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.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

An awesomely cute story...

This may be one of the cutest stories I've ever heard:

Recently she lost a tooth, and she knows the tooth fairy will give money for a tooth under the pillow. However: she’s a skeptic (at age 5). She was talking to me about the big event recently, and mentioned that she wasn’t sure if there really was a tooth fairy. I was interested to hear more, and asked her what she thought.

I swear to you, people; she then came up with this, right there and then, all by herself. An idea to test her theory. She decided to count all Mum and Dad's money. Then, the next morning, she could tell if that was where the money came from.


I don't want to blow the ending but, I think, the whole story points to a brilliant way for skeptical parents to allow their children to experience the magic of childhood without forever saddling them with the nonsensical idea that invisible beings make things happen. Read the whole thing- it's worth it.

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Monday, March 29, 2010

"Brought to you by..."

Recently Project Reason held a video contest to find a good way to spread scientific reasoning and secular values. Well the entries are in, the winners are selected, and there are some real doozies. The first place entry is rational and polite, entirely in keeping with the goals:



And this third place entry also has a valuable message:



But I have to admit that, while less polite and not a winner, this one is probably my favorite:



Yeah, Tulsa. How's it feel to deserve God's wrath for... um... something or other?

Congratulations to all the winners and, really, to all the contestants. Great job.

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Friday, March 26, 2010

It's here!

Some of you may remember as far back as last November when I gave you a homework assignment. That assignment was, in short, to find me a copy of the special "Ray Comfort Edition" of Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species." You remember Ray Comfort, right? He's the guy who claims that bananas are the atheist's worst nightmare. I wouldn't know about that, although if I eat too many bananas in a week it gives me indigestion something fierce. I don't think that's what Ray means, though. Regardless, Ray Comfort printed Darwin's great book but this time put his own wacky introduction at the front, spewing creationist nonsense right there along side Darwin's theory. Moreover, he decided to distribute these books on college campuses and, seeing as how I work at a college campus, I wanted one.

Sadly, my efforts to get one myself were thwarted in no small part because Ray decided to do the book drop a day early. So the carefully prepared book-seeking machine that is my readership was unable to do my bidding. Well, poop!

But then, when I thought all hope was lost, came socygirl with the news that she had obtained a copy! And, even better, she was willing to send it to me. We worked out a means for relaying said volume anonymously, and then I settled in for the wait. And so, you can probably guess what I found waiting for me when I got home from work yesterday:





Fucking. Awesome.

You have no idea how pleased I am right now, especially given how very far this book had to travel in order to get to me. And so please give socygirl a round of applause for managing the damn near impossible.

And socygirl: I totally owe you!

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Left Behind: Chapter 17, Part 1

Welcome back one and all to our regular feature on Left Behind, the book that makes me long for the riveting action packed narrative of the yellow pages. Last time Buck was offered a deal by the devil and Rayford bitched, moaned, and generally acted like a pathetic little waste of a human being. What happens this week? Not too much, but it involves more straight recitation of wacky theology in story form. So that will be fun.

As always we have a comment of the week. This week that "honor" goes to scripto for asking the really important question:

Why is he so weepy all of a sudden? If he was a true believer you would think he would be happy that his wife was in a better place and doesn't have to get Tribulated like the rest of the left behind. It's not like he was getting a lot of blow jobs before she was raptured anyway.


Indeed, it does seem a little odd that Rayford's knowledge that his wife is in a better place makes him much more, rather than less, upset. But, hey, what do I know of the intricacies of theology? Then again, what do the authors know? So we seem to be on an even footing. Thanks for the comments, scripto, and best of luck to everyone in this episode.

And with that, let's begin! As always, page/line numbers are in bold, quotes from the book are in block quotes, my commentary is in regular print, and you can navigate the whole series with the provided tag.


----------

Dramatis Personae

In an order determined by my wife and her angry eyebrows...

Rayford Steele: Airline captain. Husband of Irene Steele. Possible former gay porn star. Ditherer. No longer attracted to Hattie. Bad father. Cries a lot. Lying hypocrite. Christian.

Irene Steele: Wife of Rayford Steele. Born-again Christian. Not perfect, just forgiven. Reader of marriage books. Cleans obsessively. Likes egg in her coffee. Bakes really silly cookies. Likes butter churns.

Cameron "Buck" Williams: Reporter. Known for "bucking tradition and authority." Terrible Excellent writer. Spiritually attuned. Electronics wiz. Fast typist. Clumsy on slides. Travels a lot. Graduated from Princeton. Human alarm clock. Expert in Romanian politics.

Hattie Durham: Flight attendant. Toucher. Hottie. Hysterical female type. Girl power devotee. Unhealthily thin. Twenty-seven years old. Blonde. Claims no moral or religious code.

Chris Smith: Airline co-pilot. Worked with Rayford Steele. Father of two. Husband. Killed himself.

Chloe Steele: Daughter of Rayford Steele. Student at Stanford. Religiously unaffiliated. Kinda stupid.

Chaim Rosenzweig: Israeli chemist. Kinda freaky. Friend of Buck's.

Steve Plank: Buck's boss at Global Weekly. Not the sharpest tool in the shed.

Nicolae Carpathia: Businessman. Romanian Senator. Romanian President. Antichrist. Favors arms reductions. An inch or two over six feet tall. Broad shouldered. Thick chested. Trim. Athletic. Tanned. Blonde. Blue eyes. Thick eyebrows. Roman nose and jaw. Carries self with a sense of humility and purpose. Wears understated jewelry. Excellent memory.

Raymie Steele: Son of Rayford Steele. Taken in the rapture.

Dirk Burton: English guy Buck knows. Graduated from Princeton. Kinda gullible. Killed himself Murdered. Left handed.

Joshua Todd-Cothran: English finance guy. May have the nickname "duck lips."

Jonathon Stonagal: American ultra-rich dude. Involved in international monetary cabal. Has ties to duck lips.

Marge Potter: Steve Planck's secretary. Matronly.

Lucinda Washington: Fiftyish black woman. Raptured.

Ken Ritz: Pilot. Profiteering on the rapture. Actually quite polite. Fired for being too careful. Believes in aliens.

Juan Ortiz: Global Weekly international events editor.

Jimmy Borland: Global Weekly religion editor.

Barbara Donahue: Global Weekly financial editor.

Nigel Leonard: Employee of the London exchange.

Alan Tompkins: Investigator at Scotland Yard. Friend of Buck. Kind of a chickenshit. Blown up by an evil conspiracy car bomb.

Bruce Barnes: Visitation Pastor at New Hope Village Church. Likes to be mysterious.

Vernon Billings: Pastor at New Hope Village Church. Likes video tape. Raptured.

Mwangati Ngumo: Secretary-General of the United Nations. Botswanan national.

Eric Miller: Reporter. Rival of Buck's. Able to climb stairs really fast, but not as fast a runner as Buck. Kinda a douche.

Gerald Fitzhugh: President of the United States. Talks like a moron.

----------


Chapter 17: In which we learn about some angels, hear how much the next seven years will suck, Buck gets offered a new job, and the whole gang gets on track for a reunion.


Page 301- Line 1-3:
After a few minutes, Chloe gave Rayford evidence that she had heard his cry. "Don't worry about me, Daddy, OK? I'm getting there."


So, right about now you might be feeling a little lost. What the hell is Chloe talking about? Where is this chapter opening? In answer, allow me to just say: in the middle of the same scene that ended last chapter. Yes, that's right: they made a chapter break by just cleaving a scene in twain. If I have to deal with it, you do too. Congratulations.


Page 301- Line 4-9:
Getting where? Did she mean that her decision was just a matter of time or simply that she was getting over her grief? He wanted so badly to tell her he was worried, but she knew that. Her very presence brought him comfort, but when she padded back to her room he felt desperately alone again.


Yikes. It's like Rayford is a sixteen year old girl obsessing over her crush. This is not to say that there's anything wrong with being sixteen, a girl, or both. It's just that when a grown man starts acting like he so very much wants the quarterback to ask him to prom, we're not having a good day for characterization. Anyway, since Rayford can't sleep due to his crushing anxiety, he decides to go down and watch T.V. This, of course, provides the authors with a chance to shove some more wacky theology down our throats. Buckle up, kids.


Page 301- Line 11-14:
From Israel came the strangest report. The screen showed a mob in front of the famous Wailing Wall, surrounding two men who seemed to be shouting.


Right. Two guys shouting in Jerusalem. With a mob. Yep. That's... unusual. Sure.


Page 301-302- Line 301: 15-16, 302: 1-7:
"No one knows the two men," said the CNN reporter on the scene, "who refer to each other as Eli and Moishe. They have stood here before the Wailing Wall since just before dawn, preaching in a style frankly reminiscent of the old American evangelists. Of course the Orthodox Jews here are in an uproar, charging the two with desecrating this holy place by proclaiming that Jesus Christ of the New Testament is the fulfillment of the Torah's prophecy of a messiah." [emphasis added]


Ah! Awesome! These guys are the two wacky angels that appear in Jerusalem in the end times to generally aggravate everyone. Great, I've been waiting for these guys to put in an appearance! I also love that whole "old American evangelists" bit. It's been... what? A week since the rapture? Are they really the "old American evangelists" at this point? Apparently we all have very short memories. And how can you not love that bit about "Jesus Christ of the New Testament"? No, really? You don't mean Jesus Christ of 323 Elm Avenue? I'm shocked!


