Monday, December 29, 2008

Hey, Atheists: It's all your Dad's fault!

Atheism Ascendent?

In presumed observance of Boxing Day, Citizen senior writer Robert Sibley gives us one long ad hominem argument against the New Atheists. His screed takes the "Four Horesmen" (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens) to task for their criticism of religion as being irrational, and encouraging of violence, extremism and inhumanity. According to Sibley, they should quit bitching, because in fact atheism has already won (!):
By all appearances atheism is deeply embedded in the contemporary mind. Modern philosophy, natural science and psychology are, more often than not, atheistic in outlook. So, too, are many of our social and political institutions. It is a virtual taboo for a Canadian politician to refer to his or her religious faith in public life. The school system teaches students about sex and drugs, but classroom prayers have largely been cancelled.
First, Sibley seems to confuse "secular" (making no reference to religion) with "atheist" (in the strong sense of denying gods). To a certain school of thought, any statement that does not begin with an invocation and end with a benediction, is ipso facto impious. But let's be honest: the party whose ox is being gored here -- whose prayers are now omitted from school, whose scriptures are no longer taught during "religious instruction" -- is not just some generic "faith", not some non-denominational "spirituality": it is Christianity (and please, don't give me any tokenistic crap about "Judeo-Christianity", just to prove that you're not really a bigot.) And that is what official secularism is for: because inevitably, officially sanctioned observances are always one party's prayer, but not someone else's; it always comes down to the government endorsing one faith over another. Several centuries of blood were spilled in Europe before we finally got the clue that government must be for all the people, not just for one group (or even a loosely-defined coalition of groups). And as for politics: while it's true that Canadians don't seem to like American-style political piety, in which candidates proclaim that they'll do what God wants, it is still the case that more Canadians believe in God than not. We may not be religious enough to suit Sibley -- but neither is atheism "deeply embedded in the contemporary mind".

(I don't at all understand where he's going with the comment about natural science. Sibley certainly isn't a fan of Creationism, as he has previously written:
Science-based evolutionists who seek "mutual understanding" with those who promote creationist doctrine as equally scientific are effectively committing intellectual suicide. The reality is that some ideas, some principles, are mutually exclusive, and to "respect" those who hold unintelligible views is to retreat in the face of fanaticism.
Whatever his motivation, science has been "atheistic" at least since Pierre-Simon Laplace found he "had no need of that hypothesis [ie. God]" to complete his Mécanique Céleste, and will remain so until someone figures out how to weigh and measure God.)

But back to the alleged triumph of atheism. Yes, Western society is far more secular than it used to be: you can no longer be jailed or worse for disagreeing with the state church on a point of doctrine; you're no longer routinely expected to be some sort of Christian (well, at least if you live in many of the large cities in the US or Canada -- there are lots of places where that's still not true); discriminating on the basis of religion is illegal. I assume that Sibley agrees all this is a Good Thing. But it hardly equates to some sort of atheist hegemony. In Sibley's world, apparently are no Christian fundamentalists trying to sneak Creationism in to school science curricula (and coming damned close to succeeding); no fanatical Muslims flying airplanes into buildings (oops -- I see he has an excuse for that, which we'll get to later); no Pentecostals from Alaska capturing the hearts of the Republican, aren't journalists supposed to be better plugged into current events than that?

But never mind that Sibley's opening premise is (to be charitable) grossly overstated: if we atheists are winning, then why are the New Atheists still complaining? In fact, why in general are atheists, atheist?

Father & Son

Apparently, it's all Dad's fault. Alluding to the writings of Christian psychologist Paul Vitz (see here for an sample essay on this topic), Sibley advances the suggestion that the trouble with the New Atheists (and indeed, with atheists in general) is that they had either absentee fathers, or bad relationships with their fathers:
Absent full-scale biographies -- or personal revelations -- it is perhaps presumptuous to apply a psychological approach to the new atheists. Still, there are tantalizing hints that psychological factors are at play in their militancy.
But even self-confessed presumptuousness isn't enough to stop Sibley from charging full steam ahead into some free-wheeling speculation that Dawkins' atheism is caused by his military father's absence during WWII (Dawkins was born in 1941). Really, this is pretty thin gruel, and his attempt to psychoanalyze Hitchens is even weaker:
Christopher Hitchens attributes his atheism to parents who avoided the topic of religion for psychological reasons of their own. "My parents did not try to impose religion," he says, noting that his father "had not especially loved his strict Baptist/Calvinist up-bringing," while his mother "preferred assimilation -- partly for my sake -- to the Judaism of her forebears."
....which says precisely nothing about not getting along with his father, only that his parents did not teach him religion. Sibley seems to have lost sight of his own argument (Vitz's "bad dad" theory) and gone off on a tangent about general parental influence. In response, I must point out that right across the board, children usually end up being of the same persuasion as their parents. While this no doubt tells us something about the psychology of belief formation, as an argument for or against religion it invalidates everyone's opinions equally. I have to wonder what he would make of my experience: raised by agnostic parents, in an intact functional family -- and I became a fundamentalist at age 15, an atheist at 44. Which conversion was in reaction to exactly which aspect of my relationship with my father?

But Sibley's excuse for Islamic terrorism takes Vitz's hypothesis in a bizarre direction. It's not too much religion, or the wrong kind, it's about fatherhood again:
It's worth pointing out that most acts of terrorism, whether the 2001 terrorist strikes on the United States or the recent attacks in Mumbai, involve young men. Is it possible that the violence atheists attribute to religious faith is in fact rooted in psychology? Is Islamist terrorism a pathological response to the weakening of the traditional patriarchal culture in the Muslim world?
OK, I'm sympathetic to explanations of extremism that supplement dogma with social factors and geo-political grievances, but this is simply the nadir of silly. I don't know, Robert -- is it in fact the case that Muslim patriarchal culture is breaking down? Did the 9-11 hijackers have bad relationships with their fathers? Either provide some evidence for your speculations, or admit you're just making it up, OK?

Vitz Fits?

Since Sibley rests so much of his argument on Vitz's ideas, his essay itself is worth a brief perusal. Near the top he lays out terms of reference which explain a lot about the Sibley article:
Before beginning, however, I wish to make two points bearing on the underlying assumption of my remarks. First, I assume that the major barriers to belief in God are not rational but-in a general sense- can be called psychological. I do not wish to offend the many distinguished philosophers-both believers and nonbelievers-in this audience, but I am quite convinced that for every person strongly swayed by rational argument there are many, many more affected by nonrational psychological factors.
This is why Sibley never attempts (beyond invoking John Haught to deliver a predictable Courtier's Reply) to grapple with the first prong of the New Atheists' critique: that religion is irrational. Now in my opinion it is true that everything we believe is some combination of rational and irrational -- even the choice to use rational decision-making cannot itself be rationally justified without peril of circularity. As a matter of personal history, the stimulus which gets an individual thinking seriously about issues like the existence of God, or the reliability of church dogma, may be some entirely contingent stressor like the untimely death of a parent. But this does not constitute a license to ignore one's opponents rational arguments in favour of speculative psychologizing, as Sibley does. To do so is to commit the Ad Hominem fallacy.

