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.

Monday, April 30, 2007

The power of modern medicine...

Some of you may remember that a while back I had a surgical procedure to correct a potentially deadly defect in my circulatory system. I was pretty freaked about the whole thing at the time but, since then, have been doing much better. The chest pain that originally led to my diagnosis went away and took my shortness of breath with it. Since then I have been feeling pretty decent and, if anything, raring to go.

Despite the elimination of symptoms, however, I have been in follow-up care since the procedure. This has consisted mostly of CT scans every couple of months and a general order not to exert myself. I guess I can only be grateful that my job does not involve a great deal of physical exercise. My most recent set of scans were this month and, for shits and giggles, I'm going to share two of them with you.

This is the inside of my chest cavity:



Those of you with advanced degrees in radiology or diagnostic medicine can probably already see the problem. However, since I doubt that anyone with those kinds of credentials reads this festering shithole of a blog, I suspect you're thinking the same thing that I was when I saw this image. Specifically, you're wondeirng why I have some sort of echinoderm in my chest. Well, rest assured, I am not playing host to something that ought to be on the menu at Red Lobster. If you want to see the problem that just might kill me, check out this second image:



Scary.

I bring this all up because* it appears that I am not quite done yet with my adventures in modern medicine. The defect has been partly corrected but, after several months of waiting and watching, it does not appear to be inclined to completely resolve itself. So, sometime in the next month or two, it looks like they'll be going back in a second time. I'm assured that it will be safer this time as the original repair work gives them an added margin of error but, really, who here is comfortable when someone else is punching holes in their body with sharp instruments? Right. That's what I thought.

So, stay tuned Drek-fans. Posting may get kinda irregular again for a while, but in the meantime it should be pretty interesting.



* I mean, aside from the obvious chance to make a shitty sight-gag.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

A mixed bag

There are some very worthy causes in this world and some very unworthy causes. Likewise, there are some very good presentations of a cause and some very bad presentations of a cause. Using the sociologist's best friend, the 2x2 table, we might represent this reality as follows:



A good cause that was represented well might be the Civil Rights movement, whose use of non-violent resistance was extremely effective. A bad cause presented well would be intelligent design- a "theory" that is utterly scientifically vacuous and, yet, is supported by talking points so good that at first nobody really wants to argue with them. A bad cause represented badly would probably be Reverend Fred Phelps' protests against U.S. policy. These protests, of course, include picketers with signs like "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for IEDs." These last, praising Iraqi improvised explosive devices (IEDs), often appear at the funerals of U.S. soldiers. Finally, a bad representation of a good cause might be the movie "The Day After Tomorrow," which presents the global warming issue as imagined by a seven year-old boy.

Each of these combinations is interesting to me for the consequences it can have. Good representation often creates a debate, whether there is need for one or not. Likewise, poor representation can prevent discussion regardless of the merits of the cause in question. Worse still, sufficiently bad presentation can actually embitter potential supporters of a cause- making them feel ridiculous, deceived, or even manipulated. I've been thinking about this possibility lately- that a good cause can be represented badly- thanks to a website I've come across. The site is Thor's Warriors, and its goal is to obtain the prosecution of an individual who is, allegedly, guilty of animal abuse. By animal abuse, what I mean is that he was slowly starving a group of labradors in his possession such that at least one of them ended up like this:





A description of the condition of the seven animals recovered from the alleged abuser further illustrates the situation (taken from a veterinary report available here):

The dogs were covered in dirt and feces, their hair coats were matted and their hair was dull and brittle. Their ribs, spinal vertibrae, and pelvic bones were all evident without placing a hand on the dogs and there was minimal muscle mass or fat covering the bones. No obvious physical abnormalities were found that could explain their severe state of emaciation . . .

. . . on several occasions one of the other five dogs would randomly urinate or defacate in the room. Whenever that would happen, it was witnessed that all the other dogs would lunge in that direction and eagerly drink or ravenously eat the excrement, indicating that they were extremely hungry.

Their poor Body Conditon Scores were definitely not a result of an acute episode of starvation but rather a chronic process.

. . . these six rescued dogs [the seventh was being cared for elsewhere] had very likely been in a condition of starvation for greater than three weeks in order to lose such a large percentage of their body weight . . .

. . . it is our professional opinion that these six dogs were living in a chronic condition of neglect and starvation prior to their rescue.


So, basically, we have seven dogs that were being starved to death and were receiving little or no medical attention. Seems like a fairly clear case of animal abuse. Yet, believe it or not, the individual responsible is only being charged with a single case of neglect and has been granted a renewal of his kennel license.

The operator of the website, a Mr. Chris Wright, who is a writer of horror fiction for adults and children, is attempting to apply pressure to government officials to deal with this situation. His website is a part of this effort as he hopes to drum up enough public outrage to compel action. In this effort I wish him the best of luck. I am revolted by what was done to these animals and think that the party or parties responsible should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. It also sounds like Mr. Wright has been integral to the rescue of the dogs and that he should be commended for that.

I just wish the website didn't look like... well... something put together by a guy who writes horror fiction for children. Take a look and see what I mean, I'll wait.

Finished? Cool.

Between the random changes in text color, the odd graphics, and the "chapter titles" like "Rattling Cages & Furious Rages" or "With Labradors & Justice For All" it's a little hard to take the website completely seriously. To be a little more frank, it reminds me of nothing so much as a cross between the ASPCA and Greg Buell. It's so over-the-top that I actually found myself thinking, "Is this guy a crank? Is this entire website some kind of elaborate hoax?" Mr. Wright does point out that his site is factual but, really, most hoaxes don't state right up front that they're hoaxes, so that didn't reassure me. I'm fairly convinced by this point that at least the basic facts of the site are correct- due in part to finding a clip from a local t.v. station discussing the matter- but I can't speak to the alleged failings of justice in the area. At the moment I'm inclined to take Mr. Wright at his word.

This is, however, another example of that bottom left-hand cell in my 2x2 table- a worthy cause that is presented badly enough that some who might have been supporters are deterred. I think that's a shame. This is a decent cause and I would like to see Mr. Wright obtain justice for these animals.

Head on over and read the narrative. Maybe you'll agree.


As a side note: Woot! Today is the 900th post on Total Drek.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Endless Debate...

Folks who pay attention to such things are probably aware that staunch atheist Richard Dawkins, about whom I've written before, appeared on Bill O'Reilly's program this past Monday. How did he do? Well, you can see for yourself or read a transcript prepared elsewhere:



Personally I don't think he did that well but, really, he didn't do that badly either. Generally O'Reilly responds to dissent with yelling and sarcasm so I'm impressed at how much Dawkins managed to say. At the same time, Dawkins really failed to take advantage of some of Bill's talking points. That initial assertion that it takes more faith to be an atheist than a theist? I've heard that one before but, really, it never makes any sense to me. Why should it take more faith to believe in things that we can perceive, and in processes that we can measure and validate, than in an entity that defies our common experience on virtually all levels? An all-powerful, invisible, infinitely intelligent presence that exists without any physical constraints whatsoever? That's the easier position to accept? If so, I fail to see how a theist can exclude relatively mundane things like UFOs, Bigfoot, Leprecauns or the Tooth Fairy. Once you argue that the standards of evidence* are such that I have to prove why something that utterly defies what we know about the world doesn't exist, disbelief in anything becomes virtually impossible.

I will, however, compliment Dawkins on his brief rebuttal to O'Reilly about Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao, and Stalin. We're often told about how they were the worst mass murderers in history and they were all atheists. Hitler, as it happens, was not an atheist and even persecuted atheists.** Stalin was, but his crimes against religion were probably motivated more by a fear of a rival powerbase than anything else. Frankly, Stalin wasn't very nice to much of anyone. Mao? Largely the same story with the exception that he set himself up as a sort of pseudo-deity. In any case, Dawkins' point that Stalin and Hitler had mustaches but we don't think mustaches caused genocide is a useful one. Correlation, as it were, does not equal causation.

