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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

LGoG

Listening to Julia Sweeney's "Letting Go of God" for a bit of thought-farming on the relationship between imagination and science. I know that the quote I'm looking for is toward the end, but am listening to the whole thing anyway because I like to listen to Julia Sweeney when I'm moody.  She manages to discuss very serious subjects by making them funny but without removing the gravity.  I have this particular story on DVD as well as in iTunes.  My mother will not watch it-- as much as she likes Julia Sweeney, she believes that it's basically an attempt at atheist indoctrination and doesn't wish to be converted.  I can't really blame her for that.  I don't think that converting anyone is the point, but it's certainly a story of conversion in more than one regard.  To me it's mainly a casual, funny monologue about how an intellectually curious person underwent a long, careful examination of beliefs she found very important, and emerged able to articulate her state of mind at each point in the process.  That's valuable.  And make no mistake, she worked to reach these conclusions.  That's admirable. An intellectual appetite is an enviable thing to have, but that doesn't mean that satiating that appetite isn't still a laborious and sometimes painful process, and listening to someone describe their own journey can inspire you to begin or make further progress on journeys of your own.

I like the honesty and the humility.  You can't tear down your own fallacious constructions without those things, and having them is the surest way to avoid sounding preachy about the conclusions you've reached.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Hardcore eggs

Leslie Halleck is a horticulturist and general manager at North Haven Gardens in Dallas who blogs at growLively.  Today she comments on the difference between grocery store eggs and the eggs from her backyard chickens:
I'm often asked if there is any difference between my fresh backyard eggs and eggs purchased at the grocery store (from mass production facilities). My answer is always "YES!!" Fresh eggs from hens that are raised with with access to the outdoors, organic feed, fresh greens, insects, sunlight and low population pressure are healthier for you. They have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, beta carotene and have a denser texture than mass production eggs. Here is a photo of an egg from one of my Ameraucanas and an organic free-range egg from the grocery store. I think you can tell which one is the yard egg!
I'll say:


Ameraucanas are beautiful chickens with feathery "sideburns," and they lay eggs that often turn out with blue or greenish shells.  Someday I'd like to have some myself.  Leslie has remarked before that the eggs from her hens constitute the only animal protein she eats.  I think I'd like to get to that point someday, too-- with my own chickens of course.  Apparently Joel Salatin has a very easy time marketing his pastured eggs to chefs in the area of Charlottesville, Virginia because all it takes to convince them is to crack one egg and pass the yolk back and forth from one hand to the other, demonstrating its solidity or "muscle tone" as he calls it.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Some random musings on "forever"

When I lived in Denmark, a friend told me that no one there receives a prison sentence longer than fourteen years, regardless of their crime.  I've since learned that that's not true, but the idea still baffles and appeals to me, and that has nothing to do with the specific number.  It's because it suggests that a body of people have cumulatively decided that "forever" isn't a punishment, that a life sentence is inherently no longer about the perpetrator but instead about desires for revenge on the part of the victim, the victim's friends and family, and the greater society.  The thought of locking someone up and throwing away the key is immensely satisfying when they have done something to hurt you horribly.  I don't mean to be at all flippant about this, but it just seems to me that people have a cognitive disconnect when it comes to thinking about "forever" or even "for the rest of your life," and it gets in the way of our concepts of morality.  I don't think that anyone should commit or be committed to something forever, or for the rest of their lives, because there is no way for them or us to properly conceive of what that really means.  Our understanding of time just doesn't allow us to do so.

I'm relatively young, but not very young.  I realize that as you age, the years tend to run together and zip by in a way that would be literally incomprehensible to someone a decade or even a few years younger.  It doesn't seem like you have changed much between five years ago and today, even though the individual years between when you were fifteen and sixteen or even twenty-five and twenty-six seemed instead like eras.  Still, a person can change dramatically in the span of a single year-- any year.  Anyone who has watched their parents virtually turn into different people immediately after retirement, for example, is aware of this.  And yet from the inside, it seems like we've been basically the same person all along.  Naturally.  It would be very disconcerting if we didn't, because the sense of "me being me" would be lost.  It's common to hear someone say that she is no longer the person she used to be, but when saying that the person is almost always referring to a certain aspect of her character that has changed-- not that she went through a complete change in terms of who she is. And yet that's precisely what often happens.

