30 June 2013

Link round-up for 30 June 2013

Back then, Halloween costumes were genuinely scary (found via Mendip).

This university in Virginia can't spell "Virginia".

To some, rationality is just a problem.

The Creation Museum is still suffering deepening financial woes.

Stonekettle Station looks at freedom and risk.

Sore losers:  NOM and its allies make a desperate last-ditch bid to stop gays from marrying in California.

The business world isn't a good environment for geniuses.

A blogger of Shelby county, Alabama, which spawned the Supreme Court ruling gutting the Voting Rights Act, looks at modern reality there.

Paula Deen did a lot more than just say the N-word.

"Adecco found in a 2012 study that hiring managers were three times as likely to hire a worker over the age of 50 as they were to hire millennials ages 18 to 32."

Social isolation contributes to the obesity epidemic.

Wendy Davis's Texas victory will resonate nationally.

This week saw the 40th anniversary of the worst mass gay killing in US history.

The shameful lies about the Civil War just keep coming.

Blogger The Yellow Fringe fact-checks a teabagger.

The EU is in a snit about NSA spying.

Islamism in Turkey is damaging education there.

Here's a skin-crawly photo essay on some of the world's biggest arthropods.

Nikumaroro may be where Amelia Earhart died.

Bacteria self-organize into abstract art.

Here's a cool display showing the scale of the universe.

29 June 2013

Video of the day -- Texas as seen from Taiwan

NMA looks at Wendy Davis.

26 June 2013

Richard Matheson, 1926-2013

Richard Matheson died this week.  He was 87.

The New-Jersey-born author is best known for his 1954 vampire novel I Am Legend.   Don't judge it by the three movie adaptations (all of which, going by what I read -- I couldn't bring myself to actually watch -- bastardized it unforgivably).  It has to be read.  The essence of it lies in what goes on inside Robert Neville's mind, his revelations and insights, his wild gyrations between scientific purposefulness and enraged despair as he struggles to cope with an impossible situation; these are pictures that only the written word can truly paint.

Matheson wrote an episode of Star Trek and several episodes of The Twilight Zone, but it was always his stories in which he was most in his element.  Even the more obscure ones stick with you.  My first taste of him was "Dance of the Dead", a creepy little piece about the zombie phenomenon reduced to degrading entertainment; like I Am Legend, though much less subtly, it raises the question of whether the human is more monstrous than the monster.  "Prey", about a doll that comes horribly to life, was adapted (worthily this time) by Matheson himself as the episode "Amelia" of the TV film "Trilogy of Terror".  And don't miss "Person to Person" about a man who hallucinates phone calls -- or does he?

If there's any common theme to many of his tales, it's the way menace emerges from ordinary situations and places, even from inside our own minds.  Really, though, they're incredibly diverse and he was always trying out new themes.  Starting an unfamiliar Matheson story, you never know quite what you're going to get.

As is often the case with writers, Matheson never "retired" despite his age; his last novel came out just last year.  This, of course, makes the loss all the greater.  There will never be another quite like him.

23 June 2013

Link round-up for 23 June 2013

Murr Brewster confronts the snowberry plant from Hell.

The NSA is ever vigiliant (found via Brains and Eggs).

Don't be like these people -- though I don't think most of us are (found via Mendip).

Hollywood has sunk to making blockbuster adaptations of superhero comics -- but what's the next step down from there?

Christians get into holy wife-spanking -- and it's not even to be kinky (found via Mendip).

Yeesh, the new Star Trek movie sounds like a mess.

Politicians must learn to appeal to America's fastest-growing demographic group (found via Republic of Gilead).

The conservative war on women is going nuclear.

Margaret Doughty becomes a citizen after all.

Elizabeth Warren looks at the corporate grab for power over the federal court system, and what to do about it (found via Ranch Chimp).

This could explain a lot (found via Yellowdog Granny).

Republicans already seem nervous about 2016.

Here's a Christian Right lexicon (found via Republic of Gilead).

Green Eagle looks at that massive teabagger rally in Washington.

Thinking of putting ads on your blog?  Read this.

Enough with the excuse-making for people like Paula Deen.

Republican nihilism threatens the US political system.

Even clergy are now abandoning religion (found via Republic of Gilead).

The IRS "scamdal" continues to collapse.