Page 302- Line 8-15:
"Thus far there has been no violence, though tempers are flaring, and authorities keep a watchful eye. Israeli police and military personnel have always been loath to enter this area, leaving religious zealots here to handle their own problems. This is the most explosive situation in the Holy Land since the destruction of the Russian air force and this newly prosperous nation has been concerned almost primarily with outside threats." [emphasis added]


Okay, WOW! What the f-ing crap is even going on in that paragraph? Where to even begin? Okay, first of all, here's a picture of a soldier at the wailing wall. So... yeah. Second, did the authors seriously just have a CNN reporter refer to presumably VERY observant Jews- on a national broadcast no less- as "religious zealots"? What the hell? Third, this is the most "explosive" situation since the Russian air force was destroyed? You mean, the most explosive situation since the Russian air force was, itself, exploded over Israel? Is that some kind of awful pun or something? And lastly: "almost primarily"? What the fuck does that even mean? It's not "primarily" it's not "almost completely" it's "almost primarily". It's nearly their main priority... but not quite. External threats are, like, their first priority among equals or something? This paragraph is such a disaster, I can't help but laugh. Anyway, Rayford barely reigns in the urge to call Bruce up and share this exciting development with him, but does share some thinly-veiled theology with us.


Page 302- Line 21-25:
Bruce had told him and the rest of the core group at New Hope that there would soon spring up 144,000 Jews who would believe in Christ and begin to evangelize around the world. Were these the first two?


I'll readily admit that I'm neither Jewish nor Christian, and frankly find both religions somewhat humorous, but given the historical context, I also have to admit that talk of Christians evangelizing Jews makes me feel a bit creeped out. Maybe that's just me. Regardless, the news then shifts to Carpathia who is apparently still making major waves. Rayford watches a press conference where the President of the United States basically says that Carpathia is the awesome and we should all listen to him. I won't transcribe the comments for you because they're skull-numbingly insipid, but my margin note reads, "Yeah. Because you get to be President by not having any political savvy at all." If that doesn't give you a sense of what the press conference is like, you're hopeless. Then the other shoe, as it were, drops.


Page 304- Line 1-8:
The anchorwoman continued: "Out of New York late this evening comes a report that a Global Weekly writer has been cleared of all charges and suspicion in the death of a Scotland Yard investigator. Cameron Williams, award-winning senior writier at the Weekly, had been feared dead in a car bombing that took the life of the investigator Alan Tompkins, who was also an acquaintence of Williams. [emphasis original]


Oh man, Buck, did you really sell out? I hope so- this book really needs an anti-hero. Or, for that matter, a hero. Or a plot. I'm not picky. And as long as we're on the subject, it is becoming more and more obvious that the fictional CNN in Left Behind needs to fire their fictional copy editors because they fictionally suck. In any case, this story goes on for another two paragraphs but I'm not going to transcribe it because, for all intents and purposes, it's shit we already know. The authors do slip in this little fascinating tidbit, though:


Page 304- Line 22-24:
"In sports news, Major League Baseball teams in spring training face the daunting task of replacing the dozens of players lost in the cosmic disapperances..."


Never a missed opportunity to claim some other group is heavily committed to Christ, eh authors? Ah, well- just keep doing what you do, I guess.


Page 304- Line 25:
Rayford still was not sleepy.


Then he's not reading the same book I am.


Page 304- Line 25-27:
He made himself coffee, then phoned the twenty-four-hour line that kept track of flight and crew assignments. He had an idea.


Oh, hell, man. That just never works out, you know?


Page 304- Line 27-29:
"Can you tell me [Rayford] whether I can still get Hattie Durham assigned to my JFK run Wednesday?" he asked.


Oh, just beautiful, Rayford. After you alienate her on the phone (Page 276-Page 281)- amazingly in an entirely different conversation from the one where you thought she was a semi-moron about abortion (Page 266-Page 269)- you decide it'd be a good idea to try and strong-arm her onto your flight? For crying out loud, is there a term for someone who is as big an asshole as you? Because I just don't think "asshole" quite captures it anymore.


Page 305- Line 1-2:
"I [the operator] guess you can't. She's going to New York already. Yours is the 10 A.M. flight. Hers is the 8 A.M."


If you're noting that they'll both be in New York, at JFK, and therefore have an opportunity to have an awkward, boring conversation, then you're clearly thinking like the authors. Something to look forward to, I guess. Anyway, at this point the authors decide to jump back to Buck, who immediately takes us into a flashback.


Page 305- Line 3-10:
Buck Williams had returned to his apartment after midnight, assured by Nicolae Carpathia that his worries were over. Carpathia had phoned Jonathan Stonagal, put him on speakerphone, and Stonagal had done the same as he made the middle-of-the-night phone call to London that cleared Williams. Buck heard Todd-Cothran's husky-voiced agreement to call off the Yard and Interpol. "But my package is secure?" Todd-Cothran asked.


Gripping, eh? I don't know what Todd-Cothran's "package" is, but I like to assume that it's a Filipino hooker. It sure isn't his penis- there's no way the authors would go for anything that racy. I'm also not sure what to do with the whole daisy chain of speaker phones thing. On the one hand, given that Stonagal is richer than god, I'm assuming he has some sort of solution to this problem. On the other hand, speaking on one speakerphone is shit, much less chaining two of them together. My guess is that, what with the equipment and all, Buck would be lucky to be able to tell that everyone was speaking English. Anyway, after the phone call Buck interrogates Carpathia about how he (Carpathia) can work with people who he now realizes are involved in some shady activities. Carpathia responds that, until now, he didn't know. Buck, as always, is sharp as a sledge hammer.


Page 305- Line 24-27:
"But now you [Carpathia] know. Can you still in good conscience allow Stonagal to help promote you in international politics?" [Buck asked]

"Trust me, I will deal with them both."


In HELL!! Because I'm the anti-christ! Quake before my evil! MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!! Yeah. Anyway, they continue in that vein for a while and then Carpathia almost asks Buck to be his press secretary. Actually, the whole scene makes it sound like he was going to ask but waved off at the last moment because of Buck's reaction. Kinda like when you're an adolescent out to the movies with a girl for the first time and, right before you put your arm around her, chicken out and pretend like you were just stretching. Poor Nicolae! Still awkward after all these years. Fortunately, Buck has a suggestion: Eric Miller. You remember Eric, right? The crazy freak whom Buck had to tackle in a hotel hallway?


Page 307- Line 6-11:
Buck shook his head. "I was kidding." He told Carpathia what had happened in the lobby, on the elevator, and in the hall before Miller introduced himself. Nicolae was not amused. "I'll rack my brain and see if I can think of another candidate for you," Buck said. "Now you promised me a scoop tonight, too."


Oh, wow, really Buck? Carpathia has just gotten international police forces off your back and talked your ear off- now you expect him to put out, too? Apparently so, and Carpathia goes right ahead and let's Buck scoop him. As it turns out, Carpathia has a new diplomatic breakthrough to announce.


Page 307- Line 15-27:
"Israel is particularly vulnerable, as they were before Russia tried to invade them. They were lucky that time, but the rest of the world resents their prosperity. They need protection. The U.N. can give it to them. In exchange for the chemical formula that makes the desert bloom, the world will be content to grant them peace. If the other nations disarm and surrender a tenth of their weapons to the U.N., only the U.N. will have to sign a peace accord with Israel. Their prime minister has given Dr. Rosenzweig the freedom to negotiate such an agreement because he is the true owner of the formula. They are, of course, insisting on guarantees of protection for no less than seven years." [Carpathia rambled]


And if you can get through that whole passage without laughing your ass off, you're either much sterner than I am, or you believe this shit is real. Okay, so, to recap: the whole damn world resents Israel because of their super-fertilizer, reminding us again that folks who grow crops have all the real economic power. That's why the great powers are almost always agricultural states and it's the weak states that have the technology and industry. Totally logical. And so, because of this, if Israel surrenders the very thing that gives them a competitive edge, they can convince the rest of the world to stop being jealous. Okay, sure, that makes sense. Israel gives up its economy for safety. I'm sure the government would love that. Then there's mention of the wack-tacular plan with the U.N., which is now justified as being simpler than setting up one big global accord. Right. Sure. It's not like global accords could ever work or anything. Then we have the idea that the Israeli government would put binding negotiating authority in the hands of a scientist with no diplomatic training or experience whatsoever. And then, to top it all off, the magic number seven pops up again. Israel wants at least seven years of peace. Right. Because if you give up a gigantic economic advantage, there's no way you could really ask for more than seven years before the rest of the world kicked your ass in. That makes total sense. And if that paragraph of utter stupid seems obviously absurd to all of us, Buck is totally unaware.


