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, November 30, 2007

Total Drek is currently experiencing technical difficulties...

For those who are curious, I am not dead, but I am having a rather difficult time of things. Here's a brief update that will suffice as a sort of half-assed post:

(1) My home computer remains only partly functional. My repairs are stable, but it's definitely a hardware problem. I might have time to work on it this weekend, but I'm not holding my breath.

(2) Bureaucracy is a wonderful thing. That's the theory, anyway. Sometimes, however, it appears to exist for the sole purpose of making life more difficult. Or, perhaps more likely, making my life more difficult as it certainly isn't making life more difficult for the bureaucrats themselves.

(3) I am beginning to loathe the folks at my broadband provider. My home internet connection is running so slowly that I long for dial-up. Their suggestion that I not use a router is, of course, rather untenable. Were it not for the fact that I have much more pressing matters to attend to, I would likely be investing the considerable amount of time needed to reach a competent tech support person.

(4) I have a lot of respect for service workers. I spent a lot of time as a service worker and I know how annoying customers can be. As such, I work quite hard to remain patient and friendly with all service workers I encounter because most things really aren't their fault. That said, my patience is sorely tried when aforementioned service workers send me on an exhausting wild goose chase because they're too lazy to confirm their own information.

(5) While I, similarly, have a lot of patience with my students, it's useful to keep in mind that as an instructor I am not paid enough to bend over all the way backwards whenever you feel like it. Especially not if you habitually read the campus fish rag in my class.

(6) Thankfully, there are some really cool people in this world whom I am pleased to get to spend time with amidst this crap.

Hi. Blogging to hopefully resume next week.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

I'm just asking...

There won't be much of a post today given that I have a rather important commitment that I just can't put off,* but... is it just me, or are the blog posts showing up waaaay lower on the page than normal?

I mean, anybody have an idea what the hell that is all about? Did I make blogger angry or something?

And for anyone who is curious: I'm pretty sure the glitch with my home computer is a bad memory board. Damnit, solid state components are not supposed to fail after the first 100 hours or so. I am terribly vexed.

Stay tuned. Hopefully more tomorrow.

* Personal stuff. Nothing I want to discuss in public, you know?

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

There's muck-raking, and then there's muck-bulldozing.

It may not surprise anyone that during a recent perusal of Conservapedia, I happened to run across this tidbit of "breaking news:"

For those who can't read the tiny type, or don't want to click the image to enlarge, it reads:

Think atheistic, elite professors should have more power? A tenured Ivy League professor just admitted that he killed his wife, and then falsely made it look like a burglary. The article did not disclose his religious views, but did say he will receive a light prison sentence "of no more than seven years" for his crime.

A few points:

(1) The story in question states that Dr. Rafael Robb of the University of Pennsylvania is believed to have killed his wife. He claims that he did so during an argument about their child's education. Additionally, the marriage of 16 years was apparently in the process of breaking up. This isn't to excuse anything, but the background is useful. It isn't like he hired a hitman or anything.

(2) Dr. Robb, having killed his wife, did try to make it look like a burglary, but apparently did a poor job. This implies that, no, the murder itself was not premeditated.

(3) While a 7-year sentence does, indeed, seem quite short, it's worth noting that the prosecutors decided to go for manslaughter since the evidence was highly circumstantial and getting a murder conviction would be improbable. Most likely they negotiated a plea agreement where Robb would confess to the manslaughter in exchange for avoiding a murder trial. In other words, this isn't favoritism so much as taking the best bet available.

(4) The article does not, in fact, say anything about Robb's religion. At the very least, a cursory web search reveals that Ellen Robb, the victim, was probably a Methodist. Does this mean that Rafael Robb was a Methodist as well? Not necessarily but it's quite possible. He did deliver the eulogy at her funeral in the Radnor United Methodist Church. More importantly, however, why does it matter? Are atheists the only people who commit crimes of passion? No. Do atheists commit the most crimes of passion in absolute terms? Impossible, given how few exist in the population at large. Do atheists commit a disproportionate number of crimes of passion? I'm going to guess... no.

(5) Dr. Robb was a... wait for it... economist. Nothing against economists, some of my best friends are economists, but as a general rule aren't most economists... conservative? Couldn't we re-write the headline as "Think conservative, elite professors should have more power?"

(6) Could Conservapedia possibly make itself look any more ridiculous?

Wait, don't answer that.

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Monday, November 26, 2007

An open letter to an anonymous author...

Dear Sir or Madam,

In all likelihood you don't know me, but I am presently one of the anonymous reviewers for your recent journal submission. How are you? I am fine. Well, really, I am exceedingly busy, which is the primary reason for my note to you today. I am writing, you see, to apologize. Today is the deadline set by the journal of our mutual acquaintence for my review of your work. As you might have guessed, this is not a deadline that I will be hitting. I am rather strongly vexed at this, as I have never before failed to return a review within a four-week span, but there is nothing else for it. Deadlines more pressing than this one have been intervening consistently over the past several weeks and, as a result, I have been unable to spare the time to write down my thoughts on your work. Additionally, my home computer has spontaneously developed a memory-related problem that may not be repairable without the investment of significant time and money.* Having waited with baited breath for reviews myself, I do feel great sorrow at prolonging your own ordeal.