So, not such a bad performance, but nothing too exciting either.

And, as always, the battle continues.



* I'm probably on about the whole "standards of evidence" thing because the atheism page on Conservapedia has recently been "adjusted" to make it less friendly to atheists. As a result, there's now this fantastically bizarre set of assertions: "There are active and passive senses in which the term "atheism" can be used - because of the nature of the term the active sense is the original and by far the most common. However, in debate the sense in which atheism is defined may shift from "the active denial of the existence of God", to merely "the passive lack of belief in the existence of God". This can be seen as an attempt to shift the burden of proof from the atheist to disprove the existence of God, on to the theist to prove the existence of God. Recently a number of atheists have attempted to redefine the meaning of atheism as a lack of belief in the existence of God because they wish to shift the burden of proof in regards to the question of the existence of God." It's like they're writing from the Bill O'Reilly playbook.

** e.g. On taking power, Hitler banned freethought organizations and launched an “anti-godless” movement. In a 1933 speech he declared: “We have . . . undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.”

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Fun with Math

As if responding to my recent post about my old pen-pal Suzee is this news from the University of Geneva:

Scientists have discovered a new planet in the constellation Libra. The small, rocky planet is special because it appears to have mild temperatures, like Earth. Researchers believe it looks like the first planet outside of our solar system that could be home to liquid water, and maybe even life.

...

His team has found three planets around this star, and one of them is particularly interesting. They think the planet is a little bigger than Earth, with about five times the Earth's mass. It orbits very close to its star, going all the way around in just 13 days. The planet isn't super hot though, because Gliese 581 is a red dwarf, which is much dimmer and cooler than our sun.

Scientists calculate that average temperatures on the surface of the planet should be around 32 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Mayor says that is a friendly environment for liquid water and maybe even life.


If confirmed by other astronomers, this is very exciting news. As the article mentions, our ability to identify extrasolar planets is very limited- mostly because they are very far away and, by comparison to their parent stars, very dim. So, the discovery of this relatively Earth-like world heralds a new era in our exploration of the universe. Perhaps over the next several years we may start to develop the tools to really determine how common worlds like our Earth are.

Of course this news may cause problems for the religious right, who hate and fear the possibility that we may not be the metaphysical center of the universe. Particularly the crazies over on Conservapedia will likely be displeased by this, given their fascinating article on Exotheology. I've previously mentioned their article on extraterrestrial life and how its use of the hydroplate theory* to explain potential life on Mars is a little... unreasonable. Even if this innovative theory were to hold, however, the discovery of life on a world circling another star would make things even worse for our crusading creationists. So, out of the goodness of my heart, let me see if I can help them out.

On Conservapedia, they claim that if the hydroplate theory is correct, Mars could have been contaminated by terrestrial microbes embedded in a "muddy slurry" originating on the Earth. Ho-kay. Well, maybe the same logic would work for the world circling Gliese 581, which is 20.40 lightyears away from Earth. Now, if microbes were expelled from the Earth in this "muddy slurry" then it is possible that they could have been expelled through space all the way to Gliese 581, right? Well sure! Fairly reliable calculations suggest that the water ejected by the hydroplate theory would be travelling at about 469 kilometers per second.** By contrast, the speed of light is 299,792.458 kilometers per second. So, the water is being expelled at approximately 0.0016 C or 0.16% the speed of light. Given that, in one year light will travel 9,460,730,472,580.80 kilometers (a lightyear) while the water will travel 14,800,514,400 kilometers. This means that for the water to travel one lightyear it would need 639.22 years. Since Gliese 581 is 20.40 lightyears away, the total required travel time is 13,040.09 years. That's not so bad in astronomical terms so I suppose it's possible that any life around Gliese 581 could have originated on Earth.

Unless, of course, you believe in the hydroplate theory and, therefore, in an Earth that's less than 10,000 years old.

Oops.


* Keeping in mind that, in this context, I'm using "theory" interchangeably with "lunatic rantings."

** These velocity calculations come from an individual who is trying to debunk the hydroplate theory but, really, figures from hydroplate supporters would indicate a lower velocity. In this case, a lower velocity isn't helpful, as you will soon see.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Now that's... tasteful.

Continuing our recent discussion of conservative cartoons, I thought I might mention a couple more. We've all been following the news about the Virgina Tech shootings, and there have been a lot of responses to it, including our own here at Totak Drek. As responses have been flooding in, however, I've been waiting to see what the conservative sources I follow would do. For the most part they've been relatively tactful, although the moonbats have been, as always, utterly bewildering.* The response from a conservative webcomic I read, however, has been something else entirely. Two, in particular, are notable.

The first was one I was expecting once some of the crazier "solutions" to the Virginia Tech tragedy started coming in:



Ha! Of course, hilarious! Yes, environmentalism is stoopid! Sure, if we don't arrest global warming we could end up converting our planet into Venus,** but that's no reason to get nervous or anything. It's not like destroying the habitability of our only planet is on a par with, say, flag burning or anything. Don't even get me started on the whole "who would trust professors with guns" thing. Leaving aside the ability to responsibly handle them, let me ask you this: who is the better pick to control dangerous implements? Someone who is willing and eager to use them at the slightest provocation? Or someone who would prefer to avoid their use until there was no other choice? Obviously the first group- which is why we're so eager to arm Iran and North Korea with atomic weapons. I mean, hell, no brainer, right?

The second comic, however, blows the first contender out of the water:



Yes, of course, comic genius! Michael Moore is like an angel from It's a Wonderful Life except that instead of getting his wings when a bell rings, Moore gets a hard-on when there's needless death. Sure, Moore earned quite a bit of notoriety with Bowling for Columbine and, sure, he's been accused of some shady editing practices. I'll even concede that the guy is a raging asshole and that I laughed like hell at the depiction of him in Team America: World Police.*** Implying that he personally enjoys the needless slaughter of innocent students, however, is probably going a little far. Would the artist approve, I wonder, if I suggested that Cheney masturbates to reports of suicide bombings from Iraq? I suspect not.

I know it's hard but, just maybe, can we all at least pretend to have some class?****




* For example, "The massacre was evidently motivated by the killer's intensely anti-Christian views." Might just be me, but I don't think he was out gunning for Christians as it were.

** i.e. hot enough to melt led, under enough pressure to crush a submarine, and raining acid from the sky. Sounds great, no?

*** "America- FUCK YEAH!"

**** You know it's bad when I'm telling somebody that they have no class. Seriously.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

There's a pot and a kettle and something is black...

Way back in the day I participated in a pen-pal program for teens. I don't really know why I participated, seeing as how I don't actually like people very much, but I did. I suppose I just thought that I should really try out the whole "pen-pal" thing at least once in my life. So, I submitted my information to the program* and eagerly awaited the first letter.

My assigned pen-pal, whom I shall call Suzee, was from Oregon and was slightly younger than myself. She liked the outdoors and, while not the best conversationalist, was at least somewhat interesting to correspond with. Our relationship took a turn for the worse, however, after I wrote excitedly about the news** that fossilized microbes had been found in a martian meteorite. I remarked that if the findings were supported it would provide a stronger case for the existence of complex life elsewhere in the universe. My pen-pal's response to this excited speculation was, unfortunately, thinly veiled hostility. When I inquired about her reasons for being so angry, she wrote back that (roughly paraphrasing), "Our Lord Jesus Christ created Earth and the heavens much more recently than scientists claimed, that life couldn't exist anywhere else, and that anyone who said otherwise was a lying sinner and a tool of the devil." It goes virtually without saying that our time as pen-pals had come to an end.***

Suzee and her immense knowledge of astronomy sprang to mind recently when I ran across this comic from the conservative webcomic site, Day by Day:



I hardly need to explain this comic but, roughly, it implies that Muslims**** see the world through a religious lens but that we in the west***** see it in scientific terms.

Really?

Really?!

