Total Drek

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

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Not the reason I expected.

When I started blogging many, many moons ago I had no idea how long I might stick with it. I figured I might try it for a while and then decide it was too much work, that my readers were assholes, or just get bored and wander off. As it happens, none of these took place. While blogging is too much work for the payoff* most of my readers seem to be interesting folks and so far I have not gotten bored. Tired? Yes. Lazy? Sometimes. Bored? Never. So, for better or for worse, this blog has staggered drunkenly onwards for years.

Alas, I recently became aware of something that may spell the doom of Total Drek once and for all. Courtesy of Brad Wright I have become aware of a website that can supposedly estimate the worth of your blog. As in, tell you how many dollars your blog would go for on the open market. Brad reports that my blog is worth a considerable sum but, just to be safe, I decided to go for a second opinion. That opinion was, in a word, shocking:



Yes folks, that's right: my blog is worth in excess of thirty-seven million dollars! Holy shit! I should charge admission!** Doubtless my shareholders will be excited by this revelation but I find that I am somewhat melancholy at the news. Why? Simply this: if the IRS gets wind of this, I am screwed. I mean, seriously, the capital gains tax on something that I "bought" when it was worth zero dollars and now have valued at over thirty-seven million will be a tad... harsh. And by "harsh" I mean "a tax bill in excess of my earnings for the past decade."

Of all the things I expected this blog to become, my financial ruin was not among them.***


* That payoff being little more than the pleasure of blogging. Okay, really, I've also come to know some really awesome people which HAS made the whole thing worth it, but still...

** It goes without saying that nobody could possibly be willing to PAY for this crap.

*** I suppose it's possible that this valuation is a result of the increasingly weak dollar. If that's the case, however, I expect that a loaf of bread probably costs ten or twenty thousand dollars by now. Yay.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Total Drek has been experiencing technical difficulties.

For those who are curious, Blogger has been uncooperative pretty much all day. As a result I have been unable to post before now and am still having considerable difficulty. So, you know, check back in for more when the system will hopefull be fixed.

And if you just can't live for a day without ignorant commentary... well... you could always watch this.



Pretty solid, actually, although perhaps a bit over-the-top.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

A Total Drek News Break...

The nation was entertained this past week as creationists of several different stripes were slapped around by a series of scientific revelations. In each instance, the case for evolution has been strengthened and typical creationist canards reduced in strength.

In the first case, researchers have observed lizards evolving in a matter of decades. To provide a brief summary:

Here's the story: in 1971, scientists started an experiment. They took 5 male lizards and 5 female lizards of the species Podarcis sicula from a tiny Adriatic island called Pod Kopiste, 0.09km2, and they placed them on an even tinier island, Pod Mrcaru, 0.03km2, which was also inhabited by another lizard species, Podarcis melisellensis. Then a war broke out, the Croatian War of Independence, which went on and on and meant the little islands were completely neglected for 36 years, and nature took its course. When scientists finally returned to the island and looked around, they discovered that something very interesting had happened.

The original population of P. sicula was still present on Pod Kopiste, so we have a nice control population. These lizards are small, fast, insect-eaters in which the males defend territories.

Sadly, P. melisellensis on Pod Mrcaru had been extirpated. So we had a few innocent casualties of the experiment.

The transplanted P. sicula thrived and swarmed over the island of Pod Mrcaru, but they were different, and they had evolved in multiple ways.

The original P. sicula were insectivores who occasionally munched on a leaf; approximately 4-7% of their diet was vegetation. The P. sicula of Pod Mrcaru, though, had adopted a more vegetarian diet: examining their gut contents revealed that 34% of their diet was plants in the spring, climbing to 61% in the summer…and much of this diet was hard-to-digest stuff, high in cellulose. This is a fairly radical shift.

There were concomitant changes. The lizards' skulls were wider, deeper, and longer, and they had stronger bites — a necessity for chomping off bits of tough plants, instead of soft mosquitos. Instead of chasing bugs, they're browsing stationary plants, and their legs are shorter and they are slower. Population densities are higher. The Pod Mrcaru lizards no longer seem to defend territories, so there have been behavioral changes.


Are these critters still lizards? Absolutely. Are they substantially altered lizards shifting into a new niche? Hell yes. Score one for evolution.

Having secured evidence of recent evolution, scientists secured still more dramatic evidence of the transition of lizards into snakes. Specifically:

A fossil animal locked in Lebanese limestone has been shown to be an extremely precious discovery - a snake with two legs.

Scientists have only a handful of specimens that illustrate the evolutionary narrative that goes from ancient lizard to limbless modern serpent.

Researchers at the European Light Source (ESRF) in Grenoble, France, used intense X-rays to confirm that a creature imprinted on a rock, and with one visible leg, had another appendage buried just under the surface of the slab.

"We were sure he had two legs but it was great to see it, and we hope to find other characteristics that we couldn't see on the other limb," said Alexandra Houssaye from the National Museum of Natural History, Paris.

The 85cm-long (33in) creature, known as Eupodophis descouensi, comes from the Late Cretaceous, about 92 million years ago.


Finally, providing evidence of even more distant evolution, researchers announced that the results of tests on proteins discovered in the bones of Tyrannasaurus Rex fossils support the argument that modern birds are derived from dinosaurs:

In contrast, Asara's team had only those seven T. rex protein sequences to work with, and it turned out all of them matched up with modern-day sequences.

"Out of seven total sequences, we had three that matched chicken uniquely," Asara told reporters. "We had another that matched frog uniquely, one that matched newt uniquely, and a couple that matched multiple sequences."

The bottom line was that the T. rex's biological signature was most like a bird's, at least based on the first fragmentary data. "It looks like chicken may be the closest among all species that are present in today's databases for proteins and genomes," Asara said.

One reporter even wondered whether roasted T. rex might have tasted like chicken. "That could be true," said Asara, going along with the joke.

The researchers said they were heartened to see that different sequences matched the unique signatures of more than one species. That "pretty much convinced us this was very unlikely to be due to contamination," Asara said.


Creationist sources could not be reached for comment, although sources suggest that they are already laboring to develop a means of ignoring this evidence. Science groupie Drek the Uninteresting had only this to say: "Suck it, Ham!"

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Entirely too accurate.

This video more or less sums up my attitude towards the cats that live with* my wife and I.



Particularly, note the bit on corporal cuddling.


* It's worth pointing out that as far as cats are concerned, they are not so much "owned by" humans as "grace humans with their presence."

As a side note: I'm behind schedule today so, yes, this is what you get.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

I'm as surprised by the news as anyone.

In a move that will doubtless shock the nation, Texas recently decided not to grant a local educational institution accreditation for a Master's program in science education. Okay, more specifically, they made such a decision about an online Master's degree in science education to be offered by the Institute for Creation Research. Yes, you read that correctly: a degree in science education to be offered by the Institute for Creation Research. Seriously:

A Bible-oriented group's proposal to offer an online master's degree in science education was unanimously rejected Wednesday by a panel of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

The action by the board's Academic Excellence and Research Committee came after Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes recommended against the proposal, submitted by the Dallas-based Institute for Creation Research. The full coordinating board is scheduled to consider the matter today.