So long as we are on the subject, however, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that in writing your paper you did not make matters easy on me. I am, in truth, uncertain exactly what decision to recommend for your work. On the one hand, I find your theoretical argument interesting and reasonable. Additionally, you synthesize existing literature in a way that makes intuitive as well as theoretical sense. Your larger-level substantive commitment is, likewise, intriguing and worthy of further discussion. On the other hand, in your zeal you perhaps overstate your claims and potentially gloss over areas in the literature that warrant scrutiny. Of more concern to me, however, are certain of your methodological choices. You employ sophisticated forms of quantitative analysis and do so at an appropriate time but, in the process, make a mistake that betrays a certain lack of comprehension. Not comprehension of the method, necessarily, but rather in how the method interacts with theory to produce a valid and reasonable hypothesis test. You notice this issue yourself, sort of, in that it prevents your findings from being quite as robust as they would be otherwise but your strategy for dealing with the problem is to go chasing off after questionable arguments dealing with repeated measures. There are much, MUCH simpler** solutions and, as a result of all this, I am left worrying that you don't have the slightest damned idea what the hell you're doing.

I'm sure that I will reach a decision soon and, shortly thereafter, will send a review to the journal editor. I hope that this review is favorable, if only because it will make you happy, but I can't guarantee that. At the very least, this paper needs additional work before it can see publication. In the meantime, while I am preparing my thoughts, I suggest you press forward on your other papers.

Again, I am sorry for the delay, and hope not to extend your torment any longer than necessary.


Drek the Uninteresting

* Specifically, I may have to replace one or more RAM chips which, given the state of my PC tower, might require that I dismantle most of two drive bays.

** Not to be insulting but, seriously, we're talking solutions that could occur to an astute undergrad who paid attention in stats class.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Repent, sinners! Darwin is at hand!

Regular readers may remember a while back when I wrote a post dealing with my appreciation for evolutionary theory. To a trained evolutionary biologist, I'm sure my arguments seemed weak at best but, in comparison to the usual "evolution is for loosors!11!" crap I see coming out of the creationism camp, I thought it was pretty decent. Granted, that's a little like saying that in comparison to eating garbage, spam is pretty awesome, but I digress.

As you might expect, this post has earned me a few pretty interesting responses from the old internets. The most interesting consisted largely of someone telling me that I'm going to hell, and formed the core of a series of posts. This was, largely, what I expected to happen. So, it's nice to get a response that is more or less the opposite extreme.

Folks, my post about evolution recently got a comment arguing that "Anyone who doesn't believe in evolution is going to hell." My read on it is that it stems from a disctinctly Catholic theology but it is, nonetheless, an interesting take on the subject. So that we may all share in this distinctly unexpected turn of events, I reproduce the comment in question here.


Everyone who does not accept Evolution as valid science will be condemned to heck for all eternity. (I use condemned to heck instead of another phrase to avoid language filters.)

I am deeply concerned with the growth of anti-evolutionism in the US today. It may be exaggerated because of the elections as candidates say things to cater to their 'base' but it is absolutely terrifying. The dangers of denying that evolution is science cannot be exaggerated. The people who deny it, like those who crucified Jesus, 'know not what they do'.

1) Let us look at the reasons why people deny that evolution is science.

The first and most common reason is that people are insulted to be told that they are related to monkeys. This shows up constantly in the literature of the anti-evolutionists. As in the title of the 'Scopes Monkey Trial'

When someone is insulted, their pride has been offended. Pride is one of the seven deadly sins.

"Listed in the same order used by both Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th Century AD, and later by Dante Alighieri in his epic poem The Divine Comedy, the seven deadly sins are as follows: Luxuria (extravagance, later lust), Gula (gluttony), Avaritia (greed), Acedia (sloth), Ira (wrath, more commonly known as anger), Invidia (envy), and Superbia (pride). Each of the seven deadly sins has an opposite among the corresponding seven holy virtues (sometimes also referred to as the contrary virtues). In parallel order to the sins they oppose, the seven holy virtues are chastity, abstinence, temperance, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility."

"[edit] Proverbs 6:16 – 19
In Proverbs 6:16 – 19, it is stated that "(16) These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him:" (quotes from "King James Version (KJV)" translation of the Bible). These are:

(17) A proud look,
a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
(18) A heart that deviseth wicked imaginations,
feet that be swift in running to mischief,
(19) A false witness that speaketh lies,
and he that soweth discord among brethren."

"While there are seven of them, these sins are significantly different in outward appearance from the seven deadly sins list that arose later. The only sin which is clearly on both lists is Pride."

