Total Drek

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

Friday, February 27, 2009

Best speech you will ever read by a guy who resembles Lex Luthor.

Recently Scott Dikkers, Editor of The Onion, gave a speech at the national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. You'll remember the FRFF from previous posts. In any case, Dikkers gave what I think is one of the finest speeches on atheism that I have ever read. At least, for a guy who looks like a supervillain:


(Photo by Brent Nicastro)


In any case I think you should go read it but, just to whet your appetite, I'll include a few excerpts:

I’d like to start out, if I may, with a few insults. I’d also like to show you some articles from The Onion, the newspaper that I founded and then edited for 15 of the past 20 years. Then, I’ll tie it all together with a heartwarming defense of rational thinking.

So, I saw this U. of Minn. survey that came out a while back. Perhaps you saw it as well. It asked Americans, who do you trust? And they broke it down into categories: Do you trust a Christian? Most said yes. In fact, Christians were at the top of the list. Do you trust a black person? A Muslim? A homosexual? etc.

The group that came out at the very bottom of the list–and I’m talking about below terrorists, below sexual predators, below the guy who skins babies alive and wears the skin as a mask and then dances in the moonlight while gargling the blood of his infant victims–after that guy, was atheists.

(And when I say “atheists,” I mean atheists, agnostics, freethinkers of every stripe, because the culture as a whole thinks of us as the same.)

We are the single-most reviled group of people in the country. Maybe the world. By far.

What we have to ask ourselves is, what can we learn from the terrorists and the serial killers? Well, for starters we need to find out who does their PR. We’ve got to ask the racists and the rapists, what’s your secret? Child molesters, how did you get to be America’s sweetheart? Show us how it’s done. Maybe we could move up a notch or two if you’d share with us some of your winning people skills.

...

It’s not fair the way atheists and agnostics are treated.

Atheists are blamed for some of the greatest genocides of the 20th century. Hitler, Stalin, Mao. People think that these lunatics were simply fulfilling the dictates of the moral vacuum of atheism. These guys are an albatross around my neck every time I get talking to a religious person. Pointing out how many millions have been killed by religious extremists usually devolves into an argument where we’re just adding up numbers of dead in columns, and that’s not productive. Can’t reasonable people simply agree that human beings in the grip of any ideology can be real jerks? Especially if they are bat-shit insane?

We can do better. We can turn the tide of public opinion that runs so disproportionately against us. First, we need a mascot–a puppet, or some kind of lovable character. Christians have the character of God. He’s got a fuzzy white beard. He’s cuddly. He loves everybody. He’s like your grandpa. He’s like Santa Claus.


It gets a little more serious, but the ending is superb. Go read it. NOW!

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Uh... thanks?

As many of you know I was recently declared the Dauphin of All Socio-Blogging (D.O.A.S.B.) by the monks at The Soc Shrine in recognition of my gradual descent into madness. I was, of course, appropriately honored by the prize.

Well folks, now I'm feeling a little more conflicted. It appears that The Soc Shrine is closing down. Again. Moreover, they chose to say farewell to those of us they have been aggregating:

K.O.A.S.B., we’re sure you’ve Leechblocked us (along with yourself), but we do want you to know that we still wear your t-shirt (above) with pride. It was your wit and wisdom that got us into this, so, really, this whole thing was your fault. Brayden-one-ear, le monstre bleu, Fabs-the-Fabulosa, tf da Grandmaster of Suomisaundi, WITW, that one older guy, interminable habitus crisis, the chairman of st. paul, Pandit S.K. Malinky, REthinkingWITW, ______ (^insert your blog name), keep on keeping on. D.O.A.S.B., let this cup…pass to you. We can go…no further. You must…carry on in our stead. You…must. We beg that the Dauphin honor our final request.


And it's that last part that concerns me. The cup has been passed? To me?! It's my job now to render semi-impenetrable commentary on other soc bloggers* and post obscure music YouTube videos? Is this what I get for being honest?





Uh... okay?

Soc Shrine, you will be missed if only because I'm going to suck at this. Yikes- you should have passed me a different cup.


* As opposed to right now when my commentary is relatively straightforward, albeit stupid.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

An open letter from Drek the Uninteresting

(Cross-posted on Scatterplot.)

Hi. Most of you know me already, but for the rest of you, I'm Drek the Uninteresting. I've been a contributor here at Scatterplot for a few months now but am a long-time blogger over at my usual hangout, Total Drek. During my lengthy term on the old interwebs I found a niche in showcasing endless arguments and pointless conflict, as well as blistering levels of insanity- like my penetrating series on Conservapedia, which has a fanbase reaching into the half-dozen. I also like boobs. A lot.

I have also, in my years of blogging, managed to irritate a number of people completely needlessly. This ranges from the masculists to anti-vaccine nuts to Andrew Schlafly to the founder of astrosociology.* Thus, it is safe to say that I am an absurd little clown who has more or less made a name for myself by creating and/or exacerbating arguments that didn't need to happen.

Recently, I have noticed some rather lengthy threads here on Scatterplot that are filled to the brim with misunderstandings, false attributions, hurt feelings and general foolishness, mixed in with nuggets of true wisdom. To the diverse set of folks who have contributed to these threads, I say the following:

Stop it! You're stealing my schtick!

I mean, seriously folks, I barely got any response to my recent expose of Conservapedia's world history course! When I joined up here we had a division of labor: light-hearted humor and insightful discussion over here with paranoid ranting and needless hostility over on my blog. Can we just all get back to the deal, already?

Sincerely,

Drek the Uninteresting

P.S: All my best to your partner and/or spouse.

P.P.S: If you're reading this out loud, you just said "pee-pee." Ha!


* Who, as it happens, very graciously supplied me with a rebuttal.

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Deconstructing Playing with Snakes on a Plane: A Reply

Foreword

In 2006 gender scholar Drek the Uninteresting "published" a paper entitled, "Deconstructing Playing with Snakes on a Plane: A Post-Modern Critique." Owing to certain deficiencies in that work, I explicate a response herein. Those who remember that early work will note certain similarities between it and this effort. Rest assured that these similarities decrease as the paper goes on and it is worth your time, annus horribilis, to read to the end.

Introduction

The existence of gender as a social category is beyond doubt, and its relevance for determining life chances is impossible to overestimate. On a daily basis persons are assaulted, or not, hired, or not, respected, or not, entirely on the basis of their sex. Moreover, while men are granted the priviledges of power and authority, women are continually repressed.

In modern society, some authorities would claim that gains made by the so-called "Women's Movement" have helped to alleviate these conditions. They might claim that women enjoy increasing employment and pay equity, as well as improving working conditions. While some quantitative researchers might make such arguments, more valuable post-modern studies continually reveal the existence of subtle but devastating forms of sexism. The perpetuation and reproduction of these forms is facillitated not by "structure" but by culture. The ways that gender is constructed, reified, and interpolated inter-subjectively by cultural producers and consumers are highly revealing of the true sex-stratification. An illustrative example of the constant conflicts over gender and power has recently come to light: the film "Snakes on a Plane." Using the tools of critical, post-modern analysis, I will use this movie as a paradigmatic example of sex in an ex post facto world of declining U.S. global hegemonism. In the process I will demonstrate not simply the presence of gender stereotypes, but the superiority of post-modern techniques of social research.

Part I: Sex as a higher level concept

In analyzing media and its reification of gender roles it is important to consider the substantial importance of gender itself. Given the extreme power of gender to define appropriate behavior, clothing, personal preferences, jobs, and so on, any story must, virtually by definition, be a gender story. That is to say, ipso facto, that symbols in a work of fiction always refer to gender relations even when they are not, ad hominem, intended to do so. Even when alternate interpretations exist, any narrative which contains within it an expression of gender roles must be viewed as being primarily a gender vehicle and, thus, any story which can be interpreted as sexist must, ab irato, be regarded as defined by its intrinsic sexism.