Progressive Eruptions looks at America's new young atheists.

What might have happened if the Republicans had won?

Arizona Minuteman founder Christopher Simcox might have been better suited for the priesthood.

Rand Paul is concerned about religious persecution, in certain cases.

Don't forget about China's debt crisis.

"There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat."

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un promotes a classic work of Western political thought.

Mars is poisonous, at least to us.

20 June 2013

Exodus shuts down

It's a startling development and a substantial victory for decency and common sense.  Yesterday Alan Chambers, President of Exodus International, posted a lengthy and obviously heartfelt apology for all the suffering and lies his organization has perpetrated over the years.  Today, Exodus announced that it is ending all operations and will cease to exist.  Republic of Gilead blog has analysis and discussion of the apology and the shutdown.  Join the conversation in the comments.

I can hardly wait to savor the consternation of the Christian Right.

18 June 2013

District 9 vs. the stagnation of SF cinema

When I posted Kaleb Lechowski's stunning short clip R'ha a week ago, I observed that this independent project looked like a fresh and novel break from the assembly-line barrage of "sequels and re-makes and tired, bloated, unimaginative blockbusters" that dominate science-fiction movies these days.  The situation is indeed dire.  How many more times can they keep rehashing Superman and Star Trek?  (Yes, Star Trek had some great SF episodes in its day, but by now it's surely time to stop milking a long-dead cow.)  How did we get from The Day the Earth Stood Still and Alien and Blade Runner to The Phantom Menace and After Earth?

At any rate, commenter "Bacopa" suggested I check out District 9, which I had heard of but not seen.  I did, searching for clips on YouTube, and was startled by what I saw.  District 9 is from South Africa, a country not usually associated with making science-fiction movies at all; and its production cost of about $30 million, while far from cheap, was spartan by the standards of big Hollywood productions.  But while it's a story of unwelcome aliens on Earth, it very much breaks with conventional movie portrayals of aliens -- and with conventional ideas of what science-fiction movies are supposed to look like.

Synopsis, as best I can gather:  A giant alien spaceship materializes in the sky over Johannesburg.  The creatures on board are not invaders but passengers, and their ship reached Earth (a planet unknown to their species) due to some kind of malfunction; they don't know how to fix it or get home, and are understandably frightened and bewildered.  The South African government, suddenly faced with this large population of useless and ugly creatures, sets aside an area of Johannesburg ("District 9") as a sort of ghetto for them -- they also hope to exploit the aliens' technology for military purposes, which would explain why they don't just unload the problem on some richer country.  Years pass and tensions rise between the aliens, disparagingly known as "prawns", and neighboring humans.  Eventually the authorities decide to relocate the "prawns" from District 9 to a new area outside the city, but the creatures resist eviction; also, a few have been making plans to return to their ship (still hovering over Johannesburg, since no one knows how to remove it) after acquiring the necessary knowledge and supplies to operate it, to contact their distant home planet and eventually bring their whole population back home.

A couple of scenes for flavor -- first, serving an eviction notice:

Here, a "prawn" father sadly explains to his small child that, though they are being forced out of District 9, they still can't go back to the home planet (the rest of this video is an assembly of fight scenes -- the film does have plenty of action):

Imagery of a despised and marginalized population being abused and degraded by the dominant race is emphasized -- such themes inevitably loom large in the South African consciousness -- but the humans in the film seem to have quite forgotten that the lowly "prawns" come from a civilization which must be more advanced than our own, since it can produce interstellar spaceships (even if their navigation stinks), and thus more powerful too.  In the end, one of them succeeds in flying the ship away, promising to return in three years with a fleet to bring his people home; one wonders if this fleet, when it arrives, might also punish humanity for its treatment of the refugees.

I'll be picking up the DVD soon.  District 9 was a strong commercial hit, appealing an audience older than that which goes to most SF films; I'm somewhat embarrassed that I missed it when it originally came out in 2009.  So it's possible to succeed by doing something original, but it seems Hollywood was too busy scouring comic-book remainder bins for obscure superheroes to notice.  South Africa gave us this.  Maybe the next big original SF hit will come from Brazil or Iran or.....?

16 June 2013

Link round-up for 16 June 2013

Murr Brewster looks at intimate conundrums of space travel.

