Friday, January 30, 2009

A Featureless Friday

I haven't been surfing the web all that much, so I don't have any funny links or pictures. I've spent the last few days hanging out with friends (see previous post) so I haven't been doing the reading I normally do. Much of my energy for socio-politial writing has been going towards school. My disk defragmentor wouldn't work for C: drive because I didn't have enough space left on it, so I copied all of my various and sundry writing folders, and tossed them into my D: drive, akin to dumping all of your paperwork into a box in order to vacuum (what? you mean you don't store all your important papers on the floor? How Bizarre! How else will you know where they are if you don't have to step over them every day?), so I'm a bit too disorganized to go in and fish out some near-complete essays to finish. I've been doing laundry, cleaning the kitchen, and listening to weighty lectures on my IPod, so I'm not in a very humorous mood today.

Aha! I garnered a book of quotations from my folks the last time I was there, so I'll do a few Random Acts of Quotation!

"A conservative politician is one in office." Columbia Record

"Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even when there is no river." Nikita Khrushchev

"A political war is one in which everyone shoots from the lip." Raymond Moley


'The best part of repentance is the sinning." Arab Proverb


"If you try to cleanse others, like soap you will waste away in the process." African Proveb


"Depend on the rabbit's foot if you will, but remember it didn't work for the rabbit!" R.E. Shay

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Eve of Destruction

I woke up this morning, more than once, a sad caricature of a human being. Walking home from school yesterday, I happened upon Dee, a delightful and talented friend of mine. Both eager to visit with me, and pitying my sad financial state (while I realize I only get better at them, it would be nice to finally win one of those damned essay contests) she offered to buy me a drink and some snacks at Striper's. We went to the 3rd floor, where spirits are served, and I reacquainted myself with my old demon, vodka.
When one is in the early stages of inebriation, one doesn't wish the evening, or the feeling to end, as you well know. We retired to Dee's apartment for a delightfully stimulating evening of conversation, fueled by liberal amounts of yet more vodka. Over an 8 hour period, I easily consumed nearly a fifth of Stoli and Smirnoff.
I awoke in the callous embrace of suffering, holding me as tightly as any lover invited to one's bed would, and such a generous lover suffering is, selflessly giving and giving. This hangover was arguably a work of art in its magnificence, and like many dedicated artists, I was consumed by that which I had created. The rolling waves of nausea were actually enjoyable for their complete integration with my being, and as well for their sheer perfection. I actually staved off the inevitable as long as I could to remain immersed in such meticulous misery. When at last I could no longer hold back that which demanded to be brought forth, I assumed the position of pious submission in front of that cool, white, impersonal diety, that was stoically eager to receive my offering unto it. It is often said there are no atheists in foxholes. As well there are none is this position either.
Akin to surrendering one's will to the will of deity, I was sundered from willful control of my body, and as I made offerings of not just my abandoned digestion, but my dignity as well, an orgasmic, if not religious, feeling washed over me. My muscles locked in waves of spasm that purged my sould as well as my stomach, and from deep within swelled yet more suffering, glorifying in its monstrous elegance, its distilled purity. All pain that went before was mere prologue: this was transcendant pain, that split my skull, and all conceptions I had previously had of suffering, with Truth.
With at last the sacrament fulfilled, I was drained, admittedly on many levels, including literally. I, trembling, made my way to a chair, allowing the daylight streaming through the open windows to slice through my eyes like spears of a spiteful god, and rattle like hammers against the back of my skull, shattering all conceptions I possessed of identity into a haze of misery of delicate power, and utter completeness. Like a symphony, each moment would bring notes of exquisite agony from a new point within my body, and I could only admire the intricate balance of subtle suffering, and monumental agony that played counterpoint to each other, a coherent cacophany of pain, with a broad palette of intenisties that shaped my enduring consciousness with deftly overlapped emotional and physical textures: sharp, dull, smooth, silky, plunging, cutting.
This was indeed the "Starry Night" of hangovers, an enduring masterpiece that scarred my soul with its magnificence, as all great works in history pierce and scar us. As even the mighty Pyramids shall one day blow away into the desert, so too did this wonder of the world ebb, as all things must to relentless time. Even so, I will enshrine this morning in the museum of my memory, where it will hold a place of honor, that I may again and again revisit, and cherish its power, its beauty, its mystery. Prints are available in the giftshop.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

