THIS BLOG HAS MOVED AND HAS A NEW HOME PAGE.

Entries for April 2011

April 30, 2011

Elizabeth Warren on The Daily Show

This fierce advocate for those of us who are not part of the oligarchy reveals the fights that are taking place behind the scenes to prevent the oligarchy from gutting the measures she has proposed to give ordinary people the tools to avoid being suckered by the big financial interests.

She points out how the system really works. When debates are held in the open, ordinary people tend to win because their case is so obviously just. So what the oligarchy and its allies in government do is utter bland generalities in public and move the actual policy making into the back alleys where they can stick the knife in unseen and then pretend that they did not know what was going on. The metaphor is apt because the oligarchy are truly gangsters just with better clothes and manners.

The interview is in three parts and well worth watching in full. The latter parts are prompted after the first one.

Christopher Hitchens on the British monarchy

He gives it the drubbing it deserves but has some friendly advice for the new bride: persuade your new husband to abdicate before it is too late, and that corrupt and soul-killing institution gets you too.

Myself, I wish her well and also wish I could whisper to her: If you really love him, honey, get him out of there, and yourself, too. Many of us don't want or need another sacrificial lamb to water the dried bones and veins of a dessicated system. Do yourself a favor and save what you can: Leave the throne to the awful next incumbent that the hereditary principle has mandated for it.

April 29, 2011

It's uncanny

A SurveyUSA poll finds that despite Obama releasing the so-called long-form birth certificate, "18% still have doubts and another 10% say the document released by the White House is a forgery."

The total number of skeptics add up almost exactly to the famous Crazification Factor number of 27%.

And there's more. According to the same survey "Both 27% who have seen the certificate and 27% who have not seen the certificate say the matter is still an open item for debate." In other words, the people in the Crazification world are totally impervious to evidence.

Donald Trump and the birthers

On his MSNBC show, Lawrence O'Donnell lashes out at the racism that motivates people like Donald Trump and others who question Obama's eligibility to be president (and even his academic record) and the media's complicity (particularly NBC) in allowing these crazies to have a platform.

It seems like quite a lot of people simply cannot stomach the fact that a non-white person with a foreign-sounding name could be the president of 'their' country.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Bernie Sanders on The Daily Show

The independent socialist senator from Vermont says what I have been saying for some time, except far more clearly and succinctly and without using the word oligarchy. It was clear to me that Sanders thinks that most Democrats are also representing oligarchic interests but since he caucuses with them, he pulls his punches slightly.

I am not sure if Jon Stewart really believes that the Democrats and Republicans are deep ideological enemies or whether he is just saying that to provide a foil for Sanders. The two-part extended interview is well worth watching in full.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive - Bernie Sanders Extended Interview Pt. 1
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

The creationists' dinosaur problem

Dinosaurs are a headache for biblical literalists. Since religion has no rational basis, you have to build your base of believers by indoctrinating children at a young age. And because children are fascinated by dinosaurs and can't seem to get enough of them, you need to work them into the story somehow. The fact that dinosaurs existed at one time and are now extinct is an unquestioned fact and must be faced. The catch is that dinosaurs are not mentioned in the Bible. It is no good for creationist adults to deny their existence the way they deny other inconvenient scientific facts because even the most trusting and naïve child is going to balk at such a counterfactual statement.

Young Earth creationists cannot accept the most common scientific explanation of dinosaur extinction as a result of an asteroid collision with the Earth 65 million years ago that changed the climate, because that explanation is too deeply integrated into an old Earth model in which dinosaurs lived long before humans. Biblical literalists believe in a 6,000 year old Earth in which humans existed from the beginning and hence were contemporaneous with all animals so it would be hard to explain why the catastrophic event that wiped out the dinosaurs did not destroy humans as well. Besides asteroids are not mentioned in the Bible either.

As a result, there has developed an entire creationist cottage industry devoted to (a) arguing that the Bible does indeed talk about dinosaurs, and (b) providing explanations as to why they are no longer around.

Blog reader David sent along a little cartoon booklet titled There Go the Dinosaurs! that gives one such attempt. As he said it is at the same time both hilarious and sad.

The booklet says that the reason dinosaurs are not mentioned in the Bible is that they used to be called dragons, which are mentioned extensively in the Bible, and that they were 'renamed' as dinosaurs in 1841. It is true that the name dinosaur was only coined in 1842 by the naturalist Richard Owen after the discovery of the fossils. But this 'renaming' gambit that makes dragons and dinosaurs the same is quite a neat trick because it solves two embarrassing problems at once. One is that dinosaurs existed but the Bible does not mention them and the other is that dragons are widely accepted to be mythical creatures that never existed but the Bible and other fables repeatedly refer to them. Of course, since god knows the future, it does not explain why he did not tell the authors of the Bible to use the term dinosaur. But we'll let that go.

So why did the dinosaurs go extinct, if it was not due to a catastrophic event? The booklet said that humans hunted them for their meat. During the great flood, a pair of dinosaurs was saved in the ark by Noah and after the flood subsided they reproduced like other animals. But because the flood wiped out all the vegetation, the air in the immediate post-flood era was oxygen poor. Apparently dinosaurs need more oxygen-rich air and as a result they got tired easily and couldn't run as fast (like what happens to humans in high altitudes, I suppose) and so were much more easily caught and killed. Hence they went extinct.

What is interesting about this scenario is the attempt to provide a scientific-sounding explanation for an accepted fact that picks and chooses from the scientific universe. What creationists do is mix as much standard science as possible with evidence-free assertions. Creationists tend to use science only when it consists of either those things that are common knowledge and cannot be disputed or things that people experience in their everyday lives and seem commonsensical or it provides results that they agree with. Any science that is not common knowledge and contradicts the Bible is rejected. Radiometric dating, for example, requires esoteric and technical knowledge and thus can be dismissed and its conclusions breezily cast aside.

The way that creationists operate is to accept just those scientific facts that 'every one knows' (continents drift, during photosynthesis trees take in carbon dioxide and emit oxygen, the Earth moves around the Sun, the universe is vast) and then weave elaborate stories around these anchors to create 'explanations'. The catch is that as time goes by, more and more things that once could be dismissed as esoteric start to enter the world of 'everyone knows' knowledge, creating more headaches for creationists, requiring more ad hoc additions. For example, creationists realize that it is futile to deny that the continents once formed a single large land mass that drifted apart. But in order to explain how that could have happened in 6,000 years, they say that they moved really fast until just recently.

The idea that trees are producers of oxygen (true) and that low oxygen content in air can more easily lead to fatigue (true) is thrown in with a purely ad hoc assertion (that dinosaurs need more oxygen-rich air than humans) to arrive at the desired result. As Rudyard Kipling showed with his Just So Stories once you are allowed this freedom to be evidence-free, you can explain anything, a point reinforced by the cartoon strip Jesus and Mo.

edge.jpg

What is really going to destroy contemporary creationism is the age of the Earth and evolution. The idea that the Earth is really old, of the order of billions of years, is now so widely accepted that creationists will come to rue the day that they decided that a young Earth and special creation of species had to be bedrock beliefs. Even the mainstream media, ever solicitous of not offending people's religious beliefs, no longer bother to provide 'balance' when it talks of the age of the Earth being 13.7 4.5 billion years old. The same is true that species have evolved.

At some point, young people will peel away from creationism because just so stories that argue for a young Earth and special creation of species will be just too far fetched for them to take.

April 28, 2011

The dynamic of wars

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow on how modern wars escalate.

Humanism

Philosopher (and atheist) A. C. Grayling talks to Stephen Colbert about his new book The Good Book: A Humanist Bible.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
A.C. Grayling
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive

The news media's priorities

The radio program Marketplace reports on the absurdly high level of media attention devoted to the royal wedding.

CNN will have a 125 journalists on the ground. Fox is sending 50. NBC's broadcasting the "Today" show from London. Even Al Jazeera's on it. There are reports the networks are spending up to $10 million each to cover the event. And that's in a year when shrinking news budgets have also been squeezed by the natural disaster in Japan and uprisings in the Middle East.

CNN is sending 125 journalists? It struck me that since the newsworthiness of this highly scripted event is essentially zero, the media might have been well-advised to have pool coverage, where one outfit televises it and everyone uses the same feed.

But what do I know.

Atheism's morality

In his regular New York Times column, David Brooks trots out his usual banalities, this time about how without god we cannot have a timeless morality.

That’s because people are not gods. No matter how special some individuals may think they are, they don’t have the ability to understand the world on their own, establish rules of good conduct on their own, impose the highest standards of conduct on their own, or avoid the temptations of laziness on their own.

Rigorous theology helps people avoid mindless conformity. Without timeless rules, we all have a tendency to be swept up in the temper of the moment. But tough-minded theologies are countercultural. They insist on principles and practices that provide an antidote to mere fashion.

How can people write such nonsense? Does he really think that how we understand what the Bible says about morality has not changed from Biblical times?

The book The Christian Delusion edited by John W. Loftus has a chapter titled Yahweh is a Moral Monster by Hector Avalos that lists the horrendous morality that is found in the Bible. (The essay is largely a refutation of a defense of god offered by Christian apologist Paul Copan in an essay titled Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics that can be read here. )

In his chapter, Avalos ends (p. 232) with a section titled Atheism's Morality that is worth quoting at length:

Copan fundamentally misunderstands the New Atheism insofar as he believes that it cannot provide a sound moral ground for its judgments. For a Christian apologist to think he or she has triumphed by pointing out the moral relativism of the New Atheism is to miss the entire point. As an atheist, I don't deny that I am a moral relativist. Rather, my aim is to expose the fact that Christians are also moral relativists. Indeed, when it comes to ethics, there are only two types of people in this world:

1. Those who admit they are moral relativists; and
2. Those who do not admit they are moral relativists.

Copan fails because he cannot admit that he is a moral relativist, and he thinks that God will solve the problem of moral relativism. But having a God in a moral system only creates a tautology. All we end up saying is: "X is bad because X is bad." Thus, if we say that we believe in God, and he says idolatry is evil, then that is a tautology: "God says idolatry is bad and so idolatry is bad because God says it is bad." Or we end up using this tautology: "Whatever God says is good because whatever God says is good."

As Kai Nielsen deftly argues, human beings are always the ultimate judges of morality even if we believe in God. After all, the very judgment that God is good is a human judgment. The judgment that what God commands is good is also a human judgment. So Christians are not doing anything different except mystifying and complicating morality. Christians are simply projecting what they call "good" onto a supernatural being. They offer us no evidence that their notion of good comes from outside of themselves [My italics]. And that is where the danger lies. Basing a moral system on unverifiable supernatural beings only creates more violence and endangers our species. I have already discussed this at length in my book, Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence.

Copan cites Dinesh D'Souza who repeats the oft-cited anecdote that atheists have killed more people than religionists. Again, this is based on the false idea that Nazis were atheistic Darwinists, and that Stalinist genocide was due to atheism rather than to forced collectivism (something I discuss in detail in chapter 14 of this book). Speaking only for myself here, I can say that atheism offers a much better way to construct moral rules. We can construct them on the basis of verifiable common interests, known causes, and known consequences. There is an ironclad difference between secular and faith-based morality, and we can illustrate it very simply with these propositions:

A. I have to kill person X because Allah said so.
B. I have to kill person X because he is pointing a gun at me.

In case A, we commit violence on the basis of unverifiable premises. In case B, we might commit violence on the basis of verifiable premises (I can verify a gun exists, and that it is pointed at me). If I am going to kill or be killed, I want it to be for a reason that I can verify to be true. If the word "moral" describes the set of practices that accord with our values, and if our highest value is life, then it is always immoral to trade real human lives for something that does not exist or cannot be verified to exist.

What does not exist has no value relative to what does exist. What cannot be proven to exist should never be placed above what does exist. If we value life, then you should never trade something that exists, especially life, for something that does not exist or cannot be proven to exist. That is why it would always be immoral to ever take a life based on faith claims. It is that simple.

Avalos captures quite succinctly my views on this topic. I am a moral relativist because I simply cannot see how a moral framework can be constructed that is independent of human input and judgments. The reason that Brooks thinks the rules are timeless is because a human being told him that one particular holy book's rules (out of the many holy books with their own rules) are given by a god and are thus timeless. He chose (or was indoctrinated) to believe that claim. How is that not a product of human judgment?

If a god were to suddenly appear to me, even then I would not unhesitatingly accept those moral commands. If this god said, for example, that I should murder my children (as the Bible says he told Abraham to do with his son Isaac) or indeed that I should murder anyone at all, I simply would not do it and I am confident that these days most people would do the same. None but the most fanatical god believers would comply and we would consider such people to be either insane or moral monsters.

If a god issued commands that we now consider immoral, he/she/it would face a revolt on his hands because all thinking people are, in the end, moral relativists and reject moral commands that are not congruent with their own moral sensibilities or based on agreed-upon humane principles.

April 27, 2011

Eddie Izzard on Easter

I know this is a bit late, but never mind.

This will not end the nonsense

The release of Obama's 'Certificate of Live Birth' will not satisfy the birthers.

But it will be interesting to see what flaws they can come up with about this new document.

UPDATE: James Fallows gives the press the lashing it deserves for its role on this birther thing and should be the last word, but unfortunately it won't.

The vanishing of privacy

While I tend to be scathing about the general vacuity of the mainstream media in the US, there are a few reporters whose investigative work is excellent. One of them is Dana Priest of the Washington Post. I had been meaning to draw attention to her excellent series on the way that the government monitors people.

One key point that emerges from her story is that all you have to do is just one thing, however innocent and innocuous, that is deemed to be suspicious by any authority for you to be placed on a watch list that results in all your personal data and all your actions accumulated in the data banks for investigators to peruse.

Glenn Greenwald points out the dangers of this and the way that it contrasts with the government insisting that everything it does is secret.

That's the mindset of the U.S. Government: everything it does of any significance can and should be shielded from public view; anyone who shines light on what it does is an Enemy who must be destroyed; but nothing you do should be beyond its monitoring and storing eyes. And what's most remarkable about this -- though, given the full-scale bipartisan consensus over it, not surprising -- is how eagerly submissive much of the citizenry is to this imbalance. Many Americans plead with their Government in unison: we demand that you know everything about us but that you keep us ignorant about what you do and punish those who reveal it to us. Often, this kind of oppressive Surveillance State has to be forcibly imposed on a resistant citizenry, but much of the frightened American citizenry -- led by most transparency-hating media figures -- has been trained with an endless stream of fear-mongering to demand that they be subjected to more and more of it.

Of all the surveillance state abuses, one of the most egregious has to be the Government's warrantless, oversight-less seizure of the laptops and other electronic equipment of American citizens at the border, whereby they not only store the contents of those devices but sometimes keep the seized items indefinitely. That practice is becoming increasingly common, aimed at people who have done nothing more than dissent from government policy; I intend to have more on that soon. If American citizens don't object to the permanent seizure and copying of their laptops and cellphones without any warrants or judicial oversight, what would they ever object to?

Recent news reports reveal that Apple's iPhone and Google's Android phones track and record your every move even when the location detection option is turned off and to serve marketers.

All these developments have caused some alarm amongst privacy advocates but I suspect that most people will not care. After all, people now voluntarily give out their private information on social network sites, information that those sites can harvest and sell to marketers and pass on to governments. People seem to either take the attitude that if you are doing nothing wrong then you should have nothing to worry about or have resigned themselves to the idea that the government and private companies can gain access to information about our private lives to a degree that would have been unimaginable just a couple of decades ago.

Are we past the point of no return when it comes to personal privacy? I suspect so. We have to live with the fact that anything we do is in principle knowable by others.

Is there a real danger to this loss of privacy? Yes. In addition to enabling companies to try and manipulate us, there is an special danger from governments. What governments fear most is when people start sharing dangerous ideas about democracy and freedom and human rights and start organizing around those subversive concepts. Getting wind of those things early and neutralizing key people enables government to control its populations which is why historically governments have depended on informants and spies and detection devices to monitor their own people. What the new technology has done is enable this to be done more easily.

On the other hand, human ingenuity should not be underestimated. People will find ways to use the same technology to get around the snooping. WikiLeaks, for example, has pioneered ways of getting information out that was not possible before. Also the sheer volume of information that is transmitted suggests that it can drown the signals in massive noise, even with sophisticated packet sniffing software that can look for keywords. The catch with all those devices is that if you narrow the search fields you might miss things while if you broaden it you get swamped.

