Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Am... am I dreaming? I think I'm dreaming.

Somebody pinch me because this... this is too awesome. This can't possibly be real:

Lucasfilm Ltd. announced today that the live-action Star Wars Saga will be converted to 3D! There are few movies that lend themselves more perfectly to 3D; from the Death Star trench run to the Tatooine Podrace, the Star Wars Saga has always delivered an entertainment experience that is completely immersive. Presented by Twentieth Century Fox and Lucasfilm Ltd., the cutting edge conversion will take that immersion to the next thrilling level, with Industrial Light & Magic supervising the project. Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace is expected to be released theatrically in 2012. A release date has not yet been determined.

"Getting good results on a stereo conversion is a matter of taking the time and getting it right," said John Knoll, Visual Effects Supervisor for Industrial Light & Magic. "It takes a critical and artistic eye along with an incredible attention to detail to be successful. It is not something that you can rush if you want to expect good results. For Star Wars we will take our time, applying everything we know both aesthetically and technically to bring audiences a fantastic new Star Wars experience."

For reals? Star Wars in 3D? That is going to be so freaking awesome. Granted, we'll have to suffer through 3D Jar-Jar Binks to eventually get to 3D Battle of Hoth, but that's a sacrifice I'm willing to make. And who knows? Maybe they'll take the opportunity to rectify that whole "Greedo Shot First" bullshit.

The right way:

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

This is just awesome.

We've gotten some awesome fantasy in theaters recently, what with the Lord of the Rings movies and so forth. But this looks to be the most fantastical movie yet:

Now, to just briefly mention a few reactions from the trailer:

  • First and foremost: this movie looks awesomely bad! I may have to watch it.

  • Note that the producers situated the story in the bustling metropolis tiny ass town of "Trapper Falls, Alaska." This allows them to side-step the challenge to self-righteousness that would emerge should the movie be set somewhere that has sizable numbers of non-Christians. For example, damned near any city.

  • The entire world does not have a shared experience at Christmas. Global Christianity has a shared experience, yes, but otherwise... not so much.

  • Does anyone else think the dude with the beard and the long hair who toasts the town seems like the town drunk? "OH, there goes old charlie, toasting the town again! He'll be puking in a gutter within the hour."

  • Villains are always pale, wear dark coats, and drive expensive cars.

  • The villainous atheist is named "Bright." My, whatever could that be an allusion to?

  • Note that the Christian protaganist beat out the mean old atheist for the girl in high school. It's like this movie was made by Conservapedia.*

  • Remember: Being inclusive is offensive. Fuck you, "Season's Greetings"!

  • Yes, atheists "Hate god" and don't want "Equal representation of religion." Right. Can we go back to the preceding scene where the protagonist was pissed that the Christian "Merry Christmas" was replaced with "Season's Greetings" and then have this conversation?

  • "So yes, I do have a problem with Christmas. And all the rest of the garbage you Christians have been jamming down my throat since I was a kid"? Who the hell talks like that? Oh, wait, I know.

  • You know, this Bright dude had people holding placards for him: perhaps there were more people in Trapper Falls who didn't like the state sponsored religious displays? Somehow, I doubt that issue will be explored.

  • Oooh! Mean atheist is mean to innocent kid. I bet he stole some candy from a baby on the way over, too!

  • "Just because god is out of vogue in the big city doesn't mean we threw him away like last summer's fashion magazine." Wicked burn! Because all atheists are effete urbanites.

  • Ah, yes, the old "Christians founded the U.S." argument. Well, sure. You know who else founded the U.S.? Slave holders. Something to keep in mind, eh?**

  • Fine, yes, Christ the lord is the reason for Christmas. Sure. And this is why we use "Season's Greetings" instead of "Merry Christmas" on public property.

  • And right, of course, the atheist converts at the end. Because the thing you have to understand is that we atheists have never had someone try to convert us. Also, we're all lonely and unhappy. Really, it's true, I saw a show about it once on TBN!

But all cheap humor aside, the thing that gets me is this: Christians have been persecuted in the past and are, right now, enduring real persecution in places like the middle east, Africa, China, and elsewhere. These people know that for practicing their faith they might be arrested, beaten, or murdered, and yet they still follow what they believe to be the right path. Note, however, that none of these things are true in the U.S., where being Christian will not get you arrested, nor beaten, nor murdered, nor oppressed in any noteworthy way. Christian churches operate in the open and advertise on billboards. Business people sometimes insert Christian symbols into their logos to reassure others that, yes, they are Christian. Our money says, "In God we Trust" on it, and our political leaders are almost always sworn in using a bible. So, to be perfectly honest, when someone plays up the need to be inclusive of all faiths as being somehow a violation of Christian rights? As though it's persecution? That's not just insulting to us non-Christians, but actually insulting to other Christians who know what persecution actually is.

But then, I'm an atheist who can't know the true meaning of Christmas so, whatever.

* I know I'm just a single data point, but I'm an atheist and am married to a brilliant, kind and generous woman. She's also a total hottie. Just sayin' is all.

** My point is not that Christian = slave holder. My point is that the characteristics of the group who started something are not, in and of themselves, an argument for how that group should behave in the future.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Feels like kicking the corpse, but...

I have a pretty serious interest in space. I also have a pretty serious interest in Conservapedia and, every now and then, these interests combine to produce something that is, if not magical, at least limply entertaining. Sort of like this blog, now that I think about it.