I can't help but think of the reactions I've heard to Jesse Bering's theory about a cognitive constraint that prevents us from conceiving of the cessation of existence.  Basically, he argues, we believe in life after death because we are unable to conceive of being dead.  It's impossible to do so, because there is no way to be conscious of the fact of being unconscious.  The immediate response is "Of course we can!  Do we not dream when we sleep?"  Sure we do, but that's not real unconsciousness-- real unconsciousness would be awareness of nothing, not even dreams.  Real unconsciousness isn't sleep; it's a black-out. You feel nothing during it, but you can sure feel terrible afterward.  Even if you've done it, you haven't experienced it because experience during it is impossible.  In the same way, we think we can conceive of forever, or "for the rest of my life" or "for the rest of his/her life," but we really can't.  We can conceive of a really long time, because everyone has experienced a really long time, but that's as close to "forever" as dreaming is to death.

It's impossible to tell whether this conclusion is the product or the cause of many of my thoughts about justice and morality, but it is certainly connected either way.  It's why I consider the death penalty to be more compassionate than a sentence to life in prison, for example.  Make no mistake; I oppose the death penalty-- but I oppose life imprisonment more.  Given the chance to be Queen of the World for a day, I would abolish both but allow prisoners to opt for death at any point in their sentencing if they decided that was preferable.  But that would be a penalty they would have to carry out transparently and by themselves.  As horrible as the reasons for and means of committing suicide can be, I consider it a fundamental right, and perhaps if more people agreed with me on that, the means would become more humane for everyone involved.

I cringe when I hear people speak blithely-but-seriously about someone going to Hell, or even saying, as atheists often do, "I wish I believed in Hell so that he/she could burn in it."   Do you really?  Do you honestly wish that you believed there is a place where people will be tortured forever?   You aspire, in other words, to be the worst sadist imaginable and regret that you're not?  Because that's what wishing eternal torture on someone entails.  If you were a sadist-in-practice in this life and tortured someone on your basement in the most merciless way for thirty years, behaving like...I don't know, a Reaver from Firefly, it would be but a paper cut in comparison to an actual Hell.  Not even that, actually, because of course nothing can be compared to infinity.  How long would it take for your torture to become meaningless?  To become as much torture for the inflicter as for the inflictee?   A shorter time than I'd guess for people who like to invoke this lunatic notion, if they've even considered the idea in the first place.  And yet I'm not willing to convict them of sadism precisely because of that-- I don't think they have actually thought much about it.

At the opposite end of the spectrum (one would hope)-- "I'll love you forever."  Really?  Are you sure about that?  Unconditional love is a nice-sounding idea, but loving someone who has decided after twenty years to become an ax murderering child rapist isn't exactly a positive character attribute even if you manage to achieve it...and there's no particular reason why you should, regardless of what Charles Manson's many female admirers would say.  I would posit, actually, that most if not all of them admire him precisely because of the acts that caused him to be imprisoned in the first place.  If he were to be released and decided to take up a career as a janitor in Montana, much if not all of the attraction would probably be lost.  Again, a personality change over time.  There's a good reason, I think, why such sentiments as "IIIIIIIII will always love yoooooooouuuuuu" are referred to as "sweet nothings."  They sound sweet but literally mean nothing, if you're doing it right.  There are a lot of stupid reasons to stop loving someone, certainly, but a heck of a lot of good reasons as well, and there's no way to know which ones of either variety are going to crop up until they do.  Surely if you love someone for who they are, you should continue to love them for who they are.  Right?