Paredes said the institute's plan is infused with creationism and runs counter to conventions of science, which hold that claims of supernatural intervention are not testable and therefore lie outside the realm of science. He also said that the institute, by insisting on a literal interpretation of biblical creation, would fail to prepare students adequately for the field of science education.

"Hence, the program cannot be properly designated either as 'science' or 'science education,' " Paredes said.


It's hard not to love the logic: the program has no science and certainly isn't about science education. Therefore, no accreditation for you! It's so simple, so elegant, so correct. The ICR appears to be taking the defeat in stride, however:

Henry Morris III, CEO of the Institute for Creation Research, said Wednesday's ruling was not a surprise. He conceded that his organization is biased in favor of a creationist worldview but said that shouldn't be a disqualifying factor.

"We do understand very thoroughly that we represent a minority viewpoint in the scientific community," Morris said. "We still feel we teach good science."


Indeed, they do very good science if by "good" you mean "horrible" and by "science" you mean "propaganda." Again, seriously:

The proposal by the Institute for Creation Research has been a difficult one for the coordinating board, in part because of what Paredes described as a flawed review process. The coordinating board's staff and an advisory committee recommended approval of the proposal last year, but Paredes ordered a fresh review after an outcry from scientists and science educators, including some of the state's leading university researchers.

Paredes said the institute's catalog and other records portray as unshakable fact that the Earth is about 6,000 years old, that God created all things in the universe in six days as described in Genesis, that theories of origin and development involving evolution are false, and that most biblical miracles require a temporary suspension of basic natural laws.

"Whatever the ultimate merit of such views, they clearly stand at odds with the most basic tenets of scientific work such as observation, testing and analysis," Paredes said.


Indeed, a program in science education run by a group that believes the Earth to be no more than 6,000 years old is a little like a seminary run by people whose only acquaintence with Christianity is "Jesus Christ Superstar." Actually, Superstar is too sympathetic to Christianity for that to be a good analogy- it would be more like a seminary run by the people who put on this musical.

In other news, following a close vote of 5 to 4, the Texas Bureau of Agriculture overruled a previous decision permitting foxes to guard hen houses.

"We just don't think it's a good idea," commented one senior observer.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Okay, we'll go with plan B.

I had a plan for today's blog post. Really, I did. Unfortunately, however, said post requires the cooperation of a different website which, as you might have guessed, is not cooperating.

So, while I continue to futz with this other site, allow me to direct you somewhere more interesting than here. Jason Rosenhouse, the proprietor of EvolutionBlog, has posted his own review of Expelled, the attempt by Ben Stein to demolish evolution. As you might guess, his review isn't all that positive but, honestly, not for the reasons you might expect:

I went to see Expelled yesterday. I am happy to report it was a private screening. Had the theater to myself. Last time that happened was when I saw Snakes on a Plane (a far more scientifically accurate film, by the way).

Granted, it was a Monday night. Indeed, when I go to see movies I nearly always do so on Mondays or Tuesdays specifically to avoid the crowds. The fact remains that for a new release I can typically count on about a dozen people watching the film with me. And let's not forget that I am living in a town that is -- how shall I put this? -- somewhat right of center politically. Should have been a ready-made audience for this dreck. Indeed, the low turnout even made me scotch my plans to write a letter to the editor of the local paper urging people to check out the Expelled Exposed website. Why call attention to the film if no one else seems to care?

Short review: The best part was the trailer for Get Smart that ran before the movie. (No, Steve Carrell does not do the voice.)

Folks, this movie is seriously boring. Granted, I am not an unbiased source. But I can honestly say this is one criticism I did not expect to be making. I was expecting to be laughing at the funny parts, getting angry at the getting angry parts, and hating myself all the while for getting sucked into the sick little Spock-with-a-goatee world the creationists and ID folks have created for themselves. It didn't happen. This movie is capital-B boring. I find this subject enthralling and still couldn't manage to pay attention.

The movie is, of course, a pack of lies from start to finish. How bad is it? The opening scene shows Ben Stein at a podium lecturing about freedom and America's greatness to an auditorium filled with Pepperdine University students, several of whom are seen stroking their chins thoughtfully while Stein does his thing. Only they are not Pepperdine students, who it turns out are too savvy to have anything to do with this. Turns out they are extras.


I don't want to ruin it for you but, by and large, when Expelled isn't boring and it isn't absurd it's just plain dishonest:

There was, of course, another segment to the film. That was where Stein, after assuring us that he wasn't blaming the holocaust on Darwinism, proceeds to blame the holocaust on Darwinism. Just in case you were worried that this segment was insufficiently offensive and tasteless (not to mention historically misinformed), Stein is quick to remind us that the spirit of the holocaust lives on in the form of Planned Parenthood, abortion and stem-cell research. He trots out a rogue's gallery of cranks for hire (David Berlinski, Richard Weikart, Steve Fuller) to help him make his case. Berlinski, for example, assured us that while Darwinism was not sufficient to lead to the holocaust, it was necessary for it. Ahem. I'm pretty sure attemps to exterminate the Jews long predate Charles Darwin, but why bother with such details.


Jason's thoughts are worth a read* and a ponder, so go take a look.

As for me... I'll be wrestling with a certain website.


* Hell, if nothing else, he has good taste in preferring Snakes on a Plane. That movie was extremely thought provoking.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

What in hell is wrong with you?!

Folks who know me are aware that I occasionally peruse Conservapedia and other repositories of insanity. Initially I embarked upon this effort because I wanted to better understand those with whom I disagree. As time has gone by, however, I have really come to realize that there may well be no understanding people who are so overwhelmed by hate that the logical portions of their brains are almost completely atrophied. At this point even I don't really know why I continue to indulge in such madness but, for better or worse, I do.

I bring this up because despite my long experience with teh crazy I am still, every now and then, utterly flabbergasted. This is actually one of those times. First, some background. Many of you know that Andrew Schlafly is the lord and high mugwug of Conservapedia. This is, of course, a bit like being the top loon in the asylum, but I digress. Andrew is the son of Phyllis Schlafly, whom some of you may remember for her spirited opposition to the ERA. Next, many of you will probably recall the horrible events of the Virginia Tech Massacre in which Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 innocent people before committing suicide. It was one of the worst school attacks in U.S. history. Cho was nominally majoring in English and creative writing though, by all accounts, showed relatively little promise.

So what do all these things have to do with each other? Folks, you'd better sit down for what I'm about to tell you.

According to Phyllis Schlafly, it would seem that Cho embarked upon a horrific shooting spree because of the instruction he received in his English major. Seriously:

What was the motive behind 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui's killing of 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech in April 2007? Why was he consumed with hate, resentment and bitterness?

