Thursday, December 31, 2009

Quote of the day

"[W]hen the political/media elite come to view the possibility that Larry Craig tried to pick up a guy in an airport as more scandalous than Abu Ghraib, warrantless wiretapping of Americans, or the dishonest march to war against a country that didn't attack us, we're in pretty bad shape." - Jamison Foser

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Obama's political brain

Drew Westen, an Emory university psychologist and the author of The Political Brain, has written a lengthy article trying to figure out how it is that President Obama has managed to so quickly turn-off the very electorate that he was so good at mobilizing during the presidential campaign and election. The whole thing is worth perusal, but I'd like to highlight this portion:

Leadership means heading into the eye of the storm and bringing the vessel of state home safely, not going as far inland as you can because it's uncomfortable on the high seas. This president has a particular aversion to battling back gusting winds from his starboard side (the right, for the nautically challenged) and tends to give in to them. He just can't tolerate conflict, and the result is that he refuses to lead.

We have seen the same pattern of pretty speeches followed by empty exhortations on issue after issue. The president has, on more than one occasion, gone to Wall Street or called in its titans (who have often just ignored him and failed to show up) to exhort them to be nice to the people they're foreclosing at record rates, yet he has done virtually nothing for those people ...

The time for exhortation is over. FDR didn't exhort robber barons to stem the redistribution of wealth from working Americans to the upper 1 percent, and neither did his fifth cousin Teddy. Both men told the most powerful men in the United States that they weren't going to rip off the American people any more, and they backed up their words with actions.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Top science stories of the year

Scientific American's The Top 10 Science Stories of 2009 [Slide Show]

Discover's Top 100 Stories of 2009

As I'm writing this up, Discover has only posted up through story #65, but will be posting the rest of the stories through January. If you haven't already seen the list in the print copy, you may want to bookmark the page or subscribe to the feed to keep up with the list. The top 100 is always the issue I look forward to most.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Report absolves ACORN, Republican doesn't blink

From the Center for Media and Democracy

A newly-issued Congressional Research Service (CRS) study (pdf) on the activities of the community group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) found no evidence the group has engaged in fraudulent voting or violations of federal financing rules over the last five years.
The New York Times article that CMD uses as its source notes that

Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa and one of the most vocal critics of Acorn in the House, said he found the report unconvincing.

“This report doesn’t begin to cover the transgressions of Acorn,” Mr. King said. “I think Acorn is bigger than Watergate.”
Right. Because the President ordering illegal activity is no big deal compared to imaginary fraud committed by a group that helps people keep their homes and registers minorities to vote.

Another political hack, untethered from reality

I've asked this question before, but I must ask again: what must an individual do in our political media culture - besides holding "left of center" views - to discredit oneself to the point that such an individual is no longer constantly called upon to offer commentary?

Is there any level of factual disconnect from reality that would merit this?

I mean, wouldn't this be getting kind of close?

On CNN today, GOP strategist and former Dick Cheney adviser Mary Matalin argued that President Obama is speaking too much about the severe debt, deficits, and economic recession he inherited from the previous administration. Defending her former boss, Matalin charged that President Bush had in fact “inherited a recession” and the September 11th attacks from President Clinton:

MATALIN: I was there, we inherited a recession from President Clinton and we inherited the most tragic attack on our own soil in our nation’s history. And President Bush dealt with it and within a year of his presidency within a comparable time, unemployment was at 5 percent.
Matalin joins the ranks of Dana Perino in attempting to white-wash the Bush administration's failure to prevent the 9/11 terrorist attacks out of history.

Also, I'm not sure what she's talking about with the unemployment rate. The rate was 4.7% in January 2001; 5% by October 2001. What's her point? That Bush inherited an employment rate just below 5 percent while Obama inherited one at 8.5%? That the recession Obama inherited from Bush is far graver than the one Bush inherited from Clinton?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Liberals killed Jesus?

I haven't written much about the right-wing postmodernist effort that is Conservapedia, a site which purports to answer the supposed bias of Wikipedia by creating a site which filters reality through a conservative ideological prism. There are mainly two reasons I've ignored the site:

1. It's too easy. The site is so poorly written, so factually challenged, that I can't bother with it. The writing level seems so juvenile and amateurish that it doesn't just feel right responding to it, kind of like how it wasn't right for Billy Madison to play dodgeball with his new classmates.

2. The articles are so absurd that I have trouble believing that pranksters aren't editing them as satire.

For instance, when I wrote this I was trying to come up with the best way I could think of to satire the site's efforts to re-edit the Bible, conservatively. If I had actually gone about satirizing the enterprise itself, I would have joked about describing Satan as a liberal or writing that liberals put Jesus to death.

And then I actually come across this

“The trouble is, new translations of the Bible are done by professors at liberal universities who overwhelmingly voted for Obama,” Mr. Schlafly said. “Their political bias seeps into their translations and we felt it necessary to counteract that with one that uproots and eradicates any liberal bias.”

In Mark 3:6, for example, they have changed “Pharisees” – the Jews who were regarded as antagonists of Jesus – to “Liberals” though one user helpfully suggested “self-proclaimed elite.”
And the Conservapedia entry on "Pharisees" says that "they were the 'Democratic Party' of their day"

Right, see? Conservapedia has solved that pesky problem of the long history of various Christian sects blaming Jews for deicide. Jews didn't kill Jesus - liberals did. If you happen to have a Manichean, authoritarian framework of viewing the world - and the group that formerly was your scapegoat is no longer socially acceptable to hate - replacing them with a more generic group (i.e. "liberals" for "Jews") is about the only way that particular meme can survive.

Just tune into AM radio. You're not going to hear much talk about Jews waging war on Christianity and such, but you'll find no shortage of voices going on and on about "liberals" doing just that.

And this doesn't have to be any kind of conscience, explicit effort to hide anti-Semitic tendencies, so much a process of cognitive dissonance and rationalization that over time shifts the preferred scapegoat group from "Jews" to "liberals."

To see the transposed hate, consider this: when the Conservapedia crowd watches The Passion of the Christ - a film that seems quite apparently to have the marks of Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic upbringing - they must consider the movie's villains to be "liberals." Now, as Charles Krauthammer observed

In none of the Gospels does the high priest Caiaphas stand there with his cruel, impassive fellow priests witnessing the scourging. In Gibson's movie they do. When it comes to the Jews, Gibson deviates from the Gospels -- glorying in his artistic vision -- time and again. He bends, he stretches, he makes stuff up. And these deviations point overwhelmingly in a single direction -- to the villainy and culpability of the Jews.