To support his claim that most atheists are being irrational, Vitz uses himself as a case study, citing his experience in an academic environment where piety was frowned upon. He confesses: " is now clear to me that my reasons for becoming and for remaining an atheist-skeptic from about age 18 to 38 were superficial, irrational, and largely without intellectual or moral integrity". Feh: just because he was stupid and venal, doesn't mean the rest of us are. There's this thing called projection -- as a psychologist, Vitz may have heard of it.

Vitz goes on to cite specific examples of prominent atheists with paternal issues: Freud, Marx, O'Hair, Nietzsche. But surely this is proof by anecdote? A scientific approach might, say, systematically survey many atheists and believers on their family histories, and attempt to discern correlations, not just cherry-pick a few historical examples. Isn't psychology a science?

Religion as Social Glue

Sibley concludes by citing the work of Rene Girard, who advances the idea that religion (especially its sacrificial rituals) arose as a way of mitigating violent competition among individuals, thus making orderly society possible. Personally, I'm not competent to critique Girard (read: damned if I can make head or tail of him), but he may have a point. In general, I agree with those who argue that religion played a role in expanding the "in-group" beyond the local clan, all of whom were relations by blood or marriage. This is a Good Thing, as far as it goes -- but it must be noted that the process fell short of truly universalizing the in-group; that it ground to a halt at a point where we had larger, mutually hostile groups. It's only in the past few centuries that we've begun to unravel the residue of these old rivalries -- Catholics and Protestants (mostly) kissed and made up, then they allowed that Jews maybe weren't such bad folks after all, and now they're even making nice with the Muslims (not all of whom are returning the favour, but they've got similar issues to work out themselves). And the impetus for this outpouring of tolerant brotherly love was precisely the growth of secularism (oops, "atheism") springing from the Enlightenment -- the determination to bury the theological hatchets, and seek identities beyond the denominational.

However, even if religion enabled the rise of civilization, this does not warrant the conclusion that getting rid of religion will bring back the Stone Age -- history is not so simply reversible. Establishing that thesis would require data from modern society, say on the correlations between religious belief and observance, and violence, across the Western world. And in fact, some data on that topic is available, in a paper in the Journal of Religion and Society. What it shows is that for many reasonable measures of societal health (rates of homicide, young adult suicide, teen pregnancy and STDs), there is little correlation with measures of religiosity -- and where there is correlation, it appears to be negative, ie. higher rates of belief go with worse outcomes (the USA being a prominent outlier among Western democracies -- among the most religious of the bunch, and also by far the most dysfunctional).

Sibley concludes:
So long as the seed of "resentment" remains embedded in the human psyche -- and it will so long as we remain "human" -- uprooting religion is unlikely to produce a peaceful world.
Well, no it probably won't: we humans are a cussed bunch, and have always fought over resources, if nothing else. But eliminating organized and enforced irrationality -- which frequently explicitly encourages violence -- can't really hurt, either.


Update: Dan Gardner, who is AFAIK the sole voice of rationality left at the Citizen, has posted a short-but-delicious smackdown of his colleague's piece. I was not previously aware of Dan's blog, but it's now in my RSS subs. Hat tip: Paul @ Unscrewing the Inscrutable.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Day 12 - Merry Newtonmass

It's Newtonmass, and as is our annual tradition, we will share our favourite Newtonmass carol, with a new verse for 2008:

God rest ye merry, physicists
Let nothing you dismay.
Remember Isaac Newton
was born on Christmas Day!
His gravity and calculus and "f" equals "m" "a"!
Oh, pillars of physics and math, physics and math,
Oh, pillars of physics and math!

A factor of big G - the same
for flea and giant star.
Then multiply the masses
and divide by square of "r".
The force that keeps us on the earth and orbits moons afar!
Oh, pillars of physics and math, physics and math,
Oh, pillars of physics and math!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Day 11: Merry Kittehmas & Riddle Answered

I'll say one thing for our humans: they're persistent. Yesterday they went out again and came back with another tree! This one is different: it smells fascinating, but doesn't taste so good. I guess we won't eat this one.

That means dangling decorations! Yay!

Anyway, it's time to reveal the answer to the riddle I posed the other day: why do I like Greg Lake's song I Believe in Father Christmas? Thanks, bPer for trying, but you're not really very close. The musical clue is the instrumental refrain that keeps coming back in that song: that part is not by Greg Lake, it's by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. It is taken from his Lieutenant Kije Suite (I can't help it if everyone spells it wrong), specifically from the Troika movement, which depicts a ride through the snow in a sled drawn by three horses (unfortunately, I cannot find an online audio excerpt).

In the meantime, I see that the humans have finished hanging stuff on the tree -- time to play!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Day 10: Warren Christmas & Pope Maledict

OK, I get that Obama is trying to do the Big Tent thing, and getting a prominent evangelical to deliver the invocation at the Presidential inauguration is part of that. But: Rick Warren? The guy who endorsed California's Proposition 8, to strip gays of a right they already had? And of course, he wouldn't vote for an atheist -- 'cuz everyone knows getting hints from the Big Guy Upstairs is soooo important to a president, right? I mean, look how well that worked out for GWB on the Iraq thing.

To put it into perspective: Would it be Big Tenting, to invite a pastor who was on record as wanting to revoke the franchise from blacks, and who wouldn't vote for a Jew because, really, you need Jesus to hold your hand in the Oval Office?

But speaking of The Bigots vs. Gays game, the Pope has issued a warning of the perils of TEH GAY and, indeed, the whole notion that gender is a social construct. Apparently, blurring the lines between the sexes will lead to the "self-destruction" of humanity, just as surely as if we trash the environment:
We need something like human ecology, meant in the right way. The Church speaks of human nature as 'man' or 'woman' and asks that this order is respected.

This is not out-of-date metaphysics. It comes from the faith in the Creator and from listening to the language of creation, despising which would mean self-destruction for humans and therefore a destruction of the work itself of God.
As a matter of fact Benny, yes it is out-of-date metaphysics: to insist that Male and Female are some sort of transcendent "natures" is Neo-Platonic horseshit, and the phrase "comes from faith in the Creator" is here synonymous with "invented out of whole cloth way back before we knew enough biology to study it properly". Male and female are facts of purely earthly biology, and inconsistent ones at that -- never mind that many organisms get along without sexual differentiation, or switch sexes as needed; even among humans there are those whose anatomical and/or chromosomal characteristics are ambiguous or inconsistent. And the specific cues we customarily use to indicate gender (and the roles we assign) are almost purely social constructs.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Day 9: Santa-ism

I am astonished at the vituperative comments and personal attacks over at Recursivity after Jeff Shallit "confessed" that his family does not subscribe to the religion of Santa-ism. Accusations of ruining the spirit of Christmas, destroying the wonder of childhood, and being self-righteous, dour and humourless abound.

