Archive for November, 2006|Monthly archive page

Not The Best Place For His Crack

The Associated Press is reporting that a man was saved from an alligator attack. While rare this wouldn’t really be interesting. What makes the story blog-worthy is the fact that the attack happened in the middle of the night and the man was both naked and on crack.

Sheriff’s deputies pulled a naked man from the jaws of a nearly 12-foot long alligator that almost completely severed the man’s arm, the sheriff’s office said.

Four deputies waded through thick mud about 20 feet into Lake Parker to find Adrian Apgar, 45, around 4 a.m. Wednesday morning, the sheriff’s office said. They were responding to multiple reports about a man screaming for help.
[…]
It was not clear why Apgar was in the water at such an early hour. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said Apgar told deputies he had been smoking crack.

The moral of the story, alligators are attracted to cracks on cranks on crack.

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Putting The ‘J’ Back In Christmas!

Julia Sweeney, outspoken atheist and comedian perhaps best known for her roles on Saturday Night Live, has an excellent post up about Christmas. After quoting a full page ad in the New York Times about returning Jesus and the religous meaning to public schools, she writes this. (Note: Ms Sweeney doesn’t like it when people quote her blog but that’s tough cookies. If she writes good stuff, grammatically correct or not, I’m going to quote it.)

Okay. Here’s what I say: I agree with [William A.] Donohue[, President of the Catholic League] (!!!). Well, I agree that it’s silly to take Jesus out of Christmas. I mean, we call it “Christ” mas, fer chrissake.

When I discussed this ad with my friend Jim Emerson (who sent it to me to begin with) he said, “Yeah, but you could also argue that the Christians took a perfectly good pagan holiday and made it about Jesus!” Which is also true.

But it kills me that Mulan [her daughter] can’t sing any religious songs at school for Christmas. Everything is all about Santa (as if that is less religious than Jesus!) and holiday-time. Which I really hate. I love the story of Jesus’ birth. A baby born in a barn, after a long trip? Born in the humblest circumstances and yet became a leader and revered? This is a great story. It’s a myth, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great story. That means that if I want her to hear the Jesus birth story I have to take her to a church. Which sucks. I mean, this is the myth of our culture! Why do we have to pretend it is not?

I say brava, brava, bravissimo!

Really. I agree fully with her reasoning and her motivations. She takes an extremely pragmatic approach to Christmas and belief. This is what gets me about another extremely outspoken atheist, Richard Dawkins. He is an extremely intelligent man but he misses the point on this that Julia nails. It’s about myths and stories. They have a place in society and public schools.

This topic ties in well with my weekend Intertube viewing. I am hoping to find some time this weekend to watch to the rest of the Beyond Belief 2006 conference.

Just 40 years after a famous TIME magazine cover asked “Is God Dead?” the answer appears to be a resounding “No!” According to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine, “God is Winning”. Religions are increasingly a geopolitical force to be reckoned with. Fundamentalist movements – some violent in the extreme – are growing. Science and religion are at odds in the classrooms and courtrooms. And a return to religious values is widely touted as an antidote to the alleged decline in public morality. After two centuries, could this be twilight for the Enlightenment project and the beginning of a new age of unreason? Will faith and dogma trump rational inquiry, or will it be possible to reconcile religious and scientific worldviews? Can evolutionary biology, anthropology and neuroscience help us to better understand how we construct beliefs, and experience empathy, fear and awe? Can science help us create a new rational narrative as poetic and powerful as those that have traditionally sustained societies? Can we treat religion as a natural phenomenon? Can we be good without God? And if not God, then what?

This is a critical moment in the human situation, and The Science Network in association with the Crick-Jacobs Center brought together an extraordinary group of scientists and philosophers to explore answers to these questions. The conversation took place at the Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA from November 5-7, 2006.

The speakers included  Steven Weinberg, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael Shermer and, of course, Richard Dawkins. The videos can be downloaded in full and cover the entire two and a half days of the conference. I’ll try to post a more complete wrap up next week because I’m only on the second day (and loving every most many minutes of it).

Unfortunately some of the speakers stake out positions I can’t accept.

Dawkins’ most outrageous claim is to say that calling a child a Catholic, an Muslim or a Hindu is a form of child abuse. Sorry, but WTF! I understand where he is going with this. But to call the association of small children with a specific religion child abuse is to demean child abuse. I’m sure Dawkins feels differently, but to me constant physical and mental torture are child abuse. Letting a child starve to death locked in a room where the only window is covered in paint (it happened in Hamburg last year) is child abuse. Screaming and yelling at a child for no other purpose than pure evil and ignorance is child abuse. Using the words Muslim, Hindi and Sikh in a newspaper picture caption is not child abuse.

A second person who I can’t warm up to is Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. I haven’t read his book yet (it’s on back order) but he takes an ‘in your face’ approach to religion. He seems to accept only two possibilities, atheism or fundamentalism. I don’t accept that. But more next week (I hope).

Finally there is Stuart Hameroff, who is just bat-shit mad. I mean seriously. They should simply find him a keeper and medicate him; tenured or not.

The speakers I have enjoyed immensely? Glad you wondered. Up until now, my favourite lectures were from VS Ramachandran taking about the bio-chemical reactions in the brain associated with religious feelings; Susan Neiman, who is currently writing Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists discussing morality without recourse to religious justification; and finally, Patricia Churchland, who’s discussion of prairie voles I thoroughly enjoyed.

Further heros include Lawrence Krauss, a physicist and all-round level headed guy, and, of course, Michal Shermer, who gave a good but not spectacular talk.

But back to Julia Sweeney. She takes the same course I would. Churches, stories, myths and beliefs aren’t inherently bad. They are part of the culture and part of the make up of the people living in that society. They are important; too important to sweep under the carpet; too important to leave in the hands of fundamentalists. That’s why we need people like Julia Sweeney, Michael Shermer and Lawrence Krauss. People who think but also feel and understand. That’s what Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins don’t do. Or at least they don’t show it.

So yeah. Let’s put the Julia and the Jesus back in Christmas.

Two Years Left And NOW They Get It

After several years of managing to absolutely mangle any attempts at foreign policy with North Korea, the American government is taking an new tact. Deny the North Korean elite those trappings of power they have, I am sure, so appropriately earned. The Washington Post, in one of the snarkier articles they have written lately, reports this morning that the US and other countries, in addition to banning the export of weapons and nuclear technology to the maladjusted Southeast Asian nation, will limit the delivery of many luxury items.

The U.S. list of more than 60 items reads like a letter to Santa from the dictator who has everything. Yachts, water scooters, race cars, motorcycles, even station wagons and Segways won’t be crossing the border this season. There shall be no more DVD players and televisions larger than 29 inches for the man whose film library of 20,000 titles betrays a yen for Bond and Rambo.

Kim’s former chef has written that the man known as “Dear Leader” fancies sushi, Iranian caviar and shark-fin soup. He is said to have every grain of rice inspected for perfection. But he won’t be served any of it on American china, which is on the list. After dinner, he often enjoys a glass of fine cognac — so the United States put lead crystal and liquor on the list, too.

The U.N. resolution also freezes North Korean accounts in foreign banks that could be used to fund the weapons program. And it prohibits international travel by officials involved in the nuclear-weapons program and their families. That is ostensibly more bad news for Kim Jong Il’s then-29-year-old son Kim Jong Nam, detained several years ago in Japan while reportedly trying to travel to Tokyo Disneyland on a forged Dominican passport.

So, instead of sending troops and tanks, we limit the delivery of tobacco and Topless Teens 27. Gee. What a good idea. I wonder who thought of that? It was obviously the fearless leader, Kim Il-Jong George W. Bush.

Forget the Baker commission, forget the failures in Iraq, forget the Medicare mistakes, this administration has a course. We’ll be getting Kim back in bikini form in no time. He was looking just a bit pudgy. I just can’t wait; be still my beating heart.

What comes next; no technical cooperation to improve safety at the IR-40 heavy water reactor under construction near Arak fruit cake for Ahmadinejad?

Outlawed – An Important Message

Here is the link to the full length (27 minutes) video of Outlawed, produced in association with 14 different organisations including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Amnesty International and (in a strange combination) the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. To quote the press release from the Human Rights educational organisation Breakthrough.tv

Breakthrough is very excited to partner with Witness on the film, Outlawed: Extraordinary Rendition, Torture, and Disappearances in the “War on Terror.” This film is a subset of our ongoing “Value Families” campaign on detentions and deportations.

