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, May 28, 2010

Bit Me

In 1993 Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle published a novel titled, The Gripping Hand, which featured an alien species known as the moties. The plot of the book isn't really important, but what you need to know is that the moties were not bilaterally symmetric. Instead, they had two small arms on one side of their torso and one large arm on the other, for a total of three arms. Needless to say, that makes them look a little weird, but who am I to judge?

In any case, using these critters Niven and Pournelle introduced the phrase, "on the gripping hand," as a way to indicate a third option that the speaker is trying to choose between. So, in other words, the expression would go, "On the one hand X, but on the other hand Y, and on the gripping hand Z." In the course of the book they made a big point about it being the sort of idiom that humans would be unlikely to come up with on their own* since we only have two hands. And this is relevant because, in a sort of jumped up version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, they suggest that this influences our patterns of reasoning. In other words, since we have two hands we tend to perceive two, possibly opposed, options in many situations and will react accordingly. And this is potentially a problem since a given situation may include more than two options.

I don't know that I agree with Niven and Pournelle's logic, but I have noticed a tendency to reduce a complex situation to a false dichotomy. I'm sure I'm not alone in that. Where it seems to me to be most pernicious, however, is in the moral arena. Some people seem to think that if something isn't moral then it must be immoral. In my view- and this may stem from my atheism- there are actions that are moral (good), actions that are immoral (bad), and actions that are amoral (neutral). It makes sense when you think about it- some actions are positive (e.g. helping those in need), some actions are bad (e.g. child abuse), and some actions are completely outside the bounds of moral concerns (e.g. I think I'll have chocolate today). And as you might guess, getting stuck in binary thinking can have some unfortunate, and occasionally hilarous, consequences.

And that brings us to a recent article in World Net Daily, the paper that makes Left Behind look positively restrained by comparison.** The article in question refers to the recent trial of President Obama. And if you don't recall hearing about any trial... well, there's a reason for that:

The controversial Harlem pastor who led a days-long "trial" of President Obama says the resulting "guilty" verdict and corroborating evidence will now be turned over to appropriate authorities, congressional and otherwise.

The event was held at Atlah World Missionary Church over the past few days, and its pastor, James Manning, claimed it to be the first "legal verdict" against Obama since he took office.

Focusing on allegations regarding Obama's status as a "natural born citizen" of the United States as well as the allegedly illegal "award" of a diploma from Columbia University, Manning insists new legal ground was broken.

The activist pastor says that under the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, citizens can legally hold a trial and arrive at a verdict, with the results turned over to appropriate government bodies for enforcement.


Ah. So, what we have here is a pastor deciding to just convene his own court- with no legal authority whatsoever- and pass judgment because he f-ing feels like it.*** Sounds like a great idea. I guess I should be glad that WND at least put "legal verdict" in scare quotes, although they seem to put a lot of stuff in scare quotes, so maybe it wasn't intentional? Maybe scare quotes are like a written tic for them? Now, you may be asking yourself, what does this have to do with my lengthy preamble about binary options? Well, I'll tell you, but you need to read this first:

Manning claims the fact that the Secret Service, charged with protecting the president and investigating threats, allowed the "trial" to take place constitutes evidence it was legitimate.

"If the trial did not have legal standing, then why did the federal or city authorities not intervene to halt [the proceeding]?" he said. "We did not hide the trial, in fact we did our best to promote it. So if the authorities had any problems why did they not act?"

Not only was there no government interference during or after the trial, Manning boasts the NYPD had officers in the neighborhood to protect the church when the trial was under way.


And here we come to the meat of the issue: Manning seems to believe that if his little proceeding was not illegal then it must have had legal standing. Or, to put it even more succinctly, "if they didn't stop me, it must be because I'm right". And here we see the hilarity of binary thinking. It isn't that holding this trial for Obama was illegal or legal, it's that it's entirely unimportant. The law doesn't care about whackamuffins who hold kangaroo courts in their church so long as said courts do not then do something illegal, like execute prisoners. And even then, the issue isn't the holding of a court, but the killing. So, really, it isn't that the proceedings were legitimate or illegal, it's just that they don't matter. Manning might as well have put Tom Sawyer on trial for all the law would have cared. We saw the same sort of things under President Bush with his claim that you're either with us or with the terrorists. Really? In a world as complex as ours, those are the only options? Damn.

And what I find so funny about all of this is that this sort of binary logic undermines the whole notion of our freedoms. Before you can argue that the government should encourage a behavior (e.g. support abortion with public funds) or discourage a behavior (e.g. make abortion illegal) you have to concede that government has the authority to do either. The greatest defense of liberty is simply to define certain things as beyond government's reach to influence. But, hell, thanks to binary thinking, if the government doesn't oppose it, then the government supports it, and to hell with limits on government power.

Ah, well. When you think that an invisible skybeast watches and judges your every action, I guess it's hard to apply a different logic to the government.


* The irony is, of course, rich since neither Niven nor Pournelle, so far as I am aware, have three hands.

** Note as well that its initials WND are only one letter from WMD. Coincidence? Eh, probably. WND is effectively impotent, WMDs... not so much.

*** I should probably note that the tenth amendment really just says that anything that the constitution doesn't say the Federal Government can do, is a power reserved to the states or the people. It says nothing about trials and, further, given that both the Federal Government and the states seem to have the legal arena pretty well tied up, it's little short of irrational to think that power devolves to the people. I'm just sayin' is all.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Left Behind: Chapter 21, Part 2

Welcome back one and all to our regular feature on Left Behind, the book that is actually, really worse that the entire Mission Earth series. Last time Buck went back to his office, talked to Bailey, and then went to dinner with the rest of the gang so he could get preached at. What happens this week? Yep, just more of the same. So if you don't like reading about uninspired preaching, this is the wrong episode to read. For that matter, if you don't like reading about uninspired preaching, why are you reading this series at all? I mean damn.

As always we have a comment of the week. This week that "honor" goes to Ken Houghton for bravely wading straight into the logical disaster that defines this entire book:

Let's see if I have this straight:

(1) Rayford can only talk to one person at a time.

Corollary: The women left out of sympathy, boredom, or to explore heathen possibilities. Sympathy for Rayford, that is, since they know he couldn't deal with all three of them looking at him with anything but rapt reverence.

(2) Buck believes Rayford, but is still going to go to Chicago because he gets to sit next to Chloe, who is an older Sue Lyons/Dominique Swain.

Corollary: If he realizes that the Bible is true, he must realize that Carpathia is The Antichrist, and that there is only a brief period of time before Little Nicky sees the evil in his heart and ensures that he foil his evil plot.

But he would rather spend the next seven years chasing and/or shagging Chloe than face the possibility of being able to save this world.

Corollary to the corollary: If we accept the literalness of The Story So Far, do we need to conclude that the BEST-CASE SCENARIO for the Left Behind is Seven Years of Bad Luck, followed by The Ascension? In which case Buck's "I want to shag your daughter even more than you do, Rayford" decision is perfectly rational, since killing Carpathia will ruin the Seven Year Plan.

Why, if what Rayford says is true, would anyone do anything over the following seven years that wasn't in their own self-interest? Which leaves us with: why doesn't Rayford shag Hattie, who is clearly willing and able?

We come back to his finally having realised that adult women are Not What He Wants.


And this actually gets at one point in particular that's important to get- from the authors' perspective, the broad sequence of events is effectively unavoidable at this point. Whatever the bible says* is going to happen, however the bible says it, is going to happen. Full stop. It doesn't matter how stupid it would be, nor how inhuman or unnatural, it is going to happen. So, yes, at the moment self-interest should reign and the Chloe shagging should commence immediately.

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 an angry cat....

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. Hot for Chloe.

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. Possibly hot for Buck.

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. Press secretary for Nicolae Carpathia.

