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, October 31, 2008

What could be more appropriate on Halloween?

Today is Halloween, a holiday that has come to be associated with the macabre, the campy, and a whole fuck-ton of candy. This evening small children will be wandering door to door in costume searching for candy, older children will be contemplating throwing eggs at various houses, somewhat older children still will be trying to decide whether or not that scantily-clad nurse or pirate in the corner would be a safe one-night stand, and those of us who have reached crotchety old adulthood will just be trying to stay the hell out of everyone else's way. I leave it to you to decide which group I belong to.

As Halloween is a day when the spooky, the scary and the supernatural are talked about, both seriously and jokingly, I thought it an appropriate day for this little interesting tidbit forwarded to me by a loyal Total Drek reader. It deals with witches and warlocks and magic, oh my! Specifically, it deals with an online Christian forum called inJesus that has some rather disquieting news about the current election, and a call for someone to do something about it:

And for those whose eyesight isn't perfect, the headline I've helpfully circled reads, "Block African witchcraft curses against McCain and Palin NOW!" It goes on with what I can only describe as a descent into utter madness:

Dear friends:


Minutes ago I spoke with friend Dr. Norman G. Marvin, M.D. and he is so concerned at what he has learned about Barack Obama's family in Kenya that he is calling a special prayer meeting in his home to pray against the witchcraft curses attempted by them against John McCain and Sarah Palin.

Dr. Marvin sent me the below e-mail from Flo Ellers. Flo is credentialed with the International Fellowship of Ministries which is based in Washington State. She is also a member of EndTime Handmaidens and Servants of Jasper, Arkansas.



Now, speaking personally, were I a political candidate, I would be a little disturbed if someone wanted to cover me in blood. I've seen that movie- it doesn't end well. I'm not even sure what to say about the whole "spiritual warfare" thing other than just that warfare is, by definition, a fairly profane activity. Fancying your life up by pretending that you're fighting evil forces by talking to yourself in your rumpus-room seems, to me, to be mighty egotistical. Still maybe there's something to this. Let's see what this Flo Ellers of End Time Handmaidens and Servants has to say:

Two days ago, I listened to a 9-6-08 message by Bree Keyton, a young woman evangelist who had just traveled to Kenya and visited Obama's home village and what she found out about his relations with his tribal people was chilling. And his "cousin" Odinga was dreadful. She said the witches, warlocks and those involved in satanism and the occult get up daily at 3 a.m. to release curses against McCain and Palin so B. Hussein Obama is elected.


She said the current president of Kenya is a Christian. However, Obama's cousin Odinga ran aganist him and said he rigged the election and stirred up the masses to rape woman and boys, kill and burn and torture Christians, etc. until Obama contacted Condeleeza Rice and she granted Obama the right to contact Odinga and other ruling elders and he "convinced" them to stop terrorizing the Christians. Bree Keyton said the current Christian President was forced by our government (!) to "create" an office for Odinga (to make "peace") so he was made the Prime Minister (!) to make peace between the Christians and Odinga's Muslim religion!


The occultists are "weaving lazy 8's around McCain's mind to make him look confused and like an idiot". Bree K. said we need to break these curses off of him that are being sent from Kenya.

Um... yeah. So, McCain looks like a slack-jawed moron because tribespeople in Kenya are sacrificing chickens and chanting at him? It's not because he's... you know... really old and crotchety? And as a side note, Obama's uncle has debunked the notion that he is a cousin of Raila Odinga. But, really, what am I even doing? These people are claiming that if a tribesperson in Kenya sacrifices a goat it might effect a U.S. Presidential election. Is unravelling inaccuracies in kinship really going to cut it here? And frankly, I love nothing more than the realization that the solution is bad chanting is, apparently, good chanting. Now if only we could chant our way out of the economic meltdown, we'd be okay.

Still, if there's one bright spot to this embarrassing foolishness it's simply this: so long as these nutters are convinced they have to spend every waking hour engaging in "spiritual warfare" at least they're not out on the streets getting into trouble.

As a brief sidenote, I apologize to any non-crazy Christians who are somewhat vexed by this post. I have no problem with you. I'm really just pointing and laughing at the unfortunate minority of Christians who view prayer as a magic spell.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Something about shoes, and feet, and switching which goes with which.

Recently I ran across a lovely little political missive by Lee Walton. He was writing on the "Charleston Watch"* about Obama's tax plan. Or, more accurately, about his own perverse interpretation of this plan and his effort to educate others about it.

Walton wrote that one day, after noticing a homeless man holding a sign that read "Vote Obama, I need the money," he entered a restaurant for lunch only to discover that his waiter was wearing an "Obama '08" tie. In response, Walton decided to perform a little experiment:

When the check finally came I decided not to tip my waiter and explained to him that I was going to implement a practical application of Obama's Redistribution of Wealth concept as my own personal socialistic experiment. He stood there in stoic disbelief as I explained to him that I was going to redistribute his rightfully earned $10 tip to someone who I deemed more in need...a homeless fellow standing a few blocks north in front of the Harris Teeter parking lot. The waiter stammered a few "Why practice on me? I’m just a local college student!" retorts and then angrily stormed away from the table in a steaming huff of progressive self-righteous indignation.

Apparently, after experiencing firsthand the application of such socialistic governance from the perspective of the rightful wage earner, my young liberal-minded waiter was quickly convinced that income redistribution was much easier to support as a noble, magnanimous social policy than when his own hard-earned income was about to be redistributed, against his will, to another I deemed more needy.

