Tuesday, December 28, 2010


The weekend before Christmas, a very close friend passed away suddenly under relatively shocking circumstances. She lived out of town, but had been supposed to drive up and stay with us starting last Thursday, as she does for most holidays. She apparently kept a very detailed diary, which continues to provide her family and us with more and more stunning revelations to heap upon the already tragic story.

Sometimes people succumb to the temptation to refer to "the real Nicole," i.e. the side that she showed us, as if the heretofore-unseen facets of her personality were somehow not a part of reality. With the caveat that it might have been better -- given that she was already dead -- if we had never found out about the other facets, now that we know about them, I think this is the wrong approach. It is simply the other side of the coin that labels everything we knew about Nicole as a "mask", some kind of illusion to hide a dark reality. Neither is correct. We all have many facets, and they are all equally real, all an inescapable part of what composes the whole.

I'm not really a condolences kind of person, so I'm turning off comments for this post. Instead, you can keep our family in your thoughts. And maybe sacrifice a goat or two.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Feel good? Do good? Not in my church, young man!

Via RichardDawkins.net comes a disturbingly credulous article from CNN about a minister/theology professor who published a book called Almost Christian, regarding some supposedly horrible decline in religious passion among youth. Ho hum. One line really struck me, though:

Many teenagers thought that God simply wanted them to feel good and do good...

The article then goes on to have the author/minister/theologian explain why this is a bad thing.

So much for religion being a force to make people happy. You think God simply wants you to feel good and do good? No no no, we can't be having that! Why, thinking that the point of life is to be enriched and to enrich others... that's practically humanism! No no, the real God wants you to be miserable and sexually dysfunctional and afraid of eternal hellfire. I guess you got the wrong impression with this whole "Love one another" business. See, that's just a mistranslation. In the original text, what Jesus actually said was, "I hate fags, I hate women, now give me your damn money." Feel good and do good?!? That's the devil talking!

Yeah so, anyway... message for my son: Feel good. Do good. Be yourself.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

I feel bad for Chris Maloney, but he's still a quack

Oh dear. Maine naturopath Chris Maloney is at it again, this time sending a cease and desist letter to PZ Myers (who, it should be noted, hasn't said anything about Maloney in months).

I actually feel a little sorry for the guy. There is a grain of truth to the sentence in the letter that reads, "It is one thing to make statements against a particular profession -- it is another thing entirely to attack a particular practitioner, injuring his reputation by calling him a quack." Of course, the fact that they are two different things does not always make the latter bad... some people need to have their reputations injured, lest they retain an ability to con, fleece, or otherwise injure other people. In this case, Maloney is bringing it on himself by thinking he can silence criticism on the Internet. It's entirely foolish -- but I'm also struck by a certain naivety about it. I do kinda feel bad for the quack. If only he'd learn to keep his mouth shut...

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A "War on Christmas" Checklist

h/t to FriendlyAtheist for linking this video on why Christians are not being oppressed in the United States. Only problem with the list in the video is that, while everything in their is true, the Glenn Becks of the world will deny bits of it. Also, not to get all accomodation-y, but the opening card saying that Christians are the oppressors is going to sabotage any attempt to make this video resonate with people who do believe in the mythical War on Christmas.

So here I have culled the checklist down to only those things which I think are so indisputable that even Bill O'Reilly wouldn't deny it. Obviously you don't want to link "War on Christmas"-believers to this blog -- but feel free to copy-and-paste this link, without credit, to anybody who asserts that Christmas is under siege.

Things that Christians can say that no other religious group in the US can:
  • I can expect to get the day off for my faith's holidays in almost any job.
  • I can easily find books, in virtually any bookstore, accurately describing the beliefs and practices of my faith.
  • I can go into a non-specialty store and find decorations specific to my faith's holidays.
  • I can go into a non-specialty store and find greeting cards specifically designed for my faith's holidays.
  • I can go into virtually any music store and find music pertaining to my faith and my faith's holidays.
  • I can easily find various paraphernalia -- bookmarks, T-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, jewelery, etc. -- that pertain to my faith, my faith's symbols, and my faith's holidays, in numerous non-specialty stores.
  • I can put up decorations around my house and in public view pertaining to my faith's holidays without worrying that people will judge me negatively or think I am "weird."
  • I can easily find a group to worship with and carry out my faith's rites and ceremonies.
  • I can easily find spiritual counseling in my area from someone who shares my faith, often paid for by health insurance.
  • I can easily find support groups and charities organized by people of my faith.
  • I don't have to worry that someone will tell me my faith isn't a "real" religion.
  • I can easily find holiday specials on TV that depict people celebrating my faith's holidays.
  • I can expect the media to try and accurately portray my faith's views on any political matter.
  • I can walk onto any campus in the country and find a group dedicated to my faith.
  • I can be pretty sure I won't cause a huge controversy or a moral panic if I try to open a community center for my faith.
  • In virtually every election I have voted in, at least one and often both of the major candidates share some variant of my faith.
  • The majority of Americans identify with some variant of my faith.
Whatever your feelings are on religion, it ought to be crystal clear that Christians are not being oppressed in the United States. I hope this list has demonstrated that beyond any shadow of a doubt.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Torture is useful after all!

