30 July 2013

Video of the day -- intelligent design

28 July 2013

Link round-up for 28 July 2013

Behold the awesome Cthulhuphant.

More evil and horrifying than Cthulhu:  Ducks.

Here's a nice young couple who give each other a lot of moral support.

The losers in the culture wars are frothing and fuming in rage and bewilderment.

Don't confuse socialism and capitalism (found via Squatlo Rant).

Here's a pretty good guide to spotting bullshit.

If neither Clinton nor Biden run in 2016, Warren is the next choice of Democrats.

Reports of George Zimmerman heroically rescuing car-crash victims appear to be fraudulent (found via Green Eagle).

A majority of Americans favor gay rights even if their religion disagrees (found via Republic of Gilead), although, for some, religion still wins out.

North Carolina's vote-suppression law is the worst in the country, but people are fighting back (found via Smartypants).

We need to start sticking certain bank executives in Guantánamo.

80% of Americans support raising the minimum wage, but you-know-who stands in the way.

Don't over-interpret Detroit.

Another top Exodus official apologizes (found via Republic of Gilead).

Andrew Sullivan denounces the party of nihilism.

Texan Billy Cain is proud of his daughter's activism.

Extremist nutjob candidate for Governor of Virginia Ken Cuccinelli suffers a backlash from donors.

A judge blocks the country's most restrictive abortion law (found via Lady Atheist), but we need to do something about the politicians who enact these things.

Don't be fooled by Rand Paul's thinly-disguised Southern strategy.

Some may object to my use of the term "financial parasite class" for the class enemy, but I challenge anyone to deny that this behavior is parasitic.

Ramesh Ponnuru warns Republicans that their plot to de-fund Obamacare will backfire.

A touch of Sharî'ah law in Britain?  This proposal stinks of it.

British activists need to stop name-calling with the word "fascist".

Russia is one of the most secular countries in the world, but the spirit of Christianity is still alive there.

In which countries is the US viewed more favorably than China and vice-versa?

There are some nice people in the world.

Masao Yoshida, a hero who prevented a catastrophe by disobeying corporate orders, has died of cancer at age 58.

The world must decide what to do with a Syrian refugee population now at two million and rising.

In Tunisia, secular politicians are being gunned down.

The ruler of Zimbabwe calls for the beheading of gays.

The dawn of the computer age was clunky but fascinating (found via Mendip).

Virginia Johnson, a scientist who helped change American culture, has died at age 88.

British scientists use stem cells to repair the retina in mice.

From California comes a new super-antibiotic that kills anthrax and MRSA.

Advanced countries are preparing for the possibility of a terrorist attack using smallpox.

Acceptance of the reality of evolution has risen rapidly in the US since 2004.

Loss of Arctic ice is opening new trade routes, but the thawing of the tundra could cost the world $60 trillion.

Carbon dioxide levels are now similar to the Pliocene epoch, when sea levels were 66 feet higher than today.

25 July 2013

What makes us so different?

What is it that has enabled humans to so vastly surpass all other animal species in our degree of control over nature?  The difference is indeed huge.  The cutting edge of the technology of our nearest relative (and strong candidate for the Earth's second-most-intelligent species), the chimpanzee, is the ability to strip leaves off a twig to make it useful for sticking into termite mounds to gather termites to eat; the cutting edge of human technology is represented by the internet, interplanetary space probes, and stem-cell therapy.  Moreover, human technology advances at an ever-faster pace, while chimpanzee technology, if it changes at all, moves (as best we can tell) as slowly as that of our ancestors of millions of years ago.  To put it in the crude but important terms of sheer power, over the next century the survival or extinction of most other animals on Earth will depend largely on decisions made by humans, but the survival of humans will not depend at all on decisions made by any other species.

Is it intelligence?  Chimpanzee brains are about one-third the size of ours, and they can solve surprisingly complex problems in laboratory settings quite unlike anything they are adapted to in nature.  Insofar as intelligence is measurable, they are surely at least one-third as intelligent as we are.  That's not a big enough gap to explain the gulf between the termite twig and the Mars rover, surely.  The other great apes, and some other animals such as elephants, dolphins, and whales, also show signs of impressive intelligence, but none has technology even as advanced as the chimpanzee.

