28 December 2004

Republicans: 'Our tax reform is sure to be unpopular'

At least, that the message I get from their decision to kick tax "reform" down the road to late 2006 (warning: evil, soul-sucking "free registration" required; use BugMeNot):
Wholesale changes to the tax code that just weeks ago were identified as a Bush administration goal by the end of 2005 are being pushed back for at least another year.
Unless they know their tax "reform" would kill them in midterm elections, I see no reason for them to postpone the changes. This seems likely when you look at what's included in even their least drastic plan, "Option 5":
They could sell the elimination of the 35% and 28% brackets as going together with the elimination of the AMT and call it a middle class tax cut, but taxing health insurance, making tax rates on highly profitable corporations effectively negative, taxing people on their state and local taxes, and cutting Social Security benefits are all going to be hard to market.

26 December 2004

If you still have money left...

... after the holidays and donating phone cards and other necessities to wounded soldiers, even just a few dollars, you might consider giving to any one of several relief organizations to help those affected by the tsunamis. (via Brad DeLong)

Late, as Always

I said I'd have part three of my extended rant on the decline of democracy for you on Christmas and, well, I lied. I blame Big Media Matt for pointing out a paper that has prompted an extensive rewrite. For now, I'll waste some time with filler.
Over at Pharyngula, Dr. Myers passes along a strange-but-tempting idea:
go up to your browser’s address bar, type a single letter, and note what URL pops up first in the autofill. Repeat for each letter of the alphabet. Supposedly, this will reveal something about who you are.
Alright, I'll take a crack at it:

Time to Update the Body Count Conversion Rate

Apparently, "500 drowned Bengladeshis" don't warrant the same coverage as "1 snipered American" anymore. Tsunamis from the strongest earthquake in 40 years have killed over 11,000 people in southeast Asia and what's the coverage on cable news? I just turned on CNN to see a brief blurb about it used for a cheerful lead-in for some crap about a duck getting frozen to a pond. (Paraphrase of the AnchorBot2000, said with a broad smile: "in [don't remember the place], a different kind of disaster was averted when rescuers freed a duck from a frozen pond.") CNN Sunday had a respectable amount of coverage (the first 15 minutes of a one hour show), but they spent almost half of it on one American quasi-celebrity (they claim Nick Berkus is kinda-sorta famous, but I had never heard the name before) vacationing in Sri Lanka. As you might figure, FAUX News spent about two minutes on the tsunami before moving on to something they consider more important. (It's Sunday, so CNBC is infomercials and MSNBC is news-free.) Suggested new ratio: 1 stranded American quasi-celebrity = 3 drowned American tourists = 22 drowned Japanese tourists = 11,000 drowned residents of southeast Asia.

24 December 2004

Merry December'ween Eve!

Merry December'ween, everybody! If you need any last-minute gifts, remember: Bubs' concession stand is open all night. If, however, you want some serious reflections on this time of year, you're in the wrong place; try It Looks Like This. Don't forget to get up early tomorrow (or just stay up all night) to catch Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn all visible at once from Earth.

Hydrogen and Stupidity, Together at Last

In the quest for alternatives to fossil fuels and ways to slow global warming, many have latched on to hydrogen fuel cells. At first glance, they seem wonderful: the only immediate byproduct is water vapor, the fuel source (hydrogen) is the most abundant element in the universe, they're even quiet. But, as the San Francisco Chronicle reports, the devil is in the details:
Auto-industry ads depict hydrogen cars as the vehicular route to clean, blue skies.

President Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are among their biggest champions.
That should be a clue right there that something is fishy.
The politicians' enthusiasm for the technology -- a leading proposal to solve global warming -- is shared by many scientists.

But reality could prove more complex, some critics say. Among the problems detailed at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco last week:

-- Hydrogen is a very "leaky" gas that could escape from cars and hydrogen plants into the atmosphere. This could set off chemical transformations that generate greenhouse gases that contribute to atmospheric warming.
It could also worsen ozone layer depletion. Bob Park observes that "hydrogen leakage could gobble up ozone faster than CFCs." (more below)
-- The extraction of hydrogen for cars from methane, which is currently the richest available source of hydrogen, will generate carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.
Actually, if anything, that's quite an understatement. As Bob Park notes, "95% of the hydrogen currently produced in the United States comes from steam methane reforming, which belches CO2 and does nothing to promote energy independence." And just who would profit from this? Why, "oil companies are gearing up to generate [hydrogen] from methane."
-- Hydrogen can also be extracted from ordinary water via a process called electrolysis. However, using current technology, mass electrolysis of water would require intense sources of energy. If those energy sources burn fossil fuels, they, too, would generate greenhouse gases.
There's also the tricky little issue of thermodynamics. If the hydrogen is made through electrolysis, it's generated by separating water into oxygen and hydrogen (2H2O + energy -> 2H2 + O2). Then to generate power in a fuel cell, the hydrogen binds with available oxygen (2H2 + O2 -> 2H2O + energy). Anyone who claims this 'produces' energy, rather than acting as a kind of chemical battery, is selling you a perpetual motion machine. In fact, some Congressional energy bills rejected the First Law (probably) and Second Law (definitely) of thermodynamics. It's really quite simple if you always remember Ginsberg's theorem:
  1. You can't win
  2. You can't break even
  3. You can't get out of the game
Of course, that doesn't make it pointless, it just means a lot of the hype is blown out of proportion:
"I'm supportive of research and development, but we are at least two decades away from (deploying) the vehicles on a mass level," said MIT-educated physicist Joseph J. Romm, a former U.S. Department of Energy official, in an interview. Romm's book, "The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate," was published earlier this year by Island Press.

