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 30, 2009

Fool me once, shame on you...

So a while back I submitted an article to a journal, which we shall call the Drekistan Journal of Sociology.* In the meantime, as the months have gone by with the wheels of publication grinding inexorably onward at their usual glacial pace, I was tagged for two reviews by the same journal. I completed both reviews and submitted them as a good little hopeful journal publishee should and went about my business.

A few weeks ago an e-mail popped up in my inbox from DJS that included the phrase "notification of decision." My pulse pounded, my blood warmed, I felt all feverish, and images of both success and failure swirled through my brain in a very close approximation of Schrodinger's feline companion. And then I noticed that the full subject line was "Reviewer notification of decision". Yeah, it was just the journal letting me know how things turned out with a paper I reviewed.

I got on with my life, continued with other projects, and time wore on until yesterday I received another e-mail from DJS. My pulse pounded, my blood warmed, I felt all feverish, I hesitated over opening the message. And then I noticed the same thing. It was a reviewer notification of decision. This time around my verbal response to this let-down was such that I cannot repeat it even on this usual cesspool of foul language.

Honestly I don't know what should bug me more: that I over-reacted the same way twice, or that two papers I've reviewed since submitting my own have gotten decisions before me.

* Not its real name.

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Left Behind: Chapter 7, Part 2

Hey everybody! I'm your host, Drek the Uninteresting, and I welcome you back to our exciting weekly series on Left Behind, the book whose strongest endorsement is the simple fact that it won't make it burn when you pee! Wow! Last time Rayford spent a whole lot of time looking at the bible and making it apparent that he's a raging moron. What will happen this time? Who knows, but with luck, it won't involve Rayford!

As always we have a comment of the week. This week the prize goes to JLT for giving us a window into Rayford's bible reading adventure:

-- Uh, red letters, that seems to be important. Thank God (haha), it’d take me weeks to read the whole page, I’ll just read the red bits. Nice short words in there, too. [mumbles, brows furrowed] "Let the one who is ... thi..thirs..ty come...". --

I couldn't agree more as I find it almost impossible in Chapter 7 to not yell, "C'mon, Rayford, use your phonics!" at the page. See, this is why people don't like to sit next to me on airplanes. Anyway, congratulations JLT and everyone else, stay tuned! Plenty more chances to win!

And with that, let's begin! As always, page/line numbers are in bold, quotes from the book are in block quotes, my commentary is in regular print, and you can navigate the whole series with the provided tag.


Dramatis Personae

Because this is the order god wants...

Rayford Steele: Airline captain. Husband of Irene Steele. Possible former gay porn star. Ditherer. No longer attracted to Hattie. Bad father. Cries a lot.

Irene Steele: Wife of Rayford Steele. Born-again Christian. Not perfect, just forgiven. Reader of marriage books. Cleans obsessively. Likes egg in her coffee. Bakes really silly cookies. Likes butter churns.

Cameron "Buck" Williams: Reporter. Known for "bucking tradition and authority." Terrible Excellent writer. Spiritually attuned. Electronics wiz. Fast typist. Clumsy on slides. Travels a lot. Graduated from Princeton. Human alarm clock.

Hattie Durham: Flight attendant. Toucher. Hottie. Hysterical female type. Girl power devotee. Unhealthily thin. Twenty-seven years old. Blonde.

Chris Smith: Airline co-pilot. Worked with Rayford Steele. Father of two. Husband. Killed himself.

Chloe Steele: Daughter of Rayford Steele. Student at Stanford.

Chaim Rosenzweig: Israeli chemist. Kinda freaky. Friend of Buck's.

Steve Plank: Buck's boss at Global Weekly. Not the sharpest tool in the shed.

Nicolae Carpathia: Businessman. Romanian Senator. Romanian President. Antichrist. Favors arms reductions.

Raymie Steele: Son of Rayford Steele. Taken in the rapture.

Dirk Burton: English guy Buck knows. Graduated from Princeton. Kinda gullible.

Joshua Todd-Cothran: English finance guy.

Jonathon Stonagal: American ultra-rich dude. Involved in international monetary cabal.

Marge Potter: Steve Planck's secretary. Matronly.

Lucinda Washington: Fiftyish black woman. Raptured.

Ken Ritz: Pilot. Profiteering on the rapture. Actually quite polite. Fired for being too careful. Believes in aliens.


Page 126- Line Chihuahua:

No quote, but we're back with Buck. He and Ken are landing in Easton, Pennsylvania where Buck will take a car to "within a couple of miles of the subway." We're then treated to narration about how lots of train conductors and operators disappeared in the rapture, so there's mass chaos and disaster all over the place. And, of course, lots of casualties. Just another signature of a god that had to signal his people by killing the fuck out of us, instead of just using the old burning bush approach more liberally. I never really understood why god feels compelled to only communicate in a manner that's totally unverifiable, but maybe that's just me. Needless to say all this chaos doesn't phase Buck Williams, inaction hero!

Page 127- Line 4-7:
His [Buck's] driver had not even been a cabbie, nor the vehicle a cab. But it might as well have been. It was just as decrepit and unsafe.

Um... can someone tell me why the authors felt the need to take a swipe at cabbies all of a sudden? I mean, sure, I've been in unsafe cabs. I've also had asshole cabbies, including that one guy who expounded on how all a woman had to do to keep him happy was, "Keep my stomach full, and my balls empty." At the same time, however, I've met a lot of very nice, very interesting cabbies and, while I've never held a hack license myself, I'm kinda offended on their behalf. In any case, Buck manages to get on a train that takes him a ways into New York and then randomly stops. That is to say the train randomly stops and tells everyone to get the hell off. Oh no! What will Buck do? Well, he bitches and moans about not having transportation until something stupid happens.

Page 128- Line 12-18:
"Oh, God, help me," Buck breathed, more exasperated than praying. But if there was a God, he decided, God had a sense of humor. Leaning against a brick wall in an alley in plain sight was a yellow bicycle with a cardboard sign clipped to it. It read, "Borrow this bike. Take it where you like. Leave it for someone else in need. No charge."

Maybe this is intended as a subtle hint about the power of prayer but, really, it just serves to remind me that Buck really, really sucks at being a deist.

Page 128- Line 19-20:
Only in New York, he thought. Nobody steals something that's free.

I realize that as an atheist I am, in the eyes of the authors, intrinsically morally bankrupt, but I'm forced to wonder- as a definitional issue- whether it's even possible to steal something that's free. I mean, I'm just saying that it isn't usually worth remarking on the fact that people don't do something that's categorically impossible.

Page 128- Line 21-23:
He [Buck] thought about breathing a prayer of thanks, but somehow the world he was looking at didn't show any other evidence of a benevolent Creator.

First off, I love how they capitalize "Creator" even though, in context, it's not even close to being a proper noun. Second: No, the world does not seem to have been created by a benevolent dude. Nor, despite the equal utility of the arguments in its favor, does it seem to have been made by a hateful god. The universe appears to be massively indifferent to us. Yet, hey, behold the power of god! He permits cancer and AIDS, but provides yellow bicycles! Finally, Buck might be "breathing a prayer of thanks" but frankly this book makes me think more in terms of "snorting a line of coke". My snarkiness aside, however, Buck manages to peddle his fat airline-seat-shaped ass back to the Global weekly building where he warmly greets Steve Planck and Marge Potter before being welcomed into the loving fold of his fellow reporters.

Page 130- Line 9-14:
He [Buck] tried to wipe the tears away and compose himself, but when he looked up, forcing an embarrassed smile, he noticed everyone else was emotional too. "It's all right, Bucky," one said. "If this is your first cry, you'll discover it won't be your last. We're all just as scared and stunned and grief stricken as you are."

Bucky? Seriously? Oh, man, why the hell haven't we been calling him this from the beginning? Heh. Bucky. This whole scene is like a Hallmark channel epic, but not as well-written.

Page 130- Line 15-17:
"Yeah," another said, "but his personal account will no doubt be more compelling." Which made everyone laugh and cry all the more.

Ha! Right, yes, it's funny because Buck's such a great writer. Don't you remember that really innovative "Great Wall of China is long" analogy (Page 10- Line 10-12)? Heh. heh. God I hate these people. Regardless, this ends our time with Bucky until the next chapter. As this isn't the end of the chapter, however, it means we're back with Rayford, who has called Pan-Con in the hopes of turning up some information. The humor, however, is in what info he wants and the order in which he asks for it. He starts by asking what kind of work schedule he can expect, given that the globe is in chaos. They tell him he's scheduled to fly soon, but...

Page 130-131- Line 130:26-27, 131:1-7:
"There's a chance I'll get called off before I leave home?" [Rayford asked]

"More than a chance, but that's your assignment for now." [the scheduler replied]

"What's the route?"