New Feature # 2

Tangent Two-fer Tuesday

Anytime the subject of blogging comes up between my dearest dear, Gretchen, and I, she’s always after to me to increase my output, which is the epitome of random. In my defense, I have school, and a whole host of google docs I am constantly contributing to. That said, I also waste inordinate amounts of time on Facebook, and read as if I’ll never get to again if I stop, so my defenses are pretty thin. I’m just undisciplined. I have a whole folder of unfinished blogs, because I only write while I have steam, then something shiny twinkles, and off I go, only to return to the blog I started many moons later.
Gretchen is, of course, brilliant, (or else I’d be nice to her only because she’s Jon’s wife), and is, of course, one (of two) of the readers who follow my blog, even though I write as if the whole world is reading (one day, muhahahaha!) A good idea is a good idea, no matter where it came from (cupping is NOT a good idea), and she had a good idea. She suggested that I start writing thematically, with inane, yet relevant witticisms alliterating the theme to the day of the week. Ok, why not? I do want to accumulate a body of work to refer to, perhaps publish one day, and the best way to do that is to write. Maybe these theme days will help me focus, finish, and fling my essays to the world.
I’ve got one already, Skeptical Sundays, since I’m aiming to establish a career in science, science journalism, and popularizing science. That will rotate between exposing cranks, snake oil, pseudoscience, and downright dishonest people (John Edwards, step to the front of the line), and offing argumentative tips and techniques, all aimed towards improving any reader’s critical thinking skills.
Tangent Two-Fer Tuesdays will offer two posts, but that’s about it. They may be related to each other, they may not. They may be long (good odds as I’m a babbler), or short, or lists, or something entirely new. Gretchen’s point is well made, that people like regularity and consistency, else why would TV series stay on for years at a time?
People also like regular features, so Tuesdays are a day to try out this or that. Tuesdays are to give me flexibility, and provide readers with variety. I’ll think about more as I get into the habit of posting on these days.
New Feature to the Features: Random Acts of Quotation
"That which doesn't kill fools, needs to be made stronger." Me, 2008

Tangent #1
Irregular Feature…
Bards and Brainsuckers: Books I’m Reading

1) Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelly. I’m too poor to acquire nice, leatherbound editions of classics, so I collect collections of mass market, or occasionally Trade paperbacks, of genres I’m interested in. I’m collecting and reading classic science fiction novels, and while Frankenstein isn’t technically quite science fiction, it’s sci-fi enough that I consider it the first sci-fi novel ever written, far predating Verne or Wells. I’ve had this edition for over a year now, and it has lived on the “Shelf of Shame.” This is a shelf dedicated to all the books I should have read. You know, many of the ones you were forced to read in high school and college. Whenever I hit the thrift store (the BEST place to shop for books, but support you local bookstore too!) I inevitably come out with something that has endured, no matter how inexplicable. Frankenstein was written in 1816, which is an era in English literature I just despise. It’s contemporary with Jane Austin, to give you an idea of the kind of language it uses.
On the good side: it’s fascinating how NOT like any of the movies it is. It’s also a hoot to read of the affected mannerisms of the period, wherein overindulgence in passionate emotions would make men swoon, and be consigned to convalescence for weeks on end. How pussy is that? On chapter 7 of 24.
2) Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell. Published in 2007, it’s a weighty 613 pages (nothing to me), but supposedly a layperson’s guide to economics, bereft of charts and jargon. Sounds good. I’m on the last page of the introduction, and I already approve of the plain, direct style. This should prove informative, without the associated dryness I’ve so far encountered with most texts on economics, but with more meat that pop-economics books (though this book is on it’s 3rd edition in just two years…impressive.)
3) Religion in American Politics: A Short History, by Frank Lambert. Uber-timely with a 2008 copyright, this book sates two of my obsessive lusts: history, and my conflicted views on religion. Just a few pages in, and already I’ve slated it as my go-to-bed-yet-stay-up-3-extra-hours book.

Recently finished books:
The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. My second read of this elegant, powerful volume by “Darwin’s Bulldog.” Unlike Sam Harris, who gets brutal in his critique of Christianity, Dawkins is merely blunt, as his point is well made: why does religion deserve and get special treatment when it comes to criticism? Good question, but the real power of this book comes in his simple explanations of scientific principles, especially evolution, graced with beautiful perspective that left me shivering with awe.
Pushing Ice, by Alastair Reynolds. A rising star in science fiction, and currently my favorite genre author, Reynolds skillfully paints a grand canvas of immensity and grandeur, both in space and time, but keeps the focus on the human characters and their relationships. Too few modern authors get that the play is about the people, not the sets.
Letter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris. It’s not that I don’t agree with many of Harris’ sentiments, but too often he delivers them with palpable venom. I think it’s both healthy, and essential to call the various Christian sects to task on their hypocrisy when their moral absolutism actually increases human suffering, but Harris ignores the fact that Christians are a spectrum, not an extreme. Point by point he’s often (but not always) on the mark in his criticism, but just as often fails to distinguish particular versions, denominations, and interpretations of Christianity. What could have sounded like a thoughtful dialogue, giving the various churches much-needed food for thought, ends up sounding like a rant, and unfairly lumping all Christians into a uniform mass, completely forgetting that while religious, they’re still people. As an atheist, I think Harris’ approach is completely unproductive.