"Americans are very much believers in technology and optimism, and yet when you look at the compelling details" about hydrogen cars, Romm said, "it doesn't make bloody much sense."

Economically, hydrogen devices remain highly unattractive: "Fuel cells are very expensive," Romm said. "The demonstration vehicles all cost hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Aside from the greenhouse gases produced in steam methane reforming or whatever power generation (coal, natural gas, garbage, etc.) is used, however, it appears to be mostly safe. I use so many caveats because molecular hydrogen isn't quite as inert as it is often portrayed (note: by "inert" I mean 'chemically nonreactive' not 'nonflammable'):
Atmospheric scientists, meanwhile, are trying to figure out how Earth's atmosphere would be affected by leaked hydrogen from cars, hydrogen gas stations, delivery trucks and hydrogen production plants. Unfortunately, the politicians aren't necessarily getting the best scientific advice on the atmospheric issue, said Professor Michael J. Prather of UC Irvine at the geophysics conference on the atmospheric impact of hydrogen cars.

A 2004 National Academy of Sciences report on "The Hydrogen Economy" was prepared by "economists and engineers, remarkably lacking any atmospheric scientist or biogeochemists who understand the natural (atmospheric) cycle of H2," said Prather, a professor of Earth system science and former editor-in- chief of Geophysical Research Letters. "It is surprising that all of these groups examining a hydrogen economy are secure in the belief that H2 is a pure fuel, safe and harmless to the environment," although studies suggest otherwise.

One problem is that hydrogen leaked into the atmosphere binds with oxygen molecules, forming water vapor and clouds. A change in cloud abundance in some regions might alter the local temperature and climate -- for example, the climate might warm if the clouds trap heat like blankets, or the climate might cool if they reflect sunlight back into space.

"The widespread use of hydrogen fuel cells ... would cause stratospheric cooling, enhancement of the heterogeneous chemistry that destroys ozone, an increase in noctilucent clouds, and changes in tropospheric (lower-atmosphere) chemistry and atmosphere-biosphere interactions," scientists from Caltech and Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena proposed in the journal Science in 2003. Noctilucent clouds are eerie high-altitude clouds whose abundance, some scientists suspect, is influenced by climate change.
There's also some discussion of hydrogen production by electrolysis used in conjunction with alternative energy sources, such as wind power. I think this is a reasonable long-term idea, as long as we don't delude ourselves into thinking the hydrogen is an energy source - barring the discovery of a hydrogen well, it's a storage method. The potential environmental problems of hydrogen itself are also worth addressing, but (a) we have a couple decades before widespread use is even feasible during which we can study the potential effects; and (b) we already know the effects from fossil fuels are very negative and ongoing. So hydrogen power isn't something to be afraid of or to avoid, but it's often hopelessly oversold to the detriment of genuine progress on energy independence and environmental protection.

23 December 2004

You're A Disappointment!

The Festivus lights are all aglow.
I thought that you should know,
I am very disappointed in you.
Happy Festivus! (Shamelessly pilfered from Katherine Willis.)

We can't have Festivus without the traditional airing of grievances, but that would take hours (where to begin?), so here's a few of the less obvious ones:
Microsoft also makes the list and is bad enough to warrant their own poem:
If your compy reads the floppy when you hit the Windows key
And the disk drives are all missing from the screen and menu tree
And the registry is messy, filled with broken enter-ies
Then there's really just two outcomes: it can crash or it can freeze!
May you all have a dysfunctional Festivus!

Time-Travelling Insurgents

General Richard Meyers seems to think that the Iraqi insurgency has developed a time machine to fight us by attacking us in the past:
This attack [in Mosul], of course, is the responsibility of insurgents, the same insurgents who attacked on 9/11, the same type of insurgents who attacked in Beirut, the same insurgents who -- type of insurgents who attacked the Cole, Khobar Towers, and the list goes on.
So there you have it, folks: according to Gen. Meyers, we caused 9/11 by invading Iraq. (Via The 18½ Minute Gap)

22 December 2004

"I don't remember you looking quite so much like Mr. Peanut made from olive pits."

if you can read this, you're the last person alive using a command-line browser
So what the hell is this thing, anyway? And why the hell am I using it for a portrait? It's a stylized version of something called a penguin diagram, a class of Feynman path used in quantum chromodynamics (not to be confused with Quantum Christodynamics). As for why I'm using it as a portrait... Read the story behind it, as told by John Ellis, the physicist who coined the term, and all will become clear (or not):
Mary K. (Gaillard), Dimitri (Nanopoulos) and I first got interested in what are now called penguin diagrams while we were studying CP violation in the Standard Model in 1976... The penguin name came in 1977, as follows.
In the spring of 1977, Mike Chanowitz, Mary K and I wrote a paper on GUTs predicting the b quark mass before it was found. When it was found a few weeks later, Mary K, Dimitri, Serge Rudaz and I immediately started working on its phenomenology. That summer, there was a student at CERN, Melissa Franklin who is now an experimentalist at Harvard. One evening, she, I and Serge went to a pub, and she and I started a game of darts. We made a bet that if I lost I had to put the word penguin into my next paper. She actually left the darts game before the end, and was replaced by Serge, who beat me. Nevertheless, I felt obligated to carry out the conditions of the bet.
For some time, it was not clear to me how to get the word into this b quark paper that we were writing at the time. Then, one evening, after working at CERN, I stopped on my way back to my apartment to visit some friends living in Meyrin where I smoked some illegal substance. Later, when I got back to my apartment and continued working on our paper, I had a sudden flash that the famous diagrams look like penguins. So we put the name into our paper, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Exerpted from the ITEP 1995 Lectures in Particle Physics (hep-ph/9510397)

