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.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

An invitation.

I'm traveling to the ASAs today and, as such, am not available to review and respond to your scintillating comments. Nor am I available to pen a fresh new blog post. I am available to suffer through grueling hours of airline seating, but that's hardly helpful to you.

In any case, in lieu of a blog post I thought I would simply rebroadcast the invitation from Scatterplot. If you're in Boston tonight, and have nothing better to do, then come on down and meet your favorite bloggers. And once you're done with them, see if you can find me. Or, as the lovely Tina puts it:

Yes, you are invited! Just because you read this post. Your friends are also invited, simply because you told them about this post. Further, all of you will receive an official scatterplot ribbon to wear on your ASA name badge, because you (yes, you!) are a sociology celebrity, at least in the eyes of this blog. Here are the details:

The Scatterplot Party will be on Thursday, July 31, at 7pm, at City-Bar in the Lenox Hotel. It’s walking distance from the ASA hotels, the drinks menu has offerings that range from affordable to fancy, and the setting is glamorous enough to make us feel fancy.

Competitive events will include thumb wrestling, manversation, and code debugging. Conversation topics will turn to baseball, fanny packs and Craig Calhoun (not necessarily in that order). By the end of the evening, everyone will know who olderwoman is, but no one will be able to find the Real Drek.

All the credit goes to Sara and Shamus for looking into various options and finding this fabulous location. I predict that this will be the event of the season. Don’t miss it!

As for tomorrow... well, don't hold your breath. Sometimes I manage to blog from the ASAs but, more often than not, it's a blogging blackhole from which few return unscathed.

So, hang in there. Regular blogging to resume sometime next week.


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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

It just won't die.

I don't even know what to say to introduce today's post. I am running dry on pithy, amusing, or even vaguely grammatical sayings to employ in discussing this subject. And, of course, I can mean only ONE subject: the ongoing nonsense at Conservapedia about Richard Lenski.

Many of you will recall my most recent coverage of this debacle. In short, despite getting his ass handed to him, despite the pleas of his fellow Conservapeons, Andrew Schlafly has persisted in accusing Richard Lenski of wrongdoing. Indeed, Schlafly has posted a critique of Lenski's work- although I do the term "critique" a grave injustice by employing it to refer to Schlafly's nonsensical rambling.

So what could possibly top all of this? How can Schlafly possibly make any more of an ass of himself than he already has? How do you think? By writing another letter:

Yep, you read that right: this is a letter Schlafly is evidently going to send to PNAS purporting to have identified flaws in Lenski's work. But, wait, that's not all! Schlafly doesn't just write another letter, he introduces himself in the funniest way possible:

Or, to be more clear:


Andrew Schlafly, B.S.E., J.D.

Author Affiliations:, teacher of precollege students

Oh, MY! A B.S.E. and a J.D.?! Whatever will we scientists do? We're being challenged by an unqualified semi-moron! And- this is the worst part- he teaches precollege students!*

Before you totally laugh this off, though, you should probably take a look at the other part of this letter. Specifically, the recipient list:

Or, in crude human language:

Randy Schekman, Editor-in-Chief, PNAS, University of California at Berkeley (by email and postal mail)

New Scientist (by fax - 0171 261 6464)

Rep. Brian Baird, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education of the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology (by postal mail)

Judicial Watch (by email)
[emphasis added]

Yes folks, that's right: Schlafly has decided that his humiliation isn't complete enough yet- now he needs to broaden it so as to include the United States Congress. Fortunately for us all Brian Baird is a Democrat and, with a little luck, probably has sane views on science. Nevertheless, when Schlafly decides to be a pest, he really doesn't cut any corners.

I have absolutely nothing to say here. I am simply dumbstruck by Schlafly's determination to publicize imaginary faults he has detected with the help of his psychotic beliefs. There is no derisive comment I could possibly write that would make him look like more of a jackass than he already does.

Andrew Schlafly: You have humbled me.

* I love that term "precollege students." I mean that covers quite a range, you know?

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Slips of the tongue

Over on Conservapedia, cesspool of the human imagination, I recently noticed a headline that struck me as a little... funny. Specifically this:

Or, in your primitive human language:

Another unpatriotic gaffe by Obama that no American schoolchildren would make:

"Throughout our history, America's confronted constantly evolving danger, from the oppression of an empire, to the lawlessness of the frontier, from the bomb that fell on Pearl Harbor, to the threat of nuclear annihilation. Americans have adapted to the threats posed by an ever-changing world."

What will be Obama's next gaffe about America? Referring to John Adams as the first President? [emphasis original]

Now, leaving aside the fact that in the process of critiquing Obama's choice of words Schalfly managed the truly spectacular grammatical fuckup of, "...that no American schoolchildren would..." I fail to see how there is any evidence of a lack of patriotism. What I see is evidence that the man simply neglected to pluralize a single word in the midst of a speech. So, for example, let's try replacing "bomb" with "bombs":

"Throughout our history, America's confronted constantly evolving danger, from the oppression of an empire, to the lawlessness of the frontier, from the bombs that fell on Pearl Harbor, to the threat of nuclear annihilation. Americans have adapted to the threats posed by an ever-changing world."