The most subtle, and most revolting, of these has to my knowledge not been commented upon. In Gibson's movie, Satan appears four times. Not one of these appearances occurs in the four Gospels. They are pure invention. Twice, this sinister, hooded, androgynous embodiment of evil is found . . . where? Moving among the crowd of Jews. Gibson's camera follows close up, documentary style, as Satan glides among them, his face popping up among theirs -- merging with, indeed, defining the murderous Jewish crowd. After all, a perfect match: Satan's own people.
So I suppose"liberals" are Satan's people for the Conservapedia crowd. As Arthur Goldwag noted in Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies, a meme developed during the '08 election that Barack Obama was actually a literal minion of Satan via his admiration for Saul Alinksy, because Alinsky had made a dedication to Satan in Rules for Radicals. Nevermind that Alinsky made that dedication in the same spirit of various poets and artists (Goldwag cites William Blake) who made use of Satan as a symbol of rebellion against establishment or authority. A jaunt around Free Republic will find you several discussion threads about President Obama being a Satanic agent, based upon that very Alinsky dedication. The general perspective of such individuals, as Goldwag put it in an e-mail exchange is that, "Satan personifies liberalism--that's why Saul Alinsky liked him so much. Boil down the liberal enterprise to its essence and it's mostly infant sacrifice (legal abortion)--just like in the days of Moloch." This mentality is exemplified in Ann Coulter's Godless, in which she argues that "liberals" are monsterous, murderous atheists who worship abortion. (See here to view Goldwag's own post on the Conservapedia Bible project.)

And now I see that Chuck Norris - who apparently is a credible conservative pundit because he's an accomplished martial artist and has starred in numerous bad action flicks - has imagined that liberals/progressives would have retroactively aborted Jesus.

I reiterate for the nth time, I find it remarkable how casually acceptable this sort of hate is in our society, that it has such currency.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Today's discount book purchases

The World Without Us (hc) by Alan Weisman for 5 dollars.

The Fall of the House of Bush: The Untold Story of How a Band of True Believers Seized the Executive Branch, Started the Iraq War, and Still Imperils America's Future (hc) by Craig Unger for 3 dollars.

I've already read The Fall of the House of Bush (an excellent summary of our disastrous invasion of Iraq) but didn't have a copy. The World Without Us I hadn't thought about reading before, but it seems interesting enough (especially for the bargain price)

In this far-reaching narrative, Weisman explains how our massive infrastructure would collapse and finally vanish without human presence; what of our everyday stuff may become immortalized as fossils; how copper pipes and wiring would be crushed into mere seams of reddish rock; why some of our earliest buildings might be the last architecture left; and how plastic, bronze sculpture, radio waves, and some man-made molecules may be our most lasting gifts to the universe.

The World Without Us reveals how, just days after humans disappear, floods in New York's subways would start eroding the city's foundations, and how, as the world’s cities crumble, asphalt jungles give way to real ones. It describes the distinct ways that organic and chemically-treated farms would revert to wild, how billions more birds would flourish, and how cockroaches in unheated cities would perish without us. Drawing on the expertise of engineers, atmospheric scientists, art conservators, zoologists, oil refiners, marine biologists, astrophysicists, religious leaders from rabbis to the Dalai Lama, and paleontologists – who describe a pre-human world inhabited by megafauna like giant sloths that stood taller than mammoths – Weisman illustrates what the planet might be like today, if not for us.
Blogger's Note: I had originally listed The World Without Us costing me four dollars. That was a mistake which I've obviously corrected.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Worse than War

One of the books that has deeply influenced my blogging (via my introduction to it through the work of Dave Niewert) has been Daniel J. Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, which sought to understand the Holocaust as a function of nationalistic anti-semitic eliminationism - the belief that a German nation could not truly exist until the Jewish population was literally eliminated.

Visiting the book store yesterday, I see that Goldhagen has written a sequel of sorts. In Worse than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, he attempts to view genocide in general as a function of eliminationism. I'm also pleased to see that the book is already the basis of a same titled documentary that will debut on PBS on April 14th, 2010.

In the video below (1 hour run time), Goldhagen previews the documentary in addition to discussing the book and his previous work.

Blog roll update

I've added The Atheologian - a blog I've recommended before - to the blog roll. I would have added it long before, except Mr. Vuletic was fairly occupied with his academic pursuits and wasn't able to post all that often. I'm pleased to see that his schedule has opened up and interesting posts have followed.

The posting pick-up there coincides nicely with the posting slow-down at another blog in the blog roll, The Vanity Press, which appears to itself be on some sort of academic related hiatus. Since I'd like to keep the number of blogs I have in the blog roll limited so that each blog's postings don't get drowned in a sea of information, this works out perfectly.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Baleful quote of the day

"Using the military and our strategic command as a pawn. Threatening to weaken our national security defenses to fulfill your Utopian social justice agenda. To me that borders on treason." - Glenn Beck, passively aggressively accusing President Obama of treason (again)

How many people watching Beck will take seriously (and act upon?) this stabbed in the back smear?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Mayr on Darwin's influence

I'm not sure how much longer Scientific American is going to make the article available (I would guess until the end of the year), so you might want to take advantage while you can and read the late Ernst Mayr's essay "Darwin's Influence on Modern Thought".

A 21st-century person looks at the world quite differently than a citizen of the Victorian era did. This shift had multiple sources, particularly the incredible advances in technology. But what is not at all appreciated is the great extent to which this shift in thinking indeed resulted from Darwin’s ideas.

Remember that in 1850 virtually all leading scientists and philosophers were Christian men. The world they inhabited had been created by God, and as the natural theologians claimed, He had instituted wise laws that brought about the perfect adaptation of all organisms to one another and to their environment. At the same time, the architects of the scientific revolution had constructed a worldview based on physicalism (a reduction to spatiotemporal things or events or their properties), teleology, determinism and other basic principles. Such was the thinking of Western man prior to the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species. The basic principles proposed by Darwin would stand in total conflict with these prevailing ideas.
And from the conclusion

[T]his is perhaps Darwin’s greatest contribution—he developed a set of new principles that influence the thinking of every person: the living world, through evolution, can be explained without recourse to supernaturalism; essentialism or typology is invalid, and we must adopt population thinking, in which all individuals are unique (vital for education and the refutation of racism); natural selection, applied to social groups, is indeed sufficient to account for the origin and maintenance of altruistic ethical systems; cosmic teleology, an intrinsic process leading life automatically to ever greater perfection, is fallacious, with all seemingly teleological phenomena explicable by purely material processes; and determinism is thus repudiated, which places our fate squarely in our own evolved hands.
Update: The article can also be viewed at Botany Online. (h/t Oscar)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Blogging less

From now until the end of March I am going to have considerably less time to read books and follow the news, much less blog. I'll still post items, but less frequently and more in the style that 3 Quarks Daily utilizes.

I have several posts in draft form (some very old) that I should be able to finish and post here and there (including the review of The Eliminationists that I've intended to finish for most of the year). Otherwise, you can still always take advantage of the blog roll feature that shows the most recent post of each of the linked blogs. I've chosen blogs that generally cover just about anything that I would be inclined to blog about in the first place.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Quote of the day

"The reasons the Founders barred ... bills of attainder are perfectly highlighted by the ACORN case. During the reign of abusive Kings, it was a favorite instrument for enabling unpopular parties to be convicted, punished and deprived without benefit of a trial. Under the Constitution, parties aren't supposed to be found guilty of wrongdoing as a result of a Fox-News-led witch hunt joined by cowardly members of Congress." - Glenn Greenwald

Today's discount book purchases

The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics (pb) by Roger Penrose for 50 cents.