Nicolae Carpathia: Businessman. Romanian Senator. Romanian President. Secretary-General of the United Nations. 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. President of Botswana. 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. Died Murdered by falling being pushed off of the Staten Island ferry. A strong swimmer.

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

Stanton Bailey: Publisher of the Global Weekly.

Carolyn Miller: Wife of Eric Miller.

Alex Phonecompany: Friend of Buck's. Works at the phone company.

----------


Page 386- Line Guggenheim:

No quote, but when we return Buck is reeling mentally from the intense power of Rayford's preaching. Either that or Rayford slipped Buck some roofies during dinner which, let's face it, is not out of the question. Rayford has a strong date rapist kinda vibe, after all, and Hattie just doesn't seem to be doing it for him anymore.


Page 386- Line 1-3:
Something about this [Rayford's preaching] demanded attention. He [Buck] wanted to believe something that tied everything together and made it make sense.


And this is, really, the thing. The world would be a much easier and, arguably, more pleasant place if finding truth were the same thing as finding something we want to believe in. Unfortunately, however, truth is often hard and the correct answer isn't always the one we want. So, really, this is just a long-winded way of saying that life can be hard and the fact that an answer is emotionally satisfying doesn't mean at all that it is the right one. Or, at least, that's the way it is in the real world; in the authors' wacky fictional universe truth=easy and satisfying.


Page 386- Line 4-6:
Maybe Buck was going through a scary time where he was vulnerable to impressive people.


Well, every child on Earth spontaneously disappeared, lots of adults disappeared, planes crashed, chaos reigned, an evil conspiracy tried to kill him, and he's breaking up with Steve so, yeah, I think you'd have to agree that Buck is going through "a scary time". On the other hand, I have a hard time reconciling the notion of an "impressive person" with Rayford.


Page 386- Line 9-10:
Buck didn't want to rationalize this away, to talk himself out of it.


Which is, I am convinced, the main virtue of religious doctrine: it isn't that it is true that gives it power, but rather that we want so badly for it to be true. Like I said above, the world is a difficult place and truth often sucks, so why deal with truth when you can reconstruct the entire world so it doesn't appear so scary? That wouldn't even be such a big deal except that we start killing each other over rival wacky stories and pollute the hell out of the planet because we don't think we need it for much longer, anyway. And that's when the trouble really starts. Anyway, Buck starts thinking about how he's not going to advocate any particular side in his article on the disappearances, but just tell them all and let the readers decide.


Page 386- Line 22-23:
This airline pilot, unless Buck made him look like a lunatic, would come off as profound and convincing.


How, exactly? Because so far none of Rayford's game has been either. Ah, well. What do I know? Maybe this is the authors' way of hinting at how good a writer Buck really is? Because anyone who can make Rayford sound "profound and convincing" must, indeed, have a way with words. Unlike the authors.


Page 386- Line 24-25:
For the first time in his memory Buck Williams was speechless.


Well then, Buck Williams has a short bloody memory because he was speechless just fifty pages ago (Page 336- Line 21-29). And I quote: "Buck was speechless." Even better, in terms of the "plot," that scene occurred as Buck was leaving Carpathia's hotel with Hattie on their way to see Rayford and Chloe for the first time- so we're talking a few hours ago in narrative time. Well done, authors! Honestly, did they even proofread this thing before sending it to the press? Anyway, we suddenly jump back to Rayford for the play-by-play.


Page 386- Line 26:
Rayford was certain he was not getting through.


I'm assuming that this is meant as a lesson for the other evangelicals: even if your audience looks skeptical, bored, or outright hostile, just keep plowing on! You're probably being successful! That sure explains a lot of my experience in high school, anyway. Regardless, Rayford continues in this vein for a while and then we jump back to Buck, who tells Rayford that he'll check back with Rayford before using any of his quotes. Rayford reacts to this with a subtle look of displeasure.


Page 387-388- Line 387: 27- 388: 1:
Suddenly Buck remembered who he was dealing with. This was an intelligent, educated man. [emphasis added]


All evidence to the contrary, Buck is referring to Rayford here.


Page 388- Line 1-5:
Surely he [Rayford] knew that reporters never checked back with their sources. He probably thought he was getting a journalistic brush-off.

A rookie mistake, Buck, he reprimanded himself. You just underestimated your own source. [emphasis original]


Oh, don't worry. It's almost impossible to underestimate Rayford. I keep trying but, so far, no luck.


Page 388- Line 6:
Buck was putting his equipment away...


Okay, I must have really missed something in this scene.


Page 388- Line 6-8:
...when he noticed Chloe was crying, tears streaming down her face. What was it with these women?


Ah, well, they're women and therefore weak. What do you expect? Anyway, Buck decides to ask Hattie what she and Rayford were talking about, there's some pointless dialogue that I won't transcribe because I have better things to do with my time, and then Hattie tells Buck what she thinks of Rayford's testimony.


Page 389- Line 8-13:
"I think Rayford is sincere and thoughtful. Whether he's right, I have no idea. That's all beyond me and very foreign. But I am convinced he believes it. Whether he should or not, with his background and all that, I don't know. Maybe he's susceptible to it because of losing his family." [emphasis added]


And Hattie makes a very good point: conviction does not equal correctness. Likewise, she's right to observe that Rayford is vulnerable to all manner of things because of his grief at losing his wife and daughter. So that's the good part. The bad part is the whole "all beyond me" bit, reinforcing the authors' consistent and all too blunt implication that everyone who disagrees with them does so out of ignorance. Right. I'm sure that must be it. Rayford, of course, isn't thrilled to know that Hattie isn't ready to fall on her knees and... er... convert. Even more, he's upset he hasn't gotten through to Chloe.


Page 389- Line 23-27:
At least she [Chloe] was still sensitive to his [Rayford's] feelings. Maybe he should have been more sensitive to hers, but he had decided he couldn't let those gentilities remain priorities anymore. He was going to contend for the faith with her until she made a decision.


So, to recap, Rayford is pleased that Chloe is offering him the courtesy that he intends to enthusiastically deny her. And he claims this will continue until she makes a decision but, really, if my experience is any guide he really intends to do so until she makes the decision he wants her to make. So, right, yeah, we didn't need respect and tolerance, did we? The authors are not advocating a tolerant faith.


Page 390- Line 1-3:
He [Rayford] wouldn't be pushing her [Chloe] anymore. He only hoped he could sleep despite his remorse over her condition. He loved her so much. [emphasis added]


"Her condition"? What the hell? Is not being evangelical akin to being diseased or something? Gah. Anyway, Rayford tells Buck to go see Bruce Barnes and they all leave the restaurant. Hattie breaks free and heads for the elevators to go... um... somwhere. Rayford leaves at Chloe's request and Chloe lingers to talk to Buck for a moment.


Page 391- Line 8-9:
"Your dad is a pretty impressive guy," he [Buck] said.

"I know," she said. "Especially lately."


Well then he must really have been a loser before if this is impressive by comparison. Or, to be more succinct: "Oh, barf." Fortunately, we have an even better reason to feel nauseous in just a handful of lines.


Page 391- Line 26-30:
"Well I [Chloe] feel stupid," she said. "I just met you [Buck] and I'm really gonna miss you. If you get through to Chicago, you have to call."

"It's a promise," Buck said. "I can't say when, but let's just say sooner than you think."


And so, Buck begins his career as a creepy awkward stalker. I can only look forward to future "flirting" with utter dread and horror.

As we close today- seeing as how we're at the end of the chapter- allow me to share the note that I scrawled on the back of page 391: "An amusing aside: This book more or less makes it clear that it really would require a littany of wacky evidence to make the authors' version of Christianity sound like anything other than looney bullshit." And that's an important point- even when the authors can literally stack the deck by making reality conform to their beliefs, the whole thing still comes off sounding crazy. All I can do is pity them, and not just for their abysmal writing skills. It must be terrible to cling desperately to a belief system that doesn't even make sense in your own fantasies.