Now, this "experiment" obviously does Obama's plan injustice. Obama isn't proposing stripping money away from college students and low income workers to give to the homeless for alcohol. He's proposing increasing the tax rate at the very high end while decreasing it for the majority of tax payers. Further, the money is intended to pay for a variety of programs that are very likely to have both direct and indirect benefits for a lot of people. Republican wisdom to the contrary, the market can't do everything and sometimes we're all a little better off with government intervention.

Mostly, though, what strikes me about this story is how it presents a false dichotomy. We are presented with a choice between keeping the legitimately-earned fruits of honest labor, or having those fruits taken from us and thrown willy-nilly at alcoholic homeless people. Honestly, I don't know why Walton didn't include a cackling feminazi** in the background just to place us even more firmly in conservative fantasy-land. Then again, he did remark at length about how difficult it is to be a hard-working, honest corporate owner. Seriously:

As I walked back to my office, I began thinking about the heavy burden of corporate ownership and the endless frustration from beating my head against the wall of increasing bureaucracy year-after-year. I also thought of the majority of this year’s hard-earned profits that I had planned to reinvest in a few new employees, annual raises to reward loyalty and hard work, Christmas bonuses for extraordinary effort, and year-end corporate donations to the SC Aquarium, Coastal Conservation League, and the Historic Charleston Foundation.

Indeed, an oppressed member of our society stands before us.

Snark aside, however, I wonder if, perhaps, we couldn't construct a perspective from an opposing extreme? Maybe a little something like this:

Recently as a result of some unexpectedly cold weather a pipe in my apartment broke. While a plumber labored to repair the damage I idly watched CNN, noting a discussion between a prominent Wall Street banker and Wolf Blitzer. The banker wore an American flag pin in his lapel and argued that McCain should be elected because only he could be trusted to inject money into the economy where it was needed- the banking system. I laughed to myself and admired the man for his misplaced, albeit blatant honesty.

That's when I noticed that my plumber was wearing a "McCain/Palin 08" button on his old, worn suspenders. An hour or so later when he finished his work I decided to only pay my plumber twenty dollars and explained that I was going to implement a practical application of McCain's redistribution of wealth concept as an experiment. He stood there in stoic disbelief as I explained to him that I was going to distribute the rest of his $130 payment to people who really work hard- the owners of the local bank and Exxon-Mobil. My plumber remained still for a moment and then shrugged, took his twenty dollars, and departed swollen with conservative self-righteousness.

I admit I was surprised, at first, that my nameless plumber accepted this turn of events so readily. That is, until I realized that in the last eight years our economic system has become so slanted in favor of the wealthy and powerful that I hadn't done anything to my plumber that he wasn't accustomed to already.

As I walked in to the office I began thinking about the heavy burden of arguing for progressive policies against the naively dangerous panacea of an expanded free market and unrestrained capitalism. I also thought about how much of my own wages were deducted in taxes to pay for social programs for those less fortunate than I.*** But what about the needs of CEOs? Where were the payroll taxes for their benefit? After considering my apparently incorrect political and economic beliefs and the needs of the hard-working, albeit financially struggling, corporate class, I decided in that moment that I should continue paying taxes at the same rate and, indeed, even accept a tax hike so that those more wealthy than I could finally enjoy some relief.

And in that brief instance, I too became a practicing McCain supporter.

Fair? Hell no. Accurate? No more, or less, so than Walton's initial experiment. Nevertheless, the underlying point is, I trust, clear. Redistribution of wealth can go either direction and before you decry efforts to make it run downward, maybe you'd just better make sure that right now you aren't paying it upwards.

* Which has the entirely unpretentious masthead "The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance."

** I use the term sardonically, of course.

*** I may be a grad student, but at least I have a safe working environment, adequate (sort of) health insurance, and a salary placing me minimally above the poverty line. That's better than a lot of people can say.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Presented without comment.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Brings new meaning to the term "cup size."

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with my enduring fascination with breasts. More often than not this fascination is not prurient, per se, but rather stems from a recognition of the significance of breasts in our culture.* For example, I once wrote a series of posts dealing with the bizarre attention paid to, and value placed on, natural breasts as opposed to surgically augmented breasts.

I'd feel embarrassed by my occasional posts on the general subject of boobs but, if anything, I am not as interested as some others seem to be. Research has been conducted, for example, with the intent of producing the ideal boob job. Nope, not making that up. On a somewhat less bewildering note, research has also been conducted into the evolution of the breast that points to its origins in the immune system. Pretty neat stuff, actually.

Well, research on breasts hasn't ended and so my attention to them remains strong. Particularly, I recently ran across an article discussing research linking breast size to coffee consumption. Seriously:

Scientists have discovered that drinking just three cups of coffee a day can make women's breasts shrink.

Nearly 300 women were surveyed about their bust measurements and how many cups of coffee they drank in an average day.

According to researchers, three cups a day was enough to start making breasts shrink, with the effects increasing for every cup drunk.

Now, the quantoids out there are noting, as I did, that this research is apparently cross-sectional, meaning that it can't determine causality. So, for example, it could be that increased coffee consumption leads to decreased breast size, it could be that women with smaller breasts just like coffee more, or it could be that some third variable is controlling both breast size and coffee consumption. And in perfect honesty, I don't know which of these options I find less bizarre than the others. And all that assumes this this isn't just a giant load of crap in the first place.

