Entries for January 2012

January 10, 2012

This blog has moved to Freethought Blogs

I have decided to take up the offer to move to Freethought Blogs. The change will take effect immediately and my new site is already up here. I reposted yesterday's Santorum post over there to get a feel of how to use the new platform. I will continue to maintain this site with all its archives and will monitor it to clear up the spam and respond to any questions and comments that warrant them but new posts will only appear over at the new site.

Thanks to all who responded to my request for comments on the move. It was gratifying to hear the messages of support and that most of you felt that you would go to the new site. I was surprised at the number of people who said that the present site had a sense of intimacy and coziness that they feared might get lost at FTB. One does not immediately think of the internet as an intimate place but I understand what they are saying. Over time, a community of people gets created and I feel that I 'know' many people who comment here though I have never met them and all that I know about them is the name and URL they choose to provide.

People have warned me about possible trolls at the new location. I think of internet trolls as commenters who deliberately try to deflect a discussion to irrelevant issues or start a flame war or otherwise disrupt a discussion. I have not had to deal with that problem here, mainly because the readers here seem to be able to keep things on track and ignore irrelevancies. It will be interesting to see what the new site will bring.

What I have had to spend a lot of time on is spam. Every day I get hundreds of spam comments, a few of which get past the system's filters and appear on the site. Several times I day I go in and clean them out, so that the real comments don't get lost in the clutter. More time consuming is going into the spam folder and rescuing and publishing real comments that the filter has mistakenly identified as spam. In the new system, you can freely post comments as here except that I have chosen the option that the first time someone posts a comment, I will need to authorize it but after that there is no restriction and your comments should appear immediately. Sorry about that inconvenience but that should reduce the spam problem.

I would like to express my special thanks to Norm Nason, editor of the excellent web magazine Machines Like Us, and a person of many artistic talents whose wide variety of work can be seen here, for designing the nifty new banner that graces my new site.

I must also give a lot of thanks to Jeremy Smith, the system administrator here, who has been immensely supportive in keeping the system going and helping me out when necessary when I have done something stupid, such as banning myself from my own site, if you can believe it. (I have never banned anyone but the system has filters that identify most spam and can ban the more egregious offenders and on occasion I have accidentally triggered it.) I must thank Jeremy, Heidi Cool, and Vincenzo who commented on my first few posts and encouraged me to keep going. But they should not be blamed for the quality of the roughly two million words that have subsequently emerged!

I also have to thank Case Western Reserve University for creating this blogging platform without which I might never have had the nerve to start blogging. This platform made it so easy that I took the plunge on January 26th, 2005 and I will mark the seventh anniversary of blogging this month. The university has never once interfered with anything that I have posted, although I have taken some pretty controversial positions on occasion. Colleagues have on occasion asked me if I received any push back from the university administration for things I said and have been surprised when I reply that no one has given even the remotest suggestion that I tone things down. Universities should be the most dedicated defenders of free speech but we know that in these days, with so much pressure from external sources such as alumni and funders, many are wary of stepping on toes. Hence it reflects great credit to CWRU that they have left me completely alone to write what I wish. It is not that they don't know this blog exists because I know that I am read quite widely on campus.

So onward and upward to the new frontier!

January 09, 2012

The story of a slave in the White House

Some of the most interesting segments on The Daily Show are those involving authors and books that I had never heard of before. In this segment, Jon Stewart interviews Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, author of A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons.

A review of the book can be read here.

Misleading arguments against same sex marriage

Most people have probably heard that Rick Santorum was given a hard time by a group of college students in New Hampshire because of his opposition to same sex marriage, which resulted in him being booed and jeered at the end. You can see the video at the bottom of this news story. What people may not have been noticed is that this was a group of college Republicans, which shows how the younger generation across the political spectrum views giving gays equal rights much more favorably than the old. Homophobia is dying, and dying quickly.

In responding to the question of why he opposed same sex marriage, Santorum exploited a debating trick in which one shifts the point of discussion ever so slightly away from something that is hard to defend against to something else that is easier to defend. The students were not prepared for this and though they sensed that they were getting a non sequitur, they could not quite put their finger on the flaw at that moment. This is not a good thing for Santorum because the students will figure out later what he did and why he was wrong and it will make them angry that he tried to snooker them. I think the jeers at the end were from those who already realized what he was doing but did not get the chance to make their case.

As a former debater, I have learned that there are quite a few tricks that you can use to stymie an opponent and seemingly win a point in the short term but you have to be aware that when people figure out later that they have been tricked, that will backfire on you. So, as a public service, here is some information to anyone to counter the kinds of phony arguments that Santorum made.