"ORD to BOS to JFK." [the scheduler answered, using the airport codes Rayford should know by heart]

"Hmm. Chicago, Boston, New York. Home when?" [Rayford responded, making sure to translate for the reader]

"Saturday night."


Okay, so, great: Rayford might have to work part of the weekend. Not a big deal I guess and there are worse places to go than Boston and New York. I mean, given that Rayford lives in Chicago it seems like they could have omitted the first departure city, but whatever. Still, I feel like we're forgetting something...

Page 131- Line 21-28:
"Can you check on something for me?" [Rayford asked]

"If it's in my power, Captain." [the scheduler answered]

"My daughter is trying to get back this way from California."


"I know, but she's on her way. Trying anyway. She'll more than likely try to fly Pan. Can you check and see if she's on any of the manifests coming east?"

Yes folks, that's right: Rayford calls up his airline, where he is a respected Captain, and makes sure to get the intricacies of his planned work schedule nailed down before he asks whether or not they have the foggiest notion where the hell his only remaining child is! Seriously, we've been waiting for her to show up for two chapters! When will this guy start to get even slightly interested? Honestly, I've gotten to the point with Rayford that I kinda hope he dies in a fire. In any case, amazingly, the dude on the phone manages to find Chloe on an airline manifest, so apparently she wasn't hitching with truckers after all!

Page 132- Line 12-21:
"She checked in at Palo Alto. Pan put her on a bus to some outlying strip. Flew her to Salt Lake City on Air California. First time out of the state for that plane, I'll bet. She got on a Pan-Con plane, oh, an oldie, and they took her to, um, oh brother. Enid, Oklahoma." [the scheduler said]

"Enid? That's never been on our routes." [Rayford replied]

"No kidding. They were overrun with Dallas's spillover, too. Anyway, she's flying Ozark to Springfield, Illinois."

"Ozark!" [Rayford exclaimed]

Yes, Ozark! And believe it or not, the final revelation that her travel plans include Ozark is officially the only part of that entire mass of shit that will ever become even slightly important to the plot. Sort of. I guess I'm glad we know what's become of Chloe, then?

Page 133- Line 4-12:
"Well, I'm sorry for what you're going through, sir, but you can be grateful your daughter didn't get on Pan-Con directly out of Palo Alto. The last one out of there went down last night. No survivors."

"And this was after the disappearances?" [Rayford asked]

"Just last night. Totally unrelated."

"Wouldn't that have been a kick in the teeth?" Rayford said.


Leaving aside that we apparently don't care about a planeload of people dying... of course it was after the disappearances you moron! He said 'last night' and, besides, given that Chloe only started to try to get home after the disappearances... yeah. Rayford is just an f-ing moron. Strike that: an f-ing moron who apparently only slightly cares about his kids. You're welcome to speculate on whether or not the authors are suggesting that this is characteristic of non-Christian fathers, I choose not to go down that road out of a desire to keep my blood pressure manageable.

And with that, dear readers, we come to the end of the chapter. You may be feeling like this was a short episode and, indeed, you'd be right. In my defense, this is because I'm trying to find logical cut-points for the mid-chapter breaks, which sometimes requires that I go slightly over half-way through the chapter. Also, however, this gives a sense of how the book really feels. In Left Behind chapters don't reach a conclusion, they just sort of stop wherever they are. Almost as if they got tired. So, hey, you're really getting the full experience, only with less insipid writing (I hope) and more snark.

Anyway, come back next time when we start chapter eight, Buck takes us into major tinfoil hat territory, and Rayford fills us in on more of his backstory. I, for one, can absolutely wait.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I don't even understand her point.

You really have to watch this with the sound on to get why it's so utterly crazy:

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that's right: you can train a dog to refuse to take treats when you utter the phrase "Barack Obama." I guess I'm not smart enough to understand the subtle political commentary here, because it really just seems like a crazy woman playing with her dog. On the other hand, you've gotta love the implications: it's okay to take handouts, just not from a duly elected authority. Because, as Tina recently demonstrated, government never does things better than private industry. Of course not...

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On the inadequacy of reference points.

One of the common criticisms I hear of atheism is that without god morality is impossible. Presumably this is because god provides an unchanging reference against which morality can be judged. And understand that when I say "presumably" I really mean "pretty much explicitly" given the commentary of folks like Ron Rhodes:

" 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."

Now, I've talked about Rhodes before at some length and don't mean to rehash his nonsense now. The point is simply to reintroduce this basic argument: atheists cannot be moral because they have no standard against which to judge morality. The answer to this conundrum, we are told, is god and often specifically the bible. There are a number of problems with this argument, that I discuss elsewhere, but recently circumstances have given me a great example of why this logic is problematic. I refer, of course, to a recent incident wherein a Texas jury apparently referred to the bible when deciding whether or not to recommend that a murderer receive the death penalty:

Amnesty International has appealed to the state to commute the sentence on Khristian Oliver, 32, who is due to die on November 5.

He was sentenced to death in 1999 for murdering a man whose home Oliver was burgling. The victim was shot in the face and beaten with his own rifle.

It later emerged that while deciding whether he should be given the death penalty, jurors consulted the Bible. Four jury members admitted that several copies had been in the jury room and that highlighted passages were passed around.

At one point, a juror reportedly read aloud from a copy, including the passage: "And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death."

Now, the thing is, I'm not interested in defending Mr. Oliver or in debating the death penalty. Instead, I'd like to point something out: in at least this case, the bible was used to justify putting a man to death. Yet, the Catholic Church, one of the largest Christian denominations, stringently opposes both the death penalty and abortion. And this is, of course, the same Catholic Church that used to burn people at the stake in the name of Christianity and encourage noblemen to put Muslims to the sword and reconquer the holy land. Some Christian denominations ordain women and allow homosexuals to worship. Others condemn homosexuals as an abomination before god and expect women to remain subservient to men. And, at the end of the day, all of these groups claim to follow the same god, the same prophets, and share the same holy texts.

My purpose here, of course, is not to bash Christianity and the above is not intended to do so. The above are simply statements of facts- there is a great diversity to Christian belief just as there is a great diversity to Christians. My point, however, is simply that the notion that religion provides a fixed reference point for the judgment of morality is- in a word- silly. If so many people, believing in the same god, and referring to the same books, can arrive at so many different conclusions, then morality does not come from god, but instead comes from us. And if that's so, then attributing this morality to god does little more than conceal the decision making process, thereby making it more difficult to evaluate and improve our sense of morality.

And this is the really interesting thing to me. In western civilization we have come to expect that virtually every aspect of our lives will improve over time. Science learns more, engineers build more sophisticated machines, medicine cures more, literature and art progress. Hell, even summer blockbusters are supposed to get more impressive over time. Yet, in this one area of life- morality- we seem to cling to the notion that what is old, even ancient, is inherently better. In this one domain we seem to labor under the belief that men writing thousands of years ago, in a world almost unrecognizably different from our own, were able to lay out truths so perfect that they never need to be revised. And from that belief we have developed this notion that slavish obedience to those ancient writings, no matter how out of date, is to be praised.

Perhaps atheism lacks a firm reference point for morality but, if so, that only makes it better. By exposing the difficulties of moral choices to the light of critical examination it allows room for change, for improvement, and advancement. And to me that makes our future a brighter, more appealing place.

I should note, in passing, that I do not wish to imply that religious persons do not reevaluate their morality periodically- they can and do both individually and as a group. Were it otherwise the Catholic Church would still be burning people at the stake. My point, however, is that we might be much more effective in improving our ethical systems if we were relieved of the fiction that they come from god and, likewise, the need to justify moral improvements through reference to texts written millennia ago.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Blessed is the flow chart...

Over on Unreasonable Faith, VorJack recently posted a brief piece titled "What I Don't Miss About Being Christian". Rather than settle for a snarky, "everything,"* he instead gave a fairly interesting explanation via a joke:

A man by the name of Ole lives to a ripe old age and dies. He awakes to find himself in Hell, which is a bit of a surprise. Still, he figures he might as well get a look around before the torture starts. He wanders over to another lost soul, who turns out to be the preacher whose church he attended as a kid.

“Father Dunn!” Ole exclaimed, “You’re a Godly man, what are you doing in Hell?”

But the preacher wouldn’t meet his eyes. The man just gives him a sickly smile and shuffles off.

Feeling unsettled now, Ole wanders over to another lost soul. Ole immediately recognizes the face from one of his textbooks: it’s Martin Luther.

“Martin Luther!” Ole shouts, “What are you, of all people, doing in Hell?”

But Luther just mutters something in German and points over to a third lost soul in the distance. Perplexed, Ole hikes up to this final man. As he draws closer, he recognizes (somehow) the figure of Saint Paul.