This claim strikes me as odd, given my experiences of Western society. We have, of course, intelligent design, a blatant effort to insert religious doctrine into our science classes. We have creation science, an effort to label creationism as science but which is at least more honest about it than intelligent design. We have cranks who construct elaborate planetary models so as to support the rather loony accounts found in the bible. We have versions of cosmology that attempt to twist relativity to support the idea that the earth really is at the center of the universe.

Then, of course, we get back to that little issue of Martian microbes. You see, over on Conservapedia they have a little page about extraterrestrial life and on this page they refer to that same martian meteorite that Suzee and I discussed all those years ago. Their commentary on it, however, is pretty amazing:

If one could show that abiogenesis occurred on Mars, then that process was far more likely to have occurred on earth than it would be absent such a showing or finding. Yet apart from the reliability of such evidence is this one inherent weakness for this argument: it assumes that life found on Mars originated on Mars. The Hydroplate theory of the Great Flood suggests that large quantities of water, including muddy slurries, were ejected into space during the initial fissure of the original earth's crust, and that these ejecta persist today as comets, asteroids, and meteoroids. If such ejected water and mud fell to Mars from above, then they might have held microbes--and therefore any microbes found on Mars are far more likely to have come from earth during the Noachic Flood than to have originated on Mars. [emphasis added]


For those who aren't familiar, the hydroplate theory is a the idea that in antiquity (about 6,000 to 8,000 years ago) the earth's crust rested on a half-mile thick layer of pressurized water. The biblical flood occurred when god cracked the crust open and allowed this water to rush forth onto the surface of the earth, in the process cracking the supercontinent pangea and moving the continents to their current positions. In about a year. No, I'm not kidding, and if you think I am you should check out the nifty computer animation at the bottom of this page. Needless to say there are some major problems with this theory- many of which have been identified by other creationists- including my favorite: "the water would emerge as superheated steam as a result of the intense pressure and not so much flood the earth and bake it." I guess all you can say is that there are some minor glitches with the hydroplate theory but, hey, there it is on Conservapedia helping American fundamentalists look at the stars and avoid any sense of wonder over the possibility that life might exist elsewhere in the universe.

All I'm saying is, whatever differences may exist between the Arab world and the Western world, I'm pretty sure that an obsession with religious fairytales isn't among them.

We both have plenty of that to go around.


* Administered by the "Dr. Wallace: Talking with Teens" column syndicated in many newspapers. That I used Wallace's service is, itself, funny since he always stands out in my mind as the guy who fielded the question, "My teacher says stars are other suns but, if that's true, why do they look so small?" He also once told an atheist who had received a tape of Gospel music to "listen to it because you might find you like it." Ho-kay.

** News then, anyway.

*** Just to be clear, I did try to continue writing but she never responded.

**** Let's all keep in mind that Arabs were some pretty goddamned good astronomers back in the day. Seriously, does Mizar sound latin to you?

***** Dare I say "Christendom?"

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Friday, April 20, 2007

And we're back to the heavy stuff...

I was going to keep it light today but I ran across something that deserves to be repeated.

Dinesh D'Souza wrote the following about atheists in light of the Virginia Tech tragedy:*

Notice something interesting about the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings? Atheists are nowhere to be found. Every time there is a public gathering there is talk of God and divine mercy and spiritual healing. Even secular people like the poet Nikki Giovanni use language that is heavily drenched with religious symbolism and meaning.

The atheist writer Richard Dawkins has observed that according to the findings of modern science, the universe has all the properties of a system that is utterly devoid of meaning. The main characteristic of the universe is pitiless indifference. Dawkins further argues that we human beings are simply agglomerations of molecules, assembled into functional units over millennia of natural selection, and as for the soul--well, that's an illusion!

To no one's surprise, Dawkins has not been invited to speak to the grieving Virginia Tech community. What this tells me is that if it's difficult to know where God is when bad things happen, it is even more difficult for atheism to deal with the problem of evil. The reason is that in a purely materialist universe, immaterial things like good and evil and souls simply do not exist. For scientific atheists like Dawkins, Cho's shooting of all those people can be understood in this way--molecules acting upon molecules.

If this is the best that modern science has to offer us, I think we need something more than modern science.


In response is this essay from Daily Kos:

It is hardly surprising that Dinesh D’Souza is once again not only profoundly mistaken but also deeply offensive. But I thought it worthwhile to say something in response, not because most people would put the point in the same morally reptilian manner as D’Souza, but because there is at least some vague sense amongst people that we atheists don’t quite grasp the enormity of Monday’s events, that we tend towards a cold-hearted manner of thinking, that we condescend to expressions of community, meaning, or bereavement.

So I will tell you, Mr D’Souza, what I grasp and where I am to be found.

I understand why my wife was frantic on Monday morning, trying to contact me through jammed phone lines. I can still feel the tenor of her voice resonating in my veins when she got through to me, how she shook with relief and tears. I remember how my mother looked the last time she thought she might have lost a son, so I have a vivid image of her and a thousand other mothers that hasn’t quite left my mind yet.

I am to be found in Lane Stadium, looking out over a sea of maroon and orange, trying not to break down when someone mentions the inviolability of the classroom and the bond between a teacher and his students. That is my classroom, Mr D’Souza, my students, my chosen responsibility in this godless life, my small office in the care of humanity and its youth.

I know that brutal death can come unannounced into any life, but that we should aspire to look at our approaching death with equanimity, with a sense that it completes a well-walked trail, that it is a privilege to have our stories run through to their proper end. I don’t need to live forever to live once and to live completely. It is precisely because I don’t believe there is an afterlife that I am so horrified by the stabbing and slashing and tattering of so many lives around me this week, the despoliation and ruination of the only thing each of us will ever have.

We atheists do not believe in gods, or angels, or demons, or souls that endure, or a meeting place after all is said and done where more can be said and done and the point of it all revealed. We don’t believe in the possibility of redemption after our lives, but the necessity of compassion in our lives. We believe in people, in their joys and pains, in their good ideas and their wit and wisdom. We believe in human rights and dignity, and we know what it is for those to be trampled on by brutes and vandals. We may believe that the universe is pitilessly indifferent but we know that friends and strangers alike most certainly are not. We despise atrocity, not because a god tells us that it is wrong, but because if not massacre then nothing could be wrong.

I am to be found on the drillfield with a candle in my hand. “Amazing Grace” is a beautiful song, and I can sing it for its beauty and its peacefulness. I don’t believe in any god, but I do believe in those people who have struggled through pain and found beauty and peace in their religion. I am not at odds with them any more than I am at odds with Americans when we sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” just because I am not American. I can sing “Lean on Me” and chant for the Hokies in just the same way and for just the same reason.

I know that the theory of natural selection is the best explanation for the emergence and development of human beings and other species. I know that our bodies are composed of flesh, bone, and blood, and cells, and molecules. I also know that this does not account for all aspects of our lives, but I know no-one who ever thought it did. That is why we have science, and novels, and friendships, and poetry, and practical jokes, and photography, and a sense of awe at the immensity of time and the planet’s natural history, and walks with loved ones along the Huckleberry Trail, and atheist friends who keep kosher because, well just because, and passionate reverence for both those heroes who believed and those who did not, and have all this without needing a god to stitch together the tapestry of life.

I believe this young man was both sick and vicious, that his actions were both heinous and the result of a phenomenon that we must try to understand precisely so that we can prevent it in future. I have no sympathy for him. Given what he has done, I am not particularly sorry he has spared the world his continued existence; there was no possibility of redemption for him. You think we atheists have difficulty with the concept of evil. Quite the contrary. We can accept a description of this man as evil. We just don’t think that is an explanation. That is why we are exasperated at your mindless demonology.

I feel humbled by the sense of composure of a family who lost someone on Monday. I will not insult that dignity by pretending there is sense to be made of this senselessness, or that there is some greater consolation to be found in the loss of a husband and son.

I know my students are now more than students.

