Monday, December 31, 2007

Goodbye, you steaming turd

Well, I went and did it. I never wanted Vista, but I had it all the same (Thanks for the warning, Dell!), and now I finally got so fed up that I traded it in for Linux. I'm running Ubuntu, and you know what? For my laptop, I think it's gonna work just fine.

I didn't even bother to keep Vista or any of the old data on the hard drive. I just wiped it clean. Vista is just that bad. Sorry, Microsoft, but it's true. I'm not really one of Microsoft's many enemies, even! I had a pretty good experience with WinXP, all told!

So, yeah. Rot in unwanted technology hell, Vista, along with BetaMax, Laserdisks, WebTV, and - we can only hope - BluRay and HD-DVD alike.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Press A to not die

I feel somewhat out of touch with video games lately. This is strange for me, as I consider myself not only a gamer, but a member of the gamer subculture, who follows gamer comics, reads reviews, and gets (and makes) game-based jokes. Actually, I suppose this extends to non-video games as well; from boardgames like Settlers of Catan to old-school pencil and paper RPGs, I've enjoyed all of them. Not so much, though, in recent months. It's unsettling, actually.

There are exceptions, of course. The originality and rock 'n roll of the Guitar Hero games had me hooked for a while, and I did play and thoroughly enjoy the paradigm-creating Portal. By and large, though, I've been put off of games. There's the money factor, of course - not much of it, that is; certainly I've not enough to buy any of the next-generation gaming consoles, nor replace my aging PC. It's more than that, though. It's a growing sense of enmity toward most of the gaming industry, becoming, as it has been, just one more creativity-challenged corporate-owned money black hole, where all your cash is sucked in though little or nothing of any value can escape.

Part of it, too, was a horrified epiphany some months back about all the time I'd spent in my life playing JRPGs like the Final Fantasy series, in which I was essentially engaged in nothing more than manipulation of two sets of buttons for the purpose of moving around a set of avatars and murdering lots and lots and lots of imaginary animals, soldiers, and magical... things. Sure, sure, it's all very pretty to look at, and sometimes it's even accompanied by snippets of intriguing storyline, but at the core level, every single RPG-type game is essentially a very boring murder simulator, wherein "your" characters kill most everything in their path in essentially the same way for nebulous gains in money and "experience."

For some reason it took me 25 years to realize this, years in which I'd poured more than a hundred hours per playthrough, sometimes multiple times, into many of these games.

Anyway, I think I've already discussed this part of the topic. Back to the subject: this isn't meant to be a "video games these days sure do suck!" rant. I don't know if they do or not. God knows they certainly sucked back when I was younger (You ever heard of a "spoony bard"?) but we played them anyway, and we loved it. There's a lot of talk these days about video games turning into more and more of an "art form," so perhaps they really are improving. Maybe the "problem" is just one of perception, since any game that falls into a pre-existing category is labeled unoriginal, but as time goes on, more and more categories are filled, sometimes even categories we didn't know existed.

(You see why I hate nostalgia? My fellow short-changed children of the 1980s will, in the same breath, moan about how much better video games and cartoons were "when we were kids," and crack jokes about spoony bards and samoflanges and princesses in other castles. Ugh. Look, people: those games and cartoons were awful. They were generally very badly translated, and made little or no sense even when they were made in or made it into good English. We were just young and didn't know any better. You disagree? Okay. Come on. You just try and defend the merits of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I dare you. You have your choice of the comic books, the cartoons, the video games, or even the movies.)

The long and the short of it is that I haven't been buying or playing many new games lately, but, honestly, having kept an eye on the reviews and seen the publicity, I don't really feel like I'm missing out. (Thanks, Yahtzee.) I don't expect I'll ever play another JRPG, at least not seriously. Half-Life 2, Ep. 3? Yeah, definitely. God of War 3? Maybe. I am getting a little tired of sequels, I have to say.

I am, however, still supremely stoked about Starcraft 2, so I guess there's that. And you know what? Modern video game culture has introduced us all to Jonathan Coulton, so I guess, all in all, it's a win after all.

Creased Foreheads

Have I ever mentioned what a bizarre genius my fellow UT alum Brad Neely is? He was responsible for that "Wizard People, Dear Readers" dub thing for the first Harry Potter movie, though that is not my favorite Neely product (although I did see him perform it live at the Alamo Drafthouse a few years back when it was new and that was pretty great!).

No, I much prefer video Neely: he makes great short animated films about strange people living in a strange world, including two middle-aged dudes who teach at a strange-world University much like one in Austin, and a huge man-child who freestyles phatly and is possibly the wisest being of all. The animation is... well, just don't be picky about it. The visual style takes some getting used to. But go! If you're at all like me about weird, dark, sometimes very dry and sometimes very, um, "wet" humor, you'll love it.

Check out Prisoner Christmas! It's seasonal. Or go back a ways to Baby Cakes in The Role-Play Tournament, my all-time favorite.

I don't know, maybe I've posted about this before. I don't care. Every time he releases something I am overwhelmed all over again with the urge to make everyone I know watch these videos until they get them.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Open letters to presidential candidates

Dear Mike Huckabee:

You don't understand the first damn thing about science, your ideas are empirically insane, and you don't deserve to be trusted with being manager of a Taco Bell, much less President of the United States. Really? Abortion is the cause of our "problems" with immigration? Do you even hear what is coming out of your mouth, you fucking nut?

