Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Damnit!

I have, apparently, fallen prey to spammers. Or so it would appear from recent events.

I've switched on a new feature that should keep this under control. Sorry about the bother but... well... it'll prevent bother.

From the mouthes of... babes?

This post from over on Wonkette may be the single most sociological thing I've seen in weeks.

Just... wow.

Kindness.

Hey folks. Rather than write one of my normal flippant posts dealing with conservative wingnuts, liberal wingnuts, crappy science, or plain old regular morons, I'm dedicating today's post to another purpose.

As y'all know by now, Hurricane Katrina has beaten the ever living crap out of the Gulf Coast. The death toll is, as yet, unknown since rescuers are directing their efforts towards saving those who can be saved. The counting of the dead will wait. The public health consequences of this disaster are likely to be substantial, as are the economic results. The damage in many areas is nothing short of catastrophic and the flooding throughout New Orleans is proving to be enorously challenging to rescue efforts. Finally, many areas are currently beseiged by a further disaster: the loss of public order, and the resultant looting.

It is difficult to describe the challenges before the citizens of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast right now. This disaster is unlikely to compare to the earlier Southeast Asian tsunami, but we're still looking at enormous damage and significant loss of life.

We here at Total Drek extend our sympathies, and hopes, to the people to the Gulf Coast. Further, we ask that y'all do the same as well. Open your hearts, open your sympathies, and, most importantly, open your wallets. You can find a selection of relief organizations here but, speaking personally, I'd encourage you to donate via the American Red Cross. As I've said before it can be hard to find good charities as an atheist since most of them are rather religious.

Give what you can, folks. These people need it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Opposition.

Recently I wrote a post remarking on a wacky ultra-conservative comic book named "Liberality for All," that claims to foretell what the world would have been like with a liberal administration, rather than George W. Bush. Needless to say I thought this comic book was more than a little ridiculous and said as much.

Reactions to my post, however, were mixed. Tom Bozzo seemed to find the entire thing to be as frightening, and ludicrous as I did. Brayden (of Pub Sociology) seemed to harbor a different notion, praising the comic as a source of amusement, but dismissing it as a sign of serious danger. This approach was, in turn, roundly critiqued by my Former Hypothetical Roommate, who made the following useful observation in reference to Pat Robertson:

Robertson scares the living crap out of me, and I used to be a pretty dedicated church youth group and Bible study leading type guy. He is firmly in the wing-nut crowd Brayden is talking about. But unlike Brayden who can just think these guys are funny nut bags, I know people who live their lives based on what guys like this say. When Robertson called for dedicated Christians everywhere to pray for liberal Supreme Court Justices to get sick and die, I know and worked with people who did just that. In fact they organized prayer groups and prayer vigils to achieve that end. Brayden, these guys are not all that funny, and their access to mass media and ability to convince otherwise bright individuals of the rightness of their position is horrifying.


So, like I said, it was a post with a very mixed response. For my own part, I come down much closer to FHR's position than anyone else's. While I may find these wacky conservative comics to be funny, I am very much aware that others receive them as enlightened truth. A message, no matter how ridiculous, will often be believed if it is given authoritatively, communicated appealingly, and not opposed by an equally powerful message. A comic book like "Liberality for All," provides a powerful message precisely because it absorbs the reader into a world of fiction- it designs a world to fit its arguments, thereby avoiding the ugly necessity of fitting an argument to the facts. I tend to think that messages must be opposed, no matter how absurd they may seem, or they can become quite convincing on their own. This is one of the major motivations for my semi-regular feature The Insanity Parade (See here for the latest edition) which challenges logical and scientific fallacies on the internet and in popular media. I feel compelled to challenge this sort of falsehood in the hopes of giving at least one person reason not to buy into bunk.

Of course, doing that means that I sometimes find myself reading material that I more or less loathe. This is precisely what happened recently when I found myself reading through the Turner Diaries, a novel written by white-supremacist William Pierce about the violent overthrow of the United States Government. It goes without saying that the overthrow is brought about by a white-supremacist group with plans to exterminate all non-white races in the world. Now I didn't start reading this thing because I harbor secret sympathies for the Nazis. Rather, I think it's beneficial to read what people you disagree with read, and in this case I'm glad I did.

The Turner Diaries are nothing short of brilliant- not in the sense that I agree with them, but rather in that they are a perfect form of propaganda. I have a difficult time imagining a better way to incite disenfranchised and uneducated men to revolt against the Federal Government, a more pernicious way to justify the slaughter of innocent people, or a more thorough introduction to the craft of terrorism and guerrilla warfare. For all that it contains less technical information than the Anarchist Cookbook it is vastly more dangerous because, like Liberality for All, it packages its pro-terrorism material into a relatively innocuous package.

Having run across this foul thing, I was confronted with a serious dilemma. I could simply read it and then draw my conclusions- but that wouldn't benefit anyone. This is particularly the case since, while I have long known of The Turner Diaries, I have never encountered an actual refutation of it. I have certainly seen reviews, but these have truly not done this book justice, or refuted it as thoroughly as we should ask. So, I turn to a third option: I will make it a regular feature.

I am announcing a new feature here at Total Drek named "Turner Tuesdays." On Tuesday, several times a month, I will dissect one chapter from the Turner Diaries, and attempt to grapple with its falsehoods, its propaganda, and its rhetorical tricks. My goal is to help show where it uses lies, fallacy, and imagery to do what logic cannot: make a case for racial genocide. Much as it was once believed that speaking a demon's name deprived him of power, I hope that a solid analysis of this book will help dispel the awful strength it possesses.

This feature will not run every week, as I don't always have the time to do the job properly, but it will be more frequent than the Insanity Parade. Additionally, with the help of the online edition of the book, readers can compare my claims to the original book and see what they believe. Read what I have to say and read what the book has to say, then make up your own mind. That's more choice than William Pierce ever wanted his readers to have.