Page 307- Line 28-30:
Buck sat shaking his head. "You're going to get the Nobel Peace price, Time's Man of the Year, and our Newsmaker of the Year." [emphasis original]


Yeah, sure, maybe once everyone stops laughing and realizes he's serious. And that they live in a universe where that kind of lunacy makes sense. Then they'll start crying. But then, crying and despair are totally normal reactions to reading Left Behind, so I can only imagine what it must be like to realize you're living in a shitty novel. Anyway, Buck leaves Carpathia believing that he (Carpathia) is pure as the wind-blown snow, and discovers a message from Hattie on his answering machine when he returns home. Alas, we'll have to wait to find out why she's calling Buck, because it's time to check back in with Rayford. Buckle up, kids, because this is going to be a bit of a ride.


Page 308- Line 7-9:
Bruce Barnes called the core group together for an emergency meeting at New Hope Village Church Tuesday afternoon.


Yeah. This will not be as exciting as the word "emergency" normally implies.


Page 308- Line 13-16:
Bruce gathered everyone around his desk in the office. He began by praying that he would be lucid and instructive in spite of his excitement and then had everyone turn to the book of Revelation.


Because when you think "lucid and instructive" you automatically think "the book of Revelation". Oh, absolutely.


Page 308- 23-25:
"In a way, I [Bruce] want you all to be wary, to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, as the Bible says."


I know this is just a metaphor, but this line always bugs me because as cold-blooded creatures snakes are not really what we'd refer to as smart creatures. So, hell, mission accomplished I guess.


Page 308-309- Line 308: 26-27- 309: 1-3:
"As you know, I've [Bruce] been studying Revelation and several commentaries about end-times events. Well, today in the pastor's files I ran across one of his sermons on the subject. I've been reading the Bible and the books on the subject, and here's what I've found."


Now, I want to note at this point that what Bruce is not about to say is, "There's hardly any agreement across different religious scholars about what Revelation means, except that it probably isn't meant to be interpreted as a prophecy about the far future." No, instead, what we get is a sort of under-handed implication that all of the scholarship on the bible and on revelation is somehow in agreement with the authors' world view. Which is pretty funny considering that the f-ing rapture isn't even in revelation. I'm not sure I'd say the authors are lying here, but I'd sure as hell say that they're being less than truthful. And, as a side note, the only things I can really say about the next bit is: spoiler alert!


Page 309- Line 4-5:
Bruce pulled up the first blank sheet on a flip chart and showed a time line he had drawn.


You know those really bad talks you've seen scholars give at presentations? The ones with crappy-or no- visual aids and a horrendous monotone? Yeah- the next few pages are like someone describing one of those talks to you. At length.


Page 309- Line 5-16:
"I'll take the time to carefully teach you this over the next several weeks, but it looks to me, and to many of the experts who came before us, that this period of history we're in right now will last for seven years. The first twenty-one months encompass what the Bible calls the seven Seal Judgments, or the Judgments of the Seven-Sealed Scroll. Then comes another twenty-one month period in which we will see the seven Trumpet Judgments. In the last forty-two months of this seven years of tribulation, if we have survived, we will endure the most severe tests, the seven Vial Judgments. That last half of the seven years is called the Great Tribulation, and if we are alive at the end of it, we will be rewarded by seeing the Glorious Appearing of Christ."


Okay, pop quiz: What is god's favorite number? Anyone? Hmmm? Yes, you, in the back? That's RIGHT! SEVEN! Okay, so, to sum up: over the next seven years god is gonna judge the ever living crap outta us. Got it. Loretta, being stupid, seems to be having trouble with the notion that they might all die before the end of the seven years, so Bruce sets her straight about their probable grim fate.


Page 309- Line 22-25:
"If we somehow make it through the seven terrible years, especially the last half, the Glorious Appearing will be all that more glorious." [Bruce said]


Meaning what? You get a commemorative handbag? Look, not to be snarky, but- generally speaking- not getting your ass killed is usually reward enough for not getting your ass killed. Regardless, he concludes by mentioning that after the glorious appearing Christ will totally set up his thousand year reign on Earth. Yay?


Page 310- Line 3-12:
"Again, if I'm [Bruce] reading it right, the Antichirst will soon come to power, promising peace and trying to unite the world."

"What's wrong with uniting the world?" someone asked. "At a time like this it seems we need to come together."

"There might be nothing wrong with that, except that the Antichrist will be a great deceiver, and when his true goals are revealed, he will be opposed. This will result in a great war, probably World War III."


Right. This is the thing that bothers me so much about this strain of religious thought: it implies that the only person who can unite us is Christ, which would be bad enough, but it also suggests that anyone other than Christ who tries is bad and must be reviled. Now, if these guys are right then, hey, that's all well and good. If, on the other hand, they're not right, then we're basically saying that there's a religious group that is actually opposed to efforts to achieve world peace and unity. And that concerns me a tad. On a more concrete note: thanks for that helpful rhetorical question "someone." Anyway, Bruce then decides that he's going to explain the first seven judgments and then release the group.


Page 311- Line 3-8:
Bruce explained that the first four seals in the scroll were described as men on four horses: a white horse, a red horse, a black horse and a pale horse. "The white horseman apparently is the Antichrist, who ushers in one to three months of diplomacy while getting organized and promising peace."


I admit, I'm not really clear on how a white horse differs from a pale horse. But then I'm neither an expert in horses nor the bible.


Page 311- Line 9-14:
"The red horse signifies war. The Antichrist will be opposed by three rulers from the south, and millions will be killed."

"In World War III?"

"That's my assumption."

"That would mean within the next six months."


Sadly, that will probably not be in this book. Too interesting for that. Then again, the authors made the rapture dull as shit, so making a war boring as hell should be simplicity itself.


Page 311- Line 15-17:
"And immediately following that, which will take only three to six months because of the nuclear weaponry available..."


I hate to mention this, but if we're using nuclear weaponry, 3-6 months is kinda a long time. By the time you're breaking out the nukes, we're talking more like 3-6 hours or maybe 3-6 days. Anyway, Bruce then claims the bible predicts inflation and famine, so everyone should stockpile food.


Page 311- Line 23-29:
"That killer famine could be as short as two or three months before the arrival of the fourth Seal Judgment, the fourth horseman on the pale horse- the symbol of death. Besides the post-war famine, a plague will sweep the entire world. Before the fifth Seal Judgment, a quarter of the world's current population will be dead."


But remember: God loves us! He loves us so much, in fact, he's decided to kill the hell out of us in a misguided and inefficient attempt to gain our attention. Praise be!


Page 311- Line 30:
"What's the fifth Seal Judgment?"


Yes, indeed, what is it? Well, if you want to know, you'll just have to come back next time, because this is the official halfway point of the chapter. And, for once, we kinda have a cliffhanger.

So come back next time when we discover another three Seal Judgments and eventually check back in with Buck who, by comparison, is almost dull in his near total lack of crazy.

Don't miss it!

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

It's reader Q&A time!

Interested reader Kyle left a request/comment on yesterday's post that went as follows:

Show me the missing link then. If evolution isn't fact it takes faith by definition. If it is fact then we would be able to show the missing link between land and airborne animals. And there isn't one. It is impossible for a land animal to evolve into a flying creature because of the difference in lung structure. The lungs would collapse into themselves before coming to a form that could sustain the life of the "inbetween" stage.


Now, there's a lot here, Kyle, so I hope you'll permit me to unpack your comment and respond to it bit by bit. Rest assured, however, that I will do my best to answer your main question- just please do me the courtesy of taking the time to read my response.

Show me the missing link then.


You begin by bringing up the whole "missing link" notion, which is a compelling image but unfortunately reflects a somewhat misguided notion of evolution. The thing to keep in mind about evolution is that it does not argue that at some point a member of one species gives birth to a member of a different species- roughly akin to a fish spontaneously giving birth to an amphibian. Instead, at each generation the offspring resemble the parents about as much as offspring usually resemble parents. Over long stretches of time offspring and parents at one point may differ rather a lot from offspring and parents at another point in time but, nevertheless, there is no sudden, dramatic cleavage between the two. As such, there is no one "missing link," but instead a whole succession of gradual changes leading between two forms. This is all the more critical because the concept of a "species" is- by and large- one made up for our convenience. In nature, two creatures we might consider different sometimes can and do produce fertile offspring. And at some levels (e.g. bacteria) the trading of genetic material between "species" is commonplace. This means that on a literal level responding to your request is impossible because there is not and never will be a missing link- not because evolution is wrong, but because the common conception of it is wrong.