Kim (hc) by Rudyard Kipling for 1 dollar.

Julian (hc) by Gore Vidal for 1 dollar.

Main Street (pb) by Sinclair Lewis for 50 cents.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The two categories of global warming deniers

Tim Lambert of Deltoid reviewed Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming and found himself dividing the deniers into two categories: those who don't know they're lying and those who do.

In the first category we have Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, who has delusions of grandeur. He really is a Viscount, but he also claims to be a member of the House of Lords (he isn’t) and to have won a share in the Nobel Peace Prize (he didn’t). Monckton has a degree in classics and no training or experience in science or mathematics but he churns out papers full of equations (which he misinterprets) and graphs (which are wrong) that purport to show that global warming isn’t happening. Monckton recently gave a speech with 2 million viewings on youtube where he declared that that Copenhagen treaty will institute a COMMUNIST WORLD GOVERNMENT. In short, Monckton is a crank.

Now, if Monckton’s pet theory was, say, that the moon was made of cheese or the sun was made of iron nobody would pay any attention to him. But because his theory involves global warming denial, he is now chief policy advisor at a think tank called the Science and Public Policy Institute and touted as an expert on climate science. Hoggan describes a whole gaggle of such think tanks, all with fancy titles and funded by the fossil fuel industry. None of them produce science to be published in peer-reviewed journals but rather opinions than can be published in opeds or quotes for journalists to balance their stories and match a quote from a scientist at a research institute about their data shows global warming is a problem with a quote from a “policy analyst” from a think tank saying that no it isn’t.
In the other category, Lambert gives as an example Steve Milloy, who claimed to be attacking so-called junk science, but was in reality an effort to obfuscate the danger of cigarette smoking which was funded by the tobacco industry.

Lambert notes that

The same techniques used by tobacco companies to obscure the science that shows that cigarette smoke is bad for you is now being used to cover up the fact that human activities are warming the planet. In fact the same people and think tanks that argued against a link between cigarettes and disease are now arguing that against a link between carbon dioxide and global warming.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Quote of the day

"The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history’s judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice." -Guardian editorial

How can anyone take him seriously

Ok, here is what the World Meteorological Organization said in a press release today.

The year 2009 is likely to rank in the top 10 warmest on record since the beginning of instrumental climate records in 1850, according to data sources compiled by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The global combined sea surface and land surface air temperature for 2009 (January–October) is currently estimated at 0.44°C ± 0.11°C (0.79°F ± 0.20°F) above the 1961–1990 annual average of 14.00°C/57.2°F. The current nominal ranking of 2009, which does not account for uncertainties in the annual averages, places it as the fifth-warmest year. The decade of the 2000s (2000–2009) was warmer than the decade spanning the 1990s (1990–1999), which in turn was warmer than the 1980s (1980–1989). More complete data for the remainder of the year 2009 will be analysed at the beginning of 2010 to update the current assessment.
And here is what global warming denier Sen. Jame Inhofe had to say, apparently about the same press release.

Hey, Kiran, if it was just me saying it’d be one thing, but all over the world they’re talking about this. And just this morning the meteorologists — one of the groups — has said that they’re changing their position.
What? How can anyone possibly be this intellectually dishonest and still be taken seriously by the electorate? I say "apparently" since Inhofe's statement is so wrong it's hard to conceive that he's actually alluding to the WMO, yet given that the meteorologists from WMO being the big story in the news today, it's quite clear that at the least he's creating the misleading and completely false impression that the WMO now believes the science of anthropogenic global warming is in doubt.

On religious "liberty"

From Atheist Ethicist's "The Manhattan Declaration Part X: Summary"

There are the absurdities of the authors' conception of religious liberty.

"Religious liberty means that I have the liberty to do whatever I want, and you have the obligation to do what I say. If you should ever refuse to do what I command, then you are violating my right to religious liberty - which is the right to order you around in whatever way I deem fit."

Religious liberty, according to the authors of the Manhattan Doctrine, means, "I get to take control of your life and dictate who you can sleep with, who you can marry, the sexual acts you perform, and what you watch and read regarding matters of sex and relationships."

Religious liberty, according to the authors of the Manhattan Doctrine, means, "I get to take control of your life and dictate what you may do to the entity lacking desires or interests growing inside of that body, deny you health care treatments that could save your life or treat massively debilitating injuries and illnesses, and deny you the option of avoiding a long and torturous death with a quick and painless death."

In short, "religious liberty" to the authors of the Manhattan Declaration is the tyrant's liberty - a liberty to do whatever the tyrant sees fit to do, combined with a duty on the part of his subjects to obey and carry out those wishes.

Study finds correlation between higher temperatures and violence in Africa

From 80sbeats

We’ve covered industries and species that climate change will affect, but is more war the next side effect of a warming world? A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences ties warmer temperatures to higher incidence of civil wars in Africa. The scientists warn that the continent could see 54 percent more armed conflict—and almost 400,000 more war deaths—by 2030 if climate projections prove true.
More at the link.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Criminal anti-intellectualism

"Anti-intellectualism has long been the anti-Semitism of the businessman." - Arthur Schlesinger

"The theft and use of the emails does reveal something interesting about the social context. It's a symptom of something entirely new in the history of science: Aside from crackpots who complain that a conspiracy is suppressing their personal discoveries, we've never before seen a set of people accuse an entire community of scientists of deliberate deception and other professional malfeasance.

"Even the tobacco companies never tried to slander legitimate cancer researchers. In blogs, talk radio and other new media, we are told that the warnings about future global warming issued by the national science academies, scientific societies, and governments of all the leading nations are not only mistaken, but based on a hoax, indeed a conspiracy that must involve thousands of respected researchers. Extraordinary and, frankly, weird. Climate scientists are naturally upset, exasperated, and sometimes goaded into intemperate responses... but that was already easy to see in their blogs and other writings." - Science historian Spencer Weart

From Grist

Two weeks ago, thousands of illegally hacked emails from a British climate research center were dumped on a Russian webserver, timed to influence the politics of of the international climate negotiations commencing next week in Copenhagen, Denmark. Beginning Thanksgiving week, conservative media and Republican politicians have compared the climate scientists whose private emails were hacked to Hitler, Stalin, and eugenicists, saying they are involved in a global conspiracy to defraud and possibly take over the world. The Climategate “scandal”—a swiftboating intimidation and smear campaign against science—is the right-wing rage from Stephen Dubner to Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck to Lou Dobbs. Like the original Watergate scandal involving right-wing operatives who burglarized the offices of their political opponents, the real crime is the original break-in.