You can find us next week in the bloodied classrooms of a violated campus, trying to piece our thoughts and lives and studies back together.

With or without a belief in a god, with or without your asinine bigotry, we will make progress, we will breathe life back into our university, I will succeed in explaining this or that point, slowly, eventually, in a ham-handed way, at risk of tears half-way through, my students will come to feel comfortable again in a classroom with no windows or escape route, and hell yes we will prevail.

You see Mr D’Souza, I am an atheist professor at Virginia Tech and a man of great faith. Not faith in your god. Faith in my people.


Magnificent. In response to a further demand from D'Souza to hear what an atheist might say to grieving mothers we have this:

We think the pain is complete and absolute. We know it is.

We think that nothing can heal these hearts, that time can only take the sharpness off the agony, that only in time can beauty be wholeheartedly seen again or laughter felt deep inside.

We insist there is no sense or meaning to be made of this massacre. There was only sense and meaning to be created within the lives of each person gunned down. That is why we are horrified by it. That is precisely why it is so horrific.

We don't believe these people have died for anything: God's plan, as a beacon to the rest of us, to be a vivid memento mori for all. We just believe they have died, brutally and without mercy. We refuse to lie to grieving mothers out of some patronising sense that a pleasant myth is more respectful than a terrible truth.

Those of us with the slightest shred of deceny do not tell widows to deal with it, to get over it. That the world can be callous is no reason to be so myself. I know that no family could ever get over this loss, that no family should ever be expected to get over this loss -- either by themselves, by religious rhetoricians bearing false platitudes, or by inane political pundits -- but that not getting over the loss does not preclude some other kind of happiness, some other source of joy, at some other time. Not now, not in this moment, not when they have moved on, but only when it comes to them one day, like light dawning slowly.

We know the world is cold, and that only people can make it warmer. We believe we can live in this imperfection, like a child can live without fulfilling her desperate wish for wings. We rail against injustice and tragedy, not the absence of deeper guarantees.

Some of us are those grieving mothers and wives and friends and colleagues. Some of us are inconsolable, but dignified for all that.


We atheists stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our theistic fellows in mourning this tragedy. It's a shame Mr. D'Souza is incapable of joining us.


* Giving me, incidentally, a sense of deja vu.

As a side note: I picked this up mostly from Richard Dawkins' website but I first saw mention of it over at Plain(s)feminist's place.

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Blowing off some steam

This has been a very unpleasant week here on the blog. We began this week with a rather depressing chat about the political situation in Iraq. Then we discussed religious hypocrisy, the Virginia Tech shootings, and finally the reaction to the Virginia Tech shootings. If that wasn't enough for all of you, I could have spent today discussing the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on abortion. I'm not going to do that, though, for several reasons including: others have already done it better, I've frankly been expecting this, and if we have any more depressing discussion this week I think I may cry.

So, instead, I'm going to tell you a story so we can all blow off a little steam. This story is about, of all things, my recent visit to the hairdresser.* On this recent visit I found myself alone with a new stylist and we began talking. I like talking to random people- it's almost always interesting and it gives me a chance to see the perspectives of folks who are not, themselves, cloistered academics. As she began cutting my hair the conversation turned to politics and I realized that the woman I had previously believed to be a normal stylist was, in fact, a lunatic. My first warning that this was the case came early in the conversation:

Woman: I just... I don't know what the President is doing.

Drek: What do you think about Bush?

Woman: Well, I'm not supposed to talk about politics, but since you asked...

Drek: laughs

Woman: I think he came in with good intentions, but he's just fucked us all up. He's just done some terrible things to this country.

Drek: Yeah, definitely. He probably did have good intentions, but good intentions and two-fifty will buy you a coffee at Starbucks.

Woman: Yeah, exactly. And you know what else? I just hate Hillary.

Drek: Really? Why is that?

Woman: After what her husband did? After he... ran around with that woman... and she stayed married to him. Now how she's governor of that state-

Drek: She's a senator from New York.

Woman: Right. She's running that state. I just hate her.

Drek: Well, some people feel that way.

Woman: I just don't think a woman should be president.

Drek: ...

Woman: Men are logical thinkers but women are... whaddya call it? Emotional. We're just too emotional. We think with our hearts and our hormones. Not like men.

Drek: Well I...

Woman: Oh, but I love Obama!

Sadly, it only got worse from here. We went on a long, meandering trip through illogic and insanity. Incredibly, this journey proceeded without any input from me and, frankly, I felt compelled to limit my contradictory remarks since she was hovering about my neck with a pair of scissors and it was quite clear that she didn't trust anybody. The point in the conversation at which my head truly detonated, however, came during a paranoid rant about how her coworkers were out to get her fired:

Woman: So she's 45 and he's 49.

Drek: Uh-huh.

Woman: And she's a sagittarius and he's a capricorn. I know about that stuff because I love science.

Drek: Emits a high pitched scream of agony audible only to dogs.

Indeed, I can only imagine that she's spent a lot of time over at the astrology department.

This maybe doesn't make up for all the horror of this past week, it may not even make a dent, but it does make me smile a little and right now, that's enough.

See you next week.


* I should point out that I use the least expensive hair cutting establishment I know that doesn't require I go way out of my way. As a consequence, if my hair is more or less cut evenly I'm usually pretty happy.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Portrait of the Slag as an Angry Man

UPDATE: Yay, the newspaper posted it! My comment is from "Joe S," the 8th up from the bottom of the page. The title is "Don't use bad logic to twist this tragedy for political gain." [It's Joe S. because my first name is Joe... or maybe it's not... muhaha]

Have you ever read something in comments on a news article that made you really, really angry? Oh, of course you have. Part of living in a country with free speech is that people have a right say heartbreakingly evil things - and since free speech is a critical right in a democratic society, I will fight for their right to keep saying those things. Today, while obsessively reading Virgina Tech news, I came across such a comment. At the close of this article, our friendly neighborhood extremist leaves a comment blaming... not the murderer*... but liberals. Scroll to the bottom of the page.

We all know that the right-wing extremists will blame the liberals for a rainy day, but this is utterly ridiculous. According to this guy, the reason that mofo went on a shooting rampage is because liberals used multiculturalism to encourage his family not to become American citizens. Never mind all the American citizens who go on shooting rampages; it's still the liberals' fault.

So rather than doing what I usually do - moving on and seething in a pit of rage for the rest of the day - I registered and left a comment.** The comment will be posted as soon as it is approved.

I'm not sure if this made me feel any better about life, but at least now two people have taken a stand against extremist illogic instead of one. If you're looking for something to do instead of work, and I know you are, have a look. I'm curious to see how this plays out.

Meanwhile, I am going to look at pictures of moose until I calm down.

*I feel seriously uncomfortable writing the mofo's name, because I don't want his name to be remembered, thereby giving him the fame he always longed for, and thereby possibly encouraging other narcissistic violent types from thinking that this is a good way to get lasting fame.

**I'm not actually from Chesapeake, VA, but the site required a local city. Or maybe I am from Chesapeake, VA, and I'm just writing this postscript to fool you. Muhaha...

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Unprepared

As Slag mentioned yesterday, we here at Total Drek feel the deepest sympathy for the faculty and students of Virginia Tech as well as the families of everyone involved in Monday's violence. What has happened is shocking to a great many people, not because violence this bad or worse is uncommon, but because violence like this at a major U.S. university is so very unusual.* Perhaps beyond that simple reason is the senselessness of it. A single individual pursuing and gunning down so many of his fellow students and instructors** without a clear reason is horrifying and disturbing.***

In the coming weeks we will doubtless learn more about how exactly this all came to pass. We will learn about the perpetrator and his mental problems. We will hear about how he obtained firearms and, perhaps, why he chose to use them. We will also hear about how colleges are prepared to deal with this sort of violence. That, in particular, has already begun. The president of my own University, within a day of the Virginia Tech debacle, sent a mass e-mail detailing all the steps taken by the university in recent years to make sure something like that doesn't happen here. What concerns me is that, had this incident happened here I am quite sure the president of Virginia Tech would have sent the same e-mail.