Tangent #2
This is an exercise an old Lost Colony chum tagged me to complete, which I ignored for weeks on end. I finally started looking at what other people were writing about, and realized it’s a terrific exercise in self-reflection. Besides, I had nothing else to write about for #2, so thank Bill Gates for cut and paste.

Once you've been tagged, you are supposed to write a note with 25 random things, facts, habits, or goals about you. At the end, choose 25 people to be tagged. You have to tag the person who tagged you. If I tagged you, it's because I want to know more about you.
(To do this, go to “notes” under tabs on your profile page, paste these instructions in the body of the note, type your 25 random things, tag 25 people, then click publish.)

1) I've an extremely addictive personality. I have yet to successfully quit smoking, have to tear myself away from games lest I turn into a dead husk in front of this computer, and must always keep one eye on my drinking, just for starters.

2) I've made the bargain with myself to remain on the constructive side of functional, despite the above. Having demons and monkeys at least means never having to sleep alone.

3) In regards to the above, at least I love animals. Ferrets are by far and away my favorite pets, with dogs and Benders running neck and neck for second.

4) I am an atheist. To paraphrase Dawkins, every believer is an atheist about all the other religions. I'm no different, I just include yours.

5) I love to write. I hate to write. I love to write. I hate to write. Gardenfuls of petal-less flowers about that one.

6) I do not use the word "friend" lightly, certainly not in the frivolous way Facebook uses it.

7) I love making lists.

8) I'm terrible at completing them.

9) I'm somewhat terrified that while I yearn for greatness, I'd likely be contented with comfortable mediocrity.

10) I am terrible with money. Please see #1.

11) I have moments of unequivocal intellectual brilliance. I have no idea how to do this consistantly.

12) I sometimes want to get paid for just being me. Please see # 9

13) I have hierarchies of love, devotion, obligation, and other emotional aspects associated with other people. Please see # 7

14) I am often ashamed that I appear to learn how to be a better person by being a complete shit to others. I console myself that at least I do learn.

15) Every year I suffer fools less and less. These people I am yearly less ashamed about being a total shit to. Please see above.

16) I could stay in school for the rest of my life, and no pile of shit would satisfy any pig more than I would be satisfied.

17) I often fail to perceive the difference between due pride and undue arrogance in myself. I rely heavily on my friends to tell me the difference.

18) In regards to the survival of our species, I'm the most optimistic person I've ever met.

19) I sometimes debate whether we deserve to, however.

20) I try very hard not to use the word believe anymore. There's not enough space on here to explain why.

21) I have experienced no suggestive, much less convincing, evidence of life after death, of any kind. Admitting this has made me acutely aware of the suffering of others. Please see #14 This can be correlated with # 4

22) I sometimes envy religious people their absolute convictions. It is far, far more difficult to actually think through tough moral and ethical problems on a case-by-case basis.

23) I do not think any of the world's problems are insolvable. There are, however, far too many people who are intractable, and therein lies the problem.

24) I don't think we are the only life in the Universe. Regardless, most people believe that we are. I am daily flummoxed that they don't act as if that were the case.

25) No one's better at being me than I am. I'm daily thankful I got the job.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of Atheism

New Feature

Skeptical Sunday
Our logical fallacy of the week...
False Dichotomy
Simply put, it’s when someone in an argument sets up an either/or choice that can be either blatantly false, or simplifies an argument that ignores a whole spectrum of choices in between the end extremes of either side of the argument.

One of my favorites: "Evolution can’t explain X, so Intelligent Design must be right."
Commonly, evolution is so poorly understood by ID proponents (see: Cameron, Kirk: that the first half of the above statement often incorrect. Add insult to injury, and conclude that ID is thus, by fiat, the correct explanation.

I actually understand how evolution is so misunderstood: it’s pretty complex. The biology alone is mind-boggling (which makes it so fascinating), and is corroborated by a dozen or so other scientific disciplines, which also require years of study to get a firm grasp on.

Tangent: that’s one of beauties of science, that as our body of knowledge grows, so does our need for ever more people to work together to progress our understanding, and create beneficial applications based on our understanding. I'd like to buy the world a coke, and an education.