Things like The Turner Diaries must be challenged, or their seeming invulnerability will become essentially real. This is my own attempt to do just that.

And hey, when I get done with this, maybe I should try something a little easier? Like plugging a dam with my thumb, maybe.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Short, but sweet.

In lieu of an actual post filled with what usually passes (on this blog) for "insightful analysis," I have decided to go for utter simplicity today. Everyone ready? Okay then, here we go.

First, I want you to click on this link and go read Sarah Elizabeth's post about garden implements and the proper identification of racism. It'll make more sense once you've gone and read it.

Finished? Supped up all the logical goodness over there?

Okay, now go and check out the title of this post which I have previously remarked upon. Last time, though, it had another name.

I trust my point is made?

Okay then.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Life's important questions.

On a recent stroll to our local Circle-K convenience store two of my officemates and I had a rather fascinating conversation. This conversation was about our plans in the event of some sort of apocalypse- and the "some sort" rapidly transformed into a more specific kind. We discussed our plans in the event of a zombie apocalypse.

Now one of my officemates, who we will refer to as Davan, had never considered this question. Indeed, he hadn't even pondered the various tactical distinctions between the fleet-footed Nu Zombies of recent years, and the shambling undead of yesteryear. Much less had he considered the difference in the difficulties presented by zombies generated by some sort of zombie-comet versus those created by an infectious agent. Even less had he considered the advantages of zombies with a limited shelf-life. I was simply shocked. How careless can one man be?

My other officemate, who happens to be my Former Hypothetical Roommate (FHR) had actually considered this question before. As it happens, so had I. I can't really share our migratory plans following the apocalypse, save that we prefer an area that can be defended, and is spacious enough to support agriculture. I can, however, share that we agree that if we are confronting Nu Zombies we need some sort of rifle that is capable of firing three-round bursts. On the other hand, Old School zombies clearly can be dealt with using a medium to large caliber semi-automatic rifle with decent sights and/or a scope. A large caliber backup pistol of the semi-automatic variety was also deemed highly desirable. It was agreed that, if available, long sleeved clothing of some tough material that is relatively resistant to human bites would be a good thing. It's quite remarkable how many otherwise-minor wounds prove to be fatal when zombies are involved!

Our main priorities in the event of apocalypse can be summed up as weapons, ammunition, transportation, fuel, water, and food, in that order. Shelter, doubtless, would come later but qualifies as a short-to-medium term objective, rather than an immediate priority. Hey, if you get bogged down in oh, say, a shopping mall life is likely to get better briefly, and then get a whole lot worse.

We also debated the relative virtues of a selection of heavier weapons. We decided that mortars and grenade launchers would be quite useful- especially if we could establish a relatively open perimeter and kill zone. The usefulness of flamethrowers, however, seemed limited. After all, zombies don't seem to feel pain, so you'd really have to wait for them to disintegrate via fire. I just don't think we have that kinda time. Finally, we thought that polearms might be handy in the event we were able to establish a perimeter. You know, you could use them to thin the ever-present zombie hordes pressing against the fences. You conserve ammo that way.

Needless to say, sometimes we are really desperate to not discuss sociology.

So, in any case, now that we've had our chance, I'm curious: what plans has everyone else made in case of zombie apocalypse? Anyone want to share their brilliant ideas? And if they're especially good, I might be persuaded to offer some "fabulous" prizes. C'mon, put that comment function to good use!

And be sure, as you write, to use your braaaaaaiiiiiinnnnnnnssssss!

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Pain

Readers of the New York Times probably noticed an article yesterday indicating that human fetuses feel no pain until after the 29th week. Now, I'll be honest,I never really considered this question, but after reading the article, I can understand why the study seemed to be necessary:


The finding poses a direct challenge to proposed federal and state laws that would compel doctors to tell women having abortions at 20 weeks or later that their fetuses can feel pain and to offer them anesthesia specifically for the fetus.

About 1.3 million abortions a year are performed in the United States, 1.4 percent of them at 21 weeks or later.

Bills requiring that women be warned about fetal pain have been introduced in the House and Senate and in 19 states, and recently passed in Georgia, Arkansas and Minnesota. The bills are supported by many anti-abortion groups. But advocates for abortion rights say the real purpose of the measures is to discourage women from seeking abortions. It is too soon to tell what effect the new laws are having in abortion clinics.

...

The federal legislation, introduced by Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, in 2004 and again this year as the "Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act," says there is "substantial evidence" of "substantial pain to an unborn child" during abortions performed after 20 weeks. The bill includes a script doctors must read to women, offering to deliver anesthesia directly to the fetus and stating, "The Congress of the United States has determined that at this stage of development, an unborn child has the physical structures necessary to experience pain."

Mr. Brownback said he hoped Congress would act on the bill sometime next year. "It is one of the top priorities of the pro-life movement to address this issue," he said.


I'd like to think that this study will help support the pro-choice position but I really don't think it will. See, if you're already pro-choice then this study just minimally reinforces your position. If you're on the fence, this isn't the issue that's going to sway you. I mean, really, you're probably not holding back because you're worried about whether or not the fetus can feel pain. And, of course, it you're a pro-lifer, this is just going to piss you off more.

"It isn't whether or not they can feel pain," you'll shout, "It's a human being! Is it okay to kill someone in their sleep, just because they won't feel it?!"

To which I shake my head wearily and sigh. I'm pleased this study was done as I always think humans can benefit from expanded knowledge of the world. Despite the fact that this pain-information legislation would only impact 1.4 percent of the abortions performed yearly, I sadly recognize the need to toe a firm line in the pro-choice/pro-life street fight. The religious right has made it perfectly clear that they are not going to settle for anything short of an outright theocracy so moderation in some debates is just not an option. I just have a sneaking suspicion that whatever positive effect this study has in defeating the bogus pain legislation, that good will be overwhelmed by the extent to which it encourages the pro-lifers to regard pro-choicers as heartless monsters. Because if you are in favor of choice it is clearly because you don't care about human life- obviously it isn't out of concern for the women who will die if abortion is made illegal again. Clearly we aren't interested in enabling people to take responsibility for their reproduction.