Cho was an English Department major and senior. A look at the websites of Virginia Tech's English Department and of its professors reveals their mindset. We don't know which courses Cho took, but it could have been any of these.

Did he take Professor Bernice L. Hausman's English 5454 called "Studies in Theory: Representing Female Bodies"? The titles of the assigned readings include "Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature," "The Comparative Anatomy of Hottentot Women in Europe, 1815-1817," "Selling Hot Pussy: Representations of Black Female Sexuality in the Cultural Marketplace," "The Anthropometry of Barbie: Unsettling Ideals of the Feminine Body in Popular Culture," and "Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power."

One of the assignments in this course (worth 10% of the total grade) is to "choose one day in which they dress and comport themselves in a manner either more masculine or more feminine than they would normally."

...

Did Cho get evil egotistical notions from Professor Shoshana Milgram Knapp's senior seminar called "The Self-Justifying Criminal in Literature"?

Did Cho take Professor J.D. Stahl's senior seminar, English 4784, on "The City in Literature"? The assigned reading starts with a book about an urban prostitute who finally kills herself and a book about a violent man who kills his girlfriend.

Virginia Tech's Distinguished Professor of English, Nikki Giovanni, has built a reputation as a "renowned poet," even though many of her so-called poems feature violent themes and contain words that are not acceptable in civil discourse. She specializes in diversity, post-modernism, feminism, and multiculturalism. Giovanni appeared at a public celebration in 2006 to open Cincinnati's new Fountain Square. She used the occasion to call Ken Blackwell, then the Republican candidate for Ohio Governor, an "S.O.B.", and when challenged, simply repeated the slur. Did Cho take a course from Professor Paul Heilker, author of another peculiar piece called "Textual Androgyny, the Rhetoric of the Essay, and the Politics of Identity in Composition (or The Struggle to Be a Girly-Man in a World of Gladiator Pumpitude)"?

...

At the campus-wide convocation to honor the victims, Professor Nikki Giovanni read what purported to be a poem. On behalf of the English Department, she declaimed: "We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did nothing to deserve it."

Maybe others will render a different verdict and ask why taxpayers, parents and students are paying professors at Virginia Tech to teach worthless and psychologically destructive courses.


Yes, folks, that's right: reading books about gender and that included violent characters drove Cho over the edge into violence! It's the fault of Virginia Tech's English department that he killed 32 people. Of course! That makes perfect sense! I mean, obviously legal adults who can be drafted for military service, drink, and enter into legal contracts are incapable of dealing with harsh language or unpleasant characters. Quickly! We must ban all books dealing with such themes including that horrid little book called the bible that has all those descriptions of genocide, incest, rape and pointless butchery.

No, I'm not serious. The bible is no more likely to make someone violent than is the average Stephen King novel, but I'm so glad that Phyllis Schlafly is self-righteous enough to waste our time with such stupidity and victim-blaming. God forbid she exhibit even a shred of basic human decency.

Just utterly revolting.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

From the "Even I saw this coming" department...

Folks who are interested in preserving the environment are probably aware of oil substitutes like biofuels, or liquid fuels made from organic material. There has been a lot of talk about biofuels as a way to allow us to have our cake and eat it too (i.e. get off of fossil fuels but not have to cut back on fuel usage). At heart the idea is simple, and not entirely unreasonable: since fossil fuels are manufactured* out of organic material over millions of years, perhaps we could do the same thing in a much shorter span of time. Either way, what we basically have is a way of converting energy from the sun into a liquid form that we can burn in an internal combustion motor and- however you look at it- that's super cool. Of course, there are problems with this. Big problems. I've tackled one of them before: that producing biofuel out of crops is intrinsically inefficient and wasteful. As such, I have always doubted that biofuels would be all that effective at improving our energy situation.

Well, as it turns out, I was correct but, unfortunately, missed the more immediate implications. I was, and am, correct that growing crops to produce biofuel is a horribly inefficient and wasteful approach to generating power. What I missed, however, is that the first victims of this inefficiency would be the world's poor. As it turns out, the increasing use of biofuels is hitting them where it hurts the most- their stomachs:

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said Friday that the growing emphasis on corn-based ethanol has contributed to higher food prices, and he said the nation should begin "moving away gradually" from ethanol made from food such as corn.

"As we pursue diversity in our overall energy mix, we must also pursue diversity in our biofuels," Mr. Bodman said at a conference in Alexandria, Va. "This means moving away gradually from ethanol produced from foodstocks like corn."

Mr. Bodman's remarks come as efforts to make motor-vehicle fuels from grains such as corn are coming under fire amid soaring world food prices and food riots in several countries. A U.N. report Tuesday called biofuels a "crime against humanity."


As I've said before, we can either make ourselves feel good about the environment, or we can actually do good for the environment.

I know which one I prefer, how about you?


* Manufactured by that enormous factory I like to call, "the Earth."

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Friday, April 18, 2008

I don't know if this is good news or not.

Some of you may remember a while back when I posted over on the other blog about American views of atheists. As you will no doubt recall, they were not terribly positive and, indeed, we atheists were viewed more negatively than even Muslims and homosexuals. What can I say? My father always told me, "Drek, if you're gonna do something, do it right!" so I suppose I'm doing the whole "be hated" thing quite well. You're welcome, Dad!

In any case, I recently ran across a bit of interesting news courtesy of the Gallup organization. As it turns out atheists may not be the most disliked group after all. We appear to have been beaten out by Scientologists:



As you can see, atheists were rated negatively 45% of the time while Scientologists rated negatively 52% of the time. So, it's nice to know we're not as disliked as people who routinely brainwash their members. On the other hand, atheists are rated favorably 13% of the time while Scientologists only manage 7%. I can't say that this makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside but, hey, I'll take what I can get.

As you look over the scores for the other religious groups I'd just like to make an additional observation: I think the scores for evangelical and fundamentalist Christians are very interesting. Specifically, note the percent who gave them neutral ratings, which is much lower than any other group except Scientologists. Likewise, the percentage that gives them negative ratings is much higher than for any of the mainstream faiths (e.g. Catholics, Baptists, Methodists). Additionally, however, the percent giving them positive ratings is also quite good, easily outstripping Mormons. So, it looks to me that when we're looking at Muslims, atheists, and Scientologists there is a fair consensus against these groups. When looking at Methodists, Jews, Baptists and Catholics there is consensus in favor of these groups. But, when it comes to evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, what we actually see is a degree of polarization: either people like these groups, or they don't, but they aren't generally that ambivalent about them.*

I'm forced to wonder if this is a result of the foray into politics made by fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity in recent decades. Rather than bringing a moral** element to politics, perhaps the main effect has been to poison the religious well by driving the faithful deeper into the fold and shoving those with other views even further towards the margins.***

Just a thought.