By way of analogy, I'm sure you resemble your father to at least a degree. Likewise, you probably resemble your grandfather to a probably lesser degree, and so on with your great-grandfather, your great-great-grandfather, your great-great-great-grandfather and on until, say, your great^50-grandfather. Odds are that you don't look all that much like your great^50-grandfather despite the relation- there has just been too much time separating him and you, even though at every generation father and son resembled one another. Now imagine that you have an oil painting of your great^50-grandfather and a photo of you and you proudly show them to a friend who responds, "You two look nothing alike! You're pulling one over on me! I need to see the missing link between him and you!" How do you respond? At what generation does the "missing link" occur? When in this chain of gradual change is the pivotal moment? Obviously, there is no such pivotal point- the change is spread out over many, many successive generations. Nevertheless you might find a painting of an intermediate relative, say your great^25-grandfather, and present that. Your friend still may refuse to accept this evidence, however, and point out that now there are two "missing links": one between your great^50-grandfather and your great^25-grandfather, as well as a second "missing link" between your great^25-grandfather and you. You might show your friend the family tree linking all of you- as biologists show us the family tree linking species (more on this later)- but your friend wants something "more real". And so you are left digging through family heirlooms and records trying to find a painting or photo of every one of your male ancestors between you and your great^50-grandfather so that you can close all the "gaps". This is roughly analogous to the situation evolutionary scientists are in- we have the oil paintings and photos for some of the members of a chain. We have the family tree. We even have resemblances between steps that make the sequence pretty unmistakable but, nevertheless, there comes the demand for the "missing link".

So, given all of this, I hope you will forgive me if I respond to your demand in a way other than by pointing at one specific fossil and suggesting- fallaciously- that it is the "missing link".


If evolution isn't fact it takes faith by definition. If it is fact then we would be able to show the missing link between land and airborne animals. And there isn't one.


You're right that if evolution is fact we should be able to show evidence for it- and, in fact, we have. There's gobs of evidence for it. We've demonstrated evolution at the microscopic level both in the lab and in the wild. We've demonstrated evolution at the macroscopic level both in the lab and in the wild. We've even observed evolutionary change in human populations within a historical timeframe, although this change was relatively minor. Added to this is the DNA evidence that demonstrates conclusively that all life on earth is related at a fundamental level. Now this is an important point, so allow me to elaborate: life on earth with few, if any, exceptions uses DNA as its carrier of heritable material. Moreover, this DNA operates in essentially the same way. This is roughly akin to noticing that not only is every book in a library written in the same alphabet, but that the grammar and syntax are always the same. The words, however, change and the degree of difference between those words allows us to see how similar, or different, various species are. And we indeed find that every organism is related to every other one in a logical and coherent manner. This is key because it did not have to be the case. Under creationism, there's no particular reason to expect such an all-encompassing set of links among existing organisms. God could have simply made every creature from scratch, starting over so as to perfect each one for its role. Instead, we see evidence at the morphological and genetic levels that each creature is simply a variation on the last one- exactly what we should see if evolution is correct. You'll note at this point that all of the evidence I've brought up- every last bit- derives from experiments and observations carried out right now. None of it relies on fossils, and that's a critical point: without even looking at the fossil record we can conclude with absolute certainty that evolution can and does occur. This is not in dispute, we've seen it both under controlled conditions and in the wild. We've observed the current DNA similarities between all creatures. We know that evolution is going on around us right now because we have seen it happen. Digging up fossils that show evolution occurring is thus helpful, and sometimes very informative, but is not fundamentally necessary to show evidence for evolution.

Looking at your comment more broadly, you remark on the issue of fact and faith. First off, I wonder if you aren't falling back on the old argument that "evolution is just a theory." This, too, is a misconception of sorts, because in science a "theory" is not a wild, unsupported guess. A theory is, instead, a logically rigorous set of explanations that has been vindicated by repeated testing. Other prominent theories include the germ theory of disease, atomic theory, electrical theory, and the theory of gravity. All of these are "just theories" but, nevertheless, your microwave works, you don't fly off the surface of the earth at random, and good sanitation helps prevent disease. Now, it is true that science relies on a degree of faith, but this is different from relying on Faith. The faith that science uses is akin to making limited assumptions and testing those assumptions whenever possible. So, for example, we might assume that radioactive decay occurs at a constant rate and use that assumption to study phenomena, but will still try to test that assumption as often as possible. We can never really be certain that in a moment or two things won't change but, by and large, since they never have before, we have faith that they're not going to suddenly, radically alter. The alternative Faith, on the other hand, refers to certainty in specific things whose existence or role cannot ever be exposed to testing- such as Faith in god. Science, and evolution, does rely on faith, but it eschews Faith, and thus your sketched argument is invalid.


It is impossible for a land animal to evolve into a flying creature because of the difference in lung structure. The lungs would collapse into themselves before coming to a form that could sustain the life of the "inbetween" stage.


And here we come to the crux of the argument: that it is impossible for land animals to becoming flying animals because the lungs would collapse along the way. I was, I admit, somewhat surprised that this was the hook on which you decided to hang your opposition: I've usually seen greater attention paid to the more dramatic change from aguatic to air-breathing animal. But, that said, since the discovery of Tiktaalik, one of those hypothetical "missing links", perhaps it seems less wise to argue in that direction.

You don't provide much detail to your objection, which is a shame because it is demonstrably and trivially incorrect. There are a multitude of flying insects, such as the Dragonfly, which are both animals (i.e. members of the kingdom animalia). This is an important point because insects do not have lungs at all, and yet, they still fly. And so we can see that your objection is without merit, because animals don't need lungs to fly. I suspect that you will not like this argument, however, and will dismiss it because insects are small, seemingly unimportant, and obviously not what you mean. That would be an unwise reaction on your part- if powered flight can be achieved with the simple breathing apparatus used by insects so long as the insect itself is small (and there is evidence that in times past some flying insects were quite large), then there is no reason why powered flight using unbirdlike lungs should be impossible so long as the organism is small enough. Increases in size would, thus, follow changes to the lung structure. And if we quickly search the web we very rapidly (as in "the third hit") find an article that compares modern bird structures to fossils of flying dinosaurs to trace the evolution of lung capacity and animal size. This research finds, as I suggest, that the organism grew in size as the lungs became more efficient.

Still, you're probably referring to an argument like this one that asserts that since the airflow in the avian and reptilian lungs is different one could not have evolved from the other. This sidesteps, of course, the fact that the aquatic to air-breathing shift would seem to have been more difficult, but nevertheless has been supported by transitional fossils as well as extant species that occupy intermediate stages. But, nevertheless, you assert that powered flight is imossible because it can't be supported without specialized lungs. I earlier pointed out that this was wrong because insects do it without lungs. I now maintain your claim is incorrect because bats manage to fly quite dextrously while using standard mammalian lungs. Critically, however, in bats airflow is bidirectional, much as it is in reptiles, and not unidirectional as it is in birds. And so, again, we have a macroscopic and now highly advanced creature capable of agile powered flight that does not have the specialized lungs of birds. And even if you were to respond by saying "Yeah, well, how did birds come to do it with specialized lungs, then?" I would simply respond by pointing out that their predecessor dinosaurs appear to have already had that structure, or something similar, before flight appeared.

So, in short: your basic assertion fails on numerous grounds.

In closing, allow me to encourage you to take the time to actually explore the research on evolution. It is not a faith position but a scientific theory that has received extensive testing. Allow me also to point out that most scientisits, and most people who believe in evolution, also believe in god. Accepting one does not mean rejecting the other. Indeed, if you reject evolution because you believe in god, it seems that you are trying to claim that god could not have done it that way if he had chosen to- which seems just a tad presumptuous for one as devout as yourself. There is overwhelming evidence for evolution and one can only assume that if there is a god, we were expected to put it together.

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Oh, nothing like that could happen here.

I spend a lot of time keeping an eye on the constant inane fight between the science of evolution and the just-so story of creationism. My motivation for this is mostly that I find it annoying that a well supported, rigorous scientific theory is constantly made to justify itself against a collection of antiquated and arguably insane prattle. As one might expect a handful of places pop up constantly in these sorts of discussions- prominently including the southeast and parts of the midwest.* As a result, I sometime hear people from northern or western states saying things like, "Oh, that sort of craziness just couldn't happen here." Yeah. Well, you may not want to rely on that:

Chester Harris, newly elected to the Region 17 school board, is a Republican with a standard conservative outlook: He distrusts government bureaucracy, believes in fiscal restraint and thinks kids today have too many advantages and too few responsibilities.

But it is his answer to fundamental questions about the origins of life that sets him apart.

Harris, 53, rejects evolution. To him, the idea that humans and apes share a common ancestor takes "a whole lot more faith than believing there was a creator who set all these things in motion and allows us to operate under free will."

About three weeks ago he met with several high school science teachers and school administrators in the district, which serves the woodsy, Connecticut Valley towns of Haddam and Killingworth.


Yes, you read that right- Connecticut.

"I sort of got stuck on one thing with them, which was basically the teaching of evolution in the schools and how it tends to ride roughshod over the fact that various religions — Christian, Hebrew, Muslim — hold a theistic world view," Harris said one morning during a break from his job driving a school van. "Evolution is basically an assumption that there is no God."

...

t's an approach that Harris also favors. Proponents of evolution "haven't proven anything," he said. "It's all still theory and faith. If that's what they want to hold to, fine, but don't denigrate me because I believe the other way. We're both operating on faith. I just have faith in someone and they have faith in something."

To the majority of scientists, however, there are no credible alternatives to evolution. "People can believe what they want. Science is science," said Fred Myers, director of science for Glastonbury schools and former president of the Connecticut Science Supervisors Association.