This simple truth is one that has often been overlooked by social scientists. Cultural sociologists have often analyzed various symbols in the hopes of finding their "meanings" or determining their "functions" not realizing that there is only one set of such functions: to preserve the gender order. This represents a shocking lack of awareness of the sexist nature of modern society. The rare exceptions to this general rule include the classical theorist Sigmund Freud, who recognized the central importance of all symbolism as referring to sexuality and sex roles, even if he took the flawed and patriarchical perspective that masculinity was, caveat emptor, superior to femininity. More recently, astute historian Dan Brown has provided a compelling account of the central role of the female, and female symbols, in western civilization in his "fictional" work "The DaVinci Code" (2003). However overlooked this reality may be, an understanding of the obvious truth of the centrality, indeed primacy, of gender allows all symbols to be used to understand gender relationships.

In the context of Snakes on a Plane we do not have far to look to find significant female/male symbols. They are, in fact, listed in the very title. Female symbols are the easiest to identify: the titular plane. The aircraft contains passengers within it in warmth and comfort, much as a mother's womb contains her offspring. Indeed, planes are often associated with mother figures (i.e. flight attendants) whose purpose is to see to the well-being and comfort of their charges. Additionally, the plane, while warm and inviting within, is nevertheless a thin and fragile shell of aluminum, with little marking off the warm safety of the womb from the cold hostility of the outside. Thus, the womb is represented as fragile and in need of protection, much as women are seen in patriarchical society. The common word for "plane" is even relevant as it is a homonym for "plain" meaning "uninteresting or unremarkable," as femininity is constructed to be. The physical manifestation of the concept of plane used in this movie is a "747," which has a bulbous fuselage that resembles the swollen belly of a pregnant woman. Even the number "747" has symbolic potency as adding all three numbers yields "18," the age at which a girl symbolically transforms into a woman and becomes available for impregnation.

The male symbolism is present in the titular "snakes." Obviously, the snake resembles a phallus- long and tipped by a wider "head." Some snakes are even known to spit, thus strengthening the parallel with the male ejaculatory function. More importantly, snakes represent a compact lethality and sense of menace or threat that has long been associated with males rather than females. They are objects, indeed symbols, of violence and control thus befitting masculinity. Likewise, they are seen as cunning or smart, reflecting the historic view of men as more intelligent than women. Thus, the snakes represent the fullness of male potency- sexually in their resemblance to the phallus, physically in their possession of venom and striking fangs, and finally psychologically in their cunning role as hunters.

In combination, the incongruity of snakes on a plane represents the impossibility of blending the male and the female. The movie turns on the single idea that boxes of venomous snakes do not belong in the cabin of a passenger aircraft. Yet, this is a ruse meant to conceal the obvious symbolism: that femininity is at the mercy of the more powerful masculine. These things, male and female, are not meant to be mixed, and their mixing is seen as disastrous. Moreover, the movie is a morality tale where femininity is meant to be subjugated by maleness. While the plane in a sense represents woman "taking wing" the movie serves to illustrate what happens when women seek to elevate themselves above men. Much as Icarus was brought down by the bright rays of his hubris, the feminine is crushed by the venom of the powerful masculine. Further, it is clear that only women can be harmed by this attempt to escape from their proscribed roles. While we are treated to multiple scenes featuring snakes burning out controls or damaging components of the plane, we are never shown the snake who is badly injured by exposed wiring, or made uncomfortable by the airline peanuts it swallowed. This seeming invincibility of the snakes privileges the masculine might over feminine will.

In summary, then, the concepts "male" and "female" are represented by the snakes and plane respectively.

Part II: Enacting roles amidst gender concepts

While the symbolism for male and female is comparatively obvious, the snakes and plane do not exist in isolation. Instead, they mutually share the "interpretive space" with "people." Specifically, depictions of actual men and women who are shown sharing space with, and interacting with, these overarching concepts. However, by contacting these objects our "people" are living their lives amidst the clash of gendered "realities," much as they routinely would in "real life." Thus, we are treated to a realistic, if metaphorical, depiction of the world as it is, much like a winter scene contained within a "snowglobe."

Initially, the passengers exist within the plane in relative comfort as we would expect from the womb. Their presence is regimented, their options limited, and their freedom of movement curtailed, but they have peace and a modicum of nourishment- the ubiquitous peanuts. This clearly represents the message that in an overall environment of femaleness, surrounding, supporting, and constraining, security can be had for the price of freedom. This safe environment is disrupted when the snakes erupt into this previously feminine territory. The introduction of masculinity in the feminine is, thus, the introduction of a desire for freedom at any price into the stifling regimentation of a woman's world. The masculine is therefore equated with freedom while the feminine becomes despotism.

This impression of femaleness as despotic is reinforced by the "biting" of the passengers by the snakes. If the passengers represent real men and women, then this "biting" is simply the wounding of people who have attempted to deny the superiority of the masculine by taking part in the elevation of the feminine. The female is depicted as something to be resisted, and this resistance generates conflict and pain. We are treated to many scenes of passengers lashing out at snakes with tray tables, luggage, bottles and, in one case, a small dog, but their success is limited. While the female can be resisted by the male it would seem that masculinity itself cannot be stopped. Thus, the conflict of the snakes with the passengers represents the inevitable defeat of all those who would resist the patriarchical order.

Several human/snake interactions in particular are noteworthy. The snakes first prey upon a man and a woman who are engaging in flagrante delecto in an aircraft lavatory. This may appear, to some, to have been a cheap attempt by the movie makers to depict breasts but, in actuality, is a pointed metaphor. The woman enters the lavatory first, enticing her partner to follow. Thus, the woman's sexuality has led both to their doom. A woman's sexuality is thus linked symbolically to both the promise of pleasure and the possibility of danger. The penetration of venomous reptiles into the bathroom and the subsequent carnage reflects the inevitable entry of true masculinity into any relationship and the necessary result of allowing women to be sexually aggressive. Had she remained proper and subservient to her male "partner" both would have been spared. The woman is punished by masculinity for rising beyond her station while the man is punished for permitting such latitude on the part of his woman.

Similarly, the movie depicts a pair of newlyweds, one of whom (the man) is afraid of flying. When his wife asked why he agreed to go to Hawaii, he responds, "Because it's where you wanted to go." Later in the movie, both man and woman are bitten repeatedly by snakes- harmed by his willingness to allow women to make decisions. If he had asserted his masculinity, the couple would have steered clear of Hawaii and, by extension, the symbol of femininity trying to elevate itself above the masculine (i.e. the plane). This couple reinforces the symbolic "content" of the lavatory: women who place themselves above men, and men who allow it, will both meet their end at the fangs of masculinity itself.

There are a number of flight attendants on the aircraft, one of whom is older, while the other two are young. One of these attendants (the youngest) employs her sexuality in a clear attempt to win the affection of a male passenger. He, at one point, rescues her from being struck by a loose beverage cart covered in snakes, implying that women must be rescued from their illusions of feminine might, and the reprisals of hegemonic masculinity, by men. In other words, men must shield women from their own perverse natures. Similarly, the other younger flight attendant develops a sort of partnership with the movie's main male protaganist, Samuel "L." Jackson, over the course of the movie, in the process growing more submissive to him. She also survives the encounter with madcap femininity, owing perhaps to this newfound subservience. Only the third flight attendant, an older woman, succumbs to the serpents. She is bitten while attempting to rescue an infant from the snakes. This scene thus depicts a highly conservative social message that ultimate authority over children belongs to males, not females, and interfering in this "natural" order can only result in symbolic venomous reptilian death.

Finally, one of the two pilots is depicted from the beginning as a chauvanist who is unpleasant for women to work with. As one might expect, this individual is bitten by a venomous snake and falls into a compartment under the cockpit. Yet, unlike virtually every other character, this pilot manages to fight his way back to his post and continue flying the aircraft for a significant period of time. While ultimately this individual meets a gruesome fate, the message of this sequence is clear: only unbridled masculinity- nay sexism- can counterbalance masculinity. Only males can act as a restraint on the power of masculinity itself.

