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, August 29, 2008

You have got to be @#%#$ kidding me!

Exactly one week ago I wrote a post addressing- again- the need for proper vaccination of children. As y'all know, this is one of my things. The inspiration for the post was, of course, a recent outbreak of measles that is a result of parents refusing to vaccinate.

Well, guess what, kids? The anti-vaccination "movement" strikes again:

A mumps outbreak sweeping the Fraser Valley has been traced to a Chilliwack community that refuses to immunize its children for religious reasons, but health officials don't think there's a risk the highly infectious disease will spread provincewide.

There have been about 190 cases of the now-rare mumps virus reported since February, and about two dozen people are infected, said Fraser Health Authority medical health officer Elizabeth Brodkin. The agency normally sees only a handful of infections a year.

The outbreak began when people from Alberta who were infected with mumps visited a Chilliwack community - authorities would not reveal its identity - with low immunization rates. The outbreak has spread throughout the Fraser region.

"There are communities who do not believe in immunization. Sometimes it's for religious reasons. ... They choose not to immunize themselves or their children and they're very susceptible to infections when they come around," Dr. Brodkin said. "Normally you're not even aware of who's immunized until there is an outbreak, and then it's very clear where these pockets of unimmunized people are living."

Yes, that's right: one hundred and ninety cases so far of the f-ing mumps. Sure, mumps probably won't kill you, but that whole sterility thing and the hearing loss can be kinda a drag. Not only are almost two hundred people suffering from a disease that we have long had a vaccine for, not only could they have all been protected for little cost and effectively zero risk to their health, these outbreaks are now happening so frequently that I hear about two separate incidents within a goddamn week! This isn't funny anymore, or just a bunch of wingnuts, this is a public-friggin-health issue.

And as if that weren't frustrating enough, we're now being subjected to some sort of half-assed debate over whether or not parents can legitimately demand that unvaccinated kids not be allowed to play with their own kids:

Karey Williams never thought a parenting decision would come between her and a good friend. The two had known one another for a decade, supported each other through infertility treatment and had their first babies around the same time. But when she told the friend that she had stopped vaccinating her daughter at age 1, the relationship abruptly ended.

“She said, ‘Well then, your child can’t come into my house,’” recalls Williams, 47, who lives in the Chicago area.

I admit that I am reassured at the reaction. Vaccination is seriously important and if and when I become a parent I rather expect I would react the same way. If someone doesn't want to vaccinate their child I can't make them, but damn if I'm going to just ignore the risk they're posing to my child. Of course, the anti-vaccine side isn't exactly seeing this as an issue of personal freedom or responsibility:

Sara Michalski, 28, a mother of two unvaccinated children in Colorado Springs, Colo., says most of her friends do not immunize their kids, either. And beyond her close social circle, she's reluctant to talk much about it with others because she doesn't want to get into an argument. "I tend to avoid the subject a little unless I have some reason to think they might believe the same way," she says.

At the same time, Michalski doesn't believe the decision to not vaccinate her kids is other people's business. “This is a private health matter, and not something people are entitled to know about unless I want to tell them,” she says.


“Do I think it’s inappropriate to put a mark on people and kick them out from being able to participate in society, yeah I think it’s inappropriate — it’s inappropriate and it’s dangerous,” says Barbara Loe Fisher, cofounder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center, a group in Vienna, Va., that describes itself as “America’s Vaccine Safety Watchdog” and opposes forced vaccinations.

So, apparently, it's an appropriate expression of personal freedom for a person to refuse to vaccinate because of some imaginary danger- thereby putting the entire community at risk- but it's immoral to prevent your child from playing with an unvaccinated child- thereby protecting your child's health as well as the community?




Don't even get me started on the absolutely terrifying poll over at MSNBC:

Fortunately for me, I don't have to articulate a response to this because Orac does it very, very well:

First, society is always a balance between competing interests of personal freedom and the good of society as a whole. In the U.S. we tend to value individual freedom over society, which has for many issues (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc.) served us very well indeed, although arguably not as well in others. Unfortunately, all too often advocates for "personal freedom" forget or don't care that the corollary of this balance is that one person's rights do not allow him or her to infringe on the rights of another. It's that whole "balance" thing, admittedly a cause of contention since the republic was founded. Given that schools and day care centers, with their large concentration of children in relatively small spaces, represent perfect incubators for children to pass viruses and bacteria between each other, it makes scientific, medical, public health, and legal sense to require full vaccination according to the currently recommended schedule before a child is permitted to enter school or day care, with the only exceptions being children who for medical reasons cannot be safely vaccinated. Indeed, the push for "religious" and "philosophical" exemptions undermines that protection and is intentionally being exploited by antivaccinationists to get their children into school to endanger the other children there.

Second, a parent has every right to ask about the vaccination status of potential playmates for her child. Parents of said potential playmate, whether they vaccinate or not, have every right to refuse to answer. However, the parent asking also has the right to judge for themselves whether they will accept that answer. Personally, I would not accept a refusal to answer and recommend to pro-vaccination parents out there that they refuse to accept a nonanswer as well.

Finally, and most importantly, what this conflict shows is that antivaccinationists seem to think they have some God-given right to inflict their pseudoscience on society as a whole. They don't want to vaccinate their child because of fears of autism or various other "complications" of vaccines based on fearmongering, pseudoscience, or religion? Fine, but there will be consequences, and I don't care if they don't like those consequences. Their choice based on fear is endangering the rest of society by making the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases more likely. If a parent makes the choice not to vaccinate, that parent should not whine when parents of vaccinated children decide that they do not want to risk their children's health by letting them play with unvaccinated children.

After all, if antivaccinationists claim have the right not to vaccinate, they should not be disturbed if the parents of vaccinated children also claim the right to take action to protect their child from the risks introduced into society by antivaccinationists "exercising their rights."

I couldn't agree more.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Dinesh D'Souza does not impress me.

Lots of you are probably familiar with Dinesh D'Souza, conservative thinker cum Christian apologist. What you may not be familiar with is his book "What's So Great About Christianity." Unsurprisingly, this is a question that I have asked several times myself, although I did not do so in the manner of D'Souza. That is to say, he asks the question in a book length format and with irony.

Given that D'Souza is one of the more recent darlings of the right wing, his book is netting a fair amount of attention, including an interview over on Intellectual Conservative. I became somewhat interested in this interview since the headline for it is "Dinesh D'Souza on atheism, his debate with Christopher Hitchens, and his book What's So Great About Christianity." Really? D'Souza was going to comment on my religion? How fascinating!

For the most part the interview is quite the opposite, particularly the bit where he remarks that arguing with atheists by using scripture is pointless. Yes, I think we'd all have to agree that's true. But the issue that really got my attention was the following exchange:

Bernard Chapin [interviewer]: What would you say is the most potent argument offered by atheists? By this I mean the one most difficult to refute.

