bin Laden's latest
Here is the full text of bin Laden's latest message to the American people. It was translated by the Associated Press. I am providing it because initial press reports were poorly translated and misleading. My comments follow.

Read full bin Laden textCollapse )
On the tape, bin Laden promises that new terrorist attacks against U. S. soil are in preparation--but, citing polls indicating that a majority of Americans now oppose the war in Iraq, he then offers us a "long term truce" so that "both sides can enjoy security and stability under this truce [and] so we can [re-]build Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been destroyed in this war."

It appears that bin Laden wants to go over Bush's head directly to the American people and sue for peace. "If you [Americans] are sincere in your desire for peace and security, we have answered you," he declares.

But exactly how are the American people supposed to signal their acceptance of such a truce? That is left unexplained. But bin Laden does assert that 'if Bush decides to carry on with his lies and oppression, then it would be useful for you to read the book Rogue State, which states in its introduction: "If I were president, I would stop the attacks on the United States: First I would give an apology to all the widows and orphans and those who were tortured. Then I would announce that American interference in the nations of the world has ended once and for all.'

The implication is that if Americans "apologize to all the widows and orphans and those who were tortured" and "announce that American interference in the nations of the world has ended once and for all", that would signal our acceptance of the truce. To be honest, it is not much to ask, if bin Laden's offer is to be believed. But who exactly is supposed to represent the American people in accepting this offer, if not President Bush? Osama Bin Laden leaves that unexplained.

In short, there is an inherent incoherence in bin Laden's message. He appears to offer to bypass Bush and make peace (or at least "a long-term truce") directly with the American people, yet leaves unexplained how such a bypass could be enacted. It would appear impossible.

Bin Laden must know that. The real audience which he is addressing, therefore, is the audience of fellow Muslims--not that of Americans. He is attempting to show the Islamic world how reasonable he is--that peace is his first preference, rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan his top priorities. When the next attack occurs against Americans, he will shrug and say "I offered them a truce, even going over the head of their President, but they did not take me up on it."

It is little surprise that Osama bin Laden's messages are self-serving. They are deliberate bits of propaganda, as are many of the utterances that come from the Pentagon and Administration officials, President Bush included.

Unfortunately, bin Laden's assessment of the likely outcome of "the war on terror"--propaganda though it is-- is much more realistic than the self-deceiving assessments from Bush & Co. The war on terror, as it is currently being fought, is a losing proposition for us, and one which will eventually lead to the loss of our freedom and democracy, as well as the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans--if not millions. Terrorism of the sort we face cannot be successfully fought militarily, for every battle we win results in more enemies willing to die for their cause.

For example, our recent missile attack in Pakistan killed some top al-Qaida leaders, but also killed 18 women and children and inflamed the Pakistani public to such an extent that it has likely created 10 or 100 new terrorist recruits for each one we managed to kill. You cannot defeat terrorism by inflicting terror yourself.

Worse, the 21st century's trend in weaponry favors popular transient terrorists who have no specific territory to defend and who are willing to die for their cause. That same weaponry trend disfavors modern sovereign nations in such a conflict, even a nation boasting the most powerful military in the world.

The reason is that civilized nations have something to lose--places to defend, lives to protect, a state of freedom to preserve--while their terrorist enemies have already been driven to the point where they believe they have nothing left to lose and are committed to killing themselves in retaliation.

Attempting to fight terror with terror merely results in the enemy gaining enough popular sympathy that they are able to obtain more financing, better technical know-how and motivate more sympathizers into becoming suicidal fodder for more attacks.

It is not too late--yet--for the United States to change course.

To do so, we have to stop being stupid.

That would involve recognizing that Islamic suicide-terrorism cannot be successfully fought militarily; that to win we must diffuse & remove the motivations which drive the terrorist response, and we must also "civilize" the war on terror by treating terrorists as criminals rather than as enemy soldiers on a battlefield.

The Bush approach, which is to use our military to inflict terror on the terrorists (including suspending the rules of civilization against torture and intimidation of suspects and sympathizers) is doomed. It is like throwing gasoline on a fire. The fire has suddenly gotten much larger, and idiots that we are, our response is to hit it with more gasoline. When the fire flames up bigger still, the Bush response is to forbid measuring the size of the fire*, and throw yet more gasoline.

