Entries for November 2011

November 30, 2011

60 Minutes story on homeless families

One in four American children now live in poverty. This report follows some who have been forced to live in cars and trucks. While the story is sad, what it reveals about the resilience of children, their ability to think positively and find ways to overcome their adversity, is heartening.

Inequality makes us less happy

Via reader Norm, I learned about a new study using brains scans that suggest that people are aren't nearly as self-interested as some might think and that inequality makes people unhappy. "The scientists speculate that people have a natural dislike of inequality. In fact, our desire for equal outcomes is often more powerful (at least in the brain) than our desire for a little extra cash. It's not that money doesn't make us feel good — it's that sharing the wealth can make us feel even better."

Womb raider

Oh that naughty Satan, always getting into mischief and going where he shouldn't.

Recently The Pilot, the official newspaper of the Roman Catholic diocese of Boston, published a column in which the author Daniel Avila alleged that homosexuality is caused by Satan, saying that "The scientific evidence of how same-sex attraction most likely may be created provides a credible basis for a spiritual explanation that indicts the devil" and "described homosexuality as a 'natural disaster' caused by Satan invading the wombs of mothers of LGBT children."

This is yet another example of religious people using 'scientific evidence' to support their crackpot theories. Unfortunately the article does not address the really interesting question of how sneaking into women's wombs helps Satan create gayness in children because that would help answer the age-old nature/nurture question. Does he do some pre-natal intervention and change the DNA? Or does he use subliminal messaging techniques on the embryonic mind?

The column caused a bit of a fuss with gay rights groups condemning it and the paper has since withdrawn the column saying that they did so because the church does not have a "definitive theory on the origins of same-sex attraction" and thus the speculation that Satan was behind it was a "theological error". This is no doubt the topic of a future doctoral dissertation in some theological seminary. Avila also apologized for his theological errors and later resigned from his position as Policy Advisor for Marriage and Family with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

I see progress here. When the Catholic Church has to withdraw, under pressure, an anti-gay column from its own official newspaper (whatever the excuse they give), that is a sign that human rights are advancing. Religion no longer gets a free pass on its crackpot theories to justify its bigotry.

It is quite extraordinary how much license religions are given. For example, some religious groups advocate beating children as young as six months in order to discipline them. A preacher named Michael Pearl has published a book To train up a child that advocates beatings, which he refers to as 'biblical chastisement'. He has a website where he recommends using a flexible plumbing line that can be bought for a dollar at any hardware store and can be carried in your pocket and so is handy whenever you think your child steps out of line and needs a thrashing.

Of course, the author realizes that some of us may not be as enlightened as he is in interpreting what Jesus meant when he said "suffer little children" and on seeing a small child being assaulted with a plastic tube may try to stop it or report it to the authorities, so he recommends "Don't be so indiscreet as to spank your children in public—including the church restroom." On the plus side, he says that you can also use the beatings as a means to help children practice arithmetic.

I have told a child I was going to give him 10 licks. I count out loud as I go… Pretending to forget the count, I would again stop at about eight and ask him the number. Have him subtract eight from ten, (a little homeschooling) and continue with the final two licks.

This book has sold 670,000 copies and was implicated in the death of a child.

Late one night in May this year, the adopted girl, Hana, was found face down, naked and emaciated in the backyard; her death was caused by hypothermia and malnutrition, officials determined. According to the sheriff’s report, the parents had deprived her of food for days at a time and had made her sleep in a cold barn or a closet and shower outside with a hose. And they often whipped her, leaving marks on her legs. The mother had praised the Pearls’ book and given a copy to a friend, the sheriff’s report said. Hana had been beaten the day of her death, the report said, with the 15-inch plastic tube recommended by Mr. Pearl.

The beating of children used to be common practice until we became more enlightened. In many countries corporal punishment is now banned entirely. But in the US, some religious people still think of it as a good, and even necessary, part of child rearing.

November 29, 2011

Curiosity landing

The Mars explorer named Curiosity was launched successfully on Saturday and is expected to land on the planet on August 6, 2012. Because Curiosity is a much larger object than previous explorers, engineers needed to develop a new way of giving it a soft landing and this new technique is causing some anxiety to mission scientists about whether the rover can survive the landing. Some of them refer to the final stages of the landing as 'six minutes of terror'.

You can see an animation (made back in 2005) of what the landing should look like.

Here is a test run of the final stage done in the laboratory.

Ask an Atheist panel discussion

I will be on a panel Ask an Atheist, sponsored by the CWRU chapter of the Center for Inquiry. The event is free and open to everyone in the university and the wider community. Here is the announcement from the CFI president Lisa Viers:

Case Center for Inquiry would like to invite you to join us for our Ask an Atheist event. The Ask an Atheist event is designed to invite all members of campus to come and have an open dialogue with atheists, agnostics, and humanists who are willing to answer questions from the audience. Our goal for the event is to have people feel more comfortable having discussions about why and how nonbelievers came to their conclusions, and to foster an environment where we can all learn from each other as well as move beyond negative stereotypes that abound between believers and nonbelievers.

The event will be a panel/discussion with Dr. Mano Singham--director of UCITE, Dr. Bill Deal--from the Religious Studies department, Eric Pellish--president of Global Ethical Leaders Society, and Daniel Sprockett--a research assistant in the department of Dermatology.

We invite everyone to this event, and hope it will be a great success to be repeated by future CFI members.

And yes, pizza, snacks, and drinks will be provided.

Date: Thursday, December 1, 2011
Time: 7:00 pm
Location: Wickenden 322 on the Case quad

Bill Deal prefers to call himself a humanist rather than an atheist and perhaps the discussion will involve some exploration of the distinctions between the various labels for nonbelief in a god, including agnostic, freethinker, rationalist, secularist, etc.

What now for the Occupy movement?

The Occupy movement in many cities have been forced to fully or partially vacate their sites and people are wondering what's next. Chris Hedges has been doing some excellent reporting on the movement and in a recent piece titled This Is What Revolution Looks Like he argues that the movement has exposed the bankruptcy of the oligarchy. The oligarchy thinks that by forcibly disrupting the demonstrations and evicting the encampments, they will destroy the movement and force the occupants to go back to meekly accepting the status quo.

The rogues' gallery of Wall Street crooks, such as Lloyd Blankfein at Goldman Sachs, Howard Milstein at New York Private Bank & Trust, the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, the Koch brothers and Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan Chase & Co., no doubt think it's over. They think it is back to the business of harvesting what is left of America to swell their personal and corporate fortunes.

He says they are wrong.

The historian Crane Brinton in his book "Anatomy of a Revolution" laid out the common route to revolution. The preconditions for successful revolution, Brinton argued, are discontent that affects nearly all social classes, widespread feelings of entrapment and despair, unfulfilled expectations, a unified solidarity in opposition to a tiny power elite, a refusal by scholars and thinkers to continue to defend the actions of the ruling class, an inability of government to respond to the basic needs of citizens, a steady loss of will within the power elite itself and defections from the inner circle, a crippling isolation that leaves the power elite without any allies or outside support and, finally, a financial crisis. Our corporate elite, as far as Brinton was concerned, has amply fulfilled these preconditions. But it is Brinton's next observation that is most worth remembering. Revolutions always begin, he wrote, by making impossible demands that if the government met would mean the end of the old configurations of power. The second stage, the one we have entered now, is the unsuccessful attempt by the power elite to quell the unrest and discontent through physical acts of repression.

Hedges draws upon his long experience as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times to draw parallels between what is happening in the US and what he saw in crumbling despotic regimes elsewhere.

George Orwell wrote that all tyrannies rule through fraud and force, but that once the fraud is exposed they must rely exclusively on force. We have now entered the era of naked force. The vast million-person bureaucracy of the internal security and surveillance state will not be used to stop terrorism but to try and stop us.

Despotic regimes in the end collapse internally. Once the foot soldiers who are ordered to carry out acts of repression, such as the clearing of parks or arresting or even shooting demonstrators, no longer obey orders, the old regime swiftly crumbles.

The signs of collapse are everywhere. It begins when bystanders, impressed by the stoicism and doggedness of the protestors, defect from their usual stance of neutrality or subservience to the state and ruling class and into the ranks of the protestors.

The process of defection among the ruling class and security forces is slow and often imperceptible. These defections are advanced through a rigid adherence to nonviolence, a refusal to respond to police provocation and a verbal respect for the blue-uniformed police, no matter how awful they can be while wading into a crowd and using batons as battering rams against human bodies.

Hedges wrote this on November 15 before the police actions that occurred at UC Berkeley and Davis. In Berkeley, 70-year old Robert Hass, a professor of poetry, former poet laureate and Pulitzer prize winner, couldn't believe what he was hearing of police viciously beating students and hurriedly went with his wife to see if the reports were true. He described what happened to them when they found themselves face to face with police in the now familiar paramilitary riot gear assembled in riot formation.

Once the cordon formed, the deputy sheriffs pointed their truncheons toward the crowd. It looked like the oldest of military maneuvers, a phalanx out of the Trojan War, but with billy clubs instead of spears. The students were wearing scarves for the first time that year, their cheeks rosy with the first bite of real cold after the long Californian Indian summer. The billy clubs were about the size of a boy's Little League baseball bat. My wife was speaking to the young deputies about the importance of nonviolence and explaining why they should be at home reading to their children, when one of the deputies reached out, shoved my wife in the chest and knocked her down.

My wife bounced nimbly to her feet. I tripped and almost fell over her trying to help her up, and at that moment the deputies in the cordon surged forward and, using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer at the bodies of the line of students. It was stunning to see. They swung hard into their chests and bellies. Particularly shocking to me — it must be a generational reaction — was that they assaulted both the young men and the young women with the same indiscriminate force. If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines.

None of the police officers invited us to disperse or gave any warning. We couldn't have dispersed if we'd wanted to because the crowd behind us was pushing forward to see what was going on. The descriptor for what I tried to do is "remonstrate." I screamed at the deputy who had knocked down my wife, "You just knocked down my wife, for Christ's sake!" A couple of students had pushed forward in the excitement and the deputies grabbed them, pulled them to the ground and cudgeled them, raising the clubs above their heads and swinging. The line surged. I got whacked hard in the ribs twice and once across the forearm.

One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O'Brien, had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest.

What popular movements have is a process of ebb and flow. Because they are loose and unorganized and lack money, they tend to occur in waves, with periods of dormancy in between. The key question is whether subsequent waves build on the previous ones and get larger.

When you see elderly and 'respectable' people, members of the class that would normally favor law and order and ally themselves with the oligarchy and against the rabble in the streets, willing to switch sides and put their own bodies on the line, you are witnessing a sea change.

November 28, 2011

Teenager faces down Kansas governor and school principal

High schooler Emma Sullivan refuses to apologize to the governor of Kansas Sam Brownback for criticizing him on Twitter. The governor's staff apparently scours the internet for unflattering things about him and noticed her tweet and reported her to her school principal who, rather than stand up for Emma's free speech rights (after all, if making fun of a politician isn't allowed by the First Amendment, what is?) demanded that she apologize.

You knew from the beginning that this could not help but end badly for Brownback and so it has. He is now forced to apologize for his staff over-reacting. The school district has also backed off in its demand for an apology.

Once again, I think that this is a victory for the internet. Emma received a lot of support from the blogosphere and it may have helped her stand firm against the bullying.

Way to go, Emma.

Iowa faith forum

Susan Jacoby has a nice article on the Iowa debate last Saturday that turned into a faith fest, where many of the candidates competed to demonstrate their personal sufferings. She asks, rightly, why we should care about their personal tribulations in selecting a president.

Boo-hoo, gentlemen. Having endured the ordinary vicissitudes or the extraordinary and unfathomable tragedies of life and having sought the help of whatever God in whom you believe has absolutely nothing to do with your suitability for the nation’s highest office. An atheist would face the same tragedies without invoking God’s help and that, too, would have nothing to do with his or her fitness for the presidency.

The Iowa forum was a triumph of the union of psychobabble and public religiosity that has come to dominate American politics.

Honest candidates, men and women of genuine virtue, do not present their own suffering as a qualification for public office.

Christians have this bizarre notion that suffering is somehow a good thing, that we are better for it, rather than as something unfortunate to be overcome as best as one can. These people are steeped in the Christian mythology of sin and suffering followed by redemption as the way to become a better person and they want to impose that form theocratic thinking on the country.

Shopping as a reality TV-based competitive sport

Well, another Thanksgiving holiday has come and gone and we get the usual reports of the shopping madness that has become customary. This year thankfully there do not seem to have been any actual deaths caused by crowds stampeding to get items, though shoppers at one place did ignore or step over a dying elderly man on the floor. (Incidentally, Kevin Drum says that 'Black Friday' got its name for darker reasons than the one that business public relations flacks have managed to foist on the public.)

But there have been shootings as people tried to rob shoppers of their purchases. There were also reports of riots in which police were called to quell unruly crowds and used the now-ubiquitous pepper sprays to disperse them. The report below also said that police picked up and slammed a grandfather to the ground in a store, thinking that he was a shoplifter. Why is such force necessary, even if their suspicions turned out to be correct?

Black Friday Brawl at Buckeye Walmart:

A disturbing escalation was that of a shopper who, probably inspired by recent police actions, brought her own pepper spray and used it to disable her competitors for Xboxes and other high-demand items. She apparently escaped with her spoils but later turned herself in. Given the mentality of such shoppers, I worry that next year more people will copy her example or even escalate it, maybe bringing truncheons to fend off rivals or use tear gas and even tasers.

I have been trying to understand the mentality of these shopping melees. I can understand people in war-ravaged or famine-stricken areas rioting to get at meager relief supplies of food and water. But an Xbox is without doubt a luxury item, not a necessity, however much people may desire one. I have no idea how much an Xbox costs or what the sale price was but I find it hard to imagine that it was the size of the savings that drove someone to actually pepper spray her fellow human beings. After all, look at the scene below where people fought each other to get waffle irons that were on sale for $2. It is bizarre to think that people are willing to forego elementary courtesy and consideration towards others for waffle irons.

I blame reality TV for this development. I think what we are seeing is people shopping as if it were some kind of reality show of the kind seen on TV with themselves as contestants and in which the prizes are the goods on sale. The winners are those who snag the best deals and can then boast to their friends about it. And just like the shows, people are encouraged to do whatever it takes to 'win'. One person reinforced this view by going so far as to describe the pepper-spraying woman as a 'competitive shopper', a benign euphemism for a person with a mean attitude to life.

The stores and the media feed this mentality, relentlessly hyping their sales with their publicity about the limited numbers at low prices and midnight store openings and the like, all contributing to a race-like mentality. Apparently after Walmart opened its stores at 10 pm on Thanksgiving, the sales in various sectors of the store begin at different times, with the items kept in pallets covered in plastic that are then removed at the sale time. It does not take a genius to predict that this will cause trouble as crowds of shoppers cluster around the pallets, salivating as they wait for the bell or whistle or whatever that signals that the race has begun.