Eamon and I were Christians (albeit fairly liberal by that time) when our children were young. The fact that, when we ourselves were growing up, Eamon's family was agnostic, and mine was secular Jewish, and neither of us had a tradition of Santa-belief probably made it easier for us. One of the main reasons we decided not to deceive our kids about Santa being real and bringing Christmas presents was because we felt that knowingly lying to our kids about Santa would cause them to doubt the veracity of other things we taught them to believe in - ie about Christianity and God. (This does seem rather ironic, in retrospect, as the 21-year-old pointed out to us recently.)

So from an early age, our kids knew that Santa was pretend. And none of the Christmas gifts we gave were "from" Santa, though when he was about 5, our younger son (who happens to have been born on December 25) decided he should dress up as Santa and give out the presents. (Oops, I guess that could not have really happened, since our kids apparently were raised to have no imagination.)

One of the commenters on Recursivity said,
You never know how a child will react to anything you do. My parents took the same approach that you have chosen to take. Santa was never real, just a story. Now that I am older and I hear the stories of my friends from when they were young and I see the joy in children's faces when they think that Santa is coming or when they are writing him a letter, I know my parents robbed me of an experience that I will never be able to duplicate.
Parents and children can have shared joy in pretending, even when everyone knows it's make-believe. There was no pretense about Santa Claus for my kids, but someone filled their stockings with candy and toys while they slept. Everyone knew there was no Easter Bunny, but someone hid plastic eggs around the house. My kids even left notes for the Easter Bunny on a few occasions.

I'll certainly stand up for the imagination and wonder with which I raised my kids against the cynicism of this commenter:
We use the fallacy of santa to control our kids. It worked when I was a kid, and it works with my kids. Soon after you learn the truth, you also learn why it is such a great tool. Kids don't have to grow up so fast.
It's this sort of attitude that results in kids being scared to tell their parents they don't believe because they think they won't get presents any more. Perhaps even worse are the kids who have stopped believing in Santa (at around 9 or 10), but they see that this myth seems to be so important to their parents that they continue to pretend. This is not an approach that fosters open communication between parents and children.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The tilt of the earth's axis is the Reason for the Season

Happy Solstice everyone. Let's celebrate the wonder and beauty of science, which tells us that the days are going to start getting longer again (even though winter has only just begun), and we didn't even need to sacrifice a goat (or worse) to convince the Sun God to come back to us.

And, in the interests of equal-opportunity celebrating whichever winter holidays we want, however we want to observe them, happy chanuka everyone. We had latkes (potato pancakes) for dinner tonight. Lest anyone accuse us of having turned into traditionalists, note that there were both white potato and sweet potato latkes, and we also had bacon. (And just how did a new world vegetable like the potato become the iconic food of a holiday that came here to North America from the Middle East via Europe?)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Day 7: Caturday War on Christmas

That's my slightly stupid friend Bertrand Alfred Russell Wallace North Whitehead Insufficient Delta-Vee (but everyone just calls him Russell), and he is the latest Warrior Against Christmas.

The other day, our humans decided they wanted to put up a tree. Since they didn't have one, they went out in the car (Yikes. How can anyone stand being in those things?) and came home with a box. As soon as they got the tree out of the box, Russell decided it had a flavour and started with the noms. The humans didn't like that, so they put the tree back in the box, and put the box back in the car. So: no Christmas tree. Which means no decorations to play with.

Stupid Russell. You're supposed to wait until they aren't looking.

Oh well. I still have my favorite Christmas song. (Can you guess why? Anyone? AJ?)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Day 6: Bah! Humbug!!

So, Tom Flynn of the Council for Secular Humanism thinks that humanists shouldn't celebrate Christmas. Not even under alternate guise as Solstice or Yule or Newtonmas (no word on what he thinks of Happy Monkey). By which he means: no tree, no lights, no gifts (I think you're allowed to eat and drink. Maybe even in excess. Just don't enjoy it.)

Flynn's reason for this Scroogism? Basically, he's trying to make a political statement: that Christmas (notwithstanding its pagan roots and modern commercial accretions) is an irredeemably Christian holiday, and celebrating it sanctions the right-wing Christian assumption of cultural dominance. Not celebrating it makes the statement that there is nothing special about this day; that you have neither interest in nor respect for the myth behind it.

Meh. I see Flynn's point, but methinks he takes himself way too seriously. I assert that there is no unique or unambiguous "meaning" to holidays, especially one as heavily syncretized as Christmas. It means whatever you use it for; there is no other ultimate authority or source of "meaning".

I find his point that Christians, seeing you putting up a tree and exchanging gifts, will assume you are also a Christian, rather weak. In the more secular parts of the world this would be a very foolish inference, and anyway so what if they did? People will always make assumptions (and often they will be wrong) about you based on what you do. It's silly to let other people's hypothetical opinions about you have that much influence on your life -- to do so is to open yourself to the Tyranny of the Busybodies. The fable of The Man, the Boy and the Donkey seems relevant here.

But I think my single biggest source of resistance to Flynn's proposal is this: I refuse to subject all my pleasures and entertainments to some sort of ideological purity test. In fact, that's exactly what I recall fundamentalists doing: Should I see this movie, or is it too immoral? What about dancing? Playing D&D? Don't go to bars -- what if one of your non-Christian friends sees you, and gets the wrong impression of you or Christians? I ditched that whole attitude when I gave up fundamentalism, over 20 years ago. Why the hell would I, as a freethinker, go back there now?

Not that we're actually planning any big celebration this year: about the best I can say is we will not deliberately refrain from celebrating Christmas -- "not bother much" would probably come closest to our holiday plans. I decided several years ago that putting up lights was too much work (like, freezing my fingers while risking my neck up a ladder at what has to be the worst time of year to be up a ladder?). Ditto a Christmas tree (and anyways, the cats would eat it, to their mutual detriment). We've got no plans to go anywhere or see any one, except my older son + GF are coming in for a few days after Christmas. We've got a couple of family birthdays next week, so gifts will change hands in various directions. I booked the next two weeks off work -- which I plan to spend cleaning up the basement and catching up on projects.

And getting that crap done gives me all the good cheer I need!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Day 5 - BUY, BUY, BUY!!! (part 2 - the Christian perspective)

On the new blog of the Centre for Inquiry, Tom Flynn, incoming Exceutive Director for the Center for Secular Humanism, discusses his rationale for why freethinkers should not participate in Christmas celebrations, and in fact should avoid any winter holiday celebrations, lest the evil Christians use examples of this type of participation as evidence that inflates the statistics regarding the pervasiveness of Christianity.

Fortunately, freethinkers tend to be a independent lot, and as one might expect, some are in agreement, but based on the comments, more are of the opinion that people (even, or rather especially freethinkers) should be under no constraints to celebrate or refrain based on some popular guy's say-so. More in depth discussion on this is coming up later in the war - stay tuned.