It has now been reported that the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Center is not the only victim of such a criminal invasion: burglars and hackers have also attacked the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis at the University of Victoria in British Columbia:

Andrew Weaver, a University of Victoria scientist and key contributor to the Nobel prize-winning work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says there have been a number of attempted breaches in recent months, including two successful break-ins at his campus office in which a dead computer was stolen and papers were rummaged through.
These attacks go beyond simple burglary. University of Victoria spokeswoman Patty Pitts told the National Post “there have also been attempts to hack into climate scientists’ computers, as well as incidents in which people impersonated network technicians to try to gain access to campus offices and data.”
I can't express how deeply disturbing I find that there is a significant political faction in the United States which believes that climate scientists are involved in a planetary conspiracy to install a one world totalitarian government by fabricating a global warming hoax in order to stab America in the back. And this is why I consider the Schlesinger quote so apt: you've got people promoting the interests of the business sector by promoting a conspiracy theory about nefarious forces plotting to rule the world, where scientists have taken the place ususally held by Jews, Illuminati, Masons or some such.

That virtually the entire scientific enterprise at a planetary level is involved in a conspiracy to hoax the planet in order to overthrow capitalism and install planetary totalitarian rule is every bit as absurd as the conspiracy posited in The Protocols of Zion. What's more, it's just about as hateful.

For the most comprehensive response to the hacked UK e-mails, see here.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

My sci-fi nightmare

Currently reading (and just about finished with) the second of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series prequels - Forward the Foundation - I was thinking to myself what a shame it is that no one has done for Asimov's rich sci-fi universe what Peter Jackson did for J.R.R. Tolkien. And then I noticed that someone actually does plan on translating the origional Foundation trilogy into a movie trilogy: Roland Emmerich.

Fantastic. A director who specializes in mindless, special effects and action driven Hollywood blockbusters (Independence Day, Godzilla, The Patriot, 2012, etc.) now apparently has the rights to the entire Foundation series, one of the greatest series in the history of science fiction, written by a brilliant polymath humanist who was a prolific author, writing hundreds and hundreds of books on just about every subject you can imagine - with the uniting ingredient in all of his writings being that they engendered thinking and intelligence.

It's a toss up between whether Emmerich or Michael Bay would be the worst choice possible to head up such a project. On the other hand, someone like Darren Aronofsky might have been perfect.

5 Books, 3 bucks

Today I purchased the following books at the library book store for a total of 3 dollars (0.50 dollars per paperback, 1 dollar per hardcover):

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (pb) by Ken Kesey

The Magician's Nephew (pb) by C.S. Lewis

Arrowsmith (pb) by Sinclair Lewis

The Autobiography of Benjamin Frankilin (pb) by Ben Franklin

Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story (hc) by Kurt Eichenwald

I'd like to give a tip of the hat to David Cay Johnston, as if it was not for having read his book Free Lunch, I would not have heard of Eichenwald's investigative journalism and would have most likely overlooked his tome (Conspiracy of Fools) on the Enron scandal. You can view the Eichenwald related passage of Free Lunch, here.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Quote of the day

"A fair reading of the e-mails reveals nothing to support the denialists' conspiracy theories." - Nature, editorial in response to claims that hacked Climatic Research Unit e-mails provide "smoking gun" evidence that global warming is a hoax

More quote-mining from Fox "News"

Last night during the Reality Check segment of The O'Reilly Factor, Bill O'Reilly ran the same cropped Jon Stewart clip that Fox and Friends quote-mined to make it seem like Stewart is now a global warming denier who thinks Al Gore's climate change advocacy has been discredited.

That's at least twice that this alleged news network completely distorted Stewart's segment. I have to wonder if this was one of the top down, Memo decisions. Noticing that the Fox News website also used the same quote-mine (plus another) leads me to suspect that this was indeed the case.

I've also noticed via Google search a number of deniers who seem to think Stewart is questioning the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming despite even seeing the quote in context. This reminds me of Chapter 3 of The Authoritarians

The need for social reinforcement runs so deeply in authoritarians, they will believe someone who says what they want to hear even if you tell them they should not. I have several times asked students or parents to judge the sincerity of a universitystudent who wrote arguments either condemning, or supporting, homosexuals. Butsome subjects were told the student had been assigned to condemn (or support) homosexuals as part of a philosophy test to see how well the student could make up arguments for anything, on the spot. Other subjects were told the student could chooseto write on either side of the issue, and had chosen to make the case she did.

Obviously, you can’t tell anything about the real opinions of someone who was assigned the point of view of her essay. But high RWAs believed that the antihomosexual essay that a student was forced to write reflected that student’s personal views almost as much as when a student had chosen this point of view. In other words,as in the previous experiments, the authoritarians ignored the circumstances and believed the student really meant what she had been assigned to say--when they liked what she said. Low RWAs, in comparison, paid attention to the circumstances.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Rationally Speaking to become a podcast

Rationally Speaking, one of the blogs featured in my blogroll, will shortly become also a podcast.

Dear readers, Rationally Speaking is soon going to be (also) a podcast, produced by New York City Skeptics, and co-hosted by Julia Galef and yours truly. Before each (initially biweekly, starting at the end of January) episode we will publish a “teaser” like the one below, introducing the topic of that episode and inviting comments from our readers. Your comments will provide us with additional food for thought, and the most interesting ones will be read and discussed during the show.

For our inaugural episode, we’re going to kick things off by asking: Why is “speaking rationally” a worthwhile goal, anyway?
Prof. Massimo Pigliucci is well qualified to host such a show, given his background of being both a scientist and a philosopher. I'll definitely be adding it to the list of podcasts I subscribe to.

To get an idea of what to expect, of course see his current writings at his blog, but also see the archive of his original Rationally Speaking column, which was one of the first inspirations for this blog.

Justice deferred for Bhopal

Via 3 Quarks Daily

Did you know that there is an international arrest warrant out for the man who was chief executive of Union Carbide at the time of the Bhopal disaster which killed and injured thousands of Indians and still has not been fully cleaned up, but that he's been living luxuriously in the Hamptons?

In 2001, the maker of napalm married the bane of Bhopal: Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide for $11.6 billion and promptly distanced itself from the disaster. If Union Carbide was at fault, that was too bad; it had just ceased to exist. In 2002, Dow set aside $2.2 billion to cover potential liabilities arising from Union Carbide’s American asbestos production. By comparison, the total settlement for Bhopal was $470 million. The families of the dead got an average of $2,200; the wounded got $550; a Dow spokeswoman explained, that amount “is plenty good for an Indian.” As Representative Frank Pallone of New Jersey observed in 2006, “In Bhopal, some of the world’s poorest people are being mistreated by one of the world’s richest corporations.”

Union Carbide and Dow were allowed to get away with it because of the international legal structures that protect multinationals from liability. Union Carbide sold its Indian subsidiary and pulled out of India. Warren Anderson, the Union Carbide chief executive at the time of the gas leak, lives in luxurious exile in the Hamptons, even though there’s an international arrest warrant out for him for culpable homicide. The Indian government has yet to pursue an extradition request. Imagine if an Indian chief executive had jumped bail for causing an industrial disaster that killed tens of thousands of Americans. What are the chances he’d be sunning himself in Goa?