Mangled Thoughts, Indeed

For anyone who hasn't been following along, in between stalking John Lott and defending the Lancet's Iraq study from warbloggers who didn't even read it, Tim Lambert has been having a lot of fun smacking down resident troll Lavosier Group fellow Louis Hissink's dumb arguments against global warming. Now, there are a lot of dumb arguments out there, especially from astroturf operations like Tech Central Station and, uh, the Lavosier Group, but Louis takes it to a whole new level. Claims that temperature is not a physical quantity or that there is no such thing as an average temperature are too modest for him. So, first he disproved the existence of seasons and day-night temperature variations. But that wasn't enough. No, now Louis informs us that stars and planets are invisible without a telescope:
the Holy See seemed to need to recalibrate the calendar, and in Medieval times, no one was observing the heavens for the simple fact that telescopes had not yet been invented.
And that's just the beginning. What does that have to do with global warming anyway? Well, Hissink is a true believer in Velikovsky's Biblical astronomy and claims it disproves global warming. Lambert pretty well covers the rest, but there's some he missed, probably because it's just too stupid to even bother with. Hissink claims that "the Sun stopped in the midday," but denies that this means the Earth stopped rotating. Is Louis a geocentrist? I wouldn't put it past him. For a prize of the total value of everything Louis has ever written (or nothing, whichever is more), see if you can spot the disconnect... Louis:
the Biblical authors noted... that the Sun stopped in the midday.
vs. Louis:
The problem is that records are somewhat sparse for this period [prior to the renaissance], so it very difficult to work out precisely what was going on.
[UPDATE(12/23): In comments, Tim Lambert (holy crap!) points out that Louis actually has used the "temperature isn't a physical quatity" claim. See comments on this post (search for "Hissink").]

21 December 2004

New and Improved Blogroll

As you've probably noticed, I've been fiddling with the sidebar, and especially the blogroll and links, like I've got a bad case of OCD and way too much coffee. So I'd like to take the time to point out two major additions to the blogroll: Belisarius, and Chuck's other home, Bad Attitudes. I just found these blogs today when he dropped in to comments on yesterday's lengthy rant (go. read. seriously, it's probably better than the rant itself.), and they're both already on my daily reading list. Be sure not to miss Reality-Based Model Switchers while you're there. Hell, you can't go ten lines without bumping into something good.

(Oh, yeah... I also made a few minor tweaks like adding some fishwraps and putting in a new category for paperless media. Like I said, minor stuff.)

It's the End of the World as We Know It, Part II

Previously on The Token Reader:
The daily grind continues the same as before; wouldn't life have changed drastically if American democracy really died, or even was on its deathbed?
One expects that to be true, but is this expectation rational or merely wishful thinking, perhaps even a kind of exceptionalism ("it can't happen here"). This brings me to the second article I mentioned in my first post, Dining With the Rhinos, by Joe Bageant (found via The Leiter Reports - sould have been found via the King of Zembla).

The title of Bageant's essay refers to Rhinoceros, a play by Eugene Ionesco about the transformation of society from free to totalitarian - the transformation of society from a collection of individuals to an unthinking herd of rhinos. Even without elaborating further, the imagery is disturbingly familiar, though, like a rhinoceros in the living room, none dare speak of it. But, for a moment, let's return to the initial question:
After all, nothing appears much different since the November elections. We get up in the morning and everything is the same as when we went to bed. We still have our jobs and the mortgage still comes due on the first of the month. Television is as bad as ever. Yet, something has changed. One keeps one's opinions more to one's self these days. There is something in the air they cannot quite put their finger on, and if one cannot name the beast, well then, it's best not to comment on it lest people think you are starting to fray at the edges, becoming aberrant. And besides, in looking around, nobody else seems overly upset except a few aberrant types on the Internet.
In that short passage, Bageant captures exactly the "something in the air," the sense that dissent is no longer safe, as though you have to either stampede with the herd or get trampled underfoot. Now, I don't know about you other "aberrant types on the Internet," but while I speak almost as freely as the Rude Pundit (without the hilarious rudeness, alas) here, I'm usually quite a bit more careful in the meat world. What do I mean by "careful"? I mean that I've learned to wear my FAUX News and GYWO t-shirts only in agreeable company and to keep them hidden in most public places unless I want someone walking up to me and trying to start a fight (yes, physically) again. (There was even that time someone in an SUV - of course - tried to run me off the road after seeing my rather tame bumper stickers - and yes, I know that's why based on how it happened.) I mean that I can't say anything remotely approaching this in most settings for fear of being labeled an anti-American communist, an acceptable target for violence. (Think I'm paranoid? That's what I called my mother when she complained that putting those bumper stickers on my car was an invitation to be attacked.) But there are always crazies and bullies in any society, so why does this matter? This couldn't be real fascism, could it?
Hard cases such as myself, and the readers of websites like this one, have railed and ranted about the rise of the rhinos for some time now. But to be honest, I sometimes doubt myself, just like those middle-of-the-road liberals. Like theirs, my senses do not perceive much physical change. I get up and brush my teeth and every day is the same as the day before. I look over at my sleeping wife, who is untroubled by any of the impending political specters that so often haunt me. And I wonder, am I nuts? Have I finally fallen off the precipice over which I have so long stared? After all, the dog still chews the corner of the carpet if I don't keep an eye on him. Are not these the things of ordinary earthly life? Maybe I should be paying more attention to the mundane stuff, which any reflective person knows constitutes most of living.