And are you really dropping the 1930s "science says bees can't fly" thing? Honestly? Even though no one has bought into that since before World War II? Innovation and hard work are the core founding values of American society, and also, not coincidentally, the core values of scientific endeavor. We need yet another president hostile to science almost as much as we need an apocalyptic nuclear war.

Everyone who isn't a blindered, card-carrying "Moral Values" Republican


Dear Mitt Romney:

You're a lying sleazeball, and we all know it. You are willing to sell yourself to the highest political bidder. This is obvious. Pledging your support to that bidder does not disguise this truth. You disgust me. Your willingness to sell out your own faith to a powerful electoral base revolts even those of us who detest faith.

Every American who heard your "Religion in America" speech


Dear Rudy Giuliani:

You are the biggest asshole the world has ever seen. Why must everything link back to 9/11, Rudy? Do you really expect us to buy it when you tell us that our generation reminds you of "the Greatest Generation" because of "what they've been through"? How simpleminded do you take us to be? Do you really expect us to buy into your notion that Iran is the root of all evil, and was responsible for the attack on "your" city? Every campaign ad you publish makes us hate you more and more.

And please, please, stop using the phrase "the Greatest Generation." They were no greater than the rest of us. It's really not my fault that I don't have a Hitler to fight, okay?

Everyone under the age of 80


Dear Hillary Clinton:

I don't trust you. You're cold and conniving and entirely too willing to jump on any old bandwagon, who it harms be damned, for a particular block of votes. You espouse many things this country needs, but I don't like you. I'm going to vote for you anyway, because you listen to Jay Inslee, and because there aren't any better alternatives.

Don't fuck this up.

John Marshall and the rest of the state of Washington


Dear Barack Obama:

I can't get a read on you, because you never actually make any statements about what your core values are. You promise money to this thing or that, but you never actually let us know who you are. You also make clumsy attempts to engage the old, busted 1960s Civil Rights mentality that has long since served its purpose and should be allowed to die out. That bothers and alienates me.

For these reasons, and because I don't think you can win because, sorry, not your fault or mine, but our country is still too racist, I am not wasting my vote on you.

Young voters of America, the very people you're trying to engage


Dear Dennis Kucinich, Ron Paul, John Edwards, and other presidential candidates who have no hope of winning:

You all know you have no chance. Seriously. What the hell? Why are you wasting money on your joke of a campaign? You have millions of dollars in your war chest, and there are people all over the world who could desperately use that money. Why do you insist on continuing with your stupid, doomed, pointless candidacy? There is no goddamned point to you running more TV spots or posting more fliers; you will not win, ever.

I would be more likely to vote for you if you gave all your money to a good charity than if you advertised one more time in my state, and for that matter, you'd get a lot of free publicity for doing something like that. Think it over. Or don't, and continue to be selfish pricks. See if I care.

Everyone who isn't going to vote for you, a.k.a. the vast majority of Americans

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas: winner

If you've wondered why I haven't delivered the promised update schedule yet, it is, as you might subsequently have decided, because hey, it's Christmas! Or, you know, was Christmas.

Anyway, Christmas has defeated me. The trip to North Carolina to see the not-quite-in-laws was nice enough, but there was some bickering, and ye gods was the food rich, constant, and unhealthy. Add that to a flight on the return that seemed to go on longer than every Iron Butterfly song ever written, and you have me, sick. I guess it's either a traveling flu, or a relapse of the sinus infection I had almost conquered when we left, either way having snuck in due to stress. I don't think I ever want to fly anywhere ever again. It was cramped, turbulent, thirsty misery.

So anyway, there you have it: I am recuperating, trying to clean up around here, and was traveling, dangit.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007





Sunday, December 16, 2007

One-a-day wrap-up

Well, an entry every day worked out pretty well, in the end, up until the weekend. Oddly enough.

Anyway, I think I'm going to continue to try to write something in this semi-public space maybe every other day for a while. It seems to be good for me. Gotta keep those neurons firing!

No, seriously, keeping your brain active is critical. I'm thinking about learning German and Latin again (I knew and have largely forgotten both) just to make sure I keep making and maintaining connections up in the ol' cranium. I have to survive in both body and mind until we reach a point where significant life extension is practical!

I don't intend to die any earlier than absolutely necessary.

Anyway, right now, I recommend that you go check out Who Goes There, the 1938 novella upon which the eponymous Carpenter film The Thing was based. It's awesome! Maybe. I'm not done with it yet. The movie was awesome, though, so maybe?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Fry Day

My brain is in turmoil and I am very tired. Fortunately it is widely held in popular mythology that on the fifth day He rested, and that is what I am doing. Also, grilled cheese sandwiches.

In other news, Guantanamo detainees (I loathe that word. Why can't we just call them prisoners? That's what they are, and using new vocabulary doesn't soften that fact one bit.) have all universal human rights, no matter what a bunch of Reagan-fellating quasi-Libertarian lawyers say to the contrary. Fuck those guys.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

75% Pornularity

Those familiar with Ray Kurzweil will know the concept of the technological singularity; many who aren't familiar with him will also know it via other nerd channels. Certainly he is not its only theoretician/proponent.