Fox and Friends quote-mine Stewart to support their phoney quote-mined outrage

I made mention of the latest imaginary mega scandal that the usual suspects in the Drudge-Hannity-Limbaugh-Malkin axis of misinformation have worked themselves into a furor over regarding hacked e-mails from a UK climate research center.

The "treason" Breitbart speaks of? Someone hacked the e-mails of the climate scientists at England's University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (where Hansen doesn't work) at which point movement conservatives quote-mined the e-mails until they could stupidly convince themselves of the nefarious conspiracy they already believed in. I've intended to write a post on this topic (of the hacked e-mails) so I won't go much further into it than to say that it's another instance of the never-ending stream of manufactured controversy and outrage that such persons traffic in.
Apparently, quote-mining the e-mails themselves wasn't enough for the crew at Fox and Friends. They took it a step further and quote-mined someone mocking their quote-mined hysteria to make it seem as if he agreed with them. Here is the way Fox and Friends presented Jon Stewart's remark

DOOCY: Speaking of which, next week, you know the president of the United States is going to be heading to Copenhagen en route to pick up his Nobel Peace prize. Extraordinarily -- Copenhagen is going to be all about global warming and climate change and stuff like that. Extraordinarily, take a look at this. Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, which has historically bashed Republicans and, you know, not bashed Democrats, really took a shot at Al Gore. Look at this.

STEWART [video clip]: Poor Al Gore. Global warming completely debunked via the very Internet you invented. Oh, oh the irony. The iron-y.

DOOCY: It is pretty extraordinary that Jon Stewart would be taking a shot at Al Gore, who's been on his program a couple of times. But at the same time, the mainstream media for the most part not covering this whole "climate-gate" thing. It just seems to be us and bloggers like you.
In reality, Stewart was being sarcastic. The dishonest hacks at Fox and Friends working at a supposed news network left out this line, "Actually, the real story is not quite that sensational," and this one, "Now, does it disprove global warming? No, of course not."

Tim Lambert has more on the quote-mining of the hacked e-mails, with the quote-miner in question believing this is evidence of a crypto-Soviet communist psyops conspiracy. You can't make this stuff up.

Ronald Reagan too much of a bleeding heart liberal terrorist sympathist for most Americans

Glenn Greenwald at Unclaimed Territory, commenting on a Pew poll finding that only 1 in 4 Americans believe torture is never justified.

Just think about that. Torture is one of the most universal taboos in the civilized world. The treaty championed by Ronald Reagan declares that "no exceptional circumstances" can justify it, and requires that every state criminalize it and prosecute those who authorize or engage in it. But only 25% of Americans agree with Ronald Reagan and this Western consensus that torture is never justifiable. Worse, 54% of Americans believe torture is "often" or "sometimes" justified. When it comes to torture, the vast bulk of the country is now to the "right" (for lack of a better term) of Ronald Reagan, who at least in words (if not in deeds) insisted upon an absolute prohibition on the practice and mandatory prosecution for those responsible.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


Within days of PGA golfer Tiger Woods crashing his car, the press has hounded him into disclosing in so many words that he's had some sort of affair.

Now imagine if the press (generally) pursued with the same vigor and tenacity stories that actually serve the public interest and have value for a democratic society. For instance, consider how sad a reflection it is that the personal life of a professional golfer is bigger news than the CIA destroying evidence of illegal activity (i.e. abusive and/or torturous interrogation) and lying to a court about it.

"Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations." - Joseph Pulitzer, The North American Review (May 1904)

Flip sides of the same coin

Rush Limbaugh hopes that West Point will "detain" President Obama.

Christ Mathews calls West Point Obama's "enemy camp."

Better pundits, please.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Quote of the day

"[A] religious government depends for its existence on the belief of the people - preservation of the faith is the ratio summa status, to which everything else must yield. Therefore not only the civil power enforces the religious law, but the transgressions of the religious must be watched and denounced - therefore espionage and religious detectives, and the use of the peculiar means of information religion provides to give warning to the police. The domain of conscience [is] not distinct therefore from the domain of the State; sins = crimes, and sins against faith, even when private, are acts of treason. Seclusion from the rest of the world necessarily follows, if the rest of the world has not the same religion, or even if it is not governed on the same principles. For liberty is extremely contagious ... Poverty and stationary cultivation, this is to say, in comparison to the rest of the world, retrogression, [are] the price ..." - Lord Acton

The quote is from "Letter on Self-Government and State Absolutism" in the Abbot Gasquet edited Lord Acton and His Circle. And my particular quote of the quote is from AC Grayling's Toward The Light of Liberty.

Monday, November 30, 2009

More on the historical wrongness of Beck

Dispatches from the Culture Wars has commented on Glenn Beck's attempt to rewrite Thomas Jefferson as a Christian nationalist.

The comments there reminded me of another absurdity relating to Beck's bizarro version of Jefferson.

'"Question with boldness." Um, is he even aware how the sentence is supposed to end?'

Yep, he quotes it all the time. I don't fault him that, since he at least seems to understand the point that Jefferson was making to his nephew in that letter...

... If you'll notice in that segment, Beck is also citing the Jefferson quote at the Jefferson Memorial. This one: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

Beck completely misses the point of the quote. It's not indicative that Jefferson believes that the United States is supposed to be a theocracy (which Beck apparently does, given that he believes the country is "founded" on the injunctions of the Ten Commandments, including the ones that command worship of God); The form of tyranny Jefferson is referencing in the letter that quote is taken from is that of those who seek to establish religion and that he is thus sworn to oppose them!

The delusion into which the X. Y. Z. plot shewed it possible to push the people; the successful experiment made under the prevalence of that delusion on the clause of the constitution, which, while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity thro' the U. S.; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians & Congregationalists. The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, & they believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.

Casual, conversational eliminationism

The other day I spent a few minutes in conversation with someone who was perfectly polite and friendly, yet within the course of the conversation this individual casually made a joke about wishing Al Gore to be assassinated and stated later that the state of California doesn't deserve to live (because it doesn't have the death penalty.)

As I've said before, the reason that I focus so much on the conservative movement is that I do not appreciate the way that it spreads venomous hatred into our society.

Here's a case in point: Andrew Breitbart casually calling for NASA climate scientist James Hansen to be executed for treason.

The "treason" Breitbart speaks of? Someone hacked the e-mails of the climate scientists at England's University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (where Hansen doesn't work) at which point movement conservatives quote-mined the e-mails until they could stupidly convince themselves of the nefarious conspiracy they already believed in. I've intended to write a post on this topic (of the hacked e-mails) so I won't go much further into it than to say that it's another instance of the never-ending stream of manufactured controversy and outrage that such persons traffic in.*

So let's instead focus on how casually Breitbart called for James Hansen's death. I've noted before how readily movement conservatives would apparently put persons to death for specious charges of treason, but I don't recall ever coming across any such call as utterly absurd as that of Breitbart's. Even were the accusations true, how would employees of a climate institute at a UK university falsifying data mean that treason has been committed in the United States by James Hansen of NASA? (Hansen actually offered some mild criticism of the behavior of the climate researchers involved.)

