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.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Heads and Tails

The Scene: Drek and his Sainted Girlfriend are listening to National Public Radio's "Morning Edition." The announcer has just reported that the only survivor of the Sago Mine Disaster has been released from the hospital. The announcer also reports that officials are at a loss to explain why he survived.

D'sSGF: It's because he's a cyborg.

Drek: Naw, don't you know? It's because god loved him. Which, of course, implies that god didn't love the other guys.

D'sSGF: No it doesn't.

Drek: Hmm?

D'sSGF: God loved the other men so much, he wanted them to come be with him.

Drek: Oh! So, god loved the man who lived less than the rest of them because he didn't die?

D'sSGF: No.

Drek: I'm confused.

D'sSGF: God loves them in different ways.

Drek: That's a heckuva difference.

D'sSGF: And god isn't going to change his plans for us.

Drek: So it doesn't matter if god loves you?

D'sSGF: Honey, it's early, can you please not annoy me until after breakfast?

Drek: Fair enough.

I don't recount this conversation just for humor value, or to annoy my Sainted Girlfriend (though that may well be a fringe "benefit") but rather because it illustrates a point. The funny thing about religious belief, about faith, is that people usually resist falsifying it. In the above example, my Sainted Girlfriend (who is vastly more positive about religion than I am) defended the notion that god loves human beings regardless of our apparent fate. So, somehow, both living and dying in a disaster like Sago could be taken as evidence of god's love. Now, certainly, I was the one to suggest the "god loved him" theory to explain the survival of Mr. Randal McCloy, but it isn't like I was the first one. Members of the Sago community seem to have latched onto the idea all on their own with McCloy's wife calling it a miracle and the road they live on having been informally renamed "Miracle Road." At the same time, I am also not the only one to note the uncomfortable implications of the "God loved him" account, as Mr. McCloy himself seems to realize. In reference to meeting the families of the other workers who did not survive:

“It’s a delicate situation, and it should be handled delicately. It’s not something you definitely want to dive right in,” he said. “I am going to choose to be careful about what I say and how I word things for the families’ sake. I just feel I should show them great respect.”


It's delicate because a bunch of talk now about how god loved Randal McCloy may not sit well with the families of the men who god, evidently, did not love quite so much. So, I can only commend Mr. McCloy for his good taste and self-awareness. Yet, I bring this up for a more fundamental reason: to once more express my reluctance to see science mixed up with religion.

Just as in the Sago disaster, where god's love can be used to explain both life and death with equal facility, scientific studies purporting to examine faith often fail for the simple reason that their results can always be explained away. In other words, results we approve of are accepted, while results we disapprove of are ignored. Falsification becomes impossible not because the test can't be constructed (although that may be the case) but because many people simply won't accept the results. Matters only become worse when we consider that studies mixing religion and science usually do justice to neither.

One supposed intersection of science and faith that has received a great deal of attention has been the role of prayer in healing. Many people believe that the prayers of others may, in fact, speed the healing process or improve a person's health. On the face of it, such an assertion would seem to be falsifiable- we put together randomized groups of people who are in need of healing, have other people pray for some them, keep everyone blind to the conditions they're in, and see what happens. Yet, even if such research were to be conducted, and conducted well, would people believe it? If scientists as a body said that praying for someone else does not improve their health, would people believe it? Probably not. On the other hand, if scientists said it did help people heal, would folks believe it? Probably so. We end up in a situation where, under the best of circumstances, only confirmation of pre-existing belief becomes feasible, and falsification is impossible. In such a case, it doesn't matter what the actual reality is- the accumulation of positive evidence through nothing more than random chance will provide (erroneous) support to an otherwise incorrect idea.

Yet, we are not operating under the best of circumstances, and studies of the role of prayer and health are, as a rule, poor. A reasonable scientific approach might be to start small- see if, maybe, prayer can alter bacterial growth in a petri dish. Then, work your way up to more complex phenomena. In reality, however, most prayer studies seem to start right at the top- looking at its effect on humans. Maybe that's becase god doesn't care about whether something lives or dies unless humans are involved, but that seems like an awfully strong assumption. And, of course, starting at this complex a level introduces a lot of confounding variables. In particular, there can be psychological confounds that may obscure the real relationship between prayer and health. For example, the pygmalion and placebo effects may replace the actual impact of prayer with the psychological value of believing people care about you. Despite this, however, we might still perform this research with adequate controls. Only, that largely isn't what is happening, and statistical artifacts are running rampant.

Take, for example, a study of the impact of intercessory prayer on recovery in a coronary care unit. It apparently found backward causation, meaning that the effect preceded the supposed cause. This is, to put it mildly, odd. More exactly, reanalysis of the paper data found that the prayer and non-prayer groups differed in terms of the likelihood that patients assigned to them would drop out of the study prior to the beginning of the prayer "treatment." Moreover, the difference in this tendency was significant at the p< .001 level, while the main effect of prayer (what the study was supposed to be examining) only just makes the p< .04 level. What does this mean? Well, either (A) the researchers biased the samples, which invalidates the results or, (B) the apparent effectiveness of prayer is a statistical artifact. Oops.

I'm prepared to believe that the above study was an accident, but not all cases of prayer/health studies can be so classed. In another case it's apparent that positive results were due to fraud on the part of one or more of the researchers- a fraud they apparently hoped to conceal with denials and a research paradigm of such inelegance that it would be impossible to deciper their mistakes. These efforts failed, and the subsequent scramble to deal with the fallout has been... interesting. Of course, research plows on and people continue to use these flawed studies to support the idea that prayer influences health.

Now, however, comes something more interesting. A recent study seems to imply that prayer does not work and that knowing you're being prayed for can even hurt. Now, I suspect that the effect they've identified is a statistical artifact, but here's the interesting question: How many of those who have used flawed studies showing an effect for prayer, will accept these results? How many will cheerfully give up their notions that prayer has a scientifically validated effect?

Probably none, and that's the problem. People believe in the power of prayer like they believe in god's love, and no amount of evidence will shake their faith. So, when we mix science with religion, we simply do violence to both.

Let science be science, let religion be religion, because otherwise it's just heads I win, tails you lose.

UPDATE: If you haven't seen it already, check out the letters to the editor of the New York Times regarding the prayer study. I think we can safely conclude, based on these letters, that I was totally right in my predictions. Drek- April 3, 2006.

FURTHER UPDATE: Sociology professor, blogger, and popular man with the ladies, Jeremy Freese has tackled this issue with his usual aplomb. I might have something to add in a later post, but for now, go check it out.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Sequels

The Scene: Drek, the Former Hypothetical Roommate (FHR) Officemate #1 (OM1) and Officemate #2 (OM2) are returning from a trip to the student union to acquire coffee.

FHR: Hey Drek, it's your favorite people.

The FHR gestures at an elderly gentleman handing out pocket-sized copies of the New Testament. He, and his associates, appear on campus like locusts every few months.

Drek: Wonderful. I really wonder why they always hand out New Testaments.

OM2: You mean there's a new Testament? My god- I just got finished reading the old one!

The group laughs.

Drek: Yeah, didn't you know? It's a series.

OM2: Is Moses in this one? Wait- don't tell me! I want to read it for myself. I should have known there was another one. I mean, if the other one is the Old Testament, there must be a New one, right?

FHR: That makes sense. Is there anything that's old without there being a new one?

OM2: I guess I just thought it was like the Old Bailey. It's not like there's a New Bailey.

Drek: Good point.

OM1: There's Old Spice without there being a New Spice.

FHR: He's right.

Drek: On the other hand, there is a Baby Spice.

OM1: Shit, man, that was terrible.

FHR: No lie.

Drek: Yeah, yeah, I know. I think if I'd had better timing, though.

For those who are curious, no, I really don't think that I have decent names for my officemates. I'm open to suggestions, however, as OM2 was a bit annoyed at his previous acronym, DOO, exclaiming, "I'm named after shit?" Obviously, this is a problem for him. On the other hand, how often go I get to make references to the Spice Girls in the blog? Answer: Blessedly infrequently.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Introducing the Skepchicks.