Extraordinary Rendition is a United States government sponsored program, in which numerous persons have been illegally detained and secretly flown to third countries, where they have suffered additional human rights abuses including torture and enforced disappearance. The families and communities are deprived of any information about the missing persons. No one knows the exact number of persons affected, due to the secrecy under which the operations are being handled. In carrying out extraordinary renditions, the US government and participating European governments are in violation of their international human rights obligations.

“Outlawed” tells the stories of Khaled El-Masri and Binyam Mohamed, two men who have survived extraordinary rendition, secret detention, and torture by the U.S. government and various other governments worldwide. It features pertinent commentary from Louise Arbour, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, U.S. President George W. Bush, Michael Scheuer, the chief architect of the rendition program and former head of the Osama Bin Laden unit at the CIA, and Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. Secretary of State.

I encourage you to take the time to watch the film. Take the time to understand that behind the phrases spin doctored talking-points ‘extraordinary rendition’, ‘secret detention’ and ‘enemy combatants,’ there are real faces, real lives, real existences. This film illustrates those issues in an extremely powerful but ultimately almost unemotional manner.

Here are a couple of excerpts I found particularly interesting.

Condoleezza Rice

The United States has not transferred anyone and will not transfer anyone to a country where we believe he will be tortured. Where appropriate, the United States seeks assurances that transferred persons will not be tortured.

Khaled El-Masri , quoting from his ‘Pakistani’ guard. A man al-Masari says had a Lebanese accent.

You are in a county without laws. Do you know what that means? We can imprison you for 20 years…or bury you; nobody would know.

George W. Bush

We do not condone torture, I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture. The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being.

Bill Clinton

I did not have sexual relations with that woman! [Oops! Sorry, wrong film.]

Condoleezza Rice

International law allows a state to detain enemy combatants for the duration of the hostilities. The US does not seek to hold anyone for a period that beyond what is necessary to evaluate the intelligence or other evidence against them, prevent further acts of terrorism or hold them for legal proceedings.

Khaled El-Masri

I will continue to fight for this case until we succeed or until I die. For morality, for principles for values, This cannot continue.

Khaled El-Masri’s lawsuit against former CIA director George Tenet and others was dismissed in May 2006 because the government claimed the trial could reveal information which would threaten national security. El-Masri’s attorneys have appealed this decision. From yesterday’s Washington Post,

ACLU lawyer Ben Wizner told the court in Richmond Tuesday that el-Masri was “the public face of a publicly acknowledged program.” Since the basics of the rendition program already are common knowledge, he argued, the lawsuit could be considered without exposing state secrets.

Greg Katsis, a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice, argued that the government properly invoked its state secrets privilege to protect information outlined in a classified affidavit that Judge T.S. Ellis III read before dismissing the lawsuit

El-Masri’s allegations also are the subject of a German parliamentary investigation that is trying to clarify when German government officials became aware of el-Masri’s case and whether German security services participated in interrogations in Afghanistan.

The appeals court usually takes several weeks to issue its ruling.

The Stuff That Poisoned That Spy In London

My national security and international relations blogs have been abuzz lately with the latest information about the Alexander Litvinenko poisoning. To be honest, I really haven’t been paying that much attention. A former spy and outspoken critic of the Moscow government get’s killed in a unique and spectacular fashion that could have been used in a James Bond novel? *yawn*

Don’t get me wrong. I do feel for this guy’s family and friends but I can’t get that worked up about international misdeeds at the level of one guy.

Sure, the Moscow government wanted him to keep quiet. Sure, Putin has taken the former Soviet Union back to the good old days of censored press, repression and Stalin. Sure, Russia has and is involved in a basically unreported war in Chechnya. Sure, this IS a unique, major international mea culpa, an ‘OOPs’ of the highest international magnitude. The British government will have to issue an official smack-down, Moscow will send out an official Sgt. Schultz (from Hogan’s Hero’s) to say ‘I know NOTTIG! Absolutely NOOOOTTIG!’ End of official story – let the conspiracy theories begin.

Thus, I wasn’t going to write anything about this. That was until the story took a really weird twist to the area of creationists, online nuclear internet dealings and UFO’s. Then the story became something I just can’t resist.

You see Kathryn Cramer, after doing a great explaination about Polonium (Po-210, the substance used to convey poor Mr. Litvinenko into the afterlife), first reported (actually passed on the information from the Guardian) that there might be connections to the illicit trade in nuclear materials. Then she spent last week looking into how to make Po-210. She’s looked at New Scientist, online reports about the Purification of Black Bismuth from Polonium and the possible use of a semiconductor plan to purify a sample using zone refining. She also found out that Polonium is really important to creationists. (Like I said this story has gotten weird.)

In the process she got rather disconcerted about all the hits to her blog about where to buy Polonium. (Will I start getting those now?)

Then Jane Vaynman, at ArmsControlWonk, went on to ask the vital question about “What’s Polonium-210 and where do I get some?” In addition to some of the information Kathryn covered she also quotes the Observer (UK) in saying

Such material, it is believed by experts, could only have come from the massive nuclear structures of the old Soviet Union where, during the collapse of the empire, security was often sacrificed. Polonium can only be gained from such reprocessing plants or equally complex nuclear research plants. You cannot buy this stuff from local criminals.

The rest of her post follows the ‘we know how, we know where, now all we need is a motive’ investigation. She starts down the long path of the many, many conspiracy theories that will grow and flourish on the Intertubes for the next weeks and years. I predict GW and The Big Dick will be implicated by December. Wanna bet?

But the person who gets my award for best investigative blogging is Noah Shachtman at DefenseTech. He is the one that found the absolute gem.

The radioactive material that killed a former Russian spy in Britain can be bought on the Internet for $69.

Polonium-210, which experts say is many times more deadly than cyanide, can be bought legally through United Nuclear Scientific Supplies, a mail-order company that sells through the Web, based in Sandia Park, N.M. Chemcial companies sell the Polonium-210 legally for industrial use, such as removing static electricity from machinery. United Nuclear claims that it’s “currently the only legal Alpha source available without a license.”

The type of Polonium-210 sold emits alpha radiation, which can’t penetrate the skin, but is deadly if swallowed, depending on the amount ingested. The Polonium available on United Nuclear’s site can be purchased without a license because the level of radioactivity, 0.1 microcurie, does not pose a danger, a spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said.

But United Nuclear has a story. I’ll just let Noah say it.

United Nuclear is run by Bob Lazar, who, some 20 years ago, claimed to have worked on alien spaceships on a secret military base in Nevada… [That’d be Area 51 –ed.]

So, in two weeks we go from James Bond, to creationism to UFOs. How cool is that!

NSTA II: The Educator Strikes Back

The NSTA has posted their response to Laura David’s Op-Ed which I (and lots of others) blogged about yesterday. First off, the executive director Dr. Gerald Wheeler clarified the NSTA position on what he feels happened during the discussions with the production company.

During conversations with Ms. David’s representative we suggested making the DVD available via alternative means of distribution (e.g. by providing a mailing list of our members to producers, announcing its availability in our publications, etc.). It appears that these alternative distribution mechanisms were unsatisfactory.

It was not the intent of the NSTA to restrict “An Inconvenient Truth” from its members and we are currently pursuing options to make the DVD available to teachers.

While I didn’t read ‘restrict’ in any of Ms. David’s comments, which would entail forbidding NSTA members from showing the film, the rest comment does make sense. Publishing the availability of the video would have been an excellent alternative to a direct distribution of the film by the NSTA. (It might have also saved the NSTA money, but that’s beside the point.)

Dr. Wheeler goes on to outline the involvement of the oil and gas companies, specifically ExxonMobil, The Shell Oil Company as well as the partnership with API the company with produced the “You Can’t Be Cool Without Fuel” video. His explanations are both reasonable and understandable.

In today’s political climate, lobbying organisations, to which I would include the NSTA, need money to propagate their message. Note, I don’t mean lobbying in the negative sense in which the word is usually used today, but in the more traditional manner, trying to get appropriate information into the hearts and minds of those in a position to help. The reality of the situation is that corporate money is important and oil and gas corporations do have both a relationship to science and loads of cash. Thus, this ‘involvement’ was probably inevitable.

It is possible that this was an unlucky constellation of personalities. Several people involved in discussions about the same thing with both sides understanding the language but not the meaning the other was trying to convey. I’ve sat in on meetings like that.

Thus, in an attempt to rebalance my Karma, I finish this post with the final words used by Dr. Wheeler in his Press Release. They are like an Irish lie – if it isn’t true, it should be.