In conclusion, it is apparent not merely in the symbols for masculinity and femininity, but in the interaction of actual men and women with each other and those symbols, that femininity is a force to be contained, rather than embraced, and masculinity an unstoppable juggernaut that must be satiated.

Part III: Subversion of the gendered paradigm

Though the movie is overwhelmingly conservative in its orientation, gender roles are roles of conflict, not cooperation. To expect that all messages contained within this "movie" would reflect the "dominant" view of the "producers" is, pro tem, absurd. Instead, contrasting conflictual messages also find their way in, combatting the dominant views even as they are dominated by them.

The most obvious example of this combat comes in the form of the provocation of the snakes. As we are shown early in the film, the snakes are not naturally homicidal but are, instead, provoked to become so by a "pheromone" sprayed on a number of flower wreathes given to the passengers. This set of facts produces an interesting tension within the movie. On the one hand, the masculine symbol of snakes are "responsible" for "destroying" the feminine aircraft. On the other, they were made to do so by what are, semper fi, symbols for rampant femininity. The pheremone spray represents the male vulnerability to the wiles of women. Similarly, flowers are often thought of as stereotypically feminine. A woman's virginity is even, from time to time, referred to as her "flower," and flower metaphors are most often used for female maturation (i.e. "she is flowering into womanhood"). The wreathes, in that they hang around the neck, represent a sort of yoke around the necks of men and women alike- the yoke of sexual desire. In combination, the pheremones on the wreathes signify the rage that both constraining gender ideals, and simultaneous sexual appetites, engender in both males and females. Ironically, if the snakes had been released without such preparations, they would likely have remained docilely in the cargo compartment signifying the placidity of the masculine when not taunted by femininity.

Interestingly, the conclusion of the movie is itself a prescription for eliminating gender tension. On arriving at their destination the surviving passengers and crew do not disembark the aircraft through the jetway but, rather, depart via inflatable escape slides. These slides, agnus dei, resemble the feminine vagina much as the airplane itself represents the womb. Thus, in order to escape the dangers of enraged masculinity, we must be in essence "born again" into a world where we are not surrounded and constrained by the feminine. Religious and gender messages fuse into one overarching narrative in support of the patriarchy.

Despite the strong inclination of the producers of this movie to support traditional gender ideas, the presence of these conflicting messages leaves us with some hope. We have both witnessed the conflictual nature of gender in action, and have seen ways that dominant gender paradigms are challenged even as they seek to reproduce themselves.

Conclusion

There are those who might argue that a detailed post-modern analysis of Snakes on a Plane is a waste of time. There are even those who might cite the confirmation bias, arguing that a determination to find support for gender theories makes actually finding such support less impressive. They might even use the familiar aphorism that, "When your only tool is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail." As my analysis has shown, these critics are, deus ex machina, wrong. The prevalence of gendered messages in Snakes on a Plane is fantastic. It is obvious that if such messages did not exist, I could not possibly have identified them with the rigorous post-modern analysis in this paper. Likewise, the messages of gender in this film are so obvious, so clear, so unavoidable, that anyone who claims that this is merely a stupid action movie is, accipe hoc, deluded by male privilege. And while some might accuse me of throwing rhetorical bombs, failing to acknowledge the possibility that I may be incorrect is one of the privileges I enjoy for being right.

One can only speculate on the sheer quantity of damage that "Snakes on a Plane" is inflicting on the vulnerable psyches of our children. To resist the patriarchy we must resist movies like this. We must not merely look at such movies as meaningless fluff, as a sort of adult "play," but rather as a serious business. To build a healthier society we must not merely play with snakes on a plane, we must take care to deconstruct playing with snakes on a plane.


Okay, so, this post really is a sort of "Part II" to a similar post from 2006. If you really want to get the full point, and joke, you have to go back and read that one as well. I promise it won't take too long. If you're wondering, I've been meaning to do this follow-up for some time (more than two years to be precise) but have just never gotten around to it. It is not meant as a response to recent events, however, and my official position on that remains unchanged.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Corn with a side of repression.

As long as we're talking about oppression based on nominal parameters, this just seemed appropriate to bring up:



Pretty much work-safe, but watch on a break. It's pretty funny. Note, in particular, that "Brother" does his homework while "Daughter" helps mom with dinner and dreams of a world where her sex doesn't determine her destiny.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Boy Overgrown child meets (an unreasonable facsimile of the) World

All of you know that I have been trying to cut back on my Conservapedia watching. You know that I have been trying to reduce the amount that I talk about it. We all know that the first step to getting help is admitting you have a problem. You know what? I don't care. Fuck it. We're talking about Conservapedia today. I am officially off the goddamned wagon.

So, as some of you may know, Andrew Schlafly, prince idiot of Conservapedia, teaches children. Yes, you read that right: he teaches children.* Specifically, he participates in the Eagle Forum, which is an educational resource for homeschoolers/way for Phyllis Schlafly to feel important. As a part of the Eagle Forum Andrew Schlafly teaches a variety of courses through his blog, Conservapedia. Right now he is teaching a course in world history. Okay, hang on, let me back up here. It is labeled as a course in world history but it is, in fact, one of the most unbelievable clusterfucks I have ever seen. Take, for example, this excerpt from lecture one that sets the stage for the rest of the course:

"World history" is the true story of thought, ideas, culture, language, wars, governments, and economic systems throughout all of mankind's history. This includes billions of people over thousands of years. Every source is available to us, from the Bible to ancient and modern historians. Everything mankind has ever written, invented, observed, conquered and destroyed is part of "World history." For example, we will study how Carthage was built into a power, and how it was then forever destroyed by its enemies from Rome.

...

We will consider how mankind progressed in understanding the unseen, such as truth and gravity and God. In mathematics, mankind progressed from the discovery of geometry (Greeks) to the concept of "zero" (Indians) to calculus (English). In economics, mankind progressed from wage and price controls (Romans) to the "invisible hand" of the free market (Scottish), which then unleashed tremendous prosperity. World history spans from pre-Christian to Christian. What are we progressing towards now? We will learn to use history to predict the future.

Do not be misled by thinking that ancient peoples were dumb or boring because they lacked the technology of modern society. The Egyptians, for example, cleverly built the massive pyramids using techniques that no one to this day can figure out or duplicate. In 2600 B.C., they constructed the pyramid of Khufu containing 6 million tons of stone extending to a height of 481 feet. The workmanship was superior to anything we do today: the rock base was virtually flat, not varying in elevation by more than a half-inch; its orientation is precisely aligned with the points of a compass; its stones were perfect fits. Inside was a chapel, a causeway, and a temple. It amazes architects to this day. We would not be able to duplicate it, and no one knows how the Egyptians were able to build these intricate structures 4600 years ago. Many other cultures, from Mesopotamia to Greece to Rome to India to China, invented things and discovered knowledge that no one today is smart enough to duplicate. Can you build a useful wheel, or make paper? [emphasis added]


Right, so, modern architects can't duplicate the pyramids, but we can build shit like the Sears Tower, the three-gorges dam, and send people to the moon? Riiiiiiight. I think he may be correct that we're not sure how the Egyptians did it, but I'm quite sure that building a bigass pyramid out of stone is well within our capabilities. And as long as we're on the subject: yes, I can make paper, and have done so on more than one occasion. Haven't made a wheel before, but I'm pretty certain I could pull it off given some basic tools and some wood. I'm also pleased to see god lumped in with gravity. Sure, we can't "see" either one with our eyes, but gravity is pretty damned noticeable whereas god is a tad more... elusive.

Yet, believe it or not, this introduction is relatively mild compared to the lecture itself. How mild? Well, come along with me for a journey through the early part of the first lecture. For your enjoyment, I will insert comments when I feel like it. Ready?