Now that's much better, no?

Well, if you ask Schlafly, no:

Indeed, he helpfully remarks that it can't be a singular vs. plural issue:

"As I already said, converting to the plural form does fully not resolve the gaffe, as the "the" would then be inappropriate."

So, apparently, Schlafly thinks the phrase would be better if it read "...those bombs that fell on Pearl Harbor..." If that's the way he argued in court, it's no wonder his main occupation now seems to be "internet troll."

Now, I could get snarky and point out that Schlafly's source transcript admits to being a rush job:

And I could point to other transripts that don't include the mistake, including one Schlafly should trust, but I won't. Instead, I just want to pose a single question for the Conservapeons:

Is our children learning?

Well? Is they?

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Monday, July 28, 2008

On Atheism: Part Three

As those of you with long memories may recall, I have been writing a semi-regular series in which I discuss my atheism. The purpose of this is not to have an excuse to just ramble on about myself, but rather to help educate people about what atheism really is... or at least what my atheism really is since atheists are a pretty diverse lot. The last installment of this series covered why I think it's important to talk about being an atheist and in an intermission that followed I presented a short parable about prayer. In today's installment, the final of the three I originally promised, we're going to talk about how my atheism makes me happy. As always the standard disclaimers apply: I am not trying to convert you or anyone else. I do not care if you're an atheist or not, nor if you agree with me or not. Likewise, I speak only for myself. Other atheists may have different opinions.

Now, it goes without saying that it has been some time since I wrote anything for this series. Indeed, the last quasi-installment was in March of this year so it's been over four months. Some of you may have been wondering if my long delay was because I was having a hard time finding a way that atheism makes me happy. Fortunately for me, this was not the case. Instead, I was wrestling with the difficulty of explaining in a blog format how my entire worldview is fulfilling. That is, of course, a simple task and for my next trick, I'll jump through my own ass backwards. Seriously, though, it's difficult to know how to do a coherent job without writing a book. And since I don't have the time to write a book about atheism- what with the Ph.D. program and all- I decided to do an incoherent job instead. Aren't you lucky?

So, to begin this rambling exposition I want you to consider for a moment how I view mankind and, indeed, myself. I experience myself as a thinking, self-aware being. Yet, I do not believe in a soul, nor in the supernatural. I believe that my consciousness is a result of complex electro-chemical activity occurring in my brain. I believe that my existence is not planned, I am not here because some super-entity intended me to be. Indeed, my entire species is in a sense accidental. Some find this line of thinking upsetting or demoralizing, it saps them of purpose or will. To me, ladies and gentlemen, it is beautiful.

Try to imagine with me what this means. I am sitting in my kitchen typing on a computer. Outside I can see trees blowing in the wind and hear rain pattering to the ground. These are things that would have happened whether or not I was here.* They would have been as beautiful and as wonderful whether I was here or not. Yet, I am here, if only by chance, and that chance does not in any way diminish the beauty or peace of what I witness. Indeed, if a rose by any other name smells as sweet, then life- whether planned or happenstance- remains life. Yet, life for me is different because it has no limits.

That is, of course, an exaggeration. My life is circumscribed by my culture and my material reality as surely as anyone else's is. Yet, on a larger level, that we are here without a plan also means that we are here without an end. We as a species are not destined to do or become anything any more than any individual one of us is destined to do or become anything. Instead, we as individuals and as a people have only potential. We as individuals can be gentle, caring, and giving to those around us. We can succor the injured, teach the ignorant, defend the weak and so forth. As a species we can build new wonders, learn about our world, and grow both physically and socially. Likewise, as individuals we can prey upon our fellows, ignore others and destroy. And as a species we can rape the environment, crush other species and generally draw the entire world into our own selfish maw. To me, neither of these options is foreordained. Each of us, every day, makes choices that produce these outcomes. And in so doing we are- each of us- beautiful and terrible. Yet, however our choices go, the wonder of being human is that there are always more choices to make, new challenges to meet and new discoveries to have. I type on a computer invented by human minds, I live in a home built by human hands, I bend my efforts to accumulating human knowledge. I carry the legacy of thousands of generations of mankind and I bear a responsibility to the thousands that are (I hope) yet to come. I am, as a human, part of a great tradition, a great work, that binds all of those like me together. It is a work of discovery and growth that will always be in progress, can never be finished, and as such will continually give us a goal to strive for. In the work we become what we are, and in the achieving we become beautiful.