Meanwhile, one of the comments on the blog is astonishing in its geocentrism and christiocentrism. (Perhaps it is actually a parody, though I have not found any indication to that effect):

What would it be like if [Jesus] hadn’t made the journey? There would be no Christmas - the world would be in a deep economic depression. The millions of people who spend there life making toys and presents would be out of work.
So, we are to believe that Almighty Jahweh sent his only begotten son 2 millenia ago just so there would be enough stuff to buy and sell in order to our keep us from being completely swallowed up by the current depresson. It boggles the mind.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Day 4 - BUY, BUY, BUY!!!11

I've been aware for some time that sales during the Christmas season were very important to retailers. Just *how* important was highlighted recently by a news reporter's statement that most retail establishments don't even start to make money until mid-November. So, if I have this straight: The Canadian and US economies will rise or fall based on the number of people who use money they don't have to buy gifts they can't afford for people they don't like. Somehow, there seems to be something wrong with that arrangement.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Day 3 - the war on salutations

Like Eamon, I have no problem being wished a Merry Christmas, though I tend to respond with "Happy Holidays". I have often seen my (secular Jewish) father offer a hearty "Seasons Greetings", accompanied by a warm handshake.

Here are some other suggestions I have run across lately (most of which are thought-provoking, even if unlikely to catch on as social memes):

"Reason's Greetings"

"Merry Xmas, Ymas, and Zmas" (our family will be celebrating Ymas this year)

"Happy Solstice" (at the risk of being mistaken for a pagan)

and, of course, the American Humanists' "be good for goodness' sake"

Monday, December 15, 2008

Day 2: The True Origins of the War

I have a lot of happy childhood memories of Christmas. As soon as I was old enough, it became my job to decorate the tree. I enjoyed the annual ritual of putting on a LP of Christmas carols, assembling the tree (we had an artifical one), unpacking all the baubles and lights and hanging them just so, for the best effect. My family of origin was agnostic, and the Nativity was just one cute story among several that marked the season -- the Saint Nicholas myth, Night Before Christmas, Dickens' A Christmas Carol (which as I recall, fails to mention Jesus much if at all), Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer (in a televised model animation), the silly TV announcements on Christmas Eve that NORAD radars had detected Santa on his way. In those years when it was our turn to host the annual Christmas dinner for my parents' circle of friends, I got to decorate the rec room -- I recall hanging one large banner reading "Season's Greetings". Apparently, the War On Christmas goes back as far as the mid-1960s.

During my Christian period, these secular syncretisms on the whole neither added to nor detracted from my observance of the Nativity. I simply ignored the parts I didn't like (Santa Claus, for instance: far removed from his origins as patron of the poor, now transmogrified into some shopping mall deity of conspicuous consumption). On the whole, I've always been pretty good at ignoring stuff I find personally irrelevant, while being happy to allow others to enjoy it as they please.

So really, I couldn't care less what the Costco greeter (I avoid Walmart) says when I walk in the door. "Happy Holidays"; "Merry Christmas"; "Salubrious Solstice" -- it's all good as far as I'm concerned. I find labels mostly arbitrary, so I really don't care what we call this year-end excuse for eating and drinking too much, and giving a few (hopefully non-extravagant, non-tacky, and non-useless) gifts to people you care about. I don't mind calling it Christmas any more than most (Anglophone) Christians seem to mind having their other major festival named for an ancient fertility goddess. As far as I could tell, the "War On Christmas" was an invention of a few (mostly American) professional blowhards, looking for an excuse to whine about how persecuted they are.

However, I suppose I can imagine someone who explicitly does not celebrate Christmas (say, because it's not part of their ancestral culture) getting a little tired of smiling graciously while being given good wishes in the name of someone else's festival. The obvious case in point would be Jews, who have a history some 17 centuries long of trying to maintain their separate identity on the margins of an overwhelmingly Christian society. What to my secular (though ancestrally Christian) self is a greeting with no deep significance could be taken as an affront. Which brings us, as it happens, to the real origins of the "War On Christmas", as reported recently at the Daily Beast.

Apparently, it really is all about the Jews. Who knew?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

12 days of the War on Christmas - a boo and a boon for Pat Boone

The War

Yes, I know that the 12 days of Christmas really starts on Christmas day and goes to Epiphany, but after Boxing Day everybody is sick of Christmas, and cutting over to year-end retrospective mode. (And besides, why should I be bound by the rules around a syncretistic holiday celebrating the mythical birth of the theoretical son of an imaginary god?)

Now, as far as I am concerned the "War on Christmas" is entirely in the imagination of BillO and his cronies. As a matter of fact, when I was a Christian, I thought that the fact that Christmas was embraced by most of the secular western world was a Bad Idea, because it detracted from the actual religious significance of the holiday (more about that later in my "War on Santa Claus" post). But if it is war they want, I'm up for the fight, so for the next 12 days, Eamon, Kizhe and I will be warriors of words in this annually recurring epic battle.

Day One

On the first day of the War on Christmas, I will give a gift to Pat Boone!

In an article in WingNut Daily, Hate is hate, in India or America, Boone complains about protests against California's proposition h8:
The [US] Constitution says nothing about marriage, and shouldn't. Marriage is not a governmental creation; it is a time honored and biblically ordained institution that is subject not to the government but to the will of the people.
Um, ok: If marriage is not a "governmental creation", then it doesn't really belong in legislation at all, does it? So why are people complaining about how changes to broaden the legal definition of marriage affect their personal relationships?

Of course, complaining about stupid things said in WND, and/or stupid things Pat Boone says is like shooting fish in a barrel, but then Boone plays the terrorism link card:
What troubles me so deeply, and should trouble all thinking Americans, is that there is a real, unbroken line between the jihadist savagery in Mumbai and the hedonistic, irresponsible, blindly selfish goals and tactics of our homegrown sexual jihadists
My mind is boggling, so I will let the venerable Charles Babbage speak for me: I am not able rightly to apprehend the confusion of mind that would lead to such a conclusion.

But the Human Rights Campaign has an inspired (if passive-aggressive) tactic in response: People are invited to donate to HRC in Mr Boone's name.

Merry Christmas, Pat.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Like, you all care....

....but self-absorbed exhibitionism social networking is what Web 2.0 is all about, right?