And finally, technology and force can only take you so far. When enough people are united around a common ideal and rise up in unison, even the most repressive and technologically advanced governments will fall.

April 26, 2011

Silly superstitions

Jonathan Turley writes about legislators in Kyrgyzstan who sacrificed seven sheep in order to get rid of evil spirits in the parliamentary chamber and about chickens that are sacrificed as part of the Jewish Kapparot ritual.

He ends his post by saying "What is astonishing is that some nations remain in the control of such superstitious throwbacks." I couldn't tell if he had his tongue in cheek because, apart from details like animal sacrifice, how is this more of a superstitious throwback than Congress starting its day with a prayer or priests blessing houses and the like?

Participants needed for brain study on morality

A reader of this blog told me that he had participated in a study on morality and that they are looking for more people.

Study Name: Moral Boundaries
Location: CCIR at University Hospital (in Cleveland)
Researcher: Megan Norr

Detailed Description:

This study consists of a 2.5 hour research appointment which takes place at the Case Center for Imaging Research at University Hospital. This study seeks to define which brain areas are responsible for moral judgment processing and to determine how they are working with other parts of the brain when we make moral judgments. By using behavioral questionnaires to gather information about individual attitudes on morality and fMRI to examine brain activation in response to a variety of stimuli, we hope to shed some light on the neural representation of human morality. During the appointment, participants will complete a computer-based questionnaire which takes roughly 1 hour and participate in an MRI scan which will take 1 hour and 10 minutes. The MRI session consists of a variety of unique tasks, including viewing of photos and video, listening to stories, reading text, and responding to opinion questions. Some stimuli in this study may be morally challenging or alarming. All participants will have the opportunity to view sample stimuli prior to beginning the study. Participation is voluntary. Participants will be compensated a flat rate of $50. If you are a medical doctor, medical student, or professional in the fields of biology or medicine, you are ineligible for this study.

I believe they are looking for people in the 30-40 year old range but they may not be too rigid about the boundaries.

The blog reader who participated said this about his experience:

In short, It's a morality study that uses MRI and behavioral measures to examine human morality. They investigate brain areas responsible for moral judgment and moral attitudes. It was a fun experience, asked many thought-provoking questions that revealed many subtleties about myself after some self-reflection and makes for interesting conversation amongst friends over drinks. Would love to give examples, but I don't want to influence the test in any way if you participate. So neat!.. O and the frosting and cherry on top: they give you a 3D movie of your brain on CD when you are done!

If you are interested you can register and schedule an appointment online or contact Megan Norr at megan.norr@gmail.com.

White Knuckles by OK Go

The music group OK Go is known for producing intricately choreographed music videos that are done in just one take. That is hard enough even without, as in this case, a large number of rescue dogs getting in on the action.

The case for pacifism

Pacifism, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is "Belief in or advocacy of peaceful methods as feasible and desirable alternatives to war; (espousal or advocacy of) a group of doctrines which reject war and every form of violent action as a means of solving disputes, esp. in international affairs. Also: advocacy of a peaceful policy or rejection of war in a particular instance."

We see that there are three meanings of the word in common usage. Most peaceful people would have no trouble agreeing with the first and third meanings. It is the middle one that requires the "espousal or advocacy of) a group of doctrines which reject war and every form of violent action as a means of solving disputes, esp. in international affairs" that causes problems, since it seems to reject the war option under all circumstances and it is not hard to conjure up a scenario in which war seems the least worst option.

While I hate war, I have never considered myself a pacifist. But Nicholas Baker in his article WHY I'M A PACIFIST in the May 2011 issue Harper's Magazine makes a compelling case for pacifism. In doing so, he tackles head-on the seemingly unanswerable argument that all pacifists are immediately confronted with: What would you have done about Hitler? He calls this assumption that going to war against Hitler was the correct thing to do a 'dangerous myth of the Good War', and that accepting this myth unquestioningly has enabled future wars.

Baker says that the objective fact that six million Jews were killed suggests that the war policies that were advocated failed in their mission of saving lives and should cause us to seriously reconsider whether other policies might not have saved them.

In fact, the more I learn about the war, the more I understand that the pacifists were the only ones, during a time of catastrophic violence, who repeatedly put forward proposals that had any chance of saving a threatened people. They weren't naïve, they weren't unrealistic—they were psychologically acute realists.

Who was in trouble in Europe? Jews were, of course. Hitler had, from the very beginning of his political career, fantasized publicly about killing Jews. They must go, he said, they must be wiped out—he said so in the 1920s, he said so in the 1930s, he said so throughout the war (when they were in fact being wiped out), and in his bunker in 1945, with a cyanide pill and a pistol in front of him, his hands shaking from Parkinson's, he closed his last will and testament with a final paranoid expostulation, condemning "the universal poisoner of all peoples, international Jewry."

The Jews needed immigration visas, not Flying Fortresses. And who was doing their best to get them visas, as well as food, money, and hiding places? Pacifists were.

Baker's article looks at what pacifists were saying and doing in the run up to that war and describes the heroic efforts of a group of US and British pacifists who sought to save the Jews and avoid World War II.

Kaufman was one of a surprisingly vocal group of World War II pacifists—absolute pacifists, who were opposed to any war service. They weren't, all of them, against personal or familial self-defense, or against law enforcement. But they did hold that war was, in the words of the British pacifist and parliamentarian Arthur Ponsonby, "a monster born of hypocrisy, fed on falsehood, fattened on humbug, kept alive by superstition, directed to the death and torture of millions, succeeding in no high purpose, degrading to humanity, endangering civilization and bringing forth in its travail a hideous brood of strife, conflict and war, more war."

Pacifism at its best, said Arthur Ponsonby, is "intensely practical." Its primary object is the saving of life. To that overriding end, pacifists opposed the counterproductive barbarity of the Allied bombing campaign, and they offered positive proposals to save the Jews: create safe havens, call an armistice, negotiate a peace that would guarantee the passage of refugees. We should have tried. If the armistice plan failed, then it failed. We could always have resumed the battle. Not trying leaves us culpable.

Baker says that Hitler was basically using Jews as hostages to discourage US entry into the war. In any hostage situation, the prime objective must be to save the lives of the hostages and just as attacking a hostage taker usually results in the deaths of the hostages, the US entering World War II and the military options that were pursued sealed the fate of the Jews and effectively signed their death warrants.

The shift, Friedlander writes, came in late 1941, occasioned by the event that transformed a pan-European war into a world war: "the entry of the United States into the conflict." As Stackelberg puts it: "Although the 'Final Solution,' the decision to kill all the Jews under German control, was planned well in advance, its full implementation may have been delayed until the U.S. entered the war. Now the Jews under German control had lost their potential value as hostages."

In any case, on December 12, 1941, Hitler confirmed his intentions in a talk before Goebbels and other party leaders. In his diary, Goebbels later summarized the Führer's re- marks: "The world war is here. The annihilation of the Jews must be the necessary consequence."

Baker says it is easy to be seduced by the logic if war.

"We've got to fight Hitlerism" sounds good, because Hitler was so self-evidently horrible. But what fighting Hitlerism meant in practice was, largely, the five-year-long Churchillian experiment of undermining German "morale" by dropping magnesium fire- bombs and 2,000-pound blockbusters on various city centers. The firebombing killed and displaced a great many innocent people—including Jews in hiding—and obliterated entire neighborhoods. It was supposed to cause an anti-Nazi revolution, but it didn't.

What instead happened was that the massive bombing of Germany was blamed on the Jews who bore the brunt of the retaliation. In June of 1942 in the Warsaw ghetto, Emanuel Ringelblum wrote of the Germans "They are being defeated, their cities are being destroyed, so they take their revenge on the Jews" and added "Only a miracle can save us: a sudden end to the war, otherwise we are lost."

I was struck by how that failed policy of using bombing to undermine morale and create opposition to the government is still being pursued in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya. What aerial bombing seems to do is either make the victimized population shell-shocked and dispirited or arouse anger against those doing the bombing and strengthen people's allegiance to their governments, rather than undermine it.

So the Holocaust continued, and the firebombing continued: two parallel, incommensurable, war-born leviathans of pointless malice that fed each other and could each have been stopped long before they were. The mills of God ground the cities of Europe to powder—very slowly—and then the top Nazis chewed their cyanide pills or were executed at Nuremberg. Sixty million people died all over the world so that Hitler, Himmler, and Goering could commit suicide? How utterly ridiculous and tragic.

When are we going to grasp the essential truth? War never works. It never has worked. It makes everything worse. Wars must be, as Jessie Hughan wrote in 1944, renounced, rejected, declared against, over and over, "as an ineffective and inhuman means to any end, however just." That, I would suggest, is the lesson that the pacifists of the Second World War have to teach us.

It is not easy being a pacifist when warmongering and bellicosity seem to rule the day. Baker's article is bound to result in hostile letters to the editor appearing in subsequent issues. The article is not available online (I believe) without a subscription. It is very tightly argued and the few short excerpts I gave here do not do it justice so I recommend that readers check it out for themselves.

April 25, 2011

Syrian crisis escalates

The situation in Syria seems to be getting seriously worse, with the government security forces killing large numbers of people attending demonstrations and even funerals.

This violence has led the US and UK governments to express 'concern' and when the US expresses concern about the actions of the government of an Arab country, one has to fear, given recent history, that bombing will soon follow. The warmongering editorial board of the Washington Post is already demanding that Obama take action in Syria, though not specifying its precise nature.

There is a considerable lobby in the US that seeks the overthrow all the governments in the region that are perceived as unfriendly to the US and Israel and make them into client states. Syria is not too friendly to the US but not too hostile either (it has been of use to the US in torturing people on its behalf) and it has no oil, making it not that desirable a target for attack. The Bahraini and Yemeni governments are also launching brutal attacks against their own people but they are seen as allies and that should forestall any attacks, or even harsh criticisms, against those countries.

Creating a client state in Iran is the prize that the warmongers really seek which is why the slightest indication of Iranian involvement in another country is trumpeted as a sign of its malign intentions. Saudi Arabia has actually sent troops to Bahrain to lethally quell the protests there without any remonstration from the US. But if Iran were to send in troops to aid (say) the Libyan government, all hell would break loose.

Another WikiLeaks scoop

Glenn Greenwald provides details on the latest revelations about Guantanamo and how the American press downplays the information that is unflattering to the US while the foreign media zeroes in on the truly awful things, such as "how oppressive is this American detention system, how unreliable the evidence is on which the accusations are based, and how so many people were put in cages for years without any justification."

Holy toast

Tired of making toast day after day and not seeing images of Jesus or Mary appear on it, even though others seem to see them everywhere?

Wait no more! With this handy little gadget, you too can have your own miracle. Amaze your friends! Get on the local news!

(Thanks to Norm.)

Escalation in the 'not war' against Libya

The US, France, and Britain rushed the UN and NATO to intervene in Libya allegedly in order to prevent an imminent massacre of 100,000 people, although the evidence to back up this charge was slim and looks increasingly like an alarmist lie to get public support for starting a war in Libya, similar to the lie about Saddam Hussein's imminent nuclear weapons that was used to steamroll the US public into starting that war.

Recall that the initial intervention was supposed to be a "limited humanitarian intervention, not war" to prevent the use of the Libyan air forces from attacking civilians. Then the air war shifted to attacking the Libyan armed forces on the ground wherever they are. Then the British, French, and Italian governments announced that they were sending in 'advisors' to help the rebels. The US already has acknowledged that CIA operatives are already working in the country. Now NATO has bombed Gadhafi's compound. It should be obvious that preventing a massacre was just a pretext for the US to start a new war against yet another country.

The US has now ordered sending in Predator drones. It is important to realize that this is a non-trivial escalation. The drones have been used in Pakistan and Afghanistan for, among other things, targeted attacks on individuals (though they frequently go astray and kill civilians with the most recent incident occurring just yesterday that killed five women and four children) and one wonders who the targets are in Libya. The fact that the drone announcement came so soon after Gadhafi felt confident enough to jauntily ride around Tripoli waving to people while standing through the open sun-roof of a car suggests to me that the US might be targeting him or his close associates or even his family for summary execution. This would not be unprecedented. Recall that that in 1986 Reagan ordered the bombing of Gadhafi's compound, killing his daughter and injuring his sons.

NPR had discussions on this option last Friday morning and again in the evening and it was sickening to hear supposedly 'serious' people so casually discuss the possibility of the US government murdering people including foreign leaders, although they avoid the harsh but accurate words 'murder' or 'kill' and prefer the softer euphemism of 'take out', as if the victim was being invited to a baseball game or the zoo. It become perfectly acceptable for the US president to act like a gangland boss and order 'hits' on his enemies.

Maybe Obama thinks that since he got a Nobel Peace Prize after merely escalating an ongoing war in Afghanistan, he can get another one by actually starting a new war in Libya. Or maybe David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy think that they could get a Peace Prize too. Simon Jenkins in the Guardian wonders if the British Prime Minister realized what he was getting the UK into in Libya and sees parallels with the 1956 Suez debacle.

It looks like we are witnessing the beginning of a long-drawn out civil war in Libya with the involvement of the US, Britain, and France rising to meeting the increasing needs and demands of the anti-Gadhafi forces. This strange policy of using external forces to supposedly 'level the playing field' between warring factions in another country only ensures that the 'game' will never end and that people will continue to suffer. This is why I think the drones have been brought in, to kill Gadhafi or at least kill enough of his family and close associates to force him to leave or to create a coup. NATO can then declare victory and leave the people of Libya to sort through the mess left behind, making sure that the US controls the oil supplies of course.

While all this is going on, a lot of innocent people are going to get killed. The western forces intervening in Libya steadfastly deny any intention of sending in ground forces but I cannot see how that can be avoided if the current stalemate continues, as seems likely, and the drones do not succeed in quickly winning the civil war for the anti-Gadhafi forces. After all, the drones have been used extensively in Pakistan, killing large numbers of people, including civilians, with no decisive outcome.

One thing that drone attacks are good at doing is creating widespread anti-American sentiment. As Glenn Greenwald notes about its effects in Pakistan:

Can someone who defends these drone attacks please identify the purpose? Is the idea that we're going to keep dropping them until we kill all the "militants" in that area? We've been killing people in that area at a rapid clip for many, many years now, and we don't seem to be much closer to extinguishing them. How many more do we have to kill before the eradication is complete?

Beyond that, isn't it painfully obvious that however many "militants" we're killing, we're creating more and more all the time? How many family members, friends, neighbors and villagers of the "five children and four women" we just killed are now consumed with new levels of anti-American hatred? How many Pakistani adolescents who hear about these latest killings are now filled with an eagerness to become "militants"?

The NYT article dryly noted: "Friday's attack could further fuel antidrone sentiment among the Pakistani public"; really, it could? It's likely to fuel far more than mere "antidrone sentiment"; it's certain to fuel more anti-American hatred: the primary driver of anti-American Terrorism. Isn't that how you would react if a foreign country were sending flying robots over your town and continuously wiping out the lives of innocent women, children and men who are your fellow citizens? What conceivable rational purpose does this endless slaughter serve? Isn't it obvious that the stated goal of all of this – to reduce the threat of Terrorism – is subverted rather than promoted by these actions?

We seem to have this strange policy of denying that the goal of the Libyan not-war is 'regime change' while insisting that the not-war will continue until Gadhafi is removed from office. Both things cannot be true.

April 24, 2011

Making sense of Palinspeak

One of the curious features about Sarah Palin that invites considerable mockery is the way she expresses herself. What does one make of the following, uttered just before the 2008 election?

We realize that more and more Americans are starting to see the light there and understand the contrast. And we talk a lot about, OK, we're confident that we're going to win on Tuesday, so from there, the first 100 days, how are we going to kick in the plan that will get this economy back on the right track and really shore up the strategies that we need over in Iraq and Iran to win these wars?

Or this, referring to Hillary Clinton:

When I hear a statement like that coming from a woman candidate with any kind of perceived whine about that excess criticism, or maybe a sharper microscope put on her, I think, 'Man, that doesn't do us any good, women in politics, or women in general, trying to progress this country.'

John McWhorter takes a stab at trying to understand why Palin speaks the way she does. He is a linguist whose book The Power of Babel I have praised before. He used to be a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley but is now a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and is someone whose politics are at the conservative end of the spectrum and so cannot be accused of simply attempting to take a partisan shot at Palin. He seems genuinely intrigued at the way her thought processes work.