I have lost count of the number of times I've made the following point, but I marvel again how it is that somone such as Breitbart can make comments that are so profoundly ignorant, vile, and extreme all at the same time and be paid well to do precisely that.

*See here for Kevin Drum's summary of the non-scandal "scandal."

Update: Breitbart also called for the execution of Brad Friedman for challenging him on the facts relating to global warming and the hacked e-mails. After Friedman responded that when you're short on the facts, you can always call for the murder of your political opponents, Breitbart responded, "capital punishment after a fair trial by your peers isn't murder!" Friedman's response:

Still no hint at the "crime" for which I am to face the possibility of being murdered after being given my "fair trial." But perhaps "Calling Out Fact-Challenged Liars and Propagandists" is now a crime in Breitbart's little fantasy world. I suspect Breitbart's brain-washed readers see little necessity for either a trial, or any laws to be broken, before meting out their own justice as they see fit. It's a Wingnut World --- we just live in it.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

You can be Pro-Israel and spread anti-Semitism at the same time

Dave Neiwert noticed that Glenn Beck's response to the ADL calling him out for "creat[ing] an intersection between the mainstream and the extreme" which "play[s] an important role in drawing people further out of the mainstream, making them more receptive to the more extreme notions and conspiracy theories" was to dismiss such criticism on the ground that he's "friendly to Israel" and wants to protect Israel from Iran.

As Neiwert astutely observes, Beck seems to not comprehend the actual purpose of the ADL

What really stands out about this rant is the stereotyped image Beck has of Jews, to wit, the only aspect of their "plight" worth mentioning is the defense of Israel.

In reality, the ADL has historically been focused on the much broader "plight" of the Jews represented by anti-Semitism and its pernicious effects. As you can see from just visiting the "About" section of their website, the ADL was founded primarily to combat anti-Semitism. Yes, the defense of Israel is in fact a concern of the ADL's -- but it is only one of many items on its agenda.
Neiwert goes on to note that the point the ADL was making in its report about Beck was that whether or not he intends to, he helps to promote - indeed, to mainstream - extremist ideas that are either anti-semitic in origin or carry with them vestiges of anti-Semitism.

Beck, in fact, gives real succor to some of the country's worst anti-Semites because he helps promote their ideas; Beck's fearmongering echoes theirs so closely that it is rapidly becoming an important recruiting tool for them.

Alexander Zaitchik explored this recently for Salon, examining what white supremacists themselves say about Beck, with illustrations culled from the discussion forums
This comes as no surprise, given how much Beck's conspiracy theories structurally resemble traditional anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.

Further, I previously noted that being "friendly to Israel" doesn't preclude anti-Semitism, given that some of the earliest champions of a Jewish state were also promoters of the notoriously anti-Semitic hoax The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; and that John Hagee appears to be cut from such a mold.

Bruce Wilson of Talk To Action - whose writing was the basis of my previous post on Hagee - has written another post about Hagee's anti-Semitic zionism which brilliantly makes the point

As The Economist's Democracy In America blog notes , support for Israel doesn't preclude anti-Semitism:

Bigotry comes in many forms, and can easily be set aside for the right reasons. Marcus Garvey found common cause with the Ku Klux Klan, for instance: they both wanted to keep their respective races pure. Loving racial or theological purity is both easy and juvenile; it is a rejection of the world as is in favour of a perfect world that can never be.
Marcus Garvey wanted to resettle New World blacks in a "homeland" in Africa. Christian Zionists think God wills it that all Jews on Earth move "back" to Israel. The Economist's citation, of the strange alliance between Marcus Garvey and the Ku Klux Klan, resonates well with a thought experiment I've recently sketched out...

Imagine, in America of 2009, the formation of a lobby dedicated to, as one of its principal goals, convincing all African Americans to move "back" to Africa - a continent they weren't born on and which most of them had never even set foot upon.

Imagine, further, that leaders of this lobby publicly praised African-American cultural and racial identity but also promoted, in sermons and writing, many of the worst anti-black accusations and slurs known to history.

Imagine those leaders taught that if African Americans don't willingly "go back" to Africa, God will rise up an army to slaughter all African Americans so stubborn as to remain in the land of their birth, as American citizens.

Take out "African-American" and replace it with "Jewish-American", change "Africa" to "Israel," and the description fits an existing, national lobbying group - Christians United For Israel.
Update: I forgot to mention that Beck has previously done an interview with Hagee, in which he asked Hagee whether or not Barack Obama is the Antichrist.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Dana Perino obviously a political hack

Dana Perino has responded on Twitter to criticism of her having stated that "we did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush's term." Her response is thus: "I obviously meant no terror attack on U.S. post 9/11 during Bush 2nd term."

Right, because obviously a political hack trying to characterize President Obama as a failure on keeping America safe from terrorist attack and President Bush as a success would naturally omit President Bush having failed to prevent the largest terrorist attack in American history (not to mention the subsequent unsolved anthrax attacks) and just skip ahead to his second term when no such attack occurred.

The level of intellectual a-integrity displayed here is staggering. First, as Jim Lippard noted in his response, the attack - Major Hasan's on Ft. Hood - that Perino is characterizing as a terrorist attack that President Obama failed to prevent doesn't really fit the description of a terrorist attack so much as that of a disgruntled employee who snapped.

Secondly, while there were warning signs about Hasan's fitness for duty that could have been noticed by those around him, this is hardly something that would have been on the President's radar. No one was briefing President Obama that Major Hasan was determined to strike a military base; however, President Bush was briefed that Bin Laden was determined to strike in the United States prior to the 9/11 attacks.

Lastly, it really irritates me how the lack of terrorist attacks on US soil post 9/11 are counted in President Bush's favor while the precipitous increase in global terrorist activity resulting from his administration's post 9/11 actions is ignored, as if all the lives lost to that terrorism don't count since it didn't happen in America.

Update: I left it out since I'm not sure that it should count as terrorism, but in the Lippard post I linked to he mentions that Perino has conveniently also forgotten the Beltway snipers, which should count as "terrorism" by Perino's standard. Futher evidence of her hackery.

Also, I don't want to undersell the absurdity of Perino's comparison. As I noted, no one was predicting that some random disgruntled soldier would go on a shooting rampage on a military base, but back in 2001, prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, FEMA predicted a terrorist attack in New York.

Rush Limbaugh wants US military to "detain" President Obama

It's so great that we have such a champion of democracy as Rush Limbaugh, battling rhetorically on a daily basis against totalitarian liberals who think that having a democratically elected president thrown in prison indefinitely by the armed forced - in other words, a military coup - is a bad thing.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Resolved: Glenn Beck thinks the United States is supposed to be a theocracy

This brief clip doesn't do full justice to Beck's lamentation that America has strayed from the theocratic origins of colonies like that of Massachusetts Bay Colony which carried over into some of the early state constitutions. Nothing, absolutely nothing, that Beck does nauseates me more than the way he tries to co-opt people or persons by bulldozing over their actual views in order to transform them into props to support his John Birch Society type extremist political views.