What prompted these thoughts?  Something very mundane, actually, but still important-- a discussion on whether people who have committed to a monogamous relationship are allowed to cheat, if something catastrophic happens which effectively kills any chance at romance.   Dan Savage's answer is "yes," if the cheating functions as a kind of pressure release valve which enables the sex-desiring partner to stick around.  But what got me thinking about "forever" was mainly the comment thread in which people discuss  what pledging your life to someone can and should mean.  As a Buddhist might point out, the only permanence is impermanence.  We're all changing all of the time, and that's a good thing.

There's a thought I try to keep in mind.  I debated getting it tattooed, but it's not exactly elegant wording-- clumsy as hell, actually-- so have decided against that.  Nevertheless, I try to live by it:
Life is short, so take it seriously.  But life is short, so don't take it too seriously.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

If...

...you don't already read Hyperbole and a Half, what is wrong with you?  What are you doing here?  Just go.  Find a bit of hilarity there once or twice each month, or a whole lot at once if you decide, as I did, to go back and read all of the entries in one bout of lovely insanity after discovering it. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Equality worth working for

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
The true meaning, mind you-- not merely what is reflected in the law, but in how we see each other.  How we evaluate each other's worth, respectability, humanity.  Not by the color of each other's skin, but the content of our characters.  That, in turn, will reveal our collective character.  

Dr. King's foundation was unquestionably based in his faith.  Being a Baptist minister, that is naturally where he found his strength: "I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."  For him, the glory of the Lord could only be revealed when people of different colors could love and value each other as equals.  Jennifer Sanborn writes
You see, for me, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is first and foremost a Baptist minister, and a child of the same. I imagine it is because I am also the child of a Baptist pastor (and grandchild of two others) that I take particular pride in placing "the Reverend" at the start of his name. "Reverend" is a title that he earned with his education and his occupation, but also a title to which he was called, bringing unparalleled dignity and relevance to what it means to serve society as a religious leader.
I'm sure many people feel similarly, now as well as when MLK originally gave that iconic speech, which was essentially a sermon to America on the meaning of loving one's fellow man.  As a non-believer I find no conflict in welcoming that sermon, and only a slight bit of discomfort in wondering how he would have responded if asked whether atheists would be included in the pluralistic group exhorted to "sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'"  I won't remotely pretend, however, that there is any comparing the lot of atheists to that of black Americans in 1963.  That isn't the point.  The point is, from whence is a committment to equality derived for those who don't believe it was God-given?

It would be a fair bet to say that prejudice almost always precedes rationalization, whatever that rationalization is.  I'm pretty sure that human nature, perhaps ironically, includes both the justification for equality as well as the explanation for why humans are so prone to denying it.  And that is because of two salient facts:

1. Both science and religion have, at many points and many places in history, been used to rationalize bigotry. 
2. And yet, neither one has ever or will ever come up with a good reason to treat people unequally.  

If either of the above points seems at all contentious, remember that the numerous mentions of slavery in the Bible were used as a  primary reason to believe that black slavery was part of God's divine order in the South, as well as the legacy of Spencerian "social Darwinism" which maintained that certain races were inherently inferior.  After all, if it weren't so, why were they doing so poorly?  Why were they so easily conquered and used for the purposes of the more powerful white Europeans and Americans, if not because they are inherently inferior by evolution or design, whichever your preference? 

I'm still in the midst of my very long quest to discover what exactly human nature is, anyway, but the revelation of the above facts in my life can be attributed primarily to the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker around 2004.  You see, after (and before) publishing a book called The Blank Slate which used powerful data from experimental psychology to demolish both the idea that there is no such thing as human nature as well as various myths about exactly what that nature is, Pinker and every other psychologist who uses evolution as a means to explain why humans behave as we do has been hounded by accusations that their work will be used to justify prejudice. 

And you know what? That's exactly what has happened.  And it still happens.  People think that if they can show differences between the psychology of men and women, homosexuals and heterosexuals, blacks and whites, they will be able to show that treating any one or more of those groups as inherently less human is justified.  I really don't want to get into all of the specific attempts to show that, because it would take away from the fundamental point that there's nothing we can discover about a specific group of humans that would justify, for example, slavery.  Nothing that would justify physical or cultural genocide, rape, internment, disenfranchisement.  And that is because the humanity of humanity doesn't need to be determined by conducting some elaborate experiment-- it is literally standing right before us. 