What happened during the exchange was this. When a student asked why he opposed same sex marriage, Santorum correctly replied that the burden of the argument is on those who advocate a change in existing law and pressed the student for a reason that made same sex marriage necessary. Put on the spot, the student said (at 2:30) that without it, gay people do not have the right to visit their partners in hospital. Santorum responded (again correctly) that gay people could sign a contract that gave their partners this particular right, so marriage was not necessary to achieve that particular goal.

But this misses the point. It is true that one can sign contracts that enable one's partner to have this or that specific right, but the fact is that when you get married you automatically get conferred on you a wide range of rights, only a few of which can be substituted contractually outside of marriage. If all the rights of marriage could be achieved by signing a single legal contract between two people, then the whole issue of same sex marriage would be moot since we would have the equivalent of civil unions and gay people could have such a legal ceremony and be done with it.

Santorum further said that if same sex marriage is allowed, then the rule that marriage is only between one man and one woman would no longer hold and one would have to allow polygamy as well. He wisely steered away from his earlier claim that allowing same sex marriage to be legal would mean that one would have to also allow marriage to animals and children. This association of homosexuality with bestiality and pedophilia was what resulted in his famous Google problem.

What Santorum was doing here was misleading the audience on the ways in which the rules for marriage can be expanded. In general, marriage has the following rules: (1) only human beings can get married; (2) the number of people who can be married is two; and (3) the two people must consist of one man and one woman. (There are other rules involving age, relationship, and so on that do not add anything to the point I am making here.) Hence when one broadens the definition of marriage, one can do it in at least three ways. One can expand it to include other species, one can increase the number of people involved, one can make more flexible the genders of the people involved, or some combination of all three. What should be obvious is that there is no logical reason why any one option would inevitably lead to any other. What supporters of same sex marriage are saying is that they have no problem with restricting marriage to human beings or that the number be two. It is that they want to relax only rule #3 and allow two people of any gender (male, female, transgender) to marry. The reason for urging this change is so that then there will be equality under the law and that people's rights are not restricted because of their gender or sexual orientation. This is a reasonable, understandable, and to my mind compelling, argument.

So what about relaxing rule #2 and allowing polygamy or rule #1 and allowing bestiality? At present there is no significant constituency pressing for either and so they are moot and bringing them into this discussion is purely a diversionary tactic. It may happen that the day will come when (say) some Mormons and Muslims lead a campaign for relaxing rule #2 and that debate will come to the forefront. I for one would have no fundamental problem with the number of people who are allowed to marry being increased to three or four or to whatever number society deems most suitable. But for the same reasons as above, I would have a problem if they increased it to three and restricted it to (say) just one man and two women. If we are going to increase the number to three human beings then, invoking the same principle of equality, the persons that comprise those three should not be restricted by gender. You should also allow one woman and two men, or three men, or three women, or one woman and one man and one transgender, and so on.

What Santorum was doing was conflating something that is arbitrary (the number of people who can be married) with something that involves a fundamental principle of justice (equal treatment under the law). As an analogy, if one should be needed, it is like the speed limit on a road. People accept whatever number is posted. People also accept speed limit changes from 55 mph to 60 mph or 65 mph as involving merely numbers that are determined based on a variety of prosaic reasons. There is no fundamental principle involved. But everyone would agree that it would be wrong to have one speed limit for male drivers and another for female drivers.

One student during the exchange pointed this out, saying (at 5:40) that she personally did not care if polygamy was allowed but that this issue was irrelevant to the issue of same sex marriage. She was absolutely correct but her view did not get a proper response.

This was not a debating competition where the point is to win. As a lawyer, Santorum should have been aware of everything that I said above and in not acknowledging it, he was either being dishonest and trying to bamboozle the audience or is so homophobic that his reasoning skills completely desert him when it comes to anything involving homosexuality. It could be the latter. As comedian Gary Shandling says in a tweet, "Rick Santorum seems so homophobic that I'm surprised he even allows another man to vote for him."

I think that the students sensed that Santorum was not discussing the issue honestly and was being patronizing and condescending and that was why he was roundly booed at the end. But thanks to the internet, people are going to wise up and the next time he, or anyone else, tries these debating tricks, I hope they get strong push back.

January 08, 2012

The Daily Show on god's mysterious involvement in the elections

Guess I won't be invited to write for The Huffington Post

They have started a new science section and Arianna Huffington says this of her hopes for it:

I'm particularly looking forward to HuffPost Science's coverage of one of my longtime passions: the intersection of science and religion, two fields often seen as contradictory -- or at least presented that way by those waging The War on Science. A key part of HuffPost Science's mission will be to cut through the divisions that have resulted from that false war.

Rather than taking up arms in those misguided, outdated battles, HuffPost Science will work in the tradition of inquisitive minds that can accommodate both logic and mystery. It's a tradition exemplified by Brown University biology professor Kenneth Miller, who, when I visited with him last year, told me that he sees Darwin not as an obstacle to faith but as "the key to understanding our relationship with God."

