Tuesday, May 31, 2011

[Redacted]'s Essential Movies, Part I - The Seventh Seal

(I promised myself that I'd give my inner movie critic an outlet on this blog, so this new series is an attempt to fulfill that promise.)

That scene is a microcosm of what makes Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal a great movie. Faced by the reality of his own impending death, a disillusioned knight plays chess with Death in order to stall for time to perform one meaningful deed, while hoping to find certain knowledge of God's existence along the way. The knight, who has returned from a bloody crusade to find his native Sweden being ravaged by the Black Death, cannot fathom the idea that there is no God, but looks at the horrors of the world and sees no evidence that He does exist. Serious questions of faith and existence are pondered at length, both in the knight's quest for repentance and in his squire's scoffing, sardonic black humor.

I've long thought that this film would make an excellent introduction to a college philosophy class on the subject of Existentialism.* The knight, Antonius Block, is a very good representation of Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith in Fear and Trembling. The questions posed by the film are as serious as any posed in the works of Sartre or Camus, only a lot more accessible.** Questions of faith and atheism are addressed seriously and with the respect they deserve.

Turning away from philosophy for a moment, there's a lot to be said about the cinematography and writing in the film. Say what you want about Ingmar Bergman,***
but the film just looks and sounds epic. Max von Sydow's reputation as an actor was made by Bergman in this film, and it's simply astonishing to see the then-26-year-old von Sydow carrying the lead role with such gravitas. Particularly moving is the scene where the knight and his squire witness the execution of a young girl accused (by the church, of course) of being a witch, consorting with the devil, and spreading the plague:

Of course, as an atheist, I'm inclined to agree with the squire's point of view. I can't be certain about the existence of God or lack thereof, as the squire appears to be, but I do think it's incredibly unlikely that any God exists, let alone a particular one embraced by a specific religion. That doesn't prevent me from sympathizing with the knight, who desperately wants to find some greater meaning in the universe and believes (wrongly, I think) that there can be no such meaning without a God to bestow it.**** The fact that the knight does, in fact, perform a meaningful act of service at the end of the film (I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen the film) is proof positive that he is mistaken, and I find it tragic that the knight doesn't seem to comprehend that.

This has gotten very philosophical, but the film insists upon being taken seriously as a work of art, and as a philosophical dialogue. However, in order to not glaze over everyone's eyes once again, I think the next installment of this film review series will probably be something like The Godfather or maybe a so-bad-it's-good flick like Plan 9 from Outer Space. Stay tuned.

*I have taken such a class myself, and regrettably, exactly zero films were shown in the entire course.

**If you doubt the veracity of that claim, try reading Sartre's Being and Nothingness and then get back to me.

***And there's a lot to be said. For instance, Bergman's critiques of fellow filmmakers often bordered on outrageous. Calling Jean-Luc Godard "a fucking bore" and Citizen Kane "a total bore" are both insults so ignorant in their content as to be ridiculous. I may not know all that much, but I do know that most of Jean-Luc Godard's films are pretty good, and Citizen Kane, whatever else it may be, sure as hell isn't boring. But I digress.

****The best expression yet of the idea that there can be meaning without God, even if we ourselves create it, is certainly Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus, which I highly recommend.

Roger Ailes: Paranoid nutbag

Rolling Stone's Tom Dickinson shows some of the creepier aspects of a very creepy man.  Take, for example, this anecdote:
Murdoch installed ailes in the corner office on Fox's second floor at 1211 Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan. The location made Ailes queasy: It was close to the street, and he lived in fear that gay activists would try to attack him in retaliation over his hostility to gay rights. (In 1989, Ailes had broken up a protest of a Rudy Giuliani speech by gay activists, grabbing demonstrator by the throat and shoving him out the door.) Barricading himself behind a massive mahogany desk, Ailes insisted on having "bombproof glass" installed in the windows - even going so far as to personally inspect samples of high-tech plexiglass, as though he were picking out new carpet. Looking down on the street below, he expressed his fears to Cooper, the editor he had tasked with up-armoring his office. "They'll be down there protesting," Ailes said. "Those gays."
But wait!  It gets better - and by "better," I mean "worse."
Inside his blast-resistant office at Fox News headquarters, Ailes keeps a monitor on his desk that allows him to view any activity outside his closed door. Once, after observing a dark-skinned man in what Ailes perceived to be Muslim garb, he put Fox News on lockdown. "What the hell!" Ailes shouted. "This guy could be bombing me!" The suspected terrorist turned out to be a janitor. "Roger tore up the whole floor," recalls a source close to Ailes. "He has a personal paranoia about people who are Muslim - which is consistent with the ideology of his network."
And this is the guy running the most powerful news network in the country.  Even his boss thinks he's insane:
Fear, in fact, is precisely what Ailes is selling: His network has relentlessly hyped phantom menaces like the planned “terror mosque” near Ground Zero, inspiring Florida pastor Terry Jones to torch the Koran. Privately, Murdoch is as impressed by Ailes’ business savvy as he is dismissive of his extremist politics. "You know Roger is crazy," Murdoch recently told a colleague, shaking his head in disbelief. "He really believes that stuff."
Murdoch, of course, is the one person in a position to actually, you know, do something about this maniac, but he brings in the $$$, so don't bet on it.
The outsize success of Fox News gives Ailes a free hand to shape the network in his own image. "Murdoch has almost no involvement with it at all," says Michael Wolff, who spent nine months embedded at News Corp. researching a biography of the Australian media giant. "People are afraid of Roger. Murdoch is, himself, afraid of Roger. He has amassed enormous power within the company – and within the country – from the success of Fox News."
I feel better already.  Or not.


A Request

Now the rumor mill has it that Rudy Giuliani is contemplating another run for the presidency.  All I can say, as a liberal blogger, is this: Please, Rudy.  Please run, and give me an excuse to post this video over and over again.

Monday, May 30, 2011

It's Memorial Day

I'm spending it with my family. Normal Monday thru Friday posting will resume tomorrow.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday Music IX

I've been a fan of Metallica since at least middle school, but it was not until I got to college that I really learned to appreciate the musicianship of their ...And Justice For All album. The disc is literally packed with ten minute epics, tricky time changes, dual lead guitars, and some of the most crushing riffs ever recorded. The eponymous track from the album, in particular, wraps the whole thing into one awesome package, and it pleases me to see Metallica put the song back into their live rotation.

Metallica, "And Justice For All"

O'Donnell: Palin isn't running

In case you missed it, Lawrence O'Donnell made a pretty compelling case for why Sarah Palin, despite the "movie" and time spent in Iowa, is not running for president.  His best argument, that Roger Ailes actually did a good job finding out in advance who was running and suspending those who were (Gingrich and Santorum), while letting those who weren't running (Huckabee and Palin) stay on board.  I hadn't thought of that before, and it certainly makes good sense.  Say what you want about Roger Ailes, but he is no one's fool.