Mike Haubrich tagged us with the Six Things Meme. The rules are:
  1. Link to the person who tagged you. [see above]
  2. Post the rules on your blog. [well, you're reading this, aren't you?]
  3. Write six random things about yourself. [below]
  4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them. [below]
  5. Let each person know they’ve been tagged and leave a comment on their blog. [yeah, yeah, I'll get around to it]
  6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up. [more YYIGATI]
My Six Boring Trivial Dumb Random Things:
  1. I have an earring. I got it when I was 38yo, just for the hell of it (or maybe it was a subconcious midlife-crisis-oh-god-lets-pretend-we're-still-23 thing). Anyway, it sort of goes with the beard/pony-tail/hippy image. I had heard that having an earring on the right side was signalling that one was gay, so I decided to get mine on the left. It's not that I object to people thinking I'm gay, but, well, I believe in clear communication (assuming the left-right thing is true, which it may not be anyway).
  2. I still have a scar on my right knee from falling off my bike when I was about 8yo. I was trying to do a 180 on the street when I hit a patch of gravel. The bike slid out, and I went down with my leg underneath, against the pavement. Ouch, with significant quantities of blood.
  3. The other night when there was that big boloid over Saskatchewan? I also saw a meteor. I was standing outside work waiting for my ride, about 6:30pm. It was pretty bright, though no where near the Saskatchewan rock. From memory of my days in the astro-hobby, I dredged up that late November is the Leonids meteor shower.
  4. I have not one but two fishponds in my backyard. Why? Because it's less trouble than cutting the grass in those spots.
  5. My other silly hobby is model trains. That's good: the trains and the ponds sort of complement each other, season-wise. Serious model railroaders are really pretty obsessive. Not only do they build these miniature worlds in excruciating detail, they even run their trains on a schedule, carrying imaginary passengers and freight, and observing the proper operating rules to prevent collisions etc. Sort of like war-gamers, only with a self-propelled element to the game pieces. I also have a blog for that hobby, but I can't point you to it because that would reveal my True Identity, and then I'd have to kill you (well, those of you who don't already know me in Real Life, anyway).
  6. But speaking of True Identities, I'll use my sixth item for a Revelation -- maybe even a Confession. You may have noticed occasional references to local Christian blogger Deborah Gyapong. I also drop the occasional comment over there. What most people don't know (except a few I've told in person) is that we used to know Debbie in real life. Between roughly 15 and 20 years ago we were in a fellowship/Bible study together. It's safe to say that we've been moving in diametrically opposite directions ever since. I don't think she's figured out who her occasional critic is. If she happens to read this -- which I doubt, but you never know -- she'll have no difficulty figuring it out (it wasn't that big a group).
Surprisingly, not quite everyone in my RSS subscription list has been tagged yet by someone else, so:
  1. A.J.Milne
  2. Chris Nedin at Ediacaran, an old friend.
  3. Duae Quartunciae, another old t.o'er.
  4. Adina, because she hasn't posted anything in a long time.
  5. Andrew Arensburger at Epsilon Clue, yet another old Howler.
  6. King Aardvark, who will probably kick me there for doing this to him.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

CBC Fail

Not as bad as their last fail, but it's always a bit pathetic when an error correction itself contains an error.

It seems that a few nights ago, the CBC Radio program As It Happens referred to lobsters as "molluscs". OK, that's a bit of a fail right there, and they seem to have received some feedback on it, as last night they issued an on-air correction: lobsters are Crustaceans, part of the phylum Anthropoda. That's right: not Arthropoda (joint-footed), but Anthropoda (man-footed).

Maybe they mean something like this:

Friday, November 14, 2008

More Lessons From Plato

In today's reading, children, we learn how to cure hiccups, and the origin of the euphemism "Greek Culture".

Hiccup Cure

When one of the Symposium guests has an attack of the hiccups, Dr. Erixymachus advises:
....let me recommend you to hold your breath, and if this fails, then to gargle with a little water; and if the hiccough still continues, tickle your nose with something and sneeze; if you sneeze once or twice, even the most violent hiccough is sure to go.
Apparently, the traditional folk remedies have a longer history than I had imagined. However, none of them sound like as much fun as this one:

In case
you're wondering: it worked. And speaking of sex, that brings us to....

Greek Culture

The diners elect that they will discourse on the topic of Love. The first oration is given by Phaedrus, who speaks of the custom in their society, that an older man would take under his wing a youth. The relationship is one of companion and mentorship, but obviously goes beyond simple instruction and advice:
For I know not any greater blessing to a young man beginning life than a virtuous lover, or to the lover than a beloved youth.
The following speaker, Pausanias, distinguishes between two types of love, which respectively emanate from the "common Aphrodite" and the "heavenly Aphrodite".
But the Love who is the son of the common Aphrodite is essentially common, and has no discrimination, being such as the meaner sort of men feel, and is apt to be of women as well as of youths, and is of the body rather than of the soul....

The goddess who is his mother is far younger, and she was born of the union of male and female, and partakes of both sexes. But the son of the heavenly Aphrodite is sprung from a mother in whose birth the female has no part, but she is from the male only; this is that love which is of youths only, and the goddess being older has nothing of wantonness. This who are inspired by this love turn to the male, and delight in him who is the more valiant and intelligent nature....

And in choosing them [ie. a man choosing a youth] as their companions, they mean to be faithful to them, and to pass their whole life with them, and be with them....

....and the coarser sort of lovers ought to be restrained by force, as we restrain or attempt to restrain them from fixing their affections on women of free birth.
Another speaker, Aristophanes, tells an origins myth, according to which humans were primevally double, having four arms, four legs, two faces, and so on. Moreover, there were three sexes: male; female; and the androgynous union of the other two, and each human individual comprised parts of all three sexes. But these humans rebelled against the gods, who as punishment, divided them each in two parts, the navel being the spot at which the skin on the cut surface was drawn together and re-sealed. And ever since then, every human has been seeking for their lost other half, that they may be whole again -- hence, the idea that each of us has a soul-mate, a perfect life partner. He goes on (emphasis mine):
....and after the transposition, the male generated in the female in order that by the mutual embraces of man and woman they might breed, and the race might continue; or if man came to man they might be satisfied, and rest and go their ways to the business of life...Men who are a section of that double nature which was once called Androgynous are lascivious; adulterers are generally of this breed, and also adulterous and lascivious women: the women who are a section of the woman don't care for men, but have female attachments; the female companions are of this sort. But the men who are a section of the male follow the male, and while they are young, being a piece of the man, they hang about him and embrace him, and they are themselves the best of boys and youths, because they have the most manly nature. Some indeed assert that they are shameless, but this is not true; for they do not act thus from any want of shame, but because they are valiant and manly, and have a manly countenance, and they embrace that which is like them. And these when they grow up are our statesmen, and these only, which is a great proof of the truth of what I am saying. And when they reach manhood they are lovers of youth, and are not naturally inclined to marry or beget children, which they do, if at all, only in obedience to the law, but they are satisfied if they may be allowed to live unwedded; and such a nature is prone to love and ready to return love, always embracing that which is akin to him.
So there you have it: to the old Greeks, not only was gay OK, but in some ways even superior to us straights. Suck on that, fans of "traditional marriage"!

PS: An Anachronism

Being currently under the pleasant post-prandial influence of a couple of glasses of Pelee Island Merlot, I must mention that a few pages later, a drunken Alcibiades refers to the proverb "In vino veritas" (if you don't know what that means, I'm sure that Google Is Your Friend). Which prompts the question: Why is a pre-Roman Greek quoting proverbs in Latin? Or equivalently: Why did the legendary Jowett choose to translate a (presumably) Greek phrase into Latin, as part of his English translation of the text?

(Thanks to my Lost-and-Found Other Half for taking dictation on the lengthy Aristophanes excerpt. Half way through, it occurred to us that the text is doubtless available online).

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Tale of Two Rowans

Last week in a Pharyngula comment, I managed to confuse Rowan Williams (Archbishop of Canterbury) with Rowan Atkinson, a.k.a. Mr. Bean. Now as much as I like British humour, I do have a little trouble keeping their standup comedians straight. And today, Daniel Florien kindly provides me with a perfect excuse why I would get those two confused:

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It's a word....It's a face...It's pareidolia!

  • My parents were married on the ninth ofJune, six days after Eamon's birthdate.
  • Eamon's parents were married on the sixth of January, nine days after* my birthdate.
  • Our first son was born on November 24th, the anniversary of the publication of Darwin's origin of species.
  • Our second son was born on December 25, a day widely celebrated as the birthday of someone famous.
* but some years before


a) Absolutely nothing.


b) Humans are exceptionally talented at finding patterns, even when there aren't any.

