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.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Repensum est Canicula

Smarter people than me are probably aware that the Supreme Court recently ruled on the case of Lilly Ledbetter v. Goodyear Rubber and Tire Company. In this case Ms. Ledbetter sued Goodyear for wage discrimination, alleging that she was, in effect, being paid less for the same work performed by her male colleagues. Indeed, it appears that in many ways her claim was justified:

Ms. Ledbetter’s salary was initially the same as that of her male colleagues. But over time, as she received smaller raises, a substantial disparity grew. By the time she brought suit in 1998, her salary fell short by as much as 40 percent; she was making $3,727 a month, while the lowest-paid man was making $4,286.


Assuming that her work performance was not such that the smaller raises could be justified- and I tend to think that's a safe assumption since otherwise Goodyear probably would have fired her for cause- we seem to have a sort of cumulative discrimination occurring here. Yet, despite the fairly dramatic nature of the disparity, the court ruled against Ms. Ledbetter. The reasoning is intriguing:

The court held on Tuesday that employees may not bring suit under the principal federal anti-discrimination law unless they have filed a formal complaint with a federal agency within 180 days after their pay was set. The timeline applies, according to the decision, even if the effects of the initial discriminatory act were not immediately apparent to the worker and even if they continue to the present day.

...

In an opinion by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., the majority rejected the view of the federal agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, that each paycheck that reflects the initial discrimination is itself a discriminatory act that resets the clock on the 180-day period, under a rule known as “paycheck accrual.”

“Current effects alone cannot breathe life into prior, uncharged discrimination,” Justice Alito said in an opinion joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Justice Thomas once headed the employment commission, the chief enforcer of workers’ rights under the statute at issue in this case, usually referred to simply as Title VII.


So, in essence, if someone begins discriminating against you, but you don't notice it fast enough, their discrimination cannot be penalized. This is an intriguing concept to me in that, at first glance, it seems to resemble the legal functions of the Statute of Limitations. The SoL is a useful legal mechanism that reflects the potential errors that can creep into memory over time. Thus, we limit vulnerability to prosecution after a certain period not because we stop caring that an injustice transpired, but because it becomes unreasonably difficult to ensure a fair trial. This is a useful protection. So, we might regard this supreme court ruling as just a defense of the Statute of Limitations.

Yeah. Except, really, there's an issue. Let's say that I were to beat someone and the statute of limitations for assault is five years. That means that if I were to evade prosecution for five years, I would then be immune. The thing is, during the intervening span, I am not offending against my previous victim or continuing to do additional harm. In Ms. Ledbetter's case, the harm that stems from the act is ongoing. Thus, the Supreme Court decision works out to be quite a bit more restrictive than the Statute of Limitations in that now if you harm someone and get away with it for long enough, it becomes legal for you to continue to harm that person.

This is really a serious miscarriage of justice and one that favors powerful corporate interests over relatively powerless citizens. Then again, we should keep in mind the fascinating possibilities now open to us thanks to this ruling. While corporate interests are busy rejoicing at their newfound ability to screw us and get away with it, we have a newfound advantage as well. If you start stealing cable television, or power, or gas, or water and you can get away with it for long enough, guess what? According to the supreme court, your theft becomes legal.* Not only can't you be prosecuted, you can actually keep stealing. Guess what else, huge corporate interests?

Payback is a bitch.


* Yes, I'm aware that virtually no court would be likely to interpret the precedent in this manner. What I am saying is that, really and truly, the cases are fairly parallel.** If the stealing example is so obviously wrong, why are we even having the goddamn conversation about workplace discrimination? Seriously.

** i.e. when I work for money I am trading my skill and labor for compensation. If I am paid less for equal skill/labor than someone else then my employer is effectively stealing from me in much the same way that I would be stealing if I paid for ten bags of flour but actually left the store with twelve.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Silver Lining.

Some months back the following letter to the editor appeared in the Peninsula Clarion, an Alaskan newspaper. On reading it, I think you'll understand why I find it notable:



Pleasant, eh? Well, as it happens, the newspaper has published a new editorial claiming that the letter is, itself, a hoax. You can find the full article here but the most important passage is probably this:

...

Weeks later we received the following letter from Ms. Shannon:

“While I’ve been thoroughly entertained by the overwhelming number of passionate responses to my January 29th letter, it should probably be noted that, as at least one writer speculated, it was a complete joke. I think it has run its course and at this time space in the Letters to the Editor section should be reserved for more important issues.”

Now we were angry. Numerous attempts to contact Ms. Shannon proved the letter was a hoax, and we stopped printing any letters referring to hers. Shortly afterward, we received a letter from a person telling us the same letter was found in a blog from a woman from South Carolina, and he sent us the Web address.


A hoax? Riiiiight. I find it hard to believe that someone would do such a thing, allowing it to run over a span of weeks, if it was just a joke. I somehow suspect that, instead, it was a serious letter that the author ultimately wanted to deny responsibility for.* This isn't the real focus of my comments today, however.

If we follow this letter deeper into time we discover that it did not originate on some anonymous blog but, rather, came from another newspaper. Specifically, back in October of 2001, a month after the September 11th attacks against the United States, a number of papers, including the Augusta Chronicle and The Daily Vidette, a college paper serving Illinois State University, published an article dealing with the sense of exclusion felt by atheists in the wake of that national tragedy. The article is actually pretty interesting:

As America mourns the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Gail Pepin can't help but feel left out when everyone else goes to worship.

An atheist, Pepin covered for her co-workers as they attended a prayer vigil. She tuned in when President Bush spoke to the nation about the attacks, but shrunk back each time he mentioned God.

"I'm feeling very excluded from this. There's this big unity, but it's all under God," said Pepin, a nurse from the Chicago suburb of Rosemont. "I feel just as strongly about this as everybody else."

Like Pepin, other Americans who don't believe in a deity are struggling to find their place at a time when "God Bless America" is being sung everywhere. Some worry that the line between church and state is becoming blurred, while others hope to show patriotism doesn't have to equal prayer.

...

Atheists are dealing with the tragedy by donating blood, money or services to the relief efforts, Barrier said. But many are not comfortable participating in public gatherings that revolve around prayer, such as the national day of prayer and remembrance Bush declared three days after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

Catharine Lamm, who works at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, has avoided remembrance services held at campus churches but respects those who find strength in their faith.

"What I object to is the feeling of exclusion for me, particularly when the president addresses the nation and doesn't leave any room for people who find their strength in other places," Lamm said.


In response to this article, however, the Augusta Chronicle received the now-infamous letter to the editor which is nearly identical to the one that saw publication in Alaska:

It's time to stomp out atheists in America. The majority of Americans would love to see atheists kicked out of America. If you don't believe in God, then get out of this country.
The United States is based on having freedom of religion, speech, etc., which means you can believe in God any way you want (Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, etc.), but you must believe.

I don't recall freedom of religion meaning no religion. Our currency even says, ''In God We Trust." So, to all the atheists in America: Get off of our country.

People like Gail Pepin (The Chronicle, Oct. 11) have caused the ruin of this great nation by taking prayer out of our schools and being able to practice what can only be called evil. I don't care if she has never committed a crime, she is the reason crime is rampant.

To The Chronicle, please do not give atheists a voice. You do more harm than good.