Here's the full video of O'Donnell explaining why Palin isn't running.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Thursday, May 26, 2011


The news just gets more horrible with each passing day.

"America's Toughest Sheriff" has a problem

Looking at you, Joe Arpaio.
Authorities in Arizona have arrested three employees of a sheriff's office known for its tough stand on illegal immigration, accusing them of aiding human traffickers and drug smugglers.
Methinks Sheriff Joe has some 'splaining to do, as to exactly how his deputies were so deeply involved in cartel operations

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hide! Hide now!

Sarah Palin has made a movie?!?!?!?!
Shortly after Republicans swept last November to a historic victory in which Sarah Palin was credited with playing a central role, the former Alaska governor pulled aside her close aide, Rebecca Mansour, to discuss a hush-hush assignment: Reach out to conservative filmmaker Stephen K. Bannon with a request. Ask him if he would make a series of videos extolling Palin’s governorship and laying to rest lingering questions about her controversial decision to resign from office with a year-and-a-half left in her first term. It was this abdication, Palin knew, that had made her damaged goods in the eyes of some Republicans who once were eager to get behind her potential 2012 presidential campaign. 
The response was more positive than Palin could have hoped for. He’d make a feature-length movie, Bannon told Mansour, and he insisted upon taking complete control and financing it himself—to the tune of $1 million.
The fruits of that initial conversation are now complete. The result is a two-hour-long, sweeping epic, a rough cut of which Bannon screened privately for Sarah and Todd Palin last Wednesday in Arizona, where Alaska’s most famous couple has been rumored to have purchased a new home. When it premieres in Iowa next month, the film is poised to serve as a galvanizing prelude to Palin’s prospective presidential campaign—an unconventional reintroduction to the nation that she and her political team have spent months eagerly anticipating, even as Beltway Republicans have largely concluded that she won’t run.
Balloon Juice's comment section is going wild thinking of alternate titles to the dubious actual one, The Undefeated.  I guess what happened in 2008 and quitting early don't count as being "defeated."

Sullivan's thoughts echo my own.
It may be a testing of the waters. But it has a crucial Palin aspect. It is entirely controlled by her; it is designed as pure propaganda; she is running against the media; she is running as a victim; she is running for revenge.

I, for one, feel nothing but a chill go up my spine.

Queen Esther is coming. Look busy.
I expect the film will borrow heavily from the techniques of Eisenstein and Leni Reifenstahl.  But I'm torn: The film critic in me (I still haven't gotten to do much of that on this blog, which I promised myself I would do) is morbidly curious.  The Democrat in me is overjoyed - Palin will do nothing but cause embarrassment to the GOP and possibly drive the field to the right, the better to appease her rabid followers.  The American in me, however, thinks that this isn't the time for self-aggrandizing propaganda and extremism.  Not with the problems we have now.  We need both parties acting like adults and reaching compromises.  Palin doesn't do anything to make that goal more achievable.


NOTE: I'm willing to entertain wagers on an over/under of how many times the phrases "Real American" and "Real America" are uttered or displayed in the film.  I'll be conservative and set the over/under at 25.  Once every five minutes or so seems about right given the usual content (or lack thereof) of Palin's speeches.

UPDATE: Other Side also references Reifenstahl.  Nice to know I'm not the only one running afoul of Godwin's Law this morning.  Heh.

NY-26 goes Democratic

Well, the Republicans made political hay out of Scott Brown winning the special election in Massachusetts in 2009, so I'm pretty sure the Democrats and President Obama will rightly use the New York 26th as proof positive that Paul Ryan's budget plan is deeply unpopular even in GOP strongholds. And so much for Ryan running for President, because you just know the other candidates wouldn't hesitate to do the same.

UPDATE: Nate Silver analyzes last night in terms of projecting forward to the 2012 elections.  Not good news if you're a Republican.  Money quote:
Looking at the bigger picture, my view is that the two biggest wild cards so far this year have both broken in favor of the Democrats: one being the risk the Republicans took by voting almost unanimously for Mr. Ryan’s budget, and the other being the killing of Osama bin Laden. Even in an election that mostly comes down to the economy — President Obama and the Democrats, make no mistake, remain extremely vulnerable there — these could be important factors at the margins. Pick up an extra 1 percent of the vote here, an extra 2 percent of the vote there, and your strategy starts to look a lot more robust: maybe O.K.-but-not-good economic growth is enough to get the Democrats elected, in addition to good-but-not-great growth.

Coupled with what is arguably a troubling start for the Republicans in the presidential campaign — a couple of electable candidates aren’t running, while there are signs now that Sarah Palin may — the past six months have played out in a way that is toward the lower end of what the G.O.P. might reasonably have expected in November 2010.

That doesn’t mean there are any guarantees. Far from it: I don’t know that Mr. Obama is much more likely than a 2-to-1 favorite to retain the White House, nor that Democrats better than even money to take back the House. But both sets of odds have improved, in my view, from where I would have pegged them a few months ago.
 It sure didn't take long for the GOP to shoot themselves in the foot, did it?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

AIPAC director gets caught telling the truth

The executive director of AIPAC says that the US shouldn't be even-handed with Israel and Palestine.
"In a world which is demonstrably on the side of the Palestinians and Arabs - where Israel stands virtually alone - the United States has a special role to play," said the AIPAC director. "When the United States is even-handed, Israel is automatically at a disadvantage, tilting the diplomatic playing field overwhelmingly toward the Palestinians and Arabs."
This is ridiculous.  The idea that the sole job of the US is to perpetually side with Israel, even when they're doing outrageous things like launching bloody, collateral damage-filled invasions of Gaza and Lebanon, and stopping boats in international waters with grossly disproportional force, is absurd.  Israel has a right to exist, of course.  But there needs to be a two-state solution (even George W. Bush thought so), and there needs to be some mechanism put in place to stop the Israelis from sending more and more settlers to effectively occupy the West Bank.

And the Israeli hard-liners do themselves no favors by effectively claiming that anyone who criticizes them is anti-Semitic.  The fact of the matter is that the right wing in Israel (think Avigdor Lieberman and his crowd) are just as disinterested in peace as Hamas and Hezbollah.  The moment a Palestinian state is formed is the moment Hamas and Hezbollah lose their cause celebre.  Of course, maniacs will still try to blow up buses in Tel Aviv, but I doubt many Palestinians will be interested in martyring themselves once they actually have what they desire: a state of their own.*  And similarly, the moment that the Hamas and Hezbollah stop engaging in violence against Israel, no one is going to vote for radical anti-Palestinian politicians like Avigdor Lieberman.  So these two groups are responsible for ensuring that the cycle of violence goes on and on and on.

*The vast majority of Palestinians, I maintain, are not interested in anti-Semitism or jihad.  They want to exist as an independent state.