Ah, yes, the old "accommodate both logic and mystery" ploy, as Inspector Clousseau would say. Expect to see full-bore accommodationism that tells you that magical thinking is perfectly compatible with science, as long as you throw in sexy sciency words such as 'quantum' and 'indeterminancy' to mask the woo that lurks beneath. I don't know why they don't call it the 'Deepak Chopra section' and be done with it.

January 07, 2012

Another storm in a teacup

A good indicator of how degraded the political discourse has become in government is the absurd fuss over the recess appointment by president Obama of Richard Cordray to head the newly formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency that Elizabeth Warren designed and which she was considered too controversial to lead. She is now running for the US Senate seat in Massachusetts.

The US Senate, that has blithely ignored or gone along with all the major violations of the law and the constitution that presidents have committed over recent years, has taken umbrage over a minor issue of procedure and privilege, illustrating once again my point that it is not the issues that they fight over in Washington that one must watch closely, it is what they don't fight over.

The Daily Show comments on the latest absurd fuss. I find it impressive how, in a few short minutes, they manage to explain precisely what is at issue, with all its munitiae, while overlaying it with humor.

Fighting over the baby Jesus's crib

Many Christians who belong to the Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on or around January 6 because they follow the older Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar that the rest of the world uses. This gives them a huge advantage since they can do their Christmas shopping after December 25, thus not only avoiding the crowds but also taking advantage of the post-Christmas sales.

I came across this news report that said that priests of the Greek Orthodox Church and the Armenian Orthodox Church came to blows over who has the right to clean the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the site that tradition says is where Jesus was born. Each side had come with cleaning materials to clean their assigned area but when one group encroached on the space of another, they used their brooms and mops to wage a pitched battle for supremacy. Watch.

What is extraordinary is that this apparently happens every year and police have to be called in to quell the disturbance but that no arrests are made because, as the police chief says, "all those involved were men of God". Of course they were. Who else would fight about something like that?

The intensity of feeling over cleaning a building made me curious as to what theological difference existed between these two religious traditions and discovered that the split dated back to 451 CE and the Council of Chalcedon that was convened to settle an important doctrinal issue known as the "Two Natures" controversy: Did the two natures of Jesus (divine and human) co-exist in his body or were the two natures fused into one? The verdict of the Council was in favor the former and believers of any other formulation were 'anathematized' or cursed.

As if often the case involving dogma, the final adjudication caused umbrage on the part of the losing side in the debate, causing them to take their ball and go home, which in this case meant forming the Oriental Orthodox churches of which the Armenian branch is one.

I myself am on the side of the Greek Orthodox Church in this dispute since they are obviously right. The idea that the two natures of Jesus were fused into one is preposterous and the Armenians will burn in hell forever for this monstrous heresy. As for them breaking away, all I can say is, "Good riddance, splitters."

January 06, 2012

If not for these people, Santorum would have won Iowa

My brain is already falling apart

A new study says that people start losing their brain powers as early as 45 years of age.

The results of the tests show that cognitive scores declined in all categories except vocabulary - and there was a faster decline in older people.

The study found a 9.6% decline in mental reasoning in men aged 65-70 and a 7.4% decline for women of the same age.

For men and women aged 45-49, there was a 3.6% decline.

Since my work involves mainly words, the lack of decline in vocabulary skills may be masking my decrepitude.

The study can be read here.

Now we can all be indefinitely detained

On New Year's eve, a time when no one is paying much attention to politics, president Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act. This was a bill that funded the US military for the rest of the fiscal year. But within that legislation was a provision that allows the US government to indefinitely detain without trial even US citizens, by making the entire world, including the US, part of the 'battlefield' which means that anyone can be picked up anywhere and declared to be an enemy combatant and thus stripped of their rights. The administration claims it has the right to indefinitely detain anyone that they, and they alone, assert is 'at war with the United States', whatever that means. This continues the whittling away at habeas corpus, one of the bedrock protections of individual liberty.

According to the ACLU, the legislation was "drafted in secret by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) and passed in a closed-door committee meeting, without even a single hearing." It then passed easily in both houses with little or no debate, always a dangerous sign, since such speedy and secretive bipartisan harmony usually means that the general public is getting a raw deal. The Daily Show rightly ridiculed the rushed Senate debate.

The Senate finally voted 93 to 7 in favor of the bill. The only 'no' votes were Tom Harkin (D, Iowa), Tom Coburn (R, Ok), Rand Paul (R, Ky), Jeff Merkley (D, Or), Ron Wyden (D, Or), Mike Lee (R, UT), and Bernie Sanders (I, VT). Notable yes votes were from Al Franken and Sherrod Brown. Ohio's Brown, a supposed liberal, has a disgraceful record of voting for authoritarian legislation such as the Military Commissions Act in 2006 and now this. The House of Representatives voted 283 to 136 in favor with 14 not voting.