In short, after this report it isn't the fetuses who are feeling pain- it's those of us involved in this accursed debate.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

I'll see your nuttiness, and raise you outright madness.

Recently Brayden over on Pub Sociology shared some news with the blogosphere. Specifically, he informed us of a new children's book titled: Help! Mom! There are liberals under my bed! Though this may seem like some sort of joke, it appears that this book is genuine. Now, we might all like to believe that this is an isolated incident- that the right-wing isn't degenerating into this level of stark raving lunacy but, with my usual penchant for dashing innocent hope, I'm here to tell you that the lunacy is indeed running wild.

Recently I became aware of an 8-issue comic series titled Liberality for All. What is Liberality about, you ask? Well, I'll let the synopsis speak for itself:


America’s future has become an Orwellian nightmare of ultra-liberalism. Beginning with the Gore Presidency, the government has become increasingly dominated by liberal extremists.

In 2004, Muslim terrorists stopped viewing the weakened American government as a threat; instead they set their sights on their true enemies, vocal American conservatives. On one dark day, in 2006, many conservative voices went forever silent at the hands of terrorist assassins. Those which survived joined forces and formed a powerful covert conservative organization called “The Freedom of Information League”, aka F.O.I.L.

...

The New York City faction of F.O.I.L. is lead by Sean Hannity, G. Gordon Liddy, and Oliver North, each uniquely endowed with special abilities devised by a bio mechanical engineer affectionately nicknamed "Oscar". F.O.I.L. is soon to be joined by a young man named Reagan McGee.

Reagan was born on September 11th, 2001. He is the son of a NYC firefighter whose life was spared by attending his son’s birth. Reagan has grown to manhood in an ultra-liberal educational system: being told, not asked, what to think. With personal determination, which alienates him from his contemporaries, he has chosen the path less traveled…the path to the Right.

[Links Added; Misspellings original]


Given his birth, doubtless Mr. Reagan McGee oozes patriotism from every pore. As for the biomechanical enhancement of Hannity, Liddy, and North... I'm not even sure what to say about that. Unless, of course, "uniquely endowed with special abilities," means "given a pre-frontal lobotomy," in which case I'm fairly certain that "Oscar" is too late.

For extra laughs (not to mention shudders of horror) check out the preview available on the site. My favorite page is the one featuring the "Liberty Belles" street gang. Right. Yeah. That's plausible.

Have fun, kids.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Mixed Feelings

Some of you may have wondered why I haven't commented on the recent events in Israel. I refer, or course, to the evacuation of the Israeli settlements in the occupied Gaza strip. I have, after all, mentioned on previous occasions that I am rather sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, so these events should please me. Indeed, I am rather excited to see Israel withdrawing from land taken in wartime and settled on in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

As a side note: for anyone who wants to make the observation, yes, I do think my own country, the United States of America, is in violation of the Geneva Conventions in its treatment of "enemy combatants" in the Guantanamo Bay facility. Likewise is true of the Abu Ghraib facility. I don't like either of those things, and consider them stains on the national honor of the United States. So, even if this is a little bit of the pot calling the kettle black, at least the pot is pissed off about its own coloration.

In any case, while I am happy to see Israel withdrawing from Gaza, and commend them for it, I guess the entire thing is a little bittersweet for me. The Israeli settlers, many of whom moved into the occupied territories in an attempt to blackmail their own government, are receiving the sort of sympathetic media attention that Palestinian civilians, many of whom are entirely innocent of terrorism, are frequently denied. I can't put into words the full extent of my uncertainty at this moment so, instead, I will rely on the words of another. Without futher ado, allow me to introduce Mr. Jonathan Steele. I do not agree with all he says, but I think he does sum up the misgivings many feel at the present moment.

There was no 'sensitivity training' when bulldozers went into Rafah

Jonathan Steele
Friday August 19, 2005
The Guardian

Contrast the world's overwhelming coverage, especially on television, of the departure of Israeli settlers from Gaza with the minimal reporting of larger and more brutal evictions in previous months.

There was no "sensitivity training" for Israeli troops, no buses to drive the expellees away, no generous deadlines to get ready, no compensation packages for their homes, and no promise of government-subsidised alternative housing when the bulldozers went
into Rafah.

Within sight of the Gush Katif settlements that have been handled with such kid gloves this week, families in Rafah were usually given a maximum of five minutes' warning before their houses, and life savings, were crushed. Many people did not even have time to go upstairs to collect belongings when the barking of loudspeakers
ordered them out, sometimes before dawn. Fleeing with their children in the night, they risked being shot if they turned round or delayed.

As many as 13,350 Palestinians were made homeless in the Gaza Strip in the first 10 months of last year by Israel's giant armour-plated Caterpillar bulldozers - a total that easily exceeds the 8,500 leaving Israeli settlements this week. In Rafah alone, according to figures from the UN relief agency Unrwa, the rate of house demolitions rose from 15 per month in 2002 to 77 per month between January and October 2004.

Parts of Rafah now resemble areas of Kabul or Grozny. Facing Israeli army watchtowers and the concrete wall that runs close to the Gaza Strip's boundary, rows of rubble and ruined homes stretch for hundreds of yards.

The house where I stayed three years ago, which was then one row back from the frontline, has gone. So have three more lines of houses behind it, thanks to Israel's remorseless policy of clearing the zone for "security" reasons even after Ariel Sharon announced his plan to leave Gaza.

