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Entries for May 2011

May 31, 2011

The plight of evangelical ministers

"Half of pastors would leave the ministry tomorrow if they could. Seventy percent are fighting depression and 90 percent can't cope with the challenge of ministry… 1,500 pastors walk away from ministry every month because of moral failure, burnout, conflict, discouragement or depression… 80 percent of seminary and Bible school graduates will leave the ministry within their first five years."

Who is saying this? Not some atheist gloating over the demise of religion. These were the figures quoted by Jonathan Falwell, who took over the ministry of his well-known evangelical father Jerry Falwell.

Ken Pulliam, a former fundamentalist preacher, provides additional statistics on the rampant dissatisfaction of evangelical preachers with their lives:

  • 89% considered leaving the ministry at one time.
  • 57% said they would leave if they had a better place to go—including secular work
  • 71% stated they were burned out, and they battle depression beyond fatigue on a weekly and even a daily basis.

Pulliam makes the point that these statistics are telling all by themselves and that it is not relevant to compare them with other professions to see if they are better or worse. Evangelical pastors consist of people who are supposedly sure that they are doing god's work and thus should be immune from the usual problems that the rest of us suffer from. What this data suggest is that many of these preachers think they are living a lie, that the beliefs they share with their flock is not true

While the media focus on a few high profile mega-church pastors to suggest that evangelical Christianity is flourishing, the reality is different. No thinking person today can believe that the Bible is literally true the way that these people say it is. Modernity cannot be shut out and it is taking its toll on many of them. It is really very sad.

The near term outlook for the Middle East

As the Israel lobby uses its power over the US government to keep stalling while the Israeli government and its settlers encroach on Palestinian land, we should try and see where this process might lead. Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, says that Israel's lack of interest in arriving at a two-state solution is obvious:

In many respects, Obama's speech, aside from the soaring rhetoric, might have been crafted in Tel Aviv rather than the White House. It is a tribute to Israel's extraordinary influence upon the US media that has been able to shift the focus of assessment to the supposed Israeli anger about affirming Palestinian statehood within 1967 borders. It is hardly a secret that the Netanyahu leadership, aside from its shrewd propaganda, is opposed to the establishment of any Palestinian state, whether symbolic or substantive.

This was much was confirmed by the release of the Palestine Papers that showed that, behind closed doors - even when the Palestinian Authority made concession after concession in response to Israeli demands - the Israeli negotiating partners seemed totally unresponsive, and appeared disinterested in negotiating a genuine solution to the conflict.

Obama's speech in which he spoke of negotiations for a Palestinian state "based on 1967 borders with mutually-agreed swaps', rather that being a sell-out of Israel is actually a huge concession to them and encourages even further Israel in the expansion of its illegal settlements policies in the West Bank and means that Israel can demand even more land from the Palestinians in return for removal of some settlements. As Falk says, "If anything this is a step back from the 1967 canonical and unanimous Security Council Resolution 242 that looked unconditionally toward "withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territory occupied in the recent conflict""

Falk adds that once you take away his rhetorical skills, Obama's failures on the Middle East become transparent.

With these considerations in mind, it is not at all surprising that Obama's approach to the Israel/Palestine conflict remains one-sided, deeply flawed, and a barrier rather than a gateway to a just and sustainable peace. The underlying pressures that produce the distortion is the one-sided allegiance to Israel, saying: "Our commitment to Israel's security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempt to single it out for criticism in international forums."

This leads to the totally unwarranted assessment that failure to achieve peace in recent years is equally attributable to Israelis and the Palestinians, thereby equating what is certainly not equivalent. Consider Obama's words of comparison: "Israeli settlement activity continues, Palestinians have walked away from the talks." How many times is it necessary to point out that Israeli settlement activity is unlawful, and used to be viewed as such - even by the United States government - and that the Palestinian refusal to negotiate comes while their promised homeland is being despoiled not only by settlement expansion and settler violence, but by the continued construction of an unlawful barrier wall well beyond the 1967 borders. Obama never finds it appropriate to mention Israel's reliance on excessive and lethal force, most recently in its response to the Nakba demonstrations along its borders, or its blatant disregard of international law, whether by continuing to blockade the entrapped 1.5 million Palestinians locked inside Gaza or by violently attacking the Freedom Flotilla a year ago in international waters - while it was carrying much needed humanitarian aid to the Gazans - or by the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem.

Falk suggests that the events of the so-called Arab spring might have the effect of bypassing the weak and ineffectual Obama government in favor of more direct action.

In a profound sense, whatever Obama says at this point is just adding more words which are beside the point. He has neither the will nor the capacity to exert any material leverage on Israel that might make it more amenable to respecting Palestinian rights under international law, or to strike a genuine compromise based on mutuality of claims. Palestinians should not look to sovereign states, or even the United Nations, and certainly not the United States, in their long and tormented journey to realise a just and sustainable destiny for themselves.

Their future will depend on the outcome of their struggle, abetted and supported by people of good will around the world, and increasingly assuming the character of a nonviolent legitimacy war that mobilises moral and political pressures that assert Palestinian rights from below. In this regard, it remains politically significant to make use of the UN and friendly governments to gain visibility and legitimacy for their claims of right. It is Palestinian populism, not great power diplomacy, that offers the best current hope of achieving a sustainable and just peace on behalf of the Palestinian people.

There are moves for the Palestinians to request the UN General Assembly that meets in September to vote on Palestinian statehood, most likely based on the 1967 borders. Israel is fiercely opposed to this move and its lobby in the US will make sure that the US does all it can to thwart it. But unlike the Security Council, there is no veto power in the General Assembly so the US will have to strong-arm as many countries as it can to try and reject the move.

But this is not going to be easy. Most of the rest of the world has seen through the US-Israeli 'peace process' charade a long time ago and realize that Israel has no intention of voluntarily allowing a Palestinian state and has to be forced into accepting one. Only those countries that desperately need the US for whatever reason will oppose this move.

May 30, 2011

Dog getting communion

An Anglican church in Canada welcomed pets to attend their services and Donald Keith, a new parishioner, took his dog Trapper with him. Since he was a newcomer, the vicar singled Keith out and invited him up in person to receive what is known as Holy Communion where you receive and wafer (and sometimes some wine or other beverage) to symbolize the body and blood of Jesus. (Catholics are told that the wafer and the wine actually become transformed into the body and blood of Jesus, but I am not getting into that here.)

When Keith went up, Trapper naturally followed him and the interim vicar said a small prayer and gave communion to Trapper too.

I thought that this was a nice story about a spontaneous friendly gesture on the vicar's part. When you are handing out what seems like treats to everyone and there is a dog waiting expectantly in line, it is hard to say no. Apparently almost every member of the congregation found the gesture to be heartwarming. But one person took umbrage and went straight to the archbishop and as a result Trapper has been banned from receiving communion. And of course, the Jesus lovers are incensed. Former Watergate felon and now crazy-for-Jesus evangelical Chuck Colson says that this is the result of the dangerous trend of thinking that humans are not special in the eyes of his god.

If I believed in heaven, my guess would be that Trapper is more worthy of going there than the parishioner who complained about him.

Annoying public piety

Today is Memorial Day in the US, which is meant to commemorate those killed in wars while serving in some military capacity, though over time people also use it to commemorate the deaths of any loved ones. While there are official events such a parades and flag flying and laying of wreaths at war memorials and in cemeteries, the day coincides with the onset of summer-like weather, and thus is seen as the beginning of the season for summertime activities. Since 1971, when the date was shifted from the fixed May 30 to the last Monday in May, people in the wintry regions of the country have seen this three-day weekend as the date to signal the emergence from their winter cocoons and organize barbecues and picnics and go to amusement parks and the like to take advantage of the warm weather.

This does not sit well with some people and without fail you can expect to see opinion pieces and editorials and letters to the editor of your local newspaper complaining that Memorial Day is not being treated with the solemnity it deserves.

I don't understand these scolds who want to be able to dictate what other people should do and feel. If you want to treat the day solemnly and think deep thoughts about life and death, go ahead, knock yourself out. But if others want to use a holiday to enjoy themselves, let them be. As long as the fun-seekers don't get in the face of the solemn ones and vice versa, there really should be no problem.

I remember as an adolescent feeling bored one Good Friday (which is a government holiday in Sri Lanka) after going to our church in the morning for the traditional three-hour service. I asked my mother whether I could go and see a film. Since I was a religious boy, I felt that I was asking for something not quite appropriate since it did not seem right to go and enjoy myself on the day that we were supposed to commemorate Jesus dying for our sins, which is a pretty big deal. So I fully expected her to say no but she cheerfully agreed. I think she had the healthy attitude that no one was genuinely grieving about an event that (supposedly) happened 2,000 years ago and that one should not overdo the piety. Having me mope around the house was not benefiting anyone.

I have grown increasingly impatient with these public grievings over past events by people who have no connection to the events or the people being commemorated. It seems to me to have become mainly occasions for hypocritical sanctimony by elected officials who try to outdo each other in public piety. We can expect to see an orgy of this on the tenth anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001.

May 29, 2011

Not a bad idea

Inattentional deafness

I have long been intrigued by the fact that when I am absorbed in reading, I completely miss what people have said, even if they have been speaking directly to me. This can be embarrassing but in my case people tend to indulgently excuse it because of the stereotype of the 'absent minded professor'. Being a theoretical physicist also helps since we are considered to be a little weird anyway.

But since I have been in the same room as the speaker, the sound waves must have entered my ears and gone to my brain but I have absolutely no memory of hearing anything. It is like the sound never even entered my head. This article explains why.

The researchers believe this deafness when attention is fully taken by a purely visual task is the result of our senses of seeing and hearing sharing a limited processing capacity. It is already known that people similarly experience 'inattentional blindness' when engrossed in a task that takes up all of their attentional capacity – for example, the famous Invisible Gorilla Test, where observers engrossed in a basketball game fail to observe a man in a gorilla suit walk past. The new research now shows that being engrossed in a difficult task makes us blind and deaf to other sources of information.

So it seems like we never really 'hear' anything until the brain has actually processed the incoming sound waves to register as sound. If the part of my brain responsible for this task is otherwise occupied, I haven't really 'heard' it.

This has happened to me other than reading, when I am merely thinking about something and have tuned the speaker out. I am sure everyone has had the same experience of daydreaming and missing what was said. This adds to the evidence that certain kinds of multitasking are impossible at a basic cognitive level.

May 27, 2011

The new standard for bravery and courage in politics

gop-gang-initiation.gif

The death of the two-state solution

In the US you will hear a lot of talk about the so-called peace process for the Middle East that never seems to go anywhere. You will also hear a lot about the two-state solution. But you rarely hear about the situation on the ground while this is going on. Take a look at this BBC map that shows how Israel has steadily encroached on the West Bank over the decades. (While Israel has relinquished formal control of Gaza, the harsh blockade they and Egypt imposed on that land means that they still dominate life there. Fortunately it looks like the new Egyptian authorities are going to lift the blockade.)

Palestine.gif

If you strip out the portions of land in the West Bank that are under Israeli control, this is what you are left with (via Balloon-Juice).

Palestine2.jpg

The areas in which the Palestinians are confined look like an archipelago, similar to the islands that comprise the Maldives or the Philippines. But it is much worse. At least in those other countries, people can freely go from one island to another, with only water as a barrier to travel. As a result of settlements and roads and walls that have been illegally built by Israel, the Palestinians are subjected to having to go around high barriers and pass through humiliating checkpoints as they go from one reservation to another. The splintering of land is even worse than the Bantustans for black people created by the white South African government during the worst days of apartheid.

It should be obvious why such maps are rarely published in the US media because it becomes immediately obvious that the so-called peace process has been a farce, meant to stall for time while successive Israeli governments steadily encroach on the West Bank while they and the US pretend that they want to strike a deal with the Palestinians. The Israeli governments have no intention of allowing a viable Palestinian state. Indeed it was in looking at these maps, that I came to the realization that the two-state option is already dead. The settlers who have encroached on Palestinian lands are the most extreme religious zealots who think they are fulfilling some divine mandate to occupy all the land and they want still more.

Those who try and argue that the periodic tiffs between the Israeli and US governments (like the dressing down that Netanyahu just gave Obama) is some kind of kabuki prior to advancing the peace process simply cannot see that Israel has been negotiating in bad faith and the US has enabled it. The US has long ago ceased to be the so-called 'honest broker' in the process.

As far as I can see, the goal of the Israeli government is to seek to either make life so miserable for the Palestinians that they will leave or at some point forcibly expel them from the occupied territories or keep them as a second-class people indefinitely. But such a strategy runs the serious risk of boomeranging. Jeffrey Goldberg argues that the Israeli government, by making a Palestinian state impossible, is actually creating the conditions to destroy itself as a Jewish state because time and demographics are on the Palestinian side. He says that the current policies will "hopelessly, ineradicably, entangle the two peoples wedged between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea." That will leave Israel with the following options:

Either the Jews of Israel would grant the Palestinians the vote, at which point their country would lose its Jewish majority and its identity as a refuge for the Jewish people, or it would deny them the vote, and become an apartheid state. The latter option is untenable, of course: Many Jewish Israelis would be repulsed by this thought; other nations that already consider Israel a pariah would now have just cause; and Israel would lose its last remaining friend, the U.S., because no American -- including and especially young American Jews -- would identify with a country reminiscent of pre-Mandela South Africa.

In my opinion, the two-state solution is rapidly ceasing to be viable. The question is what will happen as more and more people realize this.

May 26, 2011

The Holy Ghost gets the pink slip

The Holy Ghost (whom I like to call Harvey) has always been the weak link in the Trinity. He did not seem to do much. Melvin and Jesus were the ones who seemed to do all the heavy lifting. So it was no surprise to me to hear this Onion News Network radio report that the Holy Ghost has become the latest victim of the recession.

Israel's prime minister dictates America's Middle East policies

It is no secret that the Israel lobby exerts enormous power over US policy in the Middle East. John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt described the structure of the lobby, how it operates, and the results of its actions in their book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy and you can read my three part review here and here and here. The power of the lobby is such that even the publication of such a book by two establishment scholars (Mearsheimer is at the University of Chicago and Walt is at Harvard University) caused controversy and their long article on this topic that was a precursor to the book was rejected by American publications that led to it eventually being published in England in the London Review of Books.

But despite this awareness of the dominance that the Israel lobby exerts over American foreign policy, there are occasions when the level of US obsequiousness to Israel surprises even seasoned observers. Last week President Obama made a speech on the Middle East in which, among other things, he called for a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue based on the 1967 borders plus mutually agreed swaps of land.

