Thursday, July 31, 2008

School Vouchers in Sweden

STOCKHOLM, Sweden -- Schools run by private enterprise? Free iPods and laptop computers to attract students?

It may sound out of place in Sweden, that paragon of taxpayer-funded cradle-to-grave welfare. But a sweeping reform of the school system has survived the critics and 16 years later is spreading and attracting interest abroad.

"I think most people, parents and children, appreciate the choice," said Bertil Ostberg, from the Ministry of Education. "You can decide what school you want to attend and that appeals to people."

Since the change was introduced in 1992 by a center-right government that briefly replaced the long-governing Social Democrats, the numbers have shot up. In 1992, 1.7 percent of high schoolers and 1 percent of elementary schoolchildren were privately educated. Now the figures are 17 percent and 9 percent.

In some ways the trend mirrors the rise of the voucher system in the U.S., with all its pros and cons. But while the percentage of children in U.S. private schools has dropped slightly in recent years, signs are that the trend in Sweden is growing.

Before the reform, most families depended on state-run schools following a uniform national curriculum. Now they can turn to the "friskolor," or "independent schools," which choose their own teaching methods and staff, and manage their own buildings.


Barbro Lillkaas, a 40-year-old accountant, is considering putting her child in a private school, and has no problem with the profit motive.

"If you run a good operation then you make a profit. But you won't get any students if you are bad," she said. "You have to do a good job to get money; that is even more important for a private school."


Some Swedes say the private system drains funds from public education, but officials say independent schools have forced public schools to raise their own standards and improve efficiency.

"Today, I think we have at least as good quality if not better than some independent schools because we have really joined the battle and use our money in a much better way," said Eva-Lotta Kastenholm, who is in charge of public schools in Sollentuna, a suburb of Stockholm.

Competition has forced Gardesskolan, a public school in Sollentuna, to put two teachers in each class of 30 children instead of one. Its student body has risen more than fivefold to 400 since 1992.

Batman vs. al Qaeda

A movie review comparing Batman with Bush.

Film unmasks Bush as the real Batman

FINALLY Hollywood makes a film that says US President George W. Bush was right. But director Christopher Nolan had to disguise it a little, so journalists wouldn't freak and the film's more fashionable stars wouldn't walk.

So he hides Bush in a cape. He even sticks a mask on him, with pointy ears for some reason.

Sure, when the terrified citizens of Gotham City scream for Bush to come save them, Nolan has them shine a great W in the night sky, but he blurs it so it looks more like a bird.

Or a bat, perhaps.

And he has them call their hero not Mr Bush, of course, or even "Mr President", but . . . Batman.


Mind you, the same excuses for violence, and for defying the public's will, is used by vigilantes and tyrants. And Nolan is so careful to sugar his pill that some critics, and not only of the Left, have taken his film as an attack on Bush instead.

Take's deputy editor, Anne Thompson, who seizes on the scene in which the Joker taunts Batman: "What would I do without you? You complete me . . . To them (the public) you're just a freak. Like me."

Concludes Thompson: "The film-making suggests the Joker has, like a Shakespearean fool on PCP, hit on a harsh truth: Batman has more in common with his killer-clown foe than with the normal people he means to protect. So should we conclude The Dark Knight argues that Bush and bin Laden are two sides of the same coin?"

Answer: are you kidding? In fact, the Joker is saying that without Batman's great good to oppose, his great evil would never be realised in its horrific glory.

It would be like Hitler being allowed to exterminate nothing more than mosquitoes. Who'd care?

What's more, Batman clearly has more in common with the people he tries to protect than does the Joker with people he tries to destroy, or the audience wouldn't be cheering him, and the next film in the series wouldn't be Batman III but The Joker II.

No, the cinema audience understands what the Gotham citizens do not - Batman's dilemma and the awesome imperatives of responsibility. And they are with him, not his critics.

So why don't Americans in particular leave the movie cheering Bush as they cheered Batman?

Because in leaving the cinema they stopped being that audience and re-entered their own real Gotham City - with a real Batman they once more feel driven to hate for all the hard things he's had to do to protect them.

They have become the citizens of Gotham they were watching just minutes before with contempt.

But Bush would understand. As Alfred says: "He's not being a hero. He's being something more."

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ethical Fundamentalism

Lee Harris writes for Policy Review. In the linked article, he discusses what may be happening to the traditions that serve as a foundation for our society. Near the end of the essay, he introduces the notion that certain bases of civilization must be held as axiomatic, and that tinkering with them is extremely dangerous.

This is how those fond of abstract reasoning can destroy the ethical foundations of a society without anyone’s noticing it. They throw up for debate that which no one before ever thought about debating. They take the collective visceral code that has bound parents to grandchildren from time immemorial, in every culture known to man, and make of it a topic for fashionable intellectual chatter.

Ask yourself what is so secure about the ethical baseline of our current level of civilization that it might not be opened up for question, or what deeply cherished way of doing things will suddenly be cast in the role of a “residual personal prejudice.”


If the reflective class, represented by intellectuals in the media and the academic world, continues to undermine the ideological superstructure of the visceral code operative among the “culturally backward,” it may eventually succeed in subverting and even destroying the visceral code that has established the common high ethical baseline of the average American — and it will have done all of this out of the insane belief that abstract maxims concerning justice and tolerance can take the place of a visceral code that is the outcome of the accumulated cultural revolution of our long human past.

Marriage is one example of this visceral core. Marriage has always been defined as men marrying women. Sometimes one of one sex will marry more than one of the other, but no major civilization has ever defined marriage as between individuals of the same sex. Yet there is no particular reason why a society couldn't expand the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples -- that it hasn't is simply axiomatic. Harris contends some "just so" rules must be taken as axiomatic. We change them at our peril.