More interesting, however, is what appears buried late in this admittedly short the article:

It's not all bad news for women however as the researchers also found that regular hits of caffeine can help to cut the risk of developing breast cancer.

Scientists said that the effect of coffee is related to its impact on estrogens - the female sex hormones.

Some substances in coffee can change a woman's metabolism so she acquires a better configuration of various estrogens, therefore lowering the potential risk.

But women with bigger breasts that contain more mammary glands are at a higher risk, the scientists added.

And this is an addition I find interesting. You see, what we have here is a substance that is purported to have two particular effects on women. First, it may reduce the size of a body part that is considered central to sexuality in our culture. Second, it may reduce the risk that the aforementioned body part will develop a life threatening disease. Speaking personally, I would think that the latter revelation is more noteworthy, particularly given the absurd prevalence of craptacular merchandise that supposedly contributes to breast cancer research. So, it seems like the headline should read, "Drinking coffee may reduce breast cancer risk," and then somewhere in the article there should be a mention of the additional cosmetic implications. Sadly, however, when you do a google search for the name of one of the study's authors (i.e. Helena Jernstroem) you find an array of reports on the research which all essentially take the same line- coffee consumption shrinks teh boobs:

And I think this says something interesting, and probably not flattering, about our culture. Maybe the measure of a man is hard to take, but it sometimes appears that the measure of a woman is taken across her chest.

* Also I have a prurient interest in boobs.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

So that's paranoid...

Today I'm posting over at the esteemed Scatterplot. I recommend you check it out, though, because it deals with a shocking new report than Barack Obama isn't just a talented politician:

He's a fucking super-villain.

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Friday, October 24, 2008

The fourth debate John McCain doesn't want you to see.

I'm too busy to blog extensively today but, to keep you busy, please enjoy this video of the secret fourth debate between John McCain and Barack Obama. Surprisingly, Sarah Palin gets into the act and, honestly, turns in a better performance than she's managed thus far.

And if that isn't enough to keep you busy, try this stirring tale of Republican honor:

Allen Raymond is living proof that political dirty tricksters do exist.

The former Republican political operative went to federal prison after he pleaded guilty to charges of phone harassment. He jammed the phone lines of New Hampshire's Democratic Party on Election Day six years ago.

"The concept was to disrupt lines of communication. That's a fancy way of saying, 'make it so the phones didn't work,' " Raymond said recently. "No calls going out. No calls going in."

We're not going to give away exactly how Raymond did it. According to federal prosecutors, two top Republican Party officials tapped Raymond's Virginia-based telemarketing firm for the operation. Raymond then contracted out the job to a private phone bank in Idaho.


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Thursday, October 23, 2008

I wonder what Joe Sixpack would make of this?

So many of you have probably heard the news that Sarah Palin has spent a lot of money recently on her wardrobe. How much is "a lot"? Well... um... around $150,000. Seriously:

Sarah Palin's sharp looks on the campaign trail come at a price: more than $150,000 on clothing and accessories from high-end department stores since the Alaska governor was the surprise pick by John McCain to be his running mate, records reveal.

Financial disclosure statements documented by show the retail outlay for Palin and her family since early September included a $75,062.63 expenditure at a Minneapolis Neiman Marcus and shopping trips to Saks Fifth Avenue in St. Louis and New York that resulted in a combined tab of $49,425.74, all paid by the Republican National Committee.

Hair and makeup accounted for another $4,716.49 billed to the RNC in September, with no such costs reported in August.

This is actually more hilarious in my opinion than Cindy McCain's rather extravagant outfit from the convention, if only because Palin has been working hard to portray herself as one of the people. She constantly refers to herself as a hockey mom, talks about "Wasilla Main Street," and just tries to be as folksy as she can. And then... well... this happens. What's even funnier is that, while the campaign claims that the RNC is just "loaning" her the clothes, it may well be that she will have to report them as income on this year's taxes:

I just got off the phone with a well-respected and well-known tax attorney who doesn't want to be identified.

I asked him earlier in the day whether Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin can avoid paying taxes on the $150,000 worth of clothes the RNC bought her, as she and the RNC maintain. (They said the RNC now owns the clothes; she's just borrowing them.)

He said that, after consulting with a number of experts at his prominent firm, he thinks the RNC and Gov. Palin are wrong.


"The consensus view is she would have to count the wardrobe as income at least in the amount of the fair value of the rental of the wardrobe," he said.

Now, snark about the validity of anonymous sources aside,* estimates suggest that Palin's income, minus her husband Todd, but including the per diem she charged the State of Alaska for her use of her own home, run at about $142,000 per year. So, essentially, she's acquired enough fashion items in the past few months to actually outweigh her own income. Assuming the full $150,000 is taxable, that places her at a combined income of $292,000 for a tax bracket of about 33%. Her tax bill for the clothes would, therefore, be about $49,500. And you know what this means? It means that the taxes she might ultimately pay on clothes purchased for her campaign represent more money than I make in several years as a grad student, even before tuition/fees/academic extortion. Coincidentally, the modal income for an American household on the 2006 General Social Survey was $40,000-$49,999. So, Palin may end up paying more in taxes on clothes than a lot of American families make all year.

It's not that I mind that she makes a lot of money, I don't. It's not that I mind that she dresses well, I don't. It's just that I mind that she pretends that she's just a regular old hockey mom when she's anything but. And I mind that she encourages folks who are struggling to make ends meet to vote for economic policies that more or less promise to end what little prosperity they have left.