I won't spend much time here talking about the singularity itself, partly out of laziness and partly out of an utter lack of desire to produce an inadequate summary of something discussed elsewhere (like in that link) in so much detail. I was, however, thinking about it earlier today, and I suddenly found myself in a relativist mood. I know, I know: distasteful and intellectually reprehensible. I'm sorry. I couldn't help it.

At any rate, what I considered was this: the notion of the technological singularity is all well and good, but why must it be attached to a specific point in technological progress? Why can't it be ratcheted forward or back? I answered these questions for myself with a little more thought, as you may answer them with a little more research into the concept, but it still led to interesting conceptual locales.

Primarily, I wondered why it shouldn't be that the singularity is already happening. Consider, if you will, the transformative effect the internet has had and is still having on modern culture. It's phenomenal! Titanic! Incomprehensible! Well, incomprehensible if you lived prior to the 20th century, anyway. The way in which digital data transmission between computers open to the public has revolutionized information exchange has, at least in some ways, rendered modern society almost entirely alien to the perspective of someone from the pre-internet age. Oh, certainly there are still plenty of offline individuals in the world, but I, at least, have also heard on many occasions someone remark upon how they don't know how they lived before the internet, or can't even remember communicating before the internet. The sort of sea change in our societal paradigm that leaves an event horizon within living memory seems pretty fairly singularity-ish to me.

I know it doesn't really meet all the criteria for the technological singularity, though I'd be prepared to argue that it might well be the beginning of one. Honestly, this entry was really just yet another one of those ubiquitous "Wow, isn't the internet awesome?" articles that crop up online from time to time. It's the cyber-citizen version of stopping and smelling the roses, I imagine.

And really, isn't the internet awesome?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


I heard a rather disappointing episode of To The Point today on KUOW featuring several apparently relevant individuals discussing Barack Obama's campaign and his relevance to "blacks." Now, I don't put quotes around "blacks" because I'm not with the times and I think it's offensive; rather, I wish to indicate that I think it's ri-fucking-diculous that these people came on this radio show to discuss what an entire population of people differentiated by skin tone all apparently think. On the face of it, that's damned silly, but even so, that's not what I found myself thinking throughout the feature.

No, what I was thinking was, "Man, they really just don't get it!"

Continually, throughout the show, there was reference after reference to the old, busted '60s Civil Rights paradigm. It was like the guests were absolutely incapable of thinking of a black man in politics in any other terms. Honestly, it was bizarre! Not only did they keep talking about "blacks" or "black Americans" as though there were some sort of unified Black Hive-Mind, they could tap into, they kept sorting blacks and black responses into strange and arbitrary categories. There was some talk about "bargainers," apparently a type of black person who "bargains" with whites not to lay on the racism guilt-trip if they'll just like him (Obama and Oprah were both cited as being bargainers, as opposed to, say, Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton).

Now, I think there is something to that point. Americans do like black people - and I think it's important to emphasize that that's cultural blackness, not skin color - who don't harp on the white guilt issue. Maybe twenty years ago, that was because a whole lot of Americans had lived through the Civil Rights years and had some lingering guilt over being on the wrong side or not doing enough. Today, though, it's a different story. Today's young people have never lived in a segregated society, have never heard racist rhetoric in politics, and have been taught since entering schooling that it is not only wrong but unthinkable to judge people based on skin color. I really think we've succeeded, with my generation and later ones, in creating a mostly colorblind society! And, you see, that's why it's so damned weird to hear so much about white guilt and all this Civil Rights-era thinking in relation to Barack Obama's campaign.

Obama isn't succeeding because he's an Uncle Tom. He's succeeding because he's young(ish), vital, and hip. He is not only appealing to younger people, he is actually reaching out to them in their own terms and their own media. He's the most internet-savvy of the candidates, at least reputedly. He's actively recruiting from the segment of the population, from Gen X onward, who are of age but not really engaged yet, and people are really getting excited about him. But here's the thing: to those people, he's not black. To me, he's not black.

He's not falling back on the same tired rhetoric of the '60s like Sharpton did when he utterly failed to win the nomination and the Presidency. He's moved on. Barack Obama is recruiting somewhat from the black community, it's true, but he's actually not even very good at it! He is ignoring his race, and it's working, because young voters are too. The panelists on today's To The Point just couldn't seem to see that, but I think a lot of Americans do, and I think we'll see, soon enough, that it's a real paradigm shift. My parents' generation became race-aware, for the first time, in a positive way. My generation is losing racial awareness, also for the first time in a positive way, and the Boomers are falling behind the curve.

I don't speak for black voters. I know that. I wouldn't even think of trying. But I can speak for young, white, liberal voters, and here's what I have to say: we don't care that Barack Obama is black. We do care about the struggles of the '60s, but in an academic way, the same way that our parents care about the Second World War. It's history, and if you try to make it the center of a modern political issue, you're going to come up far short of really understanding what's going on. Barack Obama is not Martin Luther King, Jr.; he has a lot more in common with John F. Kennedy, Jr., and trying to force him into the sort of charismatic Civil Rights activist role that he really isn't will work no better than it did when Sharpton tried it and meant it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Well, apparently I've garnered the notice of one or two small meta-blogs for that last Romney-related rant. I don't expect a massive influx of readers, but I'm still a little concerned; I'm not entirely proud of how completely I blew my top in writing that piece. I don't at all disagree with anything I said, but I was a little... heated.