As you can easily tell by examining the blogroll, I keep up with a decent number of blogs. Every so often one of these blogs dies, and thus has a line scratched through its name. Other times, a new blog creeps onto the blogroll, indicating that I have found it interesting enough to keep track of for a while. This is one of those times.

Allow me to introduce the Skepchicks a group of skeptical women that are determined to convince society at large that smart is sexy. How are they doing this you ask?

Well, the smart part is being covered by their regular online magainze "Skepchick" which includes a variety of material written by, or for, women. Of course, that this material is mostly scientific or skeptical in nature is a major plus. I find myself relatively certain that Skepchick will not someday feature a print-version of the crap that other sources of by women/for women media seem to revel in. What can I say? I like female-oriented media that doesn't assume that females are gullible morons. Skepchick hasn't been publishing long, but some of their articles give me considerable hope for their future.

As for the sexy part that, so far, is being dealt with through a calendar of skeptical women. Seriously. You can see the pictures from this year's calendar here on the Skepchick forums and apply to be in next year's calendar here, although I think the opportunity to apply has ended. Is a calendar of tasteful photographs of skeptical women really the best way to build awareness? I haven't the foggiest, and I sure as hell doubt it'll shatter all stereotypes, but they've got a pretty good discussion going on the subject, so you should go over and offer an opinion. If nothing else, it's certainly a strong statement that skeptics and scientists in general, and female intellectuals in particular, aren't necessarily what most people expect.

Finally, there is the blog, Memoirs of a Skepchick, written by Skepchick Editor-in-Chief Rebecca Watson. Some of the entries are funny, some of them are informative, and some are entirely too serious, but the vast majority are quite fascinating.

So, give the Skepchicks a warm-welcome, and maybe think about keeping track of their blog. I think we can expect good things from them in the future.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The English language is insufficient to express my incredulity.

From the opinion section of the Greenville News:


Bible tells the truth about our creation

Why is it that these evolutionists are trying so hard to deny that God created the Earth and all that is on it? Now we have an "educated" minister who claims that seminaries have proved that the beginning chapters of the Bible were not written according to the Word of God, but by unknown authors and added to the Bible by some editor. How about the words in John 1:1-4?

I don't think much of a minister who felt it was more important to preach about things he didn't believe, rather than risking his post by not pleasing his (ignorant) congregation.

The theory of evolution does not and cannot explain so much about the universe that we know. For instance, when and how did water evolve? How does it happen that gravity can hold us to the Earth, and at the same time allow us to step up without any trouble? How did it happen that the Earth is spinning at the exact rate that keeps us from feeling that movement?

I find it much easier to believe that Genesis tells us the truth of the creation when we know from God's own Word that nothing is impossible for him to do.

Carol Crooks, Greer [Links added]


I really did not make this up. It actually appears in a newspaper. At the risk of making myself feel dirty, allow me to try to answer Carol Crooks' questions.

(1) "...when and how did water evolve?"

Well, Carol, water did not "Evolve" in the sense usually meant by biological scientists. They use the term "evolution" to refer to a particular kind of change in biological systems where modifications to an organism are either conserved, or lost, between generations based on their utility to the organism. So, organisms that include useful changes survive better than those that include non-useful changes. This is a drastic over-simplification, however, and you should see more thorough sources for a better explanation. More importantly, you seem to be thinking of "evolution" in a sense encouraged by Jack Chick wherein there are six principles of evolution stretching from basic physics to biological theory. This, however, confuses the usage of the term "evolution" as a shorthand for the biolgical theory, with the broader meaning, "To develop or achieve gradually." Using this second, broader meaning, we can say that water evolved (though clearly this isn't the sense in which you used the term) in that it emerged over time in the universe. Water is composed of two elements, Hydrogen and Oxygen, which are, respectively, the first and third most abundant elements in the universe. Scientific consensus puts the origin of the universe at about 13.7 billion years ago. Based on these models, and the timeline we can derive from them, we estimate that Hydrogen began to form approximately 500,000 years after the origin of the universe and Oxygen began to form at roughly the same time, or slightly later. So, in other words, if the universe is 13.7 billion years old, then water probably evolved first formed about 13.6995 billion years ago.

(2) "How does it happen that gravity can hold us to the Earth, and at the same time allow us to step up without any trouble?"

Carol, you're thinking about this as though gravity is somehow elastic, or that we're powerless to oppose it. Neither is true. Gravity is a force that tends to draw mass together. However, gravity is an extremely weak force, and can be overcome by other forces. This is a property of forces generally. So, it isn't that gravity somehow allows us to step up, as that our bodies can exert enough force to match and exceed the pull of gravity, thereby allowing us to "step up without any trouble."

(3) "How did it happen that the Earth is spinning at the exact rate that keeps us from feeling that movement?"

Not to be insulting, but this question is essentially nonsensical. Do you mean, the rate that allows us to not feel the Earth's rotation? What rate would that be, exactly? Or do you mean that the Earth spins at the rate that exactly counterbalances gravity, in which case you're simply wrong. If the Earth's angular momentum did, indeed, counterbalance the Earth's gravity exactly, our planet would disintegrate. On a deeper, philosophical level, however, I think you might benefit from considering the anthropic principle. In short: any environment we evolved in must be compatible with our physical form, and will seem well-suited to it. By the same token, you might as well ask, "Why do we live on a world covered in water and, therefore, is mostly inhospitable to us?"

Finally, Carol, you remark: "I find it much easier to believe that Genesis tells us the truth of the creation when we know from God's own Word that nothing is impossible for him to do."

To which I can only respond that I am certain that you do find it "easier" to believe in Genesis, which you have doubtless been taught since a young age, but there is a difference between what is easy, and what is correct. When I was young, I found it easy to believe in Santa Claus but I have, since, matured quite a bit. Similarly, is it wise to believe an account of the world because the account itself includes a claim that it is infallible? Do you believe everything you read in a book, no matter how little evidence there is to support it? If so, I've run across a document that might interest you:



Satisfied?

All kidding aside, the real shame here is that this person has been failed by the educational system. I'd feel worse about it, but it's abundantly clear to me that some groups have absolutely no intention of being educated, and it is a fool's endeavour to make someone learn if they are determined not to.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Some good and some bad

There is this, which is good, and this, which is bad.

Theoretically, the same group of people - mainly American and British military personnel - is involved. I don't know if any of you saw the glowing faces of Norman Kember's family and friends, but it reminds you that it could all be so different.

On another topic, the Basque terrorist and seperatist organisation just more or less disbanded. It is unlikely that any of you have seen any Spanish news on the topic, so let me relate briefly - from Madrid, the news was all of happy Basque people saying how much better it was without ETA.

Such a partial truth. This is the terrorist organisation whose political arm, Batasuna, was recently banned. Whatever else the giving up of arms means, it means that, unlike in the similar case of the IRA/Sinn Fein, the Basque seperatists are now a faction without a voice. Which is how ETA came about in the first place.

From the Office: "No, Really" Edition

The Scene: Drek, the Former Hypothetical Roommate (FHR), Drek's Sainted Girlfriend (D'sSGF), and Drek's Other Officemate (DOO), are all in Drek's office. Drek has just checked his e-mail, noticing one piece from a particularly close friend of his.

Drek: Well, that's interesting.

FHR: What?

Drek: Seems a hospital in Jerusalem has found a rather novel solution to getting mothers to pay for giving birth.

DOO: Lemme guess: they keep the babies!

Drek: Yep.

D'sSGF and DOO laugh.

Drek: I'm not kidding, it's what they're actually doing.

D'sSGF: No way! They're actually keeping the babies until you pay?!

Drek: Yeah. Well, until you pay a deposit, anyway. If you have twins or triplets, though, they only keep the one. The rest you can take.

D'sSGF: Oh my god- that's terrible!

DOO: I bet you have to pay for care while they're being held, too.

Drek: Probably.

FHR: It'd have to be. Otherwise, it's just the cheapest daycare ever. I'd be like, "Wait, you want to take care of my kid for me? Shit, go for it."

Drek: Admittedly, I think you might be a special case.

FHR: True.

DOO: I wonder how they handle blood transfusions?

Drek: You probably don't want to know.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Because you asked for it.