This letter is followed by two more which are, if anything, equally charming. My favorite is the second letter:

As a Christian and a nurse, it was with great sadness that I read the article regarding Gail Pepin in the Oct. 11 The Augusta Chronicle. She feels left out and unable to find her place because she's an atheist.

Not only am I sad for her but for her patients. What kind of nurse can work in a hospital and not see God's hand? Miracles only he can perform are done every day. How can you see a baby born and not believe?

You can donate all the blood, money and time you have, but until you have your life right with God your destiny will make the World Trade Center attack look like building blocks. Once again, we have had a wake-up call. Once again, so many refuse to wake up.

Binnie Jones, Hephzibah, Ga.


Indeed. An attack by religious extremists on the World Trade center is definitely a great argument relating to religion, but I don't know that I think it works against atheists if you catch my meaning.

Now in bringing this up I unavoidably draw attention to the very real dislike for atheists that seems to percolate in American society- a dislike that has only been validated by academic work. This is not, however, my point. Rather than dwell on the popularity of this kind of virulent hate, let me instead consider some of the responses that the letter in Alaska received. For example there is Erik Huebsch:

When I first saw Alice Shannon’s letter in the Jan. 29 edition of the Clarion, I thought, “Wow, it’s rare to see such ignorance, bigotry and hatred without having the TV tuned to the Fox News channel.”

Then I realized maybe she was trying to use satire. Maybe she was trying to be funny. After all I’m sure Ms. Shannon would consider herself a Christian, yet the values she expressed more closely resemble those of a fundamentalist Muslim, certainly not those so called Christian values.

Yes, Ms. Shannon you are about as funny as the Taliban.


Or Charles Winston Bolen III of Georgia:

Thanks to the power of the Internet, a letter published in your paper, written by Alice Shannon (Jan. 29) attacking atheists, made its way onto my screen. It’s good to know that ignorance and intolerance aren’t limited to the Bible belt but can be found all over this nation.

I’d like to let the writer in on something: America isn’t just for Christians and freedom of religion also means freedom from religion.

Contrary to Ms. Shannon’s distorted view of the world, atheists are not the threat to America she makes us out to be. In fact, people like her, full of bloated self-importance, spewing hate and ignorance in the name of the great delusion in the sky, creating division with lame duck arguments, are the real threat to the freedoms this country were built on.

Her words echo the hate toward blacks in earlier times and reminds us also of the hate that still gets thrown at homosexuals. In both cases, such hate is wrong, as it is now in this case.

Were the word “atheist” replaced with “black” in this letter, I seriously doubt her letter would have been printed. In any case, it was printed and the entire world is being shown the religious bigotry and hate speech of Alice Shannon.

Thank you Ms. Shannon for reminding us all that freedom of speech is alive and well in this country, even if it means ignorance and hate are just as alive.


Or this one from Carrie Henson:

Alice Shannon’s letter to the editor (Jan. 29) is the most ignorant and unconstitutional thing I have ever read!

It has often been seen on the Internet that to find God in the Constitution, all one has to do is read it, and see how often the Framers used the words “God,” “Creator,” “Jesus” or “Lord.” Except for one notable instance, none of these words ever appear in the Constitution, neither the original nor in any of the Amendments.

The notable exception is found in the Signatory section, where the date is written thusly: “Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven.” The use of the word “Lord” here is not a religious reference, however. This was a common way of expressing the date, in both religious and secular contexts. This lack of any these words does not mean that the Framers were not spiritual people, any more than the use of the word Lord means that they were. What this lack of these words is expositive of is not a love for or disdain for religion, but the feeling that the new government should not involve itself in matters of religion. In fact, the original Constitution bars any religious test to hold any federal office in the United States.

The First Amendment clearly states a separation of Church and State. Religion or the lack thereof has no bearing on citizenship.

Crime is rampant because of hatred. Don’t be a hater Alice.


And even Nick Swain's:

I am an atheist. On Jan. 29, I had the privilege of reading a letter sent to you telling me to get out of the country. I do not feel like arguing about the justifications of such a notion, but I do not feel it is right that my lack of religion should be used as a scapegoat for crime in America.

Like most people who are stereotyped, I find it unfair that my lack of religion should be accused of such a thing.

Alice Shannon is entitled to her opinion, like anyone else. She has had experiences in her life that made her hate my lack of religion and me as a person. Yet, she does not know me. In my defense, I would like to explain a little more about my life. I can only hope Alice has the same privilege I had and will read my words.

I am 16 years old and have three brothers in the military, one of which is serving in Iraq right now. I do not blame the religion of the good Christian men who wished to wage their war that has forced him to be on the other side of the planet. I do not blame God for anything bad in my life, nor do I credit him for the good. I am not full of hate and I do not look down on people with a religion. Events in my life have caused me to believe in human ability rather than the will of God. Alice would detest this, but there is no denying that our own actions make our lives.

I feel no higher power moving through me when I do something right, just content in myself. When I do wrong, I do not feel the need to repent, only a natural sense of guilt. These are my own judgments. I have my own reservations about people, but I do not take their religion into account. My lack of religion allows me to hold no one religion in greater respect than any others and I do not view any religion as beneath me. I merely do not believe.

I am given the right to this choice. Even Alice agrees, but only if my choice involves God. To quote her directly, “You can believe in God any way you want (Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, etc.), but you must believe.”

Actually, that is all her argument really amounts to. She pointed the finger at atheism when she meant to blame all other religions. If anyone were to really look at the words she wrote, they would find nothing about any other religion; her list of examples only names different renditions of Christianity.

It is sad to see this kind of self-righteous attitude. There are such a wide variety of people with their own beliefs, so what makes Alice’s beliefs better than anyone else’s?

I’ll never understand why it is so hard to accept the differences in others. Maybe some day in my blasphemous life, I’ll find the answer.


What I'm trying to say is: if these letters mean that intolerance is alive, they also mean that there are good, generous, and decent people of all religions who are willing to stand up for those of us who have none. To all of them, for their generosity, kindness, and decency I can only say this:

Thank you.


* Along the same lines as, "Hey, man, racist jokes are just funny. Lighten up!

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Slag's Blood Pressure Update

My esteemed co-blogger Slag recently remarked on the headline to a CNN story regarding Muslims. Specifically, he appeared frustrated that a recent report about the willingness of American Muslims to engage in suicide attacks received such a provocative title. The article, among other things, observed that:

...

While nearly 80 percent of U.S. Muslims say suicide bombings of civilians to defend Islam can not be justified, 13 percent say they can be, at least rarely.

That sentiment is strongest among those younger than 30. Two percent of them say it can often be justified, 13 percent say sometimes and 11 percent say rarely.

"It is a hair-raising number," said Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Washington-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, which promotes the compatibility of Islam with democracy.

He said most supporters of the attacks likely assumed the context was a fight against occupation — a term Muslims often use to describe the conflict with Israel.

...

U.S. Muslims are far less accepting of suicide attacks than Muslims in many other nations. In surveys Pew conducted last year, support in some Muslim countries exceeded 50 percent, while it was considered justifiable by about one in four Muslims in Britain and Spain, and one in three in France.

...

At a later news conference, [Andrew Kohut, Pew Director] he said much of that support could be attributed to age because the findings were consistent with numerous other surveys showing young people more inclined to violence and to support wars.