* Mormons, of course, are the very picture of ambivalence as almost half of the population is neutral and the positive and negaitve views are fairly evenly split.

** Absurd, really, since politics in our country is more or less always a collision of different ethical systems and beliefs. To assert that your faith must return morality to government reflects a breathtaking degree of egotism.

*** As defined by evangelicals and fundamentalists, anyway. Those "margins" may often just be the heart of other faiths.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Confessions of a new uncle.

Recently my older sister gave birth to her first child- a daughter. In giving birth to this child my sister became a mother and I, of course, became an uncle. This means that I will be responsible for all sorts of uncle-y duties which, from my own experiences of uncles, largely consist of playing practical jokes and being weird. As those who know me can attest, I should have these aspects of my job covered with considerable aplomb.

Other duties have arisen, however, that are more problematic. Just before the birth my mother and father took an extended vacation to my sister's town of residence in order to assist with the infant. They were there for the birth, were there while the little one was still in the hospital, and have been helping to care for the new bundle of joy.* This means that I have been innundated with pictures of the child, the child with her mother, the child with her father, the child with my mother, the child with my father, the child with her toys, the child with her crib, the child with the dog, the child with the cat, the child hailing her first cab... you get the point. My wife and I have been swallowed up in a virtual hurricane of photographic evidence all pointing to the inescapable conclusion that my sister has somehow come into possession of a small baby and really wants everyone to know about it.

There's nothing wrong with this, and I'm glad my sister is happy. She and her husband deserve all the happiness in the world. It's just that these pictures make me feel terrible about myself. No, it's not that I am at present without children.** It's just that... well... I have this problem with all the pictures. I look at them, and everyone is so happy. My mom is smiling, my sister is glowing, my father is so proud. And then I look at my new niece and no matter how hard I try to stop it, the only thought that pops into my head- time and time again- is "Quaid! Start the reactor! Free Mars!"***

I am a horrible, horrible person.


* Actually, from what I can tell, my niece was initially a bundle of screaming madness, but that's not the point.

** I'm fairly certain that if my wife and I were expecting right now I would already have descended into total insanity.

*** If you don't know the reference this will not be nearly so funny but I think you get the gist. Alas, my mind wanders where it will and sometimes does so despite my express wishes.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Best news ever.

I am not normally inclined to get excited over the latest story linking diet to health. I mean, I'm pleased that eating two cups of cottage cheese* a day can help boost my resistance to herpes but, to be frank, I'm skeptical that individual foods make that big a difference. Often beliefs about the healing powers of foods are dramatically overblown- such as the belief that red wine or green tea have some sort of mystical life-extending abilities. Sure, people who live in countries where a lot of those products are consumed have long life expectancies, but they are hardly the only differences.

All that said, however, I have decided to throw caution to the wind and get excited about this recent news. As it turns out, there may be a readily available foodstuff that can help prevent multiple sclerosis. Maybe:

Mice given caffeine equivalent to a human drinking six to eight cups of coffee a day were protected from developing experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE), the animal model for the human disease Multiple Sclerosis (MS), according to researchers at Cornell University.

Caffeine is a well-known adenosine receptor blocker, and the researchers believe results show the importance of this molecule in permitting the infiltration of immune cells into the central nervous system of patients with MS.

...

Caffeine's stimulatory effects on the CNS are in large part due to its ability to bind to the same receptors as adenosine, thus blocking adenosine's ability to affect CNS cells. Mice that consumed caffeine in their drinking water were protected from development of EAE, the MS model. Dr. Bynoe concludes that these experiments show that CD73 and adenosine receptor signaling are required for the efficient entry of immune cells into the CNS during the initiation and progression of EAE in mice and, quite possibly, during the development of MS in humans.

Dr. Bynoe adds, "These results might mark the first in a series of discoveries from our lab that could spawn the impetus for the development of adenosine-based therapies for the treatment of MS."


Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that's right: I can now justify the consumption of my drug of choice** with the claim that it is not merely fun, but actually good for me!

I don't think I've ever been so happy!


* In my view one of the most revolting food items widely available in this country.

** Caffeine in virtually any liquid form and particularly coffee. Still, I concede I am rather intrigued by Shower Shock.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Because I needed the visual aids.

Those who follow the blog of Brad Wright may be aware that he and I have been having a chat over the last few days. A while back he wrote a post asking whether or not the sociology of religion must, almost by definition, assume the non-existence of god. I waited a day to see what people would come up with and- as it happens- nobody answered Brad's question. Seriously, it was the electronic equivalent of asking your students a question and watching their heads all turn towards some fascinating bit of text on their desks. Having been in this position before I couldn't not say something, so I decided to bite the bullet and offered an answer to Brad's question.

My take, in short, was that the sociology of religion doesn't have to assume that god doesn't exist, but it's more scientifically productive if it proceeds as though it assumes god doesn't exist. Brad then responded to my thoughts on the matter, I asked him to clarify his comments and he obliged me.

Now, having reached this point in the conversation I have realized that I need some visual aids, which is where y'all come in. Congratulations- I'm using this post as a sort of expanded comment to Brad's original post. So, hey, if you weren't following the conversation, you are now!

Brad concluded his most recent comments by saying:

It's not clear to me, however, that once we focus on natural mechanisms (without putting the supernatural in our model), it really doesn't matter which assumptions we make about the supernatural. (At least formally--certainly our assumptions creep into our work, but that's for another post).

As such, I don't see the value of assuming that God doesn't exist for doing sociology of religion.

Thoughts?


I think my response is that it doesn't matter for the production of theories so long as the supernatural is not permitted as a variable, causal or otherwise. However, the caveats in this answer are crucial. We can imagine two related but distinct factors in this discussion: whether or not we use the supernatural as a causal variable and whether or not we assume that a god or gods exists. Then, in a move that will surprise no sociologist anywhere, we are in a position to produce a 2x2 table. This table, as it happens, is below:



The way I see it* these four combinations of two factors produce four possible "systems," two of which are very similar. First, when a god or gods is assumed to exist and the supernatural is permitted as a causal variable we are operating in the realm of theology. Thus, praying that god will guide events to a satisfying conclusion in some mysterious and non-material way reflects both belief in the existence of such a being as well as in the supernatural as a factor determining events in the universe.

The second combination, acceptance of the supernatural as a causal variable with an assumption that a god or gods does not exist, falls into the category of magic. Magic represents an attempt to exert control over the material world and may presuppose that there are regular causal linkages that can be uncovered but, unlike science, does not necessarily rely on a comprehensible causal chain. The elements that mediate cause and effect in magic are not apparent and, indeed, may be thought of as explicitly supernatural. So, performing the right ritual over a prospective voodoo doll will allow the magician to harm an enemy, but the mechanisms that allow this ritual to work are unknown and, indeed, unknowable. Additionally, it is not necessary that one believe in a god or gods in order for magic to be worked or believed in.

