This Weeks Reader June 15, 2008  

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Respectable Infidels
Unfortunately, there are some badly misguided people who want to write this spurious distinction into law, and who claim that we can safely ban "hateful" or "insulting" speech without taking away people's right to voice their own convictions. The most charitable thing that can be said about such people is that they have obviously never given even the most casual thought to the consequences of the policy they advocate.

Comstock's comments are revealing in another way as well. As I said in "Firebrands", the kind of atheists whom believers consider "respectable" are atheists who wish they were religious. They approve of atheists who validate their presuppositions about the desirability and superiority of being a theist, or who concede that religious ethics are superior to any secular alternative.

Hygiene, Mirrors, Sex, and...Finance?
I sat there for two hours while Mrs. J. droned on about how now that we were going through puberty we needed to make sure we always wore deodorant. We were also not supposed to laugh when the boys' voices cracked. And the most vital part of the course was that when talking a shower, we weren't to wash our butts and then our faces....always the other way around. My teacher really covered her bases. Nothing about condoms, sex or STD's, but all vital information, of course.

Directive Details Trinidad Checks
Lanier's directive also says that anyone who does not give a reason for entering a designated safety zone may be turned away, said law enforcement sources who declined to speak on the record because they were not authorized to release the directive. "Legitimate" purposes to be in the area include going to a doctor, church or community event or visiting friends or relatives, officials said. Individuals can show a flier for an event to gain entrance, for example.

How to Save Your State Economy
You know, if I were in California and a proponent of same-sex marriages, these are figures that I would be putting into the ads against the anti-same-sex marriage proposition that’s going to be on the ballot this fall. And I would ask: why do those against same-sex marriage want to interfere with the livelihoods of thousands of decent, hard-working Californians and deprive them of millions of dollars of potential income? Why do they want to take the food out of the mouths of California families? Why do they make it harder for these folks to keep a roof over their heads, or pay their medical bills, or put their kids through college? Why do they want to deprive thousands of Californians jobs they could use, and that the state needs? $684 million’s not exactly chump change, particularly in a weak economy.

A Fire Rainbow Over New Jersey


How Does Religion Influence Our Behavior?
Children buy that version of things because they are, after all, children. However, by the time we become adults, many of us recognize religions are not always that influential in shaping behavior — even when someone says he or she has been hugely influenced by their religion. As a practical matter, an adult who wants to accurately predict the behavior of an eighteen year old boy with his sixteen year old daughter had best take into heavy account many factors other than the boy’s professed religion. A landlord is much better off checking up on the rental history of his prospective tenants than checking out which religion they belong to. And many a woman who has married a religious man thinking that guarantees she won’t be abused by him has learned the hard way her husband’s religiosity guarantees nothing of the sort.

Most of us, by the time we become adults, have figured out thousands of clues for predicting what someone will do in a given set of circumstances. Most of those clues have little or nothing to do with a person’s religion.

Does Time Run Backward in Other Universes?
If the observable universe were all that existed, it would be nearly impossible to account for the arrow of time in a natural way. But if the universe around us is a tiny piece of a much larger picture, new possibilities present themselves. We can conceive of our bit of universe as just one piece of the puzzle, part of the tendency of the larger system to increase its entropy without limit in the very far past and the very far future. To paraphrase physicist Edward Tryon, the big bang is easier to understand if it is not the beginning of everything but just one of those things that happens from time to time.

Engineering Life: The Dog that Didn't Bark in the Night
Despite all these bacteria suffering the indignity of being violated with human genes, no one seems to care. No one thinks the dignity of E. coli has been compromised. I have not heard of anyone refusing blood-thinners or insulin because it was produced from human genes put inside another species. In Europe, where protests over genetically modified plants and animals rage today, few seem to be bothered by the fact that a lot of cheese is produced with a cow's enzyme, chymosin, made by E. coli rather than cows. In fact, this cheese is labeled organic, because it's produced with "real" chymosin, rather than "artificial" chemicals.

I think that the story of engineered E. coli is an important one to bear in mind these days. Today we are faced with intense debates about whether it's right to create chimeras--a mouse that carries human neurons, for example. Headlines assault us with the danger that scientists will be playing God by creating life from scratch. We are revisiting old ground.

The Elusive Flock of Dodos
The message of the film is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, creationists are ignunt dodos. On the other, scientists are also dodos because they are bad communicators. I think he missed a flock. It’s a huge flock of dodos, but they’re elusive for a reason… and I think that the reason is that flock is his audience.

This particular flock of dodos tends to be willfully ignorant. They fear what they don’t understand, and are hostile to those who say things that they don’t understand like. They speak the vernacular and don’t even bother reaching for a dictionary when they use, as Peter Griffin puts it, “big words, and small complex words.” They think that their opinion should be as valid as the experts. “What do they know, anyway? They can’t accurately predict tomorrow’s weather! Why would they know anything about global warming?” They generally don’t like to think critically or learn.

"Women who get operations to restore their virginity". (Here). At first I figured, what the hell, they can do what they like. But reading on, I discovered women terrified that they will be beaten, abandoned, or shamed because they lost their hymens. When I read one woman's claim that to lose one's virginity was to become dirt, I decided that women were fools, and men were dolts to insist on something so mundane. After all, there's nothing special about virginity. We're all born virgins. It's stupid to prize something so common and so easy to fake. Why not prize intelligence? Common sense? Independence?

Who's Trying To Convince Everyone That Cell Phones Pop Popcorn?
A poor grasp of science leads people to fear the technology around them. Everyone's vaguely aware that phones use radio waves, so they misapply the concept. The phones in the video are merely ringing, which only means they're receiving the radio waves that are always around us. If those waves popped popcorn, there wouldn't be an unpopped kernel left in the U.S.

Getting skeptical about patriotism
Some readers got pissed off at my sarcastic message about the US the other day, so let me explain my views. I think patriotism is too close to nationalism to be safe; both are just souped up versions of tribalism. These things lead to “us versus them” thinking and to conflict being preferred over cooperation. It’s OK to love your country. But to be proud just because you were born somewhere is ridiculous. To ignore the flaws of your country and to refuse to criticize your government is dumb. And to think your country is the only great (free, safe, healthy, etc.) nation in the world is just delusional.

On Offense
I know that, in these days of Ann Koulter and Michel Savage, there is an increased need for civil discourse. But I’m not talking about what Savagé and Coolter do. These dishonest, repellant social Darwinists call for the real death of hundreds of thousands whenever they open their mouths. I’m talking about something honest and symbolic for my Charlie.

Christopher Hitchens is pretty good at this. At the end of The Trial of Henry Kissinger, his call for Kissinger’s prosecution, Hitchens points out that, in addition to being a war criminal, Kissinger is also a Big Fatty. A low blow, but also a beautiful cherry on top of a substantive critique.

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