As an atheist I believe that we have no goals except what we choose, no beauty except what we earn, no fate save what we make, and as such I am humbled by the limitless power of simply being human. There are those who argue that to be an atheist is to believe yourself to have the power of a god. In a sense this is correct as we must decide our own right and wrong and we must make decisions without the supposed invisible guidance of an all-knowing being. We must live our lives without a net. Yet, if we have the power of gods then we also have the responsibility of them. We bear the guilt for all the pain we cause as well as the joy. We have the responsibility for how we behave, what we do, and as a result what we cause to enter the world. It is a hard and terrible burden. Yet, we as humans are defined by our responsibilities. I am responsible to my co-workers, to my fellow citizens, to my family, to my wife, and someday to my children. Those responsibilities make me who I am and without them I would be nothing. Atheism gives me identity- it tells me who I am because it tells me to whom I am responsible. It grounds me in the tapestry of human life, human power, and human powerlessness.

Being an atheist makes me happy because it tells me how to live my life and how not to be afraid of death. Indeed, many theists have said that to believe in god is to no longer fear death but I do not fear death expressly because I do not believe. I was raised a Christian and, as such, death held much horror. Once I died I would either be exiled to a land of eternal torment forever to regret my life or else would undergo a neutering of the human spirit. By being "perfected" by a god I would no longer have any potential or responsibilities. There would no longer be anything to discover, no choices to make, no lessons to learn, no battles to be fought, and no victories to be had. My life would end in either physical pain or a death of what it means to be me and an end to those things that made existing worthwhile. As an atheist, in contrast, death is simply no longer existing. When I am dead I will be gone and, hence, unaware. There will be no torment or endless banality. My accomplishments will stand, the good and evil that I have done will remain, but I will not. And there is nothing in that to fear. Indeed, I never understood how eternal life was, in some sense, supposed to give life meaning. If life has no meaning when it is only a few decades long, how will eternity endow it any more fully?

I will concede that I fear dying- the actual experience itself- but there is no surprise in that. I hope to die with dignity, few regrets and perhaps a sense of annoyance- at having to miss whatever is coming next. I never was any good with cliffhangers. In viewing death as I do, however, I am encouraged all the more to value life and to live it. I will not pass this way again. I will not have the chance to watch from beyond and guide my loved ones. I must do all that I will do while I am- inexplicably, wonderfully, unpredictably- alive. All that I am, or ever will be, must be now- there will be no second chances, no do-overs, and no divine forgiveness. I must make sure that my wife knows how special she is to me, how much I love her and how devoted I am.

And I do love my wife. More than I realize sometimes, more than she or anyone else can possibly know. I probably don't tell her enough, but can't the same be said about everyone we care for? And that is the most amazing thing of all. We are not flawed, imperfect creatures who are struggling to shed our humanness so as to become divine. We are not trying to destroy that which makes us what we are. Our love, our joy, our friendship, our loyalty and devotion are ours. They come from simply being human, from accepting and cherishing that which we are. And atheism has given me that- a deep, abiding, passionate love of all that is humanity, of all the love and sorrow that we give to one another. I love my wife not because some deity leaks love into the world, not because I have managed to shed some small fraction of my humanity, but for the simple reason that I am human.** What I am is honest, it is good or bad in proportion to the choices I make, and I will live my life to the fullest. I appreciate the love that others give me because it comes to me honestly, openly, from what makes them who they are.

In atheism I find the contentment of a place in the world, of love, of responsibility, and a balm against existential fears. Without atheism I would not be the man that I am.

And with atheism, I believe that I can become a better man tomorrow.

That is why being an atheist makes me happy.

* Well, except for the me typing part, but I shouldn't have to specify that.

** Also she's an amazing woman.***

*** And it doesn't hurt that she's totally hot.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

The Missionary Position...

Recently my wife and I noticed an unfamiliar car pull up in front of our apartment, which provoked the following conversation:

D's Wife: Hey, someone's here. Would you put the dog up before she starts barking?

Drek: Sure.

Puts dog in the bathroom.

Drek: Who are they?

D's Wife: I dunno. They're wearing ties and... name tags? Oh shit.

Drek: Mormons?

D's Wife: Yeah. Go let the dog back out.

Drek: Hell yes.

D's Wife: Drek! I was kidding.

Drek: Oh. Yeah. So was I. Sure...

What followed was a fairly interesting exchange. Two well-dressed Mormon missionaries came to the door and knocked. We answered the door and politely inquired what they wanted. They asked if Maria Wittman lived here. We informed them that, no, Maria did not. They asked if we were sure, and we said yes. They said that she had been a member of their church and wondered if we knew how to contact her and we said we didn't. They then apologized for bothering us, and then started asking us about our religious beliefs,* if we knew about Mormonism, and generally began the hard work of trying to bring us into the fold. This it goes without saying, worked out poorly for them. They then pressed an informational card into my hand and left.

Sounds pretty polite, right? Well, yeah, except for a few small little issues:

(1) I know who has lived at my current apartment for the past eight years. There has never been a Maria or a Wittman in that entire time.

(2) At my old apartment I was approached by Jehovah's Witnesses asking about someone who used to live there.