“Saint Paul,” cries Ole, now completely befuddled, “what’s going on?”

Paul looks at Ole for a long moment before breaking down in tears. “Works!” he weeps, “It was works all along!”

No longer being Christian means no longer having to ask, “Am I doing it right?” [emphasis distinguishes VorJack's commentary from the joke]

This is an interesting point and is another one of those things that helped drive me from Christianity in the first place. In short, it simply boggled my mind that eternal salvation or damnation might hinge on whether or not I said one particular variation of a particular prayer, or did or did not rely on faith alone for salvation. Indeed, however large or small the differences may be between religions, the supposedly meaningful disitnctions between denominations often vanish into meaninglessness and seem a poor standard against which to judge someone's eternal worth. Now, that said, I would observe that as an atheist I do find myself asking, "Am I doing it right?", meaning life, but at least my question doesn't have the unsaid commentary "Because if I'm not I'm going to burn for all eternity" coming along with it. For me, not living my life well is its own punishment, because this life is all that I have.

Still, given the deep existential pain that can result from not being sure what religion to follow, please allow me to pass on this helpful flowchart courtesy of Holy Taco. This is your one-stop theology shop!

Now, if only someone could explain the Raelians...

* Actually, I don't think I would answer "everything" either. Personally, the thing I miss most about being Christian is the automatic acceptance that comes along with it. No matter how wacky your sect may be, if you can plausibly claim to be "Christian" you're automatically at least somewhat okay. As an atheist, on the other hand, I am viewed as automatically suspect by most people, even members of my own family.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

There is really no response to this other than a scream of incoherent frustration.

I'm a big fan of vaccines. You all know this. The reason why I'm a big fan is that they are an extremely cheap, extremely effective way of protecting people from disease. Moreover, they're an extremely "natural" way to do it- after all, your body develops immunity by being exposed to a pathogen and vaccines work by exploiting this process. The only thing that differs is that the pathogen in the vaccine is vastly less potent that the wild organism and, therefore, much safer to be exposed to. In contrast, getting treated with antibiotics or antivirals after infection is most certainly not "natural" and comes with a wider array of issues and side-effects. So, hey, vaccines are awesome.

There's another reason vaccines are awesome, however: herd immunity. When enough people receive vaccinations pathogens have a hard time spreading and this protects even the unvaccinated in a population. And I don't mean those who choose not to get vaccines because they're idiots, I mean those who are too young (i.e. infants), those who are too old, or those who have compromised immune systems (e.g. people undergoing chemotherapy). Herd immunity is thus a public good that protects not only the vaccinated, but our neighbors, friends, and loved ones who- through no fault of their own- cannot be vaccinated and therefore must go through life at risk from pathogens that the rest of us can be protected from.

I was thinking about this recently as a result of an article on Slate where a woman discusses the hardships of finding daycare for her son, who is undergoing treatment for leukemia:

Last year, while searching for child care for our 2-and-a-half-year-old son, my husband and I thought we had we found the perfect arrangement: an experienced home day care provider whose house was an inviting den of toddler industriousness. Under her magical hand, children drifted calmly and happily from the bubble station to the fairy garden to the bunnies and the trucks, an orchestrated preschool utopia. But when I asked: "Are any of the children here unvaccinated?" the hope of my son's perfect day care experience burnt to a little crisp. As it turned out, one child had a philosophical or religious exemption—a convenient, cover-all exemption that many doctors grant, no questions asked, when a parent requests one. (I still do not understand how the state can allow one to attribute his or her fear of vaccines and their unproven dangers to religion or philosophy. But that's a question for another day.)

Ordinarily I wouldn't question others' parenting choices. But the problem is literally one of live or don't live. While that parent chose not to vaccinate her child for what she likely considers well-founded reasons, she is putting other children at risk. In this instance, the child at risk was my son. He has leukemia.

What does any of this have to do with vaccinations? While the purpose of chemotherapy is to kill the cancer, it also kills the good cells—most notably the infection-fighting white blood cells. That means my son has limited ability to fight off anything. A single unimmunized child in an ordinary child care setting is the equivalent of a toddler time bomb to him.


For now, we will hire an at-home sitter for him. It's more expensive and not what we had wanted, but it's the best, safest option. When he is ready to go off to school, we will have to face this issue again: Public schools are forced to enroll unvaccinated children who have religious or philosophical exemptions—again, whatever that means. Because we want him to have as "normal" a life as possible, we'll likely send him off in the bright yellow school bus and cross our fingers that the kid sitting next to him didn't just attend a "chicken pox party" over the weekend. Because what's "just a case of chicken pox" for that kid could be a matter of life or death for mine.

It's a moving article and worth a read, but nothing particularly out of the ordinary. It raises an important point, explains it well, and makes very clear the risks that anti-vaxxers force the rest of us to take. But it didn't really strike me as chilling until I ran across this little note on craigslist:

Or, in plain text:

Chicken Pox Party (Spokane)

I am trying to put together a chicken pox party and am looking for someone to donate their chickenpox to the event.
I was thinking of having it at McDonald or some place with toys to play on.
if you know anyone who would like to contribute or would like more information on a time and place let me know.

Location: Spokane
it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests [Bolding original, underlining added]

So, we have someone trying to put together a chicken pox party- the very thing that the author on Slate was afraid of- as an alternative to vaccination. Great, fine, I think it's a bad idea, the science says it's a bad idea, but I can't really dictate someone else's choices to them. But that being the case, they're proposing to have it in a public f-ing setting that expressly includes "toys to play on." So, in other words, they're putting other adults and children at risk of an illness that can and does cause serious disease and seem to be doing so without any concern at all. Were they planning on telling anyone about this? Perhaps posting signs at the play area that a pox party was in progress? I doubt it, because I doubt any McDonalds manager would be too keen on hosting such an event. So, instead, we just get a nice, quiet group of anti-vaxxers who exercise their right to not be exposed to safe, effective medical treatment by exposing the rest of us to dangerous pathogens. And do you want to know what the funniest part of the whole thing is? That bit at the end of the post that says "it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests". Yeah, absolutely, it would be a travesty if this poster got tagged with a little spam while planning to spread a dangerous infection in a public place!

There's selfish, there's really selfish, and then there's this. And I honestly can't feel anything but helpless frustration in response. Maybe one of you can do better.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Left Behind: Chapter 7, Part 1

Welcome back, one and all, to our regular feature on Left Behind, the book that makes it clear that even the people Jesus doesn't want are boring. Last time we were reminded why nobody likes Rayford, learned a little about Buck's family situation, and were given yet more hinting about how bad the antichrist is. What will happen this week? Hard to say, but odds are it'll be stupid.

As always we have a comment of the week. This week the prize goes to scripto for his eloquent summation of a central problem with this book:

Shit. Nothing's happened and I still got lost. I had to check the cast of characters to see who the hell Cameron was. I always knew him as Buck. Quit messing with my head.

Yeah, tell me about it. As this book staggers drunkenly on characters are introduced at an appalling rate and then ignored for a half-dozen chapters only to crop up again at random moments. There's a reason why I put a list of characters at the beginning of each entry- because otherwise I wouldn't be able to keep up with it either. Thanks for the insight, scripto, and keep at it everyone! There's plenty of time to get your comments in.

And with that, let's begin! As always, page/line numbers are in bold, quotes from the book are in block quotes, my commentary is in regular print, and you can navigate the whole series with the provided tag.


Dramatis Personae

In an order determined by zodiacal sign...

Rayford Steele: Airline captain. Husband of Irene Steele. Possible former gay porn star. Ditherer. No longer attracted to Hattie. Bad father. Cries a lot.

Irene Steele: Wife of Rayford Steele. Born-again Christian. Not perfect, just forgiven. Reader of marriage books. Cleans obsessively. Likes egg in her coffee. Bakes really silly cookies. Likes butter churns.

Cameron "Buck" Williams: Reporter. Known for "bucking tradition and authority." Terrible Excellent writer. Spiritually attuned. Electronics wiz. Fast typist. Clumsy on slides. Travels a lot. Graduated from Princeton. Human alarm clock.

Hattie Durham: Flight attendant. Toucher. Hottie. Hysterical female type. Girl power devotee. Unhealthily thin. Twenty-seven years old. Blonde.

Chris Smith: Airline co-pilot. Worked with Rayford Steele. Father of two. Husband. Killed himself.

Chloe Steele: Daughter of Rayford Steele. Student at Stanford.

Chaim Rosenzweig: Israeli chemist. Kinda freaky. Friend of Buck's.

Steve Plank: Buck's boss at Global Weekly. Not the sharpest tool in the shed.

Nicolae Carpathia: Businessman. Romanian Senator. Romanian President. Antichrist. Favors arms reductions.