The only one of the seven mortal sins in the regular list found in proverbs is pride. The act of rejecting a scientific theory because of pride is a mortal sin, and all who are guilty of it will be condemned to heck for all eternity unless they repent in perfect contrition for their sins. You must be humble when you stand before the throne of God, and science, by examining the works of God in creating the universe is analyzing and describing the throne of God, Creation itself. To attack a scientific theory because it offends your pride is a mortal sin. Everyone who denies that evolution is science is in serious risk of eternal condemnation.

Now, a science completely independent of the theory of evolution has proven that we are related to Monkeys. Genetics and the typing of different genotypes has shown that we are indeed related to all other life on earth. Monkeys are our blood relatives, and that would remain a scientific fact if the 'theory of evolution' were proven false tomorrow.

So denying that we are related to monkeys because it offends your pride is a mortal sin, and the fact that we are related to monkeys has been proven to be a solid scientific fact by genetics independent of Evolution.

2) Evolution contradicts some peoples interpretation of the Bible.

Again this is the sin of pride. Priests and Ministers and religious authority are not immune to pride. They base their power and authority in the world on their skill and ability in interpreting their religious texts. When something contradicts their interpretation their pride is offended and they react on the basis of their vanity.

To deny that evolution is science because it offends your vanity by contradicting your interpretation of the Bible is a mortal sin, and unless you repent of it with perfect contrition you will suffer eternal condemnation.

There is no necessary conflict between evolution and the Bible.

" 24 And God said, "Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind." And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.

26 Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, [b] and over all the creatures that move along the ground."

27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them."

Here in Genesis in the first story of Creation, God created animals first and Man last.

"4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
When the LORD God made the earth and the heavens- 5 and no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth [b] and no plant of the field had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth [c] and there was no man to work the ground, 6 but streams [d] came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground- the LORD God formed the man The Hebrew for man (adam) sounds like and may be related to the Hebrew for ground (adamah) it is also the name Adam (see Gen. 2:20). from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being."

Here in Genesis in the second story of creation God creates Man first and then populates the world with other creatures. It is impossible for them both to be 'literal truth'. These two stories in the first few pages of the bible tell completely opposite stories of creation with regards to man. In one, Man is glorified as the last crowning creation of God. In the other Man is glorified as the first and most important of God's living creations.

It is impossible that these stories could be literally true. Evolution presents no more obstacle to Christian faith than the Bible itself does. There is no more of an automatic conflict between the Bible and Evolution than there is between the Bible and the Bible itself.

In the face of facts like these, when a Priest of Minister condemns Evolution because it conflicts with 'the literal truth' of the Bible, it is apparent that this is pride and vanity run amok.

Such men commit the sin of pride and then in their pride and vanity they mislead their followers into their own sin. Such sins will not be forgiven.

Again, these men will suffer eternal condemnation because of their pride and conceit.

3) In the cleverness of their pride and vanity, such leaders have decided that 'intelligent design' is science. On the contrary, the belief that 'intelligent design' is science is a trap laid by the devil to seduce men into sin.

Men are naturally given to vanity and pride. They define themselves as 'intelligent', Homo Sapiens they call themselves. Then when they talk about 'Intelligent Design' they define God as "Intelligent". So they say that they are the same as God. "Lo", they say, "We are like unto God, the Creator of the Universe. He may have more power than we possess, but our minds, our intelligence is the equal of his."

Is there a more clear example of sinful arrogance and pride than this? Is it possible to imagine a more terrible, mortal sin?

Indeed, this sin then leads them into terrible error. They say that since their minds are the equal of God's they do not need science to learn how God actually created the universe, they can sit in their drawing rooms and decide how he created the universe without reference to the facts.

There is a rather sad story about Einstein and Neils Bohr which illustrates this. Quantum mechanics offended Einstein's sense of an orderly universe.

He famously said, "God does not play dice with the Universe".

Neils Bohr another great physicist of the time replied, "You should not tell God what he can do with his dice."

This is the essential fallacy of intelligent design. It allows sinful man in his pride and arrogance to imagine that he is God, or the equal of God, and then to dictate to God how God should have created the Universe.

You must be Humble, when you stand before the Throne of God, even if you are Einstein, and Creation is the Throne of God, and Science is the study of Creation. You must, therefore, show humility as a Scientist, but a humility towards experimental facts and inductive reasoning to help discover empirical truth, not a humility before 'religious authorities'.

Intelligent design is a seductive trap created by Satan to seduce men into the sin of pride. Everyone who denies that Evolution is in serious danger of eternal condemnation.

4) Evolution is only a theory. This statement is widely made by the Evolutionists. It shows a profound ignorance of what Science is. Karl Popper a famous philosopher of science maintained "This problem arises from his position that the truth content of our theories, even the best of them, cannot be verified by scientific testing, but can only be falsified."

Popper is subtle, and a bit extreme. His standard of experimental falsification could be used to deny that astronomy, geology, and meteorology are not sciences because they cannot be tested in a laboratory but are only based on observations. People argueing on the basis of Popper's philosophy can get a bit silly. Still his point about all science being theories that can never be proven is essential to the understanding of science.