In any case, recently Conservapedia posted what was no doubt meant to be a shocking headline:

Or, to quote directly:

Will space aliens be subject to a "visitor's tax" in this recent addition to liberal stupidity? We don't know, but there's a United Nations "envoy" in place from the "Office for Outer Space Affairs" should the Romulans, the Klingons, or ET pay us a visit! [emphasis, and link, original]

And that at least caught my attention- not so much for the ambassador part, since it seems not unreasonable that we at least have a contingency plan, but for the bit on taxing. I mean, seriously? Is someone contemplating an "extraterrestrial visitor" tax? I know the Catholic Church wants to evangelize them, but still! Yet, knowing Conservapedia, I decided to follow up on the original story. And, as you might expect, the truth is somewhat different:

Or, to quote:

Is the United Nations set to appoint an obscure Malaysian astrophysicist to act as Earth's first contact for any aliens that may come visiting? Nonsense, said the U.N.

Mazlan Othman, the head of the U.N.'s little-known Office for Outer Space Affairs (Unoosa), is set to describe her potential new role as chief alien ambassador next week at a scientific conference at the Royal Society's Kavli conference center in Buckinghamshire, England, reported London's Sunday Times.

"Nonsense," responded the U.N.

Bonus points to the author, and the editors, for getting the word "nonsense" into the article so many times in the first three paragraphs. I'll let you read the rest of the article yourself if you want, but you can rest assured that no mention of taxation of extraterrestrials appears anywhere therein. So, in effect, we have Fox News reporting on the non-story that another newspaper misunderstood a U.N. official as suggesting that there was an appointed ambassador to space. Must have been a slow news day. Then, we had Conservapedia reporting on Fox news reporting on another newspaper reporting on a non-story, and along the way Conservapedia decided to insert some random bullshit about taxation and liberals being stupid. Remember folks: the trustworthy encyclopedia. And then, as long as we're on the subject, I decided to report on Conservapedia reporting on Fox news reporting on another newspaper reporting on a non-story. But, then again, I have a previously established predilection for jumping through my own ass backwards, so none of us should be surprised. It was a temptation I could not resist- sort of like an Escher painting named "the infinite idiot".

Anyway, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Conservapedia is biased and being stupid. As always. So why did I bother to point out such a tawdry and uninteresting story?

Well, for two simple reasons: (1) the above mentioned humor value and, (2) because there's just no other decent reason to mention them. The funny has ended, the presence of editors other than Schlafly's little band of merry morons has effectively ended, and there's basically nothing interesting there at all lately. Well, with the possible exception of the Biblical Scientific Foreknowledge page, which now includes such surreal additions as the claim that Jesus walking on water is an example of wave-particle duality. Yeah, I don't know what to say to that either. Yet, aside from that page, the whole "making up a story about taxing aliens so I can call liberals stupid" thing is about the most noteworthy accomplishment of Conservapedia for months.* And so, I really have to admit, I think the cheerful days when we would look forward to craziness from Schlafly's gang may be at an end.

I'll leave y'all to mourn in your own way.

* Although they did manage to get a mention in Human Events without being called stupid. That said, they weren't praised either.

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Monday, September 27, 2010

Vengeance, thy name is va-jay-jay.

I honestly do not know what to say about something like this. You know, aside from simply reiterating the importance of actually stepping to the side to avoid very slow moving attacks:

I want to see a feminist analysis of this so bad, I could cry.

Oh, yeah, by the way: NSFW.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

Second verse, same as the first.

Okay, so we've pretty much closed the book on the notion that vaccines cause autism, but thankfully Jezebel is here to promulgate the new hysteria about the Gardasil vaccine. And, honestly, it's not even creative hysteria:

On the one hand, most young women have not reported adverse affects to the widely-recommended HPV vaccine. On the other, when it goes bad, it's really bad.

From the time she was first vaccinated, 17-year-old Kahlia experienced mood swings, nausea and insomnia. But after a few weeks, it got much worse.

Right. As it turns out, her symptoms get worse, change frequently, and defy easy explanation, but since they occurred after the vaccine, they must be caused by it. Right, sure, and correlation equals causation. Indeed, the entire article is based on a single case that can't even be conclusively linked to Gardasil. That's about as smart as concluding that because you once broke your leg falling from a tree, that all trees are homicidal monsters. I mean, need I remind everyone of the last time we based anti-vaccine hysteria on a single extreme case?

But I digress. In the interest of saving women from cervical cancer, allow me to direct you to this page which helps to visualize the relative risks of the HPV vaccine. Put simply, 0.007% of all people who were vaccinated for HPV had a serious, but non-fatal, complication. Your lifetime risk of dying from the HPV vaccine is estimated at 1 in 145,000- which is much more favorable than the 1 in 500 risk of dying of cervical cancer, and the 1 in 260 risk of dying in a car accident.

Just something to think about.

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

A day for a man who does not want one.

Some of you are probably aware that this past Monday was Everybody Pray for Christopher Hitchens Day. For those who don't know, Christopher Hitchens is a is a devout atheist who famously asserted that god is not great. He is also, tragically, dying of esophageal cancer.

Now, given his role as an outspoken atheist, and given his current situation, some folks decided to make September 20th a day on which everyone should pray for Hitchens- a decisions Hitchens himself has remarked upon. In the end, he concluded as follows:

I don’t mean to be churlish about any kind intentions, but when September 20 comes, please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries. Unless, of course, it makes you feel better.

So, why am I brining this up? Well, because a good friend of mine recently posed a public question, asking how atheists and theists feels about the "pray for Hitchens," day? My friend also expressed hope that this was a day on which atheists and theists could come together in acknowledgement of a common sense of finality and frailty. And, given the invitation, I will respond as best I am able, with the caveat that I am speaking only for myself. Hitchens has already spoken, and he's about the only authority on the day that should be required.

First of all, there is an extent to which I find the gesture touching. There is a segment of the theistic population who are genuinely praying out of generosity and kindness. These people represent the best of theism in general- compassion, kindness, and openness of spirit- and help to reinforce my belief that atheism and theism do not have to be mortal enemies.