Some of you may remember a while back when the TDEC wrote a little post describing her ten celebrity crushes. This post was followed shortly thereafter by a post from her fiancee, Slag, which followed up by providing his seven (later eight) celebrity crushes. These posts generated a remarkable amount of fun and excitement for all of us, and led a number of people to ask what my list might look like. More importantly, it caused my Sainted Girlfriend to ask, and to try to worm such information out of me with her customary subtlety. I was reluctant to reveal my celebrity lusts for a number of reasons, most of which I've already elaborated on, but partly also because it just seemed needlessly self-absorbed.

But, hey, I figured I'd give folks an option, and held a vote on the matter. Well, as it happens the results are in and, clearly, y'all want to know. Of the 21 people who voted, 14 were for "yes, tell us," and only 4 were for "no, don't tell us." There were also three people who seemed to want more porn and/or posts about boobs, so I imagine I'll only be partly serving their needs. So, having assured myself that my loyal readers want it, and that my Sainted Girlfriend has largely forgotten about the whole thing by now, I guess I'll present my celebrity lusts. These appear in no particular order of which I am aware. I suppose there might be a cunning plan that is really producing the order but, if so, it is a product of my frenzied subconscious and I, therefore, assume no responsibility for it.

Ahem!

(1) Meredith Monroe



Some of you may remember Meredith as Andie McPhee, from the popular series Dawson's Creek. She played a high-achieving, rather neurotic, but well-intentioned young woman. She also went totally buggo at one point in the series, but let's try and ignore that. At the time she was on the show, I was a regular watcher along with a very close friend of mine. This was not so much because we liked the show, as because we desperately needed a way to shut our brains off and ignore the myriad disasters we were a part of. Anyway, I just really liked the Andie character and find Ms. Monroe to have a curious grace and lightness of expression, despite the fact that in the above picture she looks a bit like she has man-shoulders.

(2) Lisa Loeb



Hey, who doesn't love a quasi-sarcastic musician with funky glasses? Partly I like Lisa Loeb's music, and partly I just think the glasses are dead-sexy. I'm one of those dreadful holdouts who refuses to wear contacts despite poor vision, so I appreciate it when someone else does likewise. Of course, there are the persistent rumors that the glasses are an affectation, but people say the same thing about me. Fashion magazines can be so cruel.

(3) Janel Moloney



Most of you probably recognize Janel Moloney as Donna Moss, from The West Wing. There she plays a seemingly-frivolous, quirky personal assistant. However, despite these appearances, fans of the series realize that she's both intelligent and capable of getting things done. I like people who get shit done. I also like women with nice legs. You do the math. Besides: she volunteered for the Kerry campaign. How can you not like that?

(4) Eliza Dushku



Many of you may remember her as the character Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There she played a semi-sociopathic super-powered woman. This is, all by itself, a fascinating thing, even leaving aside the fact that she's quite attractive. Sadly, so far her film/t.v. roles have mostly fallen into the "female badass," "horror movie victim," and "tough girl who is really sweet" stereotypes. I keep hoping she'll get a role with a little more maturity but, hey, failing that, I'll take the bikini. Believe it or not, though, Dushku has a charitable foundation and one of the most godawful websites I've ever seen, so she must have some sort of personality. Whatever that means.

Moving on...

(5) Helen Slater



Hey! I don't have to explain my choices to you people! I will, however, say that I liked her a great deal more in some movies than in others.

(6) Anne Hathaway



Okay, folks, I'll be honest: there's really nothing to this one aside from simple, straightforward lust. Isn't that enough of a reason? Regardless, in addition to acting, Anne Hathaway has been a top-ranked soprano in New York, and has attended Vassar and NYU... so at least my lust tends to be for relatively talented folks. I suspect she's also somewhat liberal.

And last, but not least...

(7) Alyson Hannigan



On this point, I have to agree with my colleague, Slag: Alyson Hannigan is definitely hot. At least partly, though, this is because she's one of the weirdest actors in hollywood now- and I mean that in a fun way. Between roles in American Pie, as the bizarrely perverse band geek (and who didn't know them in high school?), and Date Movie, I think she has to have a sense of humor, and an odd one at that. Given that I think Top Secret! is one of the funniest movies ever made, you can see the appeal.

And so, there you have it. Would I leave my Sainted Girlfriend for one of these women? Of course not. My appreciation for my Sainted Girlfriend stems from my knowledge of her as a good and interesting person- not to mention the fact that she's a total hottie:



As fun as it can be to admire celebrities, they simply cannot compare with reality. While fantasy can be a lot of fun, and is safe because the chance of rejection is slim, a fantasy cannot talk to you, comfort you when you're feeling sad, or wake up next to you in the morning. Fantasy is nice because it is easy, but nothing truly worth having comes easily. Maybe I'm crazy, but I'd rather have the hard reality, than the easy, but unfulfilling, fantasy.

Now go away. I have work to do.

As a side note, I just want to mention what an absolute pain in the ass Blogger's picture feature has been lately. I don't know what's up with that, but it's making me nutty. Okay, sorry, more nutty than usual.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Safe

It is five a.m. over where I live. Some time ago I woke up from a terrible nightmare. We've all had them so I don't think I need to explain. Let me limit myself to the following - it was an innocuous, albeit somewhat glum, dream until some mad bastard started shooting people, paying special attention to black people*.

Why am I telling you about this dream?

Don't worry, I am not asking anyone to care about my dreams. The point is that the dream reminded me of one of my most basic fears - guns. You see, to an extent the success of our lives (in the emotional sense) depends on living in denial of the dangers that surround us. Now I am anxiety-prone at the best of times, but the realisation that I will soon be living in a country where there is so much less to stop that nightmare scenario from happening is genuinely terrifying.

Living outside of your home country always means being a little less safe. Not only do you not have the support network that you would have back home, but you are, by default, less likely to pick up on cultural danger signs. Any Floridian or Australian can tell you that it is usually the tourists who get eaten or bitten by various scary things. It's natural - you don't know what to look for, or forget to look for it.

Millions of Americans pass their days peacefully while fully aware of the level of gun crime. I am, and always will be, aghast at the fact that it is legal to carry a gun for no particular reason. To me it just asking for bad things to happen. Being European, I believe that guns legally belong only to police forces**, armies and huntsmen. I am not enthusiastic about the hunting but I have some level of respect for people who hunt for food.

Maybe some of you can see why I am, every now and again, scared senseless of moving to the US. Of course there is gun-related violent crime in Belgium; of course. Of course we have hold-ups and car-jackings and the whole wide range of it. There is a film called C'est arrivé près de chez vous, which literally means "It has come close to where you live". And so it has - very close. Monstrosities in your own home town, it's nothing new. But it gnaws at my already impaired suspension of disbelief in safety to know that it is so much easier for it to happen in the States than in Belgium.

Yeah, I know, the gun crime statistics for the US are better than for Europe - if only you leave out those bothersome African-Americans. Go ahead, follow the link. It is no more than a slightly more extreme version of a popular opinion on the role that guns play in American society. No, seriously, I am about four times more likely to be killed in a shooting in the US than here. In fact, I am about four times more likely to be murdered regardless of weapons. Not really a very comforting statistic, especially if you look at my home country's reputation for gun running.

Back to my point which is - it's a scary country you guys live in. Not as scary as, say, South Africa, granted, but then I don't propose to live there. That, combined with a cultural vulnerability that I know well enough, makes for a very anxious Belgian.

Someone contradict me, please.

*Quentin Tarantine style. Yes, this is part of the reason why I so detest gratuitous violence in films. Yes I think he and those like him glorify violence.
**Can I point out that in the UK the police on the street does not carry guns, and never has, and seems to work as well or as badly as anywhere else?

Editorial Note: I altered the date on this post so that it could remain on top for longer. It was originally written on Wednesday the 22nd. Sorry, TDEC, if I annoy you when I do that.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

This just in...

Jason Rosenhouse, proprietor of the Evolution Blog has an excellent post up about the relationship between conservative theists, moderate theists, and Atheists. I think you should go read it right now. It's located here.

I really have nothing to add. He's reached a level of eloquence that I aspire to, but rarely match.

I have seen the face of evil stupid crazy and I'm pretty sure this is it.