Raymie Steele: Son of Rayford Steele. Taken in the rapture.

Dirk Burton: English guy Buck knows. Graduated from Princeton. Kinda gullible.

Joshua Todd-Cothran: English finance guy.

Jonathon Stonagal: American ultra-rich dude. Involved in international monetary cabal.

Marge Potter: Steve Planck's secretary. Matronly.

Lucinda Washington: Fiftyish black woman. Raptured.

Ken Ritz: Pilot. Profiteering on the rapture. Actually quite polite.


Chapter 7: In which we talk about aliens, insult mainline Protestants and cabbies, Ray discovers the bible, Buck gets to his office, and we enjoy a loving recitation of flight schedules.

Page 115- Line Zulu:

No quote, but the chapter opens with Buck climbing into the car of Ken Ritz, the pilot who is going to get him to New York. As it happens, Ritz is both polite and punctual, like all disaster profiteers. In any case, Buck chortles to himself about the shitty tip he left for his hotel keeper. You remember, the tip he promised in the last installment (Page 110- Line 14-17, roughly) in return for a bandage? In combination with the earlier revelation that he washes his clothes in a sink while traveling, it really does appear that Buck is the cheapest secret agent-journalist ever. Just imagine James Bond with a tag dangling from his tuxedo so that he can return it to the store after defeating Goldfinger and you've pretty much got Buck in a nutshell. Well, except that James Bond is actually competent at any number of tasks whereas Buck is... um... well... really good at traveling? Anyway, he and Ritz reach an agreement for how much it will cost to get Buck to New York and set off to find an actual plane. Specifically, Ritz's plane, but that isn't the point. The point is, it turns out there is the faintest whif of drama about trusting Ritz as a pilot...

Page 116- Line 16-26:
"Better money on your own?" [Buck asked Ken]

"Yeah, but I didn't know that when I switched. It wasn't my choice."

They were climbing into the Lear. Buck shot him a double take. "You were grounded?"

"Don't worry, Partner," the pilot said. "I'll get you there."

"You owe it to me to tell me if you were grounded."

"I was fired. There's a difference."

"Depends on what you were fired for, doesn't it?"

"True enough. This ought to make you feel real good. I was fired for bein' too careful, beat that."

Okay, several points: (1) This is an entirely accurate sample of typical dialogue in this book. I'm pretty sure if we had been reading this shit to the guys stuck in Guantanamo, we'd have found Osama by now. (2) I enjoy the line "climbing into the Lear". I know they mean a Lear Jet but I prefer to imagine they mean King Lear. Oh, Buck, you naughty boy! (3) Can you shoot someone a double take? I know you can shoot a look or a glare or even a knowing wink, but a double take just seems like one of those things that happens. It isn't really shot at anyone in particular. (4) Once more, we're in a damned western. All "partner" this and "bein'" that. Pretty soon Buck will show up at the hoedown and buy Hattie a sasparilla! (5) Just to make sure everyone is clear on this: Ritz is charging Buck $1500 to get him from Chicago to New York. Ritz is what we call a profiteer.* And yet Buck thinks Ritz owes him anything? Dude, you're lucky he doesn't just kill you and take that fanny pack of yours with the magic travellers checks. (6) That last bit about being fired for being too careful is priceless. It turns out that he was fired for refusing to shut up about a critical defect in some turboprop commuter aircraft. He was eventually vindicated, but the company still fired him. What a trooper! Or, as I scrawl in the margin on the next page, "Awesome! The opportunist with a heart of gold!" This is just part-and-parcel of the ongoing, "Jesus doesn't care how ethical you are unless you say the right incantations," schtick that makes this brand of Christianity all but indistinguishable from voo-doo. Gotta love it. Anyway, following this stirring discussion Buck starts interviewing Ritz to get his views on what caused the disappearance of so many people. Because the world just has to know what a random pilot thinks!

Page 117- Line 26-30:
"Dangedest thing I've ever seen. 'Course, that doesn't make me unique. I have to say, though, I've always believed in UFOs." [Ritz answered]

"You're kidding! A levelheaded, safety-conscious pilot?" [Buck asked]

This is the beginning of a theme for the rest of the book: the frequent mention of the alien abduction explanation. The authors constantly try to portray it as silly and stupid but, really, we know that intelligent tool-using critters can exist because we ourselves exist. Omnipotent, omniscient invisible friends? Yeah, so far, none have turned up. So, honestly, the alien explanation is more reasonable in many ways that "goddidit." Also, on another note: "dangedest"? Just... wow. In any case, Ritz goes on to tell a weird nonsensical story about seeing some mysterious black helicopters that wouldn't identify themselves, thereby linking Left Behind firmly with the worst conspiracy nuts on the internet, and then we return once more to the subject of aliens.

Page 118-119- Line 118:30-119:12:
"If there is intelligent life out there, and there had to be because of the sheer odds-" [Ritz began]

"What do you mean?"

"The vastness of space."

"Oh, so many stars and so much area that something has to be out there somewhere." [Buck answered]

"Exactly. And I agree with people who think those beings are more intelligent than we are. Otherwise, they wouldn't have made it here, if they are here. And if they are, I'm thinking they're sophisticated and advanced enough that they can do things to us we've never dreamed of." [Ritz concluded]

Okay, this is basically a reasonably competent explanation of the Drake Equation, the result of which boils down to a conclusion that there really should be other intelligent life around. Granted, given the nature of our universe, it might be so damned far away that for all intents and purposes we'll never know about it, but there you are. I do have to take issue with that bit about "more intelligent than we are" since intelligence is not the same as advanced. Modern folks are not smarter than olde timey folks even though our tech works better, we just benefit from more time to figure shit out. And anyone who tries to tell me that Glenn Beck is smarter than Einstein because he (Beck) has a really nifty computer has shit for brains. Anyway, it does seem to make sense that if an alien race could get to Earth, without our knowing about it, they might have the technology to teleport away a bunch of naked people. Why the hell they'd want to is beyond me, but there you go. Anyway, Ritz goes on to explain that some people were taken because they were somehow more susceptible, leading to this...

Page 119- Line 29-30:
"So we're still here because we were strong enough to resist, or maybe we weren't worth the trouble." [Buck concluded]

Yes, well, that "strong enough to resist" bit does sum it up in some cases, except what was being resisted was a highly infectious parasitic meme. Or so some would claim. Sadly, I think the authors mean for us to shake our heads at the arrogance of the characters for assuming that they must be better because they were Left Behind. Stupid characters! Why aren't they sad that they weren't wiped out in an inexplicable disaster! Stupid will to live! That said, there's also some truth to that "weren't worth the trouble" bit. I mean, hell, would you want to spend eternity with Rayford?

Page 120- Line 9-11:
"At first I would have said no [to the idea of teleporting nekid people]. But a week ago I would have told you that millions of people all over the world disappearing into thin air sounds like a B movie." [Ritz said]

And, ironically, now it is:

In fact, now it's several b movies:

As a side note: Man is Kirk Cameron a lousy actor. Gah!

Page 120- Line 27-28:
Buck shrugged and sat in silence for a few minutes. Finally he said, "There's a little hole in your argument."

Oh, really Buck? Just one little hole in the "aliens abduct naked people with no willpower" argument? You're some kinda big thinkee-man always thinking about things, aren't you?

Page 120- Line 29-30:
"I know of some people who are missing who seem as strong as anyone." [Buck finished]

Yeah, great job there with the counter-argument. Never mind that throughout this entire conversation we've never- not once- actually defined what "strong" means in this context. Hell, back on page 119 Ritz just said that all the disappeared had "unusual personalities"** [Line 20-21] so the transition to strength was really Buck's paraphrase- Ritz never claimed to have any idea what the hell the real difference actually was. So, basically, the authors never really made any pretext of this being anything other than the flimsiest of straw man arguments. Much like their theology, coincidentally. Anyway, the "narrative" switches back to Rayford at this point, which is about as welcome to all of us as a kidney punch.

Page 121- Line 16-20:
He [Rayford] started by searching for a Bible, not the family Bible that had collected dust on his shelf for years, but Irene's. Hers would have notes in it, maybe something that would point him in the right direction.

And here we go on an exciting adventure in recursion: we're going to read a book about Rayford reading a book. Honestly, are the authors trying to be boring?

Page 121- Line 21-22:
It [Irene's bible] wasn't hard to find. It was usually within arm's reach of where she slept.

My comment in the margins reads, "She must have been awesome in the sack." My wife commented in response, "Maybe before she went Christian. But it sounds like she's been into doilies for a while." Indeed, it takes quite some time to build up such an impressive collection of "country knick-knacks." In any case, Rayford reasons that he should start reading the bible from the back, since maybe that will have the answers he needs. This is, of course, kinda dumb but then again, Rayford's bible knowledge seems to be worse than mine, and I'm a devout atheist.