Let's begin:

Introduction to Ancient History

Ancient history is everything before about A.D. 500 or 600, when every major religion except Islam was established. Ancient history created civilization and achieved many of the greatest intellectual breakthroughs of all time. Literature, drama, mathematics, philosophy, language, etc., were all created and developed during ancient history, which is why this time period is emphasized so much in education.


Yes, Ancient History created religion. It created civilization. Ancient History is very creative. Have you met Ancient History's family? They're very nice.

When did mankind first begin? There is no reliable evidence of man existing before 3500 B.C.


Although if you ask the Smithsonian they observe that fossil evidence shows Humans in Africa about 130,000 years ago, and in the near East 90,000 years ago.

The oldest writing was a pictographic tablet called a "cuneiform" (pronounced kyu-NEE-uh-form) dated to perhaps 3400 B.C. from Sumer (SOO-mur) in Southern Mesopotamia (where Iraq is today). Cuneiform looks like chicken-scratches featuring wedge-like or arrow-shaped characters. Although cuneiform was a primitive writing style, it continued in use until shortly before the birth of Christ. Originally pictographs (e.g., to write "foot", you would draw a foot), cuneiform expanded to 600 stick-based symbols or figures, with each one developing multiple meanings (e.g., the symbol for "foot" also developed the meanings of "to go" or "to stand," depending on the context). For those who "text message" on cell phones, notice how each key has multiple possible letters and how the phone resolves the ambiguity and forms words depending on how the letters fit together to form a word. Cuneiform had only 600 symbols, but their multiple meanings were resolved by seeing how they fit together to form sentences. Notice that cuneiform was not an alphabet or western-style script; the oldest script-based language is from the Indo-Aryan language, and an example dating back to 1550 B.C. was found in the Sinai.


Interestingly, and contrary to what Schlafly suggests, cuneiform gradually evolved towards a modern syllable based language and lost characters over time, rather than growing to include 600 symbols (i.e. it went from 1,000 unique symbols to 400).

Historians feel that spoken language originated in southeastern Europe near the Black Sea, not far from the Ararat mountain range cited in the Bible in connection with Noah.


Um... what? How the fuck would anyone know for sure when spoken language first appeared, given that it leaves no traces in the historical record? I mean, you could look for complex tool use that would be difficult to pass on from generation to generation without the use of language- in which case you might guess language emerged 164,000 years ago in Africa- but what sources do "historians" base this Ararat language contention on? Oh, wait, you're just making shit up to push your ideological cookie about the ark. Never mind.

Using population estimates, we know that about 300 million people existed in the world at the time of Christ, and extrapolating backwards yields only one family in the year 3300 B.C. The oldest trees do not predate this time; the oldest sequoias, which never die of old age, but which, of course, do succumb to diseases, forest fires, and animal damage, are no older than 2000 B.C.


"Extrapolating backwards?" Are you kidding me? Do you have any idea how difficult it can be to extrapolate over long swathes of time with something like population? Why do you assholes make this mistake every time? Oh, and by the way? The oldest living tree we know of is in Sweden and is a bit older than 2,000. How much older? It's 9,550 years old you jackass!

No "civilization" has been found that is older than about 3000 B.C. By "civilization" we mean an order and hierarchy in the way of life. Some type of political system or government is usually necessary to have a civilization. A structure similar to a city or town is necessary to bring together people, jobs, buildings or religious centers. Usually there are different classes of people, such as rich and poor. Some historians say there must be an agricultural surplus also: enough food to feed the people so that some workers could spend time in jobs other than farming. In a nutshell, a civilization must have cities, skilled (non-farming) workers, social and government institutions, writing to maintain records such as property ownership, and advanced technology.


So we have two definitions here. The first "an order and hierarchy in the way of life" would apply to a goddamn streetgang. So, apparently, according to Andrew Schlafly, the Crips are a civilization. Awesome. The second definition is a little more constraining: "a civilization must have cities, skilled (non-farming) workers, social and government institutions, writing to maintain records such as property ownership, and advanced technology." Sadly, this definition verges on useless. What constitutes a "city"? What does he mean by "advanced technology"? Writing? Pyramids? A skyhook? What? Advanced is a relative, rather than absolute, term. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Sumer appears to have been around since about 6,000 BCE.

Memorize the oldest dates for the ancient civilizations:

Name Time of existence
Mesopotamia (Mes-uh-puh-tay-mee-uh) 3500 – 500 B.C., when conquered by Persia
Egypt 3100 – 525 B.C., when conquered by the Hyksos (HIK-sohs)
Indus (IN-dus) Valley: beginning in 2900 B.C.
China: beginning in 2200 B.C.
Mexican Olmec (AWL-mek): 1200 – 300 B.C., the earliest known American civilization
Peru (South America): 900 B.C.

History books speculate about "prehistory", which predates writing (i.e., before 3400 B.C.). But there is no reliable evidence to support this speculation, and it is not worth spending time on. There is no reason to think that man existed for thousands of years without ever expressing himself in written form.


Yes, no evidence to support pre-history other than, you know, all the fossils we keep finding of tools, buildings, bones, etc. I'm also pleased to see truckloads of evidence that the world is older than a piddling 6,000 years referred to as "Not worth spending time on". Brilliant.


But in case you are asked on a standardized test, historians describe the period of time known as "prehistory" as the "Stone Age." They divide the Stone Age into two time periods: "Paleolithic" and "Neolithic". The Paleolithic Age is older, when man relied mostly on hunting and picking nuts and fruit to supplement his diet. The Paleolithic Age was followed by the Neolithic Age, which consisted of the rise of agriculture. The "Neolithic Revolution" means the "Agricultural Revolution," when farming became dominant. The dates of these ages are controversial, and historians have a bias for giving them older dates than archaeology actually proves.


What the hell does that even mean? "A bias for giving them older dates than archaeology proves"? Obviously you haven't read this paper which dates the neolithic agricultural revolution to 10,000 to 7,000 years ago. And, as a side note, it's an archaeology paper.

After the Stone Age came the Bronze Age, beginning in 3500 B.C., when copper and/or bronze tools were used. That was followed by the Iron Age, which began in Turkey around 2200 B.C. and later spread to other regions. As its name suggests, people during this period used iron for tools.


Amusingly, given that he thinks the world is only about 6,000 years old, that means that the stone age only lasted about 500 years but the bronze age lasted 700. So it took us longer to figure out how to work iron after we had bronze than it took to figure out bronze when we had stones, sticks, and dirt? Riiiiiight. That sounds reasonable and consistent with what we see in technological development. As we become more advanced, obviously it takes longer to figure out the next thing. Obviously!

Ancient civilizations are often called "classical civilizations," particularly when they produced great intellectual advances as Ancient Greece did. For example, "Classical Indian Civilization" refers to Ancient India, which lasted from 300 B.C. to A.D. 500.

Two of the oldest towns are the biblical town of Jericho, located in Palestine (on the "West Bank" of the Jordan River, between Israel and Jordan today), and Catal Huyuk, located in modern-day Turkey. Jericho was famous for its high city walls to protect against attack.

The ancient world was the source of the most basic aspects of life that we still use today, such as the seven-day week and marriage. The Bible remains the best written explanation for these and many other aspects of the ancient world. Note that all four civilizations discussed in this lecture arose in or near what we now call the "Middle East."


Ah, yes, well, if the bible is your source for world history, of course you'd be startlingly ignorant. Because the bible is not an f-ing history book, whatever it may be.

And if that isn't enough to horrify you, try out some of the homework assignments he gives. I particularly love Homework Two for the assortment of opinion questions that can't be marked one way or the other. Questions like, "Socrates, Plato and Aristotle: who impresses you most and why?" I mean, seriously folks, what is a wrong answer to that question? For crying out loud, he actually has an "honors" question that reads, in its entirety: "The Persian Wars. What can you say about them?"

So long as Andrew Schlafly is teaching children, I feel like I have to teach twice as well just to keep the human race from getting dumber as a whole.


* If you remember the last time I mentioned this, you're a truly obsessed reader. Give yourself a cookie!