Palestinians who visit the ruins or try to use one or two rooms that survived the onslaught risk their lives from Israeli bullets. A warning shot rang out as one homeowner took me on to his roof in broad daylight last month to survey the miserable scene. We quickly came down.

These cruel evictions have of course been reported, and some foreigners who tried to block or record them, such as Rachel Corrie, Tom Hurndall, and James Miller, paid with their lives alongside scores of murdered local Palestinians. But coverage was never as comprehensive or intense as this week's removals of Israelis. Sharon wanted the world's media to see the protracted agony of the settlers, so as to make the (spurious) point that if it is hard to get 8,500 to leave Gaza, getting 400,000 to withdraw from the West Bank and east Jerusalem will be impossible. However sincere the settlers' grief is at leaving their homes, for the organisers of the retreat it was theatre of the cynical.

The exaggerated focus on the settlement evictions has some benefits. Those who claim, genuinely or dishonestly, that the world's media are biased in favour of Palestinians had their argument collapse this week. TV viewers around the world have also been exposed to the ugly sight of rampant religious fundamentalism.

As they were dragged off, some Israeli zealots had no shame in minimising the Holocaust, absurdly comparing unarmed Israeli police to the Gestapo. Others used racist insults. "Jews do not expel Jews," they shouted, presumably wanting to imply that only non-Jews do it. They apparently did not realise that most people will see the irony in terms of contemporary rather than historical events - "Jews do not expel Jews... Jews expel Arabs."

Perhaps the ugliest part of the Israeli settlers' behaviour was their corruption of youth, with parents instigating their children to wrap themselves in prayer shawls and sob or shriek defiance.

No one who spends time in Gaza's Palestinian communities can avoid being saddened by the ubiquitous focus on the gun, which also diverts children from normal growing up. It appears on graffiti everywhere alongside the names and faces of those who died by violence, in suicide attacks or shot down by Israeli fire. Almost every teenage boy aspires to use a Kalashnikov or hand grenade. At a recent wedding, I saw a dancing mother twirl a rifle in both hands above her head like the baton of a majorette.

Trapped in their Israeli-enforced ghetto, Gazans can at least claim that this pervasive and corrupting militarism is the legacy of a decades-long national resistance movement to defend land that belongs to them. Islam is part of the mix, but religion follows the national flag. For many Israeli settlers in Gaza that dynamic was reversed. Religion was their driving force, and they had no individual or national right to the land on which they built their armed camps.

Israel's worst practices from Gaza are likely to be transferred to the West Bank now. Controls over freedoms in the West Bank have been tightened relentlessly in recent years. More roads were closed. More checkpoints sprang up. Walls and fences were extended, in defiance of the international court of justice's ruling that they are illegal. However, even with this creeping oppression, life in the West Bank is not yet as constricted as it was for those in Gaza.

That will probably change. Sharon - one of whose nicknames, appropriately, is Bulldozer - wants to expand the West Bank settlements and demolish more Palestinian homes around Jerusalem. Unless his strategy of unilateralism is blocked, evictions may reach Rafah-like proportions.

The break-up of the settlements will give those in Gaza freedom to move within their narrow enclave, but this benefit may be outweighed by the West Bank's losses. One of the worst places in Gaza used to be the Abu Houli crossing, a tunnel for Palestinian vehicles that went under the road to the Israeli settlements of Gush Katif. At any moment Israeli Land Rovers or tanks would emerge to block the tunnel, leaving Palestinians stranded on what was the only road linking the north and south of Gaza. Pregnant mothers could not get to hospital. Relatives missed weddings. Students failed to reach their colleges to take exams.

Israel intends to build at least 16 gated crossings in the West Bank. It is one thing to have segregated roads - a step that America's Deep South and apartheid South Africa never reached. But to insist on the right to block even those roads that are allocated to Palestinians is grotesque. The West Bank will be sliced into a series of ghettoes that Israeli forces can isolate at will. Whatever the security
justification, the effect is to impose collective punishment on every Palestinian.

No one should be surprised if, in the face of such injustice, Palestinian anger and resistance grow.

[links added]


I hope Mr. Steele is incorrect- I hope the moves by Sharon and Israel are genuine bids for peace, and that they are met willingly by the Palestinians in a sense of compromise. Further, I commend Sharon, a man often referred to as "the Butcher" in the Arab world for his alleged involvement in the Sabra and Shatila massacres, for taking these steps towards real justice. I fear, however, that the past few weeks of anguish among the settlers may, in the eyes of many around the world, overshadow the suffering the Palestinians have endured for 50 years. There are malicious and calculating men on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who would take advantage of such a shadow, and no good can come of it for any who desires peace.

Monday, August 22, 2005

I'm back- did you miss me?

Well hello, boys and girls, and welcome back to Total Drek. Now, I know that I've been gone for a while, and I apologize, but I had a good reason. That reason consists in equal parts of being at the ASA annual meetings, and helping my Sainted Girlfriend move into my apartment. So, you know, it's been a little nutty around here.

So how were the ASAs? Well, I left feeling a little less inspired than I normally do, but that's okay. They can't all be kickass. I also found Philly to be an odd city. I think that I actually would have liked it a lot, were it not for the persistent and omnipresent urine smell. No offense to the residents but damn!

The highlight of the conference, for me, was the semi-annual Bloggers' Get-Together hosted by Tina of Pub Sociology. Turnout was quite good as we had folks from all over the blogosphere- I even got to meet a few new people, including the good folks from over at Stone Court. Then, after hanging out in a bar, we all went for some good old-fashioned baseball. It was fun, even if the Phillies were playing like shit.

So, it's good to be back. I'll write more sooner or later- right now I'm trying to catch up with the real work that's been piling up.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Replicate

Can I write a post that is entirely non-political and non-Europe-specific? Anybody mind? No?