Palin is given to meandering phraseology of a kind suggesting someone more commenting on impressions as they enter and leave her head rather than constructing insights about them.

Part of why Palin speaks the way she does is that she has grown up squarely within a period of American history when the old-fashioned sense of a speech as a carefully planned recitation, and public pronouncements as performative oratory, has been quite obsolete.

What truly distinguishes Palin's speech is its utter subjectivity: that is, she speaks very much from the inside of her head, as someone watching the issues from a considerable distance.

This reminds me of toddlers who speak from inside their own experience in a related way: they will come up to you and comment about something said by a neighbor you've never met, or recount to you the plot of an episode of a TV show they have no way of knowing you've ever heard of. Palin strings her words together as if she were doing it for herself — meanings float by, and she translates them into syntax in whatever way works, regardless of how other people making public statements do it.

Palinspeak is a flashlight panning over thoughts, rather than thoughts given light via considered expression.

The modern American typically relates warmly to the use of English to the extent that it summons the oral — "You betcha," "Yes we can!" -- while passing from indifference to discomfort to the extent that its use leans towards the stringent artifice of written language. As such, Sarah Palin can talk, basically, like a child and be lionized by a robust number of perfectly intelligent people as an avatar of American culture. And linguistically, let's face it: she is.

I think he's right. Palin is ignorant about a lot of things and arrogant in her ignorance but is not unduly stupid.

April 23, 2011

Jesus and Mo on the strategy of taking offense

J&M-taking offense.png

Betting on a sure thing

Texas is experiencing a drought and so the governor has decided to proclaim "the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas. I urge Texans of all faiths and traditions to offer prayers on that day for the healing of our land, the rebuilding of our communities and the restoration of our normal way of life."

Since no time frame is specified for when the rain should fall, such prayers are bound to be answered, at which point everyone can thank god for his mercy and blessings.

Next, people in Texas are asked to pray for the sun to rise tomorrow.

(Via Pharyngula.)

Phone calls in films

To enjoy a film, you have to suspend disbelief and get absorbed in the story. One sure way to destroy that feeling and take you completely out of the film is having a character dial a phone number that starts with 555, which are never given out to customers. They do this because apparently viewers often will note the numbers and call them (I have no idea what drives people to do this) so that if a real number is used, the owner of that number gets tons of annoying calls.

In the 2003 Jim Carrey comedy "Bruce Almighty," God's phone number (776-2323, no area code) appears on the Carrey character's pager, so of course moviegoers called it and asked to speak to God. That's kind of funny, unless you happened to own that number in your area code.

The Associated Press reported that a Florida woman threatened to sue Universal Pictures because she was receiving 20 calls an hour on her cellphone. The phone number also connected divine-seeking callers to a church in Sanford, N.C., where the minister, who happened to be named Bruce, was not amused. The BBC reported that even a man in the Manchester, England, area was receiving up to 70 calls a day from folks seeking help and forgiveness.

At the time, Universal explained that the number it chose was not in use in the Buffalo area, where the movie was set. The studio subsequently replaced it in TV and home video versions with, yes, a 555 number.

I have wondered why, with their multi-million dollar budgets, film companies don't simply purchase a few dozens of real numbers that are sufficiently varied and nondescript so that no viewer would likely remember that they have seen them before in other films.

So I was glad to see in the above article that some films are purchasing real numbers where, if you should call it, you receive a recorded message, maybe promoting the film.

April 22, 2011

Bradley Manning protest

While Obama was giving a talk at a fund-raising event in California for his 2012 re-election campaign, one of the attendees interrupted him by taking off her jacket revealing a t-shirt that said "Free Bradley Manning" and singing a song denouncing his continued detention. It should be noted that this was not some hippie protestor but occurred at an event for wealthy campaign contributors who had paid up to $35,800 to attend.

According to a BBC report, witnesses said that Obama was 'visibly displeased' and the woman was escorted out of the room and two of her fellow protestors left with her. Poor man. It must be so annoying to be reminded of one's hypocrisy while dispensing campaign pieties and pretending to value high principles.

Although the government commits many violations of human rights that are even worse than what is happening to Manning, his treatment has become a potent symbol and I hope it dogs Obama wherever he goes.

Simon and Garfunkel perform Mrs. Robinson

Live in Central Park.

The 27% Crazification Factor

The number of contenders courting publicity by publicly flirting with the idea of running for the Republican party's nomination for president seems to be growing exponentially, ranging from those who are crazy to those who are pretending to be crazy in order to attract the crazy base of the party, though it is hard to tell the difference between the two groups. Me, I am waiting for the King of Crazy, Alan Keyes, to throw his hat into the ring to indicate that the craziness has reached a critical mass and we are truly off and running.

Some observers are bemused that Donald Trump has been leading the other contenders in some polls and is able to garner support in the mid-20% range, purely on his crazy birther shtick. His performance does not surprise me in the least because we now have, thanks to Keyes, a benchmark that says that the craziest of candidates can get 27% of the population to vote for him or her. It is only when candidates crack the 27% mark that I start to take them seriously.

How did such a precise number of 27% become the standard for craziness? In 2005, the website Kung Fu Monkey identified what it called the Crazification Factor.

John: Hey, Bush is now at 37% approval. I feel much less like Kevin McCarthy screaming in traffic. But I wonder what his base is --

Tyrone: 27%.

John: ... you said that immediately, and with some authority.

Tyrone: Obama vs. Alan Keyes. Keyes was from out of state, so you can eliminate any established political base; both candidates were black, so you can factor out racism; and Keyes was plainly, obviously, completely crazy. Batshit crazy. Head-trauma crazy. But 27% of the population of Illinois voted for him. They put party identification, personal prejudice, whatever ahead of rational judgement. Hell, even like 5% of Democrats voted for him. That's crazy behaviour. I think you have to assume a 27% Crazification Factor in any population.

John: Objectively crazy or crazy vis-a-vis my own inertial reference frame for rational behaviour? I mean, are you creating the Theory of Special Crazification or General Crazification?

Tyrone: Hadn't thought about it. Let's split the difference. Half just have worldviews which lead them to disagree with what you consider rationality even though they arrive at their positions through rational means, and the other half are the core of the Crazification -- either genuinely crazy; or so woefully misinformed about how the world works, the bases for their decision making is so flawed they may as well be crazy.

John: You realize this leads to there being over 30 million crazy people in the US?

Tyrone: Does that seem wrong?

John: ... a bit low, actually.

Barack Obama has been extraordinarily lucky in having weak or nutty candidates as opponents in his major races. In his 2004 run for the US Senate seat in Illinois, his Republican opponent flamed out and quit after a sex scandal, and publicity-seeker Keyes, a Maryland resident and ever eager to enter a high-profile race, parachuted in as a replacement less than three months before the election, and ended up getting the above 27% of the vote. That's why the blogosphere has embraced the 27% figure as the potential support on any issue, however nutty.

Then Obama faced the ridiculous McCain-Palin ticket in the 2008 presidential race but they still managed to get 46%. This seems absurdly high when you consider the quality of the ticket but not when you consider that a Keyes-Trump ticket could pull in 27%.

Given that the Republican party has entangled itself in the overblown rhetoric they used to win sweeping congressional victories in 2010 and cannot seem to wriggle out, their eventual candidate who runs against Obama in 2012 will either be a complete nutter or someone who had to act like he or she was a nutter in the primaries in order to get the party's nomination, which then becomes an albatross during the general election and lead to another easy Obama victory.

Where have you gone, Alan Keyes? 27% of the nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

April 21, 2011

The election cycle

4-21-11.jpg

Shaming people for being poor

Sometime ago, in my series on how poor people have dignity too, I praised the recent adoption of debit cards instead of food coupons as a good way for them to purchase food without others knowing that they were down on their luck.

But some people want to deny even that minimal level of dignity and label the poor with a scarlet, or rather orange, letter. An Arizona Republican legislator wants the debit cards to be a bright orange color. Of course, his stated reason is to prevent 'fraud', that useful word that disguises hateful motives as noble ones.

Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington

US photographer Chris Hondros, along with British photojournalist Tim Hetherington, were killed in Libya yesterday.

Hondros was the person who took the iconic photographs of what happened to an Iraqi family, especially a terrified little Iraqi girl, just after her parents were killed by US soldiers at a checkpoint in Tal Afar in 2005.

I cannot see that picture without the sickening brutality of war being brought home to me once again. I wrote about war and death and the impact such photos before.

Journalists like Hondros and Hetherington take great personal risks in order to remind us that was is not a video game but that real people, ordinary people, innocent people, suffer and die unnecessary deaths because of the ambitions and power lusts of a few.

And now they have become the latest statistic.

Imagine there's no hell

20110425_107.jpgThe latest issue of Time magazine has as its cover story the question "What if there's no hell?" which focuses on a 40-year old evangelical preacher named Rob Bell who is head of a megachurch in Michigan called Mars Hill Bible Church that boasts 7,000 members attending its services each Sunday. He is described as a 'rock star' in the evangelical movement and has just published a book titled Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived that is causing consternation in evangelical circles by arguing that hell may not exist and that heaven may be open to everyone, not just those who accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior, the usual standard for admission among evangelicals.

To be quite frank, I had never heard of Bell or his church or his book before I came across this article but I thought it interesting that yet another evangelical is finding the concept of hell problematic enough that he wants to abandon it. Hell has always been a thorn in the side of more thoughtful believers. As I have written before, its existence as a place of permanent and indescribable torment is simply incompatible with any concept of a good god.

I grew up in the liberal Protestant tradition where there was very little talk about hell from our ministers. They were too humane to preach that all unbelievers would suffer unbelievable torments. What they did was instead emphasize that heaven was a wonderful place because you got to hang out with god and hell was being denied this interaction. In this view, heaven was like a wonderful party that you would enjoy going to and at which there would be this person that you had really, really wanted to meet all your life. Hell was what you would feel if you were not invited and thus missing out on a great time. Basically it was what we might call 'hell lite', where you would feel kind of sad, but would not suffer physically.

But many Christians really like the old-fashioned idea of hell and seem to relish the thought of unbelievers suffering torments. The sainted Thomas Aquinas said in his Summa Theologica "That the saints may enjoy their beatitude and the grace of God more abundantly they are permitted to see the punishment of the damned in hell." How nice for them. And this prospect of future gloating is common today as evidenced by the popularity of the Left Behind series of books and Ann Coulter's statement "I defy any of my co-religionists to tell me that they do not laugh at the idea of [Richard] Dawkins burning in hell."(Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006), p. 320-1.) If you, as an atheist, ever engage in conversation with such people, it is not long before they warn you that your unbelief is going to cost you big time when you die, so that you are foolish not to accept Jesus as your savior right now. In fact, for such people, fear of hell seems to be a more powerful motivator for allegiance to god than the attractions of heaven.

It is easy to see why fear of hell is a more potent weapon in the religious arsenal for recruiting and retaining believers than the lure of heaven. Try this exercise. Imagine heaven as the most wonderful place you can conceive of where you experience all the things that make you happy or content. Then think about that experience continuing forever. I simply cannot do so without it becoming crushingly boring. Even children would get bored with Disney World if they were stuck there forever.

This clip from the film Bedazzled (1967), in which Lucifer (Peter Cook) acts as the fallen angel who comes down to Earth for the soul of a short-order cook (Dudley Moore), provides a good illustration.

On the other hand, it is easy to imagine the unpleasantness of eternal torment because even if the same torture is done over and over again, you can easily imagine that it would still be painful. Unlike heaven, hell never gets old. Take away hell, and the appeal of belief is greatly reduced.

The evangelical traditionalists are aware of this danger and are appalled by Bell's apostasy. R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, says that Bell's message is "theologically disastrous. Any of us should be concerned when a matter of theological importance is played with in a subversive way." Mohler is right for the wrong reasons. Eliminating hell is subversive to religion because stoking fear of what happens after death is religion's main recruiting strategy.

In 2005, This American Life ran the story of Carlton Pearson, the head of a successful Pentecostal megachurch in Tulsa, Oklahoma with Sunday attendance of 5,000 who, like Bell, began to question the idea of hell. Pearson just could not reconcile the idea of a loving god with one who consigns people to writhe and burn in the fires of hell for eternity, and started preaching as if hell did not exist. His assistant pastors were dismayed and broke away and formed their own church, taking much of the congregation with them so that it dwindled down to a few hundred, though Pearson started getting some new converts. You can listen to the episode.


Will this happen to Bell and his church too? It will be interesting to watch.

April 20, 2011

Royal wedding refuseniks

Apparently a lot of Britons share my distaste for all the hoopla over the wedding celebrations of the British royal family and are planning alternative events or even leaving the country for that day.

Bradley Manning update

Perhaps in response to the international criticism they have received for the harsh treatment of Bradley Manning, the government announced that he will be moved from the brig at the Marine corps base at Quantico, Virginia to a prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

How much his treatment will improve remains to be seen.

Eating more humanely

In response to my earlier post on the hostile response that vegetarians and vegans experience, commenter Mary Jo said she became a vegetarian but later returned to eating meat but with a renewed sensibility, saying "I still feel really sorry for the animals I eat. I eat meat that is certified to be humanely raised and slaughtered by the Humane Farm Animal Care organization." She gave a link to Certified Humane, an organization whose label on products certifies that it "Meets the Humane Farm Animal Care program standards, which includes nutritous diet without antibiotics or hormones, animals raised with shelter, resting areas, sufficient space and the ability to engage in natural behaviors."

But Mary Jo added that despite taking the care to eat certified humane meat, "I have been really mocked about this because, of course, suffering is still involved."

Peter Singer is one of the foremost ethicists of our time who has written voluminously on the topic. He is someone who in all areas of his own life tries to meet the principles of ethical behavior. He is a vegan but he argues that what is important is not absolute purity but the willingness to minimize the suffering of other sentient beings. In his book The Ethics of What We Eat co-authored with Jim Mason, they take a non-judgmental approach and try to provide people with all manner of diets a way to eat ethically within the framework they have chosen or been forced into. They look at three families, one fast-food based, the second consisting of concerned omnivores (like Mary Jo), and the third being vegan, and for each family they provide practical suggestions for eating more humanely.

In the section titled Food is an ethical issue-but you don't have to be fanatical about it (p. 281-284) they point out:

[I]t is important to avoid the mistake of thinking that if you have ethical reasons for doing something, you have to do it all the time, no matter what. Some religions, like Orthodox Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, have strict rules against eating particular foods, and their adherents are supposed to follow these rules all the time. If they break them they may feel polluted, or disobedient to their god. But this rule-based view isn't the only possible approach to ethics, nor the best one, in our view. Ethical thinking can be sensitive to circumstances.

Amanda Paulson, writing in the Christian Science Monitor about "One woman's quest to enjoy her dinner without guilt," describes the ethics of Daren Firestone, a Chicago law student who won't buy meat, but will eat the remnants of a big Thanksgiving dinner before they get tossed out. Whether or not you agree with that view-don't eat meat unless it will otherwise be wasted-there is nothing that disqualifies it as an ethical principle. Yale philosophy professor Shelly Kagan takes the same view about airline meals. A vegetarian in his everyday life, he orders meatless meals when he flies. Airlines, however, sometimes fail to deliver on such requests. If that happens, and he is offered a meat meal that he knows will be thrown out if he doesn't eat it, he'll eat it. In these circumstances-in contrast to buying meat at the supermarket-his consumption of meat seems to make no difference to the demand for it.

How relaxed can we be? Firestone's dietary rules also include what she calls "the Paris exemption:" if she is lucky enough to find herself in a fine restaurant in Paris-or, very occasionally, in a truly outstanding restaurant elsewhere-she allows herself to eat whatever she likes. We wondered whether she believes that on these rare occasions, the pleasure that she gets from eating meat outweighs the contribution her meal makes to animal suffering. When we contacted her, however, she readily admitted that her "Paris exemption" is "more self-indulgence than utilitarian calculus." But that doesn't mean that her general opposition to eating meat is not ethical. It is, but she gives more weight to what she wants to do than she would if she were acting on strictly ethical principles all the time. Very few of us are in any position to criticize that, and most of those who do criticize it are deceiving themselves about their choices when their own desires are at stake. A little self-indulgence, if you can keep it under firm control, doesn't make you a moral monster, and it certainly doesn't mean that you might as well abandon your principles entirely. In fact, Firestone believes that by allowing herself to satisfy her occasional cravings-maybe once every three months-she has been able to be faithful to her principles for many years, while other vegetarians she knows have given up the whole practice because one day they could not resist the smell of bacon frying.