Page 122- Line 1-2:
The only Bible verse Rayford could quote by heart was Genesis 1:1.

Ha! Loser! He totally doesn't know about Lot and his daughters! Then again, given that Chloe is probably off somewhere trading truckers blowjobs for a ride to Chicago, maybe it's better that way. In any case, slightly further down the page I wrote in the margin, "Sweet! A bible reading primer!" because that's exactly what the narrative turns into. They are telling us how to read the bible. It's pretty ugly. Just for the record, however, they make a big deal out of mentioning that the words of Christ are in red.

Page 122- Line 18-19:
So Jesus said he was coming quickly. Had he come?

Honestly, after that passage, I'm kinda picturing Jesus and Mary Magdalene in side-by-side bathtubs above a Cialis logo.

Page 122- Line 19-22:
And if the Bible was as old as it seemed, what did "quickly" mean? It must not have meant soon, unless it was from the perspective of someone with a long view of history.

This passage is making my brain bleed. First, "as old as it seemed"? What the f-ing crap does that mean? Is Irene's bible inscribed on clay fucking tablets or something? Second, please note that the biblical literalists are now assuring us that "quickly" does not imply "soon." And what's this shit about "the perspective of someone with a long view of history"? I mean, leaving aside the fact that creationists think the world is only six thousand years old, what we are doing here is interpreting the goddamn bible. Not accepting it at its "plain meaning", as though there is such a thing, but inferring that since it's been two thousand years since Jesus died, "quickly" must just have been mentioned from the perspective of someone who is really, really slow. Apparently god is an employee at the DMV or something. Literalism fail!

Page 122- Line 22-23:
Maybe Jesus meant that when he came, he would do it quickly.

I tell you, brother, ain't that just the truth? All that build-up and it's always over too soon. I've been thinking of maybe trying that tantric stuff, you know? Really get my rapture on, if you know what I mean.

Page 122- Line 24-26:
Rayford glanced at the last chapter as a whole. Three other verses had red letters, and two of those repeated the business about coming quickly.

In the margins I added, "So in a chapter Jesus only supplies three verses? Why is it called 'Christianity' again?" Hard to say, really: it should be named Apostleanity.

Page 122- Line 27-28:
Rayford could make no sense of the text of the chapter. It seemed old and formal.

And since Rayford has the approximate mental capacity of a fruit bat, "old and formal" apparently means, "utterly impenetrable."

Page 122-123- Line 122:30-123:1-9:
Without a hint of their meaning, he [Rayford] read, "Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost."

Jesus wouldn't have been the one who was thirsty. He would not have been the one who wished to take the water of life. That, Rayford assumed, referred to the reader. It struck him that he was thirsty, soul thirsty. But what was the water of life? He had already paid a terrible cost for missing it. Whatever it was, it had been in this book for hundreds of years.

If this book is a sermon in narrative form, this part is where the narrative falls away leaving us with the naked sermon. And it's an ugly old bastard at that. On an unrelated note: wouldn't "soul thirsty" make a great name for a funk band? In any case, Rayford keeps flipping through the bible, discovering spots where Irene marked off passages and labeled them "precious." No doubt just as precious as her antique hoop skirts or whatever other country knick-knacks she has around the house. He also finds a church flyer for her congregation. He then drifts off in fond reminiscing about how he dodged his son's efforts to get him to go to church. And then we get to the real kicker...

Page 124- Line 17-22:
He [Rayford] had given this Bible to Irene on their first wedding anniversary. How could he have forgotten, and what had he been thinking? She was no more devout than he back then, but she talked about wanting to get serious about church attendance before the children came along.

No kidding, what were you thinking! You could have had a wife who was fun in bed and didn't clutter the house with an antique ladle collection! Instead, you gave her a bible and it was all downhill from there. Moron. Also: goodness knows we wouldn't want to raise children without cramming their skulls full of half-assed superstitious nonsense. Then they'd have an easy trip to becoming atheists. Wouldn't want that!

Page 125- Line 5-14:
When Irene discovered the Christian radio station and what she called "real preaching and teaching," she grew disenchanted with their church and began searching for a new one. That gave Rayford the opportunity to quit going at all, telling her that when she found one she really liked, he would start going again. She found one, and he tried it occasionally, but it was a little too literal and personal and challenging for him. He was not revered. He felt like a project. And he pretty much stayed away.

Seriously? Do the authors honestly believe that those of us who prefer not to go to their brand of church with their brand of "preaching and teaching" do so because we want to be revered? Bloody hell. I just want to live my life, love my wife, do my job, have kids, and see as much as I can before I go kicking and screaming into senescence and death. I do not need a bunch of groupies as I do it in order to be happy. No offense. Rayford then, horrifyingly, spots Irene's prayer list.

Page 125- Line 16-22:
She had written, "Rafe, for his salvation and that I be a loving wife to him. Chloe, that she come to Christ and live in purity. Ray Jr., that he never stray from his strong, childlike faith." Then she had listed her pastor, political leaders, missionaries, world conflict, and several friends and other relatives.

So, on the plus side, at least she's praying about world conflict, even if I don't think that does a damned bit of good. On the minus side... "live in purity"? What the fuck does that mean? Was Chloe blowing truckers even before the Real Christians disappeared? And why doesn't Irene care if Raymie lives in purity? It's okay if he blows truckers, then?

Page 125- Line 28-30:
Didn't salvation have something to do with confirmation, baptism, testifying, getting religion, being holy?

Not to mention distributing shitty tracts, bugging people in their homes, judging other people's behavior, and generally acting like a self-righteous prick? Yeah, I think that's about the size of it.

And, coincidentally, that's about the end of our episode. Come back next time when we return to Buck- who at this point actually seems like an improvement- and his arrival in New York. It will also probably be a slightly shorter episode than this one since, you know, Buck isn't spending pages on end preaching at us yet. And I do emphasize the word "yet."

See you next time!

* Admittedly, Ritz isn't a very good profiteer since $1500 is a pretty reasonable price for a charter flight from Chicago to New York for one person.

** Given the general flow of the book so far, we can conclude that "unusual personality" means "very nice person". And if you don't believe me, please see Page 62- Line 4-5.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Physicists have some serious grant-writing mojo.

Those who maintain an interest in high energy physics* are aware of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. For those who are less in the know, that's the big scientific gadget that some people thought would spawn a world-destroying black hole. What you may not know is that the LHC is perhaps going to be involved in the most bizarre experiment I've ever heard of:

More than a year after an explosion of sparks, soot and frigid helium shut it down, the world's biggest and most expensive physics experiment, known as the Large Hadron Collider, is poised to start up again. In December, if all goes well, protons will start smashing together in an underground racetrack outside Geneva in a search for forces and particles that reigned during the first trillionth of a second of the Big Bang.

Then it will be time to test one of the most bizarre and revolutionary theories in science. I'm not talking about extra dimensions of space-time, dark matter or even black holes that eat the Earth. No, I'm talking about the notion that the troubled collider is being sabotaged by its own future. A pair of otherwise distinguished physicists have suggested that the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one, like a time traveler who goes back in time to kill his grandfather.


He [Holger Bech Nielsen, one of the researchers proposing this hypothesis] agreed that skepticism would be in order. After all, most big science projects, including the Hubble Space Telescope, have gone through a period of seeming jinxed. At CERN, the beat goes on: Last weekend the French police arrested a particle physicist who works on one of the collider experiments, on suspicion of conspiracy with a North African wing of al Qaeda.

Nielsen and Ninomiya have proposed a kind of test: that CERN engage in a game of chance, a "card-drawing" exercise using perhaps a random-number generator to discern bad luck from the future. If the outcome was sufficiently unlikely, say drawing the one spade in a deck with 100 million hearts, the machine would either not run at all, or only at low energies unlikely to find the Higgs.

Leaving aside the obvious mind-bending possibility that this hypothesis is correct, there's the simply amazing fact that physicists manage to get nine billion in funding for a research project and yet, simultaneously, feel comfortable talking about it not working because of interference from the future. You just have to love that kind of chutzpah.**

And, come to think of it, maybe there's room here for sociologists! It isn't that I'm having a hard time finishing grad school, it's that my tremendous and awe-inspiring future success is rippling backwards in time to keep me in grad school! Yeah, that's it!

Man, why didn't I think of that before?

* And I mean, hell, who doesn't?

** In fairness it isn't clear that the LHC is actually going to attempt an experiment to test this notion- to the extent that a test is even possible- but still!

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Andrew Schlafly: Modern Day Saint?