You see, I was just being a good girl and working, you know, non-descript corporate tasks. As it happens my employer uses Lotus Notes as an email client rather than any of the Microsoft stuff. Personally I think that is a good thing - it works much better and offers many more possibilities for managing information. That, however, is not my point. My point was that, after a year and a half of being indoctrinated in the ways of Lotus Notes I realised again how peculiar it is that there is no "send and receive" function. Instead what you do is you "replicate". It serves more or less the same purpose, but under a different and, might I add, much less logical name.

Shakespeare - is it too early in the morning to be quoting Shakespeare? - says
"That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet"
Now I like Shakespeare as much as the next Eng Lit grad, but the truth is that while the action performed (basically refreshing the information in the email client) stays approximately the same, the user's attitude changes.

When I "send and receive" I feel like I am checking my pigeonhole. When, on the other hand, I replicate, there is always that split second where I feel like I am Captain Picard getting a cup of Earl Grey. Maybe this is Slag's Trekkie influence, but as I recall the feeling was there before he ever enticed my with his fencing outfit and his wicked ways. Anyway, maybe I am delusional, but personally I don't mind this little spark of distraction in my day.

Am I alone in this or do any of you get that, where little everyday things go silly on you just because of a name?

Yes, I know, this is an especially irrelevant post. Surely that is no surprise.

TDEC

Thursday, August 11, 2005

See you in Philly?

Well, folks, it's that time of year again and I will shortly be departing for the fine city of Philadelphia in order to attend this year's American Sociological Association meeting. I know that Philly is supposed to be the city of "Brotherly Love," but, to be frank, from what folks have been telling me, I'm somewhat expecting it to be the armpit of the universe. Nevertheless my departure will come soon enough and you can expect me to be wandering semi-aimlessly around the hotel for most of the conference. This is largely because of my habit of preying upon unattended housekeeping carts. I just love those little soaps.

Some of you are no doubt wondering if I am participating in this year's presentations. Well, wonder away. I wouldn't dream of depriving you of the mystery. It's a pretty safe bet that I am but, then again, I'm somewhat delusional, so who knows? Hell, given that, any hypothetical presentation might be fabulously interesting! Watch for the presenter in the foil hat.

Sadly, while I'm away keeping in touch with the wider sociological world, I will be unable to keep in touch with the blogosphere. It's remotely possible that I might manage to access the web at some point between my departure tomorrow and my return, but I wouldn't hold my breath. With any luck Slag and the TDEC will manage to supply some posts before my return, but it's a tough call. They're busy people, and we can't chastise them too strongly if they fail to answer the call. So, in all likelihood, you'll have to do without your daily dose of Total Drek. Let me assure that, ultimately, you're better off for it.

Some of you may be planning to attend the Bloggers' Get-Together that is once again being organized by the brilliant, dedicated, and lovely Tina of Pub Sociology. I attended last year, and would like to attend this year but, alas, the time conflicts with other commitments. It's remotely possible I may arrive at some point, but we'll just have to see. That should, however, encourage you to attend and meet some of your favorite bloggers since your least favorite will probably be absent. For those who are truly obsessive, there's also the outside chance that the good and honorable Slag will be in attendance- in which case we can hardly blame him for not blogging!

And, in the meantime, if you must rely on this blog for some amount of enjoyment, please feel free to partake of a website that I learned of through an e-mail. What is this website, you ask? Well, let's just say that it's advertising a new product from the Purina corporation and is doing so in quite possibly the single most disturbing manner possible. Have no worries- this is largely work-safe.

Largely.

Good luck, kids! I'll see you pass you anonymously in the halls in Philadelphia!

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Reassuring

In a rare change from the norm, the news today is actually somewhat reassuring. First, we have a report about the ongoing battle over stem cell research. Yesterday I mentioned a ludicrous legal effort in California to prevent their stem cell research institute from moving forward. This news was disappointing in that the Republicans are attempting to thwart the clear will of the people- imposing their social agenda on an unwilling public.

Today, however, I see an article describing fights in Maryland, Illinois, New Jersey, and Missouri over stem cell research. It seems that efforts to guarantee that this research gets done are not restricted to just California, but rather are springing up all over the country. More heartening are reports that these efforts are splitting the fiscal Republicans, who value progress and business, from the social conservatives, who can politely be described as "reactionary." This gives me hope that, as I have insisted against all apparent evidence, many Republicans are not the mindless fundamentalist drones that President Bush would have us believe. More important is this:

The Stowers Institute and Washington University in St. Louis joined forces, pitching the potential benefits and saying that the anti-research forces do not have a monopoly on morality. They hired Fred Steeper, a leading Republican pollster, who said two in three residents in a poll of 600 adults [in Missouri] supported SCNT [a technique for producing stem cells that involves creating embryos] even after being told the opponents' objections. The edge was stronger among Democrats and independents than among Republicans, who favored SCNT 52 to 44 percent.


Even among Red State Republicans, there appears to be considerable support for stem cell research and the benefits it can produce.

In other news, we find that some long held fears may not be valid. I have spoken previously about a growing fringe movement for some parents to deny their children vaccinations in the belief that they are harmful. Despite later, and very welcome, CBS reports (mentioned here) that addressed this, fears about vaccine safety have persisted. So, I find it heartening to learn that a recent study of vaccines has found that they post no additional risks.

Contrary to some fears, childhood vaccines do not appear to overwhelm the immune system and make youngsters prone to other infections, according to the largest study to examine the issue.

A Danish study found no increased risk for other infectious diseases among more than 800,000 children who received the standard set of vaccinations.


The findings, published in today's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, should be reassuring to parents, the researchers said.

"There has been a lot of speculation about this hypothesis -- that if you have a lot of these vaccinations, this could perhaps overwhelm or weaken the child's immune system," said Anders Hviid of the Statens Serum Institute in Copenhagen. "We found no support for that hypothesis."