The intelligentsia have no idea of the consequences that would ensue if middle America lost its simple faith in God and its equally simple trust in its fellow men. Their plain virtues and homespun beliefs are the bedrock of decency and integrity in our nation and in the world. These are the people who give their sons and daughters to defend the good and to defeat the evil. If in their eyes this clear and simple distinction is blurred through the dissemination of moral relativism and an aesthetic of ethical frivolity, where else will human decency find such willing and able defenders?

Even the most sophisticated of us have something to learn from the fundamentalism of middle America. For stripped of its quaint and antiquated ideological superstructure, there is a hard and solid kernel of wisdom embodied in the visceral code by which fundamentalists raise their children, and many of us, including many gay men like myself, are thankful to have been raised by parents who were so unshakably committed to the values of decency, and honesty, and integrity, and all those other homespun and corny principles. Reject the theology if you wish, but respect the ethical fundamentalism by which these people live: It is not a weakness of intellect, but a strength of character.


Posted on google "knowl" by JJ Ray

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Attack of the ID/IOTs

The Discovery Institute, home of a gaggle of Intelligent Design / Intelligent Origin Theorists, has taken up arms against Little Green Footballs.
Charles Johnson shows them to be, once again, the liars they have been, and continue to be.
(Also links to The Derb at NRO's Corner blog.)

Obama and Racism


Stop calling me a racist Barry

Obama and America.

The Democrat’s Achilles’ heel in this model is an inchoate sense among some voters that the new arrival on the national stage with the unusual biography — who’s the first black nominee from either party — isn’t American enough.

Prior to Obama’s trip overseas, though, McCain had instead employed, without appreciable effect, a more conventional critique of his opponent as an ordinary politician, a flip-flopper and, of course, a liberal.

On Saturday, though, McCain released a new television advertisement in which the announcer says that on his trip, Obama “made time to go to the gym, but canceled a visit with wounded troops. Seems the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras.”

"John McCain is always there for our troops," adds the announcer, before concluding with the campaign’s new slogan: “McCain, country first.”

The slogan’s inverse implication for his opponent was made clear earlier in the week, when McCain accused Obama of placing the his political ambitions before the national interest.

Well if he doesn't place his ambitions above the national interest, he conflates the two in his, and his devotees, belief that his is the only change we can believe in. The arrogance of the Obama team is stunning. They have accepted that Barack is destiny and nothing can derail that.

I believe that Obama feels patriotic and compared to his wife he is an America-lovin' machine. But deep in Barry's political heart (the only one he has) he knows Michelle is right and America's soul is broken and it needs the Obama to resurrect us. That view shows how little the Obamas feel good about America. It is a place Michelle could only be proud of when it began kowtowing to her hubby, the chosen one. It is a reactionary place where the knuckle-draggers on the right cling bitterly to their guns, God, and hatred of all non-whites. A place where his wife was barely able to get preferential treatment and admission to top law schools explicitly because of her blackness. A place where a complete lightweight could rise to a position he has no business chasing based on the simple fact that he is a cute little nerd, oh and I don't know if you knew but he's technically black.

Here is the thing that could actually take the Obama down, you see us middle/working class white folks hate being called racists.

First of all the vast majority are not racists and they did not make decisions based on race until Obama and his surrogates started prepping the battlefield with "If you don't vote Barry, you are not post-racial". What a tremendous load of shite. I disagree with Obama on virtually every substantive policy position he has (to the extent that he has any). I think he would cause tremendous damage to our security by pandering to and chit-chatting with folks like the Iranians while they are busy building bombs. I also believe that he would bring PC requirements to further allow black and Muslim shysters to continue pushing BS discrimination cases and turn our country into a collection of accepted victim groups and then of course the white male oppressors who must be punished for any failings by any group.

You can maybe guess how angry it makes me for a pampered puss like Barry to stand on stage and tell a group in Florida.

They’re going to try to make you afraid. They’re going to try to make you afraid of me. He’s young and inexperienced and he’s got a funny name. And did I mention he’s black.

You sir can kiss my ass. You and your cronies are the ones who keep playing the race card and you need to to keep your base of guilty liberals feeling bad about things they didn't even do. FFS my grandparents got here after the Civil War and because of my melanin deficit Barry O and the benighted left feel they can get away with blanket indictments of racism. Bullshit!

This tactic which he used to pacify and solidify his base on the hater left will come back to haunt him now in the general election. Americans are rightly proud of the tremendous strides we have made and we are without a doubt the most-racially integrated country ever. If that is not fast or comprehensive enough for Mrs. Obama, then she and Barack can take their kids anywhere else on earth. Why don't they head out to Old Europe and see how far Obama would get in politics. None of the places he did his ring-kissing tour would have given him the time of day, and it's because he's black. Take a look at the numbers of black pols in France, Germany and England v. population (The French have only one in Parliament) and tell me Barry could even get a job.

So spare us your bogus accusations of racism Barack. I don't oppose you because you are black. I oppose you because you are wrong on every important issue and because you and yours keep insulting me and mine by calling us heinous names. Trust me, your wife hates white people way more than I even bother to think about black people as different.

Shake, Rattle, and Roll!

Earthquake, at about a quarter to twelve on my clock. Felt like about a magnitude 4 here.

Of course, the USGS site was swamped. Turns out to be about a 5.8, almost 30 miles away. It's large enough, and close enough, to activate the DWP's emergency plan.

So far, all the dams and reservoirs have been checked, and they're OK. Next step is to look for any breaks in the major trunk lines. If these are broken, some areas of the city could be out of water, we might have to use some reservoirs that have been taken out of service, and the section where I work may get very busy checking for contamination from stuff getting in to broken water mains.

Fingers crossed, everybody. So far, no reports of "no water, should be on", which would show up if we had a bunch of broken mains. (Well, there's one in the customer call database. Maybe it's isolated to just that one address -- or maybe the neighbors aren't home to run water right now. Time will tell.)