Meet Tony Zirkle: Republican Congressional candidate from the great state of Indiana. Mr. Zirkle is what you might call a path-breaker. He wants shake things up in Washington and show the "intelligentsia" how things are done back home. Specifically, he wants to do something about sexual predators. What does he want to do, you ask? He wants to implement a complex, four-stage plan to deal with rapists, pimps, child molesters, and the like. You can read the story for yourself, but to make things easier, try this:

Stage 4 contemplates the reintroduction of the guillotine and lynch mob into the criminal justice process...

He also said he is in favor of the death penalty.


To which I respond, "You bet your ass he's in favor of the death penalty."

While I'll grant that Mr. Zirkle has said he's taking this final position more to stimulate debate than anything else, allow me to assure you that the remainder of his platform is equally loon-tastic. Returning to his plans for sexual predators, however, let's consider Zirkle's ideas in their full glory.

First, there's stage one:

The first stage of the battle, as proposed by Zirkle, calls for suspension of the constitutional protections of property rights for "porn-pimps."

"Every adultery (sic) book store will be immediately seized and the property will be forfeited to the taxpayers without any process of law other than a hearing within 10 days of seizure to give the porn-pimps the opportunity (to) challenge the sufficiency of prostitution evidence."


I can only assume that by "adultery book store" Zirkle means "shop dealing in adult novelties." In such a case I imagine it should be quite easy to challenge the "prostitution evidence" since prostitution is really something quite distinct from the sale of do-it-yourself products. This, of course, ignores the fact that suspending consitutional rights to property is something that even conservatives should shy away from. Let's also keep in mind that what he's really saying here is: "We don't really need due process, do we?" Of late, that seems to have become a Republican mantra.

Then, after this absurdity, we get to stage two:

Stage 2, Zirkle said, would involve "actual arrests" for those who did not learn from Stage 1.


I suppose that "actual arrests" are better than those "fake arrests" the cops are so fond of. You know, where they come to your house, take you down to the station, throw you in a cell with a man named Earl who anally rapes you for three or four hours and then the cops are like, "Shit, man, you been punk'd!" Moreover, I'm a little dubious about the "learning standard" that Zirkle wants to apply. Should we arrest people who learn the error of their ways, but sell porn anyway, or just the folks who don't "learn" from stage one, even if they fail to re-offend? Speaking personally, I suspect that what most folks will learn from stage one is that Zirkle is batshit insane.

Stage two is followed shortly thereafter by stage three:

Stage 3, if necessary, calls for "super speedy public trials with severe punishment that is swiftly carried out after a rapid appeal."


And this, frankly, confuses me. You see, in a society governed by law, the completion of stage two, arrests, effectively requires that those arrested eventually be tried, rather than that they simply be held without trial. Certainly the United States has been dispensing with formalities like trials and habeus corpus lately, but does that mean we need to just start assuming that an arrest won't be followed by a trial? I like to think not. So, I don't think that stage three will follow stage two "if necessary" but rather more "as an inevitable consequence of." I won't even touch the "rapid appeal" or "super speedy" points since it's easy to promise a fast-running judicial system, but another thing to deliver.

Unless, you know, we chuck the rights of the accused right out of a window.

And if all that fails, we return to the joy of stage four:

"If this stage is necessary, then I am willing to debate the idea of returning the guillotine and lynch mob for those who prey on children under the age of 12; however, no capital punishment will be extended without at least four witnesses."


This leads me to remark on two things. First, as a general rule, lynch mobs are not really known for weighing the evidence and coming to a conclusion based on four or more witnesses. Usually a dude named Lester and his buddies Johnny Walker and Jack Daniels are sufficient to get a lynch mob together. So, you know, make sure your trial procedures and your punishment procedures are compatible. Secondly, I suppose we could look at the four witness rule as somewhat progressive. I mean, four witnesses are better than one, right?

How might this play out in other crimes? Could some variant be used for adultery or even sassing one's parents? Perhaps we could work some sort of system out for rape too? I'm sure there are some precedents for this sort of thing somewhere. I'm sure Tony knows about them, too, judging by his website. Try clicking on the "porn-prostitution" link on the left-hand side. It's... instructive.

So what's my point with all of this? I'm sorry, were you expecting a point? This is a blog, don't you know: points are entirely optional.

As long as we're talking, however, let me point something out: Tony Zirkle is a lawyer and a former attendee of the United States Naval Academy. He is a highly educated, experienced individual.

He wants to reintroduce the lynch mob and the guillotine.

Obviously, education is not the silver bullet we'd like to think it is, and we in this country have some serious problems. At the same time, despite the fact that this candidate is clearly an utter lunatic, the fact that he can run is magnificent. Moreover, the fact that his candidacy is not, from what I can tell, likely to result in victory is equally magnificent. We have a field of ideas and alternatives and, so far, the people seem to be concluding that Zirkle is a madman.

Maybe there's hope for this country yet.

I'd like to point out, since Zirkle is a lawyer and all, that the contents of this post are my personal opinions. I'm sure Mr. Zirkle is an upstanding member of the community, who simply has some of the worst ideas for governing the country that I've ever heard.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A judicious use of telepathy...

Most people don't know this, but I'm actually gifted with the arcane art of telepathy. That's right: I can often read the thoughts of those I am around and sometimes those I'm just listening to. I'm not the only person to report such powers although I, at least, don't charge for them and, therefore, require no legal disclaimer to shield me from liability if I am wrong. But, of course, psychics are never wrong. Everyone knows that.

In any case, while listening to President Bush speaking to an unscreened audience I actually had a sudden flash of telepathy. Because I'm a generous guy, I thought I'd share my deep insight with you. Any telepathically-derived information is below in italics. Enjoy!




Questioner: He [Political Analyst Kevin Phillips, author of American Theocracy] makes the point that members of your administration have reached out to prophetic Christians who see the war in Iraq, and the rise in terrorism, as signs of the apocalypse. Do you believe this?

Bush: I... the answer is...

Yes! Yes, I do! Wait, shit, can I say that? Stall for time.

Bush: I haven't really thought of it that way.

(Audience laughs)

Thank you Jesus, they're laughing!

Bush: Here's how I think of it... um...

Crap! Okay, if I say "no," my base will be really mad at me. If I say "yes," everyone is going to think I'm crazy. Oh, jeepers! Okay, KEEP TALKING! Be Folksy!

Bush: I have heard of that by the way... uh...

HA! See? I can read books too! Big ones, even! Okay, what do I do? What do I do? Think it through, George. Think of Jack Chick: what would he say?

Bush: The... uh...

Shit! I know what Jack would say and that's not helping! How should I know if this is the apocalypse? I'm not god, I'm just his messenger! Wait, that's good! We're not supposed to think too much because that makes us arrogant. I'm not arrogant like that... that... academic so I must be... um...

Bush: I guess I'm more of a practical fella.

YES!!!!




Well, I hope you've all enjoyed that. I know I did.

No, I'm not really telepathic. But listen to Bush and see if you disagree with me.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Gah!

Blogger is behaving badly today.

Sorry folks, hopefully things will be improved tomorrow. I've only just gotten in today and I'm not really going to blog right this instant. Sorry.

Try tomorrow.

Friday, March 17, 2006

St Patrick's Day

Today is St Patrick's Day. I really couldn't possibly care less.

Let me save you all a trip to Dublin - no they do not dye the rive green and no, the do not have green Guinness either. That is a gimmick for the Americans, ok? And the parades are smaller. So save yourself some money and don't go. You wouldn't like it.

Come to think of it, I don't think Dublin is that exciting either, really. The rest of Ireland is pretty cool though.

I am now fully convinced of the decline of American society.

Why? Two reasons. First, this clip from the television program Boston Legal. It does a good job of illustrating those things that we are losing in the present political environment, and making a case for fighting those losses. So why does this depress me?

Because we had to wait for a television program to make these points, instead of the people who should be leading the way. The American people are receptive to arguments about freedom and justice- so why aren't they being made?

But, instead of fighting for our rights, it looks like we're going to be content with our petty amusements. And by "petty amusements," I really mean this. I think it qualifies as evidence for the end of American society.

I don't even know why I bother anymore.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

On a more serious subject.