The mission of the NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all, and for over 50 years NSTA has been a staunch supporter of quality science education. We are very proud of the work we do on behalf of science education.

(Hat Tip: Bad Astronomer Note: His excellent follow-up post  is a MUST READ.)

HOA backs down

Yesterday the Loma Linda Homeowners Association backed down from the wreath stupidity. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that the HOA has changed its mind.

A subdivision has withdrawn its threat of $25 daily fines against a homeowner who put a Christmas wreath shaped like a peace sign on the front of her home.

Homeowner Lisa Jensen told The Associated Press on Monday that the board of directors of the Loma Linda Homeowners Association had apologized, called the incident a misunderstanding and had withdrawn its request for the wreath’s removal.
[…]
Jensen, a past association president, said she was overwhelmed with hundreds of calls of support and offers to help her pay the $1,000 fine that would be due if she kept the wreath up until after Christmas.

I think this shows several things.

First, the power of getting a story like this out. Ms. Jensen would still be fighting this issue had not Channel 7 and then AP picked up the story. (Of course the bloggers did their part.) But after the official reporting, everything took on a life of it’s own. Mr Kearns and the board of directors were obviously placed in a completely untenable position by Mr. Kearns actions.

On the other hand, the overwhelming show of support for Ms. Jensen is heartening. It shows the true spirit of both the holiday/Christmas/Hanukah/Kwanzaa season and the peace movement. I suspect both motives were involved. Congratulations Ms. Jensen. I hope you have found some new friends (and perhaps rediscovered some old ones) through this disgraceful episode.

Third, although the board is attempting to spin this as a misunderstanding, that is a little difficult to swallow. The statement might be true if the board is saying Mr. Kearns misunderstood the meaning and Satanist background of the peace sign, but I doubt they are trying to tell the story that way. What I am missing here is Mr. Kearns resignation over this issue. He obviously got in way over his head, misread the political climate and tried to push through his rather narrow political and religious feelings. He failed. He is not the stuff of presidents; not even the president of a small Homeowners Association.

But that brings me to my final point. I suspect Mr Kearns has learned absolutely nothing from this. Otherwise he would have resigned. I am sure he sees this as a victory for Satan. He does not understand why people reacted so strongly to what he considered a vital part of the fight for God, church and country. An ordering I suspect he would approve.

Mr. Kearns, since calmer heads have prevailed in Pagosa Springs, I’ll save my stamp and not mail the letter I was writing. I would however like to share with you the biblical passage I had chosen to frame my arguments. I’m sure you will recognise it, it comes from Matthew.

Judge not, that ye be not judged
For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. [Matthew 7:1-5]

In closing, I’d like to mention the fact that, perhaps for the first time, Foxnews and I reported the same story with a similar slant yesterday. Of course Fox was simply passing on the AP story by Robert Weller without attributing the story directly to him (Yahoo!News did :-P). Nevertheless I’m not really sure how I feel about being on the same side of a story as Fox. Hmm.

Big Risky Business

After my global warming rant, I thought I’d give a brief heads up to this weeks Time cover story about risk. Although it only very briefly mentions global warming, the article does an excellent job of explaining WHY we don’t respond to explanations of risk.

We pride ourselves on being the only species that understands the concept of risk, yet we have a confounding habit of worrying about mere possibilities while ignoring probabilities, building barricades against perceived dangers while leaving ourselves exposed to real ones. Six Muslims traveling from a religious conference were thrown off a plane last week in Minneapolis, Minn., even as unscreened cargo continues to stream into ports on both coasts. Shoppers still look askance at a bag of spinach for fear of E. coli bacteria while filling their carts with fat-sodden French fries and salt-crusted nachos. We put filters on faucets, install air ionizers in our homes and lather ourselves with antibacterial soap. “We used to measure contaminants down to the parts per million,” says Dan McGinn, a former Capitol Hill staff member and now a private risk consultant. “Now it’s parts per billion.”

At the same time, 20% of all adults still smoke; nearly 20% of drivers and more than 30% of backseat passengers don’t use seat belts; two-thirds of us are overweight or obese. We dash across the street against the light and build our homes in hurricane-prone areas–and when they’re demolished by a storm, we rebuild in the same spot. Sensible calculation of real-world risks is a multidimensional math problem that sometimes seems entirely beyond us. And while it may be true that it’s something we’ll never do exceptionally well, it’s almost certainly something we can learn to do better.
[…]
The problem with habituation is that it can also lead us to go to the other extreme, worrying not too much but too little. Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina brought calls to build impregnable walls against such tragedies ever occurring again. But despite the vows, both New Orleans and the nation’s security apparatus remain dangerously leaky. “People call these crises wake-up calls,” says Dr. Irwin Redlener, associate dean of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. “But they’re more like snooze alarms. We get agitated for a while, and then we don’t follow through.”

If you haven’t spent any time reading about these kinds of issues, it is worth taking the time to work through the article. Most of us are hard wired to react to stress and risks in certain ways. That’s probably why I have always driven slowly and spend more time worrying about the realistic threat of global warming than I do thinking about an avian flu pandemic or the consequences of a terrorist attack. Just me and my stupid serotonin levels, thankyouverymuch.

There was one part of the article that caused me to almost hurt myself snorting at.

The government must also play a role in this, finding ways to frame warnings so that people understand them. John Graham, formerly the administrator of the federal Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, says risk analysts suffer no end of headaches trying to get Americans to understand that while nuclear power plants do pose dangers, the more imminent peril to both people and the planet comes from the toxins produced by coal-fired plants. Similarly, pollutants in fish can be dangerous, but for most people–with the possible exception of small children and women of childbearing age–the cardiac benefits of fish easily outweigh the risks. “If you can get people to compare,” he says, “then you’re in a situation where you can get them to make reasoned choices.”

The government? Like the president, the vice president, the head of the FDA and the EPA and all those politically motivated individuals? All those who are absolutely opposed to any support from industry. Industry, who just might have a slight interest in seeing the realistic risks of current policy slightly – adjusted? Oh! I feel better now. Thanks.

Somehow putting risk assessment in the hands of the current (and probably future) administration seems, well, risky to put it best. Maybe we should just go by a couple of bags of chips, a carton of cigarettes, and a couple of six packs; hop in the ol’ Ford Pinto and drive up north. Then we can do our part to help the environment, we could feed the polar bears – with ourselves. It’s not risky, it’s a sure thing death sentence.

Better than trusting the government.

Memo To The NSTA: Is It Getting Hot In There Yet?

Oh. Oh. Oh. I think just about every science blogger I read is up in arms about this one.

Laurie David, the producer of the acclaimed film ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ published another less than convenient factiod in the Washington Post on Sunday.

At hundreds of screenings this year of “An Inconvenient Truth,” the first thing many viewers said after the lights came up was that every student in every school in the United States needed to see this movie.

The producers of former vice president Al Gore’s film about global warming, myself included, certainly agreed. So the company that made the documentary decided to offer 50,000 free DVDs to the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) for educators to use in their classrooms. It seemed like a no-brainer.

The teachers had a different idea: Thanks but no thanks, they said.

The reason? Apparently the NSTA gets quite a bit of support from the oil and gas industry funding those scientifically ‘neutral’ web sites with drowning polar bears all the pretty, big trees grown on excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

I originally took a pass on the Op-Ed because of the less than exciting WP headline ‘Science a la Joe Camel.’ I mean duh! With GW in office and the Big Dick as his right hand – um – man, who thought any different? 

James Hansen didn’t. You remember him? The NASA climatologist who the Bush appointee tried to silence. He still tries to get the message out and has both an article (pdf) in the December World Watch magazine and an interview with Reuters while he was in London.. The message? What is the current administration policy? It boils down to ‘don’t look, don’t teach, don’t talk about it, don’t think about it. It’s not a problem. THERE IS NO CONTROVERSY! NA! NA! NA! I CAN’T HEAR YOU!’

There are currently discussions in the EU about starting to impose sanctions on the US unless the current environmental policies are ‘adapted’ to a more realistic approach to global climate change. But you know those wishy-washy, flip-flopping Old (sorry, Rummy’s gone, not old any more) Europeans. They’re soft on everything.

Like the English – it’s just waffle, waffle, waffle. For your edification I present the current English waffling as presented in the recent Stern Review, an economic analysis of climate change commissioned by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The benefits of strong, early action on climate change outweigh the costs

The effects of our actions now on future changes in the climate have long lead times. What we do now can have only a limited effect on the climate over the next 40 or 50 years. On the other hand what we do in the next 10 or 20 years can have a profound effect on the climate in the second half of this century and in the next.