Second, however, is my tired understanding that not all of those offering to pray are doing so out of generosity. For many, it is more vindictive and passive aggressive. And I know that because, you see, in order to pray for someone you do not have to tell them that you are praying for them, and to express your sympathy, you do not have to use the language of prayer. As an atheist I, too, have been told by others that they are praying for me, but if they were not to tell me, their prayers would be just as heartfelt and just as effective. Thus, I know that they are telling me for some other reason. Indeed, telling me about the prayers is little more than a subtle condemnation of my beliefs- a way to tell me I'm wrong, while cloaking oneself in the illusion of generosity. I do not mean to imply that all such people who announce their intentions to pray are acting out of such condescension, but rather that those who do are not as hidden from sight as they seem to believe. And so, this day is wearying to me because so many of the prayers are simply an excuse for the religious to feel righteous at the expense of a man who is dealing with cancer.

Third, times such as these are, at best, surreal for an atheist. Being told that someone is praying for you is disconcerting because we atheists simply do not believe that prayers are effective, and by and large we'd probably prefer you do something less silly with your time. I suspect, though I can't say for sure, that upon being told someone is praying for me, I feel much the same way a Christian would feel if told that someone was going to sacrifice a chicken for him or her. Perhaps you appreciate the sentiment, but you really wish that they wouldn't.

And finally, there is the question of whether this is a chance for atheists and theists to come together in recognition of our common destination. Leaving aside the fact that one of the attractions of religion is that it denies the finality of that common destination, there is the issue that this moment of togetherness is being proposed in a religious mode. Our currency refers to god, our pledge of allegiance refers to god, getting elected virtually requires public proclamations of religious faith, and a lack thereof exposes one to little but suspicion and dislike. And yes, when one of my fellow atheists is dying, we are supposed to come together with theists by participating in their rituals? I think it more appropriate that the beliefs of the person whom we are coming together around dictate the mode of togetherness. But then, that is perhaps just me.

I am deeply sorry to know of Mr. Hitchens' disease, I hope very much that the power of modern science and medicine can save him or, at the least, ease his ending, and I am grateful for all those who are praying for him out of a genuine sense of compassion.

But, like Hitchens, I hope it makes them feel better, because it otherwise is unlikely to prove helpful.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

And my mom thought I was wasting my time.

Those of us who play video games for a hobby have probably heard- many, many times- that we're rotting our brains away. Fortunately, science is here to show otherwise:

Playing shoot-‘em-up, action-packed videogames strengthens a person’s ability to translate sensory information quickly into accurate decisions. This effect applies to both sexes, say psychologist Daphne Bavelier of the University of Rochester in New York and her colleagues, even if females generally shun videogames with titles such as Dead Rising and Counter-Strike.


“What’s surprising in our study is that action games improved probabilistic inference not just for the act of gaming, but for unrelated and rather dull tasks,” Bavelier says.

Unlike slower-paced videogames that feature problems with specific solutions, action videogames throw a rapid-fire series of unpredictable threats and challenges at players. Those who get a lot of practice, say, killing zombies attacking from haphazard directions in a shifting, postapocalyptic landscape pump up their probabilistic inference powers, Bavelier proposes.

Now that sounds interesting: playing action-packed games can actually improve your ability to make quick decisions. But are these gains limited to zombie-related circumstances? Turns out, not so much. They appear to extend to abstract (and arguably quite boring) visual and auditory stimulus discrimination tasks. So, basically, playing Left 4 Dead may improve your ability to decide quickly whether you just heard an alarming sound or something you shouldn't worry about. And for any of you who think about causation, take a look at this:

Some gamers may have superior probabilistic inference skills to begin with, but an additional experiment indicates that playing action games amplifies an ability to analyze sensory information, Bavelier says.

Her team randomly assigned seven men and seven women to play two action videogames for a total of 50 hours, with no more than two hours of play per day. Another four men and seven women followed the same rules but played a videogame that involves directing the lives of simulated characters to achieve certain goals.

None of the participants, who averaged 26 years of age, reported having played videogames of any type in the previous year.

Both groups showed marked improvement in game-playing skills after completing the assignment. But action gamers responded markedly faster to dot and noise tasks than did the group that played the simulation game, with comparable accuracy.

In other words, it isn't a selection effect wherein the folks who are good at quick discriminations prefer to play games that require such skills. Instead, it appears that practice with the games actually increases your skill at making such discriminations. I find this, frankly, exciting as hell, because it means that we're one step closer to being able to use games as genuine teaching tools. I look forward to the day when, much as there are both fluffy and profound works of literature, there are fluffy and profound video games- games that teach as well as entertain.

Which brings us to a natural question: what sort of lesson do we think this game might teach us? A game that includes, along with its single-player campaign, a separate story-based campaign that can only be completed with the help of a partner:

Video games can never do what books do. But, then again, books can't do what video games can, and the human experience is richer for having both.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Fermi not so paradoxical.

The Fermi Paradox is a well-known humdinger in the astronomy and sci-fi worlds, and it basically goes like this: if many life bearing planets exist, and if intelligent, tool using species can evolve relatively easily, then where the hell are they? In other words, the universe is very old, and by comparison humans are extremely young. Yet, we are already close to a technological level that would permit communication, and even travel, between star systems. And even limited by the speed of light, a single species could likely colonize a galaxy in a geologically short period of time. So, that being the case, where the hell are they?

I'm not going to propose an answer to the Fermi Paradox, if only because such an attempt is doomed to failure. However, a humorous possible solution is, I think, suggested by Brother Guy Consolmagno, who states that the Catholic church is open to admitting aliens. No, not kidding:

The senior Vatican scientist, Brother Guy Consolmagno, said that he would be delighted if we encountered intelligent aliens and would be happy to baptise them.

His pronouncement opens up the possibility of space missionaries heading out to the stars to convert aliens to Christianity.


He said he was "comfortable" with the idea of alien life and asked if he would baptise an alien, he replied "Only if they asked".