The speech caused Israeli Prime Minister Netanayhu to throw a major hissy fit and publicly rebuke Obama, and outline what he 'expected' him to say when the two met a few days later. And in the joint press conference following that meeting, Netanyahu proceeded to publicly lecture Obama on the Middle East, even though, as Mearsheimer points out, it is the Palestinians who had some justification in being disappointed by Obama's speech.

Even Jeffrey Goldberg, an American journalist who writes for The Atlantic and is one who is extremely sympathetic to Israel and has even served in the Israeli army, thinks that Netanyahu went too far.

For whatever reason, I tend to react strongly when a foreign leader disrespects the United States, and its President. I didn't like it when Hugo Chavez of Venezuela insulted President Bush; I don't like listening to Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan lecture the U.S. on its sins, and I'm not happy when certain Pakistani leaders gin-up righteous indignation about American behavior when it was their country that served as a refuge for the greatest mass murderer in American history.

And so I was similarly taken aback when I read a statement from Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday that he "expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both House of Congress."

So Netanyahu "expects" to hear this from the President of the United States? And if President Obama doesn't walk back the speech, what will Netanyahu do? Will he cut off Israeli military aid to the U.S.? Will he cease to fight for the U.S. in the United Nations, and in the many international forums that treat Israel as a pariah?

As a result of his comments, Goldberg says he received a ton of hate mail with the usual insults, that he was a Nazi and so forth, that are hurled at anyone who dares to criticize Israel.

What we saw in this episode was the spectacle of a leader of a country that is the single largest recipient of US aid (both in absolute and per capita terms) and is entirely dependent on US aid and military support, having the temerity to humiliate the head of its benefactor country and spell out what he expects him to say. What makes this even more astounding is that just last November, Netanyahu had met with Hillary Clinton and the joint statement issued after the meeting had the identical phrasing that Obama used. (via Andrew Sullivan.)

If any other foreign leader, especially of a country that receives so much money from the US, had criticized the US president, political leaders and the media here would have been outraged and demand that aid be cut off immediately. But not when it comes to Israel. What Israel and its US lobby have come to expect is total acceptance of their agenda. This Onion item titled "Government Official Who Makes Perfectly Valid, Well-Reasoned Point Against Israel Forced To Resign" is meant to be a parody but is uncomfortably close to reality, since the head of AIPAC, the most powerful component of the Israel lobby actually warned Obama that he should not be even-handed when dealing with Israel and the Palestinians.

Look at how members of the US congress were falling over themselves to assure the head of a foreign government that they stood with him against their own president. Netanyahu was invited to speak to the joint session of Congress (a rare honor) and he received a reception that can only be described as adulatory.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a rapturous reception worthy of a rock star from lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle on Capitol Hill on Tuesday - a stark contrast to last week’s tense White House visit.

His speech to a joint session of Congress was repeatedly punctuated by sustained applause, laughter and more than two dozen standing ovations. It also received some high praise from bipartisan admirers.

Harry Reid, the leader in Congress of the same party as the president that Netanyahu insulted, fawned over Netanyahu. Can you imagine this happening with any country other than Israel? As James Wolcott describes it:

So I turn on the TV and there's Bibi Netanyahu addressing Congress--he had taken advantage of Obama's absence to have himself sworn in as president of the United States!

And there was that traitor, vice president Joe Biden, sitting in the back with benign acceptance of that unprecedented coup d'tat!

I didn't quite fathom the details of the speech but every time Netanyahu mentioned Israel, the assembled rose to their feet and fingersnapped approval like beatniks at a bistro.

What a sickening display of obeisance for a foreign leader crowning himself president-for-a-day while Obama is in Ireland drinking Guinness and flying to England to ask the royal newlyweds how things are going.

I will let Glenn Greenwald provide the final word: "In sum, the same faction that spent the last decade demanding fealty to the Commander-in-Chief in a Time of War upon pain of being accused of a lack of patriotism (or worse) now openly sides with a foreign leader over their own President. The U.S. Congress humiliates itself by expressing greater admiration for and loyalty to this foreign leader than their own country's. And because this is all about Israel, few will find this spectacle strange, or at least will be willing to say so." He ends, "In any event, please remember that you must not speak of the immense power of the Israel Lobby lest you reveal yourself to be a conspiratorial hatemonger. I hope that's clear."

May 25, 2011

Avoiding public debate on major issues

Two of the enduring myths in American politics is that there is deep animosity between the two major parties and that the US Senate is the greatest deliberating body in the world. But as Glenn Greenwald points out, backroom bipartisanship is the norm when it comes to serving the interests of the one-party state, such as extending the USA Patriot Act. Public debates are either largely symbolic where the outcome has been pre-determined or involve issues that are not important to the pro-war/pro-business one party that rules this country. The idea of having a genuine debate on an important issue in which the outcome is not pre-determined is viewed with horror by the leadership of both parties.

The extent to which the Senate goes out of its way to avoid discussing major legislation in public is described well in this letter in response to the Greenwald post, in which Senator Rand Paul describes how little work is done by the Senate and how hard it is to get the Senate to debate important issues, such as war. The method of choice to prevent a debate on anything is what is known as a 'fake quorum call'.

How Inception should have ended

The US as Europe's slum

Last month I wrote about how the Swedish corporation IKEA became transformed from a model employer in Sweden to an abusive one in the US and that this was because the US does not provide the same level of protections for workers that Sweden does.

Harold Meyerson writes that IKEA is just one example of a trend in which foreign companies see the US as the new home for sweatshops. Deutsche Bank, for example, has been accused of becoming the largest slumlord in Los Angeles, doing things it could never have done in its home country of Germany.

But slumming in America is fast becoming a business model for some of Europe's leading companies, and they often do things here they would never think of doing at home. These companies — not banks, primarily, but such gold-plated European manufacturers as BMW, Daimler, Volkswagen and Siemens, and retailers such as IKEA — increasingly come to America (the South particularly) because labor is cheap and workers have no rights.

In their eyes, we're becoming the new China. Our labor costs may be a little higher, but we offer stronger intellectual property protections and far fewer strikes than our unruly Chinese comrades.

As a report released by Human Rights Watch late last year documents, companies that routinely welcome unions, pay middle-class wages and have workers' representatives on their corporate boards in Germany and Scandinavia have threatened their U.S.-based employees with permanent replacement by other workers as the penalty for protesting wage cuts (that was the German manufacturer Robert Bosch), ordered workers to report on fellow workers' pro-union activities (that was T-Mobile, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom) and disciplined workers who couldn't show up for unscheduled weekend shifts announced on Friday night (that was IKEA, according to a Los Angeles Times story).

In Germany, Robert Bosch, according to Human Rights Watch, has never threatened a single worker with losing his job for protesting wage cuts, and Deutsche Telekom repeatedly touts its “social partnership” with its union. In Sweden, IKEA, like the vast majority of Swedish companies, is unionized and affords its workers a range of rights and benefits that are all but unimaginable to American retail workers.

The advantage of the US over Asian countries as the site for sweatshops is the high levels of worker education and productivity here, coupled with the removal of worker protections and elimination of unions. So expect to see a rise in the future in low-level jobs with appalling conditions.

Meanwhile, this article lists 36 statistics that illustrate the steady decline of the American middle class. One telling indicator is the fierce competition for low-level jobs that were once considered temporary fall back positions, to fill time until something better came along. For example, when McDonalds ran its "National Hiring Day" on April 19, nearly one million people applied for 50,000 jobs.

May 24, 2011

George Carlin on the oligarchy

I've shown this before but we need to be periodically reminded of the reality that he starkly points out. (Language advisory)

Bitcoins

One of the dangers of the global financial system is that it gives far too much power to a few giants corporations which can choke off access to entities they do not like or which they think threaten oligarchic interests. For example, a few credit card companies now dominate and they can and will use their power to serve the coercive needs of governments. Recall how Visa and MasterCard banned transfer of contributions to WikiLeaks to serve US government interests, even though WikiLeaks has not been accused of any crime.

Enter bitcoins, a new peer-to-peer decentralized digital currency that seeks to bypass this system. Here's a brief video that explains how it works.

This Wikipedia page explains more about how it works. I can't say that I fully understand it yet. But it looks promising as a way of undermining financial monopoly power.

Film review: Gasland

This award-winning documentary provides a stark warning about the danger that hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking' as it is popularly known, poses to the water supply in the nation and to its air quality. It blasts the notion that natural gas is a 'clean' source of energy. It may be clean when it is used but the way that fracking extracts it from shale rock formations underground creates very serious environmental and health hazards.

Fracking involves pumping huge amounts of water mixed with about 600 chemicals (some known to be toxic and carcinogenous) deep underground at high pressure to create the equivalent of an explosion to fracture the shale rock, thus releasing the natural gas which is then extracted. But only about half of the contaminated water is recovered. The rest, mixed with natural gas, can end up in the water table and watersheds and streams and rivers, polluting them.

The film has much lower production values than Inside Job but, like that film, will make you angry at the way that big corporations, in this case the oil and natural gas industry, aided by its allies in government, ride roughshod over ordinary people, destroying their water supplies and air and, in the process, their very lives. It is heartbreaking to see ordinary people being treated like dirt and having nowhere to turn.

Here's the trailer for Gasland:

It is a personal film, starting with Josh Fox, who was involved with the writing, directing, producing, and camerawork, receiving a letter from a gas company offering him $100,000 for the right to drill wells on the 20 acres of land in rural Pennsylvania, a wooded area with clear running streams, on which his parents had built their home.

Fox travels the country to talk with the people whose lives have been impacted by fracking. In investigating the effect of such drilling, he discovers that it can result in destruction of the environment and the health of the people in the vicinity. People's wells become contaminated and the air gets polluted, resulting in people and animals developing serious health problems.

Most of us assume that industries are subject to regulations imposed by the government to protect people and the environment. The high water mark for such protections occurred in the early 1970s when presidents Nixon and Ford (both Republicans incidentally) signed the Clean Air Act (1970), Clean Water Act (1972), and the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974). What I had not been aware of, and was shocked to learn from the film, was that in 2005, the energy bill that was pushed through Congress by Dick Cheney exempts the oil and natural gas industry from those three laws as well as the CERCLA/Superfund Law (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability) Act (1980). The oil and gas companies were also exempted from even informing the public what chemicals were used in the fracking fluid. They could now act with impunity and they did. Cheney's former company Halliburton benefited greatly from these exemptions.

But that is not the only way that these big companies get their way. They also use their power to defund the regulatory agencies that are supposed to provide oversight to protect people and the environment so that they cannot match the resources that these corporations can bring to bear. That is what this current push against 'big government' is largely about. It is not about eliminating waste or saving money or cutting red tape by reducing the bureaucracy. It is all about making sure that federal, state, and local governments, the only entities that (in principle at least) represent ordinary people and are large enough to act as a counterweight to industry, are made ineffective by cutting the budgets of their regulatory agencies, forcing them to reduce staff and creating working conditions so bad that they cannot attract the kinds of technical experts who are needed.

The people in the Tea Party and other groups who rail against 'big government' and think that 'drill, baby, drill' is a cute and catchy slogan, are being played for suckers by the big corporations and the oligarchy. I wonder how many of the ordinary people that Fox interviewed in the film, whose lives and livelihood were destroyed by the oil and gas industry, were among those who had bought into the idea that government is too big, and whether they now realize that they were duped.

One of the most alarming things in the film were the maps of the country that showed the network of rivers and watersheds, and superimposed on them were the shale formations and the natural gas wells that had been drilled. Much of it consists of public lands that the oil and gas corporations are eagerly eyeing to exploit for their purposes. You immediately see that almost the entire water supply of the US is threatened. Furthermore, they are discovering shale formations around the globe and you can be sure that fracking will spread as money is dangled before the eyes of poor people and nations to provide the oil and gas companies the same immunity they got here.

Gasland should have had people up in arms but although it received an Oscar nomination (it lost to Inside Job), it has not aroused much anger. Interestingly, the film has aroused public opinion in France against fracking and there are moves in that country for a nationwide ban on fracking, citing what we have learned in the US. It seems like people in the US are passively accepting the destruction of their once pristine lands and water supplies, and are reduced to serving as guinea pigs that other nations benefit from.

May 23, 2011

New York Times and David Brooks parodies

There is a remarkably good New York Times parody site. The site was created by Tony Hendra whom some may recognize as the put-upon manager of the band in This Is Spinal Tap.

They do a particularly good job with their David Brooks column on Michele Bachmann, where they capture perfectly his technique of seamlessly blending the banal and the obvious and delivering the result with an air of profundity.

They also have a report on what caused the Rapture to not occur on schedule.

Why people believe in gods

A new book Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith explains the basis of religious belief and the mechanisms that go into creating religious belief structures. I have not read it yet but it looks interesting and I will get to it soon.

Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith -- Dr. Andy Thomson from Kurt Volkan on Vimeo.

(Via onegoodmove.)

Film review: Inception (no spoilers)

Following in the tracks of Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this film takes a speculative look at how the brain works while maintaining at least some level of plausibility, unlike the case of the Matrix franchise which seemed to have been a case of special effects run amuck.

Inception examines the possibility of one or more people entering the dream of another and thereby manipulating that person's dream to discover secrets or, as in the main storyline here, plant the germ of an idea in the mind so that the person thinks it originated spontaneously. I found it to be an interesting film. It plays with the age-old question that everyone has speculated about at some point about how we would know whether the lives we perceive we are living are real or a dream.

One has to follow the film closely because the story involves a dream within a dream within a dream, i.e., three levels down, and the story jumps between the three levels. The plot depends heavily on the idea that time in dreams elapses ten times faster than it does in real life, so that when one has descended to the third level, one second in real life corresponds to about 1,000 seconds in dream time, or about 15 minutes.

I read recently (but unfortunately did not keep the reference and cannot find it now) that this view has been challenged and that dream time and real time are similar. I dream a lot and since seeing the film, I have tried to remember on waking if the events in my dreams seemed to cover a lot of time and haven't noticed such an effect.

Inception is the kind of film that, like Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, requires a second (or even a third) viewing in order to try and fill in some of the details that confused one the first time around. But I will not be doing so. The reason is that the film is too long, running about two and a half hours. While I think that the ideal length for a film is 90 minutes, some films require a longer time to do the story justice and I have no problem with that. David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, for example, runs well over three hours and is well worth it.

What I dislike are films (Casino Royale is another example) that seem to spend a lot of time on chases and shootouts that seem highly repetitive and do not serve to advance the story. I am guessing that filmmakers add these scenes to make things exciting and suspenseful but I find them boring and this film could have eliminated about 30 minutes without any loss and that would have, at least to me, made it better. Maybe I have seen too many such chases since the classic one (below) in Bullitt (1968), where Steve McQueen's Ford Mustang flying through the air in San Francisco created the template. Maybe younger filmgoers are not as jaded as I am and enjoy these extended chases.