Monday, May 23, 2011

You can lead a rapture believer to reason, but you can't make him accept it

Harold Camping, debunked crackpot rapture obsessive, is "flabbergasted" that he and his followers weren't lifted into paradise yesterday.
"I'm looking for answers," Camping said, adding that meant frequent prayer and consultations with friends.
"But now I have nothing else to say," he said, closing the door to his home. "I'll be back to work Monday and will say more then."
Camping's followers will surely be listening.
"I'm not as disappointed as everyone since I didn't fully believe him," said one, who asked to remain anonymous Sunday because he worried he would be shunned for admitting he was "upset" with Camping.
The middle-aged Oakland resident said he'd been listening to Camping since 1993, when he said the world would end in 1994.
That was strike one, the man said. And this is strike two. Even so, he said, that doesn't mean the message is wrong.
"I just know he's biblically sound," the man said. "I've never been one of these guys who think everything he says is true.
"I don't think I am going to stop listening to him," the man added, heaving a deep sigh before continuing: "I don't know, I gotta listen to him on Monday, see what he says on the radio."
What the hell is wrong with these people?  They guy clearly said Saturday would bring about the rapture and the beginning of the end of all things.  Nothing of the sort happened.  But this guy wants to hear what Harold Camping has to say this week, which I would assume will start with a very loud, "OOPS!"  What could Camping possibly say of value after he staked his entire reputation (not that he really had one to begin with) on a prophecy that has manifestly not come to pass?

There's just no convincing some people.  Their prophet of doom is embarrassed and yet they still want to hear what he has to say.  But the article gets better!
"I would encourage them not to lose their faith because they listened to a wolf in sheep's clothing, and Jesus said there would be wolves in sheep's clothing," said Jackie Alnor.

Alnor, a resident of Hayward who blogs about the rapture, said Camping had twisted the word of God by trying to predict the end. Only God knows when the world will end, she said.

"He's in big trouble with God," she said.

If that isn't bad enough, she said, Camping's false prophecy could have bigger impacts on religion.

"It's given people who hate Christianity an excuse to hate it even more," she said. "People can just paint with broad brush strokes."
I love the "I'm a true Christian, but you aren't" trope.  For a religion supposedly founded upon the teachings of a guy who warned in no uncertain terms about judging lest you be judged, a great many Christians sure do like them some judging.  And yes, those of us who aren't Christians will use the nutbags to show the fundamental absurdity of the religion.  When you base a religion on fantastical claims of the universe being created in seven days, talking snakes, people living inside whales, a messianic figure born of a virgin, executed, resurrected, and magically lifted into heaven, and a book that features a whole lot of killing and soothsayng, I'm pretty sure there's no real basis to say that Harold Camping is altogether that much more out there than the entire institution.

And what irritates me the most is the self-sustaining nature of the religion.  People criticize Christianity, and Christians refer to certain passages in the Bible that foretell of people criticizing their faith in order to say, "Look!  We're right!  It says so right there!"  Of course, the same argument protects the faith of Harold Camping as much as any other Christian, and then there's my problem: Why should I care what a bunch of illiterate inhabitants of the ancient Middle East, utterly ignorant of any of the discoveries of modern science, had to say about anything whatsoever?  Nothing they say could possibly have any application in the modern world unless the book is divinely inspired, meaning you have to presuppose the existence of God in order to accept the book.  Hence why those of us who see no evidence supporting the existence of any God at all don't accept the Bible or any other holy book as proof of anything useful.

If this whole phony rapture obsession teaches us anything, it should be to demonstrate, once again, the deep desire of the religious to see all things come to an end.  To quote Christopher Hitchens:
One of the very many connections between religious belief and the sinister, spoiled, selfish childhood of our species is the repressed desire to see everything smashed up and ruined and brought to naught.  This tantrum-need is coupled with two other sorts of "guilty joy," or, as the Germans say, schadenfreude.  First, one's own death is canceled - or perhaps repaid or compensated - by the obliteration of all others.  Second, it can always be egotistically hoped that one will be personally spared, gathered contentedly to the bosom of the mass exterminator, and from a safe place observe the sufferings of those less fortunate.  Tertullian, one of the many church fathers who found it difficult to give a persuasive account of paradise, was perhaps clever in going for the lowest possible common denominator and promising that one of the most intense pleasures of the afterlife would be endless contemplation of the tortures of the damned.  He spoke more truly than he knew in evoking the man-made character of faith.
Consider that the next time you hear someone telling you about the rapture and tribulation.  Keep it in mind when those who criticized Camping because he claimed to know the hour and the day tell you that, although they don't know when it will occur, someday God will summon the faithful to Heaven and leave the rest to suffer and die horribly for months and years until the coming Apocalypse.  Remember that people who believe such things (and not all Christians do) ultimately want you to die.

I, for one, will not have people who believe such things dictate to me that I am immoral because I do not believe in their God.

Have the Republicans lost their minds?

Jacob Weisberg at Slate asks why the GOP is embracing creationism, denying global warming, entertaining birther conspiracy tropes, and generally not acting very intelligently.  It's worth quoting at length:
Like the White Queen in her youth, the contemporary Republican politician must be capable of believing as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Foremost among these is the claim that it is possible to balance the federal budget without raising taxes. Most Republican politicians are intelligent enough to understand that with federal revenues at 14.4 percent of GDP and expenditures at 25.3 percent, it is, in fact, impossible to close the fiscal gap with spending cuts alone. But GOP candidates acknowledge this reality at their peril. Grover Norquist, the right-wing lobbyist and former collaborator of Jack Abramoff's, has appointed himself chief enforcer of the party's anti-tax catechism. If Republican candidates won't sign his no-new-taxes pledge, Norquist and fellow inquisitors at the Club for Growth threaten them with excommunication, social death, and the punishment of being "primaried" by a well-funded conservative challenger.

Reality-denial is not limited to the Republican inability to utter words like evolution and revenue. The long-range forecasts in the Paul Ryan plan, which show spending falling to 3 percent of GDP to allow for additional tax cuts, express an impossible libertarian fantasy. So too does the current Republican effort to bring this utopia about by refusing to raise the federal government's credit card limit. It is not a matter of conjecture, but something closer to a universal understanding among economists, that failing to raise the debt ceiling could cause another global economic crash. The plutocratic populist Donald Trump recently answered this objection on behalf of the party. "What do economists know? Most of them aren't very smart."

Another series of Republican fictions relates to climate change. This starts, at one extreme, with the outright denial of Michele Bachmann, progressing through the various "not-man-made" and "the jury's-still-out" dodges offered by the likes of Sarah Palin and John Thune. Christie handled this issue in the same evasive way he did the evolution question, albeit with less aggression, shortly after being elected. "I'm skeptical—I'm skeptical," he said. "And you know, I think at the end of this, I think we're going to need more science to prove something one way or the other." The conservative press has gone after Newt Gingrich merely for saying the country must do something to address climate change. But if you're one of the conservatives who had the misfortune to accept science during the pre-Tea Party era, don't worry–you can still escape extinction by expressing doubt about any possible solution. This describes the position of Mitch Daniels; Mitt Romney; and Tim Pawlenty, who once supported cap-and-trade but has simply reversed himself, offering a self-flagellating apology and confession ("it was stupid").