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Friday, February 20, 2009

In which, true to form, Drek alienates everyone.

Folks who keep an eye on the socio-blogosphere are no doubt aware of the fiasco currently unfolding over on Scatterplot. In short, Shakha wrote a post about a certain comic published by the New York Post that has potentially racist over/undertones. He observed that, to him, the comic is indeed deeply racist. The discussion has, from there, gradually metamorphosed into a lengthy argument about racism, social construction, and ethics.

I'm not going to talk about my own opinion about whether or not this cartoon is racist, though you're welcome to try and draw inferences about my probable view from my extensive archive of nonsensical ranting (i.e. this blog). What I will say is that, given my stance on free speech, I strongly support the New York Post's right to publish this cartoon. Likewise, I support Shakha's right to criticize this cartoon, which he so clearly finds highly offensive. Criticism of other ideas is almost always to be preferred to censorship and I am on Shakha's side to at least that extent. And I think that Carl and Jay make excellent points about social construction. One of the most difficult lessons to be learned from work on cognitive biases and social construction is that we should distrust our own perceptions at least as much as we distrust others'.

Mostly, however, I want to make two related observations. The first is that this discussion, while heated, is being carried out by a large number of social scientists. These social scientists are of various levels of seniority and specialty but, nonetheless, are by and large well-trained professionals. Yet, as one commenter points out, it is entirely evident that the discussion is not proceeding using a common definition of racism. Indeed, the main focus of the argument seems to be not merely "Is this cartoon racist" but rather "What is racism?" Now, defining racism is an important task for a science like sociology, but it is at times like this that I sometimes feel a considerable amount of despair about the discipline. That we do not have a rigorous, agreed upon definition of racism that underlies all of our discussions points out a fundamental flaw in our work: we have not resolved basic issues of definition yet. And if we haven't even agreed upon what racism is, how on earth are we supposed to measure and explain it? It is as though physics tried to explain impact force without an agreed upon definition of velocity or acceleration. It is as though chemistry tried to explain rust without an agreed upon definition of chemicals. It is as though we're putting the cart before the horse and, to quote a friend of mine, during discussions like these "...my sociological imagination starts turning into frustration." I think that the existence of the argument, in and of itself, points to a weakness in the discipline that we would be well to attend to.

My second observation is that the heat in this discussion is not originating, I think, from scholarly interest in racism. Instead, I think it derives from attempts to assign blame. At one extreme the argument seems to be that since the cartoon can be taken as racist, then it is racist, and the editors/artists at the New York Post are being racist by printing at. At the opposite extreme the argument seems to be that since there are multiple plausible interpretations we cannot simply conclude that the cartoon and, thereby, the editors/artists are racist. In the middle we find arguments that the cartoon is racist, but only from a certain point of view, and that it is racist, but perhaps unintentionally. These are all, of course, simplified descriptions of an unfolding argument. And the real tragedy of this is that I think all of the commenters are in agreement that racism is bad and should be combatted- I think the only real disagreement is over the type of response that the cartoon warrants. I suspect, though perhaps without reason, that those arguing that the cartoon should not be viewed as extremely racist want to withhold outrage for stronger cases while those who argue that it is extremely racist believe that racism must be fought at every opportunity. What we have is a disagreement over tactics moreso than goals. Yet, a fairly large amount of inflammatory language has been injected. And, trust me, I know a lot about inflammatory language. Hell, come to think of it, the discussion vaguely reminds me of the sort of wrangling that goes on over at Conservapedia, where commitment to ideology often displaces a willingness to listen to alternative viewpoints.

I love my job, I love my field, I really love science. Y'all know that. I suspect you also know that I enjoy wrangling over ideas and like a good provocative conversation. I just wish sometimes that we could trade a little provocation for some productivity- because I do not like participating in an argument that will never go anywhere and just makes everyone angry.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ah, Dakota.

Some of you who have hung around this blog long enough may recall the halcyon days of 2006 when South Dakota attempted to ban abortion even in the case of rape or incest. I had a few things to say about that- primarily about the implicit devaluing of women who weren't virginal conservative Christians- but, blessedly, that ban failed. My own memory of that time, however, leaves me relatively unsurprised to hear about a new attempt to ban abortion in neighboring North Dakota. Interestingly, however, this effort is trying- in its own half-assed way- to be subtle.

Specifically, the bill doesn't ban abortion per se but rather defines a fertilized human egg as a person. No, really:

A measure approved by the North Dakota House gives a fertilized human egg the legal rights of a human being, a step that would essentially ban abortion in the state.

The bill is a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that extended abortion rights nationwide, supporters of the legislation said.

Representatives voted 51-41 to approve the measure Tuesday. It now moves to the North Dakota Senate for its review.

The bill declares that "any organism with the genome of homo sapiens" is a person protected by rights granted by the North Dakota Constitution and state laws.

The measure's sponsor, Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, said the legislation did not automatically ban abortion. Ruby has introduced bills in previous sessions of the Legislature to prohibit abortion in North Dakota. [emphasis added]


Now, for one thing, the supporters of this measure appear to be talking out of both sides of their face. I mean, they have to be since one would assume that "a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade" stands a good chance of being an automatic "ban on abortion." Additionally, what this bill essentially does is define a fetus as a person, equal under the law with you or me or any of the rest of us non-womb-resident homo sapiens. And while I suppose you could say this doesn't ban abortion, it would have the logical implication that aborting a fetus would automatically constitute murder, so that's a distinction without a difference. I can only hope that, despite her current distractions, my old pal Plain(s)feminist gets a few shots in here.

Now, obviously, I'm unhappy about this effort to drastically curtail reproductive rights. I don't like the idea of abortion. My wife doesn't like the idea of abortion. Even before we were married we didn't think we would get an abortion had we gotten pregnant unexpectedly. But, that said, we both strongly support the right of women to have an abortion if they choose. We might say that we're pro-choice voters who wouldn't have an abortion- thereby covering ourselves in some warped moral authority- but we also aren't a low income family with six children already and not enough money or childcare to go around. I very strongly believe that women who get abortions are overwhelmingly not cavalier about it but are, rather, deeply troubled by an action they feel compelled to take. And it isn't my, or anyone else's place, to treat them like selfish children who can't make decisions about their own bodies and lives.

Beyond that, however, I find this bill troubling on other levels. First, because it would inevitably define an embryo as a legal person. This raises some thorny issues- can the embryo hold property? Can it enter into legally binding contracts? If a fetus should- in the process of being born- kill its mother, is it then liable for manslaughter? This may seem like a clever end-run around Roe v. Wade but, really, it opens a gigantic can of worms from a legal standpoint and, I would guess, some fascinating potential tax loopholes.

Even more interesting, the phrasing of the bill is such that any organism with a human genome is a person but, really, what the hell does that even mean? A skin cell is an organism and it contains the human genome. Thus, are all of my constituent cells individual people? If I have an appendectomy, am I committing genocide? What about using radiation on a tumor? Is that violating the tumor's civil rights? This is not a trivial question as, presumably, the bill doesn't limit the genome=person clause to solely those organisms capable of independent life as that would keep early abortion legal. I've looked for the text of the bill online and have not been able to find it* so I can't say for sure if this issue is dealt with but, really, I doubt it.

Beyond the absurd task of figuring out which of my tissues could register to vote independent of the rest of me, there is the weirdly complex matter of defining just what the hell having a human genome means. You see, we're closely related to a number of other non-human species at a genetic level. Chimpanzees, for example, share between 94% and 99% of our DNA.** Indeed, some researchers apparently think chimps should be re-classified as members of the genus homo along with humans. So... do they have a "human genome" or not? What's the standard? Is 94% close enough? How about 99%? What about 99.5%? And how close do we have to shave the number before we start accidentally eliminating members of the human race who have various mutations or other genetic disorders? Determining the lines of demarcation between different species is a notoriously difficult problem and, really, I don't think we want the legislature of North-fucking-Dakota settling the matter by fiat.