The American experiment which began in 1776 cannot survive such conflagration for long.

*The U. S Government used to compile a terrorism index, counting the number of terrorist attacks (exclusive of war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan), but after the index showed dramatic increases in terrorist incidents in 2003 and again in 2004, the Bush Administration ordered it stopped. Which--let's be blunt--goes beyond stupidity.
» In praise of folly
Where is Erasmus when you need him? The Catholic divine might have thought he chased this sort of folly out of Christianity 500 years ago, but it appears not.

. . . three Christian ministers today blessed the doors of the hearing room where Senate Judiciary Committee members will begin considering the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito on Monday.

Capitol Hill police barred them from entering the room to continue what they called a consecration service. But in a bit of one-upsmanship, the three announced that they had let themselves in a day earlier, touching holy oil to the seats where Judge Alito, the senators, witnesses, Senate staffers and the press will sit, and praying for each of the 13 committee members by name.

"We did adequately apply oil to all the seats," said the Rev. Rob Schenck, who identified himself as an evangelical Christian and as president of the National Clergy Council in Washington.
. . .
The two men, along with Grace Nwachukwu, general manager of a group called Faith and Action, read three Psalms outside the committee room, knelt to say the Lord's Prayer and marked a cross in oil on the committee door before leaving.
--Wall Street Journal, Jan 5, 2006

» The Frogs
backup of Collapse )
» l'affaire Plame
Possible links of White House staffers & officials to the outing (or coverup of the outing) of Valerie Plame.
» Kashmir earthquake disaster unfolding
from Informed Comment:
The news from Kashmir, where 80,000 survivors of the earthquake now face severe winter weather and problems of food and shelter, is not good. The UN High Commissioner on Refugees is complaining about lack of resources. Let's make a last push with the US Congress.

A Hill staffer writes:

"After an impressive donor conference where more than $5.8 billion was pledged little has been given so far. Furthermore, only 25% of the $550 million the UN has asked for in immediate humanitarian needs have been appropriated. Liberal Members of Congress who would normally speak out on this matter are bogged down with domestic issues such as alternative minimum tax, Iraq War, Katrina, and scandals in the WH and the Hill.

The one disturbing fact here is the Pakistani governments muted response to this impending disaster since the donor conference. Not one government official is actively asking for immediate needs funding, even though three million are homeless and hundreds of thousands live in the snow line (which is 10 feet of snow!)

It appears that the US and Pakistan governments have conspired not to give immediate needs funding. Insiders close to the Pakistani government say relief money will not be used for earthquake victims but rather for political pet projects similar to Senator Steven’s highway to nowhere. The US is happy to give all monies to reconstruction; where US contractors can get rich (sounds familiar). Some have speculated that the US will give Pakistan a carrot in a free trade area (in ’06) to quiet them.

Moreover, the Republicans in Congress will not divert any defense appropriations to humanitarian aid. They do not want to hurt the feelings of DOD contractors (who give them campaign cash hand over fist). The plan is to wait for the next Iraq supplemental, which has been postponed to sometime in February 2005.

Therefore, our only hope is that the Administration will realize that tens of thousands of Kashmir’s dying will not help the US’s image in the Muslim world. They will need to divert some economic or military aid. The President Bush has the lone power to do this.

Oxfam has written a good article on what we can ask President Bush to do.

We need to act now. The Congress is only open for one more week. We will come back to DC in February after the State of the Union. It would be quite helpful if your readers can contact their Congressman, Senator, or the President and let them know we are outraged at the lack of financial response. The Congress switch board is 202.224.3121 and the WH switch board is 202-456-1111. (Unfortunately, many prominent Pakistani-Americans are currently in Kashmir trying to save lives instead of lobbying their Member of Congress to do the right thing). We need to tell them to fully fund the immediate needs of the Kashmiris.

In the 21st century there is no excuse to let anyone to freeze to death, especially in a strategic ally such as Pakistan."