Inception has lots of special effects, such as an entire cityscape being folded over so that the streets of one part get placed upside down on top of another part so that cars drive along a street that turns upwards and then come back upside down. But I find that with the advent of sophisticated computers, these effects don't wow me anymore. Since Star Wars came out in 1977, we know that computers can produce all these spectacular visual effects and creating these effects have become the province of graphic artists. Although they do require a lot of painstaking work, they don't arouse any more wonder than the effects produced by cartoon animators because animations and computers both enable you to ignore the laws of science,

It was different before the days when computers could seamlessly blend live action with illustrations. When you saw special effects in a film you wondered how they did it and when the secrets were revealed you marveled at the cleverness of the filmmakers. I remember watching 2001: A Space Odyssey when it first came out in 1968 and wondering how they captured the effects of space travel. Decades later I watched the DVD version that in its bonus section explained some of the tricks used and it was impressive to see how with ordinary objects and clever camera work they managed to do extraordinary things despite having to work within the constraints of the laws of science and with gravity. That required real ingenuity.

Here's the trailer for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

May 22, 2011

Rapture, we hardly knew ye

Well, it is time to wrap up the Rapture stuff. It was fun while it lasted and for me at least it provided some amusement to see the kind of idiotic certainty that religion can give people. It was also amusing to watch mainline religious leaders squirm as they tried to argue that believing that the Rapture would occur yesterday was crazy while believing that the Rapture will occur some time in the future was quite sensible.

So here are some final thoughts.

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After the Rapture

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And via Machines Like Us:

May 21, 2011

So long, and thanks for all the kitsch

This will be my last post. I expect to be taken up to heaven shortly at 6:00 pm eastern time with all the other true believers.

rapture.jpegSome of you will be surprised that I will be among the select few, since I have been making the case for atheism and making fun of all religions, including Christianity, and thus would have seemed a sure bet for hell. It is time to reveal the truth. This was all a ruse on my part. I was deliberately trying to drive people away from Jesus because I was working as a double agent for the CIA (Christ Indoctrination Agency). Jesus wanted to weed out all those whose faith was weak enough that they could be swayed by atheist arguments. Jesus wanted only the truest of the true believers, those who are willing to completely abandon all evidence and reason and logic, and instead put their complete trust in the words in an old book of dubious origin and so he and Melvin and Harvey created this agency to carry out this task. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and most other atheists also work for the CIA and are in the top ranks of the organization, so you will have the seeming paradox that heaven is going to filled with people who were considered dyed-in-the-wool atheists on Earth. Life is full of these little ironies.

Some people say that 2% of the world's population, or about 130 million, will be saved but they are wrong. There aren't that many true Jesus lovers and heaven would not want to admit any riff-raff. We are a pretty exclusive community and only 144,000 people will be saved in the Rapture.

So I will soon be off to get my wings and harp and enjoy the delights of heaven, such as singing hosannas and hanging out with the Cherubim and Seraphim, whatever the hell they are, because the Rapture manual they gave all CIA agents doesn't say. I am guessing that they are a comedy duo like Laurel and Hardy who perform their act between the hosanna sessions.

So goodbye and remember that the world actually ends on October 21. Until then you will experience five month of tribulation, which is not going to be a walk in the park. But cheer up. However bad the tribulation period is, remember that when it ends, it will be even worse in hell. And don't forget to wear clean underwear for the underworld, ha, ha! (Just a little Rapture humor.)

God and the US constitution

There is a person named David Barton who has been pushing the idea that the US was founded as a Christian country and that the separation of church and state was not intended to be a guiding principle. He is widely quoted in evangelical circles as an authority on this topic and has been influential in setting guidelines for high school textbooks.

In early May, Jon Stewart invited him to The Daily Show which is where I first saw him. Barton struck me as a fast talking snake oil salesman who knows how to impress people with seemingly erudite knowledge and to my irritation managed to steamroll Stewart.

To his credit, Stewart realized that he had been snowed so last week he brought on a genuine constitutional historian, Richard Beeman of the University of Pennsylvania, author of the book Plain Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution, to set the record straight. (The book is on my list of things to read.)

You can see all the interviews.

David Barton part 1:

David Barton part 2:

Richard Beeman part 1:

Richard Beeman part 2:

May 20, 2011

Rapture update

Today's Doonesbury cartoon continues his series on the Rapture

I also received this link from reader FuDaYi about people having fun with the Rapture with parties planned for the big day tomorrow. One person (an atheist, of course) is even offering pet care insurance for people who want to make sure that the pets that are left behind when their owners get taken to heaven will be looked after. This raises the serious theological question: Why don't pets get to go to heaven? What kind of god would deny people the company of their beloved pets? I personally wouldn't want to spend eternity without Baxter.

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Not everyone is enjoying the publicity this event is garnering. "When we engage in this kind of wild speculation, it's irresponsible," said the Rev. Daniel Akin, president of the Southeastern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. "It can do damage to naive believers who can be easily caught up and it runs the risk of causing the church to receive sort of a black eye."

Of course it does. The church deserves to get a black eye because they are the enablers of these people. His concern about 'naïve believers' being misled is hilarious since that group constitutes his entire base. If you encourage people to believe in nonsense, you shouldn't complain if they believe in nonsense that is different from the nonsense that you believe in.

Probe into banks by New York Attorney General

The Attorney General of New York state has opened an investigation into the practice of mortgage loan packaging by the big banks and investment firms like Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs. It was these practices that led to the real estate bubble and subsequent collapse.

This is a hopeful sign since we cannot expect the Obama administration's justice department to take any serious action since the White House has long been a wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street.

Matt Taibbi, who has been relentless in driving this story forward, is cautiously hopeful that something meaningful might come out of this.

This investigation has the potential to be a Mother of All Nightmares situation for the banks for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the decision to go after the securitization process is a total prosecutorial bullseye. This is the ugly heart of the wide-scale fraud scheme of the bubble era.

The reason this is such a potentially deadly investigation for the banks is that they seemed to be so close to getting away scot free. There is another investigation into the banks’ mortgage abuses by the states’ Attorneys General, led by Iowa AG Tom Miller, that was rumored to be headed toward a settlement, despite the fact that nothing like a complete investigation has been done.

Such a desire to get some kind of deal done and sweep the mortgage mess under the rug once and for all seems almost universal among high-ranking politicians, and particularly in the Obama administration, which has acted throughout like it wants more than anything to simply get all of this over with and put in the past.

I am going to wait and see how this turns out. The oligarchy is going to close ranks and pull out all the stops to defend itself and preserve its privileges and get away with a plea deal that involves just a slap on the wrist and fine.

How religion warps thinking

The many widespread and massive evil acts that god commits in the Bible (the story of Joshua being one) should logically undercut any religious belief in such a god. But the desire to believe is so ingrained in some people that they are willing to abandon the logic and evidence that they use in other areas of their lives in order to maintain the things they were indoctrinated with as children.

The best defense against charges of an evil god would be to concede that the Bible is pretty much entirely fiction. This should be easy to do since the evidence against the historicity of almost everything in the Bible is so overwhelming that one has to suspend all critical faculties to retain any credence. But of course religious people cannot do that. Believers have to cling to the historicity of the Bible, at least in its basic storyline and the main events, because they have nothing else.

They try to do this even though, for example, no traces of the kingdoms and magnificent palaces of David and Solomon have been found, although excavations have unearthed evidence of older civilizations. One inscription that was discovered refers to 'the house of David' but does not provide any information about who he was. No serious scholar thinks that a mighty king David ruling a large area ever existed. The only debate is over whether the person described in the Bible existed at all or was a minor warlord.

The Bible is riddled with contradictions, large and small. For example, camels are all over the Old Testament as symbols of wealth and as beasts of burden and they cause serious problems of credibility. The story of Abraham, who supposedly lived around 2,000 BCE, has plenty of camels in it. But we know that camels were not domesticated until 1,000 BCE and were used as beasts of burden only after 800 BCE. Furthermore, many of the place names mentioned in the Old Testament did not exist until the 6th or 7th centuries BCE. All these facts strongly support the proposition that the Bible consists of stories that were created after around 600 BCE, based on folklore and myths, with the authors simply projecting back in time. (The state of knowledge is summarized in the book The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand.)

The famous exodus story is another myth. According to Ussher's Biblical chronology, this occurred around 1490 BCE. The story says that the Israelites had been in captivity in Egypt for generations and then dramatically escaped under the leadership of Moses. While modernist believers are willing to concede that the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea may not be historical, they think the basic story is true. But there are no records of such captivity and no archeological evidence whatsoever to support the idea of 600,000 warriors (which one can estimate to about 3 million people if one includes the families of the warriors) wandering about in the Sinai desert for forty years. Absolutely nothing has been excavated in that region to suggest that a large community ever lived there for any extended period of time.

When you tell religious people this, they are surprised because their priests never informed them, assuming that the priests even know this. When I recently told this to a Catholic priest, he suggested (like most modernist believers seeking to believe in the face of evidence that the Bible is riddled with falsehoods) that while the Bible is true in its basic historical facts, it may not be accurate in all its details and may have been exaggerated. He suggested that the actual number of people who left Egypt may have been small enough to explain the lack of evidence in the Sinai. The fact that he was willing to make up this excuse on the spot to counter evidence that he had not seemed to be aware of suggests how deep is the desire to retain belief in the Bible's historicity. It also seemed odd that he would so easily concede that the numbers were made up but insist that the event itself must have happened. How low can the numbers go before they become meaningless? Would a single person walking across the Sinai constitute 'the exodus'?

I was also a bit disturbed that he did not seem to know about the lack of evidence for the exodus, even though he was a Catholic priest and thus should have attended a decent seminary with faculty who should have known about this scholarship. It just shows how religions need to keep their followers, and even their leaders, in the dark about basic facts that science has unearthed about the Bible in order to maintain belief.

But even conceding the possibility that the exodus story numbers may have been much smaller than stated in the Bible does not take away from the basic implausibility of the story. Take a look at this map of the Egyptian empire in the 15th century BCE.

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Note that the Egyptian empire extended all the way beyond Canaan. It does not make any sense to say that the Israelites 'escaped' from Egypt and went via Sinai to Canaan because their entire journey from start to finish would have been within the Egyptian empire. The whole exodus story not only lacks any empirical support, it makes no sense either.

A 2008 two-hour NOVA program titled The Bible's Buried Secrets discusses the origins of the Bible and the Israelites in the light of modern archeological evidence. While staying within the bounds of facts, the program's creators seem to be very sympathetic to believers and stretch the meager evidence to try and make the Bible stories (at least beginning after 1000 BCE which is around the time that David supposedly reigned) seem at least slightly plausible. But even they cannot hide the fact that the evidence for almost everything is either slim or none.

May 19, 2011

The McGurk effect

Blog reader Henry sent me the link to this clip from the BBC program Horizon of what is known as the McGurk effect, that shows that when the brain receives two different inputs, one aural and one visual, the brain forces you to register just one. Lawrence Rosenblum of the University of California, Riverside explains this effect and demonstrates how in this particular case the visual overrides the sound.

If we cannot do such a simple act of multitasking, imagine how unlikely it is that we can do more complex and challenging multitasking.

More Rapture humor

It looks like the comic strip Doonesbury is going to spend this week on the Rapture, with a series leading up to the big day on Saturday.

Here are the strips from Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and today.

The real lessons from the story of Joshua

The lack of historicity of the Bible is rampant. To take just one example, there is no evidence for the triumphalist story of Joshua leading the Israeli soldiers, just returned from their (also fictitious) captivity in Egypt, in one victory to another over the various towns in Canaan. The most famous battle is the one for Jericho. But archeological excavations reveal that far from being a big fortressed city whose walls fell under a military onslaught that was favored by their god, Jericho was an insignificant little town that was unwalled.

Religious believers naturally tend to be disturbed by new scientific findings that show that almost all the 'history' in the Bible is without foundation. But when it comes to the Joshua story they should be thankful that this story is not true because it reveals a god who is truly depraved, ordering the wholesale brutal genocide of an entire population. What the Israelites were asked to do by their god was to kill everyone and everything without exception, and they did so. "They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys." (Joshua 6:21) In other words, it was as complete an act of genocide as one can imagine, putting to shame the attempts at genocide by any modern counterpart.

Such stories, even if fictional, are not harmless. Because they are told to children as something glorious (and praised in song about even today), they serve to indoctrinate young children with the tribal mindset that atrocities are acceptable as long as they are done by 'our' side (by definition good) against 'their' side (evil). As researcher George Tamarin shockingly revealed, young Israeli school children approved of Joshua's genocidal acts as reported in the Bible but when the identical story was told to them with the setting transformed to ancient China and the killers into an obscure warlord, they condemned it. The differential response of the children based on whether the killers belonged to their own tribe is no different from that of a supposedly sophisticated theologian like William Lane Craig who seems to find it easy to justify any evil action as long as it is done or commanded by his own particular god.

Here is a another website that tries to justify the genocide perpetrated by Joshua and his army.

Killing a person, while often wrong, is not wrong in all situations; for example, it can be justified if necessary for self-defense. That is, it's not automatically wrong for God to issue an order to kill humans. Since the Israelites had good reason to believe in God's moral perfection, omniscience and omnipotence, the best choice for them would be to trust that God had a better understanding than they of the situation itself and the moral rules governing it. The only way for them to be justified in not obeying God's command would be if the command were inherently evil and impossible to justify (though it must be cautioned that humans with their imperfect understanding could incorrectly decide a command was inherently evil).

This passage is a good example of the kind of pretzel shapes logic gets twisted into when you try to justify the unjustifiable. (The irony is that this website is called Rational Christianity!) It says that even if a command from god seems manifestly evil, you should still do it because god is morally perfect and knows more than you and hence your own judgment is worthless. The author seems to realize that most people might find the relinquishing of all personal judgment too extreme because he/she then says that you can disobey a command only if it is "inherently evil and impossible to justify", seeming to imply that your judgment is not entirely useless but can be used to decide whether to follow god's command or not. But then he/she immediately undercuts that by saying that we are imperfect because we are mere mortals, unlike god, and thus have only an imperfect understanding, and thus we cannot be sure of our own judgment. So what should we do? Use our judgment and follow the order that we think is "inherently evil and impossible to justify" or not? Alas, the author does not say and, as religious apologists often do when faced with these irreconcilable contradictions, changes the subject. This is because there is no way to justify the evil acts that god commands in the Bible without sounding like a monster.