Well this is a new one for me... Intelligence gathered from the use of torture may have helped bring WWII to a close.

Except that it was the Japanese employing the torture in this case, and the "intelligence" they gathered turned out to be absolute hogwash.

According to Wikipedia, it seems a B-29 crew was captured shortly after the massacres at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and were interrogated to see what they knew about the atomic bomb. Under extreme torture, the pilot panicked and made up some silly story about how the US had hundreds of bombs ready to go, and that Tokyo and Kyoto would be hit in a matter of days. (For extra chuckles, I am told by a source whose reliability is unknown that the pilot also made up some baloney story about the physics behind it, which must be read to be believed.)

Now, if the Japanese had known the truth (that actually Tokyo would be bombed in a few weeks, not a few days, and that a fourth bomb wouldn't be ready for another month or two) would that have changed their mind? Perhaps not. But still, this is really a beautiful demonstration of the dubious value of torture as an interrogation technique. It's doubtful the pilot was being clever... it seems he was scared shitless and in severe pain, and just said whatever came to his mind that he thought would satisfy the interrogators. Torture's great at producing information -- but whether that information is accurate or not, it's a crap shoot at best (and probably worse than a crap shoot, since there is some evidence that torture gives victims the incentive to lie).

Go torture!

The Republican War on Statistics

Ah, sample size. We all know that sample size can be a real problem. Too small of a sample, and you get all sorts of spurious results. This is especially true if your population is huge but your sample is small.

But what would you say about a study with a population of about 400,000, that actually sampled a full 28% of the population? Oh my god, this is a statistician's wet dream. A sample that large and that comprehensive, assuming there are no major selection biases, you can basically get the precise answer for the entire population. It would take an astounding coincidence for that to be misrepresentative sample.

And yet... and yet... In the Senate hearings on DADT that are going on right now, at least three Rethuglican senators (McCain, Inhofe, and Brown... oh joy, tools all around) have expressed concern that the Senate committee report on the possible repeal of DADT "only" sampled 28% of the 400,000 or so active military personnel. Inhofe even said that 28% "isn't very much."

Wow. I mean, even for these lying sacks of shit, that's just... just... I'm speechless.

This would be like a baseball player, who hit a home run every third time he swung at a pitch. "Hmmm, I dunno, one in three isn't very much. I don't think that guy's very good at hitting home runs..." Oy.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Reason for the Season...

...is because the winter is drab and depressing in northern latitudes. Deal with it.

I probably don't need to tell that to most readers of this blog, but I need to get this out of my system anyway. The evidence for this simple fact is overwhelming. Is it just a coincidence that every single culture living in northern latitudes has some sort of mid-winter festival involving fire and lights and feasting? The winter festival was our ancestors' way of dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Late December through February are depressing up here, and we all could use some cheering up.

Further evidence that a Christmas-like winter festival long predates Christianity is the infamous condemnation of Christmas trees in Jeremiah 10:3-4:

3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.
4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. (KJV)

So that pretty much settles that. The "reason for the season" is to spread some good cheer at a time when those of us who live in harsh wintry climates could really use it.

Now let's be clear about what this observation is not. This is not a volley in the mythical "War on Christmas". This observation does not seek to undermine the religious observance of Christmas whatsoever. The true "reason for the season" may be far more pragmatic than a religious celebration, but the fact that for many people it takes the form of a religious celebration is (more or less) fine by me.

And that's why I am writing this post. There exists a certain subset of people, who, when they see non-Christians celebrating a winter holiday, get this absurd notion that we are co-opting and diluting/distorting their religious celebration. For anyone with even the slightest clue about the history of Christmas and other mid-winter festivals, that's just absurd.

Christmas is one in a long line of many, many, many winter festivals -- and that's okay! It's even okay that Christmas as celebrated by the majority of Christians borrows heavily from pagan traditions that predated the Common Era. (As surely every educated adult knows by now? I hope??) There's nothing wrong with syncretism, despite God's aforementioned condemnation of it in Jeremiah (the Jews were big on enforcing their cultural distinctiveness, you see). Christians are quite welcome to join the whole rest of the world (at least those living in cold climates) in having a nice cheery festival this time of year, with their own spin on it.

But please. Spare us the accusations of cultural co-option. That's just stupid, and any educated adult ought to know it by now. Maybe you can argue that the primary reason for Christmas is to celebrate Jesus' birth. But the general reason for festivals in the December time frame (as well as the reason for the scheduling of Christmas -- remember, virtually all theologians believe Jesus was definitely not born on December 25th) is to combat the winter doldrums. Christians who believe otherwise really need to get over themselves.