For more evidence (of what, I'm not sure), check out these videos:

A person-shaped Cheeto that makes people think of an orange Jesus

A Cheeto that (to me at least) doesn't look much like a person at all

A floor drain stain that looks vaguely like a large, wide woman with a cloak

and, the pig that lives in my bathroom door:

hat tip and a chocolate chip to Greg Laden

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Thinking for Free - Pass it on

Saturday afternoon, and it's pouring rain. My doorbell rings, and on my way to answer it I try to decide if it will be kids selling chocolate bars to raise money for schools or sports teams, or someone who thinks I should pay less (or at least pay them) for my gas or electricity bill. Wrong on both counts - upon opening the door, I see a well-dressed man of 30 or so, accompanied by a boy about 10 (I surmised that they were father and son). The man says that they are going around my neighbourhood talking to people about what is important in life. and asks if they could leave me a pamphlet to look at. (I think they might have identified their church, but it was said so quickly I didn't catch it, but I am reasonably certain that they were neither Mormons nor JWs; likely just run-of-the-mill fundamentalists.)

OK, my sign says "No Flyers Please", but I guess they figure that a pamphlet which proclaims the good news of salvation does not qualify for my prohibition. So, I politely decline, saying that I don't need any more paper. A split second later, I decide that was a pathetically wimpy way to turn away evangelists, and add, "We are atheists here". The man looks a bit surprised, and says something like, "I see. Well, have a nice day", and off they go.

Did the boy ask his father what an atheist is, as they walked down the street, or later that day? I certainly hope so, and I wonder what the father will say in response. (I did feel a twinge of guilt for potentially disturbing the child's faith, but quickly decided that was silly - they were the ones who came to *my* door, and I said nothing rude or otherwise inappropriate.)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Rants & ROMinations

The day following PZ's talk at CFI found us back at the Royal Ontario Museum (along with a few additional family members). Aside from just wanting to visit a museum (and see the diamonds exhibit), I wanted to see whether my earlier negative impression of the shiny new Michael Lee-Chen Crystal would hold.

And it's official: I still hate it. So did everyone else in our party. Previous comments on the architecture of the Crystal still hold, only even more so. The damn thing looms angrily over the sidewalk. The corrugated exterior siding is just ugly: stand it all up straight and square, and it would be right at home in any suburban industrial park. Skewing the walls at funny angles doesn't magically make it clever: it just makes it look like a suburban industrial building that's falling down. Inside, the walls lean at crazy angles and cock-eyed pillars shoot through the space.

I toured the paleo galleries again, and got even more annoyed. There is a serious lack of interpretive material to tell the viewer what they're looking at and why it matters. In one display case is a series of Jurassic fossil insects, each one accompanied by a similar modern bug skewered on a pin. They're all nicely identified, but so what? What exactly is this display telling me? Is it about relationships among ancient and modern insects? About insect taphonomy? Or should I take from it the creationist lesson that grasshoppers are still grasshoppers, and they all got buried in the Flood? I have no idea. And across from that there's another case in which dead bugs ancient and modern are jumbled together with no order, identification or explanation at all. And no, the video displays don't replace decent placards: only one party can use them at a time, and I don't see why I should wait in line to see if the TV has the answer to whatever question I have. And speaking of placards: would it be too hard to add a little graphic to each one, showing a schematic of the geological timescale, and a marker saying "this critter comes from here"? That would beat just saying "Jurassic", for those who don't already know that it comes between the Triassic and the Cretaceous (geek that I am, I've known since I was about 8yo -- but my FIL pointed out that he didn't). There's no obvious "path" guiding you through the exhibits, and the overall impression is less of a museum gallery than of a storage room. And how much money did these copper-clad monoliths cost, that might have been spent instead on the displays?But enough kvetching already. It is, at any rate, still a museum full of neat stuff.

That's one mean sardine:

Hey, he's chomping an ammonite! Bad mososaur! Bad!

Poor Bruin here looks a bit disconsolate about all these new-fangled changes to his abode:

This camel on the other hand, just looks smug:

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Drinking Philosophically?

So, being respectably ahead on my book club reading, I took a break from that to read a Pratchett (Making Money. Amusing, but sort of disjointed and not up to the usual standard). Having finished that, I decided to start reading some Serious Philosophy. Plato's Symposium, to be precise. Like much of Plato's output, the work is a dialog on philosophical subjects, placed in a fictional narrative framework. In this case, the frame narrative is a dinner party given by one Agathon, a playwright.

This morning on the bus, I got through about four pages, enough for the characters in the story to have a short discussion and reach their first conclusion. And what pearl of wisdom did they arrive at? What eternal verity hath the father of Western thought bequeathed to us?

They decide that the meal will be served teetotal, as most of them are still suffering hangovers from yesterday's boozing.

And I bet you thought that it was only in Monty Python that philosophy was so much fun.

Monday, November 3, 2008

PZed Myers comes to TO

TO is also known as Toronto, Ontario (Canada), and not to be confused with t.o aka usenet newsgroup, (where I had my first encounter with PZed, known to some as PZ, some mumblety many years ago).

PZed's Toronto talk was sponsored by the Centre for Inquiry, Ontario. Co-opting the gourd carving meme from the local religious observance, the CFI displayed a cephalopumpkin*:

and also this:

- possibly a flower, or a ghost with a belly-button, but I interpret it as a curcurbit representation of electron orbits around the atomic nucleus.

On to the talk - an overview of various aspects of the conflict between religion and science education

Though some have commented that PZed was preaching to the choir, so to speak, everyone was very surprised to see Ken Ham in attendance! Here's a picture of Ken at the pub asking Jesus (who was just hanging around at the bar) to sign a copy of the book He wrote.

The symposium (original Greek usage) following the meeting continued for some time after Eamon and I wimped out.

* not to be confused with a punkin-head

My Pessimistic Prediction for the American Election

Barring divine intervention, it appears certain that Barack Obama will win tomorrow's presidential election in the USA.

No, that's not the pessimistic part -- I, in fact, hope that Obama wins, if only because he can't possibly be as bad as McCain and Bible Spice (Especially the latter. If she ever gets to sit in the Big Chair, I give civilization six months before she starts WWIII in the belief it will make Jesus return quicker). Being part of the 95% of the world that doesn't get to vote in this election, I'm not obliged to be better informed than that (even so, I still seem to be better informed than some of the folks who do get to vote).

The pessimistic part is this: I predict that Obama (or McCain, should that come to pass) will serve but a single term, and his presidency will be regarded as a failure. Which sucks in so many ways, only one of which is the comfort and encouragement it will give to those who say a black man should never be president of the United States. [Aside: If you're one of the people who refuse to vote for Obama because he's black, then you're a racist bigot, no matter how hard you pretend otherwise. If you're refusing to vote for him because he's a Muslim, then you're both stupid and a bigot, because he's not, and it shouldn't matter anyway. And if you're refusing to vote for him because he has a "Muslim name" then...there are no words for what you are. "Stupid bigotted mouth-breathing knuckle-dragging moron" doesn't even begin to cover it. Yeah, I realize none of the people that is addressed to read this blog, but I've been wanting to get that off my chest for a while. End digression.]