I'll grant that this will not allay all fears, unfortunately, since some parents are concerned that vaccines cause other medical disorders that cannot be described as "infectious:"

Nevertheless, concerns have persisted. Skeptics said the new study does not address the biggest concern about vaccines: that they may increase the risk of developmental problems in children, such as autism or ailments caused by the immune system attacking the body, known as autoimmune diseases.

"It's not infectious diseases that parents are concerned about," said Barbara Loe Fisher of the National Vaccine Information Center, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Vienna. "They are concerned about learning disabilities and autism and asthma and diabetes."


Nevertheless, the study provides additional support for the positive health benefits of vaccines, for both the individual and society. Based on the previous literature I've seen, I feel confident that future research will continue to contradict a link between vaccination and developmental disorders- hopefully ending this debate, and eliminating what is currently a dangerous flaw in our public health system.

Good news, all around.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The rhetoric of convenience

Those who know me realize that I am obsessive about rhetoric. I like to blame this on my debate experience but, realistically, I think it primarily stems from my being an asshole. Regardless of its source, I often find myself annoyed when people try to get what they want while using mutually contradictory arguments. I said as much previously when I took the left wing to task for using arguments they previously rejected when it happened to be convenient. Much as I agree with the reason for doing so, I simply cannot stomach the loss of dignity it entails.

And this is me talking. When I start complaining about a loss of dignity, you know we've got a problem.

Today, I'm not grappling with my fellow liberals anymore. Rather, today, we're going to chat for a few minutes about the conservatives. It recently came to my attention that several state and national lawsuits have been initiated against the California Stem Cell Institute. What are these suits about, you ask? Well, I'll let the article speak for itself:

The suit was filed on behalf of Mary Scott Doe, a fictitious embryo produced by in vitro fertilization and then frozen and put into storage. Some of these embryos, which people have decided not to use in attempts to have children, have been donated for use in stem cell research, which involves destroying them.

The lawsuit claims the embryo is a person who should be given equal protection under the Constitution, and her destruction violates her right to freedom from slavery.


So, in other words, they're suing on behalf of a frozen ball of cells that is non-viable on its own (as in, "it requires a womb for quite a few months before it could lead a separate life") and has been legally donated to the stem cell institute. Now, I'll grant, that the litigants may actually have a legal point here. The Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the United States is based in a Constitutional right to privacy. As such, the mother's constitutional rights have been judged by the court to outweigh any potential rights the fetus may have- which is a thorny issue since weighing those rights would, technically, require deciding whether or not an unborn is a citizen with rights of its own. I'll grant to any hypothetical conservative readers that no right to privacy is specifically ennumerated in the constitution, but in my view the third, fourth, fifth, ninth, and tenth amendments to the constitution provide a strong case that one exists. In any case, in this instance, since the embryos are not contained within the mother an argument can be made that Roe vs. Wade no longer applies. Or, more exactly:

In decisions that have upheld the right of women to receive abortions, the Supreme Court has ruled that a woman's right to control her body outweighs the early-stage fetus's rights.

In his appeal of the initial federal case, lawyer R. Martin Palmer argues that Roe v. Wade does not apply in this case because the embryo is in deep freeze and not a mother's womb.


So, like I said, these folks may have a legal point, even if logically it's a little weird. Hell, the irony here is that the embryo is non-viable without a womb but the instant it enters a womb it could be legally terminated. I don't much like the potential inherent in that for a backdoor overturning of Roe vs. Wade, but that's a topic for another time.

My reason for bringing all this up, though, is the peculiar logic of this lawsuit. There is every reason to think, as we enter this case, that it doesn't have a chance in hell of being heard. Indeed:

The lawsuit appears to be identical to one filed against the National Institutes of Health and dismissed after the 4th Circuit court determined it had no legal standing. The court said federal funding restrictions placed on embryonic stem cell research by President Bush in 2002 made the case against the NIH moot

[...]

The people who filed the federal lawsuit likely know it is still a moot case, said Joan Samuelson, a member of the committee overseeing the stem cell institute.

"It is just a maneuver to continue to delay our work, which 7 million Californians voted to try to get cures to people" said Samuelson, who has multiple sclerosis.


So, this is just a legal delaying tactic to prevent a measure that has been voted into existence. This is the specific problem.

As a reader of the "lovely," and strangely masculine conservative pundit, Ms. Ann Coulter, I have been exposed to some interesting arguments that are relevant here. Now, whatever your opinion of Coulter, she has been rather influential on the right wing, so her comments may be relevant.

In her column of July 20th she remarks that:

Conservatism is sweeping the nation, we have a fully functioning alternative media, we're ticked off and ready to avenge Robert Bork ... and Bush nominates [for the Supreme court] a Rorschach blot.

[...]

As I've said before, if a majority of Americans agreed with liberals on abortion, gay marriage, pornography, criminals' rights and property rights — liberals wouldn't need the Supreme Court to give them everything they want through invented "constitutional" rights invisible to everyone but People for the American Way. It's always good to remind voters that Democrats are the party of abortion, sodomy and atheism, and nothing presents an opportunity to do so like a Supreme Court nomination.


So, if I understand this right, Democrats are evil because they "manipulate" the courts to get their way even against the wishes of an electoral majority. If that's the conservative position, though, then how is it that the lawsuit in California is going through? The money for that institute wasn't allocated by a few wascally Democrats in the state legislature, is was allocated via a popular vote:

Proposition 71, the California bond initiative that created the stem cell institute, was designed to bypass the federal funding restrictions by allocating state funds for the research.


Or, as Joan Samuelson said, "...7 million Californians voted to try to get cures to people." Hell, this isn't even just a voter issue, but a state's rights issue. And here I thought the Republicans were the party for state's rights. It appears that when it suits them, when things don't go their way, when the people don't agree with their radical views, conservatives are quite willing to abuse the court system to force the country to bend to their will. That's some real moral authority you've got there, guys.