» Iraqi civil war analysis
» Harold Pinter's Nobel Acceptance speech
The playwright Harold Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. The following is from his acceptance speech
Pinter on Lies & TruthCollapse )
» Wife Swap
An acquaintance of mine, Reginald Finley aka The Infidel Guy on web radio, who is a fellow member of the Atlanta Freethought Society, took part in ABC's Wife Swap in an episode that will air Monday night (8 PM ET)

I recommend watching it.
» Evolution website & the nature of scientific truth
Here is an excellent website on evolution and its history The Museum of Paleontology at University of California Berkeley publishes the website. Because it is partially funded by a National Science Foundation grant, a California couple has filed a lawsuit claiming it violates the separation clause in the U. S. Constitution. Their primary objection seems to be that the website presents evolution as "true".

Over the years, I've come to understand that words like "true" and "fact" mean something different to scientists than they do to philosophers or the general public.

To most of us, to say something is true is to say that it is a correct statement in some universal and enduring way: absolutely true. Facts are absolutely true. (Of course, one can assert that something is a fact or is true and be wrong; but if something actually is true then it is and always has been true in some absolute fashion.)

To the scientist, truth and fact are always relative to evidence. To say that something is true is not to say that it is absolutely now and forever true, but only that it is without valid question the best interpretation of the available evidence. On the other hand, in the scientific world more evidence is always forthcoming, which means valid questions are always—always—a future possibility.

Scientific truth is never absolute. When a scientist says something is true she or he takes for granted the proviso: "based on our current best knowledge and understanding". In the world of science, something granted as a "fact" today can not be guaranteed facthood tomorrow—though of course with many "scientific facts" one can project their factuality forward with great confidence.

Furthermore, science doesn't assume that there is an underlying grid of "basic facts" which scientists will gradually discover. Science is agnostic to whether such "absolutely basic" facts exist or not.

If there is an underlying grid of ultimate facts—a blueprint substrate of existence—then eventually the scientific enterprise will bump against it and achieve completion. Science as an endeavor will come to an end. The scientific method, however, is not predicated on that happening: scientists will always strive to dig deeper, and presumably (if there really are ultimate facts) be frustrated in that effort.

If there is an ultimate substrate of basic facts of this sort, then I would say—speaking philosophically—that some sort of Deism/Theism is correct. If there is no such ultimate substrate, then I would say that atheism is correct.

In our lifetime, scientists are not likely to hit such a boundary. Theism/Deism makes the claim that such a boundary must exist, and that science therefore at some point should bump into it. Atheism makes the opposite claim, that the boundary does not exist and therefore science can never bump into it. (Atheists admit, however, that there are practical limits to scientific investigation; theists and deists may admit the same; the boundary we are talking about is not a practical boundary to scientific investigation but a factual boundary.)
» The earth-centered universe
As we know, there exist "shrill" people who reject not only evolution but also heliocentricism, such as those at fixedearth.com who argue that
Some would like to think this challenge to the Copernican Model is being made by a handful of Bible Fundamentalists who stupidly think they can defeat Copernicanism by simply quoting the Bible’s geocentric and creationist Scriptures. Wrong! No one is that naive in this day and age! Rather, what must be grasped is that this challenge to the Copernican Model is rooted and grounded in purely scientific, historical, and religious facts. Those facts are the only weapons required in this battle. They are capable in and of themselves of exposing Copernicanism as the vulnerable keystone that is holding up the Big Bang Kabbalist Kosmology of 15 billions years of Evolutionism. This is a demonstrably huge deception which has become modern man’s foundational premise behind all his "knowledge". These facts--without even mentioning what the Bible teaches--prove that the Earth is not rotating on an axis nor orbiting the sun. Those facts by themselves reveal a deception of incomparable magnitude that has been built entirely on assumptions and fraud.
But there are more thoughtful advocates as well, such as those at Geocentricity.com who, in addition to publishing The Biblical Astronomer and combating the kooks who believe the lunar landings were faked, write papers on superstrings and "the aether as a plenum" in order to
mathematically. . .demonstrate that whether or not the creation is geocentric, the universe has to rotate as a solid body in order for it to exist. This is done by examining the very foundations for the laws of physics, which laws relate properties such as mass, distance, and gravity by fundamental constants. It is the values of these fundamental constants which requires the rotation of the universe and, furthermore, specifies that the rotation period is of the order of one day. [source: Abstract of "Massive Superstrings and the Firmament" by Gerardus D. Bouw, Ph.D.]
For lowbrow entertainment I recommend fixedearth.com, but if it's highbrow fun you seek, you can't go wrong with geocentricity.com
» Iranian control of Iraq
I recommend reading Riverbend's latest blog from Baghdad. Read RiverbendCollapse )
» Trick or Treat from Sony Music
If you purchase a music CD from Sony and insert it in you computer, it may install a rootkit (user-level or kernel-level software designed to hide itself and its related files and registry keys--a common malware practice) which cloaks Sony's proprietary DRM software designed to limit copying of the music on the cd.