Then there are all the mundane, material facts that Republicans choose to "doubt." The market in Obama lies has moved in rough parallel to the recent silver bubble. Over a period of months, the paranoid and foolish bought in, driving up the price. Republican candidates tried to find sly ways to signal skepticism about the President's American-ness and Christianity without sounding like complete imbeciles. Then Donald Trump, for whom that's not a problem, started buying in bulk. This infuriated the outflanked Sarah Palin, who used to have this wackadoodle territory to herself. Then President Obama released his long-form birth certificate, the bubble burst, and Trump was publicly ruined at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. With birther sentiment deflated, Palin has moved on to a new, no less idiotic slander, that William Ayers, the former Weather Underground leader, might have written Obama's memoirs.

Even after the release of Obama's birth certificate, however, nearly one-quarter of Republicans still refuse to believe that the president was born in the United States. Conspiracy thinking is flourishing on the right like no time since the McCarthy era. The GOP rank and file is in desperate need of a cold shower, a slap in the face, a wake-up call. But instead of telling the base to get a grip on reality, the party's leaders are chasing after the delusional mob. To get to the front of the line in 2012, Republican candidates must pretend to believe a lot of nonsense than isn't so. Or do they actually believe it?
Now there's a question.

Mitch Daniels not running

It seems like more and more prominent names in the GOP are deciding that they're not interested in running for President.  Daniels had a lot of potential among independents.  I'm certainly sympathetic, however, to the position that a presidential campaign would have a serious toll on Daniels' family.  Too few people appreciate, I think, just how exhausting and brutal our ultra-long modern campaigns get for the candidates, their families, and their staffs.  A lot of that, it needs to be said, is the fault of states consistently moving up primary dates to glean more headlines (Iowa and New Hampshire are especially notorious for this, perhaps because - call me crazy - there's pretty much nothing else newsworthy in either of those states).  How long can it be before the Iowa Caucus is the day after Inauguration Day, and we really do have a perpetual campaign?

And while we're on the subject of campaign 2012, Tim Pawlenty did a video for his run.  It's making the rounds on television, and I'm sure you can find it on the internet, but I don't feel like linking to it right now.  However, in it Pawlenty lists our national problems and then says, "President Obama doesn't have the courage to deal with these problems.  I do."  Part of me is hoping that, just for that little bit of attitude from T-Paw, President Obama orders the release of the bin Laden death photo with a post-it note attached reading, "Got your courage right here, Pawlenty."

Just saying.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Irony Watch

What if atheists get raptured and believers get left behind?

Just wondering.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Ad Agency Gaffe of the Century

First Prize: Placing a United Airlines ad reading "You're going to like where we land" at Ground Zero.

The stupid.  It burns.
"We are taking immediate steps to remove them and apologize for the error," a United spokesman said.
I should certainly hope so.

Friday Music VIII - Rapture Edition

Some crackpots think the end of the world starts this weekend.  Old news.  But, in the spirit of mocking crazy people, this song seems appropriate.

Bad Religion, "God Song"

Thursday, May 19, 2011

BREAKING: Roundabouts cause accidents

Yes, the "BREAKING" is complete sarcasm.  The Neenah Post-Crescent has the story.
Police have turned to innovative enforcement techniques to correct a common error committed by motorists at one of the Fox Cities' busiest intersections.

Authorities say more than one-third of drivers traveling north on Green Bay Road and turning west onto Winneconne Avenue to reach U.S. 41 wrongly make the left turn from the outside lane of the multilane roundabout.

The error has contributed to a rash of sideswipe crashes.
As a resident of De Pere, one of the most roundabout obsessed communities in Northeast Wisconsin, I can tell you first-hand that this is a massive problem.  The roundabout where Broadway meets the bridge over the Fox River is incredibly busy every day, and I'd estimate that at least once a week I see someone turn left from the right lane.  I've also seen the aftermath of what happens when a car doing that intersects with a vehicle going straight on from the middle lane, and the result usually isn't very pretty, even if people are rarely hurt in such wrecks.

The trouble with roundabouts is that they are an attempt by communities at a Solomonic compromise.  Traffic lights slow traffic in whichever direction has a red light, and there is the risk of dangerous crashes in the event of a red light runner or such.  Accidents tend to be rarer, but more serious.  Roundabouts, on the other hand, can tend to get jammed up in a specific direction for a laughable amount of time*, and (in my observation) tend to have more accidents, albeit lower speed accidents.

Personally, I think roundabouts are clearly not the right choice.  Simply put, people in this part of the United States aren't used to driving through them**.  Moreover, the roundabouts in De Pere and Neenah are about as well marked as is possible.  Signs and pavement markings are everywhere.  You'd have to be blind not to see the signs at the roundabout in De Pere which clearly indicate that you cannot go left from the right lane.  But people become anxious as they approach (you can see it in the faces of drivers, who are clearly thinking "What the hell is this circular thing I'm driving into?") and just go all the way around in the right lane.

Making matters worse, at least when I'm driving through the roundabout in my trusty red Volvo, the people most likely to mess up in the roundabout are almost always driving SUVs.  Especially German SUVs and crossovers.  I cannot tell you how many times I have nearly been sideswiped by people driving BMW X5s, Mercedes M-classes, and Porsche Cayennes.***  One time, an X5 even pulled into the roundabout from the right lane, changed into the left lane while in the roundabout (cutting me off with bare inches to spare), and then cut over to the right lane to exit (again nearly taking someone with them).  The out-of-state license plate and baffled look on the driver's face did much to explain the situation.  In other words, while other people are nervous about navigating the roundabout, I'm nervous about getting out alive and without having my car crippled by someone who thinks their Mercedes-Benz gives them license to drive however they want.

Fortunately, the proposal to build a roundabout at the intersection of Highway 41 and Lombardi Avenue has been shelved, because anyone who knows roundabouts in Northeast Wisconsin can tell you that nothing good would come of that idea.

On the other hand, I think one could get very rich by investing in companies that build roundabouts in Wisconsin, because on the whole, community leaders seem utterly smitten with the things.  One wonders if said community leaders have ever driven through one before the decision is made.

*Try going north on Broadway between 7:30 and 9:00 AM on a weekday and see how long the line of cars is.

**This is not true of certain communities in Illinois where I have spent portions of my life, and where roundabouts (they call them "squares") are a fact-of-life and not a panic-inspiring novelty.