(3) I had lived there for two years already and knew the guys who preceded me- the Witnesses were asking about someone who hadn't lived at that address for- as far as I could tell- ever. Which is a long time.

In other words, missionaries asking about someone who used to live where you do is nothing more or less than a slimy way to start up a conversation in the hopes of converting them. And it really, really annoys me.

The reason is fairly simple. As an atheist, I view most religions as more or less alike. I know some people consider Mormonism to be a cult but, really, as far as I'm concerned it's a valid religion. And, in breaking with some others, I view Mormonism as being a more established religion than, say, Scientology. Granted in my view the main difference between a cult and a religion is tax exempt status, but the LDS church has been around longer, is better established, and has long since left the early- and maximally creepy- stages of a new religion behind it. I have generally been favorably impressed by the Mormons I know personally- including missionaries I have met while traveling- and while I disagree with the official views and positions of the LDS church, have no beef with individual practitioners. Actually, I've mostly found those practitioners to be decent, genuine people. So, in short, in my opinion, Mormons are okay.

But you know what? When missionaries come and try to sell me on their god by, first, lying like dogs to my face that really makes me wonder if, perhaps, I'm naive. It makes me wonder if the LDS church really has matured or if, maybe, it's still an immature brat of a new religion that thinks that anything is okay in the service of god. The same goes for the Jehovah's Witnesses and I'm fairly sure that isn't the result the missionaries were hoping for.

Here's a thought future missionaries: when you come to my door you probably won't have any luck converting me, but it'll do wonders for both of us if you at least try to be honest. At least then your behavior won't- from the very first moment- give lie to your gospel.

Just a tip.

* It was fun watching the lead-missionary's eyes bug when I answered that I was a "devout atheist." I don't think they usually include that one in the playbook.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

The foxhole doesn't work as well when you're taking fire from both directions

As an atheist I have been exposed to all manner of arguments as to why I should believe in one or another of the various deities worshipped by folks. Hell, I've even run into a Hindu missionary who tried to sell me on several deities at once so, really, I feel like I've had the full unwilling convert experience. As such I've been exposed to an awful lot of the arguments in favor of belief, many of which are- to put it delicately- inexecrably stupid. See, there may well be compelling arguments in favor of belief* but all too often I get arguments like "Aren't you afraid of hell?"** and "If you believe and there is no god you've lost some time, if you don't believe and there is a god then you've lost all eternity."*** One of my favorite such arguments is the "observation" that there are no atheists in foxholes. Hell, Conservapedia has a whole article on the claim. Near as I can figure, the argument is supposed to be that you may believe yourself to be an atheist but when the chips are down- as in combat- you will admit to yourself that your atheism is a sham as you cry out to god for help. Never having been a soldier I don't feel I'm in a strong moral position to argue this point but, really, I'm not sure there's anything more profound in such battlefield conversions than in latching onto a pair of lucky socks during a fierce battle.

Fortunately for me, however, I don't have to really contest the validity of this assertion because plain facts do it for me. Take, for example, this recent story about an atheist who was, more or less, in a foxhole:

Army Spc. Jeremy Hall was raised Baptist.

Like many Christians, he said grace before dinner and read the Bible before bed. Four years ago when he was deployed to Iraq, he packed his Bible so he would feel closer to God.

He served two tours of duty in Iraq and has a near perfect record. But somewhere between the tours, something changed. Hall, now 23, said he no longer believes in God, fate, luck or anything supernatural.

Hall said he met some atheists who suggested he read the Bible again. After doing so, he said he had so many unanswered questions that he decided to become an atheist.

So, in this case, it wasn't so much that the foxhole destroyed an atheist as it created one. Now, granted, a single case does not prove an entire argument but, at the same time, it certainly shows that there are at least some atheists in foxholes. All by itself this case would be interesting, but it's what comes next in the article that should really get your attention:

His sudden lack of faith, he said, cost him his military career and put his life at risk. Hall said his life was threatened by other troops and the military assigned a full-time bodyguard to protect him out of fear for his safety.

In March, Hall filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, among others. In the suit, Hall claims his rights to religious freedom under the First Amendment were violated and suggests that the United States military has become a Christian organization.


Two years ago on Thanksgiving Day, after refusing to pray at his table, Hall said he was told to go sit somewhere else. In another incident, when he was nearly killed during an attack on his Humvee, he said another soldier asked him, "Do you believe in Jesus now?"

Hall isn't seeking compensation in his lawsuit -- just the guarantee of religious freedom in the military. Eventually, Hall was sent home early from Iraq and later returned to Fort Riley in Junction City, Kansas, to complete his tour of duty.

He also said he missed out on promotions because he is an atheist.

"I was told because I can't put my personal beliefs aside and pray with troops I wouldn't make a good leader," Hall said.

Michael Weinstein, a retired senior Air Force officer and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, is suing along with Hall. Weinstein said he's been contacted by more than 8,000 members of the military, almost all of them complaining of pressure to embrace evangelical Christianity.