What is disturbing is that this is precisely the kind of reasoning ("God told me to do it and so it must be good and must be obeyed") used by religious fanatics of all stripes down the ages when they commit atrocities. How can we say that they are wrong when their supposedly holy books are approving of the same kinds of reasoning?

In Mark Twin's autobiography that has just been released, he recounts in his bitingly sarcastic style (see here and here) the massacre of 600 men, women, and children of the Moros tribe by US forces in 1906 in the Philippines. Reading this brought back to mind the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war (see here and here). Both these massacres were excused in the US because they were done by 'our' side. Imagine the reaction if the tables had been turned and 600 American men, women, and children were murdered by a foreign force.

The real lesson from the story of Joshua is that people are most dangerous, and can be most cruel, when they think they know the mind of god and believe that he is on their side.

May 18, 2011

The motives of the Templeton Foundation

The June 21, 2010 issue The Nation has a good article by Nathan Schneider titled God, Science and Philanthropy that looks at the work of this wealthy foundation that dangles generous grants and a cash prize every year that is larger than the Nobel prize that goes, as Richard Dawkins says, "usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion."

Along with providing support for politically right-wing organizations, the foundation's goal seems to be to lure scientists to sign on to the idea that science and religion are compatible. Nobel prize winning chemist Harold Kroto is one of those fighting back against it and says of the foundation that "They are involved in an exercise that endangers the fundamental credibility of the scientific community."

The myth of multitasking

Since I work at a university and am around young adults all the time, I have long been aware that young people today are avid consumers of multimedia, who are adept at emailing, texting, listening to mp3 players, surfing the web, checking up on Facebook, etc. It seems like they are quite proficient at multitasking.

I have always been a poor multitasker. I cannot read or do any work that requires serious thinking if I can hear conversation or loud noises in the background. I have found that I cannot even listen to music in the background when reading. But I know people who seem to thrive on that kind of ambient sound and even deliberately go to coffee shops to do work such as grading papers or writing, things that would be impossible for me.

I had thought that my lack of ability to multitask was partly due to being old and not acquiring these skills while young, similar to my slow reaction time when playing video games (which results in being destroyed when playing them with my children) and my inability to manipulate my thumbs dexterously enough to use the small keys on cell phones without making numerous mistakes.

I thought my poor multitasking skills may also be due to a cognitive disability, similar to the one that prevents me from ever seeing the hidden 3-D images in those so-called autostereogram ('Magic Eye') pictures that were such a rage a few years ago. The Sunday papers used to have one and my daughters would look briefly at it and say, "Oh, look at the dolphins" or whatever it was that day whereas, despite my strenuous efforts at staring using all the recommended tricks, all I saw were colored dots and wiggly lines. I later learned that some people never see the hidden image, due to some feature of their visual-cognitive brain function. It was not reassuring to discover that I have a defective brain, and that there is no warranty.

But a study by Stanford researchers Eyal Ophira, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner titled Cognitive control in media multitaskers and published in 2009 the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences seems to indicate that hardly anyone can really multitask and they are only deluding themselves that they can.

In an interview with the PBS program Frontline, lead researcher Clifford Nass said that it is possible to multitask certain things if those require different parts of the brain. For example, one might be able to cook and keep an eye on the children, or do gardening while listening to music or drive while talking. But classical psychology says that when it comes to doing more than one task that requires similar cognitive abilities, the brain simply cannot do that. What people do is try to rapidly switch their attention from one task to the next.

Nass and his colleagues hypothesized that to carry out successful multitasking of this latter sort required three distinct skills. One is the ability to filter, to detect irrelevancy, to be able to quickly distinguish between those things that are important and those that are not important. The second is the rapidity with which they could switch from one task to the next. The third is a greater ability to sort and organize the information in the brain so as to keep track of the results of their different tasks.

The researchers expected to find that people who were 'high multitaskers', i.e., people who tend to do multiple things, would be very good at least in one of those areas when compared to the 'low multitaskers', i.e., people like me who have to do things sequentially. What they were surprised to find was that the high multitaskers were terrible in all three areas.

So we know, for example, that people's ability to ignore irrelevancy -- multitaskers love irrelevancy. They get distracted constantly. Multitaskers are very disorganized in keeping their memory going so that we think of them as filing cabinets in the brain where papers are flying everywhere and disorganized, much like my office.

And then we have them being worse at switching from one task to another. ... It's very troubling. And we have not yet found something that they're definitely better at than people who don't multitask.

There is a serious cost to this. The researchers say that trying to multitask leads to deficiencies in analytical reasoning because people don't stick to one thing long enough to think it through but instead shift to another task, thus thinking in fragments.

We worry about it, because as people become more and more multitaskers, as more and more people -- not just young kids, which we're seeing a great deal of, but even in the workplace, people being forced to multitask, we worry that it may be creating people who are unable to think well and clearly.

And it seems as if simply telling them that trying to multitask is bad does not have any effect.

One would think that if people were bad at multitasking, they would stop. However, when we talk with the multitaskers, they seem to think they're great at it and seem totally unfazed and totally able to do more and more and more.

[V]irtually all multitaskers think they are brilliant at multitasking. And one of the big new items here, and one of the big discoveries is, you know what? You're really lousy at it. And even though I'm at the university and tell my students this, they say: "Oh, yeah, yeah. But not me! I can handle it. I can manage all these".

One of the biggest delusions we hear from students is, "I do five things at once because I don't have time to do them one at a time." And that turns out to be false. That is to say, they would actually be quicker if they did one thing, then the next thing, then the next. It may not be as fun, but they'd be more efficient.

One interesting finding in the study was that there were no gender differences, which goes against the myth that women are either naturally good multitaskers or become so because of the multiple roles imposed on them by society, such as caregiver, housekeeper, breadwinner, etc. This may be an illusion that arose from the fact that the multiple tasks that they have traditionally had to do (keeping an eye on the children while cooking or cleaning the house and listening to the radio) largely involved different parts of the brain and thus did not pose any serious cognitive conflicts.

The big challenge will be how to wean people away from thinking they can multitask. We are not doing them any favors by letting them continue to delude themselves.

May 17, 2011

Photoshopping images

The ability to change photographs drastically seems to be so easy now that we would be wise to not look on any photograph as providing definitive proof about anything without corroborating evidence.

The article and accompanying video gives the basics of how it is done.

New documentary The Lord is Not on Trial Here Today

One of the key cases involving church-state separation (discussed in my book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom) was McCollum v. Board of Education (1948) which involved a challenge to the practice of public schools granting "release time" for the teaching of religion in school buildings during the school day to those students and parents who agreed to it. The U.S. Supreme Court by an 8-1 vote ruled the policy unconstitutional. This was the first time that religious instruction in public schools had been explicitly ruled to be unconstitutional under the U.S. constitution.

It turns out that Vashti McCollum, the feisty mother who brought the case objecting to this practice and braved the wrath of the religious people in her small town in Illinois, is still alive died only in 2006 (thanks to reader George for pointing out the error) and some PBS stations will be broadcasting a new award-winning documentary The Lord is Not on Trial Here Today that deals with her case. Here is a preview.

If your local PBS station is not listed on that site, you can call them and ask them to consider showing it.

The dark side of the Rapture

I have heard reports that a caravan of vehicles with billboards announcing the end of the world on May 21 passed through Cleveland a couple of weeks ago. When May 22 dawns and no Rapture has occurred, there will be a lot of disappointed people. This will not be the first time that such hopes have been dashed. There was a major event actually called The Great Disappointment that occurred on October 22, 1844 [date corrected thanks to commenter Robert] when a widely believed end times prophesy failed to materialize.

While Christianity has always had its end-times fanatics, it was the creation of the state of Israel that spawned a huge amount of end-times theorizing because these people believe that Jesus will only return to Earth after the Jews returned to Israel. This is also why there is such a weird symbiotic relationship between Christian and Jewish extremist groups. The expansionist policies of Israel that have ruined the lives of so many Palestinians is supported by the Christian end-timers because they think it is a sign that Jesus has packed his bags and is about to make the return trip to Earth.

I have been having some fun with the whole Rapture thing, because the idea is so absurd. But there is a dark side to it, in that many of the people who take it seriously are making foolish decisions and could ruin their lives. NPR ran a story on some of the people who are waiting to be raptured. One couple with an infant daughter and another baby due in June have abandoned plans for the mother to go to medical school and are spending all their money down so that they will be left with nothing on May 21, arguing that there is no point since it will all come to an end. In another story, NPR described a person who sold off his house and gave up his job to await the event. A colleague of mine described how her former sister-in-law believed in an earlier rapture prediction of 1994 and ran up huge credit card bills that then took a long time to pay off. These people refuse to consider that they might be wrong because to do so would be a sign of lack of faith and cause god to not select them for heaven.

If no Rapture occurs, the people responsible for the predictions will use the standard excuse that the calculations were faulty and go back to the drawing board. This is what current Rapture predictor Harold Camping said in 1994 when his earlier prediction did not pan out. He said it was because he had not read the book of Jeremiah that contained some important clues. That seems a little irresponsible to me. If you are basing a major prediction such as the end of the world on the Bible, and people are taking you seriously, you should at least have had the decency to do your homework and read the whole thing.

In a comment to a previous post, Scott jokingly suggested that it might be fun on May 21 to leave little piles of clothes around because that would be a sign to the believers that people have been suddenly raptured up to heaven. That would be funny except that we have to remember that we are dealing with seriously deluded people who do not think rationally. If these people think that the Rapture had actually occurred and they were not selected and were headed for hell, there is no saying what they will do and it is quite possible that they will go berserk.

Richard Dawkins was asked by the Washington Post to comment on the latest Rapture frenzy and said: "Why is a serious newspaper like the Washington Post giving space to a raving loon?" He then has a good discussion of how the word 'tradition' used as in 'religious tradition' tends to bestow respectability on a set of nonsensical myths that have no foundation.

I disagree with Dawkins. We should publicize as widely as possible the crazy and evil things that religions cause people to do. Mainstream religions provide the soil in which the crazies can take root and flourish. We need more and more people to realize that these deluded people are deeply misguided because they are connected organically to mainstream religion, not separate from it. Having a public relations fiasco like the Rapture can only help the cause of skepticism.

May 16, 2011

How many people has the Judeo-Christian god killed?

Someone has had the fortitude to go through the Bible and tabulate all the people killed by this particular god. The problem is that while sometimes the numbers are given precisely, on other occasions the figures have to be estimated.

The result? 2,476,636 if you count up the actual numbers and, if you include those killings for which no precise numbers are provided, an estimated 25 million.

(via Jerry Coyne.)

Interview with Inside Job producer Charles Ferguson

I reviewed the film here.

Matt Taibbi vs. Goldman Sachs

In an article in the May 26, 2011 issue Rolling Stone titled The People vs. Goldman Sachs, Matt Taibbi says that in a just world, a new Senate report should trigger a massive Justice Department investigation and criminal charges against the people in charge of the big financial companies, especially Goldman Sachs.

The great and powerful Oz of Wall Street was not the only target of Wall Street and the Financial Crisis: Anatomy of a Financial Collapse, the 650-page report just released by the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, alongside Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. Their unusually scathing bipartisan report also includes case studies of Washington Mutual and Deutsche Bank, providing a panoramic portrait of a bubble era that produced the most destructive crime spree in our history — "a million fraud cases a year" is how one former regulator puts it. But the mountain of evidence collected against Goldman by Levin's small, 15-desk office of investigators — details of gross, baldfaced fraud delivered up in such quantities as to almost serve as a kind of sarcastic challenge to the curiously impassive Justice Department — stands as the most important symbol of Wall Street's aristocratic impunity and prosecutorial immunity produced since the crash of 2008.

But Goldman, as the Levin report makes clear, remains an ascendant company precisely because it used its canny perception of an upcoming disaster (one which it helped create, incidentally) as an opportunity to enrich itself, not only at the expense of clients but ultimately, through the bailouts and the collateral damage of the wrecked economy, at the expense of society. The bank seemed to count on the unwillingness or inability of federal regulators to stop them — and when called to Washington last year to explain their behavior, Goldman executives brazenly misled Congress, apparently confident that their perjury would carry no serious consequences.

Taibbi is, as always, able to make reporting about dry financial matters come alive and it is interesting to see how he does that. I think he succeeds because he couples knowledge of arcane details with not holding back when it comes to conjuring up vivid imagery and metaphors (and even profanity when warranted) to describe what is going on.

For example, to those who try to excuse the evidence of the bankers' greed as the kind of small missteps that anyone can make, he says:

Defenders of Goldman have been quick to insist that while the bank may have had a few ethical slips here and there, its only real offense was being too good at making money. We now know, unequivocally, that this is bullshit. Goldman isn't a pudgy housewife who broke her diet with a few Nilla Wafers between meals — it's an advanced-stage, 1,100-pound medical emergency who hasn't left his apartment in six years, and is found by paramedics buried up to his eyes in cupcake wrappers and pizza boxes.

On Goldman's strenuous efforts, once it realized that it was holding huge amounts of worthless assets, to find suckers to sell it off to and what they did after they forced the sale, he writes:

Goldman was like a car dealership that realized it had a whole lot full of cars with faulty brakes. Instead of announcing a recall, it surged ahead with a two-fold plan to make a fortune: first, by dumping the dangerous products on other people, and second, by taking out life insurance against the fools who bought the deadly cars.

In describing the multiple ways that Goldman defrauded its own clients, the very people who were paying for its services, he says:

This is a little like getting an invoice from an interior decorator who, in addition to his fee for services, charges you $170 a roll for brand-name wallpaper he's actually buying off the back of a truck for $63.

To recap: Goldman, to get $1.2 billion in crap off its books, dumps a huge lot of deadly mortgages on its clients, lies about where that crap came from and claims it believes in the product even as it's betting $2 billion against it. When its victims try to run out of the burning house, Goldman stands in the doorway, blasts them all with gasoline before they can escape, and then has the balls to send a bill overcharging its victims for the pleasure of getting fried.

Taibbi describes the tricks used by Goldman to get the highest AAA ratings for the junk securities on its hands that enabled them to be sold off to their dupes. They did this by taking the low-rated bonds from each pool and then ranking them again within that pool and giving the best the highest rating. And then repeating the process.

This is kind of like taking all the kids who were picked last to play volleyball in every gym class of every public school in the state, throwing them in a new gym, and pretending that the first 10 kids picked are varsity-level players. Then you take all the unpicked kids left over from that process, throw them in a gym with similar kids from all 50 states, and call the first 10 kids picked All-Americans.

Taibbi's article is well worth reading in full.