Update: USGS reports the magnitude as 5.4.

Think of it as evolution in action

NY Times science writer offers examples of evolution that's taken place in the last 40 years. These include:

...Evolution of beak size in finches in the Galápagos archipelago: Over the course of 30 years, annual measurement of finches shows that both body size and beak size evolved significantly. But they didn’t do so in a smooth, consistent fashion. Instead, natural selection jittered about, often changing direction from one season to the next.

...For many plants, including field mustard (a scrawny annual plant with little yellow flowers), a drought means a shorter growing season. A shorter growing season means that plants that flower earlier are more likely to leave seeds than plants that flower later — which are in danger of dying before they’ve finished reproducing.

...In 1971, five pairs of adult wall lizards (Podarcis sicula) were brought to the tiny Croatian island of Pod Mrčaru from the nearby island of Pod Kopište. These five pairs have since given rise to a thriving lizard population — and one that has developed some interesting differences from the lizards that live on Kopište....This study is one of the most intriguing I’ve come across. It suggests that arrival in a new environment can result in dramatic changes to an organism within fewer than 40 lifetimes.

...I haven’t even begun to mention the countless examples of pests that have evolved resistance to pesticides and bacteria that have evolved resistance to antibiotics, nor the thousands of laboratory experiments showing evolution in the simple environments of test tubes and petri dishes. Also omitted: several examples of new species that are in the process of forming (I want to look at these in a future column).

Monday, July 28, 2008

...And this is our other candidate, Larry

Clayton Cramer notes that at least one Idaho paper seems to think people with the name Larry are interchangeable.

Larry LaRocco is the Democratic nominee running after Senator Larry Craig's seat. So what happened when someone printed up campaign buttons for LaRocco, hoping that some of the Obamamessiah magic would rub off? They put a picture of Obama next to a picture of a Larry--Larry Craig!

Our "responsibility" to learn Spanish

Barack Obama thinks we need to learn Spanish.

Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English — they'll learn English — you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about, how can your child become bilingual? We should have every child speaking more than one language.

You know, it's embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe, and all we can say [is], "Merci beaucoup." Right?

Creationism in Texas

(Hat tip: Little Green Footballs)

The Texas State Board of Education has begun hearings on teaching the “weaknesses” of evolutionary science—which means, of course, teaching the “strengths” of the creationist flavor of the month, “intelligent design.”

While all science is tentative. All the conclusions of science are held until a better, stronger theory comes along. All scientific theories are subject to question and testing. A good course of study should make this clear to students.

However, when a proposed curriculum focuses only on the purported weaknesses of evolution, never addresses the real weaknesses of the proposed alternatives, and never even glances at any other branch of science, the conclusion is obvious.

The proponents are pushing an agenda which has nothing to do with science.

“The only theory they attack is evolution,” said Dan Quinn, Texas Freedom Network’s communications director. Heliocentricity, gravitational theory, and atomic structure all get the SBOE thumbs-up.

We can add the germ theory of disease, electromagnetic theory, and indeed, all of science.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Remnants of Viruses Past

One of the most surprising developments in modern biology has been the discovery of just how tenuous the wall between species is. Primitive organisms apparently trade bits of genetic material back and forth with wild abandon. This is, among other things, one way bacteria acquire resistance to antibiotics. An infectious agent will acquire a snippet of genetic material from a harmless strain the way a friend might slip me a CD with the latest software patch.
Just as surprising is how much of the DNA of higher animals -- ourselves included -- is from another species.
A retrovirus stores its genetic information in a single-stranded molecule of RNA, instead of the more common double-stranded DNA. When it infects a cell, the virus deploys a special enzyme, called reverse transcriptase, that enables it to copy itself and then paste its own genes into the new cell’s DNA. It then becomes part of that cell forever; when the cell divides, the virus goes with it. Scientists have long suspected that if a retrovirus happens to infect a human sperm cell or egg, which is rare, and if that embryo survives—which is rarer still—the retrovirus could take its place in the blueprint of our species, passed from mother to child, and from one generation to the next, much like a gene for eye color or asthma.

When the sequence of the human genome was fully mapped, in 2003, researchers also discovered something they had not anticipated: our bodies are littered with the shards of such retroviruses, fragments of the chemical code from which all genetic material is made. It takes less than two per cent of our genome to create all the proteins necessary for us to live. Eight per cent, however, is composed of broken and disabled retroviruses, which, millions of years ago, managed to embed themselves in the DNA of our ancestors. They are called endogenous retroviruses, because once they infect the DNA of a species they become part of that species. One by one, though, after molecular battles that raged for thousands of generations, they have been defeated by evolution. Like dinosaur bones, these viral fragments are fossils. Instead of having been buried in sand, they reside within each of us, carrying a record that goes back millions of years. Because they no longer seem to serve a purpose or cause harm, these remnants have often been referred to as “junk DNA.” Many still manage to generate proteins, but scientists have never found one that functions properly in humans or that could make us sick.

How much of the remnants can be found in our DNA?
Then, last year, Thierry Heidmann brought one back to life. Combining the tools of genomics, virology, and evolutionary biology, he and his colleagues took a virus that had been extinct for hundreds of thousands of years, figured out how the broken parts were originally aligned, and then pieced them together. After resurrecting the virus, the team placed it in human cells and found that their creation did indeed insert itself into the DNA of those cells. They also mixed the virus with cells taken from hamsters and cats. It quickly infected them all, offering the first evidence that the broken parts could once again be made infectious.

It's now possible to recreate viruses from the description of its genome. Polio has been built from parts in this way, as has the strain of flu responsible for the 1918 epidemic. The study of ancient retroviruses in human DNA could lead to the resurrection of old plagues, but it also shines a light on the process of evolution.