But, hey, in the magical land of North Dakota a garbageman*** is qualified to decide complex issues in biology. Great.


* I did, however, find the page of this bill's sponsor Dan Ruby, who appears to own his own garbage company and is married with ten children. Yeah- ten. If you're interested, you can e-mail him at druby@nd.gov or call him at 701-852-6132 but please keep in mind that I am encouraging legitimate political expression only. Don't call him names or otherwise harass him.

** And it appears in the case of the lower figure that some of the differences are in non-coding segments of DNA that, essentially, aren't expressed in either chimps or humans.

*** Yes, he's in the waste disposal business. Didn't you read the first footnote?

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

I feel like I'm in the wrong sub-area.

Researchers at Princeton University have, apparently, completed exciting new research that seems to indicate that looking at scantily clad women makes men become pushy assholes:

Brain scans revealed that when men are shown pictures of scantily clad women, the region of the brain associated with tool use lights up.

Men were also more likely to associate images of sexualized women with first-person action verbs such as "I push, I grasp, I handle," said lead researcher Susan Fiske, a psychologist at Princeton University.

And in a "shocking" finding, Fiske noted, some of the men studied showed no activity in the part of the brain that usually responds when a person ponders another's intentions.

This means that these men see women "as sexually inviting, but they are not thinking about their minds," Fiske said. "The lack of activation in this social cognition area is really odd, because it hardly ever happens."


Some of you are doubtless unsurprised to hear about this.* Leaving aside the myriad "tool" jokes that leap unbidden into my puerile little brain, we should not place too much faith in this research just yet. It involved a mere 21 subjects and, as such, is not as conclusive as we might like. Additionally we still don't understand everything about how brain activation correlates with intentionality or behavior and, really, we shouldn't be too hard on most men as some of us seem to have more issues with this than others:

...the men who scored higher as "hostile sexists"—those who view women as controlling and invaders of male space—didn't show brain activity that indicates they saw the women in bikinis as humans with thoughts and intentions.

Scientists have seen this absence of activation only once before, in a study where people were shown off-putting photographs of homeless people and drug addicts.


So, in another shocking finding, men who don't like women are more likely to view women as things. And it's not just the men who seem to be impacted by bikinis- you will recall that I've previously mentioned a study that finds that women perform less well on math exercises when dressed in bikinis. In sum, this research seems to indicate that bikinis make men view women as unintelligent things and, indeed, make women act less intelligent than they really are.**

Really, though, I just find myself wondering if I should have picked an academic field that involves less concern with inequality and more concern with studying women in bikinis.***


* On a more serious note, I wonder very much what the results would have been if the heads of the pictures hadn't been omitted, given that the face provides so much information on intent. Additionally, I wonder if there is a difference in response to exposure to pictures of strangers in bikinis versus people the subjects know. Because, really, how many of us develop an elaborate theory of mind about people we pass on the street?

** Yes, this is a horrendously simplistic rendering of the research picture. C'mon, what do you expect from me?

*** No, I'm not serious, and yes, I do love my wife very, very much.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Awesome on two counts.

This past Thursday a ruling was handed down by the three "special masters" appointed to determine whether or not there is sufficient evidence* that vaccines are linked to autism for parents to receive payments from the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP). This trial, known as the Autism Omnibus Trial, has important implications for the use of vaccines nationwide. If the plaintiffs' claims had been ruled legitimate it would have represented a moral, if not empirical, blow to vaccines. Defeat, however, reinforces the scientific consensus that autism is not related to vaccines. So what was the verdict?

In a phrase, fuck no. The special masters have ruled that vaccines do not appear to cause autism. Thus, yet another body joins on the side of scientific consensus. Not that this will stop or, indeed, even slow down the anti-vaccination goon squad, who seem hellbent on opposing this form of medicine no matter the cost. Indeed, I expect that there are already conspiracy theories surrounding the outcome of this trial. Nevertheless, rulings like this help to arrest the spread** of anti-vaccination hysteria, which is probably more important than reducing the numbers of true believiers.

So the title of this post is "awesome on two counts." Obviously, this ruling is awesome because it helps shore up vaccines. So what is the second way that the ruling is cool? Well, as it turns out, one of the groups working with the plaintiffs in this case was the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, an ultra-right wing version of the AMA.*** And, coincidentally, the general council to the AAPS is one Andrew L. Schlafly, with whom I have tangled before. So not only have vaccines received just support, Andrew Schlafly got schooled along the way.

That is teh awesome!


* As it happens, in order for the case to be deemed to have merit the plaintiffs only have to prove 50% plus a feather or, in other words, they just have to convince the special masters that there is a 50% plus anything chance that vaccines produce autism.

** During a recent visit my own mother-in-law started spouting anti-vaccination horseshit. This stemmed mainly from the fact that the anti-vaxxers are good at making their case sound plausible and that my mother-in-law didn't really know what she was talking about. What made the experience more disquieting, however, is that my father-in-law is a doctor who also holds a degree in public health. I rather got the impression that this was the first he had heard of anti-vaccine hysteria from his wife as well.

*** The AAPS is to the AMA what Conservapedia is to Wikipedia.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

The essential point.

Some of you may be wondering why, despite my oft mentioned interest in evolutionary theory, I did not make a big to-do out of Darwin's birthday yesterday. This day, known informally as "Darwin Day," would seem to be a perfect opportunity for me to crow about how important evolution is to modern science, and to castigate creationists.* Yet, despite the celebratory atmosphere at a number of places- including, believe it or not, Scatterplot- I did not recognize the anniversary of the birth of one of the most influential scientists of our time.

So what the hell was up with that?

I declined to blog about Darwin on Darwin Day for a very simple and, I like to think, important reason: evolution is not about Darwin. Let me say that again: evolution is not about Darwin.

You see, in my on and off battles with creationists, including the intelligent design dunderheads, I have noticed that there is a tendency to treat Darwin as synonymous with evolution. Indeed, ID folks love to refer to "Darwinism" rather than evolutionary theory. Likewise, I have seen attempts to construct SAT style analogy problems that look a little like this:

Jesus Christ is to Christianity as ___________ is to Atheism:

a. Thomas Aquinas
b. Charles Darwin
c. Agatha Christie
d. Your Mom


As you might guess, the answer many creationists imagine to be correct is in bold. I believe that it is this mistaken equation of Darwin with atheism and, by extension, evolution that explains Conservapedia's absurd article on evolution. In their world, by leading the article with a picture of Joseph Stalin and including more pictures of him and Adolf Hitler than Darwin, they are discrediting the theory. Indeed, I have previously remarked upon the efforts of some creationists to portray Darwin as a man who enjoyed beating puppies.** The logic is simple ad hominem: attack the man and the argument is destroyed by association.

The thing is, it doesn't really matter if Darwin was a nice guy or not. It doesn't matter if he liked to abuse animals, was horribly racist, or called his wife a cunt.*** Evolutionary theory is not a guide to moral action, evolution is not an ethical system, evolution is a proposed account for the diversity of life we see on Earth. It is a statement about how the world operates. Either evolution, in its present or a more refined future form, explains the world or it does not. The moral worth of the person or persons proposing it is irrelevant. If Adolf Hitler said the sky is blue, does his evil make his statement untrue? Of course not. Likewise, even if Darwin were a bad person, that would not in any way invalidate his ideas. Facts are facts, reality is reality, and they remain so regardless of the person doing the observing.

I respect Darwin's achievement, I honor his memory, but in doing so I do not place him upon a pedestal. Darwin was a fallible, imperfect man who produced something amazing. But the true grandeur of science is that his ideas have achieved a life of their own, growing, changing, and evolving through the dedication and work of generations of scientists.

Evolutionary theory is not Darwin- it's much, much more than that.


* Although in perfect honesty, almost any day is a good day to castigate creationists.