Singer has a utilitarian philosophy that seeks to minimize the suffering of sentient beings. It is not always easy to carry out the calculus (whether it is ethical to use animals in research that could lead to cures for diseases is one difficult question) but some ethical lines can be more easily drawn. Other things being equal, when it comes to minimizing suffering via our food choices it is surely better to be a vegan than a vegetarian. It is surely better to be a vegetarian than an omnivore. It is surely better for omnivores to eat less meat than more meat. It is surely better to eat meat from animals that have been raised humanely than those that have been raised in factory farms, and so on. The mockery that Mary Jo receives for not being 100% pure is entirely unwarranted.

Singer and Mason also realize that financial hardship poses some restrictions on the ability to eat ethically and healthily. They say that if you are forced to choose, avoiding factory-farmed food is a higher ethical principle than eating organic.

Food that is both more ethical and more economical is available in every supermarket. Buying organic food without incurring extra expense, on the other hand, is usually not possible. Taking that into account, and considering that there are more powerful grounds for avoiding factory-farmed products than for buying only organic food, it is reasonable to limit the obligation to buy organic food to what one can afford without undue hardship, while seeing the obligation to avoid factory-farmed products as more stringent.

The Ethics of What We Eat is an excellent book that I can strongly recommend. It not only provides a good understanding of the ethical principles involved in our food choices, it also provides practical advice for those who want to eat ethically but are not sure how best to go about it.

April 19, 2011

Donovan and Sunshine Superman

I like this song. Why it is accompanied by photos of actress Sue Lyon I have no idea.

Debt ceiling kabuki


I predicted back in November after the elections that the debt ceiling would be raised because the oligarchy wants it. But the issue will be used as political theater in order to stick it even further to the poor and middle classes. That kabuki is now being played out. The opening act, as expected, is for the Republican Party to demand concessions (i.e., more cuts in funding for government services that do not benefit the oligarchy or the Pentagon) in return for raising the ceiling.

The US Chamber of Commerce, a major voice of the oligarchy, has said that it wants the debt ceiling to be raised and has warned the Republican party not to play games with this particular issue. The debt rating agency Standard and Poor's also got into the act and fired a warning shot across the bow, changing its outlook on the US credit rating to negative, signaling that they thought that going into default would be very bad for the US.

The oligarchy does not care about deficits or the debt but they do care about the government defaulting. While the oligarchy would like to get even richer, they are not stupid and may fear that the Republican party leadership has lost control and the party is now in the grip of the crazies that do not know how to play the game properly and actually believe their rhetoric about the deficit and thus may go too far and actually cause a default.

So if Obama wanted, he could simply demand that the ceiling be raised with no conditions attached because the oligarchy wants this and the Republican party leadership is subservient to them too. But instead, Obama has said he is willing to 'negotiate' with the Republicans and will undoubtedly give in to some of their 'demands'. This has been Obama's manner of operating, to carry out a charade in which he gets other people to act like they are twisting his arm so that he looks like he is being forced to do what he wanted to do all along.

That god, such a kidder

Michele Bachman recently said that back in 2003 when she was a Minnesota state senator and heard that the Massachusetts Supreme Court had ruled that bans on same-sex marriages were unconstitutional, she prayed to her god asking what she should do and her god told her to introduce an amendment in the state legislature defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

But for some inexplicable reason, after telling her this her god did not use his omnipotency to get enough other legislators to support the measure and it failed, showing once again that her god is such a tease. Either that or he is simply disorganized and lacks follow through. As Woody Allen once said, "If it turns out that there is a God, I don't think that he's evil. But the worst that you can say about him is that basically he's an underachiever."

The Democrats election season begins

You can always tell when the presidential election season begins in earnest for the Democrats. That's when they suddenly discover that the base of their support consists of the less well off in society. So after giving the oligarchy almost everything they want during the first part of their period in office, they suddenly start spouting progressive rhetoric.

Last Wednesday, Obama gave his own plan for cutting the deficit and pleased his base by seeming to discover that they were still around. He first attacked the spending on wars and the tax giveaways to the rich, conveniently downplaying his own complicity in both.

We increased spending dramatically for two wars and an expensive prescription drug program – but we didn’t pay for any of this new spending. Instead, we made the problem worse with trillions of dollars in unpaid-for tax cuts – tax cuts that went to every millionaire and billionaire in the country; tax cuts that will force us to borrow an average of $500 billion every year over the next decade.

He also re-discovered his party's commitment to the promises of the Great Society and attacked the Republican party's plan to destroy Medicare and Medicaid.

It’s a vision that says America can’t afford to keep the promise we’ve made to care for our seniors. It says that ten years from now, if you’re a 65 year old who’s eligible for Medicare, you should have to pay nearly $6,400 more than you would today. It says instead of guaranteed health care, you will get a voucher. And if that voucher isn’t worth enough to buy insurance, tough luck – you’re on your own. Put simply, it ends Medicare as we know it.

This is a vision that says up to 50 million Americans have to lose their health insurance in order for us to reduce the deficit. And who are those 50 million Americans? Many are someone’s grandparents who wouldn’t be able afford nursing home care without Medicaid. Many are poor children. Some are middle-class families who have children with autism or Down’s syndrome. Some are kids with disabilities so severe that they require 24-hour care. These are the Americans we’d be telling to fend for themselves.

He gave a rousing promise to defend the social safety net, the way democrats always do when they are running for office.

I will not allow Medicare to become a voucher program that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry, with a shrinking benefit to pay for rising costs. I will not tell families with children who have disabilities that they have to fend for themselves. We will reform these programs, but we will not abandon the fundamental commitment this country has kept for generations.

That includes, by the way, our commitment to Social Security. While Social Security is not the cause of our deficit, it faces real long-term challenges in a country that is growing older. As I said in the State of the Union, both parties should work together now to strengthen Social Security for future generations. But we must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.

He also seemed to notice the governmental actions that have led to rapid increases in wealth and income inequality that have characterized the last three decades.

Worst of all, this is a vision that says even though America can’t afford to invest in education or clean energy; even though we can’t afford to care for seniors and poor children, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy. Think about it. In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90% of all working Americans actually declined. The top 1% saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. And that’s who needs to pay less taxes? They want to give people like me a two hundred thousand dollar tax cut that’s paid for by asking thirty three seniors to each pay six thousand dollars more in health costs?

There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. There’s nothing courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill.

He once again invoked the Democrats favorite "They forced me into it!" ploy to excuse his own party's complicity in the process.

In December, I agreed to extend the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans because it was the only way I could prevent a tax hike on middle-class Americans. But we cannot afford $1 trillion worth of tax cuts for every millionaire and billionaire in our society. And I refuse to renew them again.

Beyond that, the tax code is also loaded up with spending on things like itemized deductions. And while I agree with the goals of many of these deductions, like homeownership or charitable giving, we cannot ignore the fact that they provide millionaires an average tax break of $75,000 while doing nothing for the typical middle-class family that doesn’t itemize.

My budget calls for limiting itemized deductions for the wealthiest 2% of Americans – a reform that would reduce the deficit by $320 billion over ten years.

He also offered some vague promises on cutting Pentagon spending. Robert Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities says that Obama's plans for reducing the deficit using a ratio of two-thirds cuts in spending to a one-third rise in revenue is weighted too much on cuts and will cause real hardship.

The things that Obama didn't say tell us more about his priorities than the things he said. As many observers have noticed, the easiest way to significantly cut the deficit is to do nothing at all. Because then the Bush-Obama tax cuts would expire on December 31, 2012 and that would take care of most of the problem. But of course, Obama will ultimately give in to oligarchic demands to preserve those cuts. Rich people love their tax cuts.

When Obama agreed to a two-year extension on the Bush tax cuts in December 2010, I could not help but notice that the new deadline is just after the presidential election. Call me cynical, but my sense was that he would vigorously campaign against renewing the tax cuts but once safely re-elected would reverse course and go along with them and with cuts on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, saying regretfully that he was forced to do so by the mean old Republicans.

I would be really pleased to have my predictions proved wrong.

April 18, 2011

Everyone has doubts

dogfleas.jpg

Friends

(Via Balloon Juice)

Scott Adams, sockpuppet

Some time ago I wrote about the peculiar phenomenon of sockpuppetry, where people go around to various websites and praise themselves under a pseudonym.

It turns out that the latest person to be exposed as practicing sockpuppetry is Scott Adams, creator the Dilbert comic strip, who under the pseudonym "PlannedChaos" praised Adams as a "certified genius".

Paul Ryan, the oligarchy's errand boy

The class war by the oligarchy continues apace.

The recent budget deal that was struck by Obama and the Democrats with the Republicans to finalize the budget for the rest of the 2011 fiscal year lavished some more gifts to the oligarchy, cutting spending for science, education, health care, and the environment while defense spending got an increase of $5 billion.

Once that was out of the way Paul Ryan, the Republican congressperson from Wisconsin who is chair of the House budget committee, presented the Republican budget plan for the future, which was dutifully slobbered over by the elites in the media and business circles as 'serious, 'brave', and 'thoughtful' because it attacked the poor and the middle classes and gave even more to the oligarchy. In the bizarre world of elite media commentary, it has become the norm to be praised when you kick the powerless in the teeth and grovel before the wealthy.

Paul Krugman describes Ryan's plan as essentially a fraud.

Last week, Mr. Ryan unveiled his budget proposal, and the initial reaction of much of the punditocracy was best summed up (sarcastically) by the blogger John Cole: "The plan is bold! It is serious! It took courage! It re-frames the debate! The ball is in Obama's court! Very wonky! It is a game-changer! Did I mention it is serious?"

Then people who actually understand budget numbers went to work, and it became clear that the proposal wasn't serious at all. In fact, it was a sick joke. The only real things in it were savage cuts in aid to the needy and the uninsured, huge tax cuts for corporations and the rich, and Medicare privatization. All the alleged cost savings were pure fantasy.

Matt Taibbi also excoriated Ryan's proposal in his usual style.

Paul Ryan, the Republican Party's latest entrant in the seemingly endless series of young, prickish, over-coiffed, anal-retentive deficit Robespierres they've sent to the political center stage in the last decade or so, has come out with his new budget plan.

Republicans, quite smartly, recognize that there is great political hay to be made in the appearance of deficit reduction, and that white middle class voters will respond with overwhelming enthusiasm to any call for reductions in the "welfare state," a term which said voters will instantly associate with black welfare moms and Mexicans sneaking over the border to visit American emergency rooms.

The problem, of course, is that to actually make significant cuts in what is left of the "welfare state," one has to cut Medicare and Medicaid, programs overwhelmingly patronized by white people, and particularly white seniors. So when the time comes to actually pull the trigger on the proposed reductions, the whippersnappers are quietly removed from the stage and life goes on as usual, i.e. with massive deficit spending on defense, upper-class tax cuts, bailouts, corporate subsidies, and big handouts to Pharma and the insurance industries.

Like Krugman, Taibbi takes to task the media for their willingness to declare the Ryan's plan as 'bold', 'courageous' and 'daring', saying that "a huge part of the blame for the confusion and the national angst over our budget issues has to be laid at the feet of media a------- like [David] Brooks, who continually misrepresent what is actually happening with national spending."

Brooks then goes on to slobber over all of Ryan's ostensibly daring proposals, from the Medicare block grants to the more obnoxious Medicare voucher program (replacing Medicare benefits with vouchers to buy overpriced private insurance, which Brooks calls the government "giving you a sum of money" to choose from "a regulated menu of insurance options").

What he doesn't mention is that Ryan's proposal also includes dropping the top tax rate for rich people from 35 percent to 25 percent. All by itself, that one change means that the government would be collecting over $4 trillion less over the next ten years.

The last ten years or so have seen the government send massive amounts of money to people in the top tax brackets, mainly through two methods: huge tax cuts, and financial bailouts. The government has spent trillions of our national treasure bailing out Wall Street, which has resulted directly in enormous, record profit numbers – nearly $100 billion in the last three years (and that doesn't even count the tens of billions more in inflated compensation and bonuses that came more or less directly from government aid). Add to that the $700 billion or so the Obama tax cuts added to the national debt over the next two years, and we're looking at a trillion dollars of lost revenue in just a few years.

No matter what, Ryan's gambit, ultimately, is all about trying to get middle-class voters to swallow paying for tax cuts for rich people.

This cartoon by Tom Toles says it all.

toles04072011.jpg

April 17, 2011

Signs of things to come

Anyone who drives in Cleveland knows that the roads are in terrible shape, with potholes everywhere. One study says that forty-one percent of Cleveland-area highways and major roads are in poor or mediocre condition. It is estimated that "the nation's roads and bridges suffer from a funding shortfall of $134 billion to $194 billion annually, just to maintain present conditions."

It has become so bad that on my way to and from work, I have memorized which lane I should be in to for each stretch of road in order to minimize the severity of the bumps, though they cannot be entirely avoided. I see other cars, perhaps not as familiar as I am, suddenly swerving as they try to avoid holes.

Poorly maintained roads are just one sign of a community and nation that is running out of money to maintain basic services. It will be followed by less street lightning, dirtier streets, unkempt parks, and so on.

Soon all the people who demanded that their taxes be lowered will begin to complain about the terrible state things are in and demand that something be done. Without raising their taxes, of course.

Lessons from the IKEA story

Some of you may have heard about the dissatisfaction at the way that IKEA is treating workers at its US plant in Danville, Virginia. This was unexpected since the Swedish firm has a reputation as "a good employer and solid corporate citizen" back in its home country.

Workers complain of eliminated raises, a frenzied pace and mandatory overtime. Several said it's common to find out on Friday evening that they'll have to pull a weekend shift, with disciplinary action for those who can't or don't show up.

Some of the Virginia plant's 335 workers are trying to form a union. The International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers said a majority of eligible employees had signed cards expressing interest.

In response, the factory — part of Ikea's manufacturing subsidiary, Swedwood — hired the law firm Jackson Lewis, which has made its reputation keeping unions out of companies.

The dust-up has garnered little attention in the U.S. But it's front-page news in Sweden, where much of the labor force is unionized and Ikea is a cherished institution. Per-Olaf Sjoo, the head of the Swedish union in Swedwood factories, said he was baffled by the friction in Danville. Ikea's code of conduct, known as IWAY, guarantees workers the right to organize and stipulates that all overtime be voluntary.

So why is it that a company that has a sterling reputation in Sweden transforms into an abusive employer when it operates in the US?

Laborers in Swedwood plants in Sweden produce bookcases and tables similar to those manufactured in Danville. The big difference is that the Europeans enjoy a minimum wage of about $19 an hour and a government-mandated five weeks of paid vacation. Full-time employees in Danville start at $8 an hour with 12 vacation days — eight of them on dates determined by the company.

What's more, as many as one-third of the workers at the Danville plant have been drawn from local temporary-staffing agencies. These workers receive even lower wages and no benefits, employees said.

Swedwood's Steen said the company is reducing the number of temps, but she acknowledged the pay gap between factories in Europe and the U.S. "That is related to the standard of living and general conditions in the different countries," Steen said.

Bill Street, who has tried to organize the Danville workers for the machinists union, said Ikea was taking advantage of the weaker protections afforded to U.S. workers.

"It's ironic that Ikea looks on the U.S. and Danville the way that most people in the U.S. look at Mexico," Street said. [My italics]

This should really come as no surprise. What keeps companies from abusing their workers is not some mystical corporate ethic or the benevolence of the bosses. That may be true in small businesses where there is a personal relationship between the owners and all the workers. In large businesses and corporations the workers are simply cogs in a machine or statistics in a spreadsheet and there the driving principle of is simple: maximize profits. That's it. And they will do whatever it takes to achieve that.

The only things that prevent abusive practices are strong unions coupled with strong laws that protect people and maintain national standards. As the US continues to eliminate those safeguards, its workers will be increasingly treated even worse and there will come a time when being treated like Mexican workers will be seen as the good old days.