This largely optimistic report was titled:

Some US Muslims say suicide attacks OK


Which is, of course, literally true if more than one U.S. Muslim agrees that suicide attacks are okay.

Well, as though deliberately crafted to raise Slag's blood pressure sufficiently to make his brains explode through his ears comes this even more entertaining artlce from Fox News. That headline is, of course:

Poll: 1 in 4 U.S. Young Muslims OK With Homicide Bombings Against Civilians


Okay. Yes, that's not really what the study says. Great way to stir up the audience though. The good folks at Conservapedia sure appreciated your efforts as they helpfully mentioned the Fox News story on their main page:



I've helpfully designated the section in a red oval- click the image for a larger version.

Now, leaving aside the fact that I'm pretty sure that upwards of 90% of Christians are willing to engage in ritual cannibalism* if commanded to by god, and that I'm pretty sure that we'd get pretty similar results if we asked American Christians a comparable question about defending either the U.S. or Christianity,** can we at least all on some level agree to try to present news in a reasonable fashion?

No?

Okay then. Well, time for the civil war*** I guess.


* Is communion as bad as suicide bombing? Of course not. Is the whole ritual STILL a little creepy when you stop and think about it? Hell yes.

** You'd have to alter the wording so as to not literally say "suicide bombing," but given that some radicals are apparently willing to kill others for their religion, I don't know that U.S. Muslims and U.S. Christians are gonna be all that different.

*** Seriously right-wing crazies: don't tell me y'all haven't been thinking about it.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day

In honor of Memorial Day today, allow me to borrow the words of Abraham Lincoln:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


To this I can only add that often I fear it is all too easy to spend the precious blood of patriots. A willingness to fight and die for the greater good is a source of pride for many soldiers, but a callous disregard for the necessity of that fighting and dying is the shame of a nation.

To our veterans I can only offer my sincerest thanks.

Happy Memorial Day.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Urk.

Just a quick update:

-I'm alive.

-The surgery required longer than expected. Waaaay longer.

-It hurt a lot.

-They tell me I should be fine.

More next week. For now: rest.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Just thought you should know...

Those who read the blog regularly may remember a while back when I remarked that my bizarre journey through modern medicine was not quite at an end. Indeed, for some months now I have been grappling with repeated trips to a variety of doctors, repeated blood tests, and an awfully large number of CT scans. As a matter of fact I'm fairly sure that if they shoot any more radiation into my body my children may end up with super powers.* Despite the inconvenience of all this, and the expense it imposes upon my household, I have been feeling relatively well and have generally maintained my usual calm exterior.



All the same it's a little weird knowing that there's a sort of "manufacturer's defect" in your body that could kill or cripple you at any unpredictable moment it damn well feels like. I was, therefore, happy when I made it through my last surgery successfully and was informed that they had "fixed the problem."

Yeah.

"Fixed."

Turns out that "fixed" in this case is a pretty vague term that doesn't mean "elminated the problem" so much as "well, it's somewhat less of a problem now, but could still annihilate you at its discretion." Fortunately for me I have not, thus far, experienced any of the complications I've been warned about:



Nevertheless, the threat is still there so, like it or not, I'm going to have to go into surgery again. Today in fact. As it happens, in all likelihood, by the time you read this I'll either already be in surgery or be finished with the procedure.

Wish me luck, be nice to my Sainted Fiancee, and I'll let you know when I'm up and around again.**

Yee-fucking-haa!


* Personally, I'm hoping for that whole "Nightcrawler" teleportation thing.

** Unless I die or suffer a major complication during the surgery- events that I am told are extremely unlikely to occur.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

"I've been workin in the quote mines, all the live-long daaaaay!"

One of the most interesting things about following the Intelligent Design carnival of illogic is its approach to rhetoric. It's safe to say, for example, that both Intelligent Design wackos and science advocates occasionally employ inflammatory language. This is a very serious debate, after all, and such debates almost always attract their fair share of caustic commentary. As such, the harshness of the debate isn't that interesting to me. Instead, what I find much more fascinating is the tendency of the I.D. folks to engage in what is known as "quote mining."

For those who don't know, "quote mining" is the practice of going through someone's published or recorded remarks and extracting some fragment that appears to either support your point or discredit theirs. Typical quote mining takes one of two forms which I designate* as "selective quotation" and "ellipses extravaganza." Selective quotation works by extracting a fragment of a real quote and presenting it without context. So, for example, if I were to say, "If most atheists reject religion solely because they don't like the music, then I would have to say that atheists are stupid," a quote miner engaging in selective quotation might write:

Graduate student Drek the Uninteresting remarks, "I would have to say that atheists are stupid."


Obviously, the quotation isn't exactly wrong but by removing the context the meaning changes quite a bit. This is a real problem as selectively quoting in this manner allows a person to support almost anything. In the rare occasions when selective quotation is inadequate, however, there remains the ellipses extravaganza, wherein a lengthy quotation can be re-written through the helpful use of ellipses. So, for example, if I were to say, "My great-grandfather's opinion as a supporter of eugenics was that we need to exterminate the mentally disabled. This view was based on an understanding of natural selection that was, we now recognize, as deeply and fundamentally flawed as the christian crusades and islamic jihads," then a helpful quote miner might produce:

Drek the Uninteresting, a staunch atheist, casts light on the true morals of atheists: "My ... opinion as a supporter of eugenics [is] that we need to exterminate the mentally disabled. This view [is] based on an understanding of natural selection..."


Once more, the meaning is radically altered by selectively omitting portions of the quotation. Granted, this seems like an extreme example but the reality is that it isn't all that extreme. As most people don't go to a lot of trouble to confirm quotations, even outright lies about what someone said are likely to be taken as the truth. Now, I claim that I.D. advocates engage in quote mining but you don't have to take my word for it. Over on the Panda's Thumb they make note of quite a few instances of quote mining. In a recent post on the subject they mention the Darwin Correspondence Project, which is an effort to make the sum total of Charles Darwin's writings and letters available electronically. Aside from being a superb resource for historians it also provides a valuable tool in defeating quote mining.

As an example, the thumbers point to a post on the blog of Sal Cordova- one of Wild Bill's lackeys- that quotes Darwin as follows:

I beat a puppy, I believe, simply from enjoying the sense of power.


Wow! Charles Darwin liked to beat puppies! My god! Maybe modern science really is soul-destroying! Praise Jesus!

Well, that's what I'm probably supposed to say. Instead, as the thumbers point out, with the aid of the Darwin Correspondence Project we can find the rest of that quote:

Once as a very little boy, whilst at the day-school, or before that time, I acted cruelly, for I beat a puppy I believe, simply from enjoying the sense of power; but the beating could not have been severe, for the puppy did not howl, of which I feel sure as the spot was near to the house. This act lay heavily on my conscience, as is shown by my remembering the exact spot where the crime was committed. It probably lay all the heavier from my love of dogs being then, and for a long time afterwards, a passion. Dogs seemed to know this, for I was an adept in robbing their love from their masters. [mined quote in bold]


Yes. Well. Quite different now, isn't it?