On the one hand, one can dismiss this as the aberrations of a few people who have lost their sense of proportion. And as long as the numbers remain small, we can perhaps ignore it. But I worry about what the increasing numbers of people who are willing to shove aside, trample, and pepper spray their fellows in order to get at merchandise that they could well do without tells us about ourselves. It is not a good sign when the social fabric of concern for their fellow beings is torn apart in the desire to get some bauble.

I have little sympathy for those people who are choosing to subject themselves to bodily harm and insults to their dignity in this way. The people I feel sorry for are the low-level store workers who have no choice but to be there and risk getting hurt in the scrums. Because the stores are opening at midnight on Thanksgiving or, in the case of Walmart, even earlier, these workers do not get to enjoy the holiday. In these hard times, some may welcome the opportunity to get extra hours of work at overtime rates (at least I hope they get that) but I am sure there are many who would much rather forego that to spend a quiet holiday with their loved ones. There is even a petition to the Target department store company to 'save Thanksgiving' by not having these midnight openings.

I hope it catches on.

November 27, 2011

Tribunal finds Bush and Blair guilty of war crimes

Via Glenn Greenwald, I learn that the seven-member Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal in Malaysia, that was headed by that country's former prime minister and had an American law professor as one of its prosecutors, found George W. Bush and Tony Blair "guilty of "crimes against peace" and other war crimes for their 2003 aggressive attack on Iraq, as well as fabricating pretexts used to justify the attack." Greenwald further says that the tribunal

was modeled after a 1967 tribunal in Sweden and Denmark that found the U.S. guilty of a war of aggression in Vietnam, and, even more so, after the U.S.-led Nuremberg Tribunal held after World War II. Just as the U.S. steadfastly ignored the 1967 tribunal on Vietnam, Bush and Blair both ignored the summons sent to them and thus were tried in absentia.

The tribunal ruled that Bush and Blair's name should be entered in a register of war criminals, urged that they be recognized as such under the Rome Statute, and will also petition the International Criminal Court to proceed with binding charges. Such efforts are likely to be futile, but one Malaysian lawyer explained the motives of the tribunal to The Associated Press: "For these people who have been immune from prosecution, we want to put them on trial in this forum to prove that they committed war crimes." In other words, because their own nations refuse to hold them accountable and can use their power to prevent international bodies from doing so, the tribunal wanted at least formal legal recognition of these war crimes to be recorded and the evidence of their guilt assembled.

A different panel of this same tribunal will hold hearings on the charges of torture against Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and others.

Boy, are those Malaysians dense, thinking that the Nuremberg principles were meant to be applied impartially to everyone. Don't they realize that war crimes can only be committed by those whom US presidents declare to be enemies of America? US presidents, their allies, and any one who acts under their orders can never be guilty of war crimes, whatever they do. How hard is it to understand such a simple rule? Those Malaysians must be pretty stupid.

It is worth reading the whole Greenwald piece, as he is also one of those naïve people who believes in the rule of law.

November 26, 2011

Concision as a propaganda tool

Here is a clip from the excellent documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992) in which Noam Chomsky (who in 1988, with Edward Herman, wrote the classic of media analysis Manufacturing Consent) explains why the political discourse on TV is so awful and consists of only people who speak conventional pieties.

ChristWire parody site

As readers have pointed out many times before, the claims of creationists are so bizarre that it is hard to distinguish the sites of genuine believers from parody sites. One site that has puzzled many people and media outlets is ChristWire. One item that gave tips to women on how to find out if their husbands were gay, went viral, with many news organizations not realizing that they had been had. Some genuine Christian writers allowed their material to be reposted on the site, not realizing that their work was embedded amongst parody items.

Interestingly, the creators of this particular parody site are themselves believers, one calling himself an observant Catholic and the other a religious Protestant.

November 25, 2011

Brooklyn Roads by Neil Diamond

This is my favorite Neil Diamond song, an evocative embrace of childhood memories.

Piers Morgan and the Murdoch phone tapping scandal

In the continuing fallout of the scandal involving the Murdoch media empire, Rupert Murdoch's son James has resigned from the boards of the Sun and the Times and shareholders are being urged to not re-elect him as chair of BSkyB.

In an interesting sidelight, it is alleged that phone hacking also occurred at the Daily Mirror (not a Murdoch paper) during the time it was edited by the smarmy Piers Morgan, who had formerly been editor of Murdoch's now defunct News of the World. (Piers Morgan is someone to whom the description 'smarmy' should be treated like his first name.) Although he denies being personally involved in the practice, Morgan said that this kind of phone hacking was going on at almost every newspaper in London, but that it was done by investigators hired by the papers, not the reporters themselves, as if that somehow mitigates the offense.

I recently watched the 2003 BBC TV miniseries State of Play, the story of how investigations into the death of an aide and mistress of a prominent British MP unravels the net of intrigue involving government, big business, and the media. The reporters covering the story routinely record people's conversations and access their phone records, suggesting that even though the story is fictional, this is standard practice. The film version starring Russell Crowe was released in 2009. I have not seen it but reading about it suggests that they have stuck pretty close to the original storyline, except for transplanting it to the US. The one thing they may have done differently is Hollywoodized the ending, which I would have to see the film to know.

But it's not like everyone hates Piers Morgan. Andy Dick has started a fan club.

November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

I hope all of you have a quiet and enjoyable day with family and friends, which is what I will be doing.

What I will not be doing this weekend is going anyway near any store. Recession, depression, or good times, the madness of shopping that accompanies this weekend is what I hate most about this otherwise wonderful holiday.

November 23, 2011

A small problem with the multiverse theory


(Via Tom The Dancing Bug)

Is this billboard offensive?


Apparently that's what a billboard company in north central Ohio said in refusing to put it up. However the company is quite willing to post religious billboards.

The whole story is quite bizarre. (Via Pharyngula)

This illustrates once again that religious people resort to the strategy of 'taking offense' because they have no rational arguments to counter those of the atheists.

[Update: For some reason, this post has attracted an enormous number of spam comments and so I have regretfully closed it for new comments.]

Our corrupt Congress

60 Minutes blows the lid off how members of Congress are legally allowed to use the inside knowledge to which only they have access to make money on the stock market and in other deals. This is why so many of them leave Congress as multi-millionaires.

How is this legal? Because in making the insider trading laws, Congress exempted themselves from the laws that apply to everyone else.

Notice how much bipartisan harmony there is on matters like this?

Even disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who went to prison for his role in political corruption, says in an interview about his new book Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America's Most Notorious Lobbyist that "I think the great tragedy in American politics is what is legal, not what is illegal."

In the second part of the interview he talks about what needs to be done to clean up the bipartisan corrupt rot that has set in, and which he once took full advantage of. He says the so-called reforms that Congress enacts are a joke. He provides a good way to address the problem, which is the list of reforms that he, as a lobbyist, would have hated to see enacted because they would have made his job so much harder.

First, he says that once you are in Congress or are a staffer on Capitol Hill, you should face a permanent ban on working as a lobbyist. (Elsewhere, he described how lobbyists get our 'public' servants working for them. Once they see a Congressperson or a Congressional staffer who could be helpful to them and who is also hardworking and efficient, they tell him or her, "We would like you to consider working for us once you leave here." That person usually is hooked and then willing to work on their behalf on legislation even while still working for Congress so that they don't jeopardize their chances of a lucrative career if they should leave or be forced out of government.) Second, he says that, "If you're a lobbyist or you hire a lobbyist or you're at the public trough getting government grants or contracts or whatever, you can't give one dollar politically, federally. If you make the choice yourself to do that, then you have given up the choice to give politically." Third, he recommends term limits so that lobbyists would be forced to go through the tedious process of cultivating and eventually 'buying' new members on a regular basis. Finally, Congress should not be allowed to exempt themselves from the laws they pass for others.

I think that while many people suspect that Congress is corrupt, they do not realize how deeply the rot has spread. We are not talking about a few bad apples here and there, though once in a while there will be an uproar over one or two egregious examples of corruption and someone will face a ritual punishment. Those are the equivalents of the sacrificial virgins of earlier times, designed to protest the others from wrath. In this case, what they fear is the wrath of the people not of gods.

November 22, 2011

God's Away on Business

The similarities in the voices of Cookie Monster and Tom Waits is uncanny.

Since it is hard to make out the words sometimes, here are the lyrics.

I'd sell your heart to the junk-man baby for a buck, for a buck
If you're looking for someone to pull you out of that ditch, you're out of luck, you're out of luck

The ship is sinking, the ship is sinking, the ship is sinking

There's a leak, there's a leak in the boiler room

The poor, the lame, the blind

Who are the ones that we kept in charge?

Killers, thieves and Lawyers

God's away, God's away, God's away on business. Business.
God's away, God's away, God's away on business. Business.

Digging up the dead with a shovel and a pick, it's a job, it's a job

Bloody moon rising with a plague and a flood, join the mob, join the mob

It's all over, it's all over, it's all over

There's a leak, there's a leak, in the boiler room

The poor, the lame, the blind

Who are the ones that we kept in charge?
Killers, thieves, and lawyers

God's away, God's away, God's away on business. Business.
God's away, God's away, on business. Business.

[Instrumental Break]

Goddamn there's always such a big temptation to be good, to be good

There's always free cheddar in a mousetrap, baby, it's a deal, it's a deal

The ship is sinking, the ship is sinking, the ship is sinking

There's a leak, there's a leak in the boiler room

The poor, the lame, the blind

Who are the ones that we kept in charge?
Killers, thieves and Lawyers

God's away, God's away, God's away on business. Business.
God's away, God's away, God's away on business. Business.

I narrow my eyes like a coin slot baby, let her ring, let her ring

It's all over, it's all over, it's all over

There's a leak, there's a leak, in the boiler room

The poor, the lame, the blind

Who are the ones that we kept in charge?
Killers, thieves, and lawyers

God's away, God's away, God's away on business.
God's away, God's away, God's away on business. Business.

The supercommittee throws in the towel

My prediction that the point of the supercommittee was a way to gets cuts in social programs passed in Congress was wrong. Although that may have been the plan all along, it seems like the devotion of the Republicans to enriching the already superrich was too strong to overcome their desire to inflict pain on the poor, and so no deal was reached.

So what about the automatic triggers of $600 billion each in defense and non-defense spending that are supposed to go into effect automatically, and the prospect of which was supposed to be so dire that it would force the supercommittee to come up with a plan? The $600 billion is social spending will cause severe pain to ordinary people but the oligarchs and their agents in Congress do not care about that. It is the $600 billion in defense cuts that is the cause of Congressional angst.

It looks like since those cuts only go into effect in 2013, Congress thinks that it has time to find a way to avoid it. It will not be easy. The legislation that created the deal will have to be repealed by a new law passed by Congress and president Obama has promised to veto any such measure, though Obama's promises cannot be taken seriously.

I frankly do not know how this will play out now. There are too many variables at play. But expect to see a lot of posturing and grandstanding and finger pointing. In other words, the normal working of Congress.

Young people becoming less religious

The evidence that religion is losing the battle of ideas keeps coming in from all sides. A new Pew survey compares the attitudes of the various generational age cohorts that it identifies by the years in which they were born and labels as the Greatest (before 1926), the Silents (1927-1944), the Baby Boomers (1945-1964), the Gen Xers (1965-1979), and the Millennials (1980-1992), and finds that:

Younger generations also are significantly less likely than older ones to affiliate with a religious tradition. This pattern began in the 1970s when 13% of Baby Boomers were unaffiliated with any particular religion, according to the General Social Survey. That compared with just 6% among the Silent generation and 3% among the Greatest generation.

In the most recent General Social Survey, 26% of Millennial generation respondents said they were unaffiliated, as did 21% of Gen Xers. Among Baby Boomers, 15% were unaffiliated – not significantly different from when they were first measured in the 1970s. And just 10% of the Silent Generation said that they were unaffiliated.


The report goes on to say that "Fewer than half of Millennials (46%) say religious faith and values have been very important in America's success. This compares with 64% of Xers, 69% of Boomers and 78% of Silents."

Meanwhile the Barna group, an outfit that regularly conducts religious surveys, finds six reasons "why nearly three out of every five young Christians (59%) disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15."

  1. Churches seem overprotective
  2. Teens' and twentysomethings' experience of Christianity is shallow
  3. Churches come across as antagonistic to science
  4. Young Christians' church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental
  5. They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity
  6. The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt

I found items #3 and #6 particularly interesting. On item #3, the report found:

One of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is "Christians are too confident they know all the answers" (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that "churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in" (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that "Christianity is anti-science" (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have "been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate." Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.

As regards item #6, the report said:

Young adults with Christian experience say the church is not a place that allows them to express doubts. They do not feel safe admitting that sometimes Christianity does not make sense. In addition, many feel that the church's response to doubt is trivial. Some of the perceptions in this regard include not being able "to ask my most pressing life questions in church" (36%) and having "significant intellectual doubts about my faith" (23%).

It should be clear that this survey looked at disengagement from church life, not necessarily from belief in god. But once people get disengaged from the groupthink of their churches that gives them the illusion that believing in fantasies is reasonable since everyone around them believes in the same fantasies, many of them will shift to unbelief.

What this survey reinforces is what I have been saying for some time, that the forces of modernity are in opposition to those of religion. Religion is backward looking and opposed to the growth of knowledge in general, science in particular, and to increasingly liberal attitudes towards sexuality. Modernity is an unstoppable force and religion cannot hold it back.

November 21, 2011

Invoking the mercy rule on Herman Cain

Herman Cain is continuing in full gaffe form suggesting, in response to a question about the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, that he thinks the president can overturn US Supreme Court rulings.

Elsewhere, Cain said that the Taliban are in the new Libyan government, perhaps because he thinks that Libya and Afghanistan share a common border.

In some sports one has the 'mercy rule' in which teams, once they are sure of victory, deliberately hold back from further scoring in order to avoid embarrassing their opponents. It is time to for me to do that for Herman Cain. He has become such an easy target, such a laughing stock, and so obviously inept that it seems no longer worthwhile to comment on any more of his absurdities.

So Herman, gaffe away. I am done with you. Unless it is really, really funny.

Clever UC Davis students

Here is another view of the long silent walk of UC Davis chancellor Linda Katehi to her car after the contentious press conference on Friday after the pepper-spraying atrocity.

I have to hand it to the students. This was one of the most effective strategies they could have adopted. The dead silence with which they watch her walk was far more effective at showing her impotence than her being jeered or yelled at.

A rally is being planned at noon today (Pacific time) on the UC Davis campus.