You know what the difference is between Sarah Palin and a hockey mom?

$75,000 in clothes from Neiman Marcus.

* And I'm not sure how snarky I would be, given how the peer review system works.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Just for the record...

This, right here, is why I will never move to Australia.

What am I talking about, oh lazy people who won't click a link?

Just a spider that is eating an f-ing snake, okay? It is a snake-eating spider!

Don't get me wrong- I grew up in Florida where we have a vibrant community of homicidal wildlife. I just don't want to deal with a spider that eats bloody reptiles,* okay?

That is all.

* Also: the males of the species actively commit suicide during mating: "In the process of mating, the much smaller male somersaults to place his abdomen over the female's mouthparts. In about 2 out of 3 cases, the female consumes the male while mating continues."

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

In which Drek has a racist moment.

This past weekend I was out walking my dog and admiring this year's bumper crop of political campaign signs. We've got your McCain/Palin signs and your Obama/Biden signs and a whole gaggle of local election signs for people that, as a grad student, I barely care about. Nonetheless, I've been pleased at the level of political awareness in my area.

That is until this weekend when I noticed a Buick with foreign plates stop at an intersection. A college-age male then jumped from the back seat, ran across a different street to someone's yard, ripped up their Obama/Biden sign, and retreated back to the car.

I'll admit, I debated intervening for a moment or two, trying to decide whether or not I had just witnessed a crime. Ultimately I decided I had to say something- both because interfering with someone's political speech like that is a problem and because there's no way that, were that his house, he would remove his own yard sign in such a manner.

I approached the car from across the intersection, keeping in front of it until I swerved around the front to knock on the driver's side window. Inside the car were five males of about the same age who all looked Indian* and were very well dressed. The driver had a large diamond stud in his ear. After a brief hesitation I pantomimed rolling the window down and the driver complied:

Driver: Yeah?

Drek: What exactly are you doing?

Driver: What, man? He just wanted an Obama sign.

Drek: (pointing at the house) Do you live there?

Driver: No.

Drek: Does he live there?

Driver: No.

Drek: Then that isn't your sign. You just stole that sign. It doesn't belong to you.

Driver: Okay. Well, what do you want me to do about it? (shrugs)

Drek: ...

Drek: (pointing to the house) Is that your property?

Driver: No.

Drek: Does that yard sign belong to you? Is that your property?

Driver: No.

Drek: Then what do you think I want you to do?

Driver: ...put it back?

Drek: You bet your $#@ I want you to put it back.

Driver: All right, you guys, put it back.

At this point two things happened. First, I looked at the guy in the back seat who originally stole the sign. He was grinning during this exchange but stopped as I glared and began to unbuckle his seatbelt. At the same time, an unmarked black SUV pulled into the lane next to us. I pulled my dog closer to clear the way for it to pass, but to my surprise it stopped and rolled down its window.

Police Officer: Is there a problem here?

Drek: Yeah, these guys are stealing yard signs.

Police Officer: That's a problem. Why are you guys doing that?

And before I knew it the officer was out of his car, checking license and registration, getting all the occupants out of their vehicle, and lecturing them rather aggressively on the fines for ripping up people's signs. I don't know if he issued a ticket or not because the officer dismissed me fairly early on, not least because the driver of the car admitted that they had stolen the sign. All the same, I felt reasonably good about confronting the men and getting some random homeowner or renter their sign back.

Later, however, I found myself wondering at the weirdness of the entire situation. I'm a big gangly white guy.** The cop was an even bigger white guy. We were, essentially, coming down on people of color. So far, this sounds like the beginning of a tale of hardship. Thing is, I actually witnessed these specific people stealing a yard sign- it isn't like it was racial profiling. And in addition, the white "establishment" was coming down on people of color for tampering with the candidacy of an African American. There was no white conspiracy here, just a random guy who was angry at something he saw, and a cop doing his job. And the weirdest part of it was that I was doubting myself for reporting a crime I had actually witnessed just because the perpetrators were of color.

And I've gotta be honest- I think that's just a little bit racist.

* No, not Native American. I mean the sub-continent here.

** Or so I would have you believe.

Cross-posted over on Scatterplot.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

I'm fairly certain many married men had already figured this one out.*

Some of you may remember that I recently blogged about a fairly dramatic bit of sexism over on Conservapedia. This post is not about Conservapedia, per se, but it is about sexism. Or, more appropriately, the degree to which men and women can be viewed as essentially the same as opposed to essentially different.

One perspective, often advanced by social conservatives, is that males and females are inherently different from one another, while others claim women and men are essentially the same. Usually claims of difference are based on either biological distinctiveness (i.e. evolution/god made us different on a physical level) or spiritial distinctiveness (i.e. god intended for us to be different on a metaphysical level). Additionally, we sometimes run into the idea that we're different on a physical psychological level (i.e. evolution/god made our brains work a little differently). Now, nobody with half a brain claims that there are no sources of physical distinctivness. Sexual dimorphism, among other things, makes that claim untenable. Yet, there have been claims that women are physically not suited for some tasks that men are suited for and vice versa. Often, these sorts of claims get meshed with the psychological distinctiveness claims and yield some fairly interesting assertions, such as Newt Gingrich's famous remarks about women and men in the military:

"If combat means living in a ditch, females have biological problems staying in a ditch for thirty days because they get infections and they don't have upper body strength. I mean, some do, but they're relatively rare. On the other hand, men are basically little piglets, you drop them in the ditch, they roll around in it, doesn't matter, you know. These things are very real. On the other hand, if combat means being on an Aegis-class cruiser managing the computer controls for twelve ships and their rockets, a female may be again dramatically better than a male who gets very, very frustrated sitting in a chair all the time because males are biologically driven to go out and hunt giraffes."