In Brother Consolmagno's defense, he is good enough to observe that he would only baptize an alien if it asked. On the other hand, one is forced to wonder if the Fermi Paradox is, perhaps, the interstellar equivalent of hiding until the Jehovah's Witnesses give up and move on to the next doorstep. And if so, who the hell can blame them?

All kidding aside, however, Brother Consalmagno gets props from me for saying something that needs to be said:

He said "intelligent design" had been "hijacked" by religious fundamentalists.

"The word has been hijacked by a narrow group of Creationist fundamentalists in America to mean something it did not originally mean at all.

"It’s another form of the God of the gaps," he said.

'It’s bad theology in that it turns God once again into the pagan god of thunder and lightning.’

And you have to love him for that. So, to sum up, intelligent design is bad theology, and aliens are welcome to take communion.

Now, if we could just all agree on whether women are as worthwhile people as men, we'd really be off and running.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

You were advised that this might transpire on occasion.

I'm not generally a fan of music videos. Honestly, I usually find that my enjoyment of music is impaired by knowing what the artists look like. That said, I think this can safely be described as hella-cool:

I have no idea why, but I like it.

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Friday, September 17, 2010

From the "I f-ing told you so" department.

Comes this exciting news:

Infants exposed to the highest levels of thimerosal, a mercury-laden preservative that used to be found in many vaccines, were no more likely to develop autism than infants exposed to only a little thimerosal, new research finds.

The study offers more reassurance to parents who worry that vaccination raises their children's risk for autism, the researchers said.

"Prenatal and early life exposure to ethylmercury from thimerosal in vaccines or immunoglobulin products does not increase a child's risk of developing autism," concluded senior study author Dr. Frank DeStefano, director of the immunization safety office at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study was released online Sept. 13 in advance of publication in the October print issue of Pediatrics.

Obviously, you're wondering about the methodology:

In the new study, researchers examined medical records and conducted interviews with the mothers of 256 children with an autism spectrum disorder and 752 children matched by birth year who did not have autism. The children were all members of three health care management organizations in California and Massachusetts.

Researchers also gathered information about the manufacture and lot number of the vaccines that the children received, to determine how much thimerosal they were likely exposed to.

Children in the highest 10 percent of thimerosal exposure, either prenatally or between infancy and 20 months, were no more likely to have autism, an autism spectrum disorder or autism spectrum disorder with regression than children in the lowest 10 percent of exposure.

So can we all stop freaking out about non-existent dangers and get our vaccination rates back up to snuff? Please?

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Selective Inclusion

A lot of people seem to think that the rise of the internet and the ready availability of vast amounts of information will lead to a new era of understanding between people with different views. I'll admit this is a nice vision, but the unfortunate reality is that there's little to no evidence that most people actually want to understand those with different views from their own. Indeed, it seems that a fairly common reaction to having access to so much diverse information is to try to find some way to make it less diverse.

And this brings us to a recent story on NPR that discusses the rise of religious search engines. And by religious search engines, I do not mean that the software itself prays:

Some Jews, Muslims and Christians are abandoning Yahoo and Google and turning to search engines with results that meet their religious standards.

Shea Houdmann runs SeekFind, a Colorado Springs-based Christian search engine that only returns results from websites that are consistent with the Bible. He says SeekFind is designed "to promote what we believe to be biblical truth" and excludes sites that don't meet that standard.


Husain Benyounis, a 44-year-old Muslim man from New Zealand, starting using I’mHalal about eight months ago, and now he says he’s a fan.

“I do use it at home, at work and everywhere,” Benyounis says.

He says the search engine offered him content that he can trust would be appropriate for him as a practicing Muslim. And he is much more comfortable allowing his teenage son to surf the Web using I'mHalal. For example, a search for “sex” would return results giving the Islamic view on sexuality.

Now, some of you might be thinking that this sounds an awful lot like censorship. There's a reason for that: it's because it sounds an awful lot like censorship. Nevertheless, there's a rhetorical "foil" for this objection:

“In a sense, I guess kind of what SeekFind does is a form of censorship, but I would more describe it as selective inclusion,” he [Michael Gartenberg of Altimeter Group] says.

Some who oppose such search engines argue that allowing people to only access material that they already agree with will lead to an intolerant society. But Gartenberg says he does not see it that way.

“It’s no more censorship than if I find something on television that I find offensive to me and I could change the channel,” he says.

Now, first, I have to disagree with Mr. Gartenberg as to his analogy. See, if I notice something I don't want to watch and change the channel, I first have to notice it and make an active choice. These search engines, in contrast, remove information from my sight in the first place, much like a censor who deletes channels from my cable package* before I even have the chance to change the channel. That's a minor point, however, since arguably people are choosing to censor themselves. So let's take up the second issue: just how selective is the selective inclusion?

To find out, I conducted a little experiment. I entered the same search terms in the search engines Google, SeekFind, and I'mHalal(Beta). I then recorded the number of hits produced by each as well as the top three links. Coincidentally, this allows me to calculate a "selectivity ratio" which is simply the number of hits produced by SeekFind/I'mHalal divided by the number of hits for Google using the same terms. In short, it's a proportion of the searchable internet universe that the two religious engines come up with. Sound interesting? Good, then let's begin.

I started with several basic science terms that I thought we might be interested in: Evolution, Gravity, and Heat.

1st Hit:Evolution- WikipediaGravity- WikipediaHeat (1995)
2nd HitEvolutionHow does gravity work?Miami Heat
3rd Hit:Understanding EvolutionGravity SoftwareHeat- Wikipedia
Selectivity Ratio:0.0000570.0000110.000005
1st Hit:Theory of EvolutionGravityA Closer Look at How Pit Vipers 'See' Heat
2nd HitEvolution is Religion, Not ScienceGravityA Closer Look at How Pit Vipers 'See' Heat
3rd Hit:Evolution TheoriesGravityMade in His Image: Balancing Body Temperature
Selectivity Ratio:0.3150.2280.287
1st Hit:Evolution- WikipediaGravity- WikipediaHeat- Wikipedia
2nd HitEvolution for the GNOME DesktopGravityMiami Heat
3rd Hit:EvolutionGravityJapanese AV Idol directory

Okay, so, based on our first pass it looks strongly like "selective" in this case means, "really, really really" selective for the Christian search engine (i.e. SeekFind) and only "really" selective for the Islamic search engine (i.e. I'mHalal). But these are science terms- what about political and social issues? Well, to figure that out I also searched for three more issues: Democracy, Homosexuality, and Feminism.