Dinesh D’Souza: The goal of my book is to not only fortify the believer of Christianity but also to challenge the atheists while showing the seeker that they are rebelling against a childhood version of Christianity — one that they learned in Sunday school and catechism. Their opinion of it now is rooted in what I call “crayon Christianity.” What we must also realize is that when atheists use the word “fundamentalist” it is but a big ploy. When they say fundamentalist and mount attacks against fundamentalism what they really are attempting to do is to go after traditional Christianity.

That being said, I think the atheists make two arguments which must be responded to. First, they posit that Christianity is opposed to reason and science which it is not. My historical chapters show that Christianity had a lot to do with the origins of science. Most of the leading scientists of the last 500 years have been Christian. We should not go on the defensive when the name of science is invoked. Second, atheists claim that Christianity is a major cause of violence and war in the world which is also untrue and I illustrate why this is the case in my book.

Now, I find this response interesting. First, because I have been an atheist for a long time and have spent a lot of the time exploring supposedly "sophisticated" arguments for the existence of god. They have, by and large, been quite unconvincing. I also frankly get bored when someone tells me that this or that isn't "true" Christianity. The definition, as it turns out, tends to flex depending on the argument being made. For example, in his review of Dawkins' "The God Delusion," Michael Ruse remarked:

More seriously, Dawkins is entirely ignorant of the fact that no believer - with the possible exception of some English clerics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries - has ever thought that arguments are the best support for belief.

On the other hand, in reviewing the same book, Terry Eagleton remarked:

Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith, and that Christian and Muslim children are brought up to believe unquestioningly. Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that. For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief.

So, until D'Souza and his co-religionists can all get together and agree on exactly what the hell Christianity is I have zero interest in being told that my criticisms are invalid because I don't understand "true" Christianity. And of course I know that isn't going to happen, but if D'Souza is going to wave a rhetorical wand and claim that all Christians subscribe to his "sophisticated" version of the faith, I can certainly wave mine and expect some sort of religious constitutional convention.

Second, when I refer to fundamentalists, I mean fundamentalists. I have a number of Christian friends, some very close, whom I respect a great deal. I don't believe in god, I don't really understand why or how they believe in god, but I respect and love them a great deal and have no interest in telling them what they should or should not believe. D'Souza's blanket assertion about what atheists mean is nothing more than a transparent attempt to cloak his militant conservatism in the armor of a successful faith.

Finally, however, I have to simply state my total surprise at what he views as the most potent argument to use against religion. That Christianity is anti-science? That Christianity causes violence? Hell no. Look, he's right, natural philosophy gave rise to science and science was, originally, a very religious enterprise. Even today many scientists are deeply religious- including some very prominent ones. I think an argument could be made that an emphasis on faith is somewhat at odds with science, but I see no reason why science and religion cannot coexist.* Likewise, I think it inarguable that Christianity has helped facilitate violence, but it doesn't inevitably do so. Are these arguments against Christianity? Sure. Are they devastatingly powerful ones? No, and I'm fairly sure D'Souza knows that. The interviewer more or less offered D'Souza the chance to swing at a softball, and D'Souza took it eagerly.

You want to know what I think the most potent argument is?

There is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of god apart from folk tales and personal credulity.

Compared with that little issue, complaining that religion is anti-science is a bit like criticizing the manicure on a severed arm. I mean, maybe you're right, but who the hell cares?

* Of course, opinions on this subject vary.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

"Deep Thoughts" with Jack Handy Drek.

This morning on the radio, the news announcer asked, "What would you do if you didn't have enough skin to cover your entire body?"*

My answer was, "Scream and seek medical attention," but his answer had something to do with hermit crabs.

Call me crazy, but I don't think that will help.

* True story, actually. That is a direct quote from NPR. I really like NPR but my local affiliate has started airing a "science" program that is either geared for the very young, or is just very stupid.

Cross-posted on Scatterplot.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Just so you know...

For today I'm over at Scatterplot talking about gender equality and video games.

Oh joy! An important topic.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

You didn't think I'd forget, did you?

Many of you know that I am spending some of my time over on Scatterplot and, in my inaugural post, promised to stop blogging about Conservapedia so much. This is a promise that, to all of our surprise, I have actually managed to keep thus far. What can I say? I am actually quite tired of Conservapedia and need a break from writing about it as much as y'all need a break from reading about it. However, while I have not been writing about Conservapedia, it doesn't mean that I haven't been keeping an eye on it. I am coming to the grim realization that I may need some sort of twelve step program to free myself of this crippling addiction. Nevertheless, I've managed to resist blogging at length about such Conservapeon gems as denying the existence of extraterrestrial life because Jesus didn't tell us to evangelize the space aliens, Schlafly's insistence that a high student-teacher ratio is better than a small one, and the recent debate over whether atheists should be banned for being atheists. Don't worry, though, atheist conservapeons,* this won't be a "witch hunt" so much as a "selective cull." I know I feel better.

Alas, today I must comment briefly about two things at Conservapedia. In the first case, you'll see why basically immediately. I could not ignore this development. And in the second case... well, I mean, hell, it was a chance to make a tasteless joke. And you know how hard it is for me to pass that up.

So, to start with, many of you will probably remember the Lenski affair, wherein Andrew Schlafly denigrated the published research of Richard Lenski, and Lenski thoroughly bitch-slapped him for it. You may also remember that Schlafly submitted a letter to PNAS as well as other places critiquing Lenski's work. This was, in short, amazing given that Schlafly has absolutely no qualifications to judge the quality of any sort of scientific work. Regardless, the letter was sent and, according to Schlafly, is now under review at PNAS:

Or, in plain human language:

Update: Our Letter to PNAS objecting to the Lenski paper is now under Editorial Review. The PNAS has informed us that "[a]ll co-authors have been notified of the receipt of this submission. Your Letter will be forwarded to the Editorial Board for consideration. The Board may decide to accept, reject, or ask for revisions to your Letter. Additionally, the Board may solicit a response from the authors."

I have to admit, I sort of hope PNAS publishes it alongside a response from Lenski. I hope they publish it because it'll shut Schlafly up about how PNAS ignores legitimate criticism.** I hope they include a response from Lenski because, in all honestly, I really want to see a guy that smart ream Schlafly out in 250 words or less. Crap, who wouldn't?

Stay tuned for further updates.

And, as long as we're on the subject of Conservapedia, I also noticed this little tidbit:

Or, again, in text:

Conservapedians will wish to remember former British leader Margaret Thatcher in their prayers. Her daughter has just revealed that the great Conservative stateswoman has been suffering from dementia for some years. All those who value freedom will be grieved by this very sad news.