When you take a position, you become, to some degree, that position. In the eyes of anyone to whom you represent something, you literally represent it, standing in for whatever it is, abstract or material. In that sense, I let down the causes of liberty and reason whenever I make a bad impression in their names. This isn't some sort of grave conceit over being published on the internet; it's a personal concern, no matter at all whether I'm talking with a friend or addressing a potentially large audience.

There's a fine line that must be walked between becoming too disengaged and losing your passion, and appearing too partial and too amateurish. We've seen American politicians, more and more throughout recent history, attempt to avoid this particular dilemma by skilled deceit, particularly self-deceit, but it never really quite works; no one trusts a politician entirely. Even if you think they're on your side, you know that they're using you and your vote for their own political ends. Others, private citizens, may fall a little too far in favor of authenticity, as I did, and come off as unbalanced or hand-wavingly over-excited. Howard Dean showed a little of this through the tiniest crack in his facade, and the American media tore him to shreds.

The particular point to this isn't at all to issue a retraction; I'm not retracting a damned thing. I suppose that it's really just to ask, in case anyone is listening, for a little slack. I stand behind the substance of my words, but, yes, I was, and remain, pissed off.

Monday, December 10, 2007


Sometimes I forget that I'm an expert.

Seriously! I know more about evolutionary biology and ecology than a good, solid 99.9% of the population (notice that that number still leaves room for at least 300,000 people above me in America, or 6,000,000 worldwide, so I feel pretty safe in making the assertion). I can explain not only the basic concepts like selective pressure and genetic drift - "basic" being relative since I imagine no more than one person in ten would even recognize those to me commonplace phrases - but figure out carrying capacities and projected growth rates, hypothesize about the evolutionary pressures driving speciation of creatures I've never seen before, and discuss at length the life and works of Thomas Hunt Morgan and Rosalind Franklin. I can understand articles in professional medical journals and peer-reviewed genetics journals by building on basic principles. I can understand the risks of the various carcinogens we hear warnings about every day because I know the mechanisms by which they damage DNA and the effects different types of mutation can have on genes.

So why did I feel the need to brag about myself today? Well, the thing is, I don't think it's just me. I think there are an awful lot of potential experts out there who, for reasons of self esteem, caution, or distraction, simply don't share what they know, and that's a damn shame.

I thought about this while I was listening to the Skeptics' Guide, which I've mentioned a few times lately. Every show, Steve Novella, the host and a practicing and teaching neurologist, gives his friends and panelists three science news articles to choose from, one of which is a fake he invented before the show, and they have to try to figure out which is the sham. They also go over real science news in every podcast. My own unusual talent came to mind while I was listening to them discuss evolutionary principles in relation to some rather dubiously legitimate theory advanced by a British "scientist," and mentally adding to and expanding upon virtually everything they said. I suddenly realized that it wasn't fair of me to be disappointed in these people and their coverage of the story; after all, they're not trained in this kind of theory like I am, and even Steve's education in evolution was probably both cursory and quite some time ago, before medical school. That's not to say they don't keep up with science news, because they do, but that's not the same as the rigorous, formal training you get in a genuine course of study. I had had that, and they hadn't, and for once in my life - and it's a rarity for me, because, falsely or not, I tend to be pretty humble about the validity and authority of what I know if it's ever questioned - I felt like I knew a lot about something. It was pretty nice! I actually felt like sharing what I know, instead of just worrying that, well, obviously someone will know more than me.

I think more people need to have that experience. We all know things, and generally there are at least one or two things that any given person knows well. Certainly, yes, a lot of what we know will be wrong, especially about things that are outside our area of expertise, and maybe even to a surprising degree within it. But who cares? How will you ever know unless you share?

It's funny that if you frequent discussion boards, social gatherings, and anywhere else where folks talk, especially if they're really getting into it, you'll generally find people willing to get upset over and try to sound authoritative about just about anything except what they do. Sure that's not always the case; there are no doubt plenty of people willing to just beat you down with whatever perceived authority they have. And, of course, there is the infamous "PhD effect," whereby those who are bestowed with that title seem to relinquish their ability to ever admit fault or ignorance. But by and large, people really like to argue about politics, religion, sports, and any of countless other things on which very few of us are actually expert.

So I'm going to go out of my way tomorrow to get into a situation in which I can really make a contribution. I'm going to join a discussion or find some questions I can answer where I can, for once, actually talk about evolutionary biology, and do it in a way that's actually constructive. If it works out, maybe I'll make a habit of it. Collaborative knowledge is the foundation of human society, and I figure maybe it's time I joined in.

After all, I know things.

What are you an expert in?

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Hey, Mitt "Religion in America" Romney

Let me tell you something, you pompous double-dealing cult-addled bigot: I don't need faith to be an American, to be moral, or to be damned well free, and that means I don't need you. You will never be my president, that I guarantee. I heard everything you said, especially the parts that were unspoken, and you damned well will not get away with it, you son of a bitch.