Sony's End User License Agreement does not mention the rootkit. Furthermore, no method is provided to uninstall it. Attempting to manually remove the rootkit can leave your cd-rom drive disabled, in fact, since the Sony software installs drivers that filter i/o to the cd-rom driver and the ide channel: a "lower filter" driver called $sys$crater to cover imapi, and an "upper filter" driver called $sys$cor.

$sys$crater and $sys$cor are hidden. Infact, the rootkit hides any files, folders, registry keys, and processes which begin with "$sys$". A quick way to find out if you have been "trick or treated" by Sony is to go to Device Manager and under the Details tab for your CD-ROM drive select "Device Lower Filters". If $sys$crater shows up it is indeed halloween. (Another way is to rename something so it starts with "$sys$" and watch it disappear.)

Mark Russinovich of SysInternals.com discovered this, and posted the details.

But the weirdest thing is that Sony is not even seriously trying to prevent illegal copying with their CD DRM scheme. Instead their target is Apple. At this point the story gets even more prankish and halloweenish, which you can read about here:

DRM Crippled CD: A bizarre tale in 4 parts
» Vice President for Torture
"VICE PRESIDENT Cheney is aggressively pursuing an initiative that may be unprecedented for an elected official of the executive branch: He is proposing that Congress legally authorize human rights abuses by Americans. "Cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment of prisoners is banned by an international treaty negotiated by the Reagan administration and ratified by the United States. The State Department annually issues a report criticizing other governments for violating it. Now Mr. Cheney is asking Congress to approve legal language that would allow the CIA to commit such abuses against foreign prisoners it is holding abroad. In other words, this vice president has become an open advocate of torture." --WashingtonPost.com editorial, Oct 26, 2005

This editorial goes on bravely to point out what most members of the mainline media are afraid to mention for fear of being labeled "unpatriotic".

"His position is not just some abstract defense of presidential power. The CIA is holding an unknown number of prisoners in secret detention centers abroad. In violation of the Geneva Conventions, it has refused to register those detainees with the International Red Cross or to allow visits by its inspectors. Its prisoners have "disappeared," like the victims of some dictatorships. The Justice Department and the White House are known to have approved harsh interrogation techniques for some of these people, including "waterboarding," or simulated drowning; mock execution; and the deliberate withholding of pain medication. CIA personnel have been implicated in the deaths during interrogation of at least four Afghan and Iraqi detainees." --ibid

Few matters are black & white, but this is one of those matters which absolutely separates people with evil intentions from those with good intentions. On the good side, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz) proposed an amendment to the defense spending bill which prohibits "the use of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by any U. S. personnel".

90 Senators voted for McCain's amendment.

It is this amendment that our Vice President wants to undo. First he threatened a Presidential veto of the entire defense spending bill; now he's actively campaigning to change the wording to "formally adopt cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment as a legal instrument of U. S. policy" under the auspices of the CIA.

The WashingtonPost.com editorial concludes:

"The Senate's earlier vote suggests that it will not allow such a betrayal of American values. As for Mr. Cheney: He will be remembered as the vice president who campaigned for torture." --ibid

But do most Americans even know that this is going on right now?

I have no doubt that future historians will characterize Cheney as the V. P. who (among other things) advocated torture. But will they also characterize us as the generation of Americans who didn't care & didn't want to know; the generation who preferred to remain ignorant of the evil done in their name?
» Early American names
I always wondered if Submit Butts was reluctant to tell anyone her name. She lives in 18th century New England at a time when Submit was a common enough name for a girl. But even in those days her last name had to make her first name rather embarrassing.