The third combination, assumption that a god or gods exists paired with a rejection of the supernatural as a causal variable, is natural philosophy. Indeed, in the infancy of science the natural philosophers thought that by understanding the laws of the world we would grasp the thoughts of god. In their case, however, recourse to supernatural explanations was frowned upon. Indeed, if god must make a common event occur through supernatural means it implies that he is "cheating" or, put another way, is not quite omnipotent enough to create a universe where such an event can occur without his direct intervention.**

Finally, the fourth combination in which god is assumed not to exist AND the supernatural is not admitted as a causal variable is what I term naturalism. In this case natural explanations are sought if only because there are no other possible types of explanations.

The way I see it, Brad is asking if I think there is a difference between research done in the context of the "naturalism" cell and research done in the context of the "natural philosophy" cell. I would respond that, really, there most likely isn't. Natural philosophy is equivalent to deism in this context and a deist scientist and an atheist scientist are likely to produce similar sorts of theories as, in each case, the ingredients of those theories and explanations consist only of things drawn from the natural world. Thus, for purposes of our conversation, these two cells are distinct but not different. Theists of any stripe can assume that god exists and, indeed, worship a god quite eagerly, but still do very good science so long as that belief isn't permitted to introduce supernatural causation or factors into the models.

That said, I think it quite likely that scientists operating in the realm of natural philosophy might find different research questions interesting than those who operate in the realm of naturalism. I do not personally, however, find such a difference to be of very much concern. A diversity of interests in science is not a bad thing and, so long as all parties follow the appropriate procedures for exploring the world, can only produce a fuller understanding of our universe. As far as I'm concerned, knowledge is rarely a bad thing.

Or so I would say given the relatively minimal amount of thought I've put into this. Others are invited to disagree.


* For the record, my views are informed by Rodney Stark's 2001 article "Reconceptualizing Religion, Magic, and Science." Review of Religious Research 43(2): 101-120.

** Known formally as the "God isn't a wuss" objection to supernatural causation.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Not quite on the mark.

Many folks who pay attention to election news probably know that Barack Obama made something of a gaffe* over the weekend. Specifically he more or less suggested that depressed economic conditions can lead people to become more religious, more fond of firearms, and more prejudiced. Or, to quote the candidate:

Obama was caught in an uncharacteristic moment of loose language. Referring to working-class voters in old industrial towns decimated by job losses, the presidential hopeful said: "They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."


Everyone is, of course, going apeshit over the notion that a political candidate should be so demeaning about religion.** It is important to recall that, in this country, our separation of church and state is so very strong that if you don't kiss a lot of clerical ass during a campaign you're pretty much DOA.

I don't personally have a lot of trouble with what he said but I don't think that he's really put his finger on the main problem. I don't think it's a big issue if people get bitter and turn to guns or religion. I thing it's a big issue when they turn to guns and religion. Our experiences with that have, thus far, been uniformly bad.

Close, candidate Obama, but not quite on the mark.


* Defined in this case as, "Saying something publicly that is unpleasant but, in the eyes of many, probably true."

** Actually, I don't think he's being all that demeaning about religion. If he had said, "People turn to religion in difficult times for comfort and support," nobody would have a problem. That said, I could certainly see how his remarks could be viewed as insulting to folks from small towns. Then again, given that I'm from a small town in the South... yeah. Dude's totally got a point, okay?

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Friday, April 11, 2008

I'm just glad Conservapedia hasn't decided to comment.

A while back I mentioned something that made me very, very angry.* I am sorry to say that this is even worse:

The stories are shocking in their simplicity and brutality: A female military recruit is pinned down at knifepoint and raped repeatedly in her own barracks. Her attackers hid their faces but she identified them by their uniforms; they were her fellow soldiers. During a routine gynecological exam, a female soldier is attacked and raped by her military physician. Yet another young soldier, still adapting to life in a war zone, is raped by her commanding officer. Afraid for her standing in her unit, she feels she has nowhere to turn.

These are true stories, and, sadly, not isolated incidents. Women serving in the U.S. military are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq.

The scope of the problem was brought into acute focus for me during a visit to the West Los Angeles VA Healthcare Center, where I met with female veterans and their doctors. My jaw dropped when the doctors told me that 41% of female veterans seen at the clinic say they were victims of sexual assault while in the military, and 29% report being raped during their military service. They spoke of their continued terror, feelings of helplessness and the downward spirals many of their lives have since taken.

Numbers reported by the Department of Defense show a sickening pattern. In 2006, 2,947 sexual assaults were reported -- 73% more than in 2004. The DOD's newest report, released this month, indicates that 2,688 reports were made in 2007, but a recent shift from calendar-year reporting to fiscal-year reporting makes comparisons with data from previous years much more difficult.


There's nothing I can really say here. Much as I respect the U.S. military, if our female soldiers are in as much or more danger from their comrades as from the enemy, I don't see how we can consider ourselves a civilized people.


* For those who are curious, the Marine accused of murdering his fellow soldier was just captured.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Two brief updates for the curious...

I am still pretty busy at present and don't have a lot of time to blog. So, to keep all of you entertained, I have two brief morsels of blogerly goodness.

The first comes to us courtesy of Pure Pedantry and relates a tale that should make all of our blood run cold: the subpoena of a blogger. Specifically, Kathleen Seidel of Neurodiversity.com has been tagged to offer testimony on a case relating to the vaccine/autism hoopla. Not only that, however, she has also been asked to produce some records. What records you ask? Well... a lot. From Pure Pedantry:

9. The subpoena commands production of "all documents pertaining to the setup, financing, running, research, maintaining the website http://www.neurodiversity.com" - including but not limited to material mentioning the plaintiffs - and the names of all persons "helping, paying or facilitating in any fashion" my endeavors. The subpoena demands bank statements, cancelled checks, donation records, tax returns, Freedom of Information Act requests, LexisNexis® and PACER usage records. The subpoena demands copies of all of my communications concerning any issue which is included on my website, including communications with representatives of the federal government, the pharmaceutical industry, advocacy groups, non-governmental organizations, political action groups, profit or non-profit entities, journals, editorial boards, scientific boards, academic boards, medical licensing boards, any "religious groups (Muslim or otherwise), or individuals with religious affiliations," and any other "concerned individuals."


As you've probably guessed this is little more than an attempt to intimidate a critic of the vaccine/autism argument and is utterly loathesome. Given the sorts of tactics routinely employed by the anti-vaccination camp I know that I shouldn't be surprised by this but, hey, I still am. What can you do?

The other bit of internet madness I commend to your attention comes to us courtesy of Conservapedia and, in particular, Andy Schlafly. Many of you are probably aware of the parable in the bible (John 7:53-8:11) where a crowd brings an adultress to Jesus and asks what he would do. After they press him for an answer, he replies "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." It is, perhaps, one of the most famous bible passages at least in part becuase it is said to exemplify the spirit of Christian mercy and humility.