...a new discipline, paleovirology, which seeks to better understand the impact of modern diseases by studying the genetic history of ancient viruses.

“This is something not to fear but to celebrate,’’ Heidmann told me one day as we sat in his office at the institute, which is dedicated to the treatment and eradication of cancer. Through the window, the Eiffel Tower hovered silently over the distant city. “What is remarkable here, and unique, is the fact that endogenous retroviruses are two things at once: genes and viruses. And those viruses helped make us who we are today just as surely as other genes did. I am not certain that we would have survived as a species without them.”

He continued, “The Phoenix virus sheds light on how H.I.V. operates, but, more than that, on how we operate, and how we evolved. Many people study other aspects of human evolution—how we came to walk, or the meaning of domesticated animals. But I would argue that equally important is the role of pathogens in shaping the way we are today. Look, for instance, at the process of pregnancy and birth.’’ Heidmann and others have suggested that without endogenous retroviruses mammals might never have developed a placenta, which protects the fetus and gives it time to mature. That led to live birth, one of the hallmarks of our evolutionary success over birds, reptiles, and fish. Eggs cannot eliminate waste or draw the maternal nutrients required to develop the large brains that have made mammals so versatile. “These viruses made those changes possible,’’ Heidmann told me. “It is quite possible that, without them, human beings would still be laying eggs.”

H·I.V., the only retrovirus that most people have heard of, has caused more than twenty-five million deaths and infected at least twice that number of people since the middle of the twentieth century, when it moved from monkey to man. It may be hard to understand how organisms from that same family, and constructed with the same genes, could have played a beneficial, and possibly even essential, role in the health and development of any species. In 1968, Robin Weiss, who is now a professor of viral oncology at University College London, found endogenous retroviruses in the embryos of healthy chickens. When he suggested that they were not only benign but might actually perform a critical function in placental development, molecular biologists laughed. “When I first submitted my results on a novel ‘endogenous’ envelope, suggesting the existence of an integrated retrovirus in normal embryo cells, the manuscript was roundly rejected,’’ Weiss wrote last year in the journal Retrovirology. “One reviewer pronounced that my interpretation was impossible.’’ Weiss, who is responsible for much of the basic knowledge about how the AIDS virus interacts with the human immune system, was not deterred. He was eager to learn whether the chicken retroviruses he had seen were recently acquired infections or inheritances that had been passed down through the centuries. He moved to the Pahang jungle of Malaysia and began living with a group of Orang Asli tribesmen. Red jungle fowl, an ancestor species of chickens, were plentiful there, and the tribe was skilled at trapping them. After collecting and testing both eggs and blood samples, Weiss was able to identify versions of the same viruses. Similar tests were soon carried out on other animals. The discovery helped mark the beginning of a new approach to biology. “If Charles Darwin reappeared today, he might be surprised to learn that humans are descended from viruses as well as from apes,” Weiss wrote.

(Here, it should be noted: This is a real case of a maverick scientist going against the conventional wisdom, and winning through in the end. He did so because he was able to make specific predictions -- in this case that the same endovirus fragments would be found in other fowl, separated from any possible infection in chicken coops in the US by thousands of miles.)

And the field is yet another proof of human descent from apes:

nothing provides more convincing evidence for the “theory” of evolution than the viruses contained within our DNA. Until recently, the earliest available information about the history and the course of human diseases, like smallpox and typhus, came from mummies no more than four thousand years old. Evolution cannot be measured in a time span that short. Endogenous retroviruses provide a trail of molecular bread crumbs leading millions of years into the past.

Darwin’s theory makes sense, though, only if humans share most of those viral fragments with relatives like chimpanzees and monkeys. And we do, in thousands of places throughout our genome. If that were a coincidence, humans and chimpanzees would have had to endure an incalculable number of identical viral infections in the course of millions of years, and then, somehow, those infections would have had to end up in exactly the same place within each genome. The rungs of the ladder of human DNA consist of three billion pairs of nucleotides spread across forty-six chromosomes. The sequences of those nucleotides determine how each person differs from another, and from all other living things. The only way that humans, in thousands of seemingly random locations, could possess the exact retroviral DNA found in another species is by inheriting it from a common ancestor.

Monday, July 21, 2008

U.S. or not?

Thomas Friedman looks at American power in the world, and whether the world would be better off without it.

Maybe Asians, Europeans, Latin Americans and Africans don’t like a world of too much American power — “Mr. Big” got a little too big for them. But how would they like a world of too little American power? With America’s overextended military and overextended banks, that is the world into which we may be heading.

Welcome to a world of too much Russian and Chinese power.

I am neither a Russia-basher nor a China-basher. But there was something truly filthy about Russia’s and China’s vetoes of the American-led U.N. Security Council effort to impose targeted sanctions on Robert Mugabe’s ruling clique in Zimbabwe.

The U.S. put forward a simple Security Council resolution, calling for an arms embargo on Zimbabwe, the appointment of a U.N. mediator, plus travel and financial restrictions on the dictator Mugabe and 13 top military and government officials for stealing the Zimbabwe election and essentially mugging an entire country in broad daylight.

In the first round of Zimbabwe’s elections, on March 29, the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, won nearly 48 percent of the vote compared with 42 percent for Mugabe. This prompted Mugabe and his henchmen to begin a campaign of killing and intimidation against Tsvangirai supporters that eventually forced the opposition to pull out of the second-round runoff vote just to stay alive.

Even before the runoff, Mugabe declared that he would disregard the results if his ZANU-PF party lost. Or as he put it: “We are not going to give up our country because of a mere X” on some paper ballot.

And so, of course, Mugabe “won” in one of the most blatantly stolen elections ever — in a country already mired in misrule, unemployment, hunger and inflation. Some 25 percent of Zimbabwe’s people have now taken refuge in neighboring states.