***Carnerdness: For the record, I like the cars made by these three companies.   I don't like the SUVs.  What's the point of owning, say, a BMW X5?  It's no good off-road, and it doesn't drive as well as their cars on the road.  On the other hand, it's perfectly obvious why someone would buy a Porsche Cayenne, because it's the only option if you want a 4-door Porsche that isn't hideous and also very expensive like their incredibly ugly Panamera sedan.  In other words, its basically a sedan for someone who absolutely has to have the Stuttgart shield on the front of their car, in order to tell the world "I drive a Porsche!  Look how successful I am!"  I know that's the reason anyone buys any nice car, but there's a difference between buying a nice car that's practical (a BMW or Mercedes sedan, for instance), buying a nice car that's sporty (a Porsche 911), and buying a car that's actually not good at doing anything, but looks big and gaudy, and (most importantly) has a prestige badge on it.  The Porsche Cayenne falls squarely into the third category.  It's kind of like roundabouts, actually.  It's big, makes an impression, it looks serious, but it doesn't do what it is designed to do.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Rick Santorum's tortured memory

In what has to go down in history as one of the most ignorant and stupid statements of all time, Rick Santorum had the stones to go on Hugh Hewitt's radio show the other day and say, flat out, that torture victim John McCain "doesn't understand" how torture* works.  Whiskey.  Tango.  Foxtrot.

One of the things I found most disgusting about John McCain's presidential ambition was that it caused him to equivocate and vacillate on just about every position he'd ever taken, including torture, in order to pander to the right.  It was beyond sad to hear a torture victim hemming and hawing about how this torture or that was justifiable, when he knows better than almost anyone just how evil torture is, and the extent to which a person will say anything under torture if they think it will make the torture stop.  And, what do you know, that's exactly what McCain said!
On Thursday, McCain also penned an opinion piece for The Washington Post on the topic, saying, "I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear — true or false — if he believes it will relieve his suffering. Often, information provided to stop the torture is deliberately misleading."

He concluded, "This is a moral debate. It is about who we are." 
The most experienced interrogators speaking out have all said that they get more and better information by treating the subject well, and it makes perfect sense.  A person captured by US forces expects to be tortured, especially in light of Abu Ghraib and the infamous Yoo-Bybee "torture memos," which pretty much telegraphed to the world that the US is in the torture business.  What the subject does not expect is what most interrogators say works best: good treatment, talk, respect.  Treating the subject better than they expected, in other words.

But forget about the moral debate, or the efficacy of torture.  What I'm still gobsmacked over is the complete lack of self-awareness from Rick Santorum.  Just how big of a massive idiot do you have to be to say that John McCain doesn't understand how torture works?  Did Santorum just forget that McCain was tortured while a POW?  Did he think the North Vietnamese were incompetent at torture?  Does Rick Santorum simply not realize that some incredibly stupid things come out of his mouth on a regular basis?  Inquiring minds want to know.

Then again, Rick Santorum already has that whole Google problem conceived by the sheer genius of Dan Savage.  I wouldn't recommend Googling his name unless you have a strong constitution for things that most people find shocking.  The More You Know (TM).

*For reasons I have already spelled out, I categorically refuse to substitute the euphemism "enhanced interrogation" which was originally conceived by Heinrich Muller, the head of the Gestapo, using the phrase "Verschärfte Vernehmung."  Waterboarding is torture.  Stress positions are torture.  Sleep deprivation is torture.  Under US law, misleading someone to believe that they are about to be killed, or that someone else is about to be killed, is torture.  Call it what it is.

Blogging explained


H/T: xkcd.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Real Scott Walker

Now he's refusing to defend the domestic partner registry.  Because he thinks it runs afoul of the state's ban on gay marriage.

How dare gay people be happy together while Scott Walker is in charge.  Personal freedom is great in his book, unless you're gay.  Suddenly the state then has a compelling interest in making sure that you are unfree.

Matt Yglesias deadpans, "No doubt anti-gay discrimination is just a pragmatic response to state-level budget cuts and not at all part of an ideological agenda."

As long as Republicans continue to crusade against equality for homosexuals in every sphere of life, their talk about smaller government and personal liberty is meaningless.

Well, that explains it

Arnold Schwarzenegger had a child out of wedlock.  Suddenly his separation from Maria Shriver right after their 25th anniversary makes a lot more sense.

Not a bright idea

Planting a bomb in Dublin right before the Queen visits - really stupid move.  I'm pretty sure if the thing had gone off anywhere in the vicinity of Her Majesty, the RAF would be carpet bombing the Emerald Isle as we speak.

If you want the Brits to go away, and I'm not unsympathetic to the complaints of the Irish (even though the awful history of the IRA hasn't done them any favors), I'm quite certain that attempting to assassinate the monarch isn't going to make your case stronger.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Blogger issues and other travails of networked life

That total outage late last week was frustrating.  And there've been ancillary effects too!  Specifically, random junk symbols got inserted into the labels of my posts from Thursday (the day of the outage), and my attempt to edit those bits of text out and restore legible labels has resulted in those posts being put up again with today as their publication date.

I noticed on Thursday that YouTube was having issues as well.  Are there broader problems for Google?

I only ask because I and every other Playstation owner in North America finally regained access to the Playstation Network for the first time since the attack by hackers on April 20.

And just in case someone from "hacktivist" group Anonymous happens to read this, a word of advice: Massively inconveniencing people and engaging in perhaps the most enormous act of identity theft in history are not ways to get people on your side, or draw positive attention to any cause.  They are, on the other hand, and excellent way to draw the ire of the cyber-crime folks at the Secret Service and the FBI and, eventually, a lengthy time-out in the federal slammer.*  Don't like that Sony sues people for going on Sony's proprietary Network with hacked software?  Write a letter.

There are times when I loathe the 21st Century.

*The Office Space description of federal prison still cracks me up.

Jon Stewart whacks Fox News over ginned-up Common controversy

Last night's Daily Show was a hoot. Especially for pointing out Sean Hannity's hypocrisy with regard to the lyrics of Common as opposed to, say, Ted Nugent. Too funny not to share (both parts), although Stewart's rap at the end of the segment is nothing to write home about.

Part 1:

Part 2:

On the other hand, you sense Hannity will want to milk this for a mutually beneficial ratings feud. Whatever keeps people watching, I guess.

World-historical slogan humor

A good laugh, courtesy of Alex Knapp:
Gingrich 2012: He will always love America. Unless it gets cancer.
Call me overly optimistic for my own party's chances, but I don't see a serious candidate yet in the Republican field.  Gingrich is a national joke, and his moral failings will become campaign fodder the instant he becomes a viable candidate, if not before then.  Pawlenty can't win his own state - a traditional death knell for presidential ambition (ask Al Gore).  If Palin and Hucksterabee run, I don't see how either of them can be seen as anything other than fringe candidates with absolutely no appeal to independents.  Ditto Santorum, who also has that whole Google problem thanks to the work of Dan Savage (try googling "Santorum" sometime).  Trump is a sideshow.  Paul is too honest on fiscal issues and too crazy on foreign policy.  Cain and Johnson are too unknown, and both remind me a lot of the character of Eddie Quinn from my favorite political novel, Dark Horse, by Fletcher Knebel.  They're unknown, so they can say things that people agree with, but the more known they become, the more they will have to hedge.   Romney would be formidable, but the flip-flopping will cause major headaches in primaries, and other candidates will hang him with Romneycare, even though I think it was a great idea.  And the Mormon thing will hurt him with some evangelicals.