Human rights groups have been outspoken in their condemnation of the Act. Human Rights Watch has called it a 'historic tragedy for rights' and its executive director Kenneth Roth has said that, "By signing this defense spending bill, President Obama will go down in history as the president who enshrined indefinite detention without trial in US law."

The far-reaching detainee provisions would codify indefinite detention without trial into US law for the first time since the McCarthy era when Congress in 1950 overrode the veto of then-President Harry Truman and passed the Internal Security Act. The bill would also bar the transfer of detainees currently held at Guantanamo into the US for any reason, including for trial. In addition, it would extend restrictions, imposed last year, on the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo to home or third countries – even those cleared for release by the administration.

As Justin Raimondo points out, this legislation "essentially repeals the longstanding Posse Comitatus Act, which prevents the military from engaging in law enforcement on US territory." Obama apologists have, as usual, said that things are not that bad but Glenn Greenwald sets them straight using the direct language of the Act to make his case. Matt Taibbi is disturbed by the muted reactions to this the new law, when the opposition should be vociferous from all sides of the political spectrum.

Those of us who have been following the steady erosion of constitutional rights under the Bush/Cheney and Obama regimes knew this was coming. As is often the case when civil liberties are involved, Obama and the Democrats have played a double game, strengthening the authoritarian powers of government while pretending to care about freedoms. George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley rips into the Act and Obama's duplicity;

Ironically, in addition to breaking his promise not to sign the law, Obama broke his promise on signing statements and attached a statement that he really does not want to detain citizens indefinitely.

Obama insisted that he signed the bill simply to keep funding for the troops. It was a continuation of the dishonest treatment of the issue by the White House since the law first came to light. As discussed earlier, the White House told citizens that the president would not sign the NDAA because of the provision. That spin ended after sponsor Senator Carl Levin (Democrat, Michigan) went to the floor and disclosed that it was the White House and insisted that there be no exception for citizens in the indefinite detention provision.

[T]he insistence that you do not intend to use authoritarian powers does not alter the fact that you just signed an authoritarian measure. It is not the use but the right to use such powers that defines authoritarian systems.

The almost complete failure of the mainstream media to cover this issue is shocking.

On the NDAA, reporters continue to mouth the claim that this law only codifies what is already the law. That is not true. The administration has fought any challenges to indefinite detention to prevent a true court review. Moreover, most experts agree that such indefinite detention of citizens violates the constitution.

There are also those who continue the longstanding effort to excuse Obama's horrific record on civil liberties by blaming either others or the times. One successful myth is that there is an exception for citizens. The White House is saying that changes to the law made it unnecessary to veto the legislation. That spin is ridiculous. The changes were the inclusion of some meaningless rhetoric after key amendments protecting citizens were defeated. The provision merely states that nothing in the provisions could be construed to alter Americans' legal rights. Since the Senate clearly views citizens as not just subject to indefinite detention but even to execution without a trial, the change offers nothing but rhetoric to hide the harsh reality.

The Obama administration and Democratic members are in full spin mode – using language designed to obscure the authority given to the military. The exemption for American citizens from the mandatory detention requirement (section 1032) is the screening language for the next section, 1031, which offers no exemption for American citizens from the authorisation to use the military to indefinitely detain people without charge or trial.

Obama could have refused to sign the bill and the Congress would have rushed to fund the troops. Instead, as confirmed by Senator Levin, the White House conducted a misinformation campaign to secure this power while portraying the president as some type of reluctant absolute ruler, or, as Obama maintains, a reluctant president with dictatorial powers.

For civil libertarians, the NDAA is our Mayan moment: 2012 is when the nation embraced authoritarian powers with little more than a pause between rounds of drinks.

The Daily Show rightly mocks Obama's bogus attempts at pretending that he cares about civil liberties.

So what happens if you or someone you know is captured and detained under this law? Not to worry! Tom the Dancing Bug has a handy information sheet telling you what rights you still have.

January 05, 2012

Stoning in Iran

As a vivid example of the ghastliness that can ensue when religious people gain political power, we have the case of people who are condemned to death by stoning in Iran. According to an ACLU pamphlet that I received, at least 14 people are currently awaiting this form of execution.

Bound, wrapped in shrouds and buried in a pit with head and shoulders above ground, the victims are likely to survive for between 20 minutes and two hours from when the first stone draws blood. The reason they survive so long can be found in the chillingly clinical wording of Article 104 of the Iranian Penal Code:

'The size of the stone used in stoning shall not be too large to kill the convict by one or two throws and at the same time shall not be too small to be called a stone.'