And this is a horse of another color. See, it's one thing to claim that the experience of being in combat tends to make one "see the light" but it's an entirely different matter if the seeing is "facilitated" by threats to one's safety and promotion. Sadly, as well, this isn't the first time I've heard claims like this. While Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Bill Carr claims that complaints of evangelizing are "relatively rare" we should recall the recent issues at the Air Force Academy, which were serious enough to provoke an investigation:

The U.S. Air Force said Tuesday it will appoint a task force to investigate allegations of religious intolerance at the Air Force Academy.

Among the items to be reviewed will be Air Force policy and guidance concerning religious respect and tolerance at the academy, said acting Secretary of the Air Force Michael Dominguez.

Some 55 complaints of religious discrimination have been filed going back to 2001, prompting school officials to require that all 9,000 cadets and faculty and staff members take a 50-minute course on religious sensitivity, academy officials said.


Among the allegations are that cadets are frequently pressured to attend chapel and take religious instruction, particularly in the evangelical Christian faith; that prayer is a part of mandatory events at the academy; and that in at least one case a teacher ordered students to pray before beginning their final examination.

The report said it found that non-Christian cadets are subjected to "proselytization or religious harassment" by more senior cadets; and that cadets of other religions are subject to discrimination, such as being denied passes off-campus to attend religious services.


In another instance, the commandant of the academy, Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, a born-again-Christian, drew fire from at least one student who said the general put God in front of the Constitution in a speech to students.

The student who filed the complaint noted that as a member of the military one first swears allegiance to the Constitution and then to God.

And it's that last bit that concerns me the most. Look, people, really and truly I don't care what your religious beliefs are. Believe in whatever god you want or don't believe in any of them. That's what it means to be in a religiously plural nation. But, that being said, the founding fathers understood what officially-sanctioned religious intolerance could do and tried to reach a compromise. Religion stays out of government, and if you put on the uniform then in your official duties you agree to serve your country before your god.

Is this an issue for atheists? Yeah, of course. Full participation in our society means that we have to be able to serve in war as well as in peace. Yet, this is also an issue for the religious. Is it really healthy for our country if a single religious sect dominates the military? Or, to be blunt, if all the really big weapons are operated by a single cultural sub-group? I'm going with no, and if you think about it, you probably will too.

There are, indeed, atheists in foxholes but the issue goes beyond them. Instead, this is about what it means to be American. The framers of the constitution gave us a lot to try to live up to.

I just hope they weren't mistaken.

* I have never personally encountered an argument for belief in god that I regard as compelling, but I keep watching and waiting.

** "No. Are you afraid of the tooth fairy?"

*** Gotta love Pascal's Wager. I think they teach that one in missionary boot camp but forget to explain how one is to select a god to believe in, much less trick god into thinking that belief is genuine rather than a calculated effort to avoid hypothetical punishment. Whoops.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Oh god! How do I get the suck out of my head?!

Believe it or not my wife has been out of town this week attending a funeral. And, as the old saying goes, when the cat is away the mice will do all sorts of things that the cat doesn't like that much. In my case that usually means cooking insanely spicy food that no human in their right mind would consume ever and watching potentially bad science fiction movies. Really, I could probably remove the "potentially" part of that statement since- let's face it- the majority of sci-fi movies are awful.

This time around the movie that I chose to watch is Transformers, a live-action film based on the comic books and animated series about warring artificially intelligent robots from space that can transform into common everyday objects. Objects like a big rig, a rescue truck, and a boom box.* One of these is not like the others. I chose this movie because, frankly, I grew up on the cartoon and wanted to see how my childhood heroes would translate to the big screen. You know, outside of the original animated Transformers movie.

So what was the verdict? Well, see, in order for me to help you understand that I need to tell you a story. My Former Hypothetical Roommate (FHR) once remarked that there are few things more enjoyable than watching a bad sci-fi movie with me. The reason, basically, is I feel somehow compelled to rant about the scientific inaccuracies and technobabble invoked in the film. And even better, I am absurdly inconsistent about what I choose to rant about. So, I may let the reactionless drives go with a free pass, but get annoyed that the movie forgot to be concerned about the effects of a sonic boom at low level. Yeah, I'm weird like that. My FHR claims to this day that one of the funniest experiences he ever had with me was watching the remake of Planet of the Apes. To hear him tell it, there were so many bizarre screwups in the first few minutes that I was reduced to a twitching incoherent mess.

But I digress...

How was Transformers? Absolutely horrible. The protaganist was more or less the lost fifth stooge, the love interest was as deep as a petri dish and served only as sex on two legs and the plot was so contorted as to be indecipherable. And the physics. Oh, god, the physics! You know, I was able to suspend disbelief on the giant transforming robots, even though the notion is- at best- a stretch. Yet, as I watched their antics I found myself wondering about the tensile strength of the materials they were interacting with. I mean, seriously, a semi-truck sized robot doing a flip on an overpass? I'm pretty sure that structure is not built to absorb those kinds of lateral stresses. I mean, honestly, did the civil engineer responsible for it sit down and ask, "Hmmmm... what would happen if a giant alien robot used this structure for a gymnastics demonstration? Better add some more rebar"? And don't even get me started on the distinction between "cryogenic" and just "really fucking cold" which, as it turns out, is kinda an important distinction.