One of the biggest problems in the E vs. ID debate is that E is poorly explained. There are some pretty basic, and simple principles involved. How to make them interesting to an audience is problematic. ID debaters usually rely on charisma ( and a whole host of logical fallacies ) to appear to win debates, even if their facts and reasoning are torn to shreds. It’s a matter of presentation, and approach, and most scientists aren’t equipped to present complicated facts concisely, and simply, and with the appealing flair of a game show host. This will change, however. My greatest fear is that it won’t be in enough time to combat more ideological insertion into science classes, currently under the guise of “academic freedom,” passed in a bill in Louisiana, and currently under fierce debate in Texas.

Example 2: “You weren’t there to see it happen, so your theory can’t possibly be right.” Every murderer in the world would absolutely adore it if our legal systems adopted this kind of reasoning. I’m assuming anyone who’s a fan of any one of the 415 CSI’s can see right through this one. Additionally baffling is how even if this illogic was even remotely reasonable, how would it make the other position (ID) correct?

“Academic Freedom!” Who can argue with that? Isn’t that the essence of democracy? If it was an honest principle, sort of, though it presents its own problems. One could attempt to ban the study of Shakespeare based on academic freedom, arguing that it’s not necessary to study 400 year old English plays, and even if it was, it’s entirely subjective that Shakespeare should be the one we study, and not some more obscure author from the period. So difficult not to Tangent here, because I have plenty to say about Shakespeare; how and how he’s taught. Alas, discipline. What makes the current premise of academic freedom despicable is it’s utter dishonesty. It’s yet another re-branded tactic to insert ideology where it doesn’t belong.

Tangent: Hooray! Another gorgeous aspect of science is its intellectual honesty, which I can distill to the succinct phrase, “Holy shit, we’ve been so completely wrong about nearly everything for just about our entire history! Let’s use a method of inquiry that makes that very assumption, and devise it so that any assertion made must pass a rigorous amount of testing and review before it’s accepted, and even then we’ll look over our shoulder for ever after just in case we’re wrong even after all that!” Science is often claimed by apologists to have nothing to say about God (or gods). Debatable, though very polite. What science does have is plenty to say about human history, and human nature, and is the most honest we’ve been with, and about ourselves yet.

There might be a positive to all this academic freedom nonsense. While it’s purpose is to challenge evolution, there’s nothing to say that it couldn’t as well be used to challenge Intelligent Design. If ID is actually brought into a science classroom, and evaluated with the same rigor as evolution (mini-tangent: challenging evolution is also throwing a gauntlet in front of geology, archeology, paleontology, astronomy and astrophysics, chemistry, and nuclear physics. Really, they’d all have to be wrong to allow ID remotely even footing with evolution. They being wrong wouldn’t mean that ID is right: it would still have to prove its case if it wanted to claim being a science) it would be torn to shreds within one classroom session.
That’s where introducing logical fallacies comes into the picture. Logic is a main component of critical thinking, and while the scientific method is taught in schools, it’s taught as a list of steps. What it is, is a constantly evolving, self-improving method of inquiry that involves thinking skills that are simply not innate, generally, to human beings. We go through life shooting from the emotional hip about everything. The whole paradigm shift in the way one has to think is just lost in a miasma of facts. I think a curriculum is required to teach this way of thinking. Critical thinking isn’t just about logic, but also the ability to evaluate evidence, and is self-reflective, in that one has to analyze one’s own arguments. These are skill sets that must be taught, as reason is a product of education, not birth.

If good critical thinking skills were a required component of public education, the benefits would reach far beyond the controversy about ID (make no mistake, it’s ID that’s the controversy. It’s proponents’ tactic is to reframe it into what is wrong with evolution, when the real issue is inserting a specific religion into public schools), though it would help students see through all the crap that surrounds the ID issue, and allow them to evaluate it on its own merits, which would be disastrous for ID if it’s done in a science classroom. Additionally, it would save the American consumer billions of wasted dollars. I can’t even get a handle on how much money is thrown out the window on pseudo-scientific snake oil, and numerous other products that with a few seconds of rational thought, would be seen to be unable to deliver on ridiculous claims of benefit. Incidentally, I’ve personally discovered that militantly reducing my consumption of television provides some immunity to the advertiser’s rhetorical charms. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it also appears to make the brain more careful. In addition, future generations that are brought up to give careful thought about the claims of others, and to their own decisions, would eventually filter into a government that might just think twice about going to war for no good reason (yes, I know the real reasons for war in Iraq are numerous, and far-reaching: it doesn’t make them wise or right) other than an executive that goes with the momentum, and believes he’s anointed by a very specific, intelligently designing creator, to go to war. Oops, did I just get all political?