I believe that tribalism is instinctive-- that people find an element of safety in clinging tightly to those who are like themselves.  They will certainly base that in-group/out-group association on ideology, but it's even easier to base it on traits that are evident at a glance.  Familiarity and similarity are the primary triggers for empathy, which means that strangers and people not like us are the "best" enemies.  And that is why, again and again throughout our history, we have been able to deny the humanity of certain groups of people in order to persecute them.  Not by knowing them, looking them in the face, having a conversation...because that would demonstrate that they're more like us than we thought. 

I suppose that's where I find my fundamental belief in equality-- the abject failure, despite our best and most heart-felt efforts, to show that any class of humans really doesn't deserve the label of "human."  Martin Luther King Jr. managed to punch through that barrier of prejudice for so many people because he emphasized how much we have in common, how similar we are fundamentally, and how different life could be if we were just willing to encounter each other as fellow human beings, fairly and honestly.  That's why his speech had and continues to have such a tremendous impact, and why we continue working to make his dreams come true.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Wow

 That's all I can say at the moment-- just, wow. 

From Casaubon's Book, an excerpt from a post entitled "On Sentiment...And Against Sentimentality":
 Sentiment officially has no place in agriculture, but I've met precious few smaller farmers who don't have a spot of it. Indeed, I've come to suspect that a sentimental attachment to things is in fact a requirement for good small scale farming - and that equally, keeping sentiment in check is a requirement for the transition from "a few pet chickens" to "agriculture."
 Keeping the sentiment in check is obvious - if you chickens are pets, it doesn't matter if they stop laying - you feed them and hope they start up again. If you make your living on your chickens, if they stop laying, your bottom line probably doesn't allow for extended periods of feeding chickens that don't provide any return. The sensible thing is to eat them or sell them and get some chickens that will lay - going bankrupt and seeing the farm turned into developments isn't worth the trade offs, no matter how much you care for any given chicken . . .

Here I would make a distinction between "sentiment" which is simply "emotion" and "sentimentality" - which is cheap emotion, the substitution of a weak thing for something deeper. I don't think sentimentality has any place in agriculture - in fact, I don't think it has much place in life. Sentimentality prevents you from experiencing real sentiment.

Sentimentality in agriculture would be the refusal to put an animal that is suffering and has no future down, because you love it so much or don't feel you can kill something. Sentimentality in agriculture is the dairy-drinking vegetarian who expresses hostitility to someone who dares to butcher a cute little calf - not realizing that that calf will grow up to be a large bull, that there is no retirement home for bulls, and that it is their milk habit that caused that calf to be born. These are sentimental emotions because they are cheap and weak - they don't require knowledge or love for specific animals, or a real understanding of the animals and their needs. Sentimentality is the meat eater who doesn't want to know anything about the animals their meat came from, because it is just too hard to think about - and thus enables factory agriculture because they don't want to know. . .

Sentimentality creates the CAFO farm - the sentimentality that says we are too weak to bear the pain of knowing animals and watching them die. This is what turns our food into styrofoam packages and allows CAFO agriculture, where animals are carefully hidden from our view, and the relationship of our purchases carefully concealed. Sentimentality allows us to care about the extinction of the preferred charismatic megafauna of our choice, ideally something with big eyes, but that we see no connection between our purchases, our acts and the habitat destruction of the animals in question. Sentimentality enables us to care about the child Pakistani-flood victim on nightly tv enough to send some money - but not enough to try and reduce the number of climate-related natural disasters by giving up some of our priveleges. Sentimentality enables the patriotic fervor that allows us to not know how many Iraqi or Afghani civilians die in the interest of our national "greater goods." Sentimentality is the emotion that emerges from the condition of not knowing - and it is what you have left in a society that conceals at every level real knowledge. It too is both cause and effect - it permits great evil, and it facilitates lack of knowledge of the real.
Sentiment - love, anger, attachment, affection - real emotions - these derive from knowledge, and they can't be faked. And when you know things, the choices you make get more complex. The realities you live in get harder and greyer. Sometimes love means you have to kill something. Sometimes one love means that another loved thing get sacrificed. Sometimes you have to go against your feelings. But the only way that never happens is when you substitute sentimentality for real feeling.