Which brings me back to America. Perfect we are not, but America still has some moral backbone. There are travesties we will not tolerate. The U.N. vote on Zimbabwe demonstrates that this is not true for these “popular” countries — called Russia or China or South Africa — that have no problem siding with a man who is pulverizing his own people. So, yes, we’re not so popular in Europe and Asia anymore. I guess they would prefer a world in which America was weaker, where leaders with the values of Vladimir Putin and Thabo Mbeki had a greater say, and where the desperate voices for change in Zimbabwe would, well, just shut up.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Israel buys death with life

The State of Israel has concluded a prisoner swap. It has traded five living prisoners for two dead soldiers. Apparently, these soldiers had been dead for quite some time, and they may have been mutilated -- hopefully post-mortem.
If I were running Israel, I would love to have traded back the five living prisoners, after dosing them with a slow-acting poison. If the two soldiers had been returned alive, I'd have sent the antidote in a subsequent delivery.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Dissent, Hope, and getting it wrong

Ralph Peters at the New York Post has some comments about bumper stickers that have been flying around his fair city.

Worst of all, the most enduringly popular slogans tend to be either dishonest, misattributed - or just plain dumb.

We've all heard humorless America-haters promote themselves by announcing, As Thomas Jefferson said, "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."

The first problem with that self-righteous bull is that Jefferson never said it. On the contrary, he warned of the dangers of political dissension carried to extremes.

The earliest traceable provenance of the slogan goes back to an obscure 1960s lefty who just made it up (long before activist-historian Howard Zinn commandeered it).

My fellow Americans, let me ask you: Were Abby Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Sen. Barack Obama's Weatherman Underground pals (who bombed their own country) really more patriotic than those who served in Vietnam? Was trashing the campus records office truly the "highest form of patriotism?"

Dissent can be patriotic - it's essential to have an ongoing public debate about the major issues confronting us. But that dissent must be based on facts, not sloppy emotions.

Instead, we get dissent worn as a fashion statement. And fanatic dissent (as Jefferson noted) is the enemy of a democratic system.

Nor can all of the hipster slogans used to avoid debates be blamed on the ancients. The latest example of utter nonsense is Obama's contribution, "The Audacity of Hope."

My fellow Americans, there is nothing audacious about hope. Hope is what makes people buy lottery tickets instead of paying the bills. Hope is for the old gals feeding the slots in Atlantic City. It destroys the inner-city kid who quits school because he hopes he'll be a world-famous recording artist.

Yes, hope can work to positive effect, sustaining us in the face of grave misfortunes. But there's nothing audacious about it. "The audacity of hope" is blubbering gobbledy-gook.

Audacity is for innovators, risk-takers and crusaders - for those willing to stand in the fire of public opinion and tell a million people they're wrong and here's why. Audacity's not for the passive mob hoping government will fix everything (while blaming government for everything).

Hope is the opposite of audacity. It's passive, an excuse for inaction.

Medicating ourselves with fuzzy hopes, instead of rolling up our sleeves and fixing things, has wasted countless lives and entire cultures. As Gen. Gordon Sullivan, a former Army chief of staff, used to put it, "Hope is not a method."

What on earth does the "audacity of hope" mean? Nothing. It just sounds good.

Oh, Holy Crackers!

The Anchoress writes about recent stories about people smuggling the consecrated Host out of mass for various reasons.

One story she was pointed to was that of a certain university professor wishing to "score" some consecrated wafers:

“Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers?” Myers continued by saying, “if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won’t be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web.”

I haven't seen any sign that Myers wanted wafers consecrated to anyone in particular. Personally, I wonder if anyone can "score" him some wafers consecrated to Allah. Or maybe I could buy some wafers at a Catholic supply store and consecrate them to Hecate.

Merci beaucoup

NRO has a piece on linguistic facility here and abroad.

Monday, July 14, 2008


"Are religious people stupid?"

Chance and Necessity

re: Textbooks in Louisiana

Jindal Leads into Temptation

Jindal Leads into Temptation

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has signed the Louisiana Science Education Act. About this, John Derbyshire writes:

Whether or not the law as signed is unconstitutional per se, I do not know. I do know, though — as the creationist Discovery Institute that helped promote the Act also surely knows — that the Act will encourage Louisiana local school boards to unconstitutional behavior. That's what it's meant to do.

Some local school board will take the Act as a permit to bring religious instruction into their science classes. That will irk some parents. Those parents will sue. There will be a noisy and expensive federal lawsuit, possibly followed by further noisy and expensive appeals. The school board will inevitably lose. The property owners of that school district will take the financial hit.

Where will the Discovery Institute be when these legal expenses come due? Just where they were in the Dover case — nowhere! What, you were thinking that those bold warriors for truth at the Discovery Institute will help to fund the defense in these no-hope lawsuits? Ha ha ha ha ha!

Helping to defend creationist school boards in federal courts is not the Discovery Institute's game. Their game is to (a) make money from those spurious "textbooks" they put out, and (b) keep creationism in the news so that they don't run out of lecture gigs and wealthy funders. So far as those legal bills are concerned, Discovery Institute policy is: Let the dumb rubes fund their own stupid lawsuits.

The Discovery Institute has plausible deniability. They promoted the bill, but there was no direct lobbying involved.

They claim not to want religious doctrine injected into science classes, but they promote Intelligent Design, which Judge Jones found in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case to be, in effect, Creationism with the serial numbers filed off.

They know darn well what they're doing.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

To shout, or not?

David Brin looks at the question of "active SETI" – broadcasting a signal to anyone who might be listening.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Gasoline Prices

Who would you rather have overseeing the laws surrounding gasoline production?

It's here!

Sort of...