So thus, I introduce Skeptical Sundays, the goal being to introduce a new logical fallacy every week, and attempting to use timely examples from the real world. Keep it real. No, really.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

And 2009 starts its engine

Here we go, 2009. The world has kept on spinning (so far), and, as usual, it's ignored our devices to mark time. Despite all the hope heaped upon Barack Obama, his is a job I do not envy. The problems, the very real, very deep problems he has to address, and is expected to solve are legion, and complicated, and long-term, and difficult. An historic President, history is ready to cast its eye on him with a long, hard stare. He will, of course, be remembered for being black, no doubt, yet history won't cut him an ounce of slack for that. His biggest problem is going to be his own image. He was elected as (dare I say it?) a savior. The expectation for him to rebuild the nation is, honestly, unrealistically high. There's a longer post in here about how we, the electorate, have abrogated our responsibilities and privileges as citizens of a unique government in favor of near-tyranny by funneling all of our expectations onto a single position, the Presidency. Indeed, our own Congress has abandoned its last real power these last few months, by abrogating the power of the purse. I speak of the bailout, which control over was immediately handed over to the Executive branch. That's not how it's supposed to work, at all. The stimulus promises the more of the same. Pity. I often debate my mother about the parallels between Rome and the United States. My mother, being more religious than I (well, who isn't, really?) dwells on the tiresome litany of parallels of decadence, and fraying morality. It's difficult to convey the complex issues, politically, and economically, that I feel are the real issues, and the dangerous parallels, when the debate devolves into the (admittedly, sometimes shocking) morality of the Romans, so I have to politely remind her that both Western and Eastern Roman empires were Christian when they fell. Delightful to have that historical trump card, really. I think dwelling on how we and the Romans fuck is irrelevant, largely. It's the frightening parallels between the end of the Republic and the ascension of Empire that really scares the shit out of me. Again, that's a longer post, and for another time.
The real blight on 2009 is the Israeli invasion of Gaza. Allow me to state this for the record: I am not anti-Semitic. I am not a racist. This has to be stated, because if you are an American, and criticize Israel, you are inevitably branded as anti-Semitic. Criticizing actions and politics in no way reflects personal views on a particular race, except, apparantly, if you target Israel.
I've never been a fan of Israel. I think it was a huge, guilt-driven mistake, but now that it's there, I suppose that's water under the bridge. The issues of forced relocation, disturbingly reminiscent of American treatment of Native Americans, can wait for another, more detailed post. The Western world's treatment of the Palestinians, from the get-go, which has been blatantly racist, can also wait for another time. Israel's brutal, and barbaricly disproportionate, responses which completely ignore civilian casualties (yes, yes, suicide bombers, and missle attacks target civilians: my point is the lack of any kind of moral compass on Israel's part.)
The last straw was Israel's bombing of the UN school. Oh, sure, it was an accident...several days after the event. That day, however, an Israeli military spokeperson assured us that Hamas was operating from that school, and the targeting was intentional. The school was registered with the UN, including its GPS coordinates. Israel is using weapons guided by GPS.
All of my life, I've only seen news reports from Israel's point of view, and I acknowledge that living in fear, surrounded by often unscrupulous enemies must be terrifying. Those same news reports usually tally the dead, and as I grew older I got decidedly uncomfortable with the large casualties inflicted on the Palestinian civilian population, often an order of magnitude larger than Israeli. Rolling tanks through tent villages (yes, many Palestinians are still living in tents 60 years after the creation of Israel) and indiscriminantly shooting to kill is unbelievable to me, especially considering how radically outmatched the Palestinians are.
Our communications revolution is amazing, and the night of the school bombing, films from the scene made it out into the Western press. Dead children. Dead women. A man sobbing because his entire family was killed. Despite these scenes of horrific suffering (suffering, suffering, so much in the world, and we still insist on meteing more upon each other: once in awhile I wonder if we even deserve to survive,) it somehow is each and every Palestinian's fault. They brought it upon themselves. Even if you are a hapless, unarmed Palestinian civilian, who desperatley wants to simply live your life in peace (and wouldn't mind some infrastructure, say, a grocery store, and running water instead of getting them out of the back of a UN truck) you are responsible for the terrorism against Israel, and your life is forfeit. Unreal. I meant to lay out a bit of history, and the points of incredible double standard that are levied against the Palestinians, but I'm too upset to continue right now. I'll leave it at this for now.