And with that, dear readers, we are at an end. Come back next week when there's more romance, two sleepless nights, and a conversion.

Toodles!


* I should note that most of this prophecy crap comes from a "reading" of the bible that is so unbelievably confused that it boggles the mind. So, in fact, I think I'm being somewhat unfair to the bible by even somewhat associating it with these wingnut yokels.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Well this sounds like a fiasco in the making.

What's the weirdest thing you've ever seen involving religion in a public school? Okay, have you thought of something? Great, because this probably beats it:

Two teachers accused of sprinkling holy water onto an avowed atheist colleague have been removed from the classroom, and may be fired.

The teacher who was allegedly sprinkled filed a complaint with the Broward County school district, which is investigating the incident as an act of bullying.

At the center of the investigation are Blanche Ely High School reading teachers Leslie Rainer and Djuna Robinson, who profess that they are Christians. They are accused of sprinkling holy water onto fellow teacher Schandra Tompkinsel Rodriguez.

On March 11, Rodriguez was in her classroom discussing her disbelief in God and the Bible with students when the alleged incident took place.


Okay, so, what now? They allegedly sprinkled holy water on a colleague in class? Did they think she would melt or something? As long as we're on the subject, though, why the hell was Rodriguez talking about her disbelief in the classroom?

According to sources close to the investigation who requested anonymity, the alleged incident involving the holy water at Blanche Ely arose from a boisterous discussion Rodriguez was having with her students about the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti.

...

In response to one student’s remark that the disaster in Haiti happened because of God’s wrath on the island nation over a pact its leaders made with Satan more than 200 years ago, Rodriguez reportedly began refuting Christianity.

The alleged Satanic pact in question reportedly occurred at Bois-Caïman, near Cap-Haïtien, on August 14, 1791, during a voodoo ceremony held by enslaved Africans. The reported pact came before the slave rebellion and start of the Haitian Independence War, in which rebel leaders offered the reported agreement in exchange for a victory against the French Army.

In response to the lively discussion, Rainer and Robinson entered the room.

“Sounds like somebody needs some holy water,” a student remarked before Robinson retrieved and displayed a small bottle of liquid from the doorway.


So, quite aside from everything else, I have to admit that this may be the only time in my life that I have ever seen a paragraph in a news article start with the phrase, "The alleged Satanic pact." Right, as opposed to all of those other Satanic pacts that have been registered with notaries public? Moving on, however, I see the educational goal Rodriguez may have had in mind, but "refuting Christianity" was most certainly not the way to go with it. This is going to turn into something both because accounts differ as to whether the sprinkling of holy water* occurred at all, and because the local clergy have gotten their teeth into it:

Local clergy have called an emergency meeting on Monday over two teachers who were removed from their classrooms after allegedly sprinkling holy water onto an atheist colleague.

“We need to know why one teacher is allowed to teach our children there is no God and nothing is done,” said the Rev. Willie J. Rainer, husband of one of the accused teachers and an associate pastor of Hopewell Baptist Church in Pompano Beach. “But the Christian teachers have been removed from the classroom even though nothing has been proven.”

...

“We were contacted, and we agreed to hold the meeting at our church,” said the Rev. O’Neal Dozier, pastor of the Worldwide Christian Center. “We have to make sure this is not an attack on Christianity. It is totally unfair to remove the two teachers, and allow the other teacher to remain. We need answers and for them to be returned to the classroom.”


So, just to recap: a teacher may or may not have been "refuting Christianity," may or may not have been trying to challenge the notion that Haiti deserved to be obliterated by an earthquake, and may or may not have been sprinkled with holy water by two other teachers. And despite the degree of uncertainty involved, and the probability that absolutely nobody in the entire story is entirely in the right, we have a gigantic load of outrage flying around.

Great. I think my current plan is to ignore this one from here on in and hope it all goes away.


* I should note that the article describes holy water as, "...sterile water or oil that Christians use in prayer rituals." This isn't necessarily true both because oil, holy or not, is not water, and because holy whatever isn't necessarily sterile. Don't we remember the recent warning that holy water could act as a vector for swine flu? I mean, hell, the production of holy water has fewer standards than even homeopathy, and that's saying something.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"Witness the rise of man!"

It's a source of national embarrassment in my view that the acceptance of evolution in the U.S. is so low. I'm not going to talk about the reasons for that today, or at least not at length, but will simply content myself with observing that evolution is a theory of how modern species developed given that life began, and not a theory of how life began in the first place. Thus, if you wish, you can simply insert your preferred cause at the start, and get onboard the evidence train with the rest of us.

Now, one often preferred method for trying to convey an idea to a wider selection of people is to make that idea more accessible, with "accessible" variously defined as "more understandable" or sometimes even as "watered down." One solution might be to make a movie. You know, a dramatic retelling of Darwin's life that includes some of the rationale for evolutionary theory. And this has, indeed, been done:



But this excellent effort was made in, and for, the British market and has only obtained limited exposure in the U.S. Clearly, we need something geared more specifically for the unique tastes of Americans. Fortunately, Dana Carvey has decided to step in:



Then again, maybe we ought to just stick to writing books.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

I should point out that she's even more amazing in concert.

In lieu of a crappy post, please enjoy this excellent song by Vienna Teng. Sadly, her best stuff isn't available on YouTube, but if you haven't heard of her before, you're missing out.

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Friday, May 21, 2010

I think you may be overlooking something.

Out of Australia comes the unfortunate news of a cabbie who raped his drunken passenger. Okay, that doesn't quite capture it. Specifically, he waited until her friends had left her in the cab to be taken home and then went really, really out of his way to do the deed:

The Court of Criminal Appeal judgment said a GPS tracking system in the taxi showed Rahmanian travelled towards the victim's house in Adelaide's southern suburbs but then veered off course.

He took her to his own house at Dover Gardens and had sexual intercourse with the unconscious teenager.

The victim remembers nothing of what happened, except for waking up some hours later with some clothing removed.

It was not until months after the rape that police tracked Rahmanian down, when he went to the victim's house and left a jar of honey on her doorstop, then tried to call her.


So as you can see, we're already hip deep in whatthefuckery here. Cabbie kidnaps random drunken stranger, rapes her in the comfort of his own home, then completes job? Pretty bad. He then returns and leaves her honey later? What the hell? I don't know how I'd respond to that even if the honey wasn't from my rapist, much less if it was.

The defense is, perhaps unsurprisingly, suggesting that all this isn't Rahmanian's fault:

He said the Iranian immigrant did not fully appreciate the severity of the crime under Australian law.

"There is a very reasonable possibility that given his cultural background and limited insight into laws and sexual behaviour, he didn't realise that having intercourse with somebody who is unconscious and therefore not consenting is a very serious crime," Mr Algie told the court.


Frankly, I would think that one's a no-brainer, but maybe it's just me? Regardless, however, I'm not writing about this because I want to call the defense attorney's argument stupid. Don't get me wrong, he may be right that due to his background, Rahmanian didn't "appreciate the severity of the crime," but his behavior makes it pretty clear that he understood that he shouldn't be doing it and, at least in the U.S. legal system, that's sufficient. Ignorance of the law is not, after all, a defense. I leave it to my Australian readers* to let me know if there's a relevant legal distinction there of which I should be aware.

No, I think the part of this story that weirds me out is what the prosecutor argued:

Prosecutor Chris Edge said Rahmanian abused his position of trust and the crime warranted a significant prison sentence to deter other taxi drivers from such crimes.

"The public should be able to trust taxi drivers to take them or their friends home safely," he argued.

"It's not uncommon for intoxicated people, including lone females, to rely on taxi drivers to take them home."