And yet, in the end, I'm forced to admit that the movie was a total success. It sucked on virtually every level, and I'd give it a 4 on the badger scale, but it brought the cartoon to the big screen quite well. You see, the cartoon version of "Transformers" itself was poorly written, had shallow characters, and nonsensical plots. The action sequences frequently involved too little animation, which was often of poor quality, and it was almost impossible to figure out what the hell was going on. And the movie captured this perfectly. Seriously, if the cartoon was the sort of thing that you had to be an eight year old boy to love, then the movie followed right in its footsteps. If you don't believe me, see for yourself, and imagine this requiring about two hours:

And ironically we discover that the one thin that no transformer can convert into is a meaningful damned storyline.

Ah, well. Maybe next time.

* Now that I think about it, when I watched the original cartoon as a kid, I think I knew this by the less PC term "ghetto blaster."

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

This may be taking symbolic exclusion a bit far...

A while back sociologist Bethany Bryson wrote a rather fascinating paper that started with the phrase "Anything but heavy metal." The basic point- and I'm condensing to perhaps an absurd degree here- is that some communities denote the boundaries of membership not with the ideas and practices that they like but rather with the ideas and practices that they do not like. This may sound a little odd but, really, it shouldn't so long as you've been to high school. When I was in high school nobody cared too much if I hung around with the jocks, or the preppies, or the nerds, so long as I did not hang out with the stoners. In other words, it didn't matter so much what practices I did enjoy, so long as I avoided certain undesirable behaviors.* In any case Bryson finds that there are some interesting patterns in music appreciation or, as the case may be, rejection as a function of education and social class such that more educated persons generally like more and more types of music, but almost always continue to reject heavy metal.** She referred to this as "symbolic exclusion" because it isn't the literal rejection of certain people but, rather, the symbolic rejection of certain people through the rejection of cultural elements they like.

Anyway, I started thinking about this article the other day when I was doing some prep work for my class in the fall. When I teach I often like to bring in examples from real data and, particularly, large scale research efforts like the General Social Survey. The GSS, which has an excellent website, is helpful because it is a representative sample of non-institutionalized American adults, it has been done many, many times, and because it includes some fairly random (and interesting) questions. Often when preparing for class I use the subject index which lists the GSS questions alphabetically by topic. It's pretty helpful because the actual variable names can be a little confusing and students are generally more interested in things like drug use than they are in income inequality. While trawling for interesting variables I ended up in the section on science and, particularly, on the amount of knowledge the respondent has about science.*** You can see the questions listed in the picture below. As the little red oval suggests, I became interested in one question in particular- the question asking about how the universe began:

Selecting that option took me to a new page where you can choose from among several questions relating to that topic if, indeed, several questions relating to that topic were asked in the first place. And it was at this point that I received my first surprise:

The only question pertaining to the beginning of the universe would seem to be asking whether or not the respondent likes big band music. In surprise, I clicked the link and, indeed, the question is what you'd expect:

Now, some of you might think that perhaps this variable "bigband" just got mixed up in the database with the very similarly named variable "bigbang":

It's possible, I suppose, but that's probably what they want you to think. Maybe this isn't a mistake. Maybe this is intentional. Maybe there's someone at NORC who is trying to send us a message- big band music isn't just mellow, or entertaining to some folks, but literally the beginning of all things. Maybe they're trying to tell us that you aren't a real sociologist until you understand that the universe started with Lawrence Welk. And all I can think about that is there's symbolic exclusion and then there's this.

I mean damn!

* Okay, this is a partial lie. Of course it matters- I was and am a huge geek- but the stoners took a huge prestige hit relative to every other group. And while the non-stoners may have had their differences, they were united in their dislike of the aforementioned ganja-lovers.

** I find this particularly amusing since I will (hopefully) one day have a Ph.D. and count Within Temptation, Schoolyard Heroes, Metallica and Rob Zombie among the musicians I particularly like. For even more amusement, my wife is a fan of folk music. How she puts up with me I will never know but, then again, given my disdain for so-called folk rock... well, we are very tolerant of our musical differences.

*** I'd provide links, but the website doesn't provide stable URLs for the pages I'm referring to. Damned frames!

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Irony, thy name is Conservapedia.

As the title of this post suggests, I spotted something a little remarkable during my most recent foray over on Conservapedia. And no, in a break from recent tradition, this is not about the whole Lenski business. Instead this is your standard garden-variety Conservapeon nonsense.