As can be seen in this passage and in the instruments of torture and death developed during the Inquisition, religious people can be quite ingenious in the careful way they devise ways to prolong the agony of their victims.

One Iranian woman, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, is awaiting such an execution because of an adultery conviction. Maryam Namazie has been highlighting her case, hoping to win her freedom.

That's a relief

Bolon_Yokte.jpgFor all those people worried about the Mayan prediction that this will be the last year before the world is destroyed on December 21, it appears that a new reading of the Mayan calendar says that it did not predict that the world will end in 2012. It only predicted the return of the god Bolon Yokte, shown on the right.

So who is this Bolon Yokte? And does he/she come in peace or to smite us in the ways that gods seem to enjoy? The image suggests someone with a fierce attitude, which does not look promising. Some have suggested that he is in fact Jesus, but that seems a bit much. The concept of the trinity is mind-boggling enough without adding a fourth incarnation. As they say when it comes to gods, three's company, but four's a crowd.

The short happy (political) life of Rick Santorum

Despite his strong showing in Iowa, there is absolutely no chance that Rick Santorum will get the Republican nomination because the party establishment will shoot him down before he rises too far. The only question is how long it will take before he is crushed. This is because his social views are too out there even for a party that likes to see itself as the guardians of morality. His obsession with sexual issues, especially his reservations about the right to contraception, is too creepy and extreme for even the oligarchy and its media allies and they will never let him get the nomination. For a sample of his positions, see here.

Furthermore, he is already the butt of relentless humor about his name as a result of Dan Savage's efforts and The Daily Show also had fun with him.

Santorum's daughter Elizabeth has complained about it, saying that "It's disappointing that people can be that mean." In her father's defense, she says that she has gay friends who support her father's candidacy based on his economic and family platforms.

One of the telling signs that a particular bigotry is on the way out is when those bigots go out of their way to insist that they do not hate the victims of the bigotry but in fact have such people among their friends. The statements "Hate the sin, love the sinner" and "Some of my best friends are black/Jews/gays/(fill-in-the-blank)" have now become jokes because they are such obvious attempts at hiding their prejudices. Major changes in social attitudes tend to be accompanied by this kind of hypocrisy just before the new attitudes become accepted.

Dan Savage notes that this stage has arrived for gays. As Savage says, "[W]hat does it tell us about this moment in the struggle for LGBT equality that even homophobes like Elizabeth and her dad perceive a political risk in being perceived as homophobic?" Rick Santorum, his daughter Elizabeth, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Donny Osmond, and Sarah Palin all insist that they have gay friends, though those friends are mysteriously invisible. Either they are made up or they exist but do not want to publicly identify themselves and have to explain to others how they could be friends with homophobes. Savage says that reporters should ask who these friends are. Whatever the case, the very fact that such affirmations of friendship are now obligatory is a good sign.

Savage also says that reporters who listen sympathetically when such people complain about how others are being mean to them about their homophobia are not doing their job. What they encounter is nothing compared to the meanness of the policies that they would like to inflict on gay people. It is a good article, and the short video at the end about a gay couple that waited in vain for forty years to get married is very moving.

All those who predicted dire warnings of the collapse of the US military as a fighting force as a result of the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' (yes, you, John McCain) should apologize because the military has not fallen apart. Even the celebrated public kiss of two navy lesbians aroused little more than curiosity and celebration, the first kiss on shore being a navy tradition whenever a ship returns to port. Note that a similar photo was also featured on the official website of the US Navy.

We now have had multiple states give equal rights to gay people (at least as far as marriage is concerned), all of which were predicted to signal the end of civilization as we know it. And what has happened? Nothing. Life goes on just as before, as all rational people knew it would. Meanwhile the governor of Washington state is introducing legislation to legalize gay marriage which, if it passes, will make it the seventh state to do so, after New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Iowa and the District of Columbia.

We should just give gay people equal rights now in all areas of public life and be done with it. They are going to get them eventually anyway because it is the right thing to do and rights have always been expanded to include more groups of people, never reduced. The people who fight this trend are going to lose and lose badly and will be looked back in history as villains. And they will deserve it.

In the meantime, we can enjoy all the Santorum jokes that will fill the airwaves in the next few days before he fades off into well-deserved oblivion.

January 04, 2012

This is not your grandfather's model railroad

There is something quite fascinating to me about miniature railroads. I had a toy train set as a boy but this is something I could never have imagined.

(Via Machines Like Us.)