Folks who know of my great "fondness" for Conservapedia are no doubt surprised by the title to today's post. Indeed, have I had a change of heart so profound as to force me to wonder if Andy Schlafly is worthy of beautification? A fair question but, take heart dear readers, I have not sustained a massive head trauma in the recent past. No, instead, I have noticed something on the aforementioned Conservapedia that fairly boggles the mind.

You may recall that Conservapedia has, of late, been working on "retranslating" the bible. Retranslating is, of course, too strong a term as originally they were simply re-copying the King James Version (KJV) of the bible into modern English and making "tweaks" so that the bible's true conservative message would shine through. Some of these tweaks- like the discussion about whether "damsel" should be replaced with "bimbo"- were little short of surreal. The project has been gradually evolving in the direction of a more honest effort to retranslate the bible from earlier texts, with the caveat that Schlafly is still in charge and can't actually read any of the ancient languages those texts are written in. It's a little like having your calculus homework checked by a seven-year-old. Regardless, more recently this mad endeavour has gained wide attention, receiving mention in a variety of outlets ranging from other soc blogs to the Colbert Report. Just remember, folks: before it was on Colbert, it was on Total Drek!

In any case, Schlafly loves media attention and has been making the rounds of various radio and media interviews. Some of these have proven to be funnier than others, and some have been funny less because of Schlafly and more because of the idiots interviewing him. For example, the radio show that sums up Schlafly's point in a most amusing way:

Or, in plain human speech:

Andrew Schlafly is the creator, he says his translation of the bible will fight what he calls an increasing political correctness of the good book, taking out what he calls 'gender neutral terms' that immaculate it, and also expressing the free market meaning behind the parables of Jesus. [emphasis added]

Indeed. I hate it when gender-neutral terms immaculate me. Riiiiight. Never mind that the grammar in that summary is enough to make a high school English teacher turn to drinking.

Regardless, the publicity has apparently gone to Andy's head because on today's Conservapedia frontpage appears this lovely headline:

Or, again in regular language:

Conservapedia was live on WNOX, "Knoxville's Big Talker," Tuesday morning at 7:05am ET for nearly an hour. The phone lines lit up during the show. One caller's statement: "People were guided by the Holy Spirit when they wrote the Bible." Answer: "People are guided by the Holy Spirit now too."

Right, so, to recap: caller says "the bible was inspired by god," Andy responds, "So are we!" So, in effect, Andrew Schlafly is presently claiming that he, and Conservapedia, are instruments of god. Let me say that again: Andrew Schlafly believes he is an instrument of the Lord.

All I can really say is that I can't wait to see the new translation of 1 John 4:9:

In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son Andrew Schlafly into the world, that we might live through him.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Geography budgets have clearly been slashed...

The Scene: Drek is getting dressed for the day while listening to NPR. He notices a particular story as he pulls his shirt over his glistening, well-defined muscles.

Announcer: Some people have been talking about whether Afghanistan is another Vietnam. But, President Obama isn't having any of it.

President Obama: Afghanistan is not Vietnam.

Announcer: Join us when we ask, "is Afghanistan Vietnam?"

Drek: No, it's not. Obama just told us it's not. Don't you listen? Afghanistan and Vietnam are totally different countries.

Yes, this is a crappy post. No, I don't care. I'm behind today and don't have time to write anything funnier.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Things that make you go, WTF?

So... yeah. This really makes me proud to be an American, you know?


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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Left Behind: Chapter 6, Part 2

Come one, come all for another installment of our regular series on Left Behind, the book that will make you long for the devil because he can at least get out of an airport in less than one hundred pages. Last time, as you may recall, Rayford found a fresh resolve to save his daughter and himself from damnation. What will happen this week? Well, I'll let you guess, but whatever it is, it won't happen quickly.

As always, we have a comment of the week. Choosing such a comment this week was, however, quite difficult because we had an embarrassment of good commentary. Ken's bitter observations about Rayford's love for his kids were an immediate crowd pleaser. Likewise, scripto saved me the trouble of making a joke about how long it's been since Irene had her liquor cabinet stuffed. And, of course, many of you contributed to a fairly involved debate about whether being married to Irene, or Rayford, would be more likely to produce hard-core alcoholism. Given that this was very much a collaborative effort, it doesn't really feel right to single anyone out but, alas, I will do so anyway. So this time as a sort of first-among-equals prize I'll recognize JLT for a particularly well-argued comment:

I think, that being married to Mrs. Steele would be a very good reason to start drinking.

* She listened to Christian radio the whole day (that alone is a sufficient reason to drink IMO).
* she decorated the house with frills, needle point, and country stuff.
* she treated Ray as if he were a hardcore alcoholic for having an "occasional hard drink" (he hadn't been drunk for years).
* she tries to revive her marriage by sending her husband cookies with hearts on it.
* she constantly preaches to her family about her new-found belief.

If Rayford weren't such an asshole wouldn't you feel really sorry for him?

It's a compelling case, I have to admit. At the same time, amidst all our concerns for Rayford and Irene's tendnecy to hit the sauce, has anyone wondered what reading about these schmucks has done to me? If I weren't a teetotaler with a lot of willpower, I think this book would have done me in completely. In any case, well-done everyone, and hang in there: plenty of opportunities to win the best comment to come!

And with that, let's begin! As always, page/line numbers are in bold, quotes from the book are in block quotes, my commentary is in regular print, and you can navigate the whole series with the provided tag.


Dramatis Personae

In descending order of god's love. He told me!

Rayford Steele: Airline captain. Husband of Irene Steele. Possible former gay porn star. Ditherer. No longer attracted to Hattie. Bad father. Cries a lot.

Irene Steele: Wife of Rayford Steele. Born-again Christian. Not perfect, just forgiven. Reader of marriage books. Cleans obsessively. Likes egg in her coffee. Bakes really silly cookies. Likes butter churns.

Cameron "Buck" Williams: Reporter. Known for "bucking tradition and authority." Terrible Excellent writer. Spiritually attuned. Electronics wiz. Fast typist. Clumsy on slides. Travels a lot. Graduated from Princeton.

Hattie Durham: Flight attendant. Toucher. Hottie. Hysterical female type. Girl power devotee. Unhealthily thin. Twenty-seven years old. Blonde.

Chris Smith: Airline co-pilot. Worked with Rayford Steele. Father of two. Husband. Killed himself.

Chloe Steele: Daughter of Rayford Steele. Student at Stanford.

Chaim Rosenzweig: Israeli chemist. Kinda freaky. Friend of Buck's.

Steve Plank: Buck's boss at Global Weekly. Not the sharpest tool in the shed.

Nicolae Carpathia: Businessman. Romanian Senator. Romanian President. Antichrist. Favors arms reductions.

Raymie Steele: Son of Rayford Steele. Taken in the rapture.

Dirk Burton: English guy Buck knows. Graduated from Princeton. Kinda gullible.

Joshua Todd-Cothran: English finance guy.

Jonathon Stonagal: American ultra-rich dude. Involved in international monetary cabal.

Marge Potter: Steve Planck's secretary. Matronly.

Lucinda Washington: Fiftyish black woman. Raptured.


Page 106- Line Pickle:

No quote, but as we open Buck has managed find himself a hotel room and to reach his father by phone. They spat a little bit and he learns that his (Buck's) brother's wife and children are apparently gone. At this point it seems uncertain to Buck and his dad why, but we realize that she has most likely been raptured. Since she's so good and forgiving and all, you remember.

Page 106- Line 16-20:
"I can't imagine he'll [Buck's brother] want to talk, Cameron, unless you have some answers." [Buck's dad said]

"That's one thing I haven't got, Dad. I don't know who does. I have this feeling that whoever had the answers is gone."

This is probably meant as a "D'oh!" moment for all us unbelievers, but I can't help but echo Ken's sentiment that at least now we can have socialized medicine. Anyway, these two blather on for another page or two, boring the ever-living crap out of the reader before we get to some more thinly-veiled propaganda. Specifically, Buck's father says that he doesn't think the disappearance was due to god's judgment and Buck asks him why not.

Page 108- Line 27-30:
"Because I asked our pastor. He said if it was Jesus Christ taking people to heaven, he and I and you and Jeff would have gone too. Makes sense."

"Does it? I've never claimed any devotion to the faith." [Buck answered]

So, yeah, if you're a mainline protestant, you're basically fucked. Interestingly, however, the authors never really say anything about what happens to Catholics. The pope is eventually mentioned, but in a very ambiguous light. Given my knowledge of evangelicals, my guess is they just didn't want to sully the page by referring to the hated Roman Catholic church, but it's still a pretty striking omission. Anyway, the discussion only gets better on the next page.