And that's absolutely true, but here's the thing: I think that the public should be able to rely on other people not to rape them even if those others aren't taxi drivers. More bluntly- the relevant facts of the case are that a sober adult male had sexual intercourse with an intoxicated teenage female who was unable to give consent. Moreover, the facts indicate intent (i.e. it was not something that just happened in the heat of the moment) as well as the perpetrator's desire to conceal what he had done. The fact that he is a damned cabbie, while of concern, is just not relevant to the actual crime.

So sure, yes, ask for a stern sentence, but do so because a man raped an unconscious woman and not because he was a cab driver.


* Believe it or not, I do actually have a few. No idea why, though. Hell, I still can't figure out why Americans read this blog.

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Left Behind: Chapter 21, Part 1

Welcome back one and all to our regular feature on Left Behind, the book that makes even Fred Phelps embarrassed. Last time Buck and Chloe flirted incompetently and Rayford scolded Hattie for... well... something. What happens this week? Pretty much more of the same. Seriously. I don't even know why they went to a new chapter.

As always we have a comment of the week. This week that "honor" goes to scripto for making us wonder:

"That's my [Rayford's] hope, but no. If it's something you can't handle right now, I'll understand."

Is he talking about anal sex or Jesus?


To which I respond: does it have to be one or the other? Because with Rayford, you never can tell. Congratulations, scripto, and keep at it folks. This book isn't going to mock itself!

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 a celebrity guest commentator....

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. Hot for Chloe.

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. Possibly hot for Buck.

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. Press secretary for Nicolae Carpathia.

Nicolae Carpathia: Businessman. Romanian Senator. Romanian President. Secretary-General of the United Nations. 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. President of Botswana. 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. Died Murdered by falling being pushed off of the Staten Island ferry. A strong swimmer.

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

Stanton Bailey: Publisher of the Global Weekly.

Carolyn Miller: Wife of Eric Miller.

Alex Phonecompany: Friend of Buck's. Works at the phone company.

----------


Chapter 21: In which Buck and Chloe flirt, Rayford testifies his ass off, Buck is swayed, and Hattie makes a good point in passing.


Page 379- Line Penis Enhancement:

No quote, but when we resume Buck and Chloe have returned and rejoined Rayford and Hattie. Buck notices that Hattie has been crying but doesn't feel close enough to her to ask why. Well, that and the authors have made it amply clear that we're supposed to think of Hattie as some dumb trollop, so who cares if she cries?


Page 379- Line 5-10:
Buck was glad for the opportunity to interview Rayford Steele, but his emotions were mixed. The reactions of the captain who had piloted the plane on which he had been a passenger when the disappearances occurred would add drama to his story. But even more, he wanted to spend time with Chloe.


Okay, okay, we get it. Buck is a miserable sad sack who has to resort to picking up impressionable college students rather than women his own age. Stop putting the guy down already! And how about that second sentence? If the pronouns didn't confuse you just a little, you weren't paying attention! And as long as we're on the subject, it's clear that Buck has no idea what makes a good story because, based on this, if he were ever on Air Force One during the outbreak of war, he'd immediately want to interview the navigator. Has his finger on the pulse of the nation, Buck does.


Page 379- Line 10-14:
Buck would run back to the office, then home to change, and meet them later at the Carlisle. At the office he took a call from Stanton Bailey, asking how soon he could go to Chicago to get Lucinda Washington replaced.


Aaaaand we have a sudden and dramatic tense shift within a two sentence span. First, Buck is musing about what he intends to do and then, in the next sentence, he's part way done with it. Given the overall awkward writing, my guess is that the copy editor was driven to drink at some point in the previous chapter and has just given the hell up by now. Lucky bastard. Anyway, Buck says he'll do it soon and Bailey remarks that from what he hears Carpathia's plan to try and take over the U.N. is moving forward as planned. Bailey even volunteers that he hopes people go along with it.


Page 380- Line 6-12:
"I wish they would," Buck said, still hoping he could trust Carpathia and eager to see what the man would do about Stonagal and Todd-Cothran.

"I do, too," Bailey said, "but what are the odds? He's a man for this time, but his global disarmament and his reorganization plans are too ambitious. It'll never happen."


Sadly, in the context of the book, "too ambitious" is not a euphemism for "utterly f-ing crazy," even though that's what they are. This conversation is so absurd on so many levels it makes my brain hurt. And it gets worse!


Page 380- Line 18-19:
"Maybe the U.N. delegates will be smart enough to know the world is ready for Carpathia," Buck said.


Yes, maybe, except that the U.N. delegates do not have the authority to surrender 10% of their countries' weapons and promise to destroy the other 90%. This whole conversation is predicated on the notion that the U.N. is something that it isn't and that the Secretary-General has authority that he or she doesn't. But, hey, the authors haven't demonstrated much of a grasp on reality thus far, so why start demanding it now? Regardless, Buck says he'll get his pasty ass to Chicago to deal with the Lucinda Washington situation, and then this happens...


Page 381- Line 1-10:
Buck phoned Pan-Con Airlines, knowing Rayford Steele's flight left at eight the next morning. He told the reservation clerk his traveling companion was Chloe Steele. "Yes," she said, "Ms. Steele is flying complimentary in first class. There is a seat open next to her. Will you be a guest of the crew as well?"

"No."

He booked a cheap seat and charged it to the magazine, then upgraded to the seat next to Chloe. He would say nothing that night about going to Chicago.


Ah, yes. Cameron "Buck" Williams: Secret Agent/Journalist/Creepy Stalker. This book just gets better and better all the time. And amazingly, I want you to remember this bit, because it will actually be important to a discussion we're going to have later on. I also want you to remember this bit because, if the authors are correct, you can get free seats in first class by claiming to be a guest of the crew.* Score! Anyway, Buck wraps up his stalking and hurries back- with a better outfit he keeps stashed in his magic bag- to join his dinner companions.


Page 381- 19-20:
Chloe was radiant, looking five years older in a classy evening dress.


And yet she's not "five years older," creepy authors. She is, in fact, at least ten years younger than Buck and no evening dress can fix that. My wife adds at this point, "It's like the authors have a fantasy of being with a younger woman, so they make her appear older so they can have that, which is just stupid." She's a good woman, my wife: smart, independent, and my own friggin age.


Page 381- Line 21-24:
Rayford thought his daughter looked stunning that evening, and he wondered what the magazine writer thought of her. Clearly this Williams guy was too old for her.


I look forward to the inevitable jealousy jokes at Rayford's expense that are sure to appear in the comments. Regardless, it's somewhat refreshing that there's someone in this awful book who seems to recognize how creepy all this is. Given that Rayford has a spine of Jell-O, I rather expect Buck to be spiritually boning Chloe before they get to the salad course, but it's the thought that counts.


Page 382- Line 1-4:
He [Rayford] had no idea what she [Hattie] thought [of his testimony] except that he was "sweet" for telling her everything. He wasn't sure whether that was sarcasm or condescension.


You know? It could have been sincere. Just because she thinks you're wrong doesn't mean she can't appreciate the sentiment behind your telling her. Granted, in your case the sentiment is a selfish desire to prove how awesome you are by converting a heathen like Hattie, but we'll just ignore that for the sake of argument.


Page 382- Line 5-8:
That she [Hattie] had spent time alone with Chloe [at the beauty parlor] might have been good. Rayford hoped Chloe wasn't so antagonistic and closed minded that she had become an ally against him with Hattie.


Just... wow. Way to trust your daughter, dude. And why are we always viewed as "antagonistic and closed minded" by these guys? Asking for evidence isn't antagonistic or closed minded, it's simple prudence.


Page 382- Line 9-12:
At the restaurant Williams seemed to gaze at Chloe and ignore Hattie. Rayford considered this insensitive, but it didn't seem to bother Hattie. Maybe Hattie was matchmaking behind his back.


Nah. Considering that Hattie claims no "moral or religious code" and Chloe is "antagonistic and closed minded" towards Rayford, my bet is that they've all just decided to have a threesome in the men's room after dessert. Take that, Rayford Steele! Shortly thereafter Rayford lays the smack down on the waiter.