The Panda's Thumb often does a great job of shredding the quote mining buffoonery of the I.D. crowd but, believe it or not, every now and then the I.D. people do it themselves. Take for example the recent case of Guillermo Gonzalez, an astronomer at Iowa State University who was recently denied tenure. This, by itself, would be unremarkable except that Gonzalez is an outspoken advocate of intelligent design and has quite a few publications under his belt. The I.D. folks are, of course, screaming "discrimination," because as we all know there's a gigantic darwinist conspiracy in science.*** Now, the case is interesting. On the one hand Gonzalez has a superb publication record. On the other hand, his only grants since arriving at ISU have been from the Templeton Foundation (hardly devoted to Astronomy), he has published no papers since arriving at Iowa State, and has graduated no doctoral students. Did his advocacy of I.D. play a role in his denial of tenure? Well, probably, but as we all know tenure is a notoriously fickle process. At the same time, was he a clear-cut winner for tenure without the I.D.? Eh... not so much. Certainly not in a field like Astronomy where the number of possible hires vastly, vastly exceeds the number of postings. In my view the decision could be argued, but is not obviously a case of pure discrimination.

So how does this relate to quote mining? Well, the Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran a story on the matter that received some attention on Wild Bill's blog. That attention is hysterical to me, however, as it contains an obvious example of quote mining. How obvious, you ask? Well, take a look at the screenshot from my aggregator and tell me:


(Click the image for a larger more legible version.)

So, to sum up, the title of the post reads: "The Chronicle says of Gonzalez, 'A clear case of discrimination'"

But, if you read the first line of the article which is immediately below the headline: "At first glance, it seems like a clear-cut case of discrimination. [emphasis added]"

In fact, if you read the first few paragraphs of the Chronicle piece, you find a picture that is very much at odds with what the I.D.'ers are implying:

At first glance, it seems like a clear-cut case of discrimination. As an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Iowa State University, Guillermo Gonzalez has a better publication record than almost any other member of the astronomy faculty. He also happens to publicly support the concept of intelligent design. Last month he was denied tenure.

"I'm concerned that my views on intelligent design have been a factor," he said last week of the decision.

But a closer look at Mr. Gonzalez's case raises some questions about his recent scholarship and whether he has lived up to his early promise. He has appealed the university's tenure denial and is awaiting word from Iowa State's president, Gregory L. Geoffroy, who will issue a final decision by June 6, according to the university.


Not quite the "clear case of discrimination" we were supposed to believe it was, eh? Of course, what makes this so funny is that the I.D. folks managed to debunk their own mined quote in the process of presenting it. It's a little like playing poker and making a point of telling everyone when you're bluffing.

Now that's what I call service.


* I so designate them because, to the best of my knowledge, they have no formal names. Someone who is less ignorant than I am** should feel free to correct me.

** i.e. virtually anyone.

*** So help me if I ever find that someone has quote mined that...

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Atheists are stoopid.

We make fun of a lot of people on this blog. The list of people we here at Total Drek have mocked and/or ridiculed includes, but is not limited to: freaky misogynists, Republicans, Democrats, Russian figure skaters, ourselves, religious fundamentalists, and Ralph Nader. Indeed, one wonders how we ever have time for serious commentary.*

Today, ladies and gentlemen, we add another group to that list: atheists. Now, y'all know that I'm an atheist. I am, in fact, rather strident about the whole thing and could probably be referred to as a devout, though not evangelical, atheist. Generally I don't mock atheists on the site both because (a) I am one and (b) it seems to me that others already have that covered. On the other hand, when I run into some well-done humor I have to nod my head. I point, of course, to the kids at Something Awful and their highly amusing feature "Leave a message in the Anonymous Atheist Complaint Box." You really have to read it to get the full impact, but the "complaints" run from the merely foolish:



To intolerant and mean spirited:



To the pragmatic:



To the rather disquieting:**



It's an amusing little feature that does a good job of lampooning the worst of my "ilk." Take a look and please enjoy. My fellow atheists and I tend to be irrascible assholes, true, but at least we have a sense of humor about it.


* Regular readers of this blog know the answer: we don't. Anything that resembles serious commentary is some kind of mistake.

** As a side note: No, it isn't "against atheism" although I think you may want to get out more.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Total Drek headline writing contest!

It's not a contest so much as an expression of how, and it what way, mainstream media annoys me.

This article from the AP just appeared on Yahoo! news from page. Enjoy the well-rounded, balanced, deeply-reported, excellent article - for once, I am not joking, I did find this article very good.

Then guess what the headline of the article was.

FROM THE AP:

By ALAN FRAM, Associated Press Writer 1 hour, 36 minutes ago


WASHINGTON - One in four younger U.S. Muslims say suicide bombings to defend their religion are acceptable at least in some circumstances, though most Muslim Americans overwhelmingly reject the tactic and are critical of Islamic extremism and al-Qaida, a poll says.

The survey by the Pew Research Center, one of the most exhaustive ever of the country's Muslims, revealed a community that in many ways blends comfortably into society. Its largely mainstream members express nearly as much happiness with their lives and communities as the general public does, show a broad willingness to adopt American customs, and have income and education levels similar to others in the U.S.

Even so, the survey revealed noteworthy pockets of discontent.

While nearly 80 percent of U.S. Muslims say suicide bombings of civilians to defend Islam can not be justified, 13 percent say they can be, at least rarely.

That sentiment is strongest among those younger than 30. Two percent of them say it can often be justified, 13 percent say sometimes and 11 percent say rarely.

"It is a hair-raising number," said Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Washington-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, which promotes the compatibility of Islam with democracy.

He said most supporters of the attacks likely assumed the context was a fight against occupation — a term Muslims often use to describe the conflict with Israel.

U.S. Muslims have growing Internet and television access to extreme ideologies, he said, adding: "People, especially younger people, are susceptible to these ideas."

Federal officials have warned that the U.S. must be on guard against homegrown terrorism, as the British suffered with the London transit bombings of 2005.

Even so, U.S. Muslims are far less accepting of suicide attacks than Muslims in many other nations. In surveys Pew conducted last year, support in some Muslim countries exceeded 50 percent, while it was considered justifiable by about one in four Muslims in Britain and Spain, and one in three in France.

"We have crazies just like other faiths have them," said Eide Alawan, who directs interfaith outreach at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Mich., one of the nation's largest mosques. He said killing innocent people contradicts Islam.

Andrew Kohut, Pew director, said in an interview that support for the attacks represented "one of the few trouble spots" in the survey.

At a later news conference, he said much of that support could be attributed to age because the findings were consistent with numerous other surveys showing young people more inclined to violence and to support wars.

The poll briefly describes the rationales for and against "suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets" and then asks, "Do you personally feel that this kind of violence is often justified to defend Islam, sometimes justified, rarely justified, or never justified?"

The question did not specify where a suicide attack might occur, who might carry it out or what was meant by using a bombing to "defend Islam."

In other findings:

_Only 5 percent of U.S. Muslims expressed favorable views of the terrorist group al-Qaida, though about a fourth did not express an opinion.

_Six in 10 said they are concerned about a rise in Islamic extremism in the U.S., while three in four expressed similar worries about extremism around the world.

_Yet only one in four consider the U.S. war on terrorism a sincere attempt to curtail international terror. Only 40 percent said they believe Arab men carried out the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

_By six to one, they say the U.S. was wrong to invade Iraq, while a third say the same about Afghanistan — far deeper than the opposition expressed by the general U.S. public.