Okay, first off, I would like to extend my sympathies to the family of Ms. Thatcher. Regardless of her political views, and the extent to which I disagree with them, I do not wish her ill health or heartache, nor do I wish any of that for her family. That said, Conservapedia is fond of arguing that health problems among those they dislike are because of what they believe. So, for example, Schlafly is fond of claiming that an abnormal incidence*** of breast cancer among celebrities is a result of "Hollywood values."**** I think this is, at best, deplorable, but that's not the point. Given Conservapedia's penchant for this sort of behavior... well... is it just me, or should Thatcher's dementia and Ronald Reagan's Alzheimers perhaps suggest that those who hold ultra-conservative views are more likely to develop brain disease? C'mon, Conservapedia, where is your article on the very real risk that ultra-conservatism will rot your brain?

I mean, shit, at least this account helps explain Andrew Schlafly.

* Man, my head hurts just reading that.

** Granted, Schlafly is not leveling legitimate criticism, but I still like watching him squirm.

*** More accurately, an incidence Schlafly claims is abnormal. There are no reliable signs that he's correct.

**** Worry not fellow academics! There's also a similarly-flattering entry on professor values!

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Friday, August 22, 2008

I just don't know what to say anymore.

About four years ago (we're a month or so shy of exactly four years ago) I wrote a post dealing with a disturbing trend. Specifically, with the re-emergence of pertussis, also known as whooping cough. For the criminally ignorant, pertussis is a devastating disease that has been largely eradicated in the western world through the extensive use of vaccines. I say largely eradicated, however, because cases have been on the rise lately and not because pertussis has mutated into some deadly new strain. No, it's just that an increasingly large number of people are being stupid and not vaccinating their children.

When I wrote this post four years ago I more or less blamed this decreasing dedication to vaccination on two factors: complacency, because vaccines have worked so well we've forgotten how useful they are, and stupidity, because some factions of the population seem to think that scientific medicine is somehow bad and unnatural. Oddly, there's little unnatural about vaccines which actually help your immune system defend you more effectively against aggressive organisms. So, really, vaccines are somewhat similar to that probiotic crap everyone is so crazy over except the vaccines are vastly more effective. If yogurt infested with bacteria that help you crap is "natural" why the hell not a shot containing dead critters to keep their live buddies from making your life hell? But I digress. Back in 2004 I also got a little cranky with some news agencies for not appropriately flogging these folks, although at least one of them got a little more with-it over time.

Since then my occasional co-bloggers have covered other vaccine news and I have generally kept my eye on the anti-vaccine situation. In doing so I have come to realize that there are whole groups of people who make their money by telling others that vaccines are bad and cause things like autism.* I talked about this issue again in March of this year and was castigated for my treatment of it. This annoyed me enough that I did something that I now refer to privately as "the nasty," for which I and this blog received props from none other than Tara Smith of Aetiology. So, it's safe to say that I have been concerned about vaccines for quite a while and have put some real energy into the situation.

As such, you can imagine my reaction when my wife told me about the following NPR story she heard while I was walking the dog. And if you guessed it was about vaccines... well... then you are at least minimally competent at reading comprehension:

About a decade ago, health officials declared an "end" to measles in the United States. But now, that has changed: 131 cases of measles have been reported so far this year, more than three times the number in 2007.


Either way, [Viral Disease Expert Dr. Jane] Seward says, the virus is increasingly finding its way to vulnerable unvaccinated populations — "mainly children whose parents have chosen not to vaccinate."

"A high proportion of those children are home-schooled. In Illinois, pretty much all of the new cases of measles were among home-schooled children — and none of them were vaccinated," she says.

Parents cite reasons like philosophical objections — which typically boil down to fears of side effects, including the development of autism.

But Dr. William Schaffner, who chairs the department of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, says there's absolutely no scientific evidence to back that up.

"The measles, German measles and mumps vaccine, or MMR as we call it, has been given in literally billions of doses worldwide with extraordinary safety," Schaffner says.

At the same time, Schaffner says many of those parents who opt not to vaccinate should remember that measles is a devastating disease.

"Before the measles vaccine in this country, there were 400 deaths of U.S. children each year caused by measles," he says. "Measles carries serious complications, including pneumonia and encephalitis, which is a life-threatening inflammation of the brain tissue that can be caused by viral infections such as measles. Measles is a serious illness. To be cavalier and not vaccinate shocks someone like me, who has seen the devastating effects of this disease."

And if children are not vaccinated and they contract measles, they are not the only ones at risk, Schaffner says. They can put other vulnerable children at risk, too.

Do we need to talk about measles again for crying out loud? Do we need to talk about complications, like corneal scarring? Yes, boys and girls: measles can actually scar your child's eyes. Do we need to talk about how bad measles is for adults? People, vaccination is not an issue of individual choice. It is a public health issue much like not defecating in the streets. When we all cooperate, we all stay healthier. When a relatively small number of us defect, we get sicker, some of us get crippled, and some of us have to die.

I am really, really tired of having to read these stories. Seriously. Vaccines work. They are safe. And they're a helluva lot better than treating the full blown disorder.

Stop screwing around already.

* Which, I should note, they do NOT.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Total Drek One Sentence Movie Reviews

In keeping with my previously established fondness for brief, relatively uninformative reviews of books, I'd like to introduce something new: brief, relatively uninformative reviews of movies. Thus, really, today will be like every day on this blog except that (1) I don't usually talk about movies and (2) I'm seldom brief. The uninformative bit, however, is as always constant.

Today's Reviews:

Alien Nation

Run time: 91 minutes

Price: Available from for the price of $9.98, plus shipping and handling.

Genre: Hard-boiled cop/alien invasion/racial discrimination drama

One sentence review: An interesting idea brutally murdered by eighties synthesizer music, terrible writing, and James Caan.

i'm reed fish

Run time: 93 minutes.

Price: Available on for a mere $16.49, plus shipping and handling.

Genre: Romantic comedy(?)

One sentence review: Like spending an hour and a half listening to that cousin that nobody likes and who never does anything important, ever.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Guess what?

I'm over at Scatterplot today. What am I talking about? The same thing as usual.

Boobs Nothing important to anyone ever.


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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

On Atheism: The Problem of Evil

Fans of my ongoing irregular series on atheism will be happy to know that the last installment was not the last installment.* Instead, while I have completed the series I originally promised, I will still occasionally add to this work as notions come to me. Aren't you lucky?**

In today's installment I'd like to talk about a funny little issue: the problem of evil. Many of you are probably already familiar with this but, in case you're not, the "problem of evil" is a sort of standard argument made about certain forms of religious belief. The problem goes something like this (apologies for the crude representation):

(1) God exists
(2) God is all-knowing
(3) God is all-powerful
(4) God is perfectly good
(5) God cares about humans

Bad things happen to good people, pain and suffering occur for no reason.