Will the Justice Department prosecute? Don't hold your breath. Starting with Bill Clinton, there has been a continuous bipartisan sellout to Wall Street and I don't expect anything more from Obama. What I predict will happen is that if the rest of the major media raise a fuss about this report (which itself has a low probability given the media's alliance with the oligarchy), then the Justice Department might be forced to look as if it is doing something. They will open a highly publicized investigation, then strike a deal with Goldman Sachs to have them pay a fine which will seem like a lot to us (say a few hundred million dollars) but will be peanuts to Goldman which will look on it as just the cost of doing business.

But no one will go to jail and there the matter will end.

The Lewin subcommittee's hearings figured prominently in the wonderful documentary Inside Job that I reviewed two weeks ago. The producers of that documentary received Academy Awards for it in February and what they said on that occasion pretty much sums up the corrupt nature of US politics.

May 15, 2011

Muswell Hillbilly by The Kinks

Another favorite song from my past.


Forcing foster children to shop at only second hand stores

The attempts to stigmatize the poor continue apace. I wrote earlier about the move to give welfare recipients their allocation via orange debit cards so that everyone would know they were on welfare. Now a Michigan legislator wants to ban foster children from using that state's $80 per year clothing allowance to buy any new clothing item. Instead the clothing vouchers could only be redeemed at second hand stores.

There is nothing intrinsically bad about buying used clothes or any other item. I would guess that almost all people have done so. It is the idea of forcing poor people to have only that option, that new things are too good for them and they do not deserve them, that makes me find such stories revolting. What kinds of people spend their time thinking up such things? Maybe they will next give poor people permits that allow them to get their food from dumpsters.

Everyone thinks they are in the middle class

One of the enduring puzzles is why so many poor and middle class people are so supportive of policies that benefit only the rich. The often cited reasons are that these people are either stupid or that they have a fantasy that they will be very rich someday and are protecting their future interests.

But via Kevin Drum, I heard about a new study that suggests another reason, which is that people have a highly distorted idea about where they themselves stand in the economic pecking order. The study asked people in Argentina in the ten income deciles to rank themselves as to which decile they thought they were in. "They found that everyone thought they were basically middle class. Poor people consistently overestimated their rank, and rich people consistently underestimated their rank."

Why is this? "The authors suggest that this misperception may be related to the types of people respondents interact with, and therefore use as a reference point. If you're mostly exposed to people earning about as much as you, you're likely to think your earnings are average."

The solution? Make people better aware of their true position. "In the Argentina study, for example, respondents were eventually informed about whether their own rankings estimates were too high or too low. This news changed people's policy attitudes. People who thought they were relatively richer than they actually were started to demand higher levels of income redistribution when told they were actually relatively poor."

These results are consistent with a study done in the US that I wrote about late last year which showed that people here think that wealth is more equitably distributed than it really is.

May 14, 2011

Why the health care law is constitutional but may be overturned

Northwestern University professor of law Andrew Koppelman has a long article in the Yale Law Journal arguing that the constitutional objections that have been brought against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) health care reform package have little legal merit but that this does not mean that the current Supreme Court will uphold the law, given the propensity of some of the judges to create convoluted legal justifications to arrive at political conclusions.

The constitutional objections are silly. However, because constitutional law is abstract and technical and because almost no one reads Supreme Court opinions, the conservative majority on the Court may feel emboldened to adopt these silly objections in order to crush the most important progressive legislation in decades. One lesson of Bush v. Gore, which did no harm at all to the Court’s prestige in the eyes of the public, is that if there are any limits to the Justices’ power, those limits are political: absent a likelihood of public outrage, they can do anything they want. So the fate of health care reform may depend on the constitutional issues being understood at least well enough for shame to have some effect on the Court.

He then outlines the objections to the reform and why they cannot be sustained. He concludes with a nice summary.

What will the Supreme Court do? There is no nice way to say this: the silliness of the constitutional objections may not be enough to stop these Justices from relying on them to strike down the law. The Republican Party, increasingly, is the party of urban legends: that tax cuts for the rich always pay for themselves, that government spending does not create jobs, that government overregulation of banks caused the crash of 2008, that global warming is not happening. The unconstitutionality of health care reform is another of those legends, legitimated in American culture by frequent repetition.

The Republican Party, once a party of intellectuals and ideas, is now the captive of crazies driven by blind ideological prejudices in the service of the oligarchy. The Democratic Party has taken the place of the former Republican Party as the subtle agents of the oligarchy.

NJ governor won't say if he believes in evolution or creationism

Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, was asked at a press conference if he believes in evolution or creationism and he replied with his characteristic rudeness and arrogance "That's none of your business".

While I would not have said it the way he did, I do agree with him on the substance. There is no reason why elected officials should have to publicly state what they privately believe on any issue that a reporter might be interested in. We are only entitled to know what they do in their official capacities and the reasons they advance for doing it. Issues should be debated on the merits of the competing proposals and on publicly stated arguments in favor of the options and their underlying beliefs are not a necessary part of the discussion.

Having said all that, I was curious as to the implications Christie's reluctance to answer the question. If he truly believes it is none of the reporter's business, I agree with him. But what if he instead felt that giving an honest answer might cause him embarrassment or political difficulties? There are two options here. One is that he believes in evolution but felt that saying so would alienate a major bloc of his supporters. The other option is that he believes in creationism but felt that denying the fact of evolution would make him look like an anachronism in this modern scientific age.

The former represents crass political calculation, the latter demonstrates that to deny evolution is no longer something that is intellectually respectable. Both options are signs of science's progress.

May 13, 2011

Julian Assange awarded Australian peace prize

Glenn Greenwald has the story behind the award, given for championing people's right to know.

Puzzled dog

A dog tries hard to coax a man seated on a bench holding a ball to play fetch. The problem is that the man is a statue.

Via Matthew Cobb, who adds that the statue is that of Alan Turing, the brilliant computer scientist and Artificial Intelligence pioneer who committed suicide in 1954 supposedly by eating a cyanide-laden apple (which is the 'ball' in the statue) because of a British government prosecution over his homosexuality.

In 2009, the government apologized.

Looking closely at the Bible

In a previous post, I said that two things lead to greater disbelief in god. In it I discussed the one where people start to take a skeptical attitude towards their most cherished beliefs.

In this post I want to discuss the other group, which consists of people who develop increased knowledge of what the Bible and other religious texts actually contain. This can be revelatory for those who grow up with just their Sunday school knowledge of a benevolent god who did a few miracles here, a few good things there, and generally told people to behave themselves in a manner he approved of if they wanted to go to heaven after they died. But as soon as one starts to examine religious holy books more closely, one cannot help but conclude that what they contain lack any solidity and are pure wind. What is more, they are not at all in keeping with the Sunday school image of god.

The Bible.jpegTake the Judeo-Christian Bible. The Old Testament reveals a god who is a truly nasty piece of work who is willing to commit genocide at the drop of a hat, orders the indiscriminate murders of innocent people, is cruel and capricious (the story of Job is a classic example of a sadist god), pretty much hates everyone, and who creates a vast number of petty rules and then demands that people be stoned for violating them. Gays, stubborn and mouthy children, adulterers, women who are not virgins when they are married, blasphemers, those who work on the Sabbath, practice wizardry, worship other gods, and even merely pick up sticks on the Sabbath are all targeted for slaughter.

Furthermore, this Bible violates the basic laws of science and even common-sense knowledge. The more you know about religion and science, the less likely you are to believe. Let alone the obvious fictions about Adam and Eve and Noah and the like which most modernistic religious people are willing to concede are not historical, there is little or no evidence for Abraham, the captivity in Egypt, Moses, the exodus, David, Solomon, and so on. In fact, pretty much the entire Old Testament until around the Babylonian captivity in 586 BCE is mythological but unlike with the creation myths, modernists are reluctant to concede that the later stories are also fictional.

The Old Testament is a library of books written between the late 6th century BCE and the early 2nd century BCE by people who were basically making it up out of whole cloth, based on the legends and myths that form the oral traditions of every group of people.

We even have evidence that the advent of monotheism, which is seen as the driving narrative of the entire Old Testament and its crown jewel, the gift of the Jewish people to posterity, is also not as portrayed in its pages. New research reveals that the ancient Israelites were not monotheistic in their beliefs for most of their early history, at least until the period of Babylonian captivity, and monotheism likely arose when some of the Judean intellectual elites encountered Persian abstract thought during their captivity. Before that they believed that Yahweh even had a wife named Asherah who was also worshipped.

But that is not all. In future posts I will look at all the other events in Biblical history which are unquestioningly believed as true but which are likely fiction. No wonder that some clergy, who are likely to learn about these disconcerting facts in their seminary studies, can become secret skeptics. Daniel Dennett says:

My colleague Linda LaScola and I are currently studying this phenomenon, and when discussing our first pilot study of closeted non-believing (or other-believing) clergy, we often heard two jokes about the seminary experience that was part of the training of most clergy: "If you emerge from seminary still believing in God, you haven't been paying attention," and "Seminary is where God goes to die."

Is it any surprise that increasing levels of knowledge about the Bible, accompanied by increased awareness of science, leads to greater disbelief? The top leadership of religious institutions must know this and realize the need to keep their followers in the dark. So they promote ignorant belief by calling it faith and making it seem virtuous. As I have said before, I used to be very religious and studied the Bible formally but even I was not made aware of all the problems. I had to discover all these things on my own.

On the other hand, those who are truth seekers tend to have a skeptical attitude and quickly discover that religious holy books are mostly fiction.

May 12, 2011

Update on the Rapture

Remember, there are only nine more days until the Rapture! Get your forgiveness from Jesus now and avoid long lines in the last minute rush.

Salon has an article on the latest Rapture prophesy and the 89-year old radio host named Harold Camping who is behind it.

Violence and religion

Take a look at this image.

new-reliquaries-4.jpg

Did you notice that the synagogue has been made out of bullets and guns and other weaponry? It is one example of the work of sculptor Al Farrow, in which he uses the tools of violence to create religious buildings in order to make the point that religion and violence are so closely intertwined.

The link where you can see many other works by Farrow was sent to me by blog reader John. The multiple close up views of a bombed mosque are quite exquisite.

Joking about god not welcome on American TV?

I don't watch much TV but I have noticed that there are no YouTube clips of American broadcast TV shows having atheist comedians making fun of god or religion, the way one finds in the UK or Australia. The closest I have seen is House, where the atheist title character tosses off the occasional barb aimed at religion.

An article in The Australian suggests that as a result foreign comedians who are used to making jokes about religion and getting a good laugh in other countries are sometimes surprised at the hostile reaction they get here, as with Ricky Gervais's performance as host of the Golden Globes awards.

What caused real grief at NBC, the network that broadcasts the Globes, and among those of the organisers who leaked that Gervais had "crossed a line" was the presenter's final quip as he exited.

"Thanks for everyone in the room for being good sports, to NBC and the Hollywood foreign press, thank you for watching at home," he said. "And thank you, God, for making me an atheist."

The US has 210 television market areas, or regions. By the Monday morning NBC bosses had had their ears bent by managers from dozens, ranging from the liberal Bangor, in Maine, to the deeply conservative Corpus Christi, in Texas. The problem was Gervais's final flourish, and they questioned why NBC had not "bleeped" it out as it would swearing. The truth was, NBC did not see it coming.

Gervais is not the first British comic to run into this invisible wall. Last year Eddie Izzard hosted the Independent Spirit awards for non-studio filmmakers in Los Angeles. He experienced unusual moments of silence and audience disconnection. The next morning, bloggers crowed that his "attacks on organised religion" cost him the audience.

NBC is now seeking to put the 2011 Globes behind it, although its "standards and practices" lawyers are likely to crush any religious jokes scripted in advance next year. Not that that would stop a runaway Gervais.

Early reports suggest that in 2012 the microphone may be handed to Joel McHale, a half-Italian comedian who mocks teary reality-show contestants and bumbling news announcers on a weekly cable TV show called The Soup. Picking on the hapless is rewarding fun, the smirking comic has found.

More critically, in seven years on The Soup, the host, a Catholic, has never challenged a powerful deity of any stripe.

God, apparently, cannot take a joke in America.

The demand that NBC should have bleeped out the god comment reveals how insecure religious people are. They cannot tolerate the idea that anyone should publicly declare their disbelief. People thank god all the time on TV for all manner of things from winning awards to scoring touchdowns and I suspect that most atheists are like me and find it merely ridiculous and amusing. I suspect that no atheist has been converted to religious belief by hearing such expressions of devotion. And yet believers fear that hearing people say that they are atheists is dangerous and offensive and worthy of censorship

What is interesting is that comedians like Gervais and Izzard get enthusiastic responses for their standup comedy routines before live audiences in the US. One obvious reason is of course that the people who go to a live show already have some inkling of what they are going to get, unlike the people who watch TV at home. But it is also the case that the audience for standup shows consists of younger people, and their acceptance of god-mocking humor may be another signal of the generational shift that is going on, with younger people not taking religion nearly as seriously as their elders.

The problem that religion faces is that it is such a ripe target for humor because it is so self-contradictory and makes such absurd claims, the exact diet that comedians feast on, and so they cannot resist using it as the butt of jokes. As the taboos against it slowly crumble, as they surely will, we can expect to see more and more mocking of the absurdities of religious beliefs.

The upcoming Rapture on May 21 is a case in point. Expect to see a lot of jokes about it as the day gets closer.

May 11, 2011

Corporations should not have the same rights as people

The doctrine that corporations are 'persons' and thus have the same rights as human beings originated in 1886 under dubious circumstances and there is a movement to repeal it. Greg Coleridge of the American Friends Service Committee has forwarded to me a petition to repeal this doctrine.

Dear friend,

In May 1886 United States Supreme Court clerk J.C. Bancroft Davis, former president of the Newburgh and New York Railway Company, inserted a headnote to the United States Reports pertaining to the Court's decision in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company.

Thus without a formal court ruling, this simple act set a precedent and effectively established corporations as legal persons entitled to the same rights as living, breathing persons under the 14th amendment.

What has followed is 125 years of case law giving corporations Constitutional Rights leading to the destruction of our democracy at the hands of greedy corporations. The most recent, of course, is the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission that opened the floodgates of corporate money in elections. From the environment, energy, and healthcare to jobs, education and the economy, the greed of big multi-national corporations is laying waste to the American dream, and our democracy.

The 125th anniversary of the Santa Clara Railroad case is upon us. AFSC has for more than 15 years been addressing corporate constitutional rights. As an endorser of Move to Amend, we at the Northeast Ohio AFSC hope you'll mark this anniversary by signing the petition at Move to Amend.org. Our shared goal is to collect 125, 000 signatures for the 125th anniversary of corporate personhood.