Well, that's according to me anyway. Ask Andy Schlafly and he'll tell you something different:

The conservative, evangelical translation of the Bible (NIV) flatly says "The earliest and most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11."

Amid this scholarship, why is the emphasis on this passage increasing? The answer lies in its liberal message: do not criticize or punish immoral conduct unless you are perfect yourself. But one need not be perfect before he can recognize wrongdoing in himself. The Mosaic laws clearly state death as a punishment for sin. So the argument that an individual must be perfect is not relevant. The God-ordained government has the responsibility for punishment. Civilized society may not depend on stoning to deter immoral crimes, but it does depend on retribution enforced by people who are themselves sinners.


So, basically, this passage is just another example of a liberal trick. Now, it does appear to be the case that the passage in question was added after the rest of the Gospel of John was written. That said, most experts also agree that the Gospel of John was itself written by a presently unidentified non-eyewitness. Thus, Schlafly's criticism doesn't really carry a great deal of weight. And, perhaps more importantly, is it necessarily a good idea to specifically attempt to carve out a passage that is generally taken to exemplify one of the best things about your own faith?

Well, since that passage seems to imply that the death penalty is bad, Schlafly says yes. I guess it's good to know that when it comes down to a choice between Jesus and capital punishment, Schlafly knows who comes out on top.

Good to know? Yes. Reassuring? No.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Just fantastic.

Pretty much all of you by this point know that I'm an atheist and that I'm very interested in seeing negative stereotypes about atheists decline. This desire motivates me not only to comment on things of interest to atheists but even to write a series of posts that attempt to explain some aspects of atheism to others.* So, it should come as no shock that a couple of things have gotten onto my radar this week.

The first, and in many ways most depressing, item are the comments by Illinois state legislator Monique Davis in reference to atheist Rob Sherman's testimony in opposition a one million dollar grant to a church in the Chicago area. So far as I can determine the church, arguably a historic structure, was destroyed by fire and the state governor vowed to allocate the money to rebuild it. Given that the historic structure was destroyed organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, lodged protests to this plan to funnel public monies to a religious institution. This is not what I want to talk about, however, as I am staggeringly uninformed about the specifics of the case.

Instead, I'd like to share with you a bit of the transcript of Representative Davis' comments:

Davis: I don’t know what you have against God, but some of us don’t have much against him. We look forward to him and his blessings. And it’s really a tragedy -- it’s tragic -- when a person who is engaged in anything related to God, they want to fight. They want to fight prayer in school.

I don’t see you (Sherman) fighting guns in school. You know?

I’m trying to understand the philosophy that you want to spread in the state of Illinois. This is the Land of Lincoln. This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God, where people believe in protecting their children.… What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous, it’s dangerous--

Sherman: What’s dangerous, ma’am?

Davis: It’s dangerous to the progression of this state. And it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! Now you will go to court to fight kids to have the opportunity to be quiet for a minute. But damn if you’ll go to [court] to fight for them to keep guns out of their hands. I am fed up! Get out of that seat!

Sherman: Thank you for sharing your perspective with me, and I’m sure that if this matter does go to court---

Davis: You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.


So, let's review: according to Representative Davis atheists are intrinsically harmful to society and it's dangerous if children even know we exist. Am I missing anything? Oh, yeah, right: we have no right to petition the government for redress of grievances. Well, we didn't need constitutional protections anyway. Really, I can ignore the bit about how atheism is dangeorus. If nothing else I take it as a compliment and, really, I'm none too fond of theism. Fair is fair. That said, I'm mighty annoyed that she seems to think that atheists don't have the right to argue points before our own government. If you listen to the audio of her comments it's fairly evident not only that was she really, really angry but also that the other people in the room largely agreed with her. Listen for the chorus of "amens" in particular. I have no particular opinion on the church grant issue but, really, in what sense is Davis' behavior in any way appropriate? Answer: it isn't.



Oh, and the best part? Davis is a Democrat.

From the other side of the political spectrum we have a recent article by Michael Medved arguing that Americans are right to resist an atheist president. Speaking as a guy who is interested in politics, I wasn't aware that we were in any danger of having an atheist president in the near future, but I digress. He begins with a fairly classic setup:

Despite the recent spate of major bestsellers touting the virtues of atheism, polls show consistent, stubborn reluctance on the part of the public to cast their votes for a presidential candidate who denies the existence of God.

A typical result came from the Zogby Poll of January 21, 2008, indicating that 50% of voters rule out supporting “a presidential candidate who doesn’t believe in God”; only 20% said they could definitely vote for such a contender. Meanwhile, an overwhelming majority of 78% (86% of women and 67% of men) say they take a “positive view” of candidates citing Scripture when discussing political problems.

...

Actually, there’s little chance that atheists will succeed in placing one of their own in the White House at any time in the foreseeable future, and it continues to make powerful sense for voters to shun potential presidents who deny the existence of God. An atheist may be a good person, a good politician, a good family man (or woman), and even a good patriot, but a publicly proclaimed non-believer as president would, for three reasons, be bad for the country.


And then he gets into his "three reasons" which can be summed up as follows: The president is the head of the Church of America, an atheist president couldn't connect with the people, and an atheist president would play into the hands of Osama bin Laden. Let's look at each in turn.

First, the Church of America business:

As Constitutional scholars all point out, the Presidency uniquely combines the two functions of head of government (like the British Prime Minister) and head of state (like the Queen of England). POTUS not only appoints cabinet members and shapes foreign policy and delivers addresses to Congress, but also presides over solemn and ceremonial occasions. Just as the Queen plays a formal role as head of the Church of England, the President functions as head of the “Church of America” – that informal, tolerant but profoundly important civic religion that dominates all our national holidays and historic milestones. For instance, try to imagine an atheist president issuing the annual Thanksgiving proclamation. To whom would he extend thanks in the name of his grateful nation –-the Indians in Massachusetts?


I don't know what to say to this because it's just so very stupid but, if I say anything, it's probably that a "civil religion" is just that: civil. Emile Durkheim argued that religion is a way of reifying the group and coming together in the presence of a collective feeling. In that sense, there is nothing about American civic religion that an atheist would have a difficult time participating in. And, speaking as an atheist, I have little difficulty thinking that an atheist president would find a way to respectfully acknowledge both the theistic and atheistic citizens of this country.

Second, we have the "difficulty connecting with the people" thing:

The United States remains a profoundly, uniquely religious society: “a nation with the soul of a church” in Tocqueville’s durable phrase. A president need not embrace one of the nation’s leading faiths: the public accepted two Quaker presidents (Hoover and Nixon) despite the tiny number of our citizens who identify with the Society of Friends, and polling on candidates like Romney and Lieberman indicated that the their devout membership in minority religions hardly disqualified them. There’s a difference between an atheist, however, and a Mormon or a Jew – despite the fact that the same U.S. population (about five million) claims membership in each of the three groups. For Mitt and Joe, their religious affiliation reflected their heritage and demonstrated their preference for a faith tradition differing from larger Christian denominations. But embrace of Jewish or Mormon practices doesn’t show contempt for the Protestant or Catholic faith of the majority, but affirmation of atheism does. The most successful presidents sustain an almost mystical connection with the people they serve – as did Ike, Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton (for all his faults), and Bush (before his recent troubles). A chief executive who publicly discards the core belief in God that drives the life and work of most of his countrymen can never achieve that sort of connection.