How Iowans are choosing

Over the weekend, there was yet another Republican debate set in an Iowa church and organized by a group that opposes abortion and gay marriage. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman did not attend so with the two Mormons out of the way, the stage was set for some heavy-duty pandering to right-wing Christian evangelicals, with three of the candidates even crying during the event.

It is getting close to the time when Iowans will have to choose in their primary and you can't say that they don't have very clear choices before them.


The creeping paramilitarization of the police

The government response to the Occupy Wall Street movement has been to unleash the police to forcibly clear the protestors from various sites. The crackdown has many of the signs of paramilitary actions: dark uniforms and hard enveloping black helmets with visors that hide the faces, brandishing large truncheons, with tasers and guns on their hips, widespread use of pepper spray and tear gas, rough treatment of peaceful protestors irrespective of age and whether they are resisting.

Here are some photos of recent events, where the police look like the storm troopers from Star Wars. We should note that this look by the police is deliberately created. It is not merely meant for their own protection but also to intimidate people, not just the protestors they are confronting but anyone who sees the events in newspapers and on TV and on the web who might think twice before joining the protests and having to personally confront storm troopers.





Up to now, the fact that the police still have visible names and numbers on their uniforms act as a restraint on the brutality, since they can be singled out and punished, however mildly, for excesses. The real danger comes when even those identifiers are covered up, because then there will be little restraint. This may well happen since some of the more aggressive police have already been identified for shaming and police chiefs may say they need the anonymity to 'protect' their people from retribution.

The next stage in paramilitary actions come when the uniforms become generic and the vehicles unmarked, preventing identification of even the police units involved let along individual officers. Then we are approaching the stage of the death squads that operate with impunity in so many countries and where people that are perceived as opponents of the government simply 'disappear', to be never seen again. We are not there yet, but vigilance is required to make sure we do not.

The Egyptian military government has recently been cracking down hard on demonstrators there, causing many deaths and using the police tactics in the US as justification. Gawker comments that when watching the video footage of police beating protestors with sticks and dragging them by the hair, it is hard to tell if we are seeing events in Egypt or in the US, except that the chyrons are in Arabic.

Yes, we have become the model for the Egyptian military junta.


November 20, 2011

UC Davis chancellor faces backlash

This video of students massively protesting being excluded from a media press conference by the university chancellor Linda Katehi, who is facing demands from her own faculty to resign, is gripping. Using the 'mic check' technique that is one of the great innovations of the Occupy movement, they get their voices heard.

The last minute of the video, where the chancellor walks a silent gauntlet of students to her car, is striking and should give pause to other officials who think about using the police to brutally suppress peaceful protestors.

Here's an interview with one of the students who were pepper-sprayed who describes what happened in the time leading to the police action and afterward.

Which side are you on?

From reader Tim, I received this animation from The Guardian that explains the growth of inequality in the US.

The reason I back the Occupy movement is not because they have specific demands that I agree with. Long time readers of this blog know that I, along with scattered others, have been railing against the increasing power of the oligarchy for years with little or no effect. But thanks to the heroic actions of the people in the Occupy movement, within the space of just two months that topic is now front and center, with even the mainstream media forced to discuss it.

The Occupy movement is not asking for this or that specific demand. It is a bit much to ask the movement to provide solutions to the problems facing the global economy. That is the proper role of governments. But the way the government goes about suggesting solutions depends upon the way they view the problem. And their current perspective is that of the oligarchy.

The Occupy movement is saying that the system is corrupt to the core and that the perspective that should be adopted is that of ordinary people. It is only when the oligarchy and their political and media allies are frightened of our numbers that we will see any fundamental change in perspective. That is why the oligarchy will try to crush the Occupy movement before it can gain further strength. Those who ask for specific demands or quibble about whether a march or setting up a protest line or a tent is legal are not only missing the point, they are actually diverting attention from the more important question of for whose benefit the government is working.

In an earlier age, the oligarchy unleashed similar attacks on another people's movement, the unions, which were also seen as a threat. This famous union song by the great Pete Seeger is from that time.

The Occupy movement is forcing all of us to confront the same question again: Which side are you on?

November 19, 2011

Time for some oldies

Lee Pockriss, the composer of the 1960 hit song Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini by Brian Hyland, has died at the age of 81.

This was one of the many silly songs that became hits in that 'beach party' period before rock-and-roll really took off. Pockriss also wrote the much better song Catch a Falling Star which became a hit for Perry Como in 1957.

Confrontation with police at UC Davis

In a further example of the growth of paramilitary practices in the US, watch a policeman walk up and down a line of sitting students at Occupy UC Davis and squirt pepper spray directly into their faces, as if they were a row of weeds.

After some initial confusion, the other students react, chanting "Shame on you!" and massing and surrounding the police and advancing on them as they slowly back away. At some point, using the effective 'open mic' technique that has become ubiquitous as a result of the Occupy movement, the students offer the police the chance to take their weapons and leave, which they do amidst chants of "You can go!", averting further confrontation.

It is clear from the coordinated efforts to forcibly uproot the Occupy movement that the oligarchy views it as a threat, not major one at the moment, but with the potential to become so if not crushed quickly. Chris Hayes uncovers a story in which a lobbying group warns the American Bankers Association of the danger and offers to help them counter the movement.

If South American countries prosecute their war criminals, why don't we?

Latin American countries used to be notorious for having dictators who ruthlessly repressed their own people, used death squads and torture indiscriminately, and demanded and received immunity for their acts. The rest of the world looked down at them for their lawlessness. Almost all of those dictators were strongly supported by the US.

But things are different now. In this interview, Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive, talks about the changes, how those countries are opening up the dark past and revealing the details of the abuses. One country Uruguay has even revoked the amnesty that was once granted to the perpetrators and says that it will treat all the abuses as crimes against humanity.

The vaults of the CIA, FBI, National Security Council, and the State Department contain documentation that would, if released, prove invaluable in tracking down and prosecuting those criminals. But since the US is fully engaged in the same kinds of lawless practices, such as torture, murder, and self-immunity that those countries used to indulge in, it is unlikely that they will release the documents.

While the Latin American countries are trying to write their past wrongs, many of their past excesses can be seen in current practices in the US, such as the use of paramilitary tactics on the Occupy Wall Street protestors. When you see police in riot gear with batons and gases strong-arming unarmed protestors, irrespective of age or whether they are even resisting, it is eerily reminiscent of what used to be commonplace on the streets of Buenos Aires or Montevideo. We do not have (as far as I know) death squads acting within the US killing off the enemies of the government, though they do act overseas with drones being the weapon of choice.

November 18, 2011

California gay marriage verdict

The California Supreme Court yesterday ruled that the backers of Proposition 8 that banned gay marriage in that state do have the standing to sue in the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a District Court judge's ruling that the proposition violated the US constitution. Hence their appeal can go forward. If the court had ruled the other way, the District Court opinion would have gone forward and gays would have been able to marry.

I think the verdict is the correct one. Usually, it is the state government that pursues any appeals to court decisions that overturn laws but in this case the governor and attorney general of California had both declined to appeal the District Court ruling. I am uncomfortable with the idea that government officials should be given the power to prevent a full legal hearing of an issue. The backers of a proposition should have the right to pursue the legal process to its end.

Although this is a setback for gay rights, a more important principle is at stake and that is that government officials should not be given the power to determine who gets their day in court.

I think this setback for gay rights is temporary. The march for equal rights is unstoppable and that day will come soon, both in the courts and in public opinion.

Relativity-14: Revised OPERA experiment finds same result

The OPERA experiment that caused such a flurry of interest with its reports of faster-than-light neutrinos has been repeated to take into account one of the criticisms and they find that the neutrinos still seem to be traveling faster than the speed of light. You can read the paper on the revised experiment here. (For previous posts in this topic, see sere.)

In the earlier experiments, the neutrinos were sent in clusters that spanned 10 microseconds, much longer than the 60 nanoseconds time difference that signaled the faster-than-light effect, and thus the experimenters had to do some fancy statistical analyses to extract the time of flight of each neutrino. Some skeptics had suggested that those statistical analyses were flawed. The new experiment has clusters that last only 3 nanoseconds, thus ruling out that particular source of systematic error.

The other potential sources of error will take longer to check out.

Bye, bye, Herman, it's been fun

It is becoming clear that Herman Cain's 15 minutes of fame are up. So what caused the rise and fall of Cain? The fall is perhaps easier to explain than the rise. While I think he could have survived the fact that he is ignorant about almost anything other than the restaurant business or that he seems to be a creep when it comes to women, the combination of the two was too much even for the Republican party's crazy base. The relentless mockery has taken its toll. As one could have expected, The Daily Show mined a rich vein of comedy out of Cain's latest gaffe over Libya. It was brutal.

He is no longer their darling and their new heartthrob is, incredibly, Newt Gingrich. It is surely an indication of how desperate they are and how much they dislike Mitt Romney that they are now pinning their hopes on yet another arrogant blowhard, someone whose candidacy was declared dead just a short while ago and will be dead again soon.

The Republican party primaries are providing further evidence of the reality of the 27% crazification factor, that argues that 27% of the electorate is willing to support even the craziest of candidates or issues. That was roughly the size of the support that Michele Bachman, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain reached before their stars faded and that group looked for a new crazy person to venerate.

But what caused Cain's rise in the first place? Reader Tim sent along this very amusing clip in which Rachel Maddow marshals the evidence that Herman Cain is a performance artist whose entire campaign was a spoof, and that he kept sending out coded messages that indicated it was all a joke but that we missed them. And this was even before the Libya fiasco. Calling Cain a performance artist could be construed as an insult to genuine performance artists, but in recent days that term has become synonymous with anyone who is pulling a complex prank or hoax. (Incidentally, while I like Rachel Maddow, she is a little too hyper for my style. But I like that fact that she has her own show and presents views and guests that might not get a hearing otherwise.)

Maddow was being facetious (I think). I don't think Cain started out as a hoax candidacy. I think that he was just another one of those rich former businessmen who are arrogant enough to think that they are really smart and can run the country but did not seriously expect to succeed in their campaign. It likely started out as a vanity project to get him a brief moment of the limelight. I think he may have been truly surprised by the fact that crazy policies that feed the prejudices of the base, delivered with arrogance and condescension, struck a chord with so many party faithful that he started to think he had a serious shot at the nomination, not realizing that slogans only take you so far and that increased prominence brings increased scrutiny. This, coupled with the fact that Republican party's real power brokers were probably terrified that someone as unelectable as he would get the nomination, resulted in him getting hammered from even those within his party, so that his campaign started taking on water and sinking rapidly. It is noticeable that Republican party stalwarts, and this includes Fox News, did not rush to provide Cain with a full-throated defense, a sure sign that they want him gone.

Conversely, Romney has been saying all manner of contradictory and bizarre things and yet he has escaped any serious criticism from the Republican establishment commentariat. The Republican party leadership clearly wants Romney, reckoning correctly that he will advance oligarchic interests and has the best chance of winning in 2012. It will be interesting to see how they undermine the Gingrich boomlet.

The party leadership doesn't really care about Romney's dubious stands on social values that the crazy base of the party really cares about and has resulted in the latter creating a movement that is dedicated to preventing Romney from getting the nomination. The person who must be most chagrined is Tim Pawlenty. He would have been the most credible not-Romney who could have got the support of both the party leadership and the crazies except that he was knocked out by the idiotic and absurdly unrepresentative Ames, Iowa straw poll right at the beginning.

So it is time to say farewell to the Herminator.

November 17, 2011

American banks' involvement in the Eurozone crisis

Last week in a post on the Greek crisis, I said that the extent of US banks' liability for risky debt (either in the form of loans that may go bad or credit default swaps that may turn out to be bad bets) was not clear. Recall that banks give out loans to governments and then take 'insurance' on those loans in the form of credit default swaps (CDS) in case the governments cannot pay back the loans. But if the loans go bad and the banks that issued the CDS cannot pay up on the insurance claims, these banks could face huge losses.

Now a news report says that Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase have involvements totaling more than $5 trillion of debt globally but they are not divulging how much if that is in the troubled PIIGS countries (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain). Bank of America, Citigroup, and Morgan Stanley also have taken similar risks.

Divine writing?


Where does our morality come from?

For reasons that are not clear to me, some religious people seem to think that the moral sense that we possess is evidence for god. In fact, some of them (such as Francis Collins in his book The Language of God) go so far as to claim that this is a really powerful argument for god. They point to the fact that there are quite a few moral impulses that seem to be universal and claim that this must mean that they were implanted in us by god.

This is a specious argument. In my series of posts on the biological basis for justice and altruism (part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4), I discussed how our ideas of justice and our altruistic impulses can be traced to biological origins. What science is making abundantly clear is that the foundation of our moral senses also are evolutionary in origin and that culture builds on those basic biological impulses to create moral system of increasing generality.

Paul Bloom has studied this question by looking at what we can learn about the moral thinking of babies and in his article The Moral Life of Babies in the New York Times issue on May 5, 2010 writes:

The notion at the core of any mature morality is that of impartiality. If you are asked to justify your actions, and you say, "Because I wanted to," this is just an expression of selfish desire. But explanations like "It was my turn" or "It's my fair share" are potentially moral, because they imply that anyone else in the same situation could have done the same. This is the sort of argument that could be convincing to a neutral observer and is at the foundation of standards of justice and law. The philosopher Peter Singer has pointed out that this notion of impartiality can be found in religious and philosophical systems of morality, from the golden rule in Christianity to the teachings of Confucius to the political philosopher John Rawls's landmark theory of justice. This is an insight that emerges within communities of intelligent, deliberating and negotiating beings, and it can override our parochial impulses.

The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at — its generality and universality — is the product of culture, not of biology. There is no need to posit divine intervention. A fully developed morality is the product of cultural development, of the accumulation of rational insight and hard-earned innovations. The morality we start off with is primitive, not merely in the obvious sense that it's incomplete, but in the deeper sense that when individuals and societies aspire toward an enlightened morality — one in which all beings capable of reason and suffering are on an equal footing, where all people are equal — they are fighting with what children have from the get-go.

Babies possess certain moral foundations — the capacity and willingness to judge the actions of others, some sense of justice, gut responses to altruism and nastiness. Regardless of how smart we are, if we didn't start with this basic apparatus, we would be nothing more than amoral agents, ruthlessly driven to pursue our self-interest. But our capacities as babies are sharply limited. It is the insights of rational individuals that make a truly universal and unselfish morality something that our species can aspire to.

There is a nice video of the experiments that Bloom has done with babies.

This is why science and religion are at loggerheads. As science advances, religion simply has less room to exist. This is true in all areas of knowledge and, in particular, in the area of morality. We now realize that evolution has given us two great gifts: basic moral instincts and the capacity to reason. The latter has enabled us to build on the former and create the complex moral systems that currently exist. God is entirely superfluous.