I've never been more grateful to not be a Republican.




Special thanks to the folks at Something Awful for the spoof Coulter cover. What would I do without y'all?

Monday, August 08, 2005

A riddle for you...

For your entertainment, I have a little puzzle for all of you. From the following list, pick the option that is NOT true:

(A) Within a few hours of meeting my sainted girlfriend's grandparents, I found myself locked in their bathroom with orders to kill the rat that had appeared there. The bathroom was roughly the size of three phone booths pressed together, and my armament consisted of a plastic bag and a metal towel rod. During one particularly poignant moment I found myself looking into my foe's eyes, mano-a-rodent, and realized the bitter truth of the situation: neither one of us wanted to be there but, try as I might, I really couldn't come up with a way to get the rat out of the house that didn't involve beating it to death.

(B) Mathieu Deflem, despite protestations to the contrary, appears to have done a little public sociology. Who woulda guessed?

(C) During one of my many, and exhausting, trips this summer I met Ed Begley, Jr. Rather than meet him while he was attending some star-studded event, however, I encountered him in a supermarket. He was there selling his new cleaner, Begley's Best, which is apparently all-natural, (Like that means much of anything. What are other cleaners? Supernatural?) bio-degradadeable, non-caustic, and vegan. Yeah, you read that right: vegan. Mr. Begley assured me that his cleaner works extremely well, citing an occasion when he used it as a detergent and it got blood stains out of his pillows. To this I can only respond: how did blood stains get on your pillows Ed Begley, Jr.?

On second thought... don't answer that.

(D) President George W. Bush, demonstrating once more that there's nothing he won't do to pander to religious fundamentalists, asserted recently that Intelligent Design "theory" should be taught in schools alongside evolution. You know... as science. If we're going to do that, though, we should probably start calling it Extraterrestrial Design just to be clear. I mean, it's a scientific theory, right? Okay, no, it's totally not, but they claim it is, right? So, when they say "intelligent" what else could they be referring to?

Any guesses as to what's real and what's false? Well, feel free to post your hypotheses. The answers are printed in that really little font at the end of the post.

Now go away- I have an ASA presentation to work on.


Okay, truth be known, everything above is true. Every word of it. That scares the hell out of me. Really.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

In case you wonder...

Some of you may notice that there are no posts on Total Drek on Thursday or Friday. That's because I'm going to be unable to post until next week. Granted, Slag or TDEC might post, but that's a tough call to make. In any case- I myself will be unavailable.

So, just so you don't get lonely, why don't you go check out the fine, top-quality patriotism over at Jesus' General? It's worth a visit, even if only for the fine graphics.

See y'all next week!

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Lying for the truth

I'm not a big fan of lies, as a general rule. It's not that I don't think they have their uses, or that I won't quite skillfully deceive someone if it's necessary for some reason (hostage negotiation, surprise party, etc.) but I just don't think lying helps in most respects. This may have something to do with my love of science- after all, there's a world of difference between a system that admits that it doesn't know everything, and that it's sometimes wrong, as opposed to one that uses falsehood to promulgate itself.

My appreciation for this relative earnestness present in science is part of the reason why I felt the need to criticize Ramtha's movie the other day. It isn't that I object to her philosophy, per se (I mean I do, but that's hardly the issue), but rather that I object to her twisting of science to support her philosophy. This seems to me to be a losing proposition for both science and religion since it forces them to battle each other. Why, you ask? Well, simple: if you link a religion to scientific evidence, and argue that the evidence supports your religion, you're essentially claiming that your philosophy can be falsified by evidence. Now, realistically speaking, the core of most religions cannot be falsified in any way. I cannot prove that an immaterial soul doesn't exist precisely because it's immaterial. Immaterial things are not, as a general rule, amenable to scientific investigation. So, no religion can really be falsified via science.

But, of course, if you argue that a religion can be supported by science, then you imply that it can be falsified. And if the scientific conclusions change, and they no longer partially or fully support your position... you're in trouble. Your religion has been falsified not logically, or factually, but by implication. You're guilty of falsity by association with false facts. So, either your religion is wrong, or science is wrong, and since we "know" that religion contains ultimate, eternal truth, we've got a real ballgame on our hands. This point was ably summed up in reference to efforts to merge modern physics and Eastern philosophy by physicist Jeremy Bernstein. Bernstein, realizing the extent to which all scientific knowledge is subject to review and rejection, said: "In short, if I were an Eastern mystic the last thing in the world that I would want would be a reconciliation with modern science."

I bring all this up (again) because I want to make sure we're very clear on a particular point. I don't really have a problem with the recent move in Texas to introduce a bible study elective into public school. Seriously, I don't. Though I don't think the bible contains all wisdom, I do think it contains some interesting philosophy, and is a work of historical import. I have no more difficulty with it being taught as such than I would with teaching Siddhartha, the Qur'an, the Torah, or any other religious book. To divide church from state is not to ignore the existence of religion, but rather to avoid priviledging any one faith, and to make sure we make decisions for other than purely-religious reasons. So, I don't have a problem with an elective course on the bible in public school curriculum.

No, what I have a problem with are blatant factual inaccuracies in that curriculum:

The course's broad statements about the Bible being the blueprint for the nation are askew, said Mr. Haynes of the Freedom Forum, part of a nonpartisan ecumenical group promoting the Bible Literacy Project textbook. "If the Bible is a blueprint for the Constitution," he said, "I guess they haven't read it," referring to the Constitution.

Some of the claims made in the national council's curriculum are laughable, said Mark A. Chancey, professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who spent seven weeks studying the syllabus for the freedom network. Mr. Chancey said he found it "riddled with errors" of facts, dates, definitions and incorrect spellings. It cites supposed NASA findings to suggest that the earth stopped twice in its orbit, in support of the literal truth of the biblical text that the sun stood still in Joshua and II Kings.