_Just over half said it has been harder being a U.S. Muslim since the 9/11 attacks, especially the better educated, higher income, more religious and young. Nearly a third of those who flew in the past year say they underwent extra screening because they are Muslim.

The survey estimates there are roughly 2.35 million Muslim Americans. It found that among adults, two-thirds are from abroad while a fifth are U.S.-born blacks.

By law, the Census Bureau does not ask about people's religions.

Telephone interviews were conducted with 1,050 Muslim adults from January through April, including some in Arabic, Urdu and Farsi. Subjects were chosen at random, from a separate list of households including some with Muslim-sounding names, and from Muslim households that had participated in previous surveys.

The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 5 percentage points.


Want to peek at the answer? Here is the article.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Lamest post ever.

Recently Tara Smith of Aetiology remarked on a new blogging meme making the rounds. The essence of it is to post a picture of your coffee cup and remark on whether or not you think it reflects your personality in some way. I am, as it happens, game for this today as I'm running late and have little interest in crafting some higher quality blog post. So, for those who are curious, here is my coffee mug:



What can I say? It's large, owing to my crushing caffeine addiction, and it's insulated, reflecting my preference for drinking my coffee over a long period. My Sainted Fiancee has a tendency to complain about how long it takes me to drink my coffee but, hey, some of us like to savor our morning dose of liquid crack. For those who can't read it clearly, my mug says "NRAO" on the side, which refers to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, a gigantic organization that includes, among other things, the Very Large Array in New Mexico. Readers of this blog are well aware of my obsession with space so it should not surprise you that my family is also so aware. So, when my sister and her husband were on their honeymoon in New Mexico, they brought me back a coffee mug and a refrigerator magnet. That's the kind of gift that someone like me would really like, but most people would regard as totally lame.

To add to our coffee mug fun, allow me to also supply a picture of my Sainted Fiancee's coffee mug:



Those who, again, have difficulty reading will note that on the side it says "Queen of Everything." Needless to say, I like to think this mug works as a self-esteem booster. As I usually set the table for breakfast in the morning it's up to me to select coffee mugs for everyone. I'm a creature of habit, so the NRAO mug is a regular pick but the Queen cup only comes out, I like to joke, if my Fiancee hasn't been cranky. It goes without saying that the mug comes out more often than not.

And so, dear readers, we come to the end of the single most boring blog post ever.

Huzzah!

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Friday, May 18, 2007

A little perspective.

It used to be that people thought that the Earth was the center of the universe. Come to think of it, for some folks that hasn't changed. Nevertheless, it used to be a common idea that we humans were the most important things in existence. The absolute pinnacle of creation, if you will. I don't have a problem with feeling good about being human but, really, I think that it's useful to try and get a little perspective on just how big and important we humans really are.











Some people might say that by emphasizing how small and insignificant humans are I'm being nihilistic. I think that it is quite the opposite. A universe tailored so that we humans were automatically big and important would be like an adult who only played games suitable for a five year old. Such an adult would obviously be more than capable of becoming expert at them and the experience would be nothing if not dull. I believe we have immense potential to learn and grow, I believe that we can meet whatever challenges come our way and, if nothing else, I think it's inspiring that the game board is so large.

I'm pretty excited that we get to play the big kid games. Don't you want to play too?

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

The difference between a cult and a religion is tax-exempt status.

An alert reader recently turned me on to the conflict between John Sweeney, a reporter for the BBC, and the Church of Scientology. During Sweeney's recent investigation of the religion, he ended up having a screaming fit. Specifically, he ended up having a screaming fit that is now being publicized through the magic of YouTube:



At first glance Sweeney's reaction would appear to be completely and totally out of line- "unexpected" as the voiceover in the above clip explains. This impression is largely correct. Given that Sweeney was trying to do a documentary of the group, such a violent and aggressive reaction was certainly not appropriate. Yet, while the Scientologists are spreading the story of Sweeney's explosion around, there are other things we should consider.

For example, we should consider Sweeney's own written explanation of what occurred where he apologizes for his behavior, but observes that he and his team were the victims of systematic harassment from scientologists for some time before the incident.

A campaign of harassment? Really? Does this sound like a conspiracy theory to anyone else? Should we really believe that Sweeney was harassed and provoked into his yelling fit? Well, as it happens, yes.

I can hardly believe that I've never discussed scientology on this blog but it appears to be true. I refer to it once or twice previously but never seem to have done a full-on post about it. That being the case, let's talk a little about Scientology.

Scientology is the philosophy/religion developed by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard. This religion was first outlined in a piece written for Analog Science Fiction and Fact, though at the time I believe that it was called Astounding. Scientology was originally pitched as a sort of new age philosophy and only later metamorphosed into the religion we see today. To discuss L. Ron Hubbard for a moment, it is important to keep in mind that he was nothing if not a flamboyant man. During World War II he served in the U.S. Navy and, so far as anyone can tell, engaged in a three day battle with a magnetic anomaly. He also committed an act of war against Mexico but, hey, at least they forgave us for that one. As an author Hubbard is, hands down, amazingly bad. This is not to say that he can't write an interesting story, but rather that his paranoid and bizarre philosophy gradually infiltrated everything he wrote. I'm in a position to know, too, as I have a read a considerable number of his works including Battlefield Earth, Final Blackout, and Mission Earth, the ten volume series that totals close to 4,000 pages of printed material. I can honestly attest that, in my opinion, Hubbard is a godawful writer and I would much prefer to be kicked rather hard in the stomach than read even a single Mission Earth book ever again. Seriously- they involved necrophiliac hitmen among other things.

None of that really relates to his church, however, and his church is something else entirely. You can find a wealth of material about Scientology both on Wikipedia and at the anti-scientology site Operation Clambake but let's just hit the highlights with a few facts:

Fact: A central part of Scientology is auditing, a sort of combination of psychotherapy and the confessional. Auditing is meant to replace psychiatric help and to enable the worshipper to forego medications of all sorts. And I do mean all sorts. Auditing is often used to recover details of past lives, including lives where the individual was a species of clam. A very heavily traumatized species of clam, as it happens.

Fact: A part of auditing are security checks, or interrogation about a large number of possible offenses, often from past lives, that will be recorded in Church files with little or no guarantee of confidentiality.

Fact: Scientologists believe that their bodies contain Thetans, or soul-equivalents that have unlimited power over the universe. This power has been restricted by trauma experienced in countless past lives and can be released via scientology. Of course, releasing this power costs literally hundreds of thousands of dollars. Think about the worst properties of a religion and a pyramid scheme merged and you'll have Scientology.

Fact: One of the main sources of trauma for thetans are the actions of the ruler of the Galactic Confederacy, Xenu, who gathered a whole bunch of people together in interstellar DC-8's, deposited them in volcanos on Earth, and then blew them up with thermonuclear weaponry.*

Fact: No, I am totally not making any of that up.

Fact: Additional sources of trauma are frankly too numerous for me to repeat. They're also mind-numbingly bizarre.

Fact: Scientology has its own timeline for the universe that is so completely at odds with science that it isn't even funny.

Fact: Individuals who oppose or criticize Scientology are often labelled "fair game" which means, in the words of L. Ron himself: "ENEMY — SP Order. Fair game. May be deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologist. May be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed."