We must come together to reclaim our democracy for living, breathing, people by eliminating corporate personhood through Constitutional amendment.

Whatever issue arises, at its root you'll find a corporation standing between "we the people" and the solution. If we are to "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and posterity," then we must put an end corporate personhood.

Please sign the Motion to Amend

Democratically yours,

Greg Coleridge
Director

PS - You can help Move to Amend get to 125,000 signatures. Find out more here!

I have added my name to the list of over 111,000 signatures. I hope you will too.

Living sculptures

These wind-powered sculptures by Theo Jansen are amazing to behold.

You can see more of Jansen's creations at his website.

(Via Why Evolution is True.)

Judgment Day is almost upon us but don't worry, be happy

end-is-near.jpgThere are only 10 more days until May 21, which is Judgment Day when the Rapture happens! What, you didn't know this? You don't even know what the Rapture is? Let me fill you in.

The Rapture is the name given to the occasion when all the true believers in Jesus will be suddenly taken up to heaven, prior to him coming back to Earth in all his glory to smite all the sinners who are left behind and then destroys the world. Or something like that. It is all a bit confusing but the main thing to bear in mind is that it is definitely not a good sign if you are still here on May 22 because that means you are not among the chosen few. You are going to be in for a rough time for the next five months before the world comes to a final end on October 21, 2011, totally messing up the baseball World Series that starts on October 19. If the currently hot Cleveland Indians make it to the World Series and the Earth is destroyed before they win, it will confirm the dark suspicions in the minds of Cleveland sports fans that god hates Cleveland, probably because of their repulsive Chief Wahoo symbol.

How do we know that Judgment Day will fall on May 21? This website tells you how they calculated the date. They say that a close reading of all the clues in the Bible says it will occur exactly 7,000 years after Noah's flood. Even some Rapturists may be surprised that this implies that the Rapture will occur in 2011 CE since according to Bishop Ussher's famous calculation, the Earth was supposed to have been created in 4004 BCE and Noah's flood occurred on 2348 BCE. So, according to Ussher's chronology, 7,000 years after the flood would mean that the Rapture would occur in the year 4653 CE, which gives us plenty of time to destroy the world in other ways, such as with global warming or nuclear wars, and save Jesus the trouble of coming back to do it himself, since I am sure he has lots of other demands on his time.

There have been other predictions of the end of the world that failed to materialize. But the authors of these new calculations say that, although based on the same Bible as the earlier ones, this time they have got it right. Their new dates are as follows.

  • 11,013 BC—Creation. God created the world and man (Adam and Eve).
  • 4990 BC—The flood of Noah’s day. All perished in a worldwide flood. Only Noah, his wife, and his 3 sons and their wives survived in the ark (6023 years from creation).
  • 7 BC—The year Jesus Christ was born (11,006 years from creation).
  • 33 AD—The year Jesus Christ was crucified and the church age began (11,045 years from creation; 5023 calendar years from the flood).
  • 1988 AD—This year ended the church age and began the great tribulation period of 23 years (13,000 years from creation).
  • 1994 AD—On September 7th, the first 2300-day period of the great tribulation came to an end and the latter rain began, commencing God’s plan to save a great multitude of people outside of the churches (13,006 years from creation).
  • 2011 AD—On May 21st, Judgment Day will begin and the rapture (the taking up into heaven of God’s elect people) will occur at the end of the 23-year great tribulation. On October 21st, the world will be destroyed by fire (7000 years from the flood; 13,023 years from creation).

mayan2012.jpegDon't confuse this end of the world with that predicted by the Mayans. Because their calendar only went up to 2012, some people interpreted it to mean that they somehow knew that the world would end that year. But since the Mayans were heathens who did not know Jesus and their calendar was not based on the Bible, they obviously cannot be trusted.

Notice that we are supposed to have gone through a period of 'great tribulation' that began in 1988 but frankly I had not noticed anything particularly different happening that year or since. But in hindsight, the signs were all there. In 1988 Bobby McFerrin's song Don't Worry, Be Happy won a Grammy award for best song (as well as awards for best album and best male vocalist) which we should have recognized as the sign of the Apocalypse. The title itself was likely code to reassure anxious true believers that they would be saved. Another missed clue was that at 1:15 in this music video (which includes Christopher Reeve and Robin Williams), McFerrin is suddenly whisked up out of his shoes and socks to heaven. People disappearing suddenly and leaving their clothes behind is a dead giveaway that the Rapture is occurring.

I think the evidence is overwhelming that May 21 is the day, so basically we have just ten days left to shape up and get on god's good side or have to evade slaughter in the following five months, which would be pointless since we would end up in hell on October 21 anyway.

Where presumably our punishment will be that we will have to listen to Don't Worry, Be Happy on an endless loop.

May 10, 2011

Altruism

Jerry Coyne has a nice post about the various forms of altruism and what biology and genetics does, or does not, have to do with them.

The 'religions of peace' keep on killing

The Sunni rulers of Bahrain are destroying Shia mosques and attacking demonstrators in this majority Shia country. There are deadly clashes between Christians and Muslims in Egypt.

Religious apologists are always telling us that their religions are peaceful and that those who perpetrate violence are not being true to it. But it does not seem to strike them as odd that nothing seems to rouse people to a murderous fury more easily than to feel that their god of peace and love has been slighted.

You mean Hawaii is not a Paris landmark?

The Guardian samples some of the dumbest answers given on British quiz shows.

Education and religious belief

There is an interesting relationship between education and religious belief. It is often assumed that increased education leads to greater levels of disbelief in god. The fact that religion is in rapid decline (as I tried to document in my series Why Atheism is Winning) and heading towards extinction in the developed world, where levels of education are highest, suggests such a correlation.

But it would be wrong to infer that this implies a direct causal relationship between education and lack of religion. The stronger causal relationship is that increased modernity leads to decline in religion, and modernity involves more than just education. Religion thrives on fear of death and the afterlife, and it could be that improved standards of living and a lowering of fears and insecurity about living life in this world are what undermine its appeal. The negative effect on religion may thus be indirect, by enabling greater levels of modernity and higher standards of living.

Even if one infers a direct link between education and disbelief, the relationship need not be monotonic in that people with lower levels of education are necessarily greater believers. I wrote about four years ago that "a longitudinal study of 10,000 adolescents actually found the opposite effect, that those who did not go on to college had greater declines in attending services, in the importance or religion, and in disaffiliation from religion" and that there is some evidence that religious belief can actually increase when people go to college. Why? Because they learn how to better find rationalizations for the beliefs they were indoctrinated with as children. Thus up to a point, an increased amount of formal education can actually lead to greater belief because it suppresses people's natural curiosity and makes them more accepting of the verdicts of 'authorities' (such as 'experts' and the authors of textbooks), while not being able to distinguish between reliable authorities who use good evidence and closely reasoned arguments to arrive at judgments, and unreliable authorities (like priests and theologians) who simply assert dogma as if they were deep truths, without providing any evidence to back them up.

It seems as if belief in religion follows the pattern described in the poem An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope (1688-1744) that goes:

So by false Learning is good Sense defac'd.
Some are bewilder'd in the Maze of Schools,
And some made Coxcombs Nature meant but Fools.
In search of Wit these lose their common Sense,
And then turn Criticks in their own Defence.

Many of the arguments for god by theologians and philosophers are so incredible that one finds it hard to imagine anyone taking them seriously, unless one has surrendered logic and common sense and substituted for them a rudimentary skill at rationalization that blinds one to the flaws in the arguments. As Michael Shermer says in his book Why People Believe Weird Things (2002, p. 283): "Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons." Or, as George Orwell put it even more acidly in his Notes on Nationalism (1945) in the context of people willing to believe in political absurdities, "One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool."

But while some learning can increase religious belief, still deeper learning usually leads to a decline again. This widely quoted passage from Pope's poem makes this point:

A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

The evidence is quite convincing, for example, that very high levels of education, especially in the sciences, are strongly correlated with disbelief in a god. The Pew survey of religious knowledge in the US found that "academics in the natural and social sciences at elite research universities are significantly less religious than the general population. Almost 52 percent of scientists surveyed identified themselves as having no current religious affiliation compared with only 14 percent of the general population" and "In a poll taken in 1998, only 7 percent of the members of the US National Academy of Sciences, the elite of American scientists said they believed in a personal God."

It is not increasing education alone but what kind of education that also matters. After all, many theologians have great amounts of formal education but that does not prevent them from putting forward the most absurd question-begging claims for religion. I think that two kinds of attitudes towards knowledge lead to greater disbelief.

One is when people begin to take a skeptical attitude towards their most cherished beliefs and begin to ask for evidence and reason in support those assertions that they had previously taken for granted as self-evidently true. This tends to naturally occur in the highest levels of scientific education where one needs to do this to be taken seriously by one's peers.

But this can also happen without much formal education for people who simply have a thirst for knowledge and an inquiring mind and a critical bent. Some of the sharpest minds I have encountered have belonged to people who did not go to college at all or dropped out and simply educated themselves. But to be able to do that more effectively, they need access to the literature. It used to be that serious thinkers used to write books aimed at the general public but with the advent of modern universities and technical journals, scholars started writing for other scholars and this changed the nature of their output, making them fairly opaque to the general reader, and thus resulted in a very small readership.

For a long time self-educated people were limited in the availability of accessible books and articles on science or atheism or critiques of religion. The recent spate of serious books aimed at the general public and written by the new/unapologetic atheists has changed all that. Suddenly all that powerful but hitherto esoteric knowledge has been made accessible to anyone interested, and the fact that these books are selling by the millions is evidence that many people have long sought such knowledge about religion and how advances in science have undermined belief in god.

The other attitude that leads to skepticism is when people go more deeply into their religion and religious texts and I will look at this in a subsequent post.

May 09, 2011

More billboards!

The godless heathen are spreading their message everywhere. I got an email from blog reader David about a billboard that he and fellow members of the NCW Freethinkers Meetup in eastern Washington state have put up.

NCWbillboard.jpg

David says that the region is very reactionary and religious and so this was quite a bold move on their part, even though the billboard does not directly undermine belief in god but only asks for the separation of church and state to be maintained. But I suspect that there are a lot of closet skeptics in that region as well, and this billboard will hearten them that they are not alone.

So well done David and the NCW Freethinkers!

The Republican non-candidates debate

From Saturday Night Live, with Tina Fey as you-know-who.

More lies emerge about the bin Laden story

As is usual in these situations, information is now coming out that many of the details surrounding the killing of bin Laden, such as that he was armed and was killed in a firefight, were false, which makes his killing highly problematical. Other lies were that he used his wife as a shield and that he lived in luxury in a palatial mansion. No doubt this was part of a propaganda effort to discredit bin Laden in the eyes of his admirers by portraying him as a soft and cowardly hypocrite, not a warrior. It turns out that though the compound was large, the house itself was modest with not even air-conditioning, and much of the land was used to grow vegetables and keep chickens and a cow.

Another false story surrounded the photograph of Obama and his national security team staring intently at something. We were led to believe that they were watching a live feed of the raid on the bin Laden compound, perhaps even the shooting of bin Laden himself. Now that story has also been thrown into doubt since it has emerged that the feed went dead for about 25 minutes after the raid began. It turns out that even the photos that appeared in the next day's papers of Obama speaking to the nation were staged after he had actually finished speaking.

At this point, all that I am willing to believe is that 80 commandos arrived in three helicopters of which one was destroyed, they killed bin Laden and two other people and wounded a woman, captured some computers and documents, and dumped his body into the ocean.

Attempted murder of Anwar al-Awlaki

For obvious reasons, it is generally considered a crime for any government to engage in extra-judicial killings, in effect executing people without giving them the benefit of a trial. The governments that are infamous for operating such death squads are looked upon as rogue regimes. There are some occasions where the killing may be justified, such as on a battlefield or someone who is violently resisting arrest. If such restrictions are removed, governments could (and would) send people around the world to kill anyone they perceive as an enemy. This is why the Obama administration created those lies in the immediate aftermath of the bin Laden killing, that he was armed and resisted arrest and that he died in a firefight.

But in the euphoria that followed the bin Laden killing, the country seems to want to ignore the potential illegality of the act and the Attorney General has even promulgated the extraordinary doctrine that his killing was an "act of national self defense", presumably to pre-empt any talk of illegality. In the Great and Glorious War on Terror, we have now given the US government the unilateral power to kill anyone it pleases and simply make up reasons why it is allowed to do so.

Those who raise concerns about such behavior are dismissed because it seems self-evident to many people that bin Laden deserved to die and they don't care how he died. But, as Noam Chomsky points out, there is a real danger in giving the government this kind of freedom to kill people with impunity because governments never have enough power and will use any event to further chip away at all the restraints on them. The Obama administration was quick to take advantage of this freedom. Just a few days later there are reports that the government tried to kill the Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen with a targeted missile strike that missed him but killed two other people.

It is important to realize why this is so serious and has to be vigorously protested. al-Awlaki is a US-born citizen who is not a soldier and was not even on a battlefield when the attempt to kill him was made, since the US is not at war with Yemen, at least not yet though with the number of wars expanding this may just be a matter of time. Furthermore, he has not been accused of committing any actual crime. What he is accused of is inciting other people to attack US government targets, which by itself is not a crime. If it were, any number of militia movements in the US would have all their members in jail. Furthermore, these are just accusations and have only been made by the government to the media. As far as I know, there have been no formal grand jury indictments against him.

So what we have now is a situation in which the government has simply asserted the right to declare a US citizen guilty by press release, and then kill him anywhere in the world even if he is not on a battlefield. It so happens that al-Awlaki was in Yemen when the attempt to murder him occurred but this is a technicality. If the government is allowed this extraordinary leeway, what is to prevent it killing US citizens even in the US? If this power is left unchecked, it means that no one is safe from summary execution by the agents of the US government.

There is no question that the Obama administration will use the support generated by its killing of bin Laden to expand its power even further and there is no telling where this process will end up. This is why Democratic administrations are so dangerous to basic liberties. So many of the people who would have vociferously protested this assault on the basic rule of law if Bush or any other Republican were in office are now nowhere to be found or are making excuses for these actions or even glorying in showing that Democratic presidents can also be 'tough'.

It is of course true that the US government has over its history ordered the killing of many people it considered inconvenient. The CIA has long been in the political assassination business. But the government knew that such actions were illegal and thus they were done covertly and officially denied. And there was always the remote possibility that someone could be held accountable for doing something illegal and this served as a check on more rampant abuses.

But that slim restraint been removed altogether and now government officials proudly announce their illegal attacks. Are we really willing to officially create rogue governments by giving them the right to murder you or me simply on the say so of some official in the government? The acid test is how we would react if a foreign government sent out death squads to the US to kill US citizens that it deemed as 'enemy combatants'. As Chomsky says, "We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic."