Page 382- 19-27:
"We'd like to spend another hour or so here, if that's all right." [Rayford said to the waiter]

"Sit, we do have an extensive reservation list-"

"I wouldn't want this table to be less than profitable for you," Rayford said, pressing a large bill into the waiter's palm, "so boot us out whenever it becomes necessary."

The waiter peeked at the bill and slipped it into his pocket. "I'm sure you will not be disturbed," he said.


Okay, so, the moral of today's chapter is that bribery in Jesus' name is apparently just peachy. You're taking notes, right? Just for the sake of argument, however, what bill do we think he pressed into the waiter's palm? They're having dinner at "The Carlisle," which I'm assuming is supposed to be this restaurant, albeit spelled differently. Based on their current dinner menu I'm going to estimate that four entrees and two appetizers would come out to around $196.64. Add in three glasses of wine at five bucks each (assuming that Rayford doesn't drink since he's Muslim Born Again, that Buck does because he's a heathen, Hattie does because she's a slut, and Chloe does because she looks five years older in that evening gown), and two deserts at ten bucks each (Rayford and Buck, Hattie doesn't have desert so as to preserve her starved look [Page 51- Line 9-14] and Chloe doesn't have desert because she's a woman and only capable of sex-typical behaviors), and the grand total hits $231.64. Tip is usually assigned pre-tax so at 15%, the waiter would make $34.75 in tips per party if Rayford and company are typical. In point of fact, I rather expect I'm underestimating the average cost since I'm assuming they share appetizers, have cheap alcohol, and generally don't splurge, so the actual average tip amount would probably be much higher. Regardless, though, this implies that Rayford slipped the waiter at least a fifty, and probably a hundred just to be safe. Then again, given the reputation, maybe the waiter is just trying to be helpful in hopes of getting said $34.75 tip and not two bucks and a Chick Tract. Dare to dream, anonymous waiter.


Page 382- Line 28:
And the water glasses were always full.


What the... ? Do I care about the damned water glasses? Was anyone going to read this scene and ask, "Sure the waiter let them stay, but did he keep bringing refills?" Oh, god, the suspense. How can the authors cram that much pointless detail into this scene and yet never tell us anything about what Rayford and Buck look like? Whatever, after some preliminary and- thankfully- skipped over background questions, Buck gets around to asking Rayford what he (Rayford) thinks happened. And then we're off to the races, albeit from Buck's perspective.


Page 383- Line 15-19:
The captain hesitated and smiled as if gathering himself. "I have more than a theory," he said. "You may think this sounds crazy coming from a technically minded person like me, but I believe I have found the truth and know exactly what happened."


Two points here. First, Rayford is "technically minded" in much the same way that a guy who drives a semi-truck is "technically minded." In other words, he has a lot of knowledge about how to use a given piece of technology, but not enough to design it, build it, fix it, or otherwise explain it. So, no, his opinion is really not worth very much. Second, this level of certainty just scares the hell out of me. He doesn't think he knows, he is absolutely convinced that he's correct. And as the authors themselves reminded us (See Page 355- Line 2-3 yet again) everyone is equally convinced of their own explanations, so certainty in and of itself simply indicates a certain lack of reflection. Do I believe that there's no such thing as a god or gods? Yes. Am I absolutely certain? No. The thing is, I don't see how anyone could be absolutely certain one way or another. But, hey, maybe my spiritual mechanism is just broken or something. If so, I've never missed it. Anyway, just as Rayford is about to launch into his tirade, Chloe and Hattie politely excuse themselves, perhaps indicating that the two of them aren't as dumb as we've been led to believe.


Page 384- Line 3-6:
Rayford was privately frustrated, almost to the point of anger. That was the second time in a few hours that Chloe had somehow been spirited away at a crucial time.


Ah, well. It must be god's will that Chloe burn in hell for all eternity. Them's the breaks! All kidding aside, however, the language "was spirited away" is telling here since Chloe initiated the exodus to the bathroom. In the authors' minds, virtually anything- and virtually everything- occurs only because of the will of god. And yet, somehow, it's up to us to avoid hell. The contradictions are just mind blowing. But, Rayford gets past all that long enough to vomit out his story yet again onto Buck.


Page 384- Line 15-22:
Buck sat without interrupting as this most lucid and earnest professional calmly propounded a theory that only three weeks before Buck would have found absurd. It sounded like things he had heard in church and from friends, but this guy had chapter and verse from the Bible to back it up. And this business of the two preachers in Jerusalem representing two witnesses predicted in the book of Revelation? Buck was aghast.


Frankly, I think the authors are misusing the term "theory" a tad, but reasonable people might disagree. Additionally, I think it has to be pointed out that backing up one's claims with "chapter and verse from the Bible" really only makes sense if you grant the bible some sort of evidentiary privilege. But if you do that, you really have to be concerned that the bible asserts that the value of pi is equal to three. And then we have a problem. Anyway, Buck asks Rayford if he's heard about all the converts that the crazy preachers in Jerusalem are getting and Rayford gives a fabulous answer.


Page 385- Line 10-11:
"Amazing," the pilot responded. "But even more amazing, it was all predicted in the Bible."


Wow! Just like absolutely nothing in real life! Regardless, Buck finds that the explanation is quite influential to him, at least.


Page 385- Line 19-20:
What else would give Buck this constant case of the chills?


Influenza? Food poisoning? Hypothermia? More seriously: Woot! Personal credulity confused for evidence! If reading Left Behind were a drinking game, I'm pretty sure this chapter would get us all shitfaced.


Page 385- Line 23-30:
Was all this possible? Could it be true? Had he been exposed to a clear work of God in the destruction of the Russian air corps just to set him up for a moment like this? Could he shake his head and make it all go away? Could he sleep on it and come to his senses in the morning? Would a conversation with Bailey or Plank set him straight, snap him out of this silliness?


WILL Batman get to Commissioner Gordon's house in time? CAN the Joker really defeat the caped crusader with his nefarious laughing gas? WILL the department of Child Protective Services find out what's been happening to Robin in Wayne Manor? Come back next week when we answer these questions and more in our next exciting marginally tolerable edition of Left Behind!

No really, that's the end of the section. See you next time!


* Yes, I am aware that this isn't what Buck does. My point is that the reservations clerk seems prepared to do it just on Buck's say-so.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How do you solve a problem like Maria Margaret?

We've all been in a position at one time or another in our lives when we have to make a tough ethical choice. If we're lucky the choice goes well. If we're unlucky, it goes badly. But the reality of such things is that unless someone has been in our shoes, it's difficult for them to say with certainty that we made the wrong choice. Put simply, some things look much simpler when you're at home on the couch than they do when you're right there in the thick of it. But, all the same, there are some choices that others will not only second-guess, but will feel qualified to castigate you over:

A nun and administrator at a Catholic hospital in Phoenix has been reassigned and rebuked by the local bishop for agreeing that a severely ill woman needed an abortion to survive.

Sister Margaret McBride was on an ethics committee that included doctors that consulted with a young woman who was 11 weeks pregnant late last year, The Arizona Republic newspaper reported on its website Saturday. The woman was suffering from a life-threatening condition that likely would have caused her death if she hadn't had the abortion at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center.

Hospital officials defended McBride's actions but confirmed that she has been reassigned from her job as vice president of mission integration at the hospital.


Okay, so that sounds a bit unfortunate. But, it's a Catholic hospital so, of course, within reason, one has to expect that it will be run somewhat in accordance with Catholic beliefs. So, dismissing her from her position seems, if not right, then at least within the realm of acceptability. Of course, they didn't really stop there:

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, head of the Phoenix Diocese, indicated in a statement that the Roman Catholic involved was "automatically excommunicated" because of the action. The Catholic Church allows the termination of a pregnancy only as a secondary effect of other treatments, such as radiation of a cancerous uterus.