April 16, 2011

The Daily Show investigates the Dennis Kucinich phenomenon

Ricky Gervais talks about atheism on The Daily Show

April 15, 2011

How the eye evolved

Richard Dawkins gives a clear explanation

Morals without god

Where do our morals come from? Primatologist Frans de Waal has a fascinating article titled Morals Without God? where he poses the questions: Can we envision a world without God? Would this world be good? The article is long but well worth reading and here I will outline his main thesis.

He begins by saying that evolution poses a direct challenge to the idea of a god-given morality, which is why so many religious people react negatively to it.

Don't think for one moment that the current battle lines between biology and fundamentalist Christianity turn around evidence. One has to be pretty immune to data to doubt evolution, which is why books and documentaries aimed at convincing the skeptics are a waste of effort. They are helpful for those prepared to listen, but fail to reach their target audience. The debate is less about the truth than about how to handle it. For those who believe that morality comes straight from God the creator, acceptance of evolution would open a moral abyss.

Like me, de Waal finds quite repellant (and counter to the evidence) the idea that we can only have morality if there is a god.

Perhaps it is just me, but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior. Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed for livable societies, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked social norms before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need, or complain about an unfair deal? Humans must have worried about the functioning of their communities well before the current religions arose, which is only a few thousand years ago.

Of course, religious people can counter that god had placed these moral impulses in us even before religions came about. When you are unconstrained by evidence and can simply make up stuff to suit your needs, there is no challenge that is insurmountable.

Religious people seem to feel the need to claim some distinct and special place in nature that is not biological and thus provides evidence of some special relationship to god. But all past efforts to find things that make us unique among species have fallen by the wayside.

In the field of cognition, the march towards continuity between human and animal has been inexorable… True, humanity never runs out of claims of what sets it apart, but it is a rare uniqueness claim that holds up for over a decade. This is why we don't hear anymore that only humans make tools, imitate, think ahead, have culture, are self-aware, or adopt another's point of view.

If we consider our species without letting ourselves be blinded by the technical advances of the last few millennia, we see a creature of flesh and blood with a brain that, albeit three times larger than a chimpanzee's, doesn't contain any new parts. Even our vaunted prefrontal cortex turns out to be of typical size: recent neuron-counting techniques classify the human brain as a linearly scaled-up monkey brain. No one doubts the superiority of our intellect, but we have no basic wants or needs that are not also present in our close relatives.

He points out that this commonality with other species is not a new idea, that Charles Darwin himself felt that there was nothing unique that separated humans from other species, that we were simply more developed in some areas.

Charles Darwin was interested in how morality fits the human-animal continuum, proposing in "The Descent of Man": "Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts … would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed … as in man."

It is this that so troubles religious believers because it undermines the crux of the religious arguments for god based on a supposedly innate moral sense shared by all humans but not shared by other species. One way of arguing that is to claim that the primal impulse in nature is selfishness, partly arising from a misunderstanding of 'the selfish gene' meme that also was the title of Richard Dawkins's famous book.

Unfortunately, modern popularizers have strayed from these insights. Like Robert Wright in "The Moral Animal," they argue that true moral tendencies cannot exist — not in humans and even less in other animals — since nature is one hundred percent selfish.

Fortunately, there has been a resurgence of the Darwinian view that morality grew out of the social instincts. Psychologists stress the intuitive way we arrive at moral judgments while activating emotional brain areas, and economists and anthropologists have shown humanity to be far more cooperative, altruistic, and fair than predicted by self-interest models. Similarly, the latest experiments in primatology reveal that our close relatives will do each other favors even if there's nothing in it for themselves.

He provides many nice examples of the way that other species exhibit many of the qualities that we once ascribed solely to humans, such as kindness, concern, cooperation, and sensitivity to others' emotions.

Such observations fit the emerging field of animal empathy, which deals not only with primates, but also with canines, elephants, even rodents. A typical example is how chimpanzees console distressed parties, hugging and kissing them, which behavior is so predictable that scientists have analyzed thousands of cases. Mammals are sensitive to each other’s emotions, and react to others in need. The whole reason people fill their homes with furry carnivores and not with, say, iguanas and turtles, is because mammals offer something no reptile ever will. They give affection, they want affection, and respond to our emotions the way we do to theirs.

Mammals may derive pleasure from helping others in the same way that humans feel good doing good.

Evangelical Christian and scientist Francis Collins in his book The Language of God (p. 264) also argues that human beings are possessed of a "Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history" and that could only have come from god. But de Waals says that although we do have some innate moral sense, we do not have to appeal to god to explain them because at their elemental level, they have a biological basis, and it is this basis that allows us to build on them and create the moral structures we now have.

[W]ould it be realistic to ask people to be considerate of others if we had not already a natural inclination to be so? Would it make sense to appeal to fairness and justice in the absence of powerful reactions to their absence? Imagine the cognitive burden if every decision we took needed to be vetted against handed-down principles. I am a firm believer in the Humean position that reason is the slave of the passions. We started out with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is also where we find the greatest continuity with other primates. Rather than having developed morality from scratch, we received a huge helping hand from our background as social animals.

This does not mean that there are no differences at all between humans and other species. What humans have done is use culture to build upon those primal instincts.

At the same time, however, I am reluctant to call a chimpanzee a "moral being." This is because sentiments do not suffice. We strive for a logically coherent system, and have debates about how the death penalty fits arguments for the sanctity of life, or whether an unchosen sexual orientation can be wrong. These debates are uniquely human… This is what sets human morality apart: a move towards universal standards combined with an elaborate system of justification, monitoring and punishment. [My italics]

For example, female chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males towards each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands, and high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community. I take these hints of community concern as yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today.

It should be increasingly obvious that a god is unnecessary as an explanatory concept for morality or indeed for anything.

April 14, 2011

Suzie the true believer

Happy days are here again!

The Plain Dealer business section yesterday had two news items right next to each other. One was that luxury car sales in the region were up by more than 50% during the first quarter of 2011 and the other was that a local business that provides private jets to wealthy travelers quadrupled its first quarter sales when compared to last year.

It's nice to know that the tax cuts for the rich are paying off. All the people in the region who lost their jobs and homes due to the recession should be able to find plenty of jobs washing and cleaning the luxury cars and jets. That's how trickle-down economic theory works, no?

Arguments against a god-given morality

The idea that there is an objective morality founders on the fact that our moral standards have changed dramatically over time. An objective god-given morality is one that presumably should be both universal and unchanging with time since god is presumably omnipresent and unchanging. And yet that is obviously at odds with history, where most moral judgments have varied from place to place and over time. Many of the most appallingly evil actions are condoned and even encouraged in religious texts as coming from god, though such actions are now disowned. If there is an objective morality, why was it not obvious to people before and why were there different standards for different communities?

What we do see, though, is a pleasing convergence in moral standards as time goes by, even though we still have far to go. This is almost entirely due to cultural awareness spreading. In just a couple of centuries we have decided that slavery is evil and that discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual preference, disability, race and ethnicity, and age is wrong. We no longer tolerate human sacrifices or child labor. We find torture abhorrent, which forces governments that still practice it to do it in secret or resort to euphemisms to hide their shame. We are less tolerant of wanton cruelty to animals, though we still eat them. Except for a few countries like Saudi Arabia, we no longer punish people for offences by amputating limbs or stoning or beheading.

These recent advances in our moral sensibilities are largely or entirely cultural developments that had nothing to do with god. In fact, they are counter to god's supposed commands since many of these cruel practices originate in the allegedly holy books and are supposed to be god's recommended policies. The importance of culture in advancing the idea of what is good is tremendous. We have made great strides in this area without appealing to god so those who argue that without god we would be morally worse off are fighting a losing battle.

This excellent video clip from QualiaSoup will give you, in less than ten minutes, all the arguments you need to debate anyone who claims that morality can only come from god.

The argument is summarized in the slide at the 8:10 minute mark where he says:

  • NO ONE can claim to KNOW that any god exists
  • Even if god does exist:
    • NO evidence there is only one god
    • NO evidence it is a personal god
    • NO evidence its nature is perfect
  • NO reliable source of divine values
  • NO consistent morality among theists
  • VIOLENT moral disagreement among theists
  • NO objective method for deciding whose interpretation of divine values is correct

NO CONSISTENT INFALLBLE THEISTIC MORALITY

I find the idea that we can only have morality because of religion quite repellent. What does it say about someone that the only reason they don't murder, rape, or steal is because they think god will punish them?

In this video clip, Edward Current imagines what would happen if god disappeared.

The idea that we need a god in order to arrive at moral principles on which to base our lives and societies seems to me to be so self-evidently absurd that I really cannot take seriously anyone who advocates it.

April 13, 2011

Obama's intentions

Glenn Greenwald points out what I have been saying all along, that Obama's goals are not what his supporters think they are.

'Invite' as a noun

I have seen an increasing use of the word 'invite' to replace 'invitation'. The distinction between the two words seemed pretty clear to me. One invites someone by sending them an invitation. And yet the latter word seems to be disappearing, with the former taking its place, with people saying things like "Hope you got my invite" and "The invites have gone out".

I find this use jarring. I thought that it was simply wrong but on checking the Oxford English Dictionary it appears that the word invite can be used as a noun this way and has been thus used since the 17th century.

Was this usage common and I just did not notice it until recently or did it fall out of favor and is now coming back?

A President's prayer

Can you be good without god?

Yes.

It is a simple answer to a simple question. It should be quite self-evident to anyone. And yet, religious people manage to get some atheists to actually debate it. P. Z. Myers has posted all the YouTube links to a recent debate between Sam Harris and theologian William Lane Craig on the topic "Does Good Come From God?" I watched about half of it and although it was mildly interesting, I tuned out because I have little patience for discussions based on unexamined and unsubstantiated premises.

Craig was trying to make the case that without a god, there can be no objective morality or standards for what is good. My response to that argument is "So what?" What makes people think that the universe ought to have objective morality? All these discussions about how there must be a god because without a god people would go berserk and murder everyone else and life would be awful and not worth living seems to me to be missing the point. We cannot will god into existence just because we can't bear the thought of life without god.

Whether god exists or doesn't exist is a purely empirical question that can only be determined by evidence. In the absence of evidence for god's existence, we have to conclude that there is no god and must learn to deal with the consequences. That's it. The level of angst that may be produced by taking away the idea of an objective morality (or a god to specify it) is immaterial, unless you are going down the road of the 'noble lie', where the masses of people are deliberately fed falsehoods in order to maintain social order, while only the elite are aware of the truth. (For those who raise the false counter-argument that in the absence of proof that god doesn't exist, we can conclude that god exists, I refer them to this post.)

It seems pretty obvious that we can explain our morality and ethics as derived from biology (things that emerged as a result of our evolutionary history and the propensities for which are genetically and environmentally based) and culture (behaviors that we as a society have consciously decided are desirable or not desirable). The only debate is over the relative weight that we assign to these two causes and that can vary depending on the particular moral issue we are focusing on. However much people may want to include god as a third cause, the truth is that we no longer need god to understand the existence of morality.

Religious people have to walk a fine line. On the one hand, they have to argue that only humans perceive this objective morality. If all species seemed to have the same moral compass, then that would argue convincingly that it has a biological origin derived from our common evolutionary history. To allow for the assertion of a god-given objective morality, they have to argue that humans have at least some unique moral sensibilities not possessed by other species and that these could only have come from god. On the other hand, they have to show that this moral sense is shared among all humans. If moral standards varied widely for different populations, that would argue for a cultural source.

The philosopher David Hume articulated the 'is-ought problem' (which is related to, but is not identical with, what is called the naturalistic fallacy) where he warned about making claims about what ought to be based on what is. For example, just because we find some property occurring in nature does not mean that that property is necessarily desirable. So we cannot argue that some action is moral simply because it seems to be part of nature.

For example, some people use the presence of homosexual behavior in other species to argue that such behavior is natural and thus should be accepted in humans. While I am fully supportive of equal rights for gay people, I disagree with this particular line of biological reasoning. We can and should uphold equal rights for gay people because there are good cultural reasons for doing so based on general human rights principles, irrespective of whether we can find support for them in biology

Most people understand that we cannot usually infer ought from is. But what religious people like Craig seem to be doing is committing the even worse offense of what one might call the 'ought-is fallacy', where because they think that we need an objective morality in order to keep our barbaric impulses under control, therefore it must exist. And since they also think that only a god can supply such a morality, therefore a god must exist also.

No.

Believers in god have to first establish using empirical evidence that god exists before they can use god in arguments about morality or anything else. You cannot argue for the existence of god on the basis of some property that you arbitrarily assert must exist (for whatever reason) and that could have only come from god.

The source of morals is a question of interest and worth investigating. As the human race progresses and science advances, we are going to be confronted with trickier issues of morality and so determining the bases of such decisions is a worthwhile activity. But introducing god not only does not help in elucidating this question, it makes things even murkier by introducing purely arbitrary and non-empirical elements into the discussion.

April 12, 2011

A little puzzle

Some organizations that request money or information often include return self-addressed envelopes. This is convenient. What I don't understand is why a few of them also include their own address again in the top left corner, where, as the sender, you would normally insert your own name and address. What is the point in the organization's address being in both sender's and recipient's locations on the envelope?

The only reason that I can come up with is that if you forget to put postage on a letter, it is sent back to the presumed sender at the address on the top left. Is this a ploy to fool the postal service so that the letter reaches them whether there is postage or not? Surely they must be wise to that trick?

What does the postal service do with letters that do not have adequate postage but where the sender's and recipient's names and addresses are the same?

How extremists become centrists

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow on how crazy ideas get mainstreamed in politics.

Know when to fold 'em

Commenter Peter alerted me to a story on This American Life about a gung-ho evangelical who went through the process that I have described before, where he goes to seminary and on learning Biblical history and scholarship becomes an atheist.

Filled with all the new information he now has as to why Christianity is false, he becomes zealous for atheism and tries to convert his family members, before he realizes that people join religious groups for a lot of benefits that have little to do with belief in god and that sometimes, on a personal level in the private sphere, it may be better to leave them alone.

The story starts at the 8:20 minute mark and goes until the 20:00 mark.

The menace of surprise parties

It's been awhile since I let loose one of my rants about something trivial that yet bugs me, so here's one.

I hate surprise parties.

I must admit that the appeal of surprise parties completely eludes me and I am getting to dislike them even more as I get older. Maybe it is because they are an acquired taste and since they were unheard of in Sri Lanka when I was growing up (at least I don't recall ever hearing about one, let alone attending any), I just didn't learn to like them. And yet in the US people seem to really like them.

The whole thing about sneaking in early and then hiding and waiting until the guest of honor arrives and then jumping out and shouting in unison "surprise!" strikes me as childish.

What happens after the surprise is sprung is equally bad. Much of the rest of the time consists of the honorees going around to each guest telling them how surprised they were and how they were puzzled by some vaguely unusual things that happened that were related to the surprise but which they did not suspect were due to a party being planned for them. One often suspects that they knew that a surprise was in the works all along but went along with the charade in order to not disappoint the organizers. Meanwhile the organizers of the surprise go around telling people in excruciating detail how they planned the surprise and how they lulled the honoree into not suspecting, the various glitches that might have unraveled their plans, and how they managed to overcome them.

I have attended a few surprise parties and find them dreary in the extreme, so much so that my heart sinks when I receive invitations for one, as happened just a few days ago. When I do go to them, I dutifully stay out of sight so as not to be a party-pooper and emerge once the ritual is over but I studiously avoid the post-mortems of how it was carried out, preferring to converse with a congenial fellow guest on other topics.

It is not clear that the pleasure of being surprised with a party thrown in one's honor (if it is a pleasure at all) overcomes all the negatives associated with it. People who don't like to have parties thrown for them of course hate it. Those who would have liked their loved ones to remember the special event are often deliberately misled before the event that no one seems to care or remember the day and thus may carry around with them feelings of sadness and disappointment for days and even weeks. Is that worth it for the momentary rush that the surprise brings with it?

This is particularly true for children, who may be truly sad that no one seems to care about their birthday. Isn't it better for them to be aware that a party is being planned for them so that they can share in the fun of planning for it and the build up of excitement until the day arrives? Furthermore, because surprise parties seem to be so ubiquitous, some people might mistakenly think that the lack of any talk of a party means that a surprise party is being planned for them and the realization that there really was no party at all may be even more disappointing.