I pre-ordered Secret Voyage at the end of May. It was supposed to be available in the States on the 15th. Someone posted the entire disc (apparently the German version) online on the 8th, and I downloaded it soon thereafter.

It's quite good, and I look forward to receiving the disc itself.

I also recommend it to one and all.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The "Bush Lied" meme

Mudville Gazette sees no reason to update its archives.

Hard power

Charles Krauthammer, at Real Clear Politics and elsewhere, notes what works and what doesn't, when it comes to getting hostages released and terrorist rings shut down.

Betancourt languished for six years in cruel captivity until freed by a brilliant operation conducted by the Colombian military, intelligence agencies and special forces -- an operation so well executed that the captors were overpowered without a shot being fired.

This in foreign policy establishment circles is called "hard power." In the Bush years, hard power is terribly out of fashion, seen as a mere obsession of cowboys and neocons. Both in Europe and America, the sophisticates worship at the altar of "soft power" -- the use of diplomatic and moral resources to achieve one's ends.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

On being tortured

Ray Robison writes on his experience with what he thinks would qualify as torture, under definitions some folks want to use.

I write this in response to Christopher Hitchens recent voluntary experience of being water boarded. In nearly every significant way, the event I experienced and every American soldier experiences is comparable to water boarding.

They both cause temporary pain and choking. They cause fear. They cause one to consider the fact that they might not live. The environment was coercive, granted not as hostile as a terrorist faces, and a bit degrading as some punk takes a picture of you with snot trailing down your chin as you fight for untainted air.
I understand what Hitchens has to say. He makes a reasonable presentation of both sides of the issue of whether or not water boarding is torture. He decides it is.
I disagree. Discomfort does not rise to the level of torture. If so then the army tortured me three times in the gas chamber and every day with the pain and suffering I experienced by many miles run, pushups, and sit-ups. That physical pain is just as real, but nobody is ludicrous enough to consider that to be torture.
Fear is not torture. Do I now get to sue the producers of all those Freddy and Jason movies that scared me as a child? Of course not. Fear can be entertainment.
Do I now get to sue the army for the degradation I felt at having some smarmy punk snap away with a camera at my misery? Of course not, they now include those shots into a sort of end of basic training year-book from what I am told.
Pain, degradation, fear for your life; these are not pleasant, but unpleasant doesn't equal torture. In many ways, life is full of these things. We all experience emotional pain and most of us will experience the physical pain of aging. Some of us fear for our lives just in driving to work. We fear the inevitable, knowing that at some point all our lives will be touched by death.
Show me a terrorist who died from water boarding in US custody and I might find Hitchens' determination more grounded. Until he can show me something more extensive than temporary pain and fear, and a bit of a nighttime bugaboo reaction, then I have to respectfully disagree with his assessment.
In the final analysis, Robison writes:
Water boarding is not torture and can not be made to appear so by activists or journalists volunteering to undergo it. They may think they are giving themselves moral authority to denounce it, but they only expose their own moral vanity.

Saturday, July 05, 2008


Reason Magazine has an article on the Boumediene decision.

Friday, July 04, 2008

What critics of creationists get wrong

Nick Matzke at Panda's Thumb has a piece addressing the article in The Scientist, which I blogged about here

He writes, among other things:

I consider both Slack and his critics friends and colleagues, and both sides make some valid points. But I think many of the arguments that both Slack and his critics make in this particular instance don’t work.


Slack lists a “few worthy points” creationists make. Here is the first:

First, I have to agree with the ID crowd that there are some very big (and frankly exciting) questions that should keep evolutionists humble. While there is important work going on in the area of biogenesis, for instance, I think it’s fair to say that science is still in the dark about this fundamental question.

My take: It is high time all of these statements be discarded or highly modified. They are basically lazy, all-too-easy responses relying on hair-splitting technicalities or nearly philosophical assertions of the “even if the creationists were empirically correct on this point, which they aren’t but I’m too busy to back it up right now, it wouldn’t matter” variety. And the worst part is that these sorts of statements mis-describe the actual state of the science among the people who work in the field. It is simply not true that we, the scientific community, know almost nothing about the OOL (what an individual who spent a career working on fossils or fruit flies or speciation might know personally is a different question).

t is simply not true that we, the scientific community, know almost nothing about the OOL (what an individual who spent a career working on fossils or fruit flies or speciation might know personally is a different question).

Here is a short list of things we have discovered or confirmed in the last 50 years or so pertaining to the origin of life. In my opinion all of these points have reached high enough confidence that they are unlikely to change much with future discoveries, and our confidence in them does not depend in uncertainties in the remaining unanswered questions.

Here is a short list of things we have discovered or confirmed in the last 50 years or so pertaining to the origin of life. In my opinion all of these points have reached high enough confidence that they are unlikely to change much with future discoveries, and our confidence in them does not depend in uncertainties in the remaining unanswered questions.

OOL Discovery #1. All known life can be traced back to a single common ancestor which, compared to what most people think of as present-day life (i.e. plants and animals), was relatively simple – microscopic, single-celled, perhaps as complex as an average bacterium or perhaps somewhat less so.

OOL Discovery #2. The Last Common Ancestor itself was the product of evolution from an even simpler ancestor. The simplest piece of evidence for this is that a number of the genes found in the Last Common Ancestor are homologous, thus derived from a single common ancestor by duplication and modification.

OOL Discovery #3. DNA/RNA/protein-based life was preceded by something even simpler, an RNA world or at least an RNA-heavy world.

OOL Discovery #4. The increasingly simple ancestors of modern life weren’t made out of just anything, they were made out of chemicals that just happen to be generated by plausible abiotic mechanisms found in early solar systems.