Therefore, one or more of the following must be true:
(1) God does not exist
(2) God is not all-knowing
(3) God is not all-powerful
(4) God is not perfectly good
(5) God does not care about humans

Since certain religious traditions assert, often vehemently, that the five postulates are all true, they must then produce an explanation for the existence of evil. This practice is known as theodicy and has a long and rich intellectual tradition. Of course, it's important to note that not all religious traditions must justify the existence of evil. The religion of the ancient Greeks, for example, did not assert that any of the gods were all-powerful, all-knowing, were perfectly good or, indeed, really cared that much for humans. Thus, whatever you may think of that theology, it had no real problem with the existence of evil.

Now, it's important to note that various efforts at theodicy have produced a number of "solutions" to the problem of evil. I, of course, place solutions in quotation marks because none of them are completely compelling. Individuals will find them more or less compelling depending on their temperment. So, for example, you may be fully convinced by the notion of god's inscrutability, or that humans are so much less wise than god that we simply cannot understand how his plan actually is perfectly good, and we should not presume to judge him. Thus, this response attacks the observation above that bad things happen "for no reason" and asserts that instead they occur for a reason we cannot discern. If on the other hand you don't find this argument all that convincing, as indeed I do not, don't fret: there are plenty of other flavors for you to try. Theodicy is, after all, essentially a theological Baskin Robbins and if you hang around long enough you can try a sample of everything. There's nothing like a tiny scoop of "free will theodicy" on that little plastic spoon.

It goes without saying, of course, that atheists do not have to grapple with the problem of evil. Since we disbelieve in the existence of god in the first place, the purported properties of that entity and their implications for the world are no more meaningful for us than the purported properties of Leprechauns. Maybe fun to talk about now and then, but certainly nothing to lose sleep over. Nonetheless, there are certain persons who claim that the problem of evil is a very real one for atheists. A classic example of this comes to us from Dr. Ron Rhodes who remarked:

" is impossible to distinguish evil from good unless one has an infinite reference point which is absolutely good. Otherwise one is like a boat at sea on a cloudy night without a compass (i.e., there would be no way to distinguish north from south without the absolute reference point of the compass needle).

The infinite reference point for distinguishing good from evil can only be found in the person of God, for God alone can exhaust the definition of "absolutely good." If God does not exist, then there are no moral absolutes by which one has the right to judge something (or someone) as being evil. More specifically, if God does not exist, there is no ultimate basis to judge the crimes of Hitler. Seen in this light, the reality of evil actually requires the existence of God, rather than disproving it."

Thus, the effort is made to turn a related problem of evil onto atheists: if you do not believe in god, then how do you judge evil?

There are a number of problems with this effort but I'm going to address some of them by focusing on Rhodes' specifically. The first problem here is that the very question presupposes what I like to think of as "metaphysical evil." What I mean by that is the idea that a category of thing known as "evil" exists independently of human judgment. If this is so, then Rhodes' analogy to the compass needle is somewhat apt: directions and physical location exist regardless of the presence or absence of an observer. The compass is simply an instrument for measuring that underlying property, much as a ruler is an instrument for measuring physical distance. If we take the position that metaphysical evil exists then, indeed, we must ask both where it comes from and how to measure it. That said, however, many atheists, myself included, don't believe in metaphysical evil. Most of us do believe that some things are "good" and others are "bad" but these are concepts that have no meaning apart from human judgment. And if both good and evil are rooted in human judgment, then human judgment is sufficient to distinguish them. Thus, Rhodes' argument is rendered invalid because it makes assumptions that do not hold for many atheists.

If we presuppose, however, that we did believe in metaphysical evil, then Rhodes' argument is still very problematic. He claims that " is impossible to distinguish evil from good unless one has an infinite reference point which is absolutely good." Yet, is this true? Is it impossible to measure a thing unless you have a reference point at the infinite extent of that thing? I think that even a casual reader must concede that no, it is not impossible. Consider physical distance: imagine a line of infinite extent. Having problems? Well of course you are! Infinity is a concept that has abstract meaning, and is useful mathematically, but is almost impossible for an individual to grasp. It is, in essence, utterly useless for judging distance. Similarly, an object of zero length is also very difficult to comprehend. Hell, I have enough trouble just wrapping my brain around the planck length. Consider, as well, temperature: can you imagine "infinitely hot" or "infinitely cold"? I can't and I doubt you can either. As a matter of fact, in order to measure these very real properties of the universe humans didn't spend any time at all trying to find an infinite reference point. With distance the first measures were almost certainly based on body parts and thus we explained distances by saying "thirty feet." Over time our measurements have grown more precise but, at the end of the day, we took something arbitrary and comprehensible and measured relative to it.

Likewise with temperature, the Fahrenheit scale and the Celsius scale were both calibrated relative to the freezing and boiling points of water at sea level. Why water? Why boiling and freezing? Why not? The selection was semi-arbitrary, owing to the significance of these temperatures for humans who are- after all- mostly water. Indeed, we have a third scale, Kelvin, calibrated such that it equals zero only when an object has absolutely no heat at all.*** Yet, none of these scales worry about an "infinite reference point," and, indeed, such a point isn't even meaningful. That is to say, since temperature is a measure of the kinetic energy in particles of matter, we can only speak of temperature increasing until the matter itself is converted to energy. Thus, there are maximum and minimum temperature points that fall far short of infinity. As a consequence, it is simply not the case that we require points of infinite extent to measure a thing and, indeed, such points are entirely useless for such a project. Instead, we require only arbitrarily chosen points against which we can judge other things. For evil we often use things like "murder" or "rape" which are hardly infinite, but quite useful for judging the relative badness of certain acts. And, indeed, I would argue that something like "infinitely good" is just as impossible to grasp as "infinitely long" and, therefore, equally useless for making moral judgment.

Now, to take up the final part of Rhodes' argument: does the lack of an infinite and metaphysical form of good and evil make it impossible to make moral judgments? Oh, no. Atheists have a number of solutions to this problem ranging from consensual definitions of good and bad behavior to something derived from natural law. Many atheists recognize, however, that regardless of how you justify and legitimate moral behavior, at the end of the day individuals must make their own moral choices with the advice of their society. Indeed, many religious people grasp this as well, it's just not talked about. One must always take responsibility for one's judgments of others and atheists by and large do not attempt to side-step this responsibility by hiding behind the murky demands of a hypothetical god.**** How do I judge morality? Maybe someday I'll tell you but not today- I've written enough.

So, in the end, Rhodes' claims simply do not hold water: measuring something that does not exist is hardly a pressing concern, infinite reference points are not useful for measurement, and the non-existence of god does not make judging behavior untenable. And in an ironic point, does this blog post constitute a sort of atheist theodicy?

Maybe so. And as such I invite you to judge it as critically as you would garden variety theodicy.

* Ha ha. Aren't I clever?

** No.

*** Just FYI: that's really f-ing cold.

**** I should probably note here that some atheists come up with some fairly stupid bases for their morality and I do not mean to imply that they're all perfect or something. Likewise, I know a considerable number of theists who grapple fully with moral conflicts. I am not attempting to tar them with the same brush as Rhodes but, rather, am trying to respond to his particular stupid argument.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Today on Total Drek: Emo shit!