For the guests, a surprise party is a real nuisance because one has to go really early, long before the party proper begins, and just hang around until the time the honorees arrive, which often gets delayed because of the convoluted planning.

The last straw for me was when I was invited to a surprise party for a friend's birthday that was organized by his wife and children. This family is notorious for having 'surprise' parties for each other for almost every occasion and one would think that they would have to be really dim bulbs to still be surprised. The friend is Sri Lankan-born and lives about an hour's drive away from us. We were given a time of arrival and then asked to park at a nearby parking area and wait for a phone call that would tell us that it was all clear, that the honoree had been sent out of the house on an errand and that we could then sneak into the house and hide. Of course we had to park far away so that there would be no telltale collection of recognizable cars when the honoree returned and entered the house.

I grudgingly went along with the plan. What I did not know was that I had been asked to come much earlier than necessary. Their circle of family and friends includes people of Sri Lankan and US origin. Sri Lankans have the reputation of not being punctual for parties (the friend who was being honored with the party being one of the worst culprits) so the organizers had told just them to come an hour earlier than they told the US-born people. Since I like to be punctual, I had come at the requested time (early in fact to avoid messing up the surprise) and was annoyed to discover that I had been tricked and had to wait in the parking lot for well over an hour.

It strikes me that the only people who really enjoy these surprise parties are the organizers themselves because they have the anticipation of being congratulated by everyone for pulling off a successful surprise and receiving the gratitude of the honorees for going to all the trouble. For everyone else, it seems like a pain. The only exception might be guests who are very small children for whom keeping a secret and hiding and jumping out and surprising someone can be a giggly delight.

End of rant.

April 11, 2011

Glass houses and stones

I was wondering how long it would be before some country that is lectured on human rights by the US government would turn around and hurl its own abuses back at it. It would have to be a country that was independent enough of US influence. Well, it looks like China has taken the lead, in response to Hillary Clinton's criticism of human rights in China.

According to Reuter's "The United States is beset by violence, racism and torture and has no authority to condemn other governments' human rights problems, China said on Sunday, countering U.S. criticism of Beijing's crackdown." China also said that the US's advocacy of free information flow was contradicted by its efforts to shut down WikiLeaks.

Now that China has said it, how long before other countries justify their own abuses in a similar fashion? When one country denies human rights to people, it starts a downward spiral in which other countries justify their own abuses by saying "Why pick on us when they do it?"

Pressure builds on Obama over treatment of Bradley Manning

A long list of law academics, some of whom have been considered supporters of president Obama, have signed a letter strongly protesting the cruel treatment of Bradley Manning.

The existence of this letter was reported in the London Guardian:

The list of signatories includes Laurence Tribe, a Harvard professor who is considered to be America's foremost liberal authority on constitutional law. He taught constitutional law to Barack Obama and was a key backer of his 2008 presidential campaign.

Tribe joined the Obama administration last year as a legal adviser in the justice department, a post he held until three months ago.

He told the Guardian he signed the letter because Manning appeared to have been treated in a way that "is not only shameful but unconstitutional" as he awaits court martial in Quantico marine base in Virginia.

The intervention of Tribe and hundreds of other legal scholars is a huge embarrassment to Obama, who was a professor of constitutional law in Chicago. Obama made respect for the rule of law a cornerstone of his administration, promising when he first entered the White House in 2009 to end the excesses of the Bush administration's war on terrorism.

I hope US news outlets pick up on this and publicize it widely.

How civilians get killed

We frequently get reports of how civilians, including women and children, get killed in air strikes by drones and other military aircraft. But why does this keep happening, when the technology is now supposed to be so advanced that people can be identified at long range? Surely you should be able to at least be able to make out children to alert you that you are not engaging fighters?

This article, based on military documents and transcripts of cockpit and radio conversations obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, describes in detail how one such tragedy came about. It shows the power of confirmation bias, how when you are determinedly looking for something, you interpret events as supporting your beliefs even if they do not.

Evangelicals and fundamentalists

In the American Christian religious landscape one finds Catholics, mainline Protestant religious denominations, and the rest that one can describe as evangelicals and fundamentalists. While the Catholics form a distinct group, there is a great deal of overlap between the other three categories and it is not often easy to see what distinguishes them. In particular, people tend to use the words fundamentalists and evangelicals interchangeably.

John Green of the University of Akron describes four cardinal beliefs of evangelicals that distinguishes them from mainline Protestants:

One belief is that the Bible is inerrant. It was without error in all of its claims about the nature of the world and the nature of God. A second belief is that the only way to salvation is through belief in Jesus Christ. A third belief, and one that is most well known, is the idea that individuals must accept salvation for themselves. They must become converted. Sometimes that's referred to as a born-again experience, sometimes a little different language. Then the fourth cardinal belief of evangelicals is the need to proselytize, or in their case, to spread the evangel, to evangelize.

Now different members of the evangelical community have slightly different takes on those four cardinal beliefs. But what distinguishes the evangelicals from other Protestants and other Christians is these four central beliefs that set them apart.

Mainline Protestant Christians on the other hand have a slightly looser set of beliefs.

Mainline Protestants have a different perspective. They have a more modernist theology. So, for instance, they would read the Bible, not as the inerrant word of God, but as a historical document, which has God's word in it and a lot of very important truths, but that needs to be interpreted in every age by individuals of that time and that place.

Mainline Protestants tend to also believe that Jesus is the way to salvation. But many mainline Protestants would believe that perhaps there are other ways to salvation as well. People in other religious traditions, even outside of Christianity, may have access to God's grace and to salvation as well, on their own terms, and through their own means.

Mainline Protestants are much less concerned with personal conversion. Although they do talk about spiritual transformation, they'll often discuss a spiritual journey from one's youth to old age, leading on into eternity. So there is a sense of transformation, but there isn't that emphasis on conversion -- on that one moment or series of moments in which one's life is dramatically changed.

So mainline Protestants don't discount conversion, but they simply don't regard it as a central feature of their beliefs. Finally, mainline Protestants are somewhat less concerned with proselytizing than evangelicals. Certainly, proselytizing is something they believe in. They believe in sharing their beliefs with others, but not for the purposes of conversion necessarily. The idea of spreading the word in the mainline tradition is much broader than simply preaching the good news. It also involves economic development. It involves personal assistance, charity, a whole number of other activities.

Fundamentalists tend to have the most well defined belief structure as this article points out.

The first formulation of American fundamentalist beliefs can be traced to the Niagara Bible Conference and, in 1910, to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church which distilled these into what became known as the "five fundamentals":

  • The inspiration of the Bible by the Holy Spirit and the inerrancy of Scripture as a result of this.
  • The virgin birth of Christ.
  • The belief that Christ's death was the atonement for sin.
  • The bodily resurrection of Christ.
  • The historical reality of Christ's miracles.

By the late 1910s, theological conservatives rallying around the Five Fundamentals came to be known as "fundamentalists."

Steve Waldman, editor-in chief of Beliefnet, said (back in 2003):

Evangelicals are a very broad group. It's probably a third or 40 percent of the population of the United States. Fundamentalists are a subset of that. They are very conservative politically. Have a literalist view of the Bible.

Evangelicals have a much wider range of political views. A lot of them are conservatives, but not all of them. About a third of evangelicals voted for Al Gore. So it's a pretty broad range.

And you tend to think of evangelicals as being fundamentalists because the most well known evangelicals are people like Jerry Falwell who are fundamentalists and are very conservative.

I am a little puzzled by the fundamentals. It would seem that if you believe in the first fundamental principle about the inerrancy of the Bible, then three of the other four fundamentals would follow as a direct consequence since they deal with supposedly factual events. Only the one about Jesus's death being atonement for sin is doctrinal and would need to be separately spelled out. Perhaps the fundamentalists realized even back then that despite their followers' claims to believe that the Bible was god's inerrant word, very few people actually bothered to read it since the Bible is a big book and many Christians (as the Pew survey recently pointed out) have only the haziest of ideas of what it contains. So they emphasized those facts that their followers must be explicitly aware of and commit to.

April 10, 2011

Searching for the mind of the Lord

Via Pharyngula I learned about an internal fight amongst the so-called Young Earth Christians that resulted in Ken Ham (The head of Answers in Genesis and the person behind the creationist museum in Kentucky) being disinvited from a conference on home schooling. What struck me was how the other creationists decided that Ham should be kicked out. In their letter to him, they said, "The Board believes this to be the Lord's will for our convention and searched the Scriptures for the mind of the Lord and the leadership of the Holy Spirit before arriving at this decision." (My italics)

I became curious about how they did this. What exactly were they looking for? Where in the Bible would you find something about your god's policy on home schooling conventions? What keywords would you use? Or do you randomly pick verses from the Bible, like a lottery, and then try to divine its meaning, like you would the entrails of a chicken in former times?

I suspect that although such Christians routinely use the language of 'searching for the mind of god', they arrive at their policy decisions based on more mundane considerations just the way other people do and throw in god as an afterthought to give them added weight.

Prostate cancer tests

Older men like me are routinely given a PSA test for prostate cancer as part of our check-ups. My numbers fluctuated from year to year. Some years my number would rise slightly and my physician would alert me to it, but the next year it would drop. I never did anything about it since I was not convinced that the tests were conclusive enough. Now a new study seems to indicate that my skepticism was justified, since the PSA seems to have high levels of false negatives and even higher levels of false positives.

This latest study was carried out in Norrkoping in Sweden. It followed 9,026 men who were in their 50s or 60s in 1987.

Nearly 1,500 men were randomly chosen to be screened every three years between 1987 and 1996. The first two tests were performed by digital rectal examination and then by prostate specific antigen testing.

The report concludes: "After 20 years of follow-up, the rate of death from prostate cancer did not differ significantly between men in the screening group and those in the control group."

The favoured method of screening is the prostate specific antigen (PSA) test.

However, around 15% of men with normal PSA levels will have prostate cancer and two-thirds of men with high levels of PSA do not in fact have prostate cancer.

One study has suggested that to prevent one death from prostate cancer you would have to screen 1,410 men and treat 48 of them. (My italics)

April 09, 2011

Title song from Singham

Apparently a new film has been released in India with the title character sharing my last name. The way my last name is spelled in Tamil leads to a slight ambiguity in transliterating to English, with those favoring a hard g sound writing it as Singam and pronouncing it 'Sing gum' with heavy stress on both syllables while those favoring a soft g (as my family does) writing it as Singham, to rhyme with Bingham.

The Singham/Singam in the film seems to a tough but honest cop in the Dirty Harry mold, as you can see from this music video created around the title song.

Silly royal etiquette

I have never understood the fascination that people have with the British royal family, a truly useless and parasitic group if there ever was one. And it is not only Americans who seem to be so obsessed. I was in Sri Lanka when Charles and Diana got married and the English-speaking community there seemed to talk about nothing else.

We are now seeing this replayed with the upcoming wedding of their son. What amuses me is that people are so concerned about the minutiae of 'royal etiquette' as if causing offense to the royal family by breaking some rule that does not apply to anyone else was one of the worst things one could do. In a previous post titled God save us from the Queen I said that it is absurd for the queen to expect any more respect than we would give any elderly woman.

Stephen Colbert deservedly pokes fun at all this.


April 08, 2011

Captain Picard thinks we are better off without religion

(Via onegoodmove)

Marjoe

Some time ago I wrote a review of the documentary Marjoe of a Pentecostal child evangelist/faith healer in which Marjoe Gortner (an unbeliever and now an adult) gives an insider's account of how the racket works.

You can now see the entire film online. It is quite fascinating

There is no conservation law for human conflict

I have often made the claim that the world would be a better place without religion. This seems to me to be self-evidently true for many reasons, the most immediate one being that religion causes so many deaths. Even the most cursory look at the history of the world would reveal the vast number of wars, deaths, injuries, and other forms of suffering committed by one group of people on another because of religious differences. One does not have to even look at history but just look at the world today.

I sometimes get the response that conflict between people is inevitable and if religions do disappear, that people would find some other issue to fight over. The inference that my critics seem to draw from this is that there is no point trying to get rid of religion because there is some sort of conservation law for conflicts.

This seems to me to be somewhat disingenuous. It is like saying that since we are all going to die of something eventually, there is no point in finding cures for diseases since all that will do is shift the cause of death to something else. But eliminating one disease does not create new diseases and does have the effect of increasing life expectancy.

No one is saying that religion is the only cause of conflict and so we would not expect all conflict to cease if religion disappeared. But it is a major source of conflict and eliminating it would undoubtedly help, just as eliminating or finding cures for some diseases have improved the quality of life immensely.

Steven Pinker argues that despite all the wars and genocide that have occurred fairly recently, there has been a steady decline in violence from Biblical times and that the present era is the least violent in history (via Machines Like Us). He points out that the Bible encourages the most appalling violence and cruelty against others.

While there is obviously no natural conservation law for conflicts, there is one sense in which that idea can be partly salvaged. There is no question that having groups of people fight over things like religion or race or tribe or nationality or other divisive issues diverts them from seeing the more structural causes of their plight such as rule of the oligarchy, by the oligarchy, for the oligarchy. So these conflicts serve the interests of the ruling classes. If religion, one of the easiest of ways of creating conflict, were to disappear, those who benefit from conflict would actively seek to find other ways to ignite strife.

But that still does not imply that we should not seek the elimination of religion. Religious beliefs seem to be the most combustible and the easiest to use to get people to adopt a we/them attitude and to look at people just like them as their enemies. Look at the fights between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland and between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. In both conflicts, both sides share enormous similarities but what should be a unifying glue is easily overcome by their absurd obsession with religious differences.

Nothing seems to fire up people more than the thought that they are fighting for their god and that he will reward them for their murderous acts. Look at how easy it was to incite religious people to brutally murder innocent people in Afghanistan, simply by burning a book halfway around the world. The idea that a powerful god would even need puny humans to avenge his honor is ridiculous on its face and the fact that believers actually think like that shows how religion robs people of basic common sense and encourages irrational thinking.

Taking the divisive tool of religion away would make it harder to foment discord.

April 07, 2011

Censoring language in comments

An odd situation has occurred. A comment has been posted containing explicitly sexual words. I personally am not bothered by language that some find offensive but I do warn people when some of the things I link to contain such language so that those who do can avoid it.

The commenter clearly disliked what I wrote in the post The rise of racism and religion in Israel.

While I delete suspected spam without any qualms, I allow all genuine comments. This particular comment does not look like spam (it includes my name and does not contain any links to sites) but does not make any substantive point and consists of a purely personal attack on me. I did not want to delete it because people have a right to dislike me or disagree with me and say so.

I have decided that if necessary, I will censor particular words in comments using the common practice of replacing selected letters with hyphens. Those of you who are angered by a post and do want to use such language in comments can spare me some trouble by putting in your own hyphens.

Brutality in Bahrain

While attention is focused on Libya, the authorities in Bahrain, aided by Saudi Arabian forces, are brutally cracking down on demonstrators in that country, turning it into an 'island of fear'.

Joe Stork of the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the apparent police beatings featured in the latest pictures as "extremely disturbing".

"Bahrain is now a state where the police are acting with complete impunity. There is no accountability, not even an effort to cover up what is going on," said Mr Stork, HRW's Middle East and Bahraini expert.

Countering atheist arguments

It should be impossible to lose a debate with a religious person because the facts, logic and reason are all on the side of atheism. However Edward Current shows religious people ten ways to checkmate atheists.

Northeast Ohio Anti-War Coalition [NOAC]

This is a wonderful local organization that is trying to stop the US's endless wars around the world. You can get more information at its website or by phone at 216-736-4716 or email to noacinfo@aol.com.

They are having a demonstration to end US/NATO Military Strikes on Libya.

'Stop US/ NATO War on Libya' Demonstration - Come to the Rally and Judge for Yourself
Friday, April 8, 3-4:30 pm,
the Federal Bldg., Lakeside Ave. and East
9th St., downtown Cleveland

They are also taking people to a larger rally in NYC on April 9 but the bus is already full.

STOP THE WARS/BRING WAR DOLLARS HOME RALLY AND MARCH
New York City, Saturday, April 9th, 2011

The Cleveland bus is full. The rally and march couldn't come at a more urgent time with wars and occupations throughout the Middle East increasing and a US government shut-down looming at midnight, Friday.

As Congress dithers and hithers on a budget resolution to keep the government functioning, the "800 pound gorilla in the room" - actually $700+ billion gorilla of a military budget - continues to be ignored.