No-one can predict the consequences of climate change with complete certainty; but we now know enough to understand the risks. Mitigation – taking strong action to reduce emissions – must be viewed as an investment, a cost incurred now and in the coming few decades to avoid the risks of very severe consequences in the future. If these investments are made wisely, the costs will be manageable, and there will be a wide range of opportunities for growth and development along the way. For this to work well, policy must promote sound market signals, overcome market failures and have equity and risk mitigation at its core. That essentially is the conceptual framework of this Review. [bold in the original]

Some people don’t agree with the current American administration. They feel the only way to change opinions is to teach about the issues. That is what science education is about. Unless of course you work for the NSTA and refuse to teach. The NSTA seems comfortable with this. Sara Robinson over at Orcinus feels differently. Indeed she puts it rather succinctly.

Memo to the Christian Coalition: The NSTA is for sale. For a mere million bucks a year, I’ll bet you could get them on board with Intelligent Design, too.

Memo to parents: It might be time to find out if your kids’ science teachers are members of this group, and have a word with them about it. If you — or the teachers — want to complain directly to the NSTA, the complaint form is here. They need to hear from everyone who still thinks that scientific truth shouldn’t be auctioned off to the highest donor.

So yeah. It seems people get a little hot under the collar on this issue. They get grumpy when an organization that claims to uphold honesty and scientific integrity turns out to be in the pocket of big business. They get grumpy when an organization claims to support scientific education when, in reality, supports pseudo-scientific propaganda.They get especially grumpy as things get worse and worse and worse and no one in politics cares or does anything.

So I ask those people at the NSTA, those rocket scientists who turned down 50,000 free copies of ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ because it might have been a little – inconvenient. Is it getting a little warmer? Just a little hot? Think about it.

And The Haunting Continues

My ‘favorite’ Nazi Hate Song Folk Singers/Girl Band Prussian Blue are at it again. Actually Lamb and Lynx Gaede aren’t doing anything, it’s their ‘loyal’ following of bloodhounds.

According to the Missoula Independent, the person who pointed out the wonderful new neighbors who had moved to Kalispell, didn’t realize what she was getting into. In order to reduce the amount of Google traffic for the family, I will redact the name out of the following report from the Independent.

Rebecca KM had no idea what she was getting into.

On Aug. 31, she and a group of her south Kalispell neighbors distributed flyers on their street calling attention to the Gaedes, a family that had moved into the new subdivision. April Gaede and her twin 14-year-old daughters, Lamb and Lynx, had been the subject of a recently aired feature on ABC’s newsmagazine “Primetime.” April is a member of National Vanguard, a group that advocates against race mixing and for white separatism. Her daughters’ band, Prussian Blue, sings songs glorifying Nazis and National Vanguard politics.

The flyers KM and her neighbors passed out read “NO HATE HERE” on the front, with a letter on the back explaining the Gaedes’ politics. Local media covered the event, and since then, KM and other families say they have gotten a frightening response.

The radical right-wing decided that “NO HATE HERE” amount to fighting words and have started threatening the families involved. Somehow they just don’t get the message.  ‘Spricht ihr eigentlich überhaupt Englisch?’ might be the correct question.

It gets worse. An older couple with a similar name to KM have also gotten hate mail and death threats. They had nothing to do with the original actions but now probably understand the point behind it. Sadly the Neo-Nazi, white supremacists can’t keep their attention span up long enough to remember a two part name. Thus they threatened a family who had nothing to do with the whole affair except the similarity to the second part of KM’s name.

Congratulations Lamb. Nice job Lynx. You should be as proud of your fan base as you are of yourselves. I wonder if your attention spans match your audience’s?

In the meantime, I’d like to say that I respect and support the work that KM and all of her neighbors have done. One ray of sunshine in an otherwise clouded Montana sky. Keep up the good work!

And Kalispell Police Chief Frank Garner – you keep those folks safe, y’hear! Safe from bloodhounds, ghosts and Gaedes!

Peace On Earth, Except In Pagosa Springs

Holiday time is upon us; a time for family, for friends; a time to reflect on the joys of living; a time to wish for peace on earth and good will to men (er – persons). At least that’s unless you are the president of the Loma Lynda HOA in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. The Denver ABC affiliated channel 7 reported on Saturday that the Homeowners Association in this small town in southwestern Colorado is planning on fining a woman $25 per day for displaying a Christmas wreath in the shape of a peace symbol.

“We have had three or four complaints. Some people have kids in Iraq and they are sensitive,” said Bob Kearns, president of the Loma Lynda Homeowners Association in Pagosa Springs. He also said some believe it is a symbol of Satan.

Jeff Heitz, of the association board, sent a letter to Lisa Jensen saying “Loma Lynda residents are offended by the peace sign displayed on the front of your house. … This Board will not allow any signs, flags etc. that can be considered divisive….”

The subdivision’s convenants said no signs, billboards or advertising are permitted without the consent of the architectural control committee.

When Kearns ordered the association’s architectural control committee to require Jensen to remove the wreath, they refused. Jack Lilly, chairman of the group, said it decided it was merely a seasonal symbol that didn’t say anything. Lilly also said he had received no complaints from homeowners. Kearns fired all five members of the architectural control committee.

Despite a brief attempt, I was unable to unearth either an email nor a snailmail address for either the Loma Lynda HOA nor Mr Kearns. One nevertheless hopes that the petty dictatorship of Mr Kearns and the negative publicity received by this stunt loses him both popularity and his post. This appears to be someone in a position of power trying to force his will on others.

The irony is not lost on the woman under assault. The article continues,

[Lisa] Jensen, a past president of the association in the subdivision of 200 homes 270 miles southwest of Denver, said, “I honestly wasn’t thinking of the Iraq war. Peace is way bigger than not being at war. This is a spiritual thing. I am not going to take it down until after Christmas. Now that it has come to this, I feel I can’t get bullied. What if they don’t like my Santa Claus?” she said.

If you read my blog, please repost this information.

I’d really like to get the word out on the amount of free speech some people consider allowable in Colorado. This man should be shown that his understanding of peace is not that of others and that his willingness to forbid others the honest display their of their feelings is not as important as the (in Mr Kearns’ opinion – Satanic) peace symbol.

(Hat Tip: Lizard Eater/The Journey)

 [UPDATE: The HOA backed down! Please read my follow-up here]

Wonkette’s Favorite Skinner

The writers at Wonkette.com, after briefly falling into a post-Katherine Harris depression, have found a new heroine. Sadly her days are numbered as well. The new object of Wonkette’s devotion is named Shelley Sekula-Gibbs and is the temporary replacement representative for the Hammer Tom DeLay’s old stomping grounds, Houston’s fightin’ 22nd district.

You see, after losing a hard fought campaign to garner the write-in vote,  Ms Sekula-Gibbs will only serve until January. Nevertheless Ms Sekula-Gibbs has, in her short national career, managed to make quite a splash. Just not a particularly flattering one.

Ms Sekula-Gibbs was a Houston city councilperson who made no secret of her willingness to serve lead the public. Although her initial claim to fame was being the widow of a local TV-anchorman, she soon made a spot for herself in local government. You see Ms or rather Ms Dr. (M.D. – Dermatologist, the kind of doctor you see on T.V. all the time as she never tired of saying) Sekula-Gibbs, had an opinion and a speech for everything.

Wonkette was amused by the fact that the entire remaining DeLay staff walked out on Ms Dr Sekula-Gibbs (I somehow find typing that to be rather satisfying) after some vocal malheur. Apparently this had to do with insisting both V.P Cheney and G.W. Bush attend her swearing in. (How do you rewrite that sentence to avoid a dangling preposition wonders the grammar teacher in my head?)

Rather miffed by this, Ms Dr Rep Sekula-Gibbs then demanded an investigation of those traitors to the Republican agenda. Quoting the Wonkette version,

The lame duck Representative from Texas suffered the indignity of having Tom DeLay’s staff walk out on her during her office’s open house. Why? Because she was “mean.”

Or, according to Shelley, because they’re… wait, what the hell is she talking about?

The turmoil in newly elected Rep. Shelley Sekula-Gibbs’ office deepened Thursday with the Houston Republican demanding a congressional investigation of aides who quit in a mass walkout earlier this week.