Let's go over a few key points of Mr. Romney's fine address, shall we?

"Today, I wish to address a topic which I believe is fundamental to America's greatness: our religious liberty."

You'll come to see, soon enough, that by "religious liberty," Mitt doesn't mean "freedom of religion." He means "our liberty, which is religious in nature." It sounds like semantics, but it's a damned important distinction, and one that I don't think he made accidentally.

"There are some who may feel that religion is not a matter to be seriously considered in the context of the weighty threats that face us."

Romney makes frequent use of this device in his speech; he refers repeatedly to an unspecified "some" or "people" who, it seems, are naysayers. He never clarifies who these people supposedly are, nor why they take such conveniently pessimistic viewpoints. It's almost as if he's - *gasp* - setting up a series of straw men to attack in order to make himself look proactive and strong.

"In John Adams' words: 'We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. ... Our Constitution,' he said, 'was made for a moral and religious people.'"

This is, I'll admit, a clever non sequitur. Like Einstein's famous and oft-misquoted lines about "the mind of God" or how God does or does not gamble, Adams' reference to "religion" is significantly more complex than its literal meaning. Einstein was partial to using "God" as a poetic means of referring to the workings of the universe, an interpretation verified quite clearly by his open and quite plain disavowal of any actual belief in a "personal God." In a similar manner, I think that Adams' association with the other Founders, and his participation in the founding of the American republic - a secular republic inspired by the thinkers of the Enlightenment - demonstrates quite clearly that when he refers here to "religion" he's using it in the parlance of his time to indicate ethics, decency, and civilization. It's disingenuous to assume that because of this casual statement, Adams would agree with Romney's implicit assertion that without religion, one can be neither American or moral.

"Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone."

This follows on the heels of Romney's Adams quote, and continues to draw on that as a referent. Regarding that: it's particularly reprehensible to cast backwards to long-outdated modes of speech and thought and then use them out of context to frame modern debate. In the first half of the 20th century, "white" was a complimentary adjective indicating decency, generosity, and thoughtfulness. I would not, however, expect to hear Mr. Romney say that "morality requires whiteness just as whiteness requires morality," as racism is rather less popular in today's political discourse than is crass manipulation of voters' religious belief.

"Given our grand tradition of religious tolerance and liberty, some wonder whether there are any questions regarding an aspiring candidate's religion that are appropriate."

There's that mysterious and pinch-mouthed "some" again. Where do they get off being so negative, anyway?

"Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions."

Okay, this one's just an out-and-out lie. Romney gave this speech to and for the benefit of conservative Christians, for the express purpose of letting them know that he's their man. Pundits know this. His political advisers admit this. That is the known context of this speech. Romney's entire purpose in this address was to let the conservative Christian lobby know in no uncertain terms that they would, in fact, "exert influence on presidential decisions." This is the subtext of the entire address, and to say it's not is just sickeningly dishonest.

"When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God. If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest."

This is really the one bright spot in the speech. I'll be the first to say that if Romney were elected, and he did keep this promise, he'd be entirely worthy of praise for it and probably a fine President. Unfortunately, the context leaves me rather pessimistic about that coming to pass. He says here that he won't serve interest groups, and yet he's running on a Republican ticket, which is at this point no more than a forced welding together of five different powerful coalitions of interest groups. Forgive me if I remain skeptical.

"There are some for whom these commitments are not enough. They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it's more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do. ... Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy."

Boy, those "some" just won't leave this guy alone, huh? Wait... who were "some" again? Oh, that's right. Some straw men.

"Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world."

Then why have they elected them over and over again for the last forty or fifty years at least? Ba-dum tsch!

"What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind. ... There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution."

So, let me see if I'm straight on what just happened here: first, he described and explained his church's distinctive doctrine on Jesus. Then, he insisted that in spite of what "some" straw men wanted, he would not describe and explain his distinctive doctrines.

Right. And let's not forget that in spite of his protestations against a "religious test," he's giving a speech for the sole purpose of reassuring voters about his religion.

"...No movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people."

Indeed, Mr. Romney. Indeed. And this is why our nation is pitiably backwards in "movements of conscience" regarding things like sex education, stem cell research, gay marriage, and the right to die. These movements of conscience, movements intended to better the world for everyone, do not in fact speak to religious conviction, and religious conviction would rather have a backwards, suffering world in line with its own dogma than give one inch of ground to humanism and conscience. So, in fact, you are correct in this, but not, I do not think, in the way you meant.

"...[I]n recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It's as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America - the religion of secularism. They are wrong."

Hoo boy. This one's a doozy.

Okay. First off, we have those ubiquitous secular straw men, here seen attacking the very right to virtuous faith of the simple, forthright American people. "Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life"? Well, actually... yes. That's exactly correct, Mr. Romney. That's what the separation of church and state means, so long as you're using "public" to mean "governmental." Wait, what's that? You're deliberately confusing two meanings of "public," pulling a bait-and-switch between "in sight of or in community with other people" and "affecting the affairs of all the people"? Oh. I see. That's not very honest of you, Mr. Romney.