1st Hit:Democracy- WikipediaHomosexuality- WikipediaFeminism- Wikipedia
2nd HitDemocracyHomosexuality-
3rd Hit:Democracy now!Homosexuality and BisexualityFeminism and Women's Studies
Selectivity Ratio:0.00000240.0000400.0000032
1st Hit:Secular Politics and Economic DemocracyChristianity and HomosexualityWhat does the Bible say about feminism? Should a Christian be a feminist?
2nd HitChristianity, Democracy, and IraqBiblical HomosexualityFeminism
3rd Hit:Secular PoliticsHomosexuality Facts and FictionNeopaganism, Feminism, and the New Polytheism
Selectivity Ratio:0.2640.00000580.086
1st Hit:Democracy- WikipediaHomosexuality and IslamFeminism- Wikipedia
2nd HitDemocracyHomosexuality: What is the real sickness?Feminism
3rd Hit:E-Democracy- WikipediaHomosexualityFeminism- Schools- Wikipedia

Okay, so, based on this it looks like Christians and Muslims** are more afraid of democracy, homosexuals, and feminism than they are of science. I'm going to cautiously interpret that as being good, even as I note the rather horrific nature of the selectivity ratios. Now, you might say that I've deliberately picked topics that religious folks might have an issue with. I disagree- after all, what is so bloody controversial about "heat"? Nevertheless, I'll play that game and try one last search term: charity.

1st Hit:Charity Navigator
2nd HitCharity- Wikipedia
3rd Hit:Charity
Selectivity Ratio:0.0000016
1st Hit:Jonathan Edwards on Charity
2nd HitChristian Charity
3rd Hit:Christian Charity Organization
Selectivity Ratio:0.11
2nd HitGlobal Impact
3rd Hit:Charity Navigator

And, unfortunately, what it looks like is that Christians and Muslims- at least as represented by the people who put these search engines together- are even less interested in talking about charity than they are in talking about homosexuality (Christians), evolution (Christians and Muslims), or gravity (Christians and Muslims). I do have to give the Muslim community credit, however, in that they seem less terrified of the modern world than their Christian brethren- which is certainly a novel difference from the typical U.S. perception.

I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions but as for me, I gotta tell you: this looks a LOT like censorship.

* Not that I actually have cable. I have a baby on the way, you think I can afford cable?

** Note that I really don't mean to tar all Christians and Muslims here, but that's the alleged target audience for the search engines, so I'm in a bit of a bind.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

NSFW but totally worth it.

I've gotta be honest, I've always been more of a Heinlein fan myself,* but it's nice to see some appreciation for the classics.

* Which strikes me as a little funny since, given Heinlein's thoughts on free love,** the singer would've been more likely to get some action from Bob than Ray, you know?***

** I mean, hell, have you READ "Stranger in a Strange Land"? There's actually a serious discussion about the circumstances under which it would be rude to turn down a bisexual threesome.

*** Well, if it weren't for the fact that Ray is alive while Bob isn't, anyway.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I am, frankly, speechless at this news.

And I really wish I were making it up:

Lust for wealth drove a poverty- stricken couple to sacrifice their own four-year-old daughter at a village in Uttar Pradesh’s backward Sitapur district, about 90 km from here.

The couple, identified as Srikrishna and Ramdevi, were told by a “tantrik” (exorcist) that they would become rich if they sacrificed their daughter, according to police sources here.

Acting on the advice of a “tantrik”, a “havana kund”(a pit in which the fire is lit and yajna is performed), was prepared in the courtyard of the couple for the rituals late on Monday night.

The parents then put their daughter Kanni into the pit amid chanting of “mantra” and lit the fire. The girl, who was also mercillessely beaten, was half buried in the pit.

The parents had stuffed a piece of cloth in the mouth of the little girl so that her cries could not be heard by any one in the village, sources said.

The badly burnt body of the girl was later buried on the same spot by digging a deep pit, sources said. The grandmother of the girl was also present during the rituals, sources said.

As terrible as this is, I'm forced to wonder: what, if any, ethical difference is there between the actions of the parents in this case, and the actions of parents who deny their children medical care out of religious devotion?* Things like this make me very, very sad.

* To answer my own question, I suppose that in the former case the parents knew that they were doing harm whereas in the latter the parents hypothetically believed they were doing the right thing. Still, I think the comparion raises some interesting, and hard, questions about the boundaries of religious freedom.

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Monday, September 13, 2010

I'm guessing I'm going to be hearing a lot more about this in the coming years

For those who are curious, we have the first ever award to parents who claim a link between autism-like symptoms and vaccines, and it's a big award:

CBS News has learned the family of Hannah Poling will receive more than $1.5 million dollars for her life care; lost earnings; and pain and suffering for the first year alone.

In addition to the first year, the family will receive more than $500,000 per year to pay for Hannah's care. Those familiar with the case believe the compensation could easily amount to $20 million over the child's lifetime.