For example, he has depicted himself as a modern day reincarnation of Thomas Paine and has cited Thomas Paine to justify "refounding" America by dismantling the welfare state and progressive taxation. The actual, real life Thomas Paine - as opposed to the one that only exists in Beck's demented imagination - wrote in several of his major works that the French revolution could establish its legitimacy by establishing a welfare state with progressive taxation and that Britian should follow suit.

Here we have Beck citing Thomas Jefferson - of all people - to support the notion that the separation of church and state is "fictional" and "nonsense." That would be the same Thomas Jefferson who wrote this to the Danbury Baptists

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.
So obviously Thomas Jefferson was in favor of theocracy and it's only those evil, Satanic, New World Order progressive liberal fascist communists who believe in the separation of church and state.

And Jefferson and Madison - the other man most associated with the First amendment - having worked tirelessly to disestablish official state religion in Virginia is evidence that they favored state theocracies. (And Madison actually proposed disestablishing religion at the state level in the Bill of Rights, but having the federal government overrule state laws was not feasible at the time, regardless of what the early founders might have thought about the merits of disestablishment.1)

And Thomas Jefferson, the bizarro Thomas Jefferson that only exists so that Beck can wrap his Mormon nationalism up in patriotic garb that is, believes that the basis of U.S. law is the Ten Commandments. That would be the same Thomas Jefferson who wrote this to Thomas Cooper

If, therefore, from the settlement of the Saxons to the introduction of Christianity among them, that system of religion could not be a part of the common law, because they were not yet Christians, and if, having their laws from that period to the close of the common law, we are all able to find among them no such act of adoption, we may safely affirm (though contradicted by all the judges and writers on earth) that Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law.
1. See Head and Heart: American Christianities by Gary Wills

The bloody truth

From The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox by Stephen Budiansky

A bald fact: Generations would hear how the South suffered “tyranny” under Reconstruction. Conveniently forgotten was the way that word was universally defined by white Southerners at the time: as a synonym for letting black men vote at all. A “remonstrance” issued by South Carolina’s Democratic Central Committee in 1868, personally signed by the leading native white political leaders of the state, declared that there was no greater outrage, no greater despotism, than the provision for universal male suffrage just enacted in the state’s new constitution. There was but one possible consequence: “A superior race is put under the rule of an inferior race.” They offered a stark warning: “We do not mean to threaten resistance by arms. But the white people of our State will never quietly submit to negro rule. This is a duty we owe to the proud Caucasian race, whose sovereignty on earth God has ordained.”

“No free people, ever,” declared a speaker at a convention of the state’s white establishment a few years later, had been subjected to the “domination of their own slaves,” and the applause was thunderous. “This is a white man’s government” was the phrase echoed over and over in the prints of the Democratic press and the orations of politicians denouncing the “tyranny” to which the “oppressed” South was being subjected.

A bald fact: more than three thousand freedmen and their white Republican allies were murdered in the campaign of terrorist violence that overthrew the only representatively elected government the Southern states would know for a hundred years to come. Among the dead were more than sixty state senators, judges, legislators, sheriffs, constables, mayors, county commissioners, and other officeholders whose only crime was to have been elected. They were lynched by bands of disguised men who dragged them from cabin by night, or were fired on from ambushes on lonely roadsides, or lured into a barroom by a false friend and on a prearranged signal shot so many times that the corpse was nothing but shreds, or pulled off a train in broad daylight by a body of heavily armed men resembling nothing so much as a Confederate cavalry company and forced to kneel in the stubble of an October field and shot in the head over and over again, at point-blank.

Why is Howard Dean hosting The Rachel Maddow Show?

Last night I noticed that Howard Dean filled in for Rachel Maddow. I reiterate

One of the most obvious means we have of telling that Fox News is not a news network is its revolving door between Republican politics and and Fox "news." The network is run by Republican operatives and employs Republican politicians, strategists, operatives, and hacks as hosts, commentators, and analysts. The line between what is supposed to be journalism and Republican propaganda is blurred out of existence.

So when Howard Dean steps down as DNC chair and moves on a few months later to guest host two episodes of MSNBC's Countdown I'm not exactly thrilled with another network deciding to create a revolving door between Democratic politics and what is supposed to be objective journalism. Sure, having Dean guest host might generate ratings, but it's not worth sacrificing your credibility.

There ought to be a distinct line between politics and journalism, and having someone so heavily and currently involved in Democratic politics fill a spot that is supposed to be reserved for a journalist blurs that line beyond distinction.
Although Maddow's show is supposed to be more commentary/analysis oriented than Countdown, and is obviously supposed to present a liberal perspective on the news, the general point still holds. Maddow is an independent voice of opinion, Dean is someone who not to long ago was the head of the DNC.

Is Dana Perino the biggest political hack on the planet?

"We did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush's term" - Dana Perino

Absolutely, utterly unbelievable. Perino is apparently capable of forgetting 9/11 (and the subsequent, unsolved anthrax attacks) momentarily if it serves her propaganda purposes.

Once again, the revolving door between "news" commentary and Republican political spin at Fox News strikes again.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Quality science fiction

If you haven't heard about it or seen the Duncan Jones directed Sam Rockwell vehicle Moon and are a fan of science fiction, I highly recommend it.

I watched it last night after a friend recommended it to me. Its precisely the sort of genuine science fiction film that rarely gets made anymore: a movie with an intelligent, patient, minimalist approach which allows story to drive the plot rather than action and special effects, using a science fiction setting to explore human nature.

The basic plot is that a helium miner (Sam Rockwell) is stuck on the Moon by himself for 3 years as he runs a mining station. His only companion is a multi-functional robot voiced by Kevin Spacey. As the film begins, Rockwell's character is getting ready to return to Earth as his 3 year contract is getting ready to expire. He leaves the base in a rover to make some repairs but gets into an accident, when he wakes up everything has changed for him.

That's all I'll say about it, and I would caution to avoid looking up any reviews or anything else that might spoil what comes next. (I don't even think I'd have wanted to see the movie's trailer beforehand.)

Census worker death ruled a suicide

The death of U.S. census taker Bill Sparkman has been ruled a sucide, with Sparkman having conspired to fabricate the appearance of a murder in order to win insurance money for his family.

As I mentioned before, this should demonstrate the danger of premature speculation (including my own about anti-government sentiment possibly being behind Sparkman's apparent murder.)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Another reason to not eat pork

I've mentioned before that I do not eat pork, as I consider it wrong given the pig's level of intelligence. Now some recent research suggests pigs may be able to pass the mirror test for self-awareness.

In the current issue of Animal Behaviour, researchers present evidence that domestic pigs can quickly learn how mirrors work and will use their understanding of reflected images to scope out their surroundings and find their food. The researchers cannot yet say whether the animals realize that the eyes in the mirror are their own, or whether pigs might rank with apes, dolphins and other species that have passed the famed “mirror self-recognition test” thought to be a marker of self-awareness and advanced intelligence.
Until reading this article I was unaware that one of the tricks pigs can be trained to do is to "make wordlike sounds on command." I'd like to hear/see that.