Some thoughts on "opting out."

To return to a Michael Pollen note for a bit (sorry), I came across a section of Omnivore's Dilemma today that devoted some discussion to "opting out."  The context was home-schooling parents who also decide to buy their food from local farmers rather than from the grocery store, and Pollan described them as having "opted out once already."  By this, Pollan meant that they had already once said "no" to a segment of American culture to which the vast majority of people say "yes." 

I think most people underestimate the effect that opting out can have.  As much as I personally dislike being told that I'm opposed to some sort of behavior simply because it's "different" when I think that it's actually because I have a good reason for opposing it, it's true that people often regard things with suspicion because they're not normal.  Having read Dan Savage's sex advice column Savage Love for-- gosh-- fourteen years now, I would estimate that at least half of the letters submitted are from people concerned about whether their sexual proclivities are normal.  And his answer is always some variant on the same sentiment-- who cares, so long as it makes you happy and it doesn't hurt anyone?  But clearly people do care.  If they're going to be strange and do things differently, it's like they want permission to do it.  They want to know that their desires are legitimate, and they acknowledge that having to explain themselves to interested parties for deviating from the norm is taxing, which is why they want assurance that what they're doing is in fact normal...even though it isn't.

Yes, I did just compare having weird sexual kinks to home-schooling. 

Sure, the two things are different in a lot of ways, but I'd suggest that the relevant difference here is mainly about taste vs. ideology.  There's not much you can do about taste-- you can either hide it or be open about it, feel ashamed or feel confident, but it's going to be there regardless.  With ideology, on the other hand, it's about trying to be a different person than you would be if you were "normal."  Some people are born into weird ideologies while others convert to them, but there's often a moral dimension involve either way. 

Opting out is a conscious decision-- it requires recognizing that one can choose not to do things the way most people are, and making that choice.  My understanding of homosexuality is that it definitely does not feel like a conscious choice, but deciding to be "out" is.  Even people who can look back and see their homosexuality written on the wall, so to speak, before they even realized it seem to have to go through a period of either going into the closet and/or (if they're lucky enough to be in an accepting environment) make a deliberate choice to embrace that aspect of who they are and live as openly gay. 

Does having opted out in one dimension of your life make it easier to opt out in others?  Maybe.  At Skepticon 3 philosophy professor John Corvino gave a talk comparing coming out as gay to coming out as a skeptic/atheist, and it certainly sounded like the first experience made the second one a lot easier.   And it's not necessarily a positive thing-- in her book True Porn Clerk Stories, former video store clerk Ali Davis writers about certain customers who have reached the point of renting six or more porn movies per day, the people she's no longer afraid to label "porn addicts," having rejected society's norms in other ways before reaching that point.  Sometimes opting out means taking control; sometimes it means giving up. 

Opting out has costs.  It might mean having fewer things to talk to your family about at Christmas.  It might mean being passed over for a job.  It might, as in the case of ethical choices, mean that people believe you are implicitly judging them for not joining them in your decision, and come to resent you for it.  It might mean that people conclude that you're being different just for the sake of being different, and mock you because others are being different in a very similar way, as if it's ever possibly to be truly unique.  It might, in some circumstances, mean that your rights are not acknowledged, or that life is made harder to live in some other way because most people simply do not have the same interests.  Can it suck?  Yes, very much.   It will always be mind-boggling to me to hear or read people say outright-- in conversation, in letters to the editor, in debates-- that they're not concerned about the interests of minorities if their own aren't affected.  Sure, let's ban tattooing, ferret ownership, strip clubs, Islamic mosques, urban farming-- I don't want any part in any of those things, so screw people who do!