What is actually being worked on. The above should convince you that the idea that we know nothing or very little about the OOL is just uninformed foolishness. The field has made major progress. There are some famous puzzles remaining, but they do not add up to “we know nothing about the origin of life.” Furthermore, some of the puzzles that creationists, and sometimes others, consider to be major hangups, are not necessarily so. For example:

* The origin of chirality (the left-handedness of amino acids). This is a major puzzle if you make the extremely foolish and unthinking assume (like creationists do, but sometimes others) that the first use of amino acids in early life was supposed to be in long amino acid chains made up of 100+ amino acids randomly assembled from an even mixture of 20+ different amino acids with an even mixture of right- and left-handed amino acids. But over here in the real world, where the origin of the genetic code has been reconstructed in some detail, we know the following: the first primitive genetic code used just one or a few amino acids, and one of the first was glycine, which is the simplest amino acid, the most common amino acid produced in prebiotic experiments, and which is achiral (no left-hand/right-hand difference) to boot.

* The origin of the first replicator. This really is the big cahuna of the OOL discussion, and where the big and contentious debates are still occurring within science, but again I find that many discussants operate with very crude and naive assumptions about what early replicators “should” have been like and what prebiotic experiments “should” be able to produce to “solve” this problem.


The Main Point

Is it really true that “science is still in the dark” on the OOL, as Slack said? Not a chance. If we lived in a world where it actually looked like the first living things were as complex or more complex than life today, or where the last common ancestor contained absolutely no evidence of an evolutionary history, or where big obvious puzzles like the interdependency of DNA/RNA/protein had no hint of solution, or where the building blocks of life were completely unrelated to those produced in prebiotic experiments – all of these things would be true, say, on a robotic planet without microscopic life, where robots were replicated by macroscopic assembly performed by other robots, and powered by hooking up to a grid of fusion-fueled power plants – then we could say “science is still in the dark” on the origin of this robotic biosphere. But instead, we have numerous lines of evidence all pointing towards the notion that current life descends from a relatively simple ancestor, and that ancestor descends from a series of even simpler ancestors. Why should any of this evidence exist, if life was poofed into existence all in one step, which is what the creationists/IDers think happened even when they won’t admit it, because they are not brave enough to defend what they actually think?

Slack’s second point: the cell is more complex than Darwin could have imagined Slack highlights another area where he suggests that creationists/IDists might have a point:

“Second, IDers also argue that the cell is far more complex than Darwin could have imagined 149 years ago when he published On the Origin of Species.”

Shallit responds with a “Darwin got some things wrong 150 years ago, so what?”-type of response, and PZ says that “Scientists say” that cells are more complex than they seemed to Darwin and that creationists have just copied them. However, both of them do point to some evidence that Darwin’s understanding of the cell was not as primitive as the talking point suggests.

....Like various dubious statement about the OOL which I discussed above, the “Darwin thought the cell was simple” statement became an unquestioned factoid merely through creationist repetition and flawed assumptions from the critics of creationists – it seemed reasonable, nothing crucial hung on it for scientists so they didn’t bother to double check in a serious way, and besides it is a lot easier to agree with your opponent and declare on other grounds that their point is irrelevant to the fundamental issues, than to do a serious analysis.

The moral of the story is, as Wes Elsberry once told me, when a creationist says the sky is blue, go outside and check.

The Limits of Torture

One of the "rules" regarding the treatment of prisoners is that they need to be offered "appropriate food". What does that mean?

Arin Greenwood's story on "nutraloaf" offers an interesting take on the more etiolated dimensions of 8th Amendment jurisprudence:

Inmates hoping for relief from the courts for their Nutraloaf punishments aren't likely to get it from the courts. . . .A lawyer who works in asylum law . . . said the loaves would have to be extremely bad. . . . Courts have nearly all found that prison food can be unappetizing, cold, and even contain foreign objects, and still not be unconstitutional.

The topic offers whole new vistas for torture advocates to contemplate as they interrogate prisoners.

Foreign objects could easily make food non-kosher. They'd probably make it non-halal. Does that make it torture? Does that make torture constitutional?

Science, Religion, and Us

Commentary Magazine has this, a piece by Leon Kass.

In the United States today, the age-old tension between science and scriptural religion is intensifying. Recent debates over stem-cell research and the teaching of evolution are but small skirmishes in a larger contest of worldviews, a contest heating up especially because of the triumphant emergence of the new sciences of genetics, neurobiology, and evolutionary psychology. As the findings of these biological sciences are elevated into scientistic challenges to traditional understandings of human nature and man’s standing in the universe, religious teachings are increasingly under attack and suspicion. Biblical religion finds itself intellectually on the defensive, in the face of assaults from an aggressive scientific and intellectual elite eager to embarrass it.

Make no mistake: the stakes in this contest are high. At issue are the moral and spiritual health of our nation, the continued vitality of science, and our own human self-understanding as human beings and as children of the West.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Israel vs. the Palestinians

If you think it matters who started it, you might want to read this article.

The New York Times on Rush Limbaugh

The New York Times magazine has an article about Rush.

Limbaugh’s audience is often underestimated by critics who don’t listen to the show (only 3 percent of his audience identity themselves as “liberal,” according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press). Recently, Pew reported that, on a series of “news knowledge questions,” Limbaugh’s “Dittoheads” — the defiantly self-mocking term for his faithful, supposedly brainwashed, audience — scored higher than NPR listeners. The study found that “readers of newsmagazines, political magazines and business magazines, listeners of Rush Limbaugh and NPR and viewers of the Daily Show and C-SPAN are also much more likely than the average person to have a college degree.”


Recently, I sent Limbaugh an e-mail message, his preferred means of long-distance communication, asking what his own presidential agenda would look like. His answer reflects his actual concerns. A Limbaugh administration would seek to:

1. Open the continental shelf to drilling. Ditto the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

2. Establish a 17 percent flat tax.

3. Privatize Social Security.

4. Give parents school vouchers to break the monopoly of public education.

5. Revoke Jimmy Carter’s passport while he is out of the country.

6. Abandon all government policies based on the hoax of man-made global warming.

No. 5 was a joke. I think.