Tool-making used to be considered the defining human attribute (it was known that other animals used tools, but believed that only humans made them).  That ended in 1960 when Jane Goodall observed the above-described chimpanzee twig-stripping behavior.  Modifying a natural object to render it useful qualifies as making a tool.

Is it language?  There's growing evidence that language is not unique to humans.  Dolphins appear to use names, and we are still struggling to understand just what the other noises they make really are.  Apes can learn sign language to a surprising level, which suggests that they might have language-like communication systems in the wild -- language ability would not evolve in a species that never used it.  There's evidence of sounds with specific meanings -- "words" -- among vervet monkeys and even prairie dogs.  None of these have the complex grammar of human languages, but again, the gap is not as wide as we like to think.

(There are those who say humans have souls and other animals don't, but I'll assume no one who reads this blog believes in souls.)

I think the answer is writing.  It's hard for people who are used to using writing all the time to grasp the tremendous limitations imposed by doing without it, or to realize the impact of being able to store information permanently outside our own bodies.  People without writing cannot learn anything unless they directly experience it or it is spoken aloud by someone else within their hearing.  New insights die with the person who thinks of them, unless they are verbally passed on, and any information not of immediate practical use is likely to degrade into gibberish in a couple of generations if it survives purely through verbal transmission.  That which is written down, even in crude impressions on a clay tablet, can be read exactly as written by anyone else who knows the writing system -- even a hundred years later or a hundred miles away.

Writing made the accumulation of knowledge possible -- no longer limited by the capacity of the human memory or by the accuracy with which it could be verbally repeated.  This accumulation of knowledge caused a dramatic speed-up of cumulative technological progress.  As writing and civilization spread to more and more societies over thousands of years, and the number of literate humans with access to accumulated knowledge increased, progress speeded up at an ever-higher rate -- until today, just six thousand years after those first clay tablets, here you are, reading this on the internet.

Some might object that the invention of writing is very recent -- that six thousand years is only a small fraction of the time that anatomically-modern humans have existed.  And I would say yes, but before the invention of writing, humans were not substantially more sophisticated or powerful than other species.  We lived in small hunter-gatherer bands, as chimpanzees still do, with somewhat more advanced weapons, but almost as much at the mercy of the environment, predators, disease, and starvation as other animals are, and hardly more knowledgeable about the world than they are.  An alien visitor to Earth 10,000 years ago might not have found it at all obvious that humans were a unique species destined to dominate the planet -- he might have been more impressed by, say, the huge "urban" colonies and sophisticated agriculture of leaf-cutter ants.  An alien visitor today could identify the Earth's dominant species instantly.

Don't forget, too, that inventing writing seems to be only barely within the capabilities of human intelligence.  Almost all humans can learn to read and write, if taught, but the independent invention of writing happened only twice, or perhaps three times, in human history (by the Sumerians, the Maya, and perhaps the Chinese).  Clearly it was far from being an easy or obvious invention.  But it is this apparently prosaic ability -- to convert our spoken languages into marks on a surface and back -- that has given us the world, and will soon give us the universe.

[This post was prompted by reading this a few days ago.]

23 July 2013

Video of the day -- the debasement of the mind

Hitchens  was right -- it poisons everything -- including, occasionally, the mind of a scientist.

21 July 2013

Link round-up for 21 July 2013

Sorry guys, winning an election doesn't mean you can do anything you want.

An unusual Dr. Who commemoration appears in Britain.

Another summer's worth of vapid, overpriced blockbuster movies are turkeying out.

Republican Ken Cuccinelli is running for Governor of Virginia on a platform of outlawing blowjobs (sent by Mendip).

Derek Black, son of the founder of the white-supremacist website Stormfront, renounces racism.

Gender-nonconforming boys get a place where they can just be themselves.   But haters gonna hate.

Will Boehner become the next big villain among Hispanics?

Republic of Gilead wraps up its coverage of a terrifying Christian revisionist-history conference.  An escapee from fundamentalism responds.

Colorado teabaggers need to think twice about shooting at drones.