Then that national creepiness, the distant rumble of the herd, rattles me again.
At a time when our government is telling us to 'watch what we say' and the (now-retired) Attorney General equates dissent with high treason (make no mistake, Ashcroft deliberately used the wording from the Constitutional definition of treason), such intimidation is, together, bigger than its sum, and the bully bigger than the wannabe dictators next door. In fact, the individuals no longer matter, for:
the stampede itself is what it is all about. It is the stampede, the mindless charging off together that causes the metamorphosis of people into rhinos.
Somewhere, some hate radio goon is directing the herd, himself part of the mindless stampede, a cog in the machinery of fascism.
"But," you object (must... resist... copying... Fafnir), "it can't happen here. We're a nation with a long, proud tradition of individualism; some herd of rhinos might form, but they would never be able to assimilate most of the population!" Sadly, Ionesco dealt with the same exceptionalist argument when the play was first performed:
Americans at the time, 1959, saw Rhinoceros as a play about their favorite theme, individualism. Ionesco tried to tell critics that it was a play "not merely against conformism but mainly about totalitarianism," and that the very notion of a government or state proclaiming individualism as one of its national virtues is in itself absurd. To which U.S. critics replied that totalitarianism cannot happen here because America is a nation of individualists, thus proving Ionesco's point.
Another time, I might have been comforted by the assumption that protest and civil disobedience could stem the tide. Bageant, however, gives just enough hope to that pipe dream before dashing it on the rocks:
Dissent? We wish! Judging from the run-of-the-mill American liberals I see here in the Washington, DC area, liberals think voting Democratic, giving fifty bucks to the ACLU and dropping down at the National Mall once a year to observe someone else's protest is enough to maintain their credentials.

Nevertheless, some very ordinary middle class liberals are finally feeling like Berenger. Starting to feel that creepy sense of alienation (the kind that we American lefties have become used to), catching a whiff of what smells like approaching totalitarianism. This has been very hard for white-collar liberals who pride themselves on balanced judgment and restraint from political excess. But ever since the suspect skin-of-the-teeth election of George Bush, I have been able to coax honest confessions of fear out of at least a few mainstream Democrats around the company water cooler. These are the Toyota and Volvo driving liberals whose most adventurous move in any given week may be parking one space over from their usual spot in the company parking lot. (That this daring move always draws comment should give you some idea of the quiet desperation of publishing work in this country.) A few of these meek liberals are starting to smell the fear, catch the scent of the herd.
Sounds hopeful, right? Alas:
Calling weird, weird is very hard for educated liberals. Most have nice lives, either in the middle class or perhaps living comfortably amid less affluent but intelligent and artistic circles. Others are middle class educators and such, raising families among decent open-minded friends in a community of like souls. Of course some do smell the fear. But they think that if they remain invisible and deny any such thoughts they will escape the trampling of the herd.

Then, too, acknowledging that we have devolved into a one-party rhinoid system, the party of business, but with two wings, Dem and GOP, would put the average American liberal in the position of having to take action. Or not. And let's face the truth about modern middle class American liberals—they are a rather gutless lot who would not take to the streets no matter how bad things get. That is all but impossible when your house is on a good street and your kids' college fund is in place, even if it took a second mortgage to pay for it. Denial is easier, as was proved when the so-called American left failed to rise up when the 2000 elections were rigged, something which doesn't even fly in the Ukraine these days, as was proved by its massive protest of similar elections there. Yet I must admit, to stand up in the face of a rhino herd takes a lot of ass. Maybe denial buys enough time to get the kids through school and the mortgage paid off before the rhinos tear up the lawn. Denial can sometimes work, but only if you are buying time for yourself.
That last sentence especially gave me pause because that kind of denial is the same logic as the denial that we have to do something about global warming, waning oil supplies, or economic self-destruction. This common 'logic of denial' shared by rhinos and nominal liberals, I believe, makes them quite vulnerable to the stampede mentality, perhaps, when push comes to shove, more apt to join in than stand against it. Fortunately, Bageant identifies the root impulse driving the American rhino, which he very aptly terms "Southern meanness," (or "conservative meanness") a phenomenon most liberals fail to recognize let alone express.
Okay. Just how mean are we talking about? Blind stupid mean. Meaner than a goddamn sack of snakes. Here is a sample of standard rhino conversation, which I have clipped from the local online forum so as to be completely accurate in quoting them. But these quotes are from the very same people who say the very same things night after night at King Harry's and actually believe what they say. I remind you that these are some of the better sort of rhinos in this town, rhinos who own businesses, professional rhinos, etc. You do not want to meet the real wooly boogers.

* Who cares what the rest of the world thinks of us? They do not live here and they do not count!

* The United States will be forced to engage in tactical low yield nuclear attacks, in particular against Iran & North Korea.

* I support the complete destruction of Arab/Muslim culture and nationality. The complete destruction of their capitol cities and money centers. Then we will see how long they taunt us.

* Put an end to all this stupid political correctness crap and then simply beat some sense into those who don't comply. The hell with what the euro tribal councils whine.

And my personal favorite rhinism of all:

* If Americans stand together and quit questioning themselves so much, we can rule the world. But all this liberal whining is ruining American business here and abroad.
And we're fed this rhinisms day in and day out by our pathetic excuse for a free press. So where does that leave us? Are we hopeless, doomed to become like Berenger, a hideous abomination of humanity among a stampeding herd of rhinos? Or is there something we can do about this creeping fascism? Before saying that I'm blowing things out of proportion, perhaps you should read Bageant's closing words:
If as is claimed, American politics are a pendulum, then that swing has been a mighty damned short one of late, somewhere between corporate feudalism abroad, and a domestic form in which rhinos happily play video games and watch football while their kids charge around on the ever expanding rhino empire's wars for oil and turf and more slave labor.