The reason for my pessimism is that, whoever takes office in January will inherit a mucking fess. There's the financial meltdown, a gift which will not cease giving for some time to come. On Iraq, Obama has the choice between allowing the troops to continue being slowly ground up to no good effect, or pulling out and taking the blame for the likely blood-letting that will follow. Afghanistan? Prospects aren't much better (and we still haven't found Bin Laden!). Then we have a looming oil shortage -- only postponed by the economic slump -- and the first harbingers of climate change. And, and, and. Some serious shit is going to hit the fan in the next few years.

And the incumbent, justly or not, will get blamed for it.

[PSA at Canadian Cynic goes on in the same vein at greater length and deeper depressivism]

Saturday, October 25, 2008

World Vision and Arguing With Wilkins

We happen to sponsor two third world children through the Christian aid agency World Vision. Historically, this is a hangover from our Christian days, and I occasionally wonder if we should divert our contributions elsewhere (eg. Plan Canada), but thus far have nothing about it. My inaction stems partly from inertia, but also partly because despite my atheism, I have no general or rigid objection to contributing to faith-based organizations, providing the help they provide is material rather than "spiritual" (ie: evangelism). The world's need is too great to start cavilling at the ideological motivations (within broad limits) of this or that aid group. Getting the job done, efficiently, would seem to be of higher importance.

So it is of some concern to me when someone I respect highly, namely John Wilkins, in the course of a rather scattershot post spouts some recommendations on charities to support, finishing with the following deprecation:
Whatever you do as an official reader of my blog, do not contribute to the evangelical and anti-family planning WorldVision, who, I was once told by a fieldworker who had been there, effectively kicked off the Ethiopian marxist dictatorship by their callous behavior during a famine. I also heard from a donor who travelled to the Philippines that their "child" was not seen more than once per year to get photographed and write the year's letters. Yet another worker at WorldVision themselves in Melbourne told me they engage in nasty accounting practices - sending money from one country to their sister organisations overseas so they can claim a set percentage is used overseas. All this anecdotal stuff is three decades old, but leopards rarely change their spots. Anyway, true or not, this is what my official readers should do.
I'd hate to lose my status as an official reader of Evolving Thoughts (if only because the decoder ring is way cool), but I'm not changing my charities without something more substantial than unverified anecdotes (and also allowing for the fact that Wilkins is almost always at least half-joking). I count four distinct criticisms in that paragraph (I don't regard "evangelical" as a criticism, at least not in the context of this discussion), which I will examine as best I can.

The Dry Holes:

A Google search (FWIW) turns up nothing indicating problems about WV's involvement in Ethiopia, so as serious an allegation as it is, I'll have to put that aside for now as neither confirmed nor refuted. Similarly, short of an auditor's report being published, I have no way of checking into allegations of creative accounting (and which may only apply to WV Australia anyway -- the national chapters seem to be semi-independent).

On Child Sponsorship:

With respect to the complaint about the handling of sponsored children: I'm actually inclined to believe that one, but it's not clear to me that I should object to the practice. My understanding is that support of specific individuals is simply not an efficient or effective way to give aid. In fact (and the WV literature does say this) the money from all sponsors is pooled and goes to the development project of which the child's family or community is a part. But it's easier to get Westerners to open their wallets if you can put an individual human face on their donation, so the kids get used as a sort of advertising proxy. (Note that World Vision is not the only organization using this approach -- the secular Plan Canada mentioned above also does sponsorships).

Now as it happens, I am getting a little tired of the whole "child sponsorship" gimmick. I find signing and sending back (along with a further donation!) some card or trinket every few months to be a minor annoyance on top of dealing with the usual mail deluge, a chore I detest. I'd really rather just send an annual check to the organization itself, for some amount sufficient to relieve my middle-class guilt, and be done with it. Maybe some donors get the warm fuzzies from writing personal letters to their sponsored child, but I'm not one of them. Between being a horribly lazy correspondent and a generally anti-social cuss, I'm never going to be Warren Schmidt, pen-pal to some waif in Timbuctoo. So I may very well (ie. if I ever get off my lazy ass and figure out how) opt out of the sponsorship racket in favour of straight donation, whether with WV or any other organization.

On Family Planning:

Googling '"world vision" "family planning"' turns up a fair bit on this, mostly contradicting Wilkins' assertion:
World Vision programs support modern contraceptive methods as part of an integrated approach to effective family planning....Given the high risk for sexually transmitted infections (including HIV), dual protection methods are encouraged. Examples of protection methods include abstinence, consistent and correct use of condoms, use of a contraception method, and mutual monogamy.
  • A World Vision USA case study published by USAID (abstract and full PDF), reports on the effectiveness of teaching family planning and contraception in rural India. Contraceptive methods explicitly mentioned include IUDs and the Pill (I mention this to forestall suspicions that "family planning" might here be only a euphemism for less effective "natural" methods of pregnancy prevention).
  • This briefing paper to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, in a chapter on ending early marriage in Ethiopia (pp.24&ff) discusses lack of access to contraception and family planning as negatives.
  • This 1999 web article from a notorious "pro-life" site criticizes WV for supporting "population control", and promoting IUDs, the Pill and condoms. (Yeah, LieSiteNews ain't my favorite source either -- but in this case, I'm inclined to believe them on the grounds that they would not be likely to criticize another conservative Christian group unless there was something to it. And it is consistent with the material above from WV itself). (See also this article by the Catholic group Vida Humana, complaining about WV El Salvador's participation in the production of a manual on teen sexuality).
A possible counterpoint to the above might be WV's position on abortion. Again from the WV Australia FAQ:
Does World Vision support women to have abortions?

World Vision defines family planning as the provision of information and services to assist individuals and couples to responsibly determine the number, timing and spacing of their children. From World Vision’s perspective, family planning does not include abortion services and World Vision does not provide, recommend or support abortion.

The question would be whether staying out of the abortion business makes someone "anti-family planning". Although the point could be argued, I would say not: if you're doing everything except that, then it seems perverse to apply the label. Now, if there was a group whose "family planning" advice consisted of advocating having lots of kids, and teaching only the rhythm method as a timing-and-spacing strategy, then I'd have little hesitation about calling them "anti-family planning". Another objection might be the refusal of WV US to provide emergency contraception (search for "World Vision"), or even referrals, to refugees. Problematic though this is (especially in cases of rape), it again does not seem to justify calling the entire organization "anti-family planning".

There could, of course, be issues I'm missing in my Web search, e.g. the situation on the ground might be different from what is implied in the official reports; some of the language used is open to intepretation; I might easily have missed less favorable items among the umpteen hundred hits Google turned up. But what I did find says that World Vision does indeed provide effective, modern family planning advocacy and services, contra Wilkins' assertion.

I welcome hard information that might change my mind.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008




Monday, October 20, 2008

A Fate Worse Than Death?