Those who read the blog regularly know that I am not given to lengthy discussions of my personal life. Oh, they happen now and then, but as a general rule it's not my thing. Today is one of the occasional exceptions to that rule and, unless you have an interest in me and my family specifically, you're excused for the day.

So, as you know I am a graduate student somewhere in these United States and, as such, my salary isn't terribly impressive. Okay, that's an understatement: grad student salaries generally suck but, then again, not all of us work very hard so in a sense it evens out. One thing that has been a thin silver lining on this is that my salary includes health insurance. It is poor health insurance, true, and does not include any prescription drug coverage, but nevertheless it is at least something. During my recent medical fiasco this insurance served me well and, while I incurred a significant number of expenses, it covered the majority of them.

Sadly, however, my college has chosen to "upgrade" grad student health insurance. So far as we can tell, this upgrade mostly increases the amount of bureaucracy we have to suffer through to use our coverage and entails a reduction in benefits. The hypothetical exception to this general trend is that we now have a prescription drug plan... sort of. In theory, we pay full price for our prescriptions until we reach our deductible and then submit our bills for reimbursement. From then until the end of the year, the plan covers about 60% of the cost of drugs. Not ideal, since the reimbursement thing is kinda a pain, but it doesn't sound so bad. Until you realize that our deductible is about $2,000. Now, to put that in perspective, an awful lot of grad students don't make even $20,000 a year in direct salary. So, basically, our deductible is about 10% of our annual salary. And in an ironic twist, this new "benefit" actually harms us because- prior to this- those of us with chronic ailments made a sufficiently small amount of money to qualify for steep discounts from the drug companies. Now, because we have a "drug benefit" we no longer qualify.

And this brings us to my wife, who as some of you may know has asthma. This is a condition that is entirely treatable and livable so long as one has access to the required medications. Some of these medications, however, are a bit expensive. And now that our health insurance has changed, we now have to find a way to pay for these drugs up front and hope that the insurance company will reimburse us promptly. I imagine most of you can already see the problem here and, if so, you're right: while we racked up the necessary expenses fairly quickly, it has taken months to get the insurance company to grudgingly agree to pay us back and, along the way, they tried to deny us coverage entirely. Now, my wife is a good and decent woman. She- rather inexplicably- feels guilty about how much her asthma medication costs us and wanted to find some way to reduce the expenses. So she decided to simply stop using one of the more expensive of her prescribed medicines.* This saved us some money, but it also had the other result you might expect.

So, for the last week or so my wife has been in a bad way. Her asthma has been spiraling more and more out of control. She's developed a pretty serious respiratory infection. She's having to get quite a bit of her medications now via a nebulizer as her lungs are too closed up for the usual inhalers to work. She's coughing a lot now- deep, body-wracking coughs that leave her doubled up and nearly on the floor from the pain. We've had quite a few visits to the local asthma and allergy specialist, one late-night trip to the ER, and just returned from a visit to the x-ray machine. You see, after last night's most severe bout of coughing she developed an acute and enduring pain in her side. The doctor thinks she's probably torn the cartilage that connects her ribs but it's also possible she's fractured a rib entirely. No word on the x-ray yet, but since we haven't received any frantic phonecalls, I suspect it's just a tear. Regardless, however, the problem causes her substantial pain whenever she does trivial little things like "breathe," "sit up," and, my personal favorite, "cough".

For those of who know me, don't expect to see me around the office much today and probably for a few days. At the moment she needs me to help her at home.

And the really sad thing? Throughout this I keep thinking about all those Americans who don't have any health insurance. I mean, we have crappy insurance, but at least it's there. What happens to people who can't even say that? I think we all know the answer, and it isn't good.

Thank you, that will be all for now.

* I should note that she did so without mentioning the idea to me and I was rather cross when I found out.

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

20 Questions

For all the coverage given to Barack Obama and John McCain this year – and it has been incessant -- isn’t it astounding how little we’ve gleaned about how they would actually sail the ship of state? Amid all the smears and smear defenses, wedge issues, gotcha politics, fake outrage, infighting, and hero worship, it’s rare a candidate actually will be called on to answer a question of substance. But even when they are, there is little gained. We go round and round and round on about 5”big name” issues. Seriously, other than Iraq & Afghanistan, “the economy,” health care, and energy policy, can any of you describe their what the candidates are planning?

What’s particularly frustrating – though not surprising -- is the lack of attention to systemic problems. There are a lot of people, apparently, who think the country has been going in the wrong direction and want “a change”. But, they seem to assume that the way to change our direction is to elect a new personality to the oval office.

Unfortunately there are enormous obstacles to any kind of change in government, and our current president has done so much damage to the entire enterprise of American style representative government that the first order of business has to be undoing the damage. Without dismantling the system that brought us George Bush and that nurtured him, we’re doomed to see another like him. Or worse. Without ripping up the road he set us on, we will assuredly go down it again.

Yet, no one is talking about how to address these issues. I have hope that the next president can make a positive impact here, but he won’t if no one asks it of him. We need to make them go on record and take a stand.

This frustration got me imagining what questions I’d like to see the candidates answer. Issues that really matter to the continued operation of our society. Inquiries into the candidates’ perspectives on government itself. And a few I just thought would just be cool. At their best, they’d be questions that can’t be sidestepped and that clearly divide a heroic candidate from one doing business as usual. So, here’s my dream debate. To the best of my knowledge neither candidate has clearly defined a position yet on any of these.

20 Questions for the presidential applicant:

1. What – if anything - will you do as president to undo what many have called “the imperial presidency”? Will you voluntarily give up any of the contested powers that the Bush White House has claimed for itself (such as the authority to define torture, to withhold most testimony and evidence from congress, and to do pretty much whatever it likes “in a time of war”)?

2. Do you plan to continue the use of mercenary armies like Blackwater as adjuncts to our military? Should the same laws that apply to our troops apply to them?

3. It appears to many that the president is, in practical terms, above the law: that a White House can break any law it likes simply by covering it up, denying the facts, and refusing to go on the record. Is this true? If not, what can be done to deal with this perception?

4. Many have alleged that members of the Bush White House have acted illegally in various arenas. Given a widespread perception that these allegations may be true, how important is it to America to have open and fair investigations of these allegations? If crimes have been committed, is it healthier for our democracy to forget about it and "move on", or for illegal acts to be exposed and the criminals punished?

5. The last two presidential elections have been stained by serious allegations of voter fraud that have convinced many Americans that the process is rigged. What can you do to increase election integrity and voter confidence?

6. Former Bush White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, among others, has described the current administration as having a continuous “campaign mentality” and blamed this for the administration’s policy of misinformation. How can we keep politics and government as separate as possible?

7. President Bush recently used his powers to overrule the judicial system and commute the sentence of a friend of his: Scooter Libby. What is the proper use of the pardon power and how will you employ it?