Back to the taste vs. ideology thing.  People who opt out for moral reasons may be offended by having their choices compared to opting out for matters of taste because it seems to negate the seriousness of their committment, but you can't force others to take your interests as seriously as you do.  To them, it may as well be a matter of taste that you want to wear a burqa, raise your own chickens because you object to factory farming, or make sure your children receive their sex education from you and no one else.  What counts as being in the moral dimension for one person might well just look like a quirk or a hobby to someone else.   And conversely, what looks like a hobby or quirk for the person who wants to opt out to take part in it-- getting tattoos, going to strip clubs, smoking marijuana-- may have a moral dimension for others who are strongly opposed to it. 

Ultimately, I think that having a lot of people around who are openly "weird" in some way or another is a good thing, because it raises our level of cultural tolerance for weirdness.  The more homogeneous a society is, the more dangerous it seems (and probably is) to be different.  I have no particular desire to wear my hair in a mohawk, join a swinger's club, or homeschool children, but am grateful to live in a culture where those things are tolerated if not warmly accepted.  It's clear to me that the pursuit of happiness in a country can take as many different forms are there are members of its population, and it is therefore crucial that we protect each individual's ability to pursue happiness to the maximal extent possible.  That's clearly not to say that anything which makes a person happy must be allowed, but that the onus of proof for justifying standing in the way of such pursuit always rests on the person  who wants to do so-- not one whose pursuit it is.  Diversity of species on a farm makes the organisms raised on it stronger and better defended from attacks by parasites.  Diversity of interests and lifestyles amongst the population of a society makes individuals in it stronger and better defended from attacks on their own happiness.

Monday, January 10, 2011

On stupidity compounding tragedy

I love Popehat.  They're certainly a brash bunch, but when there's a spade around that needs to be called a spade, they can be relied upon to do it:
 Tragedy Generates Stupidity
Let’s note just a few of the stupid things said in the last 48 hours. This is by no means an exclusive list. Nor is it even-handed.
Item: David Frum thinks we should look to reefer madness as a cause of the Tucson shooting.
Item: Sarah Palin aide Rebecca Mansour says that bullseyes on a map — referred to by Palin as bullseyes, and used together with “don’t retreat, RELOAD” rhetoric — were “surveyor’s symbols.” [I shouldn't have to say it, but these days it seems that I do: this is stupid, dishonest, cowardly, and embarrassing even though there is no indication that Palin's rhetoric had any connection whatsoever with this shooting.]
Item: Representative Bob Brady of Pennsylvania wants to offer a bill banning campaign symbols like the crosshairs on the map.
Item: As Patrick noted below, Rep. James Clyburn seems to think that the main lesson of the shooting should be that he ought not have to mingle with plebs at the airport.
Radley Balko offers a poll about which response is the most ridiculous.
Count on the shooting to keep delivering concentrated stupid for some time.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Examining some gut reactions

I'm going to attempt to write this post, and then see if I'm too biased to even finish it.

You see, congresswomen Gabrielle Giffords was shot yesterday in front of a grocery story in Tucson Arizona, along with several other people.  I think the last time a member of Congress was shot was Leo Ryan at Jonestown in 1978, so this sort of thing does not happen often.  And this time when it happened, I perhaps made the mistake of looking to Twitter for quick updates.  The benefit of Twitter is that when something tragic happens, you can receive information on it far faster than you would by watching TV or listening to the radio, where newscasters typically announce that they have a breaking story and then, after revealing all they know about it, spin their wheels and go on and on about the most insignificant and tangential details until eventually they have something new to say.  Twitter, on the other hand, is a buzzing hive of nobodies as well as somebodies who will report whatever they know right this instant and then you can sift through what's useful and what isn't.  That also includes a lot of commentary, unfortunately often of the sort that is worse than useless. 