Years ago when I was learning to be a teacher I asked a member of my faculty if there were some procedures or guidelines for dealing with a student who came to class armed and unbalanced. What I was given was a set of instructions from the university that began with "Evacuate the classroom in a calm and orderly fashion." To this I could only respond, "That's really the trick, isn't it?" I can figure out for myself that if someone comes to class armed and dangerous we should all probably try to get away, but it's the HOW of it that I need help with. I'm not saying I want the university to train me as a hostage negotiator, but some sort of advice would be helpful. Reading this recent e-mail from my university President, I experienced an echo of the same disbelief I felt all those years ago. The e-mail told me about all kinds of training seminars, workshops, and initiatives to deal with such problems... all of which I had never heard of. Considering that my department teaches an awful lot of students, if we've not received any of this training I find it doubtful that very many instructors have. I don't object to training SWAT teams and campus police to deal with this sort of thing but, really, by the time they get involved the carnage is already largely over.

I know that research is the primary goal of an awful lot of universities. I know that we're usually discouraged from devoting too much time to teaching. I get that. I don't always agree with it, but I get it, and most of the time I'm onboard. The problem is that when I stop and think about it, one thing keeps running through my mind: This didn't happen because we've been paying too much attention to the students.

We are now, and have been for quite some time, unprepared for this sort of thing. Speaking personally, I just wish we wouldn't pretend otherwise.


* One of my colleagues is very specific on this point, arguing that violence like this is constantly occurring around the world more or less unnoticed in the U.S. This is, of course, true but it doesn't in any way reduce the impact of this event for us. Rightly or wrongly we, like most other humans, feel tragedies that strike our own tribe members more strongly than those that effect others.

** Including a holocaust survivor, Liviu Librescu, who attempted to prevent the gunman from entering his classroom by blocking the door with his own body.

*** It's one of the interesting quirks of human nature that we react more strongly to "senseless" killing than other kinds. So, if you kill me because I got in your way during a robbery, we at least can understand that. It was instrumental killing. Killing someone just for the hell of it? That seems to elude most people's grasp and, thus, is more terrifying. Yet, at the end of the day, killing is still killing.

As a side note: Quite clearly I'm in a bad mood about all this.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Religion and sacrifice in a diverse society

Total Drek's thoughts go out to the victims of yesterday's tragedy at Virginia Tech. Like the rest of the nation, I am shocked and upset by what I hear reported. There is a lot that I could say about it as a blogger, but it would be better to wait until more clear, reliable news has been released, and until some more time has passed in general. So I will blog about something different today.

Religious people in Minneapolis have asked the city government to respect their right to make decisions about their workplace environment based on their religious beliefs. Sounds like something that conservatives would support, right? They have supported this "right" in the past.

Of course not. Because, as it turns out, these people are cab drivers and Muslims, and they right they are supporting is the right to refuse service to people carrying alcohol. You can read about it from the AP story. Islam forbids alcohol and other drugs*, and the Muslim cab drivers see it as an infringement of their "right of conscience," - if their religious forbids carrying alcohol, it is their religious right and duty to refuse to do so. This is exactly the same "right" that fundamentalist pharmacists ask to be preserved when they don't want to dispense birth control.

What is the reaction of the extreme right to the drivers' argument? Heartbreakingly predictable. Freedom of religion to them means nothing more than freedom of religion for them, and only them.

For the record, I think the arguments that both the Muslim cab drivers and the fundamentalist Christian pharmacists make are ridiculous, from personal, political, and religious perspectives. Personally, if you don't want to follow the instructions of your job, you have the right and the freedom to quit your job and find another one.

Politically, the First Amendment expressly forbids the establishment of a national religion - the most sacred text of our government says that government can't force the nation to respect one religion over another.

Religiously - and I think this is the most important argument I can make - the cab drivers and pharmacists want to have and eat cake. They want to be devout, but they want their devotion to be easy, government-protected, and consequence-free. They want to be free to practice their religion under a guarantee that they will not have to make any sacrifices. And religion takes sacrifice.

What's the point of writing about this? Sure, it's always fun to point out the hypocrisies of the far right, which are numerous and varied. But what will that accomplish, other than making us feel better? The important point I want to make here is that separation of church and state is not just a political issue, not just a moral issue, it's a religious issue. Living in a diverse society makes individual religious practice more important, not less. Separation of church and state benefits both church and state.

*As, of course, do many denominations of Christianity, including the Southern Baptists, but you don't hear them talking about refusing transport to alcohol.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Just for the record...

The news lately has featured a lot of discussion about Democratic plans to attach certain provisions to future Iraq war funding bills. The provisions in question would require the U.S. to withdraw troops by some date specified in the bill itself. This is pitched as a way of executing the will of the American people despite the executive branch's clear reluctance. In response to this, President Bush has been threatening to veto any such bills that include a withdrawl provision, claiming that it would undermine morale and endanger our troops in the field as well as our efforts in Iraq. His cohort, Vice-President Dick Cheney, seems similarly resolved and has publicly claimed that Democratic leaders are "irresponsible" for their actions and that they will eventually cave, sending a funding bill to the White House that lacks the withdrawl timetable provisions. For their part, the Democrats, so far, seem undeterred by the White House's bravado.

So, what we're really dealing with here is a game of chicken played between the two U.S. political parties with our troops in Iraq and the Iraqi people in the middle. On one side we have an administration that got the country into a disastrous war for no better reason than that they could. This is not to say that Saddam Hussein wasn't a bad guy- he was- but if that was sufficient reason to invade a country our troops would never know peace. Now that battle has been joined, however, the administration sees no option but to carry through what they so hastily and foolishly began. On the other side we have an opposition party flush with recent victory struggling to impose some sort of order on what they see as a chaotic and poorly planned war that is wasting American lives and treasure. The Democrats in Congress argue that the President and his personnel lied- and they seem to have a considerable amount of evidence on their side. The President argues in turn that he has only the best interests of the troops at heart- a claim I frankly doubt- and that withdrawing now will only endanger us all further.

Now, I suspect that this is going to be a focal issue for the next presidential election and there's going to be, and has been already, a lot of stereotyping about the Democratic position on this. So, as someone who is planning to vote Democrat, let me lay out how I feel about this mess. I am unhappy with the Democratic solution. I don't really like the whole "setting a timetable" thing because, frankly, I think some of the President's points are valid. While a timetable might motivate the Iraqi government, I think it's more likely that it will simply give the rival factions warring over that country a firm date to prepare for. In a way it'll be a little like setting the start date for a messy civil war. As such, I think this course of action is almost tantamount to abandoning the country to chaos and violence. This displeases me because, honestly, I believe that once you start a job you should finish it. Rightly or wrongly we started this job and it indeed feels like we're slinking away now that it's gotten difficult. That said, continuing to try in Iraq is not without cost. It is expensive monetarily, it is wasteful of lives, and it frankly ties us down in one region when there are other places we could be and other things we should be doing. Worse, if the Democratic plan looks flawed, the Republican plan is absurd. A "troop surge"? Really? That's the best you can come up with? We're already pretty sure that won't work and all it ends up doing is tossing more lives into the gaping maw that is Iraq. I may not like the Democrats' policy here but, seriously, I see no alternatives from the Republican party that won't just end up with the same end result and more casualties along the way.

Of course, the true irony of the situation is that almost whatever happens the Republicans will probably come out ahead in some sense. If they had somehow succeeded in Iraq it would have provided legitimacy for their bizarrely skewed view of the world. While I certainly would have been pleased to see the Iraq situation turn out well the political consequences of it would have been unfortunate- if only in terms of global warming policy. At the same time, with the Iraq policy failing, Bush now has a convenient way to heap responsibility on the Democrats. "If they had given the surge a chance," he will say, "Iraq would have become a stable democracy. The failure of the Iraq war is the fault of the Democratic party!" The Republicans, whether by design or convenient happenstance, have found themselves in the position of "heads I win, tails you lose." Sadly, the price for their political strength has been paid in blood by U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians.