Sekula-Gibbs said the staffers, holdovers from her predecessor Tom DeLay, deleted records from the office’s computers Monday, the day before seven of them resigned in apparent protest of their treatment.

OMG! They were destroying records and sabotaging the office… in accordance with House rules dictating that computers be wiped clean before a new Rep takes over.

But Wonkette can only bask in the glow of this woman’s glory until the end of the year when her term of leadership, so sorely needed by Intertube pundits, will end. And this simply because not enough Houston voters chose to write in the name of their candidate. Of course it wasn’t for lack of trying. According to the Houston Press, despite aggressive and lyrical campaigning and difficult voting machines, those voters who chose to try to elect the republican belle-du-jour didn’t always manage to spell her name right.

Voters cast their write-in ballots for, among others: Kelly Segula Gibbs, Snelly Gibbr, Schikulla Gibbs, Sheila Gibbs, Shelly Schulla Gibbs, Shelly Gibkula and, by someone who obviously never wanted the joy of using the machine to end, ShelleySkulaGibbsssss.

The name “Sekula” was spelled as Sektula, Sukla, Sequila, Sedoko and Sedoka (by puzzle fans?), Meklua, Sekluda and Shecola.

One voter couldn’t be bothered, just putting in SSG. (It counted.) Another, for some reason, entered Sekula Smith.

Another voter entered “Shelle Sekula Fibbs,” which might have been a hidden political message. Not so hidden, but counted as a vote just the same, was “Shelly DraculaCunt Gibs.” (We like to imagine the bipartisan discussion on that entry: “Well, they misspelled the first and last name, but that’s definitely a Shelley vote.”)

Ms Dr Rep ‘DraculaCunt’ Sekula-Gibbs, I for one will miss you. But as they say, those flames that burn the brightest burn the shortest, gone in a moth-like poof of sparkles. At least you will be able to return to Houston knowing you have defended the honor of Texas as only you know how. Perhaps you should consider a presidential bid.

After all, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Especially for a dermatologist.

Might I Recommend A Roadshow?

The LA Times headlines today with a story about the plethora of Thanksgiving dinners being served in and around Los Angeles this week.

Free Thanksgiving dinners for the needy have been an annual event in Los Angeles since 1891, when the Union Rescue Mission began serving them. For nearly a century, though, the holiday meal was dished up on Thanksgiving day itself.

That began changing two decades ago when skid row’s population of both the homeless and homeless service providers began to swell. At about the same time the simple Thanksgiving meal began to outgrow Thanksgiving.

It became a celebrity-drenched event that drew paparazzi, politicians and jazz musicians, who provided entertainment and even foot massages to those who lined up to eat.

After my post from yesterday, I guess this should give me cause for joy. But it doesn’t. I compare that to the news coming out of Las Vegas via MSNBC

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman is losing the fight over his no feeding the homeless policy. A federal judge struck down the ordinance Monday after complaints from the ACLU. Now, the city has to find another way to deal with the problem.

Mayor Goodman is already vowing to pass yet another law, one that won’t be ruled unconstitutional. But the charity workers who have been feeding the homeless say this is a fight the Mayor will not win.
Circle Park on Maryland Parkway is a haven for the homeless, and Lyla Bartholomae is getting her kitchen ready for action. She says now that the ban on feeding the homeless has been blocked, she’ll be headed back to the parks, offering food to anyone who needs it.

The federal court ruling is a major blow to Mayor Goodman’s get-tough approach to the city’s homeless crisis. He believes handouts are not the answer, and from the beginning, he’s been ready to do battle with the ACLU.

So one city, named for angels, is praised for helping and feeding the poor, the other city, an oasis of empty wishes, attempts to implement a policy of forcing people to look the other way.

The thing that really turns my stomach oddly isn’t the Las Vegas policy but rather the ‘show’ involved in the demonstrations in LA. Much like the nip and tuck and botox injections required in Hollywood, I get the feeling you aren’t anyone until you’ve fed the poor in LA.  Mark Wahlberg, Walt Disney Co., Kirk Douglas, Minnie Driver, the list goes on.

“The notion of giving thanks should be something done on a daily basis,” said Driver, who planned to observe Thanksgiving with friends today in Malibu. “If this dinner was to have been held tomorrow I’d have come here tomorrow to help.”

I’m sure many do want to help. But why all at once? Reading the article one gets the feeling that once a year the rich and famous, the politicians and the philanthropists remember the poor. There are famous people who work tirelessly throughout the year to help, to feed, cloth and house those less fortunate. Those mentioned above likely fit those categories. But, in the face of overwhelming plenty in one week, wouldn’t spreading the help across several months make more sense? If advertising agencies, of which I am sure Hollywood has no dearth, can come up with slogans like ‘Christmas in July,’ can’t the actors and stars and starlets try ‘Thanksgiving in June?’

The attempts of the Las Vegas mayor are despicable; he doesn’t understand the problem and thinks that stamping out one symptom will cure the disease. He is deluded but not dishonest. He just doesn’t want to see the problem anymore.

But the ‘chic’ of feeding festivals a la Hollywood just ruins my appetite. And if the table is full in LA, why not go to San Diego, San Francisco or – just a  thought – Las Vegas?

(Hat Tip: Kevin Barbieux/Homeless Guy for the Las Vegas info)

Pregnant Pause in Papal Condom Ponderings

In April Pope Benedict ordered a theological and scientific study into condom use.

Reuters is reporting that the initial results of the study have been completed and have been passed on to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the spiritual successor to the inquisition) for further consideration and commenting before the report is eventually passed on to the Pope.

A study commissioned by Pope Benedict on the use of condoms to fight AIDS has passed its first hurdle and is now being reviewed by top theologians for possible use in a Papal document, a cardinal said on Tuesday.

“This is something that worries the Pope a lot,” said Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care.

The Catholic Church opposes the use of condoms and teaches that fidelity within heterosexual marriage, chastity and abstinence are the best ways to stop the spread of AIDS.

While this might mean a shift in the Catholic churches fight against condom use, it is unclear what, if any, effect this report might have. The report will not be made public which is fine, companies aren’t required to publish internal studies and there is no reason a church would need to do any differently. What I find interesting is that this study got commissioned in the first place. The Guardian reported some of the background to the study in April when it was first proposed.

The study comes only days after a contender in last year’s papal elections, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, challenged the Roman Catholic church’s official position by suggesting that condom use was the “lesser evil” in combating Aids.

I wonder if the church leadership in Rome is under pressure from the ‘frontline’ in developing nations. The power of African parishioners is growing both in influence and in raw numbers. The San Francisco Chronicle had a story about this when Benedict was elevated into the papal chair.

The Catholic Church is growing faster in Africa than on any other continent, with almost 150 million adherents in countries such as Nigeria, Tanzania, Angola and Botswana.

In 20 years, more Catholics may live in Africa than in Europe — a trend that has African Catholics hoping openly that an African will one day put on the papal robes of the Holy See.

Their dreams were not fulfilled last week. How close Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze came to being named pope is a matter of conjecture, but the fact that he was in the running is a sign that the future of the Catholic Church is in Lagos as much as it is in Rome.

Sub-Saharan Africa is also hardest hit by AIDS with UNAIDS estimating (pdf) that in 2006 24.7 million adults and children were infected, and there were 2.8 million new cases and 2.1 million deaths. Although South Africa was eventually able to force pharmaceutical companies to reduce (or eliminate) licensing costs for AIDS medications, all reports show Africa socially and economically collapsing under the effects of the epidemic.

aids_map_adults1.gif

“The Catholic Church is not a democracy” is a phrase widely repeated by bishops and priests. But if the only moral choice is between doctrine and death, I think all but the most calloused, dogmatic believers will come around to realistic, democratic ideas. Science is the ultimate democratic tradition and the science says condoms work.

This is something to keep an eye on. Not only for the theological and moral implications for the Catholic Church but the implications to abstinence only birth control/STD control programs being pushed by the American government and the evangelicals. The approval of condom use by the Catholics, even if only in the context of marriage and to prevent the spread of AIDS, would be a major blow to those evangelicals arguing that ‘abstinence only’ is an effective prevention. The opposite might mean not only the death knell for millions of individuals in Africa and thousands in Europe and America, but also for scientific reason. At least for STD programs in America.

Perhaps all we can do is pray. Somehow appropriate don’t you think?

(Hat Tip: Spiegel Online, German)

Holidays for the Homeless

This is Thanksgiving week in America with most people either looking forward to spending time with their families or dreading the same. Travellers are fighting new Homeland Security regulations in airports and thoughts abound of recipes , food and a few days away from the stress of work.