Ah, yes, the "evolution is faith as much as religion" argument. It's a totally valid argument, too, so long as you're willing to ignore comparative biology, fossils, geology, genetics, chemistry and physics. Right-o.

Just goes to show: it doesn't matter where you live, the crazy can still find you.


* It's worth keeping in mind, however, that the Kitzmiller et al. vs. Dover Area School District et al. trial occurred in Pennsylvania.

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Friday, March 19, 2010

You know, I think I've seen that film...

This pretty much sums up why I try to avoid watching meaningful films: because I've seen them all already, even when I haven't.



Then again, if you were going to do the same thing with my preferred genre,* the archetypal trailer would just feature a lot of explosions, actresses in tight body suits, and excessively anthropomorphic aliens,** so I suppose I ought not throw too many stones.



* That is to say, sci-fi. And preferrably not sci-fi that is trying to be "meaningful" because, as a general rule, hollywood sucks at grasping what is meaningful or interesting in sci-fi.

** Or, if you're really lucky, a merger of several of these categories.

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Left Behind: Chapter 16, Part 2

Welcome back one and all to our regular feature on Left Behind, the book that makes "Atlas Shrugged" seem logical by comparison. Last time we saw Buck attack another reporter and start talking to Carpathia, while Rayford simultanously worried and whined. What happens this week? Well... uh... pretty much more of the same. So, that's good.

As always we have a comment of the week. This week that "honor" goes to Ken for an impressively topical reference:

Well, Gerald Fitzhugh and Hugh Fitzgerald, so at least the two males authors have decided that any hint that it was just subtext is thrown to the wind, along with all hints of sanity.

But there ain't no sanity clause in Left Behind, either. And I'm starting to worry about your wife.


Oh, Ken! Don't worry about my wife! She doesn't look a thing like Errol Flynn! Still, if the authors want Hugh Fitzgerald to be president, we're all doomed.

And with that, let's begin! As always, page/line numbers are in bold, quotes from the book are in block quotes, my commentary is in regular print, and you can navigate the whole series with the provided tag.


----------

Dramatis Personae

In an order determined by the whims of Odin, father of Thor.

Rayford Steele: Airline captain. Husband of Irene Steele. Possible former gay porn star. Ditherer. No longer attracted to Hattie. Bad father. Cries a lot. Lying hypocrite. Christian.

Irene Steele: Wife of Rayford Steele. Born-again Christian. Not perfect, just forgiven. Reader of marriage books. Cleans obsessively. Likes egg in her coffee. Bakes really silly cookies. Likes butter churns.

Cameron "Buck" Williams: Reporter. Known for "bucking tradition and authority." Terrible Excellent writer. Spiritually attuned. Electronics wiz. Fast typist. Clumsy on slides. Travels a lot. Graduated from Princeton. Human alarm clock. Expert in Romanian politics. Fast runner.

Hattie Durham: Flight attendant. Toucher. Hottie. Hysterical female type. Girl power devotee. Unhealthily thin. Twenty-seven years old. Blonde. Claims no moral or religious code.

Chris Smith: Airline co-pilot. Worked with Rayford Steele. Father of two. Husband. Killed himself.

Chloe Steele: Daughter of Rayford Steele. Student at Stanford. Religiously unaffiliated. Kinda stupid.

Chaim Rosenzweig: Israeli chemist. Kinda freaky. Friend of Buck's.

Steve Plank: Buck's boss at Global Weekly. Not the sharpest tool in the shed.

Nicolae Carpathia: Businessman. Romanian Senator. Romanian President. Antichrist. Favors arms reductions. An inch or two over six feet tall. Broad shouldered. Thick chested. Trim. Athletic. Tanned. Blonde. Blue eyes. Thick eyebrows. Roman nose and jaw. Carries self with a sense of humility and purpose. Wears understated jewelry. Excellent memory.

Raymie Steele: Son of Rayford Steele. Taken in the rapture.

Dirk Burton: English guy Buck knows. Graduated from Princeton. Kinda gullible. Killed himself Murdered. Left handed.

Joshua Todd-Cothran: English finance guy. May have the nickname "duck lips."

Jonathon Stonagal: American ultra-rich dude. Involved in international monetary cabal. Has ties to duck lips.

Marge Potter: Steve Planck's secretary. Matronly.

Lucinda Washington: Fiftyish black woman. Raptured.

Ken Ritz: Pilot. Profiteering on the rapture. Actually quite polite. Fired for being too careful. Believes in aliens.

Juan Ortiz: Global Weekly international events editor.

Jimmy Borland: Global Weekly religion editor.

Barbara Donahue: Global Weekly financial editor.

Nigel Leonard: Employee of the London exchange.

Alan Tompkins: Investigator at Scotland Yard. Friend of Buck. Kind of a chickenshit. Blown up by an evil conspiracy car bomb.

Bruce Barnes: Visitation Pastor at New Hope Village Church. Likes to be mysterious.

Vernon Billings: Pastor at New Hope Village Church. Likes video tape. Raptured.

Mwangati Ngumo: Secretary-General of the United Nations. Botswanan national.

Eric Miller: Reporter. Rival of Buck's. Able to climb stairs really fast, but not as fast a runner as Buck. Kinda a douche.

Gerald Fitzhugh: President of the United States. Talks like a moron.

----------


Page 292- Line Freedom Fries:

No quote, but when we last left our "heroes", Buck was hanging out with Carpathia. Carpathia, for his part, just finished a phone conversation with the U.S. President. In any case, Carpathia tells Buck that he wants to share a secret with Buck but, first, would like to help with his (Buck's) little problem. One can only assume that by that he means the half-assed pursuit that Buck so easily avoids with even more half-assed plans.


Page 292-293- Line 292: 29-30, 293: 1-10:
The Romanian sat forward and looked directly into Buck's eyes. That gave Buck such a feeling of peace and security that he felt free to tell him everything. Everything. Even that his friend Dirk had tipped him off about someone meeting with Stonagal and Todd-Cothran, and Buck's assuming it was Carpathia.

"It was I," Carpathia said. "But let me make this very clear. I know nothing of any conspiracy. I have never even heard of such a thing. Mr. Stonagal felt it would be good for me to meet some of his colleagues and men of international influence. I formed no opinions about any of them, neither am I beholden to any of them." [emphasis original]


Okay, so apparently Carpathia has some really awesome bedroom eyes there, because they made Buck go all soft and gooshy inside. But, hey, at least he denies he's part of a murderous international cabal. That's a shock, eh? Regardless, he prattles on about how he believes Buck and about how the police are rapidly closing in despite Buck's ingenious plan. Carpathia asks whether Buck thinks that the police will kill him if they can once get their hands on him and the answer is pretty awesome.


Page 294- Line 6-8:
"They killed Burton and they killed Tompkins. I'm much more dangerous to them with my potential readership."


Yes, Buck. Your potential readership coupled with your actual total ignorance about what the hell is going on. That's a potent combination! Kinda like a big cannon for which you have no ammunition. And as a side note: he was best friends with Dirk and Alan but now, a few days after their deaths, they're 'Burton and Tompkins'? What the hell? Fortunately, Carpathia has a plan.


Page 294- Line 14-29:
"I [Carpathia] can make this go away for you."

Buck's mind was suddenly reeling. This was what he had wanted, but he had feared Carpathia could do nothing quickly enough to keep him from getting into Todd-Cothran's and Sullivan's hands. Was it possible Carpathia was in deeper with these people than he had let on?

"Sir, I need your help. But I am a journalist first. I can't be bought or bargained with."

"Oh, of course not. I would never ask such a thing. Let me tell you what I can do for you. I will arrange to have the London tragedies revisited and reevaluated, exonerating you."

"How will you do that?"

"Does it matter, if it is the truth?"

Buck thought a moment. "It is the truth."

"Of course." [emphasis original]


And this is where Carpathia attempts to buy Buck's soul. And he's about as subtle as an H-bomb while he's doing it, too. I really have to say, though, that I love Buck's internal monologue. I dunno, Buck, was it possible that Carpathia is dirty? I mean, shit, nothing is beyond belief to you anymore so, hell, I think you'd have to say yes. Regardless, they exchange more limp arguments about how Carpatia will or will not be able to do this and eventually the anti-christ settles in to explain a bit.


Page 295- Line 24-26:
"First," Carpathia said, "a little background. I believe in the power of money. Do you?"

"No."


I'm sorry, what? He's a globe trotting, hot shot secret agent/journalist and he does NOT believe that money is powerful? Good f-ing christ, Buck! I've known that since I first saw Scrooge McDuck dive into that big pile of gold in his f-ing vault and stress out over his "number one dime". How the hell can you NOT believe that money is powerful? GAAHH!! Anyway, Carpathia talks for a while about how he got hooked up with Stonagal and his massive fortune, obliquely implying along the way that he has been bought without ever- quite- saying it. Then, we get to the good stuff.