Every part of science is 'only a theory'. Gravity is 'only a theory', momentum is 'only a theory'. Yet, these theories serve us well. Frequently they are falsified by new evidence, but they remain true and reliable in the context in which they were originally formulated. Saying that Evolution is 'only a theory' says nothing at all. It only shows a vast ignorance of science and the philosophy of science.

When ignorant people try to dictate to scientists what is and is not science, they again commit the sin of pride. Again, people who do not accept Evolution as science are in danger of eternal condemnation.

5) Judge a tree by its Fruit. I did some searches for this, it is a well known quote from Jesus, but it did not come up on the Bible search engines I used. Searching the entire web showed that it is a quote from Euripides as well as from Jesus.

I did find the exact phrase that way.

Matthew 7:16-20, “You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”

This is essentially the scientific method. Theories are judged by their fruits. Their fruits are twofold. A good theory allows you to successfully predict outcomes. That, in turn, allows you to act successfully in applied science to make the world a safer, better place.

This being true, if Evolution is good science it should be bearing good fruit. So how is evolution helping us to make the world a better, safer place?

Let us look at medicine. It is fairly common today on the news to see news about new diseases which have evolved resistance to our traditional anti-biotics. If we did not know about evolution, we could not understand and successfully oppose these new diseases. Evolution tells us how this happens and allows us to counter it. It tells us that by carefully controlling the use of anti-biotics we can prevent their use in circumstances which would allow bacteria to evolve resistance to them. This helps us keep drugs effective in fighting disease longer. It also tells us that we need to develop new drugs to counter the effects of evolution. The 'Theory' of evolution is actively saving the lives of our fellow human beings every day.

I do not know of a single life which has been saved by creationism or intelligent design. On the contrary, creationism and intelligent design will kill people.

A doctor who is a Creationist knows that evolution is false, therefore, disease cannot evolve resistance to penicillin. In treating his patients he will continue to use penicillin instead of the new drugs, and his patients will die. Then, on judgement day, standing before the Jesus, the King of Kings, the people he killed will accuse him of their deaths. What will his defense be? Will he plead that his pride was offended because evolution said he was related to monkeys? Will that justify murder on the day of final judgement. Will he say that his minister taught him that evolution was false and he trusted his minister more than he trusted scientists?

Failure to accept evolution as science places people in severe danger of eternal condemnation.

The above example will not happen often today. The anti-evolutionists today accept that bacteria evolve, or they find some other way to accept medical truths. Still, if we had stopped teaching evolution as science in 1925, then it would be happening today. Thousands, possibly millions of people would be dying of disease because we did not accept evolution as science.

I do not know what horrors await humanity in the future because of creationism and intelligent design. I only know that judging by their fruits, if they are taught as science, it will lead to the deaths of millions, and the waste of billions of dollars in scientific research based on theories which are not science.

When you murder millions of people because your pride is offended by evolution, you are committing a mortal sin. Everyone who fails to accept evolution as science is in serious danger of eternal condemnation.

A few more demonstrations of the good fruits which evolution is producing in the world today.

"Creationists occasionally charge that evolution is useless as a scientific theory because it produces no practical benefits and has no relevance to daily life. However, the evidence of biology alone shows that this claim is untrue. There are numerous natural phenomena for which evolution gives us a sound theoretical underpinning. To name just one, the observed development of resistance - to insecticides in crop pests, to antibiotics in bacteria, to chemotherapy in cancer cells, and to anti-retroviral drugs in viruses such as HIV - is a straightforward consequence of the laws of mutation and selection, and understanding these principles has helped us to craft strategies for dealing with these harmful organisms. The evolutionary postulate of common descent has aided the development of new medical drugs and techniques by giving researchers a good idea of which organisms they should experiment on to obtain results that are most likely to be relevant to humans."

If we judge trees by their fruits as Jesus commanded, we must accept Evolution as science, and reject Creationism and Intelligent Design.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

On the shore of an anthropic sea.

In the world of science fiction there exists the theme of the hell world. This is a planet whose physical or biological (or both) environment is so difficult and challenging to survive in that the species that evolve there are orders of magnitude more capable than species that evolve on other worlds. Obviously, were these hell species to encounter life from other, less unpleasant, planets the results would be spectacular. Indeed, the non-hell life would find itself out-competed at virtually every turn and, thus, this theme lends itself well to horror stories. A particularly popular version of this idea is the xenomorph from the "Alien" film series, but there are others.

In an interesting take on the hell world idea, Alan Dean Foster wrote a trilogy known as The Damned, in which Earth is the hell world and humans are the universe's ultimate killers. In the context of the story most sentient species come from worlds with less of an axial tilt, only a single continent, few if any hurricanes or tornadoes and less active geology. As humans come from a world with much more extreme versions of these features we have evolved under much more challenging circumstances. As a consequence we have been formed into a species that is willing and able to kill if provoked- and sometimes even when not provoked. Seem unlikely to you? Well, in a way, that's the point. The thing is, if Earth is the hell world and we are the ruthless and deadly predator that it has produced, how would we ever know? We have no other habitable planets for comparison, no other sentient species have dropped by for dinner,* we have only our observations of our own world. And, given that we evolved here over millions of years, we ought to be pretty well-suited to it. When you evolve in hell, hell probably doesn't seem quite so hot or uncomfortable. And, ironically enough, even if we do live on the hell world, we would probably remain amazed at how pleasant a place our world is because it is, after all, a very nice place for us.