There is another class of people dreading not just Thursday but the entire holiday season. That class is the homeless. Not only do these people inhabit empty city streets during what is usually a cold and rainy time, they are often estranged from their families and have few friends. Thus this is a particularly unhappy time, cause for reflection and often recrimination. These feelings are often drowned in alcohol or obliterated by other substances. They are just too difficult to add to the daily problems of finding food and shelter.

Kevin Barbieux, the The Homeless Guy, a long time blogger has an eloquent post describing this time of year. I reproduce his post in full.

The Holidays arrive and the giant social/economic machine that otherwise dominates all of life is shut down, and everyone goes home to party. And the city is left desolate, save for the dark figures of humans bundled in stained and torn winter clothes seeking shelter from the cold in the concrete and steel bulwarks of empty banks, government offices and other business buildings. Every door is closed, and locked, while the good citizens are away. Time moves at it’s slowest pace. Conversation falls dry and flat, like that of an old married couple too familiar with each other. Mostly, there is silence between them. Standing still. Knowing that there is nothing to look forward to is depressing. Exerting energy to walk some place with no purpose in the destination is even more depressing. Waiting for the Holidays to be over is the chore of homeless people. They endure it with the patience of a preoccupied parent waiting for a child to be done with a playground – sitting and waiting and hoping it will be over soon.

Kevin is an individual who demonstrates that being homeless is not a descent into barbarity and barbiturates but something that can happen to caring, thinking individuals who just can’t manage the complexities, social and otherwise, of the world they are forced to inhabit. He often gives insight where others only produce platitudes.

This Thanksgiving don’t just be thankful for what you have. Try to physically help those who have less for whatever reason. Find out the address of your local shelter and try to arrange a donation of food for tomorrow or for Christmas. Check out Kevin’s idea of gift-bags with those simple amenities like socks and mittens, toothpaste and a toothbrush or maybe just a cheap mp3 player. Mention the idea to your family as you dine on the bounty so taken for granted in most households. Talk about those who have neither household nor family.

Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated in Germany so this isn’t a shorter week and having no family, this time holds absolutely no meaning for me. But if you enjoy Thanksgiving, spend a little time thinking of those who don’t.

Think about holidays for the homeless.

Update: If you are unsure where to start looking to help, you might try here at Second Harvest or to find somewhere to just generally help you can go to Don’t Almost Give which is a service by the American AdCouncil bringing together all kinds of volunteer organisations.

The Best Nigieran Spam EVER!

Oh sure. Some people have the right in-boxes…

Kathryn Cramer of ‘Years Best Fantasy’ Fame has received a Nigerian spam mail. In a deviation from what one would normally expect, the spammer isn’t offering her millions of dollars but rather her continued existence in this universe.

As a person of science, you are aware that even changes at the quantum level cause universes to take separate but parallel infinite paths. I fear that if I am unable to continue my father’s schedule of experiments and therefore cause the photons in your immediate area to not have tilted in the way they already have, the life you have come to know and enjoy will cease to be and you will find yourself in a parallel existence unfavorable to you.

The bait? Apparently spammers father “who was dedicated to the study of RETROCAUSALITY[, …] revealed the break-through discovery of photon tilt patterns in the photons of your area based on experiments planned but yet to be performed by my father.”

He was also poisoned using yak milk at a conference in Geneva.

Cramer’s father, a real physicist, fortunately now knows to avoid the yak milk in Switzerland, culinarily known for chocolate and – – – actually chocolate. (Just checked, no yaks anywhere, they live in Siberia.) Bad geography knowledge Mr. Spammer but lucky for Ms Cramer who knew better.

Check out the whole post. It’s hilarious.

Tsk! Tsk! Taking Trees To Task

Trees over at Anomalous Data is having a high old time beating up on some poor internet ‚theologian’ the Senior Pastor at Millersville Bible Church, Steve Cornell.

She is slowly dismantling his arguments against atheism which seem to me to be nothing but poorly written Christian apologetics framed in a rant about atheism. The fact that Mr. Cornell’s arguments are bad atheism mixed with even worse theology doesn’t give Trees a pass on proper argumentation. Tsk, Tsk, Trees!

In part three of her multipart post, Ms ‘I Will Take This Evil Individual To Task’ attacks the following statement so foolishly posted on the Intertubes by Mr Cornell. (And no I won’t link to him, go her post for the original link.)

Yet, ironically, the atheist has to believe in miracles without believing in God. Why? Well, one law that nature seems to obey is this: whatever begins to exist is caused to exist. The atheist knows that the universe began to exist and since the universe is, according to the atheist, all there is, the very existence of the universe seems to be a colossal violation of the laws of nature (i.e., a miracle). It’s hard to believe in miracles without God.

Trees seems to be able to dispel this argument with a simple schoolyard chant.

“OK, Mr. Cornell, if God exists, and if everything that exists must be caused to exist, what caused God?”

*yawn*

NEXT!

I’m so glad I started this. It is so fun to devolve into third-grade playground philosophy once in a while. I believe that the last time I engaged in this argument, I was on the other side of it. I was in my parent’s basement with several other grade-school girls. It was three in the morning, I was having a sleep-over, and we were all juiced up on Kool-aid and Oreos.

I believe the most intelligent summary of it would be:

“Oh yeah, and what came before THAT? Yeah? And what came before THAT? Uh huh, OK, what came before THAT? No, YOU have another Twinkie and shut up. I KNOW you are but what am I?…”

Alas and alack, this argument doesn’t quite hold up. Mr. Cornell was coaching an extremely old argument in a fairly silly form. This idea dates back to Plato and Aristotle who first framed the line of reasoning. It was Thomas Aquinas who then brought the claim into the world of Christian apologetics in his work Summa theologiae as one of the five proofs for the existence of God (Quinquae Viae).

Interestingly, of the five proofs, the only one to stand the test of time is the argument of the first cause (ex causa) used by our intrepid Mr Cornell. This argument isn’t, as opposed to the first, third, fourth and fifth arguments, illogical just tautological. Being the lazy slime I am, I will simply quote Wikipedia for the main discussion,

Gottfried Leibniz stated the problem in his conclusion, although his terminology included some assumptions. If his principle of sufficient reason is indeed universally applicable, then the First Thing must either (1) be its own cause or (2) have a non-causal explanation. The non-causal explanation would either (a) make the First Thing’s existence be in some way self-explanatory or (b) make it follow in an explanatory way from self-explanatory truths, such as the truths of logic.

All three options have had defenders. Thus, option (1), the causa sui option, is defended by Descartes. Option (2a) is held by some of those like Aquinas who think that God’s essence is identical with God’s existence, or by those who hold, more weakly, that God’s existence follows from his essence. Option (2b) essentially holds that there is a sound ontological argument for the existence of God, albeit we may not have discovered it yet. It follows from the principle of sufficient reason that one of the three options holds, but a defender of the Principle does not need to give an independent proof of any one of these options. It is, after all, the conclusion of the argument that one of these holds. In fact, this conclusion might be the starting point for responding to the problem of identifying the First Thing with God–that is how it is in Aquinas, for instance. Thus, if one could show the premises of the cosmological argument to be true and show that options (1) and (2a) were not tenable, then the cosmological argument would turn into an argument for the existence of an ontological argument. We would then know that there is a sound ontological argument, even if we did not know what it is.

I would phrase the argument slightly differently. Although the universe as we now experience it requires a chain of cause and effect, this does not either exclude nor prove the possibility of a creator, something (someone?, somegod?) that forged the first link in the chain. Existing outside both space and time the existence of such a thing can be conjectured. But even though the possibility of such a creator exists, for me, the ‘proof’ breaks down when one asks the question of the probability of that creator. For me the probability isn’t guaranteed as would be required to make this a proof.

I, agnostic that I am, can equally well postulate an infinite number of universes, each with a slightly different combination of physical constants. [Physical constants are those ‘fudge factors’ which don’t seem to have a mathematical reason, the speed of light, the charge on the electron, the mass of a neutron, etc.] It just happens that our universe has the exact balance of constants leading to an age of the universe appropriate for the formation of rocky planets having the correct amount of chemicals allowing life. We just happened to be on the rock orbiting just the right star at just the right time with conditions just right for life to occur. While there might be many, many such rocks, we just happened to evolve from the right combination of chances into a species able to postulate about why we are here and where we come from. It is impossible to prove what is outside the universe because that is, per definition, outside the realm of our knowledge.