Of course, often the issue isn't whether or not there are differences but, rather, whether we should attend to those differences and whether they're a result of genetics or experience. So, for example, perhaps on average women have less upper body strength than men, but that said I think there are plenty of female gymnasts who could kick my ass. Shouldn't we judge based on the attribute we're interested in (e.g. strength) rather than something that has a correlation with it (e.g. sex)? At the same time, just because women and men are different in adulthood it doesn't mean that those differences are inborn but, rather, could be the result of life experiences. W.I. Thomas had a pretty awesome article on this in the American Journal of Sociology with the title "The Mind of Woman and the Lower Races."** Despite the title, it is a pretty progressive argument that men and women are different mostly because their lives are made different by structure. I'm not going to touch the spiritual argument about differences between men and women- as a materialist atheist, I find the entire question to be ludicrous.

Often efforts to portray men and women as different stem from a desire to restrict female activity or, alternatively, to delineate the proper sphere of female action. Ahem. Still, sometimes it works in a different manner. It has, from time to time, been suggested that women are kinder, gentler and more decent than men. Particularly, it has been argued that women are less violent and may make better leaders. This argument was part of the women's suffrage movement in the 19th century*** and is at the heart of Robin Williams' famous remark that if a woman were President there would never be any wars- never ever. Just every 28 days there would be serious negotiations. It has even lurked beneath some feminist thought, arguing in a sort of odd reversal that women are different from men, as has been traditionally believed, it's just that they're better.

I have no interest in passing judgment on that view as a whole and, indeed, am well aware that from an evolutionary and biological perspective, males of our species are considerably more expendable than are females.**** Yet, I have always been more than a little skeptical of the notion that a society ruled by women would inevitably be more just and less violent than one ruled by men. What can I say? I'm a structuralist at heart.

And, as it turns out, new research suggests that my skepticism may have been justified:

Anthropologists have never directly observed a female-dominated society among humans, but many have speculated that such societies would be less violent than male-dominated ones. Now that postulate has been challenged by hard evidence. Bonobos, a primate species that is female-dominated and bisexual, have been observed repeatedly hunting and killing other apes in the wild.

Or, to quote directly from the researchers:

In chimpanzees, male-dominance is associated with physical violence, hunting, and meat consumption. By inference, the lack of male dominance and physical violence is often used to explain the relative absence of hunting and meat eating in bonobos. Our observations suggest that, in contrast to previous assumptions, these behaviors may persist in societies with different social relations.

Does this mean that human females aren't naturally less violent than human males? No, but it does provide reason for us to believe that they probably aren't. And in the end that's probably for the best.

We're an aggressive, hardy, tough species and that goes for the women as well as the men. It just so happens that wishful counterfactuals aren't going to help us learn to deal with that.

* Not talking about my wife, mind you, I just get to hear stories of bitterness from other men now and then.

**Thomas, William I. 1907. "The Mind of Woman and the Lower Races." The American Journal of Sociology, 12(4): 435-469.

*** e.g. Holly McCammon's work on suffrage.

**** I sometimes like to observe that human males traditionally had two roles: father the next generation, get eaten by tigers. And we pretty much had to do it in that order, too.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Becoming a trend...

Yep. I am, once more, blogging over on Scatterplot.

On the plus side, there's a funny picture this time...

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Thursday, October 16, 2008


It's one of those days.

Have fun!

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The More You Know...

My parents were visiting a while back. If only I had seen this ad back then:

God. You look away for a second and there are Republican pushers giving them a free sample of righteous indignation. Before you know it, they're hooked. All strung out on tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulation. It's terrible to see a life just wasted.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

As you may have guessed...

Today I'm posting over on the esteemed Scatterplot. What's the topic? Oh, just how Paul Krugman won the Nobel and sociologists are teh awesome.


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Friday, October 10, 2008

You win some, you lose some...

Okay folks so today I have news that should be of interest to a lot of people. Over two thousand years ago a man named Jesus was allegedly born from a virgin. That is to say, resulted from a pregnancy in a woman who had never experienced sexual intercourse. This man has become the center of a global religion and it is claimed that he will return to Earth, thereby signalling the end of days. This is usually referred to as the "second coming." I, as an atheist, have long doubted the validity of this story. Particularly, while I do not doubt that there was a man named Jesus, I do very much doubt the supernatural qualities ascribed to him, including his birth from a virgin.

Well, it looks like I may have spoken too soon. Theists out there, I have some good news for you and I have some bad news for you.

The Good News: There has been a recent documented instance of a virgin birth.* I am entirely serious: a birth resulting from a mother who absolutely, positively, could not have had sexual contact with a male.

The Bad News: The mother is a shark.

I kid thee not:

Scientists have confirmed the second case of a "virgin birth" in a shark.

In a study reported Friday in the Journal of Fish Biology, scientists said DNA testing proved that a pup carried by a female Atlantic blacktip shark in the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center contained no genetic material from a male.

The first documented case of asexual reproduction, or parthenogenesis, among sharks involved a pup born to a hammerhead at an Omaha, Neb., zoo.