How's this for a plan to help balance the budget?
Shut Down the Wars and Occupations.
Shut Down US Military Bases.
Shut Down producing cold-war military weapons.
Shut Down funding military mercenaries abroad.

-----------------------------------

Contact Your Federal Elected Officials

As those who gather in New York City on Saturday send these and other anti-war/re-order our budget priorities messages, you can send a similar message wherever you are. On Friday and Saturday (it's fine to leave a message), call or email anyone of the following federal officials to express your views:

NAME / PHONE / FAX /
Sen Rob Portman (800) 205-6446 (216) 522-7097
Sen Sherrod Brown (216) 522-7272 (216) 522-2239
Rep Dennis Kucinich (216) 228-8850 (216) 228-6465
Rep Marcia Fudge (216) 522-4900 (216) 522-4908
Rep Steve LaTourette (440) 352-3939 (440) 352-3939
Rep Betty Sutton (330) 865-8450 (330) 865-8470
Rep Tim Ryan (330) 373-0074 (330) 373 0098
Rep James B. Renacci (330) 489-4414 (330) 493-9265

EMAIL
Emails can be sent thru forms
For US Senators
http://senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm
For US Representatives
https://writerep.house.gov/writerep/welcome.shtml

Thank you!

It's good to be the king

Barack Obama steadily accumulates king-like powers, an affinity for an imperial presidency that he deplored when Bush/Cheney displayed that trait in office.

PolitiFact finds that in the way he has gone to war against Libya, Obama has done the 'Full Flop', their term for an unambiguous 180-degree switch from what he said as a candidate, which was that, "The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."

But that is not the only 'Full Flop' by Obama. As a candidate he advocated strong transparency and praised whistleblowers as important in preventing waste, abuse, and inefficiency and promised them greater protections. As president, he now attacks whistleblowers and journalists with a passion that exceeds even Bush/Cheney. The mainstream media did not seem to care as long as the targeted whistleblowers were merely government employees. Now that the ever-deferential New York Times is also being targeted, it will be interesting to see how they respond.

Glenn Greenwald talks about how Obama is now even attacking our Miranda rights. But everything is sunny in Obama Land where he can do no wrong and his reputation as a constitutional scholar remains unsullied.

[T]he good thing about being Barack Obama is that you're justified in what you do even when you first do X and then do Not X.

Thus, when you argue that wars need Congressional approval, you're standing up for the Constitution; when you start a war without Congressional approval, you're a humanitarian. When you announce you will release torture photos in the government's possession, you're a stalwart defender of transparency; when you change your mind two weeks later and announce you'll conceal those photos, you're standing up for The Troops. When you give Miranda warnings to Terrorism suspects, you're honoring the Rule of Law and protecting American values; when you turn around and deny those very same rights, you're showing your devotion to Keeping us Safe.

Barack Obama must be channeling Mel Brooks as King Louis XVI in the film The History of the World, Part 1 who did anything he wanted without suffering any consequence, all the while saying, "It's good to be the king."

Obama is enabled in this by the amount of deference he receives from his followers, which is similar to what Bush/Cheney received from their fans. For example, Kevin Drum is a blogger at Mother Jones who can be labeled a centrist. He recently wrote about his concerns about Obama's decision to attack Libya:

So what should I think about this? If it had been my call, I wouldn't have gone into Libya. But the reason I voted for Obama in 2008 is because I trust his judgment. And not in any merely abstract way, either: I mean that if he and I were in a room and disagreed about some issue on which I had any doubt at all, I'd literally trust his judgment over my own. I think he's smarter than me, better informed, better able to understand the consequences of his actions, and more farsighted. I voted for him because I trust his judgment, and I still do.

This is quite extraordinary. It is one thing to say that when someone whose judgment you respect disagrees with you, it gives you pause. That pause presumably makes you investigate further until you can justify your prior judgment or learn something new that changes your view. It is quite another to say that you would simply take that judgment over your own when you disagree.

One could also say that on an issue which one has no expertise to evaluate and arrive at a reasonably informed judgment because of the technical knowledge involved (say climate change or details of evolutionary theory or cosmology or monetary policy), one goes with the judgment of people whom one trusts to have the required expertise and judgment.

But that is not the case with Libya, which involves principles and policies that can and should be publicly articulated as part of the process of persuading the Congress and the nation that going to war is justified, unless one thinks that Obama has reasons that he cannot divulge to the country. But then we are entering "We have secret information that Saddam Hussein has WMD" territory and we know how that ends up.

James Madison got it right when he said, "I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of the freedoms of the people by gradual and silent encroachment of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations."

April 06, 2011

Scientific American on evolution education

Five years after the Dover trial, Scientific American looks at the state of teaching evolution.

(via Machines Like Us.)

Cowardice

The Obama Department of Justice has announced that it is giving up on the original plan to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged leader of the 9/11 plot, in a regular court in New York City and will instead use a military tribunal in Guantanamo. This is shameful. As Glenn Greenwald says:

Indeed, as I've documented before -- virtually every country that suffers horrible Terrorist attacks -- Britain, Spain, India, Indonesia -- tries the accused perpetrators in its regular court system, on their own soil, usually in the city that was attacked. The U.S. -- Land of the Free and Home of the Brave -- stands alone in being too afraid to do so.

Related to that: the notion that political opinion in America would not allow Obama to do anything differently on these issues is empirically disproven; he ran on a platform of opposing all the measures he now supports and won decisively. By itself, that proves that -- when these debates are engaged rather than conceded -- these positions are politically sustainable. Obama adopts Bush Terrorism policies because he wants to and has no reason not to -- not because doing so is a political necessity.

Finally -- and as is usually true for this excuse -- the notion that "Congress made him do it" is totally false: aside from the fact that the Obama administration long ago announced that it would retain the military commission system, the White House -- long before Congress acted to ban transfers of detainees to the U.S. -- removed decision-making power from the DOJ in the KSM case and made clear it would likely reverse Holder's decision.

[UPDATE: Dahlia Lithwick also excoriates the Obama administration on its reversal.]

Elsewhere, Jason Ditz recounts the history of excuses on not closing Guantanamo.

Review: America's Most Hated Family IN CRISIS

In 2007, Louis Theroux from BBC2 spent some time with the people of the Westboro Baptist Church who gave him considerable access to talk with all their members. The resulting documentary called America's Most Hated Family provided for some absorbing and informative television that I wrote about earlier.

Most revealing to me was that the church consists almost entirely of one family descended from its leader Fred Phelps (he has 13 children, 11 are lawyers, four are estranged of whom one is a gay rights activist), many of whom are college-educated professionals earning a good living (the Phelps family runs a successful law practice in Topeka, Kansas) and whose contributions from their outside income seem to be the entire means of support for the group. What I found disturbing was the indoctrination of the children of the family from a very young age, who seemed to be able to turn on the famed Westboro rhetoric on cue.

It turns out that since that time there have been a considerable number of defections from the church, especially of young adults, two of whom had been featured in the original program. So this year Theroux visited the church again for a sequel to find out what was happening and especially how the parents were dealing with their children leaving. The result is an hour-long documentary that was aired on BBC2 on Sunday and that you can see in four parts. Here's the first part

and you can see part 2, part 3, and part 4.

It quickly becomes clear that the church is in a state of serious decline. In the 2007 documentary, there was a rambunctious energy and vitality in the group, a sense of purpose and mission in getting in the face of those who disagreed with them. Now they seem just sad and pathetic, an older group trying to keep up the momentum but not having the sharpness and edge they had before and largely going through the motions. There was an air of weariness and resignation and I got the sense that the aging church was on the ropes. The parents of the defecting children maintained a façade that it is good when apostates leave and that they did not care that they had lost all contact with their own children but it was unconvincing, except for a couple of true believers. It was also clear that they are worried that even more children will defect as they reach adulthood and discover the appeal of modernity via the contacts that they make on the internet, promising a freedom that is too alluring to resist compared to the tight embrace of the church.

There was one scene where some of the girls (who are not allowed to date) seemed to be fantasizing about a young Scandinavian TV crew that had come to film them. This scene was poignant because the girls seemed to sense that while such crushes were normal, yet they were told that it was wrong and they realized that it was hopeless to dream of a real relationship with young men as long as they were part of the church.

What is happening to the Westboro church is what is happening to religion everywhere, as my series on Why Atheism is Winning argued. The lure of modernity is taking young people away from religion, leaving religion with an older (and largely female) constituency, plus young children who are not old enough to leave. Religion continues largely because of inheritance. Children have to be indoctrinated while they are young and stay indoctrinated to keep the institutions going, because few people convert into religion from nonbelief. Once you have young people defecting from religion in significant numbers, it is over. Such defections are increasingly likely these days where you cannot keep them insulated within their closed world, and those who have escaped to freedom can still communicate easily with those left behind.

Seeing this documentary, coupled with the larger trends I have written about before about the impact of modernity on religion, tells me that the days of the Westboro church are numbered. It could well be that the church's recent Supreme Court victory will be their swan song and that within a decade or less, it will implode. Patriarch Fred is 81 and looks feeble and his death without a clear successor may trigger further dissension.

At the very end of the documentary (at the 12:20 mark of part 4), Theroux speaks again with Shirley Phelps-Roper, one of the founder's daughters and the most visible spokesperson, and she admits her fear that more of her remaining children (she has 11) might also defect. For a fleeting moment the brash confident persona disappears and she looks vulnerable, with the worried look of a mother who might lose her children. I actually found myself feeling sorry for her. Despite all her crazy and deliberately inflammatory rhetoric and air of arrogant certainty, I think she is too smart not to have her own secret doubts and it cannot be easy for her to see the tight world that she has constructed and controlled start to fall apart and be able to do little about it.

April 05, 2011

The barbaric killings in Afghanistan

People who choose not to be affiliated with any religion are the fastest growing segment of the population in the world. In contrast, all religions are in decline except for Islam which seems to be in a growth mode largely because of its high birth rates. When Islam goes into decline, as it surely will like all the other religions, it will in large part be due to actions like those of the murderous fanatics who rampaged in Afghanistan and killed over 20 people (even beheading some) in retaliation for the burning of a Koran in the US.

Such an atrocity cannot help but cause acute discomfort to any Muslim who likes to see himself or herself as part of the modern world. While murdering people (like blasphemers or apostates) who commit an act that is offensive to your religious beliefs has a barbaric logic to it that presumably makes sense to the appropriately insane, killing innocent people who just happen to be nearby because you cannot lay hands on the people who did the offensive act is so outside the bounds of reason that no one who has any pretence to being part of the modern world will even try to find justifications for it. Doing so immediately brands one as being outside the pale of normal human society.

And this is what Muslims who aspire to modernity have to confront. The people in Afghanistan who committed that atrocity claim to be acting in the service of their god. It is no good for so-called 'moderate' Muslims to say that these people are misguided and that 'true' Islam (i.e., their own version) would frown on such acts. People will be forced to ask themselves what it is about their religion that makes people even consider the possibility that killing innocent people for the actions of others is noble and that their god will look favorably on them for doing so.

My talk on Why Atheism is Winning

The hour-long talk is now up on YouTube.

There was a lively Q&A that went on for another hour after the talk. I will upload that later.

Gods and snakes

I have noticed recently that religious believers no longer try to argue that belief in god is justified in itself but have settled for trying to put religion on a par with disbelief, as purely a matter of choice.

For example, religious believers who are disturbed by the argument made by atheists that belief in god is irrational sometimes respond by saying that since we cannot prove that there is no god, then atheism involves as much a 'belief' religion, and thus both are equally rational or irrational. Ricky Gervais provides a good response to that by pointing out that "Atheism isn't a belief system. I have a belief system but it's not "based on" atheism, it's just not based on the existence of a god. I make none of my moral, social, or artistic decisions based on any god or superstitions. Saying atheism is a belief system is like saying not going skiing is a hobby. I've never been skiing. It's my biggest hobby. I literally do it all the time."

He is right but I want to expand on that idea a bit in my more pedestrian style.

Atheism does not automatically provide one with a philosophy or a system of ethics or morals. But that does not mean that atheists have none of those things or that there are no behavioral consequences for being an atheist. They just come from sources other than a belief in a god.

Here is an example. Suppose someone moves into a house and for whatever reason believes that there is a poisonous snake somewhere in it that has somehow managed to evade all attempts to detect, locate, or remove it. Such people will consciously adopt a lifestyle that takes the possible existence of a snake into account. They will turn on the lights in the room before going in, will look down as they walk, they will open cupboards, drawers, and closets gingerly and be ready to jump back if they see a snake, they will examine their shoes and clothes before wearing them, and so on. They will look for signs of the snake's presence and be alert for snake-like sounds. After awhile, these behaviors will become routine and done unthinkingly. Furthermore, the behavior of all people of who believe that there are snakes in their houses will be quite similar.

Now take someone who does not believe there are any poisonous snakes in the house. Such a person will behave quite differently from the believer, not doing any of the precautionary things that the snake-believer does. But unlike the snake-believer whose behavior is based on that belief, the behavior of the nonbeliever is not based on that nonbelief. She does not act as any part of a conscious or planned strategy based on the absence of snakes. She does not go around sticking her hands into sock drawers simply because no harm will come from doing so. The nonbeliever does not say to herself, "I will stick my hand into the sock drawer without looking first because I believe there is no snake there" or "I will put on my shoes without first checking inside because I believe there are no snakes." Snakes simply do not enter her consciousness.

So while the behavior of a believer in the snake derives from that belief, the behavior of the non-believer does not derive from that non-belief, even though the behavior of the nonbeliever will be quite different from that of a believer. Non-belief does not prescribe behavior. As a result, there will be no consistent pattern of behavior among non-believers, unlike the much more uniform behavior of believers. Some non-believers may look down when they walk, others may not. There is no way of predicting.

The analogy with religion holds pretty closely. A person who believes in a god will behave in ways that are guided by their religious belief. On a practical level, if you are a Hindu, you are likely to not eat beef. If a Muslim or Jew you will avoid pork. But if you are an atheist, there is no predicting what you will eat. Atheists can be found in the entire spectrum of diets, from vegans to fast-food addicts. Those decisions will be idiosyncratic and depend on personal choices based on a multitude of sources since non-belief does not provide a unifying principle or idea.

More significantly, the idea that there is a god who can punish you with eternal hellfire if you disobey him or reward you with heaven if you do obey results in people trying to figure out what god wants from them and acting accordingly. Since their belief significantly influences their behavior, they make the mistake in thinking that non-belief drives atheists' behavior. Religious people seem to think that atheists decide how to behave by reasoning along the lines of "Since there is no god to judge and punish me, I can lie and cheat and steal."

This is false. If you don't believe that god exists, you simply do not factor the absence of god into one's behavior or one's moral and ethical makeup, just the way the behavior of the non-believer in snakes is not driven by the absence of snakes.

It must be hard for believers in god, for whom that belief is so important, to appreciate that we atheists simply do not factor it into our daily lives. The absence of god is simply taken for granted.

April 04, 2011

The US-Saudi Arabia deal on Libya and Bahrain

Things are never quite what they seem on the surface when it comes to international affairs. Pepe Escobar writing in the Asia Times describes what went on behind the scenes prior to the Arab League resolution on Libya.

Fighting back against oligarchic greed

On Wednesday, April 5 from 2:00-3:30 (Eastern time) there will be a live video stream of Fight Back USA! a national teach-in on "Austerity, Debt, Corporate Greed (and what YOU can do about it)."

197 campuses are participating but for some reason my own is not on the list as yet.

God-men, faith healers, and other frauds

While India is emerging as a powerful and modern economy based on science and technology, it still suffers from religious superstition, especially the phenomenon of 'god-men', frauds who prey on the gullible to fool them into thinking that they are avatars of god. It seems like all you need to do is wear orange robes, grow your hair long, utter some religious mumbo-jumbo, and perform some cheap magic tricks for people to start worshipping you and, more importantly, give you money that they can ill-afford to part with.

This video shows a heartening effort to counter these frauds, by the Indian equivalents of James Randi.

The biggest such fraud is, of course, the man who calls himself Sai Baba, who is famous in that part of the world. He has devotees from all walks of life, including politically powerful people. Three families of my own acquaintance are devotees of his, making pilgrimages to his place and, most important, giving money. When I expressed skepticism, one of them gave me a book that she claimed would convince me of his authenticity. It did not.