Page 297- Line 6-24:
Buck could not breathe. What was Carpathia implying? Buck stared at him, unable to move, unable to respond. Carpathia continued. "Secretary-General Ngumo presides over a country that is starving. The world is ripe for my plan of ten members of the Security Council. These things will work together. The secretary-general must devote his time to the problems within Botswana. With the right incentive, he will do that. He will be a happy, prosperous man, with a happy and prosperous people. But first he will endorse my plan for the Security Council. The representatives from each of the ten will be an interesting mix, some current ambassadors, but mostly new people with good financial backgrounds and progressive ideas."

"Are you telling me you will become secretary-general of the U.N.?"

"I would never seek such a position, but how could I refuse such an honor? Who could turn his back on such an enormous responsibility?"


Yeah, he's pretty much just stating outright that he and Stonagal are going to buy the U.N. And I guess with all the true Christians gone, there's nobody to stop him. Curses? Lastly, they're sort of implying that Ngumo is not only the Secretary-General of the U.N., but also that he's the leader of Botswana. Yeah. I don't think that's how it works, you know? Anyway, he goes on to explain how Todd-Cothran would make a great candidate for one of the ten permanent members of the new Security Council. Buck, though, isn't too keen on this whole chat.


Page 298- Line 11-15:
"I suppose they would [be okay with Todd-Cothran]," Buck said, his mind black with depression as if he was losing his soul before his very eyes. "Unless, that is, Todd-Cothran were in the middle of a mysterious suicide, a car bombing, that sort of thing."


Wait... is Buck suggesting they assassinate Todd-Cothran? Damn, boy.


Page 298- Line 16-23:
Carpathia smiled. "I should think a man in a position of international potential like that would want a very clean house just now."

"And you could effect that?"

"Buck, you overestimate me. I am just saying that if you are right, I might try to stop what is clearly an unethical and illegal action against an innocent man- you. I cannot see how there is anything wrong with that."


Well, if we know anything for sure, it's that the authors believe that whole bit about the paving strategy for the road to hell. Beyond that, though, this really kinda kills the image of Carpathia as a smooth manipulator for me. He's not smooth. He's not even much of a manipulator or, at least, not much of one without the titanic level of financial support he apparently has. Eh. Whatever. At this point the narrative switches back to Rayford who is, believe it or not, even more pathetic than normal.


Page 298-299- Line 298: 27-30, 299: 1-3:
Rayford Steele could not sleep. For some reason he was overcome anew with grief and remorse over the loss of his wife and son. He slid out of bed and onto his knees, burying his face in the sheet on the side where his wife used to sleep. He had been so tired, so tense, so worried about Chloe that he had pushed from his heart and mind and soul his terrible loss.


Well he's just a barrel of laughs, eh? I can hardly believe we didn't miss him. Beyond our mutual despair at returning to Rayford, however, it's interesting to me that the authors are choosing to focus so much on how unhappy Rayford actually is. There's this sort of suffering porn vibe running through this book that just creeps me out. This is not me saying that you should never feel guilty for anything- far from it- but this degree of self-flagellation is just not healthy, you know?


Page 299- Line 6-10:
Rayford knew he had been forgiven for mocking his wife, for never really listening, for having ignored God for so many years. He was grateful he had been given a second chance and that he now had new friends and a place to learn the Bible.


Yeah. I never know what to do with this sort of thing, since he got the reason for his guilt and the alleged solution for his guilt in the same package. So, you know, net gain is zero. On an unrelated note, as an atheist I'm sometimes asked about how I view the concept of forgiveness. Sadly, that's a loaded question, because in our society the definition of the term "forgiveness" is bound up with Christian theology. That said, my attitude is something like this: people against whom I transgress can forgive me for it or not, and their forgiveness is meaningful to me at a deep level. BUT- and this is a heavy but- their forgiveness in no way alters the fact that I transgressed in the first place. Errors remain a part of my past and my only true way to make up for them is to labor to learn from and correct them in the future. So, in short: I only get to live once, I only get to show people I love them once, so don't fuck up. Harsh? Eh, maybe. On the other hand, in my philosophy nobody suffers eternal torment for honest mistakes so, hell, there you go.


Page 299- Line 15-18:
In a way he felt he deserved this pain, though he knew better. He was beginning to understand the forgiveness of God, and Bruce had told him that he needn't continue to feel shame over sin that had been dealt with.


Like I said- the guilt and the solution mixed up in the same package. Net gain: zero. I always wondered in Sunday School why they had to work so hard to convince me of both original sin and the infinite forgiveness of Christ. Mostly because you need an invented solution for an invented problem. Some people would call that tautological, but I like to think of it as having no loose ends.


Page 299- Line 19-24:
As Rayford knelt praying and weeping, a new anguish flooded over him. He felt hopeless about Chloe. Everything he had tried had failed. He knew it had been only days since the disappearance of her mother and brother, and even less time since his own conversion. What more could he say or do?


Oh, awesome! Even more reasons to be miserable. Show of hands: how many people think Rayford spends more time engaging in anguished weeping since he converted? Yeah- that's what I thought. As my wife is fond of pointing out, this brand of religion just always seems to be sold with fear, even if that fear has to be manufactured by the religion itself. But, then, how will you know you need it until you can't like without it?


Page 299- Line 28-30:
He felt that if he said or did anything more, he would be responsible for her deciding against Christ once and for all.


Yes, well, that's because you're an idiot, Rayford. Try concocting a decent argument relying on logic and, if possible, empirical evidence. See if that works.


Page 300- Line 3-6:
He had been praying silently, but the torment welled up within him, and despite himself he heard his own muffled cries, "Chloe! Oh, Chloe! Chloe!"

He wept bitterly in the darkness...


Oh for crying out loud! We get it, okay? Rayford is a pathetic wretch that nobody in their right mind would ever want to spend time with. You've made your f-ing point, authors, okay?!


Page 300- Line 6-9:
...suddenly jarred by a creak and footsteps. He turned quickly to see Chloe, the dim light from her room silhouetting her robed form in the doorway.


Okay, first, BUSTED! And second, is anyone else creeped out by the whole "silhouetting her robed form" bit? Dude, she's your daughter! And I don't care if it was cool when Lot did it! You are not a biblical patriarch! And getting drunk does NOT make it okay. We've come a long way since the dark days of biblical morality.


Page 300- Line 14-20:
"I miss them too," she [Chloe] said, her voice quavery. Rayford turned and sat with his back to the bed. He held his arms open to her. She came and sat next to him, letting him hold her.

"I believe I'll see them again someday," he said.

"I know you do," she said, no disrespect in her voice. "I know you do."


Wow, she is an excellent, excellent liar. I guess that's what happens when you go to one of them fancy secular universities like Stanford. Then again, she probably is falling for this shit, so basically we can guarantee that she will climb aboard the guilt parade at some point in the near future.

Not today though, because believe it or not, that's the end of the chapter. Come back next time when we... um... pretty much pick up exactly where we left off. And I'm not kidding, it's the same scene. Why did they choose to put a chapter break here? Because they hate us. Every last f-ing one of us. By now, you should be used to it.

See you then.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Anti-vaxxers, thy name is "Ad Hoc"

Considering my long history of writing about the nonsensical claim that vaccines cause autism, it will come as no surprise that I am excited about this recent news:

Several large-scale studies have failed to find a link between vaccines and autism. But that didn't stop parents from 5000 families who believe there is a link from seeking compensation under the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, created to help the small number of children who have severe allergic reactions to vaccines.

On 12 March, the judges overseeing the scheme declared there was no proof that the children's autism was caused by thimerosal (thiomersal outside the US), a mercury-containing preservative used in some vaccines. The same court had already thrown out claims that thimerosal plus the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine causes autism.


This is what we call a victory for science and public health, and I'm pretty psyched about the whole thing. At the same time, though, it isn't the end of the battle. Not by a long shot:

This may not be the end of the anti-vaccine campaign, however. Campaigners have already started blaming the sheer number of vaccines a child receives, rather than a particular one or combination, for autism.


And that is the second greatest reason* to doubt the anti-vaccination folks: when their claims are falsified they simply revamp their causal mechanism and try again. And again. And again. And you'd think at some point it would become clear to most observers that the issue isn't that they have reason to believe that vaccines cause autism, but rather that they believe vaccines cause autism and are looking for a reason.

Still, this is an occasion for celebration. We'll worry about the next round of stoopid tomorrow.**


* The greatest reason, of course, being the megaton of scientific evidence contradicting any link between vaccinations and autism. The third greatest reason, for those who are curious, is the sheer inanity of many of the anti-vaccine "experts" themselves.

** Which, coincidentally, will be the next installment in my series on Left Behind. Rather appropriate, no?

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A bold look for a bold journal

So, like many of you, I recently received the latest issue of the American Sociological Review. This is evidently the first issue to ship from the new editorship and I'm pleased to see that a number of interesting-looking articles are in it. At the same time, I was somewhat surprised by the new look:



That's definitely a bold change from the sorts of covers we've seen previously, and I'm forced to commend the willingness to move in a new direction. And yet, I couldn't help but feel like I've seen this sort of thing somewhere before. Why does this cover seem so familiar?

And then it hit me...

The new ASR really does look like something I'm familiar with:



Unintended resemblance, or subtle hint from the editors: you make the call!