November 16, 2011

Discrimination against ugly people

Jason Jones of The Daily Show investigates.

General relativity versus modified Newton theories of gravity

In the case of the large-scale structure of the universe, the dominant paradigm is that the dynamics of the universe are governed by the theory of general relativity, augmented by the postulation of the existence of dark matter and dark energy. Classical Newtonian theory of gravity was not believed to hold, because it could not explain many features of galaxies.

But in science, one can always come up with alternative theories to the dominant paradigm to explain any phenomenon and there have been efforts to develop what are known as MOND theories (standing for MOdified Newtonian Dynamics) to explain the properties of the universe that would dispense with general relativity and revert to Newtonian gravity with slight modifications. Via blog reader Hunter, I came across this article that says that they have tested one form of the MOND hypothesis and found that it cannot explain the measured gravitational redshift of galaxy clusters, while general relativity and dark matter can.

This does not definitely rule out MOND theories since any theory can always be tweaked to accommodate any experimental result. But such negative results do make them less plausible to scientists.

What the Murdoch scandal reveals about oligarchic power

The waters roiled by the Murdoch scandal keep slowly rising higher. Now that the veil that covered the closely knit and secretive workings between government, business, and the media is unraveling, we are getting to see how the oligarchy operates (at least in the UK) in raw, unfiltered detail.

First up, The Guardian reports on how the parent company News International (NI) put pressure on successive British governments to get its way. It ranged from the more usual practices (such as wining and dining and otherwise pampering government officials) to placing their people in government and the police, and in turn hiring people from those organizations into its own ranks (thus creating a tight network of loyalists all committed to serving NI's interests), to crude threats to punish politicians if the soft touch did not work. Opposing lawyers, other media outlets, indeed anyone who stood in the way of what NI wanted, were threatened with ruin. The report of their naked thuggery reads like something out of a gangster film, with Murdoch and son playing the roles of Vito and Sonny Corleone.

It has also been revealed that the publisher of the Wall Street Journal's European edition had made a deal with a company to buy copies of its own paper in order to boost its circulation figures. He has resigned. It has also been revealed that NI had hired investigators to spy on hacking victims' lawyers and their families, including their children. This caused member of parliament Tom Watson (himself the target of the Murdoch goons) to go ballistic and accuse James Murdoch of acting like a Mafia boss and the BBC of covering up for them. The mob references keep piling up.

Rupert Murdoch's son and heir apparent James has been shifty and evasive under questioning, repeatedly denying any knowledge of the serious abuses committed by those working for him. As the story unfolds, you will hear a lot about something called the 'For Neville' email because it is seen as directly harmful to James Murdoch and threatens the entire empire. The Guardian explains the significance of the email. In connection with it, two former News of the World executives have issued a statement that implies that James Murdoch has been lying to the police and parliament. Rupert Murdoch has already sacrificed two of his key cronies (Les Hinton and Rebekah Brooks) to protect himself and his tottering empire. Will Papa Murdoch now sacrifice his own son too?

The uproar has caused some British conservatives to think twice about their allegiances. Now that the Murdoch enterprise is in the crosshairs, all those politicians who were once anxious to cozy up to him in return for favorable coverage are trying to create some space. Prime minister David Cameron keeps increasing the distance between himself and his former buddies at News Corp as other heads continue to roll.

Incidentally, if you do not want to soil your mind by reading Murdoch-produced information, there are now plug-ins for some browsers that warn you if you have entered a Murdoch-controlled website.

November 15, 2011

Libya? Let me try answer #3

Herman Cain's response to a question about Libya makes Rick Perry's flub during the debate pale in comparison. It is painful to watch Cain struggling to remember what he has been told to say about Libya and not confuse that answer with other rehearsed answers. After about ninety seconds of complete incoherence, he then launches into one of those non-answer answers that seasoned politicians have perfected but he is just learning to do. He seems to make the weird claim that the US intelligence services had important information about the situation in Libya that they did not share with Obama which was why he made bad decisions, though Cain did not specify what it was he disagreed with.

The crackdown begins

It looks like cities have begun to crackdown with a vengeance against the Occupy movement all over the country. The police are using tough tactics and it is clear that the movement cannot combat such force. Stephen Colbert showed what happened at Berkeley.

But even if the protestors are driven out, they have achieved one big victory and that is to change the national conversation to the critical issue of inequality and oligarchic rule. That is the one key issue of our time and the discussion about what to do about it is long overdue.

The journey from priest to atheist

Eric MacDonald is a former clergyman who became an atheist and he has a blog Choice in Dying which began as a tribute to his wife Elizabeth who chose assisted suicide at the late stages of a serious illness. The original purpose of the blog was to counter the religious objections to assisted suicide but it is now a lot more than that. McDonald is very knowledgeable about theology and is able to counter the arguments of theologians using their own language. His blog is well worth a visit.

He recently posted a thoughtful analysis on the Q&A session of the Haught-Coyne debate. But in the comments, in response to some questions, he describes his own painful transition from priest to atheist and provides insight into how unbelieving priests have to choose their words very carefully to avoid being exposed as apostates. It takes them a long time to explicitly acknowledge even to themselves that they are no longer believers. He suspects that Haught is in the same situation.

While I was a priest, and had to say something to people every week in a homily, I knew within a hair's breadth what I could say. My wife Elizabeth, who was a nonbeliever, would sometimes correct me, and say: "You can't say that" or "You can't say what you want to say in that way." The point she was making was simply that dispelling the clouds too rapidly would make it impossible for us, the congregation and me, to take the next step, if we were going to take it together. So it was essential to lay down some fog, artificial fog, which would allow me to say what I wanted to say, but at the same time not to let people get too close a grasp on what I was saying, which would lead them to say, "Well, you really don't believe at all, then, do you?" As I got closer and closer to retirement, a friend (a retired priest) used to say, "You're going too fast. You'll have talked yourself out of a job if you keep going at this rate" — because, at the time, I was finding it harder and harder to find anything positive to say about Christian belief.

Now, I suspect — though I may be wrong — that Haught is in this position. He wants to be able to speak about faith in very general terms, but he also wants faith to retain its position as a confidence in doctrines that he has really let go of a long time ago, and he's developed a very comfortable way of speaking about his loss of faith in terms of what he considers faith, but most believers would not see as faith at all. He can retain all the usual Christian language, but he doesn't believe any longer in a straightforward way — and this, by the way, is not a fundamentalist, literal style of believing, but believing in the highly intellectualised way in which the Roman Catholic Church defines its doctrines. He simply doesn't notice that when he talks about Jesus he's making a claim to divine intervention in the world for which there is not a shred of substantive evidence. If he noticed that, his house of cards would simply fall apart, so he has to keep it general and unfocused. As Kevin says (#7), theologians are in a tough position. If they dispell the fog the all too human levers are visible, but if they don't dispell the fog, questions will continually arise. In other words, as Haggis says (#5), instinctively it seems that what Haught is saying is rubbish, but it's not easy to see why, and the reason its hard to see why is that Haught has gone to a great deal of trouble of deceiving himself first.

In a later comment, he adds:

I think I went through the same process that Haught is going through, and it took years. When faith is the ground bass of one's life, then, even when faith is breaking down, there are often more reasons to keep a hold on it than to let it go, and it is done, not through deliberate dishonesty, but through a veritable maze of self-deceiving rationalisation.

What looks to an outsider like dishonesty and hypocrisy, to an insider is just common sense. A lot of people, like Haught, go to a great deal of trouble to define faith in such a way that practically anything that is done is done on faith, so religious faith seems innocuous. But that's all part of the smoke-screen. But the fact that he is laying smoke doesn't even occur to him, and it won't until he can get outside of the faith box that he's in. It took a pretty vicious jerk to rattle me out of it, and I daresay it will take as big a bump in life's road to lead Haught out of the maze.

Looking back I can see how careful I had to be not to work too far out of the box, but at the time what I was doing it, it seemed — nay, was — perfectly sincere and honest. Haught, given his situation, will find it almost impossible to get out of the box. It's a very comfortable one. He has status. He is respected. He enjoys the theological game. What would lead him to leave? Of course, something might. But I know, from experience, how much a religious leader loses when he has made the decision that he can no longer speak with integrity about faith. One has to step outside a society in which one had honour and respect, and into a world which is — as the world in fact is — very uncertain. sometimes confusing, and never sure.

When you find religious people, clergy or otherwise, uncomfortable with talking about the concrete aspects of their beliefs, such as what god actually does, and shifting the conversation to the social benefits of religion or in vague terms about meaning and morals, it may well be a sign that they are on the road to unbelief or are already unbelievers and are unwilling to explicitly acknowledge it even to themselves.

November 14, 2011

Schuller's chutzpah

Robert Schuller is of these typical televangelists, a servant of god who managed to persuade enough suckers to fund his high lifestyle and build his vanity project, the Crystal Cathedral. The church has fallen on hard times and filed for bankruptcy and court documents allege that Schuller family raided the endowment to the tune of $10 million.

But that has not stopped the greed of Schuller. Recently his wife fell ill with pneumonia and he asked the congregation to provide meals. Why someone with all his money needs food donations at all is unclear but what has outraged some members is the extraordinary sense of entitlement embedded in the request. The Schullers asked "that the meals be low in sodium and include items such as fruit, meats, soup and egg dishes such as quiches" and that the meals be dropped off in the cathedral's tower lobby at 4:30 pm each day so the Schuller's limo driver could pick them up and take to their home.

Presumably this arrangement was so that the Schullers are not disturbed by the riff-raff actually coming to their home. I don't know why this would be a problem, since his butler could have sent the people around to the servant's entrance where the footmen or the kitchen maids could have accepted the food donations and checked to see if they met their standards.

The problem with the 'too big to fail' concept

I wrote earlier with respect to the Greek debt crisis that the banks that were described by the phrase 'too big to fail' were not a loose and undefined category but that there is an actual list of 29 banks that governments feel obliged to bail out if they get in trouble. Of these 17 are based in Europe, eight in the US, and four in Asia. Of course, knowing that they are too big to fail only encourages these banks to thumb their noses at the normal rules of the marketplace and take excessive risks with other people's money for their own benefit, which is what has caused all these problems in the first place.

The big US banks are doing extremely well because, after their risky investments imploded, the US government and the Federal Reserve essentially gave them free money to make new risky investments. They then made huge profits but if they had failed then the taxpayers would have been on the hook for the losses once again.

Wall Street firms — either independent companies or the high-flying trading arms of banks — are doing even better. They've made more profit in the first 2 1/2 years of the Obama administration than they did during the entire Bush administration, industry data show. (See data in an Excel file here.)

Behind this turnaround are government policies that saved the financial sector from collapse and then gave banks and other financial firms huge advantages on the path to recovery. For example, the federal government invested hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars in banks, money that the firms used for risky investments on which they made huge profits.

Neither Bush nor Obama, for instance, compelled banks to increase lending to ordinary businesses or consumers, known as "prime borrowers."

A recent study by two professors at the University of Michigan found that banks, instead of significantly increasing lending after being bailed out, used taxpayer money to invest in risky securities to profit from short-term price movements. The study found that bailed-out banks increased their returns by nearly 10 percent as a result.

No bank should be too big to fail because then they can extort us. If a bank is too big to fail, then it should belong to the people, i.e., be nationalized, because the taxpayers are essentially paying the bills. Otherwise, the US government should do to the big banks what they do to smaller banks when they fail. They are taken over by the appropriate regulatory agency, reorganized, top management replaced, new policies put into place to make sure that the banks are following sound business practices, and then returned to the private sector. Even better would be to break up the big banks into smaller banks.

Instead of that the US government gives free money to the very institutions and people who create these crises. They then make risky investments. If the investments work, they make huge profits that they keep for themselves. If the investments turn sour, taxpayers bail them out. This situation has arisen because of the fact that there is an incestuous relationship between the big financial firms and the US government with top officials moving back and forth between the two. The US Department of the Treasury is essentially a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs.

What we now have is not capitalism but exactly what the oligarchs want: the privatization of profit and the socialization of risk.

November 13, 2011

"Grinding the Crack"


(Via Norm)

What on Earth is he talking about?

I was reading a newspaper item yesterday about the negotiations between the basketball league and the players and came across this passage:

The union believes the league's proposals to increase luxury tax penalties, and eliminate or reduce some spending options, essentially would prevent the biggest-spending teams from being free agent options. A "repeater tax" would further punish teams that were taxpayers a fourth time in a five-year span, and players fear the penalty that awaits teams who receive money from the tax pool but suddenly take on salary and go into the tax would discourage spending.

When I read it in our local paper, I thought that maybe the typesetting software had got messed up and inserted some random words but the identical passage was on the website of a different newspaper. Can anyone make any sense of it?

It is not as if the earlier parts of the article set the foundation for understanding it. Apart from the incomprehensible content, it seems to violate rules of grammar.

November 12, 2011

Herman Cain on Herman Cain

The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert are having a lot of fun with Herman Cain, who thoroughly deserves the mocking he is getting.

Wealth gap between old and young increases

It is interesting how the Occupy Wall Street movement has triggered so much interest and discussion about wealth and income inequalities in the nation. Now comes a study that shows that the wealth of households headed by people over 65 has increased to 47 times that of households headed by people 35 and younger, compared to a ratio of just 10 in 1984.

It is natural for older people to have more wealth since they have had more time to earn and save. But this rapid rise in inequality is not healthy. What is even more disturbing is that the median net wealth of the younger group has actually declined dramatically in this period. A society that has a minority of old and very rich people and a large number of young and poor people is not a healthy or stable society.


November 11, 2011

How far did the Penn State rot spread?

John Cole makes a good point. Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky who is the target of the sexual assault allegations against young boys for the period 1994 to 2009 was considered a top defensive coach and heir to Joe Paterno when he suddenly 'retired' in 1999 in his prime. Why was he not recruited by other colleges or pro football teams? Was it because his behavior was an open secret within the football fraternity? If so, this could be the beginning of a much wider scandal. Former University of Oklahoma and Dallas Cowboys coach Barry Switzer says that from his knowledge of the coaching world, every senior person on the coaching staff at Penn State had to have known what was going on. "Having been in this profession a long time and knowing how close coaching staffs are, I knew that this was a secret that was kept secret," Switzer said. "Everyone on that staff had to have known, the ones that had been around a long time."

There are now articles suggesting that many people don't know what they should do when they suspect child sexual abuse and so perhaps the actions (or more precisely the non-actions) of the people at Penn State should not be judged too harshly. I think this is a wrong argument. It is one thing to not know what to do when you just suspect that something is wrong. But in this case, someone actually saw a grown man having sex with a child. The person who saw it was a football player in his twenties and the perpetrator of the abuse was an older man of about 60 so it should have been possible to physically intervene and stop the abuse. But he did not try to stop it nor did he report it to the police, nor did the people he told it to report it to the police. This is not really a grey area.