Call me hyperbolic if you want, paranoid even. But millions of people with swollen bellies around the planet are nodding yes, along with all those unemployed youths in Fallujah, and Mindanao, and Bolivia, loading AK clips, in anticipation of bagging an American rhino.
[NOTE: This was originally supposed to end somewhere around here - and to be a single post, to boot - but that kinda didn't work out. I don't want to leave y'all thinking I'm a total pessimist, so I'm mulling over some ideas on what to do about this... situation... and will probably have a Part III as a Christmas present to everyone.]

[UPDATE(21:05): added the rhino pic. Thanks, Scaramouche!]

[UPDATE(12/23): Added the link to the King of Zembla. Sorry for missing your post, Most Benevolent Despot.]

Happy Saturnalia

a picture is worth a thousand words
(obviously NSFW)
Found via comments to Slacktivist's version of Krauthammer's column. And since you're headed over there already, Left Behind is back!
The further I get in this book, the more Buck reminds me of Arthur Dent from Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker series. The main difference being that Arthur, at least, realized that he was a confused and selfish man overwhelmed by the absurd events unfolding around him. And Buck, unlike Arthur, really is a jerk, a total kneebiter.

20 December 2004

It's the End of the World as We Know It, Part I

To separate fake CHRISTIANs from the genuine crusaders, Medium Lobster asks the important questions in life:
The end of the world:
1. Will be slower and more painful than I can possibly imagine.
2. Will be a vast disappointment.
3. Must be hastened by strict adherence to a collection of ancient inscrutable animal prophecies.
4. Has already happened.
I laughed... until I thought about it reworded this way:
The end of American democracy:
1. Will be slower and more painful than I can possibly imagine.
2. Will be a vast disappointment.
3. Must be hastened by strict adherence to a collection of ancient inscrutable animal prophecies.
4. Has already happened.
It reminded me of the perpetual (under Bush) discussion of the state of American democracy and the various protofascistic forces dismantling it. In most of these discussions, it seems to be assumed that those answering (3) will only be able to make (1) come true in, at worst, years (though I've noticed Orcinus revising his timeline to be more pessimistic the longer Bush is in power). However, two articles I read recently lead me to believe that (4) can't be entirely ruled out. Is it possible that, while the legal institutions of democracy are still there, there's no 'there' there? Have we become a "managed democracy"?

Ordinarily, even I wouldn't be cynical enough to seriously answer "yes," but I've noticed that everytime I think I might be too cynical, it turns out I'm not cynical enough. Furthermore, two articles on this topic have gotten me thinking on the subject, and now think it might be more accurate to say we need to "reclaim" democracy rather than "defend" it. The first is from the latest issue of Free Inquiry magazine by SUNY philosopher Paul Kurtz, who asks the question Is America a Post-democratic Society? What does he mean by this?
We need to ask: are we already in a post-democratic stage? Is it still possible to stem this tide and restore American democracy? In my optimistic mood, my response in the short- and mid-run is “Yes, we can,” but we face enormous political battles. In the long run, we need to embark upon a New Enlightenment, defending reason, science, free inquiry, and nonreligious ethical alternatives—if there is still time to do so.

In my pessimistic mood, I recognize yet another source of danger to democratic institutions. It is virtually impossible for any one nation-state (democratic or nondemocratic) to solve its economic, cultural, social, and environmental problems alone. Neither France nor Germany, China nor Brazil, Britain nor the United States is capable of dealing with these problems in isolation from their impact on others in the world. For the problems we face are planetary in scope. The Europeans have discovered this truth, and they are working hard to strengthen new European institutions—a European Parliament and a new Constitution—and of course the World Court.