God tells Pat Robertson what to expect in 2012

Oh that god, such a tease! After promising Michele Bachmann that she would pull off a miracle in Iowa, he unceremoniously dumped her to sixth place, exactly where she was predicted to be, resulting in her 'suspending' her campaign, which is translated as 'dropping out'. I thought that she would lash out at god for making her look like a fool, but she held her tongue. That's perhaps a wise move since we know how god gets riled for the most petty things and can lash out, like the way he had forty two children attacked by bears merely because they called his prophet Elisha 'baldy'.

It looks like god also abandoned another devoted fan Rick Perry, who came in fifth and has decided to 'reassess' his campaign, which also translates as 'dropping out', although he may have changed his mind and decided to stick it out a little longer.

It looks like god decided, like with Tim Tebow, to throw his weight behind his third string quarterback Rick Santorum, the latest candidate to enjoy the anti-Romney surge. I must admit that I did not see that coming. I thought that the anti-Romney forces would be exhausted after the collapse of their previous hopes Bachmann, Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich.

I think god dumped Bachmann because he is a sexist and prefers to hang out with the guys, especially football players. Via Gawker, I learn that he has also been spending a lot of time with his old buddy Pat Robertson, telling him all that will happen in 2012, including who will be president, though Robertson said he will keep that particular bit of news to himself, probably so that he can make a killing betting on the outcome on Intrade.

It looks like Robertson took notes of what god said during these chats because he gives us direct quotes. Imagine: Direct quotes from god! How cool is that? I don't know why this has not got the entire media to pay attention. Even the woman Robertson is telling all this to does not seem to get all that excited. What a jaded people we have become when god's actual words are ignored.

Did you know that Robertson also only came in second in the Iowa caucuses in 1984 when he ran for president, even though he is so tight with god? So Rick Santorum should not be disheartened that god left him just eight votes shy of first place. It looks like god has this habit of holding back just a little bit. He did go all the way with Mike Huckabee in 2008, only to crash and burn his candidacy soon after. I think god just gets a kick out of messing with his fans' minds.

God truly does work in mysterious ways.

The wonder of science

One of the common criticisms that one hears against us science-based atheists is that our search for naturalistic explanations of hitherto mysterious phenomena, coupled with a relentless assault on irrational and unscientific thinking, results in all the wonder being drained from life. We are told, for example, that to explain that the rainbow is the product of multiple scattering of light by water droplets in the air is to somehow detract from its beauty or that when gazing at the billions of twinkling stars on a beautifully clear cloudless night, to be aware that they are the products of nuclear fusion reactions that took place billions of years ago is to reduce their grandeur.

I must say that I don't understand the criticism. For me at least, understanding how these things come about actually enhances my sense of wonder about the universe. The more I learn about how the universe works and how the impersonal forces of nature created everything around us, the more I am impressed.

To illustrate my point, I am now going to show you something that I think is incredibly beautiful. It is the equation:

T = 2tanh-1(√ΩΛ)/(3H0√ΩΛ)

So what is so great about this equation? It is the equation that tells us the age of the universe. Note that the age T depends on just two quantities H0 and the square root of ΩΛ, both of which are measured quantities. H0 is the value of the Hubble constant at the present time and is given by the slope of the straight line obtained when one plots the speed of distant galaxies (on the y-axis) versus the distance to those galaxies (on the x-axis). ΩΛ is the ratio of the density of dark energy in the universe to the total energy density of the universe.

As with all scientific results, there are some basic theoretical assumptions that go into obtaining them. This particular one requires that the universe be governed by Einstein's equations of general relativity and that its current state is 'matter dominated' (i.e., the energy contribution of pure radiation is negligible) and 'flat' (i.e., the total density of the universe is at its critical value so that the curvature of space is neither convex nor concave). These 'assumptions' are supported by other measurements, so they are not arbitrary.

The values of H0 and ΩΛ are obtained using satellite probes that collect a vast body of data from stars and galaxies and scientists then do a best fit to those data for multiple parameters, of which these are just two. The current values were obtained in 2009 by the WMAP (Wilkinson Microwave Satellite Probe) satellite launched in 2001, and are given by H0=70.5 km/s/Mpc and ΩΛ=0.726. Insert these values into the above equation (with the appropriate units) and you get that the age of the universe is 13.7 billion years.

Why do I think this equation is a thing of extraordinary beauty? Just think about the implications of that equation for a moment. We humans have been around for just an infinitesimally small period of time in history and occupy an infinitesimally small part of the universe. And yet we have been able, using pure ingenuity and by steadily building upon the scientific achievements of our predecessors, to not only figure out the large-scale structure of the vast universe we happen to occupy but to determine, in a simple equation, its actual age! That is truly incredible. If that does not strike you with wonder, then I don't know what will.

Furthermore, note how simple the equation is. The tanh-1 function (which represents the inverse of the hyperbolic tangent) may be intimidating for some but it is such a standard mathematical function that it can be found on any scientific hand calculator. If a news report states that new satellite data have given revised best fit values for by H0 and ΩΛ, anyone can calculate the revised age of the universe themselves in a few minutes.