I bring all this up because I think it bears on the issue of fine tuning in the universe. For those who are unfamiliar, it is the idea that the nature of the universe is just perfectly such that life like ourselves can exist. The argument is made in such books as The Privileged Planet, to the effect that the fact that the universe, and our world, are so well-suited to us means that they cannot have occurred by chance. In other words: god has essentially manufactured a universe perfectly structured for us. To this idea I just have to say: bullshit.

The problem is that, yes, the universe's physical laws do permit our existence, but they are a long way from producing a truly idyllic environment. Ignoring for a moment the ways in which our own world is dangerous (e.g. viral and bacterial evolution, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, environmental shifts, ice ages) and all the ways that our solar system is dangerous (e.g. stellar evolution, super-flares, asteroid and cometary impacts) the universe itself is rich with natural events that could not only kill humanity but obliterate all life on Earth. Things like gamma ray bursts, active galaxies, supernovas, hypernovas, wandering black holes or other massive objects, and so on. The universe is, in short, awash with unimaginably energetic events that are capable of scowering all life from entire regions of galaxies- or entire galaxies themselves. Life is, in a sense, clinging tenaciously to a tiny crevice in the vast structure of the universe- a place where it has found a measure of safety and protection. We live in a universe characterized by roiling, churning, energies of a scale so vast that a tiny fraction of their might could snuff us out in an instant. And strangely enough, even if a vast wavefront of gamma radiation is on its way, those same laws of physics mean that we have no way of detecting it before it arrives. But, all the same, it is our universe. It is the universe into which we have emerged, within which we have lived, and at which we stare with wonder.

And if we look at it and wonder how it is that it is so perfectly suited for our existence... well... we can perhaps be forgiven for a bit of wishful thinking.

* Though within the context of our thought-experiment, that might be because they fear that we would have them for dinner... if you get what I'm saying.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

A new look at things.

Longtime fans of this blog are well aware of my fascination with zombies. It isn't that I love the living dead or anything, it's just that they present a fascinating tactical and strategic dilemma. How do you combat an enemy that is almost immune to damage and can easily convert your soldiers into its own? If you answered "atomic weaponry" you're almost correct- I favor fuel-air explosives myself*- but despite the NRA's best efforts, most homes do not have their own thermonuclear arsenal. Drat.

What I usually don't imagine, however, is what the whole human-zombie rivalry must seem like from the zombie's side of things. Fortunately, Jonathon Coulton has saved me the trouble, with his fantastic song that helps us really get inside the zombie's head. There's even a fantastic music video version:


* Almost all of the boom with none of the nasty radiation. Fuel-air explosives: when it absolutely, positively, has to be obliterated today.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

From the Total Drek news desk...

All the news that's at least a day old and probably irrelevant anyway!

Chennai, India- Hoping to lift a 15 year old curse, farmer Selvakumar married a bitch this past Wednesday. The curse, a paralysis of Selvakumar's powers of speech and movement, reportedly began after the farmer stoned two dogs to death while they were mating in his rice fields. Some American commentators have referred to this as, "the ultimate cock-block." Under stern instructions from his astrologer, Selvakumar married a dog, Selvi, in order to demonstrate his deep remorse for his actions. The ceremony was a traditional Hindu affair and saw the bride appearing in an attractive sari.

The family of the bride could not be reached for comment, but animal afficionados who declined to be named reportedly observed, "If I were Selvi, I don't think I'd want to be married to some guy that stoned two of my fellow dogs to death. It's like marrying a convicted child abuser to a ten year old!" NAMBLA could not be reached for comment.

Conservative sources, who also declined to be named, remarked, "This is why we've been supporting the Defense of Marriage Act! It just starts with the gay agenda! The way that liberal bias works, it won't stop until people are marrying animals and animals are driving cars... like in Huckleberry Hound, but not as cute! This is all the fault of the Atheists. If people in India believed in God, this never would have happened." Nobody from the vast homosexual conspiracy could be located for comment as no vast homosexual conspiracy appears to exist. One of the approximately one billion Hindus on Earth was available for comment and suggested, "Our religion has been around for more than two millenia longer than yours. We've got more belief in Gods than you can shake a stick at!"

Internet pundit and all-around asshole, Drek the Uninteresting, responded to the story by posting a lame fake news report, and observing that he doesn't care in the least who Selvakumar marries. "As long as he treats her well and they're both consenting adults," Drek observed, "It's fine by me."