Now, I know, this isn't what everyone may have had in mind. Last time, I'm told, god came to mankind in the form of a human being and part of the "evidence" for his divinity was the aforementioned birth from a virgin. This time... well... god stuck to the last part of the plan but apparently decided to get a little fancy with the first part.

And while everyone else spends a little time soul searching I just want to be the first to welcome our new toothy messiah to the world.**

All hail Jawsus Christ!***

* Actually, there have been two recent documented cases, but that's beside the point.

** Precociously, the messiah has already met a rather dreadful fate: '"By the time they could realize what they were looking at, something munched the baby," he [Demian Chapman, Shark Scientist****] said of aquarium workers. The remains of the pup were used for the DNA testing.'

*** Yeah. I am so going to get complaints about that one.

**** Okay, two things. First, it would be so awesome to be able to introduce yourself as a "Shark Scientist". Secondly, doesn't that make it sound just a little like it's the SHARK that is the scientist?

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Just stick with this one, it'll be worth it.

As all of you know I have long suffered from a crippling addiction to that most reviled of repositories of whatthefuckery, Conservapedia. As you also know I have been struggling mightily to reign in my urge to blog about every little bizarre happening at that cesspit of the human mind. In that effort I have been largely successful with- I admit- occasional relapses. At this point I'm managing to hold myself to about one conservapedia comment per month, which is quite a bit better than my previous record.

In any case, today I'm having a relapse. In order to understand this relapse, however, you have to first understand that Andrew Schlafly, the Supreme Leader of Conservapedia, teaches online and in-person courses for home schoolers. Now, as you might guess, these courses are bad. I mean really bad. Take a look at his American History Lecture Five which, among other things, includes comments like this:

Beware of over-reliance on authority. Unless we're talking about the Bible, authority is not always going to be correct. Every book contains mistakes or fails to explain a concept well, and it's beneficial to read many sources, because some authors will cover what others miss. [emphasis added]

Oh, yeah, and according to Schlafly, the infamous "trianglar trade" never existed:

Triangular trade was a mythical trans-Atlantic trade route, developed by the Portuguese in the 16th century, but later used by the other maritime nations of Europe, that had three parts or "sides" to the "triangle": Africa to the Americas to transport slaves, the Americas to Europe to transport raw materials, and Europe to Africa to transport finished goods for sale.

It doesn't make sense because at the time Africa was not a significant market for finished goods. No instance of a triangular trade route has ever been found.

Nevertheless, history books teach that there were many variations on the routes and goods transported.

So apparently African slaves were deposited in the new world by some sort of natural phenomenon like, you know, a wormhole. In fairness, wrangling over this point continues but it's safe to say that American history is being taught by a man who hasn't the foggiest understanding of American history or, at any rate, is prepared to jettison scholarship when it conflicts with her personal biases.

So, amidst all this madness, what is it that set me off today? Well, just this American history midterm exam he's preparing for his students. You may not notice the oddity in it at first, but it's there. See it yet? Try this:

Or, in regular human language:

Boys' version: 33 questions in 20 minutes.
Girls' version: 28 questions in 20 minutes.

That's right, ladies: the girls take a test that is five questions shorter. Because, you know, y'all just can't be expected to perform the way boys do. And just so you don't think this is a mistake, Conservapedia maven BethanyS objected to this state of affairs, remarking:

I am completely against structuring the test so that boys have a different test than girls. Healthy competition is good, Mr. Schlafly. With all due respect, it actually gives the student more incentive to do well on the test and study harder. And the harder they study, the more they will learn. Changing the test also eliminates the student's right to be proud when they do better than others. However, if it becomes a problem, and that student begins to brag, then, naturally, they'll need to be talked to. But by changing the test, students can say that they got a bad grade because 'their test was harder' or 'different', when really, they didn't study all that hard, because they knew they would have an excuse. Making the tests different will also cause other problem. Suppose someone does not do as well as someone else on the test. they might say: 'well my test was harder'. The other person might respond: 'no it wasn't' and so many fights could break out in this manner. The only way to get rid of competition taking place out of selfishness or hate is to talk to that student, tell their parent, or something of the sort.

To which Schlafly responded:

Thanks for your enlightening comment. I'm a big supporter of competition and its powerful benefits. But we have plenty of that within the subgroups of boys and girls. It adds nothing, and actually detracts a great deal, to add competition ''between'' boys and girls.

To which BethanyS, showing the kind of verve social conservatives love in their women, exercises her god-given freedom to shut the fuck up and sit down:

Well, you're the teacher, you make the decisions; I will submit.

Yep: Schlafly is the decider and he has decided. And this isn't an isolated incident- Schlafly has previously asserted that females are inferior to males in areas other than just American History:

Or, in regular print:

Think girls can excel in math as well as boys can? Liberals teach they can, which is teaching a falsehood.

Personally, I think Schlafly just feels inferior to Danica McKellar. Well, okay, I think he feels inferior to just about everyone. And speaking as someone whose wife was a much, much better student than he was, I have no sympathy for Schlafly's position whatsoever.

Mostly, though, I just wonder about the parents and students who have to deal with Schlafly. Is there a point where they will stop, say enough is enough, and tell him to shove it? Or will they allow his megalomania and religious madness to eventually back them into a corner?

I am not optimistic.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The sort of things that come to me late at night.

Today I have a brief, morbid little riddle for you. Don't worry, it won't take much of your time.

Question: What do you get when you mix theocratic ideology with a large quantity of thermonuclear weapons?