By a slim 41%-to-38% majority, Americans agree with the Zimmerman verdict.  The ACLU urges Holder to back off double-jeopardy threats, while suggesting other options.

The Republican party -- less stupid than vicious and even sadistic.

Politics Plus has some revealing graphs on how the media cover the economy.

A prominent teabagger makes a blunt appeal for "racial purity".

Snowden's revelations may actually do some good.

Republicans' anti-abortion extremism spurs Texas progressives to action.

Atheists are even more under-represented among prisoners than we thought.

Michele Bachmann has spent her career fighting against reality. Maybe she just needs something to help relax and unwind.

Today's teenagers are smart and tough, but something needs to be done about the smoking.  The younger kids are saner than their elders too.

Obamacare will cut individual health premiums by about 50% in New York state -- and will eventually become the right wing's worst nightmare.

Britain's Parliament legalizes gay marriage in England and Wales.  Predictably, certain people don't like it.

The British government considers a posthumous pardon for Alan Turing (they should he asking for his pardon) -- background on Turing here.

The world's "oldest lunar calendar" is found in Scotland, which is apparently a pretty cool place generally.

Ireland legalizes some abortions, a small but significant step.

Yielding to popular rejection of GMO foods, Monsanto pulls out of Europe.

Invading Nazis learned to fear the quiet, flimsy, deadly planes of Russia's all-female Night Witches.

A new music video tweaks Putin's embrace of homophobia.

After opposition leader Alexei Navalny is railroaded, protesters occupy Red Square -- and get their man released.

The Russian military is staging its largest war games since the fall of the USSR.

People who dislike snakes should avoid Ilha Queimada Grande, inhabited by the world's deadliest viper species at a density of one serpent per square meter.

Interracial couples have become common in South Africa.

Religious violence has killed 717 people and injured 1,108 in Pakistan over the last 18 months (found via Lady Atheist, who notes that "this doesn't count people killed in drone strikes ordered by Americans who think God blesses the country").

Malala Yousafzai speaks at the UN.

A few months before pilgrimage season brings millions of visitors, a deadly new virus appears in Mecca.

In Dubai, a Norwegian woman is sentenced to 16 months in jail for being raped (why does anyone even go to these places?).

This new café in Muslim Indonesia may startle Western visitors.

As contamination from the Fukushima reactor has spread across the Pacific, the nuclear industry has been lying about it.

China's economic miracle ends in exhaustion and stagnation.

The CIA is funding research into planetary engineering to combat global warming, despite the objections of scientifically-illiterate Republicans.

Dutch scientists develop pavement that absorbs smog.

This jewelery from Italy is a bit crude, but not bad for 47,000 years ago.

Caitrin Nicol takes a detailed look at the minds of elephants.

Transitional fossils in human evolution?  If anything, we've got too many, not too few.

More than 40 sunken German U-boats, recently discovered off the coast of England, are being studied by archaeologists with modern technology.

Nashville in 1862 saw a successful experiment in legalized and regulated prostitution.

Massachusetts scientists take a major step toward a treatment for Down's syndrome.

Rates of dementia in the elderly are dropping fast.

Robots are beginning to revolutionize agriculture.

Spanish researchers use stem cells to regenerate the retina in mice.

20 July 2013

Video of the day -- what if you're wrong?

Richard Dawkins answers a question from the audience:

Found via Mario Piperni.

18 July 2013

Disturbing certainty

In case anybody was wondering, the reason why I haven't posted anything about the Snowden or Zimmerman cases is that I haven't been following them in enough detail to believe that I can provide useful commentary about them.  On Snowden, most bloggers seem to grasp the uncertainties inherent in judging a situation where much of the relevant information is necessarily secret -- and that we are not, and perhaps never will be, in a position to declare him a hero or a villain.

Not so with the Zimmerman case.  Everybody knows exactly what the rights and wrongs of the situation are -- evidence be damned, circumstances be damned, disputes and uncertainties about the details of what happened be damned.