** Totally not kidding, they did make the attempt, and no, Darwin did not enjoy abusing animals.

*** As a matter of fact, Darwin appears to have deeply loved his wife. I'm not so sure about John McCain.****

**** Which is to say, I'm not sure how McCain feels about his own wife. I don't imagine Darwin has any feelings about McCain one way or the other.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

In which Drek reports some serious news and then makes a tasteless joke.

This just in: two satellites, one Russian and one American, collided Tuesday in orbit, destroying both craft.

It happened some 490 miles above northern Siberia, at around noon Eastern time. Two communications satellites — one Russian, one American — cracked up in silent destruction. In the aftermath, military radars on the ground tracked large amounts of debris going into higher and lower orbits.

...

The American satellite was an Iridium, one of a constellation of 66 spacecraft. Liz DeCastro, corporate communications director of Iridium Satellite, based in Bethesda, Md., said that the satellite weighed about 1,200 pounds and that its body was more than 12 feet long, not including large solar arrays.

In a statement, the company said that it had “lost an operational satellite” on Tuesday, apparently after it collided with “a nonoperational” Russian satellite.

...

Mr. Johnson, who works at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said the new swarms of whirling debris might also eventually pose a threat to other satellites in an orbital chain reaction.


The cause of this crash has not been determined, but investigators have not yet ruled out the involvement of Lindsay Lohan.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

God works in mysterious ways. Geology, not so much.

As some of you may realize, tomorrow is February 12, 2009- the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. Darwin, as you may recall, is generally credited as the originator of the theory of evolution which, in the modern era, has gradually metamorphosed into a mature and extremely useful theory that brings together findings from chemistry, genetics, biology, ecology, anthropology and archaeology. In a real sense, the modern synthesis is a biological version of the "Theory of Everything" that physics has long sought. In short, Darwin can be safely remembered as beginning, though by no means completing, a momentous theoretical structure. And frequent readers know that I have a great deal of respect for this achievement.

Regular readers are also aware that evolutionary theory has its share of detractors, coming overwhelmingly from the ranks of religious fundamentalists and biblical extremists. To name just two groups who particularly hate this part of science, we have the trolls at Conservapedia whose article on evolution has a picture of Joseph Stalin before a picture of Darwin. Actually, for that matter, the article includes two photos of Charles Darwin versus two photos of Stalin and one photo of Adolf Hitler. Secondly, we have the folks in the intelligent design "movement" who were just a little too impressed when they ran into the watchmaker analogy.

A third detractor of evolution is convicted tax evader and creation scientist, Kent Hovind. Hovind, you may recall, also founded Dinosaur Adventure Land, "Where Dinosaurs and the Bible meet!" In any case, Kent Hovind is not just any creationist, he's a Young Earth Creationist or YEC,* meaning that he thinks the Earth is around 6,000 years old. This is important for Hovind not just because it aligns with his reading of the bible, but because a young Earth should make evolution untenable as an explanation for biodiversity. His beliefs, however, are an issue because the geological evidence overwhelmingly supports an old Earth. Fortunately, Hovind has a way around that. See, he thinks that the various rock and soils strata we see in the geological record could have been layed down all at one time by an enormous flood. You know, the kind you need an ark to survive. Importantly, he has famously suggested that experiments would support his flood strata theory. Funny thing, though: he's never actually performed the experiment.

Fortunately for us, now somebody has:



Will this convince any YECs? Oh, hell no. As I suggested in response to yesterday's post over on Orgtheory, sometimes there are just too many shitty justifications for an inane belief for any one experiment or study to make a difference.** But it may help stop someone from becoming a YEC in the first place.

And hell, it's funny besides.


* Pronounced "Yech" as in, "Yech! I can't believe I just spent an hour listening to Kent Hovind's bullshit!"

** Note, in particular, that in the comments to a post discussing the recent news about Andrew Wakefield there is an entry from someone asking if it could be mercury in high fructose corn syrup that is causing autism. Never mind that there is zero evidence that vaccines, with or without mercury, cause autism. Never mind the differences between ethyl and methyl mercury. Like the Hydra, disprove one bit of nonsense and two more grow back.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"You are getting sleepy, your wallet is feeling heavy, you need to lighten it..."

Ladies, we here at Total Drek are dedicated to helping you. For that reason, we have an announcement you may find interesting. This man is Adam Eason and he is interested in your breasts.



Cupping hand gestures aside, Eason really is interested in your breasts or, more specifically, in helping you to enlarge them. Isn't it amazing how so many men seem to be- entirely altruistically- interested in helping women feel good about themselves through enlarging certain body parts? So noble.

Okay, seriously, Eason does want to help you enlarge your bust but the manner in which he wants to help may surprise you. He doesn't want to perform surgery, he doesn't want to sell you an herbal treatment or regimen of hormones. All of this, you see, is expensive and ineffective. No, instead, he wants to help you think your way to a more confident, more endowed you. That's right, ladies: Adam Eason is the inventor of the revolutionary new Hypnotic Breast Enlargement Programme! You can have the absurdly oversized breasts you've always wanted by just listening to his hypnotic suggestions on this tastefully decorated CD:



The logic behind this exciting new program is, of course, impeccable:

Maybe you are sceptical or uncertain about how hypnosis could actually enlarge breasts.

It seems odd to many people, and once you understand how the brain and mind respond to hypnosis, and how easy it really is for you to reprogramme the cells of your body using hypnosis, you simply discover that you actually have far more control over your body than you may have realised.

After all, it is your brain that knows to enlarge your breasts when you are changing hormonally — when pregnant or when menstruating for example. [emphasis added]


That's right! The complex cascade of hormonal and biological signals that occurs during puberty or pregnancy can be summed up as "your brain knows to enlarge your breasts". It's sort of like how when I eat a lot of junkfood my brain knows to enlarge my ass. It's amazing the kind of control the brain has! But let's talk turkey, how does this work concretely?

Firstly, this audio programme helps to stimulate your growth hormones:

During the Hypnosis sessions, we imagine that we connect with and tune into the parts of your brain that control your sense of who you are and how you perceive yourself. The parts of your brain that maintain most of the body’s systems and controls what emotional chemicals are in our system and the release of hormones too.

We influence the mind and body within the hypnosis sessions to create a connection that you feel aware of between your mind and body.

Many people actually report to me that they can sense that occurrence in their body with those particular hypnosis sessions. Many state that it is an enthralling sensation to experience!

Secondly, we take you on a journey through time with your beliefs:

During certain periods of time in your life, you had beliefs that were powerful and perhaps over time as your beliefs changed, you started to truly believe that you were destined to be a certain way. The memory of powerful beliefs that enhance the growth process is almost like a blueprint that your brain has stored within it that we’d like you to enjoy again.

You can stimulate the beliefs inherent within you about how you identify with yourself. We want you to ravel into the future to experience yourself being progressive and positive about who and how you are.

It is such a growing joy to also experience your future inside your mind and feel how good it is when you have achieved your goal.

Thirdly, the principle of imagination:

During these receptive hypnotic states, your brain is going to create and install the outcome that you want. This imagination process is a way to directly communicate with your body, to send messages to your unconscious mind. [emphasis original]


What the fuck does that even mean? Who cares? If you believe it, you get bigger boobs! It's just that simple! Accept nonsensical gibberish and pay $49.00, plus shipping and handling, and you too can have bigger boobs. Trust me! I'm, like, totally honest! And what are the benefits of enlarging your own breasts? Oh, hey, they're legion:

What are some benefits to you of enlarging your breasts today?

Just realising how much you are in control of your physiology enhances your confidence and self-esteem.

Think about how you are going to feel about yourself after you have used your mind in such a profoundly amazing way! It gives you confidence that so much more is possible in this life.

Many people feel say that they are more confident about their life in general.

Imagine looking into the mirror and seeing larger breasts, and also that sense of inspiration that goes with feeling good about being you.