Fact: Scientology has engaged in espionage operations against the United States Government that resulted in a federal sting. Among others, this sting resulted in the conviction of Hubbard's wife.

Fact: Scientology attempted to frame a journalist critical of them with several felonies.

So, given all of these facts, do we consider it plausible that John Sweeney was provoked? You better believe it. And if that isn't enough, maybe a little context on the above video is in order:



Now, I'm not trying to say that Scientology is the prime-evil of our world. It's not. As it happens, I think it's just a young religion going through its paranoid-schizophrenic stage. Frankly, I think it's fascinating from a sociological standpoint. Additionally, while I laugh at the bizarre beliefs of Scientology, I don't really see how believing in Xenu is any different from basing your religion on a guy who could generate unlimited bread and fish, walk on water, and rise from the dead. To be totally honest all unsubstantiated tales of fantastic events are pretty much equal in my view. Sure Scientology sounds batshit looney but, really, its brand of batshit looney is simply younger than other popular name brands. So, while I'm not a fan of Scientology, I don't really think it's that much worse than, say, the Inquisition or the Taliban. Many people may not like or trust Scientology but it is a religion, however bizarre and unhealthy it may be.

But that said maybe Scientology is an object lesson that, perhaps, it isn't a good idea to give religion a free pass just because it's religion.


* This always struck me as the kind of overkill that a seven year-old boy would come up with: "Oh, wow, you know what would be cooler than blowing people up with a nuclear bombs? Putting them in a volcano and THEN blowing them up with a nuclear bomb! Awesome!"

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Getting back up to speed...

I have returned from my recent journies with my Sainted Fiancee and am none the worse for wear. This is, of course, despite our foray into a very, very dark cave. Don't ask and yes I'm serious. I can't complain as some of my relatives live in even less pleasant locations. Like Cleveland.

In any case, I find that much has transpired in my absence- particularly that the army has somehow "lost" three soldiers in Iraq and that Jerry Falwell has died. In response to the former I can only express my deepest hopes that these men are found and returned safely to their families.

In response to the latter I could say a lot more. It will probably not surprise any of you that I didn't much care for Jerry Falwell. He founded the so-called Liberty University, an organization which has helped advance the idea that knowledge can simply be rejected if it conflicts with religious doctrine. He has produced deliberate libel about an ex-President, has insulted homosexuals, and has become famous for his varied remarks including, in reference to the September 11th attacks: "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'" Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's true: Jerry Falwell was not my sort of guy.

How should I react, however, to news of his death? Should I celebrate his passing, virtually dancing on his grave? I think not- however much I disliked him, he was still a man and is doubtless mourned by his family. Were I religious I might simply remark that he is now getting his just desserts but, as an atheist, I believe no such thing. In the end, I think I will employ a tried and true method of reacting to someone's death- the editorial cartoon. Following the death of almost any major figure, there are always a spate of cartoons trying to sum up the experience. For example, following the loss of the space shuttle Columbia there was this cartoon:



A relatively tasteful effort to be sure, although often such cartoons are somewhat objectionable. Frequently the depiction features the deceased person as they are following their death. For example, there's this cartoon that followed the death of Rosa Parks:



As an atheist I don't believe that some grand fate awaits Jerry Falwell or anyone else. There is no paradise sitting on god's right hand* but, also, there is no eternal hellfire awaiting those who failed to engage in sufficient ritual cannibalism. Thus if I were to depict Jerry Falwell's afterlife, this is the best I could do:



Perhaps there is no glory in death for an atheist but, at the very least, there is also no need to inflict suffering on those with whom we disagree. In atheism there is mercy.

Hallelujah.


* It's always seemed odd to me that being good earns you a place on god's right hand. Partly because I always assumed that god would want the hand back but also, to be honest, because it sounds boring as all hell. Really.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

"You'll never guess where I am..."

Just at the moment, Drek fans, I am away from my normal digs visiting my Sainted Fiancee's cousin. He's a fun guy who is interested a variety of environmentally-friendly causes and lives with his own fiancee. Who is Hungarian. And blows glass for fun. Needless to say, they're an interesting pair. In any case, I am more or less indisposed for the time being but normal blogging should resume on Wednesday.

In the meantime if you need your normal dose of irreverance try Bible Fight, the flash game that allows you to pit various biblical characters* against each other in a fight to the finish. I mean, I'm not the only one who has ever wanted to see Eve beat the shit out of Noah, right?

I didn't think so.


* I know the convention is to refer to them as biblibal "figures," but I often thinks this gives the bible too much credit.**

** Heh. That reminds me of that period in my life when I wanted to be a fiction writer. I used to joke that I wanted to write a really, really long novel- I mean we're talking "War and Peace" long- and then refer to it as, "The longest work of fiction since the bible." Ah... dare to dream.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Pathology Report: Graduate School

1. Introduction

Graduate school is an infectious pathogen first identified in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Despite advances in modern medicine it remains a problem striking, in 2004, as much as 10% of the population at one time or another. While it has never reached epidemic proportions it can be reasonably regarded as endemic to the United States.


2. Contagion

Graduate School is contracted, like most other infectious agents, from others who are carriers of the disorder. These carriers typically come in two forms. The first form are early-stage cases who have recently contracted graduate school (typically <1 year). These individuals are often excitable, talkative, and capable of spreading the disorder to uninfected individuals through speech, leading to speculation that the infectious agent is airborne. The second carrier type is an individual who has been infected with graduate school but has survived the infection passing into a stage when symptoms are no longer apparent (A stage VIII case; see section 3.8 for details). Much like chicken pox, once an individual has overcome a bout of graduate school they usually aquire an immunity preventing any further bouts. Unlike chicken pox, however, individuals in this "immune" state remain carriers and can, though relatively infrequently, produce new infections. There is some debate that a third carrier may exist- that graduate school may form some sort of "spore" that can remain dormant in musty places like books and libraries. These spores can apparently remain viable for an undetermined period and directly infect those who spend a great deal of time in such locations. This last carrier is, however, still much in dispute.

The at-risk population for graduate school is primarily well-educated individuals aged 20-24. It is not unknown, however, for individuals as old as 50 who have not previously contracted the disorder to come down with graduate school, though it remains a predominantly young adult disease. Most victims are middle to upper class in family background (though this is by no means a certainty) and are often in otherwise excellent health. One unusual aspect of the disorder is that while domestic U.S. cases are declining foreign cases seem to be on the rise. As the U.S. remains one of the primary treatment centers for graduate school many of these foreign cases ultimately travel to the United States.


3. Symptomology

As graduate school produces a wide variety of symptoms over a period of years the symptomology is divided into subsections according to the stage of the disease. Note that there is considerable variability in the order in which stages are reached and, as such, this is a somewhat idealized progression.


3.1: <6 months (Stage I: Infection Stage)

Individuals in the infection stage are often restless and anxiety prone. Their cognition tends to be limited, focussing on standardized testing and obsessively reviewing notes and study guides. Individuals in this stage may seek treatment at Kaplan or Princeton Review clinics, although there is little verifiable evidence that such clinics have any beneficial effect. Panic attacks may emerge in this stage and the patient may become well-known to first responders such as faculty advisors or Bursar's Office employees. Family and friends may notice sudden changes in eating and sleeping habits.