Page 109- Line 1-10:
"The heck you haven't. You always get into this liberal, East Coast baloney. You know good and well we had you in church and Sunday school from the time you were a baby. You're as much a Christian as any one of us." [Buck's dad said]

Cameron wanted to say, "Precisely my point." But he didn't. It was the lack of any connection between his family's church attendance and their daily lives that made him quit going to church altogether the day it became his choice.

This is interesting to me. The authors obviously realize that hypocrisy drives a lot of people away from Christianity. They also clearly want to argue that to be a "true christian" you have to give over every aspect of your life to your religion.* The funny thing is, though, that they miss the main point of a lot of us who left the faith. I may have left Christianity partly due to the hypocrisy, but I stayed out because it just doesn't make any damned sense at all. Atheism may not have very good bake sales, but it also doesn't ask us to believe ten impossible things before breakfast on pain of eternal torment.

Page 110- Line 14-17:
If somebody tried to sell a screenplay about millions of people disappearing, leaving everything but their bodies behind, it would be laughed off.

Sadly, no, it wouldn't, because there seem to be a distressing number of people who can't tell fantasy from reality:

Anyway, Buck continues musing to himself and has a phone conversation with the hotel clerk where he promises a tip if the clerk will slip a fresh bandage under the door. Note that he doesn't ask for a bandaid or gauze or anything, but a bandage. I earned every merit badge there is for first aid when I was in the Boy Scouts and I gotta tell you, if someone just said "get me a bandage" but didn't specify the nature of the injury, I wouldn't have the foggiest notion what the hell to get them. Likewise, I'd probably question the wisdom of shoving medical supplies through a crack in the door of a dingy hotel. But, hey, I'm not a prescient motel clerk, so what the hell do I know? Regardless, it's a riveting conversation, just like all the others I don't transcribe out of a misplaced sense of mercy. Then Buck decides to go to sleep.

Page 111- Line 27-29:
He [Buck] was the type who could look at his watch before retiring and wake up precisely when he told himself to.

Okay, one, "retiring"? What the f-ing crap? Who talks like that? Two, can anyone do that? Just look at their watch and wake up exactly when they mean to? Is there anything Buck Williams can't do? Well, he can't write a decent sentence, so I guess there is one thing. Since Buck is heading off to sleep, the narrative- if you can call it that- returns to Rayford, who is contemplating reading the paper. Yes, that's right: we get to read about Rayford's internal debate over whether or not to read a fucking newspaper. Tedious uncertainty, thy name is Rayford.

Page 112- Line 9-12:
It should be interesting to read the meaningless news of a world that didn't realize it was going to suffer the worst trauma in its history just after the paper had been set in type.

Aside from the fact that this yet again reminds us of what a colossal ass Rayford is, I actually find the sentiment pretty amusing. See, on the one hand given my reality-based perspective, I have to think that the Holocaust or the Black Death probably represent much better candidates for worst global trauma ever- at least from a human perspective. From a non-human perspective, I dunno, maybe the P-T extinction event? On the other hand, the authors have a point that this would fuck everybody up, but I think primarily just because all the children would be gone, no matter what their country of origin. And that would probably upset people** a lot, even if losing the adult evangelicals would just make U.S. politics a lot more pleasant and rational. But on the gripping hand, this statement doesn't even make sense within the authors' own belief system. Because you know what the "worst trauma in its history" would be then? Noah's f-ing flood! Why settle for the rapture snatching a few million people when we can think about god wiping out virtually the entire human race, plus associated animal species, except for a tiny handful of survivors locked in a giant wooden boat for a year? Call me crazy, but I think that would be the worst goddamn trauma in global history. For crying out loud, LaHaye and Jenkins, you're getting spanked on theology by an atheist! Is this your A-game? Because it sucks! Anyway, Rayford gets a call telling him his daughter, Chloe, is on her way. He then eventually starts reading the news and runs across a story about- you guessed it- the antichrist.

Page 113- Line 23-27:
Democratic elections became passe when, with the seeming unanimous consensus of the people and both the upper and lower houses of government, a popular young businessman/politician assumed the role of president of the country [Romania].

Yeah, well, that's rarely a good sign. This is, of course, just the antichrist starting his rise to power. We know that, but Rayford is blissfully ignorant because he hasn't figured out yet that he's trapped in a terrible Christian "novel".

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Wonder if he would've wanted the job had he known what was about to happen? Rayford thought. Whatever he has to offer won't amount to a hill of beans now. [emphasis original]

Bum-BUM-BUUUUUMMMMMM!!!!! And you have to love that sentence construction. It's like they think that if they torture the English language long enough, it'll confess.

And with that, dear readers, we reach the end of Chapter six. if this seemed like a short installment, you're right, it was. Sorry about that, but sometimes the chapters are short and the natural break-points are awkwardly placed. Also, sometimes I just don't care. It's not like I get paid to do this for crying out loud! Tune in next time for Chapter Seven, when we talk about cabs, aliens, and the bible. You'll love it.

See you then.

* I always find this more than a little creepy. I feel like I want to make silly baby voices and ask, "Who's a widdle parasitic meme? Who's a widdle parasitic meme? You are! You're a parasitic meme! Yay!"

** Well, people other than Rayford, anyway, who seems to be only faintly concerned with the fate of his remaining child.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Hey, let's all get the swine flu! That'd show Obama!"

As if we needed more reasons to conclude that Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are power-hungry morons who profit off of the needless suffering of others, comes this aggravating news:

In recent days, both Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have suggested that the H1N1 flu vaccine may be unsafe and questioned the Obama administration's recommendation that Americans get vaccinated, with Limbaugh asserting that "[y]ou'll be healthier" if you don't believe what the government says and Beck suggesting that the vaccine may be "deadly." However, health experts have repeatedly stated that the vaccine is a safe and necessary tool to combat the virus, and that, in CDC chief Thomas Frieden's words, "This flu vaccine is made as flu vaccine is made each year, by the same companies, in the same production facilities, with the same procedures, with the same safety safeguards" and "[t]hat enables us to have a high degree of confidence in the safety of the vaccine."

For example:

Limbaugh stated on his nationally syndicated radio program, "I'm not seeing these mass deaths from the swine flu. ... All I see is a bunch of typical government panic and hype." He added, "Who put the notion that you gotta have this shot, or this nasal spray -- whatever the hell the vaccine is -- whoever the hell put in your head the notion that you gotta do it? Government did. The Obama government, to be specific. It is one of my fervent objectives and goals ... to convince as many people as possible that the damn government is not God, and nobody in it even comes close to being as competent as you are to run your life. And yet, 'Oh my God, the government report says ...' The next time you hear 'The government says...' don't believe it. You'll be healthier, trust me." [The Rush Limbaugh Show, 10/7/09]

Limbaugh stated in response to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' call for widespread use of the vaccination, "Screw you, Ms. Sebelius! I am not going to take it, precisely because you're now telling me I must. It's not your role, it's not your responsibility, and you do not have that power. I don't want to take your vaccine. I don't get flu shots." Limbaugh later added, "I'm just like -- I'm a contrarian, I'm a non-conformist -- you have some idiot government official demanding, telling me I must take this vaccine. I'll never take it." [The Rush Limbaugh Show, 10/7/09]

After Beck's radio producer, known on-air as Stu, said of the H1N1 vaccine, "if we drew the line at, hey we've never done this to a human body before, we wouldn't have a lot of our current cures," Beck responded, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. But we've never said, 'Hey, we're going to try something out, and you have to do it. Everybody.' " Beck later said: "So now here's the question. Just based on what you know, would you line up now? Because the government -- let's say the government came in and said, 'OK, everybody, you've gotta line up and everybody has to have their shot. Otherwise, you ain't going anywhere.' " [The Glenn Beck Program, 9/30/09]

I dunno what to say about this, but given that the swine flu vaccine is made the same damn way as other flu vaccines, and those have a superb safety record, these guys are just morons. Worse, they're morons who may be drumming up viewers, listeners and dollars at the cost of the public health.

But, hey, what else would you expect? It's Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, after all.

As a side note, this is not to say that people shouldn't ask questions about medical treatments, they should. My argument is more that the way these guys approach makes it clear they have little interest in actually addressing the issues, and more in drumming up controversy and thereby ratings.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

In the interests of fairness...

Yesterday I blogged about the unfortunate resolution* to the case of Madeline Neumann, a little girl who died of untreated but treatable diabetes because her parents declined medical treatment in favor of faith healing. My overall point was less that faith healing is ineffective- although that's the case- and more that the light sentence her parents received indicates that we have a long way to go in the U.S. before all religious are treated equally under the law.