That commentary has given me a headache, and it would be foolish in the extreme to say that that's because I'm somehow above drawing political inferences about the fact that someone apparently tried to assassinate a Democratic congresswomen whose enemies, according to her father, include "the whole Tea Party."  I'm not-- I've got political inferences up the wazoo, and they kick in reflexively.  The first is to be a rabid free speech defender against claims that Sarah Palin is criminally or at least civilly responsible to some extent for the shootings because she put Giffords on a map with crosshairs to signify that she should be voted out of office.  The second is to be rabid gun rights defender against the outcry for banning all guns that comes up any time that anyone notable in the U.S. is shot.  The third is-- yes, this amazes me too- to be a rabid Tea Party defender because people are already taking the fact that the (apparently schizophrenic) shooter was a fan of the gold standard as a sign that he represents all of "Ron Paul libertarianism."  And I'm sure there are more.  These are my biases, making themselves apparent by my hyper-reaction to specific kinds of reactions that other people have.

Investigation is ongoing about the alleged shooter, a 22-year-old named Jared Lee Loughner.  So far it looks pretty clear that he has mental problems of some sort, possibly schizophrenia.   We have no idea why he shot Giffords, federal judge John Roll, and several other people including a child.  And "He was just nuts" isn't a satisfying explanation-- there has to be some external reason.  Even if he is "nuts," there had to be outside influences which pushed him to the edge and caused him to do this.  After all, not everybody with a mental illness is a murderer.  Right?  So let's find someone else to blame.  

I guess that's how the thinking goes, anyway.  But really, when something terrible happens, people want their enemies to have been the ones who did it.  If not directly, then indirectly.  And I'm not honestly sure that a single one of us is exempt from this.  Not only do we not want That Guy Who Did That Bad Thing on our side, we want him as far away as possible-- if not actually on the team of the people we don't like, then at least influenced by them, because that provides an explanation we can live with.  It's all part of making the world more ideologically comfortable.

Which, actually, explains why I laughed with recognition at something retweeted by Radley Balko earlier today: "Liberals, when you make me want to defend Sarah Palin, you have gone too far."  Blaming Palin for the shooting disrupts my ideological world...as does defending her.  I'd rather not talk about her at all, to be honest, which is what I foolishly believed we would all be able to do after Obama's election in 2008.  And since we can't, we now we have this:


"We don't know if the use of these symbols actually had anything to do with the shootings, and we don't care.  We just want to do something, because the map was clearly bad in a way that should be so obvious that it doesn't need to be articulated, bad enough that we need to start outlawing forms of expression that were previously legal.  Because, you know, it's always better to be safe than sorry."

And so it goes...


Yep, I'm apparently too biased. Can't seem to shake it, so I'd better go ahead and end here.  

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

2010: The year in photographers being harrassed by government officials

Carlos Miller of Photography Is Not A Crime documents incidents throughout 2010 in which photographers and videographers were penalized by the government for recording incidents that took place in public. 

Photography Is Not A Crime is apparently currently in financial straits, as Miller has been paying for the project entirely on his own.  If you've got some spare cash, this would be a very worthy donation.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

What have scientists learned about religion in 2010?

Tom Rees at Epiphenom has put together a brief review of the results of scientific papers published on religion this year.  Here's an excerpt:
We learned some more about what religion can do for you. Religious people are less likely to smoke, but more likely to be overweight. Religion can also make you more attractive. Religious people have worse verbal skills and are worse at science (incidentally, Republicans are also unscientific). However it's the study of literature, not science, that really seems to turn people off religion.
 Religious prejudice seems to tap into the same neural circuits that drive racism. Religious fundamentalism can lead to right-wing authoritarianism and racism, as well as increased support for the death penalty. Religious priming can increase support for punishing wrongdoers. . . Religious people see the world differently to the non-religious. For example, Protestants are more likely to confuse thoughts with actions.And being raised a Calvinist Protestant may make you less likely to see the big picture.  Belief in the paranormal and fatalism both seem to be linked to fundamental errors in understanding the world around us.