But as this xkcd cartoon captures accurately, it is not that scientists lose their sense of wonder but that they find wonder in learning about the universe, and do not need to invoke mystery to sense it.

xkcd beauty.jpg

January 03, 2012

How politicians began referring to themselves in the third person

From That Mitchell and Webb Look.

God and Michele Bachmann

We all know that god personally told Michele Bachmann to run for president and made sure that she won the straw poll in Iowa last August. But god is somewhat promiscuous in his affections and also told Rick Perry and Rick Santorum that he wanted them to run too. Then god let his attention drift away from politics and wander to other matters, such as helping Tim Tebow get the Denver Broncos into the Super Bowl playoffs. As a result, the three candidates started tanking in the polls and Bachmann is now predicted to come in sixth in today's Iowa caucuses.

But now that the playoff picture is set and god has done right by Tebow, Bachman is sure that god is paying attention to her campaign again and is ready to stun the masses, saying, "We're going to see an astounding result on Tuesday night — miraculous." How does she know this, you ask? Because "We're believing in a miracle because we know, I know, the one who gives miracles." Yes, god has her on his speed dial and is ready to roll.

So Michele is planning on a successful Hail Mary play today, since god seems to have directly assured her that Jesus will haul down the pass in the end zone. Then god can go back to his main interest and guide Tebow to a win over the Steelers on Saturday.

How the oligarchy avoids taxes

Many big corporations avoid paying US taxes by creating offshore subsidiaries and putting their profits into those companies. That money is often stored in banks in the US but are technically considered outside of the country. Of course, these companies and their executives would like to be able to use the money (which is currently running at more than $1.375 trillion) in the US to pay for their bonuses and the like but if they 'bring it back' (i.e., put it in their US books) they would have to pay the 35% tax that they avoided by using their foreign subsidiaries. So now an army of 160 lobbyists is pushing to allow a 'temporary' tax holiday under which the money can be repatriated to the US at a rate of only 5.25%, which would be a massive windfall to these companies and impoverish the government. This was also done back in 2004, creating a windfall then.

The lobbying effort is headed by Jeffrey Forbes, the former chief of staff of Democratic Senator Max Baucus, head of the Finance Committee, and many of the other lobbyists are former congressional members or their staffers, another example of how the revolving door works to benefit the oligarchy. NPR had a good interview with Jesse Drucker, author of the above-linked Bloomberg Businessweek article on this topic, in which he says that at least 60 former Congressional staffers are involved in the lobbying effort though the rules for identifying lobbyists are so vague that the true number is definitely much larger. Matt Taibbi wrote about the possibility tax repatriation holiday scam in July, wondering where the outrage was.

Taibbi also writes in depth about another big swindle that the banks perpetrated to avoid paying taxes to local communities when they transferred properties. They are now being sued but the oligarchy (including the Congressional and White House leadership) is pushing for a deal that seeks to bail out the big banks at taxpayers' expense.

Another way that taxes are avoided depends on how income is classified. The highest marginal tax rate is 35% but that only kicks in on 'ordinary' income (i.e., the kind that almost all of us earn as salaries and wages) earned in excess of $380,000. NPR's All Things Considered had a good piece on how much of the income of very wealthy people is in a form that is not subject to income taxes. Multimillionaire Nick Hanauer says that he pays just 11% of his income on taxes. As he says, "Most Americans think that the tax rate on the wealthy is 35 percent. But this is absolutely not true. If you're a small business person earning $350,000 a year, your tax rate is 35 percent… But if you're a hedge fund guy or an incredibly rich person like me, all of your income is from capital gains or dividends or tax-free municipal bonds or what have you. And these things are taxed at much lower rates."

How can that be? Because of various tricks. The official salary for very rich people is often just the nominal one of a dollar a year. They get almost all their remuneration from stocks and investments that are taxed at the long-term capital gains rate of just 15%. For ordinary taxpayers, the 15% rate kicks in at incomes above $8,375. For incomes over $34,000, the marginal rate is 25% so people who are below the median income levels are already paying at a higher rate than the wealthiest people. Furthermore, the compensation of private equity or venture or hedge fund managers is often in the form of a share of the profits called 'carried interest' which is subject to a maximum tax rate of 15%. Mitt Romney has been coy about releasing his tax returns and there are suspicions that this is because as a former venture capitalist, almost all his income is of this kind and thus, although a multimillionaire, he pays taxes at a much lower rate than a schoolteacher or fireman or secretary.