But then, Puritan names were like that. They often named their children the way they wanted them to behave: Submit, of course, but also Obedience, Mindwell, Silence, Content, Prudence, Patience, Humility, Constance, Thankful, Grace, and Temperance were all common enough names to give a girl. If you wanted to make sure your daughter learned well you named her (well, why not?) Remember. Wanted accurate work? Choose a name like Precise. Wanted her to show resolve? Name her Resolved. Wanted Christian virtures? Name her Charity, Peace, Hope, Mercy, Glory, Deliverance, Easteror even Christian.

We have to wonder, however, about those puritan parents who named their girls Desire, Love, Delight, Experience Freedom, or Freelove. There's something a little more worldly going on there than we normally think of with Puritans.

They did it to boys too, of course, though not as often. Wait and Waitstill were common boy names, as were Consider, Freegrace, Hopestill, Increase, BetteruResolved and Deliverance. I even found an 18th century American boy named Joy--although I suppose it might have been a misspelling of Joey.

I also found a Puritan child named Fear, though whether it was boy or girl I could not determine.

Of course, not all 17th and 18th century American names were admonishions. Most in fact came directly from the Bible. Today parents like to give names a twist by using alternate spellings. Since early Americans lived before spelling was codified, odd spellings were the rule: Willyam for William; Loice for Lois; Lycy and Luce for Lucy; Peeter and Petter for Peter; Moyses for Moses; Ame and Amee for Amy; Allice and Alles for Alice; Giels and Gyles for Giles; Robart for Robert; Serra, Sara and Sary for Sarah; Humillitie, Humillity, Humillyty for Humility, and so on.

And then there were Puritan names which are just plain intriguing. Girl names like Achsa, Selinda, Sabra, Zilpah, Sinah, Huldah, Beriah, Tamma, Currence, Keziah, Tamzen, Zurniah, Eliphaal, Tamer, Edy, Zerviah, Damaris, Zeporah, Maral, Rumah, Siana, Constanta, Zylpha, Barradell, Neltje, Oceanus. Boy names like Perigrine, Evi, Issacher, Camp, Esme, Abijah, Electus, Epenetus, Zophar, Zalmon, Zibey, Mayhew, Heman, Eleazer, Eliahib, Feathergill, Elnathan, Assel, Eliakim, Smallwood, Eliphalet, Orestes, Benoni, Asahel, Jabish, Pasco, Hallet. Pelatiah, Benadam, and Beebe.

I'll end with a question. 18th century records show that Jerusha was married to Hezekiah. Which was the wife, which the husband?
» Questions I asked 25 years ago
If a being created existence out of nothing, can that being be part of the existence it created, or must it have been part of the nothing, and therefore not have existed?

If this being was after all something and not nothing, who or what created it? And if it didn't need creating, why does the rest of existence need creating?

Theists like to explain that the difference between God and the rest of existence is that God is a "necessary being" while the rest of existence is "contingent".

Contingent refers to existence that interacts in a causal chain with other existence. A creates B and B creates C and C creates D in this interaction of cause and effect. Thus A, B, C and D are "contingent". But if A is contingent then something must have created A. But if A is God, then nothing created A. The causal chain is broken by saying that A is a "necessary" being which means, simply, uncaused. But is this anything other than a word game?

There are two problems. The first is that causality is a two-way street. Effects have causes, but those causes have to be the sort of thing than can make those effect happen. Causality, in short, is an interaction. Which means that for God to be capable of interacting with the physical world in a way which enables God to create and move things, God must be contingent or have some contingent components. Declaring God "necessary" is simply a raw fiat.

The above objection can be put in other terms. Time is a function of change--if there were no change there would be and could be no time. Time in fact is only a way of measuring change by a standard clock--that is, by something that changes in a extremely regular way. This is why God is defined as unchanging and as the creator of our world as a world of change. But how can the unchanging create anything or start anything moving, since it much change to do so. This is why we say that contingency and causality are two-way streets. It means that either God is also contingent, or God is out of the creation business. If God is not the creator then God is not really God as we mean the term. On the other hand, if God is contingent, then God cannot be the first cause in a chain.

The second objection is even more interesting. It's based on the observation that causality--and thus contingency--is actually nothing but a mental construct and not in fact a description of how existence actually is. For our thoughts to be useful, we have to think about the world in terms of causes and effects, but causality is part of the currency of human thought--not an aspect of existence itself.
» Niger forgery
Discounting the known forgery, did Iraq at least seek to purchase uranium from Niger? This analysis says no.