Jon Stewart sums it up well.

Today is Nigel Tufnel day

Because it is 11/11/11, that's why.

The Cain parody ads keep coming

Now Mike Tyson gets a turn at it.

Herman Cainâs Campaign Promises with Mike Tyson from Mike Tyson

Standing by your man

The Herman Cain harassment story is turning into a long-running saga with each day seemingly bringing forth a new complainant and him changing his story accordingly. According to initial polls, the sexual harassment settlements do not seem to have hurt his standing amongst his fan base in the Republican party. His fundraising seems to be going well too.

I am not surprised. One of the things that characterize a sizable chunk (~20%) of party loyalists is that once they make an emotional investment in a candidate because they think he or she is 'one of them', they will stick with that person whatever happens, even if that requires them to abandon positions that they once held.

I suspect that this attitude has always been there but I first noticed it in its most extreme form back in 2008. People who would condemn sex outside of marriage and look down as a bad parent someone whose child had a baby out of wedlock, completely abandoned that stance when it was revealed that Sarah Palin's daughter was pregnant while still in high school. I wrote then:

I have been impressed by the ability of some of the Republican party and its conservative Christian base to pivot so quickly, suddenly celebrating things like teenage parenthood that they would have normally been swift to condemn as incontrovertible evidence of the increasing sinfulness of the nation as a result of taking prayer out of the school and teaching evolution. Now because the person whom they like has these things going on in her family, we are hearing paeans for them as being 'real people', that such things show that the Palins represent 'heartland values'.

I suspect that had McCain nominated someone who later was revealed to be a serial killer but who said he loved Jesus, opposed abortion, and favored policies that favored the wealthy, these same people would suddenly say that 'real Americans' have prison records and the ability to kill without compunction is just the kind of toughness we need in a national leader in order to deal with terrorists. They would also decry as wimps the Democratic candidates because neither had the gumption to shoot a man, just to watch him die.

So far I have not heard anyone say that being charged with sexual harassment is a sign that Cain is a real man, someone with passion and drive who does not play by the rules of namby-pamby society but knows what he wants and goes for it and that is the kind of leader the country needs. But I would not be surprised if someone does. The closest they have come is to make the extraordinary claim that 'sexual harassment' is a 'meaningless' charge that does not exist is reality but is largely a scam to sue powerful and wealthy people. This will no doubt come as a surprise to many people in the workplace.

Things may change if the charges keep coming. Even the most loyal supporter may realize that at some point, even if they are personally willing to overlook the fact that their man is a creep, he is damaged beyond repair and unelectable.

Whatever develops on the harassment front, it is becoming apparent that Cain is an unpleasant, arrogant, egotistical, and self-important man who is used to pushing people around to get his own way. His arrogance is on display in this long profile of him in the New York Times by T. A. Frank.

And is it any wonder that Herman Cain has shed a lot of high-level campaign staff members, both within his national organization and in crucial early states like Iowa and New Hampshire? Most of these former staff members have signed nondisclosure agreements, and others would speak to me only off the record. None of them recall their former boss as a sexual harasser. But they do speak of a man so egotistical that careful self-policing would never really enter into the realm of consideration.

They also speak — bitterly — of a candidate with zero interest in policy. They speak of events canceled at the last minute to accommodate any available television interview. They speak of unrelenting self-absorption, even by the standards of a politician.

But they don’t speak of someone who can’t win.

Cain, when flustered, is very different from Cain the motivational speaker. He grows stiff, his jaw tightens and his blinking speeds up. Meaningless phrases (“It was a joke to the extent in the context of the views that speech”) pile up in a panic.

An interview with Piers Morgan the next day went just as poorly, with Cain, supposedly a pro-life absolutist, offering a full-throated endorsement of a woman’s right to choose. “What I’m saying is it ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make, not me as president, not some politician, not a bureaucrat,” Cain said.

This had to be it for his campaign. The past few days had been disastrous.

Cain’s next set of poll numbers: solid lead.

Let us pause here to make a necessarily severe assessment: to say that Herman Cain has an imperfect grasp of policy would be unfair not only to George W. Bush in 1999 but also to Britney Spears in 1999. Herman Cain seems like someone who, quite frankly, has never opened a newspaper.

Frank's article also has a long quote from Cain's book where he describes how the number 45 keeps cropping up in his life and therefore he ascribes a mystic significance to it. This is despite the fact that he majored in mathematics in college, and thus should be able to see the fallacy of his reasoning.

But there are warning signs that this support for Cain might be soft and that repeated new allegations may sap the enthusiasm of even the most ardent supporter.

November 10, 2011

Republican debate live blog

I did not watch the Republican debate yesterday but this live blog of the event by The Guardian's reporters makes for fun reading.

Joe Paterno deserved to be sacked

The rioting by Penn State students on hearing the news that football coach Joe Paterno was summarily sacked (along with the university president) by the university's Board of Trustees is inexcusable.

According to news reports, graduate assistant Mike McCreary (sometimes spelled as McQueary) observed assistant coach Jerry Sandusky raping a 10-year old boy in the showers in the locker room all the way back in 2002. Why he did not immediately try to stop it is bad enough. He apparently reported it to Paterno the next day but Paterno says he was not told the details and simply reported to his superiors that there was some kind of problem and left it at that.

I find that unbelievable. Paterno exercises tight control over his operations. To think that he would not have asked for details of what McCreary had observed is preposterous. The fact that he and McCreary did nothing even when no action was taken against Sandusky for nine years is shameful. We are talking about the rape of a child. Paterno and McCreary and anyone else who knew of Sandusky's serial predatory behavior and did nothing deserve a far greater punishment than firing.

The code of silence and cover-up in the Penn State football program reminds me of the Catholic church's child abuse scandal and raises the question: Is there something about an all-male culture that makes people tolerate horrible abuses such as these?

In defense of Rick Perry

Media coverage of yesterday's Republican debate has zeroed in on Rick Perry's inability to remember the third of the three government departments that he said he wanted to eliminate.

Commentators are saying that this is the last straw for Perry. This may be true, given the shallowness of the political campaign and the people who cover it. But looked at dispassionately, why is it such a big deal? Which one of us hasn't had such a moment? I know I have when giving public talks. Even at faculty meetings it very often happens that people forget the point that they wish to make even as they are trying to make it and we just move on because it is so common. In Perry's case, he must have been nervous because his prior debate performances have been panned so badly. So I can understand why, when he did not immediately remember something, his brain froze.

While following this crazy Republican primary, I have to say that the one candidate whom I have got to like better as it went on is Perry. All the Republican candidates favor policies that I abhor, but on a personal level, Perry has a kind of appealing goofiness, a relaxed congeniality that is really quite appealing. In my opinion, even his widely ridiculed New Hampshire speech revealed a playful side. If it was because he was drunk, we at least know that he is not a mean drunk. His fellow Texan George W. Bush had a sneering, arrogant, supercilious, and condescending attitude to mask his ignorance that made him obnoxious. Bush had all the characteristics of a cruel and petty bully. Herman Cain is in the same mold as Bush, a thoroughly unlikable character. Perry, on the other hand, does not seem to have that same meanness or think that highly of himself and seems to be self-deprecatory. His 'oops' at the end of his flub was a telling indicator that he takes these things lightly, always a good sign.

As to the other Republicans, Mitt Romney has a smarmy, phony quality, Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann seem to be crazy religious nutcases who are quite capable of instituting vicious and hateful polices because they truly believe god wants them to do so, and Newt Gingrich is under the irritating delusion that he is some kind of genius when he is just a political hack long past his expiry date. Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman, and Perry are the only candidates whom I feel I could discuss politics with without being tempted to throw things at them.

I can understand why Perry is such a political powerhouse in his home state where he has lived and worked all his life. If he is familiar with the issues, his genial personality can work powerfully in his favor. His problem is that he is simply out of his depth on national and international matters and he does not have the debating smarts to mask his lack of knowledge or the bullying arrogance to intimidate his critics.

Relativity-13: Some concluding thoughts

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

A lot of things need to happen before the extraordinary claims of faster-than-light neutrinos are accepted as true. As Carl Sagan once said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." The required evidence needs to take many forms: the results should be consistent and reproducible, corroborating evidence will have to be found, consistency with other phenomena will have to established, and alternative explanations for the phenomenon based on traditional physics will have to be ruled out. All this is going to take some time.

But if the result seems to hold up, even then it is not usually the case that scientists completely discard a highly respected old theory and start from scratch. While a few bolder scientists may take this opportunity to try and create a completely new theory, the majority of them usually seek to find minimal changes in the existing theory that would accommodate the new result.

As physicist Heinrich Pas says:

Even if true, this result neither proves Einstein wrong nor implies that causality has to be violated and time travel is possible. Things can move faster than the speed of light without violating Einstein if either the speed of light is not the limiting velocity as one can observe it for light propagation in media such as, for example, water. This can be modeled with background fields in the vacuum as has been proposed by [Indiana University physicist] Alan Kostelecky.

Or spacetime could be warped in a way so that neutrinos can take a shortcut without really being faster than the speed of light. As our three space plus one time dimensions look pretty flat, this would require an extra dimension (as proposed by [University of Hawaii at Manoa physicist] Sandip Pakvasa, [Vanderbilt University physicist] Tom Weiler and myself).

It was Einstein who suggested in 1905 that there is a limiting speed in nature and that this is the speed of light in a vacuum. I have already discussed in connection with Cherenkov radiation that when traveling in a medium such as water or glass or even air, the speed of light is reduced and it is possible to have other particles travel at speeds greater than light in that medium.

So one possible explanation for the OPERA neutrino results is to decouple the speed of light with the limiting speed. Perhaps what we call the vacuum has properties that slows down light from this potentially larger limiting value, and that this new upper limit is what should appear in the theory of relativity. If so, then having neutrinos travel faster than the speed of light in the vacuum would simply mean that neutrinos are slowed down less than light by the vacuum, similar to what happens in other media like the Sun or water or glass. This would require some additional adjustments to theory. Einstein said that the limiting speed must be an invariant for all observers and equated this limiting speed to the speed of light because it overcame some problems of consistency with Maxwell's electromagnetic theory. Decoupling those two speeds may require us to refine Maxwell's laws as well, at the very minimum. As is well known, there is no free lunch in science. You cannot make changes in one scientific theory without having to make adjustments in other theories so that they all fit together again.

This series has tried to explain why the proper scientific response to reports of a major discovery is skepticism. This should not be equated with dogmatic obstructionism because in the case of dogma, one starts with a belief that cannot be changed whatever the evidence. Skepticism, on the other hard, is merely resistance that can be overcome with sufficient evidence and reason.

Major theories in science are rarely overthrown on the basis of a single experimental result, though textbooks sometimes tend to give that erroneous image of scientific progress. Usually what happens when a surprising result crops up is that a few people start to look at it closely to see if the results can be replicated by other people in different contexts, and if the ancillary consequences of the new result are also seen.

If none of these pans out, then the original result is deemed to be due to an error (usually a subtle one in the case of careful scientists) or to some factor that was overlooked in the data collection or analysis. The latter is often referred to as a systematic error and is more common because it is hard to be sure that you have accounted for all the possible factors that can influence an experiment, especially if you are working at the frontiers of knowledge, pushing the limits. Sometimes, as in the case of cold fusion, an adequate explanation of the phenomenon within the standard framework is not discovered for a long time and a few scientists believe they do have a new effect and continue to work on it. Such theories die only when their advocates die out.

I doubt that the faster-than-light neutrino story will remain similarly ambiguous for too long but it is a difficult experiment and so may take years to sort out. The quickest resolution to such controversies is when the original experimenters find some error that causes them to withdraw their claim. The OPERA team already has plans to repeat the neutrino experiment with modifications designed to address at least a few of the concerns expressed so far. Another group known as MINOS also plans to repeat the experiment but at locations in the US, with neutrinos produced at Fermilab near Chicago and detectors in northern Minnesota or even South Dakota, the latter being a longer distance than that between CERN and Gran Sasso,

Whatever the final outcome, the faster-than-light neutrino reports have shone a light onto how science really works and that is always a good thing.

Just for the fun, I am ending this series with a word cloud made out of this series of posts. (Ignore the href and em items since these are merely html tags and have nothing to do with the content.)
word cloud.jpg

November 09, 2011

Stephen Colbert on Alabama's migrant worker laws

Corruption in sports

That corruption exists in professional sports is obvious, often caused by gambling. Usually when players get caught fixing results they face punishments of fines or suspension and exclusion form the game. Last week though, three Pakistani cricketers were sentenced to jail for periods ranging from six to thirty months for agreeing to fix games in return for money, in addition to fines and suspensions.

The deals between the gamblers and the players were arranged by an intermediary but the way that the players signaled to the bettors that they were in on the deal was by bowling a 'no ball' at a pre-determined point in the game. For those not familiar with cricket, the closest analogous situation in baseball is where a pitcher balks. This is a fairly rare event but one that is totally within the control of the pitcher and can be done at will.

Though I used to be a fan, I am now frankly sick of professional sports, and this includes the big college sports programs that seem to provide a steady stream of scandals, the most recent one being the disgusting one emerging from Penn State. I still pay casual attention to it but it increasingly seems like big business, not sport anymore, with all the venality that accompanies it.

Behind the scenes of the 'Greek crisis'

The financial news of recent weeks has been consumed with the so-called Greek debt crisis. Whenever there is news that a deal has been reached to bail out that government, stock markets rise. When the deal seems to have collapsed, the markets fall. Although the reports act as if the Greek government or people are being bailed out, it is actually international banks that are the benficiaries. What I find extraordinary is that news reporters and commentators talk as if 'calming the markets' is the most important thing in the world and thus governments must do everything they can to make stock markets go up, even if those moves have devastating effects on ordinary people. This is why we need massive protests against the financial oligarchy, to show governments that there are other important elements of society whose interests need to be considered.

While I am by no means an expert on international finance, I have tried to get a rudimentary understanding of what is going on and here is what I have learned.

How it started was that big European banks loaned the Greek government huge amounts, while partly insuring themselves against potential losses by purchasing 'collateral debt swaps', a form of insurance offered by other banks. The Greek government is finding it hard to repay the loans. One option for them is to declare bankruptcy, which would mean that the banks will have to absorb huge losses. The deal that the markets favor involves major European economies such as France and Germany essentially agreeing to find the money to loan Greece enough to pay off the debts it owes to the banks. How this is done is to buy bonds issued by the Greek government, which will then use that money to repay its loans. Because the Greek government is in danger of bankruptcy, it has to offer high interest rates in order to tempt buyers and this places a big repayment debt burden on its budget. To deal with that, the Greek government would increase even further the austerity measures it has imposed on its people and cut back on services in order to find the money to service its bonds. This is what the French and German governments are insisting that the Greeks do if they want the money.