In any case, during my last visit I happened to notice a fairly interesting headline:

Or, in textual form:

"Wikipedia Is A Stunning Example Of How The Propaganda Machine Works" CBS News

There is no doubt where Wikipedia stands: firmly on the Left. Try out Wikipedia’s entries on say, Roe v. Wade or Intelligent Design, and you will see that Wikipedia is the people’s encyclopedia only if those people are not conservatives.

Needless to say this surprised me. CBS News- the former home of Dan Rather and the purveyor of "Rathergate"- is supposed to be one of those biased liberal media outlets. And, as Conservapedia never tires of telling us, Wikipedia is a super liberal organization. Surely one member of the liberal conspiracy wouldn't rat out another member for being... you know... liberal?

Well, as it happens, I clicked the link they supplied and discovered something rather interesting. The article in question was not, actually, an article. Instead, it was an opinion piece by Lawrence Solomon, who wrote it not for CBS News but for the National Review Online. And if that doesn't pique your interest, take a look at these bits and pieces taken from the CBS webpage:

Really, there can be absolutely no doubt that this column was reprinted from the National Review, not commissioned as news by CBS. My personal favorite is the quote on Conservapedia's headline:

There is no doubt where Wikipedia stands: firmly on the Left. Try out Wikipedia’s entries on say, Roe v. Wade or Intelligent Design, and you will see that Wikipedia is the people’s encyclopedia only if those people are not conservatives.

Which is reproduced verbatim from the CBS opinion posting... with the exception that CBS included the attribution:

Try out Wikipedia’s entries on say, Roe v. Wade or Intelligent Design, and you will see that Wikipedia is the people’s encyclopedia only if those people are not conservatives, writes The National Review.

The only reason to "accidentally" omit such a prominent attribution is if you want to conceal it. I mean, it isn't news if the National Review claims that Wikipedia and global warming are liberal bullshit. Hell, they say that all the time. But if CBS says it? Well shit- that's news. And if we just forget to mention that it's a reprinting of a National Review article as an opinion column? Well, you know, who really checks these things, anyway?*

And the really funny part? This blatant, incredible, deliberate obfuscation of the truth in order to push an agenda? It's critiquing Wikipedia for being a propaganda mill.

If the irony were any thicker, you couldn't cut it with a shaped charge.

* Actually, I do. Reasonably frequently.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Ah, Japan, land of freaky shit I do NOT want to know about.

As many of you know by now, I have a way of learning about weird things. I also have an often mentioned love of boobs, a topic about which I blog quite frequently, and for which I have become known. There are, I suppose, weirder things upon which to make a blogging reputation but I admit that I am not completely thrilled to be the Hugh Heffner of the socio-blogging world. For one thing, I look absurd in a bathrobe.

In any case, my interest in boobs motivated one loyal reader to e-mail me during my recent absence about an article in the Onion's AV club. This article discusses a taste test involving two breast-related products: F-cup Breast Enhancement Cookies and "Oppai Jelly". In short, a Japanese F-cup is equivalent to a U.S. DD-cup so, basically, this cookie promises to give the consumer gigantic boobs. Not that the Japanese are at all interested in those. Needless to say F-cup breast enhancement cookies remind me of nothing so much as the spam e-mails I get every few days trying to sell an herbal supplement that will increase my penis and/or breast size. And one would assume it's no mean feat for the same supplement to do both.

The oppai jelly, on the other hand, is even more bizarre. It is essentially a room-temperature jell-o treat shaped like a woman's breasts and packaged... er... suggestively:

Thus, to consume this taste sensation* you would, in effect, slowly devour a woman's breasts while she looks on with a thoroughly addled expression. It's more or less like a strip club crossed with The Silence of the Lambs** and thoroughly creeps me out.

And the funny thing is, these products don't even really surprise me. Japan has a number of virtues over the U.S. including a good standard of living and a low crime rate but, at the same time, a baffling and- by our standards- odd view of sexuality. What, after all, am I to think when a society produces games that seemingly promote rape- for example Battle Raper and RapeLay- alongside games that apparently oppose it?*** And don't even get me started on the confusing cases where saving a woman from being raped entitles you to rape her.****

Eh. Really, I suspect all I am to think is that Japan is a society with quirks, like all the others, and that its sexual computer games are no more bizarre or wrong than the crazy stuff Americans come up with. Am I okay with these sorts of products? Well, I think they're sexually exploitative and potentially degrading to women. But, then again, we have all of that and more in the United States.

And before we point out to Japan the mote in its eye, perhaps we would be well to consider the rod in our own.*****

* The "sensation" in this case being, more likely than not, unpleasant.

** One of the few movies, as a side note, that is equal to or better than the book.

*** Granted, that last game technically only opposes rape by tentacled mutants. Perhaps rape by otherwise normal human men is less objectionable?

**** No, really, I'm serious.

***** Woot! A Total Drek bible reference! You don't see those every day, folks!

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

I'm back and I feel like nothing has changed.