And this is even before the wealthy people bring in their high-priced tax accountants who are skilled in finding other ways to further shield their incomes, such as the device known as the 'variable prepaid forward contract', in which people can avoid paying even the low 15% rate by making it seem as if they had not actually sold their stock even though they got money for it, often in the hundreds of millions of dollars. This income does not even show up on their tax returns. It is essentially invisible.

The oligarchy has set up a tax structure that is so complicated that it conceals the fact that they are intent on making as much money as possible and impoverishing everyone else in the process. Nick Hanauer says that that is an incredibly short-sighted policy, and the reason is simple.

If Jeff Bezos and I had started in a poverty-stricken corner of Africa, there would have been no job creation because there would be no people to buy the stuff from The difference here is the American middle class, which is by every measure the most extraordinary economic achievement in the history of the world. And there is only one of those, and it is the font of both innovation and of demand, not just for the American economy, but for the world's economy. And in that sense, it's incredibly precious.

This insight is not new. It was the existence of a large middle class with considerable disposable income that partly made the US economy so powerful. What is new is that the current oligarchy, in its drive to impoverish the very base that gives it its riches, is ignoring history and, in the process, killing the goose that gives them their golden eggs.

January 02, 2012

Moving to Freethought Blogs?

I have been invited to join the stable of bloggers over at Freethought Blogs. There are some well-known ones already posting there, such as Greta Christina, Ophelia Benson, P. Z. Myers, John Loftus, and Ed Brayton.

There will be no restrictions whatsoever on what I post and so the content will remain the same. I am leaning towards joining but before I make the decision, I wanted to throw the idea out to the loyal readers of this blog as to how it might affect their reading enjoyment.

The present site is on a platform run by my university and has been terrific in providing support whenever I needed it and not placing any restrictions on my writing, so any move will not be due to any dissatisfaction with the current situation but purely as a means of creating greater visibility by being part of a broader network of bloggers with similar interests.

So, what do you think?

Hillary Clinton hypocrisy on internet freedom

Glenn Greenwald eviscerates Hillary Clinton on the issue of internet freedom, pointing out that the things she condemns other governments of doing are the things that her own government is trying to do.

So let's review Secretary Clinton's list of grave threats to Internet freedom and see how it applies to her actions and those of the Obama administration. "Those around the world whose words are now censored . . . who are blocked from accessing entire categories of internet content" – check. Attempting to undermine the Internet's ability to "enliven public debates, quench a thirst for knowledge" – check. "Ideas are blocked, information deleted, conversations stifled, and people constrained in their choices" – check. "Companies turning over sensitive information about political dissidents" and "a company shutting down the social networking accounts of activists in the midst of a political debate" — check. "Those who push these plans often do so in the name of security" – big check.

Internet freedom — preventing government and corporate control of the Internet — is indeed one of the most vital political fights of this generation, perhaps the most vital. There are many people in a position credibly to lead and support that fight. Hillary Clinton and the government in which she serves is most definitely not among them; more often than not, they are among the enemies of those freedoms.

It never fails to surprise me how brazenly our elected officials say one thing and do the opposite on matters of extreme importance. Surely it must be because they do not fear being questioned on such things by the establishment media that reserves its belligerence for the most trivial of issues.

Blacks and the Civil War

Given that the Civil war was about slavery and the emancipation of African Americans, you would think that blacks would be keenly interested in that period of history, to understand the causes and effects of an event that had such momentous consequences for them. In an article titled Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?, Ta-Nehisi Coats says that the opposite is true and addresses the roots of this disengagement that results in "the near-total absence of African American visitors" from famous Civil War sites.

Our alienation was neither achieved in independence, nor stumbled upon by accident, but produced by American design. The belief that the Civil War wasn't for us was the result of the country's long search for a narrative that could reconcile white people with each other, one that avoided what professional historians now know to be true: that one group of Americans attempted to raise a country wholly premised on property in Negroes, and that another group of Americans, including many Negroes, stopped them. In the popular mind, that demonstrable truth has been evaded in favor of a more comforting story of tragedy, failed compromise, and individual gallantry. For that more ennobling narrative, as for so much of American history, the fact of black people is a problem.

The fallen Confederacy's chroniclers grasped this historiographic challenge and, immediately after the war, began erasing all evidence of the crime—that is to say, they began erasing black people—from the written record.

For that particular community, for my community, the message has long been clear: the Civil War is a story for white people—acted out by white people, on white people's terms—in which blacks feature strictly as stock characters and props. We are invited to listen, but never to truly join the narrative, for to speak as the slave would, to say that we are as happy for the Civil War as most Americans are for the Revolutionary War, is to rupture the narrative. Having been tendered such a conditional invitation, we have elected—as most sane people would—to decline.

It is an interesting article.

January 01, 2012

Best wishes for the new year …

… to all the readers of this blog.


I hope that the strangest dream that Simon and Garfunkel sang about in 1964 can come true in the near future.