...

"An unborn child is not a disease. While medical professionals should certainly try to save a pregnant mother's life, the means by which they do it can never be by directly killing her unborn child. The end does not justify the means."

Olmsted added that if a Catholic "formally cooperates" in an abortion, he or she is automatically excommunicated.


As an atheist, I have to concede that excommunication holds no particular terror for me. It's roughly equivalent to someone waving their hands at me and yelling "booga booga!" Perhaps a little disquieting, but mostly just because of the sheer absurdity involved. For Sister McBride, however, I rather expect that being told that she's going to burn in hell for all eternity is a bit more... um... upsetting. And in case you're curious, the reason for the abortion was fairly compelling:

The patient, who hasn't been identified, was seriously ill with pulmonary hypertension. The condition limits the ability of the heart and lungs to function and is made worse, possibly even fatal, by pregnancy.

"This decision was made after consultation with the patient, her family, her physicians, and in consultation with the Ethics Committee, of which Sr. Margaret McBride is a member," the hospital said in a statement issued Friday.

A letter sent to Olmsted Monday by the board chairwoman and the president and CEO of CHW asks Olmsted to provide further clarification about the directives. The pregnancy, the letter says, carried a nearly certain risk of death for the mother.


Right, so, just to sum up: nun makes difficult ethical choice so as to save a woman from near-certain death, procedure saves woman's life, nun's superiors remove her from her job and tell her that she's going to suffer in torment for all eternity. Like I said, it's a Catholic hospital and it's probably reasonable to expect it to be run somewhat in accordance with Catholic principles. But, that said, it still seems like there's something very, very wrong when this is the situation we find ourselves in.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Lingerie that screams "crazy."

Hot from (where else?) Japan comes the newest fad in ladies undergarments- the rice bra. And no, I don't mean a bra made of reprocessed rice or something sensible like that:

Female urban farmers keen to keep their agricultural hobby close to their heart can now grow their own rice in a special bra designed by Japanese lingerie maker Triumph.

Triumph, makers of other eccentric, gimmick bras that include one with a sushi set and another that comes with solar panels, said it came up with the "rice bra" because of the growing popularity of farming among city dwellers in Japan.

...

"Home kits that allow people to grow their own rice are very popular online. We thought that it would be fun if a bra could give people the same experience," said Masuda.

The bra, made of recyclable plastic, can be tied together to create pots that also double as the cups.

...

"The bra fits much better than it looks. Wearing it puts me in such a fun mood," said model Reiko Aoyama in the lingerie.


Perhaps unsurprisingly the bra isn't actually for sale- it's just a publicity stunt- thereby saving us from a littany of articles in fashion magazines talking about the top ten shirts to help keep your cans from looking like pots. Nevertheless, you have to hand it to Japan for its almost creepy ability to come up with breast-themed products.

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Conjuration.

Some people think that the world seems less charming if you understand it. I think it's just the opposite. And James Randi is the master of showing why:



That is all.

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Friday, May 14, 2010

An exciting development.

So there's this company named Valve that makes video games. Specifically, it makes really, really good games, including the classics Half-Life and Half-Life 2 (about which I've blogged before) as well as the truly excellent zombie shooter Left 4 Dead (which I have also mentioned previously).

Now, the thing you have to understand is that Valve also runs a service known as Steam. Specifically, Steam is known as a "content delivery service" because it essentially allows you to purchase and download games online. What makes Steam somewhat unique, however, is that it maintains a library of your games that you can access at any time on any machine. So your ownership of a Steam game allows you to- in the vast majority of cases- download it onto any computer you want and play by entering the necessary login information. So, in effect, it allows you to manage all of your games without needing CDs and not have to worry. It's pretty slick and I actually have a fair number of games via Steam- not least because they often price them really cheap during promotions.

But this is all background information for two exciting developments. First, Steam is now- for the first time- also available for Mac. What's more, any Steam game that is available for both Mac and PC only has to be purchased once, and you can download the correct version for the computing environment you happen to be using. This is neat for obvious reasons.

Second, Valve also makes a game called Portal which is, in a word, amazing. It's basically a first-person geometry game with a wicked sense of humor, and the gameplay mechanic just has to be seen to be believed:



So why am I bringing Portal up now? Because until May 24th, to celebrate the new Steam for Mac, you can download and play Portal for free. It's a short game- you can beat it in an afternoon- but it is well worth the time. So, you know, it's Friday, we're about to start a weekend, and now you can get an awesome game, a game that won over 70 Game of the Year awards, for free.

Don't say I don't love you guys.


As a side note, I should observe that I am not receiving anything from Valve to shill their products, I just genuinely think they make great games, and this is a pretty awesome offer.

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Left Behind: Chapter 20, Part 2

Welcome back one and all to our regular feature on Left Behind, the book that makes the Weekly World News seem logical by comparison. Last time Buck developed the hots for Chloe and Rayford started to lay the smack down upon Hattie. What happens this week? Pretty much more of the same.

As always we have a comment of the week. Last week we had something of an embarrassment of riches with several folks commenting quite enthusiastically. This week the "honor" goes to Ken Houghton for basically arguing that the authors don't suck at writing, they've just discovered "exciting" new vistas of literary expression:

"the authors are quite possibly the laziest fiction writers I have ever encountered."

Just because they know nothing and tell less about sex, family relationships, Christian behavior, and infrastructure maintenance (unless only 144,000 people were transported--in which case that plane was a ridiculous outlier and the book makes less than no sense)?

You've got to come up with a better reason than that, drek, or Believers will point out that You Just Don't Understand. Or, as the previous version of Rayford--Dr. Sevrin from the season that shouldn't exist of TOS--said, roughly, "I've gone beyond their Science."

They have created a new form of No-vel: the ancient G-ds get trivialized, their worshippers become small-minded navel-gazers who treat the rest of the world as inferior to hide their own eclipsing.

Normally, such people are either (1) treated sympathetically by leaving their bitterness off-stage or out of the work or (2) treated as what they are, and shown as being bitter against the Good of the Hero(ine)s.

These guys decided to show these bitter characters with all their flaws and treat them as sympathetic. Their brilliance passes all understanding, and the sooner we all let the typeface just flow over us until we reach the Glories of The End, the sooner we will all be able to Celebrate that, seven years later, Israel still exists and the authors are still publishing post-post-Industrial "no-vels."


Indeed, Left Behind reminds me somewhat of that scene from Defending Your Life where Albert Brooks discovers that godly food tastes like ass. Maybe someone can enjoy this fiction, but sure as hell not me. Or anyone I particularly like.* An honorable mention to Dutchdear as well for putting things so delicately. Thanks for all the commentary last week, folks, and keep it up!

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 fiat...

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. Hot for Chloe.

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. Possibly hot for Buck.

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. Press secretary for Nicolae Carpathia.

Nicolae Carpathia: Businessman. Romanian Senator. Romanian President. Secretary-General of the United Nations. 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. President of Botswana. 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. Died Murdered by falling being pushed off of the Staten Island ferry. A strong swimmer.

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

Stanton Bailey: Publisher of the Global Weekly.

Carolyn Miller: Wife of Eric Miller.

Alex Phonecompany: Friend of Buck's. Works at the phone company.

----------


Page 369- Line Buick:

No quote, but we resume with Rayford and Hattie, who are chatting about their flirtatious past. He begins by apologizing for ever being interested in her, asserting the obvious by stating that it would have been wrong for them to become involved, a point at which she furrows her brow and looks offended.


Page 369- Line 24-28:
"Yes," he said, "it would have been wrong. I [Rayford] was married, not happily and not successfully, but that was my fault. Still, I had made a vow, a commitment, and no matter how I justified my interest in you, it would have been wrong."


And for once, I actually agree with Rayford. Yes, obviously, cheating on your wife is not right.


Page 369- Line 29:
He could tell from her look that she disagreed.