Next question: who created the Niger forgery? Note the claim that Patrick Fitzgerald, who reportedly will issue indictments tomorrow in the Plame matter, has obtained the "non-redacted" Italian report on the forgery, something reported by UPI as well.

Was the White House Iraqi Group or the Office of Special Plans (which the Administration set up in the Pentagon to push for invading Iraq) ultimately responsible for the creation of the Niger forgery? Was it part of their effort (in the words of the Downing Street memo) to "fix" the intelligence to support an invasion of Iraq? Or was the forgery strictly an Italian initiative?
» Entertaining paranoia
http://www.tomchristianonline.com/ (Yes, Valerie Plame was spying on him in Florida. So were a lot of other people. But don't ask why.)
» lest we forget. . .
"See, free nations are peaceful nations. Free nations don't attack each other. Free nations don't develop weapons of mass destruction." -- President George W. Bush (apparently unaware that the U. S. develops nuclear, chemical and biological weaponry, and has not exactly been peaceful under his watch)

"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality--judiciously, as you will--we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to study what we do." -- an unidentified aide to President George W. Bush speaking to N. Y. Times reporter Ron Suskind

And laugh at both the arrogance and stupidity of it. And cry at the consequences.
» Shame & Guilt
When we think about morality biologically, we begin to notice things that we might otherwise miss. For example, why do humans feel experiences of guilt and shame?

Rather, why is it possible for humans to feel guilt and shame?

Why did the ability to feel guilt and shame evolve?

It is evidence, I submit, of the biological nature of morality.

It is also evidence that humans are supposed to feel guilt and shame sometimes. That is to say, it is evidence that the methods of human morality are built into our nature. And note that shame and guilt also imply that we have a moral nature distinct from our choices and preferences—otherwise there would be no reason for "learning methods" like shame and guilt to exist in us.

Much the same has long been said in different terms from the theistic perspective, but I've never seen it stated in biological/evolutionary terms from an atheist perspective.

Obviously our "moral nature" is pretty flexible. It incorporates the ability to adjust our behavior to current environments and circumstances by the imposition of feelings of shame and guilt.

Such feelings are usually thought of as resulting from a recognition of the impropriety of our behavior in the eyes of others around us: i.e. guilt and shame are seen as helping us conform to social norms.

But guilt and shame can also be experienced when one is quite alone and in opposition to social norms. For example I have felt guilt about killing insects, and I have felt shame at not being legitimate enough to go naked in the sunlight. These feelings first happened to me when I was young, indeed happened shortly after I decided to reject all morality and instead "feel" what to do.

I was certainly never socialized to like nudity or to mind killing insects. Once moral feelings like these arose in me, however, I gradually modified my belief-system to embrace them. Not, as far as I can tell, the other way around.
» Might Makes Right
I wrote this in a SelectSmart debate forum that seems to have disappeared, so I'm going to preserve it here:

I am always amazed at the popularity of moral relativism among Americans, and I can't help but wonder if that is why we are so docile in the face of injustice and so unwilling to critically examine the rightness or wrongness of our actions as the most powerful nation in the world.

I admire Noam Chomsky's elegant phrasing of the Golden Rule: "If an action is right for us, it is right for others; and if wrong for others, it is wrong for us. Those who reject that standard simply declare that acts are justified by power."

Denying that there are moral absolutes is very convenient when you're the most powerful kid on the block. It allows you to justify whatever action you want to justify and still feel good about yourself. It means you don't have to worry about whether your behavior (or your society's behavior) is right or wrong. Since there's no objective standard, there's no way to make such a determination anyway. The result is that by default power becomes the standard. In any serious moral conflict, might makes right.

Since no one can challenge the might of the United States, moral relativism is very convenient for Americans right now. I view its popularity in that context.
» Atheism and Morals (2)
In 1966 the Christian philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre gave a lecture at Columbia University called "Atheism and Morals" (later published in a book titled, The Religious Significance of Atheism, Columbia University Press, 1969) which is remarkable for laying out in clear language the moral catastrophe that has befallen Western civilization over the past few centuries. MacIntyre has continued to write on the subject since, of course, but it is this lecture which I have in my hands now and will summarize.
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