8. What is your opinion of the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war? Isn’t there a danger if other nations follow our lead?

9. Our economy is based on growth, which implies the extraction of resources and the making and buying of things. Thus it has historically come at the expense of deforestation, pollution, despeciation, and other environmental damage and resource depletion. Is there a limit to how much we can or should grow? If so, what can you do to make sure we sense and respect this limit?

10. As I understand it, we, the public, own the airways used by all the major networks and we have granted a license to them in exchange for public services such as educational and news programming. But, today, networks motivated by the bottom line are increasingly providing “infotainment” and downsizing their ability to produce information. Given the importance of real information in a true democracy, what is the standard for a news organization to hold up their responsibility and how can it be enforced?

11. How will you help the American people stay informed about the issues that will impact them, even when those issues aren’t flashy enough to get big ratings on the networks? Will you wholeheartedly support public broadcasting? Willl you take and answer tough questions from the public? Will you publish information on the internet for the public?

12. You will very likely have the chance to nominate a justice to the Supreme Court during your presidency, as well as many lower court judges. You will have to choose between many brilliant, honest, qualified people who differ in their beliefs about what the constitution means, so you will doubtless select one who you think has it right. What legal stances will be important to you in making this decision?

13. Should corporations – who are essentially immortal profit-making machines -- enjoy all the constitutional rights of people? Should they retain their rights even when they are harmful to the rest of society (like those who engage in environmental destruction) or unpatriotic (like those sending jobs overseas) or immoral (like those that support repressive governments)? Will you support the “death penalty” (revocations of charters) for corporations who’s acts violate the law or shock the conscience?

14. How can we ensure that the interests of the majority of Americans will be advanced by our government rather than those of special interests with large wallets? How can our voices be heard over those of corporate lobbyists?

15. When people working as government officials commonly leave for a high paying job in the industry they were supposedly regulating, how can we be confident that they had the public interests first in mind during their tenure? Is the relationship between Washington and corporate America too close? What can we do about it?

16. Are you grateful or annoyed at those who point out the flaws in our government and the mistakes in our past? Specifically, how will you deal with whistle-blowers in your government who disclose embarrassing information in hopes of drawing attention to a systemic problem they see?

17. How will you ensure that your White House does not engage in groupthink. That is, how do you make sure dissenting or unpopular opinions will still be voiced.

18. Define “supporting the troops”. Does it necessarily mean favoring the war they are sent to fight?

19. How much you trust science as an institution? On what issues might you trust your “gut” over accepted scientific fact? Will you, for example, question the findings of the overwhelming majority of climatologists who say that the earth is warming due to human action?

20. Does the public have a right to know what goes on in the White House? How far does executive privilege extend, in your opinion?

Wouldn’t it be sad if we elect a president without knowing their answers to any of these?
What questions would you add? How else can we get people to think more systemically?
If you’re inclined, get these questions out there – forward them to anyone who’d be interested. Maybe somebody will read one and ask it at a “Town Hall Meeting” somewhere.

Friday, August 15, 2008

A wonderful part of my childhood.

My wife and I have recently been trying out Netflix and, so far, are really liking it. Among the new releases and recent movies they have available, there are also a wide variety of older and, indeed, quite crappy movies. One of these is the classic movie The Ice Pirates which- I am slightly ashamed to admit- I absolutely love. I mean, how could you not love this:

And you know what amuses me the most about this movie? The underlying concept. See, the story rests on the idea that all the planets with abundant water- but one- were destroyed during the "galactic space war."* So, as a result, water has become an incredibly valuable substance, indeed, taking over the role of specie. Why is this funny? Well, simply because water is incredibly f-ing abundant in the universe. Comets, for example, are basically dirty snowballs, meaning that they are composed largely of water ice with some rock, dust, and other volatile gasses thrown in. So, really, destroying every planet like Earth in the galaxy wouldn't appreciably reduce the amount of water ice available to a galaxy-spanning civilization. Hell, considering how much energy it takes to get mass out of a gravity well, comets would be the preferred source for water in the first place.

As a result, "The Ice Pirates" is a little like a post-apocalyptic movie set in the American southwest where every hardware and gardening store has been destroyed. And so bands of roving outlaws attempt to steal the most valuable remaining commodity: dirt. I can see it now, the heroic "Dirt Pirates" kicking up enormous rooster tails of dust and rocks as they pursue convoys carrying dirt from the last remaining Home Depot.


* Keeping in mind that the galaxy is a huge place, so a war would have to be mighty big to count as "galactic."

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Too cool not to post.

Have you ever seen a lightning strike in slow motion? Would you like to:

The opinions of others suggest that the video is legit and, I think we can all agree, utterly f-ing cool.

That is all for now but, if you're lucky, maybe tomorrow maybe I'll blog about the book I'm reading now. What book is it? Well, I'm not ready to say but I will admit that if I had to describe it in two words, those two words would be: "startlingly ignorant."

Good times.

UPDATE: Glitch with the video has been fixed.

h/t to Fresh Brainz.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Gotta love them family values.

As an atheist I frequently get to hear about how religion, and religious communities, provide the best family values. Indeed, it often seems that for many people the phrase "family values" is effectively synonymous with "religious values." Needless to say I find this a little iffy, even based on existing doctrine, but if that's what people want to believe, then so be it. Granted, I find it a little odd when some of those family values seem to involve ramming your views down the throats of others and, to be blunt, hating the fuck out of some people* but I guess I just don't have enough of that good old holy spirit.

Still, at it's very worst, most religions are still quite a bit better than this:

A toddler whose remains were found inside a suitcase in Philadelphia this spring was starved to death by members of a religious cult, including his mother, in part because he refused to say "amen" after meals, police said.

Ria Ramkissoon, the mother of Javon Thompson, was charged Sunday with first-degree murder in the boy's death, and Baltimore police said Monday that three other members of a group called 1 Mind Ministries have also been charged with first-degree murder. Police and Ramkissoon's family say the group is a cult.

Members did not seek medical care for Javon when he stopped breathing, and the boy died in his mother's arms, according to court documents that described police interviews with a confidential informant and two children. He would have been about 19 months old when police say adults stopped feeding him in December 2006.

And if that isn't horrid enough for you:

The documents show police interviewed two school-age children who had been part of the group but were taken away from members by Philadelphia police. The children told investigators that members stopped feeding Javon in December 2006, in part because the boy refused to say "amen" after dinner. Members also viewed Javon as "a demon."

Another unnamed informant told police that after Javon died, Antoinette [a religious leader] left the boy's body in a room for more than a week, claiming "God was going to raise Javon from the dead," the documents show.

Afterward, Antoinette burned the boy's clothing and a mattress and placed his body in a green suitcase, which she would periodically open and spray with disinfectant to mask the odor, police claim in the court documents.