And come on. Intent on establishing a religion of secularism? What does that even mean? Might as well accuse "some" of being intent on establishing "the government of anarchy" or "the education of ignorance" or "the up of down."

Let go of the bogeyman of the secular "war on faith," Mr. Romney. It's simply not there. Those of us in this nation who aren't religious want people's personal beliefs to stay personal, yes, but that's a damned far cry from illegalizing God or establishing a "religion of secularism."

"The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'under God' and in God, we do indeed trust."

Note carefully the non sequitur in the middle of this quip. Romney goes from the assertion that religion can't be "eliminated" from American life - which is true, and which is yet another straw man, since I doubt you'll find many Americans who want to forbid the public practice of religion, and since that's most definitely not the stance of any of Romney's immediate opponents - to the idea that we are a nation under God. He jumps from one idea to the other as if they were logically connected, but they are, in fact, nothing of the sort. It's a false equivalence: the logical structure of this statement implies that to disagree that we are "under God" - a Christian nation - is to attempt to ban religion.

"Non sequitur" means "does not follow." I think that adequately covers it.

"We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places."

I don't know about you, but to me, what he just said was, "The Judeo-Christian God should be established in all facets of American public life." I'm fairly sure that violates the... what was it? Oh, yes: the ESTABLISHMENT CLAUSE.

No one really wants to remove creches and menorahs from public places, Mitt. From courthouses, sure; religious paraphernalia have no place in the law. But from "public places"? Like, what, streetcorners? Yards? Who is it, exactly, that wants that, Mitt? Is it your straw men?

"No people in the history of the world have sacrificed as much for liberty."

I'm thinking Mitt failed History class in high school; or maybe he's just using a bit of hyperbole because he doesn't really care what, say, colonialized Africa and India, or the people of China, have suffered? Surely he wouldn't be saying something this offensively false and jingoistic for cynical political gain, would he?

"America took nothing from that century's terrible wars - no land from Germany or Japan or Korea, no treasure, no oath of fealty."

He's referring here to the 20th century, and I just have to ask: America may not have been in the Triple Entente, but do you really think that we had nothing to do with the crippling reparations that were forced on Germany and, in fact, drove them into the economic desperation that led to World War II? I know that's a nitpicky point, but once again I'm just pointing out that I think he may be engaging in a bit of liberty with the truth for his own gain, and I can't really stomach that.

"Because of their diverse beliefs, Ann Hutchinson was exiled from Massachusetts Bay, Roger Williams founded Rhode Island, and two centuries later, Brigham Young set out for the West. Americans were unable to accommodate their commitment to their own faith with an appreciation for the convictions of others to different faiths. In this, they were very much like those of the European nations they had left.
It was in Philadelphia that our founding fathers defined a revolutionary vision of liberty, grounded on self evident truths about the equality of all, and the inalienable rights with which each is endowed by his Creator."

Pardon me, Mitt, but I think you may have your timeline a little off-kilter there. I'm pretty sure the Bill of Rights predated Brigham Young.

"You can be certain of this: Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me."

Once again, a false equivalence, this time an implication that a "believer in religious freedom" is equivalent to a "person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty." That's not just a false equivalence, it's actually pretty close to the opposite of the truth. Why are you so damn dishonest, Romney?

"We do not insist on a single strain of religion - rather, we welcome our nation's symphony of faith."

Just so long as you have it. And it involves praying to a single god. And its morals align with ours. And you believe in small government with a powerful executive, outlawing abortion, and a young earth created by divine intervention.


"And so together they prayed, and together they fought, and together, by the grace of God, they founded this great nation."

...So that they, wealthy white elitist landowners, might lower their tax burden. Amen.

Now, don't get me wrong: I respect the Founders. They really were brilliant men, blessed with both insight and foresight. They just weren't who Romney is implying they were.


So that's it. That's the "Symphony of Religion" speech of 2007. That's the address where Mitt Romney made it quite clear that he is, in fact, a party-line conservative Christian, who's willing to distort facts and prey on the faith of Americans to win office; where he made it clear that anyone not of the Judeo-Christian tradition is not American and not entitled to liberty; where he employed more logical fallacies than I could conveniently count, including a veritable army of straw men.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I feel sick.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Beer Review: World Wide Stout

Last night, I finally got my hands on a bottle of Dogfish Head's World Wide Stout. Now, this has been a long-awaited event for me, since I'm a huge fan of that Delaware craft brewery and a huge fan of big, bold stouts, but the World Wide was never distributed anywhere I could get it before now. When I saw it in the cooler down at Bottleworks, I very nearly squealed with glee. I restrained myself only upon realizing that squealing with glee would probably result in the revocation of my license to drink stouts on grounds of weenieness.

Anyway, I picked up two bottles, and the ultimate verdict is that I will be picking up as many more as I can carry and cellaring them for a good year or three. World Wide, like everything else Dogfish has ever done as far as I can tell, is amazing.

First off, let's just go with the information on the bottle: it says that it's a very dark beer, and it is, though it's not as pitch-black as some toastier stouts, and that it's brewed with a ridiculous amount of barley. As to that, the stuff is a positively astonishing 20% alcohol by volume, so they are not kidding. One 12-ounce bottle of World Wide is enough to knock you for a loop if you're not careful. This is definitely a brandy snifter or tulip glass beer, by the way, not a pint glass.