3.2: >6 months <1 year (Stage II: Confirmation Stage)

Infected individuals who do not defeat the infection within 6 months are most likely on the way to a full-blown case. If a case passes through the infection stage the patient will temporarily experience a sense of elation and a feeling of well-being. These will often lead them to move long distances, sometimes to new countries, settle into a new home, and develop new acquaintences. At this point the disorder seems exciting and is often enjoyable for the patient, thus complicating treatment immensely. Associates may notice that individuals in this stage appear more egotistical than they did previously and some develop a preference for unnecessarily large words during common speech.


3.3: 1 year to 3 years (Stage III: Masters Stage)

Cases between 1 and 3 years show a sudden crash from the elation of Stage II graduate school. At this point sleeping habits are almost certainly disrupted- most patients begin losing sleep and, in many cases, may average as little as four hours a night. Infected individuals begin to once more obsess about specific reading materials, often pouring over them at inappropriate moments. Even during leisure time, sufferers are likely to bring along these materials or to experience feelings of guilt or anxiety for their temporary failure to make use of them. At this point most individuals suffering from graduate school are sequestered in isolation wards operated by previous infectees who are now immune. Once in such wards the degree of contact those suffering from graduate school have with non-sufferers is greatly curtailed. This likely has positive public health consequences as it limits the likelihood of an epidemic, although it may worsen existing cases by infecting and reinfecting the sufferers with new mutant strains of graduate school. This stage usually terminates at the 3 to 4 year mark following a characteristic period of feverish reading and writing on a highly focussed subject. Many graduate school sufferers defeat the disorder at the end of stage III.


3.4: 3 years to 4 years (Stage IV: Examination Stage)

Stage IV graduate school is similar in symptomology to stage III. Sleeping habits often become less disrupted, though average nightly sleep likely will not rise above 5 hours a night. Anxiety and feelings of fear or worthlessness tend to decrease at this stage, apparently as a result of the relief produced by the end of the obsessive writing characteristic of late Stage III cases. Stage IV individuals continue to read obsessively, though usually on a wider array of subjects. Often the works required will be difficult to locate and pursued aggressively. In some cases those infected with graduate school may collaborate on obtaining these materials and, in other cases, compete. Interestingly, not all sufferers of graduate school pursue the same material, though all are equally obsessed. This stage terminates with a series of episodes where the infected sequester themselves in a room at the isolation ward and feverishly expel the material gleaned from their reading onto paper or into a computer file. Some treatment centers also engage in a form of verbal therapy intended to draw this material out more fully- much like lancing a boil.


3.5: 4 years to 5 years (Stage V: Lethargy Stage)

Cases of graduate school that pass stage IV often enter a period of lethargy. While some reading and writing behaviors persist, they often proceed at a much less feverish pace. Individuals in this stage often appear listless, uninterested in outside stimuli, and anomic. Some observers may mistake this stage for a decrease in symptoms preceding the return of health but, unfortunately, this is almost always not the case. This period is, instead, simply a temporary lull in the overall disorder. In rare cases this stage may last more than a year without either developing into Stage VI graduate school or a return to wellness. In this case an intervention may be required to move the sufferer out of Stage V. Clinical strategies for this include talk therapy ('pep talks'), shock therapy ('funding cuts'), and behavior modification ('RA work').


3.6: >5 years (Stage VI: Dissertation Stage)

Individuals in the dissertation stage resume many of the symptoms noted in stage III. Reading and writing becomes feverish again- often at an intensified level- and becomes even more tightly focussed. Those at this advanced stage often become irritable, intolerant of others (especially earlier stage graduate school victims), and return to irregular sleeping and eating habits. They may construct "dens" composed of old coffee mugs, empty food containers, mountains of books or periodicals, and a computer. Disturbing these dens can provoke sufferers to fly into a rage. Often considerable time will be spent with experimental apparatus. Anxiety levels are often at an all-time high in stage VI graduate school- sometimes as an unfortunate by-product of the clinical strategies employed to end stage V.


3.7: 7+ years (Stage VII: Terminal Stage)

Finally, a case lasting 7 years or more frequently becomes terminal. At this stage anxiety levels remain high, sleeping and eating habits remain disrupted, and obsessive reading/writing remains present. Additionally, feelings of depression, hopelessness, or low self-worth may set in. While graduate school itself is rarely fatal those who remain in terminal stage graduate school may become prone to self-injurious behavior, provoking the common refrain of those in this state: "Either I'm going to finish my degree this year, or I'm just going to kill myself." Fortunately, most individuals do not end their own lives but this final acute stage of graduate school can be extremely unpleasant both for the sufferer and those around them.


3.8: End of Symptoms (Stage VIII: Doctoral Stage)

Those who survive stage VII will pass into the post-infection Doctoral Stage. At this point the symptoms abate and the sufferer may lead a relatively normal life, although their long fight will leave them unable to carry on normal conversations or enjoy television programs or popular media that most other people find appealing. While those in Stage VIII may become respected members of their communities the "scars" of graduate school remain. In many cases these individuals take positions at isolation wards for graduate school sufferers, using their near immunity to their advantage.


4. Treatment

There is no known treatment for graduate school. At present the only options are supportive care that helps to keep the patient as comfortable as possible while the disorder follows its course.


5. Prophylaxis

Efforts at prevention have been largely unsuccessful. Wide dissemination of information regarding the horrors of graduate school was thought to be a useful strategy but, on closer analysis, appears to have the opposite effect. At present the factors that best predict a decrease in new cases of graduate school appear to be a strong economy, followed closely by Republican presidential administrations. Relatively little interest has been shown by pharmaceutical companies in treating graduate school both due to the relatively small number of acute sufferers and its tendency to clear up naturally.


6. Conclusion

Graduate school is a disorder that is clearly in need of additional epidemiological research but is unlikely to pose a serious threat to the public health in the near future. Isolation and supportive care are recommended until such time as an effective treatment becomes available.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Sick, twisted, gruseome... funny!

In lieu of an actual post today (since I'm busy) allow me to point all of you to the fine webcomic Perry Bible Fellowship. Now, I know what you're thinking: this doesn't sound like a webcomic that I would recommend. Hell, the splash page when you first go to the site probably doesn't do much to dispel that notion. Fear not, however: the PBF is chocked full of so much inappropriate humor that, in all honesty, it makes this blog look like Dick f-ing Clark's New Years "Rockin" Eve. Don't believe me? Then see for yourself. Do you like comics about pedophilia?



How about animal testing?



Or even old cartoons some of us remember from our childhood?



And those are the tame ones. Don't even get me started on the less appropriate examples. It's a funny webcomic if your sense of humor is anywhere near as crass and tasteless as my own. So, you know, several of you.

Have fun! As for me, I have to go argue with a student about how it isn't my fault if they failed my course after blowing it off for an entire semester.


As a side note: As always, at the request of the artist I will be happy to remove the comics from this blog. Mostly, I just think they make it more likely my readers will actually take a look.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The joy of planning...

Regular readers of this blog know that I am an asshole so it should come as no surprise that I come from a long line of assholes. Specifically, I come from a family that is made up almost entirely of pranksters. To us a good stunt is a little like a fine wine- something to be anticipated and then savored. In college my mother was notorious for harassing campus sororities. I would explain how but, frankly, it would take too long. My father, on the other hand, was well known for his creativity and managed to trick a fraternity brother into spraypainting his own armpits. I've had my own history with pranks but, frankly, I'd rather not talk about them here as the statute of limitations hasn't completely expired yet.