Yeah. After the boy failed to rise from the dead the minister cult leader put the corpse in a suitcase and essentially used Lysol to hide the smell. There's horrible, there's really horrible, and then there's that. And this isn't even the only time this has happened. There seem to be an awful lot of children dying in recent years as a direct result of religious intervention.

So is this my segue into a generic rant against religion? Nah. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Instead, I just want to make an additional observation about the tragic case of Javon. In addition to what I've already quoted, there's this interesting tidbit:

Ramkissoon's family said she should not be held responsible for her son's death.

"She had no control over that situation at all," her stepfather, Craig Newton, said Monday.

Ramkissoon's mother, Seeta Khadan-Newton, told The (Baltimore) Sun on Sunday that it wasn't her daughter's decision not to feed the boy.

"My daughter was a victim, just like my grandson," Khadan-Newton said. "Somebody made that decision to not feed that child, and my daughter had to follow instructions." [emphasis added]

The thing is: no, she didn't. Look, I get it that disobedience to god comes with some pretty f-ing dire consequences, but must we make obedience to religious authorities such a bloody virtue? Just because your priest tells you to slowly murder your child, that does not mean that you have to slowly murder your child. And no, it isn't just the cults who make this point, it's right there in Genesis 22:

1 Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!"
"Here I am," he replied.
2 Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."

3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 He said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you."

6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, 7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?"
"Yes, my son?" Abraham replied.
"The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"

8 Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together.

9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!"
"Here I am," he replied.

12 "Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."

13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram [a] caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, "On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided."

15 The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, "I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring [b] all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me."

The only difference is in the Bible god stops short of actually killing the child. It's enough to just make Abraham think he has to go through with it. What can I say? The old testament god seems to be suffering from just a touch of borderline personality disorder.

Unfortunately for a number of children, however, the sort of restraint shown to Isaac by the old testament god doesn't appear to extend to modern faith healing. If you do stupid things to your kids in the name of god, they can in fact die as a result.

It's long past time we stopped teaching children to be mindlessly obedient. Our tendency to obey is enough to drive us to shock our fellows to death:

And it's enough to drive us to sexually abuse fellow employees. So can we maybe- just maybe- stop lionizing mindless, stupid obedience in the supposed service of god?


* Okay, to be fair, that should have read: "Hating the fuck out of just about everyone."

** And, as it turns out, lethal.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

For those who are curious...

My post for today is over at Scatterplot. Is it worth the trouble of reading? Well, you tell me but, if I were you, I wouldn't bet on it.

I mean, seriously, when have I ever been worth reading?

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Monday, August 11, 2008


Assuming you haven't been in a dark hole somewhere you've most likely heard about the current war between Russia and Georgia. Sadly I do not mean the state of Georgia, which would be the most awesome war in history. What could be better than aging Russian steel versus a bunch of absurdly well-armed good 'ol boys? Granted, Georgia has serious issues with their recruitment standards, but I think they'd probably make a good showing.

No, kidding aside, I actually mean Georgia, a small country on the Black Sea that is presently getting its ass kicked by overwhelming Russian firepower. The reason, near as I can figure out, is that Russia is tired of Georgia suppressing pro-Russia separatists within Georgia. So, basically, Russia is pissed that Georgia is doing in Ossetia what Russia has been doing in Chechnya. Only, as far as I know, Georgia hasn't started using chemical weapons or napalm. Speaking generally, I am unhappy about this war. Russia under Putin is drifting ever more deeply into nationalistic solipsism and reminds me of nothing so much as interwar Germany under Hitler. Moreover, this focus on enemies outside the state as a way of shoring up power can only work so long as there are enemies outside the state. And, let's face it, unlike Nazi Germany, Russia has access to thermonuclear weaponry. So intervening is going to be one hell of a lot more difficult.

Do we need to intervene? Well, Russia says no- they claim they're embarked upon a peacekeeping mission. At the same time, my wife has family in Europe who, in turn, have colleagues in Georgia. They recently sent this:

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Probably you are aware of catastrophic situation developing in Georgia during the pats days.

After the heavy fights with Russian Army (provoked by Osetian separatists) trying to stop their invasion, Georgian troops have pooled back.

The tens of thousands of refugees have left there houses in Georgian villages and in town Gori.

Gori which is 30 km away of conflict zone is now attacked by Russian Army.

Russian air strikes do not stop all over the Georgia. Last night Tbilisi suburbs were bombed and we all have felt horror of these attacks.

Georgian sky is absolutely exposed to Russian attacks. Without International valid support, we are left alone against Russian jets with useless rifles in our hands.

President of Russia (Putin not Medvedev) has officially declared that his aim in nor the 'South Osetia' not the 'Abkhazia' but occupation of Georgia and displacement of our President.

We sincerely thank those of you who have contacted us during the past days, those of you who have felt concern .

Good save Georgia !

Staff of Seismic Monitoring Centre: Tea, Zura, Misha and many others..

Russian Bombing of Tbilisi suburbs during the past night recorded by our seismic stations.

The recording was sent along as well:

Doubtless it would have more of an impact on me if I had the first damned clue how to read a seismograph.

Regardless of who is in the right here, regardless of what should be done, it is unfortunately the case that the U.S. will probably do nothing of substance whatsoever. Leaving aside the fact that a confrontation with Russia has the potential to be very, very dangerous to the world, our military resources are stretched pretty thin right now. This just isn't a good time to go fight the Russians. I expect we will whine a bit, but do nothing.

And what really bothers me about that is that Georgia was trying to approach the west, to join NATO, and has been a good ally. They are presently pulling back the troops they had in Iraq where they were the third largest coalition member after the U.S. and the U.K. During the last election Bush admonished us to not forget Poland. Fine. Great. But here's the thing: when the chips are down, are we going to forget Georgia?

Yep. I think that's exactly what Bush, Cheney, and the rest are going to do. And Georgia? For what it is worth, I am goddamn sorry.

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Friday, August 08, 2008

The beginning of the end? The end of the beginning? The middle of the end? Who knows?

Some of you may have been wondering where exactly the hell I've been today. Well, I'll tell you: I've been over on Scatterplot. Moreover, it would seem that I am still there.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that's right: I have finally joined up over on Scatterplot and will be contributing a little dose of my insanity to the otherwise responsible and intelligent stew that is that blog. For my first trick I provided a copy of my ASA diary. For my next trick... who knows? Perhaps I'll post hardcore pornography. The Scatterbrains knew what they were doing when they recruited me- I have, after all, been around long enough. If is what they get, they have only themselves to blame.

Some of you may be wondering if this signals the end of Total Drek. This is a fair question. I won't lie to you- if things work out I may transfer all of my blogging over there- but for the time being at least I think it just means a lot of cross-posting. Besides, lovable though the Scatterbrains are, I'm not sure they're ready for my brand of immature crap blogging quite yet.

So sit back, update your bookmarks, and get ready: the ride is only just beginning.