I'll need to try another bottle to really reinforce my impression of the flavors, but there is a veritable symphony of them. I caught a strong mix of toffee and maybe raisin or currant (not surprising since raisins are one of Dogfish Head's favorite flavoring ingredients, although I don't know if there were actually any in this brew), but very little of the astringency and toastiness you usually expect in a really dark beer. As I mentioned, it wasn't pitch black, so I expect that lack of burnt character is due to relatively less black patent malt or whatever equivalent they might have used. A smaller amount of bittering hops, as well, compared to many other big stouts; it was definitely bittered, but not bitter. Surprisingly, there wasn't a lot of alcoholic bite to it, though the kick was evident in other ways - there was very little head on the pour, but there was a definite headiness to the mouthfeel.

This stuff is big, by the way. It is not for folks who think that Guinness is a stiff drink.

Anyway, while World Wide Stout was quite an experience straight off the shelf, I think with some time to age, mellow, and blend, it will be a positively sublime draught. An A- beer now, but with an anticipated appreciation to an A+ with cellaring.

The Golden Double Standard

Have you been hearing as much as I have about how upset various churches are about the cinema release of The Golden Compass? There's quite a hubbub surrounding it. It seems, you see, that the movie - I guess they're not so worried about the books the movie is based on, because, really, who reads any more, anyway? - "promotes atheism" and is thus a "direct attack on organized religion." Unlike the case of Harry Potter, in which they were in fact concerned about the books for some reason I don't quite follow, there does actually seem to be something to this particular accusation. Author Philip Pullman identifies himself as an atheist and no fan of religion, and having read the books, I can say two things quite definitely:

1) They're phenomenal, and everyone should pick them up. This is entirely independent of any religious issues surrounding them; they're just a really fun read. They're nominally children's books, but that only makes me wish I had kids to whom I could read them. Don't see the movie, either; from what I understand, the studio neutered some of the most integral plot ideas and made a disappointing hash of the entire thing. I particularly recommend the audiobook, for anyone interested in that format, because it's narrated by the author and a full cast of characters and for obvious reasons therefore does a superb job of capturing the spirit of the books.

2) There is definitely an anti-religious bias to the events in the story, but since this all takes place in a fantasy universe I really fail to see how that can be viewed as any sort of proselytizing. If anything, I think these books are more likely than almost any others I've encountered to lend to young readers a sense of wonder and curiosity that might lead them in virtually any direction, including to religion. Being rather unfavorably inclined toward religion myself, I actually rather hope that these books lead kids away from faith and dogma, but I just don't think it's the necessary case.

There's a larger issue here, though, that's being rather completely lost in the controversy: if the books are atheistic, so what? I didn't see worldwide outrage over the release of The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, which is decidedly Christian. It's okay for children's movies to try to convert kids, but not to dissuade them?


Oh, I know why, trust me. That was a rhetorical question. I know that the Church and various Christian groups worldwide are quite fervently trumping up a "war on faith" to get upset about these days. Pope Ratzinger recently gave an address in which he said quite openly that atheism is directly responsible for most of the heinous evil in the world, even including the old nonsense about Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. (Let's just take a moment to address that, shall we, Joe? In the first part, all of the monsters you mention were motivated by essentially religious ideologies, and not some sort of evangelical atheism; and in the second part, you're quite conveniently forgetting some powerful counter-examples like the Inquisition and the Crusades. Or had those simply slipped your mind?) The release of a supposedly atheist movie at this time plays right into their hands, one more piece of evidence that the "godless secularists" are on the offensive, and this time, by God, they're attacking our children!

I hardly need say that this is utter hogwash. The issue is that it's beside the point even if it were true.

Obviously the Vatican is not a nation founded on religious freedom, and so the Pope can of course say whatever he likes. I really couldn't care a bit less what goes on over there. The issue is the effect it has over here. It's the American media that's propagating this nonsense about a "controversy," and it's American Christians who are up in arms about the movie's release and the Church's view on it, and this most certainly is a nation founded on religious freedom.

Let's say that the books do, as some claim, not only "promote atheism," but in fact "denigrate faith." Do you expect me to care? Did you see me rioting in the streets upon the release of The Polar Express, a film whose entire message was "Just believe!"? Do you see me boycotting the Narnia books or films, which are openly and unabashedly Christian apologism? As hard as it may be for these folks to understand, there are in fact any number of people who want nothing to do with religion and, indeed, don't view faith, much less a particular religion, as a virtue at all. This is allowed. That's what religious freedom means.

In short, my message for those offended by this film is this: GROW UP.

Yes, a story was released in popular media which disagrees with you philosophically. I know that's an unprecedented experience, but you're just going to have to deal with it. Adults do that, rather than throwing a fit about it. If you'd try being nonreligious for a month, you'd find that you have to get pretty good at dealing with it or simply spontaneously combust. So yes, Offended America, it's time to grow up and handle disagreement like functioning adults, instead of throwing a tantrum like spoiled children when someone, at long fucking last, violates your ridiculous double standard. If you don't like the film's perspective, here's an idea, free of charge: don't watch it.