In acknowledging Hannah's injuries, the government said vaccines aggravated an unknown mitochondrial disorder Hannah had which didn't "cause" her autism, but "resulted" in it. It's unknown how many other children have similar undiagnosed mitochondrial disorder. All other autism "test cases" have been defeated at trial. Approximately 4,800 are awaiting disposition in federal vaccine court. [emphasis added]

A couple of points should be made here. First, as I emphasized above, this is so far the one and only time such a claim has been deemed valid enough to warrant compensation. So, if you hear anti-vaxxers touting this as vindication for their position, they are deliberately ignoring the many other times that scientific evidence and legal proceedings have found against them. This is particularly the case given that, as I've discussed previously, Ms. Poling doesn't actually have autism, she has a disorder that behaves like autism. Second, the distinction between "cause" and "resulted" above is key, since the finding was that an existing underlying condition was aggravated by the vaccine. Without the vaccine, this condition may still have ended up producing autism-like symptoms on its own, but the vaccine on its own was not the culprit and it isn't certain that minus the vaccine autism-like symptoms wouldn't have occurred anyway. Third, the mechanism invoked here- a mitochondrial disorder- is NOT a mechanism claimed by the anti-vaxxers. It isn't the "gut measles" hypothesis of Andrew Wakefield, and it's not the "scary toxic substances" hypothesis of Mary Tocco. And thus, even if this case were evidence that vaccines are a causal agent in autism (it's not) it still wouldn't vindicate the anti-vaxxers claims.

But, I'm sure I'll hear about this endlessly as though it proves all the crazy anti-vaccine shit right. So be it.

We're still vaccinating little JezLil.

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Friday, September 10, 2010


It's not the Onion, but it's funny as hell regardless:

When Detective Inspector Craig King hits a dead-end with conventional investigative police-work, he knows where to turn. Forensic homeopathologist Simon Yates.


‘Oh, Simon is great, an absolute miracle worker,’ enthused DI King. ‘It’s not just the work he does, but the time he spends with you. You come out feeling so clear-headed and convinced that there really is cause to lock his suspects up.’

Homeopathology is based on the “law of similars” formulated by Samuel Hahnemann in late 18th century Germany, and involves serial dilutions of substances in water or alcohol, followed by forceful shaking in a process known as “Succussion”.

Simon Yates applies this to substances found at the crime scene – a drop of blood, the victim’s tears – it could even be powdered glass from a broken window. After preparing the solution and drinking the ‘potentized’ remedy, Yates will roam the vicinity guided by its power until one or more suspects have been identified. They are then also asked to drink the solution while in police custody until a conclusion is reached.

You should read the rest because, short as it it, it's awesome. Still, I'm a little sad that the author missed the true parallel: if we wanted to use homoepathology to find a bludgeoner, we should bludgeon people in the faintest way possible until someone finally confesses. It is the law of similars, after all.

It is eternally confusing to me that a strategy that seems obviously stupid in all other domains suddenly seems plausible when speaking of health.

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Thursday, September 09, 2010

Jumping at shadows.

Some of you have probably noticed that I haven't commented extensively on the whole "ground zero mosque" nonsense currently filling the airwaves. That's mostly because, as you probably guessed, I think it's stupid. And frankly, Republicans should agree with me, since what someone does with private property has traditionally been- in their view- a private affair. Moreover, much as I dislike religion on general principle, Islam is no more the enemy of the United States than Christianity is. Rather, ignorance and hate are our enemy. Well, that and the guys who periodically try to kill us. I have to admit, I provisionally class anyone trying to kill me and/or my fellow citizens as an enemy, but maybe that's just me?

In any case, rather than spend time hashing out the thing in New York, allow me to draw your attention to an even dumber thing happening in Pennsylvania, where a small group is protesting the memorial for Flight 93 because... well... I'll let you read for yourself:

Since 2005, when plans for the Flight 93 National Memorial were unveiled, a group of critics, including the father of one of the heroes who died, have protested loudly that the memorial's design is rife with Islamic symbols. They haven't wavered in their protest -- even though some design elements have been changed -- and they plan to run a full-page ad opposing the design in a local newspaper on Friday and Saturday, when the nation will pause to remember September 11.


At the center of the dispute is the Field of Honor, a circular, tree-lined landmass that will serve as the "heart" of the memorial, as well as a 93-foot Tower of Voices that will contain 40 wind chimes, one for each victim of the crash. Forty groves of red and sugar maple trees also will commemorate the victims, and ponds will be installed to serve as a natural barrier to the nearby Sacred Ground, the final resting place for the passengers and crew of Flight 93.

The newspaper ad -- paid for by Tom Burnett Sr., whose 38-year-old son died in the crash, and Alec Rawls, author of "Crescent of Betrayal: Dishonoring the Heroes" -- revives their claim that the memorial's Field of Honor clearly resembles an Islamic crescent and star, and that the entire site is orientated toward Mecca.

And what do you even do with something like that? If you're curious you can see the National Park Service's complete description of the project but, in short, to me it looks nothing like an Islamic symbol. Or, really, anything else aside from a relatively tasteful if modern memorial site. Perhaps I'm missing a subtle sign? Maybe I'm misinterpreting some secret gnostic element that reveals the full Islamic glory?

"A more obvious tribute to the terrorists is hard to imagine," reads the ad, which will be published in the Somerset Daily American and was provided in advance to "It is not surprising, then, that the giant crescent would turn out to point to Mecca, and be the centerpiece for the world's largest mosque." [emphasis added]

"...hard to imagine"? Seriously? If that's what they think, then it seems to me that they are seriously lacking in the kind of imagination that it takes to make an excellent conspiracy theorist. I mean, I've read Graham Hancock and these guys are no Graham Hancock.* I mean, hell, wouldn't a more "obvious tribute" be a 30-foot statue of Osama bin Ladin? But let's leave that aside in favor of the loony cherry on top of the crazy sunday:

If left unchanged, Rawls said, the memorial will ultimately serve as a government-built "Ground Zero mosque" in Pennsylvania. "This is the architect's plan," he told "This is what he wanted. To not recognize what the architect is doing here is nuts. This is state establishment of religion."