And do you know what I think? Even if it harms Democratic electoral possibilities, even if it exposes them to the unfounded claim that they are "ambivalent" about terrorists, it is time to do something. Get our troops out of harm's way before we lose any more brave men and women to a war that shouldn't have begun in the first place, and can't possibly be won now. We've gone down the other road before and it's doesn't end anywhere we want to be. Even if we can see the Republican propaganda machine preparing to saddle the Democrats with responsibility for the failure of a Republican war, we should still play our part in this tragedy.

Because sometimes governing responsibly means doing the unpleasant thing and it's time that someone governed responsibly.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Some people really do lack a sense of irony. I think it's a hormonal condition or something.

Recently I've come across a trio of video clips that I think, collectively, make a point that none could quite drive home separately. Let's go through them one by one and see if we can't learn a little something along the way.

Quite a while back some of you may remember I wrote a post about some comments by Ms. Star Jones, a television personality who happens to be female and African-American. In my post I expressed a certain amount of surprise and consternation that, as a member of two groups who are traditionally discriminated against, she would be so unwilling to vote for an atheist presidential candidate purely because he or she was an atheist. Given that these statements emerged shortly after religious extremists committed the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil, I thought the irony surrounding her discriminatory attitudes bypassed amusing and went right into morbid.

In a development that leaves me reeling with deja vu, I recently encountered a clip of a sort of "panel" on CNN discussing the recent research by Penny Edgell et al. that finds that atheists are the least liked minority group in the United States. If you're unfamiliar with this work, or don't remember it well, I wrote a post on the subject. Go ahead and review it if you need to. Don't worry- I'll wait.

Ready? Okay, then take a look at this:



Honestly, I don't know what my favorite part of all this is. Is it the assertion that "Freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion?" Because, you know, that claim has already been refutted by none other than Thomas Jefferson. There's also the fantastic assertion that, "I have nothing against atheists, they can believe what they want to believe. But they can't infringe on my right to have prayer in schools." Um... well... lemme see here. If by that you mean, "An individual student's right to pray privately," then I think we're okay. I don't think most atheists would oppose that. If, on the other hand, you mean, "The right of the institution to compel all students to participate in some form of religious worship," then I think we've really crossed the line into that fun territory where your "rights" infringe on my own. I also find it more than a little amusing that all of the panelists agree that atheists can't possibly be the most disliked group... while standing around doing everything they can to distance themselves from them and heap scorn on the heads of those dratted unbelievers. Absolutely fantastic. It's just a little too reminiscent of, "I'm not a racist, why some of my best friends are black! If people want to be black, then they can be black. It's just that black people are lazy. Oh, I mean not you of course, you're different, I just mean the typical black person." Yeah. Sure. Right.

But of course, aside from the Edgell et al. piece, we have other reasons to think that atheists are pretty disliked:



I'm not saying this strapping young lad hasn't done anything to antagonize his mother and/or father, he is an adolescent after all, but do we really think that the best way to persuade your child of god's love is to scream in his face? For that matter, when I was in Sunday School* they took great pains to thwart the idea that, "We believe in Jesus because he brings us presents at Christmas." It's a little bit funny to me to see that logic, that we love Jesus because he gives us shit, used here. Don't even get me started on the parental shock when religious bribery fails.

Look, I'm not saying that atheists have it worse that homosexuals or something. We, at least, have a much easier time of going into and remaining in the closet. Still, I think we have to acknowledge that if becoming an atheist can inspire a mother to yell like that at her own child... maybe atheists really aren't all that well liked.**

I would probably feel more depressed by all this but, thankfully, I ran across this lovely clip where a world with an all-powerful, all-knowing god is compared to North Korea. Only, of course, there's at least a way to escape from North Korea. He also spends some time discussing Jefferson's nature as a deist- a point about which conservapedia appears confused.

So what do we have? A group of panelists arguing that atheists aren't disliked while all clearly disliking them and a mother trivializing her own faith*** by indulging in pointless rage to teach about the "Prince of Peace."

Seriously, folks, if I get exposed to any more irony my head is going to explode.


* If you need to take a minute after reading that to stop laughing, I understand. I really was in sunday school when I was a kid, though. I think when I was seven or so I participated in a musical number featuring the refrain, "I'm gonna wash that god right into my head." In retrospect, I wonder if one of the sunday school teachers wasn't trying to make a subtle comment on brainwashing with that one.

** Of course I trust the research more, but sometimes a visceral anecdote helps.

*** Admittedly, I feel a little odd putting it this way since I think it's hard to "trivialize" the idea that grown adults should believe in an invisible being with logically impossible abilities, but I'm really in the minority on that one.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Always good to be appreciated.

It appears that the indomitable Plain(s)feminist has decided to honor me with a "Thinking Blogger" award... you know, pictured over yonder in the convenient .jpeg. I am flattered but, simultaneously, a little bewildered that I am regarded as a thinking blogger. This is particularly the case given how much time I've spent this week discussing pop culture. Ultimately, despite the generous praise from Plain(s)feminist, I think my receiving this honor is an inevitable outcome of its geometric expansion.

And so long as we're talking about that geometric expansion, I suppose I must fulfill the terms of the award and award it, in turn, to five other blogs who make me think. Alas, most of these blogs do not read my blog but what can you do? In my case, I could probably e-mail them or something, but where's the fun in that?

Marginal Utility: This blog which is predominantly the stomping grounds of Tom, Ken, and Kim (with occasional scribblings by myself) can be counted on to provide insightful discussion of a wide variety of subjects. Also: photos of lego spaceships and Tom's kids. It's a great blog and well worth your attention.

Skepchick: The group blog of Skepchick, an organization of skeptical women that also publishes an online magazine. The blog is often funny, always informative, and has an irreverent take on just about everything. If you want a blog to counteract the poor logic that seems unavoidable in modern society, this is it.

Stone Court: What do you get when you combine a legal blog with a sociology blog? I dunno, but most of the time it wouldn't be nearly as interesting as Stone Court. It's hard to do better for an examination of the legal implications of social policy and vice versa. Also: they're both really, really nice people.

Evolution Blog: The blog of Jason Rosenhouse where he chronicles his unending quest to thwart the creationist hordes. Quixotic as that sounds he can be counted on for excellent discussions of evolutionary theory, theology, philosophy and mathematics. If you're not reading him, you should be.

And, last but not least, we come to:

Uncommon Descent: The way I interpret the criteria of the award, I can nominate blogs that make me think, even if they're not ones that I think are particularly intelligent. UD falls into this category. As the weblog of "Wild Bill" Dembski it's a haven of illogic and ideological inflexibility. That said, I'm always suspicious when I read something and reject it without knowing why. Just about everything on Uncommon Descent is a half-truth or an outright lie, as far as I can tell, but actually proving that to myself is a useful intellectual exercise.

So, congratulations to my new nominees and I encourage all of you to spend a little time perusing what they have to say. I suspect you won't be disappointed.

I mean, hell, most of you are just looking for something to do instead of work, right?

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Something to look forward to.

Given my long-established fascination with the animated dead (i.e. zombies) it will come as no surprise to anyone that I was excited to see this trailer for the upcoming movie 28 Weeks Later:



It is, of course, the follow-up to the earlier movie 28 Days Later* in which a virus known as "Rage" escapes from a laboratory thanks to animal rights activists** and rapidly devastates the world:



The 28-whatever later series is remarkable in zombie lore because it actually creates a more or less plausible scenario. The "zombies" are not walking corpses a-la Dawn of the Dead or Resident Evil. Instead, the 28-zombies are normal humans who have been infected with a virus that causes extreme anger and aggression. For some reason, this aggression is targetted only at those who are not already infected and transmissibility is nearly 100% on contact with any bodily fluid. While the specificity of the aggression is a little hard to believe, there are a number of parasites and viruses that modify the behavior of the host organism to improve their chances of spreading, so I find this relatively plausible. As a side-effect of this increased plausibility we also end up with a more terrifying kind of "zombie." Sure, on the one hand, standard weapons are effective but, on the other, they're fast. Really fast. As fast as a normal human and, realistically speaking, often faster.