My busy, busy week continues, but that's no reason for y'all not to have something interesting to waste time with. So, I bring you two things of note.

Some of you may be wondering how New Orleans is doing in the wake of hurricane Katrina. Judging by the news, and what the government keeps saying, it sounds like things are getting better. Then again, maybe that's not the whole story.

If you want a different perspective, you might try checking out this amateur documentary on the present state of New Orleans. I won't say that it's all that easy to watch, but it does drive home the reality of the situation. Things are improving, but the recovery is far from over, and isn't really receiving the attention it deserves. New Orleans has become an embarrassment to the White House and, like all things that embarrass this President, has been swept under the rug. I imagine that the residents of Louisiana are feeling pretty bitter about the last presidential election.

And, as long as we're talking about the sort of trainwrecks that the Bush administration is typically involved with, I should probably draw your attention to a story in the most recent issue of the Onion:

Poverty-Stricken Africans Receive Desperately Needed Bibles

March 13, 2006 | Issue 42•11

MARADI, NIGER—More than 60,000 urgently needed Bibles arrived to allay suffering throughout the famine-stricken nation of Niger Friday, in one of the largest humanitarian-relief operations ever attempted by a Christian ministry.

Africans gather in hopes of receiving the Bibles they have hoped for.
"Come rejoice, and feast upon the word of Our Lord, Jesus Christ," said Christina Clarkson, executive director of the Living Light Ministries of Lubbock, TX. "Those who were hungry, hunger no more, for the Word brings life."


You might think this is satirical but, if so, it isn't by very much given the Bush administration's stance towards AIDS prevention both here and in Africa. Giving money solely for abstinence programs is widely understood to be a bad idea, despite its continuing popularity with conservatives in this country. Like it or not, given $5 billion for abstinence-only in Africa is a lot like giving bibles to starving children, and then congratulating yourself for being so generous.

I never thought I'd say it, but by comparison Marie Antoinette, even misquoted, had some better ideas.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

By popular demand...

And by "popular demand" I really mean "Brayden's comment." Regardless, however, since someone asked, and I have no better ideas, today we're going to spend some more time in the Wayback machine remembering my old employer- we'll call them "Ajax Electrics." Why are we calling them that? Just because I don't want to get sued.

One thing you have to understand about Ajax is that it was run out of my boss's (Let's call him "Pete") home. I worked in a dank hole in the basement with my officemate, while our boss worked in a sunny office upstairs looking out on the backyard. We could often hear him grunting and grumbling up there throughout the day, and his favorite thing was to involve us in "meetings" for the better part of the day. Often these meetings would involve a speakerphone call to one of our many contractors, but just as often it would be the three of us listening to Pete as he explained what a great deal he'd gotten last night on all-you-can-eat roasted chicken. I am really and truly not making that up- it actually happened.

To survive the day- and often the meetings- my officemate and I would communicate via instant messenger. So, while on one level we'd seem to be taking notes, in reality, we were deep in snide conversation. Believe it or not I still have some of the logs from these conversations. I've included one below.

Before you start reading I should probably mention that this conversation took place during a very, very dark period in my life. My place of employment was so fucked up that it often took less than a DAY for new hires to decide to find another position. My officemate's eventual replacement decided so after her first FOUR HOUR meeting with the boss where he, basically, scolded her in advance for disloyalty. Later that day I basically got to watch Pete crush her spirit when, in response to her question "Don't we want to make this product good?" he answered, "No." So, all I'm saying is keep that in mind when reading all this.

Enjoy!



Drek: Can we refer to our product test plan as "Backdooring the system"? [Pete constantly mentioned that we had to “backdoor” the government. We don’t think he meant it as a euphemism but who can be sure? I should also mention that I was in charge of writing the company product testing protocols. I did it four times, and after each Pete kept insisting we needed to do it again. By the end of my employment, I was just recycling the old ones in a round-robin sort of thing. It kept Pete happy, and cut down on the busy work.]

Officemate: Yeah good idea, I guess that's a little more PC than "Assramming the System" which was what I was calling it.

Drek: I believe you mean "Assramming the Clients" which is what this company is all about. "Ajax Electrics: All Assramming, All the Time"!!!!

Officemate: Oh, right, I get so confused. We’re supposed to Assram the clients, Shake our dicks at the government, and Suckle our consultants. Thanks for reminding me.

Drek: I have this image of John Walker [One of our more useless consultants] suckling at a teat. So who does Pete throw his own feces at? [I have no idea where that aside came from, but in meetings we often made monkey analogies, so that’s probably it.]

Officemate: He throws them into his own mouth

Drek: No, that's where his ideas about systemitizing come from, so he excretes feces from his mouth.

Officemate: Yeah, I think he uses his feces to cover his head, in the shape of hair.

Drek: Agreed. Maybe he wears a toupee made of genuine Llama asshair. [Llamas were a frequent topic of conversation for reasons that elude me at present.]

Officemate: I am sure, from the finest Bolivian alpaca Llama assholes.

Drek: No doubt hand-stretched and manually sodomized by village women skilled in the ancient maya art of Alpaca-sodomy. On another topic: Why are you worrying about John, what does Pete do for us?! [John Walker’s skills overlapped somewhat with my officemate- which is to say, my officemate could have done John’s job while strapped to the front of a cruise missile.]

Officemate: I don't know but he [Pete] is not getting $500 /hour.

Officemate: Is he?

Drek: Pete? You don't want to know. I think my $200,000 a year estimate [Of Pete’s salary] was low. And when you factor in the house cleaning charged to the company, the power and phones charged to the company, etc, etc, the man is living free. [It’s important to note here that not only did we work out of this guy’s house, but we also largely subsisted on government grants.]

Officemate: Ahhhhhhhh!

Officemate: Must... contain....exploding....brain.

Drek: Just breathe deeply and remember all his valuable contributions to Ajax like...uh....hmmmmm....well, there's...uh....typos?

Officemate: There's the porn he’s added to the hard drives. [Pete was a huge porn addict. My officemate discovered this accidentally one day while going about his business in the office. Pete once made my officemate clean the porn off of his (Pete’s) notebook computer before we went to a meeting with a regulatory agency.]

Drek: The sweet smell of tobacco he fills the air with. (Did I really type the phrase "ancient maya art of Alpaca-sodomy" a few minutes ago?)

Officemate: Yes you did. You are definitely improving your prose. Careful: Ajax owns that phrase now, you will have to pay a license fee! [Pete had wanted us to sign intellectual property agreements that would have conceded to the company the rights to anything we wrote or worked on, in or out of business hours, with or without company resources, during the time of our employment and for five years following. In other words: he wanted to make us legally unemployable by anyone else.]

Drek: Do I get MDC credit for the Alpaca crack? [MDC stands for "Monkey Demon Cup," basically a daily prize for the most bitterness about the company.] Hey, that has possibilities, Alpaca crack... Look, if Ajax wants to sodomize an Alpaca they won't get any arguments from me. We can become the internet resource for Alpaca sodomy. We can found eAlpacaSodomy.com!!!!!

Officemate: Brilliant!

Drek: So who will we pick for officers?

Officemate: The Regulator: President and CEO. [The regulator was… well… a twelve-inch dildo that we imagined would bring divine justice to the company. Sound weird? Yeah, well, bite me, as cosmologies go, I think it rather mundane.]

Officemate: Drek the Uninteresting: CFPIO- Cover For Pete’s Incompetence Officer.

Drek: No kidding.

Officemate: Eddie says: Business plan yet for eAlpacaSodomy.com?
Officemate says: Yes, we will have the latest and juiciest alpaca for shipment within 24 hours to anywhere on earth. [Eddie, believe it or not, was Pete’s son, who often participated in our “chats” from another state. Usually he participated via a separate program, which is why my officemate is relaying. Eddie was usually amazed that we stayed with Ajax for as long as we did. Later on Eddie started working for Pete as a consultant and was honestly amazed at how reserved my officemate and I had been about the conditions at Ajax.]

Drek: No, no, that might actually make money! That isn’t what Ajax is all about!

Officemate: Eddie says: Can I order some right now?
Officemate says: Yes, what size would you like?

Officemate: Eddie says: 128oz.
Officemate says: That's the smallest size, only for our "under sized" customers.