On the right wing, this is to be expected, and the reactions have been predictable.  Martin was black and Zimmerman used a gun, therefore the former must have been at fault and the latter must be defended, details to be filled in later with whatever comes up.  If Zimmerman had been convicted, it would have been a miscarriage of justice to be invested with faux profundity about anti-gun hysteria and political correctness run amuck, not a sign that maybe the jurors who heard all the evidence and were able to consider it away from the partisan media shitstorm had good reasons for coming to a different conclusion.

That's disturbing, but what what I frankly find more disturbing is the reaction on our own side.  Martin was black and Zimmerman used a gun, therefore the former must have been a victim of racism and the latter must be a trigger-happy yahoo who could not possibly have had a valid reason for doing what he did.  Zimmerman's acquittal is a miscarriage of justice to be invested with faux profundity about racism and gun culture, not a sign that maybe the jurors who heard all the evidence and were able to consider it away from the partisan media shitstorm had good reasons for coming to a different conclusion.

Zimmerman probably shouldn't have followed Martin, especially after the police advised against it, but he may have felt it appropriate given his work with the local neighborhood watch program; it's an easy mistake to make in such a situation.  A critical point -- who started the fight that led to the shooting -- is in dispute and seems undeterminable.  Pictures taken at the time of Zimmerman's arrest show blood on his face and the back of his head, but it's disputed how serious the injuries were; another critical point -- whether he reasonably felt in danger of death or severe injury -- is unknowable.  To convict, the legal system requires that guilt be proven beyond reasonable doubt.  It would have been very surprising if the jurors had considered that standard to be met in a case like this.

But never mind all that -- the case pushed the correct symbolic buttons, and everyone is out of the starting gate and running along the predetermined tracks laid out by their own world-view.  Beyond bloggers, Zimmerman's life has been threatened, and while the riots eagerly anticipated by the right-wingers did not materialize, some of the protests have been marked by vicious and violent behavior.  Some right-wingers, denied a verdict they could protest, are now going after the special prosecutor for "railroading" Zimmerman.

Is Zimmerman racist?  The fact that he's a registered Democrat and once had a black business partner somewhat argues against it, though we all know how little the "Some of my best friends are....." defense often counts for.  Still, racism is a serious accusation and not one to make lightly.

A somewhat amusing side story has been the dispute about whether Zimmerman should be considered white or Hispanic (his mother was from Peru).  I've long said that the perceived boundaries between the categories "white" and "Hispanic" will soon increasingly blur as Hispanics in the US become ever more assimilated.  In practice, each writer seems to classify him according to which option creates the least cognitive dissonance for the writer's own preferred narrative.

I neither exonerate nor condemn Zimmerman.  I don't have enough hard information to do so.  Neither do you.

14 July 2013

Link round-up for 14 July 2013

Lucky this didn't happen to Noah:  Answers in Genesis's ark project is delayed two years and counting due to lack of money (found via Lady Atheist).

Christians expose the evil atheist agenda -- apparently we're out to take over the government so we can poison the angels.

Workers in one profession have much more freedom to set their own rules and boundaries than most.

Here's how atheists persecute religion (found via Faye Kane).

Megan McArdle's election prediction ignores some basic facts.

Republic of Gilead has a frighteningly-crazed rant from a Christian revisionist-history conference (with links to five more reports from the same conference).

Christine O'Donnell, call your office; for 2014, the hard right again sets out to primary electable Republicans and replace them with loons.

The DOMA ruling puts the right-wingers exactly where we want them -- at each others' throats (see comments).

Here's the Christian Right summed up in one graphic.

The racist backlash against that Cheerios ad provokes a response.

Rand Paul has some ugly associations.

The war on women is traditional.

Orson Scott Card demands tolerance for bigotry.  The studio releasing Ender's Game is worried.

Citizens United has really helped the far right on the local level.

The pathways to atheism aren't what religious people think.

If you want to know what the Republicans would do if they got back into power, look at North Carolina.

Another day, another dumbass clumsy gun nut, another dead kid.

Sane Republicans despair -- Santorum's back for 2016.

NOM distorts public reaction to the Supreme Court rulings.

Ohio teabaggers show how it's done -- win office running on fiscal conservatism, then pivot to getting creationism into the schools.

Smartypants looks at the Republicans' self-immolation.