Only the present leadership of America stands in haughty isolation, refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the World Court or to abide by treaties; only the United States has abandoned the principle of collective security and the United Nations; only the United States assumes for itself the role of policeman to the world. Possessing a preponderance of weapons of mass destruction, it seeks to impose its will on others. Incredibly, among the major powers only the United States is fixated on a premodern theological worldview. Whether a future Democratic administration could change this trend is at this point questionable—unless there is a genuine realignment of the centers of power in the United States.
Before reaching this conclusion, Kurtz defines the preconditions for a functional democracy - political, economic, and social - and explains how four major trends in American society actively undermine them. Most of you are probably familiar with these trends and how they individually undermine free society, but seeing them all together makes me think Kurtz had it right with his pessimistic conclusion. First is plutocracy - "government of, for, and by the wealthy class in society":
Between the booms of the 1920s and the 1980s came the New Deal and the Great Society, a time of great strides toward equality. Average workers after World War II improved their economic standing dramatically. These gains now seem to have been curtailed, even reversed, especially since the Reagan years. For more than two decades, we have been deluged by the libertarian mantra: that government is evil, that regulations and taxation have stifled the free market, that welfare is abused and needs to be drastically reduced, and that the amassing of wealth is the basic American virtue. A form of plutomania has overcome us, as, for example, during the speculative stock-market bubble of the 1990s. Many Americans considered this period of exponential growth to be sanctified by God. I have called the reigning sacred cow “Evangelical Capitalism.”
This, Kurtz explains, not only undermines economic and social democracy, but also weakens political democracy. It takes money to run for office - lots of money - so only the rich or those financed by the rich can attain national office (or prominent state office). There is nothing new about this; however, the problem is made far worse when the fraction of the population capable of running or buying contributing to a candidate shrinks, as is happening now. He who cuts the checks dictates policy, regardless of party (cf. DLC, Lieberman). As Kurtz writes:
Undoubtedly, Democrats are more amenable to social-welfare policies than are Republicans. Yet both parties bear responsibility for the present crisis... All too few radical reforms are enacted by our legislative system, because the plutocrats control it and they assiduously protect their interests—with all too few notable exceptions. In one sense, the heated debates between candidates serve as a cover, for the basic interests of those who control the country are very rarely in contention.
In other words, DC pwn3d by plutocrats! The "hereditary aristocracy" buying its greed-driven policies (e.g., repeal of the estate tax), unfortunately, is not isolated, but instead closely related to the growth of mega-corporations (but you already knew that), the second anti-democratic trend Kurtz analyzes. As corporations grow in power, they not only concentrate wealth, but begin to dictate government policy directly. After all, if they don't like a country's policies, they can just go somewhere else and take the jobs with them. This gives corporations the upper hand in almost all government-corporate interactions, leading to perverse policies (I swear, the assonance wasn't intentional), such as a tax structure where:
From 1996 to 2000, 63 percent of U.S. corporations paid no taxes at all, while 94 percent paid taxes equal to less than 5 percent of their net income.
Ouch! Kurtz even convincingly (IMHO) ties this trend to American imperialism due to the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned of and the sense of triumphalism and invulnerability a large, technologically advance military engenders. However, the primary force behind jingoism is the next trend: media consolidation. (Yes, Simbaud, the Fairness Doctrine is mentioned.) Kurtz explains that the key threat is that mass media mostly consists of official, scripted 'conventional wisdom' (i.e., propaganda), and that this goes beyond FAUX News and the Bush administration 'public diplomacy' (i.e., propaganda):
Today, the public square has been inundated by mass communications media, which all too often drown out dissenting viewpoints. Secularists and humanists opposed totalitarian societies, because the ministries of propaganda spewed forth the official party line and squelched opposing viewpoints. We are surely not at that point yet, but a kind of iron curtain is closing American society; a quasi-official propaganda line is too often the only one heard. For example: it is widely held that capital punishment is the only way to deal with murderers; that violence is the most effective response to evil; that long prison sentences are necessary for drug dealers and heavy users; that government is wasteful; that the free market is the only way to get anything done; that we need to privatize everything and judge all services by the bottom line; that we should consider those who possess great wealth to be role models (e.g. Donald Trump); and that self-righteous chauvinistic nationalistic patriotism, which venerates God, country, and the flag, is the only posture to assume, ad nauseam!
Something Kurtz does not touch on, but I believe is closely related, in both effect (misinforming the public) and motivation (promoting policies, based on cynical self-interest, that nobody would support if they knew the truth), is the increasing government secrecy. Secret laws, secret regulations, secret lists, secret meetings, secret prisons, secret trials... that, I believe, is the iron curtain descending upon America. Kurtz frequently mentions the importance of government transparency, but, perhaps due to space constraints, does not delve into the memory hole to elaborate on how this is being directly attacked. Perhaps this is because he considers it derivative: the mass media only care about money, so they won't pry; the "quasi-propaganda" tells everyone that, well, the government has to keep some secrets, so mind your own damn business; the plutocrats and corporatists want to cover up their shady deals... And the farther they go with secrecy, the more the populace becomes desensitized; I'd say that by now we're at least knuckle-deep within the borderline. But I digress.
Finally, we get to the "moral values" crowd: theocracy. Though this is the single trend that most drives me up the wall - or perhaps because of this - I really don't have much to say here, since it's all old news. However, you still might find it interesting since it discusses the issue from an explicitly secular humanist perspective - a perspective that reveals double-standards taken for granted, 'even' among liberals:
Positively, Democrats in the Congress have opposed [the faith-based initiatives], though regrettably most Democratic politicians have expressed their piety in public (including Mr. Kerry) and almost none has been willing to admit any nonreligious identity.
Kurtz isn't complaining that Kerry is religious - what he means is that politicians are expected to trumpet their piety from the pulpit stage, but any politician who declared that he does not tie himself to a particular religion and thus feels no need to push any personal beliefs on anyone would be dead (politically, though I wouldn't rule out assassination). Most (but not all - cf. Obama) public displays of religion from politicians reek of exclusion to anyone without "faith". For instance, when Kerry gave his speech at the DNC and emphasized "faith" as a shared value that ties Americans together, I wanted to wretch. Even though I knew it was probably a political calculation to include that, I rather clearly got the message "no athiests allowed." In fact, the tacit point to most "Democrats need to get religion" articles I've read is that Democrats need to pick secularists for their Sister Souljah Moment. Joe "there's no freedom from religion" Lieberman must be happy as a clam on Prozac.

So where does this leave us? Is it hopeless? Kurtz believes there is hope, but that it will require not only hard work, but radical changes, both nationally and globally, in a way that fits nicely with John's conclusion about George Packer's essay in the New Yorker, Invasion vs. Persuasion:
every person on the planet should be considered to have equal dignity and value. Thus we should do what we can to defend and extend democracy to every country and region of the world, on a decentralized basis. But we also need uniquely to build new, viable democratic institutions on the planetary level. In my view, this is the daring new frontier for democracy in the twenty-first century.

Thus, the battleground is not simply to restore democracy in the United States, but more importantly to expand democratic institutions on the global scale. If this noble goal is to be achieved, we need to overcome intolerant xenophobic, racist, ethnic, nationalistic, and religious prejudices. We need to vigorously criticize religious fundamentalism on all sides with courage and determination. We need to define and defend planetary ethics, to strive to build a new democratic humanistic civilization based on shared human rights and values. This battle both at home and on the planetary scale is awesome, but we have no viable option but to strive to bring it about.
Still, is such a drastic, global restructuring necessary? The daily grind continues the same as before; wouldn't life have changed drastically if American democracy really died, or even was on its deathbed?