So it is the usual story of squeezing ordinary people of their pensions and services to pay off wealthy banks that loaned money recklessly, a story that should sound drearily familiar to people in the US. Following that pattern, we can expect that once the deal is done, the banks will celebrate their salvation by giving huge bonuses to their top executives.

We are told that the banks will not get off scot free but will take a 50% 'haircut'. i.e., they will be reimbursed for only half their loans and so that they will share in the suffering. But in actual fact as Tyler Durden points out in a succinct analysis that does the math, the haircut will only be 28% but thanks to creative bookkeeping has been made to look larger than it really is. And being the cynic that I am, I suspect that once all the dust settles, we will find that it is even smaller than 28%. The big banks never lose.

The Greek case illustrates what has become all too obvious, that the world is being run for the benefit of the financial oligarchy. We often hear the phrase 'too big to fail' to describe some banks and it is thought that this is an undefined category but it turns out that there is an actual list of 29 banks that governments feel obliged to bail out if they get in trouble. Of these 17 are based in Europe, eight in the U.S., and four in Asia. Of course, knowing that they are too big to fail only encourages these banks to thumb their noses at the normal rules of the marketplace and take excessive risks with other people's money for their own benefit, which is what has caused all these problems in the first place.

We now see more clearly why the leaders of France and Germany are twisting the arms of the Greeks. Some of the banks that are most vulnerable to losing money if the Greeks default on repaying loans are Dexia, Societe Generale, Deutsche, BNP Paribas, and Commerzbank, all of which are on the list. If the Greeks don't pay them back, the French and German governments will feel obliged to do so, and their own public may revolt.

So is the US off the hook since none of those banks is based here? No. The fact is that in the worldwide casino that the financial world has become, other major banks have invested in those infamous 'credit default swaps' (CDS) which are essentially bets that have been taken on the loans. They are a form of insurance that the banks that made the loans have made against default and if the Greeks don't pay up, then the banks will ask their 'insurers' to pay. Who are these insurers and what is the extent of their potential liability? In the secretive world of CDS it is hard to know who is on the hook for how much but given their history, one can safely conclude that Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, and Bank of America are likely to be major players. This is why the issue is more than just Europe and why US banks and the US government are also so keen on Greece accepting the deal.

This article provides a sequence of the worst case fall of dominos that could be triggered by a Greek default. I am a little skeptical of these doomsday scenarios, since they are often just propaganda to rush people into signing on to a bad deal. After all, Iceland decided to default and the world did not end and they are doing quite nicely now. The fact that Iceland was not part of the Eurozone gave it more independence of action.

One interesting fact is that the deal that the French and German governments are offering the Greeks only say that they will find the money to buy Greek bonds, not necessarily that they will provide all that money themselves out of their own treasuries, something that is not at all popular with their own people. What those governments are doing now is shopping around trying to find other countries to provide the money. i.e., buy the risky Greek bonds. China is their main target since they seem to have the money. Why would China want to wade into this mess? The argument being used is that if the Greek government defaults, followed by the other countries that make up the so-called PIIGS group (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, and Spain), then Europe will go into a deep recession and China's export markets will shrink.

So that's where things seem to stand. It is no wonder that the Greek people are demonstrating in large numbers against their government's subservience to international financial interests.

November 08, 2011

Rick Perry explains his New Hampshire speech on SNL

In case you did not see the clips of Perry's New Hampshire speech, here it is.

Pandering on the pledge

Just recently I wrote about how easy it is for people to gum things up by pandering to religion and patriotism. As if to support my point, Republicans state legislators in Michigan have introduced legislation that would require all public school children to recite the pledge of allegiance each day.

In 1942, West Virginia passed a law requiring that students salute the flag each day while reciting the pledge of allegiance which at that time did not end with the words 'under God'. The US Supreme Court ruled such actions unconstitutional in 1943, with Justice Robert Jackson writing in his majority opinion:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.

Relativity-12: David Hume and causality

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Suppose that the claim that neutrinos can travel faster than light holds up. What are the implications?

As I said earlier in the series, this does not mean that Einstein's theory of relativity is overthrown, since it always allowed for faster than light particles, though we had never observed them. But it does mean that Einstein causality, the idea that if two events are causally connected by a signal that travels from one event to the other, then all observers' clocks will agree that the signal left the source before it arrived at the other end, will have to go.

How hard would it be to keep the theory of relativity but abandon the idea of Einstein causality? It is not impossible. The idea that if A causes B, then A must occur before B is, after all, just another hypothesis subject to empirical testing. As Victor Stenger points out, long before Einstein came along, the whole idea of causality, that we can know that one event causes another, was challenged by philosopher David Hume (1711-1776).

Wikipedia has a nice synopsis of Hume's views on the relationship of the problem of induction to that of causality:

First, Hume ponders the discovery of causal relations, which form the basis for what he refers to as "matters of fact." He argues that causal relations are found not by reason, but by induction. This is because for any cause, multiple effects are conceivable, and the actual effect cannot be determined by reasoning about the cause; instead, one must observe occurrences of the causal relation to discover that it holds. For example, when one thinks of "a billiard ball moving in a straight line toward another," one can conceive that the first ball bounces back with the second ball remaining at rest, the first ball stops and the second ball moves, or the first ball jumps over the second, etc. There is no reason to conclude any of these possibilities over the others. Only through previous observation can it be predicted, inductively, what will actually happen with the balls. In general, it is not necessary that causal relation in the future resemble causal relations in the past, as it is always conceivable otherwise; for Hume, this is because the negation of the claim does not lead to a contradiction.

Next, Hume ponders the justification of induction. If all matters of fact are based on causal relations, and all causal relations are found by induction, then induction must be shown to be valid somehow. He uses the fact that induction assumes a valid connection between the proposition "I have found that such an object has always been attended with such an effect" and the proposition "I foresee that other objects which are in appearance similar will be attended with similar effects." One connects these two propositions not by reason, but by induction. This claim is supported by the same reasoning as that for causal relations above, and by the observation that even rationally inexperienced or inferior people can infer, for example, that touching fire causes pain. Hume challenges other philosophers to come up with a (deductive) reason for the connection. If that the justification of induction cannot be deductive, then it would beg the question for induction to be based on an inductive assumption about a connection. Induction, itself, cannot explain the connection.

In this way, the problem of induction is not only concerned with the uncertainty of conclusions derived by induction, but doubts the very principle through which those uncertain conclusions are derived.

What Hume pointed out is that what we actually observe is always just a sequence of events and just because in the past we have always seen one event preceding another does not mean that it will always do so in the future or that the first event is the cause of the second. The past is not a predictor of the future, something known as the problem of induction. Just because our neighbor has, even since we have known him, picked up the morning paper from his driveway in his bathrobe does not mean that he will do so tomorrow. He may appear in a tuxedo. This is true even for events that we consider to be driven by natural laws. Just because the Sun has come up every day of our lives does not allow us to infer that it will do so tomorrow. Just because when I release my pen it falls and hits the ground, and this happens over and over again, does not allow me to conclude that it will do so the very next time I try it. Because inductive thinking is so appealing, we have developed laws that explain correlated sequential phenomena in terms of cause and effect. But just because such laws are so successful does not mean that we can ignore the fact that causality is merely an inference based on an idea of induction that has not been a priori justified.

Hume argued that our ideas of causality suffer for the same reasons that induction does. Going back to our shooting example, if person A fires a gun and the bullet enters person B and causes B to die, we say that A's actions caused the death of B. But all that we actually observed is that there was a temporal sequence of events in which the gun was fired, and the bullet then traveled and entered B who died and so we impute causality to the process. Our belief in causality is so strong because we have constructed laws that explain those temporal correlations in behavior that enable us to predict that if the first event is repeated, the second will too. So A shooting B in the same way will always result in the death of B. But what Hume says is that we cannot be sure of this. Maybe the next time A shoots at B, the bullet will, like a boomerang, stop half way and go back and hit A.

If we view a film and see a bleeding person lying on the floor and blood flowing back inside him followed by the person standing up and a bullet emerging from his body and going back into a gun held by another person, we would conclude that the film was being run backwards because all these things seem to violate causality. If we looked at the clock readings at the locations of the two events, we would expect to find that the clock reading with the man lying on the floor would be later than the clock reading in which the bullet was in the gun even when the film was run backwards. But can we be sure of this?

Hume's idea that causality is merely an assumption that may not always hold true received support in modern physics when it was found that the basic laws of physics are (almost always) time-reversal invariant. This means laws of physics are such that if one looked at a film showing reactions between elementary particles, one would not be able to deduce whether the film was being run forwards or backwards, because the basic laws of physics do not discriminate between the two. The only exception we have to date that violates this conclusion is the decay of an elementary particle known as the neutral kaon.

Furthermore, modern physics has shown that not every effect need be associated with a cause. For example, the decay of a radioactive nucleus appears to be totally spontaneous and unpredictable. Nothing causes it, it just happens. So if we can have acausal events and cannot even in principle assign a causal connection between two events, then Einstein causality may turn out to be just one of those convenient assumptions that seemed at one time to be self-evidently true but that we now need to outgrow and replace with a more sophisticated way of thinking, just like we grew out of assuming that the Earth was flat or that it was at the center of the universe.

Not that doing so will be easy. Causality, like the belief in free will, is so deeply ingrained on our psyches that abandoning it will be difficult.

Next: Some concluding thoughts

November 07, 2011

Chris Hedges speech to Occupy DC

The audio of a nice speech, accompanied by an excellent montage of photos from across the country.

Chris Hedges Speaks @ Occupy Washington from KLL Video Productions on Vimeo.

(Thanks to Tim)


A fireworks show in Scotland to celebrate Guy Fawkes night on November 5th was scheduled to last 20 minutes but due to a timing error they were all released within one minute. As you might have guessed, it was pretty spectacular. (via Gawker.)

Voting NO on issues 1, 2, 3 tomorrow

Tomorrow is election day and apart from local city council and school board elections, I will be voting 'NO' on all three ballot initiatives.

Issue 1 (TO INCREASE THE MAXIMUM AGE AT WHICH A PERSON MAY BE ELECTED OR APPOINTED JUDGE, TO ELIMINATE THE AUTHORITY OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY TO ESTABLISH COURTS OF CONCILIATION, AND TO ELIMINATE THE AUTHORITY OF THE GOVERNOR TO APPOINT A SUPREME COURT COMMISSION) deals with raising the mandatory retirement age for judges, among other things. I have no strong feelings either way on these matters but it is a constitutional amendment and I think that one should change the constitution only if there are very strong reasons to do so.

Issue 2 (REFERENDUM ON NEW LAW RELATIVE TO GOVERNMENT UNION CONTRACTS AND OTHER GOVERNMENT EMPLOYMENT CONTRACTS AND POLICIES) deals with repealing the law that was passed restricting the collective bargaining rights for government workers. A successful 'no' vote will result in the bill being repealed.

Issue 3 (TO PRESERVE THE FREEDOM OF OHIOANS TO CHOOSE THEIR HEALTH CARE AND HEALTH CARE COVERAGE) nullifies the federal health care reform measures. While I was not a big fan of the reform, it does provide some benefits to people who need them. In addition to opposing the measure on these grounds, it is also a constitutional amendment, another factor against it.

The role of religion in a secular university

Last Friday, I took part in a panel discussion on the topic: "What is the role of religion at a secular university? Should we support it, promote it, accommodate it, respect it, or just ignore it?"

The event was moderated by a professor in the department of religious studies who specializes in Buddhism and the panel consisted of the chair of that same department (whose area is Judaism), the director of student activities program that oversees student organizations, and myself. The session began with each of us speaking for about five minutes and then the floor was opened up for discussions. It was a lively session with a sizeable number of faculty, students, and staff present. I am not going to try and summarize the entire discussion since I did not take any notes but just focus on my own impressionistic views, paraphrasing some of what people said.

I went first and trotted out my usual Salman Rushdie quote in order to frame my remarks: "At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people's opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it's a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible."

My point of view on the topic was quite simple. Religion should not receive any special treatment. It should be treated like any other subject or aspect of student life. It is undoubtedly an important topic of historical and social importance and deserves academic study so a department of religious studies is perfectly appropriate. (As the chair of religious studies pointed out in his opening remarks, their department does not get involved in the sacred aspects of religion but looks at religion academically.) The role of their faculty does not require them to be religious leaders or to even be believers in the religions they teach, just as in the language department, the professor of Japanese need not to be Japanese.

I also drew two distinctions: (1) that the norms of speech and behavior are different for private versus public spheres and people should learn to appreciate that; and (2) that we should treat the sacred and secular aspects of religion differently. The secular aspects are those that the university can get involved in while we should steer clear of the sacred aspects.

I said that in order to navigate this difficult terrain, secular organizations such as my university would do well to study and apply the guidelines that the US Supreme Court has developed over time for the Establishment Clause of the constitution, which calls for strict neutrality between religion and non-religion and forbids any governmental action that endorses or has the primary purpose or effect of advancing or inhibiting religion or excessively entangling itself with religion. While the Establishment Clause applies only to the government, it provides an excellent template for any secular organization that is looking for ways to deal with religion. So, for example, student religious groups should meet the same standards as (say) the chess club for recognition and support by the university. If they receive less support, they are being discriminated against because of their belief. If they receive more, then the university is endorsing religion. Both those extremes should be avoided.

I found it interesting that some people in the audience kept trying to find ways to argue that religion is somehow special, that it occupies a niche in society that nothing else can occupy, which is the usual precursor to asking that it receive special consideration. The suggestions took the form:

  1. Religion is very important to a person's sense of identity;
  2. Religion is necessary in order to inculcate ethical behavior; and
  3. Religion is needed to come to terms with the mysteries of life.

My comments during the discussion were largely spent in batting down such attempts.

On the first point, I argued that a person has more than just a religious identity. For example, science may be as important to a scientist (or history to a historian or law to a lawyer) as religious identity may be to a religious person. But we would think it absurd for scientists to get upset if someone treated iconic figures like Einstein disrespectfully by (say) drawing cartoons that made fun of him. But do the same thing with a religious figure and people get offended and, in the case of Islam, can even lead to death warrants. I said that the reason that religious people get so easily offended is because religion has been given a privileged place and not treated like any other belief system. I said that if students spent four years at the university and were not challenged by something that offended the very core of their identity and forced them to confront their beliefs, then we were not doing our job.