I think so too. It would probably be more effective to put his name on a TSA watch list.

A lot of the article deals with how Limbaugh uses the gobs of money he makes doing his show.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Swift Boat Vets and standards of proof

Jim Geraghty has a piece at The Campaign Spot titled "Remembering what the swift boat vets actually said".

I'm not the first to make this point, but it seems the attacks on John McCain's war service stem from prominent Democrats completely misreading what happened with the Swift Boat Vets for Truth. The Democrats' conventional wisdom is that A) everything the group said was a lie and B) they attacked Kerry's wartime service.

Go back and reread what they charged. (Take a walk down memory lane from the Kerry Spot here, here and here and Byron's assessment of the impact here.) A lot of their stories came down to their word against John Kerry's. Some of the points of contention were inconclusive, and some of the reactions their comments triggered, like convention delegates wearing "purple heart band-aids" on the floor of the convention, were crass. But they scored several major points. The first was when they pointed out the impossibility of Kerry's story of "Christmas in Cambodia" that was "seared, seared" into his memory. When one of Kerry's oft-cited war stories had such a glaring impossibility at its heart (Richard Nixon wasn't president, and thus couldn't be denying bombing in Cambodia, on Christmas 1968) it raised doubts about all of his other accounts of the war.

Second, no Kerry supporter could dispute the candidate's postwar "Genghis Khan" testimony before Congress, which many Vietnam veterans saw as a betrayal. When it became clear that Kerry was referring to secondhand accounts, and had not himself seen soldiers cutting off heads and ears, many veterans saw that as reckless at best and most likely slander. I'd argue that this was the Swift Boat Vet argument that really gained traction, and I suspect many voters saw it as a situation that revealed Kerry's character.

Third, there were about 200 members of Swift Boat Vets for Truth. Maybe some of them had faulty memories, or were down-the-line Republicans, or just plain didn't like Kerry. But all of them? Many Americans looked at the sheer volume and detail of their stories of Kerry, and concluded that where there was smoke, there was most likely fire.

If we see hundreds of men who served with McCain come out and denounce him, the American people will reconsider their opinion of him, as well. But I would not hold my breath waiting for that to happen...

Global warming: the quest for global truth

So, what's happening with the climate anyway?

A notable story of recent months should have been the evidence pouring in from all sides to cast doubts on the idea that the world is inexorably heating up. The proponents of man-made global warming have become so rattled by how the forecasts of their computer models are being contradicted by the data that some are rushing to modify the thesis.

A little vignette of the media's one-sided view was given by recent events on Snowdon, the highest mountain in southern Britain. Each year between 2003 and 2007, the retreat of its winter snow cover inspired reports citing this as evidence of global warming.

Yet virtually no coverage has been given to the abnormally deep spring snow which prevented the completion of a new building on Snowdon's summit for more than a month, and nearly made it miss the deadline for £4.2 million of EU funding. (Brussels eventually extended the deadline to next autumn.)

While global warming enthusiasts might take cheer from the NOAA's claim that "average global land temperature" in March was "the warmest on record", this was in striking contrast to a graph published last week on the Climate Audit website by Steve McIntyre.

Tracking satellite data for the tropical troposphere, it showed March temperatures plunging to one of their lowest points in 30 years.

On April 24 the World Wildife Fund (WWF), another body keen to keep the warmist flag flying, published a study warning that Arctic sea ice was melting so fast that it may soon reach a "tipping point" where "irreversible change" takes place. This was based on last September's data, showing ice cover having shrunk over six months from 13 million square kilometres to just 3 million.

What the WWF omitted to mention was that by March the ice had recovered to 14 million sq km (see the website Cryosphere Today), and that ice-cover around the Bering Strait and Alaska that month was at its highest level ever recorded. (At the same time Antarctic sea ice-cover was also at its highest-ever level, 30 per cent above normal).

Darwin and God

From a piece in the Telegraph, George Pitcher writes that Darwin was not the father of atheism.

I just want to suggest that Darwin wasn't the father of atheism; that his story is far more complex than that and that his contribution to the relationship between faith and reason is what really counts, rather than whether he came down firmly on one side or the other, like Sir Alan Sugar deciding whether to hire or fire God.


The prevalent Victorian religious mindset was Natural Theology and, if its principal proponent, William Paley, would forgive the paraphrase, it ran that life, the universe and everything was too ordered, too complex, too coincidental and too downright beautiful to have come about by accident. It followed that it all must have had a benign and purposeful creator.

Little wonder that Darwin's revelations about evolution undermined that. But he was still able to write this intriguing confession, about the effects of contemporary theology on him, in The Descent of Man: "I had not formerly sufficiently considered the existence of many structures [which are] neither beneficial nor injurious, and this I believe to be one of the greatest oversights as yet detected in my work." Darwin was apparently unable to annul his former belief that each species had been created on purpose. And this led him to assume that everything "was of some special, though unrecognised, service."

But it wasn't his science that destroyed his residual faith; it was the death of his 10-year-old daughter, Annie. Darwin's alienation from his former faith was driven by bitter personal experience, not cold, scientific analysis, as those who hail him as faith's nemesis might like to claim.

In later life, Darwin refrained from committing himself to atheism. He tended to have theistic moments, such as when contemplating how the universe came to be here at all. Darwin intuitively understood the pre-Enlightenment relationship between faith and reason, or the idea of a reasonable faith that is as old as Augustine. Unlike today's posturing and positioning, he was a brave and honest explorer of all that makes us work. That's what we should be celebrating and aspiring to recapture this week.