I'm sorry, but at this point I'm in complete agreement with Matt Taibbi's assessment:
Was pleased to learn this afternoon that Newt Gingrich is formally announcing his run for the White House. I literally cannot wait to get back to covering the insane reality show that is the presidential race, especially since the Republicans seem determined to run the most entertaining collection of mutants seen on earth since Tod Browning’s classic Freaks.

H/T: Sullivan.

Re: Huckabee

So, he's not running after all.

I'd wondered if he really wanted to give up a lucrative position on Fox "News" to put himself through the hellish process of running for President.

And, for reasons previously stated, I still don't think there's a serious challenger to Obama to be found on the list of current candidates unless things go completely to hell with the economy.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Friday Music VII

Nightwish, "Ghost Love Score"

Bonus: I'm a huge fan of the film Crimson Tide, so I have to post a symphonic metal cover of the main theme from the movie.

Nightwish, "Crimson Tide/Deep Blue Sea"

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

bin Laden boo hoo

Turns out Osama's son Omar isn't happy with the way his father was "arbitrarily" assassinated and buried at sea.  One wonders if he was as concerned for his father's victims.

I don't quite understand the fuss over whether or not bin Laden was armed.  People asking questions like that clearly have absolutely no idea what it is that SEALs do, particularly in an instance where there aren't hostages involved.  Here's a general idea: Dynamic entry is made, flash-bangs fly, and anyone still standing is a target.  They're not supposed to wait for people to shoot at them.  The idea is to crush resistance before it has a chance to start.  That's why DEVGRU doesn't get sent to every situation, because that kind of unlimited force obviously isn't always appropriate.

In this case, however, that sort of force may sound brutal, but given that the alternative was to level the compound (and surrounding area) with 30+ JDAM smart bombs - vaporizing everyone inside and causing massive amounts of collateral damage - it's actually downright surgical by comparison.

I also love the fact that his son wanted him to be arrested and face trial "like Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein."  First, Saddam's trial was clearly a show trial, and even those of us who think he got what he deserved when he ended up hanging from a rope (I may have been extremely skeptical of the war in Iraq, but that doesn't stop me from supporting genocidal madmen getting their just deserts) knew that from the start.  Second, Slobo is a bad example because he died awaiting trial in the Hague because of the enormous problems entailed by international law.  Third, would taking bin Laden alive really have been a great idea?  How long would it have taken al-Queda to take hostages somewhere and proclaim that they would execute one hostage every hour until bin Laden was released?  I, for one, am glad we didn't have to find out.

The man was a legitimate target of military action based upon his committing multiple acts of war on the United States and other countries.  The SEALs and their Army pilots performed brilliantly.  The attack limited collateral damage as much as was possible.  End of story.

World-historical hypocrisy

Emily Yoffe at Slate posts a takedown of Newt and Callista Gingrich this morning.  Money quote:
I’ll give the Gingriches credit for their utter lack of irony. At the same time he was denouncing Bill Clinton for his sexual transgressions, Newt was carrying on a long-term extramarital affair with Callista. But that was so long ago, and now, the Journal writes, he and Callista are out there campaigning, “to bring moral leadership back to our nation.” Toward that end one of his groups “funneled $150,000 in seed money to a successful campaign last fall to oust three Iowa Supreme Court judges who supported gay marriage.”  How morally bankrupt can two people be? I actually don’t care that much about other people’s infidelities or accumulation of marriages. But apparently Newt and Callista do care enough about the love lives of others to put their money where their mouths are to prevent two people of the same sex having the same right as they do to marry the person they (finally, really and truly this time) love.
Well put.   And I share her opinion that Gingrich has to know he hasn't the slightest chance of actually winning.  The campaign is a money grab.

How pathetic is it that running for the highest office in the land has turned (for some) into an opportunity for self-promotion and greed?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Thought of the Day VII

Apropos my previous post on torture:

"We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.  Power is not a means; it is an end.  One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.  The object of persecution is persecution.  The object of torture is torture.  The object of power is power."

-O'Brien to Winston Smith in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

This is waterboarding

In the wake of the bin Laden killing, here's been a lot of talk about whether or not waterboarding is or is not torture, and whether torture is acceptable.  My position on the issue is extremely straightforward.  Take this picture for example:

This is a waterboard.  It is on permanent display in the place where it was used, Security Prison 21 (better known as S-21), by one of the most brutal regimes in the history of human civilization, the Khmer Rouge.  Prior to that, the technique was most prominently used by the Spanish Inquisition, the Gestapo, and the Japanese military police during World War II, including on American POWs.  Personally, those aren't the sort of groups I would want to be associated with.

One of many reasons I have so much respect for Christopher Hitchens is his willingness to actually undergo waterboarding in order to make his own conclusions and write about the experience for Vanity Fair.  Here's the video:

Money quote from Hitchens' 2008 article:
Also, in case it’s of interest, I have since woken up trying to push the bedcovers off my face, and if I do anything that makes me short of breath I find myself clawing at the air with a horrible sensation of smothering and claustrophobia. No doubt this will pass. As if detecting my misery and shame, one of my interrogators comfortingly said, “Any time is a long time when you’re breathing water.” I could have hugged him for saying so, and just then I was hit with a ghastly sense of the sadomasochistic dimension that underlies the relationship between the torturer and the tortured. I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.
But don't just take the opinion of an English-American polemicist for it. Here's a piece from Forbes where a senior US interrogator in Afghanistan (whose identity must be concealed for incredibly obvious reasons) outright says that torture puts our troops in danger, in addition to being ineffective. A large section of the article is worth quoting verbatim:
The man, who can’t be named for security reasons, has nearly two decades of experience as a military interrogator and Human Intelligence (HUMINT) specialist. He interrogated suspected high-value targets at Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, and Afghanistan, where he is currently stationed.
“Listen,” he said, “waterboarding and/or other coercive techniques did nothing to contribute to our attempts to track down UBL (Usama bin Laden). What did succeed was weeks, months and years of diligent, laborious, and dedicated work – all within the bounds of legal and ethical boundaries….No torture, no waterboarding, no coercion – nothing inhumane – is considered a useful tool in our work.”

On the subject of blowback, he continued:
I cannot even count the amount of times that I personally have come face to face with detainees, who told me they were primarily motivated to do what they did, because of hearing that we committed torture. Even the rumor of torture is enough to convince an army of uneducated and illiterate, yet religiously motivated young boys to strap bombs to their chests and blow themselves up while killing whoever happens to be around – police, soldiers, civilians, women, or children. Torture committed by Americans in the past continues to kill Americans today.
The recent talk justifying waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques,” he added, can leave an indelible mark on intelligence personnel who are just entering the profession.