On the second point, I pointed out that over two millennia of religious domination of society resulted in the most horrendous atrocities and discrimination. The supposedly divinely inspired religious texts are riddled with god's commands to commit genocide, murder, and rape. Misogyny and homophobia are rampant in the texts and are still part of the official doctrines of major religious groups. The growth of ethical values and human rights and the expansion of humane treatment of people is a late development and is the result of the spread of Enlightenment values and science which has led to what is effectively a humanitarian revolution. Religions gradually and often reluctantly adapted to them, though even now certain religions' attitudes towards women and gays can only be described as appalling. It is a bit much for religion now, at this late stage, to claim credit for the advance of humanitarian values.

On the third point, I said that the purpose of the university is to seek truth using evidence and reason. That steady search has steadily transformed mysteries (things that seemed completely inexplicable) into puzzles (things we know how to investigate, what questions we need to pose, and what tools are necessary to obtain answers) and to eventually be able to solve the puzzles. The steady march of knowledge is to replace mysteries with puzzles and solutions. But religions want to keep mysteries as mysteries forever as things that are impervious to evidence and reason, and can only be understood by revelation. As the TV character House puts it, "You know, I get it that people are just looking for a way to fill the holes. But they want the holes. They want to live in the holes. And they go nuts when someone else pours dirt in their holes. Climb out of your holes, people!" The growth of knowledge in general and science in particular has resulted in us being able to steadily fill in the holes. To want to stay in the holes is antithetical to the search for truth that is the major purpose of the university.

In these forums, I take on the persona of the 'bad atheist', the one who is not willing to go along with the traditional pieties that religion has been allowed to wallow in that go unquestioned. I challenge the idea that the privileged position of religion should be allowed to continue simply because that is the way things have always been. This makes for more sharply focused discussions in which basic assumptions get questioned.

I find it interesting that at the end of these sessions, people often come up to me and quietly confide that they are atheists too but cannot say so openly because they fear discrimination. For far too long, people have tiptoed around religion, avoiding pointing out its uselessness or negative aspects for fear of offending religious people. Having the atheist view articulated openly and unapologetically helps to create a wider space for discussion so that those who would not go as far as me can now see themselves as in the middle somewhere and thus more comfortable. I see my role as analogous to a blocker in football, making forceful remarks that can create space for others to be able to go through.

November 06, 2011

Stereotypes and racism

The accusations of sexual harassment brought against Herman Cain have generated discussions about stereotypes and racism. Those of us old enough to remember the Clarence Thomas nomination process are familiar with the whole dreary process.

Fortunately, we now have the The Daily Show to cut through the cant.

Why religion and patriotism make for easy pandering

One of the reasons that I dislike the concepts of patriotism and religion is that they allow people to grandstand without achieving anything substantive. For example, all it takes is for someone to suggest that meetings should begin with the pledge of allegiance or a prayer to put everyone else present in a bind. While it would make perfect sense to oppose the idea as a waste of time, some would be reluctant to do so out of fear that they would be seen or portrayed as opposed to those two sacred cows, god and country.

For example, just last week Congress actually debated and passed a bill that re-affirmed "In God We Trust" as the national motto. Why waste time on this absurdity? Because president Obama had casually said at some meeting that the motto was "E pluribus unum", which actually used to be the country's unofficial motto until 1956 when a formal motto of "In God We Trust" was adopted during the period of cold war hysteria, presumably to distinguish the US from the godless commies. And yet, this absurdity passed by a margin of 396 to 9.

The Daily Show shows what should have been the reaction to this kind of nonsense.

November 05, 2011

The Cain harassment story

Herman Cain has been dominating the news and not in a good way. The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert have some fun at his expense.

Michael Bloomberg plays the Democratic party leadership's game

Matt Taibbi has an excellent rant about the way that people like NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg manages to win over the upper-middle-class liberal Huffington Post types while advancing the most reactionary economic policies. He is essentially playing the traditional Democratic party con game: as long as you take progressive stands on choice, gay marriage, and the like, you can siphon money to the wealthy and beat up on the powerless and still have the crowds lap it up applaud you. The fact that he is a Republican makes him even more attractive to this crowd.

Bloomberg’s great triumph as a politician has been the way he’s been able to win over exactly the sort of crowd that was gathering at the HuffPost event that night. He is a billionaire Wall Street creature with an extreme deregulatory bent who has quietly advanced some nastily regressive police policies (most notably the notorious "stop-and-frisk" practice) but has won over upper-middle-class liberals with his stances on choice and gay marriage and other social issues.

Bloomberg’s main attraction as a politician has been his ability to stick closely to a holy trinity of basic PR principles: bang heavily on black crime, embrace social issues dear to white progressives, and in the remaining working hours give your pals on Wall Street (who can raise any money you need, if you somehow run out of your own) whatever they want.

But most of the article is devoted to ripping apart Bloomberg's analysis of the financial collapse that seeks to avoid placing blame on the financial oligarchs. You really should read the whole thing.

November 04, 2011

Guy Fawkes day

Tomorrow (November 5th) is Guy Fawkes day. The mask used to represent him in the film V for Vendetta, has become the symbol of those who fight oppressive governments and systems. I predicted back in 2006 when it was released that it would become a cult classic, and I am particularly glad to see that come true.


(Image courtesy of reader Norm.)

When acquittal still gets you a life sentence

To really appreciate how debased our legal system has become, one has to go no further than to read this news report by Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald about the pending trial of a person accused of involvement in the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.

The U.S. military tribunal for the USS Cole bombing suspect has no power to free a captive found innocent of war crimes but shouldn’t be told the terror suspect could be held for life anyway, Pentagon prosecutors said in a court document made public Wednesday.

Defense lawyers want the judge presiding at the death-penalty trial of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri to notify would-be jurors that acquittal of war crimes won’t necessarily mean the Saudi-born captive walks free from the U.S. prison camps at Guantánamo.

It's bad enough that the rules of the military tribunal are such that if the accused is found guilty he can be executed, but if he is acquitted the Obama administration can still imprison him for life. But the administration does not even want the jury (consisting of all military officers) to be told this piece of information, probably fearing that they may not want to participate in what is a kangaroo court or a show trial that were emblematic of some of the worst governments in history.

Scott Horton of Harper's Magazine quotes Robert H. Jackson, a Supreme Court justice then on special leave to handle the prosecutions at the Nuremberg trials who said, "The ultimate principle is that you must put no man on trial under the forms [of] judicial proceedings if you are not willing to see him freed if not proven guilty."

But such quaint considerations of human rights and justice no longer apply. We decide first who is guilty and deserve to be punished and then have a trial to get that result.

Jeff Sharlett talks at CWRU

Jeff Sharlett, author, investigative journalist, and TV political commentator, is a prolific writer on the intersection of religion and politics. The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (2008) is one of his works. His bio is here.

He will be talking on The Noise of Democracy Occupying Our Minds on Wednesday, November 9, 2011 at 5:30 PM in the Ford Auditorium in Allen Memorial Library Building, which is on the CWRU campus at the corner of the Euclid and Adelbert, just across the street from Severance Hall.

The talk is free and open to the public. Light refreshments will be served.

[Updated to include the time.]

Big Brother is watching us

[Update: Today the Associated Press reports that the CIA monitoring everybody's tweets, Facebook pages, chat rooms, etc. as well.]

Via reader Jeff, I came across this excellent article by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker on whistleblower Francis Drake and the vigorous attempts by the Obama administration to prosecute him.

At the heart of its case is the attempt by the government to invade people's privacy. The government claimed that it needed the ability to gather information on people's communications as a way to fight the war on terror. But spying on the conversations of Americans in America is against the law. Some people at the National Security Agency developed a program called ThinThread that collected information while people's identities were kept secret. It was only if terrorism was flagged that the identifiers would be revealed. This, they felt, would at least partially preserve the privacy of innocent people by identifying only those against for whom there were serious grounds for suspicion. Thus ThinThread was a way to collect data while preserving privacy. But this tool was ignored because apparently what the government wants to do is be able to single people out by name and snoop on all their communications. This makes Richard Nixon's plumbers and enemies list seem quaint by comparison.

Mayer's article reveals the extent to which the government spies on all of us all the time.

[Matthew] Aid, the author of the N.S.A. history [The Secret Sentry, 2009], suggests that ThinThread's privacy protections interfered with top officials' secret objective—to pick American targets by name. "They wanted selection, not just collection," he says.

[N.S.A. crypto-mathematician Bill] Binney, for his part, believes that the agency now stores copies of all e-mails transmitted in America, in case the government wants to retrieve the details later. In the past few years, the N.S.A. has built enormous electronic-storage facilities in Texas and Utah. Binney says that an N.S.A. e-mail database can be searched with "dictionary selection," in the manner of Google. After 9/11, he says, "General Hayden reassured everyone that the N.S.A. didn't put out dragnets, and that was true. It had no need—it was getting every fish in the sea."

In December 2005, the N.S.A.'s culture of secrecy was breached by a stunning leak. The Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau revealed that the N.S.A. was running a warrantless wiretapping program inside the United States. The paper's editors had held onto the scoop for more than a year, weighing the propriety of publishing it. According to Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times, President Bush pleaded with the paper's editors to not publish the story; Keller told New York that "the basic message was: You'll have blood on your hands." After the paper defied the Administration, Bush called the leak "a shameful act." At his command, federal agents launched a criminal investigation to identify the paper's source.

The Times story shocked the country. Democrats, including then Senator Obama, denounced the program as illegal and demanded congressional hearings. A FISA court judge resigned in protest. In March, 2006, Mark Klein, a retired A.T. & T. employee, gave a sworn statement to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which was filing a lawsuit against the company, describing a secret room in San Francisco where powerful Narus computers appeared to be sorting and copying all of the telecom's Internet traffic—both foreign and domestic. A high-capacity fibre-optic cable seemed to be forwarding this data to a centralized location, which, Klein surmised, was N.S.A. headquarters. Soon, USA Today reported that A.T. & T., Verizon, and BellSouth had secretly opened their electronic records to the government, in violation of communications laws. Legal experts said that each instance of spying without a warrant was a serious crime, and that there appeared to be hundreds of thousands of infractions.

Mark Klein, the former A.T. & T. employee who exposed the telecom-company wiretaps, is also dismayed by the Drake case. "I think it's outrageous," he says. "The Bush people have been let off. The telecom companies got immunity. The only people Obama has prosecuted are the whistle-blowers."

Note how Bill Keller, then editor of the allegedly liberal New York Times, withheld the story for more than a year at Bush's request until after Bush was re-elected in 2004.

The government went after Thomas Drake, a senior executive at the NSA, as the suspected leaker and used the 1917 Espionage Act against him, basically accusing him of being a traitor.

Finally the case against Drake collapsed and he was let off with a minor punishment. This was reported as a setback for the government but the idea of such prosecutions is two-fold: to win if possible and punish the whistleblower but even if they lose important cases, their goal is to let all potential whistleblowers know that the government will make their lives hell if they told outsiders what the government was up to, even if it was illegal. But as Glenn Greenwald points out with case after case, Obama's hypocrisy on whistleblowers is matched by some in Congress who feel free to lecture other countries about the need to protect whistleblowers while advancing draconian legislation at home to punish them. Now the FBI is seeking even greater surveillance powers.

As this cartoon by Tom Tomorrow points out, although Obama on the 2008 campaign trail praised whistleblowing as "acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, [and] should be encouraged rather than stifled", once in office he has been one of the most vicious prosecutors. His cruel treatment of Bradley Manning for his alleged leaking to WikiLeaks is unforgivable. All this goes on while the public's attention is diverted elsewhere on relatively trivial government intrusions.


November 03, 2011

Tom the Dancing Bug

Cartoonist Ruben Bolling wonders who the real occupiers are whom the police should disperse.

The Haught-Coyne debate video

[UPDATE2: The Q/A session following the debate has been added below the debate video.]

[UPDATE: I have now watched the video and I think I know why Haught was upset and did not want the video released. Coyne was direct and uncompromising (which anyone who has read his stuff should have expected) but I don't think that that was the problem. It was because Coyne used direct quotes from Haught to make his argument that theology can only make science and religion seem compatible by using a fog of language and metaphor. By quoting all those passages from Haught's books, Coyne essentially provided a template and all the ammunition anyone needs to effectively debate Haught in the future.]

The much talked about video of the debate between theologian John Haught and scientist Jerry Coyne is now available. I have not had time to watch it yet but Coyne says that it consists of the two 25-minute talks. The PowerPoint slides that accompanied the talks can be downloaded separately and he recommends that you do that and follow along.

The Q/A that followed is not shown and that's a pity. I find that the Q/A sessions are sometimes the best part of the talk. They enable the speakers to clarify and sharpen their ideas. In fact, when I give talks I often encourage the audience to jump in with questions at any time and even build in time during the talk for such exchanges.

Haught and Coyne's talks:

2011 Bale Boone Symposium - Science & Religion: Are They Compatible? from UK Gaines Center on Vimeo.

Q/A session:

Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? October 12, 2011 Q+A with Jerry Coyne and John Haught from UK College of Arts & Sciences on Vimeo.

Relativity-11: The cold fusion debacle

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The 'cold fusion' episode from back in 1989 illustrates the danger with issuing press releases announcing a major scientific discovery before the scientific community has had a chance to weigh in and sift through the evidence. Two respected scientists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann at the University of Utah discovered reactions producing enormous amounts of heat when the metal palladium was immersed in what is known as 'heavy water', which contains a large fraction of water molecules in which the ordinary hydrogen atom has been replaced by the heavier isotope deuterium. The experimenters thought that chemical reactions could not account for the scale of the energy release and were convinced that they had discovered a way to produce nuclear fusion reactions at room temperature, thus opening the way to a vast, cheap, and clean new energy source. Needless to say, this would be a revolutionary discovery, both scientifically and practically.

In March 1989 they announced their results at a press conference to loud fanfare. I remember hearing the announcement on BBC news over my short-wave radio and thinking "Wow! This is huge." As in the current case of faster-than-light neutrinos, the initial surprise was quickly followed by considerable skepticism within the scientific community because cold fusion went completely against all that we thought we knew about nuclear fusion. For two nuclei to come close enough to fuse, they have to overcome the strong repulsive forces due to both having positive charges. For the nuclei to overcome this 'Coulomb barrier', they have to have high energies that are associated with high temperatures as found in the Sun and other stars, which is what enables fusion to be their energy source. What Pons and Fleischmann were suggesting would require some new mechanism to overcome the well-known and well-understood obstacles to low-temperature fusion.

Other scientists pointed out that even if we ignored the Coulomb problem, the byproducts of fusion, which should have been copiously produced, were not observed either, throwing doubt on whether fusion was actually occurring. This objection was countered by claiming that perhaps this was a new form of nuclear reaction that did not produce those specific byproducts. As I pointed out in my series on the logic of science, almost any theory can be salvaged by the introduction of such auxiliary hypotheses. But adopting such stratagems tends to weaken the case for a new theory unless they too can be corroborated with other evidence.