All sources mentioned in this article are entirely fictional. That includes me. I have no particular disrespect for Hindus- seriously, reincarnation is awesome- so please don't e-mail me about being intolerant.

As a side note: Conservapedia links not provided to actually inform anyone.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

That aromatic analogy.

I could write a blog post today, crafting a piece of rhetoric that is sure to delight and entrance all of my readers who are amused by circles drawn on sheets of paper, and otherwise prove dull and insipid to those with slightly more wits. I could do that, but I think that I won't. This is not because I am lazy- or perhaps not purely because I am lazy- but rather because I want to urge you to go elsewhere and read someone else's work.

Some of you may be familiar with John Scalzi, a science fiction writer and internet guru. What you may not know, however, is that Scalzi recently attended the infamous Creation Museum at the behest of readers and fans. You recall the creation museum, right? The multi-million dollar effort to convince visitors that the available evidence is, like, totally consistent with a literal interpretation of the bible and a 6,000 year old earth? Yeah, that. Well, Scalzi takes a visit and not only manages to live to tell the tale, he tells it very well:

Here’s how to understand the Creation Museum:

Imagine, if you will, a load of horseshit. And we’re not talking just your average load of horseshit; no, we’re talking colossal load of horsehit. An epic load of horseshit. The kind of load of horseshit that has accreted over decades and has developed its own sort of ecosystem, from the flyblown chunks at the perimeter, down into the heated and decomposing center, generating explosive levels of methane as bacteria feast merrily on vintage, liquified crap. This is a Herculean load of horseshit, friends, the likes of which has not been seen since the days of Augeas.

And you look at it and you say, “Wow, what a load of horseshit.”

But then there’s this guy. And this guy loves this load of horseshit. Why? Well, really, who knows? What possesses someone to love a load of horseshit? It’s beyond your understanding and possibly you don’t actually want to know, even if you could know; maybe it’s one of those “on that path lies madness” things. But love it he does, and he’s not the only one; the admiration for this particular load of horseshit exists, unaccountably, far and wide. There are advocates for this load of horseshit.

And so this guy who loves this load of horseshit decides that he’s going to do something; he’s going to give it a home. And not just any home, because as this is no ordinary load of horseshit, so must its home be no ordinary repository for horseshit. And so the fellow builds a temple for his load of horseshit. The finest architects scope this temple’s dimensions; the most excellent builders hoist columns around the load of horseshit and cap them with a cunning and elegant dome; and every surface of the temple is clad in fine-grained Italian marble by the most competent masons in a three-state radius. The load of horseshit is surrounded by comfortable seats, the better for people to gaze upon it; docents are hired to expertly describe its history and features; multimedia events are designed to explain its superior nature, relative not only to other loads of horseshit which may compete in loadosity or horseshittery, but to other, completely unrelated things which may or may not be loads of anything, much less loads of horseshit.

The guy who built the temple, satisfied that it truly represents his beloved load of horseshit in the best possible light, then opens the temple to the public, to attract not only the already-established horseshit enthusiasts, but possibly to entice new people to come and gaze on the horseshit, and to, well, who knows, admire its moundyness, or the way it piles just so, to nod in appreciation of the rationalizations for its excellence or to clap in delight and take pictures when an escaping swell of methane causes the load of horseshit to sigh a moist and pungent sigh.

When all of this is done, the fellow turns to you and asks you what you think of it all now, now that this gorgeous edifice has been raised in glory and the masses cluster in celebration.

And you say, “Well, that’s all very nice. But it’s still just an enormous load of horseshit.”

And this is, in sum, the Creation Museum. $27 million has purchased the very best monument to an enormous load of horseshit that you could possibly ever hope to see. I enjoyed my visit, admired the craft with which the whole thing was put together, and was never once convinced that what I was seeing celebrated was anything more or less than horseshit. Popular horseshit? Undoubtedly. Horseshit hallowed by tradition and consecrated by time? Just so. Horseshit of the finest possible quality? I would not argue the point. And yet, even so: Horseshit. Complete horseshit. Utter horseshit. Total horseshit. Horseshit, horseshit, horseshit, horseshit. I pity the people who swallow it whole.

It's a lengthy treatment of a very interesting subject and, despite the rather crass introduction, is very thoughtful and even sympathetic. It's worth a read and deserving of your time. And, if that's too difficult for you, there's always his gallery of photos taken on the same trip. This picture, and its associated commentary, is one of my very favorites.


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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Social Construction Who?

I'm not much of a t.v. fan and, as it happens, neither is my wife. Oh, we have shows that we enjoy but there aren't that many that we attempt to watch with any great regularity. For me, the only show I'm really committed to at the moment is Pushing Daisies, a rather bizarre little program that is something like a cross between Bewitched and a Joseph Heller novel. My wife, on the other hand, has recently been getting into the program Samantha Who?, starring Christina Applegate. This is, as a side note, why I doubt I will ever be able to get into watching this show: my memories of Kelly Bundy are just too strong. In any case, the show is predicated on the notion that the protaganist has retrograde amnesia, so she cannot remember anything about her past. That said, she retains her powers of speech, movement, and general skills so the amnesia is more or less limited to her episodic memory. This is the most common way that amnesia is depicted,* though in some ways the most uncommon. Head trauma that only interferes with the recall of episodic memory is a little like dropping a harddrive and losing only the .doc files. A crude and horribly inaccurate analogy, but sufficient to make the point. I do, however, digress.