Glenn Greenwald has more on the al-Awlaki killing attempt.

May 08, 2011

Sarah Palin in India

After the last election when the interviews she gave to the media turned into debacles, Sarah Palin has avoided them, except for those where she knows she will get softball questions from friendly hosts on Fox News.

But on a recent trip to India to give a speech, she agreed to an interview with the Editor-in-Chief of India Today, perhaps not realizing that other countries also have real journalists. That interview did not go that well, either.

How the face evolved

Your Inner Fish is a book by Neil Shubin, the leader of the team that in 2006 discovered Tiktaalik, the 375 million year old transitional fossil between fish and land animal. The book shows how the basic morphology (i.e., form and structure) of human bodies can be traced back to our fishy ancestors.

The BBC has nice report (with a short video) on how some of our features, especially the face, came about. In particular, it explains the presence of the philtrum, the little groove on our upper lip just below the nose that has no obvious function.

May 07, 2011

Steroid Jesus

An odd problem that Christianity faces in the US is that Jesus is seen as basically a wuss. All that turning-the-other-cheek stuff does not sit well with a country that has a Chuck Norris mindset. This may be partly the reason that churches tend to be predominantly elderly and female.

To appeal to men, I have written before about how some Christian groups have developed worship services that involve all manner of manly activities.

But this may not be enough. What Jesus additionally needs is a physical makeover to make him less effeminate and more appealing to the testosterone-heavy crowd and this billboard that purportedly appeared in Myrtle Beach, SC may be one strategy.

steroidjesus.jpg

Reports of this billboard date back to the mid-2000 period but I have not been able to confirm that it is real.

Of course, no post on manliness is complete without a video of the Village People singing their hit song Macho Man.

Ethics of atheists

Via Machines Like Us, I came across this article by researchers Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman that challenges the view among some religious people that atheists have poor ethics.

A growing body of social science research reveals that atheists, and non-religious people in general, are far from the unsavory beings many assume them to be. On basic questions of morality and human decency — issues such as governmental use of torture, the death penalty, punitive hitting of children, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, environmental degradation or human rights — the irreligious tend to be more ethical than their religious peers, particularly compared with those who describe themselves as very religious. [My italics]

As individuals, atheists tend to score high on measures of intelligence, especially verbal ability and scientific literacy. They tend to raise their children to solve problems rationally, to make up their own minds when it comes to existential questions and to obey the golden rule. They are more likely to practice safe sex than the strongly religious are, and are less likely to be nationalistic or ethnocentric. They value freedom of thought.

Atheists may not be the most ethical people around but we can make a strong case that we are much more ethical than a certain prominent Christian theologian who likes to claim that without a god there can be no objective morality, and then proceeds to justify genocide and rape because his god commanded it.

If that is where objective morality takes you, then I am really glad to be a moral relativist.

May 06, 2011

The WikiLeaks model expands, sort of

WikiLeaks put the mainstream media in a bind. They benefited hugely from all the information that was released but at the same time they were embarrassed by using as a source a news organization that the US government hated.

Now the Wall Street Journal has started its own website aimed at getting whistleblower information in the same way as WIkiLeaks. But since they see themselves as 'good' journalists (i.e., subservient to the US government and oligarchy), they have inserted a clause saying that they will share any information with the government and other authorities. Hence their approach will likely fail.

But what this does reveal is what I have been saying all along, that the WikiLeaks model is the future of journalism.

Sanitizing the truth about Guantanamo

Chris Floyd reports on how the New York Times buried those facts in the latest WikiLeaks release on Guantanamo to hide the details that were embarrassing to the US.

Almost as sickening as the atrocities themselves, however, is the way the release has been played in the New York Times, whose coverage of the document dump will set the tone for the American media and political establishments. The Times' take is almost wholly devoted to showing how evil and dangerous a handful of the hundreds of Gitmo detainees were, and to justifying Barack Obama's betrayal of his promises to close the concentration camp. We are treated to lurid tales (many if not most of them extracted under torture, but who cares about that?) of monsters seething with irrepressible hatred of America, and so maniacally devoted to jihad that they inject themselves with libido-deadening drugs to ward off any sexual distractions from their murderous agenda.

There is almost no mention in the Times coverage of the many innocent people -- including children -- who spent years in the concentration camp, athough the main story about the documents does note, in an eyeblink, the case of one prisoner who was falsely imprisoned on the word of an Afghan official trying to hide his own complicity with insurgents. (Damn treacherous furriners!)

He points out that the international press had no difficulty discerning the real story in the same dossier, as this except from the Guardian shows:

The US military dossiers, obtained by the New York Times and the Guardian, reveal how, alongside the so-called "worst of the worst", many prisoners were flown to the Guantánamo cages and held captive for years on the flimsiest grounds, or on the basis of lurid confessions extracted by maltreatment. The files depict a system often focused less on containing dangerous terrorists or enemy fighters, than on extracting intelligence.

Among inmates who proved harmless were an 89-year-old Afghan villager, suffering from senile dementia, and a 14-year-old boy who had been an innocent kidnap victim. The old man was transported to Cuba to interrogate him about "suspicious phone numbers" found in his compound. The 14-year-old was shipped out merely because of "his possible knowledge of Taliban...local leaders"

The documents also reveal ... Almost 100 of the inmates who passed through Guantánamo are listed by their captors as having had depressive or psychotic illnesses. Many went on hunger strike or attempted suicide.

The full Guardian dossier on this latest release also has an analysis by Julian Glover who says:

The leaked files published by the Guardian and the New York Times reveal horror that lies only partly in the physical things that were done to inmates – the desperate brutality of heated isolation cells, restraining straps and forced interrogation.

But what is given new prominence by these latest Guantánamo files is the cold, incompetent stupidity of the system: a system that tangled up the old and the young, the sick and the innocent. A system in which to say you were not a terrorist might be taken as evidence of your cunning.

It didn't work, much of the time. These files show that some of the information collected was garbage and that many of those held knew nothing that could be of use to the people demanding answers from them. Far from securing the fight against terror, the people running the camp faced an absurdist battle to educate a 14-year-old peasant boy kidnapped by an Afghan tribe and treat the dementia, depression and osteoarthritis of an 89-year-old man caught up in a raid on his son's house.

Other cases are just as pathetic. Jamal al-Harith, born Ronald Fiddler in Manchester in 1966, was imprisoned by the Taliban as a possible spy, after being found wandering through Afghanistan as a Muslim convert. In a movement of Kafkaesque horror the Americans held him in Camp X-Ray simply because he had been a prisoner of its enemy [My italics]. "He was expected to have knowledge of Taliban treatment of prisoners and interrogation tactics," the files record.

At times, I have feared that obsessing over the injustices of Guantánamo Bay has become a surrogate for a wider hatred of America. Read the files, and you'll realise that obsession is the only possible humane response.

I would have said that what happened and is still happening at Guantanamo should be the nation's everlasting shame, if I didn't feel that we had lost the capacity to feel shame.

May 05, 2011

Preventing cheaper treatments to increase profits

Reader Norm sent me this news item which alleges that sheer greed for excessive profits is causing one drug company (Genentech) to try to block a possible cure for macular degeneration (which can cause blindness) from being tested and approved, because the cost of this drug ($50 per dose) Avastin is forty times less that the alternative treatment Lucentis ($2,000 per dose) marketed by the same company.

The Plain Dealer also ran a story on the fact that the Cleveland Clinic ran a comparison test anyway and found that Avastin worked as well as Lucentis.

Atlas Shrugged: So did the public

The film Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 bombed mightily at the box office.

But not to worry, Ayn Rand fans! It looks like there will be a Part 2. Here's the trailer.

The bin Laden photos

I don't understand what is driving those people who demand that the photos of the dead bin Laden be released, other than the need to satisfy some prurient interest or to gloat. It is not that photos of dead people should never be published. Publishing the images of war dead and wounded can play an important role in highlighting the tragic cost of wars. But bin Laden's photographs would serve no such a purpose. It would be more like publishing the photos of people executed for crimes or shot in gunfights and seems like a partial step backwards to the days of public executions to satisfy people's blood lust

While I am in general in favor of not keeping information secret, such information should have some public benefit. What benefit would be gained by releasing the photos? It will not serve as proof that bin Laden is dead because die-hard skeptics can claim that the photos are faked, just like some are claiming that Obama's birth certificate is a fake or that the moon landing was faked or that the Bush administration was behind the 9/11 attacks. They will then demand the release of the videos. There will never be definitive proof that will satisfy the skeptics and at some point you have to take the circumstantial evidence in support of a basic fact as conclusive, though one can legitimately have doubts about specific details.

I don't see any reason to doubt the claim that bin Laden was killed in this attack. I don't see any upside for the Obama administration to fake the news about the death and plenty of downside. So many people are involved that a lie could easily be revealed and blow up in their faces. Furthermore bin Laden had faded from the news a long time ago and the sense of urgency to capture him had dissipated to a low level of nagging dissatisfaction, so why create such a sensational falsehood?

I think it is very clear that the US government wanted bin Laden killed and not captured alive. The fact that he was unarmed and they were able to carry his dead body out along with computers and other stuff suggests that they could have easily overpowered him and taken him alive if they had really wanted to.

While he should have been given a fair trial, we seem to have gone long past the stage where people concern themselves with such quaint old-fashioned legal niceties and now live in an age of summary justice. While a captured bin Laden might have been a useful source of information, what to do with him would have been so problematic as to outweigh the benefits of treating him like a criminal. An open trial might have revealed embarrassing information about the former links between him and al Qaeda and the Taliban with the US and Pakistan. A secret trial or a kangaroo court comprised of a military tribunal followed by an execution would have been long drawn out and had negative implications. People in the US already get into hysterics about giving low-level Guantanamo detainees a trial in civilian courts or to even house them in prisons on the US mainland. Imagine their reaction if bin Laden were to be held in a US prison.

I think it is clear that the commandos had orders to kill him, although killing an unarmed person is a potentially illegal act, which is why Attorney General Eric Holder has conveniently come up with the novel doctrine that it was justifiable as an act of 'national self defense', whatever that is.

Leon Panetta, the head of the CIA, said that they were not certain that bin Laden was in the house, which clarifies another mystery which was why they carried out a high risk operation like they did without simply sending in a drone to bomb the building. After all, it is not like the government worries that much about innocent civilians being killed in their air strikes.

If they had held on to the dead body, that would become a hot potato too. What could they do with it? Where could they bury it? If his family asked for it, how could they respond? Once they had possession of the body, they would have to find ways to get rid of it. Later summarily dumping it into the sea with the whole world watching would have been explosive. It was this reason, rather than any concern to follow Islamic customs, that I think led to the hurried burial at sea, so that the world was presented with a fait accompli.

I think the US government carried out the mission this way because they wanted to make sure that bin Laden was dead, that they had proof, and also did not want his body and funeral and grave to become political symbols. I think it is reasonable to conclude that the bare bones of the story, that the US government gave the order to kill bin Laden and bury his body at sea, is true. The release of the photos and videos will not add anything to it.

May 04, 2011

Not everybody reacted with cheering

Some people reacted to the death of bin Laden with hooting and cheering and raucous celebrations, as if this serious and somber event was like their home sports team winning a big game. But not everyone, even in New York City, responded this way.

I was not sure if this was a hoax video, in which a normal subway ride taken at some other time had had the voice added. It looked like the person doing the shouting had also taken the video and I was not sure why he would post a video that made him look foolish, unless he thought that the apathetic response of the people revealed the lack of patriotism of people living in the bicoastal areas who, as we are repeatedly told, are not 'real' Americans like those in the mythical 'heartland'.

It was the non-reaction of almost everyone in the subway car to someone shouting about anything that was surprising to me and made me suspect a possible hoax. If I had been there, I would have at least looked around to see who was making such a ruckus.

But I am not a New Yorker. Maybe this is how they react to anyone trying to get their attention in a public place.

Facebook was created by the CIA

The Onion News Network has the scoop.


CIA's 'Facebook' Program Dramatically Cut Agency's Costs

The unreliability of government statements

In a post I wrote six years ago, I warned that we should not believe the reports that government officials release in the immediate aftermath of a major event because they are invariably unreliable, either because full information is not available or more frequently because governments deliberately lie as part of the propaganda process, knowing that the first version of events is the one that sticks in people's minds. As such, I said that we should not believe any of the details that are released until they have been substantiated.

The bin Laden story seems to be another example. The government initially said that he had been armed and using his wife as a shield when he was killed 'in a firefight', resulting in her death as well. It turns out that both these details were false. It would not be surprising if we find out in the days, months, and even years to come that other details are also false. Look how long it took for the true stories about Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch to emerge.

So why gild the lily? Why not simply take credit for what seems like a carefully thought out and well-executed plan? Perhaps the government felt the need to discredit bin Laden. But this is pointless. After all, those who hated him do not need any additional reasons to do so, while those who are inspired by him will not believe such stories. Some may even claim that the reports of his death are a fabrication.

I think governments simply cannot help themselves. They cannot let the facts speak for themselves but feel compelled to embellish in order to either cover up their mistakes or, as seems to be the case here, to make themselves look as good as possible and their enemies as bad as possible.

What is truly surprising is that the members of the media, who should know better by now since they have been burned time and again, seem to fall for government propaganda every single time, and pass on government statements as fact, without even the hint of skepticism.

Surprising, unsurprising, and amusing facts about US religious knowledge

The recent Pew survey of US religious knowledge that I discussed on the radio and on this blog, had some features that I want to discuss further.

The things that surprised me about the Pew study were:

  • That 45% of Catholics did not understand what transubstantiation meant. You would think that this would be a big part of their preparation for first communion and subsequent devotional activities. That the number of unaware people is so high suggests that this part of their doctrine is viewed as so absurd that it is downplayed. I mean, really, the idea that the wafer and the wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus because of a prayer and are then consumed seems outlandish and even macabre. It is likely that although the words "This is the body" and "This is the blood" are said during the service, it is not emphasized that people should take it literally.
  • 43% of Jews did not recognize Maimonides as being Jewish. I thought that Maimonides was for Jews what Aquinas is for Catholics, someone they admire as a religious intellectual, whom they can point to when their religion is described as a childish superstition.
  • High level of knowledge about Mormonism. "Around four-in-ten Americans know that the Mormon religion was founded sometime after 1800 (44%) and that the Book of Mormon tells the story of Jesus appearing to people in the Americas (40%). About half (51%) correctly identify Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as a Mormon." This really surprised me. Why would people know so much about this tiny religious group? Is it because of Mitt Romney's run for the presidency? The South Park shows?