This video exposes the tricks he uses to impress his followers.

Exposing god-men in India is not without risk because religious nutters hate having their faith exposed as worthless and can resort to violence, so these debunkers have to be commended for their courage.

In the west we do not have god-men but we do have our equivalent frauds, evangelists and faith healers who claim to be channels for god's actions. To be successful in this con seems to require fast-talking, ostentatious living, and a TV or radio outlet.

But while all these frauds differ superficially, the goal is the same, to separate fools and their money.

Atheist groups in the US military

Some non-religious members of the US military at Fort Bragg in North Carolina have formed a group called MASH (Military Atheists and Secular Humanists) and applied for official recognition so that they receive the same benefits as religious groups. There are 20 similar unofficial groups of non-theists in US military bases around the world, according to the president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.

This is not a trivial development. The US military has long had a 'God and country' mindset that is hostile to nonbelievers. These developments show that more and more atheists feel comfortable declaring their nonbelief. The numbers are potentially large. A Pentagon report "concluded that about 20 to 25 percent of military personnel have no religious preference. Up to 3.6 percent identify themselves as humanist — a catchall that can refer to a nonreligious ethical philosophy." Religious non-preference, like saying one is 'spiritual', is often (though not always) a temporary refuge for those who seriously doubt the existence of god but are uncomfortable coming right out and saying so.

We are rapidly approaching a critical point when religious beliefs will collapse because their lack of any rational basis will become increasingly apparent as people in every walk of life begin to point it out.

The rise of racism and religion in Israel

Israel has a long history of awful treatment of the Palestinians, treating them in a way that has been compared to the apartheid system used by the white minority in South Africa to oppress the blacks. But Israel has got even worse in recent days. Ran Ha Cohen describes the rise of outright racism in Israel. Israeli police are even reported to be illegally arresting arrest five-year old Palestinian children.

The occupation of Palestinian is becoming so ugly that New Yorker editor David Remnick calls for it to end and has led even strong supporters of Israel like Jeffrey Goldberg (who has served in the Israel Defense Forces) to speculate that Israel could soon no longer claim the label of being democratic. Ilan Pappé, a professor with the College of Social Sciences and International Studies at the University of Exeter in the UK and director of the university's European Centre for Palestine Studies, goes further and says:

Israel is definitely not a democracy. A country that occupies another people for more than 40 years and disallow them the most elementary civic and human rights cannot be a democracy. A country that pursues a discriminatory policy against a fifth of its Palestinian citizens inside the 67 borders cannot be a democracy. In fact Israel is, what we use to call in political science a herrenvolk democracy, its democracy only for the masters. The fact that you allow people to participate in the formal side of democracy, namely to vote or to be elected, is useless and meaningless if you don't give them any share in the common good or in the common resources of the State, or if you discriminate against them despite the fact that you allow them to participate in the elections. On almost every level from official legislation through governmental practices, and social and cultural attitudes, Israel is only a democracy for one group, one ethnic group, that given the space that Israel now controls, is not even a majority group anymore, so I think that you'll find it very hard to use any known definition of democracy which will be applicable for the Israeli case.

The growth of outright racist views often voiced by rabbis, and its tolerance by the Israeli government and higher echelons of society, is causing some concern within that country amongst people who fear the emergence of a theocracy: "Hundreds of rabbis sign a manifesto prohibiting Jews from renting or selling apartments to non-Jews, yet no response is heard from the justice minister. The chief rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliahu, continuously incites and no criminal or disciplinary procedures were commenced against him."

As Juan Cole points out, the racism in Israel is already quite overt as can be seen in the restrictions on interfaith marriage.

Israel, like Lebanon and some Muslim countries, for the most part makes no provision for civil marriage, requiring individuals to marry within the religious law of their sect. Israel’s rabbinate opposes civil marriage in part out of fear it would encourage inter-faith marriage. At the moment, couples of different faith heritages in Israel must go to Cyprus or elsewhere abroad to marry, and have the marriage recognized on their return. Such a marriage cannot be performed in Israel itself.

It is no secret that Israel, and its lobby in the US, have been urging a military attack on Iran. US leaders routinely threaten Iran with the possibility of a nuclear attack by saying that 'the nuclear option is not off the table'. Israel makes sure everyone is aware that it can and will attack Iran at a moment's notice if given the green light by the US, and both countries have repeatedly and recently invaded other countries in that region. And yet it is Iran, which has not attacked any neighbor for over a millennium, that is portrayed in the media here as the dangerous extremist nation, while the US and Israel are the 'moderates'.

I have been puzzled by Israel's preoccupation with Iran since the leaders of Iran are not stupid and are not likely to use any nuclear weapons it manufactures because of certain and overwhelming retaliation. It seems pretty obvious to me that if they seek nuclear weapons at all, it is as a deterrent to attacks on them by the US and Israel. I am more fearful of the Israeli or US governments using nuclear weapons because they refuse to deny that they are willing to use them (and the US has used them in the past) and there is no deterrence to their use.

Juan Cole provides a possible explanation for Israel's preoccupation with Iran, based on cables released by WikiLeaks. Apparently Israel is concerned that the rate of immigration is slowing down and that its demographic edge over the native Arab population might soon disappear.

The Jewish Agency, which was created to promote the immigration to Israel of Jews all over the world, has conceded that the era of mass immigration by Jews is over. This peaked in the 1990s when hundreds of thousands of Jews -- and many non-Jews -- flooded into the country after the Soviet Union collapsed.

This year, the Jewish Agency expects around 18,000 Jews to move to Israel from the United States and elsewhere and the number is likely to dwindle.

Israel's demographic makeup has undergone dramatic change in recent years. Out of a population of around 7 million, one-fifth are Palestinian Arabs. Another large minority is made up of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are non-Jews as defined by Jewish religious law, or Halaka.

The rise in power of right-wing orthodox Jewish religious groups and their attempts to impose their absurdly restrictive lifestyle on the still significantly large secular population is causing tensions within the country. What is happening is that the new immigrants from Russia and the former Eastern bloc countries seem to be more anti-Arab, pro-settlement, and hard line nationalists. The Israeli government may be fearful that if Iran did manage to produce nuclear weapons, then its Jewish population that has been made so fearful of Iran would emigrate in even larger numbers, worsening the demographic problem. The government's own polling says that one-third of Israelis would emigrate if Iran developed a nuclear weapon. The people who are most likely to leave are the more secular modernist elements, leaving the country even more firmly in the grip of its religious extremists. If this happens it will result in an Israel that looks like the Jewish equivalent of mullah-dominated Islamist states in which the religious nutters impose their crazy rules on everyone, whether they are believers or not. One Israeli Minister warns that Israel is already turning into Iran.

Whenever religion gains influence over a government, the results are bad. Religion is a menace and we would all be better off without it.

April 03, 2011

April Fool jokes

I am not a fan of April Fool jokes. While they may be tolerable when practiced by very small children, I find the adult fascination with them peculiar.

The ones in the media are usually only mildly amusing. I never note the special day except that NPR usually does hoax stories on it that are so weird that I realize that something is off and remember that it is April 1. This year it was a story about eye surgery to allow people to see 3D films and TV without special glasses (on Morning Edition) and another about a coffee shop that provides old-time slow internet via modems as part of a movement to get people to slow down the pace of life (on All Things Considered).

The only people who enjoy such hoaxes are the perpetrators. While most are harmless and usually merely a waste of time, some people's ideas of what's funny can be dangerous and trigger the "What on Earth were you thinking?" feeling.

For example, this year the Plain Dealer had a story about a woman, a Cleveland city government employee, who called her boyfriend and said that she was hiding under her desk at work because a gunman had entered the building and was firing shots. He naturally called 911 and they sent out police and SWAT teams that swarmed through the building searching for the gunman before uncovering the hoax. Someone could have got hurt or even killed if the SWAT team misinterpreted an innocent action as threatening.

Having said all that, once in a while the extra latitude allowed on April Fool's day allows some creative people to indulge in a piece of inspired whimsy, such as this one by the BBC in 2008. This is an example of where the victims also enjoy the joke because of the ingenuity involved and the beauty of the result.

You can see how it was done.

Unfortunately most hoaxes come nowhere close to that level of cleverness and are merely annoying.

The 1% problem

Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz writes about the fact that the top 1% of wealthy people in the US now rule the country and are ruining it.

It's no use pretending that what has obviously happened has not in fact happened. The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation's income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent. One response might be to celebrate the ingenuity and drive that brought good fortune to these people, and to contend that a rising tide lifts all boats. That response would be misguided. While the top 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall.

Virtually all U.S. senators, and most of the representatives in the House, are members of the top 1 percent when they arrive, are kept in office by money from the top 1 percent, and know that if they serve the top 1 percent well they will be rewarded by the top 1 percent when they leave office. By and large, the key executive-branch policymakers on trade and economic policy also come from the top 1 percent. When pharmaceutical companies receive a trillion-dollar gift—through legislation prohibiting the government, the largest buyer of drugs, from bargaining over price—it should not come as cause for wonder. It should not make jaws drop that a tax bill cannot emerge from Congress unless big tax cuts are put in place for the wealthy. Given the power of the top 1 percent, this is the way you would expect the system to work.

In recent weeks we have watched people taking to the streets by the millions to protest political, economic, and social conditions in the oppressive societies they inhabit. Governments have been toppled in Egypt and Tunisia. Protests have erupted in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain. The ruling families elsewhere in the region look on nervously from their air-conditioned penthouses—will they be next? They are right to worry. These are societies where a minuscule fraction of the population—less than 1 percent—controls the lion's share of the wealth; where wealth is a main determinant of power; where entrenched corruption of one sort or another is a way of life; and where the wealthiest often stand actively in the way of policies that would improve life for people in general.

As we gaze out at the popular fervor in the streets, one question to ask ourselves is this: When will it come to America? In important ways, our own country has become like one of these distant, troubled places.

The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn't seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Too late.

Note that he does not ask if this state of affairs will cause riots in the streets in America like those occurring elsewhere in the world but when.

It is worth reading the whole thing.

April 02, 2011

India wins World Cup

India defeated Sri Lanka in a closely fought final game.

Sri Lanka batted first and scored 274 runs off their allotted fifty overs, losing six wickets in the process. India batted well in response, scoring 277 with 10 deliveries to spare, losing only four wickets along the way. Throughout their run chase India maintained the required scoring rate and always looked steady and confident.

It was a well-played game by both teams and India were the deserved winners.

So now it is on to the next World Cup to be played in 2015 in Australia and New Zealand.

April 01, 2011

Crazy Republican candidates

I said that I wouldn't waste time analyzing the politics of the seemingly hundreds of publicity seeking wingnuts who are flirting with running for the Republican nomination, but I will make an exception when The Daily Show showers on their lunacy the ridicule it deserves.

The Republican Party leadership, by treating these ridiculous people as if they were serious policy voices and creating the image that they represented mainstream party views, now faces the problem of how to marginalize them as otherwise they risk a humiliating defeat in the 2012 presidential election.

Presidential letter to his successor

There is a legend that each outgoing president writes a letter to the person succeeding him and on his last day in office leaves it in the desk in the Oval Office for the new president to read. The contents of the letters are not revealed but based on the pattern of history, I think I have figured out what it says.

It consists of a single sentence: "Bomb another country."

Religious insanity

There are reports that at least eight UN workers were murdered in Afghanistan in retaliation for the burning of a Koran in a US church last month.

Taking the lives of eight people for the burning of a book? This is the type of insanity that exists in religions' most devoted followers.

Cricket World Cup final: Sri Lanka v India

The World Cup final will be played in India on Saturday between Sri Lanka and India. The teams are fairly evenly matched. Although I am rooting for Sri Lanka, I think India is the slightly better team and given that they have the home field advantage, they have to be considered the favorites. You can see a live video stream of the game here, with the game starting at 5:00 am Eastern and ending around 1:00 pm. That pretty much takes care of my Saturday morning.

If you do watch, one thing to bear in mind is that in the one-day format in which the World Cup is played (unlike the five-day Test matches), each team bats for just one inning lasting for 50 'overs', with each over consisting of six balls (pitches). So the batting team faces a total of 300 deliveries or until they lose ten 'wickets' (i.e., ten batters get out), whichever comes first. On the fielding side, any given bowler is limited to a maximum of ten overs (60 deliveries). The team batting first has to score at least 250 runs to be competitive and over 300 to put real pressure on the team batting second. (For those who want to know more about how the game is played, see my post from 2006 here and you can also see a short video explaining the game here.)

In the first semi-final game, Sri Lanka defeated New Zealand as expected. New Zealand batted first and scored 217 runs from 293 deliveries before losing their tenth out terminated their innings. Sri Lanka surpassed that score in 287 deliveries while losing only five wickets. Although on paper it looks like a comfortable win, they received a scare at one point when New Zealand seemed to be about to repeat their upset win over South Africa in the quarter finals by causing a dramatic collapse in the Sri Lankan batting just as they seemed to be cruising to an easy victory. But unlike the South Africans, the Sri Lankans did not completely fold but recovered to win.

In the other game, watched by an more than one billion people worldwide, India beat Pakistan in a fairly close game. India batted first and scored 260 runs off 300 deliveries while losing 9 wickets in the process. Pakistan started off well and looked to have a chance to beat the more favored Indian team but could not maintain the pace and managed to score only 231 runs when they lost their tenth wicket on the 299th delivery.

This game had some political overtones. India and Pakistan have had conflicts over Kashmir and other issues that have lasted for more than a half-century so any contest between the two nations takes on a significance well beyond the game itself, like the athletic competitions between the USA and USSR during the cold war. Relations between the two nations reached a nadir with the attack on the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai in 2008 by elements from Pakistan. In a gesture towards rapprochement, the Indian Prime Minister invited his Pakistani counterpart to watch the cricket game with him and the offer was accepted. Whether this will go beyond being a merely symbolic gesture and leads to a real thaw in relations remains to be seen.

The championship game will be the final international outing for 38-year old Muttiah Muralitharan, who has for nearly two decades been Sri Lanka's ace bowler and is recognized as one of the greatest bowlers in the history of the game, whose career record of 800 test match 'wickets' (i.e., the number of batsmen he has got out) is far ahead of the next highest total of 708. In addition, his ebullient personality and obvious love of the game have endeared him to fans worldwide. He is not fully fit but you can expect him to put forth maximum effort and to be given a grand farewell, whatever the result, though he would obviously like to retire with a second World Cup championship, having been part of the Sri Lankan side that won the trophy in 1996.

In cricket, the bowler pitches the ball is such a way that it bounces once on its way to the batsman. This allows the bowler to spin the ball so that it can turn to the left or the right after bouncing, or even keep low or rise higher than expected. The condition of the ground can thus also play a crucial role. Muralitharan's skill lay in his ability, on good days and with suitable ground conditions, to produce not only prodigious amounts of turn but also disguise its direction, which resulted in batsmen flailing away at the air while the ball went elsewhere.

Watch a few of the highlights of Muralitharan's career to see what I mean.

On India's side is Sachin Tendulkar, one of the greatest batsmen to ever play the game who, at almost 38, is also in the twilight of his career and whose career record of 14,692 runs is also far ahead of the next highest career total of 12,263. Tendulkar is actually quite small in stature (5 ft 5 ins in height) but in cricket this is not so important and he more than makes up for this by superb technique, good eye, quick reflexes, and exquisite timing. In cricket, aesthetics are much appreciated by the fans (even the fans of their opponents) and Tendulkar's style is so good that he has been bestowed the title of 'The Little Master'. Tendulkar will undoubtedly want to win the championship too since this is likely his last World Cup. India's only other win in the tournament was in 1983. You can watch him and judge for yourself.

The records set by Tendulkar and Muralitharan are so far ahead of their nearest competitors that they are like the one set by Bob Beamon in his spectacular long jump in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico that broke the previous world and Olympic records by nearly two feet.

That leap was so far ahead of everyone else that I for one was certain that it was a freak event, the result of an unlikely convergence of circumstances that would never be repeated and that the record would last forever. But human beings keep achieving the seemingly impossible and just as Beamon's world record was eventually surpassed in 1991 (although his Olympic record is still unbroken), so will those of Tendulkar and Muralitharan, though they too will likely last many decades.

Whatever the outcome, competing against each other in World Cup championship game is a fitting reward for all that these two great players have contributed to the game.