As a side note: This is all meant in jest and good fun, I have nothing but fondness for the ASR, please don't reject my papers out-of-hand. Thank you.

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Okay, you know what? That's it!

So I've long had a comment moderation policy here on Total Drek that was born out of a simple desire to not have my readers be inundated by spam. I don't think my requirements have been too unreasonable, either- I just exclude comments that are clearly part of an effort to market some service. And for a long time, this approach worked rather well. Recently, however, I have been absolutely f-ing flooded with spammers trying to comment on the blog. And when I say "flooded" I'm really saying, "Up to one hundred attempts a day". Often these "comments" are just a meaningless mass of links. Other times it's all in cyrillic, which could almost be a legit comment except for the links to porn sites. Occasionally it's just a plain text message that criticizes the blog, which could almost be legitimate- I am, after all, well worth criticizing given that I suck- but the exact same message is usually left on three or four different posts at a time. And the pattern of old posts getting spam comments is, itself, quite suggestive. This guest post by the always charming plain(s)feminist, for example, gets a massive amount of spam. Why? Well, I'm guessing it's because it talks about sex. So, you know, instant porn spam magnet. And don't even get me started on all the weirdly racist spam that pops up.

Now, I love you folks, my readers, so I have been shielding you all from this madness. But I am now, officially, goddamn tired of it. I am an amateur blogger- I don't do this professionally, or for pay, and really do have other things to do with my time. Moderating limp-ass comment spam is just not a worthwhile investment of effort. So, much to my displeasure, I have reactivated the annoying word verification thingie. If it seems to filter some of the spam, it will stay. If it seems to filter all of the spam, it'll stay and I'll probably turn comment moderation back off. And if it completely fails to filter any spam, I'll just have to get more draconian.

I apologize in advance for any inconvenience, but please believe me that it cannot be any more inconvenient than the shit I've been dealing with on a daily bloody basis.

Thank you!

Now enjoy this fun and entirely appropriate video:

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Friday, March 12, 2010

Too amusing for words...

And by that I mean this comic over at the superb Dresden Codak. Go read. Now.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Left Behind: Chapter 16, Part 1

Welcome back one and all to our regular feature on Left Behind, the book that just never seems to end no matter how many of these episodes I write. Last time we heard some of the anti-christ's plan and watched Rayford alienate someone. What happens this week? Well, the anti-christ tries to corrupt Buck and Ray gets all emo. Have your anti-nausea meds ready.

As always we have a comment of the week. This week that "honor" goes to anonymous spambot for his/her/its hilariously irrelevant commentary:

What a great resource!


Yeah. It's a "resource." Sure. Oh, Spambot! You so crazy!

And with that, let's begin! As always, page/line numbers are in bold, quotes from the book are in block quotes, my commentary is in regular print, and you can navigate the whole series with the provided tag.


----------

Dramatis Personae

In an order determined by... yeah, let's face it, by when I encountered them in the text, more or less.

Rayford Steele: Airline captain. Husband of Irene Steele. Possible former gay porn star. Ditherer. No longer attracted to Hattie. Bad father. Cries a lot. Lying hypocrite. Christian.

Irene Steele: Wife of Rayford Steele. Born-again Christian. Not perfect, just forgiven. Reader of marriage books. Cleans obsessively. Likes egg in her coffee. Bakes really silly cookies. Likes butter churns.

Cameron "Buck" Williams: Reporter. Known for "bucking tradition and authority." Terrible Excellent writer. Spiritually attuned. Electronics wiz. Fast typist. Clumsy on slides. Travels a lot. Graduated from Princeton. Human alarm clock. Expert in Romanian politics.

Hattie Durham: Flight attendant. Toucher. Hottie. Hysterical female type. Girl power devotee. Unhealthily thin. Twenty-seven years old. Blonde. Claims no moral or religious code.

Chris Smith: Airline co-pilot. Worked with Rayford Steele. Father of two. Husband. Killed himself.

Chloe Steele: Daughter of Rayford Steele. Student at Stanford. Religiously unaffiliated. Kinda stupid.

Chaim Rosenzweig: Israeli chemist. Kinda freaky. Friend of Buck's.

Steve Plank: Buck's boss at Global Weekly. Not the sharpest tool in the shed.

Nicolae Carpathia: Businessman. Romanian Senator. Romanian President. Antichrist. Favors arms reductions. An inch or two over six feet tall. Broad shouldered. Thick chested. Trim. Athletic. Tanned. Blonde. Blue eyes. Thick eyebrows. Roman nose and jaw. Carries self with a sense of humility and purpose. Wears understated jewelry. Excellent memory.

Raymie Steele: Son of Rayford Steele. Taken in the rapture.

Dirk Burton: English guy Buck knows. Graduated from Princeton. Kinda gullible. Killed himself Murdered. Left handed.

Joshua Todd-Cothran: English finance guy. May have the nickname "duck lips."

Jonathon Stonagal: American ultra-rich dude. Involved in international monetary cabal. Has ties to duck lips.

Marge Potter: Steve Planck's secretary. Matronly.

Lucinda Washington: Fiftyish black woman. Raptured.

Ken Ritz: Pilot. Profiteering on the rapture. Actually quite polite. Fired for being too careful. Believes in aliens.

Juan Ortiz: Global Weekly international events editor.

Jimmy Borland: Global Weekly religion editor.

Barbara Donahue: Global Weekly financial editor.

Nigel Leonard: Employee of the London exchange.

Alan Tompkins: Investigator at Scotland Yard. Friend of Buck. Kind of a chickenshit. Blown up by an evil conspiracy car bomb.

Bruce Barnes: Visitation Pastor at New Hope Village Church. Likes to be mysterious.

Vernon Billings: Pastor at New Hope Village Church. Likes video tape. Raptured.

Mwangati Ngumo: Secretary-General of the United Nations. Botswanan national.

----------


Chapter 16: In which Buck learns Carpathia is dirty, is offered a pact with the devil, and Ray gets all weepy over Chloe being a heathen.


Page 283- Line 1:
"I wouldn't do this for just anybody," Steve Plank said...


I don't know what I could say that could possibly add anything more to that.


Page 283- Line 2-11:
...after he and Buck thanked Marge and headed to separate cabs. "I don't know how long I can hold them off and convince them that I'm you pretending to be someone else, so don't be far behind."

"Don't worry." [Buck replied]

Steve took the first cab, Buck's George Oreskovich press credentials on his chest. He was to go directly to the Plaza Hotel, where he would ask for his appointment with Carpathia.


Yeah, so, this is the genius plan they came up with to get Buck past the cops. They put Buck's fake press ID on Steve and assume that the cops are simultaneously crafty enough to have figured out the alias, but dumb enough to have not distributed a bloody photograph. Honestly, these guys couldn't get past a high school hall monitor. Clearly, not even the authors can believe this would actually work.


Page 284- Line 2-7:
He [Buck] arrived at the hotel in the midst of flashing police lights, a paddy wagon, and several unmarked cars. As he threaded his way through onlookers, the police hustled Steve, hands cuffed behind his back, out the door and down the steps.

"I'm telling you," Steve said. "The name's Oreskovitch."


Right. Yeah. Then again... apparently they do think the cops would fall for that. Anyway, Buck makes his way in and goes to a phone so he can call Chaim Rosenzweig and get his interview with Carpathia. But at this moment, hijinks ensue as fellow reporter Eric Miller turns to confront him!


Page 284- Line 19-25:
"Williams, what's going on? The cops just shuttled your boss out of here, claiming he was you!"

"Do me a favor," Buck said. "Sit on this for at least half an hour. You owe me that."

"I owe you nothing, Williams," Miller said. "But you look scared enough. Give me your word you'll tell me first what's going on."


Wow, who talks like that? 'I owe you nothing, Williams'? Are the authors even serious? Alas, yes, they are. Miller essentially listens in as Buck arranges to see Carpathia. Then Buck hangs up and things get tense.


Page 285- Line 18-24:
He [Buck] jogged to the elevator, but Eric stepped on with him. A couple tried to join them. "I'm sorry, folks," Buck said. "This car is malfunctioning." The couple left but Miller stayed. Buck didn't want him to see what floor he was going to, so he waited till the doors shut, then turned the car off. He grabbed Miller's shirt at the neck and pressed him against the wall.


Buck, NO! What about Steve! What would Steve say! Have you no heart?!


Page 285- Line 25-29:
"Listen, Eric, I told you I'd call you first with what's shakin' here, but if you try to horn in on this or follow me, I'm gonna leave you dry."

Miller shook loose and straightened his clothes. "All right, Williams! Geez! Lighten up!"


This dialogue reminds me of that episode of Star Trek where they discover the planet of the mobsters, you know? The one where Kirk and Spock have to try to talk about their cut, and rubbing other guys out, and such like? Ah, good times. Regardless, Buck manages to kick Eric off of the elevator and breathes a sigh of relief as he rises up to the VIP floor.


Page 286- Line 18-28:
When Buck emerged at the VIP floor, he was astounded to see that Miller had somehow beat him there and was hurriedly introducing himself to a uniformed guard as Steve Plank. "Mr. Rosenzweig is waiting for you, sir," the guard said.