At Social Security Administration, a farter triumphs.

Jesus is now appearing at even worse venues than pieces of toast (found via Lady Atheist).

Are you an obscenely-wealthy one-percenter who wants a yacht that stands out from the crowd?  Consider the Migaloo (found via Mendip).

Valerie Dodds pwns the prudes.

Donald Trump gets pwned on Twitter.

Here's the latest right-wing dumbth from Conservapedia (click image for bigger).

11-year-old Sebastien De La Cruz sings national anthem, gets betwittered with racism, takes high road, becomes instant celebrity.

Sin is everywhere (found via Squatlo Rant).

Iain Banks knew that good fiction reflects the complexity of reality.

Some of those weird Republican statements about rape and pregnancy trace back to a crackpot Nazi experiment.

Yes, the Paultards are still bonkers (read the comments).

US mainstream media are so diverse.

Al Gore joins the struggle to stop the Keystone XL pipeline.

Obamacare saved individual health-plan customers $2.1 billion in 2012.

Republicans just aren't what they used to be.

Anti-vaccine idiocy is bringing some old diseases back.

Republican Congressman Peter King has a track record of supporting terrorism.

Southern Baptists must adapt to a changing world (found via Republic of Gilead).

That Cheerios ad that racists hated gets high marks from regular people.

Texas is a Republican bastion -- but not for much longer.

Prince Harry did a good deed.

The atheist community could learn a lesson from the Australian army.

Iran celebrates its new moderate President.

Erdogan escalates his war with secularist protesters, and unions call for a general strike.

Islamist Syrian rebels torture and murder a 15-year-old atheist.

The Taliban behead two boys in Afghanistan.

Al-Qâ'idah's online magazine is a target for creative sabotage.

Graves reveal 800 years of human sacrifice in pre-Roman Britain.

For women hungry for sex, things aren't as easy as they might seem.

Dystopias are boring, and bad SF.

The bugs strike back:  Super-tough ants and giant mosquitos invade the US.

A new proposal to beam signals to aliens is absurd and potentially dangerous.

We could easily abolish heart disease.

15 June 2013

A small sign of hope

Iran's Presidential election yields a startling result -- moderate candidate Hassan Rouhani wins in a landslide (he got 51% of the vote, but that's out of a field of six candidates).  Andrew Sullivan has a round-up of reactions -- Rouhani's background suggests there's some hope of an opening-up to the West and perhaps even concessions on the nuclear-bomb program.

I'm not getting my hopes up too much.  Rouhani is a moderate, but still a cautious member of the religious establishment; and in any case the greatest portion of power in Iran rests with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, not with the President.  But any sign of moderation in the ghastly theocratic tyranny ruling the Middle East's potentially most influential country has to be welcomed, including the fact that this time the ayatollahs either did not or could not steal the election for a hard-line candidate.  Remember, too, that the Soviet regime fell as a result of cautious reforms which escaped the control of the authorities who had initiated them.  One way or another, a regime so alien to Iran's real character cannot last.

12 June 2013

Video of the day -- an idiot abroad

Alex Jones brings a taste of American conspiratardia to the British.

09 June 2013

Video of the day -- R'ha

An intriguing short taste from a prospective full-length movie (use full-screen).  I really hope this gets made.  Science-fiction cinema these days has become exhausted, all sequels and re-makes and tired, bloated, unimaginative blockbusters.  If it's to be revitalized, it will be by independent works like this.  Also check out creator Kaleb Lechowski's blog.

Link round-up for 9 June 2013

Morons fight a tree and lose (found via Mendip).

Here there be dragons.

Cake or death?  Cakes become a culture-war battlefield, but not all taboos are equal (found via Republic of Gilead).

Would you want this guy on your school board?

As the South changes, the Southern Baptist Convention goes into decline (found via Republic of Gilead).

David Frum, a voice of sanity on the right, is closing down his blog.

A prominent WND fundie declares war.

Women just can't win with the Catholic Church -- except in court.

As inequality skyrockets, support for capitalism erodes in the US.

Have some more Christian love.

Right-wing bloggers practice selective indignation about data mining.

Brave "pavers" help Texas move forward.

The new college Republicans report doesn't go far enough in addressing the party's hostility to contraception.  And the scamdals won't save it from disintegration.