Friday, November 20, 2009

How to save $85.50 on books

At the library book sale today, I purchased 89 dollars worth of books for the grand total of 3 dollars and fifty cents. The titles I got are:

The Consolation of Philosophy (pb) by Boethius for $.50.

The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History (pb) by Howard Bloom for $.50.

Dune (pb) by Frank Herbert for $.50.

The Age of American Unreason (hc) by Susan Jacoby for $1.00.

Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches (hc) by John Dean for $1.00.

Liking to consider myself an amateur forensic book detective, I like to see if I can reconstruct the life of the books I get preceding my purchase of them. Judging by the wear and tear on Dune, The Lucifer Principle, and The Consolation of Philosophy, these books enjoyed a relatively normal life of library books that were checked out and read semi-regular. Broken Government, however, is mint. I would guess with about 98% certainty it has never been checked out, much less read.

The Age of American Unreason was a book sale donation, meaning it is from someone's personal collection and was not a library book. The actual book itself would seem to indicate that it has never been read, despite the book's jacket having slight wear: the front is near mint, but the back has sustained some moisture damage and has a ring from someone sitting a drink down on it. I would conclude that someone was given the book as a gift, put it down on their coffee table and never read it, or never did more than flipping through it.

Baleful quote of the day

"I don't care about the Constitution." - Bill O'Reilly

To O'Reilly, the Constitution is apparently only relevant if it can be used as a prop to support his beliefs.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Watching human evolution

I'm a bit occupied this week with jury duty, so in the meantime I'll simply give a recommendation to the 3 part PBS Nova series Becoming Human

Where did we come from? What makes us human? An explosion of recent discoveries sheds light on these questions, and NOVA's comprehensive, three-part special, "Becoming Human," examines what the latest scientific research reveals about our hominid relatives.

Part 1, "First Steps," examines the factors that caused us to split from the other great apes. The program explores the fossil of "Selam," also known as "Lucy's Child." Paleoanthropologist Zeray Alemseged spent five years carefully excavating the sandstone-embedded fossil. NOVA's cameras are there to capture the unveiling of the face, spine, and shoulder blades of this 3.3 million-year-old fossil child. And NOVA takes viewers "inside the skull" to show how our ancestors' brains had begun to change from those of the apes.

Why did leaps in human evolution take place? "First Steps" explores a provocative "big idea" that sharp swings of climate were a key factor.

The other programs in the "Becoming Human" series are Part 2: "Birth of Humanity", which profiles the earliest species of humans, and Part 3: "Last Human Standing," which examines why, of various human species that once shared the planet, only our kind remains.
All three parts really are excellent educational resources. Even if you're generally familiar with the subject matter, these shows really bring the material to life and help you to visualize what our ancestors and evolutionary cousins looked like and how they lived. (I found the segment in part 2 about the Homo Erectus fossil Turkana Boy particularly compelling.)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Rethinking the "war on drugs"

Johann Hari argues its time to quit dogmatically pursuing a counter-productive policy (via Butterflies and Wheels)

What would happen if we started to build our drugs policy around the facts, rather than our desire for a fuzzy feeling inside? Professor Nutt only took tiny baby steps in this direction before he was booted out. He argued that we should rank drugs by the harm they do, rather than by the size of the panicked headlines they trigger. Now the row is fading, it is possible to see how conservative he was. A must-read new report out this week – ‘After The War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation’ – follows the facts as far as they will take us. It shows that the rational solution is to take the drug market back from the unregulated anarchy of criminal gangs, and transfer it to pharmacists, off-licenses, and doctors who operate in the legal economy. To see why this is necessary, we have to look at some of the facts our politicians refuse to see.

Fact One: The drug war hands one of our biggest industries to armed criminal gangs, who unleash terrible violence across the country...

Fact Two: Under prohibition, drug use becomes more hardcore...

Fact Three: The drug war doesn’t reduce drug use – but the alternatives can...
There is more at the link, of course.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Quote of the day

"[S]kepticism is essential to the quest for knowledge; for it is in the seedbed of puzzlement that genuine inquiry takes root. Without skepticism, we may remain mired in unexamined belief systems that are accepted as sacrosanct yet have no factual basis in reality. With it, we allow for some free play for the generation of new ideas and the growth of knowledge." - Paul Kurtz, The New Skepticism: Inquiry and Reliable Knowledge

Friday, November 13, 2009

Off with his head! or: Neoconservative justice

Bill Kristol apparently believes that if you're a Muslim and accused of an act of terrorism then you should be executed summarily at the discretion of the President without charge or trial.*

Law enforcement officials announced yesterday that Maj. Nidal M. Hasan has been charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder in the brutal attacks at Fort Hood Army base. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that “the number one issue, I think right now, is that Major Hasan be brought to justice.”

Last night on Fox News, Bill Kristol called Napolitano’s comment “stupid” and stated outright that there should be no trial:

KRISTOL: I was very struck also by Janet Napolitano’s comment, I hadn’t read it before to see her say that, that the number one priority is to bring him to justice is such a knee-jerk comment and such a stupid comment. He’s going to be brought to justice. He is not going to be innocent of murder. There are a lot of eyewitnesses to that. They should just go ahead and convict him and put him to death.
Giving the Executive branch of government the power to declare a U.S. citizen guilty and have that individual killed by fiat without due process of the law was exactly why this country was founded, you know? The founders sought to break away from an oppressive, undemocratic system of government in which the most bedrock principle was that of habeus corpus: the right to not be imprisoned or punished without a fair trial. That's what our history books say, right?

I'm not sure what is worse, Kristol's open contempt for the most basic civil liberties and principles of western democracy which are enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, or the Obama administration's more subversive tiered system of justice.

So what we have here is not an announcement that all terrorism suspects are entitled to real trials in a real American court. Instead, what we have is a multi-tiered justice system, where only certain individuals are entitled to real trials: namely, those whom the Government is convinced ahead of time it can convict. Others for whom conviction is less certain will be accorded lesser due process: put in military commissions, to which most leading Democrats vehemently objected when created under Bush. Presumably, others still -- those who the Government believes cannot be convicted in either forum, will simply be held indefinitely with no charges, a power the administration recently announced it intends to preserve based on the same theories used by Bush/Cheney to claim that power.

A system of justice which accords you varying levels of due process based on the certainty that you'll get just enough to be convicted isn't a justice system at all. It's a rigged game of show trials.
At least with Kristol, you have the injustice right out in the open. With the heads I win, tails you lose system being proposed by the Obama Department of Justice, there is a facade of due process which hides the injustice.

*I'm granting for the sake of argument that Hasan is guilty of terrorism, yet I don't believe his murderous rampage is terrorism. The profile of his act that seems more appropriate is that of the disgruntled employee who "goes Postal" on his co-workers. What's more, terrorism is generally defined to be an act of violence directed towards civilian targets to make a political point ... that didn't happen with Hasan. See here for more thoughts on the subject.