Tomorrow (or the next day, depending on how long it takes): The Rhinoceros in the Living Room.

[UPDATE(21:06): cleaned up some typos and editing wierdness.]

19 December 2004

Not likely to be aired in this country - ever

Bible is 'lies and spin,' says C4

'Sensationalist' film sparks anger among church groups

Jamie Doward, religious affairs correspondent
Sunday December 19, 2004
The Observer

It's the season for Channel 4 to cause controversy. Each year the channel strives to whip up a furore surrounding its programming on Christmas Day. If it is not trying to break the record for the most f-words (2002), it's asking Ali G to present an alternative Queen's speech (1999).

Now it has attracted anger from Christian groups over its plans to screen a documentary which dismisses some parts of the Bible as untrue and attacks others as being a 'masterwork of spin'.
I can't imagine anything like that being broadcast in the US - no network would stand up to the Christofascists' cries of "anti-Christian bigotry." Who would present such a program, anyway?
They have also expressed concerns about the presenter, Dr Robert Beckford, a reader in theology at Birmingham University.
Well, he must be one of those "anti-Christian bigots," right?
In the new documentary, Beckford, a committed pentecostal Christian, describes a journey he made to some of Christianity's holiest places to help him uncover the provenance of the Bible. He calls his conclusion an 'earth-shattering experience' and one that made him doubt some of his most basic Christian beliefs.
Here are a few of the things this pentacostal Christian has to say about the Bible:
Of the Old Testament, Beckford declares: 'The so-called law of Moses turns out to be the work of many human hands. What I once thought was the word of God was now beginning to sound like something out of Stalin's Russia.'

He produces archaeological evidence to suggest the Bible's claims that the kingdoms of David and Solomon dominated the 10th century BC were wrong, an error that raises profound claims about the genesis of Christianity.

He declares the New Testament a 'masterwork of spin written by people who were nowhere near the events they describe, all gathered by powerful editors who kept out ideas they did not like'.

The story of the nativity is also doubted. Beckford argues that Matthew added the story to fulfil a prophecy made in the Old Testament.
And anyone who's seen either The Power of Myth or Snatch knows that last one involved an amusing mistranslation, too.

There is also a (sadly) unsurprising interview with Richard Land:
One of the most revealing moments comes when Beckford visits the US state of Georgia to talk to President Bush's spiritual adviser, baptist minister Richard Land. Land dismisses as 'rubbish' suggestions that the Bible is inaccurate and cannot be the basis for political decisions. 'When you stand in judgment of scripture, that is a theology of death,' says Land, who has called for Iraq to be 'flooded' with US troops.

To Beckford such views are deeply alarming. 'This was what surprised me most about my journey, discovering how dangerous this fundamentalism can be,' he said.
I suppose it could be surprising to someone who doesn't live in a society where such nuttiness is considered normal. Part of the reason it isn't marginalized in the mainstream discourse, I believe, is exemplified by the next sentence in the article:
But Hilborn said: 'People have these wrong perceptions. To see evangelicals as literalists is not true. It's a multifarious movement; you have to give a much more nuanced interpretation.'
Notice the bait-and-switch? Beckford was addressing fundamentalism, which, by definition, involves literalism. The fundies like to cloak themselves in the more respectable term 'evangelicals', which, strictly speaking, means those who try to convince others of the truth of their theological beliefs, including entirely reasonable people (say, Slacktivist). I've basically given up fighting the subversion of language, however, since it seems mostly futile.

Must be a slow week in academia

I, Plaintiff
Via /. is an utterly surreal article in Legal Affairs about granting legal rights to AI computers:
To Bernstein, all that the plaintiff's counsel had demonstrated was that BINA48 could simulate consciousness (perhaps more effectively than many 1-800 operators) but she had failed to show that a computer could "actually cross the line between inanimate objects and human beings."
To me, Mr. Bernstein has not even demonstrated the ability to simulate consciousness by engaging in such solipsism. Really, I see no distinction between Mr. Bernstein's position and the hypothetical "what if everyone else isn't really conscious but are merely simulacra" beyond the fact that there are no self-aware machines yet. I will agree that Turing tests are largely pointless, however, but that's because humans often fail them (sometimes in hilarious ways), not because computers can 'fake it'.

A precious case from Middle Earth

Via BoingBoing, the British Medical Journal has a psychiatric analysis of Gollum:
Several differential diagnoses need to be considered, and we should exclude organic causes for his symptoms. A space occupying lesion such as a brain tumour is unlikely as his symptoms are long standing. Gollum's diet is extremely limited, consisting only of raw fish. Vitamin B-12 deficiency may cause irritability, delusions, and paranoia. His reduced appetite and loss of hair and weight may be associated with iron deficiency anaemia. He is hypervigilant and does not seem to need much sleep. This, accompanied by his bulging eyes and weight loss, suggests hyperthyroidism. Gollum's dislike of sunlight may be due to the photosensitivity of porphyria. Attacks may be induced by starvation and accompanied by paranoid psychosis.
In the end, however, they settle on schizoid personality disorder.

Bush Wins "Person of the Year"... Again!