Good riddance to bad rubbish.

Gallup claims it's going to address the problem of conservative-skewed samples which threw its 2012 polls off.

This could explain a lot -- the Nazis were on meth.

A German court case could trigger a new crisis for the euro or even force Germany to abandon the moribund common currency.

As Turkey's thuggish Islamist President cracks down, a hijab-free woman in red becomes an icon of the growing secularist protest movement.

Maria Konovalenko looks at some issues in popularizing life extension.

06 June 2013

Principle, compromise, and the political environment

One of the reasons I've often cited for why the Republican party is in deep trouble is the absolutism and unwillingness to compromise displayed by so much of the base.  If the RNC hints at becoming more accepting of gay marriage, Huckabee threatens to lead the Christian Right out of the party.  If Rubio speaks out for a compromise on illegal immigration, he's damned as a traitor and struck from the list of acceptable 2016 Presidential candidates.  Being anti-choice on abortion is now a de facto litmus test for candidates for any major office.  These attitudes are not rare, either.  Read the comments on any major right-wing site and you'll see how pervasive they are.

But, some might say, it's easy to mock other people for being unwilling to compromise their principles.  Aren't we just as dedicated to, and uncompromising about, our own?

First off, I've always implicitly pushed for the left to avoid such rigid stances, because they make the best the enemy of the good and the ideal the enemy of the achievable.  The last thing I want to see on the left is a bunch of posturing factions who announce that they can't vote for a Democratic candidate because of this or that, and thereby let a far worse Republican get in.  Secondly, and hitting closer to home, one of my own hot-button issues is in the news and in Congress right now, and the clash of principle and strategy has proven educational.

I discussed illegal immigration at length three years ago here, but to summarize why I object to an amnesty or "path to citizenship" or whatever one chooses to call it:

(1) Illegal aliens broke the law by entering the country.  They should not be treated as if they had any right to be here (as with Orwellian euphemisms like "undocumented").

(2) The United States is being asked to tolerate an infraction of its sovereignty that other countries would never tolerate.  Making and enforcing immigration laws is a legitimate function of a sovereign state and all countries routinely do it (Mexico, for example, is notoriously ruthless with illegal entrants from Guatemala).  Why should only the United States be expected to give up this right?

(3) Allowing illegal aliens to legally stay is insulting to would-be legal immigrants who followed the rules and are waiting for their cases to work through the process so they can come here.

(4) Illegal aliens hurt the interests of less-skilled American workers by depressing wages through competition.

(5) About 2/3 of illegal aliens come from Latin America.  Do we really want to increase our population of people (and potential voters) from a religious, patriarchal, homophobic culture?  We have quite enough people like that already.

(6) I'm unconvinced by claims that it would be impossible to remove illegal aliens.  No one is talking about "rounding up and deporting" 11 million people.  Tough employer sanctions are the key; if they could not get jobs, most illegals would leave.

(7) I'm similarly unmoved by concerns about the suffering a tough policy would cause.  Almost any punishment of illegal behavior creates some stress on innocent parties such as the lawbreaker's family.  The responsibility for that rests with the person who broke the law, not with those who enforce it.  I see no reason why illegal immigration should be treated any differently.

My concern about (5) has been alleviated by recent polls showing Hispanics adopting more liberal social views (more than half now support gay marriage, for example) -- no doubt a reflection of their assimilation of mainstream American culture and values, though the social shifts in Latin America itself are also reassuring.  Point (4), the most serious from a national-interest standpoint, could be alleviated by raising the minimum wage, though it's dubious that this is politically feasible as long as Republicans retain any clout in Congress.  I stand by the other points without reservation.

But with an actual amnesty plan now being debated in Congress, the issue needs to be considered in the messy context of real-world politics, not only in a vacuum.

Republicans are divided on the likely political effects of amnesty and of the consequent eventual increase in the number of Hispanic voters.  One faction thinks it would help their side; they believe that Republican opposition to amnesty is the main reason Hispanic voters shun the party, and that a change of position on the issue would help them win over this fast-growing demographic.  Others argue that Hispanics will continue to lean Democratic, period, and that more Hispanic voters are thus bad news for Republicans.