Drek: Do we specify color and sex as well, or sell "as is"?

Officemate: We specify Tightness, kink, hardiness, and dementia level. Everything else is a crapshoot.

Drek: Do we check for parasites? You know catching Alpaca Spongiform Encephalopathy is no laughing matter.

Officemate: Do we check for parasites? Dude, we inject with parasites prior to shipment!

Drek: Oh well: some days you sodomize the crab and some days the crab sodomizes you...

Vulgar? Juvenile? Stupid? Hell yes- we were all of the above, and looking back on it, I'm sorta ashamed. At the same time, however, we were desperate to escape and often times trying to make the product good in spite of Pete's best efforts. If you can emerge from a situation like that without becoming bitter, I'd be impressed. It is safe to say that much of my vulgarity and cynicism is a direct result of Ajax Electrics.

So, tune in tomorrow for... um... who cares? This week is really turning out to be a wash as far as quality programming goes.

What can I say? At Total Drek content is god, and we're atheists.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

"Some days you sodomize the crab..."

"...and some days the crab sodomizes you." So went a saying at my former place of employment- the place I worked before I came to grad school. While the vulgarity of this expression is, indeed, rather striking, it is primarily a reflection of how much my officemate and I hated our employment as well as our employer. Many, many days at work did I feel as though I were being sodomized by a large crustacean. Even more disheartening, having a "good" day at work felt much like sodomizing a crab- in other words, it wasn't something you really wanted, left you feeling dirty, and it kinda hurt.

No, this doesn't mean I've actually sodomized crabs. Use your imaginations, people.

In any case, this job lent my officemate and I a certain amount of creativity. He expressed it by producing a series of MS-Paint masterpieces, most of which were subtle allegories about our boss. I include one below for your edification:



It also spawned a variety of office games, such as: who could start the most long and pointless arguments during meetings, the development of ridiculous sayings, and the finding of various monkey pictures to hang on our office bulletin board. Monkeys were our favorite animal because they reminded us of our boss. Believe it or not, various family and friends got into the act, sometimes sending us monkey pictures from across the country. I include a picture of the infamous board here:



I bring all this up not to bitch about my work experience, although that's fun, but as a preface to introducing a rather fascinating little video game named "Disaffected." This game is available here and is described as:

Disaffected! gives the player the chance to step into the demotivated position of real FedEx Kinkos employees. Feel the indifference of these purple-shirted malcontents first-hand, and consider the possible reasons behind their malaise -- is it mere incompetence? Managerial affliction? Unseen but serious labor issues?

...

Disaffected! is an arcade-style game with fast action and high replayability. The player controls one or more employees behind the counter at a typical copy store. As each level starts, customers enter the store through the front doors and line up behind the cashiers at the counters. The player must try to find and deliver each customer's order. Obstacles include confused employees, employees who refuse to work, employees who move orders around indiscriminately so the player cannot find them. A complete in-game tutorial walks the player through both one-and two-player gameplay.


Now there is a game I can appreciate! I may not have been working customer service, but I spent far too much time dealing with a variety of obstacles that simply should not have existed. Indeed, to refer to my officemate and I as "disaffected," would be a serious understatement.

So, is this game good? I have no idea. I haven't had the time to play. The screenshots look promising, however, and I think we can all stand a game that is honest about work. Or, at least, the work many of us have done in the past. Go ahead and check it out! There are PC and Mac versions available, so there should be nothing holding you back.

Enjoy!

Sorry about the lateness of this post- blogger has been pissy about photographs today.

Monday, March 13, 2006

A muddled end

Slobodan Milosevic, former president of Serbia, accused of and on trial for crimes against humanity*, is dead, has been for a few days now. The family wants him to be buried in Belgrade, but in that case his wife may not be able to attend, as she has a pending conviction in Serbia. Either way it will be muted affair.

The Serbs don't seem to care much. What a strange end for this monster, for this former national hero.

*The former president faced charges relating to atrocities carried out in Kosovo in 1999, to crimes against humanity committed in Croatia in 1991 and 1992, and to alleged genocide in Bosnia-Hercegovina between 1992 and 1995.
The indictment relating to Bosnia - the most serious - accuses him of being responsible for the killing of thousands of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats.
It cites the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica and accuses Mr Milosevic of involvement in the murder, imprisonment and mistreatment of thousands of civilians, including women and the elderly.
In Serbia, Mr Milosevic faced additional charges connected with the murder of former President Ivan Stambolic, abuse of power and siphoning off billions of dollars of state funds into foreign accounts. Those were the issues that officially lay behind his dramatic arrest in April 2001.

Overheard in the Office: Romance Edition

The scene: Drek and the Former Hypothetical Roommate are working in their department office. An associate of theirs has just departed.

Drek: She's really cool.

FHR: Yeah, she is.

A lull in the conversation ensues.

FHR: Hey. Maybe we should hook her up with Jimmy.

Drek: Seriously?

FHR: Yeah.

Drek pauses and thinks.

Drek: That would be like... pairing a kitten with a barracuda.

FHR: Yeah. Good point. Okay, someone more Jimmy's speed then.

Drek: Good idea.

Expect some light blogging from me this week, folks. I have a lot of work to do and not much time in which to do it. Of course, that said, the actual amount of blogging largely depends on whether or not anything in the news pisses me off, but let's all ignore that for the time being.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Well done Sandra Day...

For those of you who didn't happen to be at Georgetown yesterday, former justice Sandra Day O'Connor had some good words to say about the deterioriating relationship between the Supreme Court and the Republican Party- particularly the evangelical wing of the Republican party which, of course, includes current president George W. Bush.

In particular, she asserted that the framers of the Constitution intended a strong independent judiciary to serve as a defender of the rights of the people against a rapacious government. Not that I'm implying that our government is growing more rapacious or anything.

O'Connor summed it up brilliantly as follows: "We must be ever vigilant aganst those who would strongarm the judiciary into adopting their preferred policies. It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorshship, but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings."

I don't have the actual text, but there's a pretty good report on NPR. Not to be missed. If anyone does know where I can find a transcript, please let me know.

The glory of Google images continues to astound me. A search for "with me or the terrorists," turned up this unexpected image. Seriously, what the hell?

A little too true.

I don't know how many of you regularly follow Jorge Cham's comic strip Piled Higher and Deeper, but this strip is just a little too poignant for me to resist.



My advisor is a good guy, but lord his comments can be merciless!

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Special Guest Blogger: Tom Bozzo!

Hey folks. Today, in lieu of the usual heaping helping of nonsense, Total Drek is proud to give you a guest post by the one, the only, Tom Bozzo! So, sit back and enjoy an unusual dose of erudite discussion.

Just don't get used to it. I'll probably be back tomorrow. Well, or else it'll be Slag or the TDEC.



Mission to Nowhere: NASA's Unpleasant Budgetary Arithmetic

Space buffs once greeted NASA Administrator Michael Griffin's nomination to head the agency with an enthusiasm not commonly associated with Bush political appointees. In contrast to the usual qualifications of crony or flunky, Griffin was, as one profile noted, an actual rocket scientist in his previous life. Prior to the NASA appointment, Griffin headed the department of Johns Hopkins U.'s Applied Physics Laboratory which, among other things, is responsible for the very worthy New Horizons mission to Pluto.

Six months ago, Griffin set out to reassure Congress that the Bush "vision" of returning astronauts to the moon and then sending them on to Mars wouldn't divert so much as "one thin dime" from NASA's space science programs. Ominously, if not surprisingly, this was only going to be possible in the branch of mathematics that enables the administration's 1-1=5 budget arithmetic.

There were a few other warning signs for the alert. The OMB page for the FY2006 NASA budget featured a picture of the launch of the pathbreaking X-43 hypersonic research aircraft, which shattered speed records for powered flight using air-breathing engines; the funding for follow-on phases originally planned for the X-43 program previously had been cut. It also declined to mention the termination of the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, which was to be the flagship robotic mission for exploration of the outer solar system for conditions that might harbor extraterrestrial life or shed light on the origins of life on Earth, but the funding was gone all the same.