Answer: A partial solution to the Fermi paradox.

Sleep tight, kids.

As a side note: is this unfair anti-religious propaganda directed at fundamentalist Christians. Well, probably. Then again, unfair anti-religious propaganda seems to be all the rage these days. May as well spread it around a bit.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Psst! Hey! You want some Drek?

Yeah? You can totally score over at Scatterplot.

Mess you up.

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Monday, October 06, 2008

Your Total Drek Breaking Very Old News Report!

Towards the end of last September a peculiar protest took place. This protest, conducted by thirty-three pastors in twenty-two states, did not involve any marches, or slogan chanting, or tear gas. Instead, it involved those pastors just doing what they always do- preaching. Interestingly, however, they preached not about god, or religion, or even faith, but instead about politics:

This weekend a select team of 33 pastors in 22 states will be preaching on politics in a direct challenge to a federal tax statute that forbids churches from interfering with political campaigns.

The pastors are participating in "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" as part of an effort called the Pulpit Initiative developed by the Alliance Defense Fund, an organization of lawyers dedicated to defending religious liberty.

As WND [World Net Daily] reported earlier, ADF launched the Pulpit Initiative to challenge a 1954 amendment to the Internal Revenue Service code submitted by Democratic Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson that permitted the IRS to revoke a church's tax-exempt status if the preaching gets too political.

The ADF believes that pastors have a First Amendment right to speak on politics if they choose, and that by using its tax authority to limit pulpit content, it is the government, and not the preacher, who is violating the separation of church and state.

Now, a few points. First, World Net Daily is, in my opinion, thoroughly crazy. And oddly I can't decide if they're crazier becuase of the hard conservative Christian line they push, or because it's fairly obvious from their website that the money changers have well and truly entered the temple. Second, the "Alliance Defense Fund" isn't so much a group that defends religious liberty as a group that promotes conservative Christianity. So, whereas the ACLU has a habit of defending groups they more or less find distasteful, the ADF is not inclined to defend anyone's religious liberty except for conservative Christians. And I'm not the only one who says so.

Next, we need to consider the reason for the tax exemption for religious organizations. John Marshall, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1801 until 1835 famously observed in McCulloch vs. Maryland that "...the power to tax involves the power to destroy." In other words, if one organization can impose a financial burden on another then it can, in theory, destroy that organization without technically outlawing it. Based on this logic religious organizations are granted a tax exemption, thus protecting them from state intervention that would be technically legal but in violation of the spirit of the constitution. Put differently, if the government can tax, say, Evangelical churches so heavily that they can't survive then it has the ability to outlaw Evangelical Christianity without actually making it against the law and, thereby, side-step the constitution. I have no problem with this logic and agree that religious organizations should be tax exempt. When the IRS tax code was amended in 1954 to make this exemption provisional on churches not engaging in political activity, the idea was simple: if the government has to keep its hands off of religion then, logically, religion should keep its hands off of government.

At least officially. Everyone knows that religious groups will have political agendas, but this provision at least provides a mechanism for keeping it from getting totally out of control.

These pastors are arguing that their first amendment rights are being restricted, and maybe they are,* but the purpose is to maintain the separation of church and state that it a fundamental part of the constitution. And oddly, this policy protects members of every faith from being overwhelmed by those of another. Under the guise of working for their constitutional rights, these pastors are trying to have their cake and eat it to- to prevent the government from influencing them, while retaining their ability to influence the government.

And maybe it's just me, but that ain't right.

* Keep in mind, however, that it is well-established in case law that the first amendment does not protect all kinds of speech. Think of yelling "fire!" in a crowded theatre, for example.

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Friday, October 03, 2008

I am officially excited about Obama/Biden 2008

Like many of you I spent some time last night watching the debate between Joe Biden and Gwen Ifill Sarah Palin. Also like many of you, I have been seeing a variety of punditry on it this morning, most of which remarks on how Palin managed to exceed expectations while Biden still did a good job. These achievements were, respectively, nothing special and very impressive. In the case on Palin, given her performance in other settings, I think that "exceeding expectations" really just meant that she didn't fall down. I mean, really, watch the following clip and tell me she doesn't remind you of that kid who really likes eating paste... you know, in high school:

Joe Biden, on the other hand, had the difficult task of trying to smack some sense into the Republicans while not giving the impression that he was smacking Sarah Palin around. Because, you know, she's a girl and girls can't take it. Riiiiiight. Sure they can't. Still, Biden managed this goal with supreme aplomb- tearing into John McCain with dignity and respect.

So am I here to just repeat what the pundits are saying? Nah, not really, but I did want to ask y'all for your opinions on the debate. Particularly, I'm wondering a couple of things.

First, initially in the debate Palin seemed to be going for folksy charm and meaningless platitudes. Biden, on the other hand, came out of the gate aggressively arguing about policy. For a while there Palin stuck to strategy, then looked cross, and then started making fairly direct and- I thought- insulting remarks about Biden and Obama. In other words, I think there was a distinct change-up in her strategy from folksy reassurance to an effort to bait Biden into making a mistake. It didn't work but, to me, it came across as: "Crap, this isn't working, time to go with the other strategy they taught me."

Second, we really got to see two Sarah Palin's last night. One Palin was calm, collected, and had direct talking points with distinct taglines. The other Sarah Palin was a confusing, nonsensical wreck. Oddly, the latter seemed to be present at the beginning and end of her comments when she was struggling to dance around the real question and the former Palin came out once she had wrenched the subject around to something else. So, basically, it felt like the campaign staffers just gave her a series of set-piece talking points and told her to get onto them as fast as possible no matter what happened.