The thing that did not surprise me was that atheists knew more about religion than Christians. In general minorities in any community tend to be more knowledgeable than majorities because they need that knowledge to navigate the majority culture. Furthermore, atheists usually grew up in religious homes. People who leave a belief structure usually first try to reconcile the conflicts by looking deeper into it to see if it can be made acceptable and only leave when the effort seems futile. So it is not surprising that atheists know more about religions since they usually know what they are walking away from.

The thing that amused me was "Respondents who say the Bible was written by man and is not the word of God get 18 questions right, on average. Those who say the Bible is the word of God but should not be taken literally get an average of 16.3 questions right. And those who say the Bible is the word of God and should be taken literally, word for word, get an average of 14.5 questions right… Holding other factors constant, people who say Scripture was written by men answer nearly three additional questions correctly, compared with those who say Scripture is the word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word." Note that the overall average score was 16 questions right out of 32.

Wouldn't you think that people who believed that god was directly talking to them through the Bible would read it voraciously and be intimately familiar with what is says? I mean, we are talking about the same god who they say can take them into heaven or thrown them into hell for eternity. This should be a big deal. The fact that they are the ones who know the least suggests to me that one should treat the assertions of biblical literalists with some skepticism. Many of them say they think the Bible is literally true because their religious leaders tell them so but deep in their hearts I don't think they buy it.

May 03, 2011

So much for transparency

Remember the Obama campaign event in San Francisco is which a woman sang a song protesting Bradley Manning's treatment? It appears that the White House is miffed at the reporter who released the video and is threatening to exclude her newspaper the San Francisco Chronicle from future events.

Implications of bin Laden's death

Patrick Cockburn is one of the most knowledgeable and experienced reporters whose analyses of events in the Middle East I always take seriously. His analysis of what bin Laden represented while alive and what his death means is worth reading.

William Cohan on The Daily Show

He discusses his new book Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World. The title pretty much says it all.

Part 1 of the interview:

Part 2, where he really dishes the dirt:

Film review: Inside Job

I just watched the above documentary that was released in October 2010 and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. Narrated by Matt Damon, it lays bare the story of the 2008 financial crisis. It shows clearly the way the financial oligarchy has taken control of the government irrespective of which party is in office and is using its power to greatly enrich itself.

Here's the film's trailer:

Most of the film focuses on the way that the crash went down, the whole sordid story in which big investment banks (which have done more to harm to the US and the world than any terrorist organization and of whom Goldman Sachs is the worst) used government deregulation, predatory mortgage lending, lax ratings agencies, practically nonexistent government oversight, and complex new financial instruments to create a Ponzi scheme in which a very few got rich and then when trouble hit were bailed out by the government.

(Almost all of this was covered in my 2008 multi-part series titled Brave New World of Finance, but the film provides a lot more details and tells the story with much greater power and clarity and impact.)

Towards the end, the film highlights something I did not dwell on and that is the cozy relationship between academic economists in elite universities (such as Glenn Hubbard, Laura Tyson, Martin Feldstein, Lawrence Summers, Frederic Mishkin, and others) and the government and giant Wall Street firms, with the former providing the high-toned rationales that influenced government policies that enabled the latter to fleece the country. While we rightly deplore those people in the medical profession who act as flacks for the health industry without disclosing their conflicts of interest, it is a scandal that strict ethical guidelines seem to not exist among university academics who can take huge fees from the financial giants to produce 'studies' and 'reports' that benefitted those who paid them, justified the measures that led to the disaster, and then walked away unscathed. Watch the chair of the Harvard economics department struggle and fail to explain why they do not have similar guidelines.

Some of those academic economists agreed to appear in the film, no doubt expecting to be given the usual softball treatment they receive from financial journalists and they become visibly uncomfortable and hostile as they get questioned on their own ethics. Glenn Hubbard, now dean of the Columbia Business School, is a case in point. As Charles Ferguson, the film's writer, director, and producer says in an NPR interview, "Well, the entire interview was fairly contentious, as you can imagine. It surprised me somewhat to realize that these people were not used to being challenged, that they'd never been questioned about this issue before. They clearly expected to be deferred to by me and I think by everybody." Watch the clip:

In an article, Ferguson writes:

Indeed, one of the most disturbing things I learned in making Inside Job, an issue discussed in the film, is that US universities do not require disclosure of financial conflicts of interest by faculty members, place no limits on the sources and size of professors’ outside income, and do not collect information on the size of this income.

Over the past 30 years, the economics discipline has been systematically subverted, in much the same way as American politics – by money, especially from the financial services industry. Many of the most prominent economists in America are now paid to testify in Congress, to serve on boards of directors, testify in antitrust cases and regulatory proceedings, and to give speeches to the companies and industries they study and write about with supposed objectivity. This is not a marginal activity; it is now an industry, run by a half dozen large companies.

Some prominent academics have close ties to financial services yet neither their university employers nor the journals in which they publish require them to disclose their conflicts of interest, their financial positions, or the relationship between their financial interests and the policy positions they take.

You can listen to an NPR interview with Ferguson about the making of the film, where he elaborates on how the system is corrupted.

What you find is that very prominent professors of economics, often people who have also held high government posts, are paid to testify in Congress. They are paid to be expert witnesses in both civil and criminal trials. They're often paid to write papers that praise the financial services industry and argue on behalf of deregulation of the industry. They make millions, in some cases tens of millions, of dollars doing this. And this is usually not disclosed. And in fact, university regulations do not require disclosure of these payments.

The film is well worth seeing. But be warned that it made me very angry and may make you too. And what will make you most angry is that none of these people in academia, government, and Wall Street are even being investigated for their actions, let alone in jail where they deserve to be. And if what they did was not technically illegal under current law, the law should be changed to make it illegal.

May 02, 2011

In My Life by the Beatles

One of my favorite Beatles songs.

After bin Laden

When my daughter called me at 10:30 last night to say that Obama was going to make an announcement, I figured that it must be something the White House considered good news, since no politician rushes out late on Sunday night with bad news.

When it was leaked out soon after about the death of bin Laden, I felt a curious sense of anti-climax. I realized that it was because I had long felt that bin Laden was a spent force and had become just a symbol, to some a source of inspiration and to others a convenient specter with which to frighten people and continue wars and assault civil liberties. Both sides will find new reasons to continue their present course.

Although I would have liked to seen bin Laden arrested and brought to trial, I realize that I am a relic of a bygone era where the idea of summary justice and execution is seen as abhorrent. I had always considered the events of 9/11 a mass murder and not an act of war, and thus saw the problem as one for law enforcement and not as a military issue. But in the present climate in which even the thought of trying low-level captives in Guantanamo in regular courts seem to drive our political leaders into hysterics of fear, there was no possibility of bin Laden ever standing trial. So the reports that the commandos had been given orders to kill him and not even try to capture him and bring him to justice did not come as a surprise.

I did find the reports of raucous celebrations in Washington and New York to be unseemly. The death of anyone, however much we dislike them, is not an occasion for scenes similar to those following sporting victories. It reminded me of the gloating over the deaths of Saddam Hussein's sons, with front-page displays of their bloodied corpses. I am certain that photos of the dead bin Laden were taken and it is only a matter of time before they are revealed as the speedy burial of his body at sea will undoubtedly create speculation, at least by the dead-enders who doubt Obama's eligibility to be president, that this whole event was a hoax staged by him for political gain. It would not surprise me in the least to hear this theory propounded in the days to come and that 27% of the public believes it.

Were the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the destruction of two countries to kill this one person worth it? Not to my mind. It struck me that the manner of bin Laden's death, the result of actions by a small commando unit on the basis of precise information obtained by intelligence agents as to his location, was something that did not require the massive death and destruction unleashed by a nearly decade-long war waged in two countries, coupled with the dismantling of centuries old constitutional safeguards protecting civil liberties at home.

When theologians justify atrocities

Since there no credible evidence to back up the idea of god, believers essentially have to resort to debating tricks to try and justify their beliefs. Theologians are quite good at this because they have a lot of practice. After all, it takes considerable rhetorical and logical skill to debate questions like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But debating tricks are just that, tricks, and any reasonably good debater can quickly identify the ones used by an opponent and neutralize them.

In a comment to an earlier post, Mike Haubrich gives a link to a post on his own blog where he takes apart one of theologian William Lane Craig's favorite debating tactics. What arouses Mike's ire is a post by Craig in which he justifies the most appalling acts by god simply because they are commanded by his particular god.

There is a trap that believers in a god simply cannot avoid. The only way to maintain the idea of a loving god who acts in accordance with our present beliefs about what constitutes humane values and morality is to be erratic and inconsistent, picking and choosing from religious texts which events to take at face value and which to ignore and making assumptions as needed to overcome problems, even if a new assumption should contradict an earlier one.

Intellectuals like Craig find this beneath them because it is so obviously cherry picking and ad hoc and so they try to build an intellectually consistent system. His approach comes under the heading of the fancy name 'divine command theory' in which something is good if god commands it. Here it is in a nutshell:

I think that a good start at this problem is to enunciate our ethical theory that underlies our moral judgements. According to the version of divine command ethics which I’ve defended, our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God. Since God doesn’t issue commands to Himself, He has no moral duties to fulfill. He is certainly not subject to the same moral obligations and prohibitions that we are. For example, I have no right to take an innocent life. For me to do so would be murder. But God has no such prohibition. He can give and take life as He chooses.

On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command.

Of course it is only your god's command that gets this absolution, not somebody else's stray god. In pursuing this logic, as Mike so clearly shows in his post, Lane is forced to conclusions that justify monstrous and barbaric acts such as genocide, the murder of children, and rape.

Ophelia Benson and Greta Christina also weigh in on the horrific implications of Craig's line of reasoning. Christina makes an important point:

I want to make something very clear before I go on: William Lane Craig is not some drooling wingnut. He's not some extremist Fred Phelps type, ranting about how God's hateful vengeance is upon us for tolerating homosexuality. He's not some itinerant street preacher, railing on college campuses about premarital holding hands. He's an extensively educated, widely published, widely read theological scholar and debater. When believers accuse atheists of ignoring sophisticated modern theology, Craig is one of the people they're talking about. [My italics]

And he said that as long as God gives the thumbs-up, it's okay to kill pretty much anybody. It's okay to kill bad people, because they're bad and they deserve it... and it's okay to kill good people, because they wind up in Heaven. As long as God gives the thumbs-up, it's okay to systematically wipe out entire races. As long as God gives the thumbs-up, it's okay to slaughter babies and children. Craig said -- not essentially, not as a paraphrase, but literally, in quotable words -- "the death of these children was actually their salvation."

She then poses an excellent question:

So why did this story not make headlines? Why was there not an appalled outcry from the Christian world? Why didn't Christian leaders from all sects take to the pulpits to disavow Craig, and to express their utter repugnance with his views, and to explain in no uncertain terms that their religion does not, and will not, defend the extermination of races or the slaughter of children?

Because the things he said are not that unusual.

Because lots of people share his views.

Because these kinds of contortions are far too common in religious morality. Because all too often, religion twists even the most fundamental human morality into positions that, in any other circumstance, most people would see as repulsive, monstrous, and entirely indefensible.

The post by Craig that Mike and Ophelia Benson and Greta Christina take apart has to be read to be believed. If I had set out to create a parody of biblical morality to discredit the idea of god, I could not have done a better job. It is a perfect example of a superficially clever argument that only a person who values belief in god over basic morality, or even decency, could construct.

Craig embodies the type George Orwell spoke of in his Notes on Nationalism (1945): "One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool."

May 01, 2011

Obama and Bradley Manning

The Watergate burglary that eventually caused the Nixon presidency to unravel was a relatively minor incident that became a symbol of his corruptness and disregard for the law. The Bradley Manning case may become a similar problem for Obama, something that dogs him everywhere, even though he has committed much worse actions that he should be held accountable for such as escalating wars and starting new ones, authorizing torture, indefinite imprisonment without trial, etc.

While we already know that Barack Obama is as imperialistic in his foreign policy as any president before him, Glenn Greenwald says that in the case of Bradley Manning he is now descending to Nixonian levels in his disregard to the niceties of domestic law.

China to become the world's largest economy in 2016?

Reader Mark sent me this article that says that an IMF report predicts that in 2016, China will overtake the US as the world's largest economy. There is some dispute about this because economic measures are hard to quantify, especially when purchasing power is factored in, as is done here. But the disagreements center on the date of overtaking. There seems to be a consensus that China will overtake the US at some point in the fairly near future.

As one analyst explains, "What we have done is traded jobs for profit. The jobs have moved to China. The capability erodes in the U.S. and grows in China. That's very destructive. That is a big reason why the U.S. is becoming more and more polarized between a small, very rich class and an eroding middle class. The people who get the profits are very different from the people who lost the wages."

The article speculates on the psychological effects on the US public of losing its place as the worlds biggest economy, a position it has held for over a century. My feeling is that the people in the US already have the sense that they are rapidly losing ground economically and so this will not come as a shock. What will come as a shock is when the US is no longer the world's greatest military power. That will take longer to arrive since military power lags behind economic power.

The descent into barbarism accelerates

And so, just as was predicted, the US and its NATO allies have escalated the attacks and broadened the targets and have started murdering the family members of leaders it dislikes, even if it includes small children. Gadhafi's 29-year old son and his three children, all under 12 years of age, have been murdered by a NATO air strike that targeted the compound where they lived.

Of course, NATO justifies this as an attack on a "military structure" and part of the "command and control structure" of the military. Right. Small children routinely hang around in high-level military buildings during wars. Presumably the school for disabled children that was also bombed by NATO was being used to train those children for the military. Imagine the reaction if a foreign power bombed the White House and killed the Obama children. Would we excuse the action because the White House is also a "command and control structure"?

And NATO is outraged, simply outraged, that some of its embassies and the UN offices have been attacked in retaliation, saying that such actions were "deplorable' and "yet another breach of Gaddafi's international obligations." Such nasty people, these Libyans, not following proper diplomatic protocols.

Presumably these latest murders are meant to force Gadhali to leave office. Can anyone explain to me how this is any different from a hostage taking by thugs where someone is threatened with death to them or their loved ones unless they give in to the hostage takers' demands?

But I am sure there will be many people willing, even eager to take up my challenge. Juan Cole, who has become the biggest cheerleader for the Libyan war, has already started the process of excuse-making.

In the coming days we can expect to hear a lot from the bipartisan warmongering class and the Obamabots (who cannot believe that their beloved leader can do any wrong) to come up with all manner of imaginative and not-so-imaginative excuses (expect to hear a lot of Hitler analogies) to make this latest atrocity not just excusable but even admirable.