Reality then dawned in the FY2007 NASA budget request, the hardcore spacers went berserk, and even the New York Times had to take notice of the about-face in as harsh terms as you'll see in an elite media lede:
Some of the most highly promoted missions on NASA's scientific agenda would be postponed indefinitely or perhaps even canceled under the agency's new budget, despite its administrator's vow to Congress six months ago that not "one thin dime" would be taken from space science to pay for President Bush's plan to send astronauts to the Moon and Mars.

The cuts come to $3 billion over the next five years, even as NASA's overall spending grows by 3.2 percent this year, to $16.8 billion.
The NYT's math is a bit curious, as Bush budgets only project expenditures over a 5-year horizon, so there are only four years — FY07-FY10 — over which proposed future expenditures can be compared between the FY06 and FY07 budget requests. NASA's budget is organized around program "themes." Over those four years, the Bush FY07 budget would knock $300 million out of the "Universe" theme (including cosmology and planet-hunting missions), slash a whopping $4.3 billion from the solar system exploration theme (a 38% cut), and add only 2% to the "Earth-Sun" theme; the net cuts total $4.4 billion over the four budget years. Adding FY06 increases the cuts further, and FY11 is not a science bonanza.

As the Times noted:
Among the casualties in the budget, released last month, are efforts to look for habitable planets and perhaps life elsewhere in the galaxy, an investigation of the dark energy that seems to be ripping the universe apart, bringing a sample of Mars back to Earth and exploring for life under the ice of Jupiter's moon Europa — as well as numerous smaller programs and individual research projects that astronomers say are the wellsprings of new science and new scientists.
Compare with the FY 2006 Budget statement:
The President’s 2006 Budget provides NASA with resources to pursue a program of exploration of the solar system and worlds beyond that not only will broaden scientific understanding of the Sun, Earth, and planets but also will inform decisions of where in the solar system human explorers should travel, the conditions they will endure, and the technologies necessary to support them... NASA will continue to operate prolific space telescopes such as Hubble, Chandra, and Spitzer while planning for the next generation of spacecraft that will enhance our ability to find planets around other stars, peer deep into the history of the universe, and improve our understanding of its structure.
Here's the '07 pitch for the JIMO cancellation:
The 2006 Budget terminated the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, the flagship mission of NASA’s space nuclear power program, because it was costly and not well aligned with the new focus on exploration. The 2007 Budget further trims the space nuclear program, which will continue as a research and development effort until its technologies are needed in later years.
Expensive, yes. But "not well aligned with the new focus on exploration?" And funding cuts to a less-ambitious mission to Europa go unmentioned. Cue joke about the administration's relationship with "old Europe."

----------------------------

But, someone might say, maybe they should be funding robotic science missions, but at least they're going to get us to the Moon and Mars as a way of throwing some money at the aerospace/defense contracting community.

I say: Not so fast.

Somewhat less widely heralded is that the NASA budget plan also proposes deep cuts to themes that would enable technologies key to the long-duration human spaceflight required for interplanetary travel.

So the FY07 budget plan throws a large amount of "new" money at the re-invention of the Apollo program (previously reviewed by Slag)— $6.3 billion through 2010, an 83% increase over the FY06 projections — and enough money for a couple of blockbuster robotic probes at the soon-to-be-retired space shuttle in order to complete the International Space Station (were the administration only so concerned over its commitments to other countries regarding the environment and the treatment of prisoners of war!). But it does that in part by taking $3.6 billion from the "Exploration Systems" and particularly "Human Systems" research and technology themes over the next four years, a 50% cut overall and a 65% cut for the latter. What is the purpose of human systems R&T? Per the NASA budget document:
Programs within this Theme advance knowledge and technology critical for supporting long-term human survival and performance during operations beyond low-Earth orbit, with a focus on improving medical care and human health maintenance.
In short, nothing you would need were you, say, to want to take long trips to the Moon or Mars.

So, to summarize for the less paranoid... Space science funding &mdash; whacked. Research for the President's own ostensible long-term space goals, however questionable — also whacked. Likely future pressure to keep a lid on discretionary spending by declining to restore these cuts once a domestic alternative to the Space Shuttle is available — enormous. While space science is arguably a better outlet for science pork than, say, ballistic missile defense, BMD is the religious icon for the ruling party.

That takes us back to Dr. Griffin. His CV includes stints working at NASA on the elder President Bush's Mars mission, the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, and, before the recent APL stint, he was "chief operating officer of In-Q-Tel, a private nonprofit enterprise funded by the Central Intelligence Agency to invest in companies developing leading-edge technologies." This is pretty high on the pixie dust. So perhaps Griffin is Bush's man for the job after all.

Until we get a vision transplant, though, it might be best to wish Sir Richard (and Burt Rutan) well.


Editor's Note: Any formatting glitches are strictly my fault.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

God Bless the Onion

This may be the funniest thing I've ever seen on the Onion. Seriously. I include it below for your enjoyment:


Are Your Cats Old Enough To Learn About Jesus?

By Marian Byers
February 28, 2006

People often ask me when they should teach the Good News to their housecats. I have but one answer: "What are you waiting for?"

A pet is a beloved part of your family, and as a Christian, you should do everything you can to guarantee that this valued member of your family receives the glorious eternal reward for which Christ gave His very life. Think of the alternative: your cat mired in darkness for eternity because you put off a 10-minute conversation.

My own cats accepted Jesus into their hearts before they even opened their eyes. The light of salvation has brightened their lives, but perhaps the most noticeable change has been in me. I am filled with warmth knowing their eternal souls have been saved.

Kittens' hearts, at birth, are filled with what theologians call "original mischief." Mischief, if left to grow on its own, can sprout into evil. That's why you must fill their hearts with Jesus instead. If you wait, your cats might find seductive role models among the back-alley strays and rough felines from the wrong side of town. You could also end up with an unwanted pregnancy.

That's why it's so very, very important to tell your cats about the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus as early as possible. The Nicene Creed is a good place to start: Recite it to them when they are about 10 weeks old.

Remember: If you give a cat a fish, it eats for a day. If you teach a cat to fish, it eats for a lifetime. Perhaps that's not such a good proverb to use in this case, since fishing is actually instinctual in cats. But Jesus is not. Your kitties need to know early on that there is a fisher of men and cats alike who can save their souls.

A lot of people say, "Oh, but Whiskers doesn't even answer to his name yet." They raise a good point: Sometimes you have to teach your cat at its own level. If you give your cat a rubber Jesus to play with, it will sense that there's more to this toy. If you give it a scratching cross, it will contemplate Christ's love and ultimate sacrifice while it stretches and sharpens its claws. I myself have put an image of Jesus at the bottom of my cats' food bowls. That way, when they finish their food, the face of He who provided it is revealed unto them.

Teaching your cats the Gospel of Christ isn't just important for their eternal souls, it is also the only way to ensure that they know an eternity of damnation awaits them if they scratch your favorite chair. Before they cough up a hairball on the rug or leave a dead mouse on the doorstep, they'll know—without being scolded—that they had better watch it, as a Final Judgment awaits at the hands of the Lord.

Of course, once your cat has accepted the Lord in its heart, it's ready to be baptized. The righteous cat is one that is born again in the eyes of the Lord. People think that baptism is a rite that requires a fancy baptismal font and a preacher, but that's simply not true. Just fill your bathtub with water, say a little invocation over it, ask your cat if it rejects Satan and all his evil, and then dunk it. Make sure it is fully immersed, in accordance with Scripture.

So now, all you have to do is choose your cat's baptismal name. My cats' birth names were Meowser, Fluff, and Mr. Boots, but their baptismal names are Ezekiel, Caleb, and Mr. Paws.

Remember, a cat may have nine lives, but it only has one eternal soul. We all must one day appear before the Holy Seat Of Judgment, and although my Oliver and Lady Twinkles passed on long ago from this vale of tears, I take solace in the knowledge that, when the time comes for me to receive the ecstasies of Heaven, all of my housecats will be waiting to spend eternity on my lap.

And don't get your cats vaccinated, either. The Lord will provide protection from feline leukemia.


You know what makes it for me? If this were about people, and not cats, most of us would regard it as perfectly normal.

As always, I will be more than happy to remove this whenever the Onion so requests. In the meantime, everyone, please send a basket of money straight to their offices.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

How about we trade?