There need to be consequences for making false accusations.

Russia's Supreme Court upholds a ban on the hijab in schools.

Birth rates in most of the world have plummeted, but one region remains an exception -- and is hurtling toward disaster.

Where the people are -- this is true.

No, the Romans did not persecute Christians.  But Christians persecuted vampires (found via Mendip).

Take a boat and go voyaging on strange seas.

The Earth passes a milestone.

11 July 2013

The importance of a single vote -- and of ours

Recently we've had Supreme Court rulings on gay marriage (very good) and on the Voting Rights Act (very bad).  The striking thing about these was that all the rulings were 5-to-4.  A single judge voting differently could have saved the VRA -- or dashed the hopes of countless Californians and seriously blunted the momentum toward national acceptance of gay marriage.  Last year's decision upholding Obamacare was also 5-to-4.  We need a secure majority.

One side or the other is going to get that majority.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of "our" justices, is now 80.  Antonin Scalia, perhaps the worst of "theirs", is 77.  Anthony Kennedy, often a swing vote, is 76.  All three will likely retire during the term(s) of President Obama's successor.  Imagine how much more secure freedom and progress in this country would become if the replacements for all three were to be chosen by a Democratic President.  Now imagine the likely consequences if it were by a Republican.

The point is that a Democrat, any Democrat, will be vastly better on Supreme Court appointments than a Republican, any Republican.  Obama is exasperatingly centrist for the taste of many progressives, but Kagan and Sotomayor have been reliable, and it's impossible to imagine McCain or Romney choosing them or anyone remotely like them.  Pretty much any plausible Republican in the White House after 2016 would mean three more Scalia types on the Court, stifling progress for decades to come.  Pretty much any plausible Democrat in that position would mean we would never again have to worry about another abomination like the VRA ruling.  (Besides, think of all the wingnut heads exploding at the sight of a Democratic President, even a moderate, choosing Scalia's replacement -- I want to watch that!)

No matter who our 2016 nominee is, there will be people insisting that he or she is not good enough on one issue or another, and loudly threatening to stay home or throw away their vote on a third candidate.  Such people are fools.  Don't listen to them.  Remember what's at stake, for far longer than just eight years.

07 July 2013

Link round-up for 7 July 2013

Murr Brewster explains why you should polish your cat.

Kill the bill.

The Florida Department of Transportation hires a signage contractor that can't spell "Florida".

Police are called to a noisy venting of domestic discontent (found via Mendip).

Betty Bowers looks at America as a Christian nation.

Why do some people record experiences rather than experiencing them?

The Postal Service photographs envelopes.

Gay pride parades get a boost from Supreme Court rulings -- and in San Francisco, the Girl Scouts joined in. Americans support the rulings -- and reject the gutting of the Voting Rights Act.

Hart Williams has an update on Forbes's "tariffs" lie about the Civil War.

Religion makes people moral -- like this guy.

Faye Kane looks at why some countries are shittier than others (NSFW blog).

Tamerlan Tsarnaev's widow gradually returns to a normal life.

The collapse of religion among the young will doom the Republicans.

Republic of Gilead investigates Christian Right historical revisionism.

A mother describes how her own religious bigotry destroyed her son.

Anti-abortion cranks haven't thought things through.

Michael Cohen tries to explain the Republican party to the British.

NSA spying revelations are raising a stink in Germany.

These people take soccer entirely too seriously.

Libya confronts the Qaddhafi regime's sex crimes.

An Afghan policewoman is murdered for having a job.

Islamists opposing modern education burn students alive in Nigeria.

East Antarctic ice shelves are melting faster than expected.

Reading -- or anything that stimulates the brain -- helps preserve mental abilities into old age (found via Mendip).

Some birds are pretty smart.

06 July 2013

Video of the day -- voices of Islamism

This is what secular Egyptians have to contend with:

Violence has erupted all over the country, with dozens killed already, and there have been reports of Islamist attacks on the Christian minority (which is perceived, probably accurately, as particularly opposed to Islamist rule).  This report of an attack on a Cairo neighborhood describes the Islamists as being armed with machine guns.  It's going to get worse before it gets better.