Well, you know, people her age lack morals.


Page 369-370- Line 369: 30; 370: 1-4:
"But now I [Rayford] have to tell you how grateful I am that I didn't do something- well, stupid. It would not have been right for you either. I know I'm not your judge and jury, and your morals are your own decision. [emphasis added]


What the hell does that even mean? And why is it that the phrase "I'm not your judge and jury" almost always means, "But I'm going to pass judgment on you anyway"? Regardless, Hattie gets all weepy and then Rayford decides to be "nice" to her.


Page 370- Line 10-12:
He smiled. "I'll let you break your silence temporarily," he said. "I need to know that you at least forgive me."


Oh, really, Rayford? You'll permit her the right to speak just long enough to forgive your sorry stupid ass? What if she doesn't want to forgive you? Alas, instead she starts to cry and runs off to the bathroom for a moment or three to recover her composure. I'll leave it to you to draw what conclusions you will about how the authors mean us to view women here. That said, I love that the only purpose the authors see for listening to those who disagree with them is so that those others can express forgiveness. Oddly, that is not the sentiment I most want to express where the authors are concerned.


Page 371-372- Line 371: 30; 372: 1-4:
Rayford dug out Irene's Bible and quickly scanned some passages. He had decided not to sit talking to Hattie with the Bible open. He didn't want to embarrass or intimidate her, despite his newfound courage and determination. [emphasis added]


Try, "freak out" dude. Seeing someone try to talk to me with an open bible in their lap doesn't generally embarrass or intimidate me. Hell, about three-quarters of the time it's the debating equivalent of screaming "Easy meat" at me. But then again, what would you expect when even this simplified "preaching for dummies" book we're reading fails to prepare its readers for the possibility that non-Christians may actually prosecute counter-arguments? Additionally, I don't know at all what to make of the last part of that sentence- are the authors implying that his newfound "courage and determination" would normally make him want to intimidate and embarrass her? Yeah... just like Jesus would have wanted, I guess. Regardless, we suddenly jump back to Buck and Chloe, who are romantically eating cookies in an airport. Silly Buck- everyone knows that if you really want to get into her pants you should hit the Duty-Free store. Regardless, Chloe remarks that Buck is going to love Rayford's theory on the disappearances, and we're off to the races.


Page 372- Line 18-23:
"You [Chloe] say your dad's theory, as if maybe it's not yours, too. Do you two disagree?"

"He thinks we do, because I argue with him and give him a hard time about it. I just don't want to be too easy to convince, but if I had to be honest, I'd have to say we're pretty close."


Oh, come ON! She's essentially convinced without the barest shred of evidence or argumentation. Rayford throws shitty arguments at her, he exposes her to emotional blackmail, we wait a few chapters and- BOOM- she's just about ready to convert. I admit, I started reading this book in the hopes of running into a compelling explanation of the evangelical position and I just haven't run into anything even vaguely close. I've pretty much got the rhetorical equivalent of blue balls here. Poor metaphors aside, however, Buck and Chloe chat some more during which Buck insults her by calling her, first, a college kid and then, second, a collegian. I wasn't aware that anyone used the term "collegian," but hey, there you go. I guess it's just Buck continuing his long and authoritative tradition of bucking tradition and authority. She then turns things back on Buck in the most boring way possible.


Page 373- Line 19-23:
"How old are you, Buck?"

"Thirty and a half, going on thirty-one," he said with a twinkle.

"I say, how old are you?" she shouted, as if talking to a deaf old man. Buck roared. [emphasis original]


Yes. Truly witty. I f-ing hate these people.


Page 374- Line 2-16:
She frowned and punched him. "I was just going to say that I like the way you say my name."

"I didn't know there was any other way to say it," he [Buck] said.

"Oh, there is. Even my friends slip into making it one syllable, like Cloy."

"Chloe," he repeated.

"Yeah," she said. "Like that. Two syllables, long O, long E."

"I like your name." He slipped into an old man's husky voice. "It's a young person's name. How old are you, kid?"

"Twenty and a half, going on twenty-one."

"Oh, my goodness," he said, still in character, "I'm consortin' with a minor!" [emphasis original]


Oh, bloody hell. This is truly the lamest courtship I think I have ever witnessed. They're flirting over good pronunciation and the fact that there's at least a decade's worth of age difference. Shit, he was in college when she was ten. I'd worry how Rayford was going to react to his baby girl getting hit on by a seedy character like Buck but, fortunately, he and Buck have something in common. And no, I don't mean that given the Hattie situation, they both want to bone younger women.


Page 374- Line 24-25:
"Oh, do [take an earlier comment as a compliment]" he said. "Few people your age are as well-read and articulate as you are."


See? Buck and Rayford both hate the young! They really do have something in common! Anyway, Chloe asks Buck about Nicolae Carpathia and he starts to tell her, at which point the narrative jumps back to Rayford and Hattie, who has come back from the ladies' room so that Rayford can commence preaching at her. And I can't tell you how dirty it makes me feel that I'm actually glad to be reading about Rayford again. Anyway, he sort of resolves lingering feelings with Hattie and then she agrees to sit still while he talks at her. He explains that he really, really wants to tell her the next bit now and she asks whether it's because he's hoping that she'll buy into his idea or something.


Page 376- Line 8-9:
"That's my [Rayford's] hope, but no. If it's something you can't handle right now, I'll understand. [emphasis added]


Yeah, but what if it's just obviously stupid? What then, Rayford? Amazingly enough, evangelical doctrine is not so clearly correct that just being exposed to it is enough to blow our heathen minds. Really.


Page 376-377- Line 376: 11-30; 377: 1-2:
Rayford felt much like Bruce Barnes had sounded the day they met. He was full of passion and persuasion, and he felt his prayers for courage and coherence were answered as he spoke. He told Hattie of his history with God, having been raised in a churchgoing home and how he and Irene had attended various churches throughout their marriage. He even told her that Irene's preoccupation with end-time events had been one thing that made him consider looking elsewhere for companionship.

Rayford could tell by Hattie's look that she knew where he was going, that he had now come to agree with Irene and had bought the whole package. Hattie sat motionless as he told the story of knowing what he would find at home that morning after they had landed at O'Hare.

He told her of calling the church, meeting Bruce, Bruce's story, the videotape, their studies, the prophecies from the Bible, the preachers in Israel that clearly paralleled the two witnesses spoken of in Revelation.

Rayford told her how he had prayed the prayer with the pastor as the videotape rolled and how he now felt so responsible for Chloe and wanted her to find God, too.


What many evangelicals, or at least the authors, fail to grasp is that this isn't convincing for the reason that Buck touched on back on Page 355 (Line 2-3). Personal conviction does not equal evidence, it simply equals personal conviction. The crazy dude who wraps aluminum foil around his head to prevent the CIA from stealing his thoughts is equally convinced, but that doesn't make him right. Alas, this pointless little recitation is defined as "witnessing"- and witnessing is what the authors believe god wants Christians to do- so on we go and damn the issue of efficacy.


Page 377- Line 3-5:
He didn't ask her to pray with him. He simply told her he would no longer apologize for what he believed.


Yeah. He will "no longer apologize" for what he's believed for all of a score of days now. Quite the martyr there. Really, Rayford here is just channeling the authors' idiotic perception of evangelicals as a persecuted minority. I think that they quite honestly don't have the first f-ing clue what it would be like to really be persecuted and if they want to find out they should try asking gay men in Texas.


Page 377- Line 6-9:
"You can see, at least, how if a person truly accepts this, he must tell other people. He would be no friend if he didn't." Hattie wouldn't even give him the satisfation of a nod to concede the point. [emphasis added]


Ooooh! What a mean bitch! She won't even give Rayford the dignity of conceding a point after he systematically deceives her, condescends to her, and manipulates her into a "conversation" that is so lopsided as to be absurd. Indeed, how can she be so cruel. That said, I will actually concede the point to Rayford but, by that token, if you truly believe what he believes, where does it end? With preaching at people, or must you kill physicians who don't share your views? Because if your beliefs are enough to justify abandoning civilized behavior, what won't they justify? Anyway, Rayford continues in this vein for a half hour and then Hattie explains that she's at least heard him and, along the way, says something profound.