It seems obvious that the second faction is objectively right.  Polls show very strong Hispanic support for Democratic policies unrelated to immigration, such as Obamacare and a stronger social safety net.  Hispanic voters are not as monolithically pro-amnesty as both parties tend to assume; what probably hurts Republicans more with them is not so much their resistance to amnesty as the fact that it's often expressed in terms that suggest racist motives.  I can forgive policy differences, but not bigotry against me.  I assume other people feel the same.

So an illegal-alien amnesty would be morally wrong, but politically beneficial to the Democratic party.  What conclusion does that suggest?

If we still had two "normal" parties like democracies usually do, it would be a difficult question and I might well decide the amnesty was unacceptable.  But that's not the situation, as we all know.  Given what the Republican party of today is actually like, letting it win back control of the government would be not only more harmful, but vastly, horrifically more harmful, to the country than the worst plausible consequences of the amnesty could possibly be.  The prevention of this has to be the highest priority for now.  If the amnesty would make it less likely, I have to give that more weight than the moral qualms I have about it.

I would say the same of any other issue of principle on which anyone feels the Democratic party is a disappointment (and I myself have several more, notably inadequate action against global warming, the Keystone XL pipeline, expatriation of jobs, etc., etc.).  Yes, pressure the party to do the right thing by whatever means are available, but not in any way which would increase the risk of losing any real power to the Republicans.  They are simply too dangerous.

05 June 2013

The aesthetics of madness

Green Eagle blog has a fascinating post up on certain aesthetic features of extremist websites and what they have in common with..... well, see for yourself.  Be sure to click on the images he includes as examples and view them full-size so you can see them properly.  He's on to something here, though I'm not certain exactly what.

02 June 2013

Video of the day -- Michele Bachmann tribute

Rachel Maddow reminds us that Bachmann was not merely a clown -- her role in the Republican party was as a pioneer exploring new realms of teh crayzee, staking out terrain onto which lesser Republicans might hope to someday move the Overton window.  She may soon vanish from the political scene, but others -- less charismatic and photogenic but equally dangerous -- stand ready to take up the torch of crazed theocratic bigotry and bear it high.  (Video found via Politics Plus.)

On a lighter note, from last year's primary circus:

Finally, a reminder not to count our chickens before they're dispatched:

Link round-up for 2 June 2013

Commas are important.

Yes, I totally believe NASA found a squirrel on Mars.

Don't be fooled by the name, this guy does some pretty cool comics (found via Faye Kane).

Check out these stunning pictures of grains of sand (found via Mendip).

Vox fattardorum, vox Dei.

What happened?  Looks like everything got prettier.

Religious persecution just isn't what it used to be.  Republic of Gilead has much more.

The meat industry spreads sickness.

Patrick Stewart is a good person (video here).

The more perverted you are, the more mentally healthy you are.

A Forbes pundit admits it -- Obamacare is lowering insurance costs.

Defend freedom without compromise.

Rosa Rubicondior has a challenge for Christians.

Here's what an honest right-winger's car might look like (found via Yellowdog Granny).

The war on drugs is an utter failure.

What would you do if you were in Chad Lesko's position?

This is what happens when you vote for Republicans (found via Squatlo Rant).

A new book looks at Bible bullies (found via Lady Atheist).

Adam Kokesh edges closer to treason.

There's no real debate about gay marriage.

Republicans claim to be re-branding, but their candidates are as bonkers as ever (more here).  Bob Dole tries to talk sense into them.

This is the face of evil.

Krugman looks at right-wing reality-denial.

The Catholic Church finds an unexpected way to threaten women's health care in the US.

Global-warming denialists lie about the Arctic, from 2004 to today.

Texas goobers Perry and Gohmert freak out over the Boy Scouts admitting gay members.

In Britain, religious wingnuts rage against moves to legalize gay marriage.

The head of a prominent Iranian think tank accuses the Jews of sorcery.

Tens of thousands in Istanbul are protesting Turkey's authoritarian Islamist government.  OWS rallies in solidarity in New York.

Islamist rule is ruining Egypt.

An Oxford neuroscientist anticipates a cure for the the world's most dangerous mental illness.

A fascinating transitional skeleton between humans and our chimpanzee-like ancestors has been found in South Africa, while another newfound transitional fossil helps illuminate the evolution of the turtle shell.

What would alien astronomers see if they looked in our direction?