In response to this I think I'll just say: if an openly atheist president is capable of winning a general election then, odds are, enough of the population can relate to them that this issue is no issue at all. I mean, it's nice that Michael Medved knows better than the electorate, but all the same I think we should stick with democracy. Besides, no offense, but every religion cited above thinks that every other religion cited above is wrong. Atheists are no different in that sense and claims to the contrary are pretty foolish.

Finally, we come to the argument that electing an atheist president is just what Osama bin Laden wants us to do:

On one level, at least, the ongoing war on terror represents a furious battle of ideas and we face devastating handicaps if we attempt to beat something with nothing. Modern secularism rejects the notion that human beings feel a deep-seated, unquenchable craving for making connections with Godliness, in its various definitions and manifestations. For Osama bin Laden and other jihadist preachers, Islam understands that yearning but “infidel” America does not. Our enemies insist that God plays the central role in the current war and that they affirm and defend him, while we reject and ignore him. The proper response to such assertions involves the citation of our religious traditions and commitments, and the credible argument that embrace of modernity, tolerance and democracy need not lead to godless materialism. In this context, an atheist president conforms to the most hostile anti-America stereotypes of Islamic fanatics and makes it that much harder to appeal to Muslim moderates whose cooperation (or at least neutrality) we very much need.


And I'm forced to wonder what Medved would have written if this were 1941. Would he, perhaps, be arguing that it would be bad to elect a Jewish president because that would play into the worst Nazi stereotypes about America?** That we must refuse to elect Jews because, that way, anti-semitic moderates might be willing to join our side? I like to think not and I see no reason why atheists should be treated differently.

Really, it's been a fun week. Atheists are getting slammed from both political sides for all kinds of moronic reasons.

So what else is new?


* See here for the latest installment. Have no fear, the next installment is coming, but I'm awfully busy right now so it may take a bit longer still.

** Not technically a case of Godwin's Law since, in an unquoted segment of his article, Medved had already brought up Nazis.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

I guarantee you this is more intelligent and entertaining than anything I can write today.

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Monday, April 07, 2008

This thing is obviously broken.

Thanks to my friends over at Marginal Utility I recently became aware of a little gizmo that determines how much profanity* you use in your blog. Always game for an experiment, I decided to check and see just how foul Total Drek really is. The answer may, believe it or not, surprise you:

The Blog-O-Cuss Meter - Do you cuss a lot in your blog or website?
Created by OnePlusYou

Okay, let me rephrase that. It won't surprise anyone that my profanity rating is "high" but, that said, only 18% of the pages on this blog contain swearing? Really? I mean, let's face it, I once used the expression "Jesus titty-fucking Christ" in a blog post. How is it that my profanity level is only 18%? Don't I get bonus points for variety or something? I scored only 6/10ths of a percntage point higher than my compadres on Marginal Utility and, let's face it, they're a lot more mature than I am.

I just... I dunno. I feel like I've failed somehow.


* Technically, they use the word "cussing" but I find this term rather absurd in regular conversation. It's a little like an adult saying, "I have to go poopy." Sure, we all get the point, but there are less infantile ways of expressing the same idea.**

** Note that I am not denigrating the parents out there who get into the habit of saying things like this when their children are young. Trust me, I'm cool with y'all.

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Friday, April 04, 2008

"Why yes, I speak lunatic!"

Many of you may remember that scene in the classic film Airplane! where an old woman remarks to a stewardess, "I speak jive!" She then proceeds to converse with two black men who have been speaking such a dense mish-mash of slang all movie that they can barely be understood. While somewhat disquieting from one perspective, the image of an old white woman slinging jive is something that just stays with you. And if you've never seen that scene... you really should!

In honor of that classic scene I'd like to translate two headlines from our buddies over on Conservapedia. The first headline is a beautiful example of a non sequitur:



Presidential candidates, civil rights leaders, labor activists and thousands of everyday citizens are coming together Friday to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the 40th anniversary of his death. (But not Barack Obama).


Translation: Barack Obama isn't really black! If he were black he'd be prostrating himself on Dr. King's grave. He doesn't really care about black people because, if he did, he'd be talking about Martin Luther King constantly today. And if he were, we totally wouldn't talk about how he was campaigning using the politics of race. Nuh-uh. No way. Not conservapedia! We never invokve the politics of race! It's not like we ever claimed that Barack Obama had no personal achievements that weren't the result of affirmative action or anything!

Wasn't that exciting? Well, how about our second passage, appearing on the same day:



Ultra-Liberal University of Wisconsin-Madison is "on alert" after a female student was found murdered. "Dean of Students Lori Berquam said the incident was a 'shock' to the entire Madison community." This is the third unsolved killing in the vicinity of campus in less than a year.


Translation: Liberals are evil. Liberal policies are evil. Places that adopt liberal policies will experience evil things. Madison, Wisconsim is paying the wages of sin! Repent, sinners! Return to the fold of the Free Market!


Don't you just want to go over to Conservapedia, find Andrew Schlafly and hug him? I mean really hug him until he stops breathing or, at the very least, decides to stop vomiting such hateful innuendo onto the internet?

Alas, in the meantime, all we can do is mock.

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

That was pretty unexpected.

The other day while perusing Uncommon Descent, the blog of Wild Bill Dembski, I came across a rather remarkable post. What was so remarkable about it? Nothing much except that it contained a video that, believe it or not, leads me to believe that intelligent design creationists may actually have a sense of humor. Sort of:



A couple of things jumped out at me from this. The first is that I recognize a number of people they're depicting and, really, I wonder if the creationism side could muster quite so much recognition? Second, I have nothing but resepect for Eugenie Scott, which makes her representation in the video that much more disconcerting. Third, the quality of rhetoric coming from the creationist side has really taken a nosedive lately but, for all that, is at least more entertaining.

Finally, what struck me about this is how DaveScot, the guy who posted this on Uncommon Descent, remarked: "I can hardly believe this was posted on Panda’s Thumb." For those who don't know, The Panda's Thumb is a major pro-science blog, a regular antagonist of Uncommon Descent, and they did indeed post a link to the video. And the thing is, why should that surprise anyone? It's a well-done, very irreverent video, and if I don't think it's exactly right... well hell, it still made me laugh.

For all their protestations to the contrary, I think it's pretty hard to give much credence to the creationist argument that scientists are just unwilling to listen to their arguments.*


* It's perhaps more plausible to say that scientists are unwilling to listen to STUPID arguments from the other side, but I digress.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

This sort of thing makes me very tired.