One can create belief systems describing an extra -temporal and extra-spatial being responsible for everything. One could also describe many such beings. Equally well, one can generate thousands of pages and hundreds of books describing things called ‘strings’ and ‘super-strings’ which have an equally imaginary effect on the current reality. But what one shouldn’t do is use incorrect arguments to snark down the foolish. Especially foolish internet theologians who are trying to preach to the converted with all the logic of a wart hog.

Trees, you should have known better. Tsk! Tsk! Tsk!

Run, Pass or Steal Away

The ideas for the Iraq war coming from the Pentagon seem to echo a possible sports strategy. Since West Point fields a nationally recognized football team, the ideas are couched in terms appropriate for that sport – “Go Big,” “Go Long” and “Go Home.”

The Washington Post is reporting on the review being done at the Pentagon.

“Go Big,” the first option, originally contemplated a large increase in U.S. troops in Iraq to try to break the cycle of sectarian and insurgent violence. A classic counterinsurgency campaign, though, would require several hundred thousand additional U.S. and Iraqi soldiers as well as heavily armed Iraqi police. That option has been all but rejected by the study group, which concluded that there are not enough troops in the U.S. military and not enough effective Iraqi forces, said sources who have been informally briefed on the review.
[…]
“Go Home,” the third option, calls for a swift withdrawal of U.S. troops. It was rejected by the Pentagon group as likely to push Iraq directly into a full-blown and bloody civil war.

The group has devised a hybrid plan that combines part of the first option with the second one — “Go Long” — and calls for cutting the U.S. combat presence in favor of a long-term expansion of the training and advisory efforts. Under this mixture of options, which is gaining favor inside the military, the U.S. presence in Iraq, currently about 140,000 troops, would be boosted by 20,000 to 30,000 for a short period, the officials said.

The persistent theme coming through the article and indeed the political rhetoric is that there are no good options. The options are increasingly pointing to lose-lose situations. Winning is no longer an option. It isn’t even on the table.

It is poetically appropriate that George Bush visited Vietnam this week because I think Americans need to brace themselves for another loss. This loss, much like the failure in Vietnam, is less due to military mistakes than political decisions.

Donald Rumsfeld cut his professional teeth during the Vietnam era. He learned and lead the Pentagon during the nadir of the American military comparable in the last century only to the military prior to the First World War. He took those lessons back to that job at one of the most critical times in American foreign policy since the Second World War. He did exactly what his mentors during the 1970’s did, he and Dick Chaney manoeuvred the military into a no win situation. He recreated the military of his ‘childhood.’Now, post-Rumsfeld, the Pentagon and the political leadership are trying to find a way out of the problems he caused.

To be honest, the only criteria that should be used to judge which play to call in the Iraqi War, is the one that limits casualties. Not of American troops but total casualties. This probably means an immediate pull out – the “Go Home” option. Those units that leave the country last will suffer quite a bit and American casualties will be higher. The total casualties will probably be lower. The ethnic cleansing and civil war will end sooner; the faster we leave, the sooner the inevitable restructuring of Iraq will finish.

If we look at George Bush’s visit to Vietnam, we see that the political differences will probably fad in time. I suspect that the differences between American troops and the average citizens in both countries have never been large (try to feed and educate your children; live and let live). While Vietnam was a foreign policy loss but rea defeat was the domestic support that the American government squandered. Although foreign policy never changed from MAD and the communist expansion didn’t change, domesic support took years to rebuild. The recent election showed that domestic support has once again evaporated. That is the state George Bush and his 1970’s trained cohorts have repositioned Washington.

Will Bush’s administration show enough courage to do the right thing? As long as they keep using sports analogies to describe wars, I seriously doubt it. I hope – but I don’t believe; I don’t have faith. But maybe Bush will still score a homerun, now at the top of the ninth, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Not Naomi’s Seal

While he might be as aggressive as Naomi Campbell, the seal or sea lion ‘terrorizing’ swimmers in San Fransisco doesn’t sing; he bites. I was going to blog this last week but I was hoping for further information.

There is a slightly grumpy sea lion or seal at the Aquatic Park in San Francisco. He didn’t like the idea of all the human swimmers in his lagoon and started biting; not once or twice, but somewhere between 14 and 20 swimmers (reports differ). According to CBS5 the Aquatic Park Lagoon was closed last week.

San Francisco’s Aquatic Park Lagoon remained closed for swimming Thursday [November 16, 2006,] due to reports of a sea lion repeatedly biting local swimmers, maritime officials said.

Officials estimated at least 20 swimmers were bitten since Monday, including 13 on Wednesday alone at the Lagoon, which hosts two swimming and rowing clubs and is a favorite spot for swimming along San Francisco’s northern waterfront.

No one serious injuries were reported. City health officials aren’t recommending rabies shots, but victims were advised by the Marine Mammal Center to take antibiotics to ward off infection.

The San Fransisco Chronicle reported that he (or she) had gone underground – um – water as of Friday.

The California sea lion that bit swimmers this week at San Francisco’s Aquatic Park Lagoon didn’t return Thursday, according to National Park officials.

And representatives of the Dolphin Club and the South End Rowing Club said none of their members who ignored a ban and went swimming Thursday reported any bites or bumps Thursday.

This is my kind of animal story. One lone sea lion making a name for himself. Telling people he wants the lagoon for himself. If he were human, he’d be getting calls to go on the morning shows. All he needs is an agent; in California that can’t be all that hard to find. just hope he’s moved on, has found an appropriate harem and is moving on to his winter quarters.

Good luck little guy – I’ve got my fingers crossed for you. But I would decline an offer to go swimming with you.

Jack’s Home Away

It appears Jack Abramoff is finally being sent down the river, or to the forest… or to the country club…whatever.

ABC News has learned that the court has granted a request from prosecutors that Abramoff be incarcerated at the closest prison to Washington, D.C., the Federal Correction Institute in Cumberland, Md., where Abramoff is expected to report tomorrow [November 15,2006].

federal-correction-institute-cumberland-md.JPGBut what is this correctional institute? Where is it? Does it have tennis courts?

Let’s take a look. The Bureau of Prisons is nice enough to tell us exactly what Mr. Abramoff will find.

Low security Federal Correctional Institutions (FCIs) have double-fenced perimeters, mostly dormitory or cubicle housing, and strong work and program components. The staff-to-inmate ratio in these institutions is higher than in minimum security facilities.

The Cumberland location has both an ‘Institution’ but also seems to have a Federal Prison Camp (low security) close by. An institute is more secure than a camp (like with fires and tents and stuff?) but less secure than a penitentiary.

The Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Cumberland houses medium security male offenders. The FCI has an adjacent minimum security satellite camp that houses male offenders.

FCI Cumberland is located in western Maryland,130 miles northwest of Washington, DC and 6 miles south of Interstate 68, off State Route 51 South.

But it isn’t clear whether Jack will be in the institute or the camp. But, and I’m sure Jacks waistline will approve, there are tennis courts, race tracks and a baseball field. Of course getting sent to the showers might be a slightly more dramatic penalty than in other places.

Well, Jack, didn’t know you really well (and if I had, who would admit to it?)- It was nice to have made fun of you. Have a nice outing Jack. At your new Home Institution Camp away from home.

Who’s Rumsfeld?

Why is Rumsfeld’s ‘resignation’ irrelevant?

His departure wasn’t something George W. Bush put into motion the night of the election. His failure in Iraq has been apparent for those outside the inner circle of the White House for years and inside that inner circle for months. (I tried to find the Wonkette link describing the search for a replacement from sometime in August or September, but they write so much snark about Rummy, the signal got lost in the Googlilian noise. Of course the NYT found the story a little late.)

Teresa at Anomalous Data doesn’t think the change will make any difference. His forced departure is simply a signal to the Democrats that Bush is willing to turn over a new leaf. But that’s what it will remain, a signal not movement, not action.

Mostly, though I think it’s because I look at the Rumsfeld thing and I’m just happy he’s finally gone, but can’t get up a lot of excitement about Bush serving his head on a platter to appease the incoming Democratic majority.  If it had been a principled decision (ie. “I made a mistake and now I am correcting it, because there have just been to many deaths resulting from this man’s lack of leadership”), I would have hailed it.  If there was something of substance to it, a change in the status quo, then I would have had something to say.  Because it was a politically expedient hit-job, the only things I would have to say about it were things I have said before…more times than I care to admit.  Like Saddam being deposed, I think it’s a good thing, but I can’t get too excited about it due to the surrounding circumstances.