And when it comes to that, I certainly won't. I've heard it's a cinematic mess, and I detest Hollywood in the first place. I'd much rather own the books.

ADDENDUM: The lovely and sagacious Rebecca Watson of Skepchick has tackled this issue as well, and provided a link to a Landover Baptist treatment of it. If you're not familiar with Landover Baptist, well... 1) You've probably been in cryonic stasis since the invention of the internet, and 2) I'll let you discover it for yourself. If nothing else, it's significantly more lighthearted (though even more caustically sarcastic) than my ill-tempered hand-waving.

I have added many links!

I have added them to the humorously-titled links section on the right. Visit them.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Mighty suns

To the great surprise of absolutely no one, I have decided to apply to the University of Washington School of Oceanography. This will not be happening immediately, but it is nevertheless a decision, and one I'm fairly excited about. It's not a nebulous thing, either; I'd like to become involved in Project NEPTUNE, and to specialize in extremophile ecology. A chance to ship out on the R/V Thomas G. Thompson wouldn't be unwelcome, either. The Tommy, you might (or might not) be interested to know, is the identical twin - one of a set of quadruplets, actually - of the R/V Atlantis, out of Woods Hole, famed as the operating craft of DSV Alvin, the cute little submersible that's starred in so many marine exploration documentaries on the Discovery channel.

It's a tenuous connection about which to be so excited: the remote possibility of shipping out on a craft that was built identical to another famous ship that carries the vehicle that first discovered hydrothermal vent ecosystems. But goddammit, I am so excited.

Oh, and I've also, in an effort to improve my productivity and organize my thoughts, decided to write seven blog entries in the next seven days, not counting this one. If the daily thing works out well, I may just keep it up! I may also compromise on a bi-daily or MWF schedule, depending.

And in case anyone didn't catch it last time, allow me one more time to plug The Skeptics Guide To The Universe (and the James Randi Education Foundation, hosts and sponsors of The Amazing Meeting! Be there!) Further, in that vein, allow me to say that anyone who has not read Carl Sagan's eponymous The Demon-Haunted World is not really living. It's hard not to get shivers down your spine when, following an anecdote about Sagan's own childhood, you look up at the stars and realize that they are all, indeed, mighty suns in their own right, some orders of magnitude larger than the one that is the source of essentially everything we know.

Mighty suns.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Dyspeptic's guide to disgruntlement

Have you ever heard something silly and thought, "Man, I dunno, that sounds kind of silly"? Well, then you need to get on board with the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe!*

Okay, I know that the name sounds a little pretentious, and, more importantly, I know you're thinking, "Skeptics? Well, shit, I know what to expect from them. Bunch of stuffy know-it-alls sitting around choking up the room with smugness and intellectual pretense." And I know that right now you're expecting me to make some sort of 'funny' comment like "And you'd be right!" or "Maybe that's true of me, but not everyone!" but I'm going to have to disappoint you. The SGU is really the kind of thing that podcasting - a technology I've been regrettably slow to adopt - was invented for.

Sure, they're a little heavy on repetition of the word "skeptical," but balanced against a weekly show that's charming, intelligent, thought-provoking, and entertaining, that's hardly a critical flaw. And you know what? I like "skeptical" (or "sceptical," if you prefer, you Anglophones). It's hard to talk about things like skepticism, empiricism, or, heaven forfend, materialism or atheism in American culture. To one degree or another, all of those words have been demonized, sometimes literally, to the point where you're as like as not to be viewed as a dangerous lunatic upon identifying yourself as any of them (outside of academia). Indeed, there are few accusations more poisonous to a public figure in American political rhetoric than "atheist," free religion guaranteed in our Constitution notwithstanding.

Try to set that aside, though. Recognize the visceral reaction you may have to these terms, examine it, and set it aside. Consider the word "skeptical" on its own merits, and not on whatever impression you may have of it from pervasive cultural media.

What's so bad about asking why?

Give it a try.

Those of you who know me (and I have a hard time imagining that any of you reading this don't) surely know by now that I've been skeptical of a lot of things for a long, long time. I won't claim that I've been an atheist skeptic since birth, because, well, I frankly didn't even think about that kind of thing until I was at least 8 or 9, apart from knowing, in a part of my mind, that Santa Claus was some kind of consensus joke that everyone surely knew wasn't real, but no one ever openly denied. I will say that as soon as relevant issues began coming to my nascent attention, I started questioning them, in a sort of childish, undeveloped way, and I never really stopped. Is it an intrinsic personality trait, then? Or did I just learn it early? I don't know. I do believe, now, that children can be taught critical thinking almost as soon as they can be taught language, and I think that I got a lot of that from my father. On some level, I think that gratitude for teaching me how to question things and how to start thinking is one major reason I always looked up to him despite rarely seeing him and despite all the many issues he's had in his own life.

There's a lesson there, I'm sure, about how children really do want to learn to be nerds if only you catch them early, but I'll save elaborating on it for another day.

* - for the less internet-comfortable (anyone who doesn't know what RSS is, this means you), you can also find and instantly subscribe to or download the podcast via iTunes with no more than a click or two