In the original "28 Days Later" we followed the story of a single man learning about a rapid apocalypse brought about by the virus- an apocalypse that caused substantial depopulation (at least in the U.K. and, by implication, globally) and the near total collapse of society. Uninfected survivors essentially resorted to locking themselves away and waiting for the infected to starve to death.

In the sequel, we are going to see the story of the resettlement of London (apparently under the aegis of the U.S. Army for reasons that frankly elude me) following the ending of this plague. Of course, all is not completely well and it appears that a carrier of the Rage has emerged, thereby restarting the contagion amid this group of civilian settlers. The scenes in the trailer- particularly of the lights going out in a crowded subway- are enough to chill the blood. So, too, are the depictions of the soldiers who, following time-honored movie conventions, decide to respond to this crisis by killing every last person in the settlement to prevent the Rage for escaping back into the wild.***

I know the preview is supposed to get me all fired up to see the movie but, really and truly, watching it there are only two things that keep running through my mind:

(1) Following such catastrophic damage, I'm fairly sure that a major effort to resettle cities wouldn't occur within 28 weeks... 28 weeks after such a thing, I'm betting we'd still be focussed on keeping farms running so that we could feed the remnant population. If we needed manufactured goods... well, there's certainly an abundance of them lying around.

(2) Seriously, movie makers, the military decided to kill everyone? You know, because after a huge depopulation event women and children aren't important at all.

I think this really just goes to show that I've spent a little too much time gaming out the apocalypse and its aftermath in my head.

Then again, on the positive side, if the Bird Flu ever hits I should be able to found my own feudal state.

Always good to have career options I guess...


* Not to be confused with 28 Days which has just as many zombies, but far less entertainment value.

** Damn animal rights activists.

*** If there's anything I've learned from movies, t.v. programs and video games over the years, it's that the military's solution to any problem is to indiscriminantly kill everyone involved. I've always wondered what that kind of policy does to morale.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Woulda come in handy a few years ago...

Back in the days of yore before I came to graduate school I had a job. This job was, in a nutshell, one of the worst experiences of my life. If we leave out the horrendously inappropriate office behavior, the terrible management, the dubious product line, and our very real potential to accidentally kill someone* there would still be a lot to talk about in the form of graft, illegal contracts and simple tax evasion. I have mentioned this job before, I know, but frankly no stories I can tell here** can even begin to drive home the sheer horror that was my employment experience... although this post makes a decent start on it. To put it most simply: had I watched The Office back then I would have felt nothing so much as jealousy at how well run that place of work is.

One of the things that was worst about this job were the meetings. Endless, interminable meetings with the same damned people. They would start in the morning and, for all intents and purposes, continue at regular intervals throughout the day. There was always a stated reason for these meetings but, in fact, my officemate and I understood the truth of things: we usually held meetings outside and the boss wasn't permitted to smoke indoors. You do the math. Often I would get a notification of an upcoming meeting and feel this undeniable sinking feeling. A sense of impending, unavoidable doom. I would have given almost anything to avoid these meetings and occasionally debated with my officemate whether suicide was a better option. Our answers varied according to day. It goes without saying that I always managed to cling, somehow, to my will to live.

Well, now thanks to the power of the internet, you can have your cake and eat it too. Or, more accurately, keep your life, but cathartically commit suicide as well. I give you the flash game Five Minutes to Kill (yourself) in which you must do yourself in, using only items found in your office, within 5 minutes or face the wrath of a meeting:



Following a brief introduction...



The action begins. You must navigate your office, using your coworkers and common items to gradually inflict sufficient damage to end your life. Some of the methods are quite fascinating, too. I think my favorite is putting a giant pinata on my head, thus luring coworkers into beating me with bats.



Why my coworkers are carrying bats in their pockets is something I'll decline to speculate on.

In any case, it's a fun little game, it's a bit cathartic, and it's worth a look.

Have fun!



* Not kidding. Not even a little.

** Meaning that they don't have the same oomph when I make them non-specific enough to recount on a blog.

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Blast from the Past

Way back in the old days when I first started this blog* I wrote a post dealing with a proposed new subfield of sociology: Astrosociology. At the time I was somewhat critical of the idea, arguing that I saw nothing in the subject matter of this new area that wasn't adequately covered elsewhere. Being the disagreeable curmudgeon that I am, I used this to claim that adding such a subfield would merely fracture the discipline and make us even less effective than we are now.** This post was followed up by a rebuttal, published here on Total Drek by James Pass, the founder of Astrosociology. I won't say that the rebuttal convinced me that my position was incorrect, and the resulting debate didn't help any, but I was content to let the matter rest. I had said my piece and was satisfied.

Since then I haven't heard a great deal about Astrosociology. This isn't to say that nothing has been happening with it, however. Dr. Pass has apparently been a guest on some sort of podcast program, he's published on the online outlet The Space Review, and there's even an article on Astrosociology on Wikipedia.*** I am, indeed, impressed by all this activity.

Yet, the progress in Astrosociology has not been entirely positive. Recently another blogger whom I will call the Sage**** wrote a post dealing with the recent Pacific Sociological Association meetings. Now, I'll be the first one to admit that I've gone to the PSAs several times and, frankly, they're not my cup of tea. I'm a quantitative guy and, by and large, that kind of work isn't very prominent in the PSAs. Moreover, mixed into a selection of very neat qualitative work are a few... oddities. There are always a few panels or papers that make me scratch my head and wonder if a panel on Deconstructionist Literary Criticism was somehow mixed in with our own discipline's work. In any case, the Sage had much the same experience of the PSAs and wrote a brief post commenting on it. In the course of this post which highlighted such oddities as a paper purporting to be a result of collaboration with the afterlife,***** he also had an opportunity to remark on a paper being given on Astrosociology, saying the following (beginning with a quote from the conference program):

"Educating Astrosociologists: The Need to Bring Outer Space Into Social Science Classrooms (the guy's affiliation, not a university, is astrosociology.com)"

I certainly agree that "astrosociologists" should be better educated, but I think we disagree about exactly how that should happen.


Now, arguably, this wasn't the nicest thing to say but, really, it was pretty innocuous. A little gentle ribbing that, frankly, isn't any worse than the sort of mischief the structuralists get up to with the interactionalists and vice versa. Nonetheless this apparently set off a shitstorm. Sage subsequently posted in his comments two e-mails that were, apparently, sent to faculty in his department. The first is relatively gentle:

My impression from his blog is of a person who habitually builds up his own ego by trashing other people with catty and facile one-liners. I daresay he fancies [himself] clever and witty. He is quite possibly incapable of presenting a cogent and in-depth argument on anything, or else he just gets off on inflicting his puerile, thirtysomething angst on whatever victims happen by. His apparent insensitivity to the Hispanic-American experience is particularly distasteful. I would advise that no one take the time to respond to this person, as his silly blog merely attacks matters that clearly he has not made any effort to understand.


Of course, while relatively gentle, it's still difficult to understand. Sage is many things but insensitive to the Hispanic-American experience? I would argue that, judging by his post, it's quite the opposite. Still, the best was yet to come as a second e-mail awaits our attention:

My impression is that this sociology grad student must have been in a bar hanging off of a stool -- instead of a coffee shop as he alleges -- the whole time he was in Oakland. (By the way, the conference hotel was several miles away from the UC-Berkeley area.) Because as a busily interacting session chair at the PSA conference, I swear to God I didn't see him at the meetings. Proof that he wasn't at the meetings is his recounting of what were in presentations that we have intimate knowledge of and know his stories about them to be false. I hope the Sociology Department did not spend too much on his travel funds.