Perhaps more telling is the reaction of the troops in Iraq, those on the frontlines, risking their lives every day in a Herculean task presented to them by the man so despised by the liberal side. From the story in Sunday’s New York Times (Hat Tip: Laura Rosen/War and Piece).

The marines had been on a continuous foot patrol for several days, hunting for insurgents. They were lost in the hard and isolating rhythms of infantry life.

They knew nothing of the week’s news.

Now they were being told by an Iraqi whose house they occupied that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, one of the principal architects of the policies that had them here, had resigned. “Rumsfeld is gone?” the sergeant asked. “Really?”

Mr. Menti nodded. “This is better for Iraq,” he said. “Iraqi people say thank you.”

The sergeant went upstairs to tell his marines, just as he had informed them the day before that the Republican Party had lost control of the House of Representatives and that Congress was in the midst of sweeping change. Mr. Menti had told them that, too.

“Rumsfeld’s out,” he said to five marines sprawled with rifles on the cold floor.

Lance Cpl. James L. Davis Jr. looked up from his cigarette. “Who’s Rumsfeld?” he asked.

I think there will be two different courses presented in the next couple of months. One is the ‘cut and run’ philosophy the other will be to win using overwelming force. It really doesn’t matter which political slogan one puts on the strategy of retreat, it is basically trying to remove the major American presence from Iraq as quickly as possible. There will be variations. One involves trying to get the UN (you know, those little black helicopter people) or Europe (Oh! The French and Germans! Hide the potatoes!) involved in trying to pick up the slack and fill the vacuum as US forces leave the country.  Another variation will involve setting up rapid response forces out of the country, over the rainbow horizon. Either located on aircraft carriers or occupying foreign bases, these forces will be used by the Iraqi government to smack down unwanted elements. I doubt that the former strategy will be accepted by the international community, the latter is only politically, not tactically, practical.

The other idea will be a major increase in the number of troops. If you don’t think there are people honestly thinking about this, go read this article at military.com (Hat Tip: Noah Shachtman/DefenseTech).

[Gen. Peter] Pace[, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,] is trying to determine why Iraqi security has not improved despite the addition of more than 300,000 Iraqi security forces over the past two years, Time reported late last month.

Among the top ranks of the military, there is a growing consensus that more U.S. troops are needed to crush the insurgency and cultivate the support of an Iraqi public that is not yet convinced American forces will win, a number of well placed sources say.

But that view is increasingly out of step with lawmakers and the American public, where pressure is mounting to establish “benchmarks” for the withdrawal of some or all U.S. troops.

This shows both the military institutional silliness as well as an attempt to return to the ‘Powell Doctrine.’ The idea is silly because adding more troops would pour oil (crude pun, sorry) on the fire, both domestically and internationally. The idea is domestically ridiculous because the only realistic source of new troops would be a draft, not something either the president nor the congress would approve. Internationally, the idea wouldn’t float is because it would lead to the same situation seen in Vietnam. A large country (Iran) willing to feed weapons and support into a country large enough to hide amazing numbers of insurgents. It is also a misunderstanding of the ‘Powell Doctrine’ which have been to win first and keep the situation under control. That boat sailed long ago.

Reading between the lines, I suspect the policy of getting out as quickly (and unfortunately costly) as possible will be the best choice. Like having a tumor removed, the operation will be painful and traumatic, but the sooner it happens, the sooner healing can begin. The American world image, both as a force for democracy and as a superpower has suffered. That damage will be decades in healing. People and countries don’t forget or forgive as quickly as politicians. (I will also ignore the idea that the American world image is realisic or earned for the sake of this argument.) Perhaps in thirty years, American veterans will return to Iraq much like their fathers to Vietnam.

The birth of the policy to completely leave Iraq will be the driving force behind the 2008 elections with the policy being implemented by the next president. Bush will try various window dressings without any real effect. The Secretary of Defense, be he named Rumsfeld or Gates, will make little difference in the next two years.

One of the architects of the failure in Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld, has left the field. His legacy will remain if not his name. He is no longer a target but the solders and civilians in Iraq continue to be. Quoting the NYT article again,

Up on the roof, Lance Corporal Maguire mused about the news. Whatever Mr. Rumsfeld’s resignation might eventually mean, it did not matter here yet, and it would not keep them alive tonight.

Another marine, Lance Cpl. Randall D. Webb, was scanning traffic through his rifle scope, worried that they had been spotted and the insurgents would soon know where they were.

“I think they see us,” he said.

“Man, they all see us,” Lance Corporal Maguire said, and lighted another cigarette.

Better Dead Than Republican

I was going to write a really snarky comment about Karl Rove and ‘the math‘. Then there was the Rumsfeld ‘resignation.’ Then I was going to research Colorado Terrorist Squirrels‘ who, according to Wonkette and CNN disrupted voting on 41 laptops Tuesday.

But all of that pales in comparison to the following AP story.

 A woman who died two months ago won a county commissioner’s race in Jerauld County on Tuesday.

Democrat Marie Steichen, of Woonsocket, got 100 votes, defeating incumbent Republican Merlin Feistner, of Woonsocket, who had 64 votes.

Jerauld County Auditor Cindy Peterson said she believes the county board will have to meet to appoint a replacement for Steichen. Peterson said she’ll check with the state’s attorney to be sure that’s the process.

Peterson said voters knew Steichen had died.

“They just had a chance to make a change, and we respect their opinion.”

That has to hurt. Better dead than Republican.

You Don’t Know Jack Schitt…

unless you watch this. 

Have fun at the polls.

A Haggard Expression

I’d really like to be able to get up the energy to snark about the news of Reverend Haggard. You remember him, the voice of religious reason in Richard Dawkins’ ‘Root of All Evil?’ television program.

Unfortunately this neither surprises nor shocks me. I find it simply depressing. The key here isn’t that he did what he did or even that he lied about it. Both have happened far too often to make any different.

I quote Ted Haggard from the clip.

But you see – you do understand, you do understand – that this issue right here of intellectual arrogance is the reason why people like you have a difficult problem with people of faith.

I don’t communicate an air of superiority over the people because I know so much more. And if you only read the books I know; and if you only knew the scientists I knew, than you would be great like me.

Well, sir, there could be many things you know well. There are other things you don’t know well. As you age you find yourself  wrong on some things, right on some other things. But please, in the process of it, don’t be arrogant.

It’s true. Ted Haggard didn’t display intellectual arrogance. He simply displayed pure human arrogance. For no other reason than self gain. He did it in the name of religion and by invoking the name of God. And there are many people who will think he didn’t do what he did simply because he spent so much time telling them it is wrong.

Thus we get another evangelical fall from grace. Like the (non-biblical) story of Lucifer and his struggle with God and ultimate fall to hell, we have someone who felt they were better and could use whatever methods suited them. And again they failed. Like Swaggart, Bakker, Popoff and other  Christian televangelist scandals, Haggard lived an ‘normal’ life, called upon his flock to hate and distain the weak and turned out to be the very person he railed against.

The only highlight I can find here is that the church-goers in Colorado Springs still have their community. They still have their faith and they still have the hate filled feelings inspired by ‘Reverend’ Haggard. I suspect they will turn on him and his life will no longer be the same. He deserved it. No one else did, not his family, not his wife, not his parishioners.

Not even Richard Dawkins.

And I suspect Ted is looking rather ‘haggard’ right now.

Go Suck a Toad

What sounds like a dire insult describes the life of a family in Washington. Actually the life of the family dog. This week NPR brought the tragic story of Lady, the toad sucking dog. Of course these weren’t just any toads, they were psychedelic.

A dog may be man’s best friend. But one dog, Lady, decided she needed more friends — and she found plenty in the knot of toads living at the local pond. A suburban family’s secret struggle with an uncommon addiction comes to light in this personal essay by NPR’s Laura Mirsch.
[…]
“Then, late one night after I’d put the dogs out, Lady wouldn’t come in,” Laura Mirsch says. “She finally staggered over to me from the cattails. She looked up at me, leaned her head over and opened her mouth like she was going to throw up, and out plopped this disgusting toad.”

It turned out the toads were toxic — and, if licked, the fluids on their skin provided a hallucinogenic effect.

The text is good but you should listen to the audio stream. First, the background music is great! Also the text doesn’t relate the story of the mother, in pyjamas, searching the backyard to get her dog a fix.

This should be a warning to all those puppy owners out there! Don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys — and don’t let your dog suck toads.