And how does one even respond to that? It's an accusation that the unnamed architect** is deliberately incorporating Islamic symbols because... um... well, who knows why? Anyway, it's that accusation followed by a hysterical claim that building a memorial that isn't consecrated to any religious group, is not owned by any religious group, and does not contain religious imagery, is the establishment of religion. I think it's clear that some folks really don't understand what the "establishment of religion" really entails.

Now, in all truth, I don't want to say that these are bad people. Some of the leaders lost family on Flight 93 and I suspect they're acting partly out of grief. Likewise, most of the families of Flight 93 seem to be in support of the memorial. I just think it's a shame that out of love for those we've lost, some folks are trying to make an enemy of an entire religion.

Because, unfortunately, that's exactly what Osama wants.

* Reading his book "Fingerprints of the Gods" can be good for a laugh, though, if you find logical fallacies amusing.

** And frankly I'm glad he or she is unnamed given what's going on.

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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

No comment is necessary.

Just turn your speakers way up for this one and enjoy:

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Tuesday, September 07, 2010

It's here, and it's everything you could have wanted.

So, at the conclusion of my recent series on Left Behind I asked for suggestions for the next installment of Drek's Book Club. After a fair amount of discussion, and a key veto by my lovely wife, the decision was made to go with Glenn Beck's "novel" The Overton Window. I'll admit, a substantial part of that decision was the offer by one loyal reader to purchase a copy of the damned thing for me. That said, I have no reason to feel guilty, since I've been doing this blog for free for f-ing years. In any case, it seems that Jonas is as good as his word because at the recent ASA annual meeting I received a package via one of my nefarious associates. And there was a note attached to it, too:

But what did the note say? I admit, I was shocked and amazed when I saw what it contained:

For the picture-clicking challenged, the text reads:

To be forwarded to a certain blogger of uncommon bravery and wit, with my compliments.

Sincerest thanks,

It's hard to argue with that, because if there is a distribution of wit and bravery, I am definitely uncommonly far out in the left tail.* And, as I'm sure you've already guessed, my next book curse was contained inside this cheerfully wrapped package:

Now, you all have a bit yet before I start blogging this particular gem, since I want to read the thing all the way through before starting a report. But, yes, I have begun my journey through it and, yes, I have formed an initial opinion. What is that opinion? Well, let's just say that from time to time I think I might long for the days when I was reading Left Behind.


So thanks, Jonas, and stay tuned folks! The next book from hell is on the way!

* Zing! I admit, I have a weakness for statistics jokes.

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Monday, September 06, 2010

If it weren't so serious, it'd be funny.

We've all probably heard the aphorism that 'there are no atheists in foxholes.' As a literal statement of fact, the phrase is simply incorrect. There are, indeed, atheists, agnostics, and all manner of godless heathens in the armed forces, and many of them do, indeed, serve in combat. Still, there's a persistent tendency among a minority of the U.S. population to argue that the phrase is literally correct. Which is why I was so interested to read an article in the Wall Street Journal titled A Chaplain and an Atheist Go to War. And it's every bit as odd a story as you might expect:

They say there are no atheists in foxholes. There's one on the front lines here, though, and the chaplain isn't thrilled about it.

Navy Chaplain Terry Moran is steeped in the Bible and believes all of it. His assistant, Religious Programs Specialist 2nd Class Philip Chute, is steeped in the Bible and having none of it.

Together they roam this town in Taliban country, comforting the grunts while crossing swords with each other over everything from the power of angels to the wisdom of standing in clear view of enemy snipers. Lt. Moran, 48 years old, preaches about divine protection while 25-year-old RP2 Chute covers the chaplain's back and wishes he were more attentive to the dangers of the here and now.

It's a match made in, well, the Pentagon.

"He trusts God to keep him safe," says RP2 Chute. "And I'm here just in case that doesn't work out."

At first, this sounds a little like the sort of series idea someone would come up with on the Fox network: "One's an atheist! The other is a man of God! Together, they have to survive a war zone and find their own humanity in an inhuman place! [Cue the music; montage of battle scenes and grimy soldiers clasping hands] One Second from God. Coming this Fall, only on Fox!" Unfortunately, however, the situation is deadly serious as RP2 Chute is literally there to keep Chaplain Moran's ass in one piece. It's a near parallel to the myth that airlines always pair christian pilots with non-christian pilots in case the rapture strikes, with the exception that we're pretty sure that atheists, and snipers, actually exist, whereas god and the rapture are a bit more uncertain. Still, if this pairing sounds odd, you haven't heard anything yet:

Lt. Moran [the Chaplain] takes the Bible at its word, rejects the evolution of species and believes the Earth to be 6,000 years old. He carries a large Bible with him into the combat zone, while RP2 Chute totes writings of Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and fierce critic of the notion that God designed the universe.

Philip Chute was raised a devout Baptist in Nova Scotia and moved to Greenville, S.C., as a teen. His avid reading of the Bible, however, weakened his belief that fact lay behind faith. Soon he was a "full-blown atheist," he says.


Soon after they were assigned to work together, they had the inevitable discussion about RP2 Chute's beliefs.

At first the chaplain got the sense RP2 Chute was agnostic. "I can work with that," Lt. Moran recalls thinking.

But a few days later RP2 Chute dropped the A bomb: He was an atheist.

Appalled, Lt. Moran contacted his fellow chaplains. He says he was simply seeking counsel about whether atheists can really be chaplain's assistants. RP2 Chute is convinced Lt. Moran was trying to trade him in for a believer.

And the plot thickens! Not only is Moran a rather fundamentalist strain of chaplain, but Chute can actually cite chapter and verse of the bible back at him:

On a visit to Kilo Co., a Marine asked for a biblical ruling on tattoos. Lt. Moran said the Book of Leviticus bans them. RP2 Chute disagreed. Leviticus, he said, says people shouldn't get tattoos to mourn the dead.