“If right-wing news outlets and partisan pundits or politicians are allowed to continue to spread their completely bogus claims that torture is effective,” he said, “then we will have corrupted the beliefs of yet another generation of new intelligence recruits….It takes months and years of ‘intervention’ to get the next generation back on the track of quality work, specialization, and intelligence dominance – not quick and easy fixes. This is not an hour-long TV show.”

Hard work, not torture, is what got the job done. Some people, drowning (I use the term advisedly) in Jack Bauer fantasies and forgetting the history of waterboarding, would rather keep on associating our country with the worst moments in humanity, inspiring even more people in the Middle East to rise against us. It's almost as if the war against terror (how can you fight a war against a tactic?) is designed to be self-sustaining. The harder we fight, the stronger the enemy gets. And so it goes.

But if you want a bit more evidence as to why waterboarding shouldn't be used, consider 18 USC 2340 and 2340A. First, the definitions, as spelled out in 18 USC 2340:
(1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;
(2) “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—
(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;
(B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;
(C) the threat of imminent death; or
(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality;
If making someone believe they are about to drown, which is the entire point of waterboarding, does not qualify as a "threat of imminent death," then I question what would fulfill that definition. And 18 USC 2340A lays out a very severe penalty for torture. To wit:
(a) Offense.— Whoever outside the United States commits or attempts to commit torture shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both, and if death results to any person from conduct prohibited by this subsection, shall be punished by death or imprisoned for any term of years or for life.
Other statutes cover torture within the boundaries of the US itself, in case you're wondering. Moreover, there have been recorded instances of death at Guantanamo Bay, a location specifically chosen because it was believed it was sufficiently outside the US to avoid most laws, but it can be clearly seen that 2340A still applies. Meaning that those who torture someone to death at Gitmo can, under federal law, be put to death themselves.

I'm not advocating for locking up people who work at Gitmo. But I am saying the people who advocate for torture in general and waterboarding in particular are wrong on a historical, moral, strategic, and legal level. And it doesn't work. Even our interrogators say so. If we don't listen to the people who have actually practiced this technique themselves (and had it practiced upon them voluntarily), then the only people we're listening to are the producers of 24.

Monday, May 9, 2011

An event of world-historical importance*

Yes, Newt is going to make it official this week.

This may sound really silly, but I'm so happy this blowhard has chosen to resurrect his political career.  After all, this is the guy who made much of President Clinton's infidelity while being guilty of the same pecadillo, and who has dumped not one, but two wives as soon as they got sick.  Very Christian.

I told someone before the 2008 campaign kicked off that the Republican primaries that year would make for the most entertaining political theater of the absurd in history.  Already I think I can say 2012 will eclipse it.  What's next?  Is Dan Quayle going to get drafted?

*This headline is a deliberate gag aimed at the fact that any event, no matter how minor or insignificant, is always of world-historical import when described by the monomaniacal mind of Newt Gingrich and his obsession with grand theories and global movements.  Personally, I think his knack for doing so can be explained by a massive ego and a serious overdose of Hegelian philosophy at some point, but that's just my hypothesis.

Killing bin Laden: The Real Story

H/T: Sullivan.

If President Obama had a Facebook feed...

It might look something like this.  Really funny stuff from the folks at Slate.  Especially this "exchange" between Rush Limbaugh and David Axelrod:
Rush Limbaugh tagged Barack Obama in a note.
Rush Limbaugh
Obama’s speech was nothing but "me, me, me."
David Axelrod
Yeah, he should have put on a military uniform and like, stood on a boat with a shit ton of Navy SEALs, and maybe had like a big banner that said "WE DID IT," or something similar.


Friday, May 6, 2011

Thought of the Day VI

"Consider this: Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?"

-Socrates, outlining his famous dilemma in Plato's Euthyphro

If I had to point to a single reason for my "deconversion," it would be the insolubility of Socrates' dilemma.  We have a difficult enough time discerning the Good without referring such questions upward and interjecting the "my god is bigger than your god" problem.

Massive irony alert

This article in the MJS has to be a joke, right?

Nope, it turns out Scott Walker, friend of state employees, wants to tell them how we "can't thank them enough" for their efforts.
Walker wants workers to nominate colleagues for outstanding innovation, dedication and going the extra mile, though miles logged at the protest marches wouldn't count. And he's asking the public to nominate workers who gave excellent customer service.
If you want to know what some workers think about the idea, visit the comment section on YouTube under Walker's video. "We can't say thank you enough from one end of the state to the other, from one state agency to another," Walker said about his new State Employee Recognition Program a few days ago, just in time for State Employee Appreciation Week.

"I think I just sprained my eye-rolling muscles," was one of the many responses. As of Thursday, 15 people clicked that they liked what he had to say, and 681 disliked it.

"This is the moral equivalent of beating up your wife and then taking her out to dinner to make up for it," another wrote.
My reaction was to ask just what sort of an asshole thinks he can run an entire election campaign on denigrating state workers, and dedicate virtually his entire term in office thus far to screwing state workers, then turn around and give an award to express gratitude to those same people.  Not that state workers don't deserve our thanks and praise.  Of course they do, but Scott Walker is not the person to do it.  The sole purpose of this is to give Walker a nice photo op.

Honestly, I think the irony from this might be massive and dense enough that it threatens the fabric of space-time itself.

Friday Music VI

Pendulum, "Propane Nightmares"

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Lest we forget

Here's MSNBC's article on the news of the last US combat veteran from World War I passing away.

I feel like some words are owed, and I think Laurence Binyon's "Ode of Remembrance" probably gets the point across as well as anything else.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Skepticism run amok

I'm a skeptic on many things.  I don't, for instance, think it's a particularly useful or good idea to accept propositions on supernatural beings as true on no evidence whatsoever.  I don't think many adults will be convinced by moral or ethical reasoning which is not backed up by some sort of empiricism.  When we have moral questions that result in an infinite regress of "why?" we need to stop and think about what we're saying.  This logic, of course, doesn't apply to the raising of children, who any parent knows are among the most skeptical persons on the planet with their ability to insist on a reason why for everything.

But their is a difference between being skeptical, demanding evidence for claims asserted, being empirical, etc. and being an extreme skeptic.  In philosophy, extreme skepticism falls into recognizable categories - solipsism and flat-out denialism are the main ones.  Denialism, at least, was long ago demonstrated to be internally contradictory, and you can prove it with a simple thought experiment.  Simply write on a piece of paper, "This statement is false."  This is, of course, absurd - if the statement is true, then it is false, and vice versa.  Now, beneath that statement, write "No statements are true."  The same contradiction appears.