As you may know, I have been absent for some time on my Misery Journey. It was, as usual, quite miserable and- wait for it- a journey. When I left many of you may recall that the nonsensical "argument" between Andrew Schlafly and Richard Lenski was raging. I even had a brief opportunity from the road to give the latest updates on the situation. As you might guess I was sad that, given my arduous travel plans, I would not be able to watch this situation continue to unfold. And given Conservapedia's penchant for burning the evidence I rather doubted that looking back on the debate after its conclusion would be the same.

It was therefore with a mix of joy and deepest horror that, at this, the conclusion of my journey, I checked in at Conservapedia and made an astounding discovery: despite the utter beatdown unleashed upon Schlafly by Lenski, Schlafly hasn't given up yet.

Even more amazing- the slander continues:

Or, for folks who can't read the picture:

Serious flaws are emerging in Richard Lenski's work, even with his refusal to publicly disclose his data. See Flaws in Lenski Study. Will the PNAS Journal publish a correct or retraction of the much-publicized paper?

Yes, folks, you read that right: Andrew Schlafly believes he has discovered flaws in the work on Richard Lenski. So is he right? Well, judge for yourself:

Or, to quote from the introduction:

Richard Lenski rejected a request to release his bacteria mutation data to the public, but the following serious flaws are emerging about his work even without a full disclosure of the data. Note that the peer review on Lenski's paper took somewhere between 0 (non-existent) and at most 14 days (including administrative time), and Lenski himself does not have any obvious expertise in statistics. In fact, Richard Lenski admits in his paper that he based his statistical conclusions on use of a website called "statistics101".

So, in short, Schlafly is claiming that there are flaws in the paper that even he can see* and is implying that PNAS should retract/correct the paper and that Lenski is statistically incompetent. Hmmmmm... lemme get this straight: an ideologically-motivated lawyer has more statistical expertise than a working scientist and a peer review board? Does this sound reasonable?**

I'm not going to take the time to debunk Schlafly's assertions just at the moment. It would take a lot of back-and-forth between the paper and his clumsily-phrased nonsense and, given my lengthy experience with Schlafly-an logic, I doubt that there is any substance to them. They almost certainly boil down to "Nuh-uh" followed by the statistical equivalent of technobabble. At the moment, I just don't have the time for such a pursuit.

What I will do, however, amidst shaking my head in wonder, is point out a conversation that occurred on the relevant talk page. Particularly, a commenter by the name of Wisdom89 remarks:

I have expertise in research and statistics and I'm just not seeing this shoddiness that you make reference to. You are allowed to have your doubts, but we should get a bunch of people familiar with such fields to examine the paper's statistical analysis.

And then later:

Just for comparative purposes and a frame of reference, a P value that is less than the significance level of 0.05 is considered significant.

To which Schlafly provides this helpful response:

"Wisdom89", your claim that you "have expertise" and don't see the flaws only makes me conclude that you don't really have the expertise that you claim. Judging by your silly user name, perhaps you've tried that approach before. We're not fooled by it here.

You can see the whole exchange in the pic below, preserved for posterity:

Now, here's the thing that just kills me: Schlafly's response boils down to "If you don't agree with me, you must not be an expert." In other words, experts*** are only experts if they think Schlafly is right but, when they disagree with Schlafly, it means that the expert is somehow less reliable, not that Schlafly may be in error. I've known for some time that Schlafly has some peculiar views about openmindedness but I hadn't realized before that Schlafly is- if only in his own mind- infalible.

Maybe Schlafly thinks he's god after all.

* i.e. "This paper must be screwed up if even a half-wit sociopath can find errors in it." Sadly for the half-wit sociopath, however, the paper does not appear to be flawed.

** Answer: No.

*** I do not, of course, have any idea if Wisdom89 has any expertise in statistics but I'm absolutely convinced that Schlafly does not. So, hey, Wisdom89 can't be any worse than his opponent. Regardless of Wisdom89's qualifications, however, Schlafly's justification for dismissing him is inherently flawed.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

I have seen things. Terrible things.

As you might be guessing, my recent misery journey is essentially complete. Was it as educational as I could have hoped? Well, I took a picture during my travels. You tell me- does this look educational?

Well? Does it?*

So is this a resumption of the otherwise usual blogging schedule? Heh. Not a chance. While my home web access should soon be available again, and my work office should once more become available to me in the near future, life has intervened. To put things equally vaguely, something has come up that requires that I not resume blogging again quite yet. Worry not- I do intend to return- but more important things are still conspiring to keep me away.

So, hang in there just a big longer. Total Drek will be back soon enough. And, if it makes you feel any better, during my absence I've come up with a notion for a new series of posts that achieve such a staggering combination of fun and offensiveness that I can hardly believe it myself.

Stay tuned!

* Answer: Fuck no!

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

I'm still on my trip, but...

Has anyone ever noticed that some wireless LANs have some amazingly bizarre names?

I mean, hey, thanks for letting us know.

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