OK, suppose you have a heart attack. And the paramedics arrive and start doing CPR -- chest compressions to keep the brain perfused with oxygenated blood. They have to be done regularly, about 100 times per minute. So, how might you give a paramedic a rhythm to follow, to keep them on time? Well, one obvious way would be music; preferably something with a good strong beat. In fact, specifically (and ironically): the 1977 Bee Gees' hit Stayin' Alive.

Frankly, if I come to in the ambulance and the first thing I hear is Disco, my first thought will be that I died and went to Hell.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

I was kind of ticked when they killed him off

And I'd love to have one of those spring-loaded quarter-staff thingies!

Which Fantasy/SciFi Character Are You?

(Hat tip: Evolving Thoughts)


Today I performed a meaningless religious ritual. You know: something that has pretty much bugger-all effect on the real world, but you do it because you feel obliged to, in the service of some big abstraction. So I did it.

I voted.

The incumbent (who was never my choice of candidate) was predicted to again win by a clear majority, and sho 'nuff currently available returns show him doing just that. So even strategic voting isn't a useful option. Which makes bothering to show up at the polling station at all seem like a futile exercise, no?

Nonetheless, I did. You see, I believe in this big abstraction called Democracy, and its chief sacrament is Voting, so I feel compelled to observe the ritual, just as I have at every election at every level for the past 30+ years.

I voted Green, largely because I'd like to see their concerns get more prominence in the political process. Were they ever to have a shot at real power, I might have to pay attention to whether they were competent to run anything, but for the forseeable future there appears little danger of that. So I have the luxury of choosing how to waste my vote without giving it a lot of serious consideration. Really, my opinion on the Canadian election has only slightly more significance than my opinion on the American presidential election, and quite honestly theirs is both more entertaining (who have we got to compare with the Hockey Mom from Alaska?), and the outcome is likely to affect my life almost as much.

No, I'm not particuarly happy about this. We need electoral reform, badly. It failed in Ontario last time round, but we need to keep trying. Most other civilized countries dumped First-Past-The-Post years ago. It's time for Canada to join the 21st century.
Update: Darin at The Squid Zone also weighs in (with comprehensive statistics, all in a neat table!) -- I mention him because whereas I've never voted Tory in my life, he has a history of doing so. This is not a partisan issue: it goes to the root of what we all mean by, and value in, our democracy.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

I Always Knew....

....that lawns were evil. They require vast quantities of fresh water to keep them green in summer, regular applications of insecticides to keep bugs from munching out on them (it's a frackin' monoculture, duh -- pests love a monoculture), and more applications of herbicides to keep Mother Nature from turning it into, well, not a monoculture any more. (You've heard that Nature abhors a vacuum? It's a lie: the universe is pretty much all high-grade vacuum, but biological monocultures don't last long without a lot of effort.) Then there's the mowing, usually with some stinky two-cycle engine that puts out as much smog as a badly-tuned city bus.

And unlike the other grass monocultures we humans go to great trouble to maintain, lawns don't even feed hungry people. Mostly, they feed the status-conciousness of insecure suburbanites, and the bank accounts of the lawncare companies who do the heavy lifting required to keep our homes surrounded by a surface that resembles a billiards table. What the hell use are they? Approximately none.

And now my long-standing contention on the turpitude of turf is confirmed: in Beacon Woods, Florida, you can go to jail for not keeping your lawn green. It seems that retiree Joseph Prudente had the bad luck that his sprinkler system broke and his lawn died. So the local Home-Owners Association invoked a local deed covenant, requiring him to re-sod his property. Which he couldn't afford to do. So they got a court order telling him to do it. Since that didn't magically make him able to afford it, he still didn't. So on Friday he reported to the county jail, apparently to remain there until he sods his lawn. (One hopes that other residents of the county will send the bill for his incarceration to the Beacon Woods Civic Association, as a hint that the justice/penal system has more important issues than brown grass to deal with.)

It has been said that, in America, it is a crime to be poor. In Beacon Woods, FL, it's apparently even a crime to be not quite as solvent as your stuffed-shirt superficial middle-class neighbours. But the real crime here is having a rule like that in the first place. Look, morons: if the grass dies because the sprinkler system broke, then you obviously have completely the wrong conditions to be even trying to grow the stuff. Get a fracking clue, will you? Grow some native Florida vegetation or something.

(For the record: we have been steadily finding other things to fill the yard with besides grass. What lawn remains includes a mix of spring bluebells, feral violets and clover. Much healthier -- and much better-looking, too).

Monday, September 29, 2008

Aww, give Sarah a break....

....'cuz she's just a gurrrllll. And that meltdown in the Katie Couric interview? She's just appealing to her Pentecostal base by speaking in tongues.

But never mind: Sarah is OK, 'cuz she's got character. And what, you may ask, is this "character" quality? I'm not sure, but it doesn't seem to include telling the truth or understanding anything about the job. It doesn't seem to preclude hanging out with lunatic clergy (unless of course, it's the other guy's lunatic clergy).

But none of that matters, 'cuz if you've got character[tm], when push comes to shove, and the chips are down, and your back's to the wall, and the crick is rising, and the rubber is meeting the road, and the cliches are coming thick and fast: you'll do the Right Thing.

So I'm still not real clear on this "character" thing, but I have a vague impression it has something to do with shooting Muslims. Or maybe moose. They probably look the same through the 'scope of Sarah's rifle.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Tentacled Horrors Invade Ottawa Pub!!

OK, really only a few toys and some geeks:
L to R: Epinephrine, bPer, AJ Milne, Eamon Knight, Theo Bromine
Table centre: Various cephalodic things, siezing firm control of the condiments.
Behind the camera: Nic (who doesn't read Pharyngula, but tagged along to offer the occasional insight from a Soc-Anthro perspective).

The beer was (of course) great. But for some bizarre reason the Clocktower doesn't serve calamari.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Ottawa Pharyngufest TONIGHT! Be there....

...or be the last one eaten!

For all local fans of Pharyngula (or anyone else who just wants see what these strange people and/or this strange town is like): tomorrow night is the appointed time for the first ever Ottawa Pharyngufest!

When: 8pm, Saturday 27 October
Where: Clocktower Brew Pub, 575 Bank St.

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Friday, September 19, 2008


Q: What do you say when you discover that the pirates are plotting to take over the world?

A: Avast! Conspiracy!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

And there was dancing in the aisles.....

A final surprise set from Genticorum, last thing Sunday night:

Yann Falquet:
And on Jew's harp:Pascal Gemme:
Alexandre de Grosbois-Garand:
And just to prove I wasn't lying in the post title:If you like an energetic blend of traditional folk and modern folk/jazz/celtic/whatever -- then be sure to see Genticorum if they come to your town.

Even I was dancing. This was taken Friday at the Dance Tent, doing....well, I don't think it was square dancing as such, but some sort of organized group choreography with a caller telling us what to do next. I blame the (excellent) beer I'd just drunk for loosening my normally shy, self-effacing inhibitions to reveal the party animal that lurks within:

It was a fantastic Festival; the Dance Tent is a great idea (though they need to turn down the volume for the sake of the other west field stages). Looking forward to next year already.....