Solipsism is a trickier position to dismiss.  Obviously, I am in no position to disprove the hypothesis that the only thing that exists is my mind.  Everything I experience is contingent upon being processed by my mind, and for all I know, I really could be a brain in a vat, being manipulated by stimuli to make my brain see, feel, and react as it does.  I have absolutely no way of disproving that.  But ask this question: Is such a hypothesis useful?  If it were true that nothing I experience is real except my mind, does that describe the world in any meaningful way?  It does not.  All it leaves is my mind and the great unknown outside my mind, because nothing else can ever be considered real.  Even if my brain became aware that it was in a vat being manipulated by electrodes, how does my mind know that that isn't a dream within a dream, as it were?  The entire hypothesis becomes effectively meaningless because there's simply no escaping it once you grant the initial premise, and reality just falls apart.

A better way of looking at things is this: We have this world that we experience.  We should probably be pragmatic and at least presume that it exists, and go from there.  Our experience of the world may be contingent on our minds, and we do well to remember that and consider the effect our mind can have in communicating or miscommunicating the world to us, but it profits us nothing to throw the whole thing away as not existing.

Obviously, when we are in the world we are confronted with limitless claims and assertions.  Some of these we accept, some we reject, and sometimes we withhold judgment while awaiting evidence or further discussion.  There are myriad philosophical schools as to how we should proceed with respect to which category of assertion.  We're not all going to agree on what to do with specific claims, and that's okay.

However, there is a growing movement across the political spectrum to be skeptical for skepticism's sake.  9/11 Truthers deny the narrative of September 11 despite all evidence to the contrary, in favor of some rather outlandish conspiracy theories.  Birthers deny the citizenship of Barack Obama even when shown evidence.  On and on and on.  A key feature of these groups (add bin Laden death denialists to their number) is the rejection of any evidence that contradicts their position, which really makes them not so much skeptics as dogmatists so committed to a given position that no evidence will persuade them.

But that's not really what I'm getting at either.  The movement that most annoys me in modern thinking is a ridiculous outgrowth of verificationism that essentially says, "You can believe nothing you haven't witnessed yourself."  Obviously, we need to be skeptical about things that other people tell us to believe, but consider how little you actually know if you dismiss anything that you haven't witnessed.

Interestingly, a lot of the force behind this movement comes from religious believers eager to attack scientific positions on the Big Bang, abiogenesis, and evolution.  Of course, these believers are perfectly willing to believe that the deity of their choosing created the universe in six days, but that's only because they make a convenient exception to their rules when it comes to their holy books.  The argument goes, "Well, you weren't there at the beginning of the universe, so you have no idea what happened, do you?"  It gets stronger when you have apologists morons like the estimable (har har) Ray Comfort denying that skeptics are permitted to say "I don't know" when asked to respond to questions.  Science still doesn't know what went on before the Big Bang.  Believers want to use that unknown against science to claim that science isn't really any better than religion at dealing with questions about our reality.  Of course, that's ridiculous.  When was the last time the Bible explained something to you about the yourself, the Earth and the stars that wasn't better explained by Einstein, Newton, Darwin, etc.?

I'm on about this because every once in a while you hear people say something like, "I won't believe Osama bin Laden is dead until I see the picture myself."  Well, that picture is classified, so the person who says that is going to be disappointed.  But the sentiment is understandable.  So I guess the question I'm trying to raise in this little discourse is this: What is it in our minds that determines how skeptical we will be with regard to a given claim?

Obviously, each individual is different, but I think a study on the topic would be useful to see why different minds make different choices in where and how to apply skepticism.

The risks of Operation NEPTUNE'S SPEAR

Slate has a rundown of just how many things could have gone wrong during DevGru's brilliantly executed raid on the bin Laden compound.  If you still aren't convinced that the decision to send in the commandos, rather than drop bombs or launch cruise missiles, was a brave one politically and militarily, read that article.

In essence, the op was the confluence of good intelligence, political courage, and absolutely flawless rehearsal and execution by the elite of the elite.

Can you imagine the damage to US prestige worldwide and the special operations and intelligence communities here at home if the mission had been a disaster on the scale of Desert One (Operation EAGLE CLAW) or the Black Hawk Down incident (Operation GOTHIC SERPENT)?  The Congressional investigations alone would have taken years  to conduct, and our national security would be the worse for it.

The President, rightly or wrongly, would have been blamed had the mission failed.  He therefore deserves praise for making the decision to send in DevGru, just as they deserve the plaudits being heaped upon them for their bravery and intrepidity in getting the job done, even though we'll almost certainly never know their names.

Maybe Mark Bowden can write another book.  Given the sources for his books Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo, he seems to have major connections in the special operations community.

EDIT: I should also add that while the SEALs of DevGru are getting a lot of attention for the operation, the aviators of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment really ought to be applauded as well for their excellent flying under what sounds like pretty adverse conditions (to say the least).

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Rashard Mendenhall is a monumental idiot

Yet another reason sports teams really ought to consider banning Twitter.
"What kind of person celebrates death?" he wrote. "It's amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We've only heard one side..."
Let me help you there, Rashard.  When I was sixteen years old, I sat in a classroom and watched in horror as three thousand of my fellow Americans and human beings were vaporized by lunatics who thought they were doing God's bidding.  Maybe you missed it.  But this guy was their leader, and we've heard him speak on video and audio tape several times patting himself on the back for his efficacious slaughtering of innocents and promising to continue doing so.  I'm pretty damn sure we heard his side.

And now he's heard ours.

In other words, Rashard Mendenhall, sit down and shut up.

Oh, and my Packers totally kicked your ass in the Super Bowl.


Sarah Palin is, as if there was any doubt, officially demented:
Show photo as warning to others seeking America's destruction.  No pussy-footing around, no politicking, no drama;it's part of the mission.
To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, "Better to be thought a fool than to tweet and remove all doubt."

I'm pretty sure Sarah Palin has no idea what it is that DevGru (Development Group, the proper name for Seal Team Six) actually does, because in no way would it be appropriate to describe their missions as "pussy-footing."  Ordering the SEALs to go in and kill bin Laden is describable in a great number of ways, but I don't think Palin's description fits.

I know it's asking way too much of Sarah Palin's foreign policy understanding ("I can see Russia from my house!") to ask her to grasp why millions of people around the world, including several allied nations, might be incredibly offended by a picture of Osama bin Laden with his brain blown out.  Is it that hard to imagine how quickly posters and signs featuring such an image could be made for jihadists to rally around their new martyr?

Anything that makes President Obama look bad, she's in favor.  As if we didn't know that already.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

May 1st, 2011

I suspect that date will be significant for a long, long time.  And not just because it's the 66th anniversary of the announcement of the death of Hitler.  It's almost funny how history seems to orbit around the same days.

Just as I remember sitting in my high school communications classroom watching the horrifying events on that morning in September, I'm going to remember sitting in my living room with my wife when the news broke that the son-of-a-bitch responsible was dead.

No partisan politics tonight.

UPDATE: A good friend of mine directs my attention to this video.  Gamers will get it, other people will be confused.