Page 377- Line 22-24:
"I [Hattie] will think about it. I sort of have to. Once you hear something like this, it's hard to put it out of your mind for a while. [emphasis original]


Yeah, it's just that crazy, isn't it? Regardless, Rayford tells Hattie that this is exactly what he plans to tell Buck at dinner that night. Oh, yeah, you know that all four of them are having dinner together tonight, right? Yes? No? Whatever, you know now.


Page 377- Line 27-30:
She chuckled. "Wonder if any of it will find its way into his magazine."

"Probably along with space aliens, germ gas, and death rays," Rayford said.


Aaaaaand three guesses which of those four items will seem more plausible. On an unrelated note: What the hell is "germ gas"? Does he mean a biological weapon, or are we talking about flatulent microorganisms? Well, I guess technically that might be a biological weapon too.

No matter! Whatever germ gas is, we've reached the end of the chapter and therefore a brief respite from Buck and Chloe's excruciating courtship. Come back next time when... well... we all go have dinner. It's like that first dinner you had with your girlfriend's father who didn't like you,** only somehow even more awkward. I know I'm looking forward to it!

On a more positive note, however, this brings us to the end of Chapter 20 and, therefore, we are 80% of the way through Left Behind. Yes, folks, that's right: just five chapters to go! And you can all- especially my Former Hypothetical Roommate- rest assured that I WILL finish this damned book.

Even if you ask me not to.


* I should note that my favorite cousin is an evangelical Christian who has read the entire Left Behind series. This always causes a degree of cognitive dissonance for me. Then again, she also has a novel on her shelf that describes how all academics are basically godless devil-worshippers, so maybe the feeling is mutual. Ah, well. Blood is apparently thicker than both water and the bonds of sanity.

** That sentence is just ambiguous enough that I could be referring to either your girlfriend who didn't like you, or the father who didn't like you. I don't know how you roll, but I did have the "pleasure" of dating a girl whom my friends and I agree basically hated me. Oddly, her parents were fine with me, but hated each other. So, yeah, not the best dinner I've ever attended for numerous reasons.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Not cool.

So, some of you may have heard that there was a court case recently over whether or not a giant cross placed on federal land as a monument to those killed in World War I constituted a violation of the separation between church and state. Perhaps surprisingly, the ruling asserted that the cross both is and is not a Christian symbol:

Although the cross is "a Christian symbol," said Kennedy, it was not placed on sunrise rock in the Mojave Desert to send "a Christian message." Nor was it placed there to put a government "imprimatur on a particular creed." Rather, he said, "those who erected the cross intended simply to honor our nation's fallen soldiers."

"The Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion's role in society," Kennedy said.

Kennedy highlighted that the cross in the Mojave had been there for 70 years. Time "has played its role," he said. For decades, people have gathered to pay their respects; members of the community, rather than let the cross deteriorate, have volunteered to replace it. And when Congress ultimately designated the cross as a national memorial for soldiers killed in World War I, that "gave recognition to the historical meaning the cross had attained."


Now, for the record, I actually think that there is a logic to retaining the cross in question. It has, as Kennedy noted, been there for a long time and Congress did designate the cross as a national memorial for those soldiers. Having said that, and without maligning the intentions of those who erected the cross, I wonder very much if Jewish, atheist, and other non-Christian soldiers who died in World War I would really have liked the notion of a giant Christian symbol as their commemoration.* So, basically, I don't think I'm too fond of the court's "The cross is a Christian symbol except when it isn't" type of rationale. Unfortunately, this ruling opens the way for some additional headaches in the future as groups use this ruling as an opening to shove religious symbolism down our collective throats:

Jay Sekulow of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice saw the ruling as a green light for religious symbols on public land, whether erected by the government itself or by land transfers to private entities.

"If you look at this case, coupled with the Ten Commandments case," he said, "it's becoming very clear that the public display of monuments, even religious monuments, is not a per se violation of the Constitution."


Which is kind of a confusing statement since the Supreme Court's ruling is effectively that the cross- in this context- is not a religious monument. I'll leave it to you to reflect on the protean nature of Christianity's symbology, however, because I have a different fish to fry.

As it turns out, the aforementioned controversial cross has been stolen:

A cross that has stood in the Mojave Desert for over 70 years to commemorate American lives lost in war has been stolen by vandals. Less than two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the religious symbol could remain on federal land; however, some must have thought otherwise.

National Park Service spokeswoman Linda Slater said that the 7-foot-high cross was stolen late Sunday or early Monday after the metal bolts that attached the symbol to a rock in the desert preserve were removed.


And, as you might guess, people are pretty upset about this development. Now, I don't know who stole the cross. Some folks** are suggesting it might have been some rogue group of atheist vandals. And hey, it might have been. On the other hand, it might have been some rogue group of random assholes who thought it would be funny to boost something that there's been a supreme court battle over. I simply don't know who is responsible.

However, that said, as an atheist, I do want the damned thing back, I do want it returned to its place, and I do want the thieves to be identified. I don't always like the decisions the courts make, but the rule of law is an important thing. It is not to be flouted lightly, not least because I don't believe that an invisible enforcer in the sky will sort everything out later.

So whoever the hell took it, put it back. Please.


* Although I have to concede that when in the middle of a war, thinking about the monument people will erect for you after you're dead is probably not a top priority.

** By which I mean Conservapedia who blamed us non-believers in their headline. I find this rather amusing, however, given that on the very same front page they include a photo of the colosseum with the title Christianity Defeated Paganism. So, yeah.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

And the amazing part is that they suggest this is a bad thing.

Oh dear! It looks like Bradley Byrne, Republican candidate for governor of Alabama, is in trouble for making some ill advised decisions. Was he caught on a junket with a prostitute? Was he insulting to women? Nah. He just suggested that some parts of the bible are not true and that evolution is the best explanation for the origin of life.* Good thing there are other Republicans to call him on it:



Yeah! Stupid candidate Byrne! We want the state to be led by a man who is entirely ignorant of science!

Heh. Some of the bible "is not true". Absurd!


* Actually, that is fairly embarrassing since evolution is by no means a theory of abiogenesis. Still, that's way too subtle a distinction to be what the conservatives are pissed at him for.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

But it does continue the long history of not including Scientologists.

So most of us know by this point that President Obama has nominated Elena Kagan as the next Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. I have no particular opinions on Kagan at this point other than to say that just because someone lacks experience in the lower courts doesn't mean that they won't make a good justice. That said, there is one other element of the nomination that I keep hearing mentioned:

She would be the third Jewish justice along with six Catholics. With Stevens' retirement, the court will have no Protestants, the most prevalent denomination in the U.S. [emphasis added]


And you know what? I just don't f-ing care. Maybe it's because I'm a member of a minority religious group, but the notion that the court won't contain any protestants,* while being somewhat weird, is far from something we should be concerned about. And if the conservatives don't like it... well... I reckon they should have given a bit more thought to Alito and Roberts, huh?

UPDATE:

Ah! Now I understand the Conservative objections. Thanks to Conservapedia I now realize that, in fact, Elena Kagan is secretely a corporation:



Or, to quote:

Barack Obama again criticizes how the Supreme Court ended restrictions on corporate campaign expenditures ... as he nominated Elena Kagan, who has contributed to his campaign.


Right. Of course. Makes perfect sense.


* As a side note: I really don't think you can refer to Protestantism as a single denomination, as the article does. It's a whole array of denominations. But then, if you look at it that way. Roman Catholicism is probably the biggest single U.S. denomination and then we don't have story.

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