With her marriage drawing closer, I know that the TDEC is busily working on the paperwork needed to allow her to immigrate to the United States.

At the same time, and you don't know how this pains me, I'm starting to wonder about the paperwork necessary for me to emigrate to... well... shit, how about Belgium?

Why am I contemplating such a move? Hey, you tell me. You will recall when I recently commented on efforts in South Dakota to ban abortions even in cases of rape or incest. Well, it turns out I was a little too "harsh" on them Dakotans. It now appears, based on the fine reporting of the folks at PBS, that there is a potential exception:

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Napoli [William Napoli, S.D. State Senator] says most abortions are performed for what he calls "convenience." He insists that exceptions can be made for rape or incest under the provision that protects the mother's life. I asked him for a scenario in which an exception may be invoked.

BILL NAPOLI: A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life.


Much like Digby, I wonder about this absolute clusterfuck of a legal standard. Does the victim have to be sodomized "as bad as you can possibly make it," or will just "really, really fucking bad," suffice? This, of course, raises the subsidiary question: how bad is sodomy when it is as bad as you can possibly make it? Have there been studies, or something? But we can save that for another time. Next, must she be a virgin? Does "virgin" mean abstaining from all sexual activity, like "heavy petting" and oral sex, or must she only avoid vaginal penetration? Now, what if being forced to carry the child isn't enough to threaten her life, but just exacerbate a case of PTSD, which will prevent her from being able to function normally? Is that good enough?

Never mind that, as the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) clearly shows, most rapes are not savage, brutal affairs committed by men jumping out of the bushes. No, most women are instead raped by a friend or acquaintence. Moreover, 87% of rapes in 2004 did not involve a weapon of any sort, so many rapes are not what you might call "violent," although they are certainly coercive. This is not, of course, to say that there aren't many rapes with and without weapons that are violent, but you see my point. Then, when you get into the fact that only 35.8% of rapes were reported to the police in 2004 (and I'm guessing a police report is necessary for Napoli's "exception") it becomes apparent just how heinous a lie William Napoli is telling. The average female rape victim was attacked by a friend or previous associate who did not use a weapon, and then the crime was subsequently not reported to the police. I'm guessing this person is about as far from what Napoli would consider a legitimate case for an exception as it's possible to get. Describing his conditions as an "exception" for the case of rape is like outlawing abortion with an "exception" for women who both have a birthmark in the shape of Lyle Lovett and were impregnated during a full moon.*

And finally, what about the religious part? Must a woman be religious to get an exception? If so, must she be Christian?

That last part seems particularly likely in light of this interesting tidbit: (Free registration may be required)

State bill proposes Christianity be Missouri’s official religion

Missouri legislators in Jefferson City considered a bill that would name Christianity the state's official "majority" religion.

House Concurrent Resolution 13 is pending in the state legislature.

Many Missouri residents had not heard about the bill until Thursday.

Karen Aroesty of the Anti-defamation league, along with other watch-groups, began a letter writing and email campaign to stop the resolution.

The resolution would recognize "a Christian god," and it would not protect minority religions, but "protect the majority's right to express their religious beliefs."

The resolution also recognizes that, "a greater power exists," and only Christianity receives what the resolution calls, "justified recognition."

State representative David Sater of Cassville in southwestern Missouri, sponsored the resolution, but he has refused to talk about it on camera or over the phone.


It wasn't enough when we started spending tax money on faith-based initiatives, not to mention the plan to reimburse religious organizations for assisting with the Katrina disaster,** now we're apparently just giving the hell up on the separation of church and state entirely. Sure, go ahead, declare Jesus the official god of the United States while you're at it! As long as we're going batshit insane, why not go whole-hog with it? How about a bill requiring that menstruating women sleep in a separate room from their husbands? That sounds like something the bible would support! Hell, for that matter, it might even help the U.S. get along with nations adhering to other religious traditions. I know! As long as women are menstruating, we can make them wear a special garment. I'm sure there's precedent for that somewhere, too!

So, here's my plan: I'll let the TDEC take my place in the United States and I'll move to Belgium. How about that, INS, do we have a deal? Hell, I'll do you one better: I'll send my Sainted Girlfriend in my place. I know this shit bugs her as much as it does me but I like to fight over it lots more.

And damn if this isn't worth fighting over.

* Okay, some of you are probably wondering if this is an exaggeration. Well, probably, yes. On the other hand, much as I love math, I don't know how to do a decent job actually calculating the real likelihood of this exception. The reason for this is a lack of data, and a lack of independence. So, for example,I don't have reliable information on how many women actually DO save their virginity until marriage (for obvious reasons I think self-report may be a bit iffy) and I don't think the probability of doing such a thing is independent of the probability of being "religious." So, as a consequence, getting a more accurate figure that isn't sheer speculation is, at present, beyond me. If we do it roughly, and assume that all the probabilities are independent (which they're not) then we need to know the probability of being "religious," a "virgin," being raped savagely (which I'll operationalize as including a weapon, and being perpetrated by a stranger), being "sodomized as bad as you can make it," being impregnated, reporting the crime to the police, and being so "messed up, physically and psychologically" by the experience that carrying the child would threaten the woman's life. With me?

Great. So, here goes. Let's set the probability of being "religious" at about 50%. The GSS, as well as more recent opinion polls, put the number of people identifying as fundamentalist or born-again at around 30%, and we'll roll another 20% in to catch any strays. Then, for virginity, let's just assume that 50% of females intend to remain virgins until marriage. I think this figure is absurdly high, but I'm not going to spend the time finding a better one, and frankly, this gives more credit to Napoli's exception. Next, the likelihood of being raped savagely. Since only 8% of all rapes (according to the NCVS) included a weapon, and 31% were committed by a stranger, we have figures all set there. Next, what about sodomy? This is tough, since some states consider oral AND anal sex sodomy while others only consider anal sex sodomy. I'm guessing Napoli was employing the common usage, meaning anal sex. Sources disagree but as the prevalence of anal sex among heterosexuals is somewhere between 20% and 50%, I feel comfortable setting the sodomy probability at 35%. Then, we'll assume "charitably" that of the rapes that involve sodomy, 50% will be "as bad as you can make it." In terms of impregnation, we'll go with a 50% probability, which again is absurdly high, but whatever. It's not like I'm expecting this to be even ballpark accurate. The NCVS gives us a reporting probability of around 35.8%. Finally, there's the issue of how messed up the victim is. Since PTSD may be observed following rape as often as 80% of the time, but not everyone with PTSD is a serious danger to themselves, I'll set the probability at 40%. Everyone with me?

Okay, so the final calculation, converting from percentages to probabilities, is: Pr(Exception)= .50*.50*.08*.31*.35*.50*.50*.358*.40= 0.000078. In other words, there's a 0.0078% chance that a case will meet Napoli's criteria. That's a helluva rape exception there, genius.

So long as we're engaging in bullshit calculations, let's get even more ridiculous. The NCVS suggests that around 1/3 of American women may be subject to an attempted sexual assault at some point in their lives. Now if we take the estimated population of South Dakota based on the 2000 census, we get a figure of 775,933 people. Of those, 50.4% should be female giving us around 391,070. Of those 1/3, or 130,356, should be subject to a rape event at some point in their lives. So, if we apply our calculated probability for Napoli's exception (0.000078) to the "vulnerable population" (I'm doing it this way because our calculated probability assumes that rape has taken place- in other words, it doesn't reflect a woman's overall risk of being eligible for Napoli's exception without our first knowing that she has been raped) of 130,356 we get a figure of 10.17, which we'll bump up to 11 just for the hell of it. So, out of 130,356 women, roughly 11 would qualify.

Anyone think the Lyle Lovett birthmark comparison is unfair now?

I didn't think so.

Of course, again, these calculations are radically, absurdly rough and treat everything as independent, so they are effectively worthless. Don't trust them. Supply me with the data necessary for me to do better estimates, though, and not only will I do so, I'll give you a gift certificate good for a post by me on a subject of your own choosing. Have fun.

** My issue here is with reimbursing organizations that are tax-exempt. If they're exempt because they provide useful services- like in a disaster- then reimbursing them is essentially double-dipping.

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