Imagine what it might feel like inside your bra. Maybe you can even imagine how good that feels when someone else feels them! The prospects are exciting, aren’t they? [emphasis original]


Yeah! Try imaging what it it feels like when someone else feels them. Imagine that someone else is a redhead. And eighteen. And a cheerleader! Oh, yeah, describe what you imagine that's like when she feels your new breasts. You like it, don't you? Yeah. And now she has some oil- you're both covered in oil. That's good.

Ahem. Anyway, it's just that simple! By thinking about bigger breasts, and visualizing bigger breasts, you can have them!* Just check out this artist's conception** of a before-and-after photo:***



Order now, and Adam will ship your CD right away!


* Using this logic, shouldn't every teenage boy in America start growing a pair of d-cups?

** Artist may never have seen actual human breasts at any point in his life.

*** Results may vary.

Hat-tip to Orac who spent way more time on this than I have.

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Monday, February 09, 2009

I don't know if I should laugh or cry.

Once upon a time a doctor named Andrew Wakefield performed some research. This research supposedly linked the development of autism spectrum disorder to measles and, particularly, to the MMR vaccine. This research, based on case studies of only twelve individuals with autism, helped feed a "controversy" over vaccines. In this controversy we have seen vaccination rates fall, with the predictable consequences, we have seen celebrities rally to the cause of shoddy medicine, other celebrities defend evidence-based medicine, and respected physicians receive death threats because, essentially, they refuse to go along with anti-vaccine hysteria. And, of course, amidst the chaos with children dying from preventable diseases, the vultures circle and profit from human misery. And the only thing that could make all this even worse, even more pointless, is if we discovered that none of it had to happen in the first place. That if some folks had only been more honest from the beginning, we might not be in this mess.

Well, folks, things just got worse.

As it turns out, not only has nobody been able to replicate Wakefield's original research, not only has changing the MMR schedule in various countries not produced changes in autism rates, not only did most of the authors on Wakefield's article later retract their interpretation of the results, it now appears that all of our failures to confirm an MMR/autism link are attributable to one simple problem: Wakefield made his data up:

Confidential medical documents and interviews with witnesses have established that Andrew Wakefield manipulated patients’ data, which triggered fears that the MMR triple vaccine to protect against measles, mumps and rubella was linked to the condition.

The research was published in February 1998 in an article in The Lancet medical journal. It claimed that the families of eight out of 12 children attending a routine clinic at the hospital had blamed MMR for their autism, and said that problems came on within days of the jab. The team also claimed to have discovered a new inflammatory bowel disease underlying the children’s conditions.

However, our investigation, confirmed by evidence presented to the General Medical Council (GMC), reveals that: In most of the 12 cases, the children’s ailments as described in The Lancet were different from their hospital and GP records. Although the research paper claimed that problems came on within days of the jab, in only one case did medical records suggest this was true, and in many of the cases medical concerns had been raised before the children were vaccinated. Hospital pathologists, looking for inflammatory bowel disease, reported in the majority of cases that the gut was normal. This was then reviewed and the Lancet paper showed them as abnormal.


All of this suffering for nothing. The deaths, for nothing. The arguments and threats of violence, for nothing. It all came about because of fear, ignorance, greed, and the willingness of some persons to sacrifice their integrity.

I've changed my mind: I should definitely cry.

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Friday, February 06, 2009

In case you haven't heard...

For those who haven't heard already, efforts are underweigh to eliminate spending for science in the current bailout bill. And the cuts are, in a word, dramatic:

NSF 100% cut ($1,402,000,000)
NASA exploration 50% cut ($750,000,000)
NOAA 34.94% cut ($427,000,000)
NIST 37.91% cut ($218,000,000)
DOE energy efficiency & renewable energy 38% cut ($1,000,000,000)
DOE office of science 100% cut ($100,000,000)


I especially love the cuts to programs meant to encourage the development of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Yeah, because spending $1 billion on that now won't, you know, pay off massively in the future when we don't need to remain involved in middle east politics.

Not that I, Drek, would ever encourage political action- generally I appear content to sit around and bitch about things while my mild mannered alter ego does all the political agitating- but if you're curious you can find a list of senators here.

You know what to do.

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

Ex-ceedingly dumb.

As y'all know, I am a rather devout atheist. I also enjoy exposing myself to the views of people I disagree with. The intersection of these traits means that I often find myself hanging around the websites of various religious groups. Thus far I have not been impressed by the argumentation that I have encountered but, hey, given the enduring popularity of religion, I keep hoping somebody will come up with an argument for god that is even halfway convincing. So far, as you might guess, no joy. In any case, while I have yet to encounter a ministry that does much more than insult my intelligence, this one at least gave me a chuckle. It's known as the Passion for Christ Movement and it is, in a word, buggo. What sets it apart, however, is merchandising.

I refer to its fine selection of t-shirts that declare what the wearer no longer is. For example, you can label yourself an Ex-Fornicator:*



Or an Ex-Hypocrite:



You could be an Ex-Diva:



An Ex-atheist:**



Taking us in a weird direction, you could be an Ex-Masturbator:***



Or, you could be an Ex-Slave:****



So apparently Christ is about making poor fashion decisions. If all that sassy teen consumerism isn't enough to snap you back to Christ, try out this helpful YouTube video titled "1 girl dismantles atheism":



I don't want to ruin it for you but it's a rehash of the argument from design and some really bizarre claims about the relationship between language and information. What makes it amusing is that she prefaces her "sermon" by commenting that atheists probably think they've heard it all before, but she's going to present some hot new arguments... and then she proceeds to present the same old tired crap I've been hearing since I converted to atheism about 17 years ago.*****

Head on over and have yourself a chuckle. If these folks are happy in their faith, I'm happy for them, but if they think making asses out of themselves is going to help people break loose from the gay****** or the atheism, I am afraid they're sorely mistaken.


* By popular demand, shirt now available in scarlet!

** As a side note, what the hell is going on with capitalization after the hyphen? I mean, I usually prefer not to capitalize "atheist" because it's not really a proper descriptor. I mean, seriously, do we categorize people as "Aleprechaunists"? In any case, why the hell is "Diva" capitalized but "fornicator" is not?

*** Some other folks have come up with pretty creative responses to the ex-masturbator shirt. Personally, given that the shirt only explains what they're NOT doing, I prefer to assume it means the folks in the picture are too busy saddlebacking to masturbate.

**** Does anyone else think it was maybe a little... you know... iffy to put the black man in the ex-slave t-shirt?

***** Seriously, wacky evangelists: seventeen years! I have been fielding attempts to convert me from atheism for almost two damn decades. I have HEARD most of your arguments by now. Bring your A-game.

****** Yeah, I didn't want to touch on their whole ex-gay crap because I don't want to get angry.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

If you don't get it, you're not a social scientist.

Of course, if you do get it, that doesn't mean that you are a social scientist but, hey, that's not the point.



How could anyone not love xkcd?

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Okay, well, let's try that again.

Coming hot on the heels of Shakha's good points about government spending- and the GOP opinion thereof- comes this report about what Republicans think went wrong over the last eight years. Hint: Probably not what you expect.

Coming off a shellacking at the polls in November, the plurality of GOP voters (43%) say their party has been too moderate over the past eight years, and 55% think it should become more like Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in the future, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. Just 24% think failed presidential candidate John McCain is the best future model for the party, and 10% are undecided.

Only 17% of Republican voters say their party has been too conservative...


Seriously? That's the problem? Bush wasn't conservative enough? This just serves as more evidence that Conservapedia isn't as far from the norm* as we might like to believe.

Yikes.

I would like to invite Scatterbrains and others to use the comments to this post to leave suggestions for how the Republican party could be even more conservative in the future. No suggestion is too absurd because, really, we know they'll be taken seriously regardless.

What are my proposals for future Republican platforms? How about abolish all income taxes, impose a 20% sales tax, and change the national motto from "E Pluribus Unum" to "You betcha!"


* As a side note, yes, I know the link may be broken. It's because Conservapedia has been running about as smoothly as a cheap Yugoslavian Pinto knock-off for the past few days. So if the link is broken, it isn't because I did something wrong.

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