"When the type of urban legend that normally circulates by e-mail ends up in a textbook, that's a problem," Mr. Chancey said.

Tracey Kiesling, the national council's national teacher trainer, said the course offered "scientific documentation" on the flood and cites as a scientific authority Carl Baugh, described by Mrs. Kiesling as "an internationally known creation scientist who founded the Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose, Tex."


Look, wacky religious fundamentalists, can we talk? As a member of the vast, left-wing atheist conspiracy (I think there are, like, six of us. We meet every third Tuesday and play scrabble. Sometimes Paul makes his avocado dip- you should try it!) let me assure you that we don't want to take your bibles away, or tear down your churches, or remove all references to your god from society. Speaking personally, I have no problems with the pledge of allegiance as it stands now, so long as you let some of us omit the "under god" bit, am willing to tolerate the "In god we trust" on the currency, and generally would like to find a way for us all to live together. Seriously, we're not your enemies on this one.

Here's the thing though: is it really necessary to deceive in order to shore up your position? Is your religion really worth being a part of if membership requires that you delude yourself, and others, with wildly incorrect information?

Is your "truth" really worth lying for?


As a side note: No, I don't think all Christians are pathological liars. I know, and respect, a great many Christians, one of whom is a co-blogger named Slag. My only point is that we have an aggressive minority among Christians who seem perfectly willing to twist, mangle, or invent entirely, scientific evidence to support the literal story in the bible. I think this is dangerous and demeaning to both those who believe in the Christian god, and those who don't. So, I very much respect thoughtful, humble Christians, but have nothing but scorn for those who would lie and cheat to convert others.

Monday, August 01, 2005

I don't even know if I'm joking anymore.

Los Angeles, Monday, August 1st-
by Drek the Uninteresting

The controversy generated by astronomers at the Palomar observatory in California continues to heat up despite urgings by President Bush for order. Scientists working at Palomar announced Friday that they had discovered an additional planetary body within the confines of the solar system.

The as-yet unnamed body, presently 9 billion miles from the sun, is believed to be larger than the planet Pluto, making it, in the words of California Institute of Technology planetary scientist Michael Brown, "...the first object to be confirmed to be larger than Pluto in the outer solar system." While we here at Total Drek didn't interview Dr. Brown ourselves, we like to think that the above quote omitted the critical additional phrase, "You know... aside from Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, all of which are in the outer solar system and are goddamn enormous."

This discovery is unlikely to be an entirely unmixed blessing, however, as it will require scientists to revisit the question of whether or not Pluto is, itself, even a planet. Recently moves have been made within the astronomical community to redefine Pluto not as a planet, but as a Trans-Neptunian or Kuiper Belt object. Previously this controversy had been relatively quiet- with most astronomers content to let sleeping dogs, and planets, lie. However, the discovery of an object larger than Pluto, on an even more eccentric orbit, may require scientists to revisit this issue. Thus, ironically, the discovery of a tenth planet may ultimately result in a downgrading of the number of planets in the solar system to eight.

Astronomers, however, are not the only parties interested in this question. Numerous groups of Astrologers have been protesting this discovery since Friday.

"Our entire livelihood is based on the highly systematic prediction of your love life based on the precise locations of huge objects millions and billions of miles away," said noted astrologer Moonbeam F.R. Braenz, "How are we supposed to determine your lucky numbers if you keep changing the number of planets?!"

Indeed, many astrologers are campaigning to have the new discovery invalidated, and law suits can only be a matter of days away. Some astrologers claim financial damages would result from having the number of planets altered again, in either direction, and that such damages are legally actionable. NASA authorities, when cornered like rats in a trap and jabbed with sharp sticks, have argued that it shouldn't matter if Pluto and this new object are planets or not since the original astrological tables never included either body. Many astrologers, however, contest this:

"Oh, come on!" exclaimed Braenz, "That only makes sense if astrology is a bullshit practice that has no basis in physical law! And we all know that's not true!"

A potential suit against the Palomar team would not be the first time that astrologers have brought suit against scientists. The Russian astrologist Marina Bai recently sued the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration over their Deep Impact mission, intended to intercept comet Tempel 1. Bai claimed, among other things, that, “The actions of NASA infringe upon my system of spiritual and life values, in particular on the values of every element of creation, upon the unacceptability of barbarically interfering with the natural life of the universe, and the violation of the natural balance of the Universe.” Fortunately, Bai claimed her moral outrage could be assauged if NASA cancelled the mission, and paid her damages in the amount of 8.7 billion rubles- or the ruble equivalent of the mission's total cost ($311 million).

Lest you think that astrology is the only thing at risk here, Russian news sources additionally claim:

Indeed, the consequences of destroying a comet may include anything from an asteroid shower to disruption to radio waves.

“I am not a scientist,” Molokhov [Bai's lawyer] says, “but experts say the impact could disrupt the comet’s plasma trail, which could have an effect on satellite communications.”


Sadly, however, speaking as someone with a strong amateur interest in space, he can only be referring to a couple of experts that he found pulling old chicken legs out of a dumpster in Gorky Park. And if anyone can explain that whole "disruption" thing to me, I'd appreciate it.

As the probe has already completed its mission it is unlikely that Bai will succeed in getting the mission cancelled, but the ultimate outcome of the lawsuit remains in question. Some sources believe that a legal victory for Bai might open the floodgates for similar civil actions, including moves by the Religious Right to sue those conducting research into evolution on the grounds that it is demeaning to their beliefs, and action against globe makers by the Flat Earth Society.

Finally, on an unrelated note, noted philosophers (who shall remain unnamed because I'm making them up) have proposed a new solution to the so-called Fermi Paradox. That solution: We fucking frighten them.

I know how they feel.

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