Now that is just awesome. Again, however, the amusement I might feel is substantially lessened by the deadly reality of the situation:

"Hey, sir, don't get out of the vehicle until I lay down a sniper screen," Gunnery Sgt. Mark Shawhan, an agnostic with a suspicion of organized religion, instructed Chaplain Moran before the patrol. "That's where he's been getting us, and when you cross the bridge—RUN."

Lt. Moran wasn't troubled. "I believe the Lord is going to protect us," he said. But he wondered aloud whether to finish his Meal, Ready-to-Eat packaged lunch before heading to the armored vehicle.

Gunny Shawhan shook his head in disbelief.

When their turn came, the chaplain and his assistant bolted across the bridge and pivoted into a cornfield, where the minister stood upright. RP2 Chute shouted at Lt. Moran to get down. "Take a knee," he yelled.

The patrol zigzagged through fields and waded through ditches, the only sounds the rustling of corn leaves, the muted crackle of a radio and the distant thup-thup of a helicopter flying sentry above.

During a pause to allow the minesweepers to check for booby-traps on the path ahead, the chaplain, wearing his prescription eyeglasses instead of anti-shrapnel goggles, sat down on the bank of an irrigation ditch, dropped his backpack on the ground and snapped a few pictures. RP2 Chute grimaced when he noticed. Insurgents have seeded the entire town with powerful explosives, and Marines step in the exact footprints of the man ahead to minimize the risk.


"No matter what situation you find yourself in on planet Earth, God will protect you," he [Chaplain Moran] said after the patrol returned safely to base. "All He asks is that you trust and believe what He says. So, if I find myself in a combat situation, His promise of protection is still valid."

And, see, that's why all this isn't so funny. Chaplains absolutely belong in the U.S. military, regardless of the separation of church and state. Put bluntly, if the country is going to ask young men and women to put their lives of the line, they should be able to get spiritual counseling and comfort while they're doing it. That said, however, the chaplains- regardless of their own beliefs about the protection they may receive from god- should probably not behave in a way that's likely to get other people killed. I mean, you may believe that god will constantly intervene to save your butt from harm, but doesn't it show your compassion to take cover anyway so that others whom god may not be so fond of won't take a bullet? I like to think it does.

It's one thing to demand that your faith be respected, but it's quite another to expect that such respect also requires someone else to take a bullet for you for no good damn reason.

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Friday, September 03, 2010

I f-ing hate vampire fiction.

And thankfully, I am not the only one:

And don't tell me that this is inconsistent with my love of zombie fiction. First off, zombies are universally acknowledged as the enemy of mankind, not as potential heart throbs that teen girls want to screw.* Second, "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" was bloody awesome.

Thank you.

* Remember: something that eats you** is NOT good dating material.

** You know, in the bad way. The other way is entirely your business.

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Thursday, September 02, 2010


I have, from time to time, written about organic farming and organic produce. Usually my comments are somewhat negative, largely because the alleged benefits of organic food are speculative at best and because the costs are quite real. Usually when I refer to the "costs" of organic food, I'm talking economics, but today... not so much:

The triumph of purist ideology over compassion and science means suffering and death for organic farm animals across America.

The week-old dairy calf, gangly and still, lay on a barn floor, her long-lashed eyes rolled back to expose the blue-white rim. The next morning, when I went to help my neighbor with his newborns, the calf was dead.

Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations defining organic standards mandate that if this calf had gotten one dose of antibiotics, even to save her life, she could never give organic milk—even after the two years it takes for her to become a milker, and even though neither she nor her milk would retain any trace of antibiotics.

Farmers are not generally callous or cruel, but neither are they sentimental. Organic standards mandate that they take all measures to save the life of an animal, but treatment strategies can be subjective, and loss of organic status factors into a farmer’s decision. After all, antibiotics don’t always work, and sometimes animals recover without them. So decent farmers wait while an animal suffers, and crosses that line past which no intervention can reverse the slide to death.

Arguably the 100% ban on antibiotics under the U.S. standard was imposed partly at the instigation of "Big Agriculture,"* who may have thought that the embedded inhumanity would spell organic farming's doom. Fair enough, that seems somewhat plausible though I am usually reluctant to accept conspiracy theories on general principle, but there remain members of the organic farming community who support the 100% ban. And believe it or not, they go even farther with it:

Allowing one-time therapeutic antibiotics is “a slippery slope,” says Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, and would “undermine consumer confidence in organics. It’s the same position [I have] as on human vaccines. They are dangerous, and that’s why I didn’t vaccinate my kid.”

So, not only are we being told that we shouldn't give any antibiotics whatsoever to sick animals because it might- in some mysterious way- taint the end product, but now we're being told not to vaccinate our children against real and life threatening diseases because of a repeatedly falsified danger. And somehow, the "logic" that argues for one also argues for the other. Folks, that ain't logic, that's superstition.

I'm not about to argue that factory farming methods are humane or healthy, they're not, but at the same time just because something is "natural" doesn't make it safer or healthier. Natural can be a good way to get yourself killed and sometimes a little bit of the unnatural is just what the doctor ordered.

* Handy tip: if you ever want to discredit something without having to use an actual argument, just tack "big" onto the front. It's easy!

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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Deep Thoughts with Drek the Uninteresting

I wake up a lot at night. It's because I get to thinking about something in my sleep and it drags me back to wakefulness. I usually just lie there, staring at the swirling darkness, and listen to my wife breathe. And then, in the still depths between bright spans of activity- plunging through the hour of the wolf- it really hits me:

An encyclopedia is a really stupid idea. I mean, seriously? A book that contains an entry on everything? What the hell?

As a side note, I should probably add that I agree that Wikipedia is not as stupid a notion as a traditional encyclopedia and, likewise, that in a bygone year encyclopedias made more sense. Even so, however, a book that fails at breadth and depth simultaneously leaves something to be desired.

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