Just like Stalin! And, hey, Hitler was Man of the Year in 1938 and Ayatollah Khomeni in '79, so maybe Bush does deserve it.
Stalin, 1940 Bush, 2000
Stalin, 1942 Bush, 2004
Actually, it's supposed to merely be for the most influential person of the year, and I suppose I could agree Bush deserves that - what other "Person of the Year" has exhibited such skill at destroying his own country and destabilizing the world? (Yes, yes, Hitler and Stalin, but aren't you just a little tired of the "well, he's not as bad as [insert villain here]" defense?) Of course, the problem is that they usually turn the issue into a hagiography. For instance, whose ass did they pull this wording from (emphasis added):
For sticking to his guns (literally and figuratively)
Uhm, yeah... Yeah, of course I remember Dubya hunkered down in his foxhole shouting "bring 'em on" to all those terrah-ists as he shot 'em dead with his own SAW!

If that doesn't leave you depressed enough, check out their article about blogs: they give InstaIgnorance 'credit' for keeping the Swift Boat Veterans for Against the Truth lies alive. I just hope I never run into one of these people who writes articles about blogs; the tone is always so patronizing I can't help but picture them grabbing a fistful of cheek and babbling "oh, da cute little blogger."

18 December 2004

Where'd the comments go?

Don't worry, they're still there, just click through the permalinks for the old comments. I didn't think to set up HaloScan before I started posting, so now I'm switching the comment system and adding trackbacks (who am I kidding?). I'll probably be tweaking the blog a bit more for a while, so beware of broken links and shifting formats. (Amusing thing I discovered writing this: Blogger spellcheck doesn't know the word "blog" or even "Blogger". Go figure.)

"You're hypocrites! All of you!"

Via TalkLeft is an all-too-common example of fundamentalists peddling the Bible "like giving out laundry detergent and America Online." This normally wouldn't even be worth mentioning, but an aside about the reaction from the local Jewish community caught my attention:
From Temple Shalom's perspective, there is a more disturbing consideration: respect for that which is holy. For many Jews, putting Bibles in plastic sacks and then throwing them on the ground is desecrating God's word. "We don't even put our Bibles on the floor," [Temple Shalom administrator Marty] Simon noted. "If a car runs over it, or it falls into the gutter, that's desecration; it's the name of God."
I think that's an interesting point, and one I hadn't thought of before. In fact, if anything Mr. Simon understates the issue. I was raised Jewish and can remember from Synagague that even dropping a prayer book was considered disrespectful - if you dropped it you had to (go ahead and laugh, goyim) kiss it when you picked it up. And that was just the prayer book - the Torah isn't even removed from its ark except for services. Funny how the Bible is treated with more respect by Jews than the fundamentalists pushing it on them. (Obscure Rowan Atkinson joke: "Christians? Do we have any Christians here? Ah, yes, I'm sorry: the Jews were right.")
And one other random thought: if it's 'God's word' and 'infallible', what's with the local versions?
thanks to the International Bible Society, Colorado Springs now has its own customized Bible.
They even have the Bay Area on their target list:
Colorado Springs is merely the first city where the International Bible Society plans to distribute the New Testament inside daily newspapers. Jackson said the group is currently in discussions with the Denver Post to distribute a Denver version; Seattle, Nashville and Santa Rosa, Calif. are also high priorities.
I have to wonder what changes/additions they'll make to the Seattle one. The lyrics to "Jesus Christ Pose"?

A Very Cthulhu Christmas

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wagn'nagl fhtagn
The Last Christmas
(Via Pharyngula)

Say, how are things going in Afghanistan?

Not too good, apparently. I thought we at least had Kabul under control, but alas:
Afghan troops have stormed the main jail in the capital, Kabul, after an escape bid by inmates escalated into a day-long siege that left several dead.
Well, a prison break is no big deal, right?
Witnesses said soldiers fired rocket-propelled grenades as they entered to retake control of the prison.
The... inmates held out for several hours, taking pot shots at the 200 police and armed militia who had surrounded the compound.
Oh. Maybe they still managed to end it without too much bloodshed.
At least nine people were killed during the day's violence.
{sigh} Oddly, this might actually be of interest to the freepers, since at least one (the wording is ambiguous) of their heroes is/are locked up in that prison:
Among Pul-e-Charki prisoners currently is the American vigilante Jonathan Idema, who was jailed with two other Americans for up to 10 years for torturing Afghans and running their own private prison.

17 December 2004

The Emperor Norton I Bridge

Hey, it's not like anyone pays attention to bridge names anyway. Might as well have some fun with it. (Wikipedia entry for "His Imperial Majesty Norton I, by the Grace of God, Emperor of the United States, and Protector of Mexico")

Missile Defense and Patriot Missiles

With the latest in a long line of failures of the missile defense program, the Gulf War (I) myth that wouldn't die has reared its ugly head again. That's right - the claim that Patriot missiles intercepted SCUDs is still being used to hype missile defense, over a decade after MIT physicist Ted Postol sank that then-pro-SDI argument. Unfortunately, the Patriot missiles were better at shooting down friendly aircraft and attracting anti-SAM missiles. But that doesn't matter - it's an excuse to give money to defense contractors. Star Wars, brilliant pebbles, antimatter bombs, the CIA's 'remote viewing' experiments... It doesn't matter how stupid it is; if it can line their pockets, it will get done funded.

[Update (12/18): slightly re-worded.]

The 2004 Bad Science Awards

I guess I picked a good day to start blogging. In The Guardian, Ben Goldacre presents the Bad Science Awards, ranging from silly to, well, just read it:
Bad Science product of the year... Durex Performa were in a slightly different category of bad, meaning "evil": a new condom with a special cream in the teat "to help control climax and prolong sexual excitement for longer lasting lovemaking". The magic ingredient was benzocaine, a local anaesthetic, which made the judges' tongues go numb. We didn't even think about trying it on our genitals.
(Via /.)