"Wait a minute!" Buck shouted, showing Steve's press credentials. "I'm Plank. Run this impostor off."

The guard put a hand on each man. "You'll both have to wait here while I call the house detective."

Buck said, "Just call Rosenzweig and have him come out here."


That sneaky Eric Miller! He somehow managed to find a stairwell and run upstairs faster than an elevator car could traverse the same distance! He must run like Steve f-ing Austin, you know?


Page 286-287- Line 286: 29-30, 287:1-3:
The guard shrugged and punched in the room number on a portable phone. Miller leaned in, saw the number, and sprinted toward the room. Buck took off after him, the unarmed guard yelling and still trying to reach someone on the phone.


And this just went from implausbile to flat out stupid. Miller just ran up stairs faster than an elevator could traverse the same distance, how the hell is Buck going to catch him? And what's Buck going to do if he does? Tackle him or something?


Page 287- Line 4-10:
Buck, younger and in better shape, overtook Miller and tackled him in the hallway, causing doors up and down the corridor to open. "Take your brawl somehwere else," a woman shouted.

Buck yanked Miller to his feet and put him in a headlock. "You are a clown, Eric. You really think Rosenzweig would let a stranger into his room?"


Okay, I stand corrected. Buck is, apparently, the tackling type, and in reasonably good shape despite all the air travel he's so good at. Anyway, Carpathia happens to appear with a quartet of bodyguards and invites Buck into his room for the interview, after telling Miller that he (Miller) could call the next day and Carpathia would answer a few questions for him.


Page 288- Line 9-13:
"Come on in, Buck," Carpathia said, motioning him to follow. Buck was silent. "That is what they call you, is it not?"

"Yes, sir," Buck said, certain that not even Rosenzweig knew that.


Oooooh! Ominous! He knows the nickname that you don't particularly try to avoid letting people know about! Seriously, he's the anti-christ! Can't the authors manage a little more foreboding than this? Alas, they cannot or, at least, will not, and we switch back to Rayford for a few moments of prime grade fail.


Page 288- Line 14-19:
Rayford felt terrible about Hattie Durham. Things couldn't have gone worse. Why hadn't he just let her work his flight? She'd have been none the wiser and he could have eased into his real reason for inviting her to dinner Thursday night. Now, he had spoiled everything.


Ah, the sweet smell of deceit! Indeed, Rayford, you really should have just lied to her long enough to push your new crazy faith on her. The only thing that could make this worse is if you were to realize that you never really gave a shit about Hattie in the first place.


Page 288- Line 20-22:
How would he get to Chloe now? His real motive, even for talking with Hattie, was to communicate to Chloe.


And, there we go. Stay classy, Rayford. Regardless, he whines for the rest of the page and then decides to call Bruce Barnes and whine to him. Bruce has some sage counsel indeed.


Page 289- Line 3-6:
"You're trying too hard, Rayford," the younger man said. "I should think telling other people about our faith would be easier than ever now, but I've run into the same kind of resistance."


Okay, folks, here's a tip: if you want to convert one of us heathen types, try developing an argument or two that have some sort of internal consistency and logic. Because this "testimony" and "witnessing" crap? Yeah- doesn't work so much, you know? Anyway, given the sheer density of whining, even the authors get nauseated and decide to jump back to Buck. When we rejoin Buck he's in Rosenzweig's "suite of rooms" and trying to get a word in edgewise versus the hyper chatty Nicolae "the anti-christ" Carpathia.


Page 290- Line 7-13:
"It is amazing, is it not, that all those different international meetings right here in New York over the next few weeks are all interested in worldwide cooperation in which I [Carpathia] am interested?"

"It is," Buck said. "And I've been assigned to cover them."

"Then we will be getting to know each other better."


What are the odds! It must be the will of god! Wait, shit, he's the anti-christ, so it must be the will of Satan! But the apocalypse was foretold by and, indeed, planned by god, so it's still the will of god! But that means god is responsible for the anti-christ! Shit. I'm confused. Carpathia prattles on a bit but is interrupted by a call from the President of the United States. No, really.


Page 291-292- Line 291: 9-30, 292: 1-9:
"Mr. Carpathia, this is Fitz. Gerald Fitzhugh." [the President said]

"Mr. President, I am honored to hear from you."

"Well, hey, it's good to have you here!"

"I appreciated your note of congratulations on my presidency, sir, and your immediate recognition of my administration."

"Boy, that was a heckuva thing, how you took over there. I wasn't sure what had happened at first, but I don't suppose you were either."

"That is exactly right. I am still getting used to it."

"Well, take it from a guy who's been in the saddle for six years. You don't ever get used to it. You just develop calluses in the right places, if you know what I mean."

"Yes, sir."

"Listen, the reason I called is this. I know you're gonna be here a little longer than you expected, so I want you to spend a night or two here with me and Wilma. Can you do that?"

"In Washington?"

"Right here at the White House."

"That would be such a privilege."

"We'll have somebody talk to your people about the right time, but it's got to be soon, 'cause Congress is in session, and I know they'll want to hear from you."

Carpathia shook his head and Buck thought he seemed overcome emotionally. "I would be more than honored, sir."

"Speaking of something that was a heckuva thing, your speech today and your interview tonight- well, that was something. Look forward to meetin' ya."

"The feeling is mutual, sir."


Okay, first things first: I'm excited to see that Left Behind's grand tradition of shitty names continues. "Gerald Fitzhugh"? I mean... damn. Second, okay, let's be honest for a moment: does this president just kinda... remind you of anyone? And that's really all I've got- basically a page worth of conversation and all we received was a smidge of characterization for the off-stage leader of the free world, and a marginal amount of additional "Hey! The anti-christ is totally getting a lot of attention!" dead horse beating. And that pretty much sums up the entire Left Behind experience: it doesn't matter how much you read, because it never goes anywhere.

But that's a story for another day. Come back next time when Buck finishes his meeting with Carpathia and we get to slog through some more of Rayford's horrible, horrible failure.

Toodles!

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Monday, March 08, 2010

Get your shit together.

We've all had them: those annoying students who arrive to class late, leave early, fall asleep during lectures, and step out of tests so that they can get a big gulp from the local 7-11.* We put up with this bad behavior largely because it comes with the academic territory. Sometimes, though, our less than ideal students choose to chastise us for not allowing them to be even more less than ideal. And sometimes, just sometimes, one of us responds in a way so beautiful, you just have to be impressed. This is one of those times:



Read more »

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Friday, March 05, 2010

Taking things a bit far.

Given recent news about efforts to restrict a woman's right to make her own reproductive choices, comes this unfortunate story of overzealous enforcement of badly written laws:

A pregnant Burlington woman said this week she was falsely accused by police of trying to kill her fetus after she confided under duress to hospital emergency workers that she wanted to end her pregnancy.

Christine Taylor, 22, a mother of two, says she believes the personal views of medical workers and police played a part in a decision to accuse her last month of attempted feticide after a Jan. 19 incident in which she fell down the stairs at her home.

Feticide — the illegal death of a fetus — is a rare crime that has never been prosecuted in Iowa.

After reviewing facts of the case for three weeks, Des Moines County prosecutors have decided not to formally charge Taylor with a crime.

But Taylor said the damage has already been done: Newspapers across the nation picked up a news account headlined, "Iowa woman accused of trying to kill unborn baby in fall down stairs," after she was arrested and jailed.

...

The news article triggered a debate over a growing fetal rights movement nationally and Taylor's fitness as a mother. Police said in a report she fell intentionally because she did not want any more children with her husband.

...

Police were not even involved, she said, until she admitted privately to medical personnel at Great River Medical Center in West Burlington that she did not want the baby at times and had considered abortion because of hardships with her husband.

Taylor said her husband, who lives in Maryland, left her after she became pregnant with her third child last summer. She said she was despondent after a Jan. 19 telephone conversation with him.
"He was saying some very hurtful things and told me he wants to be free," said Taylor, a Maryland native. "And here I was alone, pregnant with two young kids, with no family around or support. I just thought, 'It's not fair.' ... I was so upset and frantic I almost blacked out, and I tripped and fell."

...

But under Iowa law, any person who attempts to intentionally terminate a pregnancy "with the knowledge and voluntary consent of the pregnant person" after the end of the second trimester can be accused of attempted feticide.


Right, so, this is a story that seems to have a (semi-)happy ending. She was accused under circumstances that were, at best, rather ambiguous and the decision has been made not to prosecute. No harm, no foul, right? Yeah, maybe- but then again, we should probably attend to the reason why she isn't being prosecuted:

Taylor said she was near the end of her second trimester at the time of her fall, but the nurse who treated her at Great River told police Taylor was in the first week of her third trimester, according to a police report.

Assistant Des Moines County Attorney Lisa Taylor said the attempted feticide charge was dropped because Christine Taylor's doctor confirmed she was in her second trimester. [emphasis added]


Well isn't that peachy, then? I honestly don't know what to say about all this, except that when our cultural obsession with abortion becomes so strong that pregnant women who have accidents are turned into criminals, there's something very wrong.

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