The thing that makes a good prank satisfying is the lengths to which one must go to accomplish it. A prank isn't like bullying someone, or placing the hand of a sleeping person in a bowl of water. Rather, pulling a prank is an artform that requires a lot of planning, considerable acting talent, and a fair amount of sheer gall. By the time a prank comes off you've been working on it for quite a while and, thus, seeing it come to fruition is something to be cherished.

Perhaps that's why I like this prank so much. As many of you know Yale and Harvard have something of a rivalry. This stretches back quite a long ways and shows no signs of abating any time soon. During a recent football game a group of dedicated Yale fans decided to perpetuate this rivalry with the help of a prank. Specifically, they decided to try to get the Harvard crowd at a football game to hold up a gigantic sign reading "We Suck." It goes without saying that they succeeded.* Take a look and admire the truly remarkable amount of effort that this required:



Mean? Possibly. Hilarious? Absolutely. A fine prank? No.

A superb prank.


* Not because Yale is so crafty or Harvard is dumb- just that we wouldn't be talking about it if it hadn't worked.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A Total Drek Exclusive...

Specially trained genetically engineered rastafarian ninjas* in the employ of Total Drek recently infiltrated our local Human Subjects Committee offices and returned with that most secret of documents: the research project preliminary review sheet. Finally, for the first time, we in the sciences can see the set of standards used to evaluate the appropriateness of our research. Please enjoy!


Human Subjects Committee Preliminary Review Sheet

Use the following checklist to determine if a research project is in need of review. Any project that accumulates 25 or more points should be reviewed by the full committee and a project accumulating 50 or more points should be summarily rejected.

(1) Does the project involve deception? (5 points)

(2) Does the project involve radiation? (10 points) If so, what kind:
(a) Alpha
(b) Beta
(c) Gamma
(d) Adaptive

(3) Does the project involve vulnerable populations? (10 points) If so, which:
(a) Children
(b) Prisoners
(c) Native populations
(d) Members of any ethnic community (e.g. black, Asian, Irish, etc.)
(e) Goats
(f) Other kinds of human

(4) Does the project involve shooting infectious substances into them? (20 points)

(5) Does the project involve a survey? (5 points)

(6) Does the survey ask questions about income, marital status or political affiliation? (15 points)

(7) Does the survey ask about gender orientation, sexual orientation, sexual habits, drug use, or criminal offending (i.e. almost everything that's interesting)? (30 points)

(8) Does the survey have margins that are not 1.5"? (10 points)

(9) Does the survey promise a reward for participation? (20 points)

(10) Does the survey promise compensation for participation? (10 points)

(11) Is the survey written in human blood? (2 points)

(12) Does the survey include questions about other people? (10 points)

(13) Does the survey fail to obtain consent from the other people the respondent is answering questions about? (15 points)

(13) Is the project an experiment? (5 points)

(14) Does the experiment involve electrical shocks? (15 points)

(15) Does the experiment involve enforced confinement? (20 points)

(16) Does the experiment involve a manipulation of some kind? (15 points)

(17) Does the experiment involve a room with chairs, a table, and some kind of writing implement? Or maybe a potted plant? (10 points)

(18) Is it Monday? (30 points)

(19) Is the research archival? (1 point)

(20) Do the archives contain data on anyone who is still alive? (15 points)

(21) Do the archives contain data on anyone who has descendants who are currently alive? (20 points)

(22) Do the archives contain data on government officials? (5 points)

(23) Do the archives contain data on government officials who are still in office? (15 points)

(24) Do the archives contain data on government officials who are partly or wholly responsible for the university budget? (45 points)

(25) Does the researcher's name sound foreign? (35 points)

(26) Is the research funded by the National Science Foundation? (10 points)

(27) Is the research funded by a drug company? (5 points)

(28) Does the research involve prayer or something else that's likely to get us mentioned in Newsweek? (-5 points)

(29) Is the research likely to benefit mankind? (10 points)

(30) Is the research so abstract that it is unlikely to ever impact anyone ever- infact, hell, it barely even requires human participation at all? (2 points)

(31) Does the researcher's first name have more than two vowels? (15 points)

(32) Is the researcher a graduate student? (20 points)

(33) Does the research involve passively watching people in a public place? (30 points)

(34) Does the research involve passively watching people in a semi-public place? (35 points)

(35) Does the research involve passively watching people in a private place? (40 points)

(36) Is it not so much "research" as "stalking your attractive neighbor with a high-powered camera"? (50 points)

(37) Can we get copies of the pictures? (-40 points)

(38) Does the research involve a group that has ever sued any researchers ever for some kind of research related transgression no matter how unrelated to the current project? (49 points)

(39) Will the data be stored in a secure location? (10 points)

(40) Will the data be stripped of all identifying information such that nobody could ever be harmed by it ever? (10 points)


* I'm pretty sure if you had a rastafarian ninja it would look something like this.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

The Inescapable Conclusion...

Fact: A gigantic mile-wide tornado recently obliterated the small town of Greensburg, Kansas. To really appreciate the damage done by this storm, you just have to see it.



Fact: Tornados are generally classed as "acts of god," or events beyond human control and primarily the responsibility of an all-powerfuly deity. The tornado in question here was classed on the Enhanced Fujita scale as an EF-5. This classification is marked by winds in excess of 200 miles per hour and is described as follows:


Incredible damage.
Strong frame houses leveled; [torn] off foundations and swept away; automobile-sized missiles fly through the air in excess of 100 m (109 yd); high-rise buildings have significant structural deformation; incredible phenomena will occur. So far only one EF5 tornado has been recorded since the Enhanced Fujita Scale was introduced on February 1, 2007.


Fact: In November of 2005 televangelist Pat Robertson warned the residents of Dover, Pennsylvania that for daring to vote a set of anti-science hicks out of their school board, god would send his wrath down upon them. Lest you think I'm exaggerating, what he said was:

"I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: If there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God. You just rejected him from your city," Robertson said on the Christian Broadcasting Network's "700 Club."

...

Later Thursday, Robertson issued a statement saying he was simply trying to point out that "our spiritual actions have consequences."

"God is tolerant and loving, but we can't keep sticking our finger in his eye forever," Robertson said. "If they have future problems in Dover, I recommend they call on Charles Darwin. Maybe he can help them."


Fact: Kansas has also been involved in the intelligent design hoopla. The school board in Kansas hasn't been voted out, exactly, but did recently repeal a set of religiously-motivated standards.

Fact: Greensburg, Kansas is about 1,300 miles from Dover, Pennsylvania.

Inescapable Conclusion: Either god decided that Kansas was more worthy of punishment than Dover, or his aim is just terrible.

Okay, all kidding aside, my sympathy is with the residents of Greensburg who have an awful lot to try to recover from. I can only imagine what kind of hardship they have before them. Donations can be made to the Red Cross here.

At the same time, however, does anyone think that Robertson's threats are in any way appropriate when viewing this kind of devastation? Is his talk of "spiritual consequences" reasonable when surveying a town that has been virtually wiped from the face of the Earth? I think quite clearly his god is not one that I want to believe in. It's not even one that is worth worshipping.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a truly inescapable conclusion.

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