Because of the retrograde amnesia the protaganist, Samantha, is depicted as a nearly-perfect tabula rasa- she has no particular personality, no desires, no idea what her life goal was. It is as though she is becoming a person once more from scratch. During last night's episode Samantha learned that she had previously suffered from "father issues" and that she was the subject of a restraining order for stalking a previous boyfriend. Of course, having lost her memory, she is neither interested in stalking her victim and no longer suffers from father issues.*** As such, she sets out to both locate and reassure her previous prey that she is no longer obsessed with him and to develop a healthy relationship with her father. Unfortunately, and humorously, she has to resort to theft of paperwork and considerable persistence to locate her stalk-ee and has a great deal of difficulty connecting with her father. In both cases this is becuase these other individuals continue to respond to Samantha as though she were the same person she had been, rather than a new individual. Their behavior towards Samantha, quite unintentionally, ends up guiding her into repeating her previous behaviors.

Why am I discussing this? Well, simply because it seems like a great way to teach social construction. In sociology we often teach that the way individuals interact can help to define the nature of a situation. So, we collectively determine what a situation is (e.g. gathering of friends vs. business meeting) as well as what behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate. This sort of process occurs naturally each time we enter a situation but over time these definitions take on a more firm quality. Once a situation has been seen enough times, once a person has been encountered often enough, we do not need to construct their meanings fresh each time. Instead, we simply dust off our previous understandings and use them again. This is helpful to us as people because it reduces the burden on us but, at the same time, it can then be experienced as constraint. One does not wear scarlet to a funeral because it "isn't done," the situation has been thoroughly constructed and now acts on us as a set of external constraints. And interestingly enough, this is exactly what is happening to Samantha. While she, herself, is different, she is embedded in a set of relationships that come with a set of definitions and understandings. Other people continue to make use of those and, as a result, treat her in a way consistent with them. In a sense, the situation is constructed such that in order to participate in it she must adopt the very behaviors that her previous self exhibited.

Of course, this doesn't actually happen in the show. Samantha eventually leaves her stalk-ee alone and breaks through to a better relationship with her father. These are the staples of sitcoms, after all. In reality, however, there is often no choice but to conform. One cannot simply start haggling with Seven-Eleven employees over the price of a pack of gum no matter how much one wants to. This simple practice has been agreed upon as inappropriate for so long that it is beyond the power of any one individual, or even a small group of individuals, to change it.

And thus is the irony of social construction and, indeed, sociology in general: often the most powerful constraints on our behavior are those that we impose on ourselves.

* With the quasi-anterograde amnesia from the movie Memento as a notable exception.**

** I say "quasi" because if he truly had anterograde amnesia he would not, himself, be aware of it. Seriously.

*** At least within the context of the show. In reality, certain behaviors related to that are likely to be persistent even if there is no recall of the events that produced them.

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Friday, November 09, 2007

Doing It To The Kids

So Drek posted something thoughtful over at my place, and here I am writing about toys. Well, hi, I'm Tom, and I'm a LEGO maniac. Having two small kids, a grown-up income, and an understanding spouse has been very good for my habit, though nothing quite lives up to those glorious days when e-tailers routinely sold stuff without regard to the need to earn profits, or at least contributions to fixed costs.

As with any dorky/nerdy/geeky hobby, there are active fan communities including some which specialize in trolling the intertubes for new set information and leaking same. Looking over the 2008 Duplo lineup in some spy shots, I saw this image and thought, "Duplo dinosaurs? Why, my 3-year-old will love Duplo dinosaurs!" Then I saw this one, and thought, "Dinos and cavepeople? WTF, TLG?! Why are you being part of the problem?"

Granted, the answers to the above questions may be, "Chill out, they're just preschool toys." An I says, "Buddy, this is a blog. Without trivialities to complain about, we might have to do real work!"

This would not be the first LEGO dinosaurs-meet-people controversy, borne of the LEGO Group's efforts to try to maintain mind-space with their core pre-teen boy audience against video games and Chinese-made knockoff brands with fewer qualms about military or otherwise violent sets. A couple years ago, a play theme called Dino Attack, or the Theme With No Protectable Relationship to Jurassic Park Under IP Laws [*], featured mutant lizards [**] battling a human force with sci-fi-ish but undeniably militarized vehicles. The original plan was that Dino Attack would be a North America-only theme, whereas a dragons-vs-longboats Vikings theme was geared towards EU kids. The adult fans' reaction was not snark-free:
Dinosaurs co-existing with humans for the creationist New World versus mythical beasts for the barely Christianised barbarians of the Old World?