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

What's weird about Total Drek is there's just no telling what you'll find.

Normally, that sort of title would be vaguely threatening, given the sorts of things I blog about. In this case, however, it might be mildly less concerning. A while back I wrote a post finally completing my series on atheism. I tried, in my own clumsy way, to express why being an atheist makes me happy. Well, oddly enough, a passage from a song my wife recently exposed me to may do it even better. You can listen to the whole song thanks to the wonder of YouTube but, really, the passage in question is simply this:

This is how it works
You’re young until you’re not
You love until you don’t
You try until you can’t
You laugh until you cry
You cry until you laugh
And everyone must breathe
Until their dying breath

No, this is how it works
You peer inside yourself
You take the things you like
And try to love the things you took
And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else’s heart
Pumping someone else’s blood
And walking arm in arm
You hope it don’t get harmed
But even if it does
You’ll just do it all again

And on the radio
You hear November Rain
That solo’s awful long
But it’s a good refrain

Some people like to talk about the meaning of life. Me, I think life is so incredible already, demanding some higher power give it meaning is just churlish.

Carry on.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

I am oddly untroubled by this.

Regular readers of the blog know that I am rather interested in the whole evolution vs. absurd nonsense debate that rises and falls throughout the United States. I was, for example, very excited to find a copy of "The Devil in Dover" at the ASAs this past weekend and have been reading it off and on since then. For those who are curious: so far it's an easy read and utterly fascinating.

In any case, as a part of this fascination I keep an eye on Uncommon Descent, the weblog of Wild Bill Dembski and friends. Friends, in this case, includes Denyse O'Leary.* O'Leary caught my eye the other day with a post titled "A sociologist's perceptive look at 'theistic evolution.'" She's referring to Steve Fuller's new book Dissent Over Descent: Evolution's 500-Year War on Intelligent Design. Now, I don't have an opinion on Fuller's book as I haven't read it and, believe it or not, I generally try to read something before I disagree with it. How else, after all, would I know if I should disagree with it? I will grant that, given that Intelligent Design "theory" is considerably younger than 500 years, I am less than reassured. It's fairly impressive, after all, to claim that evolutionary theory has been beating up on ID for several centuries before ID was developed, but I digress.**

What caught my attention about this post wasn't the quality of argument- O'Leary is rather poor at rhetoric- but rather an offhand comment in the midst of it. Specifically, this:

Or, in simple human terms:

I am glad that a sociologist is researching the debate, because ASA-style theistic evolution makes sense only as sociology. It doesn’t make sense intellectually.

Leaving aside the humor of Denyse O'Leary favoring the work of a post-modernist, I find her statement interesting. She could be trying to say one of two things here. Either she's saying that sociology is not intellectual, or she's saying that theistic evolution only makes sense as some sort of bizarre phenomenon- that we can only understand it by studying it as some sort of disorder, rather than regarding it as a legitimate intellectual position. So, basically, this one statement could offend sociologists, or it could offend theistic evolutionists, or both. Yay!

Does this mean I'm offended? Oh, hell no. In the first place I'm not a theistic evolutionist, though I regard the position as entirely reasonable. Folks who don't seem to think that a hypothetical god could have created via evolution clearly don't have sufficient respect for their god. That said, am I offended as a sociologist? Nope. See, here's the thing: Denyse O'Leary wouldn't know good science or logic if it was sitting on her face. So, in a way, if she disses my discipline, I just think that means we're doing something right.


* For a more critical and, arguably, less embarrassing website. try here.

** I'll also grant that Science and Technology Studies generally makes me flinch preemptively. I've had some experiences with STS that reflect rather poorly, though likely unfairly, on the sub-area as a whole.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Teh stupid. It burns.

I just... wow. He actually went through with it:

The final version is, apparently, this, which is little changed from the version I remarked upon previously. Particularly, the same moronic "affiliations" are present in the letter, and he did CC it to Congress, among other places. I have to admit (and will elaborate upon this later) that I am growing quite sick of watching the ongoing nonsense at Conservapedia. I rather expect that a hiatus in my Conservapedia-bashing is in the works- not because they aren't bash worthy, but because I can only shovel so much shit before I need a break. Sadly, however, the Lenski affair is much like a terrible auto wreck: you don't want to watch, but you just can't look away. Hopefully, this particular slow-motion debacle will resolve itself before my sanity is entirely lost.

I know, I know: too late.

On a more amusing if unrelated* note, I recently encountered a comic over on xkcd to which my reaction was, in a nutshell, man does that take me back:

Ah, I remember the glorious days of my youth when paradise was just a bra-clasp away. A bra-clasp that I had no earthly idea how to operate, mind you, but that's hardly the point.**

Misty water colored memories, indeed.

* Although I suppose it is semi-related in the sense that I wonder if Schlafly's tendency to be an ass is related to sexual repression of some kind.

** When are sex education courses going to include that kind of useful how-to information? I ask you!

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Monday, August 04, 2008

Well, okay.

Okay, so, here's the thing: someone recently sent me the following movie clip and my reaction to it is a little mixed. Take a look and then we'll talk.

On the one hand, it is pretty touching and cute. Despite the Aerosmith song. I mean, the best thing to come out of Aerosmith is Liv Tyler and, let's face it, that's not a lot. So, yeah, I'm not immune to the cute factor.

On the other hand... guys, that's a friggin lion. Two guys adopted a large, predatory cat as a pet and then gave it up. They then flew to Africa to see it after having been warned that it would not remember them and would probably be dangerous. So, in short, these guys could basically be on the cover of "Poor Decision Making Monthly". They could probably also have a spread in the "Quarterly Journal of Questionable Religious Puns" for naming their Lion "Christian." Not that there's any unpleasant history summed up there or anything.

I'm reminded of nothing so much as those guys from my home state who adopt alligator young and decide to raise them as pets. At least lions are social critters and make a distinction between "my folks" and "not my folks." Gators, on the other hand, are quite solitary and really divide the world up into the categories of "food," "thinks of me as food," and "boring." And guys, honestly, gators don't put many things in that second category.

Here's an idea: next time, go with a house cat.

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Friday, August 01, 2008

Best argument for patronizing them I've ever heard.

Watch this. My comments following will be brief.

I particularly enjoy the confident claim that the "sodomite group" (i.e. homosexual friendly organization) exists for the purpose of destroying the family. How fantastic would those group meetings be? "Okay, first on the agenda for today: a discussion of ways to corrupt the family. Then, Bob made his famous spinach dip and we have dominoes and pinocle!"

In any case, I have never wanted a Big Mac so much in my entire life.

More when I return from Sociolapalooza 2008. In the meantime, for loyal readers who are at the ASAs, a hot tip: there is, in fact, free WiFi in the Sheraton outside the employment service. It's the network named "Hynes Wireless Network." And no, the irony of posting this information online is not lost on me.

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