Actually, the theme of this PSA conference had something to do with sociologists taking a hard look at the discipline and where it is going. That is why I launched the "Pirate Professors, Deviant Departments, and Disappeared Programs" session. The "Astrosociology" session had something to do with expanding the sociological ecology as we enter not just a new century, but a new epoch, as mounting challenges (global warming, the decline side of oil, worsening natural disasters in increasingly more populated areas, etc.) require the direct or spin-off instruments and processes of outer space production.

Not only is this catty 30-something disdainful of the Hispanic-American sociological scholarship experiences concerning Gregory Morales and his mentor Boz, but young [Sage] makes several comments in the material below to show that he is uppity-feeling'd regarding his perceived low-rent pedigree of our affiliations.

He completely miscasts my presentation on the fascist administrative destruction of an internationally, nationally, and ASA-acclaimed department at Niagara University so that those administrators could construct a CJ program on top of it. My talk had nothing to do with General Pinochet or Latin American dictators. But, it had everything to do with the sort of high-handed techniques that European professors experienced as Nazism mounted. What was this young fellow drinking in that Berkeley "coffeeshop," anyway? To be sure, it was [Sage]'s sociological participation at the PSA that was in the "slow lane." Evidence suggests that it wasn't even that -- that he wasn't even on the highway at all, with his parking brake on, sociological imagination disengaged, being in a roadside drinking establishment off the main drag.

Well, in a few years, when this angst-driven 30-something comes to us for some sort of connection, we'll be sure to remember. In addition, the realities of the sociological job market ought to throw him off that high horse he is riding when he isn't riding a barstool in Berkeley coffeeshops. Right now, I'd just love to get put on his thesis committee to help straighten him out. [Emphasis added and some edits inserted******]


Now, back in the old days I was somewhat rude to the folks of Astrosociology and they took me to task for it. Readers can examine what we said and reach their own conclusions. Yet, in our disagreement, we at least didn't promise revenge on one another. What we're seeing in the response to Sage's humorous commentary is something quite different- a sort of vindictiveness that I find difficult to stomach. To be honest it reminds me of nothing so much as the Intelligent Design folk who respond to academic disinterest with cries of persecution. Astrosociology still seems to have a lot of skepticism to overcome in its bid to become a recognized ASA section, but I'm fairly sure that aggressive and shrill tactics like these won't help much in that.

We bloggers have a responsibility, to be sure, but at the same time we're just bloggers. Most of us have relatively little traffic and anyone that takes us too seriously has a problem. Hell, I don't even take myself all that seriously as one can easily see. So, when something like this happens I'm just amazed.

Perhaps Astrosociology will be the next big thing but, seriously, threats and coercion aren't going to get it there any faster.

UPDATE: Coincidentally, Jeremy discusses this same topic and, as usual, does a much better job than I could. Go read him.


* As it happens we're coming up on my three-year Blogiversary in about two months or so.

** I know, I know: no mean feat.

*** Hell, I'm kinda jealous about that actually. Aside from Jeremy and Kieran are there any sociology bloggers with Wikipedia entries?

**** Oh, his name is public. I just really like getting to call someone "The Sage." Makes them sound like some sort of Batman villain.

***** Or at least it sounds that way from the title, "Views of Education from Beyond this World" - Emails and Conversations with my Dearly Departed Mentor 'Boz'

****** Basically I've just removed specific references to the Sage's identity and affiliation. They're easy to find but, frankly, I have little interest in spreading muck any further around and, so, have refused to identify any of the participants directly.

As a concluding note: I will now go back to trying not to comment on my own discipline as it will inevitably get me into trouble. That this is the case really depresses me.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

This post doesn't end well.

Folks who keep an eye on the news are probably aware that a new report from the United Nations predicts a difficult future based on global warming:

A United Nations panel of scientists reports it is highly confident that humans are warming the Earth's climate.

...

The new study, released Friday, predicts widespread droughts in some places, but flooding in others. Some regions, such as North America, are likely to suffer less from a warming climate. Low-lying areas will experience more flooding from rising oceans or stronger storms, however. There will also be increases in the range of insect pests and diseases now more common in tropical areas. Dry regions in the southern part of the country may also get drier. Some regions however may enjoy benefits, such as longer growing seasons for agriculture.


The irony here should not be lost on anyone. We here in the United States (which is in North America for you Conservapedia users out there) are one of the largest producers of green house gasses, have some of the poorest emissions standards, and somehow may suffer the least from the impending difficulties. That is, unless you count the victims* of events like Hurricane Katrina.

This UN report isn't alone, of course. There was also the recent report from our own Environmental Protection Agency that argues the same thing. Not that the President is any more interested in the work of his own government than in the work of the UN:

President Bush dismissed on Tuesday a report put out by his administration warning that human activities are behind climate change that is having significant effects on the environment.

The report released by the Environmental Protection Agency was a surprising endorsement of what many scientists and weather experts have long argued — that human activities such as oil refining, power plants and automobile emissions are important causes of global warming.

But it suggests nothing beyond voluntary action by industry for dealing with the so-called "greenhouse" gases, the program Bush advocated in rejecting a treaty negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 calling for mandatory reduction of those gases by industrial nations.

"I read the report put out by the bureaucracy," Mr. Bush said dismissively when asked about the EPA report, adding that he still opposes the Kyoto treaty.


So, hey, now that we can see that global warming isn't just some crazy left-wing conspiracy, we find that conservative policy doesn't change. It isn't about the science, keep in mind, or even reality- it's about ideology. We can will global warming away. For that matter, do you know why the temperature of the Earth is rising? Because the Earth hates our freedom. If we cut down on emissions, we're letting the Earth win!

As if that weren't enough, as if the startling willful ignorance of the current administration weren't sufficient, their actions have recently resulted in condemnation from the Supreme Court for nothing less than violating the law:

The Supreme Court gave the Bush administration two rebukes on Monday for its global warming and air pollution policies. They were just the most recent examples of the administration's losing streak in court on environmental issues.

For six years, Bush administration officials have been rewriting environmental regulations. For almost as long, environmental groups and states have been suing to try to block the changes. Environmentalists say the pace of decisions in these cases has been picking up, and in most cases both conservative and liberal courts are deciding against the administration.

...

Last week, one federal Court rejected Bush administration changes to the rules that govern what kind of logging, mining or other activities can be allowed in national forests. Another court blocked a Bush administration policy to permit coal mining companies to remove the top of mountains in Appalachia and deposit leftover rock in valley streams. On Monday, the Supreme Court rejected two Bush administration policies — one on global warming and another on coal-fired power plants.


So our own administration is actively violating the laws it is legally required to protect. Fantastic. It's as though we have an elected king or, at the very least, an elected decider.

Well, fortunately, people aren't being taken in by all the disinformation being spewed by Bush and his cronies. Right? Right?

The global warming controversy centers on the controversial theory that the earth's atmosphere is heating up at a dangerous rate, because of human activities such as greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels (see Anthropogenic global warming). Supporters usually feel that immediate (not to say drastic) action must be taken to reduce these omissions (see Kyoto Protocol).

The theory enjoys wide political support, but some climatologists and meteorologists disagree with it. The United Nations' climate panel (UNIPCC) has assessed the theory and found that there is a "scientific consensus" in favor of it. Scientists Richard Lindzen and John Christy, among others, deny that such a consensus exists

...

Just as the pro-global warming scientists are benefiting from promoting global warming, the global warming skeptical scientists have had funding from energy companies. [17] It can be said that they profit from energy stock, just as well as the pro-global warming scientists. However, the skeptics are not selling carbon credits, but they are profiting from selling alternative energy products and services.


Oh hell. We're all gonna die.



* It distresses me rather a lot that when looking for images of Katrina victims I came across this. What the hell is wrong with some people?

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