In short, I think Biden did extremely well and Palin only held her own by comparison to what many of us knew might happen instead.

What do you think?

Cross-posted on Scatterplot.

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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Well, when you put it that way...

Unless you're terrifyingly ignorant or a member of the fairly deranged group of people who think we faked the whole thing, you're doubtless aware the the United States has landed astronauts on the moon. No, not recently. As if the current administration could find its way to the bathroom in the dark, much less another planetary body. But I digress...

As a result of these moon landings, our continued use of robotic probes and telescopes, and general scientific prowess there's this impression out there that we have "explored the moon." I mean, hell, we sent missions to it and all, what more could you want?

Well, as it happens, a lot, because as I said before the Earth's moon is effectively a planetary body. Its average radius, at 1,737.1 kilometers is 71% of the planet Mercury's radius of 2439.7 kilometers. It's mass is about 22% of Mercury's and about 1% of the Earth's* so, basically, we're talking about a very large body that is fairly close to our own world. As such it would be a little cocky to think that we had explored the whole thing. But still, we've been at this for a while, so we've explored a lot of it, right?


Eh. Not so much. Recently, NASA put together a pair of maps that give an idea of just how much of the moon we explored with Apollo 11. And for comparison, these maps are superimposed over a soccer field and a baseball field. Check it out:

Kinda humbling, no?

* Keep in mind that radius and mass don't change linearly in relation to each other. As there is more mass, there is more gravity, which tends to compact material to a greater degree. It's also well understood that the moon is relatively poor in dense heavy elements compared to the Earth and, so, has a lot of volume for its mass.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Okay, so, that happened.

A long, long time ago* I wrote a post dealing with the topic of rape generally and a book by Susan Brownmiller particularly. What I said was that it was a powerful and incendiary book that provided rich material for the construction of theory, but suffered from a number of problems. Most important, in my view, was the fact that the book often sacrificed journalistic accuracy** in favor of narrative power, often serving more as a feminist polemic and less as an honest study of the phenomenon of rape. Nonetheless, I generally praised the book and then, as now, view it as a useful perspective on the issue. It is a starting point but, without question, not an ending point.

Now I haven't thought about this post in a long time. That's what happens with old posts- they're forgotten. But the great google-gazoogle hasn't forgotten and it must have led someone new to this post recently. I say that because I received a comment on this post and it was not particularly complimentary. Specifically, my commenter remarked as follows:

You do not need to apologise or excuse 'wanting' to read about rape.

Many people want to read about rape. That is the correct word to use. You want to read it..for whatever reason.

If you didn't want to read it, you would not seek it out and read it.

I have more to say so hopefully i'll remember to come back but I just wanted to say the above AND most importantly; that so-called rape story is pathetic and childish and looks like some kind of wannabe, taboo, internet erotic story about rape, meant to titilate. The lack of full stops should have given you a clue to the so-called author's intelligence or writing level (or should I say- lack of)

Now, I may be oversensitive but, really, this comment seems to by implying- rather darkly- that I have a prurient interest in rape. Perhaps my commenter imagines that I read the passage quoted in my post with a throbbing pulse and firm erection. Certainly, the brunt of my post argues against such a conclusion but, nevertheless, there you go. And while my commenter is at it, he or she accuses Hubert Selby of being stupid.***

The problem is, I have gotten this sort of thing before. I have a professional interest in rape, it is something I am interested in studying, and so I have spent a certain amount of time reading the literature on it. As I am familiar with it I have, from time to time, used examples drawn from it in class- particularly when I need to make the point to my students that correlation doesn't equal causation and discuss the famous, but meaningless, correlation between ice cream consumption and sexual assault. And in this context I recall a student remarking in class, "What the hell is wrong with you that you're studying rape?"**** So, since it's evidently a point of confusion, let's just go over a basic idea.

If someone tells you that they study murder, it doesn't mean they want to kill people. If they say they study malaria, it doesn't mean they want people to be sick. If they say they study terrorism, it doesn't mean they're going to blow themselves up. If they study nuclear fusion, it doesn't mean they're going to build a hydrogen bomb. And if they study rape, well, it doesn't mean they have some kind of perverse interest in it.

Look, seriously folks, a lot of the things scientists study are viewed as actual or potential problems. Do we study hugs? Well, some of us, but not most. Do we study HIV? Hell yes- not because we like it, but because we don't like it. Yes, I have an interest in studying rape, but it is not because I just think that rape is teh awesome. It is, in fact, because I dislike it rather a lot. And the thing that drives me crazy is that I have, at various times, felt as thought I have to defend my interest in the subject, as though sexual stimulation is the only possible reason I might have for not pretending sexual assault doesn't exist.

Yes, some people read about rape or watch shows about rape because they find the idea exciting. But accusing everyone who professes an interest in the subject of doing it for kicks just discourages genuine research. And in the final analysis, that hurts everyone.

Or, to respond to my commenter in the short sentences he or she seems best equipped to deal with: Bite me.

* Over four years ago, to be accurate.

** Never mind social scientific accuracy.

*** The New York Times famously remarked that, "To understand Selby's work is to understand the anguish of America," and some of you may remember another of his works: Requiem for a Dream.

**** Gosh, I love how free undergrads feel to ask questions sometimes.

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