At the same time, however, I don't want to give the impression that I think only Christian extremists do this sort of thing- I don't think that at all. Instead, I think that all kinds of wacky non-evidence-based belief systems can lead to pretty horrific outcomes. Take homeopathy, for example. Homeopathy is based on the idea that you treat a symptom with a substance that produces reactions similar to the symptom itself. So, if you have a fever, you should give the feverish person a drug that will induce fever. Some of you on reading this are probably thinking, "that sounds crazy," and rightly so. Homeopathy has a gimmick, however, and the gimmick is a real beaut. The gimmick is that they dilute the "medicine" using water. Specifically, a small amount of the medicine- which I will henceforth call the "reactant"- is mixed in distilled water and shaken. Then a small amount of that water is removed, added to another volume of distilled water, and shaken. Then you do it again, and again, and again, in a potentially lengthy chain of serial dilutions until eventually the final "medicine" is effectively all water with no detectable traces of the reactant left. If you ever look on the packaging for homeopathic products they will often list an ingredient followed by a multiplication factor (e.g. 8x). This factor indicates the number of times the ingredient was diluted in the style described above and more dilutions are generally considered better. Homeopathy argues that this is because the dilution increases the potency by essentially causing the water to take on the properties of the chemical diluted in it. That, however, is obviously untrue as otherwise all water would pretty much taste powerfully like sewage by this point. I will agree, however, that if you must use a homoepathic product more dilutions really is better because at least that way there's less of a chance that you will actually be dosed with the reactant, which is itself often a toxic or lethal substance.

Now, given that homeopathic products are essentially inert and usually consist of little other than water, coloring, and perhaps a little gelatin, one wonders what the harm could be? Well, simply put, the same as the harm in faith healing: reliance on an ineffective treatment may produce a failure to avail oneself of effective treatments. Take, for example, the case of Thomas and Manju Sam, whose daughter is dead because of their reliance of homeopathy:

A husband and wife were jailed Monday for the manslaughter of their baby, who died after they chose to use homeopathic remedies rather than conventional medicine to treat her severe skin disorder.

Thomas Sam, a 42-year old college lecturer in homeopathy, and his wife Manju, 37, of Sydney, were convicted in June of the manslaughter of their nine-month-old daughter Gloria, who died of septicemia and malnutrition in May 2002.

The Indian-born, university-educated parents had faced a maximum penalty of 25 years each in prison if convicted. Instead, New South Wales state Supreme Court Justice Peter Johnson ordered Thomas Sam to serve at least six years in jail, with a maximum sentence of eight years, and Manju to serve at least four years in jail with a maximum of five years and four months. The couple wept as they were sentenced.


Prosecutors said the parents rarely consulted conventional doctors and never contacted a skin specialist after a nurse noticed that their previously healthy baby had developed severe eczema at four months old.

Instead, prosecutors said Thomas Sam continued to consult homeopaths and natural medicine practitioners as his daughter’s health continued to plummet and her black hair turned white.

Gloria became malnourished by battles against frequent infections that invaded her bloodstream through skin broken by her severe rashes. Her parents finally admitted her to a hospital, where doctors said she was severely ill. The doctors gave her morphine for the pain and began treating an eye infection that had started to melt her corneas.

Indeed, the Sams are a case effectively parallel to the Neumanns from yesterday. Both relied on ineffective treatment, both did so perhaps because of a rejection of "western culture", and both ended up with a daughter who died painfully and slowly. Both were even eligible for up to 25 years of jail time. The main difference appears to be that the Neumanns are getting off with six months of jail time while the Sams are getting at least four or six (for Manju and Thomas, respectively) years. The Sam case comes to us from Australia, and so is not entirely comparable, but the contrast is nevertheless disquieting.

Religious freedom and freedom of conscience are good things, but it's more than a little upsetting when dogmatic adherence to a belief system causes fatalities. Moreover, I am less than thrilled the degree of punishment varies so widely between nations with similar cultural backgrounds based perhaps on the religion and background of the defendants.

* Actually, given that the Neumanns are appealing even the slap on the wrist they received over this, calling it a "resolution" may be a smidge premature.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

I have to admit I'm a tad cross about this.

So a while back I blogged about the unfortunate case of Madeline Neumann, a little girl who died because her parents chose to rely on faith healing rather than modern medicine. This is particularly tragic because Madeline died from an undiagnosed but entirely treatable form of diabetes. I initially mentioned this case way back in April of 2008 and have been following it off and on since then.

Well, the trial has been resolved and that resolution is nothing if not frightening:

Dale and Leilani Neumann, of Wisconsin, could have received up to 25 years in prison over the 2008 death of Madeline Neumann, who was known as Kara.

The 11-year-old died of an undiagnosed but treatable form of diabetes.

Judge Vincent Howard ordered the couple to serve one month in jail each year for the next six years.


In addition to the custodial sentence, the Neumanns were also put on 10 years' probation, as part of which they must allow a nurse to examine their two youngest surviving children at least once every three months, and must immediately take their children to a doctor in case of any serious injuries.

Yes, that's right: they received 1/50th of the prison time they were eligible for, and have even had that time spread out into relatively easy increments over six years. Doubtless the judge spread this time out so as to not deprive their other children of parents for a lengthy period but, then again, given that the judge apparently doesn't trust the Neumanns not to pull this shit again, one wonders why that should be an overriding concern? Some of the real fun, however, comes later:

In their defence, the parents said they believed healing came from God, and that they had not expected their daughter to die as they prayed for her.

Jay Kronenwetter, Mr Neumann's lawyer, was asked in a BBC interview if he thought his client had got off lightly.

"My client sees spiritual treatment as the proper medicine and I suspect the people who want harsher punishment see Western medicine as the proper medicine, I guess therein lies the difference," he told the BBC World Service.

"My clients just happen to have a belief that is very outside of our social norm."

The couple are appealing against their convictions.

Okay, wow, first of all: did the Neumann's get off lightly? Well, they got 1/50th of the time they were eligible for so, really, I think you'd have to say yes. That's just reality. Second, maybe I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure the Neumanns are as "western" as I am. It isn't like they just immigrated from sub-Saharan Africa or something for fuck's sake. Third, yes, they have a belief outside of the social norm, but you know what? We can TREAT DIABETES successfully. I mean, we've done the f-ing studies, thousands of physicians and scientists have busted their asses, we can totally deal with that. Faith healing is NOT comparable to scientific medicine, if only because medicine works and faith healing... you know... doesn't. And don't even get me started on their appeals- when the judge basically just gives you a light scolding for killing your daughter, at least have the common decency to just shut the fuck up and take your punishment.

Let's move on, however, as my frank outrage over what they did is not productive or entertaining. Instead, let's consider the implications of this ruling. A parent has coercive power over their children, pretty much any way you slice it. Likewise, if I were to kidnap someone and hold them prisoner I would also have coercive authority over that person. Now, imagine that I denied a person whom I kidnapped the medications necessary to treat their diabetes and, as a result, they died while I was holding them. If I were to go to trial, I would doubtless be charged with manslaughter at the very least, and quite possibly negligent homicide if not murder outright. Moreover, when it came time for sentencing, I should expect to be hit even harder because I let my prisoner die slowly through neglect. I would be labeled as a heartless monster for such behavior and would almost certainly have the book thrown at me. So, why then did the Neumanns get off for the same thing so lightly? The answer is religion.

See, they had a religious belief- however poorly founded, however obviously wrong as their daughter lay dying on their living room floor- that god would see to their needs. And because of this belief not only is their daughter dead, but they are given what amounts to a free pass. It isn't really their fault, you see, because god told them to let their daughter die while they talked to themselves. Makes perfect sense. And honestly I shouldn't even be surprised given that Christianity glorifies this kind of madness quite unselfconsciously. The thing is, though, if that defense works here, then why not for terrorists? After all, if god tells the Neumanns to let their daughter die, why can't god tell a man to plant a bomb in a train station? And if we give the Neumanns a light sentence because, obviously, they couldn't decide to go against god, then aren't we obligated to do the same thing for a terrorist? Now, this is obviously a case of reductio ad absurdum, and as such I do not want you to view it as valid in and of itself. Nevertheless, however, this points out an issue of particular importance: our supposedly secular government is, in fact, not. In reality, it not only defers to religion- even in cases where some of us have allowed others of us to die in a most foul manner- but even chooses among religions preferentially in deciding which are valid and which are not. Wacky Christian faith? Adequate defense for murder. Wacky Islamic faith? Absolutely not a defense for murder.

There are those who believe without irony that there is some sort of war on Christianity in these United States. To maintain such a perspective is to cling desperately to a mind-boggling degree of willful ignorance.

For the record: some folks might suggest that I should go easy since the Neumanns have lost a daughter. True enough, and I do sympathize with that, but I have little sympathy for them. It wasn't an accident, it wasn't an untreatable disorder. It was fucking diabetes. I do not sympathize with the Neumanns, I instead sympathize with their daughter who was sacrificed to their god as surely as if she had her veins opened on an altar.

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