A while back I wrote a little parable about atheism. Specifically, a parable explaining why I don't pray and, indeed, would consider praying to be a somewhat immoral action.* This parable featured an occasion when, rather than assist a choking man, an onlooker is urged to "pray" for him instead. As you might guess, this results in the eventual death of the choking man.

In response to this post a commenter remarked that no believer in their right mind would allow a man to choke to death when they could do something concrete to help. Specifically:

First, I don’t think any believer in their right mind would advocate passivity when activity is a possibility. You are right there – it is immoral to pray, and only pray, for a chocking man when you have the physical skills to save his life and the ability in the current moment to do so. The story is cute, as I said, but totally misrepresents what the vast majority of believer would do in the situation you’ve posited.


I, of course, certainly hope that most believers would do as my commenter describes- assisting the choking man rather than simply praying for divine intervention. My response to this comment addressed this point as follows:

The second part of your first point, that most Christians would not choose passivity over action, is I think debatable. In the post earlier this week on vaccination I remarked on a woman who has decided to forego vaccines in the belief that god will protect her children from disease. Similarly, we can probably all recall the Georgia legislators who recently prayed for rain. In either case there is a certain degree to which passivity is being chosen over activity and, in the case of the legislators, I am absolutely convinced that there are more useful ways they could have been spending their time. Again, I think that the overwhelming majority of Christians would not allow a choking man to die so that they could pray but in less clear-cut situations than this passivity is often chosen over activity.


I think this response is probaly fair and reasonable. So why am I bringing all this up right now? Well, um, two reasons:

The first reason is named Ava Worthington:

OREGON CITY, Ore. - A couple whose church preaches against medical care are facing criminal charges after their young daughter died of an infection that authorities said went untreated.

Carl and Raylene Worthington were indicted Friday on charges of manslaughter and criminal mistreatment in the death of their 15-month-old daughter Ava. They belong to the Followers of Christ Church, whose members have a history of treating gravely ill children only with prayer.

Ava died March 2 of bronchial pneumonia and a blood infection. The state medical examiner’s office has said she could have been treated with antibiotics.


The second reason is named Madeline Neumann:

WESTON, Wis. (AP) — Police are investigating an 11-year-old girl's death from an undiagnosed, treatable form of diabetes after her parents chose to pray for her rather than take her to a doctor.

An autopsy showed Madeline Neumann died Sunday of diabetic ketoacidosis, a condition that left too little insulin in her body, Everest Metro Police Chief Dan Vergin said.

She had probably been ill for about a month, suffering symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, excessive thirst, loss of appetite and weakness, the chief said Wednesday, noting that he expects to complete the investigation by Friday and forward the results to the district attorney.

The girl's mother, Leilani Neumann, said that she and her family believe in the Bible and that healing comes from God, but that they do not belong to an organized religion or faith, are not fanatics and have nothing against doctors.


Do these incidents reflect the vast majority of religious parents? No. Hell no, of course not, or else our medical community wouldn't be as developed as it is.** At the same time, however, these tragedies to provide a stern warning about not only the potential dangers of faith and prayer but also the wisdom of leaping to its defense too quickly.

Faith enhances and saves some lives but it also snuffs others out. If we're going to be honest about the one, we should at least be realistic about the other.


* For me. For someone who believes in god, it obviously is not immoral and in this case I'm prepared to be a little flexible about morality.

** Not to mention that if this were a prevalent attitude our mortality rate would be a lot higher than it is now.

As a side note: Madeline Neumann was sick and vomiting for a MONTH and they never took her to a doctor? And they're not fanatics? REALLY?! Unless they just couldn't afford a doctor's visit- and arguably a publicly-subsidized trip to the emergency room was warranted here- I am just dumbstruck.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Our pornographic future in space.

A loyal reader who shall remain nameless recently alerted me to a fairly interesting article in the LA Times. The article discusses the debut of a new kind of swimsuit that is sparking controversy. The suit, manufactured by Speedo, appears to reduce drag by just enough to enable record-breaking performances:

Never mind that backstroker Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe barely had time to wedge her body into the new, ultra-tightfitting swimsuit or to test the suit in warmups, let alone race conditions.

Coventry, a gold medalist in the 2004 Olympic Games, hit the water that day and smashed a world record that had stood for 16 years, swimming the 200-meter backstroke in 2:06.39, which was 0.23 second faster than the storied mark.

The new swimsuit? Speedo's LZR Racer.

That modest meet last month in Columbia, Mo., began an unprecedented -- and controversial -- six weeks that turned competitive swimming upside down: 14 world records set as of Wednesday, 13 in the LZR suit.


What does this suit look like? Well, it looks pretty spiffy but it doesn't have built-in propellors or anything:



The main, and humorous, issue to this suit is the one that my unnamed source pointed out to me: they leave perhaps too little to the imagination. Or, to paraphrase Robin Williams, this is a swimsuit so tight you can tell what religion a man is. Striking a blow for gender equality, on the other hand, the women appear to be in the same boat. Perhaps not the outcome I expected but, given that women have long been expected to wedge themselves into absurdly tight swimsuits, this is at least equally absurd for both sexes. Rah rah.

Leaving that aside, however, these suits were apparently developed with the assistance of NASA. Don't get too excited, though, as that assistance seems to have been fairly minor:

Not only was this suit designed with help from NASA and its wind tunnels, but Speedo made sure that each step of the development process, including ultrasonically bonded seams -- no thread and needle here -- was approved by FINA, swimming's international governing body.


Nonetheless, this reminds me of something from my science fictional roots: the skinsuit. You see, when most people think "spacesuit" they think of the awkward, bulky monstrosities that our astronauts wear. Essentially a modern day suit of armor that encapsulates a human being in a very small semi-flexible spacecraft. Yet, this is not the only way to protect a person in space. An alternative approach is the space activity suit or "skinsuit" that uses a tight form-fitting garment to reinforce the structural strength of human skin. The result, given temperature control apparatus, is a much more flexible and possibly comfortable approach to extra-vehicular activity. By now I'm sure you see where I'm going with this: the new speedo swimsuits remind me of nothing so much as a skinsuit.

And if that wasn't enough to get your blood pumping, it turns out that research into the skinsuit design has been renewed and we may someday see astronauts venturing forth in these types of protective garments. An advance for astronauts? Hell yes- such suits would be better for long-duration spacewalks and safer besides. An advance for NASA public relations? Also yes! What could drum up support for the space program again like sleek and stylish EVA attire?

I have no opinions about what this means for swimming, but I'm excited about the potential for space travel. Soon we may not only be able to live and work in space more safely and comfortably, but also harness the power of sex appeal. I mean, shit, if dressing our astronauts like pornstars doesn't revive interest in the space program I don't know what will.

Can't hurt, right?

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