Forward looking, modern technology for the freewheeling United States, versus backward looking swords and wooden boats for the hidebound EU?

Discuss - 1000 words.
Eventually, the Vikings discovered America and the EU got de-fanged versions of the Dino Attack sets. Since then, a series of Batman sets has included realistic firearms (though packaged in a separate tiny bag, maybe so they can be deleted for Scandinavian sensibilities?) and otherwise, as Alan Schussman observed a while back, were not afraid to keep the Dark in the Dark Knight (which sparked a massive debate among the Legorati). The crazy backstory to the current Mars Mission sets — human crews mining energy crystals on Mars discover that the little green natives aren't feeling generous and are ready to use force — has enough Iraq war subtext that the alien figures had to be made really lame to preserve some sense that the orange-and-white human vehicles belong to the good guys. Then there are the forthcoming Indiana Jones sets.

This is just to say that it's a fun time to select toys for kids. In our house, for better or worse, the Joker is some guy with a bright-colored suit and funny face, and the Death Star is a big gray spaceship. We'll see how long that lasts...

[*] The LEGO Group had previously issued licensed Jurassic Park sets.

[**] Adult fans don't care for the action figure dinosaurs, but my kids love 'em.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Have No Fear: I is here!

Rather than post my meaningless drivel on my own blog, I have chosen to post it over on Tom's Blog. What am I writing about today? Well, opinion change, the Big Lie, and Intelligent Design. It's an interesting pastiche of sociological research, educated speculation, and half-assed notions that should leave you breathless. Whether that's breathless with admiration, laughter, or scorn, however, I leave to you to decide.

Check it out!

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Just so we're all on the same page.

Regular fans of this blog have probably noticed a shift in my blogging style of late. Traditionally I am given to relatively long rambling posts that eventually meander to some sort of a point. Alternatively, I sometimes indulge in entirely pointless writing exercises that are at least liberally endowed with what passes for humor around here. Needless to say this mostly consists of sarcasm, the ubiquitous ass jokes, and sarcasm about ass jokes. It is, in short, amazing that anyone bothers to read this blog.

Lately, however, things have changed somewhat. I have been missing my regular Monday through Friday posting schedule and the length of my posts has been decreasing. There has been what you might call a precipitous decline in the length of my daily musings that has gone largely unremarked upon. Some might think that this is because you all suspect the true explanation but, personally, I prefer to think that it's because nobody cares what I write anyway. Regardless, the simple truth is that I have been unreasonably busy of late. As you might have noticed, I recently got married to the woman who was previously known as my Sainted Fiancee, but who is now simply referred to as my wife. Perhaps at some point in the future I will happen upon a charmingly bizarre nickname for her that lends itself to acronym, but that moment is in the future.

Beyond simply getting married, however, I find that I am presently grappling with a large number of relatively time-sensitive projects. I have journal articles that need revising, figures that need producing, classes that need teaching, papers that need grading, and other assorted academic tasks that are keeping me rather fully occupied. Like many other people, when things get this busy I institute a sort of triage process where some tasks are allowed to languish on the back burner while others receive my full attention. This blog, while holding a perhaps irresponsibly high priority in my daily set of objectives, doesn't quite win out over other tasks more likely to influence my pay check and, hence, ability to eat. So, to put it simply, I haven't been writing as much because I have more important things to do.

Unfortunately, besides merely depriving you of diversion, this also means that I must leave others hanging. S.S. Stone, for one, is still enthusiastically awaiting my venture into artistic representation. I have not forgotten this, and have been trying out and discarding several concepts, but I need to be paying attention to other things. In an effort to tide her over, as well as anyone else awaiting my artistic efforts, please enjoy this earlier post where I engage in a little sociological art appreciation rather than creation.

So, really, I guess I'm just asking y'all to just hang in there for a while longer. I won't stay this busy and when I have more free time I promise the stream of trite observation and inappropriate humor will, once again, resume.


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Monday, November 05, 2007

Well... so that happened.

A regular reader of this blog recently took the liberty of e-mailing me... something. I say "something" with a certain trepidation because, to be totally frank, words are simply inadequate to describe this thing. Do you dare to experience it? I suspect you do:

The Mystery Link!

For those who absolutely require some sort of certainty in their lives, the target of the elegant and finely crafted link above is the product of the same gentleman who brought us BadgerBadgerBadger, and is thus perhaps worthy of your attention.

As for me, I have a lot of grading to do and not a lot of time in which to do it.

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Friday, November 02, 2007

A dispatch from bizarro-world

This just in thanks to the alternative reality folks at Conservapedia, the "trustworthy" encyclopedia: Fred Phelps, whom I have discussed previously, is apparently a Democratic activist:

I can only assume that they mean this ironically in much the same way as I might call Hitler a humanitarian or say that Stalin was popular with his subordinates. At least, I would assume that if I didn't know damned well that Conservapedia uses "Democratic" or "Liberal" to mean "People that we don't like."

Indeed, quite the "trustworthy" encyclopedia.

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