04 July 2013

Egypt's coup and the persistence of political Islam

With yesterday's military coup, Egypt becomes the latest country in which the struggle between secularism and religious repression has come to a head.

President Mohammed Morsi (variously spelled in the Roman alphabet) and the ruling Muslim Brotherhood were overthrown by the military just one year after winning Egypt's first real election in living memory.  The coup followed escalating mass protests against the Islamist regime's growing authoritarianism, its refusal to share power with other political forces, and its failure to solve Egypt's intractable problems (in fact, the problems have gotten much worse).  Any military coup is inherently undemocratic, but this one can at least be viewed as a dramatic expression of buyer's remorse.  Crowds in Tahrir Square celebrated the news.  In a somewhat reassuring move, the military chose the chief judge of the constitutional court, not a general, as interim President.

Why did Islamists win the election in the first place?  There are two reasons, both of which exemplify more widespread problems in the Islamic world.

(1) The Islamists are unified and have had time to get well-organized.  Muslim dictators, like dictators anywhere, tend to murder or lock up their opponents, but are often afraid to crack down equally hard on Islamists, who are numerous and potentially violent.  Thus, by the time a dictatorship falls, Islamists are often the only big political force left on the scene, while secular forces must scramble to catch up in organizing themselves.  Thus Islamists, if they move quickly, are often able to take power after a dictator falls, the most striking example being Iran after the fall of the Shah.  In Egypt, the decades-old Muslim Brotherhood was unified and organized while many small parties split the secular vote.

(2) Islamists have more genuine mass support than Westerners realize.  Muslim societies are traditionally highly religious, and most of them remain poor, less-educated, and generally backward compared with, say, Latin America or Southeast Asia.  The most modernized populations live in the large cities and participate in the demonstrations we see on TV, but rural areas remain more traditional, less literate, more devout, and more supportive of religious rule.  (This pattern is not limited to Islamic countries, as urban-vs-rural voting patterns in the US will attest -- somebody out there is voting for the Santorums and Bachmanns and Gohmerts.)  The voters who elected Erdogan in Turkey (now also a target of urban protest), and the Basij militia whom Iran's Ayatollahs used to suppress pro-democracy protests in 2009, came from this "redneck" element of the populations of those countries.  In Egypt, protesters celebrating the coup have looted and burned Muslim Brotherhood offices -- but there have also been counter-protests supporting Morsi.

Westerners recoil from the thought of military rule, which in any advanced nation would be a huge backward step.  In the Islamic world, however, the military is often one of the most modern-thinking and secular parts of society.  Military officers, to do their jobs at all competently, must have some grasp of technology, engineering, and the way things work in the real world.  That requires education and a willingness to absorb ideas outside the religious bubble.

This is why democracy -- and more importantly freedom and secularism -- face a difficult path in the Islamic world.  If overthrowing a dictator almost always leads to Islamist rule (Syria looks like the latest country following this pattern), how can liberal secular forces ever get the chance to unify and organize?  If secular government depends on periodic applications of military rule to "correct" the actions of elected Islamists (as has sometimes been the case in Turkey), can it attain real democratic legitimacy?

It has been suggested that the only way to discredit the Islamists is to let them take power for a while and be seen to fail.  This has probably happened in Iran, where it's hard to imagine Islamists winning a genuinely free election.  Yet the lesson comes at the price of terrible suffering and stagnation, and as we saw in 2009, the discredited regime can be very hard to get rid of.

And in Egypt's case, the problems would be daunting for any government.  With 85 million people crammed into a habitable area (Nile valley and delta) barely larger than Maryland, deep poverty (the income per person is about one-third that of Mexico), widespread illiteracy, and dangerous levels of pollution and chronic disease, the Arab world's most populous state needs the best leadership it can get.  Instead, it will likely see a period of renewed conflict between secularists supporting the coup and the devout who remain loyal to Morsi.  Escalated Islamist violence against the Christian minority (officially 10% of the population but probably much larger in fact) remains another possibility.

On this Independence Day, be grateful for the First Amendment which keeps religion out of our own government, however imperfectly -- and be vigilant against those who would weaken it.