If the claims of Pons and Fleischmann were true, the practical benefits and the revolutionary science they spawned were enormous and this persuaded enough scientists to take the cold fusion claims seriously enough to spend considerable time and effort and money to investigate them. As far as I am aware, over two decades later, though some scientists still continue to work on it, there is still no consistency about the cold fusion reactions, despite periodic resurgences of enthusiasm, enough that the Pentagon is funding further studies. In 2009, the program 60 Minutes did a program giving the history of cold fusion and some new developments.

One problem with cold fusion is that the heat reactions cannot be reliably reproduced. "The experiments produce excess heat at best 70 percent of the time; it can take days or weeks for the excess heat to show up. And it's never the same amount of energy twice." This is always a troubling sign. Scientific laws are not idiosyncratic. If they work, they should work all the time in the same way with no exceptions. If there are exceptions, these should also be law-like in that you should be able to predict exactly under what conditions they will or will not occur. Results that occur sometimes with no understanding why are signs that there are some unknown factors at work that are skewing the results.

So what has all this history to do with the recent neutrino story? The fact that this result was also announced via what was essentially a press release and not at a scientific meeting or in a peer-reviewed journal article aroused some concern. Press releases do not face the same degree of scrutiny as a journal article, where a sensational claim of this sort would be subject to close scrutiny before being approved for publication. In the above video, Fleischmann recognized this mistake, saying that he had two regrets: "calling the nuclear effect "fusion," a name coined by a competitor, and having that news conference, something he says the University of Utah wanted."

It is not the case that scientists are hidebound dogmatists, determined to cling on to old ideas, as is sometimes claimed by non-scientists when their pet theories (such as intelligent design) are rejected. As I said before, part of the strength of science is that because scientific knowledge is the product of a consensus-building process, it does not get easily swayed by each and every claim of a big discovery. It initially views reports of revolutionary developments with skepticism, waiting to see if the results hold up and corroborating evidence is produced. If so, the community can and does accept the new idea. For example, this year's award of the Nobel prize for physics was for the discovery that distant galaxies are not only moving away from us (which agreed with existing theories) but are actually accelerating (which flatly contradicted everything we had thought and has led to the highly counter-intuitive idea of so-called 'dark energy' permeating and dominating all of space) shows that the community can change its collective mind and accept radically new ideas, and fairly quickly. But the reason such a seemingly outlandish result as dark energy became the conventional wisdom within the short space of less than two decades is because the proponents were able to marshal the evidence in favor of it that survived close scrutiny and was corroborated.

The history of cold fusion, despite not becoming mainstream, also puts the lie to the claims of the so-called intelligent design movement that scientists conspire to suppress those ideas that challenge conventional wisdom. Despite the fact that most of the scientific community is highly skeptical of it being a real effect, cold fusion advocates actually do have a research program in which they do experiments, produce data, and publicize their results. All that members of the intelligent design community do is write books and articles and give talks whining that the scientific community refuses to give them a platform to promote their ideas and that this is because the community is hidebound and refuses to even consider their bold new idea that challenges the accepted 'dogma' of evolution.

The actual explanation for why the scientific community rejects intelligent design is simple and mundane. More that two decades after the idea was first proposed, intelligent design advocates still have not done a single experiment or have even a research program to do any.

Next: What if Einstein causality has to be abandoned?

November 02, 2011

Richard Feynman on science

He makes a good analogy for how scientists go about their work.

Still Haughty

Yesterday I wrote about the bizarre situation where Catholic theologian John Haught had objected to the release of the video of the debate that he had with Jerry Coyne. That refusal caused quite a furor in the blog world and as a result, Haught has relented.

You can read Haught's explanation for his initial refusal and subsequent reversal, and Coyne's response follows immediately after. What I want to highlight is Haught's extraordinarily patronizing claim that he was trying to protect our delicate sensibilities from being offended by having to listen to what Coyne had to say.

But let me come to the main reason why I have been reluctant to give permission to release the video. It is not for anything that I said during our encounter, but for a reason that I have never witnessed in public academic discussion before.

I'm still in shock at how your presentation ended up. I was so offended both personally and as an academic by the vulgarity of it all that I did not want other people to have to share what I witnessed that night in October. I still don't.

You should be grateful that I have tried to protect the public from such a preposterous and logic-offending way of bringing your presentation to a close.

It is preposterous to think that the kinds of people who would take the trouble to watch a debate between a theologian and a scientist are like stereotypical Victorian ladies who might swoon and have to reach for their smelling salts. We can judge perfectly well for ourselves who comported themselves well and who didn't.

All Haught has done is vastly increase the interest in watching the debate. He may want to buy stock in companies that sell smelling salts.

The role of religion at a secular university

There will be a panel discussion followed by a free and open forum on the above topic to discuss the role of religion, involving questions such as: Should we support it, promote it, accommodate it, respect it, or just ignore it?

The panelists are: William Deal (moderator, Professor of Religion), Peter Haas (Chair of Department of Religious Studies), Colleen Barker-Williamson (Director of Student Activities and Leadership), and Mano Singham (Director, UCITE)

Location: Nord 310 on the Case quad of CWRU
Time: Friday, November 4, 2011, 12:30-1:45 pm

Pizza and drinks will be available.

Rising tensions over the Occupy movement

The police and authorities in various cities have started to crack down on the Occupy movement and evict them from their sites. The worst such incident using force occurred in Oakland where police used tear gas and so-called 'non-lethal projectiles' (an euphemism for anything other than bullets) with one victim suffering brain injuries when he was hit by a projectile fired by the police and is now awaiting brain surgery. A general strike has been called for in Oakland today.

The Oakland mayor and police chief have received calls for their resignations and are now trying to distance themselves from the brutality that they unleashed. What makes it worse for them is that the victim, rather than someone who could be dismissed as a dirty hippie and therefore underserving of sympathy, is a US marine veteran who had served two tours in Iraq. This has put authorities everywhere on the defensive, though it hasn't stopped them from trying to remove the protestors.

This week's violent clashes with police in Oakland appear to have re-energised the Occupy movement in America, creating political liabilities for civic leaders across the United States, who had seemed poised to follow Oakland's lead and, in some cases, issued orders to clear the streets.

The Oakland protesters were back in force on Wednesday night, 24 hours after they were supposed to be gone for good, demanding the resignation of the city's mayor.

The Daily Show had a segment on the Oakland crackdown.

Stephen Colbert also spoke about it.

I think the authorities are underestimating the widespread but quiet sympathy that exists for the Occupy movement. A lot of people in the US feel politically impotent, that they have no say in the decisions that are made. They may not know what exactly the Occupy movement hopes to achieve but they know that that a small and very wealthy cohort of individuals are manipulating the political system for their private benefit and that the Occupy protestors are the only ones doing anything about it, and for this they are grateful. And the movement has already achieved had one major effect: The conversation has now shifted to talk about jobs and income inequality and in terms of the 1% vs. the 99%, and not about the deficit.

Meanwhile in Egypt there was a demonstration and march on the US embassy, starting at the now iconic Tahrir Square, in support of the Occupy movement and in protest of the police actions against the Oakland protestors. Given that Tahrir Square was the inspiration for protest movements around the world, this was a fitting symbol. There are also protests in Greece over the bailout package that will, like the bailouts in the US, is not meant to bail out the people of Greece but to siphon public money to recompense the big banks for the losses they sustained for their risky behavior. It is interesting how the French and German and US governments are horrified that the Greek government is planning to put the bailout plan to a referendum, as if the thought of people having a say in their country's future is something to be deplored. And big protests and a march on the G20 meeting today in Cannes resulted in the police blocking the marchers from entering the city. The war against the oligarchy is going global, as it should.

Chris Hedges and Amy Goodman, two of the best journalists around, appeared on the Charlie Rose show and provided a thoughtful look at what is going on and what the events symbolize. This took place last Tuesday before the Oakland crackdown so that was not discussed.

November 01, 2011

Documentary: Hot Coffee

Stephen Colbert interviews Susan Saladoff, the creator of the documentary with the above name, that challenges the myth put out by the corporate industry and its pliant media allies that trivial lawsuits are out of control and that people need to be limited in their ability to take big corporations to court.

Here is the trailer for the documentary.

More evidence that religion has lost the argument

I have said many times before, especially in my series on Why atheism is winning, that religion has lost the argument. Modern science has revealed the poverty of even the most sophisticated arguments for god. As further evidence, Jerry Coyne shares the extraordinary events that followed his debate with theologian John Haught.

On October 12 at the University of Kentucky, I debated Catholic theologian John Haught from Georgetown University on the topic of "Are science and religion compatible?" It was a lively debate, and I believe I got the better of the man (see my post-debate report here). Haught didn't seem to have prepared for the debate, merely rolling out his tired old trope of a "layered" universe, with the layer of God and Jesus underlying the reality of the cosmos, life, and evolution. I prepared pretty thoroughly, reading half a dozen of Haught's books (you need read only one: they're all the same), and watching all his previous debates on YouTube. (Note that he's sanctioned release of those videos.)

Haught seemed to have admitted his loss, at least judging by the audience reaction, but blamed it on the presence of "Jerry's groupies," an explanation I found offensive. I'm not aware of any groupies anywhere, much less in Kentucky!

The debate, including half an hour of audience questions, was videotaped. Both John and I had given our permission in advance for the taping. I looked forward to the release of the tape because, of course, I wanted a wider audience for my views than just the people in the audience in Lexington. I put a lot of work into my 25-minute talk, and was eager for others to see why I found science and religion to be at odds.

Well, you're not going to see that tape—ever. After agreeing to be taped, Haught decided that he didn't want the video released.

I am deeply angry about this stand, and can see only one reason for what Haught has done: cowardice. He lost the debate; his ideas were exposed for the mindless theological fluff that they were; and I used his words against him, showing that even "sophisticated" theology, when examined under the microscope of reason, is just a bunch of made-up stuff, tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The only good thing to come from this affair is that it exposes not only the follies of "sophisticated" theology, but the cowardice of a famous theologian. (Haught is the most prominent American theologian who writes about evolution and its comity with religion.) If Haught can't win a debate, then he'll use all his God-given powers to prevent anyone from seeing his weaknesses. I've written to other well-known atheists who have debated theologians, and not one of them is aware of anything like this ever happening.

This is shameful behavior by Haught.

Relativity-10: Science and public relations

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Scientists want their work to influence the field and so they would like it to gain the widest possible audience. Most of the time, their peers (and funding agencies) are their target audience because they are the only ones who really understand what they do. But when the work also has appeal to the general public because of its practical applicability or its revolutionary implications, then there can arise tensions in how the work is publicized and in the case of the OPERA experiment on faster-than-light neutrinos, there has been considerable unease with how this whole episode was handled with respect to the media.

The usual process when scientists have something new to say is that they write up a paper with their results and send it to a journal. The journal then sends the paper to referees who work in the same field (the number of referees depends on the journal and the discretion of the editor) who provide feedback to the editor. The referees do not usually check the results or repeat the calculations and experiments. What they do is see if the paper makes sense, the methodology is correct, if the authors have taken into account all the relevant factors and provided all the necessary information so that readers know exactly what was done (and how) so that they could repeat and check the results if they are so inclined, and that proper credit has been given for prior related work. Based on this feedback, the editor decides whether to accept the paper, reject it, or send it back to the authors for revisions and/or additional work. Good referees and editors can improve a paper enormously by providing the authors with valuable feedback and useful information and suggestions.

In the sciences, authors also usually simultaneously send out copies of the paper (known as preprints) to colleagues in the field. This serves to give their colleagues advance notice of their work (since the time taken to appear in the journal can often take over a year), to get feedback, and to establish priority for any discovery. All this occurs out of the public eye. Once the paper has been accepted and published by a journal, then it enters the public discussion and the media can publicize it. If the paper has significant implications, the journals may alert the media and give reporters a copy of the paper before it appears in print so that they can research and prepare an article about it, but the reporter is under an embargo to not publish until the journal article actually appears. Some of the more influential journals will refuse to publish an article if the authors release the information to the media before the journal prints it.

In the pre-internet days, and for research results that do not have revolutionary implications, this system worked reasonably well. Due to the cost of mailing, not too many preprints went out so the pre-publication discussions remained within a fairly small circle. With the internet, it became much easier to send out preprints to huge numbers of people at no cost and it was not long before it was realized that it made sense to create a system that could serve as a permanent archive that would allow scientists to post their preprints online so that anyone could gain access to them and search for those results that interested them. Currently the most popular venue for such preprints is arXiv and Wikipedia has a good article about its history and how it works.

The articles that are found on arXiv are preprints and thus have not been peer-reviewed but the system is minimally moderated to keep out rubbish. In general, scientists are concerned about their reputations among their peers and so most are careful to only post articles that they think would meet the standards of quality required if they were submitting to a peer-reviewed journal. Almost all of them do simultaneously submit their articles to such journals. As a result, the papers that appear on arXiv tend to be of pretty good quality. All the papers associated with the faster-than-light OPERA experiment are on arXiv.

A few scientists feel that peer-reviewed print journals are an anachronism and do not bother to try to even get their work into journals, feeling that the quality of the work will speak for itself. They think that if their work is correct and important, the community of scientists will accept it and build on it, while if it is wrong the community will criticize and reject it. Possibly the worst fate is that the community will think it is useless and a waste of time and completely ignore it. It may well be the case that in the future, expensive peer-reviewed print journals will disappear and that this kind of open-source publication will become the norm, with quality being determined by the consensus judgment of the scientific community. We are not there yet.

In the case of the OPERA experiment, the system broke down somewhat for several reasons. The OPERA experiment is very difficult and is a huge enterprise involving many collaborators and lasting over three years, with the paper having over 150 authors. Given the culture of the free sharing of information in science, it is very hard to keep preliminary results under wraps and it was pretty much an open secret that these faster-than-light results had been obtained. But this knowledge stayed within the community. What the OPERA team did was the day after they posted their preprint on arXiv on September 22, they issued a press release announcing their results and promoting a big press conference the next day with media and scientists present.

This rubbed some scientists the wrong way. Scientists can be as publicity hungry as celebrities but there are norms and there is a discreet way of making one's name known. Holding press conferences or issuing press releases so early in the game, before the scientific community has had time to pass its verdict on the research, is considered bad form and the OPERA team has received some criticisms on this score.

While some of the carping may be due to jealousy, it is also the case that trumpeting that a scientific revolution has occurred can harm the image of science if the claim has to be later retracted. The reliable knowledge that science produces tends to be the consensus verdict of the community, achieved after a lot of behind-the-scenes work has smoothed out the rough edges and corrected mistakes. Bypassing that filtering process and going public too soon can lead to embarrassing reversals and give ammunition to the critics